The cards had been the first thing he’d learnt. His grandmother valued them too highly to let his education in their tricks fall to anyone else. The summer of 1800 he’d spent in her garden learning to shuffle and interpret.
‘You see how it’s done? Patience is what you need, though I don’t expect you’ll pick it up anytime soon. Careful now.’
He took the cards from her and tried to copy her deft muddling of them. She’d laughed as they fell to the floor with alacrity.
‘No, wait.’ She reached out to stop him as he stooped to collect them.
‘See how they’ve fallen? They don’t do anything by chance. This one.’ She held up the six of spades ‘is telling you to try again and here’ she tapped the seven of clubs, lying half obscured beneath the six ‘ this means you will succeed. They’re trying to be encouraging in their way.’
He started over. This time only a few flutter free.
The cards ran through his fingers now as though the pack was a single entity. Resisting the urge to deal a spread and double check that this evening’s dealings would finally concluded the mess his father had made of his life Sebastian tried to enjoy the simple the feel of old card softened to a velvet finish through years of wear. Grandmother had always said that consulting the cards too often was tempting fate. They didn’t like it, in much the same way that a person would resent constantly being asked something.
‘Lord Westerby, my Lord.’
As Sebastian looked up, to see Gravestun usher in Westerby, the cards slipped between his fingers, scattering themselves across the floor. Uppermost, the King of diamonds winked at him.
‘Got your father’s knack with them I see.’ Westerby stomped over to him. He was not a young man, his hair turning from blonde to silver, but the thud of his cane on the floor was healthy enough.
Sebastian stood, bowed, and tried to ignore the sly jibe at his father’s incompetence on the tables.
‘I was not expecting you so early my Lord.’
‘Hmph. Perhaps you were hoping I’d not come at all.’ Westerby looked round the room, with a gaze which seemed to price every article of furniture in it. His gaze ran over Sebastian as well, taking in the less than current style of his jacket and the imperfectly tied cravat. ‘If you’re just going to plead for time, boy then you could have saved me a wasted journey by doing it on paper.’
‘Are you saying you would have considered such a request?’ Sebastian crossed over to his desk as he spoke, unlocking the top drawer and pulling out a wooden box.
‘No.’ Westerby came to stand across from him. ‘Your father owed me and gaming debts are not the sort of thing a gentleman would consider leaving unpaid. Reflects badly on his honour.’
Sebastian laughed. ‘tis a curious situation to be collecting a debt in order to ensure that the debtor’s family keeps their honour.’ He opened the box and pulled out a sheaf of bank notes. He began to count them out, building a small pile in front of him.
Westerby laughed. ‘I see you’re a better man of finance than your father, boy.’
The last crisp note dropped onto the pile in front of Sebastian and he pushed them towards Westerby.
‘I believe, Sir, that this concludes our business?’ He tried not to let his desperation to be rid of Westerby creep into his voice. From the look on the man’s face he didn’t succeed.
‘Oh indeed. Didn’t think you’d have the ready myself, you father certainly didn’t’ Westerby dug into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled set of yellow papers. He threw them onto the desk, and Sebastian recognised the wild scrawl that passed for his late father’s signature.
‘Bet it hasn’t left you a penny to fly with, settling his debts. That’s if you’ve settled them all with money.’
‘I fail to take your meaning.’
‘No? Your father had a nice line in giving a little extra help to a man in need, don’t have any problems in that area myself but there’s plenty of credulous fools who’ll buy a quart of coloured water. ‘
Alice watched Westerby lead another of the interchangeable debutantes on to the floor. The skirmish of mothers and charmless daughters that had crushed him when he’d first entered Almacks had been impressive, but then he was a Duke and one of the few left on the market. Beside her Felicity was opening and closing her fan in a state of barely repressed rage.
‘I thought he was most civil.’ Alice kept her eyes on the dancers, pretending not to notice her cousin’s anger.
‘He danced with me once. Now he’s escorting some pitiable long meg around the floor. ‘
‘Perhaps he felt that dancing twice would give rise to expectations.’
Alice could feel Felicity’s glare. In this mood there was little reasoning with her cousin.
‘I do hope you are not implying that I should not have expectations. Everyone expects us to make a match of it.’
Alice wondered whether everyone included more people than Felicity and her mother. Her cousin’s ambition was, given her looks and possible fortune, reasonable enough. Still, Alice privately thought that Westerby might be too top lofty to entertain serious designs on Felicity.
‘Perhaps you should try being more demure.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Alice.’ Felicity snapped shut her fan and rapped Alice sharply on the shoulder. ‘Men don’t want demure, if they did you’d have married years ago. Westerby’ll come up to scratch, it’s just that the waiting is so tiresome. ‘
‘I’m not sure that flirting with Deverton will hurry him along.’
Felicity drew in a sharp breath. ‘I am not flirting with Deverton. We have an understanding.’
‘An understanding? Felicity you can’t mean…’
‘Hush’ Felicity tapped her fan to Alice’s lips and then leaned forward, to add, in a conspiratorial whisper. ‘Really, Alice. You sound like a girl in her first season. Deverton hasn’t a penny, and I’ve no intention of marrying into the poorhouse, but he’s more than adequate in other areas. I’m sure Westerby will have the odd indiscretion so I see no reason not to indulge myself.’ Felicity narrowed her eyes at Westerby as he crossed the floor with his partner. ‘There must be some way to hurry him along.’
‘Like a love potion?’ Alice regretted the words almost as soon as she said them. Felicity’s petulant pout vanished. ‘No.’ Said Alice, but it was too late.
Sebastian showed Westerby out and wandered back to the library. On impulse he pulled open the large wooden cupboard that stood hidden at the back of the room. He grandmother had possessed a more modest cabinet, but Sebastian had always liked his father’s grand ambition.
There was not much of use here. A smaller set of drawers set in the middle of the cabinet contained various powders, herbs and spices. The tools of the trade, Sebastian thought. There was the tip of a unicorn’s horn, and the skull of a dead man. Old pieces of pottery from Greece or Rome which his father had picked up on the grand tour, together with a broken statue of Athena. Precious stones glowered in the darkness of their velvet drawers, and the scent of a hundred familiar but unnameable flowers assailed him. A closeted world of mystery and temptation.
He stood looking at the collection of curiosities before him, an urge to do something making his fingers twitch and his hands reach for the drawers of ingredients. No. Sebastian rather doubted his father had been peddling coloured water. Whatever his faults the man had had a talent for magic, a family trait, though Sebastian had always preferred the cards and harmless divination to anything more proactive. Stepping away he reached into his pocket and drew out them out, shuffling the deck between impatient fingers until, finally, one fluttered loose to lay, face down, on the floor.
Bending down to pick it up, he heard the sound of a carriage outside. Twisting the card in his fingers he was greeted by the stern countenance of the Queen of Spades.
The butler’s expression was one of downright disapproval. Alice knew it well, she’d seen it far too often when in Felicity’s company. Still, he showed them into the library, announcing them in tones of icy contempt, before sharply turning his back and vanishing into the cold expanse of the hallway.
The Marquis stumbled over his greeting to Felicity, his eyes straying to the playing card he was turning over between his fingers. Alice bobbed when Felicity gestured at her and then found herself ignored by both parties as her cousin began to implore the Marquis to act on her behalf.
The Marquis was quick to dismiss Felicity’s pleading. Alice walked away from them, her eye caught by the cabinet at the far end of the room. It was open, a few of the drawers had been pulled out and she could see a cornucopia of stones, plants, powders and mystery within. She reached forward, the temptation to open the other drawers and see what they contained overwhelming her. Her fingers brushed the cold metal of the handles and the argument behind her reached a pitch requiring her attention, Felicity calling her name just as she teased open the drawer.
‘I’m afraid I cannot help you my lady.’ Sebastian’s annoyance was causing him to bend the Queen of Spades between his fingers. The slow twisting of the card preventing him from insulting the lady in front of him.
‘You mean you won’t. ‘ Felicity pouted. ‘Perhaps a small reminder of your father’s obligations would persuade you’
He drew in a deep breath and started to argue but Felicity wasn’t listening. She called to Alice, who was absorbed in a deep contemplation of Sebastian’s cabinet. Alice didn’t move, and Felicity called again, before walking over and grabbing the girl. Alice started, and then dug into the small reticule she was carrying and passed Felicity a bundle of crumpled paper. Felicity stalked back to where Sebastian was standing.
‘That’s what your dear father owed me. Of course, since you’ve been so good as to settle his other debts I can hardly expect you’ve the blunt to settle these as well.’
Sebastian took them, flicking through the pile and noting with dwindling hope that the figures grew progressively larger.
‘If your ladyship were willing to wait…’
‘Oh I think not.’ Felicity took the notes of hand from him and passed them back to Alice. ‘I find waiting quite tedious, but I would be willing for you to settle the debt in kind.’
‘It won’t work. Love potions never do, you can’t use magic to create it and even if you try…’
‘I know you’re father sold such things, he made little secret of it.’
Felicity’s hard eyes burrowed into him and Sebastian almost gave in. It would be so easy to simple nod and make up a bottle of the stuff.
‘He used it on my mother, and most of the ton knows how that relationship ended.’
‘God lord.’ Felicity laughed. ‘A lot of men wondered why she married the fool. I guess it only lasted long enough for him to get her down the aisle.’ She tapped his fingers on the desk, thinking for a moment and then smiled. ‘Which is perfect. I’ve no desire to have a husband who clings to me like ivy. ’
His grandmother had always had stern warnings about the folly of using magic to gain anything.
‘I’m not saying you can’t ask, or work charms if need be. But there are some things that you can’t craft that way and love’s one of them. Money’s another. The cards’ll show you how to work for something, but they don’t like kindly on cheating at the things you should pay for.’
So he ignored her books and pulled out the two his father had written instead. There were nonsensical spells contained in these tomes. Potions for conjuring demons and maps of non-existent countries that his father claimed you could travel to in your dreams. The fantastical imaginings of a man discontented with his life.
He soon found what he wanted. A hastily scrawled recipe, with a list of romantic sounding and thoroughly useless ingredients. His father had overwritten the original with correction after correction, a palimpsest of faltering hopes and dreams. Sebastian doubted it would work, but there was nothing else that would suffice.
The resultant amber liquid was decanted into a thin glass bottle. He was careful to spill nothing on his fingers, a love potion was not something he wished to taste, even by accident. In the bottle it seemed to glow and whisper, a flirtatious cordial.
He sent the finished bottle round by a footman, pausing only to pen a quick note saying he hoped she would reconsider.
He heard nothing for several weeks. There was whirlwind romance, a wedding, a secluded honeymoon. All reported in the gossip columns by the usual coy abbreviations. His father’s vowels were not returned, and he began to think he would be forever beholden to the sly Miss Feliicty, Lady Westerby as she now was. In such a mood of despondency did this put him that he spent more evenings at home, sampling the remnants of the wine cellar, scared to venture abroad in case he should be cornered by her and plagued for more potions. He was at home, reclining in the library with a half full decanter when he was interrupted by Gravestun’s dour knock. The butler entered, shuffling forward, his steps heavy with disaproval.
‘A letter for you my Lord.’ Gravestun offered the thick packet to him as though it was poison.
Sebastian broke the seal and unfolded the paper quickly enough to tear a corner. Yellow papers tumbled out, falling to the floor before he could catch them.
I trust that you will not be too dismayed on reading this when you see that it is my hand and not that of my cousin that addresses you. I am sure you will have read of her recent marriage, and will have been impatient to receive that which I now return to you. Lord Westerby does not approve of her ladyship travelling abroad without his escort, he is too besotted to risk her in the company of other men and so she has had no opportunity to repay you. Your potion worked somewhat better than she anticipated, but I do not feel that this absolves her of the responsibility of paying you your deserved fee. I have, therefore, taken the liberty of writing to you, enclosing the payment requested. I trust this will find you in good health, and that the tardiness of the payment has not caused you any distress.
Yours Sincerely, Miss Alice Darton.’
Looking down Sebastian saw that the floor was covered in his father’s notes of hand.