“MR. NIMRI; MR. NIMRI.” THE Gatekeeper on duty, Shimon, greeted father and son each in turn as he gestured for them to step into the Alfheim’s elevator.
Jules leaned on his cane and moved with Thorsten into the teleportation circle engraved on the floor of the box. He adjusted his tie and smoothed the lapels of his trench coat while Shimon traced onto the panel the secret runes that activated the circle.
The phase shift was seamless as always, and, seconds later, both Nimris stood at the center of the gilded Auctoritas Magicae seal that spanned the white marble of the Enclave’s entry hall.
Jules surveyed the ruin of the council chamber with a grim set of his mouth. There was no coming or going from the Enclave anymore without being confronted by this graphic reminder of the tragedy.
With a heavy sigh, the alchemist gave a nod to acknowledge his father, then started on his way.
“Jules,” said the Magistrate abruptly.
Jules paused and turned back. He and Thorsten had barely exchanged words since the writs had come down from the Office of the Archmagus. This wasn’t exactly an uncommon state of affairs between them, but, under normal circumstances, his father might at least have made one or more provocative political observations to his son during their carpool to work, in effort to lure him into one of their wide-ranging debates.
When silence followed, Jules raised his eyebrows expectantly. His father looked him over briefly, then lifted his chin. “Good luck.”
Jules inclined his head in response. “Thanks, Dad.”
This was a moderate thawing of the ice. At this rate, by tomorrow morning, they might be back to their routine of weighing the merits of equal opportunity initiatives for Rising-House magi (“Nameless,” Thorsten still insisted on calling them, over Jules’s vocal objections), or arguing whether restrictions should be eased on the integration of mundane technology into magical practice.
Thorsten veered off at the cross-halls toward the Daemonology department, while Jules proceeded through the main hall into the atrium. Golden sunlight filtered lazily down from the glass roof high overhead. Today, for the first time, the faintest vestiges of normalcy seemed to be working their way back into the Enclave’s morning activities. The shadowy presence of Ordinators still cast a pall over the compound’s main thoroughfare, but most magi had now been given leave to return to work, and, while the crowd remained uncharacteristically somber, their presence itself was a welcome change from the funereal vacancy that had haunted the Enclave’s halls these past few days.
Jules paused at the newspaper stand by the Fountain of the Sephiroth to purchase a copy of the Delphi Moon Post. DEAD END! blared the front-page headline. Master-General Under Fire as Investigation Continues to Stall. Another from halfway down the page: Death Toll Rises to 52: Two More Bodies Recovered, While More Victims Succumb to Injuries. This story featured a bravely smiling photo of a five-year-old triple-amputee who had become a public face for the scores of wounded. According to the article, she had died of an infection early that morning. Jules wondered if mundane medical technology could have saved her.
He thumbed through the rest of the rag with a shaky sigh. Poring over coverage of the attack always left Jules a wreck, but he couldn’t help himself. He kept hoping against hope for good news of some kind; that Enforcement might have turned up even the vaguest of leads on the perpetrator, or that, by reviewing the details of the tragedy over and over, he himself might improbably manage to pick out some overlooked clue. Master-General Wade had already sworn Jules in as a Martial Magus, in a small, private ritual the day he’d been discharged from Medicinal Magic; but Prefect Weyland had been right—she wouldn’t even consider putting Jules on the attack investigation till he’d recovered well enough to undergo the requisite training.
And he was really starting to lose his marbles sitting on the sidelines.
At least assuming his responsibilities as Grand Philosopher today promised a welcome distraction. In spite of everything, Jules couldn’t help but feel a thrill at the prospect of moving into Evander Lockwood’s old office, of stepping into that great man’s shoes. But what should have been an unambiguous triumph was overshadowed by the knowledge that his good fortune had come at the expense of others—and the fear that, just as his dreams were coming true, Jules’s world was preparing to fall apart. Because good things, if history was any indication, were not meant for Jules Nimri. Because the numinae hated him and always had. Because this time, he really had flown too close to the sun … so they weren’t punishing just him. They were punishing everyone.
At the thought, an invisible band tightened around his chest. He closed his eyes and measured his breaths, feeling the channels on his left arm warm as he opened and focused his inner eye. White light bloomed, kaleidoscopic, before his second sight.
Jules reopened his eyes and forced himself to skim the rest of the journal with as much detachment as he could muster. Its contents were mostly more of the same: terror and senseless suffering—but a headline on page two stood out in contrast to the rest:
Hunter M. Lockwood to Hold Press Conference Tuesday in Scaeva Hall.
The event will take place at one o’ clock P.M. and will be free and open to the public. Sources indicate that Master-Savant Lockwood plans to announce his candidacy for Ordo Arcanus’s Fourth Magistrature. He will be the first challenger sitting magistrate Thorsten J. Nimri will have faced since Magistrate Nimri was first elected to the position in 1986.
Master-Savant Lockwood has been seen recently in the company of Scholar Penn D. Sawyer, divination consultant and noted activist for Rising House rights. Sources close to both Sawyer and Lockwood indicate that Sawyer is to play a prominent role in Lockwood’s campaign.
“Okay, yeah, I’m definitely being punished,” Jules muttered to himself, then took another deep breath and clenched his jaw. “One o’ clock, is it, Master-Savant?” He slapped the newspaper shut and crammed it in his satchel. “I’ll see you there.”
He headed out of the atrium into the West Wing corridor. Warmth-tinged light poured from the east-facing stained-glass windows that loomed like a vanguard of seraphim along his left. Ordinators stood silent and motionless at intervals on both sides of the hallway.
Jules took a left at the next cross-halls, then a right at the one after that, finally ducking into the claustrophobia-triggering semi-dark of the “mole tunnels,” as their denizens had fondly dubbed them—the dense knot of globe-lit hallways that comprised the Enclave’s Alchemy department. The air here always smelled comfortingly (in Jules’s admittedly singular opinion) of semi-toxic gases and smoke.
He nodded in passing, as he picked his way through the winding corridors, to any number of alchemists who had formerly been his peers or superiors, but as of today were now his subordinates. By and large, they inclined their heads in awkward deference at the sight of him—even those with whom he’d been on fairly informal terms, or who had never acknowledged him at all—and mumbled some variation on, “Good morning, Philosopher.” He returned their greetings, and tried a little bit harder than usual to smile, hoping to convey some reassurance. As an apprentice, he had tended to keep to himself, so most of these people didn’t know him well and wouldn’t know what to expect from his leadership. Hunter had served as the de facto department head for the last year and a half, which had worked out favorably for those in his inner circle, but less favorably for everyone else. Jules had to hope more than a few of his associates would at least be glad for the shake-up, whatever their perceptions of him personally.
He arrived outside the Office of the Grand Philosopher and rummaged in his satchel for the key the Archmagus’s staff had provided. Evander Lockwood’s former office had been locked at the time of his disappearance, and had only been entered since by Enforcement in conjunction with their missing persons investigation. Reportedly, only items deemed evidence had been disturbed or removed. The room, therefore, should otherwise be as it had been ten years ago, the day its prior occupant had vanished.
Jules felt a buzz of anticipation as he poised the key in front of the lock. For all the bitter history between himself and Hunter, he had always felt a curious affinity with the absent Lockwood patriarch. He looked forward to taking this step into the former Grand Philosopher’s private world.
After a breathless beat, Jules inserted the key in the lock and turned it. The bolt clicked, and the old door gave a whine as it eased slightly open of its own accord. Jules inhaled deeply and, on the release, pushed his way forward into the room.
The Office of the Grand Philosopher was cramped and windowless, the air within thick with stagnation. Jules muttered, “Ha’iru,” to light the globes at the corners of the room, revealing a space crowded with bookshelves and diagrams. Across from the broad mahogany desk, squarely aligned with the chair, loomed a small shrine to the Adam Kadmon—the conceptual Primordial Man; prima materia personified, genderless and limitless. Jules approached it, admiring the bas-relief icon that hung on the wall above the altar, its four limbs spread in a posture of bold surrender. “You were a spiritualist,” he addressed his absent predecessor softly. He knew Hunter, by contrast, to be a materialist. Jules had long suspected this was why the junior Lockwood failed to innovate.
Jules went on to survey the contents of the shelves, and was pleased to find more than a few tomes on alchemy of the Far East. His own development of combat alchemy owed a lot to the Eastern masters and their teachings on physical self-perfection. There were also the requisite texts by the Western masters, including a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum annotated by Marie Meurdrac, as well as some more esoteric treatises and several contemporary publications by Evander and his recent predecessors. All in all, it was an impressively thorough collection of alchemy-related writings, both common and obscure, and even included some perhaps tangentially relevant texts from other disciplines—a fair number on divination and astrology, one on daemonology, and a few, even, that openly dealt with apostasies, including a theoretical overview of maleficium that posited the brutal discipline shared fundamental mechanics with Eastern alchemy and Western medicinal magic. Jules spent some time leafing through this odd little tract in particular, and finally set it aside with the intent of reviewing it more closely at a later time.
After his initial turn around the space, he proceeded to the desk, shrugging off his satchel and coat and hanging them gingerly with his cane on the coatrack behind it. A small lab bench occupied a nearby corner, close enough to the desk that the former Grand Philosopher could have (and likely did—often, if the grooves worn in the oriental rug were any indication) rolled over to it in his padded leather chair. A survey of the bench revealed an aludel and retort surrounded by a cluttered array of flasks, all of whose contents had long since evaporated, leaving dingy films on the insides of the glass. A scrap of yellowed graph paper resting on the bench’s stained surface bore a cryptic hand-scrawled inscription: The answer lies within!!! The phrase Perfection is possible and the word genesis were doodled in the margins, along with a handful of unfamiliar symbols. “God, I wish I knew what you were working on,” Jules murmured, fingering the scrap. He considered that a thorough analysis of the residue in each flask on the lab bench might yield some clues—but decided any kind of recreational sleuthing should probably wait until later. For his first few weeks, at least, he needed to stay focused on his departmental agenda—or, more specifically, not falling flat on his face. Everyone would be watching.
He glanced toward the other corner behind the desk and broke into a broad grin at the sight of a portable Yamaha keyboard resting on its stand. “Nice,” he chuckled, then limped over to it and poked the power switch. “Yeah … you’re gonna need a new set of batteries, little buddy.” His fingers danced idly over the keys, strumming out a few silent arpeggios. “I seriously had the wrong dad,” he sighed at last, swiping a thin layer of dust off the keyboard with his hand.
He found himself musing whether it wasn’t time he also dusted off that antique pipe organ that sat neglected in an upstairs room of Eliyon, the Nimri estate. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to touch it since its installation four years ago … not since—
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door, in the ubiquitous “shave and a haircut” rhythm. “Yes?” Jules stumped over to the lab bench to wash his hands.
The door, which he’d left ajar, eased open further, revealing the boxy frame of Nadia Winter, a Khmun exchange associate in the Alchemy department. She wore the gold-on-white tunic of her order over khakis and Keds, without any of the face paints, headwear, or jewelry often sported by her fellow faction members. She stood blinking at Jules from behind dark bangs and half-rimmed glasses.
“Scholar,” Jules greeted her. “Is it nine-thirty already?”
“I’m a little early,” she said.
“That’s fine. Have a seat. Forgive the dust. I’m still settling in.”
Nadia plodded over and plunked down in the chair on the far side of the desk from his, and sat gazing at him expectantly, a notepad and pen in her hands.
Jules dug his Arcanus rank sash out of his satchel and draped it in its place around his shoulders, then eased himself slowly into his chair.
“Does your leg hurt?” asked Nadia, seeing him wince.
“Yes,” said Jules. “But it’s a lot better than it was.”
“Will you recover fully?”
“The mediciners think so.”
She nodded her head in acknowledgment. Jules, based on what he knew of her, judged that her queries constituted a show of concern.
Once comfortably settled, he sat forward and folded his hands on the desk in front of him. “I’m promoting you to the rank of Master-Savant,” he announced, without ceremony.
Nadia’s eyes widened slightly. “Thank you, Philosopher.”
“And I’m making you my number two. I haven’t figured out a title for you yet. Feel free to weigh in if you’ve got ideas.”
“Shouldn’t Master-Savant Lockwood be your number two?” she ventured, agog. “He was more or less in charge of the department till now. He’ll expect it.”
“I’m not so sure he will,” said Jules dryly. “Anyway, you’re the smartest person in the department, with the possible exception of myself. You get things done on time. And you have an uncanny head for details. You’re who I want on point.” He paused, then gestured to the pile of dusty papers and other items on his desk. “Once I unearth the seal and letterhead, I’ll draft a department-wide memo announcing your promotion. In the meantime, if Master-Savant Lockwood gives you any trouble, you can tell him to direct his concerns to me.”
Nadia nodded. “Fair enough, boss. Thank you again.”
“No thanks necessary. I made the obvious choice. Now, I have a few things I’d like you to take care of, by Monday if you can.”
Nadia readied her notepad and pen.
“I’d like a full departmental budget review,” said Jules, ticking off the list items on his fingers. “I’d like an updated inventory list. And I’d like an inspection of the labs, with an eye toward needed renovations. Delegate as you see fit, and ask for my help if you need it. Does that sound reasonable to you, given the time frame?”
Nadia bobbed her head once in the affirmative.
“Any questions or comments?”
She gave a facial shrug that made her look vaguely like a frog. “I don’t guess so.”
“I’m calling a departmental meeting for tomorrow, ten A.M. I want everyone there, including apprentices and administrative staff. Can you get the word out?”
“One last thing, quickly, if you wouldn’t mind,” added Jules. “Track down for me all research proposals pending review, as well as files on all projects currently underway.”
“You got it, boss.”
Nadia trotted out of the room and returned some several minutes later, her short arms brimming over with files.
* * * *
Jules spent the better part of the morning tidying up and organizing his new office as best he was physically able, leaving the bulk of his predecessor’s furnishings and effects undisturbed. The last hour or so before lunch he devoted to attacking the hefty stack of project files, reviewing each and assigning it a priority ranking. The work came easily, he found, and it did prove just the distraction he needed after the difficult past few days—though his anxiety lingered underneath it all, especially in those moments when he let his mind wander.
When the zodiac clock on the wall neared the hour of one, Jules stood up from his seat, took a deep breath, and reached for his cane, then made his way across the Enclave for Hunter’s press conference.
He was surprised to find the Scaeva Ritual Hall, a fair-sized ceremonial chamber, packed to brimming with a restive crowd—aside from the press, all Arcanus-affiliated, and a stunning percentage of them younger or lower-ranking. Both of these demographics tended not to participate much in the politics of the order. Jules wondered if this Penn Sawyer person was responsible for bringing these groups out in such high numbers.
“Good afternoon,” began Hunter, as he moved to stand on the lip of the small platform that occupied one side of the rounded space. As he spoke, a hush came over the crowd. “Thank you all for being here. Thank you in particular to my Arcanus brothers and sisters for coming out to show your support in the midst of what I know is a dark and difficult time for us all.”
He was silent a beat. “It’s no secret by now that I am here to announce my candidacy for the Fourth Magistrature. The timing, I realize, may seem odd; but in reality, it could not be more apt. Only a week ago, to be honest with you, I was considering postponing my bid.” He paused grimly. “Now, I feel a changing of the guard is more urgently called for than ever.”
What’s your game? wondered Jules uneasily.
“The people of Ordo Arcanus are under threat,” Hunter went on, raising his voice, “and our leadership is fumbling the ball.” His words resonated against the low dome of the ceiling, while the crowd maintained a reverent silence. “Fifty-two magi are dead; scores more, gravely injured. An assassination attempt was made against our Archmagus.” The Master-Savant paused, as if to let these words sink in. “The fact that some magi from the other orders were harmed in the attack shouldn’t fool you. Enemies of our order have shown time and again they’re more than willing to sacrifice their own to cause us harm.”
The crowd stirred. Jules blinked his eyes. Is he implying … ?
“The Tribunal’s Enforcement arm is conducting the investigation into this attack, with its intermural team of ‘Martial Magi.’” Hunter gave a derisive snort. “The public,” he went on, “is being kept in the dark; most likely because the Office of the Master-General, for reasons of ‘political correctness,’ refuses to acknowledge one plain fact.” He paused. “The modus operandi of the May 14th attack bears striking parallels to past acts of terrorism carried out against Ordo Arcanus by the Hermetic Order of Khmun.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd. “Truth!” someone screamed, to a chorus of cheers.
“What the fuck,” muttered Jules, through gritted teeth. “The last of those ‘past acts of terrorism’ took place more than three hundred years ago, you opportunistic shit.”
“You deserve,” Hunter pronounced fiercely, “leaders who will level with you. Leaders who will go to bat for you. Leaders who will defend you no matter the cost—instead of playing footsie with the likes of High Servant Karamat, while the people of our order lie bleeding and crying out for answers. We must send a clear message that Ordo Arcanus is not to be trifled with; that it is we who control the City of Delphi and its abundant mana reserves—and that the game must therefore be played by our rules.”
The Master-Savant leveled a sober gaze at his audience. “This is not the time for half-measures. We are in danger every day.” He paused, and the crowd seemed to hold its breath. “I will therefore, as your Ordo Arcanus magistrate and delegate to the Auctoritas Magicae, advance a proposal to suspend the activities of the Hermetic Order of Khmun within the City of Delphi, until such time as they have submitted to a rigorous investigation by Ordo Arcanus of their possible involvement in the May 14th attack.”
The chamber exploded in wild cheering. A chant of, “Keep them out! Keep them out!” swept like wildfire over the throng.
“You fucking idiot,” Jules murmured, as a chill of foreboding ran down his spine. “You’re gonna end up starting a war.”
“I will also,” Hunter thundered above the crowd, “demand an end to the Interfaction Exchange Program, a horribly ill-conceived program that not only gives magi of other orders unrestricted access to our Enclave and other Arcanus facilities, but awards them some of our best jobs at the expense of our own skilled and capable Rising House magi.”
The cheers, if it was possible, grew even more deafening.
“That’s right! I see you, Rising Houses!” roared Hunter, sweeping a strong index finger over the crowd. “I may come from privilege myself, but I see you; and, more importantly, I hear you. Your good friend Penn Sawyer”—the mention stirred a fresh groundswell of adulation—“is a friend of mine as well, and I’m here today to make it known that the age of your disempowerment is at an end. Elect me, and, at long last, you will have your champion in the high eldership!”
“Liar,” breathed Jules, as the plaudits rolled over him like a wave. To his considerable misfortune, he knew Hunter Lockwood better than anyone—or had, as recently as two years ago. The man was a dyed-in-the-wool elitist. And tigers didn’t change their stripes.
“I’ll close by thanking you again, brothers and sisters,” Hunter resumed, “for coming out today to show me your support. Your courage and patriotism inspire me. I will now give you over into the capable hands of my close friend and campaign advisor, Penn Sawyer, who will be answering any follow-up questions from the press. Vivat Arcanus!” He thrust his right fist high in a salute.
“Vivat Arcanus!” the crowd roared back, then dissolved in feverish applause as a fashionably disheveled young man with rakish curls and dark stubble joined the Master-Savant onstage. He and Hunter clasped forearms briefly; then, the Lockwood scion turned and made his way down from the platform. The press erupted in cries of, “Master-Savant! Master-Savant!”, but a detail of Ordinators was quick to close ranks around the candidate as he reached the floor, escorting him hurriedly away from the stage.
The newcomer stood patiently while his ecstatic welcome subsided. “I’m Penn Sawyer, Scholar, Divination. Many of you know me.” This spurred a few last enthusiastic hoots from the audience. “I am Master-Savant Lockwood’s campaign manager. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I will now take your questions. Yes, ma’am.”
“Scholar Sawyer,” began a young, blond-haired journalist standing in the front row. “Dantea Montblanc, Delphi Moon Post. What evidence can you cite to justify the Master-Savant’s insinuation that the Hermetic Order of Khmun is responsible for last Thursday’s attack?”
“First of all, Ms. Montblanc, the Master-Savant has not insinuated anything,” replied Scholar Sawyer smoothly. “He has only stated facts: The particulars of Thursday night’s attack bear striking similarities to those of any number of well-documented aggressions carried out by the HOK against its political enemies—primarily Ordo Arcanus—in the past. In light of this, a suspension of the HOK’s activities in Arcanus territory until and unless they exonerate themselves of any and all complicity in the May 14th attack is hardly an unreasonable proposition.” He pointed to another reporter. “Yes, sir. You there in the back.”
Jules cast a glance over his shoulder toward Hunter and his escort, just in time to see them filing out through the exit. I have to talk to him; try to make him see reason, he realized, his stomach twisting anxiously at the thought. It’s probably pointless, but … I have to try.
He turned and started picking his way through the crowd.
* * * *
Jules found Hunter some few minutes later, in an alcove just down the way from Scaeva Hall, where the Master-Savant stood flanked by his detail of Ordinators, conversing quietly with his mother and his rumored girlfriend, Mercy Treloar.
He hesitated several yards off, when they still hadn’t seen him yet. When it still wasn’t too late to turn back.
Then, with his heart knocking nervously against his ribs,
“Hunter!” Jules called out.
All three of them faced him at once. Nigella’s visage gathered in a mask of cold, alabaster loathing. Mercy Treloar planted one hand on her hip, her pert nose wrinkling in a mean-girl sneer.
Hunter—perhaps most disturbingly of all—smiled. “Juliana. Isn’t this a surprise.”
Jules drew an even breath, repressing his urge to correct Hunter’s use of the wrong name. At a time like this, he judged, it was necessary to pick his battles. “Can I … speak to you in private?” he ventured, ignoring the baleful stares from the Master-Savant’s companions.
Mercy plucked Hunter’s sleeve, subtly shaking her head. He brushed her off without sparing her a look as he started toward Jules, gesturing for the Ordinators to remain behind. “Of course, lovely,” he replied, with an even-toothed grin. “Anytime you like.”
“Hunter!” Nigella called sharply after her son, and glared daggers when he didn’t reply.
“Why don’t we take a turn through the greenhouse?” said Hunter to Jules, slowing to a halt in front of the younger magus and pocketing his hands in his suit. “For old times’ sake.”
I’d rather not, Jules started to say, but then thought better of it. “Fine.”
He won’t try anything, he reassured himself, as they started off together down the hall. He’s seen what I can do.
* * * *
“Mercy was spitting nails back there,” Hunter chuckled in a conspiratorial tone, as he held the greenhouse door open for Jules.
Jules made himself as narrow as possible to avoid brushing against the older alchemist as he stumped past him through the doorway. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been alone with the Lockwood scion, so he hadn’t really known what to expect. It certainly hadn’t been this pretense of fond familiarity, especially on the day Jules had taken Hunter’s father’s former post—which the Master-Savant had coveted himself—and promoted a Scholar-level exchange associate ahead of him.
He’s feeling sure of himself, in spite of all that, Jules mused. That can’t be good.
He stiffened as the Master-Savant’s hand alighted gently on his arm. “Let me help you, Juliana.”
“I’m fine with the cane,” grunted Jules, struggling to keep an edge out of his voice. “Really.”
Hunter shrugged, then strolled on ahead of him down the sunlight-dappled path, hands in pockets. He reached the roundabout at the hothouse’s center and perched gently on the lily pond’s edge. “Remember this spot?” he grinned, peaking his brows.
Jules repressed a compulsion to gag.
“Very impressive, by the way,” Hunter went on, “what you did that night in the council chamber. I’ve been meaning to tell you so.”
“Really?” mumbled Jules, stunned to hear an acknowledgment of his abilities from the Master-Savant. “I mean … it was nothing.”
Hunter laughed. “What an absurd response. Never could just accept a compliment, could you, Julie?”
Jules shifted and gritted his teeth.
“Come sit down, for God’s sake,” urged Hunter, patting the stone lip of the lily fountain by his side. “Your poor leg must be paining you terribly.”
“It’s actually fine,” lied Jules.
Hunter shook his head. “Always the martyr, too. Nearly sacrificing yourself like you did that night. I swear it’s a sickness.”
Stop pretending you know me, thought Jules, grinding his jaws. “I came through all right,” was all he said out loud.
“I can see that.” Hunter grazed him head to toe with his eyes. “I’m glad.”
… Enough smalltalk.
“What you said just now, at the conference,” Jules began. “About banning Khmun from Delphi.”
“What about it?” asked Hunter.
Jules took a deep breath. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
Hunter gave a faint shrug. “I’m not.”
Jules blinked. He hadn’t been expecting such a ready confession. “But … you said … ”
“It’s just politics, Julie,” the older magus chuckled. “You know me. I play to win.”
Jules stared at him for a long beat. Then, “Are you trying to start a war?” he said bluntly.
“God, no,” said Hunter. “I’m deeply loyal to the Alliance. You know I would never do anything to threaten it.”
“You have those people whipped up into a frenzy,” said Jules, pointing back in the direction of Scaeva Hall. “You really think you can keep that from boiling over?”
“You always were such a worrywart,” observed Hunter. “It’s adorable.”
“Karamat is going to lose her shit when she hears about what you said.”
Hunter scoffed. “That bitch is all bark, no bite. Don’t get bent out of shape, Juliana; the situation’s well in hand.” He smirked. “The only thing you ought to be concerned about is how to keep House Nimri relevant after I defeat your father in the election.”
Jules ignored the bait. “So you admit that you just lied to all those people, and exploited the recent tragedy, all for your own political gain?”
“I forgot how much you get me going with your ‘righteous crusader’ bit,” crooned Hunter, patently unfazed. “Since it seems the burden is on me to dispel your persistent notion that I’m some kind of cartoon villain—no; I’m not merely acting in my own self-interest. That No-Name rabble is on the verge of causing serious trouble for us First House folk. Confidentially, I’m not sure the more extreme among them didn’t have a hand in the attack. If we throw them a bone and give them an external focus for their anger, then we shift their ire away from us and maintain peace within the order—without relinquishing the power that’s ours by birthright.” He lifted an eyebrow. “My mother sees the efficacy of this; your father never would, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Therefore, it’s my solemn duty to take over his magistrature, so that I’ll be in a better position to help stave off unrest within the order.”
Jules stared at him dumbly. That was a masterpiece of justification. I really underestimated you. “Then you admit you’re just using that Sawyer guy, too?”
Hunter gave a shrug. “As I said, Juliana: I play to win.” He favored the younger alchemist with ferine grin. “Aren’t you glad I have the order’s best interests at heart?”
Jules shook his head helplessly. “This is psychotic.”
“My one regret in all this is, of course, the unavoidable injury to your family.” Hunter donned a solicitous frown. “But … perhaps I can make that up to you.”
Jules felt a stone of dread settle to the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean by that?” he asked, reasonably sure he didn’t want to know.
Hunter sobered and pushed himself up off the edge of the fountain, advancing toward Jules. The younger magus backed away, his cane wobbling beneath the awkward shift in his weight.
The Master-Savant came to a halt in front of him, his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his trousers. “Reconsider,” he beckoned softly.
Jules fixed him with a flat stare. “Are you gay?”
Hunter let out a barking laugh—one with a harsh note behind it. “Good God, woman. Get psychiatric help.”
“I’m not the one who’s deranged,” said Jules, turning and starting away.
Hunter grabbed his shoulder. Jules dropped his cane and spun, thrusting his sleeves up his left arm with such force the buttons popped off.
The Lockwood heir surveyed Jules’s blazing tattoos with a grimace. “Why do you insist on treating me like I’m some kind of monster?”
“Because I know you.”
Hunter snarled. “You’re a vicious little dyke.”
“I told you never to touch me again,” Jules reminded him, his voice even, despite his heart’s reckless hammering in his chest.
Hunter stared at him hard in the eyes, then leaned down next to his ear, as close as he could come without contact. “I’ll remember this, cunt,” he hissed, flecks of his spittle pelting Jules’s cheek.
He swept past the younger alchemist and out of the greenhouse.
Jules stood perfectly still for a time, until he was reasonably sure the Master-Savant wasn’t coming back.
Then, he hopped over to the fountain and slumped against it, gasping for air, burying his face in his hands.
“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you,” he whispered, clawing his fingers through his hair.
He wrapped his arms tightly around himself and rocked for several seconds, closing his eyes, focusing on the sound of the water.
“Fuck you right in the eye,” he exhaled at last, and bored his knotted fist into the stone of the fountain as he opened his eyes with a shudder. “I hate that you still make me feel this way.”
He pushed himself up and hopped back to the spot where he’d dropped his cane, effecting a series of wobbly contortions in effort to get hold of the fallen aide without putting weight on or bending his injured leg.
Once he’d finally, narrowly succeeded, he commenced the long trek back across the Enclave toward his office.
Please don’t let me run into him again. Just … not now.
To his relief, Hunter was nowhere to be seen along his tortuous route through the mole tunnels.
Jules finally reached his office, eager to lock himself in with his work—and his post-rock/screamo playlist—for the rest of the afternoon.
But, as it turned out, someone was waiting for him inside.
“Jules, thank God! I mean, Grand Philosopher; sorry. I’ve been here almost an hour,” breathed Abby Navarrete, as she stood up from the chair in front of his desk. “You’re, uh … kind of a big deal over in Enforcement now, right?”
“I don’t know if I’d say—”
“Because my big brother,” she cut him off, her brown eyes open wide. “He could really use some help.”