It was 1920, Christmas was in the air, and Oswald Rawdon was terrified. He huddled in the large wingback chair, a cup of tea clutched in his trembling fingers. The last of the Rawdons nervously slopped brandy-laced tea onto the knees of his trousers as he started suddenly at the sound of wood crackling in the fire.
“Nervous are we, Ozzy?” Rawdon’s host said. “Try not to ruin the carpets, please.”
“I’m sorry Charles,” Rawdon said, swallowing a mouthful of tea. “It’s just, I hear it everywhere.”
Charles St. Cyprian nodded in sympathy, and took a sip from his own cup. “Perfectly understandable, old boy, considering the kind of life you’ve led.”
Rawdon froze, and his eyes narrowed as he looked at the dark-haired man opposite him. The two men were a study in contrasts for all that they were of an age. Where Rawdon was a thin stretch of Teutonic paleness, St. Cyprian was dark and sharp-featured, with a Mediterranean exoticism to his features. Both men were dressed well, though Rawdon’s suit showed distinct signs of hard living.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rawdon said. “The kind of life I’ve led?”
“Don’t be dense, Ozzy.” St. Cyprian put his cup aside and pressed his fingers together. “You’re a bit of a bastard, is all.”
“How dare you!” Rawdon shot to his feet, the cup falling to the floor. Tea immediately soaked into the Turkish carpet, and St. Cyprian groaned.
“Now look what you’ve done,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Do sit down Ozzie. Your reputation as a complete and utter pillock is well deserved and you know it.”
“Fine,” Rawdon said, flopping back down in his seat. “Fine! But you don’t have to say it with such relish.”
“Hardly relish, chum.” St. Cyprian sighed. “Granted, you’re no Crowley, but you do tend towards the troublesome.”
“If I’m so much trouble, then why did you even agree to see me?” Rawdon spat. Outside, the sound of church bells gave voice to the late hour.
“He’s got a heart made of nutmeg and cinnamon,” a new voice interjected. Both men turned as the speaker, a young woman, walked into the sitting room, dropping an armful of wooden boards and a hammer onto the floor as she did so. “Me? I’d have left you to the tender mercies of the-”
“Don’t say it!” Rawdon barked, clapping his hands to his ears.
“Tea, Ms. Gallowglass?” St. Cyprian said, gesturing to the teapot and the extra cup and saucer sitting on a low table nearby.
“Don’t mind if I do, Mr. St. Cyprian.” Ebe Gallowglass said. Dressed in a frayed Guernsey and a man’s trousers, she looked less than ladylike, with her short, dark hair, cut into a curl-edged bob, and slim, straight limbs the colour of cinnamon. A swath of freckles spattered across her sharp Egyptian features, and her grin was almost feral. Filling a cup, she knocked it back a moment later. “I’ve got the windows braced with birch boards and the upstairs chimneys blocked with sprigs of mistletoe, holly wreaths and holyrood. Oh, and the carollers have finally wassailed off.”
“Excellent,” St. Cyprian said. “See? You can uncoil now, Ozzy. We’re safe as houses.”
Rawdon lowered his hands. “Do you really think you can keep it out?” He looked nervously at the fireplace that dominated one wall of the sitting room, blazing merrily away. It was the only light in the sitting room save for the odd candle or three resting in the branches of the Christmas tree that occupied one corner of the room.
“Keep it out? No.” St. Cyprian stood. “Direct its method of ingress, however?” He went to the fireplace and used the poker to shift the cherry-red logs, the three steel rings on the fingers of his left hand clinking against the metal of the poker. “Certainly,” he continued, with all the assurance one expected of the Royal Occultist.
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist (or the Queen’s Conjurer, as it had been known) had passed through a succession of hands, starting with those of diligent amateur Dr. John Dee. The list was a long one, weaving in and out of the margins of British history, and culminating, for the moment, in one Charles St. Cyprian.
His position was an open secret, and the rather cluttered house on the Embankment that served as the hereditary abode of the office was equally open to any who might need a consultation. It had been that way since the tenure of Sir Edwin Drood in the earliest days of the late Victoria’s reign, and St. Cyprian saw no reason to disrupt tradition, no matter how much he might occasionally wish otherwise.
Thus, Rawdon’s breathless appearance on his stoop this Christmas Eve was not surprising so much in and of itself, though the fact that it was Rawdon who was doing the calling had thrown St. Cyprian for a turn. He hadn’t seen Ozzy Rawdon since the end of the War, though he’d kept abreast of his activities via the usual outlets of Society gossip.
Rawdon was a rum one, no two ways about it. He was a gambler, a professional lout and a war hero.
St. Cyprian stabbed the fire again. A cascade of sparks swirled upwards. Still holding the poker, he turned. “Ebe, be a dear and get me the container on the third shelf of the second bookcase there.”
“The one with a cat’s head or the one shaped like a jolly fat man?” she said, sipping on her second cup of tea.
“The one shaped like a fish.”
“That’s supposed to be a fish?” Gallowglass said, peering at the shelf in question.
“Get it, please.” St. Cyprian turned back to Rawdon. “Now, Ozzy, I’d like you to spill those guts of yours in the figurative sense, while we scheme to prevent the literal.”
“There’s not much to say,” Rawdon said, licking his lips.
“That’s a lie,” Gallowglass said, handing St. Cyprian the container. “And I still say that this looks like a cat.”
“Possibly a cat-fish, then?” St. Cyprian murmured. “And Ozzy isn’t lying, are you Ozzy? Ozzy never lies. Ozzy just bends the truth into new and more advantageous shapes.” St. Cyprian opened the container and took out a pinch of powder. Flinging it onto the fire, he looked at Rawdon. “I want the unbent truth, Ozzy.”