At the age of sixteen, Agatha Tremain let down her skirts, pinned up her hair, and set herself to running her father’s household. Her first step was to forge her father’s signature and dismiss her hated governess. Miss Blenheim left with her perfectly straight nose held high in the air, trailing bitter premonitions of disaster like wriggling serpents in her wake.
Agatha’s second step was to teach herself magic, using the books in her father’s library as her guides.
The first time Agatha entered the library to find an introductory text, her father looked up at her with vague approval from his customary seat by the fireplace. When Sir Jasper’s eyes focused on the book she took from the shelves, though, his normally mild face darkened into anger.
“Do take great care with that work, my dear. There are no fewer than five different points of contention in his arguments, and three outright fallacies. I should hate to see you taken in by such folly.”
“I’ll take care, Papa,” Agatha promised. She stepped off the wooden stepladder, brushing dust off her fingers. “I shan’t believe anything without proper evidence.”
“I’m very glad of it. But, I say…” Sir Jasper blinked. “I don’t mean to be rude, but are you permitted to be in here at all” I thought that creature Blaggish–Blagmire–”
“Miss Blenheim?” Agatha waited for his nod. “I sent her packing this morning. I’m old enough to look after myself now.”
“What a relief. I never could abide that woman.” He began to subside back into his chair, but an expression of sudden surprise halted him mid-movement. “Good Lord, I am hungry. Have I missed luncheon, by any chance?”
“You’ve been in here for two days, Papa.” Agatha sighed. “I’ve ordered a hot supper for you. The servants should bring it shortly.”
“Oh, good. I was afraid I might have to leave.”
Her father settled happily back into his book. Agatha pulled up a second armchair beside him. Carelessly crushing her skirts beneath her, she set her booted feet upon the footstool in front of the fire and began to read with a feeling of vast contentment.
The Tremain land was set fifteen miles out of town and nearly three miles from their closest neighbors. As a young girl, left to the sole care of Miss Blenheim and her malevolent admirer, the butler Horwick, Agatha had frequently regretted the distance. Keen-eyed adults might have been salvation to her then.
As she grew into her own, however, free of Miss Blenheim and able at last to cow Horwick into a sullen form of near-submission, she realized that isolation had its benefits. With no irritating supervision or near neighbors to gossip, Agatha was free to forget all the oppressive rules of dress and proper maidenly demeanor. After all, what were such fripperies to her”
As Miss Blenheim had explained hundreds of times over the years, Agatha’s unfortunate nose, unnaturally red hair, and general lack of grace meant she would certainly never be capable of winning any man’s heart. Only her dowry could ever appeal to a potential husband…and Agatha refused to ever marry any man who took her on such terms.
She understood only too well what it was to live with one who scorned everything about her; she would never repeat the experience.
With no prying eyes upon the spacious lawns of Tremain House, Agatha was free to practice her spells in perfect ease, ignoring he irrational social law that deemed the practice of magic unladylike. The only people ever to be alarmed by her experiments were a few of the weaker-spirited maidservants, and by the time that they finally fled the house, Agatha was nearly seventeen. She had learned by then to summon and control her own helping spirits, who filled their places to a nicety.
Moreover, the sight of the dark spirits moving about the house, eerily silent and obedient, miraculously transformed Horwick’s complaints from snarls of contempt to mere unintelligible muttering underneath his breath, which suited Agatha far better.
By the time Agatha turned eighteen, she had become so accustomed to her freedom that she no longer feared to lose it. So when an imperious knock sounded on the front door of Tremain House one morning, it never even occurred to her that it might be the sound of approaching Doom.
In fact, engrossed in one of her more challenging experiments in her own private study, Agatha barely noticed the sounds of bustling arrival in the rest of the house. It was only when Horwick appeared, looming in her doorway, that she even remembered hearing the knock.
“Well, Horwick?” As she spoke, Agatha kept her commanding gaze fixed upon the inch-high imp who slouched on the desk before her.
This was her first attempt at multiple transformations and by far the most complex set of spells she had ever attempted to master. The imp, who was a startling bright blue and currently engaged in making horrible faces, had begun its life as a common field mouse. If Agatha spoke every word of the spell correctly, it would next become a housecat and remain one, too, a sensible and useful addition to the household. As Agatha hadn’t yet recited the second (and intimidatingly intricate) spell, though, the imp was still enjoying its first, highly dangerous transformation. She couldn’t afford to take her eyes off it for an instant.
“What is it?” she asked impatiently.
“A caller for you, Miss Agatha,” Horwick intoned. “A lady caller,” he added dolefully.
“Well, tell her I can’t attend on her, for heaven’s sake.” Agatha narrowed her eyes at the imp. It had far too mischievous a look on its blue face, almost as if it knew something she did not. Of course she did not believe that for an instant, but it made her uneasy nonetheless.
Agatha realized, with a sudden flash of irritation, that Horwick had not moved from his pose of ominous warning. “Tell whoever it is to go away,” she said. “I don’t have time to wait on some gossipy neighbor who wants to nose about the house. Get rid of her!”
“Now, my darling girl, you cannot possibly mean that.” A rich, velvety female voice spoke from the doorway, rippling with amusement. As Agatha half-turned, caught by surprise, a woman wrapped in floor-length furs swept past Horwick into the study.
“Dearest Agatha. Don’t you remember me” You were only a little tiny girl when I saw you last. I’m your aunt Clarisse, finally back from Vienna. Now, take off that silly gaping look from your face, my love, before it freezes there!”
Chuckling, she patted Agatha’s face, which was stiff with shock. “My goodness, I can see you have been in need of a proper woman’s influence, haven’t you, my poor child” Oh, I’ve worried so much about you! You wouldn’t believe how many sleepless nights I’ve spent agonizing over the injustice of your situation, a beautiful young girl like you trapped out here with my absurd brother for years on end with no season in Town or eligible suitors in sight.”
“No, of course you needn’t worry any longer, dear. I’m here now, and I shall take marvelous care of everything. I’ve come to live with you and your father and take all the burdens from your shoulders. Now, doesn’t that sound perfectly wonderful?”
Slim, scented arms closed around Agatha. Soft fur pressed into her face and covered her eyes. The imp leaped off the desk with a yip of glee and darted toward freedom and mischievous adventure. It would undoubtedly cause nightmarish catastrophes all throughout the household, and even more of the maidservants would resign their posts.
Agatha couldn’t bring herself to worry about any of that, though. She was too overwhelmed by the far greater and more terrifying disaster that had closed her in a loving auntly embrace.
“My dearest Jasper.” Clarisse swept into the library ten minutes later, still draped in furs despite the heat. Agatha trailed behind her, speechless with horror. “Aren’t you utterly delighted to see me?”
“Ah…” Sir Jasper blinked over his book. “I say, Clarisse. Is that you?”
“Of course it is, you absurd creature. Didn’t you read my letters” I told you I would arrive today.”
“Letters?” Agatha croaked.
As a matter of course, she read every letter that arrived for her father. It was a question of necessity rather than interference, as his post piled up on every available surface otherwise, ignored for years as their estate accounts languished. She had learned to pass on only those notes to which he was likely to pay attention: fat packets of argumentation from scholars in Germany and the Netherlands, written in spidery scrawls with every line crossed twice as they fiercely debated the most abstract theories of magic.
Estate management and personal gossip were both equally tedious to Sir Jasper, and Agatha had learned long ago that it was best to simply forge his signature on any cheques, business letters or notes of polite regret that had to be posted on his behalf.
“Oh, I sent piles of letters.” Aunt Clarisse smiled ruefully. “How could I help myself, missing home and family as I did all these long years?”
Agatha said, “They never arrived.”
“Those dreadful continental mail carriers.” Clarisse shook her head sadly. “But never mind that! I’m here now, at last. And of course our first order of business must be your social début.”
“My what?” said Agatha.
“But what else, my dear” Jasper, I am ashamed of you.” Her furs rippled as she made a mouë of disapproval at him. “It’s one thing to bury yourself down here for years on end, but to bury your young and�”–she looked Agatha up and down, managing to look both skeptical and kindly at the same time–“not entirely unattractive young daughter along with you” There is that nose of course–and that dreadful hair–but a multitude of sins can be concealed by her dowry. Still, how in Heaven’s name is she to find a husband and home of her own out here in the wilds?”
“This is my home,” said Agatha.
“Nonsense,” Clarisse said. “Every young girl dreams of an establishment of her own and a husband to give her status in Society. I shall launch you upon Town immediately. We must thank our blessings that the Season is not yet over. Jasper, all that I require from you is your chequebook–but if you don’t immediately surrender it to me, I promise I shall nag you unmercifully for weeks until you give in.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Agatha, “but this is absurd. I don’t wish to be launched into Society. I have no interest in going to dances or to London, and I certainly do not desire a husband. All I want is to stay here and study–just like you, Papa.”
“Just like my brother?” Clarisse let out a tinkling laugh. “My dear, haven’t you yet learned” You are a young lady now, not a child to be so willful. Your duty to the family is to marry, just as your grandmother, great-aunt and I all did before you–and I can tell you that studying is hardly required for that vocation. Gentlemen are none of them so very difficult to understand.”
“Papa!” Agatha said. “Pray tell my aunt that I do not need to be launched upon London!”
“Jasper,” said Clarisse, “do you really wish me to settle myself here in your hermit hole for the next full month, talking non-stop until you finally agree with me” You know it is my right to chaperone your daughter into matrimony. It was promised to me by our own parents, all those years ago.”
Clearly, the weapons had been drawn. Agatha pulled out her own most ruthless stratagem. “If I leave, Papa, who will take care of all the practicalities” Who will listen to the housekeeper’s complaints and deal with the estate manager” You will have no time to devote to your own studies.”
“Well…” Sir Jasper looked pained. “It is true that I shouldn’t like–”
“We will only be in Town for a matter of weeks,” Clarisse said. “A few months at the absolute most. That is the longest it could possibly take me to find our dear Agatha a fiancé. I am certain you can allow the practicalities to pile up that long, Jasper–indeed, I am more than certain that you have done so in the past. And our dear old Horwick may see to all the rest.”
“That is true,” Sir Jasper said, with obvious relief. His gaze lowered stealthily toward his book.
“Papa!” Agatha said, and snatched the book from his hands. “Aunt Clarisse means to marry me off. If she succeeds, I will be gone forever.”
“Have no fear,” said Clarisse, and smiled kindly. “I shall remain here, Jasper, to look after everything for you. It will be as if nothing had changed–except that you had done your duty to your daughter, and to me, at long last.”
“Oh, well,” said Sir Jasper. “That does make a difference, I suppose.”
Agatha stared at him. “Papa” Haven’t you heard a word I said?”
“Yes, yes, my dear,” Sir Jasper said peevishly. “Indeed, I haven’t been forced to listen to so much tedious debate in a very long time–not since Clarisse left the last time, I suppose.” He sighed. “You do not know how difficult your aunt can make it for a man to study, Agatha. And Clarisse is right–marriage is what young ladies are meant for, particularly in our family. If only you had been born a boy, it would have been different…but there are promises, you know, that must be kept, whether we care for them or not.”
“You forget, my dear,” said Clarisse softly, “you are entirely in your father’s care until you find a husband. You must abide by his decisions–and I shall stand as your guardian in his absence.” She smiled warmly. “Have no fear. We shall make the decisions that are best for all of us, even if you are too young to understand them now. You will be grateful in later years, when you have a daughter of your own.”
Agatha fisted her hands and did not reply.
It might have been two years since she had finally escaped Miss Blenheim, but she had not forgotten how to fight. Her aunt would soon discover just how little Agatha Tremain could be cowed.
It did not take long to think of a plan. That night, supper was served in the dining room for the first time in years. Agatha allowed her aunt’s stream of scandalous continental gossip to pass over her unheard, while her father sat looking miserable and casting longing glances in the direction of the library.
There was no expecting Sir Jasper to stand against his sister, that much was clear…and unfortunately, Clarisse had the right of it: according to law as well as custom, Agatha was her father’s property, little though she might relish the reminder. She might be the heiress to his estate, but at the moment, her only legal possession was her dowry. Sizable though that was, she could not even touch it–that privilege belonged to her future husband.
Should her father and Clarisse desire her to be forced onto the marriage market, Agatha had no legal or financial means of resistance.
Fortunately, she had spent the last two years developing every magical recourse available. It was time to make clear to her fashionable aunt exactly what sort of young lady she really was.
The first shock of the evening came when she slipped out of her bedroom and down the corridor to her private study, which she’d left unlocked in the confusion of her aunt’s arrival.
The handle refused to budge…and her key, as she remembered only too clearly, sat inside upon the desk, beside a stack of unused candles and all of her notes.
“Blast,” Agatha muttered.
It was the imp at work, of course, causing trouble as she’d expected. She turned with a swish of her dressing gown and strode into the next room–a guest bedroom, never used–to give the bell-pull an imperious tug.
For once, Horwick did not make her wait. Indeed, he slipped through the servant’s door hidden in the tapestry as swiftly as if he had been waiting nearby for the summons.
“Yes, Miss?” His normally doleful tones sounded suspiciously self-satisfied. To Agatha’s shock, she saw the corners of his narrow lips twitching as if he were repressing a grin, the first she’d seen on his face in years.
She had poor memories of his grins. They had generally coincided with some new witticism Miss Blenheim had made at her expense, or a particularly humiliating punishment the two of them had devised for her.
Now Agatha scowled at him and reminded herself that she was a mature eighteen years of age. She was no longer a child to cringe before her old tormentor. “I require your assistance, Horwick,” she said.
“Indeed, Miss.” Horwick’s jaw moved convulsively; under Agatha’s disbelieving stare, he even rubbed his hands together in delight. “Always happy to be of assistance in any way I can, Miss.”
“I am glad to hear it,” she said. “If you would simply unlock my study using your copy of the key–”
“It can’t be done!” Horwick caroled the words with open glee. “No, I can’t do that, Miss.”
“Why on earth not?”
“Because I don’t have that key anymore. No, Miss, I don’t. Your aunt, Miss Clarisse as was, had it off me this evening.”
“Every copy to be in her keeping,” he said happily. “That’s what she said, and that’s what she did. The key from the desk and the key from my ring, and I saw her lock the door herself. ‘Much better for all of us this way, eh, Horwick”’ she said. Oh, that Miss Clarisse. The memories she brings back…”
Chortling happily to himself, he backed away and closed the hidden door behind him while Agatha stood numb with shock.
Every note, every grimoire, every carefully-prepared brazier and specially-ordered candle she possessed sat behind that closed office door. Without them, she was as helpless as…
No. Agatha set her jaw. She might not have magic at her command anymore, but she was no longer a helpless child. Miss Blenheim and Horwick might have found a young, motherless girl an easy target, but Clarisse would not find the same.
She stalked down the corridor to her aunt’s room and threw open the door without a knock.
“My goodness.” Clarisse looked up with amazement from the dressing table where she sat. A maid stood with her back to Agatha, brushing Clarisse’s rippling, waist-length golden hair. Even dressed for bed, Agatha’s aunt was still draped in lush furs–this time, a lavishly fur-trimmed satin dressing gown in royal blue, with skirts that spread in draping folds around her chair.
A fire blazed in the hearth, raising the temperature in the room near boiling point. Clarisse’s maid stepped back, turning away discreetly as Clarisse shook her head in amused disdain.
“We really must work upon your manners, mustn’t we, dear” In polite society, you know, it is customary to knock before entering a lady’s bedroom. Or a man’s, for that matter, although perhaps we’ll wait until your wedding night to discuss such delicate questions.”
“In polite society,” said Agatha, with icy control, “it is customary not to steal other people’s keys. Or their homes, for that matter. I don’t know what may have brought you home now after all these years abroad, but if you think you can bundle me off like an unwelcome parcel just so that you can take my place–! Well, you do not know who you are tangling with.”
“Oh, don’t I?” Clarisse raised perfectly arched eyebrows. “What do you think, Blennie?”
The maid’s shining dark head tilted up. She turned to meet Agatha’s gaze.
Agatha’s breath stopped in her throat.
The maid was smiling with open amusement. The same expression was mirrored on her aunt’s face, but Agatha barely noticed it. All her attention was fixed on the maid’s glittering green eyes and her perfectly straight nose.
…Just as she remembered them.
“Oh, you are just as my dear Blennie had described to me,” Clarisse said. “I cannot begin to express how helpful it was, all those years, to have a faithful friend in my old home, keeping me apprised of everything that mattered. And of course she knew just where to come when you staged your childish little rebellion.”
“Blennie?” Agatha mouthed. But she couldn’t say the name out loud, not with Miss Blenheim grinning at her over her aunt’s fur-trimmed shoulder.
Agatha knew that grin, even after two years of freedom.
“Oh, you might be surprised at how well I know you already, my darling niece,” Clarisse said. “But never fear. Once we leave for London next week, you shall grow to understand me as well…and you may be surprised by just how much we have in common.”
Agatha couldn’t answer. All she could do was stagger out of the room before the strength in her legs deserted her.
The helping spirit who assisted her in lieu of a proper lady’s maid never made its appearance in her room that evening, but Agatha took no note of its absence. All that her senses could encompass was the sound of her aunt and Miss Blenheim’s mingled laughter, ringing in her ears all night long.
Many new visitors to London notice first the miasma in the air, a thick, dark substance pumped out from the thousands of chimneys and coal stoves that fill the capital. The unsavory pollution can stagger noses still accustomed to the more innocent countryside, especially in addition to the overwhelming and inescapable aroma of horse dung.
Other newcomers gasp first at the sheer size and variety of the crowds pressing about their carriage, from the pedestrian throng that chokes the streets to the peddlers who sell everything from eels to china, and the thin children who sweep the dung away and dart through the crowd in rags more fit for the Dark Ages than a supposed Age of Progress.
Clarisse, needless to say, ignored it all. She maintained a steady stream of chatter about the Great Exhibition that was taking place in the Crystal Palace, to show off the technological advancements of the age…and Agatha, with Miss Blenheim’s sardonic gaze resting upon her, sat silent and icy cold on her side of the carriage, numb to the press of humanity and the sights outside.
Over the past four days, she had come to understand the full extent of her aunt’s new dominion. The helping spirits Agatha had summoned so carefully over the years were all dismissed like smoke blown through the air; the grimoires she could have used to summon reinforcements were locked out of her reach; and worst of all, when she had stepped into her father’s library the day after Clarisse’s arrival, Sir Jasper had reacted with an embarrassed cough.
“I say…should you really be here, Agatha?”
Agatha stared at him. Her armchair still sat beside his in its regular position; her footstool stood prepared before it. “Why would I not be?”
He looked pained. “Well, as a young lady…that is, if any of those gossips got wind…I mean to say…well, it’s not quite the done thing, is it?”
Agatha folded her hands together to keep them from curving into claws. “Has my aunt Clarisse instructed you not to allow me in here anymore?”
“I wouldn’t say instructed,” said Sir Jasper. “But you know, if anyone in London did ever find out that you’d been practicing magic out here, as an unmarried female–well, if Clarisse hasn’t managed to snag you a husband first–that is–oh, blast it, Agatha, you simply can’t be here anymore! I cannot have Clarisse breathing down my collar for allowing it despite all the promises our parents made her. You have no notion of how she can discompose a fellow!”
“No?” Agatha asked, her spine rigidly straight. “You think not?”
But Sir Jasper had already turned back to his books…and Clarisse’s carriage took both ladies to London four days later.
When the carriage finally drew up in front of a row of red brick terraced houses in a relatively quiet London square, after eight full hours of travel, Agatha lunged for the door like a sailor reaching dry land after a year at sea.
“My, such undignified haste.” Clarisse clucked disapprovingly and pulled her furs tighter around herself. “You may wait for a footman to hand you down, dear. And don’t take too long about making your toilette; we must sally out once more as soon as possible, to visit the modistes at Cranbourne Street before the end of the day. Our first engagement is tomorrow evening, you know, and we cannot have you still looking like such a country yokel. Not when so many gentlemen are waiting to meet you there.”
Agatha felt, more than saw, the curl of Miss Blenheim’s upper lip and the quick flick of Miss Blenheim’s gaze cataloguing her features, no different now than they had been throughout her childhood.
She kept her mouth shut despite all temptation. She would not humiliate herself by protests that were clearly futile.
The next evening she entered Lady Sherington’s glittering drawing room in a new gown of deep golden silk, with a domed skirt that swept two full feet in either direction of her nipped-in waist, sustained underneath by uncomfortably thick and heavy horsehair petticoats. Her hair was, of course, still unmistakably copper, but it was also carefully teased into silly ringlets and puffed over her ears before rising to a chignon behind her head.
(“This is all useless anyway,” Miss Blenheim had muttered, as she’d held the hot curling tongs by Agatha’s face. “We can’t disguise the color, can we?”
And Clarisse had sighed in regretful agreement.)
The drawing room was richly lit by candles, and a dozen mirrors flung the candlelight’s reflection onto the velvets and silks of the assembled company. The reflected light flashed against the diamonds and garnets on the bare skin of the women and the ornamental dress swords strapped to the sides of the officers.
Agatha lifted her chin and glared defiantly at them all. She refused to duck her head to hide her nose or her hair. All the better to frighten off any would-be suitors and save her the trouble of refusing them.
“My dearest Clarisse!” Lady Sherington rustled toward Agatha’s aunt, emeralds and rubies glinting on her outstretched fingers. “How delightful to see you home at last. And this is your dear niece” Oh, yes.” She exchanged a conspiratorial glance with Clarisse, as Agatha’s back stiffened. “I do see what you mean. Well, I may tell you that every gentleman on your list is here tonight, and they are most impatient to make her acquaintance.” She turned a kind smile on Agatha. “You needn’t worry about being a wallflower tonight, my dear.”
“I wasn’t worrying,” Agatha said, through gritted teeth.
Lady Sherington’s eyes widened. Then she and Clarisse both burst into laughter as they linked arms and steered Agatha into the room.
Two hours later, Agatha took ignominious shelter in the lady’s retiring room. Thankfully, it was empty, but she could still hear the laughter and voices from the dance nearby ringing through the walls and grating against her ears. She tipped her head against the cool glass of the mirror and closed her eyes.
I am ice. I am stone. This cannot affect me.
“Oh, where has that foolish girl got to now?” Her aunt’s voice sounded through the door of the retiring room, and Agatha gave a start that rapped her head against the mirror. As she straightened with a jerk, her aunt continued, “Have no fear, Captain de Lacey. She shall be only too delighted to dance with you a second time–couldn’t you see how ecstatic she was to be noticed by you in the first place” Just let me….”
The door handle began to turn. Agatha spun around. Her gaze landed on the servant’s door hidden in the wall. She lunged for the crack in the wallpaper, slipped through into darkness–
–and bumped hard into another girl already hiding there.
“Oof!” Agatha’s breath knocked out of her.
“Quick!” hissed the other girl, and pushed the door shut just in time.
“Agatha?” Clarisse’s voice sounded in the retiring room. “You aren’t trying to hide somewhere in here, are you” Because you know there’s no use…ah well.” Her voice softened to wry amusement. “Probably gone to the library,” she murmured. “Not that that fool will care. All the better not to let her muck it up, anyway.”
Footsteps moved away. The door opened and shut. Agatha finally breathed again.
In the unlit, windowless corridor, she couldn’t make out any of the other girl’s features, only a general impression of warmth, soft breathing, and a shape a little smaller than her own. Their domed skirts were so bulky, they took up all the width in the narrow corridor, and Agatha could feel her silk skirts being crushed by the enclosing walls. Thinking of Clarisse’s irritation at the sight was her one consolation for the indignity of her position.
“Your mother?” the other girl asked sympathetically. From her matter-of-fact tone, it might have been a perfectly customary experience to have a casual social meeting in a darkened servant’s corridor.
“My aunt.” It came out as a growl from Agatha’s throat. “She’s determined to marry me off.”
“Aren’t they all” Well, apart from mine, anyway. She gave up on me ages ago.”
“Why?” asked Agatha. Then she realized, too late, all that the darkness might be hiding. She winced. Graceless as ever, Agatha. She could almost hear the amused, scornful words spoken in her ex-governess’s voice. This was why she was better off alone with her studies, not trying to make conversation with party guests. “I apologize,” she said stiffly. “You needn’t answer if–”
“Oh, I’m not deformed,” the other girl said cheerfully. “Only hopelessly poor, and not beautiful enough to make up for it. Worse yet, I’m bookish, to round it all off. In fact, I’m a naturalist, like Mr. Darwin.”
There was a pause as Agatha assimilated the news. An inexplicable feeling of warmth and ease was slipping through her, relaxing the muscles in her back for the first time in five days. The dark, narrow corridor felt seductively safe, the close air like a protective bubble that held the two of them separate from reality. She felt a dangerous urge to reveal all her own secrets in response to that warm, cheerfully open voice.
As she struggled with herself, the other girl spoke again, this time sounding subdued. “You probably think it’s unladylike or absurd to call myself a naturalist, don’t you” I shouldn’t have told you, I suppose.”
“No!” Startled, Agatha reached out. Her fingers found the other girl’s gloved hand. “I think it’s wonderful, actually.”
The other girl’s fingers felt warm and strong through the fabric of their gloves. The weight of their skirts seemed to push them closer together in the narrow corridor. Suddenly dizzy, Agatha said, “I practice magic. That’s not ladylike either.”
“Do you really?” The other girl sounded delighted. “I knew there was something about you! From the moment I saw you in that doorway…”
Agatha dropped her hand as if she’d been burned. “I know,” she said. Her shoulders hunched as her voice turned flat. “My features and my hair color and my deportment. You needn’t remind me of my appearance.”
“I beg your pardon?” Agatha could feel the other girl’s astonished stare, even though she couldn’t see it. “What are you talking about?”
Agatha gritted her teeth. “Large. Red. And awkward. That is what you meant, isn’t it” Believe me, I harbor no illusions about my lack of attractions, so you really needn’t–”
“That’s not what I meant at all. Who was ever mad enough to call you unattractive?” Warm fingers closed around Agatha’s gloved hand in the darkness. “But there is something about you, something different. I didn’t know what it was until now. It’s the magic, isn’t it” I can feel it sparking in your skin. It’s amazing.”
Agatha swallowed. Her throat was dry, her pulse oddly rapid. She could feel sparks, too, suddenly racing up and down her skin, but they didn’t feel like magic. They didn’t feel like anything she recognized. “That’s not how magic works,” she said. “Magic is all about using the proper grimoires, with exactly the right words in Greek. It has nothing to do with talent, only diligence, and using the right supplies. You can’t even use normal candles, they have to be specially prepared. They’re very expensive…”
Her voice trailed to a halt. The air in the servant’s corridor felt so hot, she was tingling and light-headed. She spoke almost at random as she finished: “My aunt stole all my grimoires and supplies, so I can’t do magic anymore.”
The other girl laughed, a shockingly intimate sound in the darkness. “Who told you that?”
Agatha blinked. “Everyone! All my father’s treatises say–”
“Well, isn’t that what gentlemen always say” And no wonder. If you need to mouth exactly the same Greek phrases some man came up with three hundred years ago, you’ll need money and education to get hold of the texts and make use of them, won’t you” And if you’ve been told you can’t even try it without expensive supplies…”
“The treatises all say it would be too dangerous,” said Agatha.
“Then that keeps women and the lower orders safely in their place, doesn’t it” Leaving the magic to the gentlemen who rule the empire.” The other girl snorted. “No wonder they don’t want anyone else sharing their power. They wouldn’t let me into university either, even though I’d taught myself Latin and Greek as well as any Eton student. But do you think I’m going to let them stop me?”
“No?” Agatha said. Somehow, they were standing even closer now. She could feel the other girl’s breath brush warm against her cheek. It felt like a warm breeze waking her at last from the icy chill of helplessness that had gripped her for the last five days. Every inch of her body tingled with reaction.
“Never,” said the girl. “If they won’t let me study at Cambridge with the gentlemen, I’ll simply teach myself. That’s the message of the Great Exhibition, isn’t it” Times are changing, at long last. And when I start publishing treatises about my discoveries, no one will care whether or not I ever sat in a university classroom with a whole crowd of wealthy idiots.”
“I believe you,” Agatha said. And she did. She felt wider awake than she had in days, and wild with curiosity. “What’s your name?”
There was a long pause. Then… “Isobel,” said the girl. “Isobel Cunningham. I’m Mrs. Wesley Stanhope’s companion, for my sins. She’s probably calling for me again by now.” She sighed, her fingers relaxing their warm grip around Agatha’s. “I should go. But thank you. It was lovely to meet you, whoever you are.”
“Agatha Tremain,” said Agatha. She moved forward when Isobel stepped back. “Wait,” she said. “Can I call on you tomorrow” If I can escape my aunt–”
“Mrs. Stanhope doesn’t like me to receive callers,” Isobel said.
“We’ll be at the Tennants’ ball tomorrow,” said Isobel. “Who knows?” She moved closer, her voice lowering to a whisper. “Maybe you’ll find me in a servants’ corridor again, where no one else can see us.”
Her breath brushed against Agatha’s mouth. Agatha felt her heart begin to race. She held perfectly still, waiting for…for…
“Goodbye, Agatha,” said Isobel softly.
She opened the door and slipped swiftly into the retiring room, revealing only the back of her rich brown hair and her modest gray bombazine dress in the candlelit doorway. By the time Agatha forced herself out of her trance to push the door open again and search for more, Isobel had vanished from the room.
Agatha moved through the rest of the evening in a daze, dancing without protest with each gentlemen her aunt presented to her, but making only monosyllabic, distracted answers to the conversation that sounded like buzzing insects around her ears. No matter how she craned her head over her various partners’ shoulders, she couldn’t catch sight of that plain gray bombazine gown anywhere in the crowd.
All she lived for, in the endless hours that remained, was the moment when she would be allowed to return to her room in the rented townhouse, to turn over every memory of that brief, electric meeting in her mind. As she and her aunt rode back in their carriage, she let Clarisse’s icy stream of words wash over her, as harmless as rain against a sturdy umbrella.
The Tennants’ ball would be tomorrow. She would have another new gown by then, the modiste had promised. Not that appearances mattered in a servants’ corridor, of course. But still…
When she started down the corridor toward her bedroom, Clarisse’s hand shot out as quickly as a striking snake to fasten around her arm. “Oh, no, my dear. We have important matters still to discuss.”
Yanked out of her thoughts, Agatha pulled her arm free. “I’m sure tomorrow will be soon enough.”
“Tomorrow,” said Clarisse, “we shall announce the news of your betrothal. I will compose the notice to the newspapers tonight.”
“What?” Agatha stared at her. “But I haven’t–no one has even proposed to me yet.”
“Goodness, what a romantic you are. I had no idea of it!” Clarisse tittered as she walked gracefully into her own bedroom, her vast skirts and petticoats rustling and her Indian shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. “Your fiancé arranged it with me himself, of course, just as mine did with my own parents. You have nothing to do with the decision.”
“But…” Stopping short in the doorway, Agatha stumbled to a halt. Miss Blenheim stood at the dressing table, holding Clarisse’s fur-lined dressing gown. Under her ex-governess’s gleaming gaze, Agatha’s instinctive urge was to freeze or, better yet, retreat to safety.
She remembered Isobel’s words. “Do you think I’m going to let that stop me?”
No, Agatha told herself, and her shoulders straightened. “I believe,” she said coolly, “it is customary for a gentleman to ask a young lady’s consent as well.”
“Oh, well, in love matches, perhaps…” Clarisse waved a careless hand in dismissal.
Miss Blenheim tsk’ed compassionately. “Did you really expect someone to fall in love with your face, Miss?”
Even as Agatha started to shrink, she remembered that warm, delighted voice. “Who was mad enough to call you unattractive?”
Of course Isobel had only seen her for a moment in the doorway; the words meant nothing, really, not when she thought logically about them. Isobel might well change her mind in the light of day. But still…
Agatha’s chin lifted. “The law may not allow me to choose a husband without my father’s consent,” she said, “but you cannot force me to marry against my will. I will say no all the way to the altar itself.”
“Now, my darling girl.” Her aunt sank down in front of the blazing fire, as Miss Blenheim wrapped the dressing gown around her solicitously. Tucking her chin into the lush fur collar, Clarisse said, “I believe it is time for you to understand the truth about the women of our family.”
As Agatha saw her aunt shiver and lean into the fire, her newly-wakened senses grated at her.
“It’s as hot as a furnace in here,” she said. “Why are you wrapping yourself up so tightly?” She frowned, thinking back. “You always do, don’t you?”
Miss Blenheim’s lips curled as she leaned over to stoke the fire higher. “It took you this long to notice, Miss?”
“Now, Blennie. I told you she must be clever enough to put together the pieces eventually, did I not?” Clarisse gave her niece an unfriendly smile. “Well done, my dear. But I would attempt a bit more compassion, as you’ll be sharing my condition yourself soon enough.”
“What do you mean?”
Clarisse rolled her eyes. “Why do you think all your little magical experiments at Tremain House were so successful?”
Caught off guard, Agatha answered with involuntary honesty: “Because I had nothing and no one to distract me from my studies. They’re the only thing I’ve ever been good at.” Then she felt herself flush, as she realized the truth of it…and exactly who she’d said it to, as Miss Blenheim let out a soft snort of contempt.
Still, it was true, wasn’t it” And it had been all she’d wanted…or all that she’d allowed herself to want, at least. She frowned.
She had believed all that Miss Blenheim had told her about herself. She’d sworn never to be humiliated again by trying for anything she couldn’t have.
Agatha remembered again Isobel’s warm voice; the soft breath whispering across her mouth.
I can have more, she thought suddenly. I can believe what I want about myself. I don’t have to settle for less.
But her aunt regarded her with a jaundiced eye. “It is all that makes you valuable, I agree,” said Clarisse. “But then, you are a Tremain female, and that means you have an affinity for magic, just as I have, and my aunt and my grandmother before me. How do you think your great-grandfather acquired Tremain House and all his fortune in the first place” That is why you have a duty to the family to marry, for the sake of your older female relatives; it is why a particular sort of gentleman will pay so well for the privilege of having you to wife; and it is why you will marry, dear girl, whether you like it or not, and you will marry with some speed, too. It is your turn now to step into the breach, and I have waited quite long enough for a younger Tremain female to finally pay me back what I am owed.”
“For what?” Agatha gaped at her. “What have you ever done for me?”
“It is the sacrifice all the females in our family have to pay,” said Clarisse. “Magic ripples through our veins, you see. If you were a man, you could make use of it. As a woman, you were born to be a source of power, just as I was for far too many years to contemplate. But just think…” She gave Agatha a look of mock-sympathy. “Your husband may make marvelous advances for the British Empire using the power he draws from you. In return, he will give me what I need with the first magic he extracts. And then…” She sighed, leaning closer to the fire. “I shall never be cold again.”
Agatha’s head spun with more than the heat of the room now. She held still, refusing to retreat. “Why can’t you take for yourself what you need” Why do you need my future husband to do it?”
“Because those spells are never taught to women,” said Clarisse wearily. “You’ve never come across them in your father’s library, have you” No, Jasper may be the most useless and impractical creature ever born, but even he is not so careless as to allow any of those texts to be kept in public view on his shelves.
“But none of that matters now.” Clarisse shook her head dismissively. “All you need to understand, dear, is that my magic was drained out of me over and over again across the years while my husband rose ever higher in the Austro-Hungarian Court. Simply dismissing your creatures from Tremain House took nearly all that I had left.” Her lips curled into a smile. “Nearly…but not all.”
Slowly, sinuously, she rose to her feet, while Miss Blenheim smiled behind her, a smile of deep satisfaction.
“I have been waiting for this day for two long years, Miss,” said Miss Blenheim. “Did you really think you could dismiss me so easily” Knowing all that I do about you and your family?”
Agatha could only shake her head numbly.
“It was tremendously helpful of you to keep all your books and supplies so carefully organized in your little office,” Clarisse said. “When combined with the supplies that my dear Blennie found for me in Vienna, I am more than prepared to take on this last spell. And I think we can agree, can we not, that I am the only person in this room with both magical power and the spells and supplies that are needed for it?”
Agatha looked from her aunt to Miss Blenheim. Her chest tightened.
She had wanted so badly to believe herself free.
“What are you planning?” she asked, through dry lips.
“That,” said Clarisse, “is entirely up to you. If you are a good girl and follow your part in the plan like every Tremain girl has before you for the past hundred years, I won’t need to do a thing–and you may have your payment in return as soon as your own daughter is old enough to be sacrificed.
“If not, though…” She shrugged gently. “I have both the supplies and the spellbooks to make you mouth any words I wish until you are safely wed and drained. I could not care less which choice you make.”
Agatha stared at her aunt’s face, so similar in shape to her own father’s. “And you would really do that to me, after everything you went through yourself?”
Her aunt’s blue eyes were cold and hard as sapphires. “My darling niece,” she said. “I would do anything, and sacrifice anyone, only to be warm again. In twenty years, I daresay you will feel exactly the same.”
Bright, hard flames leaped in the fireplace, and Agatha tasted the bitterness of defeat. If only she had managed to salvage a single grimoire, a single sanctioned brazier…
Wait. She closed her eyes. Suddenly, with the flames shut out, she was in the darkness again. And in that darkness, she was not alone.
She heard Isobel’s laugh echoing in her ears. “Who told you that?”
Agatha had always believed she could do magic only by mouthing an expert’s words. But Clarisse said magic rippled in her veins…and unlike her aunt, great-aunt, or grandmother, she had been allowed to devote two full years to the uninterrupted study of her father’s grimoires. She understood the very essence of the spells she had performed, better than any Tremain girl before her.
Sparks ran up and down Agatha’s skin, and this time, she knew that Isobel had been right. The sparks were magic–her magic, sparking through her. Her own personal magic, which she had never believed in until tonight.
Her magic, which she would never allow anyone to take away from her again.
“This is an Age of Progress,” she said. “Things are changing for all of us, now. We don’t have to follow the old ways anymore.”
She opened her eyes and looked from her aunt to Miss Blenheim. “Do you know what the last spell was that I worked on, back at Tremain House?”
Clarisse frowned. “I can’t imagine that it would be relevant, dear.”
Miss Blenheim sneered. “Do you think we care about any of your little games, Miss?”
“No,” Agatha said. “But I’ll tell you anyway…”
She smiled as she finished: “Transformation.”
She lifted her arms and magic swept out from them, changing the world around her.
The Tennants’ ball was packed with ladies in sparkling diamond tiaras, ropes of pearls, and gowns that swirled across the crowded floor. Footmen bellowed out the names of each new arrival. Officers smiled down at admiring girls and black-coated gentlemen swept their dance partners around the room.
Agatha ignored them all. Whispers rustled around her as she forced her way, unchaperoned, through the crowd, but she barely even noticed.
Her hair was pinned into a plain bun with no ringlets or waves. It was all that she could manage without the help of a maid. Her corset was undoubtedly laced too loosely for an absolutely perfect waist; her new blue gown didn’t fit as well as it had in the modiste’s fitting room.
In the dark, though, none of that would matter. If only she was still in time…
She stepped into the ladies’ retiring room and forced herself to wait for the giggling, excited crowd of other girls to finish fixing their appearances. The moment the door to the main corridor closed behind them, she pressed her hand to the crack she had glimpsed in the flowered wallpaper. More female voices were coming down the corridor. She rushed headlong into the darkness before they could arrive.
Warm, ungloved hands caught her, and pressed the hidden door shut behind her.
“You came!” Isobel said.
“You waited,” said Agatha.
“I’ve been waiting for an hour,” Isobel said, so softly that Agatha could barely hear her. “I had to take off my gloves after the first half hour–it’s so hot in here. Mrs. Stanhope probably thinks I’ve run away by now. I suppose it was silly to hope you would really come, but…”
“I hope you will run away from Mrs. Stanhope,” Agatha said. “I mean…” She stopped, gathering her breath. Her corset laces might be loose, but she still felt light-headed. She was gasping for air. She could feel Isobel only inches away; could feel their heavy skirts brushing against each other.
She had never been so frightened in her life. But she couldn’t give up now.
“I’m going back to Tremain House,” she said. “I hoped…will you come with me” Please?”
There was a pause. Agatha couldn’t see Isobel’s face, couldn’t guess at her expression.
“When you say I should come with you,” Isobel finally said, “do you mean as a companion” As I am to Mrs. Stanhope?”
Agatha swallowed hard. “If you want,” she said. “That is, I could do with a friend, and a companion. I think I’ve spent too much time alone. But also…”
She closed her eyes in the darkness.
She had sworn never to humiliate herself by asking for what she couldn’t have. But she had also made a vow to never hide again.
Agatha leaned forward, holding her breath.
Isobel’s lips were soft and full.
Magic sparked between them.
A long time later, Agatha drew back. She was breathing quickly now, flushed with a warmth that left her unsteady. She wanted to laugh, or cry, or dance in the darkness. She forced herself to hold perfectly still instead as she waited for Isobel’s reaction.
“Well,” Isobel said consideringly, “in that case…” She laughed suddenly, and her voice was bright with joy. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes!”
“Really?” Agatha caught hold of the rough wall to support herself as her legs turned limp with relief. “You’ll really come” You really want to…”
“Well,” Isobel said teasingly, “as a committed naturalist, you know, I can’t take any of my first observations on faith. So perhaps…” Her warm, bare fingers curled around the nape of Agatha’s neck; her words whispered against Agatha’s lips. “Perhaps I ought to repeat the experiment one more time, for Science’s sake. And then again, and again, and again…”
Even Sir Jasper seemed pleased, in a vague sort of way, to learn that Agatha had brought Miss Cunningham home for good.
“Good for a young girl to have someone to talk to, isn’t it?” he said. “She seems like a very decent companion for you, my dear. Very quiet. Doesn’t bother a fellow in his library. Understands that it’s the right place for a man to take his meals.” He beamed, settling more comfortably into his armchair. “Thank goodness Clarisse gave up and took herself off, so we can all be comfortable again. Did she go back to Vienna, did you say” Or was it Paris this time?”
“Somewhere warm, I believe,” said Agatha. “I’m certain she’ll be happier now.”
“Yes, yes,” Sir Jasper said. “I’m sure you’re right, my dear. But you brought back a set of animals from London, too, you say” What on earth did you do that for?”
“Only two animals, Papa,” said Agatha, “and they won’t bother you, I promise.”
“Oh, no,” Sir Jasper said, falling back into his book with relief. “No, I am quite sure of that.”
Agatha closed the library door behind her and went, with a spring in her step, to find Isobel. Her dearest friend would be walking in the woods at this time of day, as she did every morning while Agatha worked on her own magical studies; the woods of the Tremain estate were apparently bursting with interesting animal life.
Agatha had finished her studies earlier than usual, though; something about the scent of her latest experiment had reminded her of Isobel.
A smile deepened on her face; she lifted up her skirts to run, and magic sparked in the air around her, carrying the sound of her laughter to the woods before her.
Isobel was waiting for her there…and they were both distracted from their work for the rest of that morning, in the most delightful manner possible.
The two animal additions to the household, as promised, disturbed Sir Jasper not a whit. The housecat, a sleek black creature with an oddly straight feline nose, kept to the kitchens, where her bad temper made her a perfect mouse-catcher and a useful addition to the household…
…and the elegant, golden-blonde cocker spaniel with her coat of thick, soft fur rarely moved from her preferred spot in front of the fireplace. As Miss Tremain had given explicit orders that a fire always be lit for the dog’s comfort, regardless of what heat might bake the house, she could be certain of at least one thing:
Clarisse would never be cold again.
About Stephanie Burgis
Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales, surrounded by mountains, castles, and cake shops. Her trilogy of Regency fantasy adventures began with KAT, INCORRIGIBLE, which – under its UK title, A MOST IMPROPER MAGICK – won the 2011 Waverton Good Read award for Best Début Children’s Novel by a British writer. You can read the first three chapters of each of her books at her website: http://www.stephanieburgis.com