The Gentleman didn’t like Jonathan Strange, he’d told Stephen time and time again. That being the case, Stephen would have thought it wiser to leave Strange alone; instead, the Gentleman visited him even more often than he visited Mrs. Strange, and all too often he insisted on bringing Stephen along with him.
“See, Stephen,” he would say, as Strange pored over some papers with a distinct frown on his face, “all work and no play. It’s no wonder his wife is so bored and stressed all the time.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but he didn’t summon you this time, did he?” There was no candle lit.
The Gentleman psshed. “He is not as talented as all that. I am gathering information.” He glanced at the documents Strange was looking at. “…boring. Let us be on our way, Stephen.”
“Yes, sir.” Stephen would have been just as happy to never spy on Strange in the first place.
Though, on the other hand, what followed was usually worse, the Gentleman dragging him off on his other errands—laying curses, stealing things and generally causing chaos—and then eventually back to Lost Hope, a castle that still made Stephen’s spine crawl no matter how often he visited. In comparison to all of that, visiting the Strange household was actually quite pleasant, only it made Stephen feel guilty in ways that the Gentleman’s other errands didn’t. Because he knew the Stranges, at least tangentially, and spying on them like this… well, it felt like a betrayal of trust.
Not that Jonathan Strange knew Stephen well enough to trust him, of course. The man probably barely knew him well enough to recognize him.
But Stephen was becoming very well acquainted with Strange indeed.
He had been brought by the Gentleman to Strange’s bedside in the middle of the night, and watched Jonathan mutter in his sleep, face twisted into a grimace. He did not toss and turn, rarely woke his wife, but he didn’t sleep well either. Sometimes he would wake, slip quietly out of the bed, and go back to his papers.
“Marital discord,” the Gentleman would mutter. “They can’t even sleep in the same bed.” Yet he would watch Jonathan working, not Arabella sleeping.
Circles grew under Strange’s eyes. Stephen stood as far away from him as the room would allow, wanting to give him some privacy, but still strained his eyes to watch flickering candlelight dance on Strange’s face, and the expressions that flickered over it as well. So much anger and frustration on nights like this. Loathing much stronger than any Strange would show in public.
His hand sometimes trembled.
He was working on a book, having retired from public life. Stephen had read extracts of the book over his shoulder sometimes, when the Gentleman called him over. He told himself that on his own he would never be so nosy, but he did find the extracts interesting whenever he read them. They contained more information on magic than the Gentleman would ever offer Stephen, certainly. Some of it, of course, the Gentleman gleefully said was inaccurate or idiotic daydreaming, but other parts appeared to be quite practical and solid—this always made the Gentleman scowl.
They watched Strange cry once, curled up in his wife’s arms, and the Gentleman laughed and Stephen’s heart hurt and he knew how much he invaded Strange’s privacy now—seeing Strange so vulnerable—but he could not look away.
He told himself he was honoring Strange, in a way, by watching. Bearing witness, countering the Gentleman’s scorn with sympathy. Not that anyone was keeping score—or that Strange would ever know about any of this.
All in all Stephen felt he knew Jonathan fairly well—in a way. He never really expected this knowledge to have any application; there was no reason for him and Jonathan to interact all that much. Then Stephen suddenly became the lord of Lost Hope and the king of Faerie, and a couple months later, Jonathan Strange showed up at his court wearing a bedraggled suit and a deranged but polite expression.
“I’ve come to request your help, Sire.”
Stephen gave him a long look. Hearing “Sire” from a man who used to see him as a mere servant—and a black servant at that—was satisfying. On the other hand, it was not exactly pleasant to see Jonathan looking as downtrodden as he currently did. He looked better than when Stephen had seen him last, had gained perhaps a little weight. But Stephen had hoped that what with Stephen having conquered the Gentleman and freed Arabella, Jonathan would be living a happy and wholesome life back in England, and not be showing up in Faerie with manic eyes and a dirty suit. (Not that he had been thinking about Jonathan. Much.)
(Jonathan was to him forever connected to his magic; he and Norrell had given it to him originally even if it did not exactly belong to them, and he felt a certain amount of gratitude and kinship. But even if he thought about Jonathan that way, he tried not to let his thoughts linger or grow sentimental. It was just that Faerie could be—one you got used to it—so very boring, not a single human about to talk to…)
He said, “What is the second magician of England doing in Faerie?”
“Both of us are in Faerie, actually, Sire,” Jonathan said apologetically. “I had to leave Mr. Norrell behind at the manor—the spell was very reluctant to even let me out…”
“You and Norrell are both in Faerie? In God’s name, why?”
The fairies at court all shuddered, and Stephen sighed. He’d forgotten that using any religious terms tended to disturb them.
Jonathan’s explanation was brief, if, well, strange: a curse laid by the Gentleman that had outlasted his death, entrapping Jonathan and Norrell in a black cloud which had carried them into Faerie now, along with Norrell’s entire house. Stephen frowned as Jonathan went on to describe all their attempts to escape the cloud thus far in excruciating detail; so far Jonathan had managed to escape it for only as long as a day, and even then he could not leave Faerie. His methods were complex. Magic for Jonathan and Norrell had so much to do with method, just as Stephen had read in Jonathan’s book when he was writing it—different from Stephen’s magic, which he handled as a matter of instinct just as the Gentleman had.
As he listened to Jonathan’s rambles, which grew increasingly off-topic, Stephen studied his face again. It was growing a bit more academic and less manic, but still, he looked so tired.
Towards the end, when the Gentleman and Stephen had come to visit him in his grief, Stephen had often wished there had been something he could do to help. There had been nothing.
“I will see what I can do to help you,” he said, cutting Jonathan off, “but I know little of this kind of magic.”
Jonathan paused. “Well, Mr. Norrell and I did come up with a possible solution to our, hm, magical conundrum, that might work with your assistance.”
“The curse was laid on me by your predecessor, the former king of this realm. Since you currently act in his place, you might be able to lift the curse by expressing fellowship towards me, or some gesture of forgiveness… It is as if I owe you, or the former king, a debt, you see, which I pay by suffering the black cloud. Were the debt to be forgiven…”
“I will of course do anything I can to repay the debt I would incur by your aid,” Jonathan said quickly. “Only I hope you would not trap me in a black cloud again… there are more civil ways I could assist you, being an accomplished magician of sorts.”
Jonathan Strange, Stephen thought, had been in Faerie and under faerie influence for too long. He was starting to think only in terms of magic, equivalent exchange, carefully made bargains. He thought Stephen would treat him perhaps only a little better than the Gentleman.
Stephen was not the Gentleman, though. He had come to realize over the past couple months that he had to be stern and a little inhuman with his new fairy subjects, or they would not respect him. But he still had a human heart.
“If that is all I need do, you need not give me anything in exchange,” he said. “We were allies in defeating the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair, and I hope we may be so going forward. Come here.”
He beckoned Jonathan closer, and Jonathan hesitantly came. Instinctively Stephen knew what he would have to do to break the curse, what gesture of forgiveness and amity was appropriate. He knew to learn forward and kiss Jonathan gently on the lips. There was a slight scratch—his mustache had grown long, and he had light stubble—but Stephen didn’t mind. It was very pleasant.
He had often seen Jonathan and Mrs. Strange exchange similar gestures of affection. Always light and friendly. Jonathan seemed to like being kissed. He seemed to like Stephen kissing him too, for he kissed back slightly, and touched Stephen’s arm. And when Stephen pulled away, he seemed calmer than before.
Stephen coughed. “That should do it, I think. If you find you still have the same difficulties, come back and let me know, and I’ll see what I can do for you.”
“I feel light,” Jonathan said. “I, uh… that is to say, I think it worked. Thank you, Sire.”
He bowed deeply. Stephen nodded. “You’ll let me know.”
He’d never been quite sure of whether the Gentleman was dead or not.
The tree in the center of the dancing hall had swallowed him up at Stephen’s command. Yet Stephen still felt some of his power radiating out of it. As if he were there, only held prisoner. Stephen had not quite wanted to kill him—if magic obeyed the will, it would have held back just a little. Someday, he thought, he’d have to finish the job. Not yet.
Sometimes he sat by the tree and told it of the day’s doings or of his own thoughts. He spoke honestly, as he never had been able to speak to the Gentleman when the Gentleman was free. Sometimes with bitterness and anger. Today he said, “Jonathan Strange has been by.”
The tree did not answer.
“I have undone your curse on him.” Stephen bit his lip. “I think he is a good man. He never deserved what you did to him.”
The tree was silent. But Stephen knew it would have infuriated the Gentleman, that he had pardoned Strange, that he had kissed Strange. The Gentleman was possessive. Strange was his enemy; what right had Stephen to pardon him? And Stephen was his… something, his servant or his friend, almost his lover by the Gentleman’s attitude though never quite his lover in fact. What right had Strange to taste his lips, when the Gentleman had never done so?
“I kissed him,” Stephen said. “I liked kissing him, and I may well kiss him again. Given the opportunity.”
He did not think he would have the opportunity. Nevertheless, he spoke the truth, and reveled in how it would have enraged the Gentleman to know it.
He did not think he would ever see Jonathan again, frankly, Jonathan having found a way to return home, but as it turned out, Jonathan was the sort of man who never could stay in one place. The black cloud had not stopped him with all its terrors, and domestic life could not keep him still with all its quiet pleasures. And so he returned to Faerie, time and again. And whenever he did, he visited Stephen’s court.
He’d recount any news of human England, any recent events. “They say the king is dying.”
“They are wrong, then,” Stephen said calmly. “I am quite well.”
“My apologies, Sire. I meant the king of England—George III, I mean.”
“That… is a pity.” Stephen had once tried his best not to kill the man, and while he hardly knew him, it seemed like all that effort would now be something of a waste, apart from the fact that it had preserved him from committing a murder.
“Some magicians are at his deathbed, along with the doctors. I visited him, but left. Magic cannot stop death any more than madness. I could resurrect him—you could certainly resurrect him—but…”
“But the way is tricky, and best left alone,” Stephen finished. “I do not intend to bring anyone back to life, Mr. Strange. Not beautiful women, not kings. Not anyone.” The natural cycle of life had a certain rightness to it, and if he started to disrupt it, he might not know where to stop.
“That is doubtless wise, Sire,” Jonathan said. “You do not want to know the horrors of such magic.”
Stephen looked at him sharply. “I will know whatever I want, and is necessary for maintaining my realm.”
“My apologies again. I was only thinking of my own experiences in the Peninsula.”
Ah yes. There were rumors of the black magic Jonathan had committed during the war. Stephen, more concerned with the far worse black magic of the Gentleman, had not paid them much attention. He had figured that in comparison Jonathan had to be an innocent. But he knew also how the war haunted Jonathan, all those nightmares—perhaps this sort of magic was part of it.
“Speaking of your magic,” Stephen said, “I could use your assistance on an issue that’s arisen with a neighbor.”
It was also Jonathan’s habit now to help Stephen in any way a capable magician could. Technically he was in Stephen’s debt, even if Stephen hardly felt that was the case, so he did all he could to repay him. Today it was a matter of coming up with a spell that would protect the borders of Stephen’s kingdom from the aggression of a neighboring faerie lord. It was the kind of thing that required more formality than most of Stephen’s magic, so Jonathan’s more technical expertise was useful. Even though in the end, Stephen was the one who had to perform the spell in order for it to work.
“So many of the spells you come up with require ravens,” Stephen said with a sigh, when Jonathan had written everything out. “And they’re devilishly hard to catch.”
“That’s not my fault. The Raven King left an imprint of himself on all English magic, and that’s the only magic I know. Blame John Uskglass.” Jonathan smiled a bit awkwardly.
“Why not? I already blame him for not disposing of the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair and leaving all the work to me.” Both centuries ago and more recently when apparently Jonathan and Norrell had been trying to summon him and ended up with Stephen instead.
“Ah, the former king of Faerie. Yes, the Raven King could have been more helpful.” Jonathan cleared his throat. “Speaking on that subject, there are people in England who say you knew him… the former king of Faerie, that is.”
“We were acquainted.”
“Ah.” Jonathan clearly tried to hold back his curiosity for a moment before bursting out with, “Begging your pardon, but I can’t help but wonder how that… worked.”
“I made a deal with him by mistake. From then on, he acted as if we were… somehow affiliated.” Stephen thought of all the things he could say. He knew I would become a king someday. He knew the name my mother gave me before she died. He thought I was beautiful.
“He could be somewhat presumptuous,” he said, “and often carried me off to this hall, or elsewhere. I knew him for some time.”
“What was he like?”
Stephen looked at him sharply. “You knew enough of him yourself. I would prefer not to speak of it.”
“My apologies, Sire.”
They edged back onto safer ground. Discussion of the spell. Stephen performed it before Jonathan left, and they parted on decent terms.
That night Stephen held a dance, like the ones the Gentleman used to hold. He danced with a woman who wore a necklace of teeth. Between dances, he asked her, “Do you ever miss the former king?”
“No, not at all. With him it was always dancing. Dancing becomes a chore after a while. Not tonight of course, your majesty.”
“Is that so.” He agreed, but to hear that this was all the woman thought of the Gentleman was somehow disheartening. Most of the fairies felt this way, as far as he had seen, even though when the Gentleman reigned they all seemed to love him.
“Now I have much more time to do as I please.” The woman smiled. Her teeth were sharper than any of the ones she wore around her neck. Stephen made a mental note to find some task to occupy her in the future; he was very concerned about what exactly it was she was doing with all the new free time.
“They say you’re the person to go to when you’re stranded in Faerie.”
Stephen looked down from his throne at the lanky, sardonic figure of John Childermass. He looked as dirty as Jonathan had all those months ago, but, Stephen thought, probably with less of an excuse. “Will you explain how you came to be stranded in Faerie in the first place?”
“I walked through a mirror,” Childermass said. “Now it seems I can’t get back.”
Stephen regarded him. Then he gestured with one hand, and a little rain began to fall in the room, even though there was a ceiling. Spells like this were as easy as breathing. “Rain can be a doorway.”
“I’ve tried water,” Childermass said shortly. “I’ve even tried other mirrors, sir, but it seems none of it will work. I don’t know why.”
Stephen hadn’t left Faerie himself since defeating the Gentleman. He would have been hard pressed to explain why, except to say, curtly, that there was little in the human world he felt all that bad about leaving behind. This was true. It was also true that since becoming king of Lost Hope (which he now called Hope Restored) he had felt an affinity for the place, as if he was a part of it. Either way, apart from the business with Jonathan, he had done little regarding movement between the two realms.
“Perhaps Jonathan Strange can help you,” he said. “He said he would visit me again soon.”
“Aye, Jonathan Strange,” Childermass said. “Perhaps he can help. You know what they call him these days?”
“No. What do they call him?”
“The Black King’s Magician,” Childermass said. “Some.”
Stephen was amused. “How do human folk know of his visits to me?”
“The walls between Faerie and the human realm are not so solid anymore. You know that well enough yourself. People cross, rumors spread.” Childermass tilted his head. “Some people also call him the Fairy King’s Bitch.”
“I intended to let you stay in my castle, if you kept a civil tongue in your head.”
“I beg your pardon, your majesty.”
“Jonathan Strange is a good and respectable man,” Stephen said, “he is my liege, and I will not hear anyone speak badly of him.”
“So the two of you really are close.”
“He is my ally.”
“Your liege, or your ally?”
“My magician,” Stephen said. “Do you wish to stay here and wait for him or be kicked to the road, to find your own way home?”
“I would prefer to stay here, your majesty.”
“Well then.” Stephen gestured for a servant. “Show him to a quiet room.”
He had never liked Childermass overly much; for a servant he was so very disreputable, even if he kept Norrell’s life orderly. Stephen had prided himself on an orderly appearance as well as a well-run household. Even if in the end it hadn’t meant much—his position had been made clear when Sir Walter had thrown him in a cell the instant suspicion had fallen upon him. Nevertheless. Standards.
And he didn’t like that kind of gossip.
Did Jonathan’s association with him taint his reputation in England? Stephen asked him on his next visit. He said, “My reputation, Sire, was already a loss long before you touched it.”
This was true.
At any rate he was glad when Jonathan got Childermass out of his halls, but the words echoed around his head. The first name, and the second. The second was crude—it made him frown—the first milder but still possessive. Part of him liked it. Maybe that small part of him was like the Gentleman; it was nice to have someone who belonged to him. That was disconcerting.
But, he thought, it was not really the same; the only real similarity was the semantics. He would never want to treat Jonathan as the Gentleman had treated him. If Jonathan was his—his liege, as he had said to Childermass, or even his friend—then Stephen would always treat him well, and, too, it would always be Jonathan’s choice to come back, to serve him. He would never try to control Jonathan, stop him from leaving. He would only be happy whenever it pleased Jonathan to return.
It was not always business when Jonathan visited.
There were quiet moments too.
Like now, the two of them seated beneath one of the trees of Hope Restored. It had always been cloudy when the Gentleman reigned here, but today it was sunny. Stephen did not always understand how he had changed the kingdom, but he knew well enough that it was somewhat his will that shaped the weather, even the magic, of it now. Today it was his will that all be sunny.
He leaned back against the tree. Jonathan sat rigidly straight, though he was smiling. He had been nervous since his arrival, and Stephen was still waiting to find out why. But he had no desire to ask. It might be something serious, and today he felt like relaxing.
“I appreciate your bringing me the pies,” he said. Jonathan had brought a picnic basket with him today, with meat pies and fruit pies cooked in his household. It was nice to taste English food. These days Stephen mostly ate the food of Faerie, all very rich and yet not often filling.
Jonathan said, “I’m glad you like them, Sire.”
“They are very good.”
“I’m glad,” Jonathan said. He wet his lips. “Sire, I must admit I have a request today. It may sound odd.”
“You remember you kissed me, in order to break my curse?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Could you—for some time I have been wondering if you might do it again.”
“Does the curse trouble you again?”
“No. That is not it. But… I find myself thinking about it, you kissing me. Maybe there is magic behind it, but I can’t get it out of my mind.”
He smiled at Stephen sheepishly.
Stephen said, “I would not mind kissing you again. But perhaps this time you might kiss me.”
(He hoped he did not show that he, too, had sometimes been thinking about that kiss.)
Jonathan said, “It would be my pleasure.”
He kissed Stephen gently. Then Stephen took hold of his cheeks and kissed back, firm and sure. The kiss lasted a long moment before they needed to part for air.
“I am glad you are my magician,” Stephen said.
“I quite enjoy it. More than being Wellington’s magician, or King George’s. You are the best master.”
“I’m not your master. Consider me…” He paused, again lost for words. A friend? Was that true? Friends did not kiss, if they were at all respectable. Indeed, with this kiss he had left his old respectable life quite behind, to the extent that he had not abandoned it already. He pursed his lips.
“I cannot help but see you as my king,” Jonathan said. “I pray you might take me as… perhaps a sort of consort? If I’m not being presumptuous.”
“That,” Stephen said, “sounds agreeable.”
“I’ve recently found a magical ceremony,” Jonathan said, “specifically to bind two men together, in a sort of romantic association—nothing as serious as marriage, mind you, not yet—unless you…”
Stephen listened to Jonathan drone on and found that he, like the sun overhead, was smiling.