The Conspiracy: Part Five
Then, without warning, the magic finished. Everything was dark and silent; Lockwood released the breath that he had not been aware of holding, and snapped his fingers to conjure a magical fire in his hand.
The light, however, was unnecessary, for in the center of the room there now stood a faerie, and she glowed with an aura of palest silver, illuminating everything in a peculiar shade of grey.
Most unsettling of all was the fact that Lockwood recognized her. He had seen her before – an icy faerie on a playing card of his own imagination, when he had been trapped inside his own curse – she had been the Queen of Diamonds. And yet to his recollection he had never laid eyes on her before then, and he could only surmise that she appeared as she did to suit him, for he was certain he had never seen her outside of his own inner world.
She could have been a light faerie, or a dark faerie, or anything at all; but Lockwood saw how he had mistaken her for a faerie of ice. The strands of hair under her dark hood were bright and silver, and her eyes glittered an impossible, fantastic shade of white. Lockwood had thought her beautiful when he had seen her on the card; but standing in front of him, even oddly transparent as she was, he could tell that he had never seen anything so lovely in his life.
“You are my spell,” he stated uncertainly, as though he wished to reassure himself of the fact.
The faerie smiled, not kindly or maliciously, or anything so much as cryptically. She nodded.
“And you will answer my question?”
She nodded once again, her pale eyes glittering with something that might have been amusement.
“That is very obliging of you – but I have been warned of a price that you will exact from me for your answer. What is that price?”
For the first time the beautiful faerie spoke; her voice was low and melodious, but somehow it had a wildness and strength to it that suited her striking appearance. “There is always a price, and it is always of your choosing.”
Lockwood felt that this was too vague for satisfaction and arched an eyebrow, wondering how to proceed.
“You think that I am trying to deceive you, Mr. Lockwood?” she asked softly, moving forward until she was not two feet in front of him. She placed one long, slender finger under his chin and raised it so that he was looking into the strange emptiness of her white eyes, rimmed with deepest black. Her touch was freezing, jolting, almost electrifying, as though her very skin sizzled with power.
“Yes,” he replied numbly, longing to tear his gaze away but not knowing quite how.
At the same time he was fascinated by it. He could not decide whether her eyes were merely blank and glossy, or whether they plummeted unknown depths into a tunnel of nothingness. Whatever the nature of her magic was, he did not recognize it, and it was captivating.
“I will not deceive you,” she said simply, withdrawing her hand. “I cannot deceive you. You may only deceive yourself.”
“And so you will take anything I choose as payment?”
“Yes. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“But what,” he inquired with suspicion, “will be my choices?”
“Anything in the world,” the faerie replied.
Lockwood was quite certain that she would know the solution to his problem; but he was equally certain that she was in some way attempting to trick him. He would not be outmaneuvered. “And when is it that I will choose?”
“When you require my services no longer, you will make your payment.”
“I hope you will forgive me,” he said, “for remarking that that sounds very unwise. What possible advantage is it to you, to have me wait?”
“There is no advantage,” she answered, again with her slight, cryptic smile. “It is all the same to me. The advantage is yours alone.”
“And in what way?”
“Things that you once considered worthless you may in time come to value.”
Lockwood stared; wondering, debating, doubting himself, he could not tell whether to accept her offer or not. It was conventional wisdom that any bargain of this sort must end disastrously, but Lockwood had in general an exceedingly low opinion of conventional wisdom – children’s faerie tales were of little use to him here. He knew that it was dangerous; he knew also that he very much wanted to hear the things this faerie had to tell him. He was not likely to encounter such a chance again.
And, of course, there was always the risk that she was not bound by her promises at all; there was no telling what she might do if he refused.
“Then tell me,” he said slowly, “how does one go about concealing the traces of magic?”
“You know that, Mr. Lockwood,” the faerie replied impassively. “You have done it before. Because it was cast on yourself as well, you had no realization of the magic you had done.”
This seemed, to Lockwood, a highly unsatisfactory answer. If she intended to speak in riddles then he had no use for whatsoever. When had he done it? – what spell had he cast on himself? Surely it was not his curse; and so the only possibility was...
“Sly, Tricks and Duplicity,” she finished for him, as though she had read his thoughts. “You were not aware of the magic you had done, and neither was anyone else. Magic cannot be concealed. The traces can only ever be erased from the beholder’s mind.”
“Ah!” he cried eagerly. “So that is the answer. I confess it seems logical; but how is that magic done?”
The faerie shook her head, though her dazzling white eyes never left Lockwood’s face. “That is not a skill that can be taught. It may only be learned.”
He sighed in irritation, reflecting that at least he had found out something. He knew the theory, and the practice would surely follow – and in the meantime, he felt that it would not do to keep the faerie here any longer. What he had done already was dangerous enough; he thought it was necessary to consider what he had done, and what he should do next, free of her peculiarly dominating influence.
“Then that is all,” he said guardedly. “All, at least, for the moment.”
The transparency of her edges began to turn inward until the room behind her was plainly visible. “Then I will come when I am called for again, Mr. Lockwood,” she whispered as she disappeared entirely from view.
He sat there in the dark for several minutes trying to comprehend what he had just experienced; and then, at last, it occurred to him to relight the lamp. His sorcery, never particularly conducive to heat at the best of times, refused to obey him and he was obliged to search the table for tinder, which took a great deal longer than its total surface area seemed to dictate.
He was, he discovered, extremely cold, and his leg was a great deal more painful than it had been before. Gingerly he shifted his position to stretch full-length on the sofa and to pull several quilts around himself, and then, after lying awake for a while, he managed to fall asleep.
Lockwood was not in a precisely unpleasant mood, but he was very distracted, and, Cecilia thought, very fatigued. They had played at cards earlier, but he had declared it the most tiresome thing in the world after a quarter of an hour, and determined to begin teaching her magic.
“However,” he added, arching an eyebrow, “you may wish to reconsider the request. I am certain that Lisha, apart from knowing a great deal more magic than I do, would be a far better teacher.”
Cecilia smiled. “I have an idea that Lisha does not enjoy teaching half so much as she enjoys magic; and so I believe I will stand by my decision.”
Lockwood, who could generally be counted upon to say something clever, only sighed. “Well – I will do what I can. I imagine it might be best to begin at the beginning; what sort of magic can you do?”
“Oh! I – that is – not a great deal, I suppose,” she replied rather uncertainly. “It is really more a question of what I can see than what I can do, at present. I was quite doubtful at first as to whether or not that counted as magic; but from all that I read it was, and so I worked up the courage to ask you.”
“How touching! It warms my heart to be an object of such awe and reverence. But let us proceed. What is it precisely that you can see?”
There was something more malicious than usual in his humor, but Cecilia, well accustomed to her brother’s less agreeable moods, chose to ignore it. “I see it when I see somebody doing magic, and – it is difficult to explain – perhaps I should call it something other than sight, but that seems to describe more closely than anything else.” She paused. “Is that a general characteristic of sorcery, or peculiar to me?”
“Hmm,” replied Lockwood, interested in spite of himself. “That is an intriguing question, and I am afraid I can answer it only in part. As to its being general, I think not; and I am most excessively certain that it is not universal, having never experienced any such thing myself. However, it is by no means unheard of. Are you at all familiar with the concept of mage sight?”
“Am I even vaguely correct in associating it with auras?” she inquired dubiously.
“Certainly, if you like,” he replied, though not very attentively; then he paused for a moment as though he had entirely forgotten their conversation and his thoughts were somewhere very remote. “That is one way of looking at it. But of course, mage sight generally takes a great deal of training; the ability is hardly... What do you see?” he asked abruptly.
She saw that he had (not without some difficulty) lifted Bunny onto the sofa beside him. Bunny was a large, rotund white Snowbunny that he had once conjured; it was exceedingly devoted to Lockwood, but Cecilia felt the faint twinge that she had always felt from it, and she could see as instantly as ever that it was no natural petpet. It was simply a matter of focusing her vision in exactly the correct way, and then she saw the delicate frosty outline of her brother’s magic, and the hint of curling shadow that seeped from its eyes.
She shivered slightly. “I see –”
Quite suddenly, however, her answer was arrested by a cry of horrified surprise; for as she looked at Lockwood, she saw that in her magical vision his eyes glowed an unearthly shade of white.
To be continued...