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mirk mirk night, nae stern light

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John Childermass had drunk, in no particular order: four pints of ale, five glasses of port, and three of brandy.

This was not in his character; neither had it been in his plans. For the purposes of our narrative, we may consolidate his plans for that evening to a few items: to speak with the inhabitants of the local pub, to determine the presence or lack thereof of town legends relating to the Raven King, and to add these legends meticulously to the notes in the small book he carried in the pockets of his great-coat. At least one of them, it was thought - or hoped - would contain the secret the magicians of England sought.

There had been no clue; there had been no sign. The secret of the King's Letters, it seemed, had vanished with the King - and the King might as well have vanished altogether; Childermass felt - well, not angry, for had he been the type of man to feel anger at his King for absence he would not have had time in the day to think nor breathe for anger - but pained, perhaps, or even irritated. It was not his habit to work for months and even years to such fruitless results.

Vinculus had come with him to the pub, of course, and promptly vanished upstairs with a laughing young woman not ten minutes into Childermass' interview with a patron of the pub. Childermass had started, and turned to rise and fetch Vinculus back again (without careful observation, he was like as not to disappear for a week, and turn up stinking of gin at the least convenient moment) but the patron had touched his arm and asked where Childermass was going -

- and Childermass had not known.

The patron was - well. The patron was tall, or perhaps short, and an old woman, or perhaps a young man. The patron was dressed in the finest of fashionable rags, and without a doubt a native of the town, with a strong foreign accent that Childermass could not quite place and an alien slant to his - her - face. The patron was -

"Have another drink, John Childermass," said the patron, and Childermass raised his cup to his lips, and did not think to ask how the patron knew his name.

Which brings us to where we began: four pints of ale, five glasses of port, three of brandy, and the patron's arm wrapped around Childermass' shoulders as he staggered out the door. The patron was speaking to Childermass, asking him something - did Childermass know where he was going, did he have a home, he must have traveled so far, he must be so tired, would he not rest at the patron's home, where there were warm blankets, rich food, something about servants -

Something stirred in Childermass' mind, then, a confusion, an uncertainty; but then the patron's hand was on his arm, and he was so tired, and he was nodding, and the patron leading him out into the cold forest (forest? had it not been hills, when they had come to the town - green hills, and a warm spring day?) and onto the path.

And after that, Childermass remembered nothing at all.

*

He awoke under a blanket made out of lion's skin.

It was, though quite heavy, not particularly warm; his first thought upon waking was that this was odd, for a lion's skin. He was lying on a hard surface, some sort of cold stone which he did not recognize, which was cracked and run through with all manner of weeds and grass; when he sat up, the lion skin vanished. He caught, out of the corner of his eye, a glint of - green? - before it was gone.

"John Childermass!" said a voice behind him, and Childermass pushed himself to his feet and turned to see the person he had met in the pub. He could still not make out whether they were a man or a woman, or their age, or indeed any feature of their face; but he could see, now, that they were wearing a long, long coat the color of moss. (Too like moss; he thought he saw insects crawling within the fabric.)

Childermass was uncertain whether he should address this curious person as sir or madam; he considered bowing as a greeting, and decided against it. In the end he settled for a slow nod of his head, which seemed to him to respect the necessaries of courtesy without becoming deference.

"I trust you have slept well," said the person in the moss-colored coat. "I have given you my finest fur to sleep beneath." They paused, as if to give Childermass time to gasp, or perhaps faint, and when he did neither, continued with some annoyance: "And I have taken you to my home in your vulnerable state, and given you my hospitality."

They stared at Childermass. Childermass was, he expected, meant to respond with a thank-you, and a declaration that he was more than grateful. This was certainly more within the bounds of propriety, and Childermass' own inclinations, than a bow or a faint had been; and yet Childermass felt a prickle upon his eyelids and his face, and for some reason he could not name, said nothing at all.

"I would like," said the person in the moss-colored coat, somewhat peevishly, "to show you my great house. Would this be amenable to you, John Childermass?"

"It would," said Childermass, "if I might have your name in exchange."

He did not know why he said this, either, but from the way the person in the moss-colored coat's face pinched, knew at once that it was the correct thing to have said. "You may call me," said the person in the moss-colored coat at last, "the Margrave of Jealousy."

"Then you may lead the way," said Childermass.

The house of the Margrave was enormously large, and very grand; Childermass, who prided himself on both his sense of direction and his clear memory, knew after the fourth turn that he was more than a little lost. The Margrave kept up a running commentary as they took Childermass from ballroom to library to hall to ballroom; it was full of details and anecdotes and advice, all of it having the sound of something useful and tantalizingly interesting.

It reminded Childermass, however, of nothing so much as the patter of the false magicians he had heard on the streets of London, and he tucked his hands into the pockets of his black great-coat, and felt for the cards of Marseilles as a comfort. For he knew there was only one thing to do when you heard magicians' patter, and that was to watch their hands.

In a smaller room - though no room in the house of the Margrave was small - containing a table covered with an emerald cloth, the Margrave stopped so suddenly that Childermass would have run into them had he been a touch less light on his feet. "Well?" they said. "What do you think, John Childermass?"

"Your house is certainly very fine," said Childermass.

The Margrave waited; when Childermass said nothing more, they said sharply, "And?"

"And I wonder," said Childermass, "why, among the fine rooms in your house which I have seen, there has been no entrance hall among them; nor a door leading to any place but another room of the house."

There were more rooms he had not seen which he should have - most prominent among them the servants' quarters. But this, while strange, was less urgent to his current situation; and so he did not think to mention it.

For a long, frozen moment, the Margrave stared at him. Then their mouth spread in a smile just a hair too wide for Childermass' concern, and they said, "My dear John Childermass, why on Earth should this be of concern to you?"

"I have slept in your house," said Childermass, "and been warmed by your lion skin, and been given your hospitality. And I am -" and he hesitated over saying he was grateful, aware of that same prickling upon his eyelids at the word, and settled at last upon "rested, and warmed, and welcomed. And now I am ready to return to the place from whence you brought me, and collect my traveling companion, and continue on my way."

The Margrave was still staring at him, and still smiling. Childermass began to wish that the Margrave would stop smiling. Nevertheless, he kept his face blank, and met the Margrave's gaze steadily.

"I would prefer, John Childermass, that you stay here," said the Margrave, through their smile.

And then Childermass thought he could guess where he was, and the manner of person it was that had taken him into their home; and he felt, though he did not show it, fear in his chest. "Nevertheless," he said, "my home is in England, not Faerie. And it is to England that I would like to return."

He knew at once that his guess had been right. The Margrave's face flickered - Childermass thought he saw for a moment long, sharp teeth - before it smoothed into a smile once again, this time even wider than before.

"Then it is to your England you shall return, indeed," said the Margrave. "But I am holding a great ball in my house tonight. There will be guests there who knew many men from your country - your magicians, your legends. Surely you might tarry a night before you go back to your own country."

At that Childermass stilled. He was more than certain the Margrave knew of his interest in the Raven King, for he had been asking the Margrave about him just a few hours before; he was more than certain that the Margrave was tempting him with the possibility of one of his fairy guests knowing the King's Letters. He did not like the sensation of being manipulated, and liked less that he was being manipulated without subtlety.

"Aye, then," he said, and closed his hand tight around the cards of Marseilles where they lay in his pocket. They were rough at the edges, and sharp on his fingers, and he thought of the biting winds of England, and of home. "I would not like to miss a ball."

*

The tables along the walls of one of the Margrave's many ballrooms were laden with a hundred dishes; some of them Childermass recognized, some he did not, and some he was not certain were food at all. The guests were of every height and age and color; many were wearing masks, or what Childermass hoped were masks.

The Margrave had led him round the ballroom and deposited him by one of the tables, then been swept away by a woman wearing a fox fur that twitched rather more than a fox fur ought. Childermass was by instinct inclined to tuck himself into a wall and fade; he was unused to attending balls in the position of a guest.

His typical habits being, he recognized, somewhat outside the bounds of mannerly behavior, he drifted instead to the table beside him and observed the food laid there. One dish looked much like an ordinary English pea pod; he reached for it -

- and was arrested by a hand upon his wrist. A voice said, in a tone of great surprise, "Childermass? John Childermass?"

Childermass turned to see the man to whom the voice belonged, and raised an eyebrow.

"Mr. Strange," he said.

"Childermass," said Strange again, his face a picture of shock, and then tugged sharply on Childermass' wrist. Childermass was, however, quite a tall man, and Strange's pull did nothing. Strange's face was a picture of absent-minded confusion; he tugged again, then said, "Oh - come with me, come this way," and led Childermass to a corner of the ballroom, far from the tables.

He went on his toes to peer over Childermass' shoulder at the ballroom - Childermass found himself almost inclined to laugh, at the sight of the man who had been England's foremost magician on his tippy-toes, but stopped himself when Strange began to speak.

"Do you not know whose house you are in?" he demanded of Childermass. "Do you not know the rules? Did you walk into this house with no knowledge from books, or tales -"

"I did not walk into this house of my own volition," said Childermass, more than a little coldly - though he had not expected to see another Englishman in this house in Faerie, he had certainly not expected the only other Englishman in the house to berate him as if he were a child. "I heard no tales; I read no books. As you may recall, near all the books in England vanished with you."

Strange looked taken aback. "I," he said, "my apologies, sir. I am - unused to the company of most men."

Childermass blinked, and then understood in a rush: Strange had seen no one but Norrell in years. He thought of Strange's quick, impatient tug on his wrist - if he had seen only Norrell for such a long span of time, he would have found himself in the habit of tugging men from place to place by their wrists as well.

"This fairy pressed drink upon me and led me to its house," he said to Strange. "I did not come of my own will, sir. I know naught of it nor of its ways."

"Ah," said Strange, and rubbed at his nose. "Well. The Margrave of Jealousy - it has many names, it was called Peg o' Nell, or Wicked Jenny, or the Vodanoy among the Slavs, though Bedingfield claims this is a different creature altogether, and should by rights be classified-"

"Mr. Strange," said Childermass, somewhat sharply.

"Ah," said Strange again. "Right. Yes. The Marquis of Jealousy is a creature of bargains. As are all fairies, but this one more than most - it wants nothing more than that you should be in its debt. It takes human servants, you see. Well. Human servants for a time."

Childermass raised an eyebrow. "For a time?"

"It prefers to have," said Strange, and waved his hands, "one servant at a time, it is not a lover of company. So it gives the servant certain powers allowing him to perform all his duties alone - but such magic is not meant to, to inhabit a human body, and after a time the servant -" He spread his hands. "It is difficult to describe. Have you ever seen a pipe in which there has been acid?"

"Aye," said Childermass, and then, "Ah. I see."

"Indeed," said Strange. "Well. I would advise you not to eat the food, sir. Or accept any favors from it. Or let it do anything to you, or speak to you, or touch you, or know you exist. If possible."

Childermass said, tersely, "It may be somewhat late for that."

Strange spread his hands. "I will do my best to help you, sir, now that I know you are here. But if you have already accepted a kindness from it - if you are already in its debt - then it may take more than a little quick thinking, sir, to get you out again."

Childermass shut his eyes. "I have - it took me to its house, and it gave me a lion skin to sleep under. But I never thanked it, nor did I tell it I was grateful."

Strange's face was, suddenly, alight. "That," he said. "may be your saving. Mr. Childermass, I do not mean to pry, but if you could perhaps take notes on your experience within the house, and the words you say to the creature, and if possible send them to me, with specific attention paid to its responses and the manner-"

"Mr. Strange," said Childermass sternly. Strange looked penitent at once, and Childermass wondered involuntarily if this is how he had looked at his wife when he had injured her.

He shook his head to clear the thought. "You have not said, sir, why you are in its house," he said. "I at least may say I am not here of my own will. You may not, I think, claim the same."

"I was offered an invitation," said Strange. "Well. We were offered an invitation, Norrell and I. We thought - the invitation we received was phrased in such a way - for both of us to accept would have meant needing to express gratitude for the invitation, and for neither would have meant having to apologize, and promise to make up the slight in some other way -"

"I see," said Childermass. "And Mr. Norrell -"

Strange's mouth twisted in a mixture of irritation and fondness. "You know Mr. Norrell even better than I do, Mr. Childermass; I am sure you have some idea of why I came and he did not."

"Indeed," Childermass said. "Mr. Strange, the Marquis told me that there might be fairies here that knew the King's Letters. Is this true?"

Mr. Strange's face was a picture of surprise. "The King's Letters!" he said. "Ah! yes. The Raven King, I suppose. Well, I can tell you, sir, from the limited knowledge that I have gathered, that if there are fairies here who knew John Uskglass personally I have not seen them. If I do, I will be certain to point them out to you - but I would be cautious, sir, of asking for knowledge from a fairy." He smiled a little, very sadly. "I am sure you know the dangers well."

Childermass looked at Strange standing before him, and noticed for the first time that the man's chin was dark with stubble, and his face was pale. He had not seen sunlight, Childermass imagined, in a very long time, and he felt an unexpected softness.

"I do," he said.

"I think," said Strange, "that we must keep you away from the food tables." He reached out a hand to Childermass, palm up. "Shall we dance, sir?"

Childermass blinked; but they were, after all, very far from England, and the norms and rules of Faerie were nothing like those he knew at home. "Aye," he said, and put his hand in Strange's.

He expected there to be a struggle with Strange over the lead, but Strange followed his footsteps as easily as if he had been raised doing it, and Childermass led him from one side of the ballroom to the other. "Have any of these spoken to the Raven King?" he said softly. "Might any of them know the King's Letters?"

"Not of the ones I have seen," said Strange, "and I have seen many. Mr. Childermass - I feel you must consider that the fairy has not told you the whole truth. There may be none here who knew the King at all."

Childermass whirled Strange, glancing over his head at the assembled fairies. "Have you seen the King, sir?" he said. "Since - that day?"

They passed among a crowd of fairies with identical faces, all dressed in black with strange constellations upon their clothes, and Strange shook his head. "Not I. He has not gone to Faerie, I think; I cannot think why he would. If he is anywhere, he is in England."

"If he is in England," said Childermass, "he has not come to help his servants."

"If he is in Faerie," said Strange, somewhat wistfully, "he has neither come to help his so-called enemies."

"I would, at the moment, rather he were in Faerie," said Childermass, "as he is a man in whose debt I would gladly find myself, if it would find me a road out of this house."

Upon which the music ended, and the Margrave's voice said behind them, "Jonathan Strange! And John Childermass. I trust you are enjoying the ball."

Childermass turned. Now that he knew the rules of the Margrave's house, he found himself watching his words more carefully: "It is good," he said, "to see a friend."

"I should hope you might make many friends," said the Margrave brightly. "Have you not tried the canapes, John Childermass? They are quite rare."

"I do not find myself hungry," said Childermass.

The Margrave tilted their head, and then glanced down, their eyes focusing on Strange. "You, sir," they said. "Is your companion here as well?"

"He remained at home, as is his wont," said Strange politely. "I came; we did not wish to show you an unkindness."

"You did not, sir," said the Margrave, and smiled with their teeth, and looked back to Childermass. "I wish to introduce you to the others I have invited, John Childermass. Might I have this dance?"

Childermass could feel Strange tense beside him; he knew why. He could not think of a way to refuse the Margrave without expressing rudeness, and rudeness would certainly put him in their debt. "You may," he said, and took the Margrave's hand, and was at once whirled into the crowd.

"I am afraid, sir, that I must return to my country before long," he said to the Margrave.

The Margrave waved an elegant hand. "Before the end of the ball? Surely not. You would not wish to do me such discourtesy as leaving before I have introduced you to my friends, or ceasing to dance before the dance is done."

He had him; Childermass knew it. "No," he said, reluctantly, "but once it has ended -"

"Of course," said the Margrave airily, "of course, once it has ended," and Childermass narrowed his eyes.

"I must ask for your promise," he said, "that you will allow me to leave at the end of the ball."

The Margrave met his eyes. Their moss-green cloak was brushing against Childermass' wrists where the Margrave gripped them, and Childermass thought he felt the sensation of some small and crawling insect wriggling upon his own skin.

"You have my promise, John Childermass," they said, "upon my honor and my name."

It was more than Childermass had expected; it was nothing he believed.

The music ended, again, and he found himself in front of a fairy with wide blue eyes and skin that seemed to be covered with thick, black fur. "Ah," said the Margrave brightly, "Lady Ghest, a pleasure, may I introduce you to John Childermass?" and then Childermass was led once again into the dance.

From fairy to fairy he was pushed, from dance to dance; as soon as one song ended the Margrave was at his side, saying "You simply must meet-" "-have you spoken to - " A man with near-slimy skin was introduced to him as the Lord of Lambton, a woman with a blue face as Duchess Annis. He was introduced to no less than four people called Hedley Kow, and danced with each; all of them stepped on his feet.

After some time, the names began to blur; the faces became a whirl of strangeness. He danced with one fairy, then another. His feet, he noted with a peculiar sense of distance, did not in the least hurt; his shoes, which should have worn through, were sturdy and strong. He did not feel tired, or hungry, or sore. If anything, he felt oddly calm; surely this was right, that he should be able to dance for the Margrave's friends, surely it was right that he should dance for the Margrave's pleasure. If this was no earthly ball, what of it? He was a clever man, and a competent servant, and he could step nimbly through each dance; he bowed to his partner, turned, caught the hand of -

- Jonathan Strange.

He blinked.

"At last," said Strange, sounding irritated. "I have been calling your name for some time."

Childermass said, "I have not heard you."

"I have no doubt you have not heard me," said Strange. "Answer me this, sir: how long have you been dancing?"

Childermass blinked. "I - an hour, sir? Two? There have been - the friends of the Margrave -"

Strange snorted. "I thought your answer might be something like this. You have been dancing, sir, for almost a full day."

Childermass thought for a long moment that he would freeze, stop the flow of the dance in his sheer shock. He recovered himself just in time to pull Strange against himself, take his hands and turn him in a circle. "A day?" he said, low and horrified. "You must be mistaken."

"You have been dancing with fairies for you know not how long, and you say I must be uncertain in my judgment?" said Strange sharply. "Believe me, sir, I have been paying close attention. I have eaten nothing but a loaf of bread I have brought in my coat, and drunk nothing but a little claret. I am more than a little hungry, you know."

"I am not," said Childermass. He felt uncharacteristically slow, bewildered. That strange sensation returned to him - that he ought to be dancing with the Margrave's friends, that the ease and swiftness that had been granted to him were nothing more than how the world ought to be. He closed his eyes, felt for his cards in his pocket, thought of the shape of the raven upon them.

"Yes, well," said Strange, "I expect that will be the fairy's magic."

"The fairy's magic," said Childermass. "It told me it would release me when the ball ended."

"If it cannot have you in servitude by your gratitude, it will charm you until you agree to aught it says," said Strange; his face was tight with anger. "I suppose the ball is meant to end, then, when you are lost."

Childermass felt his stomach sink. "Aye," he said. "Aye, I expect it will."

Strange's eyes were hard. "Do not give in so easily to despair," he said tightly. "The magic of fairies is - well, you and I are magicians, are we not?"

"Magicians," said Childermass, and shook his head, to clear it. England seemed, suddenly, very far away, and his own magic, and Vinculus, and Segundus' school for magicians, seemed like a dream he had had long ago. "I suppose we are."

"Then let us do magic," said Strange, "for God's sake, if only all of Faerie's captives had had your gifts, the folktales might end quite differently!"

"You are the educated magician," Childermass said dryly. "Tell me what to do, sir."

"I-" said Strange, and blinked. "I am. Well. We could try Fletcher's Conjuration - though off England's soil - or Lister, if his work would translate to a human subject, or Heathfield, with some adjustments to-"

"I have not read those books, Mr. Strange," said Childermass.

Strange looked up at him. His mouth was pinched. "No," he said. "No, I suppose you have not."

"We will have to work without books," said Childermass, "or their benefit. I know, sir, that you have invented your own magic before."

"So I have," said Strange, "but never with so few materials to work from." He furrowed his brows, and his eyes rolled up in his head for a moment. "We might," he said, "a door. We might form one of our own, open to England. Not with - oh, there'd be no finesse in that, no art at all." He was scowling.

"Forget for a moment the art," said Childermass patiently. "What is it you are thinking?"

"Perhaps," said Strange, and shrugged. "Brute force. Push through the fairy's magic and out to the other side. Like using a cannon to hammer in a nail - really, if we had Fletcher -"

"We do not," said Childermass, less patiently, "have Fletcher. Would this brute force work?"

"It might," Strange said. "It might not. It would not put us in England, but it would at least let you, sir, leave the Margrave's ballroom and enter greater Faerie. Mr. Norrell and I would be glad -" His mouth twisted in a smile. "I would be glad to offer you our hospitality, and though I am sure you know Mr. Norrell's hospitality is never certain, I do not think, sir, he would be displeased to see you again."

Mr. Norrell. Childermass realized he was frowning quite against his will; he had tried not to think of Norrell, tried to let his anger at their last parting color all his long years with the man, and had not altogether succeeded. To see Norrell again would be - well. He would not turn it down.

"I think with the library at Hurtfew at our disposal, we should not find it difficult to open a way to England for me," he said.

"We would not," Strange agreed. "Indeed, sir, with the three of us working together, we might even find a way to-" He broke off, closed his eyes. "To find a window out of the Darkness. Or even a door."

His face was very still; Childermass tilted his head, decided to say nothing of it. "How would we go about it?" he asked.

Strange blushed. Childermass raised an eyebrow, and Strange looked at the fairies, at the floor, at anything but his face. "Were we using Lister or Heathfield, we might do a ritual to bind our powers to one. Without that structure, well - we shall have to improvise with physical contact."

"Physical contact," said Childermass in a tone of some flatness.

"The more the better, I am afraid," said Strange, and he really did look desperately apologetic. "Pressed chest to chest might do it."

Childermass looked Strange up and down. The man's fashion was a few years out of date, though this was to be expected; and he was, Childermass noted, not an unhandsome man.

"Well, I suppose we are dancing already," he said dryly, and gathered Strange into his arms.

Strange was, he thought, perhaps expecting it already. He went as easily as he had been led in the dance; his arms were around Childermass' shoulders immediately, Childermass' at his waist. Though Childermass was quite tall, Strange was as well, and they were near cheek to cheek once Strange was in his embrace.

"Can you join my powers to yours?" he said softly into Strange's ear, and felt Strange tense in his arms.

"I-" he said, and then, "yes, I think so, I believe so. Let me try."

And abruptly Childermass could feel the Margrave's magic, woven around the ballroom like a cobweb, cutting into both space and time. Strange could feel it too; his heartbeat was hammering against Childermass' chest.

"All right," said Childermass quietly. "You have my power, sir, and you will have to guide it. One- two- three-"

There was an enormous rush of power through him; for a moment, his vision went white. When he could see again, his heart leapt; there was a place where the cobweb of magic had grown thinner, as if it had been burnt.

"Again," said Strange. His voice was hot with hope, and Childermass knew, suddenly, that Strange was thinking of England - of seeing, even from a distance, the green hills, the sun.

"Again," he agreed. "One- two- three-"

That same rush of power, and the burnt place in the cobweb was suddenly thin as gossamer. Childermass' heart was hammering in his chest.

"Once more," he said. "Once more, and we will have it. One- two-"

And then he was bumped very hard, suddenly, by a young man with dark hair, and he whirled, lost balance, was caught-

"John Childermass," said the Margrave happily. "There you are."

The connection - the power, the feeling of Strange's magic against his. He had lost the connection. Childermass turned his head, looking for Strange, but could see him nowhere. He had vanished as if into thin air.

"I have been looking for you," said the Margrave. "Really, John Childermass, you are at a party; one would not wish you to stay always among the same people. You must meet-"

Childermass tore his hand away and pushed through the dancers, away from the Margrave, blindly into the crowd. He was being rude, he knew it; he stepped on feet, shouldered fairies aside. He was causing a disturbance at the Margrave's ball, would have to apologize to the Margrave for his impoliteness, would have to ask how he could make it up to the Margrave, would have to lose himself once again. But he could not, could not fall back into that swift sweet dream of dancing, could not let fairy magic run through him, not without a fight-

Two strong hands caught his; a young man with dark hair led him through the steps of the dance. Childermass struggled, tried to pull away. "Sir," he said, "I do not wish-"

"Do you ever," said the dark-haired man, and laughed. The dance they were stepping through had, Childermass noted absently, quite a different rhythm than the fairy music; indeed, the music seemed to grow softer the more they danced, until he was dancing with the man to nothing but silence - though he thought he heard, as if it were far away, a sound much like the wind upon the moors. "This way, John Childermass."

And there was a door in the wall, which Childermass was surprised he had not noticed before, for it had been there all along. And when the dark-haired man pressed on it, it opened; and there was sunlight, and the smell of grass.

Childermass let go of the dark-haired man's hand, and turned to look at his face. "My lord," he said, though he did not know why he addressed the dark-haired man thus. "Lord, Jonathan Strange-"

"-will find his own way home," said the dark-haired man, a laugh still in his voice. "I am not in the habit of doing favors for any but me and mine. Though you may tell Strange, if you see him again, that my servants are not his to steal away at his leisure to help him with his own tasks."

"You might tell that to the Margrave of Jealousy, my lord!" said Childermass.

And now the dark-haired man smiled - something wider than the Margrave's smile, and twice as frightening, and strangely satisfied. "I intend to," he said. "Now take the road that has been offered you, before it vanishes."

"If you may find a road home for me, sir, you may find one for Jonathan Strange," Childermass said. "And I must ask that you do so."

The dark-haired man cocked his head - Childermass thought, suddenly, of a bird - and smiled again. This smile did not reach his eyes.

"Go, John Childermass," he said. "Go. You may trust that Jonathan Strange will follow in his own time, and that I will as well."

Childermass felt an unexpected pang in his chest. "Will you, my lord?" he said, and did not know why.

But the dark-haired man was smiling. "Oh ye of little faith," he said. "Do not forget the promises you have made," and he placed a long-fingered hand on Childermass' chest and shoved him with surprising strength out the door.

Childermass landed on grass.

It was wet; he did not know why he noticed this, above all things.

He sat up, and glanced around. He was on a hill; the sky was an icy spring blue, and the wind cold. Somewhere in the distance, he could see the roofs and fences of a town - it might be the very town, he thought, that he had been stolen from.

"Do not forget, John Childermass," the man had said, "the promises you have made."

But what promise could he have made to a man he had never-

A memory swam up, traitorously: "He," he heard his own voice saying, "is a man in whose debt I would gladly find myself."

Childermass put his face in his hands. "Was I not?" he said to the grass and the earth, somewhat exasperatedly. "Was there something more you wanted of me which I would not have given already, and given gladly?"

There was a long and sunlit silence. The grass shivered in the wind.

"Aye, well, since when have you answered me straight," said John Childermass, and stood, and smiled to himself, and went to see what the morning would bring.