Three days after I was expelled from the Marable School for Girls, our poor Simon arrived. My mother told me to expect him, so when the bell rang, I opened the door onto a gloomy November sky, a gloomy November street, and a gloomy November of a boy. (And boy he was, only twenty years old to my sixteen.) He was short and nicely strong, wiry, with tanned cheeks and big dark eyes. Not at all like his father—but on second glance, there did lurk a spectre of Uncle Vee in his prettyish face, down which a raindrop gently rolled. He’d already doffed his hat; those slick curls of his would be ruined.“You’re Mr. Wolf,” I said. “Or is it Mr. Koldunov now?”
The car behind him hadn’t left yet. I saluted the Koldunovs’ driver, Tom, to let him know everything was well, he’d safely delivered the goods, he needn’t subject himself to the weather. Simon and I could surely handle his single, very sad suitcase. Tom returned my wave and drove away.
“Er,” said our guest. “Mr. Wolf will do. You’re Miss Selwyn-Stirling?”
“When I care to answer to it, but don’t call me miss around the Koldunovs. They’ll tease you, and not in the nice you’re-one-of-us-now way.”
“Thanks for the advice,” he said, and he continued to stand on our doorstep, looking about and letting himself be drizzled upon. I wondered why until I realised, oh no, he was waiting for me to invite him inside, at which point I decided I would walk to the moon and back for my new friend.
Grandly, I bowed him into the front hall. As he was taking off his wet things—he clutched his coat and hat until I nodded at the rack, strange boy, it was right there—Muv appeared on the first floor landing, at the top of the stairs.
You’d have thought Simon was a bird that’d biffed itself against a window instead of a student meeting his new mentor, though he wasn’t wrong to find Muv intimidating. From his point of view, I’d have seen not only a small, brisk woman whose bobbed auburn hair absolutely guillotined her jaw, whose freckles foxed her face like that rust on old books, whose black suit cut her body into clean ink lines, but the most ruthless magician England had ever borne. And she was a pretty ruthless mother, too.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wolf,” she said. “You may address me as Lady Aloysia, my lady, or ma’am.” It was her way of trying to set him at ease, laying out the protocol, only she was always so dreadfully blunt about answering questions you hadn’t asked. More embarrassing still, Simon’s nod became a strange half-bow.
“Oh, don’t,” I groaned.
“Julia will show you around the house.” Muv fixed an eye on me. “His room first, please. You will not make him haul his luggage everywhere. Is there more?”
Simon’s hands tightened around the handle. “No, ma’am. Just the one.”
“Very well. We will meet for dinner three hours from now. Do tell me whether I’ve correctly understood your dietary needs.”
“Muv, honestly, you needn’t be the lepidopterist pinning butterflies. You can ask him these things like you’re both human people.”
She gestured for me to take the suitcase. I hefted it before Simon could object.
“I—thanks, Miss Sel—er, Lady Aloysia, ma’am, no, it’s—” Simon grasped uselessly at the air. “Thanks, but you don’t have to do all that.”
Muv tapped her elbow. “I see. Julia, after you help Mr. Wolf get settled, please inform Beth the week’s menu may remain as it is. I asked,” she continued, both addressing him and chiding me, “because I would not put it past Madam Koldunova to serve you roast pork every day.”
“It was every other day,” said Simon.
Muv blinked down at him. He blinked up at her. Silence could be loud indeed. An entire three-second opera played out as I started to drag the suitcase upstairs.
Simon’s footsteps came in a flurry after me, and, generous girl that I was, I let him take charge of his own belongings. When we reached the second floor, he turned back with a perplexed look, but Muv had disappeared into her laboratory. He couldn’t have expected hugs and smiles, not from the Lady Aloysia Stirling, not with her reputation, though I knew for a fact he’d received colder welcomes: I had the whole of it from Marie and Adele Koldunova. After three weeks with the Koldunovs, Muv ought to seem downright tropical.
“Er,” Simon murmured, “did you see—?” Though I tilted my head, yes, do go on, he shuttered himself. “Never mind.”
“These games are unnecessary, you know. You don’t have to keep secrets, and you don’t have to doubt your eyes. I can help! I did grow up here. Muv never fails to keep a thread in her needle, not that I pay her magic any mind. It is so tedious when your mother always knows where you are and what you’re thinking, but you’ll find out soon enough. I didn’t see anything. What did you see?”
“A woman,” Simon said, startled into answering. “Not your mother, but tall and blonde. A bit, er, bony. And bleeding.”
“Oh, well. I should have expected you’d be a medium. Come along!” I bounded up the stairs. “The ghosts will wait.”