Erik woke to the sound of cannon fire.
He had slept soundly, for once, but the bone-shaking explosion was more than enough to put him on his feet, every bit of metal in the room quivering and ready, his mind casting out for the shape of the cannon and ball.
There was none.
He stood in utter bewilderment for a moment, while another boom rattled the walls. Erik was no soldier, but he knew a cannon when he heard it. Shaw had had him learn the metallic workings of any weapon he could lay hands upon. His Gift was insistent; there was no cannon anywhere in the vicinity.
Was he dreaming still? The cold of the floor against his feet, the trickling warmth of sunlight through the window, the unfamiliar scratch of his night-shirt – surely they were no dream. How often, after all, did one wonder if one was dreaming, and then find it to actually be so?
The cannons were getting closer. Erik, still in bafflement and alarm, threw on his dressing gown, his mind bent on investigating.
And cried out in alarm as the next boom sent the wall of his bedroom exploding inward, shards of glass and wood and stone flying at his face. An instinctive thought had the iron bedframe upended and screaming across the floor to his defense, though it could not be fast enough—
But the moment passed, the bed arrived, and he was unharmed. None of the debris had touched him. None at all.
In fact, his wall was perfectly intact.
He dropped the bed slowly, cautiously. He could still hear cannons, but they were fading away into the distance.
Charles. Charles alone could be the source of this, and for a moment Erik felt his long-familiar rage fall over his shoulders like a cloak. Surely he had endured enough of Xavier’s manipulation and intrusions into his mind. It was true, the man seemed genuine in his efforts to help him – but after all, Erik would not need his help if Charles’s Abnormality were not so poorly leashed. Why was Erik in this man’s house at all? Without Charles—
The anger fled, utterly hollowed. Without Charles, Erik’s body would be washing up on the shores of Brighton about now.
Well, whether it made him a grateful friend or not, an investigation was direly in order. Erik opened his door.
And found Charles’s ward – sister – hurrying toward him down the corridor.
"Mr. Lehnsherr, do not be alarmed! I was just on my way to you, I do apologize, it took me some minutes to recall that you would not be accustomed to such things."
"What in blazes is going on?"
Miss Darkholme sighed and adjusted the shawl she wore over her morning gown. “It is Charles, I’m afraid. He has nightmares about the war, which I think perfectly natural, and they sometimes… spill over through his Gift.”
"Can you not wake him?"
"Oh, he is quite awake, that is the puzzle of it. He says the ‘echoes’ take some time to die down."
"How often you must replace entire crops of servants! I’m sure they regularly flee the house in terror.”
Miss Darkholme smiled, her eyes sparking. She was quite a beautiful girl. “Our servants are made of sterner stuff, Mr. Lehnsherr. Many of them have volatile Gifts of their own – Charles’s valet has set fire to the curtains twice – and so it behooves them to be understanding.” The very slightest arch to her eyebrow informed Erik that his patience was likewise expected. “In fact, my good sir, this morning’s incident has been a tame and placid creature. A bit of cannon fire is nothing at all. Pray do not be alarmed if it worsens; it does sometimes, just before it dies away. I hope I do not have to expect hysterics from you. My brother is already sick with guilt, I would not have you disturb him further.”
Erik was surprised, but not displeased, by the steel in the girl’s voice. No wilting flower, this one, and her affection for her adopted brother was laudable.
"No hysterics, I assure you, Miss Darkholme," he said. "Is there coffee to be had?"
"Then I bid you good morning." They exchanged bow and curtsy, and Erik went his way, running fingers through his hair and adjusting the dressing gown he had thrown on so precipitously until he felt better fit to be seen.
He heard no more cannon fire as he made his way to the kitchen. He did, however, rather start at the sight of footprints appearing in the corridor, footprints in blood that made a stumbling, laborious path, accompanied by faint sounds of pained gasping, and the occasional smeared handprint on the wall. A maid passed him with an absent curtsy, her attention locked on the invisible specter as she kept to the wall furthest from it.
Erik made the kitchen, found his coffee, and took the luxury of a splash of milk – and nearly dropped it when a dozen French soldiers charged bellowing through one wall and out the other, muskets glinting. One of the kitchen maids jumped and dropped a sack of flour, earning a knock with a wooden spoon from the cook. The man’s fat face had the look of laughter more than scolding, and in fact the maid herself was chuckling ruefully at herself as she began sweeping up the flour. Erik made his retreat, brushing white powder from his clothes, and went in search of Charles.
He found him in the dining room, which at this hour was empty and dark, the curtains drawn and the grate empty. He had not bothered to move himself from his wheelchair to a dining chair, and so sat a bit low at the table. This doubtless helped along – but was not the only cause of – his vulnerable appearance. Small, pale, and tired he looked, and it pricked at Erik to see him so. He looked up at Erik with a wan smile, and took a long swallow from his mug.
"Chocolate, Charles?" Erik said, eyeing the mug’s thick, frothy contents as he seated himself at Charles’s side. "Though I suppose I should be getting accustomed to your self-indulgence."
"I will have my morning chocolate," Charles said, his voice firm yet bleary, "despite the sneers of lesser men. Never fear, my friend, it is a man’s drink you see before you." With that, he pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the blankets across his lap, and tipped a very generous slosh of it into the chocolate. And sipped from the bottle before putting it away again.
"Fortification against the trials of the day?" Erik said dryly.
"Among other things," Charles muttered. His eyes grew more strained, suddenly, focusing on something across the room; Erik turned to see a bloody handprint forming on the wall, and heard labored breath. But Charles was speaking again already. "I owe you an abject apology, my friend. I’m sure someone has explained the… state I find myself in this morning. Usually the application of strong spirits before bed numbs it down, keeps my head…" he gestured inarticulately, "swampy enough that nothing can escape it. I put my glass aside earlier than usual last night in order to focus on our conversation. I should have had another tumbler or two afterward. I’m sorry.”
Erik stared. “Do you mean to tell me you must habitually drink yourself into a stupor to prevent these projections? I cannot believe that is good for your constitution.”
Charles only twitched a broken sort of smile, and took a long pull of his enhanced chocolate.
"Well, no more of that, if you please," Erik said, fighting the urge to throw the chocolate mug across the room. "All else in the house seem to have grown accustomed to this, I’m sure I can do the same." He almost wished for his earlier anger back, his determination that Charles was greatly at fault in this matter. It might have protected him from wanting so badly to alleviate the man’s misery.
"It is good of you to offer that." Charles’s voice was tight, whether with emotion at the overture, or from the sight of the bloody prints working a slow circuit of the room, Erik was not sure. Charles looked away from it, made the effort to draw himself more upright, and focus his eyes. "We must apply ourselves, my friend, to the problem of… well, you."
"I beg your pardon?"
"No, no, I only mean… I mean you came here in order to rest and regain your feet after your many trials. But have you any idea what you might do, when you are rested? Will you go home, do you think?"
"Home?" Erik blinked. "I can only suppose you mean to Magda’s family. No, I very much doubt they would welcome me. I left them abruptly, in the disarray of their grief, abandoning all tasks half-done – and already word was spreading of my Abnormality, which of course several of the servants witnessed during the fire. I believe some of Magda’s family were already conceiving my blame for the event, if for the wrong reasons. And besides…" He swirled the last swallow of coffee in his cup. "I do not think I can be Max Eisenhardt anymore. There was little to him besides Magda’s husband, Anya’s father. I would not know how to go about it now."
Charles regarded him some moments in silence, expression thoughtful. Erik drained his coffee down to its bitterest dregs.
"But do you know how to go about being Erik Lehnsherr?" Charles said at last.
"If Max was Magda’s, then Erik was Shaw’s. And that is done, now, too." Could not some Unnaturals allegedly read the future in coffee dregs? Or was it tea? He had not the gift either way.
"Then ownership defaults to yourself," Charles said. "Congratulations. And you will stay with me while we figure out what that means to you." He touched a reassuring hand to Erik’s wrist, then tipped back the remainder of his chocolate.
"Is any man truly this generous?" Erik could not help asking, vividly aware of the hand on his wrist. "What am I to you? Even an honest man does not throw his money away where there is no benefit to himself."
"Throw my money away? And what have you cost me, Erik? You take up one bedroom among dozens; you eat a third share when Oliver cooks enough for twenty. Thus far you are cheaper to keep than the three-legged cat."
The what? “I have cost you your life, very nearly.”
"And if a baker very nearly charged me for a rye-loaf I should call myself a thief." He set down the mug and turned the full force of his gaze on Erik, and if he had looked sickly before there was no trace of it now. Everything about him seemed strong and certain and clean. "Erik, I know you have had little enough reason to believe this. But there are good men in the world, men – and women – who would help you simply because you needed it. I will teach you this, I swear it. I will show you the world is not so hopeless as you think it." He smiled gently, warmly, and began rolling back from the table. "Now then. Breakfast will be laid in about a quarter-hour. Raven and I always have our meals together, but feel free to have a tray brought to your rooms, if you prefer. Afterward, I intend to go riding, and I hope you will join me."
"Of course I will join you, and for breakfast as well."
"I am very happy to hear it." He cast a final bright-eyed glance at Erik over his shoulder before wheeling out of the room.
It was some minutes before Erik could follow, shaken to the core in ways he could not name.
Raven had only brought up the carnival that morning to distract her brother from the imaginary cannon fire that was rattling the windows. She should have known it would only make matter worse.
"Raven, you know I don’t entirely approve of carnivals," he said, leaning on the counter with a drawn face while the tea brewed and Moira whipped the chocolate into a froth.
"Well, you needn’t approve," Raven said cheerily. "If you choose to attend without taking any joy in the venture, that is your own fault. I enjoy carnivals immensely, and I would dearly like to go.”
"So you can stare at the freaks like every other pudding-headed lout with sixpence in his pocket?"
Honestly, she would never understand the way Charles looked at the world. “No, Charles, so I can have an evening’s entertainment in a place where Unnaturals use their abilities openly and earn a living for their pains!”
"Earn a living on the schadenfreude and morbid curiosity of people who wouldn’t let them in out of a blizzard—”
"You quite miss the point, Charles, as you so often do—"
"Enough, Raven," Charles said – not angrily, but wearily, and for once Raven had reined in her tongue. Her brother looked so wan and unsteady. She had chosen a poor time to broach a subject that would lead to debate.
"Very well, Charles," she said softly, and leaned forward to kiss his brow. "You are feeling so poorly right now. I will not press you."
"Meaning you will press me later," Charles grumbled, but squeezed her hand as he passed, heading for the dark dining room with his chocolate.
As the lady of Graymalkin, Raven had enough to occupy her day, or so she told herself. Their hurried return from Brighton had left a good many things out of balance – some of the furniture still covered, the pantry very meagerly stocked, none of the servants certain of their schedules – on top of the usual endless cycle of meals and gardening and laundry and cleaning, to be directed and coordinated if not, thank God for Charles’s money, participated in. Her parents had been milliners, when she had parents at all, and even the best moments of her early childhood had not involved an overabundance of food or warmth. In comparison, she did not at all mind the responsibilities of being a lady.
Raven had never been sure how much Charles’s parents knew about her origins. They had accepted her as their ward without a quibble, and put her on social par with themselves without a thought, but it was obvious that Charles’s Gift was at work there. He had been only twelve, and not nearly so refined in his efforts as he would later become; the servants had thereafter watched their employers’ dreamy smiles at Raven with some disquiet, and treated both children with wariness.
Charles, of course, knew all – knew that Raven was in no way bred to be a lady, would have been happy to find herself only securely employed, and had instead taken her unhesitantly into his heart and home as his own sister. He never spoke, or seemed even to think, of how grateful she ought to be, how little right she had ever to argue with or vex him. She alone reproached herself when she had put him to abuse, and probably too seldom; but she did not forget to love him.
And she did not hesitate to let drop all the tasks she had set for herself, and turn away in the midst of a conversation with Moira about the needs of the herb garden, when she heard her brother and his guest return from their morning’s ride.
She found them in the drawing room, Charles pouring drinks and watching in delight while Mr. Lehnsherr spun a coin in lazy loops through the air. Both were sun-flushed and sweat-dampened, their coats flung over a chair, and Raven paused in the doorway to appreciate the spectacle. Charles was not, after all, her brother by blood; she was allowed to merely look.
"—extremely scandalous of me, I’ll well aware," Charles was laughing, "but I simply cannot abide a hat! It impairs my vision and denies me the breeze in my hair. I cannot help tearing it off the moment I feel I might get away with it!”
Mr. Lehnsherr’s expression was a study in fond exasperation. “And if you could not abide trousers or breeches, what then? Would you live as a naked hermit in the forest? Some things in life are simply not optional, Charles.”
"It is no use to scold him," Raven said, stepping into the room. "Charles is quite good at looking chastised and crestfallen, agreeing wholeheartedly that his behavior was wrong, and then cheerfully doing it again at the first opportunity."
Charles looked wounded. “Raven, dearest! You will give our guest quite a terrible impression of me!”
"It is nothing he cannot have observed for himself already. Perhaps you do not know, Mr. Lehnsherr, that at the very moment you met my brother, he was in the water in defiance of both my express request, and the dictates of common sense. And only look at his face! Even now he is preparing to apologize, when every word of it would be a lie. Speak truth, Charles, you are not sorry at all."
Charles lifted his chin. “Very well, I am not. How could I be, when my actions resulted in Mr. Lehnsherr’s presence here? Not merely ‘here in this house’ but ‘here on this Earth,’ you understand.”
Raven rolled her eyes, and crossed the room to casually put away the bottle Charles had poured from. “You see how comfortable my brother is with impropriety, Mr. Lehnsherr, and yet this very morning he balked at the idea of attending a traveling carnival that has camped nearby.”
"How very stodgy of you, Charles," Mr. Lehnsherr said agreeably.
Charles scowled. “Yet surely you cannot entirely approve of the Gifted making show-ponies of themselves.”
Mr. Lehnsherr rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. “Indeed, the idea of homo superior performing for the amusement of its less advanced cousins is repugnant. Yet the less-advanced cousin is at least getting appropriately fleeced, from what I hear of traveling carnivals, and it is one place where the Gifted are free to show themselves.”
"You see?" Raven said, though she was somewhat uncertain if Mr. Lehnsherr was, in fact, agreeing with her or not.
Charles looked similarly uncertain. “'Homo superior,' Erik? You will parrot Sebastian Shaw even now? Surely his own actions have shown you that the Gifted hold no moral superiority to the Mundane.”
"Moral? Perhaps not, but that was not my argument. I speak of power, Charles, the power any one of us holds over the Mundane, as you call them. Has it not always been the nature of the world, that those who cannot are ruled by those who can?”
Charles seemed torn between bafflement and laughter. “Can and cannot what, my friend? Argue, if you will, that the three of us have Gifts worth respecting; but I have seen many Gifts much humbler – certainly wonderful in their way, but nothing that could rightfully command reverence. We have a housemaid, for instance, who can cause the appearance of colorful lights. It is pretty, to be sure, but has yet to prove particularly useful.”
"And yet even such a humble Gift cannot be duplicated by any Mundane. Man rules the beasts because he can think, and they cannot; the rich rule the poor because they have wealth, which is power, and the poor do not. We have power that the Mundanes do not have; our dominance over them is both natural and inevitable."
Raven felt a peculiar sort of singing inside herself at these words, as if some tuning fork she had never known she carried had been struck at long last. Yes, she wanted to shout. We should not be the bottom rung of society, but the top. Our Gifts should be praised and revered, not whispered of in shame.
But Charles looked distinctly uneasy. “Erik, you would only teach people to fear and hate us all the more. Our Gifts are not to be used to oppress the common people, they have quite enough of that already. If anything, we should use our Gifts to help them, to show them that Unnaturals are not freaks or monsters but people as good and honest as anyone else. One advantage of the carnivals, I would say, is that they show the Gifted in a context of harmless fun—”
"Harmless fun indeed!" Anger glinted now in Mr. Lehnsherr’s eyes. "I would teach the people to respect us, while you would encourage them to look down on our Gifts as parlor tricks, and – worse! – calculate how we might be indentured to their own advantage."
"Erik, that is not at all what I meant!”
Erik raised a hand, stopping Charles’s indignant words. He drew a breath, visibly calming himself. “It is terribly rude of me, of course, to argue with my host. Particularly in front of a lady.” He turned to Raven with an expression schooled to pleasantness. “Your brother numbers your Gift with those that ought to command respect, Miss Darkholme. Is it too bold of me to request a demonstration?”
Raven glanced to Charles, whose cheeks were still reddened with agitation, but he opened a hand in a gesture of do as you will.
Unable to keep a smile from her face, Raven let her skin ripple into a flawless facsimile of Erik’s own, even extending a thin layer of skin over her morning dress that then shaped itself to mirror the man’s shirtsleeves, trousers, and brown-striped waistcoat.
She was pleased to see Mr. Lehnsherr start violently, then step toward her with a brilliant grin. “Magnificent,” he breathed. “Can you do anyone, then?”
She shifted again, this time into Charles’s image, and spoke in his voice. “Anyone at all. Though I must prepare my mind beforehand, memorizing what I intend to imitate. I’ve a very good memory for such things, but voices are sometimes difficult.”
"You are perfectly magnificent. I cannot see a single flaw."
She cast her eyes down and curtsied demurely, which, executed in Charles’s form, sparked both men to laughter.
"And the face you wore but moments ago," Mr. Lehnsherr asked, "is that your natural appearance, or is there a deeper layer?"
She hesitated. Had she not wished for permission to show her true face in Mr. Lehnsherr’s company? Yet he was looking at her now with such admiration and joy, it stung to think of him recoiling from the chimera beneath. Instead she gave a coy smile. “How very improper of you, sir, asking to see a lady au naturel!”
"I do beg your pardon." Still smiling, Mr. Lehnsherr bowed. "Pray take my overenthusiasm as the compliment I meant it to be."
"Of course, sir." She flickered back to the blonde Miss Darkholme.
"You have a powerful Gift indeed, Miss Darkholme," Mr. Lehnsherr said. "To be anyone, at any time – you might rule the world with very little effort."
"And yet, tonight at least, I would be satisfied to only attend the carnival."
"Well, you shan’t," Charles said, in his determined-not-to-be-cross tone. "Erik and I have plans for this evening and will not be available to escort you. Next time, perhaps."
Raven opened her mouth for a hot protest, only for an idea to occur – one so obvious that she felt quite stupid for having taken so long about having it. The hot protest converted into a disappointed, “Very well, Charles.” She let the conversation move to other things – and was able to participate with all good cheer, knowing she would, in fact, be attending the carnival, whether Charles liked it or not.