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Wicked Grace

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The noise of a scavenging flock of gargoyles woke Istre on the third day of the ghost tide, leaving him with pain everywhere and too much awareness of a day only barely begun. The winter sun gave just enough light that the entire world looked ethereal and faded. Istre attempted, just for a moment, to go back to sleep, but one of his constant companions had already noticed the change in his breathing.

“I am bored,” the small girl said with big eyes and trembling lips. Ghosts of her apparent age were very rare, and for good reason, not least of which the fact that they could barely comprehend their complicated magistical status. Reminders of her long-gone family still made the girl sullen and quiet, as if she blamed Istre for their absence. Istre had only ever met the great-great-granddaughter of the girl's younger sister – a quiet, strong woman haunted but not cowed by the confused spirit of a long ago family tragedy.

“Petra, why don't you play a game with your uncle while I get dressed and have some breakfast?”

Petra – it was not her real name, there had been no records left, no stories of the little girl that died; as so often happened when the living meant to spare each other the painful reminder of death – turned to the ghost of Istre's old friend and former king of Chadron, a somewhat doubtful expression on her face. “He's writing his lists again.”

Many of the untimely dead had obsessive habits, actions they would repeat over and over, unable to explain or stop them, and the old king was no exception. He wrote down the names of all the women and men who had a reason to murder him, poring over the suspects as if it could bring him closer to the truth. Chadron being Chadron, the lists were little more than an abbreviated genealogy of the entire nobility. They would never give him what he sought and Istre had so far been unable to help.

“He'll put them aside for you, my dear,” Istre said. And the king would, because Petra had been the name of his favorite niece and he had doted on her with reckless abandon.

Getting ready for the long ghost tide hours, Istre forewent the typical uniform of a magist and chose old, comfortable clothes that made him look slightly ruffled. He had no plans for the day, all classes having been canceled the day before despite his admittedly feeble protests. This spring the weather did its level best to amplify the discomfort that came with this many ghosts, soaking into his bones and making him feel much older than he was.

Breakfast tasted just slightly stale and Istre couldn't decide whether it was due to the time of year or the fact that the cooks' apprentices hadn't been out to buy fresh this morning. Which, considering, came to the same thing in the end.

Lorraine stared at his tea pot, her ghostly pale lips in a pout. Of all the ghosts he knew, she missed the simple pleasures the most – food, drink and intimate touch. She was also the one most interested in his personal affairs.

“Two things, my boy. Is that elderberry steeping in your cup? And how are you getting along with finding a suitable wife? You know I am always willing to help.” Lorraine had taken to matchmaking like a duck to water, but whenever it came to helping Nico with a case, she was one of the more useful ghosts. Her insight into human emotion was occasionally dead on and decidedly scary.

Istre shrugged, sipping from the hot cup, letting the warmth thaw him out. “Elderberry and mint, yes, and whatever I decide to do with my heart, I'm sure you'll be the first to know.”

Lorraine grinned. “My darling, I'm sure I will be.”

They had this conversation almost every day, Istre simply assumed it was part of her habits.

+

Lorraine adored Phillip and Nico. She always sighed in their presence, making big, love-lorn eyes at them that they couldn't see. Istre usually fought a smile at her antics and shooed her away, because both his friends were incredibly uncomfortable around ghosts.

Outside his lodgings, a dog barked excitedly and Lorraine perked up. “Is that Sunflower I hear?”

Istre rolled his eyes. Sunflower had had a respectable first year as a racing dog, but most of his time was now spent following either of his masters around on their daily routines. So much for keeping the dog strictly professional. Although he would bet Sunflower knew more about the law than some junior Pointsmen.

A knock on his door seemed to suggest that Istre was truly about to be graced by visitors. He hadn't had an appointment with either of the men, nor gotten any notes delivered to him by excited runners. That was very unusual and implied either terrible urgency or a moment of almost childish spontaneity. Or something else entirely.

Istre opened the door. Sunflower barged into his rooms and began barking excitedly, leaving Istre to face Phillip on his doorstep. The soon to be Captain of the Guard looked more sheepish than embarrassed at Sunflower's presumption.

“Phillip, it's good to see you. Please, do come in.”

Phillip shook his head. “I thank you for the invitation, but I'm here to make one of my own. Coindarel has recently acquired a few new additions to his stable and I thought you might like to try one of them. We have a trail outside the city that we use for training.”

Istre raised his eyebrows. He meant to decline because this seemed too much like leisure for his taste – although getting away from the city and its ghosts would do him a world of good. Behind him, the old king mumbled encouraging words.

“Do go on, dear boy. A hard ride can clear the mind and soothe the soul.”

Lorraine laughed uproariously, because her mind immediately went to other, much more intimate eploits.

Phillip stepped back slightly, obviously noticing Istre's indecisiveness. “Nico said you would be free today, but if you're otherwise engaged-”

Istre waved Phillip's concerns away. “No, no, I'm entirely at my leisure and frankly could use the distraction.”

+

The horses were fine creatures, either bred from Chadroni stock or something close – their northern blood was obvious both in the structure of their bones and the strucutre of their temperament. Istre used his heels lightly on his mare, urging her to go faster. She had a good sense for terrain and stayed sure-footed even at a brisk gallop.

“These are good stock, not cheap to come by,” Istre said loudly, hoping his voice would carry.

Phillip, riding at his left, grinned and patted the stallion's neck. “Coindarel is playing a strange game, but he's always playing to win.”

“You think there's politics beind the City Guard?” Of course there was, everything was politics lately.

Phillip nodded as they both slowed their horses to a gentle walk. “I do think that, but that's hardly surprising. Everything in this Dis-damned city is politics.”

Istre grinned. “I hardly think you brought me out here to talk about Coindarel's ambitions.”

“Indeed, I came with a question.” Phillip looked suddenly very small, like the boy he once had been when he ran away to become a soldier – or so Istre imagined.

“Ah, I knew there was a nefarious motive.” He laughed at Phillip's startled expression. “Come now, you would not have been so hesitant if all you wanted to do was show me a horse.” Never mind that Phillip Eslingen clearly had some issues concerning him and Nico's friendship and did not usually seek him out unless it was related to a case.

Phillip reached into his coat and brought out a leather-wrapped parcel. The leather alone looked expensive and Istre's curiosity was piqued. “What do you have there?”

Unwrapping the parcel to reveal gleaming instruments that reminded Istre of some of the surgical tools Farnier used at the dead house, Phillip began to explain. “I had these made for Nico, they're assorted lock-picks and other tools useful in his line of work. I wanted to ask what you thought of them. They look more expensive than they are, I assure you, but they're fine work, solid and true.”

And there was a story behind his hesitance, his insecurity – Istre had known Nico for years, but that wasn't necessary to know that the boy was having trouble accepting gifts for what they were, always afraid of being or even appearing to be in someone's debt. And Phillip clearly liked giving things to the people he loved. One more way where the two of them needed to negotiate something they could both live with, and usually they were fairly good at it. Once they actually got around to talking.

“Oh,” Lorraine said over his shoulder, “that is fine metal, eager for work and willing to soak an enchantment or two.”

Istre nodded as he let his fingers trace the workmanship. “These were made with magic in mind.”

Phillip did not look up from the tools when he spoke. “I thought perhaps you could tell me what would be appropriate. Is there something that could help pick a mage-lock? Nico always complains about those.”

Istre laughed. “Of course, of course. Here, leave them with me and I will see what I can do.”

Phillip retied the parcel and handed it over. “Can you do it today? I'm meeting Phillip for supper today at Wicked's. I thought to give it to him then.”

Istre grinned. “It's the height of ghost tide, I have quite literally nothing better to do.”

+

Petra tried to help with the enchantment but her speciality were spells made to uncover truths, not quite the same thing, though similar enough. Istre let her work a detection spell on the ring that came with the set.

They worked in one of the university labs, all but abandoned during ghost tide. Istre would never understand why it drew his colleagues into their rooms and out among people when the controlled and shielded environment of the university was so much quieter, so much easier to take. Down here, with all the students elsewhere, all he could feel were his own ghosts and a slight lingering pressure.

The king cursed under his breath, always so frustrated when the spells he helped create didn't immediately work. Istre smiled and showed him the symbols again, the movements that needed to be followed, the words that needed to be said.

“I've told you ages ago, old friend, magic is a matter of precision.”

Istre ducked away from the king's wrath and listened to Petra laugh at them.

+

People tended to believe that ghosts were waiting for someone to banish them. Or more precisely that it was a necromancer's solemn duty to help them cross over into the netherworld so they would stop bothering the living. But ghosts, most of them at any rate, did that all on their own. With the deaths of people they knew, people who remembered them, most ghosts faded back into the void.

Some, like Petra, stayed with a family because their life and death were so intricately tied to a sense of kinship.

Sometimes Istre wondered if he should do more to help them move on, but then he had developed a fairly foolproof way to find out how to deal with a ghost. He asked what they wanted.

+

Except when it came to creatures like the magist who stole the children. People like that didn't get an opinion, living or dead.

+

Wicked's was always a good place to be, even when it was packed with ghosts. Most of them were benign and none of them bothered Istre when he was busy drinking himself to sleep. Wicked herself liked Istre more than was entirely decent, always giving him small extras, the best wines, the freshest foods.

If he didn't know better, he would think Wicked had a crush on him, but the truth was much simpler. Wicked had had a son once, and Istre had helped her with the fact that even though the boy died somewhat suspiciously, there was no ghost. He'd gone peacefully, and by the third ghost tide, his mother had accepted the truth. The boy was content.

Sometimes the denial and grief of the living could keep a ghost bound to the world despite their own desires. Those ghosts Istre did try to help, but mostly that involved talking to the ones left behind.

Nico and Phillip were waiting for him when he trudged into the tavern by first sunset. They seemed to be well into a bottle of wine, two mugs of beer and assorted cold cuts. Istre shook his head and approached the table, wondering when their well-honed instincts would notice him. Truth be told, when they were relaxed like this, sometimes they would get completely lost in each other. Istre had spent quite a few hours just watching them bicker.

“Oh, b'Estorr, you made it.” That was Phillip, suddenly springing up and offering a seat, a drink and a fidgety welcome.

Istre laughed. “Was there ever any doubt?”

Nico grinned. “Never.”

Phillip leaned close and asked quietly and entirely too sober. “Did it work?” He was nervous and Istre wondered if he'd missed a particular date, a birthday or the men's anniversary, but no. For all that this felt like they'd known each other forever, Phillip had not been in Astreiant a year.

“Of course it worked,” Istre said, and handed over the parcel in as unobtrusive a way as possible. He knew Nico was watching and had no illusion that this had gone unnoticed.

Phillip, too, seemed to realize that stealth was pointless. “Ah, well, I asked Istre here for a favor. And don't say anything just yet, I want to explain.” He laid the parcel on the table, opened it carefully and left the tools for Nico to inspect.

“I had these made for you, and don't start on the price. Their value is much more than what I paid, because they will keep you safe and make your work a little bit easier.”

Nico, obviously expected to complain, simply touched the beautiful instruments with his fingertips, almost reverently. The tools were beautiful, but then he stared at Phillip with that same expression of want and wonder.

Istre smiled, listening with half an ear to the men, and half an ear to Lorraine sigh and giggle. He drank his wine and felt, for all that his body and soul were strained to the limit, that he was home.