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Authors: Roderick Townley

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BOOK: A Bitter Magic
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Chapter Nine

“You know,” says Elwyn as I lift him from the bathtub and set him, dripping, on the tiles. “It may be just as well.”

“What do you mean? It's terrible!”

“Did you see the way the cook was looking at me today, when we went through the pantry? It's only a matter of time before she drops me in a pot of boiling water.”

“Don't say that!”

“Especially considering the way your uncle feels.”

“Who are you talking to?” Miss Porlock's voice reaches me from the other room. She comes to the door. “Oh.”

“Elwyn says I need to let him go.”

“Elwyn? You still think that creature can talk?”

“Of course.”

“Don't you remember your biology? Lobsters have no voice box. They barely have a brain.”

I turn to Elwyn. “I know you don't like to speak when others are around, but say something. She won't hurt you.”

“What should I say?” he says clearly.

“Anything, but speak up! She can help us.”

“I doubt that very much.”

“If someone hears you speak, they won't cook you!”

“Oh, that would make me even more of a delicacy. Delicious
and
loquacious!”

“Low what?”

“Look it up.”

I turn to Miss Porlock. “You heard that, surely.”

She looks at me with pitying eyes.

“Elwyn, say something else.”

“Why? Only you can hear me. Don't you know that?”

“What do you mean?”

“We talk mind to mind.”

“Mind to—?” I turn to my tutor. “You really don't hear anything he's saying?”

“Oh my dear,” she says.

Elwyn lifts a feeler. “The tide should be high soon. Maybe we should go.”

A glance at Miss Porlock tells me there's no help to be found. I fill Elwyn's bucket, set him in it, and hurry out.

—

The path to the seawall is a shambles of loose rocks and dirt, and partway down I slip and nearly fall, whacking the bucket on the ground.

“Hey!” Elwyn calls from inside.

“Sorry.”

“My shell isn't made of iron.”

I reach my lookout spot and watch the waves dash against the rocks below. Cole isn't anywhere to be seen, but I no longer expect him. He's probably out filching goods from shopkeepers or laughing with his friends about Thummel's crazy niece.

And who's that girl he was with, running from the shop? Accomplice? Girlfriend?

I climb over the edge of the wall and work my way down to the water, balancing Elwyn's pail in one hand while I search for handholds with the other. It's loud down here, waves curling and crashing. To my sensitive nose, the smell of seaweed and dead horseshoe crabs is startling.

Slowly, Elwyn emerges from his bucket. He's free of the leash but still wears his spun-gold collar. He seems to like it, so I leave it on him to remember me by.

For long seconds, we stare at the water. “Where will you go?” I say.

“The firth's a big place.”

“Will I ever see you again?”

He is silent.

“Elwyn, will I
see
you again?”

“You'll hear from me.”

Somehow, that's not reassuring. “Why are you being so mysterious?”

“You'll hear from me. One way or another. Probably another.” He steps delicately into the water. A wavelet sweeps over him, bearding him with foam. “Don't forget what I told you,” he says.

“About what?”

“About that mad scientist you call your uncle. Pay attention. He's up to something.”

“And how would
you
know what he's up to?”

“You mean,” he says, turning his beady eyes on me, “how would I, a mere crustacean, a pair of ragged claws—”

“That's not what I mean at all.”

Another wavelet, foamier than the last, briefly covers him.

“Never underestimate a crustacean, my dear,” he says, sputtering slightly. “And now, if you don't mind, I've got a tide to catch.”

“Won't you miss me?”

It takes him several seconds and another wavelet before he answers. “I will miss you very much, Cisley Thummel.”

With that, he steps farther out and is immediately submerged. For another few seconds, I can see the glimmer of his golden collar. Then he really is gone.

We're in the heat of the day now, and the boats have left for the fishing grounds. The painter, having done
what he could, folds his easel and trudges along the beach. He lifts his hat to wipe his forehead with his arm, and I see his face.

Something about him: the tan, deeply lined forehead, the serious eyes. Haven't I seen him before?

Not here. Where?

Why does it disturb me?

I lean back against the seawall and watch.

I
know
I've seen him before.

Chapter Ten

I'm out in the hall, listening. Not a sound.

The tightly spiraled staircase lies to the right—to Asa's rooftop laboratory. What would he do if he caught me up there?

But this morning, he's outside. I saw him with Strunk, inspecting the labyrinth.

I wish I had Mother's courage. But even a coward can put her foot on the first step.

Why haven't I ever been allowed up there? I can understand why he doesn't want outsiders seeing how he invents the effects for his magic show, but I'm family; I know his tricks; I've seen the smoke in all his mirrors.

I take the second step. After that, the others are easier. As I round the first curve, a slight breeze reaches me
from above. The next curve brings me a faint scent of flowers.

Heavy thudding above me. Coming nearer. But Uncle Asa's outside!

I snatch off my shoes and pad back down the stairs, trying not to make a sound. The footsteps are louder and closer. I make it to the bottom just as Janko, my uncle's assistant, clumps into view.

“What you do here, jong lady?” His voice is heavy and slow, as if words aren't natural to him.

I take too long to answer. He grabs my arm, hard enough to leave a mark. “You were going up dere, no?”

My heart's blasting away.

He shoves me so roughly I bang against the wall. I clutch my shoes to my chest, an image of my mother flashing through my brain. How disappointed she would be.
You're a Thummel. Act like one!

“Guess I took a wrong turn,” I murmur.

Janko purses his lips, deciding whether or not to kill me. “Go,” he grunts.

I slip past him down the corridor.

Still shaking, I stick my hand in my pocket and touch my wooden turtle for luck. “In times of stress,” my mother once told me, “always keep your bowler on.” That didn't make much sense to a girl who would never think of wearing a man's hat, but it means something now. Always carry on. Don't give in. In my case, at this moment, it means going down to the pantry and getting a snack.

The cook—portly Mrs. Quay—and Jenny the pantry maid both like me, the cook, I think, because her own children have all grown up and moved away, and Jenny because she doesn't have any. I sit on a stool by the work counter and swivel back and forth while they gossip and feed me candied walnuts.

The subject of gossip today is Uncle Asa's latest tantrum about dining chairs. The chairs still aren't right.

“He can be a terror, your uncle,” says Mrs. Quay.

I nod, wondering,
Are we ever angry about what we think we are?

I
have
to find out what he's doing up there.

Stuffing an almond cookie in my pocket, I thank the ladies and hurry to the atrium. Through the front gate, I can see Uncle Asa and Janko talking. I'll never have a better chance than now.

I run to the second floor, then patter up the spiral staircase to the roof. In a moment, I reach the relief of open air, amid flashing scimitars of red, blue, and yellow light that ricochet between the crystal walls and glass-paved patio. It's like being inside the sun, without the heat, or on top of a glacier, without the cold. Overhead flies a canopy, green and flapping in the wind, while just beyond, nestled between glittering turrets, stands the laboratory: a squat structure with glass walls to let the sunlight in.

Uncle Asa's secret.

No surprise that the door is locked, but I can see through the glass. On a long worktable, pots of flowers
stand like patients in a hospital ward, many of them attached to machines, tubes, cables. And all of them roses: dark red, dark brown, dark purple, in various stages of growth or decay.

The words from Mother's letter swirl in my head:
Inhale the scent of a pure black rose. But it must be purest black
.

Of course. But why does he care so much? Surely his own tricks are spectacular enough. He's practically a genius at them.

They're not enough. Of course they're not enough. I never realized it so clearly before. It's real magic he craves.

Something on the worktable catches my eye, next to the line of test tubes: a jagged piece of glass. Hard to see, but from where I stand, it looks black.

Black rose.

Black glass.

Black…magic?

All within the dance and dazzle of refracted light.

I am now desperate to get inside. I examine the door. If I broke one small pane, I might be able to reach through and undo the lock.
Yes, but think about it. When Asa gets back, he'll see what I've done. Then what will I say?

Cross that bridge later
. I glance around, searching for something, anything. The patio is bare except for a hedge in a long flower box and the canopy overhead. Hanging from it is a metal rod that you turn to retract the canvas.
That might work. I reach up and try to detach it. It's surprisingly heavy and fights me, but I twist it free.

Hefting the pole like a battering ram, I aim for the pane beside the door. Easy now. Slow down.

I lunge and strike the glass with a loud crack. I've hit a corner of the pane. A web of lines radiates outward, but the glass is intact.

I hoist the metal pole again and steady myself. Careful. This should do it.

I lunge forward, but immediately I'm yanked
backward
! I spin around.
Uncle Asa!
His eyes burn into mine!

Neither of us says anything, each of us holding on to the pole with all our strength. He rips the thing from my hands, flings it aside with a clatter, then slaps my face. I hit the floor hard.

“How dare you!”
he roars.

I groan. The fall hurt much more than the slap, my cheek gashed on the edge of the metal flower box, and my hip throbbing.

“Look at me!”
he shouts.

Not possible. My cheek is bleeding, starting to swell up, partly closing one eye. A fuzzy image of Asa's face swerves over me. His momentary fury has changed to something else. A frown scrolls his forehead. “You're bleeding.”

I must look pretty bad for him to care. I lick the corner of my mouth and taste blood.

“How can you be so clumsy?”

I don't reply.

“We'd better do something about this. Janko!” he calls out.
“Janko!”

“Never mind,” I manage.

“No. You're going to need a bandage. And I don't want to hear you whining about this. You brought it on yourself.”

“Never mind!” The sharpness of my tone surprises me. I cup my hands over my puffy cheek, my eyes closed in concentration.

“Look,” he says, his anger lessening, “you need to put something on that.”

“Shh!”

His anger may be lowering, but mine is rising. I can hardly remember the fearful girl I was before his slap woke me up.

He starts to say something, but I cut him off. “Will you be
quiet
?”

After a few seconds, I feel the heat building on the left side of my face. It grows warmer, then actually hot. Uncle Asa is speaking, but I can't listen, can't break my concentration. I feel the swelling subside, the pain leak away. Give it another few seconds, to make sure. When I lower my hands, I can see Uncle Asa clearly. His look has changed to astonishment.

“What did you
do
?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just now. The bruise is gone! The bleeding—”

“How about my lip?”

He continues to stare.

“The lip,” I say impatiently. “Has it stopped?”

He nods blankly. “It's…” He seems to lose the thread. “It's perfect.”

I nod. Getting to my feet is painful. I'll heal my hip later, when I'm back in my room. Hard to explain how I feel. I'm not at all afraid of this man. What I am is furious. He's never hit me before, as bratty as I've been. I can guarantee he'll never do it again.

“Look,” I say through my teeth, “I can't talk to you now. But I've got some questions, and I'll want answers.”

He's still looking at my face. “Yes, yes,” he murmurs.

As I limp away, he speaks to my back: “I'll have some questions for you, too, young lady.”

Chapter Eleven

No thanks. I don't plan to face my uncle over the dinner table, even with Miss Porlock between us. I reach for the tapestried bellpull and call for the chambermaid, a pleasant, mostly silent woman in her fifties, and ask to have supper brought up.

The truth is, I'm famished. I get hungry when I'm angry. He hit me! He hit me hard! I'm all right now, after giving my hip the special hands-on treatment.

The vaulted window looks out over the waters of the firth. Somewhere out there, my little friend Elwyn is scuttling about making a new life for himself—or making a meal for someone else. I should have taken off that golden collar. Unwanted attention.

Thinking about him, I almost don't hear the soft knock on my door. I hurry over to let the chambermaid
in. But it is not the chambermaid. It's Uncle Asa, carrying a tray!

“May I come in?”

May he come in. Mind if I slap your face first?

I step aside.

He glides past, enveloping me in the scent of hair pomade, and sets the tray on the side table. Showman to the end, he whisks the silver dome from my dinner plate, releasing a glory of mingled smells: duckling, buttered beans with almond slivers, and cheese-infused potatoes.

“May I join you?”

“What if I say no?”

He takes a seat opposite me. “Too late.”

I notice he has brought no food for himself, only a glass of ghastly liquid he calls Calvados. It's his favorite drink. Smells like kerosene.

He sips, frowns at his glass, and sets it down. “You said you had some questions. I thought it best if we dealt with them in private.”

“All right,” I say. “Here's one. What were you doing with that broken glass?”

“What broken glass?”

“The glass from the black mirror. I saw it on your worktable.”

His brows lift, to give his eyes more room to see me. “I'm impressed.” He swirls the drink in his glass and sets it down without having any.

I wait.

“I suppose that explains why you were trying to smash your way into my laboratory.”

I wait. I'm really good at waiting.

“What was I doing with the glass? I was analyzing it. It came from a mirror, as you say, but it doesn't reflect.”

“I know that.”

“You seem to know a great deal.”

I don't answer.

“It's very old,” he continues. “I remember seeing it in our mother's room when Marina and I were children.”

That stops me. “You mean it's been in the family—”

“For generations, probably. Nobody would tell me what it was for.”

“What
is
it for?”

“Wish I knew.” This time, he does take a drink. The mixture of alcohol and hair pomade takes my appetite clean away. “I've tested it every way I can think of.”

“No luck?”

He shakes his head.

“No black rose, either, I assume.”

His look of surprise borders on fear. “Wh-what—” He actually stammers. “What do you know about black roses?”

“That letter from Mother? I read it. Actually, I watched it disappear from the page.”

“She's always been proud of that trick.”

“So,” I say again, “no black rose yet?”

He gives a hollow laugh. I don't care for the smell of
his breath. “There's just one problem, a small detail your mother failed to mention.” His eyes grow hard.
“There is no such thing as a black rose!”
He pounds the table. Several beans fall off my plate.

“I don't understand. There are pink roses, yellow—”

“There is no black rose because black is not a
color
!”

“I'm confused.”

“It is the
absence
of color. Don't you understand? It sucks all colors into itself. We are talking now about pure black. There are plenty of
dark
roses, but they—”

“They're not magical.”

“Think about it. A perfectly black rose would be
invisible
!”

“Mother must have known that.”

“Of
course
she knew it. She took no end of pleasure in mocking me.” He pauses. “There is something about it, isn't there? A black rose. The color of mystery, if anything is. The noncolor, I should say.”

I don't think I've seen him like this before. He's often quiet, but it's the quiet of calculation. This is different. He stares into his glass. “It's everything we can't see. The dark side of life. Death. Passion.”

“Magic?”

He darts me a look.

“So, you believe her, then? You think that if you can manage to create a black rose—”

“I wouldn't be the first to try. People have been obsessed with it for centuries. A few have come up with
very dark roses. But when you look closely, they're really dark purple. Or dark maroon.” He pauses. His pause lasts a long time. “Let me know when it's my turn to ask a question.”

I brace myself. “Go ahead.”

“I'd like to do more tests.”

“You need my permission?”

“I think so. You see, I'd like to do them on
you
.”

My shoulders tighten. “I think you tested me quite enough this afternoon.”

“This afternoon, I didn't know what you were.”

“What does that mean?”

“I didn't think you had possibilities.” He puts his hands together, prayer-wise, and rests his chin on them. “I didn't think you were interesting.”

“What makes me interesting now?”

“You have something I don't.”

I make a face.

“Magic,”
he says. “It runs in the family. Correction. It runs in the female side of the family.”

“And you think—?”

“Don't interrupt. I'm making a confession, in case you didn't notice. I don't make them very often.” Uncle Asa drains his glass. “I can't tell you how strange it was,” he says, “growing up with a mother who could pluck eggs out of the air and then make omelets out of them. Marina had her own abilities. Different abilities. She could make print disappear from a book. Or appear. She could
make a torn shirt mend itself.” He gives a little hum of a laugh. “She could make half of Europe fall in love with her. That's a sort of magic, too.”

He pauses. “Apparently not all magical people can do the same things. I wouldn't know. All I knew was I couldn't do any of them.” He looks off into the distance. “A simple accident,” he murmurs.

“What accident?”

He shoots me a look, realizing, probably, that he's been talking to me as if I were an actual person, not just some bratty creature he's been saddled with. “It's odd,” he says. “Through the simple accident of being born a male, I'm left outside. Locked out.”

I nod, taking this in.

“While my sister, my selfish, undeserving sister, is handed the keys to the kingdom.”

“Keys?”

“Magic!
I'm talking about
magic
!” He looks at me hard, and his eyes are wounds.

Not the kind I can heal.

“And now along comes little Miss Cisley, the next female in the line. She has no idea what she's about, and yet she heals people by touch!”

“Well, there's more to it than just touching, Uncle Asa. You have to—”

“Spare me.”

I stare down at my dinner. It hardly registers that the objects are food. “I still don't see—”

“Come now, Cisley. You aren't stupid.”

“Thank you.”

We sit for some seconds in silence.

“So you want to test me?”

“I want to see what you can do. The extent of your abilities.”

“Why? Why do you care?”

“Aren't you interested in your abilities?”

“Of course I am!”

“But you never tested them yourself?”

“I didn't know I
had
them. I thought everybody healed things that way.”

“You really have been isolated, haven't you?”

“You noticed.”

He tilts his head, assessing me. “What's come over you? You never used to be like this.”

“Like what?”

“Talking back. Challenging everything I say.”

“You're right. I was afraid of you. Silly me.”

“And you're not now. What happened?”

“This afternoon happened.”

He sighs. “About that. I didn't actually intend—”

“Let's not go into it, if you don't mind.”

We fall silent. He pulls gently on the end of his nose, his lids half closed.

I'm assessing him, too. Those crafty eyes. “You're not interested in me, Uncle Asa,” I say at last. “You just want to see if you can use me.”

He smiles slightly, just a quiver. “I
knew
you weren't stupid.”

BOOK: A Bitter Magic
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