A Gentleman's Venture
"Perhaps we ought to reconsider what Prunella is likely to think of your surprise." For all that she had expressed cautious support of Zacharias's plans, Lady Wythe, rather surprisingly, now seemed on the verge of counselling further restraint. Her hands dipped further into her muff – a concession to the hard frost on the ground, and also an early Christmas gift from Zacharias – as though to partake of its soft warmth, but her action suggested to Zacharias that she was wringing her hands as well.
Zacharias had seldom known Lady Wythe to suggest retreat. Not one person who had witnessed her energetic attempts in helping Prunella with the new school, in seeking either funds or students, or both ("for why should their guardians not assist in defraying the expenses of educating their charges?"), nor, it must be said, anyone who was on sufficiently close acquaintance with Lady Wythe to know her firm opinions beneath her solicitous manner, would think it credible for Lady Wythe to demur for anything but the most urgent of reasons. "Has something happened?" he asked.
It had nearly four months since Zacharias returned to London from the countryside, leaving behind an enchanted garden of cabbages that had grown to the size of a carriage wheel, apple trees that fruited out of season, and pumpkins that, if hollowed out and dried, would provide very tolerable dwelling places for a series of small dogs. He had taught a farmer's boy (who had a smattering of ability) a few simple spells to maintain the garden for the duration of the Season, and given permission for the boy to charge a penny per person for curious visitors.
The only thing Zacharias bought back with him was a vivarium containing several sentient caterpillars. It was not at all the thing where souvenirs from one's countryside stay were concerned, but the caterpillar Gilbert insisted.
In short, Zacharias returned to a considerably different existence than had been his lot before. Freed from the duties of Royal Sorcerer, it only remained for Zacharias to continue his thaumaturgical studies and to entertain felicitations, both sincere and contrived, on his engagement to Prunella. And, as it transpired, to lend his name as potential instructor to the new school.
"Surely the Society is not against Prunella's plan to take in girls for the school?" Zacharias asked, once they were in Lady Wythe's drawing room. He was right in comprehending that there was more to Lady Wythe's hesitation. "I had thought that they were agreeable that the experiment to offer females instruction in using their magic, rather than restraining it, could be undertaken." There was a lively fire, and tea had been set out, but Lady Wythe's discomfort was occupying Zacharias's attention more than these cosy domestic arrangements.
"For all that they caution that a female's delicate constitution would be ruined by the practice of magic, yes," Lady Wythe said. "Not many would object to Prunella's plans, not after she has proved herself the most powerful magician in our land."
"Magicienne. And not openly, at least."
"No doubt some such as Josiah Cullip, I daresay, would need more persuading in the privacy of their own homes."
Only the manners that he had grown up with prevented Zacharias from snorting his disbelief before a gentlewoman such as Lady Wythe. The block on magic had been removed, yes, from all of England, which was a relief to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, but those such as Cullip, whose magical ability had been at a low ebb even before the block, persisted in attributing any lack in their endeavours to the fact to the presence of a Royal Sorceress, rather than to their deficiency in study or talent. "You are kind to say so, Madam. I am convinced that it will take a long time before the Society is fully convinced."
"Be that as it may," Lady Wythe said with an air of having heard more than was necessary about such views, "what concerns me is another matter altogether."
Zacharias arranged his expression to his most attentive.
"It comes to me from Daniel-"
Daniel Barbary, Lady Wythe's erstwhile suitor?
"-that certain members of the Society have learnt of Prunella's plan to take in not only girls, but also the laboring classes, and even the half-castes, into her school. They are opposed to the idea, especially now that the school is due to be open soon. I fear some sabotage is at hand."
Prunella, when told of Lady Wythe's concerns, threw a handful of her hairpins onto the dressing table, glanced at the way they fell, and said, "A few hecklers, all very minor."
Zacharias was conscious of his cheeks burning with colour as he unveiled the elegantly wrought nameplate with, it must be said, a wholly extravagant flourish of pyrotechnics and one extremely large butterfly – Gilbert had expressed a wish to see the warm south, and acquiesced to make his metamorphosis on the exact moment of Zacharias's fireworks.
Facing the ornate gate, Prunella stood very still, then spread her arms wide as though to embrace the whole of it. Tjandra and Youko turned with her. The familiars had attracted no little attention, and it seemed that the crowd checked itself at every movement from them. "Prunella's School for Magiciennes and Thaumaturges," she read, and the look that she aimed at Zacharias was gleeful. Zacharias resisted the urge to create a summer bouquet in the manner of a stage performer and present it to her. Prunella was more than capable of dramatic flourishes and this was her show.
Prunella straightened to her full height as she stood on the makeshift stage "I do not see the need to make a boring speech," she began peremptorily, then smiled in a very dazzling way, "but I am persuaded that you need to make a speech when you open a school. It would have been 'School of Magicians', but I pointed out that there were places of instruction for boys already, and I mean to open my school to girls, as well as those who would never have any proper instruction in magic."
There had already been more than a dozen girls who were prospective pupils, but as they walked through the gates, Lady Wythe made her entrance. She was accompanied by six more young persons, ranging in age from ten to fifteen, followed at her side, dressed in what were obviously new clothes, new cloaks and carrying bandboxes. They, too, were headed for the school.
Zacharias nodded to the youngest, a singing girl that he had found at the corner of Market Street, and gave a stern glare to a pair of brothers who had always been able to get away with wallet-snatching before they met Zacharias. He had interviewed each of the new students personally and found that they had the talent for magic, enough that would benefit from further study. It was also plain that none of them were among the gently-bred classes that were customarily admitted to the more exclusive places of learning, much less schools for magic.
Members of the Society that had gathered to await the end of speeches murmured among themselves. "Scandalous!" someone amongst the crowd eventually got up the gumption to shout. More mutters followed, louder now.
Josiah Cullip, who was among the crowd from the Society, protested to Prunella, "You cannot expect to have them sit together in the same classroom."
"Why not?" If it were possible, Prunella straightened even more. Zacharias narrowed his eyes. He could sense the enchantments that Prunella was twisting into shape now, but-
Tjandra and Youko swelled to twice their normal shapes.
The familiars had been mostly discreet, at least where members of the public could see. The notion of one person having two familiars was already so irregular as to be alarming, and now, to see them huge, like this, was enough to make Cullip turn pale.
"What matters in my school is that one has magical ability, and is desirous of learning how to use it," Prunella said, as the familiars came to stand behind her.
Zacharias abruptly noticed that Cullip was trying to catch the eye of John Edgeworth (also, surprisingly, in the crowd), and Edgeworth, true to his name, was making his way to the sides. As Zacharias watched, he slipped away altogether. Cullip's shoulders slumped.
Prunella glanced towards Zacharias, seeing in his expression what she herself must have scryed as well: any potential troublemakers had taken themselves off.
Prunella raised her chin. "As Royal Sorceress, I declare this school open!"