“Why save the house? Why not let it go—torn down by modernizers?”
“What would happen to you?”
“Perhaps I will die. You tell me I’ve lived nearly fifty years—”
“Not lived.” Simon slowed on the steps, hand on the rail, his other hand holding that day’s dinner.
A cook left food at the front door—usually the butler brought it up, but that man—thing—was losing cohesion. Eventually, it would no longer be able to walk much less carry lightweight objects.
“You might go on,” Simon told Hannah, breathing shallowly (in out in out). “You might fade yet last.”
“Yes.” The faintest echo but he heard her fear that she would dissipate into non-corporeality without even the house to sustain the fiction of life. Whatever the hawkers of the “noble spirit” believed, the body, the physical made something out of mere vagueness.
He must save the house.
* * *
The government inspector—Richard St. Clair—returned several times to take measurements and note conditions. Simon instructed the butler to always admit him, to let St. Clair explore every closet, every hallway, even the solarium. What did bags of herbs and bottles of potions matter now?
St. Clair was a typical government man, despite his unusual sister. He almost always visited early before nine while Simon was still in bed. Hannah liked to watch him examining newel posts, tapping wall panels, checking corners for mold.
“He isn’t impressed,” she reported to Simon. “I don’t think he’ll recommend a historical designation.”
“I still have some clout—”
Simon’s clout was rapidly fading, especially now that the Academy had reshuffled its leadership. After Miss St. Clair’s unprecedented transformation followed by her acid refusal to be the Academy’s token achievement, Stevenson and his youthful supporters had wrested control from the old guard. Sir James now lurked in an advisory capacity while Jacobs had taken a clerkship with a diplomatic mission to Tagart—as far away from magic as possible.
As for Kev—he had survived his mauling, rising from his supposed death bed in the city hospital and lurching into Kingston’s back alleys, where he likely perished from his wounds.
Hannah said, “Mr. St. Clair would be right to let the house die.”
“I won’t allow it.”
She didn’t answer. Simon knew why. Hannah wanted rightness to prevail: a corrupt and haunted house ought to die.And yet she feared dismantlement, her soul unraveled. She feared death—hers as well as Simon’s. She moved about the house the way she had over forty years earlier, agitating the walls. Boards creaked, panels warped, doorjambs splintered.
Not the best way to impress St. Clair of the house’s value.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Sir James told him grumpily. “Sir Belemont—Mr. Belemont; he’s a man of the people now—” Sir James snorted “—cares nothing for preserving the aristocratic heritage—our philosophies, our arts. Does he think these upstarts, these bourgeois ministers can protect Roesia’s rich cultural heritage—?”
Sir James burbled on, full of what might-have-been.
“Yes. Yes,” he said on the way out. “I’ll mention your house to Lord Rustilion—Richard St. Clair’s boss, you know.”
Only he wouldn’t. For all Sir James’ talk of lost privileges, he wanted to wiggle a place for himself fin the current regime. After all, he had not joined the exiled queen, her king dead, in Ennance.
“Inform me the next time Mr. St. Clair visits,” Simon told the butler.
* * *
Mr. St. Clair visited that night--not about the house. He rushed into the parlor where Simon slouched in the armchair nearest the hearth. (These days Simon was never truly warm.) Simon stared up at the young man, noting quick breaths, flushed cheeks, thrusting head, hunched shoulders, clenched hands— Young people are so dramatic.
St. Clair said, “I know you still create potions.”
Not what Simon expected. He shifted, considering, and the man’s smell, the smell of a spell, wafted towards him. Another St. Clair in trouble. Simon nearly laughed. Finally, something for me to work with.
He said, “These days I focus on removal. Surely your sister told you.”
“Removals are still potions.”
“Yes—but you stink of a love spell.” Simon pushed to his feet, hands linked behind him. “Those formulas are worlds apart from the ones I currently explore.”
“How does it work? The love potion?”
“You must know by now. Did the lady enjoy your advances?”
St. Clair flinched, and Simon’s amusement grew.
“Not a lady’s man?” he said.
St. Clair ignored the gibe.
“Will it happen again?”
Simon sank back into his armchair where he rearranged the panels of his red brocade robe. “It” likely meant a kiss, possibly more. Was the man afraid of “it” happening again or afraid of wanting “it” to happen again?
“No,” Simon said mildly. “Despite the poets’ claims, such spells burn off quickly.”
“Did you—infect me?”
“When do you suppose I infected you?”
“I was here this morning, inspecting your supposed shrine—the damp air—”
Simon almost laughed again and said what he thought:
“If I were an Academy peon, it might trouble me that a civil servant understood potion potentiality better than his so-called intellectual superiors. No. If I mixed potions into the air, I would be in a singular state.”
St. Clair rubbed his brow. Simon told himself to wait—there is opportunity here.
“When?” St. Clair said. “When was I given it?”
“Dosage and affect vary. Twelve hours. Twenty-four. It depends on the victim.”
“Not especially reliable. No wonder the government balks at giving grants to magicians.”
“The dealer would have lied to the purchaser about its efficacy and timeliness. They always do.”
“Who was the purchaser?”
Here was Simon’s leverage. He pressed his hands against his thighs, willing them not to shake.
“You know how much I value my home. Surely you’ve come to appreciate its, ah, history.”
St. Clair stilled, eyes hooded.
“I can’t make a recommendation until after the final assessment.”
“The most helpful recommendation would naturally earn my gratitude.”
“It will be the right recommendation,” St. Clair said tightly.
Like sister, like brother.
“Yes.” Simon raised his eyes to Richard’s face. “I thought you might say that. You are that kind of man.”
St. Clair turned away, half-stumbling. So much angst over such a minor spell. Had the man embarrassed himself with excessive poetry? Kissed Mr. Belemont’s sister?
No. This degree of unsettlement was personal.
“You appear righteously appalled by your lapse,” Simon called across the room. “Did the recipient of your passion appreciate being the object of so much condemnation?”
St. Clair’s right cheek and ear reddened, and Simon laughed huskily. Hannah laughed too as Richard St. Clair plunged out the door.
“Poor man. Do you think he loves the recipient in truth? Simon? Where are you going?”
* * *
Simon exited the parlor, entering his bedroom through the small door near the fireplace. He moved slowly about the room, shedding his robe, locating a heavy sweater and long winter’s coat.
Mr. St. Clair had been bespelled—perhaps by the recipient in question; more likely by a fellow government flunky. Didn’t all these government types play games, pursuing advancement at each other’s expense?
Simon would rather work on the man directly than expose him to others. That meant learning how St. Clair had been bespelled in the first place.
“I’m going to see Max,” he said, descending the stairs.
“Simon—” Hannah circled him, a caress to his cheek, a stroke across his neck. “It’s freezing outside—”
“I’ll get a hack.”
“It’s late. Simon—” You’re not as young, as tough, as quick as you used to be. You are placing yourself in danger.
Simon heard her objections, understood them. He had to go—he had no real servant to send.
He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, hand clutching the newel post. He eyed the butler, still seemingly concrete if vague.
“Look at me,” Simon barked, and the thing settled, solidified. “You will keep out any visitors. You understand?”
“I won’t be long,” he told Hannah and went out into the bitter cold night air.
He had to walk at least a mile to catch a hack. He hadn’t been entirely truthful with Hannah: he’d known no hack would be readily available. These days Palisades’ south side was mostly deserted—not even the poor were interested, the area being too far from Kingston’s center. Moribund. Unwanted. The government would raze the wooden houses, replace them with brick and stone offices and workshops. Simon didn’t blame the new bourgeois ministers. He just had to stop them.
He reached the highway that led into Shops. He halted, hunching in the long coat. A hack would come by eventually. But the chill was worse than the labored breathing. He started up again one step after another, arms folded across his chest.
He caught a hack a half mile later, gave Max’s address, and sat back, eyes closing. He was half-asleep when the vehicle stopped, and the hackney driver called down, “Can’t go any further, Sir.”
Simon clambered stiffly down and handed out payment and a half.
“I’ll return in an hour. I’ll pay you the same again if you wait.”
Max occupied the top floor of a narrow wooden building in Trades. The area was far safer than it had been in Simon’s youth, almost respectable even if hack drivers refused to transverse the narrow, dirt roads.
The shop was dark. Simon had concocted warding potions for Max years earlier. Their smell emanated from the door jamb at the top of the stairs up which Simon hauled himself. They would keep out thieves. They couldn’t keep out worse, but even Kev knew better than to harass Max, who was under Simon’s protection. For now.
Simon entered the warehouse-like room, coughing against the mingling aromas. Even bagged and bottled, the herbs suffocated. Years of exposure had made Simon more sensitive, not less.
“Max,” he called, cleared his throat and attempted a more stentorian shout: “Max!”
Locks clicked on the other side of a far door. Max peered out and then came out , hands rubbing through his greasy hair.
“Lord Simon? What—why—?”
“Have you—?” Simon began and found abruptly that he couldn’t breathe.
He clenched one hand around the door jamb, nails scrapping wood, the other pressed to his chest. He heard scrambling, felt a tentative hand on his shoulder. Max pushed him into a chair. Simon steadied himself, elbows on knees.
“Thank you,” he managed before focusing on instructing his heart to stop racing, his head to stop spinning.
His body was less obedient than the most obstinate of potions, but eventually, the world no longer rocked. He could raise his head and eye Max’s worried face.
“No fear, Max. I’m not going to die on your property.”
“I could fetch someone—”
“No.” Simon nabbed Max’s sleeve. “I need you to ask questions, not fetch a doctor.”
“Someone—government someone probably—recently bought a love potion. Someone known to Richard St. Clair.”
“That family! Perhaps he is the purchaser.”
“The St. Clairs are martyrs, not experimenters. I need to know who bought it, so I need to know who sold it. Did you?”
“No,” Max said, bewildered truth suffusing his voice.
Simon believed him. Government types rarely ventured so far into Trades’ pits. They preferred to buy their relatively innocuous potions at clean and pretty local shops. These were, after all, the same men who had altered the Academy’s charter to focus on science, not magic. More honest types—like St. Clair—would avoid all potions. Other bureaucrats had a greater sense of self-preservation. They would utilize anything that gave them a leg up, including a love potion.
“I need that information, Max. If Richard St. Clair goes hunting—no one must tell him. He has to come back to me.”
“Of course! We sellers know who the true master is,” Max said and again, Simon believed him.
I still have some sway, some authority amongst the potion-makers and sellers. Of course, Richard St. Clair didn’t have enough pull in any direction to threaten that authority. Not tonight, at least. And tonight might be all Simon had.
Max escorted Simon back to the market—the hack was waiting, amazingly.
“Slow night,” the driver explained with a shrug, yet Simon thought he saw concern in the driver’s face as Max half-lifted Simon inside.
He didn’t know whether to be touched or exasperated. Old man. I’m officially an old man.
Max headed off to locate sellers. Simon went home. The butler was gone from the front door. Simon sat on the bottom step of the inside staircase and set his head against the railings, their worn carvings imprinting his cheek.
“Simon!” Hannah rushed towards him along the banister, her presence a ripple against Simon's cheek.
He had to wake up and tell her he'd spoken to Max, Max would come through, Max would make sure Simon had the necessary information. The house will be saved. He would open his mouth soon and explain—in a moment. In the next moment.
“Simon.” Hannah's voice was fading.
Was he too late? Was the threat to the house already dismantling Hannah?
I'm sorry. I'm so tired. I'm sorry.
He felt the stairs buckled and press upwards. His body lurched, his back scraping against the wood slats. He thought he heard Hannah sob. He needed to reassure her. All will be well. All must be well.
A whirl of movement: Simon felt himself lifted, felt pressure like hands against his back. He wanted to struggled, to say, “No, Hannah.” But he couldn't speak and without effort or resistance, he drifted into sleep.