Ms. Calpurnia Crisp, granddaughter of a man who was once highly esteemed as an expert in the dispensing of sorcery, daughter of a woman and a colleague of a number of others who were esteemed for quite the opposite, instructor of the next generation to follow in or deviate from their footsteps (whichever was best), was experiencing one of her life's greater challenges at the moment.
Most men and women of magic, she'd found, possessed an extraordinary lack of patience and understanding. More often than not, they simply were not capable of dealing with annoyances without resorting to petty tactics and the misuse of their own abilities. It was not a practical way of thinking.
Magic society would be a far better place, Calpurnia often thought, if all witches and warlocks were required to spend a semester teaching seventh-graders Shakespeare. It did wonders for one's ability to repress.
Most school districts, Calpurnia knew, left Shakespeare to the high schools. The lower grades were given less challenging literature, in the hopes that they would someday work up to it. The Hillsborough School District had no such compunctions. "An accelerated path to higher learning will give our children greater opportunities and encourage them to further their education," the superintendent had said at a meeting of the school board. "Our school will outmatch our competitors and improve scores on standardized tests, giving the community a better impression of our capabilities," the principal had said at a parent-teacher meeting. "You can lead a middle-schooler to water but you can't make him stop asking why you couldn't go to a pool instead," one of Calpurnia's coworkers had grumbled at a less official gathering. There was nothing wrong with the mental faculties of her students, per se. Well. Perhaps that was not quite the right word. There was nothing unexpected about the mental faculties of her students. They couldn't help being thirteen. It wasn't their fault.
Currently, she was attempting to create a lesson plan for Romeo and Juliet without breaking her students' fragile little brains or sacrificing her English major's soul. (In a sense, of course, she had double-majored. But magic wasn't everything, especially when it came to maintaining a normal appearance in the outside community. Besides, she'd always been rather fond of books.) If she'd had her druthers---but she rarely did---she would have been teaching one of the more interesting plays; it was probably too much to expect seventh-graders to understand the subtleties of The Merchant of Venice, but of course Midsummer was always good for a laugh. As it was, however, the curriculum required awareness of the Bard's most undeservingly famous creation. The first time Calpurnia had been subjected to the play, she'd realized that the most well-known love story in the western world was about a couple not only thoroughly underage but possessing between them enough sense to fill a teaspoon. It had not done much for her enjoyment of the work. It had done even less for her views on romance.
Which was why she appreciated the distraction when a knock on the door revealed Aloysius Crumrin, hat tipped and eyebrow already raised. He glanced at the mess of papers on her desk. "Shakespeare time again, is it?"
"Every year I think perhaps it will get a little easier, and every year I find my renowned optimism draining away a little more," Calpurnia replied. "Do come in. Would you care for some tea, or is this a more urgent matter?"
"Urgency has many definitions," Aloysius said. "In this instance, one could say it is urgent to distract you from the trials and tribulations of what I might add is your chosen career so that you will not be too vengeful to your pupils in the morning. Tea, of course, is a significant factor in the plan."
Calpurnia rose from her chair and moved towards the kitchen. Her home was not a large or elaborate one, unlike the elegant emptiness of the Crumrin mansion's halls, but it served its purpose well enough, and she'd grown a kind of affection for the simplicity of a Spartan lifestyle. Oh, to be sure, her new position on the Council could have afforded her many things, but what use would they be? A bed, a kitchen, functioning plumbing, and sufficient space for books---admittedly, there was the small spell on the basement that created somewhat more space for books than actually existed beneath the house, but that was trivial.
"Your darling Courtney is one of the worst of them, you know," Calpurnia said, as she poured water into the kettle and set it on the stove. "She is still of the fixed opinion that all schooling is beneath her. Sometimes she's better in the other class; sometimes she is not. I can only imagine what she'll be like when she's older."
"A fine and refreshing heir to a stodgy old family's legacy," Aloysius replied. He removed his hat and took a seat on one of the chairs next to the small hardwood table that served as her dining room. "I was little better at her age. She'll be all the wiser for it one day."
Calpurnia leaned her back against the counter. "Why, Aloysius, don't tell me you're making plans to hand it all over to her so soon. You're a fixture of society. Having you replaced by a rebellious young woman with only a smattering of magical experience to her name would cause quite the upheaval."
"As I said, a fine and refreshing heir," Aloysius said. "She'll be experienced enough when it becomes necessary for her to step up. Until then, I can content myself with the knowledge that the Crumrin name will continue to vex and torment society after I am gone. It's all one can ever ask for."
"It's strange to think of a Hillsborough without a dreaded Old Man Crumrin looming over us all in his dismal mansion," Calpurnia said. "And I should hope it won't exist for some time. The idea of Courtney in full possession of her skills without anyone to keep her in check--Romeo and Juliet is a far preferable torment."
Aloysius' lips curved upwards in as much of a smile as he ever gave. "I shall be quite content to leave this foolish place behind. Besides, surely you will have some further success in restraining her? From what she tells me, you're one of her most formidable foes."
"High praise indeed, coming from a girl who lied to Tommy Rawhead with nary a blink," Calpurnia replied. "But don't think you can dodge the subject so easily. All of `this foolish place'?"
"Perhaps not all of it," Aloysius said. He inclined his head. "How is your mother faring? I have not heard from her in some time. Certainly her company is something I shall miss, and have indeed been missing."
"She does well enough, from what little she tells me," Calpurnia said. "The warmer climate suits her. She did ask about you in the last letter she sent, but I didn't have much to say. That was before your relatives arrived, of course. I imagine she'd dearly love to hear about what an inconvenience they are to you." She paused. "You could write to her yourself, you know."
Aloysius' expression did not change. "I was not certain she would want to hear from me."
"Certainty is often a foolish thing," Calpurnia said. She glanced over at the kettle---it had begun to sing, steam rising from its spout. Quickly, she turned off the stove and moved the kettle to the counter. "Earl Gray or Orange Spice?" she asked, turning back to Aloysius. "I'm afraid I'm out of lemon."
"Earl Gray will be fine, thank you," Aloysius said. She nodded, taking a small container from the cabinet and measuring an amount of tea leaves into the kettle. "I shall miss our conversations, also," he said. "There are few in this world whose presence I appreciate; you and your mother are chief among them."
Calpurnia brought the kettle and two mugs over to the table. "I suppose I should feel flattered," she said. "Or perhaps not; your favor brings a mixed bag these days. I can only imagine what the rest of the Council would think to see me consorting with you."
"I see no consorting of any kind," Aloysius said. "Only tea, and old friends. There are worse dalliances to be had---many of which, I'm sure, the Council keep as their own secrets. We've had proof enough of that, at least."
"Sometimes I wonder if there isn't a direct connection between magic and greed," Calpurnia said. "Or the combination of magic and power, I suppose. And then I wonder if any of us is truly free from it."
Aloysius raised an eyebrow. "I do not brag when I say that the Crumrins have always been among the foremost families of sorcery, and as of yet none of us has demonstrated a crippling desire for personal gain. It is possible to control oneself, as I'm sure you're aware."
"And yet every day I feel the urge to turn many of my students into earthworms," Calpurnia said. "It is only the knowledge that I would have to explain myself to the principal that keeps me from doing it. Wretched man. Perhaps he could be an earthworm, too."
"Ah, well, ill wishes upon one's students are something every teacher must fight, magical or not," Aloysius said. "Surely there is the satisfaction of having pushed them however small a distance towards maturity?"
"Adulthood, perhaps," Calpurnia replied. "I expect very little in the way of maturity from the people of this town, no matter their age. It is not a phenomenon confined to one aspect of society or another; it may be that it is simply an affectation of humanity, regardless of any other descriptor." She glanced at the kettle. It provided neither agreement nor dissent. "But surely we are not the only people of both intelligence and sense in the world," she continued. "Else the world would not have lasted nearly as long."
Aloysius merely nodded. "Indeed, and I should hope the world will continue to last for some time yet." He paused, and there was a comfortable silence then, neither of them having much more to say on the subject (or perhaps wishing to proceed to less depressing matters). Eventually, Calpurnia lifted the kettle to strain the tea leaves, but hesitated.
"I think," Calpurnia said, "lately it has been a time where it would have been good to know what was coming. Divination is not something I typically employ, but with events such as they are..."
"Divination is not something anyone with any modicum of sense employs," Aloysius said. "But it can be used to great effect when all one is seeking is entertainment. Which is, I believe, what such informal meetings as these are intended for."
Calpurnia poured the kettle directly into the mugs, letting the leaves sift to the bottom. She closed her eyes; Aloysius did the same. Incantations were not strictly required for that method of divination, but under her breath, she whispered a very basic word, a word which was used for many things, some of which indeed had nothing to do with sorcery at all. There was the faintest frisson of something whispering through the air, the old, dried-leaves-and-dirt feel of herbal magic. She and Aloysius opened their eyes. The tea leaves stared mutely at them from the bottoms of the mugs.
"Hm," Calpurnia said, examining hers. "I suppose that this could be construed as a corkscrew. I shall soon be vexed by inquisition. I could have told you that much; I'm a teacher, after all. What inevitable tragedy awaits you?"
"Nothing," Aloysius said. His cragged face appeared perplexed.
"Nothing?" Calpurnia asked. "The very purpose of reading leaves is to find meaning in the most random of patterns. No matter what the pattern is, it cannot be nothing."
"Nevertheless, this is not a pattern with which I am familiar," Aloysius said, pushing the mug towards her. "Nor a pattern I believe is recorded in any book. Either it means nothing, or it means something not yet discovered. I know which I would prefer."
Calpurnia looked at the leaves. They were arranged in a perfect spiral.
"Ah," she said, not sure of what else to say.
"Of course one can never put much trust in these," Aloysius said. "If anything, it means that the tea is exceptionally contrary, which should suit my tastes to the letter."
"In that case, I believe I have some contrary biscuits in the cupboard," Calpurnia said. "They may have currants in them, or they may not; it is difficult to tell."
"Exactly what is needed," Aloysius said with a small smile, and she responded in kind.
The evening continued apace, with the biscuits proving to indeed have currants in them and the tea, once strained, a thoroughly pleasant blend that tasted nothing like doom or uncertainty. (As to what did, well, in Calpurnia's experience--chiefly old lemons.) The conversation rambled from things inconsequential (the varying attitudes of her students; the latest idiocy from the Council) to things somewhat less so (the varying attitudes of her employers; a different latest idiocy from the Council) to things having nothing to do with them at all (how unremarkable the weather had been lately, which was perhaps remarkable in itself, given that a town full or sorcery often produces unusual weather conditions; a new book written by a favorite non-sorcerer author). All in all, it was a pleasant time, regardless of portents. At the end of it, Aloysius politely said that an old man such as himself should not stay out too late, so as to disturb neither his tired bones nor his sleeping relatives. Calpurnia agreed; she had work to do, anyway.
She saw him to the door. "I do enjoy these visits," she said. "And again I encourage you to take up a correspondence with my mother. She would be glad of it."
"Perhaps I shall, then," Aloysius said. "In the copious spare time I have when not committing treachery against the Council." He put on his hat, and tipped it to her once more. "Good evening, Calpurnia."
"Good evening, Aloysius," Calpurnia replied, and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. His face showed only a moment of surprise before relaxing back into its normal foreboding state. Then he smiled, again, and made his exit into the night.
Calpurnia watched for a moment before closing the door and glancing back to her desk. It was still covered in folders, handouts, and signs of general frustration. She sighed---but then, she had chosen this for her career.
Her mind alleviated by tea and conversation, she went back to her desk. The future leaders of tomorrow---oh, how she shuddered at the thought---weren't going to learn to distrust academia by themselves.
Besides, it would certainly give Courtney something to complain about to her great-uncle, and causing him both amusement and consternation was a good enough reason to do anything. Smiling with perhaps a little more satisfaction than was warranted, Calpurnia went back to work.