There was no sign above the door. Many of the people of Venice still believed the place to be cursed; they had not forgotten the Black Tower, that spiraling darkness that had enveloped the house of the English magician. They avoided that street when they could -- and in the labyrinthine alleys of Venice, that was very possible for those who knew the way. Only those who did not know the city stumbled upon the house . . . them, and those who sought it on purpose.
There was no requirement that the seekers be ladies. But it started that way, and so it continued, because no gentleman would condescend to put himself under the tutelage of a woman once he had outgrown his governess.
So the house was not cursed, but it was very odd. Upon entering, one found oneself in a courtyard lined with broken mirrors. These were not permitted to be cleared away -- though the courtyard itself had long since been swept, so that no one would tread upon a shard of glass. The fountain in the center was overgrown with ivy, and this was allowed to grow thick and verdant. The courtyard had a purpose, but it was not the purpose of ordinary life.
From above came the sounds of high voices. They chatted and murmured and occasionally squabbled, because where there are two human beings there will inevitably be a squabble, and where there are a dozen, it comes sooner rather than later. But mostly they conversed, and mostly their conversation was on the topic of magic.
It was a school, and its founders were three: Arabella Strange, Emma Pole, and Flora Greysteel. One had lost her husband, one had left him behind, and one did without. Together they made a school, not for English magic, nor for Italian, but for magic without descriptor. Magic of any sort they could work out, provided it was not evil or dangerous -- and sometimes they bent that last part of the rule.
They had very little guidance. Mrs. Strange had learned a bit, simply by being married to one of England's two magicians and listening to what he said; Lady Pole had learned a different bit, simply by being stolen away to Faerie and observing what she saw there. Flora Greysteel had learned very little except that poets were not to be trusted, but she helped regardless, and as all three shared what they knew, in time they considered one another to be equals.
For certain they were united in one purpose: to bring Mrs. Strange's husband back to the world.
At first they scraped together what books they could. Word came that all the books of magic had vanished from England, but this was not the same as saying that all English books of magic had vanished. Some had been sold into or carried off to other countries, and these survived. But the price of them soon became very dear, and then soon after that surpassed "dear" and became unspeakable. In time they simply could not be found. They had all been purchased or hidden away, and there were no more books of magic to be had.
From their small library they studied, discussed, experimented. They debated respectable, sedate Norrellite magic, and wild, unpredictable Raven King magic. They pored over the folktales Lady Pole had babbled when there was a rose at her mouth, gleaning tidbits of wisdom from the dross of nonsense. And then they spoke to people of other countries -- Slavs, Arabs, Chinese -- asking them how their magic was done.
If the results were occasionally troublesome, they considered this the price of their work.
It contributed to the ongoing assumption that the house was cursed.
The problem could be summed up in two points:
1) Wherever Jonathan Strange (and Mr. Norrell, though nobody cared as much for him) had gone, no one -- including Mr. Strange -- was sure where it was.
2) In that place, the two gentlemen were no more than reflections.
Mrs. Strange recollected that once her husband had put a sheet of paper into a mirror, and brought its reflection outside. He had not known how to reverse the effect. But in the current circumstance, she had not even his reflection to keep her company. Going through a mirror and leaving nothing behind ordinarily meant entering the King's Roads, but the ladies had stumbled upon the trick of getting to them (one rainy afternoon when half of Venice had been near to flooding), and they had not found either man there.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell were not on the King's Roads. They did not seem to be in Faerie. They were not in the new mirrors that dotted the school, in the rooms above the courtyard with its ivy and shattered glass.
They were not anywhere. They were nowhere.
And so, Mrs. Strange concluded, she must go nowhere to find him.
"What do you even mean by that?" Miss Greysteel demanded, when she announce her intention. "Are you giving up?"
"I will never give up," Mrs. Strange said, her chin settling into a familiar, stubborn line. "But if I go where he is to retrieve him, who is to say I will be any more able to return than he is himself? Then there will be three people lost. No, I clearly must bring him to me. Because I am somewhere, and his problem is that he is not."
But none of the summoning spells worked. Not even with some rather hazardous modifications, one of which caused a storm of ravens to burst out through the house's windows and renew its dire reputation, which had been in danger of fading.
Neither did the finding spells. Or the communication spells. Or the spells for contacting the dead -- which only stood to follow, because Mr. Strange was not dead.
Other things were ruled out for being unsatisfactory. She did not want a simulacrum of her husband, a construct that could walk and talk like him, but without a soul. She did not want to dream of him in her sleep and wake to find herself still lacking. She wanted the real Mr. Strange, solid and whole, at her side once more.
Only one thing they did not do, one form of magic that was forbidden at the Venetian school: they never attempted to summon a faerie.
One day a thing happened which was very ordinary in most parts of the world, but very unusual at the Venetian school: two men knocked at the door.
Neither of them were gentlemen, and neither were seeking instruction. Mrs. Strange knew one of them from before, that being John Childermass, formerly in the the employ of the absent Mr. Norrell. The other was even rougher and less gentlemanly than he, and was introduced with the sole name of Vinculus.
"They say you were there," Mrs. Strange said to them both. "When the Black Tower faded and my husband vanished."
"Aye, that we were," Childermass said, and told the ladies the story.
When he was done, Mrs. Strange folded her hands in her lap. "I do not care if my husband was, as you say, some spell worked by the Raven King. I want him back."
"As to that," Childermass said. "There is one book of magic left in England -- one that was left, I should say, when all the others had gone. The magicians of England have been trying to decipher it. It is the Raven King's book."
"We're here so you can have a look at it," Vinculus said.
Childermass grunted. "Not that the magicians of England are very pleased at the notion."
Miss Greysteel looked at him sharply. "Because we are ladies?"
Vinculus answered with an even sharper grin. "Because it's written on my skin. I'll have to strip for you to study it."
"We have seen the horrors of Faerie," Lady Pole said. "I do not consider that your body will contain anything to shock us."
Nevertheless, their expressions became very fixed when Vinculus shed his clothing to display the book. "Have the magicians of England made anything of this?" Miss Greysteel asked, peering more closely than scholarship necessarily required.
"Bits and pieces," Childermass said. "Or so they hope."
Mrs. Strange was also studying Vinculus very closely. But, the others soon realized, she was not looking at the words inked into his skin.
She was looking at the figures and images that joined them.
"Oh," she said. And then: "Oh."
The ladies of the Venetian school, teachers and students alike, watched from the windows and galleries above. Childermass and Vinculus waited with them. Arabella Strange stood alone in the courtyard, next to the ivy-choked fountain, in the heat of Venetian midday.
For all that she was Mr. Strange's wife, her style was not showy. She only stood there with her hands buried in the ivy and her eyes closed, while all around her the air grew heavy and shimmered with a sound more like the song of a wine glass than the creaking of thick wood.
Then she said, "The sun will make a path for him, and he will walk down it."
The reflection of the sun on the water in the fountain grew blinding. Though they tried their best to watch, everyone was forced to recoil -- except Arabella Strange.
And the two men who stood on the other side of the fountain from her.
One bruised his thigh in the act of hurling himself around the fountain to embrace his wife. The other stared wonderingly at the building around him, one hand rising to adjust the sorry mass of grey wool that had once been a wig.
"I told you," Arabella whispered. "If you did not return --"
Mr. Strange did not answer. He was too busy weeping into his wife's shoulder.
"That was not Thornton," Mr. Norrell said, one finger waggling thoughtfully in the air. "That was -- that was --"
"Strange's Restoration," Childermass offered from above. "Mrs. Strange's Restoration."
The next day, there was a sign above the door of the house in Venice. It read:
A School for the Friends of Ladies' Magic