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THE MEETING OF the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was well under way, and the entrance hall was almost empty. Only the occasional tardy magician passed through, scarcely sparing a glance for the child waiting there.
Boy children of his type were not an uncommon sight in the Society’s rooms. The child was unusual less for his complexion than for his apparent idleness. Unlike the Society’s splendidly liveried pages, he was soberly dressed, and he was young for a page boy, having just attained his sixth summer.
In fact, Zacharias held no particular employment, and he had never seen the Society before that morning, when he had been conducted there by the Sorcerer Royal himself. Sir Stephen had adjured him to wait, then vanished into the mysterious depths of the Great Hall.
Zacharias was awed by the stately building, with its sombre wood-panelled walls and imposing paintings, and he was a little frightened of the grave thaumaturges hurrying past in their midnight blue coats. Most of all he was rendered solemn by the seriousness of his task. He sat, swollen with purpose, gazing at the doors to the Great Hall, as though by an effort of will he might compel them to open and disgorge his guardian.
Finally, the moment came: the doors opened, and Sir Stephen beckoned to him.
Zacharias entered the Great Hall under the penetrating gaze of what seemed to be a thousand gentlemen, most of them old, and none friendly. Sir Stephen was the only person he knew, for one could not count Sir Stephen’s familiar Leofric, who slept curled in reptilian coils at the back of the room, smoke rising from his snout.
The thickest-skinned child might have been cowed by such an assembly, and Zacharias was sensitive. But Sir Stephen put a reassuring hand on his back, and Zacharias remembered the morning, so long ago now—home, safety, warmth, and Lady Wythe’s face bending over him:
“Never be afraid, Zacharias, but do your best. That will be quite enough, for you have been taught by the finest sorcerer in the realm. If the attention of so many gentlemen should make you nervous, simply pretend to yourself that they are so many heads of cabbages. That always assists me on such occasions.”
Zacharias was pretending as hard as he could as he was propelled to the front of the room, but the cabbages did not seem to help. To be sure, Lady Wythe had never been called upon to prove the magical capacities of her race before the finest thaumaturgical minds in England. It was a grave responsibility, and one anyone would find daunting, thought Zacharias, even if he were a great boy of six.
“What do you wish to bring alive, Zacharias?” said Sir Stephen. He gestured at a small wooden box on a table. “In the course of his travels Mr. Midsomer acquired this box, carved with birds and fruit and outlandish animals. You may have your pick.”
Zacharias had rehearsed the enchantment he was to perform many times under Sir Stephen’s patient tutelage. The night before, he had fallen asleep reciting the formula to himself. Yet now, as he was surrounded by a crowd of strange faces, oppressed by the consciousness of being the focus of their attention, memory deserted him.
His terrified gaze swung from Sir Stephen’s kind face, skipped over the audience, and roamed over the Great Hall, as if he might find the words of the spell waiting for him in some dusty corner. It was the oldest room in the Society, and boasted several interesting features, chief of which were the ancient carved bosses on the ceiling. These represented lambs, lions and unicorns; faces of long-dead sorcerers; and Green Men with sour expressions and vines sprouting from their nostrils. At any other time they would have captivated Zacharias, but right now they could give him no pleasure.
“I have forgotten the spell,” he whispered.
“What is that?” said Sir Stephen. He had been speaking in clear ringing tones before, addressing his audience, but now he lowered his voice and leaned closer.
“No helping the boy, if you please,” cried a voice. “That will prove nothing of what you promised.”
The audience had been growing restless with Zacharias’s stupefaction. Other voices followed the first, hectoring, displeased:
“Is the child an idiot?”
“A poll parrot would offer better amusement.”
“Can you conceive anything more absurd?” said a thaumaturge to a friend, in a carrying whisper. “He might as well seek to persuade us that a pig can fly—or a woman do magic!”
The friend observed that so could pigs fly, if one could be troubled to make them.
“Oh certainly!” replied the first. “And one could teach a woman to do magic, I suppose, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?”
“This is a great gift to the press,” cried a gentleman with red whiskers and a supercilious expression. “What fine material we have furnished today for the caricaturists—a meeting of the first magicians of our age, summoned to watch a piccaninny stutter! Has English thaumaturgy indeed been so reduced by the waning of England’s magic that Sir Stephen believes we have nothing better to do?”
Unease rippled through the crowd, as though what the gentleman had said sat ill with his peers. Zacharias said anxiously: “Perhaps there is not enough magic.”
“Tush!” said Sir Stephen. To Zacharias’s embarrassment, he spoke loud enough for the entire room to hear. “Pray do not let that worry you. It pleases Mr. Midsomer to enlarge upon the issue, but I believe England is still furnished with sufficient magic to quicken any tolerable magician’s spells.”
The red-whiskered gentleman shouted an indistinct riposte, but he was not allowed to finish, for three other thaumaturges spoke over him, disagreeing vociferously. Six more magicians took up Mr. Midsomer’s defence, alternating insults to their peers with condemnation of Sir Stephen and mockery of his protégé. A poor sort of performing animal it was, they said, that would not perform!
“What an edifying sight for a child—a room full of men several times his size, calling him names,” said one gentleman, who had the sorcerer’s silver star pinned to his coat. He did not trouble to raise his voice, but his cool accents seemed to cut through the tumult. “It is all of a piece with the most ancient traditions of our honourable Society, I am sure, and evidence of how well we deserve our position in the world.”
Mr. Midsomer flushed with anger.
“Mr. Damerell may say what he likes, but I see no reason why we should restrain our criticism of this absurd spectacle, child or no child,” he snapped.
“I am sure you do not, Midsomer,” said Damerell gently. “I have always admired your refusal, in the pursuit of your convictions, ever to be constrained by considerations of humanity—much less of ordinary good manners.”
The room erupted into more argument than ever. The clamour mounted till it seemed it must wake the carvings on the box, and even the slumbering bosses on the ceiling, without Zacharias’s needing to lift a finger.
Zacharias looked around, but everyone had ceased to pay attention to him. For the moment he was reprieved.
He let out a small sigh of relief. As if that tiny breath were the key to his locked memory, his mind opened, and the spell fell into it, fully formed. The words were so clear and obvious, their logic so immaculate, that Zacharias wondered that he had ever lost them.
He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call. The birds carved upon the box blushed red, green, blue and yellow, and he knew that the spell had caught.
The birds peeled away from the box as they took on substance and being, their wings springing away from their bodies, feathers sprouting upon their flesh. They flew up to the ceiling, squawking. The breeze from their wings brushed Zacharias’s face, and he laughed.
One by one the carved bosses sprang to life, and the dead sorcerers and the sour old Green Men and the lions and the lambs and the birds opened their mouths, all of them singing, singing lustily Zacharias’s favourite song, drowning out the angry voices of the men below, and filling the room with glorious sound.
Eighteen years later
LADY FRANCES BURROW’S guests had not noticed her butler particularly when he showed them into the house, but the self-important flourish with which he now flung open the door piqued curiosity. Those who broke off conversations, and raised their head from their ices, were duly rewarded by his announcement:
“Lady Maria Wythe and Mr. Zacharias Wythe!”
It had not been three months since Zacharias Wythe had taken up the staff of the Sorcerer Royal—not so long since his predecessor, Sir Stephen Wythe, had died. He was an object of general interest, and to the great increase of Lady Frances’s complacency, more than one pair of eyes followed his progress around her drawing room.
Zacharias Wythe could not fail to draw attention wherever he went. The dark hue of his skin would mark him out among any assembly of his colleagues, but he was also remarkable for his height, and the handsomeness of his features, which was not impaired by his rather melancholy expression. Perhaps the last was not surprising in one who had entered into his office in such tragic circumstances, and at a time when the affairs of English thaumaturgy were approaching an unprecedented crisis.
Stranger than his colour, however, and more distressing than any other circumstance was the fact that Zacharias Wythe had no familiar, though he bore the Sorcerer Royal’s ancient staff. Lady Frances’s guests did not hesitate to tell each other what they thought of this curious absence, but they spoke in hushed voices—less in deference to the black crepe band around Zacharias’s arm than out of respect for his companion.
It was Lady Wythe whom Lady Frances had invited, overbearing her protests with generous insistence:
“It is hardly a party! Only one’s most intimate friends! You must take it in the light of a prescription, dear Maria. It cannot be good for you to mope about at home. Mr. Wythe, too, ought not to be left too much to himself, I am sure.”
In Zacharias, Lady Frances had hit upon the chief remaining object of Lady Wythe’s anxiety and affection. Lady Wythe’s bereavement was great, and she had never been fond of society even before Sir Stephen’s death. But for Zacharias she would do a great deal, and for his sake she essayed forth in her black bombazine, to do battle in a world turned incalculably colder and drearier by her husband’s departure.
“I wonder what Lord Burrow is about?” she said to Zacharias. “It cannot do any harm to ask him about your spells to arrest the decline in our magic. Sir Stephen said Lord Burrow had as good an understanding of the science of thaumaturgy as any man he knew.”
It had formed no small part of Lady Wythe’s desire to attend the party that Lord Burrow chaired the Presiding Committee that governed the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. Lord Burrow had been a friend to Sir Stephen, but he had regarded Sir Stephen’s scheme to educate a negro boy in magic as an unfortunate freak—an eccentricity only tolerable in a man of his great parts. The turn that had bestowed the staff of the Sorcerer Royal on that negro boy was not, in Lord Burrow’s view, one to be welcomed. He was learned enough not to ascribe Britain’s imminent crisis of magical resource either to Zacharias’s complexion or to his inexperience, but that did not mean he looked upon Zacharias himself with any warmth.
His support would do a great deal to bolster Zacharias’s position, however, if it could be got. It was with this thought in mind that Lady Wythe had chivvied Zacharias along, for Zacharias was as disinclined for society as Lady Wythe could be. Though he had, at four and twenty, all the ease and assurance that could be imparted by a capital education and a lifetime’s intercourse with the good and great of the magical world, by nature he was rather retiring than sociable, and his manners were impaired by reserve.
He had agreed to accompany Lady Wythe because he believed society might enliven her spirits, but he balked at her directive to make up to Lord Burrow:
“Like as not he will think it an absurd impertinence in me to presume to have identified a solution for our difficulties, when so many better magicians than I have failed. Besides, my researches had hardly advanced in any degree before they were suspended.”
Before Sir Stephen’s death and Zacharias’s subsequent elevation, Zacharias had devoted the bulk of his time to the pursuit of thaumaturgical inquiries. He had surveyed the household magics clandestinely transacted by females of the labouring classes, to which the Society turned a blind eye; he had studied the magics of other nations, producing a monograph on the common structures of African and Asiatic enchantments; but in the period preceding Sir Stephen’s death, he had been chiefly engaged in the devising of spells to reverse the ongoing decline of England’s magic.
It was a project of considerable practical interest, but Zacharias had not so much as looked at it in several months. For Zacharias, as for Lady Wythe, Sir Stephen’s death was the point at which the ordinary course of time had been halted. What ensued after that date had been life of quite a different kind, scarcely connected with what had gone before.
“I should not like to show my spells to anyone, in their current state,” said Zacharias now.
Lady Wythe was too wise to press the point. “Well then, perhaps we ought to see to your being introduced to some of the young ladies here. Lady Frances said they might get up a dance after dinner. There cannot be any objection to your joining in, and it would be a pity if any young lady were compelled to sit out a dance for want of a partner.”
Zacharias’s look of consternation was comical. “I scarcely think they will be pleased to be offered such a partner. You forget in your partiality what a very alarming object I am.”
“Nonsense!” cried Lady Wythe. “You are precisely the kind of creature girls like best to swoon over. Dark, mysterious, quiet—for a young man who talks a great deal always seems a coxcomb. The very image of romance! Think of Othello.”
“His romance came to no good end,” said Zacharias.
It seemed he was in the right of it, for it soon became evident that Zacharias was having a curious effect upon the other guests. Whispered discussions were hushed suddenly as he passed. Thaumaturges who might be expected to greet the head of their profession nodded to Lady Wythe, but averted their eyes from Zacharias.
Zacharias was not unaccustomed to such treatment; if it troubled him, he had no intention of letting Lady Wythe know it. Lady Wythe was not so hardened, however. Though the other guests’ withdrawal was scarcely overt, her powers of observation were sharpened by affection, and what she saw wounded her.
“Can I credit my eyes?” she said in a low voice. “Did I see Josiah Cullip cut you?”
Zacharias said, in a dishonourable fit of cowardice, “Perhaps he did not see me.”
“Zacharias, my dear, I do not believe I am misled by partiality when I say you are impossible to miss in this room,” said Lady Wythe. “To think of that linen draper’s son presuming to cut you, when you recommended him to Sir Stephen to be Secretary of the Committee! What can he be thinking?”
“I am not popular, you know,” said Zacharias. He had already suffered and swallowed his bitterness regarding Cullip’s defection. To show he minded it would only increase Lady Wythe’s distress. “I suppose he thinks to curry favour with the Society by disowning his connection with me.”
“But what complaint can the Society have with your conduct? I am sure you have done nothing but what redounds to the credit of your office. If anyone has a right to repine, it is your friends, for the Society has taken up all your time since you became Sorcerer Royal.”
“There is the decline in our magic,” said Zacharias. “It is not surprising that my colleagues have linked our difficulties to my investiture. It affords the possibility of a simple cure: remove me, and all will be well again.”
“It is never surprising for thaumaturges to latch on to a silly notion, but that does not excuse their stupidity,” said Lady Wythe. “This lack of magic plagued Sir Stephen for years, yet no one ever thought to fault him for it. It is those wicked fairies that will not let us have familiars, and that is nothing to do with you. Mr. Cullip ought to know that.”
“He cannot help feeling the prejudice against him,” said Zacharias. “A large part of the Committee dislikes the notion of any but a gentleman being counted among their number, and Cullip has a wife and children to support. Without his post he should have been compelled to give up thaumaturgy.”
“Now that is the trouble with you, Zacharias,” said Lady Wythe. “You will go out of your way to help the most undeserving creature, but never have any regard to yourself. I wish you would not run yourself ragged for these ne’er-do-wells. You are quite grey! If I did not know better, I would suspect you of having contracted some illness and concealing it from me.”
Discomfited, Zacharias rolled his shoulders, as though to shrug off Lady Wythe’s searching gaze.
“Come,” he said, with an attempt at lightness, “are not we at a party? We are hardly making a fit return to Lady Frances for her kindness. Should you like some punch? Or I believe there are ices—I am sure you would like an ice.”
Lady Wythe looked wistfully at Zacharias, but she knew that despite his mildness, he had all the traditional stubbornness of a sorcerer. She should like an ice of all things, she said.
Zacharias was as anxious that Lady Wythe should be easy as she was concerned that he should be well—and well liked. It was not within his power to reassure her on either point, and there was more she did not know, that he knew would only distress her further. In his preoccupation he did not hear John Edgeworth say his name, though he spoke it twice.
“I say, Wythe!”
“I beg your pardon, Edgeworth,” said Zacharias, starting. “I did not think to see you here.”
John Edgeworth was the scion of an old thaumaturgical family, but though he had inherited his ancestors’ intelligence and enterprise, he had, alas, none of their magical ability. He had made the best of an awkward situation, and was much esteemed in the Foreign Office, where he was valued for his understanding of Britain’s wayward thaumaturges and their relations with France’s sorcieres. These days Edgeworth was more likely to be found at the dinner parties of political hostesses than among the Fellows of the Society.
“I don’t propose to remain for any time, for I’ve another engagement and cannot be late,” said Edgeworth, glancing around as though he was anxious not to be overheard. “Great men, you know, will not be kept waiting! But I had thought there might be a chance of catching you here. Indeed, Lady Frances gave me her word I should. The fact is the Government is in a quandary, a magical quandary, and I have been tasked with bespeaking your assistance. Will you come and see me tomorrow?”
Zacharias hesitated. They both knew this was not truly a request. In theory the Sorcerer Royal was independent of the Government, and even of the Society. His only allegiance was to the nation, and it could not be allowed that anybody but a sorcerer was capable of judging how magic might best be employed for the good of the nation—certainly not any mere politician or civil servant.
In practise, however, a Sorcerer Royal whose profession was facing such a scarcity of magical resource must endeavour to keep his Government in good humour. The Government knew the Society’s influence had waned of late, even if it did not know of the extent of its difficulties, and it would be on the alert for any sign of weakness or incompliance. Yet it sat ill with Zacharias to overturn his plans at such a peremptory order.
“I have a meeting of the Committee of Thaumaturgical Standards tomorrow, which cannot easily be postponed,” he said, but John Edgeworth cut him off:
“Then you must come on Wednesday. But stay, you are in the Sorcerer Royal’s quarters now, are not you—those vastly alchemical rooms? They would be just the thing. We will attend upon you on Wednesday. Whether we come in the morning or afternoon will be no great odds to you, I am sure.”
Before Zacharias could protest, or ask who was encompassed within Edgeworth’s “we,” his interlocutor had swept off, leaving Zacharias in a state of suppressed indignation, and with a rapidly melting ice. The latter prevented his lingering too long upon the former, and he hurried back to where he had left Lady Wythe.
England’s scarcity of magic was a matter of common knowledge among the magical. Edgeworth could not have escaped knowing something of it. But magicians were a secretive lot, and no one but a practising thaumaturge could know how very ill matters stood. If the Society were to retain its position and privileges, its dearth of resource must be concealed—most of all from the Government, which had little fondness for England’s magicians.
Was the significance of Edgeworth’s air of mingled mystery and importance that thaumaturgy’s secret had been discovered? Zacharias would not know till Wednesday. It was a pity his research had been interrupted! If only he had been able to complete his spells to increase England’s magic, it might have been within his power to take the sting out of these anxieties. If he had time to travel to the border of Fairyland, he might yet be tempted to try them.
Lady Wythe was absorbed in conversation with their hostess when Zacharias approached. Lady Frances Burrow affected a penetrating theatrical whisper when imparting confidences, which had the effect of drawing far more attention than her accustomed tones. She was saying to Lady Wythe, very audibly:
“My dear, you could have knocked me down with a feather when Mrs. Quincey told me! I did not credit a word of it, of course, but I hope you will forgive me if I did not quarrel with her over it.”
Zacharias did not hear Lady Wythe’s response, but Lady Frances seemed disconcerted. She protested, in a whisper more piercing than ever:
“But you know, Maria, that Mr. Wythe should have been the last creature to see Sir Stephen alive is rather strange. And then to emerge from Sir Stephen’s study the master of the staff, and Leofric nowhere to be seen—you cannot deny it all looks very odd! You could not fault Mrs. Quincey for wondering.”
This time it was impossible to miss Lady Wythe’s reply.
“I find myself perfectly capable of faulting Mrs. Quincey for wondering whether Zacharias might have murdered my husband and his familiar,” she said. “If she believes Zacharias of all people would be capable of lifting his hand to anyone, much less he who was a father to him, she is even more foolish than she seems. And I am surprised that you should repeat her ill-natured fancies to me, Frances!”
“Why, Maria,” cried Lady Frances, injured. “I only wished to help! As for its being merely Mrs. Quincey’s fancies, you should know that it is not only Mrs. Quincey I heard it from. It is being talked of everywhere one goes, and it will look very bad for Mr. Wythe if he does not put a stop to it. If you must know—”
But Lady Wythe would never hear what she must know, for Lady Frances caught sight of Zacharias, and blushed scarlet. Lady Wythe’s eyes were damp, and her nose reddish, for to her own vexation she always wept when she was angry.
“Zacharias, I was just saying to Lady Frances that I think we had better go home,” said Lady Wythe, composing herself. “Your Committee meets early tomorrow, does not it? And I find I am too tired to remain. But Lady Frances will forgive me, I am sure. She is too good-natured to hold a grudge.”
Though she had been chiding Lady Frances but a moment ago, Lady Wythe pressed her hand now. To Lady Frances’s credit, she responded splendidly:
“I should, only there is nothing to forgive! It was kind of you to come. I only hope,” she added in a lower voice, “I only hope I have not added to your troubles, Maria, my dear.”
Though her friendship with Lady Frances was salvaged, Lady Wythe’s evening was beyond repair. Once Zacharias had handed her into the carriage, she burst out:
“Wretched creatures! How can they say such appalling things! They would never have dared to be so odious in Sir Stephen’s day. How I wish—!”
She took a handkerchief out of her reticule with shaking hands, and pretended to blow her nose. Zacharias knew exactly what she would have said, however, if she had permitted herself to conclude her sentence, and she could not have wished for Sir Stephen to be restored to his life and office more urgently than he.
“How I wish I could help you,” she said instead.
“I beg you will not let such talk distress you,” said Zacharias. “My office confers on me immunity from any charge, you know, so it is only an unpleasant rumour, and cannot have any real consequence. I do not let it concern me.” This was not wholly true, but he spoke evenly enough, he hoped, that Lady Wythe would believe him untroubled.
Lady Wythe lowered her handkerchief and fixed anxious blue eyes upon Zacharias. “You had heard this rumour before?”
Zacharias nodded. “I hope—” But he could not say what he hoped. It would make it too clear what he feared. He averted his face, so Lady Wythe could not see his expression, and said, with difficulty, “He was—dead, you know—when I arrived.”
“Oh, Zacharias,” said Lady Wythe, distressed. “Is there any need to explain yourself to me? Sir Stephen told me of his complaint even before he confided in his physician. We knew his heart would be the death of him. I only wish we had prepared you for it. Sir Stephen knew he ought to tell you, but he could never bring himself to the point: he could not bear to think he must leave you so soon. He would be so proud if he could see how well you have done—and so sorry to have caused you such trouble.”
Zacharias shook his head, twisting his hands together—a nervous habit Sir Stephen had sought to rid him of, but to which he reverted in times of intense emotion. He opened his mouth to speak, scarcely knowing what he was about to confess, but the ghost spoke first.
“If you tell Maria about me, I shall never forgive you,” said Sir Stephen.
• • •
ZACHARIAS did not choose to address his guardian’s spectre, but sat in furious silence throughout the remainder of the journey, to poor Lady Wythe’s confusion. It was only when she had been restored to her home, and Zacharias was safely ensconced in his study, that he exclaimed:
“I wish you would not jump into my conversations! It is extraordinarily difficult not to betray you by my response. Did not you say we should do everything within our power to prevent Lady Wythe’s becoming aware of you, since she has such a horror of ghosts?”
Zacharias would never have spoken so abruptly to Sir Stephen in life. Though they had by no means always been of one mind, Zacharias had not often ventured to make Sir Stephen aware of the fact. Perhaps there had lurked in him the old childhood worry, that if he did not make every effort to please—if he showed any sign of being less than his benefactor desired—he might find he was no longer wanted.
But death, in its backhanded kindness, had torn that ancient fear from him, even as it had robbed Lady Wythe of her chief support, and Zacharias of the man he had esteemed most in the world. There was now no reason to put off any quarrel, and Zacharias could not doubt Sir Stephen’s disinterested attachment when his ghost continued to haunt him with such unwelcome persistence.
“Had I remained silent, you would have forgotten your bond,” said Sir Stephen, with an aggravating lack of remorse. “You promised me, you know, that you would not tell her of what happened that night.”
Zacharias shook his head.
“Lady Wythe ought to be told,” he said. “Of all people in this world or the next, she has the best right to know what happened the night you died.”
“If it were only the manner of my death that would be revealed, I should not disagree,” said Sir Stephen. “But to confide in Maria would be to entrust the details of the Exchange to a member of the laity—a female, no less! You are unpopular enough, Zacharias, not to draw your colleagues’ opprobium upon you by divulging sorcery’s greatest secret.”
“There can be no question of Lady Wythe’s breaking a confidence,” argued Zacharias. “The comfort it will give her to know that you are well will be incalculable, and . . . even she must wonder.” His voice dropped, so that only someone possessed of the preternatural hearing of the dead could have heard his next words: “Even she must doubt.”
Sir Stephen was a tall, bluff man, still vigorous despite the grey in his hair. His broad frame recalled that of a general more than a scholar and sorcerer, but the frank countenance and clear blue eyes concealed an unsuspected shrewdness. It had been said by his thaumaturgical enemies, half in disapprobation and half in envy, that Sir Stephen ought to have set himself up as a politician: he would not have ended as anything less than Prime Minister.
“Maria, doubt whether you might be a murderer?” cried Sir Stephen with an air of incredulity. “Never believe it, Zacharias! Because she knew Nurse’s authority must not be questioned, she would pretend to credit the stories of your wickedness, but when punishment had been dealt and you were borne off bawling to the nursery, what dark suspicions Maria raised then! What aspersions cast upon poor Nurse Haddon’s probity! ‘She was not certain Nurse understood Zacharias. He never meant to be naughty. Such a nature as his needed only patience and affection to govern it.’ It would take more than the whisperings of a parcel of ill-bred magicians to shake her faith in you.”
But nursery reminiscences would not do. Zacharias’s countenance wore a stubborn look with which Sir Stephen was intimately familiar. So had Zacharias frowned when he was four, and did not wish to eat his porridge. So he looked now, twenty years later, when prevented from doing what he believed to be right.
“I might be persuaded to release you from your promise, if you agreed to tell Maria of your complaint,” said Sir Stephen. “She might be able to help relieve your distress.”
“My complaint is not such as any mortal can remedy,” said Zacharias, but he said no more. His battle was lost, as Sir Stephen knew it would be the moment he referred to Zacharias’s illness. That was an aspect of the secret of Sir Stephen’s death that Zacharias would not willingly speak of, however highly he valued honesty.
Zacharias proceeded to busy himself with preparations for the next day’s work, as though he had not already begun to feel unwell—a pretence that would not have deceived Sir Stephen even before he possessed the intuition of the dead.
“Does it hurt you much?” said Sir Stephen.
“Not much,” said Zacharias. This line of inquiry made him uneasy, and when he spoke again it was to divert the conversation:
“Do you have any notion what Edgeworth desires of me on Wednesday?”
It was not necessary to explain to Sir Stephen anything that had happened, now that he hovered between the mortal and celestial realms. He seemed to know every detail of Zacharias’s days as well as Zacharias did himself.
“I expect he will want a spell,” said Sir Stephen. “It will be some outrageous overturning of nature that he wants—a tripling of the Navy’s ships, or the undoing of some military reversal. The Government can never ask for a simple chantment—an illumination, say, or a glamour to enable Members of Parliament to doze unnoticed in the Commons.”
“I shall have to decline to assist, then,” said Zacharias. He paused, glancing sideways at Sir Stephen. “What ought I to say to him? The Government has habitually overestimated our powers, but it cannot be wished that it should be disabused of its notions of our abilities.”
“No, indeed!” said Sir Stephen. “No monarch has ever liked a sorcerer, and it is only wariness of how we might revenge ourselves for any incivility that has kept our Government in line. It is a delicate point, and will require finesse.”
But he cast a knowing look at Zacharias, who had assumed an ingenuous air of attention.
“Very well!” said Sir Stephen. “You know I like nothing so well as to be asked my opinion. But mark, Zacharias, your reprieve is but temporary. I shall not forget our quarrel!”
THERE IS NOTHING so prolix as a committee of magicians. It was six o’clock when Zacharias’s colleagues had done opining on thaumaturgical standards, long past the time he would ordinarily have sat down to his dinner.
He was engaged to dine with a colleague, but fortunately his friend kept polite hours, and would not deem even half past six too late for his meal, so that Zacharias mounted the broad white steps of the Theurgist’s Club with nothing but his own appetite to quicken his pace.
The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers regulated the affairs of English thaumaturgy, but it was within the less stately and more modish corridors of the Theurgist’s Club that thaumaturgy took its ease. In the Theurgist’s handsome rooms congregated augurers, alchemists, diviners, warlocks, soothsayers, invocators, tempestarians, mages and even the occasional sorcerer. The only conditions of membership were that the candidate possess some soupçon of magical ability, and that he pass for a gentleman.
In recent years the requirement of birth had assumed rather more importance than that of magic, as England’s magical resource began to dwindle and thaumaturgy lost some of its lustre as a profession. In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low. Save in the grand old thaumaturgical families—the Burrows, the Edgeworths, the Midsomers and their ilk—magic-making was now really only deemed a desirable profession for younger sons.
In consequence the dining rooms of the Theurgist’s were swelled with gentlemen who cared more for whist than wizardry. Serious-minded unnatural philosophers fled for the refuge of the Society’s august halls and hushed libraries.
It might have been expected that Zacharias would join them, but in fact he found the Theurgist’s young bucks and dandies more congenial company. He had not been admitted as a Fellow of the Society, despite fulfilling all the requirements of learning and ability, until he had taken up his staff, and even then the Society’s acceptance of its new Sorcerer Royal had been grudging at best.
Boisterous as the Theurgist’s dining rooms were, within them, at least, Zacharias could trust that his colour was no bar. There he was merely Zacharias Wythe: “Gentlemanly fellow, Wythe, even if he does talk like a book.” Zacharias always experienced a sense of relief upon stepping over its threshold, a relaxation of his guard he could enjoy nowhere else in public.
A group of thaumaturges was busy spell-making in the grand front sitting room of the club as Zacharias passed through. They were reflected in tall looking glasses, so that it seemed as though the room were full of dozens of lounging magicians.
Josiah Cullip stood among them, wobbling on his feet, and declaring, in the deliberate, portentuous manner of the foxed:
“All this talk of Puffett’s impenetrability is humbug! Any middling thaumaturge could cast it. All that is needed is a modicum of ability—and a candle, of course.”
“Well, we have an abundance of candles here,” said an associate. “Perhaps you would condescend to demonstrate Puffett’s for us, since it is so straightforward.”
The exchange was nothing remarkable. The execution of trifling illusions and glamours was the accustomed dinner entertainment at the Theurgist’s, so commonplace that Zacharias would be deemed very eccentric for raising any objection to it. He might nonetheless have remonstrated with his colleagues for their extravagance—Puffett’s fireworks in miniature was in fact rather a ticklish spell, requiring a significant expenditure of magical resource—but that speaking would entail reproving Cullip. In the common way of men, Cullip’s guilt led him to resent Zacharias for having been kinder to him than he deserved, and Zacharias had no wish to increase the ill feeling between them.
The footman who greeted Zacharias knew whom he was there to see:
“Mr. Damerell asked to be put in the Blue Room, sir, being quieter than the main hall. Will you be having the lobster as well?”
“A boiled fowl will suffice for me, thank you, Tom,” Zacharias was saying, when there was the most extraordinary noise behind him. It sounded like nothing so much as a thousand deep resonant voices saying at once, “Blurp.”
Zacharias turned to see Cullip brandishing a silver candlestick above his head, like a sword. It held no candles, but Cullip now wore a top hat, made not of beaver or silk plush, but of pure white wax. Small orange flames blazed on wicks sprouting from his ears, illumining his baffled countenance.
Tom tutted. “I knew he would come a cropper! I never saw a man that could carry off Puffett’s when he was in his cups. I doubt whether even Sir Stephen could have done it!”
The thaumaturge who had egged Cullip on said drily:
“I doubt that is quite what Puffett intended! But I am sure you are right, Cullip, and I vastly overrated the difficulty of the spell. I should think it is a problem with the candles.” Noticing Zacharias, he cried:
“Why, we have the Sorcerer Royal among us! He will shed some light on this. Do not you think, sir, that it is a false economy to have candles that will not permit of Puffett’s success? For the skill of the magician cannot be doubted.”
Cullip went crimson, snatching off his wax top hat and hurling it to the ground. He exclaimed:
“Are we to defer to the Sorcerer Royal’s judgment? If the office were held by one deserving the title, English thaumaturges might not be reduced to scrabbling for magic for every inconsequential spell!”
Zacharias stiffened, but he had received snubs worse than this before, and swallowed his resentment.
“There is only so much even my wealth and influence can do to counteract the prejudice against you,” Sir Stephen had told him once, long ago. “In time you will prove yourself, Zacharias, and your accomplishments will leave no one in any doubt of your worth. Till then your only defence against impertinence must be patience and courtesy. By such means you may win your enemies over—but it is certain you cannot afford the alternative.”
The nearest Zacharias could approach the requisite patience and courtesy now was to ignore Cullip. He said to Tom:
“In the Blue Room, did you say?”
But Cullip was too angry and incautious to let the matter lie.
“At least he knows his place well enough not to seek to defend himself,” he said to his acquaintance. “It is only a pity he has not the wisdom to surrender his office to a true English thaumaturge!”
Zacharias was no paragon, despite his long training in enduring insults. The sneering tone of Cullip’s voice could not be borne. He turned and snapped:
“You need only one candle for Puffett’s—tallow, not wax—and if you had recited the correct formula, you might have carried it off. As for the rest, sir, I shall not dignify it with an answer—save that if English thaumaturges spent less of their magic in foolish diversions, perhaps they might have more to serve their country with!”
Cullip was already so purple from claret and temper that he could not turn redder, but he flung down the candlestick and drew himself up, swelling like a bantam.
“Well, sir, I believe you know where I am to be found—” he began, but he was interrupted.
“You are shockingly late, Zacharias. What can you be about?”
No one could recall ever having seen Paget Damerell perform an enchantment, though he had somehow contrived to attain the much-coveted status of sorcerer. He pursued a life of the completest inutility, flirting with interesting women, eating handsome meals, paying scrupulous attention to his clothes and making it the sole business of his life to know every scrap of news floating about the thaumaturgical world. For this, as much as the silver sorcerer’s star pinned to his coat, he was respected and even feared at the Theurgist’s, and his appearance threw Cullip off his stride.
As he hesitated, Damerell lifted a quizzing-glass to his eye, saying in a tone of mild surprise:
“Those flames in your ears are a clever trick, Cullip, but dangerous, do not you think? I daresay I am an old fogey, and flaming ears are all the rage. I do not like to take Mr. Wythe from such delightful society, but there is the matter of my lobster, you know.” Damerell’s manner was apologetic, but that of a man who is serene in his conviction of doing what is right. “A gentleman cannot keep a lobster waiting. You will understand, I am sure.”
By the time Cullip had formulated a response to his own satisfaction, Damerell had hustled Zacharias to the refuge of one of the small private dining rooms.
“I am loath to discourage you from calling out Cullip, for if any man deserved a drubbing it is he,” said Damerell. “But a Sorcerer Royal cannot duel his brother-thaumaturges. It is not at all the thing.”
His ears burning, Zacharias said:
“I had no intention of calling him out, and must thank you for interrupting us before he could commit us. I ought not to have addressed him in such intemperate terms. Cullip’s thaumaturgy was always better than his judgment, but I have not that excuse.”
“Your estimation of his parts is kinder than he merits, if that is his notion of Puffett’s,” Damerell observed. “At any other time I should congratulate you on your intemperance—I would call it candour. But this is not the time for it, Zacharias. Do not you know what they are saying of you?”
“That I am a murderer?” said Zacharias, after a moment. No other man would have ventured to speak so openly of the dark rumours that circled Zacharias, but Damerell’s was a nature that thrived on picking up rocks and making amusing comments on the manners of the creatures scurrying underneath.
Damerell shook his head. “Not only that.”
He slid a pamphlet across the table. Upon the frontispiece was a caricature of a leering old man in thaumaturgical blue, making his leg to a dark-skinned gentleman with a leopard skin slung over his shoulders and bones entwined in his hair. Emblazoned above the curious pair was the title: ENGLISH MAGIC UNDER SIEGE.
“This was on the floor of my entrance hall this morning,” said Damerell. “You have not seen it?”
Zacharias had not, though he had seen many depictions like it. Unkind portraits of him had begun appearing in the press since Sir Stephen had announced his adoption. These had fallen off as the Society grew accustomed to his existence, but his appointment as Sorcerer Royal had lent fresh inspiration to the pens of the caricaturists.
The tension in Damerell’s manner suggested that this was no ordinary joke, however, and Zacharias bent his head to examine it with a sense of dread. The pamphlet proclaimed:
Its most faithful supporters cannot deny that English magic is now at its lowest ebb. We count fewer sorcerers among us than ever before, and in the past twenty years only a single magician has dared venture into Fairyland, where before there was a continual traffic across the border. As for familiars, those most valuable vessels of magic, England has received not a one since the ascension of our King.
Is it any surprise, however, that English thaumaturgy should find itself in such a state of degradation, when it willingly bends its knee to a woolly Afric? One who, so far from overcoming his native savagery, has repaid his benefactor in the coin of villainy, and been rewarded with the staff of the Sorcerer Royal?
England’s magicians, throw off your shackles and wrest the ancient staff that is your birthright from the hand of the interloper! Were we to cease this foolish forbearance and exact justice, Zacharias Wythe could not withstand us—and we would do our nation a service that would not soon be forgotten.
Zacharias dropped the pamphlet as if it burnt his fingers.
“This is a call to action, Zacharias,” said Damerell. “It would be unwise to ignore it.”
“Do you have any notion who the author is?” said Zacharias, striving to keep his voice even.
“You rejoice in such a number of enemies it would be difficult to trace this delightful confection to any one of them,” said Damerell. “That it refers to Geoffrey Midsomer suggests he might have something to do with it, perhaps.”
Geoffrey Midsomer had recently returned from a year’s sojourn at the Fairy Court, against all expectations, for visits by seemly young gentlemen to the Fairy Queen were rarely curtailed by anything short of their demise.
“But I should be surprised,” Damerell continued. “Vaulting ambition he always had, in common with all that family, but Geoffrey never struck me as possessing sufficient enterprise to o’erleap himself. But it is clear there is a general feeling against you, Zacharias. It is not promising that Cullip was so ready to snub you, and this”—he shook the pamphlet—“worries me more than his incivility—there is an ugly tone in it I have not seen before. It would be just as well if you were to make yourself scarce for a time. I wish you would leave London.”
“Leave London?” exclaimed Zacharias. “At such a time as this?”
Damerell was prepared for Zacharias’s obstinacy. He lowered his chin, and said:
“I should be worried for your safety if you stayed. I know you do not like to abandon your duties, but you are to consider, Zacharias, that it will not do one jot of good how many meetings you attend, or what scores of letters you write, so long as we want for magic. Did not you design spells to increase the influx of magic from the Fairy border? I cannot think of a better time to make a trial of them. Why do not you go to Fobdown Purlieu?”
Zacharias shook his head. “Any attempt to extract magic from Fairy must be a delicate operation, and I should wish to perfect those spells before I ventured to cast them so near Fairyland. I need not tell you what perils attend any instability at that border.”
“Well then,” said Damerell, without much hope, “perhaps a holiday . . .”
But then a voice rang across the room, full of joyful relief:
“Why, there you are, Poggs! I had begun to despair of finding you.”
• • •
AS he bounded into the room, Rollo (christened Robert Henry Algernon) brought irresistibly to mind a golden-haired cocker spaniel. He was a typical specimen of the younger son in avid pursuit of mediocrity with which the Theurgist’s teemed: the cut of his coat was faultless and his neckcloths were fearful in their construction, but he had never managed to inspire in anyone a serious suspicion that he was capable of magic. He seemed to have been admitted to the Theurgist’s largely on the ground that he was a particular friend of Damerell’s.
“What fellows you are to be dining in this poky room, when you could be in the main hall watching the fun,” he said. “You would enjoy it, Zacharias. They are making their reflections recite poetry. It is vastly philosophical.”
“We wished for peace,” said Damerell lugubriously, whisking the pamphlet out of sight. No one could doubt Rollo’s good will, but his discretion was less to be relied upon. “It was a foolish fancy—but how pretty, while it survived! Did not you promise me that you were dining with your aunt?”
“Didn’t I dine with my aunt!” said Rollo, with feeling. “Would you believe Aunt Georgiana has a friend that runs a school for young ladies?”
“I cannot say that intelligence provokes either surprise or interest,” said Damerell. “Rollo’s aunt Georgiana,” he added as an aside to Zacharias, “is one of those eccentric relations that goes travelling about by themselves, and picks up all manner of unsuitable acquaintance in out of the way places—silk weavers at Macclesfield, and baronetesses at Tunbridge Wells. What does it signify if she has a friend with a school for young ladies?”
“It signifies when my aunt has a mind to offer me up as a sacrifice to the wretched creature,” said Rollo. “It seems it is a school for gentlewitches, of all things, and nothing would do the friend but that I should come and give a speech to her girls on ‘Magic, the Purposes and Dangers Thereof.’ Can you conceive of my giving a speech to a gaggle of gentlewitches? What do I know of the Purposes and Dangers of Magic?”
“Why, very little, to be sure,” said Damerell. “You might have to read a book about it if you are to give this speech. Have you any books? Zacharias might let you borrow one, if you do not.”
“But I can’t give any blasted speech,” said Rollo. “It is positively against nature that I talk as much as I do. My pater never opened his mouth without there was dinner waiting at the other end.”
“Then you must tell your aunt you will not do it.”
“One might have thought you had never met my aunt Georgiana,” said Rollo, with the steeliness of despair. “She is the one with the false curls and glowing eyes and smoke rising from her jaws. Do not you recollect her?”
“She did strike me as possessing unusual force of character,” admitted Damerell.
“Whereas I haven’t any character to speak of,” said Rollo. “If I were to say anything to Aunt Georgiana that she did not like, she would devour me in two bites. I doubt she would even wait to reach for the fish knife.”
“Well then, Rollo,” said Damerell, “it seems you are in for it.”
“I should have thought two intellectual fellows like you would be able to think of some means of rescuing a friend in a pickle,” said Rollo bitterly. “Here’s me, who can’t tell one end of a word from t’other, being made to give a speech, when one of you is the Sorcerer Royal, and the other is always wittering on so a fellow hardly knows where he’s at . . . !”
He broke off. Light dawned upon his face. “Here, Poggs, why do not you go and—”
“I have it!” said Damerell quickly. “Zacharias will give the speech in your stead.”
Zacharias had been making swift progress on his boiled fowl as his friends argued. At this he sat bolt upright. “Hold up!”
“I was about to suggest that you might do it, but that is an even better notion,” said Rollo to Damerell. “Landing the Sorcerer Royal would be a coup for that headmistress. Aunt Georgiana could have no reason to object.”
He looked relieved. Damerell could be a froward customer when he chose, but you could rely upon Zacharias. Sort of fellow who would lend you a guinea and never ask to see it again. He would certainly help a friend in need.
But Zacharias had no compunction in disenchanting Rollo.
“It is out of the question,” he said. “There is this business of the Committee of Thaumaturgical Standards to settle, and I have a meeting with John Edgeworth tomorrow.”
“I am not meant to go down for a fortnight yet,” said Rollo hopefully.
“No one could reproach you for your absence from London, with such excellent reason to be gone,” added Damerell. “Your visit would be as good as a tonic for the young ladies’ constitutions. The inmates of every good girls’ school are perpetually on the brink of expiring from boredom, and you would stir them up nicely. Women find you so frightening, and so romantic.”
“Indeed, Zacharias, I have no notion what I will do if you do not help me,” pleaded Rollo. “A speech is nothing to a fellow like you, but imagine me standing up before a pack of ravening schoolgirls! I expect I shall go into a decline before I ever reach the school.”
Zacharias glared at them. “Much as you are to be pitied, Rollo, I have a great many things to attend to, and I have no intention of delaying them to make a cake of myself before a parcel of schoolgirls.”
“Let us have an end to this, if you please,” said Zacharias. “I have heard enough. You must simply give this speech yourself, for I will not do it, and that is my final word on the matter.”
EDGEWORTH HAD NOT troubled to confirm the time of day when Zacharias might expect him, but he did not leave Zacharias in suspense for very long. Zacharias had not been in his study for an hour when his manservant knocked on the door, begging pardon for interrupting. Mr. Edgeworth had arrived with his guests.
“Foreign gentlemen, sir, two of them,” said Simpson. He hesitated. “And a lady—I believe the wife of one of the gentlemen.”
Zacharias saw the reason for his hesitation soon enough. The two gentlemen Edgeworth ushered into the room were impressively attired in rich foreign dress, but it was the fourth member of the party who made Zacharias stare.
“Your Highness, may I present to you Mr. Wythe, our Sorcerer Royal?” said Edgeworth, addressing the more gorgeous of the two gentlemen.
“Sultan Ahmad governs the island of Janda Baik in the Malaccan Strait,” he added, turning to Zacharias. “His companion is Mr. Othman, and this is his royal wife. I hope you do not object to Her Highness’s joining us. The sultan cannot be comfortable leaving her alone in a foreign land, as I am sure you will understand.”
Edgeworth’s pointed look recalled Zacharias to his manners, and he averted his eyes from the sultana, his cheeks warm. She was a pretty creature, very young, but it was her incongruously large belly that had drawn his gaze. It seemed extraordinary that she should have undertaken the rigours of travel in her condition.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Pray take a seat, Your Highness. I beg you will not be concerned by the skull at the window—it is only a harmless relic. In life it belonged to Felix Longmire, who was exceedingly mild-tempered as Sorcerers Royal go.”
This did not seem to assuage his visitors’ nervousness. Zacharias’s study bore the marks of his predecessors, whose taste had run decidedly stoicheiotical. They had had a fondness for skulls with burning lights in their eye sockets, crystal balls in which mysterious shapes came and went, and dark velvet window curtains traced with obscure runes.
Though Zacharias had asserted himself so far as to cover the walls in a light sprigged paper, which did wonders for the room, the study was still wont to induce unease in the unmagical. His guests sat at the edge of their seats, drawing their feet away from the mystic sigils inscribed upon the floor.
Zacharias was scarcely more comfortable than they. At least it did not seem likely that Edgeworth would confront Zacharias with the dwindling of English magic, since he had brought a foreign potentate with him. But if Edgeworth had not discovered their crisis of magical resource, then his visit must be for the usual reason the Government sought out the Sorcerer Royal—in reliance upon that magic, and in expectation that it should be used for whatever purpose the Government deemed best.
“Janda Baik, alas, is beset with magical difficulties,” began Edgeworth unpromisingly. “When Sultan Ahmad approached us for assistance—for His Highness knows what an interest we take in everything concerning his nation—I told him I knew just the fellow to help him. Mr. Wythe would settle these wretched females in a trice!”
“Wretched females?” said Zacharias, glancing at the globe by his desk. Janda Baik was a minute speck in the Malay archipelago, so small it seemed hardly to merit a name—but to the east lay the riches of China; to the west, the vast waters of the Indian Ocean, to which Bonaparte had such convenient access from the Isle de France. The reasons for the Government’s tender concern for Janda Baik were obvious.
“I daresay the trouble is best explained by the sultan himself,” said Edgeworth.
The sultan was a slender, handsome man, not much older than his wife. Though he had looked askance at Zacharias upon their introduction—a black man could not have been his idea of Britain’s first magician—his manner was courteous when he spoke. Mr. Othman interpreted.
“Our kingdom is afflicted by a group of old women who profess to practise magic,” Sultan Ahmad began. “Aunts and grandmothers, whom we have tolerated out of respect for their great age, and because we believed they did no harm with their chantments.”
“Witches, in short!” interjected Edgeworth, who was enough of a thaumaturge to grimace at the notion. Nothing disgusted a thaumaturge so much as a witch. Shameless, impudent, meddling females, who presumed to set at naught the Society’s prohibition on women’s magic, and duped the common people with their potions and cantrips!
“At first they contented themselves with rain-making and wave-settling, to which we made no objection, since it pleased the people,” continued the sultan. “But now we have reason to regret our magnanimity. Of late our witches have entered into commerce with evil spirits, even taking these creatures into their own homes. We find ourselves overrun by monsters! The lamiae swarm our isle, so that decent people cannot sleep peacefully for fear they will be devoured in the night. It is to succour our people that we travelled here to seek assistance.”
The young sultana leant over to whisper in the interpreter’s ear. Mr. Othman cleared his throat and said:
“The French approached us with an offer of support, but we declined. We hate that tyrant Bonaparte, and our loyalty to our friends could not permit of our accepting aid from their enemies. We knew that the British would not fail to help us!”
“His Highness knows Britain is a friend to Janda Baik,” said Edgeworth. “Our man Raffles made the introduction, and I assured the sultan we should do everything in our power to help.”
“Certainly,” said Zacharias, after a pause. Addressing the sultan, he said:
“I hope you will forgive my ignorance, sir, but Oriental lamiae are a species of magical creature of which I have had no experience. I have read Du Plessis’s monograph, and understand them to be a type of ghoul—the vengeful spirits of mortal women wronged in life—but though his is the best exposition we have of the subject, Du Plessis says nothing of how they may be dealt with. If you would be so good as to explain, what form of assistance is it that you seek?”
His sentence had scarcely been conveyed to the royals when the sultana sat up and let out an urgent stream of words. This was translated succinctly.
“Guns!” said Mr. Othman.
“That is out of the question, of course,” Edgeworth said hastily. “As your Highness knows, mere artillery would be nothing to witches and vampiresses. We discussed that yesterday, if you recall.”
Zacharias wondered, not without a touch of irony, whether they had also discussed the fact that the Government was nearly as overstretched as the Society. The long war had drained the nation’s resources. Britain was pressed so hard that it was very unlikely it could spare either troops or ships for a squabble over a remote island, however commanding its position.
“Mr. Edgeworth is in the right of it,” he said. “Lamiae being already dead, guns would not frighten them.” Before he could wonder aloud whether cannon might nonetheless be efficacious in blowing the lamiae apart, Edgeworth cried:
“We are of one mind! I have already told His Highness that you will be only too happy to oblige with some thundering piece of magic—some fearsome hex, vastly better than any number of guns, which will put these vampires in their places. Sultan Ahmad was delighted. His Highness understands that the Sorcerer Royal is an enchanter of considerable powers.”
Zacharias was so taken aback that he scarcely knew what to say, or how to look. This, then, was the reason Edgeworth had given him no forewarning of what would be asked of him. Edgeworth knew how little likely Zacharias was to agree to any involvement in a foreign dispute. The Society’s policy of non-interference in affairs of state was of long standing, and the history of the vexed relations of England’s thaumaturgy to its sovereigns had proved its necessity.
But Edgeworth meant to back Zacharias into a corner. He knew Zacharias could not easily object in the sultan’s presence, or express his indignation at Edgeworth’s high-handedness. No one would have dared play such a trick on Sir Stephen, but Zacharias was untried. Perhaps Edgeworth thought the new Sorcerer Royal might be more docile than an Englishman—or ought to be.
Zacharias went to the window, turning his back to his guests. He was in such a state of cold anger that he could not trust himself to speak. It was tempting to leave both Britain and Janda Baik to resolve their own difficulties.
But Zacharias’s was a changed world. Unlike the sorcerers before him, he could not retire to a tower and spin curses in splendid isolation. Like England herself, Zacharias ignored the world beyond at his own peril.
He turned, swallowing his indignation, and began, “I should counsel against rushing into any sort of violent action—” when Felix Longmire toppled off the windowsill.
A faint persistent magic lingered in everything to do with a sorcerer, and the skull fortuitously avoided collision with anything that might cause it injury. It dropped onto a cushion that had fallen off an armchair, where it was forgotten by the living—for their attention was engrossed by the crystal ball vibrating upon the sill.
Zacharias made occasional use of the shewstone for scrying, and to commune with fellow magicians in distant lands. When it was not in use he covered it with a black velvet cloth, partly to shield it from dust, but also to preserve the sensibility of any unmagical guests. Shewstones collected traces of atmospheric magic, resulting in the appearance of disturbing images upon their surface: horrid impish faces, mystic letters, tiny desperate figures running from some lurking doom.
Seizing his staff, Zacharias snatched the cloth away, and caught the crystal ball when it juddered off the windowsill. Within the glass loomed two giant dark orbs, and a harsh, ancient voice bellowed:
The sultan sat up, his eyes starting from his head. The sultana clasped his hand, her face pale.
“What—what is that?” cried the interpreter.
All at once the shewstone became as hot as a poker taken off the fire, scalding Zacharias’s fingers. He dropped it with a cry, and the crystal ball rolled across the room, catching up at Sultan Ahmad’s feet.
The dark orbs within the crystal resolved into ordinary eyes, set in the face of an elderly female. She was a foreigner, like the sultan and his companions, with skin several shades lighter than Zacharias’s own. Her grey hair was partly concealed by a scarf, her face wrinkled and sere. Despite her scowl there was little in her appearance to inspire fear, but Sultan Ahmad jumped out of his seat as though he had seen a snake.
“Who is that woman? What is she saying?” hissed Edgeworth, grasping Zacharias’s arm. Zacharias drew a quick symbol in the air, murmuring a formula. The woman’s speech sprang into clarity.
Excerpted from "Sorcerer to the Crown"
Copyright © 2016 Zen Cho.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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