The floor is cold under my bare feet. Florence and Chloe are breathing deeply, not stirring. I would guess it to be an hour or more after midnight. The rusted springs of my cot shriek when I rise, but the two sleeping figures are undisturbed. They are used to the sound, no doubt, as the beds scream like murder victims whenever we roll over. I step past their beds lightly, let my hand slide around the doorknob. The door doesn’t squeak--just last week I oiled the hinges and took apart, cleaned, and reassembled the knob. There was nothing to be done about the bedsprings. Moonlight slips between the curtains, giving some light to the little attic room where we housemaids sleep, but the staircase is dark. In one hand I have a candle, unlit in its iron holder. With the other hand I shut the door behind me.
The main bedrooms are on the third floor, along with the bathroom. The clock on the landing tells me it is nearing two in the morning, but I can still see a light under Frederick’s door. That doesn’t worry me. Most likely he fell asleep over a book. The stairs leading to the second floor are wider. I skip down them quickly, a hand to the wall to guide me in the dark. I know every floorboard that creaks, and my descent is soundless. Here is the library, the music room, Mrs. Och’s reading room, and my destination tonight: Professor Baranyi’s study. We do not clean this room, so I have never been inside. It is locked at night.
Not that a lock is any great impediment.
There is no light coming from under the door, but I press my ear to it and listen just in case. With my free hand, I slip a pin from my hair and flatten it out. I’m not a practiced lockpick, but I have the basic skills and get it open in under a minute.
I’ve stitched a match into the hem of my nightdress. Shutting the door behind me, I feel my way to the hearth and strike the match against the stone. Once the candle is lit, the room leaps into view around me, bookcases looming, the furniture sending monstrous, grasping shadows my way. I’ve never been one to quake at shadows: I make my way straight for Professor Baranyi’s desk.
The professor is not a tidy man, to put it mildly. Precariously stacked books and papers cover every inch of space. Three ashtrays overflow with cigarette butts, there are two half-full glasses perched dangerously atop a pile of large leather-bound folders, and his inkpot lies open, pen leaking onto the blotter.
It would help if I knew what I was looking for.
A soft sound behind me--my imagination turns it into a handkerchief being pulled out of a pocket--and I freeze.
“Hooo,” comes a fluting little voice. I nearly laugh aloud with relief. On a perch in the corner is a small brown owl, blinking at me.
“Sorry,” I whisper. “Go back to sleep.”
“Hooo,” murmurs the owl, shrugging its wings and resettling itself.
I turn back to Professor Baranyi’s desk, lift my candle, and scan the books and papers around the blotter, whatever he was looking at before he retired to bed. Esme taught me to read, and I can read quickly and well, even the most ungainly, misspelled scrawl. I shuffle through his papers: an old clipping from a journal about a lake somewhere that has mysteriously dried up, lists of names with some of them crossed out, figures without context, lists of cities and countries. A circle around one name in a long list: Jahara Sandor--Hostorak 15c. That brings me up short. Hostorak is the impenetrable prison where witches and folklore practitioners and other abusers of magic await execution. It is a great gray monolith behind the parliament, the ugliest building in all of Spira City, and the most terrifying. I commit the name, Jahara Sandor, and 15c to memory, without knowing what they might mean.
At the back of the study, there is a long workbench with scientific instruments, but I don’t know how they work. I turn to the bookshelves instead, which line the entire room. At the bottom of one shelf, I find a locked glass cabinet full of books. There. Anything with a lock on it is bound to be interesting. I wiggle the hairpin until the lock gives and slide the case open. I can see why these books are locked up, with titles like A Scientific Analysis of Elemental Forces at Work and Legends of the Xianren I through Legends of the Xianren VII. I’ve heard of the Xianren--mythical, winged wizards in the old days who could supposedly speak their magic. Folklorish stuff. I shouldn’t be surprised--Professor Baranyi spent a number of years in prison for heretical writings, and you can go to prison just for owning books like these. So you see, I’m not snooping through the private rooms of honest, upstanding citizens of Frayne. Criminals every way I turn.
My hand is on Legends of the Xianren I, pulling it off the shelf, when I hear a creak on the stairs. I push the book back and slide the glass door shut, blowing out the candle. I work the cabinet lock shut again, but there is no time to get to the door. I hear a key in the lock as I tread softly through the dark. I bump against a sedan chair piled with books and freeze, afraid of knocking something over. There is some fumbling with the door, as I left it unlocked, and whoever is at the door has mistakenly locked it again. But he tries the key again, and opens the door.
I draw in a slow breath and release it. The door opens and light pours into the room. It is Professor Baranyi with a lantern. He is wearing a thick robe and house slippers. By day he is an affable, genial-looking man, but the light from the lantern makes his swarthy, bearded face look sinister. He drops the key into his robe pocket, glances around the room, and then goes to the owl on its perch and scratches it under its beak. The owl nibbles at his fingers and bobs its head in my direction. Treacherous little thing. But Professor Baranyi does not look my way, going instead to his desk. He places the lantern atop a pile of books on the floor that reaches to the height of the desk, and fumbles in the drawer for a cigarette.
I bite back my curses. He’s going to be a while.
In my sixteen years, I’ve seen as much as, or more than, someone five times my age, and I’ve acquired a number of unusual skills. Some of those skills required endless practice, while others came to me more naturally. One particular skill has always been mine. I don’t know what to call it, except to say that I have the ability to be unseen. It’s not invisibility or anything so absolute--this I learned from hard experience when I was a child. But there is a space I can step into, a space between being myself in the world and I know not what, where people’s eyes simply pass over me, as if I were a piece of furniture so ordinary they barely take it in. Since I got the hang of doing it on purpose, only one person has been able to see me when I did not intend her to.
I watch the professor as if through a fogged window now, everything slightly blurred. He reaches for one of the leather folders, moving the glasses of who knows what. I clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. The house is frigid at night, and I hope he will think to light the fire.
He licks his finger and turns a page. I try to warm myself by thinking about Wyn. Wyn feeding pigeons on the roof. Wyn pulling off his boots and tossing them aside. Wyn by firelight, reaching for me. Wyn’s mouth. I feel something run through me whenever he flashes his wild smile or throws his head back to laugh so you can see his back teeth and the brown stretch of his throat. That laugh! How it shreds me, every single time. I think of Wyn’s fingers brushing up and down my arms, his hand moving around to the small of my back, his breath like wine and smoke and something else, something sweet. Now I’m warming up, and the minutes fly by for a time.
But even thoughts of Wyn, with his clever fingers and his sweet lips, can only get me through so much of the night in phantom form. Shivering violently, toes curled against the icy floor, fingers aching from gripping the candlestick, I run through every curse I know in my head. Professor Baranyi is deep in his leather-bound volume and shows no sign of returning to bed. Soon Florence and Chloe will be rising to begin the day’s work. I imagine them waking up, finding me gone from my bed and nowhere in the house. What will they say to Mrs. Och? How will I explain my absence? I can’t leave the room without being caught, and I can’t not leave the room without creating a whole new set of difficulties for myself.
I am weighing the possible disastrous outcomes of this night when a great crash comes from below us, followed by a long, low howl. The professor’s head shoots up. Another crash, like steel on stone, and a roar to wake the dead. It’s not the first time I’ve heard such sounds from the cellar, but never quite so terrible as this. The professor leaps from his seat and goes straight for the locked cabinet of books. My heart gives a jump as he fumbles it open. Footsteps on the stairs above, and a moment later Frederick bursts into the room, gangly and half-awake.
“Is it a reaction?” he asks.
The professor is pulling all the books out of the cabinet. He reaches behind them and appears to slide open a panel. I can hardly contain my delight--this night will not be a waste after all. He emerges with a black case. The sound of wood splintering makes us all start. The professor curses. He takes something out of the case and hands it to Frederick, but they have their backs to me, and I can’t see what it is. I am distracted, anyway, by the sound of something on the lower stairs, and then a snarl in the hall, chillingly close.
Frederick and the professor run together to the door just as a large, dark shadow flashes past. Frederick aims some kind of triangular instrument about a hand’s width in size. There is a hissing sound, a strangled cry, then a thud as something hits the ground, hard. The two men seem to exhale as one, Frederick leaning against the doorjamb, Professor Baranyi taking a handkerchief out of his robe pocket and mopping his brow.
“So much for the soothing properties of amethyst, eh?” says the professor, and Frederick gives a short laugh. I think he is trembling, but it is hard to be sure from my blurred vantage point.
“We need a new door,” he says. “Steel.”
“Yes. We’ll see to it in the morning.”
“And then what? Surely we’ve tried everything.”
“Not everything,” says the professor. “But close.”
They are silent for a moment, staring into the hall at whatever it is. Then Frederick hands the professor the peculiar instrument--like a miniature crossbow, I see now--and says, “I’ll take care of this.”
The professor nods, and Frederick closes the door behind him, blast him. Professor Baranyi seems quite steady now, muttering to himself as he returns the black case to its hidden compartment, arranging his set of forbidden books in front of it. Back at his desk, he stares harder at the volume before him. I don’t know how to make sense of what I’ve just witnessed, but my heart is thundering, and I can’t stand still any longer. I begin to make my way across the room.
When I am in a crowd, the movement of others seems to open pockets of space that I can vanish into and move within. Moving through a still room while keeping myself behind that membrane of the visible is much more difficult--sort of like trying to write different things with each hand. But the professor doesn’t look up as I head for the door. I wait until he seems entirely lost in his book. Then, too fast, I reach for the knob and open the door, losing my equilibrium. Everything comes sharply into focus.
He starts and stares, and I am caught.
“Sir!” I cry, pivoting on my heel as if I were coming in rather than going out. “I heard terrible sounds coming from downstairs, sir!”
Professor Baranyi pushes his spectacles up his nose to look at me in the dying lanternlight. “Miss . . . ?” he says, not remembering my name.
“Ella,” I say. “I was going to the privy, sir--sorry, sir--and I heard the most awful bashing and hollering. I’m sorry, sir; I was afraid, and I saw your light.”
“Hoo-hoooo,” says the little brown owl, shifting from one foot to the other, delighted by all the excitement.
“I don’t hear anything,” says the professor, rising. I can see his confusion at finding me in his room fading already as he accepts the more reasonable explanation: that I was coming in, not going out.
“It’s stopped,” I say. “Is it something got into the cellar, do you think? Is Mr. Darius all right down there?”
Mr. Darius is the ailing, aristocratic houseguest who has a room in the cellar and, as far as I can tell, keeps a very unhappy nocturnal pet. I only hope he is not the cause of the suffering down there. Wondering about it gives me chills every time I have to pour his coffee.
“There’s no need to worry, Edna,” says Professor Baranyi soothingly.
“Ella,” I correct him, then bite my tongue, wishing I hadn’t.
“Quite--pardon me. There is a door down there that needs fixing, you see. The wind catches it sometimes and makes some awful echoing sounds in the passageway. We must see to it, but please don’t be frightened.”
He’s not a bad liar, if not near as good as I am.
I look down at my bare feet. “I shouldn’t have barged in on you. I was ever so frightened. But I ought not to have bothered you. I’m so embarrassed, sir.”
“Nobody need hear about it,” he comforts me, and I hope he means it. Mrs. Och would be less inclined to credulous sympathy, I somehow think. “Now, perhaps you had better get back to bed.”