A Most Improper Magick
If my plan had worked, I would have woken up the next morning in a stagecoach heading toward London, with a whole new life waiting to unfold before me. I would have breakfasted on apples and cheese with the passengers around me, heard all their stories, and been halfway adopted as an honorary nephew into all their families by the time we reached London.
Instead, I had to face my own family.
I walked into the breakfast room at eight o’clock, and Stepmama’s jaw fell wide open, exposing a mouthful of mashed toast.
“Katherine Ann Stephenson!” she uttered in a dreadful tone. “Whatever have you done to your hair?”
I dipped a curtsy to Papa and made my way to the sideboard, where bread and jam and kippers were laid out. “I like it,” I said. I did, too, especially now that Elissa had straightened out the crooked edges. After one morning without the bother of hairpins, I was ready to keep my hair short for life.
“I thought something was different,” Papa said, with quiet satisfaction. “Good morning, dear.”
“George!” Stepmama flung down her napkin. “For heaven’s sake. Your daughter has just chopped off all her hair. Is ‘I thought something was different’ really all you can say?”
“Not all her hair, surely.” Papa peered up at me from behind his book. “Ah, no. No, there’s still a bit left. It’s rather …” He frowned thoughtfully. “It’s rather boyish, actually.”
“Quite,” Stepmama said. “That is exactly my point. Aren’t you going to ask her how she could do such a thing without even asking your permission?”
Papa said tentatively, “Did you ask my permission, Kat?”
“Kat’s new haircut is quite stylish, don’t you think?” Elissa said softly. “She looks just like the model in the Mirror of Fashion now.”
“But with a rather higher-cut décolletage,” Angeline said dryly. Mischief sparked in her eyes as she slid a glance at our stepmother. “What did you think of that latest style, ma’am?”
“Oh!” Stepmama shook her head. “None of my stepdaughters will ever appear in public with such low-cut gowns as I saw in that journal. It is absolutely shocking what young ladies in London nowadays are up to. In my day …”
“Shocking indeed,” Angeline murmured, and winked at me.
You might have thought, if you didn’t know my sisters, that I could have just asked Angeline straight out about Mama’s magic books.
But I knew better. If Angeline even suspected that I knew about the books, she would find them a new and better hiding place before I could even get the question out of my mouth. Then she’d devise one of her diabolically cunning punishments for my nosiness, and that was the last thing I wanted. No, I’d have to work the mystery out for myself.
Luckily, Stepmama took Elissa and Angeline out directly after breakfast to shop for fabric for new gowns—to impress Sir Neville, I supposed. There was only enough room in the gig for two people to travel with her to the fabric shop in the village, and no one asked if I wanted to be one of them. They knew better.
As soon as the gig rattled out of sight, I hurtled upstairs, hiking up my skirts and taking the creaking old steps two at a time. Charles let out a groggy roar from his room at the noise, but I ignored him. I headed straight for Angeline and Elissa’s bedroom.
They ought to be gone for at least two hours. But if anything went wrong … I imagined Angeline’s expression if she caught me reading the books. I shuddered.
I would have to hurry.
I darted into the room and over the bed to Angeline’s side. When I passed my hand underneath, all I felt was the bare wooden floor. Where had they gone?
I lay down to peer under the bed. Aha. She’d only pushed the books deeper in. I wriggled underneath, choking on dust, and emerged a moment later, holding them both. Victory!
A sneeze caught me by surprise. Then another one. I almost dropped the books. When I finally stopped sneezing, I glanced down and groaned. I was completely covered in dust, all the way across the front of my white gown. If Stepmama saw me like this, she’d throw a fit. And if Angeline saw me …
If Angeline saw me, she would know exactly what I had been up to. Curse her! Had she planned it this way? No, surely not—even Angeline couldn’t be that devious. But still, whether she’d planned this warning system or not, I knew I’d just lost half an hour from my reading time. First I’d have to put the books back exactly where I’d found them. Then I’d have to change my gown and wash the telltale dust from this one, all before the others came home from their shopping trip.
I gritted my teeth and ran out of the room before I could lose any more time.
I didn’t go to my own windowless attic room. That wouldn’t be nearly safe enough. Instead I hurried back downstairs and out the back door, heading for my favorite lookout spot—the old oak tree behind the vicarage, overlooking the graveyard. From my perch in the tree, I’d be able to spot Stepmama’s gig from half a mile off as it came circling back up the winding road from the village.
I clambered up the wide, knobbly trunk and settled comfortably into the crook of one of the big central branches. My legs dangled in the air, and I kicked off my shoes, letting them fall to the grass. Through the ground-floor window of the vicarage, I could see Papa reading one of his hundreds of old books. A fresh breeze ruffled the leaves of the oak tree and set the yew trees in the graveyard to swaying gently. The road beyond was empty beneath the bright blue summer sky.
I adjusted my shoulders against the rough bark of the tree trunk and opened the first book.
A Diary of Magick, I read, in looping purple handwriting. Olivia Amberson’s Own Book.
Amberson had been Mama’s maiden name. That was one of the only things I knew about my mother. She’d died ten days after I was born, and a nursemaid raised me for the first few years, until my sisters were old enough to take over. I would have been more grateful to them if it hadn’t left them so smugly convinced, no matter how old I grew, that I was still a mere child.
Papa never talked about Mama. It wasn’t until he’d married Stepmama, though, that I’d realized Mama had been a disgrace. It was the first time I’d ever felt close to her memory. I was always in trouble, too.
Stepmama always said that it was a great trial to be the wife of a clergyman, especially one with such a poor income as Papa. She only hated it for the lack of money, though, which meant the lack of fashionable clothing, London townhouses, and scandalous gossip at close hand. It must have been even harder for Mama to be a clergyman’s wife, since she was a witch.
Elissa wouldn’t talk about Mama anymore—she had been seven years old when Mama died, but the memories still made her too melancholy, she said. Angeline told me once, though, about the disaster that happened when Papa’s patron, Squire Briggs, was invited to tea at the vicarage, two months before I was born. Angeline was only five at the time, but she said she had never forgotten it.
“Mama got distracted as she poured the tea,” Angeline told me. A smirk pulled at her full lips as she remembered. “Papa and Elissa were both so appalled, but I thought it was hilarious.”
“What did she do? Did she spill the tea?”
“Oh, no. Nothing like that.” Angeline leaned close to whisper the words in my ear, even though Papa and Stepmama were safely occupied with the accounting books in the next room. “Mama was trying so hard to concentrate on making polite conversation with Squire Briggs, because it was so important for Papa’s future, that she forgot to use her hands to pour the tea!”
“The teapot just rose up in the air all on its own and poured for everyone while she talked. You should have seen Squire Briggs’s face! He turned purple and started to choke. And Mama still didn’t realize …” Angeline bit her lip, holding back a laugh. She was meant to be tutoring me in French, as a punishment for both of us, so we couldn’t let Stepmama hear us giggling together.
“Poor Mama,” Angeline said. “She was trying so hard to help Squire Briggs stop choking, and Papa started stuttering hopelessly, he was so horrified, and that teapot just kept on pouring absolutely perfectly, without a single spill, until Papa lunged forward and grabbed it himself, and then the tea spilled all over his lap and the floor and … I laughed so hard, I thought I would die.”
“And then what happened?”
Angeline’s face hardened. “After that, Squire Briggs wouldn’t come back to tea again as long as Mama was alive. He had already offered to give Papa a second living, but after that teatime, he changed his mind. And Mama …” Angeline looked away, setting her jaw. “Mama wept for a week.”
I shivered in the oak tree now, remembering Angeline’s story as I looked at my mother’s lovely, looping hand-writing.
There used to be a miniature portrait of Mama in the sitting room, when I was a little girl, but Stepmama had locked it away with the rest of Mama’s things, magical or otherwise, in a cabinet none of us were allowed to open. There’s no use in reminding the neighbors of old problems, she’d said. She had already cut down all of Mama’s roses from the back garden by then; they were a scandal too. Apparently, roses weren’t supposed to be able to bloom red all year long. But I had loved them anyway. My sisters used to take me out to sit underneath the oak tree on fine days when I was little, and the rich, sweet fragrance of the roses had filled the air with magic.
I hadn’t remembered Mama’s roses for a long time.
I took a deep breath and turned the page.
I have decided to begin as I mean to go on, no matter how Ominous the Dangers, my mother had written. Tho’ it must be kept Secret from my closest companions and even my own Colleagues, I cannot let Ignorance, Prejudice, or Pride hold me back any longer from exercising all the Talents I have been given. I shall teach myself first how to enchant Inanimate Objects.
Well, I understood why she’d meant to keep her witchcraft a secret—if it hadn’t been for the fact that she’d married a clergyman, she would have been completely cast out of Society for it, and as it was, she had still caused a scandal. Marrying her had ruined Papa’s career. But that was because she hadn’t kept the magic a secret after all. From all the stories I’d heard, she hadn’t even tried very hard. Surely someone who really wanted to keep her witchcraft secret wouldn’t have blatantly enchanted the roses in her garden, would she? And what on earth had she meant by “Colleagues”? Mama’s family might not have been wealthy, but she had definitely been a lady—and ladies, as Elissa was always ready to remind me, did not work for a living, no matter how dire their circumstances.
I let out a long breath and turned the page. I didn’t have time to waste worrying about any of that, no matter how tempting it might be. I was after my sister’s secrets right now, not my mother’s—and enchanting inanimate objects, like Mama’s self-pouring teapot, wouldn’t get Angeline her dowry.
I skipped through the pages of Mama’s first failures and final successes, as she experimented with creating her own spells. She’d learned more and more difficult tricks as she’d progressed, but nothing practical like turning copper to gold. Half of Mama’s spells were meant to make herself look prettier or to make her twice-turned, hand-me-down gowns look new. I even found a love spell—and next to it, circled and surrounded by tiny hearts, a name: George. My father’s name.
I flicked quickly past that page, feeling my cheeks heat up.
It had been at least an hour since I had begun to read, and the sun had risen high in the sky above me. I couldn’t see the gig in the distance yet, but I knew I didn’t have much time left. I flipped faster and faster through the pages.
I was concentrating so hard, I didn’t even notice the footsteps coming toward me from the graveyard.
The first I knew of it was when my stockinged feet, swinging in the air, brushed right against a man’s beaver hat and knocked it to the grass. I almost fell off my branch in surprise. Both of Mama’s diaries dropped from my hands, six feet down onto the grass, next to a moving pair of dirt-covered Hessian boots. My gaze went up past the boots, up mud-spattered pantaloons and a dark blue coat that looked like it had once been expensive, before it had all been covered in dirt. The man who wore the clothes—and the dirt—was a complete stranger.
“Who are you?” I asked. The words blurted themselves out of my mouth. If Angeline had been there, she would have said something smooth and courteous and subtly amused in greeting. If Elissa had been there, she would have been too proper to speak to a strange gentleman at all without a proper introduction. Then again, neither of my sisters would have been caught off guard in the first place by sitting in a tree without her shoes on.
The man underneath me had kept walking forward even after I kicked his hat off. He hadn’t even paused to look up at me, or to pick up his hat. But when I spoke, he stopped walking and shook himself as if he were shaking off a cloud of gnats.
“I am Frederick Carlyle,” he said in a strange, flat voice. He was still looking straight ahead at the vicarage, so I couldn’t see his face, only the back of his dark blond hair. He was dressed like a gentleman, but from the look of his hair—not to mention the state of his clothing—it had been some time since he’d seen a valet, or a comb. “Here to study with Miss Angeline Stephenson’s father,” he said.
“With An—you mean with Papa? Mr. Stephenson?”
He still didn’t turn. “Here to study with Miss Angeline Stephenson’s father,” he repeated. “I have brought my first quarter’s payment with me.”
“Ah … good?” I slid down off the tree. It was awkward, since I couldn’t let my skirts ride up in front of him. I landed hard on a sharp stone, stumbled, and barely missed stepping on Mama’s books. I snatched them up and tried to flatten the crumpled pages with one hand. Later I would probably panic about the damage, but right now I was too curious to feel scared.
“How do you know Angeline?” I asked the back of the gentleman’s head.
He swung around, and I saw his face for the first time. It was alight with hope. “Is Miss Angeline truly here? Are you Miss Angeline?”
“No!” I said. “Of course not. I’m just Kat.” I stared at him. He was young—about the same age as Charles, I thought, so probably no more than twenty. Handsome, too, I supposed, if he hadn’t looked so vacant. I frowned, looking at his blank blue eyes. Maybe “vacant” wasn’t the right word, after all. Maybe “entranced” would be more accurate.
Something about that started an ominous tugging in the back of my mind. Entranced … But before I could think it through, I heard a rattling sound behind me and something worse—familiar voices floating through the still air. I spun around.
“Oh, the devil!”
I had been the one too entranced to think straight. I hadn’t been keeping my lookout.
Stepmama’s gig was on the road just beneath us, less than two minutes’ drive away. Even as I watched, it turned onto the final curve.
The full implications hit me with a thud. I stared down at the books in my hands. Half the pages had been bent in the fall, and the whole middle section of the first diary was crumpled. Even if I put both books back exactly where I’d found them, Angeline would never be fooled. She would know the moment she opened them exactly what had happened.
I wondered if it was too late to run away after all. The boys’ clothes were still in the attic, where I’d left them. Maybe, if everyone else was absorbed in greeting our strange visitor, they wouldn’t even notice I was missing. And this Frederick Carlyle, whoever he might be, certainly seemed to be excited about meeting Angeline, so that should distract her at least a little while, until …
“Is Miss Angeline in that gig?” he asked hopefully.
“Yes,” I said unhappily. “So I really need to go and—no, wait! She’ll be here in just a moment. You don’t need to go chasing after it, Mr. Carlyle—Mr. Carlyle! Stop!”
I threw myself in front of him to hold him back. He walked straight into my raised arm, heading for the hedge around our garden that overlooked the road, a full fifteen feet below.
“It’s too high!” I said. “You’ll break your legs if you jump that. What’s your hurry, anyway? It’s not as if you’ve ever even met her, so—”
Oh. Suddenly it all clicked into place. Mama’s magic books tingled in my hands as I regarded them with newfound respect.
“Miss Angeline Stephenson,” Frederick Carlyle murmured. He sounded like a bleating calf being led to the slaughter, but a blissful smile curved his lips.
Now I knew why he had seemed entranced.
“Come inside,” I said soothingly. “Why don’t I bring you a cup of tea? Then you can brush yourself off before you meet Angeline. You want to make a good impression on her, don’t you?”
He frowned, as if it were a difficult concept to grasp. “Miss Angeline is coming here? Inside this house?”
“She is,” I said. “I’ll show you in. I want to be there with you when she arrives.”
I couldn’t hide the books from Angeline, or keep her from finding out that I’d looked at them. But I had something better than secrecy now.
I had the perfect opportunity for blackmail.