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Authors: Roderick Townley

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BOOK: A Bitter Magic
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Chapter Nineteen

I don't want to go where I'm going, but there it stands, towering above me. The sun's back out, scattering rainbows and turning the castle into a prism.

A prison.

I'm grateful for this stretch of beach before the climb to the seawall. A few more minutes of freedom, sand warm between my toes. I wonder if Asa is still up there spying on me. Of course he is. I'm not going to look.

I'd rather look at the mirage the sun is making on the wet sand up ahead. The beach is a blinding shimmer. In the midst of it stands a tiny point of darkness.

Curious.

The trembling light recedes as I walk, but the object remains.

A shell! A beautiful conch shell. Turning it in my hand,
I'm sure I've never seen one so perfect: off-white at its widest, threaded round with delicate brown lines, then turning coral as it spirals to a point. I've got to take this home with me!

You're supposed to hear the ocean, aren't you? Up to my ear. Nothing. I give it a shake and try again. What's wrong with this thing?

I speak into it. “Hello?”

Immediately there's an echo: “Hello…hello…”

“Hello!” I say louder.

“Hello!…Hello!…lo!…lo…”

This is kind of fun.

“How did you get here?”

“Get here…ere…ere…”

“Who's in there?” I demand, smiling.

Silence.

Silence? Where's the echo? “Is anybody
there
?” I give the shell a shake.

Again, no echo. What happened?

“Of course I'm here,” a quiet voice replies.

I yank the shell away from me.
I didn't hear that!

Glance around. Not a soul. With a trembling hand, I lift the shell again. “Did you say something?”

“Smart girl.”

I almost drop it.

“Wh-who are you?”

“Not important.”

“Not
important
?”

“Just wind in an empty shell.”

The voice is like my own, a bit lower, with a ragged undertone, as if it came from a cavern. Is it my imagination? This reminds me of Elwyn, my little lobster friend. Everyone thought I was imagining
him
speaking to me.

But he
was
speaking. Wasn't he?

I turn the shell around. Examine all angles. This has got to be a trick. I'm used to magic tricks and good at figuring them out.

“Do you know who I am?” I say finally.

No answer.

“I said, do you know—?”

“You're a lonely girl who can use someone to talk to.”

I forget to breathe.

“You don't suppose I talk to every beachcomber who comes along,” it continues.

I don't know
what
to suppose. Instead, I jump to my biggest question: “Do you know Elwyn?”

No reply.

“Elwyn?” I ask again. “He's a lobster.”

“Different family entirely.”

“Well, I know that, but I just thought—”

There's a brief gusty sound, suspiciously like a sigh. “You'd better take me with you. I have a feeling you're going to need me.”

“One more question?”

“What?”

“Are you, you know, empty?”

“Am I what?”

“Isn't there generally a mollusk or something…?”

“You really need to know this?”

“I'd
like
to know.”

“I asked her to leave.”

“Oh.”

“You can't get a decent echo with some fat old mollusk crawling about.”

“I suppose not.”

“Now,” the voice goes on, “you should hurry. Your uncle is not the most patient of men.”

“Right.” Stomach rumbling—nerves again—I tuck the shell under my arm and climb the rocks to the seawall.
Not the most patient of men
. No, I wouldn't say he was.

Well, who cares? What can he do?

Today, for the first time in weeks, I can enter through the labyrinth. The renovation is finished, or so the pantry maid told me. Let's see what this fancy new maze looks like.

Asa has been secretive about it, not only fixing the machinery, but (I see now) rearranging the whole place—new walls, blind alleys I didn't know about, even a pit filled with what looks like quicksand. He also added several large topiary animals—a hedge in the shape of a wolf, another in the shape of a bear rearing up on hind legs.

I stop, uncertain. I'm not used to feeling lost.

Ah, two hedges away, the gardener stands on a high ladder, clipping one of the taller plantings into a giraffe. He'll know the way.

But I can't ask.
Miss Thummel wants me to show her how to get into her own house
.

“Need help?”

The voice is close by.

I peer around a hedge. Nothing but a thornbush with needlelike spines. “Who's there?”

“Who do you think?” says the voice.

I stare at the conch.

“Stay to the left,” it says. “Take the second turning.”

“How do you—?” I stop myself and do what I'm told.

The path leads to a blind alley.

Before I can say anything: “See that pointed stone? Be a dear and give it a half turn to the right.”

Again, I obey. With a loud creak, the hedge opens outward.

“He'll have to put some oil on that,” says the voice in the shell. “Now just go ahead, turn right, and you're home.”

“Wait!” I say, stopping where I am. “How do you know these things?”

“Not important.”

“I'm not taking another step until you tell me.”

“Oh my. You're scaring me.”

My eyes narrow. “Listen. The labyrinth was just finished today. You weren't anywhere near it.”

“Wasn't I?”

I look around. The gardener on his ladder is looking at me oddly.

I lower my voice. “You couldn't be.”

“Don't confuse me with the house I live in. I don't confuse you with yours.”

I turn the shell around in my hand. It
is
a house, isn't it?

“Do you know where the wind is?” the shell continues.

I shake my head.

“Think of me as a breath inside the wind inside the sky. Can you do that?”

“A breath inside the wind…I like that.”

“I'm glad.”

Soon I'm stepping into the castle's atrium, where I'm met, not by a furious uncle or an officious Strunk, but by a very cross-looking Edna Porlock. She shakes her large head at me. “Cisley Thummel.”

Taking hold of my shoulder, she steers me toward the staircase. “No time to clean you up. Your uncle wants to see you right away!”

Chapter Twenty

Windblown as I am, Miss P. presents me to Uncle Asa in his study. It is one of the few darkly furnished rooms in the whole glass palace, with its large captain's desk, leather chairs, and mahogany bookcases.

Asa's a spot of darkness himself. Something's different about him. He looks older, his coat noticeably soiled and his hair disheveled. His hair is
never
disheveled.

How long has it been—a week?—since I've seen him? Either he's been out in the labyrinth or up in the laboratory. He even takes his meals up there. Maybe he
sleeps
there.

Janko, his henchman, has positioned himself by the door, hands clasped behind his back, at ease, but ready. Does he think I'm going to make a break for it?

Click-click
.

“Hello, Uncle.”

Click-click, click-click
.

He leans back in his chair. “I hope,” he says quietly, eyes half closed, fingers interlaced on his stomach, “you enjoyed your little jaunt today.”

I don't say anything.

“Because it's your last.”

“You mean you're going to kill me?”

“I mean you're confined to the castle.”

“What?”

“Mezzanine floor only. Your meals will be brought to you.”

“I can't believe this!”

“You are restricted for the foreseeable future. The servants are instructed to make sure you stay put.”

Janko screws his face into a sort of smile.

“What have I done?”

“What have you done?” Asa murmurs, rubbing his forehead. “Where do I start?”

“I haven't done anything wrong!”

“I was mistaken about you,” he says, ignoring my outburst. “I thought you were old enough to understand appropriate behavior. How old are you, anyway? Twelve?”

“I'm thirteen!”

“Thirteen. And yet you continue to gang about with the lowest elements. Just look at you.” He twirls a dismissive hand. “You look like the wreck of the
Hesperus
.”

“The what?”

“And what are you holding there? Not another verminous pet, I hope.”

“It's a seashell!”

He sighs.

I take a slow breath. Arguing will only get me in deeper. “How long,” I say quietly, “do you plan to keep me cooped up?”

“Until you learn to behave like a Thummel. There are certain obligations for people like us. Certain proprieties.” He sees my expression. “They are
not
to be mocked.”

I'm silent. He sits silently as well. I suspect I'm one detail in a long, irritating day. By the doorway, Janko folds his arms. I can't see Porlock without turning around, but I hear her muttering, the way she does.

Be calm
, I tell myself.
Plot your escape later
. “Is there any way I can shorten my sentence?”

“Your sentence. You would think of it that way. Well, as it happens,” he says, “there may be.” His eyes show a bit of their old spark, like he's been just waiting for this: “There's a project I can use some help on in the laboratory.”

“Uncle, if you think for one minute—”

“You'd be glad to,”
a soft voice whispers. Not my voice. Not Miss P.'s.

“If I think for one minute what?” says Asa. “Speak up!”

“You need to help him.”
Same quiet voice. My God, it's the shell!

“Why should I?” I demand.

“Don't take that tone with me, young lady.”

“I wasn't talking to you.”

“Are you being impertinent?”

“Don't you ever want to walk on the beach again?”

“Of course!”

Asa looks incredulous.

“Then do what he asks.”

“I don't think so.”

“Oh. Now you don't
know
if you're being impertinent!”

“I'm sorry, Uncle. Did you say something?”

“Get out! You can rot in your room for all I care!”

“No, Asa!” It's Miss Porlock's voice now. She steps beside me and lays an arm around my shoulder. “Can't you see? She isn't making sense. She's obviously not well.”

Uncle Asa peers at me. “Are you not well?”

“I'm fine. It's just confusing with everybody talking at once.”

“Well then, let me put it to you simply,” says Asa. “If you help
me
, I'll help
you
.”

Visions of mutilated mice and slivered lizards dance in my head.

“I know you, Cisley,”
murmurs the shell.
“I know what you're thinking.”

“You
think
you know me.”

“Whether I do or not is beside the point,” says Asa. “I'm making you an offer. Do you want to help me or not?”

“You really want to refuse, don't you?”

“Yes, I do!”

Asa's face relaxes. “Very good,” he says, setting his hands on the chair arms. “Now you're showing some sense.”

“No,” I say. “Wait.”

“How about tomorrow, first thing?”

I glare at the conch shell. “You tricked me.”

“Not at all,” says Asa. “Tomorrow, then. Janko will fetch you at seven.”

Chapter Twenty-One

“What was
that
about?” I'm pacing around the little bedside table where I've set the shell.

“Just trying to be helpful.”

“Helpful!” This is so aggravating I don't know what to say. “Don't you understand? I refuse to have anything to do with that man and his horrible experiments!”

The conch remains silent. A decorative object on a table.

“Well?”
My fists dig into my hips. “What do you have to say?”

No answer.

“And how do you know so much? How did you know the way through the labyrinth? You don't even have legs!”

“Does the wind have legs?”

“Are you saying you're the wind?”

“It's an expression.”

“Well, what
are
you?
Who
are you?”

“I'm a voice.”

A soft knock on my door makes me turn. It's Miss Porlock.

She glances around the room. “Who are you talking to?”

“To myself, apparently,” I shoot back carelessly.

She peers at the drapes, in case someone's hiding. “You seemed to be having quite an argument.”

“I disagree with myself a lot.”

“My goodness,” she says, seeing the conch. “What a pretty shell! I hadn't really noticed before.”

I give it a sour glance. “Looks aren't everything.”

Miss P. takes this in, vaguely. “I came,” she says, “to see how you were bearing up.”

I look at her blankly.

“Your uncle can be a bully,” she says, nodding. “But I want you to know you will always have a friend in Edna Porlock.” Her eyelids lower in a sunset of kindly wrinkles.

“Thanks. Good to know. Now, can you get me out of here?”

“It's my understanding you'll be free to come and go once you've helped your uncle.”

“How long do I have to help him?”

“He didn't say.”

“It could be weeks. It could be years!”

Miss P. evidently hadn't thought of that. “I suppose it could.” Her eyes wrinkle up again with emotion. “I suspect there's a special reason you'd like your freedom just now. Am I wrong?”

“Special reason?”

A penciled eyebrow rises knowingly. “A special person, perhaps?”

“You mean Cole?”

Her cheeks tremble into a smile. “Is that the boy's name?”

“That's his name, yes.”
Patience, Cisley
, I tell myself. “How do you know about Cole? Have you been spying on me?”

“Cisley, really. I would never do that!”

“Everyone else does.”

“Well, it's hard not to notice that you've been spending a lot of time with a certain nice-looking boy.”

“We were digging clams.”

She doesn't seem to know what to do with that information.

“I got a sunburn,” I add. “And a backache.”

“Love's little sacrifices.”

My teeth clench, which is a bad sign, because I really don't want to snap at Miss Porlock. “Well,” I say, “if you see Uncle Asa, ask how long he expects to keep me here.”

“I will. And I'll visit you every day. We'll make the best of things. Oh,” she says, “I have some love poetry in Latin that I think you'll particularly like.”

“I'm sure I will.”

At the door, she gives me a smile, full of a spinster's wisdom about the ways of the heart.

Alone finally, I realize how much I miss Elwyn. At least he knew how to keep a secret. What on earth do I do with a talkative seashell with a mind of its own?

—

Next morning, I'm at my window in time to see dawn inching up over the Firth of Before. Far down the beach, a lone figure comes this way. The loping, forward tilt of his stride tells me it's Cole. Yes, today's the day we were going to see the painter, Peter Underwood. Cole doesn't know I won't be coming. I've got to tell him.

He's out of view for a minute as he climbs the rocks to the seawall, then reappears, much closer. His tousled hair catches the light as he takes a seat on our lookout rock, too far away for me to shout to him. I open the window and signal him with wild hand waves, but he's not looking this way.

A knock on the door and the chambermaid, stifling a yawn, brings my breakfast tray—poached eggs and toast under a round silver cloche.

She's new, since Anna left. Body like unbaked dough. Dull eyes, no expression. Bonnie, her name is. “Listen,” I tell her. “Do you see that boy down there?”

She peers out. Nods slowly.

“Will you run down and tell him I won't be meeting him today?”

She looks as if I've asked her to fly. “All the way down there?”

“That's right. I can't meet him today or anytime soon.”

This girl is no Anna. I end up bribing her with my hairbrush, the one inlaid with ivory. I suspect she'll keep the brush and ignore the errand. Maybe she'll even tell on me.

And I
liked
that brush.

When she's gone, I turn to the shell on the night table. “Why did you tell Uncle Asa I would work with him?”

Long pause. Then a gusty voice, a little lower than my own, replies: “It will be different this time.”

“Different? How?”

Whatever my breathy friend is about to say gets interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Not waiting for me to open it, Janko bangs in.

“You are ready, no?”

I glance around. I decide to leave the shell where it is. Who knows what it might decide to blurt out?

“I am ready, yes.”

BOOK: A Bitter Magic
12.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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