"I am all the daughters of my father's house,
And all the brothers, too…"
-Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
It is, to be frank, terribly easy to pose as a wizard – a young one, at any rate – when one is cursed (or, in this case, blessed) with a boyish figure as I am. Alter one's robes a bit – tailor them in the male fashion – and cut one's hair and the job is done.
There is, of course, the attempt to affect a boy's walk and gestures and fashion of talking, but on the whole, this deception of mine is not as difficult to maintain as I had expected. I had a brother once, my twin, and though he is lost these five months, I can remember, and imitate, his habits well enough to pass as a boy, perhaps a bit odd, but a boy all the same.
I lost Richard, my brother, in the same storm that stranded me here, broom broken to bits, having only by the best good fortune managed to carry me to safety on the shores of Bombay. We had been traveling with a merchant party to Madras, where my brother had secured work as a merchant guard through the recommendation of a school friend.
With my broom broken, there was nothing for it but to stay in Bombay until I could buy a new one. But no place is friend to a penniless stranger with only her wand and the clothes on her back to her name. I believed it would go better for me if I was not she, but he; and so I left the name Cornelia on that shore and entered the Fort as Cornelius. I do not know if I would truly have fared better as a boy in Bombay without Mr. Hartley; all I know is that it was the greatest stroke of good luck possible that I met him on my very first day in Bombay. For I serve as valet to Mr. Christopher Hartley, who would very much like to persuade me to call him Kit. He is the son of a rich merchant, English-bred and Hogwarts-educated, as am I, and for that reason alone he hired me.
Mr. Hartley is an irresponsible man, I have learned, and his father was not altogether happy with him for hiring me like that. But Mr. Hartley is also a very loyal man, and he refused utterly to be rid of me.
I intended staying in Bombay only until I had earned enough to buy a broom, and then to give my month's notice and, at the end of that month, to travel back to England with a merchant party. But here I am, the sum laid out before me, and yet I cannot bring myself to scoop it back into its pouch and go out to buy a broom. I have chosen one already: sturdy and dependable, it would last me for several hundred times the amount of ground I mean to cover. I have even planned that I will return as a boy as well, and hire on as a merchant guard; I knew some defensive spells already, from my brother, and Mr. Hartley has been teaching me more, and will recommend me to some of his father's friends. Though I know it is not the proper work of a gentleman, I am grateful to him for his help. He, however, is dismissive of my thanks, and says only that it is the least he can do for a fellow countryman, though he wishes I would not go.
Right now, I have no wish to leave, and the remembrance of his attempts to dissuade me from leaving only make matters worse.
For how can I leave Bombay, and with it Mr. Hartley?
It is impossible, of course. Even if I stay, Mr. Hartley still retains enough propriety never to call me his friend, though I know that is what we are as well as he does. Perhaps if I called him Kit he would; perhaps it is for the sake of my "delicate sensibilities," as he teasingly calls them, that he refrains from using the word. But even then, I am a boy and a servant to him, and he is besotted with Harriet Ogden. It makes not one whit of difference that she is in turn besotted with me, or rather the man she thinks me to be.
But Mr. Hartley's – Kit's – face swims before my mind's eye, and in a sudden movement I scoop the coins back into their pouch and stuff the pouch under my pillow, where I cannot see it.
What fools we all are – loving even though it is entirely hopeless.
Mr. Hartley is overjoyed that I have told him I will not, in fact, be leaving just yet. It is stupid to be warmed by his joy, but I am. Even friendship like this is something I did not expect when I first landed in Bombay.
I'm walking about town, taking care of a few errands for Mr. Hartley, when a commotion breaks out. I recognize the red robes of the International Confederation of Wizards' pirate chasers – a relatively common sight in town, but never making arrests. Their prey generally has the good sense to stay at sea, holed up in some floating pirate den or another. Curiosity draws me closer, and even as I chide myself, I strain my ears to hear some snippet of what this is about. They're keeping to physical blows in deference to this being a Muggle thoroughfare, and the hunted man is darting in and out, avoiding punches where he can and serving his own from behind. Usually I might think this rank cowardice, but in a man so outnumbered it simply seems clever. As I think this, the man's wild grey eyes settle on me and he shouts, "Don't just stand there, Richard! Help me!"
I back away. This man is deluded. Perhaps an old acquaintance of my brother's, fallen into infamy. He's seeing the ghost of a dead man in me, the impostor. "I don't know you," I say hurriedly. As I run from the scene the man's shouts follow me: "Richard, you bloody coward!" There's a meaty smack, and a groan. "I saw you but an hour ago, you-" The man's voice cuts off, and when I turn to look, my heart pounding in my throat, the pirate chasers are dragging him off.
Is it possible the man isn't lying? Could Richard be alive, and here in Bombay?
Impossible, I tell myself. You're building hope on the words of a criminal.
But still, the scene is hard to shake.
Try as I might, I cannot get the incident out of my head. I was flustered all afternoon yesterday, and I woke today with dream-images of Richard imprinted on my mind's eye and a nagging melancholy. Even Mr. Hartley cannot fail to notice his usually brisk valet's unaccustomed despondency, and he finally pries the tale out of me around midday.
When I finish, Mr. Hartley's face lights up, and I know he has mischief on his mind. "There's only one way to find out if the man was telling the truth," he says, "and that's to ask him ourselves." He's out the door and bursting out onto the street in a flash, leaving me to chase after as he jaunts down the road.
"But, Mr. Hartley," I protest when I've caught up, "they're not going to let a couple of laymen off the street talk to one of their prisoners."
"Ah," he says over his shoulder, "but you forget who I am, Cornelius."
I don't say anything, but I doubt even Mr. Hartley could persuade the pirate chasers to let us talk to the man. The Confederation's men aren't much impressed by rich merchants; they spend too much time fishing them out of danger. Luckily for us, though, they're dragging the man from one place to another when we get there.
Mr. Hartley calls out a greeting, and asks, "Who is this man?"
One of the guards just looks at him suspiciously, but the other spits on the ground and says, "Pirate. Anthony Runcorn. Robbed plenty of merchants as part of Rackham's gang."
"Do you mind if we speak to Mr. Runcorn?" Mr. Hartley asks, showing the guards a Sickle.
The suspicious guard says, "We don't allow our prisoners visits with civilians."
"Are you sure?" Mr. Hartley pulls out a Galleon and holds it up so it flashes in the sunlight. The suspicious guard scowls, but I can see the greed in the other's face. Unfortunately for us, however, the first guard seems to be in charge, and we are forced to leave without having spoken to Runcorn.
We haven't gone far when the greedy guard catches up to us, panting. "Come back tonight," he says, "at five o' clock. Stimpson will be gone." Mr. Hartley turns to me, grinning, and my lips twitch involuntarily. Sometimes, his schemes really do work.
It's been a long afternoon. I went out to carry a message to Miss Ogden earlier, but I've been watching Mr. Hartley pace for the past hour or more; by now, I'm sure he has worn the floor to a fine shine. For my part, I am having visions of casting a Full Body-Bind on him just to make him hold still for a minute. He glances at his watch for the thousandth time, and snaps it shut briskly as he turns to me. "Time!" he crows.
"At last," I say dryly.
We hurry to the anti-piracy station, eager to find some answers. The guard meets us in front of the station, and, encouraged by the Galleon Mr. Hartley gives him, leads us through a small side door, which he locks after us. We find ourselves in a narrow corridor with four cells on either side. Past the dark iron bars of the nearest cell, I can see Runcorn.
"Make it quick," the guard hisses, and goes to watch the door at the other end of the hallway.
"Mr. Runcorn," Mr. Hartley says, "when you encountered my valet yesterday, you called him 'Richard.' Why is that?"
"Hasn't he given you that name?" Runcorn says. "I can't say I'm surprised." He laughs humorlessly. "This boy's already shown his true colors, as far as I'm concerned. I wouldn't trust that one, if I were you."
"Why's that?" Mr. Hartley asks.
"I came to Bombay knowing the pirate chasers might well recognize me." Runcorn's voice is bitter. "It seemed worth it at the time because I thought I was helping a friend in need. But when I needed him, this cowardly little pup turned his back on me."
"But I've never met you before in my life!" I finally say.
Runcorn eyes me balefully for a moment, his jaw clenched. "How could you lie about that?" he says, and then suddenly he's shouting. "I found you in that storm, Richard, I took you in, I was a damn good friend to you, I even came to this thrice-cursed pit of vipers for you, and this is how you repay that debt?"
The silence hangs in the air like a screen between Runcorn and me, and the guard is coming towards us, looking harried, but all I can think about is the fact that Runcorn knows about the storm.
"How long?" I ask quickly. "How long since the storm?" Runcorn looks unwilling to answer, having subsided back into an angry silence, but I don't have time for this; the guard is nearly to us and he might well throw us out. "How long?" I cry, and Runcorn glares and says, "Five months."
And then the guard says, "I think you've had enough time to speak with the prisoner."
"I don't suppose there's a sum that can be paid to release this man?" Mr. Hartley asks.
"Mr. Hartley, you mustn't –" I stop and bite my lip. I'm just a servant. He can't be bribing a Confederation pirate chaser to let a strange man go free because he might lead me to my brother. But I can't protest, not in public. It's not seemly.
"I'm planning to fly over the Arabian Sea soon, and I'll need a guide," Mr. Hartley lies, perfectly straight-faced. "He seems as good a man as any, and I'm sure the promise of a swift trip back here will be sufficient to keep him in line."
The guard looks dubious at this statement, but gold is gold, and so minutes later we are walking in silence, the three of us, back to the Hartley house.
If Mr. Hartley's father disapproved of me, I'll be sure to stay well out of range when he finds out where Mr. Hartley found Runcorn.
No sooner have we arrived home than Miss Ogden shows up, something that surprises us all (except perhaps Runcorn, who has no idea who she is). Miss Ogden has always done her utmost to avoid Mr. Hartley, so I can't imagine what she's doing here. Perhaps she's had a change of heart, I think, and my heart sinks.
But she saunters over to me, and winds her arms around me, smiling up at me coyly. "Hello, husband," she says. "I wondered where you'd wandered off to."
I jerk away, bewildered and not a little scared. What could possibly have prompted this behavior? Certainly not any encouragement I gave her.
But Mr. Hartley's heard, and assumed the worst. "Husband?" he says, his voice strained.
"Never," I tell him firmly, but he looks uncertain, glancing between me and Runcorn as if wondering if he's right about me. "Never, never, never." I gulp, and wonder if I dare tell the truth. Perhaps a small part of it. "I hope you know that my loyalty to you trumps everything." I take a deep breath. "I…I value our…friendship more than I could ever value a woman's love, K-Kit." I stumble on that last, the nickname unfamiliar in my mouth.
I don't have time to gauge Mr. Hartley's reaction, to discover if he's understood, because Miss Ogden has heard and understood quite well.
"Liar!" she says shrilly. "We were married just this afternoon." She suddenly softens, and her voice turns syrupy sweet as she grabs hold of me again. I stiffen; this is somehow more terrifying than an angry Miss Ogden. "You're just afraid to tell him the truth about our love. He knows I was never meant to be his."
I yank away and turn back to Mr. Hartley, prepared to reason with him, plead with him, anything, when a piercingly familiar voice calls, "Harriet!"
All four of us turn towards the voice, disbelieving, and Miss Ogden calls shakily, "Here, my love."
"There you are," says Richard, relieved, and then he stops short.
"Alike as two peas in a pod," Runcorn breathes.
"I never had a brother," says Richard, slowly, "but I had a sister who looked just like me. If she were male, I would say she would look very like the boy before me. But that can't be. My sister drowned in a storm…or so I have thought for these last five months."
"A sister…!" exclaims Mr. Hartley, but I'm too busy drinking in the sight of Richard, whole and real and alive, and then I throw myself at him and we're hugging and laughing and I hear my real name for the first time since I came here and maybe I'm crying a bit. I'm not sure.
And then we break apart, still holding hands, and face the other three, who are confused and desperately in need of explanation.
Richard starts first. "Harriet, when you kept calling me Cornelius, you must have meant her. I tried to tell you I wasn't him, I was never Cornelius, but you were so insistent and, well…can't blame a man for giving in to a beauty like you!"
I elbow Richard, disgusted, and he grins at me, unrepentant. How thoughtless he is! That's something he and Mr. Hartley have in common, but I've never seen even Mr. Hartley commit such a foolish act as marrying an utter stranger.
Reminded, I turn to him as my brother reunites with and apologizes to Runcorn. Mr. Hartley looks the most confused of us all, and maybe a little hurt. I can't tell because he's trying to put on his smooth face, and it's not quite working, but it is a little. And suddenly I feel desolate, because what if this man never trusts me again? For the entirety of our acquaintance, I have been lying to him, in the most comprehensive way possible.
"I…" How can I even begin to explain? "I didn't think I'd make it…not as a girl." I swallow hard. "Please, I didn't know what else to do. And how could I tell you later? You're my only friend here. I…" The real truth, the whole truth, sticks in my throat. "I couldn't bear to risk losing you," I finally say. I can't look at him, and I'm afraid if I say another word I'll start crying, and I can't bear that.
I hear cautious footsteps approaching, but I still can't muster the courage to look. He stops; I can see his shoes. And suddenly, he's crushing me to him. He's never embraced me, certainly not like this, and it's so overwhelmingly wonderful that I can't hold back the tears anymore.
I sob into his robes and he strokes my hair and I think that, if I could just stop crying, this would be the perfect moment. Finally, I quiet, and then I look up and meet his eyes, brave enough at last.
He looks wary, uncertain, but behind that I can see something else. Something warm. And maybe, just maybe, it is the perfect moment after all.
And then he confirms it, because tentatively – hesitating, as if wondering just what the hell he's doing (I can hear him saying it, almost) – he leans in and kisses me. Quickly, and then he's drawn back, but that one short second is perfect, and dazzling, and every adjective I can think of, because I finally know one thing:
I am not just a servant to him, and he certainly doesn't see me as a boy.