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The Golden Age That Never Was

Chapter Text

Jack shifted uncomfortably in his ceremonial soldier’s uniform. Unlike the comfortable, workable one he wore in his day to day training, this one seemed designed to chafe and pinch. Just because the gold buttons were shiny and the trimming was pretty, didn’t mean that he had to like standing there dressed up like some toy that some kid in a creche would use when playing games of soldiers versus shadows.

‘Stop it,’ Jamie hissed under his breath. ‘We all have to wear it. It’s not just you, you know.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Jack muttered, forcing himself to stare ahead. His body was at attention, legs slightly spread, arms behind his back and thumb hooked over his other thumb. By his side, a decorative smallsword. It wasn’t even his. He couldn’t afford proper ceremonial gear, almost none of the uninitiated soldiers in training could. Everything they were given was secondary or tertiary hand-me-downs from soldiers that had been killed in the war. Except for his uniform. That held the starched stiffness of something new sewed by someone who didn’t really care about their job anymore.

He stood on a huge hanging platform of black marble swimming with gold striations that gleamed like stars. He, like hundreds of other soldiers, watched as attentively as possible as the real warriors – the ones on the opposite side of the platform – climbed a spindly golden spiral staircase to a gleaming smaller platform lifted by magic and engineering both. There, two thrones carved of goldstone, crusted in carbuncles, and the Tsar and Tsarina Lunanoff themselves. The Tsarina covered in so much embroidered red and gold fabric that she looked as round as a pincushion, and the Tsar in a many-layered suit, and a cape, and some neck-collar that looked impractical – he could have been decapitated and resurrected and no one would know because his neck wasn’t even visible.

Jack sighed, rolled his eyes. He hated the ceremonies. There was only one thing that made them worthwhile, and that one thing was nowhere to be seen.

‘Oh look,’ Jamie said, sotto voce. ‘It’s your hero.’

Jack didn’t move his head, but his eyes slid sideways and he caught a glimpse of Royal Admiral Kozmotis Pitchiner. Angular face and brilliant gold eyes – not that that was such a rarity amongst the Golden Warriors – and hair that stood stiff and slicked back, giving him a sense of movement even when he was standing still. The Royal Admiral approached the golden staircase and Jack watched, his heart leaping in his chest. All of them had someone they wanted to be like, to admire. Most of the soldiers in training modelled themselves on heroes long dead.

But Jack wanted to be like the Royal Admiral. Someone to be feared and reckoned with, who commanded almost as much – if not more – respect than the Tsar and Tsarina. His tall, lithe body made its way gracefully up the staircase. Strapped to his back was a sword that was not ceremonial, that had blistered through so many legions of Darkness that he was already legendary. On his exquisitely tailored black and gold ceremonial attire, were shining shoulder sleeve insignia. On both sides of his coat, numerous medals and badges, some that had been invented entirely for the Royal Admiral himself. Jack knew what every one of them meant.

He managed to hide his hero-worship from everyone except his roommate, Jamie. To his credit, Jamie didn’t mock Jack mercilessly, so much as playfully make fun while still respecting him. Not that Jack ever minded. Without Jamie, Jack would never have been able to see through even his most basic training. No one else believed he would make it.

‘He’s looking handsome today, isn’t he?’ Jamie murmured.

‘Shut up,’ Jack whispered.

‘So fine,’ Jamie said.

A few other soldiers around them hissed in displeasure. Even though Jack and Jamie were talking too quietly for their lieutenant to hear them, the soldiers around them could still hear the murmurs, and were trying to be – as far as Jack was concerned – far too serious and sombre.

Might as well scrap the motto from: To conquer fear, you must become fear, and change it to: Serious and sombre all day, every day.

The Royal Admiral was up there in front of the Tsar and Tsarina, smiling politely, exchanging words that made the Tsarina laugh before covering her mouth with a heavily painted fan. The Tsar held the Royal Admiral’s hands warmly. They were like family. The formality of the ceremony was still present, but even from such a distance, Jack could tell that the Tsar pinned the new medal to Royal Admiral Kozmotis Pitchiner’s uniform like a father might give a reward to a son.

The Royal Admiral descended the steps after bowing deeply. There was polite applause and the sound of a single horn being blown. As soon as the Royal Admiral disappeared out of sight, Jack let his mind drift. He wondered what this medal was for? No doubt for recent services rendered. Everyone knew that their Golden Age was being increasingly threatened by the Darkness. Only a week ago, an entire platoon of soldiers had been overcome and destroyed by fearlings and nightmare men, and that hadn’t been on another planet, it had been right here on Lune – a place that Jack had mistakenly assumed would remain safe almost all his life.

Another person was now ascending the steps for a medal, a Commander Jack didn’t care about.

‘How much longer do we need to stand here?’ Jamie said, echoing Jack’s thoughts.

‘A thousand years,’ Jack muttered, droll.

‘And lo,’ Jamie said, making himself sound like one of their golden priests, ‘when the Darkness came, it was shocked to find that the soldiers had already fossilised from boredom, and so they defeated the Light.’

Someone next to Jamie snorted, someone in front laughed under their breath.

Not so serious and sombre after all, yeah?

Jack smirked, but refused to move his head. The last time he’d shifted and fidgeted too much in the ceremonial rows before the Tsar and Tsarina, his lieutenant had sent him for fifty lashes. Fifty. It would be disproportionate for any other soldier in training. But his lieutenant had it out for him, and that was that.

His back was ruined with scars now, because they’d even refused him the golden healing light. To teach him a lesson. Almost unheard of for fifty lashes.

Even the idea of looking sideways made his back crawl. But he still couldn’t make himself shut up, and none of the soldiers around him would rat him out.

Here’s hoping.

Minutes turned into half an hour, turned into an hour. Commanders were still walking up to see the Tsar and the Tsarina. Occasionally there would be a burst of applause – the soldiers in training weren’t allowed to clap, so it all came from the lieutenants and the Warriors and noblesse on the other side – and even more rarely, a scattering of ceremonial music from a small orchestra nearby. Jack pretended he was meditating, while he was sure that many of the soldiers around him were actually meditating. After all, their exercises in stillness and inner focus were a big part of their training.

Jack had thought a lot of his training would be waving swords around and vanquishing foes, but no, a lot of it was literally just standing or sitting or lying still and listening to some priest drone on and on and on and on.

Jack bet that the Royal Admiral didn’t have to worry about those kinds of things. He probably understood – like Jack did – how useless it was to practice all those lessons of stillness.

Pretending to meditate involved daydreaming. He imagined himself stabbing the Darkness with his meteorite sword – not the grand thing that the Royal Admiral used, but something more suited to his size. He saw himself on one of the great space clippers, chasing down the cloudswarms of evil as the golden figurehead on the front of the ship looked impassively on. He imagined the Royal Admiral standing next to him, looking down at him with pride and camaraderie, putting a hand on his shoulder and then stroking down his back, just enough to be inappropriate. Enough to get Jack’s heart thumping hard in his chest, make his eyelashes flutter against his cheeks.

Inevitably, he daydreamed about other things that he wouldn’t tell the others. How many of them wanted to jerk off to their heroes?

Well, maybe not many, but definitely more than zero.

He was so deep in his own thoughts that when a deep bass thud shook the entire platform, he tuned it out.

The second thud came, shaking him like an earthquake. His eyes flew open. Several of the soldiers around him lost their footing. Jack looked around quickly, and the lieutenants looked just as confused. Across the platform on the other side, the Golden Warriors were withdrawing their weapons. The Royal Admiral had his sword out, holding it in one hand and pointing to the Tsar and Tsarina with the other, in the middle of shouting a warning, clipped orders following.

So many of them stayed frozen. This was the Royal Arena. Protected on all sides by the military. Perhaps the engineering helping to keep the platform in space was failing, but if that was the case, the magic would pick up the slack.

But then why would their weapons be out?

Jack’s hand drifted to the hilt of a smallsword he’d never used in battle before.

‘I have a bad feeling…’ Jamie whispered.

Jack swallowed, because he could feel it too. They’d read so many books about it. It was even enshrined in their mythology.

First, the Children of Lune would feel the hair of their arms stand on end. Second, the Children of Lune would feel a cold sickness roll up their throats like an unwanted wave. Third, the Children of Lune would feel the icy stare of the Dark at the back of their heads and they would turn. Even if no shadow was there, the Darkness was upon them.

The fable that Jack had listened to all his life became a series of instincts. First his skin crawled, then he felt nauseated, then he spun like so many of the other soldiers and there was nothing there. No Darkness.

‘Defensive stance!’ One of the lieutenants shouted. ‘A ring around the Tsar and Tsarina!’

‘No!’ the Royal Admiral shouted. ‘No! Leave a path clear, if you please.’

The Golden Warriors were flanking the platform at the bottom of the stairs, others already escorting the Tsar and Tsarina down the stairs themselves. The Tsarina herself was holding a stiletto knife in her hand, and the Tsar was armed with a rapier.

Another boom, this one even louder than the others. Jack staggered sideways. Lines of rank broke apart completely as several soldiers in training were shaken off their feet. The Tsar on the staircase slipped down a handful of steps before righting himself with a hand clinging to the railing. The Royal Admiral and the Commanders were all there, protecting their royalty. Jack withdrew his smallsword, Jamie looked at him and then did the same.

‘Oi! Overland! Get your sword back in your sheath and wait for orders! I’m not above sending you to the whipping stand again.’

Jack stared at his lieutenant, incredulous, sheathing his sword and stepping back, and that was when he saw it.

In the corner of the platform, where sculptures stood, Darkness was beginning to swarm. Jack spun and looked at the other corners, saw the ropey amorphous masses of Darkness beginning to separate and sprawl at every corner. Turning from a hideous, huge mass of blackness, to individual beings with hungry maws and empty eyes. They were surrounded. Another platform-shaking boom, and the crossing that connected the platform to Lune itself – a bridge that looked as though it was made of starlight – disintegrated and fell away.

It wasn’t chaos. Not at first. The Golden Warriors formed two circles around the Tsar and Tsarina, and the rest – including the Royal Admiral – launched themselves to each of the corners, unleashing their golden light. It looked like they would get the upper hand quickly. And since none of the higher ups were asking for help from the soldiers in training – and why would they? Soldiers in training couldn’t make the golden light that vanquished the shadows – the lieutenants were snapping for everyone to stay in place, hold still.

It felt so wrong. Jack couldn’t stand at attention like the others. Even Jamie was managing it, though it was obvious he was finding it difficult, swearing under his breath.

‘How did this even happen?’ Jamie whispered.

‘Complacence,’ another soldier in training said, and Jack rolled his eyes.

It happened because they were in a war. They were always in it. Jack knew that better than anyone. But no one could live constantly on guard either. Hypervigilance was just as dangerous as the living Darkness. It made people jump at shadows that weren’t alive, suspect the Darkness where there was only regular night. It dumped people into labyrinths in their minds and left them hospitalised and unable to function.

Shouting, the visceral shrills, shrieks, moans and grumbles of the Darkness, and then a scream as one of the Commanders was enfolded into black goop and disappeared. The south-west corner was overwhelmed, shadows oozing over the marble.

Another Commander lost as Jack stared on in horror. This was another battle between the Darkness and the Light, and their lieutenants would just have them stand there?

Just because he couldn’t make the golden light, didn’t mean he couldn’t be useful. A meteorite smallsword could at least repel the shadows, even if it couldn’t kill them.

He sprang out of line and ran to the south-west corner, even as his lieutenant screamed at him, Jamie shouting his name.

But it was worth a few more stripes upon his back, wasn’t it? He hated seeing the Disciplinarian, but being alive to live through the pain of a whipping was better than just standing there.

The Golden Warriors around the Tsar and Tsarina had made an impenetrable ball of golden light around their royalty, escorting them towards small winged gableboats that had shown up near the edges of the platform that were least threatened by shadows. Evacuation by air was necessary, they wouldn’t be able to rebuild the bridge in time.

Jack saw several other soldiers in training join him, each of them with their ceremonial smallswords out, running in shoes too tight or too big, in clothing that swam or stifled. Lieutenant Ashnikov, not of his order, had ordered her own soldiers in training to break rank and join in.

Reading about fighting off the Darkness was nothing like the reality. Unlike so many of the other soldiers in training who were now balking and chanting hysterically to themselves, even turning and fleeing and losing their mettle, Jack knew what he was dealing with.

Knew because he’d dealt with it before. Understood how quickly the Darkness could take away the Light.

He didn’t want to see the look on his sister’s face as she’d been yanked away from him, one minute there, the next gone. He didn’t want to see it as he charged at the Darkness and drove it back with a tiny metal point, gritting his teeth together and pressing forwards where others were falling back.

But the Darkness evoked fear in everyone, and it shook loose memories in Jack’s head that he’d rather not see again.

He heard a voice he didn’t want to hear:

‘Jack! Jack, please! I’ll do anything! Don’t hurt me!’

The first three words had been hers, the last belonged to the Darkness that could – and did – puppet the voices of all loved ones. The Golden Warriors knew how to ignore it, but Jack’s eyes burned and he screamed wetly even as he felt soldiers in training around him get taken in, enfolded, drawn away. Their screams for help, their shouts of despair – would he hear them in the future when he confronted the Darkness again?

‘We are the Light,’ Jack whispered to himself, ‘and we do not fail. We are the Light and we do not fail. We are the Light and we do not-’

He felt a horrid sensation at his feet and looked down to see a nightmare man with its disfigured hand around him. Jack stumbled backwards into a falling soldier and turned around and realised that it was chaos, everywhere.

He backed away from the shadows and looked for Jamie, eyes wide, mouth open, sword swinging. In a moment it was like he’d forgotten almost all of his training, all of the formal movements. He only remembered instincts now. Only knew to keep the smallsword near him.

Absently, he picked another one up from the ground where it had been dropped by someone who wasn't there to reclaim it. Two was better than one, wasn’t it?

‘Jamie!’ Jack shouted, looking at the fallen, the ones that the Darkness hadn’t claimed because they’d died before they could be overtaken. Saw bursts of golden light everywhere. Two gableboats rapidly flew away and Jack hoped that the Tsar and the Tsarina were on them.

Then the high pitched whine of an engine as North himself showed up on a speedy little hydrofoil, holding onto the metal sail with one hand and gripping his sabre in the other. He didn’t land on the platform but instead swooped beneath it. Another huge boom, and Jack realised that the bulk of the Darkness might not even be on top of the platform yet, but beneath it, clinging where almost no one would see it.

‘We are the Light,’ Jack whispered frantically, feeling like a child trying to soothe himself after a nightmare. ‘Jamie!’

The smell of blood filled the air, then something like char even though he couldn’t see anything burning. The golden light came again and again, and this was a siege, Jack realised. It was a proper siege. This wasn’t some small skirmish. This was- How much had the Darkness managed to infiltrate their planet? How bad were things really?

‘We are the Light,’ Jack reminded himself, before jumping towards an errant fearling that was harassing a soldier in training who seemed to have forgotten that she could fight back. She’d lost her smallsword.

‘Here!’ Jack said, thrusting the spare one at her, using his other to keep the fearling at bay. ‘Use it! We are the Light, remember?’

The soldier in training stared at him for long moments. Jack had no idea who she was. Their lieutenants didn’t like them to learn too many names while in training. Some years, hardly anyone passed the initiations, and a lot of those people were never sound enough to return to Lune society on the rare occasions they survived and had still failed.

She gripped the hilt of the sword and her eyebrows pulled together, her eyes narrowed and she allowed herself the smallest smile.

‘We are the Light,’ she echoed, and then she pushed herself up to her knees and swiped at the fearling with the sword. It fell back, and she stood up where it lost power. She pulled strength towards herself, and Jack ran off, feeling like he’d done a good thing, having no idea if she would live.

‘Jamie, where are you, I swear on the Light itself if I can’t find you I’m going to-’

‘Jack!’ Jamie shouted. ‘Jack!’

Jack whirled around and saw Jamie staring at him, surrounded by fearlings and nightmare men and then he felt his heart drop through his gut when Jamie disappeared into the Darkness. Just like that. One moment staring at Jack with a light of hope in his eyes and the next-

It was happening again.

Happening all over again.

‘No,’ Jack said under his breath, not even aware of talking as he sprinted towards the darkness. ‘No it’s not happening again. It’s not.’

Because I’m a soldier now, and soldiers can save lives. They can save lives. They can-

Jack shrieked as he brought the smallsword down into the writhing darkness, avoiding the true mass of it where Jamie’s body was. The darkness recoiled, but dragged Jamie back with it. And Jack couldn’t even see him anymore, he was just a shadowy lump, and he’d die soon if Jack didn’t do something. He had to do something.

He stabbed again and again, but the darkness only flinched back, refusing to let go of its quarry.

‘Let him go! Let him go you bastards!’ Jack shouted, fury fighting with the terror inside of him. Above him, the shadows had formed a wave and were going to crash down on all of them. ‘Jamie! Jamie you hang in there! You hang in there!’

Jack swung his smallsword as viciously as he could, and then a burst of golden light smashed into the shadows. Jack stared at his sword in amazement, then was shoved out of the way by a heavy, brutal force. He skidded metres across the marble, looked up to see the Royal Admiral himself, a sword that should be used by two hands only held in one, and his hand around Jamie’s collar, dragging him back from the darkness.

Jack hadn’t made the golden light, the Royal Admiral had. Jack stared at him in shock, and then watched in amazement as the Royal Admiral tore Jamie free from the Darkness and flung him away.

By the Light, he’s amazing.

Staggering to his feet, Jack could think of nothing better than to fight by his side, especially when it was obvious that Jamie was alive and doing okay. Jamie was already pushing himself upright, he’d lost his smallsword, but he found another one on the marble and armed himself, offering Jack a shaky grin.

But as soon as Jack stood by the Royal Admiral’s side, he was picked up by the upper arm and thrown backwards, the Royal Admiral snarling at him as though he was not a royal champion, but a beast.

‘Do keep out of my way,’ the Royal Admiral snapped with a voice that was too smooth for the carnage around them. ‘I’m not a babysitter. I’m the Admiral.’

And with that the Royal Admiral moved on, creating the golden light and leaving Jack standing shakily on the marble platform, breathing hard from everything that had just happened.

Jamie walked to him and leaned against him, and they both supported each other with their own weight, looking around.

The Golden Warriors were finally gaining the upper hand, but Jack thought that at least a quarter of the soldiers in training were missing. And the Golden Warriors didn’t look as fleshed out as normal. The orchestra was gone. Instruments cluttering the ground, broken and untended.

‘What a shit show,’ Jamie said quietly. ‘I don’t know if I’m cut out for this soldier stuff.’

‘Don’t say that,’ Jack said, looking at the Royal Admiral and feeling annoyed and…disillusioned. ‘They need us.’

‘Sure they do,’ Jamie said. ‘Maybe in ten years. But right now? We’re nothing more than a liability. Aren’t we?’

Jack looked around and thought about the initiation that was meant to be coming up at the end of the year. If he could just…prove himself enough to make it through to the other side. Even if he did make it to the other side, it would take so much intensive training just to be able to make the golden light. He was already known for not being the best, not being the brightest, and always being written up for discipline.

But Jack had passed a lot of the tests, and where he’d stumbled, Jamie had used his family’s influence to see Jack through to the next stage, and the stage after that.

Jack needed Jamie.

‘We are the Light,’ Jamie said, ‘and we do not fail.’ Then he sighed. ‘I can’t decide if my parents are going to be happy or really pissed. But I know one thing, they’re not going to let me leave.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, seeing that the soldiers in training really did get in the way, no matter how hard they were trying to help. ‘Guess not.’

‘I’m really glad you’re here with me,’ Jamie said. ‘If it wasn’t for you…I don’t know what I’d do. Desert, probably.’

‘Nah,’ Jack said, pulling away from Jamie and squeezing his elbow. ‘You’re no deserter, Jamie.’

But Jamie didn’t look so sure, and Jack wasn’t certain either. Perhaps the truth was that they both needed each other to stay in the royal military. Maybe it meant that neither of them belonged there.

‘He looked at me like I was nothing,’ Jack said, eyes finding the Royal Admiral and staying on him. ‘Well, I’m not nothing. And I’m going to prove it.’

‘That’s the spirit,’ Jamie said tiredly. ‘I think I need a healer now. Or one of the priests.’

‘What?’ Jack said.

He turned around just in time to see Jamie pass out.

 

Chapter Text

Jamie was asleep in one of the healing beds, and the priest had left a few hours ago. Shadow-sickness they said. Not too serious. He’d be fine in a week or two, but no more training until then. And he’d have to ease back into it.

No one really knew exactly what shadow-sickness was, and it manifested in different people in different ways. In Jamie, it just seemed to make him weak and tired. That was how it affected most people. But some were driven to acute acts of malice and hatred and anger. Yet others would become catatonic, and never eat or drink or move again. So Jamie was lucky, they said, because he’d not been consumed by Darkness for that long. After the priest ran a gentle golden light through Jamie’s body, he’d smiled at Jack’s anxiety and explained that his friend would be just fine.

Just fine.

Jack stared at him and then drew the blankets up to his chin, and then drew them down again because he remembered that Jamie actually hated blankets that touched his face and preferred not to be completely covered. He resettled the blankets by his shoulders and looked around the creamy room, painted in tones of brightness and warmth.

He rubbed at the back of his head and walked down the corridor, still wearing his stupid ceremonial garb. There were quite a few others like him in the healing precinct, those that had been injured, or needed to be checked over for shadow-sickness, or were watching over friends or peers. In Jack’s pocket, a slip of parchment saying that he was to report to the Disciplinarian for ten lashes before the day’s end.

Even with the stupid war going on, he hadn’t escaped it. His lieutenant had it out for him. But then…he couldn’t get the look on the Royal Admiral’s face out of his head when he’d thrown Jack out of the way. Like seeing Jack there ready to fight beside him was like finding one of the spindle spiders on the back of his hand. He’d seemed not just angry, but actually revolted.

Jack went and stood outside of the building – a tall, white-cream stone edifice that stretched up to a golden spire in the sky. He walked around to the side of the building, a more sheltered place of overgrown gnarled trees with red leaves, and shrubs with flowers of gold and auburn upon them. There he stopped in surprise, when he saw the Royal Spymaster.

‘Uh,’ he said, eloquently.

Spymaster Toothiana looked over at him, raising manicured eyebrows. She raised the cigarette holder to her lips and then blew out a thin wisp of smoke. She leaned back against the wall. She was garbed in ceremonial attire too, though instead of the black and gold favoured by the military, she was in her own colours. Those of the Spymaster, blue and violet and green. The suit was a fierce blue, the tailcoat flaring out and embroidered heavily in lunar alphabet charms in iridescent violet. At her head she wore a metallic green earpiece, spelled to let her receive the communications of her spies; the Little Fangs. Or as she called them, her Little Teeth.

They called her the Fangs of the Kingdom. Whenever military offense wasn’t called for, she would be there, sinking her metaphorical teeth into the situation and tearing the jugular out of whatever might threaten them.

‘I’ll just go,’ Jack said.

He was surprised at the way she smiled at him, eyes crinkling. Then she beckoned him over, brown fingers ending in nails that were painted in a blue pearl and sharpened to points.

‘Hello there, little soldier,’ Lady Toothiana said. ‘Have you just been discharged from the healing tower?’

‘No,’ Jack said, shaking his head. ‘A friend…he’s got the shadow-sickness. Not badly though.’

‘Oh yes,’ Toothiana said, nodding and taking another drag from her long cigarette holder. It was made of jade, carved delicately. ‘I, too, am here for a friend. North has the shadow-sickness as well. Not badly.’

‘Should you…even be telling me that?’

‘It’s not a state secret,’ Toothiana laughed. ‘Lovely that my reputation precedes me though. That silly Nikolai pushed himself too hard to save the platform. But, he does love his inventions and machinery, so it was inevitable.’

Jack stared at her. North was the Engineer. The Golden Warrior that retired his sabres from the frontlines to make the very best ships and hydrofoils and engines and large scale weapons. Everyone knew he was the Engineer of Wonders, a good-natured but brusque celebrity. The soldiers in training could only dream of piloting one of his ships one day.

‘But he’s North,’ Jack said. ‘How could he get shadow-sickness?’

‘He’s had it before, my dear one, and he’ll have it again. Nothing to fear except fear itself, yes? You shouldn’t trouble yourself! And you? What’s your name?’

‘Jackson Overland, ma’am,’ Jack said. ‘But everyone calls me Jack.’

‘Jack,’ she said, looking up at the trees. ‘What a nice, solid name. You can depend on a Jack. I’m not sure you can depend on a Jackson Overland. You’re the one that’s constantly getting written up, aren’t you?’

Jack stared at her, and she gazed back at him. Her opalescent violet eyes saw far too much.

‘You’ve heard of me?’ Jack said.

‘Of course!’ Toothiana said, smiling broadly. ‘I make it my business to hear of anyone who sticks out from a crowd. Good or bad.’

‘You couldn’t by any chance get me out of a lashing, could you?’

Toothiana raised her eyebrows at him, then she bent down and stubbed the cigarette out against the damp earth. When she leaned back into the wall, she crossed one leg over the other. Her boots were an oily blue. If it weren’t for the fact that the Lords and Ladies of the royal and adjunct houses were even more impressively dressed, he’d think that she stood out. Weren’t Spymasters meant to be subtle?

‘What did you do this time?’

‘I fought back,’ Jack said, ‘against the shadows! I did what we’re supposed to do.’

‘Ah ah,’ Toothiana said, raising her hand. ‘What does the slip say?’

‘Oh,’ Jack said, and then rolled his eyes. ‘That I broke rank, ignored a direct order, ignored another direct order – I didn’t hear them – and that I…interfered with the ability of the Golden Warriors to function or some…crap.’

‘How many lashes?’

‘Ten,’ Jack said.

‘Little soldier,’ Toothiana said quietly, ‘it could be a lot worse. That many rules broken? On your record? It’s amazing you have any skin left on that back of yours at all.’

‘Thanks,’ Jack said, staring at her. She only smiled at him like he’d meant it as actual gratitude. Jack felt the scar tissue without even touching it. He didn't really have much skin left as it was.

‘Well, my rebellious Jack, I’m going to get a move on and check up on North. I do hope Jamie recovers nicely. Farewell.’

It was only once she’d left that he realised he hadn’t mentioned Jamie’s name once.

He decided that as nice as she seemed, she was kind of creepy.

*

There was no point putting off his discipline. Besides, he didn’t want to make Jamie feel obligated to care for him while he was still recovering, so if Jack did it now, then Jamie would be in the hospital and couldn’t do anything else except rest. And besides, ten lashes weren’t as bad as fifty, and they sometimes put a salve on the cuts afterwards anyway. When he was allowed, when Crossholt hadn't put No Healing in big letters on the slip. He’d be fine. It’d hurt, but he’d survived the siege where so many others hadn’t, so he’d be fine.

That’s what he kept telling himself as he mounted the spiralling steps to the Disciplinarian’s tower. At least the lashes wouldn’t be public. That sort of punishment was saved for thieves and other criminals, not soldiers in training, even the really bad ones. No matter how much his lieutenant would love to stand there and watch him suffer.

A lot of soldiers in training hadn’t made it through the battle. Jack kept telling himself that he was being unrealistically upset, that the sadness and fear in his gut was irrational. They were meant to lose a lot of the soldiers in training. Less than a quarter made it through to the other side of the initiation! They weren’t supposed to get too attached. Not yet. That came later.

But Jack thought of all the screaming, all that Darkness, and he was struggling to keep his eyes clear of tears. Everyone else was walking around with their heads up, talking in the chants that they were taught, and none of it offered any solace to Jack. He’d never been one for the prayers and the chants anyway. It wasn’t like saying them had ever brought his sister back, or stopped her from being taken away. Just because he believed in the power of the Light to vanquish the Darkness, didn’t mean he believed that words alone would stop the war.

The others clung to the priests and their words where Jack broke away. And he supposed that was some fundamental flaw inside himself. Because none of them were walking up the dark, damp steps with him. He walked to the Disciplinarian tower alone, parchment clutched in a sweaty hand, still wearing his ceremonial dress. He hadn’t seen the point in returning to barracks. Might as well get a uniform that didn’t fit properly stained bloody. Not his proper clothing.

When he reached the top of the staircase, he stared at the engineered landing and thought again of how the Darkness had stuck itself to the bottom of that platform. He looked up at the dark stone blocks making the tower and sighed. The walkway to the large arched door was wide, his footsteps dull. He knocked on the wood and blinked when the Disciplinarian himself opened the door.

‘Mate,’ the Disciplinarian said, ‘I really didn’t want to have to see anyone, today of all days. Why did it have to be you?’

Jack swallowed and handed the slip over. ‘Can one of your other servants just do it? Like the last times?’

‘Everyone’s off today,’ the Disciplinarian said. ‘And I don’t get a day off, because this is where I bleedin’ live, isn’t it? Come on then.’

Jack followed him into the tower, looking around with as much awe that had found him every other time he’d visited. This wasn’t originally intended to be a Disciplinarian tower, but a tower of Alchemy. But when E. Aster Bunnymund moved in, it became both, until finally the soldiers really only thought of it as a place of punishment. The reality was that the air always smelled metallic and sharp and a bit sulphurous here. There were always wisps of coloured smokes hanging about the place; violet and pink, red and green. The tall walls were splattered with the remnants of explosions, gouged out in some places, looking like yellow or silver paint had been flung upon them in others. Bits of lunar alphabet and lunar glyphs were painted upon almost every surface.

The Disciplinarian muttered under his breath as he read over the slip, leading Jack past all the rooms and spaces that didn’t belong to anyone else but E. Aster Bunnymund when he was an Alchemist. All the discipline was doled out in a wide outdoor area at the back of the tower. Jack remembered. His shoulders itched. He knew from experience that the Disciplinarian had a fierce and brutal whip hand. The saying went: ‘Ten lashes from him might as well be a hundred from another.’

‘Well,’ Jack said, ‘you know if you want a day off, you could just pretend you…’

The look that he was given was enough to kill the voice in the back of his throat.

‘Eleven,’ the Disciplinarian said. ‘I’ll add the reason why to your record myself.’

Lunar Light, I guess he’s not someone to negotiate with then. Damn it all.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, his voice weak.

‘I told you last time that I didn’t want to see you again, didn’t I?’ The creature didn’t even turn around. He didn’t come from Lune, like many of the other citizens. He came from a distant planet of Phookas that had been destroyed by the Darkness a long time before. Refugees had spilled out into the rest of the world. There weren’t many of the rabbit eared alchemists left.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, stepping down porch steps onto grass that seemed a little too cheerfully green to really belong to what was about to happen. His gut clenched and he looked at the wooden cross balefully.

‘Strip off the top half,’ the Disciplinarian said abruptly.

‘Not everything?’ Jack said, looking over his shoulder.

‘You won’t bleed as much this time,’ the Disciplinarian said, reaching for a coiled whip from a rack of instruments. ‘A towel will catch the rest. Go on then, you little scamp, let’s get this over and done with. The longer you wait, the worse it’ll be.’

‘Uh huh,’ Jack said sceptically. It was going to be bad either way. In about ten or twenty minutes, he’d be swimming in enough pain that he might not care as much about everything that had happened. Jamie being sick. The fact that he’d left Jamie there on the stone to go fight with his hero, who had flung him away like garbage.

Jack stripped off as quickly as possible in fabric that fought him. He hung the coat with its golden buttons on the hook provided, stripped off a white shirt that marked his status for what it was. Then he walked over to the cross before the Disciplinarian even ordered him there. There were two leather loops for him to hold onto, because they wouldn’t tie him down. Not unless they had to. But it would mean a black mark on his record, another one, if he needed to be tied down for it.

E. Aster Bunnymund walked around with the thick, cylindrical piece of leather, holding it up for Jack to bite down into it, in order to stop him from breaking his own teeth or biting through his lips or tongue.

The stern man looked at Jack down his nose, holding the whip in his hand, grey green eyes holding no malicious love for his job. It made it easier somehow, knowing that they both weren’t going to enjoy themselves.

‘You’re not even going to learn a thing from this, are you?’ the Disciplinarian said, sighing. ‘There’s some that just don’t take to learning from the whip. It’s not a good thing either, young man. You’d bloody well better find a way to learn and learn fast, or the shadows will eat you up, and that’s worse than this, trust me.’

Jack believed that much was true, but he didn’t nod when Bunnymund walked behind him. He gripped the leather loops harder, bit down on the leather. It tasted of soap, and there were no previous indentations in it, but he knew they reused them. Maybe it was the one he’d bitten into last time. Then, they’d had to tie it in place around his face, because they knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his jaw locked long enough through fifty lashes.

Fingers tucked a towel into the hem at the back of his pants, to catch any trickles of blood and prevent his clothing from being soiled.

He jerked when he felt fingertips cased in leather touch the scars on his back carefully. A few more touches, and then an index finger lingered at a spot that made Jack have to fight himself to stop from cringing.

‘I’ll try and avoid this bit here,’ Bunnymund said musingly. ‘This all healed terribly. Bet you didn’t lie still like you were told, going off like a frog in a sock instead.’

Jack managed a shrug, exhaling hard through his nostrils.

‘Yep, just like I thought. Rightio, brace yourself.’

His fingers were burning on the leather, he forced his eyes open and stared out into the open afternoon, thinking of Jamie lying in the hospital bed. Even if he didn’t agree with his lieutenant, he felt like he deserved this somehow, like he’d failed.

The leather slicing through the air made his guts feel like they were liquefying, and then the cold shock of it cut across his back. There was always a few moments, a few seconds where the pain didn’t register. Icy sweat broke out over his body, his heart seemed to beat in space, and behind it followed a heavy blaze of pain that punched all the way through to the front of his ribcage. He wheezed, but he held onto the loops, bit down, stayed focused.

But the head Disciplinarian hit harder than the others. His strokes were precise, but each one felt like it was going to slice him in half. By the seventh, he was making choked sounds he couldn’t stop, and he was shaking so hard he thought his arms would give out. Fifty lashes administered by Bunnymund would probably kill him.

But Bunnymund didn’t stop, didn’t show him sympathy, which was for the best really. Jack was certain that if someone touched his shoulder, or said a kind word, he’d just start crying and he wouldn’t even really understand why. But kept as an indifferent transaction, he could bear it.

And so he did, all the way to the eleventh stroke.

Jack felt blood oozing down the flare of fire and pain on his back. Felt it collect warmly before seeping into the towel, where it turned cold instead.

‘Hang tight a minute longer,’ Bunnymund said, keeping his voice professional.

Jack cried out at the scratchy wet cloth used to mop the worst of the blood away. The leather bit rolled out of his mouth and dropped to the floor, and he bit his lower lip to stop himself apologising. He wouldn’t even know what he was apologising for.

‘Get your feet underneath you properly,’ Bunnymund said crisply.

The command was a relief, and Jack focused on it. Trying to imagine that he had legs stronger than they felt. Forcing himself to breathe through the worst of the pain. Every exhale stretched his skin, and it didn’t matter that he’d been through worse, it still wasn’t easy to deal with. It left him dizzy and floating, like Bunnymund could tie a string to his ankle and he’d just ride the pain all the way up to the sky. He didn’t like the sensation and focused on the ground instead. The scratchy cloth.

Then a spray misted liberally over his back. It would help the blood to coagulate faster, stop the bleeding. And then Bunnymund applied the salve with fingers that were no longer covered in leather. It didn’t take the pain away, but it helped the skin to heal at an accelerated pace. He realised he didn’t have any extra stocks of food to deal with the increased metabolism that would come from this.

No golden healing light this time either. But Jack had grown used to that.

Eventually, he let go of one of the leather loops and shifted his weight. He could stand. He could walk down the stairs. He’d be fine. He let go of the other loop. Bunnymund wasn’t even looking at him, but tossing the bloodied whip into an empty sink where it would presumably be cleaned. Jack turned and walked with as much steadiness as he could muster to his clothing. He wouldn’t be able to put it on now.

He’d have to cross the cobbled streets with a bare back, and everyone would know.

Though a lot of people wouldn’t care.

He wiped quickly at his eyes, blowing out a few heavier exhales while he got used to his skin stretching and shifting as he walked. He’d just lie down when he got back to barracks. Hopefully. If only he could make himself feel less like a balloon, but eventually he’d come back to himself. He always did.

He walked back through the tower itself, his coat and shirt folded over one arm. Bunnymund was already behind his counter, writing logs in Lunar Alphabet shorthand, which involved a whole lot of glyphs that Jack didn’t know. Outside of the basic alphabet, there was too much to learn and understand. Only linguists, nobles and alchemists understood most of it.

‘I don’t want to see you here again,’ Bunnymund said, but his eyes weren’t hard or angry, even if the tone of his voice was. ‘Kids like you shouldn’t be visiting me.’

‘I’m pretty sure kids like me are meant to be visiting you way more often,’ Jack laughed, and then thought the better of it, strangling off into silence. ‘I mean, you know…pretty sure my lieutenant wants to send me here every day.’

Bunnymund’s brow furrowed and he picked up the report that Jack had given him.

‘Lieutenant Crossholt? You need to report him for any reason?’

Jack stared at him, certain it was a trap. Then he realised that maybe it wasn’t, and he shook his head nervously.

‘No, man, I really am just that awful.’ Jack offered a game smile, and Bunnymund’s frown deepened. He looked like he wanted to say something else for several moments, and Jack stood there trying not to tremble, and hoping his legs would manage the stairs down. Because it would be embarrassing to need assistance. Just because it had been a long day, it was no excuse. Fighting the Darkness would be worse than a simple lashing, he needed to buckle up.

‘Get off with you then,’ Bunnymund said. ‘Go rest now.’

‘Sure,’ Jack said. ‘Ah…thanks.’

Bunnymund flicked his ears to indicate that anything else Jack said was now purely irritating, and so Jack made his way out of the doors and down the walkway and looked at the stairs and decided that it could be worse – he could be in a hospital with shadow-sickness. With that thought in mind, he made his way down, only stopping to pause every five minutes or so, trying not to heave for breath and stretch the shallow wounds on his back.

No one mocked him on his way back. People hardly noticed him. They were all too concerned with the attack on the Tsar and Tsarina. There were extra guards everywhere, and even they didn’t have time for him. There wasn’t even much eye contact, he might as well have been invisible.

Jack wanted to go back to the hospital just to be sure Jamie was fine, but made himself head to barracks.

Once there, he had to pass the lieutenant’s rooms on the way to the corridor and stopped when he heard a sharp:

‘Overland, halt!’

Jack stood still, rolled his eyes where no one could see him, and then turned around and attempted to stand loosely at attention. He couldn’t put his hands behind his back, but otherwise, he tried to look respectful.

‘Oh yes,’ Crossholt drawled, noting his bared torso, ‘at least you didn’t put it off.’

Jack looked blankly ahead as Crossholt circled him. He wore his dress uniform still. He looked tired. His moustache and beard looked wilder than usual, there were bags under his eyes. Jack secretly thought Crossholt was a washed up Warrior who had never attained the kind of heroism he’d dreamed of. He was relegated to lieutenant of soldiers in training far too early, and needed someone to dump all his resentment and world weariness onto. Jack seemed to have volunteered for the job without knowing.

‘You got some good licks there, brat,’ Crossholt said. ‘Maybe that’ll teach you.’

Jack said nothing at all. If Crossholt thought that being lashed would stop him from trying to help out, he was mistaken.

‘Since you missed the warm-down after the event, I want you to give me five laps around the complex. Now.’

Jack blinked as he tried to parse it. Five laps. The complex? All the barracks. Hundreds of soldiers. At least thirty buildings. Jack stared at him in shock and Crossholt grinned like someone who was very happy to have his punching bag back.

‘I can do double tomorrow, Sir,’ Jack said slowly.

‘For insubordination, you can do five now and double tomorrow. Any more instincts for haggling in that miniscule brain of yours?’

‘No, Sir,’ Jack said, thinking about how these wounds were going to scar too.

‘Then off you go.’

Jack nodded, he turned, and then hesitated.

‘May I put my clothing back in my room first, Sir?’

‘Yes, but be quick about it. I’ll be watching for you, so you’d best not shirk. Get a move on.’

Jack nodded again, wishing that the exhaustion hadn’t set in until later. He walked back to his room and put his shirt and coat down carefully, and then drank a cup of water before walking outside into the frigid chill.

He’d used up all the post-whipping adrenaline on getting down the stairs and walking home. Now, it was dark and he knew that if he didn’t run the laps properly, he’d be sent back to the Disciplinarian. Or worse, they’d try and eject him from the barracks again. And this time he wouldn’t even have Jamie around to help him out.

Just do it, and don’t say anything, and you’ll be back to your old self in no time. It’ll be a story for Jamie. And he loves your stories. Remember?

But it was hard to hold onto that, as he started to run.

Chapter Text

‘I bet this is a story,’ Jamie said, smiling at him tiredly.

Jack grunted from the hospital bed, then started laughing.

‘It kinda is?’ he kept laughing and then his back hurt too much and he groaned and distracted himself by looking at Jamie some more. Jamie looked better at least. Not nearly as wan and clammy as before.

‘Crossholt again?’ Jamie said. When Jack did nothing but grimace and wave his fingers around vaguely, Jamie groaned. ‘Jack, come on…we talked about this.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, clearing his throat, which felt scratchy. The fever was already abating. And the infection wasn’t even a problem anymore. But his throat still hurt.

He’d run the laps. Or, to be more accurate, he’d run three of the laps and then collapsed during the fourth. He hadn’t been right outside Crossholt’s window when he’d fallen, and it was dark, so no one found him for a long time. All that time in the cold, and eventually he’d been taken to the healer’s and Crossholt had blamed it on Jack’s need to overzealously apply to himself even though Crossholt himself had apparently begged Jack to take a break.

Or at least, that’s what it said on Jack’s admission record. Jack having read the whole thing – awkwardly contorting his still-healing back – while a healer was looking in the other direction.

He’d been out cold for three days, and they’d wheeled him into Jamie’s ward – even though Jack didn’t have shadow-sickness – because Jamie wanted to discharge himself to find out where Jack had gone. That’s what the healer had told him, smiling mischievously. She didn’t seem too bothered to be wheeling his bed somewhere else, and she’d given him the nice juice that came from the rare citrus fruits of Ozorne, instead of the generic stuff that was grown hydroponically on Lune.

Apparently he could charm anyone except the people it would benefit him to charm.

‘He just had it out for me,’ Jack said, rubbing his face.

‘You’d better get it together,’ Jamie said, frowning. ‘With initiation in only a month, and we’re not even ready yet…’

‘Wait,’ Jack said, frowning. ‘Your memory a bit scrambled there? It’s end of the year, remember? Eight months away?’

‘Oh,’ Jamie said, blinking at him. ‘Man, I know they said you were out for three days but I thought…’

‘Wait, what?’ Jack said, trying to push himself upright and absurdly grateful when Jamie gently placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

‘Because of the latest attack,’ Jamie said, ‘they want to rush through the new recruits.’

‘That’s- But-’

‘They said there’s a risk of losing more of us to the initiation, but that it was necessary. I dunno, Jack. It’s the first time they’ve ever broken the timing of the ritual.’

‘But the Solstice is when the Light is strongest! If they do it in a month, doesn’t that mean- What does that mean?’

‘There’s flyers everywhere saying it’s special, you know. Special timing. A special ‘event year’ that no one has ever heard of until – mysteriously – only a day or two after that attack. And you know what I think about-’

‘You’re paranoid,’ Jack said, closing his eyes.

‘The Tsar and the Tsarina are getting desperate. They’re not keeping on top of it anymore.’

‘Paranoid,’ Jack muttered again.

Deep down, his gut churned. Too many of the higher ups thought he wouldn’t survive an initiation even when it was supposed to be scheduled in eight months. Even with the benefit of all that extra training and meditation and preparation to go up against the Darkness and come out the other side. To confront the enemy and take it into oneself and somehow – out of that – learn how to make the golden light; the greatest miracle of the citizens of Lune, they said. That they could literally make light from darkness and turn back the tide.

How could he survive it in a month? And Jamie might still be ill by then, how would they both survive it?

Jack reached out blindly and Jamie took his hand, squeezing it.

‘We are the Light,’ Jamie said, his tone lacklustre.

‘And we do not fail,’ Jack finished for him.

Jamie laughed once, the sound flat. Jack followed suit, and they stayed by each other’s side until the nurse came to separate them to make sure Jamie kept getting the rest he needed to heal.

*

That night, Jack couldn’t sleep properly. As though three days of being barely lucid had stocked him up on enough sleep that he didn’t need it anymore. He knew that wasn’t possible, his body was tired and sore, but staying in bed made him anxious and bored.

He wandered out of his room after checking in on a soundly sleeping Jamie.

The robes he wore were light and loose, but they’d cut the panels away from his back so that the open air touched his wounds. At least his rear was covered.

Small mercies, Jack thought.

They dimmed the lights in this ward after dark. It seemed strange, since this was where everyone who had shadow-sickness was taken. Wouldn’t they be more afraid of the dark? Wouldn’t a well-lit environment be better for them? But he supposed this wasn’t the malignant Darkness that plagued them now; just regular shadow, regular night. Still, after a lifetime of being told to fear the Darkness, walking around a building at night always seemed daring. Adventurous.

He kept to the side of the corridor, occasionally peeping into rooms. He saw a single nurse who opened her mouth to say something and then closed it, rolling her eyes, disappearing around a corner. Her robes pale gold and covered in Lunar alphabet sigils, charms about her body to assist with healing. She was the one who had bought him the nice juice, and she seemed to live in the building, unlike many of the others who worked in shifts.

Almost everyone was sleeping. He saw one hook-nosed man with his knees up in a hospital bed, reading a book by candlelight. Otherwise, people slept in their beds. Some healing. Some slowly succumbing to the shadow-sickness. Those that didn’t make it would die, or worse, be taken to one of the Asylums of Darkness. No one returned from those.

Jack stole a dark pink mandarin from a fruit bowl and dropped the pieces of peel into a vase – no one was around to see him – eating the small, juicy pieces. He never usually had access to fruit like this, and he made a note to take more of the fruits. He turned down one corridor, then another, then veered past an emergency exit into a section of the ward that looked far fancier than the others. Here, even the curtains and the fabric on the hospital beds were heavily covered in gold Lunar sigils.

He heard voices, drifted towards them quietly, stealing along the side of the wall.

‘It is being too soon, Tooth. You should have-’

‘Try negotiating with the Tsar when he’s on a tear,’ another responded. Jack’s eyes widened when he realised that was the Spymaster Toothiana. Which meant – she’d said North had the shadow-sickness too. Had he stumbled across them? He inched closer towards a room filled with flickering golden light and didn’t dare peek inside.

‘Let me see him,’ North said, his voice heavily accented. He’d come from peasant stock, still had the thick accent of those who lived on the far outskirts. A rough, strident voice that was loud even when he was trying to be soft-spoken. ‘I am well enough. We will lose too many. Too many.’

‘Perhaps if you could speak to him…’ Toothiana said, appeal in her voice.

Jack was confused for a moment – hadn’t North just said he’d see him? – when a new voice interjected, this one smooth and rich and so familiar that Jack forgot to breathe.

‘My dear,’ said Royal Admiral Pitchiner, ‘I signed off on it. I’m hardly going to approach the Tsar now to tell him that I’ve changed my mind. My signature means more than that. You’ll just have to work harder to scratch and scrabble for the ones you can save.’

‘Of course you are being no help,’ North muttered, tone black and so obviously disrespectful that Jack’s eyes were starting to sting from how wide they were. ‘You’re not one of us. You are not caring for them. Go then, to your fame and glory.’

‘Oh, I do apologise. While you were busy getting infected by the Darkness in your useless silver contraption, I was actually turning back the tide. Hm. Funny that. Why did you even call me here, Spymaster?’

‘If I had not flown beneath the platform,’ North said, his voice strident enough now that it would certainly be loud enough to wake others, ‘they would be in the city of Lune. You think you champion the Light, but you are nothing more than arrogance in a uniform. Get out.’

‘Gladly,’ Royal Admiral Pitchiner snarled.

Jack was hurriedly backing away when the Royal Admiral himself emerged from the room – wearing the long black coat of his day to day uniform. Of course he spotted Jack immediately, and Jack froze, staring.

Don’t rat me out, don’t rat me out, don’t rat me out.

Pitchiner himself seemed cloaked in darkness as he moved smoothly towards Jack.

Jack backed away, scuffed down the corridor until he was well away from North’s room and his back hit the wall. He hissed, but the wounds on his back were closed, and a knock against cold, polished stone wasn’t going to open them again.

Pitchiner was tall, glowered down at him with gold eyes that seemed to glitter from within.

‘Eavesdropping is not as delightful a habit as you seem to think. How much did you hear?’

‘About what?’ Jack said.

Pitchiner’s eyes narrowed. His pupils expanded, the black drowning out the gold.

A shift in Jack’s gut and his vision tunnelled, darkness surrounding the edges. He tried to close his eyes, knowing that Pitchiner was turning Jack’s own fears against him, rifling through them to get what he needed. Not all the Golden Warriors could do it, and Jack had only experienced it once before – when he’d first applied to the military academy and they’d put him through this test to see whether he really wanted to be a soldier or not.

Now, his body broke out into a cold sweat, causing his still healing back to ache. He couldn’t look away from the Royal Admiral’s eyes, losing his concentration as he began to shake. His teeth clenched, his body tensed in preparation to flee or fight. His heart was hammering so hard he could almost taste it, his throat more sore now than ever before, heat pushing into the corners of his mind, he was-

With a single, slow blink, the Royal Admiral released him from that paralysing, fear-evoking grip. Jack’s hands pressed flat to the wall and he tried to push himself upright, annoyed that he’d sagged back against it.

‘You’re so certain you’re going to die at the Initiation, aren’t you?’ Royal Admiral Pitchiner said, his forehead furrowing. ‘That sort of attitude almost guarantees it.’

‘Thanks,’ Jack muttered. ‘Really.’

‘My pleasure,’ the Royal Admiral said, smiling. ‘Really. You can either die during the initiation and get it over and done with, or be troublesome and get in my way if you graduate. And then die. There’s really only two options. I’d rather it be the first.’

‘Seriously?’ Jack said, staring at him. ‘I get there’s arrogance, but who- who in the Darkness do you think you are? You can’t just- I mean-’

A single fingertip touched Jack’s shoulder, a fingernail digging in through the thin hospital gown. Pitchiner’s expression was dark, all amusement having vanished.

‘I have seen far too many soldiers rise up through the ranks only to be cut down during their first battle. I am not arrogant, I am realistic. I have lived through the experience of the amateurs thinking they are ready to face down the Darkness, only to wet themselves or loosen their bowels during a real battle. At least they are likely to turn tail and run. It’s maladjusted twerps like you who will stand and think they have the skill to drive back the Darkness, when really – you only ever get in our way.’

‘I used to think you were…’ Jack shook his head and his lips thinned. ‘I looked up to you.’

Royal Admiral Pitchiner lifted his chin and looked down his nose.

‘As you should,’ he said crisply. ‘I’m one of the very reasons you have a community to live in, a planet to live upon. My personality matters not. I get the job done. Now, excuse me, I have far more important things to do with my time, like – ah, just about anything at all.’

With that, Royal Admiral Kozmotis Pitchiner seemed to glide through the darkness away from Jack, his coat fluttering in a non-existent breeze.

The shaking got worse as soon as he’d disappeared, like Jack’s body had been saving it up until he was alone. Jack started to sag down the wall and then realised how much that hurt and turned so that he was facing it, resting his forehead against the cool stone. He felt feverish again, his throat hurt. Whatever Pitchiner had done – scrolling through his fears like that – it had knocked the wind out of him.

He made his way back to his room in a state of confusion, having lost his way. Eventually, the nurse who lived there found him, tutted under her breath after feeling his forehead, and then guided him back to bed.

*

Jack’s fever relapsed that evening, and at the end of another two days of spelled broths and the sorts of medicines they gave to people with shadow-sickness, he wasn’t sure if the encounter with the Royal Admiral had even been real. Perhaps he’d just dreamed it – an encounter with an arrogant once-hero. Whatever it was, Jack knew that the Royal Admiral wasn’t his hero anymore.

Jamie was discharged on a Friday. He’d been well enough to sit by Jack’s bed every morning and every evening. But Jack watched him leave with trepidation in his heart. He’d confirmed it for himself; initiation was going to be in a month. Less than, now. Almost three weeks.

What was Jamie returning back to? Were the drills now harder than before? Were they pushing the soldiers too hard? Would Jamie be okay? People with shadow-sickness were supposed to ease back into physical activity. But Jamie…would they even let him?

Jack pulled on his clothing on a Saturday morning, the nurse on duty declaring him free from infection and fever, his wounds completely healed. Jack had smiled at him, feeling the scar tissue from previous beatings pull whenever he turned or moved his shoulders and back. It was a reminder of Crossholt sending him to the Disciplinarian. Every tugging drag on his back a reminder that he just couldn’t seem to avoid trouble.

The day was bright as he made the long walk back to his barracks, a discharge sheet tucked into his pocket. The red-brown cobblestones were slick and bright from recent rains, but already the sun poured light into the world around him, making the ground lightly steam. He could smell fresh bread and dumplings from street vendors in Lune Square, wished he had anything like spare money for them. All his life his food had been provided to him by institutions of Lune – filling and nutritious, but lacking in taste. He couldn’t afford the golden-glazed breads, or dumplings made fresh and then simmered to plumpness in a mouth-watering stew that he could only imagine the taste of.

So he passed the street vendors hawking their foods without stopping, trailing his fingers along a shop window advertising magical inks and writing tools for the Lune alphabet. Then he turned down an alley – a shortcut – and hesitated.

The posters were different than the normal thin grease paper posters glued to the brick walls. He frowned. Instead of posters boldly exclaiming that they would triumph over the Darkness, that the Light as All, there were some hastily glued crooked posters warning of end-times.

The End is Nigh.

The Darkness is coming!

When will the Royal Military save us?

And more disturbingly, a single poster of black ink on a striking pale green background – a beacon amongst the whites and reds and blacks:

How long will you believe the lies of your Tsar?

‘Whoa,’ Jack said quietly, turning in a full circle, shoes scuffing on a patina of refuse.

He made his way to another alley and it was the same – these even more messily glued, some wrinkled, some pocked with air-bubbles. He stared at them. Whoever had done them risked being sent to an Asylum. Only the Kingdom had the right to place posters on the walls like this. And it was obvious that these were not Kingdom-sanctioned messages.

His eyes were wide as he stared, feeling like he was still in the middle of his fever dreams. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen something like this. He turned in a daze until his foot slipped and he braced himself on rain-wet walls. Was this why they’d pushed the initiation forward? For surely this had happened after the attack on the platform. But why go after the Tsar and the Military?

Jack felt awash with a sudden wave of rage. How thankless! That all those Golden Warriors and soldiers would have risked their lives – some losing their lives – all so the citizens would be safe enough. And they thanked them with this?

‘I hope you get sent to the Asylum,’ Jack muttered under his breath, and then steeled himself and walked away, not wanting to see the horrible messages anymore.

*

Jack pushed open his door to see Jamie dressed in his outdoor gear, in the process of dropping an envelope onto Jack’s bed. He was impossibly pale, his eyes too wide when he saw Jack.

‘Shit. I thought they’d discharge you tomorrow,’ Jamie said. His voice was wet. Eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed.

‘What’s wrong?’ Jack said, staring at him. ‘Why aren’t you in manoeuvres? Was it Crossholt?’

Jamie snatched up the envelope just as Jack grasped it, seeing his own name penned there. Jack pulled as Jamie crumpled the paper, but Jack was fast and yanked hard enough to get the envelope free. He wanted to make a joke about a love letter, but the look on Jamie’s face – he couldn’t. Instead his throat tightened as he opened the envelope. He felt like a heavy weight was falling through him and didn’t want to look at what was causing it.

‘Don’t,’ Jamie said. He didn’t even try to get the envelope back. ‘Come on, Jack.’

‘This had better not be what I think-’

Dearest Jack,

I know we’ve always made fun about how I’m not really a deserter but have the heart of a deserter, but it was never a joke to me.

Don’t be upset. I’ve gone to a refuge where they’ll take care of me. I can’t tell you where. I can’t have contact with you. But if you ever need a safe place and are ready to leave this life forever – and why wouldn’t you be, when I’m not here? Put your feelers out for the Guardians of Lune, and they’ll help you.

All my love, to the brother I wished was my brother by blood.

Jack stared at the letter for a long moment, then a burst of bright, lost laughter slipped from his throat.

‘You know, as goodbye letters go, this one is shit,’ Jack said, trying to throw the letter down. Dramatic effect didn’t happen, the letter only floated weakly to the bed.

‘I don’t have time!’ Jamie said, voice cracking. ‘I have to go now. I have a contact I’m meeting.’

‘A contact? You- How long have you planned this and not told me? And you can’t!’ Jack hissed, wanting to shout, to scream, but that would draw attention and even now – he knew he couldn’t. ‘You can’t do this! Initiation is a month away, and you can’t leave me, you ass!’

But even as he said it, even as he thought his blood was turning far too hot to be contained by his own skin, he couldn’t believe himself.

Jamie had never wanted the military like Jack had. When they’d been put through the fear test to see if they really wanted to join, Jamie’s family had to put forth a bribe to make sure Jamie was allowed in. Even then, his fears nakedly, baldly transmitted that he wasn’t made for a life in the military. And Jack didn’t want him to die – and that would likely be the culmination of years of half-hearted training no matter how Jack tried to inspire him and motivate him. Especially now they’d shifted the date of the initiation.

‘You can’t leave me on my own,’ Jack said, staring at the letter and feeling like he couldn’t look at Jamie anymore. ‘No one else sees me. No one else gives a shit.’

‘I do,’ Jamie said, voice thin and earnest. ‘I always will.’

‘Then tell me where you’re going,’ Jack said on a rush. ‘I won’t tell anyone.’

‘Jack,’ Jamie said, laughing weakly. ‘You know they have the serums, the fear reading, all those things that will- Will pull the truth out of you. I’ve told you too much just by giving you the name of the organisation. You just- Please consider leaving before the initiation. A few of us have gone already. To a better life. They can’t keep using us like this – the Royal Academy just thinks-’

‘Will you stop?’ Jack exclaimed, and then clapped a hand over his mouth. He wasn’t even saying the things he thought he’d say, if a day like this ever came. ‘A letter? You were just gonna- No offence, Jamie, but come on.’

Jamie smiled at him tremulously, and then his face twisted, crumpled. A sight that Jack had always hated, and hardly ever seen. His eyes squeezing shut and his mouth pulling tight, and then his gloved hands were over his face and his shoulders were shuddering and Jack felt awful.

‘Oh geez,’ Jack said, walking over. ‘Okay, hey – we can work this out, right?’

He knew they couldn’t.

‘I’m not going to die for them,’ Jamie said into his hands. ‘I don’t believe in the cause like you do. You’re the only reason I haven’t done this earlier. You are. So don’t convince me to stay now, because I think you’re the only one who could.’

Jack rubbed Jamie’s shoulder and stared at the letter and the ripped, crumpled envelope. His throat was sore again – felt like it would be sore forever – his eyes were burning. He opened his mouth, ready to convince Jamie to stay. But for what? For three miserable weeks and then an initiation that would…would likely end badly for him?

Jack knew he couldn’t be that selfish, even as he couldn’t imagine what the next few weeks would be like alone.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, his voice dry and soft, when all he wanted to do was scream. ‘So. They gonna take care of you?’

Jamie’s eyes poked up from above the tips of his gloves. He nodded. Looked at Jack in wonder.

He never expected me not to convince him to stay. By the Light, Jamie, give me a little credit.

‘And I can’t know where you are,’ Jack said, hating how final the words sounded.

Jamie shook his head. ‘Unless…unless you look for them too.’

‘The Guardians,’ Jack said, looking back at the letter. ‘But it means leaving all this behind, doesn’t it? I couldn’t ever…couldn’t ever fight against the Darkness, could I?’

‘Not the way you want to,’ Jamie said, finally dropping his arms so that his voice wasn’t muffled. Red fingerprints were pressed into his pale skin where he’d gripped his jaw too hard.

‘I can’t believe you weren’t going to say goodbye, you-’

Jack didn’t have the term of angry endearment he needed in that moment. Everyone called Jack the ‘little shit,’ and Jamie was the one who had never done a thing to earn it.

Except now.

‘You little shit,’ Jack finished, and Jamie’s smile was weak but real. ‘Brother.’

The word felt awkward in his mouth, because they’d joked about it for so long, but now it seemed like it was the only truth hanging between them. They’d been brothers for as long as they’d known each other. Teasing each other in the beginning, coming to support each other through the different demons that plagued them.

‘I’m not gonna miss my family,’ Jamie said, rubbing at his face. ‘I’m only gonna miss you. Shit, I have to stop crying. Or they’re gonna suspect. I really have to go. I left it late enough as it was. I have to go, Jack.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, trying to feel like the kind of person who would be strong and supportive in a moment like this and very nearly managing.

Jamie grasped his shoulder and squeezed.

‘Just remember, Jack. You’re the Light, you’re not going to fail. Okay? I believe in you.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, falling into a rough, quick embrace that didn’t last long enough.

Then, the door swung open, swung shut, and without any gear or supplies to take with him, with nothing more than the clothing on his body – Jamie was gone.

Jack forced himself to take several deep breaths, and then changed into the clothing he wore for manoeuvres. The best chance he could give Jamie was one where he went on like nothing had changed. He chewed up the letter and the envelope, feeling the bitterness of the ink in his mouth echo through his whole body. He handed his discharge sheet to Crossholt’s second-in-command. Then he pushed himself through drills and hoped that no one realised what Jamie had done until he was safely squared away.

Chapter Text

There had been so many drills, so many manoeuvres, so much chanting and singing of the Odes and Canticles and Liturgies and Psalms and Hymns – Jack almost believed he was ready. It was clear many of the others thought they were ready, despite a steady trickle of deserters from the ranks. (One was caught and punished, sent to the Asylum to set an example, and that night Jack had nightmares of Jamie locked in a cage and crying out his name in broken vowels that had left him muzzy-headed during drills the next day).

There had been no time for his superiors to question Jack about Jamie’s absence. Crossholt didn’t even have the time to be as cruel as usual, though he still found time to be quietly menacing, looking at Jack like he was yearning for some sort of break or time off where he could make Jack’s life awful again.

Jack’s days and nights passed in a strange, melancholy blur. He gorged himself on words and prayer until it felt like the light inside of him was more robust than a guttering flicker of candlelight. He supped on physical drills until he was too tired to think about what he’d lost, what he might go on to lose in the future. He whispered to himself in a room that still held two beds as he fell asleep. He resolutely didn’t look at Jamie’s made bed, its plumped pillows, the emptiness there.

A week before the initiation, the regime of tonics started. First, there were two administered in the morning. One golden and glowing that tasted of nothing but a faint citrus fizz. The second dark and cloudy, with tones of black murk and midnight swirl that made him gag towards the end as the sediment clogged his throat. In the evening another two. Gold and dark side by side.

He dreamed strangely, but could never quite grasp what he was dreaming about when he woke. Every morning would come and he’d be plastered in sweat, brown hair flattened to his head, a crust at the corners of each eye. He’d rinse his face in ice cold water and force himself to drills, where every other soldier looked as foggy-headed as he did.

He could sense dissent amongst the ones that didn’t feel the light strongly enough in their hearts. He heard the tail ends of conversations that weren’t meant for him, soldiers whispering to each other fearfully about how they weren’t ready.

Jack ignored all of it.

The fact was, he would be ready. He would be. The Royal Admiral could see him as a waste of space. Crossholt could vent all his frustrations out on him. But Jack had one purpose in his life and one purpose only – to fight the Darkness.

So he ate his rations, took the potions, repeated the words they told him to repeat and reminded himself that it was all working. It was all going to make him ready to be a Golden Warrior.

*

Jack was pretty sure the words he was looking for were: drugged out of his mind.

He blinked stupidly at the golden lights that surrounded them. The lanterns lit by the Priests and Priestesses of the Light. The ones who never spoke aloud, but shaped letters and words with their hands, a vow of silence marking them.

They’d been sent off by the city, applause and horns sending them off as they were accompanied by a guard of Golden Warriors and at least thirty of the Priests and Priestesses of Light. Then, before they’d left the city walls, standing before the gates, they’d been given tiny ornate glasses filled with water, only to find out that it hadn’t been water at all.

Whee, Jack thought in a daze, as one foot followed the other. He endlessly walked to the drone of the chants that he himself was repeating without even really thinking about it anymore.

It was all done by foot. Four hours of walking followed by breaks that lasted an hour, where they were allowed real water and drugged water, and a crescent moon sliver of goldbread which had little flecks of metal in it. Jack wondered if it was poisonous, but then, it’s what they’d given to all the other Golden Warriors since the beginning of the initiations themselves, so he shrugged, ate it, wished there was more to eat when he was done.

Another four hours of walking, another hour’s break, and on and on it went. For seven days, through valleys and ravines, over two mountains. There was a pause one day that lasted longer than an hour. A commotion up in the frontlines as the soldiers looked on with numb minds and numbed faces, the temperatures having dropped to below freezing. They had their furs to keep them warm, which made them painfully hot during the walking itself, but still managed to let the chill in when they stopped for longer than five minutes.

When the lines of soldiers started walking again, Jack saw a small disturbance in the ground ahead. As he passed, his eyes were drawn to a mound of stones that looked like a funeral cairn.

He shuddered. A girl behind him made a low sound of distress, but it was ignored.

Hunger was a rasping, gnawing ache in his belly. He imagined that he was turning inside out as his organs ate him. He dreamed in fits and starts in the rare moments they were allowed rest. He saw maws and teeth. Saw black eyes and heard horrid, twisted voices speaking to him in languages he didn’t know, had never heard before.

It felt like a unique terror, so huge and personal it could only belong to him. But he woke to faces of distress around him, everyone growing more haunted, circles smudging the undersides of their eyes as the Priests and Priestesses smiled at them benignly, and the Golden Warriors watched on as though they did not care.

Jack knew that the Royal Admiral himself marched at the frontlines. He’d seen him in his regalia in the beginning, sword strapped to his side, and his heart had stuttered where it had once leapt. A hiccup in his chest instead of a soaring.

You’re not doing this for him, you’re doing this for Pip.

On the dawn of the eighth day, they reached the base of a black mountain that stood wicked and jagged, refusing the snow’s touch. Despite the ice and cold all around them, the stone glistened, clean and strong.

Into the side of the mountain was a large, arched cave. Too large to be made with any of the machinery that Jack had ever seen. On either side of the broad, flat pathway leading to the entrance – snow giving way to a gold-flecked black stone – were huge pillars arched in the shape of monstrosities. His vision blurred as he stared at them, at the lunar alphabet carved deep into the pillars and stained red, at the way the figures on top hunched over themselves, stone claws scraping, teeth hooked and looking far too sharp.

He swallowed, staggered to a halt with the rest of the soldiers, gazed into the black maw of the cave. He shivered and wished that their fur coats offered better protection when they were no longer moving. But there were too many soldiers, and not enough good quality fur. The best furs went to the people who placed higher within the Lune hierarchy. So Jack rubbed his arms and breathed out puffs of ghostly air and found himself being pulled back into a pile of other soldiers, who had given up on trying to warm themselves individually.

They huddled, shook, some of them staring at the mountain, some of them trying to look at anything but.

This is it, he thought. After this, things will never be the same again. I’ll be a Warrior. They’ll respect me. They’ll see me and I’ll be saving people.

A young woman next to him smiled at him weakly when he met her gaze. She was large and thickly built, a frizz of brown shaggy hair around her face. She looked like the kind of young woman who was normally tough as nails and hard to beat – her arms three times as thick as his. Now, she looked as tired as he felt, and there was a haziness to her gaze which suggested she was finding it as hard to deal with the drugs as he was.

‘Fuck this,’ she whispered. They were clumped so close that a few of them laughed under their breath, Jack included.

Her eyes crinkled in a rough smile, her chapped lips splitting. She licked at the blood that welled like she was familiar with the movement. Jack understood it. His lips were holding up okay. But he had dry patches of skin on his cheeks and a flaking eczema on his elbows.

‘Don’t like the look of that cave,’ someone else whispered.

‘Don’t think we’re supposed to,’ another said.

Jack didn’t know their names. And now he was grateful, thinking of how many of these people he might not see again. Because they’d developed a camaraderie on this journey that was stronger than what they’d found in their weaponry drills and exercises. If he knew their names…

‘Fuck the dark,’ the young woman whispered. ‘That’s what I think.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, returning her smile. She leaned a little closer into him and closed her eyes, her eyebrows pulling together on a face that looked otherwise content.

Jack had seen the mountain goats standing together like this for warmth. Back when he lived on the fringes of Lune, an outcast at the edges where all the peasants were supposed to live – where there were mountains and farms and the shadows could drag a sister down into the frozen black. He’d seen them standing, too cold to bleat, and felt like that now. A strong shiver moved through him, starting at his spine and ending at his teeth, his jaw locked together.

You’ll see, he thought. Things are gonna change.

*

They sent the soldiers into the cave, one by one.

First, Priest Sanderson himself would daub their foreheads with a crescent moon of crumbling, sticky white-gold sand taken from seas that Jack had never had the privilege to see. Plump and smiling, he’d hand them a chalice of gold and watch carefully as they swallowed a mouthful of liquid that looked like honey.

The rest of the Priests and Priestesses formed a half-circle around Priest Sanderson. They wore the mitres that denoted their high status, a traditional headgear of cream, white and gold, with dark red glyphs decorating the rims and charming them with luck and light. They each held a gold-plated ripidium, one side printed with the insignia of Lune, the other printed with the faces of the Tsar and Tsarina. Jack wondered if they used the sacred staffs as walking sticks while climbing the mountain. But that was probably sacrilegious.

The Church of Light would send each soldier off with sweeping movements of their arms, silently singing the chants with their arms and hands and fingers, eloquent in their silence.

Jack watched as the hours trickled by.

Far more soldiers went into the cave than came out of it.

A hollow sort of terror was coming upon him as though from a distance. He couldn’t feel it properly, but he knew it was there.

The soldiers emerging from the cave were not hale nor whole nor healthy. They were covered in a thick, dark blanket and ushered away into a large tent set up by the Golden Warriors.

Thirty had gone into that cave, and only five had come out so far.

They weren’t ready.

Jack was with two others saved for last. No one had made it explicit, but they all knew that they were the reserves. The ones that no one thought would make it. The ones they could throw at the cave right at the end, not having to mind how traumatised they’d be by seeing so many of their comrades not return.

Next to him was the plump girl with the chapped lips, and beside them, another boy who looked pale and sickly.

‘You peasant stock?’ she whispered to Jack, her voice so quiet that that it was only air.

‘Yeah,’ Jack whispered back.

‘Figures,’ she said. ‘Me too. Pig farmers. No end of fucking jokes about that, looking the way I do.’

‘You look like someone who won’t go down without a fight,’ Jack said, without looking at her. ‘I reckon that’s what we need, right?’

‘Sure thing. I’m gonna make it, I don’t care what they think.’

A Commander hushed them from nearby, glaring at them, and the girl shifted on her feet and then went still.

But the conversation helped – at least for the next hour.

*

Jack’s name was last on the callout sheet.

The very last.

He and the Commander stood side by side, Jack shivering and rubbing his hands together, wishing his gloves would work harder. The Commander standing still and no doubt wearing thermals and looking as though he’d been born with that grim expression on his face.

‘Someone has it out for you,’ the Commander said under his breath. ‘Last on the sheet? Ouch.’

Jack thought of how Crossholt had backed off the past few weeks and closed his eyes, clenching his hands behind his back. Was this it? Crossholt’s final send-off? Putting Jack last on the callout sheet, making him watch as hardly any soldiers returned from the black void between ceremonial pillars of the grotesque?

‘Any tips?’ Jack whispered.

‘When they come for you, let them through,’ the Commander said, staring ahead. His lips hardly moved. Obviously practiced at talking when he wasn’t supposed to be talking. ‘Not in, but through.’

Jack scowled ahead and shifted on weak knees.

The same damned cryptic advice they fed to the soldiers in the Cantos as well.

*

He was silently panicking and shouting the Chants of Light in his head when Priest Sanderson touched him with a warm thumb and painted his forehead with the crumbling crescent moon. The Priest had a friendly smile, a light in his eyes, a constant goldenness to him that made him seem otherworldly. Up close, he was a small, portly man. But even with that fact before him, he still seemed larger than life, a creature of good dreams and shining things.

The mouthful of drugged honey that he swallowed stuck to the inside of his mouth and made the shadows darker, the light brighter. His vision blurred constantly now. He swayed on his feet and felt that if he was going to die, he probably wasn’t going to mind very much.

He passed each pillar one by one, resisting the urge to look behind him. Would the Priests and Priestesses rest now that he was going in? Would they eat? Would they light a fire?

The pillars got larger, loomed darker, and Jack tried not to look at them. It seemed like the entrance into the mountain was miles away, and then suddenly it was there and he was stumbling awkwardly into what he thought was total darkness.

It wasn’t, not really. The dark wasn’t total; gleaming bits of red and brown in the black stone wall of the cave throwing a dingy light. As he walked, the path abruptly narrowed, the cave ceiling seemed to sink upon him. He kept walking and the cave got darker. The light of the entrance seemed far away.

Jack stumbled over something too soft to be a rock and looked down to see a soldier upon the ground in full clothing, eyes open in horror, face frozen into a rictus. Jack started to crouch to see if he was okay, when he realised that the soldier wasn’t moving, nothing animate in those eyes. He swallowed a rush of nausea, clapped his palm over his mouth.

His eyes roved and he saw other bodies. Some had clearly been here for years. Frozen and desiccated, faces wasted into mummification.

Jack turned around and saw the faint light of the entrance in the distance and nearly ran back. How had the others not done the same? It was one thing to hear about it in the verses, another thing to see it.

And the initiates of Lune would pass the shadows of those who had fallen,
Lost to the darkness of the past…

He hadn’t realised it would be literal. He blinked hard, his vision still not right, and the bodies seemed to flicker and mist.

‘Maybe they’re not real,’ he said to himself, and then mentally kicked himself for not saying the Chants in his head. He was supposed to be looking to confront the darkness, there was no one here he could save. They were too weak, that was all.

He kept walking, past more bodies, more rocks, his vision getting worse until finally he had to walk with one arm out, his hand brushing the cave wall. It narrowed around him, and then everything really was becoming darkness, and Jack could feel it like a heartbeat pulsing…something alive. As though the mountain itself was a living creature that breathed, demanded sacrifices, gave so little back.

There were times he stopped, when he listened to his breathing roaring in his ears as he hyperventilated. Times he smelled something almost like decay, but it was too sweet and musty to be quite like any decay he’d ever smelled before.

At one point his boot crunched on something spindly that cracked like dry sticks. He refused to look down, refused to even think about it. There’d be no sticks in here.

‘I am the Light,’ Jack reminded himself. He was a candle in the darkness. He was a single flame. He would not go out. He was doing this for Pippa.

He could hear her even, begging him from a distance. Then pleading with him to run. Then begging again. Her voice sounded so real that he leaned into it, his whole body sloping forwards.

His next step carried him out over a precipice, his boot finding nothing but air. He fell, screaming.

*

‘How are you here?’

Jack lay on something soft and cold. He opened his eyes and saw nothing at all. Opened them wider. Still nothing.

‘Pip?’

‘How are you here?’

‘Shit,’ Jack whispered, rolling onto his side and groaning. His body hurt. He was so damned cold. His fingers and toes were numb, he couldn’t feel his nose. ‘Shit.’

‘How are you here?’

‘Pip,’ Jack said again, trying to look for her. Her voice was as clear as a bell, and he knew he was supposed to be ignoring it. They’d trick him. He knew they’d trick him. It was what the Darkness did. It had stolen her soul and now used it as a puppet. That was why the Living Darkness was so evil. It consumed and only ever gave back corruption. ‘Shit fuck.’

‘Careful! You know what Papa will say!’

‘Fuck off!’ Jack shouted, pressing fingers that stung to his eyes. They were watering. He couldn’t see a damned thing. Was he…was it the total darkness mountain? Did the honey take his eyesight? Shouldn’t he be more bothered to hear Pippa’s voice? More upset?

Something wasn’t right.

There was a small tug at his belly and he placed his hands down as though to hold himself together, and felt something wrong. His breath caught as his fingers shifted reluctantly. It was amorphous and soft and his hands moved right through it. Then, a growl, deeper than any beast that had a living heartbeat. Unearthly, unreal. It rumbled right through him.

Let it move through you, don’t let it stay.

He clawed at himself in a panic, and the dark misshapen lump attached to him didn’t move. And then he felt it twisting in his gut and it didn’t hurt, but it still made him retch. He bent over, threw up a sour taste of honeyed bile, and then kept retching because by the Light, how was anyone supposed to live through this?

‘You should follow me.’

She spoke in her night-time voice. The one she used when she wanted Jack to escape with her out of the creche, so they could run down to the forest under the light of the stars and look for night-blossoming plants. She would tuck flowers behind his ears, and then run ahead into the trees, laughing in delight while he made sure she didn’t go too far.

‘Remember?’

A tiny glowing golden thing in front of him. Like a firefly, or a spark from a spell. Enough that he could see the outline of the clump of darkness resting on top of him, that he could see he was on a mound of snow.

Stupid hallucinations.

‘Follow me,’ his sister said.

The light danced in front of him in concert with the voice, and he rubbed at his eyes and rolled onto his knees, and then his feet, thinking – dully – that if Pippa was the light, she had to be good. It wasn’t the Darkness at all. Pippa was the Light. Of course she was! It seemed so obvious now. Even if a part of Jack tried to prod him into being afraid, Jack ignored it. He was too numb to think about the darkness in his belly.

‘You really there?’ Jack said.

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘I thought you’d cry if you heard my voice again. Don’t you miss me? Papa will think you’re so selfish.’

Her voice stung, and Jack swallowed a lump in his throat that tasted disgusting.

‘You should be crying.’

‘I am the Light,’ Jack whispered, pulling the words from somewhere deep inside of him.

‘You should be sadder. You’re not a nice boy. You’re awful.’

In his belly, the grotesque attachment shifted and roiled until Jack bent over and retched again. His chest hurt. He couldn’t feel rocks underneath his feet at all. It was lightly compacted snow crunching, reminding him of the day he’d lost her. The day he’d failed.

‘They make me say these things,’ she said, her voice shaking now. ‘Jack, they make me.’

‘Who makes you?’ Jack said.

‘They make me. It’s so dark here. Did they take you too? Sometimes you think you can listen to them. Sometimes they almost sound wise. And then…’

A small cry.

‘Pip!’ Jack said, his tongue feeling thick.

‘If you die, we could be together,’ she whispered. ‘I want it so bad, so bad. But not like this.’

Her voice broke. The light went out and Jack was in the darkness once more. He screamed her name, and then the syllable broke off halfway through, as that monstrous growl came once more, and then something invisible and malignant roared right into him.

*

‘So very, very over it,’ Jack said brokenly. ‘Jamie had the right idea.’

A vast, hungry cavern opened up in his own mind. He could hear whispering. First from one or two people, voices he didn’t recognise, languages he didn’t know. Then more people, until it was hundreds, then thousands, then numbers he couldn’t imagine. All whispering. The sound cresting in his ears until he screamed to drown them. The voices stopped at once.

A kernel of compulsion remained. He felt his fingers bend into stiff claw shapes. He bared his teeth at nothing. He wanted to bite down. Wanted to feel blood in his mouth. Wanted to place his palms on the ground and feel the whispering spread until there was nothing of his own mind left. He wanted to let the voices out through his actions. Wanted to rend and tear and pull flesh from bone.

It didn’t even occur to him that he didn’t normally think like that, until a few minutes later, when he felt his own thoughts come back to him.

He forced himself upright and kept walking, following some odd centre of gravity inside of him. He whispered made up prayers and Chants and sometimes the voices in his mind whispered back to him. He couldn’t see where he was going, but nothing interrupted his footsteps. Only snow crunching, sinking beneath his weight.

So he was still real, and that meant he was still alive, even if he couldn’t feel his body anymore.

‘Follow me,’ Pippa whispered. Her voice came from outside of him, sounding urgent. ‘I want to show you something.’

He followed, losing track of time until it seemed like there was light growing so slowly around him that he didn’t notice it at first. Then the snow gave way to black stone once more, there was heat emanating from the walls, thick growls and menacing creaks everywhere in the bones of the mountain. He was walking on a narrow stretch of stone over a chasm of impenetrable black.

‘Don’t fall,’ she said, when he looked down. ‘Remember tree climbing? Pretend it’s that.’

‘I’m not supposed to be listening to you,’ he said between lines or prayer that didn’t make sense to him anymore.

‘I don’t want you to die,’ Pippa said. ‘But maybe you shouldn’t be listening to me. There’s no one better. You’re so far from hope. So far. They say you were wounded, so it was easy to get in. You had doors ripped open by others. Who hurt you, Jack? Who? Tell me. We can do anything to them. We can tear them apart, we can eat them until- We- NO!’

Jack called out, but she didn’t reply.

He called out again and heard a wicked, dark laughter echo all around him.

He wrapped his arms around his body and thought that so far, this was a shitty nightmare, and he’d be very happy when he woke up in his own bed.

*

‘You’re going the wrong way,’ a voice purred. Definitely not his sister. The syllables were thick and wrong and sounded like they were being spoken by no living thing. But it was seductive and powerful too. Like an upper class gentleman possessed by the soul of evil. His body tried to respond, swinging him around. He felt a rush of real fear then, and gritted his teeth and forced himself to turn back and walk in the other direction.

So the shadows were inside him then. He thought he’d be more panicked, at the very least paralysed with fear.

And ignoring what they wanted felt awful.

‘But I already feel kinda crappy, so…’

‘You’ll die soon,’ the voice said.

‘Cool, man,’ Jack replied, shrugging. ‘Everyone thought so.’

‘Walk the other way, perhaps you’ll live.’

‘I’m the Light,’ Jack said. ‘And guess what? The Light doesn’t fail.’

More of that evil laughter, this time soft and almost sultry, and very clearly inhuman. But genuine amusement was there, and Jack felt a flash of irritation that warred with the feeling that he should turn around, he should turn, he should turn.

His body began to turn him before he could stop it, and he growled and forced himself to move the opposite way. His joints flared with needle sharp pains that made his lungs wheeze.

‘I’m starting to see why they don’t give us weapons,’ Jack said. ‘Doesn’t seem like it would be a fair fight otherwise.’

‘They don’t tell you what we really are, do they?’ the voice said. ‘They don’t have the basic decency to tell you what they did. Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know why they all desert in the end? You’re a curious soul, aren’t you? Yes, so inquisitive. Pippa tells me you’re the very soul of an open-mind. But she’s quite young, and vastly stupid, after all, you’re going the wrong way.’

‘Mm,’ Jack said. ‘Opposite day. I believe you just told me to go the right way?’

The silence that followed felt affronted.

‘Bring a better A-game,’ Jack muttered, and felt sweat break out of all over him as he ignored whatever else he now shared his blood and bones with.

It became a game, almost. He wasn’t very good at it, and he had to turn his body back several times, and he stumbled often – but so far, he seemed to be winning. Or at the very least, drawing even.

‘You remember snowflakes on our tongue?’ Pippa said, sounding like she was smiling. ‘Or, oh! Snow in your boots! And mine. And icicles on the branches! And the window frames! I think I was the prettiest in winter, don’t you?’

‘Sure do,’ Jack said, his heart hurting. ‘Is it really you in there?’

‘Think of ice,’ she said, the answer making his chest ache. ‘Think of snow and ice and frost. You’re so brave. They keep trying to trick me. But I know it’s really you.’

‘Are you mad at me?’

‘I love you,’ she said, her voice like the first real warmth in his heart he’d felt in years. ‘Why would I be mad? Besides, it’s…your mind playing tricks, remember? Maybe you’re making it up, Jack-Jack.’

Jack’s brow furrowed. No one had called him that in- Since-

No one knew to call him that except…except her.

He wrapped his arms more tightly around himself. Kept walking. Started to think this was what he’d be doing until he died. He thought he’d be more alarmed.

*

Little phosphorent glow-worms hung from the cavern ceiling like stars. There, in the centre of a snowy vault was a black plinth and upon it, a sphere of shifting colours and shadows and lights. Flashes of electricity moved across it, arcing out. It hummed and sung, spinning slowly. It reminded Jack of the Disciplinarian’s spells and alchemy.

The voice of his sister told him to think about snow and ice, and Jack tried. He also thought about the Light. And he thought about the Darkness inside of him, and how it strove to turn him away from the plinth.

‘What do I do now?’ The words didn’t sound like the words he was trying to say. His face was too cold to shape them properly.

‘I have a present for you,’ she said. ‘I found it. There’s so much to find in here. I’d give you more but…I don’t know if this will work.’

‘Seems like something an evil thing would say.’

‘Jack-Jack,’ she said, ‘later, you’re going to ask yourself if this was real. If it was me. If you could’ve done more. If you could’ve saved me.’

‘Pip…’

But his eyes stayed dry. It was like he was in some dramatic retelling of an event that had already happened. He was watching without really being there and his eyes wouldn’t make tears, and his face wouldn’t screw up with grief.

‘It’s not the right question, Jack-Jack. You need to ask yourself if you’re ready to let me go. Be ready, Jack-Jack. Be brave.’

He fought with the Darkness in order to stand near the singing ball of energy. Up close, he could see things in it. Faces. Landscapes and cityscapes he’d never seen before. Constellations he didn’t recognise. Strange vehicles and flying ships that weren’t familiar. It was like looking into a hundred different worlds.

‘We had so much fun when we were young,’ Pippa said, the edge of a laugh in her voice. ‘Remember? You know what to do, Jack-Jack. I’m here with you. Both of us together.’

Jack did know what to do.

He took a deep breath and lifted his arm, feeling like it wasn’t even his arm anymore. Every movement made him fight against the Darkness inside of him. He stared at the tips of his fingers and thought vaguely that frostbite was going to kill him. He thought of ice and snow and crunching footsteps and the cold that had seeped right into him. He thought of the Light and how glorious it looked banishing the Darkness, and how he was going to be Warrior, and he was going to make it better somehow.

He sunk his hand into the ball of energy and the world exploded in dazzling brightness – blue and white and gold.

A sharp, painful thud!

More of that dark, self-satisfied laughter, malicious and cruel, and Jack’s body felt broken where it slumped against the wall he’d been thrown into. He blacked out.

Chapter Text

A flickering light, an encompassing dark.

There was no name he remembered. Nothing but the cold. Then reaching out and finding a stick and standing upright, or what he thought was upright.

A golden light ghosted the edges of his vision, made it hard to see.

He didn’t even hear the whispering anymore.

Movement, perhaps walking, even running. No sense of direction aside from up or down, and sometimes not even those. Then falling. He always felt it when he hit the ground.

It always hurt.

*

‘By the Light, what the fuck happened to you?’

A young woman’s voice. Abrasive and filled with fear. He vaguely remembered a time when he’d also felt that kind of acute fear. But everything was calm and numb now. He was empty. Someone had come along with a scrubbing brush and taken out his insides. He felt as fresh as newly fallen snow.

Stubby fingers on his shoulders and he felt something swell up inside of him, nasty and hungry, chasing out the freshness and making him snarl weakly. Like an animal.

‘Fuck this,’ she said. ‘I’m not gonna leave you here.’

He was picked up like a sack of wheat and slung over her shoulder. He clung to the stick in his hand. Then realised he still couldn’t feel his fingers and he wasn’t clinging to anything. The stick was frozen to his hand.

That – oddly enough – felt pretty normal.

*

Had he even fought the Darkness at all?

It really just seemed like it’d found him, possessed him, and then he’d talked to his sister. And now the inside of his mouth was cold. He didn’t mind it. At least it wasn’t morning breath.

Could be worse.

‘Wha’s your name?’ Jack slurred.

‘Cupcake,’ the young woman said. ‘Cuz I’m squat and sweet.’

‘Real name?’ Jack said.

‘How about we wait and see whether they’re gonna wanna kill you first or send you to an Asylum? Yeah? Something went wrong.’

‘Did you fight it? The Dark?’

‘Yep,’ Cupcake said.

‘Did you win?’

‘Guess you could call it that,’ she said, sounding unconvinced.

‘Good for you!’ Jack said, and then thought he might throw up. He opened his mouth wide, but his chest wouldn’t heave, and then the nausea passed and the side of his face was bumping into her lower back. ‘You’re strong.’

‘Yep,’ she grunted. ‘Tired though. Might have to leave your sorry ass here after all.’

‘I don’t think I fought the Darkness,’ Jack said. ‘And I don’t feel anything properly.’

‘That’s ‘cuz you’re dying of hypothermia, or frostbite, something. You’re as cold as a dead thing.’

‘You’re telling me!’

Conversation was too hard. He tried to warn her that he was going to black out again, but by the time he figured the sentence out, it was too late to shape it.

*

‘Get up.’

His whole body was shaking, and then he realised the source of the vibration was coming from two strong hands digging into the meat of his shoulders. He opened his eyes and Cupcake stared back at him, first in annoyance, and then in fear.

‘Shit,’ she said. ‘I think it went wrong.’

‘What?’ Jack said, looking up as she let go of him and stumbled away.

‘What happened to your eyes?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, trying to push himself upright, his whole body hurting. He tried to shake his head clear of cobwebs and only succeeded in staggering sideways. He put his hand out until he eventually met rock, and took some deep breaths. The stick fixed to his hand dug into the stone as a third leg that seemed to be working better than his other two. ‘I have no idea? You see a ton of mirrors in here?’

‘Let’s walk,’ she said. ‘You know they don’t stay here for longer than a week.’

‘What?’ Jack said, following her, using the stick to help him walk and wondering if he’d manage without it. How was it frozen to his hand? And how was his hand not hurting? ‘How long have we been down here?’

‘I don’t know,’ she grunted out. ‘Hopefully not longer than a week!’

That seemed impossible. How could it have been a week anyway? He’d not eaten or had anything to drink. He would have starved to death, surely. Though, with how weak his legs were, how empty his gut felt, perhaps he still would. He rubbed at his face with the back of his hand, then scratched behind his ear. Several strands of hair came loose in his fingers, and he frowned.

‘If I’m saving a fucking shadow-wraith now…,’ she said.

‘How sad would you be?’ he said.

‘Mad as the stirred Dark, more like,’ she said, turning to look at him over his shoulder. She had a faint golden glow to her eyes. It’d probably get stronger over the course of several weeks, and then she’d be a new Golden Warrior.

‘Do I look possessed?’ Jack said.

He thought that it was a possibility, with some of the experiences he’d had. And then he waited for alarm to find him. For fear to bubble. He felt so calm about it.

‘Not really,’ she said, turning back again.

‘I don’t feel possessed,’ Jack said. ‘Oh, and congrats.’

‘On what?’

‘You know, you’re a Golden Warrior now. Your eyes are gold.’

Cupcake said nothing in response to that. Instead, she grunted every few steps, her breathing coming hard. They were walking up a slope. Occasionally they would have to climb. His body felt cold and unresponsive, yet it was still doing everything he needed it to do. Every now and then he’d get a sense that there was a huge morass of pain bearing down on him. He’d heard that oceans could make freak waves sometimes that swept away coastal towns. And he imagined himself like a town encased in glass, and the wave was coming.

‘Do you think they’ve left?’ Jack said.

‘I’m tired,’ Cupcake snapped, effectively ending the conversation.

Twenty minutes later, Jack was being hauled up the inside of a steep incline and staring at Cupcake’s forearms in admiration. She was built. He’d be dead without her, he was sure.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, as though time hadn’t passed between his question and her answer. As though she’d been thinking about it the entire time. ‘They have to stay a week for the ones that make it out. I mean it’s not like we can make the trip back without some proper food. But I don’t know how long we’ve been in here. The drugs made it hard to tell.’

‘Why do you think they do it? Drug us?’

‘Make us more receptive to the Darkness in the mountain? Everyone knows it’s weaker there. That’s why it can’t escape. But-’

‘So it could still be here,’ Jack breathed, because for some reason that hadn’t even occurred to him. He’d not sensed the living Darkness at all since Cupcake had woken him. ‘Right now?’

‘You know,’ Cupcake said, ‘I’m gonna punch you in the face in a minute, and I’m gonna enjoy it.’

‘Okay, okay,’ Jack said, finally reaching the new plateau and following her once more. ‘I get it. Shutting up.’

‘Thank the Light.’

*

The wave of pain grew larger and larger, but it never touched him. But he was more afraid of it than he was of the Darkness. He was starting to figure it out. Something was wrong in his body. He was close to collapse. He was injured. He shouldn’t be able to walk the way he was. Every now and then there was a strangled high-pitched noise at the top of an inhale that he couldn’t help, and his lungs felt like they weren’t doing their job properly.

Perhaps the air was just thin.

If he was protected in a glass bubble, then the wave didn’t smash down and shatter it like he thought. No, it was sneaky. It seeped in underneath, in bubbles and waves. One moment he was numb and frozen, and the next his vision was starting to grey out. Hiccups of nastiness ran up the base of his spine, lanced like spears in his head. Sometimes he heard a foreign whispering and thought his mind was wider than it had been before he went into the cave. It was expanded. But it didn’t feel like a good thing. It felt like someone had shoved a metal crank into his head and just levered his skull open.

The pain kept leaking in, and Jack thought maybe Cupcake was going to have to leave him behind after all.

*

He didn’t cry when he saw the exit, when he heard Cupcake swear a blue streak of relief. But his chest heaved and he sobbed like his body wanted to. The first wave of something real, and he went to his knees and gasped for breath, because Cupcake was saving a dying recruit.

She turned and saw him, looked infuriated. She marched straight over and shook him so hard he cringed.

‘Aren’t you fighting for something?’ Cupcake yelled at him. ‘Fight for it! I can’t do it all!’

Jack wanted to point out that actually he’d done quite a bit of walking on his own, and that the stick had helped just as much as Cupcake, but he was too busy trying to cough up half a lung onto black, hot stone.

Funny, how the heat didn’t seem to touch him. He placed his shaking palm flat on it and stared in amazement as frost curled from his fingers. It made breathtaking patterns. The most beautiful things he’d seen since that ball of magic and colour and light that his sister had lured him to.

‘Look at that,’ he said. Except the words didn’t form properly, and it was only croaking.

‘Shit,’ Cupcake said.

Jack moved his hand and made it happen again, and then he tried to laugh, and then more of the pain snuck in and desperation followed on its heels. For the first time in too long, he felt a sense of real urgency. He was going to die if he didn’t keep moving. He was going to die at the entrance to the mountain. He was going to be one of those bodies that some new recruit tripped over, reaching for the light and never finding it.

‘Shit,’ Jack said, scrabbling to his feet and gratefully taking the wrist Cupcake extended to him. ‘Shit. Let’s get out of here. Shit.’

A few minutes later they stumbled free of the exit and ignored the enormous gargoyle pillars and aimed straight for the giant tent that was still there, glowing lights flickering from within. Cupcake was shouting something, a single word over and over again. And Jack slid from her grasp and fell to the ground, thinking that he was supposed to be fighting for someone.

Except that he’d seen her in the Darkness, and there was a part of him that just wanted to see her again.

*

He hadn’t passed out for as long as he’d thought. He was still lying in the snow, and Golden Warriors and Priests and Priestesses were coming out of the tents. It was the Golden Warriors running towards them, but they had their weapons out; not blankets to catch and comfort them.

A defensive wrath sparked inside of Jack’s chest. He rolled to his hands and knees and then unthinking, thrust his stick out like it was a sword, like he was in the middle of a drill.

A single blast of snow and ice flew from it, and just as quickly the wrath disappeared and he stared at his own hand. At the stick he held. Had he picked up some kind of magical stick? That was…kind of awesome.

Jack gasped when a bolt of golden light flew straight at him. Straight through him. It was broad and huge enough to envelop his whole body. It felt…a little ticklish. The Golden Warrior’s defence against the Darkness, and they’d only use it on him if they thought- if there was a chance he was-

But it hadn’t hurt him, so he wasn’t possessed. He looked at them all in amazement. They were staring back at him with a variety of expressions. He saw horror, incredulity, and the Priests and Priestesses were signalling to each other so quickly he knew that they were excited or agitated.

‘Aw, fuck,’ one of the Golden Warriors said. ‘The Tsar is going to want to hear about this.’

‘Wrap them up,’ another Golden Warrior said. ‘They’re not possessed. Put that one in with the rest. Put that one in isolation. Something’s gone wrong.’

‘Wrong?’ Jack said. ‘Have you checked this out? I can make ice appear!’

And then he looked down at his other hand where it was fisted on the ground and saw frost and ice spiralling out away from his fingers and a hysterical bubble of laughter escaped from his throat.

Maybe the tsunami hadn’t been outside of him after all. Maybe it was inside of him. There was a roar of whispers, like the white noise and static he sometimes heard on the radio when the broadcasts finished for the night. Pain prickled in his nerves, coldness had sunk deep into his heart, and he kept hearing Pippa’s voice. Telling him to let her go. Telling him he was selfish.

He didn’t realise he was making the low, distressed noise he was making until a Priest covered him with a blanket. He looked up and saw Sanderson himself smiling down at him, but his eyes were sad, and the smile was fixed.

Jack went quiet, trying to shut everything away like he did after he’d been beaten by the Disciplinarian. It required all of his concentration, and so his eyes were still screwed up as a Warrior picked him up and carried him to the tent. And he was still trying to get himself together when they entered the warmth of the tent. It was only when he was lowered onto a flat, stretched piece of canvas that served as a makeshift bed, that he allowed his eyes to crack open and let in some of the golden lamplight.

The tent was partitioned into cubicles. In here, the voices were hushed and quiet, but Jack could hear real laughter, real voices. He heard an older woman say, ‘You’re one of us now, don’t worry about it. It’s what we do for each other, comrade.’

And then another woman said in amusement, ‘Speak for yourself, Eva.’

Jack’s cubicle was small. It certainly wasn’t large enough to hold the three Warriors and one Priest who came in one after the other. Then his eyes were being forced open and someone was swearing. A light was shone into his face and Jack tried to jerk backwards, too weak to do much more than flinch.

‘Just because North came out of this with his- Whatever it was, doesn’t mean that this recruit’s another one. North is, well…North! What’s your name, boy?’

‘J-Jack,’ he said. ‘Jackson Overland.’

‘An Overland,’ another one said, derisive. ‘He’s one of the creche kids.’

‘I don’t care if he came from peasant stock,’ the first Warrior said. ‘I don’t care if he was born in a latrine, we’ll need to get to the bottom of this. I knew we shouldn’t have done this early. I knew-’

‘Keep your voice down,’ another Warrior hissed. ‘You want to question the Tsar to his face next? There’s not enough of us to lose another one to an Asylum.’

‘So you’ll rat me out then?’ the first Warrior said. Then he crouched down in front of Jack and opened Jack’s eyes with his calloused fingers, and they were staring at each other. ‘How’d you make that ice?’

Jack shrugged. Realised that he still had his stick, and then realised that the Priestess was trying to take it away from him. He curled his fingers around it harder and scowled at her.

‘Those eyes, though,’ another said.

‘If he’s one of those, the Royal Admiral won’t be happy.’

‘You’re right, Bradhkov, the Royal Admiral is not happy,’ said Royal Admiral Kozmotis Pitchiner himself, as he stood in the entrance to the cubicle. Then he stared at everyone there, one after the other, and gestured sharply with his head. As they left, he spoke to them.

‘We’ll get him back to the city proper, and then decide what to do with him.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ all the Warriors said.

Which left Jack lying on a stretch of canvas propped on a frame of metal, staring at the Royal Admiral while an odd ball of resentment and rawness grew inside of him.

The Royal Admiral walked into the room and then crouched quickly by Jack’s side, examining him like he was a particularly bothersome insect.

‘I thought you’d died,’ Pitchiner said too softly for others to hear. ‘I didn’t put you on the bottom of the callout list on a whim.’

Jack stared at him, and then a black malice roared to life inside of him and he was scrambling off the bed, thrusting his stick forwards like a sword and screeching in rage. Ice pouring from his hands and snow appearing in the cubicle. And Pitchiner watched the entire episode of fury with nothing more than a knowing smile, before taking Jack by both wrists and wrestling him back down to the stretcher with a strength that seemed to cost him nothing at all.

To the onlookers that had appeared, he snapped: ‘I know what I’m doing.’

Everyone disappeared.

‘You tried to kill me,’ Jack said, turning his wrists in that grip, fingers clawing, feeling cold build in his palms until Pitchiner hissed and muscles in his jaw jumped. Jack was sending ice crawling up his forearms, over his uniform.

‘You think I cared about you that much?’ Kozmotis Pitchiner said, raising an eyebrow. ‘It was a recommendation made to me by your CO and I paid heed, given you’d already gotten in my way before. Someone always has to be at the bottom of the list, young man. Clearly it’s not the death sentence the rumours make it out to be. Now tell me, how are you doing that with the ice? And do you mind stopping?’

Jack yanked his hands back as Pitchiner let go of him. Fear clawed him from the inside. For a few seconds there, he’d wanted to kill the Royal Admiral. He’d wanted to- He’d wanted to do something terrible. It had been more than just resentful anger. He would have – if he’d had the power…and if Pitchiner hadn’t stopped him…

He thought of how he’d thrust the stick out in front of himself, outside the tent. How he’d blasted ice and snow at those Warriors.

He stared past Pitchiner and thought about the whispering in his head.

If they found out- If they found out something had gone really wrong, he’d be killed. Or sent to an Asylum. It was his duty to tell them. But how could he tell them something like that, knowing what the consequences would be?

‘I’m not a Warrior, am I?’ Jack said, his voice muted.

The Royal Admiral sneered, and Jack felt small and stupid for even having asked.

‘Actually, you are,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Around the rim of your irises, when the Priestess checked, there’s a border of gold. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, it might not be enough.’

‘And…the rest of my eyes?’

Pitchiner stood up and walked out of the cubicle, and Jack felt dismissed. The muted voices that he could hear through the canvas walls of the tent seemed to hush wherever the Royal Admiral went. And that was how Jack could tell he was coming back. The Royal Admiral returned with a hand mirror, which he held out to Jack with a cold stare. Jack took it carefully, frowning at the frost that crept over the handle from his palm. He could hardly tell he was doing it.

Then, he stared at himself.

It was pretty, he thought. The silvery-blue. It wasn’t normal, but it was pretty. He turned his face left and right, and those eyes followed him. He could only just make out the border of gold. But it was like someone had poured liquid silver into his irises. At least it wasn’t the black of total possession.

Then he stared at his hair, which looked thinned out and straw-like. He reached up and touched it, and more strands came out. And then he saw a glint of something which didn’t seem real. He held the mirror even closer, staring up at his hairline in amazement.

The roots of his hair were turning white.

‘What’s happening to me?’ Jack said.

‘You could still be dying,’ the Royal Admiral said, and at least his voice wasn’t as cutting as it had been before. He hadn’t softened, exactly, not the way he was still looking down his nose at Jack. But it seemed that even the cold-hearted Admiral couldn’t deliver the news of a recruit’s death with complete disdain.

‘But-’

‘It happens sometimes,’ Pitchiner said. ‘It goes wrong. We don’t know why. Most of the recruits don’t survive a partial victory against the Darkness.’

‘I heard my sister,’ Jack said. ‘But she was…she talked to me. She said not just old things but…she talked to me. She- I think she helped me.’

‘Doubtful,’ Pitchiner said dismissively.

‘No, I mean- There were times she seemed…not herself. Like the Darkness had her. And then other times she was trying to fight back against it. Did I dream it?’

Pitchiner’s eyes had narrowed, and then he frowned. Jack stared at the Royal Admiral and swallowed. He was sore, he was cold and he didn’t feel great. It was unfair that he still found the Royal Admiral striking. Maybe he could blame that on years of propaganda or something.

‘There was a ball of magic,’ Jack said, feeling so stupid. He sounded worse than the fairytales and stories he’d heard as a child. ‘A ball of magic that the Darkness didn’t want me to see.’

‘Ah,’ Pitchiner said, but for all that his expression hadn’t changed, he looked like he’d been shocked by the information. Whatever Jack had said, he was suddenly sure there was something real to what he’d experienced.

‘The Darkness kept telling me to go the other way,’ Jack said.

‘And the ice?’

‘Pip told me to think about it. She said she had a present for me. That I needed to- touch the magic thing.’ Jack smiled crookedly. ‘I guess…I guess that was the present?’

Pitchiner’s eyes were wide, and Jack’s voice died in his throat. And then the Royal Admiral was kneeling beside him again and staring at him hard, a bubble of manufactured fear in Jack’s chest expanding so that he was locked into place. Jack hated that fear trick.

‘Whatever you do,’ Pitchiner hissed to him, ‘whatever you’re asked, do not tell the Tsar or any of his servants that this happened. Do you understand me?’

‘I’m not gonna lie to the Tsar,’ Jack said, and the unnatural fear built in him until he was shaking and trying to move away. Pitchiner only leaned forwards, more menacing than ever, the pyrite spark in his eyes gleaming.

‘You had best take my words seriously,’ Pitchiner said. ‘For your own safety.’

The fear rose to a small peak – nothing like what Pitchiner had evoked in the healing tower – and then he stood and walked away, his black, embroidered robe brushing the canvas entrance as he left.

A few minutes later, Priests and Priestesses came into the room holding vials of medicine and a medical kit and a bowl of something that smelled delicious and meaty. Jack frowned, confused and exhausted.

Whatever that was about, Jack knew he wasn’t going to commit treason for the asshole that had put his name at the bottom of the callout list; that was for sure.

Chapter Text

All at once, it hit him that he’d spoken to his sister.

The haze cleared in a single, great gust. A hook in his chest yanked hard enough that he felt his body go limp with shock. Then agony roared in his chest and he turned around on the slope they were walking down and started barrelling back towards the Black Mountain that he’d thought he never wanted to see again.

Pippa, Pippa, Pippa, I’m coming, I’m gonna-

But he didn’t know what he was going to do, only that he had to get back there. His mind was a blaze of noise and colour, in his hand he still held the stick that he’d grabbed from inside the mountain. They’d let him keep it, partly because they were afraid of what he’d do to them if they didn’t, and partly because it was clear that after another few days, he was still too poorly to make the journey back to the city of Lune without some form of assistance. Even now, his ribs and legs burned.

He pushed his weak body mercilessly, feeling cold air in his lungs and frost leaking out of his fingers, his thinning hair being whipped about by sharp mountain winds. Hardly thinking about it, he put his hands together in front of himself and pushed the wind away, and couldn’t bother marvelling when it fell back. He’d left her there. He’d just left her there!

Shouts behind him. Angry voices, but Jack ignored them. How could he just leave her there?

Then he heard pounding footsteps catching up to him, and he sobbed and tried to run faster, harder.

All too soon, a Golden Warrior sprinted level with him, slung a strong, warm arm around his waist and pulled him shrieking and still running from the path.

‘No!’ he shouted, pushing and sending out frost and freezing whatever he touched. ‘Let me go! She’s in there! She’s still in there! I just left her there!’

A swoop as Jack was raised higher into the air, and then the whoosh of his breath leaving his lungs as he was smashed down into the ground. His wrists were caught in handcuffs and he was kicking out even as he tried to gasp for half-breaths, unable to work the snow or frost powers properly with his hands immobilised.

Then, his arms were pulled roughly above his head and he screeched as he saw the glint of a brilliant, huge sword being thrust down. This was it, he’d broken, and they were going to kill him. Not even an asylum, not even-

A crunching sound, and the sword fell just below the straps securing his wrists. He was pinned to a cold expanse of clay and rock, kept trying to pull his wrists free until he felt his forearm brush the edge of a sharp sword and he went limp, trying to gather his thoughts. He could just- He could just slide his arms up and then he could-

Fingers digging into his chin holding his face still, and a knee digging painfully into his hip, holding him down forcibly.

‘Now,’ Kozmotis Pitchiner said, sounding only slightly breathless, ‘kindly stop panicking.’

Let me go!’ Jack shouted, and hated that the response was an exasperated sigh. That wasn’t the right response. Why weren’t they taking him seriously?

‘Leave us,’ Pitchiner commanded to whomever was watching. ‘We’ll find another means of getting back to the Tsar. He’ll be too disruptive for the journey back. The Priests and Priestesses are getting upset, just look at them.’

‘Sir,’ a woman said in acknowledgement. Footsteps crunched in the snow and rock as she loped back to the others.

Jack turned his head to the side, trying to squirm free from the knee at his hip, saw the Golden Warrior reach the halted group and speak to several others. After a few minutes, everyone started falling into their lines of rank again, and he saw Cupcake watching him in the group of fledgling Warriors. Her expression was unreadable. He’d not gotten a chance to talk to her since they’d returned to the tent. They hadn’t lied when they’d told him they wanted to keep him isolated.

‘Please,’ Jack said, trying another tack as he turned to meet those golden eyes, before looking at something else because he didn’t want to be the recipient of that fear-trick again. ‘Please just, I mean it. I spoke to her. It wasn’t just- I wasn’t just hearing her last words. I swear. I just left her there. I have to go back.’

‘You’re not going back into the mountain,’ Pitchiner said calmly, his voice firm. ‘May I remind you that you were hallucinating due to the effects of long-term imbibing of psychotropics? How quickly we forget. Do you see the rest of them over there, throwing tantrums because they may have heard their parents? Their siblings?’

‘It was her,’ Jack said, his voice cracking.

And then, because the day couldn’t possibly get any worse, his chest felt like it was crumpling and his face screwed as his eyes began to water. He tried to turn away, to hide his face, he couldn’t even put his palms over his eyes. It was sheer willpower that stopped him from sobbing like a little child, but he couldn’t stop his face reacting, so he couldn’t hide it from the Royal Admiral. Tears streamed, his throat worked, and he had to keep his mouth open and focus on his breathing because there were noises building in him that wanted to be loud, that wanted to bring the whole stupid mountain range down upon them.

The idea of the rest of them hearing him – hearing his voice echo like that – it was an extra level of humiliation he couldn’t handle. He held it in as much as he could. As it was, being pinned by the Royal Admiral of the whole nation, unable to even pull his hands down and hide himself, he felt like the world was chewing through him. He might have survived the initiation, might have even survived a few days confined to bedrest and wondering why nothing affected him properly; but this?

He waited for it, the castigation. The cruel comments that the Royal Admiral seemed to personally enjoy flinging his way whenever he had to be in the same room as Jack. But Pitchiner stayed silent.

Jack couldn’t make himself stop, and being forced to lie like this was awful. Why wouldn’t they just let him go back into the stupid mountain?

Eventually, he risked looking at Pitchiner again, only to see his face in profile. He was looking off into the distance, probably watching everyone else leave. It was a profile Jack knew all too well. It was minted onto the backs of their silver coins. The strong sharp nose, the face set into some kind of perpetual foreboding determination, as though he was always staring at the Darkness he was ready to defeat.

‘I spoke to her,’ Jack said, his voice rough from having forced his body to stay as silent as possible. ‘I did.’

‘No,’ Pitchiner said, not looking at him. ‘And you’d do best to let that go.’

‘Just let me go back,’ Jack said. ‘It was her. I know it was. She knew things no one else knew.’

‘If you knew them,’ Pitchiner said, looking at Jack sidelong, ‘then you could easily have hallucinated them, couldn’t you?’

‘Can you just let my hands go?’

Pitchiner casually held up his right hand. Long pieces of ice hung from his thick black sleeve, and there was a pattern of red jagged marks across his palm that looked like scalding. But Jack could see from the pattern of ice on the fabric, that…that Jack had done it.

‘No,’ Pitchiner said calmly. ‘Not yet.’

‘You can’t stop me from going back,’ Jack said, his teeth clinking together as he tried tugging his wrists free again. Another scrape of the edge of the sword against his skin and he went still, his chest hurting.

‘All right,’ Pitchiner said. ‘Off you go, back to the mountain.’

But Pitchiner didn’t move, and when it became clear that Jack was trapped, Pitchiner only smirked and looked off into the distance again.

‘You’ve made your point,’ Jack spat.

His hip was throbbing. Pitchiner’s knee was bony, and it ground down into Jack’s hip. He tried to squirm out from underneath it, and felt the moment when Pitchiner leaned down harder. Jack swallowed a noise, felt a rush of black, bitter hatred that flooded through him like bile. But he forced himself to stay still. It still scared him, how he’d tried to hurt the Royal Admiral in the tent. How he’d attacked those Golden Warriors outside of the mountain.

He felt like something had gone wrong. And now, days later, he was pretty sure the rest of them felt the same about him too.

‘You didn’t even want me to live. Just let me go back,’ Jack said. ‘You don’t want to have to deal with me, right? So…just let me-’

‘No,’ Pitchiner said. ‘Will you ever start calling me Admiral, I wonder? Do you know how many times I could have sent you to the Disciplinarian by now for your lack of appropriate address?’

‘How about you go fuck yourself,’ Jack muttered, and Pitchiner laughed – still not looking at him. The laugh itself was deep, pleasant, and Jack wriggled to try and get away again. His hands were clenched into fists. The ground beneath him was a bone-deep cold, but it didn’t feel painful, just weirdly familiar. ‘I’m gonna get back to that mountain, even if you take me all the way back to the city. I’ll just leave. What are you gonna do? Shove me in an Asylum?’

‘You are the property of the Tsar and Tsarina,’ Pitchiner said, finally looking at him, his face sober. ‘Like or not, you will not need to be imprisoned in an Asylum to remember that you’re a captive to the Kingdom. Golden Warriors are not their own, and you’re going to learn that very soon. Whether you’re in an Asylum or not, you will be monitored.’

‘Are we going to join the others?’ Jack said wearily.

‘No,’ Pitchiner said.

Jack thought he said that word an awful lot. Then he frowned and looked the way the others had gone.

‘Shouldn’t you be like…protecting the rest of them? You’re the Royal Admiral.’

‘Now that I know you can say the words, I’ll expect you to use my correct address in the future,’ Pitchiner said. ‘My women and men can handle themselves. As I believe I said to you once before, I am no babysitter. I do not work with people who cannot handle themselves.’

‘What’s the worst that could happen? If you let me go back into the mountain?’

‘You become a disgusting, wretched, impudent ice boy, who becomes possessed by the Darkness. And instead of leaving it in the Black Mountain where it is supposed to stay, you drag it out here, proving what a wonderful combination cold and dark can be for the side that we’re not really supposed to be giving any advantages to.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said, and then he closed his eyes.

Oh.

Could that happen?

‘The Darkness can use someone like you,’ Pitchiner said quietly, his voice far more hushed than before. He looked around carefully, before meeting Jack’s gaze. ‘It’s dangerous. You’re not supposed to bring anything out of that mountain except an ability to learn how to use the golden light. That’s all. The Darkness will consume and destroy any creature it can’t use. But those who can perform magic, who have certain abilities – what a delightful puppet you’d become. Why do you think magic casters aren’t supposed to leave the bounds of the city walls? Now, are you going to behave? Or will I have to concuss you on those rocks over there and drag you back to Lune unconscious?’

Jack frowned. Pitchiner probably meant what he was saying.

‘How are we getting back?’

‘Are you going to behave?’ Pitchiner said again, his voice sharper.

Jack shivered. Nodded.

Truthfully, that was all he often wanted to do. It just never seemed to work out that way. He remained still as Pitchiner removed the handcuffs from his wrists and pocketed them. Then Pitchiner sighed and stood. He pulled up his sword in a single moment and kept it out, holding it easily in one hand. Jack took a few seconds to think whether it was worth bolting back for the mountain again. He closed his eyes as he pushed himself into a sitting position, scrubbing the tears off his face before pushing himself up. The fatigue that had dogged him for days was back again, and he had to plant his feet to stop himself from swaying.

I’m sorry, Pippa, he thought towards the mountain.

He saw his stick nearby, couldn’t remember dropping it. He picked it up and leaned on it, looking not at Pitchiner’s face, but his feet. Well, his boots. They sat midway up his calf, the leather tooled exquisitely, gleaming even though they were caked with snow and dirt. Fluttering around him, the long winter coat he wore, the hems and edges embroidered with gold glyphs of the kind of high Lune alphabet that Jack had no hope of ever being able to understand.

His knees felt like they were going to buckle. He leaned so heavily on the stick that it skidded across the permafrost hidden beneath a layer of snow.

He managed to catch himself, closing his eyes against another wave of queasiness. Nothing had felt quite right since he’d been in that stupid mountain, since the…Darkness, or whatever it was, had been inside him. He felt like something fundamental was missing. Like they’d taken an organ, left him without something he didn’t know he needed until it was gone.

‘We’ll be returning to the city now. With the light. I’m using small words so you won’t panic and turn everything – including me – into an icicle.’

‘We’re teleporting?’ Jack gasped. ‘Really? But I thought that was just for special occasions.’

The smile Pitchiner gave him was thin and wearied. Jack was starting to think he shouldn’t talk around him. Ever. Maybe he should just add a Royal Admiral here and there to be respectful. He kept forgetting. And when he didn’t forget, he just didn’t want to.

Pitchiner widened his stance and then spun his sword so quickly it blurred. He made the heavy, brutal thing look feather light as he cut into thin air and honeyed golden light spilled out of it. The golden light gathered, coalesced, and then became what must have been a portal even though Jack couldn’t see what was on the other side. Instead of vanishing, as the light often did, it hung in the air, rippling and shimmering.

Jack had never seen this kind of teleportation done before. It wasn’t often used, even on the battlefield. The books said it took too much energy, and that the Royal Admiral was only one of five Golden Warriors who had ever been able to use the technique.

‘If you try and escape me while we’re moving through this portal, you will die. Understand?’

‘Y-yep,’ Jack said, and then felt shaky when a large hand not carrying the sword wrapped around his wrist.

He looked over his shoulder as he was pulled into the light, wondering if he’d ever get a chance to see the mountain again, hear Pippa’s voice outside of his nightmares. Then, he was touched with gold, suffused with it, and thought about warmth and sunlight and the feeling of light shining through pale translucent leaves.

A few seconds later he was standing on a tiled floor, surrounded by a wide circular wall. In front of him, a staircase that spiralled upwards, a gold bannister with plated ironwork wrought in the shapes of birds in flight. Jack could hear birdsong, fluting and trilling away in the upper levels where the sounds echoed all the way down. The tower was otherwise hushed, the rooms that branched off the circular room they were in all had their doors closed.

Carved into a plaque above the staircase itself, the words: The Tower of Memories.

Pitchiner walked forwards and Jack followed, using his stick to support himself as he was pulled up the spiralling staircase. Higher and higher, until he was out of breath and wheezing, dizzy, spots pinging like tiny fireflies in his vision.

They passed platform after platform, the tower eventually becoming even more airy and light, arched and circular windows along the walls were inlaid with stained glass or opened into fresh air. There were colourful mosaics all over the cream plastered walls, tiny gleaming tiles pieced together in geometric patterns, or showing battle scenes and figures; Jack didn’t recognise most of them.

Finally they stood at what felt like the top of the tower. Jack sagged back against the curved wall and stared at a closed arched door of lacquered wood. Up here, he could smell floral scents, as well as something tropical and fruity. Like mandarins or candied pineapple on the back of his tongue. He knew where they were, he just wasn’t sure why Pitchiner would take him here of all places.

The Royal Admiral rapped smartly on the door, then waited by Jack’s side, glaring out of one of the windows and tapping his boot on the ground.

Jack stared as the huge arched door opened. In the room beyond, he could see light shining overhead through windows, and lanterns everywhere. Limned in white, wearing her bright clothing as always, Spymaster Toothiana leaned against the doorframe and looked between them both as though she’d been expecting them. Which couldn’t have been possible. They weren’t expected to return for days.

‘Royal Admiral,’ she said in greeting. Then she smiled at Jack. ‘And young Jackson Overland. What a pleasant surprise! Congratulations on passing your trials in the Black Mountain.’

‘Not. Quite.’ The Royal Admiral took Jack by the wrist once more and dragged him past Toothiana into a room that was one of the brightest, gaudiest things that Jack had ever seen.

She lived in the top of her tower, and from floor to ceiling – curving almost impossibly – were bookcases filled with thousands of books. Some with stern black and brown leather spines, gleaming or cracking with age. Other spines were bright and shining. Peacock blue alongside imperial purple, a dove grey with silver lettering alongside books with jackets that looked as though they were stamped, flexible gold.

Set into the circular wall were tall, arched doors with more colourful stained glass set in them, depicting fanciful birds and flowers. Jack wondered where the rooms led. One must have been where she slept.

In the centre of the room, a large working desk covered in ledgers and ink quills and inkpots. Behind the desk, a chair that looked more like a sculpture than a chair, with fanciful shining metals woven together until they plumed out at the top. In front of the desk, several more comfortable looking chairs. And then, to the left, a Little Fang – one of Toothiana’s messengers in her spy network – sat with her hands folded in her lap, looking out of place.

This was not the grim room of secrecy that Jack had expected. And yet he could tell from the young woman sitting in a dark suit – staring at him with narrowed eyes – that this was a place where serious business was conducted. But if he’d not known the reputation of Toothiana the Spymaster, he would have assumed she was some kind of whacky librarian with a penchant for too many bright colours.

‘Phinea, dear,’ Toothiana said, without turning back to the young woman, ‘can you check to see if Duke Ovatne and his sweet wife will be coming to the post-trial celebrations? And if he hedges, do lean on him until he agrees to come.’

‘Of course, Mistress Tooth,’ the young woman said, standing and adjusting the tiny pin on the lapel of her collar. It was a little bird that shone differently depending on how the light hit it – like the alexandrite so favoured by the Tsar and Tsarina. The woman bowed quickly to the Spymaster and the Royal Admiral, and then walked quietly from the room, closing the door behind her.

‘So early!’ Toothiana exclaimed. ‘Tell me it’s good news, Royal Admiral, or I’ll be really upset. Young Jack is looking a bit worse for wear.’

‘He can make ice,’ Pitchiner snarled, letting go of Jack’s wrist and then pushing him forwards with a sharp shove at his lower back, so that Jack staggered and his walking stick slammed down onto a floor made of tiles that were as gold and gleaming as all the fixtures in the room.

Jack wondered if this was the richest place in the whole of Lune. He’d never seen so much real gold at once. There was a candlestick on one of the bookshelves that looked like it might buy him enough clothing to last two or three years.

‘Show her,’ Pitchiner commanded, and Jack stiffened in response. That was a direct order.

He spread his hand and called ice as easily as thinking about seeing it spiral in pretty patterns up the black fabric of his poorly fitting uniform. Just as easy to turn his hand and watch snow fall to the ground. He always felt colder when he called it, his heart raced, but otherwise it didn’t bother him at all.

‘Personally? That’s pretty cool,’ Toothiana said, smiling at the falling snowflakes. ‘But puns aside… Has he been checked by Sanderson?’

‘There’s none of the Darkness in him. He’s not possessed. He went in last and came out with this. I believe it best to take him directly to the Tsar and let him make a judgement on what occurs. Another perversion of the mountain.’

‘Just like me,’ Toothiana said, her smile widening, her face almost beatific. But there was a sharpness in her gaze which she directed at the Royal Admiral now. ‘And our great hero North. Even Sanderson himself, I believe? Oh, who can tell with him? Even you, Royal Admiral.’

‘I came out wielding the golden light and vanquishing the Darkness, pander your conspiracy theories to others, please and thank you.’

‘Really,’ Toothiana said, placing a slender finger beneath Jack’s chin and pressing gently until he met her strange, violet eyes, ‘really, Jack, the Royal Admiral is only here to cross his t’s and dot his i’s. Isn’t he? He doesn’t really care what I have to say. He wants to take you to the Tsar. And then he’ll ask the Tsar if he can put you down. And we don’t want that now, do we?’

‘No,’ Jack said, staring at her in horror. Then he turned to look at Pitchiner. ‘Is that what you were going to do?’

‘Does that sound like me?’ the Royal Admiral said with a faux innocence that didn’t sit well on him.

‘Then,’ Toothiana continued, speaking in a hushed tone, as though she was sharing a secret with Jack, ‘then, he will be able to go to the dear Tsar himself and say, ‘I have been to see the Spymaster about this already.’ This ice of yours, it’s so pretty! Can you hurt people with it?’

‘I…’ Jack looked between them, suddenly feeling like he was in some kind of trap. ‘M-maybe? Yeah?’

‘And how did you end up with a magic ability like this, when you were only going in there to confront that awful darkness? What did you find down there? In the dark?’

‘I…’

Pitchiner had told him not to share his story. He’d even come back after that first visit and repeated the warning, tried to make Jack promise that he wouldn’t say a word to the Tsar. But Toothiana wasn’t the Tsar, and Jack wasn’t going to lie for someone who still wanted him dead. He might not know the Spymaster well, but she’d been kind to him once, and smiled at him, and that was a damn sight more than the Royal Admiral had ever done for him.

‘There was a ball of magic,’ Jack whispered. ‘My sister told me to touch it and I did and then…and then…this. I guess?’

‘A ball of magic,’ Toothiana said slowly, the words rolling off her tongue like she was savouring them. ‘Do me a favour, Jack? When you see the Tsar, don’t tell him that’s how you found the ice.’

‘Is…this some kind of test?’ Jack said, mouth dry, staring between the two of them. ‘I’m not going to lie to the Tsar. He’ll know! I’m not going to lie!’

The Spymaster and the Royal Admiral both shared a long look. Spymaster Toothiana’s face was grim. Her long-lashed eyes blinked once, slowly, and then she looked at Jack directly.

‘Of course it’s a test,’ she said, but her expression was odd. Jack looked over to Pitchiner, but his expression was so blank that Jack couldn’t read his expression at all. Jack rubbed at his other wrist nervously, his skin crawling. He remembered seeing a poster in an alleyway – how long will you believe the lies of your Tsar? Maybe they were just trying a lot harder to rat out the people who were treasonous. He thought of all those other recruits with him, quietly whispering about how wrong it was that they were doing the initiation so early.

‘I’m not going to lie,’ Jack said again, his voice firmer than before. ‘I’m not going to lie to the Tsar. That’s treason.’

Spymaster Toothiana walked back around her desk and picked up her jade cigarette holder. Carefully, without looking at either of them, she inserted a new cigarette and lit it with a finely crafted lighter. The tip glowed orange as she took a slow drag on it, and a few seconds later she pushed two fingers to the brilliant green earpiece she wore, her gaze going distant. Jack figured she had to be receiving intelligence from one of her many Little Fangs.

After another minute, she rested the cigarette holder in a carved jade ashtray, and Jack watched the ash burn down as she steepled her fingers together.

‘I’m so used to dealing with those who aren’t loyal to Lune that it’s almost surprising when I meet someone who is,’ Toothiana said, with a tired smile. But her eyes flickered to Pitchiner again, and Jack had no idea what they were communicating to each other. Was the Royal Admiral really going to see if Jack needed to be put down? Like an animal? He wasn’t possessed, he’d lost count of how many times they’d proven that to themselves.

‘Please,’ Jack said, staring at her. ‘I passed, didn’t I? There’s a bit of gold in my eyes. They even said. I haven’t got any of the Darkness in me. They’ve tested. Over and over. And I have this ice too. No one’s even checked to see if I can even make the light yet, and maybe I can! Can’t you…I don’t know- Can’t you do something?’

‘No,’ Pitchiner said, as Toothiana leaned into the high-back of her chair, an assessing gaze in her eyes.

‘You’re going to tell him to kill me,’ Jack said, glaring at him. ‘I wasn’t asking you.’

Toothiana laughed, the sound melodic. Her eyes sparkled with real warmth for the first time since she’d told him not to tell the truth to the Tsar.

‘Seems you’ve made a friend, Kozmotis,’ she said, beaming at him. ‘I wouldn’t worry, Jack. The great Tsar isn’t in the habit of killing newly made Golden Warriors! Quite the opposite in fact. Royal Admiral, would you give me a moment with our young Jack, please?’

‘Absolutely not,’ Pitchiner said, shifting behind Jack. ‘You’ll have it later. If at all.’

Toothiana looked like she was ready to argue, and her peaceful face had suddenly transformed into one of passion and glinting eyes. But then she subsided, finally reaching down to her cigarette holder and knocking the ash off the dwindling cigarette. She didn’t have anymore, and the cigarette would burn itself out soon.

‘Then you’d best see the Tsar after all, right?’ she said. ‘Honestly, I don’t know why you bother coming here sometimes. You could just tell him that you’d visited, and not actually waste my time. It’s not only you who’s busy, Royal Admiral. If all the living shadows were vanquished tomorrow, you’d be out of a job – I would not.’

‘Hey,’ Jack said quietly. ‘Can I sit down, just for like…a second?’

Toothiana’s forehead creased, and she nodded, gesturing towards one of the chairs. Jack walked towards it, sat clumsily, pressed a cold hand to his forehead. His body temperature wasn’t as frigid as it had been. But the Priests and Priestesses had determined that he ran colder than everyone else now. His hands and feet almost always felt cold. Even the inside of his mouth was colder than it used to be.

Who would he talk to about the week he’d just had? Jamie was gone. Jack wanted to speak to Cupcake again to at least say thank you, but he had no idea if he was even going to be alive at the end of the day.

Soldiers weren’t supposed to start shaking. They weren’t supposed to hunch over in chairs they’d never sat in before. And they weren’t meant to do it in front of two of the most important people in the nation.

He couldn’t stop himself. Even his eyes still felt scratchy.

‘Can I just, uh, have a nap before you ask the Tsar if you can kill me?’

Toothiana made a soothing croon just as Pitchiner said: ‘I do not have the time to deal with this, and if you-’

‘This works out so well!’ Toothiana exclaimed, standing and clapping her hands together. ‘How about you go and report to the Minister and let him know how many new Golden Warriors we can be expecting, since you’re back early. And Jack can stay here and he can have a rest and a warm drink and we can have a little chat. Perfect! Well then, I expect I’ll see you back here in about an hour? Two at the latest?’

‘Lady Toothiana, if you-’

‘I insist,’ Toothiana said, even though her tone was warm and her smile was wide, she looked very dangerous indeed. ‘It’s not that hard, Royal Admiral, for me to make a meeting with Tsarina Agnessa and say to her, ‘oh no, that Pitchiner, I don’t think he’s as stable as he used to be…’ There are Warriors vying to become your replacement, as you know, and I have many, many favours I can call in at a moment’s notice. Give the boy a break, for Darkness’ sake! I’m asking you for an hour or two.’

‘To poison his mind,’ Pitchiner growled.

Jack was still shaking. Refused to look around. Whatever was happening, he didn’t want to get involved, even though they were talking about him. He just wanted to go home, but he wasn’t sure what counted for home now. He knew that he probably wouldn’t be allowed to go back to his barracks.

Guess I won’t have to see Crossholt again, that’s something.

‘Dear, you know I care about Lune just as much as you do. Now, as I said, you catch up with your business and I’ll catch up with mine. Thank you ever so much for visiting, Royal Admiral, I do value your time, you see. I don’t wish to take up any more of it.’

A pregnant pause, then the sound of heavy footsteps, and a door opening and then slamming loudly. Jack flinched at the noise, hunched over himself until his forearms rested on his thighs.

Toothiana sighed, walked past him and then there was the click of a latch as the door was locked.

‘Now then,’ she said in a huff, ‘how snarly he is today. I suppose no one likes to see that many recruits prematurely die in the Black Mountain.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack laughed, ‘because he’s so cut up about it.’

‘Oh, believe me, he is,’ Toothiana said, ignoring his sarcasm. ‘But enough about that. Can I sit next to you?’

‘It’s your tower,’ Jack said, and then closed his eyes. Toothiana sat right next to him and moved the chair closer, and Jack blinked in shock when her hand rested on his back.

‘We have to have a talk,’ she said. ‘But first, how about we just sit here for a while? Have you ever had a hot chocolate before?’

Jack turned sideways to stare at her. Of course he hadn’t. Chocolate was far too expensive, and he’d never be able to afford it on his allowance. Not when he was a kid being raised in the Overland creche, and not since he’d become a recruit either.

‘We can do that in a minute,’ she said. ‘Promise.’

She rubbed his back gently, like he remembered doing for Pippa when they were younger. He had to look at his lap again, his eyes burning once more. He focused instead on slow breaths, pausing at each inhale and exhale. He was a mess.

He wanted to lean into her. But instead he stayed hunched and kept his eyes closed. He didn’t know who he was supposed to trust anymore.

 

Chapter Text

‘Come on, honey.’

A jostling at his shoulder, and Jack woke with a start, bits of ice shooting from his fingers as he stiffened in the chair. Toothiana was already three steps back from him, eyebrows raised, a bemused smile on her face. She held two tall glasses of something dark brown, tilting her head at him.

‘Want some?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, feeling disoriented. How long had he slept? One moment the Spymaster had said she was leaving to get some refreshments, and the next… It couldn’t have been more than ten or twenty minutes, but it felt much longer. His brain wasn’t coming back to wakefulness properly. He still felt drugged, which was impossible – they’d given them all enough time to clear the drugs from their systems at the mountain.

Jack then realised that he’d gotten flakes and chunks of ice everywhere – on his pants, on the floor, on the…blanket? He stared at the blanket around his shoulders, even as he absently brushed off his pants.

‘How long did you let me sleep?’ Jack said.

‘An hour. I couldn’t give you much longer, poor thing. The Admiral will be back soon. Likely to deliver you to the Tsar, I expect. Now, have some. Here. Careful, it’s warm. I’m not sure how that will feel with your…abilities.’

Jack hesitated, touching his fingertips to the glass. It was far hotter than he expected, but not painfully so. He wrapped both palms around it, staring at the way frost started to creep from his fingers over the glass. He furrowed his brows, willed it to stop, and it did. When he looked up, Toothiana was watching the glass as closely as he’d been watching it.

‘They said it went wrong,’ Jack said, sniffing the contents of the glass. Real chocolate. He could hardly believe it. He didn’t even know what it was supposed to smell like. But it was sweet, faintly bitter, and there was something that could have been spices. But even those weren’t familiar. Something woodsy and sharp at the same time, even comforting. He held it close to his face without drinking it. ‘The initiation. I went last.’

‘You’re here, alive, and the golden light doesn’t harm you, so I’m not sure how wrong it went,’ Toothiana said, beaming at him. ‘I was surprised, before, that you’re so loyal to the Tsar. Your friend Jamie – the one who went to the hospital for shadow sickness? I remember you mentioning him. But he deserted, didn’t he?’

Jack looked up from the glass and met her thickly lashed, violet eyes.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, his voice going hoarse. He hated this part. ‘He’s a…he’s a traitor.’

‘Mm,’ Toothiana said, nodding like they were sharing a secret together. ‘Yes, well, deserting is quite common these days. Usually roommates desert in pairs. I’m surprised he didn’t take you with him.’

‘I’m not a…’ Jack frowned, took a sip of the liquid chocolate to cover his confusion. It was far sweeter than he’d expected, and the bitterness came afterwards. It was thick, and he could taste a kind of sediment on his tongue. He took another sip and clutched the glass tighter to himself. ‘He just- I didn’t know. Until the day he left.’

‘Did he tell you to come with him?’ Toothiana asked not unkindly.

‘I wouldn’t have gone,’ Jack said. That much, at least, was true. ‘I needed- I need to be a Golden Warrior.’

‘And so you are,’ Toothiana said.

‘Am I?’ Jack said, staring down at the contents of the glass. The chocolate clung to the sides where he’d tipped it. Stuck thickly to the rim of the glass. He licked at his lips absently. ‘I mean- They said it went wrong. So I’m not- I’m not possessed, and I can do ice or…something. Shit, I mean, sorry, what’s going to happen now? And why…why does the Admiral kind of want me dead?’

Toothiana leaned back in her chair, then after a moment she picked up her cigarette holder and stared at it, before lighting the cigarette itself. The herbal scent of smoke filled the air. Jack realised she hadn’t taken a single sip of her drink.

‘Who knows why the Admiral does anything,’ she said, after blowing out a thin spire of smoke. ‘You provoked his ire on the platform that day. And it’s always a concern when someone comes out from that mountain with powers they aren’t intended to have.’

‘He said…the Darkness, if it got me, it could use me now. Instead of just…kill me?’

‘Yes,’ Toothiana said seriously. ‘That is true. But it’s the same with many of us. When I came out of that mountain, I-’

‘You?’ Jack said, staring at her and accidentally spilling some of the drink on his thigh. It was only a small amount, but he swore again, and then put the glass down on her desk and felt awkward, even though she was laughing gently.

‘Of course, silly,’ Toothiana said. ‘But I’m not a Golden Warrior, now, am I?’

‘What powers did you get?’ Jack said. ‘I mean- Can I ask that? Is that okay?’

‘It’s no secret,’ Toothiana said. ‘But I suppose that my story doesn’t travel as far and as fast as it used to. As for my power, it’s not much, really. A trifling thing. I’m eidetic, a walking library. I contain the memories of everyone I have ever heard of or chosen to research. The books in this tower are to facilitate others, I need nothing more than what I carry in my head.’

‘You got that from the mountain?’ Jack said, staring at her. ‘But that’s so…weird.’

Toothiana laughed, the sound melodic and warming. Jack felt himself smile in response to it, even though his lips felt stiff.

‘I guess it is,’ Toothiana said, ‘and yet it’s been so useful to the Tsar and to Lune.’

‘But…isn’t that a problem? Remembering everything ever?’

‘It’s not quite everything ever,’ Toothiana said, putting down the cigarette holder and taking a long drink of the hot chocolate. Until then, Jack realised he’d suspected she might have put something in his, even though he’d kept drinking it. ‘It’s…selective. Names, dates, years…the kind of information that most people forget in an instant, it’ll be there for me. Poof! I’ll just remember. I train my Little Teeth to have a good facility for memory recall too. That is where the real information is, Jack. In the connections you can make between something that happened two hundred years ago, and something happening now.’

‘But…so you saw the magic ball too? Did you- Did you hear anyone?’

‘In the mountain?’ Toothiana said, smiling sadly. ‘I heard many people from my past that I’d lost. Every single one. They wanted me to remember them, begged me and yes, I can remember it like it happened only yesterday.’

‘Wow,’ Jack said, leaning forwards, wishing he could talk with her forever. He’d never talked to anyone in a position of such power who just…talked to him. ‘You know, my sister and I were…playing in the snow the day she- the day she went away. With the ice. Do you think it’s connected?’

‘Those of us who have come out of that mountain touched differently, suspect there’s a reason for it, Jack. But you’ll come to that in your own time.’ She tilted her head and smiled warmly at him, and he found himself smiling back.

‘But,’ Jack said, remembering something, ‘you said you’re not a Golden Warrior. And you said I am? Do you mean…did I fail? Am I just…I mean I know why they made me go last. I know. I wasn’t ready.’

It was the first time he’d said the words aloud, and hearing them felt like a judgement that Crossholt was passing upon him, complete with a sneer on his face.

‘Look at my eyes,’ Toothiana said, leaning forwards herself. ‘Look closely. Do you see any gold at all?’

‘No, they’re…purple? Violet? Did the mountain do that to you?’

‘No,’ she said, smiling. ‘That’s my heritage. I secretly didn’t want my eyes to change colour, and I can’t help but think…maybe I changed the outcome for myself. I’m so glad I did. I’m not made for that war out there. I can fight, I can fight well, but I much prefer the way it is now. But you, Jack, your eyes – silver, yes, and beautiful – but around them, I can see that gold of a Golden Warrior. I don’t know how much of one you’ll be, I don’t know how much of the light you can make, but that quality of gold? It only touches those meant to make the light. That’s what I know. Take heart, Jack, I know it’s all very frightening, but you have friends in high places now. You can always come to me if you want to talk.’

‘What?’ Jack said, staring at her. ‘But- You’re busy, and-’

‘I mean it,’ Toothiana said. ‘I’d like that, and oh-’ She turned at the sharp rap on the door and sighed, picking up her cigarette holder once more. ‘I believe that’s our Royal Admiral, come to collect you. Don’t forget what I told you, Jack. My door will always be open for you.’

She leaned back in her chair once more, called for Pitchiner to enter, and the Admiral did, looking between them suspiciously. When he saw the hot chocolates and the blanket, he rolled his eyes.

‘Please don’t coddle him,’ he said.

‘I don’t take my orders from you,’ Toothiana said sweetly, tapping some ash off into the jade ashtray. ‘Have you come to collect him? A shame to see the boy go. We had such a chat.’

A muscle in Pitchiner’s jaw leapt, but he stayed silent, gesturing for Jack to get up. He tapped his foot as Jack untangled himself from the blanket. He still felt a bit shaky on his feet, he needed far more than an hour’s sleep that was for sure. Then he frowned at the hot chocolate, he hadn’t even managed to drink it all. It was such a waste.

‘Don’t worry,’ Toothiana said, realising, ‘I’ll finish it for you. We can do this again another time. I don’t imagine you’ve ever had lassi before either? Or kulfi?’

‘Stop spoiling him,’ Pitchiner said, holding the door open and gesturing for Jack to walk past him.

‘Let me think about it and get back to you,’ Toothiana said, her smile broadening so that her teeth were showing. ‘How’s that? Now, don’t you have a terribly important meeting to attend? Do try not to get him killed, Royal Admiral. And have a nice day!’

Pitchiner muttered something under his breath and once Jack was through the door, slammed it shut. He began walking briskly, and Jack kept up. His forehead furrowed when he realised that Toothiana had said she wanted to have a ‘little chat’ with him, and all they’d done was talk more about her. He looked over his shoulder, confused. Had she wanted Pitchiner to think they were going to talk about more than they did? But why?

‘I don’t get any of this,’ Jack said.

‘Even if you did,’ Pitchiner said, ‘it wouldn’t help.’

*

It didn’t take as long as Jack thought it would, for them to arrive at the Palace of Lune. A carriage pulled by fine-boned dapple grey horses had drawn them all the way to the main entrance, and Pitchiner had led Jack through the giant rooms and halls far too quickly for Jack to take in the opulence around him. Admiral Pitchiner talked to varying people as he’d entered, seeming as comfortable here as he did anywhere else.

Now, they finally stood in another vast room, and Jack tried not to look completely out of place, unable to stop himself from staring.

‘His Imperial Majesty, Tsar Lunanoff, will join you in the sunroom at his earliest convenience,’ said an impeccably dressed woman who must have been yet another kind of servant or butler. Jack didn’t even know. He grasped his stupid stick and felt out of place. He had never seen so much gold in his entire life. It plated the plaster mouldings on the roof so high above them that Jack had no idea how it was kept clean. It danced along the cornices in curlicues. The walls were painted with striking, vibrant paint muted to soft tones – wars of the past that Jack didn’t know about because the history they were taught only extended back so far. Here, it was not only wars depicting Golden Warriors fighting the living Darkness, but the Old Wars, when Lune fought other nations.

The paintings stretched, contained by no frames, broken up only by doorways and arches, windows of real glass that let the sun pour through. Jack turned in slow circles and wondered what it was like to be surrounded by all this history.

‘Stop gawping,’ the Admiral snapped.

But he didn’t seem particularly concerned when Jack didn’t, only annoyed that Jack couldn’t seem to contain his wonder. Admiral Pitchiner had affected a look of great boredom, but Jack could see the expression wasn’t quite smooth. Jack couldn’t interpret what was going on beneath the surface. Agitation?

‘Are we the richest nation in all the universe?’ Jack said, breathless. ‘Are we?’

‘Oh, no my dear, not yet that,’ said another voice – amused and containing a hint of laughter in it. Jack whirled and then bowed as low as he could at the waist when he saw that it was the Tsar. Jack’s eyes were wide, he stared nervously at the tiles. Even here, the marble was all inlaid with gold, and every tile was bordered with carved ornate writing that looked like it might be spells or charms. Jack heard the brief shuffle of Admiral Pitchiner giving a bow that must have been quite shallow.

It made Jack realise that he was among people who were far, far above him. The Admiral himself didn’t even need to bow to the Tsar properly.

‘Up, up,’ the Tsar said, and Jack gasped when he felt fingers at his shoulder. ‘Come now, let’s not stand on ceremony in here. As to your question, we are not yet the richest nation in the universe. But we’re closer than we were, isn’t that right, Pitch?’

Pitch?!

‘That is correct, Your Imperial Majesty.’

‘Don’t be formal on my account,’ the Tsar said, his voice surprisingly droll. ‘Are you trying to impress this little one? Or trying to remind me that you have manners? We’re long past that.’

The Admiral laughed quietly, and Jack rose at the insistent prodding of the Tsar and looked up at a face that he’d seen on coins since he was a young boy. Up close, the Tsar was almost like a painting, with smooth, clear skin marred only by a triangle of beauty marks at the side of his right eye. His eyes were thickly lashed with a warm brown, making the light grey of his irises stand out all the more. Honey brown hair fell in lustrous waves, not a single strand out of place. His nose was arched, but seeing it face to face was strange, for Jack was mostly used to seeing it in proud profile.

He was beautiful, and he looked like he contained the wisdom of ages in those eyes, even as his skin showed the youth of a body well cared for. Jack swallowed and lowered his eyes to the Tsar’s chest. It was the first time he’d seen him in something that wasn’t the regalia he wore in posters and on coins or during military events. A pale grey shirt with buttons made of pearl, and embroidery on the collar in stars and starbursts. Simple pants that looked like they were made of the softest leather, and dyed a steely blue-grey that Jack had never seen before. His boots shone, not a single scratch on them.

‘You’re back early,’ the Tsar said, turning to the Admiral. His smile was almost boyish. ‘I take it we have a special exception then.’

The Tsar of Lunanoff turned his gaze back to Jack and his wide-eyed good humour vanished behind narrowed eyes. And Jack tried not to swallow, because this was someone who took the nation to war, who maintained the Asylums, who held his life in the balance.

‘And what happened to you then, young man? Down there? In the dark?’

‘Uh,’ Jack said, looking down and thinking that he was addressing the Tsar, and that his voice wasn’t worthy, or that his whole body wasn’t worthy, and that if Jamie could see him now. Shit, Jack thought, Jamie wouldn’t believe any of this. ‘Um. Y-Your Imperial Majesty, I- There was- I found a ball of magic. I mean, I think it was magic? I don’t know. I don’t know what it was. I heard my sister. And then there was a- But I don’t know what happened.’

‘Quick,’ the Tsar said breathlessly, ‘someone make him our new storyteller!’

The Tsar laughed – the only one in the room doing so – the sound of it bouncing off the walls. Jack blinked, began to frown, and then startled when he felt cool fingers underneath his chin. But when he looked up, the Tsar’s expression wasn’t cruel, but soft, a gentle smile playing around the corners of his mouth.

‘Well, well, you have been through an ordeal, after all, haven’t you? Poor thing. You brought him straight to me, Pitch? Cruel sod. So you have magic then? You’d best show me, and we can decide how we can make that work in our military.’

‘H-here?’ Jack said, staring around at the paintings on the walls. He couldn’t. By the Light, he’d be put to death just for icing the Palace. ‘Um…’

‘What young master Overland here is trying to say,’ Pitchiner said, ‘is that his newfound powers are rather destructive, and unless you want everything nearby coated in ice, we’d best move this outside.’

‘Is that so?’ the Tsar said, sounding excited. ‘Ice? That’s a new one, isn’t it?’

‘It is,’ Pitchiner said. He sounded as bored as the Tsar sounded enthused.

‘Then we’ll take this to the loggia. Come along, the both of you, let’s go.’ The Tsar bounded off with an energy that seemed most unlike his more regal self, where he was always so calm and composed. But then, Jack supposed, he had to lead a nation, so he probably tried to hide the more playful parts of his personality from the public.

The loggia, it turned out, was a second storey balcony framed with arches, stretching so far left and right that Jack couldn’t see the ends of it. The arches opened into gardens of well-tended plants and trees that stretched so high Jack had to arch his neck all the way back to see the tops.

But even here, the columns were etched in gold, gleaming with embedded faceted crystals. It was beginning to hurt Jack’s eyes. The light glinting off the planes of gemstones, the richness in the colours everywhere. Even the vivid greens of the trees and shrubs, the blaze of colour in flowers that he’d never seen before – some he’d only heard of in books and rumours, like the ocean-scented sealotus, that bloomed upon the waves and could be coaxed to grow in salted fishponds.

‘Your Imperial Majesty, I-I don’t have like…control over it,’ Jack said. ‘I mean, even here…I could still damage- I wouldn’t want to- I mean it’s the Palace and-’

‘Oh don’t worry about that,’ the Tsar said, waving his hand dismissively. ‘There are people here to deal with that sort of thing, should anything of the sort happen. So hurry along now, we don’t have all day. Or, you might, but I am quite a busy man.’

‘Yes, um, sure, Your Imperial Majesty.’ Jack gripped his stick even harder and took several steps back from both of them, wanting space. He’d not had much of a chance to explore this on his own, and frankly, even though it felt natural to call the ice to his fingertips, it also scared him to not know exactly what he could do yet. He didn’t know how powerful he was, and that meant he didn’t know how dangerous he was, and he didn’t know how to avoid showing them something that might make the Tsar decide he wasn’t worth keeping around.

Jack forced his eyes closed, frowning a little at the darkness behind his eyelids. But it was still better than the glaring lights, the swirl of paints and colours and scenes that overloaded his senses. Even here, tiny white diamonds pinged in his vision, an aftermath of all that brightness.

He opened his lungs, breathed deep, found cold where there was none. He didn’t know how, but it was in him. Ice flew to his fingertips, chilled his body until he could feel his body temperature sinking. There were a handful of seconds where he shivered and then he adjusted. It felt as natural as if it had always been there. When he opened his eyes again, he looked down at the frost that had crept in fern like patterns over his hands, over his soldier’s uniform, even the stick he carried with him.

There, on the ground, he could see a starburst of frost sprawling out around him.

How could anything so beautiful be bad? He blinked at it, because he’d done that, hardly even thinking about it.

I really have no control over this at all, by the Light, how am I meant to do this? For the Tsar?

But Jack pointed the stick he’d brought with him out towards the gardens, hardly knowing where to aim. In the end he pointed his stick towards a tree that he hoped – prayed – might be sturdy enough for whatever he was going to do. He hardly knew.

He thought of how he’d attacked the Golden Warriors that had come for him after the initiation. Thought of his ice spiralling out of control when he’d tried to run back to his sister. It was easy, now, to remember that trapped, restless need to defend himself.

Ice blasted forth, jagged power no longer an expression of beauty, but pure force. Ice in both icicle and small pellet form made hard, hammering noises as it hit the bole of the tree, causing birds to squawk and chatter in alarm, flying up from the gardens in fright. Jack stared at them, distracted, the ice halting. There was one bird that was red and gold, with a large trailing tail, a huge train of long feathers that ended in impossibly blue disks. As Jack watched it fly towards the opposite balcony, he thought of fantastic creatures in children’s books and looked at the gardens again with new wonder in his eyes.

He felt like he was in a dream.

The ice was still around him, and when he finally turned back to the Tsar and the Admiral, he hoped their shocked expressions weren’t ones of horror.

The Tsar clapped his hands together, not once, but several times, yet the gaze he turned to the Admiral wasn’t childlike at all. His lips pulled together in a tight smile.

‘You know what this means, Pitch,’ the Tsar said.

‘I haven’t the faintest,’ Pitchiner said, watching Jack, his expression now carefully blank.

‘We can train him up. You can do it, since you did such a good job with the last one.’

Pitchiner’s eyebrows pulled together and he turned to look at the Tsar, showing such disdain on his face that Jack felt almost nauseated seeing it. How did people do that to the Tsar? Treat him so?

‘You do remember what happened to the last one, don’t you?’ Pitchiner said.

‘The citizens need it. Imagine how they’ll rally,’ the Tsar said. He walked lightly up to Jack and then deliberately dragged his boot tip through the ice frosting the tiles. ‘This young, unlikely soldier. An Overland at that, to give the peasants hope. Though of course we’ll need to change his surname now. How many criminal Overlands do we have out of that creche? Too many, I believe.’

‘Far too many,’ Pitchiner said, frowning. ‘However, on the matter of training-’

‘We’ll get him his own uniform. Something in white, wait- no- blue and white? What do you think? Not that I care for your opinions on the sartorial, but let’s pretend. I’ll ask Agnessa, she’ll know.’

‘He has been up for disciplinary action more times than I-’

‘That’s what the training is for,’ the Tsar said, ruffling Jack’s hair affectionately, and then clucking under his tongue when more of it fell away. Then, as Jack opened his mouth to apologise for his hair sullying the Tsar’s fingers, the Tsar peered down and looked at the top of his head, and Jack felt his own shoulders lock. ‘He’s made for this, Pitch. You should come see for yourself. I do believe he’s growing in white hair.’

‘From the shock, no doubt,’ Pitchiner said, ‘of only just surviving the ordeal and coming out the other side a poor excuse for a Golden Warrior.’

Thanks, Jack thought, shooting a quick glare to the Admiral. Thanks a bunch.

‘Keeping in mind that ice is useless against the Darkness,’ Pitchiner added. ‘Train him if you must, perhaps he can provide snow days for the children in the outreaches.’

‘Tch,’ the Tsar said, lifting Jack’s chin and looking down at him once more. Jack felt like the Tsar wasn’t seeing him at all, but some distant vision. Jack’s breathing came faster, he still didn’t understand what was going on. ‘You’re such a cynic. But our people, they don’t need your cynicism. Your stoicism can only attract so many new recruits into the fold. We need hope. After the latest attack – the Darkness so close to myself and my lovely wife? The citizens see it for what it is – you let them get too close to Lune.’

Pitchiner’s lips thinned, his eyes sparked, and for a second Jack thought he was even going to shout. But the Admiral said nothing at all, and the Tsar scowled at him for several seconds longer, before looking down at Jack and petting the side of his cheek with the flat of his hand. The touches weren’t light, even stung slightly. Jack thought perhaps they were supposed to be rousing.

‘Have we tested this ice against the Darkness?’ the Tsar said. ‘Do you know? Or are you lying to me, Royal Admiral?’

‘It’s not been tested, but you know as well as I do-’

‘Let’s remember that I know better than you do,’ the Tsar said, and all the lightness in his voice vanished as he walked away from Jack and stalked over to Pitchiner, folding his arms behind his back and leaning towards him until Pitchiner took a step backwards. ‘You are getting old, no longer the young and fresh face of our military. Like as not, Pitch, but you will not live forever. And I need to think beyond our friendship, Comrade, and look toward the future. Of course, I can see he is not fit for leading. But the potential…what he could represent – the young Overland, peasant stock with magic, a fantastic magic that would bring them forth, tumbling over themselves not only for the Light, but for more? You’d dare block that?’

‘He is rude and feckless,’ Pitchiner said slowly, ‘and I tell you with the considered experience of my years, that he is not what you wish him to be.’

‘We can’t simply let him go into the regular regimented training,’ the Tsar said. ‘So the Asylums then? But that is a vicious thing to wish upon a young lad who has yet to prove himself. You just don’t want him to go back with you.’

‘There are others who can deal with this,’ Pitchiner said, his voice firm.

‘I want you,’ the Tsar said. ‘So it will be you. He can stay in your wing until we decide what to do with him. You have enough rooms, cast him off into one of them and teach him some skills in comportment and we’ll see what shall happen.’

‘We are fighting a war,’ Pitchiner said, squaring his shoulders. ‘I need to be giving my attention where it can best be used. We have only just had our new initiates pass through into what it is to be a Golden Warrior, and you want me to be a glorified babysitter because you can’t think of what to do with him?’

The Tsar went quiet, and for a while, Jack could feel a tension so thick that it made his throat tighten. His hand was sticking to his staff, iced to it. Watching these two argue with each other was terrifying.

‘Kozmotis,’ the Tsar said.

Pitchiner’s first name was delivered quietly, with only the barest hint of reprimand, and yet Jack felt it like a blow in the room. He held his breath, watched whatever battle seemed to be raging within Pitchiner’s mind, because he couldn’t quite keep it from his face.

Finally, Pitchiner closed his eyes briefly, then bowed his head in acknowledgement.

‘Give him a chance,’ the Tsar said, his voice just as quiet as before. ‘You know we need this.’

‘As you wish,’ Pitchiner said, but his face had been schooled to impassiveness, and Jack knew that this wasn’t over, and that his future – perhaps his life – was still in the balance.

‘I don’t want you back with the others just yet. Take a measure of his powers and report back to me. Now, you look like you could both do with some sleep, you’d best get some, we have an exciting few weeks ahead of us!’

Pitchiner nodded again, keeping his head bowed this time, and the Tsar spun and winked at Jack, before walking from the room at a brisk pace. When he was gone, Jack heard a faint, cheerful whistled tune pick up and then after a few measures, it stopped – the Tsar disappearing behind closed doors, or the tune petering out.

Jack stood there in the loggia, feeling the breeze on his skin, realising that his body temperature was still far lower than usual. The tension in his body hadn’t left.

Pitchiner didn’t even look at Jack when he turned and left the balcony, and it took Jack a moment to realise that he was meant to follow. He slipped briefly on the ice he’d made, before finding his feet again, running after Pitchiner, feeling out of breath even though he’d just mostly stood there and watched them argue.

Instead of moving through the main halls, back the way they’d come, Pitchiner walked deeper into the Palace. Then, as Jack thought that his senses couldn’t possibly get more overwhelmed, Pitchiner opened what must have been a servant’s entrance and then they were walking down a narrow, non-decorated hall that had many plain doors leading off it. But the hall went on and on, and eventually after many lefts and rights, the narrow hall terminated in yet another plain door that looked just as unrecognisable as the rest.

It was a labyrinth, and Jack had no hope of finding his way around. Twenty minutes of this, and Jack felt dazed. How big was the Palace?

Pitchiner opened the door, and Jack blinked as they entered a large, domed room. It was empty, but for a plinth in the middle and what looked like a sundial, except it was far too complicated and a little unlike any sundial Jack had ever seen. The floors were some midnight blue stone flecked with mica and – Jack wasn’t quite surprised anymore to see it – probably more gold. The walls were painted with a glossy midnight paint, occasionally swirling into indigo and violet, and all around, Jack saw the constellations of Lune – these ones unmoving, permanently in place.

Above them, wedges of sky were visible, but the glass was tinted, and Jack couldn’t even tell how bright it was out there.

At regular intervals, doors lacquered in the same motif – each one a stylised sun, rays radiating outwards in yellow, white and gold.

‘Where are we?’ Jack said. He cringed when his voice echoed off the gloss and lacquer and tiles. The domed room speaking for him, amplifying what he’d said, before his voice fell away.

Pitchiner didn’t turn to look at him, hadn’t even checked to see Jack had been keeping up. But now his steps slowed and he looked around the great room himself.

‘My wing,’ Pitchiner said, his voice muted. His voice didn’t echo quite so much, he seemed to know how to talk in this room.

‘You live in the Palace?’ Jack said, trying to make his voice softer. ‘But…I thought you lived with the Golden Warriors.’

‘Only when needed,’ Pitchiner said.

Pitchiner’s shoulders rose and fell in what could have been a silent sigh or a deep breath. Then Pitchiner turned decisively and walked over to one of the sun-doors, opening it and once more not waiting to see if Jack would follow. Now Jack walked through a narrow arched corridor, this one not painted or tiled. It was only a bare ochre plaster that – after everything Jack had seen – felt calming. He reached out and brushed his hand across one of the lights set into the wall, then cringed at the shadows he created.

‘Why is your wing so big?’ Jack said, needing to fill the silence, even as he risked Pitchiner’s wrath. The idea of being stuck in this huge place, this huge silent place, set his teeth on edge. The Overland creche had been filled with peasant children, and his sister had always been chatty. The barracks where he’d stayed with Jamie had never been quiet. And there were stories and fables about soldiers dying in the quietness of space, and Jack didn’t know how Pitchiner could stand it. ‘Do all those doors lead to places that belong to you?’

‘Use your imagination,’ Pitchiner said, sounding impatient and tired.

‘They are?’ Jack said. His voice had crept up in pitch, and he could hear his own desperation now. ‘What’s going to happen to me?’

‘You were there,’ Pitchiner said, throwing open a door. ‘You heard.’

‘I don’t know what I heard,’ Jack said. ‘I don’t know-’

He blinked at the room before him. Large and dark, with that same tinted glass – in arched panes now – opening out to the sky. A bed in the middle of the room, larger than anything Jack had ever seen, a four poster draped in gossamered curtains of blue. But then, strangely, almost half the room looked set aside for training. There were mats on the floor for manoeuvres, safe enough to fall on. There were braces and brackets on the walls with weapons set into them, including swords. It was a surprisingly large space, and yet it felt entirely unused. Jack could see a fine layer of dust on everything now that he looked closer. Even the floor…looking down he saw his own footprints in the dust. Pitchiner’s too.

Didn’t they have servants to clean this kind of thing?

‘This is your room now,’ Pitchiner said. ‘Someone will be by to bring you food and check your health over. Do try not to ice the room.’

‘I’m staying here?’ Jack said. ‘This is- But the barracks-’

‘Yes, yes, it’s all a shock, you don’t know what to do with yourself, etcetera,’ Pitchiner said, turning to face him, one eyebrow rising. ‘Do please continue, it’s very endearing.’

Fuck you,’ Jack said, feeling some dark, antagonistic thing launch up from a pit in his gut. But he managed to wrangle it down, even as Pitchiner didn’t look surprised that Jack had reacted in that way. It didn’t seem to matter what Jack did, what he said. He wasn’t even calling him the Admiral. ‘How did you feel? The first time you had to deal with all of this shit?’

‘The first time I had to deal with ‘all of this shit’ as you so gracefully put it, I successfully passed my initiation and I was among my peers in a group of good cheer and solidarity. You’re an anomaly.’

‘No more than Spymaster Toothiana!’ Jack said. ‘She said!’

‘She’s wrong,’ Pitchiner said. ‘It is in her nature to soothe the wayward.’

Pitchiner turned to leave and Jack took a step towards him, too scared to reach out, but not ready for him to leave.

‘Wait,’ Jack said, his voice cracking. He watched as Pitchiner walked to the door they’d come through, and only when his hand was on the door handle did the Royal Admiral pause. ‘The Tsar said there was a ‘last one.’ What did that mean? What happened to the last one?’

Pitchiner turned then, his lips curling up in a smile that held no humour, something bitter in the cant of his eyes. Jack felt his heart pounding, could feel himself making frost without meaning to - etching patterns along his skin and the floor.

‘What always happens. He died.’

Jack watched as Pitchiner closed the door behind him, leaving Jack alone in a room too vast, decorated in the colours of night.

Chapter Text

Jack woke, sneezing from the dust that plumed up from the covers as he shifted. He yelped in shock when he saw a small apparition at the foot of his bed. He blinked and blinked, and the apparition resolved into a small, thin girl of ten or eleven with bright green eyes and black curling hair that tumbled down to her waist and fell about arms that were only covered with a light green nightgown.

‘This was Fyo’s room,’ she said. ‘Why are you in here?’

‘What?’ Jack said, rubbing his eyes.

Now I’m seeing things. Shit. Great. Just great.

‘Fyodor,’ she said slowly. ‘Fyodor’s room.’

‘Who are you?’ Jack said. ‘What- Why are you-’

‘Papa’s home early,’ she said, her smile brief.

And then Jack saw it – something in the way the smile pinched the corners of her mouth, or maybe the way she raised an eyebrow at him in the exact same way… He’d heard rumours that the Royal Admiral had a daughter, but she was never at the public events, and Jack hadn’t been able to verify the information. It had been easier to find out what all the Admiral’s medals were for.

‘The Admiral’s your father?’ Jack said. ‘What time is it?’

‘Late,’ she said. ‘I don’t sleep so good. I used to come visit here a long time ago. In this room. Fyo would make shadow puppets for me on the wall. Or teach me the smallsword. Do you know the smallsword?’

‘The Admiral let you do that?’ Jack squeaked.

She laughed then, the sound not small or light, but deep-throated for someone so young. It reminded him of the Admiral’s rich voice. Maybe it ran in the family. She wiped her fingers along the base of the bed, looking at the dust she pulled away, and then scowled at Jack, her lips pursing.

‘Papa didn’t let anyone come in here for a long time,’ she said. ‘Papa was so sad. Now you’re here. Don’t make Papa sad.’

‘He doesn’t care enough about me to be sad,’ Jack said, watching as she turned in a precise twirling step – like something from a waltz – and then walked quietly to the side of the room devoted to training. Jack reached over and touched a portion of the porcelain lamp by his bed, it lit in response. Jack looked out of the tinted windows and saw that there were still stars in the sky. It was late. But at least the sleep made him feel more alert than he had in a while.

Still, it took him a little while to realise he’d iced part of the pillow, part of his quilt.

‘Papa’s heart is in a tower of stone,’ the girl said. ‘He only takes it out for me. But after Fyo, he put it away and didn’t let anyone else touch it. He won’t listen to me. He thinks I’m just a girl.’

‘Aren’t you?’ Jack said.

‘I’m the Admiral’s daughter,’ she said fiercely. She walked to the brackets of weapons and Jack flailed out of bed, panicking. That would be great, she could accidentally stab herself while he was in here, and it’d be another thing they’d kill him for.

‘Stop!’

‘Papa wants me to be his princess,’ she said as she slid a smallsword from a bracket and then held it in a surprisingly solid grip. After a few moments she sighed and brushed dust off it. ‘He’s not even looked after the weapons. Fyo would be so sad. He loved to fight. Do you love to fight? You are just a boy. Does it make you mad when I say that?’

‘No,’ Jack said, standing now, looking down at the shirt he’d found to sleep in. Was it Fyo’s shirt? Was he sleeping in a dead person’s things? ‘I’m kinda just a boy. Well, I mean, legally an adult and all, but- I’m no one’s son, not like you’re the Admiral’s daughter.’

‘Where are you from?’ she said, with genuine interest.

‘Please put the sword back,’ Jack said. ‘I know you look like you can handle it, but don’t go proving it to me. Your father would kill me.’

‘Oh, he would,’ she said, in realisation. She put the smallsword back.

‘Thank you, thanks,’ he said desperately, and she cocked her head at him as though he was a very strange animal and did that twirling step again on the mat, her arms lifting as though readying for a partner. The nightgown was embroidered not with stars or constellations or the sun, but with flowers. It made Jack realise how much he was used to seeing space motifs on everything. ‘I’m from the outreaches.’

‘You’re a peasant?’ she said, stopping mid-twirl, her arms dropping. Her voice was almost harsh then, surprise, and maybe even disgust.

‘Sorry,’ Jack said. ‘Probably not good enough for Fyo’s room, right?’

‘I miss him so much,’ she said, plaintive. She looked around the room and rubbed at her face. ‘But I didn’t want to put my heart in a tower of stone. Imagine being so sad you locked it up. Papa is so sad. He fights and fights, but he doesn’t believe anymore. He forgot how. It’s so important! Fyo and I used to tell him stories, but Papa doesn’t want to hear my stories anymore. He says they make him sad. I don’t want to make him sadder. So I only tell my stories to flowers now.’

Her voice had become more and more strained as she’d kept speaking, and then she took a deep, swift breath.

‘Can you tell I’m sad too?’

‘I can,’ Jack said, swallowing, surprised at the earnest way she was talking to him. She didn’t even know him, and after the coldness of her father, he wasn’t sure what to think. ‘I’m sorry you’re sad.’

‘Did you meet the Tsar?’ she said. ‘I don’t like him.’

‘He’s…I- What? But he’s the Tsar.’

‘Papa won’t let me be in a room alone with him. With any of them. Not even the Tsarina. But the Tsesarevich is okay. But he’s just a boy. Like me. Just a girl.’

‘I’m sorry I said that,’ Jack said, smiling a little. ‘Didn’t like me saying that, huh? I’m sorry. It’s me, anyway, I’m the one who’s just a boy.’

‘Not if you’re in Fyo’s room,’ she said, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. ‘Papa must have found you worthy.’

‘Oh man,’ Jack said, his heart breaking. ‘I’m sorry. But- No. The Tsar made him…take me in. Made him. The Admiral didn’t want to.’

‘I hate him,’ she said than, fiercely. She marched over to the wall and kicked it viciously, then kicked it again. ‘Why is he like that? Why? That is not how you get Papa’s heart free from the tower! The Tsar is a spoiled child. He is spoiled. And I know I’m spoiled, and I still think he’s spoiled. Like fruit.’

Jack’s heart was beating faster and faster, he felt sick.

‘Can you say that?’ he said, his mouth dry.

‘Not to his face,’ she said, shoulders slumping. ‘No one can. But don’t trust him when he laughs. And gives you things. And tells you that you’re special. Because all he cares about is Lune.’

‘That’s…a good thing,’ Jack said.

She looked at him then with pity. They both didn’t look away from each other for a long moment, and then she ran both her hands through her hair, tucking it all behind her shoulders.

‘You really are just a boy,’ she said then. ‘Fyo was once, but he learned. Do you like stories?’

‘Um-’

They both startled when they heard the clearing of a throat. Jack turned with wide eyes to see the Admiral Pitchiner standing there in the shadows, gold eyes glowing, looking not at Jack, but at his daughter.

‘Seraphina,’ Pitchiner said quietly. ‘What did I say to you?’

‘I didn’t disturb him, Papa,’ she said, smiling with a brightness that changed her whole face. Suddenly it was as though she shone with good will, with happiness, and the transformation was so complete that Jack looked over at the Admiral and wondered if he had ever smiled like that. If his face had ever transformed with joy. ‘He was already awake!’

‘Is that so?’ he said, his lips quirking upwards.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You didn’t tell me he’s just a boy. He even agreed with me.’

‘It’s late, my sweet, you need some more sleep.’

‘I’m not tired,’ she said, even as she walked towards the hand that the Admiral extended.

Pitchiner’s face was soft. He wore a simple black shirt – one without any buttons – and black slacks with a scattering of golden runes embroidered at the bottom. He looked tired. Jack thought of what she’d said – that his heart was locked away in a stone tower for everyone except for her. Jack thought he could see what she meant now. His face was so soft for her. There was a smile in his eyes, even if it didn’t quite find his mouth.

When she slid her small hand into his, Pitchiner looked over at Jack briefly, his expression unreadable. She looked over at him too.

‘Will you let me tell you stories one day?’ she said.

‘Now, Seraphina,’ Pitchiner said quietly, ‘Jack will be far too busy for stories.’

‘No- It’s- I mean- Sure,’ Jack said, thinking that of all the things to wake him up in the middle of the night… It reminded him of Jamie prodding him awake, it reminded him of… Oh, shit, it reminds me of Pip. ‘I mean, I’d like that.’

‘Wonderful,’ she said, beaming at him. ‘Okay, Papa, you can whisk me away now. The princess needs her sleep, doesn’t she?’

Pitchiner scooped her up in his arms as though she weighed nothing. ‘That she does. Say ‘goodnight Jack.’’

‘Goodnight, Jack!’ she called.

Pitchiner looked at Jack once more over his shoulder, and then left – disappearing into yet another hallway, the door swinging shut gently behind him.

Jack rubbed his face, sneezed again from the dust, and then placed a hand on the back of his neck as he looked around the room. He could feel loose strands of hair over the back of his hand, could feel frost on his skin. She hadn’t even commented on it. Then he thought of Pitchiner saying that ‘the last one’ had died. So…Fyodor had lived here, and been special to Seraphina? And then he’d died. And Pitchiner hadn’t let anyone in this room again.

‘Shit,’ Jack said, looking around. He looked down at his shirt and tugged at the hem. It was a dead person’s shirt. Fyodor. Maybe Fyodor was capable, maybe he really impressed the Admiral, and maybe compared to Fyodor, Jack was just a shadow of a soldier with some freakish powers that no one expected him to have.

He walked over the padded mats to the bracket holding the smallsword that Seraphina had picked up. He could see her handprint on the hilt, cutting through the dust. He lifted it himself. He couldn’t wield a proper two-handed sword, but this – this he could use. He spun it in his fingers, shifted on the mats finding his balance. He could train here. Keep up with his drills.

Instead, he used the bottom of his nightshirt to clean dust from the blade. Seraphina was right, none of these weapons had been cared for.

Jack spent a few more minutes taking down some of the other weapons, occasionally sneezing. The room needed to be aired out. Cleaned thoroughly. At least the weapons were of such a fine make they hadn’t even tarnished.

He almost dropped a dagger on his bare foot when the door opened again and Pitchiner strode in, looking surprised to see Jack on the mats.

Jack fumbled the hilt and then gripped it hard, standing stiffly, afraid.

‘A warning,’ Pitchiner said, his voice low and threatening. ‘I know you are a rule breaker. I know you have been to see the Disciplinarian and his associates more times than most people will know in their lives. If you ever so much as show a hint of being that person around my daughter, I will find the fastest clipper there is and drop you off into the dead of space where nothing but the Darkness will ever find you. Is that clear?’

Jack stared at him for so long that Pitchiner took a step forward, his eyes narrowing.

‘I said, is that clear?’

‘I wouldn’t,’ Jack said, voice hoarse. ‘She’s a kid. She’s just a kid. What am I gonna do? I wouldn’t do anything. I swear.’

A hesitation, then Pitchiner seemed to take what Jack said on board. He didn’t relax, exactly, but he nodded once and looked around the room instead. Jack did too, wishing he knew what was going on here. Wishing he knew what had happened to Cupcake. She’d still be travelling back from the mountain, surely. It didn’t seem possible that he was here and sleeping, and they’d be making their way down the mountainside, probably resting in the tents right now.

‘She said…’ Jack began, and then nervously licked at dry lips. ‘Who’s Fyodor?’

‘A mistake,’ Pitchiner said, almost absently.

‘And me? Me too, huh? You’ve already given up on me and you don’t even know me.’

Pitchiner frowned, turned back to him, and Jack waited for the insults. Waited for the scathing words to come. But he said nothing, and Jack quietly turned and put the small dagger back, because it didn’t feel right doing anything like that now, when he’d just been threatened by the Royal Admiral of all of Lune.

‘Um,’ Jack began, ‘Admiral, Sir- I- She told me… She said not to- That she didn’t like the Tsar? Can she just-? I mean I’d never tell the Tsar that’s what she said…but-’

‘Really?’ Pitchiner said, arching a brow in exactly the same way Seraphina had before. ‘Because earlier when I asked you – when Toothiana asked you – not to tell the Tsar about how you found your ice powers, that wasn’t how you behaved at all. But you’d commit treason to protect a child?’

‘She’s a child,’ Jack said. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s saying.’

‘Ah,’ Pitchiner said, smiling to himself. ‘I see.’

‘Not that she’s not bright, or intelligent, I mean- It’s obvious that-’

‘Watching you backpedal may become the highlight of my week in the days to come,’ Pitchiner said, the smile broadening. Though it was never sincere, like Seraphina’s. Jack wished that – even now – he still didn’t find the Admiral handsome. That he didn’t stand there feeling ashamed and physically aware all over, as though just by being in the same room, his senses were lit up in the Admiral’s presence.

‘It’s not treason,’ Jack said, staring at him. ‘It’s not the same thing.’

‘No?’ Pitchiner said. ‘You define the laws, do you?’

‘Do you want me to betray her?’ Jack blurted, feeling trapped.

‘No,’ Pitchiner said after a pause. ‘Of course not. She is – as you say – a child. She is also not wrong to think the way that she does, nor are hers the thoughts of the uneducated. There now, are you going to betray me to the Tsar?’

‘I…’

‘You are all encouraged to inform on each other, after all, aren’t you? You seem like the type to have reported all of your friends.’

‘I…’

Pitchiner made it sound like such a bad thing, and Jack was desperately confused. He pressed a hand to his eyes and didn’t want to look. Jamie had said seditious things in the past, and Jack had kept all his secrets. But that was Jamie, and Jamie had never actually tried to get Jack to quit the military, so it wasn’t really sedition. It didn’t matter what the posters said, or what they’d been taught in the creches. It wasn’t the same thing.

‘The Tsar would understand, anyway,’ Jack said, wincing. ‘I mean- I’m not going to… I don’t know what you want me to say!’

‘Odd really,’ Pitchiner drawled, ‘given you seem to love running your mouth.’

‘I just don’t want her to get into trouble,’ Jack said, rubbing at his face and then sneezing again, wiping quickly at his nose. ‘That’s all. She seems nice.’

I have no idea where she gets it from, since it’s probably not you.

‘Whatever trouble she gets into, she can deftly get herself out of. Now, my rest has been interrupted, and I need to catch up on some sleep. Good evening.’

‘Wait,’ Jack said again, thinking that he’d always be saying that to Pitchiner’s back, always dismissed and left in the dark. ‘I’m just- I’m sorry. Okay? I don’t get any of this, and I know you know that. But I can see that I’m not welcome here or anything, and that, like, this isn’t your idea of a good time. I don’t want to be- I want to be helpful to Lune, so- can you just tell me how to do that? Please? Maybe it’ll get me killed faster, I don’t know, but at least you could…’

Pitchiner turned back to face him and Jack couldn’t find the rest of the sentence. Then, Pitchiner looked down at the shirt Jack was wearing. And Jack looked down at it himself, and thought of Seraphina talking about Fyodor – Fyo – and how Pitchiner had now said he was a mistake, and that he’d died. Seraphina had said her father had locked his heart away in a tower.

‘I can wear…my training clothes,’ Jack said, his voice strained. ‘If you want. Instead. There’s not a ton of- I mean… But if it’s easier for you?’

When Pitchiner met his gaze again, he looked tired. He raised his eyebrows, shook his head.

‘I can’t think why your clothing would concern me.’

Then he turned and left again, closing the door behind him. There was a quiet snick! And Jack realised it had been locked.

Jack tugged on the hem of his shirt a few more times, then walked over to the darkened glass and looked out at the dimmed constellations. He’d trained for so much of his life to be a Golden Warrior, to fly out there on the skippers and the great ships.

When he looked down again, his shirt was frosted and his fingers were cold. He took a deep breath and made the ice stop, then walked over to his stick and grasped it. He remembered hearing Pippa’s voice in the mountain.

With a fierce ache in his chest, he missed her and all the other kids at the creche. He missed Jamie. He missed Cupcake, and he’d only known her briefly, but she’d saved his life, and she seemed cool.

What was he going to do now? He just hoped whatever the Tsar had in mind, he could prove himself.

*

The next morning, he woke alone. It was day outside, but the dark glass didn’t give him an accurate idea of what time it was. There were no clocks in the room, he realised. Then, as he walked around the perimeter of the room, he learned that every door was locked except for the one that led to a separate bathroom.

He tried to tell himself that he wasn’t a prisoner and, as his stomach growled, he told himself there would be food. Soon. There would have to be. He hadn’t eaten properly in a while. Even the oats made only with water and salt, thinned out until it was nothing more than a soup, even that would be welcome.

He remembered Pitchiner saying someone would be by with food, to check on his health. Had he misremembered? But no, that’s what he’d said. The Admiral didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would lie about something like that.

Eventually, Jack could see the sun and he could start tracking the time a bit better. That was even more disturbing, because now he realised just how much time had passed – no one coming to check on him. Vast as the room was, he couldn’t lose the feeling he was trapped. He spent entirely too long knocking at the doors and calling for the Admiral, and then calling for anyone.

He killed about two hours doing drills, another half hour showering in the most luxuriant heat he’d ever been allowed to bathe in – though it may have been lukewarm water for all he knew – he was far more sensitive to temperature since the mountain.

He wondered if he had wrapped himself in a dead person’s towels even as he stared at himself in the mirror and pulled out bits and pieces of what brown hair remained. His eyes were no longer blue, but blue-silver. It wasn’t even a milkiness, they glinted when he tilted his head in certain directions, and caught the light as Pitch’s did. And there around his irises – a jagged, uneven rim of gold. It was lustrous and bright.

His eyes were the only part of him that he wanted to look at, because the rest of him was changing in ways he wasn’t sure he liked. He was much paler than before, which only highlighted his dark eyebrows and eyelashes, which didn’t seem to get the memo about the white stubble growing out of his scalp. His lips were dry and chapped from the cold air of the mountain, and licking them didn’t help. He looked frailer now, somehow. He was always thin, his musculature building in wiriness and leanness instead of bulk. But this…

His stomach was a hard knot when the sun began to set, and Jack turned on the lamps in his room because the overhead chandeliers were too bright and unseemly. He rubbed at his chest and wondered when the last time he ate a proper meal actually was. A few sips of a hot chocolate, and then…what? Before that they’d been on the mountain. They’d been eating rations. His next big meal was going to be that evening with the rest of them, in the tents they’d set up together.

Even in the creches, good food had been rare, but plain food had been plentiful. There was always porridge, even if one wasn’t in the mood for it. There was damper on weekends, and raw carrots and other root vegetables. Jack and Pippa could forage in the forests if they wanted more. The last time he’d gone hungry, he’d been in deprivation training for the endurance portion of his military curriculum.

And of course Crossholt had tried to give Jack less, so Jamie had snuck Jack a whole lot more. Jack had been discovered, taken the fall for Jamie, and promptly sent to the Disciplinarian. That had hurt, but it also meant Jack had never really had to go properly hungry.

‘What is going on?’ Jack said to the crack of the door that he thought might lead to Pitchiner’s room. ‘You can’t just leave me here!’

Silence.

Jack hated the lack of noise. He didn’t even hear servants moving about in the corridors. Instead, all he could hear was the slowly increasing speed of his breathing, his heartbeat echoing in his ears.

By the time it was fully dark, Jack had the light on in the bathroom as well and he’d even turned the chandeliers on, because the shadows were freaking him out. The silence reminded him of the emptiness of space, or the feeling of the mountain pressing down in on him. He felt dizzy if he did drills, he felt chilled. He took another warm shower and slowly kept turning the hot tap until he adjusted and his shoulders were red and his thoughts simmered away to nothingness.

After that, he slid straight under the covers in the hopes he could warm up the bed. He drew his knees up to his chest, lay like that until he felt like the room was spinning.

He had no idea what time it was when he snapped. When he got out of the bed, seized his stick and tried to break the windows with ice. It flew to his fingers, writhed in his chest, and it was hungry and bright and he attacked the doors with it. Freezing them, bashing the stick against them, kicking at the door handle in the hopes he could break the lock.

All he succeeded in doing was breaking the door handle off one of the doors.

He banged the stick and then his fists on the doors. He yelled until he was hoarse.

No one came.

He sagged against an iced door, his breath pluming, chest heaving. His eyes burned, but he refused to let himself cry. Instead, he listened to his breath spiral out of control, even as he tried to force it to do what he wanted. He gripped the long stick as hard as he could, not sure he’d felt this bad since Pippa was taken by the Darkness.

And he’d dealt with that by deciding that he’d become a Golden Warrior, and now…

The knocking sounds were weak, as he tapped on the door.

Please,’ he said, his voice breaking. ‘Just don’t leave me here.’

Ice chipped, fell in musical clatters to the floor.

No one came.

*

Midway through the second day, Jack was in a thick, groggy doze when he heard a commotion. He pushed himself up weakly from the bed to see one of the doors splintering inwards, golden light shining, and the Royal Admiral Pitchiner standing there in full battle gear – fabric and armour ripped, face marked with soot, hair far wilder than usual – looking shocked to see just how much of the room was iced.

They stared at each other then, and Jack kept pushing himself upright and didn’t think he was above begging for food anymore.

‘Why would you do that?’ Jack said, his voice hoarse. ‘Leave me?’

He’d kept shouting at the doors, and he didn’t sound like himself.

‘There was an attack,’ Pitchiner said absently. ‘It required full mobilisation. And I forgot that I had a lodger.’

‘You forgot,’ Jack said.

He slid out of bed and used the stick to hold himself properly upright.

‘I thought you were punishing me,’ Jack said.

Pitchiner stared at him then, his eyes narrowing. He looked like he wouldn’t understand why Jack would think that, but after Crossholt, even after some of the other caretakers in his life, it didn’t seem so absurd.

‘What would’ve happened if like, if you’d needed to be away for longer?’

‘Ah,’ Pitchiner said. ‘Best not think about it.’

With that, Pitchiner waved in a servant who was pushing a cart of covered dishes, and even the wash of gratitude couldn’t erase the bitter flood of prickling feeling that followed. He pointed his stick at Pitchiner, at his turned back. A rush of darkness was building inside of him. Growing thicker, stronger, and Jack was scared of it until he realised that it was on his side.

‘‘Best not think about it?!’’ Jack shouted.

The ice, when it came, wasn’t silent. It crackled through the air, the servant screaming and backing up against the wall, cart clattering. Jack’s rage didn’t let him think about what he was doing, and for some reason he thought Pitchiner would block the attack. He was the Admiral. Jack was just venting the vicious, fierce anger that roared up inside of him from the very mountain itself. Jack wanted to hurt him, wanted him to suffer and know what it was like. Leaving him here like this.

The blast threw Pitchiner against the wall.

Jack felt the whole world slow down around him, his heart thumping so fast he couldn’t distinguish the beats anymore, just a constant vacuum of hard noise.

The zing of a sword leaving its sheath before Jack even saw it. Jack swore that Pitchiner was turning so slowly, even though it couldn’t have been slow – the way his robes whirled. Even Jack’s rabbit-fast heart – his juddering pulse – felt like it had been turned to static.

He saw the purpose with which Pitchiner stepped towards him. Knew the way he placed his foot that it was a culmination of decades of training – Pitchiner stepping into some advanced drill – all of that bearing down upon him. Suddenly, all those threats he’d received coalesced, and he was standing in a dead boy’s room, and he’d just attacked the Admiral and that was high treason and he had no reason to stay, he wasn’t a Golden Warrior and they didn’t want him and so…

So he didn’t have to stay.

Wind whipped around him, ruffled the remaining hair on his head, tugged at his clothing. He could feel how it wanted to do what he wished. It wanted to help him. It seemed natural, then, to run away. The wind helped, pushing him, his feet skidding on the floor. He was fast enough that even Pitchiner couldn’t catch him when he ran past.

Jack was pushed through the corridors, his feet sometimes feeling like they were lifting, which couldn’t be possible, wasn’t possible, and maybe it was all in his mind, he was just so desperate to get away from the pounding footsteps that followed him.

He didn’t know how to get out of the Palace, but he’d find a way. They couldn’t make him stay; not when he had nothing to look forward to anymore.

Chapter Text

Fleeing the Palace, the winds making him faster than he ever could have been without them, he saw places where the Palace of Lune had been damaged. The Admiral hadn’t been lying. The damage was inconsistent, here and there entire rooms were filled with broken, shattered pieces of furniture, ornate chandeliers akimbo on the floor, soot and smudge marks across the walls and those breathtaking wall paintings. Other rooms were fine, untouched, perfectly preserved like museum displays.

There were Golden Warriors about. By the time they saw him running past them, it was too late for them to catch him.

Jack listened only to fear. It built and expanded and mutated until he was nothing more than a hammering heartbeat and narrowed, sharpened vision and the wind whipping faster and faster around him. It tore the rest of his brown hair from his head, leaving only the white stubble behind. It lashed at his clothing, tried to forcibly pick him up once and then twice. Each time it deposited him, he stumbled hard, gasping.

An increasing clamour behind him, running footsteps, and Jack picked up the pace. His feet fell on nothing at all, he kept his staff out in front of him for balance and the wind juddered and picked up and fell around him.

A window open to the world. Azure skies. Nothing at all that seemed dark or threatening out there. Jack’s heart hiccupped with hope and he turned towards that huge window framed with broken shards of glass. He shouted when the wind simply whisked him up and tossed him through into open air. Jack held his hands out, eyes so wide they were filled with tears. He was in the air. Not only in the air, but rushing forwards. Almost like- Almost like-

A swoop of excitement, and then he was falling – he hadn’t been on the ground floor when he started running and he wasn’t now. He saw the grounds hurtle up towards him, legs and arms flailing. A slash of the staff through the air and Jack felt the moment where his will and the wind intersected, harmonising. His descent slowed, and then he was buoyed up again and tumbling, trying to keep his balance, dizzy, hungry, desperate.

The laughter that started to bubble up in his chest died in his throat.

It was just one more thing showing how wrong he was now. How much he’d failed. He’d just attacked the Royal Admiral and he hardly knew why! He was angry, sure, but he’d never been an angry person who responded with violence. Years of badgering, bullying and more from caretakers who didn’t believe in taking care of him, and he’d never once responded with violence.

There was something alien and evil inside of him, and if he wasn’t possessed, then it was him.

Jack’s breath came on a cold sob. He tried to think of where to go and in response, the winds yanked him forward. They seemed to know where to take him, and he decided to trust in the winds that had gotten him out of the Palace.

He looked all around him. The city was so small. He could see the mountain range in the distance where his initiation had taken place.

He’d been up in some of the warships before, but it was different seeing the world with no frame of iron or steel around him. The city a warren of streets, roads and alleyways, the roof tiles almost all uniformly a rich red-brown or a dark slate-grey, and every now and then one of the Towers would flash out with its gold tiling. The Tower of the Spymaster. The Disciplinarian’s Tower. But they were falling away from him, receding in the distance.

His thoughts began to blur as the world around him did. Minutes later he was falling again. He couldn’t seem to get the wind to cooperate, though he felt sharp breezes buffet him, as though trying to slow his fall.

The ground rose up to meet him. He rolled into a ball to try and protect his finer joints – his wrists and ankles – from fracture damage. They’d trained him to do that if he ever fell off a ship straight into the air.

A sharp thud all the way through him, but not enough to break any bones. The wind pulled and tugged at him a few seconds longer, then vanished in a whirl. He lay and listened to his uneven, wheezing breaths. Then he gingerly uncurled, looking around him.

He was in the training grounds. The barracks.

It was the only home he’d known for a long time now. Maybe that’s why the wind took him here.

Maybe he’d wanted to go home.

Jack squeezed his eyes shut. Some plaintive voice echoed inside of him and he could hear the words clearly now: ‘I want to go home.’ His breath shook, was heavy on the exhale, almost sounded like crying. But he was in the barracks.

You didn’t cry in the barracks.

He looked around in confusion. There was no one here. He pushed himself up and leaned a little on his staff and then mechanically started to walk back to his room. Maybe he should be trying to get away, but no one would find him here for a few minutes at least, and he could fly.

‘I can fly,’ Jack said, looking up at the vast expanse above him and hardly able to believe he’d just been in it.

It didn’t seem like he’d be able to do it again. The wind around him just felt like the wind, as personally unresponsive as it had ever been.

Jack heard the sound of rusting hinges squeaking. It was a sound that set his skin to crawling. It always had, ever since he’d come to live in the barracks. He turned automatically, his whole body stiffening.

Crossholt stared at him from his office. After a few seconds he leaned against the doorframe, folded his arms. His gaze raked over Jack once, then again, then a third time. His expression had been impassive at first, then disapproving, and now Jack couldn't quite read it at all. He had the strangest sense that Crossholt was scared. But he didn’t look scared, so how would Jack know?

‘Overland,’ Crossholt said, managing to infuse so much disgust into that single word, that Jack took a step backwards. ‘Why are you back early? But of course. Something went wrong didn’t it?’

Jack took another step backwards and looked behind him. He couldn’t feel the wind around him at all. He didn’t feel like some magical boy that could fly up into the air. His grip tightened on the long stick he had. It was sturdy, it hadn’t splintered or broken, he knew it would serve as a weapon.

He also knew that the moment he went into some defensive stance around his Lieutenant, it was over. You didn’t attack your superior officer. Ever. You made reports. There was paperwork to be filled out.

His breathing was silent and fast, his heart rabbit-thumping away.

‘Well?’ Crossholt barked. ‘Answer me, Overland!’

‘Yes, Lieutenant,’ Jack said, his voice still hoarse and weak. In his new room he’d been screaming for someone to notice him. Crossholt had definitely noticed him.

Jack took another step backwards.

‘It went wrong, didn’t it?’ Crossholt said. ‘Did you escape? Is that it? Don’t want to go to the Asylums?’

Jack nodded in jerky movements. It was true, wasn’t it? He escaped. He’d attacked the Royal Admiral. There was no coming back from that. He was going to the Asylums, or maybe – if he was lucky – they’d just kill him outright.

A flicker of wind pushed past his ears, a breeze curled around his left ankle.

Jack’s heart was so loud he could hear it just behind his ears. His fear continued to climb slowly, as though ascending a ladder, determined to find the top. Behind that was a strange, glittering hatred. He stared at Crossholt, the scars on his back twinged. All the scars Crossholt had never let him heal, even though anyone else who went to the Disciplinarian got to have their scars fixed in the Tower of Healing.

Normally it was only thieves and those who beat others, who raped and murdered and abused, who had to keep their scars. Anyone looking at Jack’s back for the first time – if they didn’t know his history – would think he had committed far worse crimes than he actually had.

Except for now, where you actually did just screw everything up.

‘Where is everyone?’ Jack said, coughing at the end of the sentence.

‘The others that weren’t at the initiation were summoned to the Palace,’ Crossholt said, lips curling up. ‘I suppose you found your moment to get away after all. I’ll tell you what? How about you come here and let me deal with you for a bit, before I let the right people know where you are.’

‘Why?’ Jack said, looking behind him.

The breezes picked up. He could see the branches at the tops of trees starting to wave softly, back and forth.

‘Why do you hate me so much?’ Jack said, stumbling a little.

A push of malice inside of him. It came from no corner of himself he’d ever felt before. He blinked at Crossholt, his vision blurred, he felt ice coming to his fingertips. On the next exhale, ice crystals plumed from his mouth.

Crossholt stared, and then his cheeks went ruddy with anger.

‘I always knew there was something wrong with you,’ Crossholt said. ‘It’s like getting the runt in a litter. There’s always one. And sometimes they come good. Usually they don’t.’

‘Uh huh,’ Jack said, his hands trembling.

‘You should’ve died in that mountain,’ Crossholt said. ‘But this works just as well.’

‘Lieutenant…I-’

Crossholt – for all that he was left behind when everyone else had mobilised, for all that he was no longer an official part of the active service – was still fast. His lunge, when it came, dashed Jack’s thoughts and his training. He wasn’t allowed to fight back. It was Crossholt.

He landed on the ground harder than when the wind had slowed his fall. Jack dropped the stick without thinking, his hands wrapped around Crossholt’s wrists. He choked, vision blurring as bitten nails dug hard into his neck. Jack was lifted and slammed down into the ground again and his chest heaved on a hysterical laugh.

Jack couldn’t suck down more than a narrow whistle of air, there was no more coming, and overriding the panic was a jaw-clenching hate that went deeper than anything he’d ever known. His hands gripped Crossholt’s wrists even harder, and then Crossholt roared loudly enough that the sound thrummed and hurt Jack’s ears.

Crossholt scrambled away. Jack pushed himself up, coughing and unbalanced. He looked over and then made a weak sound. Crossholt’s wrists had shards of ice through them. Crossholt was staring at his forearms. There was blood on one side of the sharp icicles. His skin and muscle and maybe even bone had split around them all. There had to be at least ten. Crossholt looked up and stared at Jack with horror.

Jack lurched away when Crossholt lunged for him again.

‘Stop,’ Jack cried. ‘Stop!’

His training kicked in, but only in flashes, and Crossholt knew every move that Jack had ever been taught. Crossholt knew how to block the kicks. He knew how to stop Jack’s twisting torso.

Jack tried to keep his ice at bay, as scared of that as he was of Crossholt. Inside, he felt a hollowness filling with malevolence. Jack wanted Crossholt’s eyes open and unseeing. Wanted to scrape the life right out of him. Wanted him dead so he couldn’t hurt anyone else. Needed him to know what it was like, to be scared all the time, all the time.

The sound that burst from his throat was animalistic and raw and had him coughing under the force of it even as the ice burst from his hands in one violent thrust. There was so much it pushed him backwards. He skidded across the mowed grass.

Then, nothing at all. The wind that Jack hadn’t even noticed – tossing and turning in the air around him – died down. Jack lay on his back breathing weakly, getting his breath back, staring up at the blue sky.

‘Nnh,’ he managed, then pressed a hand to his chest.

Clumsily, he rolled onto his hands and knees and then reached for his stick without thinking – only it wasn’t within reach. Ice and frost was everywhere on the ground around him.

Jack wasn’t ready to look up. He kept flinching, waiting for Crossholt to hit him again, or grab him. Thinking that it would be better if Crossholt did.

Jack didn’t want to look up.

He kept his head down. Kept his head down until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He could hear birds chattering and tweeting nearby. He felt the sun on the back of his head. His breath still misted when he exhaled. He was cold, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.

Eventually, he had to look up.

He sat back on his haunches, kneeling, arms limp by his sides. He could almost imagine that Crossholt was still alive, with that look on his face, frozen in some moment of hatred and revulsion and horror.

But the huge icicles through Crossholt’s chest and neck and torso, the utter stillness of his body – Jack knew he wasn’t alive.

Jack cast around for his stick and reached for it like a child might reach for their favourite stuffed bear. He drew it onto his lap, then curled around it, not looking away from Crossholt. Lieutenant Crossholt. Who couldn’t train anyone, anymore.

There was nothing else to do now, Jack knew. He didn’t want to escape knowing he was capable of this. He’d just wait. He’d wait, and they’d take him away, and Jamie would hopefully never know that his friend hadn’t become a Golden Warrior after all, but a monster.

*

A time later – the icicles through Crossholt beginning to melt and dripping onto the grass – Jack heard footsteps and somehow he just knew it was the Admiral. The footsteps stopped when they reached his side, and no one grabbed him immediately, and that was when Jack was sure.

Jack knelt there, his long stick in his hands, out of breath. He stared up at the Royal Admiral of Lune. Pitchiner looked over to the body of Crossholt, and all Jack could really make out was the sternness of his profile. He couldn’t tell the expression. It didn’t really matter.

‘So,’ Jack said, ‘you can take me to the Asylums now. Or…whatever you want.’

To his surprise, Pitchiner knelt beside him, his movement not quite graceful. For a few moments, Pitchiner pressed his hand to his right hip, and Jack wondered if he was wounded. His face was still marked with soot from whatever battle he’d had to fight. And Jack thought that he was meant to be fighting off the Darkness, the Shadows, and instead he was having to deal with Jack.

Except Pitchiner didn’t look upset, he looked contemplative, still looking over Crossholt’s body. After a long minute, he said:

‘This is was what I was afraid of.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, laughing, an edge of hysteria to his voice. ‘Of course. Made wrong, right? Of course, I get it. I get it. You don’t have to keep me around. I get it.’

‘No,’ Pitchiner said. ‘You don’t. I was concerned that you had been made too much like me.’

Jack was too busy wiping at his eyes. Even his tears weren’t quite warm anymore, and they froze to his fingertips. He brushed them off on his pants, sniffed, then looked over at Pitchiner in confusion when he realised what he’d said.

‘What?’

‘The Darkness sometimes cuts too deep,’ Pitchiner said, never looking away from Crossholt’s body. ‘It may bring you no comfort to know this, but in the first year after my initiation, I did some things that aren’t in my public record. Similar to this. I had to learn how to control it, and you will have to learn too. It will be difficult and I’m not sure you have the mettle for it. But you may as well understand… We let the Darkness in and then cast it out again. In that moment, I think, we are given the ability to make the Light. But of course some can’t cast the Darkness out again, and they stay within the mountain.’

Pitchiner picked at a tear in his travelling robe.

‘For some of us, we let the Darkness in and we let it stay too long even if we do manage to cast it out. It cuts too deep. It creates new pathways in our minds. We are not possessed when it leaves, but we also hear it and it speaks to us. Where before, a quick revenge fantasy comes to nothing, suddenly we are capable of acting on impulses, urges to do harm before the wish to do good takes over.’

‘That just sounds like I should be put down,’ Jack said. ‘I’m nothing like Fyodor, am I?’

Pitchiner was silent for a long time. For so long that Jack mentally started saying his goodbyes to Jamie. He was so tired. So hungry. It didn’t really matter as much. Pippa was gone – according to everyone else, she was a disembodied voice in a mountain. Cupcake probably wouldn’t want to see him again. And Seraphina, well, she didn’t know him long enough to be sad if he went away.

‘You’re not like him,’ Pitchiner said.

‘Was he really a mistake?’ Jack said.

‘He didn’t live,’ Pitchiner said, his lips curling in a humourless smile. Jack wasn’t sure that was an answer. He rubbed at his throat. It was bruised. Like his back. Like every other place Crossholt had grabbed at him or hurt him.

‘I’m aware I haven’t given you much of a chance,’ Pitchiner said, ‘but I don’t truly wish you dead.’

‘You put me last in the initiation list, I’m not stupid,’ Jack said. ‘I know what that means.’

‘That was – for all you won’t see it that way – pragmatism. Reports were that you were no true candidate, and I must give those that are the advantages I can. The mountain claims too many, I will not put the weakest first, to watch the strongest polished off at the end due to fatigue. Mercenary, yes, but necessary.’

‘I killed someone,’ Jack said, his voice choking at the end. ‘He didn’t deserve that.’

Pitchiner only seemed to get more comfortable. He took a deep breath and then pressed his hand down flat to the frost that was still coating the grass.

‘Crossholt was a mean-spirited little man,’ Pitchiner said. Jack looked at his profile in surprise. ‘But no, he did not deserve this. It’s a heavy burden to carry, Jack. Killing someone who didn’t deserve an end like this. Without training, you will do this again.’

The Darkness sometimes cuts too deep.

‘It also means that you’re more susceptible to possession,’ Pitchiner said, voice soft. ‘The others will find it easier to withstand. You are like a tapestry that has had too many holes ripped into it. I’m going to give you a choice, now. This gives me legitimate cause to place you in an Asylum, and you will not like it there. Nor will you live long. Or, I could kill you outright, which you may consider a mercy. Or, you can come back with me and I will explain what has happened to the Tsar, and I expect he will tell me to train this side of you as well. But if you choose the latter, Jack, you will have to live with the knowledge that you have killed someone and that you could do it again. And it will not be easy. I am not sure you and I will ever like each other.’

Jack was still crying. It was silent, only tears, but he had to keep wiping at his eyes. He’d killed someone. He’d killed someone important. He could almost hear Crossholt saying: ‘Much more important than you’ll ever be.’

Even though Crossholt had always been nasty, always had it out for him, Jack had never imagined doing something like this. He’d just wanted Crossholt to trip over his feet sometimes, to feel off-balance and humiliated the way he always made Jack feel.

Now, Jack felt like the Darkness was still there, clumping together, oozing like rot inside of him. But Pitchiner said that wasn’t the case, and the golden light hadn’t hurt him. Which meant that the Darkness had just found something in Jack’s mind that was there all along.

‘It would be safer for everyone…if you just killed me, right?’ Jack said, his voice breaking. ‘Right?’

‘Obviously,’ Pitchiner said.

Jack winced, his eyes squeezed shut. What if he did this to someone else? Someone who had never hurt him? Some stranger? Or…someone like Pippa? He dropped the stick and wrapped his arms around himself and tried to open his mouth to damn himself. He knew what the right decision was. He could imagine Jamie shaking his head, but Jamie was gone and Jack wouldn’t see him again.

‘Jack,’ Pitchiner said, his voice low, even urgent. ‘It would be safer for everyone, yes. But if you can train it, it would be an asset to the Royal Military. I’m not sure if you can – others haven’t – but this is not a safe war, and what the Darkness has done to you, it also does to itself. When it cuts deeper into someone, it leaves itself vulnerable. You can learn to sense it out faster, hear it better, and if there is any chance you can make the golden light, you can cut it down with greater speed. Whatever the Darkness did to me, it made me a broken man, but a better warrior.’

The words settled around Jack like stones, hemming him in.

‘The Palace was attacked?’ Jack said, his voice softer now.

Pitchiner grimaced, then sighed. ‘It should never have happened.’

‘Has it ever happened?’

‘No,’ Pitchiner said, turning to him, his forehead creasing. ‘It hasn’t.’

‘What will the people say?’

‘It was a controlled exercise to test the readiness of the Palace to deal with an attack, and proved that we are more than ready, and that they need only feel safer than ever.’

Pitchiner delivered the words with the drollness of someone used to reciting something he didn’t believe. Jack had seen the chaos in some of those rooms. He’d been forgotten for at least two days. Jack placed his hand flat on his stomach. He was still hungry, but it was like a hard knot inside of him that he kept forgetting about now.

‘It wasn’t a controlled exercise,’ Jack said, shivering.

‘It wasn’t,’ Pitchiner said, looking over at Crossholt. ‘If you decide you wish to live, I imagine you’ll be quite impressed with what Spymaster Toothiana comes up with to make this look like anything other than what it is.’

‘What?’

‘You’ll not be permitted to tell anyone else that you have done this,’ Pitchiner said. ‘They’ll watch everything you say, from this point onwards. But Spymaster Toothiana will need to be informed, to prepare the stories they’ll need in case this happens again.’

Jack’s breath was shaking. He wiped at his eyes again.

‘I can fly,’ Jack said. ‘I think.’

‘Yes,’ Pitchiner said, pushing to his feet and holding a hand to his hip again. ‘There have been some eye-witness reports. Now, Jack, you are to make a decision. Tell me now.’

Jack looked over at Crossholt for a long time. Then he pushed himself upright and swayed, and maybe someone else would have reached out to steady him, but Pitchiner didn’t. He waited for Jack to find his own balance.

‘Is it selfish?’ Jack said. ‘To say I want to live?’

‘Yes,’ Pitchiner said, and Jack managed to hold back his cringe. ‘But, I was selfish too, once. Really, you’re in the best possible hands if you decide you want to live. I won’t hesitate to cut you down if I need to.’

‘That’s…reassuring,’ Jack said.

Strangely, it was. Because Jamie would tell him that Crossholt always had it coming, but Pitchiner had spoken the truth of it. Crossholt was a mean-spirited little man, but he’d only tried to kill Jack because Jack was an aberration, because he was back early and there without supervision and looked like every other mistake they’d ever sent to the Asylums. Jack had tried to save his own life, but in the moment, he’d not killed in self-defence – he’d killed out of malice. Because he wanted to rip the life away from him. And Jamie would never have understood that, but Pitchiner did.

‘A decision, Jack.’

‘I’ll…go back with you,’ Jack said.

Jack turned to look behind him at Crossholt’s body, frowning. He had no idea if he was making the right decision – he suspected he was making the weak decision – but he wasn’t ready to give up on living just yet. He grimaced and walked a couple of paces behind the Royal Admiral, letting his mind go blank.

*

Jack hesitated at the threshold of the room they’d given him. Fyodor’s room. He stared at it and his heart started pounding again and he couldn’t make himself walk beyond the doorway.

‘I don’t want to be locked in again,’ Jack said. ‘I haven’t eaten in days.’

‘Jack…’ Pitchiner said disapprovingly. But he didn’t say anything else and he didn’t shove Jack into the room.

‘It’s too quiet,’ Jack said, feeling like he was six years old and telling the creche leader that he didn’t want to be made to sleep in a separate room from Pippa.

The Admiral turned away and then started walking down the corridor. When Jack went to follow him, the Admiral held up his hand and Jack halted. Jack stood there in the dim corridor and held his stick close to his body. He leaned back against the wall, closed his eyes and listened to the sound of his breathing. He sounded like he had a cold, some kind of virus. His body hurt all over. Some of those bruises from his fight with Crossholt he’d already be able to see. His neck was sore.

Jack waited there and didn’t know how much time had passed when the Admiral came back with a servant pushing a silver service trolley with several plates and bowls of food on it. The servant looked at Jack curiously, but said nothing. Jack saw that the servant’s coat was ripped in several places and realised the servant may have been a casualty of the ‘training exercise’ that had happened at the Palace.

The servant left the trolley in Jack’s room, then exited quickly, bowing deeply to the Admiral as he went.

‘How bad was it?’ Jack said, his voice low. ‘The attack? Is your daughter safe?’

Pitchiner’s face snapped to Jack’s, his eyes narrowed with an odd kind of rage. But then, Jack supposed, he was dangerous now. He represented a danger to Seraphina. He’d just killed someone. No wonder Pitchiner wanted to lock him up again, even if Jack didn’t want to be imprisoned. That was what he deserved, wasn’t it?

Jack’s jaw tightened, and he slipped sideways into the room that he’d half-destroyed. There were pools of water everywhere and some of the ice was still thickly frozen to the walls and the other door. Jack rubbed at his face and it did nothing for his headache. Instead, it inspired a sudden wave of dizziness.

He swayed, stumbled, then caught himself on one of the bed posts. He waited for the click in the lock in the door behind him, but didn’t hear a thing. He turned, surprised to see Pitchiner still there, staring at him.

After almost a full minute, the Admiral walked into the room and looked around, folding his arms behind his back.

‘You should eat something.’

Jack looked over to the service trolley and pushed himself towards it, staring down at an uncovered bowl of pink apricots and tiny green grapes. Jack touched his finger to one of the apricots and then picked it up hesitantly. He’d heard of them before, but he was surprised that such a delicacy was furry. He rubbed his fingers over it and then bit into it, overwhelmed by the sugary tartness.

This was how they ate all the time?

He lifted the domed silver cloche from what turned out to be a platter of meats. Some fresh and glistening with juices, and some cured and well-marbled with fats. Jack wondered if he’d have to save those for later.

‘How long should I ration this for, Admiral?’ Jack said, hesitantly. ‘How many…days?’

Pitchiner frowned at him, and then waved a hand. ‘Not at all. The servants will return three times a day with new refreshments. They’ll remove whatever you don’t eat.’

‘I…’ Jack stared at it all, momentarily forgetting to chew the next bite of apricot. ‘Who eats the rest?’

‘Whatever you don’t eat will be composted into the gardens, some of it is saved as scraps for the stables and kennels, I believe.’

Jack’s eyebrows lifted. It shouldn’t really surprise him, but knowing that the horses and hounds ate better than the recruits and the peasants from the creches was humbling. He felt more out of place than ever and looked around the room warily. Fyodor was probably one of the upper class recruits. That was why he got to stay here, even if it didn’t stop him from dying.

‘The attack on the Palace was dire, but swiftly curtailed,’ Pitchiner said.

‘I was in here for two days,’ Jack said. ‘I think. How long was I here?’

Pitchiner pressed a thumb and forefinger to his forehead, pushing in like he had a headache of his own.

‘I am not here to be your nanny, and you would do well to treat me with the respect I am owed,’ the Admiral said.

‘Sorry, Admiral Pitchiner,’ Jack said.

After all, they were feeding him, weren’t they? He wasn’t being killed. But he knew that door would lock soon, and then… and then…

‘Please don’t lock the door, Admiral,’ Jack said. ‘I mean I know…I’m kind of a prisoner. But just-’

‘No,’ Pitchiner said. ‘You’ll learn that what happened was an aberration soon enough. Expect a visit from the Spymaster and the Engineer of Wonders at some point. I’ll be back myself tomorrow morning to start assessing your capacities as a soldier and a Warrior. The Tsar will want to see you also.’

‘The Tsar…’ Jack said, feeling weak. ‘Uh, Admiral Pitchiner?’

‘What?’ Pitchiner snapped, looking so much at the end of his tether that Jack almost offered him something to eat. Almost, except the man was tall and intimidating and Jack felt slightly breathless whenever he was in the room.

‘The attack, I-’

‘If you think my patience is endless, you are about to find out it is not.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, his voice weaker than before. But Jack refused to give up. ‘Yeah, I know, but I just- You and Spymaster Toothiana told me to lie to him. And now he’s- you’re all going to lie to everyone about this…thing that happened. The attack. And now I’m going to be lying about Crossholt and how he died, right?’

‘That is about the sum of it,’ Pitchiner said, his hand dropping from his forehead as he tilted his head and studied Jack.

‘What else- I mean no disrespect at all, really, but what else- What else is a lie?’

Pitchiner blinked at him, and then his mouth curled in a slow smile. But the smile wasn’t bitter, or mean, or mirthless – as so many of Pitchiner’s smiles had been before. It seemed…tired, but real.

Somehow, that scared Jack more than anything else that had happened. He stepped back to the bed and sagged on it.

‘But it’s for the Kingdom, right?’ Jack said.

‘Get some rest, Jack,’ Pitchiner said.

The Admiral turned on his heel and left, and before Jack could even open his mouth to protest, the door was locked and he was on his own once more. Jack kept eating the apricot, and then ate meats he wasn’t familiar with, finding them all savoury and succulent and filling.

‘Okay,’ Jack said to himself, voice still thick and rough from what Crossholt had done, from screaming for help in the days before. ‘So I like…killed someone, and now I’m getting fed better food than I’ve ever been fed before?’

He waited for that to make sense, but it didn’t. In the end, he was too tired to make much of any of it and his thoughts refused to come together. He lay on the bottom corner of the bed, having dragged the trolley until it bumped into the mattress, and continued to reach for bits and pieces of food with his fingers, staring around the room.

He fell asleep like that, the stick clutched to his side, three grapes rolling out of his limp fingers into a puddle of water on the tiled floor.

Chapter Text

Crossholt’s empty, staring eyes plagued him. That combined with the indigestion which fell upon him after he stuffed himself as full of as much food as he could, meant that he spent the night tossing and turning, trying to get the sleep he knew he needed, unable to avoid the image of his destructive ice, that slack, dead face, the barracks.

Finally, just before the sun was about to rise, Jack balled up and the exhaustion that followed fear came over him. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t get comfortable because of the soreness in his body. It didn’t even matter that he could still see the echo of Crossholt seared into his vision. His body demanded sleep, and it fell upon him heavily, consuming him.

He woke, groggy and aching, to the clattering sound of a cart being pushed beside his bed. The smells of fruits and toasted grains, of fresh bread and potato pancakes roused him, and his eyelashes fluttered to see a portly man touching his fingers to different cloches and finally touching his own finely coiffed hair, as though concerned about his appearance. When he noticed Jack blinking at him, his eyebrows lifted.

‘Young Master Jack,’ the man said, ‘breakfast is served. You’ve been asked to clean yourself thoroughly for the arrival of the Tsarina’s seamstresses and tailors. However, I’m afraid you only have forty five minutes before they arrive. I do hope that is enough time.’

‘Wait,’ Jack said, licking the bitter taste out of his mouth. His voice croaked, his throat hurt. ‘Wait, hang on. Forty five minutes to shower and eat? Do I have to- What else do I have to do in that time?’

‘Whatever you wish,’ the portly man said. ‘Is it enough time? Well, it shall have to be. We have no more to spare you.’

Then, he bowed respectfully – though not at the waist, it was more of a shoulder lean – and he trotted from the room, his hand straying to his hair just before he closed the door behind him.

‘Forty five minutes for a shower?’ Jack blurted.

He lifted his hands to rub at his face and then stopped at the rays of pain that radiated through his shoulders. He shuddered, then carefully sat up, surprised at the pain in his hips. He touched tentative fingers to his neck and felt that it was burning, the lines of Crossholt’s fingers having inflamed the skin.

But he was alive, and Crossholt was dead.

Jack took a single, sharp breath and then made a small sound at the pain in his ribs, the way everything seemed to creak. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to make do while being bruised, but…what would the Tsarina’s servants say?

Probably nothing. None of the others ever said anything.

For once, it was a relief knowing that they wouldn’t care, that they wouldn’t make a big deal of it.

He found more of Fyodor’s clothing and made his way gingerly to the bathroom, where he was surprised by his own face. He placed the folded clothes carefully on the generous dresser and then leaned closer, frowning.

His brown hair was gone. In its place, a layer of white that looked like it was growing in thickly at least. Jack reached out to touch his hand to it, breathing carefully through the pain in his shoulder. It was soft, fluffy. He rubbed it a few times. He remembered his brown hair being shaved short a few times in his life, so that they could give the Overland creche children the delousing that they didn’t need, all because they were certain that anyone poor enough to be in the Overland creche had to be infected with crawling things.

This was different. His hair was softer, and it had grown in – probably since the day he’d left the mountain. And even though it was strange, and he didn’t look like himself, he had to admit he kind of liked the way his silvery eyes and white hair looked together. Especially given his powers were based in ice.

‘Look at me,’ Jack said, trying for a smile.

But it was his overall face that bothered him. The smile that didn’t reach his eyes, that only made his lips look tense. The bruising on his neck that had blackened overnight. There were smudged circles beneath his eyes, his eyelashes crusted with the remnants of salt from crying.

He reached out and touched his face in the mirror, and then blinked in surprise at the frost that spiralled outwards in fern patterns. With some effort, he stopped himself from doing it, and then as easily as breathing out, he let the frost start again and watched it with wonder. For a few moments, he forgot about Crossholt, the pain in his body, and his eyebrows slowly rose and his mouth opened.

‘Wow,’ he breathed. ‘Look at that.’

When he looked at his face next in the mirror, it was through the distorted lens of decorative ice crystals. It took away the harshness of what he saw, made him into some amorphous frost sprite. He thought it was an improvement.

He was more thorough than usual in the shower, scrubbing his feet twice, making sure to catch vigorously behind his ears until they hurt. He cleaned between his toes, abraded his own skin to make himself as clean as he could. Even taking his time to be thorough, even being careful with his shoulders – or as careful as he could be, everything still hurt – he still only took twenty minutes to clean himself in the lukewarm water that felt as hot as when he used to turn the hot tap all the way up.

He dressed without looking at his naked body. He didn’t want to see the bruises. The last marks of a desperate man touching him.

Crossholt was going to kill you though. It was kill or be killed.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said to himself, ‘but who scared him half to death by looking like some post-initiation abomination? For all he knew, I could’ve been possessed.’

That was the truth of it. Crossholt had been malicious towards Jack from the very moment they’d first met, but Jack knew that Crossholt would’ve had to put any post-initiate under arrest if they turned up unchaperoned, before any of the others had returned from the mountain. Besides, it had happened before, a few times. Jack had never seen it himself, but he’d heard of urban fables: recruits turning up mysteriously quickly after initiation, spreading shadow sickness wherever they went, before some brave soul finally detained them, revealing the possession and sometimes dying in the process.

Jack looked around the bathroom carefully then. There’d been an attack on the Palace. He kept forgetting, preoccupied with the image of Crossholt’s face. Were they safe?

And Pitchiner, making it clear that it had been an unexpected attack, and then telling him the lie that the military and government would tell everyone else to make them feel safe.

It made Jack uneasy. Surely…that was for the good of Lune? The people had to feel safe.

But what if they felt safe and they really weren’t?

Jack dressed as quickly as he was able, Fyodor’s clothing a little too big for him at the cuffs of the embroidered shirt, the hem of his pants. Then he left the bathroom and picked at the food on the cart. He didn’t want anything too rich, having learned his lesson. So he ate potato pancakes with no toppings, and was very careful to look for a piece of fruit he recognised: a pear. The pancakes were stolid, but they made him feel stronger than he’d felt for a few days, and he reached for his stick and held it to reassure himself. He didn’t know why it made him feel so much better, but he supposed it had something to do with it being the thing that helped him escape the mountain.

Well, Cupcake too.

He wondered how she was doing. Hoped she was doing well.

There were no clocks in the room, so he couldn’t tell if it had been forty five minutes when six of the Tsarina’s servants swept into the room as though they had every right to be there. A tailor who Jack could only tell by the measuring tape at a belt around his waist gestured imperiously in the vicinity of Jack’s direction.

‘Strip, please. We need your measurements.’

Jack swallowed, nodded, hands moving to the buttons at his shirt. The tailor was wearing some of the nicest clothing Jack had ever seen anyone wear. Instead of embroidery, his suit was printed, dyed with a subtle pattern of birds in flight. His hair was dishevelled in that way that suggested he’d spent some time pulling tufts of hair this way or that way before making a decision. His black rimmed spectacles looked like they were made for his angular face.

Jack was shrugging off his shirt when he realised that all of the servants had stopped in the process of moving about the room, taking out samples of clothing, bustling about with the items they’d brought with them.

He stopped and looked up, saw them staring down at his torso. So Jack followed their gaze and saw the bruises they were seeing. He closed his eyes, suddenly hoping they wouldn’t draw attention to them.

‘You’re injured?’ the tailor said sharply. ‘Why have you not been treated?’

‘Uh,’ Jack said, absently covering his chest. ‘No one knows. I mean- It’s just bruises, right?’

The tailor stared at him blankly, and then his eyes narrowed.

‘Well, far be it for me to judge, we’re only here to make sure you are outfitted as befits your station.’

‘My station?’ Jack said, as the tailor pointed to Jack’s pants and made it obvious they were to come off as well. Jack just dug his thumbs into the waistline and pulled down. He hadn’t found a belt, and they came down easily.

‘Underclothes too,’ the tailor snipped, impatient. ‘Yes, your station. Do you think it is peasants that get fitted by those that fit the Tsarina? We would not dirty our hands in such a fashion.’

But I am a peasant.

As soon as Jack was naked, the tailor was there forcing Jack’s shoulders straight. A seamstress bent down and casually moved his legs a little apart. Then there were measuring tapes everywhere. Around his waist. Along his inseam. Around sections of his forearm, his elbow, his upper arm, his shoulders. The tailor said nothing else about Jack’s bruises, and seemed occupied with the task before him.

‘What do you think?’ the tailor said to one of the seamstresses who was wrapping the measuring tape around Jack’s head. ‘The Tsar has said something that flatters his appearance. Is it true that you can make ice?’

Jack blinked when he realised that the question was directed at him.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘That’s- That’s true.’

‘He’ll need frost proof clothing,’ the tailor said, not looking at Jack. ‘Silk is out.’

‘Silk was never in,’ one of the seamstresses muttered.

The tailor smirked, as though it was an ongoing joke between them, but then his face became businesslike once more and Jack stared in surprise when he realised that one of the seamstresses was measuring his fingers.

He didn’t really care about his nudity. He’d not had a right to expect that he could stay unclothed around people of higher station, especially those who were concerned with clothing or health. So there was a part of him that just detached and stopped caring. He was an object they were handling, and soon it would be over and he’d get dressed again.

‘Blue, perhaps,’ the tailor said, looking Jack over with a critical gaze. ‘Blue, silver, grey, black. Perhaps some brown to lend some warmth.’

‘In the pants?’

‘Brown pants?’ the tailor said, and then he tilted his head and shrugged. ‘Instead of the gold, we can embroider his clothing with silver. Frost and snowflakes, something thematic. But the symbols of the military too. Perhaps around here…’ the tailor skimmed his finger around Jack’s waist, indicating the hem of an invisible shirt. ‘The Tsar wishes him to be immediately noticeable in a crowd. So the black and gold standard is out.’

‘Was it ever in?’ the seamstress of before snipped sarcastically, even as she offered some samples of cloth to the tailor.

The tailor laughed, peered at Jack’s hair, then ran surprisingly rough fingers over the top of his head.

‘Will you wear it like this?’ the tailor asked.

‘I think longer?’ Jack said, looking between them. ‘Like I used to?’

‘Good, I think. The shape of your head is not ideal for hair at this length.’

Jack’s lips quirked up. ‘Did you just say the shape of my head is ugly?’

‘Young Master Jack,’ the tailor said, addressing him directly for the first time, ‘I took great pains to avoid saying that.’

‘I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard,’ Jack said.

‘You can’t trust anything that tailor Flitmouse says,’ said the seamstress who had been making the in-jokes. Jack tried to catch her eye, to smile at her, but she was focused on her work.

Jack had a strange sense of loneliness then. These people with their little jokes and their lives, and Jack was an outsider even now. Then he thought that maybe he deserved it, because he’d murdered someone, and he’d wanted to murder them. Not just out of self-defence.

Pitchiner said he was like that too. He was affected like that. Is that why he’s always so distant from everything? And such a douche about it?

He went silent as they discussed cloth nearby, picking out shades of blue without asking him once if that was what he wanted to wear. They chattered constantly, sometimes arguing, and another seamstress brought out samples of different metallic threads for embroidery and their fingers busily moved over each, pointing, choosing, pushing aside.

The Admiral of Lune had said the Darkness had pushed too deep. Jack didn’t feel like he was wrong, either. He’d known in the mountain that he wasn’t letting the Darkness through him – even though he still didn’t have much of an idea of what that meant. He’d let it in. He’d let it stay. And it had vanished, yes, but not before Jack had thought that maybe it would never leave.

It was strange, because right now, standing naked before these people, he didn’t feel malice or malevolence. He felt uncertain, scared, lost. But that just meant that he couldn’t even begin to control it. How was someone supposed to control something they couldn’t feel? He didn’t want to get so scared that he was overcome with it again.

And it wasn’t like the thing with Crossholt was the first time, either. When he’d come out of the mountain with Cupcake and seen the Golden Warriors, if he’d known what he was doing, he could have seriously injured or killed them. And then Pitchiner, Jack had lashed out with his staff and hurt him with the ice. Pitchiner’s back had been turned. He had been walking away.

Jack shivered.

The servants kept chattering away and Jack hesitated, then walked over to the bed and perched on it, watching them.

A quick knock on the door and all the servants turned as one, and the door swung open as Jack hurriedly reached for a pillow and covered his privates with it, just in time to see Nikolai St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund enter the room together.

Jack stared, because it was North, the Engineer of Wonders. He reached for his stick absently – where it was resting on the bed – and drew that to his body too, as though he could somehow protect himself with fabric and wood. He wasn’t scared, exactly, but to see the Engineer and the Disciplinarian side by side filled Jack with an odd kind of dread. Why were they here, together? Why?

‘Did I get- Did I get reported?’ Jack said, breathless.

Bunnymund’s long ears perked forwards a little.

‘C’mon mate, I get days off too, y’know.’

‘Ah, but he is joking!’ boomed North, slapping Bunnymund heartily on the back even as he peered with immense curiosity around Jack’s room. ‘He is never taking a day off!’

Jack stared at North, his fingers clutching and icing the pillow at once.

North cut an imposing figure. He’d gained some weight since the days that he’d been a Golden Warrior – one of the best, too – but he still bore the size and breadth of someone who could have won wars with his musculature as well as his sabres. His red coat had pulled back at the sleeves to show arms covered in thick black tattoos, and his face bore the signs of someone who was ready to apprehend the world with fierceness at but a moment – in the light of his bright blue eyes, in the cast of his thick black eyebrows, and in the sharpness of his black moustache and beard. At his waist he wore a belt that even now held a sabre, as though he couldn’t quite let go of his Warrior past despite being one of the best aeronautical engineers that Lune had ever seen.

‘Well, I think we’re done here,’ the tailor said, pointing down to Jack’s clothing and then at Jack in a way that indicated he wanted Jack to get dressed again. ‘We’ll get some underclothes and basic training shirts and so on to you in a day or so, the more formal items will arrive over the next few weeks. A full wardrobe overhaul doesn’t happen in a day, you know!’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, weakly. ‘Sure, I- I understand. Thanks so much.’

The servants of the Tsarina left the room, one of the seamstresses clucking disapprovingly at Bunnymund as she went. Bunnymund’s ears began to flatten towards the back of his head, but they poked up again as soon as the servants were gone.

‘Pretty sure Flitmouse told you to get dressed,’ Bunnymund said, flicking his ears forward in emphasis.

Jack looked between the two of them – North walked towards the equipment hanging on the wall by the training pads, and Bunnymund walked over to the tinted windows and looked outside, up at the sky.

Jack lowered the pillow hesitantly, and then the stick, and quickly darted off the bed to seize his clothing. It was one thing for servants to be measuring him and poking at him, but these were- this was too weird.

Jack stepped into his pants and winced as he pulled them up, and then was startled by a sudden clatter of metal against metal. He looked up at North, who had knocked two blades together accidentally, and was staring at Jack with wide eyes, horror in the slackness of his mouth.

‘What?’ Jack said, staring at him. ‘Shit, what?’

‘Think it’s the bruises,’ Bunnymund said drily from where he was standing by the window.

Jack reached for the pillow and his clothing and covered himself as quickly as he could, his heart beating faster.

‘It’s nothing.’

I didn’t do anything.

He’d killed someone, and the Disciplinarian was right there.

‘Jack,’ North said, staring at him, then looking to where he must have seen the bruises. ‘That is not being nothing. I know. What happened?’

‘Nothing!’ Jack burst out.

‘Was it Kozmotis?’ Bunnymund said flatly. ‘Because if it was-’

‘It wasn’t him, honest,’ Jack said. ‘I just- I fell.’

‘Rightio,’ Bunnymund said, looking over at North. ‘That was some staircase that got a chokehold of you! This doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that Crossholt’s disappeared and they’re still preparing a press statement about it?’

Jack backed towards the bed and his thighs bumped the mattress. He sat weakly, reached for his stick and held it in front of him, and thought that this might be what Pitchiner was talking about. This need to constantly be on the defensive. North and Bunnymund hadn’t moved. The first time Jack was getting to meet the Engineer of Wonders, and he was reacting like this.

‘It’s nothing,’ Jack said again. ‘Seriously. Right? These things happen.’

North looked over to Bunnymund with narrowed eyes, and there was a glower there that was so strong that it stole the breath out of Jack’s lungs, and North wasn’t even looking at him. But when North looked back, the expression was gone, replaced with something friendly.

‘Of course,’ North said. ‘Then perhaps you might be getting dressed, yes?’

Jack nodded quickly, and then slid off the bed and discarded the pillow and turned around so that they both couldn’t see the marks on his front anymore. But at a muttered curse from North, he realised that he’d exposed whatever damage had been done to his back. He pulled his shirt on as quickly as he could, but he didn’t miss North growling:

‘You have carved a pound of flesh from him, Epiphanes.’

‘Too right, Nikolai,’ Bunnymund said. ‘I get the orders on the form, I don’t get to prance around them and pretend they’re just suggestions like you do.’

Jack buttoned up his shirt. He wished he had a belt. He widened his stance a little. Turned to face them.

‘So, this is like… I mean, it’s cool you’re here and all but ah, why, exactly – if I haven’t been reported…’

‘I am being here to see what I can do about your staff,’ North said, pointing to the long stick on the bed. ‘They are telling me that you are attached to it, so it is my job to give you a reason to be. Bunnymund is here because he was bored and wished to tag on.’

‘Tag along,’ Bunnymund said, with the impatience of someone who was used to constantly having to correct phrases. North shrugged his huge shoulders like he didn’t particularly care one way or the other. It was odd though, Jack thought. Most peasants tried to discard their accents as fast as they could. Even Jack had the neutral commoner accent, having trained himself out of the thicker accent of childhood. North not only kept his, but seemed to lean on it, reminding everyone of his humble beginnings.

‘Pass me this stick you found in the mountain,’ North said, walking over and holding out his hand. Jack could see callouses on his fingers and palm. He looked at his stick and reached out to it, and then hesitated.

‘It’s…I mean, it’s just a stick,’ Jack said. ‘It’s not- It’s not a weapon.’

‘Let me be the one deciding this,’ North said, beckoning with his fingers.

Jack passed over the long bit of wood and frowned as North took it up and away from him, holding it before his eyes and looking along its length. Jack didn’t see what the big deal was.

‘This is straight and well-formed,’ North said, sounding surprised. ‘You found it in the mountain? I am wondering how, no trees grow in there.’

Jack frowned. Then a horrible feeling crept over him. ‘Do you think the Darkness made me take it?’

‘No, I am not thinking this at all,’ North said, his voice quietening. He peered at Jack over the wood itself, and his eyebrows lifted. ‘The mountain is a wondrous place.’

Behind him, Bunnymund scoffed, and North’s eyes narrowed in irritation. When he looked over, Bunnymund leaned back against the window, folded his arms and said:

‘Listen, mate, you’re hitting the Engineer of Wonders thing a bit hard. That mountain is not a wondrous place.’

North frowned like he didn’t quite agree. But he didn’t argue, and when he turned to Jack he was silent for a few moments, as though thinking of how to frame his thoughts.

‘You see, Jack,’ North said, finally, ‘the mountain is being different things for different people. It is where the Darkness lives, but there is also a magic there that tames it, and that magic sometimes is giving us the things that we need when we have lost all hope. Maybe this is what you needed.’

Then he looked at it some more and rested it upon the ground, like a walking stick, and leaned on it a little.

‘I am thinking not a scythe,’ North said, conspiratorially. ‘Maybe something different. Something they will not expect. When I am returning it to you, it will be something that fits you as a person.’

‘But you don’t know me as a person?’ Jack said, feeling like it was very daring of him to say so.

‘I am trusting my instincts in this,’ North said. ‘And I have some meteorite which will do very nicely, and you will then use it to fight off the Darkness, as I do with my sabres!’

‘As you used to do,’ Bunnymund sniped.

North rolled his eyes, and then he turned easily and walked back to the weapons hanging along the wall, honing in on the smallsword that Seraphina had picked up, that Jack had brushed the dust off of. He touched a finger to it thoughtfully, but Jack could only stare at the stick North held. North was going to take it away, and Jack wanted to yank it back and say it didn’t need to be turned into anything.

Jack felt stupid for being so attached to it. Truthfully, he didn’t even really know why. He wanted to protest it being taken anywhere, but if North would give it back to him in a way that meant he could keep it around him more often, then…that was a good thing, wasn’t it?

‘Jack, tell me something,’ Bunnymund said, in a way that made Jack’s entire body tense. ‘You come back early. You get put in Pitchiner’s wing. We’ve heard about the ice thing. And now Crossholt’s gone missing. I’m thinking that there’s something about you that reminds them of our dear old Admiral?’

Jack swallowed, glancing over to North, who was standing quite still.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Jack said. ‘Uh, Crossholt’s missing?’

‘You’re a terrible liar, mate,’ Bunnymund said, smirking. ‘I’m not accusing you of anything.’

‘Seems to me like you kind of are, though?’ Jack said, feeling his heart pound faster. And then he felt it, a faint coil of hate inside of him. Like a tendril pushing up the back of his spine, a blurred darkness behind his eyes that told him it would be so easy to smash down this line of questioning.

Jack took a step backwards and bumped into the bed. Bunnymund’s ears slowly lowered until they lay against the back of his head. North was facing them both, his fingers still touching the only clean weapon in the rack.

‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ Jack said, trying to think about anything other than that odd vine of hatred growing inside of him. ‘I don’t know what happened in the mountain.’

He could feel frost spiralling out from his feet, but refused to look down at it. But North looked at it, was staring in awe.

‘I don’t know what happened to Crossholt,’ Jack said.

‘He had it out for you,’ Bunnymund said simply. Like that explained everything.

‘No,’ Jack said, staring at him. Pitchiner had told him there would be a series of…lies. Jack needed to pay attention. He couldn’t- He needed to be smart about this. ‘I just wasn’t a very good recruit. Seriously. There’s always one, right? In every group? I was just that one.’

Jack didn’t have a word for the expression that crossed Bunnymund’s face then. Or for the unreadable look that he exchanged with North.

‘Jack,’ North said patiently.

That tone of voice did something to him that he didn’t quite know how to handle. Jack leaned back against the bed and thought that the first time he met the Engineer of Wonders, it was supposed to be as a fully-fledged Golden Warrior – maybe to choose the kind of flying machine he’d get to pilot. Not this.

‘Jack,’ North said again, ‘we are not here to harm you. It is…difficult, being taken into the Palace like this. It is difficult also being under Pitchiner’s care, since he is being more jaded than he once was. We are not your enemies.’

‘Forgive me if like, the Disciplinarian standing right there makes that seem like the opposite of the truth,’ Jack said. ‘I mean no disrespect or anything, I just think-’

‘-Maybe if you didn’t break so many rules, hey?’ Bunnymund said.

Jack stared at him. He took a slow, silent breath, tried to squash the viciousness that tried to rise in response to that. Instead, he pressed his lips together and thought of Crossholt’s fingers around his neck, thought about being sent to the Disciplinarian for trying to help when the Darkness had attacked the platform.

‘Crossholt isn’t the kind of person you want to be around when you’re determined to be a larrikin,’ Bunnymund added.

‘Uh huh,’ Jack said, not able to look away from him. He could feel how cold his hands were getting. Then ice crawling like insects along his arms. ‘Guess you’d see the worst side of everyone, doing what you do. Maybe you have no idea who I am outside of that.’

‘If you have a beef with me for doing my job, and asking you more than once if you wanted to report Crossholt, then-’

‘I am thinking now is not the time for this!’ North boomed out, stepping between them, cutting off Jack’s line of sight. Jack caught a flickering twitch of Bunnymund’s ears, but couldn’t see him otherwise. He looked down at the floor instead, surprised at the anger coursing through him.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, staring down at frost patterns on the floor and feeling queasy.

‘Instead,’ North said, ‘you can tell me why those bruises are not healed yet. There are healers.’

‘What?’ Jack said, looking up. ‘What do you mean?’

‘The Priests of Light,’ North said. ‘You- You are not knowing this?’

‘Well I know they heal people sometimes, like, if they’re allowed to,’ Jack said. ‘I’m not really in that category of people, y’know? And besides, it’s just bruising. It’s not like anything’s broken. I mean, what kind of Warrior would I be if I went crying to a healer every time I got a little bruised?’

Bunnymund shifted until Jack could see him again. His ears were perked up – not all the way up – but no longer lying flat against his head. Jack couldn’t read the expression on his face again, and hated it. The both of them stared at him almost expectantly. As though they expected him to say something important.

‘Guys,’ Jack said, spreading his hands, ‘I really don’t know why you’re here? Like, if it’s for the stick, okay. But like- If it’s about the ice trick or whatever, I don’t really have any control over that yet. And if it’s to see whether I’m an abomination then I guess…you’d know already? Right? So…if you want to clue me in at any point, then that’d be…awesome.’

‘We only wanted to see how you are settling in,’ North said warmly. But from the expression on Bunnymund’s face, that was – in Jack’s opinion – a pile of crap. He felt like he’d felt in Toothiana’s Tower. As though large things were being said or implied that he couldn’t possibly comprehend.

‘Yeah,’ Bunnymund added. ‘There was an attack on the Palace.’

‘About that…’ Jack said, looking towards the window. ‘It was just a- Just a training exercise.’

‘A really bad liar,’ Bunnymund said emphatically. ‘The Tsar is going to enjoy you. He wants a mascot and you can’t even carry off the bleedin’ party line. And for the record, we know that it wasn’t a training exercise. North aint friends with Tooth for nothing, you know.’

‘Were you okay, Jack?’ North said gently. ‘During the attack?’

‘I was here,’ Jack said, and then laughed. ‘I mean, I was locked in here for a few days and people forgot about me, so like, I was fine sort of. I’m glad the Darkness didn’t get in because then I would’ve been pretty screwed. But if all the Warriors were on hand maybe they would’ve found me then.’

‘Is Kozmotis here today?’ Bunnymund said to North.

‘I am thinking he might be,’ North said slowly. ‘I’ll go fetch him.’

Then North walked over to the door that Pitchiner always left through, and Jack’s eyes widened when the door just opened for him. Jack knew it was locked, but for North, the mechanism clicked and then he was walking down the corridor, his broad frame taking up a lot of the space, casting shadows that loomed. Jack looked at Bunnymund, who was back to looking out of the window.

‘Is it that you like the tinting on the windows, or is it that you have no idea how to change it?’ Bunnymund said.

‘It can change?’ Jack said, staring at it. ‘It doesn’t always have to be dark?’

‘Yeah, there’ll be a control panel around here somewhere. It’s North’s technology that he has on some of the ships. Probably eighty percent magic and twenty percent something else. He doesn’t really do anything properly. Let’s just say if someone tried to replicate his results who didn’t know a damned thing about magic, well… One man’s engineering, right?’

Bunnymund moved around the room, close to the windows, running his fingers along the dusty sills looking for something. By the join to the wall, a small platform jutted out at Bunnymund’s touch, filled with mechanisms of gears and wires and sparking lights. Bunnymund pressed his finger to a small ratchet and pulled it down, and just like that, the tinting faded and sunlight started to spill into the room.

‘Oh,’ Jack breathed. ‘That’s so cool.’

‘It’s pretty bonzer, yeah?’

‘So…you and the Spymaster and the Engineer are like…buddies?’

‘That’s one way of putting it. We’re sort of like…people who have some of the same goals in life. Sandy too, but most people don’t know that.’

‘Sandy,’ Jack said, eyebrows drawing together. ‘The High Priest? Sanderson?

‘Yep,’ Bunnymund said, looking up from the gears and cogs on the control panel and grinning. ‘That’d be him.’

‘Huh,’ Jack said, his hand reaching absently out for his stick before he realised it wasn’t there. He trailed his fingers along the blanket instead, like that had been his aim all along.

‘Who beat you, Jack?’ Bunnymund said.

‘Training,’ Jack said quickly. ‘You know how training is.’

‘I thought you fell.’

‘While training,’ Jack said, smiling brightly.

‘Was it Kozmotis? Or was it Crossholt?’ Bunnymund said patiently.

‘What? The Royal Admiral? He’d do something like that?’ Jack stared. He knew that Pitchiner was dangerous, but so far, there’d been no signs that he was the kind of person to lash out like that. But then, after the way Bunnymund tilted his head, one ear cocking while the other was lazily held at half-mast, Jack realised he’d been tricked.

‘You know,’ Jack said, scowling at him, ‘I don’t get why it’s a big deal all of a sudden. It’s not like this kind of stuff hasn’t happened all the time. I’m an Overland, remember? And you don’t care. Like, give me the choice between being knocked around a bit and taking your lashes and I’m going to be choosing the former, because at least all of this…’ Jack gestured at himself, ‘won’t scar.’

Bunnymund frowned at him, and then his shoulders rose and fell on a sigh. He raised a paw to his eyes and covered them for a moment, muttered something under his breath. But when he dropped his arm, he just looked tired.

‘Y’know,’ Bunnymund said slowly, ‘they might’ve given me the Alchemist’s Tower, and I might be…might seem like someone with a lot of social heft, but Crossholt was above me in station. I’m not a Golden Warrior, and I wasn’t born on Lune. If I get orders from someone I have to follow them through.’

‘You don’t need to make excuses for it?’ Jack said, getting angrier. ‘I’m just saying if I had a preference, I know what I’d pick. Okay? Calm down, it’s not like I think you did the wrong thing.’

Bunnymund lifted the same paw to his face again and rubbed at his forehead, shaking his head. He turned to look back out the window again, and Jack thought he looked sad, and spitefully thought it was a good thing. Maybe he wouldn’t have to be the only one feeling miserable.

North returned back through the corridor alone, and he looked between Bunnymund and Jack.

‘He is coming,’ North said. ‘Finishing up a report. So, Jack! This ice that you can make. Can you show me? I would love to see it in action.’

Jack slid off the bed again and thought it wouldn’t be so hard to do, it was just he didn’t know what to do. He stood and raised his hands until they were at waist level, then shifted so that his palms were facing upwards. Bunnymund had turned to watch as well, and Jack looked between the two of them, calling frost to his fingertips without thinking.

Instead of spiralling on a surface, it danced in the air silently. Ice crystals catching the daylight now pouring in through the windows. As Jack watched, the ice took spiral shapes, or made separate curves that danced around each other. The frost was easy to make, it felt like it was always there. He smiled to see it, found it comforting.

Then, without knowing how he was doing it, he looked up and it began to snow. With no clouds, without the sense that he was sucking moisture up from the room and reforming it. The snow was a kind of magic, but it was real, and it fell and clung in dry flakes to his hair, to North’s moustache and beard, to Bunnymund’s fur, his twitching ears.

‘I can do other stuff too,’ Jack said. Violent stuff. ‘But this comes easy. I don’t really have to think about it?’

North was turning in a slow circle, looking up at the snow and smiling.

‘And I can kinda fly?’ Jack said, too quickly to ask himself if it was a smart thing to say. ‘I mean I think? I have no control over it but I can like… that’s… I just don’t really know what I can do yet.’

North was beaming at him, and it was contagious, Jack found himself smiling back.

‘It’s awesome, hey,’ Jack said, realising for the first time that these powers – whatever they were – they were amazing.

‘It is,’ North said, his voice low but sincere. Then he turned to Bunnymund and said: ‘Are you still thinking he is not a Guardian now?’

Jack felt something in his body go very still. A line from Jamie’s letter that he’d memorised floated back into his head:

But if you ever need a safe place and are ready to leave this life forever – and why wouldn’t you be, when I’m not here? Put your feelers out for the Guardians of Lune, and they’ll help you.

‘Guardian?’ Jack whispered, feeling his knees go weak.

‘Damn it, North,’ Bunnymund hissed.

‘Guardian?’ Jack said again, his voice thready. ‘Like… the ‘Guardians of Lune?’’

‘We’re fucked,’ Bunnymund said, sounding viciously cheerful. ‘Thanks, Nikolai. That’s just what we needed.’ Then he looked at Jack. ‘How in the Darkness have you heard about the Guardians of Lune? You can barely tell up from down.’

Bunnymund was glaring at him, and Jack stared between them both. His heart was beating so hard that he felt ill.

‘And no,’ Bunnymund continued, pointing at Jack with a paw but looking at North. ‘He’s too young, he’s too naïve, and trust me, he’s never taken anything seriously. Take a look at his rap sheet, even without Crossholt’s bias, this one always gets into trouble. He’s definitely not a Guardian.’

Footsteps came to a halt by the door that North had returned through, and they all looked around to see Pitchiner standing there looking quietly furious.

‘Pitch!’ North said, either oblivious to the increasingly tense atmosphere, or working unsuccessfully to defuse it. ‘You are here!’

‘I am here,’ Pitchiner said coldly. He glanced briefly at Jack, and then folded his arms, glaring between Bunnymund and North. ‘Can I not trust you to go two hours without bringing up this ridiculous nonsense about whatever you think Guardians are? It’s bad enough that you pollute each other with your words, you’re trying to infect him too? And for what? He’s a recruit who failed his initiation and ended up acquiring a measure of magical power that he has zero control over. That is all.’

‘I am thinking just because you lost your wonder a long time ago, doesn’t mean you are knowing what you’re talking about,’ North said, his smile a little dangerous.

‘I know that if the Tsar ever finds out who ‘the Guardians of Lune’ are, he’ll execute every single one of them publically. Do you remember the last time we had a public execution? Such a terribly long time ago. So very entertaining. The people come out in droves: morbid curiosity, you see. What do you think it will do to Lune, to know who those Guardians are?’

Jack wanted to hide. Wanted to be a fly on the wall to watch this conversation. He could feel the power every one of these people held. North practically vibrated with it. Bunnymund was an alchemist and the Disciplinarian and a magician. Pitchiner was the Royal Admiral. The tension was palpable.

‘We’re always grateful for your confidence,’ North said smoothly.

‘It only extends so far,’ Pitchiner said. ‘If you infect him with what you believe, I will personally deliver all of you to the Tsar myself, even if it means impugning myself.’

‘Here we go again,’ Bunnymund said, even as Jack stared at the Admiral in shock. ‘Getting your knickers in a twist. We just wanted to see for ourselves what’s been happening, since we know we’re only going to get bunkum from you.’

‘I may not agree with everything the Tsar of Lune puts in motion, but I do believe that the people need to feel safe, especially now.’

‘Oh, yeah, mate,’ Bunnymund said. ‘Shadows in the Palace, it’s a good time for us, isn’t it? You’re losing your war.’

‘Lune’s war,’ Pitchiner snapped. ‘I’d dearly like to see how far you get without me.’

‘How about we are all focusing on calming down?’ North said, but there was a hardness in his eyes as he glared between the two of them. ‘It’s a difficult time. And yet the mountain has given us this magic of such hope.’

‘Hope,’ Bunnymund said, scowling at him. ‘You think that’s hope? Let’s ask again: outside of all the snow and cute ice crystals and stuff, where’s Crossholt?’

Jack took a step backwards, another. Partly because he wasn’t made for this kind of conflict, and partly because there was a rising mass inside of him, like a bubble in his chest. He knew that if it rose high enough it would pop, and if it did that, he might not be able to keep himself under check. It didn’t make any sense, but he didn’t want to be near anyone when it happened.

Pitchiner turned to focus on Jack, his eyes narrowing, mouth pulling tight. Jack knew that he knew. But he couldn’t stop it. Terror and something darker tangling together, and he couldn’t lie his way through this, Bunnymund had said so. He kept seeing Crossholt’s face and alongside the shame he felt, the horror, there was a tiny part of him that felt good. That thought, spitefully, that he could do that to anyone he wanted. That he wouldn’t have to put up with any conversation that was hard again. Anything difficult, he could make people do what he wanted. He could make them.

‘Jack…’ Pitchiner said, breaking through Jack’s concentration. ‘Look at me.’

Jack couldn’t avoid meeting his eyes, and then he fell still when he felt the fear inside of him tremble and then build slowly, artificially. Pitchiner using Jack’s own fears against him. But just as quickly, the fear dispersed, and then dropped away so that Jack wasn’t calm, exactly, but his tension wasn’t building anymore. Jack still couldn’t tear his gaze away. He didn’t know that Pitchiner could do that.

When Pitchiner looked away, Jack took in a huge breath and shuddered it out, leaning against the window he’d backed into.

‘I want you to stop harassing my charge,’ Pitchiner said to North and Bunnymund. ‘He is untrained. He has an unpredictable power.’

‘He has been hurt,’ North said. ‘And he has not seen healers.’

‘Forgive me,’ Pitchiner said. ‘I was attending my own injuries, from both the attack on the Palace and Jack’s untrained magic.’

‘What?’ Jack said, mouth dry.

‘Your attack yesterday,’ Pitchiner said, flicking him the barest of glances. ‘You’re lucky you didn’t do more damage. As, apparently, am I. Now, I would like for the both of you to leave. He’s had too much excitement for one day, and I did not invite you here.’

‘I am not needing an invitation from you to move about the Palace freely,’ North said, folding his arms. ‘He is needing more than the company of a soured Admiral and your faceless servants. You cannot keep us away from him.’

‘Then we’ll just have to make a party of it, and I’ll endeavour to be here every time you visit,’ Pitchiner said, smiling broadly.

‘Come on, North,’ Bunnymund said, ‘let’s go. Can’t get much done while the guard dog is here.’

‘Dogs eat rabbits,’ Pitchiner observed mildly. ‘Tell me, who disciplines the Disciplinarian? There must be someone.’

Bunnymund made a sound of disgust, and started walking towards the door they’d entered through. North turned to leave, but then he turned back to Jack and walked up to him quickly.

‘I will be returning your staff to you as soon as I am able,’ North said soberly. ‘I will be seeing you soon, Jack.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said, looking at Pitchiner to see how much he disapproved of North saying he’d come back. Pitchiner looked unimpressed, but said nothing at all. North seemed to want to say something else, but eventually just pressed his lips together, frowning. Then he turned, and stared at Pitchiner as he walked away.

The door clicked shut behind him, and Jack pressed back into the window again when Pitchiner walked over to him.

A finger at his chin, lifting his head, and Jack averted his eyes when he realised that Pitchiner wasn’t looking at him, but at the bruises.

‘How…how badly did I hurt you?’ Jack said, voice hoarse with his neck tilted back.

‘I was already injured,’ Pitchiner said. ‘But it wouldn’t be something you’d want to repeat. It could have killed someone else. My military gear provides padding.’

‘I could’ve- Please just teach me how to not do it again.’

‘It’s not that simple,’ Pitchiner said, long fingers shifting on the collar of Jack’s shirt, and then pulling it to the side, as though trying to check how extensive the bruises were. Jack resisted the urge to close his eyes in some combination of fear and jitteriness. This close, he could feel Pitchiner’s body warmth. His fingers were careful, which surprised him, but they were also firm. Every one of his touches was sure, not hesitant.

‘Why?’ Jack said.

‘Because to learn how to control it, you will have to learn how to recognise it, and to do that it must be provoked.’ Pitchiner’s lips lifted in a smile. ‘You’re going to enjoy it even less than I did. High drama will abound.’

Jack couldn’t think about it.

‘Who trained you?’ Jack said.

‘I trained myself,’ Pitchiner said, finally stepping back from Jack and walking over to where the wall met the ceiling high window. He pressed on tile to eject the wall panel, and then shifted the ratchet so that the dark tinting returned. Jack didn’t like it, but he didn’t say anything. He knew how to change it back now. ‘I was lucky. I didn’t start showing signs of what had happened to me until I was a trained Golden Warrior and could make the Light. By then, with my privilege and background, I wasn’t committed or executed for the things I’d done. You aren’t that fortunate. You’ll need training now. Especially as you’re about as likely to make that golden light as I am to grow wings and fly.’

Pitchiner looked around the room and seemed to be assessing it. Jack could still feel that touch under his chin.

‘Admiral?’

‘We’re back to my title, are we?’ Pitchiner said, looking over and lifting his brows. ‘So what is it that you want from me now?’

‘Who- What are the Guardians of Lune?’

Pitchiner’s face shuttered and a muscle in his jaw jumped.

‘A childish fantasy and nothing more. You’d do best to put those words out of your mind, and don’t ever speak them aloud. Do it again, and I will take great delight in writing you up for the Disciplinarian myself, and he can squirm knowing there’s not a damn thing he can do about it except follow orders.’

It wasn’t the threat that made Jack realise he needed to keep quiet about it, but the oddly hunted look on Pitchiner’s face. The way his expression seemed to set in place, or how his gaze saw past Jack into some future he couldn’t bear.

But Jamie had told Jack to watch out for the Guardians of Lune, and Jack decided he didn’t have to talk about it, he could just…pay attention to those who had already been paying attention to him. North and the Spymaster, even Bunnymund, and…Sanderson?

‘You should know,’ Pitchiner said, his voice softer than before, ‘that if you bring up your knowledge of the Guardians before the Tsar, you will be directly responsible for the execution of others. It is one thing to kill people by accident, Jack. It is another to do it knowingly. It’s important to know where your line in the sand is, and I hope – for all our sakes – you make the right decision.’

It is one thing to kill people by accident.

‘I don’t want to hurt anyone else,’ Jack said. Because out of the confusion of the day, the week, that was one thing he knew for certain. He didn’t want to hurt anyone at all. He wanted to help people.

‘An intriguing sentiment,’ Pitchiner said, turning and walking back towards what Jack was starting to think as his exit.

‘It’s not just sentiment,’ Jack called after him. ‘You don’t know the first thing about me. You think it was easy for an Overland to get to where I got to?’

Pitchiner paused, placed his fingers on the doorway. He turned around, face impassive, golden eyes sharp.

‘I think you lack critical thinking and observational skills,’ Pitchiner said. ‘And I think stubbornness and determination can only get you so far, when you’re determined to stay entrenched in what you believe and stubbornly refuse to see beyond what you’ve been taught to think.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said slowly. ‘I’m getting that.’

Pitchiner blinked, and his lips thinned, masking his surprise.

‘That whole ‘all is not what it seems’ thing,’ Jack said, wondering if he was prolonging the conversation just to get the Admiral to stay a few minutes longer. Pitchiner always left before Jack was ready for him to leave. ‘But I don’t know- I don’t know what to do. I k- I killed someone.’

Jack’s voice cracked and he forced a tremulous smile to his face, but it didn’t feel real and it didn’t feel brave.

‘They kept asking me about it,’ Jack said. ‘The Disciplinarian, he wouldn’t stop.’

‘I can have him barred from seeing you again,’ Pitchiner said.

‘I’m not made for lying about all of this stuff,’ Jack said. ‘How am I supposed to do it?’

‘Because your life depends on it,’ Pitchiner said, sighing. ‘Either you want to live or you don’t – you’ll learn.’

‘Like you?’ Jack said, lurching away from the window towards him.

‘Ah,’ Pitchiner said, a bitter smile on his face. ‘Not like me. I learned from birth. You don’t get born with golden eyes into this world, with my parents, and not learn a thing or two about deception.’

‘So how do I know if I can trust you?’ Jack said.

Pitchiner lifted both his eyebrows then, and then – amazingly – spread both of his hands as though he had no idea, then turned and walked away, closing the door behind him, leaving Jack weak-kneed and alone in his room once more.

Chapter Text

Jack woke to paper bundles of clothing being placed on a low table near the doorway. He looked up from his bed, and the servant bobbed his head once in something like apology, then closed the door behind him.

Tailor Flitmouse had said that these things didn’t happen in a day, yet it had been less than twenty four hours. Jack undid the twine bows and unwrapped the paper, to see more clothes than he’d ever seen for one person in his entire life. None of it was the dress wear they’d suggested; instead, items for the day to day.

There was new soldier garb. Now he was allowed a simple black shirt – he’d graduated from the white shirt of the trainee, and this was the surest sign that someone, somewhere, considered that he had passed his Initiation. Jack smiled at the shirt itself, and then considered all the new pairs of underclothes, the pants, socks, new leather shoes, a pair of winter snow-boots, even kerchiefs and gloves.

‘Oh,’ Jack said, ‘so that’s why they measured my fingers.’

It was morning, and Jack quickly went through ablutions and tried on the new clothing, surprised at how well it fitted, how incredible it felt. It would probably all feel like that.

‘Okay,’ Jack said, ‘going up in station? Pretty cool. Liking this.’

The blue coat was already fringed with frost at the corners of the sleeves, at his neck, at the hem. He ran his hand through the white fuzz at the top of his head – all the brown hair had fallen away now. He was going to have to get used to it eventually, he supposed.

‘I’m the snow boy,’ Jack said, turning in his new clothes, feeling important. ‘I’m…I’m gonna be a mascot and bring hope to the people.’

Everything else that had happened, all the hard stuff, he was going to start putting that behind him. As for training with Pitchiner, well, Jack was just going to force whatever darkness lived inside of him down. He could do that. He’d had time to get over his shock, he was eating better, and even the bruising left over from Crossholt’s attack felt secondary. He’d dealt with much worse over the years, and it made him feel like he’d weathered a rough training session. Even that felt like an accomplishment.

He spun again, and then felt the floor under his feet begin to ice. How did it do that, if he was wearing shoes? He knew he couldn’t begin to understand, probably never would.

It seemed far easier now to keep his balance, to not slip, and then on a whim he imagined a path of ice in his room and skidded along it, arms out as he careened across the room. He laughed so hard he only just managed to get his arms out in time before he bumped into the wall.

Whoops!’

‘Papa’s right,’ said a stiff, girlish voice, ‘you are nothing like Fyo.’

Jack hadn’t even heard a door open. He turned and his eyes glanced past Seraphina to see Sanderson standing there. High Priest Sanderson. Jack stared at him, and then remembered his manners, bowing stiffly at the hips until he was staring at the floor, his face pretty close to it.

‘He says you don’t have to do that,’ Seraphina said, walking over to Jack’s bed and hopping onto it, then picking at the rumpled sheets and blankets, as though annoyed that it hadn’t yet been made.

Today, her hair was plaited into a single tail. She had flowers in her hair, red and green ones, each with dark centres that looked almost black. Her daywear was nothing like the nightgown he’d seen her in. She wore the kind of form-fitting pants a soldier might wear, and a black buttoned shirt. Over that, a vest with flowers printed all over it. A locket at her neck, and a single ring on her finger, made of some dark green metal.

She looked over at Priest Sanderson and watched the way his hands and fingers moved and then added:

‘He’s here to heal you. Are you not feeling well? That last part was me.’

‘I’m…oh,’ Jack said. ‘They sent the High Priest?’

‘Oh no, he wanted to come,’ Seraphina said, sliding off the bed.

‘Are you even supposed to be here?’

‘Well someone needs to translate,’ Seraphina said, rolling her eyes at him. ‘Papa said I’m safe whenever Sandy’s around, and I don’t think you’re dangerous anyway? Papa’s just…oh, I have a word for this. I learned it the other day. He’s overzealous.’

Priest Sanderson had turned to her and was signing quickly, it looked like he was saying a great deal. After a while, Seraphina just shrugged and said:

‘Exactly. Also, he says you should call him Sandy too.’

‘Uh huh,’ Jack said, staring at her. ‘You wouldn’t be joking, by any chance, would you?’

‘See, this is why it’s so obvious you’re a peasant,’ Seraphina said. She frowned at something Sanderson said, and then pursed her lips and scratched briefly at her wrist, as though she’d seen something fascinating on her sleeve. ‘Sorry,’ she added.

Jack had almost been avoiding looking at Sanderson properly. He was the Priest. Jack had seen him at the mountain, he’d been one of the last people he’d seen when he passed out. But other than that, his Priests and Priestesses had been the ones tending to Jack. Now, to have the little golden man in his room made him feel like he was being a terrible host.

‘Do you…ah…need anything? Like, tea or, I dunno? Something?’ Jack said awkwardly.

‘He’s here to heal you,’ Seraphina said, her voice gentler than before. ‘It’s not hard. You just stand there, and then he goes-’ At this, she stood and made a strange whooshing sound and moved her hands as though indicating she was healing with light. ‘It’s easy.’

‘Oh, so I just…’ Sanderson beckoned him over, and Jack went, feeling unaccountably nervous. This was the Highest Priest. The one who probably brewed all those potions that drugged all the trainees out of their minds before the Initiation. ‘So I just stand here?’

Sanderson nodded, beaming up at Jack, like Jack had never done anything wrong in his entire life. As though he was just happy to be in Jack’s presence, which made zero sense.

Jack’s eyes widened when he saw the golden light gather at Sanderson’s hands. It wasn’t like the strident blasts of the stuff that Pitchiner made, but a soft, almost fuzzy glow.

Then Sanderson stepped towards him and the light seemed to move, suffusing Jack’s body – at first only at his hip where Sanderson was standing, and then more and more. On the back of it, aches that Jack hadn’t even been aware of were starting to vanish. Every bruised section of his skin felt painless, and then relaxed, as though he’d woken from the most restful sleep he’d ever had.

‘Weird,’ Jack muttered. ‘So weird.’

He felt a pang in his chest then. He missed Jamie. Jamie would love all of this, and probably know exactly what to do and how to act, with his upper class parents.  

Sanderson stepped back and looked up at Jack as though confused, and Jack stared back in alarm. What if Sanderson had somehow found shadow possession, where no one else did?

Sanderson’s hands moved at a blur – speaking emphatically, and Jack shook his head in confusion, looking over to Seraphina. She stared at what Sanderson had just said, as though it didn’t make sense.

That’s it. I’m possessed after all. That’s it for me. It was nice while it lasted, I guess. Sort of. Bits of it were okay.

‘He says you have a lot of scarring?’ Seraphina said, as though she still wasn’t sure if that’s what she’d read in Sanderson’s signs. But Sandy nodded, and Jack felt a wave of relief so strong his knees felt weak.

‘By the Light, is that all? Seriously? Well, yeah. I mean it’s fine now. It’s just scarring. I get sent up to the Disciplinarian a lot and there’s pretty much a rule that I’m not allowed the Light afterwards. Haven’t you- I suppose you don’t have time to look at my records and stuff? I’m like…the Royal Academy brat.’ Jack etched a quick bow. ‘At your service.’

But Sanderson didn’t seem to get the joke, and he folded his arms and appeared troubled – creases in his forehead, mouth downturned at the corners. After a while, he looked over at Seraphina, and then hesitantly unfolded his arms and began signing – far more slowly this time, almost as though he wasn’t sure he wanted Seraphina to even see what he was saying.

Seraphina watched him closely, and then looked just as troubled.

‘Sandy says all trainees are meant to have access to the healing Light. It’s only…murderers and stuff. Jack, have you murdered someone?’

‘What? No!’ Jack spluttered, and thought about Crossholt and shoved that out of his head because that’s not what they meant.

Sanderson shook his head, and Jack realised that the last part hadn’t been Sanderson’s question, but Seraphina’s.

‘No,’ Jack said again, turning to Sanderson. ‘I’m…’

What could he say that wouldn’t make things more confusing? If they didn’t understand that he was just a peasant – a creche kid, an Overland, then how could he even explain it to them? He thought they all knew that this stuff happened. Pitchiner didn’t seem remotely surprised.

‘The Royal Academy knows this happens,’ Jack said finally. ‘The Royal Admiral and others, they know. It’s not all trainees, not even most, but some of us. I probably copped it a bit more than others. It’s fine.’

Sanderson looked angry, and he reached up as though to tug at one of the golden tufts of his hair. Then he signed so quickly it was almost a blur.

‘It’s not supposed to happen!’ Seraphina said, translating as he signed. ‘It’s not okay, either. Scarring is bad for battle, and it can never be fixed once it’s there. That’s the reason it’s for murderers and the worst people, because it’s permanent. They made you look like a murderer.’

Jack felt suddenly weary, despite the excitement of the morning, the new clothes, even the aches and pains gone from his body.

‘Okay?’ Jack said. ‘And?’

Sanderson’s eyes widened, and then his hands dropped. A few moments later, he sighed.

Jack looked to Seraphina, but she just watched Sanderson, looking worried. She looked back at Jack again, opened her mouth like she wanted to say something, then closed it again. Her fingers went to the locket around her neck and she touched it once, twice, then again.

‘Does Papa really know about this?’ she said.

‘I… Wouldn’t he have to? He’s the Royal Admiral.’

‘But he’s Papa.’

Have you met your father? He’s terrifying!

Jack bit into his bottom lip and then looked over at Sanderson, who still looked defeated.

‘I don’t know,’ Jack said, looking down to see frost spiralling out away from his shoes. ‘I don’t know, okay? Maybe he doesn’t know. I’m not the one you should be asking, hey. And whatever the Royal Admiral knows or doesn’t know, he does it for the sake of Lune, right? So it’s okay.’

‘No,’ Seraphina said, and then Jack startled when she actually stamped her foot on the ground. ‘No! You don’t know anything! I don’t want you, I want Fyo!’

She ran from the room, all of her stern composure gone. Jack watched horrified, and had visions of the Royal Admiral striding in at any moment to probably strangle him.

After a few more moments, Jack looked awkwardly at Sanderson. Sandy.

‘Huh, so I guess, there goes our translator?’

Sandy turned to Jack and smiled warmly, then shrugged. He turned to look at the doorway that Seraphina had left through, worry stealing over his face again.

‘I’m sorry,’ Jack said quickly. ‘You should go after her, right? But ah…thanks for the healing Light and everything? There’s probably a more formal way I should say that, isn’t there?’

In response, Sandy made a brief waving gesture with his hand, as though indicating it didn’t really bother him either way. But then he looked apologetically to the door again, and with a raising of his eyebrows and a thinning of his lips, he held up a hand in farewell and trotted off in the direction Seraphina had fled.

Jack watched him go, then realised he was staring at an open door.

An open door.

They’d not locked it after themselves.

He hadn’t realised how much it still bothered him to be locked in this room, until he stared and realised he could just leave. He didn’t even know where he’d go. Not to the Barracks. He couldn’t visit Jamie. Cupcake probably wasn’t back yet and maybe didn’t ever want to see him again – just because he was absurdly grateful to her for saving his life, well, he might have complicated things for her.

Still, she was the closest thing to a friend that he had, and he wanted to see her again.

On a whim, he walked a little way down the corridor, turning to look back at the room that was now home. He didn’t know where to go, and after taking a few more tentative steps, he walked back into his room and sighed.

He left the door open.

*

With a body that felt whole and good – if a little colder than was normal – he couldn’t idle away the day. He cleaned his room, using towels to sop up the remainder of the ice that had melted. There was a hamper in the bathroom that looked like it would fit the used clothes and towels of maybe ten people, and he put everything in there.

Then, he began going through his drills and forms. Those he could do on his own. He improvised a sprinting circuit – from one side of the room and tapping the glass, to the other side of the room and tapping a specific point on the wall. He took down some of the weapons, including the smallsword Seraphina had picked up, and he worked.

Even on his own, he had a sense of that wrongness the Darkness had left behind.

Sometimes when he thrust forward as though to quench the Darkness, he felt a spiteful thing writhe inside of him. Wrong, it said. Turn around and attack the ones who deserve it. Don’t attack us! Join us!

It didn’t speak to him in Pippa’s voice anymore. He supposed he had left that behind in the mountain. One more hallucination, a dream that he could be called Jack-Jack one last time.

*

The lunch cloche came and went. Then one at mid-afternoon. Jack had never seen so much food, felt terribly guilty at how much of it he left behind.

‘Can you…give me less? Please?’ Jack said, to the young man who came to take the wheeled cart away. The boy – who looked no older than about fourteen with huge doe eyes – looked down at the food as though surprised anyone would ever ask for less.

‘Is it not to your liking, Sir?’ the boy said.

‘I just can’t eat it all,’ Jack said.

‘Oh!’ the boy looked relieved.

‘So…give me less, okay?’

‘That’s not up to me, Sir,’ the boy said, and then sketched a shallow bow and took the trolley with him and Jack stared after him. That was unhelpful. Who the hell was it up to? Was he supposed to march into some giant kitchen he didn’t know the location of and ask some cook about it? Who did he bother about it?

He made a sound of frustration and went back to his drills.

*

Jack was experimenting with the sheer joy of making snow and wind out of nothing when the Royal Admiral opened the second door – the one that always stayed locked.

Pitchiner stared at the snow, and Jack stared at him, at the novelty of seeing the Royal Admiral in clothes that weren’t special regalia, or day-to-day wear. That was a sparring outfit. He even wore the proper coat with its golden Lunar sigils and that sword at his side.

‘You upset Seraphina,’ Pitchiner said, without looking at him.

‘Yeah, I’m really looking forward to training with you now,’ Jack said. Pitchiner’s lips twitched upwards, and then he looked down at his own coat, which was swirling in an invisible wind, even though the windows weren’t open. Couldn’t open, as far as Jack knew. But he hadn’t explored that engineering contraption in the wall Bunnymund had shown him properly yet.

‘I didn’t mean it,’ Jack added. ‘I couldn’t-’

‘I know,’ Pitchiner said, looking tired then.

I don’t know anything! No one tells me anything and then I say things and some kid runs from the room looking like she’s gonna cry.

But Jack kept his mouth shut, and then with a force of will, he stopped the frost and snow. It felt like reeling something back towards himself, oddly comforting to have it there now.

‘What weapon do you favour?’ Pitchiner said, gesturing to the rack up on the wall.

‘Smallsword, I guess,’ Jack said.

‘It will do,’ Pitchiner said. Then nodded to the rack, and Jack went quickly to fetch it. ‘Follow me.’

Jack accidentally froze the hilt of the sword to his hand as he followed down the warren-like maze of the back-corridors in the palace. There was just something about knowing he was going to train with the Royal Admiral. How would he ever be good enough? It didn’t seem right. Maybe that was what Pitchiner meant every time he said he didn’t have time for this.

There must have been a thousand things he’d rather be doing.

‘How’s…your day been?’ Jack asked.

Pitchiner said nothing at all, and Jack narrowed his eyes in frustration.

‘Let me guess,’ Jack said. ‘It’s been like – super long, and you work too hard, and there’s too many things to do, and you’re stuck with training me, and I made your daughter really upset, so you’re a bit pissed.’

The slightest huff of breath came from Pitchiner, and Jack pretended that was amusement, and not frustration or anything else.

‘See,’ Jack said, ‘I’m really good at this.’

‘Are you?’ Pitchiner said, as they descended a huge spiral staircase and Jack thought that running around this place alone would be enough to keep someone fit.

‘Yep,’ Jack said, pretending that he really didn’t care about his opulent surroundings or any of it. This was normal. This was just another day.

They ended up in a large, outdoor arena. It was covered in raked sawdust, but the seating nearby looked dusty, and Jack wondered if this place didn’t see much use. Their footsteps were almost silent as they walked into the centre of the rectangular sparring space. Jack could see the branches of tall, verdant trees nearby, as though peering over the walls that hemmed them in.

‘Stay there,’ Pitchiner said, then walked about ten paces back and pointed nearby. ‘I want to see two forms from you. The one you like best, and the one you like least.’

Jack stared at him. He’d never been given an instruction so strange in his life. Usually it was just…do form number 20, or run through the Sneaking Woodfox in the Fens, regardless of how Jack felt about it.

He took a moment to think about the forms he enjoyed, the ones he didn’t. It was tempting to pick two of the forms he thought he was best at, and leave it at that.

But this was the Royal Admiral, and even after everything, Jack desperately didn’t want to get it wrong.

He performed the form he liked least, first. It was a difficult, sharp series of movements – all stabbing and bluster and bravado, about ferocity over fluidity. The footwork was difficult, the force required was alien to him. He wanted to be a soldier, yes. He wanted to protect the innocent. But he was never someone who just wanted violence. Even now, with hollows of malice in his mind that crowded into the spaces where Jack felt awkward, trying to convince him to turn those abrupt movements on something real, to hurt flesh and body and bone.

When he finished that, he took a moment to take a few breaths. To compose himself.

Then, the form he liked best. This one fluid, about dodging and feinting and then choosing one’s moment. He’d never imagined he’d love the feel of it so much – sliding from step to step, body crouched and ready to spring, the sense that he couldn’t be touched by anything, even as he could threaten and drive back the Darkness.

He hadn’t mastered it or anything, it was one of the later ones they’d learned, but he loved it so much. At the time, it made him feel like he could escape anything: Crossholt, the Darkness, anyone that wanted to hurt him.

When he stopped, he looked behind him and was surprised to see frost and snow clinging to the sawdust.

He paused before looking at Pitchiner, worried about what he’d see on his face.

‘Interesting,’ Pitchiner said, impassive.

‘So you go for like the effusive positive reinforcement method of teaching?’

Pitchiner just stared at him, and Jack resisted the urge to grit his teeth together.

‘Sorry, Royal Admiral Pitchiner,’ Jack said.

‘Apology accepted,’ Pitchiner said, without missing a beat. ‘Now, you’re going to attack me.’

Jack almost said that he was looking forward to it, but it probably wasn’t good to annoy the Royal Admiral just before fighting. This was all going to end pretty badly, Jack just had a feeling.

Pitchiner took up a defensive stance – sword withdrawn, and Jack looked down at his thin, pointy smallsword.

Oh man, this is going to be a disaster.

He gripped the hilt with determination, and sprung forwards.

The sound of his back hitting sawdust – which was soft, but not that soft – and Jack looked up at the blue sky and bit back a laugh. But he pushed himself up without being told, and thought that this was stupid. But Pitchiner had said it wasn’t about them being equally matched, it was about being provoked. Or something.

Jack was determined to not let that happen.

He was knocked down over and over again. His smallsword could barely parry the large blade that Pitchiner used, and Jack was shorter than him, and didn’t have years of actual lived experience. A part of him was in awe that he was actually experiencing it. That part of him that was filled with hero-worship and had idolised the Royal Admiral for so long.

By the sixth time, pushing himself back up, Jack wondered just how long they were going to do this for. It wasn’t like being knocked down really aggravated him, anyway. That was training. That was definitely training with Crossholt.

Jack blinked. Crossholt. A blank expression, spikes of ice through his face, that horrid determination to end him and that awful rush of glee. How good it felt to kill someone.

When Pitchiner stepped towards him again, Jack panicked and forgot what he was supposed to do. He didn’t get the smallsword up fast enough. Pitchiner’s eyes widened in shock, and Jack leapt backwards – his feet hovering somewhere above the ground. He pushed outwards not with his body, but with his mind, terror clawing its way out of him. Ice responded, splintering everywhere.

Dazed, on his knees now, he opened his eyes and saw the blue-white of frozen ice and then couldn’t look. What if he’d killed the Royal Admiral? Jack hunched over himself, breathed out gasped plumes of frosted air, refused to look at what he’d done.

‘You have very little control over it,’ Pitchiner said, his voice calm. ‘Almost none, really.’

Jack startled and looked up, saw Pitchiner several steps to the side, bits of ice in his hair and on his coat but otherwise unscathed. But what caught Jack’s eye was the huge, spiking edifice – a defensive wall – that towered above them both.

‘I made that,’ Jack said, not quite believing it.

‘So we have two problems. One, that these abilities behave differently to whatever the Darkness may have done to your mind. Sometimes they can work in concert: cold and dark, but this was clearly defence.’

‘The thing with- the thing with my Lieutenant... That was- I was defending myself and I still – the Darkness still...’

‘It started off that way,’ Pitchiner said. ‘But that’s not how it ended. Get up. We go again.’

‘What?’ Jack said. ‘After...this?’

‘No better time to continue,’ Pitchiner said, his expression composed.

Just seeing the tower of ice was enough to make Jack buckle down on not letting it out again. A bit on the ground was okay. But not like that. Pitchiner wanted to see whatever Jack became when he killed someone, and Jack saw no sense in it. The best thing to do would just be to ignore it.

So he shoved everything away that made him feel something, and focused on fighting, and getting knocked down, and getting up again.

An hour later, Jack was bruised and wondering if Sanderson would make two house visits in a day.

Pitchiner stared at him, head tilted, as though Jack had become a particularly fascinating beetle.

‘It won’t work,’ Pitchiner said, a grudging smile on his face.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Jack said, pushing himself up and feeling a bit weak. All of Pitchiner’s moves were difficult to brace against. He brought his sword down too hard. He charged in too fast. Jack couldn’t even stand against him. He just got knocked down. He wondered if Pitchiner’s coat gave him more powers. They said the sigils granted them magical strength, after all.

Jack wished he could watch it from the sidelines. That’d be way better.

‘Maybe this isn’t going to work,’ Jack said. ‘You should just…put me with the others.’

‘I would love nothing more,’ Pitchiner said, ‘except that you can’t be trusted, and the Tsar also wishes you to learn things like comportment. I despair of you even learning a shred of it. You still don’t address me by my title.’

‘I’ve done it at least once today,’ Jack said lightly. ‘And a few times when you weren’t there. To Sandy.’

‘You mean Holy Highest Priest Sanderson, I believe?’ Pitchiner said, lifting a brow.

‘Mm-hm,’ Jack said. ‘He said I could call him Sandy. The Tsar calls you Pitch.’

Pitchiner lifted the hand not holding the sword to his eyes and muttered something in exasperation under his breath, and then glared balefully at Jack.

‘If we’re going to be living near each other, don’t you think that I should be allowed to-’

‘How many lashes have you been written up for this week?’ Pitchiner said coolly.

Jack swallowed the rest of his words, and the cold lump in his mouth at the same time. This wasn’t training with a peer or a colleague. He couldn’t run his mouth. He shook his head.

‘I haven’t,’ Jack said.

‘Incredible. Keep it that way. Now, attack me again.’

Jack shifted his grip and thought of the aches in his back and hips and decided he’d just better get on with it. The sooner he showed Pitchiner that he could control whatever the Darkness had done to him, the sooner he’d probably be allowed to train with the new Initiates. He just had to stick it out.

*

Two hours later, Jack lay with his back on the sawdust and stared up at the sky – changing colours as the sun set – and thought that he didn’t need to get up, really. He could just stay here.

‘Get up,’ Pitchiner said, an edge of frustration in his voice.

‘It’s called passive resistance,’ Jack said.

He’d managed to get an idea of the ways Pitchiner liked to fight, but his reflexes still weren’t quite sharp enough to get himself anything more than a couple more minutes of dodging and ducking away, before he was flattened again.

Frustration came and went, and in its place, a grim determination to not waver – to not lash out or be cruel or any of those things – bedded down deep inside of him. It took root until he stopped feeling annoyed, until he could focus on falling as loosely as possible and leaving it at that.

‘It won’t work,’ Pitchiner said again. ‘Get up.’

Jack rolled onto his side, then onto his knees, and then finally managed to get his feet underneath himself. The smallsword was too thin to really lean on, so Jack just let it hang there. He wasn’t swaying. It was just the wind. Jack rubbed at the back of his head and then widened his stance weakly.

‘All right,’ Jack said. ‘I’m ready.’

But Pitchiner frowned and then sheathed his sword.

‘We’ll do this again tomorrow. I really enjoy how this cuts into all the other things I’d rather be doing with my day.’

Jack nodded, and then watched as Pitchiner stalked away, a thought entering his head as Pitchiner neared the exit.

‘I have no idea how to get back to my room,’ Jack called. ‘Like, seriously? None. There was a staircase, right?’

The Royal Admiral paused at the doorway, and then lifted a clenched fist like he was going to punch the doorframe. When his hand lowered, it was gentle, and he lightly rested his fingers on the glossy wood.

Jack just watched him. There was a lot to appreciate, even if Jack did think he was kind of mean. He was tall, and he’d just proven over the last few hours that he had no problems exerting himself over and over again. Jamie would call it ‘spank bank’ material, which was wrong, really. Just wrong. People did not do those kinds of things to Royal Admirals who looked like they were capable of murder. Especially now.

‘Is there a map?’ Jack said innocently.

‘Someone will be by to take you back to your rooms. It would be in your best interest to learn where you are going.’ Pitchiner paused like he was going to say something else, and then walked away.

Jack sank back to his knees. He was covered in sawdust, sweating, and he was pretty sure some of his sweat had frozen to his body. He sighed heavily.

He’d managed to keep it together. But it looked like Pitchiner wasn’t going to give up, so this was going to get tired really fast. What would Pitchiner do anyway? He hadn’t even explained what would happen.

Jack looked over at the wall of ice – giant spikes showing no signs of melting. The tall edifice was foreboding, and Jack wondered just what he’d brought out of that mountain with him.

Chapter Text

The next day, Jack was kept unexpectedly busy. Three tutors came to teach him correct comportment and etiquette which was, Jack belatedly realised, far harder and more complex and more stupid than he’d ever really known. There were correct ways to get dressed and wear clothing, which meant every other way was wrong and not appropriate. There were correct ways to eat, and one of his tutors – a scrubbed up elderly person with hair so wispy it looked like it was made of thin cloud – rapped him on the wrist with a long fork every time Jack got something wrong. Which was often.

Jack’s wrists were bruised before lunchtime. Which was great, it went with all the bruises he’d acquired from training with Pitchiner. Apparently trainees that didn’t let some evil malice out of them during training didn’t get proper healing from the High Priest or something.

He could sort of understand why the Royal Admiral didn’t want to teach this kind of etiquette stuff.  It was tedious and difficult, and seemed so unimportant. Jack tried his hardest to remember everything, but the information overload was intense, and he had no idea that a person was supposed to have fruits before meats – except at breakfast. Or that a person was supposed to use only one very specific kind of knife to cut soft cheese, and using any other knife was apparently the height of rudeness.

‘It makes you look like the peasant you are,’ one of them said. ‘We don’t want that.’

‘That’s terrible,’ Jack drawled, staring at them and thinking this was kind of ridiculous.

It wasn’t that he disobeyed on purpose, exactly. It was just so boring. Being told that the very way he put his shirts on – from the age he was allowed to dress himself – was fundamentally wrong somehow made him resist the urge to roll his eyes. How could he be offensive to all of society? All he could think was how much they seemed to hate peasants, which was absurd, because who did they think ran the damn palace? Did their farming? Looked after the plumbing systems?

Jack tried to follow the drone of the third teacher, as she explained why standing with both hands in one’s pockets was ‘just not done, dear.’

Man, no wonder Pitchiner went about the world like all the fun and life was sucked out of him. This would destroy anyone’s will to live.

*

That afternoon, the same time as the day before, the Royal Admiral turned up in Jack’s room once more and they went through the palace to the same arena as last time.

Jack was pretty sure he knew the way now. He hadn’t really been focusing on committing anything to memory, mostly because he wasn’t sure how long he’d be staying there. It also used skills he hadn’t needed since he was a child. Back then, when he lived with the parents he didn’t remember, he’d needed to know how to orient himself in the forests. It was such a long time ago, but once, he could remember complex directions and visual markers.

After that, when he was sent to the creche, everything was straightforward. He had his room, shared with other children. There was the eating room. The play room. The school room. There were no forests, there was no need to remember directions that were difficult anymore. Even once he went to the Barracks, it was the same.

Remembering the maze of the palace felt a bit like exercising an old, rusty part of his mind.

The arena was clear of the massive ice sculpture Jack had made the day before, but a great deal of the sawdust was sodden.

Training with Pitchiner was more of the same. Jack dug into himself and was determined to see it through. It was no different to training with Crossholt. If Pitchiner expected to see him break because of training, he had no idea who Jack really was.

After all, Crossholt himself taught Jack how to endure, how to show stamina – Jack had been commanded to do more than anyone else in his platoon. He knew what it was to get up over and over again when pitted against an enemy stronger than he was. This part was almost easy. Even the bruises and the sense of his body getting heavier and sorer as he continued – nothing about that was new.

Two hours later, Jack pushed himself up from the sawdust, panting. He steadied his grip on the smallsword, and then planted his feet into the scraps and bits of ice on the ground. If the Royal Admiral thought this was the best way to get to whatever the Darkness had done to Jack, well…

Good practice, at least.

Pitchiner stared at him, his expression grim.

‘I can keep going,’ Jack said, his voice strained. ‘Like, really. You want me to run forty laps now?’

Pitchiner narrowed his eyes – not in annoyance, but as though Jack was a peculiar puzzle. Jack pushed away thoughts of what he’d done to Crossholt – no one seemed to mind very much and he certainly wasn’t going to an Asylum anyway – and raised his eyebrows.

Then Pitchiner stood straighter and sheathed his sword. Just as Jack thought maybe training was over, again, Pitchiner gestured to the arena.

‘I’m calling your bluff,’ Pitchiner said. ‘Forty laps.’

‘Got it,’ Jack said, nodding his head and thinking that he should probably say ‘Royal Admiral’ once in a while, but it didn’t seem to be habit forming.

Running around the outer ring of the arena wasn’t easy, exactly, but it was nothing like the training he’d come to expect day to day at the Barracks. For a start, one lap around the whole of the Barracks was about fifteen laps here. He’d managed four of those for Crossholt with fresh whip marks on his back, before collapsing.

This was nothing, by comparison. Even if he was having to focus a lot on his breath, even if his legs burned and his body hurt.

When he finished the fortieth lap, he walked back to where he’d placed his smallsword, picked it up, and readied his stance again.

Pitchiner just stared at him.

‘What?’ Jack said, confused. ‘Have you just not worked with trainees for a really long time?’

He almost wanted to smile, but he figured that since Pitchiner’s sense of humour seemed to be something lost out in the war, he’d keep a lid on it.

‘You want me to do another forty?’ Jack said, because even if he wouldn’t smile, he still couldn’t quite resist. ‘Wanna call another bluff?’

That was when Pitchiner’s face slipped into outright irritation, and he turned away.

‘I don’t have time to watch you run around all day. We’ll try again tomorrow.’

‘I think it’s working great,’ Jack said, staring at his back. ‘Keeping me fit. Seeing what it’s like when a proper Golden Warrior trains. Never fallen down so much in my life.’

Pitchiner walked away, and Jack wanted to keep going, wanted to goad and annoy him and get a reaction and something more than the two or three sentences the Royal Admiral ever gave him.

Instead, he made his breathing calm down and looked around the arena. It was actually pretty cool, and he spent some time exploring it before he made himself go back to his room. The seats might have been dusty, but they were nicely made. There were tiny enamelled numbers on the back of each, as though the arena was once used for audiences to watch people fight each other.

The servants and Pitchiner didn’t seem to be locking him in anymore, which was nice. Jack wasn’t willing to give up that freedom again, so even though the rest of the palace tempted him with its ornate decorations and curious rooms, he didn’t let himself stray from the memorised route. He spent the rest of the afternoon working on his own obstacle course in his room, experimenting with the ice he’d somehow taken from the mountain.

*

The next day, Jack realised with some chagrin he was starting to remember all the rules and etiquette they insisted on piling upon him. He tied his kerchief properly, he secured his boots correctly.

He was also pretty sore, and he stood under the hot spray of the shower for far longer than usual, trying to loosen the stiffness and knots that had riddled their way into his body.

He was still ready in time for his tutors, but they didn’t show up. A few minutes later, a tall, slender, stork-like man appeared. He had sharp eyes and a beaky nose, and Jack was pretty sure all of the tutors that came to see him every day would admire this gentleman’s comportment, or something.

‘Jackson Overland?’ the man said, his voice far deeper than Jack had expected.

‘It’s Jack, actually.’

‘Mm, yes,’ the man said, staring at him. ‘If you’d come with me, please. I am Professor Sharpwood, and also attendant to the royalty of Lune. You have an appointment with the Tsar, this morning.’

Jack stared at him, and looked around his room, wondering if he was supposed to bring anything.

‘The Tsar?’ Jack said finally. ‘Did I do something wrong?’

‘Not yet,’ said Professor Sharpwood, looking down at his fingernails. They were painted blue, Jack realised, and his tufty hair was dyed blue. His eyes were black – even his corneas. He didn’t quite look like a Lune native. ‘Are you coming?’

‘What? Oh! Sure. Right. Sorry.’

To Jack’s surprise, they took the corridor that led to Pitchiner’s personal rooms, and then veered off down another, and then another, and then – in far less time than Jack expected – he found himself in some kind of sitting room that was so opulent and held so many decorative Lune insignias, he knew it belonged to the Tsar and Tsarina, and their rarely seen child.

Professor Sharpwood left him standing on plush carpet, by a huge buffet table with a gold framed mirror above it. Jack caught his reflection, thought at least he looked…passable. He hoped so, anyway. Then he stared at the room. Paintings hung everywhere, including portraits of the Tsar and Tsarina, and even – Jack realised with amazement – an illustration of the round-faced Tsesarevich when he must have been only three or four years old. He had the same honey brown wavy hair as his father, and eyes that seemed distracted.

‘Jack! Oh, fantastic, you’re here.’

Jack turned and bowed automatically, as low as he could. His heart was thundering. Why was this happening? Why was he alone? Shouldn’t Pitchiner be here? Wasn’t Pitchiner the one handling all of this?

‘Now, now, stand up,’ the Tsar said, his voice warm and cheery. ‘It’s so good to see you! You’re looking well, too. A bit of food, I expect, and some training. How are you?’

‘I’m…well, Your Imperial Highness,’ Jack said. ‘It’s amazing here.’

‘Of course, it must seem that way to you,’ the Tsar said. ‘Here, you can call me Gavril. It must seem all very frightening and new, and I am sympathetic, I am.’

Jack realised the Tsar was as impossibly well coiffed as he was last time. Every lock of hair perfectly in place. His boots with no scratches. Even the beauty marks by his right eye looked like they had been artfully placed there.

‘Come sit with me,’ the Tsar said, gesturing to an embroidered couch covered in skilfully wrought cushions and doilies. Jack followed him uncomfortably, and looked around the room again. He kept thinking about how Seraphina had told him she wasn’t allowed to be alone with the Tsar. He remembered how weird Pitchiner and the Spymaster had been when they’d told him not to speak of the ball of magic in the mountain.

‘It’s incredible, you’re incredible,’ the Tsar said, with a youthful enthusiasm that didn’t quite match the slight lines around his eyes or the intense way he stared at Jack. ‘Not many people come out of that mountain with extra powers, and I’d like to think of it as a sign that the mountain knows exactly what we need at this troubled time. And Jack, I think it’s you.’

‘I’m…Your Imperial-’

‘I said Gavril,’ the Tsar said, his voice hardening for a brief second. ‘Did I not?’

‘Yes, of course, sorry. Ah, Gavril.’

‘Perfect,’ the Tsar said. ‘Just perfect. Now, we’re going to be holding a parade in the city of Lune, and we’d like for you to be a big part of it. Making your snow and your frost – nothing too destructive, just something special. You’ll make people’s hearts feel lighter. Look at you, young and bright and even quite beautiful. They’ll really take to you, Jack. You’ll get to reach out to people, and that’s not something a peasant ever really imagines being able to do now, is it?’

‘Not really,’ Jack said, a little overwhelmed.

‘Of course not,’ the Tsar said. ‘It’s an immense privilege that Pitch is training you at all. You know that don’t you?’

Jack nodded, feeling ashamed now that it was being pointed out to him.

‘Normally he’d have nothing to do with someone like you,’ the Tsar said. ‘Which is really just a sign of how special you are.’

‘Special,’ Jack said, staring at him.

‘Oh yes,’ the Tsar said, and then placed his hand down on the couch, as though he was reaching out to Jack. ‘We can do so much with you. Now, as to your name, my team and I have come up with something catchier. Overland is a disposable name really, and we’re going to give you something so much better.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said.

‘From now on, you’re not to answer to Jackson Overland. It’s only Jack Frost. See? What we’re trying to do... For you to be a mascot, it has to be every part of you. In your name, even in your clothing. Flitmouse already has some direct orders from me there, and you should start seeing military uniforms in colours that suit you. You’re already wearing the blue coat I see.’

Jack looked down at it, and nodded.

Jack Frost. It sounded sharp and different. In a single moment he felt further away from his family and his sister than he’d ever been. Yet there was a part of him that felt excited to be praised like this, to be told that he could be special, that these important people were making time for him even when he wasn’t there. He mattered to them. He could be something important.

‘I like it,’ Jack said quietly.

‘Of course you do,’ the Tsar said dismissively.

Jack realised then it wouldn’t have mattered if he liked it or not, that was his name now.

‘How’s Pitchiner doing with all of this?’ the Tsar said then. ‘You can tell me. I know I must seem very lofty and distant sometimes, but I care so much about this nation and the people within it. Anything you wanted to share, I’d be happy to hear it.’

Jack wasn’t quite sure what the Tsar wanted him to say.

‘He seems okay,’ Jack said. ‘He’s training me.’

‘Yes, of course, even before you murdered someone, that was important.’

Even before you murdered someone.

‘I’m so sorry about that,’ Jack said, feeling strange, his heart skipping a beat. ‘I am, I didn’t-’

‘But how do you think things are with Pitchiner? Do you think the Royal Admiral doesn’t seem up to the job? Sometimes I worry about him. He’s such a close friend of mine. And he’d never tell me himself. I just…I just wish I knew how to help him.’

Jack thought of Seraphina talking about how the Royal Admiral had locked his heart in a tower or something. The Tsar looked sorrowful all of a sudden, his fingers even curled on the couch, as though it was a painful subject to think about.

‘I think he misses Fyodor,’ Jack said slowly.

The Tsar looked at him, as though he wasn’t even sure who that was. Then his eyes brightened in realisation, and he seemed to dismiss it in the same moment. Jack had the sense he’d somehow given the wrong answer.

‘I don’t know,’ Jack said, ‘he doesn’t share things with me.’

‘Well, no,’ the Tsar said, ‘I suppose he wouldn’t. You are, after all, nothing to him.’

Jack blinked. But wasn’t he meant to be special?

Jack wished it could be like before, when the Tsar was calling him important, saying he could make people happy.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said finally, feeling flat and bruised. ‘He does seem to give that impression.’

‘Such a shame, too,’ the Tsar said. ‘But Jack, I know how special you are. That might seem hard to believe, but I really want things to go well – for you, for Lune. You’re going to be in a parade!’

Jack smiled, and thought of how easily the Tsar had said: You are, after all, nothing to him.

‘Will the Royal Admiral be there?’ Jack said.

‘Pitch? Of course! He can try to avoid most social events, but this is one he can’t. The new recruits will be there. We’ll get to show off your powers, and oh, snow in the city! People will love it. I’m not sure if the mountain wants you to fight the Darkness with a sword, I believe it wants you to fight the Darkness by helping the people to realise that there is always Lightness and, well, good things and fun. That the mountain doesn’t just deliver Golden Warriors, but sometimes gifts to help the people who live in fear. And you want to help them, don’t you?’

I want to be a Golden Warrior.

‘Yes,’ Jack said. ‘Of course.’

‘What else would you have had to look forward to anyway?’ the Tsar said then, and Jack furrowed his brows in confusion, and then looked up as the Tsar stood and walked to the mirror. He looked at himself intently for a moment, and then turned his back to it and leaned against the buffet table, his arms folded behind him.

‘I think you and I are going to be friends,’ the Tsar said, smiling.

‘You and me?’ Jack said, incredulous.

‘Of course! And I’d really like that. I feel like I can trust you. I just have such a good feeling about this, about you. I hope you feel like you can trust me. I just want to make sure this goes well for you. Is there anything you need? Are you hungry?’

‘No, I’m… I’m being fed really well here.’

Why would the Tsar want to be friends with him? But the words were delivered so earnestly, with so much passion. It was as though the Tsar was lonely and waiting for something like this. Or, Jack wondered, maybe his friendship with the Royal Admiral wasn’t as strong as it used to be, and he was looking for something new.

‘Oh, Jack, will you make it snow for me?’

‘Now? But this room is so pretty. Are you sure? It won’t-’

‘It’s fine,’ the Tsar said. ‘Would you? I’d love to see it.’

And so Jack – without really needing to think about it – made it snow. A soft, fluffy snow, and they both watched it drift to the ground.

‘I love it,’ the Tsar said. ‘I love this. It’s going to make so many people happy.’

‘Do you think so?’ Jack said, staring at him. He wanted that so much.

‘Oh,’ the Tsar said, ‘Jack, don’t you believe me? I’m so sure. You’re going to make so many people happy. You’re Jack Frost now! You’re the soldier who fights the Darkness with fun and snow and frost. Just imagine!’

Jack shrugged awkwardly, and the Tsar gave him a sad smile.

‘Well, Jack, you’re making me happy, and we’re friends. You can always believe me, Jack. Trust me, you’re going to make so many people happy. You’ll see.’

Jack nodded, wanting it to be true. Wanting all of it to be true. It really did seem like the Tsar wanted to be friends with him. And a moment later, the Tsar came to sit down on the couch again and didn’t seem to care that snow was falling on his perfect hair and melting into it.

The Tsar reached out and took Jack’s hand in his own. The Tsar’s hands were warm, and they were a little clammy and moist. Jack wondered if that was from skin product or something, because his hands were incredibly soft, with the exception from some callouses that felt like they might be from sword-fighting or practice.

‘I’m here for you, Jack,’ said the Tsar. ‘I’m just a regular gentleman, despite what everyone says. It would be splendid if you could call me Gavril, and we can be friends. We’ll meet again soon, all right? I want to stay longer, but you would not believe the amount of paperwork and strategy meetings I have on a day to day basis.’

‘I can’t even imagine,’ Jack said in awe.

‘Professor Sharpwood will be by to take you back to your room. If you have need of anything, or you don’t like the way the Royal Admiral is treating you, just tell me, all right? I want to look after you. People need you.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said, knowing that his smile was awkward.

The Tsar squeezed his hand and then looked around at the snow and laughed to himself.

‘What a wonder you are,’ the Tsar said, and then he stood and walked from the room, waving without turning around.

Jack sat on the couch feeling a bit like he’d been struck with a heavy object. But in his heart he felt the glow of being called special by someone who really was special.

He just wanted to cradle that feeling and nurture it. He wanted to be the Tsar’s friend. No one would believe it, they’d have to notice him then.  

‘I’m Jack Frost now,’ Jack said quietly.

Then he waited for Professor Sharpwood to come while fidgeting, still feeling a bit wary and strange, unable to shake the way he’d felt when the Tsar had said: You are, after all, nothing to him.

*

The afternoon came, and Jack prepared himself for training, polishing the smallsword, making sure he was wearing the right clothing. He felt a bit out of sorts. When he saw the Tsar last time, the Spymaster and Pitchiner had both cautioned him about what he said, they both made such a big deal out of it.

He was worried about what Pitchiner would make of it all, now.  

The Tsar wanted to be his friend. Jack couldn’t just think ‘Gavril’ casually. He couldn’t. The man was more than just…a regular person. He was the saviour of Lune. Before the Darkness came, he was the one who protected the small planet from incursion from much larger, more populated planets. He and his family before him had a right to rule the planet as they saw fit, and they ruled it with great care, and even allowed refugees from the planets they’d had to defend themselves against. Jack remembered being taught in that creche school, just how compassionate that was.

That person – the Tsar – wanted to be his friend. Jack marvelled at the idea of it.

Pitchiner turned up, gestured for Jack to follow him, and said nothing at all about the meeting with the Tsar.

Jack stared at his back, and as they made their way to the arena, Jack wondered if Pitchiner even knew.

But…weren’t they friends? Wouldn’t the Tsar have told him?

‘Uh,’ Jack said hesitantly. ‘Those etiquette tutors are pretty cool. They taught me a lot of new stuff today.’

Pitchiner did nothing more than make a dismissive sound of acknowledgement, and Jack felt a prickling of fear.

Was he supposed to keep the meeting a secret? But why? The Tsar had been so nice to him, and called him special and asked about Pitchiner’s welfare. Jack remembered now more than one person had mentioned that Pitchiner’s status as Royal Admiral might not be as secure as it once was. The Tsar was probably fishing for information. Jack tried to imagine it – the Royal Admiral failing to protect Lune. Could that be why the Darkness kept pressing closer and closer?

Jack pressed his lips together, unsure of what to do. He could just say nothing. It wasn’t like Pitchiner cared about him anyway, really. He just wanted to make sure Jack didn’t accidentally kill a whole bunch of innocent people.

You are, after all, nothing to him.

Jack squared his shoulders and kept following. He shoved away his fears. Another useless afternoon of training that didn’t even really teach him anything new, except how it was possible to hit the ground that often and still get up again.

*

Jack could tell that Pitchiner was annoyed that Jack hadn’t ‘broken’ yet or shown his ‘darkness’ or whatever he was supposed to be doing. All of Pitchiner’s attacks were far more sustained and brutal – if Jack didn’t get up fast enough, Pitchiner dragged him up now, and went again; whether Jack was ready or not.

Laughter was banked in Jack’s lungs. Pitchiner had no idea what kind of person Jack was, and that was becoming more and more obvious. He’d thought the Royal Admiral would know beyond a doubt what he was doing. Did soldiers really break that quickly?

But Jack knew that some of the trainees really did. Especially those who weren’t picked on by their Lieutenant.

After about half an hour, Pitchiner dragged Jack up by fisting his hand at his shirt. Jack’s feet just about cleared the floor, trailing in the sawdust, and he coughed.

Jack couldn’t resist smiling.

Shock and then something very like fury passed over Pitchiner’s face, his gold eyes narrowing, his grey skin flushed.

‘Forty laps?’ Jack suggested as lightly as he could, given his throat was pressed into Pitchiner’s knuckles.

He didn’t notice it at first. Pitchiner just stared at him, and Jack kept thinking it was outrage or annoyance or something else. The tendrils of fear that spread within him were subtle, tiny roots finding their way through his mind until the smile fell off his face and he tried blinking away from that stare only to realise that he couldn’t.

The fear grew, expanded, and Jack’s hands came up and clenched Pitchiner’s wrist and his legs flailed, but that only made the pressure against his throat worse and then he thought he was suffocating and that Pitchiner would do this until he died. His heart hammered like it had when he saw the Tsar, he was gasping and-

Pitchiner looked away quickly, severing the connection, and then he lowered Jack so that his feet were on the ground properly. It took Jack a little while longer to feel he could stand.

‘I should have done that on the first day,’ Pitchiner muttered to himself. ‘Get your sword up, attack me.’

‘What?’ Jack said, his mouth dry.

‘Are you honestly so worthless that you can’t understand basic commands? Will writing you up for lashes make you obey me?’

Jack’s grip on his sword faltered.

He could be whipped for this?

‘I don’t understand-’

‘You’ve earned yourself five lashes with the Disciplinarian. Now attack me.’

Jack couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening. It shouldn’t have been surprising. But after everything – even upsetting Seraphina, even murdering Crossholt – Pitchiner hadn’t done anything like this.

Jack took a hesitant step forwards, his sword up. He felt like the fear hadn’t properly gone away. His heart was still pounding, pressing nausea into his throat.

Another step forwards, and he was pushed backwards, and then Pitchiner swept his legs with the back of his sword – a move Jack was coming to hate – and Jack stared up at the afternoon sky.

‘Get up,’ Pitchiner snapped. ‘I cannot believe I have to waste my time on you.’

Jack thought back to what the Tsar had said and pushed himself upright slowly. He looked sidelong at Pitchiner, and felt – for the first time since the first training session – a flash of malice. Jack looked down at the sawdust, alarmed. It was almost as though he could feel the frost building inside of him, wanting to splinter outwards and destroy.

‘You don’t have to, though,’ Jack said. ‘You don’t have to waste your time.’

‘No? I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to you killing even more innocent people. Are you going to listen to me? Shall I start adding lashes for every time you don’t use my title as you should?’

‘But-’

‘That’s another five lashes. I’m not sure creche kids can count that high, so I’ll tell you – it’s ten.’

‘I haven’t killed anyone else,’ Jack said, his body getting colder, his breath pluming in front of him.

‘You tried to kill me – twice now, actually. Do you not remember? Are you so useless?’

Jack grit his teeth and stepped forward, attacking, and was knocked down even faster than normal. A flash of spite blossomed in his gut, made his head hurt. The smallsword was nothing – it was a stupid weapon. But he could do so much with his ice. The Royal Admiral thought he was so high and mighty and important, but he had no idea what Jack could do now.

Jack grit his teeth and rolled to his side, alarmed at how quickly it was taking over his ability to think clearly. Whatever the darkness had left behind, it didn’t feel alien, it just felt normal. Jack looked up at Pitchiner and imagined ice shards going through his heart, his eyes, splintering him apart until there was nothing but blood.

A bolt of fear then, tangling up in his spine, making him feel clumsy and slow.

‘Wait-’ Jack said.

‘Get up,’ Pitchiner snarled.

The sawdust was icy and gritty beneath his hands. He wanted to pick up handfuls and fling them into Pitchiner’s face, wanted to drive icicles into him.

‘No,’ Jack said.

‘Ten lashes plus ten lashes is twenty. Dear me, we are getting stubborn. Or perhaps you like it? There are some people who do, you know.’

A harsh exhale and Jack forced himself upright, and then he made himself walk away from Pitchiner, gritting his teeth with the willpower it took to just not attack.

The hilt of a sword poked him hard between his shoulder-blades, and Jack went down to one knee. The ground beneath him frosted all at once; a sharp, crackling sound. This wasn’t pretty spirals, but a starburst of shards, each one as sharp as a knife.

‘Don’t walk away from me,’ Pitchiner said. ‘I am the Royal Admiral of Lune and you are nothing more than a mistake from that mountain.’

Jack almost said: You can’t talk to me that way.

Except the Royal Admiral of Lune could talk to him that way.

‘Is this how brave you were, when your sister was taken?’ the Royal Admiral said quietly, his voice a taunt.

It was as though Jack lost consciousness for a moment. Cold flooded him. And then he wasn’t even inside of himself as he turned, as he sprinted towards Pitchiner with his hands outstretched and ice spreading from his body, from the air around him. An inhuman sound crawled out of his throat and he let loose all the ice that had built around him in a single, shocking movement.

He staggered, exhausted, malice and fear tangling inside of him. Bits of frost still hung in the air around him, and he thought that he was Jack Frost now. He wondered what the Tsar would say if he saw this.

Jack looked up slowly, part of him wanting the satisfaction of seeing the Royal Admiral obliterated to bits of blood and bone, part of him so sick with terror his stomach heaved.

Pitchiner stood, but he looked lopsided. He supported himself on his sword. Almost all of the shards of ice had been knocked away, piled on the ground around him. His breathing was heavy. Jack realised the icicles had torn apart his sacred coat with its gold embroidered sigils.

And there, through Pitchiner’s thigh, a thick icicle that jutted.

Jack’s hand covered his mouth, he felt faint.

‘There it is,’ Pitchiner said, sounding too composed for someone who looked like he’d just survived a sentient, furious blizzard. ‘Relentless training isn’t difficult for you at all, is it? Your record says you’re lacking, but it’s more of Crossholt’s lies. Physical stamina isn’t what you lack. But emotional rigour? You don’t seem to have a shred of it.’

Blood had bloomed and then frozen around the icicle. Pitchiner looked down at it and shifted his weight, then grunted. A minute later, he lowered his hand to the icicle and tried pulling it out. A creaking, cracking sound, but it refused to move.

‘Of course,’ Pitchiner muttered. ‘I can’t heal this until it’s gone.’

‘I can’t control it,’ Jack said, his voice shaking and muffled by his own palm.

‘I know,’ Pitchiner said, shifting his weight so that he was half-leaning on the sword once more. ‘You will.’

‘How?’ Jack said, his arm dropping. ‘I’m not even- I don’t- It’s like it’s not even me.’

‘It is, however,’ Pitchiner said. ‘And it’s shocking how easily it’s  triggered, once one knows how.’

Jack thought he should go and fetch a healer or something, and then he felt the pieces of the puzzle slot into place and felt so stupid.

‘The fear-trick,’ Jack said. ‘You figured out what to do.’

Jack realised that with only a handful of well-placed insults, he’d been ready to kill someone. Not just kill them, but annihilate them, tear them apart and make sure they could never hurt him again. He realised it’d probably work again, too. Crossholt had insulted him, again and again, and the combination of terror and hatred had turned his ice powers into that.

Pitchiner grasped the icicle with his hand and this time yanked it so hard that it came free, blood oozing sluggishly from the cold wound. He made a short, clenched sound of pain, and then shoved his fingers directly into the wound, the same light that Sandy had used on Jack, pouring into his thigh. Several minutes of harsh panting, and Pitchiner wiped his bloodied, shaking hand on his ruined coat and then seemed to notice just how badly it had been damaged.

‘I also know,’ Pitchiner said, poking fingers at one of the tears in his coat, ‘that you don’t want to tell me about your meeting with the Tsar.’

It didn’t matter if they were out in the open, if the sky was right there. Jack felt cornered.

‘Did you know?’ Jack said finally.

‘No,’ Pitchiner said, squaring his weight on both legs and then sheathing his sword.

‘You can read minds?’

‘No,’ Pitchiner said, frowning. ‘But the things you are afraid of are...not ineloquent. I’m exemplary at interpreting them. The best, actually. I’m not the Royal Admiral for nothing. As for the rest of it, best not to talk here. We’ll train again tomorrow. Come along.’

Jack followed, and then faltered to a stop, remembering that he’d left his smallsword on the ground when he’d turned his hands into a weapon. He walked back and picked it up, passing the bloodstained icicle.

He thought of Crossholt, his mouth going cottony dry.

‘Come along, Jack,’ Pitchiner said, his voice less hard than it had been before.

Jack already knew that he wasn’t going to share the details of his meeting with the Tsar, with the Royal Admiral. He didn’t know who to trust. Eventually, he looked up and hesitated just short of meeting Pitchiner’s eyes. Even though they were separated from each other by a good distance, he didn’t want to feel the level of fear Pitchiner could create in him any time soon.

‘When should I go see the Disciplinarian?’ Jack said. ‘I’d just kind of prefer to get it out of the way.’

‘I was bluffing.’

Jack couldn’t help himself, he met Pitchiner’s gaze and didn’t quite know what to say. After a moment, Pitchiner sighed and looked skywards, and then grimaced when he looked at Jack.

‘Obviously I can’t use it again, but it did the trick. Don’t think this means I won’t use it for actionable offenses in the future.’

‘But me...not calling you by your title and stuff, that’s-’

‘Jack, the whip would probably kill you by the time you actually learned to address me with the respect I deserve. In the meantime, we have other, more pressing things to talk about.’

Pitchiner turned and walked away briskly, and Jack stared at his back before realising he was meant to follow this time. He rushed after him, thinking that they could teach him rules and etiquette, but he didn’t think he’d ever get all the tricks these people seemed to play on each other.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

To Jack’s surprise, he wasn’t taken back to his own room, but instead taken to the circular domed space that Jack thought of as Pitchiner’s sundial rotunda. Even though he still didn’t think the plinth and stone sculpture in the middle of the room was a sundial. Above him, the constellations of Lune – painted onto the ceiling – didn’t move. The whole cavernous room felt like the night sky, and Jack resisted the urge to wring his hands as he tried to remember that he was standing on the floor, not floating alone in space.

Pitchiner went down a new corridor – clearly expecting Jack to follow him – this one not tiled prettily or painted with war scenes, but instead with galaxies. Bursts of colour and light appeared amongst stretches of blackness. The lights above were dim, and Jack felt like the shadows here could breathe if they wanted to. He knew it wasn’t quite living Darkness, but it wasn’t comfortable. In a world that privileged the light, this was…weird.

He had the sudden sense that he was being taken somewhere awful. Maybe Pitchiner was still lying to him. Maybe they weren’t just going to have a discussion. Maybe he was going to be interrogated, tortured even. After all, the Admiral had the power to do that with impunity, didn’t he?

Jack’s steps slowed, then stopped.

After a moment, Pitchiner turned and looked at him, his face cast in darkness, only the bridge of his nose properly lit.

‘Do I have to order you to follow me?’ Pitchiner said.

Jack stared at him. Pitchiner didn’t sound angry so much as exhausted.

‘I guess not,’ Jack said, looking down at Pitchiner’s legs. It was too dark to see the place where the icicle had just been. Pitchiner walked like it was nothing at all. Jack thought even after being healed, he’d still want to limp after something that bad had happened. He couldn’t imagine just shrugging it off.

Jack followed him again, and soon doors appeared in the corridor, marked out in gilt sigils. Jack thought he could feel the magic in these. Though he didn’t know what the magic were for, and he didn’t know why there needed to be so much of it.

At the end, two large double doors made of what looked like solid gold. But as the doors swung open to Pitchiner’s touch, Jack saw that they were made of wood, and that the gold was only a veneer. They were also some of the thickest, strongest doors Jack had ever seen.

Pitchiner walked in like he owned the place, which – Jack supposed, stumbling to a halt again and staring – was true.

Just as he knew instinctively he’d been in the living spaces of the Tsar and Tsarina earlier in the day, he knew that this was where Pitchiner lived. From a handful of medals framed on the wall, even though Jack knew he had many, many more to frame; he didn’t wear them all either. To the dark wooden furniture that was all carefully made, though almost spare. To bookshelves of tomes – many with blank spines – and the small doll of pale blue and white felt that rested propped against a book-end in the shape of a wicked, black horse. The doll was resting too high for a young child to reach; perhaps Seraphina had grown out of it, and Pitchiner had decided to keep it.

‘Wait there,’ Pitchiner said, then went through another door before closing it behind him.

There was a time when Jack would have sold part of his soul to end up somewhere like this. Even now, he could almost hear Jamie whistling in appreciation on Jack’s behalf.

The room was at least as big as whatever lounge or sitting room he’d been invited to when he’d seen the Tsar. But unlike the Tsar’s space, there was almost no gold to be seen that wasn’t embroidered on fabric.

Jack thought about walking over to the bookshelves and taking a closer look, but he had a sneaking suspicion that Pitchiner probably wanted him to stay and not move.

It gave him time to think about what he’d just done to Pitchiner, what he’d just felt like doing. The only reason Pitchiner wasn’t dead, was because he was the Admiral and trained to deal with worse, probably. The only reason he wasn’t injured was because of that healing light.

Jack didn’t think it was fair that he could feel cold and shivery, when he could make snow and his body temperature wasn’t what it used to be, but there it was. He placed his hands on his elbows and felt new frost moving over his clothing.

It felt like forever before Pitchiner returned, and when he did, his clothing was fresh, he held a mug of steaming liquid – probably tea – in his hands. He was wearing another Warrior’s robe, this one with protective sigils that hadn’t been torn. Jack looked down to Pitchiner’s leg, but of course it wouldn’t even need a bandage.

Pitchiner looked down at his own thigh and sighed.

‘It’s rather easy to see how you managed to defeat Crossholt so quickly. Even in the beginning when I was...afflicted, I was still only trying to kill people with a sword or my bare hands. The Light isn’t really made for murdering fellow citizens. Which I remember finding rather unfortunate in the moment.’

Jack shifted his weight from leg to leg, and watched as Pitchiner sat down in a chair by a coffee table. He sipped quietly and delicately at whatever he was drinking. Jack wondered if Pitchiner was being deliberately rude by not offering Jack anything, or if Jack mattered so little it wasn’t even offensive.

‘Why didn’t you want me to know about the meeting with the Tsar, Jack?’

A nervous laugh, and Jack wanted to clap his hand over his mouth. He already sounded guilty. He had nothing to feel guilty about! The Tsar just wanted to be his friend. Pitchiner didn’t even look all that threatening. He was sitting down. He wasn’t even yelling at Jack for injuring his leg. Crossholt would have lost his mind.

Yeah, and then you killed him. So he won’t be doing that anymore.

‘Jack?’

‘You’re not helping me,’ Jack said, his gaze glancing past Pitchiner’s, not wanting to make eye contact like he had before. ‘You just push me until I do something stupid, and I learned nothing. What was that?’

‘I believe this game is ‘you answer my questions’ and not ‘Admiral Pitchiner listens to the whining of an upstart.’’

‘Uh huh,’ Jack said, his gaze caught on what was clearly a children’s drawing hung on the wall. It was of some flowers that Jack didn’t recognise, in deep blue and silver. It jarred for some reason. Pitchiner was The Admiral. He had a framed kid’s drawing on his wall. He was the kind of father who got drawings from his daughter and found a good frame for them – better than the frames for his medals.

That doesn’t mean you can trust him.

‘I don’t know,’ Jack said, looking at the silver knobs on a chest of drawers. ‘My life seems complicated enough, I guess. I just- I didn’t know how you’d react about the meeting. Can you blame me though? After what you just did?’

‘What was the meeting about?’ Pitchiner replied. When Jack darted a glance at him, he was surprised to see Pitchiner looking down at his mug.

‘Uh, the parade,’ Jack said. ‘Apparently I’m... I mean he told me I’m Jack Frost now. And I have to like- Make snow and stuff. For the people.’

‘Ah,’ Pitchiner said, lips curling in an unpleasant smile. ‘His mascot.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘What’s wrong with that? You don’t think people could have something to enjoy once in a while? You think it should be super seriousness all the time?’

‘Do you think,’ Pitchiner said, looking up as Jack made himself look away, ‘that with the recent attack on the Palace, people should be forgetting to stay wary?’

‘You think that a few hours of a parade will make them forget?’

‘Don’t think that because you spent a few minutes with the Tsar, you can speak to me like we’re equals. We are not.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘Got the message several times already. You know, with the whole me being useless and a peasant – like oh no not another Overland - and everything else. I get it.’

Jack saw Pitchiner open his mouth like he was going to say something, but then he closed it again. He put the mug down on the coffee table and leaned back, sighing.

‘It was just about the parade,’ Jack said. ‘That’s all. And I didn’t want to tell you because you’re intimidating and you locked me in a room for days with no food and you treat me like I’m dirt and-

‘You’re lying to me,’ Pitchiner said. ‘If you won’t tell me the real reason, I can’t- well, I can make you, but I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and not do that at this moment. But don’t lie to me.’

‘All the things I just said are true,’ Jack said, frowning.

‘Yes. It’s a clever thing, to lie by telling a version of the truth. You wouldn’t believe how adept the Tsar is, at doing the same. You can’t trust him, Jack.’

Jack stared at Pitchiner, thoughts skittering in all directions. He forgot to look away, and stared instead. Pitchiner looked back calmly, as though waiting for something.

‘Why not?’ Jack said, his voice shaky. ‘Because he’s nice to me?’

‘Is he?’ Pitchiner said, looking curious, eyebrows lifting.

Jack felt uncomfortable. There were a few things the Tsar had said that hadn’t been exactly nice, but then there were all the other things and- They were going to recreate Jack into something wonderful for the people. A parade meant Jack would be visible, he’d be seen and believed in. People would have to treat him with respect. He wouldn’t just be the boy who sometimes walked back from the Disciplinarian’s Tower with fresh whip marks on his back.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, ‘because he can see- He sees that I can help! Unlike you and everyone else here. Why shouldn’t I trust him? He’s trying to help the people. You’re just trying to keep your job – you let the Darkness into the city! Into the Palace!’

Pitchiner’s hands gripped the wooden armrests hard, an ugly snarl on his face. Jack saw it – the malice that crept across his expression, it was the same thing that Jack had felt only minutes ago when the ice had blasted out of him. But seeing it on Pitchiner’s face, knowing it was directed at him-

Jack took a step backwards, but already Pitchiner was settling back down in the chair, jaw tight, eyes askance.

‘Why shouldn’t I trust him?’ Jack said shakily. ‘None of you tell me anything. Not you, not even your daughter, who just said that she wasn’t allowed to be alone in a room with him. Not the Guardians, who-’

Don’t get in the habit of calling them that,’ Pitchiner spat.

Jack rubbed at the top of his head trying to release some tension. He walked over to a mantle over a fireplace that had burnt down to coals. The heat felt sharp, even though he was sure it wasn’t. His breathing was too fast.

‘None of you tell me anything,’ Jack said, trying to calm himself. He didn’t even know why he was getting so upset. They were all so far above him in station. They didn’t have to tell him anything.

‘Here’s one thing I will tell you,’ Pitchiner said, sounding as though he was also trying to stay calm. ‘The Tsar does what he thinks is best for Lune, but he does not particularly care for who he steps on or harms along the way. You may find that statement the height of irony coming from me, but there it is. Jack, he will ply you with what you want most, to get what he wishes from you. He will make you feel as though you are the sun, or a star.’

‘When I’m nothing,’ Jack said bitterly. ‘I get it.’

Jack already knew that part. Pitchiner just didn’t understand. The Admiral was like the sun or a star already. But Jack also knew that even if he was nothing now, he could become something. It wasn’t just about what he could become to the Tsar – though that mattered to him a great deal – but to others. Maybe he’d just matter. And if he couldn’t make the Light, then he could settle for this. It would be more than he could have imagined for himself anyway.

Pitchiner didn’t say anything for a long time, and when Jack looked over, he was surprised to see Pitchiner’s expression was pained. A faint strain at the corner of his eyes, the way his mouth was pinched at the corners.

‘So what now?’ Jack said, feeling tired.

‘I’m beginning to entertain the idea that I’ve gone about this the wrong way, and I don’t enjoy being wrong.’

‘Sucks, huh?’

‘Mm,’ Pitchiner said.

Jack didn’t even really know what Pitchiner meant. His hand drifted to the hilt of his smallsword and then away from it again.

‘How did you do that, before?’ Jack said hesitantly. ‘When I brought up the attack on the Palace, I know- I know you wanted to attack me. How do you just...make it go away?’

Pitchiner’s eyes widened, as though he hadn’t expected Jack to realise what was happening. Perhaps Pitchiner didn’t know what his own face looked like in those moments. Or maybe other people just thought it was...righteous anger or something.

But Jack knew.

‘You have to stop running from it,’ Pitchiner said, ‘which I think will be your greatest challenge. And you won’t ever be able to make the Light until you stop running from it.’

‘Yeah, because I really feel like I’m going to make the Light when all I’m thinking about is murder.’

‘It takes time, and it takes practice,’ Pitchiner said. ‘And you must get used to experiencing those feelings in a safe environment. Where we train is – for now – the only safe environment. You can’t kill me, no matter what you might think, and I can heal whatever damage you do. It’s unpleasant for the both of us, but that is the only way.’

Jack’s chest felt tight, and he nodded a little, but said nothing. He didn’t even want to think about having to feel like that again.

‘Do you think of it a lot then? Murder and stuff?’

‘Oh, everyone needs a hobby,’ Pitchiner said drily.

Jack looked at him, startled, and Pitchiner only smirked.

‘Maybe I’m just going to start calling you Pitch,’ Jack risked saying.

Pitchiner scowled at him, he opened his mouth to reply when the double doors behind them burst open.

Jack whirled to see two other Golden Warriors entering. Behind them, two children. Seraphina, who saw Jack and then hid something behind her back while squinting at him – Jack realised it was a doll and resisted the urge to smile, and a small boy with pale blue eyes and the same honey golden hair as the Tsar.

It wasn’t quite a gasp that came out of his throat, but the strangled sound he made had everyone looking at him. The Tsar’s child was one of the most protected people ever. Most had never even seen him. Now, Jack was right there, only a few feet away from him. He felt the urge to go to his knees and prostrate himself, but Seraphina running over to Pitchiner stopped him at the last moment.

‘She’s such a Daddy’s girl,’ said the woman, smiling fondly at Seraphina. ‘It doesn’t matter how many sweets I give her.’

‘Oh please tell me that’s exactly what you did, Eva,’ Pitchiner said, looking up with a withering gaze.

‘Only for you, darling,’ Eva said, blowing a kiss that seemed laden with just as much sarcasm. Even so, Jack thought there was a kind of warmth and affection there. He was kind of glad he was invisible for once.

Except that he wasn’t. The Tsar’s child was staring at him. And the other Golden Warrior was looking him over. He was tall and handsome, and Jack knew of him through reputation. Anton the Brave – associate of the Admiral and known for the bright colours he dyed his hair. Today it was deep forest green. Anton’s gaze suddenly rooted to Jack’s feet, and Jack looked down to see frost moving out in unfettered, chaotic swirls over the rugs and carpet.

‘Does that always happen?’ Anton said with a slow smile. ‘Or are you just happy to see me?’

‘High society makes him nervous,’ Pitchiner said.

‘Oh, we’re not high society, darling,’ Eva said, as she walked casually through Pitchiner’s lounge and then towards the door Pitchiner had taken before.

‘Actually, we are,’ Pitchiner said. ‘You simply don’t behave like high society.’

‘Ohhh, I’d never have guessed. What would we do if we didn’t have you to tell us how this worked?’ she drawled, and then closed the door behind her.

‘So! You must be the kid everyone’s talking about,’ Anton said, walking over and extending a hand. ‘I’m Anton. The Brave. Have you heard of me? Never mind, everyone has.’

He reached forwards and grasped Jack’s hand, shaking it firmly. Then he let go and held up his hand to Jack’s face, and Jack could see bits of ice all over Anton’s fingers. Just as Jack started to stammer an apology, Anton grinned.

‘Not much of a kid though, are you?’ Anton said, looking Jack over again. ‘I was practically expecting a child, from the way Pitch harped on. Goodness, old man,’ Anton said, walking over and clapping Pitchiner on the shoulder, ‘you must be getting downright geriatric at this point.’

Anton went to the couch near Pitchiner’s chair and sat down, he crossed his legs and spread his arms across the back of the cushions like he spent all his time in Pitchiner’s rooms. Seraphina stood quietly by Pitchiner’s chair, watching Jack as if expecting something.

Then, a tapping at the side of his hip and Jack just about squawked, felt like he was going to jump out of his skin. When he looked down, the Tsesarevich was gazing up at him solemnly.

‘Uh...’ Jack tried to think of what he was supposed to say, even though he’d heard it so many times. ‘Hi, ah, Your Imperial Highness the Successor Tsesarevich Lunanoff.’

‘Oh boy,’ Anton said. ‘Titles.’

‘Amusing really,’ Pitchiner remarked, ‘when you consider he never addresses me with any sort of propriety.’

‘Yeah, but does anyone?’ Anton said. ‘I mean aside from like- What should he be calling you? Royal Admiral of the Lunanoff Military Fleet of Golden Warriors Pitchiner?’

‘It’s a start.’

Jack was still staring at the Tsesarevich, who didn’t seem to have heard Jack at all, or registered that Jack had spoken.

After a few seconds, the child raised his hands and signed fluidly, never looking away.

Seraphina cleared her throat. ‘Mihail wants to know if you were in the mountain. But Mihail, you know already, everyone in training goes there.’

The Tsesarevich glanced quickly at Seraphina, and then looked up at Jack again. After a minute, he looked down at the frost on the floor and scraped the toe of his boot over it. Unlike his father’s perfect boots, the Tsesarevich’s were scuffed and covered in mud. Then, he took a few steps sideways and stared at some point on the wall. As though there was a person there instead, he raised his arms once more and signed again.

‘Mihail wants to know if anyone spoke to you in there, if you heard them. Not the Darkness, but the-’

‘That’s enough,’ Pitchiner said, clearing his throat and standing.

‘Sorry, Papa,’ Seraphina said, and it was perhaps the first time Jack had heard her sound remotely contrite. ‘Sorry, Mihail. We can talk later.’

The Tsesarevich didn’t look away from the wall, and Jack wondered if there was something wrong with him. He didn’t seem to behave at all like a young child.

On an impulse, Jack said:

‘I heard my sister.’

The Tsesarevich turned and looked up at him, and though his expression was still blank, Jack felt like it meant something. Though what could it mean? Was it just a child fascinated with the ritual of initiation?

Then the Tsesarevich lifted his hands to sign again, but paused, looking then quickly at Anton and Pitchiner. He lowered his arms again and turned, walking from the room calmly. He had to stand on tiptoe to pull the double doors open, but no one rushed to help him, and he closed them on his own.

‘Shouldn’t…he have a guard or – I dunno, something?’ Jack said, staring at the closed doors.

‘He’s safe in the Palace,’ Anton said reassuringly. Then he coughed and added. ‘Not counting the ambush. Do we count that now?’

‘Yes,’ Pitchiner said, and Jack watched as Pitchiner strode from the room, gesturing for Jack to follow him.

‘Was nice meeting you,’ Anton called, and Jack looked over his shoulder at him. Anton smiled easily, waved a lazy hand. Jack waved back, feeling warm somehow. Unlike everything else that had happened, Anton just seemed kind of decent. Like how Jamie might have turned out, if he’d actually become a Golden Warrior. ‘You can show us cool snow stuff next time.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said. ‘Sure. Bye, Miss Seraphina.’

‘Goodbye,’ she said, the doll still behind her back.

When the doors closed behind them, Pitchiner looked for a moment like he was going to sag against them, but then he straightened. Jack couldn’t see the Tsesarevich anywhere.

‘Go back to your room,’ Pitchiner said without even looking at him. ‘Master Lunanoff is a wanderer, the Light only knows where he’s gone.’

Jack watched him stride off, and then Pitchiner disappeared behind one of the gilt doors down his galaxy-lined corridor.

‘Okay then,’ Jack said, and walked back to his room, feeling like the day had been super weird.

*

The next day his etiquette lessons resumed as usual – Jack’s wrists seemed like they’d sport bruises forever, because as he picked up what they taught him, they layered new lessons into everything. It wasn’t enough now that he picked up the right fork, he had to pick it up the right way. His wrist had to be limp but not too limp, he had to rest his thumb just so along the side, and it could only ever descend towards his food at a forty five degree angle. He could never stab a piece of meat again.

That was something peasants did.

‘But it makes more sense to do it that way?’ Jack said, staring at the fork incredulously, and then biting his lip when the jut of bone at his wrist was rapped sharply with the flat of a butter knife.

Jack vowed that when no one was watching, he was going to stab all his food with a fork. Even the stupid peas.

Still, he did what they wanted – or tried to, anyway. He could tell they were trying to prepare him for public appearances, and it left Jack feeling a fluttery nervy sensation in his chest and gut. He wanted it and dreaded it at the same time.

He was ready for training, but Pitchiner never came, and it occurred to Jack as he watched the day turn to dusk that they needed some way of communicating. Except he knew Pitchiner would never use it.

‘Too good for it or something,’ Jack muttered, kicking at the training mat and deciding to push himself through some different exercises. He wondered if he was allowed to go to the arena on his own. He had no idea what the rules were. He was starting to feel a bit like an unwanted horse, stabled away when unneeded, and brought out only for the owner to remember why they hadn’t wanted the horse in the first place.

Jack wore himself out on the training mats, and then showered and began exploring some of the panels along the walls in his room. He’d learned that if he pushed the long rectangular ones, they would open and reveal drawers, or a long rack of many clothes. One even opened to reveal a low shelf of journals. Jack opened one, realised it was Fyodor’s journal, and hastily put it away.

He found a boardgame he didn’t recognise and took it out, wondering if he could figure out the rules as he went. He also found some small plush toys. One was a Golden Warrior with eyes made of citrine. Another was a corn-doll. It was well made, but smelled faintly of mildew.

Then he made it snow in the corner of a room that he wouldn’t walk across later. They probably hated that the snow melted but he tried to sop up what he could later. He seemed to have an excess of towels provided to him these days for his melting ice.

Jack was creating frost shapes across the windows – he’d only just realised he could, and was quietly bouncing on the balls of his feet as he made a rabbit, and then a sword, and now a more complicated warship – when there was a knock at his door.

The door opened, and Jack’s hand slid with a squeak down the window, as he stared at the Engineer of Wonders. And in the Engineer’s giant grasp was Jack’s stick – but it was no longer a stick. It had a crook on the end, added in the silvery meteorite metal that they forged the swords of the Golden Warriors with.

‘I am apologising for taking so long,’ North said, without introduction of fanfare. He walked right up to Jack, towering over him, and held it out. ‘But it is being stubborn and sneaky, this stick you took from the mountain. I thought first an object for striking, like a hammer or mace! But no, the stick did not want this. And then I thought a spear! To drive the Darkness away! But no, the stick is not wanting this either.’

‘So you made a shepherd’s crook?’ Jack said, taking it in his hands.

The moment he held it, his doubt vanished. Ice crept along it, as though it was meant to be there. Jack’s heart beat faster, he turned it, looked at the hook and thought of how he was meant to use it. He didn’t know yet, but somehow, North had made it more than what Jack could have imagined.

‘Wow,’ Jack said. ‘Sir Engineer, you didn’t have to bring this yourself though. I mean, thank you, but I know you’re busy, and I know-’

‘Jack, Jack,’ the Engineer said, walking over and sitting on Jack’s bed. ‘You must call me North. None of this ‘Sir’ or ‘Engineer’ nonsense. You want I should call you Sir Jack?’

Jack spun the staff in his hands and said – without quite thinking about it:

‘It does have a nice ring to it.’

Then he realised who he was talking to, and offered a look of apology. But North waved it away, placing his palms flat on Jack’s bed and looking up at the ceiling.

‘What a day in the Workshop,’ North said. ‘It is good to leave and visit. I have been thinking about you, and I am hearing from Tooth that they are wanting to make many great things of you. Jack Frost! This- This is something I like. The name fits. But how are you, Jack? This must all be so new to you.’

‘Newish,’ Jack said carefully.

‘It is not really being my kind of world,’ North said with a sigh. ‘The Palace is grand and mighty, but I like my Workshop where it smells of motor oil and crackles with magic. You should come there some time! I have new hydrofoils that need new owners.’

‘What, seriously?’

‘I am being completely serious!’ North said, grinning. Then he briefly stroked at his pointed black beard, looking around with his clear blue eyes. He stared for a long time at the shapes Jack had been making on the windows, and his lips stretched into a smile that was gentle.

‘You are being an artist, Jack,’ North said, looking over at him with that same smile.

‘What? These? The ice just kind of does it.’

Yes, it would! It is magic you are taking from the mountain. It will do what you will it to do. But you have an artistic eye like me. Do you think I could make the things that I make, if I was not having the mind of an artist? You and I, we have a lot in common.’

Jack started to nod and then thought of what else he’d taken out of the mountain with him. He felt like a fraud. Even Pitchiner could at least make the golden light. Though he’d hinted today that Jack might have a chance of doing it too, though the cost seemed too high.

‘What is wrong?’ North said quietly, and Jack shook his head and then spun away. He trailed the staff along the ground, hating how quickly he’d been dragged back into a muddle of thoughts. Wasn’t it going to be a new day?

‘You know, I don’t actually know if I belong here. And no one ever gives me a straight answer. About anything.’

‘What are you wanting a straight answer about?’

Jack paused and then turned back. North was now perched on the edge of the bed, his hands down in the mattress. He leaned forwards, watched Jack with a sharp gaze.

‘Who are the Guardians of Lune?’ Jack said, feeling daring and numb at the same time.

North’s expression didn’t shift for a few moments, and then he clasped his hands in his lap, his gaze going to the floor. He stood and walked over to the window, pressing his hand next to the sword that Jack had made with his ice.

‘See?’ Jack said. ‘You won’t tell me. But you know Jamie told me to look for them, if I ever- I don’t know. That’s where he went. With them. So I don’t get it, okay? I just don’t get it. Obviously it’s not a great thing because Pitchiner keeps talking about execution even though that hasn’t happened in forever, and you all keep coming here and it obviously means something and I get that there’s like four thousand secrets and I can’t know any of them but seriously – can I just know one?’

‘That is not being a small secret,’ North said, but he turned towards Jack, and there was a faint smile on his face.

‘Can you just tell me where Jamie is? If he’s safe?’

North hesitated and then said: ‘I don’t know who Jamie is.’

‘Jamie, you know, the one who lived with me in the Barracks. My best friend. He’s like, gone, and he told me that he was with the Guardians of Lune but that’s like- You’re a part of that, right? He’s a deserter. I just want to know that he’s safe.’

Jack was breathing fast, and he knocked the crook of the staff nervously against the window, frost spidering out every time.

‘I am finding out for you,’ North said eventually. ‘I can find out.’

‘Why are you helping people desert? That’s treason.’

‘It is not an easy thing to answer, and yet it is the simplest thing in the world,’ North said. ‘We swear an oath to protect the children of Lune. That is what we do. And you, Jack, I think you are meant to join us. I think that is why you are not telling the Tsar of all these things that you know.’

Jack stared at him and couldn’t think.

‘Jamie isn’t a child,’ Jack said, thinking that of all the replies to say in his trembling voice, that was probably the stupidest.

‘Eh, there is being grey area,’ North said, shrugging. ‘Over time we are finding ways to protect many people.’

‘You and…Sandy and the Spymaster and the Disciplinarian,’ Jack said. ‘Who would all be killed if the Tsar knew. Right now.’

‘It is delicate subject.’

‘And I’m meant to keep this a secret?’

‘You have been doing it so far, yes?’ North said.

He didn’t even look frightened. Like it didn’t even occur to him that this might test Jack’s loyalty. Jack almost laughed, and then forced himself to stay calm. He looked over his staff and pressed his lips together.

‘You encourage people to not fight the Darkness,’ Jack said. ‘That’s what you do. I know a lot of trainees are scared of initiation, but you just...it hurts the military. And everyone.’

‘Many of those people could never pass an initiation,’ North said soberly. ‘Many are never having a real choice. If they are born with golden eyes, they cannot live any other life. If they are born in the outreaches and show aptitude early, they cannot choose another path afterwards. If, like you, they are choosing it for themselves, they cannot change their minds. They are either dying in that mountain, or dying in an Asylum, or they are lucky and become a Golden Warrior, and they are dying at the whims of the Darkness.’

North looked at Jack fiercely, as though daring Jack to say it was any different.

‘There’s already hardly enough Warriors as it is,’ Jack said weakly. ‘The attack on the Palace- Even like, the other day, when you got shadow sickness, that’s like-’

‘-Jack, I am wanting to tell you everything I am knowing, truly. But I can see you are having trouble with this already. Maybe Pitch will explain things better.’

‘He doesn’t tell me anything,’ Jack said, too tired to even shout it, despite the surge of anger he felt. On its heels, a bite of something dark and mean, as though he could just make North tell him. Alarm followed behind it, and Jack tried to shove his emotions away as hard as possible.

‘Jack, I want you to come here for a moment,’ North said gently, pointing beside him. ‘Come on, no need to be frightened. Just stand here and look up at the stars with me.’

Jack walked over cautiously, but North only looked out of the window, and eventually Jack did the same.

‘See how beautiful the stars are,’ North said, with a smile.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, not really sure where this was going.

‘What were you taught about the stars when you were little? What did they teach you?’

‘Uh, well, giant balls of gas. They give us a light that doesn’t banish the Darkness, but lets us live. They shine light on lots of different planets out there. And sometimes they do weird things.’

‘Yes,’ North said, laughing, ‘sometimes they do very strange things. Now, Jack, what if – from the moment you were born – someone told you that all the stars out there were the souls of the departed Golden Warriors, looking down upon us?’

‘But they’re not,’ Jack said. ‘I mean it’s nice, but they’re just- They’re not.’

‘But what if you were told from the very beginning, as a child? What if everyone told you? Your teachers, your parents, your friends, even strangers, it was even being written in every book.’

Jack shrugged. He opened his mouth to reply, then went still and looked at North sidelong. North was already looking at him, watching for something.

Ice flowed in layers from Jack’s hand where he gripped his staff.

‘Sometimes, Jack,’ North said, almost sadly, ‘when you try and tell someone who believes that the stars are the souls of Warriors, that the stars are simply sources of light in the sky – that is being a very hard thing. It seems obvious because we know the truth of the stars, but it only seems obvious because we were taught this. In this, we were fortunate that we were taught the correct thing. But Jack, it is not always like this. If – as an example – you thought it would be for the good of Lune to lie to all of your people, you might choose to do that. And if you had enough power, enough wealth, you could make sure that everyone is sharing in this lie.’

‘And you don’t think I’m ready for it,’ Jack said. ‘To know what it is. But it’s something to do with why you’re helping people desert instead of fighting the Darkness?’

‘Yes,’ North said. ‘And it is also why some people come out of that mountain with magic, instead of the Light only. Also, Jack, it is not an easy thing to know, what we are knowing.’

‘You know all you’ve done is tell me that you can’t actually tell me anything,’ Jack said, rapping the glass in frustration, a wheel of frost emerging with a sharp rip of sound. ‘Thanks.’

North exhaled shortly. Jack thought maybe North would yell – Jack had seen him yelling before and it was frightening even from a distance. But instead, North touched his fingers to the wheel of ice and turned to look over his shoulder at Jack.

‘I will say this,’ North said. ‘Ask yourself why we fight the Darkness now, instead of other worlds as we once did. And ask yourself why those worlds don’t join us in that fight. The Palace is full of stories painted on these walls of how it once was. Pitch is old enough to remember. You are knowing the Golden Warriors, we don’t age like everyone else, some of us remember. All you know is this grand fighting of Light and Dark, and yes, we must fight the Dark or it will be our ruin. But once upon a time, Jack, it wasn’t our foe – it was not in our books and we were not needing Priests of Light. So where did it come from? Why does it only ever get worse? These...these are things you should never bring up around the Tsar. But talk to the Admiral, be private, be persistent. Pitch is weary and no longer believes in true glory. But he was once...’

North looked off into the distance and then shook his head.

‘Things were once so different, Jack,’ North said. ‘But you are needing to look deeper. This is not something I can give to you. I would give you so much, because I see you have a good heart and a good spirit. But I cannot give you the answers you want tonight.’

Jack nodded, thinking that North had at least given him something. Somewhere to start. Even though he was frustrated, he felt grateful too. His smile was weak, but it was real, and North beamed at him – almost looking relieved. Still, Jack could tell that he was going to leave. The visit hadn’t lasted hardly any time at all.

‘I will ask about Jamie for you,’ North said quietly. ‘But if he found us, then he is safe. I promise.’

‘Will I ever be able to talk to him again?’ Jack said.

North’s face looked pained for a moment, and then he grasped the collar of his long red coat.

‘Who is knowing, Jack? But not now. And not soon.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘I figured. Thanks anyway. And for this,’ he said, holding up the staff. ‘I mean, really. It feels right, somehow. It’s not even really a weapon but it just... I dunno. I still can’t really believe you’re here and talking to me?’

‘Why not, Jack?’ North said, grinning. ‘We are both children of the creches, yes? We are being the same, you and I. And now I must go back to the Workshop, it never rests! I will be seeing you soon, Jack. But remember, you can come and see me whenever you wish.’

North nodded to himself, and then walked from the room, closing the door behind him. Jack noticed he used the entrance that all the servants seemed to use, and looked towards the door that led to Pitchiner’s rooms and the sundial rotunda.

In the end, he stayed up far too late, making patterns on the glass, thinking about the jumbles of information he had and failing to put it all together.

Chapter Text

It’s official, Jack thought, I look like a prince.

He stared at himself in the mirror as tailor Flitmouse and his entourage hovered around him. They pulled at a hem, as though the millimetre of difference would be noticeable to others. They fussed with collars and cuffs. They stared in the mirror at his clothing, at him, without really seeing him.

Jack stared at the clothing too.

It was the cape, basically. It was that they’d given him a pale blue cape with bright silver sigils skirting the edges that felt like magic even though Jack couldn’t tell what any of them were for. It was an alphabet he wasn’t privileged enough to learn. He traced his fingers over the embroidery and frost swirled prettily.

One of the seamstresses went to smack his fingers away and he jerked his hand back before she could touch them.

Flitmouse only said:

‘Oh let him. It’s weatherproofed, remember?’

‘Yes, but...now?’ she said, looking at the frost with profound concern.

Jack touched the white shirt and its collar, not sure what to think. A sky-blue vest, a long-sleeved white shirt, and pale suede boots that felt velvety and soft enough that Jack had to stop himself from rubbing his cheek against them. Pants in a slightly darker brown, all of it fitting obscenely well.

It was his parade outfit, but it was basically his uniform too. More than one cape in varying shades of blue, more than one vest, more than one shirt. A series of pants and boots.

Jack had felt mild dismay that he was back to white shirts – the cardinal sign of a trainee – after he’d so recently been cleared to wear black. But they told him that he could wear whatever he wanted in private. Everything else was for public appearances.

He held his staff out to his side, looked at the belt and scabbard for the smallsword. He’d been given white fingerless gloves made out of a buttery leather. They had grip on the inside, and were smooth and shiny at the back of his hands.

He had to admit, with his white hair growing out in wild tufts, his blue-silver eyes staring back at him in the mirror – he couldn’t see the gold unless he leaned in close – he looked like someone. Not just a nobody, but a somebody.

‘You guys are amazing,’ Jack said, and Flitmouse rolled his eyes and shot him a withering look, as though Jack had just somehow insulted his children and his ancestors all at once, and done a bad job of it.

‘I don’t think he needs the hat,’ one of the seamstresses said. ‘You were right, Flitmouse.’

‘As if that was ever in question,’ Flitmouse muttered.

‘Oh yes,’ another said, ‘positively omniscient when it comes to fabric.’

Flitmouse lowered his black rimmed spectacles long enough to glare, and then they all chuckled together and began to pack up.

Jack watched them and wished that he could somehow be their friend. It was a silly thing to want, but he liked the way they spoke to each other. As though it was an easy thing to work together and snark and joke like that. He missed it.

‘So do you- You all have a busy day ahead?’

Flitmouse turned around and looked at Jack with raised eyebrows, as though surprised that Jack could even speak beyond saying that something was comfortable.

Clearly looking like a prince wasn’t the same as being one. He grimaced in something like apology, and then touched his fingers awkwardly to the hem of the cape as he turned away. It was only as low as his waist, but it was the heaviest thing he wore.

He didn’t turn around as the others left, only sighed when he heard the door close.

‘I finish work between seven and eight in the evening, most evenings,’ tailor Flitmouse said sharply. Jack spun and stared, and Flitmouse was standing by the door staring at him, a rectangular piece of card in his hands. ‘I want notice before you visit and you will bring me tea. Are you going to take this or not?’

Jack stepped forwards and took the card and looked at it, realising it wasn’t a Palace address. For some reason, he’d just assumed that Flitmouse lived in the Palace.

‘Tea?’ Jack said. ‘How do I give you notice? What?’

‘Yes, tea,’ Flitmouse said, narrowing his eyes. ‘There are a thousand servants in this Palace, ask one of them to pass along a message. Has the Royal Admiral not assigned you one of his yet? Honestly, Vera has no idea what she’s doing at the best of times, you’d best assign yourself someone who comes to you regularly. As for ‘what,’ I’m regretting the decision to invite you to my home. That’s what. But I’m hoping you’re not entirely gormless.’

When Jack kept staring, Flitmouse made a sound of contempt with his tongue.

Friends, Master Jack, I’m suggesting we do whatever one does to become that.’

‘You’re really bad at this,’ Jack said. Then he laughed, bewildered, a little pleased.

Flitmouse looked like he wanted to fidget with his coat, and his mouth tightened, but then he shrugged.

‘I’m a tailor,’ Flitmouse said, ‘I don’t have to be good at it.’

‘Right,’ Jack said. ‘Pretty good at being a tailor, though.’

‘Pretty good?’ Flitmouse said, staring at him. ‘I’m the best in all of Lune. Remember, if you visit, bring tea. I’ll not be offended if you change your mind. Farewell.’

Tailor Flitmouse opened the door and closed it loudly behind him, and Jack stared down at the address – just off the main square – and couldn’t quite believe that had just happened.

*

Jack’s life had taken on something of a routine in the lead up to the parade. He was coached on etiquette in the mornings. In the afternoon, he trained with Pitchiner about half of the week. Jack never knew when Pitchiner would show up, and Pitchiner never said whether or not he’d be there the next day. If Pitchiner didn’t show up, Jack trained himself.

They’d moved away from Pitchiner reaching for Jack’s darkness. When Jack had asked about it, Pitchiner had only said:

‘There’s a great deal more you can stand to learn now. You’re missing out on the exercises they’re putting the new recruits through. So I shall put you through them.’

Jack wondered if it was as gruelling for the others as it was for him. It gave him a chance to enjoy his own stamina, and he liked that Pitchiner still sometimes seemed surprised at everything Jack was capable of. But the Admiral was exacting and demanded nothing less than perfection. Jack was corrected all the way down to the exact place his foot rested on the floor, and even how much pressure he placed in the ball or heel of his foot.

At least he seemed to be insulting Jack a lot less. In fact, Jack wouldn’t have said he was being nicer, exactly, but he was certainly being a lot less mean.

On the days where Jack was left to his own devices after his tutors had left, he experimented with his ice. Sometimes he went down to the arena with his staff and smallsword and tried to see how he could work with both.

The meteorite metal that made the crook of the staff was incredibly light, but very hardy. After treating it gingerly, he realised that the wood and the metal both seemed unlikely to snap or break or splinter. North had treated them both somehow in a way that made the staff very strong. Jack thought it might double as some kind of shield, or blocking device.

Every time he swept it across the ground though, he felt the wind stirring around him, smelled snow in the air. Even as he wondered what kind of weapon it would be, he sometimes spun it in his hands and imagined a breeze whirling around him, and it would just happen. He didn’t understand it, but it filled him with joy every time.

Gingerly, he began exploring that side of his powers. Not just the snow and the ice and the frost, but the winds as well. The more he came to summon the winds, the more he realised it was almost reflexive. If he stayed open to it, and thought about breezes, they were there. They tickled him and touched him and tousled his hair. It was like being surrounded by very friendly animals that might leap towards him and then bound away in an instant. They invited him to play and leap and sometimes – he thought – they wanted him to fly.

He couldn’t make himself fly again. He tried running and jumping into the air, but he fell and bruised himself on the hilt of his sword. He tried jumping off some of the rings of chairs in the arena, succumbing to gravity instantly. He willed himself into the air by scrunching up his eyes and holding the staff as tightly as possible, and his feet never lifted off the ground.

Sometimes it seemed like a dream that he could do it at all.

*

Three days before the parade, Professor Sharpwood came to visit him just as Jack was getting ready for bed. With his stern face and a single gesture with his hand, he indicated that Jack should follow him. Jack thought of the Tsar with a thrill of fear and excitement in his heart, and then looked down at his black slacks and the black shirt he was wearing to bed and frowned.

‘Should I change?’ Jack said.

Professor Sharpwood shook his head once, and gestured again.

Nervously, Jack followed down the still-lit corridors, looking closely at the paintings on the walls. Where wars were depicted, it was always warriors fighting other warriors, other nations. There was no Living Darkness and no Light. The Golden Warriors wore their black and gold, but they fought with swords and shields and drew blood, bodies littering battlefields.

Not all the paintings were of victories, either, Jack realised. Some showed clear defeats. Every painting was so carefully rendered, yet the yellowed colours made it easy to not peer too closely. Jack realised he could see Pitchiner on the battlefield, a younger North back when he was trim and sported only black – not his signature red coat.

Soon, Jack found himself in the same living room as before. The one with paintings of the Tsar, Tsarina and Tsesarevich on the walls. The one with the gold and ornate fixings. As Jack looked around, he realised it was so different to Pitchiner’s space.

Jack fidgeted, tried to keep his ice under control – he had a much better grasp of it these days, but when he was nervous, he tended to forget it. He could already feel it crisping up bits of the clothing he was wearing.

When the Tsar came, five minutes later, he was alone again. He seemed a bit more relaxed than last time, and he smiled warmly at Jack, but his hair was still in place, and Jack wondered if he was the kind of person who hated mess of any kind. But he didn’t seem to mind it when Jack made snow or frost. Maybe he just thought image was really important.

Maybe that means he really does care, if he cares about your image so much too.

‘Jack! I trust you’re well?’ the Tsar walked over and stood beside Jack, looking at the portraits.

‘Yes, I really am, Your High- ah, Gavril.’

‘Oh? Are we on first name terms now?’ the Tsar said, looking sidelong with something sharp in his gaze, then chuckled at Jack’s shift in expression. ‘I’m only joking, Jack. Don’t look so affronted! Oh goodness! You can take a joke, can’t you?’

‘Ah, yeah,’ Jack said, feeling ice creep a bit further along his clothing. He tried to laugh, but it was just as nervous as the rest of him. Even so, the Tsar seemed oblivious to Jack’s discomfort, and Jack winced, thinking that if he ever wanted to get along with these people, he’d have to pick up their sense of humour a lot faster.

‘Are you excited about the parade?’ the Tsar said. Then he reached out quickly and ruffled Jack’s hair. ‘And look at this, now. Growing in white. Remarkable!’

Jack could still feel the tingle of the Tsar’s touch, even as the Tsar turned away and walked to another point in the room, his fingers ghosting over some flowers in an enamel and gold vase.

‘I’m- I guess I’m excited,’ Jack said. ‘It’s a great opportunity.’

‘It is,’ the Tsar enthused. ‘Honestly, I find them exciting and I don’t think it will matter what age I am. Have your tutors instructed you on the best ways to behave while there?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘Mostly smiling and waving and then they said to do some ‘nice snow things.’ So I guess just, light snow maybe? The fluffy kind?’

‘You can control it to that degree?’ the Tsar said, looking both surprised and impressed as he turned to Jack. The strength of his regard felt warming, and Jack knew he would have flushed strongly, if his body wasn’t so much colder now.

‘I’ve been practicing,’ Jack said. ‘I can do all sorts of things. Frost shapes and patterns and stuff.’

‘As long as it’s not destructive, you’re welcome to use it in the parade. Anything lethal we’ll save for when you’re out with the rest of the Warriors, mm?’

‘I’m- I’m still going to be allowed to go out on missions?’ Jack said.

Until this point, he just hadn’t known. The implication had been strong that Jack would maybe just be a mascot, and not a proper Warrior. Pitchiner was training him, but Jack wondered if he would have done that anyway, regardless of what they’d decided for Jack.

‘Of course,’ the Tsar said, rolling his eyes. ‘We wouldn’t have you in here if you were that useless. The Royal Admiral seems to believe that you may be capable of producing the Light after all, though he’s seen no signs of it. He’s often remarkably accurate when applying insights to recruits.’

‘Oh, yeah,’ Jack said, nodding. The idea of Pitchiner and the Tsar talking together about Jack was disconcerting.

‘He says you have a lot of potential,’ the Tsar continued, ‘so I wouldn’t want to find myself disappointed in you, Jack.’

‘No,’ Jack said, staring.

Pitchiner had said what? Then, the idea of disappointing the Tsar, wasn’t that like disappointing the whole of Lune?

Standing here in a room with him, it was hard to remember all the warnings he’d been given. He just felt special. These meetings – probably secret – he’d bet that Pitchiner didn’t know about this one either, they were like small treasures that Jack could experience. The Tsar never seemed to mind if Jack was dressed up or not, even though the Tsar looked so perfectly put together, there was something casual and at ease about him. Like he was choosing to show Jack this other side of himself.

It made Jack feel important.

‘I mean, I don’t want to disappoint you,’ Jack said.

The smile the Tsar gave him was sweet, and then he moved away from the vase and walked over to one of the couches. He leaned over the back of it, resting his arms on the top of a cushion while watching Jack intently.

‘When I was younger,’ the Tsar said, ‘you know, when I was the Tsesarevich – such a long time ago now – I remember being in this Palace and thinking I’d never be able to live up to the responsibility of being the Tsar, of looking after Lune. All the spaces here seemed larger than life, and then there was me, a silly young child, and I felt so small in this place. I don’t know if you’ll understand that, quite, but I wonder- You must understand somewhat.’

Jack hesitated, then nodded. ‘I mean I’m nothing like- But this place is intimidating. It’s all kind of intimidating.’

‘And me too, I imagine,’ the Tsar said, smiling ruefully. ‘You remind me of me, when I was younger. In a way. You don’t have to feel so alone when you’re here. I hoped you’d reach out to me after our last meeting, and was saddened when you didn’t.’

That was startling, and Jack looked down, seeing ice flood in spirals on the carpet. Then he saw that the Tsar was looking at the ice too, and stammered out an apology.

‘You still don’t trust me at all,’ the Tsar said, looking dismayed. ‘It’s not often that the protector of this fine nation extends trust to someone, only to have it rejected.’

‘No- I, I’m not- I wouldn’t, Your M- shit, Gavril, I wouldn’t,’ Jack blurted, not understanding the tumult of feelings but knowing he wanted them to go away. ‘I- I really want to trust you.’

‘It seems like if you really wanted it, you would,’ the Tsar said benignly. ‘Maybe it is like the mountain. You really wanted to become a Warrior, but couldn’t quite do it, could you?’

The Tsar smiled at Jack’s expression. It wasn’t a cruel smile, but it made Jack feel like he was hopeless, somehow.

‘I do trust you,’ Jack said, wishing that he didn’t sound so shaken. He’d been feeling so good. How come he had to ruin it? ‘Of course I trust you, you look after all of Lune.’

‘I do,’ the Tsar said. ‘Not alone, though. There’s a lot of people who help me. You as well, Jack. I hope. But you’ll have to try harder when it comes to showing me your trust. Anyway, I didn’t wish to see you tonight for that.’

Jack felt awful, and tried not to look upset, even though it was difficult to keep his breathing steady.

‘I’m really excited about the parade,’ Jack said, wishing that he sounded cheerier. Still, his voice was steady at least, if a bit strained. ‘I’m really grateful you’re helping me.’

The Tsar narrowed his eyes, as though he didn’t believe Jack, and thought perhaps Jack might be buttering him up. Jack felt weak. It seemed like everything he did was wrong. If he could have just trusted the Tsar in the first place, he could’ve fixed it and not ended up in a situation like this. He’d thought it would have been rude to reach out all this time.

‘I’m sorry,’ Jack added.

‘Don’t do that,’ the Tsar said, standing then. ‘I can’t abide by weakness. If you’re not pleased with how this evening has gone, then it is simple enough to change your behaviour in the future. Yes?’

Jack nodded, and the Tsar nodded too, that sharpness in his eyes disappearing once more. He seemed boyish again, and he beamed.

‘Look, let’s put all that behind us for now and talk about the parade. I just want to run through it all quickly with you, and then I’ll leave you be. Sound simple enough?’

Jack nodded again, tried to look upbeat and cheerful. He tried to force the turmoil inside of him away, thinking of it as weakness. Thinking that this had all gone so much worse than he’d expected. As the Tsar sat down on the sofa and indicated Jack should sit next to him, he promised himself he’d try harder, do better.

He didn’t know how yet, but he’d figure it out.

*

In the distance, the pounding of the military drums. Jack could feel them through the cobblestones. He stood apart from the others in the Palace grounds, listening to the distant clamour of the City of Lune crowds, even as he looked around staring. There were so many people  he didn’t know or recognise.

He’d spotted Anton the Brave in formal military regalia, along with Eva, and the Royal Admiral had been glimpsed, but otherwise he’d been directed to the right place to stand by his tutors, who had then vanished. He couldn’t see the Tsar or the Tsarina – they’d come out in a protected carriage, and if the crowd was lucky, they might wave their hands or draw back the curtains so that they could be seen.

Jack spun his staff in his hand, accidentally icing it to his palm three times out of nerves. Apparently he didn’t get sweaty palms anymore, he just iced things.

Eventually, the huge wrought iron gates leading away from the Palace opened and Jack thought they’d get ready to march, but instead, an influx of younger folk streamed in, dressed all in black and carrying weapons that flashed with the shine that meant they hadn’t yet seen battle.

It was the new recruits. The ones that survived the Mountain. Jack stood on tiptoe, peering as much as he could, trying to see who he recognised. For a moment he forgot that Jamie was gone and expected to see him there, searching out Jack.

Instead, he took an involuntary step forward just as Cupcake stepped out of the crowd of recruits and stared at him. He raised his free hand to wave at her, but she turned away. His heart hurt. Maybe she wanted nothing to do with him. But then, after talking to a few of the others – who also looked over at Jack – she peeled off from the group and jogged over to him. She wore a sword at her side, and Jack could see just how gold her eyes were. Golder than most. She was going to be one of the best.

‘You are such a sight for sore eyes, I swear,’ Jack said. He almost reached out and hugged her, but he realised they still hardly knew each other.

She came right up to him, gazing warily.

‘By the Light,’ she said. ‘They said there’d be something special from the mountain, but I didn’t think it’d be you until they told us today. Guess you’re not an Overland anymore.’

‘Once an Overland, always an etcetera,’ Jack said, laughing. ‘How- how are you?’

‘Yeah,’ Cupcake said, shrugging. Jack realised that was going to be the sum total of her answer. She still spoke in that gruff, abrasive way, as though she was ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

‘Thanks for- for everything. Saving my life and you know, all that.’

‘Yeah,’ Cupcake said, her lips quirking in a smile.

‘Do you think I’ve maybe earned a chance to learn your real name?’

Cupcake laughed then, the sound rough and coming deep from her chest. She looked around and then her shoulders relaxed as she met Jack’s eyes again.

‘You know it. My parents had a weird sense of humour.’

‘No way,’ Jack said, grinning. ‘Really?’

‘I mean I tell everyone it’s a nickname, but yeah, I wish.’ She rolled her eyes and then looked back towards the crowd of the other new recruits. They were all laughing and crowding around each other, and Jack knew they were all probably friends, or splitting off into cliques, sharing their experience of trekking down the mountain together and knowing they’d survived.

‘They say you’re training with the Royal Admiral,’ Cupcake said.

‘Uh huh,’ Jack said. For a moment he thought about talking it up, but he knew that Cupcake would see through it. She seemed like the kind of person who wouldn’t appreciate being lied to.

‘Gotta say, didn’t seem that special to me when you were half-dead in that mountain,’ Cupcake said. ‘I mean, I literally carried your ass out of there.’

‘You sure did,’ Jack said. ‘And...yeah, it’s been kind of weird? Wild? I don’t even know. I can make ice and stuff. The Tsar thinks it’s cool.’

‘The Tsar?’ Cupcake’s eyes widened and for a moment her face was all awe. Her broad hands lifted, fingers splaying, as though she could clutch the wonder of it. ‘The Tsar speaks to you? You’re not shitting me?’

‘No,’ Jack said, biting his bottom lip. He could show off a little bit, couldn’t he? ‘We have like- he wants us to be friends.’

‘Wow,’ Cupcake said, staring at him.

The wonder transformed, and Jack realised the moment he’d lost her with what he’d said. With a handful of words, her whole demeanour changed. She stood straighter, her face became closed off and respectful and polite. The kind of face you’d show to a commanding officer, not a friend.

‘Wow,’ Cupcake said again. ‘That’s big. That’s really big. Well. I should get back to the others.’

‘Wait,’ Jack said, as she turned. ‘Just- Can we be friends?’

Oh, man, that’s embarrassing. Just asking like that. Really, Jack? You’re that desperate?

Cupcake turned to him, wary.

‘I dunno, man. You’re gonna be in the Palace. I’m in the Barracks. And you’re- you’re a whole different league now.’ She waved her hand above her head to indicate how high.

‘I’m really not,’ Jack said in a rush. ‘I mess up all the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m- I’m pretty sure the Royal Admiral can’t stand me and I don’t understand anything, and like, you saved my ass once, right? So you could just do it again by like…talking to me?’

Cupcake stared at him, and then after a beat her nostrils flared on a single bark of laughter.

‘Dude, tone it down. Okay, okay, you sure know how to twist a girl’s arm. If I had any interest in boys at all, you’d be doing it for me. All that neediness and just- you know, pathetic crap dressed up all nice and shit.’

‘Right?’ Jack said, raising an arm and mock flexing. ‘It’s the magic recipe.’

‘I really do have to get back though. Come find me sometime. I’m gonna tell everyone else you’re cool so I can get some cred.’

‘Oh, actually, that works really well for me at the moment. I need some cred. Tell everyone I’m cool. Super cool.’

Cupcake’s face squished into one of disappointment and she said:

‘You’re ruining it.’

Then she flashed a quick grin and walked off back to the main group. Jack watched them enfold her into their ranks, many still looking over her shoulders at Jack.

The lighter feeling in his heart didn’t vanish, and he carried it as they began to get organised into the parade line and the drums continued their rhythm nearby, exciting audience and parade members both.

*

All the Golden Warriors that could be spared – including retirees and new recruits, made up the bulk of the ranks of the parade. Jack was to walk beside Pitchiner, and they were to head the best of the Golden Warriors. Immediately Jack wondered why. What was the purpose of putting Jack before everyone else?

‘Shouldn’t I be with the new recruits?’ Jack whispered. The clamour hid his voice from those around him, and he wasn’t even sure the Admiral had heard him, until Pitchiner tilted his head a little and looked at Jack sidelong.

‘This wasn’t my choice,’ Pitchiner said. ‘But this is where protégés stand, apparently.’

‘Protégé.’

‘If you’ll notice, I used my sarcastic voice when I said that.’

‘I don’t know, that’s the voice you use all the time. So it just sounds really sincere.’

Jack felt his heart sink, thinking of how he’d ruined things with the Tsar, and seemed to be doing it again. He and Pitchiner weren’t friends, and it was obvious that Pitchiner didn’t even want him here. Perhaps Pitchiner wanted him behind the new recruits or something, a sign that Jack didn’t really belong anywhere.

Snow. All you have to do is make some snow, and smile, wave, maybe do some frost shapes. That’s all. Then it’ll be over.

‘Jack,’ Pitchiner said, his voice closer than before. Jack looked up, startled, to see that Pitchiner leaning towards him, as though not wanting others to hear what he was saying. ‘They’ve put you here to make it look as though I’m training someone to become my equal. Most will assume that you are the student only, never think on it more. But those who write the press, others, will realise that I am no longer intended to be seen as a solitary military figure. He’s making it clear I’m replaceable.’

Jack blinked, then stared. The drums were getting louder now. The lines of Golden Warriors behind him didn’t shift – they were too well trained for that – but those who weren’t military were beginning to jostle and shift in anticipation. The crowds beyond the huge gates were getting louder. Nearby, two horses bucked their heads in their carriage leathers.

‘I couldn’t replace you,’ Jack said.

Pitchiner rolled his eyes as though that much was self-evident. But then something troubled passed over his face and he said:

‘He wants others to believe I could be. All in all, I may not be Royal Admiral much longer.’

Jack thought of the few secret meetings he’d had with the Tsar. Thought of the Tsar always asking Jack – with apparent concern - how Pitchiner was doing, as though Jack was always about to reveal that the Royal Admiral just wasn’t coping. He thought about how Pitchiner wasn’t told about the meetings.

Two warring parts stirred inside of him. First, a distrust in Pitchiner. Perhaps things were falling apart because he really was the wrong person to be in charge of the military. After all, the Tsar wouldn’t work against him like this – humiliate him like this – if it wasn’t true.

But the second was a cautiousness. A sense that the Royal Admiral had done so much for Lune, for so long. He’d kept Lune safe for over a century, had been in the military longer than anyone else, and to respond to that with public humiliation seemed underhanded. A sorry way to repay decades of service.

‘Is there anything I can do?’ Jack said.

Pitchiner’s face went still, and then his eyebrows pulled together.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You must play your part.’

‘But-’

‘That’s enough,’ Pitchiner said, and stood again, drawing himself up to his full height. Jack wondered how much all his clothing weighed. Pitchiner wore a ceremonial coat of heavy felt, the sigils looked like real gold instead of gold thread. Beneath that, he seemed packed into layers of clothing. But he still looked regal, and – Jack realised with a slight wince – he still looked stunning.

Great. So that part of you is never going to go away. Just great.

Runners came down the ranks, making sure that everyone was standing properly. One paused and looked at Jack’s staff, as though not sure he was holding it formally enough, but Pitchiner waved him off.

At the beginning and ends of the lines, with some immaculately timed signal that Jack didn’t understand, the drumming started with new intent, followed by the chimes and bells of Lune music. A roar from the citizens of the City of Lune, and Jack knew – even as his heart beat somewhere near his throat – that the Tsar and Tsarina were in the parade.

The Golden Warriors behind Pitchiner didn’t shift an inch. It was obvious they’d all done this before.

Then, slowly – but all at the same time – they began to move, cued in by the runners with their golden flags.

A drone from midway down the parade line, somewhere behind them. The Highest Priests of Lune had begun their wordless songs of prayer. Jack knew they would have started singing these songs on the trek back from the mountain, but he’d not been there to hear it. Hearing it now, he shivered, his hand tightened on his staff.

He felt wonder, listening to that music. He wasn’t dead. He’d survived the mountain. He wasn’t in an Asylum. He was living in the palace. Even though things felt difficult a lot of the time, he knew he was so lucky to be standing here beside the Royal Admiral, taking part in something he’d only heard breathless tales of when he’d been a child.

Then he remembered that this was, in part, a public humiliation of the Royal Admiral and he took a deep breath and sighed it out. He wanted so badly for Pitchiner to be lying. He just wanted this all to be good.

The roars and cheers of the crowd became louder, and Jack held back on making the snow, knowing they’d announce him first. He looked up at the gates looming, licked nervously at his lips even though they kept telling him to stop doing that, and found himself thinking:

At least it’s a pretty day today. Blue skies. They’ll definitely know the snow is coming from me, that’s something.

*

The parade itself became a bit of a blur. All his life Jack had never imagined seeing something like this, let alone being in it. But in the end – his senses saturated with the noise of the drums, the crowds, the called orders from runners, the increasing cold of his own body as he suddenly worried that his frost powers would fail – his mind stopped connecting with what was around him. It became blurs of colour, sound, texture.

He could tell when it was his time to wow the crowds. Heard the name ‘Jack Frost!’ announced loudly through the crowd and then swept his staff across the air. Frost and snow followed. Huge, fluffy flakes of snow drifted up and began falling across everyone, and Jack brought forth animals made of frost – sparrows, the large hedgehogs that everyone adored and jumping rabbits all delicately wrought from ice particles. He heard laughter and joy in response, his name being called eagerly.  

The Golden Warriors behind him – with Pitchiner at their lead – all at once made a surfeit of golden Light, and Jack felt it move through him. It was sweet and pure. Unbidden, a glimmer of hatred stirred in Jack’s gut. It had lain dormant for days, he’d almost wondered if it was gone after the last time Pitchiner had provoked it. Instead, in response to the Light all around him, he felt a quick pulse of sickening malice. He would destroy them.

Thankfully he had so many things to be focusing on; the marching, the snow, making sure his ice remained gentle and joyful, that the cruel impulse within faded. It became nothing at all when the Light died down. Jack breathed heavily, unable to hear his own breath over the sound of everything else.

*

Hours later, Jack and the others were back within the confines of the Palace gates. He stood there looking at his staff. A few people clapped him on the back. At one point he caught North walking purposefully towards him with a smile on his face, before someone else called him away and he disappeared into the crowd. Jack didn’t even know he’d been part of the parade.

Pitchiner had vanished, and Jack was left near the Golden Warriors. Most paid no attention to him, and those that did sometimes stared disapprovingly. Jack wondered if it was because of him, or because his presence next to Pitchiner was meant to humiliate. Maybe it was both.

He was overwhelmed. Even when the Shadows had attacked the platform months ago, he’d not felt like this. Even Jamie getting shadow sickness hadn’t left his ears ringing and his gut feeling hollow.

‘Well, hello there, Master Frost,’ said a warm voice, and Jack looked up to see Anton the Brave – his hair a neon green now – and the other Golden Warrior, Eva, standing next to him. Anton was smiling at him. ‘Ready for the main course?’

‘The what?’ Jack said, looking around, confused. Was there going to be another parade? Or some kind of formal dinner? Was that what all the etiquette tutoring was for? He wasn’t sure he’d remember all the different forks and their purposes at this point, let alone all the angles and proper ways of eating all the different foods.

‘It’s the best part of these stodgy ceremonial events, you know, darling,’ Eva said.

‘What is?’

‘You’d think Pitch would tell you these things, but obviously he likes the element of surprise,’ Anton said. ‘Young Master Frost, we have an after-party to attend.’

‘An after-’ Jack stared at him, and Anton grinned, his teeth flashing.

‘See, you do that innocence thing so well.’ Anton snapped his fingers once. ‘I think I might like to see you drunk.’

‘At the very least tipsy,’ Eva said. Her voice was frosty, but her smile was sweet. Jack realised he hadn’t noticed it before, but her resemblance to Seraphina was striking. Even their throaty voices were similar.

‘I don’t think I’m allowed-’

‘No, no, don’t say that,’ Anton said, face falling. ‘You’ll break a fellow’s heart. Look at you, all dressed up, and somewhere to go. Say you’ll make an evening of it with us. We want to get to know you.’

He stepped forwards and held out his arm, crooked at the elbow. It was an unmistakeable invitation.

Jack looked around and couldn’t see any familiar faces. No Cupcake, no Pitchiner, none of the supposed Guardians.

With a deep breath, he stepped forwards and slid his free arm in the space that Anton had left between his arm and his side. Anton shifted so that he was standing closer to Jack, his body heat from the parade radiating.

‘Look at that, Eva, I got the pretty one,’ Anton said, though he didn’t look away from Jack.

‘You always get the pretty ones,’ Eva said, as though deeply bored. But she met Jack’s eyes and winked.

Jack, still hearing the echoes of the drums, walked with them up the entryway stairs into the Palace, wondering what an after-party would look like, and hoping it would be quieter than everything that had just happened.

Chapter Text

‘That’s another ballroom,’ Anton said, waving towards it. Jack looked at the finely dressed people milling about. Some of them surely hadn’t been at the parade. Wouldn’t he have noticed? They were wearing exquisite, fanciful costumes. Some had masques. Others wore headpieces that were hugely feathered and jewelled, or sculpted in felt and dyed in glittering pigments.

‘That’s like the third?’ Jack said. ‘How many ballrooms are there?’

‘As many as there are stars in the firmament,’ Eva said drily.

Jack was surprised when they bypassed another ballroom and ended up in some kind of sprawling lounge. Servants milled with plates of champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and there were more Golden Warriors here than elsewhere, still in their formal clothing. Anton shook the hands of about ten people as they passed, smiling and offering brief greetings. Eva spoke to no one, and at one point made a haughty sound in the back of her throat as someone stepped towards her and then quickly moved away again.

Everything was piling on top of him. The noise of the different bands playing – here a string quartet, but surprisingly loud given they were right there in the room with everyone else – was chafing. Jack felt too warm, but ice spilled from his feet as he walked and it trailed from his staff. There were sometimes sounds of pounding drums, or the blast of a horn, in another room in the distance something like twenty people would roar with laughter at once, or there would be a mysterious bang that vibrated through the floor and made Jack tense with alarm, even as no one else took notice.

There’d been nothing like this in the creches. He’d seen in a couple of books, gauzy impressions of what parties might look like at the Palace, but there were only ever about ten people in those illustrations. Those people always looked calm and quiet and civilised, and very pretty.

Anton walked over to a table that only had liquor, wine and spirits upon it. He waved away the attending servant and poured Eva a glass of something a honeyed red, then himself something clear that smelled of ice, and then he offered Jack a tall flute of something that looked like it could have been distilled from the Light.

‘Champagne,’ Anton said, gesturing at it. ‘Not the regular stuff. You’ll like it, it’s sweet. Has bubbles. You can even ice the glass if you want.’

Can I?

Jack looked at his hand and shifted it so that he was incorrectly holding the bulb of the glass instead of the stem. Tiny frost crystals crept out from his fingers and he stared in amazement, and then quickly shifted to hold the glass correctly. His tutors probably weren’t here, but what was the point of all that training if not for moments like this?

Anton turned and looked out over the crowd, as though searching for someone. He leaned back casually into the table, and no one else approached them.

Jack sipped at the champagne and thought that it was actually pretty good, and drank half the glass down before painted fingernails bumped into his mouth. Jack startled, and realised that Eva’s hand had covered the top of his glass.

‘Not that fast,’ Eva said, staring at him.

‘It’s good though,’ Jack said.

Eva didn’t look away for a long time. She didn’t even blink. Jack thought more and more that she was so much like Seraphina.

‘Did I do something wrong?’ Jack said, swallowing.

‘The ingénue,’ Eva said, smirking. Though she looked at him, she didn’t even seem to be talking to him.

‘Eva,’ Anton chided, turning back. ‘You’re not supposed to tell him how innocent and adorable he is. That’s my job.’

Oh, that’s because she wasn’t talking to me.

‘Then why not give him a bottle of champagne and be done with it?’

‘Mm, in amongst this jungle? Maybe not tonight. It’s true though,’ Anton added, looking down at Jack and winking. ‘Innocent and adorable. I find myself wondering how on point it is though, you bunking down with Pitch and all. They wouldn’t do that unless there was a reason for it. And the ice is a pretty parlour trick, but that wouldn’t be the reason.’

‘I don’t know really,’ Jack said, thinking of how he’d been told he wasn’t a good liar. ‘It was all up to the Tsar. Pitch didn’t really get much of a say.’

If they get to call him Pitch, then so do I.

‘The Tsar is good at that,’ Anton said, his voice markedly quieter than before. He kept looking around and then paused, going still. Jack followed his gaze and saw the Tsar all the way across the room, with the Tsarina, Pitchiner, and other people who could only be nobility. ‘This room is really rather crowded, isn’t it?’

‘I could have told you that when we entered,’ Eva said, and then took three bottles up in her hands. She handed one to Anton, and then led them from the room. The only people who seemed to notice, were people promising Anton that he share a drink with them later.

Jack passed pockets of people that had crowded together gossiping, laughing, even arguing. He tried to look around for Cupcake or any of the other trainees, but couldn’t see them.

Another lounge, this one with no Warriors and only people of high nobility. Anton made a beeline towards a darker section of the room with overstuffed sofas and huge furs draped over them.

‘There,’ Anton said, throwing himself back into a sofa and sighing. ‘That’s better.’

‘Did we just...escape the Tsar?’ Jack said. He kept his voice quiet, but they were far enough from the others that he didn’t think they could hear.

‘Oh no,’ Anton said, widening his eyes on purpose, ‘we wouldn’t ever do that. The Tsar is everywhere. He’s everything. Why, he’s ubiquitous!’

‘We get tired of it sometimes,’ Eva supplied, as Anton dropped the sarcasm and rubbed at his forehead with the heel of his palm.

‘The Tsar?’ Jack said, looking between them. He hadn’t decided where to sit yet. Next to Eva, who seemed cold but also weirdly protective, or next to Anton, who was friendly enough, but...Jack had no idea what that meant anymore.

‘Politics,’ Anton said. ‘I didn’t become a soldier for politics. I became a soldier to stick it to the Darkness.’

‘The post-Darkness wave,’ Eva said. ‘He’s a baby.’

‘Like, two hundred years old,’ Anton said. ‘You have to stop doing that, or I’m going to start going on about how you’re ancient again.’

‘Do,’ Eva said, smiling warmly. ‘It just means I can tell everyone how well I’ve aged. Better than this wine, anyway.’

‘Stop drinking it then,’ Anton said, scowling at her.

‘No,’ Eva said. ‘Shan’t.’

‘Oh, here we go,’ Anton said. He looked at Jack and patted the cushion next to him. Jack thought of the Tsar, and then shook his head slightly at Anton. He felt queasy doing it, because Anton had been so nice to him, but-

‘No?’ Anton said. ‘Understandable. You hardly know us. I mean, except by reputation. But that’s all spin and public relations and so on. It doesn’t really tell you much about us, does it?’

‘Introductions then,’ Eva said, drinking from the bottle of wine and not seeming to care that even Jack knew that was rude. ‘I’m Eva. Once Rear Admiral and now Captain of the Fleet. I like fine wine, gardening whenever I have time for it, which is never, and Anton follows me around like a little lost puppy. But that’s because he likes to be spanked.’

Jack blinked, and Anton only laughed and shrugged and then lay down on the couch and cosied into the furs.

‘You,’ Eva continued, looking at Jack through narrowed eyes, ‘are Jack Frost, formerly Jackson Overland, once under the fine care of Lieutenant Crossholt – now missing and presumed dead, we’ll see what the press says whenever public relations decides to get their word out, yes? More stripes taken than almost any other trainee, and not quite a Golden Warrior, but something.’

‘That’s, yep,’ Jack said.

‘And shy,’ Eva added, smiling at him. Jack thought of the spanking comment she’d said earlier and wondered if he was just imagining his cheeks getting hot.

‘You know,’ Jack said, gulping down the rest of his champagne, ‘there’s like no one who would’ve ever said that about me before I came here.’

‘Oh?’ Anton said, rolling up into a sitting position. He crossed his legs, rested his elbow on his knee and his chin on his hand with an impish smile. ‘Shy Jack with a heart of mischief? Do tell.’

‘That’s it, you summed it up,’ Jack said.

‘Anton’s a clumsy flirt,’ Eva said, looking over at Anton fondly. ‘But he means well.’

‘I have a reputation,’ Anton said, trying to look offended. ‘Though honestly, the little lost puppy bit wasn’t so far off. And I do like being spanked. I like spanking too though. Shy boys with hearts of mischief. See? I am a clumsy flirt. I’m just not drunk enough for this.’

Jack cleared his throat and rubbed at the back of his neck. He tried to imagine how he’d put the situation he found himself in to someone else.

Hey Jamie, guess what, Anton the Brave – yeah that Anton the Brave – is kinda propositioning me and I think it’s legitimate. Also spanking? Like...what?

‘So you’re both uh, together?’ Jack ventured. ‘Like a couple? Even though you flirt?’

‘Sort of,’ Anton said, pouring himself a second drink. ‘A lot of the time I’m with Eva, but not when she’s with Pitch – although okay sometimes when she’s with Pitch. But then it’s like two tops driving the whole thing and I just end up tired. And sometimes it’s just me and Pitch, but only when he needs to vent a bit, because I can take a bit of a thrashing. And I’m sometimes with Oxsana, and then there was those years where I lived with Anatoly and I think he hooked up with Vladimir and I know Oxsana was with him so I guess that somehow...’ Anton looked at the fingers he was holding up and frowned. ‘I’m missing a lot. But Eva and I live together so yes, a couple. I have rooms of my own though, if you’re worried about where we’d sleep together.’

‘Wasn’t...hadn’t actually gotten that far,’ Jack said, clearing his throat when he realised how his voice sounded. ‘You’re like- Anton the Speedy.’

Eva snorted and then covered her mouth and looked away.

‘That’s not flattering,’ Anton said, sighing.

‘Anton the Premature,’ Eva added, from behind her fingers.

‘See,’ Anton said, gesturing at Eva while looking at Jack. ‘Now it’s a thing. She’ll do this for months.’

‘Thank you,’ Eva said to Jack, looking at him with bright, pleased eyes. ‘I do love teasing him.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, ‘you guys are really forward, you know that, right?’

‘Life’s short,’ Eva said, sipping at her wine. ‘And it’s more fun. You’d prefer us to be opaque and stuffy? Oh, see, here’s Pitch now, right on time. He’ll do a remarkable job.’

‘You mean he’s looking for us?’ Anton said.

But Pitchiner stopped when he saw Jack, and then gestured with two fingers. It was clear that Jack was supposed to go, and he went to place the champagne glass on a table, only to have it gracefully taken by Eva.

‘Come back to us,’ Eva said. ‘We’ll be right here.’

‘We mean it,’ Anton said, suddenly serious. ‘We’re not moving. Ask someone to direct you to the hunting lounge if you get lost, okay?’

‘Hunting lounge,’ Jack managed.

‘Good luck,’ Anton said, looking past Jack at Pitchiner.

All at once he had an image of Pitchiner spanking Anton, and his brain malfunctioned after that. He stared blankly, and Pitchiner looked at him with exasperation, and then beckoned again.

Oh, right.

Jack walked over, and Pitchiner looked him over critically. Then he turned and Jack knew that once more, Pitchiner just expected him to follow. Jack looked over his shoulder at Anton and Eva, and they were watching, saying nothing at all. It was disturbing.

Had he done something wrong?

As they walked down the corridor, Pitchiner only said:

‘The Tsar wishes for your company.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said, mouth dry. ‘Me?’

‘You caused quite the stir during the parade. The only reason you don’t have more people draping themselves all over you is because Anton and Eva are quite the guard.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said.

He had to walk unnaturally fast to keep up with Pitchiner’s long stride. Pitchiner was still in that heavy felt coat. It must have felt stifling in the warmth of the Palace. Jack looked up to the back of his head, felt intimidated.

‘Will you be there?’ Jack said suddenly.

Pitchiner’s steps didn’t falter, but they did slow. Then he looked over his shoulder, blinking down at Jack.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Will you stay?’ Jack said. ‘When I meet people?’

‘I intend to,’ Pitchiner said, and Jack nodded, feeling relieved. He didn’t like the Royal Admiral, exactly, but the idea of meeting a bunch of nobility while the Tsar was there was terrifying. Pitchiner was probably staying to make sure Jack didn’t embarrass him or something, but that was fine. Jack wanted him to stay to make sure that didn’t happen too.

They were back in the lounge that was almost packed with Warriors and Nobility now. Jack saw the Tsar – even more immaculate and handsome than usual – and the Tsarina, the nobles around them, and gulped. He wished he had some more of that sweet champagne.

The Tsar beamed when he saw them both.

‘Ah, excellent, thank you so much Kozmotis. Now, I believe Nestor wished to have an urgent conversation with you?’

The Tsar was simultaneously gesturing Jack closer, while giving Pitchiner a pointed look.

‘Nestor can wait,’ Pitchiner said, smiling. ‘It’s been too long since I’ve been graced with the company of your friends.’

‘That’s only because you so strongly dislike all this frivolity, don’t you, Koz? Really, Nestor insisted he speak to you as soon as possible. I believe he’s in the White Ballroom? Yes?’

Jack didn’t know if the other nobles could read the tension, because they were mostly staring at him and the frost pouring from beneath his fine shoes. Maybe there was no tension, and he was imagining it. Pitchiner only inclined his head slightly and then turned and left.

The Tsar placed his hand between Jack’s shoulder blades and Jack felt light-headed. Pitchiner had said he would stay, but – well, it wasn’t like he could when the Tsar had sent him away. Jack missed his presence.

‘The poor dear looks like he’s going to faint,’ said one of the noblewomen, reaching for a drink on one of the trays held by servants hovering behind them. ‘What a shock it must be, your first parade, yes? Here.’

Jack took the flute of champagne and smiled in thanks.

‘That ice is remarkable,’ said a plump man, and Jack looked at him, trying not to stare at all the tiny ceramic birds crafted on the headpiece he wore. ‘What is it like? Does it hurt?’

‘No,’ Jack said, taking a sip of the champagne to give him time to think. ‘It just feels natural. It’s just a part of me now.’

That was when the questions became a bombardment. Jack was glad when the Tsar helped him field some of them, but for the most part, Jack was fending for himself. They were almost all about his ice, the snow, what it felt like to be an ambassador – which Jack wasn’t sure he was, an ambassador for what, exactly? – and they asked him about the Palace and his training.

He finished the champagne surprisingly fast, and then had multiple drinks pressed towards him. He didn’t know what to select, knowing that they were trying to curry favour. The Tsar picked for him, selecting a tumbler with a deep, gold liquid inside of it.

Jack thought of how the Tsar said Jack could go to him whenever he was upset or alarmed.

With his hand beginning to fuse to the glass from his ice, he tried to catch the Tsar’s eye. When that didn’t work, he tentatively ventured:

‘Your Imperial Majesty? May I have a word, please? Just quickly?’

‘Of course,’ the Tsar said, his eyes twinkling. Jack almost felt weak with relief, knowing that he’d done the right thing, using his formal title around the others.

The Tsar led him away to a quiet corner, and Jack looked down at his glass. He sipped at it quickly, and then coughed as the stuff burned down his throat.

‘What is it, Jack?’ the Tsar said, offering that same benign smile.

‘I’m just- I’m not sure I can... It’s been a long day. I just- Can I meet these people later, or- You said to come to you if I was upset? Or unhappy?’

The Tsar’s smile slowly vanished from his face, and then his eyes began to narrow. He looked down his nose at Jack, and then tilted his head, his lips lifting into some bemused smile.

‘You’re unhappy with me giving you an opportunity to meet these esteemed nobles?’

Jack shook his head automatically. That sounded like a bad thing to be unhappy with.

‘You’re unhappy with being an important part of a parade for the citizens of Lune?’ the Tsar said, lifting an eyebrow.

‘No, it’s just- Look, you said you- That when you were younger, you sometimes felt overwhelmed and stuff. Right? It’s like that.’

The Tsar’s expression became one of sympathy, and he reached out and placed a warm hand on Jack’s shoulder. He leaned in close and met Jack’s eyes steadily.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he said quietly. ‘This isn’t nearly the same, and you need to learn quickly how to handle yourself. You are acquitting yourself reasonably well. It won’t be for much longer. You’re stronger than this, Jack. I believe you are.’

Jack nodded, because he could be stronger. Maybe he should have just waited longer. Maybe he wasn’t meant to seek the Tsar out unless he was really upset and not just tired. Besides, the Tsar believed in him. Jack could do it.

‘I’m sorry,’ Jack said.

‘Oh,’ the Tsar said, looking down briefly in disgust. ‘No weakness, now, Jack. Strength, remember?’

‘Right, yeah,’ Jack said.

‘Drink some more of that,’ the Tsar added, reaching up and tapping Jack’s glass with a manicured fingernail. ‘It will help.’

‘I’ve had some already.’

‘Not enough, plainly,’ the Tsar said, laughing softly. ‘Now, let’s go back. No more interruptions like this. Don’t disappoint me.’

They turned and the Tsar’s hand was at the small of Jack’s back again, steering him back into the crowd that never seemed to tire of asking him questions.

*

The next hour became a blur of bright colours, sharp spears of laughter, and his throat was hot from so much liquor. Glass after glass, and he’d accidentally cracked the last glass with his ice. He just couldn’t keep a proper handle on it, apologised for it, but the nobles seemed to find it amusing, and Jack floated on an uneasy but pleased cloud.

They liked him. It was kind of nice.

It’s super nice. Really super nice. None of them care that I was an Overland. I bet most of them don’t even know.

The Tsar disappeared at some point, and Jack did tricks for the nobles and showed them little frost animals even though he felt worn and the frost crystals sometimes fell apart into a shower of diamond dust before it was ready to. They were much harder to make now, and he had to squint at them sometimes, not sure what animal he was supposed to be making in the first place.

Sometimes flashes of the day crept into his mind. He’d recall the trumpeting of horns and feel like his body was vibrating. He’d sense that huge wash of Light and feel the darkness inside of him shift and move, alert. Eva’s fingers bumping against his lips as she urged him to drink less. Pitchiner walking beside him seeming so tall and immoveable and strong.

Jack excused himself clumsily, the Tsar nowhere in sight. He felt feverish.  

He wove out of the room, not recognising anyone.

The murals on the walls had taken on a bright surrealism. It almost looked as though the Warriors were moving. Swirling slowly around. He tried to shake the strangeness away, but that only made things worse.

He had no idea how to find a balcony. Just somewhere to breathe.

He was lost, frustration picked at his insides. He clenched the fist not holding his staff and forced himself to take a few deep breaths. He just needed air. He needed to not feel so warm.

It took far too long for him to remember that he could flag a servant. They looked him over critically, and then set down their plate of drinks and led him down a side corridor near one of the many ballrooms. At the end, a narrow door opened onto a sprawling, empty balcony. There were open double glass doors spilling out onto the balcony from the ballroom, but no one was near him. It was a chill, brisk evening. Likely too cold for the others.

Jack tumbled out, muttering thanks even though the servant had already vanished.

He leaned his staff against the balcony railing and clutched the stone with both hands, gulping down huge breaths.

It’s fine. This is fine.

Fear had woven thick through him. Whatever malice the darkness inside him had access to was growing. He’d felt trapped for too long. He was overheated and annoyed. Flashes kept peppering his mind with images he didn’t want to see:

Crossholt with the bolt of ice through his body and those open, dead eyes and how good it had felt. Pitchiner with ice through his thigh and trying to tug it free and failing. The nobles that pressed drinks into his hands frozen together and the ice tinged with red. Crushing instruments and musicians both to just get them to stop.

Horror made him swallow bile and burning liquor, but beneath that, a deep-seated pleasure at all he could bring forth if he just let his ice loose.

‘Shit. Stop. Stop,’ Jack whispered to himself. Just stop already.

The images wouldn’t disappear, and Jack swayed away to the other side of the balcony, staring over the edge. They weren’t so very far from the ground. A cold wind wrapped around him, and Jack closed his eyes in relief.

He could do this.

No one would ever know the sorts of things he thought sometimes.

His whole corner of balcony was iced, and he couldn’t seem to get a full grasp on his mind. He just wanted to hurt someone. Just once. Just to get it out of his system.

Just once.

‘Oh yeah, mate,’ came another voice, ‘yeah, just need a breather. You know me and these things. Bloody parties, yeah?’

Oh come on, Jack thought, pressing his forehead to the balcony. He couldn’t even look. He was going to lose all grasp of his mind. Every breath felt like a little slip down a spiral that led all the way into nothingness.

‘Hey,’ said Bunnymund, ‘what are you doing out here?’

Deep breaths, Jack told himself.

‘Taking a breather,’ Jack said, his voice a rasp. ‘Like you.’

He heard Bunnymund come closer and forced himself to straighten. He couldn’t help it. He had to look as well. Not looking made him think that Bunnymund was approaching with a whip.

But when Bunnymund saw him, his ears lay flat.

‘What’s wrong?’ Bunnymund said.

‘Nothing,’ Jack said. ‘Really. I’m just tired.’

Bunnymund clearly didn’t buy it, but then his shoulders rose and fell in a huge sigh, and he came over and leaned his back against the balcony, watching Jack. He was in his Alchemist’s costume. It was pretty. Violet and blue and green and brown, covered in sigils and geometric patterns, with a belt that still held his sickle boomerang and other things Jack wasn’t sure of. A magical staff jutted from behind him, but Jack didn’t know if he’d ever used it, or if it was just there for show, like the masques and hats some of the nobles wore.

If you let go of your ice now, he couldn’t ever whip you again. Don’t you want that? Ever. He’d never touch you again.

Jack’s jaw clenched down and he made himself look away, hissing through his teeth.

‘Hey,’ Bunnymund said, his voice softer. ‘Jackson, talk-’

‘It’s Jack!’ Jack snapped, ice splintering out from beneath his hands and causing icicles to form.

Jackson Overland was the one who was sent for punishment all the time. But Jack Frost had never gone. Jack Frost didn’t get whipped. He didn’t need to see the Disciplinarian. Ever.

Bunnymund held up his paws and his ears twitched.

‘Now, now, don’t get your knickers in a knot. Jack, then. Rightio, that’s fine.’

Jack listened to his breathing. He squinted at Bunnymund and saw him blur and then become two. This was so stupid. It had never really bothered him to be sent to the Disciplinarian over and over again. That was just how life was. And yet seeing him now, especially because Bunnymund wasn’t being an outright asshole...

‘Honestly,’ Bunnymund said, his face gentling. ‘If you want to get out of here, we can go take a walk. Even go to my tower or somewhere else. I get it, mate. The Palace does this to people.’

Jack’s head dropped and he stared at the ground, at the ice that spread and spread.

The Disciplinarian’s tower.

Layer upon layer of memory seeped into him. He could feel the places where all his scars caught on the fabric of his shirt. He could feel how his arms ached from holding onto the cross and how his teeth and jaw were sore from biting down on the leather roll to stop him from screaming and screaming and-

One moment he thought he might be starting to calm down and then it was as though the darkness inside him just petted him gently on the shoulder and said:

Let us handle it.

Jack nodded faintly, had a moment to feel sick with terror, and then everything went black.

*

‘...What did the Tsar say?’

‘Only that I need to get him under hand faster. As though this process is ever speedy. It wasn’t with me.’

‘I wasn’t there for that part. It’s hard to believe that he was like you used to be. You’ve talked about it but until tonight it was hard to imagine. It’s still hard to imagine.’

Jack made a faint, pained sound. His throat hurt. He felt exhausted. He knew he was lying down, and from the soft barrier at his right, he knew he was on a sofa.

A parade, and then the after-party, and then-

Jack’s eyes widened and the ceiling seemed to fall upon him. Pitch’s ceiling. He was in his lounge. He closed his eyes, flinched, gasped:

‘Is the Disciplinarian okay?’

‘You don’t remember?’ that was Pitch. Jack turned and let his eyes open just a bit. His vision was still blurring. There were two Pitch’s.

‘Did I hurt him?’

‘You tried,’ Pitch said. ‘The balcony you were on had turned brittle from your ice. Instead of aiming accurately at him, you broke off the section you were on and fell. You don’t remember?’

‘He said something about the tower,’ Jack said, shaking his head. A headache crested and he stopped moving. ‘Is he really okay? Am I going to be sent to him?’

He felt fractious, and took a moment then to just hold his breath and focus on not crying because that would be the final straw. He couldn’t even feel the darkness now. It was as dormant as it ever was.

‘I thought it was gone,’ Jack whispered, when he could trust his voice.

Anton appeared behind Pitch, his hair a neon green blur, holding a glass of clear liquid. Jack reeled back from it, thinking it was more of all the drinks they’d been wanting to give him. All those nobles pressing glasses into his hands, promising him he’d like it.

‘It’s just water,’ Anton said, and then passed it to Pitch. Anton looked concerned, he offered a smile that was more of a grimace.

A wave of nausea and Jack sank back to the sofa, groaning and pressing the back of his hand to his head. The ice was glorious.

‘You got him drunk,’ Pitch hissed, sounding furious then.

‘Not us, comrade,’ Anton said. ‘I might find it hard to believe he was like you used to be, but I know better than to get him wasted. We gave him the light stuff, Eva made him drink it slowly. We wanted him buzzed, not...this. Do you think the Tsar knew what he was doing?’

‘Surprisingly, no. He thinks this sort of thing is easy to manage. I’ve never much indicated otherwise. He would have assumed Jack had that side of matters under control by now. What an absolute mess of a day.’

Jack listened, glad they weren’t peppering him with questions. Pitch had only said ‘do you remember?’ twice, and didn’t seem all that bothered that Jack hadn’t actually responded.

‘Pitch?’ Jack said, ‘I didn’t hurt him? The Disciplinarian?’

‘You can’t call me that,’ Pitch said, though his protest was weak. Jack thought he’d probably keep on calling him Pitch anyway. Everyone else did.

‘He’s not hurt,’ Anton said, focusing on the part of the question that Jack actually wanted answered.

‘Is he mad?’

‘Just surprised,’ Anton continued. ‘He’s in the older guard like Pitch, so he knows a bit of what you’re dealing with at least. You’re not getting sent to him.’

Jack nodded, feeling sleep beckon. He thought he should wake up properly and make sure the Tsar wasn’t mad either. But he knew the Tsar would be mad. He’d have that disappointed face. Which was the same as the whole of Lune being disappointed in him, even if none of the other citizens knew it yet.

Jack wasn’t as strong as the Tsar believed him to be. The thought of it bedded down as a strong, suffocating ache in his chest. He didn’t want to think about how upset Pitch was. Jack had been avoiding the darkness in training. He knew Pitch hadn’t wanted him to do that.

A soft sigh, and Jack curled onto his side, shutting the world out. He was glad that the darkness inside of him couldn’t really do anything once he was asleep.

*

Much later, Jack heard voices and this time stayed still and thought strongly about sleep again. He wanted to sleep again.

‘I should have followed or something,’ Anton said.

‘It wasn’t your fault, Anton. It’s beyond clear that the Tsar wants him for himself somehow, or wishes him to become a spy.’

‘I absolutely should have followed and stayed nearby. The Tsar barely cares I exist. He wouldn’t have sent me away as he did you. I regret I’ve been a rather poor date to the boy,’ Anton replied.

A pause, and then:

‘Date?’ Pitch hissed it, keeping his voice quiet.

‘Of course,’ Anton said. ‘He’s beautiful. Don’t tell me you don’t see it?’

‘He’s- He’s a trainee.’

‘So?’ Anton laughed quietly. ‘Also you’re incorrect, he’s not a trainee. He may not be a fully-fledged Golden Warrior, but that doesn’t matter, does it? He’s of age and he’s very sweet. Are you seriously telling me you find him sorely ugly? What, does his visage cause you pain?’

‘Yes,’ Pitch said flatly. ‘But not for the reasons you state.’

‘Your cynicism is so inspiring. Have you given up on everything at this point?’

‘No,’ Pitch said.

Another long pause, and then Anton added in an undertone:

‘Seraphina aside.’

Pitch said nothing at all then, and after a while, Anton swore and then muttered something under his breath.

‘You can’t keep going on like this, friend. You just can’t.’

‘I’d thank you to stay quiet about it.’

‘I know things look bad right now, but things aren’t over. You’re still the Royal Admiral. The Golden Warriors look up to you like crazy. Those folks would give their lives to you and then some. Even tonight you handled well. The excuse you gave – an accident because of Jack’s ice, since he’s still getting the hang of his powers – telling everyone that balcony needed some work anyway. Bunny went along with it, right?’

‘Anton, I’m tired,’ Pitch said.

‘Yes, rousing speeches are not what you need right now. I’m going to go out there and find Eva. Just, go easy on him.’

‘No,’ Pitch said. ‘That’s not my job. That doesn’t sound like me. Have you learned nothing of my character at all?’

Though Pitch sounded cold, Anton still laughed, and then he sighed.

‘Leave it to me then. I think he’s pretty. I think Eva thinks he’s a little bit like a lost rabbit or something. But you know how she looks at the twinks. It’s like a fox that’s caught movement in the undergrowth. Actually you do that sometimes. I thought you used to like twinks.’

A long silence and then Anton said:

‘You can’t hold a torch for Fyodor forever.’

‘I’m not holding it,’ Pitch said. ‘I’ve destroyed it. I’m not interested in burning any kind of flame for anyone, ever again. I have my responsibilities and the people I care for, and that’s that. It’s a closed door.’

‘It’s a sad day when your daughter’s tales are more right about the world than you are.’

‘Anton, you are dismissed,’ Pitch bit out.

Jack waited for what would be said next, but instead he heard soft footsteps as Anton walked out of the room and closed the door quietly behind him. Then, the sound of Pitch sitting somewhere nearby. Maybe the armchair Jack had seen him in before.

He wanted to think about everything he’d just heard, but he was already slipping towards sleep again. Whatever he’d had to drink throughout the night had been strong. He suspected the darkness, when it came forth, had used up the rest of his resources. Jack didn’t feel like he’d had much left to spare in the first place.  

And it’s still there. Even now. Even when I can’t tell.

Jack shuddered and curled in on himself, his fingers digging into his chest. He could hardly feel it through the layers of fabric he wore. Maybe that was a good thing. If his fingers touched skin, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop himself from trying to claw out all the wrong inside of himself.

Chapter Text

A servant woke Jack early in the morning and guided Jack back to his own room, where he’d managed to get the light blue cape off his shoulders and then fallen asleep face first on the embroidered quilt. He thought fuzzily that this was the room of a boy who Pitch had loved. His very last thought was:

My life is so weird now.

He woke with a splitting headache, running to the bathroom to throw up bile and alcohol that burned. Jack wiped at his mouth, and drank cold water straight from the faucet, gasping as he tried to keep more heaving at bay. Parts of the night were a blur.

The Tsar had just left him with all those nobles. Jack had embarrassed himself, he’d attacked Bunnymund. He’d attacked the Disciplinarian.

‘Yeah,’ Jack muttered to himself as he stripped off in preparation for what he hoped would be the longest shower in his entire life, ‘he’s gonna go so light on you the next time you see him. Probably carve that whip down to your spine or something. Crap.’

He managed to steal about a minute of pure peace while he was in the shower, under warm water that felt truly hot, even though he knew it wasn’t. He let it slick down his hair and began to wash himself, only to hit a sore point on his hips. When he looked down, he saw a large black bruise and his forehead creased.

Pitch had said he’d fallen. He’d cracked the balcony and fallen.

Jack inventoried the damage. There wasn’t much. A few big, opaque bruises that looked nasty and likely went to the bone, and one graze where he must have hit the ground directly. Otherwise, he’d taken way worse, and he dismissed it.

But it was harder to dismiss the troubling thoughts that chased their tails in his brain.

In the end, the shower didn’t last as long as he wanted. The warm water couldn’t melt the ice that was forming on the tiles fast enough, and Jack exited the shower casting an abashed look at the drain he’d iced over.

*

The etiquette tutors came, and not two minutes later, they all turned in surprise when Pitch entered, pinning the tutors with a disapproving gaze.

‘You are all dismissed today,’ Pitch said, waving his hand at them as though the fact that they hadn’t already left was annoying.

One opened her mouth to protest – the one who always smacked Jack’s wrists and left him with bruises – but then wisely closed it. They all hurried out. Jack fleetingly wished he could join them.

For a long moment, Jack felt the weight of Pitch’s gaze on him. Jack couldn’t read his expression at all.

‘Am I in trouble?’ Jack said. ‘After yesterday?’

‘I’m surprised you’re not more hungover.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said, rubbing at the back of his neck. ‘Well, y’know, throwing up all that crap probably helped a bit. I have a headache, but it’s nothing.’

‘Is that so?’ Pitch said, as though the headache might be more than nothing.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, frowning. ‘I can handle it. If we’re training, I can train.’

‘I don’t doubt that,’ Pitch said, with a faint smile. ‘We’re doing a different kind of training today. Leave your sword. Leave your staff. Follow me.’

‘Yep,’ Jack said, smoothing his hands down his shirt nervously. ‘Gotcha.’

Jack saw him rolling his eyes even as he turned away. Maybe the lack of formal title still annoyed him. Maybe it was something else.

I’m never going to understand him.

Even after listening in on his conversations with Anton, Jack was only aware of how much he was missing. Pitch had been in love with Fyodor, and Fyodor had died. So Seraphina and Pitch both missed him, though it seemed like Seraphina couldn’t really talk to her father about it.

It was obvious that Anton was not only worried about Jack, but also Pitch.

He’s probably worried about everyone. You don’t become that brave without wanting to protect people.

Jack veered towards the training arena, before realising that Pitch wasn’t going that way. Jack changed direction straight away, then focused on trying to memorise the number of doors they passed through, because he knew that Pitch would expect him to remember.

Eventually they slowed down a long, narrow corridor. Jack resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Whoever had created this place didn’t do it with anything like common sense. Jack thought if there were ever a place where he’d open a door to a wall, or find a staircase to nowhere, it’d be here.

Then Pitch pulled a black key from his pocket and inserted it into the lock of a black door.

It swung creakily open into a space that was just opaque darkness. It reminded Jack of the mountain, and he stepped back, staring at it.

Pitch walked straight into the dark, vanishing, and then a moment later lights flared to life along the rim of a circular room with a domed roof. The tiles were black. The walls were made of the same tiles. The ceiling curved over them and might have been a deep blue, but it was hard to tell.

‘Oh,’ Jack said, craning his neck without taking another step forward. ‘Crossholt talked about these. I’m not- You- We’re going to be in here?’

‘Come in,’ Pitch said, waiting by the door and the panel that controlled the lighting. Jack stared, knowing that Pitch could plunge them into total darkness whenever he wanted. His heartbeat sped up, but he swallowed and stepped forward anyway.

His boots echoed on the tiles. The room amplified everything. There wasn’t a shred of fabric to muffle the sound of Jack’s breathing.

‘Just...thought I’d let you know I’m not a fan,’ Jack said, voice echoing.

‘I’ll leave the lights on,’ Pitch said. ‘It’s a tad too early in your training to plunge you into the dark just yet.’

‘Oh, thank the Light,’ Jack said, even as Pitch chuckled behind him. ‘Then- What are we doing here?’

‘Meditating,’ Pitch said calmly. ‘Specifically, you’ll be meditating. I want to know what you recall before blacking out.’

‘You can just ask me,’ Jack said nervously.

‘You’ll lie,’ Pitch said, closing the black door and walking deeper into the room, pointing to where he wanted Jack to no doubt sit.

‘I might not lie,’ Jack said.

‘You’re lying right now,’ Pitch said. ‘For someone who is terrible at it, you do it a frightful amount. Likely more than even you realise.’

‘So I’m a liar now?’ Jack said, sitting down and crossing his legs, looking around the room and hoping that the lights didn’t suddenly go out. Jack’s hip hurt where the bruise and graze was, but it wasn’t terrible.

‘If the shoe fits,’ Pitch said, lowering himself in one smooth, graceful movement. Jack wondered how often he meditated. It had to be a lot.

Jack folded his hands in his lap, he picked at his fingers. Pitch stared at him steadily, with that weird golden gaze. Even on a stone floor, sitting before him, he just looked tall and aristocratic. It wasn’t fair.

It’s crazy intimidating.

And meditation? It had never been Jack’s strong suit. He knew how to do all the right things with his breathing, but then he’d just let his thoughts wander while everyone else focused on mantras or ‘perfect nothingness’ or whatever. He’d even imagined doing stuff with the Royal Admiral.

The Royal Admiral who was sitting right in front of him.

Can’t think about that anymore.

Jack stared down at the black tiles and hated that the stutter in his breathing was so much louder than usual.

His line of sight was interrupted when Pitch presented him with a vial of golden liquid. Jack squinted at it, and then took it carefully, reminding himself not to freeze it accidentally.

‘Drink it,’ Pitch said quietly.

‘Is this like...the mountain?’ Jack said, clearing his throat. He looked up and Pitch’s face was unreadable. Jack looked down at the liquid, turning the glass vial in his fingers and seeing that it clung like oil.

‘It will make you more suggestible,’ Pitch said calmly.

It wasn’t strange for the Royal Military to administer drugs to their soldiers. To help them in battle. To help them meditate. To make them pliant, or afraid, or willing. They were fighting a supernatural enemy, and they used whatever was at their disposal to make their soldiers better.

Jack normally didn’t mind, but after the night he’d had, he could feel his heart trip over itself. He almost gagged.

‘Can we- Can we try it first without this?’ Jack said, closing his fingers over the vial and knowing that it was stupid. This was the Royal Admiral, he couldn’t just-

‘If you like,’ Pitch said. Jack looked up in surprise, but still couldn’t pick Pitch’s expression. He didn’t look irritated or impatient or anything. ‘But you aren’t inclined to be honest about this, and if I sense you’re lying to me, you will take it.’

‘Is it really that important?’ Jack said. But then he shook his head to ward off Pitch’s response, because he knew that it was. He’d attacked the Disciplinarian, he’d broken a part of the Palace. He’d done it all during a great party of nobles and soldiers. He could have killed someone. He could have killed a lot of people.

Pitch thankfully didn’t rub it in, and Jack set the vial down on the tiles. He had to try and not lie about things he didn’t even want to think about.

No problem. Dealing with Crossholt was way worse.

‘Okay,’ Jack said. ‘What do you need me to do?’

‘There is a circle,’ Pitch said evenly, his voice deepening, ‘with a golden dot in the centre.’

Right, Jack thought, seeing it immediately. Induction technique.

He was familiar with this, though he hadn’t done it much. In the beginning, when he was a child and then a young teen, they used it a lot. Usually in the rigours of testing to figure out what everyone in the creche would end up doing. The sessions always left him a bit muzzy, and Jack was surprised Pitch wanted him to take the golden oil on top of this. It wasn’t really necessary. Did Pitch think he was that likely to lie?  

He saw the circle – which in his mind was always black – and the spot of light in the centre that glowed and pulsed in his mind’s eye. Immediately, his breathing began to slow. Pitch didn’t even need to ask. Jack’s body knew the steps innately. First his eyelids would relax, and then his jaw and his forehead and his neck, and then his fingers would fall into a loose curl in his lap and he would feel as though he were sinking and looking up at the light as though from a great distance.

‘That’s very good,’ Pitch said slowly and with a warmth that Jack wasn’t used to. Maybe he was imagining it.

Pitch occasionally asked him to slow his breathing further, or coaxed him to fall deeper within himself. Sometimes he offered gentle praise or reminded Jack to stay with his focus on the pulse of light.

But this wasn’t like a standard breathing exercise where he was supposed to enter profound emptiness and become aware of his smallness and hugeness in the universe at the same time. It was easier to have something to focus on, and Pitch – unlike Crossholt – seemed to know exactly when to encourage Jack to push further, and his interruptions never startled.  

‘I am going to ask you some questions now, Jack, and whatever feelings you have in response – they cannot touch you. They are far away. Even further than the light. Clouds on another planet.’

‘Another planet,’ Jack echoed, his voice slurring.

‘Nothing can hurt you, while you stay focused on that point of light.’

Jack would have nodded, but his body felt tremendously heavy, as though he was part of the black tiles and domed like the roof above him.

The tired part of Jack’s mind – pushed to the background – knew that the hard questions were going to start soon. There were flickers of worry in the understorey of his thoughts. Easy to ignore, but there nonetheless.

‘Jack, do you ever have bad dreams about the living Darkness?’ Pitch said.

Jack hesitated, vaguely aware that it wasn’t the question he’d expected.

‘Remember,’ Pitch continued, ‘nothing can hurt you, here. It is easy to answer these questions, and once your answers are free, you will feel lighter. It’s okay, Jack.’

Jack nodded. He hung onto the question and formed a response.

‘After Pippa,’ Jack said, his voice not quite as slurred as before. It was easier to speak, even though he still felt very distant from himself. ‘I had a lot. Then nothing, and then again in the Barracks.’

‘Was it like a bad dream in the mountain?’ Pitch said, his voice modulated and careful.

‘It was just confusing,’ Jack said. ‘They’d given us so much stuff. And the Darkness wasn’t what I expected it to be. Pippa was there. And she talked to me. Sometimes the Darkness made her say mean things, but then it was just her sometimes too. Not saying mean things. It was like she’d really come back.’

Jack had a brief flash to being pinned down on the mountain after his initiation, and Pitch not letting Jack go back to get to her.

‘You didn’t let me save her,’ Jack added, thinking that he should feel more upset. He knew, somewhere, how hurt he was about that. It was too far away to matter. ‘She asked me if I was ready to let her go. She told me to be brave.’

‘And after the mountain,’ Pitch said, like he was telling a story, ‘when you emerged, you tried to attack the Golden Warriors who saved you and your friend. What were you feeling?’

‘They had their weapons out,’ Jack said. ‘After all that time of us in the mountain, and instead of welcoming us, they had their weapons out. I was... I was mad.’

‘That’s very good,’ Pitch said, and Jack frowned, not sure why that response felt so different to what he’d been expecting. ‘Jack, that’s very good. Remember, none of this can hurt you. It’s already happened, and it’s very far away. Are you still focused on that point of light?’

Was he? Jack felt himself concentrating and seeing it again. He nodded a moment later. Pitch offered a warm sound of approval, almost a hum.

‘When was the next time you felt mad like that?’ Pitch said. ‘Like when you tried to attack the Golden Warriors?’

Jack felt like his memories were speeding up, and then they froze around a moment. Around something Pitch had said to him, all that time ago.

‘I didn’t put you on the bottom of the callout list on a whim’’ Jack said, mimicking Pitch’s words on that day. ‘And then I attacked you.’

‘With the ice,’ Pitch said. ‘You didn’t blackout then?’

‘I remember all of it,’ Jack said. ‘It doesn’t feel like me. But it also feels like me. I would have really hurt you.’

‘I know,’ Pitch said.

‘And you just smiled at me, like it was a joke.’

Jack wanted to feel something, but he couldn’t even grasp at the outrage he’d felt in those healing tents. Still, his hands twitched in his lap. There was a flickering of something inside of him, and he made a faint noise.

‘Jack,’ Pitch said, his voice closer than before, ‘you’re safe here. I’m not going to mock you, and you’re not going to be hurt. Remember how far these feelings are?’

‘Another planet,’ Jack murmured.

‘When was the next time you wanted to attack someone like that?’ Pitch said.

‘On the mountain,’ Jack said, because he knew – could almost see these moments like a string of events. Every place where the darkness had clawed to life inside of him was like a little black bauble weighing the string of time down. But it was contained, and he could look into it without being touched by it.

‘When on the mountain?’

‘You wouldn’t let me go back to Pippa.’

‘When I held you down on the ice?’ Pitch said. ‘In the beginning?’

‘No,’ Jack said slowly. ‘Not then. I was just desperate then. It was a bit after. I was still pinned, and you told me to get up and go after her, and you knew I couldn’t. I hated you. I would have killed you.’

‘I don’t doubt that,’ Pitch said. ‘But you didn’t attack me, did you?’

‘No,’ Jack said, frowning. Was that important?

A long silence then, followed by the sound of words being written. Jack wasn’t sure how Pitch had a notepad, and he didn’t really care. He focused on that point of light within the black circle, and let his body feel too heavy to move.

‘Why didn’t you attack me, Jack?’ Pitch said.

‘I couldn’t,’ Jack said.

‘Why didn’t you attack me?’ Pitch said again.

Jack twitched, and peered closer into that swirling blackness, contained in its little bauble.

‘I didn’t get that far,’ Jack said, feeling like that was a better answer. ‘I was scared as shit.’

A quiet huff that could have been amusement, and more writing sounds.

‘Scared of me?’ Pitch said.

‘Scared of me,’ Jack said. ‘Of how wrong I am. Of how wrong I...’

Jack’s words choked up in his throat and he was fleetingly annoyed that he was feeling something. His feelings were meant to be far away.

Clouds on another planet.

‘Finish the sentence please,’ Pitch said quietly.

‘I don’t want to,’ Jack said. His words were slow and sounded unaffected, but there was a stubborn knot inside of him. He fixed on the bright spot of light and watched it pulse.

‘Finish the sentence, Jack,’ Pitch said. ‘Nothing will hurt you here. Not even you.’

Jack wanted to disagree, but those feelings floated away. He stayed with the light, the black circle, and found a calm place again.

‘Of how wrong I’ve always been,’ Jack said. Pitch was right, he felt very little at all now.

‘Wrong about what?’

‘Made wrong,’ Jack whispered. ‘Just...made wrong.’

Another silence, then more scribbling sounds. Then:

‘That’s very good, Jack. Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome,’ Jack said, dazed. Pitch chuckled then, and sighed, and then asked:

‘So you haven’t always been blacking out when you’ve felt like attacking people since the mountain, have you?’

‘No,’ Jack said, glad to be talking about this again, instead of that other thing. ‘It was strong, like a rush of something, like that feeling before you’re going to puke, it just comes and you can’t stop it. But then I would stop it. Like fighting something down.’

‘When was the first time it felt different?’ Pitch said. ‘When it was harder to fight down? Or when it affected you differently?’

‘After I’d been alone,’ Jack said, remembering how it had felt, locked in Fyodor’s room. ‘I thought maybe I’d been forgotten, or left there on purpose. Or maybe it was like an Asylum and people were waiting for me to die. Or maybe I was being starved on purpose. And then you came, and it was the Darkness that attacked the Palace and I didn’t know, and then you told me not to think about how I could have died because I’d been forgotten.’

Jack didn’t want to get much closer to that memory. He’d attacked Pitch. He hadn’t been able to keep it under control then. That was when the malice inside had felt like a friend, and then he’d run, and then- and then Crossholt.

‘I don’t want to talk about this,’ Jack said, his mouth dry.

‘All right, we’ll take a quick break, because you’re doing so well,’ Pitch said. ‘Can you tell me that? That you’re doing well?’

‘I’m...doing well?’ Jack echoed, confused.

‘Very well,’ Pitch said, his voice firm. So it wasn’t a question.

Are you sure?

After that, Jack was reminded to focus on the light, the circle. He was reminded to focus on his breathing and it seemed like Pitch was leading him back through all the initial stages of induction all over again.

When it was done, Jack felt calm again, and his breathing was even slower than before.

‘We’re going to talk about Crossholt,’ Pitch said. ‘But if you want this to be even easier, you can drink something sweet. Do you want that?’

Jack almost felt the vial in his hands again and he shook his head. He was dimly surprised to hear Pitch writing notes then, because it seemed like he hadn’t written anything for a while.

‘I want you to tell me how you felt when you ran from the Palace,’ Pitch said gently. ‘After you attacked me. Were you aware of your thoughts then?’

Jack nodded. ‘I thought that no one wanted me anyway, and I didn’t want to die. So I left.’

‘How often have you felt like people are going to kill you, or want to kill you, since the mountain?’

‘Lots,’ Jack said, shrugging. ‘I didn’t pass. I’m not a Warrior. They always told me that’s what would happen.’

‘They? Can you give me an example of someone who told you this?’

‘Crossholt,’ Jack whispered.

‘Ah,’ Pitch said, and then he sighed again, and Jack wondered if Pitch should be focusing on his breathing in here too. He seemed to be doing that a bit.

A long silence, and then Pitch said:

‘When you ran, you managed to fly. What was that like?’

‘So, so cool,’ Jack said. ‘But also another reminder that I came out wrong. Or worse than before. And then I thought if I wasn’t possessed, then the evil must be inside me, or that the darkness was me. And I was upset.’

‘So you flew to the Barracks. Why?’

‘I think I wanted Jamie,’ Jack said, frowning. ‘I wasn’t thinking much. I just wanted a friend, I guess. I didn’t know I was going there until I landed.’

‘Do you think the darkness took you there?’ Pitch said.

‘No,’ Jack said. ‘I just wanted something that felt like home. And I didn’t really have one.’

A brief flash of awareness, a sudden sense that he didn’t want the Royal Admiral knowing these things about him. But then it flicked away quickly, like a feather in a sharp breeze.

‘And then Crossholt was there,’ Pitch said carefully. ‘How did that make you feel?’

‘Scared,’ Jack said. That question was easy. ‘He said that it had gone wrong, and asked if I’d escaped. I just kept getting more scared and then it was like I ran out of fear and then there was just... fury.’

‘Did anything stand out in your mind when the fury came?’

‘My scars hurt,’ Jack said. ‘On my back. I just kept thinking about how bad they were. I thought it with the Disciplinarian last night too. It was one of the last things I thought about.’

‘Thank you, Jack. That’s very helpful. Do you remember thinking anything else with Crossholt?’

‘I asked him why he hated me so much,’ Jack said. ‘And then my vision got blurry. And I started shaking. And he said I should have died in the mountain. And then he came at me.’

‘You remember that?’ Pitch said. When Jack nodded, he said: ‘Do you remember anything else?’

‘Not well,’ Jack said. ‘Fighting. I fought him. But I don’t remember wanting to put ice through his wrists. It just happened. And then Crossholt looked at me again and I knew he wouldn’t just detain me but he was going to kill me and I asked him to stop and-’

‘-Jack, I want you to focus on your breathing now,’ Pitch said. ‘That’s it. Slower breaths. Where’s the point of light?’

‘Oh, it’s above me,’ Jack said. He’d forgotten.

‘Are you focusing on it now?’

Jack nodded, and then he made a faint sound when he felt warm fingers touching his left wrist.

‘You’re doing very, very well,’ Pitch said.

Jack swallowed, nodded, but couldn’t make himself say it. He focused on the light and his breathing instead. With time, that sense of urgency and desperation that had built inside of him melted away. He felt his shoulders slump.

‘Jack, I’m going to ask you to go back into that memory now, but those feelings can’t hurt you here. They’re in the past, and they’re very, very far away. Okay?’

‘Okay,’ Jack said.

‘You asked him to stop, because you knew he was going to kill you. Then how did you feel?’

‘Scared,’ Jack said weakly. ‘He knew all the moves I did, and I couldn’t fight him the right way.’

‘Are you saying that the darkness wasn’t ruling your actions then?’

‘No,’ Jack said. ‘And it was so hard to hold it back, and hold my ice back, and then fight at the same time when he knew so much more than me. I know I’m supposed to die. But I didn’t want to. It was the only thing I had left. And it just- I just needed him to know just once, just once what it felt like. To be scared all the time. Like that.’

The memory went blank then and Jack sighed at the nothingness that followed. The hanging gap where he wasn’t aware of anything at all.

‘That’s the first time I blacked out,’ Jack said. ‘I came to and I was on the ground, and Crossholt was dead.’

Jack didn’t feel anything at all.

‘It helped me,’ Jack said. ‘And it wanted to help me last night.’

‘The darkness?’

‘Yeah. I thought it was my enemy. But it doesn’t seem to be. Does that mean I’m the enemy? Because it wants to be my friend?’

‘No, that’s not what it means,’ Pitch said soothingly. ‘We’re going to stop soon. You’ve had enough today. And you can rest afterwards. No training this afternoon. But first I just have a few more questions for you, all right?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said.

‘The way you felt with Crossholt, and the Disciplinarian last night - have you ever felt this way around the Tsar?’ Pitch said.

‘No,’ Jack said immediately. ‘Never. He’s nice to me.’

‘Mm,’ Pitch said. More writing. ‘Have you ever felt this way around Seraphina? Servants? Anyone else?’

‘No,’ Jack said, shaking his head. ‘Just those Warriors after the mountain, and you, and the Disciplinarian, and Crossholt. Seraphina’s just a child.’

‘What if she made you angry?’ Pitch said.

‘She’s just a child,’ Jack said, confused.

Pitch’s fingers shifted and curled around Jack’s hand gently. Jack thought it was nice and weird. And Pitch’s skin was so warm.

‘And after Crossholt, you’ve worked very hard to keep the darkness away, haven’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘It’s not like on the mountain, where it came up all the time.’

‘But where you could often control it,’ Pitch said.

‘Yeah,’ Jack nodded. ‘It’s not like then. It’s different now.’

‘When was the first time you felt it yesterday? Was it with the Disciplinarian?’

‘No,’ Jack said, feeling exhausted. ‘It was during the parade. Everyone made their Light all at once. And it was there. In my throat.’

‘That must have been hard,’ Pitch said.

‘I guess,’ Jack said. ‘I kept it under control.’

‘Was that the last time you felt it before the Disciplinarian?’

‘No,’ Jack said. ‘I was- It was- They kept giving me things to drink and the Tsar left me alone with them.’ There was a hiss of breath, like Pitch was going to say something, but he was silent, so Jack continued. ‘Everything got blurry and I needed some air and I could feel it inside me then. Nothing specific made it happen. It was just there. And I knew if I got outside I could make it go away.’

‘And what happened once you were outside?’

‘I had air, but I was afraid, and I kept seeing images. Crossholt dead, and other people, like I’d already attacked them. I’d imagined hurting all the loud people in the Palace. I could already see the blood and the- and the ice.’

Jack paused. Even now it was so clear, though he felt so distant from it.

‘I knew it would feel good,’ Jack whispered. ‘If I did it.’

‘Did it feel good with Crossholt?’

‘For a moment,’ Jack said. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s okay,’ Pitch said, his thumb stroking the outside of Jack’s wrist. ‘That’s fine. It’s normal.’

‘It’s not normal.’

‘It’s normal to feel good when you stop someone or something from hurting you. Even if you have to hurt them in turn. Whether it’s vengeance, or righteous anger, or smug satisfaction, or joy. It’s normal.’

‘I murdered someone.’

‘You were fighting for your life, and you succeeded in defending yourself. It’s normal to feel good about that, and it’s normal to feel terrible about it.’

‘Huh,’ Jack said, thinking that might be something to ponder later.

‘Indeed,’ Pitch said. ‘What happened after the images you were seeing?’

‘I started to get it under control,’ Jack said. ‘And the wind was there and it was helping. But then it was like- It was like a negotiation. And I thought if I could just do it a little bit, I’d feel okay. If I could just let it out a little. Not properly. In a way that was safe. I knew I couldn’t, but I just wanted to hurt- I wanted to hurt someone. And then the Disciplinarian came.’

‘And then?’

‘I started to panic,’ Jack said. He almost laughed, but even laughter was far away from him. ‘I didn’t realise he made me feel like that.’

‘He’s hurt you quite badly.’

‘Yeah, but I didn’t realise it was a thing. It’s not like he’s never hurt me without a reason. I always deserve it. But I couldn’t control my breathing, and he could tell. He didn’t even want to hurt me. He was being nice.’

‘And then?’

‘He was nice, and told me we could go for a walk or something and then he said we could go to his Tower and I felt the scars on my back and then the darkness told me it would deal with everything and that was- that was the last thing I remember.’

‘It spoke to you?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, feeling like he’d lanced something infected now that he’d actually said it aloud. He didn’t feel good, exactly, but no one was yelling at him, and his body felt heavy and calm. ‘Yeah. It just said ‘let us deal with it’ and I thought that sounded like a pretty good idea, since I was doing a shit job at dealing with it. Except it didn’t really do a good job either, did it?’

‘It did not. We’re so close to the end now, Jack. You’ve done so very well. Just one more thing – a quick clarification. Are you saying that you were dealing with the darkness, on and off, for several hours – during the parade and afterwards in the Palace – before you blacked out?’

‘Yeah, pretty much,’ Jack said.

Writing sounds, and then Pitch was talking again, each sentence designed to bring Jack closer to some kind of relaxed awareness.

Pitch’s touch slid away, and Jack missed it for a moment. Then, in a rush, he opened his eyes and winced at the lights all around the circular room. All the feelings he’d kept at bay crept back, the first among them nausea.

He remembered everything that he’d told Pitch. Everything.

For a moment he was too numb to move. He knew induction techniques were supposed to coax honest responses but in the past they’d only ever asked him about safe things. This was the first time it had ever been used to bring things out of him that Jack hadn’t ever wanted anyone to know.

He couldn’t believe some of the things Pitch had pulled out of him, and Jack had a sudden sense of betrayal.

You weren’t supposed to find out about these things. I don’t even think about these things!

‘Take a breath,’ Pitch said, watching him as though he hadn’t just ripped all those truths out of Jack.

‘I’m going,’ Jack said, pushing himself upright and then stumbling. All his bruises flared to life and he couldn’t stop the sound of pain. His body didn’t feel quite like his own yet. It still felt heavy and a part of the room.

Pitch muttered something under his breath and then stood quickly, reaching out as though to grasp at Jack’s elbow to support him.

‘No!’ Jack said, the word echoing sharply until it felt like he’d be hearing it forever. He jerked away, his breathing ragged. ‘I’m going.’

‘Jack,’ Pitch said, and Jack could just hear the exasperation in his voice. All that gentle calm gone now that he wasn’t tricking all those things out of Jack. He hated what Pitch had done.

He made a point of walking back and stomping on it. Glass cracked, the oil oozed over the tiles.

‘Jack,’ Pitch said, and Jack was tired of hearing Pitch say his name over and over. It was a technique, he knew. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

‘You said there was no training today. So I don’t have to have anything else to do with you until tomorrow, yeah?’ Jack said, glaring at him.

Pitch’s eyes widened, and then he looked like he was going to argue. But his shoulders sagged and he gestured towards the door.

‘Can you remember your way back?’ Pitch said, and Jack thought he sounded a little snippy. Like he had any reason to be.

‘If I can’t, I’ll flag a servant or something, like everyone tells me to do. Hope you got what you were looking for out of whatever that was.’

With that, Jack walked out and slammed the black door behind him. It wasn’t until he was halfway down the corridor that he realised he could feel it – the darkness inside of him. It had been there the entire time. It swirled and beckoned, and Jack rubbed at his face in disgust and forced it away.

He made his way back to his rooms with the help of a servant. He’d remembered most of the way, apparently, but just missed a right turn.

There he stood, looking towards the glass windows. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet. It felt like it had taken hours and hours but the sun wasn’t even high in the sky.

Jack picked up his staff and then leaned against it, closing his eyes. The things he remembered saying. About being made wrong, about not having a home, about how it had felt good to kill Crossholt.

He sat on his bed in a daze and when the lunch cart came, he’d come to something of a decision.

‘Hey,’ Jack said, and the servant startled and then stared at him. It was the kid who couldn’t have been any older than fourteen. ‘What’s your name?’

My name? Sir?’ the boy said. Then his cheeks coloured and he lifted the cloches while shaking his head. ‘Feliks.’

‘Are you allowed to take messages for me? Get them to people?’

‘I’ll have to clear it with the matron, but then, I don’t see why not, Sir. Are you sure you want me? There are others who have more experience.’

‘You seem cool,’ Jack said. He wished he said it with more enthusiasm, but even his weak smile was enough to have the boy beam back.

‘What’s the message?’ Feliks said.

‘Oh, right.’ Jack slid off the bed and walked to the chest of drawers near it, and pulled out the small card he’d been given. ‘Can you go to this address and see when tailor Flitmouse is free? This evening? Or maybe tomorrow evening?’

‘Is there something not right with your clothing?’ Feliks said, looking him over with an unexpectedly critical eye. Jack shook his head, looked down at himself.

‘Nah, nothing like that. Just- Might go and see him later.’

Since I’m allowed to leave the damned Palace.

‘Really? Flitmouse?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, laughing. He recalled telling Flitmouse that he was bad at making friends, and he wondered if that was why Feliks looked so shocked.

‘Oh, well, of course, Sir. Of course I can do that. My shift ends after lunch. And then I’m back on the night shift anyway, so I can get you a message back.’

Feliks bowed quickly, and Jack opened his mouth to say it wasn’t necessary, but he must’ve said it about ten times already and they never listened to him.

As Feliks walked briskly away, Jack remembered something else.

‘Feliks?’ Jack called. ‘You wouldn’t be able to bring me some tea? Like, some good tea? Um, not brewed for me but like, in a package? For Flitmouse?’

Feliks turned and bowed again in acknowledgement, and then he was gone.

Jack let himself fall back on the bed and he stared up at the ceiling. He had no idea how it was going to go, leaving the Palace without an escort for the first time since he’d fled. But he was tired of being at everyone’s beck and call. He wanted to feel like he had some secrets for himself, something that Pitch wouldn’t know, for once.

Chapter Text

That evening, Jack set out from the Palace dressed in what was now his official uniform, complete with sky blue cape and white shirt. He wasn’t meant to leave without it, and he didn’t want to ruin his chances of leaving by trying to slink out in his black training clothes.

He had high quality tea in a brown paper bag, and he had his staff in his other hand. The stars were already in the sky, and Jack felt strange walking unescorted.

But no one stopped him within the Palace grounds. A few people wandering about even tipped their heads politely towards him.

He didn’t exit through the Palace gates, but through a smaller service gate, and even then the guard simply looked Jack up and down and then held the wrought iron open for him. Jack stumbled over a thanks, and the guard looked like he wasn’t used to anyone acknowledging him.

The centre of the City of Lune rose around him quickly. The cobblestones, the multistorey buildings that had shopfronts in the first floor and people living in the apartments above. It was busy, and Jack clutched his staff hard, because so many people kept looking at him.

He kept thinking back to what Pitch had done to him, and then he’d veer sharply away from it. The things he’d said. The things Pitch had said to him, and just to get information. The only time Pitch would ever probably be nice to him.

‘Excuse me?’ said a young boy – he couldn’t have been more than seven – dressed in a small three piece suit, his hair coiffed. ‘Are you Jack Frost?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, looking down at him, and then smiling at the mother who was walking up behind him. She had a basket over her forearm, with a wedge of cheese and some fancy bread, and then a whole lot of parcels and packages. ‘That’s me.’

‘You were in the parade,’ the boy said. ‘You made it snow!’

‘I did,’ Jack said. ‘See?’

He waved his staff, and only when it started snowing around them, did Jack realise that he probably shouldn’t have done that while it was still so busy.

‘Mama! Mama, look!’

‘I can see, darling. Make sure you don’t get any in your hair.’

But the boy was clutching at it all and laughing, and Jack couldn’t stop himself from smiling, and then chuckling along to the expression on the boy’s face. Even the mother seemed happy about it, and held her hand out to catch some of the snow. She brought it to her nose and sniffed it, and then rubbed it in her fingers, as though checking it was real.

‘You are a marvel,’ she said, looking down at him, beaming.

‘Thanks so much,’ Jack said, thinking that he was forgetting all the etiquette he’d been taught, but if he tried to stay good-natured, they hopefully wouldn’t care much. ‘The Tsar says not everything has to be so serious all the time. Sometimes we all need to have a little fun, don’t we?’

Another child approached, and then another, and Jack realised a small crowd was approaching.

‘Can you make the animals?’ another child said.

‘I can do them even better today, because you’re all here. Look!’

A frost rabbit bounded around their feet, and they laughed and pointed, and Jack looked at all the people surrounded him. They all seemed happy. It didn’t matter that he was poor, or that he came from the creches, or that they had so much more social standing than he did.

The Tsar was right, the people needed this.

Jack set off a flurry of rabbits, and there was a smattering of applause. Jack felt a strange prickle of fear then, and looked around, expecting to be bombarded by questions like he had by those nobles at the after-party.

Everyone was polite, however. They praised him and told him he was a wonder, while the children said he was the most fun soldier they’d ever met, and that fun would definitely scare the Living Darkness away.

They all know who I am. And they like me.

Jack offered a grin and said:

‘Well, I should be off though. I have an appointment and I don’t wish to be late.’

There, he remembered something of how he was supposed to speak and everything.

‘Be well,’ said some of the others, and a few adults reached out to shake his hand.

The children shouted after him, and then were quickly quietened, because shouting was unbecoming. But Jack turned around and winked and waved, and they waved vigorously back, standing on their tiptoes as though that would somehow allow them to see even more of him – even though they could see all of him.

Jack felt warm as he made his way to Flitmouse’s house.

It turned out that Flitmouse lived in one of the taller, ramshackle buildings, that looked like it had seen multiple extensions and none of them designed to match the other. The shopfront had darkened curtains that didn’t show any wares, and the sign said: Glass and Fixtures and Other Curiosities.

Jack peered at the list of names by the side door, and saw that Flitmouse lived in the attic. He craned his neck, and then walked around to the back of the building down a narrow, dingy allow, and began his walk up the stairs that had all seen better days.

At the top, where the sloping tiled roofing came down to Jack’s shins and he stood on some kind of strange decking, he knocked on a dark wooden door.

It was yanked open immediately.

‘Late,’ Flitmouse said, looking Jack up and down. ‘And your uniform is rumpled. Do you not take better care of your clothing?’

‘Hello to you too,’ Jack said, rolling his eyes. Flitmouse wasn’t dressed as fancily as he was in the Palace, but even his clothing that he wore at home was formal and angular. And there were prints upon it again. This time, on his brown coat, a pattern of cats that was nothing like Jack had ever seen.

‘What? Fine. Hello. Better? Come in then. Hurry up now.’

Jack walked into the attic, surprised at how large it was, and staring up in wonder at the windows that faced right up at the night sky. The stars winked at him clearly. Flitmouse waved to a small table with a circular top, that had only two chairs by it. Then he busied himself with a kettle that looked old and rusted. Jack blinked at it – for it looked like the kind of kettle he’d known even before the creche, when he and Pippa had a mother and father that he couldn’t remember clearly.

‘The tea?’ Flitmouse said, striding over. He frowned at the paper bag and Jack wasn’t sure what was wrong with it, so he just shrugged.

‘The servant – Feliks – said it was good.’

‘You didn’t buy it?’ Flitmouse said, looking put out.

‘I don’t have- I don’t have money to buy it,’ Jack said.

‘They’re paying you a stipend though,’ Flitmouse said dismissively. ‘You have money.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, watching Flitmouse withdraw the tin of tea and open the lid, sniffing carefully. He made a grumbling sound that wasn’t disapproval, but some grudging acceptance of the quality. Then he pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and walked back over to the counter, pulling down two mismatching, frail cups and their saucers.

There were bolts of fabric everywhere. Jack assumed that the big lump beneath huge drapes of heavy damask could have been a sofa. He wondered when Flitmouse had last seen it.

‘I don’t know if I do have money,’ Jack said, frowning. ‘Are they paying me a stipend?’

‘They pay all Golden Warriors stipends,’ Flitmouse said absently. ‘Handsome ones. If you’re not sure how to even discover that you have wealth, perhaps you might give it to me, and I’ll take better care of it for you.’

‘Because what you need is more excuses to buy more cloth, right?’ Jack said.

He’d guessed right, when he saw the way Flitmouse affected a look of mock offense, even as his eyes glittered with good humour. At once, Jack felt a rush of warmth. By the Light, he’d not felt anything like this for a long time.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ Jack said, drawing a circle on the table and watching tiny frost spirals follow. ‘The next time I come back – if that sofa is clear – I’ll see about giving you my wealth.’

‘Oh, well, that’s impossible,’ Flitmouse said. ‘The sofa is hideous. No one should look at it.’

‘Why do you have something you hate in your home?’

‘It was a gift,’ Flitmouse spat. ‘If you must know, a past lover bequeathed it to me knowing I’d loathe it, as his ‘parting gift.’ Because I am as spiteful as he is, I kept it and pretended to adore it. Should have seen the look on his face.’

‘But you hate it,’ Jack said.

‘As well one should,’ Flitmouse said, spooning tea leaves into strainers that hung directly over the cups. ‘I always intended to reupholster the thing in something worse, and bequeath it back.’

‘That’s so petty,’ Jack laughed. Flitmouse scowled at him, but said nothing else. ‘You’re always so businesslike in the Palace.’

‘Businesslike everywhere,’ Flitmouse amended.

‘But petty,’ Jack added.

‘Everywhere,’ Flitmouse said, nodding with a faint smile.

‘So I shouldn’t make you mad?’

Flitmouse left the water to boil and came back, sitting down on the chair and looking about his attic. Eventually, he came to look up at the stars.

‘Oh, I’m always quite angry,’ Flitmouse said. ‘Nothing to be done about that. Not in Lune.’

Jack shook his head, confused, and Flitmouse tilted his head and looked at Jack, sidelong. It was as though he was making his mind up about something, and then, in a sharp clapping sound, he struck his palm against the table. It creaked in response.

‘Doesn’t it upset you? The Darkness encroaching on Lune, even getting into the Palace – because I don’t believe the press that it was a practice run – and the Royal Admiral just hanging about like social decoration? The Tsar hardly seeming to care? Shouldn’t they all be jaunting about out there, fighting off what threatens us? They wait. Like sitting ducks.’

‘There’s got to be a reason behind it,’ Jack said, frowning.

‘I know you have the look of a naïf about you,’ Flitmouse said, ‘but use your mind. You have one, don’t you? I’ve had mannequins smarter than you.’

Jack rolled his eyes, the sting of the words not nearly so sharp knowing that this was probably how Flitmouse talked to everyone. The kettle started to whistle shrilly, and Flitmouse got up and left, looking over his shoulder at Jack as though assessing him.

‘You know what you are, don’t you?’ Flitmouse said. ‘Everyone knows that you come from the creches, that you aren’t even of city stock. You’re nothing more than a pretty image for all the poor people to imagine themselves in the place of. If you can do it, maybe they can. Imagine. All of you. Collectively so stupid.’

‘Hey,’ Jack said, staring at him. ‘Hang on a minute-’

‘No,’ Flitmouse said archly. ‘That’s what you are. As to why that makes me angry, have you not noticed that no one else will ever attain what you have? You are a gimmick. You do not even know. When the Tsar’s people came to me, they told me to make you fantastical, like a dream. Something that floats down from the skies to bestow snowy blessings. A white-blue wonder. I know what they wanted.’

Flitmouse poured the water out carefully, bending down to inspect each cup. Then he set an hourglass on the counter, the sand trickling down to count out the brewing time.

‘There’re others who have what I have,’ Jack said. ‘There was another soldier who came from the same stock I did, and she’s a Golden Warrior too. She’s going to be one of the best.’

‘Bully for her,’ Flitmouse said, leaning back against the counter and folding his arms.

‘So did I come here for you to insult me the entire time? Or do you actually want me to be here?’

Flitmouse pressed his index finger and thumb against his temples, took a quick, deep breath.

‘I want you here,’ he said, his voice less sharp than before. ‘But I did not expect to like you in the beginning, and it confounds me that they leave you so unaware, on purpose. If Lune falls tomorrow to the Darkness, it won’t be because I sat back and watched you believe that your snowy, icy antics were somehow a joy upon the world.’

‘A lot of people didn’t complain at the Parade yesterday,’ Jack said.

‘If only I’d been there, then,’ Flitmouse said, smirking. ‘I know it would have been impressive. I also think it’s a lot of flash bang because they want us all to look in the other direction. The Tsar is a great magician, and his sleight of hand is like none other.’

Jack and Flitmouse looked at each other without blinking then. Jack felt like he was being tested, somehow. He’d felt like this when the Spymaster Toothiana had asked him about how he felt about Jamie leaving. He’d felt this at other times.

‘Do you want to report me?’ Flitmouse said quietly. ‘Because of what I just said?’

‘Should I?’ Jack said carefully.

‘Should you? I’m only expressing a thought.’

‘Yeah, but-’

‘It’s only words,’ Flitmouse said. ‘I’ll do far less damage with my words than you will, with your actions.’

‘I’m not hurting anyone,’ Jack said.

Flitmouse turned and that seemed to break the tension between them. He removed the tea leaf strainers and placed the cups and saucers, and then small pots of honey and milk, onto a wooden tray. He brought it over and sat it down.

Jack took the cup and saucer carefully. He wanted to add some honey, but he knew it was expensive, and he got the sense that Flitmouse didn’t have a lot of coin at his disposal. The attic was large, but it was still just an attic.

‘Your actions will lull the people into a false sense of security, at a time when they should be worrying for their lives,’ Flitmouse said, pushing the pot of honey towards Jack with a sharp nudge. ‘Have some. It’s very good.’

‘Thanks,’ Jack said. ‘I really thought I’d be able to get away from politics tonight. You know. Just talk about cloth or something.’

Flitmouse smiled over his cup, even as he smelled the steam that rose from it.

‘I like talking about politics,’ Flitmouse said. ‘It makes me a dangerous friend. My disposition means I don’t have many, and my views mean I have even less than that.’

Jack knew the tea would be far too hot for him, but he added the honey and tried not to wince at the heat clinging to his fingers.

‘Why do you work in the Palace, then?’ Jack said finally.

‘I’m Lune’s best tailor,’ Flitmouse said. ‘I know it. They know it.’

‘Yeah but you’re...’ Jack didn’t want to say ‘a seditionist.’ Firstly, it might not be true. Secondly, Jack didn’t want it to be real.

‘Jack,’ Flitmouse said, setting down the cup and sighing, ‘we will not be struck down with lightning for looking critically at Lune and deciding what we think about it. Even if what we think is not so flattering towards the Tsar and his retinue. I might be wrong, and perhaps they have everything with the Darkness in hand, but I do not think I’m wrong.’

‘Why is it so bad to give people hope?’ Jack said. ‘People stopped me on the street. They were happy.’

Jack thought of what Pitch had said about it all. He swallowed, thinking back to it now. Was it possible that Pitch thought the way that Flitmouse did?

But he’s the Royal Admiral, he can’t think that way.

Maybe that was why some of the others thought the Tsar was working against Pitch, or leading him to retirement. Maybe that was why the Tsar wanted Jack as a spy.

Jack hadn’t even decided what to think about that yet.

After the day he’d had, he felt a bit cracked through. Places in his mind that he would have ignored in the past, he found harder to ignore now. He could almost hear Pitch telling him that it was safe, and nothing could hurt him, and he was doing well.

It made him feel sick and warm all at once.

Then Jack realised that Flitmouse hadn’t responded to him at all, and he looked up to see Flitmouse studying him with that acute gaze.

‘What?’ Jack said, nervously.

‘I want to show you something,’ Flitmouse said abruptly. He stood, walked over to a dark corner and started moving bolts of fabric about until he revealed a chest of drawers. Then, from the lowest drawer he brought out some yellowed bits of newspaper.

He brought them over, and set them before Jack. The newspaper was ancient. It wasn’t in print anymore and the print itself was fading. The headline was still clear:

Village Disappears, Tsar Calls For Calm.

Jack frowned at it, and then squinted at the paragraph in the beginning. He didn’t know all the words. They didn’t bother teaching the creche children the best literacy. But he knew enough of them.

‘This was before the Darkness,’ Flitmouse said quietly. ‘Before we knew it existed, anyway.’

‘So what happened?’ Jack said, keeping his ice under firm control as he shifted the leaves of paper and realised that these were all different articles, some published months apart.

One of the previous headlines, three weeks before:

Village of Husthoun Haunted, Shadow Men Reported.

‘My ancestors are from from Husthoun,’ Flitmouse said, touching a manicured nail to the paper. ‘My great, great, great, great...something Grandmother, she wrote letters about the hauntings to her brother, who lived elsewhere. She was frightened, and had not the money to leave the village. She waited, instead, for the Tsar to save her.’

Jack swallowed the lump in his throat and looked over the other articles. They were all dismissive towards the concept of ‘Shadow Men’ and ‘Clinging Darkness’ and the villagers were mocked in article after article. Then, apparently, hundreds of people vanished overnight.

‘Were they taken by the Darkness?’ Jack said, thinking with horror back to when the Darkness had attacked the platform. The day Jamie had gotten shadow sickness, the day that Pitch had dismissed him and his skills and caused Jack to feel the determination to prove him wrong one day.

I’d forgotten that. I’d forgotten that I felt that, after the mountain.

‘No,’ Flitmouse said. ‘They were removed by the Tsar. We don’t know why. We’re quite certain they’re not alive. About two months later the Tsar had no choice but to announce that there was a fiendish Darkness that had to be combatted. But very few mentioned Husthoun.’

Jack looked at the headlines and shook his head slightly.

‘Why were they removed? If they had proof that- I mean-’

‘Because the Tsar likes things to run very smoothly in Lune,’ Flitmouse said, spreading out all the articles on the table. ‘These first reports he didn’t want, and risked chaos. All he does is for the good of Lune, yes? So these villagers and their claims had to be stopped. It’s strongly believed by some of us that back then, he thought he could eliminate the Darkness entirely from Lune, and therefore, anyone who mentioned it needed to be disappeared. So they were.’

Jack looked over all the reports and couldn’t quite think of what to say. He couldn’t really think at all. Flitmouse sipped at his tea and then said:

‘I suppose you think they were disappeared to some fun magical cloud land where fairies bless them and nothing bad ever happens to them ever again.’

It stung, hearing that.

‘I just don’t know what to say,’ Jack said.

‘Many of the people who were family members or friends outside of Husthoun never got any answers. Those who asked too loudly also disappeared.’

Jack looked up and wished he hadn’t. Flitmouse just stared at him.

‘What do you want from me?’ Jack said.

‘I wanted to show you something important to me,’ Flitmouse said, ‘and my family. That’s all.’

‘Right,’ Jack said. ‘That’s all.’

‘I think it’s good to hear a lot of different things from a lot of different people. If you don’t believe me, that’s fine, but then you should seek out other answers from other people, instead of just always believing what you’ve been told.’

‘You haven’t even asked me how I’m going,’ Jack said. ‘What kind of friend are you?’

‘Oh fine. In what mood do you find yourself on this fair evening?’

‘Shit,’ Jack said, ‘honestly. Since that’s what you care about, you know. The truth. Or something. Today I was forced to reveal a ton of stuff I didn’t want to, to someone who had to do that to me because last night I went and attacked the Disciplinarian and destroyed a bunch of the Palace. Because you know, my powers are in such great shape and all. I’m doing such a good job of bringing hope to people.’

Flitmouse sat back in his chair and kept staring, but Jack was glad it was shock now, and not the sharpness of before.

‘No one in the Palace actually seems to really trust the Tsar,’ Jack said, laughing, feeling like he sounded a bit manic or hysterical. He bit the noise down. ‘Not most of the people I’ve met. Obviously not you. And none of that makes any sense to me, because as you keep pointing out over and over again, I don’t know shit, and I come from the background I come from.’

Jack almost stood, but instead he clasped his hands tight in his lap and thought the tea was probably still too hot for him.

‘What I really wanted tonight was to come over here, and talk to you about stuff that wasn’t connected to all of this, and – I don’t know – learn something about fashion or something, since I don’t know anything about it. And instead you think it’s time for some really depressing history lesson so you can what? Gloat to all your friends that you shattered how I think about the world? Is that it? Will this be the gossip tomorrow when you’re back in the Palace?’

He couldn’t make himself look up. There was silence, and Jack waited for remonstration. He was shocked to hear a small choked sound.

‘I’m sorry,’ Flitmouse said.

Jack looked up, but Flitmouse wasn’t looking at him anymore, or even the papers on the table. He was looking down into his own lap. His breathing was unsteady.

‘I’m really not…’ Flitmouse shook his head sharply and then sighed. His shoulders slumped. Then he laughed. ‘I’m not good at this at all.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s-’

‘No, I apologise,’ Flitmouse said firmly. ‘I didn’t even think about what you wanted. Or maybe I’d just assumed you wanted answers and I am ever so used to people in the palace being rather mercenary about everything. I am as well, you see. In a different way. It’s hard to be a soft person there. And you are a terribly soft person.’

‘Oh, seriously?’ Jack said.

‘It is not such a bad thing, to be soft,’ Flitmouse said, with a sharp smile, and his gaze that felt like little needles. ‘It is a habit for many of us, to prefer soft things over coarse. Silk is a luxury material, and burlap is not.’

‘You’ll carry more in a burlap sack than silk,’ Jack said, remembering a saying from his childhood.

‘And that is so,’ Flitmouse said, something suddenly wistful in his expression. ‘But there’s a place in the world for silk, not that my parents thought so.’

‘They didn’t?’

‘I was the person everyone came to, to have socks darned or the in-seams of pants mended. It was so useful, but when I said I wanted to take it further, they mocked me. I take after my father. But he was more of a blade than even me. When he mocked me, his words cut.’

‘I can believe it,’ Jack said, feeling less defensive than he had a few moments ago. Flitmouse was trying, at least, and that mattered. Jack picked up the tea and realised it was still so warm, and blew cold air over it. Tiny frost crystals fringed the edge of the liquid, and Flitmouse watched in fascination.

‘It is a wonder,’ Flitmouse said. ‘Is it not? Whatever that mountain is. Whatever it does. They say you’re a Guardian. Of Lune.’

‘Who says that?’ Jack said, clutching the cup.

‘Not many,’ Flitmouse said, looking away. ‘Some. But you evidently don’t know that you are. There is a legend. Or something of a story, perhaps. It goes that those who go into the mountain and come out with something other than just the Light – if they survive it – will become a Guardian of Lune. They are the true protectors of Lune and its citizens. And they will not always agree with the Tsar.’

Jack put the cup down and rubbed at the back of his neck, his gut turning. He thought of who he knew of as the Guardians so far, he thought of how he’d been warned of executions, how there were things he could never talk about if he didn’t want blood on his hands.

‘Why are you being so open with me?’ Jack said.

‘Because I thought you were one of them,’ Flitmouse said. ‘My intelligence was good, and I had reason to think so. I think you may still be one of them, but that they are taking their time with you. It is hard to shatter someone’s belief in something so much larger in themselves, especially when they have so little to replace it with. But you are not here for this. And I didn’t intend to reveal myself as a seditionist to someone who is not. But I don’t think you’ll report me.’

‘No,’ Jack said, feeling treasonous even as he said it. Flitmouse only chuckled – a quiet breath of sound.

‘Even if you did, I am always ready to leave in but a moment.’

‘I don’t want anyone to die because I said something,’ Jack said. He hesitated, then pushed the bits of ancient newspaper away. ‘In the Barracks, my best friend, he left. Right before the Initiation. With the Guardians. He told me to look for them, I mean he wanted me to come with him. I couldn’t do that, and I tell everyone else that he’s treasonous, but he’s my best friend first. He’s like a brother to me.’

Jack thought of North, and wondered if his next visit should be to his Workshop. North had said he would find out how Jamie was doing.

‘So no,’ Jack said, ‘I...I didn’t report him. I let him go.’

Flitmouse had his head tilted, like a curious bird. Jack thought he was beautiful, in a faceted, angular way.

‘Maybe you are one,’ Flitmouse said. ‘But you’re not like the rest of them.’

‘You know who they are?’ Jack said.

‘You tell me,’ Flitmouse said, mercurial. ‘Oh, of course I know. I’m a stickybeak. I get everywhere I’m not supposed to. But you didn’t come here for this, did you? So, come, let me teach you a little bit about cloth.’

‘Uh...’

‘You’ll love it,’ Flitmouse said, standing and offering his hand. ‘Come along, let me show you all the different grades of cotton I have, wasting away, because no one wants them right now.’

Jack stood and returned Flitmouse’s smile, and they walked deeper into the attic, and Jack tried his best to keep up with the flow of information that followed.

*

On the way back to the Palace, it was dark, and most of the City of Lune residents were back in their homes. Jack knew it was a chilly evening, even though it didn’t feel uncomfortable. Other people’s breath plumed as they hurried wherever they were going, but Jack’s didn’t seem to do that now.

He stopped before the Disciplinarian’s Tower. Looked up to where there were lights at the very top. He knew in a detached way that the Disciplinarian had tried to be kind to him, but his skin crawled. Was that what his life was supposed to be now? He would need to try and be friends with people he’d once been terrified of?

There was a part of him that wished to apologise, too. That wished to say ‘I’m sorry.’ That desired to find out whether Bunnymund would be crueller to him in the future.

‘I’m sorry,’ Jack whispered.

He turned and continued back to the Palace. The walk was long, but Jack couldn’t bring himself to hail a carriage, and the winds around him felt friendly and peaceful.

He had a lot to think about, and he didn’t even know where to start.

*

He sat by the control panel that changed the tinting on his windows in his room. Everything was clear now, and he could see the bright evening and the stars, and wondered if he should be scared that the Darkness was out there, and that they weren’t doing anything to thwart it. Flitmouse was right. Why was the Royal Admiral attending parties?

Jack rubbed at his forehead and tried to muddle through what had happened earlier in the day. He knew that Pitch had no real choice in the matter. Knew, even, that in telling Jack that he didn’t have to take the drug, he was giving him more of a choice than Crossholt or many others would have.

But it humiliated him, to have talked about being made wrong, or not knowing where his home was. There were things he’d said, that he hadn’t even known. He didn’t remember flying back to the Barracks to find Jamie. He thought he’d only been escaping a fate that he wasn’t supposed to escape.

What hurt most of all was how kind Pitch had been, because he needed his answers. Kindness was probably the fastest way to get what he wanted. But being told that he was good, and okay, and…even normal, it made Jack’s chest hurt now. He knew no one would ever really tell him those things. Not ever. And certainly not when they didn’t need something from him to make him stop attacking people.

‘Made wrong,’ Jack whispered into his fingers, which had found their way to his lips as he covered his mouth.

Pitch could talk about how the Darkness had etched into him as well, but Jack knew it wasn’t the same. Pitch was raised into the higher classes, he was well-educated and he had many friends even though he didn’t have what Jack might call a ‘winning personality.’ Pitch probably had family, a mother and a father, because children who weren’t born in the poorest territories were allowed to stay in touch with their parents. Nobility especially. Pitch probably could remember the faces of his parents. Maybe they were even still alive.

Deep inside, Jack wondered if he’d allow himself to experience induction again like that, with Pitch, just to hear the praise. Just to feel those warm fingers upon his wrist, and then his hand.

But he couldn’t imagine putting aside his anger to do it. He could imagine himself sinking his teeth into Pitch’s wrist before allowing that to happen again. Freezing him still, or attacking him with ice, even. He would never let himself be tricked into revealing things like that again. Not ever.

Jack startled when the door opened and looked up, expecting it to be Pitch.

Instead, it was Seraphina. She looked at Jack, and then closed the door behind her. She wore a pale green nightgown, and her hair tumbled down her back in a dark cloud. She was barefoot, and there were leaves and dirt clinging to her feet. A red flower was tucked behind her ear, a vivid glare against her skin.

‘You shouldn’t be here,’ Jack said. ‘But hi.’

‘Good evening,’ Seraphina said, walking towards him. ‘I can’t sleep.’

‘Me either,’ Jack said. ‘Is it late?’

‘Terribly,’ she said, smiling at him as though they were sharing a secret. Then she walked easily to his side and sat next to him, and looked out at the stars. Jack thought at some point, perhaps she had decided to feel more comfortable around him. Or maybe she just missed Fyodor so badly, she was pretending Jack was someone else.

‘I really like your costume,’ Seraphina said, touching the light blue cape with its frost at the edges. ‘I think it suits you.’

‘Uh, thanks,’ Jack said, laughing. ‘I didn’t get much choice in the matter.’

‘Oh, well, I’m a child, I never get to choose my own clothes,’ Seraphina said archly, as though it wasn’t such a bad thing to have other people choosing those things. Jack agreed with her anyway. He had no idea what really suited him. And the uniform was comfortable.

‘You’re a pretty serious child,’ Jack said, looking out at the constellations. Would they even let him fly out in them? Searching out pockets of Darkness and vanquishing it?

‘Am I?’ Seraphina said. ‘Father says I can be so juvenile. And Mama says I am precocious.’

‘What do you think you are?’ Jack said, looking down at her.

Seraphina gazed up at him and then looked at her hands. They were grubby, and her fingernails had dirt packed deep beneath them.

‘I’m a princess,’ Seraphina said. ‘But a princess of plants. You all learn how to cut things down, but I am going to be the best grower of plants. And I’m going to make vines and trees that go all over, and they will be grand and flower always.’

‘Wow,’ Jack said. ‘That sounds cool.’

‘You want to see?’ Seraphina said, standing and holding her hand out. ‘Come see.’

‘Yeah?’ Jack said, not caring very much in that moment what Pitch would think. ‘Am I going to remember my way back?’

‘I’ll bring you back to your rooms,’ Seraphina said quietly. ‘It’s the least a princess can do.’

‘See, you’re already awesome at being a princess,’ Jack said, taking her hand.

Seraphina hesitated, squinted as though checking whether he was making fun of her or not. Then she nodded once, and smiled briefly.

Her hand felt so little and warm in his hand.

‘If my fingers are too cold, you don’t have to keep holding my hand,’ Jack said as he was led through the door that led to the sundial-that-wasn’t-a-sundial, and Pitch’s rooms.

‘Your fingers aren’t too cold, silly,’ Seraphina said. She sounded exasperated that she even had to say it, and Jack tried to imagine her with her parents. Did she order them around? Was she only like this very late at night when she couldn’t sleep?

Seraphina didn’t talk as they wended their way through hallways. Her steps were light and her hair was so long that it sometimes brushed across his wrist as he kept his fingers clasped in hers. He had his staff with him, and sometimes sent little swirls of frost ahead of them, and she didn’t seem bothered or excited by them at all.

Instead of taking the hall that led to Pitch’s rooms, they took another. This one painted with murals of plants and flowers and lit with an Alchemist’s light – golden and ever-glowing. They passed an open door, and as they walked past it, Jack saw a huge four poster bed covered in a gauzy green material. There were dolls and potted plants on the floor, as well as flower garlands, and what looked like a space chart.

Then they were facing wooden double doors, and Seraphina pushed her hands to them and opened them, walking inside regally.

Jack stepped past the threshold, and blinked at the jungle greenness and flashes of colour. He looked up to the circle of night sky and realised there was no glass above them, and that this huge, circular space was some kind of garden. But it was huge. The floor beneath his feet was a tiled mosaic of flowers and vines, interspersed with tiny squares of gold.

Seraphina kept walking until she was no longer on the tiles and her feet were sinking into soft, dark, loamy soil.

‘Come on,’ Seraphina said. ‘This is Mama’s part. Not my part. It’s not all mine yet.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said. He followed, felt the difference between the cooler tiles and the warmer soil beneath his feet. It was wet too. He pushed past glossy green fronds that were as huge as his whole body. Trunks towered up above him, and clinging to their impressive girths were fungi and epiphytic plants with stunning flowers he’d never seen before, not even in books. It was hard to remember to keep walking. Pippa would have loved it.

Eventually the soil path became stepping stones, and Jack could hear running water and wasn’t sure where it was coming from. How big was this place? Jack’s breathing came faster, feeling like he’d somehow stepped into another world. The awe was making him forget everything the day had showered upon him.

‘We’re nearly there,’ Seraphina called back to him, and he followed her, trying to not to lose sight of her pale green nightgown. She was so light on her feet that he couldn’t follow the sound of her.

He looked down and saw four green frogs hunched together, breathing rapidly, the little pouches on their necks flickering. They watched him go, bronze eyes unblinking.

Then the jungle seemed to clear and in the clearing, a field of flowers and grass. A small waterfall that must have been built by someone, but looked like it had always belonged. Seraphina sat down before a patch of bright red flowers like the one she had in her hair. Jack joined her, laying down his staff so he didn’t accidentally damage anything.

He could hear sounds coming from all around them. Some of the flowers seemed to hum a pleasant melody. Others swayed in an unseen breeze, making a sound like rung bells. He could smell something rich and bready, and then something like citrus and sugar, or sweet peppermint on his tongue.

‘You really are a princess of plants, hey,’ Jack said, looking around. ‘Did you make this?’

‘The plants are making it,’ Seraphina said, ‘but I encouraged them. I like meadows, Mama likes jungles. She said we could make it work. So we are.’

‘Seraphina, this is- Thank you so much for showing me.’

Seraphina gave a small smile down at her lap then, and she looked almost shy, which seemed nothing like how she’d been the rest of the time.

‘You’re nothing like Fyodor,’ she said, looking up then. ‘You know, he was sweet and kind, but he was like- Oh, I don’t know. He didn’t like plants. He thought Mihail was stupid, when Mihail is only different than us, and thinks differently than us. But the first time Fyodor saw this place, he was so scared of crushing the flowers he couldn’t enjoy it.’

‘I’m a little scared of crushing the flowers too,’ Jack whispered, winking at her.

‘But you’re still sitting here with me,’ Seraphina said. ‘You can’t baby the plants. Where they all come from, animals walk over them all the time. They’re stronger for a little trampling. That’s what Mama would say.’

‘That’s good advice,’ Jack said.

Seraphina picked some flowers up in her hands and handed them all to him. Jack took them and had no idea what to do with them, and then laughed. If this were Pippa, he’d know exactly what to do.

‘These aren’t for me,’ Jack said with faux seriousness. Seraphina looked up at him, her eyes widening.

‘They’re not?’

‘No, look.’ Jack reached out and tucked one into the cloud of her black hair. And then another. He thought he was being too bold, but her eyes fairly sparkled at him, and her lips were tight to hide her smile. Soon she had six more red flowers in her hair, and he cast around looking for others that he could pick.

‘Those,’ she said, a smile in her voice. She pointed at tiny white sprays of blossoms. As Jack picked them, they released a scent that was sweet and honeyed.

‘Mm, they smell good enough to eat,’ he said.

‘I know, don’t they?’ she said. ‘They’re so good.’

‘Here,’ Jack said, tucking sprigs of flowers into her hair. ‘Now you really are a princess of plants. All that’s missing is the crown.’

‘Father has given me tiaras that look like flowers,’ Seraphina said. ‘They’re in my room.’

‘Yeah? He’s a good Dad. In the meantime, I can do something about the crown.’

Jack concentrated on his ice, holding his palms flat. The crown that appeared wasn’t made of flowers – he wasn’t quite that good yet – but it was delicate and light, and Seraphina clapped her hands together in delight. Then two spots of red appeared on her cheeks and she looked mortified that she’d done it.

‘May I?’ Jack said, offering the crown to her.

‘But of course,’ she said, looking at the crown.

‘If it’s too cold, you can take it off.’

‘It’s just ice,’ she said. Then she bent her head forward and Jack eased the crown upon her head. It caught the light and glittered, and he grinned as she sat back. Even now her shoulders were poised and her nose was up, as though she could look down it at him. Jack tried to imagine all the things she would learn from her mother and father, and thought that one day people would want to follow her to the ends of the world.

‘Perfect,’ Jack said.

‘I like this,’ she said. Her fingers came up and gently touched the ice. The same tenderness she must have showed her flowers when she wasn’t concerned with giving them a little ‘trampling.’

‘Me too, hey. Thanks for coming to find me tonight. You’re good company. Why don’t you go to your father?’

‘He needs sleep,’ Seraphina said, pursing her lips. ‘He’s very tired.’

‘He’s sick?’

‘Not like that,’ Seraphina said. ‘But he doesn’t sleep much when he’s with his military. And he spends a lot of time on strategy matters and the war when he’s here. And then the Tsar wants him for so many things and sends him on errands and tasks. I hate it. I hate it here sometimes.’

The words lacked venom. She said it as though she knew it would never change, and Jack thought that no child should look that soul weary.

‘Hey,’ Jack said, standing. ‘Show me more of these flowers. Do you have favourites?’

As Seraphina stood, Jack had the sense that she knew he was trying to distract her, and that she was allowing it. But she nodded, and for a little while, they walked all over the meadow and she told him the names of plants and their scientific classification and – if they had them – their healing or edible properties.

Eventually they stepped through to the other side of the garden, and there was a large plaque upon it with the glyph-sigil writing that Jack didn’t understand. It looked amazing, though.

‘See?’ Seraphina said, pointing to it. ‘It’s a special garden.’

‘Oh, I can’t read that, sorry,’ Jack said.

Seraphina squinted up at him, and then unexpectedly said:

‘Are you so stupid?’

After the time they’d spent, Jack hadn’t expected it. She didn’t even say it with malice. But he was more worn through than he realised, and he remembered the Pippa in the mountain insulting him through the Darkness and his heart wrenched inside of him. At once, his eyes burned and he forced himself to turn away, embarrassed and horrified at his reaction.

‘Oh! No! Oh, I’m sorry!’ Seraphina said, running around to his front and taking the hand that wasn’t holding his staff in hers. ‘No, of course you’re not stupid. You can’t read?’

‘They don’t teach us that alphabet,’ Jack said, his voice strained. ‘It’s not important. You know, to creche kids.’

‘Really?’ Seraphina gasped. ‘But it’s so beautiful.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘I know that. But it’s for nobles and rich people. And scholars, I guess. Not...us.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Seraphina said again. She sounded genuinely contrite, and Jack forced his eyes open and looked down at her. Her own eyes were sheened. ‘I’ll teach it to you.’

‘What?’

‘Well if I can learn it, you can learn it. So I’ll teach you.’

‘You- Seriously?’

‘Jack,’ Seraphina said, frowning up at him, ‘you should know by now that I’m very serious.’

‘Maybe even too serious,’ Jack added with a careful smile.

‘Maybe so,’ Seraphina said, smiling back.

‘You’re like a tiny little adult,’ Jack said.

‘I know,’ Seraphina said. ‘It makes Papa sad. Sometimes he makes me ride his shoulders and runs around his home, because he thinks I’m too serious.’

Jack swore there was a moment he couldn’t think at all, trying to imagine that. Seraphina laughed, and she clasped his free hand with both of hers, warming it. Jack liked the feeling.

‘He really does that?’ Jack said, wondering if she was having him on.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Mama too, sometimes. But Mama is more of a tickler.’

‘Oh. Ticklers are horrifying.’

‘And see, now, I tell her that, but she doesn’t believe me,’ Seraphina said. Then she yawned hugely, and a few seconds later, yawned again.

‘Come on,’ Jack said, ‘bedtime.’

‘Bedtime,’ Seraphina echoed. ‘I’m walking you back first.’

‘Nah, I don’t really think that’s-’

‘I’m a princess,’ Seraphina said firmly, ‘I’m walking you back. Princesses are kind to their subjects.’

‘All right then,’ Jack said, shrugging. ‘Princess Seraphina, walk me back to my room.’

‘Yes,’ Seraphina said, her voice suddenly sleepy. ‘Oh, the crown’s starting to melt.’

Jack lifted it from her hand and turned it into a spray of diamond dust before her eyes. Seraphina smiled at it, and then looked up at Jack. She didn’t hold the awe that the citizens of Lune did. Perhaps she was used to seeing wonders and magic. But she looked pleased that he’d done it all the same.

*

Jack woke in the early dawn light, to see Pitch standing over him. He blinked up sleepily, tendrils of horror already beginning to creep through him. But at the same time, he remembered Pitch’s warm, calm voice telling him that he was very good, and he wasn’t awake enough to panic.

‘I didn’t expect to find Seraphina here,’ Pitch said quietly, his voice wry but gentle.

Jack looked over the other side of the bed. Beneath the covers, only her black hair visible – flowers still in it – Seraphina slept. Jack vaguely remembered thinking she was probably too tired to go back to her room anyway, and she’d crawled in without saying anything or even asking.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘She was pretty tired.’

‘Yes,’ Pitch said on a sigh, looking at her. ‘She never sleeps well. She has nightmares.’

Jack pushed himself upright, but Pitch waved him back down. He didn’t seem angry at all, which was miraculous. The last time Jack had seen Seraphina in the middle of the night, Pitch had come back and threatened him.

‘How are you faring, after yesterday?’ Pitch said, looking back at Jack. His voice was as gentle as it had been in the room.

That made it harder, somehow. Like he was still being tricked.

‘Great,’ Jack said, the events of the day coming back to him. And that conversation with Flitmouse, too. ‘Hey, have you heard of Husthoun?’

Pitch’s eyes widened, and then he blinked as though he couldn’t believe he’d heard the word.

‘Don’t you ever bring that up around the Tsar,’ Pitch said, his voice an urgent hiss.

‘Yeah, yeah, I’m getting that,’ Jack said, wearily. ‘I guess. Whatever. How am I after yesterday? You- I can’t believe you did what you did.’

‘You know why I had to,’ Pitch said, his voice still low and quiet.

‘I know you’re an asshole.’

‘I am still your Admiral, and you will treat me with respect.’

‘Or what?’ Jack said, staring at him. ‘What will you do? Send me to the Disciplinarian? Who I nearly killed? Is that really what you want at the moment? Or is that like...something the Tsar would disapprove of?’

Jack was shocked at himself. He hardly knew where the words came from. By the way Pitch looked at him, he seemed to feel the same way. A moment later, Pitch’s expression darkened and he glared. A muscle jumped in his jaw.

‘I’ll tell you what, hey,’ Jack continued, feeling spiteful, ‘I’ll treat you with the same respect you’ve shown me so far, and we’ll call it even.’

Muscles on both sides of Pitch’s jaw jumped.

Then he walked around to the other side of the bed and gently lifted Seraphina into his arms. She made a sleepy murmur and clung to him, pressing her face into his neck. Pitch scowled at Jack.

‘You’re training today,’ Pitch said finally. ‘It will be one of the harder sessions.’

‘Looking forward to it,’ Jack said with a tight smile.

‘Good,’ Pitch said. He managed to make the word sound like an insult, and then he walked away and left the room. Jack slumped as the tension left his body. He pressed his palms over his face and groaned.

Chapter Text

Tiredness plagued him in the morning. It made him clumsier than usual during his etiquette lessons, and it made him slide his right foot into his left pants leg when he was dressing for training. Then he kept yanking, as though that would solve the problem. It took him a good thirty seconds to work out what he’d done wrong, and then he groaned and fell backwards on his bed.

He had no idea what he’d gotten himself into anyway. Everyone said the Tsar couldn’t be trusted, but Jack didn’t think he was terrible. Could he have killed a whole village? Maybe the Darkness did, and the Tsar didn’t want to say so.

Or maybe he did. He runs those Asylums. Plenty of people die there.

Training wasn’t holding much appeal, especially after Pitch had said it would be harder than usual.

Especially as Jack could still feel whatever darkness Pitch had been searching for the day before, coiling and curdling inside of him. It felt like it was just waiting for a moment. It wasn’t prodding him into behaving in any particular way, but it was there, and Jack couldn’t make it go away, or push it so far down he didn’t feel it anymore.

Pitch would probably be happy about it, but Jack still held onto stubbornness. He didn’t want to attack people with it, therefore, he wouldn’t.

That seemed simple enough. After all, it had been working for him so far.

Except at the after-party.

‘Come on,’ Jack complained at himself. ‘Just- Not today.’

He was still too angry at Pitch to even think about training. It didn’t matter if Pitch had his motivations. It didn’t matter that he loved his daughter or that he obviously didn’t have it out for Jack the way that he used to. It didn’t matter.

*

Jack followed Pitch to the arena that afternoon. He looked at Pitch’s robes and how they moved around him. He wondered if he’d understand the sigils if Seraphina really did teach him the proper glyphic alphabet of Lune.

Yeah, and then I’ll be able to read it. It probably says ‘I am a gigantic dick.’

Jack muffled a laugh, and Pitch turned to look over his shoulder, eyes narrowing. Jack scowled back.

It’d probably feel really good to swing a sword at Pitch, even if Pitch did knock him down about a hundred times per training session.

‘So how’s it going to be harder?’ Jack said, glaring at Pitch’s shoulders. ‘More laps today?’

‘Maybe,’ Pitch said, sounding indifferent.

‘You’ll fight me with like, two swords?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Do you even know?’ Jack said. ‘Or are you just bluffing?’

‘You’ll see.’

The hand that wasn’t holding onto his staff clenched into a fist, and ice immediately covered it. He shook it away, forcing his jaw to relax. When he was younger, he’d saved pocket money to buy memorabilia of the Royal Admiral, and now he wanted to burn it all. Pitch didn’t even seem to really care that he’d just rummaged through Jack’s mind like that.

He probably doesn’t. And now that he’s used the fear trick on you, and done that, today is going to suck.

‘Just tell me,’ Jack said.

‘No,’ Pitch said. Jack swore he could almost hear a smug, crappy smile in his voice.

Jack made himself take a breath and ignore the darkness that he could still feel. It was there now. It felt like Pitch had helped Jack to open doors in his mind that would make him more aware of it, and that wasn’t any kind of real ‘help.’

It was harder to tell if he wanted to shoot ice at Pitch’s back just because he was annoyed, or if the darkness thought it would be a good idea. He couldn’t tell the difference.

Just before they took the corridor to the arena, Pitch stopped, and Jack frowned, stopping as well.

Pitch turned to him and didn’t look angry, but thoughtful.

Yeah, that never promises anything good either.

‘If you feel your inner darkness as you have in the past – as you did during the Parade when we released our light – are you able to tell me?’

‘Probably,’ Jack said. Then he added: ‘But will I? I don’t know. That’s anyone’s guess, really.’

Pitch didn’t even blink, and Jack hated that he looked away then, just in case Pitch decided he’d get his revenge by making Jack feel some kind of nameless terror.

‘Someone braver wouldn’t look away from me,’ Pitch said then.

‘Yeah, well, maybe you can find them and train them instead.’

Pitch exhaled in that way that could have been amusement.

‘If only,’ he said. ‘Jack, are you able to say if the darkness is there? Or is that too difficult? I require a serious answer. You don’t have to like me, but have you abandoned your purpose so quickly? You care naught for Lune at all?’

Jack’s eyes snapped back to Pitch, shocked that Pitch would even question that. Then he thought about what Pitch had actually asked him, and he twirled his staff in his fingers, frowning. Surely it would be harder to hide the darkness inside of himself, if he had to say that it was there? It was just easier to ignore it.

‘I don’t think so,’ Jack said. ‘I mean, I don’t think I can say.’

It’s there right now. And I’m not saying a damn thing.

Pitch’s lips thinned, but he didn’t seem to be annoyed. After a beat, he looked at Jack’s staff, and his eyebrows lifted before he met Jack’s eyes again.

‘Are you able to signal, with your ice? Some...flare? Something small?’

Jack shifted his staff and then shot out a small burst of ice. It rose about a foot above his head, and then showered slowly back down to the ground.

‘Like that?’

‘Exactly,’ Pitch said, looking pleased. Jack thought of how pleased Pitch had sounded the morning before, and amongst all his anger, a yearning rose in his chest that he wished wasn’t there at all.

‘And you want me to do that whenever the darkness is there?’

‘If you could.’

Jack nodded to himself, and then without looking away, he set off another flare of ice from his staff.

Pitch stared at the flare of ice, and then looked back to Jack, his brow furrowing.

‘Ah,’ Pitch said carefully. ‘This will be interesting, then.’

‘What will be?’

‘You’ll see,’ Pitch said, and then he walked down the corridor towards the arena.

Jack clutched the staff tighter. Was Pitch going to do the fear trick thing again? What was he going to do? Jack wondered if he could just send about five flares directly into Pitch’s back.

Probably not.

Then, he cleared the entry into the arena and stopped dead.

The Disciplinarian. Right there. Right there in the arena in a full Golden Warrior get up, with his boomerangs strapped to his back and his alchemical staff at his side.

Jack felt the breath fall out of his mouth, as though he’d been punched.

‘Ha,’ Jack managed. ‘Nope.’

Jack turned around and walked straight back down the corridor.

‘To borrow a word,’ Pitch said, catching up to him quickly and grasping him by the upper arm. ‘Nope.’

‘You can’t be serious,’ Jack hissed. ‘You fucking think this is a good idea after yesterday?’

‘I think it’s already working remarkably well,’ Pitch said.

‘You’re- You- I’m...I tried to kill him.’

‘And, like me, he cannot be easily killed. I have the healing Light, Jack, everything is well in hand.’

‘I’m not doing this,’ Jack said, even as he was practically frogmarched back towards the arena.

When the Disciplinarian saw him again, he smiled and lifted a paw in greeting.

‘G’day,’ he said, and Jack thought he was probably trying to be non-threatening, but no way was he in fighting gear if he wasn’t there to fight. And no way did Pitch intend this to be non-threatening.

Jack turned to Pitch and then gripped him with his spare hand. Ice travelled over Pitch’s robes, cracking and splintering as it went.

‘I’m so not doing this,’ Jack hissed.

‘You don’t even know what we’re doing,’ Pitch said, unconcerned by the ice.

Jack didn’t even look at the Disciplinarian then. He couldn’t even think about his name. He could feel scars pulling at his shirt, even though he wasn’t aware of it the rest of the time. There was a part of him that wanted to send up so much ice they’d both leave him alone.

His free hand twitched towards the hilt of his smallsword.

I am so not doing this, he thought to himself, even as he was steered into the middle of the arena.

‘All right,’ Pitch said, stepping away from Jack and withdrawing his sword. ‘We’re training today. We’re not leaving until I know you have a better handle on that darkness of yours.’

The Disciplinarian came closer and Jack looked at him, jaw tightening. For that, he got a narrowed, calculated look, and the Disciplinarian’s ears dropped slightly. He cast a dubious look at Pitch.

‘You don’t think this is a little ‘too much, too soon’ mate?’

‘No,’ Pitch said smoothly. ‘I don’t. I’ve seen what he does with other methods. He’s only training himself into getting better at ignoring it, for longer periods of time. It’s too dangerous.’

‘I’m right here,’ Jack said. ‘Literally like two metres away from you.’

‘He’s also recalcitrant,’ Pitch added, as though Jack still wasn’t even there.

Jack ground his staff down into the ground and then turned away from the both of them. Then, because his anger wasn’t doing anything good, he walked several steps away and shook his head. Pitch knew, he knew that Jack would respond like this. Jack frantically tried to shove the anger away. It wasn’t working.

‘Oh I know, mate, I’ve seen his bloody file,’ the Disciplinarian said, laughing. ‘Recalcitrant isn’t even at the top of the list. That’s way down.’

A slow breath in, and even slower one out through clenched teeth. He didn’t even want to hear what Pitch had to say to that. It was obvious they were baiting him.

‘Crossholt’s file isn’t accurate,’ Pitch said.

Jack blinked, and then turned back to stare at him.

‘What,’ the Disciplinarian said scornfully, ‘you can’t tell me none of it isn’t-’

‘I’m not saying none of it isn’t, I’m saying it’s not accurate,’ Pitch said firmly. ‘If you make conclusions about his character based off the content in his file, you’ll steer yourself wrong. And possibly get injured in the process.’

The Disciplinarian turned to look at Jack, and Jack didn’t want to meet his eyes. He didn’t want to look at either of them.

It was easier when they were just baiting me. I think.

‘Jack,’ Pitch said, ‘the whole point of today, is to get you to a point where you can first act on your darkness without blacking out, and then ideally learn how to give it direction.’

‘So just impossible things then, basically,’ Jack said. ‘Great. This is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done, out of all the stupid things you’ve done.’

‘Oi,’ the Disciplinarian said, ‘are you sure his file isn’t accurate? Because it sure sounds like it.’

‘This isn’t about you,’ Jack said, glaring at him and then looking away, because by the Light, he felt like he was at the top of the Disciplinarian’s tower and they were going to give him a leather bit at any moment to bite down into. He could almost taste it in his mouth.

He looked away, and thought that he should be stronger about it. Then he glared at Pitch, because this was all down to what Pitch had ripped out of his mind the day before.

‘Despite your protestations, this is about him,’ Pitch said, looking completely indifferent to Jack’s insults. Then he turned to the Disciplinarian. ‘Aster, I just want you to observe at first, to get an idea of his form.’

‘Rightio,’ the Disciplinarian said. Bunnymund. He didn’t suit a name that benign.

Pitch ordered him to move through some basic forms. Jack took a deep breath and began, but he felt the Disciplinarian’s eyes on him the entire time. It made him clumsier. It was harder to concentrate. He wanted to turn around and make sure that he wasn’t presenting his back to him, but Pitch wasn’t giving him much of a choice.

‘You can do better than that,’ Pitch snapped after the second run-through and Jack shifted his grip on the smallsword.

‘I know.’

‘Then do better.’

Jack’s eyes flashed up, nostrils flaring. The darkness inside of him swirled around, gaining momentum.

It’s what he wants. This is what he wants. But he has no idea what he’s asking for.

He tried to squash it down as much as possible. He closed his eyes, took some deep breaths. There. A bit more of that and he could-

-He staggered backwards and fell, arms flailing. His chest blazed with a sudden bruising pain. He hit the sawdust hard, and looked up to see the butt of Pitch’s sword facing him.

‘No,’ Pitch said. ‘Get up and run through the form again.’

The first flicker of real fear then. Because this was not how things had gone before in training, even when the Disciplinarian hadn’t been there. Pitch had always given him time to centre himself between forms and exercises. If he couldn’t take it now to sort himself out...

‘Get up,’ Pitch said. ‘Do it again.’

Jack pushed himself upright and looked nervously over at the Disciplinarian. But his face was unreadable. Jack swallowed and shook his head, trying to concentrate, and then went through the form again. He moved his sword the way he was supposed to. His footwork was good. But where he’d had aggravation before, there was fear dancing alongside it. He could feel his scars constantly.

It was when he ran through the form yet again, that he briefly imagined what it might be like to attack Pitch with his ice. It came and went as a graphic image that flared across his retinas, and he was furious when he realised that he’d briefly lost control of his ice at the same time. There was a crooked star of it on the sawdust, at the moment he’d imagined it.

He stared at it, and felt trapped.

He couldn’t just run. The only reason he was here, that they were training him, was this idea they had that he might be able to be a Golden Warrior. But Pitch had been firm – he couldn’t do that, until he got control of his darkness.

But he didn’t want to deal with it.

‘Again,’ Pitch said.

Jack opened his mouth, closed it again, still staring at the ice that wasn’t melting. It took so much longer to melt than regular ice.

‘Remember,’ Pitch added, his voice not as hard as before, ‘you can use your staff to signal when you need to.’

But Jack refused to signal with his staff, and he ran through the sword form again, forcing himself to focus on his breathing, on the details of the form.

Three more times he ran through the form, feeling no more flashes of malice or hatred. Pitch made a thoughtful sound and called the Disciplinarian over.

‘How much two-on-one training have you done, Jack?’ Pitch said.

‘Enough,’ Jack said. ‘And three-on-one, and all the other- You know, standard training.’

Whatever Crossholt could think up if he wanted me to get beaten down and didn’t want to get his hands dirty.

‘But I don’t think this is the same,’ Jack added.

It was well known that the Disciplinarian didn’t fight with a sword at all. He fought with boomerangs, which weren’t standard issue, and he fought with the magic and Light he could summon with his staff. He had a ceremonial sword, but otherwise, he was a wildcard. Jack never stood much of a chance when he sparred with Pitch.

With the both of them...

Jack knew Pitch was doing it on purpose, and he grit his teeth, holding both smallsword and staff.

‘It’s fine though,’ Jack said.

‘You can use your staff today as well, and attack with ice. I trust Aster to know to get out of the way.’

‘Bloody oath you do, I hopped out of the way at the Palace quickly enough, didn’t I?’

Pitch and the Disciplinarian shared a quick smile, and Jack ignored the feeling in his chest, or tried to. Why did everyone have to be friends with each other? Why did everyone get along while Jack was left...not quite on his own, there was Flitmouse, and Cupcake, but it wasn’t the same as this camaraderie.

‘All right,’ Pitch said, moving, ‘I’ll attack first, and then Aster will join in. Defend yourself however you wish. If you feel the darkness wishing to express itself, I want you to follow through on that. Remember, you cannot truly harm us here. We are between the two of us, among the best fighters on all of Lune.’

‘Careful, mate,’ the Disciplinarian said, ‘that was almost a compliment.’

Jack watched as they both backed off in different directions. He bit nervously at his bottom lip and then made himself stop doing it. Did he point his staff at the Disciplinarian? Or his sword?

Speed hallmarked the beginning of Pitch’s attack, and Jack had no choice but to swing his staff and smallsword towards him. He wanted to keep an eye on the Disciplinarian, and tried retreating so that he could see both at the same time. But Pitch’s attack was too concerted, and Jack couldn’t get the position he wanted. This was nothing like going up against other trainees.

The sound of an explosion behind him, a glimmer of colour in the corner of his eye, and Jack tried to swing an arm free to at least defend himself, when he felt the crack of something sharp across his back. An explosion of pain, a whip lash, and Jack staggered and then went down hard, legs swept out from under him with the flat of Pitch’s sword.

Jack took deep, gasping breaths, trying to collect himself. He dropped his sword and reached behind him, trying to feel for a tear in his shirt. Then, when he didn’t find one, he reached beneath the fabric to feel the welt on his back. He drew his hand free and saw no blood on his fingertips, and blankness ruled him for several seconds.

Then, so fast it left him dizzy, Jack turned on his hands and knees and sent a blast of ice in the Disciplinarian’s direction. His throat rasped on the sound of outrage he made, even as he clumsily got to his feet, sword in his other hand again. He completely lost sight of the Disciplinarian behind the flurry of ice he sent.

He saw several flashes of colour that must have come from the Disciplinarian’s staff – magical splashes of magenta, royal blue, gold. Then nothing.

I hope he’s dead.

The thought shocked him, and then he realised what he’d done and he dropped his sword and couldn’t even see if the Disciplinarian was alive because there was too much ice. He hadn’t even felt it building like he had at other times. It was just there.

‘Jack,’ Pitch said quietly, ‘it’s all right.’

He could hear his own breathing. Getting faster. Fear and panic tumbling through him. His back still ached from whatever the Disciplinarian had done. How had he managed to make his magic feel like that?

‘Strewth,’ came the Disciplinarian’s voice, a little muffled. The ice cracked through, fell apart into splinters and musically clinked upon the ground. The Disciplinarian stood behind it, panting for breath. His ears and whiskers were tipped with frost, but otherwise he looked fine. ‘So it works, then.’

Jack looked slowly at Pitch, and felt a slow nausea when he realised that Pitch had planned all of this based on their encounter in the black room. From the Disciplinarian using magic that felt like whip strikes, to not letting Jack calm himself down or get his focus back.

They didn’t understand how awful it was. Pitch could say he’d experienced it, but it wasn’t the same. Jack didn’t want to hurt anyone. He didn’t want to see flashes of awful things happening to people and feel glee resting behind it. He was tired of blood saturating the corners of his mind and this feeling that he could just claw his way to safety if he hurt enough people.

He was terrified of it.

‘I’m done,’ Jack said, looking between them both. ‘I quit. Whatever. I’m not a soldier. Put me in an Asylum. I don’t care. I’m done.’

He walked away, mind racing, too dull to pay attention to any of it.

He expected Pitch to run after him like before and steer him back to the arena, but it didn’t happen.

Instead, when he was at the threshold, he heard that explosion of magic again and even as his body tried to tense, he felt the crack of a whip over his back.

Just as he tried to process that the Disciplinarian had attacked him with no warning, while his back was turned, his back exploded with the pain of another lash. Agony flared through him. He swore he could feel leather cutting through him. Breathing choked to a stop in his throat.

The terror of the darkness warred with the terror he felt over those whippings, and then Jack felt himself turn, staff out.

He stalked back into the arena.

‘Why won’t you listen to me?’ he breathed. He doubted they could hear him.

The ice kept building inside of him. His hair moved in all directions with the wind that gathered around him. The gales moved wildly, as though they alone could protect him from the Disciplinarian’s magic.

‘Why won’t you both listen to me?!’ he shouted.

Then, hardly knowing what he was doing, he placed both hands on the staff and let loose.

The flurries of snow hid the worst of the ice, until it was so vast and broad it made it impossible to see Pitch or the Disciplinarian. He attacked both at the same time, letting free more ice than he ever had in the past. At the same time he couldn’t shake the image in his mind’s eye of both of them crushed by it, mangled in pieces because of it, blood oozing down on the blue-white cold and freezing still.

He swallowed bile and kept going, burning through his rage for almost an entire minute, before the ice was as tall as the jungle trees around Seraphina’s meadow.

He went to his knees, exhausted, arm shaking. The wind pushed and pulled at him, and he felt something eluding his thoughts. He was able to fly because of the wind. How had he done that?

The strangest feeling then, that he hadn’t done it at all, but the wind had done it for him. Maybe it wasn’t about controlling himself and making his body fly, but letting the wind lift him and guide him.

That thought floated away quickly, as Jack tiredly pushed himself up. The ice around the Disciplinarian broke down again, and Jack faced him, staff out. He looked over his shoulder to see if Pitch was fine. He kept saying he was unbeatable, but Jack had seen ice in his thigh before.

After about a minute, the Disciplinarian beginning to look worried, Pitch emerged through a small hole he’d cut into the wall of ice with his sword. He brushed shards of ice and frost from his shoulders and chest. He looked unfazed.

‘Did you blackout?’ he asked Jack.

‘Didn’t you hear me?’ Jack said, his voice shaking. ‘I’m not doing this.’

‘Did. You. Blackout?’ Pitch repeated.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Jack shouted. ‘Why do you want this? Is that why the Tsar wants to spy on you? Is that it? Because you’ve just changed sides or something?’

Pitch’s eyes widened, and the Disciplinarian looked shocked – his mouth had dropped open. Jack still refused to put his back to the Disciplinarian.

Never, ever again.

‘Jack,’ Pitch said calmly, ‘the darkness inside of you is not the Living Darkness. It is you. It comes from you, and it is a part of you.’

‘Nope,’ Jack said, shaking his head. ‘It’s not.’

‘You’re not possessed, so what – then – is the problem?’ Pitch said with that same infuriating evenness.

‘It’s not me,’ Jack said. ‘I’ve never had thoughts like that before. Not once before the mountain. Never.’

‘I want you to stay with it,’ Pitch said.

‘No! I don’t want to, and you can’t make me.’

‘It’s quite evident we can, actually,’ Pitch said. ‘With the right triggers, it’s easy as pie.’

‘I don’t want to!’ Jack said. His voice cracked, it was shaking. This was humiliating. He’d never sounded like this even around the Disciplinarian. Even during the worst whippings. He’d never lost it like this.

‘You will stay with it,’ Pitch said firmly. His golden eyes were unforgiving, his whole will felt immoveable.

‘I don’t want to,’ Jack said again. ‘I’m going to lose my fucking mind.’

‘You won’t,’ Pitch said.

‘I will! I’m not like you, I’m not like- I will.’

‘You won’t,’ Pitch said, implacable. ‘You’re only dealing with yourself. Not the Living Darkness. They’re not the same. You need to learn yourself, don’t you? Remember what they teach you in training?’

‘It’s not just myself,’ Jack said. ‘It’s not me.’

‘You’re scared of yourself,’ Pitch said, his voice now scathing. ‘Did they teach you nothing, Jack?’

Jack stared at him, tried to swallow down the worst of his breathing. He felt like he was going to be sick.

Maybe I will spy on him, for the Tsar. Who cares what the others say? The Tsar has been pretty good to me.

‘I have never, in my life, thought or seen some of the things that the darkness shows me,’ Jack said. ‘It’s not me. It’s something else.’

‘It is a part of you, and it will never go away. Ever again. It is yours for life. You can try and squash it down, but it will sneak forth when you least expect it, and you will blackout and you will murder people because of it. Or you can learn it around people you cannot harm, and find safer ways to deal with it. It is less likely to do what you don’t want, if you give it a path, and a direction. Just because the Darkness opened those doors in your mind, doesn’t mean all of that malice and hatred isn’t yours. You always had a capacity for it, Jack. We all do.’

‘It’s true, mate,’ the Disciplinarian said.

Jack was mortified that the Disciplinarian was there in the first place, seeing all of this.

If Pitch wanted him to use his darkness, then, fine. Because it seemed almost too easy to use it now.

Jack didn’t shoot a barrage of ice from his staff this time. Instead, shafts of ice pushed up from the ground all around the Disciplinarian, who – clearly not expecting the attack – moved hurriedly away. Jack chose the moment he was distracted to shoot ice at him with his staff. His attack was more concerted this time, more strategic, and he stalked forwards wanting nothing more than to make sure he never had to hear his voice again. Not for the rest of his life.

When he stopped, the ice slid away from a protective dome of magic that glistened like oil slick. Then the dome slid away too, and the Disciplinarian lowered his staff.

‘Always thought you had a bit of a beef with me,’ the Disciplinarian said. ‘I was only ever doing my job, y’know.’

‘Yeah?’ Jack said, his voice hoarse. ‘Well, I’ve been ordered to do this, so I guess the both of us don’t have a choice.’

He sent out more of the ice. Even with exhaustion sitting heavily upon him, the ice seemed endless, and the wind around him was as furious as he was. It pushed him along the sawdust, making him move preternaturally fast. He felt himself lift onto it briefly, as he moved towards the Disciplinarian, teeth bared.

No time to be excited about that. He was tired of hearing that Pitch and the Disciplinarian were untouchable, unbeatable. It wasn’t true.

He heard a muffled sound, the Disciplinarian cursing under the sheer weight of ice falling upon him, pushing up randomly from the ground.

How long will your magic last then, huh? Jack thought, snarling. Just how safe from me are you?

‘What’s it like?’ Jack called, unable to stop himself from grinning, unable to stop the calculated joy of it. Deep down a screaming horror that he could be like this to anyone, but it was too deep now. It felt as though he’d always been this dark, cruel thing, and that the wholesome side of him was nothing more than a mask.

‘What’s it like to just have to take it?’

A boom of energy shook through Jack’s staff, and blue lightning skittered crazily from the tip, crawling along the sawdust, sending some of it sparking and popping. It wove its way around the towers of ice he’d used to imprison the Disciplinarian. Even now, his back burned.

A sob of breath then, and his energy was starting to flag. The wind rose and fell, unable to sustain itself. But he knew there was more. He knew there was more.

He dug into himself, rummaging through the darkness, the fantasies of killing, destroying, torturing the Disciplinarian into nothing but skin and blood and bits of bone. It wasn’t enough. The ice wasn’t going to be enough.

A raw cry as he found it.

‘You think-’ Jack gasped. ‘You think you’ve ever known me?’

Both hands iced to his staff, and he slammed the butt of it into the ground and then pointed it at the place where the Disciplinarian must have been beneath all that ice.

He expected more ice.

Instead, he was blinded by the sudden white-gold Light that flooded through him. It saturated the ice around him, suffused his flesh until his back didn’t hurt, until he felt warm and human again.

I can make it?

Jack stared at it, numb as thoughts began to abandon him. He’d poured himself out. Maybe he’d killed the Disciplinarian. He wasn’t happy about that anymore. Didn’t know if he’d be happy about anything, given that seeing the Light didn’t make him feel anything like joy or peace.

He fell, the staff sliding across the ground as he couldn’t make it support him.

A hand on his shoulder, and Jack looked up, blinking at Pitch. The Light was everywhere, he had to shield his eyes. Why wasn’t it going away? He wasn’t even making it anymore.

‘A moment,’ Pitch said to him, and strode off decisively towards the ice.

Jack half-lay on the ground, supported by a hand on the sawdust, his legs shaking. He watched as Pitch used his sword to cut through the ice, which wouldn’t stop glowing. The ice was holding it, and it was too bright. Jack looked away again, heaved for breath. When had he become so breathless?

Then, he heard the sound of the Disciplinarian’s laughter. It didn’t sound mocking or crude. It was muffled, and it sounded relieved. A couple of minutes passed, and Jack could hear them talking to each other, but couldn’t make out their words. Then he heard footsteps approaching him.

Could he be grateful that the Disciplinarian was still alive, after all that hate? It turned out he could.

‘Careful,’ Pitch said. Jack didn’t think it was meant for him. He could hear them coming closer, and Jack knew his back was towards the Disciplinarian. Through sheer force of will he used his hands to move himself until he could shuffle so that his back wasn’t facing him.

‘I can’t believe it,’ the Disciplinarian said. ‘It’s not even fading.’

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Pitch said, his voice muted.

‘It’s not even straight up ice, either. It’s wind, snow, all of it. It’s like winter itself. Crikey, I know some of us come back with magic from that mountain, but it shocks me to think of the mountain parting with this.’

‘Yet it did.’

‘And gave it to him?’

‘He’s stronger than you think,’ Pitch said. ‘Though I believe this training session has come to an end. Two days from now?’

‘Yeah, but remember, you owe me.’

‘I’m not likely to forget,’ Pitch said.

A pause, and then Jack heard the Disciplinarian come closer to him. He tensed, expecting revenge, or some bite in his voice. Some version of: ‘I’ll get you for this next time, brat.’

‘Hey there, Jack, no hard feelings, okay? You and I owe each other a long talk one day, but not now. Well, hoo roo, see you in a few days.’

Jack didn’t even have the presence of mind to raise his hand and wave farewell. He listened to Bunnymund leave, his footsteps fading until the sound of them disappeared.

His thoughts kept crashing into each other. Pitch had done all of this, manipulated all of it into happening and shown just how easy it was to pull upon Jack’s fears. It had worked, too. He’d lost control without blacking out, and no one had died. And beneath all of it, just like Pitch had posited, his Light was waiting.

The Light felt good enough while he was making it, but he thought he’d feel pure somehow, connected to everything around him. And now that it was gone, he felt the coldness of his body, could taste ice in the back of his throat.

He sensed Pitch near him, and felt that if Pitch came any closer, he’d dig out whatever ice remained in him and try to kill him. Or if not kill him, just go for his Achilles tendons, or something equally painful. Jack didn’t even think it was the inner darkness now, driving that. His anger was so deep that it didn’t even feel bright and fiery. It was dull as stone, like a permanent fixture in his gut.

But above all of it, he felt confusion, and hurt. He swallowed and his throat hurt from all the gasping and shouting of before.

‘S’pose you’re feeling pretty happy with yourself,’ Jack said, his voice rough, biting.

‘You’re the one who made the Light,’ Pitch said calmly.

Jack managed a weary exhale of laughter, and then pushed himself up. His staff skidded and he didn’t know if he’d fall again. He felt himself shaking, glad that Pitch didn’t help him. He’d probably bite him or something equally stupid. How did these people tolerate him?

How did Anton and Eva care about him so much? How was he friends with Bunnymund? What was so good about him? It just seemed like he was a complete asshole with crappy tendencies and someone who just didn’t care about anything except some war he wasn’t even actively fighting.

Eventually Jack was standing under his own steam, and his breathing evened. He looked over at the towering edifice of ice and frost, and the light that glowed from within it. Still painful to look upon.

‘If you learn how to control it,’ Pitch said, following his gaze, ‘it could be tremendously useful to the Golden Warriors.’

‘Great,’ Jack said. ‘Can’t wait.’

Why had he wanted to be one again?

‘Did I break you?’ Pitch drawled, and Jack caught the flash of a smirk on his face as he turned away and picked up Jack’s smallsword where Jack had dropped it before. When he’d quit. When he’d quit and they hadn’t even let him walk away.

Jack accepted the sword and sheathed it, and met those golden eyes, feeling something dark and spiteful worm its way through him. He still couldn’t tell if it was the darkness or himself.

Pitch says it’s you. That it’s all you.

‘I dunno,’ Jack said, not even trying for lightness, unable to stop the bitterness. ‘Pretty sure I’ve got enough left to go for you.’

‘You’re welcome to try,’ Pitch said, ‘but you look tired. And we should get you back to your rooms.’

‘Room,’ Jack said. ‘It’s a single room. With a bathroom. I don’t have rooms. What, are you so used to saying it to everyone else, that you forget that you’ve just shoved me in the single room of your dead best friend?’

Pitch had been walking away, and then he’d stopped. When he turned around, the smirk had vanished.

‘So you did?’ Jack said.

He wasn’t even afraid. At this point he’d bled all the ability to care about any of it, out of himself. The first time he made the Light, he was supposed to make it among his peers, and he was supposed to feel the teamwork of it and the joy of it. Instead his back still stung from what Bunnymund had done to him. His chest ached from being hit with the butt of Pitch’s sword. There was no joy in this.

‘Careful,’ Pitch said.

‘You can dish it out, but you sure can’t take it,’ Jack said, following Pitch, legs slowly gaining their strength back. ‘Crossholt called that weakness.’

‘Ask me how much I care for the opinion of that small, miserable, dead man,’ Pitch said.

‘It’s not just me though,’ Jack said, as they entered the dark corridor. ‘It’s really not just me. Even the Tsar. You resorting to all this crap because you’re worried you can’t do your job anymore?’

Pitch’s steps slowed, and Jack felt himself begin to spark up a bit more, clenching his staff tightly.

‘Maybe-’

Pitch turned abruptly and Jack could feel the weight of Pitch’s glare. A flicker of fear then, and he looked away and still felt it, realising that Pitch wasn’t making it.

‘I would advise you to not keep bringing this matter up,’ Pitch said.

‘Or what?’ Jack said, meeting his eyes again. ‘You’ll spank me?’

He hadn’t really known that was what he was going to say until he said it. But once the words were out, the air between them went utterly still. Pitch didn’t move, and Jack couldn’t bring himself to say anything else.

Pitch stalked forwards and Jack backed up, breath coming faster, until he hit the wall behind him and grunted at the pain that flared in his back.

Pitch lifted an arm and Jack cringed away from it automatically, but Pitch did nothing more than rest his hand against the wall, by Jack’s face. He looked down at Jack and though his face seemed blank, there was something incredibly sharp in his eyes.

Then he just watched Jack, and it wasn’t intimidating at all.

Shit.

Pitch’s hand shifted until his thumb lightly touched the very back of Jack’s jaw.

‘Is that what you want, Jack?’ Pitch said, staring at him, unblinking. His voice was silky, even warm, but there was a precision to the sentence that made Jack feel as though he was pinned in place.

The tip of Pitch’s thumb was warm. As warm as the Light had made him feel.

‘N-No,’ Jack managed.

Pitch smiled.

‘Then why do you keep putting this nonsense out into the world? Almost everything that comes from your mouth... Do you think a spanking would pull you back in line?’

‘If it came from you? Probably not,’ Jack said, and then closed his eyes at his own daring. Why was he still baiting him? Why? The guy was the Royal Admiral for Light’s sake.

Pitch’s thumb drew along the underside of Jack’s jaw, and Jack swallowed, then swallowed again. It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel sensual. It wasn’t anything at all.

Shit.

‘If it came from me, it absolutely would,’ Pitch said, still in that dangerously gentle tone of voice.

Jack said nothing else, and Pitch leaned closer.

‘Don’t tempt me,’ Pitch said in that same tone of voice. ‘You see, I have just as much darkness inside of me as you do, if not more, and I don’t think you’re ready to learn how I choose to direct it.’

Jack’s eyes opened then, and Pitch’s face was close to his. Objectively, he knew Pitch was taller than him, and broader, but this was the first time he’d really felt it since Pitch had pinned him on the mountain.

‘You did well today, Jack,’ Pitch said, ‘don’t ruin it now.’

The words made Jack blink, and they broke the spell. With a snarl, he shoved Pitch’s arm away and side-stepped, hating that he needed his staff to brace himself.

‘It was already ruined, thanks to you,’ Jack said. ‘Nothing about today matters. I don’t care how well you think I did.’

‘Don’t you?’ Pitch said, tilting his head.

Jack wanted to scream, because he still did. He still did. He hated it.

‘You made the Light today,’ Pitch added.

‘Stop it,’ Jack said, pointing the staff at him. ‘Just stop fucking with me.’

He could still feel Pitch’s touch along his jaw. It had been so tender, but it had been something else, too... Not possessive, exactly. But he had the sense that Pitch knew how to own someone. Which was exactly what he’d fantasised about, once upon a time.

‘No,’ Pitch said, ‘Regrettably, I will not stop until I know you have charge of your darkness, and your Light.’

‘Regrettably,’ Jack mocked. ‘Whatever.’

‘Do you think you’ll spy on me?’ Pitch said. ‘Has the Tsar asked it of you yet? Or is he simply enquiring as to my wellbeing?’

Jack ran a hand through his hair. It was frosted all the way through, and the delicate ice crystals broke at his touch.

‘Why does it matter to you? If you’re not doing anything wrong, it shouldn’t matter what I do.’

‘Ah,’ Pitch said, smiling a little. ‘He’s nice to you, after all. Is that all it takes, Jack? A little niceness?’

It turned out there was one burst of rage left inside of him. It happened so fast. Gale force winds converged on them and before Pitch’s eyes had even finished widening, Jack had shot him through with several shards of ice. Nothing in his chest, no, at the last second he’d been able to pull that back.

But Pitch went down, ice in his arms, his legs. He looked at Jack in shock, his grey face paling.

‘Maybe that is all it takes,’ Jack bit out, ‘but it’s not like you’re ever going to find that out. Anyway, enjoy healing that, asshole.’

With that, Jack turned and forced himself to walk calmly down the corridor towards his room. As he went, he saw the glimmer of Light in the corners of his eyes that meant that Pitch was healing himself. He hated the relief that flooded him, knowing that Pitch could heal it, that he was going to be okay.

Chapter Text

He spent the rest of his time after the training session feeling a combination of numb and scared that Pitch was going to come after him seeking retribution for what Jack had done right at the end in the corridor. As a result, he’d slept hard.

He woke early – his training at the Barracks drummed into him – and showered. His body felt sore and slow, but his thoughts raced. 

The wind responded to him all the time now. He could feel it even in the bathroom. When he was mad, it was faster. When he was stressed, it moved like little cool fish against him. But aside from that, he felt more in control of himself, in control of his ice. It didn’t spiral away from him all the time. He could feel how after yesterday, it had settled down.

It made him furious.

Pitch was right. It didn’t matter if he was awful, and it didn’t matter if he had a face that Jack was starting to think was made for punching, and it didn’t even matter if he was apparently bad at being an Admiral or something because he’d been right all along. The moment Jack had actually accessed his darkness, the moment he’d not been able to run from it and gotten it out of his system, was the moment that his ice settled and he made the Light.

Jack ground his fists into the shower tiles and made a cut off growl in the back of his throat.

And Pitch was going to do it again. With Bunnymund there. He was going to do it again.

Jack knew he couldn’t just tough out the feeling of his back being lashed. He couldn’t. It made his mind crack through, which didn’t even make sense, because that had never happened when he’d been at the cross before, suffering through it.

Yeah, maybe because you knew if you didn’t tough it out, they’d just find something worse for you. Also, knowing what Crossholt’s stupid face would look like once he knew you wussed out of it.

Jack couldn’t even let himself think of what had happened in the corridor once he’d mouthed off to Pitch about being spanked. Every time he started to skirt close to Pitch standing over him like that, his thumb against Jack’s skin, it was like his brain pulled up the drawbridges and shoved Jack away.

Don’t think about that.

‘Cool,’ Jack said to himself, ‘I’ll just think about how much of an immense dick he is.’

That was totally doable.

*

Etiquette classes happened as usual. He paid only enough attention to make sure he wasn’t scolded, and then thought about what he’d do with his afternoon. Pitch had said that they were going to continue in a few days. That probably meant he had the afternoon to himself, and that tomorrow would be a nightmare.

He took a slow breath. He needed to train, but he didn’t want to train with them. Maybe…he could find somewhere else.

A sharp rap to his wrist with a fork and Jack grunted and paid attention to what he was supposed to be doing. What was it today?

Right, the correct way to eat aspics. Disgusting, jiggling meat jelly.

‘I’m never going to eat this, like – ever,’ Jack said.

That earned him another rap to his wrist, and Jack sighed and tried to make himself concentrate.

*

The following day, Jack woke early again, showered, dressed in what he thought of as his ‘Jack Frost uniform’ and left the Palace before his etiquette tutors showed up. He took his staff, he took a smallsword, and he felt his heart thumping in his ribcage like a frantic bird as he simply walked off the premises. He kept expecting people to come running after him, maybe his etiquette tutors, maybe a guard or something.

No one stopped him, and a few people even inclined their head to him in greeting.

Then, amazingly, he was just…free of the Palace.

Jack stood on the cobblestones out of the way of the carriages and the strange automobiles, and looked around. A part of him thought he should run back to the Palace and pretend he’d never done this. Because he’d never done this. Not since he was a very young child with Pippa, and they’d escaped the Creche for a little while to go do fun things for once. But he hadn’t done it a single time since she’d died. He’d been too focused on becoming a Golden Warrior.

That was supposed to have been one of the best days of his life, making that Light for the first time. One of the best.

It made it easier to set off away from the Palace. He didn’t have any money. He had no idea what he was going to do for food. But whatever. He’d had breakfast, and he could skip meals until he got back in the evening. And then he could ask about whatever stipend Flitmouse said they were getting for him. Maybe he could even ask Flitmouse, except Flitmouse said he never got home until about seven or eight in the evening, so visiting him was out of the question.

Jack wandered for a bit. He was interrupted a few times, until he learned that he was less likely to be stopped on the street if he walked with a bit more purpose in his stride, his chin up. Then people seemed to think he was on business.

Even if he did walk down the same street more than once because he had no idea where he was going.

Eventually he passed the Spymaster’s Tower of Memories, and he thought of going to see her – she’d been so nice to him – but then he remembered something he did need to chase up, and this time when he headed off in a new direction, there really was purpose to his step.

*

He knew where North’s Workshop was. He’d never been, but he’d studied maps of the City of Lune from the very first week he’d arrived at the Barracks and learned that it was where they’d be heading sometimes. He’d always imagined they’d take him to the Workshop at some point, but they never did.

North’s Workshop was on the outskirts of the City, which was far larger than Jack realised. At least he was used to walking and he wasn’t carrying any heavy loads or anything, so it didn’t really bother him. The apartments and tenements looked increasingly poorer out here, though Jack saw little things that reminded him of home. People with straw birds hanging in their windows, carefully tended trees and gardens with edibles growing right there in the planters so that folks could cut down on grocery costs. If it was anything like what he vaguely remembered, maybe they all shared seeds with each other, so that they didn’t need to buy more than necessary. Or maybe there was some coin pool, where they could get collective seeds for the following year.

He lingered out here, his steps slowing. People didn’t dare interrupt him now, even though he could see some of them looking at him with something wistful on their faces.

Already he could hear Flitmouse’s voice echoing in his head:

‘You’re nothing more than a pretty image for all the poor people to imagine themselves in the place of. If you can do it, maybe they can. Imagine. All of you. Collectively so stupid.’

It wasn’t that long ago that he saw nobles walking around and wouldn’t dream of interrupting them, even if it looked like they were dressed out of some fanciful, magical folktale. He’d seen North from a distance before, more than once, and just gazed. But why would he ever interrupt someone who was so high above him? Why would he risk their disdain or indifference, and why would he soil their perfect lives with his own, when he had nothing to offer?

That was how the people on the outskirts looked at him, and even though he felt like he was still one of them, he realised that he wasn’t. They wouldn’t accept him. Probably not ever again. They’d accept him as what the Tsar needed him to be, but he’d never be one of them in their eyes.

Jack kept his eyes ahead then, and tried to stop reminiscing, because it hurt too much.

*

The houses thinned out to farmland, and then nothing at all except for snowy fields and the beginnings of forests. Eventually Jack saw the tracks and roads change before he saw the Workshop itself. These were not cobblestoned roads anymore, but heavy reinforced tarmac with steel runners built in. The kind of roads that were used to seeing ships rolled out – even the heaviest of warships. Even the air smelled different. Motor oil, fuel, a thickness of pine because they were so close to the winterpine forests with their clustering trees.

Over a snow-topped ridge, the Workshop itself finally came into view. The broad roads wound down like snakes. There, resting like they were upon an expanse of black water: the warships of Lune.

The Workshop wasn’t one huge building like Jack had thought as a child, but many clustered together. It was shipyards, hangars, an inventor’s laboratory and more besides. Jack stood there for a few moments, taking it in.

North had said he could come any time. Jack supposed he was about to find out if North meant it.

As he walked down the hill, following along the edge of the road, he felt the wind moving around him. It was so friendly. Maybe like having a hound excitedly bounding around him. Jack thought of baby goats in spring, bucking and jumping and getting into everything.

In response, he felt small little shoves at his back, as though the wind was just excited as he was about visiting North’s Workshop.

‘Okay, okay,’ Jack said, laughing, ‘I’m going.’

He held out his free hand and felt a breeze coil around him like a scarf, before sliding away and tickling at his neck and hair. At first he’d only thought of it as an extension of himself, like the frost, which didn’t seem to have any emotions but his own. But the wind was something else.

Maybe that was why he couldn’t fly just by willing it. Yesterday he’d thought that maybe he needed to let the wind lift him.

If the wind wasn’t just an extension of him, maybe he needed to ask?

Would that be weird?

‘Hey, remember when I flew?’ Jack said, feeling self-conscious.

A huge updraft around him, strong enough to dislodge snow from the ground all around him, sending it spiralling upwards. Jack’s blue cape ruffled upwards around his face, his hair got snow stuck in it, and he felt a great lift beneath his feet.

He hopped along the ground, holding out his arms, suddenly seeing how it must have worked the first time when he’d been so scared the wind must have just…must have just made it work.

The wind let him back down to the ground gently. He hadn’t truly been flying anyway, but-

‘Wow,’ Jack whispered, looking down at himself. ‘That’d make leaving the Palace way easier. Thanks.’

The wind ruffled his clothing in acknowledgement, then settled.

Now wasn’t the time to learn how to fly. But the knowledge that it was there, waited for him like a gift. He’d leave it, the anticipation already bright and sharp inside of him. A reason to escape the Palace in the morning. To find a place to learn how to fly.

*

Jack was surprised that the yeti seemed to know who he was. They stood in the administration office, heavily furred and apparently not minding the heat. They talked to each other in a dialect that must have come from their home world, and then one stomped off with a forbidding expression on his face, beady eyes glistening.

‘So…’ Jack said, staring between the three that remained. Behind them, filing cabinets and a desk. On the wall, framed blueprints of the earliest warship designs. Some of these weren’t North’s, but came from older engineers. ‘How’s everyone doing?’

One of the yeti rolled his eyes and shared a long-suffering look with the others, and then walked off towards another door and left, closing it behind him.

‘Not ones for small-talk, huh?’ Jack said nervously. They were huge. Two and a half times the size of him, and thickly made. He’d never seen them before except in illustrations. Rumour was that North had met them once in his days as a Golden Warrior, and some had volunteered to come back to Lune.

‘Ah, they are not being ones for much small talk at all, Jack Frost!’ North boomed, coming in through the door and smacking the yeti that had fetched him on the back in affection. Anyone else would have staggered forwards several steps. The yeti just absorbed it. His fur shuddered, and that was it. ‘Thank you, Phil, for fetching me. Come on, Jack! So good you are visiting!’

‘Really?’ Jack said, even as he followed North’s huge frame through the door. ‘Are you sure it’s not-’

He stopped when he saw the bowels of factory open up before him.

It was better than he’d ever dreamed. And he’d dreamed of it a lot.

There were the huge empty hulls of ships still being fitted out with gears and pneumatic systems, fuelled half with coal and half with magic. Along the walls were all the old and new prototypes of the hydrofoils – the tiny single-manned vehicles with solar sails to catch the light of stars and space winds all at once. Only the dragoons were allowed to fly those, and the Royal Admiral – before he’d ever been an Admiral – had been Commodore of the Dragoons.

Huge trestle tables of metal lined up by the walls of the factory, and hanging overhead were endless supplies of cabling, rotors and propellers, wires and bits of motor. The whole place smelled thickly of oils and coolants, everything seemed made of metal. It was dull and rusted, or it shone and gleamed.

Jack startled when a warm hand came down upon his shoulder. He looked up, North smiling down at him.

‘So how are you liking my Workshop?’

‘I mean,’ Jack said, gesturing at all of it, ‘I mean, just-’

North laughed. Jack wandered off towards the hydrofoils. He’d always wanted one. Several yeti looked up from their work and cast him dark looks under their hugely scruffy, furred eyebrows, but Jack ignored them. North would tell him to cut it out if he was doing anything wrong.

Jack reached out and touched one of the silver ones, running his fingers along the metal of it.

Then, his eyes widened when he saw a sleek, black hydrofoil secured in a metal fretwork. He had a small illustrated postcard with that very hydrofoil on it.

‘Is this the Mora?’ Jack said, staring back at North with wide eyes. ‘Why is she here?’

‘Pitch says she is being finicky in her old age,’ North said.

Jack didn’t get any closer. He’d collected news articles on it. North had made the Mora hydrofoil for Pitch a long time ago, and then – always experimenting – had added more of his magic than he’d intended to during a service. She’d gone from a reliable hydrofoil to one that had a mind of its own, and seemed to famously be able to predict Pitch’s moods and needs when in battle.

North moved over to the small sail-ship, and she whirred and then buzzed in response. Two of the three small stern thrusters turned slowly, and then stopped.

‘And she just does that on her own?’ Jack said, staring.

‘She is being upset that she is here and not out in the field. Normally I am taking my machines apart for the workings inside but not her. But Pitch doesn’t want her back. Poor thing.’

North petted the black solar sail and Jack was momentarily distracted by the tattoos on his forearm. Then, the Mora clattered again, sighed, and fell still. North looked over at Jack and then shrugged.

‘There is not much we can be doing, right now. I am hoping Pitch will change his mind. She is not the only one who is finicky in her old age.’

‘I bet Pitch loves being called old,’ Jack said.

I’ll just add that to the list of things I can bait him for, before he orders me killed or something.

North’s gaze turned briefly mischievous, and then he placed his hands on his hips and turned all of his considerable attention squarely onto Jack.

‘So, Jack! We can spend time looking all around this Workshop. But if you are being here for something else, maybe you could tell me, yes?’

Jack looked over to the Mora, then looked around the Workshop again. Wouldn’t it be something to just spend the entire day here? Maybe he could help, somehow. Feel useful. But North probably didn’t want to babysit, and Jack was there for a reason.

‘Do you have somewhere a bit more private?’ Jack said.

North nodded, like he’d been expecting it all along. He pointed towards the back of the factory, and Jack saw an arched door of stained glass. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed it until now, given it was the only real burst of colour in the place.

Jack followed North past the heat of forges, the whine of saws cutting through metal, showers of sparks falling onto the black and grey floor.

When North opened the glass doors, Jack was surprised to hear tinny classical music coming through on a gramophone. The room itself was nothing like the factory itself, or even everything else Jack had seen of the Workshop so far. For a start, he was in a lounge. It had a bit of a museum feel to it, but Jack supposed that was because of all the silvery automata around the place.

‘This is where you live?’ Jack said, looking to blueprints on the wall, alongside fanciful illustrations. He saw Jul trees there on thick paper, decorated with baubles and ornaments and stars. There were sketches of tiny creatures wearing pointed hats, some of the hats coloured in festive red ink. Each of them wore a silly grin or smile. By the fireplace, an automata of a mountain deer wearing a harness and reins. Jack knew it would never need to have its clockwork wound to manage those little mechanical flicks of its ears, the rise and fall of its left front hoof. North’s magic made these creatures seem so lifelike.

‘It is being home,’ North said, closing the double doors behind him, shutting out the busy factory sounds of the Workshop. ‘I don’t want to live anywhere but my Workshop. The Palace is- it is not somewhere I wish to stay.’

‘Right,’ Jack said, turning to look back at him.

‘Is it somewhere you are wishing to stay?’ North said gently, with a look that was a little too sharp. Then, once he’d finished wiping off his boots by the entry, he walked deeper into his home, gesturing for Jack to follow.

‘I don’t really...know,’ Jack said, staring at the kitchen that reminded him of home, even though he’d never had anything like this at any point in his life. But to see the copper and steel pans hanging from their hooks alongside drying herbs and more illustrations of feasts not taking place in some noble’s house, or the Palace, but just...peasant’s homes...

‘I am making you something to drink,’ North said, then he looked Jack over, ‘and eat.’

‘Really?’ Jack said, smiling slowly. ‘The Engineer of Wonders is doing that? For me?’

‘I am not so special as all that,’ North said, looking inside the fridge, then the larder, beginning to pull out food. Jack hopped up on the table without thinking, swinging his legs, and North turned to stare at him.

‘Oh, sorry!’ Jack said, beginning to slide off.

North shook his hand, came over, grasped Jack’s upper arms and lifted him back onto the table, as Jack was mid-slide.

‘It is where you are being comfortable.’

‘Yeah, but, it’s rude, right?’

‘But not here,’ North said, and then he laughed his huge, booming laugh. ‘Jack! I am not very good at caring about what is correct etiquette. I did not become a Warrior to be a servant to nobles, even if that’s what they say they are wanting.’

Jack stared at him in awe. Because unlike Pitch - who had shattered so much of what Jack had idolised about him - North was so much of what Jack had always imagined, in person. Huge and powerful, charismatic but humble, and handsome too, with his dark, manicured beard and the ink upon his arms, which they said went all the way across his chest and back. He even had his sabres, but next to them, the tools of an inventor – compass and protractor, blue and red layout pencils, a roll of blank paper for sketch an idea at a moment’s notice.

‘What are you thinking of the Palace now that you have lived there for...just over a month now, isn’t it?’

Jack blinked and then thought back. Had it really only been that long?

‘It feels like way longer,’ Jack said, frowning.

‘I am sure,’ North said, and then he chuckled over whatever he was making. It looked like a sandwich, if sandwiches had dreams of transcending even the wildest sandwich size. ‘Everything is strange in the Palace.’

‘I don’t really see much of it,’ Jack said.

‘Training, yes?’

‘And tutors,’ Jack said. ‘Etiquette and comportment.’

North made a sound of disgust. ‘They erase who you are, a blank slate for every new stage of your life. Because to them, everything you are until you become one of them, is there to be erased! Nothing at all.’

Jack blinked at North’s back. He swallowed. He didn’t want to say – but he didn’t disagree with that attitude like North did. It was kind of how he felt about his past as well. About himself.

‘You don’t think sometimes it’s good to erase certain things? Replace them with something new?’ Jack said tentatively. ‘You make newer, better machines all the time.’

A long silence, and then North kept one hand on the counter as he turned to look at Jack, his forehead furrowed.

‘Are you thinking that we are just machines, Jack?’

Jack stared back. ‘Well, not- I mean- Maybe- The creche kids kind of are.’

North opened his mouth, sparks jumping into his blue eyes, and Jack leaned back without thinking. He did not want to get into an argument with North. At all.

‘Hmm,’ North said, turning back to the counter. Jack knew he’d wanted to say something else.

‘Did you find out about Jamie?’ Jack said. ‘Is he okay? Is he alive?’

‘He is alive,’ North said calmly. ‘And he is being okay. He is wishing you were with him.’

Jack clenched the edges of the table with his hands. He hadn’t really expected an answer, and he hadn’t really known to expect a good answer until he got it. His next breath was shaky, and the next broke into nothingness, as pressed his lips together and tried to focus on not crying. He looked down, bowed his head, heard the sound of his ice crackling along the table and couldn’t make it stop. Not even when he heard North stop whatever he was doing and turn around.

‘Jack…’ North said.

Jack shook his head. If he opened his mouth and said anything, he knew that it wouldn’t be words that broke free. He was glad then, when North didn’t step towards him and try and console him. He felt like he was vibrating in place, as though a single touch would shatter him.

Focus made it safe to breathe again, and then he forced himself to look up at North’s face even though it was blurry through his tears.

‘Jamie’s okay?’ He couldn’t stop his voice from cracking. But he kept his composure otherwise.

‘You are being very close to him,’ North said, almost as though he wished he’d known it in advance somehow.

‘We’re like brothers,’ Jack said. He could use present tense and be sure that it wasn’t a mistake. ‘He’s the only person to really believe I can make it, as a Golden Warrior. As anything.’

‘He is missing you.’

‘You spoke to him? Can I see him? Where is he?’

‘Jack, I am... I cannot tell you these things. For his safety. You know this. He has deserted the military, and that is a crime against the Tsar. He will be killed if his location is ever discovered. Him, and every other child or adult who has ever deserted the military, or chosen something different for themselves.’

It was Flitmouse who had told Jack that the Guardians did what they could to protect the citizens of Lune, even if it meant the Tsar disagreed with them. Even if it meant they could be executed for what they were doing.

‘How can I be one of you?’ Jack said, tilting his head. ‘I don’t know anything about what you are, what this is. I love the Tsar, but- I don’t want Jamie- I couldn’t report him.’

‘It is hard,’ North said, turning back to the counter and finally coming back with two plates with stacked sandwiches upon them, and two glasses of something that was cold, fizzy, and bright pink. ‘It is hard to hold these things inside of us.’

North sighed and pushed Jack’s plate towards him.

‘I loved the Tsar,’ North said, ‘and everything about the Palace, once. Such a place of wonder it was to me, everything new and grand and how it felt, to be a part of history in a way that would be letting others remember me. I once threw myself down at my Tsar’s feet and vowed that I would give my life to him, the Tsarina, the Palace and all of Lune. I still remember how it is feeling, the way he touched me in response, the look on his face. Like love.’

‘But you don’t love him now?’ Jack said.

‘Jack, you will hear a lot of different things,’ North said, sighing.

‘Like Husthoun.’

North’s hands tightened hard on his sandwich, and half of it fell out onto the plate. He looked down and raised his eyebrows, and then laughed. When he looked up, his lips quirked.

‘And what are you hearing about that?’

So Jack launched clumsily into everything that Flitmouse had told him, and North ate his sandwich the entire time, nodding or gesturing for Jack to go on at certain points. When Jack was done, he realised that he’d literally just spoken something he could be killed for, and thought of Jamie somewhere safe, and didn’t have a word for the tense, uncomfortable feeling in his chest.

‘I think I know which little bird has been ear-bending you,’ North said, and then indicated that Jack should start eating. ‘It illustrates my example. You are going to be hearing a lot of things. I would love to simply tell you my way of seeing the world, like it is what you should believe, but Jack, you are an Overland. The entire world has always told you how to think and what to think, and I know that if I – as the Engineer of Wonders – tells you what to think, you may be giving my words more credence than your own thoughts. That is a mistake.’

‘But you know more than me,’ Jack said, around a mouthful of so many different flavours that they shouldn’t work, and yet kind of did. ‘About everything.’

‘Not about you,’ North said. ‘Not about your life or your experiences. People will even be telling you about you and your experiences like they know more than you. They’re wrong. You should have been hearing them, when I decided I was going to keep my first accent. But then – miracle of miracles – they just accepted it. And now it is a part of who I am. But I had to give myself more credence than them, and that is being- I am remembering how hard that was for me, yes? I am thinking it may even be harder for you.’

‘So you’re just not going to tell me anything,’ Jack said.

‘People will be telling you a great deal,’ North said. ‘You are welcome to come to me any time, ask questions, tell me your thoughts. I want to know who you are, Jack. It is so good to see you here, in my Workshop. Did they let you go for the day?’

‘Uh,’ Jack said, and then he took a bite of his sandwich so he wouldn’t have to talk. From the look on North’s face, it wasn’t going to work as a strategy.

‘Don’t tell anyone where I went,’ Jack said, then. ‘I kind of ran away. I mean not for good or anything. Just... Maybe for the next few days. Or weeks.’

North nodded like this was perfectly normal, and then said:

‘Tell me what has been happening.’

Jack hedged, and then slowly, in stops and starts, he found himself spilling how things had been. He left out the meetings with the Tsar, but everything else – the meditation room, Pitch using Bunnymund in training, the Parade and the after-party, and everything else – he explained. Even Crossholt, because he knew that North knew. Talking about it was still painfully difficult. He was only able to sketch the barest outline of what he’d done, and then talked in more detail about the aftermath; Pitch offering to end his life or place him in an Asylum, or give him another chance.

North listened attentively. Occasionally he asked for clarification on something, but for the most part, he sat there and sometimes sipped at his drink.

Jack’s mouth was dry when he stopped, and he drank most of whatever North had given him at once. He didn’t appreciate the flavour until he was done and it was still fizzy at the roof of his mouth and the back of his throat. But it had been fruity, and Jack knew he hadn’t had at least two of the fruits before. He was discovering he kind of had a thing for different fruit flavours, and he took another sip.

‘I am thinking I need to talk to Pitch,’ North said, sighing.

‘What?’ Jack said. ‘That’s not- I didn’t tell you so you’d go to Pitch! He’s getting the results he wants. Why would he even care? He’s just going to think I can’t handle it.’

‘I think he is feeling very much the opposite of that,’ North said, leaning back in his chair. ‘But Jack, everyone has a breaking point.’

‘I’m just taking like a few days to not be at the Palace. I think you’d understand that more than most.’

North ran his fingers over his moustache and beard. ‘I will leave it for now,’ he said finally. ‘But Pitch and I were once friends, like Pitch and Bunny, and it might not seem so to you, but he will listen to me.’

Jack shrugged, then went back to eating his sandwich. It felt weird having talked about it. He couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe he shouldn’t have said anything at all, even if it was kind of vindicating that North wanted to intervene on his behalf. At least it wasn’t just Jack who thought that Pitch took things too far.

North changed the subject after that, and when lunch was over, North showed him through the Workshop until the sun began to set and Jack had to reluctantly head his way back to the Palace.

*

The next morning, Jack slipped out early once more. This time he tried taking a different route out of the Palace, asking one of the servants to show him. He saw guards all over the place, but no one stopped him.

He spent the day wandering through the outskirts of the city. He didn’t feel like experimenting with the wind, or with the ability to fly. His visit with North had left him circumspect, and his skin crawled at the idea of shirking his duty like this in the first place.

But he didn’t want to train with Bunnymund again, and he didn’t think talking to Pitch about it would achieve anything at all.

He stayed out until it was nearly midnight, and then walked back to the Palace, frost fringing all of his clothing.

*

Friday, Jack woke even earlier, hated how guilty he felt that he kept doing this. Pitch would surely have noticed by now.

He still left.

He took his smallsword and with his staff and the sword, he did drills on his own in one of the forests. No one bothered him. It wasn’t the right time of year for anyone to forage for food, and it was too cold to be out for hours on end. It was perfect.

It occurred to him, some time in the late afternoon, that his powers seemed perfectly suited to a life spent alone out in the winter depths. Snow fell around him, and he was breathing hard from pushing himself, and he half wanted someone there to tell him he was doing a good job.

He remembered Pitch telling him that he was ‘doing so well’ during the meditation, and Jack’s face screwed up in frustration, and he went back to doing drills and training.

*

It was Saturday evening, after another day of skipping out on the Palace – and most of his meals – that someone came to him.

It wasn’t a guard, and it wasn’t Pitch.

Jack was startled awake and saw a figure standing over his bed. He blinked in confusion, and realised that in the dim light of his room, it was the Tsar. Jack gasped, wondered if he was dreaming, and the Tsar smiled at him. His teeth gleamed.

Then the Tsar reached out and turned on the lamp.

Jack looked around the room, and no one else was there. It was just the two of them.

‘Your Imperial-’

Gavril,’ the Tsar said, though he didn’t look irritated.

Jack nodded. He started to push himself up, but the Tsar waved him down, and then amazingly, sat casually on the side of Jack’s bed. Jack could even smell a hint of something citrus and fresh in the air. Some kind of cologne the Tsar wore, maybe. Jack had never noticed it before.

It was then Jack realised the Tsar must have been in the equivalent of whatever a Tsar wore as pyjamas. Some soft, dark fabric, that looked like anyone else would be happy to wear it outside. But it was the least formal thing he’d ever seen the Tsar wear. Except for the two silver brooches on the collar.

‘I owe you an apology,’ the Tsar said, before drawing his legs up fully onto the bed, and reaching out and bracing himself, a hand flat on the blankets. With that move, he was almost pinning Jack’s legs.

‘Why?’ Jack said.

‘The after-party,’ the Tsar said, sighing. ‘I should have heeded you, and I did not. I don’t blame you for anything that happened after that. I wanted you to know. I have been thinking on it so often. I can’t leave it any longer. I am sorry, Jack. I had no idea you were so weak.’

Jack hesitated, then nodded. Was he weak? Pitch didn’t seem to think- But who knew what Pitch really thought.

The Tsar looked beautiful in the soft lamp lighting. His hair wasn’t perfect, for once. Some of the waves of his hair were out of place. Everything about him seemed gentler, except for that sharpness in his eyes. It was never hard to forget he was the Tsar, when Jack met his eyes.

‘You don’t disagree with me,’ the Tsar said.

‘I’m getting control of it,’ Jack replied.

Except I keep running away.

Did the Tsar know about that?

‘I want to make you stronger,’ the Tsar said, something wistful in his voice. ‘It can be done. It may require more work than I expected, but I have faith that you can do it, Jack. No one else believes in you like I do. I want you to have everything. But you must see me as cruel.’

‘What?’ Jack said, surprised. ‘No. I don’t. Really.’

‘Oh that’s sweet,’ the Tsar said. ‘What a sweet soul you are. See? It’s so easy to believe in you, when you’re like this. There are aspects of you that need to go, but I’m sure you know that. After all, who wishes to hold onto weakness?’

‘What do you want me to do?’ Jack said.

‘Let me think on that,’ the Tsar said. ‘In the meantime, Jack, how has Pitch been treating you?’

Jack rubbed at his eyes and his legs shifted. In response, the Tsar moved on the bed, and then placed his hand over the blankets, over his right knee. Jack blinked down at the touch.

‘Are you afraid to answer that question?’ the Tsar said.

‘I just- It’s hard. With training. To get everything under control. He’s been...fine.’

‘If you try again, maybe I’ll even believe you,’ the Tsar said, smiling.

‘We don’t really get along,’ Jack said. ‘He’s not what I thought he’d be.’

‘Are any of us?’ The Tsar squeezed Jack’s calf gently, and then petted him through the blankets. ‘I abandoned you when you needed me most. You were exceptional at the Parade. I wanted to tell you! But oh, these parties, so much mingling.’ The Tsar laughed, and looked off towards the windows, up at the stars. ‘But the powers that the mountain gave you. Exceptional. How you must have been favoured.’

Jack didn’t say anything at all. After everything that had happened, he just wanted to grab onto every single one of the Tsar’s words and not let go. He didn’t want to break the spell somehow by speaking and causing inadvertent offense. He didn’t want to ruin it.

The Tsar was quiet for a time. In profile, Jack thought of posters and coins, of bank notes and statues in village greens. That he was sitting here in Jack’s room, on Jack’s bed...

‘Pitch reported that you are capable of making the Light,’ the Tsar said, while looking up at the stars. ‘Several days ago. It’s surprising, isn’t it? Who the mountain chooses. We lost so many good trainees, this time.’

Jack swallowed. He nodded.

‘I was lucky. I had help.’

The Tsar stroked a single finger from the base of Jack’s shin to the top, before poking idly at his knee through the blankets. It made Jack want to squirm, but he held still.

‘Why don’t you get along with Pitch?’ the Tsar said, looking over at Jack.

‘Oh,’ Jack shrugged. ‘You’ve probably heard about my record, right? Not so good at following orders.’

‘That’s not an answer,’ the Tsar said.

Sounded pretty good to me.

‘I guess he just pushes hard,’ Jack said. ‘I mean he has to, right? He’s said that you basically...didn’t give him much of a choice. I mean with me losing it in the after-party, and embarrassing everyone, and I-’

‘I didn’t tell him that,’ the Tsar said slowly.

Jack frowned. ‘But he said-’

‘Who are you going to believe, Jack?’ the Tsar said, his voice turning frosty. ‘The Admiral who needs to be put to pasture, or the Tsar of Lune?’

‘No, but, I mean-’

The Tsar didn’t speak. He lifted his hand from Jack’s leg and stared at Jack silently, his face blank, his eyes sharp.

‘You,’ Jack said, after the silence felt like it was crowding all around him. ‘Of course you.’

Very believable,’ the Tsar said, sliding off the bed.

Jack pushed back the blankets, the Tsar already walking away.

‘Please wait?’ Jack said, hating this. Why was he always doing this? He’d just agreed with the Tsar, but he couldn’t seem to do it right. ‘Please. I’m sorry. I’m just really confused. He didn’t- he told me something else.’

But Jack knew it wasn’t just that. Pitch had spoken to Anton about it, while he thought that Jack was sleeping. Did that mean he was lying to Anton too?

The Tsar paused, folded his arms. ‘He’s poisoned you this much already?’

‘What?’ Jack said, shaking his head. ‘No, I’m sorry. He keeps- I don’t even really like him. I’ve been leaving the Palace every day since I made the Light because I just hate- I... I’m sorry.’

Jack felt weak. He hadn’t meant to say any of that. Maybe the Tsar was right, he was just weak.

‘You have been leaving the Palace instead of coming to me like I asked you?’ the Tsar said, his face twisting like he was hurt. ‘Wasting our time like this? We are fighting a war, Jack, and if you dislike Pitch’s methods, you should have come to talk to me!’

‘But after the after-party...’

‘I’m going to enjoy this,’ the Tsar said, his arms still folded, expression frightening. ‘I cannot wait to hear what charming story you have about why you have been ignoring my instructions, and why you have been shirking your purpose. Are you going to tell me it’s hard for you? Oh, but we’ve already established that you have a weak little spirit, Jack. That’s why I asked you to come to me in the first place. So I could help you.’

Each one of the Tsar’s words were delivered incisively, but also with an emptiness that made them cut deeper. Jack could hardly think. And how could he argue his point? The Tsar had already apologised.

He felt sick.

‘I’m just not good at this,’ Jack said finally.

‘Let’s not work solely in understatement,’ the Tsar said, though his voice had softened. ‘I truly do not comprehend how the mountain let you free, while it took so many others. You.’

Jack felt colder than before, as though he was freezing from the inside out. It was happening slowly, but he felt like he was paralysed.

‘I’m sorry,’ Jack said.

‘What have I said to you about weakness?’ the Tsar snapped. ‘Except that you cannot quite help it, can you? No. I suppose it’s cruel of me to expect you to be anything more than what you actually are.’

It was getting harder to breathe easily, and Jack shook his head, quickly, because he’d done such a good job of impressing the Tsar, and now- it was like being around Crossholt. Except this wasn’t Crossholt, but the Tsar.

And if he says it, then it has to be true.

‘Do you wish- Do you wish the mountain had given my powers to someone else?’ Jack said.

‘Does it matter? It’s too late for that,’ the Tsar said.

Which was as much an answer as anything. Jack stared at some point past the Tsar and felt like he was being compressed into a small, tiny thing.

The Tsar pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, and then slowly lowered both of his arms to his side. He walked back to the bed, and Jack couldn’t bring himself to look up. He could feel the warmth of the Tsar standing so close, his legs pressed against Jack’s bed. He could still see the indent in his bed out of the corner of his eye, where the Tsar had sat and spoken to him, touched him so gently.

‘I want to help you,’ the Tsar said.

‘But maybe I can’t be helped,’ Jack said, feeling no small amount of bitterness overcome him.

The Tsar leaned down then, caught Jack’s eye.

‘That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying,’ the Tsar said. ‘Does it? I know we have been at odds, this evening. It wasn’t my wish, truly. Jack, you will never have someone help you like I can. Ever. And yet you seem to wish to reject it. Me. Can you imagine why I might not take that well?’

The Tsar laughed gently. He was being so nice now, and Jack wanted that so badly. The Tsar had made him feel so special, and Jack knew if he just tried harder, the Tsar might remember what Jack could be, and talk to him like that again.

‘You have to let me help you,’ the Tsar said. ‘You have to come to me when Pitch does these things, makes you feel like you need to run. I would never do that to you. I want to help you be stronger. Don’t you want that? And Jack, if there was anyone who could help you do that, it would only be me.’

Jack risked looking at him. The Tsar’s soft gaze matched the earnest tone of his voice.

‘I don’t want to be weak,’ Jack said, finally.

‘No one does,’ the Tsar said. ‘Jack, listen, I am a master at turning weaknesses into strengths. Lune is only a small planet, and it is under-resourced. And yet we have moved into our Golden Age because I knew that we could be supported by what could be found elsewhere. Trade agreements and more. And when we drew the ire of other nations, our military became one of the strongest in existence. Lune is small, it should not be what it is, it should not have achieved what we have achieved. And yet here we are. Don’t you want that for yourself?’

‘Yeah, of course I do.’

‘Good boy,’ the Tsar said, reaching out and grasping his shoulders. ‘Good. And listen, do not worry about this evening. Friends argue sometimes. It’s normal. It’s how we show love. Here, let me give you a gift. A token of my care.’

The Tsar unpinned one of the silver brooches. It was of a single flame enveloping a black circle. The sign of the Light vanquishing the Dark. The Tsar placed it on the bedside table tenderly.

‘There,’ the Tsar said. He offered Jack a rueful smile, then straightened. ‘Good evening, young master Jack.’

‘Good- Good evening,’ Jack said.

The Tsar left and closed the door behind him. Jack turned to look at the brooch. He reached out to touch it, and then at the last moment, couldn’t bring himself to.

His breathing still wasn’t back to normal. He felt exhausted in a way he hadn’t for some time. He remembered echoes of this with Crossholt, but it had never been like this, because there had never been a chance that Crossholt would ever see him as special, like the Tsar once had.

He sagged back onto the bed and pressed both of his hands into his chest.

He’d figure out a way to stop messing things up. He didn’t know how. But he would.

*

Jack woke with a start, dread freezing him still when he realised it was Pitch standing over him. Pitch in his military regalia, sword strapped to his back instead of his side, and wearing the insignia of his rank. Pitch who he’d been concertedly avoiding for days.

He stood by Jack’s bed, by the faint glimmer of dawn, holding something small and silver in his fingers. Turning it slowly. Jack felt queasy when he realised it was the brooch the Tsar had given him.

Would Pitch know that it belonged to the Tsar?

‘Your room smells like his cologne,’ Pitch said, looking from the brooch to Jack, and then at the brooch again. ‘So he’s paying you night visits, now?’

‘You’re in uniform,’ Jack said, staring at him, not wanting to answer the question. He thought of the Tsar saying that Pitch had lied about needing to push Jack so hard, that he was under the Tsar’s orders. He wanted to ask but...

He didn’t know what to believe.

‘I am,’ Pitch said quietly.

‘Are you leaving?’ Jack said.

‘We’re leaving,’ Pitch said, staring down at him. ‘Pack your uniform. Ready your staff and smallsword. Everything else will be made available to you on the ship.’

‘The trainees are going on a mission?’ Jack said. That was soon.

‘No,’ Pitch said. ‘The trainees are not. You are coming with us. Leaving you alone in this Palace is not a good idea.’

‘Does the Tsar know I’m coming?’ Jack said, staring at the brooch that Pitch was turning in his hands. Pitch never looked away from Jack.

‘Does it matter?’ Pitch said, tossing the brooch into Jack’s lap. ‘You follow my orders. Perhaps you’ll remember what your purpose is, when you see what Darkness is really out there, away from his tête-à-têtes.’

‘But I’m not ready,’ Jack said.

‘It didn’t stop you on the platform,’ Pitch said, already walking away. ‘Either way, it’s not your choice. You have twenty minutes, or I’ll bind you and drag you there in your nightclothes. Which I’m certain will make a wonderful first impression on people who are supposed to be your comrades.’

Pitch stared at Jack without blinking for several more seconds, before turning with a whirl of his coat, and walking briskly from the room.

Chapter Text

Jack stared out into space, at the stars around him, as he leaned over the railing of the huge warship they were travelling on. It was his first day away from Lune, and he felt as though he stuck out. Everyone else was in black with gold accents. And there he was in white and blue.

But everyone had been good to him. Better than good. An older guy called Yaromir – Yarrow for short, apparently – had shown Jack to his private bunk, which was tiny, but nothing he’d not been accustomed to before he lived in the Palace. And then a heavily scarred woman named Vera had given Jack a quick tour of the most important places on the ship – the mess hall, the engine room, the training deck and the vaulted internal training theatre, along with the quickest exits and entries to make sure that if there was a call to arms, he knew where to go.

Now, his cape and clothing fluttered around him, and he realised it was partly the winds the ship generated, but also the winds he influenced, too. Even out here, they listened.

His fingers briefly touched the collar of his cape. A place he might have put a brooch, if he hadn’t at the last minute thought the better of it, and hidden it beneath all of his clothing back at the Palace.

Footsteps, and he looked up to see Anton walking towards him. He cut a fine figure in uniform, and his hair was a vibrant red that faded to gold. He smiled warmly when he saw Jack, and then stood next to him and faced out towards the stars, leaning against the railing.

‘What’s it like? Is it your first time on a ship?’ Anton said.

Jack looked at all the dark spaces between the stars. The Living Darkness could be hiding there, and he’d have no idea. But he could almost feel it, somehow, whispering to him.

He made himself turn and smile at Anton.

‘It’s good. It’s not my first time.’

‘Oh, right, I’d forgotten. The test for ship sickness. But that ship doesn’t leave Lune’s atmosphere, does it?’

‘Nah,’ Jack said. ‘This is new.’

‘It’s always new,’ Anton said. ‘Well, for some of us. I love it out here.’

‘Where’s Eva?’

‘Oh,’ Anton said. ‘No, the Royal Admiral and Eva never go out on missions together. In case one of them – you know – doesn’t make it. They made a pact. So that Seraphina would always have one parent alive. It’s- It is what it is. Oh, Jack, I wish you could have seen them fight together, side by side. It was like nothing else. And hot, let’s not forget it was hot.’

Jack laughed in spite of himself, in spite of the tight feeling in his chest. A moment later, Anton laughed as well, and then he sighed.

‘Jack,’ Anton said, lowering his voice, ‘you’re new to all of this, so I’m going to lay down a ground rule. On the ship, he’s never Pitch, all right? Ever. There are a lot of things Admiral Pitchiner doesn’t reinforce back at the Palace, but here, he has a flogging post, he has an isolation room, and he has a dark-room. He’ll use them if he feels it’s necessary. It’s always fair, but- I wanted to give you a heads up. I don’t want to see you going to any of those places, but it’s utterly unethical for him to show favour to you or me or anyone else.’

It was something Jack had wondered, since coming onto the ship. Everyone else – even Anton – called him Admiral Pitchiner, or Sir.

‘What about if it’s just the two of us?’ Jack said.

‘It’s best to be safe,’ Anton said. ‘Not because he would punish you if it were just the two of you, but because if someone walks in or something happens- We have a good thing, out here, as Warriors. But that good thing is predicated on the Admiral being our leader, and not our friend.’

‘Oh, well, no fear of that,’ Jack said, and then sighed.

He felt Anton looking at the side of his head, and ignored it.

‘Jack,’ Anton said carefully, ‘is everything all right?’

‘Would it matter?’ Jack said. ‘I’m here now. Whatever, Anton, look, I know you mean well, but-’

Jack stilled when he felt the hand rest on his forearm. He looked down at it, and then met Anton’s golden eyes. They were almost more gold than Pitch’s. And luminous, too. Like he’d been born to fight the Darkness and nothing else.

‘Jack,’ Anton said, faintly reproving.

‘Hey,’ Jack said, ‘do you remember what P- what the Royal Admiral said about the Tsar? After the party and the Parade? The Royal Admiral said that the Tsar needed him to get me under hand faster. Or something like that?’

Anton’s eyes widened. ‘Yes,’ he said, like he wasn’t sure what Jack was getting at. ‘Is that all you remember?’

‘Did the Tsar actually say that to him?’

‘I didn’t see the conversation happen, but-’

‘So maybe it didn’t happen?’

Anton’s thick eyebrows furrowed, and then he pursed his lips. His fingers tightened minutely on Jack’s forearm.

‘I’m confused,’ Anton said. ‘Do you think the Admiral was lying? He’s- Jack, he doesn’t do that. Why would you think he was lying?’

Jack looked back out over the railing. At the stars, at the conspicuous darkness between the stars.

‘He lies,’ Jack said.

He wasn’t quite sure who he was talking about, in that moment. His chest hurt.

‘All right,’ Anton said slowly. ‘Jack, I have one question. Why do you think the Admiral was lying to you about this? Or me? Where did that idea come from?’

‘Maybe you’re lying too,’ Jack said.

Anton was still for a long time, and then he withdrew the touch on Jack’s arm and leaned against the railing again. He looked troubled. Jack wanted to apologise, but at the same time, he didn’t know who he could trust anymore.

‘Maybe,’ Anton said. ‘But we’d be in a sorry state if that’s how we treated each other. The Golden Warriors. And you’re one of us. Even if you don’t feel it yet, you are. You lie to someone, you fracture trust. You fracture trust with the people who have your back, and you’re going to be killed. I need to trust the people around me with my life, and so do you. So why would I want to fracture that?’

‘Yeah, but-’

‘Jack,’ Anton said. ‘Why are you thinking this way?’

Then Anton stiffened and his hands clenched the railing. He looked down at Jack, and his lips thinned.

‘The Tsar?’ he said. ‘The Tsar. He’s been trying to get between the two of you since the Parade. If not well before.’

‘No-’ Jack said, but couldn’t think of what else to say, and Anton looked certain. ‘I mean… I mean it doesn’t mean that he’s not wrong though, even if that’s what he’s doing.’

‘Oh, Jack,’ Anton said, looking stricken. ‘By the Light, I knew things were bad, but I didn’t know-’

‘Things aren’t bad,’ Jack said, frowning. He tensed when three Warriors walked past them on the deck. But they were talking amongst themselves, and one flashed a quick smile to them both before sinking back into animated conversation about the benefits of different sword types.

‘He deliberately isolated you at the after-party.’

‘No, but, I should’ve been able to handle it. He said-’

‘Jack,’ Anton said firmly, ‘he deliberately isolated you at the after-party.

‘He thought I could handle it,’ Jack said.

Anton looked furious, opened his mouth, and then closed it so abruptly that his teeth clicked together. Then he seemed to force himself to look back out over the railing. For a long time, he said nothing at all. Jack wanted to prompt him, but the conversation was threatening.

All of it was.

He could feel himself nearing the edge of some great precipice. One that would lead to executions and Asylums and whippings and more. One that meant his best friend and almost-brother was no longer in his life. One that took, and took, and gave no comfort back.

Jack startled when he felt fingers at the side of his face. He turned quickly, but Anton was just smiling at him, cupping the side of his face, looking sadder than he had any right to look. In all of the military posters, he was simply painted gazing up at the stars, a smirk on his face. If the Royal Admiral was mythologised as the determined one, Anton was the most cavalier. Nothing like what Jack saw now.

‘You’re too good for all of this,’ Anton said. ‘I’m sorry for that. But let’s change the subject. These things are not what good missions are based on. Though I doubt the Royal Admiral will call it a ‘good mission’ anyway.’

‘Why?’

‘You’ll see,’ Anton said, dropping his hand and resting it on the hilt of his sword. ‘You’ll see soon enough.’

With that, he walked off, and Jack watched him go, thinking that the myriad constellations out there weren’t as confusing as the people around him.

*

It turned out that Pitch took his meals with everyone else in the mess hall. He had the same rations, and he wasn’t even offered extras. He didn’t joke with anyone, but he made conversation with anyone who approached him. Jack could tell those conversations were about serious matters – military gear, strategy, star maps – even from where Jack sat.

Jack wasn’t excluded, surprised to find himself at the table with Yaromir and Vera, Anton the Brave and others. Jack was happy to watch them talking amongst each other, and he ate quietly. The rations were generous, better than he’d gotten in the Barracks, and he could almost feel his digestive system sighing in relief to be away from the rich food of the Palace. He missed the fruit though. There was no fruit on the ship.

Anton didn’t direct worried looks at him or anything like that. He simply treated Jack like a new member of their crew. He joked about hazing rituals, while the others said the initiation in the mountain was hazing enough. Anton opined about the quality of food while clearly not minding the rations. Jack found it easy to see then why he was so beloved by the other Golden Warriors. He kept the conversation flowing easily, and was a master at redirecting it when necessary. Their table was the one with the most laughter.

Later, when the plates were being cleared away by a nominated head of each trestle table, Jack looked over to Pitch and was surprised to find Pitch staring at him. His face was difficult to read. Not quite blank, and not disapproving.

Which didn’t really make any sense.

But then Pitch got up and exited, and Jack followed Anton and the others down to the training theatre.

He wasn’t allowed to join in with their specific manoeuvres yet, but he was directed to watch, to remember what he could.

He sat on the sidelines as they made their Light in unison. Watched them form lines or ranks, move as one, or break apart at some invisible command to burst out and attack as though facing the Darkness from all sides. It was sobering. Because wherever they landed, they might be doing that soon. Out in space, the Darkness could even come and attack the ship directly.

Later, Anton and Yaromir walked up to where he was sitting in the stands, and beckoned him down.

‘What?’ Jack said.

‘We must see this ice of yours!’ Yaromir said, grinning, his crooked smile full of crooked teeth. But his eyes were bright and kind. ‘Or are you only the Boy of Snow?’

‘Come on,’ Anton said, grinning at him, then winking. ‘Come show us. We want to see.’

Jack looked at the others, who were watching. Many of the Golden Warriors had left to get ready to sleep, or for watches, but there were about forty remaining.

‘I’m not- I’m still learning how to control it,’ Jack said. But he stood, he held his staff tighter. His heart beat faster.

‘Excellent!’ Anton said. ‘We’re in a training theatre. I can’t think of any better place to train, than a training theatre. Can you, Yarrow?’

‘I cannot,’ Yaromir said, turning to sweep his arm expansively towards the training ground. Several other Golden Warriors backed away to make room.

‘And I can’t make the Light yet,’ Jack said.

He didn’t want to say that he could, but it was unreliable, and he’d probably have to try and kill people first.

Because that’s not…how you make good first impressions.

‘So you’ll learn,’ Anton said. ‘Come on, Jack. If you want to be one of us, you can’t sit on the sidelines forever.’

‘I suppose,’ Jack said, walking down the stairs towards the training ground, finding their good-natured attitudes contagious. He wanted to know what it was like to train with them. It would take him months to learn their manoeuvres – longer, in fact, until he had a better grasp of his Light.

Then they made a circle around him, and Jack looked and then laughed a little.

‘It’s not going to be enough space,’ Jack said. ‘If you don’t want the snow, and want the ice stuff? It sort of- Maybe just stand behind me? And leave the front?’

‘Oh, look at him, giving orders,’ Anton said.

‘Or you can just totally stand around me like this and take your chances,’ Jack added.

‘All right everyone,’ Yaromir said, ‘you heard him. Back up. Where does the ice come from? Do you need a source of water?’

‘Nope,’ Jack said. ‘I dunno how it works. It’s just there.’

‘I wish the mountain gave me the power of sunlight or something,’ said a voice from the back. ‘Then it wouldn’t be so damn cold on Lune all the time.’

‘Not this again,’ someone else said.

‘Quieten down,’ Anton said reprovingly. ‘Maybe Jack needs total silence. Did you ever think of that?’

‘I don’t,’ Jack said.

‘Then why aren’t you making the ice?’ Anton said, in mock surprise. ‘Is there some magical word we need to use?’

‘No, I…’

‘He’s shy,’ said another stranger’s voice, and Jack looked over his shoulder.

It was a little intimidating, all of those Golden Warriors in uniform standing behind him, the smell of sweat in the air from all the hard training they’d done, the glare of Light still seared into the back of Jack’s eyes. All of them looking at him. These weren’t strangers in the City of Lune. These were people he’d looked up to all his life.

Jack left his smallsword at his side and clasped his staff in two hands. He could already feel the ice at his fingertips. When he was nervous, it was more likely to be ice anyway.

Then he tried to think of what they’d like to see. He’d been trying things in the forests on his own. But he had no idea-

Just do something. Anything. Just something.

The wind came to him first, moving his cape, ruffling his hair. Jack stepped forward, thinking of the things he’d been trying.

Then he stepped into the wind and swept his staff out, biting his top lip even as he felt that wintry cold take him over. First, the huge ice barrier he’d been working on. Stretching from one side of the stands to the other, topped with huge jags of ice and causing some wilder side of himself come to the surface.

The ice crackled into being, stretched in shards up to the sky, and Jack stared at it in some satisfaction and turned.

‘So like that?’ Jack said to Anton.

Anton stared at the barrier. Jack looked past him to the others. They were all staring.

Jack waved his staff and the ice crumpled to the ground.

‘Ah,’ Jack added, ‘I can’t make it disappear once it’s appeared. So it’s just gonna...make a huge mess.’

‘Is that effective against the Darkness?’ Anton said. ‘Will it stop it?’

‘I have no idea,’ Jack said.

‘I wonder…’ Anton said, touching two fingers to his chin. ‘How hard was that to make?’

‘Do I look out of breath to you?’

Anton’s lips quirked on what could have been a quickly stifled grin. Then he placed both of his hands on his hips and leaned back, looking to all of the other Golden Warriors.

‘Look how confident he is, I bet that was all he could do. An ice barrier. Impressive, but obviously that’s all for tonight.’

‘A short but effective show,’ Yaromir said, mocking at disappointment.

Jack knew he was being baited. He was pretty sure they all knew that he knew. And yet he liked it. This was like being with Jamie, somehow. They’d rib each other, but it was never ill-spirited. And Jack wasn’t tired, and he’d been trying other things too.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Jack said, hoping he wasn’t crossing any boundaries by being too casual. He walked across the training theatre and grasped one of the dummies they used to mimic the Darkness. Instead of being shaped like a person, it was shaped like a hulking creature, and Jack shuddered even as he touched it. But he dragged it into position, and then walked back to where he’d been before.

He’d used unfortunate trees for target practice in the forest – though he tried to pick dying or dead ones – this would probably be easier.

Yeah, just pretend it’s Bunnymund.

That made things much easier.

Jack let his ice loose, focusing it on the target. First the shards of ice coming directly from his staff, and then when he couldn’t see the target anymore, he reached into that well of power inside of himself and found that crackling ice lightning – whatever it was, it blasted the building ice away and then knocked the figure back. The air filled with the sounds of booms and the frenetic snaps and breaking of ice that would build on itself and the fall apart in brittle, glass-sharp pieces.

Jack touched his staff to the ground, swung it sharply upwards, approaching the target, and as with Bunnymund, ice shot up from the ground. It knocked the target over, and Jack used the wind to push it back up without thinking, and then blasted it again.

He stopped when he knocked it back into the opposite wall, realising how far he’d pushed it.

He lowered his staff, turned back and opened his mouth to say something cocky, and then saw Pitch standing above them all, at the top of the stairs that led down into the training theatre.

Anton turned and followed Jack’s gaze, and Jack expected them all to be intimidated, but instead Anton just waved.

‘Admiral! Are you coming down?’

‘Not tonight,’ Pitch called, his voice echoing amongst the vaulted ceiling. ‘Frost, if you make that much ice in the training theatre, you’re cleaning it away, too.’

Jack nodded. Then added: ‘Yes, Admiral Pitchiner.’

He couldn’t see Pitch’s expression properly, as Pitch was half in the shadows, and quite far back. It didn’t matter. Pitch turned away, and then left.

Jack looked at all the ice he’d made in some dismay, and then walked over to it, wondering what the best way to start cleaning it up was. It left huge messes of water wherever he made it.

Footsteps coming up beside and behind him. Jack looked up to see the Golden Warriors standing around him. One picked up a shard thoughtfully, and then said to another:

‘Careful, it’s very sharp.’

‘We should get some of the laundry carts,’ another said. ‘Just toss it overboard.’

‘Surprisingly good thinking from you, Xenia,’ Yaromir said, with a laugh.

‘I have my moments,’ she replied, grinning.

‘But-’ Jack said, confused, ‘I thought I had to do this-’

‘-What, alone?’ Anton said, raising his eyebrows. ‘We asked you to show us the ice. We’ll all help. It’s only fair.’

That was how Jack figured out he could use the winds to help lift or shift the ice into the laundry carts that some of the others fetched. And Jack looked around him in wonder as they all moved the carts up to the deck, and then with a giant cheer, pushed the ice off the ship and watched it float behind them, growing more and more distant, until it looked like all the stars blinking around them.

*

Anton walked Jack back to his small bunk, and then leaned against the narrow door that would give Jack privacy.

‘So that’s what you’ve been hiding behind those pretty snowfalls,’ he said, looking impressed.

‘I mean I don’t know if it will work against the Darkness,’ Jack said. ‘And while I can’t make the Light…’

‘I don’t think anyone really cares,’ Anton said. ‘That’s the kind of thing that we work on together. We can’t use the same training routines for the rest of our lives, and if one of us ends up with a unique skill, the others will want to learn how to use it. I make the strongest Light, so there I end up, on the frontlines. Or just behind, for the last burst when needed.’

‘I thought the Admiral made the strongest Light?’

‘It’s...different,’ Anton said, tilting his head and looking off, clearly thinking about it. ‘He saves his, in case we need emergency teleportation, or someone needs healing. We have healers, but no one else can get people up and functional again like he can. So he’ll use it, but not like me. I tend to use myself up, and then I need to recharge.’

‘That’s why you’re Anton the Brave,’ Jack said.

‘No, that’s not why,’ Anton said, laughing. ‘I’m called Anton the Brave because I stay out in the frontlines, even when I have no Light left. The Admiral doesn’t like it, and it’s ended with me in the dark-room more than once, but some of the others started calling me that and it stuck. The Admiral says I’ll get myself killed one day.’

‘You can’t fight the Darkness if you’ve got no Light left,’ Jack said, frowning.

‘Not directly,’ Anton said. ‘But not all fights are won directly, Jack. Sometimes the fight is won when you stick around to make sure an injured friend gets safely off the field. I can’t really help it. We all have those things about us that make us who we are, even if someone disapproves. Even the Admiral, he can’t let me get away with everything I do, but he also accepts who I am.’

Jack rubbed at the back of his neck, shrugging. Pitch might accept Anton, but he’d never accept Jack. No one in the Palace wanted to accept him for who he was. They all wanted slightly different versions of him. Flitmouse wanted him to think seditious things and join his side. Pitch wanted him to become a Warrior and be less…whatever Jack was now. The Tsar-

Jack closed his eyes and almost laughed.

‘Why do you look so sad?’ Anton said, and Jack’s eyes flew open. Anton’s eyebrows were pulled together. Jack realised they were dyed dark red, to match his hair.

‘Just tired,’ Jack said. ‘It’s how I look when I’m tired.’

Anton reached out with his hand, as though to touch Jack’s face, and then at the last moment his arm dropped and he shifted against the doorframe.

‘If you ever need someone to talk to,’ Anton said, ‘you should probably pick Eva. But as she’s not here, I’ll do in a pinch. I’ll also tell you you’re cute. But Eva will do that too.’

Jack laughed in spite of himself. After a beat, Anton held out his hand, and Jack stared at it. Then, warily, he extended his own hand.

Anton grasped his warmly and shook it, then placed his other hand on top of it.

‘Anton the Brave,’ Anton said, ‘pleased to meet you, Jack Frost. We’ll make a Golden Warrior of you yet. Good night, Jack.’

‘Ah, good evening,’ Jack said.

‘So polite,’ Anton said, already turning and walking away. ‘Such a polite young lad. And so pretty, too!’

Then he turned a corner and was gone, and Jack closed the door to his cramped cubicle and rested his staff on one of the hooks provided. Beneath his feet he could feel the rumble of the ship’s engines, and in his heart he could still feel the wind swirling, ice glittering on the back of it.

He told himself he couldn’t hear the Darkness whispering from beyond the ship. It was just his imagination. He was new to all of this. It was just nerves.

*

After a week and a half of travelling – and Jack spending a lot of time keeping out of people’s way, while learning the ropes; sometimes literally in the case of the solar sails – they sighted Endan, and announced landfall in a day.

Jack watched the pink-red planet loom closer. His ice weaved jagged patterns along the rails and without having anywhere to properly exercise his ice, or whatever his darkness was, he could sometimes feel flashes of malice creeping back. He didn’t know if it was because he was out here, where the saturation of Darkness was so much higher, or if it was because he wasn’t exorcising it somehow via training.

Pitch never brought it up. In fact, Pitch hardly interacted with Jack at all. It didn’t seem personal, he was incredibly busy, and whenever Jack caught glimpses of him, he was doing all the things Jack had imagined him doing as a child – marching somewhere in uniform with his chin up and his certain eyes focused ahead, or chatting authoritatively to a group of Golden Warriors, or talking with the ship’s pilot over the wheel, tapping his fingers on a spoke before he’d drop his hand and argue animatedly about some point regarding their course.

Weirdly, Jack thought Pitch seemed more himself out here on the ship, than he’d seemed back in the Palace. But maybe he was just imagining it.

*

They stood in a deserted city. The skyscrapers made of a dull, black metal. Some of the frontages of abandoned shops had been plastered in the same pink-red sand that gave Endan its colour.

He’d expected a barrage of Shadows and Darkness. He’d expected the Golden Warriors to immediately be on the attack or defense.

Instead, he stood and watched as about twenty filed into a building with heavy, reinforced carts, and then emerged about an hour later with piles of bullion. Gold and silver, and a greenish metal Jack wasn’t familiar with. Other Golden Warriors stood on watch with their weapons out, but it was obvious they weren’t expecting any attacks.

Pitch had told Jack to stay by him. To Jack’s surprise, this meant standing some distance away, overseeing what was happening.

‘I don’t understand, Admiral,’ Jack said, confused. ‘Where is everyone?’

‘We were at war with them,’ Pitch said. ‘Then the Darkness came. It exterminated everyone on the planet.’

Cart after cart of bullion – heavy, shining bricks of wealth. An entire city’s worth.

‘And we’re just allowed to take- I mean that’s a lot of…’

‘Why do you think Lune is so rich?’ Pitch said.

Jack looked up at him, and Pitch had a wry smile on his face, staring at his Golden Warriors.

‘No one else but the Golden Warriors can go back to these planets, after all,’ Pitch added. Then: ‘What, expecting something a bit flashier?’

‘I- Aren’t we here to fight the Darkness?’

‘Sometimes,’ Pitch said. ‘Some missions. Some of them are what you might call a restock. Besides, the Tsar will inform you quite happily that there is no one left here on Endan to enjoy it; except of course for the handful of Endanian refugees who surrendered to avoid our wrath. Then he’d tell you that we’re repatriating the wealth to them.’

‘Are we?’

‘They’ll never see this,’ Pitch said calmly. ‘Or perhaps they will see it from afar, as the nobles grow ever richer, and the divide between the upper eschelons and the peasants grows ever more abyssal.’

Jack watched the Golden Warriors. They’d all seemed far happier on the ship. Now they seemed lacklustre – grim and determined, but with little joking or companionship. Jack recalled Anton saying this wasn’t what Pitch would call a ‘good mission.’

In all of the stories he’d been told about the Golden Warriors, there had never been a version that went:

The great Golden Warriors went to abandoned planets to plunder their wealth.

‘I don’t like this,’ Jack said abruptly. ‘Everyone- If there’s Endanian refugees left, shouldn’t they have this? Shouldn’t they be here? Couldn’t we somehow give them back- You know, it’s a whole city.

‘With the Darkness?’ Pitch said. ‘You’d what, bring them all back here, so they can be possessed by it?’

‘Yeah, but-’ Jack hesitated. ‘Shouldn’t we be...defeating the Darkness?’

‘On an entire planet? No one likes to say so aloud, but we struggle to contain it on Lune.’

‘Well, then, shouldn’t we give the gold to them?’

‘The Tsar is quite certain they’d have no idea what to do with it, and he would tell you that it would imbalance the Lune economy.’

Jack opened his mouth and then looked around at the deserted streets. This was only one small section. The city sprawled. It clearly had held more citizens once than the entire city of Lune.

A faint whispering at the corner of his mind distracted him from his thoughts. Then it was closer, as though someone had leaned and breathed into his ear.

He turned sharply to look to see if anyone was near them. But he couldn’t see anything. Not even the Darkness. Still, he stared off down another street and felt his skin crawl. The whispering hadn’t exactly stopped, and it crept upon him, making him feel itchy in his clothing.

A minute later Pitch turned and faced the same direction.

‘You can hear it?’ Pitch said.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s the Darkness,’ Pitch said quietly. ‘I think you may be better at sensing it than I am.’

Pitch’s hand drifted down to his sword, and several Golden Warriors paused and looked at him. But Pitch waved them back, and kept looking in that direction, eyes narrowing.

‘You’re in danger,’ Pitch said abruptly.

The whispering was getting louder. Every now and then, something that sounded almost like a voice. In response, Jack heard something whispering inside himself. Some malicious thing that yearned to be back with what was familiar. Jack clutched his staff harder, the winds on the planet picked up around them.

‘It’s coming closer,’ Jack said. ‘It is, right?’

‘It’s quite far away,’ Pitch said. ‘But it’s approaching. It can possibly sense your locus of power.’

Jack nodded, frowning. He didn’t know that. He planted his feet and tried not to listen to the whispering. He couldn’t hear any words anyway, but even so, the wind around him banked and fluttered uncertainly, as confused as he was.

He gasped as he realised something.

‘Wait, does that mean the Darkness attacked the Palace because of me?’

Pitch looked down at him, and Jack thought of all the times to be reminded of Pitch cornering him in that stupid corridor, now was not the time.

‘No,’ Pitch said. ‘That had nothing to do with you. If it had, don’t you think we would have removed you from the Palace as soon as possible? Why would we have ever let you stay there?’

‘Oh,’ Jack said. That made sense. ‘Cool.’

Whispering again, but from another direction. Jack spun, staring in the opposite direction. He couldn’t see anything except this ghost metropolis, those carts filled with bricks of precious metals.

‘I shouldn’t be here,’ Jack whispered. ‘It’s too soon.’

‘It is,’ Pitch said. ‘But I’m not sending you back to the ship. At some point, we need to know if your ice can be used against the Darkness at all. As it can hold the Light, I have a few ideas already. You’ll be protected, Jack. Whatever happens, you must not cross into the frontlines.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘I mean, yes, Admiral.’

Fingers at his jaw and chin, and Jack winced when Pitch just turned his head to look up like it was easy. Turned his head away from that whispering that he could hear, even though he couldn’t see the Darkness anywhere.

‘I mean it,’ Pitch said, staring at him.

Jack couldn’t even nod properly, but he tried. Jack could feel Pitch’s nails against his skin. The smooth curve of them, like they were manicured, or had been recently filed.

‘Can you hear the Darkness coming from any other direction?’ Pitch said.

Jack closed his eyes and tried to feel out the whispering, even though it made his skin prickle to do it. He could feel all the tiny hairs standing up all over his body. After about a minute, he shook his head.

‘If that changes, and you get a chance, tell me. Now, let us join the rest of the Warriors. I am not a fan of ambushes.’

‘Is anyone?’ Jack said.

Pitch’s eyebrows lifted as he marched off, like he conceded the point, but he didn’t reply.

*

First, it had been orders and different Warriors moving together in the units that fit them best. Jack stayed in the centre with those nominated to keep pushing the carts. They stood like they were in training manoeuvres – granted advanced ones that Jack wasn’t really familiar with – but all the same, he couldn’t see any Darkness. They just prepared themselves calmly in the dead city, by the wealth they were taking from it, weapons out.

Then, the Darkness became louder and louder – though only in his mind. Jack shook his head to try and clear it, but he couldn’t. It was just there. His brain kept trying to piece it together, but the only real thing he knew was that whenever the ominous whisper of it rose, some lurking thing inside of him roused and shifted. It made him accidentally freeze his hand to his staff. It had ice crackling out in tiny spears from underneath his feet.

The Warriors focused on moving the wealth back to ship, with units facing outwards, and Jack following alongside one of the carts. Everyone had their orders.

Jack’s breathing was doing strange things.

This wasn’t like the platform where the Darkness was suddenly there. It wasn’t even like with Pippa, when it had been there, and he’d tried to save her-

Waiting for it like this was awful.

‘Can you hear it?’ Jack whispered to Yaromir, who was pushing one of the heavy carts.

Yaromir squinted at him, tufted eyebrows creasing together, and then he seemed to realise what Jack was talking about and shook his head.

‘No. Most of us are not able to hear it. It is better that way. It is not pleasant in battle. To hear. It means my Light is not as strong, but it...it is still better this way.’

Jack swallowed, feeling zero reassurance at that. How was it possible to feel so cold when he was already cold?

His cape flapped in a wind that mostly centred around him. He couldn’t seem to turn it off. Pitch was checking in on units, moving around, he seemed frustrated to be on the ground. Jack thought of Mora, his hydrofoil, back in North’s Workshop.

Then, Pitch came to him and pointed to one of the directions that the Darkness was approaching from. That none of them could see.

‘Jack, can you make it snow? Here?’

‘Now?’

‘Yes, enough to cover everyone.’

Jack nodded, did it without really thinking. He made sure the snowfall wasn’t too heavy. Everyone needed to see where they were going.

Pitch withdrew his sword and in a few short steps, sent Light directly up into it.

The awe that followed, seeing it glow the way it did, seeing it hold the Light – Jack wanted to savour it. He did. But the Darkness chose that moment to reveal itself, pooling up from the sand and roads in both directions. Growing from distant seams in the ground.

Pitch commanded others to keep sending Light up into the snow, and then was off, as were several of the other units, moving towards the Darkness even as the carts weren’t abandoned.

It looked like oil at first. Then it shifted and rose into the air like smoke. Then it seemed fluid, cresting like a wave metres across. From it, separate nightmare men and fearlings split off, some running, some crawling, some clearly broken and twisted, with arms growing from heads, or moving like fleshy, giant black caterpillars upon the ground.

All his training couldn’t prepare him for the crest of fear that came. At first he thought it was normal to want to run, but when the other Golden Warriors weren’t running, he remembered distantly that this was what the Darkness did. It evoked fear.

The whispering had vanished. In its place, a coiling, oozing feeling inside of him. He kept the snow going, but it was falling faster than before, more compacted, the ice chunks inside larger. He couldn’t control it as he wanted to.

Even without using words, the Darkness called to him.

He looked to Pitch in alarm, because it was one thing to be told he wasn’t ready and think that Pitch didn’t really know what he was talking about – to living his lack of understanding. He wasn’t ready.

Shit.

Without really thinking about it, Jack stamped his staff down into the pink-orange road and sent up a flare of ice. Then another. Even as Pitch turned, Jack sent up another, and could see the Darkness on both sides and the ship in the distance. He remembered abruptly sitting on the ground back at the Barracks with Pitch. Pitch had given him a choice. To keep trying and live or to go to an Asylum and probably die.

Had he made the wrong choice?

‘Jack,’ Yaromir said, under his breath. ‘Jack, it is like this for everyone, in the beginning.’

Except it wasn’t.

Jack wasn’t afraid for himself. Or he was, but that wasn’t the fear that pressed down hardest. He was afraid for what he’d do. In his mind’s eye he saw the attacks he’d unleashed on Bunnymund, that he’d unleashed on Pitch, on Crossholt. On Warriors he didn’t know the first time he’d come out of the mountain.

By the Light, some of them were likely standing near him right now.

Jack flinched at the Darkness that surged towards him, and then realised it was just Pitch. Fingers at his jaw again, even harder than before, and Jack was blinking up into golden eyes-

A mind-wiping surge of terror that made a sweat break out all over him. He staggered, and Pitch kept him upright.

The gasp that followed scoured his throat and he coughed hard, but the building fear was broken and he was able to concentrate again. He could hear the Darkness as distant whispering, and not as some beast waking inside of himself. He wanted to sag in Pitch’s grip, but he planted his feet, locked his knees. Now wasn’t the time.

‘Keep the snow going,’ Pitch said. ‘Stay here.’

‘Yes, Admiral,’ Jack said, nodding. He felt shuddery and weak, but grateful for once that Pitch could do whatever he’d just done, could use one form of fear to override another.

*

The Golden Warriors were not as well-matched to their opponent as Jack had hoped. They kept the Darkness back on both sides, but they struggled. The battle was strangely silent – except for orders shouted, the Light didn’t make any noise. When the Darkness was obliterated, it was in soft hisses and scraping noises, often too faint to even hear. There was no ringing of swords upon swords, as in the Barracks.

Yaromir was clearly frustrated to not be fighting. He pushed the cart and muttered under his breath, looking at both sides of the battle, forehead creased.

The Darkness tried to crowd closer, to encircle them. The Warriors tried to stop it from happening. But the ability to make Light didn’t last forever, and the Darkness didn’t seem to be lessening, no matter how much of it was obliterated.

An agitation in Jack’s gut. Fear curdled. He felt useless. He couldn't even make the snow anymore, but he knew he could make the ice. He had a lot of ice left at his disposal. And wind to move it where he wanted it to go. Didn’t they want to find out if his ice could help? He could make so much of it.

‘Is this bad?’ Jack said. ‘Worse than usual?’

‘Yes,’ Yaromir said, frankly. ‘We’ve been to Endan before. We’re often not attacked. This is different. They must be drawn here.’

‘Drawn here,’ Jack said, frowning.

‘I don’t like it,’ Yaromir said, looking around. ‘This was supposed to be a straightforward mission. The Darkness is getting stronger all the time. It shouldn’t be. We keep fighting it. And always, it comes back, and there is more, and it is cannier. An ambush. Earlier, it showed almost no signs of intelligence. Now…we are ambushed.’

‘Should I be meditating or- Saying the hymns or something?’

Yaromir looked at Jack and lifted a hand as if to say: ‘It doesn’t really matter either way.’

‘I want to do something,’ Jack said under his breath.

‘Not dying is doing something,’ Yaromir said simply, while pushing the cart.

*

A flash of movement to Jack’s right and he spun. Sickening, he saw a Golden Warrior enfolded into a wave of Darkness, and the other Golden Warriors retaliated, but it was too late – the Darkness parted to reveal that the Warrior was already gone; pulled down into the ground, or consumed. The Darkness itself became stronger, surged forward, put the Warriors on the retreat. At least two were no longer able to make the Light.

It pushed closer to the carts, forming a fast moving point upon the ground, slithering as though reaching the carts was its priority.

Every time the Light hit it, it simply reformed and started again, gaining metres every second.

Jack stepped towards it without thinking. A strange pull in his chest. He had the weirdest feeling that the Darkness was coming for him, and the thought didn’t scare him as much as it should. He felt numb. As though it was a dream. Not even a nightmare. Just a strange dream.

A sharp tug at the back of his cape and Jack fell, landing in a plume of orange-red dust that rose thickly around him. He looked up to see Yaromir standing over him, alarmed.

‘Are you hearing it?’ he said.

‘No,’ Jack said, feeling odd.

Yaromir’s eyebrows pulled together, and then he looked around quickly, like he wanted to flag someone for help.

Everyone was too busy fighting the battle.

That point of Darkness was so much closer now. Jack pushed himself up and though idly that it would be easy to see if the ice could hurt it.

He stepped forwards faster, and Yaromir called after him and then swore fiercely.

Jack pointed his staff forwards and shot a barrier of ice at the Darkness and-

-And it stopped for a few seconds, then swept over it, absorbing the ice.

Jack sent spears of ice, and it jerked and flinched back, but never for very long. Then he grit his teeth to pull from something that wasn’t complete numbness, and that crackling blue lightning moved along his staff and hit the point that was approaching him.

The Darkness shrieked then. The sound was made of multiple voices, scraped along Jack’s nerve endings. It scratched at the inside of his mind. He could almost hear the sound echo inside of him. On the back of it, he thought of Pippa and walked closer to the Darkness.

Wasn’t he supposed to be afraid?

Jack and the Darkness drew closer to each other. It was clear that the Darkness wanted him. Maybe it was as curious as Jack was.

He could hear his own breathing echoing in his ears. It sounded strangely loud, uneven, ragged.

A sharp weight knocked into him, sent him sprawling, the crook of his staff hitting the side of his face as he landed badly.

Malice roared to life inside of him and he turned, already calling his ice, when he realised it was Pitch. Jack went still, even as hatred roiled, even as he could feel ice crackling along his wrists and forearms, could see diamond dust pluming from his mouth.

Pitch shouted something at him, but Jack couldn’t make it out over the sound of a roar in his own head. Everything seemed to be moving in flashes. It was weird, but Jack thought that Pitch looked frightened.

In that moment, he liked it. He wanted Pitch to be frightened. He wanted them all to be frightened. It felt better than feeling fear – surrendering to that malice, knowing that there was power in hurting someone else.

He raised his staff again, pointing it at Pitch’s heart, because it would be easy. It would be easy.

Jack would kill him, and he wouldn’t be afraid.

Pitch’s golden eyes widening, his grip tightening on his sword, his arm rising.

Pippa lifted her arm to the swarm of Darkness, screaming, and Jack tried to reach her, but his feet slipped on the frozen ice. It cracked beneath him. He’d never seen her so scared. Never. He’d do anything, he just had to get there, and-

It seemed to happen in slow motion. Jack turned his staff to the Darkness and then stared in shock when he realised how close it was. Too close. Fearlings walking towards him, opaque, empty figures with hollow eyes and hollow mouths. Seconds trickled by, and Jack thought of Pippa on the ice, and how he’d been afraid at first that the lake would take her, and then…

The blast of ice that came from his staff was huge. It flew forwards in a tornado of movement, and on the back of it, a broad wave of Light that clung to the ice and drove the wall of Darkness back, turned fearlings into black dust that vanished.

Other waves of Light followed – other Warriors following suit - but it was unnecessary.

The Darkness had gone.

Jack shuddered on the ground, his arms shaking. His heart pounded. There was shouting around him, but he couldn’t really understand it. He looked around, and through people’s legs, through the carts, he couldn’t see any Darkness left.

His ears were ringing. There was no reason for them to. So much of the battle had been silent.

A burst of laughter, and Jack belatedly realised it came from him.

Slowly, sounds came back to him. A conversation happening above his head.

‘…Disciplinary action.’

‘He just saved us!’

‘He was under direct orders to not enter the frontlines. He has almost no control over his ice, and you are lucky that he did not change sides and kill us, Anton!’

‘Admiral Pitchiner, just-’

‘Haul him up.’

Jack blinked as hands moved under his arms and he was lifted. He got his feet under himself, and he stared blankly, thinking that he should be paying attention, but still not quite sure what had happened.

In the background, a creeping horror that stuck to him like threads of spider silk. Pitch wasn’t wrong. He would’ve killed them. He would’ve started with Pitch and kept on going. It hadn’t even felt intrusive. It had just felt natural.

‘Take him to an isolation room. He’ll stay there overnight. Take his staff and sword from him.’

Jack stared as someone withdrew his sword, hand moving quickly underneath his cape and taking it. They pulled on his staff, but it was frozen to his hand. He shook it free. A pang when he wasn’t holding it anymore, but he was spending too much of his energy trying not to think about what he’d done to really do anything about it.

He’d helped win their battle, and it was a fluke.

He had no control, and he’d spent his last week at the Palace running from Pitch. The Tsar was right, Jack was shirking his duty, and he could’ve murdered people because of it.

‘Admiral Pitchiner, no,’ Anton said. ‘You can’t put him in an isolation room for a first offense. You know flogging is the first line of-’

‘And assign Anton to the flogging post,’ Pitch bit off. ‘Ten lashes. Is that clear?’

A murmuring of assent, and Jack nodded too. His eyes met Pitch’s, who was staring down at him, face impassive.

‘Get him to the healer first,’ Pitch said.

Jack was walked back to the ship. He went in a daze. An isolation room. He didn’t think that was so bad, and it could’ve been worse. A ship’s flogging. They’d see his scars. He didn’t want that.

He had the feeling that all of it could’ve been much worse. His fingers curled and relaxed, curled and relaxed.

He was the reason it could’ve been much worse.

The gleam of precious metals flashed into his eyes and he thought of the golden Light he made. Then he thought of the look on Pitch’s face before he’d made it. Fear and anger. He’d never seen Pitch look like that before, and the expression stuck in his mind. It had never occurred to him that Pitch could be vulnerable.

Chapter Text

The healer cleared Jack as having nothing more than a mild case of shock that was fading, and a bruise on his cheek from falling onto his staff when Pitch had knocked him down. Jack was escorted to the isolation room. The door was closed behind him. The light was left on, and there was a switch inside the room, so he could control it himself.

The isolation room didn’t bother Jack.

He’d been in them before.

It wasn’t really like being locked up in Fyodor’s room, even though he’d worried at first that it would be exactly like that. But they weren’t the same at all. He didn’t know what was happening then. They’d forgotten him. Here on the ship, they knew where he was, and he was only here for a limited amount of time. Jack worried at his bottom lip with his teeth, but otherwise he was pretty pleased with how he was keeping it together.  

He realised it helped, the orders, knowing what was happening. An isolation room. Twelve hours – probably. No one would stare at him as they would during a public punishment, he wouldn’t have to walk past people he was trying to get to know with his back all bloodied and torn up. After Bunnymund using magic to lash his back during training, Jack couldn’t even trust that he’d be able to take a flogging without turning and trying to kill all of them.

Like you just tried to do out there. Sort of.

He spent some time thinking over what he’d done. Thinking over Pitch’s actions. He was surprised to find that he felt everything Pitch did afterwards was fair, and even more surprised to find that he wasn’t at a flogging post, or recovering from a ship flogging.

Because he had a feeling he knew why Pitch had chosen to do it that way, even if Anton had challenged it.

Jack lay back on the plank of wood that serviced as some kind of bed or ledge, and stared up at the ceiling.

Anxiety trickled through him in small pulses and sharp bursts. It was in seeing the Darkness again, like that. It was in the vivid memory of Pippa splashing against his mind, jarring him out of that trance enough that he could change what he was going to do. It was in knowing that he might not be able to control himself in the future, and it was the only thing Pitch seemed to care about. Jack’s control.

It was in knowing that he’d walked towards the Darkness twice. First Yaromir had pulled him back, and then Pitch had knocked into him. Twice. He hadn’t even been aware of really fighting with himself. There was no voice in his head saying: Don’t do it, not this. Stop it! This is wrong! He’d just…done it.

He’d have to talk to Pitch about it at some point. Maybe he couldn’t be a Golden Warrior, just at the point where he could make the Light. Because walking towards the Darkness when it wasn’t even talking to him was probably a bad thing.

It bothered him that they’d not let him keep his staff, but he could understand that too.

He’d disobeyed. And what if the Darkness had taken him? He’d lose all sight of himself. If he wasn’t absorbed completely, he’d be their puppet, and they could take all of his wintry powers and disperse them amongst themselves, in their strange hive mind. It was a terrible weapon to give to any enemy.

Jack rested his arm behind his head to give him something to rest on, and pursed his lips. Okay, so, maybe the isolation room bothered him a little. Just because he’d been in them before didn’t mean they were easy.

But a night only? If Pitch actually followed through on that order, Jack would come out feeling a little frayed, but otherwise he’d be fine.

Still, it was hard to shake the sound of Anton’s voice when he’d heard that Jack was to be disciplined.

Jack had wanted to reassure him, but there had been no time, and Jack was so shocked and relieved to know it was an isolation room with a constant source of light, rather than a dark-room, that he hadn’t thought to say anything to make it better.

None of it was Anton’s fault, anyway.

The tools of his training floated back to him in fragments. It wasn’t enough to sink him down into a deep meditative state, but it was enough to keep him calm, to stop him from frittering away his energy worrying he’d be left there forever.

He remembered Crossholt joking about it, a few times. Peering through the tiny slot-hole in the door and laughing.

Maybe we’ll just leave you in there forever!

In that moment, Jack couldn’t bring himself to be very sorry that he’d killed Crossholt. He wondered if that said something about him as a person, and hated that he could hear Pitch’s voice distantly reminding him that it was normal, it was normal to feel good about it. To feel good and bad.

It didn’t seem fair, that Pitch could be so reassuring when he wanted to be, and then the rest of the time…

‘But this?’ Jack said. ‘This is fair. Weird.’

*

Jack was sitting upright when the door opened in the morning. He was a little surprised to see it was Pitch, and then even more surprised when Pitch let himself into the room and closed the door behind him. Then, he leaned against the closed door and stared down at Jack.

Not intimidating. Nope. Not even a little. Tiny cramped room, tall Admiral, whatever. This is fine.

‘Are you extending the time?’ Jack said. ‘I mean the time I’m staying in here?’

‘No,’ Pitch said. Then paused. ‘Is that something that’s happened before?’

Jack looked away, almost laughed. There were times when Pitch seemed to know everything, and then times like this.

‘The Darkness, did it- Is the ship okay?’

‘Yes,’ Pitch said. ‘You’ve been placed in isolation before. I know that. It’s in your record.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said.

‘Crossholt only ever marked down that you were never in there for more than twelve hours at a time.’

Jack did laugh then. He couldn’t help himself. But the sound wasn’t cheerful, and he swallowed it down, and then shrugged.

‘It’s actually not so bad,’ Jack said, risking leaning back against the wall and feeling like he needed a shower. He still had dust and sand on him from the planet. ‘In the Creches, they-’

‘They don’t have isolation rooms in the Creches,’ Pitch said, incredulous.

Jack looked up at him slowly, could feel his face twisting into confusion. For a moment, Pitch’s expression echoed his, and then his eyes narrowed at Jack like they had at the Darkness.

‘So they have isolation rooms in the Creches,’ Pitch said, and Jack didn’t know what to think. How did Pitch not know?

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘I mean, they’re not called isolation rooms. They’re called quiet rooms. But they’re the same. You know, locked from the outside, tiny room, tiny bed. Option to turn the light off from the outside, with no one able to control it inside.’

‘That’s a dark-room,’ Pitch snapped, but his anger didn’t seem entirely directed at Jack.

‘Well, not really,’ Jack said. ‘They never left the light off long, if they decided to do it. Most of the kids never saw the inside of it. They just joked about ‘quiet time’ and stuff, you know, like ‘Don’t do that or you’ll get quiet time,’ but never knew what it meant.’

‘What were you doing? To be put in there?’ Pitch said.

‘Being naughty,’ Jack said, and then he grinned. ‘I mean, if you have a younger sister and you want her to have fun sometimes- We weren’t supposed to ever leave the confines of the Creche. I mean it was a big property, there was room the play outside – it’s not like they didn’t provide for us - but we both liked the forest beyond. So you know- And I would’ve sold my soul before letting her see the inside of one of those rooms, so I always took her punishment.’

Pitch was silent for a long time. Jack sighed. It wasn’t so hard, another person being in here with him. Pitch wasn’t being super intimidating. Not deliberately anyway. He always had that faintly threatening energy about him.

‘How old were you?’ Pitch said. ‘The first time?’

‘Oh, like, eight? They didn’t turn the light off that time. They almost always didn’t, anyway. I mean there was only- There were a couple of caretakers who I just rubbed the wrong way. You know. Me being who I am, it’s kind of natural? The rest – it was usually just overnight.’

Pitch’s chest rose and fell in a slow, silent breath. Jack couldn’t tell if he was trying to hold back anger, or something else. This was one of the stranger conversations they’d ever had. That was really saying something. Every conversation they’d ever had, had been strange.

‘Which is worse?’ Pitch said finally. ‘Flogging? Or the isolation room?’

‘Is this like- One of those things where you get me to pick the one I like least, and then that’s the one you pick from now on?’ Jack said, smiling a little.

He hated that game.

‘This is not that,’ Pitch said.

‘Well, if you say so. Flogging is worse. Isolation rooms are just- I mean especially now that I know when you said overnight you really just meant overnight? They’re fine. I mean not fun, but fine.’

Pitch nodded slowly.

Then, Jack startled when Pitch stepped forward and pressed two of his fingers to the corner of Jack’s cape. A place where Jack might wear a brooch. Pitch met his eyes, his face so much closer.

‘You’re not wearing it,’ he said.

‘Um,’ Jack said, as Pitch tapped the spot at his collarbone hard, and then withdrew so that he was leaning against the door once more. ‘I guess- No. I left it- I thought it would be…complicated.’

‘He’ll know,’ Pitch said. ‘You’ve rejected his claim. He’ll not be pleased.’

A fluttering of horror in Jack’s gut. The Tsar was already not pleased with Jack. Very much so. Jack thought of their last conversation, felt something inside of him twist hard.

‘What? But I won’t tell anyone, and I can- I mean- When we get back...’

Pitch looked briefly to the ceiling, like he was gathering strength or patience.

‘Jack, he will ask one of the others. It will be innocuous, but it will be there. He’ll say, ‘Ah, Jack must have looked splendid wearing the brooch I gave him. It’s silver, it would have suited him. Tell me, did it look very fine?’ And then another will give him a blank look – Xenia or Darya or Danil – will say ‘What brooch?’ without thinking about it, and then Gavril will know that you rejected his mark.’

‘No,’ Jack breathed. He just couldn’t handle another visit like the last one. He didn’t think- He couldn’t apologise, because the Tsar didn’t like that. Maybe he’d just have to start wearing it, but it wasn’t that simple, except- The Tsar didn’t see it that way.

It was that simple, and perhaps Jack wasn’t as loyal to the Kingdom as he thought he was.

At once, he realised that his breathing was uneven and echoing in the small space. He swallowed down the uncertain, knotted feeling in his chest as much as he could, but he didn’t meet Pitch’s eyes.

‘I should have brought it,’ Jack said eventually. ‘I just didn’t- I didn’t think it through.’

‘Did you want to bring it?’

‘I should have brought it,’ Jack said again. ‘He’s the Tsar. And Lune is- I mean he’s the Tsar, and you’ve met me- I’m like- I mean I know what I am.’

The Tsar keeps telling you he can make you special, he can see your potential, and you keep ruining it. This isn’t like disobeying your Creche team leaders, or even Crossholt or even Pitch.

‘Did you want to bring the brooch?’ Pitch said, his voice harder than before.

‘Stop trying to trap me!’ Jack shouted. A moment later his breath strangled in his throat and he shook his head, and then at once, he felt himself go weak. ‘So I’m staying in here longer now, right?’

‘No,’ Pitch said, and then he shifted and Jack bit his top lip when Pitch sat next to him on the bench. ‘No, there’s forty five minutes before the breakfast call. You’ll make it to the mess hall.’

Jack’s whole left side prickled with awareness. He could feel Pitch’s body heat, something he was so much more sensitive to now. Wondered if Pitch had ever been flogged, or spent time in an isolation room, or even a dark-room.

‘What... What will he do?’ Jack said, his voice smaller. ‘When he finds out I didn’t bring the brooch?’

‘I don’t know,’ Pitch said. ‘What has he done before, when you’ve done something he hasn’t liked?’

Jack lifted a hand to press it to his face and then dropped it. Another meeting, and Jack only knew how to make it right by apologising or trying to make amends, but the Tsar would call that weak, and just tell Jack that if he really wanted to do well, he would have tried harder in the first place.

‘It scares you, disappointing him. Doesn’t it?’ Pitch said, his voice quieter than before.

Jack thought to the meditation room, the induction technique Pitch had used, and almost didn’t want to answer. But he wasn’t being inducted now, and he wasn’t in a trance, and the isolation room didn’t feel as isolated when there was someone sitting next to him on the same bench.

Jack shrugged.

‘You’d think it wouldn’t,’ Jack said, ‘since I can’t seem to stop doing it around him. I mean in general, but also definitely around him. All the time.’

‘And he’s still nice to you?’ Pitch said.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘He thinks I could be special. Which is more than most.’

Could be?’ Pitch said, his voice sharper than before. ‘Which means not now. So what does he say about who you are now?’

‘I know what you’re doing,’ Jack said, fighting the urge to squirm. ‘Did Anton speak with you? He said he’s sure the Tsar is trying to get between you and me. I should’ve just told him that you’re doing a great job of that yourself.’

Pitch laughed. Not a small, quiet thing, but something loud enough that Jack wondered how the room even contained it.

‘I know that,’ Pitch said. ‘Yes, Anton did speak with me. He’s worried about you, Jack. Anton is…many things, but if you have him as a friend, he’ll worry about you. It gets tiresome. You may swear at him and tell him to find something else to occupy his time and he won’t listen.’

Jack thought that actually sounded kind of nice.

‘The Tsar is trying to drive a wedge between you and I,’ Pitch said. ‘I expected something like it. But I don’t think it’s all he’s trying to do. He never works with a single ulterior motive. You should always remember that. You may think he only wants one thing from you, but if you’re not giving him that one thing, chances are you’re giving him something else he wants.’

‘This feels like treason,’ Jack said. ‘You can be executed for treason.’

‘Yes,’ Pitch said. ‘You can be executed for a great many things on Lune. Are you going to report me?’

‘Are you going to report me?’ Jack said.

Pitch crossed one leg over the other. His boots were scuffed. There was a tear along the leather. Not enough to penetrate through to the foot, but it exposed the true colour of the leather beneath, left a ragged, vivid mark. It was nothing like the Tsar’s perfect boots.

‘I wouldn’t report you,’ Jack said helplessly. ‘You have a kid. You’re the Admiral. I just- If I reported people for everything I was supposed to, I wouldn’t…’

I wouldn’t have anyone left. Or just about anyone.

‘I used to think that I was like not terrible,’ Jack said quickly, in a rush. ‘You know, like I was naughty, and I deserved punishments, and that maybe I was made too naughty. But I used to think that deep down it was like – I was a citizen of Lune, and if I fought for Lune and the Tsar, then I was- I could be good. Y’know? And now I’m just- Like I know what the Tsar thinks about me, and he speaks for Lune, and the citizens, and it’s like- I just want him to be happy with me.’

‘But you didn’t bring the brooch,’ Pitch said.

‘I didn’t think he’d know!’ Jack said. ‘I didn’t- You must think I’m so stupid.’

‘Naïve, yes,’ Pitch said. ‘He has ways of finding out what he wants to know.’

‘So do you,’ Jack said, and then he laughed. ‘The meditation, and the Disciplinarian. You’re just like him.’

A hiss of breath, and Jack risked looking at Pitch sidelong. He thought Pitch would be looking at him, angry, but instead Pitch was staring ahead, something frozen on his face, in the slight widening of his eyes.

‘I need to do the things that I do, whether you like them or not,’ Pitch said, finally.

‘So does he,’ Jack said.

Pitch turned and stared at him, and Jack shrugged.

‘You’re both trying to make me into whatever you need me to be. I get it. You need me to access the Light and get control of my darkness. I get it. But he needs me to not be what I am, and to be better, and more…realise my potential somehow. You’re both the same. It’s not bad. It just- It’s not easy.’

It almost looked as though the colour had drained from Pitch’s grey skin. He continued to stare at Jack, until Jack had to look away. The main difference was that Jack couldn’t ever talk to the Tsar like this. Ever.

‘You’re too strong for all my other methods of training,’ Pitch said.

Jack nodded, and then the sentence seemed to filter in properly and he frowned.

‘Wait, what?’

‘You’re too strong,’ Pitch said. ‘You are so practiced at skills in denial and self-suppression – and your stamina is such that…that I cannot think of any other way to access your darkness. And I cannot access your Light, without doing that first.’

Pitch smirked then, and tapped his fingers on his knee.

‘And then you turned to a technique I didn’t plan for – which was sheer avoidance.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘I didn’t really think I’d turn to it either, until I started doing it.’

‘It feels good to leave the Palace, doesn’t it?’

‘No,’ Jack said, feeling some hurt thing sprawl through his chest.

‘No?’ Pitch said, sounding surprised.

‘No,’ Jack said. ‘I know I should be training. I know it’s what I’m meant to be doing. I know. It doesn’t feel good to run away from my duty. I mean- There are moments- When I visited…a friend, and when I practiced with my ice out in the forest, it wasn’t all bad, but otherwise I’ve just been feeling sick. I told the Tsar I’d been running away from you, and he got so mad at me. And I thought- He keeps asking me how I feel about the situation, about you, and I thought he wanted to hear that I didn’t like- I don’t know what he wants. I know he doesn’t want me to tell you this. So you know, yay Jack.’

‘‘Yay’ indeed,’ Pitch said.

‘You shouldn’t be easy to talk to,’ Jack said.

‘I’m not,’ Pitch said, his voice sure. ‘But you’re very alone. You may find yourself wishing you hadn’t talked to me like this, later.’

‘I’m not alone,’ Jack said. ‘I’ve never had so many people trying to get to know me.’

Flitmouse, the Spymaster, North, the Tsar, Anton, and then even Seraphina and Eva and Pitch.

‘You cannot keep avoiding training,’ Pitch said.

‘I don’t know how not to. I just- I can’t help it. I wake up, I hate myself, and then I leave. And then I come back and do it all again the next day.’

‘Then you’ll stay in my rooms when we return. I have a guest suite you can use. So you’ll still have some measure of privacy.’

‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can just escape that-’

‘No,’ Pitch said, ‘you cannot. You’re welcome to try. It will be vastly amusing. I’ll enjoy it immensely.

‘I’m not staying in your rooms,’ Jack said, staring at him, realising that Pitch was serious. ‘And what about the Tsar? He’ll be- By the Light, he’ll be-’

‘-Furious at me,’ Pitch said. ‘He’ll think I’ve started playing his game. He’ll likely be thinking it as we speak, given that I seized you from his grasp and took you on a mission I had no intentions of taking you on, and I didn’t even give him any notice. He knows what I’ve done. Especially since you haven’t worn the brooch. Oh, Jack. He’ll be furious with us both.’

‘You don’t seem worried,’ Jack said.

Meanwhile, Jack’s whole gut was twisting itself up into knotted, spiky masses that just hurt.

‘No?’ Pitch replied, and then he smirked. ‘Jack, there’s a reason you cannot escape my guest rooms, or my wing. It’s built like a fortress. And that has nothing to do with the Darkness. It never did. Now. It is time for you to get changed and shower, and then breakfast and a busy day ahead. More for me than for you, I’m afraid.’

Pitch stood, and Jack wanted to stand, but he had a feeling it’d be really cramped. So he waited.

Then, without really knowing what he was doing, he said:

‘P- Ah, Admiral Pitch, the Tsar told me that he didn’t tell you to…step up my training or anything. He said he’d never do something like that.’

‘That does sound like something he’d say,’ Pitch said, voice faintly airy, as though he didn’t even care.

Then, without even confirming or denying any of it, he just stepped out of the isolation room and left the door open for Jack. The click of his worn boots fading as he walked away.

Two minutes later, Jack finding his staff and sword leaning outside the door, he realised that Pitch hadn’t properly brought up the attack on Endan at all.

Maybe Pitch was saving it for later, too.

*

The shower would have been blissful, if Jack wasn’t worried about breakfast in the mess hall. And then when Jack was there, he belatedly realised that he didn’t need to be worried. Almost no one mentioned it. Only Yaromir brought it up, but subtly, by placing his bread roll on Jack’s plate and saying:

‘Tough nights need good feeding.’

That was it. No one fussed or made a big deal, no one talked about how Jack deserved it or maybe should have been flogged instead. No one said that he didn’t deserve it either. It was just integrated into the day. Discipline happened, one took it and moved on with their lives. That was remarkably familiar, reminding him of the Barracks, without Crossholt looming over him. It was almost nice.

However, Jack could tell almost immediately that Anton wasn’t there, and his heart beat faster to think of Anton taking a punishment for him. Putting himself on the line like that. Was he okay? Ten lashes at a flogging post – they would have used a cat o’nine, and his back would almost certainly be torn as a result.

Jack resolved to visit him, and then focused on finishing his breakfast.

*

He learned that Anton wasn’t even with a healer, but in his own cubicle-room. Vera, the one with all the scars, showed Jack the way and seemed pleased that Jack was checking up on him. She didn’t speak much, but she was sweet.

Jack knocked quietly on the door. He didn’t want to disturb, if Anton was sleeping.

‘Come in!’ Anton called.

Jack opened the door, not knowing how his presence would be received.

Anton’s whole face brightened. He lay on his stomach and a thick, open book rested on his pillow. There was a light sheet over his shirtless back, a little bloodied, and Jack hissed to see it.

‘Jack!’ Anton said cheerfully, shifting onto his side and then wincing. ‘Come in! Company is wonderful.’

‘Don’t get up,’ Jack said, stepping into Anton’s space and holding up a hand. He closed the door behind him. ‘Just-’

‘Oh, not a problem,’ Anton said, and then laughed ruefully. ‘Jack, I’ve taken much worse in Pitch’s private rooms. A flogging of ten lashes is nothing, really. I mean it’s never nice to have them where everyone can see them, but it was nothing more than a token order to get me to stop railing at the Admiral in front of the others. We all knew it. I’m just waiting for the healer to come by now.’

‘You’re getting to see a healer? Already?’ Jack said.

Anton opened his mouth, smile frozen on his face, and then something seemed to come over him and he tilted his head at Jack.

‘Yes,’ Anton said, finally. ‘You know, how it always is. They get the healers by pretty fast.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said. He felt like an idiot. Of course they’d all be used to healers. ‘That’s cool.’

‘It is,’ Anton said.

‘Wait – you’ve taken worse with Pitch? For fun? Why would anyone do that?’

‘Oh good,’ Anton said, grinning, ‘something I actually like talking about. Here, come sit down. There’s enough room on the cot if I move.’

Anton wiggled sideways, and then he placed a bookmark in his book and pushed it underneath the pillow. He moved carefully onto his side, leaning forward a little, and then patted the spot he’d made on the grey sheets.

Jack hesitated, and then walked over and sat. He lay his staff on the ground. Anton’s cubicle was small, and not personalised. Jack didn’t know why, but he expected it to be showy, somehow. Instead, just a grooming kit that looked fancier than the standard order ones.

‘How are you?’ Anton said. ‘After the isolation room? I’ve been worried.’

‘Oh, no, it’s fine. It’s just isolation,’ Jack said, looking around the cubicle. ‘It was only twelve hours, which is nothing.’

‘Really?’ Anton said, and Jack heard something in his voice that made him turn and look at him. ‘So you’re old hat at isolation? Like me and floggings. Except you’re old hat at floggings too, aren’t you?’

Jack wanted to shrug, but instead he held still. For all that Anton was friendly, he had a way of seeing through things. After their conversation about the Tsar, Jack didn’t want to give anything away, which was stupid. But it was obvious that Pitch thought putting a child in an isolation room was wrong. Jack wasn’t sure he wanted to see Anton’s reaction to that.

‘Pitch has seriously done worse to you in private?’ Jack said, changing the subject.

Anton was quiet for a while, as though deciding whether he’d let the subject change through. Then he brightened, nodded.

‘Yes, of course,’ Anton said. ‘I mean I’ve said as much before, sort of. But I like- I like that. I ask for it. In private, not having to think, and the pain of it – it’s not easy, but he never gives more than you can take, even if you don’t know it at the time. And there’s always a way out. A word, or a signal you can make. But the pain helps me to stop thinking. And I need that. To stop thinking sometimes.’

‘But it hurts,’ Jack said. He thought of Anton mentioning being spanked, thought of that moment in the corridor with Pitch and swallowed. Spanking seemed way different. Way less threatening than stepping up to something and just being whipped, for fun.

‘It’s a different kind of hurt,’ Anton said with a sigh. ‘And it’s not for everyone. I could show you some time if you wanted. Just something- like a light spanking. You could decide for yourself.’

‘What makes you think I’d want that?’ Jack said.

‘A feeling,’ Anton replied. ‘That’s all. Just a feeling. If you tell me no, that’s okay. My feelings about people are sometimes wrong.’

Jack nodded, looked towards the door. He blinked when he felt a warm hand slide around his side and rest there. He forced himself not to look down at it.

‘My feeling is that you seem like someone who gets lost in your head sometimes,’ Anton said softly. ‘And that you’re in an overwhelming world, and that a lot of the pain and fear that is around you, in you – it’s completely out of your control. Like chaos. And my feeling is that if you had that in a very controlled and safe environment – along with care and intimacy - you could use it to your advantage. Because I think you’ve learned how to do that in the past anyway. Learned how to use pain and fear to your advantage. Which is terribly unfair. Since I don’t think you’ve had many people take you through it and make it safe for you.’

Anton’s hand started stroking Jack’s side. He was so warm. Not as warm as Pitch, but still- And the strangeness of it. Jack had loved Anton all his life. He was the hero that smiled up at the stars. He’d been around in posters and even collector’s cards when Jack had been a child. Eva called him a baby, but he was already older than many peasants could ever imagine.

Now to be sitting here, and Anton touching him like this...Jack’s breathing hitched.

‘I’ve never met anyone who talks about things like you do,’ Jack said finally.

‘Well, yes, you probably won’t,’ Anton said. ‘I’m disarmingly candid. It’s a part of my charm.’

Jack twisted so he could look at Anton properly, who smiled up at him. Anton’s hand stroked across Jack’s lower back. Patterns and spirals. It was nice. Gentle. Different.

Jack had sucked off a couple of people in the Barracks before. He’d never learned their names, and he really only did it to see what it was like and see what he preferred. It was hurried and Spartan, and while it was fun, it was also empty. Being touched like this wasn’t empty at all, and Jack found it disconcerting.

‘Besides,’ Anton continued, ‘whatever happens in private, the Admiral can heal it. And he does. Sometimes more than you want him to.’

‘You make him sound- I dunno. You make him sound different. Nicer.’

‘The problem sometimes, with having a large heart in this world, is that it becomes wounded easily. Over and over again. I’m so lucky. I can deal with that by taking my wounded heart to Eva or Pitch, or someone else depending. And then they will safely lance it and let whatever infection is there come out. My heart is scarred, but it gets a chance to heal. Pitch’s... It’s different. And now it must be hard to hear me call him large-hearted, yet that is exactly what he is. I wouldn’t trust him with my heart otherwise.’

‘I guess he’s got his own little inner circle that he can-’

‘He cares about you,’ Anton said firmly. ‘He told me later, when I railed at him in private, that he had a specific reason for choosing isolation for you, and that it wasn’t because he wanted to make it worse or- I don’t really understand it. But he was firm that he thought it would be the easiest form of discipline for you to manage. Is that true?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said.

Anton’s fingers tightened on Jack’s back, like a fragment of an embrace.

‘Pitch said you would have killed him,’ Anton said. ‘That he’s still not sure why you stopped.’

Jack kept his breathing quiet, but he looked down, away. He’d been trying not to think about it. That moment of clarity, and how it hadn’t been terrifying at all. How destructive he could have been, how curious he was about the Darkness. He would have walked straight into it, given the chance.

‘I would have,’ Jack said, feeling guilty, like he should be punished or worse for admitting as much. ‘I would have. I thought of my sister and I...stopped myself, but I’m not sure I belong out here.’

‘Of course you do,’ Anton said. ‘With some more training, some more self-control. I have no doubt of that.’

‘You say that now, but you haven’t- You haven’t seen what I can really be like.’

Jack couldn’t imagine feeling any malice towards Anton, wanting to attack him. He couldn’t imagine ever having a reason to want to. But he knew that wasn’t how it worked. What if one day they were in the field together, and Jack just turned against him because he was curious? Or worse, because he could feel the glee of it in the moment?

‘Anton, you don’t need to defend me,’ Jack said. ‘Isolation is- I mean you told me yourself, things are different here, he can’t show favouritism. I disobeyed a direct order.’

‘Yes, and I knew I was headed for a flogging,’ Anton said. ‘What you don’t know is that it was my choice. You didn’t make me. I knew what Pitch would have to do when I said my piece, and I’m glad I said it. And see, it’s all worked out. Here you are. You seem well. And here I am, and I’m well.’

It sounded so easy. Simple. Jack wondered if that was how Anton saw the world. Defend the things he thought needed defending, and then try and find some peace the rest of the time. With Pitch apparently. By being flogged.

The spanking was one thing, that seemed- Jack was nervous thinking about it, but not because it filled him with horror. Anton offering to show him what it could be like also didn’t fill him with horror. Something to think about when the world wasn’t moving so quickly he was just struggling to keep up.

Instead, he kept thinking of what it felt like to bite down on the leather they gave soldiers who were going to be whipped. How awful the whole of it was.

‘I don’t get why you like it,’ Jack said.

‘I know,’ Anton said, completely unfazed by Jack skipping around on subject matter. ‘Some people don’t like kissing, at all, and I used to struggle with that. Who doesn’t like kissing? But then I learned that everyone in the world is not me, and so some of them aren’t going to like kissing.’

‘Kissing doesn’t hurt.’

‘Sometimes it does,’ Anton said, laughing. ‘Depends on the kiss.’

Light scratches at his lower back now, and Jack’s skin tingled, felt warmer. It was good. Made something sleepy steal through him.

‘I’m not convincing you to like it,’ Anton said, his voice serious again. ‘I’m telling you that I like it. That’s not taking anything away from you not liking it.’

‘The spanking thing though- I mean- I just...that doesn’t seem so bad.’

‘Oh?’ Anton said slowly. Jack could almost see the raised brow. ‘It would warm you up nicely, would you like that?’

‘By the Light,’ Jack said, laughing, covering his face with his hand. ‘I can’t believe we’re talking about this.’

‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had after a disciplinary flogging,’ Anton said. ‘Oh, no, wait, there was that one time that Pitch visited and-’

‘Nope,’ Jack said. ‘Not ready to hear about that adventure.’

‘No?’ Anton said, and Jack looked down at him to see the faux pout on his face.

‘People tell me I’m incorrigible,’ Jack said.

‘Yes, please,’ Anton said, eyes warming. ‘Here’s hoping so. I am too. We’ve already established that you enjoy mischief. And that you’re somewhat shy. Now what was that you were saying about spanking?’

‘I think that came to a natural end, that conversation,’ Jack said.

‘It did? And so I have been shut down. What about kissing? Is that conversation still open?’

‘I don’t know,’ Jack said slowly, responding to that playful gleam in Anton’s eyes. It was nice, being on the receiving end of all that attention. But it was also that Anton was sweet. His touch was tender, and he never seemed offended by Jack changing the subject. Perhaps because he ran onto so many different ones himself.

‘If I close my eyes, will you kiss me?’ Anton said. ‘I’ll pretend it was a ghost.’

Anton closed his eyes, and Jack shifted, expecting Anton to open them at any moment. When he didn’t, Jack’s breath grew quicker in anticipation, and he leaned forwards.

His lips touched Anton’s. His mouth only a little open. He could feel how cold his mouth was against Anton’s skin. After a few seconds he couldn’t help but say:

‘Am I too cold?’

‘No,’ Anton said, his lips brushing against Jack’s mouth. ‘No, not at all. I’m going to kiss you back now.’

Anton’s hand shifted from Jack’s back to his arm, running along it until he was pulling Jack down by the shoulder. His mouth returned, open and warm, his tongue wet as it gently touched Jack’s lips, as though testing. And then he was kissing Jack with a kind of lazy heat, slow but wanting, and Jack’s own eyes closed.

It went on for a little while, long enough that Jack lost track of time, that his hand ended up at the side of Anton’s neck. He could feel stubble there, and his fingers curled against it.

Then Anton was leaning back, smiling.

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘All of us should be blessed with a pretty young lad coming to visit us in the morning. And with a lovely kiss like that. I swear, the rest of them don’t know what they’re missing.’

Anton’s hand drifted down Jack’s arm and squeezed at his forearm.

‘Now, I wanted-’

Another knock at the door, and Anton looked past Jack in surprise, and then smiled ruefully.

‘That will be the healer. Go on then, Jack. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be up and about in all of five minutes.’

Jack flashed Anton a quick smile, and then left the room, passing an indifferent healer who didn’t seem bothered to see Jack at all. All the way back to his cubicle, he felt lighter.

*

The next three days passed on the ship with no mishaps. Jack was wary of practicing with his ice and everyone respected it. But he watched them and their manoeuvres, and realised he was starting to pick things up. The hand signals they made to each other, that he’d never really even noticed before. Or that there were clear leaders at times, and Anton slipped into the role of leadership easily, as though it was a practiced role.

Jack caught himself staring at shadows, looking out into space. He couldn’t stop thinking that if the Darkness came, there’d be every chance he’d either run from it, or walk towards it like he was greeting a strange but intriguing forest animal. He kept checking in on himself: Is this normal? Am I walking towards normal darkness or the other kind? Am I gonna betray someone right now? Are these thoughts the regular kind or is it something else?

He knew he shouldn’t, but he didn’t know how else to start dealing with what had happened. He wished he had some idea. An order, a direction. Something more than being told he was going to stay in Pitch’s rooms which...wasn’t serious anyway. Surely.

Jack tried very hard to not think about the Tsar at all. He only really succeeded in keeping the thoughts away, but not the slimy feeling in his gut and stomach. They were going back to Lune. The Tsar would know he’d not taken the brooch. He imagined being back in his bed, the Tsar leaning over him and petting him, and then he’d swear and realise that was dangerously close to thinking about it, and shove it all away as hard as he could.

Pitch had called it ‘sheer avoidance.’ Whatever - Jack was going to keep doing it. For as long as he could. About everything. It wasn’t like anything revealed to him made his life easier. None of it did. Everything had gotten harder, more stressful, since leaving the Barracks. Why wouldn’t he avoid it?

At least at the Barracks, the only thing to worry about was Crossholt. If he assumed Crossholt would find a way to be awful to him, it was predictable, easier to weather. Since he always assumed Crossholt would find a way to be awful to him, Jack just committed himself to training as hard as he could and mucking about with Jamie when he had the chance.

It was good, and he missed that certainty in his life.

He didn’t train to become a Golden Warrior in order to feel more lost, and somehow worse than he’d felt before.

He tried not to think about that too. There seemed to be an inevitability about finding out what kind of person he was, in a way he could no longer escape.

He’d escape it for as long as he could.

It was almost a relief when he was handed a letter by one of the Warriors whose name he didn’t know – which was almost all of them – and realised it was a summons to Pitch’s cabin. Except that he knew it would be to talk about Endan, most probably, and Jack didn’t want to talk about any of it.

*

Jack knocked on the door before him, nervous, holding the piece of paper that had summoned him.

A minute later – Jack thinking about knocking again – the door opened and Jack was surprised to see Pitch there, instead of a servant. Pitch stepped back, and Jack walked into the Admiral’s cabin, looking around curiously, finding it weird to step onto the plush fabric of an intricately woven rug.

The door closed behind them, and Jack looked over his shoulder when it was locked, too.

‘We need privacy,’ Pitch said simply, and then walked past Jack to a counter where he picked up a glass of some clear, honey-coloured liquid. It had no bubbles in it like champagne. Jack wasn’t sure what it was. But the glass bottle it came in looked expensive. ‘I’d offer you something, but I want you clear-headed for this conversation.’

‘That’s not freaky at all,’ Jack said. ‘Sir,’ he added.

Pitch sipped at the liquid, looking at Jack over the rim of the glass, then set it down on the counter again.

‘You don’t have to call me by honorifics in here.’

‘I should probably just keep doing it so I don’t accidentally drop it out there and like, end up in isolation again though, right? That’s what Anton said.’

‘Anton,’ Pitch said to himself, and then muttered something under his breath and turned away, picking up the glass and taking it with him to a small around table with two chairs either side. Pitch gestured for Jack to follow with his other hand, and Jack did.

Jack sat, was reminded of Flitmouse’s small table, and thought he’d see him again when they got back. Unless he couldn’t. He still didn’t know if Pitch was serious about the new room arrangement.

‘I don’t have to stay in your rooms, right?’ Jack said. ‘Before, what you said-’

‘No,’ Pitch said, cutting across him. ‘We talk about Endan, now.’

He drew forth a leather bound journal, a fountain pen, and opened the book to a new page. Jack caught glimpses of tiny scrawled writing, words running into other words. It reminded him of the room where Pitch had hypnotised him, and Jack folded his arms and leaned back in his chair.

‘Yaromir tells me that you tried to approach the Darkness,’ Pitch said, ‘but you told him it wasn’t talking to you at the time. He pulled you back and that seemed to jar you out of it for a time. Was the Darkness talking to you? Compelling you forward?’

‘No,’ Jack said, wanting to stand, walk around the room. He turned his staff in his hand instead. Sitting during a debrief like this was just weird. ‘It’s never been like that before.’

‘You’ve never been around the Darkness properly, since the mountain,’ Pitch said calmly. ‘You had no real idea what to expect. Up until yesterday, your only experiences with what the Darkness did to you in the mountain, has occurred without the Darkness assisting you or trying to reach you directly.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said slowly. ‘I hadn’t... I didn’t realise it would be different. I thought it’d be- Easier.’

‘What was it like?’

‘I just don’t know if I should be out there,’ Jack said abruptly. ‘Half the time I was either so scared of it I couldn’t even think. And the other half of the time I was like- I wasn’t even really fighting it. It was just there. And then I just wanted to get to know it. Like a friend. It felt casual. Like, you know, casual friends. I mean- Everything I’ve read and heard, I thought- I don’t know what I thought. It was different.’

‘The Darkness is an intelligent foe,’ Pitch said, and then wrote some notes down, the nib scratching against the paper. Pitch didn’t have soft writing, but a harder kind that seemed to fight the page. Jack would have torn his thinner practice sheets as a child if he’d written that hard, and been reprimanded for it.

‘Yaromir said it wasn’t always,’ Jack said.

‘It wasn’t always,’ Pitch agreed, in what Jack decided was the most unhelpful way of speaking to someone ever.

‘Why is it now?’

Pitch put down the fountain pen, though he didn’t look up.

‘It absorbs people. It never gives them back. It doesn’t leave behind skeletons of bodies unless it’s puppeteering someone, possessing them directly. When we first started encountering it, truthfully, I don’t think it had absorbed that many people. It was weak and hungry, sinister in how voracious it was, but also mindless.

‘But now it has visited countless planets, consumed countless populations, and I suspect that the collective influence of that has given it an ability to understand strategy, to learn how we think, to seek power for itself where before it just sought food. The more it takes, the smarter it grows.’

‘So we should wipe it out?’

‘We should,’ Pitch said, and then he looked up. ‘Even if we were tasked with that, I’m not sure we can anymore.’

Even if we were tasked with that…

Jack felt a thick knot in the back of his throat, tried to swallow it down. He looked at Pitch’s drink, almost wished for one of his own.

‘Why aren’t we tasked with that?’

‘Best not ask the Tsar about it,’ Pitch said.

‘Why?’

‘He’d tell you we are,’ Pitch said. ‘But as I’m the Royal Admiral, I think I’d know what we’re tasked with.’

He spat the last sentence out poisonously, and then stared at Jack like he was surprised he’d let himself slip. With that, he pushed up and away from the table, pacing over to the empty hearth, the way Jack had wanted to pace before.

Jack wondered if that was what Pitch’s darkness looked like, when it slipped out. It was hard to tell.

Jack pulled over Pitch’s notebook to look at it, expecting to be reprimanded. But when he saw it, none of it was written in the common alphabet, and he sighed. Would Seraphina really teach him? He really needed to learn it. He didn’t even know what his name looked like in the letters. He pushed it back.

‘Jack, I think you may be too strong for combat,’ Pitch said.

Shoulders tensing then, a cold curdling in his stomach that felt like where the sharpest, strongest ice grew. He rested his hands on his knees and knew that this was what he’d been avoiding thinking about.

‘I know,’ Jack said, his voice sounding strange and soft, even for him.

‘Your Light is an absolute force of nature, and we need it, but you repeatedly sought the Darkness without even seeming to question it.’

‘I know,’ Jack said, staring at a fixed point on the table and telling himself that he had no right to be upset. This was- He hadn’t even felt joy when he’d made the Light. He’d been wondering whether he was really cut out to be a Golden Warrior all along, even moreso since making the Light and realising it didn’t…make him happy. Like he thought it would.

‘Why didn’t you attack me? The rest of us? How did you make that decision?’

‘I saw my sister,’ Jack said. ‘I mean, a memory. You raised your sword, and she raised her arm to the Darkness, and then I managed to change direction and just-’

He cut off when Pitch swore, and then he turned in his chair and saw Pitch staring down into the black hearth. It took Jack a moment to realise that Pitch looked exhausted.

‘What is it?’ Jack said.

‘That was it?’ Pitch said. ‘A flashback? Not even- Damn it.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said wearily. ‘It was just- Like that’s gonna happen every time, right?’

‘I can’t always be there to snap you out of it. You can’t rely on a traumatic memory to do it for you. If you don’t learn to do it for yourself, I cannot have you out in the field. But I can’t know how you’re going to react to the Darkness, unless you’re out in the field.’

Pitch turned to him, something flashing in his eyes.

‘Your training back at the Palace will recommence, and you will be staying in my quarters until I know what you do and do not have a handle on.’

‘All the time?’ Jack said. ‘I have- There are people- Will I be trapped there? What about the tutors? The etiquette tutors?’

‘Yes, you will get some free time to yourself. Yes, you will still see your tutors. Yes, you will be trapped there the rest of the time. You weren’t simply allowed to leave the Barracks whenever you wished, were you? Think of it like that.’

‘Sure,’ Jack said, glaring at him. ‘It’s going to be the funnest.’

Still, he was relieved to know there would be free time. He could still visit people. Could still leave. It wasn’t until he’d actually done it, that he realised how much it helped to just get away from the Palace. It was a weird environment.

Jack felt deflated. Even if he was complaining about it, the fact was he didn’t even trust himself. What if he saw another huge wave of Darkness? Would he attack it? Or just walk towards it?

‘You were right to put me at the bottom of the callout list before the initiation, hey,’ Jack said, looking at Pitch’s journal.

‘No,’ Pitch said, laughing humourlessly, ‘I wasn’t.’

‘Yeah, but-’

‘Jack, Crossholt lied about you in your record. If you were that person, I was right to put you at the bottom of the list. Someone has to be at the bottom of the list. But you aren’t that person at all. Crossholt- I knew he was bitter about being sidelined early, but it never occurred to me or others that he would treat anyone the way he treated you.’

‘Honestly, I know people keep making a big deal out of it, but it’s not really a big deal.’

‘I see,’ Pitch said. He walked back over to the table, stared at his journal, and then closed it with a snap. ‘Let me guess, because you’re just that kind of person? Rubbed someone the wrong way?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said.

‘Not because he saw potential in you, thought of you becoming successful out in the stars – a place he would never get to again, and became so horrifically bitter about the whole matter that he essentially tortured you for years?’

Jack blinked, then for a long time couldn’t think of anything to say.

‘Not,’ Pitch added, when it was clear Jack wasn’t going to reply, ‘because you kept coming back and training after everything he did, thus proving that you would become successful – showed immense endurance and strength of spirit - thus cementing his bitterness against you, along with his hatred?’

‘No!’ Jack said, glaring at him. ‘No! Look at how I was yesterday, look at how I’ve been in the training arena. I would’ve killed you, and Bunnymund! I mean I’d probably try and kill Bunnymund now just because I kind of want to anyway, thanks for that, by the way. But that’s just crap. You don’t need to like...build me up to let me down, you know. I get it. I probably can’t be a Golden Warrior. Everyone’s been saying it since I got out of the mountain, I’ve already kind of adjusted.’

‘Is it so impossible for you to hear a single good thing about who you are now?’

Jack stared at him, and then got up and paced, because sitting was driving him crazy.

‘I don’t need it,’ Jack said, ‘because I’m not a five year old. I know how I’m messing things up with the Tsar, and I know how I messed things up out there, and I know how I’m messing things up in training. I don’t need someone to sit me down and hold my hand through it. And that you’re doing it? Of all people? Like, come on.’

Jack met Pitch’s eyes, derisive, and then quailed a bit when he saw the anger on Pitch’s face.

‘You are so good at buying all the harmful dross that everyone is feeding you,’ Pitch said, his voice going from elevated to silky in an instant. ‘That way you don’t have to expend any effort at all challenging anything around you. And yet- And yet you can’t quite help it, can you, Jack? You can’t help it. You didn’t bring the brooch. You don’t like calling me by my title. You escaped from the Creche. You ran from the Palace, over and over again.’

‘Because I’m- Because I am the way I am,’ Jack exclaimed, feeling choked up and breathless.

‘What?’ Pitch said calmly. ‘Made wrong?’

‘Don’t pretend like you don’t believe it too,’ Jack said, his voice breaking. ‘Don’t do that. I know you have to do whatever you have to do to make me ready, or whatever, but don’t do that. Or is that the darkness in you, making you be that cruel?’

Jack struck his staff against the fireplace mantle in frustration, and ice showered from it.

‘Is this meeting over?’ Jack said, refusing to look at him.

‘No,’ Pitch said, after a beat.

‘And if I just walk out? What, isolation? Flogging? What?’

‘Nothing,’ Pitch said.

Jack began to walk to the door, staff fisted tight, his breathing thin. He’d thought- He’d thought things had gotten better between them. Why did he let himself think that? Why?

‘Jack,’ Pitch said quietly.

Right when his hand was on the door handle. Jack saw frost swirling away from his fingers over the brass.

‘Jack, when you’re ready to believe something like the truth about the world around you, you can come to me. I won’t tell you about your future potential like the Tsar. But I’ll not lie to you about what I see now. And I won’t lie to you about the danger you present. I’m not lying about you being strong, or having persevered through a great deal of torment that no one ever should. If you can’t hear that for what it is now, so be it. But when you’re ready, I won’t turn you away. You’re the one who’s leaving this meeting, I’m not telling you to leave.’

‘It’s not like it matters,’ Jack said, squeezing his eyes shut. ‘I’ll be living with you soon enough, right?’

‘I think you’ll find that you’re well-equipped enough at avoidance that it won’t much matter where you’re stationed. Besides, have you not considered the danger you’ll be in, when we return? The Tsar will seek to meet with you.’

He could almost taste the dust of Endan on his tongue again, all gritty and dry. Empty of life.

‘Maybe I’ll take those meetings,’ Jack said.

He didn’t even know why he said it. He knew it was petty.

‘Maybe you will,’ Pitch said, sounding tired. ‘After all, he tells you what you need to hear, doesn’t he? He tells you a version of what you tell yourself.’

A flash of anger that he quelled, and Jack opened the door and shut it behind him. At the last minute he managed not to slam it, but all the same, he felt the whole conversation like a loud noise ringing in his ears.

Chapter Text

Jack sat on a plush sofa in a private sitting room, vaguely agitated, but also tired. They’d disembarked from the ship that morning, and already he was sitting in Pitch’s space, waiting for servants to take the small amount of his belongings from Fyodor’s room to his new room, and then get the room ready for a new guest. Apparently that would only take two hours. It was happening, and Jack didn’t even bother with protests now. He was almost grateful, even as he predicted about a hundred more fights than usual with Pitch. He didn’t trust himself on his own anymore.

It had crept up on him slowly, during the routine of the ship. What started out as questioning himself, became an intense paranoia that at any moment, the Darkness might be there, and he might be doing something foolish. Sometimes he stopped in the middle of something – earning two brutal blows during the manoeuvres they allowed him to participate in, and consequently barring him from the rest – and it took him more than a minute to trust that what he was doing was fine.

The nightmares that came were of waves of Darkness. Sometimes they swallowed Jack whole and he vanished, screaming. But sometimes it covered him, and he was still standing when it was gone. And then he’d level his staff, and kill everyone he’d recently come to care about. Jamie was always there at the end, begging with him, facing him with a sword as though he’d completed his initiation, and pleading with a broken, terrified voice. Jack always woke up just as he’d extinguished the light from Jamie’s eyes.

In the mess hall, he’d caught Pitch watching him, eyebrows knitted together. Beyond that, they didn’t interact. Jack went to his cubicle every night and stared up at the shadows and convinced himself they weren’t moving.

Now, his eyes were lidded as he focused on his breathing. Pitch’s rooms seemed safe from the Darkness, even if Jack didn’t feel safe inside of himself. The sitting room was furnished in dark tones. It seemed like Pitch loved dark colours – navy blues and blacks, or deep reds and greens, depending on the room itself. And where the rest of the Palace was filled with gold, here it was kept to a minimum. Highlights here and there, almost as though Pitch had looked for items with the least gold, but couldn’t avoid it entirely.

A child’s drawing of a vine with bright red flowers rested on the desk beside Jack’s fingers.

The room that was to be his own was actually two rooms and a bathroom. A comfortable – but not overly opulent – bedroom. The bed not actually a four-poster, though it still featured a headboard and baseboard elaborately carved with demonic faces, along with scales and spines. The fireplace carved from black wood, horses with fluid manes and tails, amber set into their eyes. The other room was clearly a training space. Jack thought about other soldiers that had stayed. Would they have been lovers? Something else? Jack had no idea.

Why did Fyodor get his own room? And why was it separate from Pitch’s quarters?

Jack sighed and tilted his head back, too tired to bother with it. Second-guessing himself was exhausting, Pitch had already vanished. There was no one there to make sure that Jack stayed awake and alert.

He slept.

*

In the mid-afternoon, Jack explored his new living space. There were none of Fyodor’s clothes here, no strange games or corn dolls, items that hinted at some cryptic person that Jack didn’t ever hear about.

The Tsar’s brooch had been placed by one of the servants upon Jack’s bedside table, and he felt squeezed tight when he saw it. He wanted to touch it. He wanted to hide it away and never see it again. Now that he was back in the Palace, he couldn’t even think about the Tsar. Yet there was a part of him still desperate for approval, still convinced that things could be repaired. If he could just have the Tsar’s blessing, and have it last longer than for a few seconds…

Eventually, Jack picked up the brooch with the metal shovel from the fireplace. He slid open the drawer, and dropped it inside, and then laughed as he returned the shovel back to its stand. He was being ridiculous.

In the late afternoon, Jack was surprised to see the group of seamstresses that he normally saw with Flitmouse. He smiled to see them, peering past them, hoping Flitmouse would be by soon. He’d have to find some more tea, see him again.

‘Master Frost,’ said the seamstress with the heavy chatelaine, smiling at him in a detached manner, ‘we are here to make sure you are well-outfitted. Give us a moment to look through your wardrobe to see that which needs replacing, and what needs to be made stronger.’

Jack watched them busy themselves around his room, and realised Flitmouse wasn’t coming.

‘Is Flitmouse okay?’ Jack said. ‘I mean, is he busy?’

One of the seamstresses turned and looked at him, surprised. Then she caught the eye of another.

‘Master Frost, Flitmouse is unavailable at this time. But if you are not happy with our service, we would be more than happy-’

‘No, no, I’m happy,’ Jack said. ‘You folks are amazing at what you do.’

The seamstress had already turned away from his acknowledgement.

A few minutes later they were all standing around Jack’s uniforms, commenting to each other about the strength of fabrics, the way it had worn, and the ability to repel stains. Quick, sharp little notes were made in tiny notepads, with pencils whose wood and leads had been worn down to nubs. Then, they bowed politely to Jack and swept out together without even measuring him.

Jack stared after them, and thought he’d check how long he got out of his rooms every day. Maybe he’d just visit Flitmouse. They seemed to act even weirder once he’d asked about the tailor.

*

That evening, Jack walked into the main lounge, where Pitch was giving orders to Golden Warriors he didn’t recognise at all. They hadn’t been on the ship with them. He wondered how many were sent on different missions, and how many of them weren’t ‘good missions.’

Eventually, the Warriors were dismissed, and Pitch turned to consider Jack.

‘How long can I leave?’ Jack said. ‘I need to visit someone.’

‘Who?’ Pitch said, eyes narrowing.

‘A friend,’ Jack said. ‘A servant. But he lives in the City proper. Not in the Palace. Can I just- I’m worried about him and I just want to- I’m sure everything’s fine. So how long?’

Pitch looked over to a heavy grandfather clock hanging on the wall. This too, carved in wood, with forest leaves and squirrels and owls, a set of antlers at the top. Where did Pitch find all this stuff? It was so unlike the general aesthetic of Lune, that Jack found himself mesmerised by the details.

‘Be back by eleven,’ Pitch said. ‘Don’t get used to being allowed out so late every evening.’

‘Yes, S-’ Jack swallowed down the honorific, mad at himself for still using it. ‘Sure.’

‘‘Sure,’’ Pitch said, one side of his lips lifting in something of a smirk. Jack knew he was being mocked, that Pitch had seen Jack do a complete turnabout on what he’d been about to say.

Jack gritted his teeth and walked away. He knew they were going to get on each other’s nerves, but he didn’t want it to be the first night.

*

The shopkeeper on the ground level stared hard at Jack as he made his way to the rickety staircase that would lead to Flitmouse’s attic apartment. The shopkeeper – a gnarled old man with a cotton candy fluff of white hair – even leaned to keep Jack in his gaze, and Jack found himself looking over his shoulder until their eye contact was broken.

The stairs creaked as Jack made his way up, and he kept one hand on the railing the entire way. A cold wind guttered up through the alleyway, Jack’s cape fluttering lightly.

Jack’s steps slowed as Flitmouse’s door – hanging off its hinges – came into view. It swung back and forth lightly, creaking as it moved.

Painted on the door in red:

SCUM TRAITOR

Jack stopped, the staircase groaning a little beneath him. His mouth dry, working his tongue wasn’t enough to bring saliva back into it. He gripped the railing so hard that his palm hurt.

Then he looked behind him, suddenly paranoid that he’d see all the citizens of Lune standing beneath him, pointing up with their fingers. But even the hard gaze of the shopkeeper was absent.

Jack stepped forwards hesitantly, his heart pounding nausea into his throat. He moved a step at a time, each time grasping onto the railing, trying not to imagine what he might see. Then he was close enough that he had no choice but to push at Flitmouse’s door.

His heart hurt. Almost nothing had been left that made this place so distinctly Flitmouse’s. Cabinets had been pushed aside, drawers upturned, and flakes of newspaper were scattered across the floor. There, near Flitmouse’s kettle – also absent – was a smear of thick, brown-red, that would have once been fresh blood. A sharp voice echoed across his mind, as though Flitmouse was right there, whispering the words in a mocking undertone:

I am always ready to leave in but a moment.

Except he hadn’t left. He’d been taken. His messy, cluttered space rendered broken and bare over however many days Jack was away. Jack didn’t even know if it had happened while he’d been on the ship, or before. He hadn’t seen Flitmouse since he’d brought the tea some time ago.

Jack thought of all the traitorous thoughts he’d been having, the conversations, and stared at that smear of blood and dared to wonder if Flitmouse still lived.

If he did, he probably wished he didn’t.

Jack turned and retched, wrapped a hand around his stomach and gasped for air. The gasping built up on itself, until Jack was pressed back against the wall and covering his mouth, trying to calm himself down and feeling as though his heart was going to explode. If he hadn’t experienced this before as a child, he would have thought he was dying. Instead, he squeezed his eyes shut and let it ride him, until it rode itself out.

He slumped, exhausted, staring around as though Flitmouse would just appear in a moment, tutting about how wrecked his apartment was.

All of the bolts of fabric had been taken, revealing an extremely garish couch beneath it. The pattern alone made his eyes hurt.

How had this happened? Flitmouse had been working in the Palace for years. He seemed like someone who knew who he could talk to, even if he was uncharacteristically bold. So was Pitch. So was Seraphina. So was North.

North…

All at once, Jack recalled North saying, ‘I think I know which little bird has been ear-bending you,’ and had a horrible sinking feeling in his gut. Was it possible that Jack had done this? By speaking too freely?

He stumbled out of Flitmouse’s apartment, the wind wild around him now. He ran down the steps and only once he reached the shopkeeper’s landing did he remind himself to slow. He kept his head forward, felt the shopkeeper’s stare prickling into his back like twin knives, and walked briskly, as though it didn’t bother him that Flitmouse was gone. As thought it didn’t bother him that he’d been discovered as a traitor to Lune.

He had to speak to North.

*

Jack ran as soon as he was past the outer ring of the peasant’s houses. It felt good to exert himself, to have something to focus on that wasn’t panic or horror or sickness. He could convince himself that the burning in his stomach was from pushing himself too hard, and then he could pretend this was nothing more than one of Crossholt’s absurd punishments, and he’d lasted through all of those. He’d last through this as well.

‘Come on,’ Jack whispered, impatient, as the wind gathered and buffeted at him. He pressed his lips together, always expected that he’d try this gently, easily, but instead: ‘Come on, are you going to help me or what?’

He lifted clumsily into the air. His flung his arms out for balance, the staff helping him, and stared down at the ground moving a distance beneath his feet. The soles of his shoes not touching anything solid. Night had fallen around him as he sometimes dropped down to the road, taking strange, skipping steps before he swung his staff and started to get the hang of how the wind moved, what the air would be like around him. It took a little while to remind himself that he didn’t actually need to run in the air, and once he stopped treating it like solid ground, it became much easier.

A distant part of him wanted to savour it. To swoop amongst the forests, to learn how to duck and weave between the trees and leave streams of snow behind him. But this was nothing more than efficiency. A skill that he needed to make sure he got to North’s in time, and then home before his curfew. He was suddenly more terrified of breaking rules than he could remember being for a long time. Jamie might have been safe, but Flitmouse…

Thoughts stumbled through his mind in quick succession as he followed the road to North’s Workshop, the winds making him move faster than he was used to, hair pushed about in the wind, cape flying out behind him. The cape that Flitmouse had designed – maybe even sewn himself. Everything he wore had Flitmouse’s careful touch throughout it, and Jack made a faint sound of indignation in the back of his throat, and the wind pushed him along so quickly that branches whipped nearby.

At the last moment, he landed badly on the black road when the Workshop was in view, not wanting anyone to see him flying. It was aberrant, and in that moment, he desperately didn’t want to be any more aberrant than he already was. He staggered, found his feet, and then walked briskly down to the huge entrance to the Workshop, even though nearly all the lights were off, and it was obvious they were closed for the day.

Jack knocked on the door, hearing the sound clanging into the building. A minute passed. Another. No one answered.

He craned back, looking around. In the distance, a tower with a light on at the very top. Perhaps that was where North was. North wouldn’t hear his knocks, but the yetis lived here, and surely- Surely someone would let him in to see North.

He rapped harder this time, with his staff, and the sound boomed off the metal. Resounded loudly.

A few seconds later the door swung open, and Jack looked up at a huge, hulking yeti. Was this one Phil? Jack had no idea.

‘Hi,’ Jack said quickly, his voice rougher than usual. ‘I’m here to see North. It’s an emergency.’

The yeti folded his arms, shook his head.

‘It’s an emergency,’ Jack insisted.

The yeti let loose a diatribe that Jack didn’t understand, and then finally gestured wildly to the doors, as though indicating that they were closed, and that there was no such thing as an emergency once the Workshop was closed.

‘Please,’ Jack said, ‘I just-’

He jumped backwards when the yeti moved towards him all at once, making threatening gestures with his hands. Jack held up a hand to indicate that he was quitting, and stared as the yeti slammed the door shut with a loud clang.

Jack looked towards the tower at the back of the Workshop. It was higher than the tops of the trees around him, but he could fly, and if he could…get the hang of it…

Surely that’s where North would be?

Jack backed up into the forest, just in case the yeti were somehow still watching. Then he lifted up onto the winds – this time he hardly even thought about it. By the time he’d realised he was doing it, he was already in the air.

He moved slower now, skirting the Workshop until he could approach the tower directly. It reminded him of Toothiana’s tower, and the Disciplinarian’s tower. He moved upwards, not entirely sure how it would work. But the more he thought about the fact that he was flying – floating? – up to that light in the arched window, the more he would drop a few feet, as though thinking about it too much made the wind cooperate less.

‘Please,’ Jack whispered, looking down at the ground beneath him, feeling dizzy. He was so high up now. Even higher than Flitmouse’s attic apartment. ‘Come on, please.’

To his surprise, the arched window was slightly ajar when Jack found himself hovering – arms splayed – before it. It wasn’t paned with clear glass, but opaque white. Jack couldn’t see inside. He could hear voices. North was arguing with someone, and then a lighter, feminine voice that Jack recognised, and without thinking, he pushed the window open and floated inside.

Jack’s eyes took in everything faster than his mind could process what he was seeing. Shock bowled into him. He dropped to the ground badly, staff clattering down by his feet.

There, by a huge trestle table, stood the High Priest Sanderson, Bunnymund, Toothiana, and North. But it wasn’t seeing all of them in the same place that had cut through him.

It was the posters on the table, glistening with wet paint.

Jack had seen them before… Seen them multiple times, but remembered them searing into his mind, when he still had cut marks on his back from Bunnymund’s whip.

How long will you believe the lies of your Tsar?

Black ink on that pale green blackground, like a scar. Designed to stand out against the reds and whites and blacks of the official Lune posters. No one even knew where the traitors got the colours from. Even the purchase of certain colours was regulated.

Beside it, a stack of posters proclaiming:

Lune is Built on the Backs of the Dead.

Jack felt his vision greying out at the corners, tried to convince himself that none of this was happening. Except Bunnymund was already shouting at him, and North was walking towards him, and Sanderson looked concerned and Toothiana had a calculating look on her face.

When Bunnymund took a step towards him, pulling his boomerangs from the brace at his back, Jack fumbled his staff and then grabbed it and threw up a tight wall of ice. Not to attack them, but to shield himself. It covered him in a thick ball, and he couldn’t hear them anymore. Could only hear the harsh echo of his breathing. He backed up against the wall and saw them only as shapes now. No longer moving towards him, that he could tell.

Jack thought of the Guardians of Lune, all that he’d heard. He thought of wishing the people who made these posters into the Asylums, for daring to harm Lune’s solidarity and purpose. Posters that were clearly made in North’s Workshop. He covered his face with his hands and thought of Flitmouse, and thought that something might be shattering inside of him, only he didn’t know what it was, and he didn’t know how to deal with it.

This was the sort of thing he was supposed to take to the Tsar, wasn’t he?

A sharp, hysterical giggle hiccuped out of him, and then he dug his nails into his scalp and tried to calm himself down.

He startled when he saw a dark, shadowy shape by the ice, and then heard the rumble of North’s voice. There was a crack between the ice and the wall, and North knelt there, talking to him.

‘Jack, are you hearing me?’ North was saying, a soothing tone, like one might use on an injured animal. Jack thought he might have been talking for some time. ‘No, Epiphanes, stay there. He’s terrified. Jack? Can you look at me? You are fine, Jack. It is being fine. You’re safe.’

Bunnymund muttered something in the background, and Jack heard the sharp, angry breath that North took, like he wanted to snap back. But then North sighed it out explosively.

‘Jack, all you have to do is look at me, yes? That’s all. Can you do that?’

Jack turned his head and stared, mute, at North’s face. North, the one who had said that Jack could talk to him, who had said that he knew which ‘little bird’ had been telling Jack about Husthoun.

‘Did you report Flitmouse?’ Jack said, his voice breaking. ‘Because I told you? About Husthoun?’

North stared at him with wide eyes, as though of all the things Jack could say, that was the last he’d ever expected to hear. He looked aside, as though seeking someone’s gaze, and then he turned back to Jack.

‘I did not,’ North said solemnly. ‘I would never.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said. ‘He’s gone.’

‘I know,’ North said sadly.

‘Is he safe? Like Jamie?’

‘No,’ North said, looking aside again. It was a moment later that he realised – from the jade green and violet he saw nearby – that North was looking up at Toothiana, the Spymaster. How was the Spymaster here? Around those posters? It was…impossible. Jack pressed his fingers to his face again and focused on breathing. The ice he’d sealed around himself was so cold.

‘Is he-’

‘Jack,’ North said patiently, ‘I can talk with you in this little world of ice you have made, but I am thinking you should take it down, so we can talk properly. Yes?’

‘No,’ Jack said. ‘I don’t want to see.’

‘You have already seen,’ North said. ‘You cannot unsee. Come out, Jack. No one is going to hurt you here, and if anyone tries, they will have to go through the Engineer of Lune.’

Jack swallowed the lump in his throat. The ice broke apart into diamond dust without Jack really directing it. But he didn’t move from where he’d hunched back against the wall. He felt like a fool. He felt like someone who couldn’t go back to the Palace and pretend he’d never seen this. All his life, and he was never supposed to be someone who already knew they’d try and hide this from the Tsar.

He could hardly handle what he was seeing, but he could handle himself even less.

Jack refused to look at Bunnymund, and stared instead at the Spymaster’s shoes. They were polished, pretty, but functional. He could smell cigarette smoke, and knew she’d been smoking. The room smelled a little like cinnamon and cocoa.

‘Told you that you shouldn’t have kept that bloody window open,’ Bunnymund griped.

‘Epiphanes-’ North said.

‘Oh, really,’ Toothiana said, sounding exasperated, turning to Bunnymund. ‘We’re eight floors up, and barricaded in. You expected someone to come flying in, did you? What, the Tsar’s now investing in flying spies?’

‘Don’t play daft now,’ Bunnymund said. ‘You know the Tsar is grooming him-’

‘To be a spy?’ Toothiana said, smiling slowly. ‘My dear there is nothing the Tsar wants that I don’t often know about, and if he genuinely wanted this boy to be a spy, I doubt he would have simply bowled in through a window, or stayed here once he’d seen what he’d seen. The Tsar doesn’t want him to be a spy. He wants a lure. It seems he’s got one.’

Toothiana pursed her lips, and then quickly crouched by Jack’s side, staring at him in a way that suggested she saw far more than she ever spoke.

‘Were you followed, young Overland?’

‘It’s Jack Frost now,’ Jack said.

‘Jackson Overland,’ Toothiana said. ‘Jack Frost. I helped choose your new name. Did you know that?’

Jack shook his head, pressing back into the wall. A long time ago, she’d stood at the base of the healing tower, smoking from her cigarette holder, and she’d said, ‘Jack. What a nice, solid name. You can depend on a Jack.’

‘I wasn’t followed,’ Jack said. ‘I flew…from the outskirts. I don’t know. I didn’t notice anyone.’

Toothiana smiled at him, and then stood, walking over to the table and looking over the posters. After a few breaths, she sighed and leaned back so that she couldn’t see them. Instead, she watched Jack.

‘A lure,’ Jack said.

‘Tooth,’ North said reprovingly, ‘the boy is terrified.’

‘Then what a great idea, to keep him in the dark for as long as possible!’ Toothiana said with false brightness, even bringing her hands together, clapping sharply. ‘Brilliant! Here you both are, getting yourselves into trouble by making these posters, which – by the way – will see you both killed, and yet you wish to keep him ignorant for as long as possible? I should knock your heads together. Isn’t that right, Sandy?’

Sandy didn’t sign, but nodded affably in agreement.

Jack wondered if he was hallucinating.

He looked around at them, and then pushed himself back up against the wall so that he was standing. He stared at the posters. The ones that sowed dissent. He wondered what Pitch would say. He wondered…

‘Does Pitch know?’ Jack whispered. ‘About this?’

‘Strewth,’ Bunnymund muttered.

‘I am thinking we have to start from the beginning,’ North said, standing slowly, placing his hands on his knees like they pained him.

‘What happened to Flitmouse?’ Jack said.

He remembered he used to be able to keep track of his own mind, but he couldn’t do it now. Getting sentences out was hard. He thought he might be in shock. Wasn’t that what the healer had said, when he was on Endan? He felt a lot like that now. Of course he knew that the Guardians were treasonous, but he’d never thought- This was organised dissent. It wasn’t just thinking bad things about the Tsar, or occasionally saying a disapproving sentence; which was enough to get one jailed around the wrong people. It was a movement.

Toothiana turned away completely, and then walked away from all of them.

‘What happened?’ Jack said. ‘I went to his apartment and everything… Is he dead?’

‘No,’ Toothiana said, quietly. ‘He will be interrogated, and then he will be sent to an Asylum. He’s a very fine spy. He’ll not break under pressure.’

‘The serums…’ Bunnymund said, ears flattening against his neck.

‘He’s been inoculated,’ Toothiana said. She turned back, violet eyes sparking with anger. ‘Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to sacrifice him, if you two didn’t play your hands so boldly! It’s like neither of you have heard of precision. And I had to throw him before the train, because it was that or the two of you. The only reason I’m here tonight-’

‘You reported him?’ Jack said, feeling like there wasn’t enough air in the room.

Toothiana looked at him, her anger frightening. Then all at once her expression crumpled and she gestured at Jack and looked towards Sandy.

‘The Tsar is stepping up his campaign to find the Guardians,’ Bunnymund said heavily. ‘If Jack’s really a lure, then he obviously suspects Pitch.’

‘Pitch hasn’t been one of us in years,’ Toothiana said. She tilted her head at Jack and pursed her lips.

‘Wait,’ Jack said, not liking the way they all talked over him, like he was just a child. ‘What in the name of the Darkness happened to Flitmouse?’

North had been in the middle of saying something, then faltered and stopped with a sigh.

Bunnymund stepped forward once, looking at Jack warily, ears still flat against his back.

‘The Tsar has been stepping up his campaign to find us,’ Bunnymund said. ‘Toothiana has spies on all sides, and is one of his most trusted advisors. He suspects me and North, but not Sandy or Tooth. He’s known someone is distributing more information than they should, and has had a tail on me for a while now. So, Tooth gave up one of her best men in the Palace, who’s been there for…oh I don’t know, donkey’s years I reckon. Broke her heart.’

Toothiana smiled at Bunnymund for a moment, and then turned away again. Jack watched her rise and fall of her shoulders and couldn’t tell if he was angry or sick.

‘He’ll die in an Asylum,’ Jack said.

‘He’s very strong,’ North said patiently, even as Toothiana’s shoulders went still. She didn’t look like she believed it herself. ‘He’ll wait for us.’

‘No!’ Bunnymund shouted, even as Sandy started and folded his arms, as though this was an argument they’d all heard before. ‘I’m sick of it. I’m bloody sick of it! That’s a pipe dream. It’ll never work if Pitch isn’t on board, and Pitch took one look at that plan decades ago and has treated us like shit ever since. It’s a miracle that he’s let us live this long, but he knows he can throw us out to the dogs in a second if it’ll save his daughter. Flitmouse won’t wait for us, because we can’t rescue him, because we don’t have the resources or the power or really, anything. Flitmouse will die in the Asylum, and you’ll keep pandering your Wonders to anyone who will listen, and keep sending our soldiers out in your machines to their deaths.’

Jack stared. He half-expected North to look murderous. But North only looked tired, and he stared down at the ground. When he looked up, it was Jack’s gaze he met, his eyes sheened with unshed tears.

‘He is not being entirely wrong,’ North whispered.

‘My people are dead,’ Bunnymund said, staring at North like he wanted the fight. ‘My planet is gone. The magic and heritage- The heritage and my family- You know there’s only so much I can take Nikolai before I have to tell you to pull your damn head in.’

Jack thought of Endan. Thought of the handful of Endanians on Lune and how they weren’t allowed to access their wealth or planet, and remembered the Golden Warriors pushing cart after cart of bullion back onto the ship. A Warrior had died for it.

‘I know,’ North said. It felt like something that had been said before.

‘This,’ Bunnymund said, catching Jack’s gaze before pointing expansively at the posters Jack had been trying to avoid looking at. ‘This is the hope we have now. That we’ll get more people on side. That we might be able to start something from within. And I’m going to keep working on giving that hope to people, even if it puts me in the direct line of that poisonous monster. I didn’t ask you to give up Flitmouse for this, Tooth. I didn’t bloody ask. I can wear this.’

‘It’s bigger than you,’ Toothiana said, still not turning around. ‘I had to make a choice. I chose.’

‘Yeah, and now who gets to think about your favourite little spy in an Asylum somewhere, wasting away, because you made a choice?’

‘I told you to be more careful,’ Toothiana said, turning to face him slowly. And where Bunnymund was shooting his mouth off, her rage looked composed, chilling. ‘You refuse to listen to me. There are sightings of you putting up the posters now. Witness testimonials. Who has the eidetic memory here, of all of you? Me. I know exactly what evidence we have against you, and I know how willing the Tsar is to use it. And yet you’ll make more, and put them up yourself? At least get someone else to do it.’

‘So they can go to an Asylum?’ Bunnymund said stubbornly.

‘Believe it or not,’ Toothiana said, ‘I don’t think anyone else is as stupid as you. They know not to get caught.’

Jack watched in confusion as they kept fighting, now about Bunnymund’s capacity for stealth. Jack looked at North, and North was already watching him, like he wanted to say something soothing, but couldn’t think of what to say. Nearby, Sanderson was leaning back against a cabinet and looking bored. But when he looked over at Jack, a gentle smile crossed his face, and he waved with his small hands.

‘Inoculated,’ Jack said. His voice – soft and hardly audible – still cut through the argument and brought silence to the room. ‘Does that mean he knew? That this could happen?’

Toothiana turned to Jack and nodded. ‘He’s always known. Since I recruited him. Or since he recruited himself, I think is more accurate.’

‘He told me he would leave.’

‘Oh, my dear, he was always ready to run. But he also knew this was an option. He was realistic, Jack. He believed the truth was worth the consequences. We all do. What is the point of having a memory like mine, if not for making sure that some of us remember how it once was, versus how it is now? And what is the point of North’s Engineering, if it isn’t to create the weapons of the resistance? And what point is Bunnymund’s alchemy and magic, if he cannot use it to push hope through our City and villages? And Sandy, well, he has dreamed of a far larger future than we could ever have imagined, and without him, we would not be what we are.’

‘You can’t know I’m not going to report you,’ Jack said weakly.

‘Yeah,’ Bunnymund said, staring at Toothiana. ‘You don’t know that. Why do you keep-’

‘Hush,’ Toothiana said, and though her tone was indulgent, her eyes were cold. ‘Leaps of faith are not what you’re known for.’

Bunnymund went mutinously silent, and then he muttered something and went back to the posters, lifting up the ones that were dried, clearly checking the quality. There were hundreds. More than Jack had ever seen. More than had ever been in the City of Lune, surely.

He felt dizzy. Looked towards the open window, the forest layered in darkness.

Would a Jack that hadn’t been impacted by the mountain’s Darkness be standing here right now? Was he supposed to be someone who reported them? The Spymaster who the Tsar trusted? The Engineer who made them their ships and weapons to fight the war? Sandy, the Priest who gave so many people a direction in life? Or Bunnymund… Maybe he’d just leave that one.

But even before the mountain, he’d let Jamie go, and he’d never once regretted that decision. Not once. And he’d let Jamie go these people, this movement, and now Jamie was safe because of it.

Flitmouse wasn’t.

‘He’s my friend,’ Jack said, tiredness catching up with him. ‘You can’t just leave him there. If he’s yours, like you said, then you have the power to get him back. You’re the Spymaster. You can get him back.’

‘No, Jack,’ North said, his voice terrible in its softness. ‘You know why.’

‘Get. Him. Back.’ Jack pointed his staff at Toothiana, and Bunnymund’s ears flickered quickly, and he reached behind his back for his boomerangs.

A flash of malice inside of him, hatred roiling fast, and Jack could feel it. The darkness there. He nearly jammed his staff onto the floor to send up sparks. Instead, he pointed his other hand towards Bunnymund, who froze.

‘Don’t,’ Jack said, feeling sick. ‘Don’t. You don’t know what I want to do to you.’

‘Shit,’ Bunnymund said, and then he moved his hands away from his boomerangs and kept his hands in the air. ‘Bloody Pitch, I knew-’

‘Just…be quiet,’ Jack said, trying not to look at him. He could feel the precipice of it, the fine line between the righteous anger he felt about demanding that they get Flitmouse back, and the darker mass that was already showing him images of ice-destroyed posters, of Bunnymund caked in his own blood. He fought with his own breathing, felt completely out of his depth. He could hardly be in the same room as Bunnymund, it turned out. That wasn’t good. Jack forced himself to look down, ice crackling up by his feet, growing up his pants and cementing him to the ground.

‘If you’re really powerful, and you are, you’ll find a way to get him back,’ Jack said to his feet.

It was North who spoke, so close to Jack’s side, his voice the only one that Jack really thought he could trust. And even then…

‘Jack, Toothiana is the one who is being closest to the Tsar, and as far as we know, he has never suspected her. But she cannot save everyone. If there was a way, we would find it. We would save him, as we have been saving so many, for so long.’

Jack shook his head, wishing that he hadn’t left Pitch’s rooms at all. Wishing that he’d just stayed in that stupid room with its fireplace of horses and training room. Aside from Cupcake, who he wasn’t sure he could trust with this stuff, Flitmouse was the only one who had been really honest with him. The one who had said they could try being friends. He was the one who had taught Jack about different types of cloth and ranted about his ex and-

And he wasn’t going to lose it in front of them. He just wasn’t. He stood there and got control of himself, and imagined that it was Crossholt there, leering, waiting for the moment when Jack would break.

When he looked up, his expressions were masked. He lowered his staff, and he stepped away from the ice. The darkness inside of him felt further away too, but he knew it wasn’t gone. He’d have to be so careful around Bunnymund.

‘Okay,’ Jack said, looking at them. ‘I won’t tell anyone about this. But you owe me some explanations. Because I’m tired of knowing nothing. Or bits and pieces. I’m tired of Pitch hinting about bad missions and about what the Tsar is telling him to do, and,’ he stared at Toothiana, ‘I’m tired of you telling me that Jack is a solid name months ago, and me somehow ending up with the name of Jack Frost. If you’re afraid of Pitch throwing you to the Tsar, remember I can do it too.’

‘You’d put Jamie’s life in danger?’ North said calmly.

It was like a physical blow, that sentence. Jack bit the inside of his lip until he tasted blood, so that he could look composed, so that he could look like he dealt with this stuff all the time. He turned to stare at North, and whatever was on Jack’s face, made North’s eyes widen.

‘He’ll kill the trail,’ Toothiana said, smiling ruefully when Jack looked at her. ‘The Tsar would kill the trail that led to the Guardians. Even dear Pitch knows that, though he pretends he doesn’t.’

Sandy stepped away from the cabinet and started signing quickly, staring at North in anger. North was following the fast loops and gestures of his movements, and nodded slowly, and then in quicker agreement.

‘This is not the way to be doing things,’ North said. ‘Jack, you are frightened and confused. But we owe you better. We do not meet like this often at all. We try and avoid meeting – the four of us – whenever we can. If you wish to be learning more from us, you can meet with us individually. But we all have different ways of looking at things. And- Jack, only a short time ago, I am knowing how hard this is for you. Yes? He is the Tsar. And you love him. It is only being normal to want his love too.’

Jack closed his eyes briefly, then looked back towards the window. He thought of his curfew belatedly. He had no idea what would happen if he was late to the Palace, to Pitch’s rooms. He didn’t want to be late.

‘I have to go soon,’ Jack said. ‘I need to be back by eleven.’

‘You’re not gonna make that,’ Bunnymund said, snorting.

‘I will if I fly some of it,’ Jack said. ‘Maybe.’

At least he didn’t feel like murdering Bunnymund anymore.

Yeah, not right now at least. Give it a few seconds, I’m sure it’ll come back.

He felt defeated, and he looked around at all of them, wishing he was still in his ball of ice. That he’d not had this conversation with them. That he’d left when the yeti had tried to scare him off.

‘Mate,’ Bunnymund said, his voice far gentler than it had any right to be – as gentle as it had been the night Jack had attacked him for suggesting they chat in the Disciplinarian’s Tower. ‘You wanna just sit for a minute? It’s…a lot.’

‘I’m just gonna go,’ Jack said.

He was tired of getting answers to questions he didn’t want to have to ask. He stepped back towards the window, and stilled when North took a step towards him.

‘Jack, perhaps you should be leaving through the back entrance.’

Jack shook his head and was perched in the window before they could stop him. Even Bunnymund looked alarmed, when he looked back at them all. The Guardians of Lune. How could anyone have ever mistaken Jack as one of them? No wonder Pitch had gotten so angry when it had been suggested.

‘I won’t tell anyone,’ Jack said.

With that, he stepped out of the tower and waited for the winds to catch him. He dropped hard for five storeys, and then – too tired to even feel afraid – the wind caught him and he sped out into the night. He looked over his shoulder and saw the silhouette of North there, and deliberately turned away, making his way back to the Palace.

*

Jack had to knock to get back into Pitch’s rooms. He almost laughed when he realised that it was Pitch who had been waiting for him, and not some servant.

‘You’re late,’ Pitch snapped. Then: ‘What happened?’

‘I’m tired,’ Jack said, walking past him. He was covered in a fine rind of frost. He hadn’t been able to stop it. The night had been cold, and his ice had crept all over him, until even his hair was coated.

‘You’re not going out tomorrow evening,’ Pitch said. It was clearly meant to be a threat.

‘Cool,’ Jack said. ‘I think I’m gonna stay in for a while.’

Closer and closer to his rooms. There was a corridor, with other guest rooms coming off it. All he had to do was-

A hand at his arm, holding him still.

‘What happened?’ Pitch said, his voice different.

‘I’m really tired,’ Jack said, without looking at him. ‘And unless you want to see what your whole rooms look like iced over, you should get your hand off me.’

Pitch squeezed his fingers tighter, and Jack winced. Did nothing. It was a dull ache throughout his arm.

‘Do you…need to talk?’ Pitch said.

‘To you?’ Jack said, finally meeting his eyes. ‘What, are we going to have a heart to heart? Maybe I’ve had enough of them tonight.’

His tone was bitter, and he distantly thought it wasn’t fair. But their last conversation still cut at him. Everything seemed to cut at him. It was as though his skin had become paper thin, and could tear in an instant.

‘Was it the Tsar?’

Jack laughed and could almost feel his knees weakening. He was just so tired. He didn’t want to think.

‘No,’ Jack said. ‘Are you going to let me go, or what?’

A pause, and Pitch’s hand slid away from his arm. Jack wanted to rub the pain away, but instead he left it there. If he didn’t know better, he’d say Pitch looked concerned. But of course, he was just worried about what the Tsar might do. Like everyone. Apparently.

Jack walked into his bedroom and closed the door, then locked it. He got onto the bed with its soft dark quilt and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. His thoughts drifted, and he could hear a faint, haunting creak lurking in the background. Every now and then he dared to tell himself none of this was happening, even as he couldn’t get the sound of Flitmouse’s broken door out of his mind.

Chapter Text

Jack lay in his bed, after having showered and dressed, unable to motivate himself to train or do anything at all. He stared up at the ceiling and wondered what the point was. If they were fighting the Darkness, but not tasked to defeat it, then why were they fighting it? Bunnymund’s words kept circling through his head, angry and heated, and even if Toothiana had been cutting with him, it was obvious he meant his words. The posters alone…he would get himself killed.

Flitmouse was alone in an Asylum somewhere, maybe already dead. The rumours were that maybe Asylums didn’t even exist, and going to one – for no one ever returned – simply meant being taken off and executed. Out of sight but not quite out of mind.

All the fire inside of him, the passion, had burned itself out. He hadn’t ever thought it was possible, and yet here he was, tired and feeling stupid. They all treated him like a naïve child. Eva had called him the ingénue. Jack had looked it up later, thinking of those Lune-produced operas with the young sopranos who inevitably met some tragic end because they could never quite fight free of their circumstances.

Eva had called him that.

Anton had said Jack was too good for all of it.

Strands of hopelessness that had been floating around him for so long had finally knotted together in his chest. He closed his eyes, unable to sleep, but tired of thinking. His mind drifted. Nothing mattered.

*

A knock, and Jack didn’t respond. Eventually, the door clicked open – which mean that Jack locking it didn’t matter either.

Of course, Jack thought, because nothing does.

The door opened, someone stood in his doorway. Jack could hear them biting into something every now and then, chewing. Eventually curiosity got the better of him, and he cracked his eyes open to see Pitch in the closest he ever got to civilian clothing, eating a pale green apple.

‘There are no servants here that will bring you breakfast,’ Pitch said eventually. ‘So you can either have it with us at the dining table, or you can find your way to the kitchen and avail yourself to what’s there. Except the alcohol. I’ll know if you have any.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said, closing his eyes.

Another bite into the apple, more chewing. Pitch was apparently just going to stand there. A part of Jack thought he should get up, was ashamed to be seen like this. Another part felt too heavy to move.

‘We’ll not wait for you,’ Pitch added.

‘Okay,’ Jack said.

He wasn’t going to have breakfast with Pitch, or whoever else was there. Probably Seraphina. After all, he was only here because he’d nearly killed people. It wasn’t like he was a part of whatever they had.

‘We’re going to talk about this,’ Pitch said ominously.

‘Whatever,’ Jack said, curling onto his side. Finally, the fatigue seemed strong enough that he could sleep, and Jack was distantly aware of a sigh, and then the door closed and Pitch was gone.

*

When he woke around lunchtime, he was hungry, and surprised the etiquette tutors weren’t there. He slid out of bed, apparently unable to stay in bed ‘forever’ as he’d initially wanted to. He thought about training, and then decided to go to the kitchen. He had no idea where it was, but Pitch seemed to think he could find it.

Jack made his way down the corridor. He peered into the lounge, but no one was there. A fire crackled in the hearth, but it was dying down. On the opposite side of the room, another long corridor beckoned. Jack headed that way.

Down the corridor were many wooden doors, all closed. He didn’t try any of them. There was a time when perhaps he’d have tried to look in each, curious about Pitch’s life. Now, Jack didn’t want to learn anything else. Curiosity didn’t seem like such a great personality trait. If he was being really honest with himself – which he didn’t want to be, but couldn’t seem to help – it was the reason Pippa had died. If they’d never gone beyond the Overland creche in the first place, she’d never have been taken by the Darkness.

He wouldn’t be here now, with one murder behind him and more looming in the future, in a Palace lorded over by someone that no one around him seemed to trust.

The corridor curved, opening out to a large archway. Jack walked through it and into the kitchen, registering a dull amazement at its size – though it wasn’t enough to have him really stop and pay attention. Mostly he noticed the strings of herbs and drying root vegetables hanging from the ceiling, giving the place a fragrant aroma. Otherwise, he just methodically went through the cupboards, the larder with its large thrawl, and then a walk-in pantry that Jack backed out of, because no way was he going to make something from scratch.

In one of the first cupboards, he’d found military rations already packaged and ready to go. He took two of those and walked quietly back to his new room. It was only when he reached his room that he realised he should have taken a week’s worth. Then he’d hardly have to leave at all.

Still, as he munched slowly on the dry biscuit, tracing the nose of one of the black wooden horses at the fireplace, he had to admit that it was all a bit different than he expected it to be. It was obvious that Pitch didn’t use servants that much at all, which was…weird. Wasn’t that just what nobles did? And it had always been abundantly clear that Pitch came from an esteemed lineage.

Eventually, Jack sat down on the cool, flat stones at the base of the fireplace and leaned against the carved horses, staring at his room.

No one bothered him for the rest of the day.

*

The next day, it was much the same. Jack woke, showered, dressed, and then got back into bed. This time he lay above the covers, instead of beneath them. He stared at the ceiling, he missed the feeling of warming blankets with his own body heat. It wasn’t until he’d lost most of his own, that he realised he missed warmth. These days, he turned the heat up in the shower slowly, until his skin went red, until it seemed he could melt all the ice away.

Maybe, if he burned it away, all he’d have left was the Light.

When the etiquette tutors came at their usual time, Jack dragged himself up and put himself through the motions. He failed entirely at dialoguing in a ‘charming manner’ but thankfully the tutor in charge of that didn’t hit his wrists when he messed up. And the tutor’s disappointment and clucking tongue didn’t really touch him.

After his lessons, they left, and Jack walked into his training room. He took his smallsword off its hook and then stood there, its tip brushing the ground.

Ten minutes later, he put the smallsword back and sat on the stones at the fireplace again, his back to the cold hearth. He could build a fire if he wanted – there was tinder and wood available – but it wasn’t like he needed it anymore.

To his left was a large series of bookshelves, though they were mostly bare of books. At the very top, a finely crafted tea set, that reminded Jack of Flitmouse’s house, his kettle, his penchant for tea. Jack closed his eyes and tried not to think of the brooch the Tsar had given him, and how he wasn’t wearing it. What was the line? For being put into an Asylum? Had Jack already crossed it?

Wouldn’t someone tell him, if he had?

*

Jack made his way down the corridor to get some more rations, when he heard voices. He stilled, because he didn’t want to make small talk, and he didn’t want to see anyone.

‘If you’re not in the mood…’ Anton was saying.

‘It’s not that,’ Pitch said, his voice muted more than usual. Then he said something else, and Jack couldn’t catch it at all. Obviously whatever he said made Anton answer in the same tone.

A few seconds later, Jack caught Eva’s voice. The idea of facing any of them, let alone all three… Jack turned around and walked back to his room, and closed the door.

He could eat later.

*

It was late when Jack lurked in the corridor again, listening out for voices. But he didn’t hear anything, so he made his way to the kitchen and this time, took a week’s worth of rations. He doubted anyone would miss them, as none were missing since the two he’d taken before. They probably ate better, but the rations were designed to be nutritionally complete, and Jack was used to them. A small marker of familiarity that he knew he was clinging to, and couldn’t seem to stop himself.

Back in his room, he unwrapped one of the biscuits and ate numbly. He was still having nightmares now, more than one a night. Darkness cresting over him, or moving through him, or stealing him away. It was the only time he ever felt more than the emptiness that roared in the hollows inside of him. But fear wasn’t much better, and he avoided going to sleep.

*

A knock at his door, and Jack just waited by the fireplace for Pitch to enter.

But then another knock, small and furtive, and Jack frowned. He got up, walked over to the door, and was surprised to see Seraphina standing there. Even more surprised to see a hand-plucked bouquet of dark red flowers in her left hand, and a vase filled with water in the other.

‘These are for you,’ she said. Then she walked into his room without asking, and stared critically at the space. ‘You haven’t put any of your things here yet.’

‘I don’t-’ Jack didn’t want to tell her that he didn’t have anything. Even his old collector’s cards and memorabilia of Pitch would have been thrown out during his initiation. ‘Um. Isn’t it late?’ Jack said. ‘Shouldn’t you be in bed?’

‘I was with Mama, in our garden,’ Seraphina said. ‘I couldn’t sleep. Then she said you might like some flowers.’

‘I could have been sleeping,’ Jack said slowly.

Seraphina just looked at him, as if to say: Don’t be stupid.

Then she walked over to Jack’s bedside table and placed the vase down, and carefully placed the flowers in the water. She touched each of the blossoms, and then shifted them, trying to find the best arrangement. Whatever she was doing clearly didn’t work, because she made a faint sound of frustration, and then turned away.

She faced Jack. Today, she wore dull green pants, and a black shirt with a print of white flowers at the hems. She was barefoot, and dirt still clung to her toes.

‘Do you still want to learn the alphabet? The proper one? Not the common one?’ she said.

‘Uh,’ Jack said. ‘Look, I know- That’s a lot of work for someone like-’

If you call her a kid, she’ll murder you. Outright. She’s got that look in her eyes that Pitch gets sometimes.

‘Do you want to learn or not?’ Seraphina said, frowning. ‘I don’t like teaching people who don’t like to learn. It’s not fun.’

‘You’ve taught before?’ Jack said, staring at her.

‘Of course,’ Seraphina said, before hopping onto Jack’s bed and swinging her legs back and forth over the edge. ‘Mihail frustrates his tutors, because he hardly talks, and he doesn’t look at anyone. A few of them used to think he was dumb. But he’s not. He just thinks differently. So I decided to see if I could teach him things. And then he decided to teach me some things. But I teach him more than he teaches me. So I’m his teacher.’ She paused. ‘And his friend.’

Then, after an even longer pause, her legs stopped swinging and she said in a small voice:

‘Don’t you like the flowers?’

Jack opened his mouth to exclaim that he did like them, and then realised that it might sound a bit too defensive.

‘I do,’ Jack said, making his voice quieter, calmer. ‘I’m sorry. I should’ve said before. I haven’t had anyone bring me flowers for a really long time.’

‘How long?’ Seraphina said.

Jack shrugged, and then said: ‘Maybe twelve years. I don’t know.’

‘No one’s brought you flowers in all the time I’ve been alive?’ Seraphina said, staring at him. Then her cheeks coloured, and she looked away as though embarrassed. Jack couldn’t tell if it was for her, or for him.

‘What kind are they?’ Jack said, walking over to the flowers and looking down at them. These weren’t the ones he’d seen before in her meadow. Their petals ended in sharp points, and there were at least twenty petals per flower. In the middle, the stamens were a pearly silver.

‘A hybrid,’ Seraphina said, excitement entering her voice again. ‘I’ve been interested in propagation, and they let me. Mama says I have a gift. So it doesn’t have a name.’

‘You should give it a name,’ Jack said, smiling at her.

‘I might,’ Seraphina said, staring gamely back at him. ‘But I won’t do it right now. Do you want to learn to read the proper alphabet? I found all my books from when I was a child.’

You’re still a child, Jack didn’t say, because he had a feeling that Seraphina wasn’t above lecturing him about the difference between a child and whatever she was now. A slightly older child? Jack didn’t know how she thought about herself. Suddenly he thought he understood why Pitch tried to make things less serious for her sometimes.

‘I’d like to learn,’ Jack said. Though he wasn’t sure if there was a point anymore, or how it would help him. Maybe he’d just learn about all the other things he didn’t understand.

‘Not tonight though,’ Seraphina said.

‘What’s your favourite animal?’ Jack said. ‘Do you have any?’

‘I have a list,’ Seraphina said. Then she rattled off a huge list, half of which were animals Jack had never heard of. But one he had, so he came and sat beside her on the bed and pointed his staff outwards, and brought it forth out of fine particles of ice.

The small, sure-footed glacier goat looked almost real, given its coat was white and blue. It seemed to take on a life of its own, as Jack watched it, smiling, and Seraphina gasped by his side.

‘Oh, it’s like real,’ she said, sliding off the bed and creeping towards it.

The goat looked at her, tilting its head, and then it bucked and trotted a few paces away, a fey, quick movement. Then it lowered its head, baring its two short, strong horns. As Seraphina looked between Jack and the goat, the goat lay down, and looked up at her expectantly.

‘How are you doing it?’ she said. ‘It’s like what Nikolai does, only…so different. Can I touch?’

Jack was distracted by how easily she mentioned North. Stared at for a moment, until she looked back at him, and Jack had to force himself to not think about how much she knew. If that was why she seemed so much older than she really was.

‘I don’t think it will hold together,’ Jack said. ‘Plus, it’ll be pretty cold.’ 

‘It’s just ice,’ Seraphina said, getting down on her hands and knees and crawling towards it. She got so close that she was almost nose to nose with it, her green eyes wide and shining in awe. Jack wished he could feel a shred of what she felt, but it was nice to know she was enjoying herself.

Unable to resist, Seraphina touched the tip of her finger to one of its horns, and it fell into diamond dust, glittering in the air. She smiled, and then sat – crossing her legs and moving her hands through the tiny bits of ice.

‘Mihail says that the ball of magic in the mountain is special,’ Seraphina said, still gazing at the diamond dust. ‘He says that it’s one of the only things that his father can’t control, which is why he doesn’t like anyone seeing it, or touching it. Did you know that?’

‘No,’ Jack said. ‘I can’t- Miss Seraphina, I can’t talk about this today.’

Seraphina paused, and then lowered her arms and stared at him, forehead creasing.

‘Why not?’ she said.

‘I just can’t,’ Jack said, trying to go for winning and smooth, and instead unable to hide the way his voice cracked.

She pushed herself up and Jack watched her, not sure how things were going to progress. But instead she just walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her sharp little chin into his shoulder.

‘I thought you’d be mad,’ Jack said.

Her arms squeezed him tighter.

‘No,’ she said, her voice muffled. ‘I can’t either, sometimes. It’s not stupid. I’m not mad.’

When she withdrew, she smiled at him. Then she walked over to the vase of flowers and plucked one – sharp little nails severing it from its stem. She turned it in her fingers, and then walked over to Jack and stared at him, before tucking it behind his ear.

‘There,’ she said. ‘You can name it, if you like. But not now,’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘Later. I’m going to see what Mama is doing. Probably sleeping. She had a hard mission.’

She walked to the door, and Jack called after her: ‘I hope you have sweet dreams.’

A scoffing noise, but then she turned.

‘I’m glad you’re living with us now,’ she said. ‘Or sort of, anyway. You should put some of your things up in here. It would look nicer.’

Then she left, and Jack was relieved, because he didn’t want to see the look on her face when he told her that he had nothing to put up, nothing to keep except the clothing on his back, which belonged to the Tsar anyway.

*

The next day, Jack showered, dressed, and got back into bed. He turned and looked at the flowers instead of the ceiling. He’d placed the one that had been at his ear on the table. The rest sprawled in their vase. The red was very deep, and they looked velvety to the touch, even though they weren’t. They felt more like thin paper.

An hour later, a knock at his door, and Jack thought it was early for the tutors, and Pitch had already told him about breakfast, so-

Pitch opened the door and leaned in the doorway, eyebrows raised.

‘This morose sulking has got to stop,’ Pitch said.

‘I’m not sulking,’ Jack snapped, and then realised he sounded about as petulant as Pitch probably thought he was being. Judging from the smugness on Pitch’s face, he probably had the right of it.

‘Aren’t you?’ Pitch said, looking around his room in amazement. ‘Then tell me what deep philosophical truths you’re contemplating in that bed all the time. Here…’ Pitch lifted a hand to his ear and made a cup with his fingers, as though trying to hear better, ‘I’m listening.’

Jack glared at him, and after a few seconds, Pitch dropped his hand and looked even more pleased.

‘Okay,’ Jack said, pushing himself upright and kicking the blankets away. ‘What plan did Bunnymund and the rest bring to you, that you shot it down and left them making stupid posters about-’

Pitch’s eyes had widened almost comically, and then all at once he stepped into the room and yanked the door shut behind him. It took a moment for Jack to realise that it wasn’t surprise on Pitch’s face, but outrage.

‘What if the Tsar had been out there?’ Pitch said, staring at him. ‘Or I’d be sent to fetch you, while Sharpwood waited less than ten metres away? What then?’

‘I dunno,’ Jack said, staring at him. Truthfully, it had never occurred to him that it was a possibility, and he shoved away the fear that lurched into his throat. ‘I can probably guess.’

‘Do you care?’ Pitch said.

‘Should I?’ Jack said, laughing. ‘According to you, we’re never going to be defeating the Darkness. So that’s like, the only life goal I had pretty much checked off my list. According to them, we’re screwed anyway. And the one person I was going to like…I dunno, talk to about this stuff is gone. And probably dead. So how much should I care?’

Jack lifted his hand and cupped it around his ear.

‘Go on,’ Jack said, a swell of anger inside of him. ‘I’m listening.’

It probably wasn’t possible for someone to explode with anger or anything, especially someone like Pitch, but Jack was pretty sure if it was going to happen – it was probably going to happen now. The look on Pitch’s face had crossed somewhere over into apoplectic, and then Pitch turned away and broke whatever was happening between them, and Jack realised that his breathing was unsteady and dropped his hand, forced himself to breathe. He couldn’t remember ever getting angry at anyone as often as he did with Pitch.

He squeezed his eyes shut, checked himself to see if it was the darkness. But how would he know? He wasn’t imagining destroying Pitch with ice. That was probably a good thing.

When he opened his eyes, Pitch was looking at him again, expression indifferent.

‘So are we gonna train for stuff that doesn’t really matter?’ Jack said. ‘Is that why you’re here?’

‘No,’ Pitch said, and then he lifted a hand in the air and splayed his fingers. ‘It’s breakfast in ten minutes, in the dining room. You can either choose to walk there like an upstanding citizen, or you can be dragged there by me. If we put it to a vote, may I just say that I’d choose the latter, since I think the humiliation will do you some good.’

‘I’m not coming out for breakfast,’ Jack said. ‘You said I could help myself to-’

‘I changed my mind,’ Pitch said sweetly. ‘I’ll see you in ten minutes, won’t I? Do, please, stay in your rooms, so that I may return and fetch you.’

Jack opened his mouth, then closed it again. Sometimes it was all too easy to remember that the Darkness had cut Pitch deep too. Pitch only smiled at him, and then left the room, closing the door behind him.

A few breaths, and then Jack smashed his fist down into the mattress. He didn’t want to sit down at some kind of formal breakfast. He wasn’t interested in any of it. He lifted his hands to his face and realised that he didn’t want to be dragged to the dining room, and he knew Pitch had every intention of returning and doing just that.

After a couple of minutes he sighed, and went into the bathroom to make sure that his hair didn’t look too stupid.

*

To his surprise, and chagrin, it wasn’t just Pitch at the dining room table. Anton, Eva and Seraphina were also there. Seraphina was playing with a terrarium, and her bowl of porridge had been pushed aside. Eva was drinking something that Jack was sure was alcoholic, except it was early morning and his etiquette tutors would have lectured him for three hours on how it just wasn’t done to drink any sort of alcohol that early in the morning – unless one was a very unsavoury sort, which they were sure Jack wasn’t. Pitch was talking to Anton, the latter of which was spearing up bits of steak with the tip of a wicked looking knife, leaning back in his chair so that only two of the legs were on the floor.

Once they noticed he was there, they all looked at him. Anton grinned, Seraphina went straight back to her terrarium as if Jack was already a part of the furniture, and Eva lifted her flute of whatever-it-was in a salute.

‘There’s food on the table,’ Pitch said, gesturing to the plates and pots sitting on a long table runner. ‘Cutlery and crockery in the cabinet over there.’

Jack wasn’t even that hungry, but he hooked his staff on the back of a chair. He didn’t know if Seraphina wanted him to sit next to her, so he left a chair between them, since the table seated twelve and there was space. Jack walked down to the other side of the room and found a bowl, a small plate, everything else that he might need.

He sat and ended up with a bowl of porridge, some fruit juice that he didn’t recognise, and some toast that he sparingly covered with jam – which he also didn’t recognise. One thing that the Barracks and the creche could never have prepared him for: the amount of fruit in the world, or what it was called, or looked like, or tasted like.

Anton and Pitch had started talking again, and Jack started to pay attention, because they were discussing ship mechanics and future missions – but then he realised Eva was staring at him. Her eyes were sharp, and they showed some of that brilliant green that Seraphina had in her own eyes, but with gold around the edges. She looked a little like a bird of prey.

‘Good morning,’ Eva said, leaning forward and placing her glass on the table. ‘Sleep well?’

‘Yeah- Ah, yes, thank you,’ Jack said. Just because everyone else was acting pretty casually didn’t meant that he could. ‘And…you?’

‘Mm, very well,’ Eva said. ‘Your breakfast is very plain.’

‘Leave him alone, Eva,’ Pitch said, before going straight back into discussing strategies of attack and defence for different planets.

‘Listen to that,’ Eva said, waving a crooked finger towards Pitch, ‘as though he can tell me what to do in here. I bet you don’t listen to him either.’

‘No, I- I listen,’ Jack said. He grimaced and looked down at his food, thinking that only about ten minutes before, he’d been mocking Pitch as though…as though to see how he’d react. As thought testing him into…doing something. Jack had no idea what. It wasn’t like he wanted to see Pitch snap.

‘You shouldn’t,’ Eva drawled. ‘It’s a terrible habit.’

‘And you?’ Jack said, wanting to take a bite of the toast but not wanting to eat with his mouth full. He suddenly couldn’t remember how to coordinate eating in polite company, and wished that Seraphina wasn’t sitting there, watching the two of them with open curiosity. ‘Drinking in the morning?’

‘It’s to maintain my lovely constitution,’ Eva said. ‘And it’s really very light. Do you want some?’

‘Leave him alone, Eva,’ Pitch said, pausing to stare at her.

‘Darling,’ Eva said, not even looking at Pitch, ‘I’m getting to know your guest. Don’t be so overbearing.’

‘He can’t help that,’ Anton said. ‘It’s like asking someone to change a fundamental part of their nature. Like you, Eva, and teasing people.’

Eva looked over and her smile was surprisingly affectionate. When she turned back to Jack, her expression was softened, and she winked at Jack, before leaning back in her chair and poking at her own half-eaten piece of toast. She wrinkled her nose at it, then sighed.

‘Why aren’t you having anything on your porridge?’ Seraphina said, as Anton and Pitch delved back into their conversation.

‘I…like it plain,’ Jack said, not sure what he was supposed to have on it. They hadn’t exactly covered porridge in his etiquette lessons.

‘Really?’ Seraphina said in some amazement. ‘Oh, Jack, can you make a glacier goat again today? On the table?’

‘No goats on the table, my sweet,’ Eva said. ‘But perhaps on the floor.’

‘It’s not real,’ Seraphina said, staring at her mother. ‘It’s ice.’

‘No ice goats on the table, Seraphina,’ Eva said.

Seraphina huffed, looking at Jack as though seeking an ally. Jack decided he didn’t want to get caught between an argument with these two ever. ‘She never lets me put animals on the table.’

‘Darling, do you remember the incident with the cockroaches?’

‘They were really pretty,’ Seraphina protested, looking indignant. Eva opened her mouth to argue, and then shrugged and nodded, as if in agreement. ‘I suppose they shouldn’t have gone on the table though. Or in the kitchen. There were an awful lot in here by the end of it. I didn’t know they’d grow like that.’

‘Breed,’ Eva said absently. ‘Plants grow, animals breed. Then they grow.’

‘It’s not even a real goat,’ Seraphina said.

Jack left them to it, and ate some of his toast as the conversation continued from goats into ‘Remember that time with the rabbits.’ Eventually, everyone ended up talking about the time with the rabbits, and Jack found himself laughing along at a few moments, unexpectedly. Anton, in particular, had found the rabbits particularly charming, and ended up as Seraphina’s co-conspirator for some months.

‘And,’ Anton said, nodding along, ‘I remember Pitch yelling in frustration: ‘Where do they keep coming from?’ and there’s me standing in the background pretending that I absolutely do not have rabbit hutches in my room. Giving the litters the most absurd names. I think I named most of them after fellow Warriors.’

‘I think some of those fellow Warriors still have pet rabbits,’ Pitch said blandly.

‘There’s a few Pitch’s,’ Anton admitted.

‘Are there any Seraphina’s?’ Seraphina said in breathless excitement.

‘I’m sure there are,’ Anton said with a grin. ‘And if there’s not, I know a wonderful gift I can get you for your naming day.’

‘No,’ Pitch said.

‘Normally I’d take great pleasure in overruling you,’ Eva said to Pitch, ‘but this time I think I agree. Ask again in a year, when the Great Rabbit Debacle is no longer fresh in our minds.’

Seraphina nodded soberly and went back to eating. Anton looked the most put out, then looked at Jack in a way that made Jack think he was about to be drawn into conversation again. Jack didn’t want to feel singled out, so he made a point of looking down at his food and eating it, and tried not to remember that the last time he’d spent any time with Anton, they’d kissed. They’d kissed and talked about…what Anton liked Pitch to do to him.

By the Light, how do they just all sit there and get along like that?

Jack had always been able to banter easily with Jamie, and in the creche, before Pippa died, he’d talked with her. But Pitch was…intimidating. Eva looked at Jack like she was dissecting his soul. Anton was sweet, but clearly able to keep up with the two of them, which made him terrifying by association. Even Seraphina had a way about her – like she wasn’t going to put up with any nonsense, and wasn’t afraid to tell someone when something was nonsense.

And yet here, at the table, he’d felt a part of something larger than himself for a few moments. Listening to their stories, laughing, and they’d all looked at him at different occasions, including him in the levity.

Jack pressed the heel of his hand into his chest without thinking. It hurt, somehow, to be involved in this. Because of course he wasn’t a part of it. He was only here for one reason.

‘May I please be excused?’ Jack said to no one in particular.

‘Of course,’ Pitch said.

‘Where does…where do the plates and stuff go?’

‘You can take them into the kitchen if you’re done.’

Jack nodded, picked up his half-finished breakfast and then looked at his staff, not sure how to juggle everything. In the end, he managed one uneven stack in one hand, and held the staff in his other.

As he walked down the corridor, he thought his breathing was doing something odd. As though he couldn’t draw a full breath.

Once in the kitchen, he placed everything down. He ate some more, not wanting the food to go to waste, even though he wasn’t hungry. Eventually, he couldn’t force himself to have any more of the cold porridge, found the bin, and placed everything in there. A trough at the far end of the kitchen, and Jack rinsed everything, and then – like he was back in the creche – he washed it all and left it draining. He had no idea how they did things, but at least the dishes were clean.

The walk back to his room felt long, and he went straight to the training room and picked up his smallsword.

Even if he didn’t know what the point of training was anymore, he knew that a few drills back to back would empty his mind of everything else, and so he stepped into the first form and tried not to think about anything at all.

*

His etiquette tutors had been less than impressed when he opened his door to them, sweating and breathing out plumes of ice. He waved them in, some of the apathy of the past two days finding him again. Etiquette. Whatever. He’d do what they wanted, and then they’d go.

Rubbing his bruised left wrist after it was all over, he dragged himself back into the adjoining training room. Hadn’t Pitch put him here in the first place, to train him? So why hadn’t training started up yet? Did he think Jack was soft? Jack grit his teeth together, letting out a blast of ice in frustration. It clung to the opposite wall, only reminding Jack that he’d have to clean it when it melted.

After a while, he stopped and hung the sword back up, showered again, and wandered over to the mostly bare bookshelves. He brought down the tea set, turning it in his fingers, and then nearly dropped it at the knock on the door.

He could not remember a time he’d had so many visitors. He wasn’t a fan.

A second knock, and he realised it wasn’t Pitch. So he put the tea set down and opened the door, then blinked in surprise to see Eva there.

‘May I come in?’ Eva said.

‘Sure,’ Jack said, stepping back so she could walk past him, and closing the door behind her. ‘Is everything okay?’

‘I was going to ask you the very same thing.’

She held in her hand a stack of thin books with bright covers, and placed them carefully in the bookshelf.

‘My daughter informs me that you wish to learn the pictographic Lune alphabet. A noble pursuit, and she is a stern teacher, but you may find there to be gaps in what she teaches. As was the case with Mihail, I can fill those gaps. But here, too, are some early primers. They have the common tongue translations, and you may find lessons with Seraphina easier if you look at some of these books first.’

‘Oh, uh, thank you. Thanks. You- You helped Mihail too?’

Eva turned and smiled at him. It was affectionate, like it had been at breakfast, just before she’d winked at him.

‘But of course,’ Eva said, walking across Jack’s room, inspecting it. She looked down her nose at it, as though she was inspecting a ship’s cubicle. Eventually, having surveyed it, she simply stood, shoulders up and at attention, hands clasped behind her back. ‘I was there at his birth. Toothiana, Agnessa and I. He’s dear to me.’

Jack nodded. Didn’t know what to say. Didn’t even know why she was there. She’d given him the books, so…why was she still there?

‘I’ve read your file. Crossholt’s file,’ Eva said. ‘The whole thing. It’s quite thick. You were written up often. I’m starting to think Crossholt used your mark up papers as something of a journal. Or not quite, but I think you catch my meaning.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, sighing.

Eva walked over to a linen chest and sat on it, leaning back against the wall, crossing her legs, watching him.

‘Look, I don’t know what you want,’ Jack said.

‘I find you curious,’ Eva said, smiling.

‘If you just want to gawk at me, maybe put me in a zoo first, so I know it’s coming?’

‘Ah,’ Eva said, eyes glittering, ‘so you do have some bite in you after all. I was beginning to wonder.’

She didn’t look offended at all, but pleased. She didn’t even insist that Jack call her by her titles. Which he should, because if anything ever happened to Pitch, she was next in line to lead the entire fleet.

‘I still don’t know what you want,’ Jack said.

‘I think you’re extraordinarily lonely,’ Eva said, the smile dropping away from her face. ‘I think Pitch hoped that shared meals might help you, and they might, in time. But now, they only hurt you. I see that, Jackson.’

Jack startled to hear his birth name, and looked away, because that hadn’t been what he’d expected at all. And it ached, to have her words press upon the very spot he’d been trying to forget all day.

‘My daughter likes you already,’ Eva said. ‘In spite of herself, really, since I think she felt she was above peasants.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said. ‘Well she is.’

Eva said nothing, and Jack didn’t look at her. Maybe he’d just ice the door shut so no one could get in, and then…well he had enough rations for a few days. So it could work. For a little while.

‘Anton thinks you are very sweet, and he’s always had a sweet tooth, that one. And Pitch…’ Jack held his breath, wanting to know what someone else thought. Needing to know. ‘Pitch is trying, Jack. But sometimes that’s not enough. And sometimes all of this isn’t enough to stave off what you feel. I am sure you’ve had many people telling you that you can confide in them. But why would you? Why would you trust a single one of us?’

Jack stared at her then, shocked. Eva returned his gaze steadily.

‘I wouldn’t,’ she said. ‘I’d feel like I should, but if one wishes to be discerning, one cannot just give away trust left, right and centre. By the Light, what a nightmare that would be.’

‘I thought you’d tell me that I could talk to you.’

‘Of course you could,’ Eva said. ‘Why should you? What have I done for you? How have I earned your trust?’

‘You’re the Captain of the Fleet.’

‘And how have I earned your trust?’ Eva said. ‘Your personal trust?’

‘You’ve…protected Lune.’

‘Darling, Lune is a planet, not a person. I’m sure the planet trusts me very much, but you as a person? Have I slain some Darkness right before you? Saved your life? And does that entitle me to your secrets? Oh, please. Even if I had, you’d only know I was good in a fight. Which I am, by the way. Very good.’

‘I believe you,’ Jack said. Eva’s mouth curled into a smile, and then a grin that was wicked. Jack thought of Anton talking about Eva’s habits in the bedroom, and even though he’d never really found women attractive, there was an aura about her that was compelling. Jack resisted the urge to scratch nervously at the back of his head.

‘I think you should keep coming to the shared meals,’ Eva said quietly. ‘Pitch will likely insist, but regardless-’

‘I’m only here until I can get control of myself around the Darkness,’ Jack said, a spark of anger inside of him. ‘That’s it. Pitch doesn’t want me here. I don’t want to be here.’

‘Don’t you?’ Eva said, lifting her eyebrows. ‘Is our strange little family so off-putting to you?’

‘That’s just it,’ Jack said, ‘it’s your family, not mine. It’s not-’

‘You don’t have a family,’ Eva said, every word falling like a blow. ‘You were sundered from them, I doubt you remember any but your sister, who died young. And since then, you’ve had no family at all bar the military, which makes for a poor family indeed.’

‘If you’re here to just-’

‘In fact,’ Eva said, leaning forward, ‘I’m not sure you even know how to have one.’

‘Even if I did,’ Jack said, his voice shaking, ‘it’s not going to be here, because I’m not a part of any of this. It’s nice that you all have your happy thing going on, but-’

‘We talked about it,’ Eva said. ‘There was a meeting as soon as Pitch returned. All of us. Anton, myself, Seraphina and Pitch. We all thought that you staying here – not just in the short-term – was a good idea.’

‘Yeah, no one wants a livewire around the place,’ Jack said. ‘I get it. I don’t-’

Eva stood and walked towards him, and Jack worried he’d gone too far somehow. He stiffened, and then Eva crowded into his space and stared down at him, her face far too serious. He opened his mouth to apologise, and then his voice choked in his throat when she slid her arms around him.

‘Jackson,’ she said, as he was folded into her embrace, ‘family is rare. I give you permission to grasp it, while it’s there to be taken. And I am telling you, it’s there. You should take it.’

‘I don’t belong here,’ Jack whispered.

‘Darling,’ Eva said, shifting back even as Jack leaned unwittingly into her. She smiled ruefully at him and thumbed the underside of his cheek, even though he wasn’t crying. ‘Darling, you’ve never really belonged anywhere. But that doesn’t mean you’re barred from the feeling. And if you’re unable to fight for it, let some of us help you do that.’

Jack swallowed thickly, stared at her. She smoothed her hand over his head, then sighed as she looked him over.

‘You have circles under your eyes,’ she said. ‘Nightmares?’

Jack nodded.

‘It is part of being a Golden Warrior, especially in the beginning,’ she said. ‘And that is what you are, Jack. Pitch wouldn’t have you here, if he didn’t think so. Do you know, we took Anton in, lost soul that he was. A boy like that doesn’t risk himself on the frontlines without a reason.’

Eva stepped away from him, and Jack caught himself with his staff, to stop himself from swaying. His eyes were hot, he was scared that if he blinked, he’d lose control of himself. But Eva either hadn’t noticed, or was very good at pretending.

‘Come to dinner tonight,’ Eva said gently. ‘You don’t have to talk, if you don’t wish. You don’t have to eat, if it makes you uncomfortable.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said.

But,’ Eva said sternly, pointing at Jack once she reached the door, ‘no glacier goats on the table. Or any other type of ice animal. It’s a slippery slope from that to ornamental praying mantises in the salad. Trust me on that, darling.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said, returning her smile.

She winked at him again, and closed the door behind her with a silent click, leaving Jack breathing shakily and still feeling the ghost of her warm embrace.

Chapter Text

Family meals became a part of his life – breakfast and dinner, usually. Jack didn’t always go, and he didn’t always eat. Once he brought military rations with him, and then was surprised at the way Anton, Eva and Pitch had looked at him. Seraphina had asked to try some, pronounced the hard biscuit inedible, and offered Jack some of her meal as though trying to coax a starving animal to her plate. He didn’t bring military rations again.

No one forced him to participate, and Jack wondered if Eva had talked to the others about it. Out of all of them, he’d never expected someone like Eva to have his back. It really felt like she did. It made him paranoid that she was going to die on her next mission, be yanked away somehow, like Flitmouse, or disappear, like Jamie. He kept looking at Seraphina and wondering how she lived with it. Her parents could die at any time. Were more likely to die at any time. He knew that was why so many of the Warriors had a network of relationships – in part to protect the children they had.

Eventually, Eva and Anton moved back to Eva’s rooms, and Seraphina went with them. Shared meals after that happened once every two days or so. Jack wasn’t sure if he was happy that they were happening less, or if he missed it.

*

Thursday, and Pitch stood before a blackboard that was covered in chalk writing in a large room that seemed like it might be devoted to military meetings or strategy or something. The writing on the board was the common tongue, and Jack stared at it, because it concerned him.

‘Wow,’ Jack said finally. ‘So you have lots of ideas.’

‘Some,’ Pitch said, staring at it as though he wasn’t sure he liked any of them.

It was a brainstormed chart of all the different training techniques Pitch had considered. In the centre, Jack’s name, underlined in white chalk. The rest of the board had been filled with ideas. There were also symbols. A green triangle. A red cross. Some of the ideas were familiar, though not appealing: Keep training with Bunnymund. Others didn’t make sense. One ‘idea’ wasn’t words at all, but the universal symbol for a ship, followed by two vertical lines crossed through with a short horizontal one.

‘So what does green mean?’ Jack said.

‘I think they’d give us the most rapid progress,’ Pitch said, stepping back until he was leaning against the same table Jack was.

‘And the red? The green triangles have a red cross right next to them.’

‘They’re the techniques where you risk possession during training; or that could give you over to the Darkness fastest.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said. ‘Shit.’

All the green triangles were paired with a red cross. Every one.

‘Shit,’ Jack said again.

‘This is why your training hasn’t yet recommenced.’

‘I thought you just…decided I was soft or something,’ Jack said, not looking at him, feeling weird.

A pause, and Jack looked up at Pitch, met his gaze. Pitch stared at him for a moment longer and then shook his head, turning back to the chalkboard.

‘No, that wasn’t what I’d decided,’ Pitch said pensively. ‘At all. Labile and volatile, yes. You’d not be the first. A risk to my other Warriors, of course – you know that too. But never soft. Perhaps if the initiation had not been brought forward as early as it had been, perhaps if you’d had another lieutenant, things would be different now. But I was at the top of my studies, if a bit lazily applied, and the Darkness still found me in the mountain, as it did. I was very arrogant though.’

‘Arrogant,’ Jack said. ‘No, you?’

Jack thought of all the times Pitch had insisted on Jack treating him with respect, and he could tell from the way that Pitch just looked at him, that he’d picked up on Jack’s tone. Amazingly, Pitch said nothing at all, and pointed to the blackboard.

‘The most effective training techniques would be to test you against the actual Darkness, and see how that changes matters.’

‘I noticed there’s no green triangle next to Bunnymund.’

‘I will own a mistake that I’ve made once I’ve made it,’ Pitch said. ‘It’s not efficient. While I’d happily have you hate the both of us if I thought it made you a better Warrior, I don’t think it will.’

‘Plus I kind of iced you,’ Jack said, his voice small.

‘Oh, ‘kind of?’’ Pitch said. ‘Is that what the kids are calling it now?’

Jack rubbed at the back of his neck, felt his cheeks warm. He looked at the blackboard. Had Pitch been trying to figure this out since they got back? Or was it even before, on the ship? When they’d hardly interacted?

‘I don’t think there’s much choice in the matter,’ Pitch said. ‘There’s no ‘slow and steady’ in this war, Jack. I suggest a dual approach to training: exercises and manoeuvres here to work on your self-control when provoked. As I think you understand now why it’s important we get some of that volatility under control. And then exposure to the Darkness on Thallias. There’s nothing left for the Darkness there to feed upon, so it hasn’t multiplied. And what is planet bound cannot leave for space. It’s not a controlled environment, but…if you are possessed, and it doesn’t puppeteer you, you can’t hurt anyone, and you can’t leave.’

Jack was silent. He wanted to say something flippant, but the words wouldn’t come.

‘Of course,’ Pitch said, ‘if it does puppeteer you, I can use the Light to sever that connection, and then we’ll return to Lune for administration of first aid.’

‘Shadow sickness,’ Jack said weakly.

‘You may find it much easier to fight the Darkness, once you know what it feels like,’ Pitch said. ‘Obviously I wouldn’t recommend it as a strategy for others, but…’

‘I just don’t understand why you need me in this fight,’ Jack said. He swung away from the table and walked over to a steel cabinet with every drawer locked. He wondered if Crossholt’s file on him was in there somewhere. ‘If the war can’t be won, then- I dunno, man, why don’t you just…do what gets done around here? Put me away somewhere that I can’t hurt anyone, and like, neutralise me or something?’

He expected some kind of justification from Pitch, some reason, but he got nothing at all. The silence began to expand in the room, and Jack turned away from the cabinet. Pitch wasn’t even looking at him.

‘It’s not that easy,’ Pitch said finally.

‘Seems that way to me,’ Jack said.

‘We are losing this war,’ Pitch said, still not looking at Jack. He stared fixedly at the blackboard, and Jack wondered if he was seeing any of the words there at all. But it was hard to focus on that. Hearing the Royal Admiral say what others had whispered in the dark – We are losing this war – sent a slippery, oozing thing down the back of his neck, all the way to his toes.

‘So…’ Jack said, mouth dry, ‘it’s like…all hands on deck? Even if the hands might be more prone to possession or are already pre-ruined by the Darkness or something?’

Pitch didn’t respond. He looked down and his shoulders rose and fell, but his breathing was silent. Then he looked up at the board again.

‘Do you know…if people are just- I mean is everyone in an Asylum just killed?’ Jack said. He’d been too afraid to ask. But now that he already felt pretty terrible, he didn’t really think he had much left to lose.

‘No,’ Pitch said. ‘Though many are.’

‘Where is it? The Asylum? Or are there like…a few?’

‘There’s thirty,’ Pitch said. When he turned to Jack, his expression was bleak. ‘There are thirty. When one nears maximum occupation, the population is thinned out, and they begin again.’

‘Thinned out.’

‘It means exactly what you think it does.’

Jack nodded, could hardly even think about it. He’d imagined…maybe two Asylums, no more than five. He didn’t know what they looked like. He always imagined hospitals with metal doors and metal windows. Fences designed to hurt anyone coming in and anyone trying to leave. He imagined Flitmouse, and leaned back into the metal cabinet, feeling weak.

‘I have someone,’ Jack said, ‘that I want to get back from there.’

‘Is that all?’ Pitch said, tone bitter. ‘I have over a hundred.’

For a moment, he thought it was a joke, but Pitch was looking up towards the ceiling now.

‘Maybe it’s closer to three hundred?’ Pitch said slowly. ‘I stopped counting. You don’t get them back, Jack.’

‘But you’re the Admiral,’ Jack said.

‘And many of those people were Golden Warriors. It matters not at all, I assure you. It’s also not a decision I get to make.’

‘That’s- You… I don’t see why you need to exaggerate to make a point,’ Jack said, anger rising hot through him.

‘Exaggeration?’ Pitch said, staring at him, and then smiling like Jack was a toddler. ‘Let me see, you’ve what…from what I know, you’ve had a sister die while you were young, you’ve lost someone to an Asylum, and you’ve lost another person – a close friend – to the protection of the Guardians. Three people? Is that it? Give it time. You’ll grow accustomed to it.’

Pitch turned to some papers on the desk behind him and began writing down notes like he’d said hardly anything significant at all.

Jack stared. He couldn’t even comprehend it. If Pitch wasn’t exaggerating…

‘Why so many?’ Jack said.

‘I’ve been alive a long time,’ Pitch said. ‘There was a resistance movement soon after we started fighting the Darkness, I lost a lot of Warriors then. And friends. Jack, that initial number is only the people who went to Asylums, it wasn’t the people who were executed outright, or who have died in battle, or those friends who weren’t Warriors who simply died of old age or sickness, or the Warriors that didn’t survive shadow sickness… I’m sure there are others.’

Pitch didn’t look up as he spoke. His tone was more conversational than usual, as though this was a light subject one discussed over coffee. He seemed far more serious about how to train Jack. But not about…not about this.

Jack tried to wrap his head around it. If it was around three hundred people in Asylums, and then- Jack heard his breathing rasp in his throat and covered his mouth with his fingertips, forcing himself to silence. There he was, quietly panicking over what Pitch had said, and Pitch didn’t care. Among the horror, the dull grief on Pitch’s behalf, was a stirring outrage that Pitch could just stand there like it didn’t matter. Like Flitmouse and Jamie didn’t matter. Even Fyodor. It explained why most of the time, Pitch was flippant about losing him too.

Most of the time isn’t all the time.

‘This explains a lot,’ Jack said, stepping forwards, choosing outrage over the other emotions that confused him. ‘Why you’re so heartless. Why you’ve given up. Why you don’t give a shit about Seraphina being sad about Fyodor, because – what – she’ll grow accustomed to it? I bet you telling her that, was the best father-daughter conversation ev-’

The look on Pitch’s face strangled the rest of the words in Jack’s throat. If there was a line to cross, Jack was so far beyond it that it was no longer in sight. Pitch stared at him, even as he was hunched over the table, even as a fountain pen still rested in his fingers. He didn’t even blink.

Jack looked away quickly, in case Pitch was gearing up to make Jack feel a terror so strong that he couldn’t think anymore. At that, Pitch chuckled, but said nothing. Jack clenched his jaw so hard that his teeth hurt.

‘You’ve given up,’ Jack said again. ‘Maybe the Tsar is right, y’know? Maybe you’re not fit to lead us anymore. Do they know they’re rallying around someone who doesn’t give a shit anymore? Like, I get the Tsar isn’t-’

Pitch moved fast when he wanted to. One moment Jack was walking forwards, slowly, away from the cabinet. The next he was slammed back against it, feet dangling, a hand tight around his throat and Pitch staring down at him like some golden-eyed demon. Jack choked, his fingers scrabbled at Pitch’s hand. A loud banging noise as his foot kicked back against the metal as he uselessly struggled.

‘Careful, Jack,’ Pitch said. ‘I’ll let you push me, but it’s only because I get to push back.’

To emphasise his point, he shoved Jack harder into the metal. There wasn’t anywhere left to go, so really, he just shoved his hand into Jack’s neck.

Jack’s eyes watered from lack of air, and then suddenly he could breathe and wasn’t being supported against the cabinet at all. He sagged hard, coughing, hands on his knees and throat working, feeling bruised.

‘Is it…’ Jack managed, his voice so hoarse he almost couldn’t recognise it. ‘Is it that I’m right? Is that it?’

‘You are so far out of your depth that you can’t even imagine what being right looks like,’ Pitch said, sounding calm, even though his actions had been anything but. There were ice bears out on the glaciers that were like that. They looked calm even while they were stalking their prey, even as they ripped it apart.

‘So you’re reacting like this because I have no idea what I’m talking about?’

‘Tell me, Jack, how many friends have you had die in your arms? Telling you they don’t want to die? Telling you to pass their love to their loved ones? How many times have you pleaded with the Tsar for clemency, to not send someone to an Asylum, knowing that no clemency will be coming – or, if it does – you will owe favours of the like you cannot even conceive. Eventually, you’ll learn that pleading for clemency does no one any favours. Did it do anything for Bunnymund? He lives with an axe hanging over his neck and we all know it. Why do you think he makes his stupid posters, as you call them? He’s been living on borrowed time for hundreds of years. What do you think his ongoing punishment is? For daring to live because I dared to ask for it? He gets to discipline the young trainees. The ones who will be broken under the whip. The ones who will get two hundred lashes and die from it. The job that was forced on him broke him a long time ago, and what you see now is the shell of one of the greatest fighters I’d ever known.’

Pitch paused, a smirk on his face.

‘You think you know what it’s like to experience loss, or heartache? You lie on that bed, day after day, contemplating how terribly hard it is for you. Oh, poor, innocent, Jack. Abused from the day he entered a creche, who hardly knows up from down, who thinks he’s beginning to understand everything when you have not even an inkling of what waits for you if – by some miracle – you manage to not die?’

Jack stared, hardly able to breathe. He stood there, braced on his staff, blasted through by the words that Pitch calmly delivered.

‘One day,’ Pitch said, ‘you’ll realise she was lucky. To have died so young. You’ll look back and think ‘I’m glad she’s gone.’ On that day, I’ll be kind. I won’t say, ‘Told you so.’’

Jack’s mind went white. The air was beneath his feet, wind swirling and forcing the papers off the table, whipping at his hair. His staff out. And Pitch was stepping forwards into it, not even afraid, something hungry on his face.

There was a moment that hung between them. Jack knew he was going to attack Pitch, and he knew he was going to be attacked. But in that moment, he knew he’d win. He had the ice, and Pitch only had the Light. The Light could only hurt the Darkness, but ice could hurt everything.

The moment broke, Jack swung his staff back, and didn’t even get a chance to swing it forward with the force of his ice before Pitch ran and leapt up at him, ripping the staff from his hand and flinging it across the room where it clattered and fell.

Two hands at his shoulders, grabbing him to throw him down, and Jack grasped at Pitch’s forearms and let his ice loose from his palms. It raced up Pitch’s robe, spiking outwards, encasing him. Pitch broke Jack’s hold and swung him into the side of a desk. Jack shouted as pain flared from the crunch that followed, fingers turning to claws as he reached out and tried to push ice through Pitch’s clothing, directly into his skin. Whatever darkness was ruling him now was feral, and he could feel it matched, knew it sparked off whatever lived inside of Pitch.

The fight they had was short and brutal. It ended with Jack slammed down to his back on the tiled floor, and Pitch trying to shake a shard of ice out of his skin, blood spreading from the wound. Jack tried to gasp for air, spasms of pain in his chest, body aching.

‘Maybe…’ Jack said, his voice hard, ‘maybe you keep checking whether I’ll kill your daughter or not because you secretly want me to.’

Pitch swayed as if he’d been hit. Jack felt like he’d landed his mark, but the cruel satisfaction was washed away, knowing what he’d just said, what he’d just taunted Pitch with. Even he knew it wasn’t true. Even he knew…

Which meant what Pitch said about Pippa probably wasn’t true either.

So why- Why did he say it?

Jack pushed himself up onto his elbows and then sagged back down again, spots swimming before his eyes. He’d expected to be punched or kicked, but it turned out that Pitch liked to hit people with furniture. The pain was bad.

‘Sorry,’ Jack added, as the fury swirled away. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean it. But I don’t know if you want to care about her. You act like you don’t want to care about anything.’

‘Do I,’ Pitch said, falling back onto his haunches and staring down at Jack.

Jack tried pushing himself up onto his elbows again, and gritted out a sound as one of his ribs crunched in his side. Broken, probably. He lay back and realised that his breathing really hurt more than usual. Nothing he hadn’t dealt with before, but inconvenient. He pressed a hand to his side and closed his eyes.

A flinch when fingers touched the back of his hand, and then Jack tried batting Pitch’s hand away when his hand was moved.

‘Stop it,’ Jack said.

‘No,’ Pitch said.

Fingers beneath his black training shirt, pushing methodically into each rib, and Jack bit down hard on the inside of his lip but couldn’t stop himself from flinching. More than one rib too. He’d hit the side of that table really hard.

‘Here,’ Pitch said, and Jack opened his eyes to see what Pitch meant, and then startled in surprise when a wash of golden Light filled his vision. It was warm as it moved through him, and Jack’s forehead creased when he felt the pain dissipating. Just like that. Jack stared at Pitch in disbelief. But Pitch didn’t meet his eyes, instead concentrating on what he was doing. His hand wasn’t as warm as usual against Jack’s side, but Jack had used his ice as liberally against Pitch as he could.

‘How’s your hand?’ Jack said. ‘The other one?’

‘Sore,’ Pitch said. ‘I’ll heal it in a moment.’

‘Oh.’ Jack felt the moment when he could breathe properly, and he felt himself begin to go limp. His head tilted back, and he made a noise when he felt Pitch’s fingers at his throat. ‘What?’

‘Hush,’ Pitch said.

More Light, and the bruising around Jack’s throat was gone in under a minute. Pitch’s hand lingered, warmer than before, lending some of that heat to Jack’s skin. Jack forced himself to stay still, and tried not to imagine what it would feel like if Pitch stroked his fingers across Jack’s neck. Because they’d just fought like they wanted to kill each other. Jack’s thoughts weren’t normal.

When Pitch moved his hand away, it almost seemed like he’d caressed Jack’s neck with his fingertips.

You’re imagining it.

Jack pushed himself up to sit against the leg of the desk near the blackboard. He wrapped one arm around his bent knees, and watched as Pitch healed his hand.

‘Is it draining?’

‘Yes,’ Pitch said. ‘But not compared to healing serious injuries.’

‘Oh. So…are we just gonna pretend we didn’t try to kill each other?’

‘I’m thinking about it,’ Pitch said, his lips quirking into a smile.

Jack stared at him, and then found himself laughing as the adrenaline left his system. It was absurd. He closed his eyes and the wave of it left him, and it was then he’d realised that Pitch had laughed too. That they were both sitting there, like two comrades after a hard sparring match. Which just… Jack felt exhausted trying to understand it.

‘I don’t know if I was trying to kill you,’ Jack added.

‘You also didn’t black out,’ Pitch added. A shift of clothing, and Jack opened his eyes to see Pitch settling back against the metal cabinet. They faced each other now, and Pitch picked bits of ice off his clothing. Jack knew his staff was somewhere across the room, but he could get it later. ‘That’s a positive.’

‘I don’t get you. You say all this…this mean stuff and I know you believe some of it, but you don’t believe all of it. You say that crap about Pippa, but if I said the same to you about Seraphina, you’d lose your mind.’

‘I’m well aware,’ Pitch said, sounding weary.

Don’t talk about my sister like that again,’ Jack said. ‘Don’t ever.’

‘I’m as likely to promise that, as you are to swear that you’ll never speak of my daughter again in such a fashion. Don’t let’s pretend about that, Jack. Or have you not realised that no subject is safe, once the Darkness tears down all those doors that keeps you sticking to all the neat, pretty subjects?’

Jack took a deep, shaking breath and sighed it out explosively. His ribs were fine – a bit tender, but fine. His neck didn’t hurt at all. He touched his fingers to it, amazed at how quickly the Light had worked.

‘I apologise,’ Pitch said. ‘I should not have mocked your grief.’

‘Yeah, well, to you it must seem like nothing at all.’

‘It does,’ Pitch said frankly. ‘But I have no idea why I told you so. It doesn’t benefit you to know what’s coming if you live.’

‘Maybe it’s that ‘inner darkness’ thing you keep telling me about.’

‘Perhaps,’ Pitch said, sounding thoughtful again. ‘I hadn’t considered it. But perhaps.’

Jack stretched one of his legs out, thinking it over. He watched Pitch, who was still picking bits of ice off his clothing. He did so with a kind of methodic grace, his hand moving across his clothing like he was playing an instrument.

‘I don’t want to get used to it,’ Jack said finally. ‘I don’t. It’s not easy to miss them, or want them back. It hurts. But the alternative seems worse.’

‘The alternative being me,’ Pitch said, without even looking up. He didn’t even sound mad.

‘Well, yeah,’ Jack said. ‘Yeah. I actually want to care about people. I mean, more than just like…whatever your inner circle is. Don’t you think about the example you’re setting for your kid?’

‘I cannot wait for you to lecture me about parenting,’ Pitch said, sweeping bits of ice away with his hand.

Jack stayed silent then, because it wasn’t like he knew what he was talking about. To his surprise, Pitch looked up and then shrugged.

‘I think about it,’ Pitch said. ‘I even tried again, you see. I had closed off before, for decades. Seraphina was born, and that was all I allowed myself. Eva and Anton went on about it, and so… But then there was Fyodor. What a mistake that was.’

‘So you tried again, and he died,’ Jack said. ‘Like everyone else. Like…hundreds and hundreds of people before.’

Jack’s chest ached, and it had nothing to do with the fight they’d just had. He stared at Pitch and thought how miserable it sounded. He didn’t want to feel sorry for him, didn’t want to feel anything like that, knowing how cruel Pitch could be, had been. He hated that he could kind of see why Pitch had turned out this way, hated that he wanted to do something to fix it somehow, even though he couldn’t. The most he’d ever probably do was be another death in a long line of deaths. He wasn’t naïve about that.

‘Don’t look at me like that,’ Pitch said, smiling gently. ‘Don’t pity me. I don’t need it, I can assure you. I’ve had a long time to grow accustomed to things.’

‘Yeah, maybe that’s why,’ Jack said. ‘Maybe that’s why it’s so sad.’

Pitch shook his head like Jack didn’t understand it, and then pushed himself up, offering Jack a hand a moment later. Jack accepted it, was pulled to his feet. Then Pitch began walking around and picking up the pieces of paper that had fallen, and Jack looked for his staff. He found it on the floor near a bookshelf.

‘Why aren’t the rest of the older Warriors like you then?’ Jack said.

‘But they are,’ Pitch said, collating papers. ‘Quite a few kill themselves, once they realise. In fact there’s almost no one left alive from my era because of it. We’re not supposed to live as we do. It’s marketed to the commoners as a gift, but it’s not a gift, what the Darkness gives to us. This endlessness. Though it wouldn’t do to tell anyone about the number of Warriors who kill themselves so- as it goes, we just say they died in combat.’

Pitch rubbed at his forehead with the back of his hand, and then looked down at his notes as he sorted them again.

‘Off-planet training,’ Pitch said, changing the subject so abruptly that Jack had to think about what he’d originally come here for. ‘And training to recommence here. I don’t want it to be every day.’

‘I need to do something aside from etiquette all the time,’ Jack said. ‘And I can’t run in my rooms, and there’s nowhere else to run if I’m locked up in here. So- Is there somewhere I could just…run?’

Pitch tapped his fingers on the table. Then he sat down on one of the stools and kept tapping his fingers. Jack looked at the book titles and reminded himself to go through the primers that Eva had given him. He’d started to look through them, but had found it immediately so overwhelming that he’d put them down. The common alphabet was less than thirty letters. The pictographic Lune alphabet was over one hundred and fifty, and each could represent a sound, a word, a vowel, a phrase, a musical tone, or all of that and more, or something else entirely.

Jack had no idea how Seraphina had even learned it.

‘I have a larger space,’ Pitch said finally. ‘For training. But it’s a dark-room.’

Jack frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I do a lot of my personal training in the dark,’ Pitch said, ‘to hone my other senses. To not let it intimidate me. It can be lit with candles, but otherwise there’s no natural light. It’s long enough to run laps in.’

‘What about…forests or something?’

‘The Tsar has stationed people who are looking for you, to fetch you for some task or another. Sharpwood has been by three times. I suspect by the fifth, I’ll not be able to turn him away any longer.’

Jack’s hand clenched on his staff.

‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’

‘I thought you could do with a break from the Tsar,’ Pitch said, looking up at Jack, before going back to his notes and continuing to write. ‘You throw barbs at me about wanting to see him, in the same way I throw them at you about…other matters. I find your sincerity about taking meetings with him rather suspect, given you’ve been in no rush to see him again. But you cannot avoid him forever. If it helps, at all, the meeting will likely seem very cordial on the surface when you have it. Even if it’s anything but.’

‘That doesn’t help,’ Jack said.

‘No, I didn’t think it would,’ Pitch said. ‘He won’t stop, either. He knows I’m keeping you isolated now. I believe he thinks I’ll be indoctrinating you behind closed doors, as that’s what he’s brilliant at, and sometimes it wouldn’t occur to him that not everyone operates the same way he does.’

‘Why are you two so friendly when you see each other? When you… when it’s like this?’

‘Oh, but we are friends,’ Pitch said bitterly. ‘He will consider this a small rebellion, another marker that works nicely in his plan to remove me from my post, and watch me do everything else he commands as he thinks that I may not be the tamest creature he’s ever owned, but at least I come to heel.’

‘And he wants you gone because…?’

‘We are losing the war,’ Pitch said. ‘Hundreds of years, and I have not grasped my enemy and conquered them properly.’

‘But you said that you weren’t tasked with- I don’t get it. How can he want you gone for something he’s not letting you do?’

‘How indeed?’ Pitch said. ‘Don’t try to wander the back paths of his mind, Jack. I’m not sure how much of a nightmare you truly wish to live.’

‘And you? How much of it have you seen? How much of a nightmare are you living?’

‘Ah,’ Pitch said, and then he rested his elbow on the table and rested his chin on his knuckles. ‘Ah, well, I know what his endgame is.’

Silence fell between them, and Jack thought Pitch looked tired. Like he had back on the ship. Now that Jack could see it, he wondered if it had been there the whole time, and he’d just missed it. There was even something mournful about him. But Jack had felt that hand around his neck, seen the fire in Pitch’s eyes when they’d attacked each other.

‘What about Seraphina?’ Jack said finally.

‘What about her?’ Pitch said, in that infuriating way he had sometimes. But then he sighed and looked at Jack with a small smile. ‘Do you know what I wish for her? I hope she never sees the inside of that mountain. I hope her biggest heartache is knowing that she’ll die before her parents, and perhaps the loss of one love before finding whoever she’s meant to give her heart to. I’ve been alive for so long, I think all of that could happen before she ever sees the Tsar’s endgame. Then I’ll know she’ll have been mostly happy, and once she’s gone… Then nothing will matter.’

Pitch fully expected to outlive his daughter. Like a man waiting for the inescapable edge of some great precipice.

‘What was that plan?’ Jack said, his voice weak. ‘The one…the one that you dismissed? You know, the one the Guardians brought to you.’

‘It was very like the original resistance movement,’ Pitch said. ‘It would never have worked.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I have seen what happens if you use your charisma – such as it is – and power to turn a military against a Tsar, and I don’t wish to live through it again. I’ll not put the lives of my Warriors on the line, just because most of them would follow me.’

‘But you put their lives on the line all the time, with the Darkness?’

At that, Pitch’s hand slammed against table, a white-knuckled fist blanching his grey skin. The thud of it shook the papers, and Jack jumped.

‘Get out,’ Pitch said. ‘I’ve determined your training program, so you are free to leave.’

Jack wanted to keep talking. Almost opened his mouth and said ‘You said I could come to you,’ but he suspected that Pitch was at the end of something, and Jack didn’t want to see what was on the other side.

When he was at the door though, he hesitated. He’d had a whole bunch of stuff he actually wanted to ask. He turned back, and could almost see Pitch gathering himself to either throw Jack out of the room or just talk to him. It was hard to tell.

‘What is it now?’ Pitch said.

‘Nothing, just, kind of wondering how much of your…rooms-house-quarters I can explore? I don’t want to go anywhere I’m not sort of supposed to be.’

‘Oh,’ Pitch said, like that was the last thing he’d expected. ‘Most of the locks here are magically keyed, so they’ll open for whoever is meant to be in the room. Or for whoever belongs there. Or needs to be there. The particulars are strange. It’s Bunnymund’s magic. Back when he used to do a great deal more of it.’

‘So that’s why you can just get into my room without a key, even though everyone else can’t?’

‘Yes,’ Pitch said. ‘Actually I suspect Seraphina could too. Likewise, I suspect her lock would allow you to enter her room. It’s an alchemy based more on personal relationships and their quality, than anything else.’

‘Cool,’ Jack said, thinking it hardly made sense, but at least Pitch had given him an answer. ‘Cool. And I was wondering…’ He caught the look on Pitch’s face, the increasing glower and placed his hand on the doorknob. ‘You know what? Doesn’t matter. Not urgent. Thanks for this. Chats with you are always the best. Ah, bye?’

Jack closed the door behind him before Pitch could respond, and then leaned back against it, closing his eyes. He couldn’t tell if that had been a disaster, or counted as progress. All he knew was that he needed to take a few deep breaths, and he needed to go focus on something else for a while.

‘Okay, primer and weird complicated alphabet it is. No time like the present,’ Jack said to himself, wandering back to his room.

*

The next day, after his etiquette lessons, Jack headed to the kitchen to find himself some lunch and realised the place was deserted. Pitch didn’t seem to be anywhere, and Anton and Eva were still staying together in Eva’s rooms.

He spun slowly in the lounge, looking around, thinking that he had permission to explore now. On a whim, he hopped up into the air just to prove to himself that he could, and after a moment that was just a burst of pleasure that he could even do that, he moved towards the bookshelves, writing his name in the dust that no one had gotten to for some time. Up here were dust-covered medals and trophies. Jack looked at them all. Turned some of them. Most of the trophies were made of some kind of dark grey metal that had a dull lustre in the light. Jack wondered if it was pewter. He knew they used it for trophies ages ago, but started using gold once they had enough of it that they could.

His explorations had him travelling around the room, sometimes on his feet, sometimes in the air, sneezing a couple of times: first from the disturbed dust that floated free of a light fitting he accidentally bumped, and the second time from running his hand along the ruches of the heavy curtains on the other side of the room, that were always closed and apparently covered in enough dust to fuel a small off-planet dust-storm.

Everything lower down was clean, which made Jack wonder if it was Pitch himself who cleaned these rooms, or if he hired someone. Surely he didn’t do his own cleaning? He was away a lot. He had to have someone who helped him.

Eventually he made his way down the long corridor that led to the kitchen. The first two doors wouldn’t open for him. The third on the right did, but that led to the strategy room that he’d fought Pitch in the day before.

‘Look at us,’ Jack said to himself, ‘already making such fond memories together. The Royal Admiral and the crappy…maybe-Warrior.’

He didn’t spend too long in the room, in case he saw something mind-breaking or belief-shattering or something. He was well and truly tired of that, and if someone wanted to tell him some other new horrifying thing about Lune they were welcome to, but Jack wasn’t going to go and seek it out.

The next few doors wouldn’t open for him. Jack could tell if they were going to, because the lock would just unclick when he pressed his hand to it.

Weird.

He tried not to think about Bunnymund in here, ages ago, making all these locks and using his magic. Jack didn’t even know what it looked like when he used it. He tried not to think about what Bunnymund did that required Pitch to beg for his life – that alone was hard enough to imagine – and tried not to think about Bunnymund being made to do a job that apparently broke him. Maybe that was why he always saying that he didn’t have a choice. Maybe it was more than just…defensiveness.

Jack tried a few more doors. Another unclicked, opened into a cavernous storage space that smelled musty from disuse. Jack clicked on the overhead light and stared in amazement at what looked like centuries of minutiae, disused furniture and more, hulking together in barely contained chaos. The room was long, and Jack found himself moving deeper and deeper into it, until he couldn’t see the doorway anymore. Some of the furniture and junk was covered in sheets thick with dust. At the back, a wardrobe made of wood that no longer wore its lacquer well. Jack opened the creaking door and saw uniforms hanging. They were falling apart, antiquing, and Jack drew one of the coats out and stared in amazement.

It was a relic, a uniform from a time when they fought people, not Darkness. They were fancier, somehow. Where the uniform now was more sacred – contained more magic, more symbolism – these contained more embroidery, even beadwork and pearls at the collars, intricate fabric buttons and fasteners.

Jack placed everything back and made his way out of the space again, shaking dust out of his hair. It was…weird, being in that room. Like walking through a museum, except it was all of Pitch’s life, jumbled up together and discarded. Jack didn’t get the sense that Pitch went back in there much.

Finally, the door on the left just before the kitchen, and Jack pressed his palm to the door lock and was surprised when it unclicked for him. He stepped through the wooden door into the room, closing the door behind him. At first he thought he was in a weird training space, not really getting a close look, and then he turned around and his mouth dropped open.

It was the wall to the left that – more than anything else – gave it away. Neat loops of rope hung off hooks. Coils and coils of it. At least a hundred. Some thick, some thin. And beside that, instruments that Jack would normally associate with punishment. Whips and floggers, crops and paddles and…other things he didn’t have a name for.

He dragged his eyes away, breathing faster, and stared at the furniture in the room. A low-lying leather bench, and then another nearby it, but that one looked like it had foot and arm rests and Jack couldn’t even begin to imagine how he’d fit in it, and then tried to stop imagining how he’d fit in it because that was something that would never happen. There were hooks screwed into the walls and ceiling – and rails, and chains that hung, bright and gleaming.

Jack stayed still, his heart fluttering in his chest, as his eyes moved from object to object. There was a bed, a cross that looked exactly like a flogging post.

Because that’s probably exactly what it is.

‘By the Light,’ Jack whispered, moving deeper into the room. It was a huge space. And yet weirdly cosy at the same time. There were rugs on the floor, a few wall hangings, these depicting not military scenes, but woven forests and landscapes Jack was sure he’d never seen before. There were candles everywhere, unlit, but that had clearly been used. Most of them were white pillar candles, but there was a cluster of twenty candles – all very well-used – that were different colours. Jack wondered if they were the party candles. And then wondered if that was even a thing.

It probably isn’t a thing.

Jack avoided the flogging post, and walked over to the benches. The leather was soft, had that rich, waxed scent, was clearly kept in good condition. The bench with arm rests and more had straps all over it. Clearly designed to keep someone down, in place, so that they couldn’t move.

Jack’s heart beat faster, and he swallowed, touching one of the straps and feeling the underside of it. Surprisingly soft, like suede. He tried to imagine what it would feel like against his wrists, or – that middle one – across his waist. For a moment, he was lost in the vision of it, and didn’t understand why he liked it so much. Anton had talked about being flogged, or spanked, but this room was clearly about more than that, and Jack hadn’t considered…

He forced himself away from the bench, and walked over to look at the bed. A cabinet beside it, and Jack opened it to see rolls of fluffy blankets, extra pillows, and then vials and bottles of stuff that he could guess the use of. His cheeks felt warm, but ice prickled out on the floor around him, creeping slowly.

It was supposed to be impossible to imagine Pitch in here – the Royal Admiral – doing…the things that he did. But Jack could believe it. Could almost see it.

When he was younger, when he’d jacked off fantasising about Pitch – long before he’d ever imagined that he’d be calling the Royal Admiral Pitch – he used to pretend the Admiral had taken a fancy to him. He imagined that Pitch had decided to use all that power and control and… Jack gulped and stared around the room again. His mind had never been as creative as this.

Inevitably, he found his way to the wall that had the ropes and tools hanging from it. Jack touched the ropes, surprised at how soft some of them were. But when he got to the whips, the balance between fear and curiosity he was feeling, tipped entirely to fear and a dull, blank nausea. Before he knew what he was doing, he was unhooking them, dropping them to the floor, wanted them nowhere that he could see them. He left the paddles and the things that looked like riding crops, he even left some of the smaller floggers, but the big ones, the whips, the single-tails – he even lifted into the air to get the last of them. All clattering to the ground, handles hitting the wooden floorboards.

When Jack was done, his heart raced, he knew he’d done something wrong, but he couldn’t bring himself to put any of it back. It was a lot easier to look at the wall once everything else was on the floor.

He touched his fingers to a wooden paddle that had holes in it. Why in the Darkness would it have holes in it?

‘Weird,’ Jack breathed.

Even his voice was shocking in this room. He swallowed and moved along the wall, to more cabinets. He opened these and then stilled, feeling a flush go all the way down his spine at the amount of…accessories Pitch had. He closed the cabinets and looked down at his crotch and shook his head. Not helpful. Not even- Not even a little bit helpful.

‘Cut it out,’ he whispered to himself, and then decided to ignore all the equipment in the room and go to one of the three doors in the room. The first led back to the corridor. The second – on the opposite side of the room – wouldn’t open for him. He rattled the doorknob, pressed his hand to the lock, and nothing happened. The third room was a bathroom with – among all the other amenities – a huge, spacious bath. And more of those white pillar candles. Jack closed the door.

After a long moment, he walked back towards the door that led to the corridor. But he paused before he got there, turning back to the room again. He wanted to press a hand to his cock, to get it to calm down, to just…something.

Jamie would probably say something like: ‘Guess it’s time to open a new spank bank.’

Jack stood there staring for at least another few minutes, and then he heard the doorknob turning right behind him. He squeaked in shock, backing up against the wall as the door opened, hiding behind it and keeping his breathing silent. Eyes wide.

Pitch walked into the room and the door swung shut behind him. Jack stared at his back. Stared at the back of his head. Thought to varying degrees about the mess he was in. Tried to ignore the piles of whips on the floor that very obviously showed someone had been in here.

‘Hello, Jack,’ Pitch said.

Jack’s heart stopped, he pressed back into the wall and watched as Pitch turned to face him. Jack expected a smirk, some smug look, but instead it was a serious intensity, Pitch unblinking, staring at him.

‘Do you know what it means that the room let you in?’ Pitch said, his voice slower, softer than before. He took a single step forward, and Jack wondered when his mouth had gotten so dry. His tongue was stuck.

Pitch’s eyes slipped down Jack’s body casually, paused, and then moved back up again. Then he smirked.

‘I’m going to give you two words, one means you want everything to stop, the other means you want things to slow down. Do you understand?’

Jack nodded automatically, had no idea why he was nodding, had no idea why he was still half-hard or why he was even still in the room. Part of him had already fled screaming, mumbling some apology about the whips. The rest of him was here, pinned in place by nothing more than that gaze.

‘Shadow is stop,’ Pitch said. ‘Lumen is slow down.’

‘Cool,’ Jack said, his voice thin. Nothing more than a puff of air.

Pitch’s smirk grew, and he took another step forward.

‘Excellent. Then we can begin.’

Chapter Text

Another step, and Pitch was standing right in front of him. He moved his hand to Jack’s face, and then slid the side of his index finger beneath his chin, lifting. Jack had no choice but to look up at Pitch, not like he’d been doing anything else for the past few minutes.

‘Begin what?’ Jack said. ‘If you think you’re going to touch me with one of those whips, I will ice this whole…whatever kind of room this is, and then…’

Jack didn’t know. It seemed kind of absurd to make threats right now. It wasn’t like his cock had gone soft.

‘Anyway, what do you mean…about this room letting me in?’

‘I wonder when the curiosity started?’ Pitch said, his other hand coming up and grasping Jack’s staff, then pulling it away. Jack let go reluctantly, and swallowed nervously. He knew that Pitch could feel it, his finger underneath Jack’s chin. ‘Was it when Anton began talking about it? Or was it earlier?’

‘Um…’

‘What am I going to do with you, Jack? Spank you?’

Jack laughed nervously, and then the sound dried up at the look on Pitch’s face. He could feel his palms sweating. Who in their right mind would even want to be spanked?

But Jack couldn’t stop thinking about Anton calling it safe, saying it was what he needed, but never more than he could handle. There was a part of him which wanted to be burned through by the heat in Pitch’s gaze. Wanted to forget about everything else. Wanted to satisfy that part of him that had considered Pitch this way since the day he realised he could jerk off while daydreaming about someone else and it had been amazing.

‘I’ve seen deer look as stunned as you do,’ Pitch said.

‘I’m not stunned,’ Jack said.

The hand at his chin shifted, until the pad of Pitch’s thumb began stroking over Jack’s lips. Jack was shocked at how sensitive the skin felt. He pressed his lips together, hating the way Pitch smirked at him then. So he tried to relax, but the little bit of saliva that clung to his lips made the nerves in his skin buzz. He thought about stepping away, but the wall was right there, and it was also the hottest thing that had happened to him. Just…also a bit alarming.

‘Are you a virgin?’ Pitch said.

‘What?’ Jack said, twisting his head to the side. ‘No, I’ve had tons of-’

Jack almost choked on air as Pitch shifted his hand and slid two fingers into Jack’s mouth.

‘A quiet Jack is my favourite Jack,’ Pitch said, and Jack bit down on Pitch’s fingers in warning. Pitch only looked pleased, as though Jack had somehow done what he wanted. Then Pitch leaned closer until his nose brushed Jack’s forehead, until Pitch’s lips ghosted over Jack’s temple. ‘Jack,’ Pitch said, ‘you’re not the only one who can bite.’

Pitch’s head dropped and Jack cried out in shock when Pitch’s teeth dug into the base of his neck. Pitch’s fingers moved deeper into Jack’s mouth, and his other hand came and grabbed a handful of Jack’s ass. Jack found himself clutching at Pitch’s clothing without thinking, half-reeling from the pain blooming from his neck, even as Pitch’s mouth found his. And then Pitch was kissing him, a gentleness that contrasted hard with the fingers digging into his ass, the teeth marks he could feel in his skin.

Jack made a weak sound, turned his mouth to the side to gasp for air when the hand at his ass became fingers moving between his legs towards his balls. Jack felt like he couldn’t contain the sensations that were building, like he had to squirm or move, and his voice broke when he felt Pitch’s lips on his, firmer this time, pressing his mouth open. A hand at his throat carefully pressed him back to the wall and held him in place, the tips of two fingers wet with saliva, and Jack half-clawed at Pitch’s arm, feeling like it was hard to breathe.

Just as soon as it had started, Pitch withdrew his hands and stepped back, and Jack sagged against the wall, forehead creasing, feeling colder than before. He looked up, hoping that he wasn’t about to be sent away. But Pitch didn’t look like he was going to send him away. Jack pressed a hand to his mouth, and then touched the side of his neck, where the bite ached. Pitch’s eyes tracked Jack’s hand, and he looked insufferably pleased with himself.

‘Undress,’ Pitch said, and Jack’s hands found the hem of his shirt, and then as the material shifted against the scars on his back, he hesitated. He could see the way Pitch’s expression changed then, how he didn’t like Jack not doing what he said. All of a sudden a wave of something like shame – that he wasn’t doing what Pitch wanted.

‘I don’t- I…’ Jack shook his head in frustration with himself. ‘My scars. On my back. You haven’t seen them, have you?’

Jack knew some of the holy priests had seen his scars after the initiation, when he’d been unconscious, but he didn’t know if Pitch had.

‘No,’ Pitch said, his expression changing from forbidding, to thoughtful.

‘I don’t want you to see them,’ Jack said. ‘Or touch them.’

‘I don’t care about the scars,’ Pitch said.

‘I- It’s going to be a total mood-killer,’ Jack said, laughing weakly. ‘For me, anyway. Please? I just- Not…not now? Not today?’

Pitch was silent, and Jack wondered if he’d just completely killed the mood anyway. But he couldn’t even look at the scars in a mirror, hated touching them while bathing. The skin was weird, the nerves damaged – hypersensitive in some areas, numb in others. He could mostly tune it out in the day to day, but now, thinking about Pitch seeing the real consequences of all the times Jack had been disciplined for doing something wrong, made him feel ill.

‘I don’t know what I was thinking,’ Jack said, turning towards the door.

Pitch moved swiftly, blocking the exit, a considering expression on his face.

‘Really?’ Jack said.

‘Unless you use one of the words given to signal out, you do not get to be the one who decides how this ends.’

‘Yeah, but-’

Jack blinked at the warm palm placed over his mouth.

‘It’s so much nicer when you don’t talk,’ Pitch said.

Jack dug his fingers into Pitch’s hand, pulling down just enough to say:

‘And how am I meant to say these magical words that mean stop or slow down if you keep doing stupid things like this?’

‘I was getting to that.’ Pitch frowned at him, then said: ‘For the benefit of all, I really believe you need a gag.’

Pitch turned and walked across the room. Jack stared at his back – insulted, annoyed, and still a little turned on. Who liked the idea of being gagged? It seemed pretty important to be able to talk during stuff like this.

‘You can take your pants off,’ Pitch said, as he opened a drawer and began looking through it. ‘That’s an order, by the way.’

‘Okay, so,’ Jack said, hands going to the fastening of his pants, ‘if you’re already going to spank me, what happens if I don’t follow your orders?’

‘You won’t get to come,’ Pitch said easily. He turned around with a strip of black cloth and held it up to the light, as though considering how thick it was.

‘I can make that happen later,’ Jack said, laughing.

Pitch sauntered back over, and Jack felt awkward as he stepped out of his pants. And weirdly exposed, even though his training shirt hung low. He looked at the cloth Pitch held, and then looked at Pitch and felt the mischievousness in himself fray away into nothing.

‘You can,’ Pitch said, lifting the cloth and winding it around Jack’s head. Jack thought about just keeping his mouth closed, thought about walking away now, but it was like he was under a spell. A hesitation, and then he opened his mouth. The fabric slipped in. It didn’t press as tight against the corners of his mouth as he expected, and he held still as Pitch tied it into place, feeling something like panic knocking at the corners of his mind.

When it was in place, Jack’s nostrils flared, and then he jerked when fingers smoothed over his ear, across the top of his neck.

‘Look at me,’ Pitch said. Jack did, shivering. ‘It’s loose, and you’ll be able to shape words if you need to. The gag isn’t a punishment. It’s to allow you some rest from thinking you need to defend yourself with words all the time. Whether it’s by talking back to me, or whatever stream of consciousness you’re polluting the air around you with.’

Jack glared at him, and Pitch smiled.

‘As for being able to make yourself come with whatever innocent, sweet little fantasies that barely-touched mind of yours can come up with…’ Pitch said, trailing his hand down Jack’s shirt and then grasping Jack’s cock with such familiarity that Jack didn’t register the shock until he felt his knees lock into place, his voice muffled as he gasped. ‘Of course you can. Later, you’ll realise there’s a difference between what your cold little hands can give you, and what I can.’

Jack sucked in a breath through his nose, suddenly glad for the wall behind his back.

Pitch’s other hand slipped up beneath Jack’s shirt, the heat of his touch dizzying. He rucked up the fabric, then rested his palm on Jack’s sternum.

‘You can still make the shapes of words with a gag like this,’ Pitch said. ‘I will know what shadow and lumen sound like through the cloth.’

Jack half-wanted to try the words out, but he knew it would sound stupid through the fabric. Besides, Pitch touching him like this was distracting. It was becoming pretty hard to think about anything other than Pitch’s hands, still and hot on his skin.

If he wasn’t wearing the gag, he probably would have said something like, ‘Is there a word that means hurry up?’

Probably why I’m gagged in the first place.

So Jack said nothing through the gag, his breathing not quite silent, Pitch watching him with the hint of that smile around his face. Then his hand squeezed carefully around Jack’s cock, and Jack gasped. He was probably going to come in like twenty seconds at this rate. Pitch looked like he knew it, too, so Jack closed his eyes. It didn’t help much. Once he blocked the rest of the world out, his body felt more sensitive.

Fingers moved over his cock, and then stroked him as though checking the shape and feel of it. They ruffled the hair at the base of his cock, circled the ridge at the head, then skated over the tip with a deliberate lightness that was as aggravating as it was arousing. Jack bit down on the gag and moaned, and then made a sound of relief when Pitch closed his hand around Jack’s length and started moving, dizzying him with the feel of it. Pitch’s other hand pushing him back into the wall and keeping him there.

At least, it was dizzyingly good until Pitch stopped abruptly, four strokes later, and went back to those lighter touches with individual fingers.

Jack’s eyes opened, glaring up.

‘Hey,’ he managed through the gag. It was a syllable more than anything.

‘Yes,’ Pitch agreed, ‘it must be annoying. But it amuses me no end, knowing you think you’ll control any of this. Out there, you may forget to call me Sir, or the Royal Admiral, but in here you will have no illusions as to what I am. The whole point of you being here, Jack, is that you don’t have control. I think you may want that, even if you don’t know how to admit it.’

Jack rolled his eyes, and then got distracted when Pitch started jerking him off properly. His head thudded back against the wall, his eyes were closed again. Fingers stroked over one of his nipples, then pinched, and Jack squirmed, unable to get away from the sensation that was both good and a little painful and made him feel even harder in Pitch’s other hand.

Pitch kept moving the hand on Jack’s cock, the strokes deft and slower than Jack would have used on himself, but no less intense for it. He squeezed on the upstroke, and without lubricant, the calluses on his palms dragged on Jack’s sensitive skin. He couldn’t quite keep his sounds swallowed down, even with his teeth digging into the gag. He hated that it was obvious that Pitch was getting to him so quickly.

Just don’t come in like five seconds and you’ll be good.

But he felt like he was fighting a losing battle there.

A pleading sound, and then Jack made another, louder pleading sound when Pitch stopped again. The hand at Jack’s chest moved quickly down, slid over his ass, and then pinched the skin hard. It was a flash of surface pain, and Jack jolted forwards, bumping into Pitch’s body. The hand on his cock – still now – stopped him from moving away.

The hand that had pinched him, petted one cheek almost condescendingly, and then pinched him again. Jack cried out, but he was still hard in Pitch’s grip, and the bruising pain was dispersing through him, making it harder to concentrate. He also had a fair idea of what this was leading up to, and the fear that had vanished before was bubbling back again. What if he hated it? What if-

Jack moaned as Pitch pulled him forward by his cock, which meant that skin rubbed against Pitch’s clothing. That material might look soft, but it didn’t feel soft. With his other hand, Pitch spread his fingers and caressed both of his ass cheeks, first one, then the other, his thumb sometimes stroking like a promise between the seam of his ass. Jack’s hands were starting to hurt where he was clutching Pitch’s shirt. He was pretty sure he’d fused himself to the fabric with ice. Keeping the ice under control wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be, it was like Pitch was melting him, changing his whole temperature, the way a shower could.

Pitch leaned down and said:

‘What do you say, Jack? Still want that control back?’

Jack couldn’t stop the broken sound he made, feeling like he was way too close to coming. He knew Pitch was taunting him, unable to even wrap his mind around some kind of retort; which he couldn’t say anyway.

‘You might change your mind in a minute,’ Pitch said, sounding entirely too smug as he stepped backwards and drew Jack with him, the hand never leaving his cock. Jack’s steps were small and awkward, and his mind began to clear, realising that he no longer had the support of the wall at his back.

Pitch’s hand left his ass and moved over his shirt, palm resting between his shoulder blades. Jack was aware of his scars, but was pretty sure that Pitch couldn’t feel them properly through the shirt itself. It was hard to care about that much anyway, he was literally being led forward by his cock, and it was hot to think about, but kind of scary in practice. He could feel the tugging, could feel how if he didn’t move quickly enough, it hurt, but if his steps were too big, he’d bump straight into Pitch.

Then Pitch was sitting, quickly shifted his robe, and the next thing Jack knew, he was pulled down so that he was lying with his belly over Pitch’s thighs. He could see the leather of one of those weird benches by his face, and his legs didn’t comfortably reach the ground. He tried shifting, but he couldn’t. Not with the hand that was on his lower back, and his cock between Pitch’s thighs.

He made a sound of protest, trying to back out of the position, but unable to get the traction. He could hardly reach the ground with his hands, and ended up flailing until he grabbed Pitch’s shin with one of his hands.

‘You were the one who brought it up,’ Pitch said calmly, keeping Jack in place, but otherwise not responding to his struggling.

Rhetorically, Jack thought, opening his mouth to make sure he could breathe properly. He could swallow, at least. But this was so undignifying. Blood was moving to his head. And then Pitch shifted his knees and Jack fell a bit more forward and realised that his ass was right there, for whatever Pitch wanted to do to it.

He stopped struggling when he realised how half-hearted it was. He was afraid, but not afraid enough to use his ice. Not once. A few ice crystals covered both of his hands, but that was reflex, not deliberate. He wasn’t even trying to freeze Pitch. He fell still, focused on catching his breath, stared at the room from a very odd angle. From here, he couldn’t see the whips he’d pulled down at all. But he could see the bed, one of the doors, the other bench, and some wardrobes and cabinets. The floor looked clean.

Pitch’s hand was firm at the small of his back, and Jack thought of this same thing happening to Anton, other people, and his mind raced. Then he squeaked – Pitch’s other hand began rubbing over his ass. It wasn’t even subtle. But then, his cock wasn’t being subtle either, against Pitch’s thigh. Jack tried not to think about any of it, but…it was kind of impossible to tune anything out in the position he was – face down, over Pitch’s knees. He couldn’t decide if he liked it more when Pitch was talking, or when he wasn’t.

‘I have honestly imagined this for some time,’ Pitch said, beginning to tap Jack’s ass lightly with his fingers. The sensation wasn’t painful at all, and Jack squinted, and then closed his eyes when he realised Pitch was probably building up to it. It’s not like Pitch’s hands were small either.

‘Nothing to say?’ Pitch said, and Jack could hear the smile in his voice.

Okay, I like it less when he talks.

Precariously, Jack shifted, bringing up one arm – the other still bracing himself on Pitch’s shin – and not even knowing if Pitch was looking, flipped him off.

A second later, Jack cried out as the tapping became one hard smack that even over the bottom of his shirt, sent sharp pain into his flesh. He began to struggle, a bite of anger that Pitch would respond like that – because that wasn’t fair – and then was distracted by a volley of spanks that were each as strong as the last. He gasped for air, hanging onto Pitch’s shin with one hand, the bench with the other, trying to squirm away and not succeeding at all.

Then, Pitch stopped, and rubbed over Jack’s ass again. Jack felt humiliated. Pain radiated, his skin was warm, he was still hard, he didn’t get it, and he hated that he couldn’t just…retaliate against Pitch as he wanted to, with no consequences. He realised that’s what he’d been doing all along, just about. Lashing out at Pitch whenever he wanted. And it wasn’t until now that he realised how often Pitch didn’t get him back for it.

‘What about now?’ Pitch said. ‘Anything to say now?’

I didn’t say anything, asshole.

The rubbing continued, it felt kind of nice, spreading the warmth around, making the stinging pain fall back to something duller. Jack’s breathing eased, but didn’t go back to evenness. He was glad that Pitch couldn’t see his face, his head dropping slightly.

‘Good,’ Pitch said. ‘That’s good, Jack.’

Jack felt that like a whole body shiver. Like ice crystals had just crawled across the inside of his skin, except it was warm, and strange. What was good? That he hadn’t flipped Pitch off again? That he was relaxing?

Pitch’s hand left his ass and then Jack grunted when Pitch leaned forwards, and then Jack gasped when he felt that hand on his cock. It was hot against his skin, and squeezed him. Jack moaned weakly, because that was good. Too good.

‘That’s excellent,’ Pitch said, his voice deepening, and Jack wanted to press his lips together, but couldn’t with the gag in the way.

Pitch shifted back into position, began rubbing Jack’s ass again. Jack’s fear was still there, fizzing away, because when did it stop? What if Jack’s inner darkness came up and he did something regrettable? At least it didn’t feel close to the surface.

The taps started, following a rhythm and easy to predict. But the placement changed. Sometimes high up on the back of his ass, sometimes as low as his upper thighs, sometimes much longer on one side than the other. Jack’s legs shifted, still feeling unstable. If it wasn’t for Pitch’s hand at his lower back, he suspected he’d just slide forward onto the floor.

The tapping became harder, and then his shirt was pulled up just enough that Pitch’s hand was always hitting his bare skin. Jack thought about the hurried encounters he’d had in the Barracks, he could've gotten or given a blowjob or handjob about ten times over by now. This was…he didn’t even know if this counted as sex.

He wished his cock would figure it out.

First his skin began to heat, and then the sting started to move through him. It wriggled into his legs and made him restless, had him clutching harder at Pitch’s shin, grunting, because it wasn’t easy to bear. Pitch was only spanking him lightly, Jack was pretty sure, but it was building up, and he was sensitising to it.

He felt like something was building inside of him, and he didn’t have a name for it, and didn’t know what it was. He couldn’t get over how embarrassing the position was. He was over Pitch’s knee like a child, and Pitch talked to him like a recalcitrant brat that needed to be pulled into line.

‘This is one of my favourite parts,’ Pitch said.

The next strike was hard, and fell at the top of Jack’s thigh. There, it was a wash of pain that started at his skin and moved down into his flesh, his bones, knotted up through his spine so that his back arched. Jack cried out, the sound cutting off as Pitch spanked over the exact same place, as hard as before.

Then, not really thinking about it, Jack tried to move forwards, or sideways. To slide off Pitch’s lap somehow. Pitch’s hand dug harder into his lower back, and Pitch’s legs shifted so that Jack could reach even less of the ground – not that he could reach it properly anyway. Then, a round of blows that were swift and over the curves of Jack’s ass, but still hard, still painful, and Jack felt his eyes beginning to prickle, and tried to reach behind to stop what was happening.

Effortlessly, as though Pitch had been expecting it, the hand at Jack’s lower back shifted quickly and grasped Jack’s flailing arm by the wrist and then pressed it into his lower back, so that Jack was more immobilised than before.

‘Really, I have so many favourite parts,’ Pitch said. Jack could hear the smile in his voice.

A few more light taps, almost playful, and Jack breathed a sigh of relief that was also caught up in his throat as Pitch began spanking him properly again.

He cried out in protest. Pitch didn’t stop at all. Jack was finding it hard to think through the heat of it. The sensations weren’t just pain, but fire that burnt through him, that tangled with the lust that had been stoked with his gut and then became a mess that he couldn’t figure out. It felt like there was too much of it, and he thought of Anton saying that Pitch never gave him more than he could handle, but it didn’t seem true, and Jack’s breath was catching in his throat and he was starting to feel something he didn’t really have a name for, but it choked up inside of him until he blurted out – hating himself for it:

‘Lumen.’

Pitch stopped spanking him, went back to rubbing his skin, and Jack felt worse somehow for having used the word. He wanted to curl up on himself, except he couldn’t. His arm was behind his back, his shoulder ached, and he turned his head to the side, even though Pitch couldn’t see his expression anyway.

By the light, what’s wrong with me?

‘Good, Jack,’ Pitch said.

The stroking made Jack aware of the pain, but also diffused it, turned it to something softer, easier. Jack didn’t know why he’d been called good for using the word. Wasn’t it weak? Hadn’t Pitch said that Jack had something like endurance? Yet here he was, a complete wimp.

He tried to catch his breath. Forehead creasing as the hand pinning his wrist down began stroking it instead.

‘Do you want to stop?’ Pitch said. ‘Did you mean to say shadow instead?’

Jack shook his head automatically. Then realised how strange that was. Did he want Pitch to keep going? It was harder than he thought, somehow. He thought it would just be scary, and painful. A lot of things in his life had been scary and painful so far, and he knew how to deal with that. But this was so much more than that. He had a lump in his throat, and he didn’t understand why. He was still hard, and he wanted to come, and he didn’t understand that either.

‘Your ass is starting to look quite red,’ Pitch said, sounding pleased. Jack made a weak, bemused sound, and Pitch laughed quietly. ‘It suits you. This being your first time, I think you’ll bruise up very nicely.’

Pitch’s thumb stroked over the curve of one of Jack’s ass cheeks, pressing deep enough that Jack moaned. Jack didn’t know if it felt good or not. His senses twisting beneath Pitch’s fingers. When Pitch did it a second time, Jack felt his cock twitch, and heat curled up at the base of his spine. Good. Painful, but good.

‘I don’t think it’s the pain that bothers you,’ Pitch said, shifting again and reaching around. Jack winced when fingers brushed his cock, then rubbed at the head of him. He whimpered when Pitch pressed Jack’s cock into the material of Pitch’s pants, holding it there against the roughness. ‘I think you’re running from yourself, Jack.’

Jack wasn’t paying all that much attention, pressing his hips forward to get more of that friction on his cock. It ached, but he knew if he got a hand on himself, he’d come pretty fast.

‘Perhaps you want to stop doing that. I wouldn’t know. But I’d like to see you stop doing that. Ah, look at me, talking as though this is all for your benefit, when I really just want to do things like this.’

Fingers dug into the flesh at the top of his ass and dragged down over one cheek, nails digging in, down to the delicate, sensitive skin at the tops of his thighs. Jack’s back arched, he whimpered, and just like that Pitch’s hand was tight on his wrist, holding him still as he did it again.

‘So responsive,’ Pitch murmured, and Jack didn’t even know if he was supposed to hear it.

Pitch delivered several light, stinging slaps to the backs of Jack’s thighs, and Jack hissed, realised that whatever break he’d gotten with that word was probably over. He felt calmer, and he realised the panic he’d felt at saying the word had disappeared pretty quickly when Pitch had praised him for it. So maybe that word thing wasn’t so bad, maybe-

Jack yelped when Pitch spanked him several times in a row on his left cheek, eyes already burning again. The pain was closer to the surface now, and that thorny knot of emotions and lust inside of him was too.

Pitch kept going, alternating sides, sometimes moving down to the backs of Jack’s thighs – which Jack hated – and then back up again. Jack felt his hips moving involuntarily, sometimes to get away, sometimes to grind his cock into fabric, feeling like he was so close, and yet knowing that dry-humping Pitch’s leg just wasn’t going to cut it.

There came a moment where the pain crested and Jack was crying out and trying not to, biting down on the gag which was soaked with saliva. He felt the first tear spill and made a sound of despair when Pitch didn’t stop.

He thought about saying either of the words then. The one to slow down. The one to stop. But he wanted to prove to Pitch that he wasn’t running from himself – whatever that meant. And, damn it, his body was doing a pretty good job of convincing him that it was one of the most intense things that had ever happened to him, like a build up to some kind of release he’d never had before.

When he sniffed, he struggled again out of sheer embarrassment, and Pitch clucked his tongue like a teacher and kept Jack in place, not relenting.

Soon, the sniffing was the least of his troubles. His body had turned into some kind of sensory firework, and he gasped trying to keep up with the feelings that raced through him. His cheeks were wet, his mouth was wet around the gag, his hands ached, his body felt heavy – stinging sensations chased around by heavier ones.

It built until he was sure he couldn’t handle it at all, until words that he could say began echoing around his head. His exhales were barely stifled sobs, his stomach was a knot of wanting.

Jack felt like his world was tipped upside down when Pitch suddenly shifted, sliding Jack off his knees. With a strong arm around his back, Pitch held Jack upright, and wrapped his other hand around Jack’s cock and tugged less than a handful of times before Jack’s knees buckled.

Everything went white for a few seconds as Jack realised he was going to come, already. He knew it would be more intense than anything he’d known in the past. He reached out clumsily, grabbing onto Pitch’s shoulders, head tipping forwards, and then he brokenly cried out when the pleasure of it twisted hard inside of him and he started spilling into Pitch’s hand.

It seemed to go on and on, the pain in his ass and thighs making everything stronger. He ended up leaning into Pitch, standing between his thighs, his head tucked into Pitch’s shoulder and shakily catching his breath. Every wave of it took him into a place where there was no thought, nothing to worry about, nothing except his body, and Pitch commanding it.

He felt shattered. But in the process of being broken into pieces, he felt like a weight had been taken away from him too. Something he was carrying that he didn’t have a name for. Something he didn’t want back. He didn’t know how he could feel lighter when he hurt, when he was wrung out, but he did.

Jack couldn’t even bring himself to care about the way he was basically clinging to Pitch. Couldn’t quite wrap his head around the fact that Pitch was letting him.

After a few seconds, Pitch carefully drew his hand away from Jack’s cock. A handkerchief appeared – Jack couldn’t tell from where – and Pitch wiped his hand off one-handed, like he’d had practice with that too.

Then, he reached up and touched the corner of Jack’s mouth carefully. He traced the gag to the knot and undid that. Jack pushed the gag out with his tongue, but it stuck to his skin, didn’t drop away. At least he could talk again. If he wanted to.

He didn’t really want to.

Pitch drew the gag away, placing it beside him on the bench. Then he reached around like he was going to embrace Jack with both arms. Instead, his hand dropped down and rubbed over the searingly hot skin of Jack’s ass.

Jack jolted forwards, hissing, and Pitch made a soft sound of amusement.

‘You managed that very well,’ Pitch said. ‘Especially for what was obviously a first time.’

‘Okay,’ Jack said, his voice rough. He didn’t know what else to say. Pitch’s fingers were lightly tracing over inflamed skin, stirring the pain, reviving it, making his skin tingle.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, and then laughed. ‘You know when I imagined this, this is so not how I thought it would go.’

A beat, and Jack could’ve kicked himself for saying that. He felt rawer than usual, he couldn’t keep track of the words before he said them. In the pregnant silence that followed, Jack swore he could hear Pitch’s smugness like a third person in the room.

‘…Because I never imagined it.’ Jack added. ‘Ever.’

‘I see,’ Pitch said, and Jack leaned back just enough to see the smirk and rolled his eyes, dropping his head again.

Busted.

‘When did you start imagining it?’ Pitch said.

‘Ha, no, that’s enough,’ Jack said. ‘You’ve humiliated me enough today, thanks.’

‘I rather have, haven’t I?’ Pitch said. ‘You’re beautiful, too. Perhaps I’ll have to make you squirm more often.’

Jack hesitated, then leaned back again, to make sure that Pitch was joking. But he didn’t seem to be now. His face was all seriousness. But no one called Jack beautiful, really. He wasn’t bad looking. He was okay looking. Since the initiation though, he felt more alien, and less like before, when he was just someone who would be able to hook up on occasion, and no one to look twice at.

Belatedly, Jack realised that Pitch hadn’t come at all. He dropped his head, and then, without really thinking, he lowered his hand between Pitch’s legs. That was just reciprocal, the thing to do, right? And he sort of wanted to see Pitch undone. He couldn’t even imagine it.

Before his fingers brushed cloth, a hand secured his wrist.

‘No,’ Pitch said. ‘Not today.’

‘But-’

‘Not today,’ Pitch repeated.

‘But you should get something out of it too,’ Jack said, confused.

‘I think I’m going to remember how sweet you’re being, the next time you’re making my life miserable.’ Pitch shifted, let go of Jack’s wrist and touched his lips to Jack’s. The kiss was light, and Jack’s lips felt clumsy, still feeling the shape of the gag in his mouth like an echo. But it was also gentle, soothing. Jack sighed into it without thinking, forgetting about seeing Pitch undone and focusing instead on that touch. He was hungry for it, more than he’d realised.

But as he leaned in, Pitch leaned away and broke the contact between their mouths. Jack felt dazed.

‘Are you able to stand?’ Pitch said.

Jack realised that he was still kind of just a dead weight against Pitch, and got his legs under him properly. He wanted to put cold hands to his ass and somehow rub the pain away, but he wasn’t going to do that now. Not where Pitch could see. He took another step backwards when Pitch stood and walked across the room, almost businesslike, and frowned.

‘I thought we’d have sex or something,’ Jack said.

‘Did you?’ Pitch said, not even looking over his shoulder. ‘Perhaps. But not today.’

‘Is that like your favourite phrase or something? Not today?’

Pitch opened a drawer and withdrew a jar with a silver cap. It seemed to have a kind of salve in it. Pitch returned and handed it to Jack.

‘That will help with the pain,’ Pitch said. ‘Use it before bed, and you’ll feel much better in the morning.’

‘Oh,’ Jack said, looking at the salve.

‘I’m sure you can show yourself out. I didn’t expect an interlude like this today, but it was a pleasing diversion. I suppose I’m going to have to start using a lock though, so that you don’t accidentally walk in on something you shouldn’t. If you want this again, let me know.’

Jack dug the balls of his feet into the floor so he wouldn’t nervously move from foot to foot. He was shocked at how Pitch was being. It had been so nice leaning into him, and now- But… Maybe that’s how he was with everyone. What did Jack expect? That they’d cuddle? Pitch had even complimented him and everything.

Jack swallowed, and tried to ignore the feeling that he was being cast aside.

Then he watched as Pitch walked away. He used another exit – the door that Jack hadn’t been able to open no matter how hard he tried. And for a few seconds, Jack saw a four poster bed beyond it, a large desk, and realised that was Pitch’s room.

So I can get in here. But I can’t get in there…

The door closed, and Jack was alone again. The salve was cold in Jack’s hand, and he took a moment to think of what he was meant to do. Eventually he walked back over to his pants. Putting them on was a trial, and he grit his teeth as he drew them up over his thighs and ass, before fastening them into place. He grabbed his staff where it leaned against the wall.

Walking back to his room wasn’t easy either, and he locked the door properly, wanting some privacy. He ended up in the bathroom, wincing as he pulled his pants down. He caught his reflection in the mirror. His eyes were still faintly red-rimmed, the edges of his mouth showed mild chafe marks. He set the salve down on the counter, and looked at himself for a long time. He was wide-eyed, he had a bite mark at the base of his neck.

Pressing his lips together, he ran a hand through his hair and then stepped out of his pants and twisted to see what the damage looked like.

He could already catch the bruising that would appear later, as though his skin had shaded darker beneath the red. In a couple of places, he could see the clear outline of fingers, and touched them lightly.

He kind of liked it.

He supposed that Pitch was probably used to doing this a lot and Jack just had to get used to it too. After all, it wasn’t like the rush jobs at the Barracks had ever been anything like intimate. He was pretty sure he’d said, ‘Cool, thanks,’ after his first blowjob. But then he hadn’t expected to have his emotions dragged into it, to feel like that, to be told he was running from himself and then…and then have it end the way it did. But maybe that’s what Pitch did for everyone. Maybe that’s what Anton meant.

Jack’s brow furrowed and he almost thought about talking to Anton about it, but he didn’t want to seem naïve, when everyone said he was that anyway.

Training was out for the rest of the day, so he lay stomach-down on the bed, elbows on the blankets and hands under his chin as he read through the primers that Eva had given him, trying to grasp a complicated alphabet. Sometimes he licked his lips, as though he could taste Pitch’s mouth on his, relive the kisses. He’d liked those. More than he thought he would.

In the end, he slumped, his cheek on the page, floating in hazy memories of what had just happened, lust sleepily stirring alongside confusion until he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Jack remembered to use the salve when he woke up past midnight and winced, forcing himself out of bed, muscles aching. It wasn’t just his ass, it was all of him. The salve itself was cool, but it warmed too fast against skin that was inflamed and rapidly bruising. Jack stood in the bathroom, one hand bracing himself on the sink, the other tentatively smearing on the salve, and he thought of how Pitch had held him at the end. Held him in place, and then just…kept his arms there.

It felt weird to want that as much as everything else.

Even now, with the echoes of pain moving through him – the salve thankfully easing it – Jack wanted it again. He didn’t fully understand why, but it was almost as though he’d craved that intensity all his life without realising. There had been so many sharp moments, but he’d never been able to share them with other people. Not really. Having that at the hands of Pitch, in an environment that was partly under Jack’s control, and it ending the way it had – it was like a puzzle piece had been handed to him, and he could see himself better in its light.

Once he was done with the salve, feeling it working already to soothe the worst of the throb, he stared at himself in the mirror again. His hair was growing out – not thin and flimsy, but strong and silvery white. His eyes silvery blue. He still couldn’t get used to himself. Pitch calling him beautiful, calling him good, seemed to echo around him. It reminded him of being inducted, but this time, Pitch wasn’t trying to get political answers. He’d just been saying it, and it seemed clear that Pitch couldn’t be bothered with lying in that room.

Perhaps it was silly that he wanted those things to be true so badly. He wanted to be good, he wanted to be beautiful, and he wanted Pitch to think those things about him. Jack took a deep breath, a wave of tiredness finding him, and he went back to bed, curling up on his side, leaning forwards to take pressure off his hip, his ass. He stretched out with his hand and touched the sheet covering the mattress, wishing for something intangible, something he didn’t have a name for.

*

The next day, he had breakfast in his room, defaulting to a rations bar, no matter what look Seraphina would give him to see it.

Etiquette tutors came, and Jack sat down on chairs and introduced himself to pretend nobles as though he didn’t have bruising to deal with. The salve was helpful, but it didn’t get rid of everything. Every time he sat, he was reminded of what had transpired in that room and felt flushed. He honestly didn’t know how he was going to look Pitch in the eyes again any time soon, which was ridiculous, wasn’t it?

It wasn’t that he’d cried – he’d done that in front of Pitch before. It wasn’t even that he’d been spanked, really, because he’d been considering that side of Pitch for some time before it happened. But somehow, something had shifted. Some tectonic movement that changed everything he had previously thought he’d known about Pitch. The person in that room saying ‘not yet,’ who said sweet things, cruel things, but also left him at the end so quickly that Jack wondered if Pitch regretted the whole thing.

Perhaps that was it.

Did Pitch ever regret sleeping with people? Spanking them? Whatever else he did? Surely he did. He’d called Jack a child in the past, and maybe he thought Jack was too childish to handle it. Maybe Jack should have been able to find his feet sooner. Maybe other people just stood up straight away, and accepted the pain as stoically as Jack could when he was in the Disciplinarian’s tower?

But it didn’t seem like that’s what Pitch had wanted in the moment…

Maybe he’d speak to Anton. He had no idea what Anton’s schedule was, but surely Pitch or someone else would tell him. He was allowed free time outside of Pitch’s rooms, after all, even though he wasn’t really taking it.

‘Are you concentrating?’ one of the tutors snapped, and he hissed when a fork rapped smartly over the sensitive jut of bone at his wrist.

‘No?’ Jack said.

It earned him another rap over the wrist, but it helped him focus on the lessons at hand. He could find Anton later.

*

Seraphina came at lunch, bringing balls of sticky wild rice with her and some red, plump fruits that Jack had never seen before. He thought he’d seen most of the fruits that Lune had to offer by now, but these still had stems attached, leaves, so he wondered if Seraphina had fetched them from the garden she shared with her mother.

‘Here,’ she said, pushing the large bowl of rice balls, and the bowl of fruits onto Jack’s bed. Then, she walked out of the room.

For a moment, Jack thought it was just some kind of bizarre lunch delivery. But a few minutes passed and she returned with a large stack of books, some paper, and several pencils. She placed those on the bed too, pushing them towards the bowls. After that, she clambered onto Jack’s bed properly and sat with her back to his pillows. Arranging them until she was comfortable.

Seraphina’s black hair was braided, shone thickly and healthily. Her green eyes held more determination than usual, thick black brows pulling together as she looked at the stack she’d brought with her.

She then looked around his room, squinting at it, as though annoyed he hadn’t put any personal effects in the room yet. She spotted the primers that Eva had given him, and sighed.

‘I can do this,’ she said to no one in particular, and Jack decided that would be a good moment to get on the bed, opposite her. He felt the bruising, tried not to think about what her father was into and reached for one of the fruits to distract himself. He sniffed it first. It had a tart, sweet smell, and the skin was thin but pebbled.

‘I made sure to ask some adults what they thought might be best to teach another adult,’ Seraphina said, pulling out the different books. ‘Father said that children learn differently to adults, and he said what worked for me might not work for you. And Tutor Rapshin said that peasants can’t learn this alphabet at all, but mother assured me that’s incorrect. She said it’s a lie that we’re told about peasants.’

Seraphina handed Jack some of the papers and a book to rest them on. Then, she took a large piece of yellowed fabric and unfolded it. It took up almost a quarter of Jack’s bed – a chart of the sacred Lune alphabet in tiny print.

‘This is half of what you’re meant to learn,’ Seraphina said.

Half of the sacred Lune alphabet. By the Light. I think Tutor Rapshin was right, I can’t learn this.

‘But there’s a secret,’ Seraphina said. ‘Like this, it’s too much. For anyone. Even half of it. Each of these letters can represent a sound, a word, a phrase, a flavour, a musical tone, a hymn, something else, or all of that, or none of it. Sometimes they’re just punctuation, or space markers. These two here mean, ‘take a breath.’ So we learn them in groups. Look.’

She took out a much smaller piece of fabric and pulled the other one aside. This one only had fourteen letters upon it, and they each looked similar.

‘These are our musical tones,’ Seraphina said. ‘Some of them are also vowel sounds. But see, we learn them in groups.’

Jack had picked this up from the primers, but as Seraphina unfolded different, smaller pieces of fabric, he saw that some of the letters would be more crucial than others. If he wasn’t a musician, he didn’t need to learn the letters that only represented musical notes. If he wasn’t a chef, he didn’t need to learn the letters that only represented flavours. He thought he’d have to learn all of it, but as Seraphina said:

‘We start much simpler,’ Seraphina said. ‘It’s very hard to be completely fluent in this language, and most people aren’t, even if they think they are. It’s stupid to think you can learn all of it. Adults are dumb, mostly,’ Seraphina said. Then she paused, as though contemplating how true that was. ‘A hymnist is the only one who knows which hymns are connected to all of the letters. Like Sandy, he’ll know. If he embroiders the letter into a vestment, he means the hymn. The High Holy Priests learn that. They know the most, of anyone. Outside of scholars. Or father, because he’s a perfectionist.’

‘What?’

‘It’s so annoying,’ Seraphina muttered to herself. ‘He has to know everything. But he doesn’t like to read! He can read, but he won’t read fantasy books for fun. Or tales. He says there’s enough nonsense in the world already.’

‘But…doesn’t he tell you stories?’

‘All the time,’ Seraphina said, smiling a little. ‘I suppose one of the good things about him is that just because he thinks it’s nonsense for him, he doesn’t think it’s nonsense for me. Different people have different… Anyway, stop distracting me. I’m trying to teach you.’

‘Right,’ Jack said, deciding that until Seraphina learned she could do this, she was probably going to take all of it really seriously.

But then if Jack wanted to learn more about Lune’s history, and not just the plain language version that was given to all the lower classes, he’d actually have to learn. He schooled his face to concentration and nodded soberly, and Seraphina scowled at him until she decided that he really meant it.

‘I hope you like copying letters,’ she said finally, handing him a pencil. ‘Because that’s mostly what this is going to be.’

‘Cool,’ Jack said, looking at everything in front of him. This wasn’t daunting at all. This was just…a new version of learning the smallsword. And he managed that just fine. ‘Teach me, Mistress Seraphina, I want to learn.’

She hesitated, and then smiled down at the books. After a few moments she looked up and said:

‘And then after can you show me a glacier goat again?’

‘I can,’ Jack said, finally biting into the fruit she’d brought him. It was juicy, but not too sweet, and it didn’t drip down his fingers. ‘Also, what is this?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Seraphina said. ‘Father brought it back from a planet once and I propagated it, but never got its name. It’s good, isn’t it?’

‘It’s not poisonous?’

‘Probably not,’ she said, drawing out a letter slowly, but with the ease that spoke of someone who could do it much faster, and was making it slow for him. ‘But no one’s died yet.’

Jack laughed a little, and Seraphina looked like she wanted to, but he could tell she was taking it all very seriously, so he decided that he would make sure he concentrated. He wanted to be a good student for her, as opposed to the etiquette tutors, who he couldn’t care less about.

*

In the evening, he found Pitch in the lounge and hesitantly walked close enough that Pitch would know Jack wanted his attention. Pitch looked up from a book that looked ancient. Jack was now pretty sure it wasn’t fiction, but some non-fiction tome on…Jack had no idea. Military ships? Swords? What was he reading about that required a book to be so thick? You could learn the basics of root vegetable farming in a single pamphlet.

‘Yes?’ Pitch said, looking up.

Jack stared at him. Wondered if what they’d done the day before even mattered to him. Was it just…unimportant pleasure? The same as having a meal he enjoyed? Did he even enjoy it?

‘Um, so…’ Jack leaned a little on his staff. ‘Where’s Anton? Can I go visit him? You said I could have like…free time.’

‘Mm,’ Pitch said, looking back at his book. ‘I did say that.’

He sounded a little like he wanted to take it back, and Jack held still, because he was willing to fight for his free time if necessary, yet he also didn’t want to ice Pitch’s entire lounge. But he would. He hoped Pitch knew that by now.

‘Anton is…’ Pitch tilted his head and looked like he was thinking it through. ‘Today- Normally he’s with the rest of the Golden Warriors in the Barracks, but I believe he’s staying in the Palace for the next few days, so he’s likely to be training in the amphitheatre. I can get someone to show you, if you wish? A map might be easier.’

‘Will he mind being interrupted?’

‘Anton?’ Pitch said, and then he smiled as though remembering some private joke. ‘No, he doesn’t mind interruptions. Though he does like an audience. Wait here, I’ll fetch a key for you.’

Pitch stood smoothly, left the room. Jack moved over to the book and opened it, and saw a lot of writing he didn’t understand – even if he could pick out three or four of the letters now – and the blueprints of different castles. The paper itself was brittle, and Jack wondered how old it was. Maybe even from the days when the Golden Warriors laid siege to other Kingdoms, and not just the Darkness.

So why was he looking through it? Reminiscing?

I will never understand him.

Pitch returned about ten minutes later. In his fingers, a hand-written map to the amphitheatre with directions that Jack could actually understand, and a long, heavy brass key.

‘Hold it,’ Pitch said, even as he didn’t let the key go. Half of it was still visible, and Jack reached out and wrapped his fingers around it. His hand touched Pitch’s hand. The key felt weird, like it held a temperature of its own. He could feel it pulsing into his palm.

A minute passed, and Jack blinked when the key turned very warm in his grip, and then went cool again. It felt like nothing more than an ordinary key.

‘It won’t work after midnight,’ Pitch said. ‘It’s enchanted.’

‘Bunnymund’s magic?’ Jack said, taking the key and turning it in his hand.

‘Yes. Also, if you’re leaving my rooms, you should know two things – first, you must change into your public uniform. Second, go straight to the amphitheatre and come straight back. The Tsar has been away today on business, so I think you should be moderately safe.’

‘Moderately,’ Jack said, sighing. ‘He’s never hurt me.’

‘Don’t give him a chance to,’ Pitch said. Then, he placed a hand on Jack’s shoulder, fingers curving towards his back. The touch was unexpected, and Jack looked up, shocked.

Pitch said nothing, but his fingers curled as though he was stroking through the black training shirt. Jack stilled, because the material of the shirt wasn’t thick, and he had scars up on his shoulders. He was more aware of them now. Aware that Pitch would probably have to see them one day. In his fantasies, he didn’t exactly imagine himself wearing a shirt while getting intimate with someone.

‘How are you, after yesterday?’ Pitch said.

‘Fine,’ Jack said.

Pitch’s hand dropped, barely touching Jack’s spine, before grasping Jack’s ass through his pants. Jack grunted softly as fingers dug into bruises, jerking forwards, hips brushing against Pitch.

‘Sore?’ Pitch said, a half-smile on his face.

‘I mean- A little- You gave me that salve. I was just wondering, did you-? It doesn’t matter.’

‘Did I…what?’ Pitch said, his voice deeper than before. His hand moved up again, rested at Jack’s lower back. It was a strangely possessive touch.

‘No, honestly, I-’

‘Tell me.’

Jack looked down at the key, turning it in his fingers. How many of them did Pitch have? Why was there even a curfew on his rooms? Or did that only apply to Jack?

‘Tell me,’ Pitch said, voice firm, and Jack didn’t feel he could ignore it anymore.

‘I just wanted to know if you enjoyed yourself,’ Jack said, risking a glance up, feeling like a fool.

Pitch’s forehead creased briefly, his hand – that had been slowly moving at Jack’s lower back – stilled. Jack thought maybe he’d stepped in it somehow, he just should’ve kept his mouth shut. Or not answered Pitch’s ‘tell me,’ even though that had seemed impossible. But he should’ve just-

‘I did,’ Pitch said slowly. ‘Very much. I told you how much you pleased me.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, nodding. Now feeling like he was attention-seeking somehow, or searching for praise. He wasn’t that kind of person. He didn’t want Pitch to think he was that kind of person. Pitch had called it a pleasing diversion. ‘Yeah, you did. Of course. I said it didn’t matter.’

Pitch studied Jack, and then he looked away, almost like he was collecting his thoughts. When he turned back, Jack braced himself.

‘Did you enjoy it?’ Pitch said.

Jack blinked at him, and then he gestured at himself with his staff. ‘I mean, yeah, I- I mean yeah, you were there, right? You know I did.’

Pitch frowned at him, as though Jack had said something troubling. Jack wondered if they’d ever have a conversation that didn’t tie Jack up into knots. Even having Pitch this close to him, his hand on Jack’s back, it was hard to concentrate. Jack felt jittery, almost. He wanted Pitch’s arms around him again, holding him up. He wanted things that people weren’t supposed to want from the Royal Admiral.

‘Was it too much?’ Pitch said slowly.

‘No,’ Jack said, thinking that if Pitch thought he was weak now, they’d never- Jack would never see the inside of that room again. He wanted to. Just because he didn’t understand it all- He still knew what he wanted.

‘Hmm, all right then. Yes, I did enjoy myself. If you were concerned- You know you can ask me questions about that?’ Pitch said, as though Jack should have known that all along.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, feeling like an idiot. He could almost imagine Seraphina saying ‘stupid’ in that tone of voice that she saved for people she truly looked down on. Like the first time she’d met him, and realised he was an Overland.

Pitch’s frown hadn’t vanished. Jack felt like apologising, and thought – oddly – of the Tsar telling him that apologies weren’t helpful, were actually useless. It just made him want to apologise more.

‘It’s silly,’ Jack added, looking down at the key.

‘It’s not,’ Pitch said soberly. ‘I assure you it’s not.’

Jack didn’t feel all that assured. Truthfully, standing here now, he was pretty sure that what he really wanted anyway, was probably the kind of thing that Pitch didn’t give out to anyone. What was it that Seraphina had said? He’d locked his heart away in a tower.

Which was why Jack really needed to speak to Anton.

‘Well, um, thanks for the map. And the key. I’ll go get changed and…be back by midnight.’

‘See that you are,’ Pitch said, stepping away, leaving Jack feel cold and adrift again, as he had the day before.

Jack offered Pitch a game smile, and walked back to his room. He really hoped Anton was at the amphitheatre, like Pitch had said. 

*

The amphitheatre was huge, and clearly designed for public viewings of combat. Jack looked at the gold capping on the seats, the gold detailing in frescoes upon the walls up above the seating, at the entry points. Down in the amphitheatre, Anton and a few other Golden Warriors were moving through drills together. It became apparent after a few minutes that Anton was the one leading them. He seemed comfortable in the role, too. Jack wondered what his rank was.

He was advertised as just a very powerful Golden Warrior; one of the best. But now, Jack wondered if he was an Admiral or a Captain. Surely he was too young? Maybe he just took control like this because he hung out with Eva all the time, and saw Pitch sometimes.

Jack sat in the stands. When Anton saw him, they waved at each other, but Anton kept working. It was about nine in the evening when Anton finished up with the others, wiping sweat from his hair – a flashy yellow to red ombre that, combined with his golden eyes, made him look larger than life. He took the steps up to Jack slowly, rubbing sawdust off his forearms where it had stuck to sweat.

‘Good evening, Jack!’ Anton said, sitting next to him. ‘So good to see you. Should I shower first? I must smell regrettable.’

‘Like I’ve never trained before,’ Jack said, laughing.

‘Is everything all right?’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said, ‘of course. I just wanted to talk to you about some things. Should we- Do we do that here? Or do we do that somewhere else?’

Anton looked searchingly around the amphitheatre, and then clapped Jack on the back, before offering a hand to help him up. Jack stood without the help, and followed Anton towards the bathing rooms.

‘You can come in if you like,’ Anton said, winking, ‘but it might muss your pretty uniform. Wait for me. I won’t be long.’

Jack sat on a bench nearby, icing it idly. On an impulse, he called the winds to him and lifted himself about an inch from the bench, just hovering there. After a few moments where he realised it was pretty easy, he laughed to himself. That would help so much with any bruising he had. And he could hover just high enough that no one else would notice.

The winds dropped him gently back down when he willed it, and he spun the staff in his hand, looking around. The amphitheatre had paintings at the very top. Jack had glimpsed some – wrestling, people fighting other people, sword combat, the kind of things that hardly happened now. It was more likely to be Light shows or something similar. Gladiatorial events were considered almost barbaric now, amphitheatres most commonly repurposed for training.

Anton reappeared twenty minutes later, dressed, running a hand through his hair and then tousling it deliberately. He smiled warmly, and then gestured with his head for Jack to follow him.

Jack made a point of memorising where they were going. The Palace was a labyrinth. Nothing about it seemed to be organised logically.

A non-descript door down another non-descript corridor, but when Anton opened it, Jack was surprised to see a small lounge, weapons hanging on the wall, and two posters that Jack would have been envious to get his hands on before his initiation. One was of Pitch in one of the earliest iterations of the Golden Warrior uniform; that spectacular black feather crest at his neck, the golden pattern all over the black robes, and his eyes outlined in the black liner they used to wear. The other, a line of Warriors, another vintage poster. Alongside Pitch, Jack recognised Bunnymund and North.

‘You live here?’

‘I prefer the Golden Warrior Barracks,’ Anton said, ‘but yes, it’s more private than the amphitheatre. You can speak in whispers on those seats if you like, but sound carries along the curves.’

‘There was no one else there. I mean except who you were training with.’

Anton took a carafe of water from a small fridge, two glasses, and poured them both a drink each. He shrugged off his coat and draped it over the back of a chair, left in his black training shirt. Then he stretched, hugely, and yawned. When he sat in the chair, he leaned back in it as he did in Pitch’s dining room. But in his room, the back of Anton’s chair met the wall neatly, like he did it all the time and had positioned the chair to best enjoy the position.

‘If you noticed spies, they wouldn’t be very good spies now, would they?’ Anton said. ‘You’re looking well. I do like that uniform. The blue and white suits you.’

Jack thought of Flitmouse, locked away in an Asylum somewhere, and just nodded. Anton looked sidelong at Jack, and waited, and Jack had been expecting questions to prompt him. But Anton would have no idea what to ask, and Jack knew very much what he wanted to say.

‘I need you to tell me about Fyodor,’ Jack said. ‘Everything you know.’

‘Oh,’ Anton said. He blinked, and then rocked back down onto all four legs of the chair with a bump, turning to face Jack squarely. He took a sip of the water and then stared at it. ‘Should you not ask Pitch?’

‘You think he’s ever going to tell me?’ Jack said.

‘It’s not my story to t-’

‘Look, with all due respect, if you knew him, then it’s your story too.’

‘Touché,’ Anton said, almost looking proud. ‘Ah, Jack, there are things I wish you didn’t have to know. And Fyodor…’

‘He gave me Fyodor’s room,’ Jack said. ‘And if we’re going to- If we’re going to do stuff together, I just think I should know more about… And-’

‘Oh? Stuff is happening?’ Anton said, looking immediately delighted.

‘Anton,’ Jack said, annoyed. ‘Like, concentrate.’

‘By the Darkness itself, you even sound like him,’ Anton said, taking another sip of the water. ‘All right then. Fyodor…’

Anton traced a circle onto the table. A moment later he shifted his chair and tipped back again, looking up at the crown moulding.

‘He was young, new. But he came from a wealthy background. So we all sort of knew him, in a way. He grew up half in the Palace, half in the City of Lune proper. Always getting into mischief. With Fyo, it wasn’t necessarily about having fun, or a good time, he was just very bold. I have been called many things in my life, but you would look at him and see this fire in his eyes, and if he told you he was going to do something – conquer something, steal something, fight someone – he would do