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    As she stepped out of the carriage and onto the gray driveway, my dear beloved laid her eyes on Lady Catherine’s mansion for the very first time.

    In person, that is.

    She’d seen it before in photographs, and once in a fantastic illusion conjured by the Lady herself upon visiting the Clarkes. A mesmerizing show of sorcery and projection, and soon enough, a young girl was staring in awe at a dollhouse-sized three-dimensional building. It was the day magic and knowledge became her life.

    She was eight years, three months, and two days old; one of three precise dates she knew in remembrance of an important event.

    The next event she would commit to memory was when she was fourteen years, seven months, and sixteen days old. That was the day her brother graduated from the Academy and he invited her to be with him on stage.

    The last was when she was twenty-three years, four months, and one day old.

    But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

    On the day Sophie Clarke gazed up at the mansion, she was twenty-one years, two months, and six days old. Over plain clothes, she wore a long black cloak—or, as I called it, the dark and broody cape—and her long dark hair with a few magic cyan streaks was tied back in a half-ponytail. 

    She was pale, a terrible side effect of living in the north and being dreadfully antisocial, yet she was hale and hearty nonetheless. She was beautiful in a very awkward fashion. Cute and endearing in her earnest social misgivings. Funny how she knew so much, and yet she understood so very little.

    If she knew my thoughts at the time, she would be quite cross.

    She clutched her bag to her chest like a terrified child, staring up at the house that contained all her hopes and dreams. For three years, those white walls would be her home. For three years, the thousands of books in that library would be her friends, and for three years, the woman living inside would be her teacher.

    I asked once, as we sat by Old Man Frost’s shop, if she regretted going to Lady Catherine’s house.

    She stared at me as though I’d gone mad. Of course not, she’d answered. What a ridiculous question for me to ask.

    She hadn’t realized I was the subject of my own reflection. 

    The large, oaken doors opened with a heavy push, and Sophie stepped inside, the coachman—James Flint—bringing her belongings behind with him. She had offered to carry them with her magic, but he’d refused. She thought it silly. It was just one thing, after all.

    Her entire life reduced to the ridiculously tiny number of one single green bag.

    Enviable, truly. I’d need at least six large suitcases. 

    “Young miss,” said Flint, putting down her lonely, heavy bag with a relieved sigh, “the Lady is not home yet, but asked me to encourage you to explore the estate while she is away. I can show you to your room once I’ve tended to the horses.”


    Though Sophie’s smile was appropriately polite, it hid her real conflicting emotions. She was disappointed that Lady Catherine wasn’t home, and yet she was relieved at the same time.

    “All right,” she replied at last, deciding she ought to use the time to rehearse her conversation with Lady Catherine for the twenty-fourth—yes, twenty-fourth—time. “Thank you for your help.”

    Flint offered a grunt and a smile and then ambled off toward the neighing horses while Sophie took a breath and stepped forward to explore her new home and its surely fantastic library.

    Now, let us play a game. I want you to imagine what a fabulous mansion would look like. Picture it. The kind of place one dreams of owning as a child, with as many rooms as one needs and then double that. Hold that image crystal clear in your head.

    Do you have it? Well then, whatever you are imagining, know that the Lady’s home is far, far grander.

    Priceless artworks from priceless artists of the time hung on the walls of several galleries—Whispers of the Wind by the impressionist Lovrencic, A Child Nursing from Percifield, Portrait of a Dog by Garza Morales, and so many more. All originals, of course.

    Exceptional statues and historic artifacts followed said paintings, scattered across the many rooms that made up this sensational abode. There was a room for private cinema viewings, with an ancient projector kept modern by effortless magic. A room for meditating, filled with silk cushions and cashmere blankets. A tea room for tea ceremonies with a cabinet containing a seemingly endless supply of cookies, and a gramophone in the corner, waiting to play one of the hundreds of records lining the wall.

    I could, quite frankly, take audience suggestions for a room, and chances are the mansion would already have it. And yet, Sophie noticed as she stepped into another hallway lined with doors, the only thing the mansion seemed empty of was people.

    It makes sense, she thought as she walked to the nearest door. The Lady has magic.

    Yes, indeed. Whyever would one need a cumbersome staff of maids, butlers, cooks, and so on when one had boundless magic at their immediate disposal? A snap of her fingers, and surely the house would be pristine in less than a second! True, that kind of magic was exceedingly complex and required much prowess, but it was Lady Catherine performing said magic.

    Who needs others, Sophie thought with a smile, when you have magic and books?

    Books that Sophie was having a very hard time finding.

    She’d found a room for practically everything save for the one she cared about: the library.

    She stepped through yet another door with great hopes that were quickly dashed by the discovery that again the library eluded her. With slight disappointment, she continued into a small study where photographs of the Lady decorated the walls, every single one kept safe in an ornate blue frame.

    She examined the photographs with unreserved awe. In one, the Lady waved brightly from atop a camel, great pyramids towering in the background; in another, stuffy-looking men and women gawked at her magically powered vehicle while she giggled to the side; in the next, she and a rather similar woman posed with yet a third, elderly, smart-looking woman.

    A smile crept up Sophie’s lips. The elderly woman squinted at the camera, looking very much uncomfortable while Lady Catherine politely glared at the woman next to her, who herself looked as though she would much rather be anywhere but there.

    That must be her sister, Sophie thought. She hadn’t known much of the Lady’s sister, except for the fact that her name was Lorelei and that she apparently was the equal in power to the Lady herself.

    Sophie doubted that was true, of course. Lady Catherine was unrivaled in her magical expertise! Unparalleled and undefeated! Such was her borderline-concerning adoration, I once told her that Lady Catherine could raise the sun with a gesture of her hand, and Sophie absolutely believed me at first.

    She insisted she didn’t. I continue to disagree.

    Now, as I was saying, she continued her visual tour of the Lady’s life, of her many achievements and skills depicted in frozen moments of time, until she stopped at a most peculiar sight.

    An error in the middle of the wall.

    Well, no, not an error, per se, but certainly something wrong in this valley of images. Whereas all the other frames had been ordered in a very precise fashion, she noticed a few had been moved around, distinct from the rest, as though they were trying to hide the spot left behind by an absent frame. She could even see one of the holes left behind by a nail.

    Maybe it fell and broke?

    Eventually, she decided to move on and left the room, looking out into the hallway and scanning for her curiosity’s next target. Despite all the open doors, her attention was caught by the only closed room near the end of the hall.

    A closed door, as you might have guessed, meant something to discover, and Sophie Clarke loved to discover new things.

    She strode toward it with confident steps and soon enough found herself before an ordinary wooden door.

    She knocked three times.

    “Hello?” she called out, and waited a moment before knocking anew. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

    When silence greeted her again, she moved her hand toward the doorknob but stopped upon noticing a silver bracelet hanging from it. She picked it up and examined it, finding an inscription along its length.

    We were strangers when first we met…

    “We were strangers when first we met,” she murmured, staring at the phrase for a moment. She turned the bracelet over, expecting to find the rest of the sentence and yet finding nothing at all.

    She frowned. “Right.”

    Why would someone leave a bracelet just hanging on a doorknob? It stood out to her as much as the missing frame in the other room. Two little details that were out of place in this house where everything had a carefully designated space.

    Hoping to find answers within the room, she tried the doorknob and found it locked—a fact which did little to dissuade her curiosity. Still gripping the doorknob, her fingertips glowed with cyan-colored magic. It would be very easy to use an unlocking spell on the door. Less than a second’s work, really.

    And yet, the light in her fingers faded out and she let go of the knob. As much as she wanted to know what was behind the door, the last thing she wanted was to intrude on the privacy of her hostess.

    She went back to examining the bracelet, running it through her fingers, and then nearly jumped right out of her skin when a gentle voice spoke behind her.

    “Pretty, isn’t it?” said a voice that instilled both joy and apprehension in Sophie. “I engraved it myself!”

    “La-Lady Catherine!” Sophie gasped and nearly backed up against the wall, heart thumping in her chest.

    There she was in all her glory, her smile filled with no small amount of mischief. She towered over the younger woman, the poor dear staring at the Lady wide-eyed, like a deer facing the hunter.

    How terribly, absolutely, positively horrific! Sophie Clarke, mage extraordinaire, caught in the scandalous act of breaking and entering! Already her mind was swirling into a descending spiral of possibilities! Lady Catherine would surely never trust her again! But wait! What if she sent her home?! What would she tell her parents?! What would she tell herself when she looked at her reflection in the mirror every morning, eyes haunted by the utter defeat and shame and humiliation?!

    Apologies, dear friend, I might have gotten carried away there. I do love my theatrics, after all!

    Now, where was I?

    “Lady Catherine,” Sophie declared after somehow reacquiring some sense of composure. She bowed politely. “I, uh—”

    “Sophie! I’ve known you since you were a child!” exclaimed the Lady, waving her off. “Please don’t call me Lady Catherine! You’re reminding me I’m old!” At Sophie’s horrified expression, she laughed. “Catherine is enough.” Her eyes then lowered toward the bracelet Sophie was practically crushing in her grip. She smiled and said, “Would you like something less painful to nervously squeeze?”

    Sophie blinked. “Huh?” she said eloquently before realizing what the Lady meant, her cheeks tinting red in response.

    Thankfully, Lady Catherine paid no mind, reaching out and taking the bracelet, giving Sophie a clear view of the identical bracelet around her wrist. “It’s very pretty,” she said again, quietly enough that it seemed as though she were talking to herself. “But…” She reached toward the doorknob and returned it to its place. “Some things are best left where their owner will find them.”

    And after that, the topic was closed and she led Sophie away from the locked door and the bracelet with only one half of a message.

    The Lady spoke of trivialities as they walked, and Sophie answered as best she could. It was hard to keep up with Lady Catherine’s quick-fire questions, ranging from the well-being of Sophie’s family, to her studies in school, to her thoughts on the house. The family was fine, she had graduated summa cum laude, and the house was impressive.

    “I noticed there seems to be no staff?” asked the student when they stopped before a set of two oak doors.

    The Lady smiled. “No, there aren’t. Only Flint lives here with me.”

    Sophie coughed. “Oh,” she said, and nothing more.

    With a snap of the Lady’s fingers, the doors swung open and Sophie followed her into a private office. Compared to the rest of the house, Lady Catherine’s office was actually rather… well, rather unimpressive. Simple wallpaper, a few simple paintings, an oak desk, and two chairs before it.

    “I apologize I wasn’t here to greet you,” said the Lady as she moved behind the desk and sat on her chair. “If I’d known you’d arrive so early, I wouldn’t have scheduled a meeting with the mayor! I came over as soon as Daramina told me you were here.”

    Sophie blinked. “Daramina—?”

    A loud squawk interrupted her, and the startled woman turned around to find a phoenix eyeing her from atop its perch. Sophie had to stop herself from gasping. She’d read about the creatures before, but never imagined she’d see one in the flesh. 

    “Now, Sophie, I know you’ve only just arrived, and I am sorry,” continued Lady Catherine, drawing her attention away from the phoenix, “but I may need your help with something.”

    “My help?” Sophie asked, turning to her with a glowing expression, already anticipating being asked to assist with some sort of wondrous magical marvel, no doubt. “Of course! What can I do for you?”

    The Lady did not reply at first. She seemed lost in thought, staring at a framed photograph on her desk—an ornate blue frame that Sophie quickly recognized, though its face was turned away from her.

    “I’d like you to go into the city for me,” said the Lady, finally tearing her gaze away from the photo and jotting down something on a nearby piece of paper, “and run a quick errand.”

    “Of course!” Sophie said, masking her disappointment with enthusiasm, never mind the fact that she knew nothing about the city, and even less so how to find her way through it.

    The Lady smiled brightly, folding the piece of paper and handing it over, along with a small  purse filled with coins. “I would ask Flint to do this, but I think he fell asleep while tending to horses, and this is a great opportunity for you to get to know the city.”

    “If you’re lucky,” she continued, as somewhere far away I made my way towards work, “you might meet someone interesting.”

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