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Jay considered his options, and quickly decided that he might as well be straightforward here, and just ask everything that was on his mind. After all, Louis had basically told him to.
“I guess I do have a lot I want to know,” he admitted wryly. “Everyone here seems like they’ve lived here for generations, and here I am wandering into the middle of all these situations I know nothing about.”
“Oh, you certainly are,” Louis agreed. “More than you probably realize. I’d like to, hm.” He glanced Jay over. “Throw you a bone?”
He was definitely flirting. Wasn’t he?? Jay wished he could be sure. He flustered, then rallied, giving Louis a smile back. “I’d like that,” he said. He nibbled on honey toast—good stuff, he decided, definitely real honey. “You said that I’d have large shoes to fill, that Aunt Grace was a hoarder type—it sounds like you knew her pretty well?”
“I don’t know if I’d call her a friend, exactly,” Louis said. “After all, I was still in my teenage years when she was last around. But she was friendly to me, and she and my predecessor may have been actual friends. Your Aunt Grace was a popular person. She managed, somehow, so that even in a place where there were lots of factions, she was on no side, but made herself available to help everyone. And did it in a way that people accepted.”
“I’d heard something like that,” Jay said. He hesitated, his desire not to pry warring with Louis’s own declaration that he’d only answer things that were asked directly. “I’d assume this was your family home, but you said… ‘predecessor’?”
“Not my father’s house,” Louis said lightly. Then, in a self-deprecating tone, “Maybe my daddy’s, but not my father’s.”
Jay blinked, then blanched. “Uhh.”
“No, it’s fine,” Louis said, laughing at the look that must be on his face. “I did deliberately make that sound more objectionable than it was. The person who used to live here had a job that I’ve since taken over. Consider it an apprenticeship.”
“What’s your job?” Jay asked, trying desperately to push past that moment. “I’m a programmer, though my company just went through a round of layoffs. Since Aunt Grace left me the house, I figured… well, might as well take a little break, you know?”
Louis nodded, leaning forward with his chin in one hand. “Sounds like a good idea to me. My job… hm. My job. Are you familiar with the sort of factions there are here?”
This whole conversation was beginning to feel more and more ominous, but he was neck-deep in it now. “I’m not. Camden called them cliques. Are you familiar with him?”
“Yes, I know him,” Louis said. “I’d say I know everyone here a little. He moved here with his little sister a few years ago from another nearby city, one by the sea.” He gestured at his own mask. “He’s got a condition, you know.”
“I, uh, didn’t ask,” Jay admitted. “It seemed private.”
“It probably is,” Louis said with a shrug. “He’s a nice boy. Genuinely sweet, I’d say, which is probably going to be a problem for him sooner or later.”
“So what faction is he in?” Jay asked, starting to eat the oats.
Louis said, “His own, since he moved here. His kind are usually further south.”
“…What sort of factions are here,” Jay asked. He stirred the oats uneasily, not actually willing to look away from Louis at this point.
“Honestly, they’re more like cults,” Louis said.
Great, Jay thought distantly. Sure, great, yeah. He’d moved into a house in a town full of cults. “Is this another of your jokes?”
“Sure, if you like,” Louis said easily. “Think of it as small town religions and small town superstitions. As I said, your Aunt knew everyone and was welcomed as part of it. When they know you’re connected to her, I’m sure the same thing will happen. You seem lovely; I can’t imagine anyone will want to do you harm.”
Jay put his spoon down, picking up the teacup and gulping his tea. For a moment, he struggled to find words. “Uh, you’d understand if I was, uh. Having a little trouble with this?”
“Well, you know I don’t mean you harm, or I would have drugged your tea,” Louis pointed out, with an apparently-strained patience.
Jay looked down at his cup.
“I didn’t,” Louis said.
Swallowing slowly, Jay just tried to stop thinking so much, tried to let this conversation flow where it could. “So what cults? What was your predecessor’s interest in my aunt? Is there anywhere I shouldn’t get rid of her stuff to? Does this have anything to do with the weird note I found this morning?”
Louis blinked at him, leaning back in his seat. “Numerous cults to the old gods. I’d say there are four or five in town. Yes, the neighbor on your other side is involved in one as well, though it’s not the same as mine and so I wouldn’t pry into which one without a more pressing need. My predecessor gave her some signifiers of his god, ones that could allow passage between the realms—in theory. I sent you a note about that this morning, yes. Ah, and I’d be careful of what you get rid of. Strange books or jewelry, anything that feels uncanny to you, hold onto that. If you want to get rid of it anyway? Talk to me. I can hook you up with some proper collectors.”
Jay wheezed softly, leaning back in his seat. “Holy shit.”
“Was that a bit much?”
“You sent me that note?“
For a moment, Louis just gazed at him. And then he tilted his head slowly, smiling behind his mask. “When people find certain things, I know. It’s traditional to warn someone if they’re about to find the Yellow Sign. If you don’t want to find it, don’t read The King in Yellow. If you read it, you’ll find the sign sooner or later. You might anyway.”
“How exactly,” Jay said, “did you know that I found The King in Yellow? Were you watching through the window?”
“I am the Messenger. The Phantom of Truth who wears the Pallid Mask,” Louis said, tone light and easy. “I know all the things that could trigger His coming. That’s my job.”
Jay wheezed, “Does that pay well?”
“Not really,” Louis said. “I also do transcription online.”
“I think I should go,” Jay said.
“Oh,” Louis said. He sounded disappointed, but rose, coming around the table. “That’s fine. I understand.”
And despite everything, Jay didn’t like the dejected tone of Louis’ voice. He drew a breath to apologize, but didn’t know what to say. “…It’s nothing personal,” he said finally, heading to the front hall and taking his shoes down from the cubby there. “I just have a lot to think about.”
“Of course,” Louis said, tone grave. He folded his hands in front of himself, knotting them together. “Well, I won’t take it personally, then. You have a good day, Jay.”
Sure, okay, they could do this all normally now. Sure. “You too, Louis.”
Louis opened the door for him. Jay stepped out, gave him a little nod, and watched as the door closed behind him.
And then he sat down on the steps of Louis’s house, putting his head in his hands.
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