Shadow of the Templar: Cuckoo's Egg, Extended Edition: Chapter Five
On timeline: early to mid-1990s, ten to fifteen years before the events of the books
December inched on, getting darker and colder. Nothing else changed. The tailors came back for the final fitting of their suits, which was at least noteworthy, if no more interesting than anything else. Bran shrugged into his new dinner jacket and obligingly held out his arms for the tailor, listening with more than half an ear for commotion from the rooms next door. He didn't hear anything. "Thought he'd be screaming for sure," Bran said, mostly to himself.
"I can't hear a thing," said the tailor, fussing with one of Bran's cuffs. "Suppose he's got over it by now."
"Suppose," said Bran. Bored out of his skull he glanced at himself in the mirror. The dinner jacket was handsome and all, but it didn't really suit. Ethan carried it off all righthe always looked like he was born to wear whatever he worebut Bran looked like a schoolboy playing dress-up at best. At least Jeremiah (Jeremy, whatever) was bound to look worse. Bran might still be scrawny, but at least he knew how to damn well stand up straight and walk without flopping about. Besides, knobby wrists didn't matter a bit when his suit was cut to hide them, did they?
If only he didn't have all those damn spots. The suit smoothed over a lot of his imperfections no matter how uncomfortable he looked stuffed into it, but the spots kept him from looking as mature as he'd like. Even without them he wasn't precisely handsome, but he thought he'd do. Ethan always said that forgettable faces were a bonus in their business anyway.
The tailor popped up behind him and plucked at the suit's shoulders, resettling them. "There we are," he said, satisfied. "All done. If you'll just pop out of that, I'll have it pressed, and you'll have it back in plenty of time."
Bran made a vague sound of assent and slithered out of the jacket as gently as he could. A burst of laughter from next door startled him halfway through and Bran jumped, his arms trying to flick up into a guard posture, stopping dead just half a second before the seams could rip; the tailor hissed in concern and hurried to help him get the jacket the rest of the way off, now watching him in the mirror like he was five years old and couldn't be trusted with nice things. It wasn't his fault, Bran thought, blushing savagely in his embarrassment. Whoever'd done the laughing from Jeremiah's room had startled him, that was all.
"All that I'm saying is that you could try to be a bit less of a Scrooge," Ethan said, the little smile on his face maddeningly, teasingly gentle.
"I'm not!" Bran said. The second word turned itself into a squawk and he flushed and dipped his head until his chin touched his collar. "I'm not," he repeated, more steadily. "And in any case I don't much care for Christmas, you know that."
"You do seem to enjoy the gifts, I've noticed." Ethan's voice was dry.
Bran floundered, then took refuge in the weight machine, pulling off one of the benches and setting it aside. "That's different."
"Oh, I see."
"Everyone likes presents," Bran said. "Doesn't matter when they get them, or why. S'got nothing to do with Christmas, presents, except we make it do."
He knew what was coming before he finished speaking, and Ethan didn't disappoint him. "I see," Ethan said, amused. "So I can return the wrapped things in my closet, then, can I?"
"Now you're just making fun," Bran said, scowling off at the far wall.
Ethan raised both eyebrows. "So I am," he said. "Jeremy! Pick it up!"
"Right!" Jeremiah cried. He broke into a sprint, a five-kilogram weight swinging wildly in each hand. He barely paused at the far end of the room, dropping the weights on a handy mat before bolting back in Bran's direction. He wrenched a single ten-kilogram weight from the rack, staggered underneath it, and set off towards the far end of the room again. Ethan watched Jeremiah go, then turned his attention back to what he was doing.
Now that Ethan's attention was safely off him again, Bran could get back to the business of disassembling the weight machines. For most of the year this was the exercise room, full of mats and weights and things; really, though, it was the ballroom, and they needed to move all the equipment out in order to move the tables and things in for the Christmas party. What sadist had set the equipment up so far away from the storage closetswell, that was a silly question, wasn't it, it had been Ethan. Bran scowled and wrenched a nut loose, freeing a entire stack of weights from their channel.
Ethan picked up one of the freed benches and slung it across his shoulders. He wasn't in training, so he wasn't in any hurry, and in the time it took him to walk across the room Jeremiah had lapped him three times, arms full of weights, face red with exertion. Ethan put the bench into the storage closet. "Surely you can go faster than that, Jeremy," he said pleasantly.
Jeremiah huffed out a breath in answer and skidded into the next turn, overbalancing and falling onto one hip before scrambling back off on all fours, oversized hands and feet flailing about everywhere. It was rather like watching a monkey drown, Bran thought, adding another stack of the weights to the dolly beside him. Jeremiah scrambled past him, sought through the rack of free weights, and then staggered back a step. "That's all," Jeremiah wheezed, putting his hands on his knees and gasping for breath. He was red and sweaty, his hair stuck to his forehead. "You said to do everything under thirty kilos."
"So I did." Ethan gave the weight rack a cursory glance. "Well done. Give us ten rounds on the horse before we put it away."
Jeremiah coughed to clear his throat. "Don't have my gloves or the resin bag or nothing," he pointed out. "Anything."
"That's true," said Ethan. "You must do the best you can without them. You won't always be able to count on having all your tools with you."
Jeremiah lifted his head to stare at the vaulting horse, then nodded, stripping his shirt off over his head. "Right," he said, scrubbing his wet hands against his equally-wet trousers. He scrambled for the horse; Bran caught the grips of the dolly and kicked it over, heading for the storage closets, listening with half an ear to the rhythmic thump-thump of Jeremiah vaulting behind him.
By the time all the exercise equipment had been stashed away Bran was sweating and blowing pretty hard himself. His hands were red and felt swollen. Still, however bad he felt, he couldn't look worse than Jeremiah, who was wringing wet, nearly purple, and poking at a new blister at the base of his middle finger. Ethan, of course, looked fine. "Just the mats left," Ethan said cheerily. "And then I think we'll break early for lunch. Jeremy, don't pick at that."
"What? I wasn't!" Jeremiah whipped his hands behind his back guiltily.
The mats, at least, were lighter. Since Jeremiah was here Ethan didn't bother to help with them at allit was always Bran at one end and Jeremiah at the other, piling up the mats and then toting them into the other closet. "Fuck's sake, you're slow," Bran said, rolling his eyes. "Ethan and I'd have had these done already."
"You want to ask him to help you instead, you be my guest," Jeremiah said tartly, but he put a little more hurry into it anyway.
The ballroom looked odd, empty. The parquet floors underneath the mats were a little scuffed, but nice enough for all that, and they'd be nicer yet once the cleaning crew had been; the barre had been removed from in front of the mirrors, turning them back into decorations. Everything echoed. "That's a job well done," Ethan said, surveying the empty ballroom with his hands on his hips. "I'll just check the floor while the room's empty, shall I..."
"The what?" Jeremiah said.
Bran waved him back. "The floor," he repeated.
"Tells me a lot, that does," Jeremiah said crossly, but then the floor started up with a rumble and he fell silent with a squeak. Most of the centre of the room dropped a hand's width and rumble-rolled away, vanishing underneath the mirrors to reveal the pit"A pool?" Jeremiah cried. "We've a bloody pool? You never said!"
"We don't make use of it much," said Ethan, watching the floor. "We'd have to clear away the exercise equipment to use it."
Jeremiah spun on his heel. "Wouldn't!" he cried, flinging both hands out at the back wall. "We'd just need to push it together a bit, like, and then we'd only need to pile up the mats, that's nothing, that's fifteen minutes' work..."
Bran groaned. He could already see where this was going. "You'd like that, then?" Ethan asked, his voice mild.
"It'd be brilliant!" Jeremiah said. "Come on, Bran, you want to use the pool, don't you?"
"Not enough to hoick those bloody mats around every day, I don't!"
Ethan studied the empty pool for a long moment, then started the floor rumbling shut again. "In any case we'll wait until after Christmas to decide," he said mildly. "I won't have the party smelling of chlorine."
"Wish we could use it now!" Jeremiah ran a hand through his sodden hair. "It'd feel right nice."
"Mm?" Ethan said, without looking up.
"Er, quite nice."
"Yes. Quite." The floor slotted back into place with a soft pneumatic thump and Ethan dusted his hands together. "That's done, thenwe're on holiday until the new year. I suggest you two try and enjoy it."
Bran woke, muddled, to the soft sound of Jeremiah's bedroom door opening and closing again. He squinted at the clock. 4:17AM. Bran rolled his eyes and went back to sleep.
"Cor," Jeremiah breathed, hanging onto the door-frame. "Never would have known it was the same room."
The hired tables filled the ballroom from end to end, each with eight chairs around. The mirrors on the south wall made the room go on forever. Bran, who'd not only been through this many times but had been woken up too early this morning by the racket, still had to concede that it was pretty impressive. "You wait until it's all done," he said, leaning on the opposite side of the door-frame. "With the silver and the candles and all. It's nice."
"Why are the cloths already on? It's a week yet, innit?"
"Because I don't much like it when you can see where the table-cloth's been folded," Ethan said from behind them, making them both jump. "I suppose you think that makes me a fussy old woman."
"Suppose a little," Jeremiah said. He swung halfway into the room, peering down along the wall.
Ethan smiled, just a little. "Do try not to disturb anything. If I have to force you to wash and re-iron a table-cloth, I will."
"Disturb anything! I don't dare go in there, even!" Whatever he claimed Jeremiah was still clutching at the door-frame and leaning too far into the room, though, and abruptly Bran couldn't resist the impulse another second: he took a quick step back and booted Jeremiah straight in the arse. With a startled "Waow!" Jeremiah went flailing into the ballroom, staggering a few huge looping drunkard's steps before falling on his face on the parquet floor. He'd missed the tables only by sheer luck.
Ethan quickly stifled his smile. "Bran," he said.
"Couldn't resist, me." Bran felt better than he had in a while.
Charles Fortescue was a tall and whip-thin man, dressed all in severe black, with the most forbidding face Bran had ever seen. He'd been terrified of the man when he was small and he still was, in some waysnot actually terrified, he hastened to reassure himself. It was just... well, the man put him on edge, with those spree-killer grey eyes of his and the tight mouth that never smiled. When he was about Bran found it easiest to be elsewhere, preferably somewhere that locked. He'd used to hide in the guest house; now that he was grown he preferred his own rooms. He had studying to do, after all. Two IGCSEs and one GCSE down, two exams to go, and then he wouldn't ever have to crack a book again if he didn't want.
Still, he could only study for so long before the rustling and quietly-snapped orders from outside got to be too distracting. Once Bran started thinking about what was out there, he started to feel hungry, and a glance at the clock told him that it was hours yet before lunch. Even when Fortescue's crew was about it was generally easy enough to get about, just stick to the back hallways and the kitchen... Bran shut his text and put it down, sliding his feet back into his discarded trainers.
The overwhelming smell of pine smacked him in the face as he opened the door. It wasn't ever nice, in Bran's opinion, although Ethan begged to differ. Far too strong, the smell was, and they were forever finding sap-sticky spots after. A pair of Fortescue's decorators fell silent as Bran padded out, offering him slight acknowledging nods; once he'd nodded back they went back to winding the pine garland about the hand-rail. One of them wore three rolls of white ribbon strung out along his forearm like so many bog-rollsBran stifled a smirk and headed for the back stairs, where he'd be safe from pine and decorators alike.
A low murmur of voices came from the kitchen. Bran rolled his eyes, bit his lower lip, and steeled himself, pushing on in.
The three of them were ranged about the kitchen table, taking refuge from the fuss and letting everyone else do all the work. Ethan was Ethan, of course, and Jeremiah was... well, Jeremy, Bran could only suppose. The third was Charles Fortescue, bolt upright in his chair with his long and spidery fingers clasped just so about his cup. "... and I find it an excellent excuse to case the properties," he was saying as Bran came in. They all turned to look at him, but only Jeremiah essayed a little wave.
"Hallo," Bran said, swallowing his discomfort. "Only came to filch a quick bite"
"You're welcome to join us if you like," Ethan said, his little smile as opaque as ever.
"That's all right," said Bran, not quite finding the balls to say I'd rather not. "Got to get back to the books, you know."
Ethan nodded. "Of course."
"Here" Jeremiah reached out and failed to touch Fortescue's arm at the last moment, tapping the table in front of him instead. "Don't they catch on, like? I mean, the posh decorators come in and then bingo, the place is robbed?"
Ethan's lips twitched, but in the spirit of the end-of-year holiday he'd apparently decided to leave off from Jeremiah's diction lessons. Charles Fortescue turned magisterially back to Jeremiah and inclined his head. "Oh, but I am very careful to ensure that several months pass before any attempt is made."
"Still," Jeremiah said, a little crease forming in his forehead. "They're bound to catch on sooner or later."
Fortescue's unnerving light-grey eyes rose to fasten on the wall behind Ethan's head. "You would think," he said. "So far, at least, I have never felt pressed."
Jeremiah scowled. "You're having me on," he said.
One of Fortescue's hands detached from his cup and drifted up, his spidery fingers hiding something that looked frighteningly like a smile. "Yes, I am," he said. "In a sense."
"How, in a sense?"
"That is how I find the properties in question. However, I am no burglarI only sell the information. The differing styles of theft tend to cloud the issue nicely, and of course I often have an impeccable alibi."
"Oh." Jeremiah sat back, his brow clearing. "Well, that makes more sense, then."
"And many properties aren't worth the trouble to begin with. Too much security, only tat, or perhaps the client goes out of his way to be kind to me..." Fortescue shrugged. "Only a small percentage of my clients end up being victimised."
Jeremiah frowned. "Victimised?"
"Oh, yes. You mustn't ever delude yourself. If you are stealing from a home, you are creating a victim. Even if you are stealing from a business, or a museum, someone will suffer for itbut homes contain victims by default." Charles Fortescue rubbed a long finger across his lower lip, considering. "Not that that should necessarily stop you, mind. You need only" his hands rose, cupping two handfuls of air "balance the scales, the cost versus your need."
After careful consideration of the refrigerator's contents, Bran fetched out a bottle of Ethan's fancy Italian soda and an apple from the crisp drawer. Anything more and Ethan would look at him, and Bran was in no mood to be looked at this morning, not with the house reeking of pine as it was. Food in hand he stole back on out of the kitchen, leaving them to their discussion.
He didn't so much feel like going back to his books, though. Stashing his spoils inside the front pocket of his pullover Bran nudged open the ballroom door and poked his head in.
The room had exploded in greenery and light. Pine boughs were everywhere, bound into swags and garlands with lengths of trailing white and silver ribbons; tiny white lights glinted from deep within the boughs. The tables had been loaded down with this year's centrepieces, unlit candles waiting patiently inside tall glass chimneysthe table decorations got larger and showier every year and this year was no exception.
A few of Fortescue's decorators had their heads together at the far end of the room, paying Bran no mind. Bran slipped on in. As little as he liked the smell he had to admit that it was pretty enough, even if it always looked more or less the sameBran rounded the main stairs and came face to face with the tree, three times as tall as he was if it was an inch and positively ablaze with silvered glass balls. Automatically he checked over his shoulder, half-expecting Jeremiah to somehow be there. No one was there. All around him the house hummed with activity, but right here, right now, he was alone.
Bran leaned against the stairway railing (getting sap on his trousers) and studied the tree. It was a magnificent monster of a thing, stately and silent, the centre of an ocean of perfect, unchanging calm. Maybe Bran had spent the past half a year ignored and abandoned in favour of the new puppy, but right now Bran was glad to be let alone, because he could slit his eyes half-closed and let his defences down. He shuddered out a sigh and stuffed his hands into his front pocket, his fingers touching the cold glass of the soda bottle. Bran became aware of a momentary, swelling peace within his soul. If this was God, maybe he'd take it. Maybe he'd just take it after all.
"So where are you going all dressed up like that, then?" Jeremiah asked, half-hanging from the banister and swinging back and forth. The pine garland shuddered under his grip. "It's late to be out."
"Midnight mass," Bran said shortly. "It's Christmas Eve, innithere, you'd best not pull that off or Ethan'll be cross."
Jeremiah made a rude noise and sprawled out on the stairs instead, arms and legs all akimbo, looking like he'd fallen down the stairs. His t-shirt rode up to bare his belly. Bran rolled his eyes and went back to looking out the front window, waiting for the splash of headlights that would be Liam and Paula. Anything to get away from Jeremiahtruth be told, the midnight mass wasn't so bad. At least, there were worse.
Most of the house was dark, although the Christmas tree glowed in its corner, hundred of tiny fairy lights throwing pine-needle shadows everywhere. Ethan had gone to bed an hour ago, reminding Bran only to lock up behind himself; Jeremiah was barefoot and wearing the t-shirt and battered fleece trousers that served him as pyjamas. Bran touched the knot of his tie self-consciously.
"You go to church at night, then?" Jeremiah ran his fingers through his hair.
"Only on Christmas Eve." Bran sighed. "Wish it was like that all the time, you want the truth. I like being out late."
Jeremiah nodded, accepting this. "Can I come?"
Bran spluttered. "Whatno, you can't come! You're not even bloody Catholic, why d'you want to come?"
"Don't know. Just thought... well, you're going." Jeremiah did not look abashed in the slightest. "Sounded kind of nice, going to church in the middle of the night, like."
"You haven't even got a tie"
"you've got extras, I saw. You've got three."
Bran scowled. "Been poking around in my closet, then?"
"Bit, like. When Ethan told me to bring you your laundry that time."
"Well, you still can't come. It's not for you anyway."
Jeremiah shrugged. "When'll you be back? Two or so?"
"About then," Bran said suspiciously. "You'd best not be planning to wait up for me. Wouldn't want to see your stupid face in any case."
"I was only wondering." Jeremiah picked up a stray ribbon end and fiddled with it, no longer looking directly at Bran. His fleece trousers couldn't have been more than a few months old but already there was a fat squarish hole worn in the crotch, nearly the size of his palm, large enough to show the white edge of his pants and a darker splash of skin beside them. Jeremiah rubbed one foot against the other, his bare toes curling over the sweep of his instep, and scratched the inside of his thigh with one absent hand that found and picked at the hole
Headlights splashed across the window, much to Bran's relief. He snatched his keys out of his trouser pocket. "Go to bed."
"I'm going, I'm going." Jeremiah pushed himself up. "Happy Christmas and all that."
Bran only hurled himself out into the cold, shutting the door on Jeremiah and locking it after himself. Liam's car waited in the turnabout, puffing up great clouds of steam, its headlights splashed across the drive; inside the car Liam and Paula were dim and shifting shapes which Bran could barely see. Bran loped down the steps and hurried into the back seat, his relief at having escaped already fading.
Eventually Paula put her hand on Bran's shoulder. It was small, soft and warm, some part of Bran noted, but still he didn't look up. "Bran luv," Paula said quietly. "Time to go."
"Can we... not?" Bran mumbled, not lifting his face from the circle of his arms. "Five more minutes, even."
Only a few dim shapes still stirred in the vast dark space of the church. Most everyone else had already left and the music had finally droned to its end. Well after one in the morning by this point, and Bran was exhausted, too tired to lift his head out of his arms, almost.
Paula hesitated. "Liam's gone to bring the car round," she finally said, patting Bran's shoulder. "I'll come and fetch you when he's come to the front."
Unwilling to disturb his fragile calm by speaking any more than he needed, Bran nodded. Paula stood by him for a moment, irresolute, then moved offhe could feel the heat of her dissipating. Alone, he could suddenly feel the cold.
Shutting his eyes, Bran sucked in a shaking little breath and tried again. Help me, he thought, clutching at the wooden back of the pew. I don't care how, just help me, no one else can His thoughts stagnated and swirled down into a dark and frightsome place, no longer thoughts, just terrible impressions and guilt and the aching sick feeling in his gut. How long he sat like that he didn't at all know, but eventually Paula called his name from the back of the church, her voice echoing into the Godly emptiness, and Bran dragged himself upright and went to her. She said something to him, but Bran only grunted, not listening at all.