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Flight of Magpies (A Charm of Magpies) by KJ Charles (1)

Chapter One

Lucien, Lord Crane adjusted his ascot and contemplated himself in the mirror. His shirtfront was perfect, the close weave of the silk and linen blend utterly opaque and snowy white. His new suit, handmade by Hawkes and Cheney at staggering expense, was exquisitely fitted, a masterpiece of tailoring. Crane had been dubious about the subtle silver sheen to the grey cloth, had spent a period of time he wouldn’t have cared to disclose mulling it over before placing the order, but was now forced to admit that Mr. Hawkes had been entirely correct. He was not quite pleased with the arrangement of his ascot, and he was without doubt too tanned by years of sun to fit in with the red or white faces of the English climate, but his pale blond hair was sleek, his demeanour impeccable, his aristocratic features composed. In fact, he looked the very model of a correct English gentleman.

“God, you’re a fop,” said the naked man who lay behind him, sprawled in the tangled bedsheets Crane had recently vacated.

Crane gave him a rebuking glance, via the mirror. “I am no such thing. Fops dress to be noticed. I dress for myself. I would dress for you,” he added, “but it would be casting pearls before swine.”

Stephen grinned up at him. “Is that the suit you and Merrick were worrying about, then? The one that you thought would be too flash?”

“It is. What do you think? I have no idea why I bother to ask.”

“It’s grey,” Stephen said. “Which doesn’t surprise me because I’m not sure I’ve seen you wear anything other than grey, but from the way you were talking about it I was expecting peacock blue, or maybe yellow. It’s very nice, of course, but it is, fundamentally, grey. Have you ever considered—I know this will shock you—wearing something else? Black, or maybe brown?”

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?” Crane suggested.

“Too late.” Stephen yawned and stretched, and Crane watched with appreciation as his small, lithe body twisted. He was only five feet tall and built accordingly, but his spare frame was taut and sinewy, and satisfyingly easy to manhandle. “I’m awake now, and I suppose I ought to get up. Get ready for whatever joy today will hold. I’ve been called to a Council meeting at eleven, Lord help me.”

“Out of curiosity, what did last night hold?”

Stephen had turned up around midnight, hair and clothes sodden with some foul, thick, sharp-smelling fluid and, after a thorough wash, had dived into bed to shed the day’s unpleasantness. By this morning, the filthy garments that he had dumped on the bathroom floor had set solid, with a yellowy resinous sheen. Crane had witnessed his manservant’s effort to loosen the mass of cheap cloth and dried horror using the fire irons, and had suggested firmly it should be set aside for burning.

Stephen had not explained himself when he’d come in, and Crane knew better than to push him for answers when those little lines of strain marked the corners of his amber eyes, but he had chased away Stephen’s worries in the only way he knew how last night, and his lover was sated and as boneless as a sleeping cat this morning.

“Oh, it was pretty grim,” Stephen said, yawning again. “There was a chap, he had these…” He mimed large, hand-sized swellings over his body. “And then they went…” He flicked his fingers outwards, indicating explosion. “He died, of course.”

“How outstandingly unpleasant. That was magic—practice, rather—was it?”

“Afraid so. I don’t have the foggiest how it was done, though. Couldn’t make head or tail of it. I dare say we’ll find out.” He stretched, flexing his spine. “Well, we won’t have much choice, since the victim was a retired police superintendent. Inspector Rickaby’s rather upset.”

Crane winced. “I expect he is. Good luck with it. Ready for coffee?”

“Very much so. What are you up to today? Is the suit in honour of something special?”

Crane rang for coffee, then tweaked his ascot again, frowning at the fall of the cloth. “I’m lunching with Leonora and Blaydon. Meeting members of the Blaydon family before the wedding.”

“Didn’t you do that last week?”

“Yes,” Crane said, with some feeling. “And I fully expect to be doing it next week as well. Blaydon has a deplorably extensive family of whom, by my estimate, about two-thirds are single young ladies with hopeful parents. I feel like a stallion being presented for stud.”

“Poor you,” Stephen said, with no effort at sincerity. “Mingling with the cream of English society. It must be hell.”

Crane made an offensive gesture in the mirror. As Stephen well know, his interest in English society extended precisely as far as giving away his old friend Leonora Hart at her marriage to a rising political star of excellent birth. After that, he had every intention of disappearing from the balls and parties he’d been forced to attend, before his steadfast refusal to address his single state became any more obvious.

Crane had no intention of contracting a suitable marriage, and he was damned if he’d allow the ludicrous English laws to shape his behaviour, but he was rich, titled, handsome and unmarried, and this blasted wedding was drawing attention to all of those characteristics. A great deal more attention than he’d intended to attract in this country.

Not that he had ever wanted to stay in England in the first place. That was all down to Stephen. Crane had promised he wouldn’t leave the country without him, and meant it, but his thoughts had undeniably turned from how he could stay in England to how he could make Stephen leave it.

“Well, I hope it’s not as boring as the last luncheon.” Stephen snuggled down into the bed. “Give Mrs. Hart my best.”

“I’m more likely to give her a clip round the ear. She’s nagging me to throw in my political lot with Blaydon now.”

“You don’t have a political lot.”

“I’ve a seat in the House of Lords.”

“Yes, and have you ever actually sat in it?”

“No,” Crane admitted. “But Blaydon’s faction of the Liberals need more voices in the Lords, apparently, so…”

“Oh, come on.” Stephen sat up. The heavy gold ring that he wore on a chain round his neck bounced against his chest as he moved. “You can’t just go and vote for things because Mrs. Hart’s fiancé wants you to!”

Crane shrugged. “Blaydon’s a man of sense and judgement.”

Stephen, who had distinctly Radical tendencies and disapproved of the House of Lords on principle, scowled, but his response was cut off as Merrick entered with a perfunctory knock and a coffee tray. Stephen barely had time to jerk the sheets over his lap, as if Merrick would have been surprised to see him naked in his master’s bed.

“My lord. Morning, Mr. Day.” He handed Stephen a cup. “That suit’s had it, I’m afraid, sir. Can I burn it?”

“I should empty the pockets first.”

“Was there a ten-quid note in there, sir? Cos if there wasn’t, I’d just burn it anyway. You reckon there’s going to be any more of that glue stuff coming up?”

“Possibly. But next time I’ll get out of the way rather faster.”

“That’s be best, sir. Because there’s magic, and then there’s getting your sort of muck out of a Hawkes and Cheney suit.”

Stephen laughed. “Never worry, Mr. Merrick. The day I wear my good clothes to work—”

“Is the day Merrick finally turns on you,” Crane finished for him.

“I shouldn’t dare,” Stephen agreed. “Um, Mr. Merrick, if you have a moment…”

“Sir?”

“Have you, at all, been teaching Jenny Saint some sort of Chinese fighting method?”

Crane spat coffee over the mirror. He cursed, grabbing for a handkerchief to mop any stray drops from the new suit. Merrick had adopted his blank “perfect valet” expression. “Some basic techniques of Nanquan style, sir. I hope that’s not a problem?”

“I don’t know if it’s a problem,” Stephen said. “I do know that she is now able to flip herself through the air like a dervish and kick a man in the face three times before landing. I can’t say I’m sure this is a good thing.”

“She can land on thin air and jump right off it, sir,” Merrick observed neutrally. “Shame not to use that.”

Jenny Saint was one of Stephen’s junior justiciars, an urchin girl with a permanent smirk and an airy disregard for the laws of gravity. Crane was aware that she and Merrick had formed some kind of unholy alliance over a gin bottle, but he hadn’t expected this, and he couldn’t help noticing that neither his lover nor his henchman had brought the matter to him first. He leaned back against the wall, keeping well out of it.

“Saint has time-consuming studies. She needs to learn her practice, and her letters.” Stephen spoke as neutrally as Merrick had. “I can’t have her distracted from those.”

“And has she been, sir?” That wasn’t a challenge, exactly, but it was definitely more than a simple question.

“No, she has not.”

“I dare say that won’t change, then.”

“That would be best,” Stephen agreed. “I am quite happy for Saint to kick people in the face on her own time, Mr. Merrick, as long as she’s fulfilling her obligations on mine.”

The two looked at each other for another couple of seconds, then Merrick bowed slightly in acknowledgement. Stephen tipped his own head, equal to equal.

Merrick turned to Crane. “Is there anything else, my lord?”

“Just the suit. Thoughts?”

Merrick looked his expensively clad master up and down, and sucked air through his teeth. “I told you already. Too flash.”

He departed, place in the pecking order confirmed.

“Arsehole,” Crane muttered. “I can’t believe he’s teaching Miss Saint to fight. I had no idea.”

“As long as that’s all he’s teaching her,” Stephen said, with a hint of grimness. “I have a duty of care for Saint, and I will not have her innocence abused.”

“It’s not Merrick’s habit to abuse innocence,” Crane assured him, glad he could do so wholeheartedly. He did not want to consider what he would do if Merrick and Stephen found reason to clash. “He specialises in respectable widows, he’s never had a taste for chicken, and mostly, he’s not bloody stupid. The only way he’d play the fool with Miss Saint is if he had money riding on who would disembowel him first: you, me or Mrs. Gold.”

Taste for chicken?” Stephen repeated. “Good God, Lucien.”

“Well, you know what I mean.”

“I know nothing of the kind. I did have to ask. To be honest, I’m not unhappy if he’s giving Saint some attention as long as it’s not that sort.” Crane raised a brow in enquiry. Stephen sighed. “It’s hard for her. No family, no friends outside the justiciary, and people tend to look down on her for her birth, or lack of it.”

“That sounds vaguely familiar.”

“I had a family,” Stephen pointed out. “Saint was brought up in a foundling home, which meant she lived by thieving and scrounging. We picked her up a few years ago when someone saw her run over a twenty-foot gap between two roofs, away from a fruit stall she’d robbed. That’s common knowledge, and of course there are plenty of people who don’t feel that a guttersnipe should be in a position of authority over them, so they take every opportunity to remind her of her origins. I don’t suppose she’d have chosen to join the justiciary of her own free will, but if you’ve no money and no family and you need training…”

“Would you have joined, given a choice?” Crane asked. Stephen had been twelve years old when the previous Lord Crane had set about hounding his parents to death. Destitute and alone, he had entered what Crane considered something close to indentured servitude with the justiciary, but he was still doing the job at the age of twenty-nine, with a dogged determination that made Crane fear he would never persuade his lover to leave it.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if Stephen loved his job, if it made him happy, or even was simply a chore. But the duty that tied Stephen to England, and Crane with him, was thankless, dangerous, all-consuming. In fact, a rival that Crane had every intention of eliminating from his lover’s life.

Stephen made a face. “Oh, well. It’s probably for the best, you know, the way it works. At least there’s a way for people to receive training without being plunged into debt if they’ve no family or funds. And Saint’s powers shouldn’t go to waste. Windwalking is astonishingly rare, and quite a remarkable gift. Lord alone knows what she’ll be like with Mr. Merrick advising her. I mean, look at what he did to you.”

“He was merely a midwife to my natural genius. I can’t help noticing that you didn’t even try to answer my question, but I’m used to that.” Crane adopted a martyred expression and saw Stephen’s slightly shamefaced grin, evasive little bastard that he was. “Will you be out late?”

“I’m hoping to be back at a reasonable hour, actually, if you think you might be free?” Stephen raised his eyebrows suggestively.

“It depends. There are all kinds of things I could be doing this evening. Have you anything to offer that might move you up the list?”

Stephen stretched deliberately, twisting his lean torso. “Not at all. I might just lie here in bed, waiting for you, and see if I can think of anything that might be more interesting for you than a Blaydon family luncheon or a balance sheet. If you’re busy, don’t worry. I’m sure I can take care of myself.” He moved a hand under the sheet in demonstration.

“I’m a very busy man,” Crane said. “But I suppose I could force myself back here, lick you all over till you’re begging for my cock, and then fuck you so hard they’ll hear you screaming in the street. If you insist.”

“Sorry, I don’t think I understand what you mean.” Stephen kicked the sheet away. “Do you have time to demonstrate?” He rolled invitingly onto his side as he spoke, one hand stroking himself, flushed and wanton and painfully desirable, and Crane felt his shirt buttons slip through holes at Stephen’s mental command.

He jerked his cufflinks undone. “I dare say I can spare you a few moments.”

“That’s very kind. Though it does seem a terrible waste to get you naked when you spent so long getting dressed.”

“Oh, well.” Crane pushed Stephen unceremoniously onto his back, and knelt astride the smaller man’s body. “I’d made a hash of the ascot anyway.”

Crane’s lovemaking took quite a lot longer than the promised few moments, and they were still in bed when the clock struck ten and Merrick hinted that anyone who didn’t come for breakfast now would be making his own. Fed, dressed, and with Stephen’s ring left safely in the drawer of Crane’s desk, to avoid notice at the Council, they left the flat together, by the main entrance.

It was probably indiscreet, Crane knew, but he refused to care. They had fucked joyfully and talked properly for the first time in a fortnight, thanks to Stephen’s damned over-demanding schedule, and he was not going to end those few snatched hours of simple pleasure by sending Stephen to slink furtively down the servants’ stairs as if this were some sordid liaison. Crane tipped the doormen of his mansion block lavishly enough that it was not in their interests to cause trouble about his comings and goings. And he would not start to worry about being arrested simply because he walked down a flight of stairs with his lover. He had spent his adult life in China, where nobody cared who he slept with, and he did not like the way England’s laws and expectations were creeping into his consciousness, making him fearful about what had been normal. So he had pushed Stephen towards the front door of the flat when the other man had been turning towards the back, and they walked out into the chilly street together.

It was a cold winter, but the sun was out and the sky blue, so they went on foot, breath steaming in the icy air, heading for Lincoln’s Inn Fields where the Council met.

“Think it’s going to snow?” Crane asked idly.

“Not yet. Probably. Will we be able to go to Rothwell if it does?”

“We’ll lay in supplies. Leave it to Merrick.” They were going to Crane’s hunting box, a small isolated lodge near the village of Rothwell, in Northamptonshire for two weeks around Christmas and New Year. Crane had no intention of using it to hunt anything other than a short-arsed shaman.

“I feel slightly guilty about Mr. Merrick,” Stephen remarked. “Isn’t it awfully dull for him up there when you’re, uh, preoccupied?”

“You are the only man alive whose first concern about a romantic tryst is whether the servants might get bored. Don’t worry about Merrick, he makes his own entertainment.”

“He has a widow up there?”

“It’s probably best not to enquire too closely. I never do. What does the Council want with you?”

“Don’t know.” Stephen stuffed his hands in the pockets of the topcoat that Crane had insisted on buying him for this chilly winter. It had been a great deal more expensive than Stephen, who accepted gifts with startling gracelessness, had wanted; a great deal cheaper than Crane would have preferred; unsatisfactory to both. “I got a note from Esther last night telling me we’d to be there this morning.”

Crane frowned. “Is this about the power?”

“No. I’m sure it’s not. Don’t fret.”

“I do not fret,” Crane said, offended. “You fret.”

“You fret like a mother hen every time I mention the Council.”

“I regard your Council with dislike, distrust and dismay, as any reasonable man would. I can’t help it if you mistake my rational caution for fretting.”

Stephen cast an affectionate look up at him. “It’s fine, Lucien. I’ve been ridiculously careful. The whole thing will be forgotten by spring, if you ask me.”

“I’m glad to hear you say so,” said Crane dryly. Stephen sounded convincing, but then, as a fluent and habitual liar, he usually did.

Stephen’s problem with the Council was all down to Crane. He knew it, hated it, and was powerless to do anything about it.

Crane was descended from a magician of immense power known as the Magpie Lord, and the Vaudrey family line still carried that power. He had no magical talent of his own, but it ran in his blood and bone and seed, and when his body met Stephen’s, the magic came with it, unsought and unstoppable.

That, in tandem with the ancient gold ring Crane had also inherited from the Magpie Lord, had lent Stephen the strength to save both their lives, but it had also exposed him to suspicion. Many practitioners of magic would kill for power—Stephen’s job was in large part about stopping them doing exactly that—and anyone whose talents were suddenly enhanced became the object of grave doubts. Even Esther Gold, Stephen’s partner, had feared he was turning warlock, stripping the life from others to make himself stronger. Esther knew the truth now, but Stephen wasn’t prepared to admit to his illegal relationship to anyone else, certainly not to the Council. And he was adamant that the tempting power in the Vaudrey bloodline had to remain secret, to protect Crane from those who would be desperate to use it. Crane, who had twice faced death and worse at the hands of people who wanted his power, was fully in agreement with that.

He had no idea if Stephen was telling the truth about deflecting the Council’s suspicions, and in some ways, he didn’t care. It would be bad if Stephen was forced from his post; humiliating for him to be dismissed in disgrace. But it didn’t matter to Crane how he left it, as long as he could whisk the obstinate little sod away from this damned rainy judgemental country to a life that included a lot more luxury and a lot less horror.

He sighed, knowing that this would not be happening soon. “As long as you aren’t about to be hauled in and pilloried for your criminal ways.”

“I trust not.” Stephen sounded vague. His attention seemed to be on the other side of the street. Crane followed the direction of his gaze and saw he was observing a street entertainer. The man had pulled a small bunch of daisies out of his battered stovepipe hat and was flourishing the flowers impressively. A chorus of derision rose from the audience of gawpers, shoppers and dawdling office clerks. The magician put on an expression of exaggerated hurt, rummaged in the hat and produced, this time, a massive bouquet of tropical blooms. He made a hopeful “is that better?” face as he showed it around that won him a ripple of laughter and applause.

“Problem?” Crane asked, glancing down.

“Just checking.” Stephen drifted casually over the road, ducking round a carriage. Crane followed, more carefully, to avoid splashing his trouser legs in the winter mud and slime of the streets.

They watched the magician for a few minutes. He was rather good, with some excellent sleight-of-hand, if that was what it was. A number of practitioners were turning their talents to supplying the current popular craze for stage magic, much to the Council’s disapproval, and the justiciary were keeping an eye out for problems. There had been a rather unfortunate business a couple of months ago with a performer whose remarkable displays with knives had attracted a lot of attention, particularly when he lost concentration at a crucial moment. As a result, Stephen had been watching a lot of theatrical magic, and to Crane’s poorly concealed amusement, was developing a decided taste for it. They had seen all of the remarkable performances on offer at the Egyptian Hall, and while Crane found it hard to get excited about illusions when he had the genuine article in his bed, he was endlessly entertained by Stephen’s rapt reaction to trickery.

He judged from the slight relaxation of Stephen’s stance now that this display was entirely about technical skill rather than unnatural powers, glanced at his fob watch to be sure they could still reach Lincoln’s Inn Fields for Stephen’s appointment, and settled back with only mild resignation to watch, dividing his attention between the performer and his lover.

The magician multiplied a series of billiard balls, whipping a silk handkerchief over and around his fingers while the ivory spheres appeared and vanished. Crane, contemplating the display, became conscious that someone was looking at him. He glanced around and saw a wild-haired man in a white muffler sketching rapidly on a pad.

The artist glanced up and caught Crane watching him. His eyes widened fractionally, and he turned the paper round to reveal the beginnings of a pencil drawing, a few winged lines capturing Crane’s well-shaped brows and high cheekbones.

“Portrait, sir?” he asked, with a West Country burr. “Half a crown.”

Crane would have thrown him a shilling, but that was ludicrous. He snorted. The artist, obviously expecting his refusal, had already turned the paper back and was scribbling again.

The magician’s little performance concluded with a flourish. Stephen moved to the pavement artist, and stopped for a moment to peer over his shoulder as he worked on the sketch.

“He was quite good,” he remarked as they strolled on. “Have you ever had a portrait done?”

“No. I suppose I ought to, but that’s such a dull reason to do anything.”

“I thought it was compulsory for your station in life.” Stephen paused, and added, diffidently, “I’d like it if you did.”

“Then I shall. Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I like looking at you.”

“I’d prefer to be here for you to look at in person—” And so would Stephen, who saw death daily and was too used to loss. Crane gave himself a mental kick and went on smoothly, “But you’re quite right. I do have a duty to posterity to preserve my beauty.”

“I did not say that.”

“I’ll look into it. If you’ll sit for one as well, that is.”

“Oh. Uh—”

“That’s the condition, my sweet. I like to look at you too. I shall find the right artist to do you justice.”

Stephen narrowed his eyes. “If that’s going to be a joke about miniature painters…”

Crane gave a crack of laughter that sent a pair of magpies skittering up off the pavement, and they walked on together, towards the Council.

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