Chapter 4: Isabelle

Chapter 4: Isabelle

1.

My father was born in Portsmouth, and that is where he took me after my mother died, to the home where he grew up, an ancient manor named Ryne Hall that sat on a hill overlooking the harbor.

My mother died of plague, and it nearly killed me, too, but “such are the vagaries of life and disease,” I heard said once, “that the strong young woman succumbed and her infant daughter did not.” I know of her, of her Spanish ancestry, French education, talent for music and taste for mischief. These things my father told me. A portrait of her hangs over her bed in Ryne Hall, and I often sit on her bed and look up at her, studying her face and her hair and her gown for clues as to who she was. Those who spoke to me of her always described her as an angel, but Father cautioned me that nobody speaks ill of the dead, and I know there was more to her than a voice and a face and a ladylike demeanor.

When my father was young he was sent to London to study at Westminster. As his belief in the Church waned his interest in the occult grew. Witches, ghosts, shades, demons. England was filled with spirits of all kinds, and Father would devote his life to studying them. Secretly, or perhaps not-so-secretly, I have always wanted to see one myself. When I finally did, I regretted it.

When the rough men in Eastcheap attacked us, my greatest fear, for a moment, was that we were being taken by the crows on the shore. When the bandits proved to be human I felt better, but even after Mr. Percy had rescued us, maybe especially after, a numbness came over me.

On the shore, the crows had become people. I hadn’t actually seen it, but I knew it to be true. And then they became crows again. And although I couldn’t see their leader in the darkness, I knew by his shape, by his very shadow on the ground, that he was not human.

I needed to speak to my father, to tell him what I had seen. He had read thousands of volumes on ghosts, he had traveled through Europe and Turkey and Arabia and the wilds on the edges of civilization to see them up close. He had left me for weeks and months alone with no parent except a portrait of a dead woman in order to learn about them.

But now he had no time to talk. I knew this when he knocked on my door and asked me to join him, and although I felt like my eyes were going to fall out of my head from exhaustion I stood. My bare feet touched the cold floor and I moved towards the candle in his hand like a moth. He took my hand and led me into the hallway.

“Let’s get Julian. I wish to speak to both of you.”

I never minded misbehaving, but I never liked getting into trouble. My heart sank and my stomach turned in anticipation of the reprimand I would receive. Normally I would start coming up with arguments, defending my actions or trying to explain how it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but this time I couldn’t. My mind stayed blank, and although my body protested, at least a small part of me was happy that I was with my father, even if it was only to be scolded.

Julian was asleep when we opened his door, but he must have been waiting for his punishment, too, because he got out of bed quickly and followed us without protest.

Father led us down the main staircase. I expected that he would take us to the library but we walked past it and down into the kitchen, where he had us both sit down on the heavy stools that Mrs. Smith used when she was resting. He himself hopped up onto the countertop and leaned forward with his hands on his knees.

“I’m sorry for waking you both so early,” he began.

“What time is it?” Julian asked. An irrelevant question if ever there was one.

“I’m not sure,” Father answered. “Dawn will come soon. You should both be sleeping, and I hope that when I am finished you are both able to return to sleep.” He hesitated, and a growing dread developed in my stomach. “I must be off for the Continent now. It is all quite sudden and I apologize. Isabelle, I know that I promised that I would not go again for a while but you must understand.”

Tears welled up, and to fight them back I scowled and let them turn into anger.

“You lied to me,” I snarled. “You always do.”

I don’t remember what he said. What he usually said, I suppose. That he didn’t want to, that he didn’t have a choice, that it would all be for the best. In his eyes I knew that he meant it, and I could see that he truly believed it, but this did nothing to stop my anger. At Ryne Hall I spent so much time alone, looking out through the window to the sea, hoping that the next ship would bring him home. The last time was nearly four months, and he promised that he wouldn’t leave me again.

I thought that I could make his words true. I had looked up at the portrait of my mother and promised myself that I would be more like her. I dressed up, I played more music, I washed the mud off my shoes. He didn’t know I had done any of that but he must have sensed it because when he came back from abroad he had trunks full of dresses, the kind that my mother had worn. I put them on without a fuss and I could see how proud he was of me. When we went along the High Street people stared, at first because they couldn’t believe it was us, and then because we looked so fantastic. I felt proud of myself, too. I would happily give up most of my mischief if it kept my family together.

In the end it didn’t matter. He had to go to London, he said, and I would go with him because he promised he wouldn’t leave me again, but it was a lie. He had brought me here precisely because he was leaving me again.

“I wish I could tell you more but I can’t,” I heard him say.

“We know about the King, and William and Mary,” Julian interrupted. Father stopped and cocked his head like a confused puppy, and then sighed.

“Julian, child,” he started. “There is a plot against the king, that is true. But rest assured that your father and I have no interest in getting involved. We are curious, and I believe that in the end we will support whatever cause is best for England. This is about something else. For this I must go.”

“How long will you be gone?” Julian asked.

“I don’t know,” Father answered quietly.

“Will Isabelle stay with us?”

“Yes,” he answered. “Your mother insists.”

“Is my father going with you?”

“No.”

“But my father knows what you are doing?”

“Yes.”

“And my mother?”

Father sighed. Julian was asking a lot of questions. “They both know as much as they need to know, to keep you both safe.

Finally I spoke. “Why are you leaving now?”

He turned to face me. Probably relieved that he could stop answering Julian’s questions. “The ship to Amsterdam leaves at dawn. I must be on it.”

“Then why not just let Lord Falmouth tell us? Why bother waking us?” What a night this had become.

“I wanted to speak to both of you before I went,” he said. “It’s important to me.” I tried not to listen. He lowered his head so he could look me in the eye, but I lowered my gaze so he couldn’t. “I’m not going to lie to you, darling. What I am doing will be dangerous. I wish it wasn’t but it is. If I don’t return—”

Not return! Impossible. I shot up out of my seat and he covered my mouth with my hand.

“Shh. We mustn’t wake anyone.” That’s why we’re in the kitchen. An entire empty floor between us and the nearest person. He spoke quickly. “If I don’t return Lord and Lady Falmouth will care for you. We made the arrangements years ago, and hoped to never have to use them. I hope still to not have to, but one can never know.”

He hesitated, then relaxed and released me. He was on the floor now, half-crouching so he could look us in the eye, and now he outright knelt. I was already standing, and Julian seemed to grow conscious that he was the only one still seated and slid off his stool to stand beside me.

Father reached into his doublet and produced a small package, a red cloth wrapped with a gold-colored yarn. He unpacked it slowly as he spoke. “Years ago I met a merchant from the Far East. This was in Constantinople, in the Genoese quarter. Before you were born. We spoke and we traded, books mostly, and he asked me to sit with him. We had similar interests, you see, and as we poured one cup of coffee after another we learned from each other. He recognized in me a kindred spirit, a person like himself. And when the sun had set and our day was done, he gave me these two necklaces.” He was finished unwrapping the package. Two simple necklaces of leather cord with matching circular pendants. He held them up gingerly.

“These come from a place called Karakorum. They were crafted from a single piece of wood, and belong to each other. The idea, he told me, was that two people of the same spirit would carry half, and as the pendants belong to each other, so the people who wear them belong to each other. A simple legend, but one that traveled across the world—from Karakorum to Dunhuang, across the deserts to Kashgar, over the mountains to Osh, then Samarkand, Isfahan and Baghdad, then Constantinople and finally London. And they’ve stayed together all this time.” He looked at them both as he spoke. “I’ve carried them and never been sure of what to do with them.”

“You could have given one to Lady Edmonstone,” Julian offered, then seemed to regret that he had stated the obvious.

“Yes, I could have,” Father answered calmly. “But that would have been a mere token of love, and this represents more. I loved her, yes, but we were not the same. Later I thought to give one to Isabelle and keep the other for myself, but I think even this is wrong.” He held them up, and then separated them, one in each hand. “They belong to you two,” he said finally.

“Us?” Julian asked. I said nothing. I wanted to tear them out of his hand and throw them in his face.

“I suppose I’ve known for some time. I was going to wait until you were older, but I think it has to be today.” He extended his arms, one to me and one to Julian, the pendants hanging on their leather straps. Julian reached out and took his and looked at it.

“It’s not heavy at all,” he marveled. “It looked heavy.” It did look heavy, more like stone than wood. Now I was curious. “It weighs nothing at all. How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know what sort of wood it is. Must be something they only have over there.”

“Kara what?” Julian asked.

“Karakorum. In Mongolia.” Julian’s eyes opened wide at the words. Mongolia, the very definition of the edge of the world. I wanted to reach out and take my pendant, too, but didn’t. Still, my curiosity was dissolving my anger. Father lifted the necklace and leaned towards me, and I allowed him to slip it over my head. It fell around my neck, as weightless as air.

I took it in my hand. It was smooth and polished. In the very center was a metal bar, almost the same color as the wood. I passed my finger over it and my skin sensed the difference between the wood and the metal. They were slightly different temperatures, the metal a bit warmer than the surrounding wood.

“What is this part?” I asked him finally, indicating the metal.

“I don’t know.”

“Is it valuable?” Julian asked.

“In and of itself, I doubt it. Just wood and a little metal, none of it precious. But it is priceless.” He took mine in his hand and slid it under my nightshirt. “Wear it against your skin, always. And tuck the cord in under your shirt, too. That was what the merchant said to me.”

“What was the merchant’s name?” Julian asked, another irrelevant question. His mind wandered a lot.

Father thought a bit before answering. “His name was Asa, if I remember correctly.” Julian looked at his pendant one more time, and then slid it under his own shirt. Although the collar on my nightshirt was wide, I found I could hide the cord just fine under it.

“Whatever happens, now or whenever, you two must stay together. You belong to each other.”

We heard a noise from upstairs, probably Jane, drawing curtains and lighting fires. She did that just before sunrise. Mrs. Smith would come down soon, and was probably getting dressed in her room. Miss Annie, too. Would Mr. Percy wake on time today? How could he?

“Julian, I have loved your family for longer than you would believe. I won’t ask you to take care of Isabelle, for I know she can take care of herself. But…” And with his eyes he asked anyway. Then he turned to me. He took my head in his hands.

“My child.”

“Don’t leave.” I couldn’t say anything else. I just closed my eyes.

“I must.”

He didn’t say anything else. Instead he leaned forward and kissed my forehead, and then held me against him for a long time. I had been hugged by my father countless times in my lifetime. This was different. I could feel his heart pounding, and I could feel fear passing through him as though it were his blood. He held me, and when he was finished he took Julian and me by our hands and led us to the stairs, motioning for us to go. We went up, but he didn’t follow. I saw him turn and go towards the back door.

Lady Falmouth was at the top of the stairs, dressed but still sleepy. Did she know? She held out a hand. “Come, children. To bed. It is too early.” We took her hands, and she led us upstairs. On the ladies’ floor she kissed Julian and sent him up on his own. Me she guided to my room, and helped me get in bed, and pulled the covers over me as though she were my own mother, and without saying anything she patted my head and left. I was asleep before she was gone. I felt as though I’d been asleep the whole time.

2.

A dream.

I stood atop a mountain, unlike any I had ever seen in England. Tall and rocky but weathered.

I was myself, in my mind, but my body was not mine, or at least not one that I recognized.

Wind whipped at me from all directions, in front, behind, from either side, above, and below. It drowned all sound.

I was wearing a gown of sorts, long and loose. The wind passed through it directly to my skin underneath.

The sun above hung behind a curtain of clouds, dark clouds with streaks of white and purple and gold. The clouds covered everything, blocked the whole sky. They moved fast, slipping over and through each other, rivers of cloud with eddies and cascades.

Below me stretched a valley scarred by two broad and swift rivers. From either side of the valley rose mountains, and atop each mountain stood a creature shaped like a man but with the head of a beast, with horns and hair and a long tail; a minotaur. Each one held a staff, and with the staffs they directed the winds at each other, winds and rain. One beast pointed his staff at a spot on the valley floor, and where he pointed lightning struck. The other beast pointed at a mountain, and a torrent of rain washed down from it, turning to snow and then hail.

The valley was filled with figures I soon recognized as men.

As armies.

The clashed on the ground, on the rocks, and in the water. Men, horses, cannon. Swords, arrows, guns. Armor.

Crows. Crows everywhere. Standing, watching; flying, attacking; clawing, cawing, fighting, dying, killing and being killed.

My own beast stood beside me, his own staff guiding the winds over and around me. The crows stayed away from him. I was safe with him. But I only sensed him; I could not see him.

Then from behind me a powerful light shone, flooding the valley and everything in it, and I awoke in my room, alone.

3.

Miss Annie brought me a tub and a sponge so I could scrub off the worst of last night’s misadventures. I was sore and my eyes stung. Even though I had slept until the early afternoon I was still tired, and all the walking had caused my legs to howl in protest whenever I moved them. When I took off my nightshirt I realized that I was still wearing the wooden pendant, and so I knew that at least some of the night’s events had been real, and not a dream. I was unsure of whether to keep it on or take it off for my bath, but decided to keep it on. When I got dressed I tucked the necklace under the collar of my dress and it obliged by staying hidden.

I trudged downstairs warily, and at the foot of the stairs I encountered Mr. Percy, busily tidying small objects on the mantle while he waited for Lord Falmouth. Mr. Percy saw me out of the corner of his eye, and I instinctively flinched, ready for some withering comment or, even worse, a promise to speak to me later about my behavior.

Instead, he smiled. Quite sweetly, I might add, and resumed his busy work. He began humming to himself, the same slow tune he had hummed in his bedroom.

“Isabelle,” Lord Falmouth said as he came down the stairs, straightening his coat. “Good afternoon. You slept well?” I nodded. He came over and put his hands on my shoulders. “You are a very brave girl. I am proud of you. Your father sent back word as he boarded his ship, and he is in good hands there with Mr. Schiacci and van Ryswick. We have sent for the remainder of your things from Portsmouth, and Jane and Miss Annie will be going to the market today to make arrangements for your room.”

Absently my hand reached for my chest, and I felt the necklace there, still hidden, and unexpectedly reassuring.

“I must go into the City today,” Lord Falmouth continued. “Someday Julian and I must take you in. I don’t believe you’ve been to the City in ages. Much has changed.” Mr. Percy had stopped humming when Lord Falmouth came down but his eye caught mine and he smiled again. He had told nobody about last night.

“Where is Julian?” My voice croaked when I tried to speak. There was exhaustion, of course, and earlier there had been some tears, but so far today I had not spoken to anybody; even when Miss Annie brought me my bath I only nodded to her.

“He is outside, I think getting some air.” He pointed towards the courtyard behind the house. “He only just woke up himself. Lady Falmouth is at the market with Miss Annie, and Jane and Mrs. Smith should be serving dinner soon. I bet if you go to the kitchen now Mrs. Smith will have a breakfast of sorts ready for you.” And he patted me on the head and turned. Mr. Percy left with him.

I felt a tug in my mind, and after a moment I decided to follow it. In truth, I didn’t decide to follow it so much as I stopped resisting it. I stepped outside onto Shandos Place and turned towards St. Martins. I walked past the abandoned Shively house and the nefarious Three Tuns public house.

St. Martins-in-the-Fields, no longer in the fields. The afternoon sun shone right in my face. I would have squinted anyway. My eyes would have been happiest if I’d just lay down again and let them shut. I walked through the gate and past the church into the yard, near the graves. Julian was sitting on the grass near a tombstone. He didn’t glance up as I came over.

“Who’s that?” I asked. He looked up at me and then followed my finger to the grave behind him.

“Edward Clement Parker,” he read. “1546-1612.”

“A friend of yours?”

“He’s good company. Quiet. He listens.”

“May I join you two?”

Julian looked at the grave. “What do you think, Ed?” He paused, as though waiting for an answer, then patted the ground. “He doesn’t say much. No objections then.”

I was dressed properly, all in white. I didn’t want to sit on the grass. Instead I brushed the top of the tombstone with my fingertips and checked them: it was clean enough. I hopped up on it.

“You don’t mind, do you, Ed? No answer. I guess no objections.”

The shadow cast by the church was good for my eyes.

“How did you know I was here?” Julian asked.

“I didn’t.”

“I knew you’d find me.” He chewed on a fingernail and I said nothing. My mind was still too fuzzy to think of what to say. “Your father’s gone,” he finally said. “I overhead the messenger. Are you still angry?”

I thought before answering. “It’d be like getting angry at a badger for tearing up your hedge,” I said to him. “You can yell all you want, but the badger can’t help doing what it does.”

Julian didn’t get it. “Your father’s a badger?”

“You know what I mean.”

We sat quietly. Every now and then I reached up for my necklace, to check, and it was always there. Julian saw me do it once, and checked his own. I could tell from his face that it was still there, though I couldn’t see it or the string that held it.

“Crows are really smart,” he said for no particular reason. “Father told me that a crow can remember human faces, and that if you make a crow angry and it sees you again, even years later, it will attack. And what’s worse, it tells its friends somehow, so sometimes you get attacked by other crows, too.”

“That’s an old wives tale,” I said to him.

“That’s what Miss Annie said, but my mother said that Father doesn’t repeat old wives tales. Father said he’s seen it happen. Up in Bungay there was a family that was terrorized by a grumpy crow for years after their son hit it with a rock.”

I remembered the crows from the Tower. A thought struck me then, but even in my own mind it sounded ridiculous, so I held it down.

“Crows hold trials,” Julian continued. “The crows will stand in a circle. Do you know what they call a group of crows?”

“No, what?”

“A murder. A murder of crows. Anyway, the murder will gather in a circle and one of their group will go out in the center. Other crows will come out, one at a time, and walk around him and caw, like it was a trial. After a few crows have taken their turn, the rest of the murder will hand out its verdict.”

“What happens if the crow is guilty?” I asked.

“The rest of the murder will rush forward and peck him to death.”

“That’s awful.” I imagined a bloodied frenzy as their hard beaks ripped at their companion. How many pecks until a crow dies? A murder of crows, indeed. What possible crime could a crow commit that would get him convicted in crow-court? Theft? Treason?

The thought came back to me again, and again I pushed it away, but it wouldn’t stay away. It knocked against my teeth, wanting to be said. I opened my mouth to speak but then closed it again. Again and again.

I was hungry. I bet that if I went into the kitchen now Mrs. Smith would make me something delicious. I bet the kitchen smelled of warm bread and soup right now.

And while I thought of food the thought escaped from me and came out into the world. “One of the crows last night knew you,” I heard myself say. Julian looked up at me. I wish I hadn’t said it. My heart raced. No sense in pretending that I hadn’t said it, though, so I went on. “At the Tower. The crow that came over and looked at you. He knew you, didn’t he?”

Julian looked back at the church. “I think so. It—he, I think—came to my window one day. The day you came, actually.”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing. He just looked at me. And tapped on my window.” Another old wives’ tale I’d heard, that a bird tapping on your window was a warning of death. From whom? What god of birds would warn you of death without giving you the tools to save yourself? What is the point of telling someone if there’s nothing they can do about it?

“There were six more,” Julian continued. “Across the street, around Emily Shively’s window.” The Shively girl. I remembered her, a quiet thing looking down at the street from her window, or else going to the market with Ruthie Cohen to buy a sweetie.

“Did they ever find her?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “No trace at all.”

“Where was she when she disappeared?”

“In her room. She went to bed at night and never came down in the morning. That’s what her father said, anyway.”

A cloud passed low over town, white and fluffy, like a lamb gamboling across a blue field. Innocent and happy. The clouds in my dream had been streaks of pain and anger.

“The crows last night,” I started, then stopped. “And that man in the boat.”

“The people on the shore,” Julian continued, as hesitant as I. “They…”

“There was a child with them,” I remembered.

“I think so,” he said quietly.

Father says that there are things in this world that are real, that we can’t even imagine. In Argentina there is a river of blood-red water so wide you can’t see the other side. In Turkey there are entire cities underground carved out of soft rock. In Japan women dye their teeth black and pull out their eyebrows to look beautiful. And in London crows can become men.

“You say the crows were all standing around Emily’s window?”

He nodded. “Around it and inside it. They kept going in and out. I had a hard time counting them.”

“Why were you counting them?” I asked.

“No reason.” A slight hesitation before he answered.

“How did they get in?”

“Broken window.” He made a gesture with his hands, outlining a window and then knocking out a pane.

“Has anybody been inside there since the Shivelys left? They left, right?”

“Yes, they went home. Up north somewhere. Nobody’s been inside since.”

I thought of the people on the shore, the people who hadn’t been there until they suddenly were, people who I genuinely believed had the power to turn into crows. But that is madness, is it not? And the man in the boat who was a monster. Monsters aren’t real. Monsters don’t wash up on the shore of the Thames with an army of crows. Monsters don’t stand on mountaintops and battle each other with wind and rain. Not in this world.

“Are there others, though?” Julian asked.

I blinked. “Come again?”

“Other worlds.”

Had I said that out loud? I didn’t think so. I was still so very tired. My thoughts were layered: on top there was exhaustion, and hunger. Beneath it, a slow steady pulse of fear and longing for my father. And beneath that, a gnawing and inexplicable sensation, entirely unfocused, about the crows and the men and the monsters. It was too much to handle, and I was determined to resolve them. Tonight I would go straight to bed, solving the first issue. And I would write to my Father, demanding he return, or at least take me with him. And as for the crows, I would go and find them.

“Can we get in?” I asked.

“In where?”

“Emily Shively’s room.”

He looked at me. His eyes were big, a rich dark brown. His hair fell around his face in gentle curls that I sometimes envied. And on his face—his mouth, specifically, but also the edges of eyes—was a sense that he knew exactly what I was talking about but wasn’t sure how much to let on.

“I’m not going anywhere at night anymore,” he said finally.

“Let’s go now then. While Mr. Percy isn’t watching us.”

“We’re lucky Mr. Percy was watching out for us.” I could see the bruise on his wrist, and felt my own.

“Those guys wouldn’t have hurt us. Even if they had taken us, they couldn’t have done anything with us, certainly not put us on a ship bound for the New World. Nobody would take two noble children.” I believed that, or at least wanted to.

I slid off the tombstone and dusted off my bottom. A quick check showed me that it hadn’t gotten my clothes dirty. Father had bought me too much white clothing. It made playing difficult.

I reached out to Julian, to help him off the grass. He didn’t take my hand. “You are just as curious as I am,” I said. “You want to know what the crows were doing in there.” No response. “We’re not crazy, I know what I saw. You saw it, too.” I held my hand out again. “Please?”

He took my hand and stood. “Just to look, quickly.”

I gestured to my dress. “I can’t do much with this get-up on anyway.” And we went.

4.

On Bedfordbury a small gap between houses led to the courtyard behind the Shively’s house. The houses were nearly identical, but the Shively’s was recognizable because it was beginning to suffer from neglect. The ivy creeping up their walls untended was beginning to cover their windows.

We thought there might be a broken window we could use to get in, but instead the door was open, nearly torn off of its hinges. We stepped through. Leaves, dirt, and rainwater had been seeping in through the open door. The Shively house was like Julian’s except that everything was on the opposite side, as though it were held up to a mirror. A dark and gloomy mirror. The drapes were drawn but enough light came in that we could see.

The house had been undisturbed since the Shivelys left and everything was dusty. They had taken many of their possessions but not all, and furniture and paintings and an odd assortment of things stood lonely. Julian led me to the staircase and we went up. Our footfalls were swallowed whole by the dust and dark, and left prints where we stepped.

Up the stairs, up and up into the dark. We should have brought candles. The air grew colder, and a knot formed in my stomach. I was hungry, yes, but that wasn’t it. The Shively house was empty. That it looked so much like Julian’s house was worse—is this the fate that would befall the Falmouth’s if the revolution failed?

Finally, the top floor. Her room was the same as Julian’s, so we found it easily. The door was closed but unlocked. Julian opened it and we went in.

I don’t know what I expected to find. An empty room, perhaps. Maybe an old doll in a corner. Just floorboards and dust.

Instead, the room looked as though a young girl still lived here. There was a large bed and a dresser, a virginal that was better crafted than mine, an assortment of candles by the bed and a large polished mirror on the wall. She had dolls and toys, and the dress she would have worn the day she disappeared was still hanging from a hook. The bed was made.

I have never experienced genuine grief in my short and charmed life, but I had seen glimpses of it in other’s eyes: my father, on nights when I found him up late, a glass of wine in one hand, looking at my mother’s portrait, his eyes pink and damp. Or Henry the gardener, who cut a fresh flower every day and put it in a vase on the windowsill in his cottage, for his daughter who had died long before my parents were born. How does one survive losing a child? The Shivelys kept her room waiting for her, and even after they accepted she was gone they still left her room waiting, just it case. It must have been unbearable.

“What are we looking for?” Julian asked.

“I don’t know.” I hoped it would be something obvious, but beyond that I had no idea. “I just wanted to see.”

Julian walked past the bed towards the broken window. A faint breeze toyed with the curtains. He bent down and picked something up, and held it up to me. It was a black feather.

“There’s no glass on the floor,” he noticed. He looked at the window and passed a hand over the sill. “Or outside.”

“Somebody cleaned it up?” He shrugged. Somebody must have.

Looking around I saw more feathers now. Not a mess of feathers, but a few, here and there. On a rocking chair, on the keys of the virginal, on the bed. Most of the room was covered in dust, but not all of it.

“Somebody’s been in here,” I said, looking down at a hairbrush with a long strand of black hair still in it. “Not long ago.”

Julian put his hand on the rocking chair, and then a puzzled look came on his face and he slid it down the chair’s back and onto the seat. He took his hand back and put it on the back of the chair, and then back on the seat.

“What?” I asked him.

“The seat’s warm.”

I felt eyes on me and spun around. “Is anybody there?” I asked, and began walking backwards toward Julian, who stepped forward and met me halfway. We stood by the bed, and my hand moved over to take his. His own hand reached out for mine.

“Hello?” he called out, more quietly than I had. I looked down at the bed and blinked hard, because while the bed was made, there were little crinkles in covers in a definite pattern, as though somebody had been lying in the bed earlier in the day.

“I think we should go,” Julian whispered. I agreed, and we moved slowly, as one, towards the door.

Down the stairs quickly and quietly. We should have gone back out through the back door but we both wanted to get out as quickly as possible. I tested the front door. It was locked. I looked through the house at the back door, so far away, past so many other closed doors and darkened corners. I thought of the men who stopped us in the City, and the men on the shore, and the crows, and wondered what else could linger in a shadow.

And then, unmistakably, footsteps. Above us, in the hallway.

He clenched my hand tighter and we ran fast through the house, knocking things over as we did so, bursting out the door and into the courtyard where we kept running, through the gardens and onto Bedfordbury, and then down to Shandos Place and Julian’s own house, as fast as we could without looking back.

On the steps of his house we stopped and looked at each other.

It was warm and bright today, and from the top of the street we could hear the sounds of Covent Garden Market; around us were ladies in dresses and men in coats going to or from the City or Westminster. A few children played here and there, and a couple of dogs chased a cat down towards the river.

And all at once I began to laugh. Yesterday had been a long and strange day, with too much crammed into too short a time period. Today my mind was a mess. That was all. And in the light of day it was all quite silly. I was hungry, that was all.

Julian laughed, too, and we were both still laughing when we reached home and Jane opened the door. She looked down at us with her big scared eyes. “What are you to getting on about?”

Neither of us answered, just laughed some more.

“Well you better come in, Mrs. Smith was asking for you.” Jane looked at us both one more time, then huffed and turned back inside.

Before we went inside, we took a look back across the street, at the Shively house.

On the rooftop, in front of Emily’s window, was a line of six crows, watching us. My blood turned cold, and Julian and I both went in quickly, not daring to turn our backs on them.

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Chapter 2: Isabelle

Chapter 2: Isabelle

1.

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.

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Part One, Chapter 1: Julian

Part One, Chapter 1: Julian

1.

Five crows is an omen of illness to come; six is death.

From my window I watched them flitting about the building across the street, black dragons in miniature. Were they crows or ravens? I don’t know very much about birds. Crows are smaller, duskier. And if the ravens leave the Tower then the kingdom will fall.

Lord Shively and his family had abandoned the house across the street during the winter, retreating through the cold away from the City. They had by then accepted that their Emily was gone. She abandoned them, and they abandoned hope, and then they abandoned their home. That’s what my father said as we watched them go. The crows seemed keen on moving in. I tried to count them but it was hard to keep track, given the way they slipped in and out through the broken window that led into what had once been Emily Shively’s bedroom.

Four? No, five. Illness. For me, who was counting them, or for the Shivelys, whose house the crows were haunting? I’d ask my father later. It was he who told me about counting crows, which I was doing now instead of my geography lessons. France is down and Scotland is up, and across the sea there is a new land filled with fierce and primitive warriors. That was enough learning for now, I felt.

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The Girl With the Flaxen Hair

The Girl With the Flaxen Hair

My father grew up in a two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a six-story building on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. The apartment had been purchased by his father in 1944, and nobody was ever able to explain how a Steinway Vertegrand ended up in the living room. It had come with the apartment, and the sole attempt to remove it, sometime in the early 1950s, led to the discovery that while it could fit just fine through the front door, there wasn’t enough room in the hallway to turn it around so it could go down the stairs. Some giant could probably lift it over the railing and onto the stairs, but between our landing and the exit to Jane Street there were seven hairpin turns, and the piano would have to go up and over the railings each time.

The potential buyer had his money returned and the piano was shoved back into its space, where it was covered with muslin and used to display pictures and houseplants in front of the window that didn’t lead to the fire escape.

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Kaitlin’s Chinese Courtyard

Kaitlin’s Chinese Courtyard

On their second day in the new house a couple of things happened that, while noteworthy at the time, took on a special significance in hindsight. The first was the trio of apple cores placed in the mailbox to ooze apple juice onto the circulars.

“Maybe a squirrel put them there,” Kaitlin said. Yvonne raised an eyebrow. “Maybe it was an accident,” she tried again. One apple core might–might–get swooped up in the mail and deposited accidentally, but three? “Maybe some kids put it there. Maybe they’ve been using that mailbox as a convenient trash can for a long time. They might not know anyone lives here now.”

Yvonne didn’t say anything but kept her skeptical eyebrow arched as she carried the apples and mail to the kitchen. The mail was all junk anyway. The apples had more juice in them than any apples she’d ever seen before, though to be fair she was never really fond of apples. She was about to toss the cores into the trash when Kaitlin chirped, “Compost!” Yvonne carried out them back to the compost tumbler. Along the way she wondered if she could compost the mail, too. It was just paper, after all, though probably mixed in with some deadly-toxic chemical that saved the printers a few pennies per pound.

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Daniel Carson

Daniel Carson

Daniel Carson woke in the night to a fireworks display dancing before his eyes followed by pitch blackness, and he knew that at that moment he had gone blind.

He shot up in bed and held his hand out in front of himself, and although he could feel his arm hovering in the still stale air he couldn’t see it.

His throat closed up in panic. The darkness wrapped around him, gripped him hard and squeezed as if to crush him. His heart beat a furious rhythm and his blood pushed against his veins. His skin crawled as if thousands of needles were forcing their way through him and tearing him apart.

He couldn’t breathe. His sightless eyes throbbed under an unplaceable pressure. Daniel leaped out of his bed. He tried to scream but couldn’t. His throat burned when he tried to breathe. Wherever he looked there was nothing but a void, hideous in its totality.

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Fugit Inreparabile Tempus

Fugit Inreparabile Tempus

Just hours before Mary Margaret died, the rain that had battered the city for weeks stopped and the sun burned alone in a brilliant summer sky. The nurse took great care to describe the scene to me later. Mary Margaret had asked the nurse to bring her to the window. With the sun on her face, she closed her eyes and listened to the birds. She drew deep, contented breaths and tapped her fingers to a song only she could hear. The nurse went away and when she returned Mary Margaret was unresponsive. A short while after the doctor declared her dead the rains began again and hadn’t stopped since.

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