A Demon of Midwinter: Part 2
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The light slanting into the small window was cold and hard. Not the soft grey of another rainy day. Which likely meant the slush of last night had turned to snow. Rhys pulled the blanket up close to his chin, exposing his feet to the frigid room. He curled up so he could tuck them in as well. A part of him wanted to stay in his room all day and read, listen to the blues records John had loaned him, and mourn his friend. The more responsible part told him there were things to do, though he couldn’t think what those things were.
Except getting breakfast in the dining room. He’d learned early in life to never pass up a warm breakfast, especially one already paid for. He threw the blanket back and swung his feet to the floor. The movement elicited a cough that rattled through his chest. If nothing else, getting up would get him out of the chill and damp that lingered in his small room.
Once dressed, he made his way to the dining room. He’d been lucky enough to get in-school accommodation, so he didn’t have to venture out for breakfast. His favourite offering was the stodgy, stick-to-the-ribs porridge other students turned their noses up at. It kept him full and warm all day.
Rhys’ gaze flicked to Adam St. James, then at the strapping lads who flanked him. St. James was athletic, a member of the rowing team. Tow-headed, Rhys’ mother would have called him. Handsome and rotten to the core, his grandmother would have said. His forehead furrowed. Bound for a brighter future in the church than Rhys was.
“You were in late last night. I have a mind to report you.”
Rhys’ stomach turned sour as he studied the empty table he’d been about to set his book bag down at.
Adam stepped closer, jostling him, causing the tea in Rhys’ cup to slosh over his hand. “Out looking for some tail?” The man’s breath stank of last night’s drink. His voice dropped, and he continued. “Nah, your more of an arse man, aren’t you?”
Rhys shied away, and right into Adam’s friends, who’d formed a wall behind him.
“I asked you a question, tosser.” St. James' voice was low and rough. “What are you going to do without that commie to protect you?” A pang of sorrow shot through Rhys’ chest.
A cough drew everyone’s attention. Mr. Roberts, one of the porters, scowled at them, his heavy eyebrows drawn together. The men behind Rhys moved away, and he took the chance to escape. He made a beeline for the door, only pausing to grab a piece of toast. He sighed as he looked at the beige porridge, telling himself it would have felt like a rock in his stomach.
“Are you all right, Master Rhys?” the porter asked.
Rhys nodded. “Yes sir, thank you.” Then he fled out the door.
Rhys’ feet took him to the college music room, as they often did when the world weighed on his heart or worries pressed on his mind. His fingers ran over the piano keys in a warm-up scale.
First, he tried something light and airy — Sonata No. 17 in C — but the notes came out jarring and off kilter. So he dove into Nocturne Op 48 No. 1, burying his melancholy under its slow tones. He’d just started when a shadow filled the doorway.
A man. Rhys ignored him, hoping he’d go away and leave him alone in his heavy solitude.
But the shadow lingered on the threshold where Rhys could catch glimpses of him out of the corner of his eye as he moved with the music. Possibly foreign. Probably handsome. Rhys’ eyebrows drew together, and his fingers struggled to find the next notes.
Rhys shook his head and continued to the end, finding some solace in the solemn tones despite the intrusion. He closed the lid over the keys, but still didn’t look at the man.
After a long silence, the stranger spoke. “You put your feelings into your music.” His voice was smooth with a lilt of an accent confirming Rhys’ suspicions of a non-English childhood. “Why so sad?”
He finally turned to the man. Definitely handsome. Eyes the colour of Madeira gazed at him from behind thick lashes. His face held a sadness that reflected Rhys’ own. He swallowed and forced himself to speak, cursing the triteness as the words tumbled from his mouth. “You know what they say...music soothes the savage beast.”
The man stepped closer, his dark hair — too long to be proper — flopping over his face. He pushed it away, and his lips quirked into the beginnings of a smile. “Or stirs it.”
Rhys fought a sudden urge to flee. Unsuccessful, he picked up his book bag and stood.
The man stepped back with an athletic speed. His eyes shuttered, snuffing out the sadness. And the fire. “Maybe you can help me?”
“I doubt it.” Rhys made his way towards the door, trying to give the stranger a wide berth in the small room, but he had to get close to get out.
“I’m looking for someone who can decipher an ancient text.” The man glanced at his hands, and Rhys realized for the first time that he held a yellowed paper. “I was told to find Professor Sinclair.” His gaze returned to Rhys, freezing him in place. “They pointed me in this direction.” He waved the parchment towards the hall, letting Rhys catch a glimpse of the arcane writing that covered it.
“You won’t find Sinclair. He’s gone for the holidays.”
The man’s eyelids narrowed, and his lips drew tight. He frowned at the paper before capturing Rhys in his gaze again, and the sadness returned.
No, not sadness. Pain.
“I don’t suppose you know anyone else who understands old Norse runes?” His eyebrow arched as he held the paper towards Rhys.
Rhys’ eyes homed in on the letters, and his breath caught in his throat. His fingers reached out towards the parchment before his mind could tell them to stop.
The man smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I see you do.”
Rhys’ heart flipped and his stomach clenched. He pulled his fingers away. “Sorry. You’re mistaken.” The man was too good looking, too suave. Too dangerous. Rhys shouldered past him.
The stranger inhaled sharply, and his nostrils flared. “What are you afraid of?”
“I —” Rhys’ steps stuttered. “I have to go.”
Rhys wasn’t an athlete, but he was used to running. He fled along the hall, trying to keep it to a walk for fear that one of the dons would stop him. The shadow of the tantalizing foreigner pursued him. A tingle crept up the nape of his neck as he imagined those deep brown eyes watching his flight.
Bursting through the door, he almost tumbled down the stairs. He inhaled to the base of his spine, bracing himself with the crisp air. That morning the sun had tried to break through the slate grey that blanketed the city the past few weeks. It had clearly failed, and the icy rain continued. He turned his face to the clouds.
His head snapped back to upright, making him momentarily dizzy. Inspector Little peered at him from the bottom of the stairs. He bobbed his head in a nod as he passed the police officer. “Inspector.” He sped up, hastening to put distance between them, and hoping beyond reason that the man wasn’t there to speak to him.
“You look like you’re escaping the devil himself. Anything you’d like to share?”
“No, nothing I can think of,” Rhys said over his shoulder, barely slowing. “Off to class.”
“Who’s your friend?” The inspector’s voice was loud, filling the quad.
Rhys stopped. “My what?”
The inspector nodded at the stairs he’d just descended, and Rhys followed his gaze. His mouth opened slightly, and a gasp escaped before he could stop it as he saw his shadow had indeed followed him. “I—”
“Mr. Rhys has kindly offered to help me with my studies. My English…not so good.” The man’s accent was thick as molasses.
The space between Rhys’ eyebrows scrunched. His English had been melodic but crisp and clear during their conversation in the music room. When the inspector turned his gaze to Rhys, the man quirked an eyebrow, then quickly copped an innocent expression as the inspector’s keen eye returned to him.
“And what exactly is it that you study, Mister…?”
“Darius. Just Darius.” A forearm cut across his waist as he bowed deeply. Straightening, he met Rhys' gaze. “My friends call me Dar.”
“Your studies, Mister Darius?”
“Ah. Ancient languages and their writing.” Darius waggled his fingers as if writing in the air. Rhys noted that his English had improved in the span of a few sentences. “Persian. Macedonian. Icelandic. And your studies, Mister….”
“I—” The inspector stammered. Rhys smiled at seeing the cool police man flustered. “I’m not a student. I’m a police inspector.” Rhys’ smile fell as the inspector turned to him. “I have another question for you about John Stanley. Was he a friend of Dupinder Shaw?”
“No.” Rhys shook his head, tucking his hands into his pockets as his shoulders slumped. An image of a thin man with intense brown eyes popped into his head then just as quickly fled. “I told you, I don’t know anything about his political activities.”
“How do you know Mr. Shaw was a political associate?” The inspector’s icy eyes bored into him, as if trying to catch a lie where there wasn’t one. He wasn’t lying, not really — Rhys didn’t know anything about John’s political activities; he’d made it clear he wasn’t interested, and John respected that.
“This is the man who was murdered?” Darius broke in, causing the inspector’s gaze to swivel to him.
“The man died — we haven’t concluded it was murder.”
“Either way, is very sad, yes?” His thick accent returned.
“Yes, and it’s my responsibility to find the person who did it...if it was murder.” He turned back to Rhys. “You’re still going to be here over the holidays, yes, in case I have more questions.”
Rhys just nodded, even though it wasn’t really a question, and the inspector left, with one last glare at his unwonted companion.
“It wasn’t a person.” Darius sidled closer, as if sharing a confidence, the musical tones infusing his voice.
Rhys didn’t back away, relishing the warmth that radiated off the man. “Hunh?” was all he could muster.
“Your friend.” Darius’ brown eyes held his. “A person didn't kill him."
"It was —" Rhys started to protest, then stopped, realizing he was arguing with a stranger.
"It was the creature I’m hunting.” The man stepped back and bowed deeply to Rhys. “Darius Iravani. Vampire Hunter.”
Rhys snorted, and he sighed — just when he felt a flicker of interest deep in his belly about this handsome stranger, it was quashed.
The man continued, as if oblivious. “But you can call me Dar.”
“No, I can call you mad.” Rhys started walking again, intent on leaving the murder and the mad man behind, shaking his head and mumbling as he went. “And now the inspector probably thinks I’m a communist keeping company with foreign agitators.”
“I’m not a foreign agitator, and I’m not mad.” Darius lay a hand on his arm. “But I don’t ask that you believe me. I only ask that you help me.” With his other hand, he drew out the paper again, two pieces this time — one covered in arcane symbols and a smaller scrap with his name and a series of numbers and letters scrawled on it. The innocent face came back as he peered at Rhys, his mop of dark hair dishevelled and falling over his eyes.
Rhys grimaced and snatched the parchment from him. “Fine. Only because I like a puzzle on a winter morning.” Darius smiled at him, and Rhys’ heartbeat tickled his throat. He swallowed, knowing the puzzle wasn’t the only reason he took the paper. Tucking the sheet into his jacket, he forced himself to walk away without looking back.