When I get back to my room, I huddle under the bedcovers, knees drawn to my chin, shaking a little. I think that I'll never get to sleep now, but the next thing I know there's a knock on my door, and light shining through the green curtains onto my face.
"Eliza!" Professor Potsdam opens the door and pokes her head in. "Did you have a good rest?"
I don't answer, but just stare at her with a look that feels like "bleary horror."
"Good!" she chirps. She hangs one of the garment bags in which I'd stored my work suits on the door of the little wardrobe in the corner. "Wear this, I tried to ensure it won't wrinkle during the drive."
"We're driving?" I ask. "Can't we just teleport there?"
"Don't be silly!" she says. "It's much too far without a lot of advanced preparation for us, and way above your skill level. Even if Hieronymous and I did teleport ourselves, we'd have to rest and recharge for several hours before we could fetch you. Time and space matter in magic, you know! Driving's much easier."
"Right," I say, although I really have no idea whether that's true. Iris Academy-at least the first year-is heavy on practice but light on theory, all part of Professor Potsdam's "learn through experience" method of education. As a consequence, I'm good at the few spells I've learned during my first year, but I don't have much of a grasp on what can and can't be done by advanced magicians.
"Anyway," Professor Potsdam continues, "get dressed and come down to the kitchen, Julie's making breakfast."
"I hope it's from Marks and Spencer," I mutter.
"What's that, dear?"
"Oh-nothing. Thanks, Professor."
Even though I had a bath last night, I decide a shower might wake me up. After drying myself, I step into the room (first making sure that there are no unexpected intruders) to inspect what Professor Potsdam left me in the garment bag. I unzip it, and see a very smart-looking heather grey summer skirt-suit, with a cropped jacket and a white silk blouse. I stroke the fabric, and sense that it was originally a plain grey skirt-suit and white button-down that I'd gotten for work, transfigured with a combination of blue and black magic. This suit looks much nicer than the original, and I find myself hoping that we'll get to learn how to transfigure clothes during school next year. I don't know anything about fashion, but it seems as though it would be a frugal way to get new work outfits.
I take my time dressing, then pack my pajamas and toiletry things into my suitcase and make the bed. The little antique clock reads eight forty-five, and my shower-induced alertness is beginning to wear off already. I'd like to crawl back under the covers and refuse to come out, but then I remember that I'd chosen to go-that he said I could help. Does he still want me along after last night? I guess there's only one way to find out. I make my way downstairs.
The doors in the hallway are all closed, but I can hear a clanking of pans, and Professor Potsdam's high voice, so I follow the sounds to the back of the house. I find a sunny, cozy kitchen, and Professor Potsdam munching on toast and jam, talking at Julie who's washing plates in the sink. Both of them call out "good morning!" as I enter the room.
"Well, let's see," Professor Potsdam says, so I spread out my arms and turn around once. She checks to ensure that Julie's back is turned, then runs her hands over the seams of the jacket and skirt. The clothes tighten a little in some places, and loosen in others; the end result is extremely comfortable. I smile my thanks, and sit down at the breakfast table.
The food isn't from Marks and Spencer; just a stack of hot toast, a plate of fruit and some eggs, all of which are apparently simple enough for Julie to cook herself. I enjoy the novelty of eating a soft boiled egg out of an egg-cup-another item I've only ever seen in period movies and television shows. I'd always wondered how people actually eat out of them, but after Julie shows me how to crack the top of the egg, slice off the tip, melt butter into the soft exposed yolk and eat the whole thing with a spoon, it seems pretty obvious. It's also delicious, especially paired with buttered toast.
As I'm finishing my breakfast, I hear the front door open, and Professor Grabiner's voice calling for Julie. She yells back, "coming, sir!" and drops the plate she's washing to rush into the foyer. I feel horribly nervous, and start clearing my plates to the sink, just to have something to do. "Don't bother dear, Julie will get it," Professor Potsdam says as she pours a third cup of tea, but I can't help myself. I clear the table and start washing up, grateful to have something to do with my hands.
Julie bustles back in after a few minutes. "Oh, madam, please don't bother, I'll get that!" she says in a panicky voice when she sees me at the sink. I relinquish the dishes to her, and turn to see Professor Grabiner enter the kitchen. He's wearing another unobtrusively expensive suit, and if he's hung over-or anything-from last night, he isn't showing it.
"Good morning," he says, looking at me. His tone is almost pleasant.
"Good morning, Hieronymous," says Professor Potsdam, drowning out my muttered greeting. "Everything go all right at the solicitor's?"
"As well as can be expected," he replies. "About fifteen minutes, I think, are you ready?"
"I think so," says Potsdam, and he vanishes back into the house.
There's a flurry of getting ready to go in which I don't participate. Most of it seems to be instructions from Professor Grabiner to Julie, who follows him around the house and "yes, sir"s him almost as eagerly as a first year student. Our driver hauls Professor Potsdam's huge collection of pink luggage down the stairs and into the car. I stay in the kitchen with Professor Potsdam, having a last cup of tea that I hope will wake me up enough to get through the drive.
"So, where's the house?" I ask.
"Northumberland, dear, near the border," she answers, stirring a hefty spoonful of sugar into her fourth cup of tea. "About a six hour drive, give or take."
"And you've been there?"
"Oh, my, no. I'm very excited to see it, though, a real private country house is so rare these days."
Something niggles at the back of my mind, and it's a minute before I seize it. "How did they know I was coming?"
"Yesterday Julie said that someone at the 'great house' called to say I was coming. How did they know?"
"I told them, of course, it wouldn't do to just spring you on the viscount without any prior warning, would it?"
"The way you sprang me on Professor Grabiner?"
"I couldn't resist a little joke; you saw his face, it was priceless!"
Priceless, right. But there's something really odd about this. If what Professor Grabiner told me was true, and he called Professor Potsdam to help him figure out whether his father is up to something, why would she be in touch with his father herself?
I remember the last day of term, when Professor Grabiner remarked that he thought his father was possibly bribing Professor Potsdam into pushing the two of us together, thinking that a marriage would encourage Professor Grabiner to take up his father's place in government-does that mean in Parliament? But if the place is hereditary, wouldn't his father have to die before Professor Grabiner could take his position? What would marriage have to do with that? And if Professor Grabiner suspected Professor Potsdam of conspiring with his father, why would she be the first person he contacted in order to determine his father's real purpose?
All of these questions set my head spinning, though it might just be that I'm over-caffeinated from the tea. It doesn't seem to help much with how tired I am, just makes me feel jittery.
I let the questions chase their tails in my head for a while, until Professor Potsdam stands and says "time to go." She bustles me into the hall and out the front door.
"My suitcase-" I start.
"Taken care of, taken care of," she says as we pass Julie, who gives us a quick wave.
"See you, Julie," I say.
Professor Potsdam shoves me in the direction of the back door of the black sedan. "I'll just let you two catch up," she says with a wink, and gets into the front seat next to the driver.
Professor Grabiner's in the back already, and I slide in next to him in the seat behind the driver. He gives me a bland glance, then turns to look out of his window. I look out of mine back to the house to see Julie give a final wave, and we drive off, unspooling out of London and into the north.
Professor Potsdam pulls a lacy pink shawl out of her bag, still on the needles, and busies herself with stitching into the pattern, needles clacking in rhythm as she starts chatting about nothing in particular. The yarn looks as though its colors are shifting from blush pink to pale blue and back again in a decidedly magical fashion, but the driver doesn't seem to notice, so I don't say anything about it.
In fact, I don't say anything at all, just stare alternately out of my window or at my hands in my lap. Professor Grabiner also remains silent, arms crossed and staring resolutely out of his window. I wish that I could read my book, but it seems rude to do that while Professor Potsdam is talking. I can't bring myself to answer her though, and she doesn't seem to require it. Still, her constant nattering about anything that comes into her head becomes grating after the first hour or so, and I find myself thinking that I'd rather be alone in silence with Professor Grabiner, despite all the awkwardness from last night, than listening to Professor Potsdam go on.
We drive for hours, and the landscape shifts from city to terrace-housed suburb, from suburb to dotting rural houses, and from houses to stretches of farmland. We stop for lunch in a village with interestingly ancient buildings, sitting out of doors at a small cafe that serves us not-very-good sandwiches and strong tea. Professor Grabiner spends most of the time out of the car fiddling with his mobile, taking no more than a bite of one sandwich, putting it down again, and wandering off to phone someone. Professor Potsdam munches her sandwiches, complaining about Professor Grabiner's rudeness between bites. I stare at the old houses, at the dark timber jutting out from their stone walls, wondering when did that first get built and who lived there? The houses present blank faces, dark windows for eyes and unmoving doors for mouths. I let myself be herded back into the car for the last leg of the drive.
It's another hour of Professor Potsdam's solo knitting and chatter before I notice Professor Grabiner beside me muttering under his breath and making gestures with his fingers toward the driver. It looks like a complicated spell, as it takes him a full minute to complete before I feel the telltale rush of magic released into the air.
It doesn't seem as though anything significant has happened until Professor Grabiner addresses the driver. "Mr. Davies, would you pull over, please?"
The driver-Mr. Davies, I guess-doesn't react at all, but continues down the highway. Apparently, he can't hear us. I glare at the back of Professor Potsdam's head-she could have done that last night in the car. But then I think that she was probably withholding information deliberately-though whether it was only to keep me in the dark about our purpose, or to force me to get information from Professor Grabiner in keeping with her ambition to make us a "real couple," I can't say.
"Forms of address," Professor Grabiner says, using the tone of voice that can quiet a classroom of unruly young magicians in about two seconds flat. "My father is the 16th Viscount Montague, and is referred to by his title-Montague-as opposed to his surname. In conversation, you're to address my father as 'Lord Montague,' not as 'Viscount Montague,' as the latter is reserved for formal correspondence. That is, unless he asks you to call him something else when I introduce him to you, in which case you're to comply with his request. Do you follow?"
"Oh-yes," I say, my palms already itching for a pen and paper with which to take notes. But that wouldn't do any good, as this is clearly all information I'll need to keep in my head for when we arrive at the house.
"As for the two of us, we're not considered 'titled,' and so will be referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Grabiner, save for formal correspondence, which you don't have to worry about for our purposes this week."
I'm a little disappointed at this, as it would be pretty grand to be called "Lady Grabiner" or "Lady Montague," but I don't say anything.
"Introductions," he continues. "When I present him to you-never the other way around, incidentally-you're to extend your hand to shake his first. You can nod your head, but don't curtsy; you're not meeting the Queen."
I have no idea how to curtsy anyway, so that's a relief.
"As you're shaking hands, say 'how do you do,' never 'pleased to meet you.' And it's a salutation, not a question, so when he responds in kind, don't answer. After that, he's likely to talk your ear off, particularly if he feels that he can show off to you-which he will. I don't have any concerns about your ability to smile, nod, and say a polite word or two, so," he waves his hand at me, vaguely, "have at it."
"Yes, sir," I respond.
"Perfect. Importantly, don't swan about like you're an actress in a Regency film; he knows you're a sixteen-year-old American-"
"I was seventeen yesterday!" I interject.
"Oh. Fantastic. You were seventeen yesterday, what an enormous difference," he says, his voice caustic with sarcasm.
"You could at least wish her a happy birthday," remarks Professor Potsdam, who's still knitting.
He responds only by giving me such an exasperated look that I can't help but break into laughter. This, strangely, causes the nervous knot that had been in my stomach through the entire drive to dissolve.
Professor Grabiner waits for me to stop laughing, a smirk on his face. "If I may continue?"
"You may proceed, sir," I say with a dignified wave, channelling my best British-actress-in-a-Regency-film demeanor. He rolls his eyes at me, and I grin.
"As I was saying, just because your name is Eliza doesn't mean I'm trying to pass you off as a Hungarian princess, so please be yourself. But polite. Do you follow?"
"Yes, sir," I say, trying and failing to drop my smile.
"Now, table manners," he continues. "My father is perverse enough to torture us with a formal dinner at least once. Fortunately he eschews evening dress while in the country in favor of dinner jackets." He glances up and sees my befuddled look. "Colloquially, he eschews white tie in favor of black tie. And incidentally, if the words 'tuxedo' or, God forbid, 'tux' escape your mouth, I shall divorce you immediately and damn the consequences."
"Honestly, Hieronymous," scolds Professor Potsdam from the front seat, but I'm giggling again.
"Use your utensils in the continental style: fork held in the left hand, tongs pointing down, knife in the right hand. Fork in the right hand only if you're not using the knife for the entire course. Service with a full staff-and I think there will be a full staff-is à la Russe, meaning courses. A server comes around with a tray, on your left, and you serve yourself from the tray with the implements provided-never with your own utensils. Films tend to make cutlery look more intimidating than it actually is, but the general rule is to move from the outside in, and if you're confused, just watch me. Do not thank the staff, and do not talk about the food. Do you follow?"
"Um. Yes. Sir." He makes dinner sound like an ordeal, and I have a sudden vision of the gauche seventeen-year-old American upsetting a tray all over the table through a clumsy attempt to serve herself a-what, a salad in aspic? The nervous knot in my stomach is beginning to resurface.
"And you'd better wear this; it's not really customary in the magical community, but as we're dealing with a 'mixed crowd'..." I sense the dripping contempt again in the last two words; he must mean the "charlatans" he was discussing last night. "I don't want you to have to deal with any personal remarks or questions." He tosses a small box at me, which I manage to catch in one hand.
It's a ring box, and he looks out of his window again as I open it. The ring inside is unlike anything I could have expected, though. The band looks to be silver, but the top is black, a raised design in the shape of a snake, coiled around itself and eating its own tail. The lines between the snake scales shine silver. The snake encircles a dark red stone, perfectly round, about a quarter of an inch in diameter. The stone is strange; it almost seems to exude its own light, though that's probably due to the bright summer sun streaming through the windows.
"Well, let's see it," says Professor Potsdam, craning her head around. I hand her the box. "Ooooh," she says. "Oxidized silver and carbuncle-Otherworld carbuncle?"
"I think so," says Professor Grabiner. "It was a great-great aunt's. Or great-great-great-aunt's, can't remember which. I found it in a safe deposit box at the solicitor's. I don't think anyone's been through some of those things for a hundred years."
Professor Potsdam holds the box back in Professor Grabiner's direction, but when he doesn't take it, I do. Professor Potsdam looks back as I take the ring out of the box to put it onto my left ring finger.
"Hieronymous, you could make an effort," she chides, wanting him to make the romantic gesture of sliding it onto my finger himself, I suppose. I've already put it on, but to my irritation, it's way too big for my narrow fingers. Professor Grabiner tilts his head toward me, catching my eye, and raises his eyebrows. I glance towards Professor Potsdam, who is looking away again, then make a face and hold up my hand to show Professor Grabiner the comically huge ring hanging on my finger. He extends one hand to me, and I hesitate before I put my left hand, palm up, in his right. He runs his other index finger from the center of my palm to the tip of my ring finger, and I feel the ring tighten until it feels comfortable. He twitches his mouth into what might be a smile and lets me go. I turn back to my window and watch the hillsides pass by for the remainder of the drive, hand still tingling where he'd touched it.