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Make her look pretty. But what did they care whether she looked pretty or not, when they could force her to look any way they wanted? What did it matter what her true appearance was? And why would the Magister care? Though, it was very clear from the Sisters’ behavior that they believed he would.
Mrs. Black swept from the room, her sister following behind her, as she always did. At the door Mrs. Dark paused, and looked back at Tessa. “Do remember, Theresa,” she said, “that this day—this very night—is what all of our preparation has been for.” She took hold of her skirts in both bony hands. “Do not fail us.”
She let the door bang shut behind her. Tessa flinched at the noise, but Miranda, as always, seemed utterly unaffected. In all the time that she had passed in the Dark House, Tessa had never been able to startle the other girl, or surprise an unguarded expression out of her.
“Come,” Miranda said. “We must go upstairs now.”
Tessa rose to her feet, slowly. Her mind was whirling. Her life in the Dark House had been horrible, but she had—she realized now—grown almost used to it. She had known what to expect each day. She had known the Dark Sisters were preparing her for something, but she had not known what that something was. She had believed—naively, perhaps—that they wouldn’t kill her. Why waste all this training on her if she was only going to die?
But something in Mrs. Dark’s gloating tone gave her pause. Something had changed. They had achieved what they wanted with her. They were going to be “paid.” But who was going to do the paying?
“Come,” Miranda said again. “We must get you ready for the Magister.”
“Miranda,” Tessa said. She spoke softly, the way she might have spoken to a nervous cat. Miranda had never answered a question of Tessa’s before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying. “Who is the Magister?”
There was a long silence. Miranda stared straight ahead, her doughy face impassive. Then, to Tessa’s surprise, she spoke. “The Magister is a very great man,” she said. “It will be an honor for you when you are married to him.”
“Married?” Tessa echoed. The shock was so intense that she could suddenly see the whole room more clearly—Miranda, the blood-splattered rug on the floor, the heavy brass globe on the desk, still tilted in the position Mrs. Black had left it in. “Me? But—who is he?”
“He is a very great man,” Miranda said again. “It will be an honor.” She moved toward Tessa. “You must come with me now.”
“No.” Tessa backed away from the other girl, retreating until the small of her back struck painfully against the desk. She looked around desperately. She could run, but she’d never get past Miranda to the door; there were no windows, no doors to other rooms. If she hid behind the desk, Miranda would simply drag her out and haul her to her room. “Miranda, please.”
“You must come with me now,” Miranda repeated; she had almost reached Tessa. Tessa could see herself reflected in the black pupils of the other girl’s eyes, could smell the faint, bitter, almost charred smell that clung to Miranda’s clothes and skin. “You must —”
With a strength she didn’t know she possessed, Tessa seized the base of the brass globe on the desk, lifted it, and swung it with all her might at Miranda’s head.
It connected with a sickening sound. Miranda reeled back—and then straightened. Tessa shrieked and dropped the globe, staring—the whole left side of Miranda’s face was crushed in, like a paper mask that had been smashed flat on one side. Her cheekbone was flattened, her lip mashed against her teeth. But there was no blood, no blood at all.
“You must come with me now,” Miranda said, in the same flat tone she always used.
“You must come—you m-must—you—you—you—yyyyyyyyyyyyy—” Miranda’s voice shuddered and broke, degenerating into a stream of gibberish. She moved toward Tessa, then jerked to the side, twitching and stumbling. Tessa turned from the desk and began to back away as the injured girl spun, faster and faster. She reeled across the room like a staggering drunk, still shrieking, and crashed into the far wall—which seemed to stun her. She collapsed to the ground and lay still.
Tessa raced to the door and out into the corridor beyond, pausing only once, just outside the room, to look back. It seemed, in that brief moment, as if a thread of black smoke were rising from Miranda’s prone body, but there was no time to stare. Tessa darted down the hall, leaving the door hanging open behind her.
She dashed for the stairs and hurtled up them, nearly tripping over her skirts and banging her knee painfully on one of the steps. She cried out and scrambled on, up to the first landing, where she dashed into the corridor. It stretched out ahead of her, long and curving, disappearing into shadows. As she raced down it, she saw that it was lined with doors. She paused and tried one, but it was locked, and so was the next one, and the next after that.
Another set of stairs led down at the end of the hallway. Tessa raced down them and found herself in an entryway. It looked as if it had once been grand—the floor was cracked and stained marble, and high windows on either side were shielded with curtains. A little bit of light spilled through the lace, illuminating an enormous front door. Tessa’s heart leaped. She dived for the knob, seized it, and flung the door open.
There was a narrow cobblestoned street beyond, with rows of terraced houses lining either side. The smell of the city hit Tessa like a blow—it had been so long since she’d breathed outside air. It was close to dark, the sky the dimming blue of twilight, obscured by smudges of fog. In the distance she could hear voices, the cries of children playing, the clop of horses’ hooves. But here the street was nearly deserted, save for a man leaning against a nearby gas lamp, reading a newspaper by its light.
Tessa dashed down the steps and toward the stranger, catching him by the sleeve. “Please, sir—if you could help me—”
He turned, and looked down at her.
Tessa stifled a scream. His face was as white and waxy as it had been the first time she’d seen him, at the dock in Southampton; his bulging eyes still reminded her of Miranda’s, and his teeth gleamed like metal when he grinned.
It was the Dark Sisters’ coachman.
Tessa turned to run, but it was already too late.
HELL IS COLD
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
’Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be!
—Lord Byron, Don Juan
“You stupid little girl,” Mrs. Black spat as she jerked tight the knots holding Tessa’s wrists to her bed frame. “What did you think you were going to accomplish, running away like that? Where did you think you could possibly go?”
Tessa said nothing, simply set her chin and looked toward the wall. She refused to let Mrs. Black, or her horrible sister, see how close she was to tears, or how much the ropes binding her ankles and wrists to the bed hurt.
“She is entirely insensible of the honor being done to her,” said Mrs. Dark, who was standing by the door as if to make sure Tessa didn’t rip free of her bonds and rush out through it. “It is disgusting to behold.”
“We have done what we can for her to make her ready for the Magister,” Mrs. Black said, and sighed. “A pity we had such dull clay to work with, despite her talent. She is a deceitful little fool.”
“Indeed,” agreed her sister. “She does realize, doesn’t she, what will happen to her brother if she tries to disobey us again? We might be willing to be lenient this time, but the next …” She hissed through her teeth, a sound that made the hairs rise up on the back of Tessa’s neck. “Nathaniel will not be so fortunate.”
Tessa couldn’t stand it anymore; even knowing she shouldn’t speak, shouldn’t give them the satisfaction, she couldn’t hold the words back. “If you told me who the Magister was, or what he wants with me—”
“He wants to marry you, you little fool.” Mrs. Black, finished with the knots, stepped back to admire her handiwork. “He wants to give you everything.”
“But why?” Tessa whispered. “Why me?”
“Because of your talent,” Mrs. Dark said. “Because of what you are and what you can do. What we trained you to do. You should be grateful to us.”
“But my brother.” Tears burned behind Tessa’s eyes. I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry, she told herself. “You told me that if I did everything you said, you’d let him go—”
“Once you marry the Magister, he’ll give you whatever you want. If that’s your brother, he’ll give it to you.” There was no remorse or emotion in Mrs. Black’s voice.
Mrs. Dark chuckled. “I know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking that if she could have whatever she wanted, she’d have us killed.”
“Don’t waste your energy even imagining the possibility.” Mrs. Black chucked Tessa under the chin. “We have an ironclad contract with the Magister. He can never harm us, nor would he want to. He owes us everything, for giving him you.” She leaned in closer, dropping her voice to a whisper. “He wants you healthy and intact. If he didn’t, I’d have you beaten bloody. If you dare disobey us again, I’ll defy his wishes and have you whipped until your skin peels off. Do you understand?”
Tessa turned her face to the wall.
There had been a night on the Main, as they’d passed Newfoundland, when Tessa had not been able to sleep. She had gone out on the deck to get a breath of air, and had seen the night sea ablaze with white glittering mountains—icebergs, one of the sailors had told her as he’d passed, broken loose from the ice sheets of the north by the warmer weather. They had drifted slowly on the dark water, like the towers of a drowned white city. Tessa had thought that she’d never seen such a lonely sight.
She had only begun to imagine loneliness, she knew now. Once the Sisters left, Tessa discovered, she no longer felt like she wanted to cry. The pressure at the backs of her eyes was gone, replaced by a dull feeling of hollow despair. Mrs. Dark had been right. If Tessa could have killed them both, she would have.
She pulled experimentally at the ropes tying her legs and arms to the bedposts. They didn’t budge. The knots were tight; tight enough to dig into her flesh and make her hands and feet tingle and shiver with pins and needles. She had a few minutes, she estimated, before her extremities went dead entirely.
Part of her—and not a small part—wanted to stop struggling, to lie there limply until the Magister came to take her away. The sky was already darkening outside the small window; it couldn’t be much longer now. Perhaps he really did want to marry her. Perhaps he truly wanted to give her everything.
Suddenly she heard Aunt Harriet’s voice in her head: When you find a man you wish to marry, Tessa, remember this: You will know what kind of man he is not by the things he says, but by the things he does.