January 18th, 1880:
Ugh, boys! Whoever said girls are the cattier sex ought to be shot for libel. I have heard nothing but brotherly sniping for weeks and if I get stuck in the middle of one more nursery school squabble I shall become an Amazon. They will not stop picking at each other, and it is driving me mad!
I knew it was coming. George did his best to congratulate us, but he was bound to get sulky sooner or later. Everybody says it is because he is sweet on me, but people have been saying that since we were four years old and it is no truer now than it was then. Honestly, I am not sure George has ever been sweet on any…girls.
No, he would be delighted if I were marrying literally anyone besides his brother, but, best friend or no, that is simply too bad for him. I told him as much the other day when he tried whining about him for the umpteenth time.
It was the same song as ever: You do not understand, you have not seen him since we were children, you do not know him like I know him, and so on. I tried to point out that he also has not seen much of Ethan since we were children. They were sent to different schools, and mostly avoided each other on holiday. Who is he to talk?
“I am still his brother,” he snapped. “I still had to grow up with him. Christina, I am sorry, but I do not believe he is the man you think he is.”
“And I say he is not the boy you think he is,” I shot back. “Certainly, he was an obnoxious little brute when he was seven, but so was I. So were you, come to think of it! We were a right pack of monsters, but we were children. Little Oliver is the only one of us who was not a complete terror, so why hold that against Ethan when he has done nothing wrong since?”
“You ought to ask Oliver about that terror,” George muttered, but I waved him off. No offense to Oliver, he is a sweet child, but he flinches at his own shadow. Besides, I have never seen Ethan be anything other than kind to him. He is always trying to include him in things, always trying to teach him – always, in short, being a proper brother. But Oliver is such an odd, stammering little thing, and Ethan is so full of life, that I think the poor boy does not know how to handle it.
But of course George (who is too protective of Oliver for his own good, if you ask me) would read evil into that. He is determined to maintain this grudge above all sense. I will admit Ethan is not helping. He can be a bit of a button-pusher and he knows just where to press with George to make him crack. It is all in fun, of course, but I shall talk with him about toning it down.
George tried to switch tacks (ridiculously too, Diary, you won’t believe this): “I have heard stories about him, you know. From when he was at Eton. Shooting nails at pigeons, beating up younger students.”
“Standard schoolboy hijinks, you mean?”
“And chambermaids who left without notice.” His eyes burned madly as he said it. “More than usual. The ones who stayed asked to be moved from his floor. Are those standard schoolboy hijinks as well?”
He expected me to be horrified. Instead I laughed.
“God, George, you make out like he is some sort of boogeyman!” I swooned into his arms and let out a high shriek. “Oh save me, save me! I have married a vampire! Surely I shall not survive the wedding night! I hope I do not bleed too much, it may provoke him.” I winked and he rolled his eyes and dropped me on the carpet, but we both had a good laugh and some of the weight did seem lifted from his shoulders.
“There are lots of boys at Eton, and plenty of them worse than your brother,” I said, and he had to nod at that. “So if there is some nefarious maid-snatcher prowling around, it is almost certainly not him.”
I patted his hand. “I love him, George. And you know he loves me back, I can see it in your face. You have taken shots at him all month, but you never took that one, because you know we really, truly care for each other.”
Another nod. He looked a little sheepish.
“So why is it so hard for you to accept him?” I asked. “He has done you no real harm. He has done me no harm at all, you could stand to remember that. I mean, he has even made you best man just because he knows how much you mean to me! Can you not mend fences, for my sake at least?”
No nod that time, but I would not let up. “He grew up, George. We all grew up. He might have been a nasty little boy, but he is a good man now! Why will you not accept that he has changed?”
He was silent for a long time and he could not quite meet my eyes when he finally spoke, but of course he still had to have the last word.
“Because so few men ever do.”
Though Headmistress Ashcroft made no secret of her preference for caning in cases like Pippa’s, she put Oliver’s restrictions into effect immediately. Pippa had to hand it to her uncle: he knew her much better than her teachers did. Within two weeks she was ready to crack. It was only the smug looks from the aides who walked her between classes that gave her enough spite to keep going, and even that sparked less of a reaction with each day. Soon she would be crawling back to Ashcroft’s office, offering to trade her freedom to wreak havoc for the freedom of a moment’s peace.
“I’ll never be able to live it down!” she told Nephilim one Saturday as she lay on her bed, despondently sifting through her options. “I mean, I have a reputation to uphold here! I’m the Unbreakable Delinquent! The Amazing Human Trainwreck! I can’t just give up, not less than a month in!” She clapped her hands over her face and groaned. “But I swear, if I have to walk around hanging onto some pimply old maid’s apron strings for one more day, I’ll go mad! All I do is mope and finish homework. Me! Finish homework! Can you imagine my shame?”
She let her head loll off the end of the bed and dramatically threw her left arm across her forehead. “For God’s sake, the only friend I’m able to talk to for more than five minutes is you!” She rolled over to meet Nephilim’s eyes. “No offense.”
The splotchy gray cat on the windowsill didn’t seem to take any. She just stretched her front paws, cocked her head, and meowed.
“Oh, you always say that,” Pippa said with a dismissive wave. Turning over and resting her chin on her folded arms, she gave Nephilim an envious look. “Must be nice, just rolling around in the sun all day, not a care in the world.”
Nephilim yawned in assent, and her owner wrinkled her nose. “Well, if you get a chance in your busy schedule, I wouldn’t mind a way out of here.”
Despite the fervent attempts of the school chaplain, Pippa had never been a religious person. She had nothing against it in theory, but bells and books and candles were just that to her – just things, with no special tethers to the beyond, assuming there even was a beyond to be tethered to in the first place.
Yet even the surest and stubbornest folk have their moment of weakness, where all the gods awake, the impossible becomes possible, and even the coldest cynic must sink to her knees in praise of the boundless goodness of the universe. And when a fat yellow goldfinch foolishly landed on the branch just beyond the window, Pippa knew this was one of those times.
Nephilim bristled, but shot her mistress a questioning look. Whoever said cats had no loyalty was clearly in the pocket of the dog lobby and could not be trusted.
Pippa slipped off the bed and crept to the door. Opening it a crack, she saw a red-headed woman sitting in one of the common room armchairs, peacefully reading a slim leather-bound book. Daisy Sampson. New aide. Sweetheart. Pushover.
She nodded at Nephilim, and the cat took off after the bird at full speed. Pippa picked up her skirts and threw one leg over the windowsill. “MissSampsonmycatranoffberightback!” she screamed over her shoulder.
The aide burst into the room with surprising speed, but by then Pippa was gone, tearing after the little gray streak in the grass.
The sun and the wind were refreshing, but the chase itself was actually quite arduous. The cat had remarkable stamina for her size, and soon Pippa regretted her choice in pinafore. Her pins shook loose, making her hair fall out of place and stick to her flushed cheeks. Her lungs burned, the heels of her boots wobbled dangerously every time she turned a corner, and she was sweating in places a lady should never be sweating. But she enjoyed the scandalized cries and stares that followed her as she sprinted across the grounds. “Attention-seeking,” the teachers called it, but frankly Pippa couldn’t see what was so bad about that.
That is, until she turned the corner and collided with someone, tripping over his feet and landing elbow-deep in a flowerbed with a wet squelch.
“Heavens,” the stranger said in faintly accented English, “are you alright?”
Pippa groaned as she got to her feet, then again when she looked up at him.
The stranger, God help her, was handsome. Exceptionally so, the kind of handsome that makes hard men want to drink themselves to death. He had smooth brown skin and dark eyes that smirked at her when his wide lips refused to. He was the tallest man she’d ever seen, taller even than her uncle, but without the standard gangliness – without a gangle in sight, actually. With his fine, crisp suit, sleek black hair, and languid pose, he didn’t seem to have an awkward bone in his body.
In short, he was the last person a girl wanted to end up sweaty, red-faced, and filthy in front of. At least, Pippa thought wryly, not in this context.
“Sorry,” she stammered, “I should have looked where I was going. I was trying to catch -”
The stranger waved her apology aside with one hand and picked up his hat with the other, holding it out to her. Nephilim popped over the brim like a jack-in-the-box. “I assume this is yours?” he said.
Pippa sighed in relief and scooped the small, fluffy creature out of the hat. “Unfortunately,” she laughed.
She scratched the cat behind the ears, who purred and wriggled in her arms. “Dammit, Nephilim, what am I going to do with you?” Feed you so, so much fish as soon as we get back, she thought as the stranger reached out to pet the cat. You’ve done well, my friend.
“Nephilim?” the stranger asked, smirking.
Pippa shrugged. “It’s a sort of demon apparently. My uncle got her for me. He thought it a fitting match.”
“Is it now?” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “I cannot imagine running into many demons at a ladies’ school.”
Pippa tried to smooth her hair out as subtly as possible. “Not many, no, but you can always find one if you knew where to look.” She winked – a horribly girlish move, she realized, but his smile only widened.
“In that case,” he said, “I shall have to be on the lookout. They must be terribly exciting people, these demon girls. Do you think you could introduce me to any?”
She cocked her head in exaggerated thought and let her fingers brush his as she petted Nephilim. “You know, I think I have just the girl.”
A squeak interrupted them. They turned to see Ashcroft, pale as death, walking towards them with a group of bored-looking young men. The man at the head of the pack, a hunched old codger with flyaway white hair and a brown suit that puckered across his full belly, raised his arms in relief. By contrast, Ashcroft seemed to be fighting the urge to lock her own arms as tightly as possible around Pippa’s throat.
“Ah, there you are, Mr. Deshmukh!” the man said, wagging a finger at the stranger. “You mustn’t go running off like that, my boy, we were worried about you!” His voice was cheerful, but with a superior air, as if he were talking to a small child. Pippa’s lips thinned, but the stranger didn’t mention it so neither did she.
“My apologies, Professor Mandeville, I got turned around. Thankfully, I met this lovely young lady here, who offered to lead me back to you,” he said, gesturing to Pippa, “and who I just realize has not yet told me her name?”
“Oh, of course! Phillipa Cotton,” she said, blushing and holding out her hand, “but everyone calls me Pippa.”
“Ah, of the Hallsbury Cottons, yes?” said the professor, before whispering to the stranger, “Very old family. Very important, too. Grandfather was a steel baron, don’t you know, and a fine man, a fine man indeed!”
To the stranger’s credit, he didn’t seem particularly interested in this commentary. “Shekhar Deshmukh,” he said, raising Pippa’s hand to his lips. “Enchanted to make your acquaintance, Miss Cotton.”
“Charmed, Mr. Deshmukh,” she said, dropping a short curtsy. “But what brings you to Ashcroft Academy?”
“Ah, Mr. Deshmukh has recently been admitted to Cambridge!” Mandeville said before Shekhar could speak. “A truly gifted student, and from a house of great renown. Only 18, too, we do not usually accept Indian students so young, but we simply could not let him pass us by!”
“Me or my tuition payment,” Shekhar quipped, but while the group laughed Pippa caught a flicker of annoyance in the young man’s eyes. In a moment it was gone, however, and he refocused on her. “At any rate, I decided to come over a few months early to get adjusted to English living. Practice the language, learn the area, that sort of thing. Professor Mandeville has been showing us all the local sights.”
Pippa looked around in surprise. “Including a girl’s school?” If this was Mandeville’s idea of a highlight, she pitied the young men the rest of their tour.
“Oh yes, the fellows were quite keen on that!” the old man said cheerfully. “Fascinating architecture, they all thought!”
She gave the students a sidelong glance and they all shuffled back, mumbling hasty agreements. “Ah,” she said, pitying them less. “The architecture. Naturally.”
Ashcroft’s hand closed on her shoulder. “Well, I’m very glad one of our students could help you, Mr. Deshmukh, we do so pride ourselves on their alacrity,” she said. “But I’m afraid Miss Cotton has duties elsewhere, don’t you dear?”
“No I don’t,” Pippa said quickly, and the hand tightened so much her whole arm went numb.
“Oh, such a card, this one,” Ashcroft said, letting out an unhinged laugh as she started to pull Pippa away.
Thankfully, Shekhar stepped in before Pippa had to resort to blinking distress signals. “Actually, Miss Cotton offered to show me some additional areas of the school, and I was hoping to take her up on it.”
Ashcroft’s eyes narrowed. “What additional areas?”
“The back garden!” Pippa burst out before he could falter. “The, uh, magnolias are lovely this time of year, and I don’t believe they have them in India.”
“How very thoughtful!” Mandeville said, and Ashcroft’s face fell. “But we were just about to return to campus. Are you sure?”
Shekhar waved him off. “Thank you, but I believe I can find my own way back. If I cannot, I am sure Miss Cotton will come to the rescue again,” he said, giving her an elaborate little bow. “Besides,” he added, and here his accent thickened strangely, “would be aid to my English conversational.”
Ashcroft and Pippa both raised an eyebrow, but the old man seemed to buy it, and turned to the headmistress expectantly. “Well, madam? Does that seem reasonable to you?”
Defeated, Ashcroft released her with a poisonous simper. “But of course.”
“Excellent,” Shekhar said, holding out his arm to Pippa (and holding out his hat to Nephilim, a ride she happily accepted). “Shall we then?”
“We certainly shall,” she said as they walked off.
After they had rounded the corner and were safely out of earshot, Pippa collapsed into a fit of giggles. “Would be aid to my English conversational,” she mimicked, shaking her head. “I’ll bet you speak better English than all of them put together.”
He let out a strange, barking laugh, louder and wilder than she expected of him. “Don’t I know it,” he said. “And for future reference, we have plenty of magnolias in India.”
“Oh, damn, the old hag probably knew that too,” Pippa groaned, smacking her palm against her forehead. “I’m really going to get it when I get back, then.”
“I take it you do not really have important duties awaiting you?”
She scoffed. “No, I’m just another delinquent aristocrat evading my just punishment. We’re pretty good at that, you know.”
“Tell me about it,” he said. “That is why I am here. English educations are all the rage now,” he added, rolling his eyes, “especially for ambitious families with layabout sons.” Seeing her confusion, he explained: “My father is the Deshmukh right now, basically a glorified tax collector, not unlike one of your counts or minor lords. But he would rather we be less minor in future, so off I go to Cambridge, by virtue of being barely smart enough to deserve it and barely rich enough to -” he hesitated, and a dark, angry look twisted his face – “probably not get killed for trying.”
Pippa didn’t know what he was getting at, but she squeezed his arm comfortingly and his expression softened. “Well, if you’re looking to embarrass an entire noble line, you have come to the expert.”
Shekhar gave her an amused look. “Really?” he said. “What was all that ‘very old, very important family’ talk then?”
“Oh, we were. Still are, technically, if only just, but,” she said, leaning in conspiratorially, “that was before my uncle married my aunt. The family spent years trying to get him even to talk to a girl, let alone marry one, yet as soon as they line up a respectable match, what does that ungrateful boy do? He goes and runs off with the nanny.”
She put a hand dramatically to her heart. “Half the family disinherited him, of course. We can’t have people thinking we’re capable of things like love and equity, oh no, there’d be rioting in the streets! He was the last Cotton son left, though, so they had to give him Hallsbury. Otherwise some nouveau-riche family would buy it, and if there’s one thing my relatives hate more than blood traitors, it’s people who worked for their money.”
“Lucky for him!”
Pippa shrugged. “Not really. His writing makes him enough, so he’s just sitting on it until I am 21. He’s a playwright, you see. Not the classiest productions, perhaps,” she said, waggling her eyebrows suggestively, and Shekhar grinned. “Genuinely brilliant work all the same, though. Folley, my aunt, she acts in them, and in a lot of other plays too. She’s a real talent, tremendously funny. You ought to go see them sometime.”
“Certainly. You ought to join me though.” He pulled an exaggeratedly pitiful face. “There is nothing worse than going alone to the theater, especially in a strange country, without a friend in the world. You would never do that to me, would you?”
“Hmm,” she said, drumming her fingers along his forearm. “I don’t know. You are an awfully forward fellow, Mr. Deshmukh. I don’t think a proper young lady ought to be friends with such a person.”
“Quite right,” said Shekhar, nodding firmly. “If we run into any proper young ladies, we must be sure to warn them off.” His black eyes twinkled wickedly. “But I do not see any around right now, do you?”
She smirked. “Not one.”
“You know,” Shekhar said as they returned to the Ashcroft dormitories a few hours later, “I quite enjoy your company, Miss Cotton. In fact, if you are willing to see a little more of me in exchange, I can probably get you out of house arrest.”
Frankly, Pippa was willing to see a lot more of Shekhar Deshmukh, and in a wide variety of ways, but she had retained enough etiquette lessons not to say so. “And if I’m not willing?” she said.
He raised his palms to Heaven in despair. “Then I will still get you out of it, and resign myself to a lifetime of long sighs and bad poetry.”
“Lord, even I’m not that cruel,” said Pippa with a shudder. “You have a deal.” She held out her hand and he gave it a firm shake. “Until next time, Mr. Deshmukh.”
“I look forward to it, Miss Cotton.” With another kiss of the hand, he turned tail and departed through the front gates. Pippa was not given to great sentiment, but she felt strangely buoyant as she watched him leave, as if she was hovering slightly above the ground.
When she turned around, however, she found herself face-to-face with two constables, and nothing sends a girl crashing back to Earth like a police detail. Behind them stood a haggard, middle-aged man in black. With his long nose, hunched shoulders, and small, beady eyes, he looked more like a raven than a man.
“Are you Miss Phillipa Cotton?” he croaked.
Pippa considered her answer very carefully. “Depends who you are,” she said at last, squinting at the constables and preparing to run. “This is a bit extreme, isn’t it? All I did was look for my cat.” She held Nephilim up like a shield.
The raven frowned and shook his head. “Miss Cotton, you are not in trouble,” he said. “I am Detective Inspector Arthur Farrier, Scotland Yard. I and my associates just need to ask you a few questions about your family.”
Her blood ran cold. “What’s happened?” she asked, heart pounding. “What’s wrong? Are they alright? Oh God,” she said, pulling a lock of hair over her shoulder and wringing it back and forth, “I knew Uncle was sick, I knew it!”
“They’re all fine, ma’am, no need to worry,” said the first officer sympathetically, but Farrier held up a hand and he fell silent.
“He looked ill, you say?” he said, taking a notebook out of his pocket and jotting it down. “Or stressed, perhaps? Did he say why?”
Wariness overrode panic and gave Pippa a firm kick in the brain. She folded her arms and clamped her mouth shut.
Farrier waited, frown widening, then sighed and moved on. “Very well. Miss Cotton, I know this may be difficult for you, but I need you to answer honestly, and to the best of your ability.” He motioned towards a bench, but Pippa didn’t take it. “Please, madam, there is no need to be hostile. We are only trying to help.”
“Help with what?” she snapped.
He watched her carefully, like a hawk after a mouse, primed for the smallest stir in the grass. “I need to ask you about your parents,” he said. “Specifically – excuse my bluntness, madam, but it must be said – the circumstances of their deaths.”
That did get a reaction, but not the one he was expecting. Pippa’s eyes widened, her jaw went slack, and she sank onto the bench. Then, out of nowhere, she threw her head back and laughed for a full minute. Her cackling made Nephilim scramble out of her arms and take cover under a hedge.
The men exchanged startled looks. “Miss Cotton,” Farrier said, “I don’t think you realize how serious this matter is.”
“Serious?” Pippa said. She clapped her hands and leaned back against the cool stone of the dormitory wall with a sigh. “Sorry, but if this were serious, you would have been here years ago. I mean, for God’s sake, what do you expect me to say? ‘Yes sir, I know I was only three months old at the time, but I vividly remember my mother poisoning herself. Why, I can pick the very bottle off the shelf, I can!’ Father’s not much better – or do you just think I got a psychic vision of him burning up while I was playing with my dollies a dozen miles away? What are you looking for here?”
“You’re certain the fire killed him then?” Farrier said, sitting down beside her. “Never found any reason to doubt that?”
“What’s there to doubt?” she said. “Half of Merrimore burned down, he was on the second floor, wood gave out – done.” She snapped her fingers, then chopped the air with a flat hand. “Nothing more too it, unfortunately.”
“You don’t seem very upset about it.”
“Oh, don’t make me out to be a monster,” she said, “of course it’s still sad! Of course I’d rather have my parents here. I didn’t want to lose them like that, nobody deserves to go in such terrible ways! But if you expected to find me still walking around with a big tragedy cloud over my head, I’m afraid I shall have to disappoint you.”
Guilt slithered around her heart as she spoke, but she did her best to ignore it. “Father died when I was seven, and he was barely around before that, left me mostly in my grandfather’s care. I hardly remember him, and I do not remember my mother at all. That hurts. Of course it hurts,” she insisted when the second officer made a dubious face, “but it is an old wound, and I see no point in letting you pick at it.”
Farrier’s face was as blank as ever, but his hand clenched on the pen. “Is it true your aunt was a prostitute when she entered your uncle’s service?” he said, all pretense of compassion gone.
“How dare you?” Pippa roared, leaping to her feet. “Do you know who she is? Who I am? I could have your job for such disgusting slander!”
The detective was unperturbed. “Is it true?”
Pippa glared at him with such hatred she was amazed he didn’t burst into flames. “No,” she said through gritted teeth. It’s not really a lie, anyway, she told herself as she held Farrier’s penetrating gaze. Folley had been out of the game for three whole years by the time she came to Merrimore.
Farrier’s beady eyes narrowed further, until they almost disappeared into his head, but he skipped to his next question. “Your uncle was in the room with your mother when she died, wasn’t he?” he asked. “I heard he even gave her the bottle.”
“He was fifteen, and had no idea of her plans. What exactly are you implying?”
“I’m not implying anything, Miss Cotton. But it was on his testimony that her death was ruled a suicide, correct?”
“His testimony, and the extensive letter she left in her own hand,” Pippa shot back. “And who is poking around my poor mother’s grave, anyway? My great-grandmother, that hateful old bat? Or one of her little hangers-on, all the landless great uncles and mad aunts and fourth cousins eight times removed, buzzing around my inheritance like locusts again?”
“Funny you mention inheritance,” Farrier said, a distressingly victorious look in his eyes, “because your father wasn’t the only Cotton to meet an untimely end, was he? Your uncle George, too, he -”
“Drowned. Drowned in a medically-confirmed accident, also when my uncle was just a boy. I hope they’re paying you extra for all these graves you’re dancing across.”
He ignored the jab, his eyes gleaming like molten glass. “Strange how your uncle married just after that fire, after he was left the only male heir to the title. Just when your grandfather could not afford to lose him.” He stood up and advanced on Pippa, his long, pointed nose nearly touching hers. “You said your father fell through the second floor, but wasn’t your uncle there too? Your aunt as well? Why did he die while they did not?”
Something shifted in Pippa’s brain, and despite her best efforts she couldn’t quite shift it back. “I-I don’t have time for this,” she said, throwing up her hands and shouldering him aside. He’s just trying to rattle you, she told herself as she marched towards the door. Good thing it’s not working. Because it’s not. It’s absolutely, definitely not.
“Miss Cotton!” the detective called. Pippa paused, but did not turn around. “You do us a disservice, you know. There are many people out there with your best interests at heart, though it is not always the people you think. You may not like me -”
“May not?” she muttered.
“But I know about secrets. More than you do, I’d wager.” His voice was low and ominous, like an oncoming storm. “I’ve met honored heroes with blood on their hands. I’ve seen schoolgirls with switchblades in their boots. I’ve gone into the kitchens of lovely old grandmothers and found a dozen babies buried under the floor. You have no idea what people are capable of.”
He flipped the notebook shut and pocketed it. “If I were you, I would reexamine my loyalties,” he said. “If you don’t, things could end up very poorly for you.”
He signaled to the policemen to follow him out of the courtyard, but before they could move Pippa finally spoke. “You know what phrase really makes a girl trust you?”
She wrenched open the door and flashed him a sweet smile over her right shoulder as she walked into the entryway, Nephilim darting in ahead of her.
“Not that one,” she said, and slammed the door in his sour face.
It felt marvelously final at the time, but those words hung over her head all night. Even in her dreams they pricked at her like little needles, jolting her awake. Reexamine your loyalties.
“He was lying, you know,” she snapped at the ceiling late that night. “It’s just another land-grab. There’s no truth to it.”
“Mhm,” Hattie mumbled across the room, buried beneath her blankets like an egg in the nest. “Sure is…sure is…”
Pippa punched her pillow back into shape with excessive force and closed her eyes. No truth. None at all. Best to forget all about it. But the detective’s words hovered there, glowing in the darkness even as she finally drifted to sleep.
That night, she dreamed of fire.