Hector’s gaze slowly wandered from the window to the Frenchman entering the room. “Is that really necessary?” he asked. Of course Peter could not be with him when the full moon rose, so Louis was here to keep him company instead. And he had brought his revolver.
Louis sighed and approached him. Cautiously? “Yes. I’m afraid it is. So tell me what you want me to do.”
“I’m not a werewolf.” Hector felt very human, especially now that he was dressed, had trimmed his beard and was sitting in a chair with a cup of tea in his hand. The doctors still kept an eye on him, but at least they had given him small room in the hospital wing where he could have some privacy.
“Help me, Hector,” Louis implored. “I don’t think you are a werewolf. I saw you. You had so much medicine that … Peter is good and he went to the limit with you. But no one can be entirely certain before the moon rises.”
“So you want me to tell you that it is acceptable to shoot me if I turn into a wolf?”
“Or if …”
“Just shoot. Do it properly and put a bullet in my head if I turn into a wolf.” Hector shook his head. It would not be fair to Peter. Peter went through the transformation every month and never complained about it. But Hector could not live like that. He could not stand the thought of being locked up once a month. He was a hunter. Full moon was the time when he was meant to carry out his duty. He looked up at Louis again. “Why you?”
“Because I said yes.”
Hector nodded and examined the table he was sitting at. Yes, of course. They must have discussed it. How many? Had the board been debating his fate? Had Peter been there to explain the matter? He probably had. Hector could vividly imagine it. Peter, his friend and doctor and the voice of reason, would have explained that Hector should be fine, but that no one could be entirely certain yet. He would have recommended taking some precautions.
Precautions … Yes, a man with a gun pointed at him until the full moon was high in the sky and he had not grown fur and long teeth. It was reasonable. Hector knew that. But it was still humiliating.
He looked up again and smiled to the best of his ability. “I mean it, Louis. End it. If I am a werewolf, then do me a favour and end it.”
“You have my word.” Louis held out his hand, and Hector shook it. “Would you rather have had someone else?” he added.
“No,” Hector replied. Not now. His agreement had been with Tomas. But he had kept his word, and now it was over. Louis was his second choice. And that, Hector realised, was why they would never be permanent partners, whether Louis had one or not. They were friends, but professionally they would always be each other’s second choice. “Well, now you’re here, why don’t you tell me what is going on? I have been locked up for two weeks.”
Louis smiled back at him. The grimace covered something else. Doubt, worry. He didn’t want to have to shoot Hector, and he knew that it shouldn’t be his task. But he had taken it, and no one else was more suited for it.
The Frenchman began to tell him about the other hunters and where they expected to see most activity this full moon. He talked about a young hunter whom another hoped to take on as her apprentice and an old colleague who would probably have to retire soon if he didn’t want to risk breaking his hip again. Hector listened and asked appropriate questions. But they only served to keep the real questions at bay.
When would it happen if it happened? Would he even notice? He didn’t feel particularly well, but he never did these days. Was it getting a little worse now, or was that only his imagination? What if he really were a werewolf? Yes, he would rather die than live like that. And if there were some kind of afterlife, he would be reunited with Tomas there. But … He stood up. Louis’ hand instinctively moved to his weapon.
“Don’t worry. I only need to stretch my legs,” Hector said.
Louis shrugged and relaxed again. “You have to stay in here …”
“I know. I just want to take a look outside.” Hector crossed the floor and leaned against the window frame. Such a short walk still felt like an achievement.
A couple of hunters were mounting their horses in the courtyard. They were talking and laughing. A stable boy was helping one of them adjust the saddlebags. Hector felt a pang of envy. And then a warm surge of relief.
He had considered for one short moment if he wanted it to end here. But no. He would rather be out there. He could feel that now. He wanted to get back in the saddle, wanted to get back to the hunt. He wanted to fight as long and as well as he could. If he had wanted anything else, he could have saved everyone involved a lot of trouble. He could have taken his own life or he could have waited a few seconds before he registered the doctor pointing her gun at him in the village. Or he could simply have given up and have died from the antidote.
He glanced back over his shoulder at Louis. “I am looking forward to hunting again,” he said.
Louis nodded. “Did Peter tell you when you can return yet?”
“He said I will have to keep taking a small dose before every full moon for a while to be safe … But we will see. Today we’ll prove that I’m no werewolf. That’s the first step.” Hector could not wait for this to be over, and that feeling alone gave him more hope. “After this I’m sure Peter will let me go back to my own room. And then … I need to recover fully. I’m not heading out before I’m ready.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” Louis grinned at him now. “And you wouldn’t be allowed to.”
“Oh, by whom? You?”
“Yes, me too. But I was thinking of the board,” Louis replied.
The board … Hector knew he would have to face them, explain how things had gone so wrong and reassure them that he was ready again. He didn’t look forward to that, but it was the price he had to pay for being unlucky or careless.
The minutes ticked by. Louis was talking about this and that, a recent romantic conquest of his, a new rapier … Hector smiled and nodded. And when the full moon was peeking through the window, Louis laughed in relief and shook Hector’s hand again. “Congratulations, Hector. You are not a werewolf.”
Hector snorted. “I told you so.” Then he added, “But thank you. I appreciate that you were here.”
Hector was turning his hat in his hands and felt very much like he had when he was fifteen and had gotten himself into trouble and needed to face the music. He felt like he had done whenever he had gone over budget as a young hunter and had to explain it to the woman who oversaw his books.
He smiled vaguely.
“You don’t look very well.”
He was not surprised that those were Regina Rothenberg’s first words to him. She was sitting at the table in her study with an open book and he had been shown up here by a footman. Her house was situated in the outskirts of Frankfurt where all the big and rich mansions were. It had farmland outside the city wall, stables, and the main building had three floors and a wine cellar. It had servants, more rooms than a family could ever need and an enormous dining hall. As a young boy, Hector had always been itching to explore the place and at the same time been anxious that he may get lost and never find his way back to the entrance hall. He had spent nights in a guest room big enough to house a handful of people, and every night, he would lie in his bed and look at the paintings on the walls. One of them was of an exotic forest with animals in the trees. He had liked that one a lot. It had been years, but now that he was standing in front of his aunt, he suddenly had the urge to wander down the hallway, find his old room and hide in there.
“Aunt Regina … I am convalescent, but our doctor has declared me well,” he replied. But he was a little out of breath after riding through the city and walking up the stairs. It was ridiculous. And very sad. He was a hunter in the prime of his life and this was what it had come to. It was not because of his injuries themselves, but a side effect of the antidote. By now he was down to very small doses, so he rarely felt sick from them, but the aconitum had really taken its toll on him. The trip to Regina Rothenberg’s house was only the second excursion that he had been allowed so far.
Regina shook her head. “Sit down, Hector. You look like you may collapse at any moment if you don’t.”
“I’m fine,” he reassured her, but he still sat down. The study was Regina’s favourite place to receive visitors. He had sat in the armchair that he was now sinking into more times than he could count. It was soft and creaked slightly when he moved. A clock was ticking on the wall, and the sounds in here were always muffled by the carpet on the floor and the bookshelves along every wall. They even framed the door.
Regina followed his every move with her eyes. “I am terribly sorry to hear about your partner.”
“Thank you.” Had he really neglected to talk to her since Tomas died? He supposed so. He had probably avoided her and her potential sympathy. Back on the horse and all that.
“Wilhelm told me. And about your own accident.”
Yes, that was obviously the reason she had invited him today. Hector studied the carpet. The pile had been pushed in two different directions when he sat down. He brushed it even with his foot. Of course her son would have told her. He was on the board now and knew what was going on in headquarters. And what was Hector supposed to answer?
“You have cost us a lot of money. Medication against werewolf bites is not exactly cheap,” she said.
Hector looked back up at her. At least she was not shying away from him. That was a relief. Some people could not wrap their heads around the fact that a person who had been bitten could be saved and posed no threat to others. “I know. I certainly didn’t mean to …”
“Yes. Get bitten.”
Regina sighed and took off her reading glasses. She folded them neatly and put them on the table next to the book. “Hector …”
He shifted in the chair, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and gazed at her.
“I’m no hunter. I can’t understand how you … How you work. How you think. I harbour the greatest respect for you and I would never ask you to stop, but … You are my family, Hector. And I have been very worried about you.”
“I am sorry.”
“Will you promise me …” She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger. “Will you promise me to take care of yourself? I know what you do is dangerous. But you are just thirty, Hector, and I would hate to see you get hurt … Get more hurt. Do you understand me?”
Hector swallowed. They rarely talked this openly. At least not about this sort of thing. His aunt had always been there for him, a steady point in his life, but they usually didn’t discuss feelings. He nodded. “Yes. I understand. I …” He cleared his throat. “It was an accident. Our medical chief has done everything in his power to help me. I have a clean bill of health now, and I can return to work soon. But … after Tomas’ death … I ...” He broke off, cleared his throat once more. “I am better now.”
Regina nodded. She did not force him to say any more. She was not doing this to torment him, but to make certain he knew how she felt. And to make certain that something like it didn’t happen again. “Can you stay for dinner?” she asked.
Hector smiled, relieved at the change of subject. Perhaps he could even stay in his old room if it got late. “Yes. Thank you, aunt Regina.”