It took several months for the average party of English travellers, undertaking the Grand Tour, to reach Venice. Time must be taken, it was believed, at each stop to absorb the art, the scenery, and the odd little un-English behaviours of the locals that made touring quite so diverting. Major Colhoun Grant was, by the standards of these travellers, making a rather hasty go of it across the continent, approaching the city after little more than two weeks. He did not stop at Paris or Genoa to marvel at the sights and absorb the culture, as was considered the done thing, but rather marched through the cities with a look of singular impatience, barely stopping for fresh supplies and a luncheon before catching the next coach south.
This would be because Major Grant was not travelling the continent for his own gratification and betterment. Indeed in his more bitter moments he would say that he did not want to be travelling at all, but this would be unfair. He made a decision to go to Venice upon receiving a letter from a friend and former comrade who had disappeared from a Westminster gaol a month previously.
He had initially been relieved to hear that Merlin, that is, Jonathan Strange, was still amongst the living; he had then been angered that he had been left to worry of his fate for so long, then finally disquieted by the actual contents of the letter, which was a rather large and intense collection of emotions to experience within a mere two pages of writing. From the letter he learnt that Strange was travelling quite alone, and it made references to experimenting with a sort of magic that would not serve well his health and already rather fragile faculties. He was still unsettled, one month later, by the final conversation that he had had with Strange through the little window of the cell door, moments before Strange had disappeared.
Still, Grant sometimes had cause to wonder why he would spend so much of his time and somewhat meagre funds tracking a mad magician across Europe. He was not responsible for the man, or if he was, it was merely by default. It was certainly not a responsibility he should hold so close to his chest. He had visited Strange's brother in law, Henry Woodhope, prior to leaving, and found that he was not quite of the same opinion as Grant, that what remained of Strange's friends and family should rally to him and see him home safe. Woodhope seemed quite happy to leave the lion's share of the job in Grant's hands. Grant also wrote to Strange's cousins in Edinburgh, but he had received no reply by the time he had left.
Thus with other options run dry, Grant would chuse to believe that he was travelling to Strange because, despite all else, he was a man of honour, though it had never done him very much good. And while others may be able to turn their back on Strange, he - he found he could not. He chastised himself for a fool frequently during his travels, and did so one more time as he opened the doors and was confronted with the unholy stench of Strange's rooms.
'Pazzo Inglese' was not a difficult man to track down once Grant found himself within Venice proper. Strange had taken up lodgings in a garret to the south of the main island, and was creating as much of a reputation for himself here in Italy as he had left for himself in England.
Upon further exploration, Strange was not currently in, and the smell appeared to be coming from a range of concoctions and powders that littered the writing desk, the contents of which included, among other oddities, a small dead mouse in an alcoholic suspension. A spoon sat next to it, and a glass sat next to that, the whole constellation of which made Grant distinctly nervous. There were also the odd pieces of food abandoned and quietly mouldering out of existence in dark corners of the room, which added to the atmosphere, and spilled substances upon the floor that looked as though they (in Grant's considered opinion) may be variously grappa, red wine and blood. Grant had never been a very fastidious man, but this was beyond even his limits. He was flinging open the shutters to let in light and whatever fresh sea air there was to be had when Strange returned to his rooms.
"Merlin," he said, and was alarmed to see Strange startle to a stop and, for the first time, look upon Grant with wild eyes staring through long and dirty hair.
"Well," said Grant, after taking a moment to collect himself, "you look terrible."
Merlin laughed, a short, breathy huff of a noise. "Grant?" He took a few steps towards Grant as if to confirm something, then nodded, assured. "Grant. Good afternoon, sir. I hope you're well."
"Oh yes quite well, and what wonderful weather the Italians enjoy at this time of year," said Grant with an air of trite sarcasm, "Merlin what the devil are you doing here?"
Merlin crossed his arms across his chest; this was possibly to cover the tremor in his right hand from Grant. Grant knew to look for it, however, and had spotted it quite plainly as Merlin had walked in. "I could," said Merlin, "ask the same of you. I believe I did not extend an invitation for you to wander into my rooms unannounced."
"Yes I cannot imagine you have many visitors," said Grant looking about him. There were a rather erratic collection of mirrors lining the walls. In the dark it had made the place most eerie, with moving shadows in the corner of one's eye. With the windows open they created a rather unnatural brightness in the room that was not entirely flattering to the both of them, Grant rather rumpled and travel worn, Merlin gaunt and dirtied and quite, quite mad looking.
"I have been working." Said Merlin, gesturing towards the desk. "I have been busy, I believe I have made a breakthrough this evening last. And so, as much as I am happy seeing you once again, and I am much relieved you are well, I must say good day." Merlin went to sit at his desk. Grant moved a chamber pot to sit on the only available-seeming chair. Merlin looked at him, enquiringly and a little impatiently. "Major Grant..."
"Merlin I did not travel for the best part of three weeks to see you for a three minute interview.” He spread his arms, phlegmatic. “I am afraid you are rather stuck with me for the foreseeable future."
"I did not ask of you to come here."
"And yet here I am." Grant laced his fingers together, placed them in his lap, tipped the chair back against the wall and crossed his legs.
Merlin hesitated, and fidgeted with the items on the desk. "I understand." He nodded "I realise how ungentlemanly I am being, but..." His hand lingered over the bottle containing the mouse. "I have reached a rather critical moment." Merlin looked up at Grant, beseechingly. "I do not want you to see this," he said eventually, though did not bring it upon himself to elaborate.
Grant looked at him for a few moments. "If you do not wish for me to see it, then do not do it. It is quite simple."
Merlin shook his head. "I'm afraid it is not." He smiled somewhat ruefully. "It is perhaps a distressing thing I do but it is entirely necessary."
Grant waited a few moments for Merlin to go on, but when he did not he pushed himself back forward, the chair legs clattering down to the floor, and leant with his arms upon his knees and said, "It can not be so necessary as to do this to yourself."
”No.” Merlin was once again shaking his head, more fervently this time. He held a finger up as if to explain an important point, but merely repeated "No you are quite wrong."
"For god's sake Merlin, what are you even doing?"
Merlin gave a smile, which started out somewhat embarrassed, but took on a quietly demented pride. "I have found a way to make myself mad."
There were a few moments of quiet, while Grant attempted to think of a strategy forward, and where Merlin appeared to be watching him closely so as to best judge his reaction, where all could be heard was the ruffle of pigeons' wings out the open window.
"Have you considered," Grant started, breaking the silence all of a sudden, "that a man who goes searching for a way to become mad, may not need a way, he may already have arrived there?"
"I have," Merlin nodded slowly, "and if I am mad then, simply, I am not mad enough. Not enough to be of any use."
Grant stood. "Stop this." He rubbed his forehead and attempted to keep his composure. "Or if you will not stop it then at least delay it for the moment, please, Merlin." While he had the man's attention, he continued. "I have travelled a long way to talk with you, in person. Step out with me for dinner, at least, and let us discuss this. If you convince me that this is truly necessary then I will come back here, and let you do whatever you need to do to make yourself mad. Hell, I will do it with you." Merlin laughed at this. "You would not be doing it alone then, at least."
This quite cut off Merlin's laughter. In fact he seemed to go in quite the other direction, and for a few terrifying moments it seemed as if he was in the grip of some terrible emotion. After a few seconds, to Grant's immeasurable relief, he recovered his composure.
"I have travelled nineteen days to find you, Merlin. Give me one hour for a decent dinner and conversation at least."
Merlin, still quite mute with feeling, gave a nod of assent and stood, following Grant out.