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The Music Box by Hanna Elend

© Hanna Elend

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1 The Blue Room

I sometimes wonder whether, in a twisted way, it was my fault that he died. On the brink of sleep I return to the moment when I heard the bell and entreat myself not to move, to stay put and out of it. But of course, all I could think of then was the magician.

I’d been in the parlour, trying to catch one of the blue birds for an experiment. At the sound of the bell I froze with my arm and head inside the palace-like cage. The frame of the door cut into my armpit and a curl of hair escaped my plait to tickle my face. The house was silent, exept for the flutter of wings.

Miss Anette, the housekeeper, was probably still arguing with the cook over the dinner plan. As scullery maid, I wasn’t supposed to open the door, but maybe one of the fine guests had arrived early from the city, waiting in the cold. Maybe it was Piro. My skin tingled. I straightened, wiped my hands on my apron and jumped to the floor.

Down in the entrance hall I caught my breath.

Had I known who stood behind the iron-clad door, I’m sure I wouldn’t have bothered and maybe none of this would have happened, and I’d still be there in Ellen’s Park today, scrubbing the floor, my head full of foolish notions about magic. As it was, I took a deep breath and grasped the icy iron handle. I had to use all my weight to heave the door open, but I overdid it. There came a rush of cold air from behind the young man on the doorstep and the door crashed against the panelling. He dropped his hat and blushed as he bent to retrieve it.

‘Please –’ He blinked rapidly. ‘I would like to speak to … am I right in assuming –’ He closed his eyes. ‘I was honoured by an invitation from Professor Amoz.’
His rosy face, tiny black moustache and old-fashioned coat made him look like a child dressed up as an assistant bookkeeper. He carried nothing except a suitcase with lots of checked patches that looked like cuttings from old ties. Not like a magician at all. I was disappointed.

I glanced over my shoulder to make sure we were still alone. Miss Anette’s pointed footsteps would echo in the corridor and warn me ahead, so I took a step closer and he bent down to me. I could smell the cold in his clothes.

‘Are you the magician?’ My heart was pounding. ‘Are you Christoph Piro?’

He recoiled. ‘Of course not! My name is Niget -’

‘That can’t be right!’ I said. ‘I mean – I’m sorry, it’s just that –’ That five guests were expected: Lady Carmere, accompanied by some Mr Biann, the alderman A. J. Phillips with his daughter Elenor, and the philosopher-magician Christoph Piro. Nobody had said a word about a man named Niget. And then it dawned on me.

‘You’re a mathematician.’

He bowed assent and seemed rather pleased with himself. Miss Anette said that Piter Amoz was the greatest mathematician in the world. People from the university tried to contact him from time to time. They came all the way from the city only to be dismissed on the doorstep by Miss Anette’s crisp voice. She loved doing that. She would have closed the door in Niget’s face by now.
I straightened myself. I’d better get rid of him.

‘We’re not expecting you,’ I said.

Niget pushed his glasses back up his nose. ‘Oh, but you see, he may not have meant for me to come exactly today. It was more a general encouragement rather than a specific … invitation. I may have travelled faster than the message I sent specifying the time of my arrival. I – I am very sorry. Here.’ He put on his hat again and drew a folded paper from his coat pocket. ‘His last letter. You see? Would be delighted to receive you whenever you’re able to visit Genar.’

‘Well, it’s impossible today,’ I said, as he handed me the letter. Amoz was brooding in his study as usual. He wouldn't want to see anyone now. Once he’d thrown his slipper at me for interrupting him. Of course he’d missed. Unlike me, he was rubbish at throwing.
But one look at it made me pause. It was definitely Amoz’s handwriting. It ran away all over the page. Yours, affectionately P. A. Was that in earnest? Amoz never used words like ‘affectionate’ with anyone.

When I looked up at Niget, he tried to smile and failed. He pressed his jaws together and then said quickly, ‘Listen, he may have forgotten, but he did invite me. If you could just – if you could just tell him that I’m here. I’ve come a very long way.’ He drew back and swallowed. There was no sign of a coach in the driveway. He must have walked from the station in the cold, all the way through the woods. In a few hours it would get dark.

It occurred to me how unusual it was that he talked to me like I was in charge. From his point of view I must have appeared like a child. I was small for my age, thirteen and a half. He probably wasn’t used to servants.

‘I’m Lou,’ I said. He bowed once more. I think that was decisive. No one ever bowed to me. I stepped aside and asked him to enter. As we crossed the hall, a blue bird fluttered from the gallery and settled on the chandelier. He was polite enough not to mention it.

Blast it. Miss Anette would skin me.

I left Niget in the drawing room, where Amoz received his guests, and ran back to the parlour, but of course it was too late. The birds were all gone. For a moment I felt really happy for them. It must have been great when they realised. Eyeing the open cage door, hopping closer, fretting and hesitating. And then the first dip into the air, to flutter and sail in a circle around the parlour, and the spectacular escape through the door into the vastness of the house. I would never be able to catch them all. Not before the arrival of the guests.

I was a little afraid of Miss Anette. She had already struck me once and twice locked me in the storeroom. From the very beginning, my presence had irked her. Her household ran smoothly. She had hand-picked IaLea, who had started her training at the age of ten. They had tried to instruct me in sewing, washing and cleaning, treating them like sacred arts. My arms and back hurt terribly from scrubbing the floors, the furniture and the panelling, but I simply couldn’t see the sense of keeping all the rooms in perfect order when it was only for Amoz rummaging about in his study. Miss Anette said I had no sense of duty, and kept reporting to him that I was running wild. That Amoz seemed to have taken a liking to me, made everything worse. And it wasn’t as if I could rely on his kindness.

I knocked at the study door.

‘Come in.’ Amoz sounded irritable already.

Flecks of dust floated through the afternoon light. Everything from the desk at the windows, the deep-cushioned sofa and the creaking floorboards was covered with books and notes. Morning paper in hand, Amoz paced back and forth, his braces stretching over his skinny back. He kept combing his hair out of his eyes with one hand. For the special occasion he was freshly shaven and the smell of soap and green tea was in the air. He was a narrow-shouldered man about fifty with an ingrained frown and hedgehog-like habits. And yet, when he looked at you, his grey eyes would flash like a blade.

‘Preposterous,’ he said without glancing up from the paper. ‘Arrested. Out of the blue. I cannot wait for that dry old crow to justify this.’ When he saw it was me, he let the paper fall on the table.

‘You have a visitor,’ I said.

‘Nonsense. My guests arrive at six, as you very well know.’

‘A man called Niget. He’s sitting in the –’

‘Where’re my cigars?’ He looked around. ‘Why do you people keep moving my things. What’s his name? Niget?’

‘He says you wrote to him. And invited him to come.’

‘Right.’ He turned his back, put his hands on the desk and bent forward to squint out at the sky behind the bare trees. One or two snowflakes drifted by. It would be the first snow of the year. Back home in our street, snowball fight season was about to start. Josha would be absolutely defenceless without me. No one would protect him on his way to school. At least my parents could afford the fees now that I was gone. Amoz turned round.

‘Why are you telling me this? Where is Mr Raffael?’

I shrugged. He sighed.

About two months ago, he’d dismissed half of the staff including the gardener and the door-and-coach-man. Mr. Raffael, now in charge of the front door, was very old. He sometimes forgot about his duties and couldn’t be found. Only I knew he was in the attic dovecot feeding the pigeons. He’d trained one of them to deliver messages to town. The truth was that Miss Anette had taken over for Mr Raffael weeks ago, but she’d been busy with the preparations all day.

‘Where is he?’ Amoz said.

‘How should I know-’


‘Oh. I’ve put him in the drawing room.’

‘And now I’m expected to have tea with him and chit-chat. What were you thinking? As if I have time to socialize with students. Go and tell him to come back next week.’

‘But you did invite him. I saw the letter. He came all the way from the city.’ I could see from the line between his eyes that this was the wrong strategy. I added, ‘He will be disappointed. It’s really important to him. I can tell.’ I thought I saw a glint in his eye. He seemed to relax, but I stayed on my guard. I had never successfully flattered him before.

‘Is it?’ He seemed to have a little debate with himself. The sunny side of him won. He shook his head and laughed, rather like someone who had stupidly hurt himself.

‘You’re right. This day is ruined anyway. Might as well warm up for the big event, eh?’ I watched him put on his jacket. The shaft of his pruning knife was sticking out of the pocket. He probably missed his roses, having spent most of the summer on his hands and knees in the garden. Now he only used it to open letters and to cut off the ends of cigars.

‘So you are going to announce it, aren’t you?’ I said. ‘That … thing you’ve been working on.’

‘What, my proof?’ He paused in his motions and combed his hair out of his eyes. ‘The proof to my theorem? You honestly believe that I would reveal my proof to a bunch of upper-class hyenas? No, dear child, they’ll only have a whiff of genius.’ He buttoned up his jacket and added, more to himself, ‘I’ll have their mouths water just enough to invest some dispensable sums into my work.’ He winked, and turned to leave.

‘And hopefully a new gardener. Maybe- ‘ I cleared my throat. ‘Maybe after you’ve published it and it’s done and you have more time, maybe we could start again with my lessons.’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘What? Since I’ll have nothing better to do?’

I shrugged and blushed. ‘You said I had potency for it.’

‘Potential. As much as can be expected. But as you cannot concentrate long enough to put a thread through the eye of a needle –‘ He sighed.

I shuffled my feet. ‘I ‘pologized.’

He folded the paper and stuck it under his arm. ‘Tea,’ he said and left.

In the end it was IaLea who served the tea. I was sent to feed the horses as punishment. ‘For interfering,’ Miss Anette said, furious that I’d opened the door. She was afraid of animals, and I had made sure not to show how much I liked being with the horses. She didn’t even know about the birds yet. All I could do was hope that they would escape through a loose board in the upper storey, or settle in some moulding, abandoned room. There were plenty of those in the East Wing corridor, where the ivy had pushed through the outer wall.

When I returned through the garden, I caught sight of the drawing room window. Niget wasn’t there. I ran the rest of the way to the backdoor. I would have liked to talk to Niget one more time. But when I entered the kitchen, the cook told me that they had moved their conversation into the library. And that wasn’t all.

‘He ordered Mr Raffael to prepare the Blue Room for him,’ IaLea said, squinting at me over her shoulder. She was kneading bread dough with both hands and her hair got into her eyes. ‘They’re doing it now. Miss Anette had a fit. It’ll take forever to move all those mirrors out.’

Mrs Stine, the cook, had just washed a bunch of crinkly apples and I was hoping she would turn her back so I could sneak one into my pocket.

‘The Blue Room?’ I asked, my stomach rumbling. It was the only room in the house that had always been locked, except when Mr. Raffael had removed one of the mirrors.

‘Curious, isn’t it?’ IaLea said. ‘For months nothing, and now all the chambers taken. Just one of the Professor’s moods I bet. Wait till tomorrow. He’ll throw everyone out again. And then this Niget person. Those clothes!’ She laughed in her hick-uppy way. ‘He bowed to me all the way to the floor, you know.’

I shrugged. ‘Maybe that’s the custom where he’s from.’

IaLea squinted at me with icy blue eyes. ‘Oh yeah? Where’s that?’

I looked to the floor. ‘Nowhere you know.’

‘Oho! Hold your breath the princess’s speaking.’ She was still mad because I’d left her to finish the chambers alone.

Mrs Stine chuckled. ‘I’ll go there. A place where they bow to servants.’

‘Bow to young ladies,’ I said, and IaLea pinched me hard with her floured fingers. You had to be on your guard with her.

Nursing my stinging arm, I escaped from their laughter into the hallway just as the library bell rang. ‘I’ll go,’ I yelled.

I had to admit that I was rather curious to hear what they were talking about. And maybe just a tiny bit jealous.

When I had first arrived at the end of summer and Miss Annette had started to complain about me, Amoz had actually tried to teach me mathematics, and for a couple of weeks had been quite enthusiastic about it. Then he’d changed his mind. Only because I’d dared to point out that it didn’t matter how many of the curved brackets he drew around that symbol for ‘nothing’, it was still just ‘nothing’.

Maybe I had said it a little rudely. Maybe I had been a little impatient because it was one of the last warm days and I wanted to go outside. I wasn’t used to being shut in all the time. He’d drawn the curtains and a beam of light cut the library in two halves. Listening began to feel as if I was following him up this endless winding staircase. He went on briskly and never looked back. He talked to me over his shoulder while drawing on the blackboard, covering his jacket in chalk.

‘You need think of numbers as separate from any kind of physical reality,’ he’d say. And I just couldn’t. I had to imagine them somehow.

Even so, I had no intention of giving it up and disgracing myself in front of IaLea, to whom I’d bragged about the importance of my lessons and who ground her teeth at the excuse it gave me to stay away from work and sit by the fire ‘like a dog with a bow’, as she phrased it. Also, my lessons gave me a peculiar pleasure as long as they lasted. Not that I had any talent or began to understand anything at all. It was the way Amoz spoke about it.

He believed that each and every thing could be grasped by mathematics. To him Ellen’s Park was as a heap of transparent constructions, formulas sprouting from every angle, diameter and curve. There were fine spider webs of numbers in the air around him. His eyes were focused on something detached and paramount and I knew from his absent expression, from the hint of a smile in the left corner of his mouth, that what he saw was beautiful. I wanted to see it too.

So when I’d told him that his nest of brackets and ‘nothing in it’-signs still had ‘nothing in it’ in a tone that might well have implied that all of this was stupid, and he’d turned to me with chalk powder on his eyebrow and chin, regret pinched me and I uncrossed my arms and stopped tipping my chair. He narrowed his eyes and put the piece of chalk on the table next to the cold pot of tea.

‘Maybe you’re right.’ His mouth had gotten thin. ‘Maybe this is a bit too … advanced for you. You can count and do your sums after all. What more can one expect?’ I didn’t know what to say. He walked over to the windows and opened one of the curtains to the sun. Blinking at his outline, I heard him say, ‘I should have known it would be pointless. Your mind was bound to be sadly limited.’ And he sat down and began to read a book with his glasses on the tip of his nose.

I’d slammed the library door behind me, but now I regretted not asking him what he’d meant by that. Was it because I was a girl or the daughter of a shopkeeper?

I knocked. There was no answer. I opened the door to the library.

‘On the contrary,’ Niget was saying, standing with his back to a book shelf that stretched towards the ceiling. ‘There are many aspects which cannot yet be fully – not fully accounted for.’ As he spoke I noticed a change in him. He was clutching a stack of books and his face was flushed. He still spoke in his halting way, but now there was a brightness shining through the chinks of his manners.

‘Not with the tools provided by current terminology. But considering multi-dimensional systems – which we cannot consider of course – would bring us one step closer to this viewpoint, which surely exists, if only –’

Amoz sat at a table near the window with his legs crossed. For the first time in weeks he seemed entirely at ease. Niget was lucky he was in such a good mood. I wouldn’t have put it past Amoz to have tea and a chat with him and then order him out into the onset of darkness.

‘– to let a hierarchy of infinity appear in the light of the most logical order. The possible applications would of course be –’

‘Completely paradoxical, yes,’ Amoz said with a hint of mockery, and beckoned me over. ‘The Blue Room is prepared?’

‘I think-’

‘Perfect.’ He rose. ‘Lou, erm, Louisa will show you the way. You’ll have some time to refresh yourself for the evening party. Dinner’s at seven. Aperitifs in the salon.’

I could tell that Niget was taken aback by the sudden end of his audience. For a moment he’d been like a fish in the water. Now he checked himself, his eyes fixed on Amoz as if hoping he would say more. Then he gave a polite nod and went past me into the hallway. When I’d closed the door, he breathed out. He looked as if he’d just passed an exam.

‘That went rather well,’ I said. He smiled. But as we walked up the stairs he furrowed his brow. At the top he suddenly turned to me.

‘The guests that are expected this evening … are they –’

‘Important people? Definitely.’

He swallowed. His Adam's apple jumped. One of the books escaped his grip. I picked it up. The title said On irrational numbers which almost made me laugh out loud.

‘You’re not from Genar are you, Mr. Niget?’ I handed him the book.

‘Niget.’ He stretched the ‘i’ so it sounded like knee-jet. ‘No, I was passing Genar on my way here. I am situated in a rather small town, close to the south-eastern border. It is called Aizee.’ I didn’t even try to pronounce that. It sounded Bourgean. I started to walk again, slowly, hoping Miss Anette had finished the room by now.

‘Well, the guests are all fine city people, I know that for sure. Phillips, the alderman – Amoz calls him the old crow – he’s the chairman of the city council. A conservative, one of the last supporters of the Church. He’s all for rebuilding the cathedral.’ I glanced up at him to see if he approved, but I couldn’t tell. Most scientists had only contempt for the Ecclasiasticists. I knew that from Amoz. He said that in Phillips’ mind there was a war between his faith and the powers of magic. And that this delusion made him dangerous like a rabid dog.

‘Let’s see, who else. Oh, Lady Carmere. She’s married to the ambassador of Nyeland. Of course they’re exiled now since the revolutionaries have slaughtered all their lords and ladies. But here they still call her Lady Carmere and her name’s in the newspaper all the time, though-’ I frowned, ‘I’m not sure she actually does anything except give away money and make speeches. She has to do with the university. People call her a forward-thinker.’

‘So she and Mr Phillips… might not see eye to eye.’

‘Exactly,’ I said deliciously. ‘Amoz says there’s going to be blood tonight. But he was only joking,’ I added quickly.

He didn’t look convinced. ‘And then there’s Christoph Piro, I suppose?’

I blushed. ‘He’s a magician.’ I always felt a little thrill when I said the word out loud. ‘But he’s not a revolutionary like Isaac Wulf. He’s respectable. Or half-respectable at least. He’s trying to go about magic the scientific way.’

‘I see,’ Niget said slowly.

I was dying to tell somebody about the bird experiment. Piro had given a demonstration of it at University and there had been a row about it in the papers. Some had called it a ‘scam’, some ‘a work of art’ and some ‘a scientific proof of the supernatural’. The latter claimed that Piro had managed to separate a bird’s spirit from its body, and make it appear as a floating light in a mirror. There were detailed instructions for the experiment in his article ‘Commonsense Magic’ which had been reprinted by the Genar New Press. I’d cut it out before Miss Anette could throw it away.

There was nobody in the house I could talk to about these things. IaLea had only scoffed at me. And Niget seemed sensible and kind. But then I remembered his shocked expression when I’d asked if he was Piro.

‘I must say I’m surprised that – I wonder at the Professor meeting all these political people. Almost as if …’

‘Yes?’ I asked, abandoning my schemes.

He shook his head. ‘Forgive me. I simply hope that I am not intruding. I would hate to spoil their evening.’ We walked next to each other. The hallway was dim and the boards creaked under our feet.

‘Don’t worry. He wouldn’t have asked you if he didn’t want you to stay. He’s not polite like that. Once–’ I stopped in my tracks. Miss Anette had appeared at the end of the corridor, outlined against the windows. I could feel Niget tensing beside me. Miss Anette had something of a lady about her. Maybe it was just the way she tilted her head. Her hair was pinned-up so tightly that the mere sight of it made my scalp hurt. She folded her hands and waited for us to come towards her, smiling with her eyes.

The corridor was like a capital T. We had passed the guest rooms left and right to the central passage and at the end of it was a paned hallway. The right led to the back stairs, the left to the Blue Room which was slightly apart from the others. When we came to the end, Miss Anette stepped aside. ‘To the left. Just at the end of that hallway, Mr Niget,’ she said, pronouncing his name just right. ‘I hope you’ll feel very comfortable. Let me know if you need anything at all.’

I didn’t want to listen to Niget stammering words of thanks. Without looking at her, I turned into the hallway, forcing Niget to cut himself short and follow me. I could see the garden in the violet twilight, the empty aviary on the lawn. I felt the back of my neck prickle. Before I could stop myself, I’d glanced over my shoulder to see Miss Anette watching me with that strange expression of hers which I couldn’t quite place, something between disapproval and, maybe, trepidation. I straightened my back as I walked away from her to open the door of the Blue Room.

Mr Raffael referred to it as the ‘bad room’, but even IaLea didn’t know what he meant by that. Once I’d sneaked a look inside. Having explored all the other rooms in the house, I’d wanted to help Mr Raffael carry out the mirror. But he wouldn’t let me. All I could catch sight of before he closed the door was a room crowded with standing mirrors covered in white linen like silent ghosts.

Now as I entered, the scent of rose water and bergamot surprised me. The firelight shone on the parquet floor. The room was much smaller than the other chambers and offered just enough space around the bed to make two or three cartwheels. It was all polished wooden surfaces and not a speck of dust. A narrow writing desk crouched opposite the bed and next to the door stood a wardrobe big enough to hide both Niget and me. The line of windows was facing east. As in the other chambers, they were seamed with a glass mosaic. This one had to be blue, but now it appeared almost black against the twilight. The four-poster bed was surrounded by an island of red carpet and on the white sheet lay a bedtime sweet covered in golden paper.

‘Marzipan. Miss Anette makes it herself.’

‘Lovely.’ He looked around and shivered. Did he regret coming here? I touched the wood of the bed. It was stone cold. ‘I can bring you an extra sheet if you like.’

‘Thank you. That won’t be necessary. It’s a lovely room.’

His pale, anxious face was reflected in the only mirror that was left: a cheval glass, cloudy around the edges. It showed a distant, slightly tilted room. I suddenly felt I should warn him but I didn’t know exactly about what.
Now, of course, I do know.

At nightfall it started to snow.

2 Dinner

Despite his lack of money, Amoz had ordered a dinner to delight a prince, and Miss Anette was determined to impress the guests against all odds. There were vegetables and fruits in the pantry I had heard of but never tasted before. IaLea eyed the pineapple and kiwis with great suspicion and only believed they were edible when Miss Anette herself announced it to be true.

Mrs Stine was baking pretzels, crispy and salty, but tender as butter inside. I was allowed to have one and the taste of salt lingered in my mouth. I was thirsty and excited. I cracked nuts and cut pineapple slices. I chopped pistachios and sprinkled them over candied pears. I melted butter and poured it over a plate of asparagus. The heat of the stove made my face glow, and every time I stepped in the corridor to listen for the doorbell, I felt the sweat cool around my hairline and down my back.

When the bell finally rang, IaLea took off her apron and hurried out of the kitchen. She was to help Mr Raffael and Miss Anette carry the guests’ luggage to their rooms. I wasn’t considered strong enough, and although it would have been easy to sneak out of the kitchen and catch a glimpse, I stayed put. I wanted to keep on Miss Anette’s good side. When IaLea returned, she said: ‘Now that lady is the most beautiful person I ever saw.’

‘Who?’ Mrs Stine and I said in one voice.

‘Well, Lady Carmere of course!’ IaLea glided across the kitchen floor, her hand outstretched to Mrs Stine. ‘My dearest Amoz,’ she breathed, taking her sweaty face between her hands. ‘You look awful and thin. Why have you been hiding in this dreary-sastrous place.’

‘She never said that!’ I grinned.

‘Not in so many words, but I understood her perfectly. You should have seen Miss Anette, she turned white with fury. And this Carmere woman actually kissed him on the cheek! I bet –’

With a cluttering noise Mrs Stine exclaimed, ‘Girl, do me a favour – stop gossiping and help! I’m up to my neck in it here!’

‘What about the others?’ I whispered to IaLea. ‘Has the magician arrived?’

‘Not yet.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘You don’t really believe that, do you? That he can do magic?’

‘Course he can. It’s been in the papers.’

‘That’s not what I heard. I heard he tricked everyone, tricked the professors at university, and then when they realised they’d been fooled, they were too embarrassed to admit it.’

‘That’s just the kind of thing people invent to discredit magicians,’ I told her. She snorted, cast a glance over her shoulder and bit into the furry skin of a kiwi. Then she pulled a face and spit the mouthful into the sink. I hid my grin.

In the dining room, Mr Raffael climbed a chair to light the candles of the chandelier. He clutched his back with one hand while IaLea fluttered around the room checking everything for fingerprints.

‘Mr Raffael?’ He glanced down at me with his drooping eyes.

‘Have you, by any chance – Has Dorothy returned yet?’ Dorothy was Mr Raffael’s best carrier pigeon. I had borrowed her to send a message to my father via the central post office in Genar. It had been almost three weeks ago. She should have been back by now.
‘No,’ he said, ‘There’s been heavy wind from the north, but it’s died down, it has. Any day now.’

‘Thanks.’ I tried to put a lot of warmth in my voice. I knew he worried because of the snow. I was trying to think of something assuring to say, when Miss Anette announced it was time.

We took position, Mr Raffael next to the door, IaLea and I just beside the table with the bottles and glasses. The entrees were waiting on heated trays. They would have to be on the table the moment the guests were seated. Miss Anette had explained again and again how important it was that the serving of the food went smoothly and rapidly.

When the clock was striking half past seven, we could hear voices in the hallway. IaLea had been dancing with anticipation, now she went quiet and pale. Mr Raffael opened the door and Amoz appeared, escorting into the room a woman who was a head taller.

IaLea hadn’t exaggerated. Lady Carmere was beautiful, though her light brown hair was extremely short – just as short as that of a man. I had never seen anything like it. She was probably closer to forty than thirty, and wore a cream-coloured ornamented dress with short sleeves. The white of her arms gleamed through the fine fabric of a shawl draped over her shoulders to reveal a pearl necklace. As Amoz escorted her to the seat at his right, she talked to him intently, in a low voice that made him lean closer.

An old man entered after them with a young woman at his side. I had seen pictures of Phillips in the papers, but only now did I understand why Amoz referred to him as the ‘old crow’. He was scrawny, sure, and wore black, but it was more the way he stalked into the room with the help of his cane, while his head moved impatiently. His sunken eyes darted about and he demanded, in a deep and impressive voice, that we ‘make light’. I thought there was light enough. Beside the chandelier there were plenty of candles. Nevertheless Mr Raffael lit an additional gas lamp. Amoz wrinkled his nose. He hated the smell.

As the Phillipses walked down the side of the table, he steadied himself rather than helping her. From the sour look on her face, I wondered if his grip hurt. They both were small and pale, but while his skin was waxen, hers had a luminous shine to it that made a contrast against her fox-red hair. He walked her to the seat at Amoz’s left and then returned by himself to the foot of the table.

Last, Niget and another young man entered the room. The latter was blonde, good-looking and smartly dressed with a tailored suit. Next to Niget he seemed especially streamlined and relaxed. I was not surprised when he approached the seat next to Lady Carmere. They gave each other the slightest of glances, and it showed so much understanding that any thought of him being anyone other than Lady Carmere’s companion, Mr Biann, was wiped from my mind. The chair to his right remained empty as they all sat down. It was Christoph Piro who was missing. I cursed inwardly.

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