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City of Salt and Time

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In the winter of late 1817, England’s first two magicians of the modern age were somewhere near Venice.1

That is not to say that they were, to a common understanding, in Italy. In some sense they were in England, since they were living in Mr Norrell’s house at Hurtfew Abbey. In another sense they were not in England at all, since no one traveling overland through Yorkshire could reach Hurtfew anymore. From the perspective of Mr Norrell and Mr Strange, Hurtfew was much as it ever had been, but the landscape outside its walls changed dramatically as they moved from place to place. Norrell’s London house and Strange’s two houses were both nearby, but tucked around a corner of existence, so that looking out the window of one house they could never see the others. Nothing about this arrangement made sense, but they were learning to live within it. At present, Hurtfew was in a quiet bit of Faerie countryside, a watery, island-ish place. Most things there, including the tall dry grass, were dove-grey, as far as one could make out in the dark, and the air was slightly salty.

The half acre around them, of course, was enclosed by an impenetrable Pillar of Darkness. Since there was no sun, and since clocks became useless in the vicinity of the two magicians, it was difficult to say how long they had been there. They were happy enough to stay, however, as it was a useful location in which to conduct the inquiries into the nature of naiads in which they had recently taken an interest. There were an abundance of bridges, and if one walked over the right bridge one often came out in front of the Venetian church of San Zaccaria. Some of the other bridges were looped: Mr Norrell had tried one or two, and he generally ended up where he had begun, a few feet from the front door of Hurtfew Abbey. This suited him very well. Jonathan Strange reported that he had caught glimpses of more peculiar places across some of the other bridges; but as soon as he glimpsed these he was placed by the enchantment near to Norrell again.

Strange had realized that he could, if he chose, conjure a vision in a silver dish that showed him the time of day it was in other places. On occasion he spent time watching the sunrise creep across the regions of the earth. He usually chose to observe places he had never been: rose auroras scaling the Himalaya mountains; orange light gilding the African savannah; dim grey winter dawn over the Gulf of Sweden. The sight produced an odd feeling of cold in his hands and feet, as if by seeing the sun he was suddenly aware of its distance from himself. It was not what one would call a pleasant sensation, but he had come to associate it with the beauty of the sunrise and so found it a kind of comfort.

He did not watch the sun rising over England.

Having learnt to locate the boundaries of day and night in the outside world, Strange sometimes ventured out to meet the world at hours when the Darkness would not be a burden. He had taken lately to crossing the bridge and walking the streets of Venice, moving in a sufficiently small radius that the pathways between the city and Faerie did not uproot themselves to follow him. Even in the night-time, those who depended upon accurate time-keeping still resented the way clocks strained to twelve o’clock in the magician’s presence—there were brief, occasional revivals of the use of hour-glasses in his vicinity—but he always left soon enough for the sun to come up on time.

Mr Norrell had no idea why Strange should wish to wander among strangers back in the world, not when there was so much interesting magical work to be done. Norrell believed he could get them to John Uskglass’ kingdom on the far side of Hell. He did not want to see this place, or so he said; but he was certain Strange wanted to see it, and Norrell had reconciled himself to the voyage, such that it made him anxious to see his colleague becoming distracted by other pursuits.

It was a fundamental irony of their present condition that while they had been cursed to—among other things—solitude, Mr Norrell had secured the company of the only person he had ever properly respected. After his long eremitic existence at Hurtfew and his comparatively few years near the heart of London society, Norrell was perfectly content not to see anybody else. But Mr Strange would go out, as if there were anything for him to learn back in the world. It was vexing. On some occasions, when he knew Strange was attempting to travel, Norrell would stay resolutely still where he was—reading, usually—until the enchantment pulled him along to Strange’s side or vice versa. This was a very excessive experience to undergo too often, with all the world turning itself inside out every time Strange went fifty yards; but Mr Norrell had always gladly allowed other people to go to pains for his convenience, and he did not much mind allowing the earth and air and sky to do the same.

Recently, however, Mr Norrell had caught a slight cold, and he was much inclined to retreat and feel sorry for himself. He keenly felt the absence of his household staff to prepare meals and bring him hot water bottles. Strange had made some diffident attempts to tend to him in his illness, but these ended in burnt broth, spilt tea, and bad tempers on both sides. Both men soon gave up any pretence at cheerfulness and kept their distance from one another, as far as such was possible. Strange read, and prowled the place where they had found themselves. Norrell slept and muttered. Time did not pass in any appreciable manner.

At one midnight much like the rest of them, Strange appeared at Mr Norrell’s door and announced that they had an invitation to tea.

 *

“From whom?”

“A Venetian lady by the name of Letizia Zorzi. I believe she learnt of me through a…family I knew when I was in Italy. It is a curious thing, the invitation. I found it protruding from one of the lion’s mouths2—wedged in one side so it would stick out—and it could have waited days for me to find it but it is dated only yesterday. She suggests that we visit her three days from now.”

Norrell was not very inclined to accept the invitation, as he was still slightly unwell and did not see what he could possibly gain from such a visit. In addition, he was concerned about the Darkness. As far as either of them knew, the curse would ensnare anybody who could be described as an English magician and who came within its circumference. For this reason, they had so far avoided both England and magicians. A person who could send a message with such uncanny timing seemed, to Norrell, like too hazardous a person to meet.

Strange, however, was eager for some fresh conversation. He assured Mr Norrell that Signora Zorzi was not English—that her family was an ancient Venetian one that had produced at least one doge and had been steadfast citizens of La Serenissima, with no intermarriage with outsiders. Moreover she was not a magician, a point she was most eager to stress in her letter; she was a lady of independent wealth, although that wealth was somewhat diminished since the passage of Napoleon through the city.3

According to her letter, the lady was interested in her home and charitable works and preserving local history. It seemed she wished to speak to Strange because he had brought an interesting chapter to the life of the city—a kind of interest it sorely needed after the fall of the republic—and she wanted to hear his stories direct from the source in order either to write them down, or to pass them around in conversation at parties, or to incorporate them into a novel she was contemplating writing; it was not clear which.

Norrell found this repulsive, and he thought it distasteful that Strange should wish to meet with a stranger in order to peacock his own history and accomplishments. Strange seemed a little humbled on this point, and he dropped the subject for the time being while Norrell went back to his bed and Strange went to the library to think further about naiads.

But for the next while—a while roughly the length of time of a day—Strange continually frowned and lifted his eyebrows and made vague statements about his research. “I swear,” he said at one point, “I have read through this volume of Belasis at least a dozen times. Every time I am three-quarters through, I believe I am approaching a great revelation; and every time, I reach the ending without having realised anything at all.”

Years ago, Mr Norrell remembered, he had held forth at some length on how to read books of magic, anxious to school the instinctive talent of his young pupil. Later, he had snapped impatiently about the primacy of books to a Mr Strange who was flush with success from the wars. Later still, he had offered him freedom of the Hurtfew library—his very dearest possession, which he cherished with a single-minded, desperate, jealous love—if only Strange would consent to stay to the path laid down by books, and not go in vain pursuit of a vanished King. Such arguments were, if not defunct, then too well trodden to be worth repeating. Instead Norrell muttered, “A difficult writer, Belasis—not up to his own ideas at all times. It is entirely possible he missed his own conclusion and would not admit it.”

“Possible,” said Strange, leafing through the book again—he was in the library of Hurtfew, standing against the back of a chair rather than sitting in it. “Still, if he missed it, it need not follow that I should miss it also. But I go through the same round of thoughts on every reading. I cannot find the end of it and I cannot let it go.”

Later—who knew how much later—Strange was in the middle of a delicate operation, attempting to draw polygons of light in the dark air before him; the shapes invariably faltered and failed before he had completed them, until he abruptly stopt and ran a hand through his hair in agitation. “I am starting to fear I have been too long at this task,” he announced. “What a mess I am making! What a hapless collection of beginnings this is, with no middle and no purpose!”

“Perhaps,” said Norrell, who thought thirty years not an excessive amount of time to spend at a small task.

Strange did not have the opportunity to complain a third time. He came near to it, making a loud, frustrated sound over a rather inconsequential dropped stone—it was a small stone, not breakable, and not of any certain magical importance, but of an interesting colour and originating in a far country—but before he could say anything, Norrell did the most surprizing thing he could have done in that moment.

“Perhaps it would not be entirely ill-advised,” he said, “to accept some local conversation, in the interest of fresh thoughts.”

It is entirely possible that this was the most deliberate kindness Gilbert Norrell had yet committed in his life.

 *

The Palazzo Zorzi Galeoni was three hundred years old but not, in that city of palaces, immediately remarkable. It was built of limestone and adjoined a small bridge, and there was a facade of Gothic windows facing onto a very narrow canal and a row of little balustrades on the first floor. It was a difficult place to get around in the dark, with so many opportunities to lose one’s way, fall into a canal, or both. But they found it easily enough, travelling on foot from their bridge to San Zaccaria and thence through the Venetian labyrinth, navigating by some combination of Strange’s knowledge of the city and the letter from Signora Zorzi, on which they had laid a slight enchantment to reveal its origin. Nothing happened so dramatic as the silver paths Strange had once witnessed on the alleys of this city, but the letter exerted a faint tug and there seemed to be a scent of scorched hair in the direction they were meant to travel, and so they were not in much danger of becoming lost.

Strange’s knock on the door was answered by a footman who apparently had nothing to say to them but was expecting their visit, who directed them up the stairs to a parlour on the main floor where Signora Letizia Zorzi sat at her tea table, her face lit by candles, with the dark outlines of framed paintings looming just out of visibility on all the walls.

She did not get up. She was arranged with evident care behind the table in a pale, gauzy dress gathered at the waist with a wide red sash. It was an obsolete style of gown and looked as if it may be delicate; it seemed she had it arranged to her liking, and so was not inclined to move. She lifted her face to them instead and said, in accented English, “Mr Norrell, Mr Strange, welcome. A seat?”

Strange and Norrell both seated themselves, and each accepted a cup of tea silently poured by the Signora. Her tea service was rather remarkable: the rims of the plates and cups were striped in blue and golden yellow, and each one bore a fine, detailed picture worked in enamel. A variety of scenes were illustrated in this way. The teapot showed a bear and a fox facing one another from opposite sides of a river with unfriendly expressions on their faces. Although such creatures are most often found in the wood, the background of the image showed rooftops and church spires. The cups bore a bird each: a pelican sitting on the water for Signora Zorzi, a long-legged heron or egret on the cup she handed to Mr Norrell, and a somewhat surprizing pale-pink flamingo for Strange. The milk jug bore an image, oddly, of a pair of high-heeled silk brocade shoes.

“I thought this china might interest you,” said Signora Zorzi in Italian as she offered the sugar around. “It is Sèvres porcelain—quite new, but it illustrates a very old story about il marcolìn.”

Norrell coughed. Strange remembered that Norrell did not speak Italian, or understand any more than could be guessed at by its similarity to Latin. He gave a brief interpretation of what the lady had said and then asked, in Italian, “Forgive me, I do not know the word you use. What is the story about?”

“Oh! It is a Venetian word, you know. A marcolìn is a person who is devoted to Saint Mark, but to us it is the saltworker, a person who wards the city, who keeps evil magic away. Much connected to the water and the birds.”

“A story about a magical person,” Strange conveyed in English.

“Indeed,” said Mr Norrell, who was now inspecting his teacup while its contents grew cold. “A person from folklore, I suppose. Indeed most places have such stories, although very few of them prove to have any magic at their heart. You may tell her birds have been much revered in English magic as well, though I cannot see that it is for any reason except that the King in the North adopted them as a symbol. Thomas Lanchester fell prey to some mysticism on the subject in his book—”

“My colleague supposes the person you mention to be a character from folklore,” said Strange in Italian.

“Not at all!” said Signora Zorzi. “But Mr Strange, you must know I did not want to speak of magic.”

“Indeed,” said Strange, coughing a little, “I am not certain I knew anything of the sort.”

“Of course! I am not an English magician—I am not any kind of magician—and I do not much care for your wizardry of rain and rocks and ravens.” Strange opened his mouth to respond to this characterization, but she swept on, “I am a passionate anti-Bonapartist, and what I really wish to discuss is your glorious campaign against the tyrant.”

Strange started, and he turned his teacup around in his hand as he said, “I am not accustomed to discussing war with ladies, madam.”

“Your sensitivity does you credit, but you must not worry about me. I am ashamed of the surrender Venice offered with no attempt to fight. I am embarrassed by our present sad and impoverished condition. Nothing would satisfy me more this evening than to hear you tell of your courageous campaigns against Napoleon and everything you learnt of his personal weaknesses and failings.”

It seemed her interest in inviting them was not mystical at all but blood-thirsty. Strange, in between English asides to Norrell, stammered that he did not want to brag, that he had not met Napoleon or learnt his personal failings, and that he was not at all certain it would be appropriate to confide in Signora Zorzi in this manner. She waved away his objections, gesturing widely with her teacup so that the bird on its side seemed about to be startled into flight. “I have a strong stomach, sir, and I am in earnest!”

With reluctance, feeling that he could hardly accept her tea and reject her conversation, Strange haltingly told her a few stories from his time working alongside Lord Wellington. He was afraid these must be rather unsatisfactory. He told her how he had learnt always to give soldiers something to eat if you wanted to ask them a favour. He told her how he had sent messages coded in flocks of birds and trays of cakes to rally the soldiers at Quatre Bras. He even told her, in deference to his teacher, of Mr Norrell’s ships of rain, the very first use of magic in the war. The Signora continually pressed him for more details about the tyrant himself, and she was much less interested in Wellington than an English lady would have been, but she was interested by the business about the birds, and she was amused by the way the French had been taken in by the ships made of rain. “What amateurs!” she said, gleefully. “Had they never heard of a spyglass? They must have been very poor seamen, those French.”

It was not the conversation the magicians had expected; but as they expected, Norrell stayed just barely civil and Strange enjoyed himself, at least until the conclusion of one of his stories when he glanced at the brown pigeon on his teacup and took a precipitous leave from the house.

 

*

“They all turned to pigeons!” Strange exclaimed on the street outside.

Indeed, when Strange had stood up from the table and announced there was some time-sensitive magic to be done and they must leave immediately, there was not a pelican, a heron, or a flamingo to be seen on the table. All the birds on the china had changed into pigeons.

“Do you think I failed to notice?” said Norrell, pulling his comforter one more time around his neck. “I tried to send you signals. I practically waved the sugar bowl in front of your nose, and all you did was accept another lump and go on talking about the war.”

“But she swore she was not a magician. She gave me her most faithful word on the subject; she knew it was important. She would not take such a risk just to hear some war stories, would she?”

“I am sure I do not know what she would and would not do, since the lady is still a perfect stranger to me. What did you learn of her history, her character, her friends? Does she or did she ever have a husband? What is she going to do with the information you fed her? I thought your vaunted sparkling conversation would have enough substance to discover something of the person to whom you are speaking.”

“I was off my guard,” Strange said. “It has been too long since I spoke to a normal person! How could the china have changed if she was not a magician? And what was that business about some kind of magical warden?”

“I have no wish to discuss this in the street,” said Norrell.

 

*

They walked back to their bridge in silence. It was not very late, and there were still lights in some of the windows where parties were being held, but the streets were quiet and the stone walls of Venice’s palaces echoed footsteps back five-fold, so that it always sounded a little as if one were being followed. Strange had grown accustomed to a Venice of darkness and solitude, but even so the emptiness of the city’s blind alleys and still water had a queer effect on the nerves. There was an absence, too, of smells. Strange had never relished the populous stink of London, but the sea-washed air in Venice, free of horses, free of crowds, made it seem as if the city had no people in it at all.

The magicians walked everywhere these days. The gondoliers distrusted them, and besides, they did not generally have money in their pockets. It sometimes dimly occurred to Strange that it would be appropriate to think about the question of money. He was reasonably confident that his fortune still existed, but it had no good way to reach him in the places he went nowadays. He generally went about without a single coin in his pockets. It was commonly known that people needed money to live, but this excellent wisdom did not seem to hold true nowadays for Norrell and himself. They did not suffer, either, for lack of a kitchen staff to prepare their meals. Strange would not have said they were fasting; upon seeing the cakes Signora Zorzi served with tea, he had eaten one, but he had not fallen upon it like a famished man. But neither could he, if pressed, have told anyone what they had eaten recently.

However, he had commonly forgotten to think about food when deep in his work, and he had never starved, so the present situation did not yet seem worrisome to him. No matter how often he determined to think more about the whole question later, this determination had never yet been acted upon.

Sometimes he did worry about Arabella. From what Strange knew of the law he had the impression that, as a married woman, she had little ability to access her husband's money in her own name. When last they spoke he had entreated her not to act as a widow, but she might have more independence if the law were to declare him dead.

A very permanent solution, that. He hoped her friends had some better ideas.

Upon reaching San Zaccaria they mounted the little bridge that should not have been there, and soon they were back in their wet little corner of Faerie. A chill from the Italian winter seemed to have crossed over the bridge, and the long grass at the foot of the bridge was rimed with frost. Strange had an inclination to follow up immediately on the question of the china, but Norrell was finding his enthusiasm wearisome and begged the lingering evidence of his cold as excuse to go to bed. Strange stayed awake, prowling the hallways of Hurtfew and trying to remember anything he knew about magic and porcelain, or magic and painting, or magic and tea.

 

*

They did not return to Venice for some time after that.

This was partly for practical reasons. They really did have a great deal of other research to do. Norrell thought he had discovered some of the principles underlying Stokesey’s Vitrification, which might help explain why such a bizarre spell for turning ordinary objects into glass had been recorded in the first place. Strange was working in tandem with him on this, while also writing up a set of notes on their method of travel and some theories about where they were at any given time in relation to Europe, Faerie, and what they had come to call the Chrysanthemum Country, a place carpeted with russet-coloured flowers that did not quite seem part of the other realms and which the two magicians sometimes found themselves crossing on the way to somewhere else.

All of this was true; but it was also true that they had been startled by the matter of the tea cups at Palazzo Zorzi, and they wanted to put some distance between it and themselves.

Meanwhile, however, Strange attempted some inquiries into the marcolìn of whom Signora Zorzi had spoken. Evidence was scarce. Venice had had a thriving trade with both western Europe and points east for many centuries, but its citizens were famously tight-lipped about the city’s trade secrets. In the past century, many English visitors had gone to Venice as part of their education, and none of them had brought back reports of anything that put them in mind of the Raven King. Of course, thought Strange, these were hardly reliable sources of information, since most of them were rich young men primarily interested in wine, women, and song.

The history of the Republic was full of ceremony and grandeur, but all of it was of civic or religious import, not evidently magical.4 In fact, Strange reflected, Venice during its golden age was so riddled with religious life that it would tend to choke out any magician trying to work. He was well acquainted with the distraction posed to him by a piece of consecrated host when he was working, the peculiar way church bells tended to pierce through his train of thought, and the famous antipathy between magicians and clergymen. This latter had been borne out in his own life even in his relations with his childhood friend and brother-in-law. Some of the English had hypothesised that this meant magic was an unholy pursuit, but they were shy to pursue this line of thought in view of the role magic had played in the history of England. Strange was not convinced there was anything devilish in his work (he shoved aside, once again, the uncomfortable thought of the Neapolitan soldiers he had once brought back from the shores of Hell). He was rather inclined to think that the practise of magic and the practise of religion simply produced effects in the world which did not complement one another, like two drones on an untuned bagpipe.

Venice had been founded on a multitude of islands, and each one had its own churches. The sestiero, or district, of San Marco had at least fifteen all of its own. Some of Venice’s churches were quite large, such as the cathedral, and of course the doge’s chapel, otherwise known as the Basilica of Saint Mark. Mass was celebrated all over the lagoon on a daily basis. Where could a magician have found peace?

He was thinking about this problem and twirling a flower between his fingers, waiting while Norrell took some further notes on the Chrysanthemum Country in an attempt to figure out where in the universe they were, when he had the thought: Magicians need not have been at work in Venice at all, and magic may yet have been present there.

After all, what was La Serenissima if not a city of merchants? They had craftsmen, certainly, but the chief asset of the city had always been its location. Ships sailed from Venice to Turkey, Egypt, India, Lebanon. And if it was well situated in the world that he knew, it might also be a kind of crossing point of the other realms he had visited. Didn’t that odd bridge lead directly to San Zaccaria? Wasn’t it possible that there was some kind of traffic between Venice and the worlds beyond? And if that were the case, wasn’t it also possible that magic was being worked elsewhere, and brought to Venice in trade?5

 

*

The library at Hurtfew contained only books of English magic.

This had never seemed like a problem before. Truth be told, Jonathan Strange had travelled through Spain, Portugal, and Italy, performing magic in each place, without really wondering if there was any other magic being worked there. There had simply been so many other things to think about—although this seemed a somewhat feeble defence, now, against his own self-reproach.

He plundered the library anew. He followed traces of association through his memory to the Belasis he had been reading before tea with Signora Zorzi, to the book lying underneath it which said something about the Raven King’s alliances outside England, which reminded him of the tales about times the King had been thwarted, which sent him back to A Child’s History of the Raven King and a bare mention of the King having once butted heads with someone named Marco.

The encounter was not delineated in any great detail. John Uskglass had indicated a wish to strengthen his kingdom by means of a particular magical procedure, and had taken his leave of England for some time to get hold of a necessary item. He returned sooner than expected and in a bad temper. When Thomas of Dundale inquired about his trip, the King said shortly that he had been persuaded by a person named Marco not to pursue his claim. John Uskglass being a difficult person to persuade, this story was taken as an excuse for his having been prevented from fulfilling his aim.

That reference did not immediately lead to others. But Strange thought to consult his own library, which was mostly magical, but contained some books belonging to his forebears. There he found Richard Lassel’s The Voyage of Italy, a travel narrative originally published in 1670 which had presumably belonged to Strange’s great-grandfather or some such person. Lassel wrote that the Venetian Republic was “well with the Emperor; not out with Spain, nor too secure of his Friendship; kind with the French, as long as they keep out of Italy; well affected to England; and just friends with the Pope.” His account of the city was crisp and thorough, if a little preoccupied with churches. Toward the end of a discussion of the political system, he made note of a ceremony “conducted with wine, salt, and bay, which is performed as a public Precursor to the private Conference between the Doge and an unnamed person, who is called Faithful, and who defends the city against any Incursions of a peculiar sort.”

This was promising: partly because it correlated with Signora Zorzi’s description of the marcolìn as a person who warded off unfriendly magic, and partly because it suggested that it was not one person but a position that could be held by different people over time. And if that was the case, then whoever had last held the office might still be alive and in the city…

Strange drew in his breath and said, “Oh.”

Norrell looked up. He was sitting in a wing-backed chair by the fire, annoyed that they were in the Ashfair library instead of his own.

Strange suddenly froze, as he sometimes did when he seized an idea by its tail. Norrell waited for him to finish his thought; but the moment stretched itself out indefinitely until finally Norrell expelled his breath and said “Well, what?”

“Sir,” said Strange cautiously.

“Yes, what?”

“I have a…suspicion. A possibility. Concerning the Venetian magician.”

“Indeed?” Norrell was still nervous about Venice, but he did not like to admit it. He blinked his eyes a few times and asked what Strange thought he had found out.

“I think that he might be able to dispel the Darkness.”

He said it with an affected lightness in his voice, and looked back at his book.

Norrell immediately panicked. He tried to imagine what it would mean to be rid of the Darkness. Where would he be—back in London society? How much time had passed, and what would people make of them if they returned? Would Lady Pole try again to kill him? Surely she would succeed, now that the torpor of enchantment was gone. If he was killed in London he supposed he would be buried in London, which was not an idea that he much liked.

If Lady Pole was not granted access to firearms, or if he set a guard at every door, he supposed he might not be killed; but then what would happen? The passage of months and seasons and years? Leaving his research aside and working toward some end set by ministers and princes?

Norrell was wondering whether to voice these thoughts and how he could put them to words when he glanced in Strange’s direction and saw a fragile hope written with unusual frankness across his face. It was then that Mr Norrell performed his second act of generosity since entering the Darkness.

“I imagine it is a matter worth pursuing,” he said.

 

*

There was some more research to do before anything could be attempted. Lassel’s description was good for a start, but described in vague terms; they put in a few English augmentations and added, where they could, some entreaties in the Venetian language. It seemed proper to conduct the ceremony within the city of Venice, so they made use of a vacant upper room in an empty palazzo. In essence, they broke in; it did not sit easy with either of them, but no one could afford to live in this house at the present time, and they concluded that the ends, such as they were, justified the means, which they hoped to keep minimal.

Mr Norrell made a circle out of sea salt. This was counterintuitive and made the rest of the working difficult; but they were both fairly certain that salt was indicated, and local salt seemed under the circumstances to be the best choice.

Strange wove a garland out of linden branches, with some discarded dreams stuck into the joints.

They said some words in English, Italian, Venetian, and Latin, by turns, and kept a small flame going under a little cauldron of wine with a bay leaf in it.

The procedure took much longer than they had anticipated. Mr Norrell lost his voice, barely held onto his temper, and handed the job off to Strange for a time while he drank some hot water. Mr Strange grew tired of standing in one place, so he walked in circles for a while as he incanted, until he realized that this was careless and might affect the magic.

People came and went outside, dressed in evening clothes, chattering with their companions and not seeming to pay much attention to the strange stars in the sky. After a while the foot traffic diminished, and Strange supposed it must be getting later, the party-goers having reached their destinations. When it grew late enough, he supposed, they would need to go home again.

It was only after both magicians had become nearly too weary to continue, their nerves were drawn to their limit by the salt, and it seemed likely that the hour proper to the dawn would arrive soon, that it finally happened:

The flame went out, and the wine in the pot was drained dry into the air with a sucking sound.

The garland, which had been lying on the floor for some time, was picked up by a breeze and balanced itself on one end.

The circle of salt was lifted slightly into the air, dispersed itself, then somehow fell back to the floor just where it had been.

And standing in the middle of the circle was a person without a face.

Jonathan Strange stopt with the script in his hands and his mouth half-open. Gilbert Norrell opened his small eyes as wide as they ever got. The figure did not offer to speak, and it was not immediately clear whether it could do so. It appeared by its dress to be a person wearing a warm dressing-gown—“I suppose we did call it in the middle of the night,” thought Strange—with its arms folded across its chest, so that no particular details of its body could be seen. Its hair was drawn back in a low queue and there was a round, black, empty circle where its face ought to have been. He had been staring for at least a minute when Strange realized that this person was not necessarily missing a face, but had simply covered its face. The black circle was not a hole but a nearly featureless mask, drawing to a point at the nose and otherwise smooth, leaving a pale ring of skin exposed around the circumference of the face and concealing everything else. There were holes for eyes, which could not be made out behind the black plaster, but none for a mouth.

Norrell gestured toward Strange as if to say, this was your idea.

Strange cleared his throat and addressed the figure in Italian.

“I bid you welcome and thank you for answering our summons.”

The figure made no response or motion.

“I hope I am correct in supposing that you are the person known as the marcolìn?”

A very faint lift of the chin.

“My name is Jonathan Strange, and this gentleman is Gilbert Norrell. We are under an enchantment, and I understand it is your specialty to dispel pernicious spells. We…have not seen the sun for many months, and wish to have it restored to us. Can you lend your aid?”

The figure reached out one hand with its palm up. Strange stared. Norrell tried to shrink into the shadows and become invisible.

They looked at one another in this way for an un-measurable moment.

Slowly, the figure reached up, took hold of the black mask, and pulled it away to reveal the face of a woman about fifty years of age.

“You ask a personal favour,” she said in Italian, “but you offer no price?”

She was definitely human. There was nothing extraordinary about her appearance—she had brown hair, streaked with a little grey and pulled back like a man’s; she was on the tall side for a woman but not remarkably so, and age had begun to show its traces around her eyes. She could have blended into a crowd in any country in Europe. Strange might have passed her on the street every day and would not have recognised her now.

Mr Norrell emitted a noise a little like a dog’s bark, which seemed to indicate incredulity. Strange hastily explained, “The lady wishes to know what we will offer in exchange.”

“A handsel?” said Norrell. “That was the wine, surely.”

“It was mediocre,” the lady said in English, “but in any case it is gone. That was the price of bringing me here. I will speak to you if you like, but if you want us to do business you will need to offer a great deal more than the cost of my passage.”

For a moment Strange wished for his manservant Jeremy Johns, who had been with him from his father’s death and all through the wars. Jeremy always drove a fair bargain when they needed to buy food or supplies, back on the Peninsula. Where was he now? And what had become of that man Ford, the business agent at Ashfair—why, he must have become suddenly unemployed without a reference when the house disappeared into the Darkness. Where were they, any of the valets and stewards and housekeepers who used to take care of things for him?

“May I know the accustomary price of such a piece of work?” he asked, putting on more boldness than he felt.

The lady laughed abruptly—a low, rich sound. “Do you wish to bargain with me as if I were a seller of fruit? I am the marcolìna of this age, the inheritor of an ancient office. As for you, certainly you stink of England, signor, but you are very foreign indeed if you are in the habit of interrogating ladies who appear before you wearing a muta.” She gestured a little with the mask in her right hand. “But subtlety is no good with you, I have learnt that by now. You brought magic and an unfriendly Otherlander into my city. You imposed your accursed darkness on my citizens. You wrought my stones and waters into couriers for your personal vendettas. I was glad to see the back of you, Mr Strange, and sorry to see you here again. Just when I thought I had frightened you away with the parlour-trick of the china, you come back and implore me to help you! I have great suspicions of your friend, also, who stands there quaking in his boots.”

Mr Norrell had half a mind to defend Mr Strange, or at least respond to the lady’s implication about England, and half a mind to laugh at this implausible woman and put an end to the interview. Unable to find a compromise between these two courses of action, he instead continued trembling.

“Madam,” Strange began cautiously. “I do not wish to offend you. I am not familiar with your manner of doing business. But I deeply regret the distress and inconvenience I have caused the citizens of Venice, and if we could reach a mutually agreeable plan, I should be happy to offer whatever favours I can in gratitude.”

Mr Norrell muttered, “It sounds like you’re offering everything you have; don’t be foolish.”

The lady smiled. Strange wished he knew her name, but it felt rather late in the conversation to ask it. She said, “Explain to me your curse.”

“It is like living at the bottom of a well,” said Strange, “if it is true that from such a place one can see the stars even at noon.”

“I am not interested in wells,” said the marcolìna. She relaxed her posture just enough to set down her mask on the window-sill and rest her chin on one hand, and she was looking at Mr Strange with amusement as if at a very young person trying to recite the alphabet. “Why was the curse laid upon you?”

Norrell, of course, had not been present when the spell was cast, and had only later been entrapped by it. Strange had been present but was distracted by other concerns at the time, and he had not even noticed the Pillar of Darkness for at least half a day after it was imposed on him. So they did not have a very good theoretical answer to the question, but Strange told her what he had pieced together: “I was attempting to rescue a captive out of Faerie. Her captor laid this curse on me as punishment. Later the spell also applied itself to Mr Norrell, and since then we are both confined together, although I did achieve our aim in the end and the fairy was compelled to let his captive go.”

“In other words, he died or left office. There are not many other ways to compel such a conclusion. It is an interesting jurisdictional problem. What was his name?”

They could not answer this.

“Can you appeal to his successor?”

They had no idea who his successor was, or even the name of the kingdom in Faerie that he had ruled.

“And so you come to me. Well. I could easily banish the darkness from Venice, but I think I would be banishing the two of you as well. That would not be half bad for me, but it wouldn’t do you any good and might impede your travel. You would be sure to beat a path through someone else’s territory, and then they would complain to me. So that is no good.

“Listen. I do not work magic the way you do, according to your fancy. My task is to repel magic; I detect and dispel magic; or so I did in the past. I must cast a spell for good reasons or not at all. Those who do my work have always been suspicious of people like you. It is for me to keep the city whole, to preserve the Republic. Twenty years ago the Republic was failed, though not by me, and overrun, though not by magicians. I am willing to make alliances where profitable to the city. If it is consistent with the principles of my office and the interests of Venice, then I may find it possible and even worth my while to give you your sunrise.”

Jonathan Strange was abruptly aware of the beating of his heart. He found that organ was wrapped in a wild and incoherent hope; and it bore a strange resemblance to dread.

“Leave aside the other conditions of the curse for a moment,” said the marcolìna, “and begin by describing the darkness.”

They listed its conditions as they experienced it: a circle of night about the size of the parish of Santa Maria Zobenigo; unfamiliar stars above them that did not belong to their former world.

“So the nighttime cloaks you, but also announces your presence. You are difficult to find and identify individually, but everyone knows when you are in their vicinity. In this way you are like dancers at a masked ball, your face obscured but your role made clear. This is a legitimate way to live in my city, and in this I see nothing in my power to oppose. What other conditions has the curse?”

“Ah,” said Strange, “we are unable to put any significant distance between ourselves.”

“So you are free to roam, but confined to one another’s company? Well. You are a magician, and I believe this frightened gentleman is a magician; are you inhibited from your work by one another’s presence?”

This was an exceedingly uncomfortable question; the two men avoided looking at each other, and each waited for the other to answer. Norrell briefly shook his head. Strange said, after a moment, “We keep at our work, madam. There is a great deal to learn.”

“Well, then. You are reluctant to say so, but it seems to me your confinement to the darkness holds you to your course as magicians; it removes from you everything but your profession. Can you say this is not so?”

They could not.

“Thus the spell keeps you constant, as the celibacy of a virtuous priest strips away his commitments to other people, and it enforces good faith and constancy, which are important principles of civic life. In this I see nothing for my power to oppose. What else is there?”

Strange, his heart sinking, wondered how to explain what else there was. “Time and place do not…work properly for us any longer, madam. I never know any longer whether we are in the world—this world, I mean, or in the Other Lands.”

“What vague language you use! Which other lands?”

“Faerie—Hell—the country of flowers—all the nations of this world. Home is always just around the corner from wherever we are—on the other side of the rain, as we say in England; but even there we are not in England any longer. I do not know how else to explain.”

Mr Norrell, not thinking very highly of Strange’s attempt to explain this point, said, “It is my opinion that we are in a sort of fold between worlds, and that the same phenomenon occurred toward the end of the careers of other English magicians, such as—”

“Yes, of course,” said the lady, not so much interrupting Mr Norrell as declining to notice him. “This much is common enough. Very well. Your enchantment, encompassing worlds, is beautiful. It is fearfully and wonderfully made. You are fish out of water, but so are the horses of Constantinople on the front of our basilica. You are nimble in the way of few human beings, standing in one world under the stars of another, moving between countries as if between houses on the same street. I protect the beauty of Venice as well as its economy, and the darkness should on no account be banished on grounds of beauty.

“And your enchantment comes from what you call the Other Lands, but you do not know where?”

Strange mumbled on this point but had no names to offer.

“There is too much ambiguity there. Many of the people and countries you group together under that name are trading partners with whom our relationship is delicate. If you cannot tell me the name of your enchanter, I do not know if he is one of my allies. Thus the authority given to me cannot carelessly banish one of his spells. We have for ages worked well with them because of their good opinion of our way of life.6 The republic may have fallen but I am not in the business of making new enemies to add to our existing ones.”

Norrell was working his jaw looking for something to say, and this moment he found it. “Madam,” he said. “Your reasoning is subtle to be sure, but I do not see the purpose in it. You indicated that it was in your power to lift this curse. Why such lawyerly deliberation?”

Her gaze was cool. “My power is an office; I can use it at my discretion but not at my whim, any more than a soldier can plant his sword and call it a tree. If I cannot justify a work by the principles that govern me, then I cannot accomplish it at all. I have not found that doing this thing would be consistent with my position. I do not believe I can help you.”

Jonathan Strange felt as if he had spent an hour staring at a hot fire at close quarters—he supposed he was disappointed, but the stronger feeling was one of exhaustion. Norrell, to judge by the look of him, was rather more collected. Strange wondered whether Norrell had ever believed the lady could help them. He wondered whether Norrell would have truly considered dispelling the Darkness to be a help.

The lady—the marcolìna—peered at Strange closely for a moment and asked, “Where is your heart now?”

Strange frowned. “In my body, signora, or I should hope so.”

“I do not mean your blood-heart. I mean your dream-heart, your spell-heart. In 1814 you went through a piece of Venetian glass and entered for the first time into the land behind mirrors, and it was generally observed at the time that you did not have your heart with you. You are still without it now. What did you do with it?”

There was a baffled moment; then Strange drew in his breath suddenly as the answer came to him. “I gave it to my wife for safekeeping.”

“Kindly do not condescend to me with romantic nonsense.”

“I am not being romantic. Earlier that year I visited a gentleman who was struggling with madness, and we were beset by the same fairy who later cursed me. I cast a spell of protection on us both, and in its final stage I put my spell-heart, as you call it, into a secret place, my wife’s dress pocket. Do you mean to say it is still there? I didn’t think I could misplace such an important item.”

She shrugged. “You have a reputation for carelessness. Do you want it back?”

“Why are you concerned about my heart, madam?”

She seemed to take this as a negative reply, and she nodded toward Norrell. “What about him?” She gazed at the centre of Norrell’s chest as if she could see through him, while Norrell stared back with a look of deep offence on his face. “Oh. I forgot; this is the one who buried his heart beneath a dark wood. It appears to be healthy enough now, if a little the worse for wear.”

Strange, at a loss, looked out the window. It was pitch-black, like always, and he wondered if there would ever again in his life be any purpose in looking out a window. “Well, signora, I thank you for your consideration and your time. I am sorry to have troubled you with such a personal request, when your duty is clearly owed to your city.”

She shrugged; she did not seem perturbed. “A city is home to many people, and it is no harm to consider them sometimes as individuals. I do not find grounds for lifting the spell, but let me offer some comfort. You are lacking in something you did not tell me, are you not? I can feel it here—the way time bends and eddies around you. I cannot make the sun rise for you, but I can give you a moon.”

This last sentence had a peculiar gravity to it, as if she had been speaking her personal opinion and now was rendering judgment; and the air around them constricted a little, holding its breath to hear how she would conclude.

“I can hang a moon in your sky. It will appear as it does to the lady in whose pocket you placed your heart. I cannot promise that she will look at the moon more often, or that it will connect her to you, or anything of that nature; those are private matters and I do not interfere. But you will be able to see it wherever you are, and if you are very observant you can use it to keep the English time. In return, you must promise me never again to bring powerful magic to Venice without consulting me, and if Napoleon tries again to stir from exile you will oppose him, for all our sakes. Is this agreeable to you?”

Norrell furrowed his brow; “A very odd species of condolence—is it a trick?” Having been interrupted by the marcolìna he was now behaving as if she did not speak English.

“No.” Strange was still badly out of his element, but he was confident the words that had just rung in the air were honest words. “It is not a trick. Do we consent?”

“Fine, then. Perhaps it will be useful. At the least it will provide some light.”

Strange nodded. “Madam, I thank you and accept your offer.”

“Let us shake hands, then, as friends. I do not bid you to return to Venice, because it is just as well for me if you do not; but I thank you for your good faith in our business together.”

Strange held out his hand and she shook it; and then her grip tightened, and there was a very faint sound outside the window as of a small group of pigeons taking flight. That was all. He wondered that magic on such an astronomical scale should be so subtle; but when he looked out the window again, there was moonlight winking back up at him from the canal below.

Grazie, signora,” he said softly.

Prego,” said the lady, and then with an exhale of wine-scented breath she was gone.

 

*

After many years of thriving, a period of decay, and an abrupt crisis of plunder, the city of Venice faced the beginning of a hard nineteenth century. Some of its finest palazzi were sold to foreigners. Others were turned into hotels. The sea air assaulted the city’s riches as it had done for centuries, and the buildings inched closer to the water. Little magic was seen in Venice for a long time, although, Venetian magic being what it was, no one could ever say for certain when it had been deployed. The world had different dimensions than it used to, and Venice could no longer claim to be at its centre.

In England it is said that ruined buildings belong to the Raven King. There was no such king in Venice to receive a ruin. A ruin was a real loss, as much as a truth lost to forgetfulness or a person lost to death, and just as inevitable. Some people spoke about the Republic returning, and some gondolieri sang a song urging Napoleon to return (they liked his fierce courage, despite everything), but both were impossible.

After many months of unmarked night, the Tower of Darkness now saw a moon rising, setting, waxing and waning according to an English latitude and longitude. It did not keep such steady time as a sun, but it marked the days and months. Sometimes Jeremy Johns’ cat Bullfinch managed to enter the Stranges’ former home at Soho-square, and sometimes Jonathan Strange was there to scratch him under his chin. Sometimes Norrell was there to stare at him and offer no affection. They both knew more each month than they had known before.

For Venice and for the magicians, beneath the moon and behind the rain, time ran only forward.

 


 

1Much was remarkable about the Most Serene Republic of Venice, which was founded in the seventh century, had an extraordinary flowering in the early modern period, and continued until the city’s conquest in 1797 by Napoleon Bonaparte:

That the Venetian lagoon’s only produce to export was salt, dried from the Aegean and crushed with a roller; and on this slenderest, most elemental foundation was built a city whose opulence and creativity were legendary throughout the known world.

That the republic lasted for eleven hundred years, governed by a man called a Doge, who for most of that time was selected in this way: The Great Council of men from all the important families of Venice would elect thirty men. Those thirty would draw lots to choose from among them a group of nine. The nine would elect a group of forty. The forty would draw lots to become twelve. The twelve would elect twenty-five. The twenty-five would draw lots to become nine. The nine would elect forty-five. The forty-five would draw lots to diminish their group to eleven. And the eleven would select forty-one men, who would then in their wisdom elect the next Doge. And that after all this, when the forty-one selected a Doge, his most visible duty was to process in brocade ceremonial robes and cast a golden ring into the sea, every year on Ascension Day without fail, thereby marrying the city to the sea.

That the glass made in Murano was so exquisite that it had no competition, only imitations. Its clarity, its colours, and its forms were so extraordinarily beautiful, and the Murano glassblowers’ craft so envied, that Venetian nobles were forbidden to speak to anyone from outside the city, ever, lest they give away trade secrets.

That Marco Polo went east from the city in 1271, and that he returned to Venice twenty-four years later with stories about houses made of gold, a king who used lions to hunt down his prey, men with the heads of dogs, and massive, lumbering unicorns.

That despite the laws of the Church, the Senate, and the Doge, almost anything was permitted—under the guise of play—if one wore a mask.

Surprizingly, none of this had anything to do with the fairies.

 

2Strange refers here to the bocche de leone, imposing stone letter slots shaped indeed like lion’s mouths, which the citizens of the Serenissima used for anonymously reporting crimes, treasonous plots, or infections of plague to the authorities.

 

3England first saw magic brought in by a conqueror, a stolen child returned to become king. But Venice was a city built beyond the reach of conquerors, erected on the islands where early Italians had fled from invading barbarians. They had been safe from foreign barbarism ever since. King Pepin of France had once tried to invade, and the winking lights on the water had so dazzled his cavalry that they toppled into the sea to their deaths. No one could conquer Venice.

No one until Napoleon—who did not invade, merely threatened to do so. He made this threat at just the right time, when the institutions of the Republic were decaying, its ruling families were all but barren, and his own victories in war were enough to frighten any potential adversary. Napoleon gave Venice an ultimatum: either the Republic must dissolve itself, or he would take the city by force. When the Great Council convened to consider the threat, they were probably always going to surrender. But this conclusion was hastened when some shots were fired outside their window (ceremonial shots, but they sounded just the same as lethal ones), upon which the Council scattered like a flock of pigeons and the surrender was certain. Soon afterward a “Tree of Liberty” was erected in the Piazza San Marco and a fire was built at its foot which made quick work of a corno (the hat traditionally worn by the doge) and a copy of the Golden Book, which listed the families with a right to sit on the Great Council.

In this way was an eleven-hundred-year-old government conquered by fear. Many of its treasures were soon plundered or carelessly destroyed.

 

4Despite the absence of a conquest from Faerie, there were some Venetian phenomena that suggested an alliance made not with Christians. For example, it was for a few hundred years extraordinarily difficult to sail into the harbours of the city if one was not invited. There seems to have been a difference in air pressure between Venice and the surrounding sea-country, such that it seemed a ship entering Venice was trying to sail uphill. Some English-language accounts from this time call the effect the “toe-the-line,” as if the sailors were being inspected upon their arrival and were allowed in only when someone had determined that their hands were clean and their shoes were shined. In fact these sailors’ hands were not clean, and their shoes were too worn to take a shine, and the characteristics they were being scrutinised for, if indeed a test was taking place, were rather mysterious. It was observed that those who had been to the city many times before had an easier time navigating the toe-the-line; but so did those who had a cat on board, those bearing coffee among their cargo, and those that had good news. Despite the unreliable nature of these accounts, it seems as if this phenomenon held true for centuries, until the tenure of Doge Francesco Morosini, after whose installation the toe-the-line abruptly disappeared and was not observed again.

It is also the case that the glass produced in Venice was not only extraordinarily beautiful, but efficacious for magical purposes. The English magician Peter Watershippe owned a platter of Venetian glass which he used for scrying, and he claimed that it showed him reliable visions long after the Raven King disappeared from England and many spells had failed. Jonathan Strange himself first entered the King’s Roads by means of a Venetian mirror in London, though he took no notice of its provenance at the time.

 

5Since his usual method in magic had been to try things out and see whether they worked, it is worth noticing this instance in which Jonathan Strange reasoned something through and reached a fairly accurate conclusion, and not merely a false one that, when put into practice, yielded interesting results.

The city of Venice was founded on variety and singleness, the one and the many. Its first settlers had many cities of origin, many priests and patron saints; they settled the many islands of the lagoon and formed a republic with a many-voiced Senate that traded with the many peoples living east of the Adriatic. And all this variousness converged, through necessity and cleverness, to form one city devoted to Saint Mark, with one doge presiding.

In the face of this unified variety, this multifariousness coalescing to identity, Faerie was simply another set of lands to trade with, another source of varied and stupendous goods, another place full of moody and clever faces to negotiate with, another stream to join the flowing river of life in the lagoon.

Venice received magic as a skill given in trade, exchanged for glass and music and brocade, beautiful things made with more effort than any fairy would bother exerting.

 

6Venice’s marriage to the sea was sensible to the fairies, whose alliances to the wind and rain and earth and sky were what kept their lives in good order. Venice’s beauty was acceptable to the fairies, who found their way nimbly through the city’s labyrinth of alleys and canals. Venice’s politics were impenetrable to the fairies, who would not have had enough patience for a Great Council in a million years.