3.07: Extreme Measures

“Why are you still looking through those?” Niles asked. It was late in the evening, and the last of the light was burning out of the sky. “We already have enough for Teresa to go on.”

Henry sat huddled on the couch, flipping gingerly through the yellowed pages of the bestiary. None of the books were titled, at least in any meaningful way; the ones which bore text on their cover often contained nothing to do with those words. But there was interesting information nevertheless. He could not tell how much of it was real. A little part of his brain argued that at this point he’d seen enough that he ought simply to assume all of it were true. Yet some things were too fantastical for even him to accept. “There’s a lot more to know.”

“I’m worried that you might be psyching yourself out.”

“No,” Henry said, closing the book and rubbing his eyes, “I’ve been trying to put something off. I’m going to visit the mayor.”

Niles’ eyes flicked toward the darkened window. “Tonight?”

“I need to see him before the next festival. If he’s planning something, I’ve been too distracted to notice it so far.”

“And you imagine that he’ll spell it out for you?

“I think he’ll talk around me for a couple hours, offer me some weak tea, and I’ll leave knowing a little more than I went in with.” 

Niles pursed his lips. “This doesn’t have to be your fight.”

“It does. I might not be sure about everything yet, but that much seems clear to me.”

“Well, it’s dangerous, then.”

“I’m going to the man’s house. You know where I’ll be.” He stood. “If I’m not back by midnight, come looking for me. And bring some whiskey.”

***

The Gauthe estate lay at the tail end of Glosspool Lane, which whipped around itself in a well-manicured cul-de-sac. No gates, watchhouses, or alarms impeded his way, despite the opulence of the looming mansion and the exaggerated time of night; there were only lines of emerald hedgerows, arranged almost to be a maze.

The knocker was a gaudy golden teardrop, which Henry didn’t have occasion to employ. No sooner had he set foot on the bottom step than the door swung open, spilling golden light onto the broad lawn. “Henry,” the mayor said, beckoning him inside, “I’m so glad you came by. Can I interest you in something to drink? Darjeeling? Green? Honeysuckle?”

“No, thank you.” Upkeep was the only differentiator between the gross displays of wealth in the Brihte and Gauthe estates. Where in the former there hung an air of disuse, in the latter Henry walked through an impeccably dusted and lovingly polished showcase. Noel led him through several crowded drawing rooms. “Do you live here alone?”

“My wife and children are here, as well. I have three of them. The real trick to parenthood, you know, is in securing a home large enough that if you stand at one end, you will be incapable of hearing a child’s wails from the other. But this is the reception wing, and it is quite late, you know.” They landed eventually in a narrow study, where the mayor insisted that Henry sit in a plush office chair behind the desk. He himself took the leather armchair in the corner. “I was overjoyed, of course, to hear what you did for Clint. The entire village owes you a debt of gratitude. Perhaps even more than gratitude. But how is that shoulder holding up?”

The desk was littered with old envelopes and pens. A few books sat on the ground by his feet. “It looks worse than it is. Teresa says I’ll be doing handstands again in a matter of weeks.”

“That is excellent news. I heard through the grapevine that you wished to speak with me. I was overjoyed at this, as I also wish to speak with you. It was my impression that you might be hesitant to meet. Yet here you are. So tell me: what can I do for you, Mr. Cauville?”

“It isn’t long now until the next festival. I only wondered what your intentions were.”

The mayor’s eyes widened, and then he laughed. Booming, echoing laughter that seemed inappropriate for his slender frame filled the room, and he held his stomach as though trying to keep it in place. He wiped the corners of his eyes. “A farewell to gamesmanship. I am honored, honestly, that you feel we know each other well enough that we can dispense with the lies.”

Henry gave a one-shoulder shrug. “I haven’t heard a word about you, in the last month. Or seen anything of you.”

“I’ve been studying, as I think you have as well.” He pressed himself deep into the chair. “What plans I had were complicated—as you must know, since you were that complication.”

“That’s something I still can’t figure out. What were you trying to do?”

The mayor considered him, then stood and excused himself from the room. When he returned he bore a tray with two steaming mugs, and an assortment of sugar cookies. “Scrounged it up from the kitchen. Most of the help has retired for the night.” 

Henry took what was offered to him, and arrayed his selection on the desk before him. The liquid in the mug was a pale yellow; the cookies were slightly hard, as if they had been sitting out most of the day. Noel took the rest with him, and set them on the bookshelf beside his seat. “Doubtless you understand more than I might be compelled to give you credit for,” he said, swirling his mug in his hand before taking a timid sip. “But you cannot know enough to be a player in this game. You must be aware of that. This must be why you have come here like this, and layed all of your cards on the table, as it were. It happens that you have caught me in the opposite position. I know much, and find myself with few routes to action. At this curious intersection I have little more than my friendship to offer. Is your friendship also up for offer?”

“Depends what I hear.”

Noel smiled. “I think perhaps you and I may speak frankly. I hope you appreciate the magnitude of that statement. Speaking frankly is one of my least favorite things to do. But tell me first: how much of this puzzle have you figured your way through?”

“Emmaline wants something from me. I don’t know what it is, but she called me here to provide it. Now I’m living on borrowed time, and I’m nowhere closer to finding it than I was my first night in Tortus Bay.”

“You think I might know what she’s after?”

“If you don’t, nobody does.”

The mayor sipped his tea contemplatively, and nibbled on one of his cookes. “You really should eat. You look thin.” Henry took a cautious bite. It was delicious. Whoever the Gauthes employed, they were good enough to give Niles a run for his money. “As with everything else, it is a matter of power. Emmaline once sacrificed herself, and in so doing provided protection for the entirety of the village. You’ve heard this story, I trust?”

 “I have.”

“That much of it seems unassailably true, though I can’t imagine how she managed the feat. But let me ask you this: if you have the absolute protection of a thing, what else must you hold over it?”

“Control.”

The mayor raised his mug in cheers. “A woman dead for hundreds of years still fiddles with the lives of her descendents. I will tell you that I do not know her plan. Whatever craft she may or may not have had in her day, it is long since vanished to us. In truth I suspect that even the most powerful of us now only follow in her footsteps.”

“So you’re the hero, freeing us from tyranny.”

“Tortus Bay is unique. Maybe the most singular place in all of the world. You lived on the outside, so you know this even better than I. That must be preserved. But it is the living who should direct the living, not the dead.”

“Then you would be our new tyrant.”

Noel waved his hand. “Emmaline has put forward an incredible effort lately. Calling a newcomer from halfway across the country, and lifting her old bones out of the earth. They are moves which reek of desperation. I feel that she is weak, or else weakening, and now is the time to move.”

“You’re the one who dug her up in the first place, aren’t you? So you broke through her sigils, and never thought to speak with her? Or was she not impressed with your ideas?”

The mayor stopped mid-sip, as though stricken by a bolt of lightning, and lifted his gaze up and over the desk. “Well, that is why we speak with those we may easily assume are the irrelevant players in our lives,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “That is often how we learn the most.”

“I wish I could say the same.”

“I do apologize if I haven’t been helpful. But we each hold a piece of this puzzle, as I said. I have the strength to take the mantle. You have Emmaline’s ear. I never imagined, but can’t you see how easy that makes it?”

Henry set his mug aside. “Whatever Emmaline wants, I think it’s important that we hear it out.”

“We could make that discovery together.”

“After everything I’ve heard,” he said, “I’m not convinced that you’re the right person to lead.” 

Noel mimicked him, setting his mug on the hardwood floor with a muted clink. “Our magic has been unstable, this past month. Waxing and waning without any attention to the moon. I mentioned that I’ve been studying, and I’m happy to report that it has been fruitful. What once I could only manage on a festival day, now I can bring upon myself at will.” He smiled, and the crinkles on his cheeks grew dark. Fine silver hairs sprouted from them. His nose widened, and began to grow.

Even after everything Henry read—even after seeing it in front of him—he still didn’t fully believe. But belief was always less valuable than muscle memory, in times of crisis. He leapt across the desk, scattering the remains of his uneaten cookies to the floor. He fell upon the mayor before the man had a chance to react, drawing from his back pocket an antique he’d rummaged from Niles’ garage. Henry clamped the silver spoon against Noel’s thrashing arm, and it seared. Smoke billowed from the skin, and Noel screamed. “Stop! Stop! Where did you get that from? How did you know?”

He threw the writhing man onto the floor. “The Brihtes and the Gauthes have been keeping each other in check for decades, haven’t they?” He held the mayor down, and tried to tear open his shirt, but his flailing grew desperate. “Settle down!”

But Noel was no longer in control of his own body. Thick puffs of grey fur grew from his forearms. The nails of his fingers became thick, and sharp. “Your shoulder!” he said, his voice breaking over and over again. “I know how to fix it. If you let me be, I can fix it!”

Henry finally tore the man’s shirt open, and pressed the silver against his left breast. He stilled.

“You win,” Noel panted.

“Not yet.” Henry leaned in, and the lip of the spoon broke flesh. Horrible wailing once more filled the study, drifting off to die unheard in empty chambers. Henry twisted his instrument this way and that, trying to concentrate. He hadn’t anticipated the smoke. When he stepped away, he looked down and judged his work to be fairly accurate. The sigil Teresa drew for him had straighter lines, but that had been done on a piece of smooth paper—not a quivering, crying lump of flesh.

“What did you do to me?” Noel asked, patting his chest to staunch the blood. “What did you do?”

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