“Slums” was a better term: a collection of winding cow-paths between stone hovels and wooden lodgings that leaned towards each other like vomiting men. The first—and only—Slum resident to harass Simon had gotten acid in his face while Simon retreated with a cut hand and arm. Now the residents ignored Simon, and he ignored them as he stalked through the twisting lanes.
Reputable potion-makers operated mostly in Shops and sold mostly to the Academy. Although some had access to rare ingredients, they paid as high a price for the Royal Stamp of Approval as for the ingredients themselves. If any of them carried contraband ingredients, they sold them only to the royal family.
The royal family consisted of dabblers and playboys, as decadent as Simon’s uncle with less imagination. Simon would rather go elsewhere than beg ingredients from the king. He turned into a narrow alley between a gambling hell and a warehouse, kicking rats as he went. He knocked on the warehouse’s back door. It cracked open.
“Anyone with you?”
“There never is.” Simon dunked through the door to stand in a gloomy passageway.
“I was thinking of her.”
Simon had the man by the throat before he thought. “What do you mean?”
“Rumors—people say there’s someone in your house.”
“Not a rumor you’re going to pass on.”
“Of course not.”
Simon released Guy and pushed him forward into a side room stacked with bundled herbs beside jars of dried powders. Guy, tweed-thin with a bushel of tow-colored hair, peered up at Simon from a permanent slouch.
“Just making conversation,” he said.
“What do you have this week?”
“The Svetian borders have tightened up. I won’t be getting Luteola for awhile.”
“Good for loosening up the mind.”
“And turning it to mush. What else?”
“More Pinaster—that’s good for, well, you know, making the ladies happy.”
“I’m sure the royal family has masses of the stuff.”
Simon said, “What about herbs from Suvaginney?”
Guy swiveled slowly to eye him.
“You would never take them before.”
“I’m asking now.”
“Of course.” Guy tunneled through boxes and and returned with three small jars of powders. “Ordinary Rubicea,” he said, shaking one, “but better quality than most. This here is dried Sinica soaked in blood and sweat. And this powder, well, Suvaginney priests have to do something with the bones.”
“I’ll take all of them.”
“Yes,” Simon snapped.
“Your potions will become much more effective. By the way, I don’t give Sinica away on account.”
“Half now. Half later.”
Guy struggled with the bargain, face scrunched until his mouth met his nose, but he agreed. Of course. Suvaginney ingredients were hard to come by; harder even to sell. Even the royals refused to use them: Roesia did not do business with slave traders and primitive priests!
“They say the sacrifices are all criminals,” Guy said, pacifically accepting Simon’s packet of coins.
Simon couldn’t stop the Suvaginneans from slitting criminals’ throats in their temples. Diplomatic rumor said some of the sacrifices were innocent virgins from good families. The diplomats could do nothing about that either. Suvaginney was a continent away, reached by going overland through the Questing Kingdoms or, depending on the mood of Sveholt’s regent, through Sveholt. Otherwise, sailors had to go far south and east to reach Suvaginney. It wasn’t a threat to Roesia although kingdoms like Veillur and Belget occasionally pled for assistance from their neighbors. Who did nothing.
Nobody ever did anything. The royal family debauched. His uncle watched others debase themselves. The Academy twittered about its lack of effectiveness. Simon had something he could do, and he had to do it.
His sweat, his spit, his blood weren’t enough. A sacrificial victim’s should be.
* * *
Hannah was still seemingly absent when Simon returned home. He started immediately, mixing a small portion of the Sinica into the mortar with the bone powder, a little Rubicea and Eupatoria, which he ground into finer granules. He poured in a thin stream of water to create a paste. It smelled of dried grass and then, tentatively at first, the sharpness of burning wood. He closed his eyes against the expected sting of smoke and breathed deep.
“It will free you.”
“You know how close we have come.”
“I don’t recognize that bronze powder—what did you buy?”
“We needed something more powerful.” Simon began to add the final ingredient, the catalyst that every magician had to prepare himself: earth infused by incantations. Simon had his doubts about the incantations. The particular mixture of herbs, their combination of properties, seemed a more likely explanation for the results, but he was taking no chances this time. He sprinkled the earth atop the paste, worked it in with the pestle.
“Simon. I don’t think—”
She’d never sounded scared before. Righteously indignant. Practical. Commonsensical. Only occasionally sad. She never spoke with this trembling uncertainty.
“You want to get free, don’t you,” he said, slamming down the pestle. “Don’t you? Go home? See your brother,” who refused to visit the house, to do anything overtly embarrassing or scandalous. “Aren’t you sick of my company?”
Usually, such a challenge would provoke a sarcastic reply: I could certainly benefit from more a stimulating conversationalist.
“I want to get out.”
“Then trust me.” He picked up the mortar and a thick brush. “Where are you?”
“Here,” she said softly from the door.
Simon crossed the room. He sank the brush into the potion, lifted the clogged bristles and began to smear them up and down the panels.
“Oh!” A cry of pain or surprise, maybe even exaltation.
Simon didn’t stop. She was forming, rising towards him out of the wood, no longer two-dimensional. Half a head shorter than Simon. A slender figure with high, firm breasts. Long ash hair framed a face that had caught the attention of the Academy population two years earlier. She wore the simple, flowered frock that she’d worn then—too short for a lady, so it showed off shapely legs. Arms and legs were bare; they began to lose their wooden color and texture, growing creamy and supple. He could see her blue-green eyes under faintly winged brows, a straight nose, that wide mouth, tight in the moment but good-humored creases lurked at the corners. Her eyes met Simon; she parted those full lips as if to greet him.
Her head arced on the now free neck. Her eyes closed. A thin, high wail issued from her mouth. Her arms and legs spasmed. Simon continued to apply the potion, directly on her now, splattering the dark, wet material across her cheeks and neck and hands—throwing globs of it onto her emerging feet.
She was nearly free of the door. Simon was pressing the brush into the mortar to pick up the layer of paste along its rim when Hannah jerked back as if pulled by multiple strings. The door stood for a moment, then collapsed in a flurry of chips and sawdust.
Simon shouted and dashed forward, tripping on the debris. He stood at the top of the stairs leading to the lower floors. He called. He turned in circles, nearly falling backward into the stairs’ shadowy descent.
Hannah was nowhere to be seen.