17 Rue Thomas, Toulouse, Provençe
5 January 1016
My dearest cousin Armand,
It has been a landmark week, for Dr. Laguerre has determined that I am proficient enough—at conversing in Provençese, if not in Provençese wizardry—to mix with other students.
It may surprise you to know that until this week I had not spoken with a single student, or even seen one. It surprises me, now that I have come to think about it.
My life has taken on a pattern over the past two months: every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I come to the Porter’s Lodge, and am admitted; I enter the grounds of L’Ecole du Sorciers, and walk briskly to Dr. Laguerre’s cottage; I enter without knocking, as directed, and take my seat in her study. I am verbally quizzed on my progress, I ask questions, I receive direction; and at the end of my hour I return to the Porter’s Lodge without seeing a soul other than Dr. Laguerre and the Porter.
I had at first assumed that this was happenstance, that my visits coincided with classes so that no students were in evidence; and then I had forgotten all about it. Now I begin to wonder if Dr. Laguerre has arranged it for a purpose. If so, she has given no hint of what that purpose might be; and though I must frequently ask her questions she is not a woman one questions, if you take my meaning.
But this afternoon the Porter directed me to a different place altogether, a house much larger than Dr. Laguerre’s cottage, set further into the grounds. It has the sloped copper roof one sees everywhere here in Toulouse, with plain walls marked by arched window embrasures, and a double door set deep within an arched doorway with pillars on either side. It reminded me of nothing so much as the Old Hall at Cynthia Throckmorton’s estate in Banninghamshire, where I went once on a holiday. I do believe the estate had once been part of an abbey.
The double doors stood open, and following the Porter’s instructions I entered and found myself in a chilly but well-lit hall paneled and floored in dark wood. It might have a been a hall in any fine country home except for the occasional scars and burn marks scattered about the walls and floor. A table stood along one wall, and to the right was the door I had been directed to enter.
I had been expecting a class room, Armand, and perhaps a lecture, and had been dreading it; for though my Provençese has improved I must still ask for clarification frequently. Instead I found a room with a welcoming fire in a stone hearth, and before the fire a low table on which tea—or the Provençese equivalent—was laid.
Three faces looked up expectantly as I entered, a young woman and two young men; the latter rose from their seats.
One, a fellow with wavy black hair and a certain number of spots, said, “Bonne après-midi,” and waved me to an empty armchair. The young woman said, also in Provençese, “You must be Mme. Archer. Bienvenue. Dr. Laguerre said you would be joining us.”
I said, “Bonjour,” rather nervously, I am afraid, and took my seat. The young woman poured me a cup of what proved to be coffee rather than tea, and gestured at the plates of pastries. The two young men sat down. I studied them all over the rim of my cup.
The young woman had dark hair framing a serious face. If her expression was not precisely warm, neither was it forbidding; this was one, I thought, who would wait, and watch, and judge based on events. The young man who first had greeted me gave me a slight if apologetic smile. The second fellow was blond, his face round, his hair cut quite short; he met my eyes with a sharp look that was not quite a scowl.
“You have the advantage of me,” I said, looking from one to the next, “for I was expecting to see Dr. Laguerre today. Are you also her students?”
The dark-haired man grinned. “That is her way,” he said. “I am Claude Bergeron, at your service, but you may call me Claude.” I glanced at the scowler; he pursed his lips, and said only, “Lavigne,” which I presumed was his surname.
“And I am Mlle. Allard,” said the young woman. “And we are the students sans fleuve.”
“She means that we are those at L’Ecole who have not yet chosen our streams,” said Claude. “Unless you…?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” I said. “Dr. Laguerre has been explaining the Fleuve de Johannes to me, or trying to; but my limited learning is in the Cumbrian tradition and so I am finding it heavy going. And I know nothing of the other streams as yet. Most of my time has been spent improving my Provençese.” I sipped at my coffee and ventured to take a madeleine.
“Alors!” said Claude. “It is a bee in her bonnet, the Cumbrian wizardry. That explains it.”
Mlle. Allard sat back in her chair. “So, you are not Dr. Laguerre’s new protégée, then?” she said, with a quick glance at M. Lavigne.
“Oh, dear,” I said. “I suppose she hasn’t told you anything about me?”
“Not a word,” said Claude. “We have all been consumed with the curiosity. At least, I have.”
“I see.” So I told them my story, all about the ball and the fortuitously botched Langston Transform, and about Dr. Tillotson, and finished with. “So yes, Dr. Laguerre has taken me under her wing, so to speak, as a favor to Dr. Tillotson; but as for being a protégée, well.” I shrugged, and took a bite of my madeleine. “She has said nothing about that—but she did say that if I chose a stream other than the Johannine or Laroussian she would pass me along to another instructor.”
I am not at all sure, but I do not believe M. Lavigne was entirely mollified by this statement. But perhaps his face just looks like that.
Then I said, “But do you truly mean to say that you—that we—are the only students here who have not chosen a stream? Just we four?”
“It is so,” said Mlle. Allard.
“But how many students are at L’Ecole in total?”
“There were more students before Les Travails,” said Claude, “though never all that many. Now, I think, there are perhaps eleven or twelve.”
“Yes, we four,” said Mlle. Allard, “and one or two for each of the masters.”
“I suppose there are more at Edenford,” said M. Lavigne, in a challenging tone.
I looked at him blankly. “Why, do you know, M. Lavigne, I have no idea. I have never been there. I suppose my husband would know, for he was studying wizardry before his older brother died. I had assumed there were many such…but one doesn’t often run into wizards in Cumbria, not socially, so I suppose I may have been mistaken.”
In truth, Armand, I was seething at his obvious dislike and disdain. But it never pays to respond to such things in kind, and I trust my countenance revealed nothing untoward. And truly I’d had no idea. (I asked Maximilian afterwards, of course. “That many?” he said. “I am surprised. I believe we had seven in my day.”)
The trio rose shortly after, “For it is time,” said Claude, and indeed an hour had passed. I took my leave; and lacking other instruction I returned to the Porter’s Lodge.
“Had Dr. Laguerre any other instructions for me?” I asked.
“Non, madame. Just to return at the usual time on Jeudi.”
“Merci,” I said.
It is all most intriguing. Mlle. Allard I believe I might perhaps win over, and would be glad to do so. Young Claude might be just what he seems, or he might not; and I am concerned about M. Lavigne. It is not entirely unreasonable for him to have his nose out of joint, but I do hope he won’t be too difficult because of it.
But if Claude has been consumed with curiosity, so too am I; for I have no idea what I shall find when I return to L’Ecole on Thursday.
Thank you for your recent letter; I am eager to hear of the fruits of your investigations at the shipyards in Salisbury, and delighted to be able to converse with you like this on the order of weeks rather than months—though for your sake I hope it will not last for too much longer!
Your curious cousin,