You don’t need me for this, Briar told her. Good hunting.
Once inside, they had to take a moment to blink their vision clear: strips, sparkles, and blots of magic shone everywhere. Half of the large room was a mage’s workplace, with a small herb garden in the window, bottles and boxes of ingredients perched on the shelves that lined one wall, a counter littered with jars, mortars, crystals of all shapes, and boxes of candles and ribbons. Another wall held twenty or so books. A meager hearth served for cooking as well as heat, and the pots and pans that hung from hooks around it had seen better days. A wooden trunk also served as a table. There was a footstool and three chairs, all in need of patching.
A tiny bedchamber opened off that room—Niko looked in and closed the door. “Our mage is dead,” he said grimly. “Maybe that’s best. Once her role in this was discovered, I think no power on earth could have kept her safe. People would have wanted vengeance.”
“What if the past-viewing spell doesn’t help us find out what we need to know?” Tris asked, worried.
“Somewhere in here is her journal or workbook. The past-viewing spell ought to show us where it is, and in turn it will tell us what she did.” Niko sighed. “Are you ready to help me?”
Tris nodded. They had done this kind of spell once before, to find out why the Bit Island watchtower had exploded. Remembering how they had worked it, she threw a rope of power to Niko, letting him draw on her strength as well as his own. With her improved magical vision, she saw the power that jumped from his fingertips as a series of lightning-bright threads. The threads wove themselves into a circle around Niko and Tris, then spread to enclose them in a globe of cobwebs that blazed like the sun. Tris shut her eyes, hoping to blot out the too-bright image, only to find the magic was still visible, though not the room. Sighing, she opened her eyes in time to see Niko make two cuts, one to each palm. He let the blood drip. It entered the spell-webs and raced through them, making them vanish. Now they saw the ghostly image of a short, dark-haired woman at the counter. From each of five bottles she dropped liquid onto five pieces of—
“That looks like bacon,” she muttered.
Niko squinted for a better look. “It is bacon.”
The woman made a note in a journal, watching the raw meat intently. One strip turned green and fell apart. One crinkled and turned yellow. A third liquefied. The remaining two turned black as coal, as if they had been cooked for much too long.
From the way she reacted, the dark-haired woman was furious. She flipped to an earlier page in her journal and crossed out what looked like recipes with angry slashes of her pen. She tugged her hair, hit the counter, and burst into tears. At last she stoppered the glass vials and put them in a covered basket. Something then made her pause.
She drew a purse through an opening in her skirt and upended it into her palm. A few copper coins spilled out. She stared at them, lips moving—counting, Tris guessed.
“No,” whispered Niko, “you dolt, stop and think. There are reasons why the law says magical things must be disposed of at Winding Circle.”
The woman counted her money again, then stared at her basket. Opening it, she removed the vials and emptied them into a wooden bowl. She closed the journal, tied a ribbon that glowed with magical symbols around it, and reached into the shelves in front of her, groping. The shelves swung open to reveal a hidden compartment. She set the journal there and closed it. Bowl in hand, the mage walked through Tris, opened a ghost door, and passed through the real one, out of their sight.
“Stupid,” whispered Niko, as passionately angry as Tris had ever seen him. He stalked over to the shelves and reached under one, searching for the catch to the hidden compartment. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
“She just got rid of a potion that didn’t work,” protested Tris. When his search proved fruitless, she boosted herself onto the counter and thrust her smaller hand behind the bottles. She was interested to see that they were glued into place, never meant for use in the dead mage’s work. Finding the catch, she tugged, and the shelf door swung open. She dropped to the floor as Niko removed the journal.
“She dumped five magically enhanced fluids that had not been properly neutralized,” Niko rapped back. “With no thought of how they might interact with anything else. The fee charged to handle these things is small. Gods of light and knowledge save me from coin-pinching lackwits!”
“She was that tight with a copper.” Tris and Niko turned. A bleary-eyed old woman leaned against the door of the other garret room outside. “Mind, she had to watch her money. Her work wasn’t very good.” Sly glee ran over the woman’s puffy face. “Stands to reason, don’t it? If she was any good, she wouldn’ta lived here with the rest of us poor folk.”
“If you will excuse us,” Niko said stiffly, holding onto the dead mage’s journal. “We have no time to waste.”
Tris ran down the stairs at a fast trot. Niko came after her. A voice drifted eerily down the stairwell: “Does this mean the curse on them that breaks into her place is gone?”
Crane was so limp with shock and disgust that Briar expected him to wilt into a heap. “Ah,” the Air dedicate said in a tone so mild he might have been talking of spring rain. “All this—all this for a nostrum to help women to reduce their weight.”
Rosethorn ran her finger over a page in the dead woman’s journal. “This—Eilisa Pearldrop”—she said the name with raw sarcasm—”wanted to create a potion to consume body fat, making it dissolve in wastes and in sweat. It wouldn’t hurt if the person who used it had little appetite as well. So the fever was built in, and made resistant to willowbark. Of course. Who would want to pay for a very expensive weight loss potion that would be made useless the first time you drank willowbark tea for a headache?” She looked at Niko and Tris, scrubbed and gowned for entry into Crane’s realm, and shook her head. “It never would have worked. And she writes that the dark rash was a side effect she couldn’t get rid of.”