Chapter 1: Flashing Tricks
"Somethin's bound to go wrong. It always does, when you're left to 'andle anythin' your own self."
I turned to Hunch, silk scarf in hand, attempting a newly-invented expression of bemusement. Perhaps I should have stuck with my customary feigning of innocence, but my manservant is convinced that particular look means I am about to do something highly dangerous. The fact that he is generally right is neither here nor there. "What is it you imagine will occur, Hunch? A repeat of the incident with the chickens?"
"I was thinkin' somethin' more along the lines of one of your toff friends turnin' up an’ recognizin' you. Not to mention the Runners."
I experimentally passed the scarf from hand to hand, flexing my fingers. "Nonsense. The Runners have far more to worry about in Covent Garden than errant magicians hopelessly trying to persuade skeptical passersby that they are performing real magic, and their assistants that they can stay out of trouble for more than five seconds."
"I ain't your assistant," Hunch grumbled. "You ain't 'ad a proper 'un since that theivin' Frog."
"I haven't had one at all since then," I pointed out. "Where did I leave the interlocking rings?"
"In your pocket, most likely. An’ it ain't a matter of your needin' an assistant none. You just get to feelin' sorry for the strays."
"You never know who might be useful. If Shoreham's organization chose people based on looks rather than skill, I'd still be acting the respectable gentleman and being bored out of my mind. And where would the British intelligence service have been then?"
"Responsible for the deaths of a few less chickens, the way I see it," Hunch said unrepentantly.
"You assume everything that happens in my immediate vicinity is my fault. Isn't it time for you to go set up the stage?"
"I'll get on it." Hunch stopped chewing on his mustache for a moment, which was his version of a fond smile. "Reckon you could do this show in your sleep now. You were plenty nervous the first time."
"Why, Hunch, I'm wounded. I can't imagine why you would interpret a sleepless night and a green pallor as signs of nerves."
"Oh, it weren't that gave it away."
"For the first time since I'd met you, you weren't convinced you'd gone an' done exactly the right thing." Then Hunch was gone, lanterns and matches in hand.
I chuckled and fished in my coat pocket. Yes, the interlocking rings were there. Probably I had put them there, but, as Hunch knew well, that didn't really mean much in terms of my locating anything later.
My manservant might not realize it, but I hadn't been joking when I'd said I was bored. Even if I hadn't been accused of the theft of the Saltash set, I might have taken Edward up on his request to spy in France. The man himself had seemed to think running around a foreign country bristling with Napoleon's own special brand of paranoia would be some kind of onerous task to be endured. I personally had found it delightfully entertaining. Yes, there had been a rather nasty detection spell that had kept me up four nights trying to create a simulacrum good enough to fool it, and we'd gotten into a spot of trouble when an amateur wizard fleeing oncoming troops had managed to animate an abandoned pistol, but really, I didn't know what cause Hunch had to be complaining. His hair had only caught on fire twice.
Hunch climbed back into the wagon. "It's time, Master Richard. You got a good crowd out there, but if you don't 'urry up they'll lose interest real fast."
"Of course." I twisted my hand, activating the prearranged spell infused in the floor of the stage, which created the illusion of smoke and flame so I could enter unnoticed. It was one of the only pieces of real magic I used in this show, and I'd chosen to infuse it so no one would notice any spell-casting. I wasn't really worried about any adepts coming here, unless they were some of Shoreham's people, but Hunch bothered me about it until I agreed.
I slid onstage in the chaos. "Come one, come all! Prepare to be amazed and astonished by the one, the only – Mairelon the Magician!" The smoke cleared and I took a moment to observe my audience. I could see a haddock-seller craning her neck from the stall at my left, several workmen standing around with mugs of ale, a flower-girl in a bonnet, a chestnut seller flaunting his wares, and a skinny boy in a tattered coat tucked up against the tailor's stall at my right. The owner of said stall was paying no attention, apparently not the curious type. Beyond that I saw only a vague sea of faces.
"I am Mairelon the Magician!" I pronounced with a flourish. "Lend me your attention and I will show you wonders. The knowledge of the East and West is mine, and the secrets of the mysterious cults of Africa and India! Behold!" It occurred vaguely to me, as I reached in my pocket for the handkerchief with which I would begin this show, that it was doubtful that the Africans and Indians were interested in sharing their secrets with us. Being colonized had that effect on people.
"A perfectly ordinary handkerchief – as ordinary, that is, as the finest silk may be. Stuff of such worth should be kept close." A few in the crowd chuckled. Excellent, an audience with a sense of humor. One more thing the lower class had in abundance but that participants in the Season mysteriously lacked.
Overall, it went quite well, even the trick with the egg and the man's hat, which had always been a bit of a stumbling block for me. My first show, I'd been so nervous I hadn't managed the sleight of hand properly, and had been left holding a formerly fine hat filled with sticky bits of eggshell. Now that was one of the very few times I had regretted having Hunch around. He had never let me forget it.
Back in the wagon afterwards, I grinned at Hunch. "And another show gone, with no one dead or dying or horribly embarrassed. There was no need to worry."
"Hm. Still the afternoon show to go."
I shook my head and began removing my false moustache, which itched a great deal. Sometimes I think Hunch just hasn't any faith in my ability to stay out of trouble. After all, no sane person would.
As I prepared for the evening show, I made up my mind to see if there was word from Shoreham tomorrow. He was usually fairly regular with his correspondence, and there was no call to accuse me (as Hunch had a few times) with sending him simply so I could have an excuse to go looking for him.
Shoreham would want to take the bowl, now that he'd gotten my letter saying I'd finally managed to buy the thing from that stubborn Baron (and for a man to be called stubborn by me, he really must be something special). He'd say, probably correctly, that it was far too dangerous for me to carry the bowl around, since possessing it and the other pieces of the set was the crime I'd been accused of in the first place. But it would make the platter and spheres that much more difficult to find, and I was determined to recover those myself. I was fairly sure that only under those circumstances would my family believe that I was not the original thief.
And therein lay the root of the problem, of course. My family, especially my brother. It had hurt more than I had thought possible when I realized he believed all the evidence against me. I had always known that my (admittedly) eccentric tendencies rather prejudiced Society against me, and would make them inclined to believe the worst. But I'd assumed that that though most people would cast me off without a thought, my family and friends would give me the benefit of the doubt. I wasn't above breaking the law when King and Country called for it, but I would never betray the Royal College that way. But apparently Andrew, at least, would rather put his trust in the apparent solidarity of the evidence than in the brother he'd known all his life. Shoreham, Hunch, and Renee D'Auber were the only people I knew from my old life who believed my innocence. And the break with my family when I was arrested had made me more determined than ever to return the set and catch the true thieves, though Shoreham kept suggesting that I let him clear my name. There were days, though, when I wasn't sure it wasn't more than that. The world I was a part of now, the world of magical espionage, had changed me enough that there were times I wondered if I could ever go back to being Richard Merrill.
Well, I had to find the platter and other spheres before I could worry about that. Therefore, the show. Should I begin with the introduction I had used this morning or change it? I had always felt a little silly talking about the mysterious cults of Africa and India, knowing that since many of the African languages were solely oral and contained sounds not used in the Roman alphabet, recording the spells in those languages would be notoriously difficult. Unfortunately, 'knowledge of the mysterious cults of ancient Greece and Rome' was out. Ancient magical cults from those cultures tended to meet in bathhouses and do, well, Greek things. I would probably burst out laughing, and Hunch would be scandalized.
I checked the spell I'd placed on the chest that held the bowl, just to be safe. I was feeling protective of it after the endless hours spent haggling. Not to mention that plenty of people would be glad to pull it out from under my nose, even if they didn't know about its magical properties. The spell would need renewing soon; I made a mental note to do just that when I had a free moment. For now, Hunch had finished setting up, and I had a performance to do.
My series of tricks that afternoon were as uneventful as those of the morning, unless you count nearly dropping the queen during one of my last card tricks, but every show has its little quirks. Hunch came out with the tambourine, and I grinned at the crowd's awe. Of course, anyone who knew anything about true magic would be less than impressed by the glamour-like tricks I was doing here. But to these people, I had learned, it mattered little enough if I was a real magician or not. My skills in their hands would have spelled an opportunity to get out of poverty, and that was more magical than any flash of light or puff of smoke. I stored that in my mind to think about later, and went into my last card trick.
Suddenly, magic flared in my awareness, behind me in the wagon. I could sense my protective spell on the bowl going off, and whirled around towards the curtain. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone would be foolish enough – or determined enough – to take advantage of the brief time when Hunch and I were both out of the wagon. Not even bothering to salute the crowd, I ducked around the curtain, a spell on my lips. The ward on the bowl should have knocked out whoever had managed to break into my chest, but it never hurt to be prepared. No one was going to get their hands on that bowl. Returning it meant too much. Besides, if Hunch ever found out I'd gone in without taking extra precautions, I would never hear the end of it.
As it turned out, my spell was completely unnecessary. The enchantment on the chest had done its work, and had deposited unconscious on the floor –
I blinked. It was the boy in the tattered jacket I'd seen earlier. Now, that was interesting. Not that I wasn't sanguine about the reality of thieves breaking into my wagon, but I was positive that an ordinary housebreaker would not be able to get into my chest. The lock had held its own against skilled lock-pickers many a time.
Well, first things first. I pulled a few loops of cord out of my pocket and began securing the lad's wrists and ankles as Hunch threw open the door and hurried in. "Master Richard! You ain't – who's that?"
"Our unexpected houseguest. He managed to break into my chest and set off the trap spell I put on the Saltash Bowl."
"He take anything?"
"Search the cupboards and find out. I'll do the chest."
"I thought you said no one could get into it."
Taking inventory of the contents of my chest, I grimaced. "So I believed. If he was sent to search for the bowl specifically, he might have been given something to make access easier. Well, at least it appears nothing is missing here."
"Don't look like 'e took nothin' from them cupboards neither. Not that there's anythin' in there worth the stealin'.
"Point taken. The question is, of course, if we've got ourselves an opportunistic attempted thief, or someone targeting us specifically."
Hunch chewed the end of his mustache. "Pro'bly some cull as reckoned there was coin to be found in 'ere, what with you bein' dressed like a toff an’ all. I s'pose we can't 'ardly call the Runners."
"Quite out of the question. And even were it not, I consider that course of action a last resort. Not to insult His Majesty's justice, but the Runners always insist upon focusing on the most mundane aspects of a person, such as if they have committed a crime or not."
"Law bein' mundane is a sensible person's last worry," Hunch muttered.
Why Hunch still believes I am in any way susceptible to what is known as 'common sense' is a mystery I shall never solve.
Chapter 2: Nothing Dreadful
The boy’s eyes flickered briefly behind closed lids and his muscles tightened, but he lay still. So he’d decided to fake unconsciousness and see what he could hear. Well, I was no fool to be so taken in, and I was too curious to converse with our uninvited guest to wait until moss started growing on all three of us.
Hunch frowned. “’Adn’t ‘e oughter be waking?” The man was concerned, bless his heart. Though he’d puff up like an indignant rooster if let him know I noticed.
“He is awake. He’s just pretending. Come on, child, you might as well admit it. You’ll have to open your eyes sooner or later.” And now, I thought, we will see just how stubborn I have to be to get your story from you.
The lad sighed and obeyed, giving the inside of the wagon a quick glance, presumably to see if he had any chance of escaping. Neither Hunch nor I was planning to take our eyes off him any time soon, and the slight drop of his shoulders showed he knew there was no chance of a getaway. “Quite so,” I agreed cheerfully, just to let him know I wasn’t entirely stupid. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Hunch eying me nervously. Apparently he did not trust me to handle our captive properly.
“Proper knowin’ one, ain’t you?” It was a perfectly plausible thing to say, of course, but I’d seen an odd expression on his face before he spoke, as if he were pulling on a mask. It was brief, and I’d almost missed it, but the hint made me more curious yet, a fact I didn’t mind revealing.
“As far as you are concerned, not nearly so knowing as I would like to be.”
“You going to call the nabbing culls?”
I wouldn’t and couldn’t, but he didn’t need to know that. I’d learned something about reading people and extracting information from them during my years in France. “That depends on how much you are willing to tell me.”
“I got no reason to keep quiet,” the boy said with apparent disgust. So he didn’t hold himself to blame for this mishap, which meant someone had probably hired him. That wasn’t so good. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to be particularly enamored with his employer.
“Then perhaps you would explain just what you were doing in my wagon.”
“Lookin’ about,” the boy replied with alacrity. That was a terrible excuse and he probably knew it. I’d learned the hard way that if someone who’s used to lying gives you a blatantly tall tale, it is most likely the truth. During my first year of working for Shoreham, I’d been informed by a fellow spy that I shouldn’t hide from a group of French soldiers who were approaching our current hideout because they were actually friends in disguise who’d planned a surprise birthday celebration for me. Not believing him, I put two bullets in my own birthday cake (we ate it anyway).
Apparently Hunch did not remember this particular incident. “Stealing, more likely.”
“Quiet, Hunch.” I didn’t want our guest becoming indignant and refusing to tell us any more. “Just looking?”
“That’s right. Just lookin’ about.” I caught a glimpse of self-chastisement on his face – a look I knew well, as it had appeared many times on my own face during my early days with Hunch. Eventually I’d given up getting annoyed over revealing too much. But what was the secret this lad wanted to hide?
“That accounts for the cupboards, I think…” But there still was the question of how he’d gotten into my chest. “How did you –”
“You don’t never believe ‘im, do you?” my manservant broke in.
“Hunch! Refrain from interrupting, if you please.”
“And let you get yourself in a mort o’ trouble from believing things you ‘adn’t ought to? I won’t never!”
One of the few things Hunch is wrong about on a regular basis is how easily taken in I am. “Then you can go outside until I’m done.”
“It’s that or be silent.” I was determined to do this my way. If this lad didn’t know already we had secrets, I would not let Hunch’s excessive caution give the game away.
“Aye, then, I’ll ‘old my peace.”
“Good.” I turned back to the lad, realizing belatedly that we had, through our exchange, given him as much information about our relationship as we’d denied him about our need for secrecy. “As I was saying, I think you’ve explained the cupboards. The chest is another matter. How did you open it?”
“Picked the lock.”
That a street boy should be able to casually stroll into my wagon and pick a magical lock, designed by one of the best locksmiths in England, seemed about as likely to me as His Majesty outlawing candy shops. “I find that a little difficult to believe. It’s not a simple mechanism.”
“Didn’t have to be,” came the obviously miffed reply. Something about the tilt of the head and the tone of the voice seemed…off, to me. I had felt the same way when I’d been pulled from a frog-infested swamp by a gruff soldier later kicked out of the army for disguising herself as her brother. Not to mention the time I’d first met Renee D’Auber, dressed as a man in a select gathering at the house of a man who didn’t approve of female practitioners of the Art. So that’s your secret, my lad. You’re a girl.
“Well, we’ll leave that for the moment. Just why were you, er, looking about in my wagon?”
“A gentry cove at the Dog and Bull said he’d pay five pounds to know what you had in here. Said he had a bet on it.”
“Did he.” I glanced at Hunch. If whoever this ‘gentry cove’ was had wanted to seek out the Saltash Bowl, then why not simply call Bow Street? Perhaps this was simply the work of a gambling-happy gentleman with a poor sense of dramatic timing.
“He thought he’d gammoned me proper. But if it was just a bet, why’d he let me talk him up to five pounds?” The lad – girl – interrupted my thoughts, obviously relishing the betrayal of her employer. So she, at least, had no personal stake in his game; she was just in it for the money. “And why was he so nattered over that wicher-bubber?”
“Wicher-bubber?” I tried to recall what that meant in street cant. “You mean a silver bowl?”
“That’s what I said. The toff wanted me to look for it.”
“Did he ask you to steal it?” If he hadn’t, that was bad. It could easily mean that whoever this was wanted to incriminate Hunch and I by catching us with the Saltash Bowl, instead of throwing suspicion on himself by producing it out of nowhere.
“No, but I ain’t saying he wouldn’t of been right pleased if I’d a nicked it for him.”
Hunch obviously could not resist the urge to be right. “There! What was I telling you? ‘E’s a thief.”
“Look, cully, if I was a sharper, would I be telling you this straight out?” the girl interrupted irritably. “All I said was, I’d keep an eye out for it, and that’s truth!”
“So all you agreed to do was come in, look around, and let him know whether you saw this bowl?”
“That’s it. There wouldn’t be no harm done, after all; just lookin’ about,” she replied, then added, “but he ought to of said somethin’ about you being a real magician with fancy locks and exploding chests.”
Oh, the upper classes. Will they never learn to treat their employees with respect? I had learned that lesson at age fourteen, when I tested a new spell on a chambermaid’s Sunday dress and suddenly found that everyone of my acquaintance knew how I liked to chew on cockroaches as a child. “What did this toff of yours look like?”
“A real swell. Top hat, and gloves better’n the ones Jamie sells, and a silk cravat. A top hat, at the Dog and Bull.” The girl rolled her eyes. Apparently the Dog and Bull was not an establishment regularly frequented by the Quality.
I should have guessed that a description of our mysterious man’s clothes would be no help. As unusual as gloves and silk cravats might be among the London slums, nearly every official member of the Royal College wore the same on a regular basis. “What color was his hair?”
“Muddy. Thin, too.”
“His hair or himself?”
“And did he give you something to make it easier for you to get in here? And into my chest?”
“No, and I wouldn’t of took it if he’d offered. I ain’t no flat.”
So now I’d found a street girl with a sense of professional integrity. Think what I would have missed if I’d stayed at home. “Then suppose you show me how you managed it.”
The girl nodded, and I went for the cords around her wrists. Hunch made a sound that sounded like a dying crow, and I tried my patented expression of bemusement on him again. Second time’s the charm, after all.
“You’re never letting ‘im go? You got no idea what ‘e’s up to!”
Ah, paranoia. It may keep one alive, it can be downright annoying. “I think the two of us can handle her.”
“Oh, you didn’t realize?” I selected the correct strand of rope and pulled, allowing the bonds to slide apart as they had so often in my performances. The girl stared for half a moment, then swiftly tugged at the rope around her ankles.
“There’s a trick to it, of course,” I said cheerfully. “I’ll show you, if you like, when you’ve finished your own demonstration.” Finding the vulnerabilities in the safeguards I’d put around the Saltash Bowl was well worth sharing a few tricks of the trade.
“Yes. When you’re finished.”
“All right, all right.” The girl reached into her pocket and pulled out a small bit of wire. It appeared ordinary enough, and I felt no need to examine it. I would notice any spell-casting.
At first, I attempted to follow the process our guest was using to pick my lock, but quickly gave up. It was obvious she was practiced in the skill and worked too efficiently for me to properly follow her twists and pulls. Instead, I observed the girl herself.
In most ways, she appeared much like the other inhabitants of the London slums I’d seen, but with an added air of suspicion, which was saying something, as to survive in that dangerous area one needed to be fairly wary to begin with. I suppose to maintain the secret of her gender she would have to be increasingly cautious. I’d also seen the look on her face when she spoke of talking her erstwhile employer up to five pounds. That was money people of my class could practically throw away, and even in the life I lived now obtaining five pounds was nearly as easy as collecting acorns, but it apparently meant a great deal to her. Perhaps we’d be in London long enough for me to teach her a few more performance skills. She could certainly use them.
“She ain’t going to get it, not with just that bit o’ wire,” Hunch declared.
“Give over,” the girl snapped, and the chest lid rose. So she was motivated by skepticism her abilities – that was good to know. And against all odds, she had actually managed to open my chest, and without magic.
“Impressive. I didn’t think anyone but old Schapp-Mussener himself could open that chest without the key.”
“It’s a knack.”
Knack my foot. “It’s a talent, and a very impressive talent, too.” Letting someone with such skills waste them in the slums would be a travesty, not when she was so obviously capable of improving her life. “I don’t suppose –”
“Master Richard!” Hunch cut in.
“You ain’t a going to do nothing dreadful now, are you?”
Compared to enchanting eggs to explode, hoping to throw them at the French, and letting my hostess try to use them in her scones? Compared to dressing up as a woman on a dare and then nearly being forced into marrying a soldier? Compared to selling Bibles door to door in order to disguise myself in a particularly pious French town? “No, no, of course not.”
“I was just going to ask our guest here – what is your name, by the way?”
“Kim. I was just going to ask Kim here if she would like to come with us when we leave London.”
Hunch bit both ends of his mustache at once, a feat I had only seen the second time his hair had been set on fire. “You ain’t never going to bring her along!”
“Why not? It might be useful to have someone along who’s familiar with…things. A lot has happened in the past four years.”
The girl – Kim – interrupted. “You want me to come with you, after I snuck in here and blew things around? You’re bosky!”
To my amusement, I saw Hunch begin to nod in agreement before realizing with whom he was siding. “You can’t do it, Master Richard! She’s a thief!”
“I ain’t!” Kim protested.
“Stop it, both of you. I don’t think Kim is a thief, though it’s plain she’s had some of the training.” Thieves instinctively snatch trifles for themselves even if they are there on a larger mission. Anyway, people like Kim mostly stole to eat. “Not that it matters.”
“It do too matter! What are you going to do with ‘er?”
Hunch did have a point. Kim didn’t seem the sort to believe anyone would help her out of the kindness of his heart; I would have to get something out of this too, or she would suspect an ulterior motive. “She could help with the act. She seems a handy sort of person.”
“Ain’t that what you said about that Frog ‘oo sherried off with ten guineas and your best coat?”
Did Hunch really have to remind me of that constantly? “Yes, well, he was a little too handy. I think Kim will do much better.”
“At what?” Hunch said suspiciously. Apparently he also was in danger of suspecting me of ulterior motives.
“She could make a very useful assistant eventually.” I mentally kicked myself for speaking as if Kim’s coming with us was a foregone conclusion. It was clear she was independent, if nothing else. “Provided, of course, that she would be willing to come along?”
“You ain’t gammoning me?”
“No.” I could have said more, but I suspected words and promises would have little effect on this wary girl. I would simply have to show her that I would do what I said.
Kim frowned, apparently mulling over the idea. Well, she was no fool, that was plain, to jump at a chance without considering the consequences – but I expected fools did not survive long in her world. If she was the kind of girl to be taken in with a smooth speech and an insubstantial offer, she probably would have ended up in the stews. I hoped she didn’t believe that was what I wanted from her.
“You ain’t unfastened me yet,” Kim said finally.
“An oversight.” I pulled at my tangle of knots and it slid apart. “Now, what do you say?”
“You’d really show me how to do that?”
If I’d had any doubts, the hope in her voice would have banished them. I had learned the ‘magic’ tricks as a disguise; I’d never realized that for some people they could be the difference between eating and starving, or a bed and the street. And Kim seemed clever. I would have been glad to help her in any case, but it was possible she could teach me a few things as well – perhaps how to pick locks, for a start.
“That and quite a bit more. How else could you be any help in the act?”
“She don’t look like she’ll be much ‘elp anyways.” Hunch was in a sulk again. “No one’s going to pay to watch a grimy little thief.”
Kim jumped on the words indignantly “Call me that once more, cully, and –”
“Enough.” Sometimes Hunch carries his protectiveness of me a little too far. “Stop provoking her, Hunch.”
“If you can’t see what’s under your nose –”
“Oh, she doesn’t look like much now, but I think you’ll be surprised at how well she cleans up,” I replied implacably.
“I ain’t said I’m coming with you yet!” interrupted the subject of our conversation.
“And you haven’t said you’re not, either.” Perhaps she needed a push. “Come, now; make your decision. I have things to do if you aren’t.”
“Huh. I ain’t wishful to get into no trouble with the nabbing culls. What’s your lay?”
Now, we’ll see just how clever you are. “I’m a traveling magician. I play the markets and fairs.”
“Give over! I told you, I ain’t no flat. Folks that can do real magic don’t waste time flashing tricks at the markets. And you ain’t got yourself no wagon done up like a gentry ken that way, neither.”
So you’re observant enough to know something is off about my story, I thought. That means I’ll have to work doubly hard to keep you from finding out why we’re here. “That’s my affair. I’ll give you my word that we’re doing nothing illegal; if you’ve other questions, you’ll have to wait for answers. After all, we don’t know you very well yet.” Hunch muttered something that, as I couldn’t hear, I chose to ignore. “Well?”
“All right, then. I’ll do it.”
“Good! We’ll see the tailor tomorrow about getting you some clothes.” If I was going to do this, I might as well do it properly. “We won’t be long in London, so I’m afraid there won’t be many of them.”
“Sounds bang-up to me.” I could tell Kim was trying to sound casual, but her face betrayed her – it was clear she’d never even thought of getting clothes from a tailor.
“She’ll run off as soon as she’s got everything she can off you.”
When Hunch is in a mood, it isn’t easy to get him out of it, but he had to realize right off that I was taking this seriously and would not change my mind. “Hunch, if you don’t stop trying to pick a quarrel with Kim, I shall be forced to leave you in London.”
“You wouldn’t never!”
“And I thought the chickens were as bad as it got,” Hunch muttered, stomping to the end of the wagon.
I shook my head. “He’ll come around, never fear. You’ve nothing to worry about.”
“Ain’t you forgetting something?”
I probably had. “What?”
“That skinny toff at the Dog and Bull, that sent me in here lookin’. What’re you going to do about him?”
Now, that was an excellent question. I would probably never find out who the man was if I didn’t do something about him, but I also had no desire to reveal my identity. And there was Kim’s trustworthiness to consider. Her story seemed believable enough, but I still only had her word for what had happened, and I wanted to see whether she would tell her employer what had really passed between us. “I think he ought to get what he’s paying for. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes, he certainly should. I think you should go back to that place you mentioned – what was the name again?”
Kim eyed me warily. “The Dog and Bull.”
“Of course. I think you should go back and collect your five pounds.” I smiled. She would probably argue – anyone with sense would – but if I only had one talent, it was getting people to agree with reckless suggestions. “What do you say?”
Chapter 3: Causing Damage
Magician Maligned Chapter 3 – Causing Damage
The moment Kim vanished from the wagon I whipped off my coat and reached to remove my shoes. “What kind o’ larks are you goin’ to be kickin’ up now?” Hunch demanded. “Ain’t you done enough damage for one day?”
“Enough damage? There is no such thing.” I hunted through the cupboards for the bundle of disreputable clothes I kept there for emergencies. “And despite your assumption that my logical thinking process is similar to that of a squid, rest assured, I have no intention of bringing Kim along without learning how much truth there is to her story.”
“And ‘ow are you plannin’ to do that?”
“Follow her, of course. If she has lied about being hired, or about how much she knows about the bowl, this is the fastest way to determine it. And if she is telling the truth, I will get a good look at this ‘gentry cove’ who is so inconveniently interested in the contents of my wagon.”
“You reckon you can take ‘er out o’ London without lettin’ ‘er know what we’re about?”
“I think we’ve sangfroid enough between us to hold Kim off until we find out if she’s trustworthy.” If she wasn’t, I needed to know it quickly. She was obviously of the curious sort, and could sort out our secret if she had a mind to. “Besides, as you know, it’s poor form to send a lady on a quest without making sure there are no dragons lurking along the way.”
Hunch snorted. “I don’t know why I keep thinkin’ that one day you’ll learn t’ be serious when it matters.”
“Neither do I. Now, help me get into these clothes.”
I knew the way to the Dog and Bull, but my memories of London’s slums were slightly rusty, and I arrived several minutes after Kim. She was perched in a corner with a mug in her hands, eyes darting about and returning frequently to the door. So her toff had not arrived yet. Well, all the better; I had no desire to be caught flat-footed if he was someone I knew.
I would bet a stack of Kerring’s oldest books that whoever had orchestrated the theft of the Saltash set in the first place was known to me. They had managed to steal the personal items dropped later in the display room, had known I would be out that night. Probably I was more a target of convenience than the victim of a grudge, and the fact that I’d probably done nothing (even in someone else’s mind) to deserve what had happened irritated me all the more. For all I liked to play a member of the lower class, I would never really be one – they understood and accepted that sometimes fate struck blindly, while a large part of me still expected life to be fair.
Accepting a mug of ale from the bartender, I looked up in time to see a group of laborers bustling through the door, directly in front of a tall, muddy-haired man with a look of perpetual distaste decorating his features. He stood out among the other members of the group like a flamingo in a group of black-clad mourners, except I was fairly sure even a flamingo would know better than to set foot in a place like the Dog and Bull wearing a top hat and silk gloves. Did the man actually intend to be robbed?
Well, he was Kim’s gentry cove, without a doubt. As he made his way towards her, I moved so I could see his face better and hear their conversation. No, this was no one I knew. Perhaps he was only a courier; perhaps he was from a completely unrelated party. I memorized his features, just in case.
“I trust your presence means you have succeeded, boy,” the man said, enough disdain infusing his voice to shrivel ripe grapes.
Kim appeared indifferent. “I done what you asked.”
“Good. I suggest we conduct the remainder of our business in one of the private rooms in back.”
Why not just paint a sign that says ‘I’m in shady dealings’ and hang it on your cloak, I wondered? Apparently, Kim was also less than impressed by her employer’s intelligence. “You want everyone here knowin’ you got business with me?”
“No, I suppose not…”
“Then you’d better set down afore everyone here ends up lookin’ at you.”
Too late, I thought as he settled on a bench and gingerly accepted a half-pint from the publican. To amuse myself, I imagined him as a flamingo in a top hat and gloves.
“You said you’d done as I asked. You found the bowl, then? You have a list of what is in Mairelon’s wagon?”
“What would the likes of me be doing makin’ lists?” Kim asked dryly.
The flamingo-man blinked. “I…had anticipated…”
Kim snorted. “You want a list, you should of hired a schoolmaster. I can tell you what I saw in that magic-cove’s wagon, but that’s all.”
“In that case, perhaps five pounds is more than the information is worth to me.” I was unconcerned that Kim would back down. Any passing observant person could tell the flamingo-man really wanted to know what was in my wagon, and Kim was no fool.
“In that case, you ain’t getting no information at all.”
“Come now, I think you are unreasonable. Shall we say, three pounds?” I raised an eyebrow inwardly at his stupidity. He was breaking all the rules for hiring agents – tell them all the information they might need to know, give them very specific instructions, and don’t ever, ever, let yourself look like a skinflint. It was too easy for an unhappy information gatherer to get revenge by lying.
“I done what you said,” Kim retorted, “and you never said nothing about no list. Five pounds and that’s flat.”
“Oh, very well,” snapped the flamingo-man ungraciously. “Did you find the bowl?”
“I ain’t saying nothin’ until I get what you promised.”
It took a bit of prying, but eventually Kim got the money out of him and tucked it away in her pockets. “Satisfied? All right, then, tell me what you found.”
“Well, it was real dressed-up in there, I’ll tell you that straight. Right elegant carpet, all reddish, with mighty strange designs all over, black and white, in some flowery pattern, lamp near the door – reckon it was pewter, see, ‘cause it couldn’t possibly of been silver – and this shelf with tiles on it, I think the tiles were grey, but they could of been blue, you know, ‘cause it ain’t so easy to see in the half-dark. And there were some cupboards, with three plates that don’t match – one was a kind of green, and the second had a few chips in it, and the third –”
Oh, I see what you’re about, I thought as Kim continued her excessively detailed description of my wagon. Well, I can’t say you don’t deserve to have some fun at his expense.
“—and there were some pots in the cupboards too, and one was ceramic, but the others were different. Two big one and a small one and a real shiny one, all stacked up together, and another big one tucked behind –” I noted the flamingo-man’s features light up in anticipation “—but they were all iron.” His face fell, and I smothered a laugh in my hand. I liked this girl more every minute.
“And there was this roll of blankets; I reckon that’s where the magic-cove sleeps. His man dosses outside, I guess, ‘cause there weren’t no others. They were stacked on this big wooden chest.”
He sat forward in anticipation. “Locked?”
“Yes.” She paused briefly. “But I got in.”
“It looked like that’s where the cove kept his magics. There were a whole bunch of little paper lanterns, and a couple of them wooden boxes, and a stack of silk –”
The flamingo-man interrupted her. “Yes, yes, boy, but the bowl!”
Kim widened her eyes innocently. “Bowl?”
“The silver bowl I described to you! Did you find it?”
“I didn’t see nothin’ like that in Mairelon’s wagon,” Kim said, almost triumphantly. And she isn’t even lying, I thought.
“What! You’d said you’d do as I asked!”
“And so I have. Ain’t nobody could of found somethin’ that ain’t never been there.”
“Not there?” I wished momentarily that Hunch were here. If he could see what real idiocy looked like, perhaps he would stop accusing me of it.
“Use your head, cully. If this Mairelon swell had something like that, I would have seen it, wouldn’t I? And I ain’t. So it ain’t there.”
Kim nodded, and I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Had she meant her erstwhile employer any good will, she would have informed him of her mishap with my trap spell. Since she had no way of knowing I was watching, I could assume that what she had told Hunch and I was the truth.
“Not there. All this time, wasted on the wrong man.” I casually got to my feet and drifted over towards their table. I did not want the man taking his anger out on Kim. “Amelia will never let me hear the end of it. Merrill could be anywhere in England by now, anywhere!” Excellent. They could chase their own tails looking for me up and down the country, in the assumption that Mairelon the Magician was nothing more than he seemed to be.
“That ain’t my lookout.” Kim obviously could not resist the opportunity to needle him a bit more. “You want to hear what else he had, or not?”
The flamingo-man clearly did not appreciate her indifference to his plight. “And you! You knew. That’s why you made me give you your money in advance, isn’t it? You little cheat!” He lunged forward in a fury.
Well, it certainly wasn’t fair if Kim got to have all the fun. I deliberately went off balance and crashed into the man’s back, shoving him into the table. Drunks have so much more freedom to be rude than sober men.
A glance told me Kim had sensibly taken the chance to move away from her bench, but was watching from a distance, apparently intrigued. “Sh-shorry, very shorry – the floor jusht, jusht shook me over, thash all,” I explained, making vague gestures of apology.
“Get away from me, you idiot!” snapped the flamingo-man, trying ineffectually to push me away.
“Right. Very shorry.” To demonstrate my extreme chagrin, let me spare you the no doubt low-quality beer of this establishment by upsetting your mug. Of course, as your previous actions did not fall under the category of discretion, you are now experiencing a certain amount of ridicule for having your clothes soaked in greasy ale, but really, what are pride and material obsessions in the grand scheme of things?
“Really very shorry, jusht tryin’ to help – ish a pity about the beer, shpecially – you can buy them fanshy togsh on Threadneedle, can’t you, but a mug of good ale, real fine ale, thash not so eashy to come by. I remember lasht time old John upshet my beer, I shaid, John, I shaid to him, I ain’t the man I ushed to be, or I’d give you hell for that. Why there wash a time –”
“Here, you get yourself out now.” The publican had come to eject me from the premises. Well, if I’d known I would be kicked out for spilling ale on someone, I would have started a brawl while I was at it and made the whole venture worthwhile.
I tumbled out the door, took two steps to the right, and stopped. A man in a brown coat had just ducked around the corner of the building next to the Dog and Bull. Though quite sure I’d never seen him before, I could easily tell one thing from the furtive way in which he moved.
He was waiting for me.
Chapter 4: Sensible Statements
Chapter 4 - Sensible Statements
I ducked into the dimly-lit alley around the corner of the Dog and Bull, thinking quickly. Slipping away was not an option, the man might be waiting for Kim instead of me. I hoped I would have grandchildren someday, for telling them these stories would be the only proper consolation for all these complications.
I grabbed Kim as she hurried by, and learned a timely lesson in not underestimating the fighting skills of someone shorter than myself. I received a kick in the shin and a swing to the eye before I was able to identify myself, but at least she understood my silent signals not to speak while we were being listened for. Not that anyone would have heard us initially over the squalling of my victim as the pub owner ejected him from the premises.
At the delicate sound of a ringing bell, the man I had spotted waiting for me emerged from the shadows and approached the flamingo-man. I wondered at this, seeing as one could smell the beer on him from the alley. Then again, I was one to talk, at the moment. "There you are, Stuggs! Did you get the boy?"
"I ain't seen 'im." The two disintegrated into squabbling while I tried to think if I recognized either of them. No, I was sure I'd remember someone as silly as the flamingo-man, and the other had a distinctive voice.
"Idiot! Nothing has gone right tonight, simply nothing! We've spent five days tracing the wrong man..." I permitted myself an inward snort. If I had a shilling for every day Hunch and I had spent on false starts in France, we could buy our own island. Obviously this man had no experience with clandestine work.
"You want I should go look for 'im?"
"Weren't you listening? There's no point; he didn't find anything. And I'm not going to stand here smelling like a brewery while you blunder about. Come on."
The two made their way down the street, and eventually the sound of carriage wheels reached my ears. Beckoning to Kim, I led the way down the alley, fairly sure my knowledge of London was not so rusty as to lose my way even in such a neighborhood as this. We soon emerged, and I turned to my companion, ready (as far as one can be) to brave the onslaught of questions that inevitably come after the revelation that one has followed a person and nearly started a bar-fight in their vicinity.
"Why was that skinny toff so wishful to get his dabbers on me?"
"I rather think he was afraid you might come and tell me what he'd been doing." If he'd had an ounce of sense in him, he would also have wanted to keep her hired to give advice on any other quasi-illegal dealings, since he seemed to know so little about them himself. Though perhaps he intended to use Stuggs in that capacity -- it wouldn't do to underestimate the assistant.
"He thinks you're this Merrill cove?"
"Not anymore," I replied brightly, touching my cap to a passing lady of the night. There was no fear she would try to approach me to provide real services, I was far too poorly dressed. High Society gentlemen never know the advantages of neglecting one's wardrobe.
"So that's why you were so set on me gammoning the cull I'd done what he wanted," Kim said triumphantly. "Are you?"
"Am I what?" I replied absently.
"Are you Merrill?"
"'What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.'" It took all my concentration to keep my expression facetious. I was not particularly surprised she had asked, but being addressed by my real last name always brought up feelings of bitterness towards the family that had given it to me.
I blinked, and shook myself. "Not literary, are you? No, of course, you wouldn't be." I should really have realized. "We shall have to do something about that."
"Teaching you to read." There, that should distract her nicely from inquiries about my identity.
"Read? Me?" Kim stopped walking. Apparently the idea was more of a novelty than I'd realized at first.
"Why not? It's bound to be useful. Come on, you don't want to spend the night standing in the street, do you?" She nodded, and we proceeded towards the place Hunch and I had arranged to meet. Belatedly, I realized I'd never taught anyone to read and had no idea how it should be done. Hunch would no doubt point out that was true of most of what I accomplished.
A pebble bounced across the street in front of us, and I looked up to see Kim glaring at me. Ah, yes, there are consequences for deceit. "You knew all that was going to happen!"
"Hardly." If I'd known the flamingo-man was actually going to attack her, much less send unpleasant henchmen after the pair of us, I would have bought myself a mug of ale to pour on his head. "I was suspicious, that's all."
"Then what were you doin' down at the Dog and Bull?"
"I was looking out for you." Half-truths are always better than lies; they give me such a feeling of virtue rare in other aspects of my life.
"I don't need no lookin' after," Kim snapped. Perhaps that was no less than I should have expected. She probably wasn't used to anyone declaring they'd been trying to help without demanding favors in exchange immediately afterwards.
"I'm inclined to agree. I believe you blacked my eye with that last swing." And that was with her left hand, too -- I'd observed she was right-handed while she was picking the lock on my chest.
"Too bad. It wouldn't of happened if you'd of told me you'd be there."
"If I'd told you I was planning to follow you, you'd have told me to be off about my own business." Certainly I'd done the same thing myself with well-meaning fellow agents numerous times. "Which, as things turned out, wouldn't have been at all wise, now, would it?" Such sensible statements from me. Perhaps next clocks would start winding themselves, or Hunch would take up opera.
"Besides, it wouldn't have been at all the thing to have sent you off into trouble without warning you and without sending anyone along to help in case there was trouble," I concluded.
"Then why didn't you warn me?" Kim demanded.
"About what? I wasn't sure anything was going to happen. And would you have listened?"
"If you would of explained --" Kim paused, and a thoughtful look came into her eyes. I let her think while pondering how I would obtain the herbs I needed for the spell to trace the other pieces of the Saltash Set. Obviously, I couldn't perform the ritual without either the platter or one of the spheres, but I didn't want to be caught lacking what I needed when the time came. The fastest (and most legal) way to obtain the materials would be at Renee D'Auber's, but it was also the most likely place to meet someone who would recognize me.
"You shouldn't of gone."
I glanced at Kim questioningly. Surely she could see the method in my madness; who knows what would have happened if I hadn't been there? "I couldn't let you go alone, and there was no other choice. I simply couldn't send Hunch."
Kim's mouth quirked. Smiling, I watched as she succumbed to laughter over the mental image of Hunch pretending to be anything but what he was. "No, I guess you couldn't. I bet he didn't want you goin' off in them flash togs, neither."
"You're right about that." I indicated my rapidly swelling eye. "He's going to be simply delighted about this, I'm sure."
Kim frowned. "Not hardly, he won't."
"He'll say it's what I deserve for going off without him. He may, just possibly, be right." All my solitary encounters did seem to support the theory that I was a cat without claws and the world was a shop full of particularly aggressive canaries.
"You goin' to tell him how you got it?"
I blinked, wondering why I wouldn't. Then I remembered, and grinned. "Oh, I see. I hadn't thought of that. Well, such things happen quite frequently in taverns, particularly the less respectable ones." If the secret cults of Africa and India had discovered a way to keep tavern fights from breaking out, they were the greatest wizards in history. Hunch knew as well as I that the occasional bruise was a reality in such places. "I don't think there'll be any need to go into details, do you?"
Kim shrugged her shoulders, putting on a study of indifference that didn't fool me for a moment. "It don't matter to me."
* * *
"You ain't sendin' me nowhere, Master Richard. All you're wantin' is an excuse to go stir up more trouble."
"More trouble?" I raised an eyebrow. "I was not aware that I had made so much trouble already today."
Hunch snorted. "Your 'invincible' chest had the lock picked --"
"A mere test of the warranty, I assure you."
"-- you 'ired the boy -- girl -- as broke into your wagon --"
"That was a flash of genius."
"-- and got your eye blacked in a tavern brawl."
"Who said it was a tavern brawl?"
"I'm guessin' as much 'cause you ain't tellin' me what really 'appened."
"I told you. It was a flamingo."
Hunch didn't dignify that with a response, not that it deserved one. "Besides, 'is Lordship ain't likely to 'ave left anything for you just now."
"Now, that is pure fantasy. You know perfectly well one could set one's watch by Edward's notes."
"You're a fine one to be talking about pure fantasy," Hunch grumbled. "Flamingo indeed."
"Very well, very well, you've found me out. It was a flock of canaries."
"Well, seein' as that Kim ain't likely to be back for a time..."
"What does Kim have to do with it?"
"She's a bad influence on you, she is."
"Nonsense. If anything, I'm a bad influence on her. And we're already a day late to pick up Edward's note in any case."
"Fine, I'll go."
"Excellent!" I hunted in my pocket for the key to the chest. "Watch me, I'll be here when you get back. I must determine exactly how one teaches another to read in the interim."
"You've got to what?" Hunch peered at me. "You're goin' to teach 'er to read?"
"Yes, that's the idea." I unlocked the chest and began hunting for the simplest book I owned. "It can't possibly be any worse than the time I decided to tie firecrackers to a rooster's tail at the age of twenty-five."
"I've a notion what this is about, you know."
"Oh, really? Do tell, for I've truly no idea."
Hunch snorted. "You wouldn't, would you. This is about your people."
My hands momentarily slowed in their search. "I don't see what--"
"You never fit in proper with most o' your family, not to mention the rest 'o the gentry, so you went to them Royal College wizards to get your share o' belongin'. But now you ain't able to go back there, so you make family out o' me and 'is Lordship. Now you're wantin' to drag Kim into it, just like you did with that Frog, but it'll never work. She ain't to be trusted."
"Give her a chance to earn your trust. We haven't know her more than a day." I had no interest in focusing any of my attention on the rest of Hunch's speech. It was times like this that I was most grateful for my own expertise at ignoring common sense; otherwise I would have to confront feelings I would rather stayed hidden.
"Just so long as you don't go lookin' for me if I'm late."
"Hunch! Would I do such a thing?"
Reviews are excellent.
Chapter 5: A Danger of the First Degree
This story is beta'd by BlueTrillium over at ff.net. Many thanks!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"You ain't queering me none, Master Richard. You was a-going to go looking for me."
I offered an insolent smile, covering up my relief that Hunch had made it back unharmed. "It seemed like a good idea."
"You 'adn't ought to of done it," Hunch replied sternly.
"Yes, well, I didn't." I certainly couldn't say I would have been sensible enough not to. Aunt Agatha informed me at the age of five that if I told a lie big enough, my tongue would fall out. Although I have been testing the theory constantly since, chances are that if any falsehood would make it come true, it would be that I'd sit idle if I thought him to be in any danger. "What took so long?"
"Couple of sharpers tried to follow me, and I 'ad to lose 'em afore I come back."
"What? How many?"
"Two as I noticed." Good, that many were unlikely to give us real trouble, unless one or both was a magician -- in which case, they should have had ways of tracking Hunch that did not involve merely following him.
"Anyone we know?"
"I 'adn't seen neither of 'em afore."
"Mmm-hm." Hunch had an excellent memory for faces; if he had not recognized them, it was unlikely I would have either. "I suppose they could have been some of Shoreham's." The man constantly rotated through agents until he found the ones that suited him, and he was just paranoid enough to send some of them to track Hunch and make sure he returned safely. Though he, no doubt, would use the word 'cautious,' not 'paranoid.' He might even be right.
"That's as may be," Hunch said, sounding much more displeased with my theorizing than I thought was warranted.
"What?" I glanced up to his jerk of the head in Kim's direction, and shook myself momentarily. Much as I liked the girl, it was always better not to reveal too much too soon. And she certainly seemed to possess an instinct for keeping her mouth shut when there were intriguing conversations afoot. "Oh, yes, of course. Did you get what you went for?"
"Well, let's have it, man!" He glanced at Kim again before reaching into his pocket for Edward's note, and I suppressed a sigh of impatience. Surely the letter, even if she saw it, would mean little to a person who could not read.
I took the paper and held it up to the light, checking for any indications that it had been previously read. I knew Hunch would not have allowed anyone to touch it, but Edward's line of couriers could be long and not infinitely trustworthy. "The seal hasn't been tampered--" Then I saw the rune beneath the wax. "Oh, Lord."
"What is it?" Hunch asked, concerned.
"Shoreham's done it again." Really, the man would put a Light-Lock on notes that detailed what the Duke of Wellington had eaten for breakfast. I turned slightly away in order not to completely blind the fellow occupants of my wagon, and murmured the counter-phrase.
The familiar blue-white light flared across my eyes just before I squeezed them closed. Perhaps Edward was trying to increase the speed of my reflexes. If not, why he does not simply use one of the thousand and one other wards that do not involve blinding the recipient is completely beyond me. "I do wish he'd stop using that Egyptian Light-Lock. I never manage to get my eyes shut in time." Hunch always does; I am not sure how. I shook the dust from the note and began to read. The note was brief and to the point:
We have obtained information relevant to your search for the Saltash Set. Please be at our last meeting point on March 2nd to receive it in person.
I calculated briefly. It was the first of March today, that meant.... "Tomorrow!"
"What's that?" Hunch asked.
"Shoreham wants us to meet him tomorrow evening. How long was this waiting?"
"Since yesterday." Hunch frowned. "Where's 'e looking to be? Same place as last time?"
"Yes." I am very fond of Edward as far as friendship goes, but his attention to punctuality is...overenthusiastic. "He's in a rush again. Blast the man!"
"We'll 'ave to leave early," Hunch informed me after a moment of thought.
"I know." I examined the note, trying fruitlessly to glean more information from it.
"What about 'er?"
"What?" I looked up to see Hunch indicating Kim with a jerk of his head. "Oh. You wouldn't mind leaving London a little earlier than we'd planned, would you?"
"No." Kim appeared momentarily as if she were tasting something vile, and then the look was gone, quickly enough that I almost believed I'd imagined it.
"That's settled, then!" I placed the note in the pocket of my coat and reached for my hat. "I'll be back in an hour or so."
"You ain't never just leaving without telling me where you're off to!"
I favored him with one of my best looks -- it combined innocence and mischief to the highest degree. "Exactly." Of course, I was only going to fetch some necessary spell components and buy better clothes for Kim.
But if Hunch knew that, it would take all the fun from the situation.
* * *
The decision as to where to obtain the herbs I needed was now an easy one. If we were to leave tomorrow, I had to go to Renée's. It was the only legally accessible place in London guaranteed to have all of what was required for the spell, and in this case, legal would be faster.
As the cheap cab I had hired rattled towards the more respectable (if just as eclectic, in its own way) district of town where the salon I sought was located, I thought with pleasure of seeing Renée again. We had had a brief visit when Hunch and I had been back in England last, before we'd gone chasing the Saltash Bowl in Germany. From that I had learned her salon was still open and thriving as ever, still the refuge of the less conventional members of society, and still the happy home of wizards seeking a place to try explosive experiments without the danger of wrecking their own ceilings. I remembered well all the hours I had spent there after Mother forbid me to set up wards for the deliberate purpose of blasting them down in her townhouse.
A good part of the pleasure of those memories was due to Renée's company, as well. Before I had gone to spy on the Continent, she and a few other wizards at the Royal College had been my sole examples of absorbing female company. I had never understood the fashionable trend among ladies of attempting to look and act exactly alike, that being the exact opposite of magic, where a new spell got the most attention if it did something no one had seen before or reacted in an unpredictable way. Some would no doubt scold me for comparing courtship with spell creation, but why not? Both involved dealing with mysterious phenomena, both tended to be dangerous, and for neither would you be quite sure what the result would be until the deed was done.
As we neared the salon, I directed the cab driver to take me around the back. Unless some dramatic event, such as an earthquake or a particularly crotchety new head of the Royal College, had sent wizards fleeing from London in great numbers, the odds were good I'd run into someone who would recognize me, even in disguise. And though without risk life wasn't worth living, it would hardly be fair to involve Renée if I didn't have to.
I hopped from the cab, paid the driver, slipped to the back door whose location I had become familiar with since taking up a life of spying, and knocked quietly. A slight, brown-haired man in a coat at least two sizes too large for him peered out. "Richard Merrill?"
"Hello, Garennier." The man had been working for Renée as long as she'd lived in England, perhaps even longer, and therefore had been present here the night the Saltash Set was stolen. He knew somewhat of my comings and goings, and would not be calling the Runners anytime soon. "Would you tell Mademoiselle D'Auber I need to speak with her? It won't take long."
"Of course, Mr. Merrill. You'd better come in while I fetch Mademoiselle." I obligingly stepped through the door, closed it behind me, and followed Garennier down a short hall to Renée's private study. "Just wait here." He vanished behind another door farther down the hall as I entered.
Smiling, I looked around. It was quite as I had remembered it -- the smell of herbs, wood, and scented candles, the faint aura of magic, the vases of dried flowers set haphazardly next to scrying bowls and sketches of arcane diagrams, and of course, the countless piles of books, ancient and new. Renée had one of the best private magical libraries in the city, to assist the visitors to her salon, and I itched to examine some of them now. It is difficult to justify hauling even a moderate number of books along on a spying expedition, though Hunch had made it plain more than once that my idea of a 'moderate' amount of books has little to nothing to do with reality.
The door opened and Renée came in, her genuine grin quite different from the gracious smile she bestowed on most people. "Monsieur Merrill! It is of all things good to see you well."
"And you. I see you are still scandalizing those members of society who resemble fence posts in both inflexibility and intelligence?"
Renée widened her eyes. "But of course. Though it is not at all the thing to say so, a place or person must be dreadfully boring if they please everyone. However, you did not risk many unpleasant things to come here and exchange the pleasantries with me. What is it you need?"
"Nothing too dreadfully onerous. No toothpicks from the farthest reaches of India, for example."
"And so you doubt my abilities to procure the things onerous?"
I laughed. "Not at all. Only my ability to know what to do with them when they arrive. Herbs, actually, are what I came for."
"That, I have." Renée rung a small bell, and Garennier appeared promptly at the door. "Kindly fetch, for Monsieur Merrill..." she broke off and looked at me questioningly.
"Willow root, black alder, vervain, and rue." Garennier bowed and vanished down the hall.
Renée gestured for me to take a seat, and positioned herself upon the chair at her desk. "Now, you will have a little time while Garennier fetches your herbs, so you must tell me for whom it is you are buying the clothes." She gestured at the bundle I already had tucked under my arm.
"Oh, these. Hunch won't like it much. I think he's still hoping I'll change my mind and leave Kim behind in London."
Renée raised one eyebrow. "Me, I believe the purpose of speaking is to make the situation more clear, not less so, though I know you are not always thinking this."
"Kim is my new assistant. I caught him rifling through my wagon this afternoon. Hunch seems to think I'm being very foolish, but why he thinks I'll listen, I'm not sure." If Kim was determined to stay disguised as a boy, it was her secret to keep, and though it was unlikely that I would get a lecture from Renée about proprieties, a tirade on manners is a danger of the first degree, and must be avoided at all costs.
"He is to assist you with the stage-magic?"
"And he makes his way in the world rifling, as you call it, and doing other jobs of that sort?"
"I would guess so. He managed to pick the lock on my chest with only some wire; even the best agents I worked with in France couldn't manage it. And if Kim can do that, who knows what he could learn, given time?"
"And what will he do, when you no longer have need of an assistant?"
I blinked. "What do you mean?"
"When you recover the Saltash Set, you shall give up being a stage magician, no? What shall this Kim do then?"
"Tracing the platter could take months. I hope by then I can teach him tricks enough to make some kind of living, if he doesn't decide to drop us like Jamie did."
Renée shook her head. "You are entirely English, my friend, or else you would understand--"
Garennier entered the room with a bow, and held out several small packages to me. "Here are your herbs, Monsieur." As I tucked them in my coat pocket, he added "Pardon me, but I think it best you not go out the back door."
I frowned. "Why not?"
"There has been a man waiting outside for the last ten minutes. It is too dark to see if he has brought any friends with him."
"Thank you, Garennier." Renée turned back to me. "Of all things you should save the foolish risks for when they are most needed. You shall go out the front, and I shall distract any persons whom we may meet along the way."
I tucked the bundle of clothes under my arm again. "As you say. Lead on."
My friend led the way down the hall. The murmurs of conversation and the occasional explosion echoed from behind the doors, but we met no one on the path to the door. "You will come see me when the danger is not too great, of course," Renée informed me.
"I will, and thank you." I performed a military salute, making her roll her eyes in amusement, and stepped out into the night.
Carriages filled the street, dropping off and picking up the visitors to the salon. I was scanning the area for a cab when a well-dressed gentleman heading single-mindedly for the door jostled me in the shoulder.
"I do beg your pardon. Will you..." I knew that voice. "Richard?"
I whipped around, coming face to face with my brother Andrew. Our eyes met and I gripped my bundle of herbs tighter. The most sensible action would have been to try and lose him in the crowd, but my mind seemed to have conveniently forgotten our circumstances, and remembered only that this was my brother, of whom I had seen nothing for four years. Then Andrew turned abruptly walked into Renée's salon.
I stood frozen. What was Andrew doing here? He couldn't have possibly known I was in London. He shouldn't have been in London himself, much less here. And he would certainly believe I was up to no good, if he retained the view of my character he'd expressed so forcibly to me at our last encounter.
I shook myself -- there was no point in worrying over what I could not change -- and plunged into the crowd.
Author's Note: As far as I can tell from my research, the London Season typically started in April. Mairelon states in chapter five of the original book that the Season doesn't start for at least a month, so I have chosen to place this story in March.
Comments are much appreciated!
Chapter 6: Imitation
Chapter 6: Imitation
When I returned to the wagon, Hunch and Kim were positioned exactly as I would have predicted: Hunch curled up in an uncomfortable knot next to the door and Kim just waking up from sleep on my wooden chest. Trust my man to dislike the idea of Kim wandering around London, and trust Kim to switch tactics when she saw she wasn't going anywhere.
It was only a brief time before we were headed out of the city. Hunch had told me, rather loudly, that I was to summon him immediately if there was any trouble. I've always been a touch hazy about what qualifies as 'trouble' in his book. For example, he never let me forget the incident with the bats, the pastry chef, and the prostitute convinced she was the reincarnation of Emperor Nero. In my opinion, the soldier who fell in love with me while I was dressed as a woman was the only real problem.
"Your wagon's right bosky." Kim looked ill. "If there weren't no top we'd fly out."
"I believe that's what the wagon maker had in mind when he added a top," I replied, unperturbed.
"Huh. He should of given some nob to the wheels. That lamp's got two dents from fallin' down." Even I hadn't noticed that. "Wouldn't fetch more'n a pound at Tall Sam's now."
If Edward had really traced the platter, having Kim along might prove trickier than I'd thought at first. Our mission was too important to trust her with until we knew her better, and she was sharp enough to realize very quickly that what we were doing involved more than flashing tricks for the easily impressed. Well, it wasn't as if Hunch and I were inexperienced at subterfuge; we could keep an orange on a pile of coal from being spotted. Besides, I disliked the idea of going back on my word to someone who was clearly used to having promises broken.
I glanced at Kim, and saw she looked somewhat less sick. "All right now?"
"Right enough. You couldn't do somethin' to make a bit of light in here, could you?"
I chuckled. "I'm afraid you'll have to get used to the dark. No wagoneer would keep a lamp lit while the wagon's moving, even on the best road in England." The wagon banged on something and nearly tossed me off my seat. "Which this manifestly is not." I could have made at least some light magically, but I wanted nothing to distinguish us from any other vehicle heading out of town at this time of night. Besides, it seemed rude to raise any hopes that I'd teach her real magic. Not many people had the talent for that, which was why the world wasn't overrun with wizards. "Not going to sleep, I take it?"
The wagon jerked wildly, and Kim had to grab the lid of the chest to keep from flying off. "Ain't nobody could sleep through that."
"Sorry. This wagon wasn't meant to be ridden in."
"I never would of guessed."
I laughed. Fond of Hunch as I am, the man has little sense of sarcasm. "I suppose that it is a bit obvious. If you aren't going to sleep, why don't we start on your lessons?"
"Lessons? You mean reading and magic?"
"Eventually, yes," I agreed. "But you can't read if you can't see, and the same thing applies to the kind of magic I'll be teaching you. We'll start those later, after it gets light."
"How much you plannin' on teachin' me?" Kim asked warily.
"If you're going to be of any real help with the show, there are a number of things you'll need to know besides stage magic." I had to be careful here. My goal wasn't to 'improve' Kim per se; I hoped I wasn't that arrogant. But she wouldn't have patience for my dancing around the point.
"The way you talk, for one." Squinting through the dim light, I could see she was about to respond, and hastened to explain. "You see, people expect a performer to sound like a duchess. You don't, of course, but I think with a little training you could."
"Hunch don't talk like a gentry cove." She didn't sound pleased.
"He doesn't assist me on stage, either." I really should have thought about this more beforehand. I'd rather help her learn myself than have her be disappointed by future patrons' reactions to her performance, but I didn't want to insult her either.
"All right, then. What's first?"
I let out a breath, surprised that her opinion had come to be important so quickly. "First, you stop using quite so much thieves' cant. You'll have to practice all the time, until it seems natural."
"Practice talkin'?" Kim sounded incredulous. "Just to sound flash? I--oh. That's what you meant, ain't it?"
"It's exactly what I meant."
"Mmm. What else?"
"Well, a good place to start is listening to other people talk. You can identify what's the same, or what's different, from the way you want to sound. There are dozens of styles to choose from."
"Like Hunch and I both don't talk like gentry coves, but he still don't sound like I do?"
"Exactly." The wagon bounced again. One of the cupboard doors flew open and two pots fell out with a clatter. "This wagon is excellent for full-scale destruction. It nearly knocked over a tree once."
"Hunch ran the wagon into a tree?"
"Well, I told him to.'"
"It attacked us. You noticed you and Hunch speak differently. Did you notice how?"
Kim rolled her eyes, then nodded. "He don't say -- well, if I was goin' to say hello, how are you, I'd just say that. He'd say, 'ello, 'ow are you?"
"That's right. And you just said 'goin'.' He'd say, 'going,' and you want to say that too. Did you hear the difference?"
"Goin.' Going. It don't sound right."
"It won't at first. But that's another thing. It would be 'it doesn't sound right.'"
"But earlier, you said 'you don't, of course, but I think with a little training you could.'" I raised my eyebrows as she imitated my accent perfectly. "I don't want to say 'you doesn't.' This ain't goin' -- going, I mean -- to be easy, is it?"
"You're right. It'll be like learning a new language."
"I ain't never done that before," Kim protested.
"You learned to speak in the first place, didn't you?"
"That's different. Where I come from, everyone talks like me. Just had to listen to them." Kim paused. "Well, not everyone. The cent-per-cents don't. And the folk who come down from the country don't."
"That's right. Learning to talk like the gentry is just a more extreme example."
"So how do I know when to use don't and when to use doesn't?"
I explained, and then moved on to other rules. I hadn't done this kind of teaching before, and it made me far more aware of how strange English could sometimes be, but Kim learned quickly. And I never had to worry about her hesitating to cut in if I wasn't clear. The only real problem was when I discovered how amusing she found it when I carried on a conversation with myself using two different accents. I hadn't heard Kim laugh before, and whenever she did, I felt oddly pleased with myself.
"Where'd you get to know all them people, anyways?"
"All these people," I corrected.
"Where'd you get to know all these people, then? They ain't -- aren't -- just accents. When you do that gentry mort with the high voice, your face gets all sour, and when you do the French one, you look like you're thinkin' of some joke."
"Thinking. The gentry mort, as you say, is my aunt. I used to drive her crazy at the dinner table by switching dialects for every sentence."
Kim snorted with laughter. "You did that? Your folks must of had their hands full."
"I can't deny it. My aunt told me once that if I didn't behave, a black dragon would come out of the chimney and take me away, and I promptly climbed up the chimney to find it and keep it as a pet." I shook my head at the memory. "I was so disappointed when my mother told me it wasn't real." I noticed light filtering into the wagon, and went to tell Hunch to find an inn at which to stop.
"When's 'is Lordship getting 'ere?" Hunch asked me quietly as we sat around the fire that night.
"Soon," I replied, similarly low. "I hope he'll say why we had to meet him here, instead of in London."
"What are you going to do about 'er?" Hunch shot a look at Kim. She glared back, probably annoyed at being deliberately left out of the conversation, then hopped to her feet and wandered around to the rear of the wagon.
"I am going to do nothing whatsoever," I replied, setting down my bowl. "Kim is fully able to preoccupy herself for an hour or two. I certainly gave her enough to think about today."
"You did that, right enough. You're giving 'er too much at once, what with the tricks and the reading."
"Nonsense. She's perfectly capable of it. Besides, she spent some of the day teaching me."
"To do what?" Hunch asked warily.
"Pick locks, of course. What, did you think I'd miss the opportunity to learn from an expert?"
"I'm telling you, what we know about 'er ain't good enough. Didn't you say you could use that bowl to tell whether someone is lying?"
"I did. It's a complicated spell, though, and it could attract attention. I'd rather not do it unless I have to, and at the moment, I don't."
Hunch chose to ignore this, and glanced down the road. "That's 'is Lordship coming now."
"So it is," I replied, standing up and waving an arm. "We're over here!"
"I did notice the wagon..." Edward, Earl of Shoreham, drew up on his horse and dismounted. "Richard, it's good to see you. And Hunch as well. Are we alone?"
"As much as we can be," Hunch muttered.
Edward looked from Hunch to me. "Is there a problem?"
"No, there's another new assistant," Hunch informed him before I could answer. "She ain't run off yet, but that don't mean she won't."
"It's a bit hard to run off into the country when you've never been out of London before," I replied, rolling my eyes as I opened the door to the wagon. "Here, come inside. I've got the bowl under wards. I'll remove them, and you can take a look at it."
"Well, that's good news." Edward followed me. "What's this Hunch says about you picking up another stray?"
"I would hardly call Kim a stray." It didn't seem fair to say that when she'd had no choice about her life. "And Heaven only knows what would have happened to her if I'd left her in the streets of London." As long as she stayed disguised, it might have been alright, but what happened to lone girls in those areas was something I preferred not to think about.
"Um. Still trying to make up for Jamie?" I raised an eyebrow at him, covering up the sting of the implication. I knew people off the streets weren't toys to appease my conscience. "No, no, I shouldn't have mentioned it. But you're certain she has nothing to do with the robbery?"
"Quite sure." Anyone associated would have known I was a true wizard, and Kim had made it quite clear she wasn't aware of that. "Now, Edward, do you want to look at the bowl or not?"
"Yes, of course; let's have it."
I unlocked the chest and gestured to undo the wards. They came down in a flash of light, and Edward bent over, to better see. The stage curtain swayed a little, catching my eye. It wasn't hanging quite right; it was almost as if--
As if someone was behind it. And I or Hunch would have noticed if any stranger had approached the wagon, so it had to be Kim. But why would she do that? How had she known Edward was coming?
I should have called her out immediately, but I found myself hesitating. If I was wrong, if she wasn't there deliberately, the last thing I wanted was Edward threatening her somehow, thinking she had information. She trusted me little enough as it was.
"My word!" Edward, who had finished blinking in the light from the wards, was now examining the bowl.
"Impressive, isn't it? Will you take it with you?"
"Not unless you want me to," Edward replied. "The consensus is that it may help you find the rest of the pieces, but it may also make things more dangerous for you."
"How so?" There is a limit even to my risk-taking tendencies.
"Magic cuts in both directions." I tried to resist glancing at the curtain. The idea of giving away our entire purposes to Kim was an unpleasant one, but I couldn't see how it could be avoided. I would just have to deal with the consequences later. "If you can use the bowl to find the platter and the spheres, they can be used to find the bowl. And you."
"Of course." That didn't worry me unduly. Whoever had the platter and spheres probably couldn't come forward to turn me in without incriminating themselves. "But I thought you had more in mind than that."
"Marchmont thinks someone at the Ministry has been talking too freely. It may be deliberate."
"I see." That was a problem. If the original culprit knew I was back in the country, he or she would become doubly cautious, and that wouldn't do. "And there's still the little matter of finding out which one of our colleagues at the Royal College planned the theft in the first place, isn't there?"
"You've no proof that anyone--"
I shook my head. "Don't be a fool, Shoreham! Someone arranged things very cleverly to make it look as if I were the one behind that theft. Someone very well informed." That pretty much narrowed it down to the Royal College; I didn't have many friends outside there smart enough to plan something like this. "It was sheerest luck that I ran into you that night, or you'd be as sure I'm guilty as the rest of them." I knew that it was true, even if it stung somewhat to admit even one of my closest friends could have been persuaded by the evidence.
"All right, all right." Edward held up a hand. "But I still wish you'd let me clear your name."
"And give whoever it is a reason to try again? No, thank you." If they had a specific grudge against me, they'd just find another way to ruin my reputation; if it was only the Saltash Set they were after, we'd never catch them if they were on their guard. "Besides, as long as no one knows who is really responsible, there will still be those who believe I was behind it." And as long as that was true, there would be gossip, and my family would continue to suffer for what I didn't do.
Edward argued a bit more, but I finally managed to get him onto the topic of why he'd come in the first place. "You're still determined to go through with this?"
"Would I be here, like this, if I weren't?"
"Oh, very well. We've finally traced the platter."
"And?" I had to work hard to keep my eagerness under control. There was no way of knowing how far it was or who had it; I couldn't get too excited.
"It's in the hands of one of those new druid cults."
One of the drawbacks of spying in a foreign country is that you miss all the intriguing developments in your own. "Druid cults?"
Edward's description of the cults sounded very much as if they were trying to do magic with a book of fairy tales and only half their brains. I had to forestall him as he began to go into detail about their location. "I'm familiar with the area. Edward, if I'm going to Essex, why in Heaven's name have you dragged me a day's trip in the opposite direction?"
"To try and keep unwelcome attention centered in this area. The platter's been there at least two years; there's no reason to hurry."
"Mmm." Maybe there wasn't for Edward, but when you've been after a thing as long as I had been after that platter, you tend to get paranoid about it disappearing. "It'll take me at least two days to get there now--"
"Three. I'd rather you went around London instead of through it." I chose not to argue about that, instead inquiring about the druids and committing the names of Frederick Meredith, Robert Choiniet, and Jonathan Aberforth to memory.
"That will do, I think. I'll leave in the morning."
Edward coughed. "Ah, there is one other thing. How well do you know the Viscount Granleigh?"
The name sounded familiar, but I could not match it to a face. "I don't believe we've met."
"And St. Clair?"
"The Baron and I ... " Do not despise each other merely because we each find the other too far beneath us to devote time to it. "Have met." Unimaginative gentry who spend two days in St. Clair's company emerge bursting with immoral plans. "Where is this leading, Edward?"
"I wanted to know whether you were likely to meet anyone who would recognize you."
"Then why didn't you just ask?"
"Richard!" Why doesn't my patented innocent look work on anyone anymore? "The Runners are still looking for you in connection with the original robbery, you know."
I waved this away and set about prying the reasons for Edward's concern out of him, as well as the connections of the two lords to the Royal College. If the incident with the insane asylum, the mixed-up Valentines, and the horde of very angry bees hadn't thrown Hunch and me, I doubted the Runners would.
"Stephen Granleigh is involved in the Ministry in a number of ways. Of necessity, he's familiar with the history of the Saltash Bowl. Has decided opinions on the subject too."
"I see." There's nothing quite so irritating as erroneous decided opinions. Unfortunately, they're almost as common in magic as in gambling. "And St. Clair?"
"Was elected to the College in your place."
So they'd replaced me with a walking list of how to be perfectly law-abiding and perfectly despicable. "He must have been delighted. I must remember to congratulate him if I see him."
That was apparently not reassuring to Edward, who spent the next minute or so trying to talk me out of seeking the Saltash Platter. I was familiar with the lecture and paid no more attention to it than to any other piece of common sense. "I'll take the chance."
"Very well. I hope your luck holds, Richard. And don't hesitate to call on me if something happens."
"You may be sure of it."
Edward left the wagon, and I heard him give Hunch a brief farewell before getting back on his horse and riding away. I carefully wrapped up the bowl, placed it in the chest, and replaced the wards.
Now what was I to do? I might not have wanted Kim exposed to Edward's temper, but that didn't mean I wasn't angry myself. More than that, I felt betrayed. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't pick people who deserved trust.
There was a chance -- a small one, but it existed -- that she'd had some other reason for spying on us. I held on to that, surprised by how much I wanted it to be true. When I was sure my feelings were under control, I finally spoke.
"I think you'd better come out now, Kim, and explain why you've been eavesdropping on my conversation."
Chapter 7: Glittering Spells
This chapter is more serious than many of the others. We will revert to our normal ways in the next.
Beta'd by BlueTrillium. Many thanks!
I carefully kept my face emotionless as Kim stepped out from behind the curtain. After years of espionage, the feat should have been easy enough, and yet it wasn't -- I wanted freedom to be expressive around her. "You do have some explanation, I trust?"
"I was just--" Kim fumbled. "It was an accident." No smooth-tongued excuse. If her purpose was spying, she was new to the profession.
"I see. You just happened to hide behind the curtain at exactly the time Lord Shoreham was planning to arrive."
"Yes!" Kim stood her ground. "You and Hunch didn't have no use for me outside, so I came in here to look at that stage you got in back. Which you got to get back of the curtain to do."
"The timing was remarkably convenient." I had to press this. France had given me the instinct to question most any explanation, and it alarmed me that I wanted so much to accept Kim's immediately.
"You never said when that Shoreham cove was comin', so how would I of known when to hide? You ain't told me nothin', neither one of you."
"Why didn't you come out?"
"With the two of you talkin' about me?" Kim stared at the floor. "And after that...it wouldn't of looked right."
"Wouldn't have." Who was I, from her perspective? A magician who'd picked her off the street and might drop her any second. And Shoreham was an Earl, just the kind of person to send the Runners after her for little reason. "No, I suppose not."
"How did you know I was there?" Kim asked cautiously.
I explained automatically, mind still on my previous thoughts. I did make this mistake at times, expecting trust simply because I knew my motives were pure. But the man who'd hired Kim was really a much better demonstration of how the gentry acted towards the poor -- using them to perform illegal activities and then cheating them out of what had been promised.
"So why didn't you say something right then?" Kim demanded.
That was a question I'd have to ask myself at some later date. After all, why should I care about Edward's opinion of a girl I'd known two days? "I had my reasons."
"You didn't want the gentry cove to know I was there!"
"Shoreham has a nasty temper at times. Besides, I prefer to deal with you myself."
"So what are you goin' to do?" Kim asked warily.
"I don't know." If I was wrong, if someone had really hired her to report our actions, it could be disastrous, and even if I'd been willing to take the chance for myself, it wouldn't be fair to Hunch. But I knew, far better than most, how it felt when people suddenly turned on you for what you didn't do. If I kept her with us, but kept my eyes open..."I suppose I shall have to bring you along."
"To Ranton Hill?" Kim inquired.
"That far at least." I should have some idea of her motives then. "Afterward -- well, we'll see how things go."
"What if I ain't wishful to go?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, what if I ain't wishful to go with you?" Kim looked as if she were steeling herself. "You told me you weren't doing nothin' the nabbing culls'd be...lookin' out for. But it didn't sound that way when you were talkin' to the gentry cove."
"No, I suppose it didn't." It was quite likely that, if we were caught, it would go worse with her than with Hunch or me. She was poor, she had thief's training -- and she was a girl. She did have some right to leave if staying would put her in greater danger, teaching aside. But I couldn't just let her go if she was a spy. "I wish I knew whether you--" The bowl, the Saltash Bowl. "Of course!"
I hurried to the wagon door and pulled it open. "Hunch! Do you have any rosemary in that cache of herbs you cart around all the time?" The man is as bad with herbs as I am with books. Though the former comes in useful more often, I will defend my own guilty pleasures until the end of time.
"Right enough, Master Richard." Hunch retrieved a paper packet from the inside of his coat and handed it to me. "What're you planning to do with it?"
I ignored this, my mind on the other ingredients I would need. "Thank you. Kim will be with me; don't disturb us for an hour or so. I'm going to need to concentrate."
"Master Richard! You ain't going to...you wouldn't never..."
Take advantage of Kim? As if. Only my man would interpret the world 'concentrate' in such a way. Then again, he could easily be thinking the other way around. "There are days, Hunch, when you remind me forcibly of my excessively estimable brother." That was not a compliment. "Is it her virtue or mine that you're worrying about?"
"You ain't a-going to gammon me." Hunch's look of righteous indignation is nearly as perfected as my look of innocence. Though they've both been used too often to have much effect anymore. "What are you up to?"
"I'm going to take that suggestion you made shortly before Shoreham arrived, if you must know. I trust you don't expect me to do so outside the wagon, in full view of the road?" As I did with the infusion of that trap spell, causing us both to nearly be run over by a coach-and-four and locking twenty people into a nearby tavern.
Hunch did not dignify that with a reply, and I shut the wagon door.
"What're you goin' to do?" Kim asked suspiciously.
I was wary of making a mistake with this spell. After all, I was half-inventing it, since I only had one piece out of the set. I removed the wards I had set on the bowl, and carefully placed it on the table, confirming reluctantly to Kim when she asked that it was, indeed, the Saltash Bowl.
The spell itself could possibly force either of us to speak the truth for days on end, and that would be most unwelcome. For one thing, it would ruin all of the carefully arranged subterfuge we'd built up in the last months. For another, it would force me to tell Hunch what I really did with that hat he was so fond of. I removed the proper ingredients from the cupboard and mixed them with care, grateful that I carried around a substantial number of magical substances. Even if it increased the likelihood that we would be caught.
"You ain't explained nothin' about what you're doin'." Kim finally said.
"No, I haven't, have I? I suppose you have a right to know what to expect." I gave her as much of a description as I could without wandering off into the technical subtleties I'd have discussed with Kerring, say.
"So if I don't say nothin', you can't tell what's true? I'm just trying to understand. You ain't got no business knowin' everything about me."
I paused. "A reasonable objection. Very well. The spell is just an indicator. If you don't say anything, it won't have anything to work with, so it won't tell me anything."
No matter what the circumstances, I always delight in spell-casting. Hunch insists it's the danger of it and the accompanying thrill. Perhaps he's right and that's part of it. But the truth is, I find spells beautiful. They snap and tingle and glitter, piecing together to build the impossible. So often we babble about nothing all day. The words of spells mean things, create marvels. And there's nothing like the rush that comes with successfully building your own spell, knowing you've done something no one's done before. As the ritual climaxed, the flame sprung up and I threw the packet of herbs into the bowl.
For a moment, between the smoke and the sudden disappearance of the lamplight, I couldn't see much. When the bowl sprang up into a silver glow, I turned to Kim. "What is your name?"
The light of the bowl promptly dropped to coal-red. "Your name? And the truth this time."
The bowl returned to the original gleaming light. It stayed that way all through every question I could think of to ask her, none of her answers varying from what she'd said when we'd first met.
"And why were you eavesdropping on our conversation?" I finally asked.
"I -- didn't know you was goin' to be talkin' about nothin' important. Reckoned I'd just come out when you was done." The light dimmed a little. "Didn't think your Earl friend would be right understandin', were I to come out."
"And were those your only reasons?"
"Mostly." Kim looked reluctant, and I observed her more carefully.
"You'll have to do better than that."
"All right!" Kim threw up her hands. "I was curious." The glow around the bowl gleamed lighter.
The idea of what Hunch would say to that nearly made me chuckle. "Curious?"
"Why not? Anyone as meets you can see you're a regular swell, and it queers me what your lay is. Bilking the culls in the markets ain't work for a gentry cove, and you ain't told me nothin'. I got reason for wonderin'."
I laughed. We really were too much alike, both poking our noses into things because they had an odd look. "I should have guessed. Well, I'll explain as soon as we're finished here. You've enough of the pieces to get us all into difficulty by accident if you aren't told the rest." I asked a few more questions, and was about to release the spell on the bowl when I remembered one more. "Why did you decide to leave London with us? Curiosity again?"
Kim looked away. "Yes." The bowl's light winked off and on.
"There is more, I think."
"It ain't nothin' to do with you!" she retorted.
"Perhaps it is not, now," I agreed. "However, we will be returning to London eventually, and I don't like the possibility of a nasty surprise waiting for me."
"He ain't waitin' for you."
"Nevertheless, I should like to know who 'he' is, and why you considered it so important to remove yourself from his vicinity. Particularly if the reason is something that is likely to interest the constables."
"It ain't the nabbing culls I'm worried on. It's Laverham. I suppose now I got to tell you."
"Have to. I would appreciate it. Who is Laverham?"
"For sure he's -- he ain't to be trusted, not even by folks he's hired. He talks them a right smooth line and turns on them when it does him good. And he keeps what they steal just for him, and he don't forget it when someone does him wrong. He--"
"I'll take your word for it that the man is unpleasant," I told her. "But what set you off?"
"He was at Tom's shop, where I took those flash togs you asked me to get rid of. He asked a lot of questions, and one of his men tried to follow me when I left."
"He had you followed?" I asked, tense. "How far?"
"Half a block in the wrong direction, I tipped him the double right off."
I should have realized she'd know how to drop a person bent on doing harm. "And you're sure it was you he was interested in?" It seemed unlikely that someone would have found out so quickly I'd decided to employ her. But though I take many chances, I was not interested in that kind of risk.
"What else? Laverham's been aching to get his fambles on me since old Mother Tibb stuck her spoon in the wall."
"Who is Mother Tibb?"
"She raised me and some others. She's dead," Kim said abruptly.
Then I wouldn't pry, no matter how curious I was to know more of Kim's past. "I'm sorry." She'd probably appreciate a subject change. "About Laverham. I'm hoping you can tell me more about what happened at -- Tom's, you say?"
"Don't remember it all. I can try, though."
Her description didn't seem to lack much, and none of it rang alarm bells in my head. "All right. I'll agree that he seems to have been after you. But if anything else like that happens, or if you run into Laverham or any of his men again, tell me."
It took a fair bit less effort to dismantle the bowl spell than it had to set it up. As I bent to replace the now velvet-wrapped bowl itself back in the chest, Kim spoke. "You said you'd explain what your lay is. Seems right fancy, with all this sneaking around and earls and spells."
I explained the history of the Saltash Set -- apparently in more detail than was warranted -- and finally arrived at the relevant part of the story. "The Royal College spent a great deal of time, here and there, trying to duplicate the spell on the grouping. No one ever succeeded, and the Saltash group became a curiosity. And then, four years ago, it was stolen."
I slowed. I always hated admitting that anyone had accused me of theft, even falsely. When you can't let go of the idea that life should be fair, it's easy to blame yourself for what's not your fault. "It was stolen in such a way that I appeared to be the thief."
Kim blinked. "You were in the Royal College?"
It was so far from everyone else's reactions that I nearly started. But in Kim's world, I supposed it would be far more common to meet a thief than a wizard. "Yes, I was. Under another name, you understand."
"You are a shrewd one." She just continued to impress me. "Yes, that is my name."
"But you ain't the sharper who nicked the bowl."
"No. If I hadn't been lucky enough to run into Edward, though, I'd have no way of proving it." I stiffened. Remembering the horror on the faces of those I knew -- before I'd even guessed why they were angry -- hurt more than I'd ever admit to anyone. "The evidence was overwhelming. Even my brother Andrew believed it."
"He's a noodle, then."
I laughed, but it was half to cover up my shock. How could Kim have met me only days past, and yet seemingly know more about my motives than friends I'd had for years? "A surprisingly apt description, I'm afraid."
It took a few more questions and answers before I was reassured Kim knew enough of the story to keep us out of trouble. "So now you're going back to Ranton Hill to find the platter part," she finally said. "What about the rest of it?"
"I can use each piece to help find the others, and it gets easier the more pieces I have. With the bowl and the platter together, it won't be hard to locate the four spheres."
And when we do find them, I thought, we'll see who's accusing whom.