Authors: Teresa Flavin
Tags: #General Fiction
Taking care not to wake anyone, the traveler crept back into the house, shielding his candle.
In the scullery, he rinsed the last traces of blood from his hands and dried them on a cloth. He felt for the leather sheath sewn into his tunic and slid out a flat shard of red flint, smoothed and sharpened to a point at one end and carved into an animal’s head at the other.
He examined it closely. The crimson hue grew darker at its point. Every time the stone shard cut into flesh, the tip’s red color became darker.
He picked up a piece of lye soap and a rough cloth and began to wipe clean the shard. As he worked, the face of the dead alchemist, Peregrin, edged into his mind. He scrubbed harder and cursed his associate for being so reckless with the lethal substances in his laboratory. If Peregrin had taken more care, he would still be alive and producing the miraculous elixir.
The traveler seethed, knowing he could no longer make unlimited use of the elixir’s astonishing powers; with so little left, there would not be many more crossings into other centuries. He must make the most of the few opportunities he had left to obtain the information he needed to track down Fausto Corvo.
When he was satisfied that the dark stain had faded, he returned the shard to the hiding place in his waistcoat and, stealthy as a cat, climbed upstairs to his study. He ran his eyes over the bookshelves, then glanced at the door in the far wall, its frame crowned with two carved faces.
Content that nothing had been disturbed in his sanctuary, he settled himself at his desk, dipped a pen in black ink, and, on the first page of a notebook bound in red morocco leather, scrawled two names:
SUNNIVA FORREST BLAISE DORAN
They were only children, and twenty-first-century ones at that, but they had the knowledge he needed. And destiny had just brought them to London.
Whatever it takes,
he thought, patting the shard through his waistcoat.
Whatever it takes.
unni raised her face to catch the sun and wished she were lying on the grass in Hyde Park instead of hanging around in Phoenix Square while her friend Blaise tried to decipher a map scrawled on a paper napkin.
A distant siren wailed, and something clicked in Sunni’s head.
“It’s so quiet here,” she said. “Like someone closed a window on the rest of the world.”
“Mmm,” Blaise mumbled, turning the napkin upside down. “Okay, I’ve got it now. It’s that house over there with the blue plaque on it.”
“So, you still want to see this place?” Sunni sighed as Blaise stuffed the napkin in his pocket.
“No, I’ve made us come all this way for nothing.” He had that look of bright intent that he always got when his mind was set on something. “What’s the matter — don’t you want to see it?”
“I don’t know. Just because some weird beardy bloke in a café says it’s a cool place doesn’t mean it is.”
“It sounds cool to me,” Blaise said. “I thought you’d want to check it out, too.”
“It’s just that it’s bound to be full of sheeplike tourists, just like all the other museums in London,” she said.
are — tourists. And by the way, I am not sheeplike.”
“No, you’re more doglike, with a bone that you just won’t give up,” Sunni said. “I’m fed up with museums, Blaise. We’ve seen tons since we arrived. If I have to look at another china shepherdess or Roman mosaic, I will curl up and die.” She stopped walking. “Let’s hang out in a park for a change. We’ve only got a few hours till we meet your dad — and it’s our last day in London!”
“If you don’t want to come in, go sit in that park over there,” he said, nodding at the fenced-in scrap of grass and elm trees in the middle of the square. “I’ll meet you afterward.”
A jolt of irritation coursed through Sunni. “No, I’ll come along,” she said. “Unless you
to go by yourself.”
“Of course I want you to come! Why are you making such a big deal about this?”
“I’m not making a big deal.”
“Yes, you are.” Blaise gave a gentle tug on her ponytail. “Hey. You look like a celebrity with those sunglasses on. Trying to hide from all your fans?”
“Yeah, right. Can we get this over with? Which house is it?”
“This one.” Blaise stopped in front of number 36. “And look, no lines of sheep trying to get in.”
“Except us. Baa!” Sunni bleated like a sheep, and Blaise laughed.
“Look,” he said. “We’ll go wherever you want after this. I just want to check it out.”
He stepped up to the red door, which had columns on each side and an arch above it. In the middle of the door was a bronze head with a ring-shaped doorknocker in its mouth.
“Now we’ll see if the guy in the café sent us on a wild-goose chase or not.” Blaise rapped the doorknocker.
“Yeah,” said Sunni. “I wouldn’t put it past —”
She stopped in mid-sentence as an outlandish figure pulled the heavy door partway open. The man wore breeches and a red silk vest, topped with a long dark overcoat. His extravagant cravat was as white as his powdered wig.
“Good afternoon,” said the man in a light but resonant voice with a slight foreign accent. He had languid, heavy-lidded eyes and a nose that had been broken at least once. But the uneven angles of his face did not diminish his handsomeness — they made him all the more striking.
“Is this Starling House?” asked Blaise.
“Yes. Have you an appointment?”
Blaise’s shoulders slumped. “Appointment? No, we didn’t know we needed one.”
“One usually makes an appointment to see the house.” The man consulted a leather-bound book on a side table. “But today it is not a problem. We will find the time for you.”
“Okay . . . thanks.”
The man swept the door fully open and ushered them into the hall.
They both stopped short, gaping. It was as if someone had peeled away the walls and ceilings to reveal an unspoiled landscape that had existed there before houses were ever built — a 360-degree panorama of rolling hills, trees, and pastures below a canopy of light blue sky.
“This is all painted, Blaise,” Sunni said, inspecting the wall. “You can hardly tell it’s not real.”
The man looked at them with polite amusement, as if he had heard comments like this a hundred times before. “Yes. It takes a few moments to remember you are in a house, not in the countryside.”
Even the staircase continued the illusion, decorated with painted sky, clouds, and flocks of birds all the way up the stairwell.
“Whoa!” said Blaise, teetering backward. He crouched down and touched a brightly colored spot on the floor. “I almost stepped on that, whatever it is. Wait, it’s a ladybug. Not a real one, a painted one.”
Sunni knelt down beside him. “Look, there’s another one over here.”
“Who made all this?” Blaise found a painted spiderweb almost hidden in a corner.
“I will explain in a moment,” said the man.
“Are you an actor?”
“An actor? No. This house was built in 1753, so we wear period costume to enrich the visitor’s experience.”
“Cool,” said Blaise.
“My name is Throgmorton. I conduct tours here.” The man slid an enameled watch from his vest and studied it. “We shall begin in a moment. Please wait here.”
Throgmorton closed his watchcase and disappeared down a staircase. He returned with two pairs of oversize felt slippers and handed them each a set.
“Put these on, please,” he said. “Over your footwear.”
Tittering under their breath, Sunni and Blaise slipped them over their sandals, the felt tickling their bare toes. Sunni was about to do a quick moonwalk when she caught Blaise staring at something behind her. The blissful look in his eyes alarmed her somehow, and she whirled around to see what he was looking at.
A girl stood motionless near the top of the stairs. It was as if she were floating in the blue expanse, held up by a few clouds.
She was dressed in a billowing silver gown, and her pale blond hair was pulled up into an elaborate arrangement of knots and twists. Without a word, she gathered up her skirts and glided down the stairs, like a goddess descending from the heavens to join the mere mortals on earth.