It wasn’t like Fortescue didn’t have somewhere to be. At least three invitations for Christmas had been extended towards her—four, if you counted one that had been more for politeness than anything else (she didn’t).
But she hated the holiday. Always had. She hated the way it presumed over the other religions, like it was somehow better for pretending that it hadn’t stolen its traditions. She hated the way that you were intimidated into giving other people gifts, like that meant that you loved them.
And so, seven o’clock had rolled around, and she was still in her dirty townhouse with her feet up, sipping a gin and tonic. Classical music—not carols—was filtered in through the speakers in the walls. The townhouse looked at least two hundred years old on the inside, with the exception of the gadgets that Fortescue clung to like creature comforts. Music-players being a key weakness.
A knock on the door—deliberate, not drunken and lost—filtered through the haze of a day spent drinking. She scowled and reached over the side of her giant leather armchair, fingers closing around a mirror. The mirror’s twin was on the outside of her door. In hers, she saw the face of a very familiar and round man.
“Uncle,” she murmured, as if the word left a bad taste in her mouth.
Swinging an arm up, she unlocked and opened the door without moving, sending invisible energies through her fingers.
“Where’s my niece? Skulking on Christmas Day?” he declared, walking inside. “For shame!”
Her uncle, Radolphus Fortescue, was her only living relative, but they only saw each other a few days per year. She couldn’t stand him, and he, himself, was a busy man, tending to the government. In truth, they were both government employees, but Imperium would never officially recognize the Black Council as being government-sponsored and staffed. Her uncle thought she worked for the patent offices.
“I’m really not in the mood, Uncle,” she sighed.
“Bethmora, do you have any idea what I had to go through to figure out where you were skulking?” Her uncle, dressed in red and black Christmas finery, sat down on the leather sofa opposite her chair. His cheeks were red from the northern winter. “For shame, my girl!”
Fortescue waved a vague hand. “You know I hate Christmas. I always have. For you to expect differently, every year, is more than a little worrying.”
“Something about the presumptuous nature of the festivities, if I remember correctly.”
“Among other things.” She glanced at her side table. “Well. Can I mix you a drink?”
“Oh, no, thank you. I’ve had plenty before coming here. Kept me nice and warm!” Her uncle laughed. “I’ve come here both to wish you a Merry Christmas”—she groaned—“even if you don’t celebrate it, and for a… more complicated purpose. To tell you the truth, the sherries were for liquid courage.”
Raising an eyebrow, Fortescue lurched from her armchair, unsteadily, and mixed herself another drink. “Oh?”
“Yes. I got word that the…”
He trailed off, mid-sentence, behind her back. New drink in hand, she turned and let out a gusty sigh at what she saw. A scrawny black cat, her Alram, was sitting in the middle of the room, its luminous eyes on her uncle. It was barely a cat anymore.
“What on earth has happened to your familiar? What have you done to her?” Her uncle, still flushed, demanded.
“Jasmine’s taken some burdens for me.” Fortescue returned, just as unsteadily, to her chair. “Remember when you gave her to me? My ninth birthday, wasn’t it?”
Her uncle shook his head. “You’ve made her an Alram, Bethmora. That’s what I came about. I heard you go to a particular… meeting, if you get my drift. A special… group.”
Warning flags went up in Fortescue’s mind. This wasn’t information her uncle was supposed to know. Any more and she would have to…
“Forget it,” she murmured.
“Then it’s true.”
Her temper flared. “Forget what you heard, you idiot.”
Jasmine climbed into her lap, barely weighing more than the air she displaced. Her uncle, visibly saddened and horrified, stared at his feet for a few minutes. Fortescue had another fortifying sip of her drink.
“Your mother’s shop,” he said, after his silence. “I went by on the way. You’ve kept it the way it looked when she…”
Fortescue rubbed at her forehead, pawed at it with her free hand. “She loved that place. Anyway, it makes a nice little hiding spot.”
Her uncle stood up, with less grace than she had. Jasmine yowled at him, like a tiny banshee, and rushed out of the room.
“Fucking cat,” Fortescue muttered. “Birds are more reliable.”
“Birds can’t take as much. Was that it? Was that why she had some use for you?” He grimaced. “No, never mind. I don’t want to know.” He lurched for the door.
She waved a hand and opened it again, not looking at him.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, pausing at the threshold.
“Happy New Year,” she sighed.
And then he was gone, and she waved her hand again to close the door after him. She drained the rest of her drink, which tasted much more sour than before.