“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” -Oscar Wilde
James did not really wish to bring his mother into his house, but he figured he had very little choice.
He and Cordelia had been presented with the little flat on the day of their wedding. It was just down the street from the Institute, which provided them with easy access to the training room, meals, and Lucie. Magnus Bane had set up a series of wards that were meant to keep demons out and Tessa had leant them some old furniture. It should have been a lovely home for a newly married couple.
The problem was that James and Cordelia were not like most newlyweds.
They barely spent any time in their home. If James had thought his friendship and genuine affection for Cordelia would be enough to make their marriage work, he was sorely mistaken. The wedding had changed something between them. Where conversation had always flowed easily between them, it now stuttered like a river stopped up by a dam. The long silences had driven them out of the flat — Cordelia to train with Lucie and James to the Devil’s Tavern with Thomas, Christopher, and Matthew. When Lucie, who had been joining them more and more, inevitably appeared with her future parabatai in tow, Matthew and Cordelia made their excuses and went off to Anna’s.
James suspected his new wife spent a lot of time in Hell Ruelle. She certainly didn’t spend much at home.
The only time James and Cordelia both returned to the flat was at night. They’d tried, at first, to sleep in the same bed for the sake of appearances. But after James had woken from a dream murmuring Grace’s name, Cordelia near tears from her own nightmare, they had lain sleepless for hours, staring at the ceiling without a word passing between them. Two bodies in the same bed with an uncrossable divide between them.
The next day, James had begun sleeping on the sofa.
He wished he and Daisy could find even footing again. He did not like her any less than he had before. They kept trying to make it work. James read her poetry by the fire, but they were interrupted by a letter from Grace. He joined Cordelia on patrol but she was dragged away by Alastair, who was hissing at her that their father was unwell. They had tried to go to dinner at a nice restaurant down the street, only to run into Charles and Grace, who were also courting there.
Their marriage was an unmitigated disaster.
James had offered, one day, to remove Grace’s bracelet from his arm.
“It feels wrong to wear a token of my understanding with her when I’m married to you,” he’d told Cordelia.
“Do you still love her?” Cordelia had asked.
James had tried to parse the feelings of loyalty and devotion and desire he had for Grace. That was love, wasn’t it? “Yes.”
“Then keep it on, James,” Cordelia had said. “Our marriage is a sham anyway.”
Because they both spent all their lives trying to avoid it, the flat they had been living in for the past three months looked more like a museum than a home. They had not decorated at all, and the impersonality of every room was palpable.
James really hoped Tessa wouldn’t notice. Perhaps he could claim they had merely been too busy to decorate, though he wasn’t sure how believable that would be given that they hadn’t had any major problems with demons since the Mandikhor.
“Are you sure you wish to come in?” James asked, hesitating on the threshold. “We usually spent our time at the Devil’s Tavern. I’m afraid we haven’t decorated half as nicely as you have done at the Institute.”
“I don’t care about that,” Tessa said. “I haven’t been in the flat since the week you and Cordelia moved in. I want to see how my son and daughter are living. There is a reason we put you just down the street, you know.”
“Yeah,” said James. “Alright.”
At least he had straightened up that morning. At least he had remembered to buy tea. At least Cordelia was out with Matthew and Anna and they wouldn’t be forced to act in love for the sake of James’ mother.
James unlocked the door and stepped inside, Tessa on his heels. He had three more steps down the hall before they would be in the living room and he would have to entertain his mother for tea on the sofa he slept on every night.
In tense silence, James crept forward—
— and gasped.
Cordelia was home and she wasn’t alone.
She was wearing one of the dresses Anna had bought her, a saffron colored one that always reminded James of her wedding gown. Her copper hair was unbound and spilling around her shoulders, hiding her face and the face of the man she was kissing. But James would know him anywhere.
“Daisy.” James’ voice came out strangled.
Cordelia gasped and jumped back, stumbling as she stood. Matthew’s fingers cupped her hips to help her stay on her feet. His face was bone-white and his eyes were wide, terrified, but focused.
He was sober.
“Jamie,” he said desperately. “Jamie, I can explain.”
“Can you?” Asked Tessa coldly. James had forgotten she was there.
He turned to face her and immediately wished he hadn’t. Her eyes were hard, her mouth set in a grim line like a wound across her face. She wasn’t looking at Cordelia and Matthew like they were two people she loved. She was looking at them like she didn’t know them at all.
“Mum,” said James. “Mum, it’s alright.”
Tessa was glaring at Matthew. “How could you do this to him? You’re supposed to be his parabatai.”
James could almost feel was Matthew was feeling. He knew how to read every emotion on his parabatai’s body. The embarrassment at being caught in the blush on his cheeks. The shame at what he had done in the slump of his shoulders. The hurt at losing Tessa’s trust in the wobble of his lip.
“And you, Cordelia,” continued Tessa. “You’ve been married only three months. To betray him like this is reprehensible.”
Cordelia looked stricken. James had learned to read her, he realized, sometime in the last three months. Even while they were avoiding each other. The way her fingers played with the hem of her dress, where Cortana was hidden, showed she wanted reassurance. Cordelia was feeling lost.
Matthew seemed to realized the same thing, because he let his fingers brushed along the back of Cordelia’s hand. Cordelia relaxed a fraction, which made Matthew do the same.
The way Matthew looked at her… that was the way Father looked at Mother. The way Anna watched Ariadne when she thought nobody was looking. The way James thought he must look at Grace.
Matthew was in love with Cordelia.
Jealousy rose up in James and he felt his edges begin to blur. He hastily battered it down. There was no reason for him to be jealous. He had married Daisy to save her reputation. He loved Grace. If Matthew loved Cordelia, he should be happy for them.
He was blind not to have seen it before.
But it was fine. He would be happy about it once he had had time to grow accustomed to the idea of his wife loving his parabatai. And after he and Cordelia had divorced, she could remarry to Matthew.
James could be happy for them. He would be.
“Mum,” said James carefully. “I need to tell you something.”
“James,” said Matthew. There was a warning in his voice. James looked at him and Matthew raised his eyebrows, even as he shrunk in on himself.
“This is all my fault, Aunt Tessa,” said Matthew. Without his usual drunken bravado, he sounded smaller than usual. Younger. “I have been spending so much time around Cordelia since she married James that I forgot where the proper boundaries were. I let my feelings get the best of me. I would never want to hurt James or Cordelia and I’m sorry that my actions have caused them pain. You came in at exactly the wrong moment. Please do not judge Daisy for my mistake. I surprised her with my indecorous actions and she had not yet had time to respond before you walked in. I’m sure she was about to push me away. I’m so sorry, James.”
Matthew would take the fall for this, James realized. He would let Tessa believe the worst of him. He would distance himself from Cordelia in order to keep up the appearance of propriety. He would separate himself from his family and his love in order to save James and Cordelia’s reputations.
Their bloody reputations were always working against them.
James sorely wished he hadn’t burned down Blackthorn Manor.
“I think you should go, Matthew,” said Tessa. Her tone was softer than it had been before. James wondered if she understood. He wondered if she’d ever kissed someone she wasn’t supposed to.
Probably not. She’d always been hopelessly in love with James’s father.
“Yeah,” said Matthew. He stood, which placed him awkwardly beside Cordelia for a moment. Without glancing at her, Matthew hurried forwards, brushing past James to make his exit.
James caught his wrist.
“Mum,” said James. “I set Blackthorn Manor on fire.”
Tessa eyes went wide with surprise. “You — what?”
“I set Blackthorn Manor on fire,” repeated James. “It was an accident. I went to destroy a dark relic, but it caught fire when I cut it to pieces. The manor went up in flames.”
Tessa was staring at him with incomprehension. “But Cordelia said… oh.”
James nodded. “She knew no one would believe the alibi she gave me unless it were something she wouldn’t want to share. She ruined herself to keep me from going to prison.”
Tessa fumbled with the chain around her neck, running her fingers against it like she did whenever she was worried. It was a jade pendant that James had never seen her take off.
“Do you love her?” Asked Tessa.
James winced. His mother was asking him if he loved his wife.
“No,” said James, his voice gravelly and hesitant. “She is a dear friend and she made a great sacrifice for me. I had to offer her marriage. I didn’t have a choice, Mum. I’m sorry.”
Tessa pressed a hand against her lips.
“I’m sorry,” James pleaded again. “I know I lied to you and disappointed you and that I don’t have a great story like you and Papa. I did the best I could, Mum.”
Matthew’s wrist wiggled in James’ grip and he let go, only for Matthew to link their fingers together and squeeze.
He was there. He was on James’ side, as he always was.
James took a deep breath.
Tessa sighed, looking agitated. “I — I am thoroughly surprised. I truly thought you loved each other. I feel terrible that I did not see it, James. I only wish for you to be happy.”
“Don’t feel bad, Mum,” said James. “I didn’t want you to see it. We need to look like a couple in love for all the world to witness.”
“Cordelia, I cannot thank you enough for protecting James,” said Tessa. “Lucie could not have chosen a more brave or loyal friend to be her parabatai. I’m sorry for what I said before. My words were harsh and untrue.”
Cordelia approached the little tangle of people by the doorway. “I’m sorry for surprising you like this.” She looked at James for the first time since it had all started. “I’m sorry.”
James shook his head, pressing a smile onto his lips. “Do not be sorry for loving him. I am glad that you have managed to find some love in this marriage, even if it is not with me.”
Matthew made a choking sound.
“It’s alright,” James repeated, unsure if he was trying to convince them or himself. “In nine months when Daisy and I divorce, you two will be able to be together.”
“Then this is a mariage blanc?” Asked Tessa.
“Yes,” said James. “After one year Cordelia will invent some reason to divorce me and escape this arrangement with her reputation unharmed."
Tessa rubbed harder at her necklace. “Oh, Jamie. What have you gotten yourself into?”
“Trouble that he can get himself out of,” said Matthew. “We all look out for each other. James and Cordelia will both be just fine.”
Matthew didn’t say anything about himself.
“But why?” Asked Tessa. “Why would you even enter Blackthorn Manor? How did you know there were dark relics inside?”
James’ mind drew a blank as he tried to think of a plausible excuse.
He could not tell the truth. He would not betray Grace.
“I could sense it,” James lied. “When we were in Idris in the summers, I could feel its presence in the house. It wasn’t until everything that happened with Belial that I felt it again, in the demon realm. I remembered the sensation and went back to Blackthorn Manor to see if the cause of it was a threat.”
Tessa furrowed her eyebrows. “Are you saying Tatiana Blackthorn has dark objects that place her in league with Belial?”
“No,” said James quickly. Tatiana might be mad, angry, and vindictive but she wasn’t evil. And he couldn’t put Grace at risk. “I doubt Tatiana knew what it was. That house had fallen into such disrepair, she might not have even known it was there.”
Tessa let out a long sigh, like she was trying to expel all her worries from her body. “Okay. If you’re sure.”
James nodded. “Definitely.”
“It had been a rather long afternoon,” said Tessa. “I think I will head back to the Institute.”
Perhaps it was absurd, given the circumstances, to be glad that he no longer had to entertain his mother for tea but James was inordinately pleased. Small victories were important.
“Are you going to tell Papa?” James asked.
Tessa gave him a sad look. “Yes, of course. I tell your father everything.”
James closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. Matthew squeezed his hand.
“He’s going to be so disappointed in me,” whispered James.
“No,” said Tessa immediately. “He’ll be proud of you, James. You did the honorable thing by marrying Cordelia.”
James knew Will cared about doing right by young women. It was the only thing he and Anna ever fought about. But he also knew Will was a hopeless romantic, who had hoped James would find love. He didn’t know about Grace. And Grace wasn’t a Carstairs, so she wouldn’t bring the same degree of happiness, though hopefully James’s love for her would mitigate Will’s disappointment at losing Cordelia.
James felt numb as he said goodbye to his mum. The world felt barely real, the way it sometimes did when he turned into a shadow. He wasn’t sure if he was corporeal or not. He wasn’t aware of anything until a steaming cup of tea was pressed into his hands.
He was sitting on the sofa and Cordelia was beside him, looking worried.
“Are you alright?” She asked.
James took a sip of the tea. It scalded his tongue, but it left him feeling more grounded.
“I’m sorry for surprising you,” Cordelia began timidly. It was the contradiction at the core of Cordelia, the way she was fearless and unapologetic in battle but became a demure lady whenever kissing was involved. It was strangely endearing.
“I must admit that I was not expecting to walk into my living room and see you kissing Matthew on the sofa,” said James. “But, aside from the fact that my mother was here, it was not an unwelcome surprise.”
“We’re married,” said Cordelia. “I intended to honor that, whether it’s a real marriage or not.”
“I know, Daisy. Your loyalty knows no bounds, as you’ve proven time and again.”
Matthew entered the room with a small tin of sugar cubes, set it down, and took a seat on the other side of Cordelia. He tentatively took her hand in his, his eyes on James the whole time.
James wanted to protest. Cordelia was his. She was his wife. This possessiveness was frightening and useless. Was James really that petty? Did he want to cause two people he loved misery because a law said Cordelia should be with him?
He had Grace. He loved Grace. In a year, he would be free to marry her.
“You don’t mind then?” Asked Matthew carefully. He could read James as well as James could read him. They may never speak about their secrets — whatever made Matthew miserable enough to drink, the way desperation over Grace had led James to wade into the Thames to drown — but they were brothers and best friends. Twin souls in two bodies.
James put on the best expression he could, hoping against hope that Matthew would believe it.
Matthew had to be happy. Matthew was sober. If Cordelia quieted the darkness in him that made him so sad, James would give her up a hundred times.
“No,” said James. “I don’t mind.”
The words tasted like lies on his lips, but he brushed his strange jealousy aside. Matthew and Cordelia would be happy together, and James would be happy with Grace. That was the way things were meant to be.
“I don’t mind at all.”