Rachel White © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Hynd was in the study, bent over a book when Alycia arrived. He ought to have known something was suspicious from her sudden appearance in his doorway, but he had been squinting at faded pages all day, and his eye wasn’t working quite right. So, he was caught off-guard when she said, voice sly, “I’ve found you a lover.”
“Oh,” said Hynd, and then, “no.”
“Well, perhaps not yet.” Alycia entered the study and dropped into the opposite chair. “A potential lover. He’s Viola’s cousin. Julius Ocere. Have you met him?” She reached across the desk and plucked up his pen, fiddling with it as she spoke.
“No,” said Hynd again, turning a page. He had to be careful when doing so, for the book was so old, the material so worn, that the slightest tug could send things flying disastrously out of their bindings. The book—one of Captain Walsh’s journals, written during the end of the Lily Wars—was on loan from the Royal University library; to wreck the library’s treasure would be to wreck his access to the Old Archives, and at that point, Hynd could bid farewell to ever completing his manuscript.
“I do love it when you stop listening to me,” Alycia said. Had she been speaking?
When he glanced at her, she rolled her eyes theatrically. “Thank you, brother. As I was saying, Mr. Ocere wants to meet you. He’s very interested in you.”
That seemed unlikely, all things considered, but when Hynd raised a dubious eyebrow at her, she continued more fiercely than before. “I mean it! Listen, I didn’t sell you to him—”
“I should hope not.”
That got him a scowl. “He asked about you,” Alycia continued. “I was talking with Viola, and I happened to mention the book you’re writing, on the Seventh Dragoons, and immediately, he was right there. Apparently, he’s as interested in the Dragoons as you are.”
Which…wasn’t where Hynd had thought things would go. “Really?”
“Truly. When I told him about you, he became more and more interested. Viola says that he recently parted ways with his lover, and even though it was amicable—at least, according to Viola, though God knows whether she’s right about that—Mr. Ocere is lonely. He wanted me to pass a message on to you.”
Something flipped a little in Hynd’s stomach. He tried to quash it—don’t get your hopes up—but it was like a queer little flame burning inside him. It wasn’t exactly as though Hynd were drowning in suitors; of course, a man personally asking to call upon him would have an impact. He knew that, and he knew it was foolish, and he still couldn’t help the warmth that rose in his cheeks.
Alycia noticed and smirked. “He wants to meet you,” she said, in a singsong way.
“Tomorrow night, eight o’clock. At the Vine and Blade. Do you know where that is?”
Hynd did, and told her as much, which made her look pleased as a cat in cream. “Good. So, you’ll meet him?”
“Last time you tried to arrange a meeting with a gentleman for me, he didn’t even appear.”
“I’m sure Julius Ocere will appear.”
“The time before that,” Hynd reminded her, “the man you found was actually planning on wooing you.”
Alycia colored and turned her face away. “Felix Roddan was just a silly boy. I can’t believe I even gave him the time of day. No, this isn’t like that. He’s interested in you, Hynd. He asked all about your work, and he wanted to know about your hobbies and what you like. He was enthralled that you’re a Royal Scholar, you know. He didn’t think twice about me.”
The funny feeling had returned, stronger than before. Hynd swallowed. “Did you tell him about me?”
“Of course, I did. I answered every question he had.” She tilted her head, looking concerned. “Did that breach your privacy?”
“No, that’s not… I mean, did you tell him about me?”
Alycia blinked at him, but he couldn’t tell if her confusion was sincere or feigned. “Yes,” she finally said, and her tone, at least, was decisive. “I told him all about you.”
“And he wants to meet me?”
“He sent you a message, didn’t he? You ought to send him a response as soon as possible. He seems like a busy fellow.”
No doubt, Julius Ocere was a busy fellow. Busier than Hynd, at any rate. It was easy to have lots of free time when one never left the house except on mandatory errands. It was easy to avoid packed schedules when one had no friends.
“You’re making that face,” said Alycia. “Don’t. Just send him a message and go tomorrow evening. He’s very nice, and he’s dashing, and he’s utterly handsome—tall and golden—and he practically begged me to mention him to you. What more could you want?”
She winked at him and rose, vanishing back into the hallway. Alone, he returned to his work but found himself unable to concentrate. His mind kept picking over the conversation. Tall and golden. What more could Hynd want?
He sent a message to Julius Ocere that afternoon, accepting the invitation. The messenger cringed when Hynd handed him the paper, and Hynd didn’t miss the way the man wiped his hand on the leg of his trousers after pocketing the note, but it was a mild slight in the grand scheme of things. At least he had accepted the job.
A response arrived that same evening, courtesy of one J. Ocere.
Thank you for your fast response. I’m looking forward to our evening together. I’ll be at the Vine and Blade at eight promptly, wearing a blue waistcoat and a gray tie. My hair is golden—though my cousin claims that it’s pale brown when she’s feeling petty—and my eyes are blue. My usual table is the back left-hand corner; if you mention my name to any of the servants, they’ll direct you to it.
Kindest regards, Julius Ocere
So, it was set. Hynd read the message once, and then again, savoring each word. The words of a man who did—despite all odds—seem interested in meeting him. A man who was excited for his meeting with Hynd. It had been a long time since he had anything even close to that—the last time he touched another was three years ago, and his partner that time had been like him, warped and scarred. Julius Ocere wasn’t scarred—if he was, Alycia would have mentioned it—and he wanted to have supper with Hynd anyway.
The next day passed in a haze of nervous anticipation. Hynd had planned to devote himself to research, but every time he so much as sat down at his desk to begin his work, his mind was distracted by thoughts of the evening. Time passed too swiftly and too sedately at once. Before he quite knew it, it was quarter to seven and he was preparing to depart.
Alycia was visiting a friend, so Hynd had no one to assess his outfit except himself. Dressed in his best suit and his forest-green tie, he inspected his reflection in the mirror, ignoring his rolling stomach. The tie, a gift from Alycia the previous Solstice Night, ostensibly brought out the color of his right eye, but it was the left eye that Hynd got stuck on. The blind one, its swollen socket mostly hiding milky emptiness.
Knotting the tie was its own struggle, considering the state of his right hand. After ten years, he was relatively accustomed to manipulating what little of his hand the Blight had seen fit to leave him, but neckties were one of the things he left to Alycia.
By the time he finished dressing, it was half past the hour. In the minutes that remained before the cab arrived, he did one last, thorough check of his appearance, self-consciously wondering whether Julius Ocere was doing the same. Hynd’s hair was combed and greased, his waistcoat was buttoned straight, and the scent he had chosen was fragrant without being overwhelming. Satisfied, he shrugged into his greatcoat and set out. It had been drizzling all day, but nightfall had apparently banished the worst of the storm; the evening outside was overcast, but at least the rain had stopped.
Although the cab driver started when Hynd passed under a streetlight while boarding, he let Hynd on, and in fact started talking about his uncle in a loud, jovial voice, and how his uncle had survived the Blight with only the loss of his nose. Hynd found little comfort in the story, but at least the man had probably meant well.
He reached his destination at ten to eight, descending and paying before the cabbie could say anything more about his uncle. As the cab sped away into the wet night, he faced the door and took a fortifying breath. Light spilled out from the Vine and Blade’s front windows, and even from the street, Hynd could hear music and talk. Laughter.
He stepped inside.
It took a few moments for anyone to notice him, distracted as they were in their own conversations. From a distance, Hynd knew he didn’t appear especially hideous; the disfiguration was severe, but muted, the discoloration beginning to fade. But the damage was still obvious, and everyone knew what it meant, so they did react when he was four steps into the club: silence fell, and all attention went to him.
Hynd swallowed, carefully patting the pocket that contained his billfold and the certification of health. It was illegal for them to actively throw him out, now that his Blight was in remission, and he could prove it, but it wasn’t technically illegal for them to make him miserable enough to leave on his own. It had happened before.
There were three servants standing nearby, wearing identical expressions of alarm. Hopefully, they would let him sit without first fetching the proprietor and causing a scene.
One of them, the youngest, edged toward Hynd. He seemed poised to ask Hynd to leave, and Hynd steeled his spine, not willing to let himself be cowed.
“May—May I help you, sir?” the servant asked.
“I’m supposed to meet a man here.” Relief rushed through his chest, familiar and bittersweet. He paid it no mind. “Julius Ocere. He told me to ask you to direct me to his usual table….”
Recognition crossed their faces. Hynd braced himself for arguments—he would give them a stern word, should they try to refuse—but the youngest servant said, with a skittish look around, “This way, sir.”
He led Hynd to a small table. There were three gentlemen at the next table over, who rose as one and moved away when Hynd took his seat. Ignore them, Hynd chastised himself, struggling to banish the blood from his cheeks.
After the servant departed, Hynd inspected his surroundings. The Vine and Blade was a membership club with a good reputation; he had walked by it before but never ventured inside. The interior was as pleasant as the exterior: clean and respectable without being stuffy, a little scholarly. He would have liked it more if anyone had been willing to meet his gaze, but they hadn’t thrown him out, so he couldn’t complain too much.
Each minute on the clock was its own eternity. His hands trembled. To distract himself, Hynd recited the names of the thirty members of the Seventh Dragoons in his head and tried to recall their marching hymn.
The clock struck eight, and the sound of the bell was answered by the beating of Hynd’s heart.
Before the last chime had finished echoing through the club, the front door opened again, and Hynd knew at once that the man who entered was Julius Ocere. Not only because he had arrived at the appropriate time, and not only because he was clearly a regular—because Alycia had been right.
Tall and golden, indeed. Even from a distance, Julius Ocere was strikingly handsome, his features sharp and regal, his body athletic, leonine. He was dressed in a fine, dark jacket and a blue waistcoat, just as the note had said. Hynd watched him step fully into the room, his eyes alighting on the table where Hynd sat. He smiled, and approached—
Four paces from the table, he stopped, and the look came over his face.
Coldness bloomed in Hynd’s stomach, but he wasn’t actually afraid. Not even ashamed, though his rational mind knew he ought to have been. No, the only thing he felt was the crushing weight of inevitability, for he knew that look. It was the same look he received when he walked the streets during the daytime, and the same look his mother and father had given him upon his return from the asylum. Part horror, part disgust, part pity.
“No one told you, did they?” Hynd asked, and mutely, Julius Ocere shook his head.
God damn Alycia, and damn her friend, as well, and damn the men around them, still staring at Hynd surreptitiously, and damn Hynd most of all, for being stupid enough—for being naive enough—to actually hope. “My sister didn’t say anything about the Rymald’s Blight?”
“No,” said Julius Ocere, licking his lips. “She…didn’t.”
Another long pause. Julius Ocere’s eyes were locked on Hynd’s face. No—not his face, or at least not all of it; they were locked on the left side of Hynd’s face, where the Blight’s damage was worse, locked on the twisted, ruined skin and the sunken flesh.
Hynd turned his own eye to the tabletop, praying he could just sink into the ground. He had hoped—
“You can go.” Keeping his voice level took enormous effort; it surprised him, vaguely, that he actually managed. “I won’t be offended. They weren’t fair to you.”
“I’m—I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”
“I know. I apologize.”
“It’s not—it’s only, you see—”
“It’s fine,” Hynd repeated. “You were tricked into this under false pretenses.”
“I’m sorry,” Julius Ocere managed, and then, “Good evening.”
He turned and hurried out the door. Hynd rose to his feet—stiffly, like an old man—and gathered his things, the silence of the club roaring around him. Immediately, the youngest servant was at his side, guiding Hynd’s arms into the sleeves of his overcoat and handing Hynd his satchel. Kindness, in a way, even if Hynd knew it was only because the lad wanted him gone from the premises as fast as possible.
Outside, the empty street glistened with rain. For a moment, Hynd considered hailing a cab, but he couldn’t bear the expression that would inevitably cross the cab driver’s face when Hynd boarded. His house wasn’t too far away, and the cloud-heavy darkness would cover his features. He turned and began the cold walk home.
Alycia cried when Hynd told her what had happened, and apologized, and cursed Ocere’s name and promised it would never happen again, and Hynd didn’t care. He wasn’t even angry with Ocere, for Ocere’s reaction had been perfectly reasonable: It was how anyone would respond when confronted without warning by Rymald’s Blight. No, Hynd was angry with Alycia, who had known what she was doing and had still sent Hynd into a nightmare, smiling gaily, wishing him the best.
“What were you thinking?”
Alycia shook her head, her nose buried in a handkerchief. “God, Hynd, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“How could you not know this was going to happen? Why didn’t you tell him? I asked you! I asked you if you had told him!”
“I know. I know, and I’m sorry, I swear I didn’t think he would do such a thing—”
“What else would he do?” Hynd snarled.
“I don’t know.” Alycia dabbed her eyes again. “He just seemed like enough of a gentleman, and he was so interested in the Dragoons—I just thought he would… would…”
“Would overlook it?”
“Yes!” Alycia cried. “I hoped he would be able to overlook it! Clearly, I was wrong.”
“Yes,” said Hynd in an ugly voice, “you were wrong.”
Alycia nodded. Her face was bone white, except for her lips and the rims of her eyes and twin splotches of red high on her cheekbones. Her hair had come undone from its careful upsweep, and haphazard strands hung in her face. She looked feverish. He had probably looked much the same at fourteen, back when everything was beginning.
The realization drew the wind from his sails. A year later, at fifteen, he had returned from a country asylum for the Blighted to find himself a stranger in his home. Only Alycia had welcomed him with open arms, unafraid, and only Alycia had stayed by him since. She meant well, arranging things with Julius Ocere, and admittedly, if she had told him upfront, he would never even have given Hynd the time of day. Her intentions had been good.
He raked his hand through his hair and drew in a breath through his nose. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he told her, “but please, don’t do this again. I can’t bear it. That sort of public scorn… I can’t, Alycia. I simply can’t.”
She sniffled. “I know. It was a stupid idea, and I’m sorry for it. I only hoped… I hoped he would see past it and meet you. You would get along, Hynd. You’re quite alike.”
Not alike enough, Hynd thought, recalling the symmetrical perfection of Julius Ocere’s features.
The rest of the evening limped along, muted and tearful. No amount of reading about the Dragoons could banish the memories of Ocere’s expression and of the men rising from their table to escape Hynd like he were some kind of poison.
At eleven o’clock, he abandoned his work and changed for the night. A day before, he had imagined sharing the bed with someone—with Julius Ocere; Hynd wouldn’t pretend otherwise—but now his bedding was cold and the room was still and dark, only his own breathing there to lull him into restless, uncomfortable sleep.
The next morning, at just after nine, there was a knock on the door. Alycia was out, and Hynd wasn’t expecting visitors, but he had just put in a request for a new book from the archives.
He pulled the door open for the deliveryman. Julius Ocere was standing on the doorstep, shifting anxiously from foot to foot, his umbrella open against the steady downpour.
The sight before him couldn’t possibly be real. Hynd was in the middle of some deranged and horrifying dream. “Can I…help you?” he asked after a moment of struggling with his tongue.
“I’m so sorry,” said Julius Ocere immediately. The words rushed out of his mouth like he had been holding them in for hours. “I feel terrible about last night. I’m afraid I hurt you tremendously, and I sincerely apologize for that.”
“Yes.” Ocere cleared his throat. “I came here to apologize for what happened. What I did.”
Something peculiar twisted inside Hynd. “Why?”
“I have no interest in you romantically or physically,” Ocere said, and then he flushed, twin spots of red high on his sharp cheekbones. “God, I apologize for that too. That didn’t come out the way I had intended.”
Had he noticed Hynd’s flinch, or did he just know the words had stung?
“What I mean is,” Ocere continued, “I realize that my intentions might be…a bit unclear, what with me showing up like this unannounced. And after last night, you’re certainly well within your rights to send me away without another word. But, well, I wanted to talk to you. You see… I truly want to make your acquaintance.”
“Why?” Hynd asked again.
Ocere ran a hand through his hair and sighed deeply. “You’re writing a book on the disappearance of the Seventh Dragoons, yes?”
“I’m interested in their disappearance as well. My great-grandfather was part of that unit.”
Hynd wracked his brain, but nothing was forthcoming. “Was he? There wasn’t an Ocere listed in any of the records.”
“He wouldn’t be. Ocere was my great-grandmother’s maiden name; the family took it back after—after what happened. My great-grandfather was named Pellam Athaby.”
That name was more familiar. “Pellam Athaby,” Hynd repeated. “Your great-grandfather was the traitor.”
“Traitor,” Ocere repeated. The cold air paled his skin, and the grayness of the world around them emphasized the blueness of Ocere’s eyes. His matching eyes. “That’s why I’m here. May I come in? It’s a bit of a long story.”
He was still standing on the doorstep, the rain pattering rhythmically against his umbrella. “Of course.”
Hynd stepped back, pulling the door open while Ocere collapsed his umbrella and shook the rain off. But he didn’t step inside immediately. Instead, he lingered just outside, a peculiar expression on his face. Clearly, he wanted to say something—no, Hynd amended, to ask something—and was trying to find the nerve to speak.
“I’m not contagious,” Hynd told him. “If that’s what you’re concerned about.”
Ocere flushed again. “I didn’t—”
“It doesn’t matter. Come in.”
Ocere did, crossing the threshold as though braced for some kind of assault. When none was forthcoming, he reached out a hand—gloved—for Hynd to shake.
Hynd bolted the front door and eyed the proffered hand, then his own. “I’m afraid I’m strictly left-handed at this point.”
“Ah,” said Ocere, hastily making the switch. “Right. My mistake.”
Moved by sudden pity, Hynd took his hand and shook it briefly—just long enough to be polite. When they had finished, he indicated the parlor down the hall. “This way.”
In the parlor, Hynd took the armchair while Ocere took one side of the loveseat. “As I was saying,” Ocere continued, “my grandfather is Pellam Athaby. He was one of the Seventh Dragoons, the only one to return. But of course…”
Hynd knew the story well enough: Pellam Athaby had betrayed his unit to Casye, Mercena’s opponent during the Lily Wars, and all twenty-nine of his comrades had vanished. Their bodies lost. Their fates unknown. Popular opinion had them massacred by Casyen soldiers, though Casye swore up and down that it had nothing to do with the disappearance. The only one to survive was Athaby, and he hanged himself before anyone could get any information out of it, so the mystery was lost to the ages.
“You’re studying them, aren’t you?” Ocere asked. “The Dragoons?”
“Your sister mentioned as much. When she…”
The silence was excruciating. Hynd flushed like a scolded child.
“I know,” Ocere eventually said, “that last night was… I didn’t handle it as well as I should have.”
Sudden anger took hold of Hynd’s tongue. “That was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever endured in my life,” he told Ocere, “and I have endured a lot of humiliating things.”
There was no gratification in the way Ocere winced. Exhaustion turned Hynd’s bones to lead. It’s not his fault, he reminded himself again. He was surprised. He had no warning.
“I know,” Ocere murmured. “I feel terrible about it. It caught me off-guard, but that’s no excuse. I didn’t mean to embarrass you like that.”
Pity pierced through him. Even his heart couldn’t make up its mind. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he mumbled, desperate to move on. “Just… what do you want? You still haven’t explained why you’re here.”
A curious hunger flickered across Ocere’s face. “I want to work with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You see,” said Ocere, leaning forward, “I don’t believe my great-grandfather was a traitor. I’m certain he wasn’t.”
“Do you have any reason to think that?”
“No.” Ocere withdrew, thankfully, out of Hynd’s space. “I don’t. But, regardless, I’m convinced. It just doesn’t make sense. Why would he betray his unit?”
“My understanding is that he was supposed to be retrieved and rewarded by Casye, but that fell through.”
“All supposition,” Ocere said, waving him off. “And all of it baseless. It never even happened. Besides, Casye denies the accusation, doesn’t it?”
“Do you believe they were the ones who killed the Seventh Dragoons?” A glint had come into Ocere’s eyes.
“No,” said Hynd. “I don’t.”
“Do you believe my ancestor was the traitor?”
“Why did he kill himself?” Hynd asked him. “If he wasn’t the traitor? Why would he do such a thing?”
Ocere shrugged. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve spent years trying to prove that he’s innocent, but it’s difficult when I can’t reach most of the materials. I’m no lord; I only get to see what’s publicly available in the Great Library. The university won’t grant me access to the more restricted sections.”
Alycia’s voice echoed in Hynd’s mind: he was enthralled that you’re a Royal Scholar. So that was what it had been all along. Never about interest; always about use.
There was something almost cheering in the knowledge that Ocere had only ever seen him as a means to an end. At least that meant the relationship would have gone nowhere even if Hynd had been Blightless. For once, it wasn’t entirely the disease’s fault.
“You want me to share my materials.”
“Exactly.” Ocere didn’t seem the slightest bit abashed. “I know you think me self-serving, and perhaps I am, but I don’t mean for this to be unfair. I’ll be your research assistant. Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it; in exchange, just let me see the books you read. If you want funding, I can provide money; if you want connections, I have them. I’ll do what it takes.”
It was like something out of one of Alycia’s torrid romances. The only thing Ocere hadn’t offered was his body—not that Hynd would accept such an offer, but it did seem standard in such stories to have the desperate hero promise bodily pleasure to the scarred, manipulative villain in exchange for some kind of favor.
Hynd wouldn’t accept that offer, and he didn’t particularly want for money or connections, but the proposal tempted. He could admit that much. The regular trek to the Archives was by far the worst part of his week. Perhaps he could delegate that to Ocere and stay home instead. And it would be nice, he supposed, to have someone else do part of the reading and take some of the notes.
“I’m not crediting you as a co-author,” Hynd warned him.
“Does that mean you agree?”
Ocere hadn’t even wiped his glove on his trousers after shaking Hynd’s hand. What more could Hynd even ask for?
Out loud, he said, “Yes.”