“But what of my duties, sir? It is my understanding that kings have a great deal of business, and as little as I want to be King, I should not wish …”
“My dear Stephen!” cried the gentleman in affectionate but amused delight. “That is what seneschals are for!”
John Segundus was at last running a true school of magic.
Or he would be, as soon as the cock crowed and the maids roused his charges from their beds to comb their hair and trundle downstairs for lessons. A trade school for the dejected children of workhouses, with learning letters as the keystone. When they were old enough, they could choose to be apprenticed, or else stay on to tutor the youngest while continuing their own training, until at last they would be sent out to teach magic in other orphan asylums and impoverished towns.
In the frigid dimness of a December’s pre-dawn, Mr. Segundus was using a silver bowl full of inexpensive wine to do a searching spell—searching specifically for one John Childermass.
He had always held Childermass as an object of fascination. At one point, he went so far as to inquire into the origins of the fellow, trying to find some branch of family tree on which to hang him properly.(1)
Mr. Segundus had little bitterness toward Childermass himself—indeed he thought quite well of his abilities, and after all, he had done his first magic at the other man’s urging. He yet remembered that gentleman’s offer to connect him to a new class of students, though Childermass had been the one to deliver the killing blow to Mr. Segundus’s first school. But some little superstitious dread dogged him, convincing him to practice a seeking spell, if only to make sure Childermass was safely at distance. Just as he had decided which hemisphere to search first, Mr. Segundus heard a steady knock at the kitchen door and opened it to the very man he’d been thinking of.
Blinking, Mr. Segundus wondered if he had somehow summoned the man instead of only locating him.
As if in answer to his thought, Childermass waved a dismissive hand and said, “I’m here of my own free will. My horse is in the courtyard.”
Without waiting to be invited, Childermass brushed past Mr. Segundus and made his way into the kitchen. He lifted the bowl Segundus had been working with to his lips and drank several thirsty swallows. Setting it down again, he turned to face Mr. Segundus, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve. In the pearl-gray light, his face was still narrow and brown, with dark, frowning brows. A faint, silvery scar marked where his face had been laid open the day magic returned to England. His hair was shorter than when Segundus had last seen him, and his clothes were rather finer. Childermass, it seemed, had come up in the world.
“John Uskglass is to return from the Third Kingdom by the solstice. He has requested the May King to host a Summit at Lost-hope on that day, and he would have every magician who has a wish to learn attend him there.”
“That is more than generous," said Mr. Segundus politely. "And are you to deliver this notice door to door to every one in the country?”
Childermass gave a sideways smile, as if at some private joke.
“He thought mayhap you would write a letter to the Times.”
Segundus looked askance at the other man, but his annoyance was overthrown by his own enthusiasm.
“What will he be teaching?” he asked eagerly.
Childermass shrugged. “I don’t know about the others, but you and I are to learn the King’s Letters, that we may learn to read his Book.”
“His book? What book?”
“It is writ on the body of a man. Name of Vinculus.”
Segundus considered this.
“How long should I be away?”
“After you post your letter, we shall take our leave. You will be at Lost-hope as long as my master has need of you.”
“But my first class is due to begin at 8 o’clock!”
“Are they to be magicians or no?” Childermass said, patiently rather than sardonically, as Segundus had come to expect.
“Well. Yes. But I hardly think fourteen students will fit on one horse,” Mr. Segundus said with unaccustomed asperity.
Crossing to the kitchen door, Childermass opened it. It was not any courtyard Segundus recognized, and the sun was full and golden in the sky. Everywhere, flowers pushed from the earth, and though tomorrow was the shortest day of the year, the air was fresh and dewy.
“All arrangements have been made.(2) You’ll need your ambition to be a schoolmaster yet, Mr. Segundus; the nameless kings have called for every orphan in the kingdoms to be brought to them, whether magically inclined or otherwise. I expect some of them will need to learn their English letters as well as his.”
Mr. Segundus rested a hand upon the counter to steady himself, nearly upsetting the bowl of wine. “Mr. Childermass. You have twice ruined all my hopes, and twice now brought me all my dearest wishes. I don’t know what to say.”
“Ask someone to bring you pen and paper,” said Childermass, nearly smiling again. “You’ve a letter to write.”
Somewhere a cock crowed, and the children in the rooms above began to stir and sigh, waking for their first day of school.
(1) Mr. Segundus had very little information on the man himself – even his name seemed to be formed of aether. It took rather longer than it might have for Mr. Segundus to determine it was not truly his given name at all, but some constructed alias of the man’s own. While he had traced the man back to a bookseller before he’d taken his position with Mr. Norrell, he was able only to learn that at some point Childermass had been to sea. Before that, there was nothing, so far as he could find—not a single connexion to a relation, living or dead.
In his idle moments, Segundus toyed with the idea that Childermass was derived in some way from William of Lanchester, or Thomas of Dundale, or perhaps even a creature fathered by a fairy. Jack Starhouse came to mind, even though he’d been ‘the first man to be declared human under English law.’
Jonathan Strange, before his imprisonment in darkness, had also sought the origins of Norrell’s man of business, and as he had used rather more magic than reliance on public records, he’d had more success. He himself traced Childermass to a woman in East Riding; the skull of a cat that had lived there told Strange what it knew: that she had been a witch (Strange did not know if the cat meant this literally, or only as an epithet) and a fortune teller known for her cleverness, her sharp tongue and her sideline in thievery—“Black Joan” had run a gang of child pickpockets, and Childermass had been in that ragged pack. She’d had a heavy hand and was quick to anger, but Childermass had loved her just the same. When he watched a man strangle her rather than bother to pay for his night in her bed, he’d fled and fed himself with rag-picking and whatever he could steal in London’s Cheapside until he met a printer who needed someone with small enough fingers to prize out letters that had jammed in his press. He stayed with David Cohen long enough to learn how to read before a fire razed the place, killing Mr. Cohen and his pleasant, homely wife, Esther, who had taught Childermass (then still Jack Voleur) to make latkes and cheese fritters. In the years that followed he’d served as a messenger, a chimney sweep, a stable boy and then a dockside laborer, mostly paid in fish. At last he’d joined the Navy to, quite literally, make a name for himself – and that name was John Childermass. Strange found nothing to suggest the reason he’d chosen the name itself, and wondered if it had been his birthday, or perhaps his mother’s.
(2) Vinculus had once drawn Childermass’s fortune, using the man’s own deck of cards. Those cards were: XVIII La Lune, XVI La Maison Dieu reversed, The Nine of Swords, Valet de Baton, The Ten of Batons reversed, II La Papesse, X La Rove de Fortvne, The Two of Coins, and The King of Cups. Strange would have seen the match to the past he’d discovered and considered himself well satisfied with the findings.