Cold Magic

Page 21


“Tilly!” Uncle bellowed from the floor above. “I can’t find my hat!”

She rose. “Cook and Callie are busy, so just run down and fetch the pot and cups yourself. You can take dinner at lamplighting in the nursery with the little girls, or wait and share a collation with us at evening’s end when we get home from the academy. For the lecture tonight, you’ll need to change into something more”—she frowned at my jacket and petticoats, a style I had assiduously copied from the plates of a very up-to-date fashion magazine Bee and I had seen in the window of a milliner on High Street last year—“more sober.”

“Tilly!” Uncle called again.

She hurried out the door.

“Do you think it was the poet’s head that spoke?” Bee whispered. “We’ll never be able to tell anyone that we heard the famous Bran Cof declaim! Even if it was only two words. Now, I’ll get the chocolate while you get that bag up to our room before Papa decides we must display our day’s academic work at dinner for his delectation. That would be a disaster! He’d see my sketches. And you’d have to confess you stole a book from the academy.”

“A book my father wrote!”

“A book whose author’s name is the same as your father’s. That doesn’t prove anything.”

She was right, so I retraced my steps to the entryway. Our governess was still up in the nursery with Hanan and Astraea; Cook and the hired girl Callie were busy with dinner; and our man-of-all-work, Pompey, would be stoking the evening fires or preparing trays to carry up to the nursery for their early dinner. I climbed the stairs to the first floor with the bag clutched against me. At the top of the stairs, the huge hall mirror showed me myself—yes, that was me, as always, my face, my body, my long-fingered hands, my wishfully fashionable jacket and petticoats sewn as well as Bee’s and my skill could manage. In the mirror, a ragged nimbus like a storm cloud fringed my form; it sparked in the mirror’s reflection only if I was particularly annoyed or upset, and I knew how to furl it in, like binding back one’s hair.

As I slunk along the first-floor hall past the closed doors of the front parlor and Uncle’s office, Aunt’s and Uncle’s voices traded rhythms from behind the office door. Their knack for talking over each other without quite getting in each other’s way reminded me of festival drums. Our factotum’s bass rumble interposed an unexpected counterbeat, followed by a silence.

I hurried past the rack of fencing sabers and up the stairs to the second floor. I slipped through the fourth door, the one at the back of hall, into the room Bee and I had shared for the almost fourteen years I had lived in Uncle and Aunt’s house.

The curtains were open, and the stove had been recently kindled. I threw myself across the wide bed and pulled out the book. After wrapping the feather coverlet around me, I shifted to catch what light remained from the windows that overlooked the back garden with its frosted earth and leafless trees. A twig scratched at the windowpane as the wind rattled it: Bee called that branch “the skeletal hand.” It was an old friend from the tree that grew down past Uncle’s office window, and its presence made me comfortable.

I opened the book and found the publication date: Most people across Europa used the Augustan year, dating from the installation of the first emperor of the Romans.

The year of my birth was 1818.

A man bearing my father’s name had published a monograph the year I was born.

I flipped through the pages in the fading light, but the flare for the dramatic and the self-deprecating turn of phrase displayed by my father in his journals was absent here. This was an awkwardly written tome filled with dry recitation of ancient Roman accusations, taken from quotes by tedious Roman writers of ancient days and refuted with the usual unassailable truths.

The first lie: that our name for ourselves is Phoenician, when in fact we call ourselves Kena’ani.

The second lie: that the rulers of “Carthage” engage in the barbaric practice of child sacrifice to propitiate bloodthirsty gods.

The third lie: that “Phoenician” women are all whores.

The fourth lie: that “Phoenician” traders will lie, cheat, and steal to get a bargain.

Fifth, seventh, eleventh… There was nothing new here. Wasn’t there any scrap in this volume that might reveal something new about my father?

A tap on the door roused me. I stuck the book under the pillow, but it was only Bee with the chocolate. I let her in and, closing the door behind her, unbuttoned my jacket, shifted out of my overskirt and petticoats, and asked Bee to lace me into a simple chemise with a sober, respectable overdress of evergreen-dull wool.

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