Two nights after their wedding and three nights after their first copulation, which had been somewhat more complicated and embarrassing than Prunella had really expected, Zacharias knocked on the door to her office and popped The Question.
"Would you kill me if you had to? For the office?"
She had of course considered the question, being someone who took great stock in thinking ahead, and being someone who had already foiled two assassination attempts. England's sorcerers were intelligent men with a great many talents, but it had not taken long for their awareness of her power to be superseded by their determination that a darker-skinned woman properly ought to have no power at all.
But Zacharias had been unclear. "To obtain the office, to keep it, or to protect what the office represents?"
"All three," Zacharias said. "Though you already have the office."
"I could lose it," she said. "And to answer your question, I wouldn't kill you just for the sake of being Sorcerer Royal, nor would I kill you to protect any number of the - gentlemen - who make up the Society. But to protect magic and those it ought to serve, I would. You know that."
He evinced no surprise, and nodded with calm certainty. He had known. "I just wanted to confirm."
It was nearly midnight. Zacharias had spent quite some time convalescing, though he wouldn't have used that word. Still, Prunella saw it for what it was. As a man who'd been run down, had his soul eaten, and been overextended repeatedly, he needed a break - and a long one, at that. Prunella, on the other hand, had had quite the opposite problem for many years. After the restraint of school, she was fairly bursting with energy and will.
But she had a husband, so she set her pen down. "Would you like me to come to bed?"
A sneaky sort of look made itself known on Zacharias' features. "It's not for me to say, Sorcerer Royal."
"Ha! As though that ever stopped you before." But she stood then, walked over to him, and kissed him. It held an easy sweetness. Prunella still felt a kind of terror of the various forms of power she wielded now, both with Zacharias and with England as a whole. She wanted it and embraced it, but at the same time felt rather like a lone tree facing an erupting volcano. Extending the metaphor, perhaps wielding so much power would burn her solid, fossilize her.
"Stop thinking," Zacharias said. His fingers curled against her neck. "Come to bed."
He'd learned several tricks in the last three nights, so Prunella acquiesced with anticipation.
The next morning, as Zacharias kissed her neck and sunlight shone on them both, a pixie appeared in the air.
"Excuse me, ma'am," it said.
It carried a very large bludgeon, Prunella noticed. She pressed her hand against Zacharias, who obligingly moved away.
"Is this for my ears only, or can he stay?" Prunella said.
"Well, ma'am," it said, "technically it's not for your ears at all, ma'am, on account of technically I'm here to kill you."
"They tried this one already," Prunella said. "A week before my wedding, in fact."
"Yes," the pixie said. "That was my brother Malcolm. Only he was weak-willed, the man said, and so I ought to try as well." Its wings drooped a bit. "I s'pose you'll kill me then, like Malcolm."
"An odd name for a pixie," Zacharias said.
The pixie's head shot up then, and fixed him with a glare. "Tell me your name then, and I'll go to work." It raised the bludgeon.
Prunella understood a bit of bloody-mindedness, and any pixie that could shrug off an assassin's magic was quite a bit stronger than the average magical creature. "Please don't bludgeon my husband. What should I call you?"
"I'm Rosemary, ma'am."
"Rosemary. Charming. I'm not surprised you're a woman, you know. I'm sure the man who did this to you underestimated you."
The pixie's wings whizzed a bit faster, in clear distress. "It's not like that with us. We've got five categories. I'm a Leaf, that's almost the highest, so I'm stronger, but -"
"I'd love to hear the full explanation," Prunella said, "but first I'm going to need you to deliver a message to the man who sent you. And then come back immediately, do you hear? Or I'll let it be known you're not in my employ, and, well." She shrugged in the direction of her dragons and let murder be implied.
"Right away, ma'am." The pixie disappeared.
They had about fifteen minutes, by Prunella's estimate. She turned to Zacharias. "Do the bit with your fingers that you did last night, only do it faster this time." She pulled him to her, kissing him as he happily obeyed.
They'd decoupled and dressed when Rosemary appeared again. "It's done, ma'am," she said.
"Did he curse you?"
Prunella squinted. "And a nasty one at that," she said, and set about unweaving it. "You will tell me who he is, of course?"
"Lord Catskill. He told me to tell you this time, else I wouldn't have known."
"Ah," Prunella said. Lord Catskill. Not a name she knew - but then, there were plenty of names she hadn't bothered to learn. Still, a man who could enchant a pixie was powerful enough that she ought to have known him. "Will you tell me where he lives?"
Rosemary did so, and thus Prunella had her first task of the day.
Forty minutes later, she sat in Catskill's appallingly decorated parlor, sipping on tea that had contained three poisons before she'd treated it. The man who sat across from her was thin, wiry, light-skinned, and altogether too powerful. Prunella understood again that she did not yet have a wide enough net of informants.
"Now, miss - ah, ma'am. What is the purpose of your visit?"
The tea really was awful. She set it down. "I'd like you to stop trying to murder me," she said.
He paled. It was a fascinatingly comprehensive process, for a man who'd already started off so pale. "Murder? Me? I -"
"You sent a pixie to my home." Prunella tried to smile, but then she thought of Zacharias and the question he'd asked her. The smile failed to arrive. "To kill me."
She saw the moment he understood that he couldn't talk his way out of her anger. But of course, being a man - and not even that! Being an English man, a white man, a man who was so utterly incapable of considering that he might be a blustering sack of foolishness before he was in any way a serious opponent - given all that, he tried an argumentative strategy that wasn't just begging.
"I'm not the only one," he said. "As I'm sure you know."
She would not purse her lips like the schoolteacher she'd once supposed she would be. She would not purse her lips.
Oh, hell. She'd seen the witches of Janda Baik purse their lips. She did so, and fixed him with a glare.
Somehow, that emboldened him. "If it's not me, it'll be someone else."
"Who tries to kill me?"
He sneered. "Who succeeds."
"Fascinating," Prunella said. And then, having learned the art of pointed silence, she sat and stared at him.
He didn't squirm immediately, to his credit. But he eventually gave in to temptation, as Prunella had known he would. He twiddled his thumbs and avoided her gaze, licked his lips and bit his cheek, and then finally said, "Well, then. Are you going to kill me?"
"I thought about it. It would certainly end things. For now. Until the next person, as you so eruditely pointed out."
He couldn't quite hide the gleam of anticipation in his eye. "The Sorcerer Royal needs to be strong."
"Indeed, the Sorceress Royal does," Prunella said. "Do you doubt my strength, then?"
"How can I not? You're a woman."
"A woman with several dragons at her beck and call," Prunella said. "Youko, show yourself."
Youko did so, becoming visible curled around Prunella's chair. Catskill paled and jumped, making a ghastly choking sound. "I - that - thing!"
"That thing, as you put it, does what I say - and I do love him for it. As do the others." Prunella raised her eyebrows. "Now, I have some ideas for how you'll make amends to me. Unless you'd like me to just have Youko gobble you up. He's always hungry; that's why I brought him."
She saw then that Catskill understood he'd been beaten. "Tell me what you want me to do."
"...and so, it is my expert opinion, being a student of psychology and a practitioner of magic, that our Sorceress Royal is the best for the position, and indeed prevents a strong danger from foreign powers from manifesting in these very halls. Thank you." Catskill sat down.
No one applauded, of course; that wasn't surprising. Defending women wasn't popular among this set, and to add to that, Catskill had a habit of droning on. But he was persuasive in spite of his lack of public speaking skills, and - perhaps more importantly - he possessed a fearsome fortune that the Society had need of. He was, in other words, the perfect champion to solidify Prunella's power. She glowed in the knowledge of it.
"Damn you," a bit of magic said in her ear. But it vanished as soon as it was spoken, for she'd won, and everyone in the room knew it.
Or she thought they did, right until she went home and found Zacharias doing battle with a creature that was not a dragon, but desperately wanted to be, and so very closely resembled one.
"Blast," Prunella said. "You there! Stop this immediately!"
"I've got it well in hand," Zacharias said. He was lying, of course. The not-dragon was very focused on destroying him.
"No you don't," Prunella said.
"I do -" The not-dragon blew an extremely persuasive blast of fire. "I don't," he admitted. "Help?"
Prunella hissed a curse, of the sort that contained words deadly enough that even she didn't want to think about them too hard. The burning green fire began at the not-dragon's tail, and stopped at its stomach, largely because the not-dragon promptly proceeded to explode.
"Gah," Zacharias said as a fine light blue mist covered him.
But Prunella had no time for his complaints. "You almost died, you fool," she said, and ran over to him, dipping him and kissing him soundly on the lips.
He stopped complaining then, and they continued kissing as she pulled him back upright. Magic sparked in the air around them, only some of it the worryingly evil residue of some fool's attempt at an assassination.
"You lied, you know," he said when they pulled apart.
"I did not!"
"You said you wouldn't save me."
"I'm doing very well at keeping the office, thank you," Prunella said. "Would you like to hear how?"
And so Prunella told him.