It is brilliantly done … I have never read another book quite like it. –Book Briefs
“Baldwin doesn’t disappoint and had me fist pumping and in tears at the same time” –Suzanne Ferrell, USA Today bestselling author
Don’t miss Sanctuary for Seers–the exciting conclusion of this bestselling series!
What if you’d been born two centuries ago in a dangerously superstitious time… with the ability to see spiritual and emotional realms?
Sera’s nervous family banishes her to Stranje House, a reform school for unusual girls. Unbeknownst to their parents, these young ladies, who each possess remarkable talents, are being trained to enter the perilous world of espionage, diplomacy, and war. Sera relishes the sisterhood she finds among the other outcast girls, but she dares not reveal her more peculiar gifts.
Conquering Europe wasn’t enough. Now Napoleon wants Britain.
He and his band of assassins and spies, the Iron Crown Brother, led by the ruthless man known as Ghost, have abducted the Prince Regent. With Britain teetering on ruin, the young ladies of Stranje House must risk their lives to join the desperate hunt to find the Prince before it’s too late. Sera’s secret gifts are desperately needed to help avert disaster. Will she risk it?
Amid the chaos, Sera discovers the only person who truly understands her is the one man they all fear the most. The man set on destroying England.
Can she save England and her heart… from Ghost?
“An outstanding alternative history series entry and a must-have for teen libraries.” —Junior Library Guild on Refuge for MastermindsClick here for cover puzzle
August 1814, Stranje House on the Southern Coast of England
Lady Daneska lies on the bed in a feverish struggle. Infection stemming from a gunshot wound holds her in delirium, and she thrashes as if she’s fighting her way through an overgrown maze. I sit beside her, watching discordant colors engulf her in a swirling cloud of turmoil—dark raging against dark. It is rare to see anyone as convoluted as Lady Daneska. It has been days now, and I’m not sure she’ll survive. At times, the infection worsens and putrid green vapors snake around her, strangling her in their noxious coils.
That is not all that lingers around her. If anyone knew all that I see, they would lock me in an attic again.
And never let me out.
Telling the truth about such things upsets people, and it makes them exceedingly wary. Even one’s own mother. It wasn’t until much later, after being locked in the attic a number of times, 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. It’s true that mice snuck about in the shadows, the windows creaked at night, and the roof moaned in the wind. And after a week or so, the diet of bread and water did become a trifle monotonous. Even so, I found dozens of old books to read and numerous trunks to explore. Eventually, I even devised a way to sketch on the backs of old papers using pieces of moldy wood.
I admit it terrified me the day they came and thrust a sack over my head. Certain they intended to throw me in the river as they’d threatened, I clawed at the bag and screamed until I was breathless. One of the footmen flung me over his shoulder and tossed me into our carriage. “Hush,” my mother ordered. Quaking, I quieted my muffled sobs and begged her not to drown me. “Not another word,” she snapped. “Or I will stop at the bridge. Count yourself fortunate that I’m taking you to a reform school instead.”
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 wooden wheels over 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?
They didn’t want me.
That is reason enough for me to never retrace that frightful journey.
More importantly, the day they brought me here to Stranje House proved to be the best day of my life. Even so, despite six wonderful years under Miss Stranje’s kind-hearted tutelage, I remain cautious. I have not dared to tell even her the extent of my…
What shall I call it—this troubling ability?
No, that is not it by half.
I suppose it is conceivable that I was born 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 more ethereal beings who roam in the dark?
Or even those who walk in the light.
It is one thing to observe and remember too many details, to recall details that are inconsequential and seemingly trifling to you but quite upsetting to your family. Details such as your grandfather’s face, even though he died when you were only two. It is even more upsetting to them if you notice things that ordinary people cannot see at all, even if they are looking straight at them. The difficulty arises in distinguishing which elements are perfectly normal, and which ones seem unusual or disturbing to other people.
I cannot always tell.
And I cannot risk being locked away in some cellar or attic for good, or worse, hauled off to Bedlam. That is what people do with those deemed insane. Thus, it requires a great deal of sorting out the solid facts from those that are not so solid.
For instance, now.
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. Britain 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 the things I observe hanging about Lady Daneska, nor the inner battle she is fighting. I can only relate those aspects for which I can provide some sort of tangible proof.
There must be something I can do to yank her out of the muddy torment sucking her under. I reach for her hand atop the coverlet. As if she senses my touch, Lady Daneska stirs. The sickly green cloud around her ceases its frenzied roiling and dissipates somewhat.
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, tugs her hand away, and squints at me. “Mouse?” Her voice, which is usually falsetto and treacly, grates out in a low, weak whisper.
“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 sparking around her. 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. We could not risk remaining there. If Ghost decided to return for her not even the walls of the Brighton Pavilion would stop him.
Daneska bats at my hand as I smooth back sweat-tarnished strands of her normally golden hair. “Where’s Tess?” she demands, showing more lucidity than she has displayed in days. “Why isn’t she here?”
“She sat vigil at your bedside all night.” I press my palm against Daneska’s forehead. Her fever is down but only slightly. “She’ll likely be back as soon as she’s rested.”
Her eyelids flutter open, long enough for her to glance irritably at me, not that her annoyance wasn’t already evident, wafting 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 petite souris, she used to call me. The little white mouse who wouldn’t die. She has always mistaken my quietness for fear.
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.
“Go away,” she murmurs 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 croaks at me, “Send me someone else.”
I intend to rile her, to provoke her out of this endless drowsiness. We need answers. “Very well. Would you prefer Miss Fitzwilliam’s company?” I say this, knowing full well she detests Georgiana even more than she does me.
Lady Daneska responds with several unladylike syllables in her Prussian tongue.
“Hmm, I see. So, not Georgie.” I pretend to be dismayed. “That must mean you would like Maya to come and sit with you.”
In a burst of fiery rage, her eyelids 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 curtain, dimming what little light had shown within her. Her lips writhe as she hisses with a scratchy throat, “Yes, do send in dear sweet Miss Barrington. I would like to thank her for her betrayal.” The air around her surges with wine-colored venom.
Weary of her malice and duplicity, I exhale my exasperation. “Your spite is pointless, Lady 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 sends sticky strands spinning around her like a spider trapping a fly. Does she not see the suffocating nature of it? 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 enemies.”
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 the mug 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 ought not be so angry with Maya. You asked the impossible of her. 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 to smirk before closing her eyes.
“Yes, me. Tess. 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, there is no rise from Daneska, so I press on. “And now it is hers, too.”
I wait, with hope drifting away. Daneska’s eyes remain shuttered, and she lies there motionless.
“Maya is loyal,” I add, and then decide badgering her 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. “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. A trade. It should have worked.” Her words murmur quieter and quieter, as if her strength is fading—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.
“Except 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? Tell me.”
I gently unwind her curled fingers, knowing there will not be an answer. Not now. Perhaps not for days. I stroke her pale hand until it relaxes. I cannot help but pity 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 in Brighton. There was a time when it seemed as if her cunning and cleverness had earned her everything she wanted—position, wealth, and power. She was Emperor Napoleon’s darling, his pet spy, and paramour to Ghost who rules over the powerful Iron Crown, yet she also maintained an intimate friendship with the Prince of England. Sadly though, I have always sensed a twisted and profound restlessness within Daneska. 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 saved her life, remorseful for her treachery, and eager to tell us all the Iron Crown’s secrets.”
“It’s, 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 in his assignment to track Maya and me in Brighton. Instead, we followed him and stumbled upon Ghost’s whereabouts. As punishment, Ghost slashed his spy’s throat. He knew we were watching—he may have even killed him because we were watching. I shiver, unable to forget the whirling blackness around him that seems to suck away every morsel of light or hope.
“How can she love such a man?” I ask under my breath.
Lady Jane lowers her voice to barely a whisper. “Years ago, when he was Lord Ravencross, before we mistakenly thought he was dead. Ghost wasn’t always so…” She hesitates. I wonder if she’s remembering when he held her hostage and how he sliced open her leg—leaving her with a scar she will carry all her life. She shakes off the memory. “He wasn’t always so vicious. He has gotten worse. The Napoleonic wars were traumatic for many soldiers.”
“After what he did to you? How can you defend him?”
“He could’ve killed me, but he didn’t.” 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 as back vengeful killers.”
Though we are speaking in hushed voices, Lady Daneska mumbles as if joining our conversation, “His father…” Her voice trails off and 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 harsh and brutal the old Lord Ravencross had been to his two sons. I shake my head, banishing thoughts of my own parents. “Even if their father was cruel to them, why did Ghost have to choose this path? Look at Gabriel, he 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 look away, studying the shadows as they move against the far wall like the ones in my old attic. “Soul deep.”
Lady Jane and I fall silent. Both of us are acutely aware of how mothers can 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 blotches. 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 to escalate the war—a war we are already losing dismally. 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.”
“We all discuss matters of strategy. You know that.” Jane sniffs, and I see pride whistling up her neck like a pink wind, but she brushes it away and smiles serenely. “I don’t know what she wishes to confer with you about. Although, I did see a man bringing her papers early this morning.”
“Papers?” I cannot keep from frowning. “They can’t have anything to do with 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 also 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. I’d only be guessing.”
“Except 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 sniffs 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.
“Ha! You turned pink at the mere mention of his name.” Lady Jane pokes my shoulder. “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.”
Plague Masks and Predispositions
Lady Jane laughs as I make my way down the hall. I, on the other hand, fight a queasy feeling rising in my stomach. My steps slow as I near Miss Stranje’s office, and I trace my fingers along the oak paneling as if cataloging each groove and imperfection.
Something feels wrong.
Her door stands slightly ajar. I push it open, and she stands to greet me. “Come in, Sera.”
That means bad news.
Also, she is doing her best to hide a worried expression. I love our headmistress’s features—they hide nothing. Not really. Oh, she tries. Like now, she is struggling to disguise some sort of worry. Miss Stranje can mask her features so that she looks as stern and forbidding as a black-hooded, metal-nosed, plague doctor. Despite her façade, the air around her usually glimmers as golden and bright as the morning sun.
Our first meeting, more than six years ago, is etched indelibly in my mind.
At first, I only heard her.
My mother and our footman dragged me into Stranje House that day and prodded me up the stairs with the sack still tied over my head. When we entered Miss Stranje’s office, Mother pinched my arm and hissed a warning in my ear, “Keep quiet.”
I smelled books. Musty ones, new ones, many books—I could tell because they dampened the sound in her office. Her skirts rustled when she approached us. I stood as still and straight as I could manage.
Miss Stranje issued a command, not loud, not harsh, not even scolding. Yet her low wintery tone froze me to the bone. No one could’ve ignored that icy directive. “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 my 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 hawkeyed, 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 promised more money if Miss Stranje would only agree to reform me and somehow change me into a marriageable young lady. “I’ve heard you have… uh… methods. Unconventional, perhaps, but you come highly recommended.”
Still, Miss Stranje said nothing.
“It needn’t be a peer who takes her,” my mother blathered on. “A merchant will do. A farmer, perhaps. Or even a soldier. After all, she isn’t a bad-looking child. Oh, I’ll admit she’s a trifle pale with all that white hair, and perhaps a bit thin, but she’s only just turned eleven. She may yet fill out. One can hope.”
In the face of Miss Stranje’s wordless scrutiny, my mother resorted to pleading. Surely someone of Miss Stranje’s reputation could make something of me, she argued. She suggested the headmistress might keep 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, as she so delicately stated, “to ignore anything I might say about, er, invisible beings, all would be well.”
My mother’s agitation finally drew a response from Miss Stranje. The headmistress held up one finger to shush her.
At that, Mamma’s lips clamped together abruptly. A second later, she began blustering irritably under her breath and finally blurted, “Look here—you cannot shush me. I am a lady of standing. My uncle is a peer of the realm.”
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 pulled back and whirled upon my mother. “I will show you to our discipline chamber now.”
I thought Mamma might burst into tears of relief. “Th-this means you will take her?”
“Possibly.” Miss Stranje heaved 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 attempt it. Mind you, I make no guarantees. Additionally, as stipulated in my letters, you must approve of my methods first, and 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 your methods to me prior to my writing to you about Seraphina’s… um, her… uh… predisposition. I understand that in cases such as hers, drastic measures must be taken. 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 comprehend the severity and risks of my ‘methods,’ you may take your daughter and return home.”
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 discipline chamber. Instead, she pursed her lips at the banging and pitiful cries of “Have mercy!” emanating from what appeared to be an iron mummy case. That hoax on my mother was the first time I heard Tess’s voice. I loved her Welsh lilt, and despite her ruse, the frankness escaping through the air holes in that iron sarcophagus.
Mamma turned to Miss Stranje and brusquely stated, “If this is what it takes to make her behave properly, then so be it.”
And that was that.
To say I have never looked back would be a lie. Doesn’t every child yearn for their mother, no matter how misplaced that affection may be? Even so, I will forever be grateful to Miss Stranje for taking me in. Instead of being afraid of my peculiarities, she taught me how to embrace and use them. At least, the peculiarities I allow her to know about. Some things are better kept to oneself. I cannot risk losing her, too.
“Come in.” Miss Stranje waves me forward, breaking the spell of those memories. “How is our patient?”
“Lady Daneska’s fever returned. Though, overall, she seems to be growing stronger. She had a brief period of wakefulness a few minutes ago. And…”
“You were able to speak with her?”
“Yes. A little.” I fidget with my skirt. “Sadly, 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.
I interrupt her tapping. “Lady Jane said you wished to speak with me.”
“Yes, I do.” She points to the chair. “Have a seat, please.” Miss Stranje 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. “Is something 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 on 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. “No one died.”
How very curious.
“No?” I cock my head to the side. “What is it then?”
“Well… you see, for some time now,” she launches into what must surely be a prepared speech. “Your parents have not sent your quarterly tuition. And—”
“Wait.” I interrupt. “They stopped paying you? Why?” I draw back. “When? For how long?”
“A year and a half,” she says quietly. “The funds ceased without explanation. It had been so long, and my letters ignored, that 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 paces on the worn rug beside her desk.
Her uncustomary agitation unsettles me so much that I retreat into my inner cave, 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 rug, and her step falters. It is not in her nature to stumble.
I brace myself for the worst. “Someone must have died.”
Her shoulders sink, and she shakes her head slowly. “No. That’s not it.”
Banishing whatever grieved her, she squares her shoulders, dons her stern plague 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?”
She raises her palm to stave off my questions. “My man talked with the farmers on neighboring estates. He traced your family to Dover. I am sorry to say, he learned that your family booked passage and set sail for The Americas several months ago. Apparently with no intention of returning.”
Suddenly my world 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 my 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. The man I sent—Mr. Clayborn—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, Massachusetts.”
I stare at her fingers clasped around mine and pull away.
It must be true, then. They’ve left me.
To fend for myself.
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 Buzzards 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. Clayborn went so far as to locate the captain, who recollected that your entire family disembarked in sound health. Where they were bound after landing in New Bedford, he had no notion.”
Where they went next doesn’t matter.
Least of all, me.
My head throbs. Blood pulses in my temple, thumping and banging like the relentless turning of a carriage wheel. The room blurs at the edges, and it feels as if 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 into fists. “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.
I learned the answer to her question long ago. Why did they send me away? It’s simple. 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 coming to pay 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.
Yet she did.
Nothing in life is certain.
What sort of freakish daughter am I that my own mother runs away from me without a word?
The room closes in on me. Weakness robs me of speech and leaves my lips quivering with shame. I fight a foolish urge to collapse against Miss Stranje’s chest and cry. To sob like a baby—a lost unwanted orphan. Embarrassment burns my cheeks. This weakness, this horrible sense that I might fade away into nothing is undoing me.
I must cling to the steadying world of facts and reason.
I grip the edge of the chair, dig my fingers into the cherrywood and take stock of reality. This is what I know. I am alone in the world now—a penniless waif. I cannot afford weakness.
I must not become the white mouse Lady Daneska thinks I am.
My chest heaves up and down, like the steam engine Georgie and Mr. Sinclair built. 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 will not write.”
I cross the threshold into the hall, one foot stumbling 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.