She said, “I don’t know if I can control the change. I think it depends on the bubble.”
“Something like a bubble grows in me,” she said. “If it expanded completely—”
“Can you expand it?”
She hunted inside her chest for that resilient hollow ball, pulled at it unsuccessfully. Charles waited: patient, calm. She felt a sneaking need to surprise him, startled him.
She closed her eyes. The ball remained smooth, uncapturable.
“It expanded when I thought I was being watched,” she said.
“A reaction to fear? Instinct?”
Animal. Aubrey imagined herself apart from her human self-awareness (What does Charles think of me? What do I want my life to become?), let the worrying thoughts and emotions sink towards the bubble, fall inside. It pulsed.
She snatched at it, and it shrank away. Again she snatched; again, it shrank.
Stop reasoning. Stop trying.
She rested, letting Charles’s silence invade her. The bubble swelled. She retreated physically, pushing back her chair to stand. The chair fell over; inside her, the bubble wavered, ready to shrink, collapse on itself.
She took a deep breath, and the bubble re-firmed, grew while Aubrey waited, let it come. The walls of the kitchen swelled, the ceiling fell upwards. She was squashed against the floor by suffocating softness. She wriggled forward; the dress, abandoned by its body, continued its collapse.
A hand flapped before her face. She hissed, scratched, and the hand withdrew.
She fled to the other side of the room, turned there at bay. She was gazing at an immense human leg bearing by an immense human torso: Charles on his knees, under the table.
“Aubrey, can you understand me?”
His right hand was bleeding. She edged forward slowly, licked the wounds clean. A heavy weight descended on her head, stroked the fur around her ears.
She could hear Charles's breath; it ruffled her fur. She flattened herself to the floor.
“Aubrey,” Charles said. “Aubrey, if you can understand me, jump onto the table.”
She straightened and leapt—a swift, fluid motion from floor to chair, from chair to table’s surface. The smell of meat assailed her nostrils; she followed it to a container, sniffed the outside, then the inside, upper lip curling.
Charles was standing now; he frowned.
He muttered, “Food might be the trigger. Aubrey, I want you to jump in the well.”
She tilted her head and hissed.
“A cat hunting meat is pure rote. A cat dunking itself in water is not.”
She swallowed the meat and dropped from the table, landing smoothly on four paws. She pranced across the stones to the well and hauled herself onto the lip, back leg following front. She stroked the water gingerly with one paw, gazed accusingly over one fur shoulder.
Charles actually shrugged.
She fell forward into the water and then she was sinking down into wet blackness. She tried to scream. She lashed at the side of the well with her paws. A vise gripped the scruff of her neck. She flailed.
The bubble burst. She was clutching upwards with fingers, thrashing with human arms. The hand gripping her neck lost its hold, then two hands grasped her shoulders and pulled her into the air.
She lay over the side of the well, gasping for breath. Charles also leaned there near her head. His arm nearest her eyes was covered with red scratches.
Scars, she thought. Charles is going to have scars.
“My apologies, Aubrey,” Charles said, his voice rueful.
They breathed together.
“You understood me?” he said.
“Yes.” She pressed her head to the rough, cool, stones. “But I didn't— I couldn’t—” She didn’t have the words. “I didn’t think, puzzle things out. I didn’t imagine. But I understood.”
He nodded, then moved from her across the kitchen. His pants and shirt were soaked with water and here and there, spots of blood. He picked up her dress, gazed at it doubtfully. Laughter overwhelmed Aubrey. Surely, he doesn’t expect to dress me? She clambered up out of the well, hands outstretched.
“Give it to me.”
She slid into the dress. The material soaked up the water from her skin. Light from the high window spangled the kitchen, emphasizing Charles' compact leanness. Aubrey watched his shadow—unruffled, unhurried—while she steadied herself.
She sank towards the bubble. It expanded more easily this time, the edges folding over her body until the dress fell away. She hissed in frustration, snapping back to human shape.
“I had it,” she told Charles. “The bubble. I lost it.”
“Can you pace the change?”
“I don't know.”
“Try. Wait,” as Aubrey began to dress. “Start with just the underclothes.”
She pulled on her shift and straightened, aware of Charles’s eyes on her. She rolled her shoulders, let them fall. Waited. The bubble reached the tips of her fingers, pressed against her toenails, rippled under her skin.
And then her skin was no more skin but fur, and the bubble was still growing, folding back around her, enclosing her entirely. She yelped, the bubble burst, and she sprawled across the kitchen floor, still in her shift, Charles's hand at her elbow.
“I did it,” she said. “Didn't I? You saw it. I did transform. With the clothes.”
“Good?” She rolled to her knees, scrambled upright, consumed by pleasure, a lust for her own abilities.
She said, “Do you want me to change again?”
And, damn Charles, who did no more than raise an eyebrow.
“No. Here—” he slid his hand into the pocket of his vest, pulled out a watch. He tossed it to Aubrey. “Transform holding that.”
Transforming with the watch was more difficult. The bubble broke at the tips of her fingers, leaving the watch to plummet slowly to the floor. Finally, frustrated, she pushed it into her mouth. This time, the transformation worked, and Aubrey reverted without a pause, gloating. She spat the watch—still intact, slimy with spit—into her palm.
“Apparently.” He grinned. “Can you transform into any animal besides a cat?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think 'cat' when I build the bubble. That just happens.”
He nodded. “Try the heavier clothing without the watch.”
She did. The first few tries, the bubble burst too soon, and Aubrey ended up on the floor, naked and furious with herself.
She held her breath, calmed her blood, and the next tries worked. Charles returned the watch, and she began patiently, carefully, stabilizing the bubble around the object at odds with her form. She probed tentatively at the bubble, ran her thoughts along its surface and dipped through to the underside. She treaded there, rearranging the supple sphere in her mind. It could be molded, perhaps even strengthened.
She transformed. The watch transformed with her. Reverting, the brooch still clasped, intact, between her fingers, she yelled with pleasure.
Charles said, “You could carry money, a purse if necessary. How long do you think you can stay a cat?”
“How long was I a cat before?”
“The first time—at least six months, but you didn’t know yourself. The second time—a few hours. It might be dangerous to stay a cat too long.”
“You could protect yourself. If necessary, you could run, only—”
“Run too far, I might not want to turn back anymore.”
“If you trained yourself, your cat self—gave yourself instructions beforehand.”
Charles eyed her.
“Tell yourself . . . say, ‘I will go to the lobby, then up the stairs two flights. At the end of the hall, I'll go up a small stairway, then through a half-closed door. I’ll take a pen from the desk, return, and change back.’ Got that?”
Aubrey nodded, repeating the instructions in her head. She transformed nonchalantly, wove around Charles’s ankles, then dashed out of the scullery. The lobby was empty, but she avoided the empty space by the door, squeezing instead between the banisters. She scampered up the stairs—one flight, two—then followed a hallway to a narrow staircase
near the front of the building. She mounted to a partially open door, nudged it further to reveal a tidy room with a sloping ceiling.
The room was awash in smells of cheaply laundered shirts, sea-salt, and ink: Charles's smells, and she looked about her until—
There was a desk to the left of the door. She jumped to it, batted at the fountain pen she discovered there before picking it up in her teeth.
Down the stairs, through the lobby—“Woah,” cried a pair of legs—into the scullery. She changed abruptly and sprawled across on the floor. She wiggled into sitting position when Charles knelt beside her and picked up the pen where it had dropped onto the stones.
“Very good,” Charles said in that achingly low voice, and she was all at once shy of him, his compact leanness, his flexible hands, his cropped hair.
She said, “What does the police gain from my ‘ordeal’?”
She got a wry smile for that.
“The police would like to monitor all magicians in Kingston, including those at the Academy. When you reverted the first time, you were the perfect symbol. After all, it was an Academy philter that changed you.”
“Yes. We did look for you.”
“You looked for me.”
“And now? Am I still the perfect symbol?”
“I wouldn’t presume.”
She studied Charles’s half-lidded eyes, lowered now to the floor. She leaned forward and curled his shirt in her hands, then peered up at him, breathless, unable to go further; he would have to help her the rest of the way.
“Oh, Aubrey,” Charles said so very, very softly and his lips closed on her mouth.
She felt his smile as he kissed her and relaxed further against him. His hands held her shoulders, and then he sat back, the kiss done, and gave her his deprecating look.
She said, “Richard wasn’t opposed to your suit.”
He actually flushed. Transformations he took in stride. His relationship with Aubrey—whatever that was—apparently evoked less sanguinity. She was almost relieved.
He said, “Others would be. We're not exactly the same class, Aubrey. And currently, powers in the government would rather you ignored your past. For now—”
I can't protect you: that’s what he was trying to say.
Except if she ran, he wanted her to run to him. He had sent her to his room.
If Charles had an agenda, he wasn’t very good at keeping it.
He pulled her to her feet, kept her hand in his as she straightened her clothes, his other hand smoothing her hair. He didn’t let her go until they reached the lobby to find that Richard had arrived, a tall, dark, disapproving figure.
He looked at Charles, at Aubrey: her mussed hair, her slightly damp dress.
“You’ve recovered from your swoon,” he said almost mildly.
“I bathed my face in cold water.”
“With Mr. Stowe’s help?”
“He was very kind.”
Richard harrumphed and shook Charles’s hand.
“I’ve suggested Miss St. Clair avoid government agents in the future,” Charles said.
Now Richard took Aubrey’s hand, placed it firmly on his arm, and headed out the door. Aubrey glanced back. Charles followed but stopped on the threshold, hands in pockets, face blank. He caught Aubrey’s glance and gave her a smile that barely lifted the corner of his mouth.
Worried. Unsure. As if her leaving was inevitable.
No one will find out I can transform, Aubrey wanted to tell him. But she couldn’t even promise herself that that was true.
Richard heaved her up into a hackney and barked their address to the driver.
“I wasn’t at New Government House,” he said as they clopped away, Aubrey deliberately not looking back.
“I was at Lord Simon’s residence. You know, the area on that side of Palisades is going to be razed, only Lord Simon’s wants his dump to be declared a National Monument, untouchable.”
“Will that happen?”
“I don’t know. The ministers will probably agree. They don’t like him or trust him, but he still carries weight, influence. And aristocratic egos in various departments need soothing. The point is--he was there, Aubrey, in his hall when Sir Prescott arrived full of news about you.”
“Charles—Mr. Stowe says to avoid Lord Simon.”
Aubrey didn’t reply, and Richard sighed heavily.
“He isn’t wrong. There’s odd stories about the man, his past. He may have killed a woman or she simply disappeared in his house—perhaps if we tore it down, we’d find bones in the basement. He did take the spell off you—”
Richard glanced at her then, his voice a faintly edged query.
Aubrey still said nothing.
“But then, he may have been involved in your kidnapping in the first place. The man that got arrested, Dmitri, supposedly worked for him. But they deported Dmitri, so the story got buried.”
“The police buried the story?”
“I understand it was a condition of your restoration. Mr. Stowe agreed.”
“He withholds too much.”
“Aubrey—you need to keep your head down. No police. No outings with Academy directors. Let people like Sir James and Lord Simon forget that you were ever a point of interest. Let the past fade. Things do, you know. They stop mattering.”
Is that what you’re hoping will happen with Gloria? She’ll fade into the background after you’re married?
Richard said, “Lord Simon asked about you. ‘How is the young lady?’ You don’t want that kind of attention, Aubrey.”
No. But perhaps it was inevitable. Sometime, somewhere, Aubrey would have to face the man who hadn't cured her.
She even knew what she would ask him: Can you remove the threat, the constant speculators who circle my existence?
She wouldn't ask him about Charles—she wouldn't bring Charles to his notice.
She would have to bargain. Men like Lord Simon always bargained. Perhaps she could give him the bubble. Or information.
There was the chance she could attack him. But that wouldn’t remove the “interest” (as Richard called it) on other fronts.
I can always run.
To Charles who didn’t deserve her kind of trouble. Or somewhere farther, safer: Sveholt. Ennance.
I’ll have to decide soon. Permanently.
Whatever Richard hoped, this particular ultimatum was not going to fade.