“All Is Ash or the Light Shining Through It”
story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb
Content Warning: MISGENDERING, TRANSPHOBIA, MISOGYNISTIC LANGUAGE
Jules paused in the middle of his writing, twirled the sterling silver spoon in his teacup; cast a glance out the wide, southeast-facing window of the Alfheim, Room 808, onto the fairyland vista below. The translucent auras of Delphi’s many glamors ensnared the sunrise, forming a twinkling, burnished-gold patina over the gothic architecture of the square. The city seemed still half-asleep, the occasional car or truck rumbling drowsily over its cobblestone streets before vanishing beyond the borders of the tableau, restoring an illusion of changelessness to the scene.
Jules surveyed the fray-edged notebook pages fanned out on the desk in front of him. Not for the first time in his sleepless hours that morning, he doubted this impulse project he’d undertaken. Wondered if he was just going to end up embarrassing himself. Questioned whether it was really such an important thing to do after all—if he shouldn’t just light the pages on fire over the sink, now, and spare himself the risk that he might actually go through with it.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the wiry form of Rory sprawled facedown on his bed, drooling gently on the pages of a centuries-old, painstakingly calligraphed copy of a millennia-old text.
About time the scribes re-copied that one anyway. Guess I actually have the authority to order that now. Grand Philosopher and whatnot.
Jules’s old schoolmate had fallen asleep on top of his covers with his bedside lamp still on, his tousled pate at the foot of the bed, his wide puppy-dog feet crowded up against the headboard. He was now enfolded like a sloppy burrito, the unencumbered half of the comforter turned overtop of him—Jules’s handiwork upon discovering him early that morning.
Enjoy oblivion while you can, Ror. You’re not up and at ’em by eight fifteen, you get a bucketful of ice to the head.
Jules realized his tea was probably getting cold; drained it as he turned his attention back to the page in front of him. The past week had been weird, to say the least—had stirred up so many things inside him that he’d thought he’d laid to rest. A brush with mortality would do that, he supposed. As would a run-in with the architect of all your most fucked-up life experiences. And an unexpected reunion with the person who’d both made your childhood and wrecked it.
Jules put pen to paper once more.
It was only as she watched the life stream out of her in rushes of red that she felt how alive she had been all along inside. And, in that moment, when it seemed too late, she finally pitied herself, and knew she had been deserving of love after all.
Her last wish as she clung to the fading light was that she could have drummed up the courage to be her own champion, even when no one else would.
Too fucking gay, Nimri. Dammit. He fought an urge to crumple the page.
“Where the fuck’m I?” came a muffled voice from behind him.
Jules shuffled the pages together, folded them in quarters, hastily stuffed them in the liner pocket of his suit jacket.
“Morning, sunshine,” he drawled, turning to Rory.
Rory blinked at him with froggy eyes. “Oh, shit,” he muttered, noticing he’d drooled on the book, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “What time is it?”
“Six past eight.”
“Right,” muttered Rory. “Ugh.”
“I ordered coffee and juice and pastries and sausage and fruit.” Jules waved toward the room service cart parked a few feet away. His own plate sat on the table next to him, all but cleaned of its vegetable omelette and fruit slices. He forked the lone disc of kiwi still on it, stuffed it in his mouth.
“Oh, word,” said Rory. “You all done getting ready?”
“Cool.” Rory gave a wracking yawn and scratched his chest, then crawled out of bed and stumbled over to the cart. “How’d you sleep?”
“Not much.” Jules frowned at an unexpected knock on the door. “The fuck…?” He grabbed his cane, hobbled over to open it.
On the other side of the threshold stood his father.
Jules blanched and eased the door slightly less open, attempting to block Thorsten’s view of the room with his body.
“Who is it?” came Rory’s voice from behind him.
Thorsten’s hooded eyes flared. “Who is that?” He craned his neck trying to get a look inside.
“Work.” Jules stepped into the hall, pulled the door to behind him. “What’s up, Dad?”
“I thought you were monitoring some afflicted mundane woman. That sounded like a man.”
“I am monitoring a mundane woman. She’s next-door. The man”—calling Rory a man felt weird, and Jules had an inkling his old friend wouldn’t have liked it—“is under suspicion for a crime, and the Master-General authorized me to keep him in my custody till he’s either cleared or officially charged.”
“You spent the night with a criminal?”
Well, technically… Jules thought about the pointed omissions in Rory’s statement. “He’s someone I used to go to school with, Dad, and I’m a hundred percent sure he didn’t do it. Anyway, you should know by now I can torch the ever-loving shit out of him if he tries anything. Now what can I do for you?”
Thorsten twitched, looking like he had plenty more he would have liked to say. But in the end he only heaved a sigh. “I need to…consult with you. On a sensitive matter. One that shouldn’t be discussed in the presence of your…” His gaze flicked disapprovingly past Jules’s shoulder. “…roommate.”
Jules didn’t like the implication in his father’s tone. “Well, like I say, he’s in my custody, so he’ll probably be with me all day. I guess I can leave him with some Ordinators at some point and stop by your office.”
“No, no, don’t tax your leg any more than you have to.” Thorsten waved his jeweled hand. “I’ll come by your office. I wouldn’t mind having a look around the place anyhow, now that you’ve settled in.”
Jules wasn’t too sure how he felt about that prospect. “All right. I should be flexible most of this afternoon.”
“One o’ clock work for you?”
“I’ll pencil you in.”
“Very good.” Thorsten nodded and shot a last disgruntled look at the crack in the hotel room door, then started off at a brisk pace toward the elevators.
Jules heaved a sigh and slipped back into the room, shutting the door firmly behind him.
“Daddy disapproves?” Rory looked up from the table with half a cream cheese pastry in his face.
“He still sees me as a girl.” Jules picked up his satchel. “And he’s sexist.”
“Sorry if I got you in trouble.”
“I don’t get in trouble these days. I just get bitched at. I have all the power in that relationship.”
“How’d you pull that off?”
“Almost died. Twice.”
“I’m gonna look in on Max. Remember, eight forty-five.” Jules tapped his watch.
“Yeah…don’t worry. I’ll be so spiffy Lord Thorsten’ll wanna invite me to dinner at Chez Nimri.”
Jules knocked on Max’s door.
“Moww?” came her reply.
He felt a sudden stroke of panic. Am I really gonna show it to her?
“Come iiiin!” It sounded like she was stretching.
Jules took a deep breath. Proceeded into her room. Shut the door behind him.
Max was nothing but brown bangs and a pair of hazel eyes staring at him over a lump in the sheets. On her TV was some cartoon with characters that all seemed to scream a lot. “Time for my appointment, doc?” came her muffled voice.
“If you’re up for it.”
Max sat up. She was wearing a satin shorts pajama set somebody had given Jules for his birthday once, strawberry-hued and spaghetti-strapped. The rift was visible over its low-slung neckline.
“How did you sleep?” Jules figured he ought to make some kind of attempt at conversation. He set aside his cane, perched on the edge of her bed, started digging around in his satchel.
“Sleep, schmeep. Don’t get me wrong, this bed is super comfy. Me and the sandman just aren’t on real friendly terms lately.” Max popped her neck, stretched. “Seriously, though, this is far and away the nicest hotel room I’ve ever been in. So…thanks for putting me up here. You don’t know what a difference it makes being out of that frickin’ hospital room.”
“It wasn’t any trouble.” Jules laid out a caliper and chart.
“Dude. It’s gotta be costing somebody a fortune.”
“Not at all. My family, at least in name, is part owner of the Alfheim. So this place doesn’t charge me for anything.”
“Oh.” Max looked impressed.
“Even if they did, I could easily justify reimbursing myself from the Alchemy department’s research budget.”
Max smirked. “So I’m a research project for you?”
Jules glanced at her a bit guiltily, set his bag aside. “You aren’t only that.”
“What else am I, then?”
He kept forgetting what a gift she had for knocking him off his center. “A fellow human being in need,” he replied carefully, and picked up the caliper. “Are you…” He gestured vaguely at her shirt. “May I…?”
She pushed the pajama top obligingly off her freckled shoulders. “So I’m a research project and a charity case, huh? Guess I tick off a couple boxes for you.” Her expression was neutral. He suspected she was ribbing him, since that seemed to be her m.o., but he wasn’t sure.
“It’s not like that.” He felt a small flutter of anxiety as he turned his attention on the rift. Looking at it too directly always made him feel like he might go pitching into it.
“Ffffuck, that thing’s cold,” Max hissed as the metal of the caliper touched her flesh.
“Brr. Whatevs. I’m used to things being a little chilly in that area, just in a more…intangible kinda way.” She arched an eyebrow mock-sternly. “Just, you know, don’t go reading too much into my nippies doing what comes naturally—you hear?”
Jules’s cheeks burned. “God’s sake, woman.”
Max gave a small fey giggle. “I’m sorry! It’s just way too rewarding pushing your buttons. I’m like a rat in a Skinner box.”
Oh, fuck, Jules realized. I like her.
“I’m done,” he muttered, a minute or two later, as he recorded the last of the measurements. “Go on and cover up your ‘nippies,’ before I’m further tempted to misattribute their arousal.”
Max doubled over with a guffaw.
Jules blushed even harder. What the hell is wrong with me?
He stood, tucked his things back into his bag. Max’s giggling continued unabated as she rearranged her shirt.
Jules felt himself crack a smile. She must think I’m such a freak…but at least I entertain her.
He hesitated then, remembering the folded-up paper in his jacket.
He turned back to face her. She sat expectantly, eyes sparkling up at him.
Just do it. What she thinks of you doesn’t matter.
“You know how I told you I had an idea how you could maybe…make it easier for yourself to talk about the…what happened to you?” he asked.
Max sobered. “Yeah.”
Jules pulled a stiff new notebook, still sealed in its shrink-wrap, out of his satchel and laid it on the bed in front of her, along with a pack of different-colored pens.
“… You want me to write it down for you?” Max asked.
“It’s only a suggestion. And…” Jules hesitated. “This’ll probably sound a little goofy, but…if you really find yourself having trouble, consider doing it in the third person. With a name that isn’t your name. Maybe even pronouns you don’t associate with yourself.”
“Well…your pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘her.’ Right?”
“Oh—right. So you’re saying I should use, like, ‘he’ and ‘him,’ or something.”
“If it helps. It might give you some distance.”
Max stared down at the notebook. “You know, that’s so damn kooky it just might work.”
“I, um…” Jules began.
Don’t go chickening out now.
The rest came out in a jumble of breath. “I was thinking this morning it might also help you feel safer if I went first.”
Her eyes switched back up to him. “Huh?”
Part of him was suddenly, frantically thinking up ways he could still back out of it. But his gloved hand rose, dutifully, and slid into his jacket pocket, emerging with the folded pages in its grasp.
Max eyed them curiously.
“Just, uh…take it.” He thrust them at her.
She unfolded the sheaf. “‘In Memoriam Juliana,’” she read out loud.
“Don’t—read it now,” Jules cut her off quickly, kicking himself for giving it such a cringey title. New policy effective now: Never give a girl an unedited piece of writing you started at four o’ clock in the morning. “Wait till after I leave. If that’s…if that’s cool with you.”
“Right.” She folded it up again. For once, out of the two of them, she was the one who was visibly flustered. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. And—please,” he began, then cut himself off, feeling stupid.
“…What?” asked Max.
“It’s…for you to read. Nobody else. Understand?”
“I do.” She gave a puzzled but reassuring quirk of her lips.
Jules nodded acknowledgment. He was starting to feel a low-level panic like a vise clamping down on his chest.
What was I thinking…?
I need to not be here anymore.
“Okay—bye,” he muttered, turning away.
“Bye.” There was a hint of a question in Max’s voice as Jules shouldered his satchel and high-tailed it out of the room.
Next-door, Rory was sitting on the edge of his bed, neatly shaved and groomed and sporting a plaid button-down, corduroys, and loafers. “What did I tell you?” He got to his feet, spread his palms presentationally. “Spiffy as hell—amirite?”
“That’s the best you can do?”
Jules hadn’t meant to be snippy. He felt guilty as soon as he saw the look on his former friend’s face.
But he didn’t reckon he should ever have to apologize to Rory Navarrete for anything.
“I don’t know what you want, man.” Rory’s tone was deliberately even. “This is the nicest outfit my sister packed me.”
Why don’t you fight me? Jules thought.
He limped over to the closet, pulled a plain black tie off the rack. Crossed back to Rory and tossed it down on the bed. “Put that on. And tuck in your shirt.”
Rory did so, looking as if he had a few things he would have liked to say but didn’t.
Jules stumped off aimlessly. He wondered whether Max was over there reading it at this very moment. She probably was; considering how weird he’d been about it, she was probably too curious to wait. He wondered how the hell he was ever going to look her in the eye again, and came to the conclusion that he probably just wouldn’t. They would get by well enough. Eye contact wasn’t mission-critical.
“Do I pass inspection now, Sarge?” Rory did a little catwalk turn with his tie secured and shirttail tucked in.
Jules turned and looked at him, actually welcoming the distraction. Rory seemed older—and somehow less Rory—with his shirt tucked in and his hair smoothed down. Jules wasn’t sure it was preferable, for purposes other than the one at hand, but at least it was kind of interesting. “That works.” He started for the door. “Let’s go.”
Rory had never spent much time in the Alchemy department back in his Academy days. It was a cramped, funky-smelling, generally unpleasant corner of the Enclave, its maze of hallways so tight and twisted they could have triggered claustrophobia in a mole.
“This is a pretty sweet office.” He glanced around, hands in pockets, while Jules hung up his satchel and donned his sashes. “Is it really yours?” He squinted to read Jules’s rank insignia—Master-Savant—and his eyes widened slightly. That was the most advanced membership rank in Ordo Arcanus, short of elected office. Rory hadn’t thought it was achievable for someone as young as Jules. He supposed that trick with the tattoos must have clinched it.
“No,” said Jules. “I’m just pretending it is to impress you.”
The alchemist was in a royal snit this morning, ever since he’d come back from seeing Max. Rory knew the signs; namely, that he, Rory, got ignored and dismissed, and, when he refused to be either ignored or dismissed, he got sniped at. When the two of them had been close, Rory’d been inclined to give as good as he got when Jules got like this. But, considering how they’d left things four years ago, it now seemed like a good idea to try to keep that impulse in check.
Jules shoved a binder in his satchel and stumped past Rory into the hall. He led the way through the gnarly thatch of corridors to the department’s meeting hall, which was already occupied almost to capacity by other Alchemy department employees. It was a humble space by Enclave standards—unfinished mahogany and open rafters, its walls decorated in desultory fashion with various charts, hanging tapestries, and carven symbols.
Rory spotted his sister standing in the back with a few of her fellow apprentices and waved brightly. She came bounding over and wrapped him in a hug. “Heyyy, bubby! You been behaving yourself for Jules?”
“He’s only had to spank me once,” said Rory.
Jules shot him a lethal glance.
“You wanna come hang out in the back with me and the girls?” Abby nodded toward her friends.
Rory followed the direction of her nod and saw her old friend Gina making eyes at him. Gina had been obsessed with Rory back in the day. The feeling had not been mutual.
“I’ll just, uh…stay up here with Jules,” he said.
“You mean up there with Jules?” Abby nodded toward the dais.
Rory turned and saw Jules laying his binder open on the lectern. A hush decended over the gathering.
“Oh, fuck,” Rory whispered. “This is his meeting? I didn’t know that. I thought he just had to go to it.”
“I gotta go,” Abby hissed, and went bounding back to her spot.
Rory took up a post by the wall near the door. It was an old instinct left over from his school days. He’d always preferred the most out-of-the-way seat in the classroom, and, whenever possible, the one with the shortest escape route.
Of course, that had all changed sixth year when he’d started hanging out with Jules. That had led to some compromises.
“Good morning, everyone,” Jules began. “I won’t waste your time with too many pleasantries, since I know we all have a lot of work to do. I just wanted to introduce myself, acquaint you briefly with my leadership style—since I know many of you must be wondering what to expect—and give you an overview of our department agenda for the coming quarter.”
Wait, thought Rory. Is he running this whole fucking department?
“I’m Jules Nimri.” Jules leveled an unsmiling glance over the assembly, one long brow cocked. “Some of you know me. For the many of you who don’t, I’m not the warmest, fuzziest person, but I don’t bite.”
Rory swallowed an urge to cackle in delight. Oh, man. You suckers don’t even know what just hit ya.
“I have an open-door policy,” Jules went on. “I’ll be receptive to your input and will value it on the basis of its merit, regardless of your rank, your past accomplishments, or lack thereof. On a similar token, I’ll be free with constructive criticism, seeing as open and direct communication is essential to the growth of each individual here, and, more importantly, to our efficiency as a working unit.”
“Jesus, what a bitch,” came a whisper from nearby.
Rory’s head swung toward a pair of younger alchemists—Scholars, by their rank insignias—who stood close by him, talking quietly over Jules’s presentation. He recognized them, after a few seconds of study, as Silas Eads and Teddy Grenville—both members of Hunter Lockwood’s Old World wannabe Rat Pack.
“I don’t give a fuck what she did in the council chamber,” Teddy was saying. “No way Old Man Weyland should have given Julie this job. It’s horseshit.”
Rory narrowed his eyes.
“Yeah,” said Silas. “Hunter said something stinks about the way things went down Thursday night. He says what Julie did up there isn’t even possible with alchemy, that she must have used illusions or amulets—maybe even some kind of apostasy.” His voice fell so low Rory almost couldn’t make it out anymore. “He even thinks maybe the Prefect was in on it.”
Teddy’s eyes widened. “Like as in he and Julie staged the attack?”
“Hunter doesn’t like to think they’d go that far. That was probably just a coincidence. But he said Julie’s little show, at least, had to be smoke and mirrors. And Elisha claiming afterward that she almost sacrificed herself to save the Enclave…dude, no one was even around to witness that, except for him and Devisha Wade, and we all know how far up his ass her head is.”
Jules almost sacrificed himself…? Rory’s throat constricted.
Teddy frowned. “Dude. Why would they do that?”
“Because,” said Silas, matter-of-factly, “they’ve got it out for Hunter. And getting the old man to promote Juliana over him makes him look incompetent. See, Elisha already knew Hunter was thinking about running for office against Thorsten Nimri. He’s hell-bent on sinking his campaign.”
Kind of remembering why I got the fuck out of this place, thought Rory, grinding his teeth.
“But Elisha’s Hunter’s cousin,” said Teddy.
“Dude, trust me—they don’t get along. And as for Juliana, obviously she doesn’t want Hunter to beat her dad in the election, either. Plus, dude—she hates Hunter. She’ll do anything to embarrass him. She’s had it out for him ever since they broke up. That’s why she switched to Alchemy so soon after.”
They broke up, Rory echoed in his head. He’d pretty much taken this for granted, given the sharp right turn Jules’s life seemed to have taken since he and Rory had spun out of each other’s orbit four years earlier. But it was still unspeakably satisfying to hear it confirmed.
“Why should she hate him so much?” frowned Teddy. “She’s the one who dumped him.”
“Because, dude—the bitch is loco. Just listen to her. And look at this fucking radical queer jag she’s on. Dressing like a guy, making everybody call her ‘he.’”
Rory knotted his fists.
“Hunter treated that girl like a queen,” Silas went on, with the passion of a Pentecostal preacher. “Everybody knows he could always have any girl he wanted, but for some stupid reason he worshiped Juliana Nimri. The things he gave that girl, dude…clothes, jewelry. His dad’s antique pipe organ, a family fucking heirloom. Talk about ungrateful. She turned on him. It just about destroyed him. Hunter. The king. That was one sorry sight to see, bruh. He didn’t show up to work for three weeks after they broke up.”
Serves Date-Rape McDoucherocket right.
“Jesus, that’s fucked,” said Teddy.
“I never even got what he saw in her, dude,” said Silas. “He always said she was wild in bed, but I don’t buy it. She’s too much of an ice queen.”
Rory’s pulse started pounding in his ears.
“I believe it,” Teddy grinned. “Didn’t you hear about that thing that one time in school?”
“Ohhh—right!” Silas snickered. “Holy hell, was Hunter pissed about that. I thought for sure he was gonna dump her.”
“I won’t lie, man. I’d fuck the little horny bitch stupid.”
Rory closed his eyes, but that red-hued static followed him, scintillating on the insides of his eyelids.
“Eh.” Silas’s words were a grating sibilance below the droning of Rory’s pulse. “She was all right back when she at least tried to look like a woman. But she was always too fucking skinny. And her voice is super annoying. Every time she opens her yap I wanna bitchslap her.”
Teddy’s grin widened. “She’d be way less annoying with my prick in her mouth.”
Rory’s strike tore out of him in a wild spasm.
Teddy Grenville went rigid as a board for three seconds. A bead of sweat skipped down the side of his face.
Then, a shudder coursed through him. He gripped his belly, let out an ovine bleat.
Silas eyed him. “Bruh…you okay?”
Teddy’s stomach rumbled loudly.
Rory watched the pair through a sea of scarlet. He worked his jaw, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides.
Guess I’m in it now…
… so fuck it.
He unleashed a second burst of fury on Silas.
“What the…?” Silas doubled over, his guts burbling.
Rory slipped quietly farther toward the back of the room, feeling deeply unsatisfied with his work.
He would much rather have boiled their liquefied innards, then made them piss out every scalding drop.
The eruptions began seconds later—loud, brassy wet ones. A rotten-egg odor spread quickly throughout the room.
The assembly broke out in a chorus of murmurs and gasps.
“With input from all of the team leaders, I’ll be reprioritizing…” Jules was saying, but he trailed off, looking confused, as the gathering descended into chaos.
Here it comes, Rory thought, as his old friend’s gaze followed Silas and Teddy’s exit, then began to scour the room.
His eyes found Rory and narrowed angrily.
Jules arrived at his office door, the hooting and laughter of his subordinates still ringing in his ears. He stood to one side and waved Rory through ahead of him, then followed him into the office and slammed the door behind them.
Rory paced, tiger-like, his hands fidgeting aggressively at his sides. Jules stayed near the door, counting his breaths. He couldn’t keep from flashing back to the last time he’d seen Rory this angry…which was also the last time he’d faced a crowd of his laughing peers because of one of Rory’s “pranks.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, shutting out the sight of his old schoolmate. But Rory’s footfalls and the rustling of his corduroys continued to grate on his ears.
“Sit down,” Jules erupted finally.
Rory stopped. Turned to face him.
Jules was ready with a challenging stare.
But Rory’s gaze lacked the expected defiance. He dropped his eyes to the floor, then trudged over and plopped down in the chair in front of Jules’s desk, arms folded over his chest.
Jules set aside his cane. Rubbed his temples. “What…the hell…is wrong with you?”
“You didn’t hear what they were saying.”
“I don’t care what they were saying. They aren’t the ones who disrupted my meeting.”
Rory stared at his knees.
“You embarrassed me in front of my entire department,” said Jules.
“I didn’t mean to.”
Jules exhaled through his nose. “We’re not in grade school anymore, Rory. Can you possibly understand that? And look—I get that you don’t give a flying fuck about the consequences to yourself. But please keep in mind that if you get caught doing those things on my watch, it’s my head on the chopping block next to yours. As a Martial Magus, I’ve sworn an oath to arrest people for the kind of thing I just saw you do. The consequences of breaking that oath are not mild.” He took a deep breath, released it, and limped a few steps closer, aiming a hard stare down on his former friend. “Is that something that matters to you? Even a little?”
Rory looked him in the eyes, inscrutably, then gave a single nod before averting his gaze.
Jules turned to his coat rack. Dug in the pockets of his trench coat and pulled out a couple of the Enforcement standard-issue adamantine bracers he’d been authorized to carry. “I shouldn’t have had these taken off you in the first place.” He crossed back to Rory. “Put out your hands.”
Once more, he was prepared for a fight.
Once more, he didn’t get one. Rory offered his wrists, palms up, without a word of protest. Jules clicked the freestanding cold-iron rings into place.
“I have work to do.” He hobbled around behind his desk and sank into his chair. “Go over there in that corner or something—somewhere I don’t have to look at you—and fucking be quiet.”
“They were talking about Hunter,” said Rory.
Jules’s eyes snapped up to him. “I do not”—his words were carefully measured—“want to discuss Hunter Lockwood with you, Rory, for reasons I’m sure you understand.”
Rory dropped his gaze and nodded, then stood and dragged his chair to the farthest corner of the room.
Jules erected a small fort using the stacks of files on his desk, then popped in his earbuds and got to work.
The day wore on in silence, with both Jules and Rory in their respective corners drowning their cares in music—a mutual solitary ritual that was interrupted only by a couple of visits from Nadia, and then around noon when Jules asked an apprentice to bring in some lunch.
With everything that had gone on that morning, Jules had actually forgotten to pencil in his appointment with his father. So it came as an unwelcome surprise when, at one o’ clock on the dot, he heard over the arithmetically erratic riffs of Tera Melos’s untitled album a pair of brusque raps, familiar in their force and pacing, on his office door.
“Shit.” He jerked his earbuds out of his ears.
Rory was sprawled in his chair in the corner, half-napping with his own earbuds in.
“Come in.” Jules stuffed his iPod in his desk, then stood and waved fiercely to get Rory’s attention.
The door swung open. Thorsten stepped over the threshold with his detail of Ordinators at his back. Ever since the attack, most members of the Enclave’s leadership had traveled its halls with a personal guard.
“Wait here,” the Magistrate commanded his escort. His gaze drifted to Rory, who was on his feet now with his earbuds draped around his neck. The elder’s eyes narrowed subtly. Jules felt a certain relief at that moment that he’d avoided introducing these two when he and Rory were in school.
“Rory, step out in the hall for now. You,” said Jules to the Ordinators. “If he tries to wander off, apprehend him and return him to me. Understand?”
They nodded. Rory gave Jules an inscrutable look and shuffled past Thorsten to join the stone-faced guards in the hall.
“That young man really is in your custody,” observed Thorsten, after Rory had shut the door behind him.
“Did you think I was lying to you?” Jules gave him a hard look as he sank into his chair. He then gestured to the chair across the desk from his own. “Have a seat.”
“Last I checked, none of your recent promotions qualifies you to order me around,” noted Thorsten, with the faintest rasp of a chuckle, as he indulged in a slow circumnavigation of the office.
Jules suppressed a sigh. “That was an invitation, Dad. Not an order.”
His father studied the bas-relief Adam Kadmon with a dubious quirk of his mouth. He then paused to poke at the keyboard. “Won’t this just prove a distraction to you?”
“That belonged to Grand Philosopher Lockwood,” said Jules, pointedly. “I suspect he felt, as I do, that abstract expression is essential to enlightened thinking.”
“Oh, you think yourself enlightened now, do you?”
“Far from it.” Jules gritted his teeth. “Tell me, Dad, did you really ask me to block off a half-hour of my afternoon so you could come in here and try to humble me?”
The elder seemed to struggle with himself for a moment. “No,” he said at last, looking tired, and took the proffered seat. “Truth be told, I…have a favor to ask of you.”
“Really? ’Cause that was a funny way of prefacing it.”
The apology took Jules off guard.
“I think, perhaps,” said Thorsten, with visible difficulty, “I myself am feeling humbled by the fact I’m being compelled to ask my eighteen-year-old child for help with something I’ve been doing on my own for more than twenty years.”
To Jules’s recollection, this was as candid as his father had ever been with him. He felt himself soften a bit. “Dad…what is it?”
Thorsten took a deep breath. “Concerned parties have counseled me that, in order to secure my victory in the upcoming election, I ought to solicit your involvement in my campaign.”
Jules’s stomach did a flip. “In what capacity?”
“As a surrogate.”
The alchemist stared fixedly at his desk.
“You’re young,” his father went on. “You’re beloved of the membership right now, thanks to your bravery and resourcefulness last Thursday night. Certain influential parties feel that putting you front and center might help make me seem more, erm…exciting.”
“Wow,” Jules mumbled.
His father raised a questioning brow.
Jules’s mouth twitched upward. “You’ve got to be pretty hard up if you need me to make you seem more exciting.”
“Once more—this was not my brainchild.” Thorsten let out an impatient puff of air through his nose. “Are you receptive to the idea or not?”
Jules sat back, exhaled slowly. He’d always avoided his father’s public life like the plague. He himself had never aspired to run for office, in spite of it being Nimri tradition, and—setting aside the fact that pretty much every aspect of politics was anathema to him—since he was the openly queer offspring of a Hekate Aristokratian necromancer, Jules was pretty sure making himself subject to the degree of public scrutiny this called for would be as good as posting a bull’s-eye on his back.
Another consideration was that Jules and his father had almost nothing in common politically. In fact, under normal circumstances, this by itself would have been reason enough for Jules to take a pass.
“Shall I…leave you to think it over?” There was a note of impatience in Thorsten’s voice.
Unfortunately, these were far from normal circumstances. Knowing Hunter as well as he did, and taking into account both the means and the ends of the Lockwood heir’s political ambitions, Jules felt that not doing everything in his power to keep him from getting elected was—simply stated—unthinkable.
Even if it meant putting himself dead in his ex’s crosshairs.
I did want to be seen, didn’t I? he reminded himself wryly.
Jules took a deep breath, looked his father in the eye. “I want a seat on your platform committee.”
“I already have a platform,” said Thorsten.
“Right, and I’m sure it was a great platform twenty-odd years ago, the last time your magistrature was contested. Times have changed. You haven’t. Hunter’s got an eye to the zeitgeist. That’s where he could end up having an advantage.” Jules chewed his lower lip. “Too, quite frankly, I’ll find it difficult to speak convincingly on your behalf if I don’t believe in you as a candidate. So we’re going to have to reach a few compromises if you want me in your corner.”
“Family loyalty never did mean anything to you,” Thorsten muttered under his breath.
Jules stiffened. “Is that where this discussion is heading? I gave you every single thing you asked of me for so. Damn. Long, Dad.” To the point it almost killed me, he refrained from adding, because it was too low a blow. “Loyalty isn’t the same as being someone’s puppet. If you don’t want me as I am, you don’t have to take me.”
He braced himself for a response to the effect of, We wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with if you’d honored your familial obligations.
Instead, Thorsten cleared his throat and pronounced, evenly, “I spoke out of turn.” One of his jaw muscles twitched. “As you wish; I will consider any revisions to my platform you may deem fit to propose.”
Jules gave a brusque nod, relaxed slightly in his chair. “In that case, I’ll consider taking on the role of your surrogate.”
“Very good.” Thorsten rose. “The election is in eight weeks.”
“We’ll want to begin strategizing right away.”
“Agreed. I’ve already scheduled a meeting with Gaius in my office, tomorrow five P.M. Will you be free to join us?”
Thorsten heaved a faint sigh. “Very good,” he said once more, half to himself, then straightened his jacket and moved briskly toward the door.
Rory let his head loll onto the back of his chair, stared upside down at the zodiac clock on Jules’s office wall.
Eight and a half minutes till five. The day that had felt like it would never end was almost over.
All afternoon he’d sat here, his butt falling asleep on the unforgiving hardwood of the seat, blasting Touché Amoré’s demo so loud it made his eardrums throb while he wrestled down a recurring impulse to stand up and yell at Jules to shut his stupid mouth and actually listen to what had made Rory lose his cool in that meeting.
Trouble was, whenever Rory went so far as to imagine looking his old friend in the eyes and repeating the depraved things those douchebags had said about him, it hurt too much to even think about. At which point Rory always gave up and cycled back around to daydreaming about making Eads and Grenville spew out their own intestines and choke on them.
Rory started up, his eyes snapping into focus, as he realized Jules was waving him over. He popped out his earbuds and shuffled over, taking the seat in front of the alchemist’s desk.
“I’m thinking we’ll get something to eat, then head out to your crime scene,” said Jules.
“Sounds like a plan.”
The alchemist paused in the middle of rearranging files on his desk, looked as if he was silently debating himself. “Can I ask you a question?” He leaned forward onto his forearms.
Rory shrugged, tried not to look as curious as he felt. “Hit me.”
“Promise you won’t laugh.”
Now Rory was almost painfully curious. “What is it?”
Jules hesitated. “What would it take for you to vote for my father?”
Rory caught himself just before he did, in fact, start to laugh. “Uh. I’m not a member of the order anymore.” He shrugged. “So, I can’t vote.”
Jules rocked his head forward, fixing Rory with a shrewd from-under stare. “It’s a hypothetical.”
“Right. Uhhh. Against Lockwood?”
Jules frowned. “How’d you know Hunter’s in the race?”
“Okay, well, forget about that. Say it’s not Hunter he’s running against. Say it’s, I don’t know—anybody else. What would it take for you consider voting for Thorsten Nimri?”
“I take it you’re looking for an honest answer here.”
“Why else would I ask.”
Rory took a deep breath. “A lobotomy.”
“Okay.” Jules stood, reached for his cane. “This was helpful.”
“You’re welcome.” Rory flashed a placating grin.
“…Why did you ask?”
The question didn’t come till almost an hour later. Rory found himself thinking back on the conversation after he and Jules had arrived in Chicago and stopped into a Mediterranean café on Morgan Street. Rory had already wolfed a gyro and fries, and he was now sitting idly, watching his old friend poke at his BlackBerry while picking at some kind of chickpea dish and a salad of microgreens.
Jules looked up, raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“About your dad. Me voting for him. Why did you ask?”
The alchemist sighed, put aside his phone. “When he came by today, he…asked me to be involved in his reelection campaign.”
Rory’s stomach dropped. “Really? You two don’t agree on anything. At least you used to not.”
“That’s still accurate.” Jules impaled a leaf of arugula with his fork.
“So tell him no.” Rory thought back to the conversation between Silas Eads and Teddy Grenville that morning. Clearly Lockwood was already gunning for Jules’s reputation. While Rory was sure no one with half a brain—which both Eads and Grenville plainly lacked—would believe the stupid conspiracy theory he’d started, things were sure to get ugly if Jules campaigned openly against him.
“I can’t do that,” sighed Jules.
“Because. He’s running against Hunter.”
“Okay. Well…glad as I am to hear you’ve figured out Lockwood’s a pile of shit, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be one to invest that kind of time and effort in a personal vendetta.”
Jules glared. “What do you fucking think I am?”
“I said I wouldn’t have thought.”
“I never said Hunter wasn’t a pile of shit. But no, you’re right, this isn’t about that. It’s about how, with just a little bit of power, he’d be a straight-up menace to society.”
“You mean beyond just goose-stepping in time with the rest of the Old World drones?”
Jules ignored the bait. “He’s a sociopath,” he mumbled to his chickpeas. “And a bully.”
Rory’s heart thudded bluntly in his chest. “Hey,” he said, after a beat. It was a question that had been on his mind since that morning, and not for the first time then. “Did Lockwood ever hurt you?”
Jules’s response came lightning-quick: “No, Rory; he was a saint. I might still marry him.”
Rory didn’t laugh.
Jules shot him a tired look. “I don’t need a white knight, Rory. And you’re not one. So why don’t we not.”
“I’m not trying to be a white knight. I’m trying to be a friend.”
“We’ve been over that, too.”
Rory fixed his gaze on the table in front of him. Jules gathered their wrappers and napkins onto their shared tray and stood.
“Pretend it’s not me asking.” Rory kept his eyes down. “Pretend it’s just…someone who cares about you.”
He felt Jules staring at him for several seconds. “I’m all right, Rory. Really.”
He turned away, headed for the trash cans.
Rory sat there for a moment, then exhaled slowly through his nose, stuffed his phone in his pocket, and got up to follow.
The sun had sunk low in the sky by the time Jules pulled his black Volvo sedan into the alleyway next to the building where the apostates had taken Max. By day, the place looked even more rundown than Rory remembered. Half its windows were knocked out. The pockmarks that dented its soiled facade looked like craters in the sidewise light.
Aside from Rory navigating, he and Jules had spoken very little for most of the drive. Left to his thoughts, Rory had started to consider that Jules’s response to his question—or lack thereof—was as good as a confirmation of his fear. Which was something he was trying very hard not to think about, seeing as, if his bastard imagination took that and started to run with it, he wasn’t sure what he might do.
Jules got out of the car and stood, hands in his coat pockets, in the middle of the alley, his silhouette a long, gold-fringed sheath, russet at the top where the sun caught the highlights in his hair. A breeze battered his longish mane as he squinted up at the heights of the building, then cast a surveying glance around him. “Where’d you run over the guy?” He scanned the pavement at his feet.
“Uhhh.” Rory pocketed his own hands as he tried to reconstruct the scene in his head. Everything looked different in daylight—and when he wasn’t behind the wheel of a van, in the grip of a life-and-death panic. “Here.” He pointed with his toe, then paced toward the spot where he thought it had been. A subtle dark stain confirmed his guess. “Yeah.” He recalled the sight of that scarlet slick in his rearview mirror. Tasted gyro in the back of his throat.
Jules joined him and grunted as he sank into a crouch, cane gripped in a white-knuckled fist, injured leg gingerly extended. He took a deep breath, his features lengthening in concentration. A faint red glow emanated from his coat sleeve as he pressed his left palm to the pavement.
“Jesus,” he murmured after a beat. “How many times did you run over him?”
“A lot. How can you tell?”
“Traumatized tissue. They obviously did one hell of a cleanup job, but there’s loads of it still, ground right into the asphalt.”
Rory gritted his teeth. “He was trying to fucking hurt us.”
“I’m not judging you,” said Jules softly.
Rory took a deep breath, willed his muscles to relax.
Jules tottered a little as he tried to get back his feet. Rory moved to help him.
“I’ve got this,” said Jules a bit sharply, and pushed himself up painstakingly with his cane.
“Anything useful?” Rory withdrew to a safe distance.
“Given that he’s already dead, probably not. I could tell you some of his phenotypic and hereditary characteristics, but none of that’s all that helpful under the circumstances.”
“You analyzed his DNA?” Rory raised his eyebrows.
“…Does that mean you could match it to a database?”
Jules shook his head. “Even if I could memorize raw data of this volume that quickly—which I can’t—there would be no way to get it out of my memory and into a form compatible with electronic search. The human chromosome ranges from tens to hundreds of millions of base pairs. Any usable portion of it would take hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours to transcribe.” He paused, looked a bit sheepish. “As you can see, I’ve thought this through before.”
“But you can analyze it that fast?”
“I’ve dedicated nearly my entire gnostic sense to microanalysis,” said Jules, as if that explained everything. Which, in a way, it did. A mage’s sixth sense was said to be limited in its capacity only by the bounds of their will and imagination. Rory had never spent much time cultivating his own, but he knew its capabilities were well beyond what he could consciously measure. The one thing he could say about it for sure was that, somehow, without his deliberate direction, it had developed a preoccupation with finding ways to cause malfunction in the human body.
They proceeded together along the route Rory had taken through the building during the rescue. The stench of death and filth was gone, replaced by a pervasive smell of smoke. Looking ahead down the thin strip of hallway, Rory saw those familiar double doors ajar, and a spray of blackened debris littering the floor.
“Fuck.” He sprinted ahead. Jules’s cane thumped faster as he sped up to follow.
Rory skidded to a halt in front of the doors. “God fucking dammit!” He kicked a pile of rubble.
“They torched it,” breathed Jules, unnecessarily, as he arrived at his side.
Rory could only nod, too pissed off to speak.
“Just breathe, Rory. This isn’t unexpected.” Jules advanced into the room.
Rory trailed him a few steps, then lingered near the doorway as Jules traversed the space, poking his cane at the rubble. The whole of the wide, low-ceilinged room had been scorched an oppressive storm-cloud gray. Bits of wreckage from the walls and ceiling lay scattered across the floor.
In spite of this cleansing by fire, the voices of the dead babbled on. They were calmer now—the apostates’ ritual, Rory reckoned, had stirred them up into a frenzy—but their discontent lingered, palpable as a breath on his ear.
Jules slowed to a stop, closed his eyes. “‘We were born in hell,’” he quoted, as if reading from a page. “‘The poison was in the seed.’” He opened his eyes, stared off, his gaze unfocused. “‘Burn the root; give us peace.’”
Hearing it out loud, Rory realized that, yes, these were some of the things the shades were saying. He wondered if Jules could make out their words more clearly because of his necromancer’s blood.
The two of them stood in silence. Jules’s expression reflected the disturbance Rory felt at the core of his own being.
“I sensed them that night.” Rory shuddered. “They were angry.”
“Why are they here?” mused Jules. “So many in one place. Were they summoned? Did the apostates have a necromancer with them?” He paused. “Or did all these shades already haunt this place?”
Rory shook his head, I don’t know.
Jules resumed his pacing. Rory joined him, kicking over mounds of ash and probing the debris with his toe; even squatting down and digging with his hands, looking for anything that might offer a clue. Jules paused occasionally and lowered himself to read the ground with his palm, but it didn’t look as if he turned up anything of value.
“Fuck,” sighed Rory, what felt like hours later, as they stood at diametric points in the room, as empty-handed as they’d been when they’d first started.
The sun was all but gone. Its last dying rays dappled the blackened walls with a muted red-dwarf gleam, through cracks in the soot-stained windowpanes and rips in the tattered curtains.
“We should head out,” said Jules. “Maybe come back tomorrow. There’s not a lot we can do here once it gets dark.”
“I don’t want to leave without some kind of lead,” Rory ground out. “There has to be something here.” In truth, he didn’t want to be here anymore. The whispers of the shades were getting to him—and the flashbacks to that hellish night. But he didn’t want to go back to Max empty-handed. He didn’t want to walk away without some new direction for his and Jules’s search.
Jules looked ready to protest.
But then he frowned past Rory for a moment before looking back over his shoulder at the window behind him.
Rory turned, scanning for whatever it was that had caught Jules’s eye. “What are you…?”
He trailed off, staring at the oblong specter of a woman wrought from fading sunlight, arms posed like an ancient Egyptian wall painting’s, her pate crowned with rippling flames. As Rory watched, her monochromatic frame winked out of existence, swallowed by shadow.
He glanced back to find Jules bending down in front of the window, blocking the light. “This looks like it was done post-fire,” he said. “Could be a message…?”
Rory joined him and spotted the source of the reverse-shadow puppet: a small, rough shape cut into the smoke-stained curtain.
“It only takes form when the curtain is folded just so”—Jules demonstrated—“and when the sun hits it at a certain angle. Which, honestly, is fucking genius.” He pressed his palm to the mutilated fabric, his sleeve emitting that faint red glow. “Score! Intact epithelial cells. Someone definitely manipulated this post-fire. Young adult. Y chromosome. Primarily Anglo descent. Blond hair. Oh, fuck yes—sectoral heterochromia. That’s a massive stroke of luck. We’re looking for someone who has greenish eyes with a splotch of brown in one of them.”
“Awesome.” Rory began to feel excited.
“As for the glyph itself”—Jules released the curtain, straightened—“it’s not one I recognize, so it must be pretty obscure.” He glanced back at the shape, which had reappeared on the far wall. “But we can snap a photo and show it to Grand Archivist Loris-Beckett. If it has any historical basis whatsoever, there’s a decent chance she’ll know it on sight. She’s gone home for the night by now, pretty sure, but we can pay her a visit in the Archives first thing in the morning.”
“No need.” Rory eyed the flame-headed woman, who was melting away now with the waning of the light. “I know exactly what that is.” With a Cheshire-cat smirk, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and started off toward the door.
“You do?” came Jules’s incredulous voice from behind him.
“Yep. And if I’m right, what those fuckers are doing is telling their buddies where they’re meeting up next.” Rory grinned back over his shoulder at Jules. “What do you say, man?” He cracked his knuckles. “Ready to hunt some apostates?”