After the life he’s endured, all Jaime wants is to be ordinary. If only the mysterious Lord Lear believed him.
Read CHAPTER ONE here
THE UNTOUCHABLE SKY
The Magisters’ club was a soot-blackened Georgian house on the corner of Half-Moon Passage, a wigging slip of brick lane that lead back to Alie Street and which smelled of the effluent from the public house at the other end. Standing before it, Jaime assured himself of Lear’s invitation in his pocket, unsure what scrutiny he was about to undergo.
He glanced up and down the narrow lane to be sure he was alone, then swiped his handkerchief over his short hair to dry his sweating scalp, bit away a straggling thread from the frayed cuff of his jacket. Nothing to be done about its sagging shoulders or generally poor fit or the fact that between his wretched clothes and cropped hair and sallow skin and sour odour he resembled nothing so much as a convalescent the first day out of the sickroom.
The tall black door of the club bore no handle, only a tarnished brass knocker in the form of a scaled creature with a fish’s body and a gargoyle’s face. The cast was so realistic Jaime half feared it would squirm when he grasped it, the sound heavy, as if it rang from the cellar.
The door opened of its own accord. Then it cleared its throat. Or rather, the diminutive man who had opened it did so. Barely over four feet tall, with a narrow face and eyes of a striking silvery blue that showed hardly any pupil, he was crisply dressed in a newly styled tailcoat, his expression precisely what Jaime expected of the door manager of a gentlemen’s club: perfectly blank, save for the slightest tilt of his eyebrows to suggest Jaime had better get on with explaining himself.
“Mr Skye. Welcome,” the slight man said without a hint of question or derision before Jaime could gather his wits. He stepped aside for Jaime to enter. “My name is Kristoff, and you may consider me at your service. I might begin by taking your overcoat.”
As Jaime slipped off his mackintosh an ordinarily sized young man stepped out of an open doorway to take it from him. He opened a heavily carved door behind Jaime which turned out to lead to a capacious cloak room. The gunpowder scent of Lear was everywhere, and Jaime pinched the tip of his nose to keep from sneezing as he followed Kristoff up the grand staircase dominating the left of the entry hall.
Everything was heavy and luxurious, the staircase a grandiose enterprise of carven oak, the mossy carpet swallowing their footsteps. The panelled walls were intricately painted with scenes of exotic locales–cities with minarets, verdant green valleys, windswept mountain peaks–the glossy colours so vivid one might swear the pictures lived. Otherwise the club was similar to the few stately homes he’d been in, with high ceilings and cool air and an atmosphere of imperturbable privilege that made his stomach knot about itself.
Two people were in conversation on the landing at the top of the broad stairs: a fair, pink-cheeked man with very pale hair and a similar style of dressing to Lear, with silver buckles on his pointed shoes and a cerulean frock coat heavily embroidered with a pattern of vines and bold mauve flowers. His ebony-skinned companion was no less flamboyant though in quite another manner, wearing a floor-skimming robe of a striking geometric print in red and yellow, his bare toes protruding from leather sandals. They were speaking in animated French, the white man seeming to plead some case, the African maintaining steadfast refusal.
“Non, et non, et non, Hercule. Pas possible,” he said with a chopping motion of his hand.
“We’ll see,” the white man said with a rueful twist of his broad mouth. He glanced at Jaime then looked again. “Kristoff, have we a new member?” he asked with a dazzling smile.
“A guest, your lordship,” Kristoff replied, his voice too deep for his slight build.
“A guest of whom?”
“Of another member, your lordship. Do excuse us.”
One lunatic semi lord was enough for Jaime’s fragile senses, and he kept his eyes lowered as they passed the men, his nose itching like he’d shoved peppercorns up it, the scent like burnt sugar. This of course meant looking at the floor which on this level was tiled in squares of black and white marble. Which then began to tilt precipitously so that the broad hall became a valley… a valley that Kristoff walked smoothly across, because it was an illusion caused by the clever laying of differently sized tiles. A trick of the eye so persuasive that Jaime hesitated before following, his feet not wholly convinced there would be a floor to meet them.
Rather than being painted, the walls here were hung with portraits of well-dressed men and occasionally women of centuries passed, posing among allegorical goods as was the fashion in other times: a skull for mortality, an apple for love, a cage of birds for either freedom or confinement, he couldn’t recall which. The paintings included stranger objects as well, mechanical devices and glass phials of coloured liquids. The gunpowder scent had become part of the general miasma of sense impressions crowding Jaime’s mind, and he gasped at the first breath of lilac, which grew stronger as they approached a closed door.
Kristoff held up a hand, the palm facing the door. There was a click and the door swung inward. He entered and stood aside, bowing slightly to the occupant. “Your lordship, Mr Skye to see you.
“Thank you, Kristoff. I’ll call for the meal shortly.”
He’d forgotten the sound of Lear’s voice, the bell-like resonance, the country accent with the Oxford inflection, as if East Anglia had maintained own court and king. Dressed in dark green, his overlong hair bound into a queue, Lear rose from the table, shook Jaime’s hand briefly, invited him to take the other chair. The room was less grandiose than the house, the walls papered prettily with vines and flowers, the flames in the tiled hearth tinged with emerald. With his white cravat and elaborately embroidered waistcoat, his buckskin breeches worn to whiteness, Lear resembled a Defoe hero, and looked wholly native to his strangely lovely environs, leaving Jaime to feel like a dirty handbill pasted on the side of a cathedral: shabby and worn, inconsequential as a flea.
“Thank you for coming, Mr Skye,” Lear said as he resumed his seat.
“Oh. Yes. Thank you for the invitation.”
“Please do allow me to once again apologise for my confrontational approach the other day. It’s rare that I meet an Ordinary who turns out not to be.”
“I am, though. I am very ordinary. Believe me.” Please, believe me.
Lear shifted in his chair, a subtle smile tugging at his lips. “Mr Skye, you are not Ordinary.”
“Whether I am or not, I’m not at all interesting.”
Lear frowned, though the smile lingered. “May I make an extrapolation, Mr Skye?”
“If it pleases you.”
“From our first meeting and what I’ve discovered since, I believe your upbringing has entailed a number of extremely unpleasant experiences. All of which may have been visited upon you without your knowledge of their likely outcomes, or indeed of the causes which so motivated your guardians to treat you as they did.”
Jaime was well used to parsing medical verbiage about his own ailments. “What do you know about my…upbringing?”
“You are, for better or worse, a matter of public record, Mr Skye.”
“I know that. I’ve had enough doctors remand me for institutional care.” And a magistrate demand it on pain of a far worse form of confinement.
“They were wrong to do so.” Lear was frowning, the leaping flames reflecting in his dark eyes, and Jaime felt for the first time the power in the man.
“I was a danger to myself and others,” he explained, as he did to everyone eventually. “It was the best decision for everyone.”
“It was a lie,” Lear said sharply.
“How can you know that? With all due respect, your lordship.”
“Never mind titles. I’m happy for you to address me as Adrian. And I know because I know what you are, Mr Skye.” Grinning, he sat back, his eyes running over Jaime, a gaze too familiar. Doubly cursed, every part of him at odds with normal life, the other man’s presence confirming him as the source of all Jaime’s recent anguish, all those dreams of swirling curls and honeyed words from which he woke damp and gasping.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Perhaps because you’ve never had it explained to you.”
“I know well enough my own nature, your lordship. My personal conduct is no one’s business but mine. And may I say how inappropriate I feel it is for you to be interrogating my past without my knowledge. Tell me what you want of me, or I shan’t tolerate your intrusions any longer.”
He waited for the tirade, for the operation of privilege, for dismissal, but Lear was still smiling as he replied. “Mr Skye, at Kensington you caused water to spout from the pond.”
“I did no such thing.”
“You drew a storm from a clear sky and threw it at me.”
Jaime shook his head, less in denial than sheer disbelief. “I don’t know what you mean. I didn’t do a thing.”
“You are a water-worker Mr Skye. It obeys your will, whether you intend it or not. Look, I can do it too.” Lear set his hand on the table, palm up. In the middle of his palm lay a drop of water. The drop swelled, growing to fill his cupped hand until water began spilling onto the tablecloth. It might have been running blood for the churning horror in Jaime’s guts.
“Please stop. Whatever tricks you’re playing with my mind, whatever illusion, stop it at once.”
“This is no illusion, Mr Skye.” Lear had taken a glass and let it fill with the water running from his empty hand. He now placed it before Jaime, who sprang up from the table as if he’d been offered poison, making the water slosh in the glass.
“For the love of God, stop this torture!” Ashamed, enraged, he hid his face. He was sweating obscenely, his hands dripping with it, his head swimming from the hot fire, which had begun sputtering weirdly, as if the wood was wet. Lear was a demon, a villain, rooting out Jaime’s deepest frailties then hurling them in his face. He hadn’t gone a step towards the door when Lear caught hold of his arm.
“Let me go!”
“I want only to help you.”
“Then you can…”
Jaime meant to say stop. But why would he ever want this to stop, this flood of golden light pouring over him? Or was it welling up from within, spilling from his every cell, until he was nothing but the light…
It softly ebbed, quieter and quieter still, until it became a single glowing mote, a star above the ocean. “What happened?” he asked as the room resolved around him.
“I might explain in future,” Lear said quietly. “But it won’t mean anything to you yet.”
“Why is it stopping?”
“Because it must. Please, sit down.”
He did not particularly want to, but Lear knew best, for at his first step his legs nearly buckled under him. He sunk gratefully into the plush armchair by the hearth where the emerald-edged flames once more crackled merrily. The carven arms of the chair resembled a lion’s paws, and he curled his fingers comfortably over the burnished wood. Lear was busy at the table so Jaime sat and watched the fire and petted the wooden paws and managed to think of nothing else for a number of very pleasant minutes. When had he last been so continually content? Even that dire consideration wasn’t enough to spoil his sense of safety.
Lear had taken off his fitted jacket, the loose sleeves of his linen shirt furthering the illusion that he might turn pirate given adequate provocation. He offered Jaime a full glass of clear liquid with ice floating in it. “Gin and water. Entirely ordinary.”
“Have you just water? I don’t take alcohol.”
He poured a tall glass which Jaime downed in one pull. With a curious expression Lear poured him another, which suffered a similar swift fate. “I didn’t expect you needed to drink at all,” Lear said as Jaime wiped his mouth.
“It helps, after. When I’ve had a bad turn. I don’t know what you did, but thank you.”
“I very much owed you, Mr Skye.”
“I must once more apologise, Jaime. I have presumed much.”
“I would have thought you knew you had a madman on your hands.”
“You’re not mad, Jaime.”
Words he’d heard before. “Yes, one mustn’t call it that anymore. I’m suffering from a mental aberration. Or a neurotic episode. Or exhaustion. Or—”
“There is nothing whatsoever wrong with your mind, Jaime.”
“There must be.”
“No. You’ve been deceived. By those who knew no better.”
“I wasn’t safe on my own.”
“That’s no reason for you to have been incarcerated.
“I wasn’t in prison. I was in hospital.” Even though the doors were always locked and he was at times strapped to his bed. There’d been no other way to keep him alive.
“I don’t know who it is you’re trying to protect,” Lear said with an edge of irritation.
“Me. I’m protecting myself.” He owed no further explanation. Not to a man who had taken the liberty of uncovering his history and was now obliging him to dissect it. The bright star of hope was dimming, lost in the same old fog of despair.
Lear reclined in his soft chair, untouched by such agonies, gazing at Jaime with the open face of privilege. “Did you know your grandmother?” he asked without preface. “Your father’s mother, that is.”
“Why does that matter?”
“You’re the son of a Skye. In my world, that means a great deal. Particularly if you’ve been denied knowledge of your heritage. Why did your parents teach you nothing?”
All his inquiries and this was unknown to him? “They never had a chance. They died, my lord. I was raised in fosterage.”
Lear’s puzzled look turned to alarm. “Died?” he repeated, a catch in his fluid voice.
“I’ve been told it’s not uncommon.”
“I’m shocked you don’t know, given your interest in my past.”
“Not all information was so easily obtained,” he murmured.
“Then allow me to enlighten your lordship. Horatio and Sinead Skye were arrested for sedition. They were extradited, to be tried in England. The ship sank with all hands.”
“You can’t mean they drowned.”
“Is there another term for it?”
“Horatio Skye could not have drowned,” he said with precision. “Why weren’t you sent to Mammy Skye? Your grandmother? By Jove, who let this happen?”
“I was a child. What could I have done?”
“I don’t mean you. Indeed, not a bit of this is your fault.”
“So they’ve told me. That it’s a disease.”
“No!” Lear said with vehemence. “You are not sick. You are not mad. You are…you are simply not Ordinary, Mr Skye.”
“Madmen usually aren’t.”
Lear spat a strange word, the flames seeming to flare in reply. He glanced sharply at the fire but it carried on with its cheery flicker. Perhaps Lear was the madman. Or they were both mad, in which case this meeting was beyond futile, was Jaime flirting with disaster, inviting a relapse, another disappearance.
“I’m sorry but I cannot stay. I wish you’d not contact me again, Lord Lear. I don’t know what purpose you intend for me but I want no part of it. I just want to be left alone.” Politeness and privilege could go and whistle, and he lurched from his chair and started for the door.
“No!” Lear shouted as if in fear and sprang up after him. “Please, Jaime, don’t leave.”
Presumptuous as ever, he grabbed for Jaime, who snarled as he wrenched his arm from Lear’s grasp. “I told you, don’t touch me!”
The room was suddenly cast into darkness, the fire doused as if by a bucket, acrid smoke billowing from the matted ash. Somewhere a glass shattered, then Lear said another foreign word. A glow appeared, emanating from a bright point on Lear’s chest, spreading as the smoke around it cleared.
He was gathering the clouds with his hands, herding them like reeking sheep towards the hearth where they subsided into the coals, leaving behind clear air and the scent of burnt lilac. The light from his brooch dimmed as Lear bent over the hearth. Jaime stayed where he was, his back against the door, his hands numb, his heart as well. This was how it always went, the start of his every decline, with his reckless temper and another’s fear, and the very best thing for him to do was leave and never come back. Never see Lear again. Quit the patent office, move north or south or anywhere, change his name like he’d always intended and forget he’d ever been Jaime Skye.
“Is…is she alive?” he found himself asking.
“Your grandmother?” Lear said, getting to his feet. “Yes.”
“That thing,” he stammered, for he had begun trembling, from fear and from the chill of wet cloth against his skin. “Please…what you did before…”
“It won’t be as effective, but I will try.” Lear wiped his fingers clean of ashes on a cloth from the table, then came to Jaime and gently placed his right hand on the top of Jaime’s head. Again came the golden light, but so very slowly, a treacly drip rather than a deluge, so sweet that when it reached his heart he began to cry. Softly, a trail of tears, as salt as the sea.
“Adrian…who am I?”
Lear lifted his hand and the golden light receded, seeming to gather back into the gleaming brooch on his left lapel, which stayed alit, a star in the darkness. “You are James Skye,” he said, as though to speak the name was an honour. “Inheritor of the Northwest, Defender of Angels.”
Jaime wanted to laugh, deny he had any significance to the world, even as the words raised the hairs on the back of his neck. “Go on, then. What else have you got?”
Adrian smiled, the creases round his eyes putting to Jaime the question of how old the man truly was. “As you like. You possess a highly prized and exceedingly rare facility for manipulating an element of the manifested world. I would like to be able to tell you how exactly this facility functions, where it was first recorded and so on, but to be blunt and much to my embarrassment we simply don’t know. So many water-workers have lost their lives and had their work destroyed by pogroms and witch burnings and such that the lineage has been scattered. The talent is however latent in certain families, such as yours.”
“I was told it’s madness that runs in the Skyes.”
“No, Jaime,” he said with a sad shake of his head. “It’s the cruelty of the Ordinary who misunderstand your gift that has caused you to believe yourself unwell.”
At this he had to laugh “Gift? It’s a damned curse. It’s ruined my life.”
“If you’d grown up among those who understood—”
“Well, I didn’t. And this is the result.” He plucked at his sodden shirt front, his drenched hair, gestured to the doused fire, the fallen pitcher of water. “Heaven help me, I can’t even manage to…” What was the good in concealing anything? Lear would have it out of him eventually, face to face or through his ferreting. “I tried to take my life. Did you not read about that in the doctors’ notes?” he asked as Adrian startled. “The fool I am, I tried to drown myself. I tried and I couldn’t. I was under for an hour. Spat up water afterwards for days.”
Lit only by the up-pointing glow from his strange brooch, Adrian’s face was a carven mask of agony. “It means little, but I’m so very sorry you’ve had to live this way. But that can change.”
“You can’t change what’s passed.”
“Yes. But I can help you have a better future.”
“You’re not ill,” he said gently, his smile hitching at Jaime’s next words.
“But could you stop it? Whatever it is I do, can you make it not ever happen again? I don’t want to live like this.”
“Jaime, I know this is a shock to you, but your family are—”
“My family are dead.”
“Not your grandmother. Not you.”
“There’ll be no more Skyes after me if I have the say of it.”
At this Lear stepped back sharply, his expression severe. “Even were I to agree, it is an impossible risk. You should expect to die.”
“I should be so lucky.” His throat was raw, and without Lear blocking his way he stumbled to the table, but it was the pitcher of water which had broken during his outburst, drenching the table. Because of his outburst, because of him, because of the monster inside him: unnamed, untamed, a danger to himself and the world.
“Jaime, please,” Lear said gently, coming near but not touching him as he stood at the unlit table searching among the glasses for any still holding a drop. “I can teach you to master your talent. Make use of it rather than letting it overwhelm you. Show you that, despite what the Ordinary world believes, there’s nothing at all wrong with you.”
“Doctors aplenty have said there was.”
“After all they’ve done…do you still trust them?”
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