IT WAS GENERALLY held knowledge among the people who lived on Whitward Street that the eldest of the three Miss Lockwells had a peculiar habit of reading while walking.
So often was she observed engaged in this activity that, while the practice was unusual–and therefore not altogether admirable–people had become accustomed to it. On almost any fine day she might be seen striding past the brick houses that stood along the street as upright as magistrates, a volume in her hands and her attention absorbed by the pages before her. No one bothered to wave or call out in greeting as she passed; they had learned long ago there was no point in it when she had a book with her.
And Miss Lockwell always had some book about her, be it small or large or thin or fat, with gilt-edged pages or a cracked leather cover or letters writ in gold down the spine. When they saw her coming, people stepped out of her path. Or, if the charitable thought occurred, positioned themselves in front of loose cobbles, lampposts, or other hazards so she would be forced to go around them, which she did without breaking her stride. Or taking her eyes off her book.
For many years the Lockwells had dwelled at a solid, respectable address in Gauldren's Heights, which was itself a solid, respectable district in the Grand City of Invarel: home to lawyers, well-to-do tradesmen, and those members of the gentry who could not afford to live along the more fashionable lanes of the New Quarter (or who had not yet pauperized themselves attempting to do so). Their house was not far Uphill, of course; the Lockwell fortune was too small for that. But neither was it too far Downhill; the Lockwell name was too old for that.
The house was tall, if not particularly wide, with four floors and a gabled attic, and it had a pleasing if somewhat old-fashioned aspect when viewed off the street, from which it was desirably removed by a small gated yard. Something was always blooming in the gardens that comprised the yard, and wisteria coiled around the bars of the fence, so that one walking past was always greeted by a fulsome array of colors and scents.
If the Lockwells themselves were not quite as respectable as the address at which they lived, they were all the same charitably regarded by their neighbors. All three of the sisters had grown into beauties (though the eldest Miss Lockwell was considered to be the prettiest). And the people of Whitward Street could have only respect for Mrs. Lockwell, who had been forced to do for her daughters with so little assistance, as Mr. Lockwell had long been confined to the house by illness.
That the Lockwells never threw parties or gave dinners had to be allowed, given Mr. Lockwell's condition. And if the three Miss Lockwells never attended masques or went for tours about the city in a four-in-hand, leaning out the windows of the carriage and waving their fans at young gentlemen, then Mrs. Lockwell should only be commended for not favoring fashion over finance. Considering their lack of fortune, her daughters would have to marry for security, not attachment, and would do well to take whatever they might get, no matter how old or how dull.
Less easy for the good people of Whitward Street to excuse were the muffled sounds that might be heard from the street at odd hours or the flickering lights that could sometimes be seen in one of the upper windows. But it was rumored Mr. Lockwell had been something of a magician once, so perhaps such things were only to be expected. And if from time to time, in the lingering twilight before a greatnight, a pair of men arrived at the front gate, dressed in dark hats and dark capes, then the neighbors never made mention of it, for Mrs. Lockwell always turned the strangers away.
Besides, such occurrences had become less frequent over time and had not happened at all in recent years. What was more, after a long period of being held in low regard, the study of magick was coming into fashion again, particularly among the sons of lords; and if the magnates aspired to a thing, it would not be long before the lesser classes followed suit.
All the same, there was something peculiar about the house on Whitward Street, just as there was something peculiar about the bookish habits of the eldest Miss Lockwell. Thus, while people regarded both of them well enough, people also tended to leave well enough alone.
IT WAS LATE in the hot gold afternoon of a long day–not quite a greatday, but a lumenal of over thirty hours–and as she often did, Miss Ivy Lockwell walked along Whitward Street with her nose in a book. She maneuvered around a puddle without lifting her gaze, then stopped just in time to avoid a certain trampling as a delivery cart hurtled from a side lane. Ivy turned a page, then, when the way was clear, adjusted the basket of apples that hung from the crook of her elbow, stepped over the deposits made by the horses, and continued along the street.
A group of boys stood on a corner, hawking copies of The Comet and The Swift Arrow freshly printed with the week's politics and scandals. As Ivy passed by, a gust of wind rushed down the street. The boys let out shouts of "Hey there!" and "Hold on now!" while a number of broadsheets peeled off the stacks and went flying away. It was as if the headlines–intended to agitate the reader–had instead animated the papers they were printed on, propelling them to rebellious action. Fueled by the change in the wind, the broadsheets winged along the street toward the center of the city, and some traveled so far that they did not come to rest until they were plastered against the very doors of Assembly, wherein the laws of Altania were debated and set down. Several magnates, upon leaving those halls, met the papers with some distaste, unable as they were to avoid reading the prominent headline: LORDS MAKE A FOOL OF OUR KING AGAIN.
The boys clutched for their papers, and Ivy for her bonnet. A thunderstorm was coming, as they commonly did on long afternoons. It was the heat that caused them, her father had told her once, building up during the protracted hours of sunlight until the air was moist and oppressive, full of restless energy that only thunder and lightning could release.
Ivy quickened her pace; it would not do to let rain hit the pages. Shutting the book, she hurried through the gate, up the steps, and into the front hall of the house.
"Please take this to the kitchen, Wilbern," Ivy said as a gray-haired man in an overlarge suit shuffled into the hall. She handed him the basket. "And let Mrs. Murch know I'll have a cup of tea in the parlor."
Ivy started up the stairs, anxious to continue reading. She had just begun a chapter about the famous magician Slade Vordigan, who seventy years ago had conjured an army of shadows at the battle of Selburn Howe, helping the king to win the day and driving the Old Usurper back to the sea, banishing him from the shores of Altania. However, by the time she reached the top of the staircase, Mrs. Lockwell was waiting for her.
"Really, Ivy, I don't know how you expect to catch a gentleman's eyes when your own are always on a book!" her mother exclaimed. Mrs. Lockwell seldom said anything she didn't feel was worth exclaiming.
Ivy tucked the book under her arm. "I gave the apples to Wilbern. They were a halfpenny apiece. The grocer said supply was short due to the state of the roads, which have grown thick with robbers. Though given the price he charged, I might have done better to deal with a highwayman directly."
"I was watching out the window," Mrs. Lockwell said, following Ivy into the parlor. "Do you know you walked right past Mr. Gadwick? You could have greeted him–you are acquainted, after all; there would have been no impropriety. He might have invited you to his house for tea. Only you didn't give him so much as a glance. What do you say to that?"
"I'd say that I'm lucky for my book," Ivy said, setting the volume on a table. "For Mr. Gadwick has a large number of dogs, each of which he enjoys speaking about in exhaustive detail. And the only time we were ever received at his house, as you'll recall, he made Lily sit on a footstool because one of his whiphounds was lying on the sofa and 'must not be disturbed.'"
"He's a gentleman! Gentlemen often keep dogs."
"He has his servants carry them on damp days when he's out with them for a stroll. One for each dog."
"Well, we should be so fortunate to have that many servants. I'd have them carry everything up and down all these dreadful stairs. I'm beginning to think this house has grown taller over the years. Some days it seems I can hardly catch my breath." Mrs. Lockwell was a plump woman, though still handsome. "And you know how I have to follow Cassity to make certain she's not skulking about instead of working. Besides," she went on, back to exclaiming now, "I've heard it said that Mr. Gadwick has over two thousand regals a year!"
Ivy sat in a horsehair chair. "I wonder if Mrs. Murch knows to peel the apples before they're boiled," she said, at which point Mrs. Lockwell forgot all about Mr. Gadwick and, fearing the ruination of the sauce for that night's supper, hastened from the parlor.
Finding herself alone–save for a tortoiseshell cat that lazed on a windowsill–Ivy picked up her book and resumed reading. Soon she rose from her chair and began pacing the length of the parlor, book in hand. The cat hopped down from the windowsill and followed her paces. Outside the window the storm blew past, and the day faded in its wake. However, the twilight would last for hours, as it always did at the end of a long lumenal.
It was not a noise that let her know she was no longer alone but rather a change in the air, and a sensation of being watched.
"Hello, Lily," she said, not looking up from the book.
"But I didn't make a sound!" came an exasperated reply. "How could you know I was here?"
"It's an eldritch power. Elder sisters always know when their younger siblings are creeping up on them."
"No they don't. Rose is two years older than me, and she never knows when I'm sneaking up behind her. I could be wearing bells and it wouldn't matter. But you always know."
"Make that eldest sisters, then." Ivy looked up as Lily flounced into the room. She was trying to scowl but wasn't doing a very good job of it. Lily had a soft oval face and a pink mouth that seemed designed only for laughing.
"So why were you spying on me?"
"I was waiting to see if you'd run into a wall."
"You would have been waiting a very long time, then. I never run into walls."
Lily drooped onto one of the sofas. "I suppose not. But you should run into them, walking and reading at the same time as you do. Why do you bother?"
This question startled Ivy; she wasn't certain she knew the answer. "There's so much to learn. I suppose I don't want to waste a moment. So if I can read while I'm out on my errands, so much the better. Besides, walking helps me to think."
Only that wasn't entirely right. When she was reading, Ivy could feel herself filling up with jittery energy, just as the air had that afternoon when the storm was gathering. Walking was her way to release it, her lightning and thunder.
"Mother says there are so many books in this house it could drive a person mad. She says they used to multiply like mice and that Father was always reading five at once."
Ivy smiled again. "Yes, he was. I can't picture him without a book in his hands. And another in his pocket."
"But he doesn't read anymore. He just gets books out and scatters them around." Lily plucked at the ribbons on her dress. "Do you think Mother is right? Do you think it was too many books that made Father mad?"
Ivy intended to utter a firm reprimand, but at that moment Rose appeared in the doorway. Rose was biting her lower lip, concentrating on the tray in her hands as she advanced slowly into the parlor.
"Look, we brought you your tea," Lily said. "Mrs. Murch had forgotten all about it, as Mother wouldn't stop talking to her. Something about eels or peels, I couldn't tell which. But I saw it sitting on the sideboard, and Mrs. Murch said it was for you. We aren't having eels for supper, are we?"
Ivy set down her book and hurried forward, taking the tray from her sister and setting it down. "Thank you, Rose."
Rose was seventeen and the tallest of the three sisters, though she was younger than Ivy by five years. Of course, even Lily was taller than Ivy now, and she was only fifteen. Ivy poured a cup of the tea and took a sip. It was stone cold.
"Is it good?" Rose said.
Ivy smiled. "It's lovely. Thank you."
Rose smiled too, then sat at the pianoforte. She never pressed the keys, but she liked to run her fingers up and down the keyboard, touching first only the black keys, then only the white.
"Here, Rose, I'll play for us," Lily said, rising from the sofa and parading to the pianoforte. She alighted on the bench, scooting Rose to one side, and opened a book of music. "You can flip the pages for me."
Rose shook her head. "I won't know when to turn them."
"I'll make a signal when I'm ready. Like this." Lily gave a grand nod, as a queen might when greeting a courtier, then placed her hands on the keys. A brooding music filled the parlor. Their mother complained that Lily only ever played gloomy songs, and Ivy would not argue that her youngest sister had a proclivity for rumbling and dissonant pieces. However, even Mrs. Lockwell had to admit that Lily's skill was great.
Rose tilted her head, staring at the keys, fascinated by the music–so much so that, when Lily reached the end of a page and her flamboyant nod resulted in no noticeable effect, she was forced to give her sister a nudge. Rose hastily turned the page, and the music continued.
To that portentous accompaniment, Ivy picked up her book and resumed her reading. And soon her pacing. In Ivy's experience, books about magicians always went into great detail about what the magicians did but never how they did it. This book was different. After recounting the events of the battle of Selburn Howe, the author went on to describe the means Slade Vordigan used to conjure the shadow army, which the narrator claimed to have witnessed firsthand. Her pace quickening, Ivy read the account again.