The wrong man answered the door.
Pen put on her well-worn polite smile, hoping it concealed her anxiety. “Hello. I have an appointment to see the omnimancer.”
The man—a typic, no long queue of silver hair to mark him as a wizard—gave her a look that went straight through her. Did he suspect why she was here?
“Omnimancer Porten was called out of town.” He leaned against the doorway, which was framed by an impressive amount of ivy. “An emergency, you understand.”
“When do you expect him back, Mr. …?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know,” he said, unsatisfactorily answering one of her questions and ignoring the other.
She took a shaky breath. “May I wait, then?”
“I very much doubt he’ll be back today.”
According to A Lady’s Guide to Unimpeachable Conduct, this was the point at which a polite lady would murmur a polite thank you and politely turn away.
Instead, desperation pushed other words out of her mouth. “I would … I would nevertheless like to wait. Sir.”
He quirked his lips, one side only, in there-and-gone amusement. “You’re welcome to it. But there’s no one here except me, I should warn you.”
Pen stole a glance at his left hand, hoping to see a wedding ring. No such luck. She hesitated—but what choice did she have? He moved aside, and she held up the long skirt of her dress to step in, the cheerful noises of midday shoppers on Washington Street fading as he shut the door.
No question what the Lady’s Guide would say about this situation. And if her father were still alive, he’d be appalled. Alone with an unmarried man, Penelope!
But he was dead. That was the reason she was here, after all.
The unattached, possibly nameless man gestured to her left. “The receiving room is undergoing repairs, but you may sit in the library. Provided that you do not touch the books.”
All classified, no doubt—magic-users only. They’d both failed the test that would have given them access: this man at age thirteen and she, as a woman, at birth.
She felt as if she’d failed many tests since then, most just as unfair.
“Thank you,” she murmured, taking a seat that allowed her to watch the front door.
He gave her another look, an assessing one. Then he swept off, his dark frock coat swirling behind him.
For the next three hours, she watched him come and go in the hall, carrying files, rushing for the telephone, sending away other supplicants. The omnimancer’s personal assistant, she supposed. Some cities had several omnimancers, each assigned to help with local needs, but Hagerstown had just the one—and the rest of Western Maryland none at all. She’d heard that Porten did sometimes get called away for emergencies.
She’d also heard he was looking for a wife.
Well, to be fair, the whole city had heard that. At twenty-five, she was past most people’s definition of eligible, but what else could you do when you hit your wit’s end than plant the proverbial magic beans and hope they managed to sprout?
She pressed her hands together in her lap, knuckles going white. The omnimancer’s assistant probably did know why she was here. She wondered how many women like her he’d seen in the weeks since Porten made clear his intentions.
As if she’d conjured him up with her thoughts, the assistant stepped into the library the very next moment. “Miss Novak?”
She hadn’t realized he knew her name. It was the omnimancer who’d answered the telephone when she’d called. But then, presumably there was an appointment book, and she was in it. “Yes, sir?”
“I’m closing up for the night.”
She thought of her uncle’s ultimatum. Two weeks. All she had left to work with: two weeks. “Will the omnimancer be back tomorrow?”
“Probably not,” he said, cocking his head as if curious what her response would be.
“Right.” Her reply wavered. She couldn’t leave it there, no matter what the Lady’s Guide advised, but saying more felt as difficult as shifting a boulder. Softly and very quickly, she added, “I will be back tomorrow anyway if—if you don’t mind?”
The man’s smile flickered to life again, wry with a touch of something she couldn’t identify. “Return if you will. My preferences are immaterial.”
Pen emerged onto Washington Street, the chill air of not-quite-spring settling into her bones. Her first thought was a hope that no one would realize how she’d spent her afternoon. Her second was that she never did get the assistant’s name—though her neighbor Mrs. Brodie would probably know it, and then she wouldn’t be at the same disadvantage tomorrow.
Her third thought was the dispiriting reflection that her preferences were just as immaterial as the omnimancer’s assistant claimed his were.
In virtually all cases, for as long as she could remember.
A lady does not complain.
She sighed. Then she remembered the admonition against audible sighing and pasted on a smile instead.
That was what ladies were supposed to do most of all, wasn’t it?
. . . . .
“The omnimancer’s assistant? Isn’t that Mr. Loxley?” Mrs. Brodie, a basket of red and white roses over one arm and a steel-gray purse tucked under her other, paused and frowned. “Or was he the one who left last spring?”
Pen had never properly met one of the omnimancer’s assistants before, let alone the omnimancer himself (if you didn’t count a twenty-second conversation by telephone, which she did not), so she had nothing helpful to contribute.
“No, that was someone else,” said her next-door neighbor, Caroline Smith, a few days past eighteen. “I think Mr. Loxley was the one immediately before?”
The postman they’d clustered around for their mail looked up from his bag with a grin. “They all quit in a huff eventually, don’t they? Something for any would-be bride to think hard about, I’d say.”
“Yes, well,” the widow Brodie imparted in a conspiratorial whisper that was somehow louder than her normal tones, “I don’t know the man, but I hear Omnimancer Porten is very particular.”
If only Pen could discover what he was very particular about. That might be all she could muster to her advantage.
Mrs. Brodie turned to her, eyes alight. “Tell us about this new assistant. You saw him?”
“Briefly,” she said, hoping very much to avoid questions about the circumstances.
“Well?” Mrs. Brodie leaned in. “What does he look like? How old is he? Is he married?”
“Tall, dark hair, deep brown complexion, perhaps in his mid to late twenties, and I don’t believe he is,” Pen said, trying to answer the barrage as succinctly as possible.
“And you didn’t catch his name?”
Pen shook her head, amused at the phrasing of Mrs. Brodie’s question. Catch—as if she might have to dash after his name like it was a butterfly, or lure it like a fish.
“I don’t recall if I’ve delivered any mail addressed to this mystery man yet, but I’ll keep an eye out,” the postman said, winking at Mrs. Brodie as he handed over her bundle of letters. “Now, let me see: Miss … Novak, is it? At house number 423?”
For fourteen more days.
She took the letters, offered a strained thank-you and turned to go.
Caroline, wearing a crimson coat meant for someone several inches taller, pulled up her hood against the wind and fell into step with her. “Is it the assistant you’re curious about,” her neighbor asked in her cheerful way, “or the omnimancer?”
Caroline wasn’t a confidante. To be fair, no one was: Pen’s father had moved every few years for work, which made for fleeting friendships. By the time they’d returned to his childhood home, Pen had rather lost the knack of forming them.
Still, she usually had no qualms about telling her neighbor the truth. When Caroline had inquired a month ago about her father’s health, she’d told her he was dying. When Caroline had asked a week ago if she would stay here, she’d told her she couldn’t—and why.
But in this case …
“No, nothing like that,” Pen said. “I … just wondered what his assistant’s name was, that’s all.”
“Well, I’m curious about the omnimancer. I know he seems brusque, but with a woman’s touch …” Caroline, young enough to believe that, let out a dreamy sigh. “Everyone says he’ll make up his mind at the Spring Dance. Oh, Pen! Just think, someone out there is Cinderella and doesn’t know it yet.” She smoothed the skirt of a dress that looked at least as old as Pen’s and gave another, sadder sigh. “An opportune time for a fairy godmother, if only one existed.”
If only, indeed. Pen would skip the ballgown and wish for another option than marrying an ill-tempered man she didn’t know.
Well—a better option. She did have an alternative already.
But it was worse.
“I must own that I’m rather nervous,” Caroline added, twisting her hands together. “Am I supposed to be witty if he dances with me? Can one become witty on short notice? Oh, help, Pen, what am I to do?”
Some part of Pen—the part that occasionally offered inappropriate commentary in her head—wanted to burst into a black-humor laugh. She hadn’t danced with anyone for five-and-a-half years. She was the very last person to ask for advice on such matters.
But she had read A Lady’s Guide to Unimpeachable Conduct enough times by now—it was an assigned text in school most years from fourth grade on—that she could quote large bits of it from memory. So she swallowed the laugh and recited, “At a dance, a dinner or other event, a lady is most becoming to gentlemen when she listens, nods and smiles.”
“Oh,” Caroline said quietly. “That is what the Lady’s Guide advises, isn’t it? I suppose I should re-read it.”
They’d reached Pen’s house (or, rather, not Pen’s house, which was the heart of her trouble). But she tarried on the doorstep, noticing that Caroline looked rather forlorn for someone saved the necessity of wittiness.
“It’s just …” Caroline looked around, almost as if she worried they would be overheard. “How am I supposed to distinguish myself as an individual if I simply smile and nod? What does the Guide say about that?”
Well—that distinguishing oneself as an individual was the very last thing a lady should do.
Those exact words weren’t in the Lady’s Guide, granted. The message lurked between the lines. A lady defers to the preferences of others. A lady does not make a spectacle of herself. A lady can never go wrong holding her tongue; much better to be seen than heard.
A memory Pen hadn’t thought of in years rushed back at her now: Sneaking the boys’ guidebook out of school in seventh grade—that certainly wasn’t conduct endorsed by the Lady’s Guide—and opening it in secret in her locked bedroom that evening.
A gentleman is bold. A gentleman speaks with confidence. A gentleman decides what he wants and sets off to get it.
A gentleman is the master of his household, fitted for the role by his superior judgment and understanding.
Something had swelled in her chest as she’d absorbed that very different message. First, indignation. (The boys in her class had no better judgment and understanding than the girls!) Then, doubt. (Maybe the difference came with age? Or her own judgment and understanding were already so deficient that she was in no position to say?)
Finally, a tendril of longing had wound around her heart and squeezed. What would it be like to live in a world made for you? Where you could not only decide what you wanted and try to get it, but also know that making the attempt was your birthright?
Her only choice was being a lady or not.
Which was really no choice at all.
A lady knows the rules protect her. Her reputation, if shattered, is lost forever—and so is she.
Pen had slipped the boys’ book back onto its designated shelf the next morning, feeling small.
She supposed she felt no larger now.
“Pen?” Caroline was looking at her, expectant, hopeful, in her faded clothing and hand-me-down crimson coat.
Right. Distinguishing yourself at a dance.
“I believe,” she replied softly, “that the Guide recommends hair curlers the prior evening.”
Something in Caroline’s expression made Pen add less softly—one might even say inappropriately: “Though perhaps one would find it more distinguishing to not follow advice that everyone else is taking.”
Caroline’s eyes crinkled as she grinned. And Pen went into the house that was not hers, feeling a little better for reasons she couldn’t explain to herself.