EPISODE FOUR (Ash) - "Valentine"

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story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb

written by Cassidy Webb

As above, so below, was a precept taught to Mercurii boys on the first day of Magic Theory class: that heavenly bodies moved in lockstep with earthly ones, and invisible bonds wove together the whole of existence in a rhythmic dance. Ash remembered the day of that lesson clearly, twelve years later. He remembered the simple illustration Professor Vipond had drawn on the chalkboard depicting a scatter of five-pointed stars at the top, adjacent hexagons representing the subatomic fabric of everything at the bottom, and dozens of vertical lines connecting the two. That moment had stuck with him clearly all these years, because he remembered thinking, even at the tender age of six, that some part of the story was being left out. Some things between cosmic intention and material manifestation were demonstrably out of sync.

Like himself. Ashton Grenville didn't belong in his own body.

He measured out the first of the premixed concoctions in a beaker—a half-pint. Portioned and added in thirteen grains of aurichalcum. Two-and-a-half pennyweights of powdered arum-lily.

Exact ratios were key. So was sequence.

You must be ever vigilant against your inborn nature.

It was Dad's favorite admonishment. One Ash had heard so many times over the years that, in his head, it had become a silent mantra.

You must extinguish all trace of what you innately are.

Three-eighths pint of the second concoction, measured out in a second beaker, then added to the first.

The reaction gave off a pungent cloud.

Three-fourths pennyweight of adamantine. A half-dram of quicksilver.

The liquid started to bubble and froth.

"You're certain it's the correct formula?" came Scipio Grenville's scar-throated voice.

Ash looked up from his task, caught sight of his own face in his dresser mirror: a porcelain mask. Dad behind him, a pile of ravaged flesh in a smoking jacket, occupying his mahogany wheelchair by the towering window, parked in a pillar of harsh orange sunlight. "I researched it thoroughly. You ask me that almost every morning. Why would my answer change?"

"Spare me your lip, child. You know as well as I do it's not working as it should."

"I haven't grown hips or breasts."

"You're small and weak. Your voice hasn't dropped. A few more years without better results and folk are sure to start asking questions."

"I'm a late bloomer, probably. Some people are."

Scipio grunted. "I don't want to have to resort to glamors, illusion. The risk of discovery's too great."

"I've gotten far enough as I am."

"The farther you rise, the farther you may fall. This promotion, this assignment to lead a critical investigation—these are opportunities you must not squander."

Ash's hand twitched. He set down a vial too hard, clinking it loudly against the tray. "When in my life have I ever squandered an opportunity? I've made opportunities where there were none."

"Yet you remain a humble Frater in the halls of the Black Pyramid. The veils of the deeper mysteries are closed to you. Accomplishments you have; I can hardly deny you've exceeded my expectations, despite your disadvantage. But accomplishments, intellect, erudition are not all that's required. You lack a man's presence. You lack a man's cunning. You lack a man's will to power. Do you think Bram Baptiste lacks those things? Or any of the other young men who are your competitors?"

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