Necromancy means never having to say good-bye.
Consumption has claimed the life of Adel St. Claire, cutting him down in his prime. But his lover, Josef Leitner, isn’t ready to let him go. To get Adel back, Josef is willing to risk the anger of Adel’s family, make unsavory deals with a corrupt mortician, and challenge the authority of death itself.
Even if he can reanimate Adel’s body, Josef’s next challenge may be more daunting still: when a man returns from the dead, what will it take to satisfy his needs?
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Blue twilight has settled over the cramped streets of Sternberg, deepening shadows at the edges of the tradesmen’s district. Josef leads his rented pony down an alley, watching nervously for any sign that someone might notice his passage. The bundle slung across the pony’s back would cause far too many questions should it fall and spill its contents on the cobblestones.
The door he seeks is halfway down the alley, recessed in the grimy wall, where a weak lantern spills its light against the plaster. Josef knocks on the weathered wood: two sharp raps, a pause, then two more. He wills himself to stay calm. He has done this before—but never for stakes this high.
The door opens with not so much as a whisper. Any man who seeks this entry does not wish his passage remarked. “Good evening, sir,” murmurs Geier, the old mortician. “May I help you?”
“I bring lavender, cut this spring.”
Geier smiles, slow and crooked, and opens the door wider. “You’d best come in, sir.”
Josef tethers the pony to the hitching ring in the wall, lifts down the heavy bundle from its back, and carries it carefully inside. Geier shuts and bolts the door behind him, then turns away to stir the tiny fire in the hearth as Josef sets his parcel down on the long table against one wall. This first part of the exchange is a waiting game, and Josef knows how crucial it is that he not seem impatient.
“Well?” Geier says eventually.
“You know why I’m here.” The passphrase makes it clear enough what his unsavory business is.
“Remind me,” Geier says. “I grow forgetful in my old age.”
He’s never the one to admit to this business first. He doesn’t have to when he’s the one holding the high cards. Josef nods. “I’m looking for a body.”
“Ah.” Geier’s smile stretches thin over his aging flesh. “I do have a few of those on hand.”
Josef grits his teeth. “A specific body.”
Geier folds his hands together in front of himself, bony and grasping, vulture talons. “That’s more difficult,” he says. “Say more.”
“You know exactly who—” Josef grimaces, then smooths his expression with an effort. “Tell me you still have the body of Adel St. Claire.”
“Expensive, Herr Leitner.” Geier shakes his head. “His family will be coming for him, you know. They’ll not be pleased if I have to tell them I burned the body before they could take him home for a proper funeral.”
“I’m prepared to compensate you for the trouble.” He and Adel had planned for this, once it started to look inevitable that consumption would claim Adel’s life. Josef has no worldly influence, no family or title, no gold to back up his claim—but Adel had all those things. He brought Josef coins, chains of gold filigree, and polished gems; Josef’s purse is heavy with them now.
Geier looks skeptical. “Your word’s always been good, Herr Leitner, but this is no small favor you’re asking of me.”
Josef reaches for his purse. “I know.” He draws out a gold necklace, the metal heavy and cool in his fingers, and places it on the table. Geier says nothing. Josef adds an emerald, loosed from its setting, brilliantly faceted. “The unpleasantness would pass much more quickly than you could spend these.”
“You’ve never been as charming as your friend,” Geier says, shaking his head. “No love for the bargaining process.”
“I’m not here to play a game.” Josef struggles to keep the anger out of his voice. “Is it enough?”
Geier still only watches him, unmoved. “What if it isn’t?”
Josef clenches his fists and takes a few calming breaths. He adds a short stack of coins to the bounty he’s offering. “Now?”
“What if no price were enough?” Geier asks. “Giving you hanged men for your unsavory dabbling is bad enough, and nobody comes looking for them once they wind up here.”
“Is this a rhetorical question?” Josef demands. He digs his nails into his palms so that the sting of pain might help him focus. “I will have him, Herr Geier. I must. Are you hoping to make me beg?” The wrapped body he brought with him is too damaged to be of any use, but there are mundane means for him to force his suit. The poker by the fire is heavy enough to cleave a man’s skull, and old men’s bones are brittle.
After another silent moment, Geier’s face crumples into a wry smile. He makes a shooing motion with one hand as if he could brush the tension away. “I won’t test your pride so,” he says. “Leave the substitute and what payment you’ve offered. This way.”
Josef’s shoulders slump in relief as he turns to follow the old man. He works against death. He doesn’t like the idea of killing, even for Adel’s sake.
He follows Geier down the unlit hallway to a door marked with circular seals. The idiosyncrasies of the script are opaque to him—each magician writes in his own cipher and reading one another’s is time-consuming work—but the basic shapes of the seal tell him enough. The room beyond will be cold.
Geier unlocks the door and opens it, and the chill swirls out around them. “Here he is, then.” He leads the way into the small room. Three long tables stand there, one empty and two draped in sheets. Geier pulls back the sheet on the nearer one.
Josef’s heart aches. Adel looks small and wan in death, cheeks sunken, fair skin leached of any blush. He’s been dressed in his favorite frock coat, the brocade burgundy one that sets off the spun-straw color of his hair. It’s wrong for him to be so still, horribly plain that his spirit has fled. Josef remembers him always moving, always laughing, his eyes bright and his hands clever. The blush that suffused his skin in moments of passion, the sweetness of his moans as he rode Josef’s cock, the hunger of his kisses—
“Thank you,” Josef says, his throat dry. He covers Adel’s face again, wrapping the sheet carefully around him before lifting the body. It’s not right for Adel to be so limp in his arms, so cold. “The door, if you would?”
Geier escorts him back to the alley door, studying Josef’s face as he holds the door open. “If I ask what you’re planning—no, no, forget that. I don’t want to know.”
Josef nods, stepping out into the night. “That’s for the best,” he agrees. He can hear the bolt slide home when Geier closes the door again.
He loads the pony with his precious cargo and makes his way home as quickly as possible, his heart in his throat. It makes him sick to leave Adel alone even long enough to return the pony to the stable on the next street, but it must be done. At least the girl tending the stable overnight seems utterly disinterested in him when she accepts the pony’s return.
Josef can scarcely keep up the appearance of dignity as he hurries home again. There’s nothing left to stand between him and his work now. Tonight will be the greatest test of his skills, the thing he’s trained and studied and experimented for. If he succeeds, he’ll never be parted from Adel again.
He throws the bolts to shut out the rest of the world—Adel teased him for worrying enough to install more than one lock on the door, as though some thief might look at his meager lodgings and see in them the hiding place for a great treasure. The extra security goes some measure toward reassuring him now, though, as he stokes the fire and readies himself for the greatest spiritual feat of his life.
To make a body rise after the soul has fled is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. The principles were laid down some two hundred years ago and have seen refinement since; Josef has studied them carefully and practiced the art until he’d removed all of the extraneous showmanship from the pure elements of power. The flesh is scarcely the trouble.
Josef hangs up his coat, then rolls up his sleeves before he approaches Adel, laid out on his work table. No, the difficulty is in raising something more than a mere puppet, something with a will and a mind of its own. The installation of a soul in flesh is the domain of God.
Josef unbuttons Adel’s beautiful frock coat, stripping it gently from his pliant limbs. Adel will be glad, he thinks, to have his favorite clothes to wear when he awakens.
He moves quickly through this first stage of the preparation; he has no wish to linger over Adel’s flesh without the spark that animates it. He sets Adel’s clothes aside neatly, then eases his body over onto its front to begin the more vital work. With a fine-tipped brush and a steady hand, he paints invocations along each limb, across the planes of Adel’s shoulder blades, down the graceful curve of his spine. The language he uses is said to be the tongue of the stars, and no man of learning Josef has ever met can speak it aloud—but all of them agree it is the most potent alphabet ever devised for workings of the spirit. The paint is his own mixture, relying primarily on amaranth and powdered onyx, balanced with a dozen other ingredients he has recorded in only the most cryptic notes. It dries quickly, so he can turn Adel carefully over and add the complementary script across his front.
The penultimate step leaves Josef feeling queasy; it was far easier with experimental subjects than it is with someone who matters. He swallows his unease and picks up his scalpel, taking a few slow breaths to calm himself and wait for the shaking in his hands to subside. The prayers he has written across Adel’s flesh are vivid, deep crimson against blue-white skin, and he studies them to be sure his lines are true. He glances up at Adel’s face: eyes closed, mouth slack, too cold to be merely sleeping. Hesitating will only prolong the torment, he tells himself sternly.
Word Count: 5,800
Page Count: 62
Cover By: Vongue
Release Date: 10/04/2014