Of the Light| Readtime: 13 minutes
And now it was one of those blessedly peaceful days. They had never been plentiful in Otho’s life, not for a long, long time now, but lately they had been fewer than ever. He needed a break. They all did.
The front steps of the brownstone house were warm from the reaching sun, and around the back he could hear the shouts of children. The air smelled in turn of fresh pie and saltwater, both refreshing in their own fashions. Hugo would be back soon from his excursion with Piksel and Trick, Otho thought as he reclined on Narrill Yegrim Guardi’s doorstep.
Idly he thumbed the cap of his flask and felt the ridges gloss over his skin. It was a fine flask: plain steel, unengraved. The cap came off with a twist of his hand, and he was struck again by the dryness. The last thing he had filled it with was water, and that seemed like a long time back now. All he had done with it was put out campfires. The threads of the flask’s neck gleamed in the light, and that was when the door opened behind him. “Mister Umbroze?” said a little voice.
“Hello, Violet,” Otho said, peering over his shoulder to find Piksel’s kind-of sort-of adopted human hanging on the doorknob. Her dark hair was halfway wet and stuck haphazardly to her face and ears, a sure sign that she had been trying to catch mayflies in the rain barrel again. “It’s still pronounced ‘Umbrous.’”
“I can say it,” Violet said matter-of-factly. “Umbroze.”
“Um-bruss. You’re saying it like ‘ambrose.’”
“I can say it! Umbroze. Umbro-zuh, see?”
“I don’t see,” Otho said, a smile lighting on his lips nonetheless. “What is it you’re up to?”
She shrugged, and hopped down from the threshold to stand on the stoop beside him. “I’m bored is all. It’s only the little ones Ms. Narrill has today an’ so there ain’t no one here to talk to, an’ Mr. Delmirev isn’t back yet neither. What’s that?”
In a smooth motion, Otho tucked the flask away in his vest. “Nothing worth bothering with.”
“Oh. Do you want to help me catch a spider I found in the attic last night?”
It was a true thing that Otho and Violet operated on similar planes of existence, and it was only after meeting her that he really put together how Piksel had been so quick to grok how to interact with him. More than once, too, Piksel had expressed his relief that she had taken a shine to Otho. The other children didn’t quite get her, either, and he hated the idea of her being lonely.
Thusly, Otho now found himself led by the hand through the daycare’s kitchen and up the narrow stairs that spiraled skyward to the attic. Technically, this was not a place the children were allowed to go. Otho pointed this fact out. Violet made a face at him, and informed him that Piksel did things kobolds weren’t supposed to do all the time. “That is a very good point,” he said, and followed her up the stairs.
Ever since Werlin, all of them had been a hair jumpy about spiders. Otho was perhaps the least bothered, for between Bird and his formerly homeless lifestyle, he was very used to the creatures. He counted this as an advantage as a cobweb caught him full in the face as he took the last few steps. At least it was very unlikely that Violet’s spider would have managed to merge itself with a gnome.
“There she is! There! Up in the corner!”
Sometimes Otho was wrong about things.
The spider Violet had found was no less than the size of Otho’s closed fist, and it had made a web that spanned almost half of the attic’s rafters. It was orange and green and had an ornate double-diamond shape on its thorax, the round of its body studded with unpleasant-looking bumps. It bristled with sharp hairs, and its eight little eyes seemed to follow Otho as he stepped back from it. While he stood gaping at the monstrosity, Violet trotted right up to it, grabbed a stick from where it had apparently been propped on a wall, and started trying to nudge the thing across its web. Otho considered this.
“I think that bug is too big.”
“Spiders aren’t bugs! They’s got eight legs and bugs got six legs.” Poke poke. “She’s a prairie bulb spider and they make great big sheet webs like this. And they eat birds.”
Without quite thinking about it, Otho checked to ensure that Bird was not on his shoulder. She was not. “Is it a dangerous spider?”
“Not to us. The venom only works on little things.” By now Violet had driven the spider halfway across the web.
“And you want to catch it.”
“What are you going to do with it after that?”
“Put it in a box and look at it.”
The spider scuttled around its vast web, clicking irritably at the stick. The floor boards squealed under Otho’s feet as he shifted his weight, putting together what he thought about this answer. “I don’t think the spider will like being in a box.”
This, finally, got Violet to stop her harassment campaign. Her mouth was sloped to one side in bemusement when she looked back over her shoulder at him. “Ain’t going to hurt it, now am I? Just want to look.”
“Would you like it if a giant spider picked you up and put you in a box?”
Violet was not subtle. Otho considered this a blessing. At his words her face screwed up in what he recognized as a pout. “Not goin’ to hurt it,” she said again.
Otho nodded. “Just scare it.”
“But—! No! I mean …” Violet trailed off, looking down at the stick with sudden trepidation. “Can spiders be scared, Mr. Umbroze?”
This was a good question. He considered it for a moment. “Yes,” he said presently. “I think this one can. I think it’s scared of your stick.”
Violet lowered the stick. Apparently the concept that insects could be frightened was entirely new to her. “Mr. Delmirev hasn’t ever said that. He’d know.”
“Mr. Delmirev always tells you to be kind to the bugs. That means not scaring them, too.”
“Spiders aren’t bugs,” Violet said again, but this time without quite so much adamancy.
It did take an hour before Otho could enact his plan, which meant an hour of entertaining Violet in such a way that did not involve tormenting bugs (six legs or otherwise). The daycare children had been herded out of the back garden for tea, giving the two of them space to exist, and the little green caterpillars were out crawling dutifully over anything they were put on. Mostly, thanks to Violet, this was Otho’s person.
When the gate was unlatched and the hulking figure of Hugo Cromelon stepped carefully inside, Otho was finally freed from the shackles of caterpillar-wrangling. “Hugo,” he called despite the fact the deaf minotaur was facing away—he could not help himself—but a vigorous enough wave caught his eye. On Hugo’s approach, however, Violet placed herself between the two of them and brandished a trowel at him. “Halt! Who goes there?”
Hugo came to a halt, lifting his hands up as if to show he was free of weaponry. “Goodness, Otho, I see you have a bodyguard now,” he rumbled, amused. “I hope it’s not to keep me away.”
“Only if you haven’t brought me anything,” Otho said, while at the same time Violet, imperious and terrible, peered over her upturned nose at him and said: “What’s the password?”
With a pause, Hugo considered this. He tapped his chin before reaching into his vest and withdrawing a small paper bag with a picture of a beehive stamped onto it. “Ah, I’ve never been good with passwords,” he said, shaking the bag a bit. It caught Otho’s eye at once. “Bribery, though, that’s much more reliable. Miss Ironshod, might I interest you in some rare delicacies?”
At this, Violet squinted at him. “That’s from Sweethive. Did Mr. Delmirev take you there?”
“He did, indeed.”
“Then no, ‘cause that’s where he gets all his candied bugs, and I don’t like it when people eat bugs!”
This seemed to leave the bull at a loss for words. In the interim Otho brushed the last of the caterpillars off himself (Bird would find them and eat them sooner or later anyway) and eased past Violet to steal a kiss from the rebuffed Hugo. “She’s very particular about bugs, you know,” he murmured, smiling. “Piksel gets in trouble with her for eating them all the time.”
“He did seem very excited about the glazed grasshoppers,” Hugo said, blinking. “I suppose he is a lizard, after all. This, though, is salt-water taffy.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then Otho plucked the bag from Hugo’s hand in the same moment Violet made a valiant but insufficient leap for it. A scuffle followed, which saw Violet scrabbling halfway up the man’s leg to get at the bag, and ended only when an alarmed Hugo seized back the packet of sweets and held it well above both their heads. “Gods around,” he said, keeping his husband at bay with a broad palm to the face, “there’s enough for both of you.”
So it was that a few minutes later they had found seats on the warm grass, taffy in half-a-dozen flavors doled out to both man and girl. Hugo himself picked idly at a scone and counted himself lucky for not having decided to try those grasshoppers himself after all. A moment later his thoughts were interrupted by a small hand yanking on his shirt sleeve. Violet was giving him a very serious look. “Mr. Cromelon,” she said, “can you take some pictures for us?”
Hugo blinked. “Pictures?”
Around a mouthful of taffy, Otho nodded. “Violet and I have reached an agreement. She doesn’t need to put the spider in a box if she can have a picture of it. And you’re the only one who knows how to work your camera.”
Just getting Hugo up into the attic was a trial, with his sheer bulk. His horns got stuck on the tight turn at the foot of the stairs. A quip about waiting for Trick to return with a grease spell went directly over Otho’s head, and given Violet’s curious stare, Hugo opted not to explain it.
Now they were all three in the attic, and the sun’s rays ebbed carefully through the spider’s vast web in golden relief. The spider itself rested motionless in the center of it all like some kind of god in miniature. “It’s a prairie bulb spider,” Violet made sure to tell Hugo as he studied the creature. “It’s a lady spider and she lays eggs inside of bugs she catches.”
“I see,” Hugo said with a ponderous nod. With all the subtlety of a crane rig, he leaned down to Otho and whispered: “I would rather not take pictures of it doing that, dear.”
“I don’t think it’s going to,” said Otho. He paused, and looked at Violet. “Does he have to take pictures of it doing that?”
“No, duh! She’s not even pregnant!”
“Ah,” said Otho.
In retrospect, it was something of a mistake, not fetching Hugo’s camera before scaling the stairs. Violet certainly couldn’t get it on her own, and Otho wasn’t sure where it was, so back down to the first floor did seven feet of minotaur artificer need to go. Then the daycare children had to be navigated, and there were cookies in the kitchen, and Hugo had forgotten he’d moved the camera from his things to the storage closet—and all told it was a full hour before the trio managed to make their way back up to the web of the prairie bulb spider.
The tripod was set up, and Otho pulled Violet up onto his shoulders as Hugo carefully set up the film and plates. It was late in the afternoon, now, and rich light poured through the attic window, straight onto web and arachnid. It turned the whole array into spun gold, the spider sitting lightly on her woven throne, perfectly still. A perfect subject. “Not too close,” Otho reminded Violet as he put her down to help Hugo get the tripod in the best spot. “You do not want to scare her.”
“No scaring spiders,” Violet agreed.
Hugo watched this exchange with clear bemusement, but said nothing. The camera’s lens was trained on the spider, and after a long few seconds of focusing the angle, he squeezed the bulb.
There was a click and a whirr and a flash, and a puff of magic, and the spider startled on its web before scuttling high off into a black corner. Violet made a sound of alarm that was nearly overshadowed by the mechanical sound of the camera spitting out its shot. “Hopefully that worked,” Hugo said, delicately taking it between his fingers. “I suppose it made a sound, didn’t it? I’m sorry. I broke the no-scaring-spiders rule.”
“I think the spider will be okay,” Otho said. He leaned in over his husband’s broad arm, curious to see the development of the image. He had seen the camera in Hugo’s things, he’d known he had it, but since their reunion he had not had cause to see it in action. At present the photo looked merely like a white sheet of paper with a ghostly impression on it. “Did it not take the picture?”
Absently, Hugo waved the photo in the air. It was a gentle movement—so much of what Hugo did was gentle, an utter juxtaposition to the corded muscle and powerful build that made up his body. “It’s developing,” he said, glancing down at Violet as she scooted between the two of them to try and get a look as well. “Give it a moment. The darkest parts come in first…”
He knelt, now, getting down far enough to let Violet see her prize. Her eyes were wide behind her huge glasses, and when Hugo handed her the half-developed photo she took it with all the reverence an eight-year-old could muster. Soft, calm, he instructed her on not touching the parts where the image were, told her that when it was finished she could write something onto the bottom or the back, asked her (with mild concern) if the spider was going to be making additional spiders that would be dwelling in the roof … all gentle. All Hugo. Otho thumbed the ring on his finger as he watched them, and felt his heart settle.
And finally the last of the photo came through, revealing the bristling terror (and beauty, too, Otho supposed) of Violet’s spider. In the frame of the photo it looked like a little golden statue, a creature of the light. The little girl bounced on her toes as Hugo gave her a nod with his great horned head and fished a charcoal stick from her pocket, immediately laying the photo flat on the ground to write on it. “It’s good, then?” Hugo said hopefully, looking toward Otho.
Otho considered. He glanced at Violet. She was mouthing the words she was writing as she wrote them, a habit he recognized as Piksel’s when he was particularly excited about something. “I don’t know,” Otho said, deadpan. “Is it good enough, Violet?”
“Yes!” she said, head shooting up. In another moment she had jumped to her feet, racing over to them. She was not nearly tall enough for a proper hug, but despite her short limbs she somehow managed to be overwhelming. “Thank you, Mr. Cromelon! Thank you, Mr. Umbroze!”
“It’s still Umbrous,” Otho said, and smiled.