When Mr. Harris offers his condolences they seem to carry a great weight, as if the grief he’s suffered has given him some greater understanding of death. His tone carries a perfect balance of concern and futility. My heart aches to tell him about Caelen, but I know it’s not my place.
We spend most of the day preparing an extravagant feast of roast pork in cider, potatoes, squash, corn, and homemade bread. It keeps my mind off of the flurry of emotions surrounding my father’s death. I feel safe here, in this dimly lit apartment strewn with leaves, pine cones, and cobs of corn.
Mr. Harris gives Mariposa a tiny plate of food, which she laps quietly, hardly lifting her head from her permanent position on the floor. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen her awake. When he sets the table, he places an extra plate at the end.
“Who’s that for?” I ask as I bring over a bowl of steaming potatoes, having to stop and reorganize the many dishes and utensils to make room.
“The Earth,” he says reverently, “When we’re finished we can take it out and bury it, returning a portion of our harvest to the ground. Or something like that.”
As I sit down at my place across from him, he fills a large glass goblet with a deep red liquid and puts it in front of me. “Libations,” he says, grinning.
“Well then, I’ll not refuse,” I say, taking a sip of the wine, squinting a little at its strength.
He pours himself a hearty glass as well, filling it religiously throughout the meal and after. His words are slurring by the time we help ourselves to generous slices of pumpkin pie.
“Thank you,” he says suddenly. His solemn tone is jarring in comparison to the good humour that has permeated the evening so far.
I laugh at the drunken tilt of his head and the blush in his cheeks and nose; I’m beginning to feel slightly dizzy myself. “For what?”
“For coming here. For listening to a pompous old man moan about a world that will never be,” I wave to say that it’s nothing, but he shakes his head and continues, “I haven’t celebrated anything like this since I was a bloody farmer. I mean it. Thank you, Selene.”
“Well thank you for trying to fatten me up,” I joke, “and for teaching me stuff. Cooking. Whining.” I wink and he lets out a hearty laugh.
“Hey, you’ve done a fair share of whining yourself. Like a wee lost lamb when you came here. So full of questions. How are you finding our world now, eh?” He takes another drink of his wine and I wonder if I’m going to have to cut him off.
I shrug, trying to gather my thoughts into something coherent. “I don’t know. Dangerous. Full of interesting people. The magic is underwhelming though. I keep expecting something more…”
“Flashy?” he asks, “I knew a Craft Mage once who made fireworks. Oh my but that was a sight.” He’s staring off into the distance now, reliving a moment lost to time.
“Why do you hide here?” I ask, alcohol providing the final impetus to a question long teetering on the edge of my thoughts.
His focus snaps back into the present; his gaze is clear and steady as he looks at me. “I got sick of losing everything. Figured living like this was easier.”
“Your cousin?” I say, but I already know better.
He shakes his head and fills his glass before taking another drink.
“Who is the man on the farm?” I want to drop my head, to shirk away from my own boldness, but I force myself to meet his eyes.
“I thought you might ask tonight. It’s not really a secret anyway, just a long story about a stupid man who tried to change his future,” he stops to take a long, preparatory breath, “I told you I’m the last living member of Hecate House?”
I nod, though I know this isn’t entirely true.
“The family died out slowly over the years – disease, a few tragedies, infertility. Caelen’s parents struggled to conceive and everyone was sure their childbearing days were over. I had a sister who died as a child and left me the only heir capable of continuing the line. They were constantly putting pressure on me. Even as a teenager they would try to force a marriage between me and someone they thought was suitable. Eventually I said I didn’t want anything to do with their bloody family and I ran away.”
“Is that how you ended up on the farm?” I ask, trying to imagine him as a wilful and rebellious young man. It’s not as hard as one might think.
He nods, “More or less. I ended up attending college. Mathematics. Physics. Computer science was up and coming and I found technology intriguing. It gave me new ways of thinking of my powers, and sort of filled up that steadily growing hole that came from not using them.’
‘I got a job as a farmhand to help me save money during the summers. I was particularly handy with machinery. My employers had a son, the same age as me. James was his name. We got along famously. His parents approved of our friendship, thought I was a good influence on him as a hardworking boy putting myself through school. If they had known the truth,” he shrugs and stares into his wine glass.
“You were in love,” I state as he downs the remainder of his wine.
He snorts cynically, shaking his head, “I thought I had found paradise, but then those fucking arseholes had to track me down.”
“Your family?” I’m eager to hear him tell the rest of the story, but also strangely terrified of what happens next.
“No. First, I ran into someone from D’Arc House. Part of the family had a farm nearby. They had heard about me running away and they quickly found out that I was attending school, which made them uncomfortable. Like learning anything but magic was some kind of heresy,” he starts filling his glass once more. I gently reach across the table and touch his hand. He startles, then looks down at my hand drunkenly. He grumbles something but sets the bottle down before continuing, “Anyway, guess they started keeping an eye on me. Whatever they saw upset them and made them suspicious, so they decided to look deeper.’
‘They waited until I was out late one night with some friends from school, then they grabbed James and took him into the barn. They had a bloody skin mage. When I found him in the wee hours he was a mess. Covered in blood and bruises, sobbing and begging for me to forgive him.”
His face is overcome with anger and grief, his lip trembling. I lean against the table, the edge jutting into my ribs. My arms are wrapped around each other, and I occasionally rub my forearms, remembering the bruises from Mirena’s tight grip. Remembering what it was like to relive my worst moments over and over again while she manipulated me with her words.
He sniffs then continues. His voice no longer shakes with anger, but is tinged with resignation, “Apparently what we had done was against their beliefs. They said I needed to remember myself, that I had been tempted away from the good life I had been given. So the fucking zealots led my parents to me and I went home. I hated it, but what choice did I have? They had James.’
‘The day I left the farm, they erased the family’s memory of me. I went to see James anyway, to say goodbye. When I walked up to him he greeted me like a stranger, like we hadn’t spent the better part of two summers in each other’s arms. I stood there, not knowing what to say, and he started looking at me funny, like maybe I wasn’t right in the head. I pointed to the dogs running through the fields. I knew they still had a few pups from a few months back, knew he had told his parents he was keeping them, but I offered to buy one anyway. I thought he would turn me away, God knows he’d turned away enough people already. But he didn’t, he just nodded and walked into the field. He came back with Mari and told me to take good care of her.”
His voice breaks and he turns his head away. I reach out across the table again, this time to take his hand. His skin is rough under mine and he grips my small hand tightly in his large one.
“When my parents found out where I had been the entire time they were furious. Wasn’t no way I was going to produce an heir that way. They tried again to introduce me to women they thought might appeal to me. At one point they even tried to bargain with me, telling me I could be with whoever I wanted once I’d produced an heir. I could go back to James if I wanted. But that time had passed.’
‘Once Caelen was born they started to leave me alone, though they would still try every now and again. When my mother died I left Scotland. Lots of mages were crossing the ocean then, following Merlin House. When Caelen died his parents slowly wasted away. My father was the last one to go. He watched the entire family slip away from him, saw the house diminish to his one and only son, destined to be childless. He died knowing his house died with him.”
“You use Mariposa’s memory of the farm to see James again,” I say, wondering how painful it must be to want for something so impossibly far away. “Couldn’t you find him again? There’s no one to stop you now.”
He loosens his grip on my hand a little, rubbing my fingers with his thumb. The gesture is almost grandfatherly – like patting a child’s head when they try to join a conversation they don’t really understand.
“Like I said, that time has passed. We’re old now. He doesn’t even remember me,” he realizes he is being patronizing and adds, “I thought about it for a while though. Back when I first came here and stayed with Solomon House.”
“Solomon House?” My tone betrays my surprise. I hadn’t expected this kind man to have any associations with that group of psychopaths.
“You’ve had some dealings with them I assume?”
“Dealings? A murderer named Johannes Trent tried to kill my best friend and her boyfriend. Not to mention me. And doesn’t that bitch Mirena have some ties to Solomon House?”
“So you were at that party they were talking about on the news? Ah yes, I never did ask how you managed to piss off… Mirena, was it?” I had forgotten that he had seemed to know the skin mage when she was a child, “Freyja and Solomon deal very closely. If you had something to do with Trent’s death it’s not surprising she would come after you. Even less so if the animal they mentioned was one of her pets.”
I want to cry, or to storm out of the room. How could this man I’ve sought comfort in have so many ties to the same people who were trying to hurt me? But Hunter came from Freyja and you trust him. Don’t you?
“But don’t they… don’t they both believe in taking advantage of normal people like me? Using their power for themselves? Why did you side with them?”
“Not everything in life is about taking sides and not every member of a family believes in its teachings. Solomon was willing to take me in and to accept who I was. Merlin House, for example, felt that the way I used my power would be too easily noticed by normal people, as you put it. They also felt that I had been selfish, acting against the wishes of my family.”
“Merlin House rejected you?” I wonder if keeping Mr. Harris a secret from Yagher was actually more sensible than I realized.
“Yes. And I understand your concern, and I hope you know me better than to think I agreed with Solomon on all points. I watched them train those children – Johannes and Mirena too. Freyja had no skin mages then and she had to train under a member of Solomon. I’m not saying it vindicates them, but what the Solomon mages taught those children… the fear they bred in their hearts… I’ll just say the outcome is not entirely surprising. Though I’m sure Victor is still trying to understand why his son would go so far.”
“Victor? What do you mean he wouldn’t understand?” My attention has been so focused on Mirena, on immediate dangers, that I hadn’t spared much thought to him. I remember his face looking down on me behind MacNall’s and shudder.
“Johannes’ father – head of Solomon. If anyone thinks Johannes acted on behalf of the family I’d have to say they’re very much mistaken. Victor may be greedy and paranoid, but there was little sense in such a devastating and conspicuous attack,” he shakes his head regretfully, “If I had to guess I’d say Johannes was desperate for some reason. Though I couldn’t say why.”
My head is spinning from more than just alcohol. I had been thinking of Johannes and Mirena as enemies, almost cartoon-like in their villainies, and here was Mr. Harris talking about them like kids he used to babysit. Like human beings, I realize.
“Did you…” Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but he’s shared enough with me tonight that I can offer this much, “Did you ever meet a Hunter Elliot? From Freyja? He’s a… a skin mage.”
“Hmm…” he thinks, and I realize that despite the story he told me, he doesn’t appear to react negatively when we talk about skin mages. “I remember a young child with red hair following Mirena around. If I remember correctly he was an orphan — his parents died shortly after his birth. Probably why they chose him; not many who would want their children to go down that path.”
I nod, remembering how Hunter had described his training.
“You know him?” His question is simple, but I’m not so certain of the answer.
“Yeah. He saved my life that night with Johannes. I think… I think you’d get along with him.”
“Oh?” His curiosity is piqued.
“You have a lot in common,” I explain.
“He’s incredibly intelligent and good looking?” I know he’s joking, but I hope he doesn’t catch my blush. I suppose I can always blame it on the wine.
“Interested in progress,” I smile at him and roll my eyes, “He’s trying to convince people to stand up to Merlin House. To try to open discussions about destroying the Limitation Stone.”
His eyebrows shoot up and he opens his mouth as if to say how impossible that is. He stops before saying a word and a mischievous smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. He gives me a sly squint and finally asks: “Does he use his powers to convince them?”
“I don’t think so,” I recall Hunter’s hands tucked away in his pockets, “From what I can tell he goes out of his way not to touch anyone. He just… talks.”
“Makes sense. He wouldn’t want anyone to question whether or not he was coercing them. Like laying down your weapons during negotiations. Yes, I think we would have a lot in common,” his face grows stern and there’s a long pause, “I think… I think I’d like to meet this man.”
“Really? I mean, you have had a few drinks…”
“Are you saying I’m too drunk to know my own mind? If I say I want to meet this man then I want to meet him!” He slams his fist down on the table making me jump, then he grins and winks at me, “Think you can make that happen?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”