"Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents..."
From far-off hills one could see the university huddled around the river, watermeadow-ringed, its filigreed spires reaching slowly into the sky like mushrooms springing up after rain. Whether one came from Glastonbury or Arden or the wilderness of the Wirral, one always went down to the university, submerging oneself in years of reading and study.
They said that questions pooled there unanswered, brought with students on the rain, or on the tide of that tideless river, so that one could stay for ten years—or a hundred—and only gather confusion like a stone gathers moss. They said that a kraken slept curled at the foundations of the university, waiting for the deluge that would swallow the world. They said that one would have to be a fool to go to Oxenfloode.
On the ground a slug trailed on its slow errands, leaving behind a glistening map of its journeys. Robin looked down at his own feet, expecting to see a spiderweb line that connected him to his faraway home. But all he saw was the brown mud on the leather of his boots.
Abruptly he stood up. He wasn't a schoolboy anymore—not by a few months at least—and he told himself he wouldn't stand to be kept waiting like one. Then he rubbed self-consciously at the seat of his trousers. The wooden bench where he'd been sitting was bright green with algae, the bronze plaque so verdegrised that one could only make out the outlines of its Greek letters.
In Staircase XIII, the oak door of his new tutor's office was still stubbornly shut. Robin went back out and impulsively stepped into the undergrowth in front of the window. Holly scratched at him cruelly. He pressed his face to the green glass and peered inside.
The first thing he saw was a girl sitting on an overstuffed floral sofa. She froze when she spotted him, her small oval face going even paler. She attempted to ignore him, failed. Robin pulled a face. The girl shuddered slightly, turning her worried gaze towards the room's other occupant, who sat in a large wing-backed chair by the fireplace. All that was visible of him was his trousers and his sandy hair.
Nothing happened. The girl carried on talking, though her voice was so quiet that Robin couldn't make out her words through the bubbled glass. Her hands clenched in the flannel of her skirt. The figure in the wing-backed chair sat still, apparently ignorant of the drama playing itself out.
Robin had begun trying to extricate himself from the holly when a flash of movement caught his eye: the girl fumbling with her essay, distracted. While she was looking down the man in the chair leant slowly forward. He caught Robin's eye. Winked. Withdrew.
Robin dropped out of sight, his hands digging into the damp leaf mould.
When the girl emerged ten minutes later he was lounging on the staircase's threshold, his dirty hands thrust into his pockets. As she passed he began to whistle quietly to himself.
She turned to glare. Her eyes were welling with tears.
"You made me look a perfect idiot," she said in a hot undertone. Then she flounced out into the quad.
"You had better come in," said the man standing in the open doorway.
Robin followed his new tutor into the office. He sat down on the floral sofa but the man ignored him, riffling through pamphlets and humming a shapeless tune.
"Aren't you going to ask me my name?" complained Robin after a long silence.
"Robin Goodfellow," said the man instantly. He settled himself easily into his chair, extending a slim hand. His voice was lighter than one might think, almost silvery. His sandy hair fell down over his high forehead. He wore wire-rimmed spectacles. Behind them his eyes were invisible. "Your reputation precedes you."
"My friends call me Puck, sir."
"Puck, then. But aren't you going to ask me my name?"
"Dr. Oberon," said Robin instantly.
His tutor chuckled. "Come to that, you can call me Christopher. But haven't we gone at this all wrong? No matter. Will you have some sloe gin?"
While Oberon poured ruby-coloured liquid from a sticky decanter, Robin looked around the room. It was almost a den, half below ground. Scattered rugs accented rather than concealed the bare flagstone floor, grey and smoothed and hollowed like pebbles on the beach. A fire crackled in the grate. Books and scrolls were piled everywhere. Water droplets condensed on the inside of the casement windows, rolling slowly down onto the whitewashed walls. Outside, twilight was falling.
Oberon steepled his fingers. "So, you want to study magic."
The upholstery of his chair was so faded that it was impossible to tell what colour it had once been, patches upon patches upon patches. Over one of its wings hung a voluminous academic gown. Oberon himself wore brown corduroy trousers and blazer over a Fair Isle jumper. The two shot glasses of sloe gin sat on the table by his elbow, untouched.
"I have already, sir," said Robin, swallowing so hard that he thought his Adam's apple would tear through the skin of his throat. "At school. A little, anyway. Shall I do some for you? I can... I can sour beer if you like. Not so sure about sloe gin..."
"Mmm, perhaps," said Oberon noncommittally. He took a sheet from a pile of papers and handed it to Robin. It was blank.
"Secret writing? A charm of appearances?"
"No. It's blank."
Wind guttered, sending smoke down the chimney.
"Oh," said Robin.
"This is your essay for next week. Or it will be once you've started writing it, which I trust that you will do soon. Followers of postmagicism argue that magic is dead. Is this a fair assessment? That'll do to start off with. When you write it, be sure to address the issue of how the natural and the unnatural are constructed in the epistemology of magic."
"And spells?" asked Robin hopefully. He thought that he had once known what epistemology meant, but he couldn't swear to it.
Oberon sighed. "Spells. Titania will take you for spells; she does Applied Magic. She's up in the Left-Hand Tower but she's terribly busy at the moment, or so she tells me. She'll send you a note. In the mean time, to the library with you. Come back at this time next week, if you've something to report."
Robin racked his brain for a question that could keep him in this cozy little room, by Oberon's side as holly leaves tapped on the darkening windowpanes.
"Anything in particular you'd like me to say in my essay, sir? Other than the bit about epistemology?"
"Something original. And do call me Christopher." He had begun to rise from his chair but he froze halfway. "Now that you mention it, there is one thing. It hasn't been spread about—and I'd prefer very much if you didn't—but the Master of college is very ill. Nothing to do with you, you understand. Nothing. But when you see Titania—keep it in mind."
And with that the interview was over. Robin cast a regretful look at the sloe gin and went out alone into the wind and the dark.
Down a short hall, across a little rooftop quad and up a second staircase which did not officially seem to exist. Halfway up it turned at right angles to itself, changing to creaking, sagging wood and becoming half as wide. At that point hung the sign, painted in white script on shiny black paint: "19. Robin Goodfellow." And at the top was Robin's room.
He didn't mind that no one could find it. In fact he enjoyed the confusion. He would lean over his own private railing and listen to the creak of tentative steps wandering past his little stair. If he were in a mood for company—or if he had drink to share; it was almost the same thing—he would shout down a welcome. If not he would let the hopeful guest carry on down the hall, which came to an end at a door marked "do not open under any circumstances" and had a small, oddly placed window which opened out onto a blank view of mossy slates. There was a kitchen down there too, where the mathematicians made Pot Noodles and cheese toasties. Robin could make milk curdle just by looking at it, so he thought it best not to risk cooking.
His room was his own small kingdom, with its narrow, sagging bed tucked under the eaves and a profusion of small, unhelpfully shaped cupboards. No matter that the once cream-coloured walls had grown dingy and shadowed with time, haunted by the ghosts of posters past. Or that one of the floorboards had a missing knothole, leaving a hole so large that he could stick his big toe into it right up to the knuckle. The room was obviously a centre of magical energy, for upon it converged more rooflines than it had walls.
Most importantly it had a window seat and a double dormer window overlooking Front Quad. From that comfortable perch he could see right into the Porters' Lodge and even a patch of the street beyond. He watched all the college coming and going: students wheeling their heavy bicycles, tutors rushing to lectures with gowns flying, even the Mechanicals with their tool belts and blue jumpsuits.
Late at night, when the full moon offered its illumination, the view was best of all. Who came in late and whom did they bring with them? Robin saw all of the comings and goings, dons and students alike. If he laid his cheek against the right side of the window he could just see the Left-Hand Tower where Titania did her work. At the very top of the tower glowed a faint green light. There was no light in its right-handed twin.
Robin watched the silent college, hands round a cold and milkless cup of tea, until his breath misted over the windowpane.
Not for Robin the long, chill, high-ceilinged rooms where scholars pored endlessly over crabbed manuscripts. He played with a pencil, tossing it artfully in the air and catching it behind his back, but earned nothing but dirty looks from the librarians. Postmagicism: A Very Short Introduction sat on the table in front of him, unenlightening, unopened and unimpressed.
As soon as no one was looking he nipped through a back door marked "Stacks."
Large tracts of the Pondeian were still unmapped. Paperbound tracts were better, but even the small pamphlets were only spottily catalogued. Librarians had been lost during some of the more ambitious cataloguing expeditions and not all those who returned had been in their right mind. Right inside the dim stack Robin could see cages lining one whole outer wall. He wondered whether they were meant to protect the librarians from the books or the books from the librarians.
Up and down, up and down. Robin rambled up and down more staircases than he could count. Great, wide stone staircases meant for readers that swept up majestically before depositing you nowhere in particular. Narrow staff staircases like gangways on a ship that led somewhere very specific but utterly unpredictable. Intermediate staircases whose walls had been painted a pale, institutional green and which smelt inexplicably of boiled cabbage.
The library got bigger as it went deeper underground. Some of the lower levels were plunged into a darkness so absolute that Robin didn't dare venture beyond the circle of light around the stairwell's open door. One level was entirely empty of books. All Robin could see were the ghostly frames of cages. In the distance he could hear the insistent drip-drip of water.
He followed a staircase down and down until he came to a flooded level. Dark water filled with leaves lapped at the stair on which he stood. Robin shuddered, thinking of the tentacles of the kraken, and fled.
He noted it all down. The district full of empty grey boxes. Shelves filled with dingy bits of string, each tagged with their own cataloguing number. Maps so big that they covered whole floors. The blooms of mould and the books that shed their covers in his hands, moulting for the winter. The paper on which he should have been writing his essay soon became smudged with the dust of leather, telling its own story on its own terms.
On the day before his tutorial Robin finally made his way to the very top of the library, a tiny reading room sitting jauntily on the roof of the New Pond. Its windows overlooked the spires of the pearly grey city. Robin peered through the drops on the pane, squinting through his fingers, but the shape of the city remained stubbornly indistinct, just beyond his grasp.
After the chill of the stacks, the reading room was unnaturally warm. No one at the issue desk, where a calendar showed a date nine months earlier. No readers at the long tables, where signs forlornly warned that books were not to be left overnight. They had been ignored. Although the shelves of the reading room were empty, its tables were piled high with leatherbound volumes, some no bigger than a hand, all of them with spines hanging loose, covers askew, crumbling away into dust. It seemed that the reading room was abandoned.
Robin yawned and curled up in a corner like a cat. Here there were no librarians to roust him out. Here all the books were written in alphabets that he couldn't read, artfully shaped characters freighted with an obscure significance. A book open on his lap, shedding companionably onto his corduroys, and he drifted off to sleep.
He was woken again by voices. Two people strolling slowly into the room, the swish of academic gowns. Robin crawled under the nearest table, screened from view by the stacks of books.
"It's a tragedy," said a woman's sombre voice. "I crossed India and all of the Orient collecting these books on behalf of the Pondeian, on behalf of this library. And now it's all being broken up and scattered, for no reason other than that he wants to demonstrate his power over me."
Another voice, older, male. "Is that what it is?"
"What else could it be? Reasons of sound scholarship? Modernisation?" She laughed bitterly. "No one has ever advocated modernity in Oxenfloode without having a powerful ulterior motive."
The old man harrumphed. "Very true."
"And now he wants the boy. He means to play chess with me, but one can't capture a piece if it isn't on the board. Whatever he does to the library, he'll never have my boy."
"You would give up all of your collections in order to keep one solitary student?"
"I met his mother in India. She was my student too. She was very dear to me; half of what I've written was hers, more than half. I promised her that I would look after him."
A speaking silence.
"As for our friend," she added, "I can only hope that one of the first years will catch his eye instead. He's only too susceptible to distractions."
"Indeed," said the man.
"Shall we go downstairs? I find the atmosphere here rather desolate."
After they left, Robin could hardly remain. The little abandoned library—minutes earlier a refuge—now seemed forlorn and forsaken, its slowly disintegrating volumes abandoned a long way from home. Robin closed the book that he had been holding on his lap and carefully placed it on an empty shelf. Then he stood up, stretched his legs, and went out to the long staircase.
Just when he had indeed abandoned hope, a small note appeared, written on cream-coloured stationery:
See me in my room in the Left-Hand Tower, 11am tomorrow.
Though immediately struck with fear at the sight of the note, Robin nonetheless spent the next twenty-four hours breathlessly awaiting his first meeting with the fabled Titania. Next morning he went up the spiral staircase to her room, taking the steps two or three at a time. He wondered whether he would discover the source of the faint green light that shone in the tower by night.
Titania, whom her fondest students called "Queen of the Fairies," wore an oversized beige cardigan over leather trousers. When Robin walked into the tower room she was gazing away from the door, poised with wand in hand as if she were just on the verge of casting a complex spell. She heard his footfalls before he spoke and tucked the wand away in the pocket of her cardigan.
"Do you dance?" she asked, glancing in his direction.
Robin shook his head in bewilderment, then sat down where she had gestured.
"No matter," said Titania. "How about an easier question to begin with? I suppose Oberon has been teaching you that magic is dead?"
"In a way he has..."
It was difficult to say exactly what Oberon had been teaching him. Somehow his tutor seemed to have a way of leading a student towards particular conclusions without ever saying anything to commit himself one way or the other. At school Robin would not have been able to imagine being taught by someone who never lectured, but merely asked questions. Deceptively simple questions at that.
"And do you believe it?" pursued Titania. "That is to say, do you see evidence of it? When you look around you, do you get the impression that magic is indeed absent from the modern world?"
Whatever might be said about Oberon's teaching, it did not rely heavily upon looking around outside of books or libraries.
"I hadn't... I hadn't thought of it that way," said Robin. "Though I did read some interesting things last week about constructions of the natural and the unnatural..."
"You won't be doing any reading with me this year," Titania replied, sighing. "Shall we try again? Does it seem plausible to you, personally, that magic has gone from Oxenfloode?"
"Not really," Robin admitted. Saying it felt like a betrayal of his other tutor. "I only argued it because I thought it would make a more interesting essay; Oberon says there's nothing worse than being bored stiff by your own ideas."
Titania smiled a thin smile. "Good. Good. You won't be doing essays for me either, so you needn't worry about interesting arguments. Here in the Left-Hand Tower we do problem sets. Learn the first five spells from the text and we'll go over them next week."
Only after leaving the tower did Robin realise why her voice had sounded so familiar. And that he had not remembered to look for the mysterious green light.
All kinds of students came to college. Serenely, imperturbably, it accommodated them all. One heard about—but never saw—students who traded years of their lives for hours in the day, so that they became master magicians in three years but never lived to graduate. Others followed the ancient rhythms of the day and week and term, migrating in good-natured groups from dining hall to common room to essay and back again. They studied no more and no less than they needed to, and, like themselves, their ideas traveled in flocks.
And then there were those who hardly seemed to work at all.
After his initial explorations in the library, Robin found that he had lost all interest in matters academical. He meant to work in his room but he only ended up gazing out the window or dropping small screwed-up bits of paper down the knothole to see whether the mysterious void below could ever be filled. He meant to go out to the library but waylaid himself instead, sitting on the edge of the bathtub watching the mathematicians bicker over the tiling of the bathroom floor. Overnight the tiles seemed to have turned hexagonal. Perhaps the mathematicians were doing work after all.
"I should be writing my essay," said Robin with a sigh.
He made no move to go. He could see his disconsolate face in the bath taps, distorted, half obscured by soap spots.
"Everyone says you're Oberon's favourite," said one of the mathematicians, a long jumper sleeve trailing in a puddle. "Does he even care if you do work?"
Robin flushed, flattered and indignant. It had never occurred to him that what went on in that little study between himself and his tutor would be of interest to anyone other than the prim girl who had her tutorial before him. As he always saw Oberon alone, he hadn't the slightest idea whether he was good, bad or indifferent in comparison to other students. He wasn't sure that he wanted to know.
"He cares whether I'm thinking. He says the essay is just a signifier. It isn't applied magic, you know, it's much more philosophical than that. Oberon is a postmagicist, really."
"Titania cares whether I work or not," he added sheepishly. "I have to do five spells for her by tomorrow. Not short ones either. I haven't started yet."
"Those two," said the other mathematician, the redhead. "What stories. It's amazing really that you have both of them at once. How random."
The be-jumpered mathematician nodded emphatically.
"What about them?" said Robin jealously. He hated the idea that other people knew more about Oberon and Titania than him. He felt that perhaps he ought to spend more time listening at doors.
"They say they used to be married till she got tired of him chasing students."
"They say they're still married."
"They say he's queer."
"They say she is too."
"They say there's a reason he makes all his students read Discipline and Punish."
"They say they hate each other."
"They say he wants to be the next Master," finished one.
"They say she does too," added the other.
Robin found their overlapping and partially contradictory stories oddly reassuring. It was not, he realised, that he objected to other people knowing about Oberon and Titania. It was rather that he wanted to believe, on some level, in their ultimate unknowability. He wanted to preserve the mystery. If one's tutors were as human and fallible as you or I, then magic truly was dead.
He got up from the edge of the tub. "I've got to go. I'm going now."
"Off to your spells then?" the redhead asked with only mild interest.
"Not at all. I'm going to the pub."
With his afternoon decided thus, Robin felt much better. As he left, out of the corner of his eye, he couldn't help but notice that the bathroom tiles had gone triangular.
Robin loved the place. It was low and smoky and the magic practiced there was not the kind taught in college. Oxenfloode was not a city known for its friendliness to undergraduates, but most of the drinkers here were traveling bargemen who would be far down the river by the time that the sun made its late rising.
"It'll be a hard winter this year," said one old riverman who propped up a corner of the public bar. "Can tell that much already. Puts me in mind of that one, years back now, river rose so fast that a barge broke loose while the chap were having his pint pulled. Came right up against the bridge here."
He gestured towards the wide stone bridge against whose side the Rats' Hostel sheltered.
"Felt the whole building shake, didn't we? Barge stayed there for three days, till the water got so high it went right over the bridge. It sailed off downstream and was never heard from again."
"By our lady," said Robin appreciatively. "Is that so?"
The riverman drained his pewter tankard and held it silently out to the landlord.
"Ain't that right, Ken?" he said as his pint was being pulled.
"Barge up against the bridge, fifty years ago now if it's a day."
"Bad winter that was. This one'll be worse by all accounts."
Robin was burning with curiosity but he waited for the pint to settle before he spoke. "But how do you know?"
The two men looked at one another.
"Just gets into your bones, doesn't it," said the bargeman.
"University used to manage the river back in the day," said Ken, the landlord. "Took some responsibility. Now it doesn't take a bargeman to tell that the whole ruddy thing's a shambles. I started life as a porter, don't mind saying, but I got out. Best decision I ever made. What they do up there in them towers no one knows, but anyone can tell they're stirring things up that ought not to be stirred. One day they'll go too far, mark my words. And the kraken'll be the judge of that."
Now they both looked at Robin, suddenly a university man once more, as if the unpracticed spells of a first year could waken the kraken from the depths of its sleep. Robin was reminded how little he still knew about the magics of the university. Could he be expected to play its spokesman here, amid the rusticity of the town? What could he say that would speak to boats or bargemen? What, after all, had he learned?
Swallowing down a rote defense of his tutor, Robin bought another round. Conversation swirled around him; he let himself be caught in its eddies and dragged away by the undertow. It was very late indeed by the time that he stumbled out the door of the Rats' Hostel and into the chill of the town.
It was a foggy night and street lamps cast awkward golden shadows against the city's walls. Everything seemed haloed and bleared, like an old sepia lithograph. Cobblestones thrust themselves insistently against the balls of Robin's feet.
In Radcliffe Square the rippling of the cobbles only intensified, like waves picking up on a broad reach of sea. Robin pitched forward and fell right into a puddle. Briefly, before passing out, he managed to wonder how he would ever be able to climb over the college wall.
The front gate was long past shut. And Robin knew no more.
And that was the whistling of a kettle. Robin forced his eyes open.
"So you're finally awake," said a lightly amused voice. "One was beginning to wonder whether you'd hit your head rather than simply passed out drunk. Tea? Toast? Eggs?"
It was Oberon's voice. Robin was in Oberon's study, lying on the floral divan with an academic gown laid over him. Daylight—sunshine, even—was filtering through the curtains.
"I can explain, sir," said Robin hoarsely, still groping in his own mind for the answer. Without an essay to hand, he felt lost. And under the academic gown it seemed that he wasn't wearing as much as he remembered wearing last night. "I can..."
"It doesn't seem to me that there's much of a mystery. I happened to be coming through Radcliffe Square at an unsociable hour of the night myself, when I noticed that the boy passed out in a puddle was one of my students. Luckily I have a key to the back gate, as you were in no state to climb over the wall in Back Quad. I assume that was your original intention?"
"It might have been..." admitted Robin.
It was an odd reflection of a tutorial. Robin on the sofa; Oberon in his chair. Probing questions and awkward answers. But the early morning light was spilling in and Oberon's sandy hair was still rumpled with sleep. He was wearing a silk dressing gown with a vividly coloured peacock pattern.
"Now, did you say you wanted eggs?"
Robin abruptly realised that he was famished. "Yes please."
So he sat there as his tutor cooked him breakfast, pulling the scratchy gown closer around him. It smelt of long use, pipe smoke and candle wax and the leather of books all blended together. When Oberon was lost in the brewing of tea, Robin weakened and buried his face in the fabric. He felt like a little boy. Abashed, he pretended to be studying the label instead. Crow and Ravensbourne, the same small shop where Robin had bought his own (far inferior) commoners' gown. But instead of writing his name on the label, Oberon had drawn a complicated sigil. Who knew what that sigil might have been proof against. And whether it still was.
"Of all the mischief you've been up to this term, catching you out after toll of bell seems almost a disappointment." Oberon poured two cups of tea, delicate china, and handed Robin a plate of toast with perfectly scrambled eggs. "In your state at least. You might have led me more of a chase."
Robin shook his head in confusion. Was he meant to apologise and, if so, for what? At his old school he would probably have been asked by now to take down his trousers.
Oberon seemed almost amused. "Now, let's see... the night climbing expeditions, the mysterious wood pigeons in hall, poor Murgatroyd's ointment, the incident of the blossoming termcards... I assume that I'm not doing you an injustice?"
All had indeed been Robin's work, achieved (or so he had thought) in the utmost secrecy over the past few weeks. Watching tutors was a normal avocation, indulged covertly (or not so covertly) by most of the undergraduates. To have been watched by one, outside the circumscribed hours of the tutorial, was an experience beyond Robin's ken. An assumed veil of disinterest had been torn away and he felt laid bare by Oberon's sudden scrutiny.
"As I'm not Dean this year," Oberon continued, "I thankfully have no need to take official notice of any of it. Academically speaking, some might consider it a misapplication of effort, but I'm rather impressed by your ingenuity. I only hope that in the future you'll occasionally consider employing it to make yourself useful."
Heart and head pounding together, Robin blessed the Rats' Hostel and its strong beer. "Anything, sir. I'd put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes!"
"Not this minute," said Oberon wryly. "But keep your footing if you ever find yourself on another rooftop, and keep your eyes open as well."
"I always do."
"I have no trouble in believing that." Oberon paused. "Now, your clothes are in rather a state, but I have a tutorial at nine, so perhaps you'd best start getting your things together."
The things in question were hung over Oberon's fire screen, muddy in patches and dripping occasionally onto the stone floor. That small pool of Radcliffe Square water seemed as wide as an ocean, and it put Robin in mind of something.
"If I can, sir, there was one question I wanted to ask you. When I was in the Rats' Hostel last night, a bargeman was talking to me about the river and the university..."
Oberon sighed. "Ah yes, the river."
"Is it true?" pursued Robin. "Do you really control all of that?"
"Not personally. Does the university? Yes, in a manner of speaking, but things have rather been let slide. For centuries, in some cases, though that can hardly be considered to be my responsibility. The college river committee is meant to meet termly. It hasn't done so yet and, given the current circumstances, I'm not at all sure that it will do. How bargemen get wind of this sort of thing, I haven't the slightest inkling, but gossip seems to be shipped by their navigation faster than grain or coal."
Robin had stopped paying attention partway through Oberon's explanation. Instead he had begun to imagine Oberon standing in one of the college towers, conducting the river with his wand as majestically and irresistibly as if it had been an orchestra.
"Are you chair of the committee?"
"No." Now he sounded short. "Titania is chair. Now get your things and go, Robin Goodfellow."
It was still early in the morning. He tiptoed past the silent bursary without a stir. He was nearly home and dry when the redheaded mathematician looked out from the kitchen, a cup of tea in hand.
"Hullo there. You're early. Or should I say late?"
Robin had intended to admit nothing. But he found himself leaning against the kitchen counter eating yet more toast while he told the story of the Rats' Hostel, and Radcliffe Square, and how he had woken in Oberon's study.
"And he seems to know everything about me," he concluded.
"Of course he does. He's Oberon, isn't he? But you've missed out the important bit: did he take advantage of you?"
"No," admitted Robin. "Unfortunately."
"Well, keep at it. He'll weaken eventually." The mathematician took a thoughtful sip of tea. "Or perhaps he's still mooning after that student of Titania's."
"Haven't you heard? I keep forgetting you're only a first year. My tute partner last year had the most enormous crush on Titania. She used to hang about in the lodge hoping to 'accidentally' run into her, that sort of thing. She was a third year and she wanted to stay on to do alchemy with her. Just to gaze into her eyes etcetera.
"But there was this boy who was apparently the second coming of Isaac Newton. Oberon thought he was going to do his thesis on postmagicism but he somehow got swept up into Titania's clutches and it turned out he was going to do alchemy after all. The trump card was that his mum had studied with Titania, came all the way from Delhi to be at Oxenfloode. Now she lives in Silchester."
Robin wondered that anyone expected first years to spend time in the library when there was so much to learn in college. He nodded knowingly, as if Silchester explained everything.
"I suppose you won't have seen him around college much this year," the mathematician continued. "He spends all his time in the High-Energy Magic building. But apparently Oberon's offered him this big scholarship if he'll go back to postmagicism. And now Oberon and Titania don't speak."
Robin nodded again. "Do you know anything about the river committee?"
"What does the river need with a committee?" said the mathematician.
Those shadowy shapes crowding around the old Master's lodgings were fellows, not students. Even by the dark of the moon he could make out the shape of their gowns. There were candles and torches in hands and low murmurs of concern. Robin strained his eyes looking for Oberon but he couldn't pick him out amidst so many others.
The scene was punctuated by the ceremonial report of fireworks, strange cracking sobs echoing against the stones of the quad. Figures cast sudden distorted shadows, haloed in sickly washes of pink or green.
The old Master was dead. They were carrying him from the house where he had lived for nearly a century, a small dark shape within so many arms. They would wrap him in a shroud and send him floating down the river to the sea, trailing his gown behind him.
After the procession had passed, Robin laid himself in bed again. But the murmuring of voices outside his window continued and it carried him off to sleep like a stream. In his dreams he drifted after the Master into strange shadowed lands.
When he woke again the sun was shining, casting light through the curtains onto the faded walls. The night seemed both very clear and very distant. Robin was reluctant to get out of bed, to lose those tenuous images of shadows and candlelight that swam in his mind. In the back of his mind there was a small noise, an insistent ringing of tiny bells. Or was it in his mind? Robin's curiosity finally overcame him. He leapt out of bed and went to the window.
It was only Titania and the college Morris troupe, dancing on the green grass of the quad as they did every Tuesday morning. Even so there was something faintly sinister about the familiar jingle of bells as they arranged themselves for another figure. Perhaps it just seemed incongruous with the bare November branches hanging over the quad. Perhaps it was Robin's memories of the night before.
Titania had asked him to join the Morris dancers. He had said no and he wondered now whether he ought not to have. At the time the practices had seemed too early in the morning, for one thing, and too much like something his father would have done, for another. Yet there had also been the fear that joining a society of which Titania was the patron would somehow mean aligning himself with her. As if he could betray Oberon with the wave of a silk handkerchief. It was impossible to imagine Oberon dancing the Morris.
But there he was anyway, coming out of the lodge, a stack of letters tucked under his arm. He wore a bright fuchsia scarf and tossed the end of it around his neck disdainfully. As he approached, the Morris jingled its way to a standstill, like clockwork winding down.
Oberon said something sharply to Titania. Despite cracking his casement window open, Robin couldn't make out their words, but the gestures spoke eloquently enough. The way Titania stepped to the side as Oberon came forward, never taking her eyes away from his face. The lift of her chin. The other Morris dancers watching with wide eyes. Oberon's laugh, bereft of all merriment.
Oberon said something else; Titania stalked suddenly away, leaving her handkerchief and gown abandoned on the grass. The circle scattered. Oberon headed towards Back Quad at a leisurely stroll, opening his letters as he went. His whistling carried all the way to Robin's attic room.
From that moment Robin knew that Oberon and Titania were at war.
After a week Robin could barely remember the last time he had seen blue sky. It had been just a glimpse in a sea of dark grey. He had wondered whether the weather was clearing, whether he should wait another few minutes before going out. His attic window looked west and since then he had seen not a trace of blue, only raindrops rolling down the windowpane. The whole city seemed blurred with the rain. Nothing was clear anymore.
When the river first overflowed its banks, no one took heed. A few unfashionable streets at its margin were submerged, brick terraces on a narrow eyot where no students lived. For a few days Robin could still wade to the Rats' Hostel, splashing as he went, watching the rippling reflections of the gas lamps in the dark and spreading waters. Then the waters rose again and it was cut off from everyone but the watermen. Robin had a feeling that they liked it better that way.
The water meadows disappeared beneath the wave. The river was suddenly at the end of Wide Street. Students went to gaze at it, linking arms, laughing, invulnerable. Bicycles cut narrow paths through the shallows.
The river lapped at the threshold of the college, insinuated itself into basements. Down the street in the New Pond, the librarians were forming human chains, handing the most valuable books up the stairs to safety. Emergency spells were put into place, wards clanging shut like iron doors. And still the water rose.
It conquered the great double step up to the lodge. A trickle, a tiny rivulet, began to run in the channel between two of the paving stones, dripping down into the grass of Front Quad. A small puddle formed. Ducks took up residence even before there was room to paddle, biding their time. They hadn't long to wait.
Though bargemen might grumble about the irresponsibility of the university, it had been built upon ancient and magical foundations. As the flood waters seeped down into basements and sub-basements, trickling down to the very roots of the college, its stones began to stretch and grow. From spires to roots it reached slowly upwards, staying ahead of the rising water. Centuries ago a passing traveler had compared the buildings of Oxenfloode to mushrooms springing up after rain.
One morning Robin had to wade to breakfast through an inch or two of standing water, the submerged grass of the quad rippling like seaweed. The next morning he stepped from the threshold of his staircase and was shocked to find himself floundering in three feet of water. The morning after that he knew better than to make the attempt.
Once the college had flooded, its whole geography was changed. Robin's staircase looked out on the deep, raindrop-stirred pond that had once been Front Quad. The stone bridges that arched between buildings had become heavily trafficked thoroughfares and the college fleet of punts had been brought in from their usual riverine home to serve a more urgent purpose. Now students plied from staircase to staircase in shallow-bottomed boats and every grey morning dawned with the splashy sound of bailing.
Was it any wonder that Robin had trouble concentrating on his studies? Though the inundations of Oxenfloode might be as regular as the coming of autumn, it was all new to him. And even the third-years admitted that this was worse than they had ever seen.
Even the fellows, privately, admitted that the flooding was unprecedented. In the libraries they were frantically leafing through volumes saved from the rising waters. In the towers they were watching the sky. In tutorials they broke off in the middle of promising discussions to gaze out at the rain.
"Perhaps we'll just wait till spring..." murmured Oberon distractedly. His sandy hair, usually neatly slicked back, fell down over his rounded forehead. "The water should recede by then."
"Perhaps if you talked to Titania," said Robin, who no longer stood on ceremony with his tutor.
Oberon raised an eyebrow. "It's gone beyond that."
"By which you mean you won't talk to her."
"A bit difficult to speak with one's counterpart when she leaves High Table whenever one goes to sit down. One could hardly run after her while grace was being said."
It was fair enough as far as it went. Last week's formal hall was still the talk of the college. (Nothing so scandalous had happened since the time that a rather absent-minded Hedge Wizard had begun eating before the college master had given permission.) And yet Robin knew full well from common room gossip that Oberon had cut Titania dead just as often, and in just as many interesting places. In the porters' lodge; in the college corridors; and, on one memorable occasion when they had both been in too much of a hurry to look where they were going, while in the same small punt making its sedate way across the watery expanse of Back Quad. The mood had been so icy, it was said, that it was a wonder the quad had not frozen over on the spot.
"I suppose it's far simpler to have me to scurrying back and forth telling each of you what the other secretly thinks."
"Worse things have been tried," said Oberon levelly.
Robin essayed a cheeky smile, the one that could reconcile scouts and porters to anything. "Oh? And what are those, then, sir?"
Oberon drummed impatient fingers on his side table. "Your essay, Robin...?"
It occurred to him at that moment that he would happily spend the whole of his undergraduate career in punts if it meant ensuring his indispensability to his tutor. Without playing go-between, spy, confidant, provocateur, he would be nothing to Oberon other than a simple undergraduate, and the thought of that was unbearable to him.
"Your essay," repeated Oberon.
Robin sat in the New Pond and daydreamed for hours, imagining the waves of the sea breaking against its foundations, wearing away at the crumbling stone. He awoke from his daydreams to find pages washed clean of ink, as innocent as sand when they should have been full of careful notes. All he took away from the library that day was the print on his right cheek where he had slept so soundly upon his book.
If he did learn anything it was by loitering in the porters' lodge. Even with water lapping at the threshold, all college life flowed through those gates. Little rowing boats moored themselves to the great door-knocker. Pigeons flew in and out delivering the post. Barges full of grain moved with slow deliberation along the Broad.
The head porter was Nick Bottom, who'd been a bargeman himself before coming to rest behind the desk of the lodge. Nothing that happened in college could faze him and any detail of its doings that escaped him could only be assumed to be beneath his notice. He commanded a network of spies, scouts and Mechanicals alike, and deduced a world of conclusions from signed-out keys and un-emptied bins. Perhaps he was not what one would call an intellectual, but as far as he was concerned, the college was his.
Robin found an easy companionship in the rhythms of the lodge. He would lean against the wall and nod to his friends as they came and went. Occasionally he would help putting post into pigeonholes. Occasionally he would switch letters round and wait to see the result.
Enter undistinguished second-year boy, stage left. Exit second-year boy, stage right, bearing a note from the Captain of the First VIII. Robin felt a certain amount of pride at stirring a romance, never mind that the note had been meant for someone else altogether. Maybe Oberon and Titania were beyond his reach but still he had not lost his touch.
It was late one night and the lodge was deserted when Nick Bottom wrapped his hands around a mug of tea and set to talking. Usually at this stage of the evening he would turn to a well-worn topic, the manifold charms of Titania (his favorite don), but tonight his thoughts were running on different lines.
"Won't be this quiet next week," he said. "Not with guest night dinner coming."
Robin rubbed his own hands together. It was only a week short of the solstice and a sudden chill was in the air. Every window in college was rimed with frost.
"Will it be very grand?"
The man chuckled. "Will it be grand? It's guest night dinner, isn't it? Our Visitor will be coming down to Oxenfloode. That's the Duke of Theseus, if you didn't know, and he'll be bringing that glamourous fiance of his."
Ever since the announcement of the Duke's engagement to Hippolyta a few months earlier, one had heard far more about her and her extensive wardrobe than one did about her intended, the heir to the throne.
"Not to mention all the old boys and girls coming down," Bottom continued. "With all this water seeping in everywhere I've hardly a place to put them overnight. They'll all be on your corridor."
Though he didn't much care where the guests stayed, Robin did think that college was due a bit of ceremony. When he'd first arrived, formal halls had seemed grand enough, but throwing on a shabby commoner's gown while racing to dinner had soon lost its glamour. He thought once again of waking up under Oberon's gown, the scent and the texture and the heavy warmth of it. Shivering, he thrust he hands into his pockets.
"And then the day after that there's Governing Body. Choosing a new master. Fine mess all of that is, it'll be best to have it all over and done."
"Who do you think they'll choose?"
Bottom grunted. "Hardly matters. None of them listen to sense anyway. One's as bad as another when it comes to magicians."
"Oh well, there are always exceptions, m'boy. Always exceptions."
There was a rattling at the door, the little night gate set into the college's great double doors. The heavy door pull turned by ninety degrees but it didn't open. Bottom sighed and got to his feet. On the other side of the door was a little undergraduate looking like a drowned rat.
"How many times have I said it, you've got to turn and then pull. Turn and pull. Not so hard, is it?"
"Oh," said the undergraduate, "don't roar at me, Nick."
"I roar as gently as any sucking dove," said Nick Bottom. "Now get on with you."
The hole that he had made oozed water like a wound. The ice was too fragile to step on. And yet the punt was locked fast by it.
It was warm work, breaking the ice and then forcing the punt onwards through its floating shattered remains. Across the quad someone was swearing loudly, pouring hot water on a lock that had iced shut. It took Robin nearly twenty minutes to make his way to Back Quad, through the passageway where the ice had formed even more thickly.
He found a scattering of students gathered in the common room, huddled together after their difficult journeys, rubbing their freezing hands as if they had just made their way through the North-West Passage.
"We should have a fireplace in here," said one boy who was inclined to be political. "It's too cold for words. One can't even hold a pen."
"Try putting on gloves," said another.
"Try practicing your spells," said a third.
"But that would involve work!" the politician protested.
"Maybe the sun's going out," said Robin to the jumpered mathematician, who on this occasion was wearing gloves, a beret and a multicoloured Moebius scarf as well.
All he earned in reply was a laugh and a shake of the head. But Robin wondered whether, like the river overflowing its banks, the cold was not entirely natural.
It had at least brought clear skies and an end to the rain. Where the sun peeped over the buildings of the quad, ice was melting. Where punts crossed the quad they left trails of open water behind them. By noon it was awash with gaily floating brash ice, and Robin and the mathematician made their way to hall without encumbrance.
But the cold had Oxenfloode in its grip. On the next day, and the next, and the next, there was no such thaw. The ice grew thicker, too thick to force a punt through, and trapped them all in their staircases for a day until it became strong enough to bear the weight of a person. After that the students slid giddily across the ice while tutors shook their heads over their books.
"And tomorrow the days begin getting longer," said Robin, who had gone early to the lodge to check his pigeon post.
"I'll believe it when I see it," grumbled Nick Bottom.
All of college was ready to welcome in the solstice. Holly and ivy twined along banisters and up stone walls, indoors and out, conjured into being where the day before nothing had grown but the skeletons of Virginia creeper. But the college was still locked in ice, black and impenetrably thick. One could imagine the stones cracking with the cold. After months of rain there was now not a sight of flowing water.
Alone in Back Quad stood the college mound, with its ancient cherry tree, the earth of its crown a bare foot or two above the embrace of the ice. In the summer students had lain on its grassy banks, telling tales of who or what might be buried under that smooth slope. Now the mound might be the last bit of earth to be seen in Oxenfloode.
And the cherry tree had burst into flower. Over the black ice and the bare ground hung branches heavy with unearthly pink blossoms.
The world was out of joint.
Robin shook his head and went into the common room to have breakfast. From its window he could watch the preparations being made for guest night. A pavilion was being assembled in Back Quad, right on the ice, all silk billowing out in impossible ways. Dimly across the quad he could hear the swearing of the Mechanicals.
Oberon had said very little to him about the dinner. The undergraduates would be attending on sufferance—even undergraduates needed to eat dinner, after all—but their role in the festivities would be slight. In the subsequent meeting of Governing Body it would be nonexistent, as no one imagined that students could have anything to say about the fate or governance of a community of scholars if the event didn't involve free alcohol.
"Little bird wants to see you," said the red-haired mathematician, dropping into a chair.
"Where?" said Robin.
"Waiting outside. Being seen in the junior common room would destroy his reputation, apparently."
It was Oberon of course, loitering about as deniably in the hallway as Robin had once hidden outside his office window—which was to say, not at all.
"Shall we go for a walk?" he said in a low tone.
Robin raised an eyebrow. "You could have chosen a better day for it, sir."
"Oh, come along, Robin."
Robin followed along obediently in Oberon's wake. Outside, they circled the unexpected obstruction of the pavilion.
"I hear," said Oberon, "that the Mechanicals are putting on a play for the solstice."
"Tomorrow, actually," said Robin. "It's meant to be tedious and brief."
Together they went up to the bare earth of the college mound. There was a rustic little bench under the tree where students sat and gossiped on warmer days. Robin sat, wrapping his arms around himself. Oberon stayed standing.
"If we speak quietly," he said, "we should be unobserved."
"We shouldn't meet like this," said Robin, longing to be curled on Oberon's floral couch with the kettle just beginning to boil. "I haven't even started this week's essay, you know."
"Tedious and brief, then, as usual? Your essays are the least of your charms, Robin Goodfellow."
Robin blinked. A breath of wind had stirred, blowing cherry petals all around him. He could feel them clinging to his hair.
"What is it then?" he said tentatively.
"We can't let Titania become the new Master." Oberon had moved closer; he was Robin's eclipse, light spilling around him. "I had hoped not to let things reach this pass. I had... but no matter. We have one night remaining and guests to entertain. Shall we sow confusion together?"
"Yes," breathed Robin.
"One of us will be at High Table, dining unimpeachably. The other... elsewhere. My double for the evening. I give you free rein, Robin, use it wisely."
Oberon and Titania and the Duke of Theseus and amateur theatricals all tumbled together in Robin's mind. Never in his life had he ever used anything wisely, but that was perfectly fair; neither did he desire to be used wisely. Oberon would not have asked him otherwise.
"I'll put everything topsy-turvy," he said. "I revel in the unnatural."
Oberon leaned down and kissed him on the cheek.
"Then be unnatural, my dear boy," he said. "And turn the world upside down."
Oberon, if you asked him, would say that there was no reason to imagine that the sun would come up the following morning, much less that the seasons would swing as they had always swung. Magic was dead. Or if it seemed to be alive, that was only in the minds of those who imagined it. Postmagicism gave cold counsel.
Whether Oberon truly believed it, Robin didn't like to inquire too deeply. In the atmosphere of their tutorials the truth seemed almost a distraction, belief weighing so lightly on the scales beside argument. By contrast Titania's belief was something that burned almost too brightly to grasp. She could scald with just a look.
The guests were late. They swept in long after Robin had begun to go numb: the Duke of Theseus and his consort Hippolyta, accompanied by the old boys and girls, Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius. The two royals were swept up by the Bursar and carried off to the Master's lodgings, where they would be staying for the night.
(Robin could not imagine sleeping in that place with the memory of death still in it. Perhaps no one had told the Duke that the old Master had died there only weeks before.)
The other four stayed and looked around them. All seemed ill at ease, as if magic had fled for them once they had gone up from the deep waters of the university to the shallows of the mundane world.
"If you'll come with me, ladies and gentlemen," said Robin, bowing low, "I'll show you to your rooms."
It had been Oberon's idea to have Robin perform that task. What he was meant to learn, or to do, Robin wasn't sure, but he watched his charges carefully as he led them through the icy quad to Staircase III. They were chatting and reminiscing for all the world as if he weren't even there.
"Where did the time go?" said Demetrius. "Twenty years ago this autumn we were all freshers. D'you remember that bop, Hermia?
Hermia blinked, a faraway look on her face. "I remember that Lysander came as a raven."
Lysander chuckled. "Jolly good fun, that bop. Hermia was a divine writing desk, weren't you darling?"
He squeezed her elbow; Robin noticed the look of frustrated longing that Demetrius cast after the couple.
Behind the three of them came Helena, smaller, plainer, wearing a dark grey blazer and with her dark hair pulled back in a twist.
"Hermia is always divine," she said.
Hermia cast a brilliant smile back at her friend.
Robin had led them round a few more corners than strictly necessary before he finally fetched up at the humble corridor that held the college's four guest rooms. Lysander, Hermia, Helena, Demetrius. There was nothing to do but hand them their keys. One, two, three, four.
Lysander frowned at the one key in his hand, and the other key in Robin's.
"There are only singles," said Robin apologetically.
"And to think we'll have our wedding here this summer," said Lysander. "We'll be staying in the Randolph then. One can hardly wait."
"You'll simply have to," said Hermia prettily. An awkward pause fell. "Now, Demetrius, will you be taking Helena down to dinner?"
"I—suppose so," said Demetrius, swallowing a stammer. "I mean, we'll all be going down then, won't we?"
Through Helena looked at him hopefully, he never met her gaze.
"Until half six, then?" said Hermia. She took her key and went into her room.
Both Lysander and Demetrius waited a moment before unlocking their own rooms. Helena waited longest of all. When Demetrius finally disappeared inside she took a deep breath.
"I used to live right upstairs, you know," she said quietly. "A little slip of a room tucked right under the eaves. No one could ever find it. They gave it to me because they said I would never bump my head. And Hermia's room was right down here. We used to spend hours talking about everything under the sun."
"Oh," said Robin.
"I was at that bop too," she added. "Not that I would expect Demetrius to remember me. Or Hermia to care."
And she closed the door softly behind her.
Going up the long stone steps to Hall, he shivered with anticipatory delight. The very stones were pulsing with the hum of conversation. He pushed open the double doors and went in.
The oak of the long tables had disappeared underneath all the table settings. Glasses in all shapes and sizes and not an inch to put one's elbows. Robin squeezed in at the end of a bench by the door, as far from high table as might be, and considered himself lucky that he hadn't had to climb over a table to get to his place. A fellow student gave him a congratulatory pat on the back. A waiter wafted over to pour him sherry, red wine, and white wine.
Far away at high table, Oberon held court. Or was it Titania who was holding court, at the other end of the table? At her elbow was a young man, Titania's changeling. She had eyes only for him. Robin had eyes only for Oberon. And Oberon looked everywhere.
"Isn't it dull?" came a voice from across the table. It was the be-jumpered mathematician, glass of sherry in hand, wearing pearls and an unprecedentedly smart cashmere cardi underneath the obligatory academic gown.
"I've never seen anything so interesting in all my days," said Robin.
"Just watching other people eat?"
"That's not what I'm watching."
But what was he watching? Certainly not the Duke and his consort, whose glamour was of the shallowest kind. Maybe the old boys and old girls who sat together at the little high, flirting with one another as if they were the only four people in the world. Maybe the roasted boar that lay whole and entire on the table with a small red-and-black bound volume of Aristotle thrust into its jaws, having given its life for college and country.
Wine and rolls and wine and starters and wine and fish and wine and wild boar and wine and... tea (blessedly). And wine and pudding and wine and cheese and wine and chocolate. A deep breath. Port and sauternes and claret to round the evening off.
All the hall was reeling. The boar had long disappeared and the book of Aristotle lay forgotten on a mantelpiece. Several students, independently, had been sick into a champagne bucket. The be-cardiganed mathematician had curled up under the table and fallen asleep. The port circled the table clockwise, then doubled back upon itself, and no one raised a voice to complain.
Robin was certain that there was something particularly potent about the alcohol that night. Perhaps it was the solstice or perhaps it was the way that he imagined Oberon was looking at him from across the room. Everything was so delightfully askew.
Entropy slowly won. The fire burned down in its hearth. Glasses and champagne buckets were inexorably cleared away. The Duke and his consort had already decorously retired for the night.
Robin got up to leave just after a boy walked out of hall with a full bottle of claret in hand, singing 'The Lily-White Boys.' In the wood-paneled foyer, all steamy from the kitchen and full of staff rushing to and fro, he ran into Helena. Her dark hair was falling down around her face in a halo.
"Hermia loved me once," she said drunkenly. "She did. We were the best of friends. I taught her how to tie knots in a cherry stem with her tongue. My tongue. We picked cherries from the college mound. We fell into brambles together and then froze the blackberries into ice cubes for our champagne."
On her stumbling tongue all the seasons jumbled promiscuously together.
"And no one loves me now," she lamented. "I'm as ugly as a bear."
"Demetrius would love you if he had any sense," said Robin, who knew nothing of love but what he was taught in tutorials. Magic is dead. Long live magic. "And I think that Hermia always has."
He went stumbling down the stone steps, barely keeping his footing. When he stepped onto the treacherous ice of the quad he went sprawling, palms and cheek sliding painfully against its rough surface. He lay there panting, all the flush of the alcohol seeping out into the endless depths of the ice.
It was scattered with fallen cherry blossom. And above him shone the stars.
When he looked up again it seemed hours later. He saw figures silhouetted against the sky, standing over him. Lysander kissing Hermia. Or was it Helena? Or was it Demetrius? All four of them blurred together into one. Robin closed his eyes.
It was Oberon who finally dragged him to his feet. He shook his head chidingly and gave Robin a quick brushing-off.
"Is that enough disorder?" asked Robin, swaying where he stood. He expected Oberon to reprove him in a vague, donnish way and then send him off to bed.
"Not by half," said the Chair in Postmagicism. "Though I will say that you seem to have managed to decimate, or at least disarrange, the college's wedding bookings for the foreseeable future. By morning who will be marrying whom?"
Robin shrugged helplessly.
"It wasn't exactly what I asked you to do, was it, Robin? But no matter. What about Titania?"
"I don't know."
"No one seems to know a blessed thing about Titania. Go and find her, if you please. You have mischief still to make. The night is young." Oberon unaccountably thrust a bottle of port into Robin's arms. "Now on with you."
Lacking any better destination, Robin made his half-drunken way to the lodge. When he got there he found Nick Bottom still on duty, the only person apparently untouched by the chaos of dinner.
"I brought you some port," he said, the bottle slipping from nerveless fingers.
"Well, by our lady."
Together they drank it—Nick a good bit more than Robin—while listening to the noises of merrymaking from inside the college. A smash. Giggles. Silence. Someone ran past, out into the street, naked as the day they were born.
Nick Bottom hardly blinked. "One deserves another," he said and poured more port. "Bottoms up."
Robin waited and bided his time until the moment was ripe. "Titania fancies you," he said finally. "She has done for ages."
"Never," said Bottom.
"Honest, she does. Why don't you go and ask her? Last I saw she was standing outside the common room, smoking."
"Well, I'll be an ass," said Bottom.
And because it was the time of night and the time of year when even sensible porters will believe six impossible things before breakfast, he got heavily to his feet and lumbered out of the lodge. Robin followed at a careful distance. The streaker crept back into college, abashed, but no one noticed.
Titania was just where Robin remembered her. She was leaning against one of the flying buttresses outside the common room, cigarette in hand, blowing smoke rings up into the frigid air. She looked as though she were waiting for an assignation.
As Bottom approached her he was singing under his breath, an old traditional college song. "He was swapping all from wing to thigh..."
Titania looked up. "Well, don't stop there," she said, her cigarette poised as if for mockery. "The next line is by far the best."
"Begging your pardon, but it's not what you might call suitable for ladies..."
"Who do you think wrote it?" said Titania.
Bottom doffed his cap at that. "Begging your... That is to say, haven't been here quite as long as some, m'lady."
"Out of this college," said Titania archly, "do not desire to go."
It sounded as though she were quoting something, though Robin did not know what. He was still racking his brain for half-remembered dusty plays—Marlowe, perhaps? Beddoes?—when the Chair of Applied Magic leaned forward and kissed the Head Porter full upon the lips.
"Am I drunk?" said Robin, in soliloquy, to the still night air.
The kissing continued. Intensified, one might even say. What monster have I created? Robin asked himself.
A hand on his shoulder. Helena appeared out of the darkness. "Which is my room?" she said urgently. "I'm fleeing."
"Everyone and everything. Please!"
"The second one along," said Robin, though at that moment he neither knew nor cared.
He half wanted to flee himself, as Helena went tripping off. He thought of his little attic room but it seemed like a prison to him. Instead his gaze drifted to the window of Oberon's room. Behind drawn curtains he could see the flicker of candlelight.
He half expected Oberon to be sporting the oak, but when he entered the staircase Robin found that Oberon's green-painted outer door was opened wide. The inner door was ajar. He tapped on it cautiously.
The heavy door moved reluctantly with a creak. Robin slipped in. There were only embers in the grate but the room was lit by candlelight. Oberon stood by the window, holding the curtain aside.
"My dear boy," said Oberon without turning. "What took you so long?"
"I was out and about on your errands, sir."
"And very well you did, too. Come and see what you've wrought."
Robin ducked under Oberon's arm; they stood there together looking out into the darkness. Once his eyes adjusted he could make out the shapes of Titania and Bottom, dimly visible in the shadow of the flying buttress. Only he could not concentrate because he could feel the warmth of Oberon's arm around his shoulders.
"And what will become of us, Robin?" said Oberon finally, turning to him. "Whom will we marry in midsummer?"
Robin groaned and woke, for the second time in his short life, on Oberon's floral settee. This time he was alone. The fire had died in the hearth; a cup of tea drunk down to the dregs sat delicately on the table. Of Oberon there was no other sign. Robin gazed into the tea leaves, trying to read his own fate there, or any other's.
It was a wonder the college had not crumbled to the ground, burnt and blown away like dust on the wind. Robin was amazed to find himself still in his natural form, not somehow transfigured by the night before. But this was the day after.
He yawned and stretched his legs. He looked around the quiet room, wondering what secrets he might find there. Then he got to his feet and went outside.
His footsteps turned naturally towards the far side of Back Quad, where he had left the two lovers last night. He heard the voices before he saw them: not Titania and Bottom, now, but Titania and Oberon. Robin crept up onto the college mound and hid himself behind the cherry tree, where he could see and yet be unseen.
Titania, still in the bedraggled finery of the previous night, was just getting to her feet. She looked faintly dazed.
"Is it Titania, Queen of the Fairies?" Oberon was saying. "Can it be?"
"Save your laughter."
"Would you have me say nothing to you?"
"You, Oberon, have kept queerer company on colder mornings. And I have kept my own council."
"But never before have I woken on the open ground, my limbs entwined with a porter, mere hours before the solemn assembly of Governing Body. Isn't that so, Titania?"
"What nonsense you talk!" she said, her voice rising.
A massive block of ice slid down the eaves above, groaning in protest, and fell. It clipped a staring gargoyle as it passed, taking the stone snout clear off. Robin, the onlooker, imagined sharing the same fate. The ice crashed down. A spiderweb network of cracks spread out to the furthest corners of the quad, white against the black ice.
"Will you speak to me of the boy, Titania?"
"Perhaps," she said, "you care more about your changeling boy than you care about becoming the Master of this college."
Oberon replied slowly, as carefully as if he were guiding a punt through shallow water: "Perhaps I do."
"It's jealousy," said Titania. "Jealousy pure and simple. You long to take something precious from me and exchange all my joy for bitterness."
Oberon made a half bow. "In life, as in magic, a balance must be maintained."
Oberon and Titania fenced back and forth on that winter morning. It was a duel between two of the wisest magicians of their generation, at ten to ten on a Saturday morning with only one lone undergraduate as audience. The thin sun faded, replaced by the ragged edges of high, opalescent clouds. Snowflakes flurried down, borne on a twist of wind. Neither of them seemed to notice the weather.
Robin wanted to shout. He bit at his knuckle until it bled, a slow reluctant trickle. He couldn't bear to listen any more but he couldn't turn away.
Titania folded her hands into her fur muff and spoke deliberately, her face bloodlessly pale. "For years now, decades even, things have gone ill between us. Both of us have known it; the world has known it and laughed. The seasons have spun out of step and the floods have risen. Take what you want, Oberon, take your heart's desire. But leave me the remainder, and let us make peace with one another once again."
"In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie... which betokeneth concord," quoted Oberon and bowed his head. A long silence. "But what is my heart's desire?"
"Only you can answer that question."
It wasn't true. Robin knew the answer before Oberon took hold of it. He bolted from the mound, sending a scatter of small stones sliding down onto the ice. Two startled faces turned towards him, but Robin was already gone.
"The boy," said Oberon.
In answer, Titania curtsied, half-mocking. And in the middle of the icy quad, as the snow flurried down, Oberon and Titania joined hands.
Yet slowly, as he lay there, a strange calm began to descend upon him. Outside his window a small bird was twittering impatiently. At first he felt empty; then hungry; then, at last, faintly bored. He sat up, slipped his feet into slippers, and tiptoed, abashed, downstairs.
Arcane counters were scattered across the tiles of the bathroom floor.The be-jumpered mathematician was sitting on the edge of the bathtub as usual, and looked up as Robin passed.
"Where have you been? Titania is about to be elected Master. A little bird told me."
"I knew," Robin said.
"Robin, have you been crying...?"
The voice faded away with a turn of the hallway.
Down a flight of stairs, a disorderly trail of damp and muddy footprints led to the guest rooms. From behind one door there was whispering, the sound of quiet merriment. Then it opened and Helena peeked out. Her dark hair fell down around her shoulders.
"Thank you," she said simply.
"Helena, darling," came a voice from inside the room. "Come back to bed."
"Was that... Hermia?" asked Robin.
Helena smiled. "It's never been anyone else," she said, and closed the door.
Robin picked his way through the slush of Back Quad, stepping carefully with slippered feet over slushy puddles that even yesterday had not been there. The air had changed, suddenly freighted with the balminess of early spring. The great block of ice that had fallen earlier in the morning was beginning to melt, carving itself into strange, translucent curves and arches.
(One could do profound magic with ice. Earlier in the term Robin had written an essay for Titania on the sorcerers of Jökulsárlón, but the scholars of Oxenfloode had themselves long ago lost the ability to work such spells.)
He was determined to see Oberon. The insistence of the bells told him how little time he had left. Governing Body was about to meet.
The corridor that led to the Eddy Room was long and grand, but somehow undisciplined. With its high ceilings and persian carpets and wainscoting, it turned this way and that, here going up a step or two and there descending once again. Halfway along there was a recess in which stood a massive oak chest, its wood nearly black with age. It must have stood there since the college was built, since it was too large to fit around the nearest corner.
For a moment Robin thought about hiding inside, but he remembered in time the danger of entering a chest or wardrobe when one did not know its provenance. Heart pounding, he scurried a bit further down the corridor. There was a deep niche which held a grandfather clock, ticking somberly. Its emblem was a sailing ship which was tossed on the sea with each passing second. Robin squeezed into the niche beside the clock, pressing his back up against the wall.
No sooner had he hidden himself than he heard the sound of approaching voices down the corridor. The fellows swept past in a quick, unceremonious mass of quarreling voices and flying gowns. Titania was at the vanguard. Oberon was nowhere to be seen.
Puzzled, Robin waited until he heard the heavy door of the Eddy Room swing shut. Then he stepped back out into the corridor. He had stopped listening for footsteps. Someone caught his arm, hard, by the elbow.
"I had a feeling I would find you here," said Oberon. "Listening at doors a speciality."
Now that Robin was face-to-face with his tutor, he found he had forgotten whatever it was he had meant to say.
"Or clocks, or cherry trees, as the case might be," Oberon continued. "I admire your resourcefulness, Robin, but there are limits."
"If you would tell me what's happening," said Robin sulkily, "I wouldn't have to eavesdrop."
"And you would know far more than you ought."
"Am I not your student?"
Oberon sighed. "Are you not indeed. And yet you're not my only student and not my only responsibility. If Titania does become Master, there will be other compensations."
"What can be as important as being Master?"
What can be as important as me? he wanted to add, but did not.
"I believe you once told me that I should speak with Titania? You should be pleased to know that I've taken your advice. We have restored peace between us and put right everything that had gone awry. Nature will follow suit. Together we'll govern the river once again."
Floods should swallow the world, thought Robin.
"I live for the unnatural," he said, for the second time, to Oberon.
With a rusty sound the slow grandfather clock began to strike twelve.
"I must away," said Oberon. "Governing Body calls. If you care to stay and eavesdrop, it might be wise to make yourself less conspicuous by picking up a broom."
Oberon swept off to Governing Body; Robin swept the dust behind the door.
Titania had been elected, of course. The old Master's lodgings—her lodgings now—blazed with light. Theseus and Hippolyta stood in the open door to welcome her into her inheritance.
It was a perfect tableau: Theseus and Hippolyta on one side, Oberon and Titania on the other, as if they were mirror images of one another. There were speeches, and bows, and the joining of hands.
"We wish you every felicity in your new endeavour," said Theseus. One could almost see the crown resting upon his head already.
"And you in yours," said Titania. "Joy in your house, a blessed marriage, and a fortunate issue."
Robin stood at the back of a crowd of people, unobserved. He stole away before the theatricals began.
The night was alive with a symphony of dripping from every eave. The thaw had come.
"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend"