“Julian!” Light ran to him with a childish openness and flung her arms around him, hugging him tightly. “I'm sorry I went out, but saw them againâthe red stag and the white mareâand Iâ”
“And now you must greet our guest, Light,” Julian said with fond firmness. He placed a hand on Light's head and looked up at Truth. “Light is our psychic, and sometimes gets â¦ easily distracted. Don't you, little one?” he said indulgently.
Light shook her head violently. Her voice and gestures were those of a much younger woman, and Truth felt a sudden pang of protectiveness. She had no sense that Light was mentally impaired, but it was obvious that she was unequipped to deal with the modern world unaided.
“I was not distracted!” Light protested, still taking no notice of Truth. “I was following the red stag. The red stag and the white mare; the gray wolf and the black dog; red and gray and black and white, the four wardens of the Gate,” she singsonged excitedly.
“But you must not follow them into the wood, child.
Though they mean you no harm, there are other dangers in the wood,” said the man who had entered with her.
He was easily two inches taller than Julian, with curly black hair that shone blue where the light hit it. The deep voice was faintly foreign, with a lingering trace of an accent Truth couldn't quite place. She looked up, into his eyes.
Falling, and in place of the Light and the Word was darkness and the fire eternal
With an effort, Truth dragged herself out of â¦ what?
“Hello, I'm Truth Jourdemayne,” she said, almost as if daring him to contradict her. Feeling oddly formal, she held out her hand.
He took it, bowing over it in an equally formal fashion. Truth forced herself not to recoil at the touch. Power blazed through his skin; her hand tingled harshly, and surreal images exploded behind her eyes like fireworks. Why was
hereâand what was he doing in this disguise? These were not his clothesâthis was not his place!
“And the last of our band appears. Truth, this is Michaelâ”
“âArchangel,” the tall man finished, releasing her hand and looking into her eyes once more. The brief hallucination vanished, and Truth saw that Michael Archangel's eyes were black, the division between iris and pupil nearly invisible, and his skin was the clear pale olive of a Renaissance icon's.
“It would be less unusual rendered in my native Greek,” he continued, “but it was Anglicized so long ago that it does not seem worth the trouble to change it back.”
Truth stared at him and then at her fingers. They looked normalâwhy had they tingled with that ascetic fire? And where had that alien certainty come from? She'd never seen this man before in her life!
“The Archangel Michael, captain of the armies of
God,” Julian said mockingly. There seemed to be an edge to his bantering now that Truth didn't remember hearing before.
“Who will put down the Serpent in the last days, and cast him utterly into the Abyss for all time,” Michael agreed, as if finishing some sort of catechism.
“But meanwhile, doing research in our collection,” Julian said smoothly. He disentangled Light from himself and gave her a gentle push in Irene's direction. “Run along and find Irene, sweetheart. She'll get you something to drink.”
Light smiled at them sunnily, including Truth in this silent welcome, before turning away.
“If you'll excuse me,” Michael said, strolling after Light.
Julian watched them go, a faint preoccupation on his face.
He doesn't like Michael and Light being together
, Truth thought with that new unreasonable certainty.
She forced herself to disregard this intuition; it would be so easy to convince herself that this inner voice was always rightâand that was where delusions of great occult power came from.
he, Julian?” Truth asked, knowing the question sounded juvenile and still unable to keep from asking it.
“An old school chum of mine, actually. Not what I suppose you'd call a believer; he's using my collection to do some research work of his own,” Julian said. “But not a skeptic, either. Michael's allegiance remains â¦ uncommitted.”
Truth and Julian were still standing more or less in the middle of the parlor. The others had scattered into comfort: Hereward was sitting on the oyster sofa talking to Fiona, who was perched on its arm, her hemline riding perilously high. Ellis, as was only to be expected, was standing near the sherry decanter, his glass full once more.
Gareth, surprisingly enough, had gone over to join Michael and Light. One of the other menâDonner or Caradoc, she wasn't quite sureâwas explaining something to Irene with expansive gestures; the other was seated at the opposite end of the couch.
An ordinary family gatheringâif you happen to be the Addams Family
, Truth thought unfairly. She wondered who all these people
, really, and how Julian had gathered them all together. Surely people weren't named things like “Hereward” and “Caradoc” in this day and age.
If I were practicing magick, I'd probably want an alias too
, Truth thought reasonably, and turned her thoughts back to Julian.
“What do you think of the Blackburn collection, now that you've had a chance to look it over?”
“I've barely begun,” Truth protested, “but I can already see that it will take me weeks to really get a handle on what you have there.”
That, and a native guide.
“Just how valuable is your collection without a copy of
?” she asked boldly. “Irene told me about it this afternoon,” Truth added, noting Julian's look of surprise.
He took a moment to choose his words before he spoke. “A complete collection is always more valuable than an incomplete one, of course. My collection is reasonably representational, allowing for the fact that magickal records and artifacts have always been simultaneously considered deeply confidential and highly ephemeral, so that most collections simply vanish upon their collector's death.”
“Butâ?” prompted Truth, who knew she hadn't heard an answer yet.
“I would give my immortal soul to hold
in my hands,” Julian told her flatly. “Assuming I believed I possessed one,” he added, to lighten the moment.
Truth was fortunately saved from any need to reply by the chiming of a small bell.
“Dinner,” Gareth said, his voice echoing Truth's feeling of relief.
The dining room of Shadow's Gate more than lived up to the rest of the house's Rockefeller-era opulence. It could easily have accommodated a table twice the length of the one that was there, and as it was, the eleven diners had ample space to spread out along its white-damasked length.
Above, two enormous Waterford crystal chandeliers filled the room with sparking light. The floor's opulent parquetry was covered by an immense Aubusson carpet in cream tones, and a brace of dazzlingly ornate silver candelabrum stood ready to light on the marble-topped ebony-wood sideboard along with a number of single silver candlesticks.
The room was half-paneled in the style of a bygone age, and from the wainscoting to the ceiling the walls were covered in a golden silk brocade. An arched set of double doors led out into the house's central space, and two smaller doors led to the kitchen and the butler's pantry.
Julian went to the head of the table and gestured to the foot.
“As our guest of honor, the place of honor is yours,” Julian said to Truth, gesturing to the foot of the table.
“Oh, I couldn't. Really,” Truth said, hesitating in the doorway.
“Julian, really!” Fiona cooed in falsely honeyed tones. “You'll make her feel quite conspicuous.” Fiona slithered into the seat at the foot of the table with an alacrity that suggested it wasn't her usual place, and shot a look of defiant triumph at Truth.
Truth sensed a sudden tension in the room, like a whip-crack of distant thunder, but Julian said nothing, merely drew out the chair at his right.
“Here, then,” he said, smiling. “So I can monopolize your conversation throughout the meal.”
The others all settled into new places around the table. Truth was amused to find that Ellis Gardner then seated himself on her right, obviously glad of a fresh ear for his tattle. Truth wondered if it was a good idea to cultivate him: On the one hand, you learned everyone's secretsâa version of them, anywayâbut on the other hand, most other people wouldn't talk freely to you once word got out that you were companioning a scandalmonger.
Scandalmonger. Now there's an old-fashioned word! Wonder where that came from?
Michael graciously allowed Irene to take the seat on Julian's left before settling himself next to her with Light on his other side. Truth, gazing across the table into Michael's midnight eyes, had the feeling that more was going on here than a dinnertime game of musical chairs, but brushed the thought aside. It was nothing to do with her, after all.
The soup course was passed, and Truth thought longingly of her room at the Shadowkill Bed-and-Breakfast, far from all these passions and factions and seething hidden agendas. Once there, only see if she ever came back to Shadow's Gate!
But you'll have to. Your work here isn't finished yet
, an inner voice reminded her.
The thought checked her as if it had erected a physical barrier. It was true. She'd barely even begun to outline her biography of Thorne Blackburn, and she already knew that most of the material she needed to write it was here in Julian's collection. Julian's collection, Irene's memories â¦
She glanced across the table to where Light sat between Michael and Gareth. Light looked up when she felt Truth's eyes on her, and smiled shyly before ducking her head again. Truth felt an answering smile tug at her
own mouth. And while she was meddling, she'd better also find out from Irene just what Light's position was in this odd extended household, and if Light were being â¦ exploited in any way.
“Some wine, Truth?”
She was roused from her list-making reverie by Julian's question. She nodded, and he poured her glass full of a sparkling straw-colored vintage.
“I am not one of those who believes the path to power lies in denial and asceticism,” he said, smiling at her. “Certainly there are occasions upon which fasting and petition are appropriate, and then I employ them, but how much more true is it that we must understand what range of information our senses can provide if we are to fully master them?”
“You know I understand very little of your â¦ practices,” Truth said frankly. After the sherry, she wasn't sure she wanted another glass of wine immediately, but everyone else at the table, even Light, was drinking, and besides, she'd have a full meal to offset its effects. “Is that what Blackburn believed?” She raised her glass and sipped.
“In this as in all things, you behold me his pupil,” Julian said, smiling.
like some wine, too, Julian,” Fiona said, raising her glass meaningfully. Hereward, laughter in his eyes but his face as irreproachably blank as a butler's, poured her glass full from the second bottle at the foot of the table.
“Not that Julian hasn't found some improvements to make to the Master's Work,” Irene said cheerily, interrupting Fiona as if she hadn't heard her.
“If the Work is to succeed, we can't regard it as some sort of received truth, to be trifled with only at our peril. The Wheel turns,” Julian said.
“And Julian,” Ellis said
in Truth's ear, “intends to be on top of it no matter how much it turns.”
Truth glanced toward him, an automatic social smile on her face. It was an impression of Julian she'd already collected for herself, but knowing that about him only seemed to make him more exciting.
What was Shadow's Gate turning her into?
Dinner was a long and lavish affair, though its accoutrements fell short of the hordes of liveried footmen that the dining room seemed to call for. The food was expertly prepared and its presentation worthy of a four-star restaurant, but in the modern day, throngs of convenient servants such as peopled the Gothic novel were not so easily come by. The cook and one assistant brought the food to the table, after which the diners served themselves.
The talkâand the wineâflowed freely, conversation ranging from such homely topics as possible future difficulties with the property's well to the latest movies. It was a warm, easy camaraderie that made Truth feel like an accepted member of the group.
The only faintly sour note was Fiona's continuing dislike, but that was easily understood. Fiona's attraction to Julian was obviousâeven if it didn't seem to be mutual.