“And as the night drew inward,
The nightshade fumes did seep
Twixt the maiden’s parted lips,
Condemning her to sleep.”
Lowering her book to indicate the poem’s conclusion, the curvy brunette seated at the window returned the applause from her small audience with a smile. “Thank you. To save my voice a moment, I’d be happy to take a couple questions or comments from you…”
Tonight, Lighthouse Books was hosting a reading by an up-and-coming author from Idaho. Sam Sullivan was in her sixties - although she looked two decades younger -, a self-described spinster who had spent most of her life working at a beauty salon before quitting her job, publishing a poetry volume, and going on tour with it to several cities in the Rocky Mountain region that had inspired her newfound writing career.
...Or so the poster taped to the bookstore door claimed. Ruben knew better. And from the looks of those in attendance, some of them did, too. Most seemed to be the usual mix of shoppers and students lingering curiously for the evening’s event, but there was a senior along one side who had staked out a seat an hour ago and kept scribbling notes, and a pair of heavily styled goths whispering in the back. (They stood out more than he did: his leather jacket was embroidered with flames and there were rings clinking in his braided hair, but apart from that he’d kept his outfit simple, out of respect for Sullivan’s own stealth.)
Raising his cup, Ruben was immediately disappointed to find that his coffee had run out. Again. Having Apparated over after finishing his night shift at the Skellefteå firehall, caffeine was a priority. Fortunately there was a coffee dispenser on the counter by the register, so he took advantage of the pause in reading to get a refill, still listening in case an interesting question came up.
It seemed the few people he suspected understood the poet’s code were either not interested or not good enough at speaking in code themselves to say anything in front of an audience. Or maybe his guess was wrong and he was the only enlightened one here. It definitely felt like that; by the time he returned to his seat, all the comments so far had come from middle-aged women stuck in romantic fantasies, which was really just a waste of his time. The only type of wish-on-a-star fairytale he was here to learn about was the secret to reversing necrobiosis.
Impatient to continue, Ruben tilted his chair on its back legs with a creak and took an unnecessarily loud slurp of coffee. A blonde head in front turned at the noise. He was prepared to roll his eyes at what could only be yet another woman obsessed with Sullivan’s false flowery language - and maybe she still was one of them, but instead of rolling, one thick brow slowly raised as he levelled her with a stare somewhere in between curious and suspicious. What was Claudia Dubois doing here?
Claudia had been fully prepared to scowl in disapproval at the lout behind her ignoring all rules of basic social etiquette, and her dark blonde eyebrows had already drawn together in preparation, but instead they raised slightly upon recognizing the lout. It had been more than two years since she’d last been inconvenienced by his presence, but Ruben hadn’t changed much. “Why must even the most mundane pleasures in life be spoiled?” she asked rhetorically.
Claudia had few heroines. Well-known witches were either infamous or had accrued fame for being the first to do what wizards had already accomplished, and even then they had to neglect propriety to do so. There was a small selection of female potioneers and spell crafters Claudia could admire without compromising the principles integral to her upbringing. One or two historians, and a handful of musicians also drew her admiration, as did Sam Sullivan, the witch she’d come to hear this evening.
Fear and ignorance were responsible for all kinds of prejudices: a fact that Claudia could now willingly acknowledge, and a fact that Ms Sullivan exploited most expertly. Magic that was banned from inclusion by most reputable publications, and shunned by libraries and booksellers alike, could be freely discussed using the codes cleverly concealed as poetry. Of course it meant that one had to endure the witless droning of those who thought the poems held little more than poorly-compiled vernacular, but it seemed a small price to pay for access to otherwise restricted magic. The addition of another undesirable person in the audience merely pushed the price a little steeper.
However she was caught in a dilemma: having her back turned to a wizard she trusted as far as she could throw him without magical assistance, even in this public space, wasn’t an ideal situation. For the moment, Claudia kept her attention on him while the ‘poet’ deftly answered inane questions about strings of adjectives.
For his part, Ruben appreciated that she had spoken first, as it gave him a great opening to continue. “Spoiled?” he repeated, voice pitched low in the quiet room. “Not possible. Many could tell you, I am the most mundane pleasure of all. Can’t spoil myself.” Smirking involuntarily, he took another long slurp of coffee as an excuse to study her over the rim of his cup. The last time he could remember being this close to Claudia, she had been very unconscious and he had carried her to RMI’s infirmary. She was older now, and somehow looked even more like Danny - which reminded him that he owed Danny a visit. Hmm.
He briefly tuned into the conversation at the front to confirm they were still on the same generic writing questions (if he ever became the type of person who was actually interested in punctuation choices, he hoped Kaye would impale him with her shoe) before bringing his attention back to Claudia. “Having a good time?” Whether he was referring to the event or the fact she was obviously watching him was left unspecified.
While Claudia was able to blend in perfectly to the crowd in a burgundy knitted dress, she had added a slash of matching matte lipstick and outlined her eyes with black liner and mascara to set her apart from the ignorami in the seats surrounding her. Ruben, meanwhile, couldn’t possibly be in attendance to listen to poetry, which meant he was here for the other, more subtle teachings. That, in turn, meant he might guess why she was there herself. Secret meetings were rendered ineffective for anonymity if someone you knew happened to be among the crowd. Damn. “Yes, I adore poetry,” Claudia said, with as much enthusiasm as she could muster when conversing with someone of whom she had such a low opinion.
Ruben returned her statement with an amused look. Claudia had never liked him (admittedly with good reason) and there was no question that anything polite, bordering on friendly, was fake. Humouring her, he nodded, tapping his newly-purchased copy of the book in his lap. “This poetry is great.” There was a chance she was genuinely here for the poetry, but given what he knew of her from RMI, and assuming the years since hadn’t changed much, he figured there was as much a chance she was here for the same thing he was. “Very pretty, but educational,” he continued, straight-faced. “Just the type you look for, ja?”
Claudia sighed through her nose. Apparently Ruben wasn’t even going to allow her to pretend. “Yes, it’s fascinating,” she said, her tone conveying the eye roll she refrained from executing. It was damaging enough to be speaking with Ruben in the first place; she refused to allow him to tease her. She was hardly the young girl prone to fainting that she’d once been. Not that she needed to prove this to someone she would hopefully never see again as long as she lived, but for her own dignity Claudia felt compelled to add, “I’m hoping for some clarity on page thirty-nine. It seems to imply some sort of transcendence but I can’t identify with the author.” She stretched her lips into an imitation of a smile then turned back around again, placing Ruben most inconveniently behind her.
Okay, now he knew his suspicions were correct. Ruben’s smirk reappeared, in equal parts from knowing what she was up to and the proof that he could still rile her. Maybe he shouldn’t take so much satisfaction out of being able to piss off a teenaged witch, but hey - if he couldn’t punch a Dubois, he pestered them. It was fun. And life was, for now, too short not to have fun. Letting his chair fall back onto all four legs, he flipped open his book to page 39 and skimmed through. Claudia hadn’t made any move to ask for the clarity she claimed to want by the time he reached the end of the page, so Ruben took it on himself to flag down Sullivan, waving a long arm. “I have a question. From page thirty-nine.”
“Oh, certainly, we can skip ahead,” the poet agreed graciously, turning the pages in her own book. “What did you want to ask about?”
Shamelessly stealing Claudia’s words, Ruben put on a confused expression. “The speaker here is hard to identify with. He seems to reach some transcendent state, but there is not much clarity. Don’t get me wrong,” he added for emphasis, “I adore poetry. I am just wondering if you can go over it?”
To her credit, Sullivan took him seriously and read the poem aloud, concluding with a stanza that should have been clear enough for the average reader.
“Looking East, he dipped his head,
Then, most melancholy, said,
“My journey long is at an end.”
Amidst the scent of honeysuckle,
Soft as the whisper of a bowtruckle,
Did the sorcerer transcend.”
Claudia clamped her lips together in barely concealed frustration. It wasn’t enough for Ruben to be here, but he also had to sit behind her, and then steal her question ad verbatim. Why did some people have nothing better to do than make her life one long (and longer still, if she could learn something here today) vexation? People were exhausting.
Grudgingly, Claudia listened to the answer, struggling to derive meaning from words that were so heavily masked in metaphor they barely made sense. Ms Sullivan was clearly adept at concealing her true intentions from those who didn’t want to know the truth, but the presence of ignorant others was making this rather more complicated than it needed to be for the seventh year. She annotated her own copy of the book, highlighting passages that remained inscrutable, as the poet paused further questions and returned to reading aloud more from her publication.
Finally the torturous reading ended, concluding with a book signing and the opportunity to speak, however briefly, with the author one to one. Claudia remained seated for the time being. She had specific questions she wanted to ask, but not when the unsuspecting masses might overhear. Yet she didn’t want to arouse suspicion through her hesitation. Both fortunately and unfortunately, given everything about him, an excuse for remaining seated had placed himself opportunely close by.
Ruben was unaware of her thoughts, but very aware of her actions. Now that he knew Claudia was present, he’d casually kept an eye on her during the rest of the reading, his constant smirk growing a little whenever he caught her writing. His own copy of the book remained clean - he wasn’t about to write down his interpretations here, and definitely not on the book itself, although he did pull out his phone at one point to type a sudden thought to return to as Sullivan wrapped up. He would do a proper analysis once he was back home, hopefully with more context: one of his contacts had passed along that the witch had covertly released a companion book with less coded information, and he planned to snag one in private before he left.
When the middle-aged women sitting next to her moved away, Claudia stood and used her wand to turn her chair around. Facing Ruben was almost as objectionable as having him behind her. “I explicitly don’t care,” she was careful to explain, “but I wasn’t aware you had any interest in this field.”
He noticed the chair move, yet he didn’t look up until his text to Kaye had gone through. (He had been tempted to send her the back of Claudia’s head earlier, but that opened too many questions, so settled on a leering self-picture captioned “u up?”. Ruben normally just arrived at her dorm, but sometimes he liked to switch it up and announce his intentions for a change.) “What, you did not guess it?” he returned Claudia’s statement. “You might not care, but you should pay more attention. This lesson I give you for free.” Ruben flourished his phone-less hand as if giving it to her, but his eyes grew intent. He didn’t actually expect her, or anyone, to guess it - he was subtle, and kept this fact in a very limited circle. Having Claudia accidentally join that circle wasn’t ideal, but maybe he could use it to dig more into her. “Poetry is one of my biggest interests. When did you become interested?”
Claudia paused. She didn’t like Ruben, couldn’t quite believe she was voluntarily talking to him, but she hadn’t told anyone else about her interests. There was nobody else she could tell; they’d all judge and condemn her. She found herself divulging, “Well, I’ve always had an interest in,” Claudia lowered her voice, “controversial magic. It became more of a required skill than a hobby as it became increasingly apparent that I would need it,” she said flatly. She might not have been quick enough to defend herself against Dakota, but she’d certainly held her own against Jordan. “I’m exceptional at mind magic, but I’m expressly forbidden from practising that, at home or school, so I’ve been looking into other avenues. Sam Sullivan’s poetry caught my attention earlier in the year.”
This was exactly what Ruben had been hoping to learn, although her being so open with him still came as a surprise. Had he somehow become a confidant for Claudia? Fan, Oden, no. “Mind magic has a stigma,” he agreed. “But too social. Of course you must use it on someone eventually, but while you are being watched by family - or school,” he grudgingly added, RMI’s administration having never counted as an authority to him, “you need things that can be practiced alone.” Tucking his phone away, Ruben settled back more comfortably, an arm slung over the back of his chair, and sized her up. “But why this? How does it help you?”
Claudia pursed her lips. They might have a singular interest in common that prompted her to talk to Ruben when usually she would have made a point of avoiding him, but that didn’t make them friends. “I’m flattered by your interest,” she deadpanned, “but let’s talk about you for a while. Kaye never mentioned she’s in a couple with a poet.”
“And you think you’re friends enough with Kaye for that conversation?” Ruben scoffed, his lounging posture concealing the sudden tension in his joints. He never reacted well to blackmail, and that was when it was only his name involved. “Leave her out of this.”
Claudia’s lips curved upwards. She’d never before engaged in petty taunting - and hadn’t meant to on this occasion, but it seemed Ruben had interpreted her comment as a subtle threat - and there was a saying about sleeping dragons. Ruben was neither sleeping nor a dragon. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”
“I had no reason to tell yours before, and I have no reason to keep it now.” Ruben’s eyes narrowed. If he’d needed more proof that Claudia had changed since their last interaction, this was it. “Don’t test me.”
She hadn’t come here to be threatened, insulted or belittled, and Ruben was ruining her evening. Wand still resting in her palm, Claudia leaned in just a fraction. “As if you influence anything I do.”
As she had clearly forgotten who RMI’s best dueller was - and he hadn’t exactly been sitting on his hands the past couple years - Ruben took it on himself to remind her. Before she had finished speaking, without any indication, he hit her with a curse of his own invention. There was some complicated biochemistry behind it (ja, Ruben voluntarily studied Muggle science, and was in fact very good at the types of science he was interested in, thank you) but the point was that her bones were locked in place. She could move if she wanted, she wasn’t immobilized, but moving muscles and ligaments away from their bones was generally... unpleasant. Already queueing up a shield against whatever she felt like retaliating with, he continued to silently stare back at her until she noticed.
Claudia hadn’t planned on moving, but as she sought to tighten her grip on her wand she discovered the point was moot. Interesting. His voluntary presence at an academic-adjacent event and the rough attempt he’d made at conversation fooled Claudia into thinking that Ruben was a reasonable person, after all. But no, he was still the same vile excuse for a wizard who would threaten a school girl half his size, only now Claudia was of age he’d progressed to actually hexing her. Naturally he’d picked a spell that held a woman in her place, as predictable as any of the miserable wizards who’d assumed implicit control over Claudia her entire life. She raised an eyebrow - she was still capable of doing that, at least - in a scathing expression that conveyed how little she thought of this unwelcome development. His lips twitched upwards in response, smugly, mockingly.
Yet beneath a surface tension of revulsion, panic threatened to build. She hadn’t planned for this. If they were back in RMI, or some other less public location, then Claudia would have had a string of hexes perched on her lips. Sitting in a very public bookshop with people milling barely ten feet away was not the same situation: she could hardly have Ruben’s clothes strangle him out in the open. In fact, Claudia didn’t especially want to retaliate - she hadn’t come here to duel and had no intention of getting herself into trouble with any authority figures, not now she only had a few months left of school to endure - but the alternative was to let Ruben think he had the upper hand. Hadn’t she just told him she was particularly skilled at mind magic? The key to destroying a person with one spell was to know your opponent’s weakness. Ruben’s was not as obvious as most - neither ice nor fire would phase him, she couldn’t overpower him physically (even without being under a movement-restricting curse) and his pain threshold was probably quite high, judging by the amount of punching he seemed to enjoy - but he had one.
Perhaps it was beneath her, but the taunt was too tempting to overlook. Without moving, Claudia cast Legilimens. Assuming her spell would reflect from whatever type of shield charm Ruben had predictably set in place, she brought to mind an entirely fictional but convincingly vivid showreel: sweet Anssi, smiling almost shyly, his hand brushing Claudia’s; Anssi’s hair ruffled, with pink smudges around his lips as Claudia smiled coyly back at him; Anssi’s shirt falling away with his fingers tangled in Claudia’s hair.
After her bragging earlier, he had expected some sort of mental attack. It hadn’t worried him. He might not have studied mind magic in depth, preferring to focus on the physical, but Ruben was still confident: he had yet to find anyone who could compel him, for example, and fighting off the Imperius curse seemed a good indicator of mental fortitude. What he hadn’t expected was that Claudia would anticipate his shield (she hadn’t even anticipated his attack) or that she would retaliate anyways and try to use his shield against him. He might have almost been impressed, if he wasn’t so repulsed.
He didn’t look away, but Ruben’s earlier smirk became strained as the images flashed past. They didn’t talk often, so there was a chance his lillabror’s taste in girls had gone from ‘nonexistent’ to ‘Claudia’ without him knowing, but Anssi still wrote Kaye regularly. He was sure that if Anssi had even hinted at hooking up with Claudia she would have updated him. She had also actually updated him over the summer on Claudia’s engagement, and he was again certain that Claudia wouldn’t trade her socialite redemption arc for anything. In conclusion, this had to be fake. That logic couldn’t completely stop the sudden desire to bleach his entire field of vision, though. Ruben might be a sexual person - well, there was no might about it - and he might grudgingly accept that his brother wouldn’t be small and innocent forever - but none of that meant he wanted to see even a fake Anssi like this. However, if the only options to make it stop were to let down his shield or to release his spell on Claudia, he could wait it out.
At least for long enough to pull up a recent memory. There had been a warehouse fire when he was on duty last week, and it was easy to focus on how the flames had twisted and the suffocating heat felt through his insufficient Muggle gear. Lucky for Claudia. Ruben had no interest in actually hurting her, but he wanted to make her squirm before letting her go. (He'd briefly considered playing directly off Claudia's game with a different recent memory featuring some of the very questionable things he and Kaye got up to in her dorm, but decided she didn't deserve that gift. Also, you know, privacy something or other.) When the remembered flames felt real enough to drown out Fake Anssi, Ruben took his shield down, content to relive that night as long as it took for her to concede. She could only hope to break into his head.
The sudden change in scene startled her. Instinctively, her fingers tried to tighten around her wand, but that only resulted in painful failure. Claudia congratulated herself for making substantial progress in overcoming her fears, but in the instant her own thoughts were consumed in flame, panic doused the fire by severing the spell. She cast a retaliatory windpipe-crushing hex without even thinking. Then she blinked.
It turned out that ‘as long as it took’ wasn’t long at all, although calling what Claudia did conceding might be too generous. But being back in his own wheelhouse of physical attacks, Ruben was in a generous mood. He started laughing soundlessly, the effect rather lost as he was choking for air, and finally worked the counter-curse for his bone-locking spell. Once that was done, it was just a matter of a simple Finite and a couple coughs before he was again lounging unhindered in his chair. Still feeling generous, he offered a genuine smile. “You have improved. I’m impressed.” The shocking part was that he actually was. Or was it more shocking that he was telling her?
Saved the decision of whether to lift the hex she’d cast on Ruben - she hadn’t meant to hex him; it was reflexive - Claudia took a few moments to flex her joints and center herself back into reality. Which was a covert necromancy lecture disguised as a poetry reading in a bookshop above her school, and not a dueling arena. “Of course I’ve improved,” she frowned. “Professor Embers’ class is a joke but I’m perfectly capable of instructing myself.” She smoothed her skirt. “There’s not much to be gained in the way of practical experience at school, though.” Even the best duelers RMI had to offer didn’t present Claudia with much competition. She’d let herself be taken by surprise. It was sloppy.
“Well, if we meet again, you are welcome to try me.” His smile turned predatory. A world where Danny Dubois’ baby sister voluntarily dueled him would be an interesting one. Considering a moment, Ruben added, “There’s a club in the French part of Canada. Very underground.” He’d checked it out on a day off with his old partner Lasse and had judged it satisfactory. They kept a short list of banned violent attacks, which he strongly disagreed with, but the duels had still been good. “You might like it.” Helping Claudia was not high on his priorities, but she could use it. And then he could have more fun next time. And, if giving a suggestion to help her get better at dueling could even hypothetically help Danny and therefore Holland, he could afford it. (He was betting on a more exciting social fallout yet to come - had actually tried to put money on it, too, but Danny had boringly turned down his offer to place bets on someone else trying to stab him within the next year.)
What was happening? Either Ruben just invited her to the grown ups table or he was trying to lure her into some sort of trap. The trouble with dealing with miscreants like Ruben was that Claudia couldn’t decide which of those scenarios was actually more likely. Civilized people didn’t have these uncertainties attached. “If I ever run out of pureblood socialites waiting in the shadows to attack me or my family, I’ll let you know,” she said uncertainly. Even if she could hold her own, she didn’t necessarily plan on intentionally putting herself in danger. The plan - as demonstrated by her presence right here, right now - was to live as long as possible, not to perish in a very underground club in Canada.
Ruben nodded, satisfied with his efforts, and glanced over his shoulder. The bookstore had emptied significantly since he last paid attention: most of the former audience had cleared out, generic housewives and goths alike, and Sullivan was now standing alone at her table of books. Perfect timing. “Good talk,” he concluded their interaction, standing abruptly. Tossing back his braided hair, long strides took him quickly to the poet of many questionable talents, and he introduced himself with the type of cheerful demeanour he typically reserved for gore and death. “Big fan of your philosophies. I was wondering…” His tone dropped lower, and Sam Sullivan reciprocated in kind. Coins were exchanged, her business card casually slid under the front cover of a slim Reader’s Guide, both books tucked into the expanding inner pocket of his leather jacket, and the Swede headed out onto Pearl Street without a backward glance. As he left, he checked his phone and smirked at Kaye’s reply. Excellent. After so much caffeine, he needed to work off some energy before settling in for a night of research.
Co-written with B