In the New City lives a girl with a secret: Elizabeth can do magic. But someone knows her secretsomeone who has a secret of his own. That secret is a butterfly that lives in a jar, a butterfly that was supposed to be gone forever, a butterfly that used to be called the Jabberwock...
Girl in Amber
Alice and Hatcher are just looking for a place to rest. Alice has been dreaming of a cottage by a lake and a field of wildflowers, but while walking blind in a snowstorm she stumbles into a house that only seems empty and abandoned...
When I First Came to Town
Hatcher wasn't always Hatcher. Once, he was a boy called Nicholas, and Nicholas fancied himself the best fighter in the Old City. No matter who fought him he always won. Then his boss tells him he's going to battle the fearsome Grinder, a man who never leaves his opponents alive...
The Mercy Seat
There is a place hidden in the mountains, where all the people hate and fear magic and Magicians. It is the Village of the Pure, and though Alice and Hatcher would do anything to avoid it, it lies directly in their path...
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Elizabeth Violet Hargreaves trotted down the stairs in her new blue dress, her blond hair neatly done up in curls and ribbons. She couldn't wait to show Mama and Papa how pretty she looked. Elizabeth had spent several moments admiring her appearance from all angles in her looking glass, until her maid Dinah had told her enough was enough and that she should get downstairs else she would miss breakfast.
Elizabeth did not want to miss breakfast. She was a hearty eater, somewhat to her mother's dismay, and breakfast was her favorite meal. There were always pots of jam with breakfast, and a sugar bowl for the tea, and Elizabeth never missed a chance to add an extra dollop of jam to her toast or sneak another lump of sugar.
If her mother caught her she would make that hissing snake noise between her teeth and tell Elizabeth if she kept eating like that she would become rounder than she was already. Elizabeth didn't mind much that she was round. She thought it made her look soft and sweet, and she'd rather be soft and sweet than hard and clipped, like her mother.
Of course, Elizabeth thought Mama was beautiful-or rather, she was beautiful underneath all her planes and angles. She had the same blond hair as Elizabeth, long and thick. When she took it down at night it would fall in rippling waves to her waist. Some of those waves had turned silvery grey, though Elizabeth didn't think Mama was that old, really, and the silver was sort of pretty when it caught the light.
Elizabeth had her mother's eyes, too, clear and blue. But Mama used to laugh more, and her eyes used to crinkle up in the corners when she did. Now there was always a furrow between her brows, and Elizabeth couldn't remember the last time she laughed.
No, that isn't true, she thought to herself. She could remember the last time Mama laughed. It was before That Day.
"That Day" was how Elizabeth always referred to it in her mind, the day that she came downstairs for breakfast to find her father at the table looking like he'd aged twenty years in a minute, his face the color of old ash in the fireplace. In front of him was the morning newspaper, freshly ironed.
"Papa?" she'd asked, but he hadn't heard her.
Elizabeth had crept closer, and seen the paper's headline.
FIRE IN CITY ASYLUM
No Survivors-Tales from Terrified Onlookers
Underneath these interesting bits was a photograph that showed the asylum before and after the fire. Elizabeth stared at the "before" picture. The building seemed like it was staring back at her, like something was rippling under the walls, something that wanted to reach out and grab her and drag her inside.
"Elizabeth," Papa had said, and folded the paper hurriedly, pushing it to one side. "What is it, my darling?"
She indicated the food spread out on the table before him. "It's breakfast. Did Mama eat already?"
"N-no," Papa said. "Mama isn't feeling well. She's still asleep."
That was strange, because Elizabeth was certain she'd heard Mama's voice downstairs earlier. But Papa seemed to have something on his mind at the moment (that was what Mama always said, that Papa had Something on His Mind and Elizabeth Wasn't to Bother Him) so perhaps he'd forgotten that Mama had been here already.
Elizabeth climbed into her seat and laid her napkin on her lap as she was supposed to do and waited for Hobson to serve.
The butler came forward and Elizabeth said, "Eggs and toast, please, Hobson."
He nodded, and lifted the cover off the eggs, and Elizabeth noticed his hand trembled as he scooped the eggs onto her plate with a large silver spoon. He plucked two pieces off the toast rack with tongs and placed them next to the eggs.
"Jam, Miss Alice?" Hobson said, offering Elizabeth the jam pot.
"Not Alice," Papa hissed through his teeth, and his voice was so harsh it made Elizabeth jump in her seat. "Elizabeth."
Hobson brought one of his shaking hands to his face, and Elizabeth saw with surprise that he wiped away a tear.
"Hobson, are you all right?" she asked. She liked the old butler quite a bit. He always saved extra sugar lumps for her in a handkerchief and passed them illicitly at dinner.
"Yes, Miss Al-Elizabeth," he said firmly. "I'm quite all right."
He placed the jam pot near Elizabeth's teacup and went to stand against the wall behind Papa. Elizabeth watched him, frowning.
"Papa, who's Alice?" she asked.
"No one," Papa said in his No Arguments voice. "I think Hobson must have been thinking of something else."
Elizabeth ignored the No Arguments warning. "But then why did you get so angry when he said 'Alice'?"
Papa's face looked strange then, a kind of cross between chalky and mottled, and he seemed to be swallowing words trying to escape out of his mouth.
"It's nothing for you to worry about, Elizabeth," Papa said finally. "Enjoy your breakfast. You can have extra jam if you like."
Elizabeth returned her attention to her breakfast plate, pleased to have permission for all the jam she liked but not so silly that she didn't realize Papa was trying to distract her. Still, she supposed she could let herself be distracted for the moment.
And in truth, she had nearly forgotten the Incident at Breakfast until later, when she climbed the stairs to get a book and heard Mama making muffled noises in her bedroom. Elizabeth had put her ear close to the keyhole and listened.
"Alice, Alice," Mama said, and it sounded like she was sobbing.
"Alice," Elizabeth said to herself, and tucked the name away. It meant something. No one wanted her to know what it meant, but it certainly meant something.
Elizabeth didn't know why she was now thinking of That Day as she tripped down the stairs in her lovely dress. That Day had been strange and confusing, all the adults in the house speaking in hushed voices.
Her older sister Margaret had even come from across the City in a carriage to confer with their parents in the parlor and Elizabeth had been told in no uncertain terms to go to her room and stay there while this interesting conference occurred.
Margaret was quite a lot older than Elizabeth-twenty years older, in fact, and had two little girls of her own. These girls were ten and nine years old to Elizabeth's nine but had to call her "Aunt Elizabeth" and she did rather enjoy exerting the authority that came with being the aunt. It meant that when she said that they had to play a certain game they had to listen or else she could tell them off without getting in trouble for it.
They would see Margaret and her husband Daniel (who always called her "Sister Elizabeth" and made her laugh by tickling her cheeks with his mustache) and the girls today at Giving Day. All of the families of the City gathered in the Great Square for their children to receive their gifts from the City Fathers.
Elizabeth had noticed last year that some families-her own papa, even-also gave something to the City Fathers in return. She couldn't tell what it was, though, because it was a sealed envelope.
She paused outside the door of the breakfast room, to make certain that Papa and Mama were both in there so she could make her grand entrance and hear both of them ooh and aah at how pretty she looked. The two of them were murmuring quietly to each other as they passed the jam and the butter.
Elizabeth swept into the room and paused just inside the door, holding the hem of her new dress in both hands. Mama hadn't even seen the dress because Dinah had gone with her to the shop to choose it. Elizabeth wanted it to be a surprise for everyone, and of course her hair had never looked quite so nice as it did just then. Dinah had taken extra care on it that morning.
"Ta-da!" Elizabeth said, and waited for the applause.
Instead her mother gasped and said, "Alice!"
Papa's face went from ruddy to white in a moment, and he looked at Mama and said, in a warning voice, "Althea!"
Mama covered her mouth with her hand, and Elizabeth heard little coughing sobs leaking out from behind her fingers.
Alice again, Elizabeth thought. This time she was not curious about the name so much as annoyed. Who was this Alice to steal Elizabeth's thunder? Where were her "oohs" and "aahs"?
"What's the matter, Mama?" Elizabeth asked. "Don't you think I'm pretty in my new dress?"
Papa took a very long draught from his teacup and put the cup back on the saucer with a clatter. Then he held his arms out to Elizabeth, who went to her father and climbed into his lap.
"Of course you look pretty, my sweetheart. I've never seen a creature so lovely as you." He winked at her. "Except your mother, of course. And you are just the image of her."
Elizabeth smiled proudly across the table at Mama, who seemed to be struggling to get herself under control. She stared at Elizabeth as if she were a ghost instead of her own daughter.
"You look very pretty, too, Mama," Elizabeth offered.
Mama did look pretty in her white gown, the same one that she always wore to Giving Day. It was her nicest one and it never was taken out except for this special day once a year. Mama usually wore it with a pink sash around her waist but that sash had been replaced by a blue one that was a little darker than the blue of Elizabeth's dress. Elizabeth wondered what happened to the other sash.
"Elizabeth said you look pretty, Althea," Papa said.
The way he said it was like he was talking to a child that needed to be reminded of her manners. Elizabeth had never heard Papa talk to Mama this way before.
Mama closed her eyes, gave a shuddering breath and then opened them again. When she did the ghost hadn't left her face entirely but she looked more like Mama again.
"Thank you very much, Elizabeth," Mama said. "You look charming in that dress."
If Mama had said this the way that she usually said it Elizabeth would have wriggled with pride but it didn't sound the way Mama usually said it. It was stiff and hard and Mama didn't mean it. Elizabeth could tell.
"Why don't you have some breakfast?" Papa asked, kissing the top of her head. This was the signal for her to hop off his lap and go to her own chair.
She did, though a lot of the joy of the day had been drained out already. Well, perhaps Daniel and Margaret would compliment her dress when they arrived.
Still, Elizabeth thought as she put an extra-generous dollop of marmalade on her toast, I must discover who this Alice is.
Elizabeth was tired of Alice spoiling her days.
After breakfast Elizabeth went into the garden to wait for Margaret and Daniel and her nieces to arrive.
"Mind you don't get your dress dirty," Mama said. She sounded almost normal when she said that.
The roses were in the fullest bloom, all of them fat and red and giving off thick perfume that made Elizabeth feel dreamy and drowsy. Mama loved her roses, never let the gardener go near them but insisted on tending them herself.
And of course the roses were the crown jewels of the garden, more luscious than any of the other flowers. The dahlias and tulips always looked like sad little broken soldiers next to Mama's roses.
Elizabeth found her favorite place in the garden, a little nook underneath one of the rosebushes with just enough room for her to sit without anyone spotting her from the house. It was the perfect place because there was space between her hair and the catching thorns of the roses. In fact, she was so well hidden that if you didn't know she was there you would walk right by the rosebush and never see her.
Though if she got any taller she likely wouldn't fit anymore, Elizabeth reflected. She'd grown a little in the last year-not much, but she was hoping to be very tall like Papa. Her mama was slender and delicate and not too tall, but taller than the average neighbor who called for afternoon tea.
Elizabeth wanted long legs and long arms, though she suspected that if she got tall she'd lose some of her roundness.
Well, she thought, it would be a small price to pay for being tall. And of course, if she ate enough cake she could make herself as round as she liked again. At least, Mama seemed to think it was Elizabeth's love of cake that made her so. Maybe it wasn't true. Maybe Elizabeth was just naturally that way.
Elizabeth wanted very much to be taller than almost all the boys on the street. She wished to stare down at them imperiously and make them cower. Then maybe they wouldn't say rude things about her face and her soft arms and her round thighs. It didn't bother her to be this way until they said something about it. Though it only bothered her because she felt she ought to be bothered, not because they made her feel bad, really.
Besides, it was only poor people in the Old City who should be very thin. Elizabeth had seen some of them pushing up against the bars whenever they drove past the border. They always appeared so pale and spindly and desperate that Elizabeth wanted to stop the coach and hand out all of her pocket money.
She said this to her parents once and her father had scoffed. "Charity is all very well, Elizabeth, but any money you gave those creatures would end up in a bottle. Don't let your sympathy be misplaced."
Elizabeth hadn't understood what Papa meant by "in a bottle" so she'd asked Dinah later and Dinah told her that it was someone who drank a lot of spirits.
"And those Old City folks, they're nothing but shiftless drunkards and murderers, your father is right about that," Dinah had said as she brushed out Elizabeth's hair. "No need to worry yourself about them."
This had seemed very hard-hearted to Elizabeth, but all the adults in her life said it so it must be true.
A little orange butterfly flew into Elizabeth's secret nook and landed on her knee. It flapped its wings at her for a moment, as if giving her a friendly greeting, and then flew away.
A red rose petal floated down from the bush and landed on her knee in the exact place that the butterfly had landed.