2.26: Goodbye, Mathas Bernard

Henry’s stunt on the front page of the first Tortus Bay Examiner proved successful, if measured solely in response rate. If measured by any other metric, it was somewhat less sterling. The people of the village called incessantly—to reminisce about Mathas Bernard, talk about editorials they would like to see in future issues of the paper, and vaguely describe pieces of jewelry that they had once owned and which, according to them, could have been the original property of Emmaline Cass.

Reports of real sightings went up as well, but so clogged was their sole telephone line that those messages were generally relayed to Henry long after the man had left the scene. He was left to play a cold game of cat and mouse, wherein he spent the majority of his time trying to calm over-anxious people while he himself couldn’t find a way to relax. 

He tried to tell himself that it was going to be okay. Nobody knew how magic worked in the village, least of all him. Maybe there are no rules. What happened last month won’t necessarily happen again.

“There is every indication that it will,” Teresa said, late one evening. Her daughters had just come back from a trip out to the store, and she was in the process of preparing dinner. “If Emmaline—or whoever is acting on her behalf—is still exerting power over Tortus Bay, it is unlikely to have subsided over the course of thirty days. And its priorities are equally unlikely to have changed.”

“How can you know that?”

“There are no rules, Henry. You couldn’t be more correct about that. This isn’t science, and there’s no way to predict exactly what will happen. But there are patterns. There are eddies and currents in the flow of magic—can’t you feel it?”

“Yes,” he said. “Even if I didn’t have a calendar I would still know the festival is tomorrow. I haven’t been able to sleep in… a while.”

“You’ll get used to it. Eventually. I would be happy to show you some breathing exercises that I have found to be helpful.” Henry held his head in his hands. Teresa snapped an unholy portion of spaghetti in her hands, dumped it in a pot of well-salted water, and called out to her daughters: “nine minutes!”

“What about Mathas?” he asked. 

She leaned against the counter, and frowned. “I haven’t been able to find anything more about that. There’s nothing in any of the books I’ve ever read that indicates that anyone has come back like that before. But after what you told me about Clair’s tattoo…”

“Yes?”

“I don’t know. I never had the inclination before that the Gauthes knew the first thing about magic, but if there’s something more there—well, then getting a look at it might help.”

Footsteps came raining down the stairs. “What would I need to get some alone time in the Gauthe estate?”

“I’m afraid you’re getting the wrong impression,” Teresa said. “These things come and go. This is not The End Of All Things, Henry. What you need before tomorrow is sleep. Are you staying for dinner?”

“No, thank you.” He stood as the Bramble daughters filed into the kitchen. “Enjoy your night. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

She waved a wooden spoon at his retreating back. “Bright and early! If there’s going to be trouble, you might as well head into it with a mended shoulder.”

***

The problem was that he could not sleep. He wandered through the streets of the village, hoping eventually exhaustion would creep from his legs into his brain, but it did not work. With every step an electricity coursed through him—an excitement that he could never remember experiencing before. It was like the manic anxiety before a disaster, or else it was his body finally reacting to the budding magic of Tortus Bay.

He called Kara, and talked to her as he walked, but he couldn’t focus on what she was saying. Besides, she had a lot of preparations left to make. “Will you need my help?” he asked. Memories of her, drained, barely able to stand, resurfaced in his head.

“I’m better off alone. Trust me, I’ve tried it before. Nobody needs to sit around and watch me sweat it out.”

“You’re going to be able to sleep?”

It took her a long moment to respond. “It gets easier. You need to try to rest.”

There was one person who would not tell him to try to sleep. He called Niles next, and they talked about nothing. Favorite foods, childhood fables, and the weather. Henry couldn’t exactly focus on the words, but it did not matter. Niles kept up a stream of dialogue mostly by himself. But eventually the night grew late, and they ran out of inconsequential things to say. “Thank you for calling. I was worried about you.”

“It was nice to hear your voice.”

Alone, Henry found himself circling the park. A yellow ribbon of police tape still circled the area, blocking the unearthed grave from casual access. He looped around the perimeter—once, twice, three times—willing himself to finally feel tired. Then he heard it.

Of course that was when he heard it. What else would Mathas Bernard be doing, but the exact same thing as he? Henry jogged down the street, rounded the corner, and through the dim light spotted the unmistakable figure of the recently deceased man removing the lid of a garbage can and sticking his head into the trash therein. Even from that distance, the man looked worse for wear. Most of his burial suit had been torn away, revealing patches of ashen skin and caked mud. 

“Found you,” Henry said, loudly. Mathas looked up slowly. His right eye remained closed, the lid occasionally twitching. “Anything good in there? You like food, don’t you? You like your old house. Maybe you even like your wife.” The man turned, and began hobbling off. “I think I might know what you like more than any of that.”

Mathas stopped, as though struck, at the faint tickling of metal on metal. Henry stood in the halo of a streetlight, holding aloft the charm of power. “Do you recognize that?” he asked. Mathas loped forward, then started shuffling toward him with surprising speed. “I thought you might! You were really getting into this magic stuff, weren’t you? And with your connections, I bet you had access to all kinds of secrets. Did the Brihtes know as much as the Gauthes?”

Mathas broke into a run, and the race was on. Henry burst through the police tape encircling the park, pursuer hot on his heels, and dodged around trees as he tried his best to keep his footing. Sprinting over uneven ground in the dark was challenging enough, without being chased by a dead man. A dead man who, as it turned out, was much lighter on his feet. Henry skidded into the center of the park just as Mathas reached out to grab the back of his shirt—but then he jumped, and Mathas didn’t.

Gasping for breath, he slid down the side of the gnarled old oak. The tallest tree in the park. Mathas had fallen into the deep hole at its base. He scratched at the dirt and groaned. “Wasn’t exactly dug for you,” Henry called down, “but it should keep you until I get the sheriff to take a look herself.” Mathas scrabbled helplessly against the hard-packed earth of his new confines, raining additional dirt down onto his thin body. “Which I should probably do before anything freaky starts happening around here.”

“Well done,” a voice said.

Henry thought his heart stopped. Exultation twisted into dread in his gut. Then, belatedly, he recognized the voice. Two people stepped out of the trees toward him. One was tall, and the other was very short. “What are you -”

Sofia Bramble, the elder of Teresa’s daughters, smiled grimly at him. She held a baseball bat loose in her right hand, dragging through the dirt. “You know, he runs from us no matter the bait we offer. But not from you. He never knew you, when he was alive. It was a good thing you stopped by the house today—you’re easy to follow when you’re distracted.”

The younger daughter, Lola, had no smile to offer. She stared at the grave between them, red anger burning away in her eyes.

“How long have you been hunting him?”

“Only a little longer than you have,” Sofia said. “He moves pretty fast, doesn’t he? When he wants to.”

“Mathas died two months ago, on the night of a festival. You two were with him, weren’t you?”

“How long have you known?”

“Not long now.”

“And you didn’t tell our mother.”

“No,” Henry said, softly, “but you have to.”

Sofia’s eyes hardened. “Do you have any idea what it means to teach someone to use magic? The trust? The vulnerability? It is a constant back and forth of control.”

“Don’t!” Lola said.

“He already knows!” she snapped, and then continued. “Do you have any idea what happens, when a man like Mathas gets the upper hand? When he’s drunk on the feeling of power, and thinks he’s immortal?”

Henry nodded. “I think I do.”

“Then leave us alone.”

He looked at the girls over the grave for a long moment, and then turned to leave. They waited until he was back out on the street, before getting to work.

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