"Eh, Nathaniel? Have you heard a word I've said to you?"
Nathaniel looked up from his glass of ale and forced a smile at the man whose name he could not recall. A long evening of ale and merriment had left his mind fuzzy, distant. The only thing that remained there was the thought that he would rather be with the group of young men sitting in the corner, talking animatedly over a leather-bound book. He had been watching them for several months and listening in on their conversations. Listening, and learning.
He turned his focus to one of them. This, he knew, was the leader of the group, and the most outspoken of them all -- Thomas Weatherell. Thomas was wrapped in a wide, peacock-patterned scarf that covered him from his head nearly down to his feet; this, combined with his pointed features, made him the picture of some bird of the Orient.
"I tell you, Thomas," one of the other men said, "there's no way to do it!"
"And I tell you there is!" Thomas laughed and parted the scarf, revealing the book cradled in his arms. "See here, this is the volume I spoke of -- the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum! I paid dear to obtain it, certainly, but you'll be glad for it."
The sight of the dusty volume stole Nathaniel's breath. His companion leaned in to ask if he was well, but he ignored it, focused only on Thomas.
"You're certain it's genuine? There are many out there who would say so just to steal your coin, you know."
"It is. I bought it from someone who is well-regarded in these circles, and one who would know if it were false."
The other man reached for the book, and Thomas pulled the scarf back over it.
"No, no, not here. Do you want the whole tavern to see it? We can read it with the lads when we return to the apartment." Thomas smiled knowingly. "Or we can save it for ourselves. Our secret -- our reward."
"I don't know, Thomas. There is some risk to it...to summoning when you haven't the experience. I do not know how to draw a proper summoning circle, or how to negotiate with the beast once it's summoned..."
"There are methods of learning those things in the book. Don't be a coward now. Trust the book, it'll tell us what to do. Do you hate the idea of coin that much?"
"No, but--" The man suddenly looked up, and Nathaniel started as the man met his gaze. Startled, Thomas followed the man's eyes, and his lips narrowed as soon as he caught sight of their eavesdropper. Nathaniel looked away, but it was too late; Thomas was rising from his seat and heading toward him. His companion reached for his sleeve as he passed, but Thomas brushed him off, muttering something that Nathaniel couldn't hear. Then Thomas was upon him.
"You, what are you playing at?" he asked in a harsh whisper. "How much did you hear?"
"I...I did not mean to pry." Nathaniel's hands dropped from the table to his lap, in an effort to hide their trembling. "I simply wanted...I see you here often, your party, and I was interested--"
"In our private conversation? What we have to say is not for you." Thomas' eyes flashed with anger. "If you speak a word of it to anyone--"
"I will not! I only...I wanted to know what it is you do. That is, how to...do it." Nathaniel squeezed both hands into fists, fighting to find the words to explain himself. "I, too...would like to learn."
Thomas considered this for a moment, then leaned close to Nathaniel's ear.
"Summoning is not to be taken lightly. Only a few are capable of it; fewer can handle the creature that they bring into this world. What makes you believe that you could do it? Tell me."
"I have been studying," Nathaniel whispered. "Day and night, I read all that I can lay my hands on. Mostly manuscripts, and I admit that I have little knowledge of their authors or their renown, but...ah..."
"That tells me little. Why are you studying?"
"I..." Why wouldn't his hands stop shaking? "My father..."
"Are you one of those dullards who plays at being a scholar so that your father will sing your praises and others will admire you?" Thomas gave him a lopsided smile. "We have suffered more than enough of your kind already. If that is so, then our conversation is finished here. I trust you will remember what I told you about--"
Nathaniel bolted from his seat, and before Thomas could react, he grasped the peacock scarf in both hands and pulled the young man toward him, upending his ale in the process. Now they were inches away from each other, so close that Nathaniel could hear Thomas whimpering slightly. He wasn't used to confrontation, and this realization brought a smile, genuine this time, to Nathaniel's lips.
"Listen to me, and carefully this time. I told you that I wish to learn the Art, and I stand by it. If I am playing at anything, it is at being the perfect gentleman while I attend my father's stuffy galas and play cards with the lot of his bird-witted friends. What I desire is to learn how to control something greater, to know something greater! If I must give up my status it is no matter; my blood, no matter! I want a taste of that other life that you lot live. You have freedom; you have knowledge; you are kings of your own making!"
With that, he sat back down, lacking the breath to say anything more. Thomas, too, was silent, but his gaze remained on Nathaniel. He opened his mouth once, as though to say something, but then stopped himself. After a few minutes of awkward silence, he pulled the scarf from his shoulders and let it fall to the floor, granting a glimpse of his prized volume. Then he placed the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum on the table between them.
"Well, then," he said with a lopsided smile, "Shall I introduce you to the others?"