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By Leanna Renee Hieber
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Leanna Renee Hieber
All rights reserved.
London, England, 1888
A young woman, the likes of which London had never seen, alighted from a carriage near Bloomsbury and gazed at the grand façade before her. Breathless at the sight of the Romanesque fortress of red sandstone that was to be her new home, she ascended the front steps beneath the portico, with carpetbag in tow. One slender, gloved hand heaved open the great arched door; Miss Percy Parker paused, then stepped inside.
The foyer of Athens Academy held a few milling young men, papers and books in hand. Their jaws fell as each caught sight of the newcomer. In the diffuse light cast by a single chandelier they saw a petite, unmistakable apparition. Dark blue glasses kept eerie, ice blue eyes from unsettling those whose stares she nervously returned. Much of her snow-white skin was hidden from view by a scarf draped around her head and bosom, but only a mask could have hidden the ghostly pallor of her fine-featured face.
The sudden tinkling of a chandelier crystal broke the thick silence. Percy's gaze flickered up to behold a young man, pale as herself, floating amid the gas flames. The transparent spirit wafted down to meet her. It was clear from the stares of the young men of solid mass, rudely focused on Percy, that they were oblivious to the phantasm. She acknowledged the ghost only subtly, lest she be thought distracted as well as deformed.
The spectral schoolboy spoke in a soft Scots brogue. "You'd best give up your pretensions, miss. You'll never be one of them. And you're certainly not one of us. What the devil are you?"
Percy met the spirit's hollow gaze. Behind her glasses, her opalescent eyes flared with defiance as she asked the room, her voice sweet and timid, "Could someone be so kind as to direct me to the headmistress's office?" A gaping, living individual pointed to a hallway on her left, so she offered him a "Thank you, sir," and fled, eager to escape all curiosity. The only sounds that followed were the rustling layers of her sky-blue taffeta skirts and the echo of her booted footfalls down the hall.
HEADMISTRESS THOMPSON was scribed boldly across a large wooden door. Percy took a moment to catch her breath before knocking.
She soon found herself in an office filled to overflowing with books. A sharp voice bade her sit, and she was promptly engulfed in a leather armchair. Across the desk sat a severe woman dressed primly in gray wool. Middle-aged and thin, she had a pinched nose and high cheekbones that gave her a birdlike quality; her tight lips were twisted in a half frown. Brown hair was piled atop her head, save one misbehaving lock at her temple.
Blue-gray eyes pierced Percy's obscuring glasses. "Miss Parker, we've received word that you're an uncommonly bright girl. I'm sure you're well aware that your previous governance, unsure what to do with you, supposed you'd best be sent somewhere else. Becoming a sister did not suit you?"
Percy had no time to wonder if this was sardonic or understanding, for the headmistress continued: "Your reverend mother made many inquiries before stumbling across our quiet little bastion. Considering your particular circumstances, I accepted you despite your age of eighteen. You're older than many who attend here. I'm sure I needn't tell you, Miss Parker, that at your age most women do not think it advantageous to remain ... academic. I hope you know enough of the world outside convent walls to understand." Headmistress Thompson's sharp eyes suddenly softened and something mysterious twinkled there. "We must acknowledge the limitations of our world, Miss Parker. I, as you can see, chose to run an institution rather than a household."
Percy couldn't help but smile, drawn in by the headmistress's conspiratorial turn, as if the woman considered herself unique by lifestyle inasmuch as Percy was unique by fate.
Miss Thompson's amiability abruptly vanished. "We expect academic excellence in all subjects, Miss Parker. Your reverend mother proclaimed you proficient in several languages, with particularly keen knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Would you consider yourself proficient?"
"I have no wish to flatter myself —"
"Honesty will suffice."
"I'm f-fluent in several tongues," Percy stammered. "I'm fondest of Greek. I know French, German, Spanish, and Italian well. I dabble in Russian, Arabic, Gaelic ... as well as a few ancient and obscure dialects."
"Interesting." The headmistress absently tapped the desk with her pen. "Do you attribute your affinity for foreign tongues to mere interest and diligence?"
Percy thought a moment. "This may sound very strange ..."
"It may shock you how little I find strange, Miss Parker," the headmistress replied. "Go on."
Percy was emboldened. "Since childhood, certain things were innate. The moment I could read, I read in several languages as if they were native to me." She bit her lip. "I suppose that sounds rather mad."
There was a pause, yet to Percy's relief the headmistress appeared unmoved. "Should you indeed prove such a linguist, and a well -rounded student, Athens may have ongoing work for you next year as an apprentice, Miss Parker."
"Oh!" Percy's face lit like a sunbeam. "I'd relish the opportunity! Thank you for your generous consideration, Headmistress."
"You were raised in the abbey?"
"No immediate family?"
"Do you know anything of them? Is there a reason ...?"
Percy knew it was her skin that gave the woman pause. "I wish I could offer you an answer regarding my color, Headmistress. It's always been a mystery. I know nothing of my father. I was told my mother was Irish."
"That is all you know?"
Percy shifted in her seat. "She died within the hour she brought me to the sisters. Perhaps I was a traumatic birth. She told Reverend Mother that she brought me to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary because the Blessed Virgin herself had come proclaiming the child she bore must be an educated woman. And so she left them with that dying wish ..." Percy looked away, pained. "My mother said her purpose had been fulfilled, and, as if she were simply used up, she died."
"I see." Miss Thompson made a few notes. It was well that Percy did not expect pity or sentiment, for she was given neither. "Miss Parker, Athens is unique in that we recognize all qualities in our students. We've a Quaker model here at Athens. We champion the equality of the sexes and I happen to believe that learning is not bound in books alone. It is my personal practice to ask our students if they believe they possess a gift. Other than your multiple languages, do you have any other particular talents?"
Percy swallowed hard. She was unprepared for this question. For anyone else it might have been a perfectly normal inquiry, but Percy knew she was far from average. "I have a rather strange manner of dreams."
The headmistress blinked. "We all dream, Miss Parker. That is nothing extraordinary."
"No. Of course not, Headmistress."
"Unless these dreams come more in the manner of visions?"
Percy hoped the flash of panic in her eyes remained hidden behind her tinted glasses. Years ago, when Reverend Mother had found out about the visions and ghosts, she'd put aside her shock to caution Percy about speaking of such things. Neither was something the science-mad, rational world would celebrate. It was lonely to look — and be — so strange, and Percy wanted to confess everything she felt was wrong with her and have the headmistress accept her. But she also recalled the horrible day when unburdening her soul had caused a priest to try to exorcise her best friend, a ghost named Gregory, from the convent courtyard. She knew she'd never find anyone who could truly understand. Thus, she would not associate herself with the word "vision," and she would never again admit to seeing ghosts.
She cleared her throat. "Those who claim to have visions are either holy or madmen."
The headmistress was clearly taken aback, as much as her patrician façade might indicate: She arched an eyebrow. "As a girl raised in a convent, do you not consider yourself a woman of religion?"
Percy shifted again. Miss Thompson had unwittingly touched upon a troubling topic. Percy could not help but wonder about her faith. Those in her abbey's order, the oldest of its kind in England, had withstood innumerable trials. Every novice and sister took fierce pride in her resilience and that of their elders. But Percy, a girl who kept and was left to herself, felt out of place. The colorless curiosity of her skin notwithstanding, her restless disposition had difficulty acquiescing to the rigors of the cloth. Only the presence of a spirit out of its time — such as her Elizabethan-era Gregory — had made her feel at home. No, doctrine could not explain the world as Percy knew it. An unsettling sense of fate made her ache in ways prayer could not wholly relieve.
But none of this was appropriate to discuss in present circumstances. "I am a woman of ... spirit, Headmistress. By no means would I commend myself holy. And I'd like to think I'm not mad."
The raucous shriek of a bird outside Miss Thompson's window made Percy jump. A raven settled on the ledge beyond the glass. Percy couldn't help but notice an odd-colored patch on the large black bird's breast. Percy didn't stare further, lest she seem easily distracted. She waited for Headmistress Thompson's gaze to pin her again, which it soon did.
"Dreams then, Miss Parker?"
"Yes, Headmistress. Just dreams."
The headmistress scribbled a note and frowned curiously at an unopened envelope in Percy's file before placing it carefully at the back of the folder. Before Percy could wonder, the headmistress continued. "We have no dream study, Miss Parker. It seems fitting your focus should be languages; however you must maintain high marks in all courses in order to continue at the academy. Do you have other interests, Miss Parker?"
"Art has always been a great love of mine," Percy stated. "I used to paint watercolors for the parish. I also adore Shakespeare."
A scrawl into the file. "Dislikes?"
"I'm afraid the sciences and mathematics are beyond me. Neither were subjects the convent felt necessary for young ladies."
The headmistress loosed a dry chuckle that made Percy uneasy. "There is no escaping at least one mathematics or science sequence. I am placing you in our Mathematics and Alchemical Study."
Percy held back a grimace. "Certainly, Headmistress."
Miss Thompson cleared her throat and leveled a stern gaze at her. "And now, Miss Parker, I must warn you of the dangers of our unique, coeducational institution. There is to be no — I repeat, no — contact between members of the opposite sex. Not of your peer group, and most certainly not with your teachers. The least infraction, however innocent it may seem — the holding of a hand, a kiss on a cheek — requires immediate dismissal. You must understand our position: Any word of fraternization or scandal will doom our revolutionary program. And while I hardly think any of this will be an issue for you in particular, Miss Parker, I must say it nonetheless."
Percy nodded, at first proud the headmistress should think so highly of her virtue; then came the sting as she realized the headmistress meant her looks would garner no such furtive conduct. Worse, Percy felt sure she was right.
"Classes begin Monday. Here is a schedule and key for your quarters: Athene Hall, room seven."
As Percy took the papers and key, she was gripped by a thrill. "Thank you so very much, Miss Thompson! I cannot thank you enough for the opportunity to be here."
The headmistress maintained a blank, severe stare. "Do not thank me. Do not fail."
"I promise to do my best, Headmistress!"
"If it be of any interest to you, a meditative Quaker service is held Sundays. You'll find none of your Catholic frills here. But indeed, Miss Parker, the school keeps quiet about all of that, as I am sure you may well do yourself, living in intolerant times."
"Good day, Miss Parker — and welcome to Athens."
"Thank you, Headmistress. Good day!" Percy beamed and darted out the door to explore her new home.
* * *
Rebecca Thompson stared at the door after Miss Parker left, feeling the strange murmur in her veins that was part of her intuitive gift. Her instincts were never clarion, but they alerted her to things of import. Miss Parker, her gentle nature evident in the sweet timbre of her voice, had set off a signal.
Rebecca considered the envelope in the girl's file. Please open upon Miss Parker's graduation — or when she has been provided for, it read. "I daresay she won't find herself 'provided for,'" Rebecca muttered.
Turning to the window, she opened the casement. The raven hopped in and strutted over the wooden file cabinets, occasionally stopping to preen the bright blue breast feather that indicated his service to the Guard.
"It's odd, Frederic," Rebecca remarked, "I can't imagine that awkward, unfortunate girl has anything to do with us; it doesn't follow. It shouldn't follow."
Growing up, as the Guard chose their mortal professions, it was agreed that a few of them should remain near the chapel and portal of the Grand Work, on the fortresslike grounds of Athens. Rebecca and Alexi were the perfect candidates for academia, and for twenty years now had followed that path. At Athens, Alexi and Rebecca were known as nothing other than upstanding Victorian citizens, providing for the intellectual improvement of the young. The two had agreed to never bring the Grand Work upon their students. The school was the one place where it seemed they controlled destiny rather than destiny controlling them — and they had fought to keep it that way.
Yes, the secrets of the Grand Work were matters for the world beyond the school walls. Their prophetic seventh had been named a peer, and thus students were not subjects of scrutiny. No, while Miss Parker did not appear a "normal" girl, and though she happened to spark interest, she was likely nothing more than a child deserving a solid education.
Rebecca sighed, easing into her chair as Frederic hopped onto her shoulder. She considered inviting Alexi to tea, then allowed he would prefer to be steeped as usual in solitude. As predicted, their personalities and desires had not changed when the six great spirits entered them. Still, Rebecca and her friends' lives revolved around duty, a reality that Rebecca resented more with each passing year. Privately she wished those spirits had taken her heart when they arrived, for it was a terribly lonely destiny, and even the Grand Work couldn't change that.CHAPTER 2
Percy entered Athens's courtyard, a large rectangular space surrounded by archways. Covered corridors with sparkling, diamond-shaped panels of Bavarian glass linked each building, and every façade sported identical Romanesque features hewn from red sandstone. The dormitories rose at the narrow ends, while the academic halls constituted the tall, clerestoried length of the rectangle. Athens was sealed entirely by walls from the bustle of London beyond, a sanctuary where only the ambient sound of a throbbing city washed over the stones like the lap of waves.
The centerpiece of the cobblestone courtyard immediately took Percy's interest. An angel towered over a fountain of deep bronze, a book in her upraised hand. Lilies at her feet spewed water from their widening buds.
Next, the ladies' student quarters caught her eye, and she saw they were smaller than those of the gentlemen. As she was surely to be an outnumbered female in her classes, Percy began to realize the differences of this world — a world that held infinite possibility. Percy had long dreamed of romance. Aided by dear Gregory, that genial middle-aged spirit, she'd played every Shakespearean heroine in the privacy of her convent room. However, interactions between Percy and living men, who of course didn't speak in pentameter, were uncommon. Should occasion call for masculine contact, the abbey specimens were dour men of the cloth who barely acknowledged Percy as human let alone female. Recalling the well-assembled, handsome young men who'd gaped rudely upon her arrival here, Percy recalled Miss Thompson's pointed remarks on her age and state ... and resigned herself to scorning rather than soliciting romantic prospects.
Years ago she'd fallen in love with Mr. Darcy, as she supposed every young woman had while reading Austen and first discovering her femininity. Romance and imagination were elemental to Percy's heart. She'd never been in love with a real man, of course, for her skin and convent shelter kept her from ever being noticed or appreciated by any suitable candidates — and she supposed it was safer to relegate love to the realm of fantasy, anyway. But though she might never feel the reality of love, the ache of its absence she understood well.
Perhaps, she rallied, she might follow the headmistress's independent example and someday run a school of her own, full of unfortunates like herself.
Gazing at her surroundings, she reminded herself she was here solely to learn. Recalling the headmistress's mention of possible employment, she reminded herself to be grateful: An unfortunate such as herself was lucky to get anything at all.
Excerpted from Strangely Beautiful by Leanna Renee Hieber. Copyright © 2016 Leanna Renee Hieber. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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