“If You Can’t Ride Two Horses at Once… You Should Get Out of the Circus

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Content Warning: TRANSPHOBIA, MISOGYNISTIC LANGUAGE, BULLYING, HOMOPHOBIC LANGUAGE, MALE SEXUAL HAZING

When Cyrano Almonte walked into the Alchemy department’s prep room that workday morning, where the apprentice alchemists’ colors awaited them on wooden clothing racks and their lab assignments on a chart pinned to the wall, he knew from the looks on Silas Eads’s and Teddy Grenville’s faces that he was going to have either a very good or a very bad week.

“How’s it going, Cyr?” Silas clapped him on the shoulder. He was the tallest, the handsomest, the most confident of the three, and from the most venerable family—the kind of guy that, if you had him on your side, could really help you go places.

…At least that’s what Cyrano was banking on.

“You seen your new assignment yet?” Silas asked.

Cyrano switched his gaze between Silas and Teddy. Both of them were grinning like wolves. “No…” He turned, edged his way through the small crowd gathered near the posted schedule, scanned the document for his own name.

…Didn’t have to scan far. The team for Lab 1 was printed top left:

Team Lead: G.P. Nimri
Team Assists: M.-S. Winter, M.-S. Durand, App. Almonte

“What…?” he muttered under his breath.

It was technically an honor to be chosen for the Grand Philosopher’s team, and alongside brilliant researchers like Masters-Savant Winter and Durand, no less. But anyone who managed to curry favor with Nimri was destined to end up on Master-Savant Lockwood’s shitlist. And seeing as rumor had it it was only a matter of time—and a couple of supposedly-inevitable political shakeups—before Nimri was out and Lockwood back in as head of the department, this was a no-win scenario for a small fry like Cyrano.

He heard cackling behind him. Turned to find Silas and Teddy hovering, showing their teeth like beasts of prey.

“I guess this means you’re Nimri’s pet now,” Silas leered.

“I have no idea why h-she picked me.” Cyrano felt guilty for using the wrong pronoun. But acknowledging Nimri as male was social suicide with the Lockwood loyalists.

“I hope you didn’t choke on the hairs when you ate her bushy cunt,” said Teddy, to a noisy guffaw from Silas.

Cyrano flushed.

Silas and Teddy lapsed into sudden silence, staring past Cyrano’s ear.

Cyrano turned.

Master-Savant Nadia Winter stood behind him in her Khmun gold-and-teal-on-white lab coat, a clipboard, hazmat gloves, and goggles piled in her short arms.

Cyrano frantically reviewed the conversation with Silas and Teddy in his head, wondering just how much she’d overheard, trying to reassure himself he hadn’t said anything that would get him in trouble.

“Shouldn’t you be getting into your colors, Eads? Grenville? Before you’re late to your labs?” asked Winter in her impassive monotone, blinking her bespectacled eyes.

“Yes, Master-Savant,” mumbled Silas and Teddy in almost-unison. They resumed cackling amongst themselves as they sauntered off toward the rack.

“Apprentice Almonte,” said Master-Savant Winter.

“Yes, Master-Savant.” Cyrano snapped to attention.

“Philosopher Nimri wanted me to tell you you’ll need hazmat gear for this job. Also that what we’re gonna be doing is a little on the risky side. If you’re not comfortable with that, he says you’re free to decline the assignment. He’ll swap you out with another apprentice, no questions asked.”

Cyrano stared at her. It was as if the universe had handed him a get-out-of-jail-free card: the perfect excuse to bow out of working with Nimri, leaving his hard-earned status with Teddy, Silas, and their well-connected cronies intact.

“Philosopher Nimri said he’s really looking forward to seeing you in action,” Winter went on. “He reviewed your work. He thinks you’re the best creative mind in your cohort.”

Cyrano felt an extremely uncomfortable mix of guilt and pride. “…Really?”

Winter bobbed her head in the affirmative.

Cyrano glanced back at Silas and Teddy, who had donned their gold-on-purple lab coats and were slouching toward the exit. Teddy looked back from the doorway, flicked his tongue at Cyrano between V-shaped fingers. He and Silas dissolved in laughter, disappeared into the hall.

Cyrano turned back to Master-Savant Winter, took a deep breath, and, for once in his life, decided to take a chance. “Yeah, no, it’s—that’s fine,” he exhaled. “Risky’s fine. No problem.”

“Cool,” said Winter. “See you in the lab.”

Cyrano watched her shuffle off, hoping to God he hadn’t just made a terrible mistake.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Lab #1 was the biggest and best-equipped of the Enclave’s alchemy labs. Not only did it have a fully-decked-out dousing station, four transmutation kilns, seven alembics, and shelves upon shelves stocked with artisanal equipment and natural, chemical, and alchemical substances; it also boasted its own enchanted furnace, which took up almost an entire wall of the room.

Cyrano slowed his steps as he entered, took in the scene. The globes on the ceiling were lit, but dimly. On the far side of the lab, within the bounds of both a shimmering containment field and a large alchemical array drawn on the floor underneath it, loomed a strange contraption made up of three criss-crossing hoops of coiled aurichalcum large enough to step through, all blazing scarlet with live mana currents and mounted on a wooden base. Oscillating in midair within the rings was something that defied comprehension—something Cyrano at first assumed was a flaw in his own vision, until he realized that, when he blinked or looked away, it didn’t follow.

It was a hole. Or at least that was the best way he could think of to describe it. A gash in nothing; a twisted shard of lightless black big enough to shove your hand through. It appeared to ooze unctuously in the air—though, when Cyrano really focused his eyes on it, he was no longer sure it was moving after all. As he stared into its seemingly boundless depths, a shudder licked down his spine.

Just outside the containment field, his unevenly close-shorn scalp jutting forth from his lab coat like a turtle’s, stood Master-Savant Marquis Durand. Durand was a brilliant but odd man in his late thirties, fidgety and distractible, with long, dark, pockmarked cheeks and Coke-bottle glasses. His buggy brown eyes reflected the eerie gleam of the aurichalcum coils as he surveyed the containment area, vigorously jotting notes on a clipboard. At the lab bench stood Master-Savant Winter, her mask, goggles, and gloves in place on her head and hands respectively. She held a dropper in each hand, murmured a gnostic mantra as she gingerly combined the ingredients of alkahest atop a sliver of graphite resting on a thin sheet of tin in the center of a chalk-drawn array. The drops of liquid flashed bright white as they married. The resulting substance formed bubbles on the shard of carbon. 

A short distance from the Masters-Savant stood Grand Philosopher Nimri. This was the first time Cyrano had ever seen him up close. He was taller than expected, and so slender by proportion that he seemed to defy physics. His rank sash was starched and pressed and draped neatly over his Arcanus lab coat. A hint of a frown pursed his brow as he perused the pages of a leather-bound tome that lay open on a stand in front of him.

“We’ll start with just the carbon our first few tries,” he said to Winter, in a voice that was adolescent in tone and pitch but mature in inflection. “Hit it with saturnine fire as we shoot it into the rift, see if we can get it to at least sustain itself. I’m not remotely optimistic on this tack, but we might as well try it before we go forward with some of the more potentially, uh…apocalyptic options.”

Winter gave a mute thumbs-up, caught sight of Cyrano. “Oh, boss. Apprentice is here.”

Nimri’s head swiveled, and Cyrano found himself on the receiving end of a dark, bespectacled stare, one that was neither particularly warm nor patently inhospitable.

“Um, Cyrano Almonte, Grand Philosopher,” Cyrano piped up, with a well-rehearsed grin. “Sorry I’m late.” He silently cursed the bashful note that crept into his voice. Dad was always telling him to speak out boldly if he wanted respect from First-Housers. And that first impressions were critical.

Nimri glanced at his pocket watch. “Looks to me like you’re right on time, Apprentice. Master-Savant Winter says she informed you about the hazardous nature of this project.”

Cyrano nodded.

“Don’t worry,” Nimri added blandly. “I don’t plan to stick you with the more dangerous tasks. We don’t pay you enough for that.”

As an apprentice, Cyrano wasn’t being paid at all. Did he just make a joke?

“Still, I can’t guarantee you won’t be at risk,” Nimri went on. “Just want to make sure you understand that fully before we get started. You won’t be penalized if you choose not to participate on that basis.”

“Oh, I understand.” Cyrano forced the nonchalance and strength into his voice that his self-introduction had lacked. “I’m not afraid.”

Nimri gave a small, grim smile. “If you’re not afraid, then you don’t understand.”

Cyrano felt a flush of embarrassment.

“Just know that the offer stands,” the Philosopher continued. “If at any point you do start to feel uncomfortable with the work we’re doing, you’ll always be free to transfer to another team.”

Cyrano kicked himself. It had actually been a lie, him saying he wasn’t afraid. But he couldn’t backtrack on it now. Nimri probably thought he was some kind of glib idiot.

“Further note that this project is classified,” said Nimri. “So per the confidentiality clause of your apprenticeship contract, at no time should the work we do here be discussed with anyone not currently present in this lab. Do you understand and agree?”

“Absolutely, yes,” said Cyrano.

Nimri gave a brusque nod of his head. “Welcome aboard. Suit up.”

Cyrano did as instructed, tugged on his goggles, his mask, his gloves. Durand followed suit.

Nimri himself seemed prepared to forego the precautions. Instead, he shrugged out of his lab coat and sash, peeled off his suit jacket, unbuttoned his left sleeve.

Cyrano glimpsed the intricate web of tattoos on the Philosopher’s arm, glowing the same red as the aurichalcum coils that made up the contraption nearby. A thrill coursed through him as he understood.

… I get to see him do it up close.

Hot damn. No one else I know has seen this.

Cyrano hadn’t been in the council chamber the night of May 14th. He’d heard the stories of people who had, read all about it in the papers. Kept diplomatically silent through countless circle-jerks among Silas and Teddy and the rest of their crew where they’d droned on and on about how Nimri’s part in it all had been so obviously fake.

Needless to say, Cyrano was the only one in the bunch who’d actually bothered to find and read Nimri’s treatise on field alchemy, which had recently, quietly appeared on one of the shelves in the department library. The theory outlined in its pages was immaculate. If anything, it was the degree of skill required for execution of the proposed techniques that made what Nimri had done on the night of the attack seem impossible. Completing the tattooed arrays accurately and in the necessary sequence in the mere seconds it would take for one or more reagents to complete their journey through the tattooed channels on his arm seemed like a feat that would demand superhuman focus and dexterity—not to mention years, at minimum, of practice and memory work to master all the combinations. And mana-materia equivalency, while, in principle, it likewise held up to scrutiny, in practice seemed to stray into the realm of mysticism. In the section of his tract describing the process of mana-materia conversion, Nimri’s otherwise-spartan academic prose had declined with startling suddenness into gibberish, with the Philosopher waxing baroque about arpeggios and mandalas and psychic self-immolation. Cyrano had read this portion of the paper at least five times trying to grok it, and each time it had seemed to make even less sense than the last.

Nevertheless, when presented with the perennial claim that Nimri was a fraud, Cyrano privately dismissed it as a conspiracy theory. The available evidence just didn’t support it. He’d concluded, however, that he could at least sympathize with what he assumed was the reason so many people found this baseless fabrication appealing:

It was easier to swallow, by far, than the thoroughly intimidating prospect that everything Jules Nimri had done on the night of May 14th had been exactly as it appeared.

“Master-Savant Durand, why don’t you let Apprentice Almonte take over with the notes?” Nimri combed part of his hair into a bushy black rabbit’s tail, secured it with an elastic band at the back of his head. The gossamer frailty of his features was even more plain without his thick mane obscuring them. “You can go ahead and start positioning the tubes. Try to see how precisely you can secure them in place. The gravitational pull of the rift isn’t all that strong as things stand, but I worry it’ll be just enough to displace them if we aren’t careful. Too, its gravity might increase as we go. We should do everything in our power to minimize margin of error.”

Cyrano rushed forward to collect the proffered clipboard. Durand wheeled over some stands with funnels and charged tubes connected to them.

“The first thing we’re doing is attempting an essentialization reaction with just a few atoms of carbon,” Nimri informed Cyrano, “nuking them with saturnine fire as we shoot them into the sample of nulla materia.”

“The sample of what?” Cyrano blinked.

“Nulla materia.” Nimri indicated the gash, shrugged. “That’s my own little nickname for it. It would probably be best described as a void dimension that’s opened up into our own. It’s entirely empty of all prima materia-based substance.”

“Emptier than deep space?” Cyrano was so captivated he forgot his filter.

Nimri looked impressed. “You follow mundane science. Yes, it seems to be. A true vacuum. The interior extends indefinitely, as best we can tell, and is utterly devoid of stable matter.”

Cyrano wandered tentatively closer to the field, stared at its contents with a new appreciation. “How are you keeping it under control?”

“I don’t recommend looking at it too long,” said Nimri, just as Cyrano started to feel sick and wrenched his eyes away. “And I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have control of it. Through some apostate magic, it’s been bound to the life energy of a mundane subject, a small portion of whose energy I extracted by means of a repurposed animus detoxification ritual. I’m running the acquired aura, amplified with mana, through these aurichalcum coils, which is what’s generating this field made out of the subject’s energy. The nulla materia, as you can see, seems pretty happy to confine itself to the field.”

“What happens if you shut off the field?”

“I’ve thought about that.” Nimri smiled his grim little smile. “It seems like a bad idea to find out.”

There were more questions bouncing around in Cyrano’s head than he could keep track of, but he decided he shouldn’t keep blurting them out. Most team leads, in his experience, held the opinion that apprentices should be seen and not heard. “Okay, well, I’m ready.” He began scrawling the details of the first experiment on his clipboard.

“Groovy,” said Nimri, in his same businesslike tone of voice. “Master-Savant Durand, how are we looking with the tubes?”

Cyrano documented furiously while Nimri, Durand, and Winter set up the first experiment. The plan, he gathered, was to propel the carbon telekinetically into the “nulla materia” through one of the tubes, igniting the pure mundane element with saturnine flame as it penetrated the void—which was the simplest known means of generating prima materia (prior to Nimri’s discovery of mana-materia equivalency, which could not itself be applied in this instance. Not only would shooting pure prima materia across an open distance be a guaranteed catastrophe, it probably wouldn’t have the desired effect, given that the goal was to induce a generation event in the void. When Nimri converted his own mana, Cyrano knew, the generation event took place within the Philosopher’s own seals).

The hope was that generating prima materia in the void would induce self-replication of the primordial substance, filling the void with matter. Nimri himself admitted this method was a long shot. But it was the least dangerous of the methods they were going to test, so it made sense to attempt it first, in case it actually happened to work.

Cyrano examined the setup, wondered how his colleagues were planning to produce the saturnine fire. He could see no mechanism that appeared to be designed to do this.

Then he understood:

That was where Nimri’s tattoos came in.

“Ready?” asked the Grand Philosopher, as Winter positioned the graphite at the mouth of the tube.

“Ready,” came Winter’s voice, muffled by her mask.

“Fire in the hole.”

Cyrano jumped almost out of his shoes as the Philosopher exploded in a burst of light and heat that started from his center and expanded rapidly outward, blazing from his eye sockets and shimmering from his pores.

As the white glow dimmed, his tattoos resumed their red glow. Nimri spoke the words of a familiar gnostic mantra, an invocation of his Secret Fire. As he repeated it, the rest of the team joined in, visualizing the task: to transmute simple carbon, through the mystical spectrum of saturnine fire, into pure prima materia.

Nimri gave the signal. Winter, by means of a simple pulse of telekinesis, sent the tiny stone of carbon whizzing through the tube.

Cyrano did his best to concentrate on the mantra, to add the power of his Secret Fire to his colleagues’—but he couldn’t help his focus switching to Nimri with a flutter of anticipation as the Philosopher stretched out his left arm.

Pale light streaked down the channels on Nimri’s arm, blindingly bright, arrays igniting as it traveled. The fingers of his right hand matched the journey of the light in a pattern too fast-paced to follow. His expression took on a transcendent calm—reminded Cyrano of a haloed saint’s in a Renaissance painting.

The events that followed took place at such breakneck speed that Cyrano was still parsing the sequence several seconds after:

First, the liquid saturnine spewed from Nimri’s left palm in a thin stream, through the containment field, straight toward the end of the tube where the carbon was to enter the void.

Second, the liquid converted to a solid, which Nimri seized in his left fist. His right hand had not yet stopped moving, like a pianist’s weaving ascending arpeggios repeatedly over the keys.

Third, as Nimri finally dropped his right hand and whipped his left away, a web of fissures rippled down the branch of now-solid saturnine, causing it to erupt in its signature rainbow flames. 

Cyrano doddered reflexively backward, felt the heatwave as the pillar of prismatic fire licked all the way down the disintegrating branch, well before gravity had a chance to do its work; arrived at the end of the tube…

…fractions of a second after the graphite went reeling into the void and vanished.

“Frick.” Nimri twirled his finger in the air. “Load ’er up again.”

Cyrano burst out laughing in spite of himself. To his relief, Nimri’s eyes curved in a smile.

“That was incredible,” Cyrano gasped.

“I missed by a mile,” Nimri demurred. “Winter, you ready for take two?”

On the second try, Nimri’s fire made its mark.

The team watched, holding their collective breath, as rainbow flames enveloped the carbon, and a blinding point of light, the beginnings of a generation event, arose in the void.

The next moment, without ceremony, the light winked out, devoured by the blackness.

At that same instant, if Cyrano’s eyes didn’t deceive him, the void grew—both in size and density. The tube that had conveyed the graphite began to list toward it, straining against the metal clamps Durand had used to fix it in place.

“That’s what I thought.” There was a clear note of disappointment in Nimri’s voice. “All right. Let’s set up the next experiment.”

The team spent the rest of the morning adjusting and readjusting the array, repeating the experiment again and again, using a different pure substance each time:

Iron.

Silicon.

Magnesium.

Sodium.

Aluminum.

Copper.

Nimri’s energy seemed to wane over the hours, surely due in part to his expenditure of mana in the creation of reagent prima materia—though he refueled regularly with aqua potentiālis and utilized other reagents where safe and reasonable to do so. Cyrano couldn’t help but notice how eagerly the Philosopher spent himself, and how the shift in his demeanor seemed to be a matter of more than just fatigue. With each and every failure, the light in his eyes seemed to dim just a little.

The whiz-kid who designed those tats and came up with mana-materia equivalency can’t possibly get discouraged that easily.

And in fact, frustrated as he seemed, Nimri didn’t show any signs of giving up. It was going on two o’ clock before Winter gently reminded him that it was well past time they all took a break for lunch.

“Of course,” came his quiet reply. His eyes were fixed on the void, in defiance of his own warning earlier. “We’ll meet back in an hour.”

Cyrano glanced back as he filed out the door after Durand and Winter.

Saw Nimri standing motionless, his stare still penetrating the blackness, his pale face scarlet from the glow of the aurichalcum coils.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

The two hours remaining in the workday after the team reconvened passed pretty much like the morning had, with experiment after failed experiment. They moved on to the pure celestial elements—the ones that weren’t unreasonably hazardous. The void swallowed everything that was fed to it—and increased ever so slightly in size with each attempt.

Cyrano couldn’t help but wonder how Nimri planned to keep this from getting out of hand. If the void’s gravity kept increasing, there was no guaranteeing the containment field would hold it.

When the afternoon came to a close, Cyrano half-expected Nimri to push the team’s efforts into overtime. Instead, the Grand Philosopher dismissed everyone at five P.M. on the dot. Cyrano helped Winter and Durand tidy up the lab, said see-you-tomorrow as the Masters-Savant discarded their lab gear and left.

Turned to Nimri, who was once again staring into the void.

Studied him for a moment, then approached, pushing his goggles up on top of his head, jerking his mask down with a finger. Hesitated before speaking.

“This is a pretty extraordinary thing we’re trying to do here, you know?”

Nimri wrenched his gaze from the void. Looked at Cyrano with dull eyes.

“I just mean,” Cyrano went on, suddenly embarrassed, “that something as…as big as this…you don’t figure it out in a day. It could take years. You of all people should know that.”

Nimri continued to stare at him.

“I’m just saying, man…you know…you got this.” Now that he’d started this unexpectedly one-sided conversation, Cyrano couldn’t seem to find a graceful way to end it. “It’s just gonna take time. And you’ve got nothing but time, you know? You’re eighteen and already got this whole department, all its manpower, all its resources at your fingertips.” He hoped Nimri couldn’t hear the note of envy that crept into his voice. “Anything you set your mind to, you know…it’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

“Time,” echoed Nimri. The apples of his cheeks twitched in what might have been a failed attempt at a smile. “Of course you’re right, Apprentice. I…don’t know what brought on this pep talk, but I appreciate your positive attitude.”

I’m embarrassing him. I shouldn’t have brought it up. “Right…sorry. I guess I was more kind of pep-talking myself. I get pretty impatient when I’m really excited about a project. Speaking of which, I wanted to let you know how much it means to me that you picked me for this team. I promise to work really hard and not disappoint you.” Guess I’ve chosen a side, Cyrano realized, and cringed in anticipation of the heckling (at best—ostracism at worst) he’d face from the Lockwood crew the next time he saw them. He could only hope the rumors of Nimri’s imminent downfall were overblown, seeing as, if they weren’t, Cyrano could now kiss his own career prospects goodbye.

“I wouldn’t expect any different.” Nimri finally managed to smile, ever so faintly. But not with his eyes. “This project is important to me. I wouldn’t have picked less than the best for the job.”

Cyrano gave a mute little nod, felt that sort of awkward tenderness that always came with being praised. It had happened to him so rarely in his life, he was always afraid to trust it. “I’m honored, Grand Philosopher,” he said, for once without a trace of calculation. “Really.”

Nimri’s hand alighted on Cyrano’s shoulder, its grip firm but gentle. A hint of the Philosopher’s smile found its way to his eyes, then vanished.

Cyrano hung back, watched as the young department head made his way toward the hall, the ghost of a limp haunting his gait. Between that and the weary slope of his shoulders, he almost looked more like an old man than a teenager. “Lock up when you leave, Apprentice, please,” he said, without turning around. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Cyrano gazed after him curiously. Nimri was odd, which he’d expected.

And kind. Which he hadn’t.

He turned to take stock of the room, make sure everything had been put away. 

His eye drifted inevitably to the nulla materia where it pulsated like an organ of un-life within its mana field. In spite of himself, he lingered a moment—probed its depths with his gaze.

Felt his skin tingle—his sense of gravity shift.

Looked away with a shiver. Hustled out of the room.

Braced himself for the imminent encounter with Silas and Teddy as he locked the door behind him.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

“Hey Cyr, how you like being Juliana’s bitch boy?”

Cyrano found himself alone in the prep room with Silas and Teddy: Just my luck. Ignored Silas’s comment as he hung his colors on the rack, pulled his satchel down out of his cubby.

A tin of Altoids in its shrink-wrap tumbled down with it, smacked him on the head and clattered to the floor.

“That’s in case you need to get the taste of dyke ass out of your mouth.” Teddy smacked Cyrano so hard on the back that he stumbled.

“Gross,” Cyrano muttered.

Teddy and Silas laughed.

“Speaking of ass.” Silas grinned. Pinched Cyrano’s hindquarters, hard, as he tried to walk away. “Yours still sore from Mistress’s paddle?”

“Fuck off, okay?” Cyrano spun around. “Both of you keep your fucking hands off me.”

His colleagues’ smiles gave way to murderous glares. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” Teddy lunged, brought his face within inches of Cyrano’s. Cyrano flinched. “Don’t make me and Silas teach you a lesson. Your No-Name faggot ass isn’t on fire already, it will be.”

Cyrano’s pulse pounded in his ears. He fought hard to keep a straight face. “I’m—sorry,” he mumbled, trying to keep his voice calm. “I was out of line.”

“S’what I thought, you little pussy bitch.” Teddy slapped Cyrano’s nuts.

Cyrano lurched, gave a grunt of pain. His eyes watered.

Teddy and Silas laughed.

I hate you. I hate you.

“Gentlemen,” came a full-throated baritone from the doorway behind him.

“Hunter!” grinned Silas.

“My man!” Teddy chimed in.

Cyrano shrank as the two scholars exchanged eager bro-hugs with the Master-Savant.

…Could this get any worse?

“Apprentice Almonte.”

Cyrano looked up, terrified to find himself the object of Hunter Lockwood’s attention. He’d been cruising in the outermost orbit of the Master-Savant’s clique for a few months now, but it was rare that he garnered even a glance from the man himself.

This is it. He must have heard. He’s gonna let me have it. Guess my wagon’s really hitched to Nimri’s star now.

“I hear congratulations are in order.” Lockwood stood tall, relaxed, like a GQ cover model, thumbs hooked casually in his waistband.

Cyrano blinked, uncomprehending.

“It’s a high honor,” Lockwood clarified, “being chosen to work with the Grand Philosopher.”

Cyrano scoured the senior alchemist’s Greek-statue visage for any sign that this was somehow the start of a cruel joke. Switched his gaze briefly to Silas and Teddy, found them both looking as flabbergasted as he felt.

“Thank you, Master-Savant,” Cyrano said finally. Cleared his throat.

“And well-deserved in your case, I might add. I’ve been looking over your record. Seems you’ve done some very commendable work.”

Cyrano felt his face flush. “I don’t know what to say.”

…Suck it, Silas and Teddy.

“You ever come by the club?” asked Lockwood. “I don’t think I’ve seen you there.”

“The…club?” Cyrano worried he sounded stupid for asking.

“The gentlemen’s club. Lunaria. Over on Arcadia Street.”

“Oh…yeah, no, I know it. But—I mean, no, I’ve never…I’ve never been.”

“Why not swing by tonight? We’ll drink a toast to your success.”

“Oh, I…” Cyrano gritted his teeth. “Um. I can’t.”

Lockwood chuckled. “Why not? Got better things to do than sip gin and enjoy talented ladies?”

Cyrano swallowed hard. “No, I just…I…”

“He can’t afford it, dude,” Teddy cut in with a chortle. “Almonte’s poor as shit.”

Lockwood eyed Teddy coolly. “What’s funny about that, Grenville?”

Teddy blinked. “Uh. I…I don’t know.”

“Nothing,” said Lockwood. “Nothing’s funny about it. A man works as hard as Almonte here and can’t even afford to enjoy himself? That’s just the kind of wrong I’m trying to right by running for office in this order.”

Cyrano gaped at the Master-Savant, fighting a sudden compulsion to fall on his knees and worship the man like a god.

There has to be some catch to this. I’m never this lucky.

“Join us, Apprentice,” said Lockwood, with an easy grin. “I insist. I’ll buy.” He leaned close, gave Cyrano a light, conspiratorial backhand slap on the shoulder—along with a dizzying whiff of Clive Christian cologne. “I’m very eager to hear about the work you’re doing on Nimri’s big project.”

So that’s it, Cyrano realized. Really, it wasn’t even surprising enough to be disappointing. He’s not interested in me. He just wants a pair of eyes on Nimri.

“My man’ll drive us in the Bentley,” Lockwood went on. “Give you a ride home at the end of the night. That way you can drink as much as you want.”

But the project’s confidential…

“My car’ll be here in just a few minutes.” Lockwood glanced at his Rolex. “How about it, Almonte? What do you say?”

Cyrano gazed at him, dumbstruck.

After a beat, dared another glance at Silas and Teddy.

They were both visibly seething with envy.

… I can afford to hedge my bets here.

“Yeah, man, absolutely.” Cyrano clapped Lockwood firmly on the shoulder. “Sounds like a fun time. I appreciate the invite.”

Nimri wins, I win. Lockwood wins, I still win. Cyrano Almonte’s ship just came in. Dad’ll be fucking proud.

“My man!” Lockwood slapped Cyrano on the back. “Let’s roll. Eads, Grenville, look alive.” He started toward the door with a swagger in his step.

Cyrano followed, adrenaline pumping; turned on his heel midway. A vulpine grin split his cheeks as he mouthed at a sour-faced Silas and Teddy, both bird fingers raised:

How you bitches like me now?

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