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The Language of Birds

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December 1809

 

Georgiana felt the magic before she even stepped down out of the hackney—that pull , as if a hand had curled itself around her very soul and was gently working at twisting it free. At first she assumed it was the house, with the only two practitioners of English magic nestled within; but the pull was leading her away from the house, or at least across the street from it.

She sighed as the driver handed her down (by touching as little of her hand as was possible)—she was anxious to see Jonathan, of course! And yet... Well, she was also curious . Who could possibly be doing magic here, out in the street? What if it were some evil magic-doer, here on wicked business? She couldn’t allow such a thing! Not with all she could do to stop it!

Though, if she were to be discovered...

No matter. Surely, Jonathan would have to know someday. Was that not one of the reasons she had come, to see if he would recognize her for what she was, now that he was a magician?

She thanked the driver and asked him to wait; with her promise of an extra guinea, he agreed. So she turned down the street and lost herself in a crowd until he found a place for his cab and was too distracted with tending his horses to bother watching her. Then she circled back around, crossed the street, and followed that pull.

She nearly laughed when she spotted it, the man-shaped shadow tucked away against a hedge. It was a well-crafted, well-executed spell—she likely would not have noticed him herself, if his mere casting of it had not led her like a beacon. This must be Mr. Norrell’s man, the one Arabella had warned her about.

“It is as though he clothes himself in darkness,” she had said. “He merely appears from nowhere, and then leers there in your periphery, all large and dark and imposing. I do not know how Jonathan stands him, nor why Norrell would even employ such a creature but for some dreadful purposes. Do be careful, Ana, as you are almost sure to encounter him at the house.”

Arabella did not like him, and so for a moment she considered igniting the hedge to see him scramble; but it was a lovely hedge, still flourishing though winter was well underway, and it would be a shame to destroy it. And anyway, if the man were capable of this measure of magic, what more could he do?

That, she would endeavor to find out.

She stopped before him, far enough away to not make it obvious that he was being baited, and stood there looking up at the house. After a moment of feigned contemplation, she took out one of the letters she had in her pockets and perused its contents, then folded it up and tucked it back away, then squinted up at the house with something like renewed interest.

Eventually, after her most thorough elaboration on all of Mr. Norrell’s steward’s unsettling qualities, Bell had begrudgingly admitted that the greatest of these was his severe cleverness, paired with a rabid curiosity. “One has the sense,” she had continued, “that by the time he has blinked, he shall know all of one’s most treasured secrets, or enough to enable him to find them out within the span of a letter or two. Really, I do not know how Jonathan can bear it.”

Indeed, the man was certainly out here watching for something. She could only assume that it was herself, though how he had known she was coming when no one else in the house possibly could have was beyond her—for now.

Whatever his purpose for hiding in this hedge, it did not take long for the man’s fabled curiosity to win out. The pull of magic shifted, tugging her from her thoughts, and a deep, cold voice growled, “ Have you business with Mr. Norrell?

“Ahh,” she laughed, turning to find herself face to face with the man, “the shadow speaks!” She took a step back, as he was situated quite wholly within her personal space, and gave him an appraising look; she could sense no more magic being cast by him, though bits of it seemed to cling to him—a lingering shadow about his eyes, and fingers, and the tail of his great-coat. There was something about his eyes, large and dark and watchful, that she could understand Arabella being unsettled by; and there was something to his voice that seemed to linger inside her head though he had long since stopped speaking. “But good heavens,” she found herself murmuring, still distracted in studying his dirtied nails and worn clothes and solid (if slender) build, “is that your actual voice?”

A faint hint of amusement seemed to cross his face, but it was quickly hidden by a frown. “What business do you have here?” he asked, and she thought, perhaps, she should be thankful that he had swept past her question. “And what manner of magic is this?”

Now that did surprise her; she turned fully to him and drew herself up, straightening her spine. “My business and my magic are my own,” she snapped, and narrowed her eyes, wondering if there was something she had missed. She would not have thought Norrell to be so liberal with his knowledge—a spell or two, here or there, certainly; a couple of tricks to help his protector be more and more intimidating. But an awareness to detect her , when she was not even casting? No one could do that but the birds of the sky and the Raven King himself, or so she had been told.

She took another step back and eyed him from the soles of his shoes to the brim of his hat, but found nothing further to explain such remarkable knowledge. All in all, there was little of note to his appearance, beyond the intentionally-imposing affectation, his height (he was a good few centimeters taller than her, which was no mean feat), and... Well, she had to admit it: he was quite handsome, if one could only look past the scruffiness, and the scariness . Even so, much of the appeal seemed rooted in his enormous, intelligent eyes.

Her curiosity regarding this strange creature won out over her own sense of self-preservation, and she asked him rather desperately, “You must be Mr. Childermass; but what know you of magic?

He did not seem offended by her audacity, but he narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “If you presume to know me, madam, then you have me at a disadvantage.”

She laughed, taking solace in the fact that he was at least as unsettled by her as she by him. “Indeed, I have you at several. But I mean no harm to you, Mr. Childermass, nor to your employer. I am Ana Erquistoune, and I am expected by Mr. Strange, though not for several days yet. I have just quit Arabella, with intention to inform him of my early arrival.”

He rather glowered at her (evidently displeased to find himself lacking in information) and took a step forward, trying to tower over and intimidate her. She met his eye solidly—she was too tall herself for such a move to be effective, and he would come to find she was not easily frightened. Still, he growled, “Then why were you lurking across the street?”

She shrugged, secretly delighting in having gotten under his collar; she would not be cowed by him, nor any man. “I wished to take the measure of the man who would return magic to England,” she answered, more-or-less honestly. And then, decidedly more honestly, added, “I fear all I have learned is that he has a most remarkable man in his employ. And I do not lurk .”

His clever eyes searched her face carefully; after a long moment, the man smirked and tilted his head to the side. “Come,” was all he said, and he turned and left to cross the street, giving her little choice but to follow.

She did so, and found herself led not to the front door of Mr. Norrell’s house, as she had expected, but rather to the alley beside it and around to the servants’ entrance. It was certainly not the first time she had been kept from using the main door, and she knew it would not be the last.

“We shall see what Norrell thinks of you,” he informed her, holding open the door. “And if I find you to be lying to me, I will throw you out myself.”

“Thank you,” she said cheerily, stepping through the door. She found herself in a kitchen with three other women who all stared in varying degrees of confusion and suspicion—at least until they spotted her companion, at which point they shrugged and returned to their duties.

He nodded to them, and then led her out of the kitchens and the servants’ quarters, and along a winding route through the house, almost certainly with the intention of leaving her disoriented and unable to find the way on her own. Finally, he opened a wood-paneled door, and led her through into an immense and well-furnished library.

It was one of the most remarkable rooms her eyes had ever seen, everywhere lined with books all bound in matching calf-skin; and between the leaf-printed green wallpaper and the domed ceiling and the dark wood and the rustle of turning pages, she had the impression of having wandered into some enchanted forest inhabited not by creatures, but by books .

Mr. Childermass cleared his throat, and three sets of eyes turned to him; he opened his mouth—presumably to introduce her—but was cut off by a cry from near the fireplace.

Georgie!

She turned and grinned. “ Jonathan! ” He had already risen to his feet, and she happily hurried over and rather flung herself into his arms. “Oh! It is so good to see you!”

“And you!” he cried, hugging her tightly. “But so soon? We had not expected you for several days yet!”

“Did you not?” she asked, pulling back to fix him with a look of suspicion. “Indeed, our coach was met with such lovely weather, I thought you had surely cast some magic to bring me sooner!”

He laughed; at a stroke, she was back on rolling hillsides in summer, with mud on her skirts and twigs in her hair and berries in her hand, with Jon and Gavin at her side. “I am hardly capable of such as that yet,” he laughed, bringing her back to the present, in the library. “Although Mr. Norrell—oh! Mr. Norrell!” He broke away from her, grinning at someone over her shoulder. “Mr. Norrell, might I introduce Miss Georgiana Erquistoune, my cousin?” She gasped and hit his arm, a touch harder than she had really intended by his cry of, “Ow! George!

“Don’t ‘ George ’ me! We discussed this!” She sighed, exasperated, and turned; she had hardly noticed Mr. Norrell before, but now she found the master magician a curiously small man with a rather timid face and very critical eyes, tucked away beneath an old-fashioned powdered wig. She dipped into a quick curtsy, still too annoyed to be distracted fully by the man’s surprising appearance. “Please forgive my fool cousin,” she asked, “and my resulting request for your secrecy. I am come to London not as cousin to Jonathan Strange, but as companion to Mrs. Arabella. It is...better that way.”

“It is only Norrell and Childermass, George,” Jonathan grumbled—he had always been sensitive to his female cousins calling him foolish, though they had cause to do so with some regularity. “If anyone in London could find the truth of you, it is Childermass. And, anyway, I would hardly embrace my wife’s ‘companion’ as I do my dearest of cousins.”

She waved away the flattery, though she knew he meant it; Maria and Margaret had always been fond of the Strange boy, and he of them—but Georgiana and Jonathan had been as thick as thieves. He was the only person with whom Gavin had ever had to compete for her attention. “Indeed, we must be more careful than that. It will not do for you to show such familiarity with me.”

Georgie—!”

“Yes, like that.” She sighed at the dejected look he gave her. “I am sorry for it, Jonathan. But it is for your own good.”

“How so?” asked a reedy voice across the room; she turned to find Mr. Norrell (and, indeed, Mr. Childermass, though it was certainly not his voice that had spoken) staring at her intensely, suspiciously. “How is such an arrangement to his benefit?”

She looked at the man, astonished, and then down at herself, as though wondering if her skin had somehow lightened when she was not looking—thankfully it had not, so she looked back up at him. “Sorry, is it not obvious?”

Jonathan tried to step in, to clarify; “She means her, erm... Well...”

“My skin ,” she finished for him. “My heritage, my colour, whatever you wish to call it. Jonathan Strange, English magician, can hardly pay host to his adopted, Scottish, Black cousin, can he? It is not respectable .”

“...Ah,” Norrell eventually murmured, eyeing her carefully with his beady eyes.

“I do not like it, George. You have always been my equal, in all things! To see you lower yourself—”

“I am brought low by having been born, Jonathan, at least in the eyes of England. Whatever you—and my sisters and parents—may think of me, that does not change.”

“Are you so content with your station,” came the low, gruff voice of Mr. Childermass, “that you do not fight it?”

Only with all that I am ,” she snapped. She took a breath, working to stifle her sudden, sharp anger. “But nor am I fool enough to believe that my wanting for change is enough to make it so. Would you prefer I riot in the streets? They would shoot me like a dog .”

George!

No , I would not prefer that,” Mr. Childermass snapped back, though without half her viciousness. “But why not keep your title, force them to see you for what you are?”

“I am always seen for what I am; my name does nothing to change that. Two and twenty years I have borne my title, living under my parents’ roof, growing alongside my sisters, though my blood is shared by not one of them. Are you so ignorant to think that is enough? That it would somehow— magically , perhaps?—cause a single person outside of my closest relations to see me as anything more than a blight on my family’s good name? To see me as a person , of equal value and worth?” She scoffed, and shook her head. “You are not so ignorant, I can see that plain enough. Pray do not assume the same of me, particularly after having lived it.”

The man opened his mouth again, but Jonathan cut him off. “That is enough , Childermass.”

Mr. Childermass inclined his head toward her. “Forgive me, my lady.”

She looked at him closely, taking note of the coarseness of his hair, the brownness of his yet pale skin. In her head, she cursed herself for not having noticed it earlier. But now she could, at least, recognize where his sense of outrage was coming from.

“That is easily done,” she relented. “I understand your concern, likely better than most. But please understand mine: my name can never truly exist unblemished, no matter how loudly I decry that injustice. Now, at least, I am given the opportunity to not also tarnish that of my dearest cousin along the way. That is an opportunity I will take, and gladly, for as long as I am able. The truth is sure to come out someday; but if I might protect Jonathan and Arabella from scandal until then... Well, I would be glad of it.”

There was a prolonged moment in which nothing much happened—Jonathan put his hand on her arm, and she stood very still, and the man called Childermass stared at her quite intently—but the air itself felt heavy and oppressive, as if something very important had just happened, or was happening, or was about to happen. It was so striking, so tangible, that for a moment she began to wonder if someone in the room were casting magic, if maybe she had been mistaken upon what English magic felt like, if perhaps there was something more—

“I confess,” Mr. Norrell began, interrupting her worrisome thoughts and dispelling the strange heaviness, “I have never heard a woman speak as you do, Miss Erquistoune.”

She flashed him a wry smile, quite glad for the distraction. “Well, forgive me, sir; but perhaps you should listen to more women speak. I assure you, it is not necessarily that others are less proud than I, but rather that they are more subtle in showing it.”

He disguised it as a cough; but there was no mistaking that the noise Mr. Childermass emitted had first been a laugh.

“Anyway,” she declared, turning to her cousin with a bright grin, “a lecture is surely not what I came to give. You are a magician now! But, hopefully, not one who is too busy to answer letters from your family?” She retrieved the packet from her cloak—she had counted in the carriage, there were twenty-three pages in all. “The others were very sorry that they could not make the journey down, but I do believe they more than made up for the loss with letters.”

“Good heavens!” he cried. “This is all for me?”

She laughed, nodded her head. “Most of the pages are from Margaret, you know how she gets. But we are all very proud of you, Jonathan.”

He hugged her again, and tightly, before taking the letters from her hand. “I will get started on my replies as soon as I can, Georgie. I still have some reading yet to do, but I promise, as soon as I’m done—!”

She laughed, leaning around him to examine the text he had been immersed in—there was a sharp, offended gasp from the direction of Mr. Norrell when she touched it (merely to lift the cover, that she might read its title!), so she released it again almost immediately. “‘ The Rise and Fall of Porter Fontayne ’? I have never heard of such a book, nor such a man!”

Jonathan laughed, and nodded his head. “Indeed, Mr. Norrell has been generous enough to share with me a number of rare texts; his library is a treasury of knowledge, and I am very lucky for his friendship.”

This was all said with the utmost courtesy and respect; but there was a mischievous look in his eye that promised this would not be the last she heard of Mr. Fontayne, nor of the wonderful library—though certainly not with Strange’s esteemed benefactor and instructor present .

“Yes, I can see that quite clearly,” she said sweetly, putting a hand on his arm. “In that case, I will take up no more of your valuable time. You will be home for dinner, though?”

“Yes, yes, of course!” He grinned at her, but moved quite obediently back into his seat, and set the letters off to the side of his desk. “Of course. Did you bring our carriage?”

“No, but I have a cab waiting.” She leaned in and whispered, “Jeremy Johns was a bit flustered by our early arrival; I did not wish to distress him further.”

“Ah, yes, I can see that,” he laughed.

“I will show the lady out,” Mr. Childermass demanded, though he disguised it as an offer. He had leaned his body against nearly every surface in the library, prowling around to watch her from a variety of angles, and still had yet to be seated.

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Childermass,” she replied far too graciously, delighting in the annoyance that tugged at his brow. She hid her amusement by kissing Jonathan’s cheek. “I will see you at home, cousin. Do try not to be late?”

“I will do my best, Georgie,” he said with a bright grin. Jonathan had always been a strange Strange boy; but as strange as he was, he was equally as fond of her, his far stranger cousin. Even despite his proximity to the sort of man that could truly have her discovered and exposed—exploited for profit or destroyed for heresy, as she had always feared she would be—she was yet glad to be in London, if for no other reason than to have her favorite cousin nearby.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Norrell,” she declared, though it had been nothing of the sort, and though the man had returned to his reading (now that he no longer feared his books to be under any danger from her wandering hands) and thus spared her no more than a dismissive wave.

Mr. Childermass came and took her arm to lead her away, though neither Norrell nor Strange appeared to notice the impropriety (nor would she have expected them to). They left the library through a different door than they had entered, but he circled them back to the servant’s wing rather than delivering her to the main door. Near the kitchens, he pulled her to a stop and backed her against the wall; this was clearly a man well accustomed to using his height to an advantage, but this did little but to put his face very close to hers.

She would have shoved him away, but from this close she could see that his eyes were searching, wondering, verging on desperation; his voice was low and deep, but soft when he asked, “What are you?”

She leaned her head back against the wall, eyeing him carefully. “You Englishmen are so hard-headed; so confident of your own magic, yet wholly ignorant of anyone else’s. But even still... I stood in the library of the only two magicians in England, yet it was neither Norrell nor Strange who noticed anything amiss. Only you .” She reached out, hesitated, then pressed her fingertips against the skin of his cheek, in part to make certain he was real. “From one anomaly to another, I find you fascinating. I might just answer your question someday.”

He did not lean into her touch, but neither did he pull away; his eyes narrowed, but did not harden. “Someday? But not today.”

She twisted her wrist and curled her fingers, brushed his skin with her knuckles. He was pleasingly cool to the touch, if neither soft nor smooth.  “No, not today. But do not worry. I love my cousin dearly, and know that he holds great respect for Mr. Norrell. I mean him nor his precious English magic any harm, for Jonathan’s sake if nothing else.” She drew her hand away and crossed her arms. “If I did, you would already have felt it. I am not often subtle. You have nothing to fear from me, Mr. Childermass.”

“On the contrary, Miss Erquistoune,” he growled, “I think I have a great many things to fear of you.” He took a step back, and it felt both a loss and a relief, though there was still far too little space between them for decency’s sake. Without breaking his eyes from her, he pulled a deck of cards from his pocket, shuffled them with the swiftness that comes of a great deal of practice, and then lifted the first he found. It was spared only a cursory glance, but what he saw brought a quirk to the corner of his mouth—a subtle twist, but a thing that took his features from merely interesting to merely devastating .

“A great many things,” he repeated, his voice a rumble she seemed able to feel in her chest, “but not harm. Forgive me, my lady, for my harshness. There are many who would wish my master ill, and I would destroy them. That and mine own curiosity managed to lead me too far. If I must wait to find the truth of you, you will find me a most patient man. But I will find it.”

Ana tried not to grin, but it was hardly a battle she could win. Cards of Marseilles? And used to determine whether a stranger were friend or foe? This man was far more interesting than anything she had expected to find in London, and far more complicated than Arabella had recognized him to be. “I do believe you will,” she breathed. “And I fear I might even be looking forward to it.”

She took a breath, pushed off from the wall, and turned and walked through into the kitchen. The maids were still there, still stared when she entered.

“Sir?” one of the women called, but Childermass waved her off.

“It’s alright, Dido.”

“I am sorry to have disturbed you,” Ana told them with a nod as the man opened the door for her and led her out onto the back step; outside, he took her arm again, and led her in silence to the waiting cab.

He ignored the cabbie entirely, opening the door himself and taking her hand to help her up; but there he stopped, her hand in his, those clever eyes intently searching her face. “Take care, Miss Erquistoune,” he said finally, handing her up into the cab.

She looked up at the house, and back at him. “And you, Mr. Childermass.”

The carriage ride back to the Strange’s was a blur, lost as she was in thoughts of magic and shadows and strange, dark men. It was not until she found herself inside the house, having tea with Arabella, that she realized she had not paid the driver the extra guinea she had promised.

Mary, the maid who had come with her from Edinburgh, came in to clear the tea tray; but before she returned to the kitchens, she stopped and put a hand on Ana’s shoulder. “Miss—are you alright?”

“I... Thank you, Mary. I’m fine.”

Arabella frowned, leaning forward intently. “You have been most quiet, Georgiana. Did something happen at Mr. Norrell’s house?” A dark look crossed her features, and she hissed, “Was it Childermass ?”

“No! I—everything was fine ,” she assured them both. “I just feel a little out of sorts—perhaps it was all the magic? ” she teased, grinning. “But far more likely, it was only the journey here. I think I will lay down awhile; will you both make sure I am awake when Jonathan comes home?”

They both agreed to, and she excused herself to head up to the room she had been given. She did undress down to her petticoats, and pulled a shawl around her shoulders; but instead of getting into bed, she sat down at the little writing-desk, pulled out a sheet of paper, rifled through the drawers for a pen and ink, and began to write.

Chapter Text

December 1809 - October 1810

 

Childermass was in the library taking breakfast the next morning when Lucas came in with the post: two invitations and two letters for Norrell, and a letter each for Drawlight (who was very happy to have his “friends” believe him a permanent fixture at Hanover-square) and Strange, neither of whom had yet to appear so early in the day.

“And,” Lucas said softly, almost nervously, “there is one for you , Childermass.”

He frowned, looking up from his newspaper. “One what?”

As answer, Lucas held out a letter written on fine paper, the handwriting narrow and small and neat. It was uncommon, but not unheard-of for Childermass to receive letters directly in regard to Norrell’s business; but his name was written there in what was quite clearly a woman’s hand.

He frowned and took it from the young footman; the thing even smelled of rosewater .

He moved to open it, but Lucas was standing there still, watching him. “Was there something else?” he growled, as though he received perfumed letters every day; in truth, he could not think of a time such a thing had happened before, and the boy had some right to curiosity. But he was young and ambitious, and would never risk Childermass’ ire without a very good reason—he practically scampered away.

He opened the letter, eyes skipping to the bottom—and then the back—of the page, to find that it was signed, “ Yours, Georgiana Erquistoune .”

He grunted in surprise, and took a bite of his toast. The letter itself was a bizarre enough occurrence; that it had come from a woman he had scarcely met the day before made no sense whatsoever.

And yet, that it had come from the bizarre Miss Ana Erquistoune made a strange sort of sense all its own.

He finished off his toast, poured a fresh cup of coffee, and settled in to read.

 

My dear Mr. Childermass, it began.

Meeting you was a unique pleasure; yet I fear I may have presented myself unfavourably to you. I have no desire to seem a threat to you nor any of the household. Indeed, you seem to be the sort of person whose loyalty and—dare I say—friendship would be invaluable.

In Edinburgh, it is rumored that Mr. Norrell’s house is filled with wonderful, impossible things. I cannot begin to guess at the treasures buried within his books—indeed, I firmly believe he would have cursed me on the spot if I were to breathe too heavily in their direction—but of all I saw, the most remarkable was you.

I do wonder at your cards; they appeared handmade. Did you make them yourself? You clearly read them with a great deal of certainty (at least, as much as one can) if a single card was enough to tell you what to expect of me. That tells of a great deal of both practice and knowledge; and, if I were to have had any questions as to your cleverness, would have answered them quite succinctly.

I assure you, I had no such questions.

My cousin swears that he and Mr. Norrell are the only two practicing magicians in England, and when I pressed him, he swore it again. I made no mention of what I saw, but I know it for what it was. For all your dark clothing and demeanor, no man can pass into shadow so completely. That it had little effect on me was no fault of your own; it was a well-executed spell, and one, I imagine, you have utilized with great success before. But if there are naught but the two magicians, what does that make you?

I do hope you will forgive my impertinence. My mother always says women must not feel such curiosity as that which consumes me; but I fear I lack the ability to deny that of myself. Either way, you have your questions, and I have mine.

As such, I would like to propose a trade of information. There are things about myself I cannot tell you, but what I can I will, gladly, if my own curiosity might be satisfied in return. You are a person I should very much like to know.

Yours,

Georgiana Erquistoune.

 

Childermass read the letter a second time, finished off his coffee, and then folded the paper back up and tucked it away into his pocket. Then he sighed, and stood, and went about his duties.

The letters Norrell received needed replies; a notice from a bookstore in Bradfordshire about another copy of Lanchester (yes, of course they would take it), an inquiry from the ministers (no, but the beacons would be ready soon, one cannot rush good magic), and the two invitations to soirees (yes to Lady Deckebach, heartfelt regret to Lady Radcliffe). When those were finished, he’d had every intention of retiring upstairs, to the room he’d been given for the execution of his business; but by then, Lascelles and Drawlight had arrived, and he was loath to leave his employer alone in their company when he could avoid it. So he found things to do around the library, even did some of his own reading, until the gentlemen left that evening in Norrell’s company, away to a dinner at some genteel man or woman’s house.

Finally, he ascended the stairs to the second floor and entered his room and sat down at the desk. For all his attempts at making himself busy, he had not yet been able to get Miss Erquistoune nor her letter out of his mind. He took it from his pocket and laid it open upon his desk, then withdrew his full deck of cards.

The letter had certainly been in her possession for only a short amount of time, and as such would make a rather poor handsel. But, apart from having the woman herself sat before him, he could think of nothing better (and he rather doubted his ability to convince her to sit for such a reading). So he shuffled his deck, rested it atop the letter, and laid out nine cards all in a line.

The first three told him of her past, though why her life should lead with the nameless card, he could not fathom; how could a life begin with death? This was followed by Le Pendu , and then La Force : a sacrifice, which led to strength? What had she given up, in exchange for her strange magic?

Somehow the reading of her origins only supplied him with more questions, so he turned his attentions instead to her present. Here she led with La Papesse , a life lived in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. But it also contained Tempérance reversed, followed by La Justice ; she sought balance in her life, despite her own conflicting desires.

This much he could more or less have acquired from the letter, but he took comfort in the knowledge that there was nothing he had not expected; she was making no attempts to mislead him, or the cards would have let him know. So he turned his attention, instead, to her future: Le Bateleur , L’Amoureux , and L’Impératrice —the magician, the lovers, and the empress.

He stared down at the full spread of her cards, wondering at the story of Miss Erquistoune. How had she come to be? What was she going to become?

He sighed, shook his head, and shuffled the cards back into the deck. There wasn't enough of her in the letter. He would have to try again with something stronger; but until then, he would have to learn more of her the slow way.

He set out a blank sheet of paper, and began to write.

 


 

A part of her had not expected him to respond at all. To say that she was surprised to find a letter in his (unexpectedly neat) handwriting among the Strange’s mail, a mere two days after she had sent hers—three days after they had met—was a severe understatement.

Mr. Childermass was, quite evidently, full of surprises.

She hid the paper in her skirts as she gave Jonathan and Arabella their mail, then excused herself to her room and tore it open.

 

Miss Erquistoune, it began.

Rest assured, whatever my current impression of you, it is not unfavourable. I have given thought to the answers you gave to my harsh questions that day in the library, and I must ask again for your forgiveness. You have made a great sacrifice, and in my ignorance I insulted and hurt you for it. I will endeavour not to do so again.

You have asked your questions, and I shall answer as best I can. My cards are copies of a set owned by a sailor I met in Whitby. He could not read them. I did the job tolerably, so he let me borrow them, that I might draw them out to the best of my ability. My deck has been with me for many years now, and as such I am nearly as familiar with them as they are with me. Whatever skill you think is mine, it is the cards themselves that possess magic, not I.

Equally so, what you saw that day was a spell of Norrell’s, taught me long ago. It has certainly proven useful to me a time or two before, but it is not mine own. There are naught but the two magicians in England.

And yet, I have seen enough of magic to recognize its presence in you. You say your magic is not English—that is evident enough—and that you will not tell me what it is. Might I ask, at least, from where it comes? Your parents were African, or so I presume: is it theirs? Yet, if you were adopted and lived in Scotland, how could you have learned it? And what happened to your parents, that such an arrangement was necessary?

I have many more questions, but will restrict myself to these for now, with one addition: just how did you manage to see through my spell?

Because you expressed an interest, I will admit that I have few in my acquaintance whom I should consider to be friends. If you wish to count yourself among their number, I would hardly recommend it, but neither would I stop you.

Yours,

John Childermass

 


 

My dear Mr. Childermass,

I should like to be honest with you: I find it remarkable, how assured you Englishmen are that your lands and magic are superior to any others. There is far more to this world than the conjurings of your Mr. Norrell, and yet all declare him to be the ‘Greatest Magician of the Age’.

No, sir; my magic is decidedly not English. Nor do I believe it could ever be ascribed to any one nationality. That is not how the world works—except, it seems, in England.

I suppose that is the influence of your John Uskglass—to have carved out the heart of this land, and moulded it into something distinct, something the world, in all its ways, had never seen before. Or, perhaps, the true secret to ‘English magic’ is simply to lay claim to that which already exists, and then to call it your own. I admit, I do not know for certain.

My magic is its own, distinct, but not at my doing. It has always been, and I am merely the latest to play host to it.

In regard to your own magic, and to the spell you cast, make no mistake, sir: I did not ‘see through’ it. Rather, I merely felt the influence of magic being cast, which was, apparently, coming from a suspiciously man-shaped shadow against the hedge. In short, the very action of concealing yourself told me that something was being concealed. And so, the question must be asked: how did you know that I was coming? You were certainly lying in wait for something; and the manner in which I was addressed confirmed my suspicion that that something was myself. Yet I know that I was casting no magic at the time. Is it your habit to lurk outside of your employer’s house, keeping watch for any suspicious persons? And if not, how could you possibly have known I was coming, when even Jonathan did not?

My cousin does not know what I can do. Indeed, until his revelation, none of my family have known anything of magic, mine nor otherwise.

I shall warn you now, my story is not a happy one at first, though I am satisfied with how it has developed. My mother died in childbirth; the man I call father delivered me and, at the absence of any other family, took me home to his own.

I know nothing of the man that caused me to come into being, though the redness of my hair, I fear, does little to suggest that my parents’ union was either an happy or consenting one.

Either way, Dr. Erquistoune has done the job quite admirably, though I have given him more than a little grief on many occasions. I fear Mrs. Erquistoune has suffered more, out of my sharp disinterest for all things she considers requirements to proper ladyhood.

I shudder to think what she would say to our continued correspondence, sir; but I admit, I was well glad to receive your reply. For all their soirées and dinners, the Stranges have been unable to put me in contact with any whom I should like to call friend in London. Certainly, no one with whom I should care to speak so openly.

Thus, now that I have insulted your land and culture, and revealed the sad truth of my origins, I think I should quit before I give you any additional reasons to cease responding to me. Let me pose my last questions, and then I shall let you be done with me.

You mentioned the sailor in Whitby, and I wonder: were you yourself a sailor? You certainly have the build and stance, I should think, though I have had few opportunities to meet such people in my lifetime.

I also am curious—now that you have made me homesick for Edinburgh and my parents and sisters—do you have any family yourself? I have heard that you came with Norrell from Yorkshire, and your accent certainly supports that claim. Were you made to leave many loved ones behind when you came to London?

I have never before been so far from mine. It is a wretched feeling, and I hope, for your sake, that it is not one we share.

Your friend,

Georgiana Erquistoune.



 

Miss Erquistoune,

I think you give your opinion upon the Raven King very decidedly, for a woman who claims to care so little for English magic.

I am not in the habit of spreading secrets, and by bird and by book I swear that yours are safe with me. Yet neither am I in the habit of sharing mine own, so if I seem hesitant to join you in your openness, it is merely because I lack the experience of doing so. For the sake of being your only apparent friend in London (a fate I would not wish upon anyone, and certainly not upon a clever, magically-talented, and unmarried young woman of good name), I shall try.

I may lurk, at times, if it is my desire. But no, I do not make it a habit. I felt you coming in much the same way, I should suspect, as you felt me. You say you were not actively doing magic, and I believe you; but do you truly not know that your very person emanates it? I felt you coming before your cab was on the street. If you had been casting, I fear you could have done me some harm.

I had several occupations before coming into Mr. Norrell’s service. A very long time ago now, I joined the navy. The lifestyle agreed with me, though the sea did not. But I learned the ropes, and saw more of the world than I had opportunity to otherwise, and then moved on when it ceased to suit me.

I have nothing like what you would consider to be family. I have never known any siblings, though it is possible they exist. My mother, too, was black, though my skin is lighter than yours. I never knew my father. In York, all bastards are said to be the Raven King’s, and Joan never told me any different, though I was never so naive as to believe her.

Still, I am not so alone as I must seem to you. The other servants, both here and at Hurtfew, could be called family to me. All of them were hired by myself, and my cards and I are a careful judge of character. My people are the best there are, and I am glad of them. I do not envy the distance that separates you from yours.

John Childermass

 


 

 

Mr. Childermass,

On the contrary, sir, I know even less of English magic than you appear to assume. But I am well versed in English men , or at least the wicked and cruel ways in which they exert their will upon the world. Perhaps Uskglass was enough Faerie to be different, but I am inclined to imagine him just as predictable as any other.

I did not realize that you could sense my magic so strongly. I assure you, no one else can. But I shall endeavour to restrain myself, for your sake.

Yours,

Georgiana

 


 

 

Miss Erquistoune,

And, as an Englishman, do you find me to be predictable, madam?

I would greatly appreciate such a kindness. You are most distracting, whenever I have cause to visit Soho-square.

John Childermass

 


 

Indeed, sir, I find you the furthest thing from it.

Georgiana

 


 

Against her expectations, Childermass continued to write her. By the tone of his letters, it surprised him, too. He did not share her promptness, of course; while her replies were posted within a day or two of receipt, she could usually anticipate hearing back from him in two or three weeks.

And yet, in July, she left the oppressive London heat to visit her parents and sisters in Edinburgh and was gone for more than a month. The day after she returned to the Stranges’ house at Soho-square, two letters came from him, as though he’d been holding them while she was away.

She was grateful for that—there was nothing incriminating nor outrageous in any of their correspondence, but the very act of her staying in regular contact with a man and servant was well within the realm of scandal. She would prefer if the Stranges continued to know nothing of it—and so, it seemed, would he.

Chapter Text

October 1810

 

Jonathan Strange had had a wretched week. The Ministers were frustrated with the progress of the war, and blamed Norrell’s magic for the trouble. Norrell, chafing under the extra pressure, had been taking his frustrations out on Jonathan. With nowhere else for the blame to go—except upon the French themselves and, perhaps, John Uskglass, if only they could get him to come by and sit for their criticism—Jonathan had become implacably short-tempered. In the space of a week, he had argued with Drawlight, been harsh with his servants, very nearly called Lascelles out into the street, and practically quarreled with Arabella.

Thus on Friday, when Georgiana came into the drawing-room with his copy of Ormskirk and a bucket of water and asked, “Can we try another spell?” he knew exactly what she was up to. Still, he could not begrudge her the attempt at cheering him, no matter how transparent, and he did love practicing spells with Georgie.

“Oh, very well,” he grumbled, setting aside his own reading; but she grinned so brightly in response that even his dark mood could not prevent him from grinning along with her.

“In the kitchen, please!” Arabella called, not even bothering to look up from her embroidery.

Jonathan stood and took the bucket from George’s hands, and leaned over to kiss his dear wife. “We’ll be careful,” he promised, and Arabella laughed.

“That is what you always say, and yet we are out two sets of drapes.”

“I am sorry,” Georgiana chimed, looking sheepish, and Bell waved them both away with a laugh.

It had all started off innocently enough. Arabella had long since given up on asking Jonathan about his studies; but George had always been eager to learn, rabidly curious, full of questions. When it came to magic, she was certainly no different.

Norrell had a low opinion of women’s ability to study and perform magic, to no one’s surprise; but Strange had met the spirit of Maria Absalom, albeit briefly. Martin Pale himself, last of the Aureate magicians, was taught magic by Lady Catherine of Winchester, and taught it to his pupil and lover, Francis Pevensey.

If Martin Pale would teach a woman magic, then Jonathan Strange could find no reason to shy away from it, either.

To his credit, Strange lasted a week before he gave her a copy of Portishead’s A Child’s History of the Raven King . It was a full month before he started smuggling books from Norrell’s library home for her to read; another month before he broke down and asked to see if she could do any of the magic they read about.

She did have some measure of success with it, though only a little. Whatever they attempted, if she could do any part of it, it always somehow resulted in something nearby catching a bit of fire— always fire, to the point that Arabella explicitly forbade them from practicing anywhere but the kitchens.

George, of course, always unflappable, did not seem the least surprised or distressed at this such bizarre development. But, for some time, Jonathan could not seem to wrap his mind around the strangeness, nor to let the problem go.

Eventually, however, he came to the conclusion that the problem must lie in his cousin’s Englishness—or, rather, her lack thereof. While she must surely have some predisposition toward the practice of magic, she was a Black Scotswoman. There was hardly more of England in her blood than there was of Russia, or the Arctic, or Spain. English magic simply could find no foothold within her.

Satisfying himself with such an answer, Strange put the problem out of his mind, except to occasionally find himself searching fruitlessly for mention of other forms of magic in Norrell’s library—he was certain, if he could gain access to the texts kept at Hurtfew, there would be something of substance, but the Hanover-square books yielded nothing.

These days, Georgie only practiced for the sake of their own amusement, always with a bucket or two of water close at hand.

And yet, the lack of practical success did not deter her from devouring every book he brought home to her. She read them all, though George (always overly open with her opinions) disagreed harshly with nearly all of them.

It was nothing like discussing magic with Norrell—which allowed for calm, calculated half-sermons about the wisdom and foolhardiness of the Aureates and Argentines , or shiningly-optimistic projections about the respectable future of English spellwork. No, talking magic with George almost always dissolved rapidly into an argument.

Still, this, too, had its merits. No one else—save, perhaps, Childermass or Mr. Segundus—had the practical knowledge to disagree with Norrell’s particular strain of English magic, and those two men lacked either the confidence or the status to oppose him. Strange was the only person who could possibly hope to do so publicly, but all his available information came from the mouth and mind of Norrell himself, or at least upon his recommendation. He was rarely ever confronted with opposing ideas on the nature and usefulness of magic, except for that which came from Georgiana.

She had always been like that. The summers Jonathan spent in Scotland were some of the happiest days of his childhood, but on honest reflection, much of that time was spent sitting through his cousins’ tedious lessons. Dr. Erquistoune was a gentle and compassionate man, who had great depths of love for his daughters. The loss of his only sister had devastated him; but it also served to reinforce his devotion to protecting his girls from such a fate, and providing them with the tools to avoid the sort of life that had befallen the late Mrs. Strange. Thus Margaret, Maria, and Georgiana were provided with some of the best tutors Edinburgh had to offer; and Jonathan, when he came to visit, was put through the same rigorous study. She was six years younger than him, but George had been contradicting him from the moment she learned to talk.

“We tried the spell of revelation last time,” she reminded him, leaning upon her elbows at the kitchen table and peering over his shoulder at the book open before them. “Remember? I nearly ruined Mary’s chair, and she still has not forgiven me. Is there another we could try?”

“Hmm, that’s right, I had forgotten.” Strange scratched his head, and flipped a few pages ahead, wondering what else they could attempt. “Oh! I know! There is one in here on how to disperse magic that has already been cast—you might actually have some success with that! Let me find it, then I’ll conjure something, and you try to put it to end.”

George’s grin was bright, her eyes shining. “Oh, that does sound promising!”

It had about as much success as any other: Jonathan enchanted a sheet of paper to fold itself into the shape of a bird and fly about their heads, and George cast Ormskirk’s spell to perfection, exactly as Strange had done twenty times or more. But the bird simply stopped, shuddered...and burst into flame.

They both stood over the little pile of ash the poor thing had become, peering down at it with their hands on their hips.

“Well...” George began, speaking slowly. “In a way, that did work.”

Jonathan broke into laughter, louder and more heartily than he had all week.

It had been Arabella’s idea to invite George to London. Jonathan had grown worried by the tone of a series of letters from his favourite cousin, after the trouble with the Mathesons, when she returned to living at her parents’ house. At the time, Mrs. Erquistoune had written with an offer to send one of their maids as help with the transition to London society and a larger household. Bell had been brilliant enough to write her back with a request that Georgiana come along, too, her words woven so sweetly that Aunt Beitiris seemed to believe it had been her intention all along.

In none of the letters had there been any mention made of how long Georgie would be staying; in fact, no one seemed particularly anxious for the arrangement to come to an end. Now approaching three and twenty years of age, it was believed that Georgiana should be settled again, and running her own household. Dr. and Mrs. Erquistoune seemed under the impression that she was meeting a variety of wealthy, noble potential suitors in London, and that the lack of any sort of engagement so far was due to her inability to choose only one.

They could not be much further from the truth. But Jonathan and Arabella were so fond of the woman and her company, they could not bring themselves to tell them otherwise. Georgiana could be a little solitary at times, quiet and private unless asked directly for her thoughts or opinion (at which point she showed no scruples in sharing), but that suited the still-rather-newly married couple quite well. Yet when she did feel like offering her company, her temperament was perfectly suited to Arabella’s, and the two women had made such fast friends that no one in London doubted in the slightest that George had been the lady’s companion for years. And Jonathan had always considered her as much relative as friend, and could not be happier to have his old confidant and co-conspirator so close at hand.

She was laughing now, too, delicately sweeping the ash into a pan and dumping it into the fire. “Now, we could try that again, if you're still feeling a might bit gloomy?” she proposed with a sly grin.

Jonathan rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. “I have been a bit of a terror lately, haven’t I? I am sorry, Georgie.”

She shook her head dismissively. “No, no; despite my personal irreverence, I understand how important magic is to you.” She hesitated a moment, and then added, gently, “You...may wish to make your apologies to Bell, however. She knows you even better than I, if anyone could; but a wife likes to hear her husband admit when he has wronged her, even if she does not blame him for it.”

He hung his head, but nodded. “You are right, as always. I’ll speak to her tonight, find some way to make it up to her. Perhaps...a trip to Portsmouth?”

Portsmouth?

“Indeed.” He met her eye again, grinning. “Sir Walter mentioned it to me before he left Norrell’s house yesterday. He believes the Admiralty plan to invite Norrell and I down to review the Channel Fleet!”

“Good Heavens! Jonathan, that is quite the honor! Arabella will be delighted!”

“I’m glad to hear you think so! But make no mention to her just yet; I do not wish to tell her until it is set in stone.”

“Of course, of course. How soon will you know? How long would you be gone?”

“We should hear by this next month, I should think; I wouldn’t expect us to be gone for more than two weeks. And, of course, you would be more than welcome to come with us, if you like?”

Och, no!” Georgiana laughed, overemphasizing her Scottish burr. “London is south enough fer me, thank ye verra much. And anyway, it might be nice to have the house to meself for a wee while!”

Chapter Text

November 1810

 

Georgiana had thought it would be nice to have the house quiet, while the Stranges were away to Portsmouth; but she quickly found that it was little delight to have a house to yourself when it was not, in fact, your house.

There was not much she could do; her status as a lady was tenuous at best, even in Edinburgh. Here she was nothing more than Mrs. Strange’s companion, and as such was unable to leave the house of her own volition for anything beyond the running of simple errands to keep the household in order. She had no companion to allow her to attend any shows or parties, nor even to take a walk any further than the neighborhood; and Mary knew her as a mistress before a friend, and so would not even consider allowing her to help with any housework.

She found herself drinking a great deal of tea, and staring vacantly at a number of books she had no real intention of reading, and drafting a number of letters she knew she would never post.

Three days had passed, so dull and dreary that she had taken up work on knitting a new shawl. Her temperament had never been well suited to such diversions; the going was slow, and every few rows she found yet another error that required a great deal of unraveling and cursing.

She was in the midst of one such reparation when a knock came at the sitting-room door. She hurried to compose herself, to settle the mess of yarn and needles in her lap, and called, “Come in!”

The door opened only wide enough to allow Jeremy Johns to pass his head through it. “Sorry to bother you, Miss. There is a man here to see Mr. Strange.”

She blinked in surprise. “I... He is in Portsmouth , Jeremy.”

“Aye, that’s what I told him! He said he would deal with you instead, that he had something important to deliver from Mr. Norrell.”

“From Norrell? ” She frowned, but set her knitting aside. “Alright, I will see him.”

Jeremy led her to the drawing-room; inside, John Childermass sat, arms crossed, shoes resting upon the desk. A sideways sort of grin spread across his face at the sight of her.

Ana sighed, but smiled in return. “Aye, do make yourself at home,” she teased, and then turned and put a hand on Jeremy’s arm. “Will you have Mary bring us some tea?”

Miss —”

“It is alright, Jeremy,” she reassured him. “Mr. Childermass is a friend.”

Jeremy frowned but nodded, and quit the room—though he did so without closing the door entirely, very clearly intending to return and listen in for any reason to throw the man out. She chuckled, and busied herself clearing a space for the tea tray—the drawing-room was Jonathan’s favorite, and thus all flat surfaces were covered in books and journals and scraps of paper. He had given instructions that none were to be moved in his absence, but George could say with certainty that he would not remember where his things had been, nor notice that they had been moved. She could feel Childermass’ eyes on her as she moved about the room, but she did not let herself look at him until she was seated in her favorite chair by the fire.

“Am I?” he then asked, the first words he’d spoken since she’d entered. At her look of confusion, he clarified, “A friend?

She rested her chin in her hand and smiled at him. “I thought we had decided you were?”

He shrugged with an air of disinterest, though she knew him well enough now to know that John Childermass did not willingly discuss a thing that did not interest him. “To you, I suppose. To this house? Well, I do not think it finds me agreeable.”

“Well, I am in this house,” she reminded. “And while ‘agreeable’ is perhaps not the word I would use, I say you are welcome here.”

A strange look crossed his features; he lowered his feet from the desk, leaned forward in the chair, and stared intently at her. “And what word would you use for me, my lady?”

Mary’s timing was truly impeccable; she came in with the tea before Ana was made to actually find an answer to such a question. There was a bit of a bustle as well, as Childermass was looking quite frightening, and Mary was easily frightened. Ana helped to carry the tray inside and set it upon the table, as the younger woman’s hands were trembling. As soon as her job was done, Mary fled the room.

“Come, Mr. Childermass,” Georgiana called once the door had shut—though still not completely. “Have some tea, and you can tell me what brings you to see Jonathan when you know very well he is not here.”

“I cannot stay long,” he began; but he was already crossing the room and eyeing the still-steaming rolls and marmalade that had joined them. When he reached the chair across from hers, he removed his great-coat and allowed her to pour him a cup of tea, then settled into the chair with a sigh in the shape of a “thank you”. His tea was pulled close, but before anything else he cracked open a roll and spread it quite liberally with jam— he has a sweet tooth , her mind noted, without her consent. “I will answer your question,” he growled, lifting one half of the roll to his mouth, “just as soon as you have answered mine.”

She took a slow sip of her tea and leaned back in her chair, giving him an appraising look. “And if I refuse?” she asked casually, quite blatantly stalling for time.

He chewed and swallowed, and answered, “Then I will have another bread-roll—perhaps two, this is very good—and be on my way, and both your curiosity and mine shall go unsatisfied.”

She laughed at his frankness, though she found it refreshing. “It is Jonathan’s favorite marmalade,” she informed.

“Hmm,” he murmured, mouth again full. He was a quick eater, and she was running out of time.

“Alright,” she conceded, searching around for a word that could do this man justice. She took another sip of tea, and then another. “I find you...interesting,” she admitted, “but you knew that already... Compelling, perhaps?”

He was smothering a second roll, watching her carefully all the while, one eyebrow lifted above the other.

“Not quite agreeable, no; something both more and less than that. A... spiorad càirdeach , perhaps? A familiar spirit, as if you and I were crafted from some similar material, an essence I have not found in anyone else before. Cut of the same cloth, though we were each molded into something different. That is how I would describe you. Will such an answer suffice?”

He put two fingers, and then his thumb, into his mouth to clean them of crumbs—she felt her face grow hot at the sight—and growled, “ Aye .”

He twisted at the waist, reaching back into the pockets of his great-coat. After a moment of digging (just how deep were those pockets?), he retrieved a small, leather-bound book and held it out to her.

She set her tea aside and took it from him with a frown. “What is this?”

He lifted up another half of a roll and shrugged. “A book .”

She rolled her eyes, but did not even bother wasting a glare at the comment. Instead, she opened the cover—very gently, as it was clearly very old—and found the title. “‘ From Morgan le Fay to Maria Absalom: An Historie for the Moderne Witch ’,” she read, and then looked up sharply at Childermass. “This is a book about magic?

His mouth was full, but he was gracious enough to spare her a nod.

She frowned, looking back down at the title, and then back up at him. “Norrell wants Jonathan to read about witches?

Childermass snorted a laugh. “ Hardly . I couldn’t very well say I’d come to see you though, could I?”

“You..? You brought this for me?

He laughed again, popping the last of the roll into his mouth and licking his fingers again before retrieving his pipe.

She lowered her eyes to the book, flipping through pages to keep from noticing how closely his large, dark eyes watched her.

“I would swear that fire was lower when I came in,” he commented after a few moments.

“Was it?” she murmured absently, turning a page. “I could not say.”

“Hm. I seem to take poor notice of my fires these days.”

She chose not to answer that; and for the span of nearly a paragraph (on the studies conducted by one ancient lady of the applications of a certain root in order to reduce the swellings of gout), she was granted silence. But then, as she turned another page...

“‘Twould be a pleasure, if my pipe were to manage to light itself.”

She tore her eyes from the book to shoot him a dark glare. “I am not some show-pony at the charter fair,” she snapped.

He tried to hide an amused grin, busying himself with retrieving a box of matches from his pockets. “'Twas but an observation,” he muttered.

“Indeed, it was,” she agreed, then shut the book in her lap. “This is a book of magic, but it is not Mr. Norrell’s. I have seen his books, they are all bound and stamped the same. Not like this.”

“Aye, all his best copies.” He lit his pipe and nodded at the book in her lap. “There may be a page or two missing, or unreadable. The man owns nearly all the books of magic in England, and a good number of them are duplicates. The best editions get bound and shelved together in the library. Others he keeps locked away, where not even I—well,” he interrupted himself with a dark laugh, “let us not fool ourselves—where none but I can access. Any others that he feels less protective over, he has entrusted to my care.”

She ran her fingers along the cover, trying not to picture him reading it, alone in his study, his long fingers turning the pages now before her. “Norrell will not begrudge you lending it out to me?”

“Norrell is in Portsmouth ,” he drawled, “and, as I said, it is in my care. I have given him no reason to mistrust me with his books before.”

She leaned in intently. “So why risk it now?”

He pulled the pipe from his mouth, leaned back in his chair, and looked at her in silence for so long she began to suspect he would not answer. But eventually he shrugged, and turned back to his pipe. “I thought you might be bored.”

Bored?

Aye .” He shook his head, smirking. “Every so often, Strange will return a book Norrell had loaned him, and I will notice it might smell a bit of smoke.” He raised a brow at her. “I have never seen Strange with a pipe. Does he smoke?”

She took up her tea to hide her flushing face. They had been so careful—! And how could he know what she smelled like? The man was as clever as the devil! “No, he does not.”

“I did not think so.” In a swift, sudden movement, he reached across and rapped his knuckles against the cover of the book, still in her lap—she could feel it in her thighs, then in the sharp jolt that coursed up her spine. “I would hate you to grow bored, in his absence.” He retrieved his hand, but remained leaning close, studying her carefully.

A log on the fire popped—not her doing, at least she did not think so—and it seemed to startle him from his staring. He fell back, then lurched to his feet and lifted his great-coat from the back of the chair. “I must return to my duties. Even away in Portsmouth, Norrell has...many needs.”

She did not wish him to go—for reasons she would never confess—and rose to her feet, clutching the book to her chest. “When I finish the book,” she blurted, “how should I return it to you?”

He picked up his hat, stood with it in one hand and his pipe in the other, and looked at her with an expression she could not decipher. “I will return in a day or two, to retrieve it.”

“I...” she trailed off, needing a moment to remember what she’d asked, to interpret his answer, to formulate a response. “I fear I can be rather a slow reader. I may not be finished so soon.”

His mouth twisted into something like a smile. “Then I will still return, to see how you are getting along.” He placed his hat on his head—it was a sudden change, from the curious and kind Mr. Childermass, to the dark and dangerous servant of Mr. Norrell. The smile yet lingered. “Good day, Miss Erquistoune.”

“Good day, Mr. Childermass. And thank you.”

He nodded, turned, and let himself out into the hallway, where Jeremy was waiting just outside the door to see him out.

Georgiana finished off her tea, poured herself another cup, and settled in to read. The book was dry, and not well written, but still more accurate and informative than the paltry tomes Jonathan was able to extract from Norrell’s clutches. She wondered at how much thought Mr. Childermass had put into his selection for her; whether it was a little or a lot, he had found something that she liked a good deal, and she would be certain to tell him so when he returned.

Mary came in to clear the tea—Georgiana could not say for certain how much time had passed. “Is there anything else you need, Miss?”

“No, thank you, Mary,” she murmured; but then had a thought as soon as she’d said so, and called, “Wait! I am sorry, there is something, though it is rather a strange question. Have you ever noticed... Do I ever smell like smoke to you, Mary?”

The younger woman frowned, and shook her head quickly. “ No , Miss! Why, has there been a problem with your linens?”

“Oh, no! No, certainly not, all is quite well. It is only...something Mr. Childermass said.” Ana shook her head, wondering more and more at the man’s remarkable sensitivity to magic. “He must have been mistaken. Thank you.”

Chapter Text

January 1811

 

It was a difficult challenge enough for Childermass to convince his master to attend any of the numerous dinners and parties to which he received invitations; it was a very rare occurrence indeed that he could talk the man into hosting one of his own. But Jonathan Strange was leaving for war.

It had been Norrell’s doing, to some extent. But still the man was distraught at the loss of his friend and pupil, and Childermass was able to use that to convince him what a pleasure it would be to have the Stranges over for a proper dinner before he was gone.

Although his last visit had resulted in the loss of forty books, Lord Liverpool was again invited to join them—“He is to be Prime Minister,” Childermass assured at his master’s protests. “We would do very well with his favor.”

Lascelles and Drawlight would also be joining them—they had not been well pleased to miss Liverpool the time before, and were overeager for an evening in the man’s company. Sir Walter Pole was invited along, but declined due to a prior engagement. The Countess of Liverpool was accompanying her husband, and bringing along her companion, a Miss Chester—as such, Miss Erquistoune would also be present.

Childermass did not make a habit of being present for such dinners, but that night, he made certain to put himself inside the dining room.

She greeted him only briefly, and did not speak to him any further than that. Yet she watched him, nearly as closely as he watched her. She was getting better at controlling herself around him—he felt none of the dizzying heat along the back of his neck, nor the prickling gooseflesh that he had come to associate with any trips near the Strange’s street in Soho-square. Yet he saw the way the candles burned in her direction and flickered with her breathing, heard the fire crackle with her laughter or hiss with her annoyance. He did not know how Norrell and Strange failed to notice, nor any of the others.

But Childermass noticed everything: how she ate around her pheasant but downed the lamb and rabbit, how she frowned in displeasure whenever Lascelles and Drawlight spoke but glowed with pride at every one of Liverpool’s praises of Strange, how she clearly held no very high regard for the Countess of Liverpool’s deference to her husband for her own thoughts and opinions but still nodded and laughed politely at all the lady’s attempts at jokes. He saw the way Strange still stumbled away from calling her “Georgie”, the way she would sometimes still turn to him with a grin before remembering the role she played, and then turn and address her comment to Mrs. Strange instead. He saw the way the evening wore on her, the way she bowed her head demurely to hide the clear annoyance written across her face, the tension at her shoulders that threatened her perfect posture every time her words went ignored or her people were insulted.

When the meal finished, the party moved into the library—Liverpool was known to be fond of a game of cards, so long as he won, and Norrell was glad to show his collection off to company, so long as they showed no interest in taking anything from the shelves. Childermass stayed behind to help Hannah and the others clear the table and set the room to rights, but the rest they could handle on their own, and so he was left to his own devices.

He could certainly let himself into the library, find something to do to justify his presence there. But, as interested as he was to keep an eye on Miss Erquistoune’s magic, he had no great desire to submit himself to much more of the same tedious conversation as had been at dinner. So he wove his way through the kitchen, retrieved a few carrots, and let himself outside.

The house at Hanover-square did not have much in the way of a garden—Norrell had no mind for such things, so any of what they had was tended chiefly by Dido and Hannah. It pleased the staff greatly to have fresh flowers in the spring, and berries in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall. But this was January, and there was a blanket of snow over all their plots and beds, everywhere except for one little bench in what would be the pumpkin-patch, upon which sat Miss Erquistoune.

It was a crisp, clear night, and the sky was full of stars, and her head was tilted back as though to look at them but her eyes were closed. She was not what society would consider a great beauty—her brow too stern and proud, her lips full and prone to scowling, her figure pleasing but her stature too rigid and intimidating. But sitting out here, so soft and still, her dark red hair curled so tightly and arranged so delicately, her posture relaxed for once, the moonlight glittering on her skin...

Childermass shook his head. He would not think of her that way.

She had forgone her cloak and removed her gloves, and sat with her arms and neck bared to the chill night air.

“Are you not cold?” he asked.

The corners of her mouth turned up, but she did not bother to open her eyes. “Never,” she answered softly, her low voice and gentle accent lilting over the word like a feather on the wind. “Are you?”

“Aye.” She lowered her head and looked at him, and he could not be certain whether the warmth which swept over him was from her magic or the intensity of her gaze. He cleared his throat, and took a step nearer to her. “What are you doing out here?”

She shook her head. “I made an uneven number for cards. They will not miss me. And you?”

He laughed, and held out the carrots for her to see. “Are you fond of horses, Miss Erquistoune?”

She looked surprised, and shook her head. “In theory only. In experience, I...tend to make them afraid.”

He smirked at her. “My Brewer is not afraid of anything. Would you care to meet him?”

She looked uncertain, but rose to her feet, dusting off her skirts. Then she wove her arm through his, and he led her along to the stable, and through to the furthest stall. The other horses, indeed, all reared or whinnied or kicked their stalls at the woman’s presence; but Brewer did not pay any of them any mind until the carrots were produced, at which point they gained his yet-ambivalent attention.

“... Oh ,” Miss Erquistoune breathed, staring up at the creature. “He is magnificent.”

Childermass smiled, and handed her a carrot. “Go on.”

She took it with a frown, and held it out tentatively to the horse.

Horse and woman eyed each other cautiously. For a moment, Childermass worried this would not work.

The horse took a bite. Then another. Miss Erquistoune gasped, and then giggled , and then reached out her other hand, slowly, to Brewer’s neck. She gasped again when he let her pet him, and smoothed her hand down along his neck. He finished the carrot, and nuzzled at her palm for more, and in response she murmured, “Oh, you are lovely .”

Childermass laughed. “He has been called many things, but never that.”

She flashed a dazzling grin. “Well, now he has.” She turned back to the horse, bold enough now to rub his nose and cheek. “You are either very brave, or very foolish, to have no fear of me,” she whispered. “Either way, I love you.”

Brewer nickered affectionately, and nuzzled at her hair, and she giggled again. Childermass laughed and shook his head. “I should never have brought you out here; he will prefer you to me now forever.”

“No, no, there is no chance of that,” she assured, still petting the horse. “He is very loyal. You run him often, and bring him sweets, and treat him kindly. He thinks very well of you.”

Childermass looked at her in surprise. “You speak to horses now?”

She snorted a laugh. “I do not need to speak horse to see that this one is happily kept.”

It was not quite an answer to the question. Childermass crossed his arms and leaned against the stall, eyeing her intently, watching for any indication that she might be lying to him. “No. But do you?”

“Do I speak horse? ” She smirked, a mischievous and impish thing. “No, I do not. But I may understand, if they would speak to me .” She turned her gaze back to Brewer, and pressed her forehead to the long plane of his nose—more surprisingly, the horse held still enough to let her. “Until now, they have only ever told me to get away.”

Childermass shook his head, and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “What are you, Miss Erquistoune?”

She turned and eyed him carefully, with only the barest hint of amusement. “Have your cards been unable to tell you, sir? What? Surely you did not think I had not felt them, pulling at me after every letter I ever sent you?” She leaned in, close enough in the cold, drafty stable that he could feel the heat coming off of her in waves. “I will give you a hint,” she breathed. “I am more than you think I am. Your cards do not know me.”

For a moment, he understood what it was about her that would spook the horses; for a moment, he wanted to take a step back, away from her. He took a breath, and kept his feet, and let the moment pass. “I will find you out someday,” he reassured. “But I would prefer to have you tell me. Are we not friends?”

“Indeed we are. And so I know you, John Childermass. I see you, surrounding yourself with all the magic you can find, collecting it within your mind and wrapping it about you like a cloak. I am not a deck of cards that you can carry around in your pocket. I am not some thing to be possessed .”

“I have no intention of—”

“Of course not,” she chimed, a wicked smirk spreading across her face. “And once you can prove that to me, I shall tell you all I am. Make no mistake, sir: I do trust you. But I would be a fool to leave my safety in the hands of an Englishman, even one that I would call friend. My fondness for you will not surpass my self-preservation—it cannot.”

Childermass was silent a moment, and turned and fed Brewer another carrot. “You hold all Englishmen in very low regard.”

She laughed, and shrugged her shoulders. “I do not deny it.”

“Yet you readily agree to dine with two English magicians, two English gentlemen, and the Secretary of State for War?”

Her humour dimmed, the smirk fading. “My favourite cousin is leaving for war. I will savour whatever time I can have with him.” She was quiet a moment, and then barked another laugh. “Anyway, I should hardly consider the likes of Drawlight and Lascelles to be gentlemen .”

He laughed as well. “On that, at least, we can agree.” He handed her the last carrot, and watched his horse eat it from her hand as she ran her fingers through his mane and murmured sweet things to the normally-heartless beast. “I am sorry,” he finally ventured, as Brewer finished the treat, “that your cousin will be leaving.”

Miss Erquistoune’s whole countenance dimmed, her shoulders drooping, her eyes drifting closed. “As am I,” she breathed.

“Will you..?” he began, and had to clear his throat. He had meant to write and ask her, but had not known the way to say it and so it had gone unsaid. “Will you be staying in London, with him gone?”

“Yes, I believe so. I would not wish to leave Arabella alone at such a time. And, anyway,” she began, a subtle smirk hinting at her usual humour, “I think my parents have found themselves quite glad to have the house to their own.”

“I am sure they would be equally glad to have you with them once again.”

“Perhaps. But it would make them most glad to see me married off to some rich gentleman, and I fear I lack the endurance to tolerate much more of their matchmaking.”

“You do not wish to marry?”

Her expression soured, and she rolled her eyes. “When I was younger, I may have dreamed of such things; a husband, and children, and a house of my own. But now?” She shook her head. “My parents believe that their lack of regard for my skin would protect me from harm, but the world does not share that sentiment. If you should happen to meet a respectable Black gentleman, by all means, send him to me. But otherwise... Even if I were to find a gentleman to suit me—challenge enough as that has proven to be—my lot is not so simple. There is much that must be taken into account. If I could give him children, would they have a good life? Would they be treated with respect? Or would all of us be viewed as a dark stain upon his family line? Could I go out into the shops to furnish and stock my house, and actually be granted service by the shopkeepers? Or would I need to employ a white housekeeper to do my shopping for me? Would any white servants we might employ be willing to listen to my direction? Would—? Oh, listen to me,” she groaned, waving her hand dismissively. “My apologies, sir. I do not wish to bore you. Suffice it to say that the prospect of marriage hardly seems worth the trouble it would cause me.”

“I asked because I wished to know your answer. You could not bore me, Miss Erquistoune,” he reassured, and in the dim light of the stable her eyes seemed almost to glow. “If you will not be leaving London, there are a number of books in my collection I do not believe you have read. Would you like me to bring them to you, while Strange is away?”

Her eyes grew wide. “I would like that very much, sir.”

He bowed his head to hide a smile. “Then I shall. You have been gone for some time now, MIss Erquistoune. Is it not time for you to return to your party?”

“Come with me?” she asked quickly, a little desperately, and shook her head. “I do not wish to face them alone.”

He sighed. “There is little I could do for you, my lady. You know I am unable to enjoy your company when we are not alone.”

“I know,” she said softly. “But even to have you nearby is a relief.”

He took her hand, and put her arm through his. “Then let us go,” he murmured, and led her out of the barn. “If anyone questions us, we will say that you lost your way.”

“And you helped me find it,” she laughed, squeezing his arm. “Thank you, Mr. Childermass.”

Together, they reentered the house and made their way to the library. Lascelles looked up and eyed them suspiciously when they entered, but the rest of the party were too deep into their cards or their drink to notice.

“What did I tell you?” Miss Erquistoune whispered, squeezed his arm again, and then broke away from him to sink into an armchair near the table where Strange, his wife, the Countess, and Miss Chester were laughing around their game.

“Oh! Georgiana!” Miss Strange called, as the woman in question lifted a glass of sherry to her lips. “Are you sure you do not wish to play? I am sure Jonathan could find something else to occupy him.”

“Yes, of course!” Strange agreed, already rising from his seat and laying down his hand. “There is a book I intend to finish before I leave. Come on, old girl; take my place for me.”

Childermass watched with interest; Miss Erquistoune had gone very still, looking not at her cousin and his wife, but at the Countess and her companion. He recognized that look, that hesitation to see if she truly was welcome, whether this were some form of trap, somehow. He knew how that felt.

But she must have seen something that gave her assurance—Miss Chester looked resistant to the idea, but the Countess was smiling her pleasantly-vacant smile, and nodding more-or-less welcomingly—and so she rose slowly to her feet, glass in hand. “Oh, very well. But I warn you: I have very little skill at cards.”

“Oh, there is no need for skill!” the Countess called cheerily. “It is the cards themselves that do all the work!”

The look Miss Erquistoune sent his way was subtle and swift, but Childermass caught it all the same.

“So I have been told.” She seated herself in Strange’s vacated spot and peered at his abandoned hand. “Oh no ,” she groaned. “Must I play with these cards? They are awful!

The table laughed, and the game began. Strange folded himself into a chair nearest to his wife, an open copy of Holgarth and Pickle’s Anatomie of Faeries in his lap. Childermass sat at his writing-desk, making himself look busy; after a few minutes passed and he continued on being wholly ignored by the group, he withdrew his own cards from his pocket. He took his box of matches, lit the candle at his desk, and laid out nine cards in a line.

With his eyes and thoughts on her, he flipped the first card.

Miss Erquistoune stiffened, but did not turn. The candle flickered, but did not die. The card read, L’Étoile , the same card he had flipped when first they met.

He frowned down at the card, the naked woman crouching beneath the Heavens, pouring the waters of life out upon the earth. He had read, once, that the woman on the card was the Sun herself, having taken on human form to bring balance and good fortune to mankind.

I am more than you think I am ,” her voice echoed in his head.

With a grunt, Childermass swept L’Étoile and the other cards from his desk, and shuffled them away into the rest of the deck. He would not bother to learn any more of her that way.

Across the room, Miss Erquistoune was watching him carefully, her golden eyes glittering in the lamplight. In a moment, he felt her magic: heat, like a warm hand coming to rest on the back of his neck, traveling down between his shoulderblades and along the length of his spine. He sucked in a breath as gooseflesh rose along his arms, his vision swam, his forehead beaded with sweat. His skull felt stuffed with cotton. If he had been standing, he would have fallen.

The candle before him flickered—and then the flame broke free of its wick, still burning, drifting through the air to alight on the back of his hand. He could feel its heat against his skin, but it did not burn. As if in a daze, he lifted his hand slowly, and twisted it around, watching as the flame danced along his knuckles and fingers and palm.

Childermass looked up, met Miss Erquistoune’s eyes, still watching him so closely. She blinked; her lips curled up into a subtle, gentle smile.

“Georgiana, dear!” Mrs. Strange called. “It is your turn.”

Childermass dropped his gaze; the little flame drifted back to its wick, crackling merrily; the heat retreated from his spine.

He shook his head, clearing it of the daze she had cast upon him, and retrieved his memorandum book from his pocket. He had recently replaced the book, so there were many empty pages, but still he flipped to one near the end. In the drawer of his desk, he found a bit of graphite, though he needed his knife to sharpen the point.

Then he pressed pencil to paper, and began to draw.

Chapter Text

October 1812

 

The day was particularly cold, even for October, though one would hardly know it from the state of Admiral and Lady Harrington’s parlor. The room—like the rest of the house—was filled to the brim with party-goers, the Admiral home on furlough and his wife eager to throw him and his new title and medals before the public gaze.

The lady of the house had it in mind to become a particular friend of Mrs. Strange, who was herself glad for the excuse to get out of Soho-square and to get her mind off of the absence of her own husband.

Georgiana had found herself to care little for London society—of the people to whom she was introduced, most chose to ignore her entirely, which was indeed quite preferable to those others who pestered her with intrusive questions or openly insulted her. She had had no true desire to go, but with Jonathan away she had no cause nor conditions to perform much magic, and with Arabella present she had very few opportunities to safely sneak away, even at night. She had been stewing in a perpetual feeling of helplessness for some time now, and her nature raged against it.

To make matters worse, she had recently received a letter (a book, more like, with seventeen pages in total) from her sister, Margaret. Their father had taken ill.

Her moods and temper had soured even further, and she was starting to realize how the household suffered for it. So when Arabella invited her along, she agreed, eager for a distraction or an outlet—or, at the very least, an opportunity to pretend that she was feeling more cheerful, for the sake of her friend’s peace of mind.

Even once she realized that there was no chance of the evening or the company to improve anything in her life, particularly her mood, Georgiana found herself quite unable to leave. From the moment she and Mrs. Strange crossed the threshold, they were informed rather constantly of the presence of Mr. Norrell and his friends, Lascelles and Drawlight, somewhere in the house. It was the first time since the auction of the Duke of Roxburghe’s library that Norrell and Mrs. Strange had been in the same place at the same time, and there were still articles being published upon the subject of his horrid treatment of his pupil’s wife that day (and his subsequent refusal to even hint at what knowledge he had acquired as a result).

Georgiana had no desire to abandon her friend to an encounter with the man—or, worse, to the speculation and gossip that his presence accrued—so she had stayed at Mrs. Strange’s side for as long as she was able, until the mass and force of the crowd caused them to separate, and she lost sight of the much-shorter woman.

She moved, as swiftly as she could, from room to room in search of her, with no success. She asked after her, but could only be told that she’d been seen in Lady Harrington’s company recently in a part of the house Ana had already searched.

Eventually, she gave up hope of ever finding her—taking solace in the thought that the lady of the house surely had enough sense to retire the both of them to quieter quarters—and resigned herself to linger near the doors, so that at least Arabella could not leave without her. She was making her way there, slowly through the crowd, when she heard it.

“Who on earth invited the giantess?

She froze; the woman who answered him confirmed her suspicions.

Hush , you! Don’t you know? That is Mrs. Strange’s companion .”

Another voice claimed, “ I heard it is not even human, but rather a golem Strange constructed to protect his wife while he is away!”

“Don’t be stupid, Henry,” the woman answered, laughing. “It is not a monster ; it’s only a n —— !

Georgiana whirled, knowing her eyes were wide and wild, her face bright with humiliation; there was a burst of laughter, but no way for her to know from whence it came.

She wanted to scream, to rage, to burn the house down to nothing but cinders and ash.

Instead, she ran, forcing her way through the crowd, shoving aside men and women alike in her desperation to get out of this wretched house, this wretched city, this wretched island . With shaking hands, she retrieved her cloak from the coatroom and fled through the door, out into the cold, wet street.

Even there, she found no respite: coachmen and footmen and drunken revelers alike stared as she burst free of the house, their eyes hungry and watchful at the first sign of scandal. She bit back a curse and threw the cloak around her shoulders, lifted the hood to shield her face from their view, and fled around the corner of the house to the alleyway beside it.

It, at least, was blessedly empty, and she pressed her face up against the cool stone wall and tried to steady her labored thoughts and breaths. She wished she could cast Childermass’ spell, wished the shadows would ever obey a command that came from her , but knew she could not. She could burn down the house, but Arabella was still inside. She could fly away, but not with so many potential witnesses.

And, again, Arabella was still inside .

She would go home. That, at least, was certain. She could leave a note for Mrs. Strange, attempt to find the servants’ quarters and someone to deliver it to her. Then she would go home, have some tea, perhaps read a book or look through some of John’s— no , Childermass’ letters.

She sighed against the stone, wondering where she would find the paper to write Arabella, when she heard swift footsteps approaching in the alley.

She turned, but not fast enough; someone grabbed her shoulder, laid their arm across her chest, and flung her back into the wall. The back of her head hit the stone, her vision swam, her mind fizzed.

“That’s what you get for eavesdropping , wretch,” a voice hissed; she blinked and tried to focus, and found the drunken, sneering face of Lascelles before her.

She struggled to suck in a breath with his weight against her chest. He was saying something else, some cruel chastisement about knowing her place, about how he would teach her where it was, about how no one would ever take her side over his whether they believed her or not; but she heard little else beside the voice in her head that growled, “ Let me have him .”

She knew better than to give in, than to let her rage consume her. At least, she had known it once, before tonight.

Georgiana closed her eyes, and let the Fire loose.

 

 

Stone crumbled beneath their fingers as they pushed off from the wall. The white man faltered back a step, brandishing some pointed metal with shaking hands. “H-how..? What are..?

They laughed, knocked it out of his grip to clatter against the ground. “You think you can hurt us with that? ” they mocked. “With anything?

They grabbed him by the neck and lifted him off the ground, pinned him up against the wall. “Is it power you want?” they hissed, watching him squirm and gasp and scrabble at their hand. “Yes, I can see that it is. You exert violence on those you think inferior and call it strength. You surround yourself with those who do magic, but magic turns its face from you. You do not know what power is.” They spat at him, and grinned. It had been a long time since they last had cause to lay a curse, but they could feel it: the old ties still held. “We swear this now: You never shall. You fiend, you enemy of magic; when your moment comes, and you think what you desire is before you, you will stretch out your hand, and it will be taken from you. We shall be keeping our eye on you.”

They heaved him off the wall, then slammed him back against it and let him crumple to the ground. He did not get up.

They bent over him, making sure he was still breathing. “You should have let me kill him,” they murmured, nudging him with their foot. “No. We will not kill, not with my hands. I know; but it would have felt so good . I know.”

They straightened up, adjusted their hood so it covered their hair and hid their face, turned to go, but hesitated. “ Still ...” They glanced over their shoulder at the man on the ground.

The curse would stand for his wickedness; but for the insults to her person...

They twisted their hand into a fist. His clothes caught fire, but did not burn his flesh.

They hurried into the street, away from the house and the crowds, rounded a corner, and Ana paused and took a deep breath. The Fire retreated, curling itself back up into a ball within her belly, satisfied, now, and docile, but not sleeping. It never slept.

Ana reached out a trembling hand, steadied herself against a doorway. What had she done? What would she do?

She could feel the pull of his cards, knew he was nearby. But where?

Georgiana closed her eyes. Images swam before her; more than she could need, but she was afraid to miss him.

... There , in the back of a crowded room, his back to the wall so he could see all that went on around him, so nothing was out of his sight. He would know what to do.

She breathed a sigh of relief, and hurried down the street.

 


 

The alehouse was well occupied tonight, filled with coachmen and footmen all drinking and reveling in a few hours’ reprieve from their masters.

Childermass himself was glad of a little respite, though he still was working to some degree, keeping an eye on Davey and Lucas that they did not indulge too strongly and find themselves unfit to drive when Norrell called.

Even so, the young men were not poor company, and he himself was just starting on his third mug of hot, spiced ale, and Childermass was finding the evening a little raucous for his taste, but overall pleasant.

Across the hall, a serving-girl squeaked as the kitchen fire flared up; but Childermass felt the heat along the back of his neck. His skin broke out in gooseflesh at the sudden change, his vision swam. The heat spread like molten glass, creeping down his spine.

Ana .

He lurched to his feet as the door burst open; a tall, female figure filled the doorway, hidden beneath a dark cloak. He could not see her face, shadowed as it was by her hood, but he knew she was looking right at him.The crowd parted before her, all eyes on the elegant posture, the cloth and cut of dress and cloak that assured all who saw her that she was far too grand for a place such as this. She crossed the room to stand at his side.

“Leave us,” he growled in the direction of Davey and Lucas.

Sir? ” Lucas squeaked; but Childermass shot him a look that promised he would not ask again, and both young men scrambled to their feet and hurried away, disappearing into the crowd.

Childermass swayed on his feet, the force of her magic making him dizzy; he fell back unto the bench.

“Mr. Childermass?” Georgiana gasped, gripping his arm and dropping to the seat beside him.

“You must calm down,” he groaned, feeling feverish, nauseous. “I cannot take it.”

“What? Oh!”

It was as if she pulled the heat out of him, though she spoke no words and made no movement. The heat receded, and Childermass could breathe again, and he blinked at Miss Erquistoune. He still could not see her face, but her hands were clenched tightly in her lap, trembling. “What is it? What has happened?”

She flinched at his voice, his harsh tone, but did not give him time to apologize. “I attacked Mr. Lascelles,” she answered, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Childermass bristled at the very mention of the man, at the thought of him anywhere near her. “What did he do to you?”

Her entire body was now shaking. “I... He ...” she snarled, and he could swear that a wisp of smoke escaped from beneath her hood. She shook her head, her fingers twisting tighter together.

Childermass passed his unfinished mug of ale into her hands, uncertain what else could be done to calm her. “It’s alright.” He put his hand upon her back—he would never consider such a thing under normal circumstances, but she relaxed at his touch, and leaned a little closer to him. “How did you know where to find me?”

She took a long drink of his ale, hissing more than gasping as it went down. “I looked,” she answered slowly, “through all the fires of London, until I saw you.”

“That sounds a useful trick,” he murmured, and was rewarded with a sharp bark of a laugh.

“Indeed,” she agreed, “though I saw a great deal more than I wished to.”

“I would imagine so.”

She laughed again, a little lighter this time. After a moment’s hesitation, she set the mug back upon the table, and then leaned over sideways to rest her head upon his shoulder. He froze in surprise; but then put his arm around her, to keep her steady there.

“I got separated from Arabella,” she told him quietly, her breath warm on his neck. “As I looked for her, I heard them saying things about me. Horrid things. I ran out of the house, but I did not know Lascelles was with them, and he followed me into the alley. He had a knife, said that no one would ever believe me over him.”

Childermass tightened his arm around her, gritting his teeth. “Did he hurt you?”

“No. I threw him off me ,” she hissed, her body tensing again. “He hit his head, and fell, and I left him there. But not before I... I lit all his clothes on fire.”

Childermass barked a laugh—it surprised them both, and Georgiana lifted her head from his shoulder and turned to face him. “Sorry,” he huffed, composing himself. “I know this is serious, but—he has no clothes?

Her face was still cast in the shadow of her hood, but the light of the alehouse seemed to reflect off her gleaming eyes, and illuminated the wicked grin that spread across her features at the thought. “No money, either,” she sang. “He had some bills in his pockets; they are gone, too.”

Childermass laughed again, taking up the mug himself and having another swallow of ale. “I can think of no man more deserving,” he told her.

“Nor I,” she agreed, softly. “But, as delightful as is the thought, he was right. If he accuses me, or reveals that I have cast some magic upon him... No one in London would believe me over a white gentleman. He could have me arrested, have my magic exposed—” Her breath caught, and she shook her head. Childermass passed the mug back to her; she took it from him with a laugh, thanked him, and took a long, deep drink.

“We will have to make you untouchable,” he told her softly, laying his hand upon her arm. “I know you do not wish it; but we must make it known that you are more than just a lady’s companion, that you are cousin to Jonathan Strange.”

She gripped the mug tightly; he could feel the muscle in her arm constrict. “My family are well-respected in Edinburgh, but this is London. Will that be enough?”

“Strange is a hero, away in Portugal, outwitting the French with the wonders of English magic. But...you may be right.” He shook his head, already regretting what he was about to say. “We may need to make known your...late husband as well.”

Miss Erquistoune went very still; across the room, the fire hissed down to embers, and he saw that her eyes were not merely reflecting the light—they were glowing .

How did you—? ” she began, but her voice broke, and she shook her head, looking away from him. After a moment, she whispered, “If you had but asked me, I would have told you.”

“I know that now,” he assured her. “But I did not trust you then, when I sent the inquiry. By the time I received a reply...” He sighed heavily, and started again. “I am sorry, Miss Erquistoune: for prying into the details of your life, and for your loss. He seemed a good man.”

She laughed, a sad and brittle thing. “He was a fool, my Gavin. But, aye, a good one.”

Childermass watched as she lifted the mug of ale again to her lips. Her hands shook, but only a little. “Tell me about him?” he asked, gently.

She gave another coarse laugh. The kitchen fire was building itself up again, though no one else seemed to notice. “If you wish. Our families’ homes were near to one another; I had known him all my life. He was always so full of laughter, so quick to think the best of people. He thought he could change the world, merely by wanting it enough. His family...tolerated me, better than most. But when he said he wished to marry me, they would not have it. His mother declared I would never be a Matheson—so Gavin called himself an Erquistoune, to spite her. I did not wish...” She shook herself, and took another drink of ale. “I did not wish to fight her. Why would I want part in a family ashamed to have me? But I think he... The fact that they told him he could not, only made him want it more. Sometimes I wondered...whether he loved fighting that woman more than he loved me.”

Childermass shook his head. “That could not be true, my lady.”

Whatever glow there had been in her eyes had faded; still, he could feel her staring very intently at him. “...Thank you, Childermass,” she breathed. “I know you are right. I do. We had four very happy months together, before his regiment was called. He died within the year. His mother blamed me—he only took a commission because they said he would be given no inheritance with me as his wife. I was cast out of my home. There were no Banns read, no licenses procured, and with Gavin dead and the pressure from Lady Matheson, all our witnesses denied we had ever been wed. But people still remember. They know how well he loved me, know why the family would not honour our marriage. I returned to my father’s house free of public disgrace, but only just.”

She shook her head, set the mug of ale down on the table, and withdrew further away from him. “I must be honest with you, Mr. Childermass: I do not see how such a story would be to my credit.”

He put a hand on her arm again, and leaned in intently, searching for her eyes beneath the hood. “It will the way I tell it,” he assured her. “You have done nothing worthy of disgrace, my lady. I will not let Lascelles harm you any more than he has done. Do you trust me?”

“Of course,” she breathed. “But... If there is any man in London who could truly do me harm... He has Norrell’s ear.”

“Aye. But so do I.”

He could feel her eyes upon him, studying his face. After a moment, she nodded. “What do you need me to do?”

He took a deep breath, and straightened, but did not remove his hand. “I need you to return to the party. I know you do not wish it, but we must make it seem that you never even left, make them doubt him from the first, make him doubt it for himself.” He cast his eyes about the room, full of the coachmen and footmen of many of the wealthiest names in London. “I will stay here, start revealing what I know. These men will tell the other servants, who will tell their friends and masters; and no one with any sense doubts the gossip of their servants. By the morning, half of London will know you are not a woman to be trifled with. And without his friends’ support, he will lack the confidence to bring any accusation against you to Norrell. I swear it.”

She was silent for a moment, apparently resigning herself to returning to the party; but then she took a sharp breath and leaned in toward him. The fabric of her hood and the tip of her nose brushed his skin; she kissed his cheek, her lips impossibly warm and soft.

“Thank you, John Childermass,” she murmured into his ear. “You are a very good friend.”

With that, she was gone, making her way through the crowd and leaving as swiftly as she had come. Childermass stared after her, watching the door long after she was gone, finishing off the last of the ale they’d shared.

Then he suddenly stood, and looked until he spotted Lucas and Davey at the bar, flirting with a serving-girl. She was one of the alehouse-keeper’s daughters, worked almost every night, and was very fond of both hearing and spreading new gossip.

Childermass smirked, and began to make his way toward them, absently reaching up to touch his cheek.

Chapter Text

December 1812

 

“Aunt Georgie! Aunt Georgie!”

She turned, just in time to scoop up the seven-year-old and spin her up into the air. “Oh, there’s my favorite niece!”

Anabell groaned, and rolled her eyes. “Aunt George, I am your only niece.”

“That hardly makes it any less true!” She lowered the girl back to the ground with a sigh. “ My , but you are getting big! You will be as tall as me soon!”

The girl’s eyes widened. “Do you really think so?”

Georgiana put her hands on her hips, pretending to study her only niece. The Erquistoune women were all just barely approaching average height—all except Georgiana, who had towered over them from an early age, and then refused to stop growing. Anabelle was likely doomed to her mother’s, aunt’s, and grandmother’s fate; but her father, Paul Kirkland, was a large man. There may be hope for her yet. “Yes,” she declared, “I really think so. Are your parents inside?”

“Da and grandpa and uncle Peter are out at billiards, but ma and the ladies are inside with the twins.”

“My da is with them?” she asked, surprised. “At billiards ?

“Grandpa’s getting much stronger!” Anabelle chirped, grinning. “But he promised not to play, he just wanted to go along.”

“Well, that is certainly good news! We should probably go in and give Grandma a hand with your unruly cousins, then, shouldn't we?”

Bell grinned and took hold of her hand and tugged her toward the door, and George let herself be pulled along with a laugh. The carriage was being unloaded by Charles, who had worked for her family for as long as she could remember—he knew to leave her trunk in her room, that she liked to put her things away on her own.

She had not been home since the past Christmas; some of the furnishing and hangings were different, but the house was otherwise just as she had always known it. She and Anabell ran along the hallway, feet skipping over the floorboards that creaked and groaned out of pure instinct, and they barrelled into the parlour, laughing. As predicted, the boys were indeed rough-housing when they got in, and they practically flung themselves at her, together crying, “Happy Christmas, Georgie!”

“Happy Christmas, boys!” she echoed, kissing the tops of their heads, and hugging them both tightly.

“Aunt George! Aunt George!” they called in unison, “Who am I?”

She crossed her arms, tapped her index finger against her chin, and took a step back. A matching set of wicked grins, freckled faces, gleaming brown eyes, and wild, red hair stood before her. She could spot the differences, of course: Tom was a little bigger with a thinner nose, and Michael had more freckles and a wider smile. But they prided themselves on being indistinguishable, so she pointed to Michael and said, “You are Tom,” and pointed to Tom, “and you are Michael. Obviously.”

They answered, in unison, “Obviously,” and ran off, laughing at their own cleverness.

“You should not encourage them, Georgiana.”

She hid her sigh behind a smile, undoing the ribbon of her capote. “I have missed you, too, ma.”

“Those boys will be no worse off for a bit of spoiling, ma,” came Margaret’s gentle voice. “Come here, Georgiana, let us see you!”

Grinning, she went and embraced her sisters. “Happy Christmas, girls!”

“Happy birthday , Ana!” Maria called. “But, my—are you ill? Why do you look so pale?”

She laughed. “Do I? I assure you, I am quite well. It is only that wretched London weather—I feel I have not seen the sun in ages!”

Margaret eyed her suspiciously, but said nothing; and mother beckoned her over. “Come here, my girl, and let me kiss you!” Ana laughed and bent over to allow her mother to put her hands on her cheeks and kiss her forehead. “Mercy, girl, are you still growing?”

“I think maybe you are shrinking, mamma.”

“Och, if I get any smaller than this, I’m like to disappear!”

They all laughed, and Mag called, “Georgie, come, have some tea and tell us of your travels.”

Oh, how she’d missed this, sitting in this room with a cup of strong, honey-sweet tea, surrounded by her mother and sisters and the laughter of her niece and nephews.

Yet there was a part of her that could not let go, could not give in, that looked upon these pale, freckled faces--faces she loved so very dearly--and knew that she did not truly belong among them and never would. That part of her looked down into her lap, and saw only that her hands were dark against her mother’s delicate porcelain teacup, darker still than the tea inside it.

She knew her family loved her, that they saw beyond her skin to the person she was inside. But, sometimes, she could not. And always, she wished they did not have to; that both the skin and the woman who wore it could be equally worthy of love.

The Fire within her knew that that had once been true, that the Children of the Sun had lived with pride and power for many ages, and they would do so again. Georgiana doubted she would ever see such a time, but she took solace in the knowledge that the Fire would, inside the heart of some other Host, burning on into a future beyond anything she could imagine. And they would think of her, and remember, both Fire and Host, the way she thought and remembered all those hearts that had burned before hers. A hundred, a thousand years from now, her sorrow would not be shared , but remembered .

But here and now, safe and sound in her parent’s home in Charlotte-square, her favorite (if only) niece helped herself into Ana’s lap, tired of chasing after her rowdy cousins, and began to doze against her chest, and Ana wrapped her brown arms tight around the pale girl and let the love she felt silence that angry, wretched part of her, at least for a little while.

 


 

The night was crisp and cool, the skies clear, the stars bright. Normally, she loved nights like this, the chill air against her heated skin, but tonight it only made her feel restless and confined, knowing she could not escape any further than the house’s backgreen. Still, it was better than being inside right now, facing down more of the same talk that had driven her to London and the Stranges in the first place.

Upstairs, in the bottom of her trunk, a loosely-bound and somewhat incomplete copy of Pevensey’s Eighteen Wonders hid quietly, awaiting her. She had glanced through it briefly before leaving Soho-square, and knew the contents did not much interest her; but the controversy regarding the author’s gender did, and she had been thrilled at least that it had made John Childermass think of her, and that he had been willing to sneak such a valuable text to her before she left. She wished to read it, if for nothing else than to think of him, and distract herself from the miserable thoughts being home had brung. But she could not bring herself to pass through the parlour to get there, not yet, not without saying things that would not be forgiven, and so she found herself swaying lazily in the swing beneath the oak tree, glaring out at the night that taunted her with its perfection.

“There you are, Georgie-girl.”

She jumped, so lost in her own thoughts that she had not heard the door open, but did not turn. “Sorry, da,” she murmured. “Just needed some air.”

Dr. Erquistoune crossed before her, settling into the bench a yard away. When she and the girls had been children, he and ma had sat there, for hours sometimes, pushing them in the swing. She doubted the old ropes could take such strain these days, nor father, with his white-streaked hair and the cane he’d only started carrying in her absence this year. Still, the smile he gave her was the same as it had always been. “She only pushes because she wants the best for you.”

Georgiana sighed deeply, screwing her eyes shut for a moment before she allowed herself to answer. “I know, pappa.”

“Do you?” His smile faded, and he twisted the cane between both hands. “I will not be with you forever, my girl—”

“Don’t say that, da; you’ve many years yet—”

“Perhaps, Georgiana. Perhaps. But even you can see that I’m like to be gone before you are ready to settle, and all I have will pass to Jonathan Strange.”

“I know , da. But we have talked about this, Jonathan and I, and—”

“Of course you have, my girl. And I’ve no doubt he will attend to you as best he can. But think , Georgie-girl. This war will be over soon, and he will return to England, and he and his dear wife will be interested in having children of their own, and then, what? He loves you, Georgiana, but a man must look after his own, first and foremost. He will always choose them over you, he must .”

She bit her lip and turned away; she would not argue with her father, but nor would she let him see how deeply his words hurt her. Of course she had considered such things before; but she could settle herself, at least, on the knowledge that she knew her cousin better than that, knew that Jonathan Strange would never willingly neglect her. Absently, perhaps—he might easily get so caught up in his studies that he forgot himself responsible for her finances, but Ana was hardly the sort of woman to allow propriety to keep her from reminding him.

“I am sorry, Georgiana,” her father was saying, “but a husband could provide for you far more than a cousin ever could. And with the sort of dowry we could give...” He sighed again. “We only want your future to be secure, and for your burdens to be easy. You are not our daughter by blood, Georgie, but by choice .”

She blinked away tears at his words; but that hard, bitter part of her refused to stay silent. “By your choice, da. Not hers.”

“Maybe not at first,” he agreed, softly, somehow unbothered by his daughter’s cruel and thankless heart. “When I brought you into our home, she did not understand. The things she called me, the way she railed...” He shook his head. She had always suspected her mother’s resentment, but father had never acknowledged even an instant of it, until now. But he looked up, and met her eye. “The first time she held you--the first time , Georgiana--I knew she loved you, as I did. Please, believe me, that has never changed.”

“She just wants to see me married off,” she grumbled, knowing she sounded childish but unable to stop herself.

“She just wants to see you happy ,” he assured, and cracked a crooked smile. “Despite her terrible choice of men, marriage is what did so for her.”

Ana chuckled, just a little, but shook her head. “And you, pappa? How would you like to see me?”

Cane in hand, he rose and stood before her. “Happiness has suited your sisters well, but you, Georgiana, have always been...unique. A blind man could have seen how well you loved your Gavin. The happiness he gave you was too short-lived, but even so... Even so, I could see you were not satisfied .”

She bit her lip and turned away, unable to hold his gaze.

“Some people are destined for happiness, my Georgie, but others deserve...something more . Something harder.” She felt his hand come to rest atop her head, and his voice grew soft. “My own dear sister found what she thought happiness, but all was taken from her, and she was lost to me. I could not bear to lose you, too. I would see you satisfied, with a husband who would stoke the fire within you, and never douse it.”

She looked up then, met her father’s eyes, terrified of what she might find there, a knowledge that he was not to know. But they were only the same blue-grey eyes she had always known, the same kindness, the same affection, the same intelligence--but no more. “And what of dowries, and my future?”

“Well,” he laughed, lifting his cane and pretending to look at it thoughtfully, “perhaps you are right, and I have many years yet. If you tell your dear mother I said so, I shall deny it thoroughly, but promise me, Georgiana: black or white, rich or poor, you keep whatever man can give you more than happiness. Promise me that?”

“I promise, da. I will.”

“Good. Now then, I believe I heard something about your famous spice-cake? Shall we go investigate the kitchens?”

 


 

Even growing up, the sisters had had their own rooms; but they had never let that stop them before. Now, as grown women—two of the three married and mothers, with bedrooms prepared for them to share with their husbands—all three girls piled into George’s bed as they always had, at least for the first night they were together again.

Georgiana had been styling her own hair for as long as she could remember; but, even from a young age, her sisters had been determined to help her care for it. To this day, there was no one else that she trusted to help her but Margaret and Maria.

This was what home truly felt like—sitting up in her own bed, Mag and Mar removing her hairpins and combing out her curls, smoothing cocoa butter through her hair and then wrapping it all in a satin scarf—no, this was what Heaven felt like.

Maria had snuck a bottle of claret up from the cellar, and even Margaret had some, and they all fell against each other, laughing and telling all of the stories of the past year that mother could never know and were far too scandalous to ever entrust in letters.

“He didn’t!” Ana cried. “He couldn’t! Good old Peter, with all his charm?!”
“I swear it!” Mag howled. “ My husband told that old windbag exactly where he could put his earhorn.”

“They haven’t returned to the church since!” Maria hissed, refilling their glasses with the last of the wine, and they laughed until their sides hurt and the glasses were empty again, and they fell onto their pillows grinning, and George’s heart felt so full she thought it might burst.

“And now, dearest Georgiana,” Margaret crooned, draping an arm across her sisters. “Enough about our ridiculous, predictable husbands. Tell us all about the many fascinating London men you have encountered!”

She barked another hearty laugh, her side twinging in pain. “ Fascinating? Good heavens, I could hardly say if I’ve met more than one!”

Ah! ” Maria rose up on her elbows, grin and eyes wide. “But there is one?”

“What! Has someone truly managed to turn our George’s head?”

She could feel her cheeks begin to flush, but shook her head. “I would hardly go that far. But I do suppose I have found one man to be worthy of some interest.”

“Oh!” Mag’s grin grew to match her sister’s. “You must tell us all!”

“I... Well, I... He is...a magician.”

“What, Mr. Norrell?” Mar scoffed. “I thought he was old, and stodgy!”

What !” George croaked, shaking her head fervently. “No! Certainly not him!

Margaret frowned. “Well, it is certainly not Jonathan; so if not Norrell, who else does that leave? There are naught but the two magicians in England.”

Georgiana grinned, reaching across and taking her sisters’ hands in hers. “England has been lied to,” she whispered. “Magic is nothing like how they write about it. It is everywhere , living, thriving under the skin of everything you see and hear and feel.”

How long had she dreamed of talk like this, of the ability to speak of magic with her sisters , to share with them all she knew?

“It is like father’s surgery; if you can just get beneath the skin of the world, you can see what makes it work, see how everything is connected, where everything comes from. Anyone can do magic, if they can only learn to reach past the skin of the world.”

Mag squeezed her hand between both of hers, and asked in her steady, soft voice, “You mean like how the fires always follow you?”

George shot up, pulling her hands free from theirs in her surprise. “ What? ” she hissed, staring hard at her oldest sister, too watchful for her own good. “ How long have you known?

Margaret frowned, and looked to Maria, who merely shrugged and said, “We’ve always known, Georgie! Any room is warmer when you're in it, any fire grows bigger when you're near, any candles burn in your direction. Even I saw that.”

Georgiana stumbled off the bed, pacing a circle over her rug and shaking her head, incredulous.

“It is alright , Ana,” Margaret called, soothing. “We were never bothered by it. It was just another thing about you that was different. For me, at least, it was not until Jonathan started writing of magic that I began to suspect there was anything more to it!”

“For me, as well,” Maria agreed, nodding.

“But you were still our sister,” Mag added. “And you still are, and you always will be, Georgiana.”

She stopped pacing with a sigh, and looked up at the bed, at the two women upon it, at the way they matched: short and plump, with thin noses, blue eyes, pale skin dusted prettily with freckles...but their hair, just a shade or two lighter, was red enough to match her own, and their smiles were the same smiles she’d known all her life.

She laughed, and shook her head. “I am just like Tom and Michael, aren't I? Not half so clever as I think myself.”

“Nothing gets by our Mag,” Mar said sweetly. “That’s why the Good Lord trusted her with twins. Now, get back in this bed—it’s colder without you.”

Georgiana laughed, and climbed back in between them, let her sisters wrap their arms around her and hold her there, safe and sound.

“Now,” Margaret murmured, with just a hint of Maria’s mischief in her fond grin, “tell us more about this magician you love.”

“Good heavens!” she laughed, shaking her head. “Am I in love now? I certainly had not realized! This magician I am fond of , is as much as I would say.”

“Whatever you say,” Maria sang, “only one man has ever made you blush like this before. He is handsome, then?”

“It is not like that!”

“Of course not,” Maria teased, grinning now, “but is he?”

Georgiana rolled her eyes. “I suppose so,” she grumbled, and Maria giggled. “But I greatly doubt you would consider him so. He is like a character from one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels.”

Maria groaned and rolled her eyes. “Oh, George, but you are predictable.”

“That is all very well,” Margaret said, soothing her sisters’ annoyance and disappointment both, “but what is he like?

“He is...” Ana trailed off, trying to think of some way to describe John Childermass, some way to explain such a man, some way to express all that he meant to her. “He is...” she tried again, but could not come to it.

“Oh dear, Georgie,” Mag murmured very softly, “you are worse off than I thought.”

Maria laughed heartily, and Ana grabbed at a pillow to hide her face.

“It is not like that!” she grumbled through linen and down. “He is only a very peculiar man, and I know not how to describe him! I am not in love again!”

They let her stew in silence for some moments. She screwed her eyes shut, and breathed as deeply as the pillow would allow. When she had calmed (and how did they know? Were they truly so attuned to her moods as she had always believed, or were they merely watching the state of the fire?), they tugged the pillow free of her grip. Mag kissed her forehead, and Mar her cheek.

“Gavin...would not begrudge you this, Georgie,” Maria said, with Margaret’s gentleness. “Above all, he would want you to be happy. That was all he ever wanted.”

Ana kept her eyes closed a moment longer, thinking of her father and the things he’d said beneath the oak tree. “I want...” She took a breath, felt the stirrings of the Fire in her chest. “I want to be more than happy.”

Chapter Text

February 1813

 

The last thing Georgiana had wanted to do, so soon after her return to Soho-square, was to suffer through another afternoon at the house of one of the wives of Jonathan’s military connections, at Arabella’s side. But she had missed Mrs. Strange very dearly in her time away, and the invitation had come addressed to “Miss Erquistoune” first and then to the lady of the house, so she was all but obliged to attend.

Thus she found herself, on this bright and crisp day, so near to the beauty of spring she thought she could taste it on the wind, trapped inside Lady Harrington’s parlour. The room smelled so strongly of lavender that her head began to swim the moment she entered, and then to throb with every passing breath. The tea was too weak, the scones and sandwiches too dry, the couch she was seated upon too stiff and uncomfortable, the conversation too vapid--and far too often focused upon herself.

“How is your father, Miss Erquistoune? We have heard he has been unwell.”

“You have? I mean... Thank you for your concern. I was just home for Christmas, and he was quite recovered by then.”

“Oh! That is quite good news!”

“And where is home for you, Miss Georgiana?”

She blinked; she did not even know the name of the woman addressing her so. “I... It is in Edinburgh, with my family.”

Oh! And what a lovely town, do you not think?”

She frowned, bafflement growing by the minute, but did agree it to be the most lovely, despite easily sharing the size and scope of London, so it could hardly be considered a mere town.

They thought her answer delightful .

George wanted to gag.

Normally, at such events, she was able to go almost wholly ignored, to allow her mind to wander as it pleased, a smiling piece of furniture in these people’s frivolous lives, as all ladies’ companions were wont to be. Now, she still felt herself a prop, but more like a doll or an art-piece, something to be passed around and gawked at and talked about--and, when the gaggle began to crowd around her, and touch her skin, her hair , she had only to send Arabella one fast, desperate look before her friend was up and making their excuses.

Oh! I dare say, we have an appointment, new curtains, you know, and oh! Would you look at the time? Come, Georgiana, we must be going, we really must! Oh no, I'm sorry, Georgiana cannot stay, I fear I have no eye whatever for drapery, I would be lost without her! Yes, yes, we certainly must get together again soon, of course. Yes, goodbye! Goodbye!

In the carriage, Arabella was nothing but apologies, but Ana could hardly speak until they were well out of sight of the Lady’s house, well on their way back to Soho-square. She could not wrap her mind around the strangeness. “What was that about? ” she finally rasped, running both hands along her hair as though her own touch could smear that of strangers away. She missed her sisters already.

“I'm sorry, Georgiana,” Bell echoed once more. “I should have realized, should have warned you...”

Ana frowned, turned to her friend. “Warned me? Of what?

The woman bit her lip, twisting her fingers together in her lap. “Since you left for Christmas, I have been receiving many letters...asking about you.”

What?

“I meant to tell you, but... Well, I did not wish to worry you, so soon after your travels, and...” She shook her head with a sigh. “It would appear that your true relationship to Jonathan and I has been found out.”

The carriage hit something solid in the road, and jolted around them. George felt all the breath rush out of her lungs, thinking of the party that had caused her to flee back home for the holidays ahead of schedule, of the feeling of Lascelles’ throat beneath her hand, of the assurances John Childermass had made her that night. Whatever story the man had crafted, it must have proven far too compelling. “He has made me a spectacle ,” she breathed.

“I am sure Jonathan would never have wanted that,” Bell assured, reaching across to take her hand, and Ana was far too grateful to not need to explain her words, she could not imagine correcting the wrong assumption.

“I know. I know,” she murmured, absently, trying to think. For years now, she had worked to keep herself secret, to prevent the scandal of her very existence from touching her cousin’s blessed reputation. Yet even so, all had come to light--and the result was not remotely as she had imagined or worried it would be.

She could not decide whether this was better or worse.

Prejudice and hate she was prepared for, accustomed to. This awful... admiration, she was not. What had John said?

The carriage rocked to a stop in front of the Strange’s home, but she lingered in the seat a moment longer, closing her eyes. There were many fires burning in the house at Hanover-square. She would not allow herself to use those in personal quarters, despite how often she thought of it, an itch she must never scratch; but the library fireplace was safe enough, and she could see that he was there, and so she took a breath and held it, let the flames die down, and when she released her breath they burned back, higher than before, and she saw that Childermass had risen to his feet and was crossing the rug to investigate, brow creased and head cocked to the side.

She opened her eyes, feeling more calm just for the glimpse of him, and stood and followed Arabella out of the carriage and up the steps into the house.

 


 

The kitchen in the Strange’s home was smaller than that of her parents’, but over the years it had become one of Georgiana’s favorite places in all of London. With Jonathan away, it saw far less use, and offered her a peaceful place to busy herself when her thoughts were muddled, as they were now. With Arabella away for the evening, there was no one to disturb her, nothing the servants might need while their lady was gone, as they had all already had their meal.

Ana had been invited along, but had told Mrs. Strange she wished to stay home and wash her hair, and that much had certainly been true--indeed, she had stayed in the bath far longer than necessary, as if doing so could wash away the feeling of strangers’ hands on her skin and in her hair, the sense that her body was nothing but an object to be handled as any white person should wish and then discarded when they tired of her.

It did not quite work. But she emerged from the bath feeling much more calm than she had gone into it, and had wrapped her hair in one of the new scarves her sisters had given her for her birthday, and had put on her most comfortable house-dress, and had found more than enough supplies in the pantry to be able to make her favorite spice-cake (she had little enough skill in cooking, but she was clever with an oven and enjoyed baking a great deal, and was always glad to have something sweet to show for her efforts).

She was taking the cake out from the oven when she heard the knock. With a smile, she set the cake out to cool, then crossed the room and opened the servants’ door.

It had started to rain; but Childermass hardly seemed to notice, standing at the base of the back stairs, his hair loose and wet, his great-coat and rumpled hat glistening with moisture.

“Oh goodness, Childermass, come in from the rain!” she urged, swinging the door open wide; but he had lifted his eyes to look at her, and now merely stood there, staring.

His lips were parted, his face even paler than usual, his already-large, dark eyes gone wide and wondering. Georgiana shifted on her feet, tamping the Fire down further for good measure. She had gotten much better at not projecting her nature when he was nearby, and thought she had done enough tonight; but he looked as though he might swoon, which was the typical effect her magic had on him. Her efforts appeared to have no effect, however, and she was growing rather worried.

She cocked her head to the side and reached out a hand, stopping just short of touching him. “All right there, Childermass?”

“Joan wore her hair like that,” he breathed, so soft she had to strain to hear him.

She wracked her brain, trying to think where she had heard him mention the name before. “Joan..? Oh! ” She reached up, fingering the silk scarf around her hair. “Your...mother wrapped her hair like this?” she asked, very gently, afraid to open what she assumed to be some very old wounds.

Still, the question seemed to startle him from his daze: his eyes widened a fraction further, and he bowed his head quickly. “Forgive me,” he blurted, shaking his head (and spraying little drops of rain from the brim of his hat in the process). “It has...been a long time.”

She reached out again, this time happy to bridge the gap, to place her hand on his arm. “Would you like to come in, Mr. Childermass?”

He did not raise his head, and was silent so long she began to fear the answer would be no. But finally he nodded, and murmured, “Yes, please.”

She tugged his arm and led him in, the door closing on its own behind them. There was already a chair near the fire, and he helped himself to it after setting his hat and great-coat on the rack to dry.

Ana poured a little magic into the fire, to warm him, though he did not appear to notice. Indeed, he still seemed more than a little dazed, staring off at nothing, his wet hair plastered to his face. She set a kettle of water on the fire for tea; as it was heating, she glazed the cake.

When the kettle sang, she grabbed it off the fire with her bare hands, and Childermass seemed to see it but said nothing. So she brewed the tea, sliced the cake, piled all upon a tray, then set that on a little stool before him and brought over a chair of her own. When he did not move, still staring into the fire, she reached across and put her hand again upon his arm.

He flinched, and his eyes locked on hers. With a sigh, he shook himself, and pushed his hair back and free from his face. “Forgive me, Miss Erquistoune. It has been long since last I thought of her.”

She touched her fingers to the scarf, uncertain. “I could take it off if you like, though my hair—”

“No! No, please do not. It is not a bad reminder, only an unexpected one.” He leaned forward, and shook his head. “You surprised me, that is all.”

She nodded, pretending not to notice the tremor in his voice or that he seemed to be reassuring himself and not her. “What was she like?” she asked, as gently as she could.

Beautiful ,” he breathed. “And clever. As kind as she could have been to a thing like me.” He lifted his eyes, a small, crooked smile tugging at his mouth. “I doubt I was much of an easy son.”

“No, I would not think so,” she teased, very glad of the lift in his spirits, slight as it may be.

“Regardless,” he said, his voice far steadier, reaching out to draw the slice of cake a little closer to his person, “what thought you of Eighteen Wonders ?”

“I thought it a waste of good paper,” she said, thrilling in the little laugh he gave in response. “Whatever the author’s gender, it is clear they were apprenticed to Pale. All the same unnecessary intricacies, those unintelligible charts , the ridiculous equipment! It is a wonder they ever achieved any magic at all with such nonsense.”

“You seem to dislike every book I ever bring you,” he grumbled, raising a heaping forkful of the spice-cake to his mouth.

“Perhaps, but I like that you bring them,” she answered softly, a little too honestly, and cleared her throat, turned away. “And anyway, I did like some things. I thought Ormskirk’s Revelations quaint enough. And Goubert’s Apollo was at least interesting; the illustrations were downright delightful. My goodness ,” she breathed, turning back and seeing that his slice of cake was nearly gone already. “Does your Mr. Norrell not feed you, Childermass?”

“My master neither knows nor cares how his servants are fed, Miss Erquistoune.” He glanced up at her over the near-empty plate, his eyes full of amusement. “I assure you, we are fed quite well.”

“I am hardly surprised, but glad to hear it.” She stood, and fetched a basket from where it hung on the wall, placed the rest of the cake inside, and wrapped it up in a spare bit of gingham. “Take this back with you, then. Surely the others deserve a slice, as well.”

He polished off the remaining crumbs, washed it down with the tea, and took the basket from her with a frown. “Did you not make this for yourself and Mrs. Strange?”

“I made it to keep myself occupied,” she told him, shaking her head. “If your people like it half as well as you did, I shall be satisfied.”

“If they like it half as well, I shall be requesting a great many cakes from you, Miss Erquistoune. Now, what has bothered you, that you would need such a distraction?” he asked, giving her so little time to relish in the compliment. “What did you to our fire?”

She sighed, and leaned against the back of her chair. There was a sadness still present in his eyes, and he kept glancing toward her headscarf, and she could hardly bear to mention what had taken place this morning, lest he feel some guilt at the ill repercussions his kindness had wrought. “I am sorry for it, sorry that I let such a little thing upset me so. Some of Arabella’s wealthy friends were unkind to me, and I missed you while I was away and it made me impatient to see you. I should not have let it get to me, or at least should have found a better way to contact you.”

He frowned again. “I knew you were back in town, I would have come. You did not accompany Mrs. Strange to Harley-street. Are you sure it was nothing?”

“How do you..? Were you watching the house, for her to leave?”

He shrugged. “Mrs. Strange always goes to see Lady Pole on Thursdays,” he said, though it was not quite an answer to the question she had asked. “Yet you did not go with her.”

She shook her head. “Lady Pole is Bell’s friend, not mine. And that house... I do not know what curse Norrell inflicted upon the poor woman, but that house reeks of a magic I cannot begin to bear.”

“You’ve felt it, too?”

She turned and met his eye, the intensity of his gaze. “Only just. Lady Pole knows what I am, or that I am something , though I cannot begin to imagine how she could. She screams as though I burn her if I even cross the threshold, calls me witch and demon if I come within her sight. So no, I did not accompany Mrs. Strange, as to do so would mean waiting, alone, in the carriage for the duration of my friend’s visit, and I cannot say I care to spend my time in such a manner.” She sighed and turned her head. “It had nothing at all to do with the things Lady Harrington’s friends said to me.”

“Lady Harrington?” Childermass rose to his feet, expression darkening though his features did not move. “What did they say to you?”

Georgiana smiled softly and reached across, touched her fingers to his cheek, just for a moment, before turning and stepping away to retrieve two things from the table. “Nothing worse than I have heard before, sir.”

“That gives me little comfort, my lady,” he growled.

“No, I would imagine not,” she murmured. “But come; I have your book, and something else besides.”

He took Eighteen Wonders and tucked it away into one of his many mysterious pockets, eyeing the parcel in her hands curiously. “Something else?”

“A gift,” she said, holding it out to him.

“I cannot accept it.”

“What, do you not celebrate Christmas in Yorkshire?” she teased, placing it in his hands.

“I did not get you anything,” he said, so earnestly and sincerely she could hardly believe it was John Childermass saying it.

“No? You who have been my only friend in London? You who have loaned me all these books, even just to hear how strongly I hate them?”

Loaned , aye, Miss Erquistoune,” he said, frowning.

She laughed. “Then you may return it when you are done with it, if that would satisfy you.”

His frown deepened; but finally, he looked down at the thing in his hands, turned it over, slid his long fingers beneath the edge of the paper, and unwrapped the copy of Lord Portishead’s A Child’s History of the Raven King that she had found in the bookstore in Edinburgh, the only book about magic they had on offer. He grinned.

“I have it on good authority,” she said, taking a step forward and then another, “that Mr. Gilbert Norrell does not have a copy of this in his library.”

“He does not. I have not read it, have not had the chance.” He lifted his head and met her eye, and only then did she realize just how close they were to one another; she could feel his breath against her skin, could see that his pupils were wide and dark, glittering in the light of the kitchen fire. “Thank you, Geo--”

His grin disappeared, lips pressing tightly together even as hers fell apart, the good humour in his eyes vanishing in place of a panic at what he had almost said. Her heart pounded in her chest, so suddenly she had to gasp to catch her breath--how close she had been to hearing her name, in his voice, and God above, what would that have done to her? Here and now, in the Strange’s kitchen, in this place she knew they were alone and no one in the house would hear them? What would she have done to him?

Nothing good, nothing proper or appropriate or fitting of her station, she knew that even as he turned from her, hurrying into his still-damp great-coat and retrieving his sad hat with a terrible silence, and she snatched up the basket and thrust it into his hands before he could throw open the door and flee from her like this.

“Here, don’t forget,” she said, as evenly as she could force her voice to be, and he took the handle from her, kept his head down so she could not meet his eye.

“Thank you, Miss Erquistoune,” he answered stiffly. “I am sure the other servants will be most glad of this.”

She flinched at the unnecessary reminder of his station, reached out to place her hand on his. “I will want to hear what you think of the book.”

“Of course,” he breathed. “And I will bring you another to occupy you, soon enough. But I must go now, before Mrs. Strange returns.”

“If you must.”

He lifted his eyes, looking at her from beneath dark lashes, and for a moment, she thought he might actually try it, that he might kiss her, that she would surely let him. But instead, he shifted his grip on the basket, and lifted her hand to his mouth, and slid her knuckles against his lips for half an instant before turning and flinging open the door and stepping back out into the rain. “Good night, Miss Erquistoune.”

She pressed her hand to her chest, and caught the door before it could swing shut behind him. “Good night, Mr. Childermass.”

Chapter Text

May 1814

 

“Have you heard from Mr. Norrell recently?”

“Not recently, no.”

“Why are you smiling?” asked Strange.

“Was I? I did not know. Well then, I will tell you. He once sent me a message and that is all.”

“Once? In three years?”

“Yes. About a year ago there was a rumor that you had been killed at Vitoria and Mr. Norrell sent Childermass to ask if it was true. I knew no more than he. But that evening Captain Moulthrop arrived. He had landed at Portsmouth not two days before and had come straight here to tell me that there was not a word of truth in it. I shall never forget his kindness! Poor young man! His arm had been amputated only a month or so before and he was still suffering very much. But that is all I have heard from Hanover-square.”

“Whatever do you mean by that? Has Norrell sent word to someone else?”

“No, I do not believe so.” Arabella leaned in, and lowered her voice. “But Childermass comes quite regularly, once a month at the least!”

“Childermass! Whatever for?”

She grinned widely, eyes sparkling. “To see Georgiana.”

Jonathan frowned, his eyes blinking rapidly. “I... I do not understand. Why would Childermass come to see George?

She merely laughed, and reached across to pat his hand.

“Oh. Oh! Oh, surely, you don't think–! ... Childermass? And George?!

“Shh, shh, keep your voice down! She’s said nothing to me; I do not think they realize that I know. Jeremy and Mary have both mentioned his visits, but they always seem to happen when I am away.”

“George and Childermass , though? You don't think... I mean, should I say something to her? You don't think she would actually consider him, do you?”

“I admit, I do not know. Georgiana has always been a very private woman, so it is difficult to say whether his visits have any influence on her disposition; but she certainly does not turn him away. And there have been many times that I know I have smelled her spice cake baking, and yet never seen the result. She always says that she’s burned them; but have you ever known your cousin to be careless with an oven?”

“No, never!”

“I think, perhaps, that she is giving them to him.”

“Good Lord... Well, I shall speak to her.”

“Oh, Jonathan–!”

“No, no, it’s alright! Georgie has never kept secrets from me. I'm sure if I merely question whether any man has drawn her eye, she will tell me—and if she doesn't, then we will know she does not truly consider him.”

Arabella nodded, seeing the wisdom in this; for all her privacy and reluctance to talk about herself, Georgiana Erquistoune was a remarkably honest woman when pressed, and gave her opinion exceedingly freely—particularly when at Jonathan’s request. “Yes, but... Supposing she does own to it? What will you say then? This is Georgiana, after all. If she has made her mind up, nothing on earth could change it for her! But neither could we allow her to go through with it—could we? He is a servant!”

“Hmm. Technically, yes; but he is rather more advisor—assistant, even!—than servant . No, I do not believe the propriety would dissuade her if it came down to it. But I don't believe it would! She is no fool; if I must, I will speak to her of his untrustworthiness, let her know what sort of man he was before. And if that does not work, then... Well, then we will just have to trust that George knows her own mind!”

“I should certainly think you will,” came a voice from the door, and both Stranges turned to find Miss Erquistoune with a letter in her hand, leaning up against the doorframe quite in the manner of the presumed object of her affections. “Forgive the intrusion,” she said, and very kindly for someone walking in upon a conversation about their own person. “A letter came, but it can wait. What is the matter?”

“Oh! No matter , Georgie, we were just...” Strange turned to his wife, who merely shrugged. “Hm. Well, Arabella was just telling me that... Childermass has been to visit?”

“Well, yes; he just brought the—” she brandished the letter, but then gasped. “Oh! You mean the... Oh . Jonathan, please , don’t tell Norrell! I couldn’t bear it if anything bad would happen to him for my sake.”

“For your–?” He again turned to his wife, who looked just as lost as he did. “Why would Norrell care that Childermass comes to see you?”

Now Miss Erquistoune looked lost, as well. “Because he has been bringing me books. Is that not..? What on earth did you think he was doing?”

The Stranges turned to each other, and shared a sheepish look. “Well...” Arabella began. “We rather thought that, ah... That he was courting you.”

What? !” Georgiana laughed quite heartily, leaning back against the door frame. “Ha! No, I am sure you need not worry about that!”

“Oh!” Strange laughed. “Then, you do not hold any feeling for him?”

Her grin faded, very slowly. “I did not say that. But he only comes to bring the books, and to see how I am getting along with them.”

“But,” Arabella asked, “whatever does he bring books for?”

“Oh. Well, I fear he managed to catch on that Jonathan had been letting me read the books of magic Norrell loaned him. And, with you away to Spain, he...wanted me to be able to continue my education. Norrell knows nothing of any of it.”

“Oh! You’ve kept up with it!” Jonathan exclaimed with a grin, easily distracted from the Childermass problem. “Have you had any success, old girl?”

She grinned, too—glad that it had been enough to derail that particularly uncomfortable line of conversation—but shook her head. “Only a little, not much more than before you left. I fear it is not my kind of magic.”

Your kind of..? What do you mean by that, Georgie?”

She frowned, rubbed the back of her neck, cocked her head to the side to study him. “You really don’t know?” she murmured. “Of all people, I thought... I always thought that you would see it, even before. And then we received your letter, and I read that you were to be a magician , and I thought–!” She sighed heavily, shaking her head.

Strange took a step toward her, brow lowered in concern. “What do you mean, Georgiana?”

“I suppose it is time.” Another sigh; then she stepped away from the wall, closed the door behind herself, and crossed the room to sit in the chair across from Arabella. She tossed the letter onto the coffee-table where it would be safe, and rubbed her hands together.

When she pulled them apart, there was a blue-orange flame, suspended between her palms. “There is something I must tell you about myself.”

Chapter Text

January 1815

 

Childermass had seated himself at the servants’ dining-table beneath the Ridlington house, well occupied by his pipe as the staff bustled around him to deliver a variety of beverages and messages to and from the party upstairs. The other butlers and stewards often awaited their masters’ summons at a nearby pub; but Norrell was growing exceedingly paranoid the longer they stayed in London (particularly after the evening, some years back, in which Mr. Lascelles had been attacked and robbed of all his clothing, under very mysterious circumstances), and continually required his man of business stay in the house, in case he were needed.

It was a burden, though not nearly so tiresome as Norrell believed, as Childermass was well-liked by the servants at Hanover-square and, thus, all the servants of London (or very nearly). They gave him freedom to do as he chose, and only ever asked he lend a hand if things were truly dire, in which case he was glad to do so to relieve some of their burden. Indeed, the nights oft presented an opportunity to be left alone to his own thoughts, without the worries of his master’s latest schemes.

So engrossed he’d been in his mind’s own wanderings, that it took a sudden burning of his fingers to realize that his pipe—and the kitchen fire—had increased in heat dramatically. He caught his pipe by the stem before it could clatter to the ground, and whirled to find the figure of Miss Erquistoune standing before the fire, her hands gripping the mantle tightly enough to turn her knuckles white.

My lady—” he called before he’d fully risen from his chair. “Here, come away from the fire.” She did not appear to have heard him, and failed to respond in any way. Worry made him bold enough to lay a hand upon her back and speak directly into her ear, “My lady?”

She whirled with a rage he had rarely had cause to witness in a woman, the fire roaring high in the grate; but when she saw that it was only him, she sighed and relaxed, her hands falling limp to her sides. “ John ,” she breathed, and so taken was he by the sound of his Christian name from between her lips that he very nearly failed to notice the scorch marks her fingers had left in the mantle.

“Come away from the fire,” he echoed softly, now he had her attention.

She frowned, glanced around, and spotted the blaze she’d built. “Oh!” she gasped; with a wave of her hand, the fire eased into something more manageable, and she allowed him to guide her into one of the chairs at the table.

He sat as well, drawing his chair far closer to hers than he rightly should. “You must be more careful, Miss Erquistoune,” he hissed, forcing her golden eyes to focus upon his. “If someone had seen—”

“Oh, Miss Georgiana! Didn’t see ya come down.” It was one of the young maids, setting a heavy tray piled high with dirtied crystalware down on the table. She eyed Childermass and his closeness for only a moment, before fixing the lady with a sly grin. “Downstairs, there’s a bottle o’that scotch you like so much, if you’ve a thirst.”

“Thank you, Agnes,” she said sweetly, and the girl bobbed her head, heaved up her tray, and bustled away. Georgiana rose slowly to her feet, and placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Do you care to have a drink with me, Mr. Childermass? It is a very good scotch.”

He merely blinked at her in silence twice, trying to figure out just what she was up to and why. But he failed to come to it, and simply croaked, “Aye.”

She nodded and promised to return swiftly, then disappeared behind a passing servant. He took a moment to collect himself, dumping the little ash that remained in his pipe into the now softly-crackling fire. He had seen Miss Erquistoune a few times since her cousin returned from war, but they had spoken only once—there was no reason for him to bring her books when Strange could do the same. And even before then, he had not allowed himself to visit too often or for too long, not after that night in the Stranges’ kitchen when she gave him the book, not after what he’d nearly done to her. He had forgotten how strongly she affected him.

The woman was a nuisance, a terror, in more ways than one—but how she’d looked at him! So much anger, so swiftly followed by so much relief . And how quick his name had come to her lips, as if that was how she thought of him in her most private thoughts...

It did not bear dwelling upon. Miss Erquistoune was above his station, no matter how strange she was, no matter what she could do, no matter how the colour of her skin affected others’ perception of her status. John Childermass was hardly a man to bow to societal convention, but this was not a woman he could ever have—not without irreparable damage to her already-tenuous reputation and her family’s good standing, at the very least.

He cleaned and repacked his pipe to otherwise occupy his mind; but when he pulled out his box of matches, he found that all had been burnt up. He stared down at the blackened tips for a long moment, and then fell to laughter. When Miss Erquistoune returned with a bottle and two glasses, that was how she found him.

“What on earth has happened to you, Childermass?”

He shook his head, tossed the useless box down on the table before her. “You destroyed my matches, Erquistoune .”

Her mouth opened in surprise, and then twisted into something sheepish and repentant, though clearly holding back her equal mirth. “Oh—Oh, I’m... John, I am sorry, I did not mean...”

He laughed again, and she followed suit, slumping quickly into the chair beside him, her skirts billowing up ridiculously. She muttered what had to be a curse or two in Gaelic, patting the fabric back into place; then she held out her hand, palm up, to him. “Let me see that pipe.”

He hesitated, frowned, glanced around. The servants were busy, surely, but surely not too busy to notice what he suspected she was about to do. “If someone were to see—” he began, but she took it from his hand anyway.

“You spend too much time with that Mr. Norrell,” she grumbled, and then gave the pipe much scrutiny, as though what she had to do involved a great deal of care. When she spoke again, it was so soft he had to lean in, straining to hear her. “The fires in a house do not go out when I am present. I will claim until my dying breath that it is Jonathan’s influence, but the staff are hardly fools. ‘Tis only a little less work for them, but enough to have earned their trust, and thus their silence.” She pressed a delicate fingertip into the bowl of his pipe, wrapped her own lips around the stem and puffed softly until it took. Smoke curled from her nose and mouth when she spoke again, “Most seem to believe me Jonathan’s secret apprentice, and I fear I have not the heart to correct them. But—at least at Lady Ridlington’s, and a few other houses in town—so long as I open a bottle of something, and leave the rest for whoever might be around to finish it off, I find that any questions I may attract manage to find their own answers.”

He took the pipe from her with only a slight tremble to his hands, the image of her mouth upon it permanently seared into his memory. “And thus... scotch?

She grimaced, uncorking the bottle with practised ease and pouring two fingers for each of them. “Well, I am Scottish—or something very like it. And Lady Deckebach is a close, dear friend of Lady Ridlington’s,” she murmured, lifting her glass and downing its contents in one go with nary a wince nor a shudder, then pouring herself another. “I tend to find myself requiring something strong in this house.”

Childermass took a sip of his drink, watching Miss Erquistoune carefully. When she failed to make her second glass disappear as quickly as the first, he pressed, “Is Lady Deckebach the woman I have to thank for the loss of my matches?”

She closed her eyes and sighed, slumping back in her chair in a most improper way. “No,” she grumbled, “that blame is entirely mine own. I should not have lost myself like that, and I thank you, Childermass, for bringing me back. I... I ought not make excuses, but as you have witnessed one moment of weakness tonight, I pray you could forgive me another: my... condition makes me prone to allowing my anger to grow unchecked.” She lifted her glass from the table and held it, instead, against her temple. Her eyes watched him cautiously through dark lashes. “There are a certain set of rumors currently circulating about myself. Am I correct in assuming you are aware of them?”

He cleared his throat, took another drink of the scotch to mask averting his eyes, having finally realized the true direction of this winding conversation. “...I am,” he finally answered simply; she did not need him to elaborate.

“...Of course,” she breathed, begrudging. “Indeed, if there is anyone in London more aware than I, I would believe it to be you. If I have heard it true, you have your thumb on the pulse of the entire city.”

It was a good scotch, and he wished that he had drunk enough of it to explain away his behavior; but he had had very little, and yet still he leaned in close enough to see the streaks of brown in her golden eyes, to feel the puff of her breath against his skin, to smell her—a dizzying blend of sweat and rosewater and smoke. He leaned in far too close for anyone’s good, put his hand at her wrist and his thumb at the inner curve to feel her pulse thrumming away, and said, “Only on the things that matter.”

He fled back nearly as quickly, not trusting himself to linger so close to her...but her free hand shot out and caught the fabric of his sleeve, holding his wrist fast below the table. Her eyes burned into his.

With a growl, he twisted his hand to find the fabric of her glove beneath his palm, and gripped her arm tight. “And what, pray,” he began, softly but evenly, even with her fingers creeping higher along the curve of his arm, even with the heat of her flesh so near, “did Lady Deckebach mistake to say that has distressed you so, my lady?”

She hissed, and he would swear he saw smoke pass from between her teeth, though she had long since returned his pipe (now resting, smoldering, forgotten on the table). “ Evidently she has it from the ‘ highest authority ’ that I am neither Jonathan’s bastard daughter, nor his mistress—but rather both at the same time .” She shook her head sharply, a very dark look crossing her face. But then she took a deep breath, composed herself, eased the fingers digging too harshly into the flesh of his arm. “I suppose I shall have to congratulate Jonathan on such a remarkable feat, as he is not even ten years my senior.”

Childermass snorted at that, and she flashed him a silly, lopsided grin, brandishing her glass high. “And thus , scotch,” she declared.

He watched with much interest as she tilted her head back, baring her throat to his gaze, and threw back the rest of her drink. After a moment, he followed suit, feeling her watching him just as closely. Her right arm was otherwise occupied, and he was quite resistant to the idea of letting it free, so he reached across for the bottle and refilled their glasses.

She laughed softly, her thumb gently stroking his arm. “Thank you, John. But please do not allow me any more than that; I fear I approach my limit.”

“As you like.” He shook his head, taking a slow sip of his drink. “Perhaps my work in the matter of our friend Lascelles was too effective; I drew you into the public eye, ignited their interest...and now this. I do not wish to make more trouble for you, my lady—but if you wish it, I will do all in my power to put an end to this nonsense.”

Her expression turned thoughtful; she leaned back in her chair, her hand sliding down his forearm until they held one another’s wrists. “Any other man to offer such a miracle would find himself laughed from the room. But from you... Well, I know you to be capable of any number of impossible things, John Childermass. I would not be saddened to be free of this, though I admit I do fear the potential of any backlash to further soil my cousin’s good name.”

“If it would distress you, Miss Erquistoune, I would not allow it.”

“Indeed?” she asked, a little breathlessly. “I wonder what I could have done to deserve such devotion?”

He cast his eye about, watching the other servants, busy with their work but too close for talk such as this—too close for much of what had already been said. “My reasons are my own,” he muttered. “Is it not enough to know you have it?”

“Aye, it is far more than enough.” She drank down the rest of her scotch, though slowly now, eyeing him carefully all the while. She set the glass down with care and said, “I believe I have had my fill of parties tonight. Would that I could see myself home, for it is not far; but it is still quite early, and, sadly, I must await Mr. Strange’s pleasure.”

He laughed—they were well past the need for such games, but there was a mischievous gleam in her eye that he quite liked, so he was glad to play along. “I suppose that I could see you safely home, my lady, if you have such a great desire?”

“Indeed?” she asked through a dangerously sweet grin. “Your Mr. Norrell will not miss you?”

“My Mr. Norrell will have to get along without me,” he grumbled, following her suit and finishing off his drink. “I am certain he is capable.”

“Thank you, John,” she murmured, only now releasing his wrist and withdrawing her hand. “I will send word to Arabella that I feel unwell. Do you have any paper? And something to write with?”

Childermass nodded, reaching into his pocket for his memorandum book and a bit of graphite. He handed her the pencil gladly, but hesitated with the book, thinking of all that was within. Well . He supposed it was quite past time for her to see. By the tone of their conversation tonight, she may be flattered; but the likely result would be her fleeing from him, which would be better for the both of them in the long run, no matter how he dreaded the very thought. With a sigh, he passed it along. “Take whichever page you like.”

Miss Erquistoune frowned at his strange behavior, but flipped open the book anyway, evidently unconcerned. She gasped, however, when she saw what was inside. He turned to look, and saw that she’d landed on one of the sketches he’d made of the statues speaking at the Cathedral at York. She turned a page, and found the Cathedral’s exterior, tucked beneath a list of fees once due to all the booksellers in town. Another page: a list of magicians Norrell had had him run out of Manchester, and his favorite tree along the Hurt, blooming in the spring. Another had the fireplace in the library at Hurtfew, a rare and merry fire burning. Her eyes lingered on that one, her finger tracing the edges of the graphite flames.

“Did you draw all of these?” she breathed.

He chuckled around his pipe. “Who else? No one, save you and I, has ever seen inside that book.”

Her head snapped up, eyes wide and surprised and searching through his. He did not know what she was looking for, nor what she found; but eventually she turned away, slipped a few more pages ahead. “You are unduly talented, John Childermass. I wonder what other things your hands are capable of.” He coughed, choking on pipe smoke; but she gave him no time to respond, let alone recover. “Ah! Is this Jonathan?”

He looked down, saw the drawing he’d made of Strange standing before the mirror in Norrell’s library, arms outstretched to the book he’d trapped within it. “Aye,” he croaked, and cleared his throat. “When first he came to Hanover-square to show Norrell his magic.”

She grinned up at him. “You certainly managed to capture his hair.”

He lifted a brow at her. “Did not you have a message to write, my lady?” he asked, nervous as to the contents of the remaining pages.

“Oh. Yes, I did,” she murmured, flipping ahead so far that, for a moment, he thought she had missed them all. But he could have no such luck; in a moment, she gasped again, her hands stilled. “...Oh.”

The image was of her, smiling, though not at the viewer; he’d taken great care in the small dimple of her left cheek, the rounded slope of her nose, the subtle arch of her brow. It had been the first sketch in a very long time to make his hands itch for colored paints, though he knew he could never truly do her eyes justice.

On the next page, she was scolding a rough approximation of Strange for some little act of thoughtlessness; the curious blend of annoyance and fondness in her features and countenance had stuck with him in his mind’s eye for days until he’d had a chance to get it down on paper.

Another page, Georgiana sat at Norrell’s dining table, at one of the very rare dinners his master hosted, tall and elegant and imperious. Around it were scratched his furious thoughts: “ What is she? Magician? Enchantress? Some form of witch? Surely no faerie, nor practitioner of any English magic. Why fire? Are there elemental magicians? How does she do it? Why does Norrell not take notice of the candles? How does he not see her? How does any man? How do I stop?

She read all of this carefully, eyes tracing his untidy scrawl, and then slowly flipped the page. It was his latest work of her, though based on the first time he saw her; he’d needed time to study her features, to get the expression just right. She gazed out of the page, both ferocious and delighted, sizing him up, surprised not at his sudden appearance but at his substance. Above her head, he’d scratched out the first words she’d said to him; “ Ah, the shadow speaks .”

“... Oh ,” the real Georgiana said, almost reverently, fingering the edge of the page. When she turned it and saw that the next page was blank, she seemed surprised, as if she’d forgotten that a blank page was what she had come looking for. With a start, she tore the blank page out and scrawled something to her friend.

“Oh! Miss Agnes?” The girl from before stopped in her steps, a nervous butler grumbling curses as he squeezed to get by her. “Do you know my friend, Mrs. Strange? Could you take this to her?”

“Of course, Miss. Will Mr. Strange do, in her stead?”

“No, no, it must be Arabella, please. Mr. Childermass will be seeing me home—Jonathan would...not understand.”

The girl Agnes gave Childermass a knowing grin, tucking the letter into her skirts. “ Aye , Miss Georgiana. Mrs. Strange, it is. Have a good night, Miss.”

“Thank you, Agnes, and you,” Ana said, laughing. “Ready, Mr. Childermass?”

He stood, fixing this Agnes with a withering look; the girl responded with yet another grin, bobbed again, and ran off. When he returned, he would take aim that no word of this was spread to anyone , save Mrs. Strange. “Aye, my lady,” he grumbled.

Miss Erquistoune took his arm, and together they wove their way out of the kitchens. He deposited her at the door, pressed his way through the throng of servants to the coat-room to retrieve his great-coat and the lady’s cloak (a deep red, nearly burgundy velvet, trimmed with gold thread, a stark and elegant contrast to the cream-coloured gown she wore tonight). Then he returned to her, helped her into the cloak; and together they journeyed into the alleyway and out onto the street.

Childermass spotted Davey tending the horses, and they took Norrell’s carriage to Soho-square.

Miss Erquistoune was silent when they got into the carriage, merely staring out the window, removing her gloves and then chewing on her thumbnail. He watched her the whole time. Twice, she took in a sharp breath as if to speak, but apparently thought better of it. He did not press her; and the third time, her soft voice carried across to him, “Where did you learn to draw?”

He laughed, shook his head. “Nowhere. Everywhere. I draw what I see.”

She laughed in turn, though bitterly, her voice even softer as she said, “Then you see me very well, sir.”

Childermass frowned, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, waiting for her to finally turn to meet his eye. “ Aye , I do.”

She stared, eyes wide, and had just opened her mouth to speak when the carriage lurched to a stop outside of the Strange’s home.

He got out and helped her down. Before he could say a thing, she grabbed his arm and hurried off, dragging him along behind her. He waved at Davey to stay and let her pull him along. She did not go up to the door, but around the side and to the back of the house, near the servants’ entrance. “Miss Erquistoune—”

She tugged his arm, grabbed his collar, and pulled his lips to hers.

The sky cracked open; the stones cried out; the woman before him was made of fire .

Childermass opened his eyes, saw that it was Georgiana.

Georgiana .

He broke away from her, caught her cheek in his hand. She opened her eyes and looked up at him, worried, uncertain. He let his hand slide back into her hair, let the weight of his body press hers back against the wall of the house; he put his face into the curve of her neck so he could smell her again, the scent of her adding to his dizziness, and he let his lips brush against her skin as he spoke the words of the spell.

She shivered against him as the shadows spread over them both; he pulled away to look at her, and found her watching him carefully. It was darker now with the shadows; but a part of him could see her truly, burning red-hot in the darkness. Her eyes were glowing; her breath was hot against his skin.

Georgiana ,” he groaned.

She grinned, and kissed him again.

Again, he was somewhere—some thing —else. A part of him could feel and taste and smell: her warm, soft body beneath him, her full lips sliding against his, her wet tongue sneaking past his lips and teeth and into his mouth, the scotch she’d drunk, the smoke she carried with her always, the sweat and rosewater of tonight. But another part of him could hear , and see : the stones and trees and clouds screaming, the woman aflame but never burning, the sky itself heavy with messages and questions and stories in a language he did not know, but it called to him—

What ? ” he tried to ask, forgetting that his mouth was busy, that his tongue was in Ana’s mouth, that it was very happy there and very reluctant to be bothered with forming words, she was so warm and eager, she felt so good, she’d started this, she’d wanted this, she’d wanted him .. !

He pressed his fist into the stone wall beneath her, the pain enough to ground him; the stone itself cried out in what he knew to be protest though he did not know the words. The pain grounded him, and he broke his mouth apart from hers. The world fell silent and dumb and still again, and Childermass took a deep breath of the cool night air and tried again, “ What is this?

Mm –what is what? ” Ana echoed slowly, cheeks flushed, lips swollen, peeling open her eyes with evident effort; but when she focused, and saw him, she gasped. “ Oh ,” she breathed, and then, “ sorry .” She reached up, passed her fingers over his eyes and ears and mouth, and took a sharp breath. “Sorry. I did not realize...” Her voice trailed off, and she stared at him, her eyes curious and wondering. She cocked her head to the side, a gesture he’d seen from her a hundred times before, but for the first time, with her golden eyes gleaming in his shadows, he realized that it made him think of birds. “You are so sensitive to the magic around you,” she breathed, and then her swollen lips curled into a positively wicked grin. “ What are you, John Childermass?

He knew it, suddenly. He understood. But he would wait for her to tell him herself. He wanted, in that moment more than anything else, for her to trust him.

Yours ,” he answered, and kissed her again.

There was no magic this time, no other world, nothing to distract him from her softness and her sweetness, from the sounds she made in her pleasure, from the way she curled her hands about his neck and dug her fingers into his hair.

She made such delicious noises, and groaned his name every time her lips broke from his, and much sooner than he liked he had to press his hands against the wall and push himself away from her.

“Any more of that,” he warned, gasping, “and I would have you here against this wall.”

“That a promise?” she purred, moving in to kiss him again; but he pressed his forehead to hers and kept her just out of reach.

He shook his head, grinning at the way the end of his nose brushed against hers. “The first time I have you,” he growled, reaching up to run his fingers along the short curls at her temple, “I will have you properly—on a bed, with all the time we need.”

She bit her lip, staring up at him with wide, golden-brown eyes. For once, there was no humour in her voice as she asked, “The first time?”

Aye .” He ran his thumb along her cheekbone. “Now, that is a promise.”

“I will hold you to it.” She pulled away from him, resting her head back against the wall, her eyes drifting closed. The corners of her mouth tugged downward, her brow creasing in concern. “I... You should go back, John. I have kept you too long.” Her eyes opened, heavily, sadly. “Arabella is worried that I am truly ill, they are leaving now. And Norrell never stays long after Jonathan has gone.”

Childermass frowned. “How do you..?”

She reached up, and laid one hand across his eyes. At first, he could see nothing but darkness; but then, it was like someone had opened a window right before him, a window into a house that was on fire . Through the haze of heat and the flames, he could make out the figure of Mr. Norrell, pacing anxiously, as Strange and his wife bowed and said their goodbyes.

He gasped, and pulled away from her hand—the vision cleared away. “You...look through the fires!”

She grinned, a little crookedly, a little teasingly. “I have told you so before. Did you not believe me?”

“I...” He shook his head, trying to clear the strange dizziness Miss Erquistoune’s magic inflicted upon him. “I did not understand.”

She laughed, as light and sweet as sunlight, and reached into the pocket of her cloak. “Before you go,” she said, softly, “I have something for you. Jonathan said Norrell would be there tonight, so I hoped I would see you.” She placed a small, cloth purse into his hands.

He undid the tie and opened the bag, dumping its contents into his palm with a frown. They were... “ Buttons?

A very pretty color rose in her cheeks, and she lowered her eyes, reaching across to finger one of those sewn onto his coat. “Last I saw you, I noticed your other coat was missing more than a few,” she told him, a teasing smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth. “If you bring it by the house, well... I am not particularly skilled with a needle, but I will replace them for you.”

He noticed a curious shape in the carving upon them and took a step back from her, dispersing the shadows that he might see them clearly. “They are ravens!

“Yes,” she laughed. “They made me think of you. I am a little late; but happy Christmas, Childermass.”

“I...” He stared dumbly, not sure how to explain what this meant to him. “Thank you, Ana,” he said, knowing it wasn’t nearly enough, and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I...had not gotten you—”

She put her hands on his cheeks, and drew his mouth back to hers, and kissed him sweetly. He could feel her mouth curling upward in a grin against his own lips, and wondered if there were any better feeling in the world. When she pulled away, she pressed her forehead against his, still grinning, and put her hand on his, folding his fingers over the handful of little wooden ravens. “I cannot say how I have missed you,” she breathed. “Now you have a reason to come and visit me again. That is all the gift I could want.”

He kissed her again, less than sweet, more urgent and yearning, trying to give her all he could not say.

When she broke away, he took her up in his arms, holding her to his chest. “I will find as many reasons as I can,” he promised, “to come and visit you again.”

She laughed, a little breathless, put her hand on his chest, and pushed him away gently. “I look forward to it. But I have kept you away far too long, and Davey is still waiting for you. You must go.”

“...I must,” he grumbled, shaking his head. But he opened his hand, looking fondly at her gift, and managed to give her a smile and a nod. “I will see you very soon,” he promised. “Good night, Georgiana.”

She grinned, and kissed him swiftly, one last time. “Good night, John.”

Chapter Text

March 1815 - part 1

 

She ignored the cabbie’s half-hearted offer of a hand, thrusting a couple of coins into his palm instead, and rushed out of the cab and onto the street. Her steps were light and swift—she’d have flown if only she’d been able—as she rounded the corner to Hanover-square, and then ducked into the alley beside Norrell’s house and around the back, to the servants’ entrance.

There she finally stopped, and caught her breath: John was already there , though his tall, dark form was crouched on the back step, arm extending to set out a small dish of food. The cat he held it out to noticed her before he did—it turned and hissed as she stepped out of the shadows.

Easy, there ,” she called, in the language of birds (in which all cats were naturally proficient). “ I am not here for you .”

This human is mine ,” the creature yowled in reply.

Georgiana drew herself up, pain and anger sparking through her. “ He is mine first! ” she hissed.

The cat eyed her suspiciously; but eventually decided she was no threat, and turned back to the food. Childermass watched the exchange with interest, but neither rose nor spoke until the cat was eating.

“What did you say to her?” he asked finally, softly.

“That I am a friend,” was the best answer Ana could give. “What are you doing?”

He stroked the cat’s back very tenderly, and the creature purred in response. There was a soft smile on his face when he pulled back and stood to his feet, and then shrugged. “She’s pregnant,” was the only answer he gave.

Ana sighed and looked more closely, noting the cat’s rounded stomach and slowness of movements. “Then why not take her inside?”

John rolled his eyes. “Norrell is allergic ,” he snorted, as though he believed the allergy to be of his master’s own making. But then he looked at her fully, and frowned. “What are you doing here? Georgiana, what’s wrong?”

She took a tentative step forward, but then lost her nerve. She held out the bundle of well-worn fabric in her hands, as though it might protect her. “I finished your buttons.”

He descended the step, still frowning, and came and took the coat from her, rubbing his thumb along one of the raven-buttons. “It looks very fine,” he decided. “But you need not have come all this way.”

“I needed to see you,” she murmured.

He nodded, as though he had expected as much, and asked, “Why?”

She swallowed thickly, and steeled herself. “I am... Jonathan and Arabella are r-returning to Shropshire.”

His frown deepened; he shook his head. “ No .”

“It has been decided.”

“You can’t go.”

“I cannot stay! ” she cried, more than a little desperately. He took her up in his arms, letting the coat fall to the ground, and pulled her against the wall of the house. She pressed her face into the curve of his neck; but still she felt his breath against her skin as he whispered the words, felt the coolness of his shadows overcome them and tuck them both away, out of the reach of prying eyes.

You cannot go ,” he breathed again, his lips brushing against her cheek.

She shook her head, blinking back tears at the pain in his voice. “I will go with them to Shropshire for a few days, and then return to Edinburgh from there,” she told him, pulling away from his cool skin, though still unable to meet his dark, watchful eyes. “After that, I do not know what will happen. The British army is on its way to Belgium, and Wellington has made it no secret that he wishes to have Jonathan join them there. I may stay home long enough to see my sisters, and then, perhaps, be back to Shropshire for Arabella’s sake. Or I may stay in Scotland entirely. But I cannot return to London.”

“You cannot go ,” he repeated, shaking his head.

She grabbed his face in both her hands, kissed his lips clumsily, desperately; he pinned her body against the wall with his own, and met her kiss greedily, stealing her breath, his hands clutching at any part of her they could find.

I will speak to Norrell ,” he groaned against her skin, when she finally pushed him away that they might both catch their breath. “He will apologize to Strange, convince him to stay—or we will find work for you in town, a good word from him and any bookshop would take you on–or– or–

“I have a duty to my family,” she reminded him softly, shaking her head, “one that I have neglected far too long. I am twenty-eight now, and unmarried; I should have settled in with a gentleman long ago, but as I... It is not... I am not free to choose what I want for my life. I am not free to choose you .”

He gripped her chin and turned her head, forced her to meet his enormous, searching eyes. “But you would? You would choose me?”

“In one hundred lifetimes, John Childermass, I would choose you .”

Apparently, even more than the words she said, there was something in the way she said them that caught his attention; he seemed to recognize that she was speaking with conviction—with experience . His expression grew, somehow, even darker, and he leaned in close enough to kiss her, but his gaze did not break from hers, and their lips failed to touch. “I ask you now, my lady, for the last time: what are you?

She tilted her head, looking above them. “Where is your room? Can I see your window from here?”

He frowned, but nodded. “In the attic, on the end,” he said, pointing above their heads. “Why?”

“Tonight,” she instructed, “once all are abed—or enough to cause you no trouble—open your shutters, and wait for me to join you.”

His frown deepened, his brow creasing in confusion. “You will climb to my window to tell me your secret? Why not just say it now?”

She shook her head with a breathy laugh. “No. I will come to your window, to show you. It will be better that way,” she assured him. “Just...lay some wood in the fireplace, but do not light it. And if you might leave out a spare shirt for me, I would be glad of it.”

“A spare shirt?

Aye ,” she teased, a poor approximation of his accent, a sly smirk on her face. She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Strange instructions, I am aware. But will you follow them? Do you trust me?”

His arm snaked around her back, his lips found their way to her cheek. “You know I do,” he growled against her skin, grazing his lips and tongue and teeth along the skin of her cheek, her neck, down and down until he met her collarbone, and there he stayed as she gasped and sighed against him. He sucked her flesh into his mouth, his teeth pressing lightly into her softness.

She trembled in his arms, she clung to him, she tilted her head back and bared her neck to him and whispered his name, “ John .” Beneath his lips, her pulse thrummed and sung. “ John ,” she groaned again. “John, really , I must go.”

He groaned, but pried himself away. Her skin was flushed, her eyes dark; the edge of her collarbone was already pink and swelling, and she shivered when he brushed his thumb against it. He tugged the neck of her chemise over the mark he’d made. “Forgive me,” he murmured, and she laughed breathlessly, knowing well that neither of them were sorry for it.

“I must go,” she said, laying a hand against his cheek, but only for a moment. She frowned, suddenly worried, uncertain. For all his talk, all his eagerness, all his dreaded curiosity to know what she was, there was still a chance the answer would not please him. “If you... After I have shown you all I am... If you still want me after that, you may leave whatever marks you like,” she said, and then turned, freeing herself from his arms and shadows, and fleeing back the way she had come.

 


 

Childermass lost track of how much time he stood there, staring after her, his mind gone blank at her boldness.

The woman was a terror .

But he would gladly be hers to torment, if it meant she might stay. He turned, retrieved his coat from where they had dropped it, and sank to a seat on the back step. For all her talk of a lack of skill in needlework, Ana had done a very fine job in replacing his buttons. He ran his finger along the face of one, feeling the ridges of the little raven volant—and felt heat rush up into his hand and wrist and arm. With a frown, he flipped the fabric over, investigating her stitches.

There was... something there, he could almost see it..!

Childermass shook his head, and unfocused his eyes, and stopped looking so closely, and... there! Among the dark thread she had used, if he did not look directly, he could see tiny threads of reddish-gold, the colour of her magic. And not just on the buttons... He followed the lines as they spread out, like branches or webs, woven throughout the inner lining of his coat, along the lapels and back and sleeves and collar. He laid his open palm against the magic, and closed his eyes. It was tinged with her heat and smoke, of course—but this felt like magic he knew.

Miss Erquistoune had sewn a spell of protection into his coat.

The cat finished her food, and came and curled herself about his leg, stark white against the shadows that still clung to him.

He brushed off his spell, and reached down to pet the creature’s fur. After a moment, he lifted her gingerly into his arms, stood, and took her inside, Norrell’s allergies be damned.

Chapter Text

March 1815 - part 2

 

Childermass sat at his desk, a book opened before him, though it had been some time since his mind had taken in any of the words on any of the pages. There was much he wished to do, and not much time in which to do it.

The first would be easy enough. He had had it for a very long time, long before he ever had any idea what to do with it. But the spell was something else. He had cast protections before, though nothing so deep nor enduring as the one she had woven into his coat with strands of heat. He figured there was something to that, binding the magic to a particular element, and he imagined he could do the same, if he could but find the right agent.

He’d thought the book could help him. There was still a chance that it might. But night had fallen, and his shutters were open–though he had yet left the glass closed, to keep out the lingering chill of winter—and Childermass could not seem to keep his attention away from the window.

What if she did not come?

He shook his head, attempting to clear it of such a thought. She had kissed him, not the other way around. She had told him how to let her in. She wanted this, wanted him .

It was unfair to doubt her, perhaps; Miss Erquistoune had proven herself remarkable and steadfast, time and again. Yet he could not help but to worry she would realize that he was not enough, that she could still seek a man who would suit her in the ways he could not, in status and in wealth...

And in proximity, he remembered with a sigh. She would be leaving London soon, with no viable excuse to return. And though, despite his shortcomings, Norrell allowed his man of business exceptional freedom to come and go as he pleased in the pursuit of his business, even Childermass could not stretch his duties so far as Scotland.

It was possible that he would never see her again.

He could scarcely imagine what it would be like to go back to the way things had been, before Miss Erquistoune had forced her way into his life. He was not sure he remembered how.

He had kept so many secrets in his life; but she was the first person to ever wish to keep his in return. All his life, he had fashioned himself into something that people would overlook; but she had seen him from the very first. When had John Childermass ever been in want of a confidante, a companion? Never, until Miss Erquistoune, with her sharp tongue and her perfumed letters and her clever mind, with her watchful eyes and her easy laughter and her magic that pulled at him whenever she was near.

For years, he had been certain that she would not— could not—consider him in the way he considered her. He had resigned himself to that certainty.

And then she’d dragged him into an alley and kissed him senseless—or, rather, quite the opposite.

Childermass shook his head, rested his elbows on the desk, and ran his hands through his hair. He would not check the time again, he needed to focus on his book, needed to give her something that could prove all she meant to him. Georgiana Erquistoune had shown him, quite literally, that there was more to magic than what he had seen—for that alone, he could never truly repay her.

But he could try.

He sighed, ran his hands down his face, and refocused on his reading. There must be something ..!

The tapping was sharp and loud and unmistakable. He turned and saw the bird, like a blaze burning in his window, bright against the night. The golden-brown eyes he knew peered at him through the glass; then she tapped her beak again, insistent.

Childermass stood and hurried across the room and swung the window open. There was scarcely room for her; he had not known quite what to expect—the descriptions in the books he'd found were varied, and oft conflicting—but he certainly had not thought her to be so big . With the navy, he had seen the massive Indian peafowl; but she was larger still than those, shuffling through the small window-frame until she had room to spread her wings, revealing brilliant, golden feathers tucked away beneath the rest, the deep and blazing scarlet, the colour of Ana’s hair.

With one beat of those wings, she was aloft, and Childermass watched in wonder as she dove into his cold fireplace and erupted into flames.

The fire flared, so bright he could not say where feathers ended and flames began. But then a dark shape took form, half-hidden behind the haze.

First an arm, and then a leg, and then the whole body of Georgiana Erquistoune emerged from the fire—the whole, bare body, all dark, freckled skin and soft, delicious curves. She did not spare him a single glance, merely cast her eyes about until they landed on the shirt he’d hung upon the mantle, which she then swiftly slid herself into.

The shirt fell short of her knees—when she raised her arms in a catlike stretch, it crept even higher, but then fell back again. Either way, it was nowhere near decent. Childermass snatched the counterpane from atop his bed and rather flung it about her shoulders.

The woman laughed, turning to look at him over her shoulder, her eyes like molten gold, glowing despite the fire and the candles. But she drew the blanket across her chest, and she stood a little hunched so it covered her body from his sight. “Mmmn, she never lets me burn like that,” she said, her voice crooning, almost crackling . “I suppose I should thank you, John Childermass.”

Childermass frowned, picking up the knife that lay on his nightstand so she could see it. “ You are not my Georgiana .”

The creature reared back strangely, as though unaccustomed to this body and the ways that it moved, but then grinned at him. “Not solely , no. But, oh! how she thrills to hear you call her yours! Do not fear, Mr. Childermass, she is quite here, and quite safe. I am a part of her, but she is also a part of me . She said you would have questions, and that I would be better suited to their answers. But first, perhaps you could answer one of our own? How did you know I was not her?”

His frown deepened, but he lowered the knife. “Your voice is wrong. And your eyes too bright. You look at me as if I am a puzzle to be solved, but she has long since solved me. And Miss Erquistoune does not slouch when she stands; she would never be so timid.”

The not-Georgiana laughed again. “You are right on all the counts that matter, though I fear the timidity is truly hers. She does not wish to be so exposed before you—she is quite afraid you will find her displeasing. Oh. And she very greatly wishes I had not said that.”

“There is no chance of that ,” Childermass huffed before he could stop himself.

“That’s what I said—!” the being cried, turning away from him. Its—her—eyes went unfocused, as if listening to a voice he could not hear. “Oh. Yes, well—alright. No, I will not.” The creature turned her eyes back to him and shrugged. “Forgive us. I have not had such a stubborn host in quite some time, I am disused to being told what to do. Your questions, sir?”

“You are a Phoenix, a firebird , that much I already suspected. But what are you truly? A spirit? A demon, of some sort?”

She grinned, and he wondered whose smugness this was: Ana’s, or the creature’s? Did it even matter? “You are as clever as she thinks you, or very nearly. Some that have named me have called me that, yes. It is not quite enough, but I am rather fond of the word. Still, I am not only a bird—and if I were to be considered a spirit, that would be close enough. Every match lit by human hands, every blaze built by falling lightning, every spark shot from crashing stone, speaks of me. But it is mankind who gave me form—you humans , with your stories! I have never known such creatures as you. You weave your reality into words, give form where once there was none. You told stories around me, and caught my attention; and then you told stories of me, and caught my affection. Such as it is.”

“Then you have been called a great many things. Why take the form of a bird?”

The phoenix rolled her eyes (a gesture it had almost certainly learned from Ana, or the other way around). “Please, sir, she is quite anxious to see you here. Pray don't waste our time with questions you know the answer to.”

Childermass frowned, unsure precisely what to make of such a statement. But he set the puzzle aside for a moment, and tried at another. “What is the extent of this possession? Where do you end, and she begin?”

“It is a fair question but, I am sorry to say, a wrong one. The girl is me and I am her. And though I am more than this, she is all she is—with and without me.” The phoenix eyed him carefully, then nodded. “If you worry at the root of her affections, I assure you they are true. I do not interfere with such things, nor do they interest me beyond the effect they have upon my host. If it seems I do—well, it takes a great deal to turn this one’s head, and I was intrigued to see the creature that accomplished it. I have not been disappointed. She is not—ah,” it said, her eyes going unfocused again, and then it flashed a sheepish grin. “She wishes me to say no more than that. But you have proven a creature of deep curiosity; surely you have more questions?”

“Just the one for you, I believe: What caused you to inhabit Georgiana? Why was she chosen?”

“Ahh, now that is a worthy question, and one which I am glad to answer. When my host dies, I am set free to roam the earth again, looking for another. It had been quite some time since my last, during which I found nothing suitable. Truly, I had quite resigned myself to never exist again in solid form. But then I heard a woman’s voice in my flames.”

A dark look crossed her face, a rage like she’d shown in the Radcliffe’s kitchen. “I do not know who set the fire, nor who barred the door. If I did, I assure you they would see a most unpleasant end. Whoever caused it, the woman was trapped inside, and too far gone for me to aid her. Even so, she did not pray for her own salvation, but for that of the child she carried. Such a request could not be ignored; I may not be human, nor have I had a heart I did not borrow, but I have inhabited enough to be capable of some compassion.”

“You...helped Georgiana’s mother?”

“I kept the woman strong until she was discovered, yes; and when this girl was born, I assumed my place within. It was only a matter of chance that the doctor was there to see her mother away, and that he fell so deeply in love with us, and that he and his wife had been trying for a third child but were unable to produce one. That is not my sort of magic. But they took us in—named us Georgiana , of all things, and as flattering as that is, the favor was entirely mine own. Still, the Erquistounes have been good to us, and we have been glad to find ourselves a part of them. She is very fond of the parents and the sisters both.”

“So you take care of her, protect her?”

“Of course! In doing so, I protect myself. Someday, Death will come for her, and I will be freed to find another; but I will not allow him to come before his time, you may rest assured. Now, that is two more questions than you had intended. Is your curiosity now sated?”

“Hardly. But I would have Georgiana back, if you please.”

The phoenix nodded with a smile, moving to sit on the edge of his bed. “Before I go,” it began—the voice sounding as though it came from a place further and further away—“a word of caution: What magic your magician has done to Miss Pole I do not know, but I do not trust it. Nor, I think, should you. I know what it is to be reborn; that woman... Hers is a half-life, if it can be called a life at all. Whatever she has now is worse than death. Take great care, Mr. Childermass...”

The voice grew softer and softer; her eyes lost the yellow glow. She hung her head, and then shuddered, and then gasped. When she looked up, her eyes were streaked with brown again, and she gazed at him with the familiarity of a woman returning to her home after a long time away, walking through her front door and finding everything just as she had left it. “ John ,” she said, her voice low and sultry, as it should be, and he lurched forward and leaned against the bed, his hands on either side of her hips.

Ana .”

She grinned. “I did not think you knew me so well.”

“Not half as well as I should like,” he said.

“We shall have to do something about that, then,” she said, releasing her hold on his blanket so the fabric fell loose around her. “Come here.”

“I have desired this for so long now,” he breathed, and she laughed and corded her fingers through his hair.

“Why did you not tell me?”

“It was not my place.”

She shook her head, all sign of laughter gone, and took his hand in hers, drawing it down over the swell of her breasts and the plane of her middle and the softness of her thighs, beneath the hem of his shirt that she wore to the warmth and wetness between her legs. “Your place is here .”

Aye ,” he growled, finding work for his fingers there, watching as her breath hitched and her eyes closed and her teeth caught her bottom lip. “I know that now.”

She nodded, rocking her hips against his hand. “If you had but told me, I would have been yours years ago.”

He ducked his head and kissed her, tugging at her lip with his teeth as he pulled away. “I thought you did not wish to be possessed.”

Her golden eyes watched him carefully, her pupils wide and dark. “Nor will I be. But I would gladly share myself with you, if that would suit?”

“Aye, that would suit me well,” he agreed, kissing her neck. “ Shared ,” he murmured, working his lips down her chest, mouth wet against the thin cotton, the only thing that separated her skin from him, and she fell back, unable to keep upright with these things he was doing to her. “ Cherished ,” he added, lips over her rib cage, and then over her navel. “ Adored ,” he breathed, adding his mouth to his fingers as she squirmed and gasped and laughed beneath him. “Whatever you should like.”

 


 

Georgiana woke sometime in the middle of the night, forgetting where she was, who she was with, why she was there. She rolled over in the bed and felt something solid behind her, something that groaned , and an arm snaked around her waist.

She gasped and turned over; John Childermass pulled her closer.

He was still asleep, or close enough to it, and she settled back into the pillows to stare at him. His hair was loose and wild, falling in his face, spread far across his pillow and hers. In sleep, the bags under his eyes looked less pronounced; the wrinkles on his forehead and the crease between his brow were smoothed away. His breathing was heavy and even. He snored, though only a little.

She smiled to herself, reaching over to brush his hair out of his face, to run the tip of her finger along the bridge of his nose. The snoring stopped, but his eyes refused to open.

“What you doin’, George?”

She laughed. “You never call me George.”

“Do in my head.”

“Did I ever tell you how much I like your nose?”

Tickles ,” he grumbled.

Shhh , go back to sleep.”

You go back to sleep.”

She shook her head, pulling her hand away. “No... No, I should go now, before the sun comes up.”

He frowned, his eyes cracking open. “No.”

John .”

He shook his head, wrapping his arm tighter around her, pulling her closer. “Stay. We have hours to morning, at least. Stay with me.”

She laughed, burying her face into the crook of his neck. “I am not always so easily convinced.”

“I am well aware.”

She put her hand on his chest, closed her eyes, and very easily slipped back into sleep.

 


 

When she woke again, John was already awake, propping himself up on his elbow, watching her and winding a coil of her hair around his finger. Despite all that had happened, all they had done in the darkness, she felt bashful at his careful study, here in the little grey light of the approaching day. She tugged the covers up over her nose.

“Good morning,” she greeted softly.

He shook his head, pulling the covers away; and rolled over, half-pinning her down with his body; and kissed her, long and slow and deep. Beneath the sheets, his large, rough hands crept along her bare skin, and his legs wove their way between and around her own.

He broke away, pressed his forehead to hers, and breathed, “ Good morning .”

She laughed, more than a little breathlessly, and rolled him back off of her. “You should not have let me sleep so late.”

“It’s not yet dawn,” he grumbled-—his voice, always low and rough and full of Yorkshire, was nearly unintelligible with sleep added to the mix. “You can stay a little longer.”

She shook her head and heaved herself up to sitting, pushing a little further from his grasping hands. She was not as sore as she had expected to be, but knew this ache would not be leaving her body soon. “That will not work a second time, my love. I must go, or I’ll be seen.”

He sat up as well—with infuriating swiftness—and fixed her with an intense look. “Am I? Your love?

She laughed again, and reached across to lay her hand against his cheek. “Sorry, have I been too subtle?”

He pressed his face into the crook of her neck, his arms holding her close but not too tight. In the night, he had been gentle—she had not forgotten the way his hands had trembled when first he touched her, nor would she ever; this man, the very image of composure, of self-possession, so easily undone by a few soft words, a gentle touch—but to be shown this same tenderness here, with the sunrise fast approaching...

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and held him to her, trying not to think how she might never see him again. It was a foolish thought—she would burn the earth to ash before she let anything happen to him, she would storm Heaven and Hell and all the Other Lands if anyone dared take him from her.

“We will not always be apart,” she promised him, running her fingers through his hair. “I will find a way to return to you. But the Stranges will not leave for another day, at least. Will you... May I come see you again tonight?”

“You must.”

She laughed. “Well, if I must...”

“You must . I will have something for you by then.”

“Something for me?” she asked, pulling back with a grin, doing her best not to feel so girlish and delighted by the thought of presents but fighting a losing battle. “A gift?”

He shook his head, dark eyes filled with mischief. “A promise .”

Birdsong crept through the open window, and they both drew apart. With a sigh, Georgiana rose out of the bed, and crossed the little room to his fireplace. So quiet he moved! She had not realized John followed her until he wrapped his arms around her a last time. She leaned back against him, lifted a hand to cover his at her shoulder. “How long had you known what I was? Before last night?”

“Not long,” he murmured, indulging, softly kissing her neck. “I realized the night when first you kissed me.”

“Why did you not say?”

“I wanted you to tell me.” He turned her to face him, raking his hand through her hair, watching hungrily at the way it made her lips part and her eyelids flutter. “I wanted you to trust me.”

She could not meet his eyes, but placed a hand on his cheek. “I will be back tonight,” she murmured, “and we can speak of trust, and promises.”

Ana ,” he began, but she kissed him and stepped back, closer to the fire. How could she possibly explain what his words meant to her? How could she admit that her Gavin had loved her, and married her, and died without ever knowing the truth of her? How could she own to the guilt that came of showing herself and the creature inside her to this man?

How could she live with herself, knowing that the love she had given her husband had never been this true?

She could not, not yet, not now, not with the first hint of daylight beginning to creep onto London soil, her chances of making it back to Soho-square unseen dwindling with each passing breath. She shook her head, and told him, “ Tonight ,” and turned and stepped into the flames.

Chapter Text

March 1815 - part 3

 

It had taken her body only a single night to remember what it was like to sleep beside a man; and so, when Georgiana rolled over onto nothing more than pillows, she woke, suddenly and completely, heart pounding long after her eyes had opened and she saw him sitting at his desk, a candle lit beside him.

She sat up slowly, holding the covers tight to her chest more out of a desire to slow her quick breaths than out of any modesty. “ John?

He jumped, turned, saw the expression on her face, and stood to come and lean across the bed and press a kiss to her forehead. “I’m here,” he murmured against her skin.

She placed a hand on his cheek, running her thumb along the coarse hair that lined his jaw, then letting her touch trail down his neck and chest, if only because she could , admiring the way the night made his pale skin look less stark beneath her dark hand. “What were you working on?”

He shook his head. “I was only thinking.”

“You’ll think better in bed with me,” she purred, reaching for his hand to pull him closer, but he smirked and put both hands on her cheeks and kissed her, far too chaste for her desires now that they were both awake here together, both naked here together.

“I will not,” he said with a smirk, and turned from her to grab something from the desk. “But the puzzle I’m thinking on cannot be solved by me alone, I fear.”

She’d planned to get him back in bed, to kiss him until he stopped talking, but she did like puzzles, especially Childermass puzzles. More than that, she liked that he would want her help to solve something. “What is it?” she asked, taking his fist in both her hands as he sat back down on the bed beside her. She pried his fingers open against only a little resistance, and then went very still.

In his palm was a ring.

“This was my mother’s,” he told her, his voice scarcely more than a whisper. “Given her by my father, she claimed, and all she had of him but me. She sold it off when I was young and it broke her, so I stole it back, but I was foolish and caught and punished.”
Georgiana shuddered, thinking of the thin, faint scars that crossed his back, the old hurts she’d found on his body last night, the deep pains she’d done her damnedest to kiss away.

“They took it back from us, and my mother broke again. When I grew older, I helped ruin come to the family that took it, and I bought it back from them, and they thanked me for it.” He shook his head, turning away from her, his gaze landing on the candle still burning on his desk. “Last night,” he said, his voice breaking over the words, “I thought I knew, for the first time, what to do with it. But this morning, when I tried to speak to you of promises, you fled from me.”

John ,” she breathed, and his eyes dropped from the candle flame to their hands, still together, and the little circle of gold.

“I know I have not come from much, Miss Erquistoune—”

“No! That is not—”

“Do not feign ignorance, Ana, not with me. Your position may be strained, but I am a servant . I cannot marry you—”

She snatched the ring from his hand and placed it on her finger, and they both froze. It fit her far too well, as though made for her hand alone, the gold band and Whitby jet sparkling in the candlelight, glittering against her brown skin. Fingers trembling, he reached across and touched it there, brushing against her hand, as though to prove to himself that it was really there. “ Who says you cannot marry me? ” she breathed, her own hands shaking now, her body trembling in his bed. “It was not any such thoughts that frightened me this morning, but the strength of my own feeling. You know more truths of me than anyone else; more than my sisters, my cousin, nor even my Gavin. You know me better than I have ever been known, John Childermass, and it terrifies me.”

He crept onto the bed beside her, and pulled her into his arms, and she rested her head on his shoulder. He took her left hand in his right, running his thumb along the ring on her finger. “There is no part of me that would wish you harm, Georgiana.”

“I know.” She kissed his neck, his jaw, his lips as he turned to meet her, and then pulled away with a sigh. “ You will not be a steward forever; even your obtuse Mr. Norrell can see that. You will be free to lead your own life, with me at your side if you would but have me. And until then; give yourself to me, in word and in deed, and I shall be yours. By Scottish law, that is enough—and it would be enough for me .”

“It is unworthy of me to ask this of you.”

“I offer it all the same.”

“If you were to come with child—”

“I cannot,” she admitted. “I cannot . The fire within me burns too hot. It is a price this life has made me pay.”

He looked down at her, his eyes large and dark and adoring, and free of pity, and she loved him all the more. “Were I free or not, my Ana... You deserve a better life than any I could offer.”

But a life without you would not be worth living ,” she rasped. “Not anymore. Can you not see? Do you not know how I love you?”

He put his hands on her cheeks, and when he spoke, his hands and voice trembled. “I have always seen you, Ana. As I have always loved you. I hold no delusions that I would make a worthy husband to you, nor could any man. But if you will have me—”

I will .”

He laughed, weaving his fingers into her hair. “Then I take you as my wife,” he breathed. “In word and in deed.”

 


 

They saw no more of Sleep that night, speaking words of trust and promise, with deeds to commit the truth of them. She kept the candle on his desk burning that she might see him better, might commit his face to memory, as they told each other the truths of themselves no one else had ever known. It felt as though they had been there forever, in the little attic room at Hanover-square; it felt as though no time had passed at all.

Still, the world turned around them, and sooner than possible the sun began to travel past the bounds the night had set for it, and she would be made to leave him.

She was curled up against him again, half in his lap, skin to skin to skin, fingers buried in his wild, hair and his in hers. She wanted never to leave this bed, this room, again, and she told him just as much.

“They would never think to look for me here,” she said softly, only half joking. “I could hide away, and the Stranges would leave without me.”

His smile, and the ease with which it appeared, thrilled her—she would forever cherish the knowledge of the sort of man he could become in bed with her: how easily her affection surprised him, how readily his laughter came at her teasing, how clever his tongue (in so many ways) when there was no one around to impress or frighten. He smiled, and kissed the tip of her nose. “You would die of boredom the minute I had to leave you here.”

“True,” she murmured thoughtfully, winding a lock of his hair between her fingers, admiring the way the ring peeked out from behind it to catch the light. “But you could sneak books to me here, far more easily than in Soho-square. And after some time had passed, you could bring me downstairs and hide me behind an apron. Norrell would never recognize me, I’m sure.”

The contentment fled his eyes at her words, replaced with the deep sorrow she was also learning to recognize in him, and he pulled her hand free of his hair and held it tightly, the ring gleaming between them. “These hands will never toil in servitude, Mrs. Childermass, not even as a disguise. This I swear to you.”

She trembled in his arms—at the words he said, and how he’d said them, and the thing he’d called her, and all that it now meant. She blinked back the tears she had been keeping at bay these past days—there would be plenty of time for grieving soon, but she would not waste this she had with him—and touched her fingers to the golden band and the dark stone set upon it. “I will not be free to wear this,” she breathed, “once I leave this room.”

He did not say anything, but kissed her, and slid out from beneath her and up from the bed to retrieve something from the drawer in his desk before returning to her side. In his hands, he held a fine gold chain.

She did not wish to take it off; but she let him slide the ring from her finger, and thread it onto the chain, and place it around her neck. The metal was cold against her skin, a shock against the many round, dark marks he had left upon her neck and collar and chest; but he clasped it securely, and rubbed his hand down her back, and murmured against her hair, “I thought this might help you keep it secret, and safe.”

She touched her fingers to the chain, already warming to her skin, and ran down to the ring, hanging beside her heart, and had to close her eyes for a moment to keep from losing herself. When she opened them again, he was watching her with a smile on his face, with misery in his eyes.

Outside, the birds were starting to sing again, the night and her chances of getting home unseen slipping through their grasp, and Georgiana extricated herself from the blankets and his arms alike, and went to stand before his empty fireplace (for what need had he of a fire, with her to keep him warm?), staring into it as though there might be a solution hidden somewhere deep within, something that would keep her here with John for as long as she would like and nothing less.

Again, he moved so silently, and crept up behind her, and draped something heavy and warm upon her bare shoulders, and she looked down and saw his coat—not the one she had mended, enchanted, but the other with the buttons that claimed no allegiances but, perhaps, to wood.

“Take this with you,” he murmured into her ear, and she both saw and felt the rippling darkness around her, the shadows he could conjure at a word, his magic woven into the very fibers of the coat to keep her safe. “I know you have no need of more protection, but please, for my sake, keep it with you.”

“I will,” she promised, meaning every word, knowing well that Jonathan was likely to recognize it and that she would wear it all the same. “I will. I love you, John, I do,” she blurted, and the tears came despite her best efforts, and he held her through them and told her of his love for her until, finally, the golden light of dawn stole its way into his room, and she had many choices laid before her but the only one she could truly choose was to leave, to step into the hearth and let the Fire loose, let the heat and flame and magic consume the bounds of her body and reshape her into something new.

Chapter Text

November - December 1815

 

...If there is one recommendation I might make, my dear Mr. Segundus, the letter had gone on to say, it is this: that you might consider taking on my cousin as an assistant and teacher.

I cannot recall if I have before mentioned to you my youngest and dearest of cousins, Miss Georgiana Erquistoune; and if I have, it was probably as little more than a companion to my wife. That is a role she filled quite admirably while we were still in London, but that is hardly all she is to my family. And, on top of all else, she is very knowledgeable in the study of magic, and in regard to its practise... Well, if you agree to take her on, I will allow her to decide how much she would wish to tell you of her skill. I can, at least, assure you that you would not find her wanting.

Miss Erquistoune currently lives in Edinburgh with my aunt and uncle; however, at twenty-eight years of age and unmarried, I do believe both parties have found that arrangement most unpleasant. While both her older sisters have found quite adequate husbands, Georgie remains most disinterested in all the gentlemen my aunt manages to throw into her path, and even so... Well, if you take her on, you would be sure to find out, so I may as well tell you now: she was adopted by the Erquistounes from the moment of her birth, but Georgiana’s true mother was African—we believe her to have been a former slave who won her freedom, though very little is known of her beyond the good, lovely, and exceedingly clever young woman she carried into the world.

Her heritage has several times over confounded my aunt’s matchmaking attempts, and I fear that George might be doomed to unhappy spinsterhood if action is not taken soon. Arabella and I have been working passionately at finding some form of useful occupation for her that would free her from her parents’ house and put her sharp mind to good use, but until now have had little success. If you would but agree to add her to your staff at Starecross, we would be most glad of it; and I daresay all parties would find themselves most gifted by the arrangement.

If you agree to take her, please write me at your earliest convenience, and I shall be sure to send her to you as swiftly as I can.

Yours faithfully,

Jonathan Strange

 

Mr. Segundus stared down at the letter for some time, rereading the last page thrice before he could fully comprehend what was being offered here. Yet, as soon as he did, he cast the letter aside to make room for his own sheet of paper, and scrawled out a most emphatic assent to Mr. Strange’s request. So certain was he that Mrs. Lennox would also find the arrangement to be agreeable, he posted his letter that very day.

Thus, during the last week of November, a coach arrived bearing the crest of a house of some evident peerage, three trunks of belongings, and a woman of most extraordinary appearance.

Her dark skin was about as he had expected, as were her features—though to those were given a confidence and pride he had not known to anticipate. Her hair, though as dark and tightly coiled as her heritage had led him to presume, was a most distinct shade of crimson. Her height, as well, was exceptional, her posture impeccable—she was towering, imposing, and clearly without any intention of making herself smaller for the comfort of those around her.

But she stepped down out of the coach without assistance, cast her startlingly honey-colored eyes upon Mr. Segundus...and smiled .

Her grin was bright and becoming; it dimpled her left cheek, and revealed a charming crookedness to her incisors, and added such a sweetness and softness to her face that he could scarcely remember having felt intimidated by her only moments before.

“Oh! You must be Mr. Segundus!” she called, breaking away from the coach and drawing near to him.

“And you Miss Erquistoune,” he replied, grinning now as well. She did not offer her hand; but when he held his out for it, she placed it in his with barely-concealed surprise. He kissed her brown skin softly, and then held her hand in both of his. “Forgive my boldness, miss; but I pray you do not mistake me when I say that you are most welcome here.”

She blinked twice, took a sharp breath, and blinked again. “I thank you, sir,” she said slowly. “I had not... Jonathan has mentioned many times his great fondness of you, but... Well, his judge of character can be easily misled, he is so generally fond of people. I had not thought... Thank you, sir,” she finished a little awkwardly, but Segundus merely grinned, patted her hand, and released her.

“Do not worry, Miss Erquistoune; our numbers are yet small, but your addition aids us tremendously. I wish this to be a school for everyone , to make magic accessible to anyone with the desire to learn, as it was in the days of old! Why, through your cousin’s work, I was once graced with a vision of Maria Absalom herself! It would do that great lady little credit to turn any thoughtful young women away. Now that we have a woman added to our own staff, we shall be better equipped to teach them! And she the cousin of no less than Jonathan Strange himself? No, Miss Erquistoune; we will not be allowing any ridiculous and unjust prejudices to affect your time here in any way, nor to squander the knowledge you bring us.”

She turned away from him without a word, suddenly very interested to see how the coachmen were doing with her luggage; but her hand reached out and gripped his arm, and when she turned back to him he saw that there were tears in her eyes.

“Thank you, Mr. Segundus,” she said softly. “I admit to having been anxious of this arrangement; but now I see that I shall be very happy here.” She flashed a wry grin and added, “For once, one of Jonathan’s schemes has succeeded!”

He found Miss Erquistoune to be both a strange and lovely woman; she was quiet and rather solitary, but remarkably sharp and clever, and she gave her opinion most freely, when asked. She did not balk at any housework she found to need doing, as there was still much to be done to prepare the grand house for its duty; and despite a lack of more extensive culinary talents, she had great skill in baking—indeed, her spice cake was the best he had ever tasted.

And even beyond any domestic contributions, she was far more educated in the study of magic than he had even allowed himself to hope! Her cousin had evidently allowed her full access to any texts that Norrell had sent home with him, and thus she had read a variety of authors, from Belasis and Lanchester, to the rarer Fontayne and Greatrakes—texts Mr. Segundus hadn’t known were still in existence! She could converse with him and Mr. Honeyfoot to great lengths on many integral aspects of English magic, in infinitely livelier and more astute discussion than they ever achieved with the old York Society; but whenever she was questioned about her own skill at performing the spells they spoke of, she grew evasive.

“My skill is not in English magic,” she told him once, a month or so into her stay at Starecross, with a mischievous look in her eye. It was the closest she had yet come to admitting the practical skill Strange had hinted at; and though it was hardly anything to go by, it gave Mr. Segundus hope that she was coming to trust him, and thus might be brought to tell him all someday.

The next day, Miss Erquistoune had accompanied him into town. She had an excellent mind for the running of a household, and had very quickly come to join him any time he went to acquire food and supplies. She did a better job than he at remembering what was needed, and at finding things of the highest quality, and at convincing the shopkeepers to afford them a more reasonable price. By now, Segundus merely came along for the conversation and companionship, and to carry the packages for her.

They were returning to the house, and Mr. Segundus found himself thinking, for the hundredth time, what a shame it was that she was yet unmarried. The lady was striking, if not necessarily beautiful; and what she may lack in appearance, she more than made up for in the quickness of her mind and the readiness of her easy disposition. He had witnessed more than once that she could be vicious in her displeasure (she was certainly no fan of Mr. Norrell, he had found), and she had no tolerance whatsoever for insults to her person, character, or race. A man who could not look past the darkness of her skin could never hope to deserve her; but a man who could respect and love her, even Segundus could see, would be made a very happy husband.

Mr. Honeyfoot had already begun to make comments at how happy a match the two of them would make. But Segundus could not help but to feel that it was far too early in their acquaintance to suggest such a thing; and even if it were not, he had the suspicion that Miss Erquistoune’s affections lay somewhere else entirely.

There was nothing he could quite lay his finger upon to account for this; but, after so many journeys to town in her company, he could say with some certainty that the woman was simply not on the search for a husband. Indeed, they encountered a number of wealthy, handsome, and unmarried gentlemen of all ages—nearly all that York had to offer—but to none did she give anything more than the most basic and polite attentions.

Beyond that, there were moments when she would look absolutely melancholy and aggrieved, gazing into a fire or out through a window, and she would run her fingers along a chain she wore about her neck, the pendant of which he had never seen as it was always tucked beneath her gown. And twice now, he had walked into a room and surprised her, and seen her hastily folding up a piece of paper upon which was scrawled a distinctly masculine handwriting.

No; however she may be growing to trust him, Mr. Segundus was quite certain that Miss Erquistoune’s affections were otherwise occupied. And he would be very sore indeed if he were to ruin the easy companionship that had already begun to spring up between them by allowing his fondness for her to run away beyond the bounds of his good sense.

So lost was he in his thoughts that he failed to notice the man sprawled quite at his leisure upon their front step, at least until Miss Erquistoune gave a sharp gasp.

John! ” she cried, and he nearly dropped the packages in his arms at the surprise of hearing his Christian name from her lips.

But it was not his name she was calling; the dark, imposing man at the door to Starecross Hall rose to his feet unsteadily, his expression bewildered, and whispered, “ Ana? ” He shook himself, as if uncertain whether or not he was dreaming. “What are you doing here?”

She took a quick step in his direction as if to run to him, but then froze. “I... Oh, no ,” she breathed. “Tell me he has not heard of it. John? John, please...”

“I am here upon Norrell’s orders,” the man said, grimacing as though the words pained him, “to put an end to this school for magicians.”

What! ” cried Mr. Segundus, but neither paid him any mind.

“What,” the dark man asked again, “are you doing here?”

Miss Erquistoune frowned deeply. “I am here for work—as a teacher , at the school for magicians.”

“Ana, no —” the man growled; but the woman appeared to have moved swiftly from her shock and surprise, into anger .

Do not dare tell me what I must do ,” she hissed, her eyes flashing dangerously. She took a sharp breath, and seemed to take great trouble in working to collect herself. “I have had quite enough of that in my life. I am here on Jonathan’s recommendation, to teach what I have studied these past six years. I will not be deterred.”

“Do not make me do this,” the man said, though it did not necessarily seem directed at either of them. “Why did you not tell me..?”

“I could not, for this very reason! Oh, damn it all , John!” She shook her head, her hand reaching up to worry at the chain of her necklace. “I could not risk telling you, lest he heard of it. But I thought , so close to Hurtfew ... I thought I might...hear you had come, or... Damn! I should have just wrote you, he was always sure to find out anyway..! And then, at least...”

You should have just wrote me ,” the man echoed, very softly; but then he gathered himself, and drew himself up, and fixed Segundus with a dark look. “You know me and you know that when I say a thing is so, that thing will be so—however much you and I might privately regret it. This school must close.”

“You are quite mistaken, sir!” cried Mr. Segundus, outraged at the man’s audacity, but also particularly dismayed at the effect he was having on the staid Miss Erquistoune. “I do not know you! At least...I do not believe I ever saw you before.”

“I am John Childermass, Mr. Norrell’s servant. We last talked nine years ago, outside the Cathedral in York. When you confined yourself to a few pupils, Mr. Segundus, I was able to turn a blind eye. I said nothing and Mr. Norrell remained in ignorance of what you were doing. But a regular school for grown-up magicians, that is a different matter. You have been too ambitious, sir. He knows , Mr. Segundus. He knows and it is his desire that you wind up the business immediately.”

“But what has Mr. Norrell or Mr. Norrell’s desires to do with me? I did not sign the agreement,” reminded Mr. Segundus. He took a step forward. “You should know that I am not alone in this undertaking. I have friends now.”

Rather than be intimidated, the man looked only mildly amused (though his eyes darted rapidly back to the now silent and still Miss Erquistoune, in what appeared to be concern). “That is true. And Mrs. Lennox is a very rich woman, and excellent woman for business. But does she have the friendship of every Minister in the Cabinet like Mr. Norrell? Does she have his influence?” The man shook his head, and lowered his voice. “Remember the Society of Learned Magicians, Mr. Segundus; remember how he crushed them.”

The man was silent for a long moment, and cast one lingering look at Miss Erquistoune, who refused to meet his eye. With a sigh, he turned and began to walk off.

“You are not going?” the lady called, her voice edging upon desperation.

He turned to look at her. “Only to fetch my horse. But then I will go.”

“Brewer?”

“Aye.”

Miss Erquistoune chewed at her bottom lip, and crossed her arms over her chest. “Bring him to see me?”

Childermass sighed, but smiled, and hung his head. “Of course, my lady.”

Segundus and Erquistoune stood still in thoughtful silence for the minutes it took him to go and return, now riding on the back of an enormous, black, unhandsome horse. But the creature nickered like a pony when it spotted the lady, and crossed the garden to see her, evidently without need of its master’s command. She, in turn, rubbed the beast’s nose and neck very fondly, and murmured very sweetly words too soft for Segundus to hear.

“I am sorry for it, sir,” Childermass said, evidently to Segundus though his eyes did not leave Miss Erquistoune’s figure. “Yet, surely all is not lost? This house is just as suited to another kind of school as it is for a magical one, and the lady would make an excellent teacher of any subject she might choose, I can say with certainty. Indeed, it would be a tragedy were she to come all this way, only to be made to return to Edinburgh... You would not think it to look at me, but I am a very fine fellow with a wide acquaintance among great people. Choose some other sort of school, and the next time I hear that a lord or lady has need of such an establishment for their little lordlings, I will send them your way.”

“I do not want another kind of school!” said Mr. Segundus, admittedly a little peevishly; but the man merely smiled a sideways sort of smile in response.

“You have come so far,” said Miss Erquistoune. “You would not make this dear creature return you to London today, would you, Mr. Childermass?”

He looked down at her, frowning. “You know I am not so cruel, my lady; and I have some work to be done within my employer’s library. I will stay at Hurtfew Abbey for the night, at least.”

“Will you?” she asked, nodding to herself. “The weather is remarkably warm for so late in the year, do you not think? Why, you should even be safe to leave your window open tonight.”

“I had every intention to,” the man growled.

Segundus could make neither heads nor tails of this exchange—the weather was really rather cold, in his opinion—but in truth his thoughts were very thoroughly occupied; he scarcely noticed it when Miss Erquistoune stepped away from the horse and came over to his side, nor when horse and rider said their goodbyes and left them over the packhorse-bridge. Indeed, he took notice of very little that happened afterward, until he found himself seated in his favorite armchair with a cup of tea being pressed into his hands.

“What will we do?” he murmured, and looked to Miss Erquistoune for guidance.

She put her hands on her hips, and met his eye solidly. “Whatever we can,” she told him. “I will write Jonathan. Norrell may think he has allies, but Strange has many friends . I know he will do all he can for us. Meanwhile, you must go and see Mrs. Lennox. She stays in Bath, correct? Go to her, tell her what has happened. If nothing else, she deserves to know what we are up against. If he has sent Childermass, then Norrell will not back down. We must prepare ourselves.”

Segundus took an unsteady sip of his tea, but nodded. “How... How do you know that man, Miss Erquistoune? That Childermass?

Her mouth twitched; she removed her hands from her hips to cross her arms, and turned her gaze away to the fireplace. “I... When I lived with the Stranges in London, I...became acquainted with Mr. Childermass. He is Mr. Norrell’s man of business, and he is certainly... devoted . But...” She sighed, and sat heavily in the chair across from him, running her fingers along the chain about her neck. “He is a good man , Mr. Segundus. I assure you, a large part of my distaste for Mr. Norrell comes from how thoroughly that man has been mistreated. He was a good friend to me in London, and—despite his frightening appearance—he means to do all that he believes to be right. But Norrell twists his loyalty, he orders him to be wicked and cruel , and I—!”

She cut herself off, balling her hands into fists and leaning sharply back in the chair. Her chest fell and rose with heavy breaths, and she glared darkly into the crackling fire.

Segundus set his tea aside, folded his hands together, and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. When he spoke, he kept his voice soft and kind. “That...is the man you love, Miss Erquistoune?”

Her wide eyes snapped to his, frightened for a moment; but she appeared to see something in him that gave her comfort, and soon she was sighing with a sad smile, and nodding her head. “I am so obvious, am I? Yes. That is the man I love.”

“And he you,” Segundus continued, “also obvious. So why does he not marry you?”

She opened her mouth and let out a small, strangled laugh. “I... My situation is not so straightforward, sir. My parents would hardly be content with such a union; and as the last Miss Erquistoune, I fear there are rather a number of Scottish gentlemen who could be persuaded to take me for their own, so I cannot even hope for desperation to blind them to his status.” She shook her head, reaching up to smooth back her hair. “We find ourselves at an impasse, however. I love him, sir. I shall have no other, though it may break my mother’s heart.”


Mr. Segundus retired early that night, a combination of his high-strung nerves and a wish to be well-rested for his journey to Bath. Thus Ana’s dinner was small and quick, and the sun had only just set when she went upstairs to her room, latched the door, and flung open the window.

The night was clear and cool, nowhere near as warm as she had told John it would be, but that was as she liked it. The cold air was refreshing; a part of her wished that she might fly all night. But the rest of her could not get the look on John Childermass’ face out of her mind, and she knew she did not have it in her to leave him waiting.

She had never been there before, but she found Hurtfew Abbey easily enough; it was not the only house of its size in that part of York, but she had seen John’s sketchings of it when he had let her to see his book. It took two circuits of the house to find the open window, however, as she had not expected it to be up so high, nor so small. He was not there in his room when she entered, so she changed her shape in the fireplace and climbed out, then stood looking around the room itself.

It was bare and plain and small, sparsely furnished, with only a bed, a desk, a nightstand with a cracked mirror, and a rack of his clothes (from which she divested another of his soft, well-worn shirts to wear).

There were a number of papers atop his desk, clearly a little blown about by the wind through the open window, and she thumbed through them in part to straighten, in part to peruse. Most were partially-finished letters of business or household ledgers; none had anything to do with her (or Jonathan or Segundus). But there were a few, less important or no longer needing to be finished, that dissolved into small, rambling sketches: bits of architecture, or little cats, or—on those dated more recently—portraits of herself in varying states of completion.

She sighed, and smiled, and wondered where he was. She tried to look through the fires of the house, but could see no further than the fireplaces—Norrell must have cast some spell of obscurity.

She cursed the magician, falling back with a huff to sit on John’s bed, and found it to be much softer than she’d expected, with the counterpane so threadbare and ragged. But this, too, was warmer than it looked—or so she found once she pulled it back and crawled underneath. There was a single book on the nightstand, A Child’s History of the Raven King .

She ran her fingers across the cover as she had when first she found it in the book shop, over the little embossed ravens volant against a green background, and then along the well-worn edges of the pages, thinking of John’s fingers turning down their corners to mark his place, of the words she had said to Segundus mere hours ago, “ Yes, that is the man I love ,” before flipping it open and beginning to read.

They were only children’s stories, with John Uskglass as the dark and noble hero, who used his magic and wit to liberate his people from the mischievous faerie and the wicked South Englanders alike. Still, she found herself entranced by the stories and the whimsical pictures that accompanied them, and she failed to realize she was no longer alone until she heard John’s voice say, “Aye, make yourself at home.”

She looked up, found him leaning against the doorframe, watching her solemnly. “Forgive me,” she said, grinning at the sight of him. “I could not see beyond the fires, to find you.” She fingered the sleeve of his nightshirt and cocked her head to the side. “I was not much interested to see what someone would think of me wandering the house in naught but your nightclothes.”

He laughed, and shook his head. “Aye, I doubt Mrs. Sayers would be much pleased by that; but she and the others would be welcome to bring their complaints to me.”

He drew closer and seated himself on the edge of the bed beside her, as though afraid to touch her, as though she might disappear. When he spoke, his voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “I feared I might never see you again. To...enter this room, and find you here, in my clothes , in my bed ...” He shook his head slowly. “If you had but written me, Ana... I would have protected you, would have kept Norrell from ever hearing of this school for magicians. Surely you know me well enough for that?”

She leaned forward, close enough to wrap an arm around his middle, to rest her head upon his shoulder and feel the soft wool of his waistcoat against her cheek and smell him, pipe smoke and spiced ale. “I should have trusted in you. But I know how he dislikes me, and I had not heard from you in so long. I feared that perhaps he had begun to intercept my letters.”

His hand, with only the slightest tremor, was traveling up the length of her forearm, but now it stilled. “Your..? Had you written me, since arriving in Edinburgh?”

She pulled away, meeting his narrowed eyes with her own, and breathed, “ Every week , until I came here.”

He cursed viciously, shot up from the bed, and began to pace about his room.

“Childermass,” she called; but he only shook his head and did not stop.

Damn him , Georgiana.”

Aye , I would,” she agreed. “Him and Lascelles both, and all of London with them if I could have my way. But even I have not that power. What I do have ,” she said, holding out a hand as he finally stopped and turned to look at her, “is you , at least for tonight. Please come here.”

He obeyed, taking her hand in his and lifting it to his cheek as he climbed onto the bed and draped himself across her, let her put her free hand across his shoulders, let her hold him for a while, the room quiet but for the crackle of the fire and their breathing.

“My cards say I must stay with him,” he said softly, as she freed his hair from its tie and ran her fingers through it. “But he is changed, I cannot deny it. The way he has treated your cousin, the things he has asked of me... Keeping your letters from me—!

“It is alright,” she said, starting to undo his cravat, and then his buttons. “I never wrote you anything of note, especially after I never received your reply. All he got were stories of my sisters and their children, some Edinburgh gossip, even a recipe or two, in those last few.”

He sat up to help her in removing his waistcoat, still frowning. “Aye, but they were your stories, and I never got to read them.”

She put her hand on his cheek, brushed his hair out of his face. “I could tell you now, if you should like. We have all night.”

He lowered his head, and his mouth moved along her collarbone in a way that made her breath twist in her chest. “Tell me anything,” he said. “Just stay here. Don’t disappear, don’t be a dream—”

“I’m not,” she promised, throwing her arms around him, shutting her eyelids against the tears building behind them. “I’m here.”


When he awoke in the night—for, though Georgiana had found herself too invigorated by his presence here to be able to achieve it, he had endured a long and arduous ride from London to Yorkshire, and he knew she did not begrudge him the rest—he found her again to be sitting up, and reading through A Child’s History . He said her name.

In response, she reached over and ran a hand through his hair, while the other turned the next page.

“You like it?” he asked, and she smiled.

“I like this one about the charcoal-burner. I’ve always been fond of charcoal-burners.”

“Of course,” he laughed, rolling over that he might look at her better. “Perhaps the Almoner should have sent him to you instead.”

She turned to kiss his forehead. “I would not have given Uskglass so easy a time of it.”

“You should be careful, to talk so here,” he said, only half joking.

“I have no fear of Fitheach-dubh ,” she said—he had never liked the sound of Gaelic half so well as from her lips. “I owe him no debts, and he has nothing I should want, and he holds no sway over me or any fire that burns, even in his beloved Yorkshire.”

“Aye, but he orders the rains in my beloved Yorkshire.”

“Then it’s a good thing the charcoal-burner was not sent to me,” she said with a grin, and closed the book to set it upon his nightstand. “I am still being blamed for the London Fire; I would hate to be found at fault for the Yorkshire Flood.”

She squirmed back under the covers to lay beside him, her hands against his chest, so warm and soft but for the band of cool, hard gold around her left ring finger; he longed to kiss her soundly, to have her again tonight, but a thought had been bothering him and so he settled for running his fingers and thumb along the curve of her cheek. “I’ve been thinking on the issue of your letters.”

She raised a brow in some surprise. “When? What you’ve been doing is snoring, and then teasing your dear wife.”

“Dear she is, but I can think and tease at the same time.”

“Lucky woman I, with a husband of such talents.” She bit her lip. “What is it, John?”

“I do not think it is Norrell taking them.”

She frowned, a hard look in her eye. “Lascelles, then?”

He nodded. “Norrell may not care much for you, but that is his way. He has no special distrust of you, no reason to suspect what you mean to me, and no fear of what we might be discussing in private letters. Henry Lascelles has a great deal of all three.”

“You think he suspects us?”

“He is a contemptible wretch, but not a fool. If I did not confound him so, he would not care a whit what I do with myself; but I confound him greatly, and I have not made my affection for you as secret as I should have done. It would surprise me if he knew nothing of us.”

“And if he could find something in my letters, some proof that you and I were conspiring in something or an admission of my magic...”

“Then he could, at a stroke, further endear himself to Norrell and threaten to expose you and be rid of me for good.”

She covered her face with a doleful groan. “Maybe I should have killed him that night,” she muttered.

Childermass frowned. She had not told him it had been an option. “ Could you have?”

“Yes,” she answered, a little too quickly. She lowered her hands from her face, but would not meet his eye, and began to bite her thumbnail. “I mean... No , probably not, but the opportunity and...ability were there. I know how such a thing is done. But I—I mean, Georgiana , not all the rest of me— I have never killed anyone, by magic or any other means, and I have no desire to do so. Well, maybe a little , but not... Not really .”

“...Ah,” he said, at the end of this strange speech, and she met his eye with a crooked little smirk.

“Practically, I doubt I could have gone through with it. Theoretically, I wish I had.”

He kissed her then, softly, until she released her clenched fists and tucked herself against his chest again. “I would not want such a burden upon you,” he told her. “No matter how I despise the man.”

She nodded, pressing her face into the crook of his neck. “If murder is off the table, then what should we do?”

He laughed, and squeezed her tight. “You should keep writing, as dull and tiresome as you could possibly make a letter to be, so he curses himself for ever thinking of it.”

She pulled back and out of his arms with a frown, shaking her head. “John, no , I meant what I said. I’m not leaving Starecross; certainly not because Norrell thinks we should have no school. I won’t go back to Edinburgh, not like this.”

“I would not ask you to,” he assured her. “I love you, Georgiana. I have no wish to control what you do, nor to send you so far beyond my reach again. At least in Yorkshire, I can come to you, and I can know you are safe. Only write as though you were still in Scotland, as though you had never left. I will keep anyone from hearing you are here instead, and will do all I can to distract Norrell from his quarrel with Segundus.”

She looked, a bit, as though she might cry again—Childermass wished greatly that he did not know what that looked like, that he had not been the cause of her tears enough times to recognize the signs of them—but instead she swallowed hard and nodded. “I am a lucky woman indeed,” she breathed, and let him hold her again. “Alright. I can copy some of Margaret’s old letters—they have meant the world to me, but I’m sure Lascelles will find them dreadful. But what if I need to write you, all the same?”

“Can you disguise your handwriting?”

“Oh, yes!” she answered. “Jonathan often used to dictate letters through me, when he was too agitated to sit still. Arabella could not endure his pacing.”

John smirked—he had suspected as much. “Anything for me can be addressed to Davey, the coachman. He receives little enough mail, I’ll make sure he gives me anything he does not recognize.”

She grinned, and nodded. “I think that shall work very well, Mr. Childermass.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Childermass.”

She laughed, and rolled them both over until she lay on his chest, propping her chin in her hand and smiling down at him. “And you will come visit me, here in Yorkshire?”

He reached up, winding a coil of her hair around his finger. “As often as I am able.”

“And you will do all you can to turn Norrell’s rage away from the school and Mr. Segundus?”

He dropped his hand and tore his gaze away from her, trying not to frown. “If it should please you, I will, but it is not for Segundus’ sake.”

“Those are harsh words indeed for a man you have scarcely met,” she murmured, and then gasped. “John Childermass, are you jealous?

He scowled darkly. “Am I jealous of the man who may spend his days in your company, speaking to you of magic and hearing you talk of your sisters and getting fat on your spice cake, while I am left alone with nothing more than my memory and my sketches and the same letters I have read a hundred times before? Aye . Forgive me if I find it hard to feel kindly toward such a man.”

When he turned back to her, the scolding in her eye had softened into something so tender he almost could not meet it. “That may be true,” she began softly. “But there are many things about me Segundus shall never know.”

“What sort of things?” he asked, as she flung the counterpane off them both and put her leg across him and sat up, straddling his waist.
“Let me show you.”

He sat up, and met her mouth with his.