“Move,” he shouted at the young men who leaned on the banisters, watching the circling men below. Bets changed hands as Simon rushed past. He hit the large staircase that hugged the front of his uncle’s house and half-fell down the steps; he sprawled at the bottom, hands out, and pushed up immediately. He neared the circle of men. He was tall, lean, and fit. He shoveled through them easily, his eyes on the blond woman at the circle’s center.
A maid, a laundress, maybe a whore—though Simon’s uncle preferred to induce innocents to his parties’ entertainments. Simon caught sight of strong features: arched brows over blue-green eyes; a thin, straight nose; pronounced philtrum and long full lips. Then, a body lurched across Simon’s line of sight.
“Change her. Change her.” The men on the landing were shouting now, and the circling men vibrated in response. Simon pushed his nearest obstacle aside; the man—eyes wild, mouth open on a shout of his own—looked about blankly. Simon was already half-invisible when he reached the woman and spat the potion in his mouth straight into the woman’s face.
She vanished completely. The men on the landing roared—approval or disappointment, the sound was the same. Simon leaned forward, hands on knees, feeling the spell’s effects leave him, washed away along with the faint smell of zingiber.
The hall quieted, shouts replaced by murmurs” “Where’d she go?” Who did it?”
The circling men with their individual vials of potions turned in small, abstracted circles, wolves denied prey. They would turn on each other soon but with less energy; some would even begin to slink off to a tavern or a brothel for a bout of normal debauchery.
Simon straightened and backed out of the horde. Men began to see him, murmur his name.
“What potion did you use, Simon?” a fellow Academy student called from the landing.
Simon ignored him as well as other students’ glares and uncomplimentary mutters, complaints because he had ruined the evening’s entertainment.
“When will she reappear?” another student called, curious, not petulant.
After you’re gone, Simon thought.
“Maybe never,” he said, and the observers on the landing broke into discussion groups, as if the whole event were merely another Academy lecture.
* * *
“The last show scandalized the king.”
Ferrall waved a hand. “Roger Moklin’s daughter. That may have been unwise.”
Roger Moklin’s daughter had accompanied an Academy student, that idiot Carl Payne, to one of Ferrall’s parties. Simon had been in the Academy lab that night, not in his own lab at the top of his uncle’s house. Reportedly, the girl had been transformed into a lizard, then threatened by stomping feet.
She wasn’t violated, the same reports claimed, as if preserving the girl’s virginal status excused terrorizing her. (The girl this evening would not have been so lucky.). Moklin’s daughter currently refused to leave her room. And her father had complained, strenuously, to the king, which put the Academy and its potions, including Simon’s experiments, under scrutiny.
“Your guests could transform each other,” Simon said.
Louis grunted and licked his lips. “Not nearly as gratifying.”
Simon jerked his head—allowing for his uncle’s perspective without agreeing to it—and left the room. The man was Simon’s guardian. At age twenty-two, Simon no longer needed a guardian, but he needed his uncle’s money.
Simon’s parents died when he was thirteen. He spent three years at his great-aunt’s, squiring her to dances and balls. He was tall for his age even then.
When he was sixteen, she decided to spend her “waning years” in Ennance; his aunt had the strength of a Svetian ox, but she’d used up all Kingston’s social gossip, and off she went to fresher fields.
Simon stayed. He’d entered the Academy by then, and he petitioned to stay with Louis, the relative that even his lazy and luxury-loving aunt called “degenerate.” Still, Louis lived in Kingston, and he had room, and he didn’t cared how Simon spent his days. When Simon cleared out the solarium and started collecting equipment and ingredients, Louis even began to fund his nephew’s “experiments.”
Simon was no longer surprised by his uncle’s largess. Like Simon’s aunt, Louis fed on scandalous stories—only Louis demanded stories tinged with violence as well as salaciousness. He didn’t attend his own parties. He waited in his bedroom to collect the reverberations, the latest party’s depraved details. A girl who merely vanished was not radical enough for his tastes.
* * *
The house didn’t currently have a butler—it wasn’t an easy place to staff—so Simon answered the door two days later. Duke Huvinney, a member of the Academy board, waited on the stoop with Professor Nerfause. Simon stepped back, so they could move a few feet inside the door, no more.
“Simon,” the duke said heavily. “Everyone is talking, saying—you made a girl vanish?”
Simon shrugged. “A parlor trick.”
The men exchanged glances. Professor Nerfause said, “The formula—”
The duke overrode him. “And where is the girl now?”
Simon quelled a surge of panic as he thrust his hands in his pockets. Tall, lean, he stood a head and more above the other men. He knew that his face bore the marks of Anglerey ancestry: high cheekbones, eyes shadowed by quizzical brows, a nearly hooked nose. Handsome. Sardonic. He let his face settle, knowing it conveyed nothing except vague mockery.
“She must have gone off home.”
Again, the duke interrupted the professor: “She’s the sister of one of our tutors, a Mr. Tokington.”
Not a maid or a whore, women with no powerful friends. Yet not as problematic as Moklin’s daughter. A tutor could hardly bring pressure to bear on the king’s friends.
“A beauty,” the duke said seriously. “She was not—apparently, she was maneuvered here.”
Forced, Simon grasped. Academy officials were given to euphemism, especially regarding student behavior.
“The Academy’s reputation needs mending,” the duke said as if Simon had spoken the thought aloud.
“You can hardly expect me to monitor my uncle’s guests.”
“But you made her vanish,” Professor Nerfause broke in and pushed on; this time, he would not be overborne. “You are allowed to maintain a lab away from the Academy, milord, but you have an obligation to share your formulas.”
Simon allowed one eyebrow to rise. The Academy could not stop any citizen from acquiring beakers, mortars and pestles, even a cauldron. The ingredients for potions were harder to come by since many spells required special herbs though not all.
The Academy effected limited control: only Academy magicians could submit formulas for royal use; only Academy magicians could perform large-scale experiments.
Simon only wished he could make everyone vanish.
The professor said sternly, “Young man, you will hand over that formula.”
Simon shrugged. “I always intended to.”
Professor Nerfause grumbled into passivity.
Duke Huvinney said, “Well, now, and you are sure the girl left?”
That was not precisely what Simon had said, but he nodded. Neither man wanted to hear an equivocation.
They did not ask to tour the house. They straightened their hats and coats and went down the path to a waiting couch. Simon shut the door, took a deep breath, and strode to the center of the hall.
The woman had not reappeared. Most potions changed their recipients for a few seconds, no more. Simon had perfected formulas where the effects lasted minutes at a time (true transformation); the vanishing spell was one of his strongest.
He had tried it on himself—as an ointment and as a drink (the classic form of administration). He had vanished for nearly ten minutes; he used that time to slide into his uncle’s study and read his current will. When the man died, Simon would inherit his property. Of course, Louis might change his mind--if Simon ruined another of his parties, for instance.
He had spit that vanishing potion in the woman’s face; it would hide her, keep her safe, long enough for the jackals to retreat. Except she should have reappeared by now.
Perhaps she had when Simon was with his uncle: reappeared and crept away.
Simon neared the hall’s furthest wall. He leaned against it, hands splayed across the paneling. Whispers. Shudders. The wood seemed to ripple. For an instant, Simon though he felt an arm, smooth flesh, before his palm. He closed his hand over . . . nothing. Groaning, he leaned his forehead against the wall.
He must have imagined the arm. No formula was so strong to—
Of course he imagined it. There was no other explanation.