Heart's Blood

By: Gail Dayton


1




GREY CARTERET WOKE in a foul mood.

One generally did when one woke lying face-down in a gutter reeking of things best left unmentioned, with no idea of how one arrived in said gutter. Particularly when one also woke feeling as if all the angels in heaven and the demons of hell had spent the entire previous night fighting across each of the 206 bones in one’s body. Even more particularly when such rude awakenings had been occurring with increasing frequency.

He groaned, which made the pain in his head crescendo with unfortunate familiarity, and he rolled over, which was worse. Every one of his battlefield of bones shattered.

Or they felt like it. Grey supposed they must still remain fastened together, since he could, after a fashion—the fashion of an ancient crone—move. He brought a hand to his face and wiped away the worst of the stinking muck, so that he dared open his eyes.

Nothing seemed to offer imminent catastrophe, given what his blurred vision could tell him. Little, save that he was in a dark, narrow, and more important, empty alleyway. So he shut them again.

He thought he ought to pause for a moment and count his blessings, since he apparently wasn’t in danger of dying in the next few moments. Not that he could stop it—death—in his current condition. Which led him back around to blessings and the counting thereof.

One, he was alive. Two, he was still reasonably well clothed, as it seemed he had retained his frock coat, which was a true blessing in the damp chill of a London October. Three, his bones were not actually—he didn’t think—broken, though his head felt decidedly shattered. The odd thing was, he didn’t remember drinking. Not last night.

Grey had decided, after too many recent mornings waking up like this, that he wouldn’t have any alcohol to drink. Not even a single “off to bed” brandy. He wouldn’t go out. He wouldn’t toddle around to any of his clubs. He would stay at home and work in his workroom. Had he changed his mind?

He would reason all that through later. The time had arrived to assemble himself and get the hell out of wherever he’d landed this time.

He crawled up the rather slimy brick wall beside him to a more-or-less sitting position, cracking an eye open again. He hoped the state of his vision was due to the lack of light in the alley, and not the state of his eyes. “I’ve lost another damned hat,” he muttered.

“No, you ain’t.”

Grey winced at the piercing voice right next to his aching ears, and turned to see his hat hovering a scant few inches beyond the end of his nose. Good thing he hadn’t opened both eyes. They’d have crossed.

He took the hat and settled it gingerly on his head. It hurt even his hair, but perhaps it would keep all the pieces of his head contained in a single whole.

“I got your stick, too,” the same agonizing voice shrieked. “I watched ’em for ya, wouldn’t let no one pinch ’em, nor your coat neither. An’ I wouldn’t let ’em cosh ya nor shiv ya. I been watchin’ out for ya, guvnor.”

Grey cracked open his other eye to acquire an accurate view of his walking stick. It took a moment for the two images to swim their way together and become one, so that he could know which stick to reach for.

The stick was attached to a surprisingly clean hand that sprouted from a wrist positively black with dirt. Grey squinted, trying to see the person beyond the hand and wrist. There was a checked cloth cap with a blurred face beneath. “Who the bloody hell are you? And where did you come from? You weren’t there before. I looked.”

The silver-headed stick vanished, pulled back beyond Grey’s admittedly meager reach. “Wot kind o’ gratitude is that? After all I done for ya?”

The lad had a point. Grey assumed the creature was a lad, given the high-pitched voice and the trousers.

“Sorry,” he said, since a gentleman never failed to offer apology when one was due—though everyone agreed Grey wasn’t much of a gentleman. “Foul mood. Bad head. Makes one a trifle cranky and forgetful of good manners.” He took a deep breath so he could go on. “Thank you very much for watching over my person and my belongings.”

“Weren’t nuffink.”

“Now, give me my bloody stick and tell me who in blazes you are!” Grey couldn’t roar as he’d have liked to, given his head and the rest of his aching bones, but he did his best. It wasn’t as if he really wanted to know the boy’s name, except it seemed as if he ought to know who had done him such a favor.

“Cor, you ain’t got ’alf a temper.” The boy eased a fraction closer and held the stick out, tip first, as if afraid to get any closer. Smart lad. Even if Grey wasn’t quite up to snuff at the moment.

“Foul mood. Remember?” He used the stick to haul himself to his feet. “Your name, young sir.”

“Parkin.”

“Ah. Parkin. Yes, thank you.” Grey’s eyes were beginning to focus more effectively. The lad was tall for eleven, or maybe twelve. He had delicate features beneath the grime coating his face. Poor lad.

Grey had suffered the same affliction at the same age, though he’d finally grown out of it. Mostly. These days, women called him beautiful.

Men gave him a wide berth. Partly because he’d long ago taught himself to fight viciously with any weapon at hand, and to hell with so-called “rules of honor.” Primarily, though, they left him alone because as magister of the conjurer’s guild, he was the most powerful conjurer in all of England.

Who couldn’t keep from waking in odd places with no memory of how he arrived there. At least this time he’d acquired a protector.

Grey searched his pockets, but they were empty of coin, as well as wallet or watch. He sighed. “I suppose it was too much to expect that you might have guarded my pockets as well as my person.”

“If your pockets’re empty, they was emptied ’fore I found ya.”

“Ah.” Grey frowned. Parkin did deserve a reward for his faithful service. More than just a coin or two, if the lad was willing. “Whereas after I arrived and fell, literally, under your care, I lost nothing. Perhaps I should hire you to escort me back to my home.”

“P’raps you should.” Parkin swaggered a little. “But it ain’t coin I want. Wot I want is for you to make me your apprentice so I can learn magic.”

“I don’t take apprentices.” The instinctive response was out before Grey recalled that just this past summer in Paris, he had considered breaking his longstanding rule against apprentices. But that had been in special circumstances.

He turned to start hobbling down the dark, narrow alley, unable to stride away as he wished, due to his crumbled-up bones. “Go to the council hall. Take the test. If you pass it, they’ll admit you to the school.”

The boy followed, offered support on the side opposite Grey’s cane. “No, they won’t,” Parkin said. “Even though I have enough magic to have kept you hidden and safe half the night, they won’t let me in.”

Grey gave the lad a sharp look. What had happened to his speech? “Of course they will. You’ll be admitted straightaway. That’s quite a good talent.”

“I’ve been hiding myself for years now. It was simple to hide you as well. And they won’t admit me because—” Parkin tugged Grey to a halt—an easy task—and looked around. A broad-backed laborer stomped past the end of the alley. Otherwise the street was empty.

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