"I suppose I should start by saying that most of what I know about the situation is secondhand. I learned most of it from Hieronymous' school friends when - but we'll get to that when we get to it. Hieronymous went to London to attend school at sixteen, like all young magicians. I understand that you had formalized schooling up until you went to Iris Academy?"
"Yes - up until my sophomore year of high school," I say. It was a little odd to start over again as a freshman at magic school at sixteen, but I'd gotten used to it quickly enough.
"That's not usually the case in magical families, of course. We tend to homeschool, either ourselves or with tutors, to eliminate the risk that one of our children might slip and let our secrets out, or display magic inadvertently. Most families leave the magical training until school - it's considered that one isn't old enough to control one's magic until one reaches the age of sixteen. I think that's balderdash of course, so I started Hieronymous as soon as he exhibited talent. Along with all the usual maths, sciences, history, literature, languages, grammar, music, art..." he waves his hand, the same dismissive gesture I've seen Professor Grabiner use before. "The basics."
It sounds like a lot of basics, and I start to see why this required an army of tutors. I just nod, and Lord Montague continues.
"At any rate, Hieronymous went to school at sixteen, which in retrospect was probably a bit of a shock to the system."
"Did he have trouble with the other students or something?" I ask.
"Not that I'm aware, on the contrary, he was rather admired for his academic ability and social standing and had quite a few friends. Though I'm afraid he wasn't exactly known for being kind - he could cut someone out of his social circle with just a remark, and often did for certain small offences."
In a way it's hard to believe that Professor Grabiner, the textbook misanthrope, was popular at school, but at the same time it's easy to believe that he'd use any popularity he had to be cruel to those he'd considered beneath him. Of course, I consider, remembering Professor Grabiner's comment about the fish fork, he had a pretty good lesson in how to do that from none other than his father.
"Violet entered school a year after Hieronymous did, and immediately distinguished herself as being one of the most brilliant witches that the school had ever taught, despite being wildseed. Everything came to her instinctively, and she was able to perform at a level beyond what's expected of most adult magicians."
"So he fell in love with her then?" I ask, eager to get the painful moment over with.
"Not at all, they loathed each other from her first day," Lord Montague responds, as if this should be obvious. "He's always been rather vain about being the smartest person in the room, and when she showed up, he was furious with her-every school record he'd set the year before, she smashed; every school master he'd managed to impress considered him eclipsed by her talent. And he considered her presumptuous and gauche. As for her, she thought him pretentious, stuck up and self-absorbed. With, I'm sure, some justification."
"Do you really think so?" I ask.
"Well he is my own son, I think I know when criticism is warranted."
"So what happened?"
"Their rivalry lasted for a little over a year, until partway through his third year and her second. Evidently one of his friends had the bright idea of starting a student chamber orchestra. He showed up with his flute and she with her oboe-orchestras seat the two instruments next to each other, so-" he snaps his fingers. "However it happened, within two weeks, they were inseparable."
For a moment I forget to be jealous, and just feel impressed by the strange, sudden turn of events. It's almost like Pride and Prejudice-except that had a happy ending and this story definitely doesn't.
"This lasted for about a year, when Hieronymous was in his last year at school, and-" he cuts off with a sigh, and rubs the bridge of his nose-again a gesture I've seen Professor Grabiner make. "I'm afraid I'm rather responsible for what happened next."
"What do you mean?" I ask, feeling chilly all of the sudden.
"I suppose you've determined that I don't quite share the traditional outlook on magical education as most of the populace," he says. "That includes the general taboo of taking children into the Otherworld."
The chill I feel deepens into freezing. "You took him as a child?" I ask.
"Oh, I wasn't reckless, you must understand that," he says forcefully. "You can take anyone into the Otherworld so long as they're properly shielded, even children."
This doesn't jibe with what Professor Potsdam told us in class-that we can never enter the Otherworld, even when fully protected and even with an adult who tells us it's all right.
"I'd been taking Hieronymous since he was a small child-only for short visits, mind, I'm not completely insane. But he's always been fully protected, and as soon as he was able, I taught him how to protect himself. He'd never had anything to fear - and I suppose that made him a little reckless. His school shared - still does, I think - Iris Academy's conservative outlook on such things as travel to across our borders, but I'm sure that was difficult for him to take seriously when he was, himself, living proof that children can pass into the Otherworld and return unscathed. So if he'd proved one unalterable truth of theirs wrong, why should he listen to any of them?"
Even just listening to Lord Montague talk about it makes me feel skeptical too. Professor Potsdam had put it in such absolute terms-never cross into the Otherworld as a child under any circumstances. That we wouldn't face any kind of punishment if we did, because we would no longer exist. It was terrifying to hear, but the message loses its potency if you know it to be untrue.
"I honestly don't know whether he ever crossed over by himself before it happened. It's certainly possible. All I know is that in the spring of that year, he convinced Violet to go along with him. I suppose he wanted to show her Revane Cottage, it was his favorite place there; he does have rather exceptional taste. At any rate..." Lord Grabiner trails off with a sigh, and is quiet for a moment. "This is where I'm afraid I have to venture into speculation. They didn't tell any of their friends what they'd be doing, probably because of the taboo. They waited for a school break and just... went."
The air around me seems to have gotten thick; it's twice as much work to suck it into my lungs as it had been a half an hour ago. I remember that name - Revane Cottage - it was the cottage that Lord Montague had referenced in his letter to me-and that little box I'd found in Professor Grabiner's luggage was the key. "And what happened?" I manage to ask, my voice no louder than a whisper.
"It's speculation on my part, as I said, but it appears that although Hieronymous taught her how to guard and ward herself from the denizens of the Otherworld, she... well, when the time came to do it, she made a mistake, and the spell didn't take. His worked, hers didn't. I suppose he never double checked, because it wouldn't have occurred to him that she could do anything wrong."
My stomach is roiling; I feel sick. I wipe my palms on the skirt of my dress.
"Now, one of the things one does when one goes to the Otherworld is not only to ward and protect oneself, but to set seals around the building in which one is staying. I hadn't bothered to refresh the seals on Revane in a few years, having had no use to go there-I have my own estate, you know; the cottage is a relic from when our family was a bit more populous. So I'm afraid when they arrived, there was nothing between Violet and-"
"The goblins," I interrupt. Professor Potsdam had told me that much - that it had been goblins that had taken them both.
"Yes, I'm afraid so. It wasn't more than a few moments before they came flocking to the smell of an unguarded soul."
"Professor Potsdam said it was like a light - a beacon," I say.
"Hm, for some creatures I suppose," he grunts, grimly. "Most goblins have very poor eyesight, but their sense of smell is exceedingly keen. And they love the taste of young soul, of course, there's nothing like it. Well, when they seized hold of her, Hieronymous did the one thing you must never, ever do in the Otherworld."
"Panic. His wards dropped, and they seized him, too. He only just managed to get a communication spell to me before they took him."
"Yes, yes, I was at my Otherworld estate at the time. I dropped everything and teleported straight to where they were, but even then, it was too late to save both of them."
"So... you chose him."
Lord Montague sighs. "There wasn't much of a choice, to be honest. They'd had her longer, so there wasn't much of her to save. But if I'd had a choice... I think you understand, though, don't you?"
I nod. Of course he would have chosen to save his son over a girl he hardly knew.
"But if you don't mind, I'd rather you not tell Hieronymous I said that. You see, in the message he sent... well, he told me to save her and leave him."
If there had been anything in my stomach but tea, I think I would have retched at that. As it is, my gorge rises and I taste acid in my mouth, but manage to swallow it down.
"It was a nasty business. The poor girl was barely recognizable at the end of it, and he... well, he was beyond hysteria. It took weeks for him to recover enough to be coherent, and another series of weeks until he was well enough to return to school. I thought he might need to repeat the year, but as it turns out, he had other plans."
"What do you mean?"
"At first he refused to go back, citing irrational reasons. But one has to complete one's education, no matter the circumstances. I was willing to let him stay at home until the start of the next year, but suddenly he changed his mind and decided to go back before the year was up. I thought that meant he'd finally come around, but as it turns out, it was a calculated pose. He never got to school, just disappeared without a trace. It took me another two years to track him down. I went to his school, talked to all of his friends, asking where they thought he might go, but although they provided me with the information I've just told you about what had happened prior to... ah, the incident... they couldn't help me."
"So-did he go to Iris then?"
"No, not then, but he did go to America. I found him at the Massachusetts Institute of Magic, enrolled as a student."
"Is... that a university?" I ask. I had wondered last year whether there were magical universities, but no one at school had ever said anything about them.
"Yes, one of the more prestigious, but surely you've at least-" He cuts off, seeing my confused look. "Higher education for magicians can take several forms. Some take apprenticeships after their first four years of schooling, some go to universities for two-to-three year stints, some for as long as eight years for post-graduate programs, all depending on one's specialization. I myself received my .A from Saint Amphibalus-Oxford's magical college."
The smile he gives me at that is a little smug-he's showing off-but when I don't gasp in admiration, he continues.
"At any rate, Hieronymous had gotten himself into the university under an assumed name without even having graduated school. With a scholarship!" Now Lord Montague is chuckling, relishing his son's cleverness in getting away from him. "I decided to let him alone. He was getting his education after all, and seemed to be doing well, so why bother him? Maybe in a few years we could patch things up, but in the meantime, live and let live. I figured he'd come around eventually - he usually does, you know."
I've experienced this firsthand-Professor Grabiner's tendency to react impulsively to certain situations and take actions he regretted later. The worst had been in the spring, when word of our marriage had leaked among the students at Iris Academy. He'd been furious, thinking I had been the one to let the secret slip. He hadn't listened to my protestations, but had threatened to lock me in a dungeon where I'd be forgotten by everyone who'd ever known me. But he'd come back the next day to apologize-multiple times and, come to think of it, abjectly. He told me that his threat had been a hollow one, which didn't make it any less terrifying. But in a way it had opened the door for us to really be able to talk to one another. Still, that had been the most angry I'd ever seen him, and he had "come around," so to speak, in less than twenty-four hours. Where Lord Montague was concerned, it had taken over a decade.
"I really thought he'd stay in Cambridge, receive a doctorate and go into pure research, but he stopped his studies right after he'd received his first post-graduate degree. Again, he disappeared without a trace, and I was frantic - I thought he'd use his education to do something foolish, though I admit I had no idea what. Imagine my surprise when just a few weeks later, Petunia showed up at my doorstep in London to ask me whether I knew that my son had just applied for a position at her school, and if so, why was he using a false name?" He laughs again.
"Professor Potsdam?" I ask, surprised.
"Yes, that was how we came to know each other. I have a great deal of respect for her; she's quite fierce in her way. Hieronymous could outfox the entire admissions board of the best magical university in North America, but in the end, she's the one who outfoxed him. I ended up telling her the whole story, as I've just told you, and she decided to accept his job application on the condition that he go back to using his real name. He eventually capitulated, as you've probably guessed. The university wasn't too happy when they were informed of his subterfuge of course, but I was able to smooth things over and allow him to keep his degrees."
Yes, I'm sure he did - by throwing a mountain of money at the problem. "So the university got a shiny new lab?" I guess.
"More like a shiny new campus," Lord Montague says with a wink, and I can't tell whether he's joking or serious.
"So that's how he became a teacher," I say. It's a strange story, and not a very nice one. I'm not sure how much better off I am knowing Professor Grabiner's history than I was not knowing it.
"Yes, though I've never been clear on what his motivation was to start teaching in the first place. I'd been trying to convince him to at least write to me for years before fate eventually intervened." He gives a self-deprecating little wave.
"That's a long time for someone to come around," I venture. It's an extreme reason too, though I'm not going to say so in front of Lord Montague, who doesn't need any more reminders that he's dying.
"I'm afraid so," he says. "We didn't exactly leave things on good terms."
"But like you said, he usually comes around. I don't see what could have made him stay away so long. Was it-" I hesitate, but I've gone too far to stop now. "Was it because you saved him instead of her?"
"Oh, no. No," Lord Montague says with a sigh. "We never really discussed it, but from the state of her when I got there, I think that even he has to concede that there was nothing I could do."
"Then was there something that set him off?"
"It might just be another speculation of mine, but I do tend to think it was the last argument we had before he finally told me that he'd go back to school for the year. It was the worst we'd ever had, and in retrospect I was rather foolish to think he'd gotten over it as quickly as he pretended to."
"So what was it about?"
"Well..." he says, then looks away for a long moment before concluding. "I had the audacity to tell him that it wasn't his fault."