The dress I’d worn that morning—the white and red one that Father brought from Venice—weighed as much as I did and more than doubled the size of my body; when I stepped out of it it looked like a second me, a headless me with curiously flat arms. It could stand on its own if I balanced it carefully. Rolled up and placed under the bed sheet, it fooled Miss Annie into thinking I was asleep in bed.
Now I hung it up in the wardrobe as I had done earlier, checking to be sure it hadn’t wrinkled. I quickly changed into bedclothes and hid my smock and shoes under the bed, then got under the sheet, mussed my hair a bit, and rang the bell. Jane and Miss Annie came in. Jane hauled in my trunks, and Miss Annie helped me dress and retouch my hair.
Father had arrived and was standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting for me. We had parted ways in the morning, when he packed me off for Lord Falmouth’s while he went into Westminster. I could tell he was tired but buzzing with energy anyway. He didn’t like going into the Royal Quarter if he could help it, but times were exciting, and, as he said, “we stood at the very fulcrum of history.” By “we” I assume he meant himself.
“No funny business, Izzy?” he smiled as he took my hand.
“No, not really,” I answered.
“It’s early yet,” he shrugged.
Julian sat between his parents, and I sat next to Father, opposite Julian, who barely looked up. I barely looked at him. Not being rude, of course, but I was interested in other things.
“He has no support whatsoever. One single rowboat floating up the Thames with Mary’s standard would be enough to set the whole kingdom ablaze,” my father insisted as he smeared butter onto his roll.
“He won’t need all of England on his side to hold his throne. Just a few key players. And he would only need one cannon to destroy a single rowboat.” Father and Lord Falmouth were opposite sides of the same man. Lord Falmouth spoke cautiously, avoided confrontation, and did everything in his power to “reduce stress.” His day followed a very closely programmed schedule that he insisted was not of his own making but from which he could not stray. When he had a free moment—and he constantly reminded others that his free moments were few and far between—he felt the need to use that time wisely by reading a serious book, perhaps, or teaching himself some foreign language.
Father kept talking. “What I’m saying is that I don’t believe that there is anybody in the Tower willing to fire that cannon. Probably not even James himself.” My father was fantastically incautious. He acted on his impulses; some (most) might (did) say he was reckless. He followed no schedule and was above obligation—he didn’t break promises so much as he never made them, not even to me.
“That may be so,” Lord Falmouth responded, “but memories live long in England. I don’t think there is a single person in this kingdom who would trade even a bad king for the chaos of revolution.”
“There will be no chaos,” Father shot back. “Behind Mary—and William, too, one assumes—the people will rally. The rightful heir and her powerful husband. They need only land on our shores and take their place. James will disappear like a curl of smoke.”
Lady Falmouth, Julian’s mother, spoke while buttering her own roll. “You make it sound easy,” she said, “like a matter of simply swapping one candle out for another.”
Lord Falmouth reached slowly and deliberately for his glass, holding it up but not drinking from it, instead just looking at the wine as though it were an oracle presenting him with a prophecy. “This is a process that could take years.”
“No,” Father insisted. “It will happen soon. This year will be a year of revolution in England.” Father snatched his glass up quickly and drank from it without hesitating; Lord Falmouth then slowly drank from his. Opposite, but the same. Father and Lord Falmouth had met as children, on their first day of school at Westminster, and hadn’t parted ways since. The one shaped the other, Father pulling Falmouth towards danger, and Lord Falmouth keeping my father from falling over the side. Usually.
“Why so certain? What do you know that we don’t?” Lady Falmouth asked. Lady Falmouth, as always, was a full part of their conspiracy, the one who forced them to speak aloud what they were only thinking, and providing the necessary tie-breaking vote whenever they couldn’t convince each other.
Father leaned forward. A few days earlier he had informed me that we were coming to London; that I was to stay with Lord and Lady Falmouth—and Julian—while he was off to the Continent. He had only just returned a week earlier, and had promised me a summer of peace, but I knew better than to keep him to his word. On the road to London he got out of the carriage and sent me on alone, saying he had business in the Royal Quarter and would join me later. I knew as soon as he leaned forward that whatever he was about to say would explain why.
“I spoke to Lady Chester this morning, which is why I was late,” he said. He lowered his voice as he said more. “It is spreading as rumor but she knows it for a fact. King James has a son.”
Even I understood enough to gasp. A son would replace a daughter as heir, and so Mary would no longer be Queen of England.
“Nonsense,” Lord Falmouth said.
“The rumor is that it’s a trick,” Lady Falmouth said. “James has bought some French child and is passing it as his own.”
“I wish that were so but I have seen him myself.”
“You went to the palace yourself?” Lord Falmouth asked.
“And why shouldn’t I?” Father pretended to be offended. “I am a loyal vassal.” Only my father would be rash to visit the home of a king he was trying to overthrow. Only James would be foolish invite his most dangerous enemy in to dine with him. This was a conversation that I would have to ask him about later on.
“A boy?” Lady Falmouth asked.
“A Catholic boy. And the spitting image of his father.”
Lord Falmouth sat back. “A Catholic heir to a Protestant throne. To think only a few years ago there was talk of banishing Catholics for good.”
Lady Falmouth spoke. “I don’t doubt that such talk will raise its head again. England has a long memory.”
All were silent for a moment. I looked over at Julian, who picked at his supper without paying much mind to the conversation at the table. Where does his mind go at times like this? I could almost see in his eyes, fighting pirates at sea, or slaying the Minotaur in his labyrinth.
At last Lord Falmouth smiled. “I wonder if James realizes at all that his reign is at its end now.”
Lady Falmouth cleared her throat. “I believe the children are finished with their meal. Perhaps they should be dismissed before their hear their fathers speak openly of treason.”
Father looked down at me and I looked up at him. “She’s heard worse,” he said, and laughed. “But then perhaps she has heard enough. What do you think, darling?”
I suppressed a smile, looking up at him with my blankest possible stare, and said calmly, “Whatever do you mean, Father?”
He burst out laughing. “We can pretend we are innocent for far longer than we actually are. It’s a dangerous trick.” And then to Julian, “Young Julian, are you finished?”
Julian caught that he was being spoken to a moment later, and quickly snapped his eyes up. “Yes, sir?”
Lord Falmouth spoke for him. “Some of us don’t need to pretend we are innocent. Julian, if you are finished then you and Isabelle may be excused. I should like you both to play music for us later.”
“Yes, Father,” he said, and I slid out of my chair, not as gracefully as I should have, but I was still learning. I followed him out.
“What was that all about?” Julian asked when we were outside. He could create the most dazzling and complex worlds in his mind, leading an imaginary army on Crusades, or telling me about Alexander’s campaign against the Scythians, describing it all with such clarity that I could feel the scorching heat of desert and steppe against my skin; but somehow this actual world was lost to him. Having dressed himself for supper, he still only managed to find and wear one sock.
“You really don’t know? Come.” We walked towards the stairs. “The King is a traitor to England.”
“How can a King be a traitor to his own country?”
“He’s a Catholic, and he wants England to be a Catholic country like France.” The front door opened slightly and Jane slipped in, making herself as small as she could in order to keep the door as closed as possible. I doubt Jane weighed much more than I did, and certainly wasn’t much bigger. Or at least, not much wider. She closed the door behind herself and turned around; when she saw us she actually jumped, clutching her hand over her heart.
“We didn’t mean to scare you,” Julian offered, genuinely concerned. I found the look on her face more funny than anything, but Julian was right, she really had been scared.
“I– I just, oh.” She looked back at the door as if wanting to jump back through it, and then her eyes scanned around the room quickly.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Yes, quite. I just…” She composed herself slowly. At least, as much as she could be composed. Even at rest Jane trembled slightly. She had come to London from some little village on the advice of an aunt. She was too fragile for London. She was probably too fragile for her little village.
“Have you had a chance to unpack my valises?” I asked her.
“Yes, yes.” She swallowed hard, her face still red and her voice still unsteady but getting better. A strand of her hair fell onto her face—rather prettily, for a moment—and brushing it away gave her something to do with her hands. “Yes, at least your clothing. The remainder I shall do in a moment.” After a pause she added hastily, “Milady.”
Julian and I resumed our walk, going up the stairs now. Once we turned our backs Jane hurried out.
“She’s rather peculiar today,” I noted.
“She’s rather peculiar every day,” Julian answered. He walked a step in front of me, against the wall. “King Charles was Catholic, and he was a good king.”
Above him, on the walls, were portraits of his family, previous Lords Falmouth who had slipped into obscurity, even in their own family. “It doesn’t matter that he’s Catholic, what matters is that he won’t let other people believe things he doesn’t.”
“Isn’t that what everybody else does to the Catholics?” he asked. “What’s the difference?” Julian could be hopeless sometimes.
“You don’t understand. It doesn’t matter.” I didn’t want to explain, but I felt I had to, at least as much as I could understand myself. “As long as he had no son the people could put up with him because when he died the Crown would pass to Princess Mary, a good Protestant. But now he has a son.”
“When did that happen?” Julian asked.
Sometimes I could choke him. “Weren’t you listening at supper?”
He stopped and looked at me. “No.”
I made a show of sighing and blowing my own hair out of my face. It was no use. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes. Meet me outside.”
“Where are you going?” We were on the second floor now, near my room.
“To get changed. You should, too.”
“Of course I’m going to change,” he started. “I just…” I arched my eyebrows at him, and he finally understood. “Right. Outside.”
I knew that I had been in his room earlier that day, true, but it still didn’t seem right letting him into my room. And I knew that he had been in my room many times, but I was almost nine years now, old enough to act like, and be treated as, a lady, or to at least start trying.
“And you need to find your other sock,” I called out to him as he went away. “I can change quickly. Bring your sword, I still intend to kill you. And Julian—not a word about the King. It has to be a secret. Or our fathers could end up in the Tower like those bishops.”
He shrugged at me a little. “Who would I tell besides you?” He dashed up the stairs. His mind had already wandered, and as he went up he swatted away imaginary enemies. I resisted the urge to do the same as I walked to my own room.
I changed quickly, grabbed my sword, and came out of the bedroom into the hallway. It always bothered me that Lord Falmouth’s house had no name; my own house was Ryne Hall, and because it had a name we could speak of it as though it were a person. In many ways a house is a person, with its own character and history, and a way of shaping those who enter it. A person needs a name, and so does a house.
The family’s name bothered me, too. My father’s title is his name: he was both Lord Edmonstone and Robert Edmonstone, one in the same, easy. Lord Falmouth and his people took their titles from their land; the actual surname was Winston. Hector Winston, Lord Falmouth; one person, two names, confusing. Julian Winston, then, was Marquis of Annandale, after another piece of land somewhere. I disapproved of such complexities.
The Winston house, Lord Falmouth’s house, 12 Shandos Place, whatever one called it, had dark spots. The windows faced the street to the front and the courtyard to the back, and the corridors twisted this way and that so as many rooms as possible could let in light. Those corridors, then, only received leftover light, the handful of rays that passed through the larger rooms. Some of the corridors could be quite bright, and some of the others, like the one in front of my bedroom, were dark. On the top floor, Julian’s floor, it was nearly black at all times of day.
When I stepped out of my room I saw out of the corner of my eye a swiftly-moving shadow. Julian loved to leap out from behind corners and scare people, but I’d seen him. I pressed myself against the wall and crept down, preparing to scare him instead. I held my breath and padded as softly as I could, but as I drew closer he left, darting up the stairs. I’d never seen him move so fast or quiet.
I saw him as a faint gray smudge moving away from me, past his own bedroom and deeper into the dark, finally disappearing. I kept moving until I could see him again. Some instinct led me to bring my sword forward, and I held it en garde, ready to strike. I felt a tickle on the back of my neck, a sort of growing unease, and suddenly I wished my sword were real, made of heavy sharpened steel, instead of a wood block with blunt edges.
I didn’t like this game. I followed deeper into the dark. Julian, still not noticing me, slipped through an open door into Mr. Percy’s room.
Mr. Percy’s room was smaller than Julian’s but of a more regular shape, so the sunlight hit it all evenly. I couldn’t see Julian inside. I didn’t dare go in, but then I heard a heavy footstep on the stairs. I needed to hide, but Julian’s bedroom door was closed, and there was nothing in the hallways to get behind. Before I even really knew what I was doing, I bolted into Mr. Percy’s room and slid under his bed, hoping that there was nothing under there to stop me. I hit my knee hard on the edge of the bed and bumped the back of my head on the floor, but I made it in. My sword ended up under me and I was glad that it was wood and not steel.
Mr. Percy came inside, humming to himself very quietly. My heart was racing and I knew that I would breathe loudly if I let myself breathe at all, so I held my breath until I felt my lungs starting to burn, and then slowly, so slowly that I thought I would faint before I finished, I let the air out, and then just as slowly breathed in.
He stopped moving. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said. I pressed my eyes shut, a childish reaction, as though he couldn’t see me if I couldn’t see him.
He mumbled something then, and after a few more moments he mumbled again. I couldn’t hear anything he was saying, it was just the rumble of the bass in his voice. But he wasn’t talking to me. Perhaps he had found a lost button in his coat. Who knows what a man is thinking when he is talking to himself.
I was invading his space. Mr. Percy in his own room, humming to himself, talking to himself. Nobody watching him or judging him. I had never thought about his job, the challenge of always being proper, the consequences if he behaved more like a normal human. He couldn’t hum to himself while serving dinner, I suppose. He couldn’t even yell at me when I burned his coat.
After a moment he began moving again. His room smelled of cologne and shoe polish. All I could see of him was his big heavy feet. He walked one way, and there was a shuffling noise, perhaps papers; then he walked another way. The vibrations of his steps tickled me. There was the sound of glass clanging against glass. His humming continued, a minor key, a little like a procession. It was not an English tune, or at least not a normal one.
He stood still for a long time, and then moved towards me. Once again I was sure I was caught, and buried my face in the floorboards, my heart pounding against the floor.
When I looked up he was gone.
I waited a few minutes, just to be careful, and then slid out. I started to dust myself off but it wasn’t necessary: of course the floor under his bed was clean. If I had slid under Julian’s bed—or, to be honest, my own—it would have been a different story.
Julian’s bedroom door was open now. I went in but he wasn’t there, not even hiding in his wardrobe or under his own bed. As I had expected, when I looked under his bed I saw quite a bit of dust, as well as a few dead bugs, a deflated ball, and what might have been a half a crumpet. Didn’t Jane ever clean up in here? I scanned the room. His sword was gone, or at least it wasn’t in its usual resting spot. All of his other, older swords were there, too. They were all bent or broken but he wouldn’t throw them out. I recognized the one that had broken the Chinese vase. I remember trying to convince everyone that a cat may have crawled in and knocked it over, but nobody believed me. Which was fair, I supposed.
Julian moved past the doorway towards the stairs. I saw him from the corner of my eye again, only now I wasn’t sure that it was Julian. He looked just a little bit taller, and perhaps a bit thinner.
I pressed myself against the wall again and kept following. When I reached the ground floor I saw him head into the library.
I crept up. The library wasn’t empty. I could hear Father and Lord Falmouth talking. Lady Falmouth wasn’t there, or at least I couldn’t hear her. Had Julian gone in? I got down on my knees and shuffled in, careful not to open the door any further, and took a spot behind a couch, trying to figure out where Julian was.
Lord Falmouth spoke very carefully, measuring his words before saying them out loud. “The key is for them to take it without knowing that we are giving it to them.” He paused. “If they can somehow be convinced that it is their idea, and not ours.”
“But do we have time for that?” Father asked. He was pacing behind a low table. I slunk down further to hide. “If my sources are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, then the decisive moment is imminent. There are already spies on the ground, so to speak.”
“Have you seen them?” Lord Falmouth asked.
Father hesitated before answering. “No. But sometimes I am certain that I feel them…”
Lord Falmouth cut him off. “I can’t act on a feeling alone, Robert.”
Where was Julian? I was trapped behind the couch, on my knees, with my rump facing the door. If somebody came in—Lady Falmouth, for instance—my position would be impossible to explain. I wasn’t sure I could turn around without being seen, or back out as easily as I had come in. Where was Julian?
Lord Falmouth spoke again. “We must make them do our bidding, but keep them in perfect innocence.”
“They can lie,” Father said. “You’ve seen it yourself. They are very skillful liars.”
“Too skillful for my tastes,” Lord Falmouth sighed. “With Tantibus we cannot take risks. How long before you must go?”
Now Father sighed. “If it were up to me I would have departed already for the Continent. But this business with the new heir is inconvenient, I’m afraid.”
“Indeed, there are too many things happening at once,” Lord Falmouth agreed. “I fear the one issue will get in the way of the other.”
From behind me I heard a sound like air escaping a balloon, as I turned my head as far as I could to see Julian, or at least half of his face, looking in from the hallway. How did he get out there? He gestured for me to come out, and after thinking for a moment I lowered my head and backed out. Our fathers stopped talking then, either a natural pause in the conversation or because they knew they weren’t alone anymore.
“What are you doing in there?” Julian asked me.
“What am I—?” I looked back into the room and then at him. “Never mind.”
And in the farthest corner of my mind an alarm sounded, clear as a church bell on Christmas morning. I looked back into the room, and there, behind the heavy Italian drape, unmistakably I could see an outline, little more than a bulge in the drape, almost exactly like any of the other folds in the fabric but still clearly different, an outline of a foot, somebody depending as I had done earlier on shadow to hide, a stranger inside the house. Have you seen a spy? Lord Falmouth had asked. Yes, I wanted to say to him. Yes, I have.
A heavy hand fell on my shoulder. Its pair was on Julian’s. Its owner was a very unhappy Mr. Percy.
“If this conversation had concerned you, then you would have been invited. As it is, you are being quite rude. Be off.” Julian and I stepped away towards the front door. I had a chance to glance once more into the library, but the drapes had moved, as if by the wind, and the figure concealed behind them was gone.