Simon asked Max, “Has Miss St. Clair remembered her imprisonment?”
“Kev thinks she’s reverting. I think she’d go to the Academy if that happened, but he thinks she wouldn’t trust them.”
“Does he think she would trust him?”
Max swallowed and stared into his satchel.
“He thinks he has rights to her," he almost whispered.
How like Kev—who presumed expertise he didn’t have and boasted of knowledge he’d had to steal.
“Is he stalking her?”
Max shuffled and shrugged, Yes.
Simon should inform the police, Mr. Stowe specifically. Kev would be caught, imprisoned, or deported like his nephew. Except without Kev’s spying and Max’s reports, Simon would not know
how Aubrey St. Clair fared, whether his removal potion had sent her back to her original life’s path or whether it had faded over the last five months.
Simon certainly shouldn’t let Kev abscond with the girl, not again.
“Tell Kev that I would like to see her.”
Max’s hands shook. “Kidnap her? You don’t mean—I won’t—”
“No, Max," Simon put his hand on Max’s arm. “No. There’s a sycophantic politico in the Academy—a Mr. Jacobs—he’ll help Kev.” Simon chuckled. “He’ll think I intend to give him my formulas—simply because I suggested his name.”
There is nothing easier to manipulate than a man with ambitions.
“We shouldn’t interfere,” Hannah said uneasily after Max had shuffled away. “We should leave the girl be.”
“If I managed to despelled her—if the removal worked—”
“There’s no guarantee that the same potion would work on me.”
“There’s never been a guarantee. No potion has ever been enough. We should still try.”
“And I forget the past—I don’t know how many years—?”
“Forty-seven,” Simon said on a dry mouth, and Hannah gasped.
The passage of time always surprised her. Strange to think that he wanted to return to her the thing that was pushing him inexorably towards his own death: mortality, the ability to live each day fully out there in the world.
“I’ll—I’ll stay—” Hannah said. “Once you bring me back—I'll stay with you.”
Simon laughed, a real laugh from that place whence came his compassion for Max.
“You’ll run, Hannah,” he said. “You’ll run and run and run.” Into the fields and beyond.
* * *
A week later, Kev and Jacobs brought Aubrey St. Clair to the house. After admitting them, the butler fetched Simon from the solarium. Simon could see them blurrily from the balustrade (his eyesight wasn’t what it had been), enough to make out Kev’s avid hunch and Jacobs’ blond hair. Between them stood a young woman in a silver gown, her head covered by a sack, her hands bound before her.
Descending the stairs in stately measure (to disguise his slowness), Simon said, “Why a sack? Do you think she doesn’t know where she is?”
“Lord Simon?” Miss St. Clair said, twisting in Jacobs' hold.
“When she clearly does.”
Scowling, Jacobs pulled the sack off her head. She looked about her immediately, eyes narrowing on Lord Simon.
“And bound?” he said. “Although—have your claws returned, Miss St. Clair?”
“Yes,” said Kev eagerly. “The spell was too permanent for removal.” He reached out with claw-like hands. “Show me!”
Miss St. Clair retreated.
“No,” she said in noninflected disgust.
Lord Simon laughed.
“She’s grandstanding,” Jacobs said in a bored voice.
She wasn’t. Simon could smell her magic from his place near the stairs. She hummed with it—Aubrey St. Clair was as far from ordinary as Hannah had become. Removal hadn’t worked.
He said to Jacobs, “Didn’t you catch the glint of fangs?”
“Let me see,” Kev cried, coming around Miss St. Clair on her left.
She moved forward, nearer to Simon. Kev shuffled behind her, and Simon glared at him with as much hauteur as he could manage (he was Lord Simon after all). Kev stopped, twitching, eyes glazed as he stared covetously at the young woman. Hannah swept throughout the hall, agitated.
Don’t worry, love. I won’t let the evil man take the girl.
Simon lowered his gaze to the figure before him.. Transformation pervaded the air around her, mixed with that scent that could only be her own. Simon recognized only a faint hint of his original formula. Years ago, Simon transformed a woman into a cat at a ball. Should Aubrey transform again, it would be into something far more damaging.
They call me a potion master? I’m a novice.
He said quietly, “I care nothing for transformation. And nothing, you will be happy to hear, for you. I need to break a spell. You were the best specimen to test whether that was achievable.”
“Spells aren’t usually permanent.”
“No. But I have a poor track record in that regard. The philter that transformed you—its base was mine. And you are not the first woman that I’ve harmed in this way--a spell without end.”
“Is she dead?”
“And not. She haunts me, haunts this house. I hope to restore her.”
“You couldn’t restore me to what I was before.”
Age was age. Life didn’t work backward. Yet Miss St. Clair was whole, stable. Something had been gained.
She said, her tone irritated (he was reminded of Hannah's strident practicality), “I might have come here—if you’d asked. I want to understand what happened to me.”
What had happened was that she was stronger now, less shadowed. But how could her strength free Hannah?
Simon said, "I doubt your defenders and supporters would have countenanced a visit to my parlor.”
“You could have called on me.”
“I prefer not to leave my house.”
He undid the last knot, and the rope around her hands dropped to the floor. Simon took her shoulders and looked down into her face.
“Are you happy?” he said.
“What would make you happy?”
“To be nobody, I suppose. Or somebody to a few people.”
“Like your surprisingly sanguine policeman. You found him again?”
Aubrey tilted her head, said nothing.
Simon continued, “An upright man of sterling character, yet he must have his fetishes. Claws down the back, fangs in the lip?”
Aubrey blushed, and Simon said gruffly, “Still innocent.”
Like Hannah—despite the Suvaginney blood, despite Simon’s constant presence, Hannah was cleanhanded. She deserved restoration, a new beginning.
To his consternation, Aubrey St. Clair’s eyes dropped as her shoulders stiffened.
“Am I?” she said. “Was I? I’m not what I was before.”
No. Simon felt his own withdrawal, and Miss St. Clair lifted her eyes to his face.
“She’ll be changed,” she said, “if you ever remove the spell that traps her. Consequences don’t vanish—even in magic. Things remain.”
"I don’t want to be used again. Not for anyone’s sake.”
They couldn’t use her if they tried. She would transform into something that sent Jacobs into a dither. At least I did that for her—she can protect herself.
Kev still fidgeted a few feet away. Rocking from side to side, his eyes never left Miss St. Clair. He was—obsessed, consumed.
Have I ever looked like this? Does my search for a despelling mirror Kev’s search for glory? Surely, my desires for Hannah have been . . . gallant, responsible even.
As long as Simon ignored all the other things he had done during his search.
I have never harmed Hannah.
Or had he? Had all his experiments, his trials and errors undermined her ability to free herself? Miss St. Clair had found a kind of solution. Suppose—suppose—
Suppose I never did anything at all? Would Hannah have crawled her way out of captivity?
Regrets, continual examinations of the past, were all pointless. Simon had to accept reality: the removal hadn't worked; his remaining recourse was to protect the house. Wrong or right, it was the only way left for Simon to help Hannah.
Right now, he could help Aubrey St. Clair. He bent his head to her ear and spoke in an undertone:
“Kev would like to examine you."
She pivoted, facing fretful Kev and over his shoulder, elaborately bored Jacobs.
She said to Kev, “You experimented on me."
“I did. Come with me. He said I might have you when he was done. I have more discoveries to make—”
Simon had never told Kev anything—these men and their assumptions—and he chuckled.
“I said you could try to take her, Kev,” he said. “She has a tendency to slip your bonds. I would think twice about belling this cat.”
“I collared her once.” Kev beckoned with shaking fingers. “Come, Kitty.”
Lord Simon bent his head again.
“Not all consequences are negative,” he whispered. “What will you dare do to be free?”
Miss St. Clair raised her hands; her claws slipped free, and Kev blanched. Simon backed away which roused Jacobs from his jaded-man pose.
“Hey!” he called and strode across the corner of the hall to cut off Simon’s retreat. “What about the formulas?”
Simon didn’t stop. Hannah was a whirl of energy at his back, pushing against Jacobs, corralling Kev into one spot. He heard Kev’s whine as he opened the door to the servant’s staircase.
“I have the right to answers. I was the one who saw your potential. I should have broken you. My kitty—”
A hiss. A roar. Jacobs yelped with alarm as Simon closed the door on Kev’s screams.