Five crows is an omen of illness to come; six is death.
From my window I watched them flitting about the building across the street, black dragons in miniature. Were they crows or ravens? I don’t know very much about birds. Crows are smaller, duskier. And if the ravens leave the Tower then the kingdom will fall.
Lord Shively and his family had abandoned the house across the street during the winter, retreating through the cold away from the City. They had by then accepted that their Emily was gone. She abandoned them, and they abandoned hope, and then they abandoned their home. That’s what my father said as we watched them go. The crows seemed keen on moving in. I tried to count them but it was hard to keep track, given the way they slipped in and out through the broken window that led into what had once been Emily Shively’s bedroom.
Four? No, five. Illness. For me, who was counting them, or for the Shivelys, whose house the crows were haunting? I’d ask my father later. It was he who told me about counting crows, which I was doing now instead of my geography lessons. France is down and Scotland is up, and across the sea there is a new land filled with fierce and primitive warriors. That was enough learning for now, I felt.
I was looking out at the crows when suddenly on my windowsill there was an explosion of noise and feathers. I stepped back and hit my hip on my desk, hard enough to bruise and spill ink onto my lesson book. A crow had landed on my windowsill, rather larger and darker than the ones across the way, though maybe it just looked that way because he was closer. I don’t know why I decided it was a boy bird, it just felt like he was. He beat his feathers hard against my window while his claws scrambled against the stone. He came from nowhere, it seemed to me, and scared me so that my heart raced in my throat. I steadied my inkwell, absentmindedly wiping my inky hands on my trousers. I felt silly when I saw my hands were shaking a little.
The crow stopped, finally, and made a grand show of smoothing his feathers and settling down, as if embarrassed by the earlier excitement. The city was still enough that I could hear his claws scraping against the stone. He looked up at me but not in the way an animal does, not the mute stupidity of a sheep or the simple love of a dog. He looked at me, the crow did, as if he had been looking for me, and having now found me was determining how best to begin. His head moved side to side in quick mechanical jerks like a clockwork toy, and then with a certain deliberation he leaned forward and tapped his beak against my glass: tap tap tap.
He stared up at me with eyes that said, “Come here.” I stepped closer, and I could tell he approved. I rested my fingertips on the glass, and the crow, once again, leaned forward and tapped.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
He looked over his shoulder and glanced at the other crows across the street. I followed his gaze. The silence of Shandos Place was unnatural. Instead of the sound of people and traffic, I could hear the crow’s feet on the stone, the feathers passing over themselves as he moved, the short breaths through his beak. Across the way the crows had aligned themselves in a row on Emily Shively’s window, facing me. In a perfectly straight row. The pit of my stomach squeezed and turned, and I felt my legs twitching with the sense that something was not right.
Six crows. Death.
And then all of them—the crow who spoke to me and the six who watched—took off at once, rising straight to a spot above the center of the street and then turning east. They had been startled, no doubt, by the arrival of a carriage on Shandos Place. Its wheels kicked up a cloud of dust and its horses pounded a riot out onto the street. The commotion of the carriage brought with it, in a rush, all the sounds of London that had been missing—merchants calling out prices, men laughing in front of the Three Tuns, dogs and horses and chickens running all around the streets, my father calling out to me from downstairs.
But I was already on my way, forgetting the birds and the spilled ink and the bruise on my hip. I burst into the hallway and half-ran, half-fell down the stairs.
“Julian, no running in the house.” Once I reached the ground floor I tried to slow down but it took me a few steps and I ended up nearly crashing into my mother. I apologized and tried to compose myself before turning and walking quickly to the front door. Mr. Percy had already opened it and was standing beside it. His eyes locked onto the smear of ink on my trousers. He said nothing, but I tried to cover the mark with my hand—no use, it was even blacker.
“Lord Edmonstone and Lady Isabelle,” he announced. For Lord Edmonstone he spoke in a rich, clear baritone, crisply enunciating each syllable, his voice appropriate for the visitor’s high status. For Lady Isabelle, however, his voice dropped with each syllable, each passing letter and each sound within the letters, her name weighed down by a thousand curses he couldn’t actually say aloud. The final ‘L’ sound he let slither across the floor like a poisonous snake.
I was thrilled.
As the carriage came to a halt I waited for her to bound from the door. I expected we would race to the garden to begin our plan. How would we torment Mr. Percy this time? Wherever should we escape to in the night? How often would we be summoned to the library to be scolded? A day with Isabelle was incomplete without at least one of those things, and as I only ever misbehaved in her presence—and it was my parents who insisted on bringing her to me—the scolding and occasional punishment were a small price to pay.
The door did not swing open. Mr. Percy had to walk the short distance to the carriage and open it in. Inside the carriage, suspended in midair, was a bright white slipper attached to a slender leg that disappeared into a cloud of white fabric. Mr. Percy extended his large beastly paw, and very slowly and assuredly a small gloved hand reached out and allowed itself to be taken. Ever so slowly Isabelle Edmonstone emerged from the carriage, dressed in white and red satin and silk, her hair curled and held in place by a large bow. He lifted her gently to the floor and she curtsied to him.
My heart stopped. A Roman column pulled from the front of a ruined temple and dropped straight onto my head couldn’t have surprised me more.
The young lady—her face was Isabelle’s but nothing else was—held Mr. Percy’s hand as she walked towards my mother and father, who had joined me at some point. Mother’s smile beamed and she couldn’t resist making a small whimpering sound. When Isabelle came close Mother reached out and lifted her as she would some precious and fragile object. Isabelle meekly allowed herself to be kissed and fawned over.
My father picked her up, too, praising her sweetness and beauty and such. Even Mr. Percy snuck his hand out and touched her curls. Isabelle had once pulled a hot poker from a brazier and used it to chase a moth from the library; the moth escaped unharmed but the poker had set fire to Mr. Percy’s coat, which in turn nearly burned down the whole house. Fortunately Mr. Percy hadn’t been wearing the coat at that moment, but we all knew it wouldn’t have mattered to her if he had.
She didn’t look over at me. I looked down at my hands and noticed how much ink there was on them. And how big the smear of ink was on my trousers. Not that the rest of the trousers were especially clean. No wonder Mr. Percy made that face.
Isabelle was passed back and forth from one adult to the next. Miss Annie came out onto the step and took her, and Mrs. Smith did the same. Even Jane was invited to come pet the beautiful child, this vision of innocence in white. Even the sunlight danced around the edges of her dress and her hair and gave her a saintly glow.
Once Isabelle was back on her own two feet—white slippers! no mud!—she curtsied and complimented and thanked them all for their kindness. Her voice was still hers but she spoke softly. It was all like a punch straight into my guts.
At last my father signaled for all to go inside and they turned and began to file in. As she went in Isabelle looked back over her shoulder towards me, and so slyly that nobody besides me saw or heard, she lowered her eyes and mouthed, “I’m going to kill you,” and flashed her fangs at me for a second before transforming her face back into a warm and insipid smile and allowing herself to be led inside.
I stood on the step. Above me I heard a flap, and watched a single crow silhouetted against the sky. My crow? I couldn’t tell from here. It dove and landed on the sill of the house across the street, in front of the window that had once been Emily Shively’s. Did I see or just imagine? Two thin gray hands emerged from the shadows inside the house and gently scooped up the crow, bringing it inside.
The adults tossed instructions around without even bothering to look down at me. “Wash up before supper.” “Julian, clean your room.” “Julian, wear your cravat at supper.” There were chores to be done. Mr. Percy attended to my father, and Miss Annie attended to Mother and now Isabelle. Mrs. Smith was in the kitchen, and Jane—well, I never really knew or cared where Jane was. I don’t think anybody did, Jane included. Other jobs fell to me.
My regular chores weren’t really that bad. I was to put away my toys, and dress myself, and do my lessons—my father left a stack of books on my desk every morning after breakfast that I was supposed to get through before supper. From time to time Mr. Percy or Mrs. Smith would send me to the market, but that was infrequent and I welcomed the adventure. Right now, in anticipation of Lord Edmonstone’s arrival—he had sent Isabelle ahead of himself, while he paid a visit to Lord Somethingorother in the City—I was to open all the curtains in the house. Mother had demanded that Father purchase a house with large windows as a requirement for settling in this part of town, so far from anything interesting. Father, who didn’t care much for the light, purchased equally enormous Italian drapes, plush and beautiful and perfectly capable of blocking any and all light from the outside. Mother and Father wrestled each other for mastery of the daylight throughout my childhood, with me caught in the middle, drawing the curtains and shutting them as commanded.
When company was expected, though, Mother was master, and the curtains opened. I had to stand on my toes to reach high enough and then tug with all my might to make the curtains move. Sometimes I pretended I was a pirate hoisting a mainsail, or an Egyptian priest uncovering an idol.
Isabelle had disappeared. Normally she have would been sent to her room to nap, and would have immediately escaped, and by now we’d be outside somewhere. Normally she was dressed in a brown smock and wore muddy leather shoes. Normally she smelled faintly of sun and earth, and her hair had a leaf or twig buried somewhere inside it, and everyone who saw her criticized her father for not raising her properly.
But none of that was the case now, and so I had no idea what to expect, other than disappointment.
Mr. Percy directed Isabelle’s coachman to deliver her two large trunks, or valises, as he liked to call them. I noticed that Isabelle called them that now, too. The coachman was a small man with a rat-like body and sunken chest. He struggled with one trunk, the one that probably had her clothes in it, and the veins in his neck bulged as though they were great worms bursting from an old apple. Mr. Percy lifted the other trunk almost effortlessly, and after weighing it for a moment, he decided to carry it with only one hand. With the other he reached out and took the coachman’s trunk, carrying them both into the house. He didn’t appear to strain at all, and—most importantly for Mr. Percy—his necktie stayed perfectly in place.
I could tell that Mr. Percy was judging the coachman. I think that if Mr. Percy were asked to carry an elephant, or even a herd of elephants, he would do so without trembling or sweating, if only to maintain his gentleman’s dignity.
He put both trunks down at the foot of the stairs. “Julian, please show this young…man—” Mr. Percy wielded his vowels like weapons—”to the guest quarters. He will wish to deliver Lady Isabelle’s valise straight away.”
Like every house on Shandos Place, ours had three stories above the ground floor. I lived at the top, in a room facing the street. Mr. Percy also lived up there, down the hall, though he rarely came upstairs except to sleep or check on me. The floor beneath mine was the unofficial ‘women’s floor,’ where Miss Annie, Mrs. Smith, and Jane slept. Below that were my parents’ rooms, and on the ground floor the more public rooms: sitting room, dining hall, library. The kitchen was in the basement.
Isabelle would stay, as she always did, on the women’s floor, where Miss Annie and Mrs. Smith could watch her, or at least make a good-faith effort to try. Men weren’t exactly forbidden from being on the women’s floor, but as a general rule they—we, I suppose—were not exactly welcome, either. The coachman struggled with the trunks that Mr. Percy had so casually tossed about, hauling them up the staircases to the women’s floor, each step a hard-won triumph. I followed behind him, uncertain of how I could help, afraid to stand behind him in case he fell and crushed me. As he neared the second landing Miss Annie appeared, smoothing her dress with her hands.
“Lady Isabelle has taken a nap. I do not wish to see her disturbed. She has had a long morning in that dreadful coach, the poor dear. You may leave her luggage here and Jane will take them into the room when it is appropriate.” The coachman looked like a thirsty man who’d found a spring in the desert. He found a hidden well of energy and carried the trunks the last bit of distance, bowed to his savior (I don’t believe that he could speak at this point, he was so out of breath), and quickly—more than a little ungraciously—fled down the steps, leaving me there with Miss Annie, alone.
She reached out and smoothed my shirt with her hands. Miss Annie’s hands were slim and small and milk-white; her motions were always very deliberate and fluid. She looked down at me with eyes that were far kinder than Mr. Percy’s but no less stern. “I want you to go play in your room until it is time to join us for tea,” she said. “No funny business. Let’s not have a repeat of what happened last time.”
I couldn’t say what she was talking about, exactly. The last time Isabelle visited she smashed my bedroom window and knocked a bookcase over onto Jane, nearly breaking her arm. The time before that she started a fire in the courtyard for reasons that are still unclear, and she once somehow led a pig from the fields up to the ladies floor without anyone noticing until it had settled on Miss Annie’s bed. “I think it is time you let Lady Isabelle be an influence on you and not the other way around.”
I don’t mind being in trouble for things I’ve done, but it’s something else entirely when it isn’t my fault. I protested.
Miss Annie smiled and smoothed my hair now. It was gentle but controlling, and made me feel small. “Those days may have passed now, Julian. She is a young lady now. Perhaps time for you to begin behaving like a young man.” Her smile showed that she was admonishing me, like Mr. Percy but in her own way; and also that, unlike Mr. Percy, she did love me, in some way. “Now run along.”
I retreated up the stairs to my room. In ancient Sparta parents would send their boys away to school when they were seven years old to learn to be soldiers, citizens, and men. When I was seven I was sent from the women’s floor to the men’s floor. The Spartan boys weren’t allowed to sleep on blankets; they would form mattresses out of thistles so that the pain of being pricked could warm them slightly while they slept on the hard ground. They weren’t given enough food and were forced to steal to keep themselves from going hungry; if they were caught they were punished. This taught them to be clever. On the first day of school the older boys formed two facing lines, and the younger boys were forced to walk through as the older boys hit them and threw rocks at them. My father told me these things the day he helped carry my blankets up the stairs and showed me to my new room. I was certain that my new room was worse than the Spartan academies, because at least the boys in Sparta weren’t alone in their rooms at night. That first night I would have traded my soft mattress and plush blankets for a bed of thistles if it would have kept me from being alone. Trudging up those stairs was worse than any gauntlet.
I bet the little Spartan boys cried every night at first. And then the following year they came to school happily and pummeled the new children. You get used to anything, I suppose, and then come to love it. It just takes time. It only took me a few weeks to get used to my new room. It was hard now for me to remember, almost two years later, why I had been so afraid of it. I only remembered that I was.
My room was darker in the afternoon than in the morning. In the afternoon the sun shined away from my windows, and the part of my room near my bed was all shadow. The farthest corner was perfectly dark. I laid down on my bed and sighed, thinking of what to do next, and of what Miss Annie had said and I had seen, of Isabelle, her hair curled and her feet in white slippers, of an Isabelle who had once eaten a spider on a dare but who would probably not be doing any such things anymore.
I felt more than saw a movement in the shadow, and turned just fast enough to avoid being hit in the head by a sword in full swing. It crashed hard onto my mattress, more or less where my nose had been a second earlier.
“Have you gone mad?” I shouted out as I sprang to my feet. I wasn’t fast enough. The sword hit my arm and my side and knocked me off balance. I fell towards my desk, and a third blow came my way. I dodged, and then dove for my own sword, which was tucked behind my wardrobe. I caught it and spun around just in time to block the next blow. The crack of wood was loud enough to make us both stop.
Isabelle glanced around. “Do you think anybody heard that?”
“Nobody’s up here,” I answered. I could still hear the sound lingering in the air.
She smiled, proud of herself, and said, “I bet you thought that a minute ago, too.”
Isabelle stepped back and lifted her sword up, and for a moment she was in the last bright spot in my room, a spot of light reflected from a window across the street. The light wrapped around her and made the side of her face almost glow. Her hair was still curled, but she had changed into a dark smock, into something I recognized, something that could get dirty. Which meant that she hadn’t changed, after all. At least not completely.
And her sword, I noticed, was new.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
“See what? This?” And she swung it at my face. I dodged.
“Let me see!” I reached my hand out for it. “Did you make it?” She stopped, considered hitting me again, and then turned it around and handed it to me by the hilt, just like a real sword.
It was heavier than the one she had last time, the one she used to break the window in the library. The handle was almost too big for my hand. The edge had some notches cut into it, no doubt from where she had hit it against something to practice, a stone wall or fence maybe. I noticed some scratching on the blade.
“It’s supposed to be a dragon,” she explained.
“You carved this all yourself?”
“Henry the gardener made the blade, and he wouldn’t let me sharpen it any more, or give it a point on the end.” The top was as blunt as a spoon. “I tried to carve a dragon into it but it didn’t really look right.”
“It looks fantastic.” Once she told me it was a dragon, I could see it, a snarling beast with a flame tongue and enormous claws. Funny how I hadn’t seen it before.
I took a few swings in the air and handed it back. I asked her how she got into my room; she demonstrated how she had jumped out of her window by walking on the edge of my bed and leaping for the chair at my desk. It seemed dangerous enough in here, I couldn’t imagine her doing that outside, two stories up. “Mrs. Smith leaves her window open during the day,” she said, describing how she crawled through and snuck up here.
“And Miss Annie didn’t notice?”
“She’s not too hard to trick,” Isabelle said smugly. “She doesn’t mind it, you know. She pretends to but it’s all show. Now, you and I have unfinished business.” She leveled her sword at me and crouched slightly, into the ready position we’d learned from pictures in books. I raised my sword up as quickly as I could, and she came at me. I was pinned against the wall, but she didn’t advance, at least not at first. Up, down, left, down, dodge, thrust. I didn’t have to think—we had a well-rehearsed routine that looked amazing.
And then while I raised my sword to block her from above she struck me on the knee.
“That’s not how it goes!”
She laughed. “Have you been practicing?”
“Yes.” I rubbed my knee.
“So have I. I’m bored with it. Let’s fight for real, no routine.” She was serious. Her ideas were madness. This is why she was never allowed to have pets.
“Master Julian.” Mr. Percy’s voice, in the hallway. Isabelle’s eyes opened wide and she looked for a place to hide. Men were not strictly forbidden on the women’s floor, but the women—and girls—were absolutely forbidden from the men’s floor. That’s why it was all the way up top. Isabelle was up here a lot, of course, but it never ended happily when she was caught.
Instead of answering him I mumbled something that could sound like, “Yes, sir,” if you were inclined to hear it that way. Isabelle very quietly slipped into the shadows before Mr. Percy could open the door. His eyes passed over the spot where she was but didn’t stop; they found me standing by the window, sword hanging at my side.
“I heard something,” he said finally. I looked down at my sword, and then slowly, a little sadly, banged it against my chair. It didn’t sound at all like the sound of my sword crashing against Isabelle’s, but it was good enough. He changed the subject.
“Your mother wishes you to wear a proper coat for supper tonight,” he said, looking at my sorry clothes. “Lord Edmonstone shall be joining us. She has asked me to offer to help you dress.”
“I can do it myself.” I cleared my throat. “Will Lady Isabelle be joining us as well?”
“I do not know,” he answer, in a way that really meant, “I hope not.” He left then, and closed the door slowly behind himself.
When he was gone, Isabelle stepped out of the shadow, her hands covering her mouth to keep from laughing. “You’re bonkers,” I said to her.
“Can you dress yourself?” she asked, arching her eyebrow sarcastically.
“Yes,” I rolled my eyes. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to go downstairs and get ready. I’ll just need to go through the window again. The dress takes time to put on without help.”
“You’re going to put that on again?” I tried to pretend to laugh.
“Why not? Should I go like this? Now you’re the one who’s bonkers. I am Lady Isabelle Edmonstone, not some beggar child.” She skipped towards the door, and still smiling, said, “And don’t be hurt, but you shouldn’t sit next to me at the table. I’m not sure it’d be proper. And do have Mr. Percy help you with your clothes; you must be presentable.” She only needed to open the door a few inches to slip through, and she was gone without making a sound.