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The Foldings: Ten Years Earlier

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It made very little sense to Jasper. Inside, the castle was enormous. Outside it had been a shambles, a row of backstreet offices, huddled together in a great dilapidated mishmash of add-ons and repairs. It slumped around the road, its upper stories slanting precariously over the street. Oriel windows jutted out strangely, staircases and walkways appearing and disappearing around crumbling brickwork. Two stumpy little airship ports were just visible a few floors above, wedged in between the once-elegant towers and swooping gables of more aggressive and ambitious architects. 

Inside there was a hum of mediocrity, offices and meeting rooms crammed together at the front, alive with clerks and worried men in too-tight waistcoats. He tripped up narrow stairways and through tight corridors until, after a dark, cramped hallway, his guide lead him without comment into a totally different style of building. The ceilings and walls opened outwards, their footsteps echoed on polished marble, fell hushed by thick carpets in lush colours. Everywhere was warm ornate woodwork, high arching ceilings and dark plush furniture. Jasper tried to suppress his wonder but found his head swivelling to follow a flock of tiny birds as they delivered messages from room to room. A place this large couldn’t possibly all fit in Lunule. Could they be somewhere else? Was that sort of thing possible? 

He watched his guide as he let himself be led. People in the halls would step aside, sometimes even bowing as the youth strode past. He was tall, and wearing the kind of richly embroidered, ankle-length, bole velvet coat that was made for sweeping down this sort of hallway. Jasper couldn’t help admiring him a little. His effortless confidence now was completely at odds with the quiet, slightly awkward young man who’d met him at the door.

He stopped in front of a doorway with no door. Jasper blinked. There were knobs and dials and levers and gears, tubes of various magical ores Jasper could recognise from market trips and some he couldn’t. The heir made a few unceremonious adjustments and waved him forward. Jasper took a half-step closer and put his hand out, feeling the blank wood panelling tentatively, then stroking the wood, finding it solid. “Yeah?” he asked politely.

The young man frowned at him. “Go through.”

“It’s a wall,” Jasper pointed out, knocking it with a knuckle. 

“No, it’s ...you can’t do that.” The man waved a hand through the wall, which clearly wasn’t there anymore, for him.

“Can’t walk through a wall,” Jasper said, still polite.

“But you managed the portal from Lunule without a flicker,” the heir pointed out.

“Maybe I did. But ...you can hear this, can’t you?” He rapped again.

“Yes, but…” He patted cautiously at the wall that wasn’t there, then made a face and turned away. “Nevermind. We’ll simply take the long way.” He waved Jasper on again, and added, “Don’t lag behind me or people will think you’re in trouble.”

“I might be.”

The man studied him, from his dark, spiky hair already sprinkled with grey, to his dusty travel clothes, to his well-worn but equally well-made boots. “Hardly. Consider this a consultation.” They twisted around in a busy hall and headed up a vast staircase, ringed by galleries, stories high. 

Jasper found himself distracted by people stepping through portals more than once; looking as if they were walking out windows or into walls, then simply disappearing all at once as they worked the necessary magic without missing a step. Sometimes there was just a faint light in the air of a doorway to an open room.

The staff didn’t ignore Jasper, but they weren’t cheeky, either. A few of them openly looked him over, including a very tall woman, her dark hair held up in a tight bun on top of her head. She had wooden spikes, intricately carved and as long as knitting needles stuck straight through it. It looked sort of dangerous and Jasper wondered if she ever caught her head on doorways. She'd seemed about to speak when she noticed Jasper, and closed her mouth. 

He scratched his forehead and smiled awkwardly, noticing he was being waved forward by his companion again. The woman nodded curtly and watched them round the corner, an odd expression on her serious face. 

Jasper laughed in surprise as he mentally caught up to the conversation, “I’m sorry, what? The heir summons me from the market himself for a ‘consultation’ - am I an expert on something?”

“Certainly.”

Jasper waited, then snorted again. “Yeah. The biggest magical power in the known realms is consulting me on haggling. Maybe you want your household ledger looked at, too, while I’m here.”

“That’s all you did for the Earl?”

Jasper frowned. “In the basest possible terms, sure. But he doesn’t trust a lot of people. The woman who had the position before me mostly yelled at the servants every Monday morning and wrote things down, because he didn’t trust her with a lot of the decisions. I don’t know a whole lot about the people before her.”

“No, I meant that I’m surprised you didn’t help him in his lab, with his own magic.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Don’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t count the stuff like materials prep. I’m never in there when he actually…” Jasper gestured vaguely. “Does stuff. Sure, I can grind and chop. Soldering, bit of welding, all the basic mechanical stuff. But actual magic?” He made a face and shook his head.

The man glanced at him, drew breath, then stopped and shook his head instead. “Through here,” he said, opening a door at the top of the stairs and waving Jasper ahead of him. 

Jasper remembered to move far enough into the room so that he wasn’t blocking the doorway, but then he had to stop and take it in. It was a magical laboratory, a library, and a sitting room, all in one. Then he saw the mattress tucked under the stairs to the upper level of bookshelves, and mentally added “bedroom” to the list. One wall was interrupted in several places by dormer windows which jutted out, creating cozy alcoves. One had a comfortably worn looking wing chair, a small table beside it holding a stack of books. Another had a sleek wooden chair and table, clearly for working meals. The central window, however, had a small patio outside it, and was surrounded by some kind of intricate machinery, with knobs and levers and dials he couldn’t begin to understand. 

The heir had walked past him toward the far end of the room, removing his extravagant coat and hanging it on a hook before going to a workbench. The walls were covered in shelves, holding jars of powders and syrupy-looking liquids, half-built mechanical devices, boxes of hardware, spools of wire, clay pots, glass vessels in disturbingly organic shapes, and a lot of lumps and chunks of materials Jasper was afraid to guess at. 

“I don’t know if I’m fascinated or frightened,” Jasper said with a nervous laugh.

The heir looked up with a half smile, tidying a stack of papers and parchments to one side. “You will not be forced. If you decide you are frightened, everything stops.”

“Uh...everything - which everything?”

“Anything?” He shrugged, then waved a hand, dismissing it. “No. I just want you to know you’re safe, and… I wondered if you would let me test you.” He folded one arm across his chest as he finished, the other pressing a knuckle against his lips as he waited for Jasper’s reaction.

“Test me on what?” Jasper asked with a nervous laugh, fidgeting with one of the small rocks on the worktop absently.

“We’ve… I’ve never known a null before. I don’t think anyone has. I didn’t - I don’t know if I believe it exists. I think it’s far more likely that you’re simply…resistant. Maybe you haven’t had very good teachers.”

“What, you wanna try to teach me a spell or something?” Jasper considered it. He’d never had the slightest sense of the magic around him. He’d seen other children going through the motions before something would suddenly change, and the fire would light, or the water would boil, or the stone would scratch. People had tried to practice on him - cut his hair, or push him back, or tickle his ear, and even those hadn’t worked. They were making mental connections he couldn’t. It was like an entire sense he didn’t have. He’d got tired of watching everyone else and moved on, and just not bothered anymore. The idea of now having the greatest magician of his generation wanting to teach him, personally, was suddenly terrifying. This would settle the question forever. Either he could learn this, or he could not. If this man couldn’t teach him, no one could.

“If you’re uncomfortable with this…” the heir began.

“No, no, it’s just my teachers...once it wasn’t working, they never really bothered, probably figuring I’d work it out on my own. But it just wasn’t happening, so I got on with things. Other things.”

The heir accepted this with a tilt of his head and raised eyebrows, then backed away a step, toward one of the shelves. “There could be many reasons you never took to it, you know. Poor teaching is just the start.” He pulled out a tray and balanced it against his hip, then began rummaging through the jars and boxes, pulling out small items here and there, his back blocking Jasper’s view of the details.

“They couldn’t be that bad. I learned everything else well enough. Numbers are fine, reading’s good, helped enough other kids with those that I don’t think I missed much. And then there’s everything I’ve picked up since.” He leaned an elbow on the workbench, pulling one of the parchments over and looking at it curiously. “This isn’t artwork, is it?”

The magician glanced back over his shoulder in mid-reach, then shook his head. “No, magical diagram.”

“Thought so. The Earl uses these sometimes. He showed me how they work. I’m pretty good at them.”

“There you go - if you’re good with those, maybe -”

“No, no, I mean, I’m good at the paper part. I could usually find the paths when he couldn’t. He’d written back and forth with people, in letters through the chuffers, and he couldn’t always sort out the way things needed to fit. He couldn’t get the hang of going around rather than across, you know?” Jasper began tracing paths between the dots in the grid, using his fingertip. The parchment was covered in grids, all variations on the same nine colours. “You don’t have these all done?”

“Something to do when I can’t concentrate. Helps me refocus if I can go back to the essentials.”

Jasper snorted. “Yeah, these were pretty hard work for the Earl, so they’d be basics to you, I guess.”

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something simple can’t also be complex.”

“You don’t know the Earl. He likes his magic very...clear. Anything using multiple elements like this…” Jasper waggled his fingers at the parchment. “He’d rather just use a lot of one of them than have to balance the power of five elements at once. And I think the diagrams baffled him, anyway,” he added. He scanned down the page, frowning. “Did you make some of these up?” The style of the grids changed after the first two rows, becoming more complex.

“Some of them. Why, you can tell that?” The heir sounded suddenly intrigued. “Can you still follow those?”

“I think so.” Jasper glanced around for a pencil, and, seeing none, licked his finger and dipped it in the nearest pot of powder before using it like chalk to trace some of the paths linking the pairs of elements. “Yeah. Nice. You’re good with the space. I hated the ones where it was just an exercise in filling the open area with the right trail.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary to let the elements run up a charge, but usually I suspect it’s just laziness, myself.” There was a sigh, and Jasper heard him coming back to the counter with the tray. “May I see?”

Jasper glanced up and nodded. “Sure. I just used powder, it’ll wipe right off if you like.” He licked his finger off. “I like that one. Tastes like peppermint.”

The heir frowned at the parchment, then his manner changed. His head snapped up and he grabbed Jasper’s hand, his face white. “Ocray! You’ve…” He stumbled back from Jasper, then fell to the floor, staring up at him.

Jasper looked around, down at the parchment, his finger. “What? It’s not expensive, it’s just numium, I buy it by the pound!”

“You can’t touch that!” the man gasped, staring from the finger to his face. “You should be dead!”

Jasper wiped his finger on his sleeve. “No, really, it’s fine. Like I said - pepperminty.” He knelt down by the man, trying to reassure him. “I like that one. It’s okay.”

He gasped in a breath, and stared at his sleeve. “Sink. Use the silver bucket on the hook, douse your hand.” Jasper scrambled to do as he was told. The bucket had a milky-white liquid in it that slid off his skin in a sheet rather than droplets as he pulled his hand out. “Now, coat off. Bin over there.”

“Oh, but -”

“Do it!” the man shouted from the floor.

Jasper pulled off his coat, turning it inside out and balling it up before pushing it through the metal flap into a heavy, cast-iron bin. “Do I get it back?”

“Of course not!” 

Jasper turned back to look at him, and he was still sitting on the floor, staring at it as if reading a puzzle. Without warning, he pounded his hands on the floor and growled. “Ixne! You fucking cocking eege of a mutcher.” He raised an angry expression to Jasper. “You should be dead, and it would be my fault.”

Jasper stared at him. “But I’m not dead,” he pointed out, confused.

“That numium was charged! Your hand should have shrivelled when it got close! You can’t touch it, let alone ingest it!”

Jasper shook his head. “Minty,” was all he could say in his defence.

“What just… you are not possible,” the heir insisted. “You cannot touch it, the taste…” He shook his head, unable to find words. “I leave the bowl out because it’s safe enough, no one can touch it, it can’t be spilled… How you even…” He trailed off, shaking his head again.

Jasper waited a moment, at a loss, then said, “Do you want to get up now?”

The man glanced around, suddenly noticing where he was. He held up a hand and Jasper took it, pulling him to his feet, catching him as he staggered. “Whoa, whoa. Hold onto me, let’s get you…” He glanced around, knowing he’d seen chairs earlier but not remembering where. He walked the man over to the closest one, luckily heavy and padded, as the man dropped into it. Jasper crouched beside the arm, pushing his sleeve up and rubbing the thin wrist. “Just breathe for a bit. You’re okay. I’m okay. No one’s hurt.”

The man shook his wrist free and closed his eyes, massaging the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, I’m not angry at you. I’m not.” He drew a breath in through his nose, held it a moment, and blew it out, calming himself before he looked up. “What you just did really should have killed you, if it were even possible. That bowl you dipped your finger into is enough numium to power all the food storage factories in Lunule for a year. Grinding it is task enough, let alone manoeuvring it into containers, as I need to use full protective gear and tongs to pick up the bowl.”

“I ground some up for the Earl a couple of times,” Jasper told him, trying to understand. “He was grateful, sure, but I didn’t think it was anything special.”

“This is one of the higher skills, refining it and charging it. The Earl would have needed to wear protective gauntlets to do the grinding himself, would he not?”

Jasper nodded warily. “Yeah, and he said he never got it very fine, because it’s hard to tell with them things on. So I tried it, and it was no problem, so long as you don’t wear them.”

“And for anyone else, that would still have made them very uncomfortable. No, Jasper, I’m afraid... I would never have believed it. I still find it difficult. What you just survived...that was terrifying, and therefore all the more difficult to refute.”

“Sorry if I’m being dense here, but what difference does it make? Why is this so exciting? So I’m alive, after doing something I’ve done before. I don’t understand.”

“I think you understand,” the heir said slowly, staring hard at him. “You’re just not aware of the wider world. Would you be willing to stay at the castle for a few days? Maybe a week? I’d like to try to understand this. If you are completely null, the ramifications would be fascinating. I’ve never studied the theories because there didn’t seem much point, but I can already think of a thousand things you could do that would make you more valuable than running the household for a mid-ranking magician.”

“That’s because I’ve never run your household,” Jasper said with a wink. “I’m not too bad at it.”

“I know you’re not,” the man assured him. “But being a null would put you on an entirely different footing.” He hesitated, then frowned, deciding not to finish whatever he’d been about to say. “So. Are you willing to come back?”

“Assuming it doesn’t disrupt my workday, sure, I guess I can do that.”

“Tomorrow?”

“What, that’s it?” Jasper asked, surprised.

“Oh!” Micah shook his head, blinking. “I...thought, considering what happened, that you’d...at least like a rest,” he said, his words faltering.

“No, no, I’m fine,” Jasper protested, laughing. “Really, nothing is going to happen. It has no effect on me. I promise.”

Micah frowned and bit his lip, still hesitant. “I’m sorry, I’m just not used to...yes. Yes, of course.” He stood. “Well. Good. It certainly raises interesting questions.”

Jasper stood and followed him back over to the workbench. “Y’know, usually when people say that, it’s a way of not giving an answer.” Micah glanced questioningly at him, sorting through the bottles and jars he’d collected earlier on his tray. “You know,” Jasper went on, waving a hand vaguely. “Politicians. ‘Your report raises interesting questions and we plan to study this further.’ Translates to something like ‘Stop showing off in front of us and go away.’”

Micah grinned and immediately tried to hide it. “I mean, dear me. How irresponsible.” Jasper rolled his eyes. “Your duties take you into the council halls a little too often, do they?”

“Well. Enough so I know what they sound like. And I’ve seen the Earl turn people down a time or two himself.”

“I’d best refrain from commenting or I might say something honest.”

Jasper laughed. “Oh, no. Can’t have that.” Jasper nodded at the tray. “Here, is that tanium?”

Micah looked at him in surprise. “You’ve worked with it?”

Jasper shook his flat hand from side to side - yes and no. “I’ve worked near it. You know how they use it in those rings that are supposed to show what mood you’re in? When I was little, I collected five or ten of them because my friends thought they were broken. They always said I was dead.” He laughed again, a little embarrassed.

Micah smiled, and picked up the jar. “Well. As you’ve no doubt gathered from its use in children’s toys, it is safe to handle, and relatively inert.” He pulled the cork stopper off the top of the glass jar and poured some of the pebbles into his hand, where they began to glow and change from a flat grey to shining magenta. “Do you remember what the colours were meant to symbolise?” Micah asked, tipping his hand to distribute the pebbles more evenly.

“Purple meant you were thinking, blue meant you were calm, I forget green…” He blew out a breath and tipped his head, his eyes wandering as he searched for the memories. “I think yellow was excited, and red meant love? Red always means love.”

Micah smiled. “Were the rings ever accurate?”

“Hard to say. I remember Jemmy got very upset when hers went red during lessons. She got up and ran out. I did see her talking to Ran a lot after that, but we were only about nine.” He shrugged. “But of course they stayed grey when I held ‘em, and I’m clearly not dead.”

Micah nodded at Jasper’s hand. “Would you mind?”

“Sure,” Jasper said, holding his hand out obligingly. The pebbles were slightly warm, and the lights winked out as they settled in his palm. “Rats. I was kinda hoping I wasn’t dead anymore.”

“You know they respond to the slightest wisp of magic, yes?”

Jasper made a face as Micah leaned closer to watch while nothing happened. “Yeah, but it’s a lot less fun when you put it like that.”

Micah glanced up. “Concentrate. Try closing your fist around them.”

Jasper folded his fingers into the palm of his hand. “Concentrate on what?”

“Pick a colour.”

“Green.”

“Don’t just say it - picture it. Imagine the greenest thing you’ve ever seen. And then forget the object and keep the colour. Let it burn in your mind. Close your eyes.”

Jasper felt Micah’s fingers tracing over his, lightly enough that it tickled. “I didn’t think fingers could be ticklish,” he said after a moment.

“Ah. You can open your eyes,” Micah told him.

Jasper did. Micah was holding out the jar for him to dump the pebbles back in. “You sound disappointed,” Jasper commented.

“There wasn’t the faintest hint of anything,” Micah said, shaking his head.

“Doesn’t that mean I’m null?”

“I can’t prove a negative, Jasper. But I’ve never seen anyone so resistant.”

“Have you ever seen anyone who was resistant at all?”

“I’ve seen people who really struggled with learning,” Micah said.

“Evasive. Admit it - you’ve never seen anyone touch numium before with no effect.”

“No, I have not,” Micah admitted. “Nor tanium.”

“What else’ve you got?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Micah said thoughtfully, staring down at the tray. “I intended to start with substances that were far less volatile and sensitive than numium and tanium. There seems little point in trying any of them now,” he added, waving his hand at the tray. “Everything from here becomes a bit more dangerous, and I hadn’t expected to go that far today. I’ve not got many safeguards in place in my lab, you see.”

“But you don’t need them,” Jasper protested. 

“Not just for you,” Micah told him, giving him a long look. “You may be null, you may not, but I can’t fire spell after spell at you without having buffers in place.”

“What do you need for buffers?” Jasper asked.

Micah’s lips thinned as he tried to find the right words. “If there is any magic in you, I have to reach fairly deep to find it, and use more power.” He sighed, his eyes wandering as he searched for better phrasing. “It’s dark, and difficult. It’s… pushing very hard, and using a lot of power, and if I’m off, or if there’s spill-over, or if you suddenly spark to life, it will be…” He made a face, his fingers wiggling absently. “I need something between us and the rest of the castle to absorb any excess power. It’s a bit like water splashing.” He looked back at Jasper. “Does this make any sense?”

Jasper nodded. “Yeah. I mean, sort of. I’ve never felt it, but I think I can imagine it. So what do you use? How do you manage that?”

Micah sighed. “There are some woods that will absorb excess magic. Granite is useful as well.”

“Oh, now, look,” Jasper interrupted, shaking his head. “You can’t be serious. You’re not going to line this room in granite by tomorrow. That’s just silly.”

Micah smiled, looking down. “No. That would be silly. But there are spells I can set in motion that will disperse and ground the energy. I know you believe you’re immune, but… I daren’t put you in danger.”

Jasper shrugged. “Well. Should I do anything to get this ready? Is there anything here I can help with?” he asked, glancing around.

“Not really, no,” Micah said thoughtfully. “I could show you around a bit, if you’re interested?”

Jasper looked at him, tipping his head. “Yeah, I am. ‘Course I am. Make sure you tell me about anything that’ll give you a heart attack, this time. You know. Dangerous poisons, invisible monsters, any of that.” Micah gave him a pained look, and Jasper relented, reaching out to pat his arm. “Not teasing. I’m serious - I have no idea what you might have that’s dangerous that I don’t know about. I really don’t want to scare you again like today.”

Micah turned away quickly. “Yes. Well. So long as you remember not to ingest any random substance you encounter, I think the frequency of my collapses will be greatly reduced.”

Jasper hesitated, seeing that he was clearly trying to distance himself from that most undignified moment. “No, wait.” He set his hand on Micah’s shoulder, then slid it down his arm, drawing Micah’s gaze back to him. “Look, I’m really sorry about that. I shouldn’t’ve done it. I wasn’t going to get hurt, but you could’ve been. I’m not usually that…” He waved a hand and sighed. “I dunno. Clumsy about it.”

“I… I think…” He trailed off, and took a breath, regrouping. “No. You weren’t clumsy,” he said quietly. “I just wasn’t prepared. I’m sorry I frightened you so.”

Jasper laughed weakly. “You were the one who had the fright. I was just a bit stupid.”

“Don’t say that,” Micah said quickly. “No. Not stupid. Here, let me…” He shook his head, and took a step back, turning to face Jasper. “If there is anything you find in here that you do not immediately recognise completely, ask me before you get close. Without doing a complete inventory with you, I cannot hope to name everything that might be dangerous. The obvious ones to avoid would be the boiler,” he pointed to an enormous, squat copper tank above them, “and any of the pipes coming from it. Some of them are scalding-hot and under enormous pressure, and others are quite cool and safe, but which are which changes daily. Probably best to avoid any elaborate glasswork as well - some of it is benign, some of it is corrosive.”

“What’s that?” Jasper asked, pointing to a fat glass blob connected to both the glass network and the copper piping from the boiler. It had a crown and a base that were both metallic, and a glass door on the front which sat open. Inside was a mass of green and grey and brown and orange, all of which appeared to be alive, but none of it familar. The plant-shaped things were grey and brown, with fat, succulent stems and leaves, the rocks green and jagged, and some of the orange seemed to be fungus.

“Some of my raw materials deteriorate rapidly once gathered, so this is where I grow the more delicate specimens.” He moved closer, reaching inside to stroke one of the grey leaves with a finger. “They should all be safe to touch, so long as you are careful not to damage them. Some of them have defense mechanisms that are quite aggressive, triggered by something as simple as bruising a leaf or scratching one of the stones.”

“Must make watering them fun.” Jasper wandered over for a closer look, but kept his hands folded behind him.

“Mm,” Micah agreed. “Hence the connection to the boiler. And even then, best done with the door shut.”

“I’ll bet you’ve never been bored in your entire life,” Jasper said.

Micah laughed. “Very much not true. Vedoucci may not be a political office, but it does involve playing politics, which is rarely of any interest to more than twelve people.”

“Who are the twelve?” Jasper asked, a lopsided smile on his face.

“Varies by the case. Usually the mothers of the opponents and their immediate families. And a banker.”

“There’s always a banker,” Jasper agreed, nodding.

Micah smiled, and looked away abruptly. “Yes. You know where the sink is, and the flash juice.”

“Flash juice?” 

“The silver bucket.”

“Oh. Yeah. What is that stuff?”

“Oh, a combination of things. Some friendly metals, hartwood sap, soap… It’s been charged to absorb a range of the more dangerous substances.”

“Sounds dead useful, so I suppose it’s difficult to make.”

“Not so difficult to make, but difficult to maintain. The trick is in the bucket.”

“I’ll bet there’s a lot of that around here.”

“Hm?”

“Handy shortcuts that no one else can do. You seem to like puzzles.”

Micah shrugged. “I have the knowledge and the opportunity. The Vedouci came to power without a lot of preparation, and he has sought to correct this for me. In return, it is only right that I make use of my relative good fortune to advance the general knowledge.”

Jasper gave him a puzzled smile. “So why do you want to work with me? If there’s one thing I can’t do, it’s advance the general knowledge about magic.”

“But you can,” Micah countered. “You can define the edges. If you are truly null, you can help us explain what magic really is, and isn’t. I never would have thought there was such a difference between the Lunule portal and the other portals in the castle. In hindsight, it makes sense - the Lunule portal is much older, and works on connecting the spaces. The other portals act on the user, shifting him from one place to another. Rather than affecting space in a constant way, they shift objects.”

“And how is this helpful?”

“I don’t know. Possible security implications, transportation technologies, trade routes, military and defense applications…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. No one has ever had much cause to consider it before.”

Jasper raised his eyebrows, but nodded. “Okay. Look, I didn’t tell anyone about why I was coming here, just that I had a meeting with someone at the castle. Was that okay?”

Micah blinked, and shrugged. “That is entirely up to you. I haven’t spoken to anyone about why you’re here. You’ve been seen, of course, but I needn’t explain myself to anyone. I would like the Vedouci to know, but even that is up to you.”

“I get the feeling this is something you want to keep quiet,” Jasper said, keeping his voice neutral.

“I think it best. If you are null, and if we made this known, it is possible that other people would be interested in...obtaining you.”

“Kidnapping?”

“At best. I’ve no idea. I’ve only had a few hours to consider the implications myself, but there are many. I recommend we take things slowly. If you’re still willing to work with me.” He looked down briefly, then straight up into Jasper’s eyes, as if it took an effort.

“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Around the Earl’s schedule, I mean.”

“Excellent. Is tomorrow suitable?”

Jasper blinked, but nodded slowly. “Yeah. It’ll be late in the day, mind.”

“I understand,” Micah said, nodding once in acceptance. “That will give me a bit of time to prepare, as well.”

“Fine,” Jasper said slowly, and scratched his head.

“Something wrong? Are you feeling all right?” Micah asked quickly, reaching for his hand.

Jasper laughed, shaking his hand free. “No, no, I’m fine, really. I was just thinking through my day tomorrow and figuring out how I can…” He trailed off again, glancing at Micah. “No, it’s fine. It’ll be fine.” He pushed himself to his feet. 

Micah followed, raising an eyebrow. “Fine,” he repeated. 

“Nah, sorry, just distracted. I’d better be off,” he added, shrugging.

“I’ll see you out,” Micah said, waving a hand toward the lab’s door.

“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that,” Jasper protested. “I can find my way.”

“Can you, now?” Micah said, surprised. “After just the one visit?”

“Sure,” Jasper said easily, waving his hand dismissively. “One of the reasons I’m always the one sent ahead to get things ready. I never lose my sense of direction. I don’t get lost in a new market, and I always remember where I got things.”

“Really? And you’re sure you’re not magic?”

“Ha ha ha no I’m not,” Jasper said, speaking the words all in one phrase, starting with a fake smile that snapped off at the word “no.” “Seriously, mate, do your worst. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?” He nodded, raised a hand in farewell, and was off.

****

Micah stayed in the lab the rest of the evening, busily writing up notes. When the candle burned down to a stub, then guttered and went out, he waved a hand irritably, conjuring a sphere of softly glowing white light, and kept writing. When he finally stretched and stood up, he glanced around, finally noticing how late it was. He undressed as he crossed to the mattress in the corner, and flung himself down, yawning. There was so much still to think about, and only hours to do it. Then Jasper would be back, and he had to be ready. 

There had to be a clear explanation. How could he be null? But then why had the portal simply not worked? And yet he had come through the link between Lunule and Threeways. Why should the other portals not work? What was different about the Lunule transition?

He sat up after a moment. He had never tried to create one of the old portals. The new ones had seemed so much simpler and easier. But was it the age that made it accessible to Jasper, or the mechanics? 

 ****

 

Jasper dashed up the stairs, but not quickly enough. Never, ever quickly enough.

“So there you are, young master Too-Good.”

“Pipe down, Daisy. It all got done, didn’t it?”

“Sure, first you’re bringin’ strange servants in to help you with your rightful duties, and then you’re dashin’ off out with them and givin’ the young lads the evening off. First night in the big city? How many of them you think will be comin’ home in time to wake up in the mornin’?”

“Ah, sweet feckin’ kittens, keep your hair on,” Jasper sighed, turning back and folding his arms. She was a big woman, handsome enough with her fair skin and dark eyes. He knew she had three children and a devoted husband, and none of them were enough for her to boss around without saving some bossing for him.

“You can keep your kittens and your hair, thank you very much. Where’ve you been all evening?”

“I told you. I had an appointment.”

“How can you be having appointments? We’ve only just got to town! She must be quite a looker if she’s got you running after her already. Or is it a he this time?”

“It was at the castle. Yeah, the Vedouci’s household.” He watched her eyes widen, and almost immediately narrow again in distrust. “No, don’t even start,” he said, holding up his hand. “Mizzle. Just mizzle. This shouting is all fine and good, but the Earl’s coming tomorrow, and if I know him, it’ll be half an hour earlier than we expect, because he never believes anything will be on time. I’ve got everything done I said I would, and then some. You’ll be getting meat and veg orders in the kitchen starting bright and early tomorrow, just like I told you. Now less of your lip, less of your curiosity about who I am or amn’t kissing, and more with the lemon custard and sticky buns.”

“And what am I supposed to be makin’ buns for? All the lads is out!”

Jasper rubbed his face hard with both hands. “Not all of them. You’ve still got Dollop and Mickle.”

“Mickle don’t even count.”

“But he’s clever, and he’s fast. You give him a bun, he’ll run right ‘round Lunule and round up the lads this minute. You’ll have a kitchen full of ‘em. They all know what day tomorrow is, and not a one of ‘em wants to lose a good job for an extra pint tonight. But if you want ‘em back, clogging up the place, instead of a bit of rest and quiet before the busy season, you go ahead and give Mickle a bun.” 

He turned away and trudged up the rest of the stairs. He heard Daisy sniff, and nothing else, so she had gone back to the kitchen. He sat down and put his face in his hands, suddenly unable to lift his foot onto another stair. He’d been climbing stairs all day, he felt. 

 

Moonlight and candlelight guttered alike as Micah’s dressing gown flapped in the the breeze. One handed, he pulled it a little tighter around himself and tried to push his chilled feet from his mind. He stood on stark white flagstones in the eastern hall, his right hand pushed into the wooden doorframe, concentrating on the edges of a space far away. Pulling a corner closer, knitting the edges there, tying it firm...