The Problem With Potions
London, February, 1882
Nicholas Masterson, ninth Earl of Sharpe, had not had a potion in eighteen days. Eighteen days, six hours, and twenty-seven minutes, last he’d checked.
He pressed his head to the glowing wallpaper and inhaled deeply. God, that scent. That sharp, spicy tang of serum. Potent. Alive. Magical. He wanted to lick the wall, just for a taste.
He jerked upright, biting back a curse. He was losing his mind. He ought never to have come to this party. He looked around for somewhere to go, but the whole room was papered with the awful print, phosphorescent foliage standing out in glaring contrast to the stark, black background.
All around him men and women walked about with drinks in their hands, laughing and talking, ready to dance, play cards, or otherwise indulge at the expense of their wealthy host. Money would be wasted tonight. Young Lords and Ladies would get up to a moderate amount of mischief—enough to be scandalous while avoiding ruin. Or so they hoped.
Nick glanced in the direction of the door. He could still leave. Request to meet at another time and place.
“Sharpe! Something wrong, old man? You’re looking pale.”
Nick frowned at the man who had spoken. The son of a peer. Younger son, not the heir. Spendthrift. They’d met a dozen times or more. The last time had been over a card game, nineteen days ago. The night Nick had witnessed a potion-addled young man relieve himself into the punch bowl in front of one hundred guests, earning a cruel nickname that would forever haunt him. The night Nick had decided to quit potions for good.
“Brief dizzy spell. Guess the welcome potion didn’t agree with me,” he lied.
The man nodded. Christ, what was his name? Why couldn’t names ever stick in his brain the way faces and places did? Maybe it was all those damned potions he’d drunk, clouding up his mind.
“Happens,” the man said, shrugging his shoulders in the indifferent manner common to so many of his social circle. “I liked it, myself. Feels a little bubbly inside, and looks to be making people chipper. That wallpaper is really something, isn’t it? Lights up the whole room. What do you think they did? Mixed a potion into the ink?”
“The glowing ink is a potion itself, mixed up in much the same way an ordinary pigment would be, but incorporating aspects of a self-lighting potion, such as you might use in a garden lamp. I expect that the serum was thinned out by mixing it with warm water before it was added. This allows for a smooth mixture that could be easily spread across the surface of the paper.”
Younger Son blinked several times, his mouth slightly agape. “Er… right. Excuse me.” He scampered away. Didn’t people know by now that you never asked Lord Sharpe a question about potions?
Nick squeezed his eyes briefly closed, fighting off the headache. He should have stayed home working on his redecorating project, just as he’d been doing for the past eighteen days. That damned drawing room was giving him fits. Too feminine.
And, naturally, his sister had to hie off to Scotland right when he needed her. Traveling on business with her husband? What was the world coming to? That’s what he got for letting her marry for love.
The corner of Nick’s mouth ticked upwards. Even as miserable as he was, he couldn’t help but smile thinking of Anna and her pure happiness.
He glanced around the room, searching for familiar faces he might need to avoid. Most of the men he’d called friends had laughed when he had declared he was quitting potions. Only Carsley had encouraged him. Without his support, Nick might never have gone through with it. But Carsley wasn’t here tonight, and Nick was all alone in the whirl of potion-drunk guests and the unearthly glow of the luminescent wall. He sagged against it, his nostrils flaring again at the scent of the magic-enhanced paper.
“Come away from the wall, my boy.”
Nick straightened up. Here was the man he’d come here to see. Thank God. A quick conversation and he could get the hell out.
“Lord Ayleston.” Nick gave a polite nod to the older gentleman. At least there was one person here tonight whose name he could recall. “It’s good to see you.”
“And you. Would you care for a drink?”
Nick accepted the glass and took a long sniff. Brandy. With not a hint of potion. He took a long swallow. “Thank you.”
“Walk with me. I hear Sir Mortimer has a beautiful library and I’d like to see it.”
What Sir Mortimer really had was stupid amounts of money, earned from building a fleet of ships for the Imperial Potions Company. His books were probably all gilded, and Nick doubted they had ever been opened.
He took another gulp of the brandy and followed Ayleston in silence.
“I imagine you’re wondering why I asked you here,” Ayleston said.
Ayleston paused, regarding Nick with raised eyebrows. “No?”
“Well, here is a bit of a puzzle.” Nick waved a hand at the guests mingling about them. “I wouldn’t have thought this to be your sort of gathering.”
“No, but it is your sort.”
“Mmm.” Ayleston ushered him out the door. “I believe the library is this direction.”
Nick didn’t much care. They could go anywhere as long as he was away from the phosphorescent wallpaper and the potion-toting servants. He’d hold this conversation in a linen closet, if need be.
“So.” Ayleston let several silent beats pass before continuing. “Why do you believe I wished to see you?”
Nick glanced over his shoulder, but the hall was empty, even of servants. “Potions are failing.”
They slipped into the library, closing the door behind them. A single wall sconce burned low, casting dim shadows across the rows of pristine books.
“What makes you think that?”
Nick sank into a chair and polished off the glass of brandy. “Potions have been weaker of late. Weakening steadily, in fact. The last few months I found I was drinking more and more to achieve the same effects. I had thought my tolerance had simply gone up, but recently…” Since I stopped drinking them… “I’ve noticed other signs of weakness. Lights are dimmer. Steam cars don’t go as far or as fast.”
Ayleston stroked his beard. “We don’t believe potions are failing.”
“Oh? What then?”
“Serum is becoming scarce. Instead of raising prices, the potion makers have used less serum. Diluted their products.”
“Are our sources drying up?”
“The IPC says no. In fact, they deny the existence of any problems whatsoever.”
Nick tilted his glass back and forth, watching the amber droplets run along the bottom. “I can’t say that surprises me. They have investors to please.”
“Regardless of what they say, astute potion connoisseurs such as yourself have begun to notice this troublesome trend.”
Connoisseur. Fancy French word for addict. Nick’s skin crawled. He wanted to get home before he lost his nerve and sampled the refreshments here tonight.
“Gladstone is concerned. A severe shortage puts the economy in jeopardy. We don’t believe that it is yet necessary to bring this matter to the attention of all of Parliament, but…”
“But you want me to investigate.”
“If you would. Your mother believes you are once again in need of an occupation.”
“I have an occupation.”
“She thinks you are bored.”
“I’m redecorating my house.”
“You are an earl.”
“I am aware of that fact.”
“Sharpe, peers of the realm don’t move furniture and paint the walls.”
Nick shoved himself up and out of the chair. “I didn’t paint the walls. I stripped them. The color in the dining room was too bright and not at all conducive to good digestion. We can eat in the breakfast room until it’s redone.” He turned toward the door. He was going home. Ayleston’s project and his mother’s meddling could be left until morning.
“Nicholas,” Ayleston sighed.
He glanced back. “Yes, Uncle?”
“Your country needs you. And I think you could use the distraction.”
Nick took a deep breath. Perhaps his country did need him, but his higher duty was to family. And maybe getting out of town would do him good. Lord knew he needed all the help he could get. “Very well. Send me the details. I will be ready by noon tomorrow.”
He strode from the room without another word, walking directly out of the house to his waiting carriage. Inside the vehicle, he sank back against the cushions and withdrew his pocket watch. The hands and numbers glowed, illuminated by the same magic pigment that lit Sir Mortimer’s wall.
Eighteen days, seven hours, thirteen minutes.
The 7:25 to Dover
Miss Ida Quimby flew down the platform, her monstrous carpetbag clutched in both arms, heedless of the chaos left in her wake.
She couldn’t miss this train. How had this happened? She had left so much extra time. But then the traffic… Why had there been so much early morning traffic? Was the world conspiring against her?
The porter pulled the step stool away from the train and climbed aboard.
This wasn’t happening. She needed this. Her livelihood depended upon it. Missing this train meant missing the packet ship, and she couldn’t afford to pay for two new tickets. She had budgeted this trip down to the penny.
The porter reached to place a chain across the steps. The train whistle shrieked notice of departure.
The porter froze. He had heard her.
“I’m here! I’m coming!”
Ida’s legs burned. The train lurched. Almost there. Only a few steps. Her heart pounded in her chest, blood roaring in her ears. With her last ounce of strength, she heaved the carpet bag up onto the train and leapt after it.
The porter gave a squawk of alarm. “Good heavens, miss, are you quite all right?”
Ida lay on her belly, chest heaving, the cold metal of the floor pressed against her cheek. Her feet dangled out over the steps, and the entire station could probably see her petticoat and stockings. But she was on the train.
“Yes.” She took a deep, steadying breath. “Yes, I am quite well, thank you. If I might just have a moment?”
“Er… y-yes. Of course, miss.”
I’m here. I made it.
Ida took a few seconds to catch her breath and let the panic subside before sitting up and taking stock of herself. Her hair was a disaster and she had lost her bonnet, but all else seemed to be in order. Her parasol still jutted from the carpetbag, unharmed, and there were no tears in her dress or her stockings. The pale pink fabric of her skirt appeared miraculously unstained. She rose, dusted herself off, and picked up her belongings.
“Would you like me to take your bag for you, miss?”
“No, thank you. I prefer to keep my things with me.”
Holding the unwieldy bag in front of her, she stepped into the train car and set out to find a seat. Her arms ached. The bag wasn’t meant to be carried about by a smallish woman, especially stuffed full as it was, but Ida didn’t dare relinquish it. Too much had already gone wrong today. She wouldn’t risk lost luggage.
The other passengers stared and frowned as she walked by. Once she found a seat, she would have to make some attempt to repair her coiffure. There was no sense spending the next three hours looking like a wild hellion who had leapt, screaming, onto the train. Even if she was one.
Ida moved on to the next car, lurching a little under the weight of her luggage. This one appeared as crowded as the last, but surely she would find a seat soon. It was only natural for the cars nearer the front to fill up first. She continued on.
Was half the city going to Dover? There were at least a dozen stops along the way. Where on earth would they put all the other passengers?
She pushed through yet another doorway and sighed in relief. There, perhaps a third of the way down, was an empty seat. She rushed ahead, eager to rest her tired legs.
“Is this seat…”
She froze, her words hanging unfinished in the air. The other occupant of the seat was a man. And not just any man. A very large man, tall and strapping, with a hard jaw shadowed by stubble. His dark hair had a slight wave to it that he hadn’t bothered to tame with oil. He glared down at his pocket watch with a scowl so intense that Ida feared he might crush it in his fist. Or throw it at someone.
Ida jerked, her body awakening from its stupor. Was that a joke? His voice was so low and gruff that she couldn’t tell.
“But it is unoccupied,” he added.
She breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, good.”
She dropped the carpetbag onto the ground and pushed it in front of the seat, then sat as best she could. The bag took up most of her legroom, so she perched on the edge of the seat, ankles crossed, her feet sticking out slightly into the aisle. Her overcoat she placed atop the bag, folded as best she could manage. The train was too warm to wear it, or perhaps she had yet to cool down from her unplanned exertions.
The big, handsome man spared her a glance. Eyes the color of amber looked her up and down, then turned to the window. He snapped his watch shut with less violence than she would have expected, given the look of utter hatred he had given it moments before.
She studied him for a moment. He wasn’t taking more than his fair share of the seat, yet she had a strange sense that he was somehow invading her personal space. Was it the way he held himself so stiffly? Or his unusually broad shoulders? Perhaps it was his aristocratic profile. He looked like a man of importance. Which was ridiculous, considering that these were second class accommodations. He could hardly be more important than she was. A man of business, most likely. His charcoal frock coat looked to be well-used, though clearly of high quality. Ida approved of that particular philosophy. Save your pennies and buy the best and it would serve you well for a long time.
Ida began pulling pins from her hair in preparation for redoing it. Without a mirror, she would need to keep it simple.
“Good morning,” she said to her seatmate. “I’m Ida Quimby, and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope you had a better start to your day than I did.”
His head turned slowly, and he stared at her for a long, silent moment. “I wasn’t so late to the train that I needed to do my hair in public, so there is that.”
“Ah, but you didn’t shave. And I’m not certain you did anything to your hair at all. It almost looks as if you simply rolled out of bed and smoothed it down with your fingers.”
Ida thought she caught the merest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, but he looked away again before she could be certain.
“Might I at least have the pleasure of your name?” she asked. “We are to be together for the next three hours, and it would be more agreeable if I knew with whom I was conversing.”
“Nick Masterson. Though I have no interest in conversation, so little good it will do you.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Masterson. I’m certain you will wish to converse later on, even if you don’t now. What else is there to do on our journey? Or have you brought a book?” She glanced around but didn’t see one. “Do you have a favorite author? I’m quite partial to Mrs. Gaskell, though she is not so popular now as in my mother’s day. I’m afraid I fancy John Thornton rather terribly, and it is entirely possible that he has ruined me for any real man.”
Mr. Masterson shifted in his seat, turning almost sideways to look at her. “Pity.”
Ida stabbed the last of her pins into her hair. “There’s no need to be so sarcastic, sir. Is it the early morning start? I know some people have difficulty rising with the sun.”
“The sun that is only just now rising?”
“Quite. I suppose we all had to rise before it, didn’t we?”
“Indeed. And seeing as I won’t consider it morning until about the time we arrive in Dover, I must beg you to leave me in peace.”
“Yes, of course.”
Ida folded her hands in her lap and pinched her lips closed. In the silence, the clacking of the train wheels became a roar in her ears. All her travel guides were at the bottom of her bag, inaccessible. She ought to have placed them on top for easy access, but she had expected the thrill of travel to be enough to keep her occupied. Her fingers twitched, and she shifted in her seat. Only three hours to Dover. How bad could it be?
Each little sound in the compartment pricked at her ears. A yawn. A cough. The rustle of a newspaper. She held out as long as she could.
“Well, it looks as though the weather will be pleasant today.”
If she couldn’t talk to him, she would talk to herself.
“I’m glad for it,” she went on, “because it should make for an easy voyage across the Channel. I would hate for my first visit to France to begin with a bout of mal de mer. Are you continuing on to France, Mr. Masterson?”
He glared at her. His poor pocket watch. Surely it had cracked under that same rock-hard gaze. Ida smiled back at him. She wouldn’t crack. She had four older brothers.
“Miss… Whatever-Your-Name-Is… I have a fearsome headache and was awakened at an ungodly hour. If this continues, I don’t think I will be able to endure your presence, even if you do smell like strawberries.”
“Oh! You noticed! Do you like it? It’s my newest scent. I used both strawberry and strawberry blossom, and I believe I have at last gotten the proportions right. The floral and the fruit together are a rather delicate balance, you see, and…”
He slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. “Have at it, Miss Strawberries. I surrender.”