Richard's Story: Part Eight

Dusk painted the south side of Palisades in blue-grey shadows. Standing in the gutter outside Lord Simon’s house, Richard turned back to the hack driver. “You’ll wait,” he said, not a question.

“It will cost extra.”

“Understood.”

Phillipa waited half-way up the path, her figure slender despite the bulky winter coat, yet made taller by long shadows. Richard joined her, and they mounted the low step before the double wooden doors.

The expressionless butler opened the shorter door in the middle of the left-hand side. “Ah, Mr. St. Clair and—”

“Mr. Thewin,” Phillipa said softly.

“Lord Simon is expecting you, Mr. St. Clair,” the faintest stress on you. Richard paused at the foot of the stairs, his hand circling Phillipa’s wrist.

“You could wait in the hack.”

“This involves both of us,” she said and smiled. Her hand curled, brushing his fingers. “You should know by now—I don’t leave my responsibilities for others.”

Richard sighed agreement. They followed the butler up the stairs.

The lounge was now a haven of suffocating warmth; the shabby rug and long worn curtains, red threads aglow, appeared decadent and elegant. Despite the heavy, humid air, a chill ran through Richard. Phillipa drew closer to his side.

Lord Simon watched them from his chair. He didn’t stand. His face looked drawn, older—which seemed hardly possible—but his eyes gleamed, and a mocking smile undid the tight press of his mouth.

“So, here is the . . . object of your affection.”

Phillipa’s hand brushed Richard’s. He took it. He said, “We spoke to your supplier.”

“I have a number of suppliers.”

“Max Leute.”

“Ah, yes. He is the most legitimate of my operatives. You visited him first?”

“I suppose you bribed every supplier in Kingston.”

“I still have some influence.” Lord Simon’s hands splayed on the chair's arms, flexed. “And you gave me an entire night to find what I needed. I have the intelligence you seek. And it is fascinating.”

Richard wet his mouth. “You want your house—”

“Protected.” The word was a snap of intent. Lord Simon leaned forward, hands tightening. “Left alone.”

“An historical designation involves renovation.”

“That date can be determined later.”

“There are better examples of Mergian architecture throughout Kingston.”

“But none so notorious. Imagine the stories your historians could collect.”

Phillipa said in her clear voice, “Suppose the historians prefer stories of noble deeds, a house that conveys an uplifting purpose?”

“Ah.” Lord Simon’s eyes flicked towards her. “Your lover is a woman. Your family has such unexpected proclivities, I wasn’t sure. Yes, dear lady, in the short run, the state would prefer all things abound to its glory, but in the long run, the long run, don’t we all prefer a little more excitement? There lived the wicked Lord Simon in his house of shame.” He coughed, a spasm that shook his thin frame.

Richard said, “And now I suppose you’ll declare yourself too sick to vacate the premises. Should I call Sir Prescott?”

Lord Simon glared, and Richard illogically felt himself relax. This was just an argument between a petitioner and a bureaucrat; Lord Simon’s reasoning even had some value.

“Within your lifetime,” Richard said. “Suppose the house was protected that long?”

A faint pause. The walls murmured. Phillipa pressed her cheek against Richard’s arm, an intimate gesture at odds with her recent carefulness.

She said softly, “Something else is here” at the same time Lord Simon said, “Yes. That long. Long enough. Yes.”

“The name? Who bought the potion to give to me?”

“Lord Rustilion.”

They both gaped at him, everything forgotten. Phillipa said, “Why—?” Richard said, “What—? Are you sure?”

“A generic love potion. Not from Max. But one of Max’s mixture. Lord Rustilion went to a smaller dealer off Cherston Road. Government men rarely stray far from their stomping grounds.” Lord Simon eyed their joint bewilderment and laughed. “I can guess his reasons though they aren’t my concern. I trust you will keep our bargain.”

Still bemused, Richard made an effort to respond. “I’m an honorable man.”

“Honorable?” Lord Simon snorted. “I thought you were just being honest.”

* * *

Honest was a better word than honorable, Richard thought, standing outside Lord Simon’s residence, Phillipa’s hand still in his. Ministers were always claiming honor while they outmaneuvered each other for funds and position. Honor was an “ends” type of mentality. Honest was simply what it was.

“I suppose Lord Rustilion will have an explanation—” an honorable one.

“Nothing justifies bespelling someone against their will,” Phillipa said. “Suppose—”

He glanced down at her; she became angry so seldom, but right now, her brows were drawn down, her jaw set.

“Suppose?”

“Suppose it hadn’t been me, someone willing? Suppose it had taken hold of you someplace else—at a party, in a meeting?”

Richard was beginning to think that could never have happened. Lord Rustilion must have served him the potion in his cup of tea, nearly twenty-four hours before Richard accosted Phillipa. Even allowing that for the potion's possible time frame, he had waited.

How much control did a bespelling really have? At what point did the victim shape his own mistreatment?

He said, “He may have meant me to kiss Gloria.”

Even in the dusk, he saw Phillipa’s blush. “Oh,” she said, utterly mortified, and tried to tug away. Richard chuckled, pulled her close, pushed up her hat, and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

“She would have disliked me taking liberties,” he said against Phillipa’s hair. “You are right about that.”

He loosed her then because this second kiss was as far as they could go. He may not be honorable, but he was honest. He wasn’t going to lie about his life, not even to Gloria.

They walked down the path to the hack whose driver waited half-asleep. “Parker Walk,” Richard said. Like most “bachelor” clerks, Phillipa leased, for nominal rent, an apartment in one of the brick buildings that lined Parker Walk, a neighborhood near New Government House.

“I have a meeting with Lord Rustilion,” he told her. “We’ll take you home first.”

“Will you ask him about the potion?”

“Yes. I don’t think it will mean my job. Potions are supposedly disreputable. And I can’t ignore what he did.”

“Of course. And I should go with you.”

Taking Phillipa along would reveal far too much. Unless the potion was aimed at her—her and Richard—in order to create a scandal. Except—

“If he knew I was a woman,” Phillipa said, “he could just fire me.”

“Unless he made Lord Simon’s assumption about my proclivities.”

“I think Lord Simon was taunting you.”

“Perhaps Lord Rustilion wanted us to get caught,” Richard said.

“Nobody saw us. Besides, well—”

Besides, all anyone had to do was “discover” that Phillipa was a woman, and people would assume she and Richard were lovers, no potion needed. It was like the Notice-Me potions: a complicated and elaborate attack whose result could just as easily be created through rumor and politics. Why resort to magic?

“He meant to embarrass me,” Richard said.  "This must have to do with how I got my appointment. You know I wasn’t—I was given the position because of my sister’s misfortune.”

“Based on your merits, you should have been given it long before.”

“Based on your merits, you should be running the department,” he teased her, and she gave a sigh, half-laugh, half-impatience.

“I can handle Lord Rustilion. It’s just politics.” Stupid and pointless but comprehensible. “He probably assumes the potion didn’t work,” Richard continued. “That gives me leverage.”

The hack bounced along rough streets followed by smooth. Richard leaned back beside Phillipa. This would be the last time they would ride this way. After today, they would have to be scrupulous, vigilant of their own behavior: the office door left open; separate duties throughout the day; perhaps even another clerk in the office.

“Would you like to be transferred?” he said, hating to ask but Aubrey had been right: Phillipa should tell him what she wanted.

She didn’t answer immediately. They had reached Vale before she said, “I’d like to finish the Pellon assessment.”

“I could apply for a new position—” not that Richard would get one, not with an unexpectedly vindictive boss in the offing.

“That’s not fair either. I could stay—if we’re careful.”

They watched houses and businesses wink by, watched Government House loom.

“It’s not much of a future,” he pointed out, “keeping me company.” Work without Phillipa would leave him like Pellon’s property: empty, lonely, neglected. But he’d promised Aubrey to ask about Phillipa’s feelings. “Don’t you want more for yourself?”

“I never intended to marry. I made that choice before you.”

“But now you can have whatever you want,” Richard said. “I would help you, my family would help you, even—even to a social debut.”

They turned into Parker Walk, the brick apartment buildings looming to their left. The hack stopped. Phillipa descended, paid the driver.

“I would miss the job, you,” she said softly into the shadows where Richard sat and slipped away.