I spend the remaining time before dinner chatting with Mrs. Craft and watching Professor Grabiner out of the corner of one eye. He doesn't look in my direction once, but continues moving amongst the other guests being - for lack of a better description - polite. This continued solicitousness towards people he was insulting just this afternoon unnerves me so much that I finish my first glass of champagne and half of another before realizing that I've never drunk so much so quickly.
Noticing my distraction, Mrs. Craft starts telling me stories again, this time about Henry VIII's fourth and fifth wives. Both of us get rather giggly as she goes into the details of how Henry was deluded into thinking that Anne of Cleves was beautiful only to declare "I like her not" upon seeing her in person. Their six-month, unconsummated marriage ended in her receiving a large settlement and a place at court as the King's "beloved sister."
Catherine Howard's story begins as equally funny, with her marrying the king very young, and struggling to produce his desired son in the face of Henry's obesity and impotence. Mrs. Craft has me gasping for air when miming Catherine's attempts to explain to her conniving uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, the reason why the king was incapable of producing an heir. Her story doesn't end so happily - she's caught in an affair with a dashing young courtier, and beheaded. She didn't even have the benefit of a French headsman - and she was only nineteen.
I suddenly don't feel quite so giggly. I cast around the room again, surveying the guests, all of whom are chatting and laughing with each other. I don't see Professor Grabiner in the crowd, now. All of it makes me feel very separate, alone among so many people.
"What's wrong, then?" asks Mrs. Craft, the gaiety she'd expressed when telling her stories now subdued.
"Oh, I don't know," I say, suddenly embarrassed. "I guess I just haven't heard any stories today that don't end in either divorce or death. Well, one," I correct myself, remembering the end of Jane Eyre, "but it ended when the characters got married, it wasn't a real ending. I just -after you get married, aren't there any happy endings? That don't cut off just before the real work starts?"
Mrs. Craft stares at me evenly, then tosses back the rest of her wine. "Even happy endings eventually end in death," she says. "I suppose the only question is whether we get a French headsman, or only an axe."
That doesn't make me feel any better at all, and I feel my shoulders slump.
"Oh, don't look at me like that," says Mrs. Craft. "I was only being fatalistic. Death isn't a sad ending if you've had a good life, after all. Cheer up." I don't cheer up, so she pats my hand in a comforting way. "Why don't I read your cards tomorrow, would you like that? It might take a bit of uncertainty out of the future."
"Cards?" I ask, incredulous. I'd never really believed in card readings or divination, even after I discovered that magic was real. We'd never learned about fortune telling at school, and no one ever mentioned card readings, or tea leaves, or scrying, or anything like that.
"Of course! I told you, I'm a diviner. I'm very good at these things," she says, with a brilliant smile.
"Well..." I start, considering. I can only imagine what Professor Grabiner would say if he knew I'd accepted a card reading from one of the "charlatans," but then, in a way, his disdain makes the invitation all the more enticing. "All right. Tomorrow." And I smile once again.
Mrs. Barton appears to announce that dinner is served, and I hear a cough behind me. I turn to see Professor Grabiner standing behind the sofa where Mrs. Craft and I are sitting. I give a start - half in surprise, and half in guilt. I hadn't heard him approach us, and I hope he hadn't heard me agreeing to the card reading, which he'd probably consider the basest form of chicanery. I can't tell - he's keeping up his act of good humor, which is to say, he isn't scowling.
I stand to take his arm, but stumble a little - the sudden change from sitting to standing makes me dizzy. Professor Grabiner's around the sofa in a moment, and he catches my arm to steady me. Suddenly I'm reminded of that night in November, when I'd gotten wobbly from standing too long at the school fundraiser. He'd whisked me straight out of the mall and gotten me a cup of chai, which I'd never had before. Looking up at him as he straightens me, I feel a sudden pang, wishing he'd whisk me out of here, away from the crowd in this stuffy room. But that won't happen, I realize as I come rushing back to myself. And suddenly I feel my face go red; I'm embarrassed at being caught in an unguarded moment, and worse, a bit tipsy from the wine.
"All right?" Professor Grabiner mutters as I start pulling away from his grip.
"Fine," I say, doing my best to sound nonchalant. I take his arm and we walk toward the dining room, me trying to walk steadily. He narrows his eyes at me as we go, but I look away. I won't give him any further indication that I'm anything other than completely together.
When we enter the dining room, Professor Grabiner seats me at the foot of the table, and I watch, half relieved and half dismayed, as he takes his place at the head. I can barely see him behind the candelabra that are set on the table. At least I won't have to try to talk to him during dinner-but who will I be forced to make conversation with?
All my worrying comes to naught when Mrs. Craft, taking one glance at the barely-disguised fear on my face, stops Mr. Duncan from taking his place cat-a-corner on my right. "Thank you, I'll be taking that place," she says with an imperious air. Mr. Duncan doesn't complain - Mrs. Craft's seat provides him with a much better view of Professor Potsdam's chest across the table. Professor Potsdam is laughing loudly with the bald, round gentleman who'd teased Professor Grabiner and me the night before, and as I watch, Mr. Duncan starts to compete for her attention.
"Thanks," I hiss to Mrs. Craft as she takes her seat. She gives me a wink, and we begin the meal.
It's easier to talk with Mrs. Craft than it had been with Lord Montague the night before; she actually listens to what I have to say rather than talking over my monosyllabic responses. She even gives me cues as to when to turn and say a few polite words to the gentleman on my left - a small grey man with a trim goatee whose dinner conversation is as boring as any I've ever encountered. Mrs. Craft keeps me smiling even as the effects of the champagne I'd had wear off, leaving me with a low-grade headache.
The dinner tonight is, fortunately, not so formal or fancy as last night's. The gentlemen are in suits rather than tux - dinner jackets, dinner jackets - and there aren't as many courses of rich food. Still, I find myself looking forward to leaving the table. Even a so-called simple dinner in this house is such a production that I wonder whether I'll ever be hungry again.
"It is too bad about Lord Montague being absent, he does so love to preside over these little soirees," says Mrs. Craft with a glance at the head of the table where Professor Grabiner is sitting. "But then, I suppose he needs his rest for tomorrow."
"Why, what's tomorrow?" I ask around a mouthful of miniature beef Wellington. Mrs. Craft gives me a withering look until I swallow and say "excuse me."
"Didn't he tell you? Ah - well, no, I suppose he didn't," Mrs. Craft starts. "The third night of his gatherings is always reserved for the illusion he prepares for us each year."
"Wasn't it the doves?" I ask, wondering how Lord Montague could possibly top that feat while still maintaining the fiction that he was merely an illusionist rather than a real wizard.
"Child's play for a magician of his caliber," replies Mrs. Craft. "No, the third night is reserved for something truly spectacular. Last year he made a coffee table sprout with an entire forest of crystalline plants and flowers... and the year before that, he caused a lunar eclipse that was only visible within a mile radius. We drove out and checked," she says, with a wistful look in her eyes.
"So what's this year?" I ask.
"Oh, it's always a very great secret. I don't suppose your husband...?" she starts, with a rather avaricious look, then stops. "No, he wouldn't tell him, would he?"
I think it's safe to assume that if Lord Montague even hinted to his son that he was going to present a grand illusion to the guests, Professor Grabiner would still be throwing a fit. "No chance," I confirm, and finish my beef Wellington.
Mrs. Craft spends the rest of dinner going into detail about Lord Montague's past illusions, not stopping when we finish and move back to the portrait room. A few of the other guests chime in from time to time, reminding Mrs. Craft of this or that detail. Once we're seated on a sofa, we've gathered a crowd around us, all talking excitedly about the anticipated post-dinner illusion that will take place tomorrow night. I cast anxious glances at Professor Grabiner, but he's chatting with a smaller group of guests. He's maneuvered himself to the opposite end of the room, just as Lord Montague had yesterday. The thought that Professor Grabiner is avoiding me makes me feel despondent again, though I suppose it's better than having him learn about his father's plans.
Professor Grabiner stays calm throughout the post-dinner conversation, so I assume that whatever he's discussing, it's not his father's traditional display of magic. I only half-listen to the remainder of the anecdotes that my group tells me. All of their theories on how Lord Montague could possibly perform such illusions get irritating after the first few minutes. For all the sophisticated postulations they make, all their chatter makes me want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to just accept that it isn't trickery - it's magic, real magic. But of course, I stay silent, save for a remark or two to Mrs. Craft.
When everyone gets up to go to bed, I'm eager to follow along. The low-grade headache that started at dinner has increased in intensity, until all I want to do is lie down in a quiet, dark room - and never drink champagne ever again. I walk with Mrs. Craft up the stairs, trailing behind most of the other guests.
"It's really tiresome how they fetishize Lord Montague," sighs Mrs. Craft. Her indifference is almost convincing, but I'd seen the greed in her eyes when she'd first mentioned Lord Montague's talents.
"So why are you here then, if you're so different?" I ask.
Just like this morning, my rudeness seems only to encourage Mrs. Craft. She chuckles and says "I didn't say I was any different; just that it was tiresome." She sighs again. "It's the last year, you know. Our last chance to find out how he does it. I suppose we're all on tenterhooks. He's promised to reveal his secrets one of these days, and it seems it's now or never."
"He's... promised?" I venture. This is worse than I thought. If Lord Montague has really promised to reveal the magical world to this society - now, when he has nothing left to lose - what will that do to the magical community? Will the authorities, whoever they are, have to go after each and every one of the guests to perform a memory spell to wipe the event from their minds? Or - and this sends a chill right through me - will they go after Professor Grabiner as the next of kin to punish him for his father's transgressions?
Mrs. Craft sees the worried look on my face, and suddenly gives me a tight hug. "It's going to be all right, dear, I told you," she says. "We'll read your cards tomorrow and you'll see; it'll be just fine."
"Thanks," I say, as she lets go, says good night, and slips into her bedroom. It's kind of her to reassure me - she's been nothing but kind of me all day. I'm actually looking forward to getting my cards read, even if I don't much believe in fortune telling. I cross the hall and start ascending the staircase that leads to my bedroom.
"Had a nice night, then?" says a voice next to me as I enter the third floor hall-startling me so much that I barely keep from shrieking.
"You scared me," I say to Professor Grabiner as I try to catch my breath. "So are you, like, lurking outside my room now?
He makes a face. "That's a deplorable habit-"
"I know, you're not 'like' anything, I got the lecture from Professor Potsdam this afternoon," I say.
He shrugs. "Just wanted to see if you were all right. You looked... ah." He seems unwilling to continue.
"So I didn't fool anyone at dinner," I conclude.
"Just a little subdued. Mrs. Craft seemed to be in high spirits."
I grin in spite of myself. "I want to be exactly like her when I grow up."
"A widow?" He raises his eyebrows. "Should I be watching my tea for poison after all?"
I hadn't known Mrs. Craft was a widow. I guess her marriage ended in death instead of divorce. And suddenly I don't much feel like laughing at Professor Grabiner's joke. "What about you?" I ask in an attempt to change the subject. "You weren't actually enjoying yourself, were you?"
He rolls his eyes. "I thought you wanted me to - ah - help?" The contempt in his voice is much more familiar than his earlier display of courtesy, and I find myself relaxing.
"You did great," I admit. "Very gracious. If I hadn't known any better I'd've thought you were the one who invited them all in the first place."
He smirks. "What a compliment. I just wish it hadn't been necessary."
"Well maybe after tomorrow it'll be time for them to go," I suggest. I don't know whether Lord Montague's grand illusion is considered the end of the gathering or not, but it would make sense for people to start trickling out after the main attraction.
"What's tomorrow?" Professor Grabiner asks, and I remember that he doesn't know about Lord Montague's upcoming display of magic. For a moment, I panic.
"Oh - nothing much, Mrs. Craft just said that things start to wind down a bit after the third night," I lie. I can't risk telling him when I have no idea how he'll react. I wouldn't put it past him to storm off to confront his poor father, who needs to rest. It's late, after all.
My lie seems to have cheered Professor Grabiner up, however. "I've had about as much of this hosting that I can take - if those cretins clear out after tomorrow, perhaps I'll have a chance to get some real work done."
"Any word on the new estate plan?"
"Not yet. We'll see how it goes over tomorrow, I think."
"These things take time," he says with a small smile.
Even after the argument today, and after what had to have been a trying evening, he's still being kind to me - in the weird, sarcastic way he has - and that just makes me feel worse. I've basically been lying to him all day. Even so, I remind myself, there's no use in admitting everything to him now; it'll just set him off. So I settle for the next best thing.
"I'm - uh - sorry. About today. I shouldn't have snapped at you like that."
He shrugs again. "As it so happens, you were right. If I really am here to help my father I suppose I can't restrict myself to the legal side while ignoring the social."
"Despite your obvious legal expertise."
"Yes and lack of social expertise."
"You seem to do all right for yourself."
"When I have to."
I give a short huff of laughter then, not daring to laugh out loud in the night corridor. "Oh God, it was awful, wasn't it? I'm really sorry." I cover my mouth with both hands and shake with more silent laughter. It's all ludicrous - the fact that I'd tried to bully Professor Grabiner into entertaining a load of faux-magical dilettantes, and the fact that it had actually worked. "Did that bald guy try teasing you again?"
"I can't remember his name-the one who nudged you yesterday?"
"That's Mr. Musgrove - and no, he seemed to be on best behavior," says Professor Grabiner with a sardonic emphasis on the final phrase. "Though now I think about it, he mentioned something about tomorrow as well..." He trails off, and for a moment I feel a twinge of fear, but then his eyes focus again. "I wasn't paying attention, to be honest."
Relief surges through my system, though it's tinged with a hint of the sort of dread you feel on a Sunday evening when you haven't done your homework for Monday morning. He'll find out sooner or later, but I hope it doesn't have to be me who breaks the news.
"Well, thanks for coming up to check on me," I say. "It's nice of you. I really am sor-"
"Will you please stop apologizing?" he says. "It isn't particularly thrilling to be proven wrong, but in a year or two I'll have gotten over it."
"Right," I say, "sor-" then I cut myself off with one hand over my mouth and smile. "Okay."
"Okay," he echoes, over-enunciating the word. "Good night, then." And he turns to go.
"Oh - ah-" I start, no idea what to say, only aware that I'm not ready for him to go just yet. My headache has mysteriously vanished, and the thought of going back into my huge Impossible Room, alone and disappointed - again - is suddenly unbearable.
"Uh - I'm just not that tired yet. Do you want to come in?"
He frowns. "I don't think-"
"No-" I interrupt. "Not to - I mean, just - I mean-"
He puts his hands up in a supplicating gesture. "That wouldn't be-"
"But I-" I blurt.
He shakes his head. "Look-"
But I don't want to hear his explanation, so I do the only thing I can think of to shut him up, which is take two steps forward, stand on my toes, take his face in both hands and kiss him.
It's incredibly awkward. I still haven't gotten the hang of kissing, so I knock my teeth into his before repositioning myself and trying again. The flush of panic and exhilaration I feel upon acting crystallizes into terror that I've completely overstepped myself. His hands close around my shoulders, and he pushes me against the hallway wall, away from him. My arms fall to my sides, and we look at each other.
It's the dungeons for me after all, I think - only now it's his hands, not a spell, pinning me to the wall.
"I'm sor-" I start, but then he steps forward and stops me by covering my mouth with his.
It's not like the first time he'd kissed me at the end of term, the brief kiss that felt more like a greeting than an expression of physical affection. And it's not like the pass he'd made on Monday night, which felt like too much, too fast. He kisses me with only the faintest pressure, just barely brushing my lower lip with his tongue. But his fingers dig into my shoulders, giving me the courage to press myself forward, deepening the kiss. And, as the terror burns away to leave only the exhilaration of the moment behind, I think that maybe I've figured out what I wanted after all.
And that's when I hear someone next to me cough.