Theodore Burnett has never been a hero. He prefers comfort to combat-spells, and jam-slathered scones to muddy boots. Fortunately, as the youngest-ever head librarian at the Royal College of Wizardry, Theo can spend his days with books and bibliomancy in place of battle-magic or politics -- and in any case Napoleon’s been defeated and the war’s been won.
But now there’s a wounded captain of the Magicians’ Corps in Theo’s library. And he needs Theo’s help. And Theo can never resist a mystery, especially when that mystery’s tall and tempting and handsome.
Captain Henry Tourmaline, formerly of His Majesty’s Army and the Magicians’ Corps, requires assistance. He’s returned to London with scars on his body, soul, and heart -- war, after all, will do that to anyone. But one of those scars refuses to heal, a curse that’s slowly draining Henry’s magic and eventually his life. The physicians have no answers, so Henry turns to the College’s books ... and the College’s attractive head librarian. But the curse is unpredictable, and the last thing Henry wants is to drag someone else into the line of fire, particularly someone as kind and innocent and brilliant as Theo.
Theo wants to save Henry. Henry wants to keep Theo safe. Together, perhaps they can do both ... while uncovering a perilous secret behind a spell, a deadly puzzle in the archives, and their own heart’s desires.
Henry had remained sitting right where Theo had left him, eyes open but visibly not-asleep in the manner of someone too tired to drop off. He was watching -- or gazing vaguely into -- the fire, but turned fast when the door closed. A soldier, Theo thought again. Someone who’d seen battlefields.
He said, “Tea, and bread and cheese, and some slightly elderly apples? Or not, if you’re not hungry. If not, I’ll eat the lot, never fear.”
Henry focused on him more sharply. Murmured, “You would say that ...”
“About eating? Guilty, I’m afraid. I have an unfortunate weakness for iced cakes and scones with clotted cream, which is why I’ve not got any at the moment, in fact.”
“No,” Henry said. “Not that. You want me to feel comfortable.”
“You are my guest.” Theo settled into the softest chair, the large one with brocade cushions that invited his shortness to curl up in a terribly unprofessional manner. He would’ve done, if he’d been alone; he did not, just now. “Here you are. Drink this. I shall just toast some cheese, and you may join me or not. Were you looking for something specific in the College’s most bone-dry historical survey? I am your librarian, you realize, and I might be of assistance.”
“Professional curiosity?” Henry took a sip. His hand did not shake, but Theo had the sense that this was only because iron-clad self-possession refused to permit it. “I hadn’t planned to inconvenience you any further. I did spend the requisite endless sleepless hours in the library while finishing my final apprentice’s showcase piece, under Honoria Merrill, if she’s still here and terrifying undergraduates. I can manage research.”
“Professor Merrill is indeed still here. I quite liked her classes.” Theo stabbed bread with a toasting fork. Pointedly. “She appreciates tidy spellwork.” Honoria Merrill, silver-haired and straight-backed despite her age, refused to supervise more than one or two final apprentice’s projects each year, claiming she had neither the time nor the inclination to indulge anyone not gifted, dedicated, and disciplined. Henry, the opposite of neat and tidy, must have been impressive.
Theo himself, of course, had already been good friends with Sir Roderick. He had, under that kindly grey-whiskered supervision, taken on a book-protection spell that’d extended the library’s fireproofing spells to each individual volume, even when checked out.
He wondered what Henry had done to demonstrate sufficient magical comprehension; that would’ve been before a summons to war, wouldn’t it? “And I am quite good at my job. I’d like to help.”
Henry drank more tea, and gazed at him across the teacup. “This is excellent. Not just mint, but a hint of blue vervain?”
“Thank you, and yes, it is. Are you avoiding my offer?”
“I was thinking that we must have just missed each other at school. I’d’ve remembered you.”
“Oh, no, you wouldn’t. I’m hardly memorable.” Theo retrieved toast, shining gold and molten with cheddar; slid it onto a plate, began another. “Good at research and history and retrieval spells, but sheer rubbish at College sport, competitive Fool’s Football, enhanced underwater rowing, and so on. I expect you were a splendid magical submersible oarsman or something of the type. I think you’re right, though, and you’d’ve been a few years ahead of me.”
“Submersible Rowing Captain,” Henry said. “Three years running. I grew up near a lake. Of course you’re memorable. And talented, if Sir Roderick left you the library. I didn’t mean any insult.”
“None taken. I know I’m young.” He casually picked up a slice of toast, nibbled, watched Henry unconsciously do the same: mirroring the motion. “But I’ve always been good at finding things. Solving puzzles. Sorting out tangles. I enjoy that.”
He also sliced an apple -- getting softer, a late-autumn sort of apple, here at the edge of December -- and idly held out a piece. Henry took it, apparently without thinking about it, and ate it, and then looked surprised.
“Where were you staying,” Theo inquired, “before this? If you don’t mind me asking. Should we send a message along?”
“Honestly?” Henry sighed. Then coughed. And pretended he hadn’t, drinking tea. “A week or two in hospital, a week or two at Apsley House ... I hadn’t planned it out much past that. I’d hoped -- I had thought I’d be going home.”
But you didn’t, Theo noted but didn’t say aloud. You didn’t go home. And you’ve apparently stayed with the Duke of Wellington, briefly or not. You weren’t any sort of common soldier, and you weren’t common even among the Magicians’ Corps; aide de camp, you said. Personally reporting to the commander. But that can mean anything he needed you to do.
Anything, indeed. In war. In France, among mud and rain and army-trodden paths. And given what had happened to the Corps, given the blood and the pain and the losses -- before the treaties, before they’d been formally disbanded ...
He said, “Well, you’re welcome to stay. I won’t ask for details if you’d rather not discuss it, but -- as far as having been in hospital, and recovering, as you’ve said -- is there anything I might do to make you more comfortable?”
Henry, who’d eaten a second slice of apple in the meantime, hesitated. “If you’re concerned I might light your bed on fire if startled --”
“Hardly. I’d never hold an accident against you. And I’m not convinced you can light more than a candle, at the moment.” Theo paused. Regretted his own words. “That’s part of it, isn’t it? What’s missing. My apologies.”
Henry lowered his teacup without taking a sip. Cradled warmth in hands. Gazed down for a moment, as if mint and steam and water might lend him strength.
When he looked up his smile was wry, raw, laid bare and resigned to surrender, not without some humor. “You did say you were good at puzzles.”
“Should I not have guessed? And you were looking into the origins and sources of English magic. Looking for ways to restore it, perhaps?”
Henry looked as if he wanted to draw a deep breath, bracing himself, but perhaps he couldn’t, with that cough. He met Theo’s eyes as if preparing for some sort of judgment, a flogging or a court-martial or another doom. “I thought I might find something to help.”