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The Foldings: Ten Years Earlier

Chapter Text

Jasper was in the middle of negotiating over spices when he first saw the man. He was oddly ageless, his curly hair unruly in the front but short in the back, and somehow Jasper thought he was unused to it not being combed and controlled. He was dressed expensively, but strangely carelessly as well. His belt hung loose, his shirt neck open. His eyes wandered the goods but ignored most of the people, unless they came close to him. Then the eyes would narrow slightly, and the people would move on and away. He projected a floating island of emptiness. Occasionally he would touch something, but he never bought.

“That’s the heir,” the stall owner said, drawing Jasper’s attention back.

“Oh? Ah. That explains it.” Jasper watched a moment longer, smiling faintly. “Not very friendly then, is he?”

“Depends. The old Vedouci, he’s very good with people. The young sir there, this is him being friendly. Actually comes out in the market once in a while nowadays. Think he’s a bit shy.”

“Is he?” Jasper said, reaching into his coin bag, extending a chunky stack of currency to the man in exchange for a bundle of spices. 

The man took it, blinked at the coins, and a brief frown flickered into a grin. He held two of the coins back out to Jasper. “Here. You’re terrible at haggling.”

Jasper waved the coins off, tucking the spices into his shoulder bag. “It’s fine. Your boy added a few herbs while you gave me some information. We’re even.”

The merchant touched the coins to his forehead in salute. “Welcome to our city, then. I hope the rest of your trading fares well.”

“It always does,” Jasper said, turning away with a smile.

He lost track of the heir, collecting the rest of the supplies on his list. The market was humming; a warm day in early autumn had brought out the crowds - the rich to chat, idle, and catch up at the start of the Lunule season, the rest delighting in good weather and the unusual food. He always liked this part of Lunule. The streets wound in complex patterns, the shops and houses pressing close together, bunching up and then spilling out in wide piazzas and stall-lined streets. Portal ships had docked in Amsbury just last night and everywhere there were crates of bizarre-smelling herbs, sticky foods and unrecognisable creatures. Jasper smiled, watching curious children, shrieking and daring each other to try offworld sweets.

 His bargaining left him enough for a piece of exotic fruit he didn’t recognise, and a tree branch taller than himself. It had some magical properties, to which he’d paid polite attention as they were listed, then pointed out some scratches, the density of the grain, and a strangeness of colour, and arranged a discount. Magic it may be, but to be used to make anything of real power its owner would want it handsome as well. All Jasper wanted was something to carve into a walking staff. It was a bit too large to carry easily, but he slung his bag across his shoulders and rearranged his purchases. The wood balanced well and made a comforting thud striking the ground. He’d need to take care to keep that native balance while slimming it down to fit his grip.

There was a gap in the milling market, and Jasper recognised the movements in the crowd - the parting with no visible cause, no disruption. It had to be the heir. Jasper grinned to himself, lowering his head so no one would think he was laughing at them. He began to work his way across the thoroughfare. He bit into the fruit, knowing the chewing would help hide his expression and walked towards the empty space, swinging his timber.

He stumbled as the balance faltered, as if the branch’s end were stuck to the ground. His foot caught the wood and he slammed onto the cobbled street. He scrabbled, tugging at the stick but something was still holding it fast. With a punch of adrenaline he saw the silhouette of the cart. It was nearly on top of him, the huge creature pushing from its rear oblivious, its cargo of mini-drays rearing up, straining their wings against tight bindings.  He ducked, trying to roll between the wheels as the cart passed over him. With a boom of splintering wood the cart slammed against empty air, crashing into an invisible barrier inches from Jasper’s face. Its sides split, huge planks ripping outwards in a shower of splinters, the leads holding the horses snapped as the force hurled them into the street, some bindings ripping open. Those that could took to the air in a huther of wings as the contents of the cart hurtled forward. Jasper froze, cowering in place as tiny horses poured over him, cascading off the invisible barrier. Hooves went clattering in all directions as the little animals made a bolt for freedom, scattering into the crowd. A ring of shouts and screams spread from there as they stamped passing feet, toppled tables, reared and bucked their way free from every grasp. Two more took to the air, knocking people over with hooves and wings. 

Stallholders began flinging up magical protection barriers, and then everyone was firing spells, the overlap of protections smashing together and shaking the ground. More stalls were toppled, sending wares flying into bystanders. 

Jasper tried to scramble to his feet, grabbing for his satchel and tree branch before they were lost in the scrum. Someone was already standing on the branch, stamping down hard when he tried to lift it.

“Oi, that’s mine,” Jasper protested, then looked up. Things were suddenly quieter. 

The man who was standing on his branch had his hands up, a fierce look of concentration on his face. At first, Jasper thought he might be having some kind of fit, the way his hands were shaking, but no - some kind of spell-casting. Jasper looked around, and everyone was just as startled as he was. Dotted throughout the crowd were the heads of children, lifted into the air, out of harm’s way. They were looking around, waving to each other and giggling as they rose above the heads of their parents and guardians, many of whom seemed to be frozen in place. Jasper saw a few raised fists and furious expressions on those who’d been frozen. Nothing was falling, things that had been thrown upwards were staying in place. It was just for an instant, and then everything slowly began to fall, the children drifted gently onto the street, tables straightened, the yelling died down.  The little horses who’d caused the confusion were returning to the cart meekly, even if it meant fluttering down from neighbouring rooftops. 

Everything was being pushed back where it belonged. And it was pushing - Jasper looked back at the man’s hands, the way he was weaving them through the air, carving invisible shapes. The movements became smaller until it was just his fingers moving, and then he’d relaxed.

There was a bit of applause, and the man blinked, coming back to himself. He glanced around and nodded once, briskly, and the applause died away, everyone going back to their  lives.

Jasper sat back on the street, watching the man, who was still scanning the crowd as if checking for something. “Excuse me, can you get off my branch, now?”

The man looked down at him with just a hint of an eye roll. “Just a moment, if you don’t mind.” He turned away from Jasper, his head tilting suddenly, then he stepped aside, freeing the branch and turning back to Jasper. “Thank you. I’m sorry, let me help you up.”

Jasper took the offered hand, swatting dust off himself as he straightened. “That was fun. What’s the next act like?”

The man laughed, looking surprised by the sound, himself. “I...that wasn’t an act.”

“I guessed not. Somewhere after the cart hit me.”

“It didn’t hit you, though.”

“Didn’t it? Something did.”

“It didn’t. I should know, I was stopping it.”

Jasper finished settling the strap of his satchel across his chest and shifted the tree branch to his other hand. “Oh yeah? You’re a shit driver, then.”

“I wasn’t driving it. I was only shielding you because my attempt to stop you from crossing was unsuccessful.”

“See, now I’m confused. You’re either trying to kill me, or trying to save me. Which is it?”

The man smiled. “Trying to save you, of course. You’re still alive, therefore I think it’s clear I was not trying to kill you.”

Jasper looked him up and down, remembering when he’d noticed him before. “Oh. Yeah, okay. So, well, thanks, Mr. Heir.”

The man blinked, caught off-guard, then tipped his head in a shrug. “My name is Micah, since you already know who I am. And when I say I tried to stop you, I mean I tried to hold you back using magic. It held your piece of wood, there, but not you.”

“Yeah, everyone has an off day, mate.” Jasper turned and moved on.

“After that I tried to impede you,” the man went on, following him, “but you walked straight through, so I had to stop the cart rather suddenly to keep it from barreling straight over you.”

“Bad luck.” Jasper kept going.

“Why did you even buy that branch?”

Jasper stopped and turned back. “No, just...what?”

“Surely it can be of no use to you.”

“It’s a bloody tree branch! I can make it into all kind of things, and just… what?”

“You’re null, aren’t you?”

Jasper glanced around. No one was watching them. “Oh, right, I see. You’re shielding us. Doing that stealth thing.”

“I can stop.”

“I…” Jasper waved a hand, then shrugged. “No, it’s fine.” No one had the slightest bit of interest in them, beyond gracefully avoiding their space.

“I just want to understand. My magic should not have...everything else was normal. Why didn’t it affect you?”

“Is that a crime?”

“Certainly not. It does make you impossible. There is nothing more fascinating than the impossible. Is there anything I could offer you that would entice you to let me study your properties?”

Jasper blinked, turning the words over in his mind, savouring them. “You asking to hire me, rent me, or buy me?”

“How available are you?”

“I’m really not,” Jasper said, turning around and moving off again. “I’m in the Earl of Ryebury’s household. Just got to town, got the whole house to settle in.”

“Whatever he pays you, I’ll double it.”

That stopped Jasper. He rounded on the haughty young man angrily. “For an afternoon? That’s the most I’d be able to spare.”  He pushed himself forward, the insult of being bought combined with fading adrenaline, inspiring an unusual aggression, “And let’s be clear - you’ll be paying me twice my annual salary with the Earl for at most two hours getting poked and prodded by you.”

The man was unfazed. “Does the Earl actually pay you anything? In currency?”

Jasper stared back at him, thrown by the presumption. “Yeah, actually, he does. Besides room and board, there’s respect, prestige, materials, protection, and 25,000 per year.” He gave a wicked little grin. “So you’ll be giving me 50,000, and whatever perks you can possibly add?”

The heir’s eyes narrowed, but he smiled. “Done.”

Jasper rocked back. “No, look, really. I don’t have time to spare. The Earl requires -”

“I believe I can arrange for you to receive some time. You’re preparing the house for his arrival - he hasn’t arrived in town yet, has he? I can send over some men to help in your stead. Enough to give the whole staff the evening off if need be.”

“Well... it’s a possibility,” Jasper said weakly, falling into step at the man’s side. “I’m in charge, so they can’t go instead of me, but with a couple more hands we could get it done in half the time.”

“You are very nearly his right hand,” the heir said, smiling, keeping their pace slow and casual when Jasper would have prepared to hurry back for what would now be a tiring and hectic afternoon instead of the rest he had been looking forward to.

“Look, I understand you’re the heir and all, but I really do have a lot to do. Can you just tell me what you want, and what you’re actually willing to offer to make it worth both my time and the Earl’s, so I can get on with things? You might have the freedom to wander the market looking for interesting people, but I just don’t.”

The man blinked, looking like he’d just been attacked by a duckling. “I’m sorry. Apologies for my rudeness.”

Jasper relented. “It’s okay. Just...tell me what you want.”

“I...what I said. I want to understand why you’re resistant to magic. And even if you don’t agree, I will arrange for you to have assistance setting up the house for the Earl’s arrival. You’re new to the city, and Lunule can be quite dangerous if you don’t know your way about.”

Jasper nodded. “Thanks. I might not need it, but it can’t hurt. And I don’t know what’s involved, or what you’ve got in mind, but I should be able to spare some time later this evening, if that’s not too late for you.”

“I’d be very grateful. I apologise for any offense I’ve given - it wasn’t intended.”

“Yeah, it’s okay. But I’ve got to get going, so… is tonight all right?”

“Yes, yes of course.” The man reached into a pocket inside his jacket and pulled out a black, rectangular card. “Here’s the address. Take a left of Broadsmans Crossing, and it’s on the east side of the Tullie, before you reach the posh end of town. Farek en Innen Ciel.”

“You’re saying the Vedouci isn’t in the posh end of town?”

“Trust me. Whenever you finish work.” The man took a step back. “Thank you again.”

Jasper nodded. “Bye,” he said, waving with the card. The man left. Jasper tapped the card against his lips, then carried on home, thinking.

Chapter Text

 

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...

 

Chapter Text

Jasper was there early. He’d set out the moment the Earl dismissed him that afternoon, catching a ha’grot ride on the back of a carriage for part of the distance, then running after the delivery airship with the castle’s load and getting them to throw him a rope for the last few streets. He knocked on the kitchen door, and Sally, the cook, had blinked at him.

“I’m here to see Micah. He asked me.”

Sally frowned up at him, shaking her head in disbelief. “Then what are you doing down here? It’ll take you ages to get up all the stairs. Try the big door.” She pointed to the door slightly above them, to the right, off the street level.

“No, it’s a job thing, it’s not for, well, government reasons.”

“You’re new here, but I’m not. Just go to that door, and you can thank me later. It’ll save you a lot of wear and tear on your knees.” She smiled kindly, but stepped back and closed the door in his face.

He went back up to the street level, scratching a hand through his hair self-consciously, but pulled on the bell-rope and waited. A big man with a big mustache swung the door open and waited, just looking at him. Jasper had the feeling the man spent all his days standing behind this door, and opening it periodically, randomly, just to see what was happening on the street, without ever letting anyone come through it. He swallowed, and repeated, “I’m here to see Micah. He asked for me.”

“And you are?” the man asked calmly.

“Jasper. I work for the Earl of Ryebury.”

The butler nodded, and stepped back. “Welcome to Farek en Innen Ciel.”

“Yeah, I’ve been,” Jasper said, stepping inside with a bashful smile. “Is there somewhere I should go? Or wait? I’m supposed to work with him in the lab, but there’s no way I’d find that again myself.”

The butler gave a short lip-twitch that might have been the professional version of a smile. “Of course, śeo.”

“I’m not a śeo,” Jasper began.

The butler paused and turned back to him. “Śeo, you are a śeo, śeo. Everyone is a śeo until they have been here twenty years, or are proven to be under five years old. And sometimes even then.”

“What if she’s four?”

More lip movement hidden behind facial hair. “Are you, in fact, four years old?”

“I didn’t say me!”

“No, but your point is well taken. Follow me, little girl.”

Jasper laughed, but the butler didn’t do anything so common. He turned and led Jasper  off through a side door, around a bend, and into a wide, spacious hallway with white stone floors. He stopped beside one of the doorways and produced a key from his pocket. “Through this door, and up all the stairs,” he said, unlocking it and stepping aside. “Then along the corridor to the end. The door will be on your right. Do you have that, little girl?”

Jasper grinned against his will, shaking his head at the man and wagging his finger. “You and me, we’re going to have to get into this, someday. Do I have time to teach you a lesson right now, Happy?”

“It’s Briggs, child. And regrettably, you will need all of your breath for the stairs.” He tipped his head and withdrew. 

“I know where you work!” Jasper called after him, and opened the door. The stairs were wide and wooden, light drifting down from some window two stories up. There were only three stories to go, which seemed restrained, given the scale of the place. It had seemed far longer yesterday, but then he had come in a different door. He tried to fit it into his mental map of the city and gave up. These were different stairs.

Jasper paused on the second landing. There was a wide, comfortable window seat that jutted out from the building into the arms of an enormous oak tree, the huge branches within reach and easily large enough to support him and ten of his friends. The view between its dense branches wasn’t anything he recognised as Lunule—he’d swear he could almost make out a wide patch of blue sky. Looking around quickly, he pressed his face to the bottom of the window to get a better look. Craning awkwardly, he made out a grassy lawn and low buildings and what looked like gardens cascading away down a steep slope. Not Lunule at all, then.

The hallway at the top was long and dark, with several doors on the left side, but only one on the right, at the very end. Jasper opened it and recognised the cramped, winding stairs up to the lab from yesterday. So not only was he not in Lunule, but the stairs moved, too. He couldn’t help feeling mildly impressed; castles housing magical laboratories should move and this one clearly knew what was expected of it.

He tried to knock, but was cut off by the door being wrenched open suddenly. “Come in, come in.” The man was already back at his workstation, waving a welcoming hand over the top of a huge mirror. 

“Uh, it’s Jasper,” he called, hesitating on the threshold.

“Please, would you mind closing the door again? It cuts down on air circulation.”

Jasper moved slowly, looking around at all the mirrors set up haphazardly on stands, leaning against chairs and tables, a few hanging seemingly in mid air and cluttering everything with random light splashes. “Sure you don’t need some air?”

“It throws off the light,” the man answered. Jasper already had a hard time spotting him among all the reflections. He paused to watch in a mirror as the man twisted something together. It was an interesting face, Jasper decided. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, but there was a lively sharpness to him, as if his intelligence had somehow shaped his long nose, the set of his mouth, or the dark blue of his eyes. He couldn’t help liking him, the way he switched from curiously enthusiastic to formal, even slightly awkward. It wasn’t at all what he’d expected from the heir.  

“Shall I just wait back here?”

“Wherever you like...” The voice trailed off. There was a flash and a pop. “Ocray. Orange again. No, it’s fine, join me.”

Jasper moved forward carefully, lifting his arms out of the way, then wrapping them around his head as he bumped a hanging mirror. “Feck. Is there a safe path?”

“Feel free to break them. It’s what I usually do.”

Jasper laughed. “Are you serious?”

“It’s the fastest way to get another mirror.” Two hands gripped the edges of the nearest floor-standing mirror and turned it aside, revealing his host. “And you must call me Micah.”

“Micah. Got it.” Jasper stepped past and found a small work area set up on one corner of the workbench. There were notes and papers and an ink pot, but Micah was holding the pen in his hand, tapping it against his palm, staring at the papers. His hair was mussed, the neck of his shirt open, no jacket, but his waistcoat was still buttoned. “What are you working on?”

“Tuning.” Micah frowned, took a breath, then shook his head and made a note. “No, it’s gone.”

“Sorry, did I interrupt your train of thought?”

“No, no. The light’s gone. I’ve been trying to focus on one particular location, and getting it at just the right time of day to be sure I’m seeing the right place.” He glanced up as though listening to what he’d just said. “I don’t think I can explain that any better, I’m afraid.”

“Scrying, no, I get it.”

Micah smiled, pleased. “Forgive me if I make assumptions, at times. I can’t quite understand how much you know, and how much you don’t. You won’t have experienced things, and the Earl seems to have taught you some things and left out others.”

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Jasper waved a hand. “I never know what’s going to make sense either. How many targets do you have here?”

“Targets?” Micah repeated, blinking in surprise.

“Yeah, your… locations.” Jasper waved a finger around at the mirrors. “Are these all looking at different places?”

Micah shook his head. “No, I was… how would that even work?” He shook his head again.

“So why do you have so many?”

“I was trying to focus on one particular area, and each of them is showing one fraction of the image.”

Jasper hopped up onto a brass stool and settled down with his chin in his hand. “But then you’re trying to balance power to all of them, and still control the focus. That’s...how do you not go mad?”

“That is what makes it difficult, yes,” Micah said slowly, still off balance.

“What happens if you just use one mirror, and...I dunno, try to tie it to the location? Use wood from the area for the frame, or something?”

“The frame isn’t a part of the glass. The tie isn’t binding enough.”

Jasper stared up at him with wide brown eyes. “Well, that’s the kind of shit advice you get when you ask someone who can’t do magic.” 

“I didn’t ask your advice,” Micah shot back, mirroring Jasper’s expression.

“Maybe you should, because you’re clearly crap at it yourself.”

Micah’s mouth opened, then he bit his lip and blinked slowly. “You are a cly and a scran. Who let you in here?”

“I forget his name. I called him ‘Happy.’”

Micah spluttered and finally laughed. “To his face?”

Jasper leaned back on his stool, grinning. “Yeah, but he started it by calling me a little girl.”

“That has to be a lie.”

Jasper shrugged. “He might try denying it, but it’s true.”

Micah leaned back against the workbench, folding his arms across his chest. “Does the Earl do much scrying?”

“Nah. He could just about manage to shout at me that I was bringing the wrong book. See down the hall, around the corner, two rooms over. Why, what are you trying? The end of next week?” he guessed with a cheeky grin.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I was trying for Pigu.”

Jasper leaned forward again, raising his eyebrows. “That’s oceans away.”

“Hence the large number of mirrors.”

“Huh.” Jasper nodded, staring around at them again. “So.” He raised his chin. “How do you want to test me?”

Micah took a deep breath and looked around them as if seeking the source of the mental shift Jasper had just made. “I think before I do any testing at all, I need to go over some safety precautions— as much for my sake, after yesterday,” he added. 

Jasper shrugged. “Yeah, sorry about that. But a lot of this stuff really is going to have no effect on me. I do a lot of materials prep for the Earl.”

“Numium, caribdinium, carum rods— you’ve worked with all of those before?”

“Well, yeah.”

“You have to promise me that you will please not eat anything again.”

Jasper glanced around uncertainly. “Um, I’ll get hungry.”

Micah sighed. “It’s a bit late to pretend to be that stupid. Don’t lick anything, don’t taste it, don’t drink it.”

“Hold on,” Jasper said, raising a hand. “If you say I can’t touch anything, we might as well quit now.”

Micah tried to hide a smile and beckoned Jasper with a tip of his head, leading him to stairs sunken into the wooden floor, a semicircle of stone steps ending in a heavy-looking door. “The main lab is through here.” He turned and frowned, as if suddenly noticing the excess of mirrors. He closed his eyes a moment, and all the mirrors on the desk lifted and stacked themselves on the top of one of the bookshelves. Jasper gulped, unable to keep from wondering what would happen if they fell. He ducked through the low doorway and paused at the top step. 

The place must’ve been enormous, but the clutter of huge equipment meant it was impossible to make out the shape of the room. It was warm and dim, the darkness slowly giving way as Micah lit the lamps in little bursts of magic. With a wave of his arm he threw open the shutters on windows set high up in one wall and bathed the room in long slants light. It seemed to be snowing outside. 

Jasper moved forward, taking everything in. It was strangely cosy, long low tables crisscrossing every space not taken up by walls of equipment and densely packed shelves. He wanted to pick his way through the maze, examine the dismantled devices surrounded by tiny tools laid out neatly on workbenches, the experiments that dripped and hummed and glowed. His eyes traced a huge pipe up to the copper boiler that burped and gurgled near the ceiling. The place was alive with smells and warm living sounds. He could even see some kind of greenhouse tucked around a distant corner, partially obscured by racks of safety equipment.

The Earl would’ve had palpitations at the possibilities.

Micah was watching him apprehensively. 

“Its...um.” He waved his hands at the sheer slopes of questions he couldn’t form. 

Micah smiled nervously, then turned and began unpacking things from various shelves and cupboards onto the nearest work surface, talking as he worked.

“This is one of the most comprehensive labs in the castle. It should rightfully be the Vedouci’s, but Sé Casper has his own offices and allows me the run of this one. It’s amazing.” Micah gestured at the enormous bookshelves just visible around a corner. “It contains the archived journals and notes of all the past Vedoucis and a good deal of unique equipment. It’s also the only lab that’s actually in its own separate location, reinforced with binding charms to make it the safest place in the world to test experimental magics.”

Jasper was feeling more bemused every moment. “I—er... I’m not familiar with a lot of this…”

Micah hesitated, then said, “These are gloves.” He pointed. “Also an apron—”

“Aww, no!”

Micah stifled a smile and lifted the bundle he’d pointed at. “Note the lack of pink, or frills, or ribbons.”

Jasper grinned, reaching out to feel the heavy leather. There were a lot of buckles and pockets and sections. It looked complicated. “I could butcher a flying whale in that.”

“Don’t,” Micah suggested. “There’s also a neck piece.”

“Why not just use armour?”

“Metal is no protection against heat, or many kinds of magic. But sometimes, yes, I do use armour.”

“Rrr-right,” Jasper said slowly. “How likely is it I’m going to need to know that for these tests?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Micah told him. “There are more protections in this lab than I could explain in an afternoon. It’s possible that none of them will have the slightest effect on you, but in that case, neither will any of the magic they’re meant to protect you from. There are spells embedded in the walls to reinforce them and keep the magic inside. Speaking of which, with your permission, I’ll extend a barrier across the door. It will keep anyone from coming in while we work, and possibly walking in on something dangerous. It will also, of course, mean neither of us can leave until I release it.”

Jasper blinked, desperately trying to process all this. “So I’ll be locked in with you, pretty much.”

“More or less. And I will be locked in with you. I apologise, but it is the only way to keep everyone safe.”

Jasper made a face and shrugged. “Yeah, go on. I’m okay.”

“I think just standing you in front of the balcony in the other room and letting any excess energy fall out to a desert should be enough.”

Jasper frowned, glancing up at the high windows in the lab. “You mean mountains?”

Micah tipped his head, narrowing his eyes with a faint smile. “The windows in the other room are all portals. Tunable.”

“Get out.”

“Why have just one view? And yes, one of the things I’d like to test someday is whether or not you can pass through one.”

“Bet I can’t.”

Micah shrugged. “We shan’t try today. And if you’re not able to, that will be very interesting, because you did pass through at least two portals to get here today.”

Jasper pushed his hands into his pockets. “What happens if...if I can’t go through? It won’t...will I just bounce off?” 

“As I said—not today. Not until I know far more about you.”

“Okay.” Jasper nodded. “So. Let’s see what I can recognise. You’ve got a burn-box for scraps and contamination, yeah?” He nodded at the iron bin that might still hold his old coat. 

“Precisely. And you’ve met the flash bucket.” Micah stared around them, taking a deep breath. “I think that’s pretty much everything.”

“Is there something...I dunno, I mean, say we get going on this, and you’re pushing hard. Is there anything to let me know how hard you’re pushing?”

Micah frowned, folding his arms. “If I were pushing, you’d know.”

Jasper shook his head, eyes wide. “Null, remember?”

Micah sighed. “You genuinely cannot understand how difficult it is for me to remember to believe this,” he admitted. “But, well…” He looked around, then nodded at a large metal ring set in the wall above the door. “That ring is solid tanium. It’s primarily for me, to regulate energy input. I haven’t had cause to pay much attention to it for years, now.”

“So what should I look for?”

“The brighter the colour is, and the more area covered by it, the more intense the magic.”

“Should I cut you off at some point? Stop you before you’re exhausted?”

“Well, if it pings off the wall, that would be a good point,” Micah said brightly.  

Jasper snorted, eyeing the ring. He was fairly certain his shoulders could pass through it without touching the sides. “More of a clang, I think.”

“I wouldn’t know. It’s never happened.”

Jasper spread his hands defensively. “I’m not making a joke, honestly. Only yesterday you were the one who went sideways, that’s all.”

“True.” Micah nodded, then looked up at him sharply. “Ah, yes. Speaking of that.” He rummaged along the workbench before coming up with a sprig of yellow flowers on a long stalk. The leaves were fleshy, barely wilted. “Look at this. See?” He held it upright, showing how much moisture was left in the stem. “And the leaves?” He pinched one, digging in with a nail, pointing at the drop of sap that welled out. “Now, hand me those tongs.” 

He pointed, and Jasper passed over the tongs that looked like they’d been snitched from a hearth somewhere well below stairs. Possibly in the kitchen, or maybe a forge. “Are you going to be able to... ah. Hah.” Jasper watched as he pulled on a pair of padded leather gauntlets that reduced his hands to two fingers and a thumb each. 

“I should be wearing eye protection as well, but so long as you never tell anyone...”

“Won’t say a word,” Jasper assured him. 

Micah picked up the tongs, and used them to pick up the flowers. “This is the same numium you touched yesterday,” he said, concentrating on keeping the flowers steady and pushing them gradually over the little pot. The edges of the blooms browned, then crinkled. Jasper could hear the crackling as the branch shrivelled as if it were held over a furnace.

“Um, okay,” Jasper said, setting his hands against the edge of the table. “That’s the same pot, you say.”

“It is.” Micah pulled the tongs back and dropped the dried stem onto the counter, set the tongs aside, and pulled off the gauntlets. “It didn’t have to touch anything, please note.”

“Yeah, I’m gettin’ that,” Jasper assured him. “And you let me just…”  

“I did not,” Micah interrupted, raising a finger. “I had no idea, and please, don’t say it. Never in my life have I been around someone as devoid of magical understanding, and I was caught off my guard.”

Jasper nodded slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, I suppose not. But I’ve never seen numium do that before. What’s different?”

“It’s been refined. You’ve probably only dealt with it in the raw state, as it comes out of the earth. It takes a fair bit of work to refine it to a pure state.” 

“So why doesn’t it affect me?”

“The very question I’m struggling with as well, and the answer, it seems, is that you’re null.”

“But that’s just me. I can’t do magic. But that powder doesn’t...it’s not like it has eyes and can see what’s coming at it.”

“That’s like saying the ocean doesn’t know what you dunk in it, and wondering why it gets wet.”

Jasper frowned. “Okay. Look, can I just…” He trailed off, reaching a tentative finger toward the bowl. 

Micah’s lips thinned and he glared at the encroaching hand, but Jasper’s eyes were on the pot. “I suppose that’s understandable,” Micah said, and brought his arms up as if preparing to ward off a punch.

Jasper moved his hand slowly toward the bowl, then hesitated and took a deep breath before edging the tip of a finger over it. Nothing happened. He licked his lips, and lowered his finger to the powder, finally touching it, then pushing his finger far enough in to leave a divot. He relaxed, and brought the finger to his face, a thin coating of yellowish-grey dust clinging to the tip. Micah started to reach out to stop him, but Jasper glanced at him in warning and he paused. Jasper brought his finger just below his nose and sniffed cautiously. “Yeah. Yep, stronger smell than I’m used to, but, well, there we go.” He held his finger up toward Micah, showing him the powder. “Just knowing what should happen isn’t enough to make it happen.”

Micah shook his head slowly, his arms still raised. “Seeing you do that… that’s just offensive. An offence against nature. Disturbing.”

Jasper shot him a lopsided grin, then gestured toward the sink. “I assume you want me to flash this?” 

“Please.”

Jasper ducked his finger into the milky liquid again, then looked back, finding Micah standing beside him in the same wary, defensive pose. “It’s clean now. Look.” He held it up. “You’re safe from the scary man and his magic finger.”

Micah snorted, shaking his head, but finally relaxing. “It is serious, you know.   Even if it has no effect on you, if you should forget to clean it off and touch something that I then touch…”

Jasper shuddered. “No, believe me, that twig wilting is an image that’ll fuel my nightmares for years to come. I’m never going to feel the same way about numium ever again. I can’t believe the Earl lets me wander around the way he does.”

Micah shook his head and shrugged. “Access to this grade of numium is fairly limited. Even I can pick up a lump of the raw ore with only a vague buzz. This pot is actually years of work.”

“Why do you have it right out there like that?” Jasper asked.

“As I said, no one is going to touch it. Every day, I try to add a little more to it. It’s become part of my daily routine in the lab, something I work on while thinking about something else.”

“Like the diagrams?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“You don’t relax much, do you?” Jasper said, shaking his head slowly.

Micah blinked, and thought for a moment. “I wouldn’t say that. More that I prefer to have something to show for my time.”

“Sorry. Yeah, sorry,” Jasper said, suddenly self-conscious. “That was a little… none of my business, really.”

“No, it’s fine,” Micah said, clearly puzzled.

“Right. So.” Jasper rubbed his hands together, casting around for a change of subject. “Next test. Let’s try something. You must have a list in mind for me, right?”

“I… yes, of course.” Micah turned his attention back to the work table, and moved some papers aside. “Yes, here.” He pulled several pages out of a pile and ran his finger down a list—neatly spaced out with room for notes, Jasper saw. Micah glanced up at him. “Perhaps something a little less risky. Would you mind just standing there for a minute?”

Jasper shrugged easily, swinging his arms, then pushing them into his pockets. “Off you go.”

Micah studied him for a moment, then tilted his head and his expression changed as though he were speaking but without moving his mouth. Then he sighed, lowered his head, and stared at Jasper very intently.

Jasper kept his eyes on him, but it seemed a little strange. Clearly magic was going on, but he didn’t feel anything, other than uncomfortable for maintaining eye contact in silence for so long. He tried to guess at what should be happening, but really had no ideas. A movement behind Micah drew his eye, and he glanced up at the tanium ring, which was blossoming from grey to blue to violet, the colour creeping from the bottom of the ring halfway up the sides, until finally Micah sighed and relaxed again. “Obviously you felt none of that.”

Jasper blinked and looked back at him. “I guess not.”

“Not even a tickle.”

“Nope. Were you trying really hard?”

Micah laughed in disbelief. “Relatively, yes. If I’d gone all-out, we might have had complaints from people elsewhere in the castle. Still, it was a solid amount of power.” He made a note on his list.

“Tired?”

Micah shook his head. “No, but very curious. May I see your hands?”

Jasper held them out. The man studied them for a moment without touching before reaching up, pausing, looking at Jasper and saying, “May I?”

“Yeah, go ahead.” Jasper pushed his hand into Micah’s grasp. For someone so self assured, he seemed to need a lot of encouraging.

“Oh. Thank you.” He stroked his palms, then turned them over and looked at the backs. “I’m going to try again, but touching usually makes things easier, and more powerful. Please let me know if you’re uncomfortable in any way.”

“Carry on,” Jasper told him. Again, Micah stared at him, his expression becoming more fierce. He looked down at Jasper’s hands, then dropped his left and concentrated on the right. After another moment, he let out a breath and shook his head.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t quite believe it. You really do feel nothing.”

“Nope. Just out of curiosity, what kind of things am I missing out on?”

“In general?”

“No, now, specifically. What were you trying to do?”

“I started out trying to feel your mind. I can’t read it, but I should be able to get a sense of it. But it’s like you’re just...not there. You’re not insane, you’re not deficient, you’re not protected or blocked. You’re not a homunculus or a spell in human form.  You’re not even an absence. You’re definitely human. You’re alive, but you’re just...not there. ”

“Null,” Jasper said. “Yeah.”

“You say it so easily,” Micah sighed, scratching his head. “Until that cart in the market, I never would have believed nulls actually existed. You’re a fairy tale. At best, a theory used to understand things. But nulls don’t actually...happen.”

“I’ve never studied it, right? But I have had a lot of people try to teach me magic over the years, and it just...nothing. I get by with people assuming they did their spells wrong around me, or forgot something, or they got some defective materials. The Earl was the first who seemed to clock that something else might explain it, and he taught me what null was, and that I probably shouldn’t go waving this around.”

“And he was very right,” Micah put in.

“I guess.” Jasper hesitated, studying Micah. “So why am I safe telling you?”

Micah frowned. “I’ve not even told the Vedouci yet. I won’t, if you don’t want me to. I don’t want to treat you like a bit of scratch paper or scrap material that I can test things on. But just now, I was trying to sense any sign of the numium on you or in you, to see if there was any hint of damage. Anything at all. All I can tell you is that your skin looks and feels fine.”

“What, you can tell what I ate?” Jasper spread his hands across his belly protectively.

“I can’t,” Micah said, smiling a little. “And I should be able to find that numium, feel it inside you. But you… just… aren’t there. You are, but you aren’t.” He shook his head. “Has anyone ever managed to sense you?”

“I dunno,” Jasper shrugged, wide-eyed. “How would I be able to tell?”

“None of your teachers, not the Earl…?” More head shaking. “Is the Earl the most powerful person you’ve known?”

“Well, besides you, yeah.”

“And your parents, what were they like?”

“Lovely. You mean were they null? No. They have a little farm, both of them right out there every day, working the field and tending the goats. Dad does a bit of metalworking, imbuing and that. Mum’s helped out the local healer for, oh, ages.”

“She’s a healer? Has she ever worked on you?”

“Well, I’ve never really been sick,” Jasper admitted. “Just runny noses and that.”

“No fevers?”

“Nothing I can remember. Oh, but I broke my arm once,” he added suddenly. “Yeah, I think I had a bit of a fever then. And Mum was upset because she couldn’t mend it. Took ages to heal.”

“Weeks?” Micah guessed, his brow furrowed.

“Months. I couldn’t help with the planting much, and was just starting to use it normally again around harvest.”

Micah sucked in his breath, wincing. “I can’t even imagine that. Which arm?”

“Left,” he said, swinging it out and looking down at it. “If it isn’t good as new, now, I can’t tell you what’s missing.”

Micah ran his fingers lightly from Jasper’s shoulder to his wrist, then frowned and shook his head again. “Do you mind if I press harder? I can’t get any sense of where it was broken, even, and I really should be able to.”

“Go ahead. It never hurts anymore. I mean, not from the break.” He let Micah prod it, pushing his fingers in, moving flesh aside and working his way along the bone. Jasper found himself wishing he’d worn a better shirt, noticing every wrinkle and pulled thread in the sleeve Micah was touching. 

Micah paused halfway between elbow and wrist, and tipped his head, rubbing in circles. “Here?” he asked, his eyes flicking back to Jasper’s.

“Yeah, actually, right in there.”

“Both bones?”

“I...dunno. Yeah, I guess.” He nodded.

“You’re not sure?”

“Nah, just forgot there were two bones in there, that’s all. It must have been both though, because...well, yeah.”

“Because…?” Micah prompted.

Jasper made a face. “Most people don’t want to hear the details.”

“How bad was it? I won’t faint. I’ve studied a bit of anatomy.”

“Yeah? Well, my arm… bent where it shouldn’t bend, you know?”

Micah flinched. “Ah. Yes. That must have been tremendously painful.”

“It definitely hurt,” Jasper said, half-laughing. “I can tell you one important thing I learned—never get between two billy goats during rutting season.”

Micah turned away at that. “I don’t think I want to know any more.”

“Nothing else to tell, really. Anyway, ’s fine now.”

Micah made an effort to shake the images off, and wrote something else on the paper. “What do we have next? Ahmm…” He turned the page over. “I’ve already ruled out a lot of these tests,” he noted. “You feel nothing when I push you. I never really believed that I wouldn’t be able to read you at all.” 

“I’m a very complex person,” Jasper said solemnly. 

Micah looked up, saw his serious face, and laughed. “Actually, sort of, yes. You are so simple that it’s fascinating. You are simply...nothing.”

“Y’know, you’re gonna have to work on your phrasing. I might start taking offence.”

A shadow of alarm flickered across Micah’s face, but this time, he didn’t laugh. “I apologise. I don’t mean anything of the sort. This… you… I don’t even know the words, really. There may actually be none. Forgive me if I am a bit ineloquent.”

“I can see I’ve got you pretty rattled, yeah,” Jasper admitted.

“I do beg your pardon.”

“I, um, yeah. It’s okay. Forgiven.” Jasper shifted his weight awkwardly.

Micah looked back at his list. “Next, I’d like to see how you interact with magic. How it works near you, if it doesn’t work on you.”

“Okay… what do you have in mind?”

Micah took a deep breath, scanning the table. “Ah, here. This tray.” Jasper helped him clear off the supplies from it, and Micah set it on the floor. “Stand on it, please.”

Jasper wrinkled his nose, but complied. 

“Now, watch your balance—I’m going to try to lift it with you on it.”

Jasper’s eyebrows went up. “Whoof. How strong are you?”

“With magic,” Micah told him pointedly.

“Yeah, still sounds unlikely. Sorry, it’s just…” Jasper froze, then grabbed at the edge of the table as the tray lifted.

“I...strange. I can sense your weight,” Micah said, concentrating on the tray, which was now about a foot off the floor. “It takes effort, but I can’t do anything directly to you. It’s as if this is just...a very heavy tray.” He moved his head to one side, as if shaking it, but then stopped, still concentrating. The tray sank smoothly back to the floor, and Jasper looked down, releasing his grip. 

“That was...extremely weird.”

Micah’s face twisted into a strange, pleased smile. “New experience?”

“You could say that, yeah. The people I’ve known with that kind of power…” He shook his head, stepping carefully off the tray. “They tend not to take any notice of me,” he finished awkwardly.

“I believe I might disprove that idea, mightn’t I?”

Jasper snorted, welcoming the change of mood. “Nah. You clearly escaped from a circus.”

Micah smiled and looked down briefly. “If you’re of a mind to find out the worst, would you be willing to try some fire tests?”

“I don’t know what that means, but I’m pretty much up for anything.”

Micah nodded, and beckoned him further into the lab. “I’ve set up as many kinds of flames as I can reasonably gather,” he said, pointing at a table covered with lamps, candles, rocks, jars, and twigs.

Jasper looked it over warily. “What, is it invisible?” he asked.

Micah snorted and waved his hand. Everything on the table burst into life, the flames every colour from white to red to blue to black. Jasper gulped and stepped back quickly, already feeling the heat. Micah snapped his fingers and they went dark again. “As far as I understand, fire should have no effect on you.”

Jasper shook his head. “No, I’m pretty sure it’d burn me.”

Micah frowned. “You can feel the heat, but it shouldn’t actually affect you.”

“Look, I don’t want to have to burn myself to prove this, okay?”

“Of course not,” Micah said quickly. “But then you wouldn’t be null,” he said slowly, frowning.

“Or maybe fire isn’t magic,” Jasper suggested sarcastically.

Micah blinked, and froze, thinking. “Do you know, that’s a very interesting point. Can we go through and see which you can feel? Just to make sure it’s consistent?”

Jasper shook his head slowly. “Well, so long as you’re okay with me not burning myself.”

“Here.” Micah picked up the candle and waved absently at it, lighting it. “Beeswax with a flax wick. This would burn me if I held my hand in it, but…” He passed his hand over it again, right through the flame. “If you move quickly, you can feel the heat without being burned. Do you understand?”

“Yeah. Shall I—?” He nodded at the candle.

“Please.” Micah held it out.

Jasper stared at it for a moment, and brought his hand nearer, but flinched back before he touched the flame. “No, it’s hot.”

Micah nodded slowly. “If you want to try passing your hand through, do it more quickly. If you move slowly, the heat has time to catch hold.”

Jasper made a face, but tried again, this time whipping his hand through the flame so quickly that it flickered and nearly went out. “Ha!” He stared at his hand, rubbing it with his fingers. “I could still feel the heat, though.”

“Interesting. Well, let’s try this one.” He set the candle down, dousing it with a quick pat from his palm before picking up a bulbous lump of something hard and lighting it with another gesture. “Just as you did last time— first, tell me if you can feel the heat.”

Jasper tucked his hands behind his back. “Nuh-uh. You first.”

Micah peered at him. “Why?”

“I’ve never seen a black flame before. I’ve no idea what that is.”

“Osmirrium,” Micah told him. “It isn’t easy to get it to burn. It is as unlike a candle flame as I can think of.”

“So you try touching it,” Jasper shot back.

“Oh, it would burn me,” Micah assured him readily. “I am spending a lot of energy on shielding myself from it.” Jasper glanced at the tanium ring, which was all magenta now, with patches of brighter red. “You don’t have to touch it— I think you won’t be able to get anywhere near it.” Jasper made a face, and brought one hand up cautiously. Very slowly, he moved it closer to the fire. When his hand was still a foot away, Micah said, “You don’t have to injure yourself for my sake.”

“What do you mean?” Jasper asked, looking up at him, holding his hand where it was.

“You can’t even feel it?”

Jasper shook his head. “Not yet. Should I?”

“I would have thought so,” Micah admitted. “Are you sure?”

Jasper pressed his lips together and moved his hand closer. “No. Nothing. No temperature change at all.” He swallowed, then swiped his hand quickly through the flame. “Nothing.”

“Really? Nothing at all?”

“No matter how many times you ask, the answer isn’t changing,” Jasper told him, then lowered his hand above the flame. “Hang on, let me…” He brought his hand down, then finally curled his fingers around the slick ore and lifted it out of Micah’s hand, the flame guttering against his palm. “Well, there you go. Can’t be any clearer than that.” Micah dropped his arms, and Jasper saw he was shaking a bit, and grinned briefly before worry kicked in. “Hey, you okay?” He turned to set the lump on the table again.

“No! Don’t!” Micah almost shouted.

“Um…?” Jasper looked back, eyes wide in shock.

“It’s too hot, it will ignite some of the others. Sink.” Micah pinched at the air, and the flame flickered out.

Jasper turned and took the ore to the sink. “You want me to soak it?” he asked.

“Just set it inside. That will be safe.”

Jasper did as he was told, and turned back. “Now, are you okay? You want to stop?”

Micah shook his head. “No. But… that was… you… fascinating. Magnificent.”

“You what?”

“I was having to shield myself in order to hold that. In fact, I was shielding the entire room.”

“Okay, so am I null or not?”

“Right now, I don’t know what you are. Let’s try some more. Do you mind if I take notes?”

“I’ve been wondering why you haven’t been,” Jasper said. 

“Right.” He hurried back to the first work table and snatched up parchment and pencil. “Let me think… two, no, three of these you shouldn’t even touch. Wait.” Micah sighed, and ran his hand across his forehead. “No. As it’s you, I have no idea.” 

“Tell you what— you light ’em and take notes, and I’ll tell you which ones are hot, and we’ll go from there.”

An hour later, Micah had a chart, and was kneeling on the floor, pushing his hair back from his eyes and scratching his nose absently with the wrong end of the pencil, leaving a black smudge. Jasper wandered over to crouch down and study it over his shoulder.

Micah glanced back at him. “Before you ask me, I don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?” Jasper asked.

“At this point...I don’t know anything. I don’t know if you’re null, or if magic is broken, or what this means.”

“What’s wrong?”

Micah pointed with the pencil. “There’s no pattern to it. Some flames could burn you, some can’t. Either you’re not null, or we need to seriously reconsider what we think of as magic.”

Jasper made a face, his hands braced on his knees, his shoulders hunched. “How likely is it that I would be immune to every form of magic except fire?”

“Slightly more likely than the chances of you being null.” Micah was tapping the pencil against his lips now, his eyes roaming the chart.

“Is there anything we can try that’d you’d consider conclusive?” Jasper asked.

“Hmm. I don’t know. I could try just blasting you with random spells.”

“That sounds like fun.” Micah glanced at him, then looked back. “What?” Jasper asked.

“You’re serious.”

“Well, yeah. Why, weren’t you?”

“Of course not! You could be hurt very badly!”

“No, see, I’ve played this game before.  A couple of times.”

“This isn’t a game, Jasper. You could be killed.”

“In a pub, once, I was very tired and a little drunk, and bet somebody he couldn’t knock me down with his biggest spell.”

“You didn’t.”

Jasper nodded, only a little shamefaced. “’Fraid so. And he couldn’t. Neither could any of his friends.”

“What did they try?”

“Well, one of them set the bar on fire.”

Micah sat back, one hand covering his mouth. “Kazak’s mouldering foot. Were you hurt?”

Jasper shook his head. “Nope. We got the fire out, too. Well, someone did. I had to leg it. But the point is that they threw anything they could at me, spell-wise.”

“You complete eege. How did you explain it?”

“I told them I had a protection on me. Very great magician. Because Mum helped save his village from something or other, I forget.”

“Why would you do something so...brazen?”

“Distracting them. Look, the point is, they tried everything they knew, and none of it landed.”

“Are you sure they weren’t just too drunk to manage any spells?”

“They did manage to set the bar on fire,” Jasper pointed out.

Micah shifted to a more comfortable sitting position, one leg curled under him, the other  up, one arm slung over it. “Hah. But some of these flames could have burned you.”

“Maybe not all fire is magic,” Jasper suggested. “I mean, not all plants are.”

Micah considered this for a moment. “I suppose. I do have some plants, none of them should be able to… well. I can’t imagine they’d kill you.”

“Why, is there someone they could kill?”

“Certainly make them unhappy for a few days.”

“Oh, well, true. Some of them make people itch if you touch them, stuff like that?”

“Interesting—I would have said that was a magical effect.”

“I’d prefer not to demonstrate that one, if you don’t mind,” Jasper said quickly.

Micah laughed. “No, I’ve none of that in the lab at the moment. But we could… would you mind…”

“So long as you tell me first what they’re supposed to do,” Jasper told him, and reached his hand out. “Come on, get up, bring your notes.” 

Micah accepted the help, and waved Jasper ahead of him toward a glass terrarium. Pipes ran into it from every direction, the labels on them faded into unreadability. Exotic-looking plants sprawled up the sides. Some had even been carefully fenced off. 

Micah unlocked the front panel with a tiny golden key. “Some of them will react to a light touch, and they’re intended to trap insects. I’ve triggered them with my own finger, and never had any ill effects.”

Jasper moved closer to the glass, reaching for the door, which was shut today. “May I?”

Micah waved him ahead. “The flat orange ones at the front are the terrentraps. Just tap the centre of the leaf.”

Jasper did so. The leaf promptly folded in half, tiny white barbs around the edges overlapping like teeth. “I’ve never seen one in person before. How sharp are the barbs?”

“It reacted to you,” Micah said, ignoring the question and shaking his head as he made a note. “That makes no sense.”

“You want me to try holding my finger inside, once?”

Micah glanced at him and thought for a moment, again tapping his pencil against his lips. “Ah, yes. Yes, if you don’t mind. And no, the barbs aren’t sharp enough to break your skin.”

“Um, okay.” Jasper waited a moment, staring at the orange half-circle. “How long does it take to reopen?”

“There should be another one behind it. Isn’t there?”

Jasper bent the leaf over delicately, and something flicked out at his finger. “Hey! Ow! What the feck was that?”

“What?” Micah leaned closer.

“Something just bit me!”

“Where? Which side of your finger?”

Jasper held it up and pointed. “Just along here.”

Micah’s eyes flicked back to the terrarium. “That would have to be the isellthorn? It’s very sensitive to strangers... That makes no kind of sense at all. I’m sorry, I never would have thought to warn you. But nothing on the other side?”

“You mean you expected something to bite me, but had me poke around in there anyway?”

“Not exactly. I thought the one would react, but it doesn’t sting unless you try to pull it up.”

“The isellthorn?”

“No, the grispius.”

“Right. That’s...which one?”

Micah pointed carefully. “The little brown one. It looks like a tangle of twine, I know.”

Jasper studied it. “I can’t even see any ends of the branches.”

“They dig back into the soil and burrow for something large enough to latch onto. And if you bend the branches too far, look.” Micah prodded it, and the plant shrivelled away, flattening against the ground. “Trying to make itself harder to grab.”

“Nice.” Jasper tipped his head, then added, “But hang on, yeah, I think I did touch it.”

“Did you? It takes a minute or two to fluff back up, and it certainly wasn’t flat just now.”

“So maybe that one uses magic, and these other two don’t?”

“But I use all of them as materials,” Micah pointed out. “What happens when you touch the purple rock, there, lightly?” He pointed.

Jasper pulled back instinctively. “Is it actually slimy, or does it just look that way?”

“It is smooth, not wet. And slightly soft, so don’t press very hard.”

Jasper pressed his lips together, but reached in and touched it very softly, his finger gliding across the surface. “Oh, yeah. Weird. It looks wet. Did you polish it?”

“No, it just...ah, there it goes.” There was a faint rosy glow on the spot Jasper had touched. “It will heat up in response to any pressure. If you just barely stroke it, it gives off just a little bit of heat. But if you move it or poke it, it can get hot enough to burn you, and faster than you could drop it.”

Jasper reached in with his finger and held it over the pink spot without touching the stone. “I don’t feel anything.”

“Really? How close can you get? Move slowly,” Micah added quickly.

Jasper lowered his finger, and eventually rested it on the stone again. “I don’t feel anything. It’s just a smooth surface. No warmer than I’d expect from a stone.”

Micah leaned closer. “It’s getting brighter, you do realise?”

Jasper nodded without looking away. “Yeah, I can see it, but I can’t feel it.”

Micah grabbed his arm and pulled it down suddenly. “No, you can’t. I can’t watch that.”

Jasper looked at his finger, then showed it to Micah. “But look! See? Nothing.”

Micah stared at his finger, then took Jasper’s wrist and tipped it first one way, then another. “I really do not understand,” he murmured.

Jasper looked in the terrarium again. “Wow. That’s pretty bright.”

Micah nodded, barely sparing the pinkish-white light a glance. “I used tongs and protective gear and a great deal of spell work to place it. It’s there to provide warmth.”

“Is it going to kill anything with heat now, then?”

Micah shook his head, still studying Jasper’s finger. “No, I’m removing the heat.”

“You can move heat?”

“I’m putting it in the boiler.”

Jasper laughed. “Convenient.”

Micah sighed, and let go of his arm. “You are not funny. You are strange and impossible and I don’t know what you are.”

Jasper’s smile melted, and he stared at Micah for a moment. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know. I just don’t understand,” Micah sighed, scrubbing his fingers against the back of his head and staring at Jasper. “Some things work, some things don’t.”

“Nothing works on me,” Jasper said, trying to be reasonable. “Just...some things work near me.” He made a face.

Micah nodded, raising his eyebrows tiredly, but understanding. “I can’t affect you, but magic works around you. You don’t block it. But then how could those flames burn you? Why do some of the plants react, but not others? Why does the stone react, but you can’t feel it? If they’re magic, shouldn’t you…?” He sighed again, shaking his head. 

“So maybe they’re not,” Jasper said, shrugging. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and looking up at Micah. “You can’t change me, but maybe they just affect… or I can feel it, but it isn’t actually… Isn’t there, I dunno, some kind of surface magic you can try? So maybe it doesn’t change my bones, but maybe it affects my skin?”

Micah tipped his head, looking away as he considered it. “Like painting the surface of wood, and it doesn’t go all the way in,” he said. “Yes, I suppose I can try that.” He turned to his shelf and scanned the strange collection of supplies, his lips working.

“What d’you need? I can help you look.”

Micah glanced at him. “It’s a powder from farrow bulbs. I think it’s in a green jar about so big.” He held his hands apart as though holding an invisible melon. 

Jasper noted the size and started looking, but grinned as Micah’s hands stayed in the pose as if it were an action he’d forgotten to stop. “Is this stuff in any order at all?” he asked after a moment, going to shift a book aside and look behind it.

“I move it around so often that it never stays in order,” Micah admitted. 

“If everything were in the right place, though, you wouldn’t have to move it around. You could just...put things back.” He gestured at the lab vaguely.

“I switch projects and concentrations quite often,” Micah said, clearly doubtful.

Jasper glanced at him. “Look, if I’m going to be in here for any length of time, would you let me have a tidy? It just...makes me itch, seeing something so simple to fix and not doing anything about it. Really. It’d be more of a favour to me.”

Micah gave him a puzzled grin. “You are a very strange man, with very strange hobbies.”

“I don’t think you can really talk,” Jasper said, nearly cutting him off, but also smiling now. “You sleep in a lab.”

Micah turned back to the shelves. After a moment, he said, “Not always.”

“Often enough,” Jasper said in a sing-song voice, pointing in the general direction of the mattress he’d spied in the other room. 

“Ah, here.” Micah dove into the mess with one hand and came up with the jar. “Right, this is fairly simple. Could you stand in front of the fire, please?” he added, nodding toward the furnace.

“Yep,” Jasper said agreeably, taking his place. “Ready.”

Micah moved in front of him but several steps away, holding the jar and its lid in one hand. Jasper couldn’t help staring a bit at fingers long and dextrous enough to manage both, while reaching inside with the other. “I apologise in advance for the smell.”

“You’re not reassuring,” Jasper said, shaking his head a little.

Micah glanced at him. “Hold still…” He scooped up some of the powder, shook the excess off over the jar, then thew it at Jasper, his hand snapping out flat, fingers spread. 

Jasper blinked in reflex, turning his face, wondering what would happen if the powder got into his eyes. Then, for a moment, he though maybe it had. He held out his arms, staring in disbelief. “You...what did you do?” he demanded.

Micah’s head snapped back in surprise, and he burst out laughing. He turned away hurriedly, shoving the cork back into the neck of the jar and setting it on the table, trying to stifle his reaction. He glanced guiltily at Jasper, and spluttered into another laugh.

“You utter bastard,” Jasper said evenly, turning his arms to confirm it. His clothes were now pink, with bright teal splotches across them. “You festering mutcher. If any of your stupid twirls had to work, why this one?” His trousers were pink. His boots were pink. Bright, vivid pink. He was practically glowing. 

“Oh, my. I am so sorry,” Micah gasped, holding his stomach with one hand, the other trying to stifle his giggles. “I didn’t think it would work.” He turned away again, unable to face Jasper while still laughing at him.

“I’ll just bet you didn’t. But it’s just my clothes, right?” He turned his hands over, seeing his skin the same normal colour. “Or wait…” He tucked a finger in the top of his shirt and peered down at his chest. The same pale skin underneath, free from blue-green blotches. “Nope, I’m fine. Just my clothes. Huh.”

“No, I’m sorry, but no,” Micah said reluctantly, holding out a mirror. “I’m really very sorry.”

Jasper took it, half-smiling now himself in the face of Micah’s relentless giggles. He glanced down, and froze. “Oh, fuck, no.”

None of his skin was affected, but the colour had latched onto the ends of his hair. He pulled on his forelock, going cross-eyed in an attempt to see it. Just the ends. He looked back in the mirror, running his fingers through his hair, holding it up on end. The longer hair had longer stains on the end, but even the short hair at the back was coloured. He was pink for one third of the length of each hair.

****

Chapter Text

“I’m so sorry, I really am,” Micah repeated, finally starting to sound it.

“I’ll bet you are.” Jasper set the mirror down. “Well, come on, change me back.”

Micah faced him, regret wrinkling his lips and brow. “It isn’t permanent. I can change it back, but… if I do, it will really damage the fabric. It’s a bit like bending a piece of metal back and forth until it snaps. I can do it, but if you want to keep those clothes, you’d be better off just letting them fade on their own. It will take about a week - less, if you put them out in the sun.”

“I can’t just run around naked for a week!” Jasper stared at him. “Change them back!”

“These...aren’t the only clothes you own, are they?”

Jasper flushed. “No, but a lot of it’s packed and coming with the rest of the household. I don’t have much with me.”

“I’ll make sure you have replacements, I promise you,” Micah said, shaking his head, sincerely contrite but still smiling. “But you are going to need a haircut.”

Jasper was aghast. “No. I can’t leave here looking like this.”

“No, you can’t. You won’t,” Micah assured him. “I’ll have someone send clothes up. If you leave these here, I’ll have them aired and fixed as soon as possible. Or I can replace them.”

“And my hair?” Jasper demanded. “Bad enough it’s already changing colour on its own, but this?”

Micah hesitated, then suggested, “I can get you a hat to wear home, if you like.”

“Does anyone here have any scissors?” Jasper asked, glancing in the mirror again, his face wrinkling in sadness. “Ohhh, cock…”

“I...yes. Yes of course.” Micah looked around the worktable, moving some of the mirrors until he came up with a pair of scissors.

“Don’t you try it!” Jasper snapped, holding a hand up to him warningly. “I’m not letting you do it.”

“Would you like to do it yourself?” Micah countered.

“I can’t see the back of my own head, can I?”

“Or I can ask someone to come up. Briggs, perhaps?”

Jasper’s frown darkened to a scowl. “No. Fine. But you’d better make me look good.”

Micah’s mouth opened and shut again, his face doing its best to match Jasper’s hair.

“Get on with it,” Jasper sighed.

“I… yes, of course.” Micah took a step nearer, considering Jasper’s hair, his head on one side. “Would you mind sitting down?” Jasper looked around. The nearest thing was a stool, but it was quite tall, and he wouldn’t have been any shorter while sitting on it. Micah pointed to the small sitting area by the window with the patio. “If you don’t mind,” he repeated.

“Nope, right, fine…” Jasper made his way over to the chair. “Do you have… I mean, I don’t want to use a sheet from your bed or anything…”

Micah frowned and opened his mouth to reply, then paused. “I was going to say you were being ridiculous, but as it’s you, you’re not.” He thought for a moment, tapping the tips of the scissor blades against his lips.

“Why is it ridiculous that I don’t want to get little bits of hair all down inside my clothes?” Jasper asked, folding his arms and leaning back to stare at Micah.

“Because I can remove them quite easily, or shield you with magic,” he said absently, then added, “if you were anyone else, that is. I’m not sure, with you.”

“Well, you managed to colour my hair, so you should be able to cut it,” Jasper said, a little acid creeping back into his tone.

“Oh, it will cut. The scissors aren’t magic,” Micah assured him. “But yes, if it took the colour, I should be able to… well, there are several options.” He shook his head, waving that aside. “First, let’s get the pink off of you.”

“Right.” Jasper rocked forward on the chair, just enough to lift it with his hands and turn it around. “On you go.”

He felt tentative fingers lifting a bit of his hair, then just stroking through it gently. “You’ve never cut hair before, have you,” he guessed.

“Of course not,” Micah said, completely unashamed. “On the other hand, I’ve had mine cut more than once.”

Jasper wrinkled his nose, then gave up. “What does that mean?”

“That you should hold very, very still,” Micah said firmly.

“Don’t fancy a spot of target practice, then?”

Micah snorted, then set his hands firmly on either side of Jasper’s head, holding it straight. “Shush.” He ran his fingers through Jasper’s hair again, resting against his scalp.

Jasper felt goosebumps rise along his neck and shoulders with the first snip of the scissors. “You’re committed now,” he murmured, grinning again.

“I’m cutting off the pink, so it’s fairly clear what I need to do. But I expect you’ll want to visit a barber, anyway. I can’t hope to do this perfectly.”

The scissors were snicking through his hair quickly and regularly now. “Yep, just so I can get back into the house without having the whole lot of them piling out to snigger at me.”

“I thought you were the housemaster,” Micah commented.

“I am. That doesn’t mean I won’t get teased.”

“I can’t imagine anyone doing such a thing when you could fire them.”

“That’s just it, see. They know I’d never be that petty. On the other hand, some of ’em are on the outs with me anyway for mucking about during the packing, so they might be a little more on their toes.”

“If they’ve just been misbehaving, but you’ve not fired them…” Micah trailed off, clearly confused.

“Nah, I haven’t fired ’em, but they’ve heard me dust off my full vocabulary.”

Micah laughed. “So they’re sufficiently cowed.”

“Nothing’s ever sufficient with that lot, but it’ll hold ’em another week yet, I reckon.” He closed his eyes as Micah moved around to his side, the snippets of hair falling softly against his cheek and ear.

“You have to shout at them regularly, and yet you don’t fire them?” Micah seemed to be exploring the ideas of staff management for the first time.

“I don’t suppose it’s the same here,” Jasper said thoughtfully. “I’ve got a lot of boys, see. Scampers, the lot of ’em. The Earl likes to take ’em in and teach ’em a bit. Make sure they learn to read and magic, learn to act like they’ve seen the inside of a house. Manners, maths, and figure out some kind of trade, at least. Just stop ’em thieving, fighting, drinking, and generally being horrible little monkeys.”

“Nothing wrong with monkeys,” Micah said.

“Point. There’s a couple that’d be a right insult to the monkeys. Still, they get a chance.”

“That’s quite lovely.”

“I’ll take that from you, but it’s because you’ve not heard them at meal times.”

“Hm. Perhaps not so lovely.”

“Loud, anyway.” Jasper ran a quick finger down his nose to remove a tickling hair. “How’m I looking?”

“A bit more dark than rosy,” Micah said, taking a step back. “Not quite done.” More snipping.

“I don’t understand why you couldn’t magic it back, though.”

“Oh, I could. But at the risk of making your hair… rather different. Possibly curly. Possibly… no.”

“What, is there something you could do that would make it worse than pink?” Jasper asked in disbelief.

“I’m not comfortable making assumptions about you,” Micah said carefully. “The one thing I can say that I definitely know about you, right now, is that I really don’t know how you work at all. I might try to make your hair grey again, and it might fall out. I might over-stress your system. I don’t know.”

Jasper was silent, as if considering this. Then, “I’m waiting.”

“I beg your pardon?” Micah stepped back again.

“You can apologise any time you like for calling my hair grey.”

“I… ah. What would you prefer I said?”

Jasper pursed his lips. “I’d prefer you didn’t.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. But it is… it suits you.”

“You saying I look old?”

“No, no. Far from it. Your hair is simply… quite striking.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jasper sighed. “You done, then?” He still had his eyes closed, a fine mist of pink hairs across his cheeks, invisible on his pink clothes.

“Ye-es,” Micah said slowly. “But you might want to keep your eyes closed. I’m going to try to clean you off.”

“Just a brush will do,” Jasper protested, feeling trapped. He heard the door beside him open. “Hang on, what are you doing?”

“Relax. I’ll be gentle.”

Jasper felt a breeze from the window, but after a moment, he said, “Hang on, I thought the window was over there.” He pointed.

“It is,” Micah said, his voice tense. “Don’t open your eyes. This seems to be working.”

Jasper flinched as the wind rose. He raised a hand to his face, then stopped. “Is this magic?”

“Yes. Eyes shut.”

Jasper turned his face into the wind. “This is so strange. I can feel the hairs blowing off my face, and my clothes moving… but nothing on my skin. How’re you doing that?” He bent down, shaking the collar of his shirt to get rid of the clippings.

“Magic. Doesn’t affect you, but it will affect anything that was pink.”

Jasper brushed at his face, blinking his eyes open. “Cheers. Handy.” He brushed off his shoulders, glancing at the intense concentration on Micah’s face, his hands cupped in front of his chest, facing out. Jasper bit his lip and turned away, swatting at his hair, scruffing at it with his hands, bending over so the clippings didn’t simply fall back onto him.

“Mm. It’s one of the Vedouci’s specialities. You’ve seen the dustworks?”

“Every time I clean,” Jasper said.

“No, the...entertainment.”

“Can you… a little stronger?”

Micah spread the fingers of one hand and flattened them, lowering his chin.

Jasper staggered back as the strange wind strengthened, his clothes tugging at him, his hair flattening against his head in a sudden gale he couldn’t feel. He shook his shirt out, turning and bending, trying to use the air to get all the tiny, tickly bits out of his clothes. He got the feeling Micah was silently daring him to complain, but the sensation of his clothes being affected by a wind he couldn’t feel on his skin was fascinating. He braced himself, leaning forward a bit, letting his arms be pulled about by his sleeves for a moment before risking a glance at Micah. Yes, he was watching him very carefully. It might have been concentration on the magic, it might have been scientific observation, but there was something about his expression that seemed a little more interested. Jasper waved a hand. “I’m all dusted off, thanks.”

Micah nodded, sweeping one hand around into a fist, and the air stilled. “You didn’t even squint,” he noted.

Jasper shrugged, pulling his clothes back into place. “Didn’t feel like I needed to. That was really weird. I didn’t feel it on my skin. Is that something you can control?”

Micah shook his head. “Nothing special that I did. But as your skin also didn’t change colour, I would assume that’s another of the quirks of being null.”

“Right. Thanks for that. Not the pink and blue, I mean, obviously.” He looked pointedly at his clothes. “But the cut and the clean-up were handy.”

Micah smiled involuntarily. “You should have a change of clothes in a few minutes.”

“How?”

“I sent a message.”

“What, mentally?” Jasper asked, not even sure if he was kidding.

“No, paper and ink,” Micah said, giving him a look. “What do you mean, ‘mentally’?”

“I dunno. Magic.”

“Now you are being silly.”

“I am not!” Jasper protested. “Before, you said you were reading my head!”

“That is an entirely different thing. Getting a sense of you, but… They’re about as similar as holding a jar, and having a conversation with the contents.”

“That’s a pretty big jar,” Jasper said.

Micah’s lips thinned and he squinted at Jasper in mock disapproval. “I could send you home in a dress, you know.”

“Couldn’t,” Jasper said easily. “You’d never get me into it.”

“Ah, couldn’t I? We’ve just established that I can magic whatever you’re wearing.”

Slowly, Jasper’s smile faded as he thought about this. “I really don’t want to piss you off, do I?”

“Popular opinion favours that approach, certainly.” Micah turned away, only letting Jasper see a hint of a smile as he did. “But at this point, I believe I am in your debt more than you are in mine.”

“Well. You did promise me 50,000.”

“I did, yes. Would you like to try to carry it home with you? It will be a bit heavy, and just a touch risky.”

“What, you were serious?” Jasper took a step forward involuntarily.

Micah looked back at him. “We never formally agreed to it, true, but yes, I have it ready.”

Jasper shook his head slowly. “No. Really, no. I just said that off the cuff, trying to get rid of you. I didn’t think you were serious.”

“Did you even believe I was who I said?”

“I… I… yes. I guess so. I had no idea what you were like.” A rumble and a clank came from one of the cupboards, and Jasper stopped, staring at it.

Micah looked up calmly. “Ah, that will be your change. Help yourself.”

“Where?” Jasper asked. Micah pointed. Jasper rolled his eyes and slid open the cupboard door, not really knowing what to expect, then blinking at the bundle of clothes inside. “Did you just conjure these?” he asked suspiciously, picking them up.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Micah said absently, making notes.

Jasper nodded at the cupboard. “Mechanical, or magic?”

“Mechanical, with magic improvements. Just a box on a string, really.”

“Oh, so it’s just a dumbwaiter?” Jasper looked inside again. “Wow. I’ve seen them before, I mean, but then they really were boxes on strings. But this...this is craftsmanship. Looks just like a regular cupboard.” He ran a hand over the glossy, perfect, polished wood. “I’ve always wanted one of these.”

Micah glanced up. “Is the Earl opposed?”

“No, I mean, of my own. Get breakfast sent up on it.” Jasper grinned, then realised, “Well, yeah, probably not the same for you.”

“I would never force anyone to get out of bed a minute sooner than necessary,” Micah said, his voice slow and deliberate while he kept writing.

Jasper laughed in surprise. “I’m okay with mornings, it’s just the trek down through a cold house just to get food. Food should just appear.” He started flipping through the sharply creased folds of clothes, seeing a shirt and leggings, a wool jacket. “Um, no boots?”

Micah looked up, craning his neck at the bundle then rolling his eyes. “Oh, for pity’s sake…” He snatched up a piece of parchment and scribbled on it. “Excuse me.” He dropped the pencil and strode over to the dumbwaiter, dropped the parchment onto the shelf, and slid the door shut. “I’m very sorry. Sometimes I don’t know why we have so many people at the castle. Half of them can’t even stir a pot without asking which direction.” He slapped a lever on the side all the way down, causing more clanking and rumbling.

“Don’t get anyone in trouble for my sake,” Jasper began uneasily.

“No, it’s for his own sake. I don’t know which of them it was, Briggs or Tom.”

“Briggs… oh, yeah, Happy!” Jasper laughed. “Sure, if it’s him, fire the bastard.”

“It usually takes several visits before he’s comfortable insulting someone,” Micah admitted, smiling faintly. “I’m afraid you’ll have to take this as a compliment.”

“No, that’s fine. I’ll hide his keys on my way out.” He shook himself suddenly and looked out the window. “There’s a thought— how late is it? I should probably be getting back.” Jasper pulled a pocket watch out by its chain, and sighed, holding it out for Micah to see.

“I’ll replace it,” Micah said, contrite at the sight of the thoroughly pink watch. “It’s entirely my fault. I didn’t think it would work, and put a little more power into the spell than I should have.”

Jasper snorted, tucking the watch away again. “Will it turn back?”

“It should. I shall be sure that it does. Oh, would you like me to step out so you can change?”

“No, actually,” Jasper said quickly. “I’d really rather you didn’t leave me alone in here. You barely know me, and this is...a dangerous place to be alone in. I could get into anything.”

Micah’s eyes narrowed. “You are already far too clever to try. You know I’d know who it was.”

Jasper shrugged, looking aside as the cupboard began rattling again. “I’m not talking about just theft. More that I’m afraid I’ll bump into something, or something will boil over. Like with the numium, you know? I could knock something without even noticing, because it wouldn’t affect me. I don’t even know.”

Micah smiled, nodding. “If you like, of course. At least open the door of the wardrobe for some privacy.”

Jasper slid the cupboard door aside again, seeing the dumbwaiter coming to a halt, a pair of large, knee-high black boots sitting innocently on the shelf. As he lifted them, a note fell to the floor. He picked it up, not intending to read it, but it was too short and clear not to.

“D’you mind if I kill your butler?” he asked, holding the note up for Micah to see.

Micah looked up from his notes again. “For the ...little girl,” he read, shaking his head. “Impressive speed. No, go right ahead.”

Jasper walked away, heading for the mattress and wardrobe at the far end of the room. “Won’t be long.”

It took effort not to do more than glance into the wardrobe when he opened the door. He had an impression of rich jewel tones in silk and leather and cotton, delicate patterns and rich braids. He began working on the buttons of his waistcoat, feeling a bit lost seeing the wave of pink instead of the soft dark green it had been when he put it on. He pulled his shirt off over his head, not even bothering with the buttons. His boots and leggings were next. He groaned as he saw the pink had gone as far as his shorts.

“Something wrong?” Micah called, sounding very far away.

“Nah, it’s just… when you turn someone’s clothes pink, you really go all the way.”

“Have I apologised in the last two minutes? I really am sorry. What else have you found, or should I not ask?”

“Everything. Everything. My socks, whatever was in my pockets… even the coins. Is that even legal?”

“I’ve no idea. I’ll find out tomorrow morning, but tonight you’d better leave that lot here and take some from me instead.”

“If we were testing your thoroughness tonight, I think you passed.” Jasper left his socks and pulled on the borrowed leggings, breathing a silent sigh of relief as the soft grey covered the pink.

“I’ve never had cause to doubt it before. I hope that I can be equally thorough in removing the effects.”

Jasper hurried into the crisp white shirt, finding it and the leggings were both a bit large, and trying not to mind. The tiny, even stitches and bound seams spoke of such expense that he wished it wasn’t quite so evident that the clothes weren’t his. He could wrap the jacket around himself and belt it, covering a multitude of faults.

“Don’t worry about the fit,” Micah called suddenly. “I’ll take care of that.”

Jasper’s eyes widened and his hands froze. “What?”

“The clothes. They should be a bit large on you, yes? I can alter them well enough for it to pass notice. It’s easier to make it smaller than to make it larger.”

Jasper leaned against the closed door of the other half of the wardrobe and pulled on the boots. It was difficult to walk in them, as his feet rattled around inside. “What shall I do with my clothes?” he called, folding them as fast as he could.

“Just leave them. If there’s anything too personal in your pockets, though…”

“Nah, you’re lucky. I left the family porcelain at home today.” He swung the wardrobe door closed again. Micah was watching, but still behind the worktable.

“Good, at least they’re not small,” he said, and came to meet Jasper. “Oh, the boots,” he added, seeing Jasper’s careful steps. “No, stop there.” He paused, stroking the air with a hand, and Jasper felt the leather tighten around his feet. “Better?” Micah asked, pausing.

Jasper lifted his feet a few times, then wandered in a small circle. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s fine. That’s...that’s really good.”

“The rest, well… hold very still.” Micah used both hands this time, and Jasper tried not to jump as the clothes shifted around him, tightening.

“Hold on, stop, stop, stop,” Jasper said quickly, raising one hand, reaching for the belt with the other.

“Yes, sorry,” Micah said, shaking his head. “Of course, I should have thought.”

“No, it’s fine,” Jasper told him, letting it out a few notches. “I think I’m fine.”

“Well, good.” Micah lowered his hands with a nod. “And here,” he added, reaching into a pocket. “I don’t know what I have here, what do you need?” he asked, sorting through some coins.

“No, it should be fine, honestly,” Jasper said, waving it off. “Even if you can’t change it back, it’s really nothing. If you’d hit me with this at the market, when I was doing the first shop, then I might’ve had to submit a serious bill.”

“If you leave more than a few silver here, I will hand it over to Briggs as his tip,” Micah warned him.

Jasper grinned, then found himself yawning unexpectedly. “Nnng. Sorry, sorry—”

Micah waved it off. “No, it’s past ten, you’ve every right. I never meant to keep you so late. I would very much like to continue working with you, at least for a few days. If you feel you’ll have time. I don’t want to interfere.”

“Wow. Um, yeah, sure. Tomorrow? That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll check with the Earl. Unless you don’t want me to mention it?”

“Up to you,” Micah told him. “If he already knows you’re a null, that’s the only aspect to hide, isn’t it? But… would you prefer to work with him? Or prefer that he were here?”

“No. Mecks no.” He raised startled eyes to Micah’s. “I’m sorry, I beg your pardon, that was...”

“No, no, I enjoyed that,” Micah said with a quiet smile. “Well then. Same time tomorrow. I’ll do something about the stairs.”

Jasper blinked in confusion. “What, move your lab?”

“Oh, good grief, no. I’ll just reset the portals.”

Jasper sagged, his mouth hanging open. “No, yes, okay, that’s completely normal for you, I suppose.”

“Not normal, but certainly achievable. Will that be acceptable?”

“You really don’t have to. They’re fine. Is it going to be a different route every time I come? Like a safety precaution?”

“Safety?” Micah shook his head. “Not really a concern. Should anyone reach my lab against anyone’s wishes, they’d have to deal with me. The numium is just the start.”

Jasper paused, imagining the things one could do to someone with just the small pot of it he’d seen. “Yeah, good point. But this place is enough of a maze without having a different route every day. The stairs aren’t a problem. Should I ring the bell again?”

“Which door would you prefer?”

“It matters?”

Micah licked his lips. “Front door. Unless you fancy a trip to Threeways, that is.”

“Maybe some other time,” Jasper said, grinning, then offered his hand. “Until tomorrow, then.”

“Yes.” Micah shook, and watched him leave. Then he slowly let his head hang and clenched the edge of the worktop tightly with both hands. He tried briefly to shake the heavy slab of wood and stone, then gave up and turned away, instead lifting every single, individual item in the lab a quarter of an inch and setting it back down again, very carefully, through sheer force of will.

 

Chapter Text

The deep streets of Lunule were quiet as Jasper jogged home in borrowed clothes. He'd only realised how late he’d stayed when the street lamps had suddenly crackled into flaring brightness halfway down Irvile Street, momentarily blinding him as the slick street picked up the glow. He broke into a run. The Earl wouldn’t be happy to be left entirely in Daisy’s care for the evening, and it was already past suppertime.

The “spare” clothes Micah had lent him to replace his pink ones were much nicer than anything Jasper owned. The coat was black and unadorned, good quality, thick and warm against the chill night. He’d caught a glimpse of it in one of Micah’s mirrors and he had to admit the plainness made it all the more striking.

He swung up the last walkway and in the gate of the grand old house, air-carriages balanced neatly on the long drive. Hopefully no one had missed him yet.

He opened the door to a wall of noise. The hall seemed to be in motion with the force of it, the row becoming its own solid, deafening block of sound. Horror hit Jasper like cold water and, whirling, he realised there were not two but three coaches in the drive—Sí Penelope had arrived a day early.

Mind galloping, he scanned the scene. Sí Penelope and Daisy were nearing blows, the children looked ill—Charlotte got airsick easily, and even if they’d arrived in the last hour, they still must’ve been travelling all day. Marvin was building up to a proper screaming fit, and Daisy was holding the youngest, who looked ready to burst into tears.

With a pang of dismay, he saw half of the kitchen boys were slumped together by the doorway to the back stairs, thoroughly browbeaten and completely soused.

And finally he spotted the Earl Onfroi. The kindly man looked as flustered and miserable as Jasper had ever seen him, hovering at the foot of the stairs as though at any moment he meant to turn and flee.

Jasper strode into the middle of the room, shutting the door harder than might be good for it. “What’s all this, then?”

The two women rounded on him instantly.

‘‘Where in mecksied hell have you been—”

“Despicable! No food, no fires, and the abuse I take from my own staff! The standards of this household are disgusting—”

“—Sending these balskies off to get pissed as newts and me with the whole house to do! You think you can turn up now looking all a-clapper—”

“The language, the inebriation, I won’t stand for this any longer! This is a nest of pigs and thieves—”

Daisy coloured, choking violently as her ears caught up to Sí Penelope’s tirade. “Thieves, are we? Pigs?”

Jasper marched past the screaming Marvin and grabbed a fistful of the back of Daisy’s dress before she could do something truly regrettable.

That was the moment Charlotte chose to be violently, spectacularly sick.

Right.” Jasper seized the shocked silence like a lifeline. “Daisy, take the lads into the kitchen. If any of ’em are sober, send ’em back here with a mop and bucket—get Mickle out of bed if need be. Have Dom put a kettle on so there’ll be hot water and tea enough for everyone, at least.”

Daisy looked ready to mutiny, but he glared her down. She glared back, tucking the baby’s blanket around her, the very picture of injured pride. “Dom is still out. I’ll put the kettle on, but there’s no supper. I’ll not be called a thief or a pig when all I’ve done is work my fingers to the bone and this lot” —she gestured viciously at the kitchen boys, who looked merely ill in return— “drink and dirty things up, screaming like hooligans—”

Jasper cut her off before anyone else could start up. “Get them into the kitchen, and I’ll come deal with them and the supper. Put their heads in the back trough, they look ready to join Charlotte.” Jane, the baby, looked so confused and afraid she hadn’t even begun to cry. “At least give Jane her dinner,” Jasper added, nodding at the tearful baby.

Daisy instantly cuddled Jane close and nodded reluctantly. She flounced towards the kitchen, long skirts sweeping the confused and terrified boys in her wake. They stumbled out behind her, tripping over each other.

Sí Penelope had set a firm hand on the rather pale Charlotte and was drawing herself up regally, clearly marshaling the full force of her ire.

Jasper glanced at the Earl who desperately mimed for help, then he turned and bowed as sweepingly as he could manage in a heavy black coat. “Sí Penelope, my sincerest apologies. I was unexpectedly summoned to the Vedouci’s castle, which I of course would have cancelled instantly had I realised you were to arrive. I beg you to forgive the disgraceful state of unpreparedness in which you have found us. The full force of punishments within my power will be meted out to those responsible.” As likely as not that meant sticking the boys’ heads in cold water, which Daisy was probably already doing, and sending them to bed, and then another full-on row with Daisy when he tried to take supper upstairs.

Sí Penelope looked undecided for a moment, her eyes flicking back to her husband, but curiosity won, as Jasper knew it would. “Why were you at Farek en Innen Ciel? You’re not in trouble with the law, I hope!”

“Not at all, Sí. The Vedouci’s heir merely wanted my assistance with a project after hearing about the fine work of the Earl.” Not a complete lie, and not so far off the truth. Charlotte tugged Jasper’s hem. “If it pleases you, Sí Penelope, I’d be only too pleased to take Charlotte up to bed and then bring tea and supper up to the drawing room and ready your rooms for the night.”

Sí Penelope opened her mouth to argue but at that moment a yawning Mickle appeared at the kitchen door, clanging a bucket against the tiled floor. He froze in shock when he saw the family still present, and, dropping the bucket, bowed almost in half.

She tsked and nodded, and swept up the stairs dragging Marvin behind her. Something about the symmetry nearly had Jasper smiling—she and Daisy were far too alike to be under the same roof.

The Earl stood back against the wall as his wife passed, then caught Jasper’s eye behind her back. Jasper nodded slightly with only the faintest of smiles. The Earl just about had the strength to deal with Penelope when they were alone, but if she had an audience, her wrath would encompass them all.

He looked down to see Charlotte still clinging to his side, clutching the cuff of his jacket. She looked pale and miserable, wide green eyes the only colour in her face. He knelt down beside her.

“Go on upstairs, Lottie. You can get some water and rinse your mouth out, and I’ll be up in a few minutes. Just lay down nice and quiet, eh?”

She nodded reluctantly and slumped off toward the stairs.

In the kitchen, Daisy was throwing heat at the stove with one hand and bouncing Jane with the other, aiming the most vitriolic stare at the boys that Jasper had ever seen. He pushed the black coat back off his shoulders and shook his arms out, tossing it onto a chair. “Let me take Jane while you get the water boiling,” he said firmly, reaching out to slip her off of Daisy’s hip.

Jane’s face was flushed and wet with tears, but she had the instinct for self-preservation, and was managing to cry silently. Jasper clucked at her and snatched up a towel to wipe her face, dipping it into the cool water in the sink and pressing it to her hot little cheeks. “You’ll be all right, little Janie. It’s all over.”

“We’re not done with this discussion,” Daisy hissed at him, pushing her empty hands at the stove, where an enormous kettle was just beginning to steam.

Jasper eyed the operation with new interest, aware of the heat, noting how thick and clumsy Daisy’s movements seemed after Micah’s elegant, minimal gestures. He looked back up at Daisy’s face, raising his eyebrows, but didn’t reply. “Right, you lot,” he announced, turning to the grumbling collection of slack arms and legs and faces that were his unhappy staff. “You’ve had two nights out to get into trouble. Now that you’ve got the edge off, you’re back to work bright and early tomorrow. I want two volunteers to help me and Daisy for a bit with the supper, and the rest of you off to bed. I’ll be up sooner than you want to check on you, so wash—no noise, not even a whisper—then into your beds, and lights out. You’ll be lucky if you can stay awake long enough to manage that. Get.” He shooed them toward the back stairs. There was a bit of a scuffle as two of them stayed back—it wasn’t clear if they’d been made to, or if they were just too drunk to know what was happening.

Jane was leaning her face against his shoulder and drooling. He tucked the cloth under her cheek and turned back to Daisy. “Whatever was going to be my supper, I’ll bring that up for Sí. Is there anything left we can put together for the children?”

Daisy sighed loudly through her nose, her lips pressed tight. “You was to have a pie,” she admitted finally, “and that’ll be more than enough for herself. If I cut it clever, I can shave two slivers off for the pair of ’em, and give ’em each a stickybun. We’ll be short in the morning, mind,” she added sharply.

“Fine, I’ll be out early and get more in.” He jerked his chin at the kettle. “You manage the tea, please? I’ll bring it all up, but Jane needs a change. Olaf, fetch us a nappy.”

Daisy looked back at him quickly, suddenly softening. “Ah, the poor wee thing. I’ll get you some warm water.” She turned back to the stove, concentrating fiercely now, pouring boiling water into teakettles, bowls, and basins, heating plates and pies and a potato for Jane. As all of it was being magically enhanced, there was nothing Jasper could do to help.

He left Eggwart to help Daisy get the bowls and trays and cups together, and took Jane back to the boys’ bench to take care of her. She woke as he set her down, but dozed off again as he cleaned her up. Olaf returned at an unsteady trot, swaying on his feet as he held out the fresh cloth. Jasper bundled her up, and nodded at the dirty diaper. “Egg, you know where it goes?”

The second boy blinked and wrinkled his nose, but nodded. “How can she smell so loud when she’s so tiny?”

“You’re in Lunule now—we’ll have to find you some proper smells. Numb you up.”

Eggwart made a face, but picked up the dirty diaper and headed off for the laundry. Jasper lifted the baby back onto his shoulder and whispered into her ear, getting a stream of sleepy giggles from her.

Olaf mashed Jane’s potato with some milk and took her from Jasper, sitting her on the table and feeding her with the bowl between them. Jasper put together the tray for Penelope, rushing it up the stairs as fast as he could without spilling, making sure it was hot as he set it before her. Then back down to the kitchen for the children’s tray. Daisy had moved on to burping Jane, and Olaf and Eggwart were washing up.

He got Marvin and Charlotte to nibble a bit on the pie before allowing them the stickybuns, fetching a packet of ginger bubble from the cupboard and adding it to their cups of water to soothe their stomachs after the uproar. He tucked them in and went back down with the tray, gulping down their leftover pie on the way. Daisy would shriek if she thought any of the carefully apportioned pie had gone to waste.

Olaf and Eggwart took the tray from him and went to work on it, playing with a new soap spell when Daisy wasn’t looking.

“Your soap stinks,” Eggwart moaned, waving a hand in front of his nose.

“Just doing as Sí Jasper said. Toughen your nose up, ’member?” Olaf said, swaying forward and hanging onto the edge of the sink for a moment.

“Can’t clean with stink, Ollie,” Eggwart shot back, flicking his fingers at the suds and turning them pinkish, the wet smell of roses drifting back and clashing with the warm kitchen smells of food.

Jasper stepped behind them and smacked the backs of their heads lightly, frowned at them, and shook his head before jerking his head in Daisy’s direction. They took the hint.

Daisy was rocking Jane, humming quietly, but still managed to glare at Jasper as he lifted Jane out of her arms. “See you don’t wake her,” she hissed.

Jasper nodded. “Get to bed, Daisy. I’ll finish anything up down here.”

Daisy pushed herself to her feet, her eyelids suddenly heavy. She shook her head as she turned away, but couldn’t even muster a mutter. Jasper nodded at Olaf and Eggwart, tipping his head toward the back stairs. They slumped off after Daisy.

Jasper wasn’t surprised to find Charlotte and Marvin asleep in the nursery as he put Jane down in her crib. He set the baby bells above her, again noticing a piece of everyday magic that clearly wasn’t all magic, if he could set it to work. Daisy would hear any disturbance, and as it was Jane, Daisy wouldn’t even complain.

By the time he’d made Sí Penelope’s room ready, Jasper was yawning hugely. He dragged himself back down to the kitchen and tidied the last dishes, wiped the counters, straightened chairs, and gathered up the black coat. Rather than putting it on, he slung it over his shoulder before giving the floor a final sweep, then shuffled over to the back stairs and trudged up them for the last time that night.

The boys were all in bed, more or less. Some of them looked lucky to have made it that far, and he scooped a few limbs back under blankets before returning to the stairs.

When he lit the candle in his room, he saw there was a tiny figure already curled up in his bed, tousled brown hair the only thing showing from under the blanket. “Oi,” Jasper said, and a little face poked out. He whistled, flicking his finger to the side. “Out.” He hung the coat on the peg on the back of the door and toed off his boots.

Mickle swung his legs out obediently. Jasper stared dully at the basin and water pitcher, then turned away, peeling off the white shirt. Mickle was still sitting on the edge of the bed. “Out, Mick.”

“No beds left,” Mickle said around a yawn.

“Ah, bollocks,” Jasper sighed. He hung the white shirt up, running his hand over it one last time. He started to pull down his trousers, then caught sight of his pink shorts and hesitated. He glanced over at Mickle and snorted when he saw Mickle still hadn’t even opened his eyes. He shoved his pants and trousers off his legs at once, making sure the pink was hidden inside the black when he hung them up.

Mickle toppled quietly back onto the bed with his legs still over the edge. “Budge up,” Jasper said, prodding Mickle closer to the pillow. “Tomorrow, though, you sleep with the boys. We’ll get you a cot. Something.”

Mickle nodded sleepily. Jasper blew out the candle, pulled himself onto the bed and changed, tiny furred legs almost crumpling beneath him for a moment. He shook his fur out and curled up next to the pillow behind Mickle, nudging him with his nose. Mickle squirmed a bit, pulled his legs back onto the bed and rolled over, his face landing on top of Jasper’s tail. He opened his eyes and spluttered a bit, swatting the furry brush out of the way.

Jasper lifted his head and yapped, nipping Mickle’s hand. “Sorry, Sí,” the boy mumbled.

Jasper squirmed back into a warm ball, his ears and tail fanned across himself. Instead of being crowded now, the bed was mostly empty, and Mickle pulled the blanket around himself without disturbing the curled-up fur puddle already asleep next to the pillow.

 

Chapter Text

         Micah shook the strong hand of the most impossible person he’d ever met, wondering again how he could be touching something so paradoxically normal as a hand, and watched Jasper leave. Then he slowly let his head hang and clenched the edge of the worktop tightly with both hands. He tried briefly to shake the heavy slab of wood and stone, then gave up and turned away, instead lifting every single, individual item in the lab a quarter of an inch and setting it back down again, very carefully, through sheer force of will.

         He left the lab and crossed the workroom to the bedroom area, climbing the stairs to his mattress slowly, turning on the balls of his feet and collapsing onto the edge. There was a knock at the door. He shot back onto his feet and hurried forward. “Come in,” he called, his voice under control.

         “I’ve tried,” a voice called, not Jasper’s. “It’s blocked.”

         Micah sighed, and waved a hand carelessly. “It’s open.”

         Black hair and a black suit leaned in. “Do you have a moment?” Tom asked.

         “Yes, yes, come in,” Micah sighed, and retraced his path to his bed, draping himself back across it.

         “You had someone in the lab?” Tom asked, shutting the door behind him.

         “Young man from the Earl’s household.”

         “Which earl?”

         “Ryebury. You saw him?”

         “I’ve seen Ryebury, yes. But I assume you mean the handsome darb I just passed on the stairs.”

         “Yes.” Micah lifted his hands and dropped them again, a frustrated non-gesture. “He’s bewildering. I simply do not understand him.”

         “How so?”

         “I thought he was just untrained. It still happens. Even though he’s clearly intelligent and well spoken - he works for an Earl, after all. And he is untrained, I suppose. Absolutely untrained.”

         “So what? He’s coopered. Why are we fascinated? Other than the obvious.” Tom pulled a chair over and sat down facing him, the three stairs between them putting them more or less at eye level.

         “Obvious?”

         “Well, I thought he was attractive, and I’m definitely not inclined that way. If I noticed, then even you should have.”

         “Yes, he is very handsome. Remarkably so,” Micah said absently. “Look, I’ve not talked to the Vedouci about this, so you mustn’t breathe a word, all right? It’s not as though we’ve not kept secrets between us before.”

         Tom nodded agreeably. “One more is no burden.”

         Micah sat up and watched Tom carefully. “He’s null.”

         Tom frowned, lifting his chin. “He’s resistant?”

         “That’s what I thought, but... yesterday, I saw him lick numium off his finger.”

         Tom laughed, then paused when Micah didn’t join in. “How?” he asked flatly.

         “Exactly. I tested the numium. It’s still in the bowl on the workbench. It’s potent. And you said you just passed him on the stairs?” Tom nodded, puzzled. “The guard was still up.”

         Tom blinked. “You didn’t lift it to let him out?”

         Micah shook his head slowly. “No. I completely forgot it was up. Come to that, he reached through it and into the dumbwaiter, too. That is probably why I forgot it was up.” Micah paused, feeling dazed just considering that. “I asked him back to do some more tests tomorrow, but...there’s just nothing in him. He’s not just resistant. He’s utterly lacking. He’s void. He’s...null.”

         “How does that happen?”

         “I’ve no idea. I’ve not asked about his family. The Earl knows what he is, apparently, and had the grace to hide it for him. I suspect this is what brought the Earl to town this season - he’s not a fan of parties and masked balls, you’ll admit. I think he’s here to bring this young man to our attention, without attracting everyone else’s.”

         “I did wonder why he was here. But you’ve not spoken to him?”

         “I have not. I’m not quite sure how. And what do I say to the Vedouci? Do I approach him first?”

         “I think perhaps you should,” Tom said thoughtfully. “CV will be intrigued, maybe pleased for you, but he’ll not step on your toes. And he might have some insight as to how to handle the Earl.”

         “That’s the thing - why does the Earl need handling?” Micah glanced at him, raising his eyebrows pointedly. “You see? I don’t know anything yet. And this isn’t a bag of materials. He’s an actual person, walking around the world every day, being null. He is naturally reticent on the subject, gloriously. To his own credit. An instinct for wisdom, there. But he has never before considered the value of this, and sees it more as a possible shame. He skirts the edge of tragedy. What if he’s hit by an airship? What if he chokes on a grape? He could be mugged fifteen times just crossing town.”

         “Be fair - it’s not exactly deadlurks and toolers between here and the Earl’s.”

         “Oh, that’s not my point,” Micah sighed, throwing himself flat back on the mattress. “He’s a precious thing out in the wilds. I don’t mind the idea that there are hens in fields all over the countryside. But when I learn of a particularly fine bird in a field with a broken fence near woods that are known to be full of wolves, it does chill the blood a bit more particularly.”

         “You want to build a barn around this hen.”

         “Of course I do. And beyond wanting to, do I not have a duty to? As the heir to the Vedouci, someday having responsibility for the entire magical realm, he is a resource.” He said the word sharply, without bitterness, but more than a dash of contempt. “I probably am required to pursue him as a tactical advantage, if you consult the correct military experts.”

         “Sounds like you’ve thought this through quite thoroughly, my young sé.”

         Micah raised his head, glaring the length of his body at Tom. “So why the mocking tone?”

         “I think you mentioned asking him back tomorrow.”

         “Yes, same time tomorrow... hell.” He let his head fall back onto the mattress. “Ocray. Multi-ocray. The gala.”

         “Formal reception,” Tom corrected. “The Earl will be there.”

         “Hmm.” Micah was silent. “His housemaster will be on the invitation list as well, will he not?”

         “He’s a housemaster?” Tom asked in disbelief.

         “Yes, he is,” Micah said, distracted.

         “I thought he was prematurely grey. I didn’t realise. I beg your pardon.”

         Micah looked at him again, then propped himself up on his elbows. “I thought he was prematurely grey as well. What are you talking about?”

         “Well. His face looks like he’s your age, maybe a bit younger. But he can’t be a housemaster at twenty. Is he from another world?”

         “I’ve not asked him. It hadn’t occurred to me. But why did you beg my pardon?”

         “Are you not interested in pursuing him?”

         Micah blinked, his eyes stretched wide. “Pursuing him how? Have we not just been discussing—?”

         “No, I mean pursuing. You did agree he’s handsome.”

         Micah lowered his head again, slowly, turning pink. “Stop. I can’t even think about it.”

         “Then clearly you need more practice.”

         “I mean that I have been trying not to think about it.”

         “You’ll never get more practice that way,” Tom pointed out.

         “I will have you stripped, beaten, and flogged through the streets.”

         “No, you won’t.” Tom got to his feet and pushed his hands into his pockets. “By the way. Seems a bit redundant now, but I’m to ask if you are bringing anyone to the reception tomorrow.”

         “Oh, mecksied shits and crumpets. Who do they think I’ll bring?”

         “You could ask me,” Tom said, sounding reasonable.

         “You’ll be there anyway, and you are three times a fiend.”

         “Thank you. I’ll tell them the young master will be dining alone from now until his tears run dry, as usual, shall I?”

         “Do as you like. I have some serious work I need to do before tomorrow.”

 

 

         The next morning, Micah sent a chuffer off into the city. It was some hours before it returned, slowly, a package hanging in a sling below. Micah lifted the paper-wrapped bundle out and set it on his table, removed the net sling from the chuffer, and bundled it into a ball. When he opened the chuffer’s belly to put it away, he found two more tightly rolled parcels. He pried them out, frowning curiously. There was a note tucked under the string of one, and he slipped it out.

         Sé – items slightly exceed your orders. Only stock in correct size, however. Suggest you alter them your fine self if poss. If not, have several blue and red options avail. Brown simply not fine enough, cannot approve.

         Micah smiled, and pulled open the paper on the ends of two of the parcels. He hesitated, staring at the fine black fabric, then made his decision and hurriedly tucked the paper back into place. He pulled over a clean sheet of paper and picked up his pen.

         S. Jasper –

         He stopped, staring at the generic address. Jasper was clearly a sé, as housemaster to one of the foremost magical authorities outside Lunule—fiercely, aggressively competent and skilled. He had more than enough skills to earn the title of “sé.” And yet Micah instinctively rejected the word. Jasper was everything Tom had said and more. He was one of the most beautiful people Micah had ever seen. His skills were on the softer side of life as well, despite the fire and passion he brought to bear. It would seem likely that some would call him “sí.” Wouldn’t they?

         But Micah had established no such pattern, and of all people, he did not want to offend this man. He didn’t know which would be flattery, and which would be no more than his due. Empty flattery would be as bad as an insult.

         Deciding he was pleased with his instinctive choice, he went on. 

         I regret that when making plans to continue our work today, I had forgotten about the gala at the castle this evening. I would greatly appreciate it if we could move our plans to tomorrow instead, if this suits you and your household.

         It is my understanding that you will be attending the gala in spite of your depleted wardrobe. I hope this helps to tide you over. Should there be any difficulties, I would be delighted to be of service.

         Sincerely, Mv

         There was no point using his entire title. It was only of use if he needed to overawe someone, and there was no possibility that Jasper would require that.

         He summoned one of the larger household chuffers and loaded it with the parcels and his note. It required a boost to its engine and fuel in order to make the trip to the city and back, and he set it to return immediately if it were given a response, but to wait an hour before returning without, in case Jasper were interrupted while composing one.

         Forty minutes later, he was interrupted in the lab by a knock at his door. He opened it with a wave of his hand and glanced up. A small boy stood there with the looming figure of Briggs behind him. Micah set his tools down and blinked for a moment. “Hello, yes?”

         “Young master has a message for you, he says,” Briggs announced. Micah, who had known Briggs since the man had been svelte, recognised his tone: a small, unknown boy had entered the castle and displeased Briggs by following instructions from someone other than Briggs or the castle’s masters.

         Micah flicked his wrist and said, “You may come in, young sé.”

         The boy bowed, shaggy light brown curls flopping around his face, and walked right up to Micah before digging in his pocket for a much-folded piece of paper. He handed it to Micah.

         Micah took it without taking his eyes off the boy. “Hmm. Would you be in the Earl’s house?”

         “Yessé.”

         “And your name?”

         “Mickelaurstantheliamus.”

         Micah kept his face still with an effort. “Why?”

         The boy shrugged. “They left it on a basket with me in it. I can almost spell it.”

         “How much of it can you spell?”

         “Mickel. I might skip the rest. Nobody uses it anyway.”

         “I can understand the impulse.” Micah studied him, half sure that this was some kind of prank, although whether it was from Tom, Briggs, Jasper, or someone else, he didn’t know. “You work with Jasper. Is he a good master?”

         “I’ve had far worse,” the boy said with the world-weariness of someone ten times his age. Micah wasn’t sure if this was amusing or terrifying. “Jasper insists we all sleep in the house, even when he’s angry. He almost never beats anyone.”

         “‘Almost never’?” Micah repeated.

         “He punched up my old master good an’ proper.”

         Micah was instantly intrigued. He wasn’t sure he could imagine Jasper punching anyone. “Why would he do that?”

         “Ol’ toe-bobber was asking for it.”

         “How?”

         Mickel looked flummoxed for a moment. “With his mouth?”

         “What?”

         Mickel sighed. “Jasper told ’im nobody’d ever laid a spell on him since a caster had protected him. Toe-bobs din’t b’lieve ’im and Jasper egged him on till he started throwing spells. Then the pub caught fire, and Toe-bob’s mates scarpered. So Toe-bobs got proper lit, an’ ’e tried to provoke Jaz to have a go at ’im, thinkin’ the pub’s heavies would see it and think Jaz was the one started it, an’ instead of casting back at him, Jasper said he din’t need but one hand to deal wif ’im, and punched him down. Then we legged it too.”

         Micah took a few deep breaths. The nickname “Toe-bobs” was too horrible to deal with. Whether it had been a punishment the man used regularly, a cultural tradition, or a description of the man’s own feet, Micah would be just as horrified, and there was likely nothing he could do about it now. He set the question aside, along with the other nickname in the story, which was a much happier subject. “Why did Jasper egg him on in the first place?”

         “Coupla us made a break for it an’ Toe-bobs caught us. Jasper heard ’im hollerin’ at us. He tried to buy us off ’im, but that din’t work. So then they got into it.”

         “Hm.” He bit his lip, and found he would rather ask about something horrible than the real subject on his mind. “Why was your master called…that?”

         “If he caught you doin’ anything he din’t like, he had this huge pair of pliers he could get your toes in and—”

         Micah raised a hand sharply and the boy stopped. Mickel would have gone on; that was very clear. But he also clearly knew that not everyone could bear to hear it. “And you…?” 

         “Nah, he never caught me. He took me on ’cause I’m little and fast, see. But that meant I could get away from him, too. An’ when I’d had enough, I was gonna go, but some of the other boys wanted quits, too. I woulda made it clean if I weren’t waitin’ on them. And some of them was missin’ toes. Oldest only had two toes left.”

         Micah turned away, leaning his hands against the work surface and breathing again. He focused on the smell of the hot metal, the tang of the flash bucket, the faint softness of the drying herbs hanging near the boiler. This lab, with all of its dangerous compounds and materials, all the magic stored in it, all the simmering reactions and experiments and energy, all of this felt safer by far to him than anything beyond the doors of the castle. He tried to remind himself that if he hadn’t ventured out, he would never have met Jasper, but right now even that was a struggle to see as good.

         “It’s all right, Sé,” Mickel said, behind him. “Jasper took care of him.”

         Micah automatically steeled himself and turned back, intensely aware that a small child who’d had an appalling early life had just tried to comfort him. “So none of their magic worked on Jasper?” He hardly knew he was going to ask, but his mind was fleeing the images of child maiming, and suddenly asking about the impossible was more bearable than hearing more of the grotesque.

         Mickel stuck out his hand. “You’re supposed to pay me.”

         “Here, boy!” Briggs began, making to storm in.

         Micah simply laughed, relieved to be dealing with something far more human. “Did Jasper tell you why?” He straightened up and folded his arms across his chest.

         Mickel shrugged. “He said I’d have to ask you if I wanted payment.”

         Micah turned away and rummaged on his workbench. “Would you prefer a coin, or something strange and even a little dangerous?”

         “Strange please!”

         Micah glanced at him, pulling over a bowl full of stones. “But not dangerous as well?”

         “I’m the littlest. The rest of ’em take things from me.”

         Micah smiled, nudging aside stones until he found the one he sought. “Not this, they won’t. Give me your hand.”

         Mickel promptly stuck it out, without hesitation.

         Micah set his thumb in the heart of the boy’s palm, tracing across his knuckles softly with his forefinger. Then he dropped a stone the deep dark colour of a black cherry into the boy’s hand. “You see the hole in it?”

         The boy rolled it on his palm. “Yessé.”

         “Find some string to put it on, and keep it around your neck as much as you can.”

         “Why, Sé? What’s it do?”

         “It will control fires for you.”

         The boy made a face, clearly unimpressed.

         “It will,” Micah assured him. “Go stand in the fireplace and see.”

         Mickel looked up at him, pressing his lips together. The expression of disappointment and disapproval would have been perfectly at home on the face of an older man who’d been offered a magical cowpat for sale.

         Micah shook his head. “Would you rather test it here, or at home in front of all the other boys?”

         Mickel turned away and shuffled to the fireplace, still not impressed. “If I go home all burned, Jasper will come looking for you,” he said firmly.

         “I’ll have him fed to my undead plants.”

         Mickel made another disappointed face at him, then held out his hand with the stone on his palm, slowly pushing it closer to the flames. Once he was within a few inches of the flame, it began to swerve and dive away from his hand. Then Mickel was finally impressed, and stuck his fist right in, next to the log. He edged closer, then dipped his head and finally stepped inside the fireplace. He looked back at Micah, and his amazement and happiness were every bit as sincere as his cynicism had been. “What else can it do?” he demanded.

         “You can use it to start a fire, when you’ve had a bit more schooling. Have you mastered fire yet?”

         Mickel shook his head sadly. “I’ve only done air and water. They don’t want me to try fire until I’m tall enough to see the stove.”

         “Fair enough. Still. If you put it on the string like I told you, and then swing it around your hand fast enough and then, say, it accidentally hits one of the  bigger boys who’s not so nice, they’ll probably leave you alone after.”

         Mickel stepped out of the fireplace, staring thoughtfully at his gift. “I think I’ll get a chain for it,” he said firmly.

         “No,” Micah told him. “Chain will make it discharge against your skin. It has to be string. Leather would also work, or ribbon. Anything you could burn easily.”

         “But they could snap string or cord.”

         “I’ve tied it to you. When I touched your hand first, I set it to draw energy only from you. Not even I could make it work now. They can steal the stone, but its magic wouldn’t work for them, and it would soon cloud over and go dormant. It would stay that way until you picked it up. And it will always try to seek you out. If you lose it, it will find a way back to you.”

         Mickel looked up at him again. “Are you really the heir?”

         Micah nodded. “You probably shouldn’t tell many people you’ve met me, though. I usually don’t like children. I throw them off the balcony.”

         Mickel nodded understandingly. “I would, too.”

         Micah bit his lips to keep from laughing. “Well, Mickel, it has been a pleasure to meet you, but don’t come back to the castle again.”

         “Why?”

         “You know how confused grown-ups can get—they’ll hear ‘Micah’ and think ‘Mickel’ and one of us will end up killed as a spying traitor. Then you’d have to spend the rest of your life in boring meetings, banging rocks together in a lab and making notes about the type of nothing that happens, and doing paperwork.”

         “Sounds better than washing puke off floors,” he said doubtfully.

         “Oh, I have to do that, as well. Across the entire city.”

         “You don’t!”

         “On your way home, then, you pay attention. If you see one bit of puke or turd on your route, you come straight back here and tell me about it. Deal?”

         “What do I get for telling you?

         “You can have my job.”

         Mickel grinned. “Thank you, Sé.”

         Micah gestured with his chin, sending the boy out to the hall. As Micah turned away, he said, “Briggs, a moment before you two go anywhere.”

         Micah picked up the note Mickel had given him, scanning it quickly as Briggs joined him. “Be kind to that boy. He’ll be a useful ally. I have some delicate business with the Earl and his household.”

         “The young lady who visited the other day.”

         Micah looked up from the note and studied Briggs carefully. “Yes, he said the two of you had… yes. He will be visiting us, and he could be of great value to the Foldings. But it’s not a subject that will be made public, you understand? Consider it of a level with the most delicate and dangerous negotiations we’ve ever undertaken. You are the castle’s gatekeeper or I should not even be telling you that much.”

         “Understood. He is coordinating an experiment between ourselves and the Earl, and I understand it will be of great interest to the fishing industry.”

         “Fish? You’re sure?”

         “Have you ever found the subject compelling?”

         “It is a good portion of the food market—”

         “Ah, no, Sé. Not for the food industry. There is a certain secretion under the scales of some eels—”

         “Please stop.”

         Briggs raised his eyebrows. “I’m sorry, Sé, does the subject fail to fascinate you?”

         Micah smiled unwillingly. “Someday, I should like very much to know exactly what kind of deal you struck with the Vedouci.”

         Briggs retreated behind his professional butler veneer. “Very dull, Sé. It had to do with the quintuple sequence of boiling required to loosen the skin of—”

         “Out,” Micah said firmly, spinning the man away and pushing him toward the door. “Escort each other as far away from me as you can manage,” Micah added loudly. “I don’t think I shall ever want to see either of you again.”

         When they were out of sight and he’d raised the barriers again, he retrieved the note. It was written in a firm hand, neat and unfussy. Oddly, it seemed to be in pencil, not ink.        

         Sé Micah –

         Yes, tomorrow, thanks. Sorry I got stroppy last night. You didn’t have to send me replacements, but thank you, far better than my own. I’ll return everything tomorrow. Sorry for shortness. Busy here—tonight coming up too soon.

         —Jasper

         The man sounded run off his feet. Micah thought for a moment. He’d taken a housemaster away from his duties on one of the busiest days in any household, and he had made promises of pay, even if Jasper seemed startled to find they’d been sincere. The castle had two people who could advise him on this. Briggs already knew about Jasper’s visits, and would require far less explanation from him. He scribbled a quick note, outlining the situation and leaving the details up to the butler. He had no suggestions to make, and so long as Jasper received enough assistance to make up for the time he’d missed, Micah didn’t care if it was in the form of spells, charms, borrowed staff, or food from the kitchens.

         He really was going to have to sort out some kind of compensation for Jasper. He could carry on plugging holes as they made them, but it wouldn’t work for long. The man was too valuable to both the Earl and magical research. And simply as a human being, he deserved better.

         Micah pulled over a fresh sheet of paper and began making lists.

Chapter Text

         Standing on the dais at the far end of the largest ballroom in Foldings, Casper, the Vedouci of Kuzul, pulled down his high, overly ornate dress collar on one side and with a smile whispered, “Micah, darling, if the Counts of Oloro-Alé keep me for more than two minutes, for pity’s sake, explode my eyeballs.”

         Micah tried not to snort wine into his sinuses as he scanned the crowd in front of them and spotted the black-and-plum dressed pair. He ducked behind the flowing, dark red velvet drapery of Casper’s robe briefly, mopping at his face with a useless, too-delicate handkerchief. From Casper’s right side, Druhy Veronica reached out to steady him, her pale grey eyes flicking over him. She was a slender woman with almost colourless hair, dressed in delicate pale green-and-silver fabrics draping down from her shoulders and waist.

         “Are you all right?” she asked, laughing in surprise at the redness of his face and his streaming eyes. She swept a hand in front of him, long fingers wriggling, and his breathing was suddenly no longer a problem.

         “Thank you. Here come the Oloro-Alé,” he grinned, subtly tipping his head at the pair.

         Druhy Veronica sucked in a breath through briefly bared teeth, widening her eyes in understanding before they both straightened again, serene and composed on either side of the Vedouci.

         “My friends!” Casper said loudly, pulling back the huge trailing sleeves and raising his hands to gather the stiff, grand pair toward him, for all the world looking pleased and welcoming. Micah was relieved his mentor had given him a way to smile when facing the nightmare of their relentless formality.

         Casper grasped the man’s shoulders firmly as he began to bow. “Welcome! Welcome back to Lunule. Farek en Innen Ciel is open to you. Let us hear your latest results, Sé Roulard!”

         “I am honored,” the man said, smiling primly.

         “The last I heard, you were working on inflight de-icing for clatterpost. Did you find anything that melted with the caxflower?”

         “The properties have so far not been consistent, I am afraid. We would be honored beyond words to show you our progress. Sí Tati has refined the process and we will be making another attempt in seventeen days.” Roulard tucked and untucked his pocket watch continuously as he talked. Micah followed the movement, unable to look away, wincing every time the thing popped free of his overstuffed pocket.

         “So soon? Well done!” Casper said heartily, clapping the man hard on the shoulder. “By all means, yes, send me a chuffer and I will make every attempt. Ah, you must excuse me, my friends, my heir wishes a word—you’ve met Micah, have you not?”

         Micah offered Roulard a smile without a scrap of warmth. “It is so good to see you again, Sé Roulard.” Micah spread his smile thinner by offering the dregs of it to the icy Count Tati. “Sé Tati—”

         “Sí Tati has been asked to perform a demonstration at the Darklight Tournament,” Roulard continued loudly, his eyes clinging desperately to Casper’s face as if Micah didn’t exist, pocketwatch twisting rapidly in his fingers.

         Micah wasn’t sure how long it had been, but he felt it had been two minutes’ worth of the pair, and Casper’s jovial façade was beginning to fray. Micah raised his left hand to scratch his right ear awkwardly and kept his right low, his forefinger flexing as if to ease a cramp. It didn’t take much to flick a bit of movement, just a hint, deep in the midsections of the pair.

         “Sé Roulard, are you all right?” came the warm, kindly voice from Casper’s far side.

         “I—Sí Veronica, I—”

         “You look so pale. Here, Briggs,” she raised her voice, catching the eye of the conveniently hovering butler. “Would you make sure the Counts Oloro-Alé find something to drink? Something soothing—you know the vintage?”

         “Of course, Sí Druhy,” Briggs said smoothly, already guiding the pair away.

         Casper put his arm around Micah’s shoulders and stepped back, lowering his head. “You clever little beast. You poked their insides, didn’t you?” Casper said, wonder in his voice while his face remained quite serious.

         “My Vedouci requested my assistance,” Micah murmured. “Eyeballs would have been too messy.”

         “I’m a terrible example to you, I fear,” Casper sighed, raising his glass to his lips.

         “Yes, you should have twisted them yourself,” Micah said, and laughed as Casper choked this time, droplets of blue-violet wine scattering across his beard. Micah turned away before Casper could take any kind of revenge.

         “Ah, ah, Vedouci?”

         Micah looked up at the small, serious man standing near him on the floor before the dais. “I’m sorry, no.” He recognized the man mostly by his shining bald head surrounded by wild black curls, having seen drawings among some of the reports Tom had brought him recently. “I am Micah, the Vedouci’s heir—”

         “From Keta, addressed as ‘Your Brilliance,’” whispered Briggs’s voice in his ear.

         Micah’s gaze flicked up, seeing Briggs some distance away, still attending the Oloro-Alé but with his eyes on Micah, giving him the slightest nod. “—Your Brilliance,” he continued without pause. “I believe this is your first time in Lunule?”

         “Ah! Séo Micah, think I?”

         “That…yes, that will do,” Micah said, nodding encouragingly. “You’re just learning our language?”

         “Known I for long, only read I then. Now speak I the first.”

         “You have almost no accent,” Micah said, genuinely impressed, leaving aside the puzzle of the fractured grammar.

         “Pardon you I please, that has I question?”

         Micah tipped his head and raised his eyebrows, hoping nonverbal cues were consistent.

         “Offense no intend I, that, not is Vedouci king?”

         “King? Is the Vedouci the king?” Micah asked tentatively.

         “King Vedouci, yes?”

         “Ah, no. The Vedouci is not a ruler. It is more about learning, teaching, protecting. It is a responsibility to advance the study of magic, to use it for the betterment of the people, and to help them to use it themselves.”

         “Is…teaching? Entire peoples? All?” The little man seemed aghast at the idea, waving his hands so his wide lavender sleeves flapped. It took Micah a moment to understand what he meant.

         “No! No, the Vedouci doesn’t teach everyone in person, himself. But he learns, studies, discovers, and then teaches others, who spread the knowledge. You see?”

         “How is knowing so different? Why understand people less?”

         Micah felt oddly fraudulent about explaining what the Vedouci was. Most of what he was saying was quoted more or less directly from conversations he’d had with his parents when he’d first won the competition that led him to the castle, and the rest was from Tom and Casper when he’d arrived. “Distance has always been a problem—the farther from Foldings someone was, the less likely it was that the instruction would reach them intact, passing through so many people. But since we’ve had more success regularising the portals, things have been changing.”

         “Portals! Which for thank you!”

         Micah smiled, resting his hand over his heart briefly in acknowledgement. “Some of the knowledge requires knowing different techniques or styles, different skills, new uses for old ones. Until recently, there have been too many pockets where particular magics developed while others remained unknown. The challenge has always been geographical, learning from one place and providing knowledge they lacked, and making sure knowledge is spread evenly, but responsibly. Some spells are too dangerous, and it is the Vedouci’s responsibility to carry the knowledge without abusing it, and guard it.”

         He nodded again. “Think I understand I. But reputation not this. Reputation more is…” He waved a hand vaguely. “Is king. Understand you?”

         Micah knew exactly what he meant, and the same impression had frightened the life out of him, as a small boy one day expected to fill that role. “Vedoucis have been around for centuries. The early ones were chosen to solve various problems, and did so. But the people’s gratitude became a source of power, and as with any position of power, there is the possibility for corruption. Some saw themselves as kings and acted as such. Most of the more”—he hesitated over the word, but there was no other way to describe it—“ah, pompous traditions accumulated in those times. In modern times we’ve been luckier in the choice of Vedoucis, who separated the civil government from the magical, but people have come to expect more of a show.” Micah shrugged helplessly. He had never been comfortable with the grander traditions, and envied Casper’s ability to glide through any situation with the same warmth and ease.

         “Is comfort for responsibility. Responsibility…big. Alone is? Queen?” he asked nodding at Druhy Veronica.

         “Queen?” Micah laughed. “She would be an excellent queen, but no. She is the Vedouci’s Druhy. Ah. They are wed, yes? Married?” The little man nodded. “But Druhy is also a position. She is his…housemaster, manager, partner, secretary, assistant…” He waved his hand in a circle. “She does a great many things to help him. She is…like the castle’s parent.”

         “See I! Is good! Stralucitor”—he pressed his hand against his chest—“responsibility also big, but have druhy no. Smaller place is, but much work.”

         “Stralucitor,” Micah repeated carefully. “That is your name?”

         “Title is. Is name Raza. Thank you, Séo Micah.”

         Micah bowed his head. “I have enjoyed meeting you, Sé Brilliance.”

         The little man smiled so hard that his eyes disappeared in the wrinkles around them. He took Micah’s hand and kissed the palm, firmly and quickly, then turned and walked away.

         Micah stared after him, his faint smile still frozen in place when someone nudged his arm.

         “Bo Micah,” Druhy Veronica said quietly. “What have you done to that man? I believe you have charmed him utterly.”

         Micah flushed. “I… He didn’t understand our titles. I only explained them. He’s the Brilliance of Keta. He’s come all the way to Lunule.”

         “Ahh!” Veronica put her arm around his shoulders in a brief hug. “Your portals, Micah. They are opening up new worlds.”

         “I had…yes. It’s so fast,” he murmured, looking down at his drink. “I thought it would take years, somehow.”

         “That is the beauty of them—what once took years is now a matter of minutes. Oh, it’s the Earl of Ryebury!”

         Micah looked up, startled at the name, and there was the man himself, his white hair smoothed down, a jeweled cap on the top of his head looking as if it were there to hold his hair in place, and a severe-looking woman in dull yellow on his arm. She seemed to be the one steering, however, as her eyes were locked on the dais while the Earl seemed absorbed in admiring the sculpted ceiling, the high stone walls, the drapery, wreaths, garlands, and paintings that decorated the room.

         The Vedouci stepped up next to Micah in time to draw the Earl’s party in with a warm spread of his arms. “Earl Onfroi! Sí Penelope! This is a rare pleasure! Are you staying in Lunule?”

         Micah couldn’t even get his eyes to focus on the man. He caught a glimpse of gray hair behind him, and his heart began to pound. His face went hot and his vision dimmed, and he glanced around to see if anyone was watching him. Penelope was smiling at him a little primly, but he suspected her smile had more to do with meeting the Vedouci than any amusement at his own discomfort.

         “Sé Casper, it has been too long,” the Earl said warmly, his hands tangled with Casper’s. “I have missed your wit.”

         “But not, I suspect, Lunule.”

         “Good gracious, no. It’s only taller and noisier and messier than last time. But my wife, my Nellie, she has so wanted to visit.” He gave a little shrug, patting his formidable wife’s hand on his arm.

         “Oh, Onfroi, really,” Penelope chided, laughing. “Lunule is far more beautiful than he’d led me to believe,” she said, leaning forward as if to reassure Casper that she disagreed with her husband. “I know that isn’t saying much, but it is truly splendid. I look forward to seeing the seasons turn here.”

         “Quite right,” Casper said, smiling briskly and winking at her. “I defy anyone to find a Darklight celebration to match Lunule’s. And our markets were unequaled even before my young friend here refined the creation of portals,” he added, setting his hand on Micah’s shoulder.

         Micah had to look down, his eyes watering as if the heat from his face were forcing all the liquid up and out.

         “Sé Micah, my heir, this is the Earl Onfroi and Sí Penelope. And…is this one of your sons? Surely they can’t be so tall already!”

         Micah was all too aware of Penelope’s reluctance as she and her husband parted, revealing Jasper, who was elegantly turned out, all in black. His double-breasted waistcoat had an intricate gold pattern embroidered across it, the standing collar and deep lapels framing his handsome face beautifully. Micah wanted to speak, but couldn’t remember how to make a sound.

         “I cannot claim him as my son, alas. This is my housemaster, Jasper.”

         Micah panicked, dropping his gaze to Jasper’s tall, polished boots. Speaking to him in his lab was one thing, but speaking to him in front of others suddenly seemed impossible.

         “Something wrong, Micah?” Casper asked seriously, setting his hand on Micah’s arm.

         Micah’s brain shifted gears and was suddenly moving too fast. He looked up, straight into Jasper’s wide brown eyes, noted the uncertainty there, and turned to Casper. “No, Sé. Jasper and I have met already.” He noted Penelope’s twitch as he said it, and didn’t elaborate. “Sé Onfroi, I would like to discuss some of your recent work, if you’re available some morning.”

         The Earl turned to him as if he’d forgotten Micah was even there. “Eh? Oh, right, yes. Only just come to town, you know, things unsettled. Take some time to set lab up, eh?”

         Micah nodded calmly. “Of course. There’s no rush. We’ll arrange something.”

         “Whenever is convenient for you, Sé,” Penelope said quickly. “It will be an honour to have you under our roof.”

         Micah turned to her, intending to reassure her that it wasn’t an emergency, but was interrupted before he could draw breath.

         “Casper!” Veronica said suddenly, pointing. “Oh, look, it’s Jenuvia!”

         Micah turned once more to Jasper, his lips parted, but the Earl was already moving away. Jasper gave Micah a mute look of despair and apology before having to turn away and answer Penelope.

         “Excuse me, Sé.”

         Micah turned to face Briggs. “Problem?”

         “I have strict orders to prevent those,” Briggs said calmly. “In view of which: the young gentleman with the wings approaching on your right is the ambassador from Hanalo, and I believe that if you can offer him a word or two, he might be in a position to assist the Vedouci with the waterways.”

         Micah went back to work, smiling and greeting and welcoming and trying not to think about the grey spiky hair he occasionally glimpsed in the background. Briggs stood some distance behind them and threw his voice into Micah’s ear, feeding him names and titles and special interests of the various guests who approached the dais. Micah found his glass always full, yet often topped up with juice rather than wine, to his relief. He and Veronica took turns at Casper’s side while the other managed a bite or two of food from a discreet tray Briggs provided.

         When the queue of guests finally slowed, Micah checked the time and found it far earlier than expected.

         “Something wrong, Sé?” Briggs asked quietly.

         “No. No, the opposite. Are there fewer guests this year?” he asked, scanning the room, which seemed all too full.

         “No, Sé. Rather more, in fact. We have simply streamlined the process,” Briggs told him.

         “Why have we not done this before?” Micah sighed before draining the glass in his hand.

         “I can’t say, Sé. I believe the Earl’s party is over in the southeast corner. Excuse me.”

         “Excellent,” Casper murmured, cutting across Micah’s thoughts and startling him. “Bo Micah, I’m proud of you. I know how much you dislike these things.”

         “It’s the enforced formality,” Micah corrected him quickly. “What is the point of pretending that it’s a grand party, and then treating it like a public complaints day? And even so, it’s invitation only. It’s the worst of both.”

         “These are the people who will not deign to visit a complaints day. Would you rather deal with them one at a time, privately, for half a day each, at least? This way, they’re heard, they get the prestige of the gala invitation, and we get to mix them in with people we actually like.”

         Micah sighed. “Yes, I know, it’s traditional.”

         “But there are reasons it has become a tradition,” Casper countered. “And now it’s behind us for another year, and I believe there may still be some wine left. Care to join me?”

         Micah glanced aside, seeing Druhy Veronica chatting with someone on the far side of the dais. No one else was within hearing, but he made a few discreet motions to cast a cone of silence around them. The air wavered a little and the noise of the party fell away. “I—Sé Casper, I need to tell you something. I think it will sound mad, but I’m uncomfortable keeping it from you.”

         “Personal or professional?”

         Micah raised an eyebrow and blinked. “Professional, of course.”

         “I was afraid of that,” the Vedouci sighed, pushing back one side of his red velvet robe and setting his fist on the waist of the dark coat underneath. “Perhaps I should consider taking the Marquessa’s advice.”

         “Which was?” Micah asked, drawn in despite himself.

         “Seeking a companion for my heir the same way I sought an heir—public contest. Clearly you understand the duties of your rule, but I don’t think you’re prepared for the responsibilities.”

         “I beg your pardon?” Micah felt the conversation yanked out from under him, as was so often the case around his mentor, and yet his morbid curiosity prevented him from taking it back.

         “I’m not suggesting that breeding is a requirement, Micah; simply that you are too much alone. You will need a companion. I can’t teach you that, though.”

         Micah stared at him a moment. “Thank you for that small mercy, Śe.”

         “Be a good boy or I shall pour wolf-brandy down your throat and let nature take its course.”

         “Sé, may I please finish what I was saying? It was actually important.”

         “You prove my point. Ah, well. Yes, by all means, update me on your studies.”

         “I - how did you know?”

         “There are two things in your life: your work, and an absence of socialising. I could almost feel you squirming this evening. So we’ve covered the one, and this must be the other.”

         “I believe I’ve found a null,” Micah blurted before Casper could veer off again.

         The Vedouci watched him politely for a moment, then took a sip from his wine glass, blinking at Micah calmly. “Yes?” he finally prompted.

         “Did you hear me, Sé?”

         “You said you believe you’ve found a null. Yes, I heard you. I noted the doubt in the statement, and I await corroboration. You wouldn’t come to me if you hadn’t found something unexpected.”

         “You believe they exist?”

         “I’ve never heard of one, but the theory seems sound.”

         “There are theories?”

         “Legends, fairytales, speculation—of course there are theories. How have you tested this person?”

         “I’ve only just started, but so far I can feel nothing in him. Not the slightest hint of anything. It’s... disturbing.”

         “Sounds promising. Would you like my help?”

         “I’m not sure. It would be an immense discovery, but at the same time it could put him in such danger. If you were known to be working with him, would that not raise questions?”

         The Vedouci tapped his lower lip with the edge of his wine glass. “Hmm. Well spotted. Tricky. I think you’re right—I can disguise some of my time, but connections might be made. Besides, I think this is better in your hands—you’ve far more confidence with living matter than I’ve ever had.”

         “You’re very kind.”

         “I’m experienced,” the old man replied in the same tone, and smiled again. “In spite of your seclusion, somehow. Do you want to divulge this person’s name?”

         “I—I’m not sure.”

         “The decision is yours. I shall trust your discretion because of your seclusion, and you may trust mine, in spite of my charm. Say the word if you need anything from me, but in the meantime, do make an effort to enjoy yourself tonight, hm? It is one of the most important skills in life, and seems to be the one area in which I have failed you as a teacher.”

         “I will do my best,” Micah said as solemnly as he could manage.

         “Scor mé,” Casper muttered.

         “I beg your pardon?”

         “It means ‘I give up.’ You are completely beyond me.”

         “Does that mean I’m now the Vedouci?”

         Casper’s face creased as if it were trying to implode. “Go. Be lonely, quiet, and miserable, just do it somewhere far away from me.”

 

         Micah worked his way through the crowd as well as he could, frequently having to stop and greet someone who had spoken to Druhy Veronica earlier but still wanted to speak to Casper or himself. At any other gala he would have been happy to be faced with Sé Calumphreys and her partner Sí Kenzie and spoken about their daughter Orla’s fuel experiments. They were kind, relaxed people with no more love of formality than himself, but at the moment all he could think about was the glimpse he’d had of Jasper’s face as the Earl had disappeared into the crowd. As he made his excuses and moved away, he was caught by Sé Edward, one of Lunule’s governing council, and subjected to a detailed explanation of why the merchants on the lower levels wanted to stop contributing to the fall-safe spell.

         “No one will thank them when a child falls from the third level and breaks both legs,” Micah sighed, rubbing his forehead and wishing he hadn’t finished his drink.

         “I’m not saying we should withdraw the spell,” Edward said with a dry laugh. “But at the bottom of the city, they’re selling a slice of bread at a time, one potato, a sock. They’re just scraping by, trying to survive, and they have no money to spare for a spell that doesn’t seem all that relevant to them. The higher levels could take on the full cost, as they won’t even notice a slight dip in their stores of numium, or a ha’grote from their purses every month. At the bottom, though, that might be all the numium they have, or their entire profit for the day.”

         “Sé Edward, I don’t sit on the council, nor does the Vedouci.”

         “No, but you have the council’s ear, and you could be a powerful advocate.”

         “Have you spoken to the Vedouci?”

         The man made a face, his dark eyes glittering as he glanced aside. “He told me to send him my proposal. That was six weeks ago.”

         Micah shook his head. “I can make no promises, but if the situation is indeed as you say when I look into it, I will try to at least get you a response.”

         Edward seemed to take this as a defeat. “All right. Let’s see what happens the next time someone needs to strengthen the foundations. Have fun at your party.” He stormed off into the crowd.

         Micah sighed and rubbed his hand hard across his face. He hadn’t meant to dismiss the man, and none of this was really in the Vedouci’s sphere, in any case.

         “Oh, it’s not that bad.”

         Micah looked up, not hiding his despair from Tom, who stood calmly in front of him, sipping a drink. His black tailcoat and grey shirt were hardly more formal than his everyday suit. He gave Micah an innocent look over the lip of his glass.

         “Remind me to look into the lower levels’ contributions to the fall spells, please.”

         Tom nodded and pushed a hand into his pocket, pulling out a tiny book and tucking his hand inside it briefly. “Anything else?”

         “Kill me before the next gala?”

         Tom snorted and shook his head. He reached across and put his arm around Micah’s shoulders. “You don’t mean that,” he said, guiding Micah along at his side.

         “I do my best, but the…politics. I always say something wrong.”

         “Of course you do. You’re only the heir. When you are Vedouci, things will be different.”

         “Because I’ll be able to behead anyone who annoys me?”

         “That too,” Tom said solemnly. “But before you buy your sword, I wanted to show you something.”

         “Oh, sweet mecksied Orloff, I don’t think I’m in the mood.”

         Tom laughed. “I think I can guarantee that the mecks isn’t involved, as no one would dare pass it to him, and I’m sure his name isn’t Orloff. Here.”

         Tom nodded toward a gap in the crowd, and Micah blinked in surprise. Someone was juggling, and a ring of audience had gathered to watch.

         “What’s happening?” Micah asked, his eyes watching the spinning white balls.

         “Apparently the subject came up, and they were bragging about him, and someone was sent to find some suitable juggling props. I nicked them from the nursery,” Tom added.

         “Did you.” Micah glanced at him, but his eyes were drawn back to the balls, bobbing in a neat pattern over the crowd’s heads. “Who’s doing it?” Tom didn’t answer at first, and when Micah looked at him again, Tom was trying not to grin. “Oh no. What have you done?”

         Tom shook his head, but wouldn’t meet Micah’s eyes. “It’s that young darb I passed on the stairs. Well. Briggs told me later that those clothes were borrowed, but tonight he’s definitely a darb. If he keeps wearing black that well, I’ll have to stop.”

         “Jasper?” Micah gasped, immediately pushing up onto his toes for a clearer view. “Are you serious?”

         “You didn’t tell me he could juggle, as well.”

         “I didn’t know!” Micah craned his neck, only catching a glimpse of grey hair. “Tom, are you sure?”

         “I don’t bring you lies,” Tom sighed, sounding annoyed. “It’s him. It’s not a face you forget. And he’s distressingly good, as well.”

         The couple in front of Micah stepped away at that moment, and Micah pushed into the gap. A few people glanced back, saw who it was, and stepped aside, leaving him a clear view. Normally Micah would have waved this off and snapped down a distraction spell, but his mind was full of what he was watching.

         Jasper had his head tipped back as he watched the balls flying over his head. There were six of them, Micah noted. Jasper seemed to be enjoying himself, his mouth open as he concentrated, occasionally biting his lip when he threw a ball behind his back, his lips moving almost as if he were speaking to himself at times. The standing collar of the waistcoat and the open neck of his shirt moved with his shoulders, constantly drawing Micah’s attention back to Jasper’s face. His hair was completely free of pink, and seemed a little shorter now than he remembered cutting it, standing up across the front of his head but not long enough to hang down and touch his forehead.

         Suddenly the balls were thrown so high Micah lost sight of them and widened his attention with a shake of his head, watching as Jasper caught them all, with the last ending up on top of the stack in his hands. Several people broke into applause, and Jasper laughed and grinned, giving them a sweeping bow and pivoting before he straightened, which left him facing Micah.

         The large, brown eyes widened and his smile faded. The top ball from the pile spilled off and he fumbled the rest, dropping two more. “Shit!”

         Tom went past Micah to help collect the balls before they rolled into the crowd, and he took the other three back from Jasper before disappearing into the wall of people rapidly losing interest now the show was over.

         “I’m sorry,” Micah said quickly. “I didn’t mean to distract you.”

         “No, no, you didn’t.” He smiled again, slightly bashful this time. “I’m sorry, that was a bit cheeky.”

         “Why?” Micah took a step nearer.

         Jasper seemed to take that as permission and walked over to him, pushing his hands into his trouser pockets. “Showing off a bit. Onfroi started it, but then he wandered off with his mates.”

         “I’m sorry about earlier. I meant to speak to you—”

         “You wouldn’t have managed it,” Jasper said, his voice a little sharper. “Sí Penelope isn’t entirely thrilled with me this evening.”

         “Ah…why not?” Micah asked carefully.

         “Jasper!”

         Both of them turned at the slightly shrill voice, and Micah could almost feel Jasper’s professional mask slide into place. “Sí Penelope,” Micah said quickly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to deprive you of him. I was just telling him how impressed I was. I didn’t know he could juggle.”

         Penelope had been swooping toward them and stopped as Micah spoke, clearly adjusting her approach to his presence. “It isn’t a useful skill in a housemaster,” she said, her smile clearly not an expression she attempted very often.

         “I would think it had its uses,” Micah said lightly. “Jasper, find me when you have a moment, will you?” he added, turning back to Jasper briefly. “Sí Penelope, I beg your pardon.” He bowed his head briefly, glanced again at Jasper, and withdrew.

         Micah was very much aware of his pace, and the possibility that Penelope might still be watching him. He had nowhere to go, however, and simply walked in a straight line, his brain spinning without actually forming a thought. Now that he wanted some kind of distraction, no one seemed to be looking for him. The further he walked, the more desperately his brain seemed to churn.

         “Sébo, what has happened to you?”

         He turned stiffly and found Druhy Veronica attaching herself to his arm, looking up at him with pale, worried eyes. “I—nothing. I don’t know. I just need something to drink,” he finished limply, looking down at the empty glass still clutched in his hand.

         “I’d suggest you have a quick nip of something strong. Casper will be looking for you soon. Are you ready?”

         “Ready? For—oh, no.” Micah stopped suddenly. He’d completely forgotten he was meant to contribute entertainment for the evening. “Oh, no,” he repeated to himself.

         “You hadn’t forgotten, had you? Are you not prepared? I’m sure we can—”

         “No, Sí Vronny, I hadn’t forgotten. That is, I’ve prepared everything. I simply…got a bit caught up in things.”

         “Are you sure?” she asked. “I can certainly tell Casper that—”

         “I’m sure,” Micah said, setting his hands on her shoulders. If she made any excuses to Casper, Casper would tease him for weeks, and eventually needle the truth out of him, and any chance of keeping Jasper’s null properties quiet would fade under Casper’s need to tease his heir. “I’ll meet you up there soon as I can.”

         “Mind you drink something,” she said, taking a reluctant step away but keeping her eyes on him. “They can wait a bit.”

         “I think I’ll do that.”

         He watched her head toward the dais, then scanned the room for Briggs. The butler was conveniently behind the drinks table, speaking to one of the underbutlers. Micah hurried over, handing across his empty glass and replacing it with a glass of the dry white wine. Briggs raised an eyebrow at him as Micah beckoned him over. “I need you to run up to the lab.”

         Briggs joined him in front of the table, but shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sé, but you put the protections up before you left this evening.”

         Micah growled under his breath. “Festering mecks. I left the dustworks there. Do you think you could cover my absence…?”

         Briggs shook his head, his lips twitching under his mustache. “I believe the Vedouci might not be so easy to fool when his heir goes missing from the gala when he’s meant to perform. I would be happy to take your apology for a slight delay, however.”

         Micah shook his head, waving the suggestion aside. “No, I can tell him— Wait. The Earl of Ryebury’s housemaster is over that way”—he pointed—“probably getting berated by Sí Penelope, by the sound of things. Rescue him and bring him back here, quick as you can,” he said, the idea appearing whole in his brain as if dropped there.

         “I don’t believe I’m familiar with the Earl’s staff, Sé.”

         Micah raised an eyebrow pointedly. “You must remember the ‘little girl.’ I believe he calls you ‘Happy.’ I was working with him yesterday.”

         Briggs snorted, fighting to keep his professional demeanor. “Housemaster?”

         Micah grinned wickedly. “Indeed. Just send him over. He won’t need an escort.”    

         Briggs blinked slowly. “Yes, Sé Micah.” He gave Micah a stealthy glare from the corner of his eye as he turned away.

         Micah downed the wine he’d only just picked up and looked over the selection. Casper’s favourite blue-violet wine was never popular with the guests, but it made a beautiful centerpiece, surrounded by rich red wines, dry whites, and sweet blues. He was a little startled to see that Casper hadn’t been entirely joking, and there was actually a small barrel of wolf-brandy. He picked up a glass of blue and one of blue-violet, and turned toward the dais in time to see Jasper clear the edge of the crowd.

         Jasper immediately stopped and bowed, low and graceful. “Sé,” he said carefully without looking up.

         Micah gaped for a moment. “What are you doing?”

         Jasper straightened, and his face was guarded, careful, neutral.

         “Is something wrong?” Micah asked, all peevishness gone from his voice.

         “I… You’re the Vedouci’s heir, Sé. I’m just—”

         “If you finish that sentence the way it’s headed, I will slap you,” Micah said, lifting a finger in warning from the glass of blue wine.

         Jasper gulped and stayed silent, his eyes huge.

         Micah sighed and set down the glasses, reaching out for Jasper’s shoulder. “Jasper, no. You do not bow to me. I need to ask you a favour.”

         Jasper ducked his head, flushing a little. “Yes, anything.”

         Micah paused again to stare. “Are you all right? Has something happened? Was it Briggs? Or did Sí Penelope do something? Because I will—”

         “No! No,” Jasper said quickly. “No. It’s just…yesterday was…I didn’t know if I was too… And then, in the line, and…”

         He trailed off. Micah stared at him, unable to do more at the moment. The long, dark eyelashes and enormous brown eyes that made Jasper’s face seem younger in spite of the strange, silver-grey hair, the strong jaw that Micah had a sudden urge to bite—it was all so distracting, and Jasper suddenly looked so much younger and more vulnerable than Micah had ever thought he’d see him. Micah took a moment to get his voice under control. “Yesterday was no sham, no pretense, no special exception. And I do rather desperately want to ask you a favour, which is not any kind of order. Can you stop… whatever this is, please?”

         Jasper’s complexion finished its climb to redness. “Um. Yes. M-Micah.” He cleared his throat and looked down.

         “I shall turn those boots pink as well, I swear.”

         Jasper choked and looked up, finally looking more like himself as he glanced around guiltily and smothered the laugh. “Just tell me if Sí Penelope is watching,” Jasper muttered, keeping his head lowered.

         Micah craned his neck as if exasperated, rolling his eyes to take in the rest of the room. “I think it’s quite likely she is, yes,” he told Jasper. “Is she everything she looks to be?”

         “And twice on weekdays,” Jasper said quietly. “I’m sorry, she’s… intense. She arrived early—last night instead of this morning.”

         “Oh, dear. And you were late.”

         “Not your fault,” Jasper said smoothly with a shake of his head. “I’d cleared the time, spoke to Onfroi, it should have been fine. But she…doesn’t see things that way.”

         “I see. Well, I shall make sure she feels the weight of my rank, then.”

         “Don’t, please,” Jasper said quickly. “I don’t want to catch any more trouble than I already have.”

         “Charm it is, then. But first—that favour. Do you remember your way to my lab?”

         Jasper recoiled in surprise at the change of subject, but nodded. “Yeah, ’course.”

         “Are you sure? Because I need you to fetch something for me.”

         “Umm. Wouldn’t Briggs oblige?”

         “Can’t. I have protections in place. No one but me can get in or out unless I release them. No one but me, that is, or the only person who can just walk through any spell I throw at him.”

         “Oh. Oh! Yeah, ’course! What d’you need?”

         “There’s a cupboard on the wall near my wardrobe. Inside is a leather bag about so big,” he said, circling his arms. “I’m not sure how heavy it’ll feel to you, but for the rest of us it’s more trouble to hold it down than to lift it up. It’s in the cupboard to stop it from lifting up to the ceiling. And there’s a dark red cloak, should be hanging on the door of the wardrobe, I think, or somewhere near it. I need both of those.”

         “Is there some reason you can’t go?” Jasper asked carefully.

         Micah squirmed, wishing he’d thought to prepare an excuse. I was so nervous about seeing you with other people around that I forgot to bring them down. I’m lucky I remembered to wear clothes. If Casper sees me leave or come back and sees the two of us together he will say things I will never forgive and the way I feel right now I could level this city. Not things he should say, probably. “Too many people here would take it as the height of rudeness if I left, and Casper might see it as me being unprepared. But I am,” he added hastily. “I spent most of the day—”

         “Prepared for—? No, never mind. I’ll find out when I get back.”

         Micah nodded gratefully. “I may have to double your pay,” he sighed.

         Jasper gave him an evil grin. “Double it every day and I’ll own your boots before too long.”

         “I can turn those pink as well.”

         “Right, right. Back as soon as I can.” Jasper smiled at him again before he left.

         That smile. Micah didn’t want to think about it, but couldn’t help it. It had felt….intense, he decided. Something like remembering the casual easiness they’d established yesterday, and maybe gratitude for being reminded, and something that felt like honest, sincere friendship. He very much wanted to believe that, and that Jasper’s odd, belated formality was entirely due to some lecture he’d been given by Sí Penelope.

         Micah watched as he scythed through the crowd, not pausing, not rushing, not hurrying, but making determined progress. No one took any particular notice of him until he passed the Earl and Lady Penelope, and she looked about to bluster at him. He nodded a brief bow at her specifically without making eye contact and simply kept moving, gone before she could put together a single sentence of rebuke. And her expression made it quite clear that rebuke was what she’d been reaching toward. Micah looked away just enough so that her sudden look toward the dais and himself didn’t meet his eyes. If she chose to reproach him for co-opting her staff, that could prove to be a rather delicate matter, as Jasper’s unique quality might be unknown to her. He didn’t want to be the one to break the silence.

         Still, if she wanted to make a fuss, he would take a great deal of pleasure in putting a firm end to that cause of friction in Jasper’s life. She seemed the type to look for faults, and he was already certain that Jasper didn’t actually have many. This would simply make him a more frustrating target, for her: a challenge.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Micah nodded as if to an acquaintance and swept his gaze back across Sí Penelope as he turned away to climb back onto the dais. She looked away a little too slowly, but he took no apparent notice.

“That must be for me.”

Micah turned and smiled at his mentor. “Does anyone at all drink that besides you?” he asked as he handed over the glass of blue-violet wine.

“Hush, child. If they realise I’ve been using pseudonyms and I’m their only buyer, they could get ideas about extortion.” Casper took a sip. “I suppose it is a bit strong for most palates. So, what have you prepared for the entertainment this evening?”

“Oh, just some dustworks,” Micah said dismissively. “Do you know anything about the Earl of Ryebury’s wedded?”

Casper’s eyes widened as he considered the unexpected question. “She’s unusual, as I recall. Not terribly pleasant all the time, but she could be quite stunningly endearing, when she wanted. Strong mind. And Onfroi does need that, poor man. He had potential, but absolutely no ambition other than to maintain the family’s estates and interests—which he does well enough. They’ve done better since Penelope, however. In fact,” he said, pausing and tapping his lower lip with a finger for a moment, “He recently brought an astounding load of numium to auction. I bought some of it. So she must be doing well with the mines, at least.”

“Ah.”

“I heard you ask to discuss the Earl’s recent work. I wasn’t aware you knew Onfroi, let alone his housemaster.”

“I just met him the other day. You might have seen him, when we were on our way up to the lab.”

“He went up to—? Why?”

“So I could test him,” Micah said quietly.

“What are you testing people for?”

“No, Śe. Just him. For, well, anything.”

Casper stopped and turned to him, frowning. “Well? What did you… Oh. Is he the one?”

Micah looked up at him, catching the unspoken question. “Yes,” he said quietly.

Casper nodded silently and set his arm around Micah’s shoulders absently, strolling them across the length of the dais toward Veronica. “I’ll look into some things,” he said vaguely, but Micah knew the mind behind the apparent vagueness, or drunkenness, or any other act Vedouci Casper might amuse himself by affecting.

He felt a sharp chill on the back of his neck and flinched, glancing back. “How many layers are you wearing this evening?” he asked suddenly.

“Do you like it?” Casper asked, bright and focused again. He stopped and raised his arms, showing off his finery. “It all probably weighs three or four stone. And if you count linings, I believe seven layers.”

“So that was your cooling spell that just hit the back of my neck like an icicle. You might want to adjust that before you get too close to Vronny,” he suggested, reaching back and checking his collar and cravat. “Bit of a shock.”

Casper chuckled. “When you were small, do you remember Vronny tickling your neck?”

Micah shuddered, pulling the collar of his waistcoat closer as well. “And do you remember why she stopped?” he countered.

“Ye-es. I believe she saw Tom try it. What did you do to him again?”

“I slapped him up against the ceiling. When I relaxed a bit, he came down again, but…my control wasn’t all it could have been.”

“I think he spent the night in the infirmary.”

“Two nights.”

Casper grinned. “And tonight you’re going to do the dustworks. Should I worry? Should Tom worry?”

Micah laughed. By now they had reached Vronny and were standing in easy reach as she chatted with one of the ambassadors Micah hadn’t greeted, and barely knew beyond the fact that Vronny had grown up near the man. “You’ve seen me do this enough times, Sé,” Micah reminded Casper. “The worst thing I can imagine happening is forgetting where the dust will fall and coming back in wearing them.”

“Is that all? I call that a failure of imagination,” Casper said, sliding back into his more public persona—jovial, unpredictable, possibly tipsy.

Micah was trying to come up with an answer when he saw Jasper’s grey head working his way back toward him through the crowd. “Although I may just surprise you tonight, with a bit of help.”

Casper followed Micah’s gaze. “We-ell. The man’s a housemaster, so he should at least be able to keep you clean, or clean you up if you mecks it all up.”

“Sé Micah,” Jasper said warily.

Micah turned to him and waved him up, going to meet him. Jasper hesitated, but edged sideways to the stairs and joined him. “I’m going to introduce you, now,” Micah whispered quickly and firmly before either of them could get awkward, “and you’re not going to melt from intimidation.” Micah took his cloak and bag from Jasper while leading him back to the Vedouci.

Casper was just turning away toward Veronica when Micah stopped him. “Sé Casper, this is Jasper, the housemaster to the Earl Onfroi. He’s agreed to assist me with some of my latest research, and with tonight’s entertainment, as well.”

Jasper had opened his mouth for some standard greeting, but he glanced at Micah at the last part. “I…” He blinked, but turned back to Casper as the higher priority. “Good evening, Sé Casper. It’s an honour to meet you.”

“Yes, I know,” Casper said in a kindly tone that took Jasper completely by surprise. Before he could recover, Casper went on. “My complete pig of an heir says you’re unusually gifted. You mustn’t mind him.”

Micah saw Jasper frown at the mismatch of Casper’s words, and considered trying to rescue him, but Jasper wasn’t waiting for help. “I—I’m flattered, but much as I hate to contradict him—”

“Oh, don’t bother,” Casper said, flicking dismissive fingers at Micah. “We don’t take much notice of him anymore. He’s been raised by imbeciles.”

Micah shook his head slowly, sighing. Casper was being his usual ridiculous self, but at least he wasn’t making any comments about Micah’s social life. “Now, Sé, that’s not entirely true,” Micah said calmly. “Druhy Veronica has done the best she could in spite of the imbeciles. And there have been rather a lot of those.”

“Of course,” Casper said, nodding formally at Micah. “I stand corrected. And you, Jasper—any idiots in your background?”

Jasper was fighting not to smile, finally understanding the tone of the exchange and adjusting to it, when it clearly wasn’t what he’d expected.  He glanced away, taking a deep breath before looking the Vedouci straight in the eye, his face suddenly as serious as either of them. “My parents were all right, but there were a lot of goats. It’s been a steady decline ever since, though.”

“Goats, you say? You come from privilege, then. Onfroi would never aspire so high as a goat shed. The man has his faults, but he knows his limits.”

“And yourself, Sé?” Jasper prompted, folding his arms, squaring his stance as if preparing for a long story. “You come from goats, as well?”

“Sweet mecks, no. My father was a great mage. I actually come from a long line of fabled mages, and it’s thought some of them first discovered and began mapping the holes that have grown into today’s system of portals.”

“Oh!” Jasper blinked in surprise, clearly caught between moods and not sure what to do now that the banter had been dropped.

Before Jasper could even glance at Micah, however, Casper went on. “That was my father’s side. On my mother’s side, it’s all pigeons.”

Jasper’s lips worked for a moment, then he spluttered and turned away, laughing helplessly.

Micah sighed and shook his head at Casper, who was grinning innocently, and Veronica turned at the sound of laughter. “Casper, my love, have you broken him? What have I told you about breaking your guests?”

“That you find it scandalous and that I shouldn’t do it,” Casper answered easily without a trace of guilt. “But I know it’s only envy.”

Micah set his hand on Jasper’s shoulder as Veronica came to join them, smiling as she swatted at the Vedouci’s arm. “Ow,” Casper announced formally, as if it were the dustiest family ritual.

“He isn’t always like this. Sometimes he’s much worse, but not always,” Micah told Jasper as he turned back, still grinning. “In spite of himself, he actually is a great magician and a wise man.”

“He could be,” Veronica cut in, wrapping her hands around Casper’s arm. “But I wouldn’t hold out any hope to ever see it,” she added, turning to Jasper. “Jasper, housemaster of Onfroi, isn’t it?”

“I am, Sí Druhy,” Jasper said, bowing only from the neck, but with enough sincerity to make her blush. “I’ve been conscripted by Sí Micah to help him with…something.”

“Sounds unsafe. I hope you told him no,” Veronica said.

“I haven’t agreed or refused yet,” Jasper answered, turning to Micah. “So, will I find out first or is it a surprise?”

Micah realised they were all looking at him now, and that his face was probably the brightest red it had ever been, but he couldn’t make a sound. He wasn’t even sure he was breathing. Sí? Had Jasper really called him Sí?

Veronica rescued him. “He won’t have seen the dustworks before, so you’ll have to show him where to stand. I believe Stralucitor Raza has offered to show us some of his works first, and according to the miniature butler in my ear, he’s ready to begin.” Veronica gave her head a little shake and brushed her fingers over her ear. “It’s been very helpful tonight, but my word, sometimes I wonder if it was wise for Tom to teach him that trick. I think he delights in disconcerting me.” She glanced around as though looking for Briggs.

“It would be my pleasure to convey your displeasure,” Jasper said a little too hopefully.

Micah snorted, breaking himself out of his panic. “No,” he said firmly. “Before everyone I know breaks down into bickering children, Jasper, come with me. And you two, stop toying with the staff and guests, and pretend you’re adults with a modicum of dignity.” He took Jasper’s arm and led him back to the stairs, grinning at the sound of Casper’s laughter behind them.

“Festering cankers, that was the Vedouci,” Jasper murmured. “The actual Vedouci of Kuzul. I just asked him if his parents were goats. I don’t know if I can walk.”

Micah pulled him down the stairs and glanced back. “You’re the housemaster of an Earl. You have a houseful of squalling boys to control. Focus on what you’re feeding them next Tuesday, and walk faster. We need to go down two levels to get to the terrace. There’s a portal down the hall we can use.”

“Will I have a chance to figure out what’s happening before I ruin anything?” Jasper asked carefully.

Micah looked back at him, grinning again. “Don’t worry. You really don’t have to do much. I just said that to cover why you were carrying my things.”

“Oh good,” Jasper sighed.

They’d rounded the front of the dais and were heading for a corner of the room that was miraculously free of people. “There’s a door here,” he told Jasper, not sure if he’d be able to see it or not.

“Yep, got it.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know if—”

“It isn’t a magic door, is it?”

Micah smiled. “Ah, no. But there is a distraction on it. Staff entrance.”

“Well that makes it doubly visible. I’m staff, and null.”

They were well within the boundaries of the spell by then, but Micah looked around just in case. “Don’t say that so freely. What if someone heard?”

“They’d misunderstand. They always do.” Jasper followed him through the door and into a cool, wide hallway beyond, the walls gleaming white stone and the floor dark, chocolatey wood with a deep violet carpet. “This is the most glamourous staff corridor I’ve ever seen,” he said, staring around as Micah hurried him along.

“This is the Foldings, remember. The only reason for a cramped hallway here is if someone wanted it cramped. There’s no space limitations if you connect things with portals.”

“So all of this has been built just since you’ve been heir?”

“What? No!” Micah hurried them down to the last doorway. “I just…sort of…rediscovered and refined how to create the older, more permanent ones. The castle is thousands of years old. Well, parts of it are.” He opened the door with his cloak over his arm and waved Jasper forward with the floating leather sack. “This is one of the old portals, and we’ve established that you can use them.” Jasper glanced aside as he passed through, and Micah followed. “Do you even feel anything different?”

Jasper shook his head, turning to look back at the doorway and walk backwards a few steps. “That was a portal?”

“Yes. But it works by… pressing together the locations themselves rather than moving the person passing through, so proves nothing about your nullness.”

“You should just accept it, you know.” But Jasper was smiling as he said it.

“We’re cutting through here, then onto the terrace outside the next room."

Jasper spun around and did as he was told, his grey hair and pale hands floating through the dark room ahead of Micah, his black clothing disappearing in the shadows. Micah winced, finding himself digging his fingernails into the leather straps of the bag, trying not to think about what he would see if the fine clothing actually did disappear.

Jasper found the doors in the next room and hesitated, glancing back. “This is a terrace?”

“Oh, shut up,” Micah sighed, waving him on again. He followed Jasper out through double glass doors onto the flat roof of one of the larger dining rooms. A wide private balcony, with beautiful mosaic tiled flooring and an ornate stone parapet encircling the edge. Micah passed Jasper, leaving him to explore on his own for the moment. Backing away from the building, Micah crossed to the middle of the open area, stopping when he could just see the tops of the windows of the ballroom. He squatted down and moved a step closer to the edge, then set the strap of the leather bag on the ground and knelt on it before spreading out the red cloak and swinging it around his shoulders.

“And all of this is Foldings?” Jasper called to him.

Micah turned while tying the ribbons down the front of his cloak. Jasper was staring at the towering heights of the city rising beyond the castle. “No. What you’re looking at is some of the most expensive housing in Lunule. This part of the castle is only a few public rooms—offices, ballroom, dining rooms, a section of living quarters. Casper has what he calls his ‘show lab’ here. It has so many protections on it that it’s almost impossible to work in, but he uses it if someone needs a demonstration.”

Jasper came back over as Micah spoke, still staring around him with childlike wonder. “And you live like this, and think all these ridiculous things are normal. You’ve got a castle in the middle of a city on stilts.”

“I will clearly have to give you a proper tour,” Micah said, unable to keep from smiling at Jasper’s awe.

“Right.” Jasper clapped his hands and rubbed them together, turning back to Micah. “Give me something to do.”

Micah’s eyebrow went up all on its own, and he hoped the evening shadows hid his blush.

“Put that eyebrow back where it belongs or I will tear it right off your face,” Jasper said, grinning behind a pointed finger. “Dustworks. Apparently they require protective gear?” He pointed to the cloak.

Micah glanced down involuntarily. “They shouldn’t. Not as such. This is just in case the residue drifts on the way down. The mechanics themselves are very simple—blasting handfuls of dust into the air and shaping them into images. The artistry is in the control of the air currents and the balance of the colours. Which is what the bag is used for—controlling the air pressure, giving me a constant supply.”

“Okay, but…where’s the dust?”

In response, Micah turned to right the bag, revealing what looked like a row of widely-spaced studs around the bottom. Using his fingernails, he pulled on one of the studs, which opened a drawer wider and deeper than should have fit.

“What, some kind of miniature portal?” Jasper asked, on the edge of disbelief.

Micah looked up at him in surprise. “Yes. Have you seen this done before?”

Jasper shook his head. “Nup. Just seemed logical. If you can do it with a castle to make it infinitely big, then you can do it with a drawer, or a mountain, if you’ve got the resources.”

Or a mountain… Micah slowly sagged forward over the bag. “Oh. Ohhh. Jasper. Do you know you’re a genius?”

Grinning involuntarily, Jasper glanced at him, clearly trying to keep his attention on the drawer. “If I were a genius, pretty sure I’d know, wouldn’t I?”

“No one’s perfect,” Micah said faintly, turning and staring at him. “The castle’s portals predate any records of how they were made. I rediscovered how to make permanent ones. I’ve also made tunable portals. Using them to make storage more convenient was just a quirk, a minor by-product. But doing it on a geographical scale…do you realise the impact that could have?”

“You really hadn’t realised that?”

“We’ve used them for shipping. But…mining, trains through mountains—”

“Yeah, but there’d be military implications,” Jasper interrupted. “I’d think you’d want to be careful how far you let that go.”

Micah interlaced his fingers across the top of his head. “Of course, yes,” he said faintly. “Sweet Nellie, Jasper. I can’t…” He trailed off, his brain leaping about like a crazed animal in a cage, unable to finish a thought before another one struck. Treaties for trade, but also invading another world; surgery but also killing, shipping was already in place but it also enabled criminals to escape; it could balance a lot of inequalities but could also enable exploitation.

Jasper finally reached down and pushed on Micah’s chin, and he came back to the present with a start, swallowing as he realised how dry his mouth was and how long it must have hung open.

“I beg your pardon. That was— Someday. I need to get to work here.”

Jasper straightened and stepped back. “Right. Anything you need from me?”

Micah was plucking a series of small leather-wrapped bundles out of the drawer, arranging them in order on the ground beside his knee. “It will depend on which way the wind is moving when I start. If it won’t strike us, I’d like you to hand me the next one as I go, and gather up the wraps as I drop them.”

“Doesn’t sound too complicated.”

“It won’t be.” Micah smiled, a whole trail of bundles beside him on the ground. He fished one last bundle out of the drawer, bigger than the rest, before closing it and switching the bag to his left side. Then he lay back on the ground, rolling the generous hood of his cloak under his head as a pillow. “Get comfortable,” he added with a glance at Jasper.   

He picked up the first leather bundle and untwisted it carefully, spreading the paper-thin material in the palm of his left hand. He took a pinch of the dust inside and held it before his lips, then blew through his fingers. A faint plume of yellow rose above him and drifted towards his feet before he let it dissipate.

“They’re never going to see that from up there, are they?” Jasper asked.

Micah looked up to where Jasper stood over him, his hands on his hips, his head back as he watched the dust fall. Even from this angle, even upside-down, Micah had to fight the urge to gasp at Jasper’s face. It seemed completely unfair that one face should get everything so completely right. “No, I’m just checking the light and the air currents. Not much of a breeze tonight, so I won’t have to counter any drift.”

“If that one small drawer at the bottom holds all the dust, then what’s in the rest of the bag, and why does it float?”

“The rest of the bag is very tightly compressed air—the blast to carry them high enough and wide enough to be seen by the crowd. We used to have to provide that force as well as the fine control to move the dust into the picture. Ellie—our master engineer—helped me come up with the bag. It’s a complex layering of reinforcement charms, and allows me more freedom to concentrate on the images.”

“So…” Jasper turned and looked up at the windows again, and out into the twilight in front of them. “That bag must be under a lot of pressure.”

Micah smiled. “Then it’s a good thing I’m here to take care of it,” Micah told him. “Really, now, sit. I promise not to turn you pink.”

Jasper stared at him, then blinked and snorted. “Yeah, better not,” he muttered, trying not to smile as he dropped to sit beside Micah’s head.

“I will make it up to you, I swear. I do feel bad about it.”

Jasper shrugged. “Well. The clothing shortage was helped out by your loan, for which I thank you, and the fact that the luggage turned up early.”

“I really haven’t been much beyond trouble for you, have I?” Micah said quietly, carefully gathering another pinch of dust in his fingers. “I’m sorry about that.”

“Nah, don’t worry.” The warmth in his tone made Micah hesitate and look up at him again. Jasper noticed, but took it as doubt. “No, really. Just…bad luck. And, well…” He ran his hand down his chest, taking in the shirt and waistcoat. “You’ve more than made up for it.”

“Well.” Micah puffed the dust into the air above them, where it glittered for a moment. He swirled his finger experimentally, watching the colour respond. He heard Jasper make a surprised, pleased noise in the back of his throat, and felt himself blushing yet again. Fuck… There was no use trying to mask it with a spell, either, when the one person he wanted to hide it from would most likely see straight through it. “I couldn’t have you turn up at the gala looking like a pauper. Or left home as punishment.”

“No, that’s not how she works,” Jasper said, fiddling with one of the dust bundles. “She knew I’d been here, so she made damn sure I came along. If she knew what contacts I’d made, she’d happily make use of ’em. If I’d made a fool of myself, she’d wipe the floor with me and enjoy my shame.”

Micah stared at him, his hand stilled in the act of preparing another pinch. “You’d…be…shamed?”

Jasper looked at him. “Yeah, you know. If someone caught me shorting someone in the market, or cocking up a spell, she’d tell you how very sorry the Earl’s household were, and if there’s anything she could do to make it up…” He trailed off and waved his hand. “That sort.”

Micah looked away and took a deep breath, this time sending the plume of yellow spiraling high into the air above them, roiling and twisting like an elaborate, exotic feather. “It’s the children I feel sorry for,” he said finally.

Jasper darted a startled look at him, and laughed. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it. But they’ll be all right. Penelope’s never had much interest in children. Especially not her own, lucky little things.”

Micah let himself smile. “Well, cheerful as this has been, time to get down to business.” He cupped his fist in front of his mouth and whispered, “Casper, I can start.”

“Aye,” came Casper’s voice in his ear, and a moment later, Micah heard shutters being opened above them.

He loosened the cord at the neck of the sack and tilted it into position, and tipped the rest of the little pile of gold powder over the neck of the bag, where the escaping air caught it and drove it aloft. He controlled it carefully until it had reached the height of the windows above, then burst it outwards in a swirling, glittering blast of light, something that would definitely catch the attention of anyone inside. In response, he heard the windows and doors opening, and the appreciative noises of the crowd above. He glanced at Jasper, who was still staring up in awe. “If it isn’t too distracting, I really would appreciate it if you could hand me the bundles. The goal is to—”

“Mm! No, right, sure!”

“—make it as seamless as possible,” Micah went on, barely faltering. Jasper passed him the next, and he looked down. “Ah, let me… could you also—?”

Jasper glanced at Micah’s left hand on the bag, but already had the bundle untwisted and held it out hesitantly. “On your palm? On your chest?”

Micah glanced around, evaluating options. “Chest would be ideal, then I can—”

“Yeah, and I can slide it in over your head if I…” Jasper skooched himself over until he was directly behind Micah’s head. “Look, how about…”

Micah felt a gentle touch on either side of his head and startled. Jasper seemed to take the movement as assent and slid forward, lifting Micah’s hood onto his crossed ankles before guiding Micah’s head back down. “There we go, you can see what you’re doing and what I’m doing, and I can reach. Good?”

“Perfect,” Micah said. His voice was steady, but his grip on the bag was starting to hurt, goose flesh ran down his neck and up over his scalp, and only a fierce punch of magic steadied his free hand. “Here we go.”

He had never foreseen this particular need for the bag, but if he had had to blow the dust himself tonight, no one would have been able to distinguish the shaky, jittery splashes he would have sent up. He started to reach for the flattened leather scrap on his chest, and Jasper guided his hand to it.

Oh, fucking mecks…

Micah took a deep breath and closed his eyes, quickly rerunning the images he’d planned for the evening, then slipped his fingers under the leather and guided it to the neck of the bag.

The first few were simple—round bursts of colour that spread into expanding, shifting hues, abstract designs to let people’s eyes adjust to the dark, the angle, the idea. It had been some years since Casper had done dustworks for a gala, and this year there were more new faces than ever before. He vividly remembered the first time he’d seen them, and how long it had taken him to accept what he was seeing: powder smearing across the black sky like a brilliant, visible liquid.

By the time he had worked all of the abstract ones, he’d settled down to the job and was focused again, barely aware of the hands sliding past his cheeks, delivering each new parcel of dust. He lost himself in the smooth rhythm that developed between them, only a small part of his mind registering Jasper’s laughs, gasps, and other sounds of appreciation. He wiped the sky view with a series of vivid, single-colour displays, magenta to chartreuse to orange and ending with a slow, high spread of sky-blue. He sent it far and wide, holding it in place, not letting it fall, and then he snapped the next up with a few quick, hard puffs of air from the bag, sending up silver and gold bursts that rose up through the blue and seemed to fall into the sky, becoming stars. Before the blue faded, he waved his hands in a great, wide, arch, and everything glittered black. It had been difficult finding a way to make black glow against a night sky, but the eerie, indigo waves always drew delighted, shocked gasps, and the crowd in the ballroom were no more appreciative than Jasper, who let his fingers fall gently against Micah’s face for just a moment, he was so startled.

The sweeping change to silver and then white spread both up and down above them, lasting long enough for Jasper to catch up again. “Fast as you can without spilling, now,” Micah said, concentrating on drawing out the change. Jasper had the next open on his chest in plenty of time, and from then on, he replaced them as soon as Micah raised them, keeping him supplied no matter how fast Micah moved. The scene appeared as Micah worked: a flower garden, trees that grew and bloomed and faded to autumn colours before disappearing. A stream washed the garden away, and fish replaced the flowers, moving across the sky above them before bursting into multi-coloured octopuses, wiggling their tentacles as they faded. Then there was a mountain, its summit erupting into smoke, then fire, then flowers of colour.

Micah realised gradually what it felt like: in a way, Jasper was helping him juggle. Only he never needed to catch anything, as Jasper whisked the empty wrappers away as soon as Micah released them.

Micah wiped the sky with a bright smear of colour, holding it up, letting it drift and melt together, growing brighter as the blackness disappeared. Then he snapped his fingers together and pulled his hand down, abruptly removing all remaining colour and leaving a clear, black sky overhead for a moment.

He heard a building wash of applause from above and ignored it, tipping the last dust up over the bag and sending it whooshing into the air in a smoky grey fountain before drawing the colours apart, fixing the grey into whorls, pulling the pinkish-grey into a face, brightening the blue of the eyes, then rotating the violet into place until Vedouci Casper’s face smiled down at them all over a raised glass.

The sudden roar of laughter and applause from above brought him back into the moment, and he could hear Casper shouting something he couldn’t make out. He sounded happy, and there was no sharp comment in his ear, so Micah finally allowed himself to relax, letting out his breath in a long, slow sigh.

“That was marvelous!” Jasper said, reaching down to shake Micah’s shoulders briefly. “Ah, Micah, that was… that was amazing. I’m stunned. I don’t know… Just amazing.”

Micah grinned up at him, relieved that Jasper was still watching whatever dust was still falling from the sky. “You were amazingly helpful. If anyone ever says juggling isn’t a useful skill, please punch them with my compliments.”

“Oh, no. That was nothing. This was all you.” Jasper glanced down at him. “I don’t want to hear that you do this sort of thing every day, mind,” he said suddenly, trying to be serious. “There’s no excuse. That was…fucking marvelous.”

Micah had to look away, laughing a bit himself now. “Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it and weren’t too distracted—”

“Listen, I will count grains of sand, I will number them and hand them to you while turning somersaults if that’s what it takes to see that. But that must be… I mean, even for you, that must be amazingly difficult.”

“It took time to learn, but once you get a few of the knacks down, it really isn’t complex. It helps that it’s fairly impossible to die while doing it,” he admitted.

“Good to know.”

Micah patted across his chest with his free hand, finding nothing. “Where have you—?”

“Here,” Jasper handed him a solid bundle of the leather. “Tucked ’em under my leg to keep ’em out of the way.”

“Cheers.” Micah sat up, trying to hide his disappointment as he pulled away and heard Jasper get to his feet behind him. Micah dragged the bag with him, stuffing the empty wrappers into the drawer at the bottom before knotting the laces at the top again. “I can’t tell—have I got it all over me?” he asked, trying to shift a few folds of his cloak to look for shadows.

“Nah, it all fell miles away, out over the edge of the balcony. You’re fine.”

“Sure?”

“Absolutely. Here.” Jasper reached down and helped Micah to his feet. “See, nothing falling off, no smears, you’re fine.”

“That might be a first, as well.” Micah took a step or two closer to the edge, still not seeing any of the dust as he began loosening the ties of his cloak.

“Wait, Micah? Is it supposed to look like that?” Jasper asked suddenly.

Micah looked back and followed Jasper’s gaze back to the bag, which was shifting oddly. He tipped it toward him hastily and steadied it to see a crack had appeared in the leather. “No, it is not,” he said. He ran his fingers across the crack, feeling a stretching in the charm he’d used to reinforce the leather. He tried to rejoin the edges, but they were pulling apart unnaturally hard. He grabbed for the edges of the charm instead, his fingers making grasping motions over the tear, and just managed to snatch them before they separated completely. Something more than the stored air was pushing on them. Unwilling to take any chances on unleashing a storm, he poured energy into knitting the edges together, pulling on both sides at once and reweaving furiously.

“I think…I’ve got it,” he said through clenched teeth, finally knotting  everything together. It wasn’t neat, but it would hold until he got the bag up to the lab and examined it within the protection spells there.

“Oh, whoa, whoa…” Jasper said, making a quick grab for the neck of the bag.

Too late, Micah realised that while he’d been distracted by the tear, whatever had made it had switched to cutting the seal on the top of the bag. Jasper made a grab for it, but the bag was already flapping open, the force of the release pulling it out of Micah’s hands.

They both instinctively fell back, throwing their arms up in front of their faces.

“What can I do?” Jasper asked, raising his voice as the wind began to howl out of the bag.

“I don’t know!” Micah quickly pulled  his hood up and tried to retie the ribbons on his cloak. The hood kept falling back, and he had to turn his back to get everything secured. Jasper put a bracing hand on his shoulder to steady him.

When Micah turned around, the bag had stopped against the edge of the patio, caught against the low stone wall. The neck was being forced open wider all the time. Micah flung out a sweep of power, trying to throw up a bubble of protection around himself and Jasper. Something vicious, invisible, and lightning fast snapped across his magic as it formed, disrupting the spell, dissipating it before it could even take hold.

“Are you doing that?” Micah asked quickly.

   Jasper shook his head. “All I’m doing is trying to keep us on our feet and figure out what to do to help.”

Micah grabbed hold of Jasper’s bare hand and tried to focus. Jasper looked down, startled, but held on just as hard, staring back. Micah tried to concentrate on the magic around them, looking for a source. The magic was fast becoming a huge, tangled, layered mass, some of it the shreds of the compression, strengthening, and reinforcement spells from the bag, whipping free as they tore from their moorings, some of it dark, spiky, other. He couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It couldn’t be Jasper putting out that amount of magic, not without showing any sign of the effort. The man was simply waiting and watching with no sign of discomfort, no response to the power around them.

Micah shook his head, shifting his grasp on Jasper’s hand. “Someone’s interfering,” Micah said shortly, and turned away.

The wind was growing stronger. By this time, Micah had to lean forward into the wind just to keep his balance. The dark red cloak was whipping behind him in the gale, dragging him back. He tugged it further up his arms,  shook his face free of his loose cravat and tried to center his mind. He had to focus, grounding his feet against the roof, wrapping around himself the pulling strength of a grispius vine. He envisioned and pulled forth a shade much, much larger than the plant in the lab, and rooted it firm to the roof. He dug his feet in under it and let it pull him tight against the stone. He glanced over his shoulder, ready to do the same for Jasper, but the man had already found a safe foothold, braced against one of the ornate marble benches.

The moment Micah was secure, he started reaching out, finding the ends of the the loose spells.

He opened his hands wide, grasping for the strands of energy that had been holding the bag together and were now shifting around him in a maelstrom, their wildly thrashing ends impossible to distinguish from one another.  Somewhere among them was the darker magic, a strand of something alien and perverse, set there to pull things apart and sever his careful net of charms from their source.   

If a spell was cut loose it usually dissipated, but these were still partially attached, tethered at one end to the wild, compressed winds spilling from the bag.

Tangled magic spun around him, fierce and dangerous. He could try to unhook all the spells, but the wind, once free, might do far greater damage. He couldn’t risk it. Someone could be blown to their death. No, he’d have sift through carefully and find the source. Somewhere in this mass was the strand of disruption, and he would have to find it before he could decide how to deal with it. He threw out a loop of power like a lasso, gathering together as many strands as he could and dragging them down. He concentrated,  feeling how the mass of energy reacted, watching how they moved, choosing which to untangle, unhook, or secure.

 

Jasper stumbled back a step, his arms up to protect his face. He didn’t understand what was happening, and it was terrifying. Magic had never affected him before, and now suddenly something had changed and he was about to be blown off a roof in the tallest city ever built. His clothes and hair were being flapped and tugged around him, and he could feel not only the sting of dust and sand being driven against him, but the sharp chill of the wind itself against his skin.

He watched as Micah’s hands dove through the air, his fingers twisting, teasing invisible details, turning and grasping. He stroked the gale and sifted through invisible objects, one fist clenched as his other fingers plucked and nudged. The grace of the movements was mesmerising, but Jasper was disturbed by the way Micah kept his head down. It was clear that he’d closed his eyes and was concentrating fiercely on the magic, but the vine that had appeared and flattened over Micah’s feet seemed to coming loose from the roof itself in the screaming force of the wind.

The decision was made before he’d realised there was one to make, and he pushed himself forward, one hand holding his shirt tight around his neck. He had to lean hard, fighting for every step, but made it to Micah’s side and crouched down in front of him, turning his back to the gale and grabbing hold of Micah’s legs, putting all his weight on the man’s feet. The blasts were strengthening, and he cowered close during the first. When it eased, he shifted quickly, digging his heels in behind Micah, his hands around the backs of Micah’s thighs, and he leaned back as far as he could, counterbalancing Micah with his own weight and muscle.

The shock was wearing off and Jasper had a task to focus on. He risked a look over his shoulder, trying to keep his eyes open, but the dust and dirt of the terrace stung his cheek and temple. He turned away, grimly aware that Micah could not.

 

Micah felt the chaos fighting back, his grip on the loose magic unnatural, every spell determined to break free. His muscles were screaming at him, demanding he spare a bit of his attention for the physical world again. He checked in, thankful to realise he’d remained upright. He opened his eyes a little, and the first thing he saw was brown eyes peering up at him. He nearly fell over, but something tightened around his legs, and he realised what was happening: Jasper was holding on to him. Strong hands grasped the backs of his thighs, and he was straddling Jasper’s torso while Jasper leaned back in front of him. Micah felt his face flash to red all at once, horribly aware of the position they were in, what he suddenly wished it was, and what it wasn’t.

Jasper shook his head briefly. “Go on, finish it. I’ve got you.”

“You don’t—”

To Micah’s shock, Jasper actually growled at him, and Micah flinched back in surprise. His cloak, shaking free of the last of his holding spell, thundered up behind him, dragging him off balance and making him wobble, suddenly dizzy. He was thankful when Jasper steadied him once again. He managed to turn a wail of distress into a determined snarl. He couldn’t move without losing control of the magic, so he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes again. Jasper’s fingers dug into his thighs, and Micah had to force his mind to back down, away from the awareness of such a beautiful man so close to his privates, which were beginning to fight their own battle. He was ready to sob with the unfairness of it all.

He clenched his hands, trying to think. He couldn’t hold many more and even clamping down with all his strength, he was barely keeping hold of the bundle in his hands. He could hold himself and the bundle together or he could try to retrieve the bag, but not both. And even holding himself together might be a problem soon with Jasper’s hands where they were, and his face…

Jasper. Jasper, who was holding him down. Jasper, who was there to help him.  

He drew his hold tighter, as tight as he could, ducking his head. “Bag,” he growled through his teeth.

“What?” Jasper called.

Micah could feel him stretching closer. “Need the bag!” he repeated, his teeth still clenched.

“Can you magic yourself to the roof?”

Micah nodded, gritting his teeth.

Jasper’s grip shifted as he rose, and as his weight left Micah’s feet, Micah staggered. He crouched lower, trying to bind himself to the tiled floor by sheer force of will, unable to think, unable to imagine something more concrete, unable to wrap the magic into a holdable spell. Trying to hold himself with sheer force was almost impossible, the binding was weak; if he lost concentration for a moment, it would burst free again. Tired as he was, he would probably be blown off the roof without Jasper’s solid weight.

As if to underline this, Micah slid back a little, his cloak dragging him upwards, his boots slipping on the stone. He went down on one knee, pulling his hands in, knowing he could do no more with the magic until Jasper returned either to hold him down, or to bring the bag. It was becoming difficult to breathe, and the thought came to him that perhaps Jasper hadn’t let go so much as been blown away, and might even now be lying at the foot of the castle, bruised and broken. His fingers twitched and another gust slipped free, driving dirt and sand against his exposed skin. “Jasper!” he bellowed.

“Behind you!”

Micah whirled round, his arms tangling in his cloak which was now trying to lift up and over his head. “Bag!”

“Got it,” Jasper shouted. “What—?”

“Hold it open,” Micah ordered, and with a flumpf, his cloak slid up and over his head, leaving him feeling like an inside-out parasol. He slid blindly forward, trying to keep his body in place while dragging the magic with him. The fierce pulling of his cloak lifted his hands, and he squeezed his eyes shut, ducking his head and curling inward. The tangle of magic in his grip was more snarled than ever now. He was running out of strength and wouldn’t be able to separate it properly so he began crushing it tight, coating it with a thin shield and wrapping it again, containing the pressure as well as he could as a temporary measure before he turned to the serious work of herding it back into the sack.

It would be close, but he could make it work if he could push hard enough. The gale picked up again, ripping at the bag in Jasper’s hands. Micah could feel it, the darker magic. Someone was trying to sabotage this final effort. He focused on the tangle he still held. Starting at one end of it, feeling the way it moved, the thickening and thinning. He was all too aware of the drain even this short pause was on his resources. Balancing carefully, he drew all his power together, and began flicking strands of the tangle into the bag, thinning it, paying attention to what each one was.

He nearly missed it. A tiny thread now, possibly just one of many. But it was right here in his hand, fighting desperately to dissipate into nothingness. He hauled it back, yanking hard, then flinging it clear as though cracking a whip. It snapped free of the tangle, separate now, unable to wreak more damage.  The bundle in his hands quieted a little and he concentrated, keeping the single terrible spell aloft. he began to turn them, slowly reeling them in, wrapping them into two tight little bundles.  The storm drew tighter around him, intensifying as it was dragged in, shrinking its area.  

Something happened then. It felt as if some other power had seized hold of the whole mass, and was spinning it around, tugging wildly at his grip, escalating the storm, expanding the reach of its disturbance. He felt the wind catch and start to spin, whipping around after the threads, caught up with the magic, and for a brief moment his feet actually left the ground. His cloak was dragging him upwards. The fucking cloak. He could hear Jasper shouting but he had no strength left to hold himself down, his cloak down. It was taking all this power to hold onto the jerking, howling spells in his hands. He snarled and leaned his head back, trying to slip the thing over his head with a wild shake. It caught on his nose, wrenching his head around. He was almost a full foot off the ground, his already-weak binding spell reaching its absolute limits. With a growl he got his teeth under the ribbons tying the cloak on, used a little jolt of magic to give them an edge and ripped clean through the ties.

He dropped instantly, crashing to the tile. Completely disoriented, he went down on one knee. “Jasper!” he called desperately.

“Here—augh!” To his surprise, Jasper’s voice was still in front of him.

“Bring it close!”

“I’m—trying. I can’t…”

Micah squinted through tight eyelids. Jasper was indeed in front of him, but the wind was now somehow between them, driving them apart. Jasper was tilted forward at a ridiculous angle, held up by the straining bulk of the sack. He held the neck of it open with both hands, his entire body pushing forward behind it.

Micah’s body ached with the force of it, and he was grunting with effort, but he managed to push himself up and get one foot ahead. He thought he could hear Jasper’s voice, but with every push, the force became stronger. Everything seemed to be flapping and tugging at him. He pushed again, moving another step closer. He could hear Jasper clearly now, crying out as he tried to push forward. Micah spread his feet wide and managed another step, but something was cutting into his upper arms, and it was beyond bruising. His neck was being stung and strangled, and breathing was an effort. The only way to get air back out of him was to shout, and he did.

He gave the bundle of spells a shove, but it pushed back—he only had one thread of the foreign force in hand and someone was still determined that they fail. He yanked on the one he held, concentrating full force on its source. A faint ripple tugged in the direction of the courtyard above. He reached out, as far up and close to the center of the ripple as he could, drew a ring around it, and snapped it taut--an intangible garroting. It would cause the source a small amount of pain, and that would have to be enough, for now. For a moment the force slackened, the storm quietened.

Rapidly losing balance, strength, and composure, Micah pushed everything he held toward the bag, and gave up all efforts to keep his physical self together. The bundle in his hands slid into the mouth and quickly he dragged the storm in. Sharp pain flashed across his arms, but it was working. As they passed through the mouth the yanking lessened, giving him just enough relief to push again, one last flash of effort.

His ears still roared with it, and he and Jasper were both shouting as the final spell slipped inside, the evening falling silent as the roar died. The silence was so loud. Micah opened his eyes even as he fell forward.

Jasper caught him with a hand against his shoulder, shoving him upright and hauling on the ties at the neck of the bag, winching it shut in time to catch Micah as he staggered again. “I’ve got you,” he rasped.

Micah sighed and relaxed all at once, his knees giving out. Jasper lowered him to the ground. “Keep the bag close,” he whispered weakly.

“Don’t you worry,” Jasper said softly, and Micah felt skin on his forehead. “It’s over.”





Chapter Text

From the dance floor, Casper noted the return of Tom, Jasper, and Micah. Micah looked distracted, his hand on Tom’s arm, listening to something Jasper was saying behind him, but staring at the dance. Jasper was set upon by Śe Penelope, who froze when Micah turned and said something to her. Then the grey-haired lad was talking to them both, and then grinning, and Penelope was deflating and Micah smiling. Even Tom seemed a bit bemused, standing aside and simply watching the performance. Casper sent a charm across to tweak the light into Tom’s eyes long enough to make him look up and see Casper. 

“Excuse me, darling, but if you don’t move your feet, the whole dance is going to fall apart.”

Casper winced and refocused. “Ah, Vronny my lovely, I’m sorry. Watching the lads rejoin us. There’s some kind of glamour on Micah and that boy of Onfroi’s. Something definitely happened after his dustworks.”

Down, two, three, left, no, yellow…” Veronica sighed and rolled her eyes as he fell completely out of rhythm and had to stop and switch feet.

“Yes, yes, I know,” he muttered, casting an eye up at the glowing, coloured pattern in the air above the dance. The glowing lines led up from each dancer to a point halfway to the hall’s ceiling several stories above them, where they all joined. Each couple’s moves put another curve or twist in the line, and the bends and shapes were pushed higher along the line as more were added from the bottom.  The colours were pushed down from the top, the result of each couple’s combined magics.  The line above Casper and Veronica had shifted a full yard out of place, and the dull grey stood out from the yellows and oranges crowning the pattern above the other dancers. He took a breath, snapped the line back into place and pressed his palm against Veronica’s, bringing a growing fuzz of gold slowly down from the line’s highest point.

“Better. Pay attention, now. Micah will be over to take your place any moment, I’m certain.”

“You called him?” Casper asked, making sure his feet were following hers.

“No, but he’ll see the mess you’re making. You’re supposed to be leading the dance, not tripping over nothing!”

Casper opened his mouth, because this was unfair and uncalled for and a little hurtful, only it was true. For all Micah’s shyness, he had never struggled with dancing. The apportioning of abilities may not have been fair, but that wasn’t Vronny’s fault. He could do magic, or he could dance, and combining the two simply wasn’t on.

“I haven’t tripped,” he managed.

“Śe Vedouci.”

Casper looked over his shoulder, already breathing a sigh of relief at the sound of his overly-talented heir’s voice. “Yes, about time!” Micah was already sliding his hands between Vronny’s and Casper’s, and he stepped back gladly. “We just finished yellow,” he added.

“I am well aware,” Micah said, and already the line above him was blending better with the pattern, smoothing and brightening. “Or rather, most of the room was doing yellow.” He gave Casper an excellent “disappointed in you; look at the mess you made” look over his shoulder.

All Casper could do was take two long steps to his left and clear the floor, watching as Micah’s hands mirrored Veronica’s. Micah had always found dance magic easy, right from the beginning. Casper had had to sweat and even bleed at times to try to get the steps down. This dance in particular, the  Calusarotte, was his nemesis. It was difficult to practice when it took at least ten dancers to get the pattern going, and finding nine other people patient enough to put up with him was simply ridiculous. He’d worked on the movements on his own every night for a month before his first public performance of it, but combining the magic with the movements was entirely different. Now he’d performed it enough times that he could afford to be distracted momentarily, but it was a trial, and Micah simply did it better.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that colour before,” Tom said next to him, startling him. “A sort of greeny-orangey purple. Your own invention?”

“You low-living weak-legged son of a mecks pocket.”

“Thank you.”

Casper glanced at him, and twitched a wall of silence around them. “What happened out there? Why was he so late coming back?”

“Bit of a nasty trick,” Tom said, keeping his attention on the dance in case anyone was watching. “Maybe sabotage. That bag of air he put together for the dustworks—someone ripped it open after he finished.”

“That would be dangerous. If it was meant as a joke, someone needs a lesson in humour.” He rubbed his lower lip  for a moment. “Well? What are you holding back?”

“It was. Dangerous, I mean. Jasper and Micah are both being held together with glamour and glue—that was part of the delay. The rest was the pair of them nearly being blown off the balcony. Before you ask, I didn’t see it,” Tom added, holding up a hand. “But they’re tattered and a little beaten.”

Casper focused on Micah, looking for the edges of the disguise spell. He slipped underneath it and saw the ripped seams and missing buttons before looking around the hall for the grey-haired boy, finding him surrounded by a knot of admirers looking for a dance partner. He was staring at the dance’s glowing, coloured lines, utterly fascinated while people pointed and gestured, and he nodded as though he were understanding them. Casper smiled faintly, but Casper thought he detected a bit more limpness in his hair, a bit more heaviness in his movements, a bit of paleness in his cheeks. He looked to Tom with a frown, waiting for an explanation.

“What, him?” Tom asked after a moment, looking from Casper to the boy and back. “No, not me. Micah had to patch him up—well, his clothes. We couldn’t get a glamour to stick.”

“Why was he out there with Micah in the first place?” Casper asked. Maybe Tom knew Micah’s suspicions about the boy; maybe he didn’t. Micah tended to confide in Tom even more than in himself, but sharing such a strange idea might have given him pause. Casper wasn’t going to take the chance Micah hadn’t told Tom his idea, as well.

“Micah asked him. It’s a good thing he was, as he risked his life to keep Micah safe so Micah could concentrate on getting the bag back under control. And I think Jasper might be a little taken with your heir.”

“And Micah?”

“I don’t think Micah is quite so interested in himself, no.”

This time Tom wouldn’t meet his eyes, despite the long moment Casper waited. “I can’t fault your loyalty, I suppose,” he admitted, looking back at the dance. “Great Wertheimer’s majesty. Who would even think to try something like that? Have you learned anything yet?”

“I’m working on it. From how long it took Micah to fix things, someone was actively fighting him, which means there’s a good chance they’re still in this room.”

“I wish I’d known. I might have been able to feel something. No point keening over spilled beans, I know, but…” 

“No, Vedouci—you cannot be expected to monitor security during your own flaming gala,” Tom said, rolling his eyes as he turned to Casper. “This is why you hire people. We appreciate your caring, we do. But perhaps you remember having this conversation before?”

“Yes, yes, yes. Tonight seems to be the night for me to disappointment everyone. I had no idea that was considered part of the entertainment. Maybe I should have been broadcasting our chat to save everyone else the effort.”

“And I had no idea that the Vedouci could be such a petulant busybody and retain any degree of respect.”

“…No, I’m not going to ask what degree I retain.”

Tom finally smiled. “You’d probably just go all soppy and get your beard wet.”

“Now that you’ve expended your night’s quota of cheek, go find Padmache—she might even be in her office—and tell her what happened. Get her started with a guest list. She insisted on not coming to the gala, you know. Said that as head of security, she couldn’t let herself be distracted by a party…”

Casper paused, his eye caught by a flash in the pattern of the dance. He raised his head and saw Calumphreys with her hand around Jasper’s waist, both of them laughing as the dull grey line above her was pulled out of shape by Jasper’s dancing. It was clear he not only didn’t know what he was doing, but couldn’t have contributed to save his life, if what Micah suspected about the lad were true. “And go rescue that great eege from Callie’s grasp before anyone catches on,” he added with a snort.

Tom looked up and grinned. “Ah, how very sweet. I’ll send him over to you, shall I?”

“Splendid.” Casper swept away the silence around them as Tom moved off. Outside of Callie’s tangle, which was attracting some baleful looks from other dancers, the pattern was progressing beautifully. Micah brought a delicacy to the movements, sharpening the lines and brightening the colours, his hands sculpting the air so that his line with Veronica had the sharpest bends and most graceful curves, spinning up and out over the dancers’ heads. 

Casper always preferred to watch Micah’s casting rather than the effects of his spells. He had a natural grace, not fussy or affected, as though he were having a conversation with someone he deeply respected by way of gestures and postures. Casper never understood why others didn’t find Micah’s movements as magnetic and fascinating as he did. 

“He’s a pleasure to watch,” came a voice at his side—the kind of low, purring tones many people might hope to hear from the pillow across from them, sharing a blanket.

Casper turned, and smiled in spite of finding Śe Edward of the Lunule Council beside him. “I was just wondering if I was the only one who saw it. Setting aside all his power, he’s just so  pretty.”

“I get that,” Edward said agreeably, his small eyes nearly disappearing as he smiled, watching Micah’s swaying hands. “He’ll be an excellent Vedouci one day. You must be proud.”

“I hope to be, but I suspect you have other plans.”

“What? ” Edward looked genuinely surprised, an expression Casper could never hope to fake as well, himself. 

“I understand you’re concerned about the funding of the anti-fall spell. If Lunule were to lose the protection from falling, who do you think would die in greatest numbers the first day?”

Edward swallowed, his dark eyes stretched wide. “Who would want that?”

“Apparently you do. Is this a surprise? I do hope you like surprises.”

“I—? I never said that! But the poorest people have been paying more than their share and they don’t see much of the benefit.”

Casper smiled briefly. “Or, seen a different way, they see most of the benefit. How well would the bottom of the city fare if everything that began to fall actually continued falling? The lower levels would be buried in trash, mud, and anything else that took it into its head to move downwards. Who do you think initiated the anti-fall spell, Edward? In the early days, the lower levels were in perpetual night, not just from the upper levels blocking the sun, but because the streets needed to be covered or they were at constant risk from falling debris. They were the ones who first proposed it, and as the upper levels didn’t have the same issue, the bottom city decided to enact the spell even without the top’s contributions.”

“That was hundreds of years ago!” Edward said, his shoulders pulling back and straightening. Casper watched with slight interest, as Edward drawing himself to his full height would only raise the top of his head to the top of Casper’s beard. “That’s not remotely relevant to the current use!”

“I realise this may be a new concept to you, but I believe your career would have a longer life if you tried not to make a fool of yourself. Like any new skill, it takes practice, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t come naturally to you.”

“Wha—”

“Of course it’s relevant,” Casper snapped. “That is why the payments are structured as they are! Have you never wondered why Hames wasn’t interested in looking into it? You thought she’d be sympathetic because good ol’ Hames doesn’t live all the way up in Diantha’s Pinnacles, didn’t you? But you thought the Cupolas, well, they’re old towers, middling in the city, she can’t be biased. But the Cupolas are old old, and barely pay a token towards the spell because they were the top of the city when the spell was enacted.”

“So, so… so why shouldn’t things change?” Edward spluttered, his artifice falling away and leaving naked desperation shining brightly in its place. “This is a magic concern, Vedouci. Hames has no right to make proclamations—”

“What proclamations would I be likely to make at someone else’s gala?” 

Casper and Edward both turned at the new voice. A tall woman with close-cropped white hair had joined them, a shorter man at her side. Casper believed her secret drink of choice must be vinegar, and it had left her mouth too small to create a smile. Her companion, however, was clearly ale and whiskey all the way, and had probably enjoyed more than a glass or two already, judging by the roses blooming on his cheeks. In fact, Casper realised, the four of them looked like a matched set: two tall and stately white-haired figures with shorter, plumper, darker companions.

“Śe Hames, what a surprise this isn’t,” Casper said with a broad grin. “You always know the right place and time. One day you simply must teach me that spell.”

“No spell, Vedouci. It’s just a matter of gauging the width of your grin as compared to your company.”

“Śe Hames, we were just discussing the contributions to—” Edward began, putting a solid amount of effort into his engaging smile.

“Ahh, Śe Edward, have you not had a wee drink or two?” Hames’s companion said, putting a plump hand on the sleeve of Edward’s coat. The pinkness of the man’s cheeks made it clear that he had already tested the quality of drinks on offer, and could be considered an expert.

Edward glanced down at the hand and moved his arm away, absently flicking at his sleeve. “I’m not in the mood for more, Śeo, thank you, as the negotiations we were discussing—”

“I do beg your pardon, Śe Hames, but you’ve neglected to introduce your companion, and as a host, that’s terribly rude of me,” Casper cut in. Edward wasn’t skilled enough to outmanoeuvre Hames on her own, and with a new player in the game, Edward would be flustered and stymied. And when Edward was stymied, he tended to react in the worst possible ways, spreading chaos to his enemies and friends alike. Distraction and delay were the best strategy available to Casper at the moment.

“I believe we were greeted by your charming Druhy and heir in the reception line,” Hames said, her tone making it clear that she considered this a mistake at best and an insult, for preference. “This is Śe Toen-Wae, my new assistant.”

Casper took the grinning man’s hand. He looked far too young for his hair to have reached the unfortunate state of balding that it had. Once it had probably been thick curls, but now the slightly-pointy top of his head was naked, leaving a thin outpost of curl on the front of his head, a lonely island where the inhabitants were slowly dying off. His easy grin would have been charming if it weren’t for the staining on his teeth, which had him trying to keep his lips closed when he remembered, which in turn gave him a fussy little pursed-lips smile not so different from Hames’s own. “That’s a name from the marshes, isn’t it?” 

“Heenmarsh, it is,” Toen-Wae said, his grin settling into a satisfied smile, giving a clear view of the brown stains on his upper four front teeth. “I caught Śi Hames’s eye when I was leading the investigation into a bid for the water exchange.”

“Exchange? With who?” Casper blinked innocently, pretending not to notice the man’s posturing, and knowing he was ignorant of how much he was about to antagonise Edward.

“Ahh, have you not heard, Vedouci? We’ve bid for the Lunule exchange. You need a great deal of water and your pumps are old and past capacity. I hear the castle’s plumbing could do with an expert eye, as well,” he added, winking in what he clearly believed was a charming fashion at Casper, and it just happened to be with the eye Edward wouldn’t see.

“Oh, bad luck,” Casper said brightly, prepared to blunder all over the man’s path. “With Lunule? Dear me, no. The Hanalo are far more feasible.”

“That’s a discussion better suited to a larger group,” Hames interrupted, to her assistant’s obvious disappointment. 

“Vedouci, I beg your pardon.”

If it had been any voice but Tom’s, Casper had fully intended to rebuff yet another interruption from behind him, but Tom’s timing was legendary, and Casper accepted the rescue.

“Ahh yes, thank you, Tom. Śe Hames, Śe Edward… Śeo Toen-Wae, you simply must excuse me. This interruption has been months in the planning.” He twinkled at them all and turned away, setting one hand on Tom’s shoulder and one on Jasper’s. The grey-haired boy didn’t seem to be faring very well at the moment, and Casper couldn’t wait to find out why. He cast another cone of silence around them, letting people see them talking seriously about a minor emergency involving the castle’s plumbing in the guest quarters in the North Wing. 

“I’m sorry, Vedouci, I did my best but I couldn’t stop it,” Jasper said as soon as Casper’s fingers stopped moving.

This would need to be stopped and immediately if not sooner, he decided. “Darling boy, if you think there’s anything you could do to stop magical sabotage when my very heir could not, I am absolutely horrified that you have not made this skill of yours known.”

Jasper hesitated, frowning a moment before he opened his mouth, and Casper realised what was on the boy’s mind—his reported Null status. “Oh. No, that wouldn’t have been any help. And yes, Micah has told me what he suspects of you.” He paused, and glanced at Tom.

“Yes, I’m aware,” Tom admitted. “And I agree—it would have been no help.”

“I think it may have been some help,” Jasper said slowly, glancing between them. “I was less affected by the storm from the bag, I think.”

Casper opened his mouth, then suffered his own moment of hesitation. He turned his attention to Jasper’s clothing and moved his vision past Micah’s repair spells. The stitching had a hollow feel where Micah had temporarily fused the fabric and reformed frayed edges, and the overall combined impression of the two boys’ states was more distressing than he had expected. “I’m looking past Micah’s spell, lad, and if you got off lightly, then how is Micah even with us?”

“I held onto him. He was getting pulled around in every direction by some kind of magic, as well as whatever got unleashed from that bag. Me, well, my feet never left the ground. But I have to tell you, after all that, I’m beginning to doubt that I’m Null, too. I could feel that wind, and…” He shook his head.

“The bag only holds compressed air,” Casper said, flapping a hand dismissively. “It holds a very great deal of it, and under intense pressure, but air is just air. Maybe this will help: if I threw a chair at you, it wouldn’t matter if I used magic to do it or my own fair hands. You’d still get hit with a chair.”

Jasper frowned, thinking it over, then raised his eyebrows and nodded reluctantly. “Makes sense, I suppose.”

“But on the subject of finding the cause, now, did you see anyone out there?”

This time the boy was certain and shook his head. “I’d’ve had them, Śe Casper. If I’d seen anyone out there, I would’ve tackled ’em. There’s few people can keep a spell going when someone’s beating eight kinds of shit out of ’em.”

“Have you learned anything?” Casper asked, turning to Tom.

“Barely. I’ve set some things in motion, but I’ve more work to do. And now that you’ve got Jasper, as requested, so you can explain why he’s not allowed to dance, and to stop you from weeping blood all over one or three of your guests, I’ll get back to work.”

Jasper looked startled as Tom nodded at them and slipped away into the crowd. “Dancing? Oh, mecks, I’m so sorry, I mean, I was actually named on the invitation so I thought… but I shouldn’t have, I had no idea—”

Casper raised his hand. “Please, calm yourself.” He smiled at the boy, who seemed genuinely hurt that he might have given offense. No resentment behind it, though, which was odd. And oddly disappointing. “It is nothing like that at all. It is because you are at the Vedouci’s gala, and as such, nearly everything is touched by magic. Including, I’m afraid, the dancing.”

“Uh, um… Oh. So…you’re using magic to make people dance?” he asked slowly.

“Yes, because the world is made of my secret puppets, and I have nothing better to think about than prancing them around the room. I’ll be making them eat later, too. The drinking is all their own work, though, to give fair credit.”

Jasper almost smiled again, but his confusion was too great. “No, come on, that’s… I mean, really?”

“You really are descended from goats, then?” Casper asked, slipping a glass of blue wine off a tray floating past.

“Feckin’ Meg…!” He did the facial-expression equivalent of stamping his foot petulantly, glancing away briefly and shaking his head once. “Look, I’m talking to the Vedouci of Kuzul, all on my own, for the second time tonight, and I think that should count for something. I’m trying to stay polite and professional, I swear I am.”

“You can’t help the professional, and I don’t think you’re capable of being impolite. You’re far too young. Your question, then: No, of course I am not controlling the dancers. But the dance is its own magic.” Casper swept his gaze across the dance floor, noting the nearly complete pattern of the Calusarotte. The striking grey hair on this boy was disorienting, he decided. Perhaps the Nullness had somehow caused the greying, and in recompense, given him a face that would turn nearly any head. The way magic affected family traits like hair colour could seem unpredictable, but it was Casper’s belief that it had its own logic, even if they hadn’t been able to codify it yet. “You’re going to have a sticky time of it in Lunule, or I am very much mistaken, which I have no experience being,” Casper went on.

The boy laughed and shrugged. “I have a houseful of boys—I’m used to sticky.”

“To each his own. Now. Lunule is more full of magic than anywhere you’ve known. A Null—a mythical beast to most—well… Micah’s instincts and my own are to keep your peculiarities as quiet as possible until we know more, especially after the strange episode on the balcony tonight. So dancing, for you, is a bit complicated, as this particular one involves magic.”

“Yesse,” Jasper said quietly, ducking his head to accept the delicate rebuke, then folded his arms across his chest. 

“And there will be several more like this, this evening. Indulge a crazed old man—what do you see above the dancers’ heads, in the center?”

“Oh, the lines? Sort of a swirly kind of rainbow, sort of?”

“Ah, so you can see it. The shape of the line is affected by each partner’s moves, and the colour of it is controlled with magic. At the end of the dance, each of them will feel a…well. Do you know, I’m not sure I can describe it to you,” he said, suddenly realising the limitations of vocabulary when dealing with someone who was somehow outside of the magical sphere. “They will, in effect, feel each colour as the pattern slides down through them at the end. It’s a sort of…temperature with flavours. You can feel the twisty warmth of pink, the sleek coolness of the green… Purple is a sort of…not hot, exactly, kind of a spikey, rounded…” He trailed off, waving his hand. “Well. It’s a difficult dance to learn. It took me ages, and until you can perform it, you can’t feel its effects.”

Jasper was nodding, and the Vedouci wondered if this strange child were somehow humouring him. “So even if I did the moves right, got my feet and hands doing every move just so, I wouldn’t be able to feel it?”

“If you can’t contribute to the pattern, I doubt the magic would affect you.”

“But what would it matter? If I could do the moves, what difference should it make to anyone else?”

“You wouldn’t be controlling your link in the pattern, and when you were participating, the lines and colours around you were all thrown off. Other people were noticing it, and while you might have been following Callie’s lead distressingly well, mecks take you, that would have left them wondering why the pattern wasn’t taking any account of your contribution.”

“I just told them I’d never tried this dance before.”

“Even when I was learning it, my moves were enough to get the colours not exactly right, but visible. The pattern may have looked like a drunken rat’s nest, but so long as my body was in roughly the right place and shape, it was enough to be visible. Whereas when you did it, there was a hole, and the colours of that part of the pattern were muddied. It was…you’re familiar with stained glass, yes?” 

Jasper nodded, puzzled by the seeming non sequitur. 

“Imagine the glass is liquid instead of solid, and it’s being spun around on a centrifuge. So long as you have the leaded frames around each section, the colours and shapes will stay more or less intact. But now if you take out the lead separating the dark green leaves from the red flower, you would end up with a mud-coloured mess.”

“I…think I see. Well, if nothing else, that should prove I am Null, shouldn’t it?”

Casper couldn’t help smiling. “Spoken like a man who’s only just met Micah. Even if you’re not null, you are still a bizarre and possibly unique creature worthy of a great deal of study. Micah will very thoroughly test every possible facet of magic on you and take copious notes, and in four or five months ask me to review a rather hefty tome he’ll have written about every facet of magic interaction with you, and outlining further tests and questions for the next phase.”

Jasper snorted and looked down. “I’m really nothing special. I don’t know—”

“That last part is accurate,” Casper interrupted. “You don’t know. But please, spare your modesty. You are very special, whether you chose it or no. And you didn’t choose it. You get no credit, nor blame. Perhaps you will understand if I tell you it is a responsibility. I must underline the caution not to wave it around. Don’t let it attract attention. Maybe out in the islands this kind of thing is shrugged off with no curiosity, but this is the Foldings. We have the world’s magical scholars and experts in and out our doors, and what might be laughed aside at home will get serious, scholarly, curious attention, here.”

“So I should probably not spend any time here, is that what you’re saying?” 

Casper studied him briefly. Something had broken inside the boy since he’d spoken to Casper earlier. He seemed damaged, frightened, haunted. His shoulders were hunched, his arms folded, and he looked as if he would take the first chance he could to flee. Casper set his hands on the boy’s shoulders and turned Jasper to face him squarely. “Absolutely wrong. Micah will take care of you—he will take very great and especial care of you—and whatever he learns from you will be put to the best use possible. You will hear many differing opinions of me, and I’m sure they’ll all have some truth. I thwart some, I help others—politics, negotiation, allies, enemies; that’s my life. There are some very good, kind men and women who have reasons to dislike me. I have been entrenched in this life for many years, and the mistakes of youth accumulate and their influence continues to grow. Micah, however, is as close to pure goodness as it is possible to be and still have character. He will not let any harm come to you, so long as you don’t go looking for it. In the not-distant future, that boy will have skills and power I could only dream of.”

Jasper nodded, taking a deep breath. “Right. Okay. Thank you, Śe.”

“Splendid. Good man. I need to push you back among the wolves now, but stay out of the next few dances. Avoid anything in a circle, generally.”

“Thank you, Vedouci.” He grinned before backing away and giving a formal little nod, then was absorbed back into the throng.

“I wondered where he’d got to,” Micah said drily, appearing at Casper’s elbow.

“That arrogant little sod tried to join in on the Calusarotte. Can you believe the nerve?” Casper shook his head, enjoying Micah’s moment of indecision before realising Casper was teasing him. 

“How horrible, trying to participate in a dance when he’s a mere guest.” Micah took a sip of his wine, and Casper noted the spheres of ice floating in it.

“He did actually think he was being reprimanded for participation, at first. I can’t imagine Onfroi putting that thought in his head, so it must be Śe Penelope’s influence. Very strange. And now,” he went on, turning to face Micah, “it pains me to be serious, but you dance beautifully, Micah. And it pains me doubly because that dance is a bastard and my absolute pigging nemesis. I thought I’d mastered it, then you came along and swanned straight through as an infant.”

“Oh, be fair. I was twelve before you let me try.”

“True. That’s practically ancient, by your standard.”

“How old were you when you first tried it?” Micah asked.

“Let me see, I’d already met Vronny… Twenty-six, I believe.” Micah burst out laughing, which hurt a bit. “And I’d been coached for a few weeks, as well.”

“What, you were serious?”

“I was, you offensive streak of cheek. I knew I should have flogged you more often.” 

Micah ducked his head, trying to school his features into an expression that was more appropriate, but without knowing what that should be. 

“Oh, give up,” Casper sighed, shaking his head with a smile. “I was simply never that good at duelling or any kind of movement-magic, really.”

“Then you certainly learned a great deal over the years,” Micah said diplomatically. To be fair, Casper reflected, only his sincerity made it diplomatic. 

“Yes. And I can still out-sing you, out-drink you, and out-charm you.”

“I’ve been working on my charms,” Micah protested, with eyes wide enough to warn Casper that he knew it was a straight line, and if Casper went for it, Micah was ready.

He gave his heir an evil grin. “You have made me very proud, but your next lesson will be how to make your traps invisible. Well done on the bait, however. I enjoyed that.”

Micah wrinkled his nose at him, and gave in. “Speaking of diplomacy, are Hames and Edward in collusion on something?”

“No, nothing like. Śe Edward would like our support—ha, pardon the pun—on changing the anti-fall spell’s financial burden. Edward has a great deal of enthusiasm and energy, but he leaps in head first and with an astonishing lack of research. He didn’t know how old the Cupolas are, and he had no idea how old Hames’s family line is. He thought she’d be unbiased.”

“Ah, I see. He did ask me to intercede with you to intercede with her. I wondered why he thought she’d help.”

“He’s desperate. I’ll nudge some enquiries into motion so more sympathetic ears hear of it. He is right, after all. Since the spell was enacted, the groundlings have fallen further behind while the upper city has prospered. The spell isn’t what caused it, but he’s right about the inequity of the cost of it. Hames has a new assistant, too, and he seemed a little too prepared to head Edward off, no matter how awkwardly.”

Micah raised his eyebrows. “Assistant?”

Casper took a deep breath, then suddenly paused and tipped his head back, sighing at the ceiling. “Ohh, Micah. Well played. You’re just full of tricks this evening. You’ve kept me entirely away from asking about the upset earlier.” He looked down into Micah’s still, pale, blue eyes. “Did you recognise anything about the magic working against you?”

“No. I didn’t have much chance to, but I still don’t think it’s a touch I’ve felt before. It felt extremely controlled, pointed…” He waved a hand, his eyes going distant as he thought back. “Intentional. Actively so. But without…but exposing as little as possible, like fighting a line-drawing.”

“Sounds like some duelling techniques. Very stark, focused entirely on one function with as little waste as possible?”

“Yes, that sounds right.”

“That should be helpful. Well. I’m very glad you survived, and the dustworks were brilliantly done. We’ll talk tomorrow, for which I am immensely grateful. There are many dances left tonight,  some of which I refuse to touch, so please go do something  party-like to keep yourself awake. There must be someone who wants to speak with you.”

Micah rolled his eyes, his cheeks going a bit pink. “I’m leaving you all of the fast ones, still,” he said. Casper knew the boy didn’t really mind. It was one form of social interaction where he was admired, yet he was allowed concentrate on the steps and the magic and avoid any deep conversations. And there was a pre-arranged end if things were uncomfortable. 

“Ahh, off with you, I have proper people to speak to!” Casper told him. Micah raised his eyebrows and turned away, giving Casper a glare over his shoulder as he stalked off, but breaking into a grin before the crowd hid him.

Grinning broadly himself, Casper spotted Veronica coming towards him with a man on her arm. His blue-black skin was striking, but the soft, pearly grey of his wings was far more so. “Anthrew, how are you enjoying the gala?”

The young ambassador from Hanalo smiled warmly and held out his hand. “It is as delightful as always, in spite of whatever you think has gone so horribly wrong, as you always claim,” Anthrew said.

“How dare you imply that I don’t know how to take pleasure in my own parties. You rude, rude man. The leaks in the plumbing are like old friends to me, now. I look forward to the thrill of having one of my servants whisper in my ear which guest rooms have been closed off due to the latest liquid explosions. When are you going to send me some proper water engineers, eh?”

“When you let us have a proper portal,” Anthrew countered.

“Have you found a weak point, then?”

“Casper!” Veronica interrupted, setting a hand on his arm. “It’s hardly his fault. If Hanalo had one, I’m sure it would have been found ages ago, wouldn’t it?” She looked back and forth between them as though watching an invisible game of catch. “Now play nicely. I need something to drink before the next dance.”

Casper nodded, his eyes glazing over as a new thought struck him. “Actually, there might be weak points you haven’t yet found ,” Casper said slowly, watching Anthrew. If the thought had occurred to him, surely Anthrew would have thought of it.

“Why not?” Anthrew asked.

“We’ve only just got airships keeping a semi-regular schedule of trips to you. And some of the holes we’ve turned into portals have only been found by airships trying new routes. It’s possible your skies haven’t been—”

Anthrew shook his head, grinning, and turned his shoulders so Casper had a better view of the soft grey feathers on his wings. He was wearing an elaborately-embroidered restrainer to keep his wings folded tightly against him in the crowd. Casper knew it was padded, but the idea of having to tie down a body part just so other people wouldn’t pick a fight if it touched anything seemed a great indignity.

“Our skies are rather more thoroughly explored than others’,” Anthrew was saying. “I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s less likely.”

“I’m reasonably certain that airships can fly higher than your people usually do. There’s still a chance. And if not, well, it’s likely Micah’s new permanent portals can be built anywhere, and he’s making solid progress on teaching others the technique.”

“It would be greatly appreciated,” Anthrew said sincerely, and all the teasing had left his voice. “There are some items we can only trade for—we have no mines, no fields, no forests. We’re dependent on others for those commodities.”

“And I am equally serious about the plumbing,” Casper countered. “If you can find someone capable, the castle would be forever in your debt. A portal would be the very least we could do.”

Anthrew smiled. “You know, every time you rant about the plumbing, I can’t help thinking you’re not serious.”

“I am extremely serious!” Casper said, his eyes wide in what may have been his first genuine facial expression of the night. “Our pipes are deplorable.”

“But… how could previous Vedoucis have lived with it? Why? How did it get so bad?”

“Ahh. Previous Vedoucis had fewer people living in the castle, and it’s been nearly a hundred years since we had one who lasted more than fifteen years. They covered the big issues and assumed their Druhys were managing the mundanities. They added on to the castle whenever they liked, linking new pieces with portals without ever trying to keep track of them. Unfortunately, the plumbing isn’t within the rooms it serves, however. So while the guest rooms in the South Wing are out in Threeways, the lavatories they share with the North Wing are not. When someone in the North Wing uses one of their toilets, the plumbing has no portal attaching it to the South Wing’s. Some of them are connected to one long pipe you can see from the right spot in the Deadlurks, and it was said to dump into a swamp, but when we flush it out every few months, sometimes there are… voices.”

Anthrew bit his lips together, clearly trying to keep from laughing. He looked away for a long moment and took a deep breath. Casper’s glare was waiting for him when he turned back, but instead of being cowed, he finally burst out laughing. “Oh, I’m sorry, I just… mysterious toilet voices?”

Casper kept his face grim until his eyes watered with the effort, then sputtered into a laugh as well. “I know. It’s terrible. It’s an embarrassment. But no one can even get a solid map together! They just slapped portals in, leading from one room to another nowhere near, and didn’t care if that meant plumbing was cut off, or rerouted.”

“I’m so sorry, Vedouci,” Anthrew said, pulling himself together but still grinning. “We can give you engineers who are used to mapping things in more than two dimensions—wings and water make that a necessary skill. And we can give you water, but I have one condition.”

“And that is…?”

“We cannot also handle waste. We can help you find a location to send it to, even, but Hanalo won’t be it.”

“Of course not!” Casper snapped, looking him up and down. “I am not trading you sewage for engineers! Our sewage is far too precious for you. You’d have to pay me extra for that, and it won’t be cheap.”

“I would never dream of aspiring so high.” His white teeth were a brilliant contrast against his dark skin. “But is there really no map of the castle?”

“Well, of course there is,” Casper admitted. “But there’s just the one copy, and it is quite fragile now, with age. That’s how the castle got its nickname, in fact—when they put in portals, they’d add a creases to the paper so that the two ends of the portal would overlap, when it was folded. Hence “the Foldings.” And then they had to add more paper so they had room for the extensions, and then there were the tunable portals, and now it’s all a big wrinkled jumble ready to fall apart. By the time someone realised it was probably best to start over, the original was so fragile that they didn’t dare take it out of its case.”

“I’d never heard that story. And I’m not sure if I should believe you,” Anthrew added.

“I’ll make you a promise: when we have a portal in place, you stop by again and I’ll show you the original. You still won’t believe me, actually, but I’ll be able to shake my finger at something and say, ‘See?’”

Anthrew grinned and held out his hand. “I accept your promise.”

Casper shook, then caught sight of Veronica heading his way again. “Excellent. Now, do me a favour—go find Briggs and have him take you somewhere where you can stretch those wings and shake them out a little. My shoulders hurt just looking at that restrainer.”

Anthrew bowed his head. “It’s probably not as bad as it looks, but the offer is much appreciated. Thank you, Vedouci.”

He turned and disappeared into the crowd behind a woman with an enormous hat. The crown of it rose two feet above her head, and while it looked like a doll’s house, several tiny birds flitted in and out of the windows. The wearer seemed to be explaining the design of it to several fascinated guests.

“That looked promising,” Veronica said, tucking her free hand around his arm and taking a delicate sip of her wine.

“The very word, in fact. If Micah can get a portal between us and Hanalo, Anthrew has offered water engineers. And even a way to map the castle, which would be extremely helpful. And probably terrifying.”

“Definitely terrifying. If I knew how many miles needed to be swept every day, I think I’d burst into tears.”

“Nonsense. You’d simply hire more staff, which you love doing.”

“No I don’t!” She pulled her had free long enough to swat his shoulder. “I hate having to turn some of them down.”

“How about if I elect you supreme ruler of Lunule, and declare the entire city your employees?”

“I thought you already had.”

“You’re going to tell me I did this while drunk, aren’t you.”

“Well. It was hard to tell exactly what you were saying, but I think that’s what you said.”

“Any witnesses?”

“Alas, no.”

“And you’re sure I was drunk?”

“I suppose it might have been a head injury.”

“That sounds more likely.” He raised his head, trying to see the dance floor past all of the hats. “Which dance are we on?”

“They just finished the Netsoka.”

“Excellent. Nearly as bad as the Calusarotte. The next one isn’t quite as vigorous, and I owe Callumphreys a dance.”

“I’ve got Śe Tati of the Oloro-Alé. I’m not sure her knees even bend.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for that. Sounds like it should be memorable.”

“This is why no one likes you very much, my love.”

“Then I’d better get to work changing some minds.”

 

Chapter Text

Dancing. Too much dancing. Not enough wine, or was it too much? Either way, Micah was dizzy. And hot. 

The ballroom was crowded, the dance floor was crowded, the crowd was crowded, they were all the wrong face. He wanted to find the brown eyes and grey hair, and it took effort, but he kept moving, not allowing anyone to draw him into conversation. He caught sight of the greying, spiky hair twice, only to have someone step into his path and distract him. The third time he saw him, he fixed his eyes on Jasper and ignored everyone else, just managing to grab two glasses of wine off a table before pushing himself into Jasper’s path, separating him from his companion. “Excuse me.”

Jasper stopped just short of walking into his chest, the smile falling off his face. He stepped back, his mouth open to say something, but then he blinked, and looked Micah up and down instead. “Hello again,” he said, while his eyes were still on the tails of Micah’s waistcoat. 

“I got you this,” Micah said, holding out one of the glasses of wine. Jasper took it, still staring.

“Thanks. I’m… it’s lovely. Did I say thanks for this, by the way?” Jasper ran a hand over the front of his waistcoat. 

Micah stared at the broad hand smoothing down the black brocade, and was immediately and intensely jealous. “I…you’re welcome. Only I had to burn your coat.”

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Jasper blinked, shaking himself a little. “Oh, feck. I’m sorry. I just… you look really, really good.” He ran his eyes down the length of Micah again. “I should have told you before. Gorgeous, actually,” he admitted with a weak laugh.

Jasper was blushing. Jasper was, but he was the gorgeous one, and Micah was probably red already, with the dancing and the heat and…Jasper.

“You’re welcome. Thank you?” Words. Backwards things, the bastards, never where he wanted them when he really needed them, and oh dear, those eyes were so stunning. It wasn’t the wine or the dancing. It was definitely those eyes. 

“No, wait.” Jasper shook his head and raised his hand, and Micah realised Jasper might be a bit tipsy. “I wanted to say. Out there… before…” Jasper waved a hand and it somehow meant the dustworks, the dancing, the fight on the balcony, talking to the Vedouci, dancing, and everything wrong with the world. How could he say so much with a single flop of his hand? Was that magic? “You were amazing.”

His mouth ran on automatic, having been complimented on the subject before. “Oh, well, the dustworks were actually Casper’s development of the theory of—”

“No, no… No.” Jasper took Micah’s hand and pressed it to his chest. “You. I mean… yes, the dustworks, but you, after. In the wind, and then… Did I say I saw you dancing? Because I did, and you’re amazing. Your legs… amazing. It was an honour to get to hold onto them before.” He frowned, clearly running the words through his mind after they were out.

“Thank you,” Micah said fervently, trying to put a stop to that doubt. “You saved my life, I’m sure.” His fingers clenched on the front of Jasper’s waistcoat, and he could feel the warm, pounding heartbeat beneath. It was comforting to know Jasper had an actual physical heart. Part of him was somehow sure Jasper wasn’t real. No one could really have a face like that, and that hair, and everything else about him. 

“I’d do it again. Any time. Just tell me when.”

Micah nodded slowly, and the room swayed too much. He tried to bring up a hand to steady himself but it was already on Jasper’s chest, which he certainly hadn’t done. “Are you really real?” Had he said that outloud? Either way, his hand wasn’t moving. Jasper was watching it now, too. 

“Jasper!”

Micah watched as those dark eyes moved away from his to someone behind Micah, and his expression darkened. Sad with a touch of desperate, Micah thought. It was barely the length of a blink, and then Jasper’s face had closed down, professional again as he looked back to Micah.

Even as Micah realised what must have happened—Śe Penelope summoning him, probably as they were leaving, judging by how sad Jasper had looked briefly—Jasper was lifting Micah’s hand from his chest to his lips and pressing the palm against his lips, kissing it, inhaling his scent, holding Micah’s fingers across his cheek for a moment, his eyes closed, concentrating on memorising every scintilla of the moment, just as Micah was.

Suddenly Jasper’s eyes opened again in shock and time came back, and he dropped Micah’s hand. “I’m… I’m…”

“Thank you,” Micah heard himself say, wondering how his voice could work and sound so calm, and what was running it, because it certainly wasn’t him. He was adrift on a sea of warmth and happiness, and it couldn’t last long enough.

Jasper nodded, looking relieved but so full of regret as he moved away, past Micah and back toward the doors. He opened his mouth to say something, and Micah noticed Penelope and Onfroi waiting, in her case impatiently and full of disapproval, judging by the knots in her expression.

“Wait,” Micah blurted. “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, will I not?”

That smoothed Jasper’s face, if not Penelope’s. “Absolutely. If I can,” he added, clearly remembering his real employer was within earshot.

Micah nodded, watching Jasper turn away and seeing his shoulders straighten and his entire manner change. Strange. He hadn’t realised Jasper had been relaxed until he saw him close himself back up under a professional shell for his employer, taking the lead and guiding them through the crowd, arranging enough of a parting in the crush so the Earl and his wife never needed to make the slightest effort.

Only after they disappeared did Micah realise he was cradling his kissed hand against his chest.

 

In the darkest hours at the castle, someone was always awake. Servants tidying the last of the day’s clutter, preparing clothes or food for the next day, copying papers, translating, filing, reading, writing. Darkness imposed a certain amount of consideration by the night owls for those who preferred to sleep. The bustle was subdued and circumspect, which naturally fit some forms of business better than others. 

The quiet of the clerical wing always had an air of secrecy and discretion. Casper knew himself to be the source of nearly every action that took place in those rooms, but still felt like an outsider, an interloper, a petulant child chasing after his parents’ secrets. The corridors themselves seemed to be against him, trying to keep him out with unexpected turns followed by stretches of unnatural darkness. The walls were a patchwork, different kinds of corridor all magically sewn together. Here was bare stone, faintly glowing, and just as his eyes adjusted, the next turn took him to a blindingly-white bit as bright as a summer day. Here the walls and ceiling had deep gouges. He peered into dark holes tunnelled straight through to little circular doors deep in the gloom. 

People kept changing this whole wing, reordering the corridors to fit in departments and offices when and where they needed them. And he still hadn’t found the one he was looking for.

He crouched through a space barely higher than his shoulders and when he straightened, he’d finally reached the more important offices. The doors were jumbled, too close together to fit rooms behind them. Some even overlapped. Casper grinned—infinite space and some people would still fight over the best room.

Every door had a placard of some sort, paper or stone or brass, some of them completely illegible. He peered at a few as he went past. “Department of File Reform “ and “Office of Transmutable Substances” he could understand, but others were more obscure. “Never,” “File Room 38,” “Jenny Isn’t Here,” “Danger Closet,” “Twice,” “Smells.” And then there were the directions. “Knock eight times and leave.” “Bring it back.” “If visible, do not open.” “Enter combination, choose colour, pry off handle, spray evenly.” 

He kept his glow sphere dim and his head low as he swept down a narrow corridor, homing in on the sound of one particular scratching pen accompanied by genuinely constant muttering. Casper assumed it was some magically enhanced breathing technique, but it seemed to be linked to the mutterer’s ability to write—any time the mutterer had been forced into silence, his pen had hovered uncertainly above his desk, twitching, unable to land. Casper paused at the doorway and tapped with a single finger.

A snort answered him, and he waited while a whisper of footsteps neared the door, which jerked open. 

Casper looked down at the shining bald head of Rinklewood, the chief administrator of the clerical division. “Evening, Rin. Ohh…” The man lifted his face to look up at Casper from a slight hunch, his face at Casper’s chest level and still too close as the stench of garlic hit him. 

“Mm, Vedouci Cazz.”

Rinklewood. Those last two syllables were the man’s most prized possessions. It didn’t matter that no one bothered with them out of Rinklewood’s hearing. It didn’t matter that for the first sixty years of his life, no one had ever used them to his face, not until he was promoted to chief administrator. And it didn’t matter—never had, and never would—that Casper was the Vedouci, the pinnacle of the magical realm, the master of a potentially-infinite castle that was home to thousands, and Rinklewood’s employer. The extra two syllables in this man’s ridiculous name were by far the more important. “Beg pardon. Rinklewood.”

“Better. Well? Mm? What you want?”

“Have you seen any reports come through yet about tonight?”

“About what?”

“Tonight, outside, on the—” Casper stopped himself, realising the glare he was getting meant that the answer was no. Rinklewood had been working in the clerical wing for more than 80 years, and it was difficult to argue that he didn’t have the experience to be promoted, but, well… he didn’t. He disapproved of anything he could disapprove of, preferably without having any experience—unless it was scandalous, in which case he would investigate thoroughly before denouncing it. He was supposed to be the single central point through which information was fed and digested and acted on. In reality, however, things might be sent to him, but that didn’t guarantee he would see it, or admit to having seen it.

“Mm? On the what? Big party tonight, wasn’t it? Perhaps Vedouci has indulged in a few drinks, mm?”

Casper rubbed the skin between his eyebrows for a moment, tired enough to be worrying about showing his displeasure. “Yes, the gala. Have you seen Tom?” he asked on a sudden inspiration.

“Tom? What you want him for?”

“Do you know, Rinklewood, I haven’t the faintest idea why anyone would want him. Micah finds him soothing, however. Never mind. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”

“It’s not disturbing to want me to do my job,” Rinklewood said with an attempt at a kindly smile before closing the door.

Casper blinked at it for a moment, and decided it wasn’t worth the effort. There were too many formerly-beloved relics like Rinklewood scattered about the castle. He’d known before he took the title that some of them were entrenched with the full expectation that they would die in their posts after having lived well past any usefulness. He was forever deciding that something absolutely had to be done about them, but while it was Druhy Veronica’s task to manage the staff, he couldn’t bear to ask her to do it. She would no more be able to turn them out than he was, in any case.

He put one hand against the wall and sent a pulse of awareness into the contact, strengthening his perception and catching the tiniest hint of sound from the end of the corridor. Tightening the belt of his robe and gathering it up in one hand, he turned slightly sideways to fit through a narrow section of the curving patchwork passage. Now he could see light from beneath the door at the end, and he didn’t bother to knock.

Tom stood with his back to the door, his discarded frock coat flung across a chair. His elbows rested on the table, one finger marking a spot near the map’s edge, his other hand halfway across the table as he searched for something. He didn’t lift his head. “Shame on you, Sé. I actually had time to get some work done.”

Tom’s office was spherical. Casper wasn’t sure how he’d managed that. It seemed to be physically attached to somewhere through a locked door in the wall, but Casper had never beed through that door. He’d never found anyone else who had, either. The castle’s entrance to Tom’s office was via portal, which was a door in the wall of the hallway on one side and in the center of Tom’s office, on the other. The doorway’s frame, once people entered, was just that—a frame. That was far less of a mystery to Casper than how the curved physical door worked, or how anything could connect to a sphere. Flat platforms floated just far enough above the curved floor to allow furniture to remain level. The glass panes in the small window were flat, and looked out over somewhere where it was currently raining. In spite of the rain, the room had a warm glow from several old cokum lamps around the walls. Strange devices ticked and whirred quietly to each other like a very polite mechanical discussion group.

Casper smiled faintly and crossed to the chair that held Tom’s coat. He lifted it and hung it across the back before seating himself with a sigh. “Do not take this as approval of the work he gives you,” Casper began, raising a finger in warning. It was completely wasted on Tom, who didn’t turn around, but he felt it was important that he put the effort in, anyway.

“I would never dare dream of such a thing,” Tom said, sounding reasonable, still studying the map. “It’s good of you to give him something safe to rebel against.”

“What?”

“Doesn’t every child need to go through a rebellious phase?” Tom asked. “It’s where they learn to make decisions on their own. You forbade him to hire anyone for this, so he gave me the job, knowing I’d do it even without being paid.”

“I’m not saying you can’t. I’m not even saying you’re not brilliant at it. But this system, your methods, the two of you… It’s a ridiculous system. Don’t tell him I said so.”

Tom snorted and glanced at him. “Of course not. I’m as surprised as anyone that it works as well as it does.”

Casper sighed, bouncing his hands on the arms of the chair for a moment before speaking again. “In any case. What do we know about tonight?”

“Precious little. It makes no sense. Calumphreys, the Oloro-Alé, Edward, Onfroi and Penelope, two under-butlers, Cyril, Hames and her new little friend, Betrys, Iveyas, and Megantha were all in the right area at the time, but there were mirrors someone could have bounced a spell off of, and everyone was watching the dustworks, anyway. Afterwards, the Earl Onfroi was talking to Stralucitor Raza, Edward was talking to Callie, who—well, you would have been so proud of her. She put him off with so much tact he was thanking her for telling him to go away. The Oloro-Alé were trying to impress Megantha, which was sweet.”

Casper sighed and hid his face behind his hand. “Nothing they do could ever be sweet.”

“Megantha made that quite clear, believe me. Penelope seemed a bit out of sorts—I think she’s used to having Onfroi’s attention to herself. Poor girl. Got what she wanted and it disappoints.”

“Hm?”

“Lunule. Getting to the big city with all the elite.”

“She does have aspirations, that’s a fact.”

“I wonder why she’s stayed with Onfroi.”

“They haven’t been together so very long. Less than ten years.” 

“Oh?” Tom turned to face him finally, blinking. “Yes, their ages seemed a bit out of step.”

“It’s predictable enough. Onfroi’s happy to keep puttering about his lab, ignoring the bulk of his estate, and it did quite well under the iron heel of his benign neglect. Penelope happened across him at an auction. She snatched a few lots out from under him, and when he protested, he was caught. She charmed him, baffled him, and took charge. I’ve seen many who think she bullies him, but he needs her. He would have bounced through life without focus, leaving the lab to check the fields, leaving fields to check the mines, leaving mines to check the markets, back to his lab, and do it all again tomorrow.” Casper sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Ahh, pardon the ramblings of an old man.”

Tom smiled and folded his arms, leaning back against the edge of the table. “If you were old, I might. You’ve only just entered your prime.”

“My prime? Dear boy, my prime was when you nippers were scampering about in your first shoes. I may be ticking along, but it is certainly not new.”

“Then you may use your own powers to sort out tonight, O Mighty Vedouci.” Tom bowed deeply.

Casper kicked at him, his foot several feet away from Tom’s head. “Mecks take you. My mightiness has come to your slippery lair for answers, not cheek.”

“I get those two confused,” Tom said solemnly, then shrugged. “I have no answers. I felt the cloud of power being used, but it was cleverly done. We had the best magicians all in one room, everyone working their own little spells on wine, dress, hat, robes, the dancing, the food… With all that going on, it was easy to mask the build up, collecting the power gradually. And when it was drawn on, the source was masked behind the cloud of raw energy and all of the smaller background workings. I can’t even promise that it came from that group, but it seemed the most likely.”

“Well. How bad did it get?”

“From the look of them, extremely. Micah was well drained. He put on a brave face in front of Onfroi’s housemaster, but he was shaken, Vedouci. You should be proud of him, amongst the worry.”

“Was it a physical attack as well?”

“No. They were the only two out there. No one to throw any punches.”

“I don’t understand it, Tom. Why strike through Micah? Why not directly at me?”

“I…can answer that, if you’re sure you want me to.”

Casper hesitated. He knew exactly what Tom meant. It would be upsetting, and Casper was sure he already knew. He ran a finger back and forth along his lip. The thought was horrible and meant so much danger was ahead, but he couldn’t bring himself to think it alone. He closed his eyes, and nodded.

“Your enemy wants you to suffer. He wants to frighten you before he hurts you.”

“Of course,” Casper sighed.

“There’s a problem with that thinking.”

Casper frowned, blinked, and looked up at Tom.

“That is a deep hatred, Vedouci. You are powerful, unrivaled. So who is seeking to be your rival? Micah is the only one who even comes close.”

“Now that is tact. Micah is no rival. You know I have higher hopes for him than I ever had for myself.”

“He’s not there yet, Vedouci. And my point is that you have no functional competition.”

“You think such deep hatred can be explained with logic?”

“Yes. Emotions have causes. Who have you offended? Who hates you? Who wishes to take something from you that you guard with your life?”

“I have pronounced judgment on many, Tom—don’t be naïve. Someone who needed my patronage to feed her family, whose invention or discovery was passed over, whose child was not taken into training. Micah was the very clear choice as my heir, yes, but that doesn’t mean that others were gracious. His competitors were all the very best, after all. It must come as a nasty shock when they found out that after learning and working and winning, rising to the top of their peers, they were miles behind in the end.”

“I don’t doubt any of that. But my point is that it seems odd that this person is so unknown to you. To us. A resentment that great rarely festers invisibly. Yet I can’t tell you what might be behind this.”

Casper slapped his hands lightly against the arms of his chair, and pushed himself to his feet. “Then you are useless. I shall have you put to death at dawn.”

“Very good, Sé. Will that be all?”

Casper glared at him, and Tom simply raised his eyebrows. “You are not my butler. Don’t get above yourself.”

“As I’ll be dead in a few hours, I haven’t time to.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Go sleep, Vedouci. I will let you know what I find out.”

“My thanks, Tom. You know how I care for him.”

Tom smiled. “As do we all.”

Casper nodded, and shuffled back to the door, stretching as he went. “He’s right about the gala, you know. If we persist in inviting people we despise, they have no reason to make themselves more pleasant to us. I never dared change such things. I hope Micah will be more brave.”

“Good night, Vedouci.”

Casper raised a hand over his shoulder as he left.

 

 

“How are you, my dearest?” Casper called from the bathing room.

Veronica smiled. “Exhausted. Too tired to sleep without you. Will you be long?”

There was a sudden splash of water, as though an enormous tub itself had evaporated all at once, leaving the water from inside it behind, where it dropped onto a stone floor. “Slathering fuster clock,” Casper announced.

Veronica laughed quietly, laying down on the bed. She listened to the noises—the slurp of him gathering the water and sending it into the plumbing, clothy sounds as he sorted out his laundry from the items to be rehung—before he came striding into the room, the train of a long, plush, red velvet dressing gown sweeping the ground behind him. “It shouldn’t be so easy to distract the Vedouci,” she told him sternly.

He stopped by the side of the bed and gazed down at her silently for a moment, the softness of his face warming her. “Śibo, you are my distraction and my focus.” He bent and kissed her gently on the forehead, then continued to his own side of the bed to join her. “A good opening, I feel. I’m glad Onfroi made it. And Kenzie. Did you speak to Calumphreys about the new formula?”

“I did. She didn’t seem excited, but I know she’ll be pleased when she tries them.”

“And what did you see of Micah?”

“Ahh, that dear boy,” Veronica sighed. “My heart goes out to him. Did you see Palla staring at him all night? He walked right past her and she nearly fainted, I think.”

“Oh, sweet mercy if she had,” Casper sighed. “I’ve a feeling she’s going to be kept busy by her parents’ shipping business, anyway. A future vedouci seems like a lovely thing until you actually have one. She’d be lost if she had to leave the docks.”

“Not all vedoucis are as much trouble as you are, Casper.”

He laughed once, loudly. “Ha! Do you not remember Vedouci Birgine? Poor old terror as she was. I spent ages trying to understand her festering notation system. And what did she ever intend to do with all those mushrooms?”

“I don’t think the mushrooms were intentional.”

“Unintentional mushrooms are even worse.”

“No one knew that metal could produce them, to be fair.”

“So you may believe. I never knew her to be surprised.” He was silent a moment, mulling something over. “What do we think of that young man tonight?”

“Ahh. You mean Earl Onfroi’s?”

“I thought he was Micah’s.”

“Oh, that would be nice. I won’t get my hopes up, though. Unless he finds the boy’s face pressed in the pages of a book, I don’t think he’s likely to take any notice.”

“I could always arrange that, I suppose,” Casper sighed. “I don’t doubt my choice, mind you, but sometimes I wish someone could give him tutoring in Not Being Tutored.”

“If not tutoring, there are, at least, professionals who specialise in certain areas,” Veronica said, cocking her head and raising an eyebrow.

Casper laughed, then stopped himself abruptly. “I have actually considered that, but I thought I’d wait another few months. And then, at long last, tonight…that boy.”

Veronica remembered Micah’s furious blushing when the Earl had presented the boy as his housemaster. “I will say, I thought he was very pretty.”

“You always did have a good eye. I’ll never know why you stayed with me. I was such an unkempt disaster in those days.”

“I was playing the long game. I knew you’d age well.”

“I did turn out rather well, didn’t I?” Casper mused.

“You’re not unpleasant to look at, that’s true.” She took his hand in both of hers. “You spoke to the boy more than I did. What was he like?”

“Clever young thing. Pots of charm, perhaps a little unpolished, but he seemed a quick learner. Yes, I think those two could do well for each other.”

“What, really?”

“Well. It will depend if Micah notices him and has the strength to say so. I’d venture that young Jasper—a good name, don’t you think? So close to greatness—”

“Oh, pish!”

“That boy won’t speak up. Mark my words. He’s awed by Micah. I can’t blame him, but he has his own greatness. He could be the making of Micah. He could change the world, really, if what Micah thinks is true.”

“What’s this? A secret, already?”

“Aye. It’s not mine. We’ll know soon enough. And in the meantime, those two will be together enough for one of them to look up occasionally, at least. Micah is pretty enough in his own way, isn’t he?”

“His face isn’t his best feature, but he is so full of goodness. And he will become more handsome as he ages. He’s an investment, like you were.”

Casper turned to look at her, and grinned. “And then perhaps we’ll be able to hand things over while we’ve still some mileage in these old bones, my darling.”

 

 

Chapter Text

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. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Daisy had been aghast when Jasper had told her just who she’d opened the door to, and hadn’t been nearly as offended as Jasper had expected—or, possibly, how much he’d hoped she might be. “Well. Good for him for coming to see you without a lot of fuss and nonsense about it,” she said while they were putting away dishes after supper that night. 

“He wasn’t exactly here to see me,” Jasper said.

“Oh yes? Certainly seemed to me that yours was the name he asked for, not Earl Onfroi. I have a very clear memory of it, having been the one to answer the door to him, because you very much did not answer the door.”

“Did he?” Jasper tried to sound offhand. He was still angry, after all. Wasn’t he? “Yeah, well, he shouldn’t’ve come when I was working.”

“You’re being daft,” she said, turning to stare at him and putting her hand on the stack of plates he was about to pick up. “You just said he wasn’t here to see you, but you’re angry he didn’t consult your schedule? Which is it? He made arrangements with Onfroi for when it was convenient for the two of them. You want him to respect your time as housemaster, but not respect your employer’s time? Should he come in the evening, when Onfroi has herself and the children? Yes, you’re more likely to be free, but if he wants to see both of you, wouldn’t that fit better in daylight? And if Onfroi wanted you to be there, then you actually were working. You daft muddle-head. You’re making up reasons to be offended.”

The next day and a half had been spent trying to go over what he and Micah had said, but his mind always wandered off to the indigo velvet glowing in the sunlight and Micah’s pale face and blue eyes revealed around the brim of that hat; the deep green brocade of the waistcoat he’d worn to the gala and the fiery auburn it brought out in his hair, and the red cloak for the dustworks, when he had looked so incredibly relaxed while doing spectacular magic, and then how striking it had been in the wind storm. And that led to thinking about his lean, muscular legs and long fingers, and that hand clutching at his chest. And the slightly rumpled man in the lab, staring at him in shock and insisting he took Jasper’s safety very seriously. And then the lending of finery, two sets now: trousers, shirt, and boots from the night he’d coloured Jasper, and a waistcoat and shirt for the gala. Jasper couldn’t really pretend the man had been inconsiderate.

So here he was, facing the laboratory door with a parcel of borrowed clothes under his arm. Micah could open the door at any second, and see him dithering like an idiot…not at all ashamed, not at all terrified, not embarrassed in the slightest. Except for being ashamed, terrified, and embarrassed. And ashamed of being terrified and embarrassed. And embarrassed about being terrified and ashamed. 

And procrastinating, as well. 

Which was what made it exactly as unfair as possible when Micah did open the door. Jasper bit back some choice words he tried not to use outside of a pub fight, and closed his eyes, trying to catch his breath.

“No, please, whatever it is, please, come in. I need to apologise, and I can’t bear to wait.”

Jasper opened his eyes, his mouth already hanging open, about to say very nearly the same thing, and now he was very confused that the words hadn’t come out of his own mouth. “You’ve got no reason to,” he finally said, shaking his head, his eyes wide as he let Micah take his arm and gently draw him into the lab.

“I was rude, you were right. I made arrangements with Onfroi but not you, and I thought I shouldn’t draw attention to you, I thought maybe others in the household would be envious and difficult if… I just didn’t think—”

“Please, stop. I was so rude, everything was bad that day, I took it out on you—and oh, here, before I forget again.” He thrust the parcel at Micah. “It’s the clothes you lent me. I meant to try to return them before the gala, but then you lent me more—”

“Please, no, keep them,” Micah said, pulling his hands away and shaking his head. “Yours still aren’t completely fixed, and honestly, these were resized for you and you may as well, changing them again isn’t going to—I mean, I did destroy your jacket, as well—”

“But no, I mean, really—”

“And anyway I got you the ones for the gala as a gift, they were never meant to…well, you did say yours had been packed, and…”

Jasper had taken a breath to interrupt again, then let it out in a little gasp, looking down at his toes. Micah seemed to be winding down and Jasper didn’t look up. He couldn’t, not yet. “Really, I’m sorry,” he said quietly when there was finally silence.

The lightest touch brushed his sleeve, and then Micah’s hand fell away again. “I’m sorry. You’ve… I’m very sorry.”

Jasper glanced up, but still wasn’t quite ready. “Look, can we…can we skip this part?”

Micah snorted, making him look up again to see him nodding. “Well,” Micah added suddenly. “Except for the salary negotiation. That is immutable.”

Jasper laughed, flinging the parcel at a chair and hiding his face behind his arm. “Oh, just stop it.”

Micah laughed, and this time his touch on Jasper’s arm was firmer and lingered a bit. “Come. Come sit down. I promise I won’t apologise anymore.”

“Oh good!” Jasper said brightly, lowering his arm and following Micah to the chairs near the fire. “Is this when the beatings begin?”

Micah picked up the parcel from where it had landed on one of the chairs and threw it at Jasper’s head. “Yes. Absolutely.”

Jasper ducked aside, catching it before it hit his face and setting it on the floor by the chair’s leg before taking a seat. “Good to know. So. What were you working on?”

That threw Micah off balance. “Working… when?”

“When I—hang on, were you just going somewhere? I mean, you were at the door, or did I set off some kind of alarm?”

Micah wrinkled his nose and recoiled slightly, shaking his head. “What? No. Remember, you’re the one who doesn’t set off alarms…?”

“Oh. Then why were you at the door?”

“I knew you were here.”

“You just said I didn’t set off any—”

Micah waved a hand, shaking his head. “No. No, Briggs told me.”

“He…” Jasper had been thinking there was no way Briggs had managed to get to the lab before him and away again without being seen, then remembered he was in the world’s most magical castle, and then he remembered the trick he’d seen the night of the gala: people throwing their voices by whispering into their fists. “Oh.”

“It is sort of his job.”

“Yeah, I guess. Sorry. Anyway, you were saying, about what you’re working on…?” Jasper set his elbow on the arm of the chair and his chin in his palm, settling in to listen.

“Oh, well…at the risk of starting the apologies over again… I really was… I’m just…” He was staring at his fingers by this point, and frowned. “I don’t want to upset you again.”

Jasper waited for something more, and Micah glanced up carefully, frowned, and went back to studying his fingers. It took a moment, but Jasper realised he hadn’t really trailed off, and his tone was a little wrong. “Wait, you mean that? I mean, that…that’s a thing you could be…working on?” The only subject he could imagine that matched Micah’s level of concern, and which he might be unwilling to bring up for fear of angering Jasper, was Penelope’s treatment of him the other day.

Micah gave a helpless little shrug. “I know, it’s presumptuous. I have… no good… I was upset myself, you see. I understand your reasons, but… I don’t like that your…that the Earl, well not the Earl, but… Penelope—”

“But how can you be working on…that? On her?”

“Oh, I can’t, not really,” Micah sighed, shifting back, finally settling into his chair and not perching on the edge like he was ready to launch to his feet and run away. “I was just…I don’t know how clear I’ve been, but while I do very much want to work with you, to understand you, I do need…I absolutely need to be sure that you are safe. I cannot let you be harmed. And I take that very seriously. I came very close to ruining it completely the other day, and I can’t let that happen again.”

“What, the storm at the gala?” Jasper shook his head. “That wasn’t a thing you let happen, Micah, that was someone else—”

“No, at the Earl’s!” Micah interrupted quickly, his voice little short of a wail, and he sagged as though that had finally broken through his wall of misery, draining the agitation. He set his elbow on the arm of his chair and rested his forehead on his thumb and forefinger, shading his face from Jasper’s burning focus, and sighed. “I can’t protect you from her, not as such, I can’t barge in and flay her for speaking to anyone the way she… but I thought maybe, if I had known something of how your day had been going, any hint that you were… So maybe I could have known not to accept the invitation, or put it off a day, or brought some kind of… I don’t know.”

Jasper blinked silently at him for a moment, trying to figure out what he meant, then gave up and shook his head in disbelief. “But… no… no. Micah, you can’t magic me. You can’t magic someone through me. And not even you could somehow magic her personality into something happy and peaceful.”

“No, not her. And of course, mind magic has been completely disproven. No. I meant some kind of… scrying, really. Of course, I can’t invade your privacy or that of your household,” he added, hurriedly and a little irritably, waving it aside even as Jasper’s mouth was opening to object. “But some kind of… emotional scrying, perhaps, which, again, is essentially mind magic, and therefore not really possible for other reasons.”

“And anyway, really, you really are going to have to figure out I am null,” Jasper said carefully. “I mean I know the whole point of me coming here is to prove that or establish that—or, yes, disprove it—but…well, from experience, Mum and Da could tell you they had to rely on a bell around my neck out in the bigger fields if they wanted to find me.”

“Oh… oh! Now that is an idea!”

“You’re not putting a bell on me.”

“No, magic!”

No! It does…not…work on me!” Jasper was thumping the arms of his chair for emphasis at that point.

“No, but you see? It doesn’t have to—it works near you. So if you were holding a mirror, say, and I were scrying to see what the mirror saw, I would see you.”

“Or you’d see a blank mirror.”

“Not true, as I could see your face in many reflections on surfaces at the gala.”

“But you weren’t using magic to see it!”

Micah sighed, rubbing his face with both hands, then launched to his feet, beckoning Jasper to follow, which he was already doing. “No, come. I’ll show you.”

Jasper trailed after him toward his work area. Before they were halfway there, he was startled by movement where he’d expected none. Two mirrors lifted down from a shelf as though invisible servants were carrying them, and stood waiting on the table to meet them. Micah took them both, handing one to Jasper. “Here. Hold this up in front of your face.”

Jasper did, then gave Micah a stupid look, really hoping they weren’t going to start arguing about if mirrors were magic. 

Micah turned his back to Jasper and raised his own mirror in front of him, angling it so he could, via the mirrors, make eye contact with Jasper; essentially, he was seeing Jasper’s reflection in his, Micah’s, own mirror. “You see?”

“Literally? Yes. Your point? Haven’t a clue.”

Micah laughed a little unwillingly, turning back to face him. “It doesn’t matter how I see your reflection. I can look directly at your mirror, or I can look at your mirror through something else.

Jasper frowned and opened his mouth to argue, then paused. “I think I’m starting to get it…”

“It will still involve scrying, of course, which is messy and takes quite a while to set up…maybe it’s not worth trying.”

“But you can scry, right?” Jasper asked, pinching his fingers in the air as though trying to stop Micah’s train of thought. “I mean, you do better than the Earl?”

Micah’s face twisted as he weighed possible answers. “Scrying is still…in a way, it’s similar to portals. You’re trying, in essence, to bring a place to where it isn’t. With portals, it’s a physical tying of one place to another, often using a hole that’s already there. With scrying, it’s more like tricking a place into being somewhere it isn’t. You’re trying to just bring a part of it, and sometimes you get the wrong part.”

Jasper was listening, rapt, nodding along more in encouragement than understanding. “But it’s not like a portal? So how can you…bring…anything through?”

“Well that’s the point,” Micah said, blinking. “You can’t. Not physically.”

“Nope, this isn’t going to make sense to me, is it?”

“Look at it this way: Mirrors are essentially glass. Windows are, as well. You can see things through the window, but you can’t touch them. Mirrors are usually one-way, where you only see what you put in. Scrying is trying to look through a window that isn’t exactly a window. Windows allow vision from both directions. Scrying sort of…brings an image closer to you, from the other side of the mirror.”

“Uh huh.”

Micah sighed and smiled, waving his fingers with a graceful flick of his wrist. “In any case. You need something on this side of the mirror that will connect to something on the other side, the side you want to see. Something that is intrinsically linked.”

“Like a finger?”

“Good gracious, no!” Micah shuddered. “I suggest something not actually alive.” 

“So a scrap from someone’s shirt?”

“Nnnnno. It needs to be something with a deep link, a solid tie, a piece of the whole. Rocks are actually some of the most useful.”

“Well, okay if you want to look at rocks, but—”

“Again, no, but…let’s try something.” Micah was already digging through his shelves, finding several jars and one crude box made of scraps of wood and bits of thick paper. He gathered the box and the jars up and set them on the table, pushing the mirrors aside. “Right. Somewhere in here I should have—” he trailed off absently, opening the jars and rooting around inside. The bits of stone clanked and chinked against the glass as he turned and shook it.

Jasper dragged the box closer with his finger. It was full of a bewildering variety of rocks and stones and mineral samples, all about the size of his thumb. A few of them seemed to be unnaturally bright colours, but most of them were just ordinary rocks, as far as he could tell. “What are we looking for?”

“I am looking for two rocks that both came from the same place,” Micah said, his words slow as he poked around in the jar with one long finger, then set it aside and picked up another. “Somewhere in here.”

Jasper stirred the contents of the box, and found a bigger lump had been buried. He pulled it out. “Wait, what is this?” He held it up, turning it to let the light from the glowspheres slide across the multi-colored surface. “It kind of looks like tanium, but…it’s staying coloured, see?”

Micah peered at it, then plucked it from Jasper’s fingers. “Ahhh. It is tanium, but it hasn’t been treated yet. The raw state does display all the colours of which it is capable, but without changing. And… here.” He held up a smaller lump of the same kind of stone. “Exactly what I was looking for.”

“Tanium comes from all over, though. How do you know these two lumps came from the same place?”

“Because I picked them up myself,” Micah said, blinking at him.

“Oh! Sorry! Sorry.” Jasper had been trying to imagine Micah out rock-hunting, and failing. “I don’t know why that… I dunno, I mean, someone at the market said you don’t leave the castle much, and I guess… Sorry.”

Micah snorted, setting the rocks down and opening bottles and jars still on the shelves, deftly gathering small amounts of powders using spoons with long handles and bowls smaller than the tip of Jasper’s little finger. He dumped the powders onto the table’s stone surface, pausing now and again to stir things with his finger. “I don’t go to the market often, that much is true. And anyway, as we are currently not technically in the castle, I would say your source may not have been an expert. A lot of my training actually took place rotating through a handful of masters in all sorts of far-flung places. For a few solid years, I…wasn’t here at all.”

Jasper studied him as he spoke. The subject wasn’t one he welcomed, it seemed, and he was a bit embarrassed about it but didn’t back away. Micah clearly disliked being misunderstood, going from the way he was avoiding Jasper’s eyes, but he was resolutely not taking offense. Again, Jasper wondered about the gawky young man who’d approached him at the market, the elegant man dancing at the gala, the powerful magician fighting the storm on the balcony, and the responsible academic assuring his safety and requesting his help. He suspected that very few people had seen so many sides of the Vedouci’s heir.

“Sounds like fun.” Jasper shifted closer to watch what Micah was doing. “Should I even ask what you’re putting together here?” He waved a finger at the small pile Micah was sweeping into a mound with his little finger.

Micah glanced up, and tried to hide a smile. “Why, do you think you’d understand?”

“You’re a bastard sometimes—you do know that, right?”

“I don’t think anyone’s ever actually told me before, to be honest.”

Jasper was startled into hesitating for a moment, fooled by Micah’s seemingly absent-minded admission. But Micah had heard the pause and was smiling again, though not meeting Jasper’s eyes. “Now you know,” Jasper said quietly, grinning. “But really, tell me what this is. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before, using powders and plant things on a stone.”

“I’m going to try to, in effect, teach the stone. I’m not sure how long it will remember any—”

Jasper burst out laughing, and stopped when Micah simply lifted his eyes and one eyebrow, his lips parted, his hands still.

“But you can’t teach a stone! It has no mind!”

Micah raised his other eyebrow.

“No, really… are you serious?”

Micah sighed and raised his head, resting his hands lightly on the table to either side of the pile and the stones. “It’s a metaphor, of course. Remember what I said about mind magic? Disproven. It’s more like…training an animal, maybe. Or how you learn a movement so well that you can do it without thinking. Your body takes over with no conscious thought from you. Something is thrown at your head, you dodge, or catch it.” Micah pointed at the chairs where they’d been sitting, and Jasper looked back, seeing the parcel of clothes he’d left there, hoping Micah would forget it was there and Jasper could leave without it being pressed back into his hands. 

He turned back to Micah, trying not to look as guilty as he felt. “But you can’t teach a stone,” he repeated.

“As I said, a metaphor. Now please, a moment…” Micah moved his hands to either side of the pile, a few inches above the table’s surface, and concentrated. 

Without seeing anything under his hands changing, Jasper could still tell when Micah began casting. His whole body changed. The set of his shoulders, the look in his eyes, the curve of his back were all different, and this, finally, was the real, whole Micah. 

He began moving his hands in small circles, slightly out of synch with each other. Then the gestures became larger, but equally fluid—the way he’d moved when dancing, Jasper realised. One hand lifted above his head while the other slid across in front of his chest, then his fingers spread and stroked the air above the table as though there were an invisible animal he was petting. He ran his hands from side to side, first his right while his left stayed in place, then the left slid out while the right stayed still, repeating this several times, and finally cupping his long fingers around the stone and pushing down, slowly flattening until both palms were pressed against the table over the stones. He stayed like that for a long moment, then took a deep breath, releasing whatever had been happening and glancing up at Jasper, who shut his mouth with a snap. Micah lifted his hands away and shook them out, and Jasper looked down at the table.

“Hey! Where’d all that…stuff go?”

“Used up,” Micah told him. “Folded into the stone.”

“Metaphor?” 

Micah shrugged. “No, not really.” He picked up the larger stone and curled his fist around it, hiding it completely except for one point on the end. As they watched, it slowly became solidly purple, then the colour brightened to magenta. “All right, that part works. Now, we’ve established that you do have a reflection in a mirror.”

Jasper laughed, then tipped his head and went silent. “Don’t tell me mirrors were supposed to be magic.” He thought he’d successfully avoided the question.

“Don’t be silly. Of course not. But they are used quite often.”

“I give up. I just…give up. There’s just so much I don’t know.”

Micah leaned forward across the table and reached out to just barely brush Jasper’s arm. “No. Don’t,” he said softly. “Your life has led you to believe you are null, so of course you don’t know first hand. But you aren’t respecting the things you do know, which is far more than I ever would have expected from a null, if I had ever believed they’d existed. And anyway, I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I am the Vedouci’s heir. I’m perfectly capable of confusing nearly anyone, when it comes to magic. Even Casper.”

“Um…thanks. I mean, it’s good to know I’m not just…yeah.” Jasper stopped himself with an effort, overcome once more with the sheer ridiculousness of where he was, and with whom.

Micah seemed to be about to say something else but changed his mind mid-breath, dropping his attention back to the stone in his hand. “So. Next I need to bind this stone to a mirror, or maybe imbue it with the mirror. Hm.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I may need to do both,” Micah decided, then glanced up as though just hearing Jasper’s question. “Oh, I want it to reflect you, but I need to tie it to another mirror, which would be the one I would then use for scrying to find your stone.”

“Then what’s the other stone for?”

“It is what I would use for the scrying. The natural bond between the two stones will strengthen the link with you. If I can balance this correctly, I would then be able to use the second stone as the conduit to direct what the mirror shows me.”

“Which would be… wait. How can that stone reflect me when it can’t feel me in the first place?”

“It can’t feel you, but I’m going to see if it can feel your reflection.”

“Which is even…less than me,” Jasper said slowly.

“Or, according to some sources, more.” Jasper’s lips parted and Micah raised a hand. “No, I don’t think I’m going to be able to explain it unless it works. Let’s finish tying things together, and see what we end up with.”

Jasper nodded mutely, hoping he hadn’t turned red. He kept reminding himself that Micah had asked him here because he was magically interesting, but he couldn’t help feeling the same embarrassment he’d always felt in school when it came to magic lessons: apologetic for wasting so much of the teacher’s time when they were convinced they just hadn’t explained it well enough, afraid that it didn’t work because there was something seriously wrong with him that no one could figure out because diagnosing things required magic, tired and angry because too often the other children would try to tease him, and he’d have to stand up to them again without hurting anyone even if they absolutely deserved it and he really wanted to.

Now he just pushed himself back a little from the table as Micah brought the mirror with no frame on it to the edge of the table, then brought his hand down on it suddenly, cleanly snapping a piece off the corner. Jasper started back, expecting shards of glass to break off, but Micah only glanced up with a small smile, as though what he’d done was as simple as breaking a biscuit in two. He bent to pick up the piece that had landed on the floor and set it in the centre of his workspace, leaning against the stone he’d been working with. “Now…” he said softly, taking a step back. He raised his hands in front of him. Again, Jasper could tell the moment he started. Micah’s mouth set in a hard line and he frowned, holding his breath for a moment before letting it out in a long, steady exhalation. His hands shook a little, and he shifted them, making minute corrections to counter the movements of something happening invisibly in front of him. His breathing came in little sips and gasps, and he changed his stance, gradually moving closer. The closer his hands came to the stone, the harder he seemed to be pushing. When his hands were within inches of the table’s surface, his teeth were bared, his neck muscles tense, his back and shoulders arching as he put his whole bodyweight behind the effort. Finally, his hands landed on the table, cupped around the stone like claws, and a last growl snapped them down flat. He stood for a moment, then let his breath out in a gasp and stepped back, shaking out his arms again, then swiping the curl of hair that had fallen onto his forehead back into place. He looked up at Jasper, still panting, but with a tired smile.

“Wow,” Jasper said faintly, and shook himself. “Was that a normal kind of spell for you? D’you do that a lot?”

Micah tipped his head, leaning his shoulder against a shelf and massaging his arms. “I don’t do that particular one daily, no, but that wasn’t anything very intricate.”

“It didn’t look intricate. It looked…hard.” He wasn’t sure how much he could say, or even think, about what he’d just seen, and what was hidden under Micah’s very full shirt sleeves.

“I suppose there aren’t many daily spells in most people’s lives that require that amount of effort, but it’s fairly usual for me. But it is nowhere near the most difficult I did today, and today was nothing special.”

“I’ve never seen magic that looked so… physical.” Oh feck, what was he saying? Did that sound like he was flirting? Was it good or bad flirting? No! No flirting! “Well, physically difficult, like it took arm muscles rather than brain muscles, not that that makes a lot of sense, but it looked like strength was kind of…necessary? I don’t see a lot of magic done outside of casual around-the-house stuff or the Earl’s experiments, and he certainly doesn’t do anything that needs muscle…” Babbling! He forced himself to stop, whether that was a good ending point or not, whether he’d explained anything or not. It was the only way, really. Just…stop.

Micah, though, didn’t seem annoyed. His cheeks had even gone a lovely pink. He raised his eyebrows and smiled then looked down, and bit his lips. “Well, what I was doing was fairly physical,” he said, nodding at the table.

Jasper realised he’d never looked at what Micah was doing so much as he’d watched him do it. Now it took him a moment to realise what had happened. “Where’d the piece of mirror go?”

“It’s absorbed into the rock. I pushed it inside and locked it there.”

“You what?”

Micah laughed. “It’s very similar to the last spell, really. Now the rock has some of the properties of a mirror, as well. So…” He picked the stone up and studied it, watching it slowly come to life with a faint tint of dark red or purple. Then he looked up and tossed it to Jasper.

Jasper caught it instinctively. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it felt warm, as though Micah had been holding it for a while. He thought it might be slightly heavier than he expected, but it wasn’t anything striking. He set it on his palm and watched it for a moment, and the colour it had developed in Micah’s hand faded slowly away. “Well, so much for that idea,” he said sadly and looked up at Micah.

Micah, however, raised his hand, a curious look on his face. “No, wait a moment. The other day when I handed you the tanium pebbles, they turned back to grey immediately when they touched your hand.”

Jasper nodded slowly, staring back at him. “So… I don’t feel any different…”

“I haven’t changed you,” Micah said thoughtfully. “This is different tanium, less pure, and  I’ve changed it substantially. I do think there may be something in the reflection concept that is working.”

Looking at the stone in his palm, Jasper wasn’t convinced. “It’s all grey now, anyway. What are you hoping it’ll do?”

“I’m hoping it will make you findable,” Micah admitted. “Ideally, I would have liked the tanium to give me a read on your mood as well.”

“But the mood stuff…I thought that was just a kids’ thing.”

Micah simply raised an eyebrow. He’d been doing it a lot today, and Jasper liked the look of it. It showed more confidence, and as far as Jasper was concerned, Micah should be the most confident man in the world. 

Micah reached across to take the stone out of Jasper’s hand. He set it on the larger piece of mirror and put the other stone next to it. “My next step here is to tie the two stones to each other and the mirror. That should make it easier for me to use the second stone to find the first, which shouldn’t be affected at all by your null quality. I think we’ve thoroughly established that magic works perfectly well near you, or I wouldn’t have been able to turn your hair and clothes pink. Or lift the tray you stood on. Or mend your clothes during the gala.”

“Yeah, I can follow that,” Jasper said. “I’m just curious to see how well the scrying works.”

“Give me a moment, and we can find out.”

This time, the magic involved a lot of finger movements around the stones and above them, most of them tapping on the surface of the mirror as though playing some kind of instrument. At one point he switched to his right hand, swapping without pause and shaking his left out absently as the right continued tapping. He swapped hands again, then the movements changed. He bent closer as though listening to something, then tipped his head and closed his eyes. The finger work slowed, a few brief pauses working into the patterns, then the variety simplified until at the end he was just tapping in three places around the stones, over and over. He stopped, opening his eyes and taking a breath, stepping back and staring at the stones, peering at them from different angles and distances before finally brushing his finger against the one that had been the focus of all the previous work. Satisfied, he picked it up and pressed it between his palms, and finally looked up at Jasper. 

“I think it’s ready.”

“For what?”

“Testing. Here.” Micah held it out to him and Jasper took it slowly, watching the magenta fade away, maybe even a little more slowly.

“Want me to take it somewhere?”

“First test—let’s make it easy. Just go as far as you can over there.” He flicked his hand toward the opposite end of the room, where the mattress that was his bed lived. Jasper nodded, wondering if this felt as odd to Micah as it did to him. As far as it was possible, he was going to stand in the man’s most personal space, the closest he seemed to come to having a bedroom.

He stopped with his feet inches from the mattress, trying not to notice the blankets pulled up and tucked under the edge of the pillow, a few wrinkles still in the pillow’s case. There was no way any housekeeping staff had made this bed, he realised. No professional staff would have left the pillow with the previous night’s creases undisturbed. He swallowed and turned his back, having just indecently invaded the man’s privacy, but Micah had his back to Jasper, moving further back against the far shelves. He was holding the second stone in one hand and the mirror in the other, like someone holding a cup of tea absently while reading a book. 

Micah turned and looked up from the mirror, checking to see if Jasper was in place. He lowered one end of the stone toward the mirror’s surface, and then nothing seemed to happen for a moment. Then Micah looked up, grinning. “Good. I can feel it.”

Jasper looked down at his own stone. “Great. Am I supposed to feel anything?”

“No, why? Do you?”

“Nope. Nothing.”

“Ah. That’s actually correct. Scrying doesn’t affect the subject. Or it shouldn’t, but I never know what’s going to happen with you.” He shrugged. “Let’s try something else. Go into the main lab, and I’ll see if it works through stone.”

Jasper went to the next room, unable to stop looking at the stone, both hoping and fearing something about it might change. “Ready!” he called back.

Nothing happened for a minute, then Micah suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Yes, you’re exactly where I expected.” 

Jasper stuck out his tongue. “Okay, how far can it go?”

“I’ll stay in here and shut the door. You, well, you can’t feel the barriers anyway, so just go right out to the corridor, this time.”

Jasper did as he was told, and Micah disappeared into the lab again, then came back a moment later almost giggling. “This time, go through the portal.”

“So in that big hall?” Jasper asked, hesitating in front of the empty door frame at the end of the corridor.

“Yes. Again, I’ll come find you.”

Jasper went through the portal, glancing around to be sure the hall was empty, and a sudden mischievous impulse struck. He sprinted down the middle of the hall, then crossed to hide behind one of the pillars. He put his back to the stone and waited.

A moment or two later, footsteps started. They paused after a few steps, then resumed, heading in his direction. When it was clear Micah knew exactly where he was, Jasper stepped into view, admitting defeat.

“Nice idea,” Micah admitted, his grin nearly splitting his face in half. “Let’s really push it. I’ll give you a few minutes to find somewhere else, wherever you can get to, and I’ll just keep after you.”

Jasper tipped his head, grinning now, himself. “Hide and hunt, eh?”

“If you want to put it that way, yes. But this is absolutely genuine magical research for a good cause, if anyone asks.”

Jasper hesitated. “Wait. That’s a good point. I don’t really know my way around here.”

“Which is what makes it a valid test,” Micah pointed out. “I’ll have to find you. If you’re starting to feel frightened, of course, approach any of the staff and tell them you’re lost.”

“Bastard.”

“You must be new,” Micah said drily, giving him a pitying look. “We have visitors from all over this world, and several others. This castle is intentionally difficult for people to find their way in. It’s a precaution. The staff are entirely used to lost guests.”

“That makes it sound perfectly safe. I’m sure you’re not setting me up for embarrassment at all.”

Micah held out the stone and mirror he held. “Would you care to switch roles, then?”

Jasper batted his hand aside. “Fine. Give me a count of…what?”

“Let’s say two minutes.”

“Oh, I can get pretty far in two minutes.”

“I’m counting on it.”

When Micah underlined his point by starting to count, Jasper growled and legged it. He remembered enough to find his way to the ballroom that had hosted the gala, counting in his head, ducking behind a tower of stacked chairs about fifteen seconds after Micah would have started looking. It only took another thirty seconds, at most, for Micah to appear around the side of the chairs, just looking up from his mirror. “This time, don’t stop,” he suggested. “Just keep going. I want to see how well it will track movement.”

“Pretty well,” Jasper predicted, already backing away. “Same count?”

“Same count. One, two, three…”

Jasper raced through the castle, dodging down corridors and cutting through rooms. More than a few of the rooms seemed to still be in use well after what Jasper would have expected to be the end of the day. He just backed away again and ran to the next. By the time Micah had started coming after him, Jasper had no idea where he was. A corridor stretched ahead of him, the walls narrowing as he went in farther. When it was finally too narrow to continue even sideways, he backed up until he found an empty office.

Micah strolled in only a few seconds behind him. Jasper burst out laughing. “What the ocray?” he demanded. 

You may not be able to work the tunable portals, but I assure you that I can.” Micah’s grin was just a little smug. “You’re never that far from a portal, in Farek en Innen Ciel.”

“Wait, what? Where did you call this?”

“The Foldings. The castle,” Micah explained. “You didn’t know the name?”

“I thought ‘the Foldings’ was the name,” Jasper said, frowning. “You said that Farek bit the other day and I thought that was just the part of town.”

“Oh! No. ‘Farek en Innen Ciel’ is the proper title. Farek, meaning governmental department, en or of, innen ciel, traffic of the sky.”

“I thought the position of Vedouci was a lot older. Like, ancient.”

“It is.”

“But sky ships are way more recent.”

Micah tipped his head, making a face as he sought words. “That’s too literal. It’s more ‘sky’ in the sense of ‘insubstantial’. And the traffic is…” He gestured vaguely with the hand holding the mirror. “The power moving when magic is performed, I guess. The different types of magic, the knowledge of them in circulation…”

“Oh, so it’s more—yeah. The Vedouci’s realm.”

“More or less. Now I think I’d better lead you out of this wing.”

“Oh, balls, did I—” Jasper began, panicking a bit.

Micah took his arm gently and shook his head, guiding him back down the corridor. “If there were areas off limits, you wouldn’t be able to get in—physically or magically. Otherwise a bit of common sense should be enough. Don’t enter an occupied bedroom or bathroom—”

“Unless I’m invited.”

Micah stared at him, then laughed. “Of course. Mustn’t be rude.”

“Exactly.” Jasper grinned, letting the tip of his tongue stick out again, then turned and ran.

He took Micah at his word, and ran through parts of the castle he never could have imagined, thinking of Daisy’s disappointment at his description the other day. He’d be able to make up for that now—she’d just asked him on the wrong day. 

He went up all the stairs he could find, and when most buildings would have stopped using marble and stone on the higher floors, the Foldings clearly had no such limitations or compunctions. He poked his head into an empty bedroom that was three times as tall as the corridor outside it. A huge cascade of embroidered velvet spilled down behind the bed, the same brilliant blue as the drapes and with what looked like gold plating—thin as a handkerchief—on the edges of the blankets. The windows beyond the bed went from floor to the very high ceiling, showing a beautiful sunset over a beach. The sun had set about an hour ago in Lunule, and Jasper stood and stared for a minute. What kind of magic must it take to have so many distant places all connected to one building? Was the bedroom actually in the castle at all? Were the glass doors at the bottom of the windows a portal, or was it the entire window? He was sorely tempted to duck out through the doors and see if the beach was really there, or if it was some kind of illusion. But what kind of illusion would he be able to see? He knew it wasn’t a painting, at least, because there were gentle waves rolling in across the sand and the tufts of grass were moving slightly in a breeze. The water beyond stretched out to the horizon, and Jasper had never seen a body of water so large he couldn’t see across it. 

But then Micah caught up and Jasper took off running again, hurtling down the servants’ stairs, giggling madly when he startled maids, under-butlers, clerks, and gardeners, all of whom only had time to gasp and lean out of his way. Good solid wooden stairs gave way to stone steps as he went, and strange carpeted walkways and hallways led right up to the edge of  a wooden plank bridge held together with rope, brightly lit from above by floating glow spheres, but with nothing but blackness under the bridge, as far as he could see.  

After the abyss, things got even stranger. The corridor widened to the size of a banquet hall, and instead of the floor disappearing, the ceiling did. He blinked up at the sun in a gorgeous blue sky with a couple of fluffy clouds. A flock of birds went past, and rows and rows of plants stretched before him—seedlings in pots the size of his thumb, up to actual trees bearing fruit, coming up through gaps in the stone floor. He moved cautiously down an aisle between an entire rainbow of blooming rose bushes and a tomato vine as thick as his thigh, stretching up on a subtle trellis that supported it in the shape of an oak tree. The branches had everything from flower buds to ripe fruit. Beyond that were herbs, the warm sun bringing out their scents in such a rich mix that it made his stomach growl. There were fruit trees, flowers, and vegetables, and he suddenly realised they were mostly consumables. What wasn’t food was flowers, and all of them had both buds and open blossoms. Bees and butterflies flitted and zoomed around him, and while he was sorely tempted to pick an orange or tomato, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. This had to be part of the secret to feeding the dozens of people who must live in the castle, and they had likely budgeted every single crop quite carefully. 

Still, it wasn’t every day he got to walk through a garden in a sunny basement. He snatched a leaf off of a mint plant as he passed, crushing it between his fingers before slipping it into his mouth, nibbling at it as he went, letting the cool, sharp taste build in his mouth.

The rooms after that were lit by glow spheres and full of shelves, boxes, bags, jars, twine, bins, and barrels. One long shelf had every kind of hand tool and a few sinister-looking gadgets he didn’t recognise, all spikes and blades and wheels. He sidled past that collection and found the next door.

Cold hit him like a slap in the next space, which was more like a cave than a room. Walls, floor, and ceiling were cut into rock, and huge slabs of meat hung on chains, ropes of sausages were coiled on pegs, and bricks of butter with paper between covered an entire wall. Further in were fully-butchered cuts of meat, poultry ready for roasting, and rack after rack of pies ready to go into the oven. He wrapped his arms around himself and hurried on, rubbing his arms and chest to keep warm.

Something started hurting. His first instinct was that it was from the cold. Toes? No. Ears? Fine. Fingers? No. It took longer than it should have to realise that it was his tongue, and then he remembered the mint he was chewing. The taste had gone from sharp to stabbing. He spat it out, swiping his tongue with a finger. The stinging, burning sensation faded, and it didn’t seem to affect his finger, so he figured he was probably safe. He ran the last few steps to the solid wood door only to find the iron handle covered with a thick layer of frost. He wrapped the tail of his shirt around his hand before leaning on the handle. It took a bit of a shove to get it moving, but the next room was a place he could understand again: jars and crocks and pans and trays, all full of things that looked amazing. Sauces, toppings, jams, jellies, creamy-looking pastes, and a hundred other things he was sorely tempted to dip a finger into. He could already hear the sounds of a busy kitchen ahead, and pushed on.

If it weren’t for the pans and pots hanging overhead, he might have thought he’d stumbled into a field of battle. Orders were shouted and acknowledged with a chorus of responses. Things were being pounded, sliced, chopped, beaten, and abused in every possible way, and it smelled simply gorgeous. No one paid him any attention, but they were aware of his presence, standing aside as he strode through—he knew better than to try to run through a working kitchen.

“Here, you found the front door, then?” someone called and he stopped. It took him a moment to place her, but it was the cook who had met him when he’d knocked on the castle’s door for the first time. She was big, as most cooks were, and her face was clearly shaped by laughter. She wasn’t quite smiling at him, but she seemed to have an indelible smile even at rest.

“Yes, chef,” he said, smiling back and probably blushing. “Didn’t mean to disrupt your work.”

“Oh, you’re not,” she assured him, gesturing at someone behind him. “But I would like to know how you found your way into my kitchen nearly a week later. Lots of people get lost, but lost for a week is something special.”

“No, I’m not exactly lost. I’m helping Micah with something. He’s trying to track me.”

“Oh.” She looked at him blankly. “Well. If you get hungry, now you know where to come.”

“If it smells like this every day, I may just sleep in a corner.”

“Not every day, no. Tomorrow’s beef. Do you have a name?”

He probably wasn’t making the best impression, trying vaguely to sidle away, one eye on the door he’d come through. He shook his head and deliberately stepped closer again, offering his hand. “Sorry! Jasper. Housemaster for Earl Onfroi.”

“I’m Sally. Good to meet you.” She had a surprisingly soft hand for someone who needed a lot of strength, and without the callouses and scars he saw on most chefs.

“I know I look like a maniac, but Micah—you know him? The heir?”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know him. Since he was about five.”

“Yeah, sorry… well, he’s going to come through that door any second, and I’m supposed to be—”

“Yes, you are,” came Micah’s voice, making Jasper sag. 

He turned around to see Micah casually leaning against the opposite doorway, arms folded, mirror dangling from his fingers. “Now how the flippity-feck did you get in front of me?”

Micah’s laugh echoed through the kitchen and he came down the two steps to join them, moving easily, not at all self-conscious. Jasper looked back at Sally, who didn’t look remotely impressed—more exasperated, actually—and had to conclude that Micah was no stranger to the kitchens, or to Sally. Jasper was surprised, relieved, and pleased to see this: Micah really did get out of the lab, and often enough that it wasn’t unusual. He’d known employers who treated staff as furniture, but Micah clearly was nothing like that. Some of the younger workers seemed a little distracted by the presence of the heir, but not unduly shocked.

“I told you—portals. I can, for the most part, reach any part of the castle in less than a minute.”

“So are you satisfied with your scrying?” Jasper asked. Sally shrugged and walked away, shaking her head.

“I suppose I am, yes. To be fair, I let you get into the pantry before I went for a portal. Once you got past the bridge, you didn’t have a lot of options till you left the kitchen.”

“How far away did I get?” Jasper asked.

“Miles,” Micah assured him. “I do wish I could get the tanium part really working with you, but I guess it’s not all that surprising.”

“Not to me, it isn’t,” Jasper said, sticking his tongue out again briefly. That reminded him of something. “Hey, wait. I came through that big room full of plants, with a sky and everything.”

“Yes, that’s part of the pantry complex.”

“Complex? No, later,” he added as Micah opened his mouth to explain. “So it was really hard, but I didn’t eat anything, really, though I did try chewing on a mint leaf…?” He wasn’t sure how guilty he should feel.

“Yes?” 

Probably not very, then. “It was burning, spiky mint.”

“A bit unlike numium, then?”

Jasper’s face crumpled into a knot while Micah just blinked innocently at him. “No, it was not like numium, if you must know. Numium is a smooth kind of pasty, chalky minty.”

“I shall relay that information to the chefs.”

“I am fully prepared to go back up to the lab and eat that entire bowl in front of you,” Jasper warned, shaking his finger.

Micah snorted and flinched at the same time. “Oh, don’t even tease,” Micah said, his eyes wide.

Jasper awarded himself a point for catching him off guard. “Right, then. So, that mint—some kind of battle mint?”

Micah studied him for a long moment through narrowed eyes. “We have very few of those on this castle,” he said slowly.

Jasper blinked back at him, then barked out a laugh that had several people turning. “Oh! No, wasn’t talking about defensive architecture. I meant… Is it meant to be some kind of weapon?”

“Not exactly. But there are grades of mint. There are mild, subtle ones, sharper ones like peppermint, and some of them are caustic enough to burn the skin. Well. Most people’s skins.”

Jasper’s eyes widened. “Okay, lesson well and truly learned. I am never eating anything in this building ever again.”

“How do you feel about drinking?”

“Oh, um… sure?”

Micah nodded as though Jasper had passed some kind of test. “I think it should be possible to find you some kind of food safe for nulls.”

“We’re in the right place,” Jasper said, looking around.

Micah had already caught the eye of one of the cooks, and he pointed at something behind Jasper, raising his eyebrows eloquently. 

“What? What’d you get?”

“Rolling stew.”

Jasper raised his eyebrows and tipped his head, this time.

“There’s usually a pot or two on the fire, and any suitable leftovers are added. The stew…evolves, I suppose.”

Jasper couldn’t help recoiling. “But… then you’ve got things in there that are who knows how old?”

This got him a curled lip and sarcastic glare before Micah answered. “No… I think I might have noticed if three-quarters of the castle suddenly dropped dead from eating spoiled food. No. But this is the kitchen at the Foldings, remember? The flavours blend, but there are layers of enchantments and charms folded in with every addition, and whatever has been simmering the longest… floats to the top, so to speak. It is the default, easiest meal for anyone eating at irregular times, and there is a steady churn of servings removed and more ingredients added.”

“But… not everything goes together. Spicy sausage and creamy chicken and… and… I don’t know what all—”

“Which is why there are usually two or three pots. And why we have chefs in our kitchen. They know what tastes blend and which don’t.”

“And…oh,” Jasper hesitated as a young man came over with a tray. Two no-nonsense wooden bowls on a wooden tray, two slender, polished wooden spoons, a basket holding a steaming napkin-wrapped bundle, and two short, sturdy glass bottles. Jasper got his hands under it, but when the young man smiled and let go of the handles, Micah grabbed them, swinging the tray out of Jasper’s hands.

The damage had been done, though. “Sweet merciful Meg, what is that?” The scent had filled Jasper’s nose, rich and meaty and spicy and hearty and he’d never felt so suddenly hungry before in his life.

“Rolling stew,” Micah repeated. “Do you trust me now? Sadly, I can promise there’s no numium in it.”

“Yeah. I think I do. And, well, I’m not going to try anything without supervision.” Jasper stepped to one side, waving him back toward the door through which Micah had entered.

“That would be greatly appreciated. I don’t want you to feel restricted, but I also don’t want to risk your safety. Or your health.”

Jasper gave him a tight little smile. “Got that.”

“You’re feeling guilty. Why?”

That startled Jasper. He turned to stare at Micah, who kept his attention on their path, glancing aside through open doorways into empty rooms, deliberately avoiding his gaze. 

When Jasper couldn’t find anything to say, Micah went on but still without meeting his gaze. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable or worry unnecessarily. Your position with the Earl is challenging enough. I would like to make your time here, well… comfortable. You are doing me, and the world, a great service.”

“I dunno, I think I might be the one getting the help. If you can find a way to teach me something, anything…”

Micah stopped immediately and turned to face him across the tray in his hands. “Even if you cannot learn magic, Jasper, I simply won’t have you feeling guilty. Your bravery—and it is,” Micah added firmly when Jasper opened his mouth to argue; “it’s inspiring. Sometime we will go back and try to figure out which mint you ate, and how much it affects you, because that is valuable information as well. Tempted as I am to rush ahead, we need to move slowly, because if you ever are injured by something, I don’t know what to do to heal you. Not yet, anyway.”

Jasper couldn’t keep meeting his eyes, and turned away, tipping his head to beckon Micah on. “And I need to learn that. This isn’t Ryebury. You must have all sorts of things here I’ve never seen before. What if I’m not null? What if we just haven’t found what gets through to me?”

“I have no answers,” Micah said simply. “But I am devoted to keeping you safe and well.”

Jasper nodded and rubbed his eyes, letting Micah steer him back to the lab.