He roused, scrunching up his face. That simple movement made him hurt in five different ways. His lip had been bitten, he’d hit his head, his nose had taken a beating and was probably bleeding, his forehead was maybe cut, and he’d smacked his chin.
His wrist throbbed, but it needed no excuse to do that. He’d made too much use of his hand, and the bone wasn’t fully healed. He gingerly flexed his fingers, and felt his arm throb within the cast.
“You’re awake,” she said. She laid her pen down across the spine of her book.
It dawned on him what he’d done. Weeks, months of frustration, fear, pain, and worry, it had all boiled forth, and he’d done just about the worst thing he could possibly do.
The collar of her dress was ripped, her hands and knees scuffed. Leaves and dry grass stuck to the fabric. Straight blonde hair had been combed into a semblance of order with her fingernails. A book sat on her lap. Nothing dangerous – the clasp suggested it was a diary.
She sat next to him, staring out at the lake. She looked oddly at peace. That fact, if he let himself believe it, bordered on the terrifying.
“This was a mistake,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. She smiled a little, looking down at the water that lapped against the dirt and the reaching roots that were no longer anchored in earth. “I’m making a lot of mistakes these days.”
He rubbed his face, which brought back all of the pain he’d noted earlier and even found new sorts. The implications dawned on him. “Oh, gods help me, this was a mistake.”
“We might have to wait a few more months to see how grave a mistake we made here,” she said.
He froze. His blood ran cold.
“I-” he struggled to recall. He’d been an animal, and she’d been an animal in return. What exactly had he done?”
“You pulled free before you finished,” she said. “I was toying with you, Aimon.”
He exhaled a shuddering breath. “Oh, this was such a mistake.”
“You sound like a skipping record,” she said. “Where’s the acerbic wit from before? Insulting my family? My blood?”
“Are you trying to pick a fight?”
“Finally, he breaks pattern! A cause for celebration!” she said. “Should I have Arsepint fetch a bottle to mark the occasion?”
He looked, twisting around, feeling sore in several places, before he saw the blasted goblin.
In that same thought, he realized how close they were to the footpath that ran along the edge of the lake, overlooking the small rocky beaches and the water. “Keep your voice down.”
“Arsepint? Go distract any passerbys until I order you to do otherwise. Scare or lead them away without showing yourself. Have fun.”
The goblin glared, then disappeared.
“Stop talking so loud,” he said, “Whisper instead. If we get caught-”
“Do not order me,” she said, and she managed to sound like she was twice her age, practically royalty. Then, in the next breath, she averted her eyes, stumbling over her words a bit, “That’s, I don’t think it’s how our relationship works.”
“Not romantic, I don’t think, but there’s a connection here,” Rose noted, touching the snaking trail of golden dust that stretched between them. “Two people with a connection between them, enemy, ally, it’s a relationship.”
“I’m not in the mood for this insanity. My head hurts.”
“I can imagine. You were clearly in the mood for something else,” she said. “My something-else hurts.”
“Don’t be disgusting.”
She stared out over the water, silent.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m ordering you around, when you asked me not to.”
“A Behaim, apologizing to the diabolist in training?” she asked, archly.
“I’ve… I feel like I’ve had people telling me what to do for years now,” he said. “The one time I break form, I…”
“Do this?” she asked. “Or are you less concerned about this and more concerned that it involved me?”
“If I’m being honest, yes, it has more to do with you. Though I’m not proud of this, either. Other lads might be, but…”
“But you’re a gentleman, is that it? A gentleman that just so happens to kiss the most hated girl in Jacob’s Bell, unprovoked, and then goes on to ravish her,” she said, putting a breathy kind of emphasis on ‘ravish’.
“You’re needling me again.”
“Yes,” she said. “You don’t know how good you have it, to have people telling you what to do. But you have direction, you have the backing of your family-”
“I have the pressures of my family, the disappointment when I fail to live up to those pressures.”
“You’re whining again,” she said. “You want to know why I needle you? Because I like the Aimon that’s angry more than I like the Aimon who acts like a weakling.”
He seized her wrist, quick enough to startle her, hard enough to be painful.
She didn’t even flinch. She stared him in the eye, the faintest smile on her face.
“Witch,” he said, letting her wrist go.
She rubbed it, then clasped her diary with both hands, holding the closed, leather-bound book against her knees. She still had the pen in hand, and poked at her knee, thinking.
“If my company is so unpleasant,” she said, “you could leave.”
“How do I explain this?” he asked, indicating his face.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I can work it out, but I need time to think,” he said.
“What’s the trouble?” she asked. “Are you trying to find a way to explain that you assaulted a young lady? Or to admit that you were assaulted by a young lady?”
He shot her an ugly look.
“You can gloss over the, how shall I put it, the aftermath? You’re free to tell them it was me. Nobody will fault you for coming after me.”
“I’m more concerned that they’ll fault you,” he said. “Say what you will about me, I don’t want my family organizing a lynch mob or going to war against you and your family.”
“That’s almost gentlemanly, Aimon Behaim. And I’m flattered that you’d think I’d put up any kind of fight.”
“I saw your goblin.”
“One goblin, yes. Are the Behaims so weak that one or two goblins would give them any difficulty?”
“Except it’s not just you, is it? There’s your father?”
“Who doesn’t practice,” she cut in.
“And weren’t you just taunting me over the fact that your mother was home?”
Rose Thorburn reacted as if she’d forgotten that detail.
“My family will think you contrived this. Your mother…”
“Is a hard person to understand,” Rose finished the thought. “A scary person, scarier because you can’t anticipate what she might do.”
“This wasn’t a scheme, was it?” he asked. “A trick, to influence my emotions, to capitalize on my failings as a man?”
“You didn’t fail, Aimon Behaim” she said. “Your malehood isn’t in question here. Not that I particularly enjoyed it, I’m almost relieved that it wasn’t so grand as-”
“Don’t,” he said, pressing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. “Please, don’t be lewd.”
“-But the release? I needed that. So did you, I think.”
“Don’t talk about it. It’s not ladylike.”
She made a small amused noise in response.
“I’m trying to decide if it’s better or easier to loathe you or respect you, and you’re making that decision difficult every time you open your mouth.”
She sighed audibly. “There was no trick. No imp of the sixth choir to hound you and tempt you to me, nor any imp to give me the courage.”
“I’m oddly disappointed. To think I did that of my own volition… I’d hoped the Imp-”
“Don’t. The imp would be worse.”
“I don’t want to know,” he said. “This… this mess of a thing, it gets worse the longer I think on it and try to come up with an explanation that doesn’t complicate matters.”
“The alternative,” she said, “Is that you don’t give any answer at all. Keep mum, refuse to open your mouth on the subject. I can do the same.”
“A pact of secrecy?”
“It’ll have to be.”
“I think you underestimate the pressure that three sisters, two aunts and a mother can exert,” Aimon said.
She stood, dusting herself off. He looked away as she fixed up her skirt and undergarments.
She spoke to the back of his head. “You keep complaining about having people make demands of you, the people leaning on you, the family, and what that family might do to you.”
“So?” he asked.
“I experience all the judgement and expectations too,” she said. “My father, he’s a harsh disciplinarian, but he’s fair. He’ll hit me when I get back.”
He turned to look at her. She stood there, in a short sleeved dress with kerchief collar, diary and pen each held tight in both hands.
“Kind of strange to think of that,” he said. “The Thorburn diabolist and her husband lecturing their daughter, the stern gaze, the belt…”
“Oh, no need to feel strange,” Rose said. “My mother doesn’t lecture me. All she’ll ever do is give me a look. She’ll leave me to wonder what she thinks. To guess at something when she’s never let me know what she really thought, not once in my life. ”
She shifted the diary to one hand to put the pen inside the hollow of the spine. Her hand trembled a bit.
“Am I? I am. That’s not like me. I suppose I’m afraid of what her response will finally be.”
“Her response? I thought you weren’t going to tell her about this.”
“I wasn’t and I don’t plan to. I said it before, I’ve made a lot of mistakes lately. I made an oath earlier tonight, said things in anger and haste, and it may well affect the family.”
“She’ll be upset?”
“I’m,” Rose stopped short. When she exhaled it came out as a huff of a laugh. She blinked a little, as if to hide the tears. “I’m frankly terrified. My carelessness ruined three or four lives, and she didn’t bat an eye. But this? I don’t think upset is the word.”
“I don’t envy you,” he said.
“Who would ever envy me?” Rose asked.
“Would you stop arguing every other question or statement I make? You make being kind a challenge.”
Rose seemed caught off guard by that. She fidgeted, avoiding eye contact. “I didn’t ask you to be kind.”
“I’m giving what I can, all the same. It feels feeble, giving only a listening ear when you might face the unrestrained anger of a diabolist, but I’m giving- what?”
She was laughing, scoffing, even.
“What?” he asked, again.
“That isn’t what worries me. My mother’s unrestrained anger.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m worried she won’t care.”
It was four days before he crossed paths with Rose Thorburn again.
The main street of Jacob’s Bell took no more than five minutes to cross. Many of the shops were closed; the ice cream parlor was among them. A hand-drawn sign in the window urged would-be ice cream buyers to support the troops instead.
Aimon worked in a squat building that had been crammed between the now-empty ice cream parlor and a small bank. Young women passed by with regularity, to and from the factories and small shops on the main street.
He quietly considered it a sort of hell.
His wrist was mangled, set firmly in place with a plaster cast. Most people still in town were women and the elderly, and a few odds and ends like Rose Thorburn’s father, who were looking after local businesses and factories. Every curious look he got felt like an admonition, a criticism. It didn’t help that he still had marks on his face and hand from the altercation with Rose.
He’d been bad at numbers as a child, but grueling lessons from the family had remedied that. A chronomancer couldn’t be bad at numbers, of all things.
Still, he’d never loved numbers, and now he lived them. He was forced to write with his left hand, to scrawl down and total the amounts, to note times and dates when he handed letters and parcels over, or when he accepted them.
He wanted to spend power to make the days pass faster, but the family kept a close eye on that sort of thing.
He almost didn’t notice when Rose Thorburn appeared at the entrance to the small, narrow office.
She stepped outside, looked both ways, then returned.
“You aren’t using the Sight?”
“I don’t trust the Sight, not completely,” she said. She handed over an envelope.
“Montreal… the Academy?”
“Yes. I agreed to send a letter when I returned home. I had to go back for court, the Lord of Montreal had words with me… a mess, all-in-all.”
“I admit, I was sweating a fair bit, worrying that you’d let your mother know what we’d done. Jumping at bumps in the night.”
“I said I’d keep silent,” she said, sounding offended. “Few things annoy me more than being called a liar.”
“Already, you’re on the defensive.”
“Was it as bad as you’d feared?”
“Nearly,” she said. She turned around, leaning against the counter with her back to him.
She glanced over her shoulder, eyebrows raised.
Her expression softened a bit. “Thank you.”
“My sisters still hound me, asking how I got these cuts and scrapes. My aunt keeps suggesting that the light beating was punishment for coming home, when others are still waiting for brothers and sons. I think she’s trying to bait an answer from me. My mother has been suspiciously quiet on the subject.”
“It sounds lively.”
He made a face.
“I’ve been thinking, ever since that night,” Rose said. “One sprawling idea, unfolding.”
“A diabolist, deep in thought. That’s cause for concern.”
“What’s going on elsewhere in the world, it feels like a premonition. Old systems are fixed in place, and they’re starting to wear out. Too many layers, too many patch jobs, too much stress placed on the wrong things.”
“How unexpectedly philosophical of you.”
“Our families are the same way,” she said. “Bound to old systems, degrading, winding down like an unwound clock.”
“I wouldn’t argue with you there.”
“They’re like great, old works of machinery that are coming to pieces. You said your family’s expectations weigh on you?”
“Are we not so close as we were that night?” she asked. She turned to lean over the counter. “Divulging our weaknesses?”
“It gnaws at me,” he admitted, his voice low. “Even my own expectations for myself. Especially my own expectations for myself.”
“What if I suggested a small kind of revolution? A way to respond to those expectations?”
“You’re trapped in a box. I can imagine you the clockwork soldier with a ruined arm. Your father would have you marching in step, doing what? The Behaim family hasn’t made any grandiose moves in some time. The entire family pays in, as far as I can tell, but nobody claims the prize.”
“You want it?”
“No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m telling you that, in my eyes, you live a disappointed existence. A responsible one, but responsibility doesn’t nourish the soul, does it?”
“For some, it might.”
Rose seemed to consider that for a moment.
“Maybe you’re right. But for us? I don’t think it does.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting that we could gamble. Strive to change the system, to put something in place and capitalize on it.”
“I’m not entirely sure, but whatever we end up doing has to be better than this, doesn’t it?”
“You’re a diabolist. I’m not so sure you’re right. You could fill libraries with stories of how things could be worse.”
“Weigh the potential gains against the potential losses,” she said.
“What do we stand to gain?”
“You’re the broken clockwork soldier, going through the motions. Deviate from the path, and every living soul around you will work to get you back on track, so you’re following that set path of yours. Eventually, should you follow that path, you might be the leader of the Behaim family. If you were lucky, you might get ten or twenty years to lead the family as you wish. Am I wrong? Or has someone suggested a different path?”
“I’ve thought about the fact that I’m next in line, but it won’t be until my father dies… too far away to think about.”
“Think about it now. Think about the moment you’re sixty or so years old and you take that chair, a leadership position in the council… you’re finally free, in a sense, but you’ve forgotten how to act. What do you do?”
“You tell me. What do I do?”
“You default to what you know. You do what your father did and his grandfather did before him. You inject a small personal touch, a bit of your personality and preferences. Things change, but they change by inches over the course of generations. The cycle perpetuates itself. Those pressures you feel now? You take that path, clockwork soldier, and you may never escape them, not until you’re dead.”
“I’m starting to realize why we habitually avoid the Thorburns.”
“Tell me I’m wrong. That this doesn’t strike a chord and sound very much like the little voice of doubt in the back of your head.”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong.”
“I am saying that I’d be a lot more eager to continue this conversation if you weren’t sounding an awful lot like a certain snake in a certain garden.”
“I’m offering you freedom. I’m offering you power. A chance to break that pattern. I won’t say it’s free of consequence, but the costs aren’t as high as you’d think.”
“How? And what do you get out of this?”
“The how is something I can explain soon. Me? I’m your inverse. I have no boundaries. I have rules I must obey, same as any practitioner, but I’m like a sheep without a pen, without a dog to bark at me and send me back to safety. I’m wandering without guidance, and periodically I run into trouble. I can weather my father’s anger. I can deal with my mother. But I can’t be alone any longer.”
“You want friendship? Or more like the other night?”
“I want both, or either. I want to make you an offer, where I shoulder the majority of the cost and the risk.”
He stared at the girl. She wore a jacket over her dress, with a satchel to hold her diary and quite possibly supplies. Blonde, very nearly pretty but not quite there, an intense expression on her face.
He had to remind himself of what she was.
“You’re a diabolist. Bargaining with you is one step removed from bargaining with them.”
“Yes,” she said. “But I think it’s worth it.”
“What is? Where does this go?”
“Changing the status quo. Breaking up the system.”
“How?” he asked, before he could regret voicing the question and giving any merit to this mad idea of hers.
“Meet me tonight,” she said.
She didn’t say where. He didn’t need to ask.
It was cooler than the other night, and Rose Thorburn wore a sweater over her dress, a row of buttons left undone. Her hair blew in the wind. The water crashed against dirt and roots. A short distance away, there was beach, and the crashes were even more dramatic.
“I want to possess you,” Rose Thorburn said.
It was a sentence with two interpretations, but the emphasis on possess made the meaning clear.
“A light possession. It wouldn’t be anything too dangerous, not a demon. But I can use the material from my books… some of the best bindings you could hope to find.”
“Because it gives you the freedom you crave. It would be another spirit in your body, allowing you to shrug off the burdens your family would put on you. You could be stronger, faster to react. You could heal faster,” she said. She eyed his hand.
He grabbed the cast with his good hand. “You sound utterly insane.”
“I’m not. I’m very sane. Look, if you’re possessed, there’s nothing stopping you from working alongside me. A light possession, something that won’t make decisions for you, but if you get caught, then you blame the possession. You return to ordinary life.”
“I know the risk I’m taking. I was just in Montreal. I went to a school that had an Inquisitor on the staff. The risk I’m taking is bigger than anything you’d have to face.”
“Rose,” he said. He had to stop to take a breath, composing himself, picking his words and tone carefully. “I’m not even sure I like you. Respect? Maybe. Maybe I even understand you, on a basic level. But we’re too different.”
He could see how still she’d gotten. She held the tome against her chest, hugging it hard.
“You’re dangerous,” he said. “You’re… I’m not sure why you’d even reach out to me. Why me? Do you like me?”
“No. Yes, but not… not in the important way,” Rose said. “I’m desperate.”
“Not… not like that.”
“Why? Can’t you do what I’m going to do, and just grit your teeth through the bad parts of life?”
“Where to begin?” she asked. “God! I feel like I owe my family something. I feel like I need direction, a goal, but it’s impossible to go for it alone. I’m so scared that if I do something, try to make a change, then people are going to get hurt. I can’t lean on family, and a diabolist doesn’t get the luxury of friends, not unless they’re the kind of monster who can take it in stride when the bad stuff trickles down and starts to fall on those friends.”
“I’m not the solution you want or need,” he protested.
“I need a voice in my ear. Every great man has a great woman at his back, but the inverse is true. Isn’t it?”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Sometimes all you need is someone to tell you you’re doing the right thing, or the wrong thing. To bounce ideas off of. That’s the way it is in the books. The Watson, the Sam, the Friday, the Horatio.””You can’t base real life off of books.”
“I don’t have anything else to work with,” she said.
“I’m sorry, but no. I can’t.”
“There’s no rush,” he said.
She didn’t nod in response to that.
“Talk to me,” she said. “Change the subject, please. I’m embarrassed.”
She couldn’t know it, but the only other time she’d looked as human as she did right then was when they’d been trading insults, getting riled up, a prelude to the event of four nights ago.
“When I talked about expectations, there were things I didn’t say. When I was on the ground, in the trenches, I had certain responsibilities. Because the Germans have practitioners, you know what I mean?”
“I want to say that there was a great fantastical secret mission, that we knew the Germans were getting involved in the occult, but it wasn’t like that. He’s an ordinary man, and he has no idea, outside of a few books he has no idea how to use. There are people under him that know, but they’re keeping their mouths shut. They’re protecting him, but they’re keeping their mouths shut.”
“They could be afraid of what we could do in response.”
“Maybe. But that blade cuts both ways. If one side realizes their losing and decides to tap into resources like your family has, what happens? The only solution is for the war to keep going.”
“It could wind down. Forces unrelated to practitioners started it, those same forces could end it.”
“It’s so much worse than you think, Rose. The things that happen over there, the state of things in the trenches, and having to guard my unit at all hours? I changed, I got fit, I changed the way I think, how I sleep and eat, so I can be on guard, always watching for tricks. For rats that are a little too smart, or phantoms that would whisper panic into men’s ears while they sleep? For ghouls that… well, they pretend to be soldiers that die like anyone might, but when you let your guard down and search the body, they bite you and get a hungry kind of death into the wound?”
He raised his hand, showing off the cast.
“If it weren’t for that, the idea that I have to go back, to keep fighting on that second, secret battlefield? I might think about your offer. But I can’t. Not really. I can’t commit to anything, and I can’t be your ally in whatever it is you’re trying to do.”
“Okay,” she said.
She wiped at her face, but he couldn’t see enough to tell if she’d been wiping at a tear or moving her hair out of the way.
“We can stay in touch,” he said, “At least until I go back to active duty. If I go back to active duty.”
“Don’t pity me,” she said, with a note of anger. “Don’t condescend.”
“I’d like to think I wouldn’t.”
“Like or don’t like all you want, you would condescend, Aimon,” she said.
A bit more anger than before.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Change things,” she said. “It would be easier if I had help. A voice to say yes, or to say no. But I’ll move forward. Maybe I’ll lend a hand to the war effort.”
“A hand? You?”
“I only have so much time before my hands are tied. You’re dreading this eternal war, but I’m worrying about the clock running out, and a chronomancer could be so useful in that department.”
“Diabolists bear a heavy burden. My family passes that burden down from parent to child. When my mother dies, I’ll adopt the burden. A shadow will fall over me and it will linger there thereafter. My mistakes will cost me more, bad luck will find me, my enemies will prosper more easily. I have to do more with my life before that can happen.”
“Could that be why your mother is keeping her distance?” Aimon asked. “Giving you that freedom? Or protecting you from the shadow that lingers over her?”
Rose looked at him, momentarily bewildered.
“Maybe you’re not so alone as you imagine,” he said. “I won’t give myself over to possession to cheat the rules, but if you need a dissenting voice… I can ignore the pestering of my sisters and aunt for a little while longer.”
Thirty-five years later…
The rain poured down, torrential. The bad weather made Aimon’s hand and wrist hurt.
The ghoul’s bite had never healed completely. Flesh had necrotized, turning black, and even now, bone was visible in places. He could cut at the rot with a knife, and it would be a red hot agony, or he could let it linger, and he would feel his strength slipping. It didn’t get worse, it didn’t get better, but the dilemma remained.
Aimon was aware of his father’s eyes on him. There had been suspicion, but he had covered his tracks. To admit that they knew would mean his family would have to admit that they’d spent valuable power to spy on him using their craft.
His father watched as he stepped forward, and he felt the resistance of the small hand that gripped his own. He relented.
Laird fought to catch up, black rain boots splashing in the flooded grass.
Rose was already there. Regal, water ran off her wide-brimmed cap. Avoided by virtually every other council member in attendance. She couldn’t have looked less motherly, holding the swaddled child.
More for the child’s benefit than for Rose, Aimon offered the shelter of his umbrella.
Aimon could feel the weight of his father’s disapproval, but he could ignore it.
He looked down at the babe, and almost as clear as day, he could recall the scene.
Rose, standing before a pile of pig carcasses, her child held overhead. It had been pouring then too.
Bonfires had burned, and Aimon had worried that one would go out in the face of the torrential rain. That one of the seven jars filled with a mixture of wax and hair might tilt over and roll away.
He’d been there, a bystander.
He’d been there when the demon appeared. Fat, decaying in some mockery of what had happened to Aimon’s hand, with a horse’s skull fixed over his head, it had carried a sickle.
Rose had never seemed more alive, facing the worst kind of end, the potential loss of her firstborn.
That moment had left a wound as bad as the ghoul’s bite. Her expression, the intensity. They’d loved each other, but never at the same time. They’d been allies, confidantes, they’d slipped away to have secret meetings, to talk about what the council was doing, and how they might do it differently.
“The day is finally here,” Rose murmured.
“You’re free,” she said.
Aimon looked down at the tombstone.
His father stood near it, a mere echo, watching in disapproval. Was the horror in his father’s eyes real, a ghost’s realization of things that had occurred that it was now powerless to change? Or was it an imagining, a reflection?
“I should be free, yes,” Aimon said.
“Are you?” Rose asked.
Aimon didn’t answer.
“Free?” Laird piped up, his voice high.
“He’s in charge of the family now,” Rose said.
“Oh,” Laird replied.
“I spent a long time wondering what your father would do when he was in charge.”
It was hard to look at Rose.
Aimon could imagine the scene. See the binding circles coming to life. He’d had to look away, because looking directly at the demon had been too dangerous.
The demon had cut into the pile of pigs, compulsive, furious.
The sickle cut away the names.
The name had fallen from Aimon’s recollection, piece by piece.
Rose, meanwhile, had done what she could to close the circles.
Whatever else she said, he could imagine all of the different ways that things could have played out. If he’d accepted the possession, if he’d been closer, if they’d happened to love each other at the same time, one of them brave enough to make a move…
Would he have ended up right next to her, sharing in her sheer excitement?
Charles squawked in Rose’s arms.
Aimon looked. He could see his wife looking on, clearly uncomfortable at his proximity to the diabolist.
“It’s been some time since we talked about it,” he said. When we married, we couldn’t meet so easily. “Your goals, your dream.”
“It’s been some time since I gave it serious consideration.”
“You’ve abandoned it then?” he asked.
“No. Most definitely not. Have you?”
He couldn’t answer.
“I’ll ask you outright,” she said. “Will you do to Laird what your father did to you? Impose the same rules and restrictions?”
“Time has a way of changing one’s mind.”
“You can alter time, can’t you? Change your mind.”
He smiled sadly.
“Is that a yes, then?” she asked. “Tradition continues its ceaseless march through the generations?”
He flexed the fingers of his bad hand.
Pain every day, to remind him of the war.
On the other hand… the demon. The monstrosity. Rose, her eyes wide.
She’d done it for a good reason. She’d done it well.
She had embraced diabolism as a way to protect others.
“No,” he said. “No, I think we can take a different road.”
He saw the dawning realization, the smile on her face.
“But,” he said, “I need certain concessions.”
“This can’t come back on my family. I swore oaths. To preserve the stores of power my family has amassed over generations. I won’t make Laird swear those same oaths. If he needs to bring about change, he’ll have the power to do so.”
Rose turned appraising eyes on Laird, still bearing his baby fat. She didn’t answer right away.
“Go to your mom,” Aimon said.
Laird let go, then ran, getting away from tombstone and boring adults, arms flailing at his sides in his childish run.
“Will he be up to it?” Rose asked.
“If you want to bring about change, it has to start with the next generation. If we succumb to fear…”
“…We’ll be just as bad as the ones who came before us,” she finished.
“Yes. Another thing. You’ll have to teach Laird.”
“Diabolism. Enough to protect himself and the rest of the Behaim family. We can’t move forward if I have to watch my back. Laird either.”
She considered, then seemed to come to a decision. “Yes. I think we can arrange that.”
“Good,” he said.
“It won’t be pretty,” she said.
“No. But did you ever think it would be?”
“When I was young and naive.”
Aimon nodded. “What do you need?”
“Time,” she said. She smiled a bit. “Charles, any children that come after him… I can’t teach them. My grandchildren… I need time, to see them grow up.”
“Costly. To stave off death? That’s something else altogether.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’ll see what I can do. I hate to suggest it, but I’m not sure I can offer much more. I can’t promise protection against Laird the same way you’re promising protection against the diabolism.”
She nodded. “That’s fine.”
He felt a bit of a chill. “I can’t imagine it is. I can do what I can to raise Laird and my other children well, but-”
“Don’t lie. You’ll spoil him rotten. I know you well enough, and you’ll be too generous rather than risk walkng in your father’s footsteps. If conflict is due, then conflict will happen.”
“You’d leave your heirs defenseless?”
“No. No, not at all. Do you remember the Barber’s summoning?”
“I have nightmares about it. Scars. I don’t think I could forget if I tried.”
“Do you remember the boons he can grant?”
“Medical skill, in exchange for leaving a big enough hole for something else to occupy. Extend one’s life…”
He gave Rose a look.
She shook her head. “Considered and decided against it. I trust you more than I trust the texts.”
“Hmm, there were two more. Sharp blades, I can’t imagine a good use for that. To carve out a reflection? I wasn’t so clear on that one.”
“I am. As protection for my heir goes, it’ll serve.”