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The Foldings: Ten Years Earlier

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Jasper felt surprisingly good the morning after the gala. His muscles were a bit sore from the excitement out on the terrace—and some of the dancing later on, which had not used magic—but his head was remarkably clear and un-poundy; apparently he hadn’t drunk as much as he’d thought. He was whistling quietly as he swung down the steps into the kitchen—and he could actually hear himself, he realised belatedly. The kitchen seemed unnaturally large and particularly empty. Daisy sat at the head of the large kitchen table like a queen, inspecting the troops of vegetables laid before her in neat rows. “Ayup. Where is everyone?” He dropped into a chair beside her.

“Cleaning,” Daisy said quietly.

Jasper leaned forward to see what was in the bowl she was stirring. “Uh-oh. You’re mashing potatoes by hand.” All frivolity left his voice. “What’s she done?” He didn’t have to explain who “she” was. Only Śe Penelope had the capacity to upset Daisy this much.

“Some post came first thing. She was quite pleased when I brought it to her with her tea, but then she went in to talk to himself in the lab, and came out like thunder. She says the entire place needs to be done from shingles to coals by midday. And then, just to make sure we all shared her mood, she sent the breakfasts back three times.”

“Three? I mean, I know she’s done that before, but…three times in one day?”

“The first time was because the children weren’t to have any milk—”

“This goes back to the trip here?”

“So she’d have us think. First it was milk, then no sugar, then she decided dry toast was all they should manage, with a bit of water. If those children survive till their dinner, I shall be well surprised.”

Jasper’s face darkened. “I’ll have Mickle smuggle them some fruit and buns. Was she shouting at them or anything worse?”

“Not that I could tell. To be honest, Jasper, I think she’s angry with you.”

He blinked. “Why? What’ve I done?”

Daisy flapped a hand. “Don’t you dignify it with belief. But she was muttering about how we don’t use enough skill, we drag our feet, nothing’s done properly… Does she know you… can’t magic?”

Jasper sat back, frowning and biting his lip. “Not sure. Onfroi treats it like a big secret between us. He takes it very seriously. I always thought it was funny and overprotective, but maybe she’s clocked something and she’s furious we didn’t tell her. You reckon?”

“I wouldn’t tell that woman the sky was up, even on a good day. She’d disapprove of the kind of up. The Earl is a sweet old soul, but after all the work we put into getting them to town and getting the house ready, she shows up unexpected and she’s in a frightful temper ever since… I ain’t got the armour right now to face her.”

The mention of the move and the house preparation stirred Jasper’s uneasy sense of guilt. He hadn’t put much work into getting the house ready—he’d barely set things in motion and then cleared off for Micah’s experiments at the castle. But it had been a huge liberty he’d taken, and it didn’t surprise him that she’d be angry over it. He’d never done anything so irresponsible ever before. The household came first, and before he considered his own wants, he had always made sure there were no other demands on him, and none on the way, either. The more he thought about it, the more he thought Śe Penelope had a right to be angry. It would be hard to tell the Vedouci’s heir that he didn’t have time to be tested or help him just so he could direct a bunch of boys in the rounds of household chores, though. 

To be fair, the boys had done a good job in his absence, and he’d had no fears about leaving them home alone the night of the gala. And Penelope seemed to have accepted that he’d been invited along to the gala, her eyes gleaming at the prospect of having a direct connection to someone in the castle. The trouble this morning seemed to be some new mood, set off by something he hadn’t seen or predicted. 

“Look, Daiz. I’m not just out swanning around meeting people, you know,” he began.

“Oh, don’t go getting all guilty,” she said in a pale imitation of her usual fire. “You’ve done your share and more. I’d not run a house for that woman if she paid me in airships. I don’t understand how you can help the heir when you can’t even spin a bubble, but you’d not leave us to her ire without good reason.”

He hesitated, then leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and folding his arms tightly against his chest. “He wants to figure out why I can’t do magic,” Jasper said quietly.

“To cure you?” she asked, leaning down to catch his eye.

He shrugged, his lower lip rolled between his teeth. Daisy was practically family, and he trusted her as he’d trust his sister, if he’d had one—they certainly fought like siblings. And she relied on him. She had three children and a husband of her own, and wasn’t going to risk losing a good job, and he kept things running smoothly enough that she could have time with her family, which not everyone could manage, especially with the boys the Earl took in.

“It isn’t just that I can’t do magic, Daisy. I can’t be magicked, either. I don’t think that’s a thing you cure.”

She frowned. “Is he teaching you?”

“Nope. He… thinks he can learn from me. A lot, I think. Like what magic is. He doesn’t seem to believe me yet about being immune, but he’s pretty adamant about wanting to work with me.”

“How? How can he learn anything from someone who… can’t?” She shook her head at him, her lips thinning.

He grinned and shook his head. “Oh, what, you’re thinking he’s mocking me? Nah. Listen. The other day he had a bunch of things he could set on fire, right? And some of them were so hot they could melt metal, all by themselves. That was one of the ones I could hold in my bare hand, and felt nothing. And we started wondering if maybe fire isn’t magic, itself, because I can light a fire with a flint, and I can feel heat from some of them, but not all of them.”

She made a face and shook her head at him again. “Of course fire’s magic. It’s not like you can just… scoop it out of a river and stick it on some cokum or a log. It doesn’t fall out of the sky. It doesn’t sprout out of the ground. How else do you explain it?”

“That’s just it. I can’t. But it was clear that he felt heat from all of them, and I didn’t.”

“Your hands are more calloused.”

Jasper tipped his head, then sighed and rubbed his face. “Look. I don’t know. I don’t understand any of it. He thinks it’s important, and it’s his job to learn everything he can about magic. Don’t I have, I don’t know, some kind of duty to help? If he thinks it’s important for magic-learning in the greater scheme, am I even allowed to say no? I mean, I could, it’s not like he’s put any pressure on me. He’s actually been really polite  about the whole thing. He’s been really kind to me. I just feel like, I don’t know, I owe it to the world. You know?”

Daisy set aside her bowl and folded her hands on the table, studying him. “Those are some big-headed thinks you’re thinking, and I won’t admit it twice, but you’re not that big-headed. That’s not how you think. You’re not arrogant enough to imagine such a thing, so he must have meant it. I don’t see how he can learn from you, but maybe he can fix you. Repair whatever’s broken. Teach you.”

“Yeah.” Jasper sighed. “So what are we doing about herself?”

Daisy looked back down at her bowl. “I’ve not decided. Part of me wants to give her dry cold potatoes every meal until she apologises, but we all know that’s not going to happen.”

Jasper nodded, thinking. “But the other part of you thought a big roast, eh?” He nodded at the bowl.

“I’ve got no particular hopes. I thought I’d wait and see what the bloomin’ housemaster had to suggest.”

“This housemaster wants his coffee first, thank you very much,” Jasper said, dropping into his bickering-with-Daisy tone without pausing for breath as he rose to his feet. “And then I’ll hit the market and see if I can’t get you a head start on the family’s meals, and if there isn’t something else I can find to pacify herself, some kind of treat without ‘getting above my station’,” he added, saying the last phrase in a hollow voice with a lot of head-wobbling, coaxing a smirk out of Daisy. “Lunule’s a big city. They’ve got to have some kind of shop with presents for dealing with horrible ladies.”

Daisy tried not to laugh, and failed.

Coffee in hand, Jasper strode to the door that lead to the rest of the house,  stuck his head into the hall, and let out a shrill whistle.  Before he’d made it back to the table, the first of the boys was scrambling in to join him and Daisy. He leaned on the table and waited until they were all there. “Morning, you lot.” 

“Good morning, Śi Jasper,” they answered, voices overlapping and clumping together. 

He parcelled out the day’s tasks according to the boys’ reliability and which ones were learning which magics, and kept the smallest back for a special job. “Mickle, got something different for you. The rest of you, scat.” 

They ran for the back of the kitchen, gathering buckets and mops before all trying to be the first out the door to the servant’s corridors.

Mickle stayed in front of Jasper, a wary expression on his face as the rest pushed each other out. “Yessí?”

“I’m going to do you a list and you’re to go to the market, quick as you can, right? Now, Daisy, let’s think. How does duck sound?”

“I thought you was going to the market yourself,” Daisy interrupted.

“I can do a quick run, and Mickle can get the rest. Might need mine in a hurry, after all,” he added, tipping his head at Daisy and raising an eyebrow. The boys didn’t need to hear them speaking ill of the lady of the house.

She sniffed. “Well, you’re the one as has the impossible task,” she said, never missing a chance to needle him. She knew full well that he had rescued more than a few evenings from Penelope’s temper through judicious use of petty cash and his savings from market haggles, but every time she pretended he’d never managed it before. “Mickle, you take your wagon, and get back quick as you can.”

As Jasper and Daisy went through the pantry and cold room, Mickle’s list went beyond what Jasper himself could remember. 

“Fruit and veg is mainly on the left side of the square,” Jasper told him, “and there’s a sauce shop on the end. Looked pretty busy, so it must be good, then.”

“And don’t you go squashing the veg,” Daisy added quickly. “Keep that off to the side.”

“Yesse.”

Jasper made shooing motions at the boy. “Excellent. Right, Mick, off you pop.”

Mickle stuck out his hand.

“Oh, right.” Jasper looked into his household purse and dug out a few large coins. “There’s…yeah, should be enough.” He handed them over. “And if you get good prices, you can get treats, but enough for the whole lot of you.”

Mickle nodded seriously, and raced out the kitchen door.

“Wagon!” Jasper called after him.

“Got it!” Mickle called back, and Jasper nodded as he heard the clatter of wheels hitting cobbles. Mickle’s wagon was well known to the boys, as he’d had it even before he’d joined the Earl’s household. Jasper himself envied it, which made Mickle laugh. But it was magic, of course. The box of it flattened out when the boy pressed the right way in the right places, and then the weird hinges came into play, folding it up until it fit into his pocket. When he needed it again, he pulled it out, have it a shake, and it unfolded like a tablecloth. Mickle could stretch it longer, widen it, pull the sides higher, and even make the wheels bigger for bumpier terrain on the Earl’s grounds. Jasper had tried to open it himself, but the small block of wood it became when folded was impervious to every kind of shaking he’d tried. He’d accidentally thrown it into a pond in the attempt, which had cost him a trip to the toy shop and two books.

“Now what’s your plan?” Daisy asked, finally setting the bowl of potatoes aside. She’d kept it tucked under her arm, mashing away as they made plans. Jasper had never seen potatoes so smooth. They looked like whipped cream.

“Flowers?”

“Dunno this time. Maybe in every room.”

“Right.” He hefted the purse. “May take a fair bit of persuasion. We can do room colours she wants, too. Has she had opinions yet?”

“Of course. She was complaining that it was too much like home, so guess which colours she wants?”

Jasper nodded, already writing. “Sage blue-green, terra cotta, butter yellow, and apple-blue.”

“Except this time she decided the bathroom needs to be a paler blue. Apparently it’s too small for apple.”

“Feckin’ jumping vesipedes, the woman’s got damage,” Jasper muttered, still scribbling. “Has anyone ever had her checked?”

“Not my place,” Daisy sniffed, and Jasper glanced up at her tone, but there was a twinkle in her eye. “I’ll do the walls if you’ll do the shopping.”

“What if I can coordinate the flowers with the room colours so she gets it all at once…?”

Daisy’s eyes widened and she nodded. “Oo, yes. That’ll be a hefty sum, though. We have enough?”

Jasper grinned. “Have I ever fared badly at a market?”

She tried to frown, but had to shake her head with an answering grin. “Be off with you. The sooner you’re off, the sooner you’re back.”

 

An hour later, he was back in the kitchen with a paper covered in sketches. “I think you’ve finally, actually outdone yourself,” Daisy said.

Jasper looked over her shoulder at the page. “Yeah? I mean, it’s a little over-the-top, but this is Penelope.”

Daisy stared at the paper in silence. “It’s the mock roses that’s going to do it,” she said finally.

“Yeah, I liked that. I debated over putting those in the sitting room.”

“No, you did right. It has to be her bedroom.”

Jasper nodded again despite being behind her. “Yeah. The colour was right, too. Really good luck, there.”

At the market earlier, he’d got a few bouquets sorted out before he’d asked about prices, and then stood there in silence for a moment, staring at the shopkeeper. “For all four of them,” he finally said.

“That’s the price, Śi,” the boy had said, blushing furiously and unable to meet his eyes. “I really can’t go no lower.”

“You… That’s a good price, lad,” he said carefully. “Always wondered why we paid more out in Ryebury.” It wouldn’t do to start cheering, or the price might inexplicably triple the next time.

“But we got a portal, see,” the boy said earnestly. “We can get ’em fresh from just about anywhere, so the prices has come down. And it’s a good season for the mock roses, too. To tell the truth, actually… Um, I shouldn’t… We just…have a lot.”

Jasper knew some merchants considered gossip a basic part of their service, and he knew the “oh but I shouldn’t” technique. Usually, he discouraged it. If you shouldn’t, then don’t. He didn’t think that was this lad’s intent, however. The way he’d blushed at what he’d been about to say even before he stopped himself made Jasper think it was a genuine slip, and the mention of the portals had piqued his curiosity. So he smiled warmly and set his purse on the counter. “Now I’m curious—is it just you, or are all the sellers swamped with them? Promise I can keep a secret.”

The boy blushed even darker, but there was a bit of a grin this time. “Well, the yellow, well, see, Varghin’s got that new purple variety this year, and everyone’s gone mad for it. We got a lot of yellow just coming into prime and the market for it’s… not as big as we’d hoped.”

“Yeah? Maybe we can do some more business, then,” Jasper said, turning to look speculatively back at the shop’s window. A solid fabric of mock rose blossoms hung from a rail near the ceiling, the stems woven together, hidden behind the blossoms. He’d been sure at first that it was magic, somehow: the flowers clinging to each other through willpower alone. It hadn’t even been the main display—it was simply the backdrop to an enormous bouquet arranged in a vase big enough for Jasper to take a bath in. “How much for something like that, then?”

“That spray has many of our more expensive—”

“No, I’m talking about the mock roses. That whole… curtain thing. She likes mock roses, see.”

“Ah, is this for a special lady?”

“She is in her mind,” Jasper said firmly, then realised that wasn’t what the boy had meant. “I’m a housemaster for an earl, and his missus is in need of sweetening. Didn’t enjoy her trip to town, having trouble getting settled—you know.”

“Ah.” The boy seemed relieved—he probably expected this would lead to more business. “Is she a particular fan of any other flowers?”

“Nothing like as much. She likes most, but mock roses are her favourites. Hence my question.”

“Let me get you our list…”

Which was why Jasper was now back in the kitchen, biting his lip as Daisy looked over the choices he’d made. “Turns out that flowers are actually much cheaper here than at home. I guess it’s due to the portals.”

“I’ve been hearing that.” Daisy nodded, handing the paper back to him. “When the first new portals were opened, they had to tax things pretty heavily to keep the markets steady.”

“Yeah, I guess.” It felt strange to be talking about the impact of portals when he knew the person who’d made them. Even without mentioning Micah, he felt like he was bragging about knowing him.

“If it means it’s easier to sweeten that woman up, I’ll send a thank-you letter to the castle myself. What’s it like in there?”

“Well, the nice areas are nicer than anythin’ I’ve seen before. Stained glass and stone and gold and silver… But I only saw those parts last night, really.”

“So… what did you see before?”

“Back areas. Y’know, the cramped and grubby stuff we’re used to.” He gave her a little grin, and she wrinkled her nose at him.

“But I thought… I mean, didn’t you say the heir was talking to you?”

“Oh, yeah, he was. But it was work to him, so we were in his lab, and it’s… his lab’s… I mean, it’s big, and he’s got thousands of things in there I don’t understand. You can’t even see the ceiling for all the pipes and ducts, and there’s a massive boiler up there, bolted to these girders, and half of the pipes are connected to that. I’ve never seen so many glass vessels, and they’re in all kinds of shapes, spirals and bulbs and beakers and boxes, more than I know names for. He’s got shelves about as big as our pantry back home, full of bits of engines and springs and rods and pistons and weird little devices…” 

Daisy was starting to frown, and he stopped himself with an effort. Her husband was an ironmonger, but whenever Jasper and Nisko started talking about tools, Daisy bustled off, muttering about lumpy metal and grease she’d have to clean up. And he’d just been gushing about Micah’s lab as though it were some fairytale utopia for people who liked hammers. 

“But it’s jumbled up,” he went on, trying to balance his enthusiasm. “Like he just flings things about, sets them anywhere. I’m not sure anyone’s been in to clean it in his lifetime, and… well, you know what I’m like about disorganised mess and chaos.” He made vague scratching, clawing motions with his fingers. 

Daisy was intimately aware of his craving for organisation, and deeply appreciated it. She never had to clean out the pantry, put away market orders, pack or unpack when the family travelled, and sometimes had to shoo him away from reorganising the family’s closets. “Really?” she said now, raising an eyebrow. “I’d’ve thought all the labs would be all polished and airy and spacious. Maybe he just didn’t want you to see the proper part. That’s probably for special guests, like them grand academics and alchemists and such.”

“Maybe the Vedouci has a posh lab, but Micah’s is… Oh. I’d… Oh. Shit!” 

Micah.

Somehow, he’d been able to babble on all morning about the Vedouci’s heir and the castle without ever thinking of Micah. The man, the enigma, the contradiction, shy then powerful, casually dressed in the market then stunning in green velvet last night, awkward then the most graceful thing Jasper had ever seen. And last night there had been touching. Of hands. And legs. And… oh, dear.

How had he forgotten? How? Last night was a bit blurry around the edges, but there had been… a lot of touching. Micah’s long, lean, strong legs, and his head and chest on Jasper’s lap, and Micah’s hand. The legs were magnificent, and he knew he should feel more uncomfortable about that, but… had he really kissed Micah’s hand? The palm of his hand? Come to that, Micah had clung to him for a moment, hadn’t he? Oh, bollocks. So much to apologise for all in one night! He’d really outdone himself. But when Jasper had been leaving, Micah had called after him, and his tone had been nothing like offended. He’d looked ready to cry, and he’d sounded a little desperate, definitely sad at the very least. Why would he sound like that if he’d been offended?

“Swallowed your teeth and your tongue?” Daisy asked, one hand on her hip, staring at him. “Forget part of your brain in your other trousers?”

H realised he’d been standing with his hands clenched on the edge of the table, his eyes darting around randomly as he chewed his lip again and had a little panic. “No, no. It’s just… Micah—the heir. I was supposed to get back there today, but I can’t. I can’t! No,” he decided, shaking his head. It might have been cowardice, but he’d go with it. “I’ve got to stick around here today. It’ll just have to be some other day.”

“Glad to hear it. But if they’re expecting you, well…” She bit her lip.

“Nah, he knows what my job is. I made that very clear. Didn’t you say Śe Penelope’d had post? Is that chuffer still ’ere somewhere?”

“Dunno, but I’ve seen more than one go past the windows this morning. I think Śe Onfroi is using them, too.”

“See if there’s one hanging about. I’m gonna write a note.”

 

Sí Micah v –

I’m very sorry, but my household sorely needs me today. I hope to get to the castle tomorrow, or the day after, if that will suit. I’ll let you know if I can’t.

 

Jasper paused for a moment, biting his lip and tapping his chin with the pen. Both Micah and the Vedouci had wanted to speak to him. Should he send the Vedouci a separate note? He should be using better paper, and he hadn’t sharpened his pen lately. 

Then his brain took a step back and reviewed his current situation. Why was he even considering writing to the Vedouci? What kind of joke was life playing on him that had him in town less than a week and refusing an invitation from the mightiest magician alive? Maybe he was a coward, but Micah would be better placed to say no to the Vedouci than he was, if it was necessary. He signed the note to Micah and was folding it when Daisy returned with an open clattership in her hands. “That was quick,” she said as Jasper shoved the note inside. 

“Yeah, that kind of day. Right. Chuck that out the window and let’s get to work.”

Daisy released the noisy little machine into the outside air. It bobbed for a moment, then spun in place until the nose was pointing in the direction of the Vedouci’s castle. It clanked and shook while a small cloud of steam accumulated above it, and finally jerked into motion, skimming forward ahead of a trail of grey smoke. 

Daisy turned away from the window and wiped her hands on her apron. “Right. Next?”

Before Mickle was back from the market, Daisy had re-coloured all the rooms, muttering charms and tapping her finger in strange rhythms on the walls. Dots appeared under her touch, changing colour in response to her tapping. When she stepped away, the dots expanded and the colours spread from there, washing across the walls like ink in water. Jasper had a list of windows that would need resizing in order to match Penelope’s tastes. He’d seen a few menders and builders with shops near the market, and decided he’d leave that task for the next morning. He’d noted a few chairs missing foot stools and some ironwork that would need replacing. “You and Nisko settled in all right?” he asked Daisy over a cup of tea in the kitchen. 

Daisy’s husband had actually arrived in Lunule a week before the rest of them, finding a place for the family not terribly far from the Earl’s, but big enough for his small anvil and metal-working tools. “He’s still looking for a shop as needs ironmongering,” Daisy said. 

“Yeah? But he could take care of this lot, couldn’t he?“ Jasper waved a finger at his short list.

“This? He can do all this tonight over the fireplace.”

“You sure? That’s not going to strain your supplies of anything?” He didn’t even know what magic might be needed to work metal over a living room fire, but it would have to get the fire hotter and protect anything nearby from the extra heat. And that didn’t even cover the anvil and the noise.

“The only extra cost would be the iron, and that’ll come from this household’s accounts.”

“That it will. Actually, tell Nisko to ask around the docks. The portals mean more ships coming through, and those big airships take a lot of work.”

“He doesn’t want to go back to the mines, that’s all.” She traced the grain of the wooden table with her thumbnail. “He’s not a city type, but we found a good teacher who’ll take our babes, so he’s been out every day doing the rounds.”

“I’ll check with Onfroi and see if he needs anything else. I’ll bet he’s already missing that lovely vice Nisko did for him. If he can make a few extras, I may be able to flog ’em for him. I need to get the feel of the market a bit first, but there were at least two jewellers I saw who had some good work but were missing bits of kit.”

“Happen to notice the price of iron?”

“Nope. But I’ll check next I’m there. Ah, and here’s our Mickle.”

The next while was taken up unpacking, sorting, and storing Mickle’s purchases. Hard on his heels were Jasper’s flower deliveries, and while Daisy started in on the meals, Jasper dealt with the flowers, getting them placed in the proper rooms in the proper vases, and got whichever boys were learning water spells to fill the vases. 

“Dom, stop showing off!” Jasper growled at one of the older ones, who was showing the others how fast he could fill a vase, and the water was splashing out onto the fine polished wood of a table, nearly spilling onto an upholstered chair.

“Sorry, Śi,” Dom mumbled, ratcheting back his pressure until the stream from his cupped hands was something more manageable.

“Beg pardon, Śi.” 

“Hm?” Jasper glanced back at the tug on his waistcoat. Mickle was staring up at him.  “Śe Onfroi’s asked for you.”

“He say why?” Jasper asked, already striding back to the door of the sitting room.

“Nup,” Mickle said, putting his feet exactly where Jasper’s had been and folding his arms, watching the older boys.

Jasper turned away to hide his smile. Mickle was the youngest and definitely the smallest, but he didn’t back down from a challenge. If he thought he could supervise the rest, Jasper would let him try.

As he neared the study, the only sound was quiet humming, and Jasper let out a sigh of relief. Penelope might’ve been in there with him, but she couldn’t stand his humming, and would always get Onfroi talking instead. He knocked gently and looked in. “Good day, Śe Onfroi.”

“Mm. Ah yes. Jasper. Just who I was looking for. Going to be busy this afternoon. Need to get this copied… Wait. Now, where’s it gone?”

Jasper moved closer to the table, scanning the mounds of paper that had already accumulated, with a layer of short notes in familiar handwriting on the top: Micah, writing to the Earl? He turned away from them before he was tempted to read. 

“What are we looking for, Śe?” Jasper tucked his hands behind him as the Earl started excavating from a  box of parchments and papers, scattering those across the expanse of his desk as well.

“The one from the… you know, the bottles. The little gold ones for that…thing.”

Jasper tried to think back to what Onfroi had worked on lately. “For Śi Kata?”

“No, the other one.”

“Śe Darfo?”

“No, no, no! The… you know, with the teeth.” The Earl sucked in his lower lip and pushed out his upper teeth with a whiny sort of grunt.

“Ahh, Śe Tintuk.”

“Yes.”

He surveyed the mess the Earl was making. “So… this, this, and that bundle under your right elbow…? No…”

After a bit of shuffling, Jasper had the full collection of pages, and had swept the rest of the papers back into the box. “I’ll reorganise this lot, if you’d like.” He shoved the stack of Micah’s notes back behind the Earl’s pen stand. 

“Mm, yes, very helpful.” Onfroi squinted at the pile of notes, then shook his head and dropped a book on top of them.

“I’ll bring all this back with the copies. Anything else you’d like, Śe?”

The Earl tipped his head at Jasper, studying him for a moment. “Enjoyed the gala last night?”

Jasper smiled. “Yes, Śe, thank you. Very much. And you?”

“Pleasant enough. Too many people, though. See the dustworks?”

“What, was there a way to miss them?” That sounded normal, didn’t it? Not gloating, not bragging…

“A few, certainly, a few, yes. Youngsters in corners, enjoying their own private entertainments. Had the provided entertainment been less spectacular, Nell and I might’ve joined in ourselves.”

“Sure I don’t know what you mean, Śe.”

“Shame, as I think you could do rather well for yourself, in the right corner.”

“I’ll do my best, Śe.”

“Thought maybe you were looking for a corner last night, in fact, when I saw you going off with Casper’s heir.”

Jasper’s face must have flushed awfully red, because the heat from it was making his eyes water. He couldn’t look down for fear of having tears drip down his cheeks. As the alternative was to continue meeting his employer’s eyes, however, he stared up at the ceiling, which also prevented anything that might count as an eye roll, since he’d only moved his eyes up, and not back down. That was absolutely not rude. “Wasn’t like that, Śe.”

“I figured that out when the dustworks began shortly after. I’m fairly sure I understand the theory, there, and his hands must have stayed fairly steady. Young as you are, I don’t think even you could have—”

Yes, Śe, thank you, stopping you right there, Śe—”

“Excuse me, but which of us works for who, hm?” Onfroi looked up at him with an eyebrow lifted and the most triumphant, malicious twinkle in his eye that Jasper had ever seen anywhere near the old man’s face.

“I’m willing to change that right now, Śe, if you finish that sentence.”

“Made my point, and I’ve no desire at all to try to hire a new housemaster in Lunule. Probably get a load of right criminals applying.”

“Good choice, Śe.”

“Bring me that lot back soon as you can. Need it this afternoon.”

“I’ll do my best, Śe.” Jasper turned away, trying desperately to get his brain straightened out again. And he’d better do it before any of the boys saw his red face and decided he was ready for a whole pincushion full of needling.

When Jasper returned to the kitchen, Daisy had tea all ready, the family’s sent upstairs, and was doing something complicated over the stove with far more spoons than she had hands for. 

“Thought you was at the shops,” she said, barely glancing back as he came in. Three of the spoons were moving by themselves, carefully scraping the bottom of each pot to keep things from burning.

“Nup. Onfroi wants some copies. Anyway, what is this, Daiz?” He bent over the pot she was actually stirring with her hand, and sniffed. “Smells utterly gorgeous!”

“It’s an experiment. I’m trying a new nut jam recipe. If it gels, it’ll brighten up dinner, I’ll wager. If not, we’ll have it for our dinner. Plenty enough for us and the lads.”

Jasper patted her back. “You’re a good’un, Daisy. You may be a sharp-tongued she-beast when riled, but I’m glad you’re on my side.”

She sniffed. “I ain’t. You’re on mine.”

He grinned, then shook the box full of paper under his arm. “Going to see if I can get this lot knocked out in time, if Śe Penelope allows.”

 

An hour later, Jasper was sitting at a desk in a small room off the back of the kitchen when there was a knock at the front door. Just the one knock. Not two, not three, or even the more usual five. The bell was ignored. Someone banged on the wood once, and then...waited.

Jasper looked up after a moment, frowning in puzzlement. Most likely, someone had dropped something, or thrown something, maybe. When there was nothing further, he went back to his copying. He’d almost forgotten about it when it came again, and a fair bit louder. He jumped this time, and it was a good thing his writing hand had paused between words or there might have been swearing. Instead, he lifted his head and shouted. “Daisy, door.”

“What?”

“That was the front door.”

Daisy leaned around the arch into his cubby, wiping her hands on her apron. “Somebody dropped summink, that’s all.”

“Sounded like the door to me. Both times,” Jasper said, not arguing, just stating his opinion.

“Well if they want answerin’, they’re gonna have to do better than that,” she said decisively, and disappeared again.

Jasper snorted, but continued copying, his pencil skittering away across the paper. After a moment, the bell went. Again, like the knock, this was not done in the usual way, no quick jingle as the bell pull rattled a stack of metal bells. This was one long, loud clamour. Somehow, the stack of bells was being shaken repeatedly without pause.

“Daisy, door!” Jasper shouted again.

“I’ve got ears!” she called back. “This is your duty, not mine, and he’s broken the bell!”

“I’m copying!” Jasper answered, then added, louder, “and the bell sounds like it’s working to me!” It was still ringing.

“All right, all right, I’m coming…” Daisy muttered, loudly enough that Jasper could hear her over the noise. He rolled his eyes, but kept his hand moving.

He heard the door open, and the bell stopped. After a long quiet moment, Daisy shouted again. “Coooeee, Venerable Housemaster Śi Jasper, delivery for you!”

Jasper’s hand finally stopped while he tried to recall any orders he’d made that hadn’t yet arrived. There were none. He dropped his pencil and rubbed his face with both hands, swinging his hips around the table and hurrying across the kitchen. He saw Daisy watching him with an insolent stare as if his hurrying was somehow inferior. “Some kind of mistake,” Jasper called ahead. “And in future, any deliveries should be…” He trailed off as he reached the foyer.

The hat was first. The dark blue brim was asymmetrical, turned up on one side and down on the other, with a single enormous grey plume curled around the crown. The hat completely hid the wearer’s face, but Jasper’s eyes were perfectly content admiring the sunlight shining off of the indigo velvet coat, the hands just beginning to peel off their tissue-thin leather gloves that were the same dark blue as the hat. There were only a couple of inches of soft grey-and-cream leggings showing below the coat hem and above the tops of the shining dark blue knee-high boots, but Jasper was fairly sure he knew whose face would be under that hat. 

When the person turned and looked at him, however, he simply froze.

Micah

Here. 

The tip of his tongue was dry. It must have been sticking out for a good while, and he’d been holding his breath, too. His heart was pounding, and the night before rushed back to the forefront of his mind. The frustration, the embarrassment, the terror, the thrill, the giddy excitement when Micah had touched his chest. He’d been gorgeous last night in green, but today he was breathtaking in blue. 

“Oh, good. I understand this is Śe Onfroi’s house, is it not?” Micah asked drily, the thin leather hanging in his hands like silk. His pale face was strangely expressionless as he stared at Jasper, removing his hat. 

Jasper blinked at him, then blurted, “You know it is!”

Micah raised an eyebrow, then turned back to Daisy pointedly. “Thank you.”

Jasper’s jaw stayed open as he swivelled wide eyes in her direction. 

“Shall I tell the Earl who’s to see him?” she asked, not in the least cowed.

“Thank you, no,” Micah said firmly, then stared past her at the door to the kitchen, which Jasper had left open. 

Jasper kept his eyes on Micah, feeling Daisy’s glare as she crossed in front of Micah and snipped her way back into the kitchen. Once she was gone, Jasper pointed silently to the door of the front sitting room, and Micah nodded, preceding him.

Jasper shut the door behind them and leaned against it as Micah strolled across to a chair and sat down, looking back at him in silent question.

“What are you doing here?” Jasper demanded in a seething whisper. “I can’t be having visitors, and especially not you! And why did you do that to Daisy?” 

Micah blinked, then tipped his head. “Do what?”

Jasper stared at him. “You were…rude. Rude! Like she didn’t… like she was some…”

Micah raised a hand and leaned forward, his face sharpening again from the blandness he’d kept in place since Jasper had seen him by the door. “I am not a delivery, and do not pretend that ‘venerable Śi Housemaster Jasper’ is a respectful form of address.”

“Well, yes,” he said, enunciating so fiercely that he bared his teeth. “We work together. She teases me, I tease her. We’re…friendly.” He saw the jerk of Micah’s head and raised a single finger at Micah’s face. “No… no. No. Not like that. Just stop it. I work with her! And you don’t get to come make this job harder for me and take up my time here!”

Micah blinked and sat back. “The bulk of my correspondence this morning concerned coming here because of you.”

“I sent you one note!” Jasper wailed.

“Not you,” Micah snapped. “The Earl Onfroi of Ryebury.”

Jasper’s teeth stayed bared for a moment, and he finally snorted, letting out the breath he’d been holding for when he found the right words to lay into Micah. “Fine. Excellent,” he spat, and turned away to open the door. “Come on, then.”

“Where are you going?” Micah asked, belatedly getting to his feet and hurrying to catch up.

“Take you to see the Earl. It’s my job. Remember? Oh, wait, I forget, you’re not really familiar with working.” He leapt up the stairs, hoping Micah wouldn’t be able to keep up, and he was grudgingly impressed when he did.

“While what I do may be something I enjoy more than you seem to enjoy your profession, that does not mean it is not work, and not valuable!”

“Yeah, probably because you’re not at the mercy of anyone else. People can’t just drop in on you and interrupt you in front of—”

Jasper was interrupted, and by something far less welcome than even Micah was at that moment. “Jasper! Jasper? Where are you, you useless man?”

Jasper froze, his eyes wide. “Fuck. Hide!” He spun around, seeing the children’s bedroom door was open, the room empty. He shoved Micah inside, straight into a wardrobe and slammed the door shut. He was back in the corridor and facing the right direction when Penelope came around the corner. 

Smiling would anger her more, so he simply looked concerned. It might actually be something real, after all. “Śe Penelope, I’m sorry, is there something I can do for you?”

She swept towards him, furious and scowling, the thunder in her expression almost audible.

“There is a complete mess in my bedroom! Leaves everywhere, petals…and all the natural light blocked so I need to use a glowsphere even during the day just to cross the room! It’s appalling! Who did this?”

Jasper’s mouth opened and closed silently for a moment. 

This was just plainly and completely unfair. 

He knew she loved yellow mock roses, and now somehow they had become a thing she disliked. He hadn’t thought he would need an immediate contingency plan, not with the extravagance of the flowers throughout the house. It was exactly the kind of thing that usually mollified her—seeing that the household would bend around her whims and reshape itself purely to please her—but today of all days, he’d failed. “I’m sorry, Śe, my mistake. I thought…but I can see I was wrong. Shall I move the display to your sitting room, or would you—”

“You most certainly will not! Dragging that through the house, blocking the light in another room? You will not! This is not acceptable behaviour! I cannot understand what has got into you. Is the city too much for you? Too many distractions? Because I am entirely certain that I could find a replacement who isn’t simple-minded, I promise you. Now get one of the…others, someone with some actual skills suited to maintaining a house of this stature, someone who can dispose of this mess properly, and send them up immediately!” She turned and flounced away down the hall, muttering.

Jasper let his breath out, leaning his head against the wall and closing his eyes. Well, at least it hadn’t been one of the boys who’d taken the brunt of it. And Daisy didn’t need another faceful of insults and scorn. But he was going to have to find some way of soothing this beast, on top of the copying he had yet to finish, the rest of the dishes, cleaning the kitchen, and now Micah and whatever he and the Earl had been conniving about.

The door next to him swung open and he jumped, seeing Micah preparing to step out into the corridor. Jasper grit his teeth and pushed him back into the room, keeping his voice to a seething whisper. “No! You are not going out there to—”

That is what you work for? And you called me rude?” Micah’s face made it plain he was furious on a level to match Penelope, but he followed Jasper’s lead and kept his voice down.

“Just because she’s horrible doesn’t mean everyone else gets to be, too!”

She should not be allowed to in the first place! Why do you stay here?”

“Because it’s my job! A lot of people depend on me! I can’t just leave them to her! She’d throw them out on the street and undo every bit of good the Earl’s done for them!”

Micah drew back, his glare not softening, but he was studying Jasper’s face, looking for something. “Then maybe I should speak to the Earl about this.”

Jasper recoiled, shaking his head frantically. “No, oh no, don’t you dare! You can’t make him choose between his family and his servants and hope that’s going to end well for anyone.”

“Should he not be allowed to know and make an informed decision?”

“I swear I will punch you so hard if you even consider it when you’re in the same room as him,” Jasper said, shaking his finger in Micah’s face. “Don’t do it. Don’t you dare.”

Micah studied him again, then said in a normal voice, “I believe I have an appointment to speak to the Earl.” 

Jasper stared at him, his eyes wide. Micah’s face had simply shut down, and Jasper realised he genuinely had no idea what the man was thinking. When he’d first seen Micah, at the market, he’d thought him younger, sheltered, a bit unsophisticated considering his position. Now Jasper was realising that it may have been a bit of an act, possibly an unconscious physical presentation of the same feelings that led him to cast his don’t-notice-me spell. Micah himself was more canny than Jasper had given him credit for. He could imagine those smoky blue eyes glaring down even Penelope, should he be allowed anywhere near her ever again. Jasper resolved to not let that happen.

He nodded once curtly at Micah, not trusting himself to speak, and led him down to the end of the corridor where the Earl had his study. He knocked briefly, waiting for an answer this time before he opened both doors as grandly as possible, stepping aside to let Micah pass him. “Śi Micah, the Vedouci’s heir, to see you, Śe Onfroi. Would you like any refreshments brought?”

Onfroi got to his feet, breaking into an open-mouth smile at Micah. “Thank you, thank you for coming, Śe Micah. It is such a relief to have you here.”

“I am only too pleased to be invited, Śe Onfroi.”

Jasper blinked, finding himself completely ignored, and began to swing the doors closed. “No, Jasper, you must stay!” Onfroi said abruptly, and Jasper froze.

“Beg pardon, Śe?”

“Come, come in, shut the doors, sit. Come!”

“But forgive me, Śe, I have other duties—”

“I say you don’t and I pay your wage, so do as I say, lad,” Onfroi said, whirling his hand in circles to beckon Jasper over. 

Jasper stepped into the room and turned to close the doors. He would anger either the house’s master or its mistress, it seemed, and while Penelope’s threats frightened him, his first loyalty was to the man who had hired him, and he was more inclined to follow Onfroi’s orders, as it was out of loyalty. The real difficulty would come if Penelope saw him sitting in the presence of both the Vedouci’s heir and her husband. To prevent that, he had to get Micah’s business done and get him out of the house as soon as possible. Arguing would just prolong everything. 

When he turned back to the room, Onfroi was in his chair in front of the fire, and Micah was perched elegantly on the edge of one end of the sofa, carefully folding his hands on his lap before looking up at Jasper almost as though he’d never seen him before. The only seat left, really, was on the other end of the sofa. 

Jasper took a deep breath, strode over, and sat down heavily, slinging one arm along the sofa’s back and the other on the arm next to him, meeting Onfroi’s gaze calmly. 

“Now, Śe Micah,” Onfroi began, shifting forward in his seat. “What would you suggest?”

Micah raised his head slightly. “I have spoken to the Vedouci, and he agrees that it would be wise not to place the matter in his hands. As you clearly understand, there is more to be managed here than a simple matter of academia.”

“So you’ll examine him?” Onfroi asked, tipping his head in Jasper’s direction only barely enough to be seen.

“Excuse me?” Jasper said.

“I had already begun, yes. But any agreement needs to consider Jasper’s wishes,” Micah went on, turning his cool gaze back to Jasper. “We are discussing the question of your…status.” 

The slight pinch of Micah’s face at the word was all Jasper needed to confirm both that the subject was his nullness, and that Micah wouldn’t say anything about Penelope’s treatment of him. And as a bonus, the thinned lips underlined how very much Micah did not approve. 

“Nice of you to invite me along,” Jasper said, not shifting his eyes from Micah’s. “Am I being sold for a good price, at least?”

“No, Jasper—” Onfroi began.

Micah interrupted. “The idea of owning another is absolutely repugnant and you know that,” he said firmly, never lowering his gaze. “I am willing to work with whatever time you can spare for me, for…this. I will agree to any lie necessary to protect you from discovery by anyone who might wish you ill. I will see that your household is in no manner neglected. You will be generously compensated for your time.”

“Oh, now, look—!”

Micah raised a hand. “As I think your assistance last night made clear, you occupy a unique position in the world—in history. Too often this is not appreciated in one’s lifetime, but I am determined that shall not be the case here. Your safety and comfort are paramount, and I am not speaking only of the physical. Your life should be fulfilling to you. I do not seek to disrupt that.”

Jasper stared at him for a moment, hoping that some part of this speech would make sense before he had to say something again. When Micah simply waited with the patience of a mountain, Jasper turned to stare at Onfroi, instead.

“I… I am sorry,” Onfroi finally said, and he was no longer able to meet Jasper’s eyes. “I couldn’t hope to protect you forever.”

“Protect me? From what? What the…” He snapped his jaw shut just short of a rant he certainly could not aim at his employer. “I do not understand what you two are talking about,” he said slowly, glaring between the two of them.

“You are potentially null,” Micah said, the quiet words whipping out at Jasper like a lash and gone as quickly. “You could advance magic an incomprehensible amount. Adding your name specifically to the invitation last night was a great relief to Onfroi, acknowledging as it did that you’d already come to my attention. This morning he confirmed that he sought my help protecting you. Last night you had a glimpse of the dangers in the world, if you had any doubt, and we do not wish you to face them alone. I will pay you quite handsomely to assist in research, and I shall help to hide any hint of your nature by maintaining your position here. I have spoken to the Druhy already about ensuring your household will not be robbed of working hours, and a potential schedule is being drawn up, subject to approval by all parties—excepting Śe Penelope, to avoid any repercussions from that direction.” 

Onfroi opened his mouth, clearly surprised by the final condition, and Jasper was relieved to see Micah lifting his hand, halting any questions or objections coming from the old man. “Are you willing?” Micah finished, watching Jasper. 

“You already asked me this,” Jasper said, folding his arms across his chest. He didn’t want to agree to anything Micah offered, not while he was still angry. “I told you my household comes first!”

“That’s his point,” Onfroi said, peering at Jasper through his spectacles. “You would continue as my housemaster while he conducts his research.  You’d carry on here so no one suspects you might be special.”

“But Śe, I can’t hope to do justice to your household this way. I can’t be running back and forth every day, trying to keep up with everything here while being available for any poking or prodding—you know what this morning was like!”

I know what it must have been like,” Micah interrupted, “and that is further evidence that you need protection. I will offer eight duck an hour for your time, expecting no more than, let us say… seven hours per week.”

Jasper gulped. That would be eight days of his wages at the Earl’s, earned in one hour. And then again the next day. In a week, he’d have more than a month’s wages, and that was just from the Foldings. “That’s hardly fair,” he said, his voice faint. Daisy had an out-of-work husband and three children, and that hourly price would be closer to two and a half weeks, for her. He didn’t even have anyone to support.

“Fine. Ten duck an hour,” Micah said briskly without even a blink.

“Stop!” Jasper got to his feet and went around behind the sofa, where there was room to pace properly. “This is ridiculous, just because I can’t cast or catch a spell, that doesn’t mean you can learn how to do it! I can’t teach you! And Śe Onfroi, you know how difficult things can get, and the lads would have Daisy in the chandelier in two minutes, you know it.”

“Fifteen duck,” Micah said.

“I said stop! That’s not even…you can’t just…”

“Sixteen,” Micah said, leaning back on the sofa. “I will only go up, Jasper. If it assists you in making your decision, I can have Vedouci Casper write to you about the negotiations I managed last year with the Lunule Council, where two of the members left the room in tears.”

“No you won’t, because then you’d have to tell him you were here, and I’ve a good mind to write him anyway and tell him the way you’re throwing his money around!”

“Twenty. He would be disappointed by your cavalier approach to your safety. His sense of humour might lead him to hire bodyguards for you. He wouldn’t lock you up, of course, so long as you didn’t try to separate yourself from them.”

“How did—all right!” Jasper finally snapped, and leaned forward, bracing his hands against the back of the sofa, his head hanging. “Just…stop. Fine. I already said you could test me, so I’m just keeping my word.” It was easier to see it that way. Having to decide afresh, while having buckets of money flung at him to feed his guilt, just wasn’t possible. He didn’t have the strength to face any more decisions. “And Śe Onfroi, I swear I will not let this interfere with my duties.”

“I don’t think that’s actually a concern I would ever take seriously,” Onfroi said slowly, removing his spectacles and polishing them with a handkerchief. “It’s not one I am especially willing to hear in jest. Your dedication has always been appreciated, and has never been in doubt.”

Jasper blushed furiously, suddenly finding his shoes fascinating. He hoped his one short nod was enough to convey that he appreciated the praise, which had never been this fulsome, and that he could not survive any more of it at the moment.

“I believe our business here is concluded,” Micah said briskly, preparing to get to his feet. “Onfroi?”

“Hm? Oh, oh yes. Yes.” The older man rose first and took Micah’s hand in both of his, wrapping the long thin fingers in his thick, meaty palms. “I can’t tell you what a relief this is.”

Micah’s lips twitched to the side in a faint smile and he bowed his head briefly, then turned and strode out of the room.

Jasper’s wide eyes flicked between his employer and his employer’s retreating guest, torn between duties. Onfroi saw, and waved a finger vaguely in the direction of the door, already toddling back to his desk.

Jasper nodded his thanks quickly and hurried out, shutting the door of the study and sprinting after the retreating heir. “Wait!” he called in the loudest whisper he could manage.

Micah turned his head briefly, but didn’t slow.

Jasper caught up to him halfway down the stairs. “What the fuck was that?”

“I will leave it to you as to when you have time to return to the castle,” Micah said, keeping his voice low but without meeting Jasper’s eyes. “I understand your loyalties. I’m sorry for imposing on your day.”

Jasper could only gape as Micah replaced his hat on his head and pulled on his gloves, striding out the front door without another word or look.