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A Meeting of Curious Minds

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2 July, 1817

Mr Childermass,

I require your assistance in a matter of urgency and grave importance. Please come to no. 9 Harley-street at your earliest convenience. Mr Vinculus need not attend.

Your obedient servant,

Lady Pole

The letter’s opening and body were not unlike many other letters Childermass had received in the months since he’d revealed the Raven King’s Book to the York Society of Magicians. Its signature, however, came as something of a surprize.

She had every right to hate him. Childermass certainly expected her to, given the man he’d once served, and the terrible fate that man had thrust upon her, however unwittingly. How could Childermass, or anyone else, possibly make amends for the horrors she’d endured?

Fortunately for himself, Childermass was not the sort of man to be overly concerned with making amends.

He did, however, understand the value of friends in high (and low) places. Sir Walter Pole occupied a high place, indeed. And Childermass was only too happy to remind him of the debt he owed to Childermass’s former master, for resurrecting his wife, and to Childermass himself, for releasing her from the bonds of that resurrection.

So Childermass had no qualms about calling upon the Poles to do just that.

Sir Walter Pole’s new butler, with an expression upon his face that could curdle milk, admitted Childermass entry to no. 9 Harley-street. Such a look served only to bring a crooked smile to one side of Childermass’s face, Lady Pole’s letter of invitation tucked securely into his trouser pocket. He followed the butler into the house and down the hall to Lady Pole’s parlour. He expected to find her in the company of her husband, Sir Walter, or perhaps her lady’s maid. Instead, he stepped in to find Lady Pole sitting with Mrs Strange.

“Ah,” said Childermass.

Lady Pole fixed him with a cold stare. Mrs Strange took over the duties of her hostess and greeted Childermass with warm politeness. Childermass bowed in return and inquired after the ladies’ well-being. Mrs Strange had only recently returned to the shores of England in June of that year, and both ladies had an air of mystery about them which society credited to their extraordinary stay in the realm of Faerie.

“Spare us your pleasantries,” said Lady Pole, interrupting Childermass’s expressed hopes for the ladies’ good health. “We have far more pressing matters at hand.”

“Please, sit,” said Mrs Strange.

Childermass did so. No sooner had his trousers touched the chair than Lady Pole’s speech resumed.

“Mr Childermass,” she said. “You played an instrumental role in freeing me from my imprisonment in Lost-hope. I recall that day well. Do you?”

Childermass admitted to a tolerable recollection of the date in question, and his actions thereupon.

Lady Pole lifted her chin. “You said two particular things that day which remain in the forefront of my memory. First, ‘Let her speak.’ An attitude that remains regrettably uncommon amongst gentleman, and one which I appreciate.”

Childermass nodded his acceptance of her appreciation.

“And second,” Lady Pole continued, “upon hearing my tale of woe, and learning Mrs Strange and Stephen Black remained trapped in Lost-hope, you announced your intention to find Mr Strange and Mr Norrell and offer them your assistance in freeing the remaining prisoners.”

Childermass agreed with Lady Pole’s recollection of his words.

Lady Pole’s stare hardened into a glare. “You did not do so, Mr Childermass.”

“No,” said Childermass, “I did not.”

Lady Pole blinked in what might have been surprize, but if so, her surprize did not prevent her from speaking further. “After you departed Starecross, I glimpsed Stephen Black, however briefly, in the company of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. It was Stephen Black who struck him down and freed us all. As a result, Mrs Strange, as you can see, has since returned to us. I surmise from what I witnessed of Stephen Black, and what I have heard from Mrs Strange, that you yourself had little-to-nothing to do with releasing either Stephen or Mrs Strange from their bonds. And you freely admit this, sir!”

“I do, indeed,” said Childermass.

Lady Pole’s brow clouded with fury. “You regret nothing of your failure to act, to fulfil your stated intent? What do you have to say in your defence, sir?”

Childermass began to recount how, on the path to Hurtfew Abbey, he stumbled across the body of Vinculus—

“Yes, yes,” Lady Pole interrupted. “I have made inquiries into your whereabouts and habits since last we parted. I know you have revived the Society of York Magicians. I know you have come to new notoriety as the Reader of the Raven King’s Book. And I know what kept you from freeing Stephen Black and Mrs Strange. It was ambition. The same ambition which saw us all imprisoned in the first place!”

“Do you wish me to apologize, Lady Pole?” asked Childermass. If she expected him to, she would be sorely disappointed. Though Childermass rarely if ever experienced true regret, he was not above spoken apologies, insincere as they might be. But in this particular instance, he didn’t believe he had anything to apologize for. The Book took precedence. And besides, Mrs Strange sat before him now, liberated from the kingdom of Lost-hope. Evidently Childermass’s interference in their predicament would have been, at best, superfluous.

“No,” Lady Pole declared. “I wish your assistance in the matter of Stephen Black.”

Childermass was somewhat taken aback at this. “Forgive me, but by your own account, I had understood him to be as free as yourself or Mrs Strange.”

“We hope so,” said Mrs Strange. “But we cannot be certain. I have seen nothing of him since I escaped Lost-hope. And Lady Pole’s knowledge of him ends with his defeat of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. He is a dear friend and has served us well. We fear for him.”

Understandably so, Childermass thought. To strike down a king of Faerie was no small feat. It would have repercussions. However… “If you believe the Raven King’s Book might offer a hint as to Stephen Black’s fate, you have erred in requesting I leave Vinculus behind in York.”

Lady Pole lifted her chin. “You are a magician yourself, sir. Of no small talent.”

“You flatter me,” said Childermass. “But I know full well I am not the only magician of your acquaintance. Mr Segundus, for instance.”

“Mr Segundus,” said Mrs Strange, “is hard at work on his biography of my husband. We did seek him out. He directed us to you, and assured us you would be more than capable of solving our difficulties.”

A twisted smile wound its way up the left side of Childermass’s face. “Then he, too, flatters me.”

“I did not call you here for flattery, sir,” said Lady Pole. “I called upon you for action. Do you accept the task we have set forth? Will you aid us in determining what has become of Stephen Black?”

Childermass considered the question. Vinculus, and by association the Raven King’s Book, his glory and burden both, called to him. He would turn his back upon the work of its translation to assist a woman who had attempted to assassinate his former master, and blown a hole through his own shoulder in the process. A woman who had spent nearly every waking moment since her liberation writing scathing letters to every notable personage in literature and politics—for, as Lady Pole had kept abreast of Childermass’s activities since last they’d parted, so too had Childermass kept his ear to the ground for news of her doings, and of many other things besides—denouncing Mr Norrell and condemning all who had ever rendered him their service. A woman who had gone from a frail beauty, to a glorious dame of society, to a reclusive madwoman, and now a force to be reckoned with in all possible aspects of life.

The more Childermass thought upon it, the wider his half-smile crept, until it covered both his cheeks. At length, he covered his growing chuckle with a cough.

“Yes,” he replied. “I will help you.”

For as much as Lady Pole intrigued him, so too did the mystery of Stephen Black.