Lord Montague squeezes my hands, then with a deft movement spins me to his side and tucks one of my arms into his. "I hope you don't mind, Hieronymous, but I'm going to have to keep her for a bit," he says. Professor Grabiner doesn't look happy about this, but then again, he hasn't looked happy since the day I first set eyes on him. I have time to to give him one more glare before Lord Montague sweeps me further into the room.
"You're an angel to be so patient with him," he says, "but I thought I'd give you a little break. Would you please allow me to present my guests?"
"Ah," I start, suddenly terrified. "I-I'd be delighted," I stammer. I have no idea whether that's the right thing to say, but he seems pleased, and starts steering me toward a set of people who are chatting and sipping drinks.
He introduces me around the room, and as I count, there are about twelve guests, all of whom are dressed in striking and unusual clothing, and none of whom are younger than sixty. I continue responding to all introductions with a nod, a handshake, and a "how do you do," which seems to be correct. When Lord Montague introduces me as his daughter-in-law, their smiles tend to drop, and they look me over suspiciously. One woman, wearing a peacock-blue turban and caftan-like dress, gives me a sharp look and asks "How old did you say you were?"
"She didn't say, Mrs. Craft, how perceptive of you," says Lord Montague, and he whisks me to another cluster of guests. By the time he finishes the introductions, I've mixed up every single one of their names in my head, even the gentleman with the beard down to his stomach who's wearing a pince-nez and a kilt.
"Fortitude, dear, very admirable fortitude," Lord Montague says, patting me on the hand that's resting in the crook of his elbow. "Let's get you a drink."
"Oh, no thank you," I start, but he cuts me off.
"No, no no, you're old enough that it's perfectly legal here, as long as it's just wine with dinner," he says, and hands me a glass of champagne. The glass is an old fashioned coupe, like the ones in old movies. I take it without further argument. My parents have let me have a glass of wine at dinner once a month or so since I was fifteen (accompanied by a lecture on responsible drinking every time), and a glass of champagne at New Year's, so I have a good idea about how a glass of wine will affect me. Something tells me to be extra cautious here, so I decide to keep the glass until I can deposit it somewhere unobtrusive.
To be polite, though, I have to take a sip, and do. It's shockingly good, much better than anything I've had with my parents. Lord Montague registers my expression as I taste the wine, and chuckles. "Lovely, isn't it? I'm friends with the vintner, this is a rather special vintage." He leans in and lowers his voice. "Otherworld grapes, you know, the rest of these cretins don't have the slightest idea. This one is particularly fine; unofficially they call it 'silver and silk.' I can't drink it myself, doctor's orders, but to see a beautiful woman enjoy a fine glass of champagne..." He gives a wistful sigh. "That, I can enjoy."
"It's delicious, thank you," I say, not able to come up with anything else.
"Actually, I brought it out especially for you. I'm glad it's so fitting," he says, giving me a strange look and running a hand down the side of my silk dress. He's so quick that I barely register the movement, but it makes my hair stand on end-and not in a good way. I turn my head to glance around the room and hide my expression. Professor Grabiner and Professor Potsdam are both engaged in conversation with separate groups of guests, he looking reserved and aloof; she animated and eager. Some of the guests-particularly the woman in the turban and caftan-are still looking at me curiously.
"I wouldn't worry about them, dear," says Lord Montague, "They don't quite understand the way things are done in our community. My son tells me that you're very clever and mature for your age."
"Did he really say that?" I ask, suspiciously.
"No, of course he didn't," says Lord Montague, and I burst into a sudden spasm of laughter. Lord Montague chuckles with me. "Forgive me, but I couldn't resist poking a bit of fun at him. Actually I know very little about you, I'm quite curious. Though I have to assume that cleverness and a relative amount of maturity are a given, considering he chose to marry you in the first place."
He must not know about the manus, then. I wonder whether I should tell him the truth, but decide that if Professor Grabiner doesn't trust his father to tell the story himself, I won't overstep his decision.
"I wouldn't say that," I say. "We were just thrown together a bit." At least that's technically true. As for cleverness and maturity, well, what was it that my husband called me on our wedding day? Imbecile, I think. Not terribly flattering.
"And-if you don't mind me asking a personal question-have you decided whether to renew the contract next year?"
"To renew-?" I start, confused.
He chuckles again. "I keep forgetting you're wildseed. Yes, magical marriages are intended only to last for a year and a day unless they're renewed."
"Oh, yes, I know that," I say, though I hadn't realized that the year and a day rule applied to all magical marriages.
"Yes, it's a tradition that's much more logical than the non-magical custom of marriage for life," he continues. "A bit of an outmoded concept, the idea of an entire lifetime of happiness resting on only one person, wouldn't you say?"
He sounds so like Professor Grabiner at that point, I almost forget who I'm talking to.
"But I'm surprised he didn't explain all this to you when you agreed to marry him," Lord Montague says.
"We had other things to think about," I say glumly, remembering the demon that had me by the throat before Professor Potsdam intervened, and Professor Grabiner's rage that the marriage would be necessary to save me from getting eaten.
"Oh! Say no more." He lifts his eyebrows at me, and I feel my face go hot. That certainly isn't what I meant, and it doesn't seem fair for him to make that kind of assumption. He smiles and pinches the tip of my chin with a thumb and forefinger. "You blush about fourteen shades of pink; it's very charming. Youth, beauty and enthusiasm. My son is very lucky." His voice takes a rather libidinous tone, and I frantically cast about for a way to change the subject.
"I'm very curious about your family as well, Lord Montague, Hieronymous hasn't told me much about your-ah-history."
"Oh please call me Aloysius, Lord Montague sounds so stuffy coming from such a sweet young lady."
"Aloysius, then." It's nearly as much of a mouthful as Hieronymous.
"Let's take a turn," he says. I take his arm again, and he leads me on a circuit around the room, this time avoiding the clusters of conversationalists. The walls, I realize, are lined with ancient-looking portraits of gentlemen and ladies, in various modes of dress. Possibly they're family portraits, I think, and sure enough, we stop before a large one that shows a man in Elizabethan garb who shares the telltale signs of Grabiner-hood-the hawk nose, hooded eyes, and jet black hair.
"Bartholomew Grabiner, first Viscount Montague," says Lord Montague, looking up at the portrait. "Received his title for his assistance to her majesty Queen Elizabeth in 1601. A small matter relating to the second Earl of Essex." He gives me a look as though it's supposed to mean something, but I haven't the least idea what.
We walk on. "Actually, we can trace our lineage back to the Battle of Hastings, and a bit before; our surname was Grabnier"-he pronounces it Grahb-nyeh-"before it was Anglicised to Grabiner. Our family was in the service of Bishop Odo during and after the Norman invasion; that was a time when great personages kept magicians in their employ." His voice grows rather bitter at that last statement. "Now-at least with our family-it's more the other way around, a great improvement."
"I see," I say, with a nod. "And 1601-that's when your family took its position in Parliament?" I don't really care about Parliament, but Lord Montague seems to enjoy talking about history, and I'll stoop to anything to get off the subject of my marriage.
"Yes, not the most fortuitous century to take a position in government, I'll admit."
Again, he seems to expect me to know what he's talking about, and suddenly a flash of my last year of high school history comes to mind. "Because of the Civil War?" I ask.
"Precisely. We were royalists, of course, expelled from Parliament only a few decades after taking our position, and forced to go into hiding until the Restoration. Fortunately, going into hiding was a bit simpler for our family than it was for most, and we were able to perform certain little services that ensured our position once the monarchy was back in place."
"How interesting," I say, wondering why he won't say what "little services" his family performed for the various monarchs of England. I take another sip from my glass for lack of anything better to do, savoring the effervescent taste of the wine.
"Did you know," says Lord Montague, "a recent study showed that the carbonation that makes champagne so lovely to drink actually triggers pain receptors in the mouth and nasal cavity. Drinking it hurts, on some level, but that's why we like it. Deriving pleasure from pain..." he muses. "How very human, don't you think?"
"Yes," I say, not liking where this conversation is going. I glance around the room again, and notice that Professor Grabiner has extracted himself from the group of guests he'd been speaking to, and is leaning against the far wall, watching us. My eyes lock with his, and he must see something in my expression, because he crosses the room toward us.
"Bored her to death yet?" he asks Lord Montague as he approaches.
"Actually, she was just telling me how interesting I am," says Lord Montague with a smug grin.
"Yes, he was telling me a bit about your family's history," I say, wanting to keep on Lord Montague's good side for now. "It was very interesting. I wish we learned more history at school."
"As do I," Professor Grabiner says, voice sour. I remember him lamenting that Professor Potsdam didn't require first year students to study magical history at Iris Academy, though whether that means we'll study it in later years, I don't know.
"Don't look so gloomy, Hieronymous," says Lord Montague lightly. "I entertain so rarely these days, I thought you would enjoy it. Have you met the rest of my guests yet?" He turns back to me, and says "They've been trickling in all last week so Hieronymous has already met a few, but I was so glad that you could be here after everyone had arrived so you could meet them all at once."
"A fascinating assortment," says Professor Grabiner, making no effort to look less gloomy.
"He's such an awful snob," Lord Montague says to me, ignoring his son. "I hope you'll help me ensure that he behaves himself at dinner."
I grin at this. After the etiquette lecture I'd received about my own dinner behavior, the idea of me regulating Professor Grabiner is pretty ludicrous.
As though on cue, Mrs. Barton appears at a side door and announces that dinner is served. I start to move towards Professor Grabiner, but his father steps in the way. "Apologies my dear, but I can't let you go just yet." He gives me his arm, and I take it. "Hieronymous, you'll escort Dame Sutworth, won't you?" I turn to see a very small, very old lady in a glittering violet dress and rhinestone-studded glasses smile up at Professor Grabiner, and have to stifle a laugh. I slip my still-full champagne coupe onto a nearby table, a little sorry to see it go.
"Don't worry Eliza," Lord Montague tells me as he leads the way into the dining room. "It's generally customary to seat a married couple apart, but since it's your first year of marriage, you'll be seated together."
"That's very kind," I say.
Lord Montague chuckles a bit at this. "You'll find, my dear, that correctness and kindness often have very little to do with each other."
"Is that so? I was always under the impression that etiquette was invented to ensure kindness towards others. Although lately I'm beginning to think it's too regimented to be anything but a form of control."
All of this comes out of my mouth without my thinking much about it; just an extension of the train of thought I'd had while I'd been going down to dinner. But it's the longest sentence I've said since coming downstairs, and it's not exactly the smile-nod-polite-something Professor Grabiner had in mind. I glance at Lord Montague next to me, and get a shock. He's not smiling, he's scowling, and I'm struck by two things-that I must have made him furious, and that he and his son really do look exactly alike.
This only lasts for an instant before his face smooths back into a smile. Behind me, I hear a snort of laughter, and then Professor Grabiner faking a cough, and excusing himself to Dame Sutworth.
"An interesting perspective," is all Lord Montague says, and we enter the dining room.
It's a magnificent sight. The long white-clothed table is lit with four huge candelabra, the flickering light of the candles playing over the alarmingly large array of silver cutlery laid by each china plate. Lord Montague leads me to the head of the table, where he pulls the first chair on the left out for me to sit. He takes his place at the head, so that I'm on his right. Professor Grabiner, likewise, seats Dame Sutworth and takes his place on my right. The rest of the guests file in, including Professor Potsdam, who's on the arm of the bearded man in the kilt. He seems to be pointing his pince-nez down the front of her dress.
As soon as everyone is seated, one of the staff approaches me on the right, pouring white wine into one of the three glasses behind my table setting. Fortunately one of the other glasses already contains water. As the server moves down the table, another approaches me on the left and sets down a small plate with a minuscule bun topped with tiny black spheres. It looks as though I'm being served first, so I wait as the plates are handed out to the rest of the guests.
To pass the time, I look at the array of cutlery lined up beside my plate. There are several forks on my left, knives on my right, and a few spoons. There are also a few items that don't look as much like silverware as they do surgical implements. A cold terror rises in my chest, and I consider the wine for a moment before reaching for the water glass instead.
Once everyone is served, I examine the bun in front of me. Should there be a fork for this? I wonder, before watching most of the other guests simply pick it up with their fingers and put it, whole, into their mouths. This seems like a sensible way to eat the dish, so I follow suit. The taste is surprising-the bread is spongy, but it's filled with a tangy sort of cream, and the black bits on top are salty and savory. It must be caviar, which I've never had before, but which, on consideration, I like very much.
The dinner continues without much further incident. The next course is a small, handled bowl of clear soup which tastes as though someone liquified a lobster, followed by a slice of toasted brioche with liver mousse, and little bright red jellied spheres that burst into sweet liquid in my mouth. Everything is incredibly delicious. The servers silently place plates before us, and whisk them away again once emptied. The guests keep a low murmur of constant conversation. It all feels, for lack of a better word, civilized, though I smile to myself as I picture what must be a frantic scene in the kitchens.
Lord Montague commandeers my attention, mostly small talk about the weather, the nearby Northumberland National Park and how nice it is to live with such picturesque scenery, then a little about the house, when it was built, and when the Grabiners first took possession of it. He does most of the talking; I'm back to smile-nod-polite-word. From time to time I try to say something to Professor Grabiner on my right, but he's either deep in conversation with tiny Dame Sutworth, or Lord Montague says something to force my attention back to him.
As another set of plates are cleared, I notice that we're up to one of the surgical implement pairs of cutlery-a pair of spring-loaded tongs on my left, and a wickedly sharp two-pronged fork on my right. I don't have the slightest idea how one would go about eating with either of them, and I start to panic a little as the servers place a plate in front of me. On it are three glistening spiral shells, at the sight of which I sigh with relief.
When I'd gone to Paris with my parents two years ago, Dad had taken us to a boisterous cafe, and had ordered a huge tray of escargots that I'd flatly refused to eat. They'd been nestled in their shells, looking horribly slimy and just plain weird. It took half an hour of cajoling for Dad to get me to eat a single one, but once I'd eaten it I quickly devoured most of the tray. Dad had to order another one for everyone to get their fair share, and we'd ended the night laughing and licking our buttery fingers.
The use of the surgical tools suddenly seems obvious, and as soon as everyone is served I pick up one of the shells with the tongs, and use the two-pronged fork to pry the snail out of its shell and pop it into my mouth. It's hot, chewy, dripping with garlic butter, and even better than the ones I'd eaten in Paris-although I'd rather be back in the cafe with my parents. It's more fun eating snails with your hands and laughing than with special tongs and formal manners.
There's another snort of laughter on my right, quickly disguised by a coughing fit, and I glance up to see whether I've done something wrong after all. However, all of the other guests are eating their snails in exactly the same way, and by the time I look at Professor Grabiner, he's composed himself.
The courses and conversation continue. It's a lot of food, and I quickly feel full, so as the servers come around with trays, I try to serve myself the smallest portions I can. Fortunately I manage not to spill anything on either my dress or the tablecloth. As the courses wind down, I notice that Lord Montague has stopped eating altogether. He's served with the rest of us, but after a small bite or two he starts pushing his food around his plate, first toward him and then away, the way a little kid would if he wants his plate to look like he's eaten something. Like me, he ignores his wine in favor of water. I suppose since he's ill he's on a strict diet, but doesn't want to make his guests uncomfortable by not getting served. I try to pretend that I don't notice. By the time a shallow bowl is placed in front of me with a meringue floating in vanilla cream and dotted with raspberries, I can barely manage a bite or two myself (though I do eat all of the raspberries).
Lord Montague finally turns from me to the woman on his left-the one in the blue turban and caftan, who has been looking irritated at being ignored by our host for most of the dinner-so I'm able to speak to Professor Grabiner. He's looking more morose than ever, and I'm suddenly afraid I've done something gauche after all. "Everything all right?" I mutter at him.
He gives me an aggravated look. "She's deaf in her left ear," he says, jerking his head toward Dame Sutworth.
"What's that?" asks Dame Sutworth, loudly.
I go into a fit of giggles, and Professor Grabiner heaves a beleaguered sigh. He looks so miserable that I reach over to squeeze his hand under the table. To my surprise, he locks his fingers into mine, and squeezes back, which stops my laughter and makes my face go hot.
It's just then that Lord Montague stands. He doesn't need to call attention to himself by knocking a fork against his glass; the room quiets immediately. "My dear friends," he begins, his resonant voice carrying through the room without his having to raise it. "I'm so pleased to have all of you here tonight. I decided I'd leave the speaking until the end of dinner; you all know that if I'd started before, I'd keep you hungry until the wee hours."
The table of guests laugh appreciatively at this.
"It's an auspicious year for me, as well as for our little group," he continues. For example, I'm so happy to have a few new faces with us tonight. I hope you all had the chance to meet the lovely Ms. Potsdam, who's joining us from Vermont." He extends his arm to Professor Potsdam, who smiles broadly at everyone. "And if you don't mind a bit of personal news, I'm delighted to welcome my son Hieronymous, and his beautiful wife Eliza. I hope you'll join me in wishing them a very happy marriage." He lifts his glass, and the rest of the guests do the same.
Even without Professor Grabiner telling me so, I know better than to drink to myself, so I don't let go of his hand. I smile and hope that it doesn't look too forced while everyone else sips their wine.
"As I said," says Lord Montague, "it's an auspicious year that marks the tenth anniversary of our little gatherings, and I've been both pleased and proud to host you all each summer. But like all good things, this too must come to an end, and I regret to announce that this gathering will be our last."
The room goes very quiet as the rest of the guests look at one another.
"Yes, yes, I'm afraid it's true. But I hope that I can make our last gathering a very memorable one for you all." Lord Montague looks over the table full of guests, a kindly smile on his face. "But I won't keep you longer than is necessary to welcome you all to this tenth, and last, gathering of the British Society of Magicians."
And with a flick of his wrist, the white tablecloth before us erupts into a flock of pure white doves that flap to the ceiling, then disappear into a blizzard of feathers. I'm frozen in disbelief, but then feel Professor Grabiner's hand jerk in mine as he starts to stand. I don't think, I just dig my fingernails into the back of his hand as hard as I can. He sits back down, looking at me with an expression that's half baffled, half furious. "Don't," I hiss, leaning close to his ear. "Look at them!"
None of the guests seem shocked in the slightest. They're all grinning and applauding heartily as Lord Montague nods, acknowledging their praise. Even Professor Potsdam is clapping as though she had never seen a proper magic spell in her life.
The feathers are falling into my hair, onto my lap, onto the table on which the cloth has reappeared. A few sizzle into ashes as they hit the flames of the candelabra. None of the glasses or dishes on the table were disturbed by the birds-it was all an illusion. I twist my hand until Professor Grabiner lets it go, and start to applaud with the rest of the guests. But I can't bring myself to smile.