The swaying and rumbling of the coach put me to sleep halfway through the long ride. I was dreaming about teacakes when an especially bad bump woke me up. I started and gasped as I realized where I was. Had I been snoring? How embarrassing!
I looked around to see if anyone was laughing at me. But all seemed normal. Susan was curled up in the corner of the seat reading a book. Her brother John sat like a lump on the opposite seat, drooling in his sleep.
Susan’s chaperone, Mrs. Crumplestoff, was calmly embroidering something. I could tell from the aura around her that she was working magic. Most likely, she was stitching a charm into some article of clothing. Like any dutiful daughter, I could sew, too, but I only knew a little about thread magic. My magical talents, such as they were, lay elsewhere.
If I had disgraced myself by snoring or talking in my sleep, there was no evidence of it. I genteelly covered up my yawn and rubbed my eyes, then looked out the window.
Susan spoke without being prompted: “We’re not far now. You should see the tower above the trees soon.”
“Excellent,” I said. I tidied my hair and shook out the shawl I was wearing, trying to look at least a little more presentable. I’d be at Susan’s home soon, and in a matter of days, the house would be full of other guests. I wanted to get in the habit now of making sure I wouldn’t embarrass myself.
I had met Susan Murkle at school, where we were both boarders. She was there because her parents were dead and her uncle didn’t want to spend his time rearing children. I was there because my parents wanted me to have a good education, so that I could support myself by teaching if I ever needed to do so.
It was unlikely that I would ever need to work, for my father was not only a respectable clergyman, but he had inherited a fortune from Grandpapa. Even if Papa were to pass away suddenly, I’d be left with a sufficient sum to support myself.
But Mama had had to work her way through the world until she and Papa were married, and she was determined that her daughters would have all their options covered. So, boarding school it was. Mama had hoped that I would be the best student in my class . . . but that role was already taken by Susan, and I couldn’t compete with her.
I suppose Susan and I could have been rivals, in another world. Instead, we were best friends. We had been out of the schoolroom for over a year now and when we met together at a beach resort, Susan concocted the idea of bringing me to her house to keep her company during her uncle’s house party. All the other guests, it seemed, were likely to be old and stogy. I would be there to keep Susan from dying of boredom.
Susan hadn’t had to ask me twice to join her. I had never been to a house party of any kind, let alone one in a castle. I could only imagine what it might look like: dark and towering, of course, but would there be a moat around it, as there were in old stories?
I didn’t have long to wait. “There it is,” Susan said. She pointed out the window, and I caught my first glimpse of Castle Murktower.