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Augustus slid his young legs carefully out of bed, slowly traversing the room in the nude, brushing hands over furniture that felt familiar. Half it was surely because he remembered his own dorm room, if not related to these people in his life. But half of it was familiar in a way he couldn’t put a name to.
There was the bed, a bookcase, a wardrobe, and a writing desk with a gramophone on it. A quick glance at the bookcase just showed the sort of research books that he’d expect, along with a few novels and cylinders for the gramophone, a gas burner, a pitcher, a teapot, some tins of tea. Augustus turned his attention to the writing desk, carefully sliding a drawer open.
The first thing he found were stacks of letters from Vii’s family; Vii had a large family, and they clearly loved him dearly. Or perhaps, Augustus thought as he skimmed them, it was a combination of that and needing to maintain some kind of control even at a distance. Augustus saw constant reminders of their expectations for Vii as a magician, references to him being the future of the family, gushing declarations of love that wrapped up reminders that he needed to do their best for him.
He moved those aside; beneath them was a little box, which he opened. He felt his heart flutter as he looked into it. There were love tokens in there, and while he couldn’t recognize the context, Augustus knew they were from him: a lock of hair, a drop of blood dried in a bottle, a necklace with an ornamented symbol on it he recalled to have been one a lover gave to another in a book that he’d read. That they both must have read. There were letters beneath these, and he carefully opened one to find it a passionate declaration of eternal devotion, written in his own handwriting.
Well, he had clearly made that a lie, he thought with an unusual stab of regret.
The rest of the letters in there were the same: love letters, reminisces of the time they’d shared. Mentions of a picnic, of a play they attended, of a time they went skinny-dipping in a river nearby and wrestled a nix into laughing submission. A description of a meal that they’d shared which he’d clearly loved. He smiled a little to himself and flipped through them to the last one. This one was a love confession letter, but it was from Soren rather than himself, written in a stilted tone and nearly an apology. It didn’t have much detail, simply saying that Soren cared for Vii, and that he knew his affections may not be welcome, but he wanted to offer them nonetheless, and that he knew that Vii’s heart lay with Augustus and that he meant no harm toward that.
The letters were all only the incoming correspondence, of course. Even when Augustus was just trying to prompt his own buried memory for details, it would make no sense to see the responses here, as they clearly would have been sent. And while he could guess what Vii’s responses to his own letters were based on the fact he’d just woken in bed with him, he did not know how Vii would have written back to Soren. Perhaps it didn’t matter. He closed the box and it snapped shut, locking. Interesting.
In another box in a separate drawer were Vii’s personal papers, his identification and certificate of birth. Things someone would access if anything happened to Vii, Augustus thought somberly. On the top of this box was a new letter, recently folded and crisp. It said:
If you’re reading this, what we’ve tried to do has gone horribly wrong. I do not want to get into detail, as I want nobody to be blamed except for myself.
I, along with a few close friends, am going to attempt to summon something nobody has ever summoned before. We have access to the nearby planes, but we intend to reach something inaccessible. If Conjuration is surgery into a body that is across from ours, we intend to tear open the space between our bodies instead and invasively remove something.
I do this because I need to know. I need to see what’s out there. I need to look beyond me and thee and see what lies between, and what lies beyond. I am so tired of dichotomies, of good or bad, of myself and other, of filial duty and personal responsibility. I want to see if there’s a third choice. I want to see this by violating planar dichotomy. Whatever happens to me, it is my own fault for doing the things that we are not supposed to do.
I do this without knowing if I’ll live or die, physically. I do not know if my soul will remain, be taken, or be destroyed. I don’t care. I need to know. I need to see that there’s more than what I’ve seen so far. If all goes in a mediocre manner, neither well nor poorly, you will never read this letter. But if I do something incredible, or something terrible, I’m sure you will.
I love you, Olivia. Be well, but do not be as well as me.
Augustus folded that and put it back, turning almost automatically to the wardrobe and searching there instead. It was mostly clothes that looked like the sort Vii would certainly wear, though he found a few pieces of clothing he knew were his own. It made sense that he’d store things here to wear after staying over, though of course he knew he had his own dorm room as well. This was just the evidence of another person’s life after they had made room for sharing it with someone else.
Augustus closed the wardrobe door and crumpled for a moment, crouched, breathing hard, one hand splayed on the floor, the other on the wood of the closet. He couldn’t remember grief, wasn’t sure when he had stopped having grief, but this was the closest he’d felt to it in such a very long time, because he was suddenly desperately aware of having once had something incredible, something that he’d lost and hadn’t even realized he’d lost.
There was movement in his hair, and a small, iridescent beetle dropped to his shoulder, skittering across his skin, settling in the dip of his collarbone. It buzzed, but didn’t say anything. Augustus didn’t say anything back either, though he raised a finger and lightly stroked it down the beetle’s back. What could he even say to this? Enmity was simply seeing what Augustus was seeing, processed through his own mind. Enmity would know Augustus loved him regardless; would likely not even consider otherwise, given the shape of their relationship. Besides, Augustus had sworn himself to him, handed his soul over in exchange for a ring, as he understood was the way things should be in a marriage. They were each other’s, regardless of the past. The brutal grip of realization and old promises had little sway in the face of things he had built for himself since.
He rose again, feelings under control, and returned to the bed. He carefully put the beetle down on the bedside table, and gently nudged Vii’s shoulder. “Vii, wake up.”
Vii let out a groan and turned over, scrunching his face up and wrinkling his nose. “No, I don’t think I shall.”
Augustus let himself indulge and leaned down, giving Vii a lingering kiss. It was desperately familiar. Vii kissed back sleepily, with a muffled laugh, draping an arm around Augustus’s shoulders. “Already?” he murmured. “I don’t know if I can—”
“No,” Augustus murmured, pulling back a short distance, reluctant. “Since things are going to happen so soon … I want to talk, Vii.”
“Ugh.” Vii shifted back too, slowly sitting up, propping his bare upper back against the wall. “I hate those words.”
“Nothing bad,” Augustus promised. “I just … I’m scared, I suppose. Or intimidated, more accurately. Everything may change soon, right?” He felt like he was roleplaying a self he could no longer remember, but that was fine. It was all in his own mind anyway. What was key was trying to tap into a core of emotional honesty, so he could get the same in return from his own mind. A brutally unfair thing to ask of himself, really. “So I want to make sure that I know everything there is to you. So that whatever happens, we have more of each other to hang on to.”
Vii let out a startled laugh. “Damn. Well. All right. Shift over.”
Augustus did, giving room for Vii to get up if he wanted to. “Why did you never introduce me to your family? I know they’re very attentive and love you a lot, so—”
Vii swung his legs out of bed; this time it was his turn to pace the room, naked, lanky. Not a bad sight, Augustus had to admit. He had no reason to force himself to keep his eyes on Vii’s face, so after a moment, he stopped forcing himself to.
“It’s complicated,” Vii said. He grabbed a cylinder from the shelf and put it into the gramophone; something light and airy began to play, a galant-style song. He got the gas lit on the burner and began to make tea. “My family is … yes, they are attentive. I can say that. They’re a large family, merchant class. For a long time, nobody had the knack for magic, but some grandparent or parent or whatever must have had some latent ability that got picked up when new folks married in, because my generation has been producing some magicians. They’ve made a lot of their merchanting life, and they view us as their chance to improve their lot even further. Allowing the Spiders to spin our webs wide, they say.”
Augustus made a face that made Vii laugh again. “So?”
“They put family first and expect everyone else to as well,” Vii said, shrugging. “Not uncommon, I know. But they don’t really get personal freedoms. Right now, you’re something that’s just mine. You’re mine. If I introduced you to my family, they’d all have an opinion on it and they’d expect that their opinions would carry weight. I just … I just want the freedom to be in love.”
“Ah,” Augustus said.
“I mean,” Vii said hurriedly, “obviously we plan to stay together. So depending on what happens with the ritual, I’ll have to introduce you to them someday. But then, it’d be nice to bring you to them with the strength of years behind our relationship.”
That faint ache was back again. Augustus tried to ignore it. “Are your siblings like that as well? Surely that level of demand at least gets split among you.”
“Some of my siblings and cousins have the knack, most do not. My twin does, of course. Olivia. You know about them! I’m very proud of them. She knows who she wants to be, and however changeable that is, she wants us to embrace it. Olivia got all the charisma between us, of course.”
“Liar,” Augustus said.
Vii finished pouring the water over the leaves and turned the burner off, then smiled at Augustus, pleased. “Well, no, they didn’t. We’re both feral little creatures our parents despair of and worry about the way a collar worries about a dog. But Olivia has better figured out how to get people to like her, and is willing to take those steps.”
“‘A collar’ is pretty harsh.”
“Not a choke chain. One of those nice leather things with the dog’s name on it, tied nicely to a stake outside a doghouse so the dog can be comfortable and warm.”
Augustus didn’t have to fake a wince. “Aren’t you worried about what Olivia might think or do if something goes wrong with our ritual?”
“Hah!” Vii was staring at the pot, as if willing the leaves to steep faster. “No, I don’t worry about things like that. If it were Olivia doing this, she’d worry about what I’d think or do. Olivia has a mind like a trap and always tries to think through every detail. That’s why even though they have the knack, they’re studying law, not magic. She’ll make an excellent lawyer. A far cry from when we used to break into the neighbors’ homes together and rifle through their stuff while they were out. Nope, I don’t care what she thinks or feels about it. I hope not to cause them suffering, of course. But it’s not about them.”
“You’re not worried about what’ll happen?”
“Of course I am!” Vii said. He put a hand against the teapot and Augustus watched his fingers redden, but he left it there as long as he could before pulling it back. “I don’t know what’ll happen. But I hope … I don’t know. It’s half the desire to discover something. To be the very first to see something. To share that with other truth seekers. You and Soren. Maybe it’s just escapism.”
“I’ve noticed that you’re not happy,” Augustus ventured. It was a guess, but frustrated discontent seemed to be radiating off Vii. Happy people didn’t break the laws of Conjuration.
Vii’s shoulders sagged. “I try to hide it from you. I love you! I don’t want you to think it’s because of you! I’m just …” He sighed. “Wrong, I guess. Why do you want to do this?”
Augustus thought. He didn’t know why the him back then would have wanted to, of course. But he knew himself well enough to guess. “It seems fun,” Augustus said. “And I want more. I’m a hungry, greedy person who wants the world to pay attention to me. I conjured something when I was young, you know? When my knack developed.” Why was he saying this? Had he said it back then? Was it just nice to have an audience who didn’t exist? “It hunted my family down. It was only luck that I survived. And if I could do that, what else could I conjure? Why would it even let me live if it wasn’t for something? If my life is pointless, what would I even do! So it can’t be. I’m just—I’m just like every other Conjurer. We all learn really fast that everything that makes us up is a bartering chip to the things we can call to us. Identities to the fey, souls to the demons, breath to the elementals, blood to the dead, thoughts to uncanny creatures. Hearts to whatever we want, I guess. If we exist only as a collection of tokens that can be broken up and spread among the things we conjure, then what are we? Can their desire for us not mean something? Why not take control over them? Why not demand their attention and live knowing we’ve captured them?”
The beetle shifted, turning to watch Vii pour the tea. Augustus tried not to look at him.
“Maybe it’s something like that,” Vii said. “With my family, every moment of my day was so controlled. And then my knack showed, and that was even better for their needs. They decided I’d go to school, so I went to school, and every day we take classes on how to control it, how to confine it. Wards, protections, contracts, the rules of conjuration and summoning, the things one simply does not do. I’m so hungry to make my own choices, even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones. I’m so tired of being good, the perfect little Spiders child.” He was crying a little now; though he was trying to speak normally through it, the tears were running down his face. “I just want—”
There was a knock at the door. “It’s time,” Augustus heard through it. Soren’s voice. “Go separately, one at a time. Don’t draw attention. We’ll see you there in an hour.”
“We didn’t even have time to have the tea,” Vii said. He put the cups down, came over, took Augustus’s face between his reddened, overheated hands, and knocked his head against Augustus’s. “I love you,” he said, choked. “I love you. No matter what’s wrong with me, know that’s true.”
Augustus’s vision swam, and for a horrible moment, he thought he was crying too—but it cleared, and he realized he was outside in the woods, dressed properly for walking, right outside a cave that had a fire lit in it. He glanced down, recognizing one of the outfits that had been in Vii’s closet, and seeing the beetle on his chest. “I love you,” he whispered to Enmity. “I need you.”
“Who’s there?” someone called from the cave urgently, so he turned his attention to that at once instead of waiting for an answer, walking in.
Someone had drawn a fantastic array all over the cave. In the middle of one of the looping swirls of sigils was a bowl, with a few things in there already, a lock of hair, a puddle of what looked like semen. Soren relaxed when Augustus came in, then saw him looking at the bowl and looked away, a severe expression crossing his face that Augustus realized took the place of embarrassment.
Vii was sitting on a rock in his shirtsleeves, one rolled up, a knife in his hand but his skin as of yet unpierced. “You’re late,” he said, grinning, the firelight flickering uncannily across his features. “Slowpoke.”
“We were told to come separately and attract no notice,” Augustus retorted.
Soren cut into their banter. “Sorry, but things are already starting to congeal. We shouldn’t dawdle. What do you want to put in there, Augustus? What kind of essence as an offering?”
It could be anything, of course. Different things appealed to different creatures. He could breathe, bleed, come, cry, offer symbolic representations of other elements of himself, whatever. Maybe better not to double up too much; a collection of different options would be a good idea if they were trying to appeal to something the nature of which they didn’t know, and it looked like only a few of the options had already been offered.
Augustus wondered what he would have given back then; if he could figure it out, he might understand his own intentions a little better. But more important than that might be the chance to study their setup, or question Soren, before the memory moved on.
[What should Augustus do?
Comment with details.]