Our home sat about midway between the Covent Garden market and St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. The market bustled at all times of day, with fashionable ladies strolling in pairs past the vendors hawking their wares. The square teemed with children, but with their dust-colored clothing and earth-stained faces I barely recognized them as children, and they, in turn, didn’t even see me. When I was much younger, maybe four or five, I told to my father that the children were dangerous—”urchins,” I’d called them. He asked me if any had ever bothered me, and I said no, but that I’d heard lots of people, adults and children, call them that. Father took me to the market then, and we sat on a wall and watched the goings on. We watched quietly as the children played, and worked, and begged, and stole. We watched them be sent on errands, shooed away, rewarded, and kicked. And we watched a group of manor-born boys come in pick a fight that ended with adults chasing the street children away. Father didn’t comment on the scene, but explained that while I must be willing to receive information from wherever it comes, I must also withhold judgment until I can see and understand things for myself.
A part of me always wanted to befriend the street children, but I never did. There weren’t many other children on Shandos Place, and ever since Emily Shively had disappeared none of them spent much time outside at all.
On the opposite end of Shandos Place was the great church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. This area had once actually been a field, a great empty space separating the City from the Royal Quarter. The twin capitals had filled in that gap before I was born, but a small patch of green still sat behind the church, and this was where Isabelle and I played the most, the only place where we seemed to not get into trouble. We knew better than to disturb the graves or the flower beds closest to the church itself.
The great tree in the churchyard was, at present, an enemy tower. When the Mongols attacked Krakow, a sentry atop the highest tower had begun to sound the alarm, but after two notes a perfectly-aimed arrow struck him dead. I pulled back on my bow and let fly my own arrow, which pierced Isabelle in the heart. She clutched at it, and tumbled down the ground. She knew how to fall without hurting herself. It was a great skill, which is why she was always the fallen sentry, and I the Mongol archer. If I tried to fall like that I’d probably hit my head on every branch.
Once she hit the ground she ran and joined my army, no longer Mongol. I was Alexander now, and she Ptolemy, and the tree was the tallest tower of great Samarkand, the jewel of the desert. Isabelle led her forces up the far side of the tower before she was fatally wounded and slipped down the tree bark onto the ground, collapsing dramatically, her sword planted between her arm and her torso as though through her heart. I cried out and charged forward, climbing the tree to the highest branch that could hold me. Isabelle joined me moments later.
Over the rooftops we could see the real towers of London: Westminster Abbey to one side, and St. Paul’s to the other. We couldn’t see the Tower itself; there were too many buildings in the way and it was probably too far anyway.
“Do you ever go into the City?” Isabelle asked me.
“Not much, no,” I answered. “Mother still doesn’t like to enter it.”
“How old was she during the Fire?” Isabelle asked.
“I don’t know how old she is now,” I confessed. “Young, though.” The Great Fire had forced my mother to move to Westminster, where she later met my father and they had me. She said she would never live in the City again, and hoped to never even pass through its gates again. Father took me into it from time to time, and of course his offices were inside the wall, but mostly our lives were here, part of a wave of people who couldn’t choose between London or Westminster and so settled the fields in between and brought the two cities ever closer to becoming one.
“Lady Isabelle!” a bright voice called from below. It was Father Mallory, who tended the church. He was very young for his position, which has caused some controversy in the community, but he had an excellent command of music, and during his tenure he had improved the church choir so much that people began coming for the performances, Catholic and Protestant alike. Even the Cohens came, and I think if any Turks had lived in our part of town Father Mallory would have drawn them in, too.
“In what castle do I find myself today?” he asked.
I described the taking of the tower, and pointed to Isabelle as I explained that poor Ptolemy had fallen battle.
“He has made a most excellent recovery, I see.” Father Mallory had a very soft voice, and a face that was almost girlish. “I trust Alexander shall now be returning home for a peaceful rest.”
“Alexander will not stop until the entire world is conquered!” I waved my sword in the air.
“Years later,” Father Mallory mused, “Augustus Caesar wondered why Alexander only took pleasure in building his empire, and never expressed interest in running it.” Alexander never even saw his own capital in Egypt.
Father Mallory asked Isabelle if she would be staying in London for long and she explained that she wasn’t sure, though her father had only packed summer clothing so she expected to be back before it grew cold.
“And how is Lord Edmonstone?” he asked. She said he was well. “You know, he and I were in the same house at Westminster. Different years, of course, but I remember him from those days. I admired him quite a bit, actually. In many ways I still do.” He smiled. It was rare for priests to speak kindly of Lord Edmonstone, but Father Mallory struck me as a rare kind of priest. “I must be leaving now—always busy, you understand. If you two are to be performing any time soon, please do let me know. I am always keen on hearing good music.” He walked away, but then stopped and turned. “One of the sisters has baked a pan of sweetcakes. I’m afraid they are too rich for me—” he patted his belly, which in his imagination anyway was growing soft— “but they are delicious. I have placed them by the side entrance. If you wish, you may take one each. Not more, though, or you may ruin your appetites.” And he left again, his hands crossed behind his back.
I watched him go. Father Mallory was the only person in London, I think, who never invited us into his church. Father said he was being smart, keeping us friendly until one day we would be moved to wander in by ourselves, but Mother disagreed. “He is a genuinely kind man,” she said. “He sets an example of how to treat neighbors with respect, and even love.” He would like it if we came and joined his church, she said, but even more so he wanted us all—everyone in the world, Catholic, Jew, pagan, whatever—to be happy.
“The Tower of London is haunted,” Isabelle said to nobody in particular. She was looking off towards the City, and back to whatever thoughts she had been having before Father Mallory came. “On account of all the executions. Do you think the ghosts ever try to warn the prisoners?”
“The ghosts should show the prisoners the way out. They’ve had more than enough time to explore.” I looked out over the rooftops. The sky above was a clear blazing blue, unusual today in that no clouds lurked about to threaten rain.
“Do you think the king will execute those bishops?” Beyond the walls of St. Martin’s, London—or Westminster; it was never clear to me where exactly we sat, being in between the two—the capital hummed pleasantly. When she wasn’t here with us—that is, when her father was in England, and not on some adventure to the Continent or beyond—Isabelle lived in Portsmouth. I’d never been. I’d never left London. She told me that Portsmouth was pretty, and when she described it I imagined a small white city huddled against smooth clear water, with ships gliding off to the horizon. Isabelle told me that the area around the port was like London in miniature, but that the rest of the island was quiet and pretty. In London even the quiet spaces were a bit loud.
“Why would he bother?” I asked her back. “They’re already locked up in the Tower. They can’t really do anything else.” I didn’t know much about the bishops, except that they had spoken out against King James II and he had responded by throwing them up into the Tower of London. Richard III had locked two little boys in a tower—a different tower, I think—and when he had them executed his reign began to crumble.
“Father says that if he kills them then there will be war,” Isabelle continued. My mother told me that children need not concern themselves with the squabbles of the royal court. Father agreed with her.
All in a flash I thought about war, and the Tower; and then the ravens in the tower, and the crows in Emily Shively’s window. “Do you think it’s true about the ravens in the Tower?” I asked her, but she didn’t answer. “They say that there are ravens in the Tower, and that if they ever leave there then England will fall.”
Isabelle’s eyes were scanning over the city. Closer to the center, inside the walls, small puffs of smoke rose from houses. In the winter they rose in dark little columns from the top of every building, but now, on a warm day, the smoke was white and puffy, coming from kitchens and not fireplaces. She spoke absently, thinking about something else. “Ravens in the Tower are good luck. Crows at your window are bad luck. And four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. How far do you think it is to the Tower?”
I could tell she was up to something. “Not far. Why?”
“We should go.”
“Now?” She gave me a look as though I was the one who had said something unreasonable.
“No, not now,” she said. “You have to finish your lessons, and then there’s dinner, and Father told me that Lord Falmouth has invited some friends and wants us to play for them.”
My heart sank. “Play? Play what?”
“Dowland, probably.” John Dowland, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite musician, still London’s favorite son. Playing Downland meant singing, too. And dressing up. “Tonight, though. After everyone’s asleep. We can be gone and back before anybody knows.”
She looked at me with a smile. Either she was trying to convince me, or she was trying to make a fool of me. She used the same smile for both. I looked away finally. “You’re mad.”
She lifted her sword up very quickly and rapped me across my knuckles. I pulled my hand back and nearly lost my balance; my own sword fell out of the tree. She laughed loudly and covered her mouth. “I did promise I’d kill you!”
“Not if I kill you first!” I lunged for her and she slipped down the tree to the grass below. I climbed down after her and she chased me while I tried to pick my sword up off the ground. We had practiced this for two summers now, this sequence of thrusts and parries. We did it very fast, comfortable that our swords would always hit each other and not hurt us. But Isabelle was changing it now. She always got bored of things faster than I did. She broke the routine and hit me hard on the side. The look on her face was of absolute delight. I flashed with anger for a moment, but then attacked her myself, cracking her hard on the shoulder. She dropped her sword and fell to the ground. I stopped dead in my tracks. My hit must have really hurt.
I started to say I was sorry, but before I could she grabbed her sword, sprang to her feet and lunged back at me, laughing. I could barely defend myself. Her attack ended with both of us on the ground, laughing.
“What has gotten into you?” I asked in between deep breaths and laughs.
“Nothing,” she laughed back. “I think I was really bored when I was home. I have to make up for it.”
We left for home, remembering to stop and grab the sweetcakes. Isabelle did as Father Mallory had said and took one, but I couldn’t resist and took two. After hesitating she doubled back and took a second one, too. I don’t think Father Mallory minded. He must have set out four cakes for a reason.
“Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.”
My shirt was too tight; I could barely breathe. Mother had said she would buy me a new one but she hadn’t yet. The cloth on this one was rough and stiff and chafed at my neck. There was a loose string in the shoulder that tickled me whenever I moved, and when I put my arm down it pinched me. I’d always hated the frills on the sleeves; everyone said they were elegant, but they made it difficult to see where my fingers were, and although I didn’t need to look I liked to. It was reassuring to see that my fingers were in the correct position.
Isabelle sat at her virginal but with her back to the keyboard. Sitting, with her hands folded in her lap and her back upright, she sang. Mrs. Smith had spent hours getting her ready, and it showed: the dress was plush and heavy, bought by her father in France or Spain and she didn’t quite fit into it. Her hair was in held in an enormous pile of curls. I’d never realized she had so much hair. I was sure that at least some of it was fake.
The adults had arranged their chairs in a semicircle around us in the library: Father, Mother, Lord Edmonstone, and two gentlemen who were introduced to me but whose names I couldn’t remember. Mr. Percy and Miss Annie sat behind them, and Mrs. Smith and Jane lingered in the back, still dressed for the kitchens but unwilling to miss the show.
“Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s respite.”
Isabelle closed her eyes while I played the final few notes. When at last I finished we both stood and were applauded.
“Bravo!” said one of the men I didn’t know. He was thin, with a face that seemed stretched, as if his mouth and eyes were taller and narrower than they should have been. A mustache hung over his lip like a slender fish in a too-small bowl. “Good cheer, Lord Falmouth, your children are quite talented.”
Lord Edmonstone leaned toward the speaker. “I’m afraid I must take credit for the girl, sir, as she is mine.”
“Right so, apologies,” he said quickly.
“Not at all, milord,” Lord Edmonstone assured him.
“Answer me this, boy,” Sir Fish Lip said to me, “what the devil do you call that contraption between your legs?”
I looked down and wondered what he meant. His accent was strange, English but almost a caricature of English, unnatural in a subtle but unmistakable way. I leaned the neck of my viol forward with a question on my face.
“Yes, that thing,” he said again.
“It’s a viol,” I said, then added, “milord.” His face looked like he had no idea what I was saying. “A viola da gamba.”
“Julian,” my mother came to my rescue, “do not believe for a moment that this man doesn’t know what a viol is. He is toying with you.” I was more confused now and wanted quite badly to go away. Fish Man smiled and settled back in his chair.
“I was quite the gambist in my day. I had to surrender it despite my passions, however, when Mr. Schiacci offered to join me on lute. He was terrible, and rather than injure his pride I extinguished my talent.” Mr. Schiacci, I presumed, was the man next to him. He had essentially a normal face, with the exception that his jaw was over-sized and jutted out in all directions from his head, but not monstrously so. His eyes were kind, and a bit sad.
“And young lady, do you play that instrument to which your back is turned, or is considerable talent entirely concentrated in your voice?” I didn’t even understand what that meant, but with a sly smile Isabelle spun in her chair and began to play. Lady Edmonstone died seven years ago. Most of her things were destroyed afterwards, burned to stop the disease from spreading further. Her virginal was spared, and eventually moved into Isabelle’s room. She began to play it as soon as she began to understand what it was. “It’s how I talk to her,” she told me once. It was small enough to travel with her—the legs could collapse under the box, and wrapped in a blanket it could go all the way from Portsmouth to London without being damaged, so she brought it whenever she came. She insisted I learn to play something, too, and Father directed me to our chest of viols. There were six in our collection, of varying sizes; I played the smallest one until last year, when I graduated to the second-smallest.
The chest of viols bore scars from the Great Fire: the outer doors had once been red, but now one was black and bent, and on the other the red paint only remained on the side nearest the hinges. The rest was black or muddy brown. The viols inside were mostly undamaged, and Father—who never played and never knew anybody who did—kept them as a reminder of that horrible night.
Mother kept no similar mementos. She said that anybody who witnessed the fire and survived wouldn’t need such a reminder, that the great inferno and its smell—especially the smell, she always said, with a pained look always—would have it etched into his mind forever. But then, her house had burned entirely to the ground, leaving nothing behind but ash and dust.
Isabelle played slowly, her fingers gliding over the keyboard. I still had trouble understanding the mechanics of the instrument. So many sounds came from it with just the barest motion of her hands, like a steady tinkle of summer rain. I sat upright and waited my cue, and when it came I drew my bow across the string of my viol, and we played to the end together.
They clapped politely. I hated dressing up. I hated people looking at me. I hated being put on display for strangers. But I felt proud of myself when the applause came, and I genuinely enjoyed the sound that I made with Isabelle. I liked coming into the library with her, alone, and playing together.
But I did my best not to show it to the adults present.
“Children, thank you,” my mother said sweetly. “You may be excused.” Isabelle and I stood, and I bowed while she curtsied. My bow was little more than a mechanical jerk at the waist, as if an invisible hand had pinned my feet down and then given me a rude shove in my back. I took my viol to the chest in the corner of the room, and jumped a little when I thought I saw the shadow of a crow on the door. I looked around but nothing was there. I opened the door and placed the viol neatly inside, between its companions.
Mr. Percy stepped back into the background, but Miss Annie came over to lead us out. Jane and Mrs. Smith had already vanished, though I could hear Mrs. Smith singing to herself as she descended to the kitchen. Miss Annie put one of her hands on my shoulder and the other in the center of Isabelle’s back and led us out into the hallway.
“You performance was wonderful, children.” Although I knew her tricks, I appreciated them nonetheless, and they always worked: Miss Annie began everything with a compliment, before quickly following up with a command. “It is late now, and I shall expect you both to be in bed and asleep in the time it takes me to come up. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Miss Annie,” I answered. Isabelle nodded her head slightly, so that if she needed to she could later claim that she hadn’t. It was a habit of hers.
“Isabelle?” Another nod, slighter even than before. “You are really quite lovely today. The very image of your mother, God rest her soul. I shall like to hear you say that you understand me.”
Cornered, she answered. “I understand.”
Miss Annie smiled. “It brings us all such pleasure to have you in our house. I do hope you are able to stay with us long this time. Please do tell me what you I asked of you, just so we are clear in understanding each other.”
For a moment I expected that Isabelle would dodge, but she was defeated and she knew it. “I shall be asleep in my bed before you can come upstairs to check.”
Miss Annie’s slim hand reached out and touched us both under our chins with remarkable gentleness, as though she were being permitted to touch angels. “My sweet darlings. Good night.”
We exited up the stairs. Miss Annie watched, her smile warm and genuine, until she was satisfied and turned around. Without looking at me, Isabelle whispered.
“Did you recognize those men?”
I hadn’t, of course. I would have remembered Mr. Fish Lip.
“I’ve met them before,” she continued. “The tall man is Van Ryswick. Father met with him in Westminster once. The Bishop of London was there, and Henry Sydney—”
“I met him once,” I said, happy that I at least had some idea of what she was talking about
“You’ve met him many times.” We were on the landing by now. Isabelle looked around and pulled me into the shadows. Miss Annie wasn’t here yet. “The Italian man is Mr. Shatchy or Sketchy or something like that, he works for the Duke of Savoy and is touring Europe to drum up support for an invasion of France. He came to Ryne Hall and stayed with us for a while when Father came back from Spain.”
“Why your house?”
But she wasn’t listening anymore, or even really looking at me. “I couldn’t hear too much at Westminster—Father sent me here to get me out of the room. But I’m certain that they intend to invite him to England.” Isabelle was losing me. Or rather, she had lost me.
“Who? Who’s inviting whom?”
“The men in Westminster. They were discussing inviting William of Orange to invade England and overthrow the King.”
“And your father is a part of this?”
“No, no. But he’s been in touch with the Savoyards. Don’t you see?” And now she was looking flush at me, her face lit with more excitement than even I could bear. In times like this her eyes were enormous, and even in the dark they shone. “If King James has a son, then Princess Mary isn’t the heir anymore. Mary—and William, her husband—will invade England and overthrow James before it’s too late.”
“That will be civil war.” The old men of London still spoke of Cromwell and the previous civil war. What filled Isabelle with excitement filled me with dread.
“Worse. France will undoubtedly invade England to defend James.”
“Religion. They are both Catholic. And cousins, I think. But if Savoy is already prepared to fight against France, the French will have no choice but to deal with them first.” She was positively beaming. “Do you know what this means?” I was dumbfounded. “A general war in Europe!”
We were interrupted by a loud gasp. Behind us, in the dark, stood Jane, absolutely ashen, trembling. “What are you saying?” she barely stammered. “War in England? And you, you’re smiling! You…little…monsters!” And she bolted down the stairs. I looked up at Isabelle, both of us near panic, and without saying a word we took off in different directions, she towards her room, and me up the stairs into mine.
I flung off my clothes—struggling with the frills and the buttons and various straps but still as fast as I could—and threw on my bedclothes and leaped into bed, pulling the covers up tight. I didn’t even bother to light a candle. What on earth was happening? Why were those men in my house? Why was Lord Edmonstone plotting to overthrow the King? Why were my parents involved? What would happened to us when all the armies of Europe converged on London?
Little monsters, she’d called us. Let’s not have a repeat of what happened last time. Lady Isabelle, with the syllables drawn out in a way that may well have said “little monster.” Were we? Was she?
I stepped off of the ledge in front of her window and brought my foot down onto the remains of the trellis. Once the courtyard had been covered in ivy, but a dry summer and perhaps an errant piece of ash had set it on fire, before I was born, and much of the ivy had been burnt to a crisp. The buildings weren’t damaged, and Mother had mercifully been away in Bungay preparing to bear me. The ivy never really recovered, and the trellis, on our house at least, had been allowed to rot away. Good enough to climb down, but not much else. This was for the best, too—the fire that Isabelle set back here once might have grown out of control if all that ivy had been around.
The moon was only a half but it was a bright half, and with no clouds or smoke the path was lit. My eyes were used to the dark by now anyway. From Isabelle’s window we dropped down into the courtyard, away from the view of my parents and Mr. Percy, whose rooms faced the opposite way. The courtyard had once been shared by all of the neighbors, but Lord Carrillon had received a peacock as a gift from a prince in India and he’d let it run loose in the yard, where the magnificent bird had proceeded to attack, in a glorious display of feathers and fury, anyone who dared enter. Many a servant escaped bloodied from the yard, and at least one smallish child claimed to be attacked.
Emily Shively used to come and watch the peacock from Ruthie Cohen’s window. She and Ruthie were each other’s only friends, partly because they were both twelve years old and the only young girls on Shandos Place and also partly because neither of their families had roots in London; the Shivelys came from the Wirral, which sounded to me like some misty bog from Arthurian legend, and no adults ever led me to believe that it was otherwise; and the Cohens had only come when Oliver Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to England. After Emily disappeared the Shivelys went back home, and a few weeks later Mr. Cohen suggested to Father that the increasing religious tensions in London would eventually inevitably drive his family and their kind into exile again.
The courtyard now was partially parceled out into little lots which created a maze that eventually led to a gap in the buildings and spilled out onto the Strand. The peacock had been shot and killed by Lord Hill after it attacked his favorite hound; the hound recovered but never hunted again.
Isabelle led the way, despite not exactly knowing where she was going. We crept along the shadows, we little monsters, she dressed in some of my clothes because she said that not even her play clothes were good for traveling in the dark like this. Her hair was hidden under a hat, too, so she looked rather like a boy. I was thrilled and scared by our adventure, and struggled to suppress the strange urge to giggle as we passed through the buildings in silence. The muscles in my stomach fluttered and my breath caught at times, but before long we were out on the Strand; though we stayed in the shadows we could stand upright now, and the need for silence was gone.
At this hour of night the lamps that lined the city streets had burned out, but the light of the moon shone directly onto the Strand and we followed it. Although I had known that the streets would be empty—had counted on it, in fact—it was a strange and disquieting sight to see the thoroughfares that I normally saw overflowing with people and carriages now wholly abandoned. I could hear sounds from the docks, of sailors and fishmongers shouting and singing and perhaps fighting, but there weren’t many of them this far from the City and most of their noises were swallowed by the dark. A few men straggled passed, well-dressed but walking in slouching, jerky motions, some of them mumbling to themselves and some of them struggling to stay upright.
In the center of the Strand stood an enormous maypole, so tall it seemed to touch the clouds. A shorter one had once stood there but was pulled down by Cromwell, who, as far as I could tell, believed that all things fun belonged to the Devil, and tried his best to make England a grim and joyless—and thus somehow holy—place. When Cromwell died and the Stuarts restored the pole was put back up, taller than ever. And then the entire City burned down. I’m sure Cromwell was satisfied.
Isabelle spoke quietly but quickly and nearly constantly as we came to Temple Bar. Once Temple Bar had marked the entrance to London from Westminster. The King, when passing, would stop and receive a sword from the Lord Mayor. The King would then proceed to the Tower of London, which is where we were headed, although nobody was at the gate to welcome us or shoo us away. I wished I’d brought my sword. Past Temple Bar was the City proper, which I only ever entered with my father as my guide. I knew the path to the Tower well enough—just travel straight and ignore the changes in the names of the street—but I suddenly felt unsure. I had promised Isabelle that I could lead the way, but even if I hadn’t I think she still would have gone, and I would have followed, if only to know for certain whether she had succeeded or not.
Isabelle stopped and admired the gate we called Temple Bar. Father told me it was originally an actual bar across the road, put there to stop traders from entering the City without paying their fees. It slowly changed into an ever-more elaborate gate. During the Fire the gate survived with almost no damage, but the King tore it down anyway. I guess they were rebuilding so much, they didn’t mind changing one more thing. The new Bar—the only one there had ever seen in my lifetime, but my Father and a few others persisted in describing it as “new”—was stone, with a wide arch for carriages and two smaller arches for people. Isabelle asked me if I had ever seen the King pass through, but I had never.
On top there were four statues. I knew they were the Stuarts but I could only identify King Charles, the second one, the Merry Monarch who rebuilt the maypole, not exactly a good king but better than the one that followed. Thoughts of war and revolution entered into my mind as I gazed up at our royal family, but they left me when I realized that Isabelle’s voice had grown faint. She had passed through the gate and was on the other side. I hurried to catch up.
Past Temple Bar was the Temple itself, between us and the river. When I was little I imagined it to be a Roman temple, with columns and gods and the faint traces of animal sacrifice. The names were rich with mystery: Inner Temple, Middle Temple. The first time Father took me there—I was five—I nearly cried in disappointment. It was just a big English building. The only mystery was why all the men wore white wigs.
Past Temple Bar the Strand became Fleet Street. Ludgate, the proper entrance to the ancient City of London, loomed ahead. I thought it was called Mudgate when I was younger, and still called it that sometimes. The Romans had built a wall around their London (Londonium, maybe?). The gates were first meant to keep the barbarians away, later to regulate the commerce, and finally to control the people. The fire had destroyed it, but it was up again, rebuilt as though it had never happened. The gates stay open now, lest anybody be trapped inside.
The Fire had burned for three nights. It began on Pudding Lane and ended at Pye Corner. Some believed this was punishment from God for the English sweet tooth. Others believe it revenge—divine or otherwise—for the burning of cities in Holland by English troops. Still others saw a Catholic plot, or a Republican one. Whatever it was, the City was destroyed. Decades of civil war and general misrule had failed to destroy London, but three nights of fire wiped the whole city away.
Past Ludgate we came across the giant dark heap of St. Paul’s. During the Fire its dome melted and a river of lead poured through the streets. Mother told me of how she had fled into the street in her nightclothes, just a little girl then, and had seen the dome buckle and fold onto itself before disappearing into the inferno inside the church. She described it in horror but I imagined it was at least somewhat beautiful.
We were in the City now. Isabelle liked to say that London was a city of ghosts. The echoes of wars, executions, barbarians, and just everyday City violence rang out from every corner. Figures of saints and devils stared down at us in the dark from the tops of churches and other buildings. A few lamps still burned in the City, even this late at night. Taverns were open, and some singing and yelling drifted through the dark.
In my grandfather’s time there had been a war. King Charles, the first one, had his head cut off at the end of it, and his family sent into exile. “It was about money and power,” my father explained, “but the leaders pretended instead that it was about God. They always do.” My family had not participated; Isabelle’s family had, at some point or another, fought on all sides. In the end the Stuarts were asked to come back. And now, for reasons I still didn’t understand, the men in my house were planning to make them leave again.
“Do you think we’ll see them?” Isabelle asked me. “In the Tower?”
“What, the bishops?”
“No, the ghosts.”
St. Paul’s, the giant holy house, anchored one end of London; the Tower, a giant, somewhat less holy house, anchored the other. Arbella Stuart had been murdered in the Tower. People said her ghost still walks the halls.
Anne Boleyn, too. “She walks along the walls at night,” Isabelle told me, her voice quavering in mock-horror, “holding her head in her hands, the blood dripping down her white dress.” She’d always hold the last syllable before bursting into laughter, proud of her appetite for gore.
And the two princes in the Bloody Tower. They played in the fields around the tower, two little boys, smaller than me, unaware of who they were and what they represented. Their laughter filled the empty spaces of the castle until suddenly, one day, it didn’t. Two small skeletons were found, years later.
London in the dark. The city had been made of wood, with overhangs on the upper stories so the street were dark even in daytime. Rats had scurried in all the shadows. Some quarters of the City were bathed in an almost visible stench. Father told me about it; Mother confirmed it was true. Entering into any of the city squares from the smaller streets was like being freed from a cage, the light and air filling your whole soul. The fire had burned that all away, the rats and the upper stories and the grimy smell. New buildings were mostly made of stone and brick, and nobody as allowed to build over the street anymore.
It was still dark, though. If Isabelle was scared she didn’t let on. Her feet slipped along the paving stones and I followed behind. She was uncomfortable in breeches—”Do they always scrape your legs like this?”—and stopped from time to time to adjust them as though it were a dress, but otherwise she zipped along merrily. I wasn’t really listening to her. Normally I heard every word she said, but today she faded away. I was worried, perhaps scared. London is less a city and more a caged animal, and tonight, alone, we were in the cage with it. I listened for the sounds of the men in the distance to see if they were coming closer. Nobody out at this time of night could be up to any kind of good.
We followed a sharp hook in the street and emerged on Tower Street, and up ahead it loomed, white even in the dark, the royal castle itself, stark and hard against the starlit sky.
“Come.” Isabelle took my hand and we ducked down an alleyway towards the Thames. If we had stayed on we would have had to cross Tower Hill, a wide open space with no shadows in which to hide. Instead we followed the river. It smelled, the Thames. The boats that drifted down the water caused small waves, and each time a wave washed over the rocks and garbage on the shore a burst of salt and fish and death wafted ashore.
King Henry III kept a white bear from the north in the tower, in the thirteenth century. It used to come down to the Thames to fish. That must have been a spectacle to behold. I wondered if we would have a chance to see its ghost, too.
Isabelle and I sat on a large flat rock near the docks and looked out onto the Tower. It was actually a few towers, but the one in the middle, the tallest one, gave the whole castle its name. London had hated the castle when it was built—it put enemy soldiers inside the city itself for the first time since Roman times. During the Fire people fled to the Tower for safety. Times change.
“They say that at night you can still hear the princes laughing,” Isabelle whispered. “And sometimes, on the stillest nights, you can hear them crying. And then they stop, first one, then the other.”
“Of course I’m morbid. We’re on a ghost hunt.”
We looked up at the castle walls.
“What are we looking for?” I asked her. “I mean, how do we know it’s a ghost?”
“They say the Lady in White is the easiest to see. She walks along the outer walls.” Two guards were patrolling the walls as she spoke, but they were walking away from us. “There should be a glow, and then it will move, and a woman in a white gown will appear to drift over the walls, as if lost.”
“How do you know this?”
“My father saw her when he was young. He says he’s never forgotten. That’s how come he’s always traveling, hunting for ghosts.”
We were both startled when a crow suddenly flew over us. He was flying fast, and his outline was darker than the night. I looked up and saw a dozen or more crows flying from across the river. They all met at a spot on the water’s edge and turned as one to look out over the water. Isabelle and I both forgot about the ghosts on the Tower and looked out onto the river.
A small rowboat was crossing. It was the kind of boat that should have been launched from a larger ship but there was none in sight. On it were two figures: a man rowing, and a man standing. Except for the rowing, both men were perfectly still.
“Pirates?” Isabelle whispered. Why would pirates be headed toward the Tower of London? No. I shook my head.
As the boat came closer—the crows were only a few yards away from us, and the boat was heading towards them—a feeling of dread came over me. The men on the boat: the one doing the rowing was a powerful man with large arms, powerful enough that when he rowed he didn’t move any other part of his body; the Standing Man, who I could see now was moving his head side to side, surveying the City, was enormous, not just tall but huge, with shoulders and arms and a head so large they were grotesque. I could only see his silhouette but something about him—or everything about him—was wrong, like a gargoyle or a demon. Just looking at his dark outline made my spine grow cold.
I looked over at Isabelle and from her eyes I could tell she felt the same.
The boat cut through the water without causing waves. Almost as if it were sailing above the water.
The crows. They weren’t gone, but there were fewer of them. On the rocks where they had settled were now a few men, perhaps a dozen in all. Some of them had crows on their shoulders, and some did not. Most—all—were thin, little more than bones. Like the giant men on the boat, there was something wrong about them.
Also, they weren’t all men. I could tell that, too. At least a few were women, and might have been children, and one looked to be a girl.
They came ashore in front of the Traitor’s Gate. The Thin Men helped pull the boat onto land, although they didn’t seem to have to work very hard. The Rower stood, and although he was huge he was nothing compared to the Standing Man, who remained still until he took two strides and got off of the boat.
It felt as if the earth itself groaned when he stepped on it.
I was surprised to find that somewhere along the way I had slipped off of the rock and was now sort-of hiding behind it. I had no memory of doing this, but Isabelle, I saw, had done the same.
The Thin Men and the crows on the shore gathered into a circle around the Standing Man. They could have been talking, or looking at a map, or—for all I knew—having a meal. There were small movements but not much else.
A crow that had been sitting on a Thin Man’s shoulder turned around away from the group, and after a moment of thinking it flew away, directly towards us. It closed the distance between us in a matter of seconds, and landed on our rock. Isabelle and I ducked down behind the rock while the crow examined us.
Six crows is death. I remembered the morning that Isabelle came, the crows on Emily Shively’s roof, and the Watcher on my windowsill. This was the same bird. Was that possible?
It leaned forward and I waited for it to tap tap tap on the rock, but after a few seconds it turned and returned to the group. Heart pounding, I looked up past the rock and saw the crow land on the Standing Man’s shoulder. Now there were only three people on the shore: the Standing Man, the Rower, and one Thin Man. And there were dozen crows there again, all of which took wing at once and flew towards the city. The three figures left on the shore turned and walked towards Tower Hill.
“Is that ghost enough for you?” Isabelle asked. Was she smiling? She did that sometimes, when she was afraid. I fell out of a tree once, maybe two summers ago, and landed on my head and couldn’t move for a few moments, and when she reached me she was smiling. When I finally moved she started to cry. There were other times, too, when she smiled in fear. It was a strange habit that I and everyone predicted would one day get her into trouble.
“Can we go now?” I asked.
“Who was that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”
“Do you think it was William?”
I didn’t answer. I did not think it was William of Orange, coming to overthrow the king.
I did not even think it was human.
I didn’t want to follow their path. They—the Thin Men and the Standing Man—had walked up Tower Hill into the City. I wanted to stay along the river, away from them, so I tried to make certain that I kept ahead of Isabelle as we walked back. The City, my mysterious night-cloaked city, scared me now. Something had changed. I’d heard the earth groan. In the shadows there was menace.
Isabelle sensed it, too. For the first time that evening she was silent. We both stayed in the dark.
Up ahead of us a group of men, a different group, identifiably human, unquestionably drunk, and undoubtedly up to no good, crowded around one of the docks. I didn’t like how they looked, and was pleased when Isabelle stopped and then motioned for me to turn down a side street. We’d walk parallel to the river until we reached Fish Street Hill. Then we could take the main roads back through to Ludgate.
We passed Pudding Lane, where the Fire began. From the shadow opposite us the men we’d seen on the riverfront, the men we’d turned to avoid, appeared.
“What’s this, then?” one of them asked. “Two little lords out for a walk?” I’d forgotten that Isabelle looked like a boy in my clothes.
“Awful late for little ones to be out now, isn’t it?” I could barely understand their words, but understood everything about how they were standing, blocking the road. Our only real option was to run through the buildings to the river, but that didn’t seem like a good idea.
They stepped closer. There were three of them, and though the smelled of rum and filth I could tell that we would not be able to outrun them for long.
“What’s the going rate for two little lords nowadays?”
“I know a ship going to Jamaica looking for a boy to scrub the decks. You think they could use two?”
Isabelle took off her hat. Her hair, which had been tucked into it, tumbled out onto her shoulders. “I’m not a boy,” she protested. She stood as proudly and nobly as she could, defiant. “I am Lady Isabelle Edmonstone of Portsmouth, daughter and heiress of the Earl Robert Edmonstone. This is Julian Winston, Viscount of Annandale, son of the Earl of Falmouth. We demand that you stand aside and leave us in peace.”
And for one silly moment I thought that would work.
“Well,” said one of the men, taking a step closer to us, “my name is Bones, and I’m Lord of Nothing, but make no mistake, I am not going to stand aside for you or anyone. There are no nobles in London after dark. Only us.”
The men laughed. “A boy and a girl. We can find a use for both in Jamaica,” one said.
“Much better than two boys,” the last one agreed. I kept my eyes on the one who called himself Bones. He had a long scar on his face. You don’t get scars on your face by being a good person, I knew that much.
He lunged quickly and grabbed Isabelle by the wrist. She shrieked. Without thinking I jumped on him, but the other two wasted no time in tearing me away. I twisted and turned as much as I could against them, and watched as Bones pulled Isabelle off the ground like a rag doll. She managed to hit him in the face but he didn’t seem to mind much. I kicked at the men who held me but they didn’t flinch at that, either.
There were four hands on me, gripping me hard. Then a cracking sound, and two hands let go, and there was a muffled sound. I had just a moment to see a figure cross quickly towards Isabelle and Bones, and then she was standing free and Bones was on the ground, holding his stomach.
The other set of hands holding me let go, and that man ran away, towards the river. Bones looked up at the figure, stood, and walked away, still holding his stomach. The third man was on the ground, not moving.
From the shadow came Mr. Percy, holding an enormous club-like stick. He must have hit the first man on the head with it, and then Bones in the stomach. Mr. Percy, dressed in a dark coat but with his shoes still shining in the sun, a scowl on his face. He said nothing but looked at me and Isabelle, and then at the man on the ground. He walked towards him, bent down and touched him. The man didn’t move.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“Are you hurt?” Mr. Percy asked. I knew I would have bruises on my stomach and arms where the men had gripped me, and Isabelle was rubbing her wrist, but we both shook our heads. “Come.” With the stick in his hand he led us down Pudding Lane. He stopped after a minute and put his stick into a hole in the wall of a shop—it was a signpost he had used to save us.
We followed him in silence through the city. It was still the dead of night, dark except for the glow of the half moon and the pinpricks of starlight that shimmered overhead, but the darkness was less oppressive now. There were lamps on some houses, fewer than there had been when we came in since many had burned out, but somehow they seemed to burn brighter than before. There were people on the streets, too, probably as many as before, but they no longer frightened me. I appreciated them, actually, as a sign that London was still London, still alive, still my home. With Mr. Percy alongside us, Isabelle and I walked down the middle of street instead of hiding in the shadows.
At this point, even Mr. Percy’s anger—expressed by his stone silence—was welcome and comforting, even loving.
I expected us to turn on Bedford Street, to get onto Shandos Place and enter through the front door, but Mr. Percy kept us on the Strand, and we entered the dark little opening that led to our courtyard, the same way that we had escaped. He led us through the door to the kitchen, and as we entered he signaled with his eyes that we were to stay quiet. Like two little mice led by one particularly careful cat, we padded through the kitchen and up the stairs. Up ahead was the library, where I noted that a light was still on. A murmur of voices inside. My heart sank. Mr. Percy was in his rights to hand us over, but I had hoped that he wouldn’t.
“Leave it to me,” I heard Lord Edmonstone say as we approached the entrance to the library. “The less you know the better it is for all of us.”
“This is too dangerous,” my own father responded.
“The greatest danger lies in doing nothing.”
“I wish you had never gotten us involved.”
“As do I, but it is too late for that now. Tantibus is real, he is coming, and if we do nothing then we are all doomed.”
Mr. Percy motioned for us to follow him towards a small staircase near the kitchen entrance, and led us up. This smaller staircase, narrow and dark, was designed for the house staff to move about invisibly, but we never used it, preferring that everyone, staff included, use the main stairs. The only person who ever came in was Jane, in order to clean it.
Mr. Percy led us up. On the second floor he and I escorted Isabelle to her room in silence and he ushered her into room with a stern look, closing the door silently once she was in. Then he led me upstairs to my own room and with a strong hand against my back pushed me in. My room was pitch black, without even the moonlight shining in. I undressed as quickly as I could and slipped into bed, pulling the covers up over my head and forcing myself to sleep.
I don’t know if I did, or how much time passed before my door opened and a candle’s light creeped in.
“Julian, come.” Lord Edmonstone stood at my door, and behind him in her nightclothes was Isabelle, her eyes droopy with sleep and a wan smile on her face.