When I wake up, the sun is streaming straight into the windows, flooding the room with bright morning light. For a few minutes I lay in bed, wondering why this seems strange, until I remember the blazing sunset light from yesterday. The sunset through the windows in the afternoon and the sunrise in the morning-that's-
"Impossible!" I say, remembering the name of the room. Of course, it must be magic, made to let in the light at all hours of the day. I get up and open one of the windows, leaning out. It's a beautiful, perfectly clear summer morning, though I can't tell whether the landscape has changed-whether the room itself has shifted to face the light, or whether the light is being refracted into it by magic. I love having a room that's always bright and full of sun, and I decide to learn the spell as soon as I can for when I get my own place someday.
I spend a long time leaning in the windowsill, staring at the rugged heath below, before wondering how late it is-didn't Professor Potsdam say she'd wake me for breakfast? I turn to look back into the room and see the wardrobe opened, and my garment bag hanging from it. As I approach, I see there's a note pinned to the bag, written in, of all things, bright pink ink.
So sorry to break my promise, but I decided to attend an excursion at the last minute. I left this for you today. Don't worry, I'll see you at dinner, chick!
P.S. Breakfast is until ten, don't be late!
I glance around the room until I see a small clock on one of the bed stands-it's a little before nine. I take a shower, dry off and examine today's outfit. It's a buff-colored linen dress with a cream cardigan draped over it. There's even a strand of pearls looped around the hanger. It's a nice dress, but when I go into the dressing room to change, I can't help casting a longing glance at the jeans and t-shirt that I'd worn for the flight at the top of my suitcase.
After I'm dressed and as presentable as I can make myself, I venture out of the room. The house feels huge around me, a cavernous space in which I'm rattling like a small seed. I try to keep as quiet as possible as I descend the stairs to the main floor. A few wrong turns confound me at first, but I manage to make my way to the dining room where we'd had dinner. It's empty-save one young man standing by the doorway who I recognize as one of the servers from last night's dinner. He gives me a cheerful smile and says "Good morning, madam, please help yourself," and gestures to a row of covered trays that line a sideboard. This must be breakfast.
I smile and murmur a "thank you," trying not to feel self-conscious as I take a plate and review the morning's offering. I still feel full from last night's dinner, so I ignore the covered trays and serve myself a bit of cut fruit and a slice of toast, dithering over strawberry jam versus marmalade before deciding on the jam. I'm happy to discover a coffee urn in the corner-I'm getting a bit sick of tea. Sitting down at one of the places at the corner of the table, I contemplate whether it would be better to eat slowly and pretend I know exactly what I'm doing, or bolt my food and run back to my room. I decide on slowly, watching the server out of the corner of my eye. He still looks cheerful, even though he must be hideously bored.
I'm concentrating on spearing each little piece of fruit on my fork when I hear an imperious "Good morning," from the entrance to the dining room. I look up, a raspberry halfway from my plate to my mouth, and freeze. Although she's not wearing her distinctive turban, I recognize the square jaw and sharp eyes of the woman who had questioned me about my age last night. Today she's wearing an eggplant-colored dress, just as drapey as the peacock caftan from the night before, and her hair is dyed an eye-searing shade of orange. Her eyes fall on me.
"Ah, Mrs. Grabiner, good morning," she says, putting a clipped emphasis on the Mrs. Grabiner. "I see we've been left to our own devices." With that, she picks up a plate and begins to serve herself breakfast. I drop my raspberry and watch as she lifts silver tray-lids and inspects the contents. Once she's finished, she places her plate cat-a-corner from me, at the foot of the table, and sits, giving me what looks like a carnivorous smile.
"Now that barmy old git isn't here to interrupt, we can talk."
"Ah-" I start. "Good morning-ah-" What was her name, think, think, she asked how old I was and he said I didn't how perceptive of you Mrs- "Mrs. Craft," I say, relieved that I remembered that much. "I hope you had a pleasant night's rest."
"Pleasant enough," she snaps, and takes a sip of tea before turning her eyes back to me. "So, how old are you?"
I hesitate for a moment, wondering what I should say, but something in her expression tells me she'll know if I lie. "Seventeen."
"I thought so!" she says. "Mr. Duncan owes me a tenner; he said twenty."
I'm torn between feeling flattered that I can pass for twenty, and nervous that my age was of such concern to the rest of Lord Montague's guests that they'd been betting on it.
"What are you doing with that sour-faced son of his, then?"
"Uh, well, we're, uh, married?"
"Yes, I gathered that much when Lord Montague introduced you as his daughter-in-law," she says, dryly. "I mean, what happened to precipitate the marriage?"
"Um, well, it was a family thing, you know, arranged," I start, trying to feed her the same line I'd given to Julie, making my parents seem like a pair of American social climbers who'd jumped at the chance to link their family with wealthy English nobility. Mrs. Crafts eyes narrow as I stammer out my story; she's apparently less credulous than Julie.
"And they let you choose whether you wanted to marry him, did they?" she asks, after I finish.
"Ah-well-" again, I feel as though I'm being vivisected under Mrs. Craft's glare. "No, I guess I didn't have much of a choice." Mrs Craft raises her eyebrows at me, and I hurriedly blurt "But neither did he, so don't think he's some kind of a-" I can't bring myself to say any more, so I look at the fruit and half-eaten toast on my plate instead.
Mrs. Craft regards me in silence for a moment before asking "And how does he treat you?"
I give her a resentful glare. "He's a gentleman," I say, hoping she'll take the hint.
"Hm," Mrs. Craft grunts. "For an American, you have the noblesse oblige reserve, though you'll get over it eventually. I certainly have." She starts cutting into a salted fish on her plate. The conversation seems over, so I spear my raspberry again and eat it, letting the sour-sweet juice flood my mouth as I stare at my own plate.
"I suppose you think I'm a nosy old bat," Mrs. Craft starts again after washing down her bite of fish with a gulp of tea. "I was married at your age."
"Yes, this was just after the war, of course. And I'd say it was the worst decision I'd ever made if I'd actually had a choice in the matter."
"Oh." That doesn't sound like quite the same thing, as I'm sure she didn't have to worry about any demons threatening to suck out her soul before having to get married.
"Are you still in school?"
"Uh... yes?" I answer, wondering what prompted this change of subject.
"And is he going to let you stay in school?"
The likelihood of Professor Grabiner taking me out of school because we're married is about the same as the likelihood that he'll put on a fruit hat at dinner and dance the conga. "I think he'd divorce me if I dropped out."
For the first time this morning, Mrs. Craft smiles. "Well that's at least something," she says. "Let's see it."
"Your ring, come on, show me."
She's about as insistent as Professor Potsdam. I extend my left hand over the breakfast dishes, and she takes it, leaning close to examine the ring that Professor Grabiner had given me yesterday. "Mm," she says, "this is unusual."
"It's not exactly a Tiffany diamond," I agree.
"I should hope not," says Mrs. Craft with a look that shuts me up. "No originality in a Tiffany diamond. This is an ouroboros."
"Professor Potsdam said it was a carbuncle," I venture.
"Not the stone, you silly girl, the snake. Snake rings were terribly popular during the mid-nineteenth century, after Albert gave one to Victoria as an engagement ring, you know. That one was a snake coiled around itself, but this one-the snake eating its own tail-that's an ouroboros. A very ancient symbol indeed, representing self-containment and eternity."
Well that's ironic-a ring symbolizing eternity for our very temporary marriage.
"Most snake rings-most ouroboros rings, for that matter," continues Mrs. Craft, "have the snake wrapping around the finger, but this one, with the snake atop the finger and around the stone... very unusual; I've never seen anything like it. Or... well... hmm..." she trails off, thoughtful. "Where did he get this?"
"Found it in a safe deposit box."
"How thoughtful of him," she deadpans, and I have to smile. She lets my hand go, and I look at the ring again. It is pretty strange, and although it felt awkward on my finger at first, I seem to have gotten used to it by now-I hadn't even taken it off when I went to bed. The stone still looks as though it's generating its own very low-key glow, even though I'm not sitting in sunlight now. It hasn't done its intended job of keeping away personal remarks and questions, though Mrs. Craft seems like the type to ask personal questions even if I had been wearing the standard Tiffany diamond.
"I like it," I mutter.
"Well, that's what counts," says Mrs. Craft. "As I said, I'm a nosy old bat, so don't pay attention to what I say." She goes back to her fish, and I munch a corner of my toast.
"E-excuse me, Mrs. Grabiner?" a soft voice says from the entrance to the room. I look up and see the thin blond man in the wire-rimmed glasses who had been in Lord Montague's study yesterday-Mr. Lewis was his name, I think.
"Yes?" I say, rising.
"Oh, please sit down," says Mr. Lewis with a nervous smile. "Lord Montague asked me to convey his deepest apologies, but he's forced to keep your husband busy with some work today; he hopes you'll make yourself at home and forgive their absence."
"Thank you," I say. "Did Pro-Hieronymous say anything?"
"Ah-no, madam, my apologies." His voice is breathy and weak, but his accent is refined and charming. He seems so desperate for approval that I give him a smile and a "thank you," and let him back out of the room without another word.
"Yes, very thoughtful, your husband" remarks Mrs. Craft over her teacup. I glare at her, but she seems unperturbed.
"Where's everyone else?" I ask.
"They've gone on a day tour of Bamburgh and Durstanburgh castles," she replies.
"Why didn't you go?" I ask. I sound sullen and know it, but if she's going to ask personal questions, I'm not going to bother with politeness. My rudeness only seems to encourage her, however, as she grants me another smile.
"Oh, I've been all over those old ruins at Durstanburgh; as for Bamburgh it's now a hotel and film set." She speaks the last four words with the same distaste that Professor Grabiner reserves for-well-her, and the rest of his father's guests. She continues: "So, I've decided to take myself on a day tour of Yeavering Hall instead. It's much more interesting, not being open to the public."
"I thought this was the tenth anniversary of your...society," I say, "haven't you been all over the house as well?"
"Well," she says, looking a bit abashed. "Not properly."
I look askance at her as I finish the last of my toast. She, too, seems finished with her breakfast, and stands to walk toward the door. Once she reaches the exit to the dining room she looks back at me. "Well?" she says. "Coming?"
I scramble up and race after her, suddenly afraid that she'll leave me behind if I give her half a chance.
We start in the room where we'd had cocktails before and port after dinner last night, peering up at the artwork on the walls. One of the largest portraits is of a woman with an elaborately curled hairstyle, and a gown that shows off a large swath of creamy décolletage. She too looks like a Grabiner, with her large, hooked nose and hooded eyes. It seems as though the Grabiner features should be striking (if not conventionally handsome) on a man but overpowering on a woman. With this woman, at least, the opposite is true-she puts the men of the family to shame. She looks grand, imposing and almost regal, with a haughty insolence in her half-closed eyes. She'd turn the heads of anyone, male or female, when she walked into a room.
Mrs. Craft squints up at the portrait for a moment before saying "Ah!" and pointing up. I follow her finger to the lower part of the portrait, and see what she means. It's not clear, but if I squint, it looks like the woman is wearing the ring-my orouboros ring- on the third finger of her right hand.
"I thought I'd seen it before," says Mrs. Craft, triumphant. "You can't tell it's a snake from the painting, but the round red stone is quite distinctive."
I frown at the portrait. It seems wrong, somehow, for me to be wearing this grand lady's grand ring. I feel much too small for it, for her, for all if it-the house, the wealthy guests, and most of all the family I've been forced to marry into.
"Isolde Grabiner," Mrs. Craft reads from a folder of papers that she's produced from somewhere. "Born 1817, died 1883. Elder sister to the 13th viscount Montague; never married, no issue." She flaps her folder shut. "I've been researching the family for months, but that's all I could find about her; you'd think with such a prominent family there would be more of a record."
I have a pretty good idea as to why there isn't more of a record, at least in the non-magical world, but I'm not about to say it. "Maybe she was scandalous," I offer, instead. "She looks scandalous."
"Possible," says Mrs. Craft, but she doesn't sound convinced. She turns her eyes back to me, then. "No use moping about like that, let's go," she says, and steers me to another painting-this time, the large portrait of Bartholomew Grabiner that I'd looked at with Lord Montague the night before.
"Lord Montague told me about him," I say, "he got made a viscount by Elizabeth the First because of..." I try to remember. "The second Earl of Essex?"
"Oh, Robert Devereux! One of my favorites," she says. "The portraits show him with a scraggly beard, but I always picture him as Errol Flynn." Her eyes get rather misty. "There's a marvelous film, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with Errol Flynn and Bette Davis... He was Queen Elizabeth's lover, you know, near the end of her life. Robert Devereux, not Errol Flynn."
"I thought she was supposed to be the virgin queen," I say.
"Hah! Only for public relations purposes. No, no, she was older, her late sixties, and he was in his early thirties, and he was a very great favorite of hers. But it all went wrong, you see; her councillors were jealous of his influence and poisoned her against him, and he was a failure in his post as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was jailed, his livelihood taken away, and when he marched on London to force an audience with the Queen, he was branded as a traitor.
"Now the film has a brilliant scene, where the Queen gives Essex a ring, and tells him that no matter what he's done, all he needs to do is send her the ring, and she'll forgive him. But when he's convicted as a traitor, she waits for him to send her the ring. Finally she can't wait any more, and on the date of his execution, summons him to demand that he beg her forgiveness. But he refuses! And marches to his death, saying 'they could search the world from end to end, and never find a pair of lovers such as we!'"
Her voice rings through the room as she says the line, filling it with her rich accent, and I applaud, transported. She gives a little bow, pleased and slightly embarrassed. "Shall we continue? There's a lot of house to get through before lunch."