Simon attended the ball dressed in black with white lace at his throat and wrists. Although the current style for men entailed waistcoats embroidered with an exhaustion of colors and bright pantaloons to match, Simon’s dress was classic enough to lift only a few eyebrows as he entered the palace and made his way up the grand staircase.
The palace was a rambling stone structure with twin battlements. The interior had been somewhat modernized with carpet, once plush, now worn. Women and men watched each other from balconies and landings, leering behind gloved hands and silvery fans. Simon nodded to familiar faces—Duke Belemont, looking bored; Lord Flatuen, looking eager. Simon entered the long receiving hall, lustrous (if a little grimy) with floors that gleamed (mostly). Tapestries covered the cheaply installed glass of the arched windows. The ministers balked more and more at paying the royals’ bills.
Simon joined the straggling line of courtiers. Whatever the state of the royal apartments, the gowns and capes and jewelry around him were opulent and expensive. “A certain lifestyle must be maintained,” argued the royal family.
What did it say for blue blood that they spent their wrested allowances on fripperies rather than on buildings?
Simon reached the space before the throne. There sat the king, still slender despite being twice Simon’s age, his too-young queen (fifteen? sixteen?) and her mama of grand proportions. Rumors said both mother and daughter shared the king’s bed—rumors had never clarified if the sharing took place simultaneously, at least not the rumors Simon tried to ignore.
“Ah, Lord Simon,” the king said in a booming voice out of keeping with his rapacious face, all thin cheeks and hungry eyes. “A man without an uncle. Congratulations on your inheritance. Are you here to entertain us?”
“To pay my respects,” Simon said smoothly, bowing only as much as necessary.
“How diligent. But really, you know, we would prefer a showcase of your talents to your ‘respect.”
Simon forced himself not to freeze, trusted himself not to emote his inner flare of rage. No doubt the gimlet-eyed king didn’t miss the whitening of his face. Simon took two breaths to even out his voice:
“I am without my potions,” he said, spreading his hands in guileless apology.
The king laughed and winked.
“My magicians will supply you.”
He waved an imperious, long-fingered hand. Tall cloaked men stepped around the throne, carrying flat trays topped by shallow bowls. They paced towards Simon. Throughout the long, high room, voices stilled. Men and women crowded closer together at Simon’s back. No retreat. But he couldn’t afford to turn and walk away, let alone run. He was caught, which the king well-knew.
Another bully to satisfy.
Simon smiled genially—no tensed muscles—as the magicians stopped before him. They nearly matched him in height, and he looked into saturnine, goateed faces: Edgar and Alfrid, courtiers with a little magical training and less ability.
Simon examined the ten bowls of gray, blue, and red powders. Based on their scents, Simon could produce four or five of the most common and popular potions. One of the magicians, Edgar also carried a light-weight pedestal topped by a glass globe with an open top. He set it before Simon where it reached above his waist. A thick layer of liquid swirled in the bottom of the bowl.
Simon leaned forward and sniffed. The liquid was not the expected and most useful water but something faintly acidic that would limit potion potentiality. Leaning back, he caught a glint of mockery in Alfrid’s eyes.
Apparently, the king would be as amused by Simon’s failure as by his success.
Join the dead, jackass.
Simon reached out a hand and felt the various powders, shaking grains from his fingertips after each test. He began to sprinkle granules into the liquid, bypassing the gray powders: Capsikum, red, coarse, and oily; Myristica, brown and fragrant. Sound and sights faded. The watchers became no more than occupied space at Simon’s back. He could feel the spell forming in the vapor above the bowl. He reached for the indigo powder, Lamiakea, aware that the spell was altering even as he moved the ingredient closer to the bowl. A pinch. No more. Most magicians over or underestimated quantities. Spells relied on an infinitesimal edge of combined ingredients.
Simon tapped in the granules particle by particle. The potion glowed, a purple concoction laced with silver. Simon twisted the spigot at the side of the glass globe, releasing the mixture into a small glass cup included on the right-hand tray. He held the it up, fully aware of his appearance, a black-clad figure standing straight beneath the largest candelabra, its arm extended, so the potion refracted the shimmering light.
The crowd breathed in. It also pulled away, the warmth at Simon’s back dissipating. Simon smiled grimly and meet the king’s greedy gaze.
“Do you test your own concoctions, Lord Simon?”
Simon shrugged. He had considered that possibility when he mixed the potion. The king immediately looked past him, already bored by Simon’s imperturbability.
“Sir Crupper? Or, Veronica, Lady Wansaby, will you take the challenge?”
Soft gasps followed a ripple of movement at at Simon's side. He turned to look down at a lithe beauty with a pert triangular face beneath a mass of dark hair. His arm dropped.
Nobody truly knew why potions took or not. Nobody knew exactly how a potion might affect its victim. Hannah, for instance, should never have disappeared.
He didn’t have a chance for hesitation. Lady Veronica Wansaby snatched the glass from his hand and drained it. Her black curls lifted, straightening until the strands nearly reached the chandelier. The hair rippled as a single mass, then fell, wrapping Lady Wansaby’s body in a column of fur.
Fur—not hair. Her arms expanded to match her legs. Her face narrowed at the chin while the forehead broadened and nose flattened. Ears pushed upward through the writhing mass of fur. A human-sized cat stood upright before the throne at the center of the great hall (Simon and the magicians had moved aside). It balanced on hunched back legs before slowly, gracefully falling forward to land on four legs.
And then the spell broke. A naked Lady Wansaby crouched on the marble floor. The crowd erupted with gasps, shouts, queries. The nearest royal magician, Edgar, swirled his cloak around Lady Wansaby and lifted her upright. She wavered on searching feet, face white, and the onlookers held back. Then the king was at her side, praising her courage, and the onlookers surged forward, full of double praise.
Simon retreated one step, two. Alfrid gripped his arm, shook it.
“How? Transformation to a mammal—where did you get that formula?”
“Those potions are unreliable.”
“They can be stabilized.”
Simon continued to retreat, skirting the clamoring crowd around Lady Wansaby. She would be the king’s mistress within a fortnight, if not sooner—which she had probably known when she stepped forward.
Only Alfrid and a few speculative lords kept their eyes on Simon. He reached the grand staircase, Alfrid at his heels.
“The Academy produces nothing so effective,” Alfrid told him.
“They provide vanishment spells to the military.”
“Nothing sustainable. Your ingredients—”
“Nothing atypical. And not sustainable. As you saw.” Simon reached the bottom of the stairs and pushed between footmen to reach the dark cool quiet of the sweeping drive. Carriages waited with their drivers; the only sounds were soft exchanges between drivers plus their horses’ whinnies.
“It’s a parlor trick,” Simon hissed. “Nothing more. Leave it.”
* * *
Of course they didn’t. Duke Huvinney appeared on the doorstep the next day, embarrassed but insistent. The board was afraid that Lord Simon was not turning over all his research. If necessary, they would insist he move his lab to the Academy.
“Moves like that are dangerous,” Simon told the duke. “Things break. Get scattered. Papers dissolve in water puddles.”
Hearing the implicit threat, the duke sighed and retreated.
Timonson, the courtier, came next: The king would like—if Lord Simon would be so pleased—if he could bring himself to work with the king’s magicians . . .
Simon deduced that Alfrid had requested that the king intervene with Simon. The king himself would have lost interest. Magicians were performers in his eyes, means to ends. As far as the king was concerned, Simon could have pulled a human in a cat costume from behind a tapestry and he would have been just as pleased by the result.
The king was smarter than his courtiers. Simon sent Timonson away.
Alfrid came last.
“I let him in,” the butler said. “I won’t be turning away anyone from the palace.”
“You should work for them instead.”
“They don’t pay that well.”
“And I do?”
The butler shrugged. Simon shrugged. He was a stepping stone to a better house; he had known that when he hired the man.
Alfrid waited in the hall.
“You have been stupidly uncooperative,” he told Simon. “Do you think the king’s indicts can be ignored?”
“I think the king is busy enjoying Lady Wansaby. Or is it Lady Wansaby and the queen and the queen’s mother?”
“Thirty years ago, saying such things would put you outside the pale.”
“Thirty years ago, the ministers weren’t saying such things themselves. If the king wants me, he will send for me.”
“You have a duty, an obligation to those of us who respect magic. Potions are a powerful force. Their potential—”
“Is laughably unreliable. These are games only.”
“Games don’t alter men’s perceptions. There are anatomists in Ennance—base men, to be sure, but they have discovered how potions work on the human body, which powders affect which organs. We can make potions more effective.”
“Only as effective as they are in the first place. General principles don’t apply. The victims’ idiosyncrasies count.”
“As you would know.” Alfrid glanced about the hall, its looming walls, its suddenly swinging chandelier. “Did you kill that woman?”
I don’t know.
Simon said, “Another parlor trick. Nothing as serious as what you’ve heard, I’m sure.”
“That’s what I believed—until you transformed a woman into a full-size mammal.”
The hall’s boards were creaking, muttering. Simon’s lurking butler edged closer to the open door.
Alfrid said, “I want to see you prepare that formula.”
Alfrid’s teeth showed. Not a smile. “Your uncle died too soon. He would have understood our needs. He bragged about you, you know. He didn’t explain that you are an ignorant, obstinate fool.”
I never was—to him.
The floor rippled. The butler stepped backward out of the door, was gone. Alfrid didn’t notice.
“Your workplace is in the solarium, I believe.”
He strode towards the stairs, and the walls shrieked. Simon fell to the floor, arms covering his head, while part of the far wall exploded into splinters. Alfrid screamed, hands over his face, and dashed out of the still open door.
“Will they never leave you alone?”
Hannah’s voice. Simon gasped, pushing his arms out along the floor until the boards scraped away his flesh. He lay prone, feeling her voice, her rage, against his skin.
“Is the whole world comprised of villains? Corrupters? How can you stay virtuous amongst such wickedness? Bar your doors, Simon. Keep them away.”
“You’re still here. You haven’t left.”
“Where can I go?”
“I’m sorry,” Simon said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”