Magic is the victim. No potion could otherwise explain such an unusual reaction: retention, reversion, transformation (again). Something in the girl, something in Hannah sent both women into a spiraling and strange world of change and imprisonment.
Did the St. Clair girl feel imprisoned? Could she be saved? Simon caressed the needle in his pocket. If removal and forgetting worked on her—
“Sir James has arrived with a young lady,” said the butler.
“Ah,” Jacobs cried, the cold forgotten.
Simon felt Hannah retreat to the end of the room as Sir James herded in the dark-haired, dark-eyed girl Simon had met in Kev’s hovel. She was dressed differently, wrapped in a brown coat that reached below her knees. Judging by the bare skin, she wore nothing else. She must have reverted without clothes.
She glared about her, just to the south of rage, hissing when she spotted Jacobs.
“I don’t want him here,” she said and backed into Sir James’s large bulk.
Apparently, she detested Sir James too—good instincts—because she darted forward, placing the armchair between her and the Academy men.
Jacobs sighed ostentatiously.
“Miss St. Clair—I am trying to help. Surely, you want to understand your condition? Lord Simon knows the right questions to ask.”
Even Simon wanted to scratch away his smugness.
Miss St. Clair said, “Another fetch-and-carry boy.”
Very good instincts.
Simon laughed. “Go away, Jacobs,” he said and rose to his feet.
Simon knew what Jacobs thought. It wasn’t Simon’s fault that the man didn’t clarify his between-the-lines deals.
“The lady rejects you as her squire.”
“I haven’t yet determined your worth—”
“But I helped—”
“Ambition plods a fate-strewned path, wrote Bleuf—not one of Roesia’s better poets. Take your leave.”
Jacobs shrugged off the butler’s hand, tugged down his waistcoat, and left the room on a stiff saunter. He’ll be warmer outside. Simon swiveled slowly to study the girl.
“I should have taken you with me when we last met,” he said and approached.
She stiffened but stayed stationary.
“You would have treated me more kindly than Kev?”
“Not more kindly. But more comfortably.” He lifted her chin with a long-fingered hand, bent his head, and sniffed her cheek. The transformation smell was still there but changed, intermingled with a smell Simon could not identify. The girl’s own perhaps.
“You are young,” he said, younger than Hannah had been (was?).
“I was younger before.”
“It’s been less than a year, child. But then, time is a costly commodity.”
Of which commodity, Simon was running out.br />
“I don’t suppose you are sorry,” Miss St. Clair said.
She wasn’t as confident as her words implied--but she wasn't cowed.
Simon said, “Is that wrath? From such a nice young thing?”
She lifted a hand, fingers splayed. White, curved talons slid along the nails. Simon might have gasped right before she scratched two long gashes down the back of his right hand.
Sir James said, “Now, now!”
Simon stepped back, tugging a handkerchief from his pocket to wrap it around the hand. Miss St. Clair opened her mouth and licked dagger-like fangs. Warned by the claws, Simon managed to chuckle rather than exclaim. He returned to the armchair, eyes darting to the windows where Hannah lurked. This girl's bespellment was real, as real as Hannah’s shape amongst the curtains.
To cure Hannah, he had to test the new potion on a subject of equal change and uniqueness. The Academy would never let him inject her—they wouldn’t want to lose their magical talisman—though the girl might. Simon settled in the armchair and gazed up at that talisman with raised brows.
Lowering herself to the edge of the second armchair, Miss St. Clair said, “Did you pay Kev to experiment on me?”
“Did your friends in the police tell you to ask me that?”
“I won’t be cut open.”
Not any more, Simon heard.
He sighed. “Kev is competent but untrained. Observation—exposure to external stimuli—would have provided more information. Dissection is the refuge of slum magicians. Though it likely triggered your reversion.”
Sir James grunted an a-ha sound.
“I’d never have needed a reversion if I hadn’t been bespelled,” Miss St. Clair said.
True. Simon couldn’t be sorry.
He said wrly, “You even sound like a policeman. Plebian work.”
“You work with Dmitri.”
The girl’s barbs were as well-placed as Hannah’s. Maybe the potion only affected women of dry and terrible wit.
“You transformed outside the alumni house,” Simon said.
“To get away. Dmitri assaulted me.”
Dmitri likely wanted her for money. Like Jacobs, like Kev, like Sir James, he had a one-track mind. Like me.
“And if I frightened you now?”
Her claws extended, biting the arms of the chair. Simon watched the motion, eyes hooded.
At his back, Hannah whispered, “Leave her be.”
Miss St. Clair said, “I won’t change again. You won’t get anything from me.”
“So you can control it.”
“I don’t know.”
Perhaps not. But she had escaped Kev, escaped the Academy. She had a will to live unfettered. So does Hannah.
Maybe Hannah could have gotten free—if Simon had left her alone. Or done the right thing at the right moment.
He said softly, so softly Sir James didn’t hear, “You should try to control the transformation.”
Aubrey St. Clair nodded, a short bob of assent.
From the door, the butler stated, “Police have arrived with another individual.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Sir James said.
“Why don’t you attend to this?” Simon suggested. “Bring your great authority to bear on the police’s vulgar demands. I’ll keep Miss St. Clair company.”
Miss St. Clair had risen when the butler entered.
She said, “I’d rather go with Sir James.”
Sir James was already moving towards the door, prepared to expend his bonhomie on the visitors.
“Now, now, Miss St. Clair,” he said absently. “Don’t forget—you are still in the Academy’s care.”
He strode out. Miss St. Clair remained standing. Simon considered. She had run to the police twice now, an unexpected refuge for a woman of her class. The police were “not quite nice.”
He said, “Are the police such romantic figures? Shouldn’t a debutante set her sights higher?”
She blushed but sat slowly, straight-backed on the edge of the armchair. She’d learned politesse somewhere.
“The Academy was supposed to help me,” she said tartly.
“They are fighting a rearguard action. The government will agree to the police’s demands. If not tomorrow, soon.”
“You make use of the Academy yet mock it. Why get involved at all?”
To protect myself, he didn’t say, but the girl was no fool.
She said, “Everyone has an agenda, even the police.”
“Even the police?! How shocking—an institution with an agenda.”
“I’m not naïve. I know people want things and need things.”
“I need—a solution. I don’t much care where I find it. Or how I obtain it.”
“Because of what people say—about you killing a woman—?”
Simon stiffened. I didn’t kill her. Not really. I merely stole her life. Hannah’s essence was sweeping the room, agitated—at the accusation or the reminder? She left behind waves of chilled air. Miss St. Clair sat with hooded eyes, fangs slightly protruding.
He said shortly, "Only idiots don't covet something."
Miss St. Clair considered. “I have an agenda,” she said finally.
“Of course she does,” Hannah muttered in Simon's hair, then laughed.
“Of course you do,” Simon said, and Miss St. Clair tilted her head in acknowledgment.
The butler reappeared in the doorway. “Sir James requests your presence, milord.”
Miss St. Clair got up with Lord Simon. He settled a hand on her shoulder, fixing her in place. She glared at the white handkerchief still circling his palm.
“I suggest you keep your claws sheathed,” he said. “A few scratches don’t bother me, but I might become annoyed.”
The bubble pushed at her sides. She clenched her teeth.
“Watch her,” Lord Simon said to the butler and went out.
* * *
The house’s hall was positively crowded. Two policemen stood at the door, Dmitri between them. Sir James stood a few feet away arguing with another man who, despite his lack of inches—he was perhaps three inches shorter than Sir James—seemed to hold the floor.
“Aubrey St. Clair is well-looked after, Charles,” Sir James was saying as Simon descended the stairs. “Ah, Lord Simon, this is Charles Stowe, head of the police.”
Calm, gray eyes met Simon’s. Mr. Stowe was a young man, perhaps thirty. He seemed at first glance utterly ordinary, a compact man in a brown coat, which appeared oddly light-weight for early spring. And then some expression crossed the seemingly bland features, and Simon had a burst of clarity, the type that pulled a person back into the past.
“You were Magistrate Cummings second in command,” he said.
“He appointed you when he retired.”
“He saw that I succeeded him.”
No wonder the Academy was running scared. Here was no aristocratic appointment. Instead, a man promoted for friendship or merit with no ties to powerful figures—or the background to understand their supposed importance. Such as man would follow his own agenda with slighting objectivity.
“I am here to take Miss St. Clair home,” Mr. Stowe said.
“I’m telling you Charles, the Academy has guardianship.”
“The Academy needs to review its decision. We caught Dmitri Otio outside your lodge. He is Kev Marlowe’s nephew, Sir James.”
Everyone could follow that line of accusation: Dmitri could connect the Academy to a disreputable dealer and kidnapper.
“Why would Dmitri help the police?” Simon said with real interest.
“His encounters with Miss St. Clair have not gone smoothly.”
Simon glanced towards Dmitri, noting for the first the fresh scar that bisected his left cheek. I’m not her only victim.
Mr. Stowe said, “Dmitri will talk about your involvement with slum magicians.”
Simon shrugged. “Should I be quaking? Magic is not the police’s concern.”
“Kidnapping is. And assault. His claims will find credence with the ministers.”
“And police authority will expand—oh, well played, Mr. Stowe.”
“The ministers will hesitate to extend that authority—but only if you act promptly and send Aubrey home.”
Aubrey. Her first name. It was the faintest hint that Mr. Stowe’s agenda included something other than a change in laws. Simon studied the young man closer, saw the gray eyes flicker beyond him.
Miss St. Clair stood at the bottom of the stairs. As a watchdog, of course, the butler was useless, especially against potions and obstinate young women.
Simon said, “I can do better than send her home. I can remove the spell entirely and restore her to the girl she was—not entirely, of course. Age is age. But the spell can be removed.”
“Wait—” Sir James said.
“And with it, her appeal to people like Kev Marlowe.”
And to the Academy.
On cue, Sir James said, “The Academy would still like to question Miss St. Clair.”
“No,” Mr. Stowe said. “Aubrey will no longer be questioned.”
Aubrey—and there was now more than a hint of passion in the man’s gruff words. Desire. Miss St. Clair mattered enough for this man, this policeman, to bargain not against his integrity but against a clean and easy resolve.
Simon said, “Miss St. Clair—Aubrey—will not only lose her ability to transform, her fangs, her claws; she will forget what happened to her. She will be returned, unbesmirched, to the bosom of her family. A sweet debutante. All her pain and suffering gone.”
“Do you want this?” Mr. Stowe spoke directly to Miss St. Clair. “Assuming you can trust him, do you want to forget?”
She walked across the hall to stand in front of Simon, facing Mr. Stowe, who set a hand on her shoulder. Simon fingered the needle in his pocket while Hannah’s voice rose to him from the floor, a whisper of confusion:
“Simon. Simon. What are you planning?”
Mr. Stowe and Miss St. Clair were arguing. She might not agree. Mr. Stowe wasn’t sure she should accept Simon’s offer, and she might follow his lead. Stupid girl. This is the best solution. The best way out of rage and darkness and unhappy thoughts. Let me save you.
Miss St. Clair’s voice rode over Hannah’s: “Kev is here,” she told Mr. Stowe. “He came into the parlor.”
Her passion was not hidden or damped: rage infected every word. She hated Kev. As Hannah should hate me. At Mr. Stowe’s direction, one of the policemen ran up the stairs while the other gripped both of Dmitri’s arms, but Kev had saved himself and disappeared. Mr. Stowe turned on Simon.
“You keep company with a man like that and she’s supposed to trust you?”
“The removal potion is entirely safe.”
Mr. Stowe glanced at Sir James. “Do you know about what he is suggesting?”
“Lord Simon has developed many potions without Academy sanction.”
“I have not given the Academy any of my latest formulas. Hence, my banishment. Not,” Simon added to Miss St. Clair, “because they objected to my methods.”
“No,” she said. “They are liars and degenerates. Like you. Why would you cure me?”
“Perhaps because I find permanency—even the possibility of permanency—more interesting than the woman.”
“I think it would be a good thing to be found uninteresting by you, Lord Simon.”
“She has claws,” Simon said conversationally to Mr. Stowe, who nodded distantly, brows drawn. Something other than claws troubled the man. Simon continued: “Miss St. Clair, this is not a complicated choice. You were unfairly bespelled. Drink my potion and your policeman will take you home.”
Sir James broke in officiously, “A representative from the Academy will return Miss St. Clair to her family.”
Miss St. Clair gazed up at Mr. Stowe.
“What do you think?” she said.
He didn’t immediately respond, and Simon frowned. Why was the man stalling?
Do you want to forget? Mr. Stowe had asked Miss St. Clair. He wasn’t referring to her kidnapping or reversion or even Kev’s experiments. Do you want to forget me? Experience brought with it contact: new people, new ideas. Miss St. Clair had met the police since her bespellment. How long had she and Mr. Stowe known each other? A few days? Hours?
I would let Hannah forget me in an instant if it meant she could get back her life.
Simon slid the needle from his pocket, unstoppering one end with his thumb. He thrust it into the girl’s neck, and the potion ran out into her vein, drops falling to her skin. She slumped as Mr. Stowe, shouting at Simon, caught her, cradled her against his shoulder.
“A nice long sleep. And then normality,” Simon said and his eyes met Mr. Stowe’s.
“She’ll have the life she was supposed to have,” he said gently.
“I know,” Mr. Stowe said.
Even this upright man agrees with me.
Simon ignored Hannah’s murmur: No one has the life they were supposed to.