It was incredibly easy for Caleb to learn the location of Essek’s home. All it took was one, simple suggestion— “Should we need to find you in an emergency, if Jester is ever without her Sending spell.”—and the Shadowhand was already writing out directions.
He did not expect the rest of his plan to work out so easily.
Caleb stood in front of the standing mirror in his bedroom, examining his appearance critically.
Caleb did not consider himself attractive, but he knew other people did, and he knew how to cater to that opinion: hair combed and pulled back from his face, one day’s worth of stubble allowed to grow across his jaw. He donned the finest pieces out of the Xhorhasian clothes they’d all purchased, tailored perfectly to fit.
Vanity was not a luxury Caleb could often afford, superseded as it was by safety and the more practical concerns of an adventuring life. But tonight, it so happened that caring about how he looked—or rather, seeming to care—was a practical concern in itself.
Word of his clandestine dunamancy lessons had reached the Bright Queen, and she was adamant that there would be no further divulgence of ancient Dynasty secrets, by the Shadowhand or anyone else, no matter what the Nein had done to prove their loyalty. But Caleb was not about to give up when the answers he had so long been seeking were so close at hand. So he made a plan.
This endeavor would mean flexing muscles that hadn’t seen use in many, many years, but Caleb knew well how effective certain, unorthodox methods of persuasion could be.
The fact of the matter was, Essek had shown interest. Caleb wasn’t exactly an expert in these things, and he wouldn’t trust just his own judgement on the matter. But several veiled comments from the Mighty Nein told him he had not mistaken the glint in Essek’s eye when he first offered to teach Caleb a few spells, nor the undercurrent of tension in all their subsequent interactions. Tonight he would test just how far the interest went.
He slipped a hand into the pocket of his coat, checking that the piece of paper with Essek’s directions was still there. Not that he needed it, with his photographic memory, but it didn’t hurt to keep on him, just in case.
Unfortunately, the Shadowhand’s domicile was on the opposite side of the district from the Xhorhaus, closer to the Lucid Bastion. Caleb had quite a walk ahead of him. No time to delay.
As he emerged from his bedroom, the sounds of laughter and conversation filtered out from the kitchen. In the hallway, he could see through the doorway to where the rest of the Mighty Nein were helping Caduceus prepare for dinner.
'Helping' might be a strong word. From the looks of it, Fjord was the only one actually working, chopping some oddly shaped root vegetables into chunks. Meanwhile, Beau and Jester were using the discarded stems to play an elaborate game of catch over the table while Nott refereed.
He’d lingered too long. Nott began to grin as she caught sight of him, but then noticed his coat and path towards the front door, and her face fell into confusion.
“Caleb? Where are you going?” she called.
“Just out for a bit,” he replied as nonchalantly as he could manage. “I’ll be back later.”
Much later, if all went well. But no use jinxing things with specifics.
“Should we wait?” Nott asked, waving both hands to indicate the meal preparation going on around her.
“I’m making stew,” Caduceus added with a smile.
“Nein, nein. I will probably be gone a while. No need to wait up for me.”
“What are you do—?”“
Caleb didn’t hear the end of Beauregard’s question. He was already speeding towards the door, eager to avoid a full interrogation. He would explain it to them later.
Or not. He hadn’t decided yet.
The wind chimes tinkled merrily as he stepped out into the cool night, but the fresh evening air did little to soothe his nerves. The sky was clear and bright with stars, but Caleb was of no mind to be appreciating the sight. Head down, eyes forward, he sped through the streets of Rosohna towards his target.
Essek’s home was of similar size and design to the Xhorhaus (except without a sixty foot tree growing out of the roof). This seemed excessive, as from what Caleb knew it only housed the one resident. Apparently, being the Shadowhand had its perks.
A walkway of polished gray stone led up to the wooden front door, inlaid at the center with an elaborate and imposing wrought-iron door knocker in the shape of a dodecahedron.
Caleb exhaled the smallest of laughs through his nerves. Seems a bit much, he thought as he reached a hand up toward it.
He took a moment to steel himself before knocking, fortifying the necessary walls and drawing the mask of confidence over himself. This sort of thing did not come easily to him—had never come easily to him, even before— but he knew well how to hide his doubts, how to pretend until it became a whole other persona, another Caleb who was good at talking to people and didn’t fear every encounter.
When it came to strategies for persuading and manipulating, Fjord had his accents, Beau had her posturing, and Caleb had an unhealthy knack for compartmentalization instilled from his years of tutelage.
The knocker made such a heavy, resounding thud that Caleb wondered if it wasn’t magically enhanced somehow. He did not jump though, no matter how much the sudden volume in an otherwise tranquil night startled him. This Caleb was too assured to be caught off guard.
A moment passed, and then Caleb could hear the muffled sound of a heavy deadbolt lock being undone. The door swung open, and Essek was standing before him.
The Shadowhand looked no different in his off-duty hours, still wearing the same elaborate robes as always. He had removed his mantle at least, but it did little to detract from the polished, angular figure he cut. Caleb had a feeling that Essek would still look professional and imposing in his sleeping clothes, or even one of Jester’s dresses.
“Caleb.” His voice was light as ever, but one errant eyebrow conveyed his surprise. “I was not expecting you.”
“I hope I am not being too presumptuous. You did offer your home, should I have any business.”
“I did. Although could you not have had your blue friend Send word ahead?”
Caleb did not answer, letting Essek fill in his own explanation. Instead he said, “I can leave if you are busy…?”
“Not at all. Please, come in.” Essek stood aside, allowing Caleb to step through the door.
Try as he might, Caleb couldn’t read anything in Essek’s expression beyond the same faint amusement as always. Maybe a layer of curiosity as well, but nothing that offered Caleb any insight into his inner thoughts. The Shadowhand was as inscrutable as ever.
After closing the door, Essek floated ahead, leading him through the entryway and down a plain, stone hallway. A part of Caleb’s brain went automatically to pondering the mechanics of the magic— Essek had shown him a variant of gravity alteration, but this seemed to be something different. And how did he maintain it so long without fully depleting himself?
Another part of him imagined Beau, Jester, and Nott’s reaction to hearing that Essek floated even in his own home, fascinated as they were by his method of transportation .
They would probably be more curious about what Caleb was doing in Essek’s home, but problems for a later date. Stay on task, Widogast, Fjord’s voice echoed in his mind.
At the end of the hallway, Essek opened up a door to reveal a small lounge area, mostly empty but for a pair of burgundy armchairs, set adjacent to each other in one corner, and rows upon rows of bookshelves. Caleb strained his eyes at the spines, but what little he could make out appeared to be written in Undercommon.
“Please, sit,” Essek motioned to the chairs. He floated towards the opposite wall, where a drinks cart displayed a handful of stemmed glasses and a bottle of deep purple wine. Settling into one of the chairs, Caleb watched as Essek lifted a hand out from the curtain of his robes and painted an intricate pattern in the air with one finger. The wine bottle lifted on its own and began pouring generous helpings into two glass. Essek picked up one for himself, then directed the second to float magically towards Caleb. Hesitantly, Caleb reached up and accepted it out of the air. He could feel the moment when the magic stopped and released the weight of the glass into his grip.
“Now,” Essek crossed the room and sat down in the remaining chair, lowering himself with his usual, smooth grace. “What is so pressing that it has you arriving on my doorstep, after hours and with no warning?” Essek’s tone remained light, despite the judgement in his phrasing.
“Well,” Caleb began. “I was quite… disappointed to learn of the Bright Queen’s dictum. As you know.”
“Yes, you made that very clear.” An edge had entered Essek’s tone.
Quickly, Caleb continued, “But in my… discontent, I neglected to ask after your wellbeing. I imagine this has engendered far greater consequences for you than it has for me.”
Essek’s eyebrows raised as he considered Caleb. “I received quite the dressing down,” he said, “but nothing disastrous. No long-term punishment, it seems.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Caleb said. “I would hate to think I had gotten you into trouble.”
“Oh, I am certainly in trouble,” Essek corrected. “But it is nothing career threatening.”
“I am sorry to have caused you suffering.”
Essek’s smile returned. “I appreciate it, but I made my own decision to teach you. I take responsibility for that.” He paused to take a sip of wine. “And I stand by it.”
“Yes. You are an extremely talented mage, and an asset to the Dynasty. I do not regret arming you with a few dunamantic tricks.”
Caleb leaned forward. “Am I to understand that means you intend to fight the Bright Queen’s decision on this matter?”
Essek chuckled. “Is that why you are here? You already tried to convince me, Caleb. My mind has not changed.”
It was exactly what Caleb expected him to say. “Couldn’t hurt to try again,” he responded, smiling back.
“I can appreciate your tenacity,” Essek said over his glass. “It is a quality I admire in your whole group, despite how vexing it can be for me.” He took another sip, and Caleb did the same. The wine was surprisingly sweet, but rich and smooth on the way down. It tasted expensive.
“I will miss our lessons,” Caleb broke the brief silence. “I quite enjoyed them.”
“You are an eager student.”
“Not just that.” Caleb lowered his head, as if abashed. “I… enjoyed spending time with you. I worry I won’t see as much of you, now.”
“I am still your liaison to the Bright Queen. I am at your service, Caleb Widogast. Whenever you need.”
“That is good to hear,” said Caleb. “But I…”
The course of conversation, which Caleb had so carefully prepared, fell from his mind as he caught sight of movement in the corner of the room— the unmistakable swishing of a long, thin tail.
“Is that a cat?” The words were out before he could stop them, his excitement abundant and undisguised.
Essek smiled. Without a word, he laid a hand out over the arm of his chair and snapped his fingers. Immediately, a sleek, feline form the color of ash emerged from the shadows, trotting over to bump its head against Essek’s waiting fingers. With a soft purr, it jumped up and perched on the arm of the chair, sitting primly and giving Caleb a haughty, appraising look. He had never wanted another creature’s approval more.
“This is Lohrta,” Essek said as he stroked along her back. “My familiar.”
“Is that Undercommon?” Caleb guessed. They had lived long enough in Rosohna for him to recognize the distinct sound of the language, though he still couldn’t parse its meaning.
“It is indeed,” Essek nodded. “It means… well, I believe the closest Common translation would be ‘she-beast,’ but it is not so derogatory as that. More how you might refer to a noble, wild creature that had earned your respect.”
Caleb studied the cat. Beautiful and poised, she preened under her master’s affection while shooting Caleb a disdainful glare.
“It suits her,” he said.
“I think so, too.” Essek smiled, then paused stroking Lohrta to take another sip of wine. His attention returned to Caleb, intelligent gaze uncannily similar to his pet’s.
“I seem to remember you having a familiar of your own? A cat as well, if I am not mistaken.”
Wordlessly, Caleb snapped his fingers, and Frumpkin poofed into existence at his feet. Lohrta immediately jumped from her perch to investigate the newcomer.
Caleb had never seen Frumpkin interact with another fey creature before, much less one assuming the same physical shape. They sniffed each other curiously, as regular cats might, but Caleb could detect an innate understanding through his telepathic connection with Frumpkin as each creature recognized one of their own. He wondered if Essek could feel the same sense of unity through Lohrta.
Caleb let them continue for a minute before snapping again and banishing Frumpkin back to his home plane. As adorable as it was, the cats were a distraction from his purpose here. Essek took the hint, waving a hand in the direction of the doorway. Lohrta trotted out obediently, but not before rubbing her cheek against Caleb’s legs with another contented purr.
Caleb knew that his own familiar was unlikely to do such a thing without telepathic direction. Perhaps he was not the only one with an agenda here tonight.
It occurred to Caleb that Essek could be trying to manipulate him in exactly the same way he intended to do with Essek. Caleb had been honest so far about his Empire history, but vague. Essek was certainly clever enough to try accessing further information through affection.
For some reason, this thought upset him. Perhaps because of the complications it added to his plan: if Essek was indeed trying to cozen him, then he would be more on guard than if his interest was genuine.
There was no way of knowing. He would just have to hope that either Essek was oblivious to his ulterior motives, or could still be susceptible to manipulation either way.
“I do have to ask,” Essek interrupted his thoughts. “This conversation could easily have taken place tomorrow. At the Lucid Bastion, or your abode.” He tilted his head to the side. “Why did you really need to come here?”
“Fewer prying eyes,” said Caleb. He might have thrown in a wink, but that seemed like too much. If he acted too out of character, Essek would surely see through the ruse.
“True, you have quite an audience waiting at the… ‘Xhorhaus.’” Amusement sparkled in Essek’s eyes at the name they’d given their home. “And privacy was crucial for this conversation?” he prompted.
“Of the utmost importance.”
“And why is that?”
Caleb narrowed his eyes, gauging how coy he could get away with being. “I believe you know exactly why, Shadowhand.”
“I believe I do as well,” said Essek. He laid his wine to the side and it hung, suspended, as if placed on an invisible table. “And I will take it upon myself to move things along, as you seem reluctant to do so. Stop me if I go too far.”
With that, he stood and offered a hand out to Caleb. Caleb accepted, a jolt going through his stomach as he did so— he hadn’t expected this, or at least not this quickly.
Essek guided him easily into a standing position, and in one smooth motion, closed the distance between them down to nothing.
Caleb was slightly taller, but the extra few inches yielded by Essek’s hovering spell meant they matched perfectly, neither of them needing to tilt upward nor lean down for their lips to meet. Caleb’s heart stopped—it’s working. He responded with what seemed like an appropriate amount of enthusiasm.
After a while and yet all to quickly, Essek pulled away. His fond amusement remained unchanging as he observed Caleb’s reaction.
This was not the plan. Caleb had prepared much more for Essek to be reluctant than for him to take initiative. 'Hope for the best but prepare for the worst,' as they say.
Oddly, though, he didn’t feel much need to regain control over the situation. No plan ever goes off without a hitch (as the Mighty Nein could attest), and a success is a success whether or not it was as he imagined.
Essek grinned, cat-like, apparently spotting something in Caleb’s expression that he liked. He let go of Caleb’s hand, which immediately began to feel cold, and snapped his fingers. A door swung open on the opposite side of the room. Caleb had failed to notice it earlier, as it was camouflaged in the same gray stone that the walls were made from, and had no protruding handle to give it away. Behind it was a polished stone staircase leading to the upper floor.
“Shall we?” Essek invited.
Caleb said nothing. He simply followed him up the steps, shutting the door behind him.
The next morning, Caleb’s internal clock woke him after precisely eight hours of sleep, which meant it was already well into the morning when he arose. Of course, there was no sunrise in Rosohna, but Caleb could tell that, anywhere else, the first rays of sunlight would have woken him up hours ago.
He hadn’t meant to stay the whole night.
He lifted himself up, one hand rubbing the lingering fatigue from his eyes. The feel of smooth, silk sheets against his skin reminded him where he was, and whose bed he was in. A complicated feeling washed over him as he recalled the previous night’s activities, too much for his sleep-addled brain to fully process.
There was no warm body in the bed next to him, but as he surveyed the room for signs of life, he spotted a note left on the bedside table. He stretched over to grab it. In thin, elegant script it read:
Duty calls me away early. Help yourself to breakfast.
Essek had left him alone in his home? Such a careless move, this early on. Perhaps he had underestimated the Shadowhand’s ease of trust in this circumstance.
Before Caleb could appreciate the opportunity he’d been given, he felt a gaze upon him. Glancing about the room again, his eyes fell on Lohrta, sitting prim and unmoving in front of the bedroom door, eyes fixed on him.
So Essek was not so incautious as to leave him unsupervised. Caleb was almost comforted, though he ought to have been disappointed.
“Good morning, Kätzchen,” he greeted groggily. “Have you been assigned to guard me?” The cat didn’t so much as twitch.
Caleb did not know what it looked like from the outside when he peered through Frumpkin’s senses, so he did not know what to look for. However he got the sense that he need not worry about that possibility. There was no apparent difference in Lohrta from last night, and if Essek was indeed at work, then he was likely too busy to spy through his familiar.
Still, Caleb was incredibly conscious of the cat’s gaze at he stood up. No doubt every move would be reported to Essek later on.
He dressed quickly, gathering his clothes from their discarded pile. Just as he was pulling on his coat, a familiar, cheery voice echoed in his mind.
He-ey Caleb. So, you’re not in your room like we thought. Could you please tell us if you’re ok, and if you got kidnapped maybe?
Caleb waited a moment, just in case there was more to the message that was cut off by the word limit. Once he was sure Jester wasn’t going to cast the spell again, he sent back:
“I am fine, Jester. I will be back to the house shortly. Please tell everyone I am sorry for worrying them.”
Another response came back— no need to preserve spells in their current, mission-less lull.
Ok, Caleb! I’ll save you some bacon for breakfast! But make sure you’re back soon ’cause Nott has been kind of freaking out a little.
Instantly guilty, Caleb hurried to pull on his boots and gathered himself to leave under Lohrta’s watchful eye.
He did not seek out the breakfast Essek had offered, instead following the same path out through the house as he had entered it last night. Lohrta followed at his heels every step of the way.
He resisted the pang of curiosity at each closed door he passed. He’d kept an eye out during the evening for any sign of a desk or workstation, but it seemed none of the rooms where Essek had invited him constituted a home office.
No matter, Caleb wasn’t particularly disappointed. He was playing a long game, he knew. Answers were not going to present themselves instantly. With luck, there would come a time when he could roam this house freely, without a feline monitor.
Lohrta kept pace with him all the way to the front door. She stood sentry as he departed, staring fixedly at him even as he pushed the door closed.
When Caleb arrived back at the Xhorhaus, he was naïve enough to think that perhaps he could enter without any fanfare. Just slip in, greet his party and assure them he was alright, and retreat to the library or his bedroom before they could start the full interrogation. Even spending the whole walk back debating, he still could not decide how much to tell his friends. He could use additional time alone to consider.
He should have known that was an impossible fantasy. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he saw Beauregard waiting in the entry hall, leaning casually against the wall with her arms crossed.
“Welcome back,” she greeted him sarcastically.
“Good morning, Beauregard,” Caleb responded, revealing nothing.
“Come on.” She pushed herself off the wall and turned around. “The others are waiting.”
She headed further into the house, towards the dining room, and Caleb followed, refusing to let her make him feel meek.
The rest of their group were gathered for breakfast: a heaping pile of eggs mixed with various cooked vegetables that had Caduceus written all over it. As always, there was a side platter of bacon, which had already been cleared out and spread amongst the non-vegetarians of the group. No sign that any had been saved for him, as promised, although Caleb didn’t actually mind.
“Caleb! You’re back!” Nott called when she noticed them, and the whole table turned to look.
Beau, who had apparently sacrificed first dibs to await his return, snagged a handful of bacon from Jester’s plate and sat down next to her. Resignedly, Caleb took the last remaining seat at the head of the table. From his left, Caduceus passed over a warm mug of tea.
“Where were you?” Nott demanded. “We went to bed and you hadn’t come back, and then we woke up and you still weren’t back. I thought something horrible might have happened!”
“Nein, no, nothing like that. I am sorry I worried you.” And he meant it.
“It’s ok, Caleb,” Nott said indulgently. “Just don’t ever, ever do that again. I was this close to organizing a search party.”
“So if you weren’t kidnapped by some evil bandits, where were you all night?” Jester prodded, grinning widely and eyebrows waggling in her customary insinuation.
She was going to be thrilled to learn her bawdy assumptions were correct, for once.
“I went to pay Essek a visit.”
Three sets of eyes narrowed suspiciously at him. One pair widened in comical, delighted surprise. Another continued to sip his tea obliviously.
“All night?” Nott pressed.
“Yes,” said Caleb. The table exploded.
“You slept with him!?”
“Did you already eat?” Gods bless Caduceus.
“I have not eaten, no.” Caleb replied. Caduceus began piling a plate high with eggs. Whether the firbolg’s unconcerned mien was a facade or not, Caleb appreciated having one insouciant presence at what was certain to be quite the clusterfuck of a conversation, to borrow a term from Beau.
“De. Tails,” Jester repeated, slapping her hands against the table in demand.
Caleb sighed. “What would you like to know?”
“Um, everything!” Jester exclaimed, practically vibrating out of her seat. “Why, how, how was it?”
“Er, Jester, maybe we could save the… detail details for after breakfast?” Fjord interrupted, looking pained.
Jester pouted. “Can I at least ask how long it’s been going on?” She looked to Caleb imploringly.
“This was the first time,” he answered. Jester’s vibrating turned into full-on bouncing in her chair.
“Do you lo-ove him?” she asked, half-teasing, leaning over the table toward him.
Though they all knew how capable Jester was, how formidable in battle, in moments like this it was hard to forget that she still retained a streak of idealism. Her rose-colored glasses were broken, but she still viewed some parts of the world through the lenses. He couldn’t imagine explaining the truth to her, that it was all a complicated ploy to gain favor.
Curious, Caleb looked to see how Beau was reacting to Jester’s naïve excitement, only to find the monk staring intently at him. Their eyes met briefly before Caleb averted his gaze, but he could see in that moment the gears turning, conclusions being extrapolated—that investigative, Cobalt Soul training at work.
She knows, he thought. Or at least, she suspected something.
Jester was still looking at him expectantly.
“I… like him,” Caleb relented. Jester grinned toothily, showing off her fangs.
“You love him,” she declared. “You guys were aways flirting with each other anyway, and doing that thing where you stare at each other without saying anything. But I never thought you were going to do anything about it!”
Unable to stand the attention any longer, Caleb searched desperately for a change of subject, and realized that Nott had been oddly silent through all of this.
“Nott? Are you alright?” he asked.
“What? Oh, I’m fine,” she croaked. She met his concerned look with a bright smile. “I’m happy for you, Caleb.”
Caleb’s stomach churned with guilt. He distracted himself with taking a sip of tea. It was blisteringly hot, but Caleb swallowed without a wince. The heat seared his throat, but settled comfortably in his stomach, warming him from the inside out.
Mercifully, the conversation turned from gossip to various plans for the day. Caduceus needed to replenish some spell components, and Beau and Fjord tossed around the idea of paying Professor Waccoh a visit.
Caleb excused himself on grounds of tiredness, which earned him an exaggerated wink from Jester but was accepted without question. He exited the kitchen and made a beeline for his bedroom. Instead of napping, he pulled his book out from its holster and began to write.
Barely five minutes passed before there was a knock at his door, startling him into dripping a large blot of ink over that last line he’d written.
“Who is it?” he called out.
“Beau,” came the curt reply. He should have known.
Reluctantly, Caleb closed his book and set it aside, then stood up to open the door.
Beau shouldered passed him and immediately collapsed onto the bed.
“So, you wanna tell me what’s really going on?” You could always trust Beauregard to get straight to the point.
Caleb closed the door. He was not inclined to submit to her judgmental glare quite yet, so he asked, “What makes you think something is going on?”
“I know you, Caleb. I know how you operate. You don’t take hot drow boys up on their casual flirting. You do take strategic risks—when there’s something in it for you.”
“Maybe I’ve changed,” he parried. “Would that be so bad?”
“You have changed,” Beau said. The earnestness in her voice caught Caleb off guard. “You’ve changed a lot since I first met you, and it’s great. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening now. So, are you going to tell me what your angle is, or not?”
Caleb took a deep breath. There was no use trying to lie to her. And he really didn’t want to.
“Essek has information I need.”
“Dunamancy,” Beau guessed. Caleb nodded.
“The Bright Queen will not allow him to teach me any longer. And I cannot talk him into disobeying her. So, I am taking a different approach. Hopefully a more… effective one.”
“You’re sleeping with him in exchange for magic lessons?” Caleb winced at her bluntness.
“Not exactly. We have not agreed on an exchange. But I hope that deepening our relationship may make him more inclined to help. Or at least grant me access to his home so I can search for spell scrolls.”
Beau stared for a moment, mouth slightly agape and brows furrowed. Finally, she said, “That is deeply fucked up. You do realize how that is deeply fucked up, right?”
“Everything about me is fucked up, Beauregard,” Caleb said flatly. “Why not this?”
Beau’s expression flashed with sadness, before morphing into her thinking face.
“So, I assume Essek isn’t aware of you’re intentions?”
“Correct,” Caleb said. He ignored the slight pang of guilt. "As far as I know, at least."
She crossed her arms. “Ok, bypassing how extremely fucked up that is, how do you know this will even work? Essek doesn’t seem like the most easily manipulated person to me.”
“I agree. But I’ve done this before. It might take some time, but I’m confidant this will yield results.”
“You’ve done this before?” Beau balked. “When? With Ikithon?” Caleb nodded. Incredulously, she said, “You’re telling me that Scourger training involves lessons in seduction? You gather intel via pillow talk?”
“Oh, gods!” Beau threw herself down onto her back, hitting her head against the wall in the process. “Ow! Fuck!” She sat back up, rubbing the spot grumpily. “Fuck, Caleb, that is so fucked up.”
“No! Don’t be so nonchalant about it! It’s gross!” Beau threw up her hands in frustration. “Weren’t you, like, sixteen then?”
Now Caleb was getting frustrated as well. He knew his past was disturbing in all kinds of ways. He didn’t need others to remind him.
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Beauregard.”
“Neither do I!” yelled Beau. She sighed deeply and then said, calmer, “Can you at least acknowledge that this is all kinds of unethical? Please tell me you see that.”
“We should use every weapon in our arsenal, should we not?”
“That’s not—” Caleb sighed. “You know what I meant.”
Beau sat against the wall, more carefully this time, chewing on her lower lip in thought.
“And what about Essek?” She switched tactics.
“What about him?” Caleb asked, though he could tell where this was heading.
“Don’t you feel bad at all about manipulating him like this?”
“Of course I do. But that’s not the point.”
Beau’s face turned grim. “We made a deal. Do you remember? To keep each other in check? Be each others’ consciences?”
“I remember,” said Caleb.
“Well, take it or leave it, but I think you’re veering pretty close to the edge with this one. There are lines you just don’t cross.”
“So lying, manipulating, pretending to be other people, all of that is fine, until you bring sex into the equation?”
“Yes!” Beau dragged her hands down her face. “It is one thing to lie to strangers for a mission, or so we don’t get fucking killed. It is a completely different thing to pretend to be interested in someone, and sleep with them, for your own selfish reasons.”
“What about Fjord, with Avantika? You didn’t have a problem with that.”
“I did, actually, but that was fucked up in a whole different way,” Beau huffed. “I don’t like the idea of you doing anything even remotely comparable. Especially not with someone who genuinely likes you.”
“You don’t know that is the case,” Caleb responded. “For all you know, Essek could be trying to get something from me as well. He’s not exactly forthcoming.”
Beau looked like she was about to argue, but then closed her mouth, considering.
“Fine, maybe you’re right. But, for the record, my gut says he’s into you, for real.”
“Noted,” said Caleb. “And, returning to your other point, this is not for selfish reasons.”
Beau scoffed, but Caleb continued, undeterred. “Me learning dunamancy would help all our endeavors. It has already helped tremendously, just the few spells I know. More knowledge could be the difference between life and death in the future. Who knows, it might even be the key to breaking whatever curse Yasha was put under, if we ever find her again.”
He didn’t mention his research into Nott’s request. It was a private conversation when she’d asked for his help, and he could only assume she had not confided in any of the others about it. He would not betray his friend’s trust.
Caleb wasn’t sure precisely how dunamancy’s domain of fate and physics could return Veth to her body, but it was his most promising avenue for new magic. He would not leave any stone unturned.
Fortunately, the mention of Yasha seemed to have distracted Beau from pushing this particular point. She blinked hard for a few moments, mouth a thin line, before speaking again.
“You’re really attached to this plan, huh? Not gonna hear any arguments against it.”
“I have considered the risks Beau. I understand my methods are questionable, but this is the only option.”
“Right.” Beau’s voice was rough and tight. “You’ve thought of everything. Cause you know everything.”
“I do not know nearly enough. That is why this is necessary.”
Beau stood up. She stared at him, long and scrutinizing. Caleb did not meet her eye.
“Just… be careful, Caleb,” she said, before heading for the door.
Caleb waited a few days before returning to Essek’s home again. He wasn’t sure the exact appropriate amount of time, but the longer they went without contact, the more anxious he felt. The situation was precarious, and he needed to reaffirm where Essek stood on the matter. After three full days, he could not bear to wait any longer.
On the fourth evening, he repeated his preparations, this time leaving a note on his bed in case the others worried again, although he assumed they would recognize the pattern.
Just as Caleb was exiting his room, Caduceus turned the corner, presumably headed for the kitchen to make dinner.
Caleb was not doing anything wrong (at least, not in the simple act of leaving the house). However, as Caduceus looked him up and down, smiling that knowing smile, he felt very much liked he’d been caught.
“Have fun.” A hint of humor peeked through Caduceus’ low, tranquil voice.
Caleb closed his eyes. “Thank you, Caduceus,” he muttered through gritted teeth.
There was an awkward pause, and just as Caleb was about make his leave, Caduceus spoke again.
“You’re very good at playing with fire, Caleb. We all know that. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded once in a while not to burn yourself in the process.”
Before Caleb could fathom a response, Caduceus had already turned into the kitchen and disappeared from view.
Caleb took a long, deep breath before continuing on his way.
He did not need to hesitate on any turn through the city, the route cemented in his mind after just one trip. Nor did he pause this time before lifting the geometric knocker on Essek’s door. The echoing thud did not startle him at all.
The door opened. “You’re back,” Essek said in place of greeting. There was no hint of surprise this time.
“Am I not welcome?” Caleb asked coyly.
“Quite the opposite.” Essek stepped aside to let him in.
There was no lounge this time. No wine, no conversation, no cat interlude. One minute, Caleb was closing the door behind him, and the next his hands were on Essek’s waist, fingers digging into the rich silks of his robes. Essek had one ringed hand on Caleb’s cheek, the other gripping the back of his neck, pulling him as close as physically possible and then further still. He pressed forward, and Caleb yielded ground until his back hit the cold, stone wall.
That answered his question on where Essek stood.
Even Caleb’s impeccable memory could not tell him for sure who had moved first. Time seemed incredibly fluid, and chronology purely theoretical. Perhaps Essek had cast something.
Caleb found that in that moment, he didn’t really care. His magical curiosity was overtaken by euphoria.
They quickly found their way from the entrance hall to the upstairs bedroom. He forgot to check the route this time for signs of where Essek might keep useful books. He didn’t even have the presence of mind to celebrate the rapid success of his strategy. All he felt was elation, and desire, and the warmth of another body against his.
Much later into the night, they lay parallel on Essek’s lavish bed, silent but for their syncopated, heavy breathing. Long minutes stretched out without either of them moving or speaking, as if they’d agreed to suspend this moment for as long as possible. Deep gasping slowed and calmed gradually into regular breath. Then Essek’s voice suddenly pierced the serenity:
“I am not naïve , Caleb.”
Caleb’s stomach swooped like a giant eagle in a dive, but he kept his voice neutral and impassive as he replied, “What do you mean?”
Essek turned on his side to face him. Somehow, lying down, stripped of his adornments, in possibly the most vulnerable position a person could be, he still managed to exude a haughty dignity. It was impressive, if nothing else.
“You are a good liar, Caleb. But I am good at knowing when I am being lied to.”
“I have not lied to you,” Caleb said, and it almost felt like the truth.
“Would you prefer ‘deceived?’”
The dive had reached terminal velocity. Caleb said nothing.
“I’m not angry.”
Now that was unexpected.
Essek seemed to be waiting for a response, but Caleb was not going to admit to anything. He guessed the situation was beyond saving, but let Essek lay out his evidence before Caleb mounted a defense, or was forced to confess.
“I’ve always admired you, Caleb. From the time your group came to this city, and you presented the beacon, I have known your presence marks a new age for the Dynasty.” He paused, gravity filling his tone. “I do not yet know how, but you, all of you, will change the course of history. I would like to help point you in the right direction. You do not have to try and trick me into doing so.”
Caleb’s breath stuck in his chest. This was not the accusation he had anticipated.
“I cannot teach you any more dunamantic spells. I’m sorry, but I won’t risk my position like that.”
The flash of disappointment was barely a blip on Caleb’s radar. His mind was working too rapidly, trying to understand where this was going, while also fervently awaiting Essek’s next words.
“But magic is more than just components and casting. I know you know this— you are more learned than half the mages I have met in my lifetime. Surely you have gotten a sense by now of dunamancy’s unique philosophy.”
Slowly, Caleb nodded.
Essek continued, “I do not know how that philosophy compares to Empire teachings, just that it is different. I would be incredibly curious to know what effect the combination of theories has on practical applications.”
Caleb narrowed his eyes. “Are you suggesting an experiment?” he asked.
“Precisely. By studying the theories behind each other’s systems—combining them—who knows what new intricacies of magic we may discover?” He grinned. “My power far exceeds yours, but I believe you could teach me things that I will not find anywhere else in Xhorhas.”
Caleb’s mind whirled with possibilities.
Straight spells would be more useful when the Mighty Nein inevitably found some thread of danger to follow, but in the meantime…
This is what he was really searching for, wasn’t it? He had lofty goals far beyond his current knowledge and capabilities. He’d been chasing the vain hope that dunamancy had the answer, the exact spells to accomplish everything he needed. But wasn’t it equally likely, or even more so, that those answers did not yet exist? Arcane spells did not come fully formed, like divine magic. They had to be developed by a powerful mage: Mordenkainen, Leomund, Otiluke…
“Is such an exchange of knowledge not also prohibited?”
Essek shrugged the shoulder not currently bearing his weight. “It is not against the letter of the Bright Queen’s wishes. I will have to be careful about how I frame it, and the exact nature of our pursuits may require some discretion, on both our parts—” He gave Caleb a significant look. “—But the theory of magic is much less threatening to the laymen than the practice of it. I do not believe this will raise the alarms so much as our previous lessons did.”
Caleb’s lips lifted into the barest smile. “Did you just call your boss a layman?”
“Of course not,” said Essek, returning the smile. “But the Bright Queen has far too many responsibilities to devote herself to study. That is what she has me for.”
Caleb wondered if it wasn’t arrogant for a relatively young prodigy to assume they knew more than a woman who had lived hundreds of lives before them. But Essek knew the Queen far better than Caleb did. He would have to trust his assurances.
He found himself intrigued, charmed even, by Essek's conceit. P erhaps Essek was also a fan of calculated risks.
Speaking of which.
“What about…” he trailed off, unsure of how to phrase his next question. Unbidden, his gaze drifted down to Essek’s lips, then on to his bare chest. He caught sight of a faint bruise slowly blossoming above the collarbone, nearly invisible against Essek’s dark skin, and felt himself blush.
Apparently, that was enough for Essek to understand his unfinished question. His smirk softened into something almost sad.
“I have curiosities beyond the academic, I admit. Perhaps it was selfish of me not to call out your ruse as soon as I saw it. I expected you to stop me from escalating things to physical levels, and when you didn’t, well… ” He cast his gaze somewhere above Caleb’s head. “Luxon forgive me, but we are all imperfect creatures.” He paused a second before looking back to Caleb, and any hint of sorrow was eradicated from his expression. “I assure you, I do not require that any such farce continue. My offer is not conditional on your affections, genuine or feigned.”
Caleb knew he should feel relieved. He had gotten what he wanted—not precisely as he'd imagined it, but equally promising— and he was being handed an out without any consequences whatsoever for his methods. Not only was Essek not angry with him, he was taking responsibility for the situation, as if he had been the one compromising morality. It was a better result than Caleb could have hoped for.
But he didn’t feel relieved. He felt... disappointed?
Caleb thought of Beau’s accusations about his motives from the other day. He pictured Nott’s face at the breakfast table when she’d said she was happy for him, and Jester's delight.
He remembered Caduceus’ warning from before he left, just hours ago.
Remember not to burn yourself in the process.
Fire was dangerous. Caleb knew that better than anyone. But he also knew that in the right circumstances, its heat could be lifesaving.
Caleb adjusted himself in the bed so that he was properly facing Essek. He propped one hand under himself for leverage and hesitantly, experimentally, pushed himself forward.
It was barely a brush of lips, quite different from anything they’d done so far. Essek barely moved a muscle, and when Caleb pulled back he saw an entirely new expression on the Shadowhand’s face: eyes wide, lips slightly parted, relaxed and unguarded in a way Caleb had never seen him.
He looked hopeful. Confused, surprised, uncertain. But hopeful.
Caleb was surprised to feel his mouth form a smile.
“I would be eager to begin our research, Shadowhand. If you are not too tired, that is.”
Essek did not respond for a moment. Then a grin spread across his face, mirroring Caleb’s.
“Let me get my books.”