London had no idea it had lost Hawthorne Circle and did not remember ever having it. It showed up on atlases, gazetteers, and satellite maps, but no one ever looked for it in these records. Utilities ran to it and were paid for, but London police and mail deliveries never had occasion to visit. It was solidly Sundered, which meant that the curious luck that hides magic from the world at large was in full operation here.
Just as well, reflected Professor Stewart, looking at Charles Darneley, his old student.
"Thank you for coming out to see me, sir," said Darneley.
"It seemed much more practical than having you come in," Stewart replied, staring. "I hope you don't mind me keeping you outside."
"Not at all." And indeed Darneley seemed quite unconcerned as window after window opened around the Circle and people leaned out to look at him. This was quite unlike the old Darneley, who had been painfully shy. He was concerned about something, though: "I didn't mean to shock you, Professor. I thought I told you I was enlisting in the Dedicated Cavalry."
Stewart waved it away. "You probably did. I must simply have spaced the word 'dedicated.' Absent-mindedness is an occupational hazard." He went on staring.
Stewart had last seen Darneley a little over a year ago. They had parted with warmth beyond that standard in a successful tutoring job. Stewart had liked the boy: hard-working, bright, polite, and flatteringly interested in Stewart's subject, metaphysical geography. And something in their personalities had clicked. The old Darneley had been a tallish, lumpish young man, pale and dark-haired. A touch under six feet. Blocky in build and somewhat overweight. "Pudgy" would have been unkind but possibly accurate.
The new Darneley was compounded of a large bay horse and a decidedly more athletic version of the old Darneley, wearing a jacket of military cut, red with white piping, and a dark bushy beard.
And horseshoes. As Darneley came clopping toward the steps where he sat, the sound reminded Stewart of the milk delivery wagon that served the Grand Norman village where he had grown up.
"Would you even fit up the stairs to our study any more?" Stewart asked.
Darneley laughed. It was an easy laugh, deep and chesty, quite unlike any laughter Stewart remembered from him. Of course, he reflected, he has two chests now, one the size of an oil drum. "I might. We take agility classes for just that sort of thing. But it would be needless bother."
Any resident of Hawthorne Circle not now watching the conversation would be told by the others they had really missed something. Stewart still felt too flabbergasted to rejoice in the upcoming status, but knew he would later.
"I came to thank you for the letter of recommendation," Darneley said. "It got me in."
Stewart wasn't sure of that. Wasn't the Dedicated Cavalry always short of volunteers? Since, after all, it meant changing as Darneley had changed. But: "You're entirely welcome. And I'm touched that you came. It was a great deal of trouble to go to." More than Stewart had realized. "How did you get here?"
Darneley jerked a thumb down the street—a brusque gesture not much like the ... human Darneley—toward a horse trailer parked at the curb. Stewart had been too preoccupied to notice it. "Some guys in the expeditionary team had business in London and agreed to haul me down. I couldn't pass up the opportunity. We move out next week, and we're not even scheduled to come back for a year, never mind what might actually happen. I wanted to confer one more time." Thundery chuckle. "And maybe to show off!" He spread his arms and pranced—pranced—in a tight circle. Was this still really Charles Darneley?
"Charles!? Is that you!?" His daughter Bethy was standing on the step above the one he sat on.
Darneley rode over, smiling. No, not rode. He wasn't riding anything. He just walked over. Stewart was on one of the upper steps, to be eye-level with Darneley, who was now about seven feet tall. Bethy sat down next to her father and smiled back, her gaze roving over Darneley.
Paternal alarms went off in Stewart's brain. Bethy and Darneley were very much of an age, but after two visits, it was clear she regarded him as nothing more than an occasional conversationalist. They joked easily together, but Stewart had detected no hint of attraction on either side. Darneley had been shy at first, cautious afterward. Bethy had once remarked to Stewart that she found Charles relaxing because he was "safe." Stewart had easily decided never to relay that to Darneley. What young man wants to be thought "safe"?
The new Darneley, though... Stewart knew his classical mythology. But weren't cavalry celibate? Darneley didn't look celibate; he looked like a fertility spirit. Maybe he was one, now. Stewart would have to research it.
His mind had been wandering. Occupational hazard. While he had been what his wife called "worriting," Charles and Bethy had been catching up on events. Stewart snapped to attention when he heard Bethy ask, "Can you give me a ride?"
Darneley, still smiling, mysteriously muttered, "He was right," then turned side-on to the steps and knelt, or crouched, or whatever you called that posture in a horse. There was an extensive private vocabulary for horses, as for ships, Stewart knew. Everybody needs jargon.
Stewart felt he disapproved of the impending events, but while he groped for a justification, Bethy skipped down the steps and onto the creature's—onto Darneley's back. "This'll have to be short," he told her, "because we've no saddle and you'll find my spine pretty uncomfortable. See those two heavy white braids on the back of my jacket? Hold onto those; it's what they're meant for." He rose carefully. Bethy squealed as she had not since she was ten.
"You're meant to be ridden?" she asked, sounding incredulous. But then why had she asked for a ride?
"Sure. This is my dress jacket, but my duty jacket has straps in the same place. You're sliding all over. Hold with your knees. Tighter. You can't hurt me that way. We work with the Standard Cavalry, and we sometimes carry them. My usual rider is a guy called Max. He..."
He trotted, or possibly cantered, one of those, out of earshot. Stewart noticed other voices. Good lord. Every child in the Circle and a number of older people had come out into the street.
"Is that Charles?" It was his wife, now standing where Bethy had stood.
"Yes. I didn't realize it was the Dedicated Cavalry he'd joined."
"He's magnificent," Carol opined in a voice that made Stewart resolve to go to the gym more often.
"He's being magnificent at Bethy," Stewart returned gloomily.
"Let him," Carol answered. "He's paid high enough for it, after all." True enough. To give up your old species, turn into a fertility spirit (or at least into that shape prancing round the Circle), and then be sworn to celibacy...
"You knew he was going to the Dedicated Cavalry?"
"It was right there in his email."
"I managed to miss it."
She sat down next to him and squeezed him around the waist in a way that communicated a complete lack of surprise. "You must have been quite startled, then."
"I was. Poor devil. Its irreversible. Why would he do it? Why do any of them?"
She answered in the abstracted voice of one trying to remember: "Something about being down your last penny, then
I found that market where a penny buys a pound.
I ask you, sir, was the bargain good or bad?
The price was cheap. The price was all I had."
"Meaning it looks like a terrible price to us, but not to him."
"It's uncanny," said the man who lived on an enchanted street. "I worry whether it's even really Charles out there."
"Why? Because he's happy and confident now?" Stewart remembered the dancing piece of mythology, human arms spread in pride, equine body gleaming. "It would be a sad thing if being unhappy and unsure were essential to Charles' nature."
"You're very wise," he told her, returning the hug around the waist.
"Occupational hazard," she answered. She was a philosophy professor.
"Charles' nature, though," he went on. "What has he done to his nature?"
"About doubled it, it looks like, not reckoning by weight."
Darneley concluded the circuit back before their steps. He knelt and Bethy slid off. "Thank you. I certainly see what saddles are for now! But that was a treat!"
He had acquired in his orbit about a dozen children, who stared up at him as he rose and rose. "Please, mister, can I have a ride?" was repeated in several variations. A very small one stroked his side. The skin shivered and Darneley side-stepped out of reach, but smiled at the child. There was some reproof in the smile, though, Stewart thought. "I'm not a beast," might be the message, "Not just a beast. You mustn't pet me without asking."
Carol rose. "Charles, you look splendid. Quite the young Chiron."
Darneley grinned and blushed, as he had not blushed before the gazing Circle. Stewart stopped worrying if the new creature was really Charles Darneley. The blushing grin was pure Charles, as Stewart had seen him too seldom. "I'll try not to fiddle with suspect arrows."
To Stewart: "I really do want to confer with you, sir. But got to satisfy the rate payers, first." He knelt again and let three children crawl on his back. He had the first one grab the braid on the jacket and the next two hold the waist of the kid before, then rose and repeated the circuit. Three more such circuits and he was done.
"Need a rub-down?" asked Carol, smiling. He grinned back, waved the issue away, and sat. That was interesting, the hind legs seated, the front legs still standing. It left his head still level with theirs on the upper steps.
"We're leaving for Brequelle, then doing exploration and mapping through the Hathor passages. My mates and I will just be trainees, but we can still make our own observations, make suggestions, keep private logs, things like that. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do for you out there. I mean, clearly my influence on decision-making will be microscopic, but I'll still be eyes and hands, and I'll be there."
"My boy, that's very generous of you." Very. He has to know I didn't "get him in." He's not repaying a favor; he's making a pure gift. Don't look a gift horse...
He thought. After a bit, Carol offered Darneley some tea, so he must have been thinking rather long. "Watch the skies, please," he said at length. "Survey of landforms is the workhorse– uh, sorry." Darneley just grinned. "–of the exploration, as it should be, but people pay too little attention to the skies. Reports mention fascinating stuff like rotating constellations and brilliantly colored lights—stars, planets, the observers don't know—and eccentric risings and settings, but it's just mentioned in passing, window-dressing. Nothing quantitative. The only visuals are as background to pictures of landforms."
"So start doing metaphysical astronomy as well as geography?" Just the kind of reply Charles would make. The last mist of doubt dissolved. It was Charles, large as life and twice as natural, as the old saying went.
Stewart laughed. "Yes! Be the first. See if you can spot Sagittarius in those constellations." He rose and seized Darneley's hand. It was much firmer than it had been. "I am so proud of you, my boy." Carol came up and hugged him. Bethy spotted a good opportunity and did likewise. Darneley blushed furiously.
"Come on in!" Stewart said impulsively. "Let's see if you can fit up the stairs. I want to see you in the study one more time."
Suddenly, he wanted to be back in the field again. It wouldn't be possible this year, but why not the next? Bethy would be off at school. Could he tempt Carol? A metaphysician was as useful as a surveyor on expeditions like these, and they had done it before Bethy was born.
And maybe by the time he and Carol were ready, Darneley would be back with these "mates" he mentioned—"mates" were as new in Darneley's life as the additional legs and tail—ready to guide them all out through the Hathor passages past the border of the known.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017