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Now… drum roll please.
Here is an excerpt from Sanctuary for Seers
Book 5, of the Stranje House Novels
August 1814, Stranje House on the Southern Coast of England
Lady Daneska lays on the bed in a feverish struggle. Infection stemming from a gunshot wound holds her in delirium. This morning her dreams make her thrash as if she’s fighting her way through an overgrown maze. I sit beside her, watching discordant colors engulf her in a swirling cloud—emotions raging against one another. It is rare to see anyone so conflicted as is Lady Daneska. It has been days now, and I worry she won’t survive. At times, the infection worsens and putrid green vapors snake around her, choking her in their deadly coils.
They are not the only things that linger around her.
If anyone knew what I really see, they would lock me in an attic again.
And never let me out.
Telling the truth about such things upsets people. It makes them exceedingly wary, even one’s own mother. It wasn’t until much later, that I learned to keep certain observations to myself. By then, it was too late.
The attic at our estate was not an altogether unpleasant place. Although, mice skittered about in the shadows, the windows creaked and the roof moaned at night. The diet of bread and water did become a trifle monotonous after a time. Nevertheless, I found dozens of old books to read and numerous trunks to explore. I even devised a way to sketch on the backs of old papers using pieces of moldy wood.
I admit it did terrify me the day they tied my hands and feet and put a sack over my head. That was the day they bundled me off to Stranje House. Why they felt the need to cover my face I cannot fathom. Were they afraid I’d memorize the route? Even with a flour sack over my head, did they think I would forget each turn and jog in the road, the rumble of cobblestones as we passed through Worthing, or the clacking as we crossed the long wooden bridge at Shoreham? Were they afraid I would come running back across all those miles?
I’d rather die in a ditch. They didn’t want me. That is reason enough for me to never again retrace that frightful journey.
More importantly, coming here that day proved to be the best day of my life. Even so, despite these five wonderful years in Miss Stranje’s school, I still have not dared to tell her the extent of my . . .
What shall I call it—this troubling ability?
No, that is not it by a long shot.
Perhaps. I suppose it is possible the Creator formed my eyes with the ability to see beyond what others consider normal. After all, some people do see in the dark better than others. How many of them, I wonder, see the less corporal creatures who roam in the dark?
Or in the light.
It is one thing to observe and remember too many details, even inconsequential seemingly trifling details. It is quite another to notice things that ordinary people cannot see at all, even if they are looking straight at it.
The difficulty arises in trying to distinguish which elements are perfectly normal, and which ones are unusual or disturbing to people.
I cannot always tell.
Thus, it requires a great deal of sorting out solid facts from those that are not so solid.
We absolutely must have Lady Daneska’s help in our search for the kidnapped Prince. She is the only one who has even an inkling about where Napoleon and Ghost might have hidden England’s Prince Regent. Any moment we will be plunged even deeper into this hopeless war if she does not wake up and help us find him. Yet, I dare not mention to anyone all of the things I observe about Lady Daneska. I can only relate the aspects for which I can provide tangible proof.
If only I could rouse her out of this feverish struggle and the relentless storm of conscience clashing inside her head and heart.
As if she senses my impatience and frustration, Lady Daneska stirs. The air around her ceases its frenzied roiling, and the colors dissipate. Gradually, her breathing slows to a calm steady pace. Almost peaceful. I scoot closer, watching, hoping.
Her eyelashes flutter, blinking against the late morning sun as it slices through gaps in the curtain. She coughs and squints at me. “Mouse?” Her voice, usually falsetto and treacly, grates out low and whispery weak.
“Yes, it’s me, Seraphina. Here. Try to drink some of this water.” I raise her head and press a pewter mug to her lips.
She accepts a trickle of moisture, groans and turns away. “Souris Blanche.” She says with a tone of weary irritation.
Souris Blanche. White mouse.
It is a good sign that she feels well enough to belittle me. “Yes, it is I, your beloved white mouse.” I don’t bother to repress the sharpness in my tone as I set the glass down and plant my hands on my hips, wondering if, given her current condition, she even hears me.
Aah! There it is, a familiar flash of hatred. She heard, and even though she has been four days in a feverish stupor, she finds the strength to summon her hot dislike of me. Good. That is some improvement at least.
I wipe sweat from her brow and tuck the coverlet back up around her shoulders. She moans and struggles against the bedclothes. We ought not to have traveled from Brighton with her in this condition, but we had no choice. None of us, not even Lady Daneska, could risk remaining there, not with Ghost in the vicinity. He and his men would stop at nothing, not even the Brighton Palace walls, to wreak their vengeance.
Daneska bats at my hand as I smooth her golden hair back from her forehead. “Where’s Tess?” Her demand shows more lucidity than she has displayed in days. “Why isn’t she here?”
I press my palm against her forehead. Her fever is down, but only slightly. “She sat vigil at your bedside all night. Tess will come back as soon as she’s rested.”
Her eyelids flutter open, long enough for her to squint irritably at me, not that her annoyance wasn’t already evident, and slithering around her like a poisonous fog. She has always hated me. She used to badger me relentlessly when she was a student here at Stranje House. La petit souris. The little white mouse who wouldn’t die, she used to call me. She has always mistaken my quietness for timidity.
Poor Daneska. She views everyone in the world as either predator or prey. She has no use for prey—other than to bend them to her will. Perhaps someday I will remove my cloak and show her my true self. What would she do then, I wonder?
“Go away,” she grumbles, and sinks against the pillow as if falling back asleep. Except I know better. Her eyes may be closed, but her ire simmers with scalding heat—a kettle ready to boil over. Finally, she grits her teeth and grumbles, “Send someone else.”
“Oh? Would you prefer Miss Fitzwilliam’s company?” She detests Georgie even more than she does me. I intend to rile her, to provoke her out of this endless drowsiness. We need answers.
Lady Daneska responds with several unladylike syllables in her Slavic tongue.
“Hhmm, I see. So, not Georgie, eh?” I pretend to be dismayed. “That must mean you want Maya to come and sit with you.”
In a burst of fiery rage her eye lids blink open. She shifts her hand beneath the blankets. I’m certain she is instinctively reaching for the dagger that is usually strapped to her thigh, her favorite of the five blades we removed from her days ago.
Anger achieves what constant care could not—it awakens her to full consciousness.
Except Daneska buries her rage and turns sly. Her deceptiveness turns into a shadowy cloak, dimming what little light shown within her. Her lips writhe as she hisses with a scratchy throat, “Yes, do send in our dear sweet Miss Barrington. I should like to thank her for her betrayal.” The air around her surges with claret-colored venom.
Annoyed with her malice and duplicity, I exhale my exasperation. “Your spite is pointless, Daneska. It will not help you heal.”
“Spite?!” she tosses the word at me. “I feel nothing so paltry as spite.”
At least that much is the truth. Her hatred spins around her like a thorny cocoon. Does she not see the suffocating nature of it? The way its vaporous strands dig into her flesh? She flinches and groans as if its nauseating grip is squeezing the life out of her.
“Daneska! For pity’s sake. Fight this fever, not us. We are not your enemy.”
She mumbles something unintelligible.
I need to get her talking again. There’s a chance she might inadvertently give us a clue about where they’re hiding Prince George. “Drink.” I offer her the mug of water again. “You must be thirsty.” I raise her head and hold it to her lips. She takes a feeble sip and flops back down. I set the cup on the night table and rest my fingers on the pewter handle. “You know,” I begin carefully. “You asked the impossible of Maya. Surely you knew she would never betray those she holds dear?”
“Who did she love so dearly? You?” She asks this as if I am next to nothing. “The others?” She manages a smirk before closing her eyes.
“Yes. Me. Georgie. Lady Jane. Miss Stranje. All of us.” I lift my chin. “And Lord Kinsworth—don’t forget him.”
She says nothing.
“This is her father’s homeland.” Still no rise from her, so I press on. “And hers now, too.”
I wait, hope fading. Daneska’s eyes remain shuttered and she lays there motionless.
“Maya is loyal,” I add, and then decide badgering might be a better approach. “You knew that. Did you truly expect her to go against her own character?”
Lady Daneska moves her lips slowly. “We had an agreement.” She grinds out each syllable. “A trade. She was to give us what we wanted in exchange for . . .” Daneska groans and shifts her head against the pillow as if it is uncomfortable. “Maya wanted to go home to India. Napoleon wants England. It should have worked.” Her words drift out quieter and quieter, as if her strength is diminishing—spent on useless anger.
The clock on the night table ticks loudly, keeping time with her shallow breathing.
“It should have worked!” she blurts hoarsely. Her perfect brow pinches, and I notice her fingers curl into a fist.
“But it didn’t,” I whisper.
There is a soft mew from her, much like the sound of a lost kitten. She is losing consciousness again.
I shake her shoulders. “Wake up. Where have they taken Prince George?”
I gently unwind her curled fingers, knowing there will be not be an answer. Not now. Perhaps, not for days. I stroke her milky white hand until it relaxes. I hurt for Lady Daneska. It’s true she is hateful and vicious. And I remember all too well the way she flaunted her success in London and at Brighton Palace. There was a time, when on the outside it seemed as if her cunning and cleverness had earned her everything she wanted—position and power. She was Napoleon’s darling spy, paramour to Ghost–the leader of the Iron Crown, as well as an intimate friend to the Prince of England. Yet inside, Daneska has always been restless and twisted. Not one corner of her soul is at peace.
How can I not feel sorry for her?
Lady Jane glides quietly into the room. I feel her presence long before I hear her speak. Jane is completely unaware of the warmth and grace she radiates. “I thought I heard voices,” she asks. “Is she awake?”
“She was, but she’s drifted off again.”
“Did she say anything of value?”
It is all I can do not to laugh. Jane evaluates all things in the context of their usefulness in life’s stratagems. For her, life is a chess game to be played. I like Lady Jane, she’s safe and reliable. Around her the air is clear and fresh, like a blue-sky day.
I shake my head. “Not unless you think it is of value to know she still wants to kill Maya. Or that she’d happily slit my throat at the slightest provocation.”
Lady Jane chuckles lightly. “I see. So, nothing has changed. I had foolishly hoped she might wake up feeling grateful that we had rescued her, remorseful for her treachery, ready to tell us all of the Iron Crown’s secrets.”
“Sorry? Lady Daneska? You knew better.”
“I suppose.” Jane sighs. “Perhaps we can trick her into divulging something. She must have some idea where they’re holding Prince George. He would’ve told her some of his plans.”
Master of the Iron Crown.
I cringe at the thought of Napoleon’s cutthroat secret society. I cannot scrub away the memory of Ghost brutally cutting his own spy’s throat. The man failed his assignment to track Maya and me in Brighton, instead we followed him and stumbled upon Ghost’s whereabouts. As punishment Ghost murdered his spy. He knew we were watching—he may have even killed him because we were watching. I shiver, unable to forget how the whirling blackness around him sucks away all the air.
“How can she love such a man?” I ask under my breath.
Lady Jane lowers her voice to barely a whisper. “Back when he was Lord of Ravencross, Ghost wasn’t always so . . .” She hesitates. Maybe she’s remembering when he held her hostage and how he wounded her—giving her a scar she will carry all of her life. She shakes off the memory. “He wasn’t always so vicious. He got worse. The Napoleonic wars were traumatic for many soldiers.”
“After what he did to you? How can you defend him?”
She shrugs. “I’m not. It’s just that there’s something very sad about him. Perhaps the war turned his heart. That’s all.”
I bristle. “Thousands upon thousands of men went through those wars. They didn’t all come back vengeful killers.”
Though we are speaking in hushed voices, Lady Daneska mutters as if joining our conversation, “His father …” She trails off, her ordinarily smooth brow rumples up in what appears to be a grimace of consternation, or perhaps it is pain. “…vile.”
We’d heard rumors about Gabriel and Ghost’s father, how forbidding and ruthless the old Lord Ravencross had been. “But Gabriel didn’t grow up to be a vicious traitor.”
Jane pursed her lips for a moment. “He struggles against a hard heart. Tess has told me as much. Some wounds are…” Jane takes an inordinate interest in straightening the coverlet on Daneska’s bed. “Some wounds cut very deep.” She sighs.
I study the floor boards in the shadows against the wall like the ones in my attic. “Soul deep.”
Lady Jane and I fall silent. Both of us are deeply familiar with how our mothers may devastate us, and yet fathers seem to hold the power of heaven or hell in their hands. For good or evil, they alter our lives irrevocably.
I glance over and notice Daneska’s cheeks have brightened into red triangles. Quickly pressing my palm against her forehead, I grimace. “Her fever is rising again.”
“Blast!” Jane rushes to my side. “She better come out of it soon, or we’re done for. It won’t be long before Parliament will be screaming for war. Lord Castlereagh sends a runner every day asking for an update on her condition.” Lady Jane purses her lips. “We’ll need to administer more of Madame Cho’s fever tincture.”
I retrieve the bottle, but Jane takes it from me. “I’ll do this. Miss Stranje sent me to relieve you. She asks if you would stop by her study. Apparently, there is a matter of some importance she wishes to discuss with you.”
“With me? You’re the one who discusses strategy with her.”
Jane sniffs, and I see pride whistling up her neck like a pink wind, but she brushes it away and smiles serenely. “We all discuss matters of strategy. You know that. I don’t know what she wishes to confer with you about, although I did see a runner bring her papers or a letter early this morning.”
I cannot keep from frowning. I never get letters. “It can’t have been for me.”
She shrugs. “I’ve no idea. He met with her in her office and left directly after.”
Except Lady Jane is not telling the truth right now. Her countenance darkens and she refuses to look in my direction, and I note the telltale twitch at the corner of her left eye. “You have some idea. You just don’t want to say.”
She glares at me, a typical Lady Jane scolding glare. “You do realize there are times, when it is better not to always know when a person is lying.”
“And you know perfectly well that I can’t help it. So, you may as well tell me.”
“No.” She crosses her arms. “I would just be speculating.”
At least she’s telling the truth now. “Speculating about what?”
“Nothing.” She waves her hand, trying to dismiss me, but I stand and wait.
“Oh, very well.” She huffs at me. “The messenger looked as if he’d come from a long way away, that’s all. Not from London. The London runners have a look about them, and they tend to arrive at regular intervals. This fellow…looked different. More like one of her spies bringing her a report rather than a simple courier.”
“What do you think it means?”
She shrugged. “Go and ask her yourself. I’d only be guessing.”
“But you are ever so good at guessing.”
And I do not like surprises.
“Truly, I do not know. No, Sera, don’t look at me like that.” She grumbles loudly. “Oh very well, since you are being obstinate about it, I wondered if it might possibly pertain to something about Mr. Chadwick.”
At the thought of Quentin Chadwick, my insides tighten and breath catches in my throat.
Lady Jane pokes my shoulder. “Ha! You turned pink at the mere mention of his name. I’ve never seen anyone blush so quickly.”
Lady Daneska moans.
“Go,” Lady Jane orders. “I have to give Daneska this smelly medicine before the fever cooks whatever is left of her brain.”
I pause at the door. “You needn’t worry about that. Her brain is still intact and as warped as ever. Watch out that she doesn’t grab the spoon and try to stab you with it.”
News Travels Slowly
Lady Jane laughs as I make my way down the hall, but my steps slow as I near Miss Stranje’s office. I run my fingers along the oak paneling as if searching for something. A queasy feeling troubles my stomach.
Something is wrong.
Her door is slightly ajar. I push it open, and she stands to greet me. “Sera.”
That means bad news.
She wouldn’t have stood otherwise. Also, there is that worried expression she’s trying to hide. I love our headmistress’s features—they hide nothing. Not really. Oh, she tries. Like now, she is pressing down trouble. Miss Stranje can appear as stern and forbidding as a metal-nosed plague doctor, but her soul is as golden and bright as the morning sun.
Our first meeting is etched indelibly in my mind, and framed with halos.
I heard her first.
My mother and our footman had dragged me into Stranje House still wearing a sack over my head and prodded me up the stairs. We entered Miss Stranje’s office. My mother murmured in my ear, “Keep quiet.” I could smell books; musty ones, new ones, many books. Her skirts rustled when she approached me. I stood as still and straight as I could manage.
Miss Stranje issued an icy command, not loud, not harsh, not even scolding. Yet, no one could possibly ignore it. Hers was a low wintery tone that froze me to the bone. “Remove the hood from your daughter’s head.”
My mother gulped loud enough that I heard it despite my heart thundering and that wretched flour sack hindering my ears.
The next words Miss Stranje spoke sent my stomach plummeting to the floor. “Let us see what sort of trouble you are foisting upon me.”
The footman yanked off the hood.
I stood in this very office, shaking so hard I was afraid I might wet myself until my vision cleared and I saw her. One look, and I knew all that black bombazine she wore was a disguise. She smelled of rose scented soap. I liked that it wasn’t lavender. Lavender smells so elderly and musty. Beak-nosed and hawk-eyed, she stared at me for several minutes without saying a word.
I fancied she was actually giving me time to study her. The longer she stared, the more certain I became.
Meanwhile, my mother, uncomfortable in the heavy silence, hemmed and hawed. She began promising more money if Miss Stranje would only agree to reform me and eventually change me into a marriageable young lady. “It need not be a peer who takes her,” she said. “A merchant would do. A farmer, perhaps. Or a soldier. After all, she isn’t a bad-looking child. Oh, she’s a trifle pale with all that white hair, and perhaps a bit thin, but she’s only eleven. She might yet fill out. One can hope.”
In the face of Miss Stranje’s wordless scrutiny, Mamma resorted to begging. Surely someone of Miss Stranje’s reputation could make something of me. Mamma suggested keeping me under lock and key if need be—take whatever measures are necessary. She babbled on about how if the school’s staff were instructed not to engage me in conversation and to ignore anything I might say about ghosts or invisible beings, all would be well.
Mamma’s agitations finally drew a response from Miss Stranje. The headmistress held up one finger to shush her.
My mother’s lips clamped together, but then she began muttering under her breath. “Look here—I am a lady of standing, highborn. My uncle is a peer of the realm. You cannot shush me.”
Miss Stranje ignored her and leaned closer to me until we were nearly nose to nose. Then, in a voice I’m quite certain not even my mother could hear, she asked, “Do you trust me, Seraphina Wyndham?”
She knew the answer long before I gave her a slight nod.
“Very well.” She straightened and whirled upon my mother. “I will show you to our discipline chamber now.”
I thought Mamma might burst into tears of relief. “This–this means you will take her?”
“Possibly.” Miss Stranje heaved in a weary sigh as if my presence constituted an enormous burden that she was only reluctantly considering. “The last sum you mentioned might entice me to try. I make no guarantees. Additionally, as stipulated in my letters, you must approve of my methods first and then sign these documents relinquishing her care to me.” She pointed to a thick stack of papers.
“Yes, yes, of course.” My mother’s face widened with relief. She took one mincing step forward. “Lead the way to your discipline chamber. Although, I must confess, a friend explained all this to me prior to my writing to you about Seraphina’s, um, her…uh…predisposition. I am well aware that ofttimes drastic measures must be taken in such cases. You needn’t show me to your, um, discipline room.” She retracted her step. “I’m willing to sign any—”
“This way to the chamber.” Miss Stranje opened the door. “If you are unwilling to familiarize yourself with my methods, you may take your daughter and return home now.”
Mamma promptly scurried through the door. I am ashamed to admit she did not balk at the torture devices she witnessed in Miss Stranje’s notorious chamber. Instead, she pursed her lips at the pitiful cries of “Have mercy!” coming from what appeared to be an iron mummy case. That was the first time I heard Tess’s voice.
Mamma turned to Miss Stranje and brusquely stated, “If this is what it takes to make her normal, then so be it.”
And that was that.
To say I have never looked back would be a lie. Yet, I will forever be grateful to Miss Stranje for taking me in, and instead of being afraid of my peculiarities, she taught me how to embrace and use them. At least, the peculiarities I allowed her to know about.
“Come in.” Miss Stranje waves me forward, breaking the spell of those memories. “How is our patient?”
“Her fever went up just now, but overall she seems to be growing stronger. She had a brief period of wakefulness a few minutes ago. But I’m sorry to say, Lady Daneska appears as hateful and contrary as ever.” I stand at attention in front of Miss Stranje’s desk as she taps her forefinger thoughtfully against the edge of some papers. “Lady Jane said you wished to speak with me.”
“Yes, I do. Have a seat, please.” She is being too solicitous. When she goes so far as to shut the door, my warning bells jangle even louder.
I take a deep breath. “What’s wrong?”
Instead of returning to her customary place behind the desk, she chooses to sit in the small Queen Anne chair beside me and clamps her lips into a thin line. I’m quite certain she is unaware of the radiance that surrounds her, but today something presses it down closer to earth. “For some time now…” she begins but stops, staring at me with the same earnestness I saw the first day we met. “Sera, I’m afraid I have some disturbing news.”
“I can tell.”
“Yes, I suppose you can.” She glances away as if the wall of books behind me has caught her attention.
“Please just tell me who in my family died.”
Her attention snaps back, brows lifted. “That’s not it.”
How very curious.
“No?” I cock my head to the side. “What is it then?”
“Well… you see, for some time now,” she launches back into what must be a prepared speech. “Your parents have not sent your quarterly tuition.”
“They stopped paying you? Why?” I draw back. “When? For how long?”
“Three quarters,” she says quietly. “The funds ceased without explanation. Last week, fearing the worst, I sent one of my men to investigate.” She reaches out as if she intends to take my hand but does not. Instead, she stands abruptly and begins pacing.
Her uncustomary agitation unsettles me so much that I must retreat into my cave of reason, safe from her spiking emotions. I cautiously word my next question. “You sent someone to see what had happened. And what did he learn?”
Her shoe catches on the small rug, and her step falters. It is not in her nature to stumble.
I brace myself for the worst. “Someone must’ve died.”
Her shoulders sink, and she shakes her head slowly. “No one died.”
Banishing whatever grieved her, she squares her shoulders, dons her stern impenetrable mask, and looks directly at me. “There is no easy way to say this, Sera. Your family has sold their estate.”
“Sold it?” I blink. That makes no sense. “Why? What—”
She raises her palm to stave off my questions. “My man talked with farmers and tenants on the neighboring estates. He traced your family to Dover. I am sorry to say he found that your family booked passage and set sail for The Americas several months ago. Apparently with no intention of returning.”
It as if the world suddenly tips sideways. “What?” I squint at her. “Surely, not. It can’t be. They would have sent word—to you at least.” I shake off the tilting world. “No. No, there must be some mistake. Your man went to the wrong estate. He must have.”
Her lips tighten again. She sits and grasps both of my hands. “Their behavior is incomprehensible to me, as well. But Mr. Digby is a reliable fellow. His investigative skills are first-rate. He checked with the harbormaster, and the ship’s manifest listed your family as passengers bound for New Bedford.”
I stare at her fingers clasped around mine, and I pull away.
They’ve left me.
To fend for myself. Alone.
She continues explaining as if offering me more details might somehow soothe me. “Their ship, Gilead’s Gull, left port at the end of March. The crossing was fairly smooth. Although they encountered a squall shortly before entering Buzzard’s Bay, they made it through with only a broken mizzen mast. Gilead’s Gull left her passengers in Massachusetts and returned safely to Dover last month. Mr. Digby went so far as to locate the captain, who recollected that your father, mother, and entire family disembarked in sound health. Where they were bound after landing in New Bedford, he had no notion.”
Where they go next doesn’t matter.
Least of all, me.
My head throbs. Blood pulses in my temple, thumping and banging like a relentless funeral drum. The room blurs at the edges, and if she were not hanging onto me, I think I might disappear altogether. Vanish, like an unwanted vapor.
She is talking.
Her lips are moving, but I cannot make sense of it. I strain to hear her over the pounding in my head.
“…despicable behavior. Beyond the pale.” Her hands clench mine tighter. “You have a phenomenal mind, Sera. Phenomenal! Do you hear me? You have a memory unlike any I’ve ever seen. And your uncanny perceptive abilities are nothing short of miraculous. I cannot fathom how your family failed to see that.”
Does it matter?
They’re rid of me now. Forever.
Aside from that, I learned the answer to that question long ago. Why did they lock me away? They were afraid. I force my lips to move. “Fear.”
And if you knew the truth, you would be afraid, too.
I cannot bear to look at her.
How can I?
So, I fix my eyes on her hands, watching her fingers curl tight and then uncurl only to tighten again. Her office suddenly feels unbearably cold as if winter has come early and robbed the room of all warmth. I shiver and, through quivering lips, ask, “Are you going to throw me out?”
It is a perfectly reasonable question given the fact that there will be no more money for my upkeep. Miss Stranje’s mouth opens as if I’ve shocked her. Then she frowns, and her golden light flares to almost white. “Heavens no! Certainly not!”
I would not have thought my mother would throw me away, either.
But she did.
Nothing is certain in life.
The room closes in on me in a thick unexplainable fog. I fight a foolish urge to collapse against Miss Stranje’s chest and sob. Except that would be wrong and weak. I am alone in the world now. I cannot afford weakness.
I must not become the white mouse Daneska thinks I am.
My chest heaves up and down, as if I am the steam engine on Alexander’s warship. I stand abruptly and the chair nearly topples, but Miss Stranje catches it. I must get out of here.
I cannot look at her. Pity will be in her eyes. It will break me.
“Sera,” she calls to my back. “Your family may yet send a letter. You know that mail takes a very long time crossing the Atlantic. Do not give up hope.”
There is no hope. Summoning words nearly gags me. They bump out of my throat in broken pieces. “They won’t write.”
I cross the threshold into the hall, one foot thumping in front of the other. She is behind me. Please don’t follow me, I pray silently. Her footsteps slow, letting me escape.
Good. I scurry down the staircase.
I must get out of the house. I cannot think with these walls closing in on me.