Olivia was full of a scandal—someone else’s for a change—and Aubrey, half-listening, was thinking that Olivia’s life was not a bad one. She executed its routines and excitements and not infrequent ennui with panache. If one was to have Olivia’s life, Olivia was how to lead it.
I don’t want this life.
As an alternative to fear and pain, it was a good one. She must have thought that when she chose to forget. But as a single option, an ultimate decision, it didn’t have much to offer.
Charles with his inexhaustible equanimity offered more.
She danced and drank punch and held light conversations with the (real) debutantes; some of their chaperones looked on with indifference; others plucked their charges away from Aubrey’s presence; no one could decide what she was.
I need to decide.
“Miss St. Clair,” said a lanky blond man with a supercilious air.
He seemed vaguely familiar. Aubrey couldn't place the face but she could place the feeling: hairs rising on the back of her neck; the sensation of being watched, stalked.
“Leslie Jacobs,” the man said with a bow that seemed faintly mocking. “We met at the Academy—during your adventure, as Sir James calls it.”
Aubrey kept her company smile in place, fangs hidden.
“Hello,” she said and gave him her hand, claws tucked away out of sight.
“I hear you have questions. Seems you would have come to someone in the Academy before the police.”
He gave her a faintly quizzical look, the kind of look that said he didn’t think much of her intelligence (ask the police questions about magic?) but was too much a gentleman to say so.
Aubrey said, “Sir Prescott helped me.”
He smiled, a teeth-ful of charm.
“I would be honored to help you as well, Miss St. Clair. Perhaps—” he gestured towards the ballroom’s terrace.
Does he think everyone is a fool or just women or just me?
But it was time to make a decision, so Aubrey went with him onto the half-lit terrace where quiet couples leaned on the balustrades.
“Not terribly private,” Mr. Jacobs said.
“So many people,” Aubrey said, forestalling the next gambit. “I suppose we should next take a stroll in the garden.”
A pause, then Jacobs chuckled.
“I forgot how, ah, saucy, you can be, Miss St. Clair.”
He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
“I can't go too far,” she said. "Sir Prescott worries about my health.”
“The Academy has many faces. Some of us, Miss St. Clair, some of us care about the Academy's magical tradition. We have created powerful formulas that could help our government, our country. We could resolve the problems of our age.”
“Without my help, I'm afraid. I've forgotten what happened to me.”
“Have you?” he said softly, bending to peer into her face.
He had maneuvered her towards the edge of the terrace. He held out an arm, generously allowing Aubrey to proceed him. She went down the narrow steps into the garden's shadows, knowing danger stalked her—behind and before.
She was not surprised when a bag was thrust over her head, when a voice hissed, “Now, I got you. Now, you’ll answer my questions.” She just wondered why Jacobs and this other man bothered. She was going to come willingly.
She sat in a carriage, the bag still on her head, her hands tied. Across from her, a thin, eager voice rambled about discoveries and transformations until Mr. Jacobs snapped, “Shut up!”
“I was that close,” the other man whined, “that close to a breakthrough. The Academy never accomplished as much.”
“Transformation is a dead-end.”
“It is the key. Lord Simon knows it. I said so. I said she could never revert completely.”
Aubrey said, “Are you Lord Simon’s lackeys?”
Jacobs answered, his huffiness reminding Aubrey of Gloria's posturing:
“Lord Simon doesn’t always appreciate others’ initiative.”
“Am I the proof of your initiative?”
“You are collateral. He wants you. He’ll get you. I get his formulas.”
“How enterprising,” she said and didn't bother not to sound snide.
“He's an opportunist,” said the other man. “They all are. Me—I will prove the power of permanent potions.”
Mr. Jacobs snapped, “I will be unbelievably relieved when I no longer have to spend time in your presence.”
Aubrey said nothing. She could feel the second man’s avidity, a mania that flowed from him like noxious air.
She carefully, cautiously let her fangs drop. But not her claws, not yet.
The carriage stopped. She was lifted to the ground, hustled down a path through a door into a cavernous space. Silence descended, filling a space that stretched beyond the present—as if she stood on the brink of a chasm.
A new voice, dry and elderly, said, “Why a bag? Do you think she doesn’t know her location?”
“When she clearly does.”
The bag was pulled up and off her head, leaving her hair in disarray. She used her bound hands to push it aside, looked across a beamed hall at an immensely thin man with a predator’s face: a hawk that kills.
“And bound?” he said. “Although that could make sense. Have your claws returned, Miss St. Clair?”
“Will they return?”
“Yes,” said the eager voice. “Yes. The spell was too permanent for removal. Wasn’t it?”
Aubrey looked at the speaker, a greasy-haired, stooping man who rubbed his hands against his pants, then each other, then his hair: ceaseless motion.
She wasn’t sure if he spoke to Lord Simon or to her, but she answered:
Lord Simon laughed.
“She’s grandstanding,” said Mr. Jacobs in a bored voice.
“No. No, she's not. Didn't you catch the glint of fangs?”
“Show me,” Kev cried, coming around Aubrey on her left.
“Wait, Kev. You will have your chance. The fangs returned. And the claws?”
“The spell itself?”
She didn’t respond. He nodded.
“What do you remember, Miss St. Clair?”
“I dream. I know some things. Why do you care?”
He beckoned, and she neared him. The man Kev began to follow, a shuffling of feet, but Lord Simon leveled a long stare over Aubrey’s shoulder until the shuffling stopped. Lord Simon began to undo the knots that held Aubrey’s hands.
“I care nothing for transformation. And nothing, you will be happy to hear, for you. I need to break a spell. You were the best specimen to test whether that was achievable.”
“Spells aren’t usually permanent.”
“No. But I have a poor track record in that record. The philter that transformed you—its base was mine. And you are not the first woman that I’ve harmed in this way: a spell without end.”
“Is she dead?”
“And not. She haunts me, haunts this house. I hope to restore her.”
“You couldn’t restore me to what I was before.”
“No. Yet, my potion wasn’t entirely ineffective. You are whole. The spell is stable.”
The rope around her hands dropped to the floor. Lord Simon took her shoulders, looked down at her face.
“Are you happy?” he said softly, and she saw that this answer mattered—not for her sake but for the quest he was on that took no moral notice of anything but his own objectives.
“What would make you happy?”
“To be nobody, I suppose. Or just somebody to a few people.”
“Like your surprisingly sanguine policeman. You found him again?”
Aubrey tilted her head, said nothing. Charles was not going to be sacrificed to this man’s curiosity.
Lord Simon took no notice of her deliberate silence.
He said, “An upright man of sterling character, he must have his fetishes. Claws down the back, fangs in the lip?”
Aubrey blushed, and Lord Simon snorted.
“Am I? Was I?”
“You were never truly corrupted.”
“But I’m not what I was before.”
“No,” he said and for the first time, he sounded remote, defensive.
“She’ll be changed,” Aubrey said.
“I don’t want to be used again. Not for anyone’s sake.”
“You are no longer a useful candidate, not for me. You are innocent but not, shall we say, unsullied. However, I can’t speak for others.” He raised his voice. “Kev would certainly like to examine you.”
She turned to confront the avid-faced man and over his shoulder, bored Jacobs.
“You experimented on me,” she said to Kev.
“I did. It was worth the sacrifice”—her sacrifice. “Important. Come. Come—” he held out a hand, fingers twitching. “He said I could have you when he was done.”
Lord Simon chuckled, a rasping sound that rattled his chest.
“I said you could try, Kev,” he said.
“I kidnapped you once,” Kev said. He beckoned more strongly. “Come. Come now.”
She showed her claws then.
Jacobs said, “Hey!” not to her but to Lord Simon.
Lord Simon was backing away, leaving her to face Kev in the center of the hall. She looked from Lord Simon’s retreating form to Kev's face, and she recognized the look in his eyes. Sir James, Sir Prescott, even Gloria had that look when they speculated what Aubrey meant, how she might serve or ruin them.
Only Charles looked at her, her complete, not a collection of parts to be used, studied, coveted.
Jacobs cut across the corner of the hall towards Lord Simon.
Kev said, “I have the right to get answers. The Academy claimed you. It got credit for your reversion. But I was the one who saw the potential in the first place.”
The bubble was already rising. Aubrey let it come until it touched the surface of her skin, rippled there. And still Kev reached out, panting, agitated. Lustful.
He said, “I should have let Dmitri have you—early on. We should have kept you docile. Submissive. Should have broken you.”
A door banged.
“Not again. You bastard,” Jacobs yelled in frustration.
Kev said, “You belong to me. I got you open. I know what’s inside. Mine,” and reached for her.
And Aubrey let the bubble loose.
She didn’t try to direct it: her clothes fell away in a outward explosion of fur and claws. Someone ran. Someone screamed. She pounced and tumbled. She felt human flesh, tasted warm blood and then she was pacing back and forth, back and forth across the wooden floor, claws clicking. Somewhere someone screamed again high and long, but the sound meant nothing, carried no threat.
She turned, paced forward, found fresh air. She raised her face, collecting information: animals nearby, people in the vicinity. Location. Palisade. Inland. Away from the sea.
She bounded into darkness. She had her instructions. She knew where to go.