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IVY WOKE TO the sound of voices.
She sat up and reached for Mr. Quent beside her, wondering if he had murmured something in his sleep as he often did. Her hand found only a cold tangle of bedclothes. He was gone--a fact her dull mind recalled after a moment--off to the north of Altania on business for the lord inquirer. He had left nearly a quarter month ago and would not return before Darkeve at the end of the month.
Besides, it was not from inside the bedchamber that the murmuring had come.
Ivy rose, gathering a nightgown around her, for it was late in a long umbral and the coals in the fireplace had burned to cinders. She stood in a beam of moonlight that had slipped through a gap in the curtains, listening. Was Rose wandering the house in the night as was her habit, singing softly to herself? Or perhaps it was Lily, making exclamations as she read by candlelight in her room, turning the final pages of one of her romances.
Ivy heard nothing save the beating of her own heart. The high hedges outside guarded against the noises of the city, and the old house on Durrow Street was silent. She turned to go back to bed.
This time the voices were louder: a chorus of whispers that seemed to come from outside her bedchamber door. By the deep tones, it was neither Lily nor Rose. Nor could it be any of the servants; their quarters were still under renovation, and they were not yet in residence. Which meant the moonbeam was not the only interloper in the house.
A dread descended over Ivy. Not three months ago, upon his return to the city from Torland, a band of revolutionaries had set upon Mr. Quent as he met with the lord inquirer. Their intent had been nothing less than murder. However, Mr. Quent had been warned of the attack beforehand, and the rebels were apprehended before they could act. Yet if they had desired to do violence to agents of the Crown, it was not difficult to believe there were others who might wish the same.
Her heart quickened as she went to the door. She pressed a hand to it, as if she might sense through its panels what lay beyond. If only the door was fashioned of timbers from the Wyrdwood! She would call to the wood, wake it from its slumber, and shape it with her thoughts. What did a witch have to fear from a robber when there was Wyrdwood nearby?
But the material beneath her hands was inert, hewn from a tree of New Oak; it could be of no help to her. Despite this fact, Ivy summoned her courage. After all, she told herself, this house belonged to her father; it was a magician's dwelling, and so had its own powers and protections. She opened the door and stepped into the corridor beyond.
It was empty except for the moonlight that spilled through a window at the end. All was quiet; the voices had ceased.
Ivy moved down the corridor, pausing to crack the door to Lily's room, then Rose's, peering inside. Both of her sisters were asleep. She wondered if it was the sound of wind she had heard. Sometimes, in the months she had dwelled at Heathcrest Hall, the wind over the eaves had sounded like whispering voices. Only, when she reached the window, she saw that the straggled hawthorn and chestnut trees below stood motionless.
So much for that hypothesis. Her gaze roved across the garden, but she perceived only shadows. Beyond the hedges, a scattering of gold lights shone here and there in the Old City. Another spark, brighter and more reddish than the streetlamps, hung low in the southern sky. Otherwise, the night was void.
Ivy shivered in her nightgown. According to the almanac, it was to be an umbral of over twenty-two hours. Frost would tinge the windowpanes by the time dawn came. Despite the cold, she did not return to her room. Instead, she went to the stairs to begin a survey of the house.
It took half of an hour, for the house was much larger than their previous dwelling on Whitward Street. She moved up and down staircases, through narrow passages and across vaulted halls. Many of the chambers were in various states of refurbishment, and others were all but impassable, crowded with furniture moved out of those rooms under repair.
The task of opening the house on Durrow Street was proving to be a greater labor than she had guessed. How unwise she had been, to think she could have accomplished the task on the wages of a governess! Much had become dilapidated in the years the house had stood empty. And she suspected that even when her father had dwelled here, all had not been cared for as properly as it might have been.
Mr. Quent had quickly educated her as to the enormity of the work on the day they made their first inspection of the house. The roof sagged over the north wing, and in the south the floors were rotten. The cellar showed signs that water seeped in when it rained; there were myriad broken windows, cracked walls, and faulty beams. Such was the length of the report that Ivy feared to be told that the only solution was to raze the house to rubble.
Instead, Mr. Quent had sat in the dusty light of the downstairs parlor and, in his cramped yet meticulous hand, had written out a list of repairs to be undertaken. It was a document that required several pages.
"I cannot possibly imagine the cost of this," she had said in astonishment when he gave it to her to review.
"As there is no need for you to imagine it, I suggest you do not attempt such a futile and obviously distressing feat."
"But the repairs are so great. It will be an exorbitant sum--over five thousand regals, I am sure!"
"And now it appears you can envision it quite well, Mrs. Quent. How curious for a thing you could not possibly imagine a moment ago."
"I mean only, is it worth the expense for a house that is so very old?"
His brown eyes had been solemn as he regarded her. "It is worth it because it is so very old."
With that, all other arguments were superseded. The letter was delivered to a builder, and work commenced at once.
Now, as she walked through its moonlit chambers, Ivy wondered just how old her father's house was. Many of the buildings in the Old City had been in existence for centuries, and were built on the foundations of structures more ancient yet. However, while the other dwellings and shops and churches in this part of Invarel all crowded together, her father's house stood apart in its garden, a thing unto itself. Nor was it constructed of the same gray stone as the other buildings, but rather hewn of a reddish porphyry, speckled with interesting inclusions and darker crystals. Ivy wished she could ask her father about the age of the house. But that was not possible.
True, her father's state was better than it had been several months ago. Now, when Ivy went to Madstone's to visit him each quarter month, she was able to sit with him in his private chamber. The room was in the dormitory where the wardens dwelled, far removed from the awful clamor of the rest of the hostel, and Ivy had been allowed to make it familiar and comfortable with furnishings brought from his attic at Whitward Street.
The only thing the wardens had not permitted her to bring was any of Mr. Lockwell's books, for these were deemed too likely to agitate him. Her father had been a doctor and a man of learning, and Ivy did not like to deprive him of at least a small library. Yet while she did not think kindly of the wardens at Madstone's, she had to wonder if perhaps they were right. Her father had seemed exceedingly placid on her recent visits. He had even smiled at her from time to time.
Yet he never spoke her name, or any other intelligible thing. Lord Rafferdy's influence had been enough to improve her father's treatment at the hostel. But the royal charter under which Madstone's operated granted it considerable autonomy, and no patient would be released unless the wardens deemed him cured or the king ordered it.
While her father was improved, even Ivy could not pretend he was cured of his malady. As for gaining a writ with the king's seal, Lord Rafferdy had submitted the petition. However, King Rothard was infirm himself these days. A recent edition of The Comet reported that while the Citadel had tried to keep the news from public knowledge, the king had been confined to his bed for nearly a half month of late.
This was ill news, but Ivy would not stop hoping for the king's health--and her father's--to improve. In the meantime, whatever the age of the house on Durrow Street might be, she was beginning to think that it would increase by at least another year before the work on it was completed. The repairs were going more slowly than she had anticipated. Materials had grown dearer and scarcer of late. And, according to the builder, he had lost several skilled craftsmen.
"How have they been lost?" she had heard Mr. Quent ask Mr. Barbridge one day as she descended the stairs to the front hall.
The builder had shifted from foot to foot, turning his hat in his hands. "They say it watches them while they work. The house, they mean. I beg your pardon, Mr. Quent, for it's a foolish bit of fancy, I know. Yet they're simple men, and all those eyes--well, they do give one a feeling."
His gaze had gone toward the knob atop the newel post, which was carved in the shape of an eye. It blinked a wooden lid and turned in its socket, gazing about in a quizzical fashion. There were others in the house--set into moldings and doors--which often did the same as one passed by.
Open or shut, the eyes never troubled Ivy. If her father had not created them himself, then at least he had been aware of their enchantment. And if he had tolerated them, then why shouldn't she? Besides, she was glad for their presence in those times when Mr. Quent was away. Most of the magicians of the Vigilant Order of the Silver Eye were gone--perished, or locked away in Madstone's. But there was at least one who remained. Even if it was the case that Mr. Bennick was no longer a magician himself, that did not mean he was no longer perilous. She and Mr. Rafferdy had witnessed that firsthand. So she was grateful that the house kept watch.
By his grimace, the builder did not agree. Ivy and Mr. Quent had not discussed it, but after that day she went through the house, draping cloths over all of the carved eyes she could find. However, at the end of each lumenal when the workmen left, she would uncover the eye on the newel post at the foot of the stairs. That one, at least, she would leave to keep its silent vigil.
Now, as Ivy started back up the staircase, that eye was shut fast. Her own eyes wished to follow suit, and a yawn escaped her as she climbed. Since leaving her room, she had heard nothing except for the sound of her own footsteps and those natural sounds a house makes at night--the groan of shifting beams, the creak of an eave as it settled--which can give no rational mind cause for fear.
What had been the source of the whispering voices, she could not say. Ivy had not thought them to be figments of a dream, but now she had to admit that it was possible. She reached the top of the stairs and went to her bedchamber, ready to return to sleep.
This time it was not a whispering she heard, but rather a distant clattering. She turned from the door. The sound had echoed from down the corridor. Nor could it be ascribed to a dream this time.
Ivy started forward even as it occurred to her this was absurd. If there really was an intruder in the house, what would she do if she encountered him? She was a smallish woman of twenty-three years clad in a night robe and slippers--hardly a thing to inspire alarm or cause a thief to flee. Yet she could not return to her room and huddle in her bed knowing there was another presence in the house.
Ivy crept down the corridor, then turned a corner into the north wing. The passage beyond was cluttered with lengths of wood and crumpled heaps of cloth. A sheet draped the window at the end, dimming the moonlight to a gray gloom.
Again she heard a noise: louder now, as of sharp objects being struck together. She stopped before a door halfway along the corridor. Ivy laid a hand on the knob; like many in the house, it was formed in the shape of a brass orb clutched in an eagle's talons. The metal was icy to the touch.
A feeling came over her as it sometimes did at night--a sense that the darkness pressed in from all around, seeping through cracks and beneath doors, seeking to smother everything. The Testament said that before the world was made, only darkness existed. In moments like this, she could believe it sought dominion once again.
Suddenly convinced that she did not want to see what lay in the room beyond, Ivy snatched her hand back. So violent was her motion that she flung the knob away from her as she recoiled, and the door, not being fully latched, swung inward.
A coldness rushed out. The clacking came again, loud and jolting, but her mind could not grasp what it was. There was another sound, like that of a wet cloth being shaken, and something lurched across the floor not five feet away from her.
In the gloom it was no more than a shapeless blot, scuttling like some half-formed thing not ready to have been birthed. The coldness froze her; she could not move. Then the thing rose up off the floor and spread itself outward, as if to catch her in its black embrace.
From the Trade Paperback edition.