“Writing on the Walls”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
Jules glanced down at his left hand; spread the fingers, turned it back to front. A few scars marred the ivory flesh, pale-pink ridges where the skin hadn’t quite grown together evenly. He flexed the fingers. There was a trace of stiffness in the formerly dislocated knuckle, but the hand, as far as he could tell, was functioning well enough.
He was lucky as hell it had been his left.
“Practicing your moves, Philosopher?”
Jules glanced up at the now-familiar sight of Cyrano, his satchel slung over his shoulder, free hand in pocket, goggle-imprints comically ringing his droopy puppy-dog eyes. Nodded absently over the Apprentice’s shoulder to Durand and Nadia as they respectively gave the peace sign and saluted on their way out of Lab #1—quickly tucked his left hand in his pocket to hide the scars.
“Oh, no, wait, that would be the other hand, wouldn’t it?” said Cyrano. “I’m so stupid. Drinks?”
Jules hesitated. It had been another fruitless day in the lab, and now he only had six more before his self-imposed deadline. He’d told himself he’d stay late tonight, try to make the most of his time, but he had to acknowledge that, especially after last night, his mind and body were shot. He was shit out of ideas at the moment, and all he wanted to do was pass the fuck out and forget everything for a while.
But going back to the suite wasn’t the most appealing prospect. That morning with Max had been weird. She of course hadn’t remembered wilding out, and Jules hadn’t told her about his injury, which had already pretty well healed by then, but which he’d done his best to hide from her anyway (and, to his relief, she hadn’t seemed to notice). She did, apparently, remember what he’d told her about the circumstances of her birth, but she’d refused to talk about that, or about the developments in the rift. She’d just wanted sex. And for the first time ever, Jules really, really hadn’t, but he hadn’t had the heart to refuse her, because he didn’t know how much time he had left with her, and—he’d later reluctantly admitted to himself—he was terrified of what might happen if he told her no. So he’d faked his way through it…bullied into silence the part of himself that wanted to throw her off and bolt for the door.
“Yeah,” he found himself saying. “Why don’t you go ahead and save me a seat at the bar? I might come back down here later, so I’m just gonna throw some of my things in my office.”
“Sure thing, dude.”
Jules lingered a moment, watching the Apprentice as he shuffled off down the hall. It was unexpected, this awkward little bud of a friendship with Cyrano. Jules wasn’t sure where it was coming from—there was obviously some mystery behind it that he figured would unfold itself with time; at the least, it was plain Cyrano had layers—but, in any event, it was nice having someone take an interest.
Especially when—as much as he didn’t want to admit it to himself—it was starting to feel like Max, for now, was no longer with him.
Jules dropped off his things in his office, made his way to the Alfheim Grille.
He and Cyrano sat side by side at the bar for at least five minutes, nursing their drinks in silence while the low din of happy-hour chitchat rumbled around them.
“I’m sorry,” they both began at the same time, then laughed weakly.
“You go first,” said Jules.
Cyrano shook his head. “You.”
Jules hesitated. “I was just saying I’m sorry I’m so out of it. Max took a bad turn last night. And…yeah, I don’t know. It was rough.”
“Dude. I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
Jules stared at his empty glass, realized the bartender was looking his way and tapped the bar. “Well, her, uh…her mind is starting to go.”
“Christ, man.” Cyrano’s big brown eyes were sympathetic. “I don’t know what to say. I can’t even imagine.”
“What is there to say? I mean…it’s nice that you give a shit.”
Cyrano gave a weak smile. “What did you say she has again?”
Jules hesitated. His drink arrived in front of him. “I…didn’t.”
“Oh.” Cyrano paused. “… Is it cancer? Same as my mom?”
Jules didn’t like lying to friends. But he also didn’t trust Cyrano enough quite yet to tell him the unedited truth. “We…don’t really know what’s wrong with her, exactly. It’s an illness the doctors haven’t seen before.”
“Fuck. That’s the worst.” Cyrano leaned closer, lowered his voice. “Magic or mundane?”
“So she probably gets her treatment at the Enclave, right?”
“She’s been treated there, yeah. I mean, if you can call it treatment. They really have no idea what to do for her.”
“Man. That’s so fucked up. I’m surprised they’re not keeping her for study or something.”
Jules just nodded. Cyrano looked at him a moment, as if waiting for him to say more, then turned back to his drink.
“Anyway,” said Jules. “We’ve established I’m a huge bummer right now. What’s your thing?”
“You’ve seemed out of it these past few days too.”
“Nah, dude. I’m fine. Just kinda tired, getting over being sick and all.”
Jules didn’t believe this, but he could relate to wanting privacy, so he didn’t pry.
“Can I ask you something random?” said Cyrano, a few seconds later.
“It’s pretty personal. So you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“Is it about me being trans?”
“No. I mean, no? I don’t think so.”
Jules smirked. “Just ask.”
“Okay. So, like…you were engaged to Hunter Lockwood.”
“Oh,” said Jules.
Jules took a gulp of his gin and tonic. “Just ask the question.”
“Okay. Like…I mean…were you actually into him? ’Cause, like…you like girls, right?”
“I’m gonna leave Hunter out of this conversation. Because I think you’re just asking am I straight.”
Cyrano hesitated. “I guess.”
“Gender doesn’t seem to be all that important when it comes to whether I’m attracted to someone.”
“Oh, okay. So you’re bisexual?”
“I like the term pansexual. More inclusive.”
“Gotcha. That’s when you like guys, girls, and people who aren’t either…right?”
“Right. I wouldn’t say I’m either myself, actually. I just prefer male in social settings, if I’m forced to pick.”
Cyrano eyed Jules as if he were processing this.
“Why do you ask?” Jules drained his glass.
“Just curious.” Cyrano shrugged. After a beat, he asked, “How did you first know you were…er. I mean, I guess I don’t know what gender you were into first.”
“Girls,” said Jules.
“Okay. So did you think you were a girl back then?”
“Yeah. Didn’t know I had the option not to be.”
“So when you were a little kid, you were just like, yeah, I’m a girl, and I like girls.”
“I mean, I wasn’t that happy-go-lucky about it. I was pretty freaked out, since my parents clearly wanted to set me up with boys and have me pop out heirs and stuff. And also none of the other girls I knew seemed to be into girls. But yeah, I always knew I liked girls.”
“When did you know you liked boys too?”
“So you were, like, twelve.”
“Which one was more confusing for you? Liking boys or liking girls?”
“They both were. I always knew I liked girls, but I felt like I wasn’t supposed to. And by the time I found a boy I liked, I’d liked only girls for so long that I thought it was part of who I was. So suddenly liking a boy felt scary. Like I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
“Yeah,” Cyrano murmured to himself.
Jules eyed him. “Why so curious about all this?”
Cyrano winced. “Sorry, man. I’m being super nosy.”
“If I had a problem with it, I wouldn’t answer. Just wondering if there’s a reason you’re thinking about this kind of stuff.”
Cyrano shrugged, shook his head.
Jules raised an eyebrow. “Fair enough.”
After a moment, Cyrano said, “Have you…ever had feelings for somebody who was…bad for you?”
Jules stared at the bar in front of him. “Haven’t we all?”
Cyrano frowned into his drink. “I guess so.”
Jules studied Cyrano a moment, then finally gathered up the nerve to say something more.
“You know, I’d love to meet your girlfriend sometime,” Cyrano cut him off.
“Oh.” Jules hesitated. “She’s… She doesn’t really socialize these days.”
“Oh, right. ’Cause she’s sick. I’m so stupid.”
“It’s okay. I really wish you could meet her. She’s amazing.”
“Yeah, she sounds it.”
Jules glanced at the time, threw a twenty on the bar. “I better head back to the Enclave. I have a lot of research to do tonight.”
“You really burn the candle at both ends, man. You should let me know if you ever need help. Things being how they are with Max, it really sucks you don’t get to spend more time with her.”
Jules wavered for a moment. “That’s…good of you. But I couldn’t ask that.”
“I really don’t mind.”
“This is kinda specialized stuff anyhow. Not that I don’t think you’re up to it. Just…I’d need to train you. You know. It’s faster if I do it myself.”
Cyrano studied him. “Gotcha.”
“See you tomorrow, man.”
Jules stopped into Archives on his way back to the mole tunnels, shot the shit with Draven briefly. Didn’t bring up last night—he was pretty sure nothing about it was useful information anyway. Max had episodes where something tried to take over. Every time it happened, the rift grew. There was nothing there Draven didn’t already know.
As he made his way back to his office, Jules’s ears picked up a commotion—people murmuring, giggling among themselves in hushed tones.
Warily, he rounded the corner into the last stretch of corridor.
“Okay, break it up.” Nadia was pulling Jules’s office door closed behind her. “Those of you who were working, get back to work. The rest of you, go home.” She froze at the sight of Jules, her dark eyes round behind her half-rimmed glasses. The heads of those gathered swiveled toward him, a dozen-ish echoes of her stare.
“Something wrong, Master-Savant?” asked Jules.
Nadia hesitated, then waved her hand frustratedly at the onlookers. “Shoo. All of you. Go.”
“Master-Savant Winter outranks you all.” Jules advanced down the hall. “Do as she says.”
The small group of alchemists scurried past him one at a time in the narrow hallway, a few of them snickering. Jules didn’t like the way Silas Eads and Teddy Grenville stared him in his eyes, the way they brushed up against him as they passed.
He reached Nadia as the last few stragglers vanished around the corner. “Let me guess—some kind of prank?”
At the look in her eyes, his stomach turned. Something in it was a little too much like pity.
Jules pushed past her into his office. “Ha’iru.”
The globes blared to life at the same time the stench hit his nostrils.
Most of the books from the shelves and the files from his desk lay in a jumble in the floor, their pages damp, ink smudged and bleeding.
Writ large on the wall facing him, in blood-red ink, was the phrase,
and, among the smaller inscriptions surrounding it,
Jules took a robotic step into the room.
Turned his eyes reluctantly toward the shrine to the Adamas.
Painted on the torso of the now-headless bas-relief were the words,
“I feel like this is partly because of me,” came Nadia’s hushed voice, seemingly miles away, from the doorway. “Because you promoted me.”
“No.” Jules’s own voice sounded distant, too. “None of this is about you, or anyone else from Khmun. Like me, you just make a convenient target.”
“I’ll help you clean this up.”
Jules pushed up his left sleeve. His tattoos were already glowing. “I can do it much more efficiently on my own.” Another pause. “But thank you for offering, Master-Savant. You may go.”
Nadia hesitated, then gave a little nod and vanished from the doorway.
Jules crouched down, began the work of alchemically purifying and drawing the moisture from the pages. He proceeded matter-of-factly, his focus dedicated singularly to his task.
In the course of his efforts, some DNA sequences stuttered past his inner eye.
Two individuals…Y chromosomes…predominantly European ancestry…
His mundane sight focused as he came across the rare text he’d been consulting most recently for the nulla materia project, along with the notes he’d taken from it so far.
Almost all of it was ruined beyond recovery.
Jules had the good sense, just in time, to aim the plume of brimstone at the dismembered sculpture, instead of those precious pages that might yet contain a few salvageable secrets.
The distinctive Greek-fire thunderclap rent the air. Jules’s fists trembled at his sides as he watched the headless figure wither in its shroud of blue flames, flooding the air with noxious smoke.
He stifled the conflagration with a snatch of his left hand before it had a chance to spread to the walls.
The alchemist stood for a beat, breathing heavily, letting the black poison scald his lungs.
He sensed eyes on his back. Turned to find Nadia once more standing in the doorway behind him. “Sorry. Couldn’t help but hear.” Her hand was cupped over her nose and mouth, but he could still make out a tremor in her voice. “You sure you don’t need help, Philosopher?”
“Actually, just lock it up. I’ll deal with this later.” Jules cleared the air of smoke with a tracing of his tattoos, blew past her out of the room.
NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE
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