Last time Vivienne turned her back on Ignatius and his strange shenanigans, but when he made her a scoop interview with the billionaire Aton Petrowski, she sparked back into interest. This time Ignatius talks about space, time, and fire, and gives Vivienne a history lesson that turns her understanding of London – and the world – on its head.
“What is your instinctive reaction towards fire?” Ignatius asked when they were once more sitting in his tetrahedral fire room.
“Honestly, I want to put it out.”
“I know. Here, take this.” He passed her a glass of water. “You don’t have to drink it.”
She looked at the water suspiciously, before placing it by the leather pouffe at her feet. She remained utterly sober, and vowed to remain so. It was bloody ridiculous that she was back here, but if she got close to Anton Petrowski through putting up with the ridiculous charade again, it’d be worth it. She wanted to be back on the science brief more than anything, but she’d be damned if she did it on the back of a failure. She’d stick it out. “Forgive me if I don’t drink it.”
“Not at all.” He gave a wristy flourish, like an orchestra conductor, and the flames woofed up in a stretch of red and yellow, coals gleaming white at the base. He started to roll his sleeve up, slowly, methodically, and spoke as he did so. “Everything in the universe is made of earth, air, fire or water.”
“The four elements. That’s not actually true. The-”
“But that’s actually only half the story,” he interrupted. “Only one of those elements lives in the farthest reaches of the universe, billions of light years beyond human understanding, in the past, and in the future. Are you a student of astrophysics, at all?”
“I have an amateur’s interest,” she said softly. “Space science is popular with the readers.”
“As it ought to be. Tell me, where else do you encounter air in the universe?”
She made a face. “Air?”
He made an exaggerated inhalation through his nose. “Yes, air. There’s a very real chance that this tiny speck of rock may be the only place in the universe with air as we know it. Oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, helium, methane… air, for all its mundane, invisible ubiquity, might very well be unique. Air is a quirk, an accident. And yet, we all need it. Even me. Air is the spirit of man and woman, the conduit between life and death. But fire consumes it.” Behind the flames his face glowered, a tigrish predator camouflaged against its natural habitat.
“Earth is more abundant, the flesh of life. Like a flap of skin writhing, seething, trying to take shape, earth is fecund, beautiful, the basis for all things. Earth is a mountain, and a tree, its branches reaching up to the sun and air, drinking it in. But beyond our own planet? Earth is abundant, yes, but lifeless. It may occur in the far reaches of existence on but only after death. In life, earth is malleable, but in death it is intransigent, a calcified remain, a rotting relic. And fire consumes it.
“Now, water,” he said, eyeing her up with a grin. “Water exists as a gas, a vapour, a solid and as a liquid. It’s a shapeless, formless thing, endlessly malleable, much more so than earth, never destroyed, never scattered, always changing, always flowing. Water is origin and destination: mountain spring and deepest ocean. Water cleanses: it washes away dirt, and filth, and sin, and to the life beneath that filth and sin water provides sustenance and the power to grow. Without water, earth would merely be dust. But beyond our horizons water is frozen, and inhospitable, and solid, without its formless beauty. It is as dead and useless as the far-flung rock. But fire cannot consume water. Fire can only change its form.”
Viv felt her pulse quicken. Warmth coursed over her, through her. She looked at the glass of water by her feet. It quivered gently, vague ripples spreading out from the middle. She hadn’t seen anything in the flames this evening. Ignatius’s voice had been oddly on-edge. He’d finished rolling his sleeve up, and showed his arm to Viv. It looked just as she expected. “There’s no wound,” she whispered. “It was all a trick.”
“There was a wound.” A flick-knife appeared in his hand from somewhere. “But there was no trick.”
The hair on Viv’s skin raised up, stretching it taut, and she squirmed in her seat, ready to rise, but she held firm. Despite his hungry look she somehow doubted he meant her harm. So long as the fire remained between them, she felt safe enough. Ignatius tossed the knife over to her, where it landed at her feet with a thunk. He bared his forearm at her, inviting her. She shivered in cold realization.
“You want me to cut you?”
“I can’t do that.” She’d never been squeamish, but the thought of cutting someone made her bowels turn to water.
“Just the tiniest dot.”
She paused. The knife sat between her feet. She dared not touch it, fearing what might happen if she did. “I can’t.”
“The merest pinprick.”
She kicked the knife gently with her shoe. It didn’t do anything. What did you expect it to do, explode? She picked it up. It was heavier than it looked. The handle was metal and leather, and the blade slightly curved. This was so bloody weird. “Just a pinprick.”
Ignatius stayed stock still, and she approached him cautiously. She became aware that he’d offered himself freely to her – his life in her hands. Is this what he wanted from her? A moment of complete subservience? Her grip on the knife handle tightened as she understood the position of power she was in. She pressed the blade against his arm, but didn’t break it the skin.
“The tiniest pinprick,” he whispered, no louder than a wisp of smoke.
She broke the skin. A tiny, warm maroon bloom erupted and trickled down his arm. She gasped and flinched as Ignatius’s free hand swooped around and gripped the hand wielding the knife. “Fire is the most ancient of the elements, exploding the universe into existence, and growing in every star that ever lived. Fire thunders and broils in every corner of existence, rolling, squirming, burning, aeon after aeon, heating, blackening, scorching. But, like water, fire also cleanses; it burns away the old, revealing the new flesh beneath. Like water, it’s shapeless, formless, but unlike water cannot be caught. Unlike water, fire does not give life. It is life. Fire has always been alive, and it always will be, in every corner of existence. By giving ourselves to the flames we become part of that immortality.”
She resisted the strong grip of his fingers but found she couldn’t move. “Ignatius, please let go.”
He ignored her, guiding her hand with his, plunging the blade deeper into his arm, an inch into the flesh, then two, three. The gash was deep and wide. Dark blood poured out over his arm, her hands, and crackled as it dripped onto the flames. Ignatius yelped with the pain, finally letting go of her hand and clutching his wrist, agony writing itself over his face. “Learn to become the fire,” he said through clenched teeth, and he thrust his wounded arm into the bottom of the flames, where it caught alight after a few seconds.
Viv cried out and stumbled back onto her backside. “What are you doing?” She felt instinctively for the glass of water, but in wildly reaching for it she knocked it over, and watched helplessly as it uselessly spread over the warm tiles.
The visible agony had left Ignatius. He stood, his right arm wreathed in flame like a torch, his eyes wide and black, two infernal pits, lost in time and space, staring into the fire dancing round his arm.
Viv scrabbled to the leather pouffe and crouched behind it, her flesh crawling, but Ignatius did not advance upon her. It was as though he’d forgotten she was there. After some time had passed – a minute? Two? Ten? – Ignatius reached for a neatly-folded towel on the floor with his unburnt hand and wrapped it around the flame, the fire dying in a muffled yawn. Unpeeling the towel once the flames had died, he bared his arm again. Ashes and embers fluttered from his arm in wisps as he brushed it with the towel. When the last of the ashes had been swept from flesh to the firepit, Viv’s breath left her, and she grabbed his arm, inspecting it. The room was dark, to be sure, but there was no mistaking that the wound had gone, and the fire had left no trace; no scar, no slit, no blood. Just the grey smudge of ash.
“Do you want to write about something?”
Viv nodded her head, mouth agape, heart jackhammering.
“Don’t write about this,” he said, brushing off the last of the ash and rolling his sleeve back down. “Write about the good work we do. Write about the work we’ve always done.”
“Who’s we? What work?”
“We’ve been here in London for centuries now. This city might be founded upon a river, but it’s fire that gave it life and made it thrive. The mouths of dragons, eternally agape in the spew of conflagration, adorn the doorways and archways of schools, offices, liveries,” he said, walking out of the triangle room and into the penthouse. She followed, quivering in the warmth radiating through the building. Even her sweat was warm. “The Great Fire burned down half the Square Mile, but it worked. And look at it now…” He stopped by the huge windows of his penthouse and panoramically swept his arm across the London skyline.
The room spun for a moment, and Viv had to grab a chair to stop herself falling. “What do you mean, it worked?”
Ignatius gave her a telling look. “It was well done. In more ways than one.” He grinned, showing teeth. “That conflagration burned away the shit and Plague of the slums, and from the ashes the city rose up more powerful and beautiful than before. All impossible, without fire. Resurgam, Vivienne.”
“I will arise. After the Fire, Sir Christopher Wren asked for a piece of flat stone to use as a marker for the centre of the Great Dome of his new St Paul’s Cathedral. The stone, found and given to Wren by a workman, miraculously bore a single word.”
“Exactly. That stone now sits beneath the image of – what else? – the Phoenix, above the entrance of the Cathedral. The city will rise evermore, just as we do. Do you still think the Great Fire was accidental?”
She wanted to nod but her head was too heavy to lift, and her stomach wrenched. A thousand answers fought their way out, but all she managed was, “Bloody hell.”
He knelt beside her. “Moreover, do you think it was really miraculous that it happened to be that stone that was found? We don’t deal in miracles and coincidences.”
The shock climbed up her face like a snake. “You were the workman who gave Wren the stone? You knew Christopher Wren?”
He grimaced. “Vivienne, have you listened to nothing? It is in the shadows of other men and women where you’ll find us. The insignificant workman who passes a man a stone, the customer who distracts a baker when his pies are a-cooking.” He flourished a wrist. “Resurgam. When the House of Commons was destroyed by fire in 1834 they said it was incompetence. They said the same thing about Pudding Lane. People never learn.
“Before the Blitz, the Third Reich didn’t believe the aerial bombardment of London was the primary means to break the will of the British. But a word in their ear convinced the Reich otherwise. But in the white hot fires of the Luftwaffe’s incendiary bombs, London’s spirit of kinship – often so tepid and weak – was galvanized in a way impossible had the day-to-day apathy in the hearts of London’s people been allowed to fester. But in fire, London’s heart arose. Resurgam, Vivienne.” He knelt beside her. Faint crackling noises seemed to hang in the air, as if his skin still smouldered beneath his clothes. The nonsense of everything Ignatius had said frightened her more than she could have imagined. She looked away from his eyes and out of the penthouse glass doors, over the rooftops of London, twinkling in the evenlight. Though hot, she shivered uncontrollably. The stars seemed to be moving just a little faster than they ought to have been. Was that a trick, too? For a second she understood the fleeting brevity of it. Bile rose in her stomach as she thought of the wound cleaned by fire. The gash hadn’t been in his arm at all; it was a wound in her sense of self, slicing deep to the bone, each scrape along the nerve-endings telling her that everything she’d learned was wrong, wrong, wrong. Part of her reeled at being suckered by his incredible tricks and well-rehearsed speeches, but increasing parts of her wanted to muffle the outrage, wanted to submit, wanted to feel the lick of fire on her flesh. She shocked herself, and a gulp caught in her throat.
“I know you find this hard to believe,” he said. “But I want you – I need you to believe. And who are you going to believe? What you’ve been told all these years, or what your lyin’ eyes are telling you right now?”
“This is all a trick,” she whispered through shaking lips.
“You know it’s not. There are more things in heaven and earth….”
“…than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Hamlet.”
“Yes. All the rage when I saw it as a boy,” he said, flashing that hawkish grin. “But that was a long, long time ago.”
She choked out a laugh, but a tear accompanied it. She almost said it’s all a trick, as she’d done before, but the futility of repeating it seemed just as absurd as what she was seeing. Her defiance deflated. “Why me?”
“Because I know you. I know how you think; deep waters swirling beneath still tides. I know you want to put me out, because I’m not natural; you’re the lake, and I’m the fire burning on your shore. I’ve seen you a hundred times over the years, with a hundred different faces, and I’ll never stop trying to be with you. You,” he said, wandering over and cupping her chin gently and tracing the outline of her trembling face with a light forefinger. “You would complete us. And if we had control over all the universe’s elements: earth, air, fire and water – we will control all of Heaven and Earth itself.”
Viv shuddered. The image of the walrus Petrowski popped into her mind. “Petrowski. Is he really a philanthropist?”
“I’ve never know a more generous soul. His charity has enabled countless scientific breakthroughs, saved countless lives, protected those facing slaughter, and fed the hungry.”
“I don’t remember him doing any of those things,” said Viv, pushing his hand away. Her own hand felt airy, as if the muscle and bone had evaporated.
Ignatius made a face. “Why would you? Apart from him doling out a few oversized cheques to homeless shelters, why would you see it?” He brought her face closer to his. His breath smelt of hot cinnamon and cloves. She closed her eyes so as not to face him. “He, as do we all, operate in the shadows cast by others. But we’re there. And you should join us.” He stepped back, smiling, beholding her with arms outstretched. “Vivienne. Water. Come join us. Give yourself to the fire. See the unseen.”
Viv composed herself, but couldn’t stop her hand from shaking. The image of his arm, slit down to the bone, wouldn’t leave her. When it came her voice was wispy and weak. “I just can’t believe it.”
Ignatius sighed through his smile. “You still have doubts. I understand. You’re a woman of faith. And science isn’t wrong about these things; it just hasn’t caught up. What will it take?”
“I don’t know.”
He turned away and waved a hand indifferently. “Then neither do I. I will find another.”
As he was walking away the skin on her arms suddenly felt cold and goospimpled. Shivering momentarily, she held a hand out to stop him. His shirt sleeve was hot, as though freshly ironed. “No,” she said. “I want to know. What do we do next?”
“I’ll see you around town, no doubt.” Resting upon a recliner, he closed his eyes and interlocked his fingers over his stomach.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll write about any of this?”
Ignatius laughed behind closed eyes. “Be my guest. Though if you take that route, it will say more about you than it does about me.”