“…and our Academy has stood for centuries, enduring the ever-present threat of discovery by mere mortals, while continuing to refine both its power and its understanding of the fae world. There is no better place in which to learn about the glorious traditions of our magic, no better place to expand your knowledge of the most powerful forces in the world, and certainly no better place in which to realise the advantages of your talent.” Professor Darkel’s voice finishes on a proud note, leaving a silence immediately filled by applause, and she stalks back to her seat at the High Table with a definite aura of triumph.
At the back of the crowd, Romanadvoratrelundar rolls her eyes. The younger ones are so easily swayed by rhetoric, she thinks – so easily convinced of their superiority that all Darkel has to do is to feed them a heady concoction of pride and tradition in order for them to hang on her every word. And they are so very young, these aristocratic girls, sheltered by the weight of familial tradition and barely aware of the real world at all.
Romana slips out of the hall and into the chilly stone corridor, absently rearranging the air around her until a warm current whispers across her face and through her hair.
She doesn’t notice Professor Braxiatel until she rounds a corner and almost walks straight in to him, apologising immediately.
“Romana, my dear. Shouldn’t you be in the hall?”
Her face twists into a scowl. “I’ve heard enough of Professor Darkel’s rantings to last me a lifetime,” she says. “If she thinks that we’re all as naïve as each other then she’s going to get quite the surprise.”
Braxiatel’s face betrays nothing. “Very well. Don’t forget our lesson this evening.” He lowers his voice, conspiratorial. “I know for a fact it’s going to be very interesting.”
“Your lessons always are,” she allows. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
He watches her retreat down the corridor and sighs.
“An advantageous marriage is the best we can hope for.” Her father’s voice is muffled by the oak door but she hears it nonetheless: magical exposure has heightened her senses to the extent that she would most likely hear a pin drop through six feet of stonework. “If only we had a son, my dear. Think of the possibilities.”
“Romana is quite the young lady,” her mother defends, and the end of the sentence is almost palpable: and quite the witch, too. But her father doesn’t – can’t – know of the power into which he has married, and thus her value is entirely matrimonial. “And anyway,” her mother continues, “she’s only seventeen.”
“No, no, quite right. Wouldn’t do to think about it yet. We’ll give it a year or two, I think. Cultivate some acquaintances, sort through the possibilities…I am rather fond of that Narvin chap. Good connections, liable to rise high in the Civil Service, I think….” He trails off, thoughtful, and Romana takes the silence as her cue to walk silently past the doors out into the garden.
Heartshaven House itself has stood for centuries, a silent unchanging monument in an evolving landscape. Where once its pointed windows had looked out over wild, untamed countryside as far as the eye could see, there is now the hint of sullen brown rooftops beyond the estate’s boundary; too close to the outer fields, the pervasive hum of distant cars provides a jarring bass line to the whisper of wind through ancient trees.
At the centre of the estate, tucked in to a dimple in the landscape where it’s all but invisible from the House, stands a grove. Romana makes her way there without hesitation.
In six months’ time, this grove will see the ceremony that marks her ascension to her full powers. Professor Braxiatel tells her that she’s going to be the most powerful witch the world has ever seen, that the things she’ll do are going to be rather impressive, almost as if he’s seen them himself. (She’s heard the stories about him, doesn’t quite know whether to believe them: surely the timeline of a life is fixed forwards, not backwards.) But the Summoning of a Familiar – once completed – seals both her bond with the Fae and the growth of her talent.
She looks around the grove, the weak sun fading all the colours into drab watercolour, and smiles.
She can’t wait.
Six months later and the grove is gloomy, moonlight barely filtering through the thick net of branches above. The observers stand around the edge, shadowed: Romana’s mother, anxious-eyed – Braxiatel, standing proudly in expectation – Professor Darkel, her extravagant robes catching the dim light in various obnoxious colours.
Romana adjusts her black dress and casts a look at the centre of the grove that, from anyone else, would mean nervousness. On her, it carries the appearance of simple impatience. “I do wish they’d hurry up,” she says under her breath. The sooner she Summons her Familiar, the better.
Her mother raises an eyebrow. “One doesn’t tell the Fae what to do,” she reminds her daughter. “Besides, this ritual has been performed at your age by all the female witches in this family, and you’re more powerful than every one of them. There’s nothing to worry about.” She brushes an invisible strand of hair back from Romana’s face, her elegantly manicured nails gentle against her daughter’s cheek, and the young witch flinches, taking a step back and glaring.
“I’m perfectly aware of the importance of tonight,” she half-snaps. “Although was it really necessary to have that…Professor…here?” A subtle inclination of her head indicates Darkel, standing aloof at the edge of the clearing. “Was there no-one else?”
“An impartial observer is required by law, Romana, you know that as well as I.”
“She is not impartial. She dislikes me, Mother. Whether it’s because of my association with Professor Braxiatel or for some other reason I don’t know, but she definitely dislikes me.”
Her mother lifts one elegant shoulder and shrugs. “Never mind, darling. You’re going to do splendidly, and there won’t be any reason for Professor Darkel to question your performance, whether she likes you or not.”
Silence falls beneath the trees, all sounds of the outside world evaporated by the insulation of the branches, and as if it were planned a single ray of moonlight spears into the centre of the grove.
Romana steps out, all traces of nervousness gone in a smooth mask of pure confidence, and inclines her head towards Professor Braxiatel.
Beside him, Darkel glares.
“I am ready,” Romana says.
Her mother straightens, intent; Braxiatel raises his hand. “Then begin.”
Her Familiar, Leela, turns out to be quite the handful.
She takes the form of a black cat when they’re both at Heartshaven House – her humanoid form would require more explanation than either Romana or her mother are willing to give to her father – and, rather to Romana’s dismay, spends more time with her mother’s Familiar than she does with Romana herself.
She brings it up one day, expecting a chastened response, but once again she is surprised.
“I do not understand why you thought you could control me,” Leela says disdainfully. “Did you really think the Fae would send one of their own into slavery?”
“No, of course not. I just thought…everyone knows Familiars are supposed to be helpful, and yet you defy me at every turn!”
Leela shimmers back in to human form and glares. “That is because you think you hold the power.”
“But I do, Leela. I Summoned you!”
“And I chose to listen.” Leela sighs, tucking her legs more comfortably beneath her. “But you do not listen to me. Very well, Romana. I shall serve you of my own free will, because it suits me to do so, and you will grow to understand why that is.”
Romana just shakes her head.
The first time Romana meets Narvin, she’s struck by the way he looks at her. It’s as if he knows something she doesn’t, and she doesn’t like it. She hasn’t forgotten the overheard conversation, almost a year ago; she can feel her parents’ eyes on them both.
She smiles politely, makes conversation for a few excruciating minutes, and makes her excuses.
The second time she meets him, she’s on her way back from the grove with a basket full of herbs for an invisibility spell. He bows slightly and kisses her hand, and she tries not to find him intriguing.
The third time she meets him, she’s halfway through an incantation in the summerhouse. She tells him she’s singing an old family lullaby, oddly charmed when he compliments her voice, and despises him for his timing. Spells are troublesome if they’re stopped halfway through, and she spends their conversation worrying that demons are going to overrun the garden at any moment.
He does always seem to turn up at the most suspicious times.
The fourth time she meets him, it’s not really a meeting at all.
Leela’s cat-form brushes against her legs as she knocks at the wooden door. The cottage they’re visiting is small, the windows filled with all sorts of trinkets and pictures, and there’s the glow of firelight spilling out from beneath the door.
Romana pulls her cloak tighter around her body.
Almost immediately, the door opens, revealing a distinguished man in a positively antiquated smoking jacket. (The fact that he pulls it off is entirely irrelevant, Romana decides.) “Braxiatel,” she says with delight. “I knew I could track you down. Now, I need you to do me a favour.”
He stares at her for a moment, then steps aside to let her in. Beside her, Leela shimmers in to human form with an almost protective demeanour. “Lady Romana, a pleasure, as always. Now, what can I possibly do for you?”
“My family want me to marry,” she says without ceremony. “A man called Narvin. I don’t trust him in the slightest.”
“And you want me to…what?” Braxiatel’s voice is smooth as ice. “Bless the happy union?”
Leela tenses, glares.
“You misunderstand. I think he’s dangerous, and I want you to find out exactly what he’s up to.”
“I’m so glad to see you haven’t lost your intelligence.” He beckons them further into the house and into a back room, the low ceiling of which is covered in small bundles of drying herbs. At the side stands an object, taller than Romana herself, covered in an off-white sheet; he tugs it off with a flourish.
“A Seeing Mirror?” Romana asks. “Where on earth did you get one of those?!”
“I acquired it,” he says evasively. “Now, all you have to do is stand in front of it, concentrate, and ask your question.”
Leela speaks up. “And no harm will come to Romana?”
“None at all, Braxiatel reassures her. “It’s quite safe. Now, stand back, Fae creature, and let your friend do what she must.”
Mist flows out from the mirror, swirling around her feet as she concentrates, and slowly pictures form in the fog.
Narvin, introducing himself to her.
Narvin, following her to the sacred grove.
Narvin, watching from outside the window as her mother lights the hearth fire from five feet away.
Narvin, standing at the gates of the Academy (she almost gasps at that – a mortal finding the Academy is unheard of) and peering in.
Narvin, in a room full of white-robed people, standing in the middle of their circle and reporting back.
Narvin, watching from afar as Leela shimmers from a human to a cat.
She tears herself away with an audible cry and steps back, breathing heavily. The mist is gone.
“What did you see, Romana?” Leela’s voice is worried. Beside her, Braxiatel raises a questioning eyebrow.
“It’s as we feared, Leela.” She closes her eyes briefly against the truth. “Narvin is working for an organisation of some sort – working to expose us.”
Braxiatel rouses himself from silence. “Well, well, Lady Romana. You have your excuse: you certainly can’t marry the man now.”
Her expression turns grim. “Oh, I most certainly can. I most certainly will. You see, Braxiatel, one of the things you taught me was to keep your enemies very, very close, and I always paid attention to your lessons.”
The polite chatter of upper-class accents and the clink of champagne bottles on glass fills the salon of Heartshaven House. In the corner of the room a string quartet is setting up, oblivious to the black cat curled beneath the viola player’s chair.
Romana circles the room, small talk flowing smoothly from her practised lips; from the champagne table, glass in hand, Romana’s mother glares at her, an unnecesary demand for her daughter’s best behaviour.
As if she’d misbehave at her own engagement party.
She’s going to keep an eye on the troublesome little spy, and she’s going to do it from very close quarters.
It’s the perfect solution.