It’s amazing what people throw away…
Crispin Tredarloe never meant to become a warlock. Freed from his treacherous master, he’s learning how to use his magical powers the right way. But it’s brutally hard work. Not everyone believes he’s a reformed character, and the strain is putting unbearable pressure on his secret relationship with waste-man Ned Hall.
Ned’s sick of magic. Sick of the trouble it brings, sick of its dangerous grip on Crispin and the miserable look it puts in his eyes, and sick of being afraid that a gentleman magician won’t want a street paper-seller forever—or even for much longer.
But something is stirring among London’s forgotten discards. An ancient evil is waking up and seeking its freedom. And when wild magic hits the rag-and-bottle shop where Ned lives, a panicked Crispin falls back onto bad habits. The embattled lovers must find a way to work together—or London could go up in flames.
This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.
They got in hot mutton pies from the shop on Dyott Street that Ned supplied with waste. It was easier than going out to eat, and more discreet, considering everything they couldn’t talk about in public.
“So I have to see if this new teacher will be any good,” Crispin concluded his lengthy monologue. Ned had listened patiently, as he always did. “Or, if I’ll be any good, more like.”
“I don’t get it.” Ned brushed crumbs off his trousers. They were both sitting on stacks of waste, using the piles of manuscripts, letters, prospectuses, and forgotten legal documents as furniture because Ned had neither the space nor the funds for things like chairs. He had a bed, a gimcrack chest of drawers, incredible amounts of paper, and very little else, and he was the most contented man Crispin knew. “I’ve seen you do magic. We both know you can do magic.”
“I can. But…” Crispin had tried to explain this more than once. “Look, you’re a waste-man. You know how to buy waste, how much to pay, who to sell it to, how to turn a profit. Well, suppose I told you to get on the Stock Exchange and make a fortune? It’s all buying and selling, isn’t it? You know how to do that, so why couldn’t you do it with stocks and shares?” He gave Ned a hopeful look.
“I probably could,” Ned said. “If I learned the rules, and if they let my colour into the Exchange, which I wouldn’t bet on. I wasn’t born a waste-man, or even bred one. You learn things.”
Crispin sagged. Ned probably would make a marvellous stockbroker, if it came to that, because he was actually good at things. “Yes, well, I was born with my talents, or lack of them, and the way I was trained to use them isn’t allowed, and I’m no good at learning the new way. I simply can’t make my powers do what I want in the way people want me to. I mean, do you think you could ever learn to draw?”
“No,” Ned said without hesitation.
“You could take lessons. If you had dozens of lessons, I bet you’d be able to turn out a reasonable likeness, but—”
“Not like you.”
That was something Crispin could do. He’d sketched Ned half a dozen times, and himself in the mirror too, on request. Ned had that picture pinned to the wall of his tiny sleeping space. “No. I can take a pen and know how to put what I want on the paper. I can look at you and see how I’d shade your cheekbones in this light, how I’d draw your eyes.” It was the laugh that made Ned’s eyes, the little telltale crease there half the time even when he didn’t seem to be smiling. When Crispin shaded his work, seeking to make his pencil’s grey suggest the rich deep brown of Ned’s skin, he found himself drawing as though Ned’s eyes cast their own light.
Those eyes were on him, warm with amusement, and Crispin realised his fingers had adopted a writing position. He straightened his hand with a touch of self-consciousness. “But even if you tried and tried, it wouldn’t come naturally, or easily. You’d never be able to do what I can do like breathing.” Ned shrugged acknowledgement. “And now imagine you could draw beautifully if you did it a different way but you’re not allowed.”
Ned put an arm round his shoulders. His arms were glorious, thick with muscle, so Crispin had to incline his head to make room. He put up his own slim arm to take Ned’s hand.
“I hear you,” Ned said. “But you aren’t allowed. So it seems to me that you’ve got to do it how they want you to.”
“It’s not fair.” Crispin scuffed the paper dust on the floor, with his boot. “Just because a maniac used graphomancy to kill people—”
“You talking about your Mr. Marleigh, or the one who murdered a pack of peelers this winter?”
“The one this winter.”
Ned sighed. “Missing my point there, Freckles. Be honest, I don’t much like the sound of magic writing or the look of it either. I don’t want you doing stuff with your own blood, let alone someone else’s.” He tugged Crispin’s hand forward so they could both see the truncated little finger. “Don’t tell me anything that starts with chopping bits off yourself is a good idea.”
He sounded almost annoyed, and Crispin bit back an equally testy response. Ned didn’t know. He was a waste-man, he didn’t understand what it was like to have power. He didn’t even want it. Ned was a flit, possessing a tiny touch of magical talent. He was just about able to hear the sounds of the ether to which Crispin was deaf, but he had steadfastly refused any suggestion of training his meagre ability. Why would I hear more of that if I didn’t have to?
Crispin would have ki—would have done anything for the senses Ned didn’t even want.
“Well, it’s too late to change that,” he muttered, pulling his hand back. “And I’m trying.”
Ned squinted round at him. “That’s as much as anyone can ask. Look, drop it for now, eh? I know you want to get this sorted out, but it’s not the only thing in the world.”
He was well aware he’d been talking a lot about it, until the twilight had shaded to night, but the implied rebuke was still galling. “It’s the most important thing!” he retorted without thinking, and felt his stomach contract at the expression that crossed Ned’s face. “I didn’t mean— That is, it’s what I do, it’s the important bit of my day, not— Ned, I didn’t mean that.”
“Course not.” Ned let his head drop back against the wall. “You want to stay?”
“Yes,” Crispin said urgently. “I really do. I’ll stop. Oh God, I haven’t even asked about your day.”
“Same old, same old.” That proved Ned was offended: he never had a “same old” day. There was always a funny story, some observation or interaction turned into an anecdote, because Ned was interested in things, and people, and the world around him. He didn’t only think about himself.
Crispin couldn’t imagine why Ned put up with him.
He twisted to get his arms round Ned’s muscular torso. “Well, if it wasn’t a very interesting day, maybe I could make it more interesting?” he offered hopefully.
Ned let out a long breath. “Crispin…”
Oh, he couldn’t have made a mess of this as well, not this. Crispin turned properly, swinging a leg over so he was sitting on Ned’s lap, and took his face in his hands. “Please, Ned. I’m sorry. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you for days and now I’ve spoiled it. Can I start again?” He dropped kisses on Ned’s cheekbones, one side and the other. “I’d rather be here than anywhere else, and I’d rather be talking to you than anyone else, and I’d rather you were talking to me and I wasn’t talking at all because you make more sense than I do.” He moved his mouth to Ned’s jawline, over the rough slide of beard he’d grown through the winter and which Crispin had insisted he keep, down the side of his neck, and felt the paper dust slippery on his lips. “Please?”
Ned grunted, low in his throat, and his hands came up to Crispin’s ribcage, sliding over his back. Crispin wriggled closer, kissing his way up Ned’s throat and over his jaw until their lips met, and at last, for a little while, everything was all right again.
They ended up in Ned’s tiny sleeping space, which didn’t deserve the name of bedroom. It was a cubbyhole off the paper store, with a sacking curtain to keep the warmth of body heat in—Crispin still felt slightly embarrassed about the look Ned had given him back in the depths of winter when he’d complained the paper store didn’t have a fireplace—with a truckle bed barely wide enough for the two of them lying on their sides. But Ned kept it swept and aired as best he could with no window, and Mr. Voake didn’t notice comings and goings, or care if he did notice. It was a safe space for the two of them, a place where Crispin was himself. Not a practitioner, not a warlock, not a failure or a nancy or a molly or any of the other things he was outside. Just him and Ned, body to body, shivering under blankets that held the evening chill, warming each other up. Crispin couldn’t wait for summer, the hot, light evenings when they wouldn’t need covers and he could take his time looking at Ned’s compact, powerful frame, and the sloping shoulders that made his mouth go dry.
Then again, burrowing under the blankets together had its advantages. Crispin wriggled on top of Ned’s solidity, feeling his way by touch, exploring the wide chest with light hands. He hadn’t expected Ned to be hairy, somehow, the first time, had had a vague idea that men of colour were smooth-skinned, and been pleased to find himself wrong about that. He rubbed his cheek against Ned’s pelt, licking a nipple to attention, and felt Ned’s solid thighs shift under him.
“You’re all over, Freckles,” Ned whispered, a laugh in his voice, and Crispin knew he was forgiven.
“I’ll be all over you before long,” Crispin assured him, and then they were both giggling like schoolchildren at the ridiculous innuendo. Crispin took the opportunity to squirm down a bit, and Ned shifted around, and there they were, with his prick caught between Ned’s substantial thigh muscles and Ned’s pressed along Crispin’s belly, both of them rocking gently as Ned caught Crispin’s mouth with his own.
Crispin was willowy, effete, his manner screaming molly no matter how hard he tried to hide it; Ned was strong-muscled, a working man, a black man. Both of them were very used to what other men wanted of them. And it had turned out Ned was as tired of those expectations as Crispin.