Magnus Quinn had been attempting to flirt with Abigail Pent for one hundred and forty-seven days, and it was not going well. For all that she was clearly amazingly smart — Magnus had seen what kind of books she read — she had not seemed to notice his efforts, which ranged from leaving flowers on her desk to complimenting her eyes to walking her home from the library, talking about how lovely the stargazing was this time of year. He knew she was not with anybody else; for one, he had surreptitiously asked around, for another, he didn’t see where she would fit it into her day. Less than an hour ago, Magnus had returned from the training hall after practice to find that Abigail had not moved from the position he had left her in two hours earlier (chin in one hand, brows tightly drawn together, one leg absently twitching under the table as she read).
He dropped his bag and pulled out the chair next to her, deliberately making noise so she wouldn’t startle when he spoke. “So,” he said, fighting to keep a casual tone, "how about dinner?"
"I need to finish this," Abigail muttered, chin still in her hand, and waved at the tablet she had been staring at all day. "The Sixth Archivists only gave me access to the scans for seventy-two hours and I’m sure that I’ve missed something."
Magnus thought this unlikely. She was not the type to miss things, most of the time. He had once (on day one hundred and twelve) listened to her practice a presentation she was giving about a single out-of-place comma in some long-dead admiral’s memo to a different long-dead admiral, during which she had concluded that despite the formal tone of the memo that comma indicated at the very least a tragic unrequited love affair. After that, Magnus had contemplated writing her a whole stack of formal memos with suspiciously out-of-place commas, but chickened out immediately when he attempted to actually compose one. He had resorted to baking her biscuits instead, only he had ended up with an entire batch that he could not possibly hope to eat by himself so he had handed the tin ‘round at school the next day for everyone to help themselves, which had rather defeated the point.
"You can’t sit here for seventy-two hours," he pointed out, thinking this was a reasonable observation.
Abigail waved her free hand at him and didn’t respond.
Suspicious, Magnus leaned in to peer at the top of her sheet of notes — Abigail was always very conscientious about her notes, and this page had yesterday’s date neatly written at the top, which meant she hadn’t slept. As little as thirty-four days ago, he might have tried to persuade her to take a break. That Magnus, fool that he had been, would have distracted her until she put down her pen and went home, not to sleep but to continue studying in peace far away from him. This Magnus, older and wiser, just went to the atrium to fetch a bottle of water and one of the unappealing but filling nutri-bars that were the only food allowed in the library, and he just set them down in Abigail’s general field of vision so she would notice them eventually. Having thus done his duty as knight errand, he pulled out his own homework and settled in.
A couple of hours later (Magnus had transitioned to idly leafing through back copies of Second Strike — Faster Then Her Shadow) Abigail unwound from her tablet like a snake from a prey animal just too big to swallow, blinking into the evening. Her eyes locked in on the bottle of water and she took a few gulps, and Magnus tried not to watch the way she tipped her head back to expose the line of her throat. "You’re still here," she said, sounding more surprised than she should be considering the past five months or so. "What time is it?"
"Just past nine," Magnus said. He returned the comics to their flimsy slipcase because when he didn’t, she gave him a look.
"I’ll miss curfew."
"I’ll walk you home," he offered. Sixty-three days ago, he would have offered hoping he could get a moment alone with her in a hallway and maybe she would look at him and see him and he could kiss her. He had abandoned that hope a while ago. Nevertheless, he waited while she shoved her tablet and her notes into her satchel, wolfed down the truly horrid nutri-bar without, he suspected, tasting it at all, and then he held open the door for her and they walked together, side by side but very much not touching.
Magnus never spoke much on these nightly walks because usually, the apparently oblivious object of his affections was either silent as the proverbial grave, deeply lost in thought, or chatting amiably about whatever she had read just before they left, most of which went right over his head (but he never interrupted, because he liked how her voice seemed to drop half an octave when she talked about her research and the way she traced shapes into the air with her left hand when she got excited). Tonight, however, as they approached the branch in the endless corridors that would take them to her family’s apartment, he briefly touched her arm to get her attention.
"One of my classmates says his aunt’s spirit’s attached the bracelet she always used to wear." He shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers and tried for a winning smile. "I thought you might like to, I don’t know, come watch? When they talk to her?"
Abigail stopped short and spun to face him, her satchel flying out to gently smack him in the leg. "Magnus Quinn," she said, eyes wide and sparkling, "are you flirting with me?"
Later, when he recounted this moment at anniversary dinners and birthday parties, Magnus would omit the way he had spluttered at that question. He would swear by the Emperor’s kneecaps that he had taken it all in stride and leaned casually against the wall and said huskily "who else would I be flirting with?" or something equally suave. In reality, he almost choked on his own saliva and took a hasty step back to cough and clear his throat enough to speak. "Why do you think that?"
Her brows knitted together thoughtfully, just peeking from behind the frame of her glasses. "You just invited me to a summoning," she said, and then something horrible seemed to dawn on her; she poked him in the chest, hard, with her index finger. Magnus winced. "And you’ve walked me home almost every night this past week, and you brought me those biscuits the week before, and last month you asked if I’d gone to see the magnolia trees yet — you are flirting!"
And Magnus couldn’t help it, he had to laugh. She looked faintly angry about this realisation, as if the very idea was outrageous, and she was so beautiful that even the sight of her furious hit him like a punch in the gut. "Have been for the past five months," he said, "thank you for noticing."
At this, she actually punched him in the arm. Lightly, even for a necromancer, but he rubbed at it anyway, chasing the sensation. "You could have said!"
"That would have ruined it."
"Ruined what, exactly?"
Magnus shrugged. "Not entirely sure about that one," he admitted, scrubbing a hand at the back of his neck. "I thought you’d notice sooner, to be honest, and then it never felt like a good moment to say hey, by the way, I think you’re very pretty and really smart and I want to take you on a date, so I didn’t, and then you kept not noticing, and well, here we are."
"Here we are," Abigail echoed. She was clutching the shoulder strap of her bag with both hands, knuckles white, but she was also blushing faintly, which Magnus figured was a sign in his favour.
"So, uh. Do you want to go? Watch the summoning?"
She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and turned them both down the corridor and she was just close enough that he could feel her there next to him, her necromancer’s robes brushing his legs as they walked, the single ember of warmth where she touched him. "Of course I want to."
His poor adolescent brain had stopped working for a moment so he scrambled to catch up. "You do?"
Abigail laughed. It echoed a little in the empty space and it was like music to his ears. "Yes! I’ll go see the magnolia trees with you, too, if you want."
"They’re not in bloom anymore," he said, rather stupidly, overwhelmed by fate suddenly smiling upon him.
"There’s probably other flowers, right?"
"Oh, sure, of course. Yeah." With enormous effort, he wrangled himself back under control. "If I’d known you’d say yes, I would have come clean sooner," he admitted.
They had reached the front door of her family’s apartment in the City, which were substantially more grandiose than most others. One of Abigail’s mothers, for whom she was named, was due to inherit in the near future, if the rumours were correct, and the elaborate whorls and curlicues of gold paint on the dark plex warned that the place was warded to hell and back. Letting go of his arm, Abigail stretched up on the tips of her toes and breathed a quick kiss on Magnus’ cheek. She rocked back on her heels, definitely blushing now but she held her head high and met his gaze.
"Well," she said, eyes twinkling with amusement, "you did say I was pretty."
Usually, Magnus floated on air for at least a week after his girlfriend came back from her family’s off-continent estate after the holidays, but even he could tell that something was wrong. She’d been gone over her seventeenth birthday, so he had pulled out all the stops and taken her for a romantic picnic in the Glass Gardens, where he had spread a blanket under the magnolia trees and fed her delicate pastry confections he had made himself in a frantic scramble at one in the morning. Abigail had smiled and complimented the chocolate mousse and consented to let him kiss a smudge of it from the corner of her mouth, but he was not a fool. He looked at her sitting there across from him, glasses slipping down her nose, long dark hair in a thick plait that made her face look too severe, and he tried to prepare himself.
He dressed carefully for the ball. It was only a small event, by Fifth House standards, a school celebration in honour of this year’s graduating students, but Magnus tied his neckcloth twice anyway and attached the gold pin to his lapel that indicated he had trained as a cavalier because that was what one was expected to do, even if one — specifically, Magnus — had achieved only mediocre marks at best and never officially ranked. His mother fussed and combed his hair back, which he submitted to gracefully before sticking his head under the faucet as soon as she left to wash out the gel.
"Have fun tonight, dear," she told him when he came back out to present himself and reached up to adjust his collar. "Make sure to get some pictures with Abigail for the family album."
He made a noise in response that seemed to satisfy her, took his coat, and went out the door. It was rather a long walk from the Outer Rim to the City centre and ordinarily he would have taken a bullet train to speed things up, but he’d left home too early and anyway, he didn’t feel like cramming his good suit into a crowded compartment and breathe in other people’s perfume. So he walked.
It was barely late afternoon but the decrepit light strips in the ceiling were already glowing dimly, casting a sickly green sheen over everything. The quarter Magnus and his mother lived in had been due for renovation for close to five years now but everyone knew these things took ages to actually get done; too many proposals to be approved, forms to fill out in triplicate. One got used to it eventually, to the point that when the lighting eventually got replaced people would probably complain that everything was suddenly too bright, but he was relieved anyway when he passed through the last connection joint to the Inner City, where the light was clean and warm and didn’t make his skin look like he was growing algae.
They had made plans, before the holidays, that he would come to pick Abigail up and spend half an hour sitting on her mothers’ sofa drinking tea and making polite conversation, but when he pressed his palm to the pad next to the huge plex doors of their apartment, she only opened them wide enough to squeeze through and pushed them shut behind herself immediately.
Magnus said, entirely on instinct: “You look nice.” She had her hair up in a soft cascade of curls, clearly already coiffed and made up for the celebration, and she wore a simple but elegant silk dress with a high collar that brushed the side of her jaw. Magnus, who thought she was the most beautiful girl on the planet in creased slacks and ink-stained blouse, was a little overwhelmed.
Abigail took him by the arm and pulled him away, with much more force than was necessary because he would have willingly followed her to the ends of the universe, until she came to an abrupt halt one section down in front of a maintenance closet. She was biting her lip; on closer inspection, her eyes were red and puffy. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Magnus braced himself.
“I cannot come with you tonight,” Abigail said. Her narrow shoulders were quite straight and her voice did not shake.
“Look, if your mother doesn’t think it’s appropriate for you —”
“That’s not…” He watched her chest rise as she took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly and deliberately. She had let go of his arm and was now fiddling with the ribbons encircling her delicate, bony wrists, one for her fan, one for her dance card. If she had decided she couldn’t go to the ball with him, he thought, she could have spared herself the dressing up. “Mum said I should wait until afterwards but I can’t. It would be so unfair and you don’t deserve that.” Another deep breath. “It’s over, Magnus. We’re over. I’m sorry.”
He tried to think of something to say. Nothing presented itself. He felt a little sick. At last, he asked: “Why? What did I do?”
Abigail shook her head so violently that the nest of curls dislodged from its pins and hung precariously behind her left ear. “It’s not your fault,” she said fervently; he wanted to reach for her, take her hands in his and never let go, but he didn’t.
“If you’re about to tell me ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ I’d rather you didn’t,” he said. If those words came out of her mouth, he thought he would genuinely throw up. “Just tell me why.”
A shadow passed over her face, and when she looked at him then, she was a different person. “It never would have lasted. Between us. We’re too different. I’m sorry. Goodbye, Magnus.” She turned away, and he did reach for her then — but she was already gone. His fingers closed over the corner of her dance card. The flimsy tore with a sound like a crashing wave in the empty corridor and Magnus stood where she had left him, staring at his hand.
He did go to the ball, eventually. He didn’t know what else to do with himself. He drank five glasses of over-spiced punch and ate nine of the bite-sized canapés that tasted of nothing but salt and olives, then he threw up in the bathroom and stayed there, wallowing in a metaphorical puddle of his own misery, until one of his classmates came to find him and bodily dragged him home.
He heard about the announcement three days later, when his mother forced him out of bed to stand under the sonic for thirty seconds and sit down to have dinner with her. She tried to hide her tablet behind the soup pot before he could see it, but she was too slow; the headline, in tall capital letters, read: “Daughter of Heiress Betrothed”.
“’I’m so sorry, baby,” his mother said, patting his hand.
The article, if you could call it that, consisted of ten or so sentences all repeating the same information in a slightly word different order. It all boiled down to this: Abigail Pent, scion of the Fifth House and promising necromancer, had announced her engagement to Valeray Quatrié, a minor nobleman of the House of the Fourth, and they would be married as soon as Quatrié returned from a tour of duty with the Cohort. Magnus very badly wanted to punch something, preferably Valeray bloody Quatrié, but given that he was unavailable, he would settle for just about anything else. Instead, he went back to bed and buried his head under the pillows and screamed into the mattress. It only took three hours or so to come to the conclusion that it was not really Valeray Quatrié’s fault and that he probably should not be surprised because Abigail was, after all, several thousand light years out of his league and he, Magnus, was the son of an administrative assistant. This realisation did not, all things considered, make him feel any better.
He emerged once, in a fit of spite, to present himself at the Enlistment Office. The woman behind the desk looked him up and down with her eyebrows quizzically arched, scribbled something on his form, and said in a voice like grated gravel: “You will hear from us.”
When the rejection letter came, Magnus was still too wrapped up in his own unfortunately adolescent cocktail of emotions to figure out how he felt about it, really; it was hard to be disappointed or angry when his mother was so obviously and openly relieved, and it was not that he had particularly wanted a military career, if he was honest about it. It had simply felt like what he had to do in that moment.
“Plenty of fish in the sea,” his mother said with a bright smile that hurt to look at. She had bought him a new tie for his first day at work in Resource Management, where he would spend the majority of his day cross-referencing badly collated datasets and copying strings of numbers from one file to another. The work was supremely mind-numbing, and just what he needed.
A month after she had broken up with him, Abigail Pent cornered him on the way home from the pub, pushing through the crowd on Coaba Square to descend on her ex-boyfriend like an angel of righteous fury. “You tried to enlist!” she cried in the tone of a person accusing someone of a heinous crime, gloved hands on her hips, emerald eyes gleaming.
Magnus crossed his arms in front of his chest. He was not entirely sober, but not drunk enough to suppress the tide of longing that rose in him at the sight of her. Of course she was still beautiful — of course the cuffs of her sleeves still creased against the edge of her gloves, of course her glasses were still slightly crooked because she adjusted them with her right hand while reading. It had only been a month since he had seen her, and nothing had changed, and everything was different.
“I don’t think what I do is any concern of yours anymore,” he said and hated himself. One of his mates muttered something about dirty laundry, clapped him on the back, and the whole group legged it.
“Of course it concerns me!” Abigail said, stopped, and shook her head, biting her lip. “It’s a stupid thing to do, just because you got dumped. You could have been killed.”
“You don’t know I did it just because you broke up with me,” Magnus pointed out. He squared his shoulders, drew himself up to his full height. He was not exceptionally tall, and too soft to really be imposing, but Abigail took a half-step back anyway. It was so stupid to do this here, in public, as the evening crowd filed past them on their way to their beds, but she had started it and by God he would finish it. “It might have been my lifelong dream to join up.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“How would you know? You never asked! I spent two years asking you questions, trying to hold your attention long enough to compete with those bloody old tomes, and I don’t think you could tell me what my favourite colour was! You never bothered to find out anything about me!”
“That’s unfair,” she breathed, visibly paling.
It probably was. Magnus knew he would regret this later, when he had washed his face and calmed down, but right now anger was burning in his blood like rocket fuel.
“It’s not like you’re a beacon of romantic virtue,” Abigail said. She blew a stray hair out of her face. “Did it ever occur to you to talk to me about the future? Where we were headed? How it was all going to work out? Don’t tell me you were surprised.”
“That you were about to be engaged? Of course I was surprised! How was I supposed to know you were about to throw away everything we had together!”
“You think that was my choice? As if I could do that to you! I am my mother’s daughter, Magnus, I have a duty to my House.”
“I’m not good enough.” Magnus dropped his hands and buried them in the pockets of his scruffy coat. “I’m just some low-level nobody who’s not good enough to polish the Lady Abigail Pent’s necromantic boot heels.”
“Stop, you know I don’t think that. You’re being unreasonable.”
“I would have refused Valeray if I could! I never wanted any of this!” It was hard to tell, in the light, if the glint in her eyes was anger or tears.
“Well,” Magnus said, breathing hard. “It’s what you got, anyway.”
And he turned his back on her and walked away.
Over the murmur of the crowd, Abigail said: “You like green.”
Magnus looked up from the stack of flimsy he was attempting to wrangle to see his supervisor poking her head in around the plex divider that separated the individual workspaces. “I don’t have the itemisation done yet, Còig, the people in Distribution have six different cataloguing systems between the four of them and it’s taking ages to sort it out.”/
Còig waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t give a damn about the itemisation. You did cavalier training, didn’t you?”
He hadn’t thought about that in years; for his final exam in school, he had been absolutely thrashed in three duels in a row and only scraped through because one of his opponents had used an unsanctioned manoeuvre and the instructors had generously awarded Magnus the bare minimum of points required to pass. “I never ranked,” he said.
“Don’t give a damn about that either,” Còig said. “Still got your rapier? Run home and get it, then meet me up in the cafeteria as soon as you can.”
Struggling to get his arms through the sleeves of his overcoat, Magnus paused. “What’s this about?”
Còig pulled a face. “You know the vending machine in the back corner that never gives you what you asked for and beeps the tune of Five Sulphur Giants?”
Magnus raised an eyebrow. “The one that we’ve told Maintenance is possessed five times?”
“The very same. They’ve finally sent a necromancer to deal with it but Maintenance says they didn’t bring a cavalier and there’s protocols and shit, so hop to it.”
In hindsight, he should have known. He didn’t believe in fate or destiny or any of that, but he did know that life had a bad sense of humour and a taste for narrative irony, so when he pushed through the cafeteria doors forty-five minutes later with his old, unadorned rapier buckled to his belt, he really should not have been surprised. The necromancer who had come to exorcise their vending machine was crouching on the grubby carpet, peering at the back of the machine, but he would have recognised the line of her profile anywhere. She had pushed her long dark hair behind her ear and the gold frames of her glasses had slid halfway down her nose already, clinging admirably to the little bump her had adored so much back when they were teenagers.
“You’ve definitely got a haunting here,” Abigail Pent told the sour-faced Maintenance worker who had apparently drawn the short straw that morning. “Do me a favour and try to get a snack when I give you the signal, I want to see where the energy comes from.”
Còig, from her position several metres away, gave Magnus a nod. “The cavalier’s here,” she announced. This prompted everyone to crane their necks at Magnus, who felt the blush rise in his cheeks. Down on the floor, the knees of her trousers soaking up twenty years of spilt coffee and ambient grease, Abigail’s mouth formed a silent ‘oh’.
The moment didn’t last long; their eyes met, Magnus winced in apology, Abigail scrunched up her nose. Her glasses forfeited the struggle against gravity, cut their losses, and dropped straight into her lap. She looked down and the spell was broken. Magnus took a deep breath. They’d been children, really — it was more than three years now since she’d broken up with him, longer than they’d ever been together even counting the months Magnus had spent trying to get her attention. For all intents and purposes, he was over her.
(If he had kept the corner of her dance card, hidden between the pages of his yearbook, it was beside the point.)
“Well,” Abigail said, struggling to her feet. “I really don’t think this is necessary but regulations are what they are, I suppose. Do any of you know who might be haunting this vending machine? They don’t feel malicious to me but it must be someone with a strong personality, or they wouldn’t have hung on to an inarticulate device for so long.”
Còig said: “I always thought it was Jess from Accounting.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Dunno.” Còig shrugged. “Just a feeling.”
Magnus said: “She was allergic to peanuts, and the machine hasn’t been giving out any snacks with peanuts in them since she died.”
Abigail had retrieved her leather-bound notebook from the expanse of her brown necromancer’s robes and started taking notes. “When was this? Did she die on the premises? What else can you tell me about her?”
When they were teenagers, he had never seen her actually do a summoning ritual. There was a lot more mathematics involved than he would have guessed, and an awful lot of chalk. She took a minute to bemoan the fact that carpet was a horribly inconvenient surface to ward, then shook her head and asked the long-suffering Maintenance worker to grind her sticks of chalk into a powder that she could spread out relatively neatly. Each of them had to present their palms to receive a temporary ghost ward; she cradled Magnus’ hand in hers and scratched the runes into his skin with meticulous care, her brows furrowing in concentration. Magnus bit his bottom lip and attempted to memorise the pattern of the hideous orange wallpaper.
Because he had always been frankly hopeless with a rapier, Magnus had never bothered with the finer aspects of cavaliership. He knew the theory, of course — the oath of mutual fealty, the duty to guard and protect — but the actual practice was a thing of comic books and the horribly boring epic poetry he had been forced to study in school. Abigail clearly didn’t think she needed anyone to babysit her on this one, either, and Magnus was pretty sure that she was just too well-bred to say so. If she was as flustered as he was, she did not show it. She marked a safe perimeter for the spectators who had heard about what was happening and had come to gawk, smoothed her hair behind her ears, and told Magnus to stay back.
“I really do not anticipate any problems,” she said, rolling up her sleeves and tucking her gloves into a pocket. Magnus averted his gaze. “But I suppose we shall see, won’t we!”
With no small amount of astonishment, Magnus realised he had never seen her this excited before. The previous highs he had witnessed had all involved her historical research in one way or another; even when he had taken her along to the summoning of his classmate’s aunt, she had not vibrated with anticipation like she did now. He watched as she expertly tied a tourniquet around her own arm and inserted a needle into a vein to draw a small syringe full of her blood which she decanted into a little glass vial. “Right,” she said, slightly breathless. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Jess from Accounting, it turned out, was not interested in being moved on. Later, her supervisor would make a borderline offensive comment about how she had always “lived for the department” and that it was not a surprise that she refused to get out of there, but in the actual moment the only thing that registered with Magnus was that a ghostly voice shrieked at them from the depths of the vending machine, which rattled from side to side and threatened to topple over sideways. Abigail, who was once again crouching beside it and chanting a prayer, did not seem to notice; Magnus made a probably very stupid decision, stepped around her, and put his back into it. The metal siding, painted red and white and covered in a thin layer of grime, dug into his shoulders as he planted his feet to get a better grip; the edge of the cooling unit pressed painfully into the soft skin at the back of his knees. The ghostly shrieking rose to a fever pitch that felt like needles straight through the eardrum, Abigail called out something Magnus could not make out, and then the damned thing gave a jolt so abrupt that it almost did fall over, taking Magnus with it and crushing him and the necromancer to a pulp in the process.
Everything was still.
Magnus slid down to the floor like a marionette with its strings cut. He was vaguely aware of Abigail scrambling to her feet and pressing both her hands against the plex front of the machine and a general explosion of activity from the spectators, but his ears were still ringing and his back ached and frankly, he was not getting paid enough for any of this. He’d be obliged if he could be left alone to sit here for another hour or two and not be bothered, thank you very much. That was too much to ask, of course. Before he could pull himself together, Abigail appeared in his field of vision, kneeling in front of him with her hair standing up and her glasses crooked, and took his face in both her hands, fingertips pressed to his cheekbones and temples.
Her lips moved. Magnus shook his head and pointed at his ears. She frowned, mouthed “I’m sorry” and closed her eyes, and something happened he would never be able to understand how much she explained it to him; something passed from her fingertips to his skin like electricity and sent shivers down his spine, the world turned blue for just a fraction of a second and he could not tell where he began and she ended, and then that, too, was over.
Later, she would explain to him that she had to make sure that the revenant had not passed into him, which would have been bad, apparently. Now, her eyes flew open and she seemed to deflate with relief. She squeezed both his shoulders briefly, then attempted to haul him up to his feet, which only did not end in disaster because Magnus had recovered enough to heave himself up by his own strength. He still couldn’t hear a thing about the ringing in his ears, and when he communicated this to his supervisor through gestures, Còig all but shoved him out of the door with the awkwardly pantomimed assurance that she would deal with the paperwork.
He expected to just go home to his one-room apartment in Skouriá Street, knock back a couple painkillers, and try to sleep it off. Instead, Abigail took him firmly by the arm and dragged him all the way up to Fauve Hall for a medic to shine an excessively bright light into his eyes, mouth, and ears while Abigail fidgeted in the visitor’s chair. Whatever force had been causing the ends of her hair to float around her face like a dark, shining halo had dissipated and she looked like herself again, if a little tired and on edge. It was determined that Magnus’ eardrums had indeed ruptured, so the medic made him tilt his head and inserted an evil-looking instrument into his ear canals that buzzed like an angry bee but sealed the tears up in under fifteen seconds. When it was done, he had to shake his head a few times like a wet dog to get rid of the sensation.
“Are you alright?” Abigail asked him, eyes wide with concern.
Magnus considered this for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, concluding that, at least, the day’s events had been much more exciting than actual work. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, and ignored him when he tried to dismiss it. “I’m very grateful that you were there but I shouldn’t have let you get hurt. That was my fault.”
“S’alright.” He tried to shrug and then tried to hide how much his shoulders protested that movement. “You couldn’t have known.”
“Still,” she said, stubborn to the last, and then: “Let me buy you lunch.”
He wasn’t sure why he said yes; he was in shock, he hadn’t expected it, he hadn’t gotten over the initial spike of adrenaline of seeing her there in the cafeteria in the first place. His brain had not entirely come back online yet and he watched himself nod with a kind of mortified fascination, like watching someone else trip and fall and crack their head open in a public place.
She took him to a stall in the Covered Market and ordered a big container of steamed dumplings, which they ate with their fingers sitting on a bench under the branches of an artificial tree. They burnt his fingers a little. For a long time, neither of them spoke.
“I’m sorry,” Magnus said at last, “for the things I said.”
Abigail wiped her hands on a napkin and nodded. “Thank you. I’m sorry too.”
“It was unfair of me,” Magnus persisted, knowing he had to say this now or hate himself forever. “I was angry and heartbroken and you didn’t deserve me taking it out on you.”
“I never wanted to break your heart,” she said, very quietly. “And I never thought you weren’t good enough.”
Somewhere in the distance, a bell tolled noon. There were very few people about at this time of day; the lunchtime rush would not start for at least another hour. At the other end of the market, stalls were still being set up for the day, cooking pots and ladles clinking in their crates.
Magnus said: “So what about your fiancé?” He had, for obvious reasons, not kept up with the news much these past few years.
She grimaced. “He died at the front.”
“I never even met him. He proposed with a letter after my grandfather told me I’d be marrying him. He’s been dead for almost a year and I still don’t know how to feel about it.” While she spoke, she methodically tore her napkin into shreds until a pile of white fluff had accumulated in her lap. He wanted to say something but could think of absolutely nothing that was worth saying. “Anyway,” Abigail continued, “I’ve made it clear that if he wants someone to marry off for political advantage he can try it with my brother, not with me. I don’t care about any of it.”
For the first time since they had sat down, their eyes met. There was a defiant glint in Abigail’s, bright and rich like leaves in the first weeks of summer. Magnus thought: I should kiss her. And then: That is the worst idea I’ve ever had. And then her gaze dropped to his mouth and the tip of her tongue darted out to wet her lips and Magnus cupped her face in his big hands and leaned in and gently, ever so gently, he kissed her there on a bench at the market, the box of dumplings still between them.
Necromancers, Magnus had learnt, were not among God’s natural chefs. Abigail had tried, bless her heart, and graduated from peeling and chopping on merit of enthusiasm more than inherent skill or talent, but she could not quite overcome her basic instinct that eating was something one did out of necessity, not enjoyment. When they spent the evening together, he was usually the one responsible for dinner and he liked that, he liked figuring out that there were dishes she liked so much that she would eat an entire plate full without getting distracted, he liked spending time preparing ingredients and cooking while she sat at the kitchen table with her manuscript, the two of them quietly existing in the same space together. Most of all he liked that this was something they could do; it hadn’t been easy at first, to carve out this room for themselves in between her family duties and his job at the Department of Resource Management and also just life in general, but they’d found a way eventually. She had a drawer of clothes in his dresser and a supply of her favourite pens and the wards on her family’s doors no longer treated him as an intruder. Maybe this was the best they could get, and that was alright, because this was good.
This was coming home from work to Abigail spread out on his dingy little sofa, fast asleep until he pointedly dropped his bag on the floor and she startled up, rubbing at her face. The creases in the cushions had left imprints in her cheek and she had a piece of flimsy glued to her forehead, which Magnus peeled off so he could kiss her where it had stuck. “Morning, sunshine,” he said, grinning, and hopped back out of her reach before she could swat at him.
“When did it get so late?” she exclaimed, peering blearily at her watch. “I was going to make you dinner. To surprise you.”
“Colour me surprised.” He dropped onto the sofa next to her, legs outstretched, and rested his head against the cushions. She inched closer for a moment, but just enough to squeeze his hand and kiss his cheek and then she was gone, leaving an empty space where she should have been. He missed her already.
“I went out for groceries and everything,” she said, “so you’re going to sit here and wait while I cook for you. Unless I set something on fire again, in which case you have my express permission to come and rescue me.”
He drifted off himself, listening to the clatter coming from the kitchen and the singsong of her voice as she recited necromantic theorems to herself the way other people hummed songs they had stuck in their head. Some of them he knew by now, equations of thalergy and resistance and transference that meant absolutely nothing to him but that he had heard her repeat so many times he had learnt them by heart without meaning to. The mingled aroma of garlic and onions drifted into his narrow living room, only faintly undercut by the smell of something burning which dissipated before he could rouse himself to go and see if she needed help. It had been a long day at his desk, double-checking other people’s work and writing memos that everybody would probably ignore, and he had spent all of it looking forward to being back with Abigail, doing nothing at all.
He did get up when he heard her yelp, and was struck by the sight of her with her hair tied back, his ratty old apron over her wrinkled blouse and trousers, stirring a saucepan with one hand and the other at her mouth, licking at a burnt spot at the back of her hand to soothe it. Magnus stood behind her, turned the heat down on the hotplate, and took her wounded hand in his.
“Ahh,” he said sagely, inspecting the tiny speck of reddened skin, maybe the size of half a grain of rice. “I’m afraid we’ll have to amputate. Generously. At least up to here.” He tapped a spot somewhere just below her shoulder.
Because she was still facing away from him, he could not actually see her roll her eyes but he would have bet all his worldly possessions on the fact that she did. He placed the ghost of a kiss on her hand, then put his lips to the side of her neck just above her collar and relished in the little shiver that went through her when he did so. He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her flush against his body.
“It’s not done yet,” she murmured, gasping as he nipped at the skin below her ear. “It’ll actually burn — no, stop, I promised dinner and by God I will provide.”
So he withdrew, content to watch her work from his vantage point leaning against the counter. It was obvious that she had prepared for this; she had a sheet of notes pinned to the cabinet door that she consulted periodically and made checkmarks on when she completed a step, and although her movements lacked the fluidity of someone with more experience, she had clearly practised what she was doing. When she at last presented him with a plate of pasta in a rich, dark sauce, she looked so proud of herself that Magnus would have eaten a second helping of charcoal and wood chips just to make her happy. Fortunately for him, it was genuinely delicious. There was not much that could go wrong with a base of garlic and onions, and the combination of herbs she had used infused the whole dish with a pleasant brightness to contrast the richness of the sauce.
They ate at his tiny kitchen table, sharing half a bottle of wine Abigail had brought. At some point, Magnus tangled their legs together and she smiled at him in that way that she had, open and honest and a little bit indulgent, as though nothing pleased her more at that moment than smiling at him, and Magnus thought about how lucky he was.
“Abigail, love,” he said, before he quite knew he wanted to say anything. “I know that it’s complicated, and that we haven’t really talked about this before, but by God, will you marry me? You can say no — this is not the kind of proposal you deserve, and I haven’t even gotten rings yet, but —”
But she was laughing, actual tears in her eyes, and then she almost choked and had to drain her glass to get herself back under control. “Magnus, you beast!” she said, digging in her pockets to produce a brown velvet bag the size of her palm. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. I had it all planned out! They’re family heirlooms, of course, and I won’t be upset in the slightest if you decide you don’t want to wear them, I’m sure we’ll come up with something.” She upended the bag over her napkin, revealing two slim gold rings with a trio of tiny emeralds set into the band. “There’s plain ones too,” she added, blushing. “For after the wedding.”
He stared at her across the table, across the remains of the dinner she had wanted to surprise him with and the horrible checkered tablecloth with mysterious stains that had never washed out. She was still wearing his apron, she had a speck of sauce in the corner of her mouth, and she looked like she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry, and she was the most beautiful she had ever been.
“Alright,” he said, unable to restrain the grin spreading across his face. “I guess we’ll get married then.”