The neighborhood was a nice one, as the local neighborhoods went. Big houses, old-fashioned, with large yards. Many, including the house in front of me, had additions or garages that came close to a small house in size. It wasn’t up to par with the two million dollar homes in the better areas of Toronto, but it was the sort of place I could see myself living, somewhere down the road.
If I got that far.
It had always been a sort of ‘if I got that far’ thing, but it had been about money, before. Now it was more the living part that was under question.
Cars were parked along the length of the street. Families were leaving the vehicles. The Behaims, with brown and black hair, leaning towards the stockier side, with a few who were fat. The Duchamps, men and women, all blonde.
I looked at the card in my hand, then at the point where the people were converging. A meeting at Laird’s house, it seemed. I could see the spirits moving. A rune was being used to ward off curious civilians, which meant I had to look otherwise occupied.
I stayed where I was, out of sight, trying not to focus too hard on them, while doing what I could to pick up details and information. The connections that spread out from around them were ties of family, of home, of friendship. Rays of light radiating out from each of them. Connections to this town. Others had connections to another, distant place, matching some of my connections, the ones I’d covered up with glamour.
They were from Toronto, I realized. Others, those connections might be to Ottawa. Out of town members of the Duchamp clan?
I turned to leave, heading around the corner. More guests had parked further up the street. Two Behaim womenfolk helping an old man to make his way down the frozen sidewalk, supporting him from either side, and further up, a cluster of blonde kids milled around a mother and father.
Right now, I was the unassuming neighbor. Brown hair, middle aged, unremarkable in every respect.
With my eyes on the map of connections between people, I could tell when I was relatively free of scrutiny, then bent down, as if I were fixing my boot.
Still bent over, I moved my hand under my hat to run it along my hair. From dirty blond to platinum blond that had been lightened by age. Another pass, to change it from wavy to straight.
I rubbed at my face, and worked in wrinkles, a ruddy complexion to go with the light hair. Beneath the scarf I’d wrapped around myself, I added a mustache for good measure. Bushy and blond.
I didn’t dare glamour up any connections to better the disguise. Not with so many Duchamps around. Not without some help or a tool of some sort.
I straightened, leaving the card on the ground. Wouldn’t do to have a suspicious connection active. The family with the kids passed me by. I could see another car pulling into a spot at the side of the road, more Duchamps climbing out. Teenagers this time. Three girls. Enchantresses, I had little doubt.
I couldn’t panic. I had glamour, they shouldn’t see anything strange.
Where the other car had been small children, the process of getting out long and arduous, the three teenage girls wasted no time. I fell into stride between the two groups, where I could be easily mistaken as a member of one or the other.
Somehow this fit me. I could tap into my memories or my history, being a face in the crowd, and I could figure this out. It was instincts, it was building, it was an art of a sort, and those were things I did pretty well.
There was a bit of recklessness in it too, which fit well with my current mental state. What was one more thing where I didn’t have all of the information? One more thing where I had to wing it, sink or swim?
I was quietly terrified, but I’d promised myself I’d do this. Take control, act.
All of that, the quiet terror, the leap of faith, relying on instincts, it was what I’d been doing since meeting Rose. I followed the family up the front steps, the teenagers right behind me.
“Hi, come in, welcome, welcome, hi Beth, come in,” Laird’s wife was talking to each new guest. She gave me a polite, distracted smile as I passed through the threshold and into Laird’s house.
If I didn’t feel as panicked as I should, I told myself it was because I was going with the flow, adapting to circumstance. I didn’t want to believe it was some deeper flaw. Another, deeper element at play.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked Rose.
Maggie and her father exchanged a glance.
“You haven’t noticed?” she asked. “Both times, the ghosts reacted to my voice, not yours.”
“This is kind of important,” I said.
“It is. I know. But I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it.”
“When did you figure it out?”
“The lawyers. They came when I said their names. You were in the kitchen, and I said it, and boom, there they were.”
“I tried, I failed, and you succeeded,” I said. “You just succeeded in calling…”
“Dickswizzle,” Rose said.
I glanced down at the goblin. The size of a chimp, maybe, but generally flabby. He was hard to make out, because his bristly black fur tended to blend into the area between the car and the snowbank. His eyes stood out, widening as he heard his name.
I shivered a little. I wanted him to stop looking at me, but I knew he’d react if I gave him any leverage. He would be pieced together with the worst parts of animals and humans, including a predatory, maladjusted personality. That made him somewhat more predictable.
“Dickswizzle,” I said. Who the hell names these bastards? “Fuck me, it wasn’t just the ghosts, was it? When I went up to the room, the barber turned his back to me. Rejecting me.”
“Barber?” Maggie asked.
“It’s a female line,” Rose said. “That’s how Others see the Thorburn practitioner. The simplest Others, the ones who can’t really think, or who think in an alien way, I think they look for the female part of it. Ones like Padraic, they can maybe work their head around it.”
“If they even realize what genders we are,” I said.
“I think it’s more basic than that. Something like Dickswizzle or the Barber looks at us, and they see something completely different from what we see. Gender’s tied up in something intrinsic about our being. I think.”
“Gender’s a mutable thing,” Maggie said.
“It is today, but Others are old fashioned,” Rose said.
“I’m still trying to work my head around this,” I said, shaking my head a little.
“You gave the goblin an order, but you don’t have the whistle,” Maggie said.
“No,” Rose said. “But he does. And we’re sort of one and the same. By the letter of the law, the Thorburn practitioner is holding the whistle, and the Thorburn practitioner is giving the orders.”
“Yeah?” Maggie asked. She lowered her voice as a group of kids approached from the direction of the school. “That’s… complicated.”
She pointed, and we collectively moved away from the street.
“Am I even me right now?” I asked. “As far as the whistle is concerned?”
“I hope you are, at your core, at least,” Rose said. “There’s one possibility, that you’re the body and I’m the voice. You can obviously do some material things. Drawing circles, some shamanism. Glamour, obviously.”
“Obviously,” I said.
“But our line’s supposed to have some power, some history, and maybe I got that,” Rose said. “Maybe that’s why I’m here?”
“You’ve got the clout?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said.
Which raised questions about the idea that she might be tapping me for strength or merging with me. Would she gain clout, or borrow from my abilities over time? Until she had all of the power?
“We have a lot to talk about, it seems,” I said. “But not with company around. Not when we only have a few hours to get ready.”
“You were making a move against Laird?” Maggie asked.
“Before anything else happens, I’m going to need answers,” her father said.
I met Maggie’s eyes. She shook her head a fraction.
What was that ‘no’ for?
“I’m in trouble,” I told him. I touched the pendant, “We’re in trouble. A lot of that trouble has to do with some locals. Laird Behaim among them.”
“The police chief,” her father said.
He glanced at Maggie. “You said this place was safe.”
“Relatively… relative to home,” Maggie said. She smiled.
He gave her a very good ‘I am not amused in the slightest’ look.
“I’m the one who’s really in danger, sir,” I said. “I’m hoping Maggie is going to help me. That’s all this is.”
“I don’t want her getting embroiled in fights. She told me that she’d do this for defensive purposes, to protect herself and protect me.”
“I did agree to something like that,” Maggie said.
“I don’t want to get Maggie into a bad situation. I only needed some help, and there aren’t many people to ask.”
“And… uncontrolled goblins are an appropriate sort of ‘help’?” He asked. He looked at his daughter, speaking to her. “We’ve talked about what you’re doing with the goblins, we didn’t talk about lending them out to others. You’re containing, trapping and controlling, so you can stop things before they start.”
“Right now, sir,” I cut in, “I’m trying to stop something. It’s probably big, it might be ugly, and even though it’s directed at me, I’m not sure it won’t do any collateral damage.”
He looked genuinely upset. One hand flew up to the zipper on his jacket, stopped, and then dropped to his side. Fidgeting. “This place was supposed to be safer. More stable.”
“It is, dad.”
“I’ll rephrase. It was supposed to be safer. Stable.”
“The more I think about it,” I said. “I’m not sure any place is. You find out about stuff like this, and… I guess normalcy is beyond your reach.”
“I refuse to believe that.”
“If there’s a way to get things back to normal for you guys,” Maggie told him, “I want to find it.”
“And you?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I like it,” Maggie said. “I like being able to protect myself against bumps in the night, see the underpinnings of things.”
“Even if those underpinnings aren’t pretty?” I asked.
“They are,” Maggie said. Her face brightened a bit. “It’s like looking at the workings of the human body. It’s messy and gross and bloody and mucked up and imperfect, but there’s an art there.”
As if to punctuate the statement, Dickswizzle made a loud, wet, sputtering sound.
“You look at the cells through a microscope, it’s beautiful,” Maggie said. “It’s the same with the balance of things, karma, and spirits. Even if that balance and those spirits like to mess with us more than they help us out.”
“I feel like I’m going to lose you if you continue down this road,” her father said.
“I don’t ever want to lose you, or have you lose me,” Maggie said, sincerely. “But I think stopping me from helping Blake is going to do more hurt than help, as far as us going down that road.”
Her father frowned.
“What do you need?” he finally asked me.
“I needed the goblins, which I just got,” I said. “And now all I need is to know where Laird is.”
Maggie reached into her pocket and withdrew a business card. “Like this?”
I could see the connection to Laird.
“That’ll do, thank you.”
The barked word startled me, as did the connection I felt. The certainty that it was aimed at me.
A cluster of men had gathered at one end of an expansive living room. There was a minibar there, as well as a stylish wood-paneled cooler filled with ice cubes, beers standing within.
Kids milled around, some running, chasing others. Adults were in clusters, with couches and chairs given to the elderly.
The men at the alcohol station waved me over.
I mentally prepared my story, best as I could.
Fuck me, getting into a situation like this when I couldn’t lie.
“What’s your preference?” one asked me.
I could see the connections that so many of them had to the alcohol. Drinkers?
All six of them, I noted, were from the Duchamp family.
“I’ll take a beer,” I said.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” the guy who’d waved me over asked. “First time?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“We’ve got a selection,” one of the other men said. “Dark? Light? Lager? Wheat beer? Stout?”
“Lager,” I said.
“Ah, let’s see here… here. One from England,” he said. He glanced at me, bottle held up in the air, and I gave a nod of consent.
He cracked the top off and handed me the beer. I tipped the bottle up, but controlled the amount that actually made it to my mouth.
“Only reason I tolerate these things,” the first guy confided.
“What finally got you to come?” one of them asked me.
I had had an answer ready, but I’d only just let my guard down a fraction. The answer I managed was a neutral, “Seemed like something was going on, tonight.”
I drank, then rubbed a bit of moisture from my mustache. Fun. I’d never had a mustache before.
“Wedding thing,” one of the other guys said.
“Wedding thing,” I said. I shrugged. “I dunno much about it. I’ve only been paying attention to things for a few days now.”
“Yeah? You new to the family?”
“Sort of,” I said. If you mean being here, disguised, included in the group.
“Neither,” I answered. “I went my separate way from my particular family unit, not long ago. Stuff came up with a cousin of mine, I came into town for her sake. I thought tonight was a good occasion to see how all this works.”
“Eh,” one guy said. “With the wedding coming up, it’s going to be a lot of awful speeches. Not such a good occasion.”
“You know the drill for these things?” one of the guys asked me.
“I don’t know much of anything,” I admitted.
He leaned closer, lowering his voice, “They’ve got some secret society bullshit or whatever going on here. Keeps things lively in a town this small, I think. So we get good drink, good food, good drink-“
“Good drink,” another guy chimed in.
“-And some long winded speeches, before they kick us out or stick us somewhere and see to their own business. We’re nonentities, so the only real rule is you don’t get so drunk you cause a fuss, and you don’t poke your nose where it doesn’t belong. If you aren’t attached, which you aren’t, you might even get some not-so-subtle hints about marrying in.”
“Marrying me?” I asked. I affected a tone of voice and demeanor much like his. “Nah. I have an apartment. I barely made a living wage, these past few months. I don’t even know if my job’s going to be there when I go back.”
“You’d be surprised,” one of the guys said. “Listen, ah, this is hard to say gracefully, knowing your cousin might be one of these girls.”
“What Adam’s getting at,” one of the other men cut in, “Is these kids get a metric fuckton of pressure from their family to marry certain people, walk a certain line. Make connections, improve the family’s collective lot in life. You get me?”
“Suppose I do,” I said.
“Well, some want out. And the easiest way out is to get married before their folks marry them off. Even if that guy’s twice their age, living in an apartment, with a cruddy maybe in the way of employment prospects, some prefer that choice to the alternative.”
“Yeah?” I asked. I tried to put myself in the headspace of the character I was playing. The lonely, estranged, less-than-successful uncle of some far-flung Duchamp connection. “Twenty year old, wanting me, you’re saying?”
“Not unheard of,” Adam told me. “But don’t fall for it. They reel the kids back in when the grandkids come around, or your loving wife decides to come back on her own, and then you’re stuck coming to these godawful meetings and whatnot, stuck on the fringes.”
“And,” one guy groused, “It’s not like they’re your kids, you know?”
“Hear hear,” a few of the guys echoed. There were some clinks of beer bottles and glasses of stronger spirits. A few women glanced back at us, giving us annoyed looks. Not so happy their husbands were openly drinking, it seemed.
“It’s a trap,” Adam said. “Just do what you need to do for your cousin, but you walk away as fast as you can.”
“But… some twenty year old, and me?” I asked, again.
There were some chuckles.
“You keep saying girls,” I said. “Do the boys run into the same thing?”
“You’re really new,” one replied. “Yeah, the boys do run into some of the same pressures, but you tell me, how many boys are in this room, compared to the girls?”
I glanced around. In the Behaim family, it was a fifty-fifty split, but the little Duchamps were all girls.
“I think I get it,” I said.
“More likely,” another one of the men said, “One of the widows is going to make a play. Get their hands on you before one of the younger girls do, to remove you from the picture.”
“Or grill you,” Adam said. “Get all the dirt they can, to make sure you’re a viable candidate for their daughters. Descend on you like a flock of harpies if you aren’t, humiliating you. And they’re good at the harpy thing.”
“Now I’m worried,” I said. If they start questioning me in detail, I’m fucked. This conversation is hard enough. “Wondering what I got myself into, coming here.”
“Tell you what. We’ll run interference,” Adam said. “Buy you time to run.”
I smiled, then clinked my bottle against his. “A fraction less worried now. But it’s best if you don’t try to look like you’re running interference. Maybe you could promise to step in if I can’t dislodge ’em?”
“I think we could do that… What’s your name, by the by?” he asked.
That gave me pause.
“Less I tell you guys, the less anyone can get out of you when they start asking the questions,” I said, quirking one eyebrow. “I mean, you don’t really care, do you?”
He laughed. “Not really. Well said, well said.”
The conversation switched away from me, outside of the periodic question about smartphones or hockey.
It afforded me the chance to look around the room. There were certain lines drawn in the sand. The very young children of the two different families seemed to mingle, but as the ages rose, they seemed to segregate more into groups. Very few of the adult Behaims were talking to adult Duchamps. Outside of a few out-of-towners, the only real intermingled group in open discussion was… Laird’s.
I’d spotted him, in a group with Sandra Duchamp and a few other members of the family.
How was I going to play this? I couldn’t do anything if I was kicked out. But if the group shrank down to only the practitioners…
How were they going to play this? Did this family reunion factor into what he was going to pull against me? An order of execution? A massed army?
No, it didn’t fit their styles. They weren’t aggressive. They weren’t vicious, per se.
What, then, could a few dozen practitioners pull?
I saw Sandra Duchamp break away from the group.
I saw, too, the connections that formed between her and anyone. She smiled, and did a somewhat poor job of smiling in a genuine way, greeting this person and that.
Heading in our general direction.
I could see it in the connection strength. She was connected to people. The one who sent out the invitations, or the orders. If she focused her attention on me, there would be questions. If I was lucky. If I was unlucky, she’d tear right through the glamour as if it were tissue paper.
No. I had to believe in the glamour. Confidence. The glamour was stronger. Having an audience helped. I’m stronger, I’m not that easy to break. She won’t see through it.
I wasn’t entirely able to convince myself.
I took a drink. Because the man I was pretending to be would drink, and I deliberately looked away, so she wouldn’t see that I knew her. I definitely didn’t want her to see any connection.
She looked right past us. No recognition, not even an attempt at recognition. She paused to shoo one cluster of kids away from the fireplace, which was burning with a low flame.
No, her focus was shifting elsewhere as she moved towards our end of the room. To the front hall-
The door opened.
There was a cry, a cheer that built in volume as more people caught on and joined in.
A boy in a suit, a girl in a knee-length dress and tights, each about twenty-five. Holding hands.
“Hey!” Adam called out, joining the cheer. The other men joined in, and I joined in with them.
The bride-to-be smiled, but it was a polite smile, very small. The groom didn’t change his expression in the slightest.
I allowed myself to relax as the evening progressed. With so many unwitting bystanders around, there wasn’t much to be done. There was no fucking way I was going near Laird.
Dinner was served, buffet style, and the various rooms of the house were soon filled with people eating. Most of the little ones sat at the table, the elderly ate in the living room, and the adults without children to feed ate standing up, holding their plates with one hand and using forks with the other, putting wine glasses, beer bottles, and glasses of soda on any available surface.
I took it for what it was, eating genuinely good food for the first time in a week or so, and going back for seconds, just so I could take a different route across the ground floor and get a sense of what was where.
When I didn’t get a good enough sense of things doing that, I stopped by the kitchen for some salt.
Behind the kitchen, I noted, there were a set of double doors. Closed, no doubt locked, with a sign taped down. ‘No Entry’. From the spirits that flowed through and around the paper, I had little doubt there was a rune there. Less a deterrence rune, I suspected, than a rune that would punish prying Duchamps.
Or a prying Blake Thorburn, for that matter.
A space they didn’t want the ungifted to see was a space I very much wanted to access.
I had the goblins, stowed away in one pocket in paper and whistle form, and I had other tricks, but I doubted the glamour would hold up if I tried something and they started looking.
No. This wasn’t an occasion for brute force. I couldn’t put Maggie at risk, in any case. The goblins were a last resort.
I needed to get inside that room, but Laird was the gatekeeper.
If I left the house, could I get in another way?
I thought of how Laird’s wife had been inviting people in. Was invitation required? If I left, would I be able to get back in?
Probably, but I didn’t like the other complications that were liable to pop up. Were they alerted when someone passed the threshold? Like the bell on the door of a twenty-four-seven convenience store?
Dressing up like Sandra Duchamp seemed like a horrible, horrible idea.
Even Laird’s wife… no.
I reluctantly left the kitchen.
Maybe if I found a mirror and had a discussion with Rose?
In a way, I was glad to be striking out on my own. She wouldn’t be popping her head in, out of fear of being seen, and it was something of a relief to not have her second guessing me. We’d hammered this out, agreed that infiltration would be the only way to stop Laird, and settled on this.
She was probably going crazy, waiting for a report or confirmation that things were okay.
I made my way back into the living room in time to hear the close of a toast.
“…for the betterment of our families, putting old grudges aside.”
Uniting the two groups.
Oh man, it would be nice if I could split up that couple.
If some of the Duchamp girls were that desperate for a way out, could I dress up like the groom and get them somewhere secluded?
No. Because the Duchamp girls weren’t pawns.
The problem here was that pretty much anyone and everyone who was a practitioner here was a stronger practitioner than me. They would be on the lookout for shenanigans, especially if the groom was reported to be in two places at once.
Besides, they weren’t getting more than a few feet apart. There was a connection between them, I noticed. A crimson line of spirits stretched between ring fingers.
Was it like I’d read about in one of the books? A tether? A leash of some fixed length, keeping them together?
I felt my skin crawl a bit at that, and the crawling of my skin made my blood run cold, in turn. I could almost let myself think that it was the glamour fading or breaking apart.
But the glamour was strong.
Desserts came out.
I knew I was running out of time.
Time, ironically, being Laird’s weapon of choice. He and his family were chronomancers.
What were my options at this point?
Sticking a paperclip in a light socket, to blow the power?
It would only stall the inevitable, and it could still get them looking for me.
No. There was no grand stroke I could employ. Not until I knew more.
As dessert wrapped up, I saw the spirits shift.
The rune that had been drawn to keep neighbors from coming in had changed somewhat.
Adam’s wife approached him, their two kids following her. “Can you take the kids out for a movie? It’s going to be a big group thing.”
One of the men in the group gave me a telling look. This was it. The non-members were getting driven out, both overtly and subtly.
Adam glanced at me. “Coming?”
Direct questions were so hard to answer. “I’m not in the mood for a movie,” I said.
“But thank you for the company,” I said.
He gave me a little salute, and then ushered his kids off.
The small handful of people who were leaving were, with the help of the rune gently urging people to leave, starting to clear the house.
“Am I going, mom?” one six year old asked.
“Nope. We’re staying.”
“But I want to see a movie.”
She had to hold him to keep him from joining the steady flow of people leaving. He wasn’t immune to the rune. “Stay and play with Leanne, alright? We’ll see a movie this weekend. We’re doing some important things tonight.”
“Aw,” he said.
“Go find your cousin and play.”
“Pee first,” he said.
“Alright,” she said. “Go.”
He ran upstairs.
As the crowd thinned, I could make out Penelope and Jo. The ones who’d tried to kill me, just yesterday. The practitioners were the ones who remained.
I was lagging behind, and that meant more eyes that might start wondering about me.
But I couldn’t leave. Not knowing that something was happening.
I waited until the general focus shifted to some more boisterous farewells for the bride and groom, and ducked upstairs.
Nobody followed me or objected. That bothered me some. Unmarried middle aged guy who lived in an apartment, waiting outside the bathroom for a young boy. I even had the ‘stache.
What the hell was wrong with me and the choices I was making, for glamours?
More concerning was the fact that this was a gamble, and I didn’t like my odds. There were too many things that might not work, here.
“Hey,” I mumbled. “Fate gods, karma gods, whoever. I’ve been trying to play fair, be nice. I cut Mags some slack. Can I cash in some of my chips? Or at least buy some relief from the bad luck my family is due?”
There was no answer. Obviously.
I heard the toilet flush, inhaled slowly, and then exhaled.
The door popped open, and I saw a chance. He stopped in his tracks as he saw me standing outside the door.
“Did you wash your hands?” I asked, knowing the answer.
He looked momentarily guilty.
I put my hand on top of his head, moving it so his head turned toward the sink. He obediently turned and went to wash his hands.
I plucked a hair from his head.
He stopped, looking at me. “What?”
“Soap and water,” I ordered. Playing up the authority figure role. “And hurry, please. I’d like my turn.”
He gave his hands the shortest, most perfunctory scrub he could, and then zipped downstairs.
I took my turn in the bathroom, closing and locking the door. I leaned over the sink. No reflection faced me.
“Rose,” I said. “Rose, Rose.”
A moment passed, and Rose appeared in the pane.
“Are you sure you should call me?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “But this is your chance to tell me if I’m being an idiot.”
“Are you being an idiot?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I crashed the party, no problem, but very little gain, outside of seeing the family units at work.”
I placed my fist against the wall, and pushed hard.
“What’s next?” she asked.
“Being a face in a smaller crowd,” I said. I looked at the hair, and I could see the connection to its owner, like a vague shaft of sunlight filtered through the air in a dusty room. Moving downstairs, slowing as he entered the living room.
Good. It worked like I’d hoped. I now knew I had a minute.
I grabbed my elbow, pushing harder.
“I sense… something,” she said.
“It’s like when I saw the… Feorgbolds or whatever they’re called? There’s only darkness where the mirrors don’t let me see through, and I don’t dare show my face when they could look back at me.”
“No,” I said. “Definitely don’t take that risk.”
“But I see something, almost. I feel them.”
“The familiars are probably coming out,” I said. “Maybe they’re doing some tricks to clean the dishes, I dunno.”
I pushed harder one last time, then changed hands to do the same for the other.
“Set the house on fire?” she suggested.
“There’s a thought,” I said. “But no. This many practitioners, this being their territory, the fire would go out if they asked politely. I don’t think there’s anything I can pull, outside of poisoning them, that would do any serious damage.”
“Don’t poison,” she said. “Being a guest means there are rules. Even if the host has expressed an intent to murder you.”
“I know,” I said. “And there are kids here.”
“Yeah. Definitely don’t kill kids.”
I shifted my stance, bracing my knee against the sink. I bent down to grab my foot with both hands, forcing my knee against the sink.
“What in the fuck are you doing?” she asked.
I stepped back, and I fell. I reached for the towel rack for balance, then stopped before grabbing it, covering my head instead. I didn’t want to make a racket by pulling it out of the wall.
I hit the ground, my head coming within an inch of the toilet. If I hadn’t fallen at an angle, I might have knocked myself out.
I stretched my legs out in front of me. One was almost a foot shorter than the other.
“You… look genuinely disturbing,” she said.
I turned myself ninety degrees and braced myself against the wall, pushing out with my longer leg. With the exertion, I managed to squeeze it down to a matching length with the other leg.
“Blake… you need to go back to your regular ‘Blake’ shape. It’ll root you better in this shape. If you aren’t careful, it’s going to be time consuming or painful to go back to normal.”
“No time,” I said. “I can deal with problems later. Right now is what I want to focus on.”
I stood, and found the sink was at a level with my collarbone.
Bracing my feet against the floor, my head against the edge of the sink, I squeezed myself down just a little more.
I looked up to see Rose in the mirror, practically climbing over the sink on her side to look down at me.
I ran my hands over my hair. Dark brown hair with just a tiny bit of curling to it.
“Your face,” she said.
I ran my hands over the face. Away with the lines, away with the age, the larger nose and ears, the mustache. I handled my throat, then my body and arms.
“Eerie,” she said.
I pushed up my sleeves. Tattoos still there. But the clothes…
The clothes had shrunk with me. I hadn’t even thought about it, which would be a benefit of sorts.
My sweat, I realized, would be permeating the clothes. Sweat with glamour-ointment on it.
Would that dilute it? Make the glamour weaker?
No. If the glamour was weaker, I wouldn’t have been able to compress myself down to a height of three and a half feet.
My hands were damp with the sweat of my exertion. If I…
I brushed them off on the clothes. It took a few tries to get the colors right.
“I’m done commenting on this,” Rose said. “I have no words.”
I turned around, arms out to my sides “Convincing?”
“Yes. Definitely convincing. If I hadn’t watched it happen, I wouldn’t have known. I’m having trouble reconciling it even now.”
“Perfect,” I said.
“You realize, if you let this break, it’s going to recoil like crazy?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I realize. Wish me luck.”
“Oh, believe me, I’m praying you have good luck,” she said. “Please don’t get us killed.”
“Will try,” I said, smiling, an abundance of exuberance in my voice and expression. “You keep an ear out, in case there’s trouble.”
As a six year old boy, I descended the stairs.
The hair pointed me to the boy I was replacing. I spotted him from the other side of the room, playing with his cousin.
I ducked into the hallway, where the others were filing through the kitchen into the extension on the back of the house. A few familiars had come out, and cats stood on owner’s shoulders, the air alight with various birds.
One accusatory birdcall, and I was done for.
Someone mussed my hair in passing. I looked up and smiled wide, then ducked between legs to get away. I didn’t want anyone keeping track of me, human or familiar.
Nearly sixty people in all made their way into the back room. I was more focused on getting lost in the group than on the room itself, until people started settling on positions.
“I’m impressed, Laird,” a woman’s voice.
“Beatrice helped,” Laird said, on the other side of the room.
“My own invention,” Laird said.
“You used paint?”
“For the permanence of it,” Laird answered.
I could see bookshelves, each protected by a pane of glass with hinges and a lock. The locks, I noted, each had a rune on them.
Nothing I could mess with.
As I made my way to the back corner, I found a foosball table covered by a tablecloth and shoved into a corner, the telltale handles sticking out. A pool table sat a short distance away, similarly covered.
The crowd started to settle, and I dared a look at the room proper, peeking between legs.
A magic circle, if that was even the term.
Fifteen feet across, it was complex. Diagrams inside diagrams, mathematical notation towards the center, astrological symbols at the outermost edges.
The hair told me that my counterpart was heading my way. I reversed direction, keeping the crowd between us.
His cousin with him, they ducked under the foosball table, watching events from their new hiding spot.
Hopefully they wouldn’t cause a commotion and let someone realize that there were two little boys with the same face and clothes.
“Let’s talk about Blake Thorburn,” Laird said.
“The diabolist,” someone else said.
“You each have some idea of what the Thorburns involve. Just yesterday, Blake Thorburn attacked my reputation, putting me and my family in awkward positions. Sandra Duchamp was able to pull some strings, and things look like they will settle, but it’s clear Blake Thorburn isn’t on the same page as us. He poses a grave risk to our families, to our place in things, and to this town.”
“He’s a novice,” Sandra Duchamp said. “He’s new to this, and he’s finding his way. Laird told me he was dealing with Maggie Holt, no doubt exchanging knowledge. Laird did what he could to put an end to it, but the young man is desperate. I wouldn’t bet on anything right now.”
“What can you tell us about him?” one of the out-of-towners asked.
“The situation warrants delicate handling,” Laird said. “He’s the equivalent to a keg of nitroglycerin. Too much of a jostle, and he blows up, and he takes us with him. I’ve made some initial forays into dealing with him. Maximizing the karmic balance, in the hopes that any explosions are destructive to the Thorburn line than to us. In every interaction, I perform an augury to ensure that it won’t lead to disaster, but the window for seeing these things is narrow, and I’m primarily looking out for the worst case scenarios.”
“Fire and brimstone,” an older woman from the Behaim family spoke.
“Exactly,” Laird agreed. “Thus far, I’ve aimed to push him out of his comfort zone without pushing him too far. Keep him off-balance. Others made some forays, but nothing came of it. I think we’ll need to stop that, to be safe. Limit it to certain powerful Others, increase the bounty we’re offering for any killed Thorburn, and step very carefully with a plan in mind the entire way.”
There were nods around the room.
“Answering the question from earlier,” Sandra cut in. “We did some readings. A reading of Blake Thorburn drew the Fool card with the right hand, the High Priestess with the left. A reading of his vestige companion drew the Hanged Man and Chariot, respectively.”
First of all, I resented that.
Second of all, ominous.
“We can assume that with his removal, the other Thorburn descendants will each have a turn as heir. We’re already doing background checks on everyone involved,” Sandra Duchamp said. “It would be interesting to possibly remove one individual from the line of succession before we get that far, to see if we can’t throw a wrench in the works.”
“But our paramount concern,” Laird said, “Is him. He’s not as passive as his predecessor was. We’ll all sleep easier when he’s dealt with.”
“Let’s not mince words,” a man said. “You’re talking about his death. About murdering him.”
“I was mincing words, as we do have children in the room,” Laird said. “But no, I do not want either option. Particularly now. This is my proposed solution.”
Various people looked down at the diagram.
“You’d better explain,” Sandra Duchamp said.
“Of course,” Laird said. “Bertram, would you?”
I heard rustling papers.
In the narrow segment of the crowd that I could make out, I saw people passing a pile of stapled papers around. Each took one and handed it to the next person.
“I’m not sure I follow. It’s been a long time since I studied any of this. There’s no risk of backlash?”
“No. We’re not targeting him,” Sandra said. “He’s not even in our sights. He spends much of his time ensconced within the house, where every demesnes has been turned inward.”
“If you’d each clear away from the diagram?” Laird asked. “There should be room. We’ll get prepared while you each look over my notes.”
As one, the crowd backed away to the edges of the room. I found myself with my back to the glass cabinets. I also had a better view of what was going on.
“Timothy, here,” Laird said. He indicated an empty circle within the diagram. “Rhea, here, please. Grace, here. Talbot, yes, right there.”
Fuck me. This wasn’t just Laird pulling something with people looking in. He was involving them. A coven -a circle-, getting involved.
“Sandra, I need you at the ‘crown’ point. Isabelle, the ‘sword’.”
Two circles, I thought. I was frozen. What could I do?
“Clustered so close together,” Sandra commented. She was almost shoulder to shoulder with Isabelle.
“That’s the realm. The space. See page four. If you could stand with your backs to each other, please… yes, good. Cordelia, you’re the cup. Anne, the coin. Gail?”
“Yes. And, almost done, we have Layton, Donald, and myself, for the stations here, here, and… here.”
He stepped deliberately into the last open space.
The Behaims arranged around the edge, the Duchamps in a tight circle in the middle.
There was a respectful silence.
Maybe I should set the house on fire.
“Finally,” Laird said, dropping to one knee. He drew his pocketwatch out, then tapped it gently on the circle, like someone might if they were cracking an egg. “I’ll need your help, my friend.”
Light flared, reflected off the open ‘door’ of the watch, and when it passed, a stooped, sun-wizened old man stood before Laird, practically wrapped around the staff that was keeping him standing. Hair slicked back, no beard, his eyes pinched to slits by the wrinkles and folds of his face.
The old man advanced, teetering, using the staff for balance.
When he reached the center of the circle, he tapped his staff’s end against it.
In the doing, the old man folded like a house of cards, collapsing into the space where the staff met the circle. Reflected rays of sunlight flashed out, much as it had with the lid, racing around the length of the circle at different speeds, and he plunged into the space.
I felt a shudder.
Heard a thud.
Another thud, then another. The vibrations continued, in time.
The diagram was moving. An ellipse, pointed at either end, whatever I was supposed to call that, was making its way around the edge. The various people standing on the circle began moving, glacially slowly, but moving.
I saw the movement of another ellipse. Like the hands of a clock.
The thuds were a ticking, as if we were in a great clocktower.
“With one stroke,” Laird said. “We can remove the entire Thorburn family as a threat. I’ll get us started.”
He began chanting.