“He says he has something unusual.”
“He says this time is different.”
“Tell him I don’t care.”
“Is that true?”
Simon sighed. These days, he hated to go out in the cold as much as he hated to leave Hannah. Old man, she called him with teasing worry.
“He told me to badger you,” said Kev’s nephew in a bored voice.
David? Darrel? Simon couldn’t remember the boy’s name. He was a sharp-faced young man, only slightly less evil than his uncle.
Though more easily controlled. Derek? would do anything for money. Kev still fancied himself an Academy scholar in the making. He sold ready-made potions to Academy students whom he referred to as “colleagues.”
“It’s about that girl,” Drew? said. “The one who drank the Academy potion in Sommerville last summer and transformed into a cat.”
“A debutante’s stunt. The family is a bunch of social climbers.”
Devin? snorted yet added in some seriousness, “I’d swear this girl changed back. Cat to human. Hand to the holy.”
The nephew was more cautious about misleading potential marks than his uncle had ever been. Kev had sent Simon many messages over the years through Max, professing great discoveries. Simon wouldn't admit Kev to the house.
If the girl in Sommerville had transformed, if she stayed transformed for over six months, only reverting now—she would be unique, unprecedented, like Hannah.
* * *
Simon pulled on his coat, helped by Hannah’s whispering touch. There were days she seemed almost corporeal, no longer tied physically to drapes and blankets and furniture. He would turn, believing, hoping, that the spell had finally broken; grace had finally visited this degenerate house: Hannah would stand before him, flesh and bone, still young, still the girl he’d enchanted.
He turned. He encountered a sigh, nothing more.
Every day, she urged to leave the house permanently, to walk out across the fields, put Kingston at his back. “Go,” she insisted. “Run.” She was always comforted when he returned.
Simon and Douglas? caught a hackney—Simon could no longer cover the distance from Palisades to Trades without continual stops to catch his breath, and he didn’t want to appear feeble in front of Kev’s nephew. The hack took them as far as the market. They descended. Simon paid (of course). Dickon? led the way into increasingly narrower side streets until they reached a squat building with smudged windows along the front.
Digory? unlocked the front door and ushered Simon into a living room, his gestures a parody of Kev’s obsequiousness.
“I’ll fetch him.”
“I’m sure you’ll retrieve him excellently,” Simon said, and his escort left through a further door.
Simon peered around the shabby, ill-lit room. Curtains fluttered to his left and for a moment, his heart pounded. Hannah. Are you here?
He didn’t show his unease. The last person to surprise him had been Magistrate Cummings, retired now in favor of the new police. Simon rotated with all the dignity of his court appearances to see a girl standing in front of a curtained alcove.
She was twenty or less with dark hair and eyes. She wore a simple brown frock that exuded a faint odor. Not a guest. Kev was too paranoid—Simon was surprised the nephew even had a key.
She said, ““I’m Aubrey St. Clair.”
Her accent was polished. She was educated. Definitely not a relation. She shifted towards Simon as if she might clasp his hands, ask for help. Her smell flowed towards him, stronger than the smell of the dress.
She stank of an old formula. Simon recognized the base: one of his with a few “personalized” ingredients. Kev must have dumped the stuff on the girl to have her reek so strongly. Did he think Simon wouldn’t notice?
“Are you?” Simon said. “Or one of Kev’s little phonies?”
Her brow creased, and then Kev ran into the room, hands trembling with excitement.
“Lord Simon,” he cried, and the girl—whatever her name—fell back, eyes darting.
“A complete reversion,” Kev babbled. “The spell lasted.”
“I suppose you’re going to claim that this is the girl from the Sommerville ball.”
“She was found under the stoop. I got to her before the Academy could snatch her up.”
“A cat was found. A cat was obtained by you from the family. A cat—”
“Reverted. In my storage room. She was a cat.”
Lord Simon snorted. “You’ve been trying for years, Kev, to convince me that you can create lasting philters.”
“I tolerate you because you try things Academy officials balk at. But I don’t like to be diddled.”
“People at the ball saw her change—”
“That potion wasn’t even yours.”
The ultimate parasite, Kev created nothing unique. If she was this Aubrey St. Clair, she had drunk the Academy’s limp variant of Simon’s transformation formula.
“She retained the spell. That’s your interest, isn’t it—why some recipients last longer than others? There were signs—internally—”
Kev’s voice was nearly a whisper. Simon glanced again at the young woman, who might or might not be Aubrey St. Clair. She watched him, one handing clutching the alcove curtain. She hadn’t pled for help or even moved since Kev entered the room.
Behaving as instructed.
Yet there were thin red lines along her legs and arms, apparent even in the dim room as if she had been operated on. Dissected.
“So, girl, were you a cat?”
“No,” she said and shrugged.
Simon nearly laughed as Kev burst into furious abuse. Not so compliant an assistant. Probably Kev hadn’t paid her enough.
Moving towards the door, Simon felt Kev’s hand on his arm. He glared down at the greasy, clutching fingers. He never let Kev get so close, and he tensed his muscles preparatory to shaking Kev off.
“I will get results. This time.”
The girl did stink of transformation. Whether or not she was Aubrey St. Clair, she had imbibed the potion at some point, and it had lingered.
“Only answers interest me,” Simon told Kev softly. “A lasting spell is only as useful as its remedy, which must also last.”
“I’ll pinpoint the effects.”
“I’m sure you’ll try. I dislike leaving my house, Kev. Don’t send your lackey for me again.”
* * *
Simon escaped the house, entering sharp, cool air. He hadn’t smelt a potion so heavy in years—new mixtures were about subtlety, not spectacle. The wash of Myristica was still in his nostrils as he began his slow walk back to the Market. He was more vulnerable to attack than he had been a decade earlier, but Trades was safer now, the worst of the riff-raff having fallen to the fresh scrutiny of the police.
These days, the police were pushing for the authority to arrest more than thieves, pimps, and murderers. They wanted to arrest magicians. Simon received continual—and unwanted—updates from Sir James on the Academy’s “efforts to stave off unqualified interference.”
Bureaucrats hassling bureaucrats. What did Simon care? Eventually, they would take away his potions, leave Simon to Hannah’s final judgment. Maybe his death would free her. Or maybe she would disappear absolutely into the house's walls, remain a rumor, the faintest draft between the cracks.
At least she didn’t wish him ill. When he’d suggested, “My death could stop all this—” she had cried out as if pained, as if the house were falling down about her: wreckage, desolation.
“You mustn’t,” she told him later in bed. “If any grace remains in you, you will stay alive as long as you can.”
“You must crave better companionship.”
“No one but you understands that I’m not a ghost. I’m here. I’m real. You know me, Simon.”
He said, “That night, I should have swept you up, fought off your attackers—a knight of olden times.”
She chuckled. “Bloody but unbowed.”
And they had gone on to discuss poetry, her shape if not her substance curled in his arms.
* * *
Now he walked home to her, one step at a time through the blistering cold. An old man and getting older. Losing time.
Dmitri—Kev’s nephew’s name was Dmitri.