The next morning upon entering the manor I bolted up the winding staircase before Olga or anyone could stop me, because it was on the second floor that Harriet would be packing her things. I poked my head into her room and found her doing just what I had anticipated; packing what possessions she had, although it didn’t look to be a lot.
There were two carpetbags by the wall sitting in a morose sort of pile, and she was putting a few things from her desk into a small valise. It was the same desk at which she brushed her hair, and the memory returned to me with full force. She saw me behind her in the mirror and this time she smiled. I preferred that reaction.
“When will you go?” I asked, hoping for the best.
“After lunch.” That left only a few hours, and I began to feel a desperation I wasn’t familiar with. I voiced nothing, though, and instead just sighed. She stood and faced me.
“Do you think…” she ventured. “There is a way we could communicate after I leave?”
“You mean letters?”
“Or anything else,” she said. “Aren’t you privy to all sorts of magical things?”
“I am,” I said, thinking. “I could come see you, but…” I trailed off, not really wanting to say that even though I could pop into her life whenever I wanted with the magical handkerchief it would accomplish little except disrupt the life she should be getting on with.
“Please, will you?”
“I don’t know, Harriet.”
She began to look as if I was letting her down easy, and that’s the last thing I wanted.
“I wish I could,” I added for merit, meaning it to my bones. I decided to go for optimism and moved to her windowsill, tapping the window with a smile. “You’re going to be back out there, with the rest of the world, Harriet! So what will be the first thing you’ll do?”
She smiled back, and her cheeks went rosy. “Prepare for a ball.”
“No, really? I’ve always wanted to go to one of those!”
“I’m kind of scared.”
“What will I wear? Who will I talk to? Will I fall over when I try to dance?” She sighed, pacing to the center of the room and looking up. “It’s terrifying, Henry. I wish you could be there with me.”
I wished I could too, badly. Going to a ball sounded exciting, different, and extravagant. I’d never seen one but read about them a great deal in a few of Teitnl’s books. Most of all I wanted to dance with Harriet.
“Well, let’s start with the first,” I said, approaching Harriet, taking her shoulders, and turning her to face the mirror. She was pliable and willing in my grasp and it was pleasant just to touch her as we both looked at ourselves in the mirror on her desk. “Hmm. Your mirror is too small.”
“It is.” I lifted a hand and it expanded to the floor, and I even widened it a bit for good measure. Maybe I was showing off. Yes, I was probably showing off. At length it showed the whole of her, and me behind her.
“So… what color do you think you’d like to wear?” I asked her.
Her brow furrowed and she seemed embarrassed. “I don’t know. Perhaps pink?” I wrinkled my nose and she laughed. “Blue?” That didn’t seem right either.
“No,” I said. “Red.”
She blinked as if the idea of wearing red had never occurred to her in her life. “Red?”
In reply I lifted my hands above her shoulders with my fingers together, and then splayed them down, never touching her, like a drape over her form. It became a gown in brilliant deep red, which, though difficult to create, as it required intense concentration on the specifics of her body, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and probably more than I should have. I didn’t really care since it was the last time I’d see her, I imagined.
I made it rest on the edge of her shoulders, juxtaposed as if secure and on the verge of slipping at the same time, and the neckline made a wide “V” that brought even more attention to the delicate neck I loved. I cinched it at her waist, created whalebone from air in the bodice and then pulled it tight, then tighter, and her sharp inhale made me smile. The skirt was full, luxurious, and overlaid with golden gossamer. She gasped.
“It’s beautiful, Henry!”
But I wasn’t finished yet, because she would see how beautiful she was before she left and I would make her see it. I moved a hand in front of her, spread my fingers, and gestured across her from shoulder to shoulder, all the while looking in the mirror and watching a sparkling neckpiece wrought as finely as a spider’s web appear across her collarbone. It shifted with such subtlety over the rise and fall of her clavicle that I felt my blood warm. Then I moved both of my hands, and swirled her hair back and up, off of the nape of her neck (being the more beautiful than anything I had previously imagined) and secured it with a shimmering band that I made appear from nowhere.
She touched the necklace as if it might break, and gazed at herself in the mirror. I gazed with her.
“You’re beautiful, Harriet.”
She didn’t refuse my compliment this time, because she knew it and I had proven it to her, and instead she edged back until I could feel her close to me, and her eyes moved to look at me in the mirror. It was while locked in that gaze that I knew it was now or never with Harriet.
I lifted my hand; Harriet and I watched it in the mirror as it moved, and I felt slow anticipation prickle across me as my fingertips reached for her skin, for the delicate shape of her neck. I touched her and she sighed; her eyes closed and I felt my face burn as I let my fingers glide across a surface I’d memorized already without realizing it. It was softer than I’d known it could be. I ran my fingers over the line of her collarbone, curled them into the furrow at the center, and as I withdrew to the curve of her face she turned her head and her lips brushed my fingertips.
My eyes darted to the mirror, to the delightful sight of her lips, parted, soft, and willing, and it took only a small movement on my part to press my own lips against her hair. Her scent was delicate, feminine, and laced with lavender. She kissed my thumb and I thought I might lose my senses.
I did lose the illusion. All of my concentration broke, shattered like glass, and she was once again in her serviceable gray and white uniform in front of a much smaller mirror with her hair down, covering the nape of her neck I wanted to touch again and again and perhaps kiss.
She noticed the illusion was gone, and we both gazed into the mirror, wary, wondering together if it meant an ending. Her voice broke the silence.
“Yes, I think I’ll wear red.”
The intensity of the moment was broken in a sense, but not the anxiety over her departure and as I embraced her from behind she returned my embrace with ardor.
“Henry,” she murmured, her voice soft.
“Henry!” called Teitnl from downstairs, throwing his voice with illusion. I left her then to resume my studies, which never stopped, not even for this. I sometimes wonder if Teitnl continued them with me right then to make the next few hours bearable, or maybe he wanted to help me avoid falling even further for Harriet than I already had. Most likely he just wanted to apprentice me regardless of what else was occurring.
Lunch was a somber affair, as I took it with Olga, Junior, Harriet, and Ned. Olga and Ned dominated most of the conversation, advising Harriet on the things she should do in the next stage of her life with mind-numbing detail. We shared a number of looks during the elder lectures, and some of them even possessed a measure of heat. Junior, who said little and ate little, seemed to be mourning Harriet’s departure and it occurred to me that he might have been attached to her, too.
Following lunch we all convened in the great hall and, for being a going-away gathering, it was underwhelming. The five of us had never made for a thrilling party, and we mostly lumped together waiting for the illusionist to appear.
Teitnl strode in from his study wearing the same thick blue-lavender sash he’d been wearing the night before when we hunted the unicorn. He stopped in front of Harriet, who was standing in a plain skirt and blouse with her carpetbags and valise beside her. She curtsied to him.
“Master Teitnl, thank you.”
He looked her over and tilted his head in reply. “Well, I’ll take your things first.” He picked up her bags, pulled his sash and stepped, blurring out of sight. She turned to look at me, and I sort of tried to smile. Maybe.
“Good luck,” I told her. They were terrible last words, but I’d never been much accustomed to or very good at goodbyes. There was a thunderclap and a breeze and Teitnl was back, windblown but unruffled. Harriet looked at me, and there was a moment of panic on my part when her eyes began to fill with tears again, but instead of crying, she ran upon me, threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me.
I have no recollection of how anyone might have reacted, as my mind was absorbed by the kiss itself and my will was absorbed in enjoying it. Her lips were pliant against mine; she smelled of lavender and tasted something like berries. She was passionate in ways I would never get to explore. I experienced loss and gain all at once, and my mind raced to commit it to memory in as much detail as I could muster. As it ended, what I remember most is her mostly-blue-green-hazel eyes looking up into mine, uncertain and resigned.
It was strange how patient Teitnl was at the time. He didn’t chide me or show any measure of outrage that I had expected. He only took her by the arm and led her to him, and then wrapped his arm around her abdomen and secured her against his torso. She looked at me and smiled, and then they blurred away.