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An Ineffable Game

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I. Shuffle the Deck (The Beginning)

Prologue to the Memoirs of Mary Cavendish

When I was ten years old, I snuck into my uncle's laboratory and dissected one of the werewolf paws that he had preserved in formaldehyde.

When I was caught, I was shown, with exceeding precision, the proper manner to dissect a specimen, swatted thoroughly, and given two chapters of Argent's Bestiary to memorize. This was not a nominal punishment: Argent's is the driest and dullest reference book that I have ever encountered.

When I was fifteen years old, I swore myself to the Chirgeon V——— as an apprentice.

When I finished placing my signature thrice on the contract – once in ink, once in blood, and once in salt water – I smiled at my aunt and promised that she would not regret interrupting her peregrinations to instruct me. This was not nepotism: I had taken firsts in all three branches of biological studies and learned my metallurgy text forward (chemistry) and backward (alchemy).

When I was twenty years old, I put my scalpels and skirts into saddlebags, mounted my horse, and left behind everyone I knew.

When I proposed making my journeyship literal, my family did not attempt to dissuade me, but it did take me six months longer than I had anticipated to be trained and equipped to their satisfaction. Theirs was not a mean standard: I did not go until could, amongst other skills, mend my own trousers, lay to rest three types of unquiet revenant, and send intelligible messages via aethogram.

When I was twenty-five years old, I met Brendon.

II. Cut the Cards (The Life)

VivaSilva Gazette, November 25, 1899
[view full gazette]

Chirgery and 'Chinary, proprietors Journey-Chirgeon Mary Cavendish and Machinist Brendon Pheles, had a fiery opening last night.

Chirgery and 'Chinary is the result of a partnership between Cavendish and Pheles. Cavendish is a natural scientist, trained by the Chirgeon V——— and knowledgeable in supernatural and supranatural anatomy, physiology, and materiality. Pheles, formerly an employee of Constituents, was trained in metallurgy and smithing in London and specializes in miniature repairwork, metallurgy, and custom smithing. They intend to use the proceeds of their enterprise to support their inquiries into the nature of the in/corporeal divide, which is the subject of Cavendish's research energies.

Yesterday, Chirgery and 'Chinary opened its doors to custom. They offer the standard range of apothecary powders and salves for homo sapiens alongside more specialized compounds and nostrums for the health and well-being of homo supernaturalis. Clockwork curiosities and metalwork designed to enhance one's natural abilities are available in limited quantities for ready-purchase; a broader selection of cast, forged, and machined pieces can be commissioned and customized.

The official celebrations closed with libations and fireworks designed by Pheles with flourishes by Cavendish, but it ended more explosively than intended when an unanticipated exothermic reaction occurred between Cavendish’s aqua regia distillation and Pheles' crucible works. They report that the structure and foundations of Chirgery and Chinary remain sound, although some of their equipment was damaged. Cavendish’s consulting practice will continue without interruptions; Pheles affirmed his commitment to filling all orders placed within the contracted time. No one was injured, and they apologize for any interruptions of theosophical experimentations.

III. Deal the Cards (The Discovery)

December 15, 1899. Commencement of the Society of Naps, Ocarinas, and Gambols' Annual Shenanigans Sequence.

Brendon curtsied, and Mary bowed. "Would you care to join me, my lord," she asked, extending her arm.

"Why, my lady, I believe I would," he said, genteelly laying his hand atop her arm. She escorted him into the Hall of Gatherings, suppressing the smile that would have betrayed her inner merriment. She noted that he matched her serious demeanor, and they entered the hall, the epitome of propriety.

They were buffeted by sound and heat as soon as they crossed the threshold, and Mary was glad that she had chosen her summerweight dress for the festivities. In her admittedly limited experience, it never got truly cold in VivaSilva, but it had been mildly uncomfortable on the journey over. However, she was sure that the wine would keep her limbs warm on the return to their abode.

"Mary!" Sasha dashed up and thrust two glasses at them. Mary laughed and grabbed the drink with one hand, embracing her exuberant friend with the other. Sasha hugged her and then stepped back, looking at her expectantly. Mary shrugged and tossed back the mysterious libation.

It burned, and then she felt a joyous vitality infuse her. She took a deep breath to regain her equilibrium and then asked, "Sasha, what is that most piquant distillation?"

Sasha giggled. "Whiskey!" she said.

"I feel relatively certain that said beverage is not whiskey," Mary said drily.

"Oh, it is! Julius just ages it in the greenwood instead of oak. Delightful, isn't it?"

"Really? Greenwood produces such an effect through long term exposure? How much of the cask is from the green? How aged is the wood?"

Brendon interrupted her questions by placing his finger on her mouth. She nipped it, and he drew back in dramatic agony. "Oh, you have wounded me unto death!" he exclaimed.

"You are prevaricating, sir," she said, laughing at his antics before turning back to Sasha. "How long does he –"

"Mary, my bosom companion," Sasha interrupted, "this is a S.N.O.G. celebration, not your laboratory. Enjoy now, interrogate Julius later."

"Here," Brendon said, passing her his glass. She surrendered to their demands and drank it quickly, blinking at the immediacy of its effects.

"Why, I believe that's an exponential increase in effect, not a linear increase," she said.

"Hush!" Sasha exclaimed. "Swear to me that you will cease your analysis and enjoy the festivities!"

"But I cannot swear such a thing," Mary replied, leaning into Brendon's side. He put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. "For then I might be forsworn, and chaos would be unleashed and we would all be very melancholy. For one cannot predict how the evening will proceed, and if the faeries interfere we shall all be lost."

"Faeries are a myth, Journey-Chirgeon, but your rambling befits a person who will enjoy the ball. Therefore, I declare myself satisfied and shall leave you to your betrothed to see what the evening shall bring," Sasha said. She kissed their cheeks, first Mary's and then Brendon's, and melted back into the swirling crowd.

Mary shrugged off Brendon's arm and then took his hand in hers. They slid through the press of people, their friends and neighbors, people they loved and people they liked and people they tolerated to keep the peace in their tiny town, and made their way to the great table, which had been pushed to the side of the hall. Julia was reigning over the food, transferring comestibles between the kitchen and hall whenever a platter looked like it might, in the dim distant future, contemplate being bare.

"Mary! Brendon!" she exclaimed when they came in shouting-range. "Hello hello hello, my dearest darlings!"

Mary laughed. "What do you need, Mistress Julia?" she asked.

"Might you possibly, maybe, perhaps consider running to the kitchen to fetch some more of Master Ross' phantasmagoric pastries?"

"Phantasmagoric pastries? That sounds rather questionable," Brendon said. His brow was furrowed, and Mary really just wanted to kiss the tip of his nose – he was adorable when he was befuddled. She was definitely going to blame the greenwood if she ended up making a fool of herself before the evening's end. The vital essence really was overpowering.

"Oh ye of little faith!" Julia exclaimed. "They are scrumptious and delectable, a feast for the palette, tantalizing of the senses, delighting on the tongue." She chivvied them down to a different section of the table and hefted a platter. "Are they not most appetizing? Do you not wish to devour them, one sugared crumb at a time, until you are fit to burst? Of course you do! Eat, eat!"

Mary had to admit that it looked quite delicious: an improbable crystalline structure resting on a base of light blue pastry, supporting an assortment of glittering nuts and fruits. Obviously, a field test would be required to ascertain the validity of Julia's grandiose claims. She grinned to herself, and then grabbed one of the cakes. When Brendon looked at it dubiously, she reached up and shoved it at his face. He sputtered around a mouthful of icing, and she giggled and stood on her tiptoes to lick the detritus off of his face. That said activity evolved into a rather public and rather spectacular kiss was entirely natural.

"It is quite delicious," she said, affecting a straight face. "I believe that we shall be quite happy to fetch more for you."

Julia guffawed. "No, I don't think you will! I'll enlist someone more likely to bring the pastries than get up to shenanigans in the kitchens. Begone, you two!"

They bowed, and Brendon pulled her back into the crowd. She had thought they were going to find someone else to talk to – Anna and Maria, perhaps, or Spencer – but instead he pulled her into the swirling throng of dancers.

Three cycles around the dance floor later she was sweaty and panting. Brendon was nigh impossible to keep up with when he was letting himself run freely; she was fit, but his steps were quick and precise, double-time to the music. She knew from his grin that he was deliberately challenging her and loved seeing her meet him step for step. She grinned fiercely back and refused to falter in her steps; she would not be subject to his mockery, no matter how friendly and good-natured.

However, five cycles proved to be her limit, and she slipped out of the dance. He tipped an imaginary hat to her and welcomed Padma into his arms. She saluted them both and then left in search of water and a cloth to wipe her brow.

She was sipping her water and enjoying the breeze coming in an open window when Mayor Star appeared by her elbow. "Mistress Cavendish," he said in greeting.

"Mayor Star," she replied, curious about his errand.

"The League has agreed to do a demonstration about phantasma, including protection from revenants as well as the standard lecture on interacting with ghosts, and they advised me that it would be courteous to tell any local chirgeons that they were coming. They will arrive on the third day of January and will depart on the seventh day."

"Thank you for the notification, Mayor," she said. "Some chirgeons find the League and their ilk to be antithetical to our studies; we seek to understand the super- and supra-natural components of our world, and they seek to contain it." She took another drink of her water and then set the empty glass down on the windowsill. If her aunt were the VivaSilva chirgeon, the fireworks would be heard for miles when the League came. "However, I look forward to consulting with them – I have hope that their field experience might contribute to my understanding of ectoplasmic manifestations, since they have, cumulatively, seen many more manifestations than I, as a single person, could hope to witness unless I discover a method of existing in autonomous simultaneous forms."

There was a beat of silence, filled by the background thud of feet and laughter of the inebriated. "Right," he said finally. "That's good then, I'll advise them to anticipate no trouble or methodological squabbles."

"Oh, the rift runs much deeper than method," she said. "It's a fundamental difference in epistemology and philosophical foundations." Seeing his eyes dart over the dancers, undoubtedly looking for urgent business elsewhere, she ceased her explanation. "I think I see Chirgeon Blake by the entrance," she offered. "She's undoubtedly looking for you to escort her through the madcap bacchanal."

He chuckled. "She probably is at that. I believe I shall go rescue her. Please excuse me," he said, and then he left, striding purposely towards Blake. Once again she'd dressed more formally than anyone else attending the festivities, and Mary wondered if Blake's sartorial choices were a matter of principle, comfort, or statement.

Her musing was interrupted by Brendon, who had apparently tired of whirling around like a faun during spring. He presented her with a glass of the greenwood whiskey, and she arched her eyebrow at him before drinking deep. "Are you trying to see me inebriated?" she asked. "I warn you that I am not a pleasant person when suffering the aftereffects of overindulgence, and I have carefully calibrated my consumption to avoid them."

"Not at all," he said. "I merely seek to bring joy and pleasure to your life, m'lady, and I noticed how much you enjoyed the beverage earlier. I would slay a dragon for you – conquering Julius' table is a trifle."

"The last dragons were slain two centuries ago and preserved for the Royal Collection," she retorted, "making your claim evocative but empty. However, I appreciate your sentiment, and I will interpret it as sincere. A toast to dragonslayers!" She lifted her glass and quaffed the rest of the drink. "Oh, I see Anna! I really must talk to her. I wonder how she and Maria are doing with their little one. But that's not what I want to talk to her about. Well, it is, but primarily I wish to see what she'd like us to contribute to her encore production of Doctor Faustus. I think we could really raise the profile of the shop if we make some contributions to the staging, especially after our recent mishap."

"Mary, I don't think you're going to go anywhere at the moment," he said.

"You're laughing at me, sir! That quite rude."

"I have nothing but the utmost respect for you," he said most solemnly.

"I feel certain that you would never dare to admit to any other regard under these circumstances, lest my umbrage result in very cold feet on your delicate body this night," she replied.

"You are most discerning," he murmured.

He took her shoulders and drew her to him. He kissed her forehead gently, and she submitted to his embrace for a moment. Then she drew back and blinked up at him. "I must admit there is some validity to your observation. Three glasses of the green is, perhaps, a trifle overwhelming."

He grinned at her and then took her hand. Deciding to see what course he would take, she let him lead her off into a small nook to the side of the hall. There were two hideous chairs covered in a drab chartreuse, a fireplace with a small blaze – ill-advised, considering the heat of the hall, but atmospheric – and a small table.

She claimed the chair closest to the table. "And now, Sir Dragonslayer," she said, "I have a boon to ask of you."

"What do you wish?" he asked.

"A simple task, one which I feel certain you can accomplish with minimal risk to life and limb: a cup of chocolate."

"Such a feat!" he exclaimed. "However, I shall fulfill your desires. I shall acquire a cup of chocolate for you."

"Go, good sir," she said. "May you return soon to sate my thirst."

He grinned and ventured off, leaving her to observe the dancers from a new vantage point. She smiled when she saw Sheriff Lupo dancing with Blake and wondered where the Mayor had gone. Julius and Julia were cavorting, and Mary concluded that they'd partaken generously of the green whiskey.

"Mary!" Sasha exclaimed, dropping down into the empty chair. She was panting and had rolled her sleeves up as far as she could. Mary rather suspected that she had also taken her shoes off, but she'd never inquire.

"Sasha!" Mary said. "I infer you were on the dance floor?"

"Why yes, yes I was," Sasha said. "And I saw you sitting all by yourself, and that seemed like a most tragickal state of affairs! Therefore, I thought I would remedy it by joining you!"

"Your logic is, as always, impeccable," Mary said drily.

"Of course!" Sasha exclaimed. "For I am Alexandria Ivanova, and acuity starts with an 'A'. Pete!" she shouted, grabbing the attention of the passing shelley. Pete was carrying a tray of drinks to the main table, and Mary rather suspected Sasha was more interested in obtaining libations than conversing with him, which was a shame because he could be a stimulating conversationalist. He was particularly conversant in all topics gastronomic; his post-mortem life was in its eleventh decade, and he had used the time to explore the delights of cuisine far beyond the traditional shelley diet of brains.

"Alexandria, Mary," he greeted them.

"Pete, be a love and share the delightful concoction that you carry with us. Just two, thanks," she said.

"As you wish," he replied, lowering the tray so that Sasha could take two glasses. He winked at Mary and then returned to his trek to the table; she doubted that this would be the only interruption on his journey.

Sasha passed Mary one of the glasses. She sipped delicately at her own, savoring it instead of quaffing it. Mary, however, set hers aside. She would much rather have the comfort and warmth of chocolate instead of the arousal of the greenwood – perhaps Brendon would want it.

"So, Mary Cavendish, are you enjoying your first S.N.O.G. revel?" Sasha asked.

"I find it quite delightful," Mary said. "Although I admit that I look forward to returning home."

"Mmmm, I would, too, if I were engaged to Brendon Pheles."

Mary's lips curved in a smile. "I do find him a most engaging companion."

"You are ridiculous, and you two are adorable. I, not being encumbered by betrothals and contracts, am going to seek my night's companion amongst our fellow guests. Fare well, Mary! May your night be most incendiary." Sasha lifted her glass in salute and nodded at Brendon as he returned.

He passed her the chocolate she had requested. "Thank you," she said, sipping it. She offered him the whiskey in return. He took it, and they sat quietly together.

Eventually, he sat the glass on the table between them, unsipped and unappreciated. "Why do you avoid the greenwood?" she asked.

"Why would anyone avoid the greenwood?" he replied. "It would be an absurd thing to do, for it is the most universally benevolent vegetation that mankind has yet discovered."

"And yet you dodge the question," she murmured. "Just as you step aside when a shelley approaches. Just as you never touch the instruments with which I sever bonds without a protective skin of gloves. Just as you employ great circumlocutions to avoid talking about your metallurgical training." She sipped her chocolate and contemplated the observations she had just verbalized. Brendon's actions were not noteworthy, the things themselves easily explicable, but she would like to know what underlying principles unified his idiosyncrasies.

"Nothing you describe is an unusual practice," he said, settling into his chair. "Many people eschew consuming spirits which might render them incapacitated, abhor the instruments which cleave fundamental connections, and abandon people and places of their past in an effort to prove that decisions and actions do not, in fact, irrevocably mar one's character."

He held out his hand and tilted his head, and she passed him the chocolate. He sipped it once, twice, and then returned the cup to her. She looked into the cup, wondering if one could divine knowledge in chocolate dregs as tasseomancers did in tea leaves, and then set it on the small table.

"You, Mary Cavendish," he continued, "rarely talk of your parents, though I know much about your aunt and uncle."

"That is a true statement," she said, "but it does not answer my original question, although I laud your ability to deftly divert the conversation away from yourself. Therefore, I ask you twice: why do you avoid the greenwood?"

He looked at her for a long silent moment. The fire cracked, but neither of them started. Finally, he spoke. "The greenwood is inimical to me; it alters the bonds between my flesh and my spirit in a detrimental fashion."

"That's absurd," she said. "The Royal Academy conducted exhaustive investigations about the inherent properties of greenwood; it was one of the first sustained, rational inquiries into a super- or suprabotanical. They found it enhanced one's vital force, but it is inert when applied to the anima-corpus bond. No human–" She stopped and considered the conclusion that her words were shaping.

"Tell me, are you human?"

He closed his eyes. When he opened them, she would swear that there were flames dancing in their depths, if that were not patently absurd.

"No."

She decided that it would be an opportune time to finish her chocolate, and she retrieved it from the table. Sipping it slowly, she contemplated him as the music shifted and then shifted again in the background.

"What are you, then?" she finally asked.

"You might call us homo caelistis."

She raised an eyebrow. "That seems like a rather self-aggrandizing nomenclature."

"'Tis only appropriate. We are, in our natural state, pure anima. We construct bodies for ourselves if we deem it desirable or expedient, and so we pass among you silently." He leaned back into his chair, crossing his legs at the ankles and affecting nonchalance. No one else was close enough to notice the tenseness of his jaw or the way he was rubbing his thumb and forefinger together.

"How fascinating," she said. "How is that possible? The amount of energy required to maintain such a conversion must be astronomical. Are your biochemical processes consistent with those of homo sapiens, or do you more resemble homo supernatural lupus or homo supernaturalis sanguis? Sanguis seems more likely; I expect one can discount mortuus as a basis of comparison since shelleys operate on a diametrically opposed schema, all corpus and no anima. However, they might prove instructive as a comparative framework."

He laughed at her. "You are astounding. I tell you I'm not human, reveal to you a closely guarded secret, and you immediately become analytical. My dear Journey-Chirgeon, I feel quite inclined to ravish you at the moment. Are you amenable to an abrupt departure, the subsequent speculation about our personal lives amongst the community, and a most satisfying night spent in carnal pursuits?"

"Why, my dear Machinist, I find myself quite inclined to follow the course you have set forth." He offered his arm to her, and she took it.

IV. Place Your Wager (The Bet)

Mary rolled off of him, and he immediately shifted so that his head was on her stomach, ear resting just above her navel. He claimed that being able to hear the thuds and gurgles and sighs her body produced, even at rest, was reassuring. Before, she had always assumed that he was seeking confirmation of life. "Are you assessing the functioning of my body as a potential source of flesh?" she asked, carding her fingers through his hair.

She felt his breath against her belly as he huffed. "Why, Mistress Cavendish, you insult me by attributing such a crude and selfish cause to my actions," he said.

"Not at all, Mister Pheles," she said. "I merely assimilate my new knowledge of your corporeal status into my assessment of your actions. You have admitted that you are fascinated by the scents and sounds that re-affirm my status as a living being, and so I inquire if your focus is not, as I have previously thought, on the state of my anima but on the state of my corpus."

Abruptly he bit down on her belly, teeth sinking into soft skin. She gasped, her hands clenching around his hair and her leg going across his back to hold him close. She tried to push him down to her cunt, but he refused to move and his teeth went deeper. When he let go and looked up at her, she looked down, surprised that there was not blood, so sharply had he held her within his bite. "If I were more interested in corpus than anima, you would be in no doubt about the matter," he said. He smiled at her, incisors and a hint of canine, seemingly no more edged or dangerous than a human's, and she shivered.

"What are you interested in?" she asked, voice low. There were many potential answers, and she wondered which one he would give. She was not wholly defenseless, even when lying unclothed before him, but her ignorance of his strengths and vulnerabilities left her at a disadvantage.

"It is your mind that intrigues me, not the components of your form," he said.

"Oh?" She raised one of her eyebrows and stroked behind his ear, a place she knew incited his lust. "Are you not interested in my hand, my fingers, the muscles that move them or the incalculable chemical reactions that allow said movement?"

He reached up and grabbed her hand, twining his fingers in hers. "They interest me, Madam, but only so far as my lips–" he pressed light kisses over the bitemark he had left, and she frowned at the tease "–my tongue–" he licked, and she giggled at the sensation "–my teeth–" he bit down again, and she squirmed "–and the innumerable chemical reactions that allow their movement interest you."

He sat up and straddled her thighs, gazing down at her with his dark eyes. "No, I am eager to see the results of your research. Understanding the nature of the in/corporeal divide would, perhaps, allow me to walk more freely in the world of homo sapiens and homo supernaturalis without misstepping."

"So that your requirements of succulent flesh for conversion does not mark you as the most voracious of carnivores?" She drew her finger down from his mouth to his throat to his chest to his navel, scratching lightly over the midline of his body. "Your appetites are noticeable, even if they are not remarked upon." She reached his cock and grasped it, sparing it her fingernails but squeezing it firmly in the rhythm of a human heartbeat.

"Even so," he said. His fingers curled and his thighs tightened around hers, a sign of his pleasure, but he did not harden under her ministrations. She wasn't surprised; she had observed that he rarely became erect more than once a night, and she wondered if this was one of the limitations of his embodiment or a natural physiological variation.

"You do realize that my inquiry consists of exploring the mechanism by which spiritual manifestations leave ectoplasmic residue, which may not be directly applicable to you? Ghosts were once animate, whereas, according to your testimony, you are inanimate by nature. The two situations are not analogous."

"Perhaps not," he said, removing her hand when she deliberately let the friction build for too long. He flicked her nipple in retaliation, and she thumped his shoulder. He laughed and gracelessly fell down beside her, their legs intertwining. "Of course, I might persuade you to alter the direction of your research." He slid two fingers into her, palm grinding down on her clitoris, and she frowned at him even as she arched up into the sensation.

"Your blatant seduction won't succeed. I'd–" he crooked his fingers upwards, slowly sliding them out before thrusting back in "–oh, you wretch, have to start from preliminary stages again. Perhaps–" he nuzzled her throat, the scrape of his beard arousing her senses further "–ah! perhaps in a few years."

Impatient, she pulled his head up for a kiss, catching his lower lip between her teeth when they separated. Then she dropped a tiny kiss on the end of his nose before deliberately scoring her nails down his back as she nipped lightly around his throat. He moaned at the sensations, and his fingers stopped their sure movements in and out of her clenching cunt. She smirked, grabbing his wrist and pressing his hand down on her as she thrust up.

"Even with you–" she inscribed her name on his clavicle with her tongue "–as a willing experimental subject–" she blew gently across the path she had just taken, and his head fell back against the pillows "–my current investigations–" she pulled him for another kiss "–would take precedence."

He disentangled them, which she had expected; he put her hands above her head, pressing down with implicit command, which she had not. She wiggled her fingers at him, but she was content, for now, to see what he would do. "Additionally," she continued, "you'd have to–" evidently, he'd decided that kissing her torso was his next action "–abandon this body and create another–" his caresses weren't quite light enough to prompt reflexive giggles, but they did not satisfy "–so I have a baseline, and that would impede the functioning of our shop and would you please cease taunting me."

He laughed at her and merely batted her hands away when she moved to either shove him away or pull him close – she was undecided. However, his touches turned firmer, so she returned her hands to their former position above her head.

"That would be rather difficult," he murmured, interspersing his words with kisses, "given that it takes great violence to kill our bodies, and I am disinclined to pain." He had a decidedly downward trajectory, so she left her hands where they were.

"Not really, oh right there, it would be easy," she said, letting her eyes close and head fall back as he reached her groin and then he stopped.

"What did you say?" he asked, all movement stilled.

She opened her eyes again and propped herself up on her elbows to look down the length of her body at him. "That it would be easy to kill your body," she said, confused. "Surely you knew that? Why did you stop?"

"Mary, no one's ever discovered a way to kill our bodies without dismembering them first."

"That's absurd," she said. "It's a constructed body; any chirgeon would be able to sever the connection between the anima and a body in which it was not born."

"It's never been done," he reiterated, and she could not decipher the look in his eyes. "And yet you say you could do it, easily, without any great exertion."

"Of course I could," she said. He was not an imbecile, so she didn't understand why he professed disbelief. She was ignorant of the specific nature of his anima's relationship with its body, but there were universal rules to which it must be adhering.

"Mmmm. Would you care to make a wager on that?"

"Of course I can do it! Name your terms, sir."

"If you can kill me, painlessly and without interference from the authorities, I will place my talents at your disposal for a fixed term; let us say five years. Additionally, I will secure access for you at certain libraries and repositories that are kept and restricted to supernaturals. However, if I experience pain or if there's interference, you will place your talents at my disposal for a fixed term; again, let us say five years. Additionally, you will start your inquiries into the nature of divines and our in/corporeal symbiosis without delay."

"No more than five years obligation for either party, agreed. Shall we seal our pact with a kiss?" His fingers clenched at her hips, and then he bit her again.

She felt his teeth, sharp and bright on her inner thigh, as he swiftly brought her to climax by fucking her with his fingers and rubbing her clitoris directly. As she panted in the aftermath, he looked up at her and smiled. "No, with sex and blood," he said, and his teeth were tinged with red.

V. Show Your Hand (The Wake)

Mary wrung out the white cloth and then continued bathing Brendon's exanimate body. She was confident that no one would see anything amiss with the corpse. Its rate of decay had been phenomenal, but she had acted quickly to retard its degeneration once she realized that it was disintegrating without constant nourishment and renewal – once Brendon had ceased his subterfuges, she had been taken aback by how much he consumed to maintain corporeal stability. Next time she should record the rate of decay and then contact her aunt to disseminate the information; chirgeons were not often asked to aid in lawfolks' investigations, but the most accurate information was essential for their conclusions to be sound.

Padma interrupted her musings. "Mary, I've finished with this side. Would you like to summon Jack for the final intimacies and anointing, or would you prefer to care for him yourself?"

"Padma, we were engaged for a month and intimate for six; I think I am capable of handling his genitalia and putting oil on his pulse points without succumbing to hysteria," Mary replied. "Why, in the name of the celestial spheres, would you ask me such an inane question? I place my hands into the guts of living creatures; this ritual is nothing in comparison."

"Perhaps because the body of a dead lover upsets some people," Padma said, acerbity shading her voice.

The silence lasted a heartbeat, two, and Mary cast about for something to say. "I am distraught," she finally offered. "Please forgive me for being sharp with you." She dipped her cloth in water once more and continued bathing his body: waist, hips, groin, knees, calves, toes. Would his new body be shaped in the same way, or would it be altered from the planes and contours that she knew? Would he remain tense and prone to cramping in his calves? Would he still laugh when she stroked the arch of his foot? Would his new body be male? She didn't know, but she was curious to see the congruences and discrepancies when the time came.

Done with her task she set the cloth aside and picked up the small vial of amber oil (would it still be his favorite scent?) to complete the preparation. She saw Padma gazing at her, eyes narrowed, and raised her own eyebrow in inquiry. "Of course," Padma said slowly. "As you say, you are distraught."

"Yes." Mary daubed the fragrant oil at ankle and knee, wrist and elbow and neck, and then tucked his knife and notebook, in the little leather sheaths he had made for them, near his side. She hadn't wanted to bury them with his abandoned body, sure he would want them later, but he had pointed out that appearances must be maintained and that included burying favored accoutrements with the dead. She nodded at Padma, and together they grasped the white shroud and unfolded it over Brendon's cast-off body, hiding it from sight.

Her last public duty to the body concluded, she circulated amongst the guests. She discussed the greenwood harvest with Joscelyn; the difficulties of ridding one's clothes of malodorous traces of faerie bile with Pete and one of his friends, a shelley she didn't know; and the acquisition of venison with Isabella. It was a relief to encounter Helena Sky, who was young enough that she didn't feel the need to extend awkward condolences before engaging Mary in enthusiastic conversation about the rudiments of phantasmic studies. Her mother, Vera, had inquired about placing her in Mary's laboratory so that she might discover whether she had the aptitude to be a natural philosopher; Mary suspected that Helena would incline to books rather than experimentation, but she was not adverse to the engagement. Perhaps after Brendon had built his new body and they wouldn't have to work around the invisible spirit in the room.

Occasionally, Mary glanced at the ouija board placed discreetly in the corner. It was a gift given in jest, but it had proved amusing to see the planchette express Brendon's opinions. His comments on Markus and Cornelia, his former employers, when they had offered to buy 'Chinary's remaining stock for an insultingly humble price had been particularly pointed.

However, the planchette remained resting on the sun in the corner, Brendon's threat that he would bring her hand in the death of his body to light. She felt her lips curving at his bravado, and she hastily assumed a more somber mien. Other people believed him truly dead, and she ought not flaunt her seeming lack of feeling about Brendon's fate. She was grateful that the mourning customs in VivaSilva would allow her to avoid expressing grief she did not feel; she could feign sorrow for the period of wailing, but then she could gather her composure around herself, another hour of the clock closer to ending this farce.

She started when she felt a hand on her arm, followed by the question "How are you, Mary?" from Sasha.

"Hello, Sasha," she replied, embracing her friend. They hadn't seen much of each other in recent weeks; she ought to resume their weekly teas when events were no longer quite so tumultuous. "I am well, thank you."

They stood there in silence, and Mary enjoyed the comfort of not having to speak and fill the empty air. "Do you think it's too early to start the period of wailing?" she asked.

"Oh, do you wish for an extended lamentation? I'm sure no one would begrudge you their time if you do," Sasha said.

"No," Mary said, "I only intend to observe the traditional hour."

Sasha's brow furrowed, but she only said, "I'm sure it would be fine, if that's what you wish to do." Mary hummed her agreement and ventured off in order to gather the mourners.

It took her longer than she had expected. People had dispersed to every part of the house, including the upstairs sitting room and library, and she hoped that Brendon was keeping an eye on their book collections. She would be quite vexed if some of her reference materials disappeared with the mourners. They would, of course, find their way back to her eventually – the people of VivaSilva would not be so crass as to steal a volume, but many a book had been borrowed without observing the courtesies of seeking permission.

When she came back downstairs, she saw that Padma and Sasha were in conversation with one of the League members – she thought he might be the one who was scheduled to lead the discussion on phantasma management two nights hence, but she wouldn't stake her reputation on that identification. She nodded at them and then stepped into the front rank of mourners and dropped to her knees.

As she wailed, she contemplated the immediate future. She ought to call on the League while they were in town and exchange techniques for containing and managing the supernatural and supranatural. Her work was theoretical whereas theirs involved that application of principles for practical containment, but it would be invigorating to converse with others who devoted themselves to phantasmic studies.

Additionally, she needed to sort the shop, at least until Brendon could construct a new body and rejoin her. It would look odd for her to take on a new partner so quickly, but he had said that he could claim to be a Pheles relation, newly come from Boston at the behest of poor dead Brendon's fiancee. In the meantime, he had suggested that she refer their custom orders to Spencer, a smith who had worked with him at Constituents. She didn't think there were many outstanding orders – she had timed his decease carefully – but she would need to check his books in order to be certain.

She would have to trust that Brendon had a sufficient grasp of the necessities and deceptions associated with re-creating himself as his own relation that there would be minimal upheaval in their lives. In all honesty, she regretted not discussing more practical measures with him prior to the necessity of the ouija board, but she had been so caught up with the challenge of creating the perfect formula to divorce his anima and corpus without carrying out methodical trials that she had neglected the mundane details that she was now facing.

A bell rang, indicating the end of the formal lamentation, and she rose, brushing off her skirts. Her throat was sore from her ululations, but her eyes had remained dry and were neither puffy nor tender. She inclined her head to Padma, acknowledging the conclusion of her duties in today's ritual of grief, and then started the task of thanking people for their presence and seeing them on their way.

A commotion by the corpse caught her attention as she bid Julius and Julia farewell. Helena was pulling a sheet of paper out of Brendon's notebook – why would she be rummaging through Brendon's pockets? She was a well-behaved child, and she had to know that disturbing a corpse would result in punishment.

Helena held up the paper for all to see, and it damningly proclaimed: "Mary did it." Zeus' balls, Brendon must have told to her to fetch it. Mary glanced at the Ouija board, but it was undisturbed, so how had he communicated with her? Unless she was a medium, and that would be quite a sound conclusion, actually, given the girl's enthusiasm about phantasms and the fact that he had undeniably communicated with her through some method unseen. He was a sly bastard; embroiling a medium, even an untrained one like Helena, in their affairs meant the authorities would interfere, and he would win their bet by a technicality.

Spheres and stars, embroiling a medium in their affairs meant that she might be found guilty of murder; he wouldn't even have to circumvent the medium's perceptions in order to proclaim her guilt.

Making a reasoned, albeit quick, decision based on the probable inconveniences that would arise from the current chain of events, she ran. Unfortunately, the League caught her before she crossed the threshold.

VI. Collect Your Winnings (The Dream)

Mary hummed to herself as she swept the floor of her uncle's laboratory. Soon, she would be tall enough to use the worktable instead of just seeing over it. She wondered how quickly she could convince him to start teaching her.

She heard a knock behind her, and she turned around. "Who are you?" she asked, not recognizing the stranger in the doorway.

"I'm Brendon," he said. He pulled a pocket watch out of his red waistcoat – she wondered if she could talk her uncle into having a dress made for her in that color – and checked the time. "Who are you?"

"I'm Mary Margaret Cavendish, and this is my uncle's laboratory."

"Well, Miss Mary Margaret Cavendish, this is not the most auspicious setting for the conversation which is forthcoming. I believe we shall try again." He stepped out of the doorway and —

Mary yawned and leaned back against the tree. If she closed her eyes for just a moment, Lexia would be fine. Surely she hadn't been such a channel for chaos energy when she was a child. She loved her daughter, without question or equivocation, but how did such a small body get into so many awkward situations and locales?

She heard someone's throat clear, and she opened her eyes. "If you wouldn't mind," she said, "please step two feet to your left, so that I might see you without risking damage to my eyes from the sun."

"My apologies." He stepped over, and she saw her cousin Charles peering down at her. That was most perplexing, given that Charles was, to the best of her knowledge, in Saint Petersburg; also, to the best of her knowledge, he did not have shockingly crimson hair.

"Charles, why are you not in Saint Petersburg?"

"Charles? Mary, who is Charles?"

Alarmed, she sat up straight. "Are you feeling quite well? Have you inadvertently consumed experimental libations – you know that they're not always labeled as well as they should be. Wait, you wouldn't know that if you were under the influence of one, would you? Drat."

He looked at his wristwatch and said, "My apologies, Madam, I seem to have erred once more. I pray you pardon my error, and I will rendezvous with you soon."

He sauntered off, hands in his pockets, and she stared after him, disconcerted by his odd behavior. "Lexia!" she called. "Lexia, it's time to leave."

Her daughter, her hands suspiciously muddy, ran up. "But Momma! We just got here!"

"We can come back later," she said. She took Lexia's hand, and —

Mary yawned and sat up on the cot in the sheriff's office's single cell. It was not the most inhospitable place she'd ever slept, but she would not care to repeat the experience. She took the warm cloth than Brendon handed her and scrubbed her face. She lobbed it back at him, and he caught it in his left hand; his fingernails were tinted vermilion, a new affectation.

"I trust that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for your appearance in this cell, despite your current incorporeal status, the presence of cold iron inimical to phantasma, and my genuine irritation at your presence after you manipulated circumstances in a manner leading to my present incarceration," she said, her back ramrod straight and her feet flat on the floor, the most formal posture she could assume under the circumstances.

"You're dreaming," he said bluntly.

"Am I to understand, then, that you have entered my mind? That is rather disturbing, and it's not one of the abilities you disclosed to me. It will be most difficult to pursue any inquiries relevant to your people if you are not scrupulously honest with me. You ought to know such a basic tenet of scientific inquiry, Mr. Pheles."

"Well, my lady Cavendish, it didn't seem politic to mention it at the time," he said. He flopped down on the cot with her and wriggled about until he could place his head in her lap. "And, really, you shouldn't be worried. They're bringing in an experienced medium, and I'll simply tell her that little Helena was confused by my message, which isn't even an untruth, technically, and you'll be free to go. I'll let you tidy up your current experiments, but I look forward to a rapid transition into your new directions of research."

"You are very presumptuous," she said. She ran her fingers through his hair and then flicked his nose. "Now, get out of my head."

He slowly faded, leaving only his smile behind, a grin without a cat and undoubtedly designed to taunt her. However, she refused to be discomposed by his antics.

The uncomfortable environs of her cell shifted, and she was in her parents' library. She inhaled the scent of leather chairs and musty books, and she smiled.

She had spent more time with her aunt and uncle once it became clear that her personal interest lay in the realm of natural philosophy. However, her parents were bonding specialists who served both the human and supernatural community, and they had ensured that she had a thorough grounding in contract law. Brendon might possess unexpected powers, but he was still subject to the universal laws of contracts and bindings, which meant that there would be fine print for her to read and exploit.

She built up a fire in the fireplace and ran her hands over the sturdy wood table before fetching the first book. It would be a long dream.