Dec 4, 2020
The beast was made of clockwork. Its feet made a clicking sound on the cobblestone steps as it approached the man who stood alone beneath a streetlamp, a note clutched in his gloved hand. His blond hair was tied at the nape of his neck in a simple knot, and his eyes kept going to the watch he wore. He tapped his foot, his eyes scanning for a person.
“Oh.” Julian looked from the note to the creature, when he felt it nudge his leg. “I see.” The clockwork dog—he supposed it was meant to look like a dog, though it looked more like a jackal to him—was made of sleek black metal, but Julian could see that its eyes were red. He couldn’t tell if the eyes were precious jewels, or if the beast was lit with an inner fire. He tucked the note into the pocket of his jacket. “You’re her messenger.” He adjusted his top hat, and squared his shoulders. “Lead the way, then.” As they walked through the streets, he thought that this must look like an odd sight, a man walking alone with an omen of doom trotting along at his side.
He glanced across the street, and held his breath when he saw where the jackal was leading him. He reached for the hidden door that lead to the mansion’s library, and stepped inside. He was hit with the scent of musty books and perfume, and took his hat off with shaking hands. The room was warm and inviting, but he felt cold.
Not here, he thought, clockwork gods, not here and now.
But the jackal sank down by the fireplace and curled up, its eerie red eyes closing. Julian noticed that the jackal nearly blended in with the carpet and the shadows thrown by the fire.
He saw that Melissa sat by the fire, her auburn curls swept back from her face. She glanced over at Julian, and her hands tightened on the fan she held in her lap.
“I was expecting someone else,” she said.
Julian’s throat went dry, and his hands felt cold. He cleared his throat—the best he could do was not have a shaking voice.
“I….It’s—it’s Julian. I told you that, in my last letter.” Too late, his voice sounded strangled and awful. He at least managed not to look away from her. He hoped that eye contact would make it clear that this was real, and not some elaborate game.
There was a pause.
“I was expecting—” Melissa said.
Julian cut her off. “I don’t use that name anymore. That’s not…not me.” Now he did look away from Melissa. “As you can see,” he said, trying to make a joke.
Julian tried to remember what steady breathing was like. His heart pounded as he regarded the woman in the chair, and he waited to be reprimanded for throwing such a shocking change on her so suddenly.
Hold a funeral for me, he thought, and tell the world that I have returned as your apprentice who did the greatest magic trick of all, and changed himself so rapidly that even his teacher did not recognize him.
“It’s Julian, then?”
“I really was expecting Lu,” she indicated the clockwork jackal, “to find someone else. That was what I meant. Not that I expected,” she seemed about to say his old name, then caught herself in time, “you to be who you’re not.”
“I’m a magician,” he said with a shaking smile. “I make a living at people seeing things that are not there.”
Instead of commenting, she handed him a sealed envelope.
“My rejection letter,” he asked. He felt his stomach sinking, even though he’d told himself that getting kicked out of being taught magic really was the best he could hope for.
“An invitation to a ball.”
Julian slowly took it. It was heavy, the paper must be fancy. He studied the seal, white wax with what appeared to be a snowflake in the center. He did not open the letter just then, preferring to do so in an area he was more familiar with that this mysterious library.
“You should open that,” Melissa said, “the ball is several hours away.”
“Really, you’re treating this,” he nodded to his changed appearance, “like…like it’s something normal.”
“It is,” she replied, “you realized there was something wrong and you fixed it. And besides,” she added, “there’s someone I need you to meet.”
“And that someone would be…?”
“The Lord of Winter.”
Julian blinked. “I see.” The Lord of Winter wasn’t a god a person met easily, and that he was being asked to meet with the man seemed…odd.
“Look,” Melissa said with a sigh, “he’s insisting we meet in neutral territory.”
Julian remained calm, hiding his confusion. “And his reasons for meeting with us are?”
“There are rumors of rebellion among the gods brewing. I’d rather not piss off someone with power like he has.”
“Myth cycles,” Julian said.
He sighed. “Myths. Are you referring to one particular cycle of myths—because I think if the gods were rebelling now, we’d all know it.”
“They’re not stuck in time,” Julian said.
“And that doesn’t matter to me,” Melissa replied, “go meet him.”