“I hear you got barred from the Academy,” Guy said, laying out bundles of Allium, Dioica, and Ocimum.
Guy’s pale, sharp-faced assistant hovered in the background: Kev, Simon thought his name.
“The ministers are threatening to take over the running of the Academy,” Simon said. “The Board needs to prove its respectability.” Hence no more experiments with prostitutes in the Academy’s cellars.
Simon was unimpressed by the Board’s moral posturing. His experiments at the Academy had fallen off in the past decade once he ran through the Ennanican samples. Fixing the original potion was not the solution. Simon needed something more powerful, an overarching potion that restored everything anew, cancelling all prior effects.
His correspondence with Penderley had petered out over the last decade. The man had taken up a cause—the use of bleeding to relieve clogged organs—and his letters had become increasingly didactic. Lord Simon stopped replying. He already had a cause.
He had gone back to the older texts, texts that even Roesia’s magicians dismissed as wishful thinking: Ordeman, Stirping, Marfuny. Portions for summoning the dead, for projecting one’s spirit, for possessing another body. Modern potions concentrated on “realities,” their pragmatic applications, but pragmatism couldn’t help Simon.
* * *
He studied the array of herbs laid out on the sideboard. Guy visited Simon’s house twice a week. Guy had achieved a limited respectability with a shop in the officially designated Trades district. He hunched beside the board, pointing to the ingredients he considered of particular interest to Simon.
Simon made his selections and paid. Guy shuffled out, tugging his forelock and grinning engagingly. The sharp-faced assistant, Kev, paused. Shoulders hunched, he bobbed his head with heavy obsequiousness. Humor and a wink colored Guy’s obeisance. Kev was all apparent sincerity. Simon tried not to squirm.
“Milord,” Kev said in a near-whiny voice. “I don’t know if Guy mentioned—I was considered for Academy admittance.”
The Academy flirted with inviting the “common man” into its environs—like Ennancian universities. The impulse never lasted long. Magicians, the Board claimed, could never be culled from the common herd. Perhaps it was a learnable discipline but surely, some quality, some rarefied characteristic set the magician apart.
Simon said, “Guy knows better than to impress me with Academy connections.”
“Oh, the Academy is a close-minded organization.” Kev bobbed his head and rubbed his hands together. “I can get bodies,” he whispered.
“Are you an anatomist?”
“Trained under Lurber”—the city coroner. “I can locate secrets within enchanted flesh.”
“Only if you have access to the relevant corpses.”
Rumors abounded that unscrupulous physicians fed dying men and women potions immediately before death, then sold their bodies to magicians.
“I know people.” Kev sidled closer. Without any obvious movement, Simon retreated.
“He’s busy. We divide our labors.”
Simon allowed one brow to rise. Guy was blessedly and sanely devoted to the purchase and distribution of potion ingredients, nothing else.
Simon could no longer afford to ignore other possibilities, however unlikely or unlikable.
“If you discover anything of impact, I will listen,” he said.
* * *
Simon sank in his armchair after the toady had gone. He heard Guy greet Kev at the front door, his voice faintly querulous. No doubt Kev whined an answer.
Simon needed tools. Despite an expectation of long life—his aunt was yet still living—Simon felt weary to the bone. He rarely slept through an entire night. His knees cracked when he jogged up stairs. His hair, though still mostly thick and dark, was slightly silvered at the temples.
“That man is a parasite,” Hannah said.
She rippled from the floor into the mantle. She never appeared or spoke when he had visitors. She disliked being his “resident ghost.”
Hannah’s no-nonsense attitude had reasserted itself as her madness faded. A wildness remained, a sense of incalculability. Sometimes, she debated ingredient measurements and potion concentrations with Simon. Sometimes she exploded beakers.
“You would taint me further?” she said now. “Allow that liar into my head?”
“Kev is a con.”
“Then why did you listen? Why not gut him?”
She was also more bloodthirsty.
Their best moments were quiet conversations at night in the parlor, Simon settled before the fire, or in bed, Simon lying down, fingers laced behind his head. Hannah would come, sliding into the scarf around Simon’s shoulders or the quilt across his chest. They spoke of Anglerey history, of Roesian poetry. Simon would quote his favorites; Hannah would add verses. She had a gift for limericks, surprisingly raunchy for such a moral woman.
“I’ve always been good with rhymes,” she said when Simon expressed surprise.
He could almost see her blush.
* * *
Simon still attended palace parties. Alfrid was long gone; he fell from favor when he tried to transform the dowager queen into an owl. If he had succeeded, the king might have protected him, but he turned the dowager’s nose into a beak and brought her wrath down on his head.
Simon performed his little tricks, watched by the jaundiced king, cynical ministers, and indifferent courtiers. Potions were no longer the fad of two decades ago. Simon made the queen’s pet monkey float, the chandelier’s candles simultaneously go out and relight (using a potion's smoke). Mostly, he altered the colors of ladies’ gowns, which always caused giggles and exclamations. On one occasion, he transformed a woman’s gown into a map of all the kingdoms. For a brief moment, the map adhered to her skin, revealing curves and nipples. The courtiers were gratifyingly shocked. The ministers looked censorious.
* * *
“I told them to leave you alone,” Hannah said whenever Simon returned from palace forays.
“Better to keep them satisfied and unimpressed. I’m merely the entertainment.”
Potion and potions makers had seen their glory days. The new sciences would eventually take over even the Academy.
So Simon believed. Yet five years after he was banned from the Academy, the Academy came to call.
* * *
“Sir James is at the door,” intoned the butler that Simon had created entirely from water and dust.
The butler looked solid enough—so long as no one touched him. Hannah liked to rush through him now and again, exploding him into a shower of droplets She believed Simon should interact with real people.
“Send him up,” Simon said.
He finished bathing his face in cold water from the bedroom washstand, dried his face and hands, shrugged on his dressing gown, and crossed to a small door beside the bedroom fireplace. It opened into the parlor. Simon went through and closed the door, so the wall's tapestry recovered it. Sir James would be mounting the stairs; Simon didn't want to appear unprepared--he certainly didn't want to be seen leaving his bedroom. His reputation for immaculate inscrutability was worth preserving, if only to keep he and Hannah safe from too much prying. His reputation for immaculate inscrutability was worth preserving, if only to keep snoopers at bay.
Of course, some snoopers were impervious to hints. Sir James was a large youngish man—thirty-five, thirty-six—with the beginning of impressive jowls. He entered the parlor and strode forward, hand out, a plebian greeting recently adopted by ministers.
“Lord Simon, such a privilege to meet one of the king’s favorites.”
Simon let his bemusement to show as he allowed Sir James to “warmly” clasp his hand.
“The king has few favorites,” he said dryly.
“Yes.” Sir James lowered himself into the opposite armchair. “Men of science like ourselves have allegiance only to the truth.”
Simon felt Hannah’s exasperation and had to squash a grin. Sir James used the manipulation and hypocrisy of his peers; he was himself utterly translucent.
“Lord Simon.” Sir James leaned forward. “I represent members of the board who believe the Academy has more to offer than a social education—we can contribute to the well-fare of our nation.”
Minister talk: the Academy knew which way the wind blew regarding the distribution of power. The king cared little for the practical, even military uses of potions. He would not protect the Academy much longer.
“We naturally would hate to see magical potions reduced to a side-show—”
At first, Simon thought that Sir James was criticizing his exhibitions before the king. How refreshing. Except Sir James continued:
“—the province of slum magicians. Or tradesmen!”
Academy heads always assumed Simon was an autocrat, a believer in the intellectual noblesse oblige of the upper class: gentry and aristocratic members of society must guide those less developed, less advanced.
Even if Simon agreed with them, he didn’t see how his singular efficiency in potions proved the superiority of an entire class.
“The Academy banned me,” he said.
“Ah, yes. The Academy would like to revisit your experiments—official authorizations, approval at the highest levels—”
Sir James’s voice meandered on. Lord Simon sank back into his chair, closed his eyes, and steepled his fingers. He’d learned that the pose exuded aloof, untouchable profundity. It allowed Lord Simon to close out the world, the blustering self-involvement of politicians.
From the armchair back, Hannah’s voice drifted to Simon’s ear: “Send him away.”
“Wait,” Simon mouthed.
“—your formulas, of course.”
“I no longer share my formulas,” Simon said, his attention snapping back to Sir James.
“Ah.” Sir James gave him a bonhomous smile. “I understand that was a gentlemen’s agreement. The Academy allowed you to maintain your own lab. Any discoveries naturally come within its purview.”
The parlor’s long, red curtains suddenly wafted outwards into the room—Simon eyed them and stood.
“I don’t share my formulas,” he said.
He topped Sir James by a few inches; Sir James, built like a cart horse, outweighed him by several pounds. Simon kept his body loose, his voice level, nothing to startled Hannah into lethal protectiveness.
Sir James said, “Surely, you would like to see the Academy expand its collection of potions.”
Simon shrugged. Sir James’ affable smile seemed to stretch.
“For your own sake, then,” Sir James continued.
Simon didn’t glare. He said smoothly, “Only if I believed that collaboration with the Academy could further my research.”
“We could guarantee freedom from interference—”
“Which I already have.”
“So long as—at the ministers’ discretion.”
So long as the king doesn’t abdicate. Rumors abounded. The king’s health was failing. He had no heir. The ministers wanted a clean break: new government, new morality.
But not a revolution. No one said “abdication” out loud, and Sir James was momentarily embarrassed at his slip. He rallied:
“The ministers do not approve of unregulated experimentation by individual magicians.”
“The Academy will fall under their mandate first.”
“Not if the Academy partners with the military,” Sir James said.
Simon didn’t roll his eyes. The military would be better served buying Svetian New Rifles. Magic might cause temporary confusion but only Academicians thought wars were won by carefully calculated scenarios (“If the enemy stands on this hill looking east for 3.2 seconds, it will fail to see the invisible battalion and mistakenly deploy its troops”).
“Surely we can fulfill mutual needs,” Sir James continued.
Simon paused, considering. However pointless and ineffective the Academy proved in the moment, the unexpected did occur. Three, five, ten or twenty years into the future: governments altered, power changed hands. Nothing remained the same. In some unfair and badly managed future, he might need the Academy’s assistance.
“I will give the Academy any formulas I can find,” Simon said.
Sir James opened his mouth.
“I’m a terrible record keeper,” Simon said urbanely.
I will give you exactly what I want when I want, but I will give you something.
Hannah snorted in Simon’s ear—while Sir James nodded affably, diplomatically, and took himself off.