“Cauda Pavonis”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Content Warning: DREAM VIOLENCE

Ash and Soren stayed up talking in the drawing room well past the moment Caren and Nathaniel walked by in the hall with a tray of food floating behind them (“Those two are getting along well, aren’t they?” remarked Soren, with a mischievous quirk of his brows), about music, growing up in Arcadia, being self-made. Soren spoke of starting life over in his twenties, coming to Philadelphia, assembling the ragtag gang of young queer men who were now his inner circle.

“How did you manage to recruit so many like-minded people?” asked Ash.

Soren looked at him meaningfully. “We have a way of finding one another…don’t we?”

Ash gazed back at him—wondered what exactly Soren thought he was.

The conversation turned back to music. Soren got out his violin to show Ash its unique features; explained, with great enthusiasm and several spontaneous demonstrations, why he insisted on gut strings instead of steel or nylon (“Gut is organic material; it’s more complex in structure, so it emits a richer sound, more overtones”) and why he played with a Baroque bow (“As a devotée of Bach, I’d rather play with a bow that’s made for speaking; the hair moves but not the stick itself; the hair immediately grips. With a Baroque bow you are free to create the shape of the note; with a modern bow one needs to play a lot of vibrato to color the sound, to make the tone carry”).

“Truly,” he said, as he laid violin and bow back in their case, “and no disrespect intended to Nathaniel, who is a wonderful talent—you are the most gifted keys player I’ve ever met.”

Ash flushed. Shifted in his seat.

“Did you learn in Arcadia?”

“Sort of.”

“Who was your teacher?”


Soren blinked, furrowed his brow, uncomprehending. “I’d take that for a joke, but you don’t seem very much the joking sort.”

“My…father didn’t approve of my learning,” said Ash, “so I simulated a piano keyboard using gnostic visualization, with specifications I gathered through online research, and taught myself to play by ‘ear’…in a manner of speaking.” He paused. “Yesterday was the third time I’ve sat down at a physical instrument.”

Soren stared at him. “Is that why you said you ‘don’t really play’? I thought you were just being absurdly modest. Now I reflect on it, though, you’re no more modest than you are a comedian.” He chuckled delightedly. “Why, that’s fantastic! What constraints could hold you with such a mind?”

The question caught, looped in Ash’s thoughts.

“Truly, I was so”—Soren pressed his hand to his heart—“moved by your performance. And it’s so”—he glanced back at the shrine to Takayuki Murakami—“serendipitous, that you should choose to grace us with the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor. Tak’s favorite piece…like a message from beyond.” He fell silent, gazing at the portrait of the gentle-eyed man.

“He must have been someone very special to you,” said Ash.

Soren turned back to him, smiled wistfully. “Tak was, in fact, my husband.”

“Oh.” Ash stared at the shrine. “I…couldn’t imagine what that’s like.”

“Perhaps you could,” said Soren. “You lost your mother.”

“When I was born. I don’t remember her.”

“No doubt it still left a mark.”

Ash hesitated. “How can you miss what you never had?”

“By feeling the vacancy of what should have been.”

“’Should have been’ is just a mental projection.”

“So is ‘was.’ And yet the past lingers…impressed upon our very beings.” Soren again gazed at the portrait of Murakami.

“Can we not transform ourselves?” murmured Ash.

Soren raised an eyebrow. “Do we truly wish to?”

Ash found himself envisioning a transcendent being with golden eyes.

“Your mother and I were quite good friends, you know,” said Soren, “in our Academy days.”

Ash blinked himself back down to Earth. “You were?”

“Indeed we were.”

Ash stared at the rug. “I know nothing about her.” Except her genome, he added wryly to himself.

“Scipio’s never spoken to you of her?” said Soren.

Again, Ash hesitated. “Only to say I’m too much like her.”

“I should think that’s a compliment.”

“He never makes it sound like one.”

Soren seemed to study him. “Well, Leocadia Nimri—Leo, as we called her—was one of the loveliest people I ever met. A bit melancholy, but intelligent, open-minded. A very droll sense of humor. Perceptive.” He smiled faintly. “Leo knew I was gay before anyone else did. Turned me down when I asked her to the May Day Ball…then, after I came clean with her, agreed to go as my beard.” Soren chuckled. “She played my girlfriend for a year before she was pledged to your father.”

Ash sat absorbing this. “I can’t…imagine someone like that with my father.”

“She couldn’t imagine it either, I think. The very life seemed to ebb out of her when the match was made.” Soren studied Ash for a moment. “I…do apologize, Ashton, if this is too sensitive a topic.”

“No, I just…” Ash frowned.

Soren gazed at him patiently.

Ash took a deep breath. “Maybe I just…feel the vacancy of what should have been.” Having voiced the thought, he felt a sudden intense heat in his skin, a constriction in his chest. Laid his left palm on his thigh, started analyzing the fibers of his jeans.

“You are not alone in that.” Soren’s voice seemed far away.

“I think I need to be excused.” Ash’s own voice seemed distant too.

“Of course. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take the Begonia Room?”

“I would—thank you. I’ll drive back in the morning.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

What constraints could hold you with such a mind?

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Ash felt the ache of exhaustion but again couldn’t sleep. Lying in bed in the Begonia Room in borrowed silk pajamas, staring at the floral canopy in the darkness overhead, he found himself alone and unhurried for the first time all day, and in neglected recesses of his mind thoughts were tumbling chaotically over each other—mostly about his conversation with Yves Baptiste, but also about that moment in the alcove afterward with his father. And about “Ash to Gold” too, which he really wanted to watch again (and he had noticed Soren’s enchanted penthouse somehow, remarkably, had Wi-Fi) but was too embarrassed to look at right now, because he didn’t want to think about the comment he’d left, because when he did think about it a whole different set of thoughts would start tumbling, about whether he’d sounded too familiar or too flirty or creepy or desperate. And then he’d reflect that those were stupid, banal thoughts to be having if you really were the child of destiny who would one day attain to the highest mystery and recreate the world, which just seemed to further reinforce the certainty sitting heavy like a rock in his stomach that the Grand Templar had either been lying or had the wrong kid.

And Leocadia Nimri was mixed in with these thoughts too, and Ash found himself wondering what it even meant to recreate the world, which he knew he wanted to, had always wanted to more than anything, for as long as he’d known how to imagine, but he couldn’t even visualize what it would look like—what kind of future could ever be bright enough to make up for a past like this.

Ash finally passed out from acute fatigue, into dreams as jumbled as his thoughts, and even more charged, about a woman with hair like autumn leaves whose face was never quite clear—and who, though standing still, was never any closer no matter how hard he ran toward her; about blue flames melting the flesh from his bones while he writhed screaming on the floor, surrounded on all sides by indifferent masked men; about standing in front of a big, shabby, ornate mirror to see himself looking like a sad clown in Valentine’s bold punk fashion, makeup and bright blue hair, while golden-eyed Valentine-Ash stood behind him looking like a genderless god.

“The colors are beautiful,” said Ash, with the feeling of a bottomless sadness. “But they’re not mine.”

Valentine wrapped their long arms around Ash from behind; leaned close and whispered, lips grazing his ear:

“Cauda pavonis…”

Ash woke up to an intense throbbing in his groin. Slipped his fingers into his boxer briefs, between his labia, bit his knuckles to stifle a moan as a shudder wracked him.

His fingertips glided along the slippery-wet grooves, then surrendered to the gravitational pull of his pulsing clitoris, circling tighter and faster to a feverish flutter at the center.

The blast radiated outward like a supernova, whiteness pervading and blinding—either he lifted off the bed or it dropped out from under him—weightless, boundless, empty; light rushing into darkness, darkness dying to light;

A knock on the door jolted him back into his body and bolt upright. All of a sudden he was shaking, sweating, couldn’t breathe.

“Mr. Grenville?” Another knock.

“Wh-who…?” Ash choked out.

“Mr. Grenville, sir, it’s Wilhelm. Mr. Dreyfus-Meillassoux informed me that you wished to be awakened at a quarter of six.”

“I’m up—thank you.”

Wilhelm’s footsteps retreated.

Ash sat stunned, heartbeat thundering in his ears. Stared at the arousal fluid on his hand—the clear gossamer strings that formed when his fingers touched, then separated.

Felt a black devouring feeling in the bottom of his gut.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Ash showered—politely partook of a breakfast Soren had ordered prepared to his dietary specifications, even though he was distinctly not hungry.

The time for Ash to take his concoctions came and went. He prepared and imbibed them on his own in the Begonia Room. Scipio would definitely have noticed by now that his son hadn’t come home last night, but there was no sign of interference from Creuch—which Ash didn’t find as reassuring as he would have liked.

As Soren was walking him out, when they arrived at the elevator, Ash turned back to him. “Could I…ask you something?”

“By all means.”

Ash hesitated. “Did your dad or grandfather ever mention anything about a…prophecy…concerning a child born to one of the great families who would ‘attain to the highest mystery’ and gain ‘the power to recreate the world’?”

Soren’s expressive features registered a flicker of memory. “‘Exceed all pretenders’…‘attain to the highest mystery’…yes, my father sought my counsel on such a prognostication once. I’d never seen him so anxious. He spoke of a coming apocalypse, a ‘new Adam.’ To my knowledge, nothing ever came of it.” Soren studied Ash. “Why do you ask?”

Then there is a prophecy. And Orison Meillassoux does know.

…So Yves Baptiste was telling the truth.

Ash didn’t know how to feel, what to think, what to say.

“You…said I could stay here anytime?” he said at last.

“My home is always open to you, dear Ashton.”

Ash nodded. “I should go now.” He stepped into the elevator. “I’ll see you again soon.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Later that morning, Ash walked into Yves Baptiste’s office.

The Grand Templar looked up from his desk, cheeks splitting in his dark-eyed grin. Stood, held out his right hand. “Frater Grenville. Good to see you.”

“I assume you have some means of protecting this office against eavesdroppers.”

Baptiste raised one intrigued eyebrow, spoke a word of command. A sound shield descended over the chamber with a wave of shimmering light.

“First of all,” said Ash, as Baptiste settled back into his seat, “what’s your plan for getting me into the Pyramidion?”

He made double-sure Creuch wasn’t spying before leaning forward and adding, in a low voice,

“And what protection can you offer if I break with my father?”


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