Chapter 9: Isabelle

Chapter 9: Isabelle

1.

By breakfast Jane was already nearing exhaustion, but the work was worth it. The smell of bread filled the empty hall. She served two loaves alongside fresh butter and jam she’d found at the market. There were eggs as well, smoother and creamier than any I’d had before. “French style,” Mr. Percy said with some amazement, and Jane’s milk white face turned red as a rose. “You have been keeping secrets from us, Jane,” he teased. “These are excellent.”

That was all after Chauncey led his prayer, of course. Father would have pitched a fit if he knew I was being subjected to this.

“I must continue my studies today, children,” Lady Falmouth explained, “so I shall be in the library today and do not wish to be disturbed. Miss Annie and Jane have very many things to attend to as well.”

“Understood,” Julian said.

Mr. Percy spoke up. “Chauncey and I are making repairs to the house and shall be occupied as well, milady, though of course I am at your call if the need should arise.” Chauncey mumbled something and ate a final spoonful of eggs. He alone seemed to dislike them. Perhaps “French” wasn’t such a compliment in this part of the country.

Lady Falmouth continued her instructions. “I don’t want you in the town by yourselves, not yet anyway, and do stay away from the river. It can be more treacherous than it looks, and the land around it isn’t always steady.”

Julian and I changed into play clothes and headed in the orchard of dead trees. We brought our swords, of course, but our enthusiasm wasn’t especially strong. I wished I’d thought to bring my music, but we wouldn’t have all fit in the carriage with the instruments. Perhaps they could have left Miss Annie in London and used her spot in the carriage for my virginal. Or they could have left me. I could see little boats—wherries, they called them here—on the water and imagined I could hop on any one of them and sail to Holland and to my father.

I couldn’t even be certain he was there anymore.

Supper that night showed more of Jane’s talents in the kitchen. Her eyes by then were entirely sunken behind dark rims, and her hair was too limp to even hold itself together in a bun, but she ladled soup into our bowls with pride. I couldn’t even identify what we were eating, I just knew it tasted wonderful. It had lots of onions, but was somehow still delicious.

The meal was largely silent, interrupted only by people asking for something to be passed. For my part, it was because I didn’t want to stop eating. I think everybody else felt uncomfortable with Chauncey there. We were a family of sorts, we southerners, and Chauncey was not. Fortunately he ate quickly and then excused himself. We all watched him rise and shuffle out. As soon as the door closed and he was gone we all started talking at once.

“Why are all the trees dead?” Julian asked.

“Nobody to care for them,” his mother answered.

“Chauncey should have done it,” he said.

“Chauncey did far more than he was asked to do. There’s no mice, no holes in the walls, no fire has gutted the hall.” She gestured lamely at the tapestry. “This hideous thing is still hanging.” We all looked at it, the ugly black dog rising over the town. And then Miss Annie laughed, and we all did the same.

“It’s a shame, though,” Lady Falmouth continued. “This house has a lot of history. Not much of it good, but history nonetheless.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, hoping to hear a story.

“I don’t know much about it. It’s Hector’s family, not mine. But there is a history of sadness here. When Lord Falmouth was young he spent most of his time in this room. His father was difficult, and his mother may have been mad. She was forever going on about the Queen. Her Majesty coming to visit, Her Majesty sending messages. Nobody was ever even sure which Queen she was talking about. Her own mother had been burned at the stake, accused of witchcraft. She saw this happen, apparently.”

“Witchcraft?” Julian asked. “My grandmother was a witch?”

“Your great-grandmother. And no, there are no such things as witches. She was a strong-willed woman, from what I understand. The stories people tell are always about her being a monster. Apparently one time she attacked a knight and stabbed him with his own sword. When I heard the story—from Mr. Chauncey, years ago—he talked about how she grew in size and was possessed by a demon when she did it. Obviously that is madness. I think he just couldn’t imagine a woman strong enough, determined enough, to defend herself from a man. And defending herself is what she was doing. One of her children hadn’t shown this knight enough respect, he felt, so he hit the child with the broadside of his sword. She hit him, and so he struck her instead. So she fought back. I can only imagine that I would do the same if somebody tried to hurt either of you.”

“And they burned her for that?”

“No, they burned her because she set off a keg of gunpowder in the village market. I don’t think anybody was killed but the damage to the goods and buildings was significant.”

“Why did she do that?” I asked, mindful of my own history of setting fires.

“That much I don’t know. But she was accused of being a witch, which is nonsense, and they burned her. They, the town that is, accused her and then refused to hold a trial, claiming she would use her witchcraft to lie and to trick them. So they burned her, figuring that if she was not a witch then she would burn like a regular person, and they could pardon her after she died, but if she was a witch then she wouldn’t burn, and they could take her from the fire and cut off her head.”

“So what happened?”

“She died, of course. In the fire.”

“And they made her children watch it?”

“Only the girls, I’m told. If they looked away then they might be witches, too.” Then, sarcastically, “Because a normal person wouldn’t mind watching a witch burn, but a witch wouldn’t want to watch one of their own burn.”

“That’s madness,” I said.

“It’s all madness. Lady Falmouth—your grandmother Lady Falmouth, not me—she was very small when it happened and never spoke of it, but she was always so unsteady with herself. I think she feared what sort of fate might befall her. Maybe that’s why she cultivated her friendship with the imaginary queen, to protect herself. The older she was the more difficult she became. My husband, when he was still just little Hector, not yet lord of anything, he would come into the library and read all he could. History, mythology, science, philosophy. Everything. And one day he could read better than boys twice his age and his father sent him to Westminster School, and he vowed never to return to Bungay. I’m not sure his mother noticed he was gone. She was quite mad by then. She drowned in the Waveney one day, years later—nobody knows why she was in the water—and her husband passed the following winter after a brief illness. Hector and I came up here and did what we could. We sold most of his holdings in the village, keeping only as much as we needed for the income, and then took all of the books that he liked. Chauncey keeps the house from falling apart but only barely. To be honest I thought he would have died that winter. Instead he is still here.”

“Chauncey,” Mr. Percy said, “is far tougher than he looks. He may outlive us all yet.”

“Let’s hope not,” Miss Annie said, and they all laughed. I looked around. Funny how we came to a house full of ghosts in order to escape a city full of demons.

“In any event moving to London was the best thing that happened to Lord Falmouth. He met your father”—she nodded toward me—”and found a kindred spirit. And of course he met me, which on balance I think has been a good thing for the both of us.”

I felt the words crawling up my throat and couldn’t stop them from coming out. “Who is Tantibus?” I asked. After I said it I forced my face to melt into its most innocent wide-eyed pose, but when I said it I knew that my eyes had betrayed me. But it couldn’t be helped: I knew enough that I needed to know more.

It was hard to understand their reactions. Mr. Percy and Jane acted as though they hadn’t heard me, and they very well may not have. Miss Annie had been reaching for a roll and when she heard me she froze, and then pretended that she was trying to decide between two rolls. It wasn’t convincing. Lady Falmouth looked at me and then at Julian, then back at me and finally took a sip of water. Julian, I could see, was entirely frozen.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Where did you hear that?”

From all of you, I wanted to say but didn’t. Instead I shrugged. I moved to take a roll for myself, hoping that if I didn’t say anything else then they would think I’d lost interest and it would all go away.

“It’s an old legend,” Lady Falmouth continued. “I don’t know much about it.” She was lying. I don’t know how but I could tell. “Your father and my husband like to share legends with each other. Your father travels much so he knows more. When they were young I think they tried to form a secret society of occultists but they couldn’t attract any more members. That—” She meant Tantibus but didn’t say his name—”was one of the stories they told. But I don’t remember it well.” A lie again.

“But what is it?” Julian pressed. I wanted to kick him under the table. Even though I had started it I wanted this conversation to end. And somehow to continue.

Lady Falmouth took another sip of water. “It was… well, ‘he’ was, I suppose, a king. The story comes from the East, I think Mesopotamia or Persia. A king who wanted to be a god. He found a way to do it, but before he could finish the gods punished him. So now he exists, half-immortal, trying to rediscover the secret. It’s just one of those classic monsters stories, like witches or the Golem. In more superstitious times people told stories to explain away the things that frightened them, or to keep children from misbehaving.”

I could feel a burning in my stomach and a tightening in my lungs that told me that she was lying. She was thinking fast, trying to figure out what to share and what to hold back. She didn’t know how much I already knew and so it was a careful game she played.

“How is he half-immortal?” Julian asked, blithely oblivious to how uncomfortable the table was becoming. He and Jane, united in having no idea what was going on.

Lady Falmouth, again thinking quickly and choosing words carefully, navigating waters that could very well be treacherous. “I suppose because he lives forever, or at least a long time, but can still die somehow.”

“So what does he do?” Julian continued. “Why doesn’t he fix himself back up?”

“It’s just a legend, love.”

“But there has to be more to it. Nobody would tell a story like that without explaining what he wants. How would you scare the children?”

Lady Falmouth laughed a bit. “I suppose… I remember that there was a treasure from which he drew his power. The gods scattered it about the world. Like dust.”

“He gathers dust?”

She smiled more, and teasingly leaned towards him. She had found an angle and was satisfied that she had gotten through the worst of it. “Dust under children’s beds! And if you get up at night and wake your parents you might find him! And he’ll eat your toes!”

She was being silly, and Julian liked it although he pretended not to.

“But we came here to hide from him,” I said flatly, not looking up. “Tantibus.” My fork poked idly at the last remnants of my supper. The laughter died. I looked up to find all staring at me, Lady Falmouth most of all.

Her voice was as flat as mine. “We fled because your father is involved in treason, and we can’t count on either London nor Portsmouth being safe for any of us now.”

Jane fluttered. “Excuse me, I should go…”

“You can stay,” Lady Falmouth said, and Mr. Percy reached a hand out and put it on Jane’s shoulder. She stayed. “We are not involved, not directly at least. But your father’s name is well-known throughout England, and if things go wrong…” She let the thought trail off. “We are safest here.”

The trick with lies, I was learning, is that they are best not invented from whole cloth. If you can wrap them up  in enough truth then the lies can hide in plain sight.

2.

The dream again. I had it often now. On the hilltop, surrounded by the crows and the beasts who hurled wind and rain at each other. The details were always the same. I could only see through her eyes—the dream-Isabelle, the girl who wasn’t me but I recognized as myself anyhow—and dream-Isabelle always looked at the same thing. I could feel what she felt—the cold wind whipping through my clothes and striking my skin as though it were bare, my hair flapping about me. I could hear the cries and shouts and the sound of the armies clashing, and over the din I could hear and feel the flow of water and energy through the rivers as they converged on a point at the bottom of the valley.

My room was dark and stuffy. I couldn’t breathe, and needed to go outside as surely as I would need a drink in the desert. I slipped out of my room and down the corridor into the hall, and from there through the library and outside. The horse in the stable whinnied quietly. Otherwise the night was completely still.

The cottage stood a ways off, the lights in it off. I wanted to walk a little but didn’t want to go into the dead orchard, so I followed the path that led past the cottage towards the water meadows. The ground sloped away here. If I wanted to I could follow the old protective wall to the main road.

I didn’t want to get too far away, I just wanted air. I decided I would go to the edge of the tall grasses and then turn around. I liked the way that the air slipped over and around me. It was warm, even in my bedclothes, but there was a slight hint of chill in the night. The air on my skin was real, lifting the shroud from me but in a way that wasn’t terrifying in the least.

In the tall grass I heard a rustle, and then a deep breathing. It was very dark here and I couldn’t make out the shapes at all. A very large dark shape, with a squat head and a long snout. Its mouth was open and the whites of its fangs shone faintly in the night. It was a beast, but its eyes, which shone clearly in the night, were human. My heart stopped beating. The beast didn’t growl or move, it just stood there. I did the same. I wouldn’t say I was scared, just very surprised. Maybe surprised isn’t the right word. It all felt like a dream, except for the very real sensation of the air.

From the road came another figure, much smaller, moving quickly but unhurried. I dared not take my eyes off the beast. The smaller figure in the dark strode past me and up to the beast with one hand extended. It placed its hand on the beast’s snout and the two stayed frozen. They spoke without saying any words I could hear, and just as quietly as it had appeared the beast turned and returned to the meadows. The smaller figure turned away and returned to from where he had come, looking briefly over his shoulder at me. It was the little boy from the river, the one called Asa. His was a strange name that I had heard once before but couldn’t remember where. He looked at me and nodded slowly, and then turned back and returned to the road.

I took a very deep breath, aware of the air filling my lungs and my blood rushing through my veins, and went back in the house, remembering to scrape the dirt and leaves off my feet before going back inside. I walked past my own room and into Julian’s.

I don’t know if Julian knew that I joined him at night. He hadn’t said anything, not even when we were alone. He did, though, leave enough room on the bed for me to crawl in. The bed was small enough that this couldn’t be an accident. In the morning I would get out of bed before he awoke and return to my own room.

Lady Falmouth spent most of every day in the library. Doing what, I didn’t know, but doing it diligently and constantly and without much interruption. She had stacks of books that she leafed through, and notebooks full of words and numbers but nothing that I could recognize. Miss Annie worked with her, too.

Without Lord Falmouth to work for, Mr. Percy divided his time between ordering Chauncey around and helping Jane. There was more to Mr. Percy than I had ever appreciated. Perhaps I had been too wild to see it. In London he had been kind to me when he didn’t need to be, and when the Incident happened, I had a distinct feeling that his eyes were on me, and that he would take care of me if he had to. Now I saw him offering support to Jane. Jane had been abruptly promoted from scullery maid to cook, and she was determined to make the most of it. Mr. Percy stopped by the kitchen quite a bit, tasting her food and offering advice. Mrs. Smith at Shandos Place was always kind to me, but I could tell she had no patience for Jane. I assumed it was Jane’s fault; perhaps it was Mrs. Smith’s.

Jane did not join us for tea ever. She said that she wasn’t dressed properly, and Lady Falmouth didn’t press the issue. I believe that if Jane had wanted to join she would have been allowed, but I also think that there was a larger point being made about Jane’s growing confidence and maturity. As cook she would someday run a kitchen staff, and part of that meant knowing her place and teaching others. Jane took tea in the library instead, and so she wouldn’t be alone Mr. Percy joined her, leaving me and Julian to sit with Lady Falmouth, Miss Annie, and Chauncey, who I think was starting to enjoy being asked to sit at the table after years of being alone in the cottage. He even put on a proper, albeit ratty, dinner jacket to join us.

“Weather’s turning,” Chauncey said. “Leaves falling soon. If William and Mary intend to come they better come soon. Don’t want to march troops through the snow.”

Nobody responded. Nobody wanted to think about the war anymore.

Jane and Mr. Percy came from the library together and tea time was finished. Lady Falmouth called Julian over and whispered in his ear. He made an annoyed face and began to protest but she gave him a stern look and he slunk off towards his room. Miss Annie rose and took my hand. “Come with me,” she said, and feeling confused I rose and followed her, through the hallway down to her room. She ushered me in and closed the door behind her. There was a tub full of warm water on the floor.

“It should be cool enough by now,” she said. “Go on, get in. Neither you nor Julian have had a bath since we came and we can all tell.”

I thought about protesting but didn’t. She turned around to attend to small chores while I undressed and got in. She must have drawn the bath while Julian and I were playing, but the water was still quite hot. I sat down slowly and she came over, soap and scrub brush in hand. But first she took my head and her hands and tilted it up to look at my lip.

“It’s healed quite nicely,” she said. I remembered the little boy’s finger on my lip, curiously warm and soft. My lip had healed completely, with not so much as a tiny scar on it. “Very quickly, too. Good for you.” She released me and reached for my necklace. “What is this?” She held my necklace, and a curious look crossed her face. I could feel her weighing it in her hand. I put my hand over the pendant and slid it out of hers.

“A gift from my father,” I said.

“Well, give it here.”

“No,” I said, holding it in my fist.

“It’s wood and leather, Isabelle, the bath water will make it stink.”

“It will not. I’ve gotten it wet before. And father told me to never take it off.” Julian has one too, I thought of saying, but didn’t.

She sighed. “As you wish,” she mumbled and began to scrub at me with the brush. It hurt and felt good at the same time, just as the hot water stung and soothed.

“How on earth did you get so filthy?” Long streaks of black appeared on my arms where the brush went; rinsing it uncovered the bright pink skin underneath.

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t want you playing outside again today. I also brought out a nice dress for you. I haven’t seen you dressed decently all week. Today we shall be decent.”

“There’s nobody here to impress, Annie.”

“Miss Annie, dear,” she corrected, and then dumped a cupful of water on my head. I hadn’t expected it and cringed. I must have shouted out, too. “Don’t fuss, your hair is filled with dirt. You’re lucky I remembered to grab a few dresses. Lord Falmouth said we’d only be gone a fortnight at most but I don’t see that as likely.”

She rubbed soap into my hair and scrubbed at it hard. How had I gotten so dirty? The earth here must be stickier than that in the south.

“The weather is starting to cool and I do believe we won’t be back before it is cold. I’ve asked Lady Falmouth to send me back to London to properly pack if we’re to stay through the winter.”

I turned to look at her. “Through the winter? Nonsense. Father wouldn’t stay away so long.”

She grabbed my head with both her hands and put it back where it was. “Hold still while I scrub your hair. Perhaps Lord Falmouth will send for us to return to London tomorrow, but I doubt it. I think we are here until this revolution mess is over.”

“So you don’t think that this has anything to do with the Incident?”

“Of course it does. There was a spy in the library.” She scrubbed and rinsed.

“You really think so? That it was a spy?”

“You must stop that nonsense,” she said dismissively.

“But it was a girl. The Shively girl.” I turned again, and she put me back in place. I didn’t like having conversation with somebody I couldn’t see.

“I’ve known Emily Shively for all of her life. It wasn’t her.”

“Julian said it was,” I insisted. “He saw her face clearly.”

“So did I. You know as well as I that Julian has a very excitable imagination.”

I wouldn’t give up. Somehow I was going to get somebody to admit the truth. “Lord Falmouth spoke to her. He called her Emily. And Jane says she turned into a bird.”

“Almost nothing that Jane has said in all the time I’ve known her has made any kind of sense. Stand up so I can rinse you.”

“Still, the King wouldn’t send a young girl to spy.”

Miss Annie was dismissive. “The King has proved beyond all doubt that his judgment is poor. I can believe that he or one of his ministers offered a poor girl from the dockyard some money to report on what she heard in a nobleman’s house, and I can believe that in the mess of confusion even Lord Falmouth could mistake her for the missing Shively girl. Stand still while I get you a towel, I don’t want you dripping on my floor. The floorboards are already rotting, I imagine with some water spilled on them they’ll just give way.”

The water pooled around my feet was so dark I couldn’t see my toes. Miss Annie wrapped the towel around my shoulders and lifted me straight up from the tub. “You’re getting to be too old for this.”

“I bathe myself at home, you know.”

“Yes, and you make a terrible mess.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I know you.” She dried me vigorously and my skin turned almost red. She threw a slip on over me and I sat down on a chair. Then she sat down behind me and began brushing my hair dry.

“You are becoming a young lady, Isabelle. It’s time you behaved like one.”

“I can behave like one just fine when I want to,” I huffed.

“Yes, I agree. But you need to want to more often. Running around with wooden swords is not a way for a young lady to behave.”

“Joan of Arc used real swords.”

“Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. And she wasn’t running around with boys all the time.”

“Queen Elizabeth ran around with boys all the time.”

“Hush your mouth,” she snapped, and pulled hard at a tangle in my hair.

“It’s true. Father told me.” He also told me that even after all these years, the Virgin Queen remains a saint in the English imagination and is not to be spoken of lightly.

“When you are queen you may consort with whomever you choose. You, young lady, are already going to have a difficult time being married off. With your father, your circumstances, your ‘you’-ness.”

“I’m eight years old, I don’t need to be married yet.”

“You’re almost nine, mind you, and you’ll be marrying age sooner than you believe. These years go by fast.”

I crossed my arms across my chest. My feet were getting cold. The brush caught in another tangle of hair and she pulled at it hard enough to hurt.

“Mr. Percy told me about your jaunt into the City that night.” Here it was, finally, my reckoning for that night. I tried not to show that my heart had skipped a beat. “I know it was your idea. Julian would never do something like that without your lead.”

“Why did he tell you?”

“You slept all day that day. Most unlike you. I was going to send for the doctor when Mr. Percy told me. You’re very lucky he found you when he did. What if you had made into the City? It’s filled with ruffians at night.”

So she didn’t know after all. In her telling, Mr. Percy caught us at the maypole and marched us home.

“You didn’t tell Lord Falmouth?” I asked.

“No. I should have told your father but he was already gone. I decided that only Julian would get into any real trouble, but you were the one who deserved the scolding. Anyway, I thought Mr. Percy would take care of the two of you by himself.”

“He’s been very nice to me ever since.”

“I noticed. You must have scared the devil out of him. He’s really a very sweet man, though he hides it. You know he used to work for your father?”

“Did he?”

“We both did,” she continued. Another tangle, but she dealt with it gently. “When you were a baby. But your father has this habit of replacing all of his staff regularly. So the two of us came to work for Lord Falmouth. John Percy has known you longer than you’ve known him. Despite himself he cares about you, and I think you scared him that night. In all your history of bad ideas that might have been your worst.”

“I wander around Portsmouth by myself.” I bet if she could have found another tangle in my hair she would have pulled at it then.

“Everyone in Portsmouth knows you. And Portsmouth isn’t London.” She gave one last long brush from the top of my head to the bottom of my hair. “There.” She was finished at last, which meant she wouldn’t be pulling at my scalp anymore. She came around and looked at me. “Perfect. Now let’s get you into this dress.”

It was one of my new ones, from when Father went to Spain. I was glad she chose that one.

A flash of panic shot across her face, and she looked back at the tub of dirty water.

“What?” I asked.

“Your necklace!”

“It’s right here.” I reached under the collar of the dress and showed her the leather strap. She was relieved.

“You can’t see it all.” The curious look on her face again. I could tell that she wanted to touch it again. It was strange. This wasn’t the kind of jewelry ladies were normally drawn to, not something studded with rubies. It was wood and leather, and I only wore it because my father gave it to me.

I nodded. “Like it disappears. But I can feel it when it’s on. I know I can’t lose it.” I didn’t feel it on my skin, though. It was more like a feeling in my blood, or my heart. “Why are we dressing up?”

“Because tomorrow is Sunday and we are going to church.”

And now it was my turn to panic. “I don’t go to church. Nobody in my family does.”

“Nobody in this family does, either,” Miss Annie soothed. “But this isn’t London, or Portsmouth for that matter. Back home your father and Lord Falmouth can be eccentrics. In a village like this, if we don’t appear at church, at least on Sundays, we can expect the village to come and burn us all down for being heretics or demons. Or Catholics.”

“We are Catholic,” I reminded. “Or at least we were.” My mother was from Spain. In Spain even the grass is Catholic.

“And in London—and Portsmouth—that is perfectly fine. But in a little village like this I’d rather be a demon from Hell than be a religion different from theirs. When Jane went to the market she didn’t bother stopping by the church first, and I cannot tell you how many times Chauncey has asked me about that. So we shall make an appearance, if not to save our souls than at least to save our skins. This is important, do you understand?” Reluctantly I nodded. She lowered herself to my level and spoke slowly and firmly. “Repeat what I said so I know that we understand each other.”

Dressing up was much less fun now. It was fun, though, to step back into the hall and see Julian laughably uncomfortable in his own nice outfit, unhappy about the scrubbing he received from his mother and the ridiculous way she had smoothed his normally curly hair into a flat bowl over his skull. “Isabelle,” Lady Falmouth began, “you look beautiful. Can I put a bow in your hair?” she asked. Yes, she could, and I knew what to use. I ran quickly into my room and came out with the small scarf the man in the boat had given me.

“Where did you get this?” Lady Falmouth asked.

“From a man in a boat down at the market.”

“Oh, Isabelle,” Miss Annie sighed. “You… Never mind.”

3.

“I found this when I was in the library for tea.” Jane gestured towards the library with her head. The door to it was closed; Miss Annie and Lady Falmouth were in there. Julian and I had been left alone in the hall. We weren’t going anywhere today, and in any event the clothes that we were dressed in were inappropriate for church. We were dressed up so we couldn’t go outside and play, or even play rough inside. They were polite shackles. It didn’t take us long to figure that out.

Jane came from her room with a leather-bound book that she placed on the table in front of us. “I thought you might find it interesting.”

The front door opened and Mr. Percy came in. Jane moved her body so that she blocked his view of the book, and Julian, understanding, reached out and pulled it close to him before hiding it under the table. Jane slowly stepped away from us, smiling. Mr. Percy crossed the room and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Good evening, children.” He smiled at us. Jane walked towards the kitchen and Mr. Percy followed her. He didn’t look back at us but Jane did, with just a hint of mischief on her face.

When they were gone Julian took out the book. “What is it?” I asked him.

The cover had no title. It was not a proper book so much as a scrapbook. Pages torn from other books, crudely bound together with leather strings, not unlike the one that held my necklace. I tried to see if Julian was wearing his but I couldn’t see it on his neck. I shouldn’t have been able to see it, though, so I wasn’t worried. I knew he was wearing it just the same.

“Diverse Mysteries and Legends of the East.” That was on the first page. It was in my father’s handwriting, or at least a version of my father’s handwriting. He must have been young when he wrote it. The printed text underneath was in a different language, probably Latin. There was a drawing on the next page, of large-eyed men with curly beards bowing before a winged lion with a woman’s head. My father had written “Lamassu” on the page.

Subsequent pages were a mess of languages. I recognized Latin, with all the quos vult sic nunc et and such. Greek, too, which always enchanted me with its beautiful curls: ἄγγελος δαίμων θεός χάος. I saw some German and French, and then large sections in Spanish. My father annotated much of it, translating selected words in the margins. For another long section the pages were covered in what looked like ink drippings but with a regularity that told me it must be an alphabet: شيطان يتبع لنا عبر الليل.

Drawings of various kinds: men in robes sacrificing goats; creatures with human heads, or else humans with animal bodies; temples and mountains; battle scenes with spears and swords, some fantastically bloody. And then partway through the words became English, and slowly Julian and I could read them. Gods, monsters, Assyria, Maghrib, Samarkand, Nineveh. The words were difficult to understand.

We turned a page and understood suddenly why Jane thought this book might be of interest to us. There was a picture, drawn by my father, of a man standing on a shore before a city crowned with a succession of domes. The man was only an outline, but Julian and I both recognized him clearly. He was tall and powerfully built, with something odd about him, a deformity perhaps that we couldn’t readily identify but sensed all the same. On either side of him were a line of crows.

“Constantinople, 19 May 1682. Tantibus on European soil.”

A cold chill passed through me and Julian visibly shuddered. We turned the page and saw my father’s writing:

“The Treasure of Tantibus.”

There was a rustle of sound in the kitchen and footfalls that drew closer. Julian slammed the book shut and put it back under the table. Mr. Percy came in and looked on at us as he passed through the hall. The country air was doing well for him. He looked happier than I had ever seen him.

Miss Annie opened the library door then and called out to us. “Children, to bed.” We didn’t protest. In my room I changed into bedclothes quickly and then slipped out. I shut my door behind me and creeped into Julian’s room. He was in his own bedclothes, ready for me. He had strung a blanket up in front of the bedroom door, and once I was behind it he lit a candle. We hoped the blanket would block enough light to keep our activities a secret. Anybody outside would see the light through the window, but we couldn’t imagine any reason why anybody would be outside.

Quietly we flipped through the book until we reached the page we wanted, and then read to ourselves, stopping only to ask each other what specific words meant and how they might be pronounced.

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Saturday morning I got a text message from my sister: “Call me when you get this.”

My first instinct is to worry. Messages like this can only signal a death in the family.

However, ever since my grandmother died, and my sister’s and parents’ dogs, there has been nobody in the family who is both a candidate for dying soon, and a close enough to me to justify me calling home ahead of schedule.

So I told myself that probably the message didn’t sound so ominous when she sent it. Probably she wanted to know how to fix her computer, or what we should get our parents for Christmas.

I poured myself a coffee and called her. We talked for about a half hour, and when we hung up I bought plane tickets to go home.

Nobody died, thank goodness, but it wasn’t clear at the time. My mother was in the hospital, and we wouldn’t really know anything for a few more hours.

The next flight out of Kampala was leaving very soon, and I wouldn’t have enough time to pack, make arrangements for my things to be cared for, and get myself to Entebbe. The regular evening flight through Amsterdam was almost sold out, and every time I tried to buy that last available ticket I got a message warning me that the price had just gone up and I would have to verify the new price before hitting “Purchase.” I re-entered my information, and when I was done I received the same message: in those two minutes the price had gone up again, first from $1400 to $1800, then to $2400, then to $3700. I am pretty sure the system had me bidding against myself. Eventually the website told me to call the airline office, which was still closed for another three hours.

I checked out Sunday’s fares. The Amsterdam flight was still unable to sell me a ticket (at one point going up to $8000-something and a change), but the morning flight through Addis Ababa still had seats available.

I did some quick calculations and figured that the fastest way to get home would be to fly through Addis and Dublin to Washington and then drive the last six hours to North Carolina. Which was some kind of madness, I suppose, but I would be home by Monday afternoon.

So I packed, made a few phone calls, and waited. It was middle of the night on the East Coast but my dad and sister were wide awake. They gave me the blow by blow. By the time I got in the taxi to go to the airport, it seemed that everything would be fine.

Well, maybe not fine necessarily, but better than the worst.

I’m an adult now—like a real, honest-to-goodness grown-up, who has a job and pays taxes and dispenses candy and unsolicited advice to young people whose music I don’t understand and whose life plans I worry about.

I have been this way for a long time, but whenever I do adult things I get impressed anyway. I know which suitcases I’ll travel with. I know what to pack, how I’ll load them on the plane, and what I’ll need to buy on the way home. I wear pants that don’t need a belt, and shoes that slip off so I can get through security easily. The bag that goes under my seat has the books I will read on the plane, and my music and headphones, and a travel toothbrush. The rest goes into the overhead. I won’t need to stand up every five minutes to get one more thing out of the overhead, like some other people on the plane.

I have my passport and my yellow fever certificate, and I even bring my own pen so I can fill out the customs form on the plane instead of making everyone wait while I do it in the line.

As I get to the security line I take my phone and passport out of my pocket and slip them into the front pocket of my small bag so I don’t have to put it in the cubby and risk losing them.

None of this makes my check-in any faster, because all the people in front of me in the security line are wearing tons of jewelry, have on elaborate belts, forgot where they put their passports, didn’t know they needed to bring their yellow fever certificates, object to taking off their shoes because they don’t have good socks on, want to bring their water bottles in past security, etc. It’s as if nobody has ever done this before.

Not me, though. The x-ray lady almost forgets to scan me, because my arrival to the scanner is not foretold by a ton of drama. I just step onto the yellow footprints and put my hands over my head, and after a second she realizes that I am there and pushes the button. I come out, reached around a few families and businesspeople for my shoes and two bags, and walk away.

It’s all so seamless. I land in Washington, breeze through all the people in customs who aren’t sure what they are supposed to declare, shoot past all the people looking up at the signs and trying to figure out where the bathrooms/shuttles/exits are. I go into a bathroom and change into winter clothes. I brush my teeth and check to make sure I don’t smell bad. When I come out of the bathroom I’m dressed completely differently—I even swapped out my glasses for contacts—and a security guard notices and makes polite but probing conversation. I don’t even break stride as I answer all his questions before he can ask them. I go straight to the shuttles and to the rental car agency, where I pick up the car I’ve prepaid and take off down the highway.

There’s nobody to be impressed, so I have to note for myself that I can get into a strange new car and drive on the opposite side of the road without batting an eye. It only takes me a minute to make the necessary adjustments. Granted, getting it wrong means that I’ll be barreling down the highway into oncoming traffic, but I’m still an impressively quick study. I feel pleased. I turn on my navigator app and let it guide me, without question, to I-95. I’ve traveled halfway across the word in thirty-six hours. Now, four hours left.

I love the austere beauty of November. It isn’t the still wonderland of December or the vibrant chill of October. It isn’t winter yet but it isn’t really autumn anymore, either. The Halloween decorations are gone and everyone’s eager to set up Christmas ones but it feels indecent to do so before Thanksgiving. The trees are stripped bare and their branches scrape the sunlight. The sky and pavement are the same battleship gray. I like this inbetweentime, empty of weight and color but anticipating greatness all the same.

I make a quick stop at Target to buy pants, since I only have one pair and that probably won’t be enough. I also get a sandwich and a coffee from Starbucks and head back out. By now I know that everything is as good as it could be and that my mom will be released from the hospital that afternoon—my sister tells me to forget the hospital and just go straight home—but I drive without stopping anyway. The rental car has a feature that suggests you take a break after a couple of hours. The digital screen on the dashboard takes away the speedometer and replaces it with an animated picture of a coffee cup. I take my eyes off the road long enough to figure out how to go back to the speed. I want to get home as quickly as possible, but I don’t want to get stopped by the police. And I already had my coffee for the morning, thank you very much.

I have a warm relationship with both of parents and I adore them both equally, but there are differences. My father was always very attentive and involved and loving, but he was—is, I should say—a man of his generation, with all the issues that entails. I think he would have been happier had he been born thirty years later. He’s very sensitive, and would have made a great hipster.

My relationship with my mother, however, is completely uncomplicated. She’s relentlessly sweet and generous to a fault, and the only times we ever butted heads it was because I was a teenager and completely in the wrong but too headstrong and immature to know better. She still sends me care packages full of candy and things I don’t need, even though I make more money now than she’s ever seen.

In the back of my mind I’ve always understood that my parents will someday die, and I don’t think my father would be offended if I said that we all assumed that he would go first. My mother, then, would do what she always does: be sad at first, but eventually, inevitably, find her way back into the sunshine.

The idea that my father would be the one left alone in their big house wasn’t something I’d ever considered, and I realized that if she didn’t recover I would be in effect losing both parents at once.

As my father himself would say when I finally made it home, “She isn’t my better half. She’s my better three-quarters. Maybe more.”

In Virginia it’s a good idea to obey the speed limit, but in North Carolina somehow the laws don’t seem to matter on the highway. Or at least the prevailing attitude is “as long as no one gets hurt…” I let myself go ten miles over the speed limit while other cars fly past me, annoyed that I’m not trying for the speed of light.

I’m home by around three-thirty. My dad is in the garage, because he suddenly needs to reorganize his tools. My mother is in the hospital with my sister, but because they expect her to be discharged soon and because I don’t have a house key, dad came home first. He gives me a hug. He’s clearly exhausted, and his eyes have a dreamy quality I’ve never seen in him. He talks about what happened, but also about how the town’s recycling system changed five years ago, and how the bird feeders have been attracting a lot of cardinals lately, and wonders aloud if he should put his old handyman magazines on eBay now that he knows how to Google everything on his phone. He offers me a beer. It’s been a long time since sharing a drink with my dad has been a novelty; we’re just two adults having a beer now, as adults do. I take it and drink with him, even though it is chilly and I badly need to use the bathroom.

She had a massive heart attack. The doctors emphasized “massive.” They were supposed to go grocery shopping when she began to complain about heartburn. The pain grew worse every second, and when she started to turn purple he threw her in the car. Before they’d reached the end of the street she was unconscious, and he sped into a nearby fire department, jumped out of the car and shouted “Help!” The firefighters sprang out of the fire station with every possible piece of equipment, ready for anything from childbirth to gunshot wound. They took her form the car and threw her into an ambulance and sped away. One fireman stayed behind to apologize to my dad for not having asked permission, but the situation was dire and they needed her to go right now. He told my dad where they were taking her, and advised him to drive slowly. My dad said he drove slowly but didn’t breathe the entire time. By the time he reached the hospital she was in surgery; the firefighters that brought were all still standing around waiting for him.

He called my sister and she called me. “Why do I always have to give the bad news?”

“You’re older. And you live closer.”

The operation takes about twenty minutes, and the doctor is smiling when he gets to my dad. Later the nurses who have been chatting her up agree that she has a lot to live for and isn’t going to let heart get in the way. They remove her from intensive care the following day, while I’m somewhere over Europe, and discharge her from the hospital a few hours after I arrive. My mom and sister are both nurses, so the doctor has a relatively easy time explaining what the care regimen will be. She leaves with a sack full of pills and a cookbook that basically just says, “Don’t eat salt!”

When she gets home she actually looks away. I was home a few years ago when she got a cold, and she looked a hell of a lot worse. She comes in and starts asking me what I want to eat. “I’m fine, mom.” I remind her that I’m at least as good a cook she is, and would be happy to serve her.

She makes a joke: “I’m glad you came. My computer is acting up again.”

My sister brought her infant daughter, and the not-yet-toddler’s antics alternately  distract us from the reason why we’re here, and help us focus on what matters. We have serious discussions about taking care of ourselves, changing our diets and getting more exercise. My father had been a career soldier and told us again the story about how he once helped a new recruit cope with the running. “It’s all about the breathing.” He demonstrated again, but I think this is the first time in twenty years any of us paid attention.

By the end of the evening my mother is in high spirits. She eats well, laughs at my jokes, watches a little TV, plays with the baby. She’s not allowed to pick up the baby—nothing over five pounds, the doctor said, and this baby is a chubby one.

In the morning I wake up first—jet lag—and she joins me a couple of hours later. We watch Spanish TV and talk about how cheesy it is. I make her a breakfast from her cookbook, and promise to go to the bookstore today to find a better one. For the rest of the day we all stand around busying ourselves and keeping her comfortable. By evening she’s talking seriously a taking a trip to Vegas for her birthday. This is my mom. This is what she does.

My sister will go back home today, and I’ll be alone with my parents. I’m going to get them groceries and find that better cookbook, but otherwise I’ll stay home. I don’t know what other value I can add but I’m here til Friday so I’ll figure it out.

Knowing that death is inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. Heaven/nirvana/eternal rest are hollow consolations no matter how much we try to say otherwise.

I hope that we can take this time to reflect and make sure that as we live out our days we do so purposefully, conscious of how much we do love ourselves and each other. I hope that we don’t let ourselves fall into ruts and let the time just slip away. When death comes I want to be at peace with it.

But all that is later. Today, I’m just happy to be home, and happy to that we are all still here, too.

Old photos

Old photos

I dug through my photo collections yesterday trying to find a particular shot that I may or may have not taken on a trip to Uzbekistan last year. I was unsuccessful, either because I didn’t take the picture, or I did but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.

It doesn’t matter. Once I was in my Photos app there was no reason not to keep looking. (On the contrary, there were lots of reasons to stop what I was doing and address my actual current life.)

I have a huge stack of old photo albums that I still carry with me and lug from house to house and country to country. I used to display them in a low bookshelf that has also been dragged all around the world since my parents gave it to me back in the early 1990s. For a while the pictures shared the shelf with knick-knacks and souvenirs. On the bottom shelf was a shoebox full of unsorted pictures that I promised I would someday put into proper albums. I still have that shoebox, and I still promise myself that I’ll do sort them someday.

Eventually the bookshelf overfilled, and first the knick knacks and then the box of pictures were removed to make room for more albums. (I also made it a point to start buying albums that were slim, because there just wasn’t much space on the shelves.)

Eventually I had to create another shoebox—though this shoebox was actually much bigger than a shoebox—to accomodate the photo albums that I was unlikely to flip through regularly.

Because I did flip through most of them regularly. Not daily—that would be weird and obsessive. But every now and then I desperately felt the need to look at the faces of old friends, or the fragments of past lives, and my heart would ache until I was satisfied.

I was a latecomer to digital photography. I couldn’t afford a DSLR when I was younger, and even after I could I didn’t like how heavy and slow they were. I clung to my film camera until the last developer I knew shut down, and then I made the grudging switch to a point-and-shoot, the only type I was willing to pay for. It was just this summer that I finally let myself graduate to a proper digital camera, and an old love has been rekindled.

But I digress.

At various points in my life floor space has come at a premium, and my photo albums had to be stored in a closet or my parents’ house. In order to keep my access to them, I started digitizing them. I could store them on my computer along with my digital ones, and little by little critical mass was reached and my photo albums are now, again, in a closet. I haven’t digitized all of them—I just don’t have the time. But a few key ones.

And then a few odd ones, come to find.

While I was looking through yesterday I came upon this picture, taken in 2005 somewhere in Ovorhangai province in Mongolia. It was raining and the river was flooded. There was no bridge over the river, but we were in a virtually indestructible Soviet jeep so we just drove right through it. This was one of those magnificent flash floods that pop up on the steppes from time to time, where a slim creek because a raging torrent in just a matter of minutes. If we had arrived a minute or two later we wouldn’t have been able to ford the river as we did.

Further up the river, a group of horses had become separated from each other by the rising waters. Out of genuine concern we watched as the group splashed across the water to reunite. Last to rejoin was a baby who was too scared to jump in the water, even though every moment of hesitation make the torrent more dangerous.

I’ve seen these pictures countless times and told the story to anyone who cared to listen, so it doesn’t surprise me that I had these pictures scanned. I was surprised, though, that I’d scanned this one obviously accidental shot. This picture is unedited on my computer: it’s taken through the windshield and out of focus. Probably is the was the last picture in the roll and I was just trying to end it. Somehow today I find it beautiful, and the point of all this scribbling has been to let you know why I wanted to share it.

1734

Chapter 8: Julian

Chapter 8: Julian

1.

I begged to use the carriage but my mother refused and so we walked into town. Jane carried a sack full of other empty sacks, and Isabelle and I trotted alongside. We had tried to bring our swords but my mother wouldn’t let us do that, either.

From the little road that connected the manor to the main road we could see the whole of Bungay, and a couple of other towns that appeared as brown smudges in the distance.  At more-or-less random places in the grass sunlight glinted off the river, which must have been terribly curvy to appear in so many places at once. Small boats sailed up and down, and where the river was hidden by the meadows it appeared as if the boats were sailing across grass.

I had expected the market to be something small and shameful, but instead the heart of town was a riot of activity. On one end was a mass of people selling butter, and on the far end a similar mass selling flour, and in between was a jumble of voices and clanging and singing and shouting. The only difference between this market and the one I knew from home was the absence of street children; the few children I saw here were all busy.

Jane went straight to work, checking the wares and comparing prices. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. In London you could just say, “Pound of carrots, please,” and the deal would be done. Here things were different. Each time Jane went up to a stall, the vendor would strike up a conversation, asking all manner of questions about Jane, about our family, about how we liked the town and our house and what were the names of the children and did she herself have any children and was the lady of the house alone or would she be joined by the lord of the house and where did Jane it was Jane wasn’t it where did you come from before you came to their employ your accent suggests you aren’t a native Londoner oh Cotswolds that’s grand and how are the children adjusting do they have a governess is there need for a

And on and on. Sometime, eventually, Jane would have a chance to ask about the bloody carrots, and then on the next stall for cabbages, and a whole new battery of questions, different but essentially the same, would resume. I wondered why they didn’t all just take notes and then compare behind our backs; it’s what the ladies at Covent Garden did, after all.

Without asking Jane, Isabelle and I moved on. I don’t think she really expected us to follow her around anyway, and even from the center of town we could see Winston House in the distance so we couldn’t possibly be lost.

The doors to St. Mary’s were open so we peeked in. The sanctuary was empty. The inside was less decorated but perhaps prettier than St. Martin’s.

“You may enter,” a voice said behind us. Behind us was a priest. A sign out front had named a Right Reverend Bishop George Mather, and I assumed this was he. The bishop was tall, older than Father Mallory but much younger than Chauncey. The dirt under the river was younger than Chauncey. The bishop was a bit older than my father, and his face showed its age with dignity, without a pile of sagging wrinkles. He had black-and-grey hair and narrow blue eyes.

“We were just looking,” Isabelle offered as a polite refusal.

“You must be the new children. Master Julian, I believe?” I nodded. “And Miss Isabelle Edmonstone.” A quizzical look crossed her face. The bishop saw it. “Your name is not unknown in these parts. Daughter of Lord Robert Edmonstone of Portsmouth. We had the pleasure to meet, he and I, years ago. I never met your mother but heard wonderful things, and when she passed I sent my respects. You must look quite like her, as you don’t resemble your father much at all.” It was both polite and rude, the way he spoke. I couldn’t really explain why. “Might not I interest you in tea and biscuits? We can take them in the garden.”

I didn’t answer but looked at Isabelle, whose eyes stayed locked on the bishop’s. “I’m afraid we cannot stay today,” she said, “but perhaps another time. If you’ll excuse us.”

“Of course,” he said. “Run along. The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day.”

She took my hand and we scooted past him and back into the square, into the market where we pretended to be busy. The first stall we came across was run by an old man who was half asleep. His table was was covered with an odd assortment of kitchen items like pots and cups, as well as bolts of blue and white cloth and random bits like combs and dolls. Isabelle picked up a blue and white scarf and wrapped it around her head like a grandmother. I laughed a bit. She started to make a silly face but stopped herself—her lip was still badly hurt from the Incident, and it hurt her to stretch it too much. The vendor stirred and Isabelle quickly put the scarf back, trying awkwardly to fold it as it had been before stepping away. The vendor looked down at it, frowned, picked it up, and began folding it properly. We scampered off.

It only took a few steps to be out of the market. Jane was struggling to buy flour; we let her be. There was a road that curved away from the market, and Isabelle and I followed it. The alternative, we supposed, would have been to walk out into the meadows, which probably wasn’t a good idea.

On one side of the street were the backs of the buildings that faced the square. They were just as crooked on this side as they were on that, but a little more crumbly-looking. They showed their best side to the square, I suppose. The other side of the street was mostly open to the meadows, except for two or three squat little houses and one surprisingly sturdy box of a building. It must have been the newest building in town. We walked up to it. A sign on it said “Bungay Staithe.”

“What’s a…” I wasn’t sure how to pronounce the word. Isabelle didn’t know, either. At least now I knew how to spell Bungay. In my mind I thought it was “Bunghee.” The building had a large wooden door that was held open by a rope, and so we went in. It was a large undecorated room with a small table on one side; at the table there was an empty chair and a closed ledger that I wasn’t curious enough to open. Another door on the opposite side was also open, so we walked through.

Here was the river, stripped of its protecting grasses. It was broad, and a barely visible current tugged the water towards the sea. An earthen path led to a wooden pier to which three small boats were tied. We had found Bungay’s famous little port.

I found a rock and threw it into the water where it made a satisfying plunk. Isabelle did the same but her rock wasn’t big enough to make a good sound. She was disappointed. She tried again, trying this time to throw it farther into the river, but she misjudged the distance and it landed in the grass, startling a large bird that had been rested there unseen. The bird took off, which must have been a signal to another bird on our side of the river, one that had been hiding in the grass beside us, for it took off as well, startling us in turn. Isabelle cringed and whipped her head around quickly to get a look at the birds. I knew what she was looking for; I was doing the same. But these birds were blue, and rather small.

We weren’t alone here, that much became clear to me. Isabelle took a step away from the river and towards the walkway. “Hello?” she called out, more to herself than anything.

“Hello?” I echoed, louder this time. There was a rustle in a bush, and a glimmer of a figure.

“Is anyone there?” Isabelle called out again. A little hand emerged from the bush and called to us.

“Come here,” a tiny voice said. “I want to show you something.” A quizzical smile spread on Isabelle’s face. I drew close to her and we walked over.

Too slowly, apparently. The hand waved again, faster, telling us to come. It belonged to a very small child, or perhaps an elf. I felt relieved but Isabelle’s halting footsteps made me think harder, and I thought for a moment that it might be—or at least that she thought it might be—a trap. When we drew close the hand disappeared into the bush, and when we peered in we saw that behind the bush there was a clearing of packed earth, on the edge of which sat crouching a little boy, perhaps not more than four years old. He didn’t look up at us but instead waved us closer and repeated, “I want to show you something.” Looking at me for approval, Isabelle stepped into the clearing and I followed.

Whatever small sounds the town had made disappeared entirely in the clearing. The boy signaled with his hand for us to come down, and so we squatted beside him. We couldn’t squat the way he did, though: he kept his feet flat on the ground, his knees together and tucked all the way up to his chest so his chin could rest on it. I tried it for a moment and found the strain on my legs and pressure on my toes unbearable. I knelt instead. Isabelle didn’t last long either before simply sitting on the ground.

The little boy traced his finger in the dirt in front of him, drawing a small circle before gently lifting with his fingertip a small blue flower from the ground. It was tiny, with a green stem as thin as a thread. He drew another circle on the ground a few inches away, and again drew a tiny blue flower from it. After he had drawn five of them he pulled them up from the ground, roots and all, and arranged them into a little bouquet, tiny even in his little fingers, and held them out to Isabelle. It was the first time I saw his face, a little oval framed in light brown hair, with saucer-like eyes that were a light brown flecked with gold and green.

“For me?” Isabelle asked, but I was more interested in where they came from than where they were going. I had to resist the urge to draw in the ground myself. “Thank you.” She took them and smelled them. He reached out with one hand and put a finger on the cut on her lip. For a moment a quietly serious look came on his face, and at that same moment Isabelle’s eyes changed—her whole face, really. I couldn’t explain what it was. I wasn’t even positive that it happened, but something like a light or a shadow passed over her face and for a moment her eyes seemed to slip away.

But only a moment. Not even a moment. He smiled, revealing two rows of tiny white teeth. “Ha ha!” he laughed, pleased with himself. His laugh was almost more of a snort. Then he raked the ground quickly with his fingers, erasing his circles, stood up and bounded past us, out of the bush. Isabelle was back and normal, and she raised her own finger to her lip, to feel the cut that he had touched. She smiled, the first real smile she’d had since the Incident. I could see that the swelling had already gone down—funny how I had forgotten than her bottom lip was supposed to be thin and pale pink, not the thick red cord it had been for the past few days. The cut itself was barely visible, too.

We didn’t run after him, but we did get up and follow—I, for one, was intensely curious. He was standing in the door to the building which much have been the waiting room or office or whatever for the Bungay port, and waved for us. Isabelle dusted off the seat of her dress and I did the same to my knees, and then we walked after him, she holding her flowers very lightly and occasionally bringing them up to her nose to sniff.

As he ran ahead of us he began zigzagging along the road, then abruptly stopped to examine something on the ground before getting up and running ahead. He was entirely unpredictable but seemed content, laugh-snorting to himself and beckoning us with his little hand, sometimes looking over his shoulder to make sure we were following. He tripped every so often, falling to the ground with a perfect splat and then picking himself up and saying, “I’m not hurt!” and then toddling away again, his little legs racing like hummingbird wings without carrying him very far. We followed him and before long reached the edge of the town, where the road to Norwich began to rise over the hill.

“Where are we going?” Isabelle asked him when we caught up. He looked at her and then pointed with his entire arm towards a little shelter built by the side of the road. He ran in and we followed.

He had plopped down on a wooden bench inside the shelter. There was a burlap sack there which he picked up and began digging through.

“Do you live here?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Where do you live?”

Without really looking up he pointed across the river, towards a small smudge on a hilltop that could have been a cottage, surrounded by much smaller smudges that might have been cows. From his sack he pulled a roll of bread about the size of my fist and celebrated it with his “Ha ha!” laugh-snort. He held it out to Isabelle, who took it in her other hand, and then he found another and held it out to me. I took it. It was still warm.

“Why are you in town?” I asked him. He shrugged and swung his feet. He was small enough that when he sat on the bench his feet didn’t touch the ground. “Are your parents in the market?”

“What’s your name?” Isabelle asked. I suppose that was a better question.

“Asa,” he said as he bit into his own roll of bread.

“Are you here alone?” He shook his head again, and then pointed at me and at Isabelle. She laughed. “Besides us, I mean. Is there anybody else here with you?” He looked around. The shelter was empty. He shook his head again. Was he deliberately misunderstanding, or was he so young he took everything exactly literally? He laugh-snorted again, though it was unclear if he was being funny or just being happy.

“My name is Isabelle,” she said. “And this is Julian.” I waved at him with the hand holding the bread. “We’re not from here.” He didn’t answer. “We’re only visiting.”

He stood up then, put the last of his roll into his mouth, and grabbed both of us. He took my free hand, but since Isabelle didn’t have any free hands he had to take her wrist. He tugged at us, which I could barely feel, but we obligingly moved in the direction he wanted us to, which was out into the road. Once in the middle of it, he pointed back towards the town. I followed his finger with my eyes. From this angle we could only barely see it, but there, half hidden by the castle and the church, was our house. Or at least Chauncey’s cottage.

“Yes,” I said, “that’s where we live.”

And then the little boy—Asa, he said his name was—whipped his head around as if he had heard something. He let go of us and darted into the shelter to grab his burlap sack, and then ran past us again on the road up to Norwich, stopping only briefly to wave goodbye and the point us back in the direction of Bungay.

“Bye!” Isabelle and I shouted out to him, and he ran off out of sight over the hill. We watched him as he ran in his zigzag way, one arm spinning like a windmill as he disappeared over the rise of the hill. Isabelle and I turned back into town.

Jane was easy to spot, as she was one of the last active buyers in the market. Many of the vendors had already packed up. With not much time left, the vendors were less interested in Jane and her story, letting her actually buy things at last. Her sacks were quite full now and I wondered how she would carry everything. Probably I’d have to carry at least one of those sacks. I stopped before she could see us, and took the road back to the port. Isabelle followed.

We found the spot in the clearing where Asa had pulled the flowers. I could tell that Isabelle wanted to go in and see if she could make the flowers appear in the dirt, too, but we both knew we couldn’t. Whatever trick he was doing, neither of us knew how to do it.

“Hello there,” another voice called. This one, deep, a man’s voice. I saw Isabelle stiffen. Maybe next time we’d bring our swords.

The man was walking through the station building carrying a large sack. I recognized him as the old man selling the odd assortment of items in the market. “Hello!” he repeated. It felt impolite not to say hello back, so I did. “I wonder if you might give me a hand. I left a bag like this one back at the market. I’d get it myself but you two look young and strong. If you each grab a handle you can drag it back together and I can be on my way that much sooner. Would you lend us a hand, then?”

Isabelle looked unconvinced. I’m sure she was thinking of a way to say no without being too impolite. If it were me asking she’d just say no, but this was an elder and even Isabelle knew to be respectful of elders, at least in public.

“I’ll make it worth your time. My wherry’s the one there, with the orange flag.” He pointed at one of the boats in the water. Wherry, he called it. I knew from living near the docks in London that every kind of boat has a different name, each more ridiculous than the last. Dory, dinghy, sloop, schooner; I could add wherry to that list. The Spanish ships had more respectable names—galleon, caravel—but then maybe they sounded just as silly in Spanish.

We didn’t answer him, but a twinkle in his eye told us that he believed we would help him. He shouldered his sack and carried it towards his boat. Isabelle and I watched him pass us, and then she shrugged and I shrugged and we went into the market.

The sack was where he’d said it would be, with a handle on each side. I was able to lift it, but without Isabelle I wouldn’t get it far. She took the other side and we began to walk.

“What do you think’s in here?” she asked.

“Clothes, maybe.” It grew heavier with each step. This must be my punishment for not wanting to help Jane. Jane would have given us very light bags.

“Sad little market, isn’t it?” Isabelle said. I actually didn’t think so, but I agreed with her anyway.

“I hope Jane bought all she needed. Maybe the locals go to the nearest city when they need to buy things.” Although I couldn’t really imagine what they needed. I suppose everyone needs pots and clothes.

By the time we got to the port my hands were hurting, and the straps had carved red bands into my palms. The expressions on Isabelle’s face showed that she was running out of strength, too. We could see the boat, though, and it wasn’t too far away.

“You made it!” the man called out from the deck. He didn’t hop down to help us, he just turned back and kept doing whatever he had been doing. When we reached the edge of the boat we dropped the sack. He popped up like a cork and smiled down at us. “Great job! I thank you from the bottom of my old salty heart.” He hopped down and grabbed the sack with both hands and flung it onto the boat.

“What’s in the bag?” I asked.

“My wares. Old clothes, mostly. I buy them here and sell them on.”

“Who buys old clothes?” Isabelle asked.

“Nobody here. I’m going from here to Holland. There’s an English community there, people who left after the Restoration. They cling to the old ways, want to pretend Cromwell is still hanging about. I suppose it’s a harmless enough fantasy. They make some nice crafts that I buy and sell here in England, and I take back old English clothes that nobody would want to wear now. Look at this!” He opened the sack and pulled out a scrap of black cloth. After turning it around a few times to find which way is up, he held it up. It was a woman’s dress, a plain black smock that was too simple even for Jane.

“Compare this to your dress, miss,” he said, gesturing to Isabelle. Her dress—a play dress, no less, nothing fancy—was a rainbow of color by comparison. “This is how we dressed when I was a lad. Everything’s much better now. But this is what they want, so I give it.” He balled it back up and stuffed it into the bag.

“You’ll sail this all the way to Holland?” Isabelle asked.

“No,” he chuckled. “Only as far as Yarmouth. I got a proper ship there to take me across the sea. These wherries are only good for the Broads, you know. But at Yarmouth and Lowestoft we get on bigger ones, and head out all over the world: London, Holland, Spain, America even if you want to.”

Isabelle’s mind, I could tell, was working.

“I promised you a reward. You two just wait there a minute. Would you like to come aboard?”

“Yes,” Isabelle answered quickly. The man stopped and looked down, a slight frown on his face.

“I’m sorry, miss, I only meant him. Sailors are superstitious, you know. You have to be where you’re going up against old Neptune. It’s bad luck to have a lady on a ship, even if it’s a little lady and little ship.” Before she could protest he held up a hand and smiled. “But you two wait right there, I’ve got something for you.”

He rummaged through another sack for a bit, his back to us, considering and then rejecting the items there. I could see that Isabelle was fighting the urge to jump onto the ship, just to prove him wrong. It’s only fair that the man should learn that Isabelle’s will is not to be toyed with. Old Neptune may or may not have his revenge, but Isabelle certainly would.

He kept mumbling about having something until finally he turned around. He beckoned us over to the side of boat and rested his own foot on the side and leaned over to us. “For you, little lord,” he said as he held out my reward. “You have a beautiful lass here, and you need to take good care of her, you understand? This is a dangerous world. Here.” It was a small dagger, not much bigger than the man’s hand, with a simple handle. The blade was grey and old with dark spots on it. I touched it with my fingertip and it wasn’t very sharp, though it could probably cut through bread with some effort.

“And for you, little lady,” he said, and held out a blue-and-white scarf which he deftly folded into a neat square and handed to her with both hands. It was the one—or at least very similar to the one—she had played with in the market. So he hadn’t been sleeping after all. “Thank you both, I must be off.” And with a nod of the head he returned to his work, and although we stood there for a bit we were now invisible to him. Isabelle and I retreated. I carried the dagger a ways, then tucked it into my belt.

“What does he mean, take care of me?” The entire way back to the market she railed at the injustice. “I should have the dagger.” This much we could both agree on: she was far more likely to use it than I was. She was also far more likely to use the scarf, though. When I refused to give her the dagger she punched me in the arm and I nearly down fell in the street. She unwrapped the scarf and used it tie a bow in her hair.

The market was nearly empty now. We looked for Jane but she wasn’t anywhere obvious. A woman who looked like as round and red as an apple called us over, and we were close enough to her that not to go over would have been rude. “What a lovely bow in your hair,” she said to Isabelle, completely ignoring me. Isabelle thanked her, curtsied, and faked a blush. As if she were a sweet little girl who hadn’t just given me a bruise on the arm.

“A sweetie for a sweetie,” the woman said. She had a jar of candied orange peels on her table, what back home we’d call suckets but which here probably had some weird name. She gave one to Isabelle. I leaned over as much as I could to try to get one. Eventually the lady noticed me. “And a fine little lord accompanying,” she said, and gave me one, too. Then she gave Isabelle two more.

We passed through the rest of the market and found the road back to our house. Jane was most of the way home now, struggling with several large baskets and sacks but moving forward. Feeling guilty, I offered to help. She stopped, took a deep breath, and then said, “You run along and play. I’ve made it this far, I can manage the rest of the way.” Feeling even guiltier now because I felt relieved even though her face was bright red and her hair was stuck to the side of her face with sweat, I ran on. Before we made it home, Isabelle got over her anger and gave me one of her suckets. My arm still hurt, though.

2.

Death is an enormous concept. We see, touch, breathe, and feel, the world spins on around us in good ways and bad, we close our eyes every night knowing we will open them in the morning. And then in a moment all of it can cease. I remember once a vase falling from a shelf in the house. It had stood on that spot for years, and before then had stood on a similar spot in Mother’s house for centuries. It had survived the Fire and countless other tragedies. It was very pretty, and I remember looking at it from time to time, wanting to touch it. Mother once showed it to me, and then when she put it back it slipped out of her hands and shattered into a thousand pieces. In my heart I wanted so desperately to take back that moment. I understood immediately, and also entirely failed to understand, that it was gone forever, in one instant from one mistake that wouldn’t have happened if only we’d left it alone. Mother was so heartbroken that it was days before she thought to reassure me that it wasn’t my fault. Years later I still looked to the empty spot on the shelf.

Death, I imagined, was something like that. What was the empty spot on the Shively’s shelf? Or Isabelle’s mother, what did that empty space look like in Isabelle’s heart?

The Greeks gave death many names, divided it among several different demons. There was Hades, the God of the Underworld, whom people called the Rich One or the Hospitable One because they didn’t like saying his name. And his queen Persephone, who had once been a beautiful young girl until he kidnapped her and tricked her into becoming his queen. She was now cold and malevolent in her anger.

But they merely ruled over the dead. The dead came to them and were received. Dying itelf was the domain of the Fates, the three sisters Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho, who spun the thread of life for each mortal at birth; Lachesis, who measured the length of the thread based on formula known only to herself; and Atropos, who cut the thread and made death inevitable and inescapable. What was done could not be undone, and when the thread was cut the measure of life was done.

There were other sisters, the Keres, dark creatures with sharp claws and gnashing teeth who brought violent and brutal death upon those they chose. One should be so lucky to have their death decided by Atropos and not the Keres.

And then there was Thanatos, death himself. Gods and men hated him equally. He was merciless, visiting good and bad, men and women, young and old. He could not be escaped or defeated or bargained with. When he came, summoned by Atropos or the Keres, it—everything—was over.

In my bed I held my dagger. I’d never held a real weapon before. My sword was made of wood. I’d watched as my father carved it from a block of wood, replaced one that Isabelle had smashed a few weeks earlier. She’d swung hers hard, and it must have hit the grain of mine in just the right way for a deep crack ran down the blade; I tried to make her stop but she swung again, and the blade broke into two large pieces and a hundred small ones. She declared victory and howled with delight until she saw me crying. Father came and found me kneeling over the pieces. “I’ll make you a new one, don’t worry.” The new one was heavier.

Isabelle’s was also damaged, we learned later. She replaced hers with a lighter one. Perhaps that made us more evenly matched. I could swing as hard as she did; I just didn’t.

This dagger was metal, iron perhaps. Maybe bronze. I don’t know much about metals, and the dagger was so tarnished that I couldn’t even tell what color it was supposed to be. It was not as heavy as my wooden sword, and was significantly shorter, but there was a heft to it that gave it an air of menace.

I ran my finger along the blade. I doubted that it could even cut through bread, but once it had been a real weapon, and the scuffs and marks on it make me think it had probably been used as such. There were spots on the blade that could be rust or the remnants of blood. I imagined the damage this would do, and thought of death.

The Minotaur in his labyrinth. How many people had he killed? But he couldn’t help it. He was born an animal, and none of us could choose how to be born. Perhaps his parents should have killed him when they saw him, knowing that his fate was to eat humans until at last a human killed him. But they didn’t, and that wasn’t his fault, either. He hunted and killed, just as we do with deer and rabbits and even animals we have no intention of eating. And when Theseus came for him the Minotaur, who had seen and caused so much death, fought with ferocious intensity. How desperate he must have felt, trapped in his own room, the exit blocked, a half-god with a sword attacking him in the dark. He must have known it was his end. What could he do? I imagined a savage and desperate struggle, a fox trapped by dogs, knowing that the moment has come, that Atropos has made her cut and Thanatos is reaching his hand out, understanding completely and yet unable to understand anything, that the light will go out and this will all end.

This dagger in my hand, cutting through flesh and stilling a beating heart, Thanatos’ icy hand on my shoulder, the Keres shrieking overhead, Persephone’s cold smile, the Minotaur’s final roar caught in his savage throat.

I remembered the crows on Shandos Place. Six of them in a perfect row, staring directly at me from Emily Shively’s window, cold and unblinking.

I slipped the dagger under my pillow and curled up on my side. The house was quiet except for the wind outside whistling through the branches of dead trees. I curled up and waited.

Thanatos had a brother, I remember. Hypnos, the Greeks called him: sleep. Sleep is death’s brother. I would close my eyes and this world and all of its sensations would disappear, just like death. Except in the morning I would wake up.

I didn’t wait for sleep, I waited for her, for Isabelle. I didn’t know why she came but I hoped that she would again. I curled up and waited, leaving room for her. I don’t know how long I waited. Sleep came first.

But in the morning she was there, her head on the mattress below my pillow, her fingers resting lightly on my open palm, and one of her feet dangling off the edge of the bed. I stirred and she opened her eyes. I closed mine then, so quickly that she didn’t see me. I could tell that she didn’t want me to know. She slipped out of bed very quietly and snuck back out the door, leaving it open just a crack, the way that I had. I passed my hand over the mattress where she had been, feeling her warmth slip away into the air, and then I felt for my dagger. It was still there. I decided to leave it.

Chapter 7: Isabelle

Chapter 7: Isabelle

1.

Later they called it “the Incident” and focused on the most earthly details, like the broken items and the sense that the neighborhood was not as safe as it had been. They spoke of “intruders,” as if there had been more than one, and as if they had been drunks or burglars. The Three Tuns made a convenient scapegoat. They all agreed that it must be shuttered or the good families of the neighborhood would leave. Lord Falmouth noted that more and more fields to the north of Long Acre were being converted into new homes; perhaps Covent Garden had always been too close to the Strand and the docks. The Incident, then, was something that could be resolved with a simple real estate deal.

But that was later. The day that it happened, as everyone ran around collecting boxes and gathering carriages, there was no agreed-upon name. The Intruder. The Shively Girl. The Witch.

“Will you be safe here?” the Lady asked the Lord.

“I won’t be alone,” he answered.

“Will we be safe there?” she asked.

“Let us hope.”

Jane couldn’t stop talking. Going to fetch the carriage, having a task to do, had been good for her. I heard Mr. Percy tell Miss Annie that he wanted to be ready to go as soon as Jane came back, if only for Jane’s sake. When Jane came back she looked better, but once inside the house the color drained from her face again and she began talking again, practically babbling like a baby, about witchcraft and demons. She must have known she sounded crazy but couldn’t stop herself. I am certain that Miss Annie took her into a room and slapped her. Jane stopped blabbering but she didn’t stop shaking, and the color on one of her cheeks was notably darker than on the other.

Later, much later, the adults in the house made a coordinated effort to help Jane forget what she’d seen. “Whatever you saw,” they said to her, “was a trick of the light and nothing more. The intruder scared us all. And you saw how he attacked Lord Falmouth!” The ways they changed the details, a little at a time: “he” attacked Lord Falmouth. But it had been a she, not a he, and not even a “she,” but a specific she: Emily Shively, a neighbor who had played in the street with their son, a friend whom they had known personally.

Yes, Jane had seen the intruder attack; what they did their best to forget was that the intruder had also attacked Jane. She had actaully physically touched her/him/it. How closely had she looked into the intruder’s eyes? What had she seen?

“Emily, child…” Lord Falmouth hadn’t been speaking to a mysterious man; he was speaking to a familiar girl.

In time the intruder became a he, Jane’s struggle with him was struck from the history, and when Jane ran outside she saw a crow take off and in her mind, distracted and upset, it appeared that the intruder and the crow were the same but, obviously, that could make no sense. “When I was a child I was stung by a bee,” Miss Annie said, proudly showing the spot on the back of her hand where the alleged injury was said to occur. “Once I was stung, though, what I saw was something like a strange little dragon, a purple thing covered in yellow spikes. It was just the shock and excitement, scrambling my thoughts. Do you understand? Repeat it to me so I know you understand.”

In time, Jane accepted this version of the story and it became the only version of the story. A large man, a burglar, escaped down the street and startled a crow.

That night, though, this story didn’t exist yet, and Jane blathered on about a witch girl with dead eyes and cold skin that felt like ash, and nails that tore as hard as claws. A girl who transformed before her eyes into a crow.

We fled London right away, leaving behind all that we couldn’t carry. The adults tested their stories in bits and starts until a narrative began to form: these were times of trouble, of war and revolution, and King James was a cornered animal, desperate and dangerous. The mixed marriage of Lord and Lady Falmouth—he Anglican, she Catholic; he of ancient English stock, she with her Portuguese blood—was a threat to the Crown. Both were associates of the scoundrel Robert Edmonstone, the occultist and revolutionary. They had hosted envoys and firebrands from the Continent, van Ryswick and Schiacci the most dangerous but by no means the only. James would destroy England in order to save himself. The memory of the princes in the Tower—”England has a long memory,” they said. For safety the children were to be taken away, leaving Lord Falmouth to face the inevitable storm alone.

The details confused Jane, and she let them go. If she didn’t think about it, then it would all make sense.

But I knew better.

My story began before theirs, and so I knew more.

My story began in Portsmouth. Father, returning from the Continent, immediately dismissed my governess, as was his wont. “I am here now,” he said, holding both my hands. “I won’t leave you again for a long time.” He planned a ball to celebrate the summer, as Mother used to do, and we discussed taking a holiday together. And then one morning, barely a week later, I awoke to find my valises out and open and my new dresses from Spain and Italy neatly folded in. “We must go to the capital,” he explained. “But we will go together.”

“Can I bring my music?” It was all I could think to ask.

A warm grin spread across his face. “Of course, my darling.” I could almost see thoughts racing across his face, but I could never understood what they were. “We will meet the best people in the City. I would love for you to perform for them, if you aren’t afraid.” I’m never afraid, I told myself. Wrongly, as it turned out.

The plot against the King was not his concern then. He didn’t know about the royal baby yet when we left Portsmouth. And it was the royal baby, the Catholic heir, that set the revolution in motion. That was what had England in a tizzy, that the unspoken understanding of the Stuart restoration had broken down.

He didn’t know any of that yet, but still something had compelled him to leave Ryne Hall quite suddenly. Our first stop was not to visit the “best people” of the City; we stopped at an inn in Surrey. It wasn’t a place for children or women or even nobles and Father had to negotiate with the owner before I was allowed in. He put me in a room upstairs and told me to stay quiet and then barricaded the door. He was downstairs for a long time, and I kept myself awake until I heard his voice outside. He was arguing, politely but firmly, with a man.

“We cannot protect you here,” the man said.

“I cannot leave just yet. I need more time,” Father replied.

“Time is not in our favor,” the man responded.

“Let me speak with Hector first. Van Ryswick and Sciacchi are in London, I’ll meet with them there.”

The man looked up nervously, looking up at the window I was in but not seeing me. “You are not alone.”

Father nodded. “My daughter. She is young, innocent.” He stressed the last word.

The man nodded. “He is coming, Robert. There is no more time.”

We didn’t even stay through the night. Father came upstairs and unbolted the door and we went back to carriage. The stars arrayed themselves above us in the dark sky, and even though it was summer it was cold. Father threw his coat over and told me to sleep, and I curled up on the seat and we drove off.

At Westminster he asked for van Ryswick only to learn that he and Schiacci hadn’t arrived yet; we ended up lunching with an elderly Lady Swenson who told us all about the Catholic heir. “We need you, Robert.”

“I’m not even Christian, milady,” he said.

“But you are English, and so is your daughter. We need you.”

He thought hard. “I have pressing business on the Continent.”

“Promise me at least you will speak with Lady Chester.”

I remember how hard he resisted. And later, to Lord Falmouth, “If I could I would go to the Continent today.” But there were other concerns. “There are already spies on the ground, so to speak,” he’d said. “With Tantibus I dare not take risks.”

So to speak: they were in the air, not on the ground.

When we left London Lady Falmouth suggested a stopover in Cambridge but Lord Falmouth insisted. “Straight to the Manor,” he said. “I want you all off the road as quickly as possible.”

I clutched my sword through the night. Its weight, the heavy wood carved into a blade, comforted me. I couldn’t kill with it, probably, but I could defend myself. The dragon I’d carved into the blade glowered, ready for a fight. I held the handle so hard my knuckles turned white.

2.

Our destination was a town in Suffolk called Bungay. It took us four days to reach it, despite what Lord Falmouth had said about going directly. We stopped to rest, to eat, and to clear Jane’s memory. The adults kept a close eye on Julian and me. Not that they needed to: the wide-open space of the English countryside intimidated me, and I think Julian felt the same. I was used to cities, to streets lined with buildings that provided landmarks and helped me gauge distance, a network of brick and stone that enclosed and canalized my world. It was vast and infinitely varied, but at the same time small and comforting.

The hills that spread out in all directions gave no such comforts. Sometimes crossroads that appeared minutes away would take hours to reach; the dark spots on the hilltops could be horses or houses from this distance. The were no towers and maypoles and steeples reaching up to the heaven; instead the sky seemed to bear down on the land, and keep everything as close to the earth as it could. Every cloud cast a shadow, and each bird made my spine shiver.

The land felt flat but curves in the road showed that there were rises that could almost be hills and depressions that might be valleys, however shallow. From one such rise we saw the town spread out before us. It appeared as a clump of buildings, not much larger than a single block in London but less shaped. A castle rose behind the city, a gray keep protected by a square wall with four grayer round towers, a dilapidated miniature of the Tower of London. From the center of town rose a small gray spire attached to what must have been the parish church. The town itself was surrounded by waves of grass that felt like a sea; in places the sun glinted off patches of nearly-hidden water.

“The Broads,” Lady Falmouth explained. I looked at her with one eye while I looked at the landscape. “There are many rivers between here and the sea. That one—can you see it?—is the Waveney. Bungay is a port, of sorts. They have a little dock here; it has a funny name and I can’t remember it, but you can see it a little, behind St. Mary’s.” I had to trust her because I couldn’t see anything. “It isn’t as small as it looks. The little port makes it a part of the bigger world.”

“Have you been here before?” I asked.

“Once.”

“Did you like it?”

She sighed. “I like my London. I wasn’t meant to live in the country. Neither was Lord Falmouth. Not even a town with a little dock.”

The air here was flat and clean, not the dusty smell of London or the stinging salt of Portsmouth, but an open smell of flowers and fruit, animals and dung. From the carriage window I saw cows and sheep, tended now and then by elderly farmers or very young shepherds, but mostly by the large fluffy dogs that chased around them all, barking excitedly. One joined us for a spell, trotting alongside and barking at the carriage, a happy fellow with a great big pink tongue lolling about in the air. He had one yellow eye and one blue eye.

We descended a final rise and entered into the town. The buildings looked odd and sloppy up close. Not stone, like in London or Portsmouth, but wood, and crooked, with some leaning out into the street and some leaning away. It was mid-morning but not a soul was out.

“Does anybody live here?” Julian asked.

“Sunday,” Lady Falmouth answered. “All in there.” She pointed at the church. It was a handsome building, cared for unlike the rest of town.

“Which one is ours?” Julian asked, looking at the houses. The street widened to something like a square before tapering back to a street. And just like that the town was behind us and we were back out in the meadows.

“Over there.” She pointed to a squat house on a rise up ahead. “Winston House, your father’s ancestral manor.” She said the last with exagerrated formality that hinted at distaste. The grass hid the river until we passed a bend and suddenly a broad and sleepy expanse of water spread out on one side of us, if only for a moment. The river then turned away, hooking around the manor house and roughly forming the boundary of the property.

Winston House wasn’t a copy of Ryne Hall but I recognized the style. It was squat and heavy-looking, surrounded by a series of low stone walls that had served as fortifications during the Saxon invasions but had since been weathered to pretty but useless nubs of stone and moss.

The carriage pulled up to the front of the manor and we stopped. We exited and Lady Falmouth spent a moment fixing Julian’s hair and clothes while I straightened my own. We knocked on the front door and waited a surprising amount of time for it to be opened.

Inside was one of the oldest old men I had ever seen, one who had once been powerfully built but was now withered like a gnarled tree. His head was nearly bald and I could see the veins under his skin; his teeth, with patches of yellow and black, stuck out in all directions, and his large owl eyes seemed almost separate from his face, floating in front of it and over his giant hawk-like nose.

“Milady,” he said slowly, in a voice strained by age. “A pleasure to see you again after all these years.” Though I wondered if he could see her at all. It didn’t look like he could focus his eyes very well.

“Chauncey,” Lady Falmouth replied and held out her hand, “the pleasure is all mine.”

“And blessed with two lovely children you are,” Chauncey said. “The very image of their mother, they are. Twins, are they?” Lady Falmouth hesitated, then smiled. She could correct him later. “Where are my manners? Please do come in.”

The door shut behind us and we were in the hall. In essence the house was the same as Ryne Hall. During the Saxon invasions Englishmen built strong houses with heavy walls to keep their families safe. The houses consisted of one enormous room wherein the family would eat, sleep, study, and live, with a kitchen attached to the rear. The walls were made of the thickest available stone and windows were kept small and high to keep arrows out. The hall was thus the oldest section of the house. As England became safer, rooms were added to the house as needed, first a room for the lord and lady, then perhaps a library and a study, servants quarters, guest rooms, and so on. Each room was added on according to needs and whims so each house now reflected a different course of history, but here in the hall they were all the same. I was comforted; Julian, who had only ever known his little house in London, was amazed by the space.

“The house is in excellent shape,” Chauncey said, “considering. I’ll put word in during the evening service that we are looking for staff, milady.”

“Thank you, Chauncey, but don’t trouble yourself. We have all we need here.” She stopped suddenly and looked at Chauncey as though she had just realized something. “Evening service—Chauncey, are we keeping you from your duties in the Church?”

He held up his hands and lowered his eyes, as if forgiving her. “Never you mind, Lady Falmouth, I spoke to the vicar and the Lord understands.”

“No, you must go. You may take the carriage.”

“I couldn’t take the carriage.” He wheezed a laugh. “But if I hurry I can be there in time for the sermon.” The thoughts in his mind turned slowly.

“Go, Chauncey,” Lady Falmouth said gently. “We can settle ourselves.”

“Will you be joining me then?” he asked.

“Not today,” she answered gently. “The Lord will understand.”

Chauncey gave his thanks and blessings and left. For such an old man he moved with unexpected speed.

“There’s no staff here, milady?” Jane asked.

“We never expected to return, you understand,” Lady Falmouth answered. We all looked around the vast and dusty space. Julian coughed a little. “We let Chauncey stay because he has no place else to go and is attached to these old walls, but if it were up to Hector this building would have tumbled to the ground long ago.”

A long tapestry covered the right-hand side wall. The old stones can keep fire and arrows and swords away, but the cold blasts of wind pass right through. Wall hangings provide a crucial barrier to the cold. At Ryne Hall Father had replaced the tapestries with carpets from the East long ago, and looking at this room I thanked him for it. Our hall glittered with beauty and light, the opposite of this room here. The tapestry was faded with dust and eaten in places by moths. The needlework was crude, and the overall impression was a bit grotesque. I didn’t like it at all.

Lady Falmouth showed us our new home. A door on one side led to a corridor with large windows that allowed a clear view of the town. There were three small rooms for Miss Annie and Jane. Mr. Percy declined the third room, as the ladies deserved their privacy. Stairs near the entrance to the corridor led to a second floor. This was a smaller hall, perhaps used for smaller gatherings, or maybe as a chapel. It was empty except for dust and spiders.

Back on the ground floor, a door in the hall led directly to the library. Most of the shelves had been stripped of books when Lord Falmouth abandoned the home. All that was left was junk, mostly. There was a second story here, too, leading to guest rooms in such a state of disrepair that Mr. Percy declined to move into them, either.

At the far back of the hall were two adjacent doors separated by the main fireplace. One door led to the kitchens, and the other to three bedrooms of descending size, connected by a windowless corridor. Lady Falmouth and I would take the first two, and Julian would sleep in the smallest one at the farthest end of the corridor.

After some exploring, Mr. Percy reported happily that the cottage where Chauncey lived had an unused room with a separate entrance, and he would be satisfied there.

“It will be cold, Mr. Percy,” Lady Falmouth protested, but he insisted.

“It will remind me of my days in His Majesty’s service.” I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that in his youth Mr. Percy had been a soldier—he must have come of age in the days of the Civil War, though I dared not guess which side he fought on—but I found I couldn’t picture him in anything other than his elegant clothing, and I certainly couldn’t see him hacking his way through fields of men, blood staining his face. Had he been injured, seen horrors? His gravity and seriousness must have come from somewhere.

For a moment I remembered that England was once again on the brink of war, and that before long I would be able to tell my own stories of streets and fields soaked in blood, and friends and family who went away and never came back. For a bare second I felt as though a shroud had been pulled from me, a shroud I had worn for so long that I’d forgotten it, one that kept the air of the world away from my skin so I could move about on this earth and still be apart from it somehow. For one moment that shroud was removed and the cold air of this world attacked me, stinging my eyes and digging hard into my skin and filling my lungs, and it was painful and ugly and real.

But only for a second. I blinked hard and the shroud fell back and I was safe again. War would come, but it would be brief and bloodless because James had no allies and so nobody would fight for him, and whether I was in Bungay or London or Portsmouth, when it came I would be home and safe.

The day passed uneventfully. Julian and I were instructed to stay out of the way while Mr. Percy unpacked our things and Jane attempted to bring the kitchen to life. Lady Falmouth and Miss Annie carved a spot out in the library for Lady Falmouth to continue her work, and Julian and I explored the grounds closest to the house. A door in the library led outside, and from there three earthen paths fanned out. One headed to the stable, the other to the cottage, and a third headed due east towards the water meadows. The rest of the grounds were covered in grass, or at least were meant to be. The manor grounds were dotted with dead and dying trees, and at irregular intervals bushes and brambles broke up the ground. Many of those had been occupied by birds and rodents, and whenever we poked at them with our swords some creature or another would jump out and run to the next bush. It would only be a matter of time before we found something nasty, like an angry badger or overly defensive fox, so we stopped.

Behind the manor, away from the road, were two little buildings: Chauncey’s cottage, which he would now be sharing with Mr. Percy, and a squat little stable that held our horse and the carriage. Beyond them was a small open field, and then an entire orchard of dead trees arranged in neat rows, as grey as any cemetery.

Chauncey returned in the evening. I expected him to be glowing with joy, the way Father Mallory looked after a church service, but instead he looked even more dour and tired than before. Jane had managed a stew and some bread with the ingredients in the kitchen, and Lady Falmouth went to great lengths to convince Chauncey to join us.

Normally at dinner the family would eat in the dining hall and the domestics—Mr. Percy, Miss Annie, Jane, and now Chauncey—would eat together in the kitchen. Father told me it was as much for their comfort as for ours, as they deserved a time when they could stop being professional and perhaps even speak rudely of their employers. At Ryne Hall they had plenty to complain about—Father kept an invisible wall between us and them, and his policy of short contracts didn’t endear many to us. Truth be told, most of our staff were ready to quit once they learned that we weren’t Christian. They must have feared that our damnation would rub off on them somehow. At Winston House, though, the servants’ dining hall was in a state of ruin; Chauncey ate alone in his cottage, and that was no place for the ladies. Also, tradition and architecture suggested we all dine together in the hall, so we did. Chauncey, reluctantly, joined. When the meal was served a strange silence hung over the table until Chauncey cleared his throat.

“Shall I say grace?”

Mother and Miss Annie looked embarrassed. Mr. Percy assumed control and said yes to Chauncey.

“Lord our Father, maker of the Heavens and the Earth—” I could tell he was capitalizing all the nouns. “Keeper of all that is Good and Just…” This went on for some time. Julian kicked my foot under the table and I stifled a laugh. I could see his mother’s hand grab his leg and still it, and Miss Annie and Mr. Percy both bore down on me with their eyes. I had to look down to quit from laughing. Chauncey droned on. When he was done everyone quietly mumbled something that may or mot not have been “Amen” and proceeded to eat the rather sad little meal.

“That’s a most interesting tapestry,” Jane ventured during a long pause in conversation. Chauncey raised his head slowly, like a turtle.

“That’s Black Shuck, that is. The demon dog of Bungay.” At the center of the tapestry was a large black dog, hideously misshapen although it wasn’t clear if that was by design or incompetence. The rest of the tapestry depicted a number of scenes, and the black dog was in all of them, not always so crudely drawn or frightening.

“What does he do?” Julian asked.

Chauncey put his fork down and leaned over so we could see him. I think he was trying to make himself look frightening. I wanted to tell him that his face was frightening enough as it was.

“He haunts the Broads, he does. It was a hundred years ago that the old church of St. Mary was struck by lightning, and a great column of fire rose to the sky—” he followed it with his unfocused eyes—”and from there came Black Shuck, a demon in the shape of a dog, and he tore hell through Bungay and Blythburg, killing all he saw.”

“Then what happened?” Julian was curious. I focused on my stew. Jane had apologized for the flavor, and rightly so, but Lady Falmouth had shot us a glance that told us that we were to not complain. Tomorrow was a market day, and Jane planned to properly stock our pantry then.

“He went into the heaths, he did, and that’s where he stays. People see him all the time. Big black dog, with eyes that burn like fire. He comes out at night on the roads between the towns.”

“Does he still kill?” Julian asked so many questions he often forgot to eat, which wasn’t such a bad thing tonight.

“He does, my lad, he does. Every child who comes of age in this country knows to stay off the roads at night, and that if he hears a sound in the heaths, be it a bird or the wind or just the sound of your own heart, then you best shut your eyes until he passes.”

Miss Annie cleared he throat. “Perhaps you are frightening the children, Chauncey.”

His eyes focused again and he looked down at his plate, suddenly looking very small and frail and old. “Of course, Miss. I got carried away. I apologize.”

“I’m not scared,” Julian piped up. “And Isabelle’s heard lots worse. She tells me stories that are much scarier.” Which was true, but I felt uneasy being brought into this discussion. In this old empty house, far from my father and the worlds I knew, I was not comfortable at all.

“Did you ever seen Black Shuck?” Julian asked. I wished he would stop. Chauncey leaned forward again, and his eyes drifted back into the fogs of myth and memory as before.

“I did, and I can still feel it like it were yesterday. There, near where they put that staithe. I heard his howl and I stood stock still and closed my eyes. You can’t hear his footsteps, never. But I closed my eyes and I felt his hot breath on my neck and I could feel him measuring me and deciding whether to eat me or not.”

“And what did he do?” Julian asked.

The question brought Chauncey out of of his memory. He looked at Julian with big, clear eyes. “Well, he walked on, didn’t he? Or else I’d be gone.”

Julian, who had been leaning forward in his chair to soak up every detail, deflated with a soft “Oh.”

“It has been a long day,” Lady Falmouth concluded. “Children, you should scrub and go to bed. Tomorrow you may wish to go with Jane to the market.” We did as we were told and left the table. From where I was sitting there was no way to get out without passing the largest picture of Black Shuck. The thing that bothered me most, I realized, was his eyes. There were human eyes, not dog’s eyes. Vacant and unfocused human eyes, seeing the room all at once but not grasping any of it, wild and uncontrolled but human.

Rooms in old houses are small. Mine had barely enough room for a small hard bed, and my trunk, which Mr. Percy had delivered shortly before bedtime, took up most of the remaining space. “We’ll empty it in the morning and put it in one of the other rooms,” Lady Falmouth promised. I stepped onto it to get into bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. It irritated me to think that I was scared. I didn’t get scared. I had heard about vampires and demons and real-life men who ate human flesh. And I had seen other things, too.

Maybe “scared” wasn’t the right word. I was unhappy.

Disquieted. I liked that word.

What disquieted me was the house itself, and the location far out in the wilds of England, far from the nearest town of note. The complete lack of life in the house, how nobody lived here and hadn’t in years, except for an old man who didn’t actually live in the house either but instead lived in a cottage behind it. And because of the bend in the road, the cottage, even though it was behind the house, was closer to the road than the house.

I didn’t like that if I got out onto the main road I could only walk to a village that only contained two streets, and that along the way I was likely to be stopped by a devil dog.

Or stalked by crows that could turn into people, or some greater demon whose very presence was enough to drive my father away from me and get me sent away to this distant corner of the world.

I had no sensation of falling asleep but I must have because when I opened my eyes the house was completely still. At the foot of my bed stood a man swathed in shadow. Tall and broad-shouldered, he stood motionless, staring down at me on the bed. He could tell he’d been seen. I shut my eyes as tightly as I could, and when I opened them I was alone again.

I let my eyes scan around the room before swinging my legs out of the bed and putting my bare feet on the cold ground. I padded quickly to my door and opened it slowly, expecting it to creak and happy that it didn’t. I turned away towards the darker end of the hall, reaching blindly for a knob I knew I would find. I opened the door and let myself in.

Julian’s room was not bigger than mine. I took two steps to his bed, pulled back the covers, and slipped in. He was on his side with one hand tucked under himself and the other flat on the bed. I squeezed as best as I could between him and the edge of the bed. He didn’t wake up or acknowledge me in any way but his free hand moved and found mine and held it, and I closed my eyes. My disquiet left me like a ghost and before I knew it I was asleep.

Spiders

Spiders

I read somewhere recently that no matter where you are in the world, there is almost undoubtedly always a spider watching you.

I think the point of this tidbit was that there are a whole lot of spiders in this world, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them, because they are all around us all the time and aren’t bothering us.

One might even be crawling on you right now, maybe in your hair or on the back of your leg, and that’s fine, right?

(You should probably stop to check now. It’s okay, I won’t judge.)

But of course that’s not how I read it.

Don’t get me wrong. I like spiders. Most of them anyway. When I was a kid, my mother told me that spiders are good luck, and a classmate told me that they are the smartest bugs. In retrospect, those points probably had more to do with Charlotte’s Web than any actual science, but the impression was made and I thought of spiders were both cool and smart.

The only times I’ve ever had this belief challenged were those times when the spider was really big and I was trapped with it in the bathroom. It’s hard to think positively of anything that’s invading your private time.

Since reading that, though, I’ve become a lot more aware of spiders watching me. I think they know I’m onto them, too, and are just messing with me. There’s one crawling on the painting behind my TV right now. Today there was one crawling at my office, hanging out on the computer cables. For the past week there’s been a fingernail-sized pervert living in my shower, just behind the shampoo. And today, as I had dinner on the balcony, a little orange guy hopped on my bike and watched me eat, as if pepperoni pizza were a perfectly normal part of the arachnid diet.

Were they always there, these spiders, just watching me as I went on my way, wholly oblivious to them? Or is this all some weird spider conspiracy to drive me crazy?

Do I even want to know?

Chapter 6: Emily

Chapter 6: Emily

All is pain, my heart, my head, my soul. I am cold, always. Each breath burns me and yet I dare not stop.

I did my part, just as he said. I spied, and I reported. I did what I was asked. I trusted him, like I trusted them all, and he, like they, betrayed me.

Tantibus has come, Tantibus is here. From across worlds and centuries and he promised that we, that I, will go with him, but he lies. Only he can go on, he and the Other; the rest of us join him until he is finished with us, and then we are done.

And in between all is pain. Is he in pain? Or the Other? Have they hurt and suffered for thousands of years?

Come, he said to me. We will be knights in his army, and we will stand beside him, forever.

I believed him, and now I have lost everything. I died, and now I will die again, no closer to eternity than I ever was, but farther away from life than I could ever have imagined.

If Tantibus is here, then is the Other as well? The Other is weak, but he has survived, and he continues to seek, and even though he mocks him I know that Tantibus fears him.

My heart hurts. I go past the haunted empty shell of my house, my family gone. I don’t love them anymore because I can’t love anymore, but a part of me misses them. Regret is too broad a word. There is as much resent as regret. They trusted him, and I trusted him, and he brought me in. “We will serve him together, and we will defeat the Other, and serve Tantibus.” Forever.

But not quite. There are missing pieces, he says later. Until the power is whole then we are in danger. And each day after I died I grew weaker. Tantibus must keep the power for himself, until all the pieces are together again. Then we will all drink from it.

But not me. I was incautious because I was desperate, and I was caught because I wanted them to catch me, and now I am crashing down, letting myself drift and fall, because I am finished, because I betrayed my life, and death this time will be complete.

I land on the shore and they surround me. I don’t bother changing back. I welcome this. They surround me, their inky black eyes staring at me. None rush forward to my defense. One steps up and I await the verdict. I cover my head and hope it will be fast, and try to take whatever comfort I can in knowing that it is over.

The verdict is passed, and the first one—I know him, he was my friend—draws my blood, and then another does the same, and as they tear me apart the pain is excruciating but I bear it because I know this will be the last for me.