Rafe hunched his shoulders and drew his coat tighter as an icy wind came knifing up the narrow Middle City lane, flinging the night’s dusting of snow into his face with what he felt sure was malicious intent. Joshua’s curse, though muffled by the garish red scarf covering his mouth and nose like the mask of a flamboyant highwayman, seemed to annoy whatever perverse imp was to blame, for a keener gust followed, cutting right to the bone.
At that, Micah vented a species of growl that Rafe had heretofore only heard from her when she was wrestling with a vexatious math problem.
“Horned God’s shriveled left ball!” Florian erupted. “Did you drag me from my warm bed just so I could freeze to death in the street like a damned Riversider?”
Rafe laughed. “Look at you—the cut of that jacket becomes you, I admit, and the effect of the snow crystals in your hair is striking, a scattering of diamonds amid the gold, but you wouldn’t suffer so, Florian, if you would just dress appropriately for the season.”
“Unlike the rest of you, I am no slave to the calendar.” Florian gave a contemptuous sniff. “In fashion, as in all things, I follow my heart.”
“I think you have mistaken that organ,” said Joshua.
Florian glared. “I still don’t see why we could not have waited until later to make this visit.”
“It is nearly noon,” Joshua observed with a glance skyward from over the parapet of his scarf, as if to appeal to the sun for corroboration; alas, slate-grey clouds rendered the appeal moot. “Any later and the day would be half gone before we started.”
“By ‘later,’ I meant months, not hours,” Florian replied. “This cold grows worse with each passing year. Give me a fire, a bottle of wine, a bed, and boys to fill it, and I will fuck the winter away like a bear.”
“Bears hibernate in the winter months,” Micah pointed out.
Florian rolled his eyes.
“Don’t mind him, lamb,” soothed Joshua. “He can’t help being vulgar.”
“Fuck if I can’t,” Florian said.
At which Rafe threw his arms around the shoulders of the two men flanking him. “I wish you could try harder to be friends, or at least act the part, for my sake.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Florian grumbled, shrugging off Rafe’s arm. “How much farther?”
Rafe cleared his throat. “It should be just ahead.”
“I knew old Brooks would come through,” said Joshua.
“We will see.” Yesterday Rafe had received a note from the bookseller, with the address of a house that might prove suitable for the school. The owner was a customer of Brooks’s who had suffered a business reversal and was desperate to sell. Aware of Rafe’s plans, Brooks had dispatched the note, along with a key to the house, now empty. All he asked in return, should the house prove suitable, was a finder’s fee and an exclusive contract to supply texts for the school, both of which Rafe would happily provide . . . well, technically it would be Diane who provided them, and Rafe all the happier for it. It was small of him, no doubt, but he always found it cheering to know that he had cost the Duchess Tremontaine something. After all, she had cost him everything.
But Rafe didn’t want to dwell on the past. That ship, quite literally, had sailed. What mattered now was the future he would build to honor it: the William Alexander Tielman Academy!
His dream of so many years was coming true at last. Rafe’s heart surged at the prospect, which seemed nearer than ever: so close he could taste it. He could almost see them, the eager young students who would flock to the City’s newest bastion of learning, the sons of merchants and, yes, even nobles mingling in a common love of knowledge! Why, the Academy would bring the city together as never before, knit the frayed bonds that for too long had led fellow citizens to regard each other with suspicion, fear, and contempt, like enemies forced to live cheek by jowl under a truce repeatedly broken.
Meanwhile, the street that Brooks’s note had directed them to was looking familiar . . .
“For the Landsakes, pigeon,” exclaimed Joshua.
Rafe stopped short. He pulled the note from his coat pocket and fumbled it open with his gloved hands. Raising his eyes to the house before him, he was chagrined to find the match to Brooks’s scrawled number mounted beside an oversized wooden door whose baroque carvings of woodland creatures and half-naked shepherdesses seemed to suggest the entry to a brothel catering to the most questionable tastes. He blinked the nightmare away, but it persisted: the red eaves that noisily proclaimed their unfathomable existence like crass cousins from the country, the...