Simon is what anyone would call a nice young man. In fact, for someone who is half Fée, his desire to find the right girl, settle down, and start a family makes him freakishly square. He knows his mom would worry less if he would loosen up and get a few girlfriends (or boyfriends).
But it's possible that his heart has a rebellious streak. Why else would he—an avowed agnostic from a family of merry pagans—fall for a saucy Catholic girl? Maybe it’s because she seems to be trying to seduce him with homemade danishes....
Note: Dialogue in French is indicated by the use of « guillemets »
When the front desk receptionist flagged Simon down, pre-coffee, to tell him to call his Aunt Viater as soon as possible, his first thought was that he hoped his mother hadn’t gotten into a fight.
Unfortunately, that was his second thought, too. In his experience, personal calls received at work invariably turned out to be requests for rescue from some hapless friend. But Aunt Viater was only hapless in specific situations (financial paperwork, food preparation, spiders); so, to Simon, it was a reasonable leap to assume it was her sister—his mother—who was the one in trouble, and Viater was calling on her behalf.
The green-hatted receptionist, who had enough of the Sight to tell from Simon’s aura that he was worried, gave him an intrigued look. He returned her gaze levelly. The last thing he wanted was office gossip. With a sniff, she pushed the clunky black plastic phone across the counter and turned away with the pretense of giving him some privacy. Simon dialed and then stretched the phone cord a few feet so he could stand against the wood-paneled wall between the desk and the flagpole, in an attempt to get some actual privacy. The green, white, and purple Atlantidian flag drooped against the grey pinstriped wool of his jacket sleeve until he flicked it away. Above his head, brass letters announced that he worked in the Northeast headquarters for H.M. Department of Corrections, Geasa Division.
While the phone rang, he looked around the corner to the open main room where his colleagues were gathering to collect their assignments for the day. In a few minutes he would have to join them, or risk displeasing his boss. She was not a woman he wanted to displease.
The phone continued to ring. If Viater really did need to talk to him right away, he wished she would pick up the phone. At least it was far more likely, he told himself, that his mother was unwilling to call him rather than unable to do so. Yebeth was a good enough magician that he didn’t need to fear too much she’d come to harm in any accident. An incident, though, possibly requiring bail money...well. Given his line of work he did find disentangling her from the law particularly embarrassing. But he could live with being embarrassed. More worrisome was the possibility she’d pick the fight and then not ask for help, out of a deeply exasperating sense of thoughtfulness.
His mother was a sweet and loving woman, but both she and Viater had an unrepentant streak of warrior queen in their dispositions. He could hardly hold this against them, given that they were descended not too distantly from some real warrior queens. But Simon was a civilized young man; he despaired.
His aunt picked up after ten rings. ‘Hello, this is Viater Houmadhni Smith.’
‘Hello, Aunt Vi. Is everything all right?’
His voice was as level as his look at the receptionist had been, but the Sight—in its non-visual form—worked over the phone. Viater reacted at once to whatever diffuse sense of his concern she was picking up.
‘Oh, dear! I didn’t mean to worry you, Si! And I’m sorry to bother you at work.’
Her tone and his awareness of her slight embarrassment made him relieved. No one had come to harm—and he would not have to beg off the rest of the day to go fill out paperwork and talk to lawyers. Again.
‘It’s nothing serious, I promise,’ Viater continued. ‘I just have a favor to ask on Theo’s behalf.’
Ah ha. Simon was beginning to understand. Theo, like his wife, was also situationally hapless. Usually, Viater and he were able to cover for each other. But not always.
By inclination, Simon would have liked to say ‘Of course Auntie, you know I’d do anything for you or Uncle Theo,’ but the pleasure of heartfelt hyperbole was forbidden to him. He just inquired: ‘What’s that, Auntie?’
‘Can you swing by campus after work and give him a ride home? The construction for the new train has scrambled the bus routes—the transfers don’t match up any more—and he didn’t get home until nearly 9:30 last night. You know how he turns into a pumpkin. It wasn’t pretty.’
Now reassured that the need for help was a mundane one, Simon was able to smile. More than one family dinner had ended with Theo getting his beauty sleep on the couch while conversations continued around him.
Simon again wished he could confidently say ‘No problem, Auntie,’ but he didn’t know yet if that was true.
‘Possibly. What time?’
‘His class gets out at 5:00. So figure 5:30, to give time for all the little nincompoops to ask prof their inane questions about why Van Gogh liked to put extra swirls in.’
Both Viater and Theo were artists and teachers, but while Viater freelanced, Theo had opted for a steady paycheck: the trade-off being that he had to put up with academic politicking. But he was the kind of man who rarely got upset at anything, and he took it all in stride.
When Simon had had to deal with his own share of politicking—law enforcement being no less prone than academia—he’d tried to take Theo’s level-headedness as an example. Unfortunately, being forced by his magician’s adversity to be strictly honest meant that Simon was even worse than most people at office politics.
Last year, though, he had finally, blessedly, gotten assigned to what was unofficially called the Dreadful Cases Squad. They were all too busy to squabble much amongst themselves.
Now he could promise Viater. ‘I’ll try to be there by 5:00. If I can’t swing it with my boss I’ll call you back well before.’
Viater asked carefully: ‘Si, how much trouble is it?’
‘Some,’ he had to answer. ‘But I’m happy to trade my minor inconvenience for your happiness.’
‘Good kid. I’d offer to cook you dinner, but—’
‘You can repay me by not cooking me dinner.’
‘Ha. Fair enough. Thank you.’
* * *
The day was pleasantly warm and the summer humidity hadn’t yet set in: a thin slice of perfect weather. Simon arrived at the university campus a few minutes early and took his time walking from the parking lot to the Arts building, skirting the busy main quadrangle. The grass was as well-speckled with students as it was with tiny white English daisies.
Around each building, rhododendrons and azaleas bloomed, lascivious and sappy, crimson and pink and magenta, clashing with each other as well as with the sandy-red brick. Simon frowned. In a city world-renowned for its exquisite gardens and parks, his taxes were being spent on something as tacky as this?
But then again: he had no right to be judgmental about other people’s gardening decisions when the white lilac by his own back door had been struggling on in a state of drooping undeath for the last several years. He began to think about this as he walked. His dad had planted the lilac, but possibly he should give up nursing it and replace it. With something, anything that was not a rhododendron....
A shout startled him out of his reverie.
‘Hey, handsome,’ hollered a female voice. ‘Got plans later?’
Simon stopped and turned his head. The owner of the voice was one or the other of a pair of students sitting on the edge of a planter box, both grinning at him and showing off their legs. The fashion in skirts in 1952 was longer than it had been in the 40’s, but no one seemed to have told these two.
His magician’s adversity permitted him to remain silent. He chose not to.
‘Practicing the violin,’ he said. ‘Maybe reading.’
One of them stuck out her tongue. The other one said, ‘Aw, you’re too cute to be that much of a bore. Aren’t you Fée?’
Judging from her straw-blonde hair and golden skin—of which she was showing a great deal—she was probably at least half Fée herself. Simon had inherited his father’s brown hair and eyes and his broad shoulders, but in the golden tan skin, the classical features, and the stereotypical sharp-enough-to-cut cheekbones, his heritage was unmistakeable.
There were other stereotypes too, and largely deserved, but they rankled him.
Yet, unlike his mother, he didn’t believe in getting into arguments with strangers. He raised his hat ironically and went on. And was glad he’d done so when he heard the comment they made behind his back.
Since he was, out of habit, honest even inside his own head, he considered the insult, half-unwillingly. Well, yes, it was possible he was stuck up, if what that meant was that he took things seriously—work, love, sex, good manners, gardening. He would’ve needed to have the term defined. Possibly, he would consider it a compliment.
As Viater had warned him, Theo was in the midst of his students, being subjected to questions actually worse than the meaning of Van Gogh’s extra swirls. Simon caught his eye, then held up the book he’d had in his pocket and pointed back at the door he’d come in. Theo smiled and gave him a thumbs up. They’d find each other.
Simon went back out and found a sunny spot on a bench behind a planter. He opened Les fleurs du mal.
Belatedly, he realized he could have gone and talked to the girls who had propositioned him. He hated practicing the violin; he just hadn’t given up yet out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
He frowned down at his book. He also hated that he was now second-guessing himself. Well, even if he wasn’t interested in those girls, every single one of his friends and every single member of his family would have told him that he was on a campus well-supplied with young ladies—some of whom probably even had some manners!—and it was the height of stupidity to hide behind ornamental grasses and read Baudelaire.
His mother, especially, would have sighed, even if she would never scold. She’d always encouraged him to be himself—which had backfired from her point of view, as he had turned out more square than any member of the Houmadhni family had a right to be. Simon knew she would have worried a lot less if he behaved like any other young Fée and kept a couple of lovers for different moods. But she had also assured him she would also be ecstatic to ‘just’ have a daughter-in-law, if that was what would make him happy. And that...would be nice. To that end, he knew his family and friends were right—at least about the necessity of making an effort to strike up conversations.
The thing was, more often than not, he found talking to new people exhausting. Either he didn’t explain his magician’s adversity right away, and people inevitably thought he was a pedantic boor, or he had to have what he thought of as that conversation, which sometimes made things easier but sometimes very much did not.
There were times when he was up for it. But this had been a long day full of Dreadful Cases, and furthermore his stomach was fiercely reminding him that he’d skipped lunch. Right now, the thought of moving to a more visible place and raising his hat to some passing grad student with a nice aura and saying ‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’, made him want to...well, it made him want to hide behind the plants. He wasn’t proud of it, but there it was.
Tonight it would have to be Baudelaire, not girls.
He’d barely gotten into a poem when someone sat on the bench on the other side of the planter. He couldn’t see them, but he registered their presence as a silver-grey glow inside his head. He automatically checked whether the person was in some way hostile—no, just miffed. He went back to his book, ignoring both the aura and the sound of crinkling and flapping paper.
« Ah, bon sang! » muttered a woman’s voice.
To hear someone grumbling ‘good grief!’ in French wasn’t particularly unusual in Phyestaiou City, but the little spike of distress that went with it made Simon’s pulse jump before he blocked it out.
He would ignore ‘miffed,’ but not that. He put his bookmarker back in his book and got up and walked around the planter so he didn’t pop out of the corner of her eye and startle her.
« Mademoiselle, do you need help? » he said in French.
He found himself addressing a bus schedule, fully unfolded to about the size of a coffee table. Beneath it was a long maroon skirt and low heels with scuffs under the polish.
When he spoke, the bus schedule went down. Despite his best intentions, the young lady was startled, her grey eyes widening, a powder-blue light flicking through her aura. She had very pale skin, a mass of curly black hair secured with a barrette at the back of her neck, and a long Gallic nose that did not stop her from being lovely. She was of an age to be a student rather than a professor, but some years older than the girls who’d hassled him earlier.
Simon doffed his hat and repeated himself. « You seem to be in a quandary. Is there anything I can do to help? »
Instead of answering, she looked flustered. « Oh! ...You speak French. »
« A lot of people do here, » he observed.
She wrinkled her nose. « I hate to disagree with you, sir. I would say, they speak a language they call French. »
Simon was amused. « Ah. Yes. I studied in Paris. »
« Languages? »
« Magic in Criminal Justice. »
She looked curious. « You are with the police, then? »
« No, the Department of Corrections. »
This had a forbidding sound to it, and since she had already been on edge, he wasn’t really surprised by her reaction. She looked down, vehemence replaced by shyness.
« Well...your studies seems to have served your accent well, » she murmured. And she resumed study of the bus schedule on her lap.
Ignored without being dismissed, Simon considered the top of her wild-haired head. For once he had not said anything particularly awkward, so to have things end there left him a bit exasperated by the irony of it. Still—he was the last person in the world to want to inflict an unwanted conversation on anyone.
And, yet...she had never answered his original question.
A slight glance of his mind’s eye registered the blue spikes of her anxiety and irritation. She was bent over the bus schedule, tracing routes across the map with her fingers and finding nothing whatsoever satisfactory in her conclusions.
Simon uncertainly, absently, curled the stiff felt brim of his hat in his hands. He was everyone’s in-case-of-emergency person not only because he was hideously reliable, but—well, it might have been a little bit the other way around; he was hideously reliable because he liked taking care of people. He knew he should walk off, but he was helpless to override his own instinct in the matter.
He was rather crankily proud that this would have been the case even had she not had such a charming nose or had she been wearing a wedding ring.
He told himself he would give one more try.
« Are you struggling with the changes to the bus schedule? You are not the only one. »
She looked up again, frustration undisguised. « Agh! Do you know what happened to the 54 line? The place where the bus stops were, is now a hole. »
« Unfortunately, no. I’m waiting to pick up my uncle for a similar reason. »
He tried to remember what the signs on the 54 line said. Given her very French French and recent immigration patterns, he could make a guess about her neighborhood which was probably closer than she would have felt comfortable with.
« North City? » he said.
A vague area. She gave him a suspicious look, which confirmed it.
He said, « If you don’t mind waiting until my uncle is finished with his students, I can take you home as well. You might— »
« No! Don’t be ridiculous! » She started to fold up the schedule as if preparing to run away. « I’m not going to accept a ride from a strange man. I don’t even know your name. »
« Simon Benedict. As I was going to say, you might know my uncle, Professor Theodore Smith? »
She calmed down at once, which was the sort of response most people had to Theo.
« Oh. I have two of his classes. He’s very kind. »
« Yes, he is. I’m certain he would be willing to vouch for my good behavior. Please consider it, I would like to know you’ve gotten home safely. »
An even longer pause this time.
« ...It wouldn’t take you out of your way? »
Well, there was nothing to be done but spin it as well as he could.
« It would take me quite a bit out of my way, but it would still be my honor. It isn’t often that I have the chance to do a favor for a beautiful woman who says she appreciates my French. »
Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t completely avoid a smile. She blushed and at the same time gave him a skeptical look. But she didn’t start folding up the schedule again.
« You are a skilled flatterer, » she said tartly.
« Not usually. At all. In fact, I can’t lie, so more often than not I fail utterly at flattery. »
He was glad she had the sense to keep the skeptical expression; and the tart tone.
« Oh, do you claim a vow of honesty, then? »
« No, it’s my magician’s adversity. Also, please understand, Mademoiselle, I don’t expect you to believe me, and I think not believing me is sensible; I’m just trying to slightly excuse myself in advance if I am unwillingly rude or overly precise. »
A smile tugged at her mouth but didn’t make a full appearance.
« Hmph! » she sniffed. « We should always speak the truth, anyway. »
« I have found that that is very much not true. »
She scowled at him. « What! Is it not! I don’t agree. »
« A gentleman tries to make those around him comfortable. Absolute honesty is often a poor way to do that. If you will, think of it like this. What do you say when you’re introduced to someone? »
She kept frowning at him, seeming to debate whether she should answer or not. « …“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” I suppose. »
« Now imagine I’m introduced to a colleague with a bad reputation but the ability to damage my career. I can’t say “pleasure to make your acquaintance” if I am not, in fact, pleased to meet him. So I must say nothing, and that may anger him because he can guess why, and this will probably make the person who introduced us uncomfortable as well. And being rude makes me unhappy, and it may also cause practical trouble for me at some point. Please don’t dismiss too lightly the ability to be kind. »
She opened her mouth and then closed it again. After a moment she said, « I will think about that. Also, I think I believe you. »
He couldn’t scold her for believing him too quickly, though he wanted to, so he just inclined his head as a sort of a thank-you.
Then he was embarrassed, because his stomach chose that moment to growl loudly enough to hear.
« Sorry! Excuse me. »
« You are hungry? »
« I skipped lunch to leave early to pick up Theo—Professor Smith. » Simon shrugged. « It doesn’t matter. »
She looked at him with narrowed eyes, as if trying to interpret what ‘mattering’ meant to him.
« I won’t starve to death, » he said dryly.
« Hmmm....Wait. »
She folded the bus schedule the rest of the way, stuffed it into the side pocket of her bag, and then began to rummage through the bag. Out of it came a dented metal lunchbox and out of the lunchbox came a folded dinner napkin. She smiled at the napkin with satisfaction. Simon’s heart jumped. She flipped open the corners of the napkin and held it out to him, her serious expression back again. He looked down at what she offered.
Nestled into the pink linen was one neatly-sliced half of a danish. The golden pastry was crisp and flaky, the baker had not skimped on the sweet cheese filling, and the carefully aligned slices of pink-skinned apple had been cut paper-thin. Simon’s mouth watered.
« Will you accept this? I didn’t want it all at lunch. »
Simon’s stomach answered a resounding ‘Yes.’ She laughed at him.
He managed to say:
« Only...if...you do me the honor of letting my uncle and me drive you home. »
She seemed to be finding him highly amusing. « All right. Fine! You win. I will trade you my paltry half a pastry for a ride home which will probably delay your dinner for an hour. »
« Probably more, » Simon said hopelessly. He plucked the napkin from her hand and sat down on the bench before she could respond. The danish crunched under his teeth. As he chewed he closed his eyes without noticing he’d done so.
« Oh, » he said after the first bite.
He was only vaguely aware of her sparkling with humor beside him. She let him eat in peace.
After the last bite he took a deep breath and looked down, brushing the buttery pastry flakes off his suit.
« That’s...the best pastry I’ve ever had in this country. Thank you, Mademoiselle. »
Now that he was paying attention he could identify pride mixed in with her humor. He wondered if she would admit to having made it.
« I am glad you enjoyed it, M’sieur, » she said with dignity.
He looked at her sideways. She was grinning.
« It was fun to watch you eat it, » she said.
He broke first.
« Why does a Frenchwoman make a danish pastry? Isn’t that Viennese dough? »
She arched her eyebrows. « I have stumbled across a connoisseur, I see! Well, perhaps because doing only what is familiar, is boring? The world is wide. »
« I—approve of that. » He struggled to say what he’d intended to. « Perhaps a better question is, why are you here taking art classes from my uncle instead of opening a bakery? »
« Pah! » She threw up her hands and raised her eyes to the sky. She had him at her mercy now and she knew it; the ice was broken and she would talk. If that was what it took, he didn’t mind. She said, « I don’t want to open a bakery. I would be a terrible businesswoman. I like to work with my hands, to make things. Pastries. Art. I play the piano. I’m not talented, mind you, but those are the things I love. »
« I can’t speak for your art or your piano-playing but you are talented at pastries. »
« Ha! That is for my gravestone someday! “Marie Saint-Yves: talented at pastries.” »
« Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Marie Saint-Yves. »
Simon was glad his uncle came out of the building then, because he didn’t know what else to say that was both true and not embarrassing.
‘Uncle Theo!’ he called with relief. He stood up.
Theo came over, a wiry man quite a bit shorter than Simon. He had a stylish sweep of iron-grey hair and wore a blue shirt and a navy tie with his dapper grey suit. Out of habit Simon checked his aura—green and buoyant as always. Also, curious. Simon figured that was probably deserved. Theo wasn’t a magician, nor did he even have any basic Sight, but it probably didn’t take magic to see that Simon was rattled.
‘Si! Good God, kid, forgive me. They wouldn’t let go.’
‘I don’t mind. Uncle, I’m sure you remember Miss Saint-Yves. Her bus is also not where it should be and I am giving her a ride home as well.’
Theo was very good at looking innocent and charming even if his aura was stamped with a giant banner of ‘Oh, I want to hear all about this later.’
‘Of course I know Miss Saint-Yves,’ he said mildly. ‘That’s kind of you, Si. Let’s go!’