The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice. Or at least, that’s how the dawn chill felt in the bedchamber as I shrugged out from beneath the cozy feather comforter under which my cousin and I slept. I winced as I set my feet on the brutally cold wood floor. Any warmth from last evening’s fire was long gone. At this early hour, Cook would just be getting the kitchen’s stove going again, two floors below. But last night I had slipped a book out of my uncle’s parlor and brought it to read in my bedchamber by candlelight, even though we were expressly forbidden from doing so. He had even made us sign a little contract stating that we had permission to read my father’s journals and the other books in the parlor as long as we stayed in the parlor and did not waste expensive candlelight to do so. I had to put the book back before he noticed it was gone, or the cold would be the least of my troubles.
After all the years sharing a bed with my cousin Beatrice, I knew Bee was such a heavy sleeper that I could have jumped up and down on the bed without waking her. I had tried it more than once. So I left her behind and picked out suitable clothing from the wardrobe: fresh drawers, two layers of stockings, and a knee-length chemise over which I bound a fitted wool bodice. I fumblingly laced on two petticoats and a cutaway overskirt, blowing on my fingers to warm them, and over it buttoned a tight-fitting, hip-length jacket cut in last year’s fashionable style.
With my walking boots and the purloined book in hand, I cracked the door and ventured out onto the second-floor landing to listen. No noise came from my aunt and uncle’s chamber, and the little girls, in the nursery on the third floor above, were almost certainly still asleep. But the governess who slept upstairs with them would be rousing soon, and my uncle and his factotum were usually up before dawn. They were the ones I absolutely had to avoid.
I crept down to the first-floor landing and paused there, peering over the railing to survey the empty foyer on the ground floor below. Next to me, a rack of swords, the badge of the Hassi Barahal family tradition, lined the wall. Alongside the rack stood our house mirror, in whose reflection I could see both myself and the threads of magic knit through the house. Uncle and Aunt were important people in their own way. As local representatives of the far-flung Hassi Barahal clan, they discreetly bought and sold information, and in return might receive such luxuries as a cawl—a protective spell bound over the house by a drua—or door and window locks sealed by a blacksmith to keep out unwanted visitors.
I closed my eyes and listened down those threads of magic to trace the stirring of activity in the house: our man-of-all-work, Pompey, priming the pump in the garden; Cook and Aunt Tilly in the kitchen cracking eggs and wielding spoons as they began the day’s baking. A whiff of smoke tickled my nose. The tread of feet marked the approach of the maidservant, Callie, from the back. By the front door, she began sweeping the foyer. I stood perfectly still, as if I were part of the railing, and she did not look up as she swept back the way she had come until she was out of my sight.
Abruptly, my uncle coughed behind me.
I whirled, but there was no one there, just the empty passage and the stairs leading up to the bedchambers and attic beyond. Two closed doors led off the first-floor landing: one to the parlor and one to my uncle’s private office, where we girls were never allowed to set foot. I pressed my ear against the office door to make sure he was in his office and not in the parlor. My hand was beginning to ache from clutching my boots and the book so tightly.
“You have no appointment,” he said in his gruff voice, pitched low because of the early hour. “My factotum says he did not let you in by the back door.”
“I came in through the window, maester.” The voice was husky, as if scraped raw from illness. “My apologies for the intrusion, but my business is a delicate one. I am come from overseas. Indeed, I just arrived, on the airship from Expedition.”
“The airship! From Expedition!”
“You find it incredible, I’m sure. Ours is only the second successful transoceanic flight.”
“Incredible,” murmured Uncle.
Incredible? I thought. It was astounding. I shifted so as to hear better as Uncle went on.
“But you’ll find a mixed reception for such innovations here in Adurnam.”
“We know the risks. But that is not my personal business. I was given your name before I left Expedition. I was told we have a mutual interest in certain Iberian merchandise.”
Uncle’s voice got sharper without getting louder. “The war is over.”
“The war is never over.”
“Are you behind the current restlessness infecting the city’s populace? Poets declaim radical ideas on the street, and the prince dares not silence them. The common folk are like maddened wasps, buzzing, eager to sting.”
“I’ve nothing to do with any of that,” insisted the mysterious visitor. Too bad! I thought. “I was told you would be able to help me write a letter, in code.”
My heart raced, and I held my breath so as not to miss a word. Was I about to tumble onto a family secret that Bee and I were not yet old enough to be trusted with? But Uncle’s voice was clipped and disapproving, and his answer sadly prosaic. “I do not write letters in code. Your sources are out of date. Also, I am legally obligated to stay well away from any Iberian merchandise of the kind you may wish to discuss.”
“Will you close your eyes when the rising light marks the dawn of a new world?”
Uncle’s exasperation was as sharp as a fire being extinguished by a blast of damp wind, but my curiosity was aflame. “Aren’t those the words being said by the radicals’ poet, the one who declaims every evening on Northgate Road? I say, we should fear the end of the orderly world we know. We should fear being swallowed by storm and flood until we are drowned in a watery abyss of our own making.”
“Spoken like a Phoenician,” said the visitor with a low laugh that made me pinch my lips together in anger.
“We are called Kena’ani, not Phoenician,” retorted my uncle stiffly.
“I will call you whatever you wish, if you will only aid me with what I need, as I was assured you could do.”
“I cannot. That is the end of it.”
The visitor sighed. “If you will not aid our cause out of loyalty, perhaps I can offer you money. I observe your threadbare furnishings and the lack of a fire in your hearth on this bittercold dawn. A man of your importance ought to be using fine beeswax rather than cheap tallow candles. Better yet, he ought to have a better design of oil lamp or even the new indoor gaslight to burn away the shadows of night. I have gold. I suspect you could use it to sweeten the trials of your daily life, in exchange for the information I need.”
I expected Uncle to lose his temper—he so often did—but he did not raise his voice. “I and my kin are bound by hands stronger than my own, by an unbreakable contract. I cannot help you. Please go, before you bring trouble to this house, where it is not wanted.”
“So be it. I’ll take my leave.”
The latch scraped on the back window that overlooked the narrow garden behind our house. Hinges creaked, for this time of year the window was never oiled or opened. An agile person could climb from the window out onto a stout limb to the wall; Bee and I had done it often enough. I heard the window thump closed.
Uncle said, “We’ll need those locks looked at by a blacksmith. I can’t imagine how anyone could have gotten that window open when we were promised no one but a cold mage could break the seal. Ei! Another expense, when we have little enough money for heat and light with winter blowing in. He spoke truly enough.”
I had not heard Factotum Evved until he spoke from the office, somewhere near Uncle. “Do you regret not being able to aid him, Jonatan?”
“What use are regrets? We do what we must.”
“So we do,” agreed Evved. “Best if I go make sure he actually leaves and doesn’t lurk around to break in and steal something later.”
His tread approached the door on which I had forgotten I was leaning. I bolted to the parlor door, opened it, and slipped inside, shutting the door quietly just as I heard the other door being opened. He walked on. He hadn’t heard or seen me. It was one of my chief pleasures to contemplate the mysterious visitors who came and went and make up stories about them. Uncle’s business was the business of the Hassi Barahal clan. Still being underage, Bee and I were not privy to their secrets, although all adult Hassi Barahals who possessed a sound mind and body owed the family their service. All people are bound by ties and obligations, and the most binding ties of all are those between kin. That was why I kept stealing books out of the parlor and returning them. For the only books I ever took were my father’s journals. Didn’t I have some right to them, being that they, and I, were all that remained of him?
Feeling my way by touch, I set my boots by a chair and placed the journal on the big table. Then I crept to the bow window to haul aside the heavy winter curtains so I would have light. All eight mending baskets were set neatly in a row on the narrow side table, for the women of the house—Aunt Tilly, me, Beatrice, her little sisters, our governess, Cook, and Callie—would sit in the parlor in the evening and sew while Uncle or Evved read aloud from a book and Pompey trimmed the candle wicks. But it was the bound book of slate tablets resting beneath my mending basket that drew my horrified gaze. How had I forgotten that? I had an essay due today for my academy college seminar on history, and I hadn’t yet finished it.
Last night, I had tucked fingerless writing gloves and a slate pencil on top of my mending basket. I drew on the gloves and pulled the bound tablets out from under the basket. With a sigh, I sat down at the big table with the slate pencil in my left hand. But as I began reading back through the words to find my place, my mind leaped back to the conversation I had just overheard. The rising light marks the dawn of a new world, the visitor had said; or the end of the orderly world we know, my uncle had retorted.
I shivered in the cold room. The war is never over. That had sounded ominous, but such words did not surprise me: Europa had fractured into multiple principalities, territories, lordships, and city-states after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the year 1000 and had stayed that way for the last eight hundred years and more; there was always a little war or border incident somewhere. But worlds do not begin and end in the steady mud of daily life, even if that mud involves too many petty wars, cattle raids, duels, feuds, legal suits, and shaky alliances for even a scholar to remember. I could not help but think the two men were speaking in a deeper code, wreathed in secrets. I was sure that somewhere out there lay hidden the story of what we are not meant to know.
The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice. So sing the Celtic bards and Mande djeliw of the north whose songs tell us where we came from and what ties and obligations bind us. The Roman historians, on the other hand, claimed that fire erupting from beneath the bones of the earth formed us and will consume us in the end, but who can trust what the Romans say? Everything they said was used to justify their desire to make war and conquer other people who were doing nothing but minding their own business. The scribes of my own Kena’ani people, named Phoenicians by the lying Romans, wrote that in the beginning existed water without limit, boundless and still. When currents stirred the waters, they birthed conflict and out of conflict the world was created. What will come at the end, the ancient sages added, cannot be known even by the gods. The rising light marks the dawn of a new world. I’d heard those words before. The Northgate Poet used the phrase as part of his nightly declamation when he railed against princes and lords and rich men who misused their rank and wealth for selfish purposes. But I had recently read a similar phrase in my father’s journals. Not the one I’d taken out last night. I’d sneaked that one upstairs because I had wanted to reread an amusing story he’d told about encountering a saber-toothed cat in a hat shop. Somewhere in his journals, my father had recounted a story about the world’s beginning, or about something that had happened “at the dawn of the world.” And there was light. Or was it lightning?
I rose and went to the bookshelves that filled one wall of the parlor: my uncle’s precious collection. My father’s journals held pride of place at the center. I drew my fingers along the numbered volumes until I reached the one I wanted. The big bow window had a window seat furnished with a long plush seat cushion, and I settled there with my back padded by the thick winter curtain I’d opened. No fire crackled in the circulating stove set into the hearth, as it did after supper when we sewed. The chill air breathed through the paned windows. I pulled the curtains around my body for warmth and angled the book so the page caught what there was of cloud-shrouded light on an October morning promising yet another freezing day.
In the end I always came back to my father’s journals. Except for the locket I wore around my neck, they were all I had left of him and my mother. When I read the words he had written long ago, it was as if he were speaking to me, in his cheerful voice that was now only a faint memory from my earliest years. Here, little cat, I’ve found a story for you, he would say as I snuggled into his lap, squirming with anticipation. Keep your lips sealed. Keep your ears open. Sit very, very still so no one will see you. It will be like you’re not here but in another place, a place very far away that’s a secret between you and me and your mama. Here we go!