The Plague Diaries
ON THE SECOND OF JULY, I awoke before the clock’s summons. By first rays, I was dressed and breakfasted, the satchel on my shoulder, turning the lock of the row house’s front door.
Across the street, a lamplighter extinguished the night’s flames. At the third corner on my route, seated inside the newsbox was the news-speaker, his eyes pinned to a timepiece in one hand, the morning report in the other. Several shopkeeps appeared on their thresholds as I waited for my favorite market vendor. He had cherries, sharply sweet. I bought a pint and poured it into a basket in my satchel, next to the boiled egg and a heel of bread I’d packed for my midday meal.
By the time I reached the ward’s edge, the nearby stable lot gate was open and three carts were on the street. For twelve years, I’d walked in their direction or sat next to Father on his two-horse cart, going to school or to my apprenticeship in the translations office. But that day, I was headed toward the grand homes north of town, to my first job.
I passed through four more wards, moving quickly through the one which made me nervous, well-known for the unfortunate frequency of burglaries, violent attacks, and indecent assaults. The narrow streets, decrepit walk-ups, and glaring residents did not refute the ward’s reputation.
Once I crossed the town’s official border, the road continued. I approached the main entrance to The Manses, where several of the kingdom’s prominent families resided and my father once, perhaps still, aspired to move. A man with a ruffed collar stood under a covered archway, flanked on both sides by high wrought iron fences. He asked my name, which I gave. When he checked a list, he said I was now included among Fewmany’s staff and could come and go as I wish. After I passed him, I looked at the fine houses set back on expansive lawns. The only hints of wildness were the sky itself and a flight of swallows streaking blue through the ether.
The road forked. To the right I followed it, drawing closer to the great house. I’d seen it before, once, when Fewmany invited me to his library and offered the archivist position. At the manor’s gate, I gave my name
again. As the guard glanced at his list, I tugged at my lace cuffs and brushed the front of my three flounced skirt. He studied my silver hair and tawny skin and stared into my mismatched eyes the colors of night and day.
“You’d be mistaken for no one but yourself, would you, Miss?” he said.
Sadly, I would not, I thought.
With each step along the curved path, my hands shook a little more until surely I looked as if I were having a fit.
At the drive’s apex, I stared up at the manor’s thick columns and the long windows grouped in sets of two. When I reached the double doors, I rang the bell, clasped my hands behind me, and stood straight as a blade.
The door opened.
“Good morning, Miss Riven,” a man said. He bowed. “We weren’t formally introduced when you came for the initial meeting. I am Naughton.”
“Good morning,” I said.
As he closed the door, I looked into the marble-floored hall. Impressive as before, a talon-footed round table stood on an elaborate tapestry rug decorated with animals. Within the recesses between the twelve closed doors were statues.
“Follow me,” he said. Naughton led me to the grand staircase with its green marble steps and dark wooden railings. On the landing, near a long cushioned bench, I paused at the leaded windows to peer at the courtyard below and, beyond that, a stretch of green before a grove of trees.
“An arresting view,” Naughton said.
I glanced at him. His forehead shone under his thinning brown hair, and his eyes, also brown, glinted with patience. He wore a black coat and trousers, a light gray vest with blue piping, and a flawless white cravat.
“Yes, quite,” I said.
He escorted me up the west stair to the closest door on our right. As he searched for the key on his ring, I studied the bowed figures carved into the wood, most charred black. Fewmany told me he’d salvaged this door from a library lost to fire. The other eleven doors on that floor appeared to be identical to those on the first.
Once inside the library, Naughton invited me to hang my satchel on the ornate coatrack. Then he gave my instructions.
If I required assistance or refreshments, I was to pull the cord near the door to summon him. I could stroll the grounds and gardens and enter any room I found unlocked to view the magnate’s art collection,
but must make sure to close the doors when I exited. If I found a dog roaming the second floor, I should ring to have him taken away. As etiquette required, I shouldn’t go below stairs, and neither was I to speak to the staff nor they to me. I was to use the water closet on the first floor, to the right and below the east stair’s rise.
Naughton indicated a letter had been left for me on the table. With a nod and the promise of tea, he exited the library.
The letter was from Fewmany, a welcome in his absence. He said he was pleased to have my assistance to organize and catalog his collection and invited me to acquaint myself with the “nooks and crannies herein.”
On that same table, large enough to seat forty people or twenty giants, I found three books, a map of sorts, and a box. The reference texts were on bookbinding and book collecting. The library’s map noted where general categories were kept—history, natural science, et cetera—and where I’d find what interested me—myths, folklore, fairy tales, and the like. The last item was a delightful surprise, a box of stationery printed with the following letterhead:
Miss Secret Riven, Archivist
I began my exploration. To the right of the entrance, near the coatrack, stood a supply cabinet with doors and drawers where pens, ink, bookstands, blotters, paper, wax sticks, pins, and scissors were kept. On top were a bouquet of red and white roses and two wooden book cradles.
At the enormous table were four chairs, cushioned in velvet, with high backs.
Not far beyond the table, centered in the space, was a fireplace, the stone chimney rising to the roof. The simple wooden mantel, curved at the edges, invited my touch. A movable screen, resembling chain mail, hung on a track inside the hearth.
The library itself seemed to span the entire length of the second floor, with a gallery accessible by six spiral staircases tight as a snail’s shell. Along the east and west walls—and surrounding gallery—were rows and rows of bookshelves with leaded glass doors above and cabinets below. Throughout were brass sconces with cut crystal shades, held high by lifelike, masculine, disembodied arms, oil lit; I saw no evidence of candles.
Thick purple drapes framed the windows. The view west looked out to distant neighbors, the carriage house, and stables; the view north to
the courtyard, the green, and the trees. Strangely, the south wall had no windows, instead more shelves and cabinets.
The books—so many books, hardly any space for more on the shelves or in the cabinets, which were stuffed with manuscripts and boxes of ephemera.
By the end of the day, my anxiety about the tremendous task before me, among other lurking concerns, gave way to pure giddiness.
How could it not? I was in a paradise.
That night, when Father and I sat down to dinner, the glamour had not faded. I was in rare spirits, glad to tell him what I’d seen and to show him the epic I’d borrowed, leather bound, gold gilt.
All was well; our conversation, amiable. He reminded me he would leave at the week’s end to settle a land deal in Thrigin. Father was to have no lengthy carriage ride that trip, as every time before. He’d arranged to have passage on the new steamwheeler, which connected to a station outside of town. For weeks, he’d been agog reading about how they were built, how much weight they carried, and how fast they traveled.
“Iron can do what muscles cannot!” he said.
As the sole Geo-Archeo Historian at Fewmany Incorporated, Father didn’t need to know any of that for his work, but his personal curiosity was indulged. What mattered were the maps he’d been studying, finished track lines and proposed ones, which veined across Ailliath and the kingdoms around it. To satisfy Fewmany’s ambitions, Father would have to negotiate for the use of vast acres near and far.
However, there were acquisitions Father could never arrange for him.
After our dinner, Father brought out a cake Elinor, our daymaid, had baked to honor my first day. As he nudged a slice toward me, his hand brushed against the ceramic ochre bowl at the table’s center.
Memory cracks with the slightest pressure.
There I was in the same place, but elsewhere in time.
Eleven years old again. Balanced across the edge of the ochre bowl filled with pears, the scissors gleamed, their violent whisper still in my ears. A foot of my black hair was gone, one inch of it cut by my father each night he punished me for telling a lie I had not told. Nearby, an exquisite illustrated book lay open to a page with a fox chasing a hen. And then, to Fewmany, who sat at our table, Father presented my drawing of the symbol.
Father, my mother, and Fewmany waited for me to tell where I’d seen it.
“In a dream,” I said—and in that moment, I told the absolute truth.
As they looked at me, I wanted to grab those scissors and stab each of them through the heart. After they watched my hair grow back to its full length before their eyes, my parents glanced away, but Fewmany didn’t. He and I matched stares, his amused, mine defiant. In spite of myself, I felt repelled by and drawn to him. Even then, I sensed a mystery connected us.1
That night’s incident was never mentioned again. Father didn’t explain why the symbol held such import or why the inquisition had occurred. Whatever I was presumed to know was significant enough for Fewmany to visit our house—under the ruse he was there to deliver documents Father had left at the office—to question me himself.
I hoped, of course, all had been forgotten, and if not that, buried. Because if either Father or Fewmany asked me again, I would have grappled with whether to lie.
I could no longer claim to have seen the symbol in a dream. I knew the location of one carved in stone less than an hour’s walk outside of our town’s borders, in the woods.
AFTER AN EXCHANGE OF LETTERS, my schoolmates Charlotte and Muriel and I agreed on an afternoon to spend together. We hadn’t seen each other since our graduation in June. Charlotte was soon to be off for an extended visit with an aunt. Muriel had a holiday trip planned with her mother before entering a music conservatory in Osrid.
That summer day, on the gold-toned tile plaza in front of Fewmany Incorporated, the tallest building in town, I waited for them.
From the newsbox nearby came reports of local interest—a brutal robbery, a street repair in a certain ward—and an advertisement for Tell-a-Bells. Don’t let another to-do slip your mind. Get the self-communication aid everyone’s talking about—and to—the one and only Tell-a-Bell. Keep that to-do list at the tip of your tongue! Make your bell toll today and never forget a thing. Visit Time Matters for the newest model, now with Whisper-Gear Horologics.
A rumble disturbed the ground under my feet. Although I heard no sound, I thought it was the steamwheeler coming or going with freight. The tracks weren’t far from the town’s southeast edge and the river.
A two-horse cart approached. Tassels festooned the drays’ harnesses. I returned the waves of the passengers.
“We’re consumed with nostalgia,” Charlotte said as she stepped down, her skirt lifted to reveal strapped walking shoes with buckles.
Muriel adjusted the tortoiseshell comb in her flaxen hair. “Old Wheel. What do you say?”
Their eager smiles prompted me to nod as my stomach knotted. The oldest ward in Rothwyke had been one of my favorite places. There I had enjoyed an occasional outing with my few friends, and my father and the caregiver I called Auntie took me there as a child to watch puppeteers and hear storytellers.
When I was five, Auntie fell asleep in her seat one afternoon, and the red squirrel appeared, urging me to follow him, which I did—into an alley, through a grate, along an underground tunnel, and out into the woods. Again and again, Cyril led me to the trees, to the quiet, to Old Woman. Those visits had been a source of joy and comfort once, but there came a turn, then a break, and I wished not to be reminded of how, and where, that all began.
“Goosequill’s or The Dowager’s Parlor first?” Charlotte asked.
The former it was, our favorite bookshop. Charlotte bought one of the new penny serials, noting they are “weak on intellect, strong on emotion,” and Muriel, a “brooding novel” a friend recommended. Because I had access to the great library, I chose nothing.
Next, to the antiquarian shop, where the old shopkeep humored us although we rarely bought anything. That day, he allowed Charlotte to feign a languish on a grotesquely carved couch with one gnawed leg and Muriel to handle a miniature porcelain tea set. In a glass case where he locked away small treasures, I spotted an old coin, minted with a stag’s head. He sold it to me for less than the cost of a clothbound book.
Hungry at last, we went to a teahouse for pastries and conversation. They prompted me to speak of my work as an archivist, as well as to describe the manor of, as Muriel stated accurately, “the magnate who owns half the kingdom.” So I did, attentive to details, which seemed to satisfy their curiosity.
“But you haven’t given up hope you’ll be going to high academy, have you?” Muriel asked.
“I’m still on Nallar’s wait list,” I said.
“Are you certain that’s what you want?” Charlotte asked. “If you go, I fear you’ll suffer the same brutishness you did in school, or worse, and there will be no one to look after you. Besides, even if you completed your studies, how difficult it will be to find employment, biases being what they are. Not to mention, you need not. Your father can keep you well in comfort until you marry.”
Her words didn’t anger me. She was right, of course. I’d endured nasty harassment from several boys and cold treatment by the teachers who thought no girl should take the advanced courses I did. Those were meant for boys who would attend high academy, presumed a waste on me. Although always encouraging and ready to come to my defense, Charlotte never understood my ambition. It was peculiar, but I was peculiar—in appearance and character—and never believed what was inevitable for most women, regardless of station, was so for me.
“Charlotte!” Muriel said.
“I worry about her. I’m merely being practical,” Charlotte said.
“Should I not go to the conservatory for similar reasons?” Muriel asked.
“Your choice is less provocative. It’s not an academic institution,” Charlotte said.
I looked at my friends, smart, genteel, pretty. “Muriel, she means well. But the pursuit of knowledge is in my blood, which is why I accepted the archivist position,” I said, and said no more.
“Well, then, on the subject of high academies, I saw Michael Lyle after a play last week. He’s set to leave for his in September,” Charlotte said.
I sipped on my empty cup as they cut teasing glances at me. Never once had I confessed my infatuation, but the mention of his name ignited my cheeks.
“He has a prime intelligence,” I said.
“His mind isn’t the only prime quality,” Charlotte said. We sputtered with giggles. “How could Nikolas interrupt you as he did? At last, you were talking to him! Details, please.”
Her straightforwardness discomfited me, but I had no reason to withhold what happened at our graduation party. “You and Muriel were off
dancing with the others, and I was sitting alone, with Michael nearby. He asked me a question and we started an innocuous conversation about cats—disappointing, I know, yes, cats—and then Nikolas appeared and asked me to follow him. He told me his father said he must attend a meeting about some dispute, which required them to depart the next morning. Nikolas thought he’d have the summer here before he left for his goodwill visits, but no. Once the dispute was settled, he went straight on to the first kingdom on his itinerary.”
“The longsheets and newsboxes mentioned his departure. I had no idea it was so abrupt,” Muriel said.
“Have you received word?” Charlotte asked.
“A few letters. He’s well, and not yet travel weary. You know his sense of humor. Among his more memorable quips, he said he’s ‘on a diplomatic mission with a vague promise of adventure and constant threat of cholera.’?”
We finished another pot of tea, then said our good-byes, knowing it would be some time before we saw one another again. The farewell was proper, clasped hands and tears held. Charlotte offered a seat on her cart—her driver was waiting—but I chose to walk home. Their company had cheered me, but the sadness at their leaving, and Nikolas’s absence, weighed heavy once I reached my room.
I sat on my bed and, on my night table, placed the ancient coin next to the carved wooden stag Nikolas had given me years before. His eighteenth birthday was in three days. I planned to send the coin although it would reach him too late for the occasion. He’d appreciate the nostalgic reminder of the ancient stag who stepped from the trees the day I showed him the way to the woods, with Cyril the Squirrel as our escort. I still remembered when we returned to our schoolmates in Old Wheel, clapping at the end of a troupe’s performance, and Nikolas splayed his hands above his blond head and bowed.
Why did I, should I, miss him so when I knew once we finished school, our ways would inevitably part? He’d have his duty as the prince of Ailliath, and I’d do as I planned—attend high academy, find some suitable employment, and live on my own.
The bruised ache in my chest flared as I thought of how he called me away from the party, led me to a vestibule, and said he was departing the next day. No warning at all, at his father’s command. With no mind to propriety, Nikolas took me in his arms. We clung like heartbroken
children until I pulled away and felt as if a piece of me had been torn out. My best friend since I was seven years old—here, then gone.
When would the raw feelings scar and the pain become a memory? I wondered.