“Peacock Skeleton with Crooked Feathers

story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb

Content Warning: TRANSPHOBIA, ABUSIVE LANGUAGE

“Mr. Nimri; Mr. Nimri.” The Gatekeeper on duty, Shimon, greeted father and son each in turn as they stepped into the Alfheim’s elevator.

Jules leaned on his cane as he moved with Thorsten into the teleportation circle engraved on the floor of the box. He adjusted his tie and smoothed the lapels of his trench coat while Shimon traced onto the panel the secret runes that activated the circle.

The phase shift was seamless as always. Seconds later, both Nimris stood at the center of the gilded Auctoritas Magicae seal that spanned the white marble of the Enclave’s entry hall.

Jules spared a glance at the familiar ruin of the council chamber, then gave a curt nod to acknowledge his father before starting on his way.

“Jules.”

Jules paused, turned back. He and Dad had barely exchanged words since the writs had come down from the Office of the Archmagus. Not that it was unusual for the two of them to be on limited speaking terms, but normally Thorsten might have made at least one or two provocative political observations during their carpool, trying to lure Jules into one of their rambling debates.

When only silence followed, Jules raised one eyebrow questioningly.

Thorsten cleared his throat. “Good luck.”

A small sigh stirred Jules’s chest. “Thanks.”

The elder Nimri veered off at the cross-halls toward the Daemonology department, while Jules proceeded through the main hall into the atrium.

Golden sunlight filtered lazily down from the glass roof high above. Today, for the first time, the littlest signs of normalcy seemed to be finding their way back into the Enclave’s morning activities. The shadowy presence of Ordinators still cast a pall over the compound’s main thoroughfare, but most magi had now been permitted to return to work, and, while the crowd was uncharacteristically sober, their presence itself was a big shift from the funereal emptiness that had haunted the Enclave’s halls the past few days.

Jules stopped at the newspaper stand by the Fountain of the Sephiroth to buy a copy of the Delphi Moon Post. DEAD END! blared the front-page headline. Master-General Under Fire as Investigation Continues to Stall.Another from halfway down the page: Death Toll Rises to 52: Two More Bodies Recovered, While More Victims Succumb to Injuries. This story featured a bravely smiling photo of a five-year-old triple-amputee who had become a public face for the scores of wounded. According to the article, she had died of an infection early that morning. Jules mused over whether mundane medical technology could have saved her.

He thumbed somewhat mechanically through the rest of the rag. Poring over coverage of the attack always left Jules feeling sick, but he couldn’t help himself. He kept hoping for good news of some kind—that Enforcement might have turned up even the vaguest lead on the perpetrator, or that, by reviewing the details of the tragedy over and over, Jules himself might improbably manage to pick out some overlooked clue. Master-General Wade had already sworn him in as a Martial Magus, in a small, private ritual the day he’d been discharged from Medicinal Magic, but Elisha’d been right—she wouldn’t even consider putting Jules on the attack investigation till he’d recovered enough physically to undergo training.

And he was kind of starting to lose his marbles sitting on the sidelines.

At least assuming his responsibilities as Grand Philosopher today promised a much-needed distraction. In spite of everything, Jules couldn’t help but feel a thrill at the prospect of moving into the great Evander Lockwood’s old office. But what should have been an unambiguous triumph was overshadowed by the knowledge that his good fortune had come at the expense of others—and the fear that, just as his lifelong dream was coming true, Jules’s world was getting ready to fall apart. 

After all, good things, if history was any indication, were not meant for Jules Nimri. The numinae hated him and always had. And this time, maybe he really had flown too close to the sun—so they weren’t punishing just him. They were punishing everyone.

At the thought, an invisible band tightened around his chest. Jules closed his eyes and measured his breaths, feeling the channels on his left arm warm as he opened and focused his inner eye. White light bloomed, kaleidoscopic, before his second sight.

Jules reopened his eyes and forced himself to skim the rest of the journal. Its contents were mostly more of the same, terror and senseless suffering—but a headline on page two caught his attention:

Hunter M. Lockwood to Hold Press Conference Tuesday in Scaeva Hall

The event will take place at one o’ clock P.M. and will be free and open to the public. Sources indicate that Master-Savant Lockwood plans to announce his candidacy for Ordo Arcanus’s Fourth Magistrature. He will be the first challenger sitting magistrate Thorsten J. Nimri will have faced since Magistrate Nimri was first elected to the position in 1986.

Master-Savant Lockwood has been seen recently in the company of Scholar Penn D. Sawyer, divination consultant and noted activist for Rising House rights. Sources close to both Sawyer and Lockwood indicate that Sawyer is to play a prominent role in Lockwood’s campaign.

“Okay, yeah, I’m definitely being fucking punished.” Jules took another deep breath and set his jaw. “One o’ clock, is it, Master-Savant?” He slapped the newspaper shut and stuffed it in his satchel. “I’ll see you there.”

He headed out of the atrium into the West Wing corridor. Soft colored light poured from the east-facing stained-glass windows that loomed like a vanguard of seraphs on his left. Ordinators stood, silent, motionless, at intervals along both sides of the hallway.

Jules took a left at the next cross-halls, then a right at the one after that, finally ducking into the suffocating half-dark of the “mole tunnels,” as their denizens had fondly dubbed them—the dense knot of globe-lit hallways that comprised the Enclave’s Alchemy department. The air here always smelled comfortingly (in Jules’s admittedly unique opinion) of semi-toxic gases and smoke.

He nodded in passing, as he picked his way through the winding corridors, to a number of alchemists who had formerly been his peers or superiors, but as of today were now his subordinates. Most of them inclined their heads deferentially at the sight of him—even those with whom he’d been on pretty informal terms, or who had never acknowledged his existence at all—and mumbled some variation on, “Good morning, Philosopher.” He returned their greetings, and tried a little bit harder than usual to smile, hoping to convey some reassurance. As an apprentice, he’d tended to keep to himself, so most of these people didn’t know him well, wouldn’t have any idea what to expect from his leadership. Hunter had served as the de facto department head for the last year and a half, which had worked out favorably for those in his inner circle—not so much for everyone else. Jules hoped more than a few of his associates would at least be glad for the shake-up, whatever their perceptions of him specifically.

He finally arrived at the poorly lit stub of hallway that terminated in the door to the Grand Philosopher’s office. Someone was supposed to meet him here with the key, but whoever it was hadn’t arrived yet.

He was alone.

Jules slumped back against the wall. His leg felt like fire. He closed his eyes and tried to let mandalas consume his awareness—to annihilate the visions of burnt children dancing in his head.

“Grand Philosopher?” came a brusque alto.

Jules jerked back to his senses and stood up off the wall.

The newcomer looked to be in her thirties. She wore the gold-on-white tunic of a Khmunite over khakis and Keds, without any of the face paints, headwear, or jewelry often worn by members of her order. She stood blinking up at Jules from behind dark bangs and half-rimmed glasses. “Sorry I’m late.”

“You’re not—I don’t think. I was early.”

“Nadia Winter, Associate. Here to let you into your office.” She initiated a perfunctory handshake.

“Oh, I know your name,” said Jules.

She blinked. “You do?”

“Assuming you’re the N.P. Winter who contributed to at least a half-dozen of Grand Philosopher Lockwood’s research papers between 1997 and 1999, and several of Master-Savant Durand’s in recent years.”

“Oh. Yup. That’s me.” She shuffled over to the office door, rifling through keys on her keyring.

“I came across your thesis last year in the department library. On Advanced Techniques of Putrefaction. Really brilliant stuff.”

“Jeez. No one’s ever told me they read my thesis before.”

“Philosopher Lockwood must’ve thought a lot of you, to make you a regular member of his team.”

“I guess so.” She pushed open the office door and led the way inside.

The Office of the Grand Philosopher was cramped and windowless, the air thick with stagnation. Nadia muttered, “Ha’iru,” to light the globes at the corners of the room, which revealed a furnished space overflowing with bookshelves and diagrams. Jules might have described it as “lived-in,” if it weren’t for the fact that literally everything was covered in a half-inch of dust.

“Has nobody been in here since Philosopher Lockwood disappeared?”

“Nope,” said Nadia. “High Councillor ordered it locked up, except when Enforcement needed in to do things related to the missing persons investigation. I guess he was really hoping Philosopher Lockwood was gonna come back.”

“Must’ve driven Hunter nuts.” Jules took a slow turn around the room. Across from the broad mahogany desk, squarely aligned with the chair, loomed a small shrine to the Adam Kadmon—the conceptual Primordial Man; prima materia personified, genderless and limitless. Jules admired the bas-relief icon that hung on the wall above the altar, its four limbs spread in a posture of bold surrender.

“He was a spiritualist, huh,” he said to Nadia. “Philosopher Lockwood.”

“Yeah, he was big on cultivating Secret Fire, in-lab meditation, Eastern alchemy-type stuff.”

“Eastern alchemy?” Jules perked up. “My research that led to the development of combat alchemy owes a lot to the Eastern masters and their teachings on physical self-perfection.” He surveyed the contents of the shelves and, sure enough, was pleased to find more than a few tomes on alchemy of the Far East. “Awesome,” he whispered, fingering the spine of an annotated copy of the Huangdi Yinfujing. “Hunter really didn’t take after his dad at all, did he? He’s a hardcore materialist.”

The shelves, on further inspection, also contained all the requisite texts by the Western masters, including a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum annotated by Marie Meurdrac, along with some more esoteric treatises, and several contemporary publications by Evander and his recent predecessors. All in all, it was an impressive collection of alchemy-related writings, both common and obscure, and even included some tangentially relevant texts from other disciplines—a good number on divination and astrology, one on daemonology, and a few, to Jules’s surprise, that openly dealt with apostasies, one of which was a theoretical overview of maleficium that theorized the dark-magic discipline shared fundamental mechanics with Eastern alchemy and Western medicinal magic. Jules leafed through this odd little tract for a moment, then set it aside, thinking he might like to look over it more closely at a later time.

“You know”—he turned to Nadia—“I don’t remember ever seeing your name on any of Hunter’s—uh, Master-Savant Lockwood’s research.”

She shrugged. “He’s never used me.”

“He never promoted you either, did he, if you’re still an associate after all these years?”

Again, she shrugged, then shook her head.

“I don’t think a single woman’s been promoted since Hunter became de facto head,” Jules observed, half to himself. “Pretty sure he only promotes from his inner circle.” He eyed Associate Winter, wondering what the hell she must think of him leapfrogging someone as gifted and as senior as herself, right to the top position in the department.

“Considering the quality of your work,” he went on, “it seems like you’ve been pretty undervalued since Philosopher Lockwood left.” Jules made his way to the desk. After a moment’s hesitation, he shrugged off his satchel and coat and hung them with his cane, gingerly, on the coatrack by the wall. Rummaged in his bag for his new bright-gold rank sash, draped it around his shoulders, and, after a deep breath, lowered himself into his new chair. “How would you like to be my number two?” He folded his hands on the desk in front of him.

Nadia stared at him. “Shouldn’t … Master-Savant Lockwood be your number two? He was pretty much in charge of the department till now. He’ll expect it.”

“Uh, honestly … I’m not so sure he will.”

“I … don’t know what to say.” Nadia blinked. “I mean … well, yeah. Of course. I ain’t turning that down.”

Jules felt himself smile, just slightly, for the first time all day. “Good.” He waved at the pile of dusty papers and other items on the desk. “Once I unearth the seal and letterhead, I’ll draft a department-wide memo announcing your promotion. In the meantime”—he met her gaze directly—“if Master-Savant Lockwood gives you any trouble, tell him to direct his concerns to me.”

“Works for me, boss. Thank you again.”

“No thanks necessary. It’s only right.” Jules thought for a moment. “I have a few things I’d like you to take care of. By Monday, if you can.”

“Shoot.”

“I’d like a full departmental budget review.” Jules ticked off the list items on his fingers. “An updated inventory list. And an inspection of the labs with an eye toward any needed renovations. Will you remember all that? Should I write it down?”

“It’s all up here, boss.” Nadia tapped her skull.

“Cool. Delegate as you see fit; ask for my help if you need it. That all sound reasonable to you, given the time frame?”

Nadia bobbed her head.

Jules chewed his lip a moment, hoping there wasn’t anything he was forgetting.

Finally, he just shrugged. “Uh … dismissed.”

Nadia turned to leave.

“Oh—wait. Sorry. I’m calling a departmental meeting for tomorrow, ten A.M. I want everyone there, including apprentices and administrative staff. Can you get the word out?”

“Sure thing.”

“And one last thing, quickly, if you don’t mind—track down for me all research proposals pending review. And also files on all projects currently underway.”

“You got it, boss.” Nadia paused, eyed him. “Is that definitely, definitely it?”

Jules thought briefly again. “That’s definitely, definitely it.”

“Sweet.” Nadia gave a jaunty salute and trotted off into the hall.

Alone in his new office for the first time, Jules sat back in his chair. Realized he’d been holding his breath and expelled it with a nervous laugh. “Evander Lockwood’s office … what the fuck.”

He glanced around the space again, taking in more details. Like the small lab bench that occupied a nearby corner, close enough to the desk that the former Grand Philosopher could have (and probably did, often, if the grooves worn in the oriental rug were any indication) rolled over to it in his padded leather chair.

Jules rolled over to it now, pushing himself off with his good leg, and took stock of the items on its stained surface: an aludel and retort surrounded by a cluttered array of flasks, all of whose contents had long since evaporated, leaving dingy films on the insides of the glass, and a scrap of yellowed graph paper on which was scrawled cryptically: The answer lies within!!! The phrase Perfection is possible and the word genesis had been doodled in the margins, along with a handful of unfamiliar symbols.

“God, I wish I knew what you were working on.” Jules fingered the scrap. He reflected that a thorough analysis of the residue in each flask on the bench might yield some clues—but decided that any recreational sleuthing would have to wait till later. For his first few weeks, at least, he ought to stay focused on his departmental agenda—or, more specifically, on not falling flat on his face. The world would be watching.

Jules glanced toward the other corner behind the desk and broke into a broad grin at the sight of a portable Yamaha keyboard resting on its stand, at the end of a maybe-even-more-worn set of grooves in the rug. “Nice.” He rolled over to it and poked the power switch. “Looks like you need a new set of batteries, buddy.” His fingers danced idly over the keys, strummed out a few silent arpeggios. “I seriously had the wrong dad.” Jules sighed, swiped a thin layer of dust off the keyboard with his hand.

He caught himself musing whether it wasn’t time he dusted off the antique pipe organ that sat neglected in an upstairs room of Eliyon, the Nimri estate. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to touch it since its installation four years ago. Not after—

At that moment Nadia appeared in the doorway, her short arms brimming over with files.

Jules spent the better part of the morning tidying up and organizing his new office as best he was physically able, leaving the bulk of his predecessor’s furnishings and effects undisturbed. The last hour or so before lunch he devoted to the hefty stack of project files Winter delivered, reviewing each and assigning it a priority ranking. The work came easily, he found, and it did turn out to be just the distraction he needed after the past few days.

When the zodiac clock on the wall approached one o’ clock, Jules stood up from his seat, took a deep breath, and grabbed his cane, then made his way across the Enclave for Hunter’s press conference.

He was surprised to find the Scaeva Ritual Hall, a good-sized ceremonial chamber, packed to brimming with a restless crowd—aside from the press, all Arcanus-affiliated, and a large percentage of them younger or lower-ranking. Both these demographics tended not to participate much in the politics of the order. Jules wondered if this Penn Sawyer person was responsible for bringing these groups out in such high numbers.

“Good afternoon,” began Hunter, as he moved to stand on the lip of the small platform that took up one side of the rounded space. A hush fell over the crowd. “Thank you all for being here. Thank you in particular to my Arcanus brothers and sisters for coming out to show your support in the midst of what I know is a dark and difficult time for us all.

“It’s no secret by now that I am here to announce my candidacy for the Fourth Magistrature. The timing, I realize, may seem odd; but in reality, it could not be more apt. Just a week ago, to be honest with you, I was considering postponing my bid.” He paused, grim-faced. “Now, I feel a changing of the guard is more urgently called for than ever.”

What’s your game? Jules wondered uneasily.

“The people of Ordo Arcanus are under threat”—Hunter raised his voice—“and our leadership is fumbling the ball.” His words resonated against the low dome of the ceiling. The crowd maintained a reverent silence. “Fifty-two magi are dead; scores more gravely injured. An assassination attempt was made against our Archmagus.” Hunter paused, as if to let those words sink in. “That some magi from the other orders were harmed in the attack shouldn’t fool you. Enemies of our order have shown time and again they’re more than willing to sacrifice their own to cause us harm.”

The crowd stirred.

Jules blinked. Is he implying … ?

“The Tribunal’s Enforcement arm is conducting the investigation into this attack, with its intermural team of ‘Martial Magi.’” Hunter gave a derisive snort. “The public,” he went on, “is being kept in the dark; most likely because the Office of the Master-General, for reasons of ‘political correctness,’ refuses to acknowledge one plain fact: The modus operandi of the May 14th attack bears striking parallels to past acts of terrorism carried out against Ordo Arcanus by the Hermetic Order of Khmun.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd. “Truth!” someone screamed.

Jules gritted his teeth, muttered under his breath. “All those ‘past acts of terrorism’ happened more than three hundred years ago, you opportunistic shit.”

“You deserve,” Hunter pronounced fiercely, “leaders who will level with you. Leaders who will go to bat for you. Leaders who will defend you no matter the cost—instead of playing footsie with the likes of High Servant Karamat, while the people of our order lie bleeding and crying out for answers. We must send a clear message that Ordo Arcanus is not to be trifled with; that it is we who control the City of Delphi and its abundant mana reserves—and that the game must therefore be played according to our rules.”

Hunter leveled a sober gaze at his audience. “This is not the time for half-measures. We are in danger, every minute of every day.” He paused dramatically. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. “I will therefore, as your Ordo Arcanus magistrate and delegate to the Auctoritas Magicae, advance a proposal to suspend the activities of the Hermetic Order of Khmun within the City of Delphi, until such time as they have submitted to a rigorous investigation by Ordo Arcanus of their possible involvement in the May 14th attack.”

The chamber exploded in wild cheering. A chant of, “Keep them out! Keep them out!” swept like wildfire through the throng.

A chill of foreboding ran down Jules’s spine. “You fucking idiot … you’re gonna march us straight into a war.”

“I will also,” Hunter thundered, “demand an end to the Interfaction Exchange Program, a horribly ill-conceived program that not only gives magi of other orders unrestricted access to our Enclave and other Arcanus facilities, but awards them some of our best jobs at the expense of our own skilled and capable Rising House magi.”

The cheers, if it was possible, grew even more deafening.

“That’s right! I see you, Rising Houses!” Hunter swept a strong index finger over the crowd. “I may come from privilege myself, but I see you; and, more importantly, I hear you. Your good friend Penn Sawyer”—the mention stirred a fresh groundswell of adulation—“is a friend of mine as well, and I’m here today to make it known that the age of your disempowerment is at an end. Elect me, and, at long last, you will have your champion in the high eldership!”

“Liar,” breathed Jules, as the applause rolled over him like a wave. To his eternal regret, he knew Hunter Lockwood better than anyone—or had, as recently as two years ago. The man was a dyed-in-the-wool elitist. And tigers didn’t change their stripes.

“I’ll close by thanking you again, brothers and sisters,” Hunter went on, “for coming out today to show me your support. Your courage and patriotism inspire me. I will now give you over into the capable hands of my close friend and campaign advisor, Penn Sawyer, who will be answering any follow-up questions from the press. Vivat Arcanus!” He thrust his right fist high in a salute.

“Vivat Arcanus!” the crowd roared back, then dissolved in feverish applause as a fashionably disheveled young man with rakish curls and dark stubble joined the Master-Savant onstage. He and Hunter clasped forearms briefly; then the Lockwood scion turned and made his way down from the platform. The press broke out in cries of, “Master-Savant! Master-Savant!”, but a detail of Ordinators was quick to close ranks around Hunter as he reached the floor, escorting him hurriedly away from the stage.

The newcomer stood patiently while his ecstatic welcome subsided. “I’m Penn Sawyer, Scholar, Divination. Many of you know me.” This spurred a few last enthusiastic hoots from the audience. “I am Master-Savant Lockwood’s campaign manager. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I will now take your questions. Yes, ma’am.”

“Scholar Sawyer,” began a young, blond-haired journalist standing in the front row. “Dantea Montblanc, Delphi Moon Post. What evidence can you cite to justify the Master-Savant’s less-than-subtle insinuation that the Hermetic Order of Khmun is responsible for last Thursday’s attack?”

“First of all, Ms. Montblanc, the Master-Savant has not insinuated anything,” replied Scholar Sawyer smoothly. “He has only stated facts: The particulars of Thursday night’s attack bear striking similarities to those of any number of well-documented aggressions carried out by the HOK against its political enemies—primarily Ordo Arcanus—in the past. In light of this, a suspension of the HOK’s activities in Arcanus territory until and unless they exonerate themselves of any and all complicity in the May 14th attack is hardly an unreasonable proposition.” He pointed to another reporter. “Yes, sir. You there in the back.”

Jules cast a glance over his shoulder toward Hunter and his escort, just in time to glimpse them filing out through the exit.

I’ve gotta talk to him; try to make him see reason. His stomach twisted anxiously at the thought. Probably won’t do any fucking good, but … I should try.

He started picking his way through the crowd.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

Jules found Hunter in an alcove a short way down from Scaeva Hall, where the Master-Savant stood flanked by his detail of Ordinators, talking quietly with his mother and his rumored new girlfriend, Mercy Treloar.

Jules hesitated several yards off, when they still hadn’t seen him yet. When it still wasn’t too late to turn back.

Then, his heart knocking against his ribs,

“Hunter!” he yelled.

All three of them faced him at once. Nigella donned a mask of cold, alabaster loathing. Mercy Treloar planted one hand on her hip, her button nose wrinkling in a mean-girl sneer.

Hunter—most disturbingly of all—smiled. “Juliana. Isn’t this a surprise.”

Jules suppressed the urge to correct him. Right now, he had to pick his battles. “Can I speak to you in private?”

Mercy plucked Hunter’s sleeve, subtly shaking her head. He brushed her off and started toward Jules, waving at the Ordinators to stay behind. “Of course, lovely.” He flashed an even-toothed grin. “Anytime you like.”

“Hunter!” Nigella called sharply after her son, and glared daggers when he didn’t reply.

“Why don’t we take a turn through the greenhouse?” Hunter slowed to a halt in front of Jules, pocketed his hands in his suit. “For old times’ sake.”

I’d rather not, Jules started to say, then thought better of it. “Fine.”

It’ll be okay, he reassured himself as they started off together down the hall. He’s seen what I can do.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

“Mercy was spitting nails back there,” Hunter chuckled, in a conspiratorial tone of voice, as he held the greenhouse door open for Jules.

Jules made his body as narrow as possible to avoid brushing against Hunter as he stumped past him through the doorway. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been alone with the Lockwood heir, so he hadn’t known what to expect. It definitely hadn’t been this pretense of fond familiarity. Especially not on the day Jules had taken Hunter’s father’s former post—which the Master-Savant had obviously coveted himself—and promoted a Scholar-level exchange associate ahead of him.

He’s feeling sure of himself. That can’t be good.

Jules stiffened as Hunter’s hand alighted gently on his arm. “Let me help you, Juliana.”

“I’m fine with the cane.” Jules struggled to keep a sharp edge out of his voice. “Really.”

Hunter shrugged, then strolled on down the sunlight-dappled path, hands in pockets. He reached the roundabout at the hothouse’s center and perched gently on the lily pond’s edge. “Remember this spot?” He grinned, peaked his brows.

Jules fought an impulse to gag.

“Very impressive, by the way,” Hunter went on, “what you did that night in the council chamber. I’ve been meaning to tell you so.”

“Really?” Jules was stunned to hear an acknowledgment of his abilities. “I mean … it was nothing.”

Hunter chuckled broadly. “What an absurd response. Never could just accept a compliment, could you, Julie?”

Jules gritted his teeth.

“Come sit down, for God’s sake.” Hunter patted the stone lip of the lily fountain by his side. “Your poor leg must be paining you terribly.”

“It’s actually fine,” Jules lied.

“Always the martyr, too. Nearly sacrificing yourself like you did that night. I swear it’s a sickness.”

Stop pretending you know me. “I came through all right.”

“I can see that.” Hunter grazed Jules head to toe with his eyes. “I’m glad.”

… Enough smalltalk.

“What you said just now, at the conference,” Jules started in. “About banning Khmun from Delphi.”

“What about it?”

Jules took a deep breath. “You can’t possibly be serious.”

Hunter shrugged. “I’m not.”

Jules hadn’t expected a casual confession. “But … you said … ”

“It’s just politics, Julie. You know me. I play to win.”

Jules stared. “Are you trying to start a war?”

“God, no. I’m deeply loyal to the Alliance. You know I would never do anything to threaten it.”

“You got those people whipped up into a frenzy. You really think you can keep that from boiling over?”

“You always were such a worrywart, Julie. It’s adorable.”

“Karamat is gonna lose her shit when she hears about what you said.”

“That bitch is all bark, no bite. Don’t get bent out of shape, Juliana; the situation’s well in hand.” Hunter smirked. “The only thing you ought to be concerned about is how to keep House Nimri relevant after I destroy your father in the election.”

Jules ignored the bait. “So you admit that you just lied to all those people, and exploited the recent tragedy, all for your own political gain?”

“Mm, I forgot how much you get me going with your ‘righteous crusader’ bit.” Hunter grinned. “Since it seems the burden is on me to dispel your persistent notion that I’m some kind of cartoon villain—no; I’m not merely acting in my own self-interest. That No-Name rabble is on the verge of causing major trouble for us First House folk. Confidentially, I’m not sure the more extreme among them didn’t have a hand in the attack. If we throw them a bone and give them an external focus for their anger, then we shift their ire away from us and maintain peace within the order—without relinquishing the power that’s ours by birthright.” He raised one eyebrow. “My mother sees the efficacy of this; your father never would, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Therefore, it’s my solemn duty to take over his magistrature, so that I’ll be in a better position to help stave off unrest within the order.”

That was a masterpiece of justification. I really underestimated you. “Then you admit you’re just using that Sawyer guy, too?”

Hunter shrugged. “As I said, Juliana: I play to win.” He grinned. “Aren’t you grateful I have the order’s best interests at heart?”

“This is sociopathic.”

Hunter put on a solicitous frown. “My one regret in all this is, of course, the unavoidable injury to your family. But … perhaps I can make that up to you.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Jules, reasonably sure he didn’t want to know.

Hunter pushed himself up off the edge of the fountain, advancing toward Jules. The younger magus backed away, his cane wobbling beneath the sudden shift in his weight.

Hunter came to a halt in front of Jules, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his trousers. He spoke softly. “Reconsider.”

Jules fixed him with a stare. “Are you gay?”

Hunter let out a harsh laugh. “Good God, woman. Get psychiatric help.”

“I’m not the one who’s fucking lost it.” Jules started away.

Hunter grabbed his shoulder. Jules dropped his cane and spun to face him, thrusting his sleeves up his left arm with so much force the buttons popped off.

Hunter surveyed Jules’s blazing tattoos with a grimace. “Why do you insist on treating me like I’m a monster?”

“Because I know you.”

“You’re a vicious little dyke.”

“I told you never to touch me again.”

Hunter stared Jules in the eyes, hard, then leaned down close to his ear. “I’ll remember this, cunt.” Flecks of spittle pelted Jules’s cheek.

Hunter swept past the younger alchemist and out of the greenhouse.

Jules stood stock-still, till he was good and sure the Master-Savant wasn’t coming back.

Then he hopped over to the fountain and collapsed against it, gasping, face buried in his hands.

“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.” He raked his fingers through his hair.

He held himself and rocked for several seconds, eyes shut tight, zoning out on the sound of the water.

“Fuck you in the fucking skull,” he exploded finally, and launched a punch into the reservoir so hard that water went gushing over the sides in a wave.I hate that you still make me feel this way.”

He pushed himself up, shook out his damp robes, and hopped back to the spot where he’d dropped his cane. It took a series of wobbly contortions to get hold of the fallen aide without putting weight on or bending his injured leg.

Cane finally in hand, Jules commenced the long trek back across the Enclave toward his office.

Please don’t let me run into him again. Just … not now.

To his relief, Hunter was nowhere to be seen along his circuitous route through the mole tunnels.

Jules finally reached his office, eager to lock himself in with his work—and his post-rock/screamo playlist—for the rest of the afternoon.

But it turned out someone was waiting for him inside.

“Jules, thank God! I mean Grand Philosopher, sorry. I’ve been in here almost an hour,” panted Abby Navarrete, as she stood up from the chair in front of his desk. “You’re, uh … kind of a big deal over in Enforcement now, right?”

“I don’t know if I’d say—”

“Because my big brother,” she cut him off, her brown eyes wide. “He could really use some help.”

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER SEVEN
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHAPTER FIVE

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