“I may not have a quarter of your talent or your knowledge in this realm, Hamilton; I wholly concede your expertise in the magical arts. But also I know you, and it has become increasingly clear to me that something is the matter, and my conscience, and my great esteem for your skill and its essential place in this Army, compel me to offer whatever aid I may, in the spirit of friendship.”
Washington stood with Laurens and Lafayette on either side in the tent of his belligerent Sorcerer-General. Night winds tugged at the canvas walls, making the shadows dance, and though it was early spring the air was chill. Eight months had passed since Alexander Hamilton had taken up the mantle of sorcery in the service of his adopted country, yet it was clear to all three non-sorcerers in the tent that the man was deeply unwell. The bones of his face seemed to have grown more distinct, and it lent him an air of unhealthy gauntness. At the same time, dark circles had bloomed around his eyes, and his skin had grown pale. Washington had scarce seen a man alive whose face more resembled a skull.
“Friendship,” Hamilton spat. “You know nothing of what you speak—if you would be my friend, you would leave.” He kept his hands tucked in his pockets. Laurens had conveyed it to Washington that Hamilton seemed unable to keep them from shaking, that he could scarce sit still even when he should have been asleep.
“In that case, Hamilton, as your commanding officer—” Washington began, but Hamilton cut him off.
“You have already conceded that I am beyond your instruction in matters of magic. Cease this arrogance and leave!”
Lafayette, at Washington’s right hand, had let in a sharp breath at the first furious word; now he stepped forward. “Hamilton, if you could hear yourself! I can hardly bear to hear the General spoken of this way.”
“You believe this nonsense, then?” Hamilton snarled, his eyes darting from Lafayette to Laurens. “You believe there is something wrong with me?”
Lafayette nodded, face utterly grave. “I want to help you. We all do.”
For a moment Hamilton stood frozen in simple shock; then, with the suddenness of a cloud crossing over the sun his expression darkened into a snarl. “I do not have to listen to this witless prattle any longer,” he said, stalking over to the writing- desk and shuffling through a stack of papers. “…jumped up little lapdog…” he muttered, loud enough and distinct enough that the Marquis could not decently pretend to not have heard. In any case his ears turned bright red the moment the words touched them, the rest of his face following in short order. It appeared that he might swallow the insult, but then Laurens took a deep breath and stepped forward, blocking Hamilton’s path.
The wizard was brought up short, his eyes a snapping furious blue as they met Laurens’, and though Laurens had never yet flinched from battle he almost quailed at the otherworldly force of Hamilton’s gaze. Though Hamilton was the shorter in stature and slighter in build he gave off the impression of towering height; it was as though his every color had been heightened, not just eyes but the feverish flush of his cheeks and the fire of his hair; in the otherwise-still tent currents of air swirled around him, crackling with static.
Laurens said, low, “Hamilton, I would demand satisfaction from any other man in the world for speaking as you just have to our commander and to our friend, but my regard for—”
“Do it, then,” Hamilton shot back, spreading his arms wide. “Why can we not duel?” He rounded on Lafayette, his voice rising to a hysterical pitch. “And you, ah, what about you? I offer you insult and you say nothing? Am I so low in your estimation that—”
“Hamilton, please, you are ill, only look at your hands!” Lafayette cut in, with an angry sideways glance at Laurens. Hamilton glanced down at his trembling fingers and hurriedly stuffed his hands back into his pockets. Lafayette charged on. “If I have ever given you the impression that—that I think the less of you, because of some—some accident of birth—”
“Accident of birth, oh, yes, what a pretty phrase!” Hamilton howled. He swept an arm across the tabletop, scattering papers; yet as they flew they turned to ice, and all three men startled as they shattered on the ground. “Too low-born to duel a man of your breeding, is that it?”
Laurens made an inarticulate noise at the unfairness of this; Lafayette’s native language was not English, and to hold him accountable for any insulting double-entendres would be grossly unfair. But whatever ensuing protest he may have lodged was lost, for in that moment Washington ordered them both out of the tent with such an air of finality that neither dared say a word in protest.
He crossed behind Hamilton, to the other man’s desk, and plucked up from its surface a thin, battered volume.
“I have not seen this before,” he said, inspecting the book. “Is it new?”
A little of the dangerous crackling fire went out of Hamilton at the change of subject; indeed, he seemed taken off-balance by the sudden redirection. “Indeed. It was confiscated from the British major, John André, before he was hanged.”
Washington gave Hamilton a searching glance. It is the book , Lafayette had insisted, I don't know where he found it, but he has been restless ever since, and Laurens had agreed, the book has twisted his mind. There must be some working in it, something that has slipped past his defenses. He is not himself.
For Washington’s part he was uncertain; many a sorcerer had gone mad with no provocation at all. At the same time, the book’s origins were exceedingly suspicious: André had been hanged a month prior for his part in Benedict Arnold’s treachery, and now lay with cold iron manacles round his wrists and an unmarked grave somewhere in upstate New York. Yet Hamilton had spoken to the captive, had perhaps even admired him...
“And you have tested it for enchantments?”
“I am no fool. I checked the book twice over before opening it. If it were cursed, I would know.” Hamilton’s arms were crossed, his foot tapping, his glare fixed on some point in the corner.
“You learned wizardry from three books,” Washington said flatly. “Most of the British generals learned from dozens—hundreds. They may possess methods of concealment that we know aught of.”
“You do not trust in my talents?”
“You know very well that I do. You are already exceptional. France has formally allied with us in part on the news that America has its own wizard at last, and you have personally turned the tide of two battles already. I have utmost trust in your abilities. And that is precisely why I believe there is no need now for you to risk yourself unduly, simply in order to acquire another trick or two.”
Hamilton’s mouth twisted in discomfiture throughout much of this speech. “It is not so great a risk.”
“I am sorry, Hamilton, but I cannot agree. Every man has his faults, and I fear yours is overconfidence. It is the very quality that has brought you so much success, but therein lies its dangerous allure: you do not see how it may draw you into a trap.”
“How are you so confident it is a trap?”
“How are you so confident it is not? A gift, from a known British spy? It seems like the Trojans’ horse to me.”
Spots of color appeared on Hamilton’s cheeks and ears, betraying his embarrassment as he said, “I am certain André did not curse the book.”
“How can you be sure?” Seeing Hamilton flush an even deeper scarlet, Washington dropped his voice before continuing, “Come, Hamilton. Surely with all that has passed between us—all we have endured together—that is, if there is some entanglement, which you do not wish to reveal—”
“No,” said Hamilton, with a humorless laugh, “No, it was nothing like that. The truth is that the book is an André family heirloom. He gave me the book in the hopes that I would post it along to his younger brother in Oxford.”
Disapprobation filled Washington, along with an immediate understanding of why Hamilton had been so reluctant to reveal the book’s exact provenance. Violating a man’s dying request to have a financially and sentimentally precious object returned to his family—it was dishonorable in the extreme. More alarmingly, it was far, far out of Hamilton’s character.
Washington tapped the book against the tabletop, sifting through the facts as well as he knew them. Information was missing…and yet, the general shape was clear now.
“Are you aware of the precise circumstances of Major André’s capture?”
“He was apprehended on the road to New York City, en route to a rendezvous with General Clinton.”
“Those are the facts as they are generally known, yes. The report came in when you were still recuperating from the attack Arnold arranged, else you would have heard the details already. What is not generally known, and what must not leave this tent”—here with a sidelong glance at the wards that shielded them from scrying eyes—“is that the commander who captured André reported that the man seemed… highly inclined to levity when he was taken in. Drunk, to be precise. It was only after sunrise the next morning he realized he had been bound hand and foot, having refused to give his parole the previous evening. He gave his parole as soon as the matter was explained to him, and from that moment treated events with the gravity they deserved.”
“Sunrise…” Hamilton said. He gave it a whole half-second’s thought before concluding, “The dissolution of whatever bewitchment he was under. The British gave him up deliberately, as a sacrifice.”
“Once they realized that Arnold’s plot had failed, yes. That is my belief. Until now I had wondered to what purpose.” Again Washington tapped the book against the table.
“You think they mean to ensnare my mind,” Hamilton said, very quietly. “Convert me to their cause.”
“I think it is much more subtle than that. I think they intend to open up a rift between you and those who serve with you. I think they want you isolated and vulnerable and afraid to confide in the very ones who care most for your welfare. They may not have to convert you to their cause: not if you undo yourself for them.” Washington fumbled for words for a moment, unsure of how to proceed, and at last swallowing his pride, decided on a phrasing that framed the problem in terms of his own reactions. “I care for your well-being very much, as does the whole Army. I fear the prospect of losing you, Hamilton.”
For a moment Hamilton looked stunned, then he threw back his head in a laugh that sounded false and brittle to Washington’s ears. “Yes, I suppose you would be in a tight spot without your very own wizard, wouldn’t you?”
“That is not what I—”
“If you truly do not wish to lose me, then you should thank this book, for it has only increased my knowledge of how best to preserve myself, and this Army along with me.”
“The book represents a risk, Hamilton. Why would you chance throwing everything away simply to add to your talents, which are already more than enough? You have read enough histories to know that avaricious, overreaching thinking is a path straight to an early grave.”
“I should gladly take my place in an early grave in the service of this nation,” Hamilton said, and though the words were noble his demeanor was not: sardonic, haughty, hateable. “And indeed, the early grave is more likely without this, ah, what did you call it? This avarice.”
“Speak plainly,” Washington snapped, temper rising. He grew more and more convinced by the minute that the man was under some kind of bewitchment, to behave so, and yet the sheer arrogance was so essentially Hamilton; in spite of his believe that the man was being manipulated, he almost wished to seize him by the collar and shake him like a dog.
“Cornwallis and Clinton are changing tactics on us,” Hamilton said, now inspecting the dirt under his fingernails as though the whole matter was of little interest to him.
“It is not a matter of order of battle, so I did not think to burden you with the news. It is the arraignment of their spells, the particular spatial organization of the nexi—that is, of the critical points in their defenses. All very technical and boring.”
“Then you would do best to skip to the relevant consequences.”
“I cannot attack,” said Hamilton, with nonchalance so breathtaking Washington knew it at once to be false. “Or, rather, it is a waste of time and energy for me to attack. Spells exist that could break in—but I do not know them.”
Washington decided the obvious question—when did this first happen, and why did you not tell me then?—would sound too much like an accusation. “I wonder that they did not make use of such a defensive structure before.”
Hamilton shrugged. “The physical foci necessary for the spell are exceedingly rare. They are very dear, and will be sorely missed, should Britain become involved in a ground war in Europe. Without my presence here, they would have been a waste. It is likely that they did not even have them on the North American station, and were forced to submit a petition to His Majesty’s government, get it approved, and have the necessaries shipped back. It would take six months at the very fastest; yesterday was eight months to the day since I first confronted them in the field.”
Washington nodded; though conjectural, Hamilton’s reasoning was sound. “Still,” he said, “most of your magicks are defensive, are they not? True, the inability to counterattack is a sore blow to defensive strategy, but it seems…”
He trailed off. Hamilton was shaking his head. “The new defenses, besides being for all purposes impenetrable, require very little time and concentration to maintain once they have been deployed on a field of battle. Cornwallis and Clinton both have been freed to take up the attack. My defenses have not failed in the field yet, but I fear it is only a matter of time. Repelling them is… it is exhausting.” Hamilton wilted as he spoke, folding up until at last he was staring into his lap with his arms wrapped around himself. “I thought… I thought there would be something in the book. I keep going back, trying to see if there is something I missed…”
“That is grave news indeed.” It also explained the deep lines that had appeared under Hamilton’s young eyes, the greyness of his face, the weariness and the fogbound stares: not the book, then, or not the book only.
It had taken courage for Hamilton to admit his fears, but of course he would see it as a failing: a failing, that he could not hold off two accomplished magicians single-handedly, and they with a massive advantage in resources and experience. Yet Washington could also now understand why Hamilton had been so susceptible to whatever working the book had put upon him: his emotional state at this new threat was doubtless precarious in the extreme. His unique position as the only true wizard on the American side (Washington’s minor experiences in that line notwithstanding) deprived him of useful mentorship, whilst his pride prevented him from asking even his closest friends for help. Doubtless he had retreated into dark thoughts, loneliness, desperation, until even the most far-fetched chance at a solution had seemed Heaven-sent.
“Yes… well. As I said, I am not afraid to die in the service of what I believe. But if they overload my defenses—if I am killed—the sudden openness to magical attack will make the Army exceedingly vulnerable. You will have to retreat out of range as quickly as you can.”
Washington only looked at him, aghast. “You speak as though it were a matter of course.”
Another shrug, this one the merest lift of one shoulder as Hamilton stared into the middle distance and Washington pretended he did not see the tears coming into his eyes.
“We shall change tactics, then. We shall find some way to spare you.”
“No,” Hamilton sniffed almost angrily, scrubbing at his eyes with the heels of his hands. “If we change tactics we are back to an endless guerilla war, and they will grind us down year by year until nothing remains. Arnold’s defection is a devastating blow; he was one of our few competent officers. And now that South Carolina has capitulated the other states will see the possibility of a separate peace. We will hang separately, as Franklin predicted. If we cannot win this campaign, I fear we cannot win the war. If my power is not enough…”
He speaks of his power as though that were the only thing in him that matters, Washington thought. By God, does he think I am some cold machine, tallying up advantage and disadvantage? He wished dearly to lay a comforting hand on Hamilton’s shoulder, but he knew the gesture would be taken as an unwelcome infringement. Hamilton did not like to be touched when he did not have the advantage of the situation. Washington merely said, “It is not like you to despair, Hamilton. This damned book has turned your head around. You may have volunteered to lay down your life if your duty calls you, but do not make the mistake of thinking you must martyr yourself.”
“I am not despairing, and I do not want to die,” Hamilton said, tears finally spilling despite his furious resistance. “All I want is to be of use.”
Words failed Washington utterly; he moved closer, thinking that perhaps his wizard might tolerate a gentle embrace, but the man went rigid as he came near. After a moment of gathering his thoughts, he said, “You are very useful, Hamilton, but that is not the reason I wish to see you live out the war. Please, do not think that you must die for this revolution.”
“But I would,” the boy hiccuped. He bowed his head, and his hair brushed against the dark blue fabric at Washington’s shoulder. One hand came up, fingernails digging into Washington’s arm through the heavy coat “I would .”
Would die for you, Washington heard, dangerous words, and he could do nothing to reply but ghost his hand down Hamilton’s shaking back. Poor boy, he thought, knowing Hamilton would hate him for his pity: poor boy, torn apart by your devotion, ripping yourself to shreds because you cannot sacrifice more. God, is this what war is? To ask a man to die for you, and then beg him to live?
What he said was, “You have already dared dangers no other man would face for the sake of liberty. You have achieved more than I could ever have asked. You are enough! You do not have to keep asking more of yourself until there is nothing left of yourself to give. At present you are exhausted. Rest.”
Hamilton sniffed, and Washington felt him nod against his chest. He took this as permission to guide the man to the chair. Hamilton collapsed into it, looking worn and thin, with red-rimmed eyes and deep lines in his face: the air of dangerous divinity deserted him utterly, and he was now a mere man, crumpled and small and full of heartbreak. Soundlessly, Washington offered his handkerchief.
“Thank you,” Hamilton rasped, after a moment.
“Think nothing of it.”
“The British defenses—”
“Hamilton, please. I must ask you for something first.”
Hamilton looked up, startled.
“I have used you beyond your limits. I have treated you abominably. I offer you my most sincere apology, and I hope that you may find it in your heart to forgive me for my wretched behavior.”
The look of profound confusion that appeared on Hamilton’s face, typically so brash and confident, would have been amusing under any other circumstance. As it was, it provoked in Washington an uncomfortable revelation: Hamilton had never had a mentor who cared about him before. Deeply private, Hamilton had never referred to his life before coming to New York, other than the barest references to having been raised in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, it was widely suspected that the boy was poor, that he had few or no family connections. Washington now perceived, in a flash of intuition, that Hamilton was well-accustomed to being used by more powerful men. His wizard understood that others might attach loyalty to abstract principles; was in fact deeply loyal himself. But the notion that someone else might be loyal to him, might wish to treat him as more than just a means to an end, was enough to shock him into silence.
Washington went on, “You and Laurens and the Marquis… in a way we have all become our own little family. If any of you were to come to harm it would cut me to my very heart.”
“The word ‘family’ is in this case only a metaphor, sir,” Hamilton insisted.
“Yes, but metaphors can be instructive, can they not? In respect to you it is rather odd, having thunderbolts and blue fire as in-laws, but I never claimed it to be a conventional arrangement.”
Hamilton’s mouth twitched slightly in amusement, and Washington continued, “We will not meet the enemy in open combat if we can help it. No, do not protest. I held this army together without a wizard entirely and I can damn well adjust tactics so I do not throw away the one I have. Remember, we do not have to beat them—all we have to do is hold out until they give over.”
“We might not be able to hold out that long. Any number of things could go wrong.”
“There are always any number of things that can go wrong; that is war. We have struggled for years and we can struggle a while longer, but I will not risk you any further than necessity demands.”
Hamilton dropped his eyes to the book, still in Washington’s hands. “She may demand everything, before all is done.”
“Yes. But we must not give her everything, before she even demands it.”
A wry smile came to Hamilton’s face, one that anticipated pain. “I suppose you shall tell me that she demands we destroy that book.”
“I must say, I do not wholly agree with her.” A fraction of the old power came back into Hamilton’s voice, and as he seemed to consider something the room darkened, and Washington stood still as a doll. But then the moment passed; Hamilton heaved a sigh. “And yet… and yet I trust you. If you say it must go—if you are sure you do not wish to fight the Crown magic against magic...”
Washington allowed himself an internal sigh of relief. “By all means, let us be rid of it.”
Hamilton held out his hand, still trembling slightly, and Washington wordlessly transferred the book. Now that he had decided upon a course of action—now that the oppressing secrets had been purged from his mind—his face filled with resolve. “Better if it were morning,” he muttered, flipping the catches on an iron-bound chest and rooting around inside, “always the best time to destroy something. Ah, here.” He brought forth a vial of deep red liquid, uncorked it, and took a swig. “Redcurrant wine,” he said, in answer to the startled look Washington could not quite conceal. A paintbrush, and another vial, this one clear, fading to white opacity towards the bottom. Hamilton swirled it, and sparks of white light danced and eddied, even in the dimness and yellowness of the tent. “This is what we need to neutralize a spellbook. Well-water taken from an abbey in Yorkshire, burned by Henry VIII centuries ago. Only eighty vials survived.”
“Good Lord. That is… specific.”
Hamilton smirked, the cockiness belied somewhat by the fact that his eyelashes were still clumped with tears. “Luckily for our purposes we will be working drop by drop. One drop per page, and that will be the book undone. Clinton intended to confiscate any captured American spellbooks and destroy them. I imagine he regretted that particular decision after we captured his supplies.”
“The biter bit. Is this then the only substance that is useful for…”
“Bibliocide? Oh, no. There are many other substances that would serve, but this is among the best. A sacrifice of human blood is said to be almost as effective, but it requires a good deal more than a drop per page, and I did not think you would approve,” he said, with a wicked ironical grin that somehow conveyed that he would not have approved either. “One more item before we begin. Depending on certain complex contingencies I may… become indisposed.”
“If you are correct that the book has been twisting my thoughts, then it has a connection with me. When it realizes it is being destroyed, it will fight back. If the connection is weak, which I think is by far the most likely scenario, it will not trouble me overmuch as long as I work quickly. If its hold on me is strong, as you suppose, then whatever happens you must not allow me to stop halfway through; it is not likely to stop attacking once it starts.”
“I understand,” Washington said; still, he could not entirely mask his concern when, ten pages in, Hamilton inhaled sharply.
“It perceives me,” he said, turning the page on a spell that had made Washington’s eyes water just to look at. “That is all.” He dipped paintbrush in water, brought drop to paper, repeated the motion for the obverse page.
Another half dozen pages and he could barely grip the paintbrush. Washington did not say a word, but stepped closer. Hamilton nodded, kept moving forward.
It had long seemed to Washington that his sympathetic connection to Hamilton was heightened when Hamilton worked magic, and it had by shades waxed during this exercise, such that he now perceived Hamilton’s great shock, consternation, and above all shame that he had not realized the power of the book’s hold on him. Yet superior to these emotions were his pride and his fortitude, indelibly bound up with one another, and Washington knew that in this instance to help Hamilton would be to wound him; would be perceived as lack of confidence. It was for this reason that, though his heart went to his throat at Hamilton’s sudden alarming pallor, Washington made no move to assist the man until some dozen pages later, when at last he realized he could no longer maintain the pretense that all was well, and stammered out, “Y-you were r-right,” with teeth chattering.
“I am sorry I was,” said Washington, taking hold of his hand, steadying his shaking arm, guiding the brush. The tremors increased in violence and frequency, spreading until he could hold himself upright only with the assistance of Washington’s other hand at his elbow. Washington for his part was filled with approbation at Hamilton’s doggedness in completing his course now that he had laid it, approbation that mingled now with the vague nameless dread that always came to him when great workings were afoot.
Despite his difficulty in movement, Hamilton’s progress through the book was as steady as his hands were not, and he had accomplished perhaps fifty pages of eighty before he said, “Please do not look, sir—I am going to be ill.”
Yet a great spasm struck him, and he managed only to turn to one side as his stomach rebelled utterly. Washington’s timely intervention kept his head out of his own vomit, and only his arms held Hamilton upright.
“Are you well?” Washington asked, after a moment had passed: an absurd question, but he could not manage better. Hamilton was dazed, shudders still wracking his body, but he gave a jerky, uncoordinated nod, his breath coming in unpredictable gasps.
“It thinks to overwhelm me—but I will not—I will bear it,” he forced out, through bared teeth. “It is fire, dragging down my limbs, but it will pass.” He reached out, and Washington handed him the paintbrush, dropped in the struggle. Hamilton now did the physical work only in the most technical sense, and Washington wholly guided his arm, held his twitching hand firm around the brush; yet the physical work was only a symbolic motion for the mental struggle taking place between Hamilton and the cursed book, and even the rudest approximation of the correct actions was sufficient for the task to be accomplished, so long as Hamilton’s will remained to buttress the spell.
As for Washington, he realized now that, however much Hamilton’s will may have been undaunted, his physical strength was dwindling; the tremors that shook him had lessened, but so had his own power, to the point that Washington was now propping up his body as well as his arm. How frail he seemed then! How much he consented to bear, at the word of his commander!
A wave of disgust passed through Washington at this last unbidden undisciplined culpable careless thought: not at Hamilton (farthest from it—devotion to his duty and his country the highest call a man could answer) but at himself. This extremity of loyalty, this allegiance, pleased him entirely too much to be proper. It was not only improper, but also dangerous: the first symptom, perhaps, of that deep corruption that (it seemed inevitably) rooted itself in the hearts of powerful men. The power that Hamilton, that Lafayette, that these young orphaned men and this young orphaned nation bestowed him, was far, far out of proportion to his own merit: must necessarily be, for their esteem was of the level for an angel or some pagan god, and Washington was a son of Adam like all the rest of them.
A noise began in Hamilton’s throat and was quickly stifled. “We are almost there,” Washington said, half-praying. “You are almost to the end, Hamilton, and then you may rest.” It was true: they had perhaps ten pages left.
He could not even be certain that Hamilton heard the words: his eyes stared out at something Washington could not see, and he had broken out in a sweat; his color resembled the battlefield dead. One more page completed, then two. Three, and still moving.
A hoarse whimper, scarcely human. Lord, if Washington never heard another sound like it in his life, perhaps he might die a happy man. “Almost there, we are quite close. Six pages left, Alexander. Six pages, that is all. Now five.”
Hamilton’s eyes, previously fixed on some distant phantasm, rolled back in his head. With strength Washington scarce expected every muscle in his back contracted, flinging his body violently to the ground and knocking the vial of precious water away. In the moment Washington scarce noticed the water, focusing instead on Hamilton’s extreme distress. Yet there was nothing he could do: the man was unconscious, his movements completely out of his control, and Washington did not even venture to restrain him for fear that it might cause more harm than good, but only placed a folded blanket under his head to pillow it a little. After an interminable interval—less than a minute—the seizure ran its course, but though Washington gently turned the man on his side and several times called his name, and even once pinched the back of his hand, he did not so much as stir, muscles gone rigid, arms contracted against his chest. His eyes flickered under their lids; he panted like he had just run a sprint.
Acutely aware than even now the curse’s assault continued, and would for so long as its vessel remained intact, Washington turned back to the book. Their blessed water had all spilled out; even if he mopped it up its purity would be adulterated and its power broken.
I should have asked how much blood, he thought, seizing a letter opener from the desk, and slashed open the palm of his hand. Blood flowed freely: he pressed his hand to the first live page, extending his will, break, you god-damned conjuration, and let him go.
As though from another room came the sound of a thread snapping, and he felt it give way. He turned the page, pressed his hand down, and reached out again. This time there was a slight resistance, the intuition of confusion, of anger, before again came the sound of snapping thread.
Three pages left only: three pages were not so bad. Palm touched paper, and he nearly broke at the very first instant, when it felt as though he had rolled straight into a bonfire. He was not sure if he cried out or not. It took him a long moment to gather his wits before he could refocus on his task and strike out with his will once again, and when the thread snapped he felt not a whit of relief. When he went to turn the page he was not surprised to see his hand trembling.
He was not the wizard Hamilton was, lacking both the training and the talent to make anything significant of himself in that line. Still, he was astonished by the speed with which the curse took apart his defenses, until the pain was so great it seemed that his very senses were spiraling away from him. He grit his teeth and hung on with animal stubbornness, and when the penultimate page was gone the shaking in his arms was so great that he could not hold the book, but instead was obliged to drop the thing open upon the ground and throw his bleeding hand upon it. This time he knew he howled, but his will was intact, and when he cast it forth with all his strength the final thread gave way.
The last effort had cost him dearly, more dearly than he had guessed while making it, and instead of rising he lowered himself to the ground and closed his eyes for a moment. When he awoke it was to frantic cries of “General! General!” and a hand shaking his shoulder.
“Ah, Lafayette,” he said, blinking at the light of the lantern the man held.
“I came when I heard—there was a yell— mon Dieu, you are wounded, did Hamilton—”
Hamilton. Washington had hoped that the destruction of the book would suffice to restore him somewhat, but there he lay limp and still upon the ground, unresponsive even as Laurens gently took his hand.
“Hamilton?” Laurens called. He reached for his neck, lingered for a moment at the pulse point. “Well, he is alive, at least,” he said, voice cracking.
“It was the book, as you thought—we have destroyed it. It was far worse than I feared, and I only hope he has not paid too dearly for my misjudgment.” Washington took a deep breath, but strength did not immediately return to his limbs. “I am sorry, but I must ask you to help me up. We must fetch a physician for him at once.”
Daily dispatches came from spies within New York and the surrounding countryside; the British seemed to have no intention of moving, and so the Continental Army remained in place. Washington, as always, had mountains of paperwork and correspondence to attend to, not to mention countless meetings with various subordinates, Congressional appointees, local figureheads, and dignitaries not otherwise specified. Many of these looked askance at the white bandage around Washington’s palm, but Washington offered no explanation, and none dared the impropriety of asking save that infernal busybody, Patrick Henry, who received only a cold stare for his pains.
By this particular afternoon Lafayette and Laurens, who alternated the bedside watch upon Hamilton when Washington could not attend during the day, had each reported their friend’s brief sojourns into consciousness, totaling about five minutes altogether. Lafayette’s report was optimistic: though Hamilton had not spoken, it seemed the spark had returned to his eyes. Laurens was more given to worrying; Hamilton, upon awakening, had told him only to put out the god-damn light, whined like a dog when informed that the god-damn light was in fact the sun, and gone straight back to sleep.
Washington went to Hamilton’s room after he finished his letter to Congress: this one, he had written himself, on the subject of revisions in their magical tactics, and if they did not like it they could all go hang. He knocked gently at the door, expecting to summon the doctor, who might then update him on Hamilton’s condition, but instead he heard the voice of the man himself: “Come in.”
Washington had the presence of mind to shake out his sleeve a little, concealing the bandage on his palm, before entering. “Hamilton. I am delighted to see you looking so well.” It was only a slight exaggeration; the man was so gaunt it was a wonder the doctor had not lost him among the pillows, but the dreadful hollows around his eyes had all but vanished, and some of the indescribable tension had left his face. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I have been trampled by a team of oxen, Your Excellency, but Laurens has gone to fetch some chicken soup, and assures me it will set all to rights,” Hamilton said, with a faint smile.
Washington nodded; he had been barely capable of rising from his bed the morning after they broke the curse, and his contribution had not been a tenth of Hamilton’s.
“Sir, I must apologize,” Hamilton rushed on. “It was poor judgment for me to take the book, and it was worse judgment for me to conceal its existence. If the curse had overpowered me, the danger to you—”
“Hamilton, your extremity of courage and fortitude in dispatching the curse more than makes up for any entirely forgivable minor misjudgments made along the way,” Washington said. Something in Hamilton’s expression made him backtrack. “You… you do not remember?”
Hamilton’s lips tightened; he shook his head. “I remember all the asinine things I said to you all beforehand, of course. Speaking with you about—about the book, and necessity. Even the first few pages, though there is a certain dreamlike quality to the memory. And then… flames.”
“The fact that you survived is a miracle,” Washington said, taking Hamilton’s hand in his own uninjured one, his voice growing tight. “God send I never have to witness such a feat from you again.”
“Sir,” Hamilton said, looking slightly strained, “Really, I’m doing better. Even now… it’s as though a… a weight, that I had been carrying, that had crept up on me so slowly that I didn’t even feel it—I was so paranoid, and about exactly the wrong things, I should never have—but it’s gone now. It’s a relief, sir.”
“To me as well, Hamilton,” Washington said. “To me as well.”
“Ham, I brought the s—Your Excellency!”
Washington turned to see John Laurens in the doorway, a steaming bowl of soup in his hands. “Laurens. Come in, please.”
“If you need to discuss—”
“We had mostly concluded for the evening,” Washington said. He did not wish to tire Hamilton, and nourishment and friendly companionship were exactly what the man needed. “Hamilton, I wish you an easy recovery. I shall inform Lafayette and the others you are awake; doubtless they will all be delighted.”
“Thank you, sir,” Hamilton said, and Washington stepped out of the room, closed the door behind him, and sagged against the wall in sheer relief. He passed a hand over his face. Alive. Alive and awake and on the mend, thank God.
From inside the room came raised voices. For a moment he was alarmed, but then he heard the words:
“Give me the spoon.”
“Give me the spoon!”
“No! You will spill soup all over yourself, you arrogant twit,” said Laurens, the effect of his stern tone utterly undone a moment later by a scuffling sound and peal of laughter. Washington clapped a hand over his mouth to smother his own answering chuckle.
“Ha!” came Hamilton’s bark of triumph. “If I can steal a spoon, I can wield it. Look, John, my hand is steady.”