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The Skill of Concealment

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Colquhoun Grant’s time as the Intelligence Officer to Lord Wellington had bred in him a particular skill: that of concealment. That was all well and good when he was scanning enemy lines or attempting to move undetected through the undergrowth, but Grant found that his skill was put to best use in concealing his romantic disposition.

The truth was that Major Grant fell in love all too easily and all too quickly.

He’d suffered from this affliction all his life. There was his first school-friend: a tall, ruddy, red-headed lad of his years; he had forgotten the details of his face years ago, but he could still remember that crude laugh and his own sweaty palms wiped frantically on prickly wool. He never spoke of his affection. He often wished he had. Then, there was the seamstress’ daughter, who sewed bonnets behind the counter of the little shop near the inn in Norfolk. He was there on leave for an unbearably short amount of time. She was exceptionally sweet and quite taken in by the brassy red of his uniform. Her damask skin would turn crimson. She would accidentally stab herself with her needle whenever he walked in. But he left her behind in Norfolk and never saw her again. Then, there was the hard-faced Corporal who’d practically trained Grant, years ago now. He was a harsh man but the owner of such soft eyes, and subsequently the owner of unspeakable injuries. Whether he was alive or no, Grant was unsure.

And, now, a magician. Not just any magician, but one of the two practical magicians in all of England.

What was strange was that it happened so suddenly. Grant had certainly heard of the magician. It was impossible not to. Scrawled letters detailing the particulars of this so-called ‘restoration of English magic’ were gripped in the hands of almost every British soldier in Portugal. Lord Wellington scarce opened his mouth if not to throw the English magicians into some sort of disrepute – more frequently Norrell (as he did not know the name of the other). Colonel De Lancey had become so frustrated by the constant mention of these magicians that Grant overheard him wishing some horrible magic-related accident on the pair of them.

As one could imagine, the message notifying Wellington of the magician’s departure to the Peninsula was not met kindly. Not by anyone – Grant included.

The man that arrived, however, was not quite what anyone had expected.

He was a decent enough fellow, polite enough and clean enough, but Grant thought it quite indecent for a gentleman (let alone the chief magician to Lord Wellington) to have such an untamed mess of curls. Such a wild hairstyle would not do at all. It makes a man look quite mad, particularly in the lowlight, with the gleam of torches igniting his eyes. He looked altogether too much like a magician. Upon meeting him, Grant treated him with a vague dislike – the sort of behaviour that would give the magician some idea of his distrust, but nothing that could be complained of. What passed between the two gentlemen was in fact rather humorous (or at least it was to Grant) and he smirked as he considered how the men would react when he told them of this later.

He clearly hadn’t the faintest idea what was meant by ‘the Lines’. It was a surprise that this magician had ever heard of a ‘Wellington’ or even a ‘Lisbon’. He would not last five minutes out here, of that Grant was sure. It would be too hot for him. There would be too much noise for him. The men would be too coarse for him. Grant gave him a week before he’d be seen gathering his books, straightening his jacket with a fair measure of pomp, and scurrying onto the next boat to his cosy little house and cosier little wife back in London. After the magician’s first day in the Peninsula, it was the general consensus that he would not last long. Grant began to feel that a week had been optimistic.

Every glance he got of that wild hair over the next few weeks was a surprise for Grant. He was persisting. He had tenacity; one had to commend him for that.

In all, the magician’s presence was not a particular inconvenience for Grant. In fact, he’d become quite the hot topic of conversation over the evening’s billiards. De Lancey would find himself in such rabid hysterics over some of the magician’s antics that he could hardly finish a game.

Grant would think of the magician often, barely aware of it.

However, the magician’s harmless presence began to grate once Wellington had decided to trust the fellow. He appointed the man on missions: the way he would any other soldier. Grant had the thought that the magician was performing some kind of enchantment – transforming the Duke into a man who would not think twice before employing magical means of warfare. The man who asked Strange on this mission was not the Wellington Grant had known – it was as if the very substance of the man had evaporated in the dense Portuguese heat, leaving the romantic framework. A framework that was quite besotted with English Magic. This thought, of course, was pure fantasy and Grant filed it away.

To be frank, the loss of the artillery had been Grant’s fault so he saw this mission as his purgatory. The movement of a forest? God, the thing was absurd. Nothing but a waste of time, resources and energy – and an unnecessary risk of life. The orders were Wellington’s own but Grant vented his frustration upon the magician’s head. He did not refrain from snide remarks – mimicking those uttered by Wellington before Strange had arrived. Strange would respond with something equally snide, but more fervent. Grant thanked his soldier’s temperament; personal warfare was made all the more effective if one was not so heated, as Strange was.

And then the gunfire started.

He made orders. It was breathing for him. Instinctual. Like a raven taking to wing, Grant took command. He directed the fire. He did everything his position demanded of him. It was second nature. There was a part of him that thrived on it. Lifeblood. The British Army would never survive if there wasn’t something inherently violent about it. He was not at all unused to this. But there was something new. Different. Unexplained and unforgiving. A feeling Grant had not felt before. His ears swimming, body numb in the heat of attack, heart ablaze, he thought of the magician.

Fog consumed and guns stopped, and Grant, collecting himself, realised that he was not safe. The French had fled. The cannons were dead. But, still, Grant was not safe. He was less safe now than he had been in the midst of ash and hellfire. It was the same dread he’d felt time after time: when he awoke in the night remembering red hair, when he found himself lost for words in Norfolk, when he’d seen soft eyes behind his own eyelids.

And now he was sat in the clearing mist, thinking of nothing but a mess of curls.

When Grant saw the man alive, unhurt besides a little mud and a few scrapes, his chest bubbled. All air was forced from his lungs as if he were bearing the brunt of some invisible force: a blunt, bludgeoning blow. Maybe this was the magician’s work.

It was. But it was not magic.

It wasn’t entirely unlike stalking enemy lines. That same stillness, as if time itself had ceased to tick, but that creeping blackness, like ink spilt over a page, and the feeling that something terrible could happen, and will happen, when one is only beginning to enjoy being still. One would have thought that with Colquhoun Grant, to whom falling in love had become an occupational hazard, feelings would be detected before the fall. But they never were. They were just as adept at concealing themselves to Grant, as Grant was at hiding them from the world.

“Are you married, Major Grant?”

He was taken aback by the question, only briefly.

“A soldier has no business marrying, sir. It is unfair on the man and unfair on the wife.”

Into his mind filtered the souls he’d yearned for. He wondered what his school-friend would have said, if he’d ever uttered his boyish desires. He wondered what sort of a wife the girl from Norfolk would have made, if things had been different. He wondered what could have been if the Corporal were somewhere else when the gunfire started.

And he wondered what would become of the magician and himself.

But, like all before them, the thought was promptly buried.