* * *


An hour later, I had finished copying one stack of papers and pulled the second stack towards me. I took a break to stretch my neck and rest my hand. As I bent my wrists to stretch them, my eyes drifted to the street, and I sat straight up in shock.

He was there, outside the window. The stranger from the bridge. I looked down at once. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe he had business in this part of town. Surely he wouldn’t have followed me; he had no reason to.

I gave him plenty of time to get away, pretending to write so he wouldn’t notice me. When I was certain he would be gone, I looked up. He was standing by the desk, waiting. “Checks go in the debt column until the goods ship.”

I looked over my shoulder, but Mr. Fitzsimmons was behind his paper, and the paper was sagging down around his head, blowing up and down with his heavy breathing. Convinced he wouldn’t hear me, I turned to the stranger. “You followed me! How dare you. . .”

He cut me off. “How do you know I didn’t come here as a client?”

“What do we do then? Go on, request a service.”

The infuriating man actually smiled. “All right, you caught me out.” He leaned against the desk, resting one thigh over the corner by the abandoned letters. “Will you hear me out?”

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to or not, so I just glared at him.

He took that as permission to go on. “I have come to offer you a job.”

I didn’t want to hear what it was. I couldn’t imagine him offering me any job that I would take. “I’m not interested.”

“You don’t even want to hear my proposal?”

“I don’t want any proposals from you.”

“That’s a pity, really. I was going to suggest you for a position with my friend, Lord Fairfax. He’s been looking for an assistant.”

I looked up in spite of myself. The wizard Lord Fairfax was not as well known as the flashier magic users, but his name was known, even outside of magic circles, and I liked him better for his reclusiveness.

“But if you’re not interested.” The stranger shrugged and stood up.

I knew he was expecting me to call him back, to back down myself, but he couldn’t have dreamed up a worse way to get my cooperation.

The stranger stopped in the doorway. “I do wish you would re-consider and at least let me describe it to you. You have a good strong heart. I do think you would be a great help to him.” And then he walked out the door.

I stared at the empty threshold. “All right, he’s better than I thought.” If the stranger had wanted to pique my interest, he’d certainly found the right way.

Mr. Fitzsimmons snored, and I remembered my current job. I went back to copying numbers into the ledgers, putting the checks for unfinished reports in the debt column, and wondering what about me had made the stranger think I’d be good for Lord Fairfax.


Chapter 2

 

By the end of the day, the ledgers were done as well as I was capable of doing them. The combination of near complete confusion and mindless copying left my mind free, and it had spent the afternoon coming up with every possible thing the stranger had not told me about the magic and the magic user who had been behind it, and filled the time left between ideas worrying about what I’d come up with. I did not give his job offer serious thought.

By the time I had cleaned up my desk and left the ledgers in Mr. Fitzsimmons's office, I had a list of ways I could be attacked magically, and had rejected every way I could think of to defend myself. By the time I was out the door and on the street, I was getting so paranoid, I almost considered taking the roundabout way home, possibly through the fruit market two streets over, where there were crowds, and I could slip out another exit. But I knew I was being foolish and marched right down Change Street towards home. I fiddled with coins in my pocket, not letting myself turn to look behind me until I was at the corner where Change Street met Dark Street, and I had to look to cross. There was no one behind me but a red haired delivery boy in a yellow coat. I jogged across the street and continued on.

Maybe the stranger had been exactly what he had seemed, a gad-about-town who hid his intelligence since he didn’t need it. But what could a gad-about have done to earn the wrath of a magic-user? He didn’t seem the type to get involved in diplomacy, which was the normal provenance of sorcerers, or a spy, which was a close second. Maybe the magic-user had been hired by someone else, someone who held a gambling debt, or a disgruntled husband, or someone involved in some depravity I couldn’t imagine. The only problem with that theory was cost. Magic-users charged by their power as much as by the spell, and a spell that covered as much space as that one had would have cost a pretty penny. He would have had to anger someone very rich very badly to get that kind of a spell thrown at him.

This took me to the corner of Second Street, and I let myself have another look before turning the corner. No one but the red-haired boy in his yellow coat.

So if he wasn’t what he pretended to be, what was he? That was the question. I was tending towards spy, that being the profession that would most need someone who could disguise what he really was, but it still didn’t make sense. Why would he have been here? And how would he have gotten mixed up with Lord Fairfax? Maybe Lord Fairfax was a spy too. But could he invite me to work for a wizard spy without checking out my past? Maybe he was spying on Lord Fairfax.

It was getting too confusing, and I was at my doorstep. Well, the doorstep of the house I was staying in; my brother-in-law would have corrected me immediately if I tried to make any claim on the house.

As I fumbled through my bag for my keys, I let myself have one more look around. No one but the delivery boy loitering on the corner. I wondered if he was lost, but he saw me looking at him and hurried down the street.

I pulled my keys out as he ran past me, bumping my leg with the empty bag he had slung over his shoulder. I took the steps two at a time and had the door open before that struck me as strange. There was no place at the end of this street he could be returning to with an empty bag. It only would have made sense for him to travel this way if he had left a shop in the square to bring a delivery here.

And that was ridiculous. Who would have sent someone to spy on me? The stranger was probably exactly what he seemed to be, had probably slept with some powerful wizard’s wife and brought down the wrath of a husband who could do his own spell casting, and I was definitely paranoid. Or so I told myself as I put my key in the lock.


I walked into the house and dropped my keys by the door. At least there were no twisting conversations to muddle through here, no hidden agendas to sort out. If my sister and brother-in-law wanted something, they came right out with it.

I was halfway to the stairs when Wilfred came in. He didn’t acknowledge me until he brushed past. “Faye around? No matter, get me a brandy and the paper, there’s a good girl. I’ve been at the office all day, and I need a rest.” And he disappeared into his study, where the brandy was kept on a table by the window, leaving the paper where it was on the floor by the front door.

“Well, hurry up.”

I kept my tongue plastered to the roof of my mouth. It stopped both my jaw from dropping and me from saying anything stupid like, “I just got in too; how about bringing me a brandy?” Instead, I ignored him and started upstairs to my room. It never failed to amaze me that my sister, who shared a name with the otherworldly practitioners of magic that kept the worlds in balance, could have ended up with such an oaf. Then Faye came out of the sitting room, said, “You did not wear that hat in public, did you?” and disappeared into the study before I could defend my hat. Maybe twisted conversations weren’t so bad after all.


Wilfred must have gotten his brandy, since he was in a good mood when I saw him sitting at the dinner table with his newspaper spread out in front of him. Clearly, the news was unusually interesting, since he did not fold up the paper and hide it under his seat until the boys were brought into the room by Agnes, their nanny. She disappeared as fast as she could, to avoid talking to Wilfred, I was sure, and the discussion of whatever he had decided she was doing wrong today. Wilfred Jr. sat next to his father, and his younger brother, Fayton, sat next to Faye at the other end. Which is not to say they were actually seated near their parents. The table was long enough to seat four on each side, so the boys slid towards the center, where they could whisper and gesture under the table. I sat across from Fayton, with the long west windows across from me and my back to the fire that had just been built up to keep Wilfred warm..

When the boys were seated, Wilfred nodded for the first course to be brought and served. Faye tasted her tomato soup first. “Tell Cook the boys should not have so much salt next time. And how was your day, Wilfred?”

“Important work, too much of it. Got a new assistant, but he’s no better than the last.”

Faye waited for him to go on, then, when he didn’t, asked, “Boys, what did you do in school?”

Wilfred Jr. passed something under the table to Fayton, and I thought I heard a faint croaking sound. “Learned stuff.”

“Excellent, darling. And Fayton?”

“I subtracted numbers.”

“Very good, dear. Anything interesting in the papers, Wilfred?”

I sipped my soup quietly and half listened as Wilfred warmed to his subject. “Be glad I’m not a farmer, Faye, crop blight in the southern provinces, wiping out whole fields. No planning there, none at all. If I were a farmer, I’d have planned by—-” he covered not knowing what he’d do with a mouthful of soup. “Not much taste here, is there? Tell Cook she needs to salt this better. Take it away.”

Maggie, the maid, rolled her eyes at me. I smiled in sympathy.


* * *


As I left the house the next morning, I looked down the street in both directions, half-expecting to see the delivery boy again. He wasn’t there, of course, and I spent the walk to Change Street telling myself how foolish I was being. As I reached the corner of Dark Street, I looked around before crossing, and froze.

He was there, red hair, yellow coat and all. I was tempted to duck into the nearest shop and see if he went past me, and tempted to try and bump into his bag and see if it was empty. The logical part of my brain would not let me do either, but forced me to cross the street and continue on to Fitzsimmons and Company.

As I fumbled with my keys, I watched the boy’s reflection in the glass of the door. When he was behind me, I dropped the keys and swooped down to pick them up in one motion, hitting his bag with my shoulder. I felt something rattle around inside, although I couldn’t tell what it was. Not that I would have gone to all the shops in the square that sold whatever it was and questioned them about him, not really. But it would have been nice to know I had the option. It seemed too much to go to every shop that sold something roughly rectangular, hard, rattly when bumped, and weighing around three pounds.

I unlocked the door and went in to face the stack of unwritten letters on my desk. I was not surprised to find that Mr. Fitzsimmons had not left the text of the letters he wanted copied, so I couldn’t start on them until he arrived. I spent the first hour of my morning filing papers, sorting mail, and filling in what I could on the newly arrived forms, ready for Mr. Fitzsimmons to finish, all of which could have been done in half the time even if I went slowly, but gave me something to do while I waited.

When I’d finished, there was still no sign of Mr. Fitzsimmons. I pulled a stack of blank paper towards me and started copying the addresses from the envelopes onto the header of the page. At least there would be one less thing for me to do when the time came to copy the actual letters.

Mr. Fitzsimmons came in an hour and a half after I had, his book tucked under his arm. “Good morning, Miss Wrenford. Did you finish those letters to the clients?”

“Not yet, sir; I was waiting for the notes on what you wanted me to say.”

“Ah, yes. Well, you need manage your time better. Should have been done yesterday. Definitely need better time management.” And he went back to his office.

I assumed he would take the hint and come out in a few minutes with the notes for the letters, but I stared at the door for a good five minutes, and he didn’t emerge. I shifted papers on my desk, re-stacked the envelopes, got my pens ready, and still had nothing to do with any of it. I considered putting the salutations on the letters;, surely he couldn’t want something other than “Dear Mr....” or “Dear Ms....” to start., But then again he had the habit of addressing people by their first name, so I decided against risking it and stamped the envelopes instead.

When that was done, I was out of things I could do myself, so I decided I’d put it off long enough and tapped on Mr. Fitzsimmons's door. He didn’t answer, so I went right in. Mr. Fitzsimmons was deep in his little book. He didn’t notice me until I said, “Excuse me?”

“Janet, you know better than to disturb me when I’m working.”

Working on what, I thought, but said, “I was hoping you had the notes for the letters so I could get to work myself.”

“Yes, the notes. You need those, don’t you? Just a moment.”

I stood in the door and did not leave, even though I had the feeling he wanted me to. Since I was standing there, he had to pull out the papers and look them over. I could see from where I was standing that there weren’t more than five words written on them, and I stayed put for nearly half an hour while he wrote what he wanted for each group of clients. Several times he looked up, clearly hoping I had left the room so he could get back to his book, but I knew if the letters needed to get done, then I had to stay until I had what I needed to finish.

Mr. Fitzsimmons finally handed over two sheets of paper. “There are some notes, just clean them up, and remember, those should have gone out yesterday.”

So there would be no trip to old town for me over lunch today. I sat at my desk and turned the notes into the model letters I was supposed to have been given, then brought them in to Mr. Fitzsimmons for approval, which I got along with yet another reminder that they were supposed to have been sent out yesterday, and, a mere two and a half hours after I had arrived in the office, I was able to get to work. Through his open door, I could see Mr. Fitzsimmons finish his little book and pick up the newspaper.


The stranger came back just before lunch. He didn’t say hello, just swung his thigh over the edge of my desk again, hiding the draft of the letter I was copying, and started talking as if he’d never left.

“So, did you consider my offer?”

“You didn’t leave me much to consider.”

“I seem to recall being thrown out before I could tell you the details of the proposal. Lord Fairfax needs an assistant for filing and correspondence. It’s a live-in position, of course, since he lives at Pembrook. I assume it will be on a trial basis.”

It was what I was doing now, but for a wizard, with my own room included. Mr. Fitzsimmons started snoring behind his newspaper. He wasn’t a good boss, but he wasn’t bad either. Lord Fairfax might be talented, but he was a recluse, and there was very little of his personality in his writing. He could have been any kind of a lunatic, unfair, cruel. The sensible part of my brain was thinking of the devil I knew and the new one.

The stranger stood up. “Don’t let me throw you. He’s a good man, and I think you’d do him good.”

But the stranger was influencing me. He was quite capable of driving me crazy, but he had a penetrating mind, and he was reading me easily. If he was Lord Fairfax’s friend, it spoke well of the wizard.

“Well, I’ll give you some time to consider the details of it. Until we meet again.” And he was gone. In and out, no overstaying his welcome.

I was still staring at the desk, not seeing anything, lost in my own thoughts, when Mr. Fitzsimmons came out of his office, presumably on his way to lunch. Amazing how he could always wake up in time to go out.

Mr. Fitzsimmons drifted past my desk. He left a stack of papers as he went. “I’m swamped in there, just file those away, would you?”

I was tempted to ask, “Before or after I write your letters?” but I held my tongue. It was just possible he was busy.

“I’m just stepping out for a bit. Don’t forget those need to go out today.”

Not that busy then.

“Oh, and you charged Willy Billingford wrong for the last three months, should have been 200, not 100. Watch that.” He dropped the invoice on top of the filing.

I picked up the bill. Clearly it was in Mr. Fitzsimmons's handwriting, with the flourishing loops to his “y”’s and “g”’s, so how I had undercharged the client was a mystery. As I put the bit of paper back in the envelope, I noticed the address, in my best printing that I saved for things which would be read by others. That explained it; naturally the mistake was my fault if I addressed the envelope. I was tempted to rip up the whole thing and toss it in the fire, but then it really would be my fault that our billing files were incorrect. I could always have gone and pointed out that the mistake was not in my handwriting, but — while with a little effort I’m sure I could come up with a way to phrase it that was appropriate for speaking to a boss, as I had done before — I knew it wouldn’t make any difference. He wouldn’t hear it anymore than he heard me when I said I didn’t know how to deal with the ledgers, or when I asked for the letters so I could copy them. I supposed I didn’t make enough noise to be heard.

Mr. Fitzsimmons came back two hours later and went straight back to his office. The afternoon mail — two bills, five letters, and a fishing catalog — came a few minutes later. I glanced into his office and noticed a folder was actually open on his desk, and he had one of the license forms I had partially filled out that morning in front of him. I seriously considered “losing” the catalog. Not badly, just dropping it under the desk so I could “find” it before I left, and we could complain about the post together. But then the bell on the door clanged, and three of Mr. Fitzsimmons's friends came in.

“Fitzy old boy, have you seen the latest in the betting book? Fonty has 400 on Tobias to beat him. . .”

“Seriously? Come back, come back. I need to hear details before I go down there.”

I watched his office door swing shut, then took the stack of filing from its perch on top of my letters and dropped it and all the mail on top of the newspaper. It wasn’t like I could get to the filing drawer anyway, not with all his friends discussing betting books in there.

“Ah, I see, you are employed by what is colloquially referred to as a bookie? Forget Lord Fairfax, I could use you.”

I looked up. The stranger has slipped in with Mr. Fitzsimmons's friends. I realized I wasn’t irritated by him this afternoon, so I said, “And could you spell ‘colloquially'?”

“Taking notes on what I say? Smart girl.” He perched on the edge of the desk again. “Have you considered my offer?”

“Do you realize I don’t know your name?”

“A small oversight on someone’s part. I blame Fitzsimmons. Lord Étienne de Septson at your service.” He managed an elegant bow without standing up. “Call me ‘Étienne’ or ‘That Handsome, Charming Fellow’. Now, did you consider accepting the position?”

“I have.” I stared at the desk. “I’d be willing to try it.”

“A trial basis for him too? I’m sure he’ll agree to that.”

“I would need to give notice here.”

“Naturally. Two weeks is normal, isn’t it?”

Two weeks to tie everything up. It didn’t sound very long. “Yes, that is normal. . .”

“Then I’ll be here in two weeks to bring you down with me. Or I suppose I should meet you somewhere else. This does not appear to be the most auspicious place to begin a journey.”

I didn’t want him to come to Second Street, but I wasn’t sure why. “It’s easiest if I meet you. I can have my luggage sent on if it works out.”

“No! I mean you’ll want your things at once. I’ll give you cab fare, and you can send your things to the Canal Street Livery. That’s where I keep my traveling coach. Your things can come down with my trunks. I’m sure they’ll all get along fabulously. I have very entertaining luggage.”

“I can afford my own cab fare, thank you very much, but I will meet you at the livery on the 20th.” I steeled myself for him to protest, or insist I take the money.

He reached for his wallet, then looked at me and stopped. “I was right, you will be good for him. I’ll see you on the 20th.” And he walked out of the room.

I put aside the letter I had been writing and took a fresh sheet of paper. How was I going to tell Mr. Fitzsimmons I was leaving?

 

Chapter 3

 

As I locked the office that night, I was too busy re-writing my letter of resignation in my mind to remember to look for the delivery boy or any other signs of pursuit. So it was quite a shock when I got to the corner of Change Street and looked behind me for passing carriages, and saw a yellow coat. I told myself that it was nothing, but I ran across the street, just missing an ice cart.

On the other side of the street, I calmed myself by repeating over and over that it was coincidence as I fingered my key. Just because yellow was an unusual color for a coat did not mean that the delivery boy had the only one in the city. And the very fact that it was a rare color made it unlikely that it would be worn by someone skilled at following people. By the time I reached home, I almost had myself convinced. And I was very glad I’d be getting out of town in a short while. I hesitated with my hand on the doorknob. What if that was why Étienne had offered me the job? Guilt over getting me involved in — what?

“Janet, you going in or out?”

“Hello, Wilfred. My key’s out already.” Now wasn’t the time to spring the news on him. He was storming up the stairs, fumbling for his own key.


I waited until the main course was half over to spring my news on the family. Any earlier and I might interrupt Faye’s attempts at family conversation, and during dessert, Wilfred was thinking of his brandy and cigars. This was my best chance at being heard. “I was offered a new position today.”

“That’s nice, dear.” Faye was more interested in her salad than in me.

“It’s with the wizard, Lord Fairfax. It will mean moving to Pembrook.”

“Not sure I like wizards in the family,” Wilfred said in the same tone he would use for actors, journalists, or circus performers.

“But he’s a lord,” Faye whispered loudly, as if whispering would let Wilfred hear her at the other end of the table, but not me. “And we could move the boys up to her room and make their rooms into a guest suite. Then we could have Colonial and Mrs. Barnes-Singer over to stay. You know her second cousin married the younger son of the Duchess of Clairford.”

“But Mother!” Wilfred Jr. was seven and, he thought, too old to share with his brother. I wasn’t sure how they would both fit in my room, barely bigger than the ones they’d be leaving, or how the servants would like having two rambunctious boys staying at the end of their hallway instead of near their parents’ rooms.

“There is that.” Wilfred was much more interested in arranging his house than in my circumstances.

“When do you leave?” Faye asked.

“Two weeks.”

“Then I’ll have to call the decorators at once. If I can get Neugent and Taylor right away, then we could invite the Barnes-Singers before it snows.”

Faye spent the rest of the meal planning out whom she would invite to stay, and how it would get around town that she had. Wilfred nodded his head a lot, not always at the right times, although Faye didn’t notice that, and got the glazed, contented look he wore when contemplating an evening of cigars and his paper. The boys were exchanging looks that told me they were plotting, probably how to avoid sharing a room, until they were distracted by the chocolate pudding. I snuck away as soon as I could. I knew Faye and Wilfred would want to discuss plans for their new guest room, and maybe what would happen to me, probably complain about me working for a wizard while planning how to use this new connection to a title. In any case, I would be in the way, and I didn’t want to hear how much easier things would be without me.

So I stayed in my room, while it was still mine, and re-wrote my letter of resignation seven times. I was on the eighth re-write, which was suspiciously like the third, when I heard Faye and Wilfred go up to their room. I left the letter on my desk and picked up my knitting. It would give my mind a break, then I could pick the best draft of the letter and turn it in in the morning, or maybe as I left, and deal with the reaction the next day.

As I sat with my knitting, I found it easy to stop thinking about handing in the resignation letter. Instead, I kept wondering about what I’d gotten myself into. If Étienne was what he seemed to be, there was no explanation for the magic. If he was a spy, then I had to find out if I was caught up in something I didn’t want to be involved with. And if it was something else, then I didn’t know what my part in the whole thing was, or if I ought to be worried.

So I needed to find out more about Étienne. How did one find out more about Lord Étienne de Septson? When I asked it like that, I realized it wasn’t as hard as I’d first thought. I put my knitting away and went down to the library.

There wasn’t much to interest me in the library. I kept anything I bought in my room, so most of the books had come with the house, and I didn’t think they had ever been read — for good reason — but Faye did keep a couple of books of her own there. Normally, I wouldn’t have been interested in those either, but Faye had a complete guide to the aristocracy and made certain she purchased the newest version every year. If I wanted to know who and what Lord Étienne de Septson was, the answer would be there.

It was dry reading to be sure, but at the end of half an hour, I knew that Lord Étienne de Septson was the sixth of seven children, all boys, of the Earl of Laineford., The family had received the title a mere two hundred years ago and were lucky to have kept it after their tragedies of the last generation. He had attended university at Kirjavale, a small but well-respected wizarding college in a neighboring country, and had scraped by to graduate. No hints of foreign alliances. No hints of financial troubles (something which the guide was very good at hinting at), no hints of anything which would have tempted him to betrayal. From the dry but detailed description, he sounded like a quietly intelligent gad-about-town, rumored to have had affairs with just about anyone who was anyone, including both the heir and his sister, and with no motive to get himself wrapped up in the traditional routes of sorcery.

I turned to the entry on Lord Fairfax. He was an oldest son, also a graduate of Kirjavale, but graduating with high honors. His title had been in the same family for six hundred years, when they were given lands near Millford. The entry implied that he was rich, but very little else for a name so old. It left me wondering what he had hidden from the compilers, and how he had managed it.

I put the book back on the shelf and went upstairs as confused as I had been before. It made no sense for Étienne to be mixed up in the magic on the bridge, and that should have been comforting, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that we had been on the receiving end of a spell, and I wanted to know why.


* * *


The nineteenth came just as I expected. Mr. Fitzsimmons had not hired my replacement. He hadn’t even started interviewing candidates. It seemed he intended to do my job himself. As I pushed my keys through the mail slot after locking up for the last time, I hoped I wasn’t spelling the end for Fitzsimmons and Company.

If Mr. Fitzsimmons seemed oblivious to my departure, Second Street was only too aware of it. I’d been stumbling over wallpaper swatches on the way to my room for a week, and I had caught Faye measuring the door for bunk beds.

Tonight, I found Faye in my room, stacking my books into a crate, with no order or logic that I could see.

“Hello, dear. I thought I’d help you finish up.”

I was dreading the task of unpacking that mess, but I swallowed my temper and said, “That was nice of you.”

“Yes, it was. We need to measure for the carpet. If you want to keep packing through dinner, I’ll have a sandwich sent up.”

If she was going to the trouble of having a sandwich sent, she really wanted me packed. So much for a last meal with my family. “Thanks. I think everything else should fit in this box.”

Faye nodded and left without offering to get me another box. Since I had nearly finished packing, I took the time to sort and re-pack what Faye had done. Apparently, she had forgotten about my sandwich since it hadn’t arrived by the time I was done packing and had laid out my clothes — a brown corduroy skirt that fell straight to the floor with only the smallest flare and a slim jacket to match. Faye hated the outfit for the very reason I’d chosen it; the simplicity made it practical for travel. I was choosing a blouse with a nice bit of lace at the collar when one of the maids tapped on the door and left a tray with a sandwich and tea on the floor outside before I got to the door. Probably someone from the scullery in a hurry to get to bed so they could be up early. I ate my last dinner at Second Street in my room, alone. It was probably my favorite meal there.


* * *


I was up early on the twentieth, not necessarily bright or awake, but upright and capable of dressing myself. The sun was barely up when the cart from the livery arrived. Two burly men went in and out of the house with my boxes. Faye came down during the commotion and chased after them, worrying about her carpets. It all took less than ten minutes and I slipped outside to pay them.

“No ma’am, all taken care of.”

Étienne, I was sure. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or annoyed. “At least accept a tip.”

The man shook his head. “No, ma’am. The gentleman settled that too. And quite generous he was. Wouldn’t feel right taking anything else.”

Definitely annoyed. And with Faye glowering in the door, I couldn’t even offer them a mug of tea. Comforting myself with the thought that they’d most likely prefer a mug of beer or some of Wilfred’s brandy, I thanked them profusely and watched them leave.

When I turned back into the house, Faye had gone through to the breakfast room. I followed. Some of the servants must have gotten up early, since there was tea and toast set out. Faye was munching on the toast. I poured myself a cup of tea and went through what I’d need in my head again, but I seemed to have packed everything. I took some toast to the table. I thought Faye might want to talk to me, to say goodbye or some such thing, but as I sat down, she yawned. Not a polite, I got up too early yawn, but one that clearly conveyed the idea that I was keeping her from her bed.

I was tempted to talk anyway, but I wanted to leave my sister on good terms. I finished the bit of toast I had taken, gulped down the rest of my tea, and stood up. “I should probably go find a cab before they’re all taken by people going to work.”

Faye nodded. “I’m sure you should.” She managed to conceal a yawn until she finished the sentence.

“Then good-bye. I’ll write when I get settled.”

“Do that. Good-bye. I’ll tell Wilfred that you remembered him.”

I couldn’t tell if she was sincere or implying that I should have mentioned him. I answered with a safe, “And give my love to the boys.” Then I picked up my bag and left by the front door.

As I walked out, Faye called after me, “Safe journey. Don’t drag your bag against the wallpaper.”


I found a cab with no trouble. They tended to circle this neighborhood in the morning to take residents to work. Fortunately the cab ride only took twenty minutes, so I only had enough time to worry about how I would find Étienne when I got there, and no time to worry about all the things I didn’t know about my new position. I paid the driver and went to the main courtyard outside the Canal Street Livery, expecting to find I had been in a panic for nothing, which would bode well for the logic of all my other worries.

As I stood there and looked around, I realized that my worries had not been as groundless as I had assumed. There was no sign of my escort. For a moment, I wondered if this had all been some elaborate trick, a way to rob me perhaps. Then the sensible voice in my head asked why anyone would go to all that trouble for my few odds and ends, and if I was the object of a joke for Étienne's amusement, well, hopefully whoever he was trying to amuse would get much entertainment value out of the pain I would inflict on Étienne's person.

Of course Étienne could be late. Now there was a logical answer. Étienne did not strike me as the sort of person to be up and about this early. He was probably still abed. So I just needed to kill some time until he arrived. I started with a walk around the courtyard, fiddling with a handkerchief in my pocket to calm me (it didn’t), and looking at the travelers coming out of the coffeehouse attached to the nearby inn, ready to catch the mail coach north. Mostly young men who were probably going home to visit parents for the weekend, or maybe to see sweethearts left in some provincial village while they made their fortunes in the capital.

Watching the coffee shop reminded me that I had only had tea and a bit of toast before I ran out the door. I started calculating how much I had in my purse and whether or not ordering a bowl of overpriced oatmeal would have a serious impact on my ability to order lunch later. I had almost decided that it would not, when I noticed someone sitting at a table by the window was watching me. I debated whether to move closer and have a better look, or farther back, out of the person’s line of sight, when I realized who it had to be. Although what kind of an idiot would wait for someone indoors by a window visible from only a tiny portion of the courtyard was a mystery to me.

I went into the coffee shop and went straight to Étienne's table. He stood up quite properly as soon as he saw me and pulled out a chair. “Good morning. Almost on time.”

“I’ve been in the courtyard. I didn’t see you come in here.”

“So you assumed I was late and were going to have a bite to eat. Perfectly understandable. Naturally, you will join me.” Before I could answer, he had caught the waitress’s eye and told her to bring me what he had ordered. “Did the cart arrive on time?”

I was glad to have something neutral to talk about before I told him what I thought of his meeting place. “Yes, the men were very helpful.”

“Good. I’ve hired them to follow the carriage with some of my things as well.”

The waitress interrupted us by bringing me a cup and leaving a fresh pot of tea. “More coffee, sir?”

“Yes, another pot would be good.”

I thought he was joking, but the woman nodded quite seriously and returned in a few minutes to leave another pot of coffee.

I couldn’t help asking, “Another pot?”

“Naturally. I won’t be in bed for several hours yet.” I must have given him an odd look since he added, “You didn’t honestly think I woke up and made myself look this good at this hour of the morning, did you? I’ve been at the Embassy for a reception, then to my club for cards, then to Madame Fleur de Rouge for, well perhaps we shouldn’t discuss what I did at Fleur’s just now, might shock Karen here. And that looks delicious.”

The waitress had just come up to the table with plates filled with eggs, waffles, sausage, pancakes, potatoes, toast, cheese, muffins, and what looked like salmon on biscuits.

Étienne grabbed a piece of toast and a forkful of eggs. “Go on, start eating.” I had some of the waffles, which were very good.

“Right about now, I’m usually heading off to bed. But a visit to my good friend is worth losing a little sleep over.”

Étienne focused on his food, clearly enjoying every bite of it, so I thought it best to keep quiet and let him concentrate. When he had made a dent in his eggs, he looked up. “Any questions about our trip? We’ll be taking my carriage, of course. Quite a comfortable way to travel really, and I have a good coachman.”

I tried to think of something to ask. The truth was, I didn’t know enough about what I was getting into to have any questions. I searched for something general to ask. “How long will it take to get there?”

“With a good coach, and a good driver, and a nice stop for lunch at the Singing Goat — don’t ask, the food is good there — we should be at Pembrook just after dinner, which is unfortunate since Lord Fairfax has an excellent chef. Then I will be continuing on to the coast. I have some meetings there tomorrow.”

So he wouldn’t be staying at Lord Fairfax’s with me. I had been hoping for a friendly face, at least for a little while. Maybe the staff would be nice.

Étienne didn’t say anything until he was scraping the last of the potatoes from his plate. “How are you doing?”

I stared at my half full plate, wondering how he could manage to eat so much. I put down my fork and pushed my plate away. “I’m stuffed.”

He took my last salmon biscuit and stood up. “Then let’s be on our way.” He ate the biscuit as he left money for our check behind the empty coffeepot, then led me outside to his carriage.

In the courtyard, and elegant travel coach was waiting for us, with a young coachman in green and black livery sitting in the box. Étienne opened the door and handed me in. The inside was larger than I had expected, with comfortable seats upholstered in green velvet. Étienne sat across from me and pounded on the roof. I heard the driver call to the horses, and we were off.

I gazed out the window, giving the inn a last look. There was no one to see me off, no one for me to wave to, no handkerchiefs waving to me. Or so I thought. As we rounded the corner out of the yard, I saw a yellow coat on a red-haired boy. It was just a second, and I could have been mistaken.

“Something wrong?” Étienne asked. I sensed a hint of genuine concern in his voice.

“No, nothing.” Then a thought popped into my head. “You wouldn’t have a servant here looking for you, would you? A red-haired boy?”

Étienne shook his head. “No, no one like that. Anyone they’d send would be in my livery anyway, and Hillford up there would know to stop for them. Why?”

“Probably nothing.”

“Humor me.” Definitely concern, and more than a hint.

“I seem to do that a lot. I’ve seen a boy in yellow coat several times since I met you. I was wondering if it was connected, that’s all.”

“You think I was having you followed?”

I shrugged. “It just seemed odd.”

“Yellow coat sounds like the Golden Rooster. Could someone from there be looking for your boss? I hear they have some high stakes card games in the back room.”

Just when I thought he was an irritating git, Étienne would say something very to the point. “I bet that’s it. He could have followed me home to see if I could be hit on to pay a debt.”

“But you’re obviously not related to him in any way, so can’t be held responsible for his losses. Can you point the boy out?” Étienne leaned forward to the window, but we were already too far away, and we clearly were not being followed.

I turned to Étienne, planning to apologize for my foolishness and thank him for breakfast, but my traveling companion already had his head on his chest, eyes closed, breathing heavily but not quite snoring. And after all that coffee. I leaned against the cushions and gazed out the window again, dozing as the outskirts of the city turned into endless fields and forest speeding past us.


* * *


When I woke up, we were well outside the city and deep in the flat village lands. Étienne was still asleep, which led me to believe he hadn’t been joking about being up all night. I adjusted the window shades so the sun wasn’t shining directly on Étienne, but I could still look out.

Watching the miles of green fields and quiet cows was relaxing for a while, especially with no yellow coats to worry about, but I was a city girl at heart. I don’t think it was more than half an hour, and quite possibly less, before the green all looked boringly the same, and the cows all seemed to have the same vacant expression. Not only were there no yellow coats, there were no people of any kind. Apparently the cows took care of themselves, and must therefore have been smarter than they seemed.

Just when I was starting to wish for a yellow coat, or a highwayman, or a dark sorcerer to liven things up, my companion said, “Deadly dull as ever I see. I’m always tempted to start a brawl with one of those cows, just for a change of pace. Of course I know I’d lose, which is why I’ve never ruined a good coat over it. If I ever see a scrawny one though. . .”

I was bored enough to play along. “I think you could outsmart them.”

“Too easy, where’s the sport in that? Besides, it would only kill an hour or so.” He leaned back and stretched his legs out into the space beside my feet. “Didn’t bring any cards, did you?”

“Sorry, no.”

“I guess they were all appropriated by your former employer. What about paper? We could try x’s and o’s, or boxes and dots.”

It took me a moment to realize he was serious. I had paper and he had a pencil, so we killed some time playing children’s games.

It was mid-afternoon when the carriage pulled into a posting station with an inn. Étienne hopped out almost before the carriage had come to a stop. He handed me down very properly. “Sorry to make you wait so long to eat, but once you’ve tasted the food, you’ll understand.”

I found myself wondering how Étienne stayed slim when he ate so enthusiastically. Perhaps it was only when he traveled that he ate like this.

It seemed he traveled often. The innkeeper greeted him by name and gave me an odd look as Étienne helped me out of my coat, which told me he wasn’t used to seeing people like me, or at least ladies like me, with Étienne, then led us to a table near the kitchen. We had barely been seated when the cook came out to talk to Étienne. The conversation centered around a particularly nice cheese he had received and ended with orders for Feuilles de fromages, gratin de macaroni, and a cheese platter for dessert. Étienne didn’t consult me, but I could tell from the conversation I would not do better on my own.

Étienne did not speak while he ate, so I concentrated on my own food and watched the room. There were no yellow coats among the crowd there. One did walk in during the main course, but I quickly saw he was too old to be my pursuer, and the coat was a different style. Then the food took so much of my attention, I didn’t have any to spare for people watching anyway. By the end of the meal, I was stuffed and convinced that Étienne could plan meals for me whenever he wanted to.

It wasn’t until Étienne was scraping the last of the fig paste from his plate that he spoke. “Were you done with that fruit?”

“I can’t eat another bite.”

“But you enjoyed it?” He seemed genuinely concerned that I like the meal he’d ordered for me.

“Every bite. You can order for me any time.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” He took my last strawberry and popped it in his mouth, then pulled out his wallet and counted out a stack of coins I was sure would have paid for ten meals, and left them behind the wine carafe. “We should be on our way then.” He retrieved our coats from the hook and held mine for me. I wasn’t used to so much courtesy, and it took me a few moments to find the sleeves and get it on properly. The innkeeper saw us and hurried across the room to say goodbye. The barmaid waved as we passed her, and I saw them both go directly to the stack of coins Étienne had left. I wondered how much of the reception had been due to Étienne's appreciation, and how much to his generous tips.

The coachman was sitting at a small table by the front door with the remains of a large meal in front of him. “Don’t mean to rush you, old chap.”

“All done, my lord. Whenever you’re ready.”

“Then get the coach, and we’ll be on our way.”

As we waited for the carriage to be brought around, the cook came out to say goodbye. I managed to get a word in to tell him how I had enjoyed the food, and was greeted like an old friend and invited back to try a whole list of other dishes. At least the cook’s friendship was one of mutual admiration.

Their conversation was cut short by the arrival of the carriage. Étienne handed me up, and the cook waved as we rode out of the inn yard.

 


 The Wizard at Pembrook is available as a trade paperback (list price $15.00) at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com or an ebook (list price $4.99) at Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, iBookstore, Sony Reader StoreKobo, Diesel, also available in English at Amazon's international stores, including Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.jp, Amazon.fr, Amazon.es, Amazon.it .

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