Here’s the third of three chapters of Beauty-Beast thanks to Anke’s commission!
Ctirad found that he was smiling at Signy the way he probably hadn’t smiled at a woman in years. Lifetimes. Generations. Like a peer. Like a friend. It couldn’t last, but he liked the feeling.
Of course, they had more important things than him making friends right now.
“But, uh,” he cleared his throat. “Maybe when this is done we could set up a time to talk about all that stuff? Keeping, being Kept, being young and ignorant fae? Right now, I think we’re supposed to be talking about – well, important things.”
“This is important!” Signy protested. Then she looked at Sara Florentia and Timaios. “But I, I see what you mean. Let’s talk about Ermenrich and this – Nedetaka priest. Ctirad, you said you saw him, yes? What can you remember?”
The next period of time was a study in frustration for Ctirad, made all the worse by the fact that he could tell the others – the free, proper Ellehemaei – were getting frustrated, too.
He could pull up a fragment of memory – He spoke in French. He wouldn’t speak in anything but French or a language I didn’t even recognize – and that would be followed by everyone trying out languages on him until he could say something like that, but not quite, and people were left scratching their heads trying to figure this one out. Or When I followed, he was saying something about the Return, but when Master tried to pin him down to a date, a place, or even a who, he would repeat what he’d already said.
There were a few more snippets – Ermenrich had wanted to know specifics about a place, including about the McCurdy building. The priest had laughed in his face. Ctirad had forgotten everything else, but the image of rage on Ermenrich’s face, poorly concealed a half-second too late, stuck with him.
He found himself sitting on the floor, sipping water Signy brought him. Timaios was petting his hair. Sara Florentia was scratching notes in a small spiral-bound notebook with a fountain pen.
The sound brought back another memory. He leaned hard against Timaios’ legs, closed his eyes, and let the sound carry him into it.
“There’s a very old-looking office. Like, like someone spent a lot of money on it in the 1800s some time and then just kept using it. The books are old. The man sitting at the desk is old. He feels old, more than looks it – he still has all his hair, he doesn’t have many wrinkles, and his hair and beard, they’re all black, not white. But he feels like he comes with the office.”
“He’s writing in a ledger with a fountain pen. I’m standing there for ages while the pen scribbles. I don’t know what he’s writing. I can smell the office – the books, the dust, some sort of aftershave, someone’s cheese and tuna lunch. I can watch the man writing. But I can’t move, and I can’t see what he’s writing, even though I’m pretty sure I can normally read upside-down.”
He thought he heard a sound, someone snorting. He didn’t open hie eyes. He listened to the pen – “No, please, keep writing. It helps. If you could?”
The pen started again. “I – I’m supposed to wait. Wait until he gives me the information Ermenrich demands. I’ve been waiting a long time. Not so long that I’m miserable – I’ve stood a lot more than this. But long enough that I’m starting to worry I will get miserable before Master sends someone for me or changes his orders some other way. Wait until the man in the office – Go to the office under the old Gleason building and tell the man there that I want to know where the key is and what powers it. Wait there until he gives you the answer. If he asks why he should give it to me, tell him I will have you kill him otherwise. Slowly.” He opened his eyes and wiped his hands on his jeans. “He laughed at me.”
“He laughed at you?” Sara Florentia leaned forward, the fountain pen poised in mid-air. “Ermenrich?”
“No. Well, of course he probably did. He did that a lot. No, not him. The man behind the desk, the one in the Gleason building. He’s… he stores information. Lots of it. He’s a scholar, I think? Not really aligned with anyone, I think that’s what he said.”
He looked at the fountain pen. “I think there’s more. I don’t like it. But I think there’s more.”
“I want – well, I want to ask what the key is, but I’m betting Ermenrich didn’t tell you, right?”
He glanced at Signy; she was frowning in thought.
“It might be in there,” he admitted. “I mean, like, somewhere in my memories. There’s a lot of them there, I think. I’m just barely getting through the surface. I’m not even sure I know how long I’ve been – oh, gods – I was serving Ermenrich. I know it was longer than a year. That’s all I know.”
“That’s disgusting – sorry. Sorry.” She held up her hands. “Okay, I can wait on that.”
Ctirad nodded in something between understanding and promise. They’d talk later. He wasn’t sure he’d like that conversation, but they’d have it. “I can try to remember more,” he offered to Sara Florentia. “I think the pen sounds are triggering it, but I don’t want to, ah, I don’t want to presume? And I don’t know if this is useful?” He glanced up at Timaios and back at Sara Florentia, then back to Timaios. He was not used to being the center of attention like this.
Timaios pursed his lips and nodded, then he, too, looked at Sara Florentia before looking back at Ctirad.
“Right now, I think that the more we can learn about Ermenrich’s motives, the better. The more we do learn, the more it seems like he’s aiming for something awful – more awful than his normal sort of thing, I mean. But Ctirad, I am going to emphasize again that I did not bring you into my household because of what you knew about Ermenrich, and I do not want you to hurt yourself trying to come up with this information. All right?”
“I – I really want to, if I can, even if it hurts a little,” Ctirad assured Timaios. “Not just because it will help you, but because it’s, well. Being with him hurt a lot. You know that. I’d like to be able to do something to hurt him.”
“Revenge is a solid motive,” Timaios agreed, although he was still speaking slowly, thoughtfully. “As long as you’re careful not to let it run away with you, I think that’s okay. Sara, your thoughts?”
“I believe that you’re right, Tim. I think the more pieces of this plan we learn, the better chance we have of thwarting it with the minimum number of people hurt in the process. And I think that young Ctirad here can help us – but I agree, Ctirad.” She looked at him pointedly. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
Ctirad chewed over that for a minute. More than a minute. He shifted himself around a couple times, finally standing up and pacing.
Everyone was looking at him.
Well, not everyone, but everyone in this little group of fae he’d been talking to.
They were all waiting on him.
His master was waiting on him.
He had to do something – he had to say something. Anything. Something.
He cleared his throat and sat down again next to Timaios.
“Sorry. I – sorry. I mean. Before Timaios, I don’t remember the last time someone said something like that to me. And before that, before Ermenrich, I don’t think anyone said it and didn’t mean it as an insult. You know, ‘settle down, pretty boy, you’re gonna hurt yourself.'”
He did a pretty good impression, he thought, of a drill sergeant with a thick southern accent. It was a pity that was all he could remember about the guy.
That sentence, that accent, that deep voice.
Those humiliating jokes.
The elbow on his head.
Okay, he’d remembered a few things. He cleared his throat again.
Signy hopped up and headed for the bar. He hadn’t even noticed there was a bar here, had he? It was in the back, discreet.
He waited, watching her, not quite daring to look at either Timaios or Sara Florentia. Signy might be free, but she gave the feeling she was a lot closer to his age, to his power level. The other two – it was like being the single kid sitting around the adults. It was unnerving.
He realized it felt nothing at all like being around Ermenrich and other fae. For one thing, Ermenrich was never still the way Timaios was right now, casual, comfortable, fine waiting.
For another thing, he was part of this conversation – well, he had been, he would be again. Part of this social gathering. He wasn’t an accessory. He wasn’t a piece of furniture.
Signy came back, balancing a silver tray with four – no, five – glasses on it.
“Here. Ah. Sara, your favorite. Timaios, the bartender said you liked this. This one’s mine, and for you, Ctirad, that one’s water and that one’s a vodka tonic with lime. I wasn’t sure which you’d like, or -”
He took both and smiled at her, grateful, surprised, confused. “Thank you. I- thank you.”
He sipped the water first. “Right. Uh. Okay. So. I think it’s okay. If I hurt myself. I think this is important. And I think, I mean, this isn’t like lifting above your weight class. I’m not gonna pull a muscle doing this. It’s just gonna be some unpleasant memories.”
He shrugged, looked at the vodka tonic – funny how they looked so similar. There was some sort of metaphor there, but he couldn’t quite place it yet. Vodka and water, both clear, both full of ice, same kind of glass.
He took a deep gulp of the vodka. “Right. I think we ought to do this. If you’re okay with that? If everyone is? I’ve got a lot in here. I think we ought to use it all.”