Long May She Reign(8)

By: Rhiannon Thomas

“That was amazing,” I said, as I moved back toward the flask. “Did you see that smoke?”

“That purple was pretty impressive. Not quite a hand warmer, though.”

A distorted white lump remained stuck to the bottom of the flask, and it split when I tried to remove it. Even I wasn’t eager enough to add more water to it without further research, so I put the pieces in a jar of their own and labeled it “aluminum iodine.” Maybe I’d have a use for it once I learned more.

I grabbed my journal from its spot on the far end of the desk, while Naomi sank onto the stool beside me. Aluminum, I scrawled, the ink smudging slightly. Did not react as expected.

I frowned as I wrote, making sure to describe the exact color of the product, the scent and thickness of the smoke.

That attempt had failed, but there had to be something useful in it. If you mixed metal with iodine, and added water, it burned. This one had been too hot, obviously, and reacted too fast, but maybe if I tried something else, something that changed gradually but still produced heat . . .

I glanced at the clock on the wall. Ten p.m. One more attempt, and then I’d return to the ball.

Three attempts later, Naomi settled on the chair in the corner and pulled a book from between the cushions. She always had at least one novel stashed somewhere in the lab, so she could sit with Dagny purring on her lap, half listening to my rambling as she read and I worked.

My whole body buzzed. I was on the right path, I knew it. Every metal that burned too hot or barely reacted at all brought me closer to finding the one that was right, closer to finally starting the life that I wanted. How perfect would it be, if I solved all my problems on the night of the king’s birthday, if I sealed my escape from the court on the one night a year when I had to be there? I’d never have to step inside that ballroom again.

After the seventh attempt, I checked the clock again. Two a.m. That didn’t seem right. It had only been an hour, I was sure. But the king’s parties always went on forever. I had plenty of time to return.

I glanced at Naomi again. Her eyes were closed now, and she was breathing gently. Dagny had curled up with her paws, chin, and tail on top of the book, to make sure that Naomi couldn’t ignore her. But Naomi was clearly asleep, and Dagny was, too, their chests rising and falling in sync.

The sun was peeking in through the windows when I became aware of time again. I was pouring spirit of niter into a flask, holding my breath, willing my hand to remain steady, when heavy footsteps crossed the floor above.

I jumped. Spirit of niter flew across the table, and I swore, earning a startled look from Dagny. The party must have ended. My father was going to murder me. I grabbed a cloth and quickly mopped up the liquid. If anyone touched this with their bare hands . . .

Naomi sat up. “What’s going on?” Her hair had half collapsed, revealing the wire structure underneath. She shoved the dome back onto her head.

“I heard something upstairs. Probably my father.” Maybe the feast wasn’t over. Maybe he had noticed my absence and finally come looking for me. I wasn’t sure if that would be better or worse. When I had left the new year celebrations early to study, he’d locked me out of my laboratory for a month. No experiments, no research, not even access to my books, even though I’d attended the ball for at least an hour. That should have been punishment enough for any later transgressions.

More footfalls, pounding down the stairs. They were too heavy to be maids, but too many to be just my father. Had he brought the whole court to berate me?

It had to be somebody else. Thieves, perhaps. Opportunistic criminals who expected the manor to be empty during the ball. I’d assume that intruders would at least try to be stealthy, but if they thought the entire place abandoned . . . I grabbed a pair of iron tongs and held them in front of me, staring at the laboratory door.

“Freya?” Naomi swiped the small shovel from the fireplace. “Who do you think it is?”

I didn’t reply. It couldn’t be anyone good. But if we kept quiet, they probably wouldn’t look here. It was a run-down old laboratory underneath the house. Not a likely hiding place for jewels.

“Freya! Freya, are you down here?”

It was my father, but he didn’t sound angry. His voice was too loud, almost desperate, fearful. Something was wrong.

Before I could even lower my weapon, the door crashed open, and my father barreled into the room.

Titus Nystrom was usually a calm and collected man, with a smile for everyone and a quick wit to match. He had to be, to convince the court that a merchant, of all people, could be allowed to walk among them.

He did not look calm now. His hair was rumpled, his skin blanched and clammy. He wasn’t wearing his jacket, and he had lost his cravat somewhere on the way. My father never looked anything less than polished. Dread settled in my stomach.