MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The town of Wyse, set precisely on the border of England and Wales, is remarkable for one thing: It is the only remaining human town where magic works. Or, it will be in the mid-nineteenth century. As for other time periods, don’t ask me; I’m only a book.
Ava leaned out the carriage window as the road wound and ducked between the rolling hills to Wyse. The English countryside appeared disappointingly ordinary. “I don’t see any enchantments,” she said.
Matthew gave her a tired smile.g “You will soon enough. Just wait awhile.”
But she didn’t want to wait, not when everything else in the world seemed to rush on so fast. Ava sat back down, wriggling her feet in between a pair of boxes. Six months—it sounded like a long time, but it felt like nothing. In six months, their lives had fallen apart: their parents taken by typhoid fever, their home sold to pay their debts. And now, traveling in a borrowed coach, their last belongings stacked around them, they were headed back to the town they’d left behind when Ava was two years old.
“You still haven’t told me what Lord Skinner is like,” she said, trying to distract herself from her thoughts. She didn’t remember him at all, but lately every time she thought about him, she had the uncomfortable feeling that she was suffocating.
Matthew rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I don’t remember much about him, either. He was large, and wore fancy clothes. Everyone liked him.”
“Father didn’t.” A tight pain knit together in Ava’s chest. Stay away from mirrors, Ava. Father’s words as he lay feverish. And then, muttered over and over, Don’t trust Lord Skinner. He’s not what he seems.
“Father was sick,” Matthew said. “He didn’t know what he was saying.”
“But it is still strange. Father saying his name out of the blue like that so soon before he”—Ava took a breath—“before he died. And then the letter coming. It’s almost as if Lord Skinner was watching us.”
“That’s just silly. No doubt he heard the news from a relative in Wyse. It’s hardly a secret.” Matthew’s voice had an edge to it now. “We have work and a home, even if it’s not what you would like. Let’s be thankful.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” She hadn’t meant to upset Matthew. Her hand crept up to the mark on her left cheek—a thin, moon-shaped crescent, left by a measles rash, her parents had said. Even back home in Cambridgeshire, however, almost as far from Wyse and magic as you could get, Ava had caught people looking at her oddly and whispering about fairy marks.
Because, of course, Father had been a conjurer once. He’d owned one of the few magic mirrors left in Wyse.
Ava’s imagination failed when she thought about it. Her father had never talked about life in Wyse, only saying he’d sold the magic mirror to his nephew along with everything else and it was best forgotten. Yet something must have happened to make him abandon that life. Why would you choose to live somewhere ordinary like Cambridgeshire when you could live in the last magical town in all of Britain?
The carriage bounced and jiggled over holes in the road, taking them ever closer to Wyse. Ava kicked her heels against her seat. “If Father hadn’t moved away from Wyse, you might be a conjurer now.”
Matthew groaned and shook his head. “For the last time, I’m quite happy to be a clerk.” He frowned at her. “And you’ll be happy with whatever Lord Skinner finds for you. We can’t afford to be choosy.”
Ava shrugged, looking back out the window. Matthew might think himself lucky to be a clerk, but a position in a household for her? Ava wanted more than that. They were coming home to Wyse—the town of magic mirrors. If she could find Father’s mirror, if she could stand in front of it just for a moment, who knew what she might see?
But then she forgot all of that because, as the carriage reached the top of the hill, she caught her first glimpse of Wyse.
From the pictures Ava had seen, she’d expected the town to glitter as if it was made of gold and fine jewels. Instead, it looked more like someplace a child had put together from cheap glass. A dizzying array of colors bled across the buildings, smearing red to green to yellow. The narrow roads that wound between them were pale silver and gave off a sticky gleam like slug trails.
If this was what fairy magic looked like, Ava didn’t think much of it. “I thought you said Wyse was the grandest town in Britain,” she said.
Matthew leaned out his window to see. An open-top carriage was coming toward them. It shimmered with a rainbow of bright jewels, and the four ladies inside boasted golden skin and hair in various shades of green. They seemed to be surrounded by a very light mist. Ava rubbed her eyes, but the mist remained. The ladies waved and giggled, their hands leaving gold streaks in the air.
Matthew raised his hat and waved back, making the ladies giggle even harder.
“It doesn’t even look real,” Ava complained.
“It’s not supposed to; that’s the whole point.” Matthew replaced his hat. “Fairy enchantments always have a colored aura, especially the cheaper ones. It’s just a bit of fun.”
People thought it was fun to drive around in carriages looking blurry? Ava picked at the edge of her seat as their own carriage rattled on, past a patch of overgrown parkland and over a narrow stone bridge into the center of town. Some of the buildings they passed were large and grand, four or five stories tall, with high, arched windows, but they all looked as if they needed a good cleaning beneath the shimmering layer of enchantments. Some were quite obviously empty, with birds nesting on their chimneys and trails of ivy crossing their fronts. Even the theater, which was supposed to be the sixth largest in the country, seemed dejected, covered, as it was, in peeling posters.
MR. RADCOT, GENTLEMAN CONJURER. ALL WISHES GUARANTEED.
(All wishes, Ava wondered, or just wishes for fake-looking enchantments?)
MR. EDMUND FOOTER, CONJURER BY ROYAL APPOINTMENT TO QUEEN VICTORIA. PRIVATE AUDIENCES GRANTED MONDAY–FRIDAY.
LANGHILE AND GADDESBY, CONJURERS. CHILDREN’S PARTIES A SPECIALITY (ASK ABOUT OUR SUMMER OFFERS).
Ava tried to imagine Father’s name on a poster: ALFRED HARCOURT, CONJURER. SPECIAL OFFERS ON FRIDAYS AND SATURDAYS.
“Mr. Edmund Footer is our cousin,” Matthew said, touching Ava’s arm. “He’s the one who bought Father’s mirror before we left Wyse. I always felt sorry for him; his mother is horrible.”
His mother—their aunt. More people Ava had never met. They hadn’t even come to the funeral, though Aunt Lily had sent condolences.
Then Ava spotted a group of people standing outside the theater, holding signs that read FAIR FOLK: PEOPLE, NOT FAIRIES and BAN ALL CONJURERS.
“Who are they?” she asked, forgetting about the Footers.
A boy left the group and ran after the carriage. “Freedom for Fair Folk,” he said, shoving a leaflet into Ava’s hand. “We meet every Thursday. Number Two Church Street, behind the town hall. Fair Folk are people, too.”
He ran back to join the small group of protestors. Ava watched him go. He looked about her own age, and his smile had been friendly, but what would he say if he knew she was a conjurer’s daughter? She bet he wouldn’t be half so friendly then. She tucked the leaflet into the top of one of their luggage bags. Why would people protest on behalf of fairies, anyway? “Are fairies real people?” she asked.
Matthew gave an indifferent shrug. “Father always said they were, and he should know, I guess. Whatever they are, though, they’re not like us. I wouldn’t trust them.”
“I’m not suggesting we trust them. I just want to see one.” She flashed him a smile. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Matthew used to say that to her all the time—Where’s your sense of adventure, Ava? Usually it was just before he dared her to do something she shouldn’t, like climbing a tree or stealing the treacle tart Mother was saving for supper. She was too cautious, Matthew had always said, she needed to learn to take risks. When had that changed? Had it been when their parents fell ill, or maybe at the funeral, when Matthew suddenly seemed to understand he was head of the family? Or when he’d realized exactly how much money they owed?
Or was it her fault? Matthew could have gotten by on his own far more easily. As a young, single gentleman, even without money, he could have taken a job anywhere he pleased. Having a young sister in tow made everything twice as difficult. As he said, he couldn’t afford to be choosy anymore.
Ava leaned out of the carriage. “Excuse me,” she called to the driver. “Can we stop here a moment?”
The driver glanced back at them and scowled, but he pulled on the reins, stopping the horses.
“What are you doing?” Matthew asked.
“I want to have a look around. Are you coming?”
She slipped out of the carriage before Matthew could stop her.
The protesters were still chanting behind her. Ava was careful not to look at them in case they might think she was interested in joining them. She crossed the road to a shop with an enchanted gold sign that flashed on and off.
WYSE EMPORIUM OF SOUVENIRS, MIRRORS, AND MAGICAL GOODS
Underneath the main sign, a smaller one, handwritten on paper, said: BREAKAGES MUST BE PAID FOR. FAIRY MAGIC IS ILLUSION ONLY. IT DOES NOT CHANGE REALITY. IT IS NOT PERMANENT AND WILL FADE WITH USE. NO REFUNDS.
The shelves in the window were crowded with miniature silver mirrors, china tea sets, and cheap-looking jewelry, all hazy with fairy enchantments.
“Are these the kind of enchantments Father used to order?” Ava asked as Matthew joined her.
“He supplied some of the shops,” Matthew said. “The shopkeepers used to bring their lists to the house and Father would go into his room and order everything through the mirror.” He sighed, remembering. “And then the goods would appear in his room, all neatly packed.”
“And then he decided to stop. Just like that?”
“So he said.” Matthew tilted his hat back and rubbed a hand over his face. He looked far too pale in his mourning clothes. He’s spent so much time looking after me that he’s forgotten to look after himself, Ava reflected, and again the unwanted thought crept in: He’d be better off without me.
She slipped her hand through his arm. “Never mind. Shall we go in?”
A bell jingled as Matthew opened the shop door and they stepped inside. Ava edged around a shelf, holding her skirt out of the way. A few tourists were browsing the goods on display, and the shopkeeper watched from behind a silver counter. More like cheap wood enchanted to look like silver, Ava thought, noticing patches of plain brown beneath the haze. She felt the shopkeeper’s gaze skim over her, resting slightly too long on the mark on her cheek.
“I have a beautifying enchantment that will get rid of that for you,” he said.
Ava stared straight at him. “Get rid of what?” She smiled when he flushed and looked away.
Matthew picked up a mirror. “A present from Wyse,” he said, reading the inscription on the back. “I thought they came from the Unworld.”
The shopkeeper’s moustache bristled. “Our mirrors are very popular. A reminder of your holiday, perhaps?”
“We’re not on holiday.” Matthew put the mirror back and raised his hat. “Matthew Harcourt. My family used to live here.”
The shopkeeper stood up straight. “You’re Harcourt’s son? So you’re going to be working for Lord Skinner. He’s a fine gentleman. My youngest son has been trying to get a job at Waning Crescent for years.”
It sounded like an accusation, as if Matthew had deliberately stolen his son’s job.
“And she must be the girl,” the shopkeeper added, staring at Ava.
Ava tugged at her skirt, the black crepe suddenly feeling tight and too hot. She picked up another mirror. This one had a poem on the bottom.
WHEN YOU’RE ANGRY, WHEN YOU’RE SAD,
PUT IT IN THE MIRROR AND YOU WON’T FEEL SO BAD.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“It’s a nursery rhyme,” the shopkeeper said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It finishes, ‘Let the mirror take your pain and you will be quite happy again,’” Matthew added. “I remember it from when I was a child.”
Ava wished she could put all her bad feelings into a mirror. She stared into the cheap glass, tilting it this way and that.
“You don’t want to look too long into mirrors around here,” the shopkeeper said. “You never know what you might see.” He smirked as Ava jumped and set down the mirror. “Just kidding. There’s a fairy enchantment on it to make it glow a bit, but underneath it’s common glass. Two shillings, if you want to buy it.”
He held out his hand for the money. Ava shook her head and turned away. She felt the shopkeeper still staring at her until one of the other customers asked to buy a milk jug. Ava shut her eyes and let out a breath. She wished they hadn’t come in.
Matthew dug in his pocket for a calling card and set it on the counter. “We’ll be living at Number Eight Primrose Hill. We’re looking forward to making the acquaintance of our neighbors.”
“I’m sure you are,” the shopkeeper said, ignoring Matthew’s card. “Well, no doubt you have many things to do today. Good day to you both.”
* * *
“He was horrible,” Ava said as they climbed back into the carriage. She didn’t feel like going to any of the other shops. The horses started off with a jolt that threw her back in her seat. “Did you see how he looked at me?”
Matthew threw a glance behind. “He’s sore because I got a job with Lord Skinner and his son didn’t. Don’t let one rude man spoil things for you.”
For a moment he sounded more like his old self, and Ava allowed herself a cautious smile. Maybe coming back to Wyse would be good for them after all.
The carriage moved on, past the row of shops and up a hill, where the driver stopped about halfway up.
“This is it,” he said. “Number Eight.”
The house didn’t look too bad. The garden was overgrown, but there were apple trees, and probably a vegetable patch under the weeds. Dark tendrils of ivy swarmed up the front of the house and onto the roof, where they appeared to be attempting to strangle the chimney.
The coachman grunted and jumped down. “You’ll have to carry your bags in from here.”
He didn’t offer to help them, and Ava didn’t ask. No point causing extra work for him when they could manage on their own. She grabbed two of the smaller bags and hauled them along the path.
Inside the house, the hallway smelled damp. Patches of gray mold stained one wall, and an old rug lay in a dirty heap to one side. Each room was the same: grimy, damp, and musty.
“It’s not too bad,” Ava said, running her finger across the dirt on a window. Everything would need cleaning, but they could drag the carpets outside and beat them, and if they opened all the windows, the smell would soon go.
The kitchen had an old stove that looked like it might work, and a table and four chairs. And, propped up on the table, against a covered milk jug was a letter.
Dear Mr. and Miss Harcourt,
Welcome to your new home. I hope you will be comfortable here. I am sorry I was not able to greet you upon arrival. However, I would like to invite you both to dine with me at Waning Crescent this evening. I shall expect you at seven o’clock.
The paper was plain, heavyweight, unenchanted, and the letter itself was written in a strong hand with no excess flourishes. It was handwriting you could trust.
Don’t trust Lord Skinner, her father had said. Reading the letter again, Ava felt suffocated.
“We should have bought food while we were in town,” Matthew said, coming into the kitchen. “Tomorrow’s Sunday and everything will be closed. Do you want to run back and get some supplies while I start unpacking?” He noticed the piece of paper in Ava’s hand. “What’s that?”
She handed it to him, her hand trembling a little. “An invitation, I think—or a summons.”
Text copyright © 2019 by Claire Fayers
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Hannah Peck