March 15, 2023

Aubrey (excerpt)

Chapter 1


Aubrey woke in a dim room. She lay curled in a small space, blinking up at a dusty ceiling. Sunlight from narrow, papered windows touched the crate tops surrounding her. She watched the light glitter and tremble, watched the dust dance in the sun’s rays.

Pain crept over her, growing with her consciousness. She hurt everywhere: her belly, legs, shoulders, arms. She sobbed. The pain reached her hands, fingers, jaw; everything about her ached and burned. She thrashed, moaned for the pain to end; it had to end; it wasn’t possible to continue like this.

The pain subsided sluggishly. She lay on her back, panting, seeing the same sunlight and crates through tears. She could move but preferred to soak up a few moments of stability. The world unblurred. She could see wooden slats and lids marked Provisions, This Side Up, and, level with her eyes, thin black lines: wires.

Aubrey sat up. In one dizzying moment, she realized that she was naked in a cage. She folded her arms across her chest as she heard herself whimper, sob.

I wasn’t. I was—

—at a ball, being served punch from Lady Bradford’s huge silver punch bowl and then—

Running, trying to escape, a long, gray creature close to the ground.

She huddled, rocking against the memory of distorted senses and incredulous cries. The cage trembled.

From the other side of the boxes, a voice called, “Awake, puss?”

A face loomed over the box tops; a man of fifty-odd with scraggly gray hair stared down at Aubrey, jaw slackening.

“Who? How did you—?” And then, almost reverently, “You are her? Aubrey St. Clair? Yes? Yes?”

“Yes,” Aubrey said faintly. “What’s happened?”

She couldn’t cover herself and the old man would not stop staring. She hunched forward, legs against her chest, trying not to imagine what he could see.

“Human,” the man said. “A reversion. I knew it.”

“Where am I?”

“I guess Academy magicians don’t know everything.” He sidled around the boxes, knelt before the cage door and untwisted a wire. “Come on. Get out. You must be hungry.”

She whispered, “I haven’t any clothes.”

He laughed and she cringed.

“Nice thing about animals: no putting on airs. Come on, come out—”

His hands reached for her. She hated those hands, feared them, but let them haul her upright and drag her out of the room.

They crossed a hall and entered a small parlor. A young man sat at a table, reading, the book in his hands bent to the light from an oil lamp. A handsome young man with dark hair—and she was naked and couldn’t stop him from seeing her.

The old man said, “She’s human.”

The young man rose abruptly, the book tumbling to the floor.

“She actually reverted—”

“I was right. I knew I was right.”

Aubrey gazed about uncomprehendingly. She didn’t know these men. She’d never been in this place before. The faded rug, the worn antimacassars and peeling cheap wallpaper, was nothing like her friends’ elegant parlors or even her family’s furnished apartments.

She said, “May I have a blanket, please?”

The young man fetched one from a divan and draped it over Aubrey’s shoulders, his eyes creased by a smile. The older man pushed aside chipped tea cups on the round table. Watching him, Aubrey thought, I know him, his mannerisms: the queer way he jerks his hand back before he touches an object, the soft whistling between his teeth.

“Sit there,” the older said and motioned.

Aubrey sat beside the table in a straight-backed chair.

The young man pulled up another chair, saying, “How about an introduction? I’m Dmitri and this is my uncle, Mr. Kev Marlowe.”

“Are we in Sommerville?”

“Great and glorious Kingston.”

“But I was in Sommerville when—at Lady Bradford’s ball—”

Kev said, “There was a potion in the punch—a philter. You’ve been bespelled for longer than any human to date.”

“That we know of,” Dmitri added.

“I became—a cat?”

“You transformed,” Dmitri said with heavy patience; from a great distance, Aubrey felt faint irritation. She pushed it aside. He’s trying to help.

“Let her explain,” Kev said, but all Aubrey could remember was her brother Richard kneeling down to crawl under Lady Bradford’s front steps; she’d tried to say, “Richard, help me,” and could only mew pitifully. She wasn’t human. She was cat. Face expressionless, Richard had scooped her up and carried her to a waiting carriage.

She said, “My family—”

Dmitri and Kev glanced at each other over the table.

Kev said, “They’re probably in Rostand for the Spring.”

“Spring? How long has it been?”

Dmitri said, “You were a cat for eight months.”

Aubrey said, stunned, “I’ve had a birthday.”

“And that makes you?” Kev said.


“Really,” Dmitri said softly. “Quite the little lady.”

Kev frowned at him, and Aubrey felt a rush of gratitude. Kev was older. He would stop Dmitri from—

She said, “I need clothes. Please.”

“Of course, of course. Dmitri will go.”

This time Dmitri frowned, but he left through the parlor’s second door, his feet thumping. An outside door banged.

Kev said, “How did you feel when you reverted—changed back into a human?”

“I hurt,” Aubrey said. “All over. My family—”

“It passed?”

“Yes. Do they know where I am? You’ll tell them that I’m—better?”

“Of course. We’ll send a message.”

“Can’t we go to them now?” Aubrey said.

If she could only get home, back to Mother and her brothers, Richard and Andrew, get away from these strangers, the pain of her wakening—

Kev leaned towards her over the table, hands clasped. His teeth worried his lips. His legs bounced. His hands fidgeted.

He said, “It would be best to wait. In case something happens—”

Aubrey’s mind blanked.

She said in a remote, tight voice, “I might change back?”

She didn’t like the sudden flare of eagerness in Kev’s face. She felt her body gathering itself as if to shrink, disappear, run.

“No, no. I’m sure you won’t,” he said.

Aubrey sensed he was responding more to her white, strained face than to what he believed—or wanted to believe.

“I’m tired,” she said desperately though truthfully. “Is there somewhere‍—?‍”

A room where she could lock the door, shut out this man’s avid gaze, and untangle the stretched feeling in her gut.

“I’m sorry” she said, not sure why she apologized; she wasn’t the type to apologize for vaguely felt wrongs.

“Of course. Let me show you your new room.”

Her new room was a curtained alcove off the parlor. Kev scooped boxes and books off a cot, kicked newsprint and vials under it.

“There you go. Much nicer than that storage room.”

Which made her wonder, after Kev had gone, why they’d put her in the storage room in the first place.

At least I’m not in the cage.

The cage might be safer—only she was human now and humans didn’t belong in cages. She was . . . restored.

I was a cat. Eight months. Over half a year.

Philters never lasted so long. Magicians were always trying to perfect them. Aubrey had seen men drink philters and transform into rats, seen giggling girls do the same and levitate. She’d once watched Lady Promfret’s poodle vanish after lapping a potion from a bowl. It reappeared unperturbed a mere minute later.

The effects of potions usually lasted mere seconds. I guess this one worked better. She shivered. I’ll be home soon. My brothers will josh me about my adventure. My friends will visit.

She laughed softly while the stretching tension went on and on, unamenable to reason or argument. She folded herself into a corner of the musty cot and pressed her hands to her chest, hoping to still her pounding heart.

Feet shuffled outside the alcove; Aubrey’s muscles clenched. The shuffling ceased—had the person left or was he lurking, motionless? Holding her breath, she heard nothing until someone spoke far off. An outside door banged. She gave up trying to sleep and hunched on the cot, the fusty blanket a tent around her body, her arms circling her knees.

“Here you go,” Dmitri said, his voice too close and too loud.

She choked; Dmitri laughed and clucked, “Now, now, kitty. I’m just bringing you a new pelt.”

He handed her a paper-wrapped packet through the curtains. She undid the string to discover a thick, brown frock of cool, dank material. She lay it on the cot; glancing towards the drawn curtains, she let the blanket slide to the floor.

Her body had matured. Her hips had widened; her breasts were heavier under her hands. She stared down at herself. Thin red lines covered her skin: scarlet crosses on her chest; long, slender marks on her legs and arms.

All over. Shaking, she pulled on the dress. It barely reached her knees. The thin scars continued past the dress’s hemline to her ankles and spread web-like over her feet.

She sat on the bed and forced herself to think calmly. These are effects from the philter; that’s all. I changed back. Once my family learns I’m better, someone—Richard—will fetch me. I’ll leave this place behind.

She edged into the parlor. Dmitri sat at the table with his book while his free hand caressed a glass of dark liquid. She stood silently by the alcove curtains, studying him: the slanting mischievous brows, the dark tousled hair. Light from the oil lamp stroked his cheekbones and the book’s page.

“Hello,” Dmitri said, bringing her eyes to his.

She neared the light.

“The scars,” she said and held out her arms.

He shrugged. “A reaction to the transformation. They’ll fade. How does the dress fit?”

Not like her blue-green frock the night of Lady Bradford’s ball. The ball had been the last party of the summer. In a few weeks, Aubrey would have joined other debutantes at a coming-out ball in Kingston. But Mother let her attend dances in Sommerville.

She said to Dmitri, trying not to sound angry or distrustful, “Has Kev sent my family a message?”

“Of course. They’ll be here soon.”

“How soon?”

“This week. Next. Rains have muddied the roads from Rostand.”

Rains would slow a carriage’s progress. But her brother Richard could make the trip by horseback in a day.

Dmitri said, “We didn’t know you would revert, you know. Didn’t even know you could. Nobody did. Your family thought you’d be a cat forever. Kev agreed to look after you.”

Answering the questions she hadn’t dared ask. He was smart and nice and handsome.

“Much more grown-up,” Dmitri said softly.

Which compliment left her strangely tight and scared; she’d never been missish. But Dmitri’s eyes saw her naked; his voice stripped her reserve. She flinched, her body aching.

Fear followed her into her dreams, dreams of her skin pinned back—“Notice the dilation of the pupils”—the cold touch of instruments against her heart and lungs, blood on her fur, on the table—“Look at the organs: far larger than usual, wouldn’t you say”—while she thrashed feebly—“Don’t touch the head. You never know.

The scars had not faded in the morning.

Chapter 2


Aubrey waited in her alcove to be collected.

She felt herself adjusting—what choice did she have?—to the scars, the oddly scented alcove, the gloomy parlor and the evasive men. Kev asked her questions over breakfasts of thin toast and slightly rancid kippers. They sat at the parlor’s small round table, the only sturdy piece of furniture in the room. Kev leaned his elbows on the faded covering, notebook and fountain pen ready.

“You remember being a cat?”

“I remember jumping. That was marvelous. It felt right, so—”

“—coordinated,” Dmitri said from the divan.

“Yes. And I was much warmer, all the time warm, not like now.”

Dmitri kindly dropped a blanket about her shoulders. Aubrey tried not to flinch.

“Could you hear better, see or smell better?”

“Yes. No. It depended.”

“How long did you remember things—as a cat?”

She didn’t know. Her last memories placed her at Lady Bradford’s ball, then under the stoop, then—nothing. Only brief, lucid moments: hiding under the chaise longue in the family drawing room, spitting and scratching in a worn burlap sack.

“Does my family know where I am?”

“Yes. We sent a messenger. Yes.”

No, said a small clear part of Aubrey’s mind. Why would Kev lie?

At least she remained human. She disliked how relieved that made her feel, as if simply not being cat was enough, as if she should be grateful to Dmitri and Kev because she’d changed back in their care and hadn’t changed again. Who was she to say that they shouldn’t get credit for her restoration?

I’ll make a speech of thanks when my family comes to collect me. I’ll be suitably grateful.

Once Kev finished his questions for that day, Aubrey retreated to her alcove. She’d stacked the boxes and books in a corner, and borrowed a blanket from the parlor to reinforce the curtains. It wasn’t home. It would never be home. I’ll be leaving soon. It was bearable. She curled on the cot and skimmed through the books—history tomes about long-dead potion masters—or read the tattered broadsheets. Dmitri had told the truth about how long she’d been away; the broadsheets covered politics and court cases from the previous fall and winter, 1862.

Kev spent afternoons in a chamber on the other side of the storage room. My workshop, he called the chamber. His lair, according to Dmitri.

Dmitri was everywhere. Unlike Kev, he slept on the side of the parlor where a narrow, shadowy hallway led to the outside door. Aubrey went into the hallway once; Dmitri met her, smiling and long-suffering as he motioned her back into the parlor.

“I wasn’t going to leave,” she told him, the truth.

However much she loathed Kev’s so-called home, where else could she wait? Who else could monitor her situation? She was sure that Kev was a magician—not Academy-trained maybe, but being any kind of magician would explain why her family had given her over to Kev’s care. His questions were just questions. She was human now; the scars would fade; Kev would make sure she got home.

Except—surely her family would have picked someone more respectable to look after her. If Kev was not Academy-trained, he must be what Academy students called a slum magician, a dabbler in potions who worked outside the Academy system.

Magic, practiced by any magician, was not illegal—not even magic that harmed someone. In the 1810s and 1820s, Academy magicians used royal patronage to wangle immunity from legal action—after all, if the government wanted Academy potions, ministers should be prepared to defend Academy experiments. And besides, what magistrate would fault a magician for achieving the entirely unique and unexpected?

The ministers had agreed and more, providing immunity for all magicians. “It made no difference to them,” reasoned Aubrey’s brother Richard. “They didn’t believe potions could actually work.” And so the laws still stood. No one was going to answer for transforming Aubrey.

“We require the freedom to unchallenged inquiry,” an Academy student told Aubrey at a party. (Lady Bradford’s party? All the parties blurred together now.) “It’s slum magicians that need a police force.”

“Slum magicians and Lord Simon,” another student muttered, but the first snapped, “That would open the door too far. The police should get rid of the riff-raff instead of pressuring the government to persecute qualified professionals like us.”

Now, Aubrey thought, would be a good time to get rid of the riff-raff.

She stood in the empty parlor, listening for Dmitri and Kev. Today was different from the past week. Despite the roiling fear in her gut, the part of her mind that stepped back and observed things, that studied people and situations, was claiming ascendancy.

She padded to the parlor’s papered window and lifted one corner of the oilskin. The bubbled glass was grimy. With a bit of rubbing, she could make out a dirt road, passing figures, and above them, sloping roofs against a sliver of sky.

“He doesn’t care,” Dmitri said in the hall to the storage room. Aubrey froze, cheek pressed against a pane. “He thinks transformation is a dead end. He’s obsessed with removal.

Dmitri was facing the storage room, his voice aimed away from Aubrey.

He continued, “You’re obsessed with the so-called great man. We’d be better off selling the girl.”

Further away, Kev began talking quickly, fervently. Aubrey could hear the jerkiness of his voice, if not his words. She edged away from the window and was back in her alcove before Dmitri stomped across the parlor to the outside hall.

Sell the girl. Dmitri could not have meant her. Unless—ransom?

She felt almost relieved. Ransom explained why no one had come for her yet. Once it was paid—

If her family could pay. They had some investments but not enough to manage a large, single amount. Money was why Mother hauled Aubrey and her brothers from Sommerville to Kingston to Rostand every season, pursuing opportunities and connections.

Mother’s connections might help. Or the police.

Except the newly organized police operated exclusively in Kingston. Aubrey had been taken from Sommerville, changed in Sommerville.

I’m in Kingston now. And I’m no longer a cat. The police would help a human girl get home.

So long as someone knew where she was; so long as Kev contacted her family; Aubrey couldn’t rely on that possibility. Dmitri might want to ransom her. Kev—

Aubrey didn’t want to contemplate what Kev wanted.

She was tucked in her alcove, her back against the wall, when the parlor door to the outside hall swung open.

“I’ll get him,” Dmitri said to someone, his tone borderline insolent.

“I’m sure you’ll retrieve him excellently,” answered a thin, rasping voice.

An aristocratic voice. A tunnel of brightness flowed from the objective part of Aubrey’s mind. One of Mother’s connections. She plunged from the bed through the alcove’s curtains.

A thin, elderly man idled by the open parlor door. He resembled a caricature of an aristocrat—patrician nose, dark eyes—only no aristocrat manifested such deep, cruel lines about his mouth or such harsh shadows beneath his eyes. Aubrey hesitated. The man glanced at her. His gaze sharpened.

“Scullion?” he said. “You can’t be a guest. Kev imagines all house guests to be thieves, lying in wait to filch his best ideas.”

Mother trusted aristocrats—“Our kinds of people,” she called them. Knights were obsolete, a relic of the last century, but aristocratic noblesse oblige still existed, even if the government had exchanged its royal family for a cabal of ministers.

Truth was, Aubrey’s family was closer in rank to ministers than aristocrats.

She said, “I’m Aubrey St. Clair,” pushing the words past the spasm in her throat.

“Are you? Or one of Kev’s little phonies?”

Kev practically exploded into the room. “Lord Simon,” he cried pleasurably.

Aubrey fell back, sucking in her breath. Everyone in society whispered about Lord Simon’s experiments with potions. They said he was—obsessed.

“A complete reversion,” Kev babbled, arms flailing. “And the spell lasted.”

“I suppose you’re going to claim that this is the girl from the ball.”

“She was found under a stoop. I got to her before the Academy.”

“A cat was found. A cat was obtained by you from the family. A cat—”

“Reverted. In my storage room. She was a cat.”

Lord Simon snorted. “You’ve been trying for years, Kev, to convince me that you can find answers in bespelled bodies.”

“This one—”

“I tolerate you because you try things Academy officials balk at. But I don’t like to be diddled.”

“People at the ball saw her change—”

“That potion wasn’t even yours.”

Kev gave Lord Simon a sly glance. “I heard it was yours in the first place.”

“Academy laboratories never throw anything away. If I left it there, I’d obviously lost interest.”

Kev crept closer. “I know, I know. You want to know why she retained the spell so long. There were signs—internally—”

Lord Simon’s face altered, heavy eyes lidding. He searched out Aubrey’s shape between the alcove’s curtains, dark eyes sweeping up and down her body.

Will you help me get home? she’d planned to say. Now, the tightness in her chest urged silence, and her mind—which had been so sluggish of late—whispered that he was no more trustworthy than Kev or Dmitri. Aubrey was smarter than the typical debutante. She knew better than to presume she could trust any noble, noblesse oblige or not.

He said in that soft voice with curled edges, “So, girl, were you a cat?”

“No,” she said.

Kev gasped in furious indignation. “You—!” he cried. “You said you—”

Aubrey made herself shrug and the brightness in her mind expanded. This was the Aubrey she used to be. Their family maneuvered amongst people higher up the social scale than themselves; Aubrey knew—had known—how to stay on the right side of complex social contretemps.

No one is your friend here.

Lord Simon snorted. He pivoted towards the door; Kev scrambled after him, a hand on his arm. Lord Simon looked down at that hand, eyes glinting, but Kev was too distressed to notice.

“A little more time,” he pleaded. “I’ll get results.”

Lord Simon’s eyes flicked towards Aubrey. He inhaled deeply.

“Only answers interest me,” he said in the same soft voice. “A lasting spell is only as useful as its remedy, which must also last.”

“I’ll find it. I’ll pinpoint the necessary components.”

“I’m sure you’ll try. I dislike leaving my house, Kev. Don’t send your lackey for me again.”

Lord Simon left. Kev glowered. Aubrey wavered by the curtain.

She said, “You operated on me.”

He flushed. “We opened a transformed cat.”

“I remember,” she said fiercely. “I dream.”

Except that confession pleased him.

“Then you were sentient,” Kev said. “Partially sentient. There are a few components left—I’ll figure them out—”

She braced herself against his rising excitement. “Have you? Figured out anything?”

His voice rose belligerently: “How can I with the equipment I’ve got and no funds?”

“You kidnapped me.”

“Your family gave you to us.”

“They wouldn’t.”

Kev reddened with indignation. “Why shouldn’t they? Lord Simon wants my research. I know more about potions than intolerant Academy shysters.”

“I’d be better off with Academy magicians,” Aubrey said and stepped towards the opposite door, the one through which Lord Simon had departed.

She didn’t believe her own threat. She wanted to. She wanted to believe she would stride from Kev’s home into the arms of a rescuer, an Academy student, a policeman. But Kingston was large and the police were few. She might not be anywhere near the Academy or places Academy students visited. Without a rescuer, she wouldn’t know where to go. She’d never traveled about Kingston alone. Single, well-born ladies didn’t.

“Don’t you dare give yourself to them,” Kev shrieked, truly angry now. “I’ll chain you up.”

She whispered compliance and retreated, hating herself.

A long pinch, a pull like a breath, only the breath came sort and hard, a stuttering hiss.

“Careful. Keep the stitches smooth.”

“Does it matter? We’re going to open her up again.”

“We don’t want inflammation. It will make later surgeries harder. Do it right.”

Chilled, shaved skin held together by hot fingers, a bitter pinch and pull, sharp and wicked, and she could not wake until it was over.

Aubrey stayed in her alcove the next day. No one fetched her. Dmitri and Kev spoke intermittently outside the parlor, their voices muffled and toneless.

She crept out in late evening. Dmitri sat slumped at the table, glass in hand.

He twisted his head and grinned. “Thought of joining you in there but Kev said, No, no, no.” He wagged a finger.

She began at that moment to hate Dmitri. She’d never hated anyone before. She often thought people silly or self-important or easily influenced. She didn’t hate.

Dmitri pulled a doleful face. “Lord Simon didn’t help you, did he? I’m afraid Kev has misled him before. So now you know the terrible situation you are in.”

She winced. She had thought once how nice it would be for a man, an attractive ardent man, to like her but not like this—not this pity mixed with contempt. She moved forward slowly. His hand shot out. She skipped back.

He said, slurring his sneer, “I guess I’m not good enough. Rich enough.”

“My family isn’t rich.”

“Big house in Sommerville—”


“—and wardrobes full of posh clothes: ooh, la, la. We should have asked for money.”

“That’s not what Kev wants.”

“Oh, no, not Mr. Research-for-its-own-sake. You haven’t figured out your scars?”

Prick and draw. Blood spilling, matted fur.

Her body numbed. The fear stretched.

“Experimentation, little girl. Ex-per-i-men-ta-tion. Uncle Kev pulled—”

—and draw.

“—you all apart. Legs and ribs and arms—”

“Shut up, shut up.”

“—all the pretty parts.”

She couldn’t move. She opened her mouth and hissed—hissed like a cat—mouth open, lips drawn back from straight sharp fangs.

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