An icy wind rushed across the campus of Barrow School, high atop the hill, whistling and singing as it attempted to escape the labyrinth of tall, ageing buildings. Rose had lost the feeling in her nose long ago and her fingers were beginning to ache, but the wind had banished the clouds, and a little bit of frostbite was a small price to pay for an unusually clear winter night when a comet hung in the sky. The comet was as bright as any full moon she’d ever seen and it lit the sky like a lamp even though it was only the size of her fist. Behind it was a long tail, like a blue flame in a dark room, obscuring the stars as if it had burned them away. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, and it filled her with joy and hope. She felt somehow connected to the comet, and through it to everything that dwelled in the sky and even across the whole planet. Lying on the roof of Gavin Hall, Rose imagined a girl somewhere far from here, halfway across the globe, in Bharat maybe or Enam, lying on the roof of her home, watching the comet and thinking of her. Was that girl all alone, too?
Even though the clouds were long gone, the air began to smell like copper, as if it might begin to snow at any moment. Rose loved snow, and she hoped there might be enough to go sledding over the school holiday. This thought snapped her from her meditation on the comet, and suddenly she felt the full harshness of the wind. It was time to go inside. Rose stood up and walked to the stone railing to have one last look before she succumbed to the cold. At eight stories high, Gavin Hall was one of the tallest buildings at Barrow, and from her vantage Rose could see almost the entire campus, and beyond that to the shadowy spires and towers of the City. The sprawling gothic complex of Ayckshrift Palace was drenched in a pallid blue light, and for a moment she thought it must be the home of some great queen in another realm far across the cosmos.
The comet illuminated the buildings of Barrow, as well, but the blue wasn’t present here. The stones of Whittle House, normally grey, shimmered with a white luminescence, while the red bricks of Crawford Hall were dull and sullen. Rose turned her gaze down Frigate Street to look at the dome of the decrepit Awdry Theatre. In generations past, the Awdry had been the school’s main theatre and home to the programs in music and drama, and had often been the heart of a student’s weekend. But it had been abandoned in favor of a newer building on the west side of campus, and now the theatre was empty and falling apart. Students weren’t allowed inside, and the iron gate was always locked. Some said it was haunted. Rose wondered why the school didn’t just tear it down and do something with the space. Just as she was about to turn away, Rose caught a glimpse of a solitary figure on the balcony outside the theatre’s rotunda. The figure was too distant to be recognized, but it looked to be a girl about Rose’s age, another student braving the cold to watch the comet. The other girl lowered her head and seemed to notice Rose looking at her. Rose waved at her, but instead of returning the greeting, the other girl whirled around and ran inside.
Rose did the same, bounding down the stairs until she reached her floor, and then racing down the hallway to the room she shared with Jasmine, the only other orphan girl in Gavin Hall. When Rose burst into the room, panting and flushed with excitement, Jasmine was sitting on her bed reading a well-worn copy of The Darkness and the Dawn. She did not move, but raised her eyes to give Rose a look of exasperated disapproval over the rims of her glasses. Rose was so used to seeing this expression from her roommate that she no longer even noticed it.
“Shoes! Coat! Come on!”
Jasmine sighed at her through a frown. “Why?”
Rose was rifling through their wardrobe. “Someone’s in the theatre. I can’t find your shoes.”
“No.” Rose turned around and tossed a winter coat at Jasmine. “The Awdry. Where are your shoes?”
“The Awdry?” Jasmine shuddered. “But we can’t go in there. It’s against the rules.” She looked away from Rose. “And it’s haunted.”
Now Rose sighed. “It is not haunted,” she said emphatically. “It’s just falling down.”
“And that makes it alright? I don’t want to get in trouble, and I definitely don’t want to be impaled by a falling chandelier.”
“No one will know, and if the building didn’t fall down yesterday it isn’t going to fall down today. Now come on.” Rose grabbed the book from Jasmine’s hands.
Jasmine sighed again, a reluctant acknowledgement that she would likely get back to The Darkness and the Dawn sooner if she went with Rose. “Fine. But I think you need to start doing your Philosophy homework. Logic is the beginning of all wisdom, you know.” She rolled off the bed and reached under it to remove her shoes. “They stay warmer under here.”
Now that Rose had gotten warm again, it seemed colder outside than it had before, and even through her wool mittens the bars of the Awdry’s iron gate felt like black icicles. Neither she nor Jasmine knew how to pick a lock, but she had brought a thick blanket to throw over the sharp spires at the top so they could slip over without cutting themselves. The blanket would be ruined, of course, but it had a unicorn embroidered on it and she hated unicorns. Getting over was easy for Rose, but Jasmine had a more difficult time of it, though Rose suspected that she was exaggerating the challenge in search of a plausible excuse to turn back.
The Awdry was a massive cylinder of white marble, the architectural fashion a century ago, cracked and chipped and crumbling. A cobblestone walk overgrown with moss led from the iron gate to the entrance, a portico of tall, ornate columns and a gabled roof decorated with a relief sculpture of the winged Muses of the Ancients. One of the interior columns had collapsed, and while the roof above seemed stable enough, a pile of white rubble littered the floor, obscuring their view of the doors. Rose glanced at the comet and then back to the theatre and for the first time she realized that the blue light had no effect here.
“Can we even get inside?” Jasmine’s voice trembled slightly, though whether from the cold or from fear, Rose couldn’t tell.
They navigated around and over and through the shattered remnants of the column to reach the theatre doors, a pair of massive slabs of gold-plated iron. Each door bore an embossed sculpture of an actor’s mask, with hollow eyes and toothless mouths twisted into empty expressions of sorrow and mirth. The door to the left had a bulge near the bottom, as if some giant had struck it with a hammer, and now it hung slightly open, creating a crack just wide enough for Rose and Jasmine to slip through.
As they stood there in silence, nervously watching the grey fog of their breath hover in the air and then dissipate, the metal gradually began to creak and groan as if the doors were going to buckle, though there was no sign of movement anywhere. Jasmine grabbed Rose’s wrist and stepped backward, tugging at her arm. Rose looked back at her friend and smiled and then the noise abruptly ceased.
Rose laughed. “See? It isn’t going to fall down today.” But as soon as she had slipped between the doors and stepped into the darkness, the faint echo of a girl singing in an unfamiliar language reached Rose’s ears and chilled her mind and made her pause.
Behind her, Jasmine whispered, “We shouldn’t be in here.”
For the first time, Rose agreed with her roommate, and she almost considered turning back, but then her mind thawed and she laughed again. “It’s the girl. She must have snuck in here to sing on the stage.”
Rose fumbled at lighting her small lantern, the singing growing louder now as the song reached its sorrowful crescendo. The mysterious girl had a voice that was naturally beautiful but untrained, and on high notes it strained and wavered. Although Rose did not know the language of the song – did not even recognize it – she felt like she understood the singer’s plight. She had discovered that her lover was not quite human, perhaps a fairie prince or a ghost or the remnant of some long-forgotten expedition from distant stars, and now that she knew his secret, he would come to her no more. The groans of thunder and the sighs of fire were agonizing, but Rose knew that this must be the highlight from the third act, that in the end the lovers would be reunited, and the ghost returned to life or the gate to fairie closed forever. Through his love for her, he would become fully human.
When Rose at last summoned enough concentration to operate the lantern, the entrance hall seemed to come to life. Suspended from the ceiling were dozens of chandeliers, circles of dangling gold and crystal, still shining even through thick layers of dust. One had fallen to the tiled floor and shattered, presumably confirming the worst of Jasmine’s fears. But when Rose turned to make a joke, she saw that her friend’s gaze was fixed on the back wall.
Scrawled in dripping red paint, someone had written MOTHER MISSES YOU.
Rose took a step toward Jasmine. “It’s just a joke.”
Jasmine did not answer right away, but after a few more seconds she looked fiercely at Rose. “That is not a joke. I’m leaving, and you should, too.” She whirled around and marched to the exit.
A protest hung in Rose’s mouth. She wanted to make Jasmine stay, but in the end she watched her friend slip through the doors in silence. Now she was torn. Should she follow her friend to apologize and try to comfort her, or should she continue to the stage to meet the singing girl? Rose didn’t even know why she wanted to meet the other girl, really. She hadn’t given it any thought on the roof—she had just acted. Rose shrugged and stepped toward the stage door. Jasmine probably wanted to be alone now anyway.
When she opened the door, the singing crashed on her like a wave. It was a different song now, something lighter, happier, though to Rose’s ear the voice still sounded slightly hollow and joyless, as if the mysterious girl were attempting to trick herself into cheerfulness. There was a dim white light coming from the stage, not bright enough to illuminate the whole theatre, but armed with her lantern, Rose could discern some of the details of the decrepit chamber. Grey cobwebs hung everywhere, dusty with age, some tattered, but most still thick and strong, linking the chandeliers and the boxes in an almost symmetrical pattern. Rose aimed the lantern in front of her to inspect the aisle. As soon as her light shone on the stage, the singing suddenly stopped and the white light flashed and disappeared and Rose’s lantern went out. The air grew colder and thinner and she couldn’t breathe, and from the stage there came an angry shriek, growing in ferocity and then charging at her through the blackness.
Terrified and without thought, Rose screamed and covered her face. But then in the darkness there was another voice, thin and tinny, the voice of a girl about her own age.
“Stop!” It was not a yell or a shout, but a command. The shrieking ceased, the echo of it dissipating through the theatre. The white light returned, dimmer now, and then flew upward, passing through the cobwebs and disappearing. The air was suddenly warm again, and Rose shuddered and her skin prickled and she took a deep breath and then gave a heavy sigh full of relief.
“It isn’t safe for you in here.”
But even as the girl said it, Rose felt safer than she had for a long time. “I can’t see you. I think I dropped my lantern.”
“Here.” Now there was a new light, neither the white light of the shrieker nor the orange light of her lantern, but a yellow flameless light emanating from a circle that rested in the girl’s palm. The girl’s face was perfect, but not quite real, shaped like the sculpture of some ancient goddess and almost as pale. Her lips were raised in a friendly grin, but it didn’t show at all in her eyes.
“You saw me on the roof.”
“I came to find you. My roommate and I have playing cards. Why did you run away?”
“I’m not supposed to talk to people yet. You should go. But I want a friend. But you should go.”
Rose laughed. “I want a friend, too. Come to our room. It’s warmer there and I think Jasmine needs another friend even more than I do right now.”
The girl didn’t say anything for what seemed like nearly a minute, her pale face devoid of expression. “I don’t think I should leave the theatre.” There was another pause, followed by a flash of a smile. “But you could come to my room!” When Rose didn’t say anything right away, the other girl continued cheerfully. “It will be fun! Oh, I’m Viola.”
Rose laughed again. “I’m Rose. Well, let’s go to your room, then.”
Viola took Rose’s hand in hers. It was not warm, but cool and too smooth, like marble, and the sensation surprised her.
When Viola began to walk down the aisle and toward the stage, Rose asked, “Shouldn’t we go out the main doors?”
“But I live under the stage.”
Rose stopped and let go of the other girl’s hand.
Viola turned to look at her, the light from her palm shining on her pale face.
“It will be okay. They don’t like people very much, but you will be safe as long as you are with me. I promise.”
Rose shrugged and took hold again of Viola’s outstretched hand.
“You aren’t a student here, are you?”
“No.” Viola sounded sad as she said it. “But do you think I could be?”
When they reached the stage, Viola dropped Rose’s hand and climbed up. Rose had never been on a stage before, and even though Viola’s light didn’t illuminate much, she still had the sensation of being watched by hundreds of people and suddenly she wanted to sing an aria or recite a ponderous soliloquy or perform a bewildering illusion. Viola took her backstage through a jungle of frayed ropes and past a ruin of discarded props and costumes until they reached the opening of a narrow spiraling staircase. Rose followed Viola downward, wary of every creek of the ageing boards, struggling to hold on to the railing without getting splinters in her hands.
The basement was warmer than the theatre, but as soon as Rose stepped off the last stair, her skin prickled and she shuddered, aware that someone was watching them from the darkness. Viola reached back and took her hand again and then the sensation subsided and Rose almost laughed at herself. The walls here were made of rough stone blocks, mostly grey, but many stained black as if they had been through a fire. Shards of broken glass crunched beneath her feat and more discarded and broken props littered the floor. Startled, some small creature scurried off down the hallway. Above them, the singing started again, this time an angry song full of murder and envy.
Viola took her around a corner and in a few paces they reached the doorway to a small room, a closet of some sort. The door had fallen off its hinges long ago, and now it rested on the floor, a low horizontal barricade. Viola’s room was lined with wooden shelves, atop which sat a variety of bowls and pots and jars. Evidently this room had been a pantry, or at least was where they had kept the props for cooking scenes. Seeing the cooking ware made Rose hungry.
“Do you have any food?”
Viola sat down on the floor. “I don’t eat.”
“If you don’t eat, then how do you get energy?”
“I like music.”
Now Rose took a seat across from Viola. “Are you a fairie?”
“I don’t think so.”
“But you aren’t … right, are you? You’re different.”
Viola looked blankly at Rose. “I am a Replacement, of course.”
“Replacement for what?”
“For you. For humans. When you are done.”
“When we are done what?”
“Just … done. The Creator says the Age of Man is at a close. I am the first of the Replacements, the new mother of a better age. When your chaos is ended, there will be us, and we will make sense of the world. Your fancies are giddy, your longings wavering. You are all flawed, and even when grown to perfection you still wither and die. Do you not learn about this in school?” Viola didn’t wait for Rose to answer her question. “But I’m so alone. Except for the Creator. And he is cold. I didn’t want to be there anymore.”
When Viola had finished, Rose shifted on the floor until she was sitting next to the other girl, shoulder-to-shoulder. She didn’t understand what was wrong with Viola, but she could tell the girl was hurt and afraid, and she wanted to help somehow, even if only by providing some companionship. For several minutes they sat together like that in silence, the only light coming from the circle in Viola’s palm, but at last Rose spoke. “I really am hungry. I have to go back. Please come. You can stay with us. Jasmine is leaving tomorrow, but I have two more days, and you won’t be alone and it’s warmer there and light. Tomorrow night we can look at the comet together.”
Viola stood up. “I will take you to the door. But I shouldn’t go outside. I have to hide. If the Creator finds me … I don’t want to do it.”
“Help me find my bonnet.” Jasmine was in a panic. The charitable vicar who was going to take her in over the holiday would be here any minute, and she hadn’t finished packing.
Rose laughed at her roommate. “Maybe if you didn’t always hide your things from me.”
“If I’m going to lose something, I’d prefer that it be because I can’t remember where I hid it than because you stole it. At least this way I know my bonnet is only lost and not ruined. Oh! I remember. Close your eyes.”
Rose laughed again. “Borrowing isn’t stealing. And now you want me to close my eyes so I won’t discover your hiding place?”
A knock on the door interrupted them. “Oh no, he’s here,” Jasmine sighed.
Rose opened the door, but instead of a porter or the Headmistress, it was Viola, hands clenched into anxious fists.
“He found me!,” Viola cried.
Rose leaned through the doorway and looked down the hall to the stairwell. No one was there. She smiled at Viola.
Just as Rose closed the door behind her, the muffled voice of Headmistress Blythe seeped through the floor from the level below.
Now Jasmine looked even more panicked.
“We’re the only students still here! What’s going on?”
Viola looked earnestly at Rose.
“Please don’t let him get me.”
“We have to hide her,” Rose explained to Jasmine. “We can put her in the wardrobe and cover her with clothes, but you’ll have to unpack.” She opened the wardrobe door and gestured at Viola.
“In here. Hurry. And don’t make any noise.”
Jasmine bit her bottom lip. “But we’ll get in trouble.”
Rose stomped toward Jasmine’s suitcase and grabbed an armful of clothes.
“We don’t have time to discuss it. Can’t you see how terrified she is? Help me.”
Viola climbed into the wardrobe and curled herself into a ball while Rose piled clothing on top of her. Jasmine carried a load of her clothes toward the wardrobe.
“This won’t work. You know it won’t work.”
“Yes it will. The last time it was this messy, she just yelled at us.”
“Yes, but the time before that she threw everything onto the floor. And then yelled at us.”
Rose sighed. Jasmine had a point.
“But we still have to try. Choosing not to help someone because we probably won’t succeed isn’t much better than being the person doing the hurting.”
Jasmine smirked. “Remember what I said about lo – ”
“Don’t talk to me about logic right now.” Rose placed a few more pieces onto the pile. “Okay, Viola, just don’t make any noise. We won’t let anything bad happen to you. We’re your friends.”
“I trust you, Rose,” Viola said, her tinny voice muffled by a mountain of clothes.
Rose shut the doors, arranging a few items so that it appeared that she and Jasmine had hastily tried to hide a mess that had resided on their floor just a few moments previously. With everything in place, the girls went into the hallway and stood on either side of their open door, waiting for Headmistress Blythe to emerge from the stairwell.
They did not have to wait long. As usual, the Headmistress was accompanied by two porters, but this time she was also joined by a tall, thin man with a thick mustache and long coattails. This must be the Creator. With him were two men, his assistants perhaps, or maybe even police. As she watched these six figures march the length of the hallway, silent and stern, Rose began to worry, her palms growing sweaty and her nose starting to itch.
Blythe halted directly in front of Rose and glowered at her, hands clasped behind her back. She was nearing fifty, every strand of grey hair pulled back into a perfect, tight bun. Her skin was smooth, her cheekbones sharp, and her chin soft. Rose wondered how such a beautiful woman had come to be so miserable and angry.
“Well, Ms. Whitehall, where is it?”
Rose tried to keep her voice calm.
“What do you mean, Headmistress?”
Blythe clicked her tongue, made a right face, and positioned herself in front of Jasmine. “Ms. Irving. Do you have anything you wish to tell me before I enter your room?”
Jasmine started to whimper and she looked to Rose for support.
“Do not look at her. Answer the question, Ms. Irving.”
Tears began to form in Jasmine’s eyes. This was too much to ask of her.
“Leave her alone!” Rose shouted.
Headmistress Blythe descended on Rose like a falcon eager for the kill, slapping the girl in the face.
“If you speak out of turn again, Ms. Whitehall, you will merit an appointment with the Cudgel.”
Rose heard the doors of the wardrobe open and saw Blythe’s eyes search for the source of the noise.
“Please don’t hurt her,” Viola begged. “Rose is my friend.”
The Creator motioned to the men with him and stepped toward the room, but Rose moved into the doorway and tried to fill the space with her outstretched limbs.
“He’s a monster and she doesn’t want to go with him.” She looked earnestly at the Headmistress. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. Please don’t let them take her.”
“That is not a ‘her,’ Ms. Whitehall. That is a thing, a machine that Mr. Burbage constructed. It is his property, and he has come to retrieve it. Stand aside.”
Without even a second of deliberation, Rose shoved Blythe with all her might, forcing the woman backward several steps.
“Run!” She glanced back at Viola before moving to intercept the Creator. Viola bolted from the room, but one of the other men wrapped his arms around her and clasped her tightly. Rose tried to reach her, but the Creator grabbed her arm so hard that she thought he might crush it.
Viola managed to twist around, but she could not break the man’s hold on her. She locked eyes with Rose for an instant and then turned her gaze to the Creator and began to shout. “Don’t make me do it! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!”
“You are now out of your text,” Burbage said to Viola, calmly, as if unaware that he was hurting Rose.
The third man stepped toward Viola. She kicked at him, but he moved beside her and reached a hand behind her neck. Viola screamed.
“No no no no! Doth oft close in pollution! It gives a very echo to the seat! He must observe the quality of persons and the time that comes before his eye, but in conclusion put strange speech upon me!”
Suddenly Viola’s head fell forward and she slumped to the ground into a lifeless heap.
“You killed her!” Rose shouted, renewing her struggle to break free.
Burbage released Rose’s arm and then looked down at her as she stepped away.
“My children will never know death,” he said before moving to crouch next to Viola, inspecting her. When he stood up again, his men lifted Viola from the ground and carried the girl toward the stairs. With a nod to Headmistress Blythe, the Creator followed them, leaving Rose alone to face her punishment. In the chaos, Jasmine had moved the opposite direction down the hall and taken a position on the floor, clasping her knees to her chin, crying. Rose looked at her roommate—her friend—and now was worried about her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, but Jasmine would not look at her.
There was no wind tonight on the roof of Gavin Hall, and that, at least, was a sort of kindness. The comet still burned in the sky, but now obscured by thin wisps of cloud, the magic of the blue light much diminished. Headmistress Blythe had not been merciful. Rose had lost her privilege to spend the holiday outside the Barrow walls, and now she would be all alone for two weeks, except for the dinner on the final night, which she would have to spend with the Headmistress – a fate far worse than being alone. Of course, the Headmistress was saving the corporal punishment until school was back in session so that she could serve as an example to the other students. Rose did not yet know what that punishment would be, but she knew it would involve the Cudgel, and almost certainly several days, perhaps even a full week, in the Hamper.
She looked over the grounds and became aware of the cold again. Rose’s eyes wandered down Frigate Street to the Awdry. Last night she had been so excited to sneak into the theatre, so anxious to find another adventurous spirit, but now she thought instead about the singing light on the stage and her song of longing and folly, and Rose wondered what would happen if she returned there without Viola’s protection. Would she be consumed or would her spirit be trapped there forever like the singer? Would that be any worse than her life now?
Jasmine had refused to speak to her before she left with her vicar. Wouldn’t even look at her. Rose had never shared Jasmine’s fondness for order, her unquestioning obedience to even the most pointless of rules, but she now at least understood that it wasn’t a fear of punishment or an absence of curiosity. No, Jasmine’s behavior was rooted in a need for safety. The predictability that was so crushing to Rose was like a warm blanket to Jasmine. And Rose had taken that from her. It did not matter that Rose had done it to protect Viola. And now Rose had lost her only real friend. But as bad as Rose felt, she knew that wherever she was, Viola was feeling much worse. Rose, at least, was merely alone. Viola was alone and afraid. And there was nothing Rose could do to help her. But at least there was no wind tonight.
Image: Curves by Ard van der Leeuw