Richard stared glumly at his glass of brandy. It wasn't nearly as full as it should be, but the bottle was empty. He briefly considered calling for more--but no, that would only lead to his aunt glaring at him over breakfast, and he couldn't handle that, not after Kim...well. She'd been absent on "wizard business" with increasing frequency. He suspected a dalliance, maybe with Durmontov, who'd been unable to hide his admiration after Kim's intervention stopped Mannering. He smiled to himself, a twisted thing with little joy in it, and toasted to her great Society success.
Kim had spent a long, boring morning listening to Mrs. Lowe go on and on about one of her acquaintances. She'd only managed to escape by claiming a need to study.
She paused in the hall to ask James if there were any messages for her and he presented a silver salver towering with cards. She accepted it with some trepidation and began sorting through them when one--raggedy and smudged with ink--caught her eye. Bess was ready to proceed with their experiment!
She did her best to act nonchalant as she pocketed the grubby card from the plate; if James thought she was sneaking around, he'd no doubt report it to Mairelon. That was just the last thing she needed; Bright Bess would never speak to her again if she let some toff, even one as unconventional as Richard Merrill, in on their secret. And now that Kim had come clean to her about being a girl, she found herself eager to maintain their friendship.
As terrible as it had been, living on the streets, it was a relief to have friends who had known her then and knew she wasn't some refined lady.
"James, it looks like I'll be unavailable all afternoon. Wizard business," she said, nodding gravely at the butler before heading to the kitchens. She and Bess did their best work on full stomachs. Accordingly, she'd asked Cook to prepare a dinner basket for two. They had plenty to get done today.
The hackney rattled to stop on Ratchiffe Row in front of Bess' building. Kim hopped out before the coachman could offer his arm and engaged him to return in four hours. They should be done by then, but she'd have to leave at that point regardless; if she missed supper, Mairelon would worry, and a worried Mairelon was even more infuriating than usual. She made her way inside and paused to let her eyes adjust before picking her way up the rickety stairs.
Bess had moved into Ma Yanger's rooms after she'd gotten free of Mannering's spell. Like Ma Yanger, she used the larger front room as a workspace and she bedded down in the second, much smaller room. Before Kim had met Mairelon, the apartment had seemed palatial. When she'd found Ma Yanger it had seemed dirty and chaotic. Now, it was clean if a bit shabby. Bess had plenty of seemingly-arcane tools and implements lying around but Kim knew it was mostly all for show. Folks looking to buy a love spell or wart cure were often willing to pay more if they saw the expected skulls and herbs and other accoutrements. Mairelon would call it showmanship; Bess just called it business.
"Hullo, Bess," she called. "Sorry I'm late; she wouldn't stop jawing on about her friends. I brought grub to make up for it, though."
Bess poked her head into the main room. "You know I ain't one to turn down food, especially from your Mairelon's cook. Did you remember to bring the book, though? I been wanting to go over what she has to say on diagrams again."
Kim set the basket on a table and fumbled in her reticule before pulling out the tome. "Sure did. This Mme. Sorbier was a right canny mort; there's a whole bit on doing spells without written diagrams, too, and she has a way of doing it that makes them less risky."
"That's great, Kim! Just what we needed to solve this," Bess said, making her way into the workspace. "Food before or after?"
Kim's stomach chose just then to rumble. "Better eat before," she said sheepishly, "I skipped breakfast."
"Afternoon, James. Is Mrs. Merrill about?" Richard asked, handing his hat and overcoat to the butler.
James took them and tucked the coat over his arm. "No, sir, she went out on wizard business just about a quarter of an hour ago," he replied.
"Wizard's business?" Richard asked, perking up. "Did she say where?"
"I didn't ask, sir," James said, his tone heavily implying that it had been none of his business.
"Of course not," he murmured. "Oh, James? Does Mrs. Merrill go out on wizard's business very often?"
"Oh, yes, sir," said James, "Mrs. Merrill has told me she was going out on business four times in the last two weeks."
Richard's heart went strange at his words. He waved James off before his expression could give anything away. He'd spent all morning at his club going back and forth on the issue of Kim's disappearances, but he'd finally made a decision. He wasn't going to let Durmontov or any other man steal her away. If that meant poking his nose into her business, so be it.
"And what do you think you're doing, 'aring off after 'er? I never thought I'd say it, but that Kim knows what's she's about," Hunch said.
"I know it's not at all fashionable of me, but hang fashion! If nothing else I need to make sure she's safe," Richard said, hands steady despite his hurry as he poured the ink for the scrying spell. He rapidly intoned the spell and peered eagerly into the ink.
"Well?" Hunch asked impatiently.
Richard leaned back, stunned speechless for a moment. He shook his head. "I'm an idiot. It looks like she's in that woman Yanger's old rooms."
"Ratchiffe Row? I know what I said, but sir, she oughtn't be down there by 'erself, even on wizard business," Hunch said, chewing on his mustaches.
Richard gazed absentmindedly into the dish for another moment, thoughts elsewhere. When he finally spoke it was to say, "Do you know, Hunch, I believe you are right. We should go lend her our assistance."
Kim felt a familiar tingle just before they started the ward. Someone was scrying them. "Oh, of all the ninny-hammered, idiotic--Bess, I'd bet my last shilling that was Mairelon, which means he'll be bursting in here any minute now."
"Well, then, we'd best get as much done as possible while we can, hadn't we?" Bess said with her usual practicality. Kim agreed and they started to walk the circle to put of their ward.
A good half hour later Kim heard the tell-tale creak of the stairs. The noise preceded Mairelon and Hunch into the room by mere moments. She rose from where she was crouched on the floor, leaving the chalk she'd been using behind, and stalked over.
"Kim!" Mairelon exclaimed, arms waving like the stage magician he'd once posed as. "We came to help."
"Help with what?" Kim asked acerbically. "We've barely started." Bess coughed quietly behind her. "Oh, right. Bess, this is my husband, Mr. Merrill. Mairelon, this is Bright Bess. We go way back."
Mairelon nodded. "It's a pleasure, I'm sure," he said.
"Now, what exactly do you think you're doing, scrying me and then showing up here?" Kim demanded. She was taken aback when Mairelon fidgeted uncomfortably. Mairelon was almost always composed; it was his most annoying feature.
"Well. You--that is to say, I worried you might have a, hm, a dalliance, and did the spell to ascertain who it was with before speaking with you. I know such things are common enough, but I suppose I was jealous," he explained.
"You're dicked in the nob, is what you are! As if I'd the time for a dalliance," Kim exclaimed. Mairelon gave her a quizzical look and she felt her face heat. "Or the inclination, you great looby! I thought that went without saying." She strode forward and took two deliberate sniffs. "Well, you ain't foxed, and that's the only explanation I--"
She was cut off by Mairelon's mouth on hers, warm and insistent. She dimly heard Bess and Hunch conferring, but put it out of her mind to focus on the interesting thing Mairelon had started to do with his tongue.
"What I don't understand," Mairelon said between kisses, "is why you didn't discuss this wizard's business with me. After all, I am your instructor."
Kim squirmed. "Well, that's just it, isn't it--I'm your apprentice, and here I am studying with another frogmaker, and she's not even properly taught. I thought for sure you'd disapprove."
Mairelon pulled back to look at her consideringly. "You know I understand that you have friends here, don't you? I won't be upset if you want to spend time with them. Or, for that matter, if you want to learn from other wizards. In fact," he said, "it's probably best for you to expand your experience. I must ask Renee if she'd be willing to show you some tricks, and Kerring likes you, he'd probably--"
Laughing, Kim drew him back down. "I think that can wait, don't you?" she whispered against his lips, and kissed him again.
It was lucky they had the rooms to themselves, Hunch and Bess having absented themselves after the first embrace. Kim felt a touch of guilt at chasing Bess out of her own rooms and resolved to make it up to her later before continuing to reassure her husband, at great length and with liberal use of that fascinating tongue trick.