“When Was the Last Time We Painted over the Blood on the Walls?”
story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb
Elisha Weyland knew perfectly well that his father was an old man. The Prefect himself was forty-two—so no spring chicken—and Levi had gotten off to somewhat of a late start when it came to the whole spawning endeavor.
Still, Elisha couldn’t help but feel unsettled by how feeble the Weyland patriarch looked at this moment. His visage was gray and drawn, his usually sharp eyes sunken and weary. The lines of his forehead, in the scant globe-light of his makeshift subterranean office, seemed deeper and more cavernous than Elisha could remember ever seeing them.
“Dad,” sighed the Prefect, leaning back in his chair. He fingered the cup of panchrest DeShay had sent him, grimacing at the thought of actually downing the bitter stuff. The relentless whole-body ache he felt in his muscles and joints was almost preferable. “You look like death. Why don’t you lie down for a bit? Tackle this whole thing afresh once you’ve had a few winks.”
“I didn’t call you in here so you could lecture me on self-care, Elisha.” Levi scribbled furiously at a parchment on the table in front of him.
“All right, Dad.” Elisha gave a tired, goodnatured smile. “Then what did you call me in for?”
Levi glanced up from his papers, switching his gaze between the two silent Ordinators who flanked the doorway behind his son. “Leave us,” he commanded them. “Resume your watch outside in the hall.”
The masked guards nodded their heads as one and obeyed.
“You’re kicking out the Ordinators?” asked Elisha, as they shut the door behind them. “They’re not exactly known for their love of gossip.”
Levi rose and crossed to the door, pressing his weathered palm against it with an expression of practiced concentration. “The Ordinators answer to the whole of the Tribunal.” A burst of soft light rippled outward from his hand and enveloped the surrounding wall before fading from view. “What I have to say to you is not for the ears of the whole Tribunal.”
“Ooh, intrigue,” Elisha chirped, lifting an eyebrow. “Let’s hear it.”
“While you know I treasure your obdurate sense of humor” —Levi resumed his seat—“it does begin to wear a little under the current circumstances.”
Elisha smiled, sighed heavily through his nose. “I know, Dad. I’m starting to get on my own nerves, too. Just afraid if I shut down the ol’ conviviality conveyor belt I’ll end up in the fetal position on the floor. Now what’s up?”
“Per protocol”—the Archmagus folded his hands on the table in front of him—“I’ve assigned Devisha to head up the official investigation into last night’s attack.”
“That’s old news,” said Elisha.
“The new news,” continued his father, “is that I’d like you to pursue an unofficial investigation.”
“One that will not take place beneath the scrutiny of the council, and will therefore be free to give sufficient consideration to the interests of Ordo Arcanus.”
Elisha’s smile was finally, utterly gone. “Then you suspect Khmun.”
The Archmagus, if it was possible, looked even wearier than he had moments earlier. “It pains me to say I do. But I’d be a fool not to, given the less-than-genial history between our two orders—and taking into consideration Karamat’s separatist leanings.” He paused, shuffled his papers, heaved a sigh. “However—I do not wish to air my suspicions publicly until such time as it becomes unavoidably necessary. Assuming the High Servant is not, in fact, our enemy, I do not wish to make her so.”
Elisha pressed his steepled fingers to his lips. “Well…fuck. Have to say I never thought we’d be facing a thing like this in my lifetime. Kinda figured all that ancient-feud bullshit was behind us.”
“We don’t yet have the truth of the matter. This could just as easily have been the act of a lone deranged apostate. Let’s pray that’s the case, and that the rogue can be swiftly found and neutralized.”
“Hear, hear.” Elisha smiled bleakly.
Levi thumbed once more, silently, through the parchments on the table. “On a less dire note—what news of our young hero?”
Elisha’s smile turned considerably less bleak. “Jules is out of psychic surgery. Last I heard he’s sleeping peacefully up in Medicinal Magic. His leg was pretty wrecked, but they soaked it in panchrest for a bit, and Urobuchi thinks it’ll heal up for the most part. Don’t know if you heard, but the brilliant little bastard pulled the breastplate off one of the iron golems and transmuted an adamantine shield from it. If not for that, he’d probably be a pancake.”
“To say I am impressed with that young man would be an understatement.”
“If I might be so bold, Dad—Jules deserves to be bumped a few rungs up the ladder. We both know I don’t know jack about alchemy, but that sure didn’t seem like apprentice-level ish to me.”
“No, indeed.” Levi paused. “I’ve…refrained from appointing a new Grand Philosopher since Evander took his leave. I deemed none of his subordinates worthy to take his place, and I kept holding onto hope he would return. Of course, as you know, one summer of his absence became two, two became four, four became eight…and a full decade later, here we remain.”
Elisha blinked. “You’re not saying you want to make Jules Nimri Grand Philosopher?”
“Do you object?”
The Prefect broke out in a toothy grin. “Do I look like I object? Goddamn. This is the least miserable I’ve felt all day—since this morning, anyway, when I hugged the stuffing out of my husband and daughter.”
“No doubt it would be an unconventional appointment, him being so young. Certain of our colleagues are likely to question my sanity.”
“Cough, Nigella, cough. Well, darling Coz can eat my shorts. She’d never say boo if you’d appointed her precious little Hunt-turd to that position when he was eighteen.”
“Perish the thought.” Levi furrowed his brow. “Very well, then: Done.” He dipped his signet in binding ink and stamped the order, then slid the page across the table to his son. “Witness, please. I’ll let you deliver that when we’re done here. While we’re at it: I’m contemplating one other appointment for Jules.”
“Another appointment?” Elisha added his own stamp to the page and rolled it up tight. Then, as realization settled in: “Oh, Dad. You don’t mean…?”
“Do you feel it’s any less deserved than the first?”
“Of course not. But…well…” Elisha sighed, knowing full well his argument was weak: “He’s only eighteen.”
“He demonstrated tremendous grace under pressure last night, and a readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the protection of the Enclave. He also proved he’s formidable in battle, to say the very least.”
“You’re right. You’re right. Of course you’re right. It’s just…man. This, and Grand Philosopher too? Don’t you think that’s a lot of responsibility to dump on a kid, even a whiz-kid like Jules?”
“Desperate times, my boy. If it isn’t Karamat we’re up against, the fact remains that an enemy has risen in the shadows—one willing to go to extreme lengths to disrupt the peace we’ve so carefully kept these centuries past. The Nimri boy can fight; the time may be near when we must call on him to do so.”
Elisha lapsed into silence. “Feh,” he muttered at last, and drummed his fingers petulantly on the arm of his chair.
“At any rate, I won’t press him into service at this time.” Levi stamped the document in front of him. “This isn’t conscription. Not yet. Merely an offer he may accept if he’s so inclined. Would you be so kind as to witness?”
Elisha took the document and added his seal. “Bleh. Have I reminded you lately I never, ever want your job?”
“That makes two of us. Kindly deliver these up to Medicinal Magic. And as to your investigation…” Levi paused, lifting one hoary eyebrow. “Pursue it in whatever way you see fit.”
“Right.” Elisha paused to let the full meaning of this sink in.
“And be careful,” warned his father.
“You too, Dad. Seriously. Whoever it is that’s behind this…they’re gunning for you.”
“They’ll find I’m not so easy to take down.”
“Nevertheless.” Elisha stood in grim silence for a moment, then rallied with a mock-stern jab of his finger. “I really don’t want your job, old man. So you better damn well look after yourself.”
The Archmagus waved a hand at his son, smirking faintly. “Dismissed.”
Elisha took off briskly through the dimly lit subterranean corridor, past the Ordinators his father had banished from the office earlier, and waved off an offer of escort from another of the stone-masked guardians that was stationed further down the way. “Got Buffy by my side, so I’m good,” he reassured it, patting the Colt .45 holstered on his hip. The Ordinator only blinked in response, its dull eyes uncomprehending behind its mask.
The Prefect mounted the rough-hewn spiral staircase at the end of the hall, each step of which was etched with a protective rune that lit up in recognition as his foot touched it. He traced the sigil of passage on the door at the top of the stair and waited patiently while its several deadbolts, one by one, slid free.
The door creaked open, and Elisha eased aside the panel behind it—which happened to be one of the bookshelves in his own office in the Enchantment department. Once safely through, he turned and whispered words of command to the bookcase, then waited while it eased neatly back into place.
The department today was like a sepulcher, missing its usual Friday afternoon sounds of clanking metal and hissing furnaces, murmured chants and cordial banter. Elisha exited from the Grand Enchanter’s office into his private workspace just beyond, and his eye fell on the long, circle-and-rune-inscribed worktable where his and his assistant Duncan’s tools sat abandoned next to their current unfinished project, in the very same spots where they’d left them yesterday afternoon.
“Well, spud, whaddaya think?” Elisha backed down the step stool with cold-iron chisel in hand, pushed his goggles up on top of his head. He planted his hands on his apron-clad hips and grinned broadly at the ten-foot black-diamond-armored brute towering over him on its rack.
“Is he really finished?” Duncan shoved back his own goggles so his brown hair stuck out in random tufts. He was Elisha’s protégé of more than six years now, newly promoted to associate at just twenty-one years of age. He was gawky with a round nose and chin and soft brown eyes. A simple wedding band gleamed on his finger.
Elisha blew some adamantine dust off a freshly carved rune on the golem’s knee joint. “Only a test run will tell. But he sure is a handsome devil, ain’t he?”
Duncan’s grin showed slightly crooked teeth with a hint of an underbite. “He’s a beast! A motherfucking slayer.”
“I sure as hell wouldn’t wanna get on his bad side.”
“I can’t believe he’s finished.” Duncan sounded almost choked up, stood back and gestured with both hands. “We’ve been working on him since I first came here—this is my life’s work.” He seemed to catch himself, hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, cast a sheepish glance Elisha’s way. “I mean, he’s really yours, Grand Enchanter. But, you know…he’s my only-ever project, so it feels like he’s a little bit mine, too.”
“He’s every bit as much yours as he is mine, spud.” Elisha clapped his assistant on the shoulder, flashed a crooked smile. “Face it—your name is about to go down in the history books next to mine. So go ahead and be a proud papa. Credit where credit’s due.”
Elisha found himself standing in the same spot he had on that day months earlier, hands similarly buried in pockets, gazing up at the now-empty rack. He’d spoken briefly to an inconsolable Duncan on the phone that morning. I conceived the golem, spud. I designed it. You only did your job. Blame where blame’s due.
Moments later the Prefect was plugging down the high-ceilinged corridor of the Enclave’s ground level, the rolled parchments his father had given him tucked under his arm. The Enclave overall was unnervingly quiet at the moment. Academy students and non-essential staff had been ordered to stay home for the day, except for loved ones of the dead and injured. Every Ordinator Enforcement had was on duty, patrolling the halls or keeping silent vigil outside the few populated areas.
The instant Elisha turned the corner into the Medicinal Magic wing, he found himself in a different scene entirely. The corridor was garishly bright with hovering luminescent globes. Patient cots, partitioned off by hanging bedsheets, overflowed into the hallways. The air was thick with a noxious cocktail of elixirs and burnt flesh and rot. A low din of weeping and moaning was punctuated here and there by a bloodcurdling shriek.
Elisha wended his way deferentially among the mediciners hustling back and forth between the beds, keeping his eyes trained studiously frontward as he passed the makeshift units on his way to the reception area. He struggled not to gag on the stench; wrestled to prop himself up against the general crush of misery that surrounded him.
“Lish.” The comfortingly familiar voice came from behind him. A callused hand brushed against his.
Elisha turned with a brittle smile. “Hey. Must’ve walked right past you.”
“Off in your own little world like always.” DeShay Wade—who just happened to be tied for Elisha’s number-one favorite person on the planet—wore a close-lipped grin. The associate healer was no doubt falling-down tired, but his face never seemed to show wear. However unforgiving the circumstances, Elisha’s husband always looked like more or less the same bright-faced imp who’d first caught his eye twenty-five years ago, give or take a couple of pounds around the middle, and a few laugh lines at the corners of his canny dark eyes.
“Guess if I dissolved sobbing in your arms right now that wouldn’t be sanitary.” Elisha cast a blurry glance around him.
“My poor baby. What in the name of sweet Jesus brings you back to perdition so soon?”
“Business.” The Prefect sighed, waved his scrolls. “Jules Nimri okay to have visitors yet?”
“I think so. Not sure he’ll be awake, though.”
“That’s cool. I pretty much just need to drop these off for him. Might like to have a chat with Mom and Dad, too, if they’re around.”
“Oh, they’re around. Magistrate’s in and out. Mama Bear hasn’t left Baby Bear’s side all morning.” DeShay paced ahead of Elisha into the next ward, gesturing at him to follow. “You had lunch?”
“I found a Lance peanut butter cracker in my desk with something growing on it. That counts as both a protein and a vegetable, right?”
DeShay raised a disapproving eyebrow at him.
“I’ll make a Culver’s run later,” Elisha reassured him. “Any clue when you’ll get a break?”
“Not really.” DeShay sighed almost imperceptibly. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Elisha followed as DeShay moved, with his signature sway-hipped shuffle, to one of the partitioned-off areas in the farthest corner of the room. “We up for having a visitor?” Elisha heard him ask, as he poked his head between the curtains. “Prefect’s here.”
Moments later, he surfaced and winked at Elisha with a go-ahead gesture. Elisha squeezed his husband’s hand tightly in passing, then proceeded past the curtain.
Inside he found, in the center of a collapsible cot lit by gentle globe-light, the slight form of Jules Nimri, all but buried in a dense nest of pillows. The young alchemist was out cold, his injured leg elevated in a sling. His mother sat at his side, her eyes glued to his face, her slim fingers twined through his. Taking in the scene, Elisha couldn’t help but be impressed by the likeness between mother and son. In waking, there was always something precociously stern about Jules—a perpetual furrow in his brow that inevitably brought to mind his father. But in sleep, with the usual tension gone from his expression, it was impossible not to see his mother’s fey delicacy in his smooth, pale features.
“How you holding up, Alexandra?” Elisha asked the dark-eyed nymph who occupied the chair at the boy’s bedside.
“They said he’ll recover, Prefect,” she whispered in her faintly accented English. Her large eyes shone, uncanny, in her wisp of a face. “So of course I’m over the moon. Please, have a seat.”
“Where’s Thorsten?” Elisha quietly pulled up a chair.
“He’s gone to look for something to read to pass the time. Thor’s been in and out all morning; very restless. Between you and me, I don’t think he can handle seeing Jules like this.” She surveyed her son’s face and broke into a tender smile, like she’d suddenly forgotten Elisha was in the room. She reached out and traced a strand of Jules’s black mane back from his sweat-dewed forehead.
“I’ve got something I’d like to talk over with you.” Elisha felt a faint twinge of dread. “With you and Thorsten, actually.”
“I’m sure Thor will be back soon. He never goes too long without checking in.” Alexandra paused, still gazing at her son. “If we can have our talk here at the bedside, Prefect, that’s best. Jules thought I might have been killed in the attack, so when he was awake for a short time earlier—I think a bit gone on the pain elixir—the poor dear was terrified I wasn’t real. He made me promise to stay right where I am and not move, so he’ll see me as soon as he wakes and know for sure he didn’t dream me.”
Elisha smiled wanly. “Hell of a kid you’ve got there, Alexandra.”
“Oh, I’m in awe.” A wry smile skimmed her lips. “I…feel I cannot rightly call him mine, proud as I am to do so. Jules made himself. He is not the child Thor and I raised him to be. In taking his own path, he became so much more.”
“I’d say Jules owes plenty to his mom and pop. Dutiful service to the Enclave—that’s Thor all over. And willingness to stand toe to toe with death…” Elisha raised an eyebrow. “On that one, I’d have to say he was taking a page from Mom’s book.”
Alexandra darkened. “Twice has Death been my enemy, Prefect. Both times, she came for my boy.” Her small frame shuddered. “Both times, I told the bitch she cannot have him yet.” She bowed her head, wiped runaway tears from her cheeks. Elisha rested a hand on her shoulder.
“Prefect Weyland,” came Thorsten Nimri’s baritone, uncharacteristically hushed, from the curtained entryway behind them. Elisha stood to greet the Magistrate with a firm handshake as he proceeded through the curtains, a pair of aged tomes tucked under his arm. “Anything?” he asked his wife.
“Not a peep, but that’s as it should be. Jules needs the rest to recover his strength. Darling, the Prefect has something he’d like to discuss with us.”
“Oh?” Thorsten settled into a chair.
Elisha reclaimed his own seat, unfurled the first of the parchments on the foot of the bed.
“My goodness.” Alexandra scanned the document over his shoulder. “Does that say what I think it says?”
Thorsten also peered at the writ. “‘Grand Philosopher’?” he read out loud. “Is His Honor serious? Jules is a child.”
“Dad said no one’s ever come along who he felt was worthy to replace Evander—till now. It’s technically an interim position, as you can see from the description here. But, given that Evander’s been MIA for ten years, it may well end up being permanent.”
“Jules will be thrilled,” murmured Alexandra.
“Levi’s lost his mind,” said Thorsten. “Clearly Jules has shown tremendous aptitude for the science, but to assume he has the maturity to run a department, not to mention the requisite administrative talents, is a leap of faith at best.”
“You’re just afraid he’ll fall on his face,” said Alexandra.
“Of course I am, Alex! Jules ascends to such a height at his age, he’ll have enemies by the score angling to bring him down. Hunter Lockwood will be nocking his arrow, I can promise you that.” Thorsten gestured tersely to the writ. “But—I can see it’s written and done, so plainly it was never Levi’s intent to consult me in the matter.”
“Anything unprecedented terrifies you,” said Alexandra. “This is historic. It will lift up the Nimri name again at last. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?”
“What good does it do when there’s no hope of another generation?”
The Magistrate’s remark was met with silence. Elisha raised an eyebrow, stared awkwardly at a fold in the bedsheets.
“What’s the other writ about, Prefect?” Alexandra’s voice was tighter than a drum.
Elisha unrolled the second parchment and laid it on the edge of the bed.
Both mother and father stared at it in silence.
“This is…mostly honorary, right?” murmured Alexandra finally.
“Probably,” Elisha fibbed. “But…after what happened last night, there are no guarantees.”
“‘The Order of Martial Magi,’” Thorsten read out loud, then paused. A muscle worked in his temple. “Has Jules not been through enough for a lifetime already?” He jerked a thumb toward his own chest. “Have we not been through enough?”
Alexandra laid her hand on his and placed a finger against her lips, tilting her head toward their sleeping son.
“Dad noted—rightly, I think—that no one could be better suited to the job than Jules.” Elisha was addressing himself as much as anyone.
“Levi’s a fine one to talk.” Thorsten’s harsh tone failed to mask a tremor. “The man never had a daughter.”
“Daughter?” echoed a hoarse alto from the nearby nest of pillows.
Both Nimris and Elisha turned to find a drowsy Jules blinking at them.
Thorsten lapsed into an awkward silence. Alexandra immediately took to fussing over her son.
“It was a slip.” The Magistrate averted his gaze. “I—apologize.”
Jules tried to prop himself up, winced in pain. Alexandra hurried to help him adjust his cushions. “Just glad you’re here, Dad.” He let his head sink back on his newly fluffed pillows, mustered a smile of gratitude for his mother. His cheeks were even paler than usual. Dark hollows ringed his solemn black eyes.
He noticed Elisha. “Oh—Prefect. To what do I owe the…?” The young alchemist spied the parchments and reached out, pulling them feebly onto his lap. “What are…?” He squinted at the pages in front of him, then fumbled on the table next to the bed for his thick-rimmed glasses. His mother found them, tucked them into his hand. He slid them onto his nose.
After glancing over both documents, Jules looked up at Elisha blank-faced. “Is this real?”
“Yep. Archmagus’s orders.”
The boy surveyed the parchments several moments longer. Elisha thought he saw the faintest flicker of excitement in his usually stoic eyes. “Don’t tell Hunter,” he mumbled finally, sounding tired. “At least not till I’m discharged. He’ll come and kill me in my sleep.” He hesitated. “Hunter isn’t…?”
“He wasn’t hurt,” Elisha assured him.
“Okay.” Relief was mixed with something else in Jules’s voice.
“For better or worse,” Elisha added, with a little grimace.
Jules grinned weakly. “You’re going to hell, Prefect. Dad, you have a pen? I’m supposed to sign this. What’s been happening out there, Prefect? Do you know who was behind it? Did we…lose many…?”
“Don’t you want to give this some thought first, Jules?” cut in Thorsten.
“What’s to think about? Prefect, you didn’t happen to bring a pen?”
“I insist you take some time to mull this over,” Thorsten barked. “At least wait until you’ve been awake for more than five minutes—!”
“Dad. I invented and mastered a magical combat system. It did occur to me I might someday be asked to use it.” Jules finally located a pen on the bedside table, set to work signing the contracts. “Please just—don’t flip,” he added in a weary tone, handing the parchments to Elisha.
Thorsten stood, disappeared through the curtain.
“Have a heart, darling,” said Alexandra to Jules. “This is hard for him. It’s hard for me.”
Jules frowned at the bedsheets. Then, with a brittle sigh, he took his mother’s hand. “Tell me what’s been happening out there, Prefect.”
“Place is on lockdown,” Elisha replied. “Master-General’s heading up the investigation. Dad’s down in the bunker, pacing like a caged tiger till we tell him he can come out.” He sobered. “Thirty-four souls lost last night. And we’re still recovering bodies.”
Jules stared hard at the bedsheets. After a long pause, he said softly, “Do you think any of them were still…when I…?”
… Alive when you brought down the roof? Elisha mentally filled in the blanks. “Hey,” he said, and waited for Jules’s eyes to find his. They looked vulnerable for once. Reminded Elisha of his twelve-year-old daughter’s. “There’s no telling how many lives you saved bringing down that roof. You took the only option you had. And you just about killed yourself doing it. Give yourself a break.”
Jules nodded, roughly wiped his eyes.
When he looked up again, he was once more the stoic. “So you were able to deactivate the golem?”
“Yep. Thanks to you. And Nigella, credit where credit’s due. I do admit I ended up needing some help from my cousin the White Witch of Narnia.”
Jules’s eyebrows shot up. “Because of her daemonology expertise.”
“So the construct was possessed.” Jules blinked. “Yeah, that explains why the failsafe didn’t work.”
“Made the thing extra jacked-up, too. I knew those Bruce-Banner growls weren’t coming from anything I put in there.”
“The culprit has to be a goetian, then.”
“A pretty skilled one,” Elisha agreed, “to be able to attach a numen to an automaton like that and make it follow such specific commands. That thing didn’t just wreak havoc. It went straight for my father. Damned hunk a’ junk was on a mission.”
“What do you think all this means?” Jules fixed his gaze on Elisha.
Elisha pretty well trusted Jules, and Alexandra too, necromancer though she was. But this wasn’t exactly the time or place to be airing out his and his father’s secret suspicions. “Could be as simple as some lone apostate gone off his rocker. No real way of knowing what we’re up against this early in the game.”
Jules nodded, but looked unconvinced.
He then fell silent for a moment, darkening. “Prefect…if I…hadn’t asked you to trot out the prototype…” He broke off, swallowed hard. “It wasn’t necessary. I was just showing off.”
“Kiddo. Don’t.” Elisha’s voice was gentle but firm. “I’ve been playing that game with myself all morning. ‘If I’d never constructed the prototype…’ ‘If I hadn’t jumped at the chance to show off the cursed thing in public…’ That shit doesn’t do anyone any good. What’s done is done. Two things we can’t do are turn back time and bring back the dead.”
Jules again stared at the bedsheets. “How soon can the Master-General put me in the field?”
Elisha chuckled evasively. “Certainly not till that leg of yours is—”
“I want to be on this case. I want to help.” Jules fixed Elisha with an implacable stare.
“Whoa, kiddo. Slow down. Your prime directive right now is to get better.”
“Well, obviously I’m talking about after I get out of this fucking hospital bed.”
“Jules,” murmured his mother.
“I’m just saying, I have the power to do something about this, Prefect, and I want to. I don’t want everybody to have to…to be afraid…that they’re gonna get hurt again. Because living in fear…” Jules blinked fiercely, suddenly seeming to be somewhere else. “When we’re afraid, we’re at their mercy. And I’m not helpless anymore. I—”
“Anymore?” Elisha interrupted mildly.
Jules stared off into the distance. After a beat, his gaze returned to Elisha. “I’m capable of doing something. I’m just asking you to make sure the Master-General knows that.”
“She saw you in action last night, same as I did. Trust me, Devisha knows what you can do. But as a Martial Magus myself, I’ll go ahead and tell you she’s gonna wanna train you up properly before putting you on a big-shit case like this. And that can’t happen till that leg of yours is one-hundred percent.”
Jules visibly deflated. Nodded dully.
“Hey,” said Elisha.
The boy looked at him.
“You aren’t helpless. Okay?” Elisha held his gaze. “You already helped.”
“Thirty-four people are dead, and whoever did it is still. Out there. It wasn’t enough.”
“It was enough for me.” Elisha’s voice was gentle. “It was enough for Dev. For my dad, and my husband, and my daughter. It was enough for your mom here, and your dad. It was enough for everybody else who made it out alive last night, and their families who got them back safe and sound, because of you.”
Jules looked uncertain.
“Accept it, kid. You’re a goddamn hero.” Elisha bent his cheeks in a crooked smile. “And being stuck in that bed for a few days is just the price you have to pay for doing some good.”
Jules was silent a moment. “I wanted to…be somebody. I admit it. But not like this.”
“Kiddo. Nothing about this was your fault. Just so you know.”
Jules still looked unconvinced.
“And like I said,” Elisha went on, “you’re right. You’re not helpless anymore. You’re one of the least helpless people I know. To be able to do what you can do, and to be entrusted with this kind of power, especially at your age.” He gestured with the pair of rolled parchments in his fist. “Yes, it sucks sweaty balls that it had to happen the way it did. But the fates are sometimes dicks like that. All any of us can ever do is work with what we’re handed. You, kiddo—you’ve just been handed tremendous power to protect; to create; to build; to heal. So don’t you go getting hung up on the way you got here. And don’t feel bad if you have to spend a few days stuck in that bed. Look to what’s ahead, to all the stuff you can and will do to make the world better. Think of all the people who, when everything’s said and done, will be grateful it was Jules Nimri who was here in this moment, got handed this mandate—a guy who cared about doing as much good as he could with the gifts he’d been given.”
Alexandra gripped her son’s hand, her dark eyes shining. Jules set his jaw.
After a beat, the alchemist lifted his stern Nimri gaze to meet Elisha’s. “Prefect, I’d…appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone I lost my cool.”
Elisha winked. “Secret’s safe with me.”
The Prefect avoided looking through any of the other sets of curtains as he made his way back through the chaos of the ward. The sound of a little kid’s agonized screaming set his teeth on edge.
DeShay hurried past him. Elisha reached out, tugged his husband’s sleeve.
“Oh, hey again, baby.” The healer spun on his heel. “What’s up?”
“I’m gonna be here late.”
“Me too. In case that’s not obvious.”
“Poor Lil’ Shay. I hate that neither of us can be with her right now. Dev’s mom is good with keeping her overnight, right?”
“Actually, she wanted to know if she could stay over at her friend Kitty’s.”
“No,” said Elisha, more sharply than he intended.
DeShay’s eyebrows shot up. “Right. So that’s a negative. I told her she had to have your permission, so that’s that.” He paused, surveying his husband. “May I ask why so firm?”
Elisha hesitated. He didn’t want to admit he didn’t trust his daughter right now to anyone who wasn’t a member of Ordo Arcanus or Fraternitas Mercurii, Arcanus’s long-time ally—and least of all to anyone who belonged to the Hermetic Order of Khmun.
Like Kitty Devereaux’s parents.
“I just…think we should keep Leshayva with family right now. Till things settle down.”
DeShay eyed him shrewdly, but didn’t argue. “Fair enough. I’ll give her a call next time I get a chance to step away. At least she can’t give me those puppy-dog eyes over the phone.”
“Tell her I’m sorry. I just want her to be safe.”
“I will. Gotta go now, ’kay?”
Elisha planted a peck on his husband’s lips. “Okey-doke, doll. Go be a badass. Hit me up when you have time to grab some grub.”
“Will do.” DeShay winked and squeezed Elisha’s hand, then hustled off down the pathway between the curtained-off beds.
Elisha moved with impatient strides out of the Medicinal Magic department, into the long, welcome silence of the corridor outside.
As he passed into the majestic skylit expanse of the Atrium at the Enclave’s center, he nodded a greeting to a cluster of Khmun-aligned magi who drifted past him in their ancient-Egyptian-style tunics, chatting quietly amongst themselves—and hoped they didn’t notice the way he scanned each of their faces for evidence of guilt, or the way his ears strained to pick up what he could of their conversation.
I guess this is the new normal. Locking up my daughter. Looking over my shoulder. Sending kids like Jules into the line of fire.
He gave another passing nod—and a suspicious glance—to a pair of Hekate Aristokratians in robes of sepulchral black who stood together by the Fountain of the Sephiroth at the Atrium’s center.
As to your investigation, Dad’s voice echoed in his thoughts, pursue it in whatever way you see fit.
Elisha had never dreamed he’d be given such a mandate. From the time his…unique ability had begun to manifest itself in childhood, he’d been advised to repress it and reveal it to no one. Even in later years, when Levi had helped his then-adult son develop his forbidden gift in secret, he’d counseled him that it should never be used except in the direst of circumstances—a “rainy-day precaution,” he’d said.
Evidently, storm clouds were gathering.
I sure as hell didn’t sign up for this.
Elisha slowed to a halt outside the rubble of what, less than twenty-four hours earlier, had been the historic council chamber of the Auctoritas Magicae, ruling body of the Six Orders Alliance—the symbol of a peace that had remained unbroken, against all odds, for nearly three hundred years.
But I’ll do whatever it takes to put things right. Elisha gazed out over the sunlit wreckage. For my daughter. For my husband. For my father. For the faithful of Ordo Arcanus who trust me to lead them.
His lips bent in a cheerless smile.
And if I have to break a few eggs, as they say…so be it.
The Ordinators parted silently before the Prefect’s advance, clearing his path into the chamber.