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Authors: K. J. Charles

Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Historical, #Short Story, #Christmas

Feast of Stephen

BOOK: Feast of Stephen
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Feast of Stephen

KJ Charles

A Charm of Magpies

Copyright KJ Charles

Cover by Susan Lee

For all the lovely
people in the KJ Charles Chat group,

because I’d dedicate a
book to each of you but I can’t write fast enough

Table of



Feast of

Other books by KJ

Author’s Note

This story comes after
Flight of Magpies
. Not only does it contain spoilers for
that book, it will make no sense at all if you haven’t read the
Charm of Magpies series. In that case, I recommend checking out my
less seasonal but still free story

Feast of Stephen

December – St Stephen’s Day

They arrived at
Rothwell after dark.

It had been a
very long journey, made worse by their late departure. That was
thanks to Stephen’s job, of course. Mrs Baron Shaw had taken
advantage of the catastrophic events of the last few weeks to
manoeuvre Stephen’s old enemy John Slee off the Council for good.
He couldn’t regret that, but the resulting chaos had kept him
working eighteen-hour days for a week, despite his best

He could,
frankly, still be working: there was enough to be done, God knew.
But Esther had become vocal on the subject, Merrick had begun
giving him meaningful looks, and Stephen had finally put his foot
down before Crane did it for him.

A little too
late. The long-threatened snow began to fall while they were still
travelling, and the roads were soon rutted and icy. They had been
forced to spend Christmas Day in an inn some miles from Crane’s
hunting box—not a great hardship, since Crane’s lavish hand could
purchase luxury under almost any circumstances, but not what any of
them had wanted—and it had taken another day of laborious
travelling to reach their destination.

The carriage
was as well sprung as any Stephen had ridden in, but it still
jolted uncomfortably over the hard, uneven ground. Jenny Saint had
spent most of the journey outside. Stephen knew from experience
that although Dan Gold could knit a broken bone in a matter of
days, the pain lasted far longer, a dull, nagging ache that made a
carriage ride torture. She at least had the option of windwalking
when the roads were empty, running through the air alongside the
carriage, landing next to Merrick on the driver’s seat if other
vehicles approached.

It was slightly
easier that way, too. She was still very much on edge around Crane,
and her nerves were contagious. Christmas Day had helped a little,
but her usually ebullient nature had still been subdued at the
table, and Stephen suspected it would be a long time before she was
entirely comfortable in Crane’s company, or with their

The house was
unlit and empty when they arrived, crunching through snow that was
now several inches deep. It was warm inside, though, as though
fires had been going all day, and smelled of something

“We had people
in to make ready,” Crane told him as they entered. “Enlighten us,
my sweet.”

Stephen reached
out with his mind and ignited the lamp wicks one after another,
bringing leaping golden light to the hall. Beside him, Saint gave a
little gasp. He’d told her they were going to a hunting box, and
hadn’t elaborated on what that actually meant, since he didn’t want
report getting back to the Golds, but in truth it was a sizeable
and extremely comfortable house.

“You said
,” she muttered. “Thought we’d be roughing it.”

“Well, it ain’t
bad, but not what you’d call precisely convenient,” Merrick said.
“Price you pay for a bit of peace and quiet.”

“Why don’t you
show Miss Saint around?” Crane suggested. “We can clean up and meet
for dinner…?”

“Call it half
seven,” Merrick said. “You want me to do the fires, Mr. Day?” That
was purely a courtesy question; Stephen held up a hand in answer.
“Come on, Jen.”

He took the
girl upstairs, Crane following. Stephen headed for the parlour,
setting oil lamps and candles ablaze as he went. The fires had been
laid and it took only a moment to get them going, which was all he
had before he heard Crane shouting for hot water.

“If I weren’t
here, you’d have to wash in cold,” Stephen told him once he had one
hand in the pitcher, the water warming around his tingling

“If you weren’t
here, nor would I be,” Crane pointed out. “I wouldn’t come to the
arse end of nowhere for anything less than—”

“The arse end
of a short shaman?” Stephen supplied.

“I wasn’t going
to say
,” Crane objected. “Well, I hardly need to.”

Stephen removed
his hand from the now-warm water to make an offensive gesture,
feeling the burdens of care lift a little. He loved this room. It
was dark, no matter how many candles were lit, with the heavy wood
panelling that the Vaudrey family seemed to have preferred, but it
had a four-poster bed long enough to accommodate Crane’s legs and
sturdy enough to accommodate his desires, and it had become
, since they had had removed the family portraits on
their first visit.

Rothwell was
somewhere he felt entirely comfortable. If only Saint could fit in
here too.

“You go first,”
Stephen said, and sat on the bed watching his lover as he sponged
away the travel grime. Crane’s bare skin still unnerved him, now
pale where it should have been black and blue with ink, but the one
remaining magpie tattoo that brooded on his back was as vibrant as
ever. Crane stretched up, and the play of muscles and the flicker
of candlelight made the bird seem to give a shudder, silently
rustling its feathers.

Definitely just
Crane moving, Stephen assured himself. Not the magpie by itself.

Crane went down
first, leaving Stephen with the instruction to dress like a
civilised man. That was reinforced by the fact that only one suit
hung in the wardrobe: his Hawkes and Cheney autumnal tweed.

Which would
make him look as good as was possible, and point up that Jenny
Saint would be wearing her single company dress again, a plain and
elderly muslin that had first belonged to the significantly taller
Esther and been taken up to fit. He wondered why Crane hadn’t
thought of that, and debated putting his scruffy travel-stained
clothing back on to show support, but mentally threw up his hands.
Perhaps Crane had something in mind; if not, he would just have to
observe the girl’s discomfort and deal with it.

Stephen checked
his appearance to be sure it would meet Crane’s exacting standards,
adjusted his amber cufflinks, stepped out into the corridor, and
almost walked into a lovely young woman.

“Who the devil—

She was clad in
a light blue gown that flattered her slim build, modestly
high-necked rather than attempting to pad her very limited bosom,
and yet, somehow, not making her look modest at all. Her fair hair
was twisted up on her head in a way Stephen vaguely recognised from
Esther’s few forays into hair arrangement, there were silver
droplets sparkling at her ears, and she looked taller than

“Are you
wearing shoes with
?” Stephen demanded. “I mean, that
is to say, you look beautiful. Charming. Uh…” He scrabbled for
compliments. “Ladylike.”

“Yeah, alright,
but look.” Saint hoicked up her rustling skirts and stuck out a
foot, revealing very expensive silk slippers with a good inch of
heel. “Is this bloody stupid or what? How d’you run in these?”

“I don’t think
you’re meant to. Where did this finery come from?” As if he didn’t

“His majesty,
innit. Compliments of Lord Crane, Frank says, and there’s frigging
of it. I mean…” She spread out her skirts and did a
little wobbly pirouette, unsteady on her feet for the first time in
his experience. The gown swished and rippled. “I mean, it’s pretty,
not saying it ain’t pretty, but… I don’t wear

“I don’t wear
this,” Stephen said, indicating his own extremely expensive suit.
“Except that now I do. Look, it’s all right. There are no strings
attached. He’ll do something as, as
as telling you
how to dress, provide you with all the finery you could want even
if he knows damned well you don’t want it, and I will grant it is
extremely annoying. But it isn’t about you owing him anything and
he’s not trying to change you. I promise you that.”

“Wardrobe full
of lady clothes but he’s not trying to change me.” Saint folded her
arms. “So what
he doing then?”

Stephen felt a
glow of pride in his wayward pupil. She would, he thought, have
made an excellent justiciar one day. “I spent a long time wondering
that, actually. And at last I realised, the truth is…” He held out
his arm, crooked in gentlemanly style for her to take. “Lucien
likes clothes.”

“He likes
clothes,” Saint repeated.

“If he liked
cake, he would ensure there were plates of cake in every room, so
everyone could have all the cake they wanted, whether they actually
liked cake or not. But he likes clothes.”

“Right. Got
you.” She gave a sudden, unladylike snort. “Good thing he don’t
like monkeys, then.”

Stephen yelped
with startled laughter. Saint adopted a well-bred tone. “Good
efternoon, Mr. Day, end may I present you with a monkey?”

“Thank you, but
I already have a very satisfactory orang-utan,” Stephen assured her
with a deep bow. “Come on, let’s go down.”

She winced.
“Are we gonna eat with you and his majesty again?”

“You’re going
to have to get used to it, you know. Honestly, he’s not that bad.
Hasn’t Mr Merrick told you about how they lived in China?”

“Yeah, but he’s
posh, and… I mean, I know Frank. I know you.
But…” She scuffed her silken slipper against the floorboards. “Just
don’t feel like I ought to be here, you know?”

“Yes, I do. But
if you’re going to marry Mr. Merrick, or at least—” He waved a hand
to indicate a relationship without benefit of clergy. “—you’ll just
have to get used to Lucien. There’s no separating them, and you
shoudn’t want to. I’ve got Mr. Merrick in my life as much as you
have Lord Crane.”

“Yeah, but it’s
easier for you. You’re a bloke.”

“Uh,” Stephen
said. “It really isn’t.”

Saint’s cheeks
pinked. “Yeah, well, maybe not that, but you know what I mean,

questions,” Stephen said. “Are you afraid of Lord Crane? And are
you going to run away, in front of me and Mr. Merrick?”

Saint stuck her
small chin out belligerently. “No, I’m not, and no, I’m

“Then stop
shilly-shallying and come downstairs. I’m hungry.” Stephen crooked
his arm again, and this time she took it.


On the whole,
Crane felt, dinner could have gone worse. It had been a simple meal
mostly prepared and left for them by the servants he paid to come
at convenient times only. Saint had been nervy and self-conscious
but that could hardly be helped. He intimidated her, and she was
far too prickly to be put at her ease with courtesy or charm. She
was an uneducated, illiterate, untravelled girl; he was a wealthy
titled older man illegally screwing her superior officer. It was
obvious she didn’t know quite where to look between them, and her
discomfort made Stephen twitchy.

Stephen had
done his manful best to get her talking, which was to say
determined yet inept. Merrick betrayed no sign of concern at her
obvious anxiety. He’d learned patience in the same hard school as
Crane; he would wait for her to relax.

Well, that was,
among other things, why they were here. It was Crane’s intention
that by the time they left Rothwell, Saint would be part of his
household, quite used to his and Stephen’s relationship, and
wearing Merrick’s ring.

Dressing her
differently had had surprisingly little effect. Some people could
be made free by changing their appearance, as if it released them
from the shackles of an old identity. Not Stephen, though, and
apparently not Saint. She had been a vision of fairness in pale
blue and silver as she entered, and Merrick’s appreciative whistle
had made her blush rather charmingly, but she made no effort to ape
society manners, and sat with as much awkwardness as she’d shown in
her scruffy old clothes. It seemed she would continue being
herself, regardless of trappings.

Which meant two
things: that Merrick had made a damned good choice, and that Crane
would need to try another tack.

With that in
mind, once dinner was concluded, he ushered them all into the
parlour, where Stephen’s magically ignited fire still blazed
brightly, and handed round brandy. That was not something Saint
would have drunk before, too masculine for ladies and too expensive
for the poor. She took the snifter tentatively by the stem,
watching Stephen and Merrick to see how they held the full-bellied
glasses before cupping hers in her hand.

BOOK: Feast of Stephen
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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