Cold rain drizzled on the dark London streets—at least, it looked cold. Kim peered out her bedroom window at the deserted square two stories below and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders, though the fire in the grate was almost too warm for comfort. She hadn’t had to shelter, shivering, in a doorway for nearly a year, but the memories lingered.
Still no sign of Mairelon. Is he going to stay out all night? Kim thought resentfully. He gets to jaw with Lord Shoreham and eat at the Royal College of Wizards, and I’m stuck here with a great thick square book and that poker-backed aunt of his. She shook her head. It was not what she had expected, a year ago when she had agreed to become Mairelon’s ward and learn reading and magic. Then, she had thought it would be a great adventure.
“‘Anything might happen,’ I thought,” Kim said aloud to her reflection in the rain-dark window. “‘Anything at all.’ I must have been touched in the head.” She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at her mirror image.
“Dicked in the nob, that’s what I was,” she muttered.
The bedroom door opened. “What did you say, Kim?” Mrs. Lowe asked in a mildly disapproving tone.
With a faint sigh, Kim slid off the window seat and turned. The relentless respectability of Mairelon’s paternal aunt was very wearing. It seemed much longer than a week since they’d found her ensconced in the townhouse on their arrival in London. And since they were all technically guests of Mairelon’s brother Andrew, who as elder son had inherited the townhouse, there was nothing to be done about Mrs. Lowe except spend time elsewhere. Which Mairelon had been doing rather a lot. Kim wished she had that option. “I didn’t say anything,” she told Mrs. Lowe in as mild a tone as she could manage.
“I was sure I heard your voice.” Mrs. Lowe hesitated. “It wasn’t any of that…that thieves’ cant, was it?”
“Flash lingo,” Kim said helpfully.
Mrs. Lowe frowned. “After all my nephew has done for you, the least you could do is to be more careful of your language.”
“Mairelon doesn’t mind the way I talk.”
“My nephew is not always as conscious of the social niceties as he should be,” Mrs. Lowe said. “Nonetheless, they must be observed. And you really should refer to him as ‘Mr. Merrill.’ He is your guardian, and it would show a proper respect.”
“Did you want me for something?” Kim asked, hoping to dodge the discussion. “I have studying to do.” She waved at the fat, leatherbound book on the nightstand beside the bed, and suppressed a grimace. Three more volumes were waiting for her in the library below. Why he keeps shoving them at me when he knows I’m no great hand at reading.…
“More magic, I suppose.” Mrs. Lowe shook her head. “I’ll speak to Richard about that in the morning.”
“Speak to him?” Kim said, beginning to be alarmed. For the past week, Mrs. Lowe had made Kim’s life a respectable misery. She had insisted that Kim accompany her to pay interminable morning calls on dull but acceptable acquaintances, forbidden all walks alone, and made it quite clear that, in the unlikely event of Kim’s encountering any of her former friends, Kim was to cut them dead. Thus far, however, she had not attempted to interfere with Kim’s magic lessons.
“I am sure you will have plenty of opportunity to study when you are back in Kent,” Mrs. Lowe said. “Magic is all very well, but it is hardly a necessary branch of knowledge for a young woman in your situation. While you are in London, we must make the most of your chances. I cannot say I have any great hope of success, given your…circumstances, but there are one or two possibilities— That is why I wished to talk to you tonight.”
“I don’t understand,” Kim said warily.
“Mrs. Hardcastle knows a gentleman who sounds as if he will do very nicely. Well, perhaps not a gentleman, but respectable enough. She has arranged for us to meet him tomorrow afternoon, and I wished to warn you to be on your best behavior.”
“Best behavior— You can’t be thinking of getting me leg-shackled to some gentry cull!”
“If what you just said was some sort of reference to arranging a suitable marriage for you, yes, that is precisely what I was referring to,” Mrs. Lowe replied stiffly.
Kim didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled. Her, married to a toff? In her wildest notions, she had never thought of such a thing. She looked at Mrs. Lowe, and her amusement died. The woman was serious. “It’d never work.”
“It certainly won’t if you burst out with a remark like that over Mrs. Hardcastle’s tea table. Consider carefully what I have said, and be prepared tomorrow, if you please. I am afraid that your…interesting background means that you are unlikely to have many opportunities of this nature; you would be ill advised to waste this one. Good night.”
Kim stared at the closing door, then flung herself back into the window seat. Marriage! She’s the one who’s dicked in the nob. There isn’t a toff in London who would marry a penniless, nameless sharper, even if I have gone all respectable. She shifted restlessly in the window seat. Respectability did not sit comfortably with her, but what other choices did she have?
She couldn’t go back to the streets, even if she were mad enough to want to. What with all the regular eating, she’d filled out more than she’d have thought possible; posing as a boy now would be out of the question. She hadn’t the training to be a housemaid or take up a trade, even if she could find someone to hire her. Mrs. Lowe’s “respectable gentleman” wasn’t a serious possibility, but sooner or later Kim would have to think of something. She couldn’t stay Mairelon’s ward forever.
Though that doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.
But Richard Merrill—whom she still could not think of as anything but Mairelon the Magician—didn’t look at things the way other people did. Well, if he did, he’d never have got himself made my guardian. For all the awareness he showed, you’d think he was perfectly willing to go on feeding, clothing, and housing Kim until they both died of old age.
Maybe she should ask him about it. Maybe she would, if she could figure out what “it” was, exactly—or at least well enough to explain. “I’m bored” would only get her a larger stack of books to study; “I’m not happy” sounded ungrateful; and “Your aunt is a Friday-faced noodle” was insulting. But there had to be some way to put it.
Meanwhile, she had three more pages of Shepherd’s Elementary Invocations to decipher before morning. She didn’t want Mairelon to think that she wasn’t working at her lessons, not if that Mrs. Lowe was going to ask him to stop them. Sighing, Kim climbed out of the window seat.
* * *
The text on magic occupied Kim for several hours, but when she finally laid it aside and went to bed, she found it impossible to sleep. She lay in darkness, staring up at the plaster ceiling and listening for the clatter of Mairelon’s carriage on the cobblestones outside. Around her, the household quieted as the housemaids and sculleys finished their day’s work and climbed the narrow servants’ stair to their beds under the eaves. The watchman’s cry, muffled and perfunctory, came faintly through the window. Poor old cull, Kim thought as a gust of wind sent raindrops rattling like gunfire across the panes. I’m glad I’m not out in this.
Suddenly she sat bolt upright in the bed. That sounded like…The noise came again, soft but clear. Someone’s downstairs. Someone who’s got no business being there.
Kim slid out of bed. Her eyes slid past the bellpull without pausing. If she summoned a maid, she’d only have to send the girl for a footman, and by the time all the running around was done, the cull downstairs would have gotten away. And if she was wrong, if there wasn’t anyone, she’d have to endure endless lectures from Mrs. Lowe. She could call someone when she was sure.
She started for the door, then stopped. Her white night dress stood out in the darkness; she didn’t want the cracks-man to spot her and pike off before she got a footman or two to help catch him. Her dressing gown was a dark, rich blue that would blend with the shadows; she picked it up and struggled into it. Then she eased the door open and slipped into the darkened hallway.
Moving lightly, she made for the stairs. Another soft, scuffing sound came from below, followed by a distinct creak; hadn’t anyone else noticed? Probably a novice, on his first crack lay. Somebody should have told him to stick by the walls. Mother Tibb wouldn’t have sent anybody out that didn’t know at least that much.
Suiting her own actions to her thoughts, Kim plastered herself against one wall and started down the stairs, setting her bare feet as near the wall as she could. No creaks betrayed her. Halfway down, she caught the flash of a dark lantern and froze. The light flickered past. A moment later, a figure skulked down the hallway, opening doors and peering through them. The strong smell of a cheap lard candle and the scent of wet wool preceded him; he must have been standing in the rain for some time to be so drenched. Finally, with a grunt of satisfaction, the man let the last door swing fully open and disappeared into the library.
The library? What could a thief want from the library? The silver was downstairs, on the ground floor, and Mairelon’s brother didn’t keep valuables on display in his townhouse. The whole thing had more of a rum look by the minute. Kim frowned, considering; then a hastily stifled expletive decided her. There was no knowing what this cove was up to. She’d just make sure he couldn’t pike off, and then she’d call the footmen.
Silently, she crept down the remaining steps. A cautious look showed the cracksman bent over the end table, peering at the shelves behind it by the light of the dark lantern. Kim smiled grimly and, holding the handle to prevent the betraying click of the latch snapping into place, carefully closed the library door. Now, if she could just lock it in place somehow.…But the door had no lock, and there was nothing nearby she could use to jam it. Magic, perhaps? She ran over in her mind the short list of spells she could cast with some reliability. There was one that might do the trick, if she could get it right.
She took a deep breath, then focused her eyes on the handle. In her mind she pictured it as it was, staying as it was, motionless, frozen, immovable, and in a voice barely above a whisper began the spell that would make the image real.
An outraged bellow and a loud crash from inside the library rattled her concentration. “—sta, atque—” she continued, and then the door burst open, knocking her sprawling. An instant later, the escaping housebreaker
stumbled over her and went down. Kim shouted and grabbed at him. Her hands slid against silk, then tightened around thick, damp wool. The burglar twisted and something tore; the man scrambled away from her, leaving her holding a scrap of cloth.
Kim tried to roll to her feet and ended up tangled in her dressing gown. The man regained his feet and pelted down the hall, just as a sleepy-eyed footman appeared on the far stairs. The burglar shoved the hapless footman against the wall and dashed down the stairs and out of sight. Crashing noises and yells marked his continued progress. The footman recovered himself and plunged after his assailant. More shouts drifted upward.
As Kim, muttering curses, struggled to a standing position at last, she heard footsteps on the stairs behind her. She turned and found Mrs. Lowe, lamp in hand, staring I at her with shock and disapproval.
“Kim! Whatever have you been doing? And in such a state!”
Kim glanced down. Her dressing gown had come undone, and she showed distinct traces, even in the lamplight, of having rolled about on the floor. A torn and ragged bit of lace trailed off the hem of her nightdress, and her hair was probably every-which-way, too. Mrs. Lowe, of course, was turned out in more proper style—not a wisp of gray hair escaped from under her dainty lace cap, and her dressing gown was crisper and neater than Kim’s had been even before her encounter with the burglar. Kim pulled her dressing gown closed and discovered that several of the buttons were missing.
“I heard someone in the library,” Kim said as she scanned the floor for the buttons. One of them lay next to the baseboard, beside a piece of wood with a splintered end. Kim bent toward it.
“Nonsense. You were dreaming, I’m sure.”
“I wasn’t asleep.” Kim reached for the button, and her fingers brushed the splintered wood. A light tingling ran up her arm, and she jerked her hand back in surprise. Magic? She touched it again. Not a strong spell, but recent. Mairelon’ll want a look at this. Frowning, she picked up wood and button together and shoved them in the pocket of her dressing gown.
“If you did hear something, it was probably one of the maids. They keep different hours in town, and I expect you are not yet accustomed—”
Kim tucked another button in the pocket of her dressing gown and looked back at Mrs. Lowe. “It wasn’t one of the maids. They wouldn’t be carrying on like that if it had been,” she added, waving at the stairs. The shouts and crashing noises had ceased, but it was nonetheless obvious that there was far more activity on the ground floor than was normal at this time of night.
“At least you had the good sense to put on your dressing gown before you came down,” Mrs. Lowe said, tacitly conceding the point. “Still, wandering about the house en désha billé at this hour is most irregular, no matter what your reasons.”
“I bet Mairelon won’t think so.” The injudicious words slipped out before Kim thought.
Mrs. Lowe’s thin lips pressed together in a hard line. Then, in deceptively soft tones, she said, “Mr. Merrill, Kim, not Mairelon. Showing proper respect is— Where do you think you are going?”
“To find out whether they’ve caught the flash cull that was turning out the library.”
“Indeed you shall not,” Mrs. Lowe said. “You will return to your room at once, and we will discuss matters further in the morning.”
“What matters?” said a new voice from the lower stairs.
“Mairelon!” Kim said, turning toward the voice with a sigh of relief.
Copyright © 1997 by Patricia C. Wrede