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Authors: Roderick Townley

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BOOK: A Bitter Magic
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Chapter Twenty-Two

A rotten-egg smell greets me as we reach the roof. It gets abruptly worse when Janko opens the laboratory door and gestures me in.

Click-click-click
.

“Um,” I say, “maybe this isn't the best time?”

He takes a step toward me.

I duck in, just in time to glimpse an object whiz past my head and crash tremendously against one of the metal supports. Dirt and broken clay fly in all directions, small bits peppering my face. There's Asa, hunched, glaring, his eyes as wild as his hair.

I quickly step out again.

But there's Janko. He grabs my arm and practically flings me inside, slamming the door shut.

Asa looks up at the sound. He's like someone waking from a dream. “You!” he says.

“Uncle, are you all right?”

He runs a sooty hand through his hair. “What are you doing here?”

“You told me to come!”

“Oh.” He looks around as if he's misplaced something.

“Are you sure you're all right?”

He doesn't answer.

“Uncle?”

“I haven't been sleeping well.”

That makes two of us
. “Did you throw that flowerpot at me?”

“At you?” He finally focuses. “Of course not. I didn't see you sneaking about.”

“I was not sneak—”

“Glad to hear it.” He expels a huffy sigh. “Now, what do you say; shall we get to work?” He fits a vial over a small flame. His lab coat, once white, is blotched with orange stains.

“Uncle Asa, what's that horrible smell?”

“Sulfur. Some so-called expert said sulfur would work. I'm here to tell you it does not.”

“Can we at least keep the door open?”

“Can't. Temperature control.” He takes a flat metal case from a shelf and unlatches it, revealing scores of stoppered test tubes with labels in Latin. He selects two and sets them on a stand.

“What do you want me to do?” I tap the glass end of my thumb nervously. I don't want him to see it. I don't want anyone to see it.

“Get me down that book. Third from the right? That's it.”

It's heavy, but I carry it with one hand, keeping the other out of sight.
Le Vrai Mystère de la Rose Noire
. “It's in French.”

He riffles through it, then slaps his hand down. “Where am I supposed to find
that
?”

“Find what?”

“A certain black moss grows in the south of France. In
winter.”
He rubs his forehead. “You may have noticed we are not in the south of France. And it is not winter.”

“What do you need it for, this moss?”

No reply. He's checking the glass vial over the flame. The liquid inside has turned brown.

“Damn!”

“What are you trying to do?”

“The impossible. Now, if you want to be useful as well as ornamental, you could hand me those calipers on the hook there.”

“You're still trying, aren't you, Uncle Asa?”

No answer. He wipes the back of his hand across his forehead, leaving a smear.

“But you
know
it can't be done.”

Silence.

“Mother had to know that, too.”

He pours the vial of brown liquid into the sink.

“Maybe she was teasing you.” I'm determined to get a reaction. “Maybe it was a joke.”

He whirls around, his eyes murderous. “A
joke
?”

I flinch.

“A
JOKE
?” He bangs the vial down on the counter, shattering the glass.

“I didn't mean
joke
, exactly.”

His gaze is iron. “I am doing these experiments,” he says, grinding his syllables slowly, “in case it is
not
a joke. In case everybody is
wrong
. In case it is possible after all!”

I step back. My thumb is clicking madly. I've seen that look on his face before. He's jealous. It's that simple. Mother never let him forget he was a fraud: Asa Thummel, master magician, who has no magic in him.

Now she's gone. Now's his chance. No wonder he's throwing flowerpots.

“Uncle,” I say, getting my courage up, “why do you want me here?”

“I don't know.”

“You don't?”

“I need you in place.”

“What makes you think I'd be any use? I'm not a scientist.”

“I don't want a scientist.
I'm
the scientist. I need a helper.”

“There's Janko.”

“Ah yes, there's Janko,” he says, with a twist. “Why didn't I think of that?”

“Or any of the other servants, if all you need is someone to fetch your books and sweep up your broken flowerpots.”

“Stop it!”

I stop.

“I need
you
. You're the only one who can understand what I'm doing here. The only one with
magic
.” His dark eyebrows tilt in as he holds me in his gaze. “Not much, as far as I can tell, but you have some. Chemistry alone may not be the answer.”

“But,” I protest, “
I
can't make you a black rose. We tried that experiment. Several times, as I recall.”

“Obviously we were doing something wrong.”

“Or else it's really impossible.”

“Maybe. Or maybe the right chemicals—I haven't given up on chemistry, you see. In fact…” He lurches over to the stand of test tubes. “In fact,” he says, “you might want to take a look at this. It's one of my small successes.”

“What is it?”

“Co-pigmentation.”

“What?”

“In this tube, we have a colorless flavonoid. In this other one, we have a combination of cyanidins.”

Is he purposely trying to confuse me?

“Colorless chemicals,” he explains. “But combine them, and you can change the appearance of a pigment.”

“I'm afraid Miss Porlock's chemistry lessons—”

“It simply means you can change the color. That's how I got that rose.” He points to one of the plants.

I stare at it. “It's blue.”

“You're observant.”

“I thought you were making a black rose.”

“I had to do something that's possible before trying something that's impossible. I had to come up with a method.”

“And have you?”

“We'll see.” Then, more softly, to himself, “We'll see.”

I stare at the rose, then at Asa. Sometimes, like now, my uncle seems perfectly sane. Other times, quite mad.

What will he be five minutes from now?

Chapter Twenty-Three

An hour later, no closer to success, he excuses me for the day. Janko sits on the parapet, gazing out, smoking a vile cigar. He doesn't turn as I pass.

I dawdle down the staircase to my room, a thumb click for every step.

Trapped. Tricked. Stuck.

I did what the shell told me to. I need to have a word with that bag of wind. There it sits on my bedside table, looking innocent.

“I suppose you know what went on upstairs,” I say. “You seem to know everything else.”

No response.

“Don't pretend you don't hear me.”

I might as well be talking to a chair leg.

“Fine. I'm leaving.” I head to the door, but pause.
Where do I think I'm going? Not outside. Not downstairs. If I don't help my uncle, I'm confined to this floor, pretty much forever.

“Actually…” The voice is quiet.

I turn. “Did you say something?”

“Actually, I don't understand him any more than you do. What he's doing up there doesn't make sense.”

“I know. All he did was turn a flower blue.”

“It's sad.”

“He thinks if he can get the right chemicals—”

A little gust from the shell. Disgust? Some other kind of gust?

“What is it?” I ask.

“I'm going to have to help him.”

I pick the shell up. “And how do you propose to do that?”

“Not so loud. You don't have to talk right into the opening.”

I can't believe this. I'm being scolded by a seashell! I set it down.

“Come on,” says the voice. “Let's forget all this. Go for a walk.”

“We can't.”

“I don't mean outside. Follow our noses. Well, your nose.”

When I step into the hall, the shell under my arm, my nose does give me a hint: the smell of flowers: Mother's room.

We set off. My uncle has made the corridors more
complicated today, the better to keep me from wandering, I suppose. That's quite apart from the Mirror Maze. Gradually, mirror by sliding panel, the scent grows stronger, until I find myself outside my mother's door.

I don't have a key.

I look at the lock, then at my thumb, the slant of black glass at the end of it.

At the lock again.

Can't hurt to try. Gently, I press my thumb against the lock and hold it there.

A few seconds of nothing at all. More seconds of nothing at all. Finally, after more than a minute, two tiny pinpoints ignite. Then three more flecks. They circle. The lock brightens. Before long, hundreds of lights swarm the lock, so bright I can't look at them directly.

But then I see fewer of them. Fewer and fewer.

I pull my thumb away. Where the lock had been, there is now a neat thumb-sized hole. I give the door a push, and it swings open.

“Well done,” says the shell.

On the mantel, a white rose dimly gleams. I place the shell beside it and feel my way through the sitting room to the red-tinged gloom of the bedroom, where the portrait of Mother hangs. I stand before it, my vision adjusting to the half-light, and stare into her eyes. I realize we share something, a secret no one else understands. I don't understand it myself, but know it would be lost if I pulled open the drapes and let in the brutal logic of daylight.

The sheen of her gown catches my eye, reminding me of the closet and its treasures.

Go ahead
, says a voice in my head.

Maybe I will
, I mentally reply.

The closet door swings open as I approach. Somehow that seems natural, and I sweep in as if I belong here. It's also natural that I can see where I'm going, with no lamps or windows. A twilight glimmer comes from the dresses themselves, long rows of them brushing against me on either side, welcoming me, reaching out to me, although I've never worn such clothes in my life. Never wanted to, before I discovered the wonders of this closet. Now I can't get enough of them.

That red silk dress, for instance, floor-length, low in the back. It's wonderfully daring, with its single shoulder strap. Too long for me, too full, I can see that, but so soft!

Nobody's looking. Go ahead
.

I pull it down and run out to the bedroom. Before the mirror, I slip it over my head and smooth the material over my hips. Immediately, it forms itself perfectly to my body. Is this really me? I feel like a red tulip, tightly petaled.

“Need any help?” I hear from the other room.

I'd forgotten about the shell.

“Isn't it fantastic?” I say, turning around before it.

The shell considers. “The fit's perfect. But…”

“What?”

“Who does your hair, that Porlock woman?”

“I do. What's wrong?”

“Sit down. I'll talk you through it.”

I take the chair at the vanity. “We're going to need more light,” I say, and reach for the crystal match strike. But before I can light the table lamp, the shell shushes me.

Someone is outside the door, going through keys, then stopping, realizing there's no lock.

“Hide!” the shell hisses.

I grab my clothes and race to the closet, easing the door shut behind me. All I can think is that Asa—or worse, Janko—has come to drag me back to the lab.

Crawling between dresses, I crouch behind a ball gown. The outside door creaks open.

A long silence, then footsteps, muffled by the Oriental rug.

The shell! I left it out there!

Maybe he won't notice.

I hear a scratching sound, then smell a match. A faint light flimmers.

After a long minute, a drawer groans open. Bumps shut.

Then another drawer.

A thief! Do we have thieves in the castle?

The steps come closer, then stop. I close my left hand in a fist, but leave my thumb free, careful not to touch anything. The doorknob turns. My breath halts. Then a light darts about, making sequins wink.

The footsteps are coming right toward me! Trying to
shrink back, I brush against a taffeta dress, which makes a shushing sound.

The steps cease. Someone is listening.

I listen to him listening.

The steps resume. Pass next to me. A shock: thumping by are the brown, thick-heeled shoes I've seen so often before.

Not Asa after all. Not Janko.

Edna Porlock!
What's she doing here?

My old tutor turns and stumps back out to the bedroom.

I wait a long minute, a muddle of confusion—
Miss Porlock!
—then creep from my hiding place and peek through the narrow opening by the door hinge. Now Miss P. is going through Mother's bureau. She slides open the top drawer, contemplates what she sees there, pulls something out. Turns and holds it up: a pair of filmy silk stockings.

She gives it a long look, holds it to her cheek, feeling its softness. Her eyes close.

I shouldn't be seeing this.

The lamplight flashes on something metallic, turning it gold. Scissors! Slowly, as if dreaming, Miss Porlock snips the stockings in half.

She continues cutting until the bureau top is littered with silken fragments. She stares at what she has done, her face a mask. Now she gathers the remnants, sweeps them back in the drawer, and closes it.

She lifts her chin, checks her hair in the mirror, and walks out of my range of sight.

With a creak, the outer door opens, then bumps shut.

When I'm sure she's gone, I quick-change my clothes, and grab the shell from the mantel.

“Let's get out of here!”

BOOK: A Bitter Magic
13.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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