"You might read your own book for a while, you know, instead of glueing yourself to mine."
Childermass looked up from his idle study of Vinculus' left arm, a pen held absently between his teeth. He frowned for a second, bemused by the sudden conversation and the edge of real annoyance in the street-magician's tone, and then shrugged, reaching up to take the thing out of his mouth rather than answer around it.
"If you recall, I don't have so many of those anymore," he said, with mild humour. "They vanished a while back, along with two magicians and most of my worldly possessions. Retrieving them has proved a little difficult thus far."
Vinculus grinned at him, taking the opportunity of his distraction to wriggle around some and steal back his arm. "I did not mean those ones," he said, wagging one finger reprovingly. "Staid things, ever-fixed. I meant your other book. The one that is always with you. Loose leaves, laid out, tell you a different story every time?"
Childermass blinked at him. "The cards?" he asked, just to clarify. "I don't know that I'd have called them a book ..."
"Are they not?" Vinculus asked, smiling ingenuously. "Turn them over like pages, one by one, there's no story in the world they might not tell. An ever-changing book, to be sure, but then books are not always so fixed a thing as they might seem."
He smiled crookedly, gesturing flamboyantly down himself to disguise the half-haunted thing in his eyes. Books that change, yes. Some less painfully than others. All right, Childermass thought. He could see the man was honestly at the end of his rope. Perhaps it really was time to leave the King's Book alone for a bit.
Not, he thought, that his cards were necessarily a more cheerful subject.
"You do remember that our last reading together did not end particularly well," he said, leaning back a bit and swapping his pen for his pipe. The cards remained in his pocket, for now. He thought he might want a few spoken answers first. Vinculus, seeing this, sat up with some alacrity, pulled on his coat, and settled himself more comfortably opposite Childermass at their little table. The inn did not allow for much, but they had managed a cramped little study space in the corner of the room they shared.
"Tch," Vinculus dismissed, waving one hand. "That was the King, and your temper, and no fault of mine. I doubt he'll trouble us now, unless he should happen to be very bored somewhere and have nothing better to do. And even then, I'm not sure we're really that fascinating, you and I."
He leered a bit, mostly idly, as if to suggest various means by which they might improve their mutual fascination. Childermass shook his head at him, a small smirk on his lips. They'd not be playing that game. Not so early in the evening, at least. Vinculus shrugged philosophically, and dropped his hand palm-up on the table to wiggle his fingers in demand.
"It'll not end badly this time," he wheedled, looking winningly across at Childermass. "I'm sure of it. A little peek, come on. Shan't hurt a bit."
Childermass studied him, a little bemused. He put his hand in his pocket, slowly, and watched a genuine sliver of avarice flicker through Vinculus' expression. Greed for knowledge, mostly, but something else as well. It baffled him, and he was not fond of being baffled. He took his cards in his hand, but did not remove them from his pocket just yet.
"You're very eager all of a sudden," he noted curiously, watching the man. "Why this sudden urge for fortune telling? Have you developed a fear for your future?"
Vinculus glanced away. He did not withdraw his hand, still palm-up and in askance on the table, but he averted his gaze, looking to the floor instead. There was an oddness to his expression. Something that looked like wistfulness, something that looked like consideration, and an odder thing, close to sympathy, that Childermass could not fathom at all.
"It's not fortune-telling, exactly," the street magician said quietly, looking back at Childermass to offer a small, distant sort of smile, quite unlike his usual suggestiveness. "The future can be a dangerous thing, none know that better than I, but there's not much to fear when the worst has already happened. No. It's your book, like I said. I just want to see it again. To see another book beneath your hands, to watch something else be read for a change. A man needs a break now and then, you have to allow for that."
Childermass frowned, not entirely sure how much of that he believed, or even how much made sense, but he took his hand from his pocket, the familiar shapes nestled inside it, and laid the deck carefully on the table between them. Vinculus swung around in his seat and instantly moved his hand from the table to the cards, laying his hand across Childermass' in an almost caging gesture. Childermass stiffened warily. The mercurial intensity was familiar, an echo of that first reading that Vinculus had promised they'd not be repeating today, and he was beginning to feel vaguely that he'd been had. The wild grin on Vinculus' face was doing nothing whatsoever to ease that impression.
"Oh, don't look like that," Vinculus purred, shifting his hand a little to the side so as not to trap Childermass' directly. He rubbed his thumb gently across the top of Childermass' knuckles, in what was possibly meant to be a reassuring gesture. "It's just that they call out for it, is all. I've been hearing them for a while now. They cry out to be read and, one book to another, I should like to help oblige them."
Childermass blinked at that. It might only have been a phantom sensation, brought on by the street-magician's words, but he thought for a second that the cards warmed in his hand. He thought they sang faintly to him, a song that even now reminded vaguely of the sea, of ships and bargains and foreign lands. They did not do so often, little enough that he might pretend they did not do so at all, but there were times when it felt harder to deny. Now, with Vinculus' hand around his own, cupping him and the cards both, was one such time.
"... What are you talking about?" he asked, very carefully. The last revelation Vinculus had sprung upon him through his cards had not been pleasant, not least because of the warping of the cards themselves, the unwanted intrusion of another magic upon them. Even if it had been the King's magic, even if it had been a genuine warning, he'd not wanted it there. He'd not wanted it writ across them, these things that were so purely his.
Vinculus smiled at him. He sensed the thought, maybe, the possessive curl of Childermass' fingers. He approved of it, it seemed. He approved very much of the protective instinct.
"They long for you," he said softly. He brought up his other hand, to complete the cage around them, or perhaps the shield. "They would tell you all the secrets of the world, if they could. You made them of your magic, long before you even knew you had any. You have kept them with you and championed them against all comers. They want very much to be allowed to tell you things, to safeguard you as much as they may. They would gather the warp and weft of the world and lay it beneath your hands. Can't you feel as much?"
Childermass stared at him, perhaps a little wild-eyed. He could feel something, most definitely, something of magic, something warm beneath his hand, but he was not sure of this sudden mood of Vinculus'. He was not sure this was a safe place to tread between them.
"... I've no wish for servants," he said, very quietly. He flexed his fingers around the cards, straightened them gently in his hand. They were so very familiar. He had held a thousand books in his hands, had leafed through god knew how many pages, but Vinculus was right. There were none, in all the world, as familiar as these leaves of ink and paper and cardboard beneath his hand. If they were a book, they were a living one, a changing one, one that moved about the world as much as he did. They had come with him through the mud and the dirt, they'd tasted of his blood and his magic, they'd warned as much as they were able of all that might come to pass. They were not servants. His book, maybe, but not his servants. Friends, if anything, and perhaps the most loyal he had ever had.
Vinculus only tilted his head, smiling crookedly at him. There was that thing in his eyes again, that odd thing like sympathy and wistfulness. He patted at Childermass' hand, at the battered leaves kept safe beneath it.
"Did I say anything about servants?" he asked, his eyes bright and blue. "You are their Reader, magician, not their Master. They are a book, written in your magic. They long to be read, and you grant them as much service by the act as they grant you. It is a more equal thing than you might think. Or it is when the book is a treasured one, at least."
... Ah. Wistfulness and sympathy, one living book to another. It would be a cold thing, Childermass allowed, to be read without care, to be poked and prodded at without regard for the leaves themselves as much as what was written upon them. Especially when the book was a living one. When it had come through the mud and the dirt, when it had given warning where it could and suffered for it, when it had tasted of blood and magic and been rewritten by them. It was not the reading itself that such a book might tire of, though perhaps that too, when even books might want of rest. It would be the coldness, though, that wearied most. It would be the emptiness of an unequal venture, and the lack of care from those whose hands lay upon them. That much, Childermass thought, he could well understand.
It must have shown in his expression. Something of it, at least. Something shuttered in Vinculus' eyes, an odd shyness in a man who barely had the acquaintance of such things normally. There came a pale fragility beneath the mercurial intensity of the man, and Childermass answered to it. He nudged Vinculus' hand gently aside, and drew his cards into both his hands, feeling their warmth and their familiarity beneath his fingers. He wove them and cut them, holding Vinculus' gaze all the while, and laid down seven leaves between himself and the other man. Vinculus watched him, all the while. Vinculus held still with a quivering sort of curiosity, and watched with bright blue eyes as Childermass slowly turned over this new chapter between them.
Le Bateleur, the magician. Le Pendu, the hanged man. La Lune, the moon, magic and mystery and fear. The Three of Coins, a test passed, a successful first step. The Two of Cups, warmth, partnership and welcome. Le Mat, the fool, hard-won wisdom, wandering out to new or changed wonders. L'Étoile, the star, a protective influence, hope and promise for the future. Well then. A gentle reading, to be sure, and somewhat unequivocal. Childermass huffed, glancing to the side, a somewhat rueful smile creeping across his face.
"It would seem that your sympathy is returned," he said, looking back at Vinculus now, tapping his fingers gently across the cards. Vinculus glanced down at them, licking his lips slightly, and looked back up with a wary, hopeful sort of expression. "The cards appreciate your concern, and would like to help oblige you in your turn. I have been remiss in my duties, apparently, towards both of you. I do apologise for it."
Vinculus squinted suspiciously at him. "What does that mean, exactly?" he asked, tilting his head to watch Childermass sidelong, out of the corner of his eye. "I should not like to put you out, my friend. Only wanted to help a fellow book, that's all."
Childermass chuckled, gathering his cards gently back together, stroking a thumb in gratitude across the back of uppermost. He patted them, an acknowledgement of their wisdom and his thanks that they had shared it with him once again. His book, Vinculus called them. The finest friends a man could ask for. 'Twas more than the world they sought to lay beneath his hands, though he'd thank them for that in its turn. For now, 'twas a smaller, simpler thing, and no less happy for it.
"It means what would you say to a pint," Childermass said, standing up and slipping his cards back in his pocket. He held out his hand to a very weary book, and smiled a crooked smile. "A draught of ale, for starters, and a less studious and more congenial atmosphere from here on out. 'Tis owed, I think, and I had forgotten that. Will you have it now, with my apologies?"
Vinculus blinked at him for a minute, head back and expression sharply wary, and then he grinned, all at once. Then he beamed, a bright, wicked sort of expression, a boundless joy, and sprang instantly to his feet, taking Childermass' hand in both of his. He nearly vibrated and, now that Childermass was looking at him with somewhat opened eyes, there was as much of fragility and hollowed weariness to it as there was the signature gleeful intensity. A man at the end of his rope. A hanged man, at the limits of his endurance.
"I'll have it," Vinculus said, gripping Childermass' hand with a tight little grin. "I'll have it and gladly. That pint most especially. You're very dull, you magicians. You could use some livening up, just so you don't all turn to stone where you sit. Don't you think, sir?"
Childermass blinked at him, and found a rueful smile once again. "I've rarely been accorded dull before," he said wryly. "I don't suppose I should like to start now. I thank you for the timely warning, sir. I should be glad to be spared that fate."
Vinculus squinted at him again, suspecting mockery, but after a moment, when he found none, he only smiled once again. Not a grin, now, nor the suggestive leer neither. A smaller thing, and simpler than either of those. A sliver of honest humour, happily shared between them. A pleasant thing, Childermass thought. A nice little Two of Cups to be carrying on with.
And, speaking of two cups ...
"Shall we?" he said, gesturing towards the door. "The ale isn't going to fetch itself, you know, nor drink itself neither. We shall have to help it with that." A thoughtful pause, and then he added: "My friend."
Vinculus grinned. "There's nothing in this world I should be happier to help with," he said, with what Childermass thought was definite honesty. And then, after only a little pause in turn, and with equal if slightly more sober truthfulness: "You're a good Reader, you know. Best a book could ask for. I think your book and I shall be in agreement there as well." A little smile. "'Tis not every reader as remembers to offer his books a friendly drink, after all."
Childermass snorted. "'Tis not every book who needs one," he noted, and all but manhandled the man through the door. "Indeed, ale is the last thing most books need. I think you'll find you are unique in that particular requirement."
Unique in many requirements, he thought, as Vinculus happily made a beeline towards the bar in illustration of the point. A living book was a different thing to an unchanging one. It had more needs and different, when there was heart beneath the parchment that still beat. He'd been remiss to forget that, more cold and callous than he'd wished to be. He do well to remember better in future. A man was not the same as a piece of paper, even if he had been used as one.
And too, he thought, feeling a weight and a warmth in one pocket, a memory of ships and bargains and magic, the offer of a world laid out beneath his fingers. He might remember also that sometimes even bits of paper might have opinions too, and feelings as well. Theirs was a strange new world, after all, a world full of magic once again.
These days, a book might not always be so fixed a thing as it seemed.