Prologue: When an Assassination Forces a Holiday
“I don’t understand why someone who is two hundred years old should know all that much more than someone who is sixteen,” said Violet Popplewell to her mother. “There’s only a limited amount of things to know in this world.”
Mrs. Popplewell gave a resigned sigh while her busy hands shuffled papers at her desk in her small office. “There’s no point arguing, Violet. Your great-aunt Vera is going with you, and that is that. I know she can be a little trying at times, but a girl your age cannot simply travel to an unknown city by herself. You must admit that. Especially with things being so unsettled. ”
Violet considered brooding for a moment but fought the impulse. She was a practical girl, after all, and what can’t be mended must be borne. She returned to her room to make another attempt at packing.
“Unsettled.” That was her mother’s word for impending war. The Archmage of Canterbury was dead. His body, entirely drained of blood, had been found with those of his wife and child in their private chambers. There was little doubt the assassin was a Vampire. Within twenty-four hours, rumors of a looming war had spread across England like a winter storm. It didn’t matter that there was no proof that Vampires were behind the murders or even condoned the act. Nor did it matter to Mrs. Popplewell that the dastardly deed had happened in London, which might as well have been a million miles from Gallows Road in the little corner of Surrey that was the Popplewells’ home. The British Isle was no longer deemed a safe place for young Witches to dwell.
For Violet, who had rarely travelled even to London, visiting X, the mysterious city-state renowned for its magic, ought to have seemed a wondrous romantic journey. But most young ladies taking their first trip abroad had months to plan down to the smallest detail of the lace pattern on a handkerchief. New wardrobes were commissioned. Farewell parties were held. And Violet would enjoy none of those niceties. She was simply being shipped off, like a parcel, to be kept out of harm’s way.
Violet surveyed the state of her bedroom, sighed, and set about attempting to create order from the general disarray. Her steamer trunks were bare, while clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries were strewn across every surface of the room. Earlier that morning, she had, in her haste, attempted to enchant her clothes to arrange themselves. But instead of compliantly settling into her trunks, the gowns had chased each other about the room in a colorful display of hide-and-go-seek. The stack of books she intended as her additional travelling companions had toppled across the floor, their pages flapping as if caught in a strong breeze. Her brush and comb had attacked her, snatching and dragging at her hair; she’d had to leave the room for three-quarters of an hour to give the spell a chance to wear off.
It was no use; try though she might, magic never obeyed Miss Popplewell’s wishes the way she intended. Most children born to the Craft assumed that the world was their dollhouse, to be rearranged at their whim. But harnessing the unseen forces of the world was a tricky business full of hidden complications and unseen traps. And though almost an adult, Violet still struggled to bend the magical world to her will. She frequently found that the harder she tried, the more difficult it became to cast even the simplest spell. Her mother was constantly reminding the frustrated girl that most of their kind only truly mastered the Craft in their later years, when the tempestuous fires of youth had largely sputtered out. Yet Violet’s powers always seemed just inches from her grasp. Every once in a while, she would unexpectedly conjure extraordinary wonders. Unfortunately, these anomalies came without warning, and afterward, she could never remember what she had done differently. Perhaps it was the way she held her mouth.
Standing in her disorderly room, Violet hesitantly reached into her pocket and felt the familiar handle of the old magic wand that had belonged to her grandmother. Many modern Crafters no longer relied on a wand to produce magic, but for the girl, wand work always seemed to yield the best results. She gripped it for a moment, deliberated, and then decided she couldn’t face another failure. Instead, she began the dull task of packing by hand.
An hour later, all the necessities of life were neatly encapsulated in two large trunks at the foot of Violet’s bed. But her satisfaction was interrupted by a sound emanating from the next room—like two pelicans simultaneously trying to swallow the same fish. Ostensibly called the guest room, the chamber next to Violet’s was almost permanently occupied by her great-aunt, Vera Tartlette. The sound was one of indescribable vexation, which Aunt Vera invariably made when faced with a world-shattering crisis. Violet heard it at least twice a week. With a small sigh, she went to check on the situation.
“Do not fret, my dear,” Aunt Vera began, her voice quavering. Violet entered the room with some trepidation. “I only need a few more moments to sort myself out, and then I’ll be in to help you directly.”
The guest room was in far worse shape than Violet’s had been an hour earlier. Clothes, books, toiletries, and shoes all swirled haphazardly through the air. With a sweeping gesture, Vera would transfer a pile of undergarments to the bottom of her empty steamer trunk. Then, finding dissatisfaction with their placement, she’d whisk her hands to one side to remove them again. After that, the gowns would go in, only to be removed a moment later in the same fashion. All the while, Aunt Vera chattered continuously, either to Violet or to herself, weighing the advantages of taking each item versus the hazards of leaving it behind.
Knowing as she spoke that she would only make things worse, Violet ventured, “Vera, the train does have a schedule to keep.” At this point, the elderly Witch was turning in circles in the center of the little room as though, by making eye contact with each item, she could fathom its every possible use into her head. But once she lost sight of the beaded gloves or motion sickness pastilles or whatever she was looking at, the item and its usefulness were crowded out by new ones.
“Don’t bedevil me with schedules,” her aunt wailed impatiently as an airborne shoe nearly collided with a lit candle. “I said I would help you and I shall, but you really must leave me to my own packing first.”
“For goodness sake.” Violet felt on the edge of exasperation with her great-aunt already, and they hadn’t even set out for the station. Drawing the old wand from her pocket, almost without thinking, she made three decisive strikes through the air. In a hailstorm of clothes, shoes, books, and papers, Vera’s possessions all found their proper place, and trunk lids slammed firmly shut.
The room went still. Vera gazed in silence at the neatly arranged steamer trunks for several moments, as if trying to remember where she had left her knitting. Then she blinked and, turning her eyes to her young ward, said, “There now. Shall we see about your trunks?”
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xo - Adrianne