Mr. Sykes and the Noble Muse (Pt. 1)

Author: Ginn Hale

Characters: Belimai Sykes & William Harper

 

Raindrops twisted and swung like glass baubles flung from a jewelry box as the wind tossed them through the darkening sky. The air tasted wet and smelled of apples turning slowly to cider amid decaying golden leaves. There were worse evenings to be out on a roof and considering the condition of the tiles there wasn’t really all that much of a difference between inside and out in a number of places.

“How bad is it?” Harper called up to me. He peered through the rain and twilight gloaming. He balanced on the every top rung of a ladder, gripping the snout of the gargoyle downspout.

I considered my response for a moment, because instinctively I wanted to lie and assure him that all was well. After three months of sweating and laboring to repair the west wing before winter the last thing Harper–or —needed was a gaping hole in the roof of the east wing. But here it was and I already knew Harper would be too bloody-minded to just raise the money for the repair by increasing his tenants’ rents. He’d bankrupt himself first.

And then what would become of this towering fortress, which Harper so quaintly called our house? (That in itself bordering on absurdity. A little like referring to the vast, seething Tehom Ocean as the puddle between us and the colonies.) Still, the old castle was Harper’s home and had been my sanctuary for nearly five years now. I’d grown accustomed to the ramparts, secret corridors, stained-glass windows and whispering drafts. I’d even developed a rather perverse fondness for the glowering portraits of Harper’s austere, disapproving ancestors. Here I’d shed my sordid past and despite being a Prodigal I’d earned the bored tolerance of most the country folk. My insistence upon failing to seduce any maidens, burn down the local church or steal even a single baby had soon proven such a disappointment that many of the local tenant-farmers had come to regard me as nearly harmless.

I’d even made a friend in the person of Harper’s groundskeeper, Hugh Browning, who on the whole was much less harmless than myself. He possessed the sort of dark, good looks that seemed to render many a local maiden prone to seduction, and he produced a scrumpy well-worth the next day’s hangover. (On a recent scrumpy bender, he and I had conceived the mad idea of concocting an illicit flying potion from a few drops of my blood and a bruise tonic. It hadn’t proved too long-acting or pleasant tasting.)

But more than anything else this place had allowed me to see so much more of Harper’s character and to grow infuriatingly, deeply attached to him. I could no longer imagine falling asleep or waking without the sensation of his warm body pressed close to mine. His company and conversation lent amusement, joy, annoyance, and ecstasy to the slow days of countryside life.

All of it, thanks to the shelter offered by this crumbling, majestic relic of a fortress with its weathered granite walls, worn oak interiors, ironwork bars and crumbling slate roofs. What would we do without this place, I wondered? And at the same time considered just how much Harper had already sacrificed for the sake of our moldering haven. How much more could he possible labor before he simply collapsed himself?

Lightning flickered in the distance, throwing long shadows across the pastures, fields, orchards and cottages that Harper had updated and restored over the last few years. I glanced back to him and saw lines of concern etching his brow. He’d eked out a living from the income of this old ruin while paying off the mortgages his father had taken out. All the while he’d improved the leases and the livelihoods of a small army of servants and cottagers. And when he’d run short of personal funds he’d done whatever needed doing himself. He’d laid stones and plastered walls, planted seedlings and driven wandering flocks of sheep back from his wheat fields to their pastures.

I’d done my share of lifting, carrying and generally toiling, but only because even as lazy a creature as myself couldn’t help but be shamed into effort while keeping Harper’s industrious company.

The merciless manner in which Harper worked himself showed in the fine lines beneath his eyes as well as his tanned, weathered skin and grayed temples. Always lean, he’d grown recently spare and ropey as an underfed boxer. Still the sight of him warmed me. Even with rain dripping off the end of his nose, I found him strikingly handsome.

I extended one finger and scraped a slate shingle. It cracked and clattered down into the shadows of the exposed roof timbers.

“Belimai?” Harper’s voice rose up from the gloom. The wind tossed his light hair and light rain pelted his tanned face. He couldn’t possibly see me through the darkness and yet, as always his dark eyes rested upon me.

“I’m fine. But one of your ancient shingles has shuffled off the mortal coil.”

“Just the one?” Harper sounded skeptical.

“No, that was simply the latest of many.” No point in dragging it out. I was just getting soaked floating up over the roof and Harper wasn’t doing much better from his spot beside the gurgling downspout.

“How bad is it?” Harper muscled himself up a hand higher and my heart jerked at the sight. He was 200 feet off the ground and balancing on the tips of one boot between a frail rung ladder and a crumbling gargoyle. And unlike my devilish self, he couldn’t fly if anything gave way.

“Damn it, Will! Both feet on the bloody ladder. You swore!”

He offered me an amused look but lowered himself back down a foot or so to the stability of the ladder.

“I stand, literally, corrected,” He called to me. “So, how bad is the roof?”

“Well, the hole is not so large that the carriage could fall clean through but I might just about block it if I jammed in my entire body.”

“Oh well, that solves that, then,” Harper replied drily.

“It would offer me a lovely vantage point for my latest landscape, however.”

“Nothing captures the charm of country life like rotting roofing overlooking the pastures,” Harper returned without enthusiasm.

“I did actually sell one very like that,” I replied though I wasn’t thinking too much about the sad little commissions I’d made from the sales of my paintings back in the capital of Crowncross. Landscapes and architectural studies of the Foster estate garnered me a small income. The few nudes, displayed to only certain customers sold for far more but too sporadically to be relied upon. It would require much more coin than I had stashed away to replace the massive oak supports and slate tiles of this roof.

I turned in the wind, drifting around the perimeter of the newly opened up hole. A nightjar swooped past me, circled once curiously, and then winged back to the comfort of its nest. It wasn’t a fit night to be in the air. I too wheeled back and lit off to the edge of the drains where Harper waited.

“The actual cavity is about five feet square, but I think the underlying decay might be much more extensive.”

Harper sighed heavily but nodded. I wished, not for the first time that this could have happened after Harper departed to attend Squire Marcy’s Harvest Ball. At least then he might have enjoyed a few carefree hours of capering and kicking at the dance. Maybe Hugh Browning and I could have covered the whole thing over and let it be until after Harper collected the autumn rents.

“We’ll have to hire men in the morning. Only thing we can do tonight is to keep any more rain from getting down into the walls and plaster below,” Harper said.

The steak and ale pie already laid out on our super table was going to go cold, but it would keep.

I didn’t mention the Harvest Ball. If Harper decided not to attend I would go and make an excuse for him. Just the sight of my glossy black nails and bright yellow eyes tended to put snotty Squire Marcy in a panic. He’d likely feel so desperate to remove me from his garish, sprawling country house that he’d pay no mind at all to what I said. The fact that Squire Marcy craved Harper’s approval—Harper possessing the title of Lord Foster and being the last descendant of an ancient and holy lineage—precluded Marcy from simply having his footmen beat me out the door with fire irons.

No doubt, Squire Marcy viewed me in much the same way as he viewed the menagerie of crested vultures and condors that the Duke of Gwenhill maintained. Only the duke’s reeking raptors rarely attended social occasions and never escorted ladies—not even country ladies—to the table or dance floor. Still, it wouldn’t do to abuse the Prodigal artist that Lord Foster kept like a strange kind of pet.

Knowing as much, I often took a certain pleasure in observing the squire’s face turn greenish and sickly with horror when I complimented his dim, young sister or called his fiancé a beauty. Imagining the squire’s horror at my company buoyed my spirit through the drizzle and difficulty of the next hour.

Between us, Harper and I hauled a good twenty yards of oiled canvas up to the roof. The broad expanses of stiff, yellowed cloth whipped and filled with wind, billowing like sails. At one point, a gust lifted me up toward the icy heights of growing storm clouds. Harper barely managed to catch my boot in time.

“Let go of the damn canvas, Belimai!” he shouted.

I refused. I’d been there when Harper had bought the stuff and seen what it cost.

Swearing, Harper hauled me and my sail back down. He continued swearing for a good while, holding me tightly in his arms and informing me that I could have been killed if I’d been slammed into one of the parapets or had been impaled one any of the spiked lightning rods. His body felt warm and he smelled pleasantly of sweat and rain.

“You put me through hell, you know that?” he muttered against the side of my head. The oiled canvas slithered and slapped at the roof tiles behind us. More rain pattered down. I felt Harper’s heart beating as if it were in my own chest. We clung together, braced between gaping gargoyles and the cold churning wind.

“Didn’t I save you fifty silver, though?” I whispered to Harper.

He simply shook his head. Then he released me and I scampered across the slick wet tiles, dragging two ends of the oiled canvass behind me while he secured the other two corners to downspouts.

Once we had plugged up the roof and gotten ourselves thoroughly drenched, we retired with our cold meal to the library hearth and ate. The firelight turned the gray in Harper’s hair gold and cast a feeling a warm comfort over me. Having dispatched our suppers, we played cards. Harper indulged me in allowing me to wager and promptly lose such treasures as my virtue and innocence to him. The longcase clock rang out seven lethargic notes that made me suspect it needed winding. That or Mrs. Kately had stuffed a rag in the thing again to dampen it’s often pounding chimes. Harper’s head footman, Giles, sidled in and inquired if the master still planned to attend Squire Marcy’s Dance.

To my surprise Harper said he would and added that I would be going as well.

Giles withdrew to lay out Harper’s formal clothes and I frowned at Harper.

“I thought you’d had your fill of Squire Marcy attempting to foist his hollow-headed sister off on you already,” I commented. The previous autumn, a scarcity of titled bachelors had found Harper the target of several matchmaking endeavors. Only his insistence that though he no longer wore the collar, he still remained a priest at heart had kept the hounds of matrimony at bay.

Harper looked a little harrowed at the reminder but then shrugged.

“I promised Miss Venet that I’d attend,” Harper said and he had the grace to at least look apologetic. We did not exactly see eye-to eye on the subject of Miss Venet—she of the silky, black locks, skin like cream and the bountiful dowry.

 

Author Bio:

ghaleGinn Hale resides in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and two cats. She spends many of the rainy days tinkering with devices and words and can often be sighted herding other people’s dogs, bees and goats. Her novel Wicked Gentlemen won the Spectrum Award for Best Novel and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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