"Gone? Mr. Strange is not permitted to be gone!"
A very slight raise of both eyebrows would be sufficient; not a wringing of the hands, but certainly an anxious clasp; and a well-timed, ever-so-slight grimace of inconvenience. Yes, a human would be inconvenienced, having confined themselves to a carriage all the hours from London to Shropshire.
"Did Jonathan not inform you that he was leaving? Do you have some urgent business with him?"
Ah, but Mrs. Strange was even more striking with her brows slightly wrinkled! They stood at the base of the main staircase, the centre of power in her own home, and she was already off-kilter.
"Mrs Strange, I very much doubt that you might assist me in his absence." He paused for dramatic effect.
"You see, I am Jonathan Strange's magician."
Arabella Strange's response might have almost disappointed—were it not for the way her collarbones shifted in that resigned shrug. Yes, she would dance well at Lost Hope.
"Would you care for some tea, Jonathan Strange's magician?"
There was indeed tea. Why anyone would bother to imprison some dead leaves at the bottom of a pot and drink the infusion from scalding their skeletons, was beyond his few millennia of understanding. There was not even the pleasure of observing Arabella Strange's fingers curling around the teapot handle, for a maidservant lurked in the corner, her silences punctuated by askance looks at Stephen.
"Thank you, Mary."
Mary had ventured forth from her corner to bring cake. He liked cake. Eggs fared poorly at Lost Hope.
"Perhaps you are better off left behind, sir," volunteered Arabella Strange.
"Is that how you feel yourself, madam? I am sorry, I did not mean to—"
He snapped the sentence like a dry twig. No matter that he was unable to bring any colour to his cheeks, for Arabella Strange was distracted by the business of brushing a few loose crumbs from her skirt. She glanced upwards once more.
"I do not take offence, sir! Is it not a wife's place to be left at home, rather than dragged to a battlefield?"
Ah, but you are the field of battle now, my lady, if you did but know it.
"Surely you miss Mr. Strange? At least I have my spells to occupy my time, but to be left in the company of women, whose men have also gone to the war… But I am being foolish! I doubt that the enemy could harm him."
Trap laid, he watched the curve of Arabella Strange's lips as she blew on her tea.
"There is always Lady Pole. One must always look after one's friends, must one not?"
He watched the curve of her throat as she drank. Why, she even managed a smile, as if she did not bury her face in one of Jonathan's shirts at night!
"Nevertheless, I would feel safer had Jonathan taken a magician-in-training rather than a manservant to carry his books. Jonathan writes that the pair of them have been robbed once, shot at twice, and had their house burned down! Or was it shot once and robbed twice?"
This time his concern was genuine. He had spent so much time observing Mrs. Strange that he had not thought to look upon her husband. Well, this manservant would just have to go. Mr. Strange had company, while Mrs. Strange had none. There was no justice in that at all.
"I fear that I would not be much aid against robbers, madam. Mr. Strange has only instructed me in visions and weathers and so on."
"Oh, but Jonathan is always performing weather spells!"
She frowned at a slice of sponge.
"Lord Wellington is never happy, it seems, unless Jonathan can make it hail upon the French, or clear the night skies between two and half-three precisely, but only if the moon is waning and Mercury is in Pisces, or some such."
"Nothing is good enough for his Lordship. Even an army of magicians would not do."
The thought struck, as he knew it must, and Arabella Strange's cup clattered to the saucer, half-full.
"When you say 'visions' sir, what do you mean?"
"Merely that I can look upon a person, and see what they do, and hear them, and—why, I had come today to practice with Mr. Strange."
"Can you see Mr. Strange now?" she ventured.
His smile came quite unbidden. So did Arabella Strange's, he fancied, and it lighted her dark eyes like the morning sun.
They found Jonathan Strange amongst the dead. The blue-jacketed corpse was newly killed, and more recently, rather lively. The Gentleman found that he had forgotten whichever dialect of Hell was being spoken, but it hardly mattered. The dead were so dull. They always wanted to go home to their families, or to elope with their loved ones, or, occasionally, murder whomever had done for them first. Far more entertaining were the reactions of the others present. Their faces offered a delightful spectrum from abject revulsion, to fear, curiosity, and even awe. Yes, the magician had admirers here, and one taste of what war had brought him would not be enough. And there was the reaction of Mrs. Strange to consider. Lovely.
"Borrowed life," repeated the magician.
What a rude interruption into his analysis! Surely he wasn't going to raise another one?
"Borrowed life," repeated the magician.
And another? But sure enough, there were soon half-a-dozen. Were this Mr. Strange being a gentlemanly magician, then an ungentlemanly magician might give him pause. Fortunately for Arabella Strange, there were more strings to his bow than raw power, when clearly force would not do.
"Borrowed life," echoed Mrs. Strange. "Whose life, Jonathan?"
But Jonathan Strange, busy spitting into the mouths of the dead, did not answer, even when Arabella's phantom fingers brushed against his cheek.
"That's quite enough excitement for one evening," he murmured to himself.
He cancelled the spell.
"Well?" he asked.
After a long interval of Mrs. Strange staring at nothing, Stephen took Mrs. Strange's arm and lowered her into a chair. The Gentleman took the sofa opposite.
"Stephen, some brandy for Mrs. Strange," he ordered.
The brandy came, and she would not drink. Stephen, excellent man that he was, pressed the glass to her lips. The turn of events had been unexpected. Perhaps Arabella Strange's shock was for the best. It gave him time to recalibrate his plans, after all. The snifter was half-empty before the magician's wife took the glass herself.
"Thank you, Stephen."
At his voice, she turned her attention to him. Her tame magician, as she must think of him, in order for this scheme to work.
"I—I think Jonathan has killed…were you not there…?" she stuttered.
Even with her face pale enough to match the corpses' she was still pretty, he reflected. Clearly wasted on the magician—whom she now assumed to be a murderer! Even better! He arranged his face into some semblance of concern. A slight frown, steepled fingers.
"You know very well that we do not actually visit. I merely…submerge us in the viewing. Given the improvements over the last weeks, perhaps in a fortnight."
A necessary lie. What if she tried to interfere?
"I do not think I would like to visit Jonathan in a fortnight," she said quietly.
Her voice was quite firm, as steady as her grip on the brandy snifter.
"Not even for Lady Pole's sake?" he asked. "A life for a life, and so on."
The brandy had turned her cheeks to cherry blossom, he fancied. The deep pink of false courage below her eyes, fading to the whiteness of sudden fear, lingering at her throat. Well, she had asked to see her magician. Had been more than happy to see him, for some months in fact, until now.
"Whatever do you mean, sir, 'for Lady Pole's sake?'"
He shook his head, rising to his feet. Arabella Strange made to stand as well, and he dared to entertain the thought of placing the slightest of touches to her shoulder. His hand hovered, perhaps an inch away, but her body relaxed, and the moment passed. For an instant, he mourned the camaraderie that enabled him to see himself out.
"I should not have said anything. Until tomorrow."
Oh dear. Excellent. This was even more dire than yesterday.
"I cannot make them dead again!" Strange shouted. "I have withdrawn the spell already. I have shot them, I have compelled one to jump from the window, I have no magic to murder and now—."
This last was drowned out by a pistol shot. The man in the long, blue coat was not a very good shot. His target stared at the new hole in his upper chest dolefully. The next shot was little better. It elicited a stream of Italian from the insufficiently-dead and a raised eyebrow from the marksman.
"Interesting. Please do not compel them to any further acrobatics which may startle my infantry."
The man in the blue coat returned the pistol to one of the two soldiers attending this gothic masquerade. Both were rather comely, had rather better posture than Mr. Strange, and kept their clothes in far better condition. Either would be a fine adornment to his ballroom.
"What are we to do with them now, my Lord?" asked the soldier holstering his pistol.
"Compelled to jump? Can you give them orders, Merlin?" enquired the one standing near Mr. Strange.
Neither of them could quite meet their leader's eyes, the Gentleman noted. This must be Lord Wellington, of whom Arabella Strange had such a low opinion.
"We will do nothing with them, de Lancey. I do not think they are of any harm to us. Brief whichever detachment you require for the re-acquisition of our cannon and set off immediately. Grant, extract any further intelligence from them which may be useful to us. Merlin, if you would be so kind, make them more dead."
This last was directed with heavy sarcasm in the direction of the magician.
"They are already dead, damn you! That is exactly the problem!" he snapped.
Dead or not, a pair of the corpses found themselves shouldered aside, so that the general stood perhaps an inch before Mr. Strange. Strange blinked owlishly at the cockade on his hat, eyes bloodshot.
"Merlin, if you ever address me in that tone in front of my troops again, you will be dead, and then I will have the other magician resurrect you, solely that my army can have the pleasure of killing you again. Is that clear?"
Strange nodded meekly. The man pivoted on his heel and went straight through the same two corpses, the phantom Arabella Strange and the trapdoor, leaving Mrs. Strange clutching at her heart.
"De Lancey!" came the order.
The less handsome of the two handsome soldiers swiftly followed suit.
"What did happen to the Neapolitan that went out the window, Merlin?"
He might as well have asked about the weather in London, for all the keenness of his tone. Leaning half against the wall, half propped-up by the soldier, the magician summoned a wan smile.
"I do not think they recall how to climb ladders, Major. I expect that it is still wandering the countryside, asking passers-by for a lift to Naples."
Grant chuckled idly. He seemed more interested in brushing away the dirt from Strange's cheeks with one hand, and pouring a large quantity of brandy down his throat with the other. Arabella Strange lingered near the pair of them, expression inscrutable at being usurped.
"With any luck it will give Boney a shock. Go to sleep, Merlin."
The magician shook his head, mutely. Grant, busy sliding the hip flask back into his unbuttoned jacket, did not argue.
"If I sleep, they might…"
The dire consequences were smothered in a yawn. Strange swayed, then held out a grimy hand for the flask. Grant laughed.
"What might they do if you become inebriated?"
"A spot of liquid courage can't hurt, Major. Surely this war cannot become any more unusual."
Intent on confiscating the flask from Grant's pocket, Strange had put up no resistance to the soldier sending him reeling against the wall. Without warning, the magician found his wrists pinned to the wood. And then— It did not look like a pleasant kiss, all teeth and carelessness, he noted idly. Another twist in his plans, and another opportunity.
"How can you touch me, when I have just—"
Strange jerked his head in the direction of the corpses. Grant was laughing, giddy, leaning in for another kiss. Strange gave.
"How can I not, when you have just done that? You taste like lightning, Merlin."
"You enjoy giving orders, do you not? Tell me, tell me to…"
Strange buried his face in his companion's neck, quite unable to articulate whatever his desires entailed. The magician seemed very likely to collapse on the spot, and then he would be no sport at all. It might even make Arabella Strange concerned about him.
"Stand up, Merlin," Grant snapped.
He yanked sharply at the magician's hair. Strange adjusted his posture. He was panting, entirely out of proportion to the effort.
"Do you understand what I expect from you?"
"Yes, sir," Strange managed.
Grant pulled the magician's wrists higher with one hand, fumbling at his belt with the other. He knocked Strange's legs wider apart, forcing hm onto his toes. It pulled their bodies apart, and he watched Strange's hips cant into the newly-formed void.
"Are you going to improve this time, Merlin?"
He swallowed convulsively. Grant slapped him with his free hand.
There was a trickle of blood down the corner of the magician's mouth. It matched the brightness of Arabella Strange's lips where she had bitten them, in an attempt at silence. The colour had risen in her cheeks, and at the sight of Grant looping his belt around the magician's wrists and neck, it heightened further.
"On your knees, Merlin," he ordered.
The magician nodded frantically. It must have been intensely uncomfortable, with his elbows folded behind his scalp, wrists pinned to the nape of his neck. Nonetheless, he slithered downwards against the wall. Arabella Strange watched the pair of them, and the Gentleman watched Arabella Strange. Surely she would come to Lost Hope willingly, after this betrayal.
"Merlin! Go and move the nearest tributary of the Duoro—"
Wellington and his most excellent hat had returned. At the interruption, Major Grant went the same colour as his uniform jacket. He began frantically tucking himself into his breeches and fastening buttons.
"Major Grant," he said neutrally.
At least the soldier had the courtesy to stand to attention. Strange appeared oblivious, chin tilted at the upper reaches of the windmill, eyes half-closed, breaths so shallow that only the excited condition of his phallus in his breeches gave any indication of life at all.
"Ensure that Merlin moves the river Duoro. The river is flooding and it appears that de Lancey cannot reach his cannons," continued Wellington in the same expressionless tone.
"Er, now, my Lord?"
Perhaps mindful of his superior's earlier outburst, he swiftly added, "Merlin is rather the worse for wear."
The older man's lips twitched.
"I see that you are improving his condition with your usual expediency. Very well, after you have buggered Merlin into oblivion, kindly ensure that he moves the nearest tributary of the Duoro before first light."
At this Strange opened his mouth, then made the exceptionally sensible decision to shut it again.
"At once, sir," said Grant briskly.
"Yes, my Lord," croaked Strange.
"Jonathan!" shrieked Arabella, incandescent with rage.
Mr. Strange blinked. Perhaps he thought that the noise had been a gust of wind. The Gentleman was starting to like the company of these fellows more and more. If only Stephen were so obedient.
"Grant, how do I say 'sod off' in Neapolitan?" came a shout from below.
The last of their ensemble scrambled through the trapdoor with unbecoming haste. He looked half-drowned, a condition not improved by the green pallor of his face. He turned to the magician, who was still kneeling on the floorboards.
"Merlin, it keeps following me," he said plaintively.
"It does not appear to have followed you up the stairs, de Lancey!" snapped Wellington. "Get a hold of your senses Colonel! Now, assist Major Grant with the buggery of Merlin here, and then ensure that he moves the river Duoro. I expect that artillery back here by nightfall."
Coat-tails billowing, Lord Wellington found his otherwise-majestic exit blocked by the Neapolitans, who had clustered around the trapdoor, commiserating with their fellow at the bottom of it.
"Sod off," he ordered in Italian.
They didn't move. After a few moments, Wellington shrugged and turned back to his men.
"My Lord is still here," observed de Lancey hopefully.
"Perhaps we ought to go at Merlin in order of rank, sir," suggested Grant.
"Any further insolence and I will have you both court-martialled," said Wellington icily.
He shrugged off his coat, removed his hat, leaned against the nearest wall, and went to sleep. Strange looked rather disappointed. Mrs. Strange looked about to faint. Her eyes followed not the tableau of the two soldiers divesting themselves of their clothing, but the raw want shifting beneath her husband's features as he watched.
"One hardly imagines that this is what you wanted me to see, sir. 'For Lady Pole's sake' or otherwise," she added bitterly.
Yet she did not look away.
"If Lady Pole has a half-life, then we need only borrow half a life," he said earnestly. "Mr. Strange can do the rest, and Lady Pole will soon be herself again."
He let the possibility linger in the stultifying Portuguese air.
"Perhaps from someone who has had their half already," Arabella murmured. "Or a soldier who as like as not shall die soon anyway."
The Gentleman pointed at the handsome soldier.
"That one?" he asked, meticulously nonchalant.
"Yes," confirmed Arabella Strange.
He marvelled at all the textures of jealousy which she used to lacquer such a simple word.
"Yes. Restore Lady Pole to her entire life, and take—take him instead."
The Gentleman sighed. Taking one person to Lost Hope was about as much fun as taking one slice of cake. He was king, after all, and there was not a king amongst the ensemble: a spy, a soldier, a statesman, the wizard and his wife… Why not have them all?