In the House of the Mad Russian, there are many doors. You may pass through as many of them as you like and not arrive where you think you ought to, because you cannot leave the House except through the door you entered in by, and you cannot exit the House unless it be in the same state you came in. But the truth of those words is as mutable as the doors, and the magic of doors is both blatant and subtle, depending upon the expectations of the opener.
The House is headquarters to much of the Popinjay Society, home to a very few of them, and the preferred place for them to keep their “guests.”
In the seventh year of my incarceration, one such guest was dragged in through the front door in hysterics, incoherent with impotent rage and heavily pregnant. The shrieks of fury had already attracted my attention when they drifted in through my window, but Cook’s cries for “Ghost! Ghost!” brought me to use the quickest way down, the magic of the Unexpected Door.
I found the nearest window with the runes inscribed on its sill, concentrated very hard on how much I expected to be anywhere but in the front hall, and darted through. I emerged from the coat closet beneath the stairs to the sound of the front door slamming, and with a jingle of keys, being locked.
Cook and I had other concerns. It took us both to get the heavily pregnant woman up onto one of the low divans, where she cried herself into an uneasy doze. As Cook rose to go, she observed, “It’s just luck none of the staff’s come in through that door in a week.”
I was more interested in my fellow prisoner. “Who is she? And what crime has she committed against the Society?”
“The young master didn’t so much as give her name. He just told her he’d be wed to her in two months, child or not, and left.”
I eyed the woman’s stomach and frowned. ‘Master’ meant he had completed his apprenticeship to the Society. He would be one of the gentleman defenders of the Realm, with knowledge both of the mysteries of the House and of magic. The latter incidentally freed him, by the Queen’s mandate, of any unfortunate social repercussions. It also made the woman’s refusal a little odd, but the Master’s decision to lodge his pregnant fiancée in the House for a full two months verged on dangerous.
“How far along is she? If she’s likely to give birth here, to cease being pregnant here....” From pregnant to full-blown mother—the only greater change of state I could think of was perhaps from living to dead. “If that happens, even they won’t be able to free her, will they? Unless he plans to... well.” Some things were not to be discussed.
Cook frowned. “Another mouth to feed. One accustomed to quality,” she muttered. Cook did not care for the over-inflated tastes of the gentry. “Lunch will be late.”
The woman woke half an hour later, and once she’d gotten a look at the room, adopted a distinctly suspicious expression. “This is the House, isn’t it.”
“Yes, you’re in the House of the Mad Russian,” I said. “What have you done to upset the Popinjays so? Even I didn’t inspire them to lock the front door behind me.”
Her face brightened. “Oh! Are you that boy they locked in here, the one who never escaped?”
I grimaced. Others had come and gone during my tenure, through bribery or guile or begging, most inside of a month. There had even been other apprentices, who shunned my company as if my ignorance were a disease that might be contagious. Still, I had learned what I could by observing, and manners were one thing that did not require literacy to learn. “Yes, miss. The staff call me Ghost. May I ask your name?”
“I am Magdalena Selworth, and I’m betrothed against my will to Master Francis Ramond. The man who left me here.” She glanced down. “This child is not his.”
I am certain I looked confused.
“I arranged to find myself pregnant, in hopes that he would want nothing to do with a sullied woman.”
The piercing gaze she speared me with and her refined beauty both dazzled me. “I, I can’t see how being pregnant would have much bearing on whether anyone would care for you or not.”
Magdalena laughed, a sound as sweet as bells, and I could not help smiling. “It’s refreshing to meet so much innocence in such a pretty package, Ghost. But—I know the story of the boy who was locked up. It’s told as a cautionary tale now, illustrating the perils of offending the Society, but they don’t provide details. What did you do?”
The pathetic story of my captivity would not impress her, but her attention was compelling. “I told one of the elderly Masters that anyone could do what they did. I did so loudly, as he passed me by in the public hiring fair in Harrow without a second glance. I said that anyone properly trained could guard the Realm, and win Her Majesty’s favor, and that if this Master truly cared for the good of all, he would stop lording it over us poor folk, and teach us.”
Magdalena’s smile was balm on my loneliness. “Ah. You were brave, but very foolish.”
“Oh yes,” I agreed. “They brought me into the House that night, while I slept, and left a marque of apprenticeship by me. But they have taught me nothing, and so here I sit, for I’m told by the staff that I cannot leave the House except through the same door, and in the same state. I tried every door I could find in the first month I was here. As you can see, nothing worked.”
“Poor boy,” she said, sounding sympathetic, though her patronizing tone briefly etched away some of her beauty’s shine.
After all, at fourteen years, I was accounted a young man. If I had never challenged the Society, chances were good I would have been courting, married within a pair of years. But before I could say a word, she flinched, putting one hand to her back. “Ah, if you could show me some place more comfortable to rest? He... was not gentle with me.”
As she smiled at me, I found myself saying, “Of course, Miss Selworth.”
Alone in my room that evening, I stared out the window at the mix of riders on horses and smoky alchemical engines going by, men and woman walking together in the cool spring air, seeming utterly alien to me. I tried to imagine myself strolling by with Miss Selworth on my arm and strangely found I didn’t want to, though I was certain I had desired just that over lunch.
Frustrated, I turned away to the pages of my book, the only one I had found during my tenure that I had some chance of understanding. Behind the highest window in the House, right under the cupola, was a small room, accessible only through magic, and I had inadvertently fallen in the window while trying to escape. Learning to get back to that room taught me how to use the Unexpected Door, and on my fifth visit, I found the book wedged into a gap between the wall and the window, its wood-grain spine nearly invisible beneath the sill.
Every time I opened it, it felt as if I were opening one of the House’s doors, and indeed, the book was filled with pictures of them, marked with strange glyphs and sigils. Opposite each drawing was a single page completely filled with crabbed, incomprehensible handwritten text.
Hundreds of times, I painstakingly copied the diagrams onto doors in the attic, and always there was a sense of impending something. Yet when I opened the doors, the symbols would vanish, and the door would be just a door. I had memorized the glyphs, knowing they were important, but I needed the words.
I only briefly considered asking Miss Selworth for help. No one in the House knew I had the book, even Cook, and if one of the Popinjays insisted on marrying her, utterly against her will, there had to be more to her than just her lovely face.
For the next three days, I had no time for my book. I found myself alternating between dancing attendance on Magdalena and trying to think of a suitable bribe for the hired help, who could leave, and who therefore could bring a locksmith to open the front door. I’d tried all this before, of course, when I was first locked in, but it had not helped since I did not know which door I’d entered by. Magdalena, however, might leave easily—if only someone would unlock the front door.
None of them were willing, not even when I threatened to resume the poltergeist behavior that had earned me my nickname. “The Masters might lock us in here,” seemed to be the universal, annoyingly reasonable response.
After my one lapse into vengeful pot flinging, Magdalena sweetly asked where I had been, over a late, rather burnt lunch that I brought to her in the Salon. My abashed explanation of what I had been up to and why Cook had been so distracted bought me a disapproving look and, “I thought you said that you were no longer a boy.”
When I visibly wilted, she turned that dazzling smile on me again.
“If you really want to set me free, then you might avail yourself of what they keep here, and learn the mysteries of the doors.”
“I know those,” I muttered.
“The House has belonged to the Popinjay Society for over two hundred years, and they keep their library here. They come and go -” there had been one of their nightly meetings already, which I had watched as usual, trying to glean some meaning from it—“and they clearly do not fear the doors the way the staff do. You say you have tried everything, but there must be some secret to it that you don’t know.”
“I was unconscious,” I reminded her, stung by her implication of sloth, though the smile soothed it somewhat. “And they always post a guard at the door they come in through. They always leave by the same door they came in, and they’re always careful to leave nothing behind. They don’t trust the doors.”
“But they trust them more than the staff. The library may tell us why.”
“It might tell you,” I mumbled, ashamed.
“Come now, Ghost—though you may have never bothered to avail yourself of the resources here, can you at least bring yourself to help me use them?”
I felt much like I imagined a puppet on a string might, as my head jerked up and down.
“Oooh...,” Magdalena exhaled as we reached the landing at the bottom of the stairs. “I do not look forward to climbing those. It’s as well I did not drink much tea at breakfast.”
“There is a door down here that I can make open to the third floor,” I assured her. “Whenever you’re tired. But there are none that lead down here, ever. Even the Masters must take the stairs to get to this room.” Then I opened the door into the library, with its high tall windows that let in only a little light between all the shelves. It was dark and musty-smelling, and as crammed and cramped full of paper as it could be and still allow someone to stand inside.
In Magdalena’s gravid state, she had little chance of navigating it, and I had long since given up finding anything of use inside. The one time I had vented my frustration, I found that the Popinjays had several traps in there for vandals, or for angry small boys. I now knew better than to deface the books further.
Magdalena stared into the room with some consternation. “Ghost, you will have to help me.”
“Of course,” I said, trying to be gallant, and was rewarded with a smile.
“Good. Someplace in here, according to my uncle, there are three books that tell of the earliest history of the House, and how the Popinjay Society began learning their magics. They are The Chronicles of the Mad Russian, and they are where we will begin.”
I eyed the library dubiously, and said nothing.
She frowned, apparently struck by a thought. “Ghost, can you read?”
“Who would teach me? We were poor, my parents and sisters and I. Before I was brought here, I shoveled coal for two pence a day. My words to the Master weren’t an idle observation, Miss Selworth.”
She sighed, and I realized I had disappointed her again, but this time the fault was not mine and that made me angry. “Well, you speak well enough to have fooled me, so I suppose you can be educated.... If I write something out for you, can you match the shapes on the marks on the spines of the books, and bring me what you find? I’ll wait here on the stair.”
I flinched inside, knowing that I would surely disappoint her again many times, but only said, “Certainly, Miss Selworth.”
Then she won my loyalty past a thousand cutting remarks by adding, “And then we’ll see about making certain that you can read them for yourself in the future.”
I spent the rest of that morning—and all the mornings following—ferreting out books for Magdalena. The afternoons were spent drilling me on my letters, struggling to embed them in my memory and then learning how to string them together to make words. However, Magdalena’s patience had notable limits, and when she tired of teaching me, she would declare that I must be weary of my labors and leave me to my own devices while she read in silence.
Whenever that happened, or after we were finished with dinner, I would leave Magdalena to gain what rest she could and turn my attentions to my book. The first words I read alone were its title: The Book of Doors. I almost told Magdalena.
Instead, I kept reading.
The initial page was titled, “On the Virtue of Expectation.” It took me almost an hour to string together the letters and sound out the words. After that, I got used to the handwriting, and things went a little faster. Staring at the glyphs of the Book for hours on end, and eavesdropping on the Popinjays as well, turned out to have been a good idea. With the words’ help, I was able to quickly piece together many of the missing pieces I had lacked in my understanding of how the House doors worked. Though the script was crabbed and difficult, I felt I was making very good progress, and that in a month or perhaps two, I might be able to free myself—and once I was outside, there were likely Doors that I could open that would free Miss Selworth as well.
I wasn’t given the month, however. Three days after my optimistic prediction to myself, little Theresa decided it was time to put in her appearance, a bare forty days after Miss Selworth had been locked in the House.
Her tapping on my door was ragged and somewhat frantic, but it was her gasp and moan that woke me more than the knocking. “Miss Selworth?” I said, as I opened the door. She grabbed hold of my shoulders with convulsing hands and nearly collapsed. I braced myself, trying to take her weight.
“Baby,” she gasped out. “They’re coming too close together to hope... that I’m not... and... I shall be trapped here forever!”
My mind went blank for a moment, and then Miss Selworth burst into tears of frustration and fear. I pushed my panic aside. I had no idea how to birth a baby, but after she had taught me to read, I was damned if I would abandon her to her fate. “Miss Selworth—calm down, please—it will be all right.”
She could not seem to stop sobbing, but another gasp and clutch at my shirt told me that I had better get her someplace where she could lie down, quickly. I swung her into my arms, taking that liberty, and carried her back to her room. She lay back against the pillows sobbing as I glanced out the window. False dawn was lightening the sky, and the staff would be at their jobs in a few hours. I dared not leave her long, but I penned a hasty note in crooked, awkward letters—“MYD WYFE. 3 UP BAK.—G” and raced down to the kitchen, praying that Cook would find someone who could read my dreadful handwriting and that Miss Selworth would hold out long enough for me to get back to her.
Both women did, but in between, there was only interminable waiting. For over an hour I fretted and waited for the staff to arrive and see my note. With no one in the House to ask for aid, there was nothing I could do but hold Miss Selworth’s hand when the convulsions wracked her.
I have never been more relieved in my life to hear footsteps in the stairwell. Cook bustled into the room, followed by another woman I had never seen in my life. “Ah, she’s far gone,” the woman said, and glanced at me. “Go boil some water.”
I found myself evicted from Miss Selworth’s side. I wanted to think that she would have protested, but by that point, I really had no idea what she thought of me, and she was in so much pain that I don’t believe she cared who was holding her hand.
I paced for a time, but then my legs gave out on me and I simply collapsed on the top stair, brooding over how helpless I felt and how much I despised feeling helpless, and how frustrated I was at my own slowness in mastering magic.
A baby’s scream sometime near dusk startled me out of my nervous reverie. A few minutes later, Cook came to the head of the stairs. I managed to choke out, “Is she—?”
Cook tsked softly. “She’s fine. Just worn out. What’ve you been doing with that woman, I wonder?”
“She’s teaching me to read,” I said, managing an exhausted smile.
“Really?” Cook’s expression gradually settled into something akin to smug relief. “Good! I’ll go make up something strengthening for the lady there. You can come fetch it in an hour or so. But you won’t be learning much reading from her for a while, I think.”
I clambered upright as Cook went by and sketched a small, ironic bow after her before I cautiously peered through Miss Selworth’s still-open door. The midwife seemed to be packing her things, but when I cleared my throat, she looked up.
“Is she...,” I asked again, because Miss Selworth looked nearly dead with exhaustion, and I could see a pile of bloodied linen on the floor next to the bed.
The midwife crossed the distance to the door quickly, and pulled it partially closed behind her. “She is very weak, and will be so for some time—the child is a large baby, and Mistress Selworth is not a large woman. She’s in no immediate danger, so long as she does not exert herself, but it will be your task, young Master, to make certain that she does not. And that the demands of her daughter do not cause her to do so for at least a month.”
I blinked. “A daughter?” I whispered.
The midwife smiled. “A fine daughter, with red hair, just like yours.” She waved at the stubble on my chin, where I’d only recently begun to shave it. I thought about correcting her misapprehensions, then decided it really didn’t matter. “She called her ‘Theresa’ just before she fell asleep.”
“Theresa.” I smiled at the sound of it. “May I... may I sit with them?”
“Heh. You’d do better to sleep in the chair, young Master, and catch your rest as you can. You will be very busy from now on.”
Babies, as everyone but me apparently knew, are a terrific amount of work. I had only a nebulous idea of just how much work they are, having been only three when my sisters were born.
I would say that I didn’t mind in the slightest, but I would be lying. However, I didn’t mind nearly enough for it to matter. Miss Selworth’s time was no longer restricted by our need to get her out of the House quickly, now that she was just as trapped I was, and she tired too easily to waste her effort sharpening her tongue on me. So I was pleased to spend my time on both her and increasingly on Theresa, who was almost certainly trapped for life.
Miss Selworth seemed to mind her daughter’s demands far more, as she passed the baby off to me as frequently as she could, immersing herself in the books with an increasingly fervid obsession as her energy returned.
I was far more interested in the miracle I was watching unfold, but the Book of Doors saved me quite a lot of running up and down stairs just the same. The first secret the Book had given me was one I had already learned with the Unexpected Door. A door with that glyph on it never led where one expected it to go, while one without the glyph could be encouraged to take me anywhere—which for me was most frequently the kitchen. The symbols were a means of enforcing that expectation, each one a different sort of enforcement, but a true magician could manage without the markings, if his will was strong enough.
I quickly found that a screaming baby with a dirty diaper had a remarkable means of empowering one’s will.
By the end of her prescribed month, Magdalena was more than recovered; the shine was back in her smile, an the sharpness in her expectations. She was, however, quite startled when I altered her bedroom door to let her reach the lounge off the front hall, where I could open the windows to let her smell the garden in bloom while she rested.
I left her lounging there while I went to the kitchen to collect more diapers. I was walking back, humming to myself and wondering when we would be graced with a repeat of Theresa’s first smile and whether Magdalena would get to see it this time, when I heard her shriek of rage from the lounge, followed by Theresa’s startled howl.
My heart nearly stopped, but my feet did not—I was running before I even consciously registered that I should hurry. I don’t think I could have reached the front door any faster even if I’d used the doors.
Magdalena was struggling furiously in the grasp of a man I did not know, her eyes sparkling with fury as they fought. Theresa lay on the floor across the room, bawling her lungs out, in a tangle of blanket from her half-unwrapped swaddling. A bruise purpled the side of her face.
“Ghost!” Magdalena shrieked when she saw me standing there. “Help me!”
Taking advantage of her distraction, the man twisted Magdalena’s arm up behind her, then spared a glance to the doorway where I stood gaping. “The door be sealed against you!” he yelled, flinging his free hand up in one of the gestures I had seen the Popinjays use in their rituals. “The way be blocked, the portal be shut!”
There was no door in that particular arch, but the doorway itself seized around me, holding me fast. Every muscle in my body screamed with strain; I couldn’t move an inch. Even breathing was a strain.
Magdalena sagged limply, in defeat or sudden exhaustion I could not tell, while the man behind her shifted his grip to keep her from falling, unconcerned with the bruises he was leaving on her arms. After a moment of scrutinizing me, or perhaps the doorway around me, he nodded, looking both pleased and thoughtful as he mused, “Excellent. The power in the Selworth remains, though this generation it’s produced a Source instead of a Magus. Of course, I can make much better use of that power than you, dear Maggie. All you can manage is charming hapless young men to your whim, while with your strength, I can bind them to a doorway for as long as I like.”
“You’re despicable, Francis. Let go of me!”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Now that you’re divested of that inconvenient child, I can deal with that rebellious streak of yours.” He began shoving her toward the front door, which still stood open. “We’ll just have to wait until later to see if your daughter has inherited her mother’s spirit or her power—but no matter. I can be patient.”
I paid only cursory attention to their argument, far more worried about his threat to Theresa. I suddenly wanted the two of them both far, far away from us, and ideally from each other, where neither of them could make a second wreck of my life, just as I had begun to rebuild it.
“You’ve forgotten the House,” Magdalena snarled, struggling to get him to turn toward her. “I can’t leave, after all—unless you propose to rape me here in the foyer and get me pregnant again. Even Her Majesty wouldn’t stand for that if I told her—let go of me, Francis!”
In my mind, I called up the glyphs I had drawn so many times over the doors in the attic, focusing on superimposing them on the front archway where the door stood open to the street. Beyond them, instead of cobbled streets and passing people I imagined the windswept, heathered moor that I had seen outside my kitchen window for the first seven years of my life. No longer home, it was also nowhere nearby.
Master Ramond only laughed. “Maggie my dear, you can’t possibly think you know more about the House than I do? You’ve had less than two months to comprehend what I’ve spent my whole life mastering. You’ll be able to leave—you’re just as overwrought now as you were when I dragged you in here!”
The air I was staring at began to shimmer, as if in a heat haze, and I felt the strength begin to drain out of me as I worked my first magic without the House’s backing; only the trap-spell on the doorway I stood in kept me upright.
“What?” Magdalena whispered. “You mean... no!” she shrieked, as he shoved her straight through the front door.
Space bent. My spell held for an instant, then snapped, and she vanished. The compulsion holding me shattered. Master Ramond shouted, “Magdalena!” and rushed out the door. I dropped to my knees, coughing, and crawled to where Theresa lay crying. I picked her up and cradled her against my chest as Master Ramond stormed back in.
“What have you done with her?” he demanded.
“She’s in Harrow, I think.” I coughed, rocking Theresa who was starting to calm down slightly. He stared at me in shock. “Do you also think I am still here because I am just lazy?”
“After seven years, never showing any sign of any skill whatsoever....” He shook his head. “You’ve made Master Wilthorn a laughingstock, the worst apprentice anyone’s ever picked!”
“I suppose no apprentice has ever before lacked the ability to read when he was locked in,” I said, getting slowly to my feet. “But until you imprisoned Miss Selworth with me, I had no way to learn. Your apprentices may learn quickly, Master Ramond, but how many of them understand? I know this House now, and I have a daughter to care for.”
In all of her furious ranting, Magdalena Selworth had not said a word about her daughter. So be it. She would be my daughter now, and I was not about to let this arrogant popinjay anywhere near her. “You will not touch her, ever.”
“I’ll see you hanged first!” he swore, writhing his fingers at me. A twist of space slid past me and lodged in the doorway I’d just escaped. “Interfering with the affairs of the Popinjay Society—”
“Of which I’m a part, given my apprentice’s marque,” I said distractedly, focusing instead on the hallway behind me, on solid floorboards, wooden paneled walls, plaster-paint ceiling, home. “Though I hesitate to claim any relationship with such appalling hubris.”
He snarled something in a language I did not know.
I stepped backwards through his magic. Theresa wailed as the doorway twitched, trying to wrap around our throats. Then it bounced off the magic of the House embodied in her, tangled partly around me, and slid off my exact certainty of where I stood. Given no other target, like any swinging door, it rebounded back on him—hard.
He staggered. Blood dribbled from his nose, into his mustache, and he blotted at it with one hand. For a moment, fear cowered in his eyes. “This is not over, boy, but I have better matters to attend to than you!”
He stormed toward the open front door, in what I suspected was bravado over terror. I clutched Theresa to my chest, whispered, “Unexpected be...,” and with an unsteady mental hand, painted the glyph into the archway that had been applied to every door in the House when it was built. But my glyph omitted the twist that kept the exits within the bounds of the House. This Unexpected Door was unlimited; I would never know where he ended up, but neither would he.
He twitched in recognition, raised his hand to cancel my work. Miserably certain that I was too new a Magician to challenge him, I resisted anyway. Our wills clashed for an instant before a rush of energy from the infant cradled in my arms surged through me and overwhelmed his unmaking.
With an actinic flash, the glyphs burned themselves into the air of the doorway, leaving shining afterimages, and Master Ramond failed to check his steps in time. His fearful howl echoed in the foyer as he passed through the doorway and vanished.
Theresa let out a tiny, exhausted hiccup, and fell asleep instantly.
For a moment, everything was silent. Then the twitter of birdsong and the sound of clopping hooves resumed beyond the doorway. The faint creek of an unlatched shutter upstairs, and footsteps in the House somewhere behind us grounded me.
I walked to the front door, looked out at the busy street beyond—the city continuing its life beyond the House’s walls. For just a moment, I considered the scene and the smiling sleeping baby in my arms.
Then I reached out, pulled the front door shut—blocking the world out—and locked it.
Return to Issue #55