Previous: The Parlour
“This is an Inquest!” Phaedra said, pulling her hands away with a sound of disgust, “how predictable.”
“Miss Byrne, I assure you, I am here as a man.” Brother Lapis released Phaedra’s hands but left his own laying on the table, palms up. “I have been in military service. Three times. War will leave a scar on anyone. Anyone my age has come through some period of self doubt. And those who have taken the vows of the Church have come under a symbolic curtain. I do not care to be toyed with. But do go on. I would to hear your interpretation.”
Phaedra looked uncertain, it was clear she was debating whether or not to throw him out, so he decided to put another card on the table. “I know nothing of your past beyond what you just told me.”
Phaedra tucked a stray hair behind her ear. She turned to regard Brother Lapis’ reflection in the standing mirror that faced the parlor table they both sat at. Lapis turned his head to look back at her through the reflection of the mirror.
She reached for his hand again, this time twining her fingers with his, her eyes not leaving his reflection and narrowing slightly as if she were puzzled, “You don’t seem to be the type to dabble…” Phaedra seemed to be talking more to herself than the man in the room.
“Dabble in what?”
“The Dark Arts,” said Phaedra, as the conversation returned to an even keel.
“I may have had a period of youthful arrogance. You know how students can be when they find a dusty old tome in the stacks. But then you get on with things that matter and realize that forgotten knowledge would better be called discarded knowledge, because it was not of much value to begin with.”
Phaedra ignored the slight, “you must have had a very successful period of youthful arrogance.”
“What makes you say my ‘dabbling’ was successful?”
Phaedra pulled her eyes away from the mirror and Lapis did likewise, “because you’ve the faint outlines of a veil. Looks like a bit of something you did is collapsing.”
“I don’t understand your symbols. Perhaps you can enlighten me with something more direct.”
“Am I being too vague again? It does happen. Old habit.” She released his hand and settled herself more comfortably on her stool.
Brother Lapis smiled as Phaedra showed signs of relaxing. “My stipend is not large. There is not much to milk out of me by leading me along with hints and enigmas.”
“Oh, so you do know how this game works.” She chuckled, “I am doing this gratis, as you’ll recall. I rarely get to do them anymore. I think you are carrying a crumbling protection, or else part of an old curse.”
Lapis inclined his head, showing she was getting warmer. “Would you be more specific?”
Phaedra shook her head slightly, “I can’t, not without time and proper examination.”
“So,” Lapis replied, “examine it.”
Phaedra lifted both her eyebrows, not entirely convinced Lapis knew what he was asking, “You want me to pry into your protection and find the chink?”
Lapis nodded, “what harm could it do?”
“Because I am quite good? Probably none. But if I am a lucky charlatan, I could bring it all crashing down around your ears with a misstep.”
“If it is nothing, then it is nothing. Either way, I get an opportunity to know you better.”
Phaedra laughed merrily.
“You find that amusing.”
“It just sounds so very much like a devil’s bargain, but I have to confess I’m so bored lately I’m more than willing to risk it.”
“The students will be leaving for the summer next week. I will have time to be bored too.”
“Then let’s see what sport we can make of your crumbling… whatever it is.”
“Very well. What is the next step?”
“That’s easy enough. Show me whatever charm it is you carry. I presume you engraved some cheap piece of gold-dipped pot-metal and the symbols have become obscured.”
Brother Lapis untied his cravat and undid the top buttons of his high necked waistcoat and silk shirt to bring out a small piece of metal dangling from a golden chain. He slipped it over his head and placed it on the center of the table.
Phaedra picked it up and examined it closely,“gold. Not filled. The precious metals are preferable to work with, but they are so damned soft. If only iron took to the process better. This is a tidy little thing. French?”
“Hungarian. Maybe Romanian. I acquired it while I was in the Hungarian States.”
Phaedra set it the piece back down and Lapis put it back over his neck and tucked it inside his shirt. “It’s quite lovely, and it is a charm, but it is mostly sentimental.”
“Very good,” Lapis smiled.
Phaedra made a quick gesture of annoyance at being tested. “What else are you carrying?”
“What you are looking for is on my skin.”
Now she did look surprised, “on your skin… no, that would be idiotic. Well, perhaps initially very clever.”
Lapis undid another button of his waistcoat and pulled the lapels aside to reveal a glimpse of tattooing that started at the base of his neck. “Souvenirs of my youthful arrogance.”
She leaned across the table, “How did you find someone to do this work?”
“I found someone.”
“Did they understand what they were doing, or is your mind capable of that kind of focus under duress?” She folded her hands in her lap, stifling the urge to start pulling his shirt off to have a closer look.
“Does anyone really understand what they are doing when they are seduced by their own cleverness?”
“Unlikely. I’d almost certainly have killed myself had a teacher not stumbled upon me. Then what happened?”
“My mind is trained to focus. My mathematics were successful. Very successful. It was my advanced elective work. There are not many people I can discuss it with, and I’m not saying that to be an elitist, it is simply that it is highly technical material that is difficult to put in a vernacular. It has to do with the manner in which objects in dimensions beyond our own may be seen in as shadows projected onto a regular plane.”
“Let me guess. You looked into the Abyss unguarded.”
“Not quite, but that will do.”
“I’m surprised you are not mad. Or at least, more mad.”
Lapis shook his head. “I am not mad. I found a proof.”
“And here you sit, to put it politely, a singularity.” She licked her lips, “I’ll need to see the full pattern, but not tonight. I’ve no good paper in the house to copy it down. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say it can’t be done by halves.”
Brother Lapis leaned forward at last. “Perhaps we can make a full night of it.”
“We’ll have to, it’s an interesting puzzle. Not just whatever it is you’ve carved out on your skin, but how it is interacting with your being on the whole. I wonder…..” Phaedra gazed at the middle distance for a moment before returning her attention to the cleric. “What makes you think you can trust me? I could destroy you.”
“No, you can’t,” said Lapis as he settled back into his chair, “We each preach to our own choirs, neither of which has any value to the other except as straw men. You will say I am an incompetent dolt that fell right into your trap, I will say you are slandering me to give credibility to your business, the gossips will believe whatever amuses them the most, and no one else cares.”
Phaedra’s smile turned cold, “I’m so glad we understand each other, Brother.”
A clock somewhere in the house chimed 10:00 pm. Phaedra turned her head toward the sound, “I’m afraid our reading must come to a conclusion, Brother, there are things I must do tonight.”
Lapis stood as he did up his cravat, she turned back to him a moment too late to catch the look of surprise that had flickered across his face. She led him down the stairs and to the door.
She rested a hand briefly against his arm before opening the door to the atrium for him, “Good night, Brother Lapis. Don’t forget your sword.”
“Good night Ms. Byrne. I look forward to our next appointment.”