I scream, and then do the one thing that's gotten me into this whole mess - I run toward Professor Grabiner without a thought other than I have to save him.
"No," says Lord Montague, and flings one hand out in front of him, palm towards me. I smash into an invisible barrier, face first, and fall backwards. I hear the snap in my nose before I feel it, and clap one hand to my face, feeling blood gush down onto my chin. The pain of it drives all motivation from my head, and I lie there snuffling for a long moment before I can roll to my side and sit up, trying to staunch the blood with one sleeve of my hoodie.
"Now this is a surprise," says Lord Montague, affecting a casual drawl. "I could have sworn I'd given orders to keep you back at the house until I was ready for you. How on earth did you get past Mr. Lewis?"
He waits for me, still smiling, as I right myself. "I'm waiting," he says, his impatience barely concealed behind the smile.
"I called him a manus," I say, trying to keep my voice steady. It comes out "I galled hib a badus."
"I galled hib a badus. Ad he lossd his tembur."
"He lost his temper? Ahh-" and Lord Montague suddenly doubles over, laughing. "He lost his temper!" He howls with amusement, leaning forward with both hands gripping his knees, breathless. I wonder if I should try to rush him while he seems so helpless, but I immediately dismiss the thought. Even if it isn't an act, I can sense that his barrier is still in front of me, and he can produce another in a matter of seconds if I try to get around it.
"Oh - goodness me," Lord Montague says, wiping a tear from one eye. "Yes, Mr. Lewis is rather vain, isn't he? And you called him a manus! But really, my dear, I didn't think you could do it. You're obviously not the dolt that Hieronymous told me you were."
My jaw drops at this, and Lord Montague's grin widens, showing me that he's met his mark. "Yes, I'm afraid I've underestimated you. But - NO."
This last word is directed at Professor Grabiner, who was struggling to right himself - without success - during this exchange. Lord Montague shoots his hand towards him, and Professor Grabiner crumples again, looking less like Professor Grabiner and more like a pile of objects that, if assembled in the correct order, might resemble something vaguely Professor Grabiner shaped.
"STOB IT!" I scream. "Leave hib alode!" But when I turn back to Lord Montague, I can see that he considers my protest futile - even comic. He smiles at me again.
"As I was saying, you're not the dolt Hieronymous told me you were." He pauses between each word, giving them barbs that are hardly necessary. "How fascinating."
"Whad do you wand?" I ask, pleading. "Why did you do id? Why did you kill all those beople? I thoughd they were your friends."
Lord Montague chuckles at this. "Friends?" he says, quietly. "As if I could be friends with fools like that - idiot children who pretend to dabble in magic without having the least idea what true magic can do."
Anger flares up in me. "Dot Mrs. Craft!" I say. "She was bagic, she just - she-" But Lord Montague starts laughing again, cutting me off.
"Oh no! Oh no, no, no. And I thought you were showing some signs of cleverness after all," he says, looking almost regretful.
I sniff furiously, trying to clear my nose, wiping my face with my sleeve and smearing blood all over my mouth and chin. "She was magic," I say, but then I cut myself off, realizing.
"Yes?" says Lord Montague, registering my expression.
"They... they were all magic?"
"There you go," he says, the voice of the impatient schoolteacher who has just coaxed a student into answering an obvious question. "They all had potential to be magicians, but they never made the Choice. Funny thing about the aristocracy in Britain - for some reason, being a magician was never the respectable occupation it might once have been. It must have been the stigma from back when a magician was just another sort of servant. And so all of the aristocratic families - even the landed gentry! - kept their children from making the Choice. Except for the Grabiners, of course."
"I still don't see why-"
"Think for a minute, would you?" says Lord Montague, his smile dropping into an irritated frown. "Think about what I would want to do with a load of know-nothing, magic-curious ninnies who'd latch onto any charlatan who gave them a hint of anything real."
"I don't know!" I scream at him. "If you hated them so much, why didn't you just leave them alone?"
"Beca-ause," he says, coaxing.
"Because," I say, closing my eyes in exhaustion, "because you wanted something. And if they're all magic, you wanted..."
"Yes," Lord Montague says, expectant.
"Their magic," I conclude, opening my eyes again. "But - if your magic gets taken away when you don't make the Choice-"
"But it doesn't," says Lord Montague. "Not here, anyway - I don't know what they do in America, but here, adolescent psyches are considered too delicate for full removal. Their magic just gets stoppered - it's in them, but they can't use it. And if you know the right spell, you can break in and suck it out, like marrow out of a bone." He gives me his beatific smile. "Unfortunately the operation tends to be fatal. But that's the price one pays."
I stare at Lord Montague with growing disgust. Professor Grabiner might be a snob about non-magical people, but Lord Montague is a monster on an entirely different level. "All right, you've got their magic, you killed them for it. So what do you want with-" I start, but stop, and watch Lord Montague. He's stopped listening to me, and has lifted his hands, raising Professor Grabiner from his position by the wall and floating him toward the stone slab that Lord Montague stands behind.
"No," I say, taking a step forward.
But Lord Montague says "stay back," and I stop. He settles Professor Grabiner on the slab, and looks back up at me.
"Why should I stay back?" I shout, near hysteria. "You know I can't do anything to you, you know I'm out of magic, don't you?"
"I know," says Lord Montague "But I'll need to keep you alive, just the same."
"For how long?" I ask, remembering Mr. Lewis's ominous statement that he was to keep me alive "for now."
"Until Hieronymous agrees to let me have his body, of course. Surely you've figured that out by now."
I'm stunned to silence, and Lord Montague heaves a beleaguered sigh that's only half an act. "Didn't he tell you that I'm dying? I need his body to go on, and I need him to agree to let me have it."
"No," I say. "Professor Potsdam said that with enough green magic, your body can last you for centuries-"
"And do you understand how much maintenance that takes?" Lord Montague shouts with sudden fury. "The diet alone is enough to drive a man to suicide! No, no, it's far better to upgrade to a new model when the time comes. And for that, I need Hieronymous. But I need a great deal of magic to work the spell - hence all of those-" he pauses wrinkling his nose, "things littering the foyer. And he," he says, patting his unconscious son on the arm, "needs to agree of his own free will; otherwise the spell won't take, alas."
"He'd never do it," I say, vehement. "He'd rather die before he'd let a murderer have his body."
"Well, yes, that's true," says Lord Montague with a mock-rueful look. "But then there are other methods of persuasion. For example, I told him that I'd be happy to torture you to death in front of him if he continued to be obstinate."
I don't know what to say to this - Lord Montague's smiling in a way that almost indicates that he's joking, but his eyes glitter in a way that tells me he's serious.
"And do you know what he said to me?" continues Lord Montague. "He said no. Can you believe it? He once begged me to let him die to save the woman he loved, but he wouldn't even consider sacrificing himself for you."
Every word Lord Montague says is a knife in my heart, and he knows it. He practically leers with pleasure as he watches my face fall.
"Th - that's fine," I say, trying and failing to stop my voice from shaking. "I'd rather die than-"
"But would you rather be tortured?" asks Lord Montague patiently. "I thought I'd have Mr. Lewis rip your fingernails out first. He'll enjoy that - I understand it's quite painful. And then he could pop your eyes out of their sockets, one at a time. It's very easy to do, and think of the interesting view you'll have as they're dangling from those pretty little cheeks. You'll be screaming for mercy within five minutes, I think, but I wonder how long Hieronymous can hold out, watching? Shall we wake him up and find out?"
"No!" I blurt, panicking. I have to keep Lord Montague from calling Mr. Lewis - once he's here, it'll all be over - as I'm sure he's furious with me and only too happy to have a chance at torture. And there won't be any tricks to play this time; Mr. Lewis will be on his guard after being fooled once, and Lord Montague's far more cagey as well as far more powerful, having ingested so much magic from his guests.
He cocks his head to one side. "Oh?" he says. "Do you have a better idea? Please let me know, I'm quite open to suggestion." He's laying it on thick, as though he's dangling a treat in front of a pet, preparing to jerk it away at any moment.
He's enjoying himself, I realize. And why not? He has my undivided attention, and if there's one thing Lord Montague has shown he loves, it's a captive audience. If I can keep him enjoying himself - keep him talking - I can buy some time. But time for what, I don't know.
"I just still don't understand," I start slowly. "You could use anyone's body, it doesn't have to be Prof-Hieronymous. You could find someone who'd agree."
"That's as may be," says Lord Montague, "but I'm afraid you're still not understanding the importance of continuing the family. The Grabiners have built something over the past thousand years - political influence, social standing, and, if you'll forgive me for mentioning it, a great deal of money. I'm not about to abandon all of that because of one stubborn child."
"The money..." I say to myself, suddenly repulsed at how stupid I've been. "Of course - that's why you were so upset about the estate this morning." Professor Grabiner had, in a way, figured it all out already - there was no reason for Lord Montague to be angry about the estate tax, as he'd be dead when it took effect. It makes much more sense - Lord Montague was trying to save the estate from being taxed so he could keep it all for himself by becoming his own heir.
"Yes, he did rather muck things up, didn't he?" Lord Montague says with a glare at his son. "In this body I don't have the stamina to perform the kind of white magic needed to shield the estate from the tax authorities any more. I'd hoped he'd take care of it before it became necessary for me to - ah - step in, so to speak. Now it appears as though I'll have to try to fix things up after the fact. It can be done, of course, but such a bother." He gives me an exaggerated, martyred look. "And on top of that I have my own funeral to arrange! I just wish he weren't so obstinate about performing white magic. It's my own fault really - I should have gotten him back here years ago so that we could plan things properly. I did try my best. I was ever so servile in my letters to him - he would have been astonished if he'd actually bothered to read them. But I kept waiting... I suppose I hoped that he'd get himself married before I had to take him."
My hackles raise at this. "Why?"
Lord Montague chuckles. "Well for one thing it's a nice bit of leverage. Better to threaten to torture a wife than a friend or acquaintance. Children are even better, but one has to work with the resources one is given. Even if it's a marriage that's, well, not exactly based on affection. Oh don't give me that look," he snaps, watching the shock spread across my face. "I've known about the circumstances of your marriage since the day it took place."
"How-" I say, voice no more than a squeak.
"Why, Petunia of course," he says with a grin that shows he's been aching to reveal his source of information, because of how painful it is for me to hear. "She's been filling me in on Hieronymous's comings and goings ever since he started working for her. Very useful resource, Petunia. She even saved me the bother of having Mr. Lewis fetch you from America. I wouldn't be surprised if she'd engineered your entire marriage herself. I don't know what that woman wouldn't do for money - and she's received plenty of it for her pains."
I feel as though my heart is being squeezed in a vise. Professor Potsdam, on Lord Montague's side all along - me, married to a teacher nearly twenty years my senior, and Professor Grabiner served up as a sacrifice to his father, for what? For money. I can't hide the misery I feel, and Lord Montague watches me, drinking it in with undisguised glee.
"And Hieronymous is such an idiot when it comes to women. Always going about falling in love with them - or at least dashing off to rescue them without thinking. I only wish Petunia had found a better specimen for the job, or at least a prettier one. I've been a bit hyperbolic about your looks, I'm afraid - I won't deny you have a certain gamine charm, but really, you don't compare with your predecessor in the slightest."
"I know," I say, my voice husky with unshed tears. "I saw the photograph." Lord Montague's leer at that statement is unmistakable. "You left it for me to find, didn't you?"
"Just think of it as a little wedding present from me," he says. "A reminder of what you're up against. Your schoolgirl crush is very affecting, don't get me wrong, but if you think the power of your love is enough to make him forget-" he cuts off, unable to keep from a high-pitched, hysterical giggle that opens up into a howl of laughter that forces him to bend, clutching his knees again. "Oh I am sorry," he says when he finishes, wiping a tear - real or fake, I'm too far away to tell - "it just sounds like something out of a paperback romance novel. A cheap one."
I feel as though Lord Montague has hollowed out my insides. Even if Mr. Lewis did come to tear out my fingernails, he wouldn't be able to equal the pain Lord Montague's inflicted with those words - because I know that everything he says is right.
"I wasn't - I mean, I didn't want him to forget-" I start, but it's a lie. I hang my head and slump my shoulders, unable to continue. "You're right," I say, defeated. "She was better."
"Yes, she really was," Lord Montague says, almost absently. "Beautiful, accomplished, intelligent - just delicious."
The last word makes me jerk my head up. If he sees me, Lord Montague doesn't seem to register it. Instead, he's staring past me, over my shoulder, with a familiar expression on his face. I'd seen it the first night, when he'd run his hand down the side of my dress to feel the curves under the thin fabric, and this afternoon, when he'd started stroking my cheek. I'd interpreted the expression as the libidinous look of an older man who wants nothing more than to put his hands on a younger woman, but here, the same look seems much greedier, and more base. Not lust, but hunger. For a moment I stare at him, not quite believing what I'm seeing.
"You," I say, and it comes out as hardly more than a whisper. As quiet as I am, Lord Montague's eyes snap back into focus and he stares back at me, his smile fading slightly at the corners.
"You ate her," I say, just barely raising my voice. "It was never any goblins. It was you."