THE two men sat silently in the carriage. The heat was stifling, but the windows were not open, and the carriage was not moving. The younger man shifted his feet anxiously and risked a glance upwards. He could feel sweat dripping down his neck. “That was very kind, sir, what you did for my son.”
“It was a triviality,” the older man said. His hands clutched the knob of his cane, and he stared at the carriage window, though the curtains were drawn. “Something to distract him and your wife while I took you away for a short while. I haven’t used that key in years. It’s my fail-safe, in case I forget the others.” He looked down at his large bronze ring on his finger and twisted it. The younger man looked at his own hand, adorned with a matching ring. “The locks have all been changed so many times, I’m not sure it even works any longer.”
“He’ll enjoy it anyway, sir, I’m sure.”
The older man sighed. “He’s a smart one. If things . . . It’s all ending, Volio. Bonne has returned to his island and vanished. Canterville is dead, probably at Rastail’s hands. Voukil hasn’t been heard from in years. And Knox . . .” The older man looked up at the drawn window again. “I had to kill Knox myself last night.”
“Sir?” Volio gasped.
“Poison in his tea. It looked like a heart attack. He was deter- mined to enact that damned plan. Nothing was in place for it; none of us agreed on it. It would have failed, and failed spectacularly. It would have brought the Queen and her guard down on all of us, on all scientists, and on Illyria. I could not have that.”
“I . . . understand,” Volio said, looking down. “It doesn’t matter if you understand or not,” the older man said. “It’s ending. There are just a handful of us left, and I’m nearly done for, anyway. I’ll be gone in a year or two—”
The older man’s ferocity flared up. “Don’t interrupt.” He tapped his cane on the ground. For a moment, the air in the carriage seemed to stir.
“I’ll be gone in a year or two, and then my son will take over Illyria. He knows nothing of us. And I want it to remain that way. When I am done, so is our Society. You may attempt to keep together the rags of what is left. Teach your sons, if they’re hard enough.” The older man coughed, and then looked at his hands. “Mine isn’t. But keep it secret. Our goals . . . they are good goals, just, and right.” He stared at Volio. “But they must be carried out in secret. Our Society has failed. For now, anyway. Perhaps in the future, someone will get it right.”
Volio nodded. “That is all I have come to say. Leave me now.” Volio gratefully hopped out of the coach and into the warm, fresh air. He mopped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and turned to look at the coach. It was a great bronze thing, totally en- closed, with black curtains and tinted glass. On the back was the seal of Illyria: a shield with a gear inside it.
The coach was of the older man’s design. It required no horses, just a man in front who shoveled coal into a boiler and turned a wheel to direct the coach’s movements. He nodded once at the coal- man, who began shoveling, then drove the horseless carriage away amid vents of steam and the sound of aching metal. Volio sighed and went inside to enjoy his son’s birthday.
INSIDE the coach, the man with the cane sunk back into the velvet- lined seats. Even though it was hot, he was old, and his bones were always chilly. The coach ran smoothly and quickly back to London, where it stopped in front of Illyria College. He used his cane to climb slowly out of the carriage, but instead of going through the front door, he turned toward the garden and opened a small hidden doorway in the wall of the school. It was a clever door, one he had installed himself to make his comings and goings harder to track. From the outside, the door looked like part of the wall, solid stone, a few ornamental carvings of gears and faces of great inventors. But a simple tug on the nose of the gargoyle with the face of Robert Barron caused the bricks to creak forward.
He crept down the shadowy stairs inside. He wound up in the basement, which smelled of chemicals, metal, and water. He walked the twisting passages without the aid of a torch and came at last to a great underground train station with a small train waiting at the platform. He had designed it all—the station, the train, the labrynthine basement, the college itself. And now he was dying, and there was no one left who knew it as well as he did. Instead, he had torn up his knowledge into a puzzle, giving each person only a piece of it. The assembled picture, he knew, was too much for any one person to handle without feeling like a god. And the time for such man-made gods was over. Aboveground, in the college proper, his son would rule when he passed on, but here, below, this train . . . he hoped his son would never need to know about it.
It was hard work for the old man, but he slowly began disabling the train. He locked the brakes in place so it would not move, and hid the locks. It took hours to finish, and by then, he was tired and dirty, covered in sweat and grease worn like warpaint. No one would be able to enter the tower now, not even members of the Society. That part of him was locked away and safe.
He headed back to the entrance to the basement, and there, into the lift, which took him back up to the college. The lift was in a corner, out of sight from the rest of the college, but he was careful step- ping out, making sure no one could see him. He walked through the bronze halls slowly. It was late by now, and he didn’t want to rouse people from their beds.
“Algernon?” came a voice as he headed toward his living quarters. “Algernon, you’re filthy.” The woman who came forward was younger than he, but not young. She had gray stripes through her dark hair.
“Ada,” he said. “What have you been doing? Where have you been? You missed supper. Ernest and Cecily were frightened, so I made up a story about you working on something in your lab. . . .”
“I think,” Algernon said, “I think I need to go take a bath.”
“Well, you certainly do. You’re covered in dirt and you smell like oil. What have you been doing?”
“It’s not important now,” Algernon said. “Just let me take a bath, and leave me in peace.”
“Fine,” Ada said, crossing her arms, “I’ll walk you to your chambers. But you had best tell me everything you’ve been up to when you’re clean.”
“I don’t answer to you, woman,” he said, not kindly.
“No, I suppose you don’t. Which is part of your problem. Find your own way to your chambers, then.” She walked away from him, down the hall, stomping her feet angrily. He almost called after her, but didn’t. Instead, he slowly made his way to his quarters, and, once there, to his private bathroom. He was nearly done.
VIOLET and Ashton’s father was leaving for America to help decide where time should begin. It was Violet’s duty to retrieve her brother and bring him to the door to say good-bye, but he was not paying her any attention. Instead, he was absorbed in his piano playing. If she had been luckier, she thought, her twin brother would have inherited her father’s obsession with time, at least insofar as learning to play the piano with some sense of it.
“Ashton!” she shouted. He ignored her. “Ashton!” she shouted more loudly. She was standing by his shoulder. He could clearly hear her, but was pretending not to.
“If music be the food of love, play on!” Ashton yelled over his rackety playing. Then he attempted to sing the same lines along with the music—to think of it as “in tune with the music” would imply that the music had a tune. Violet, impatient, tapped him on the shoulder with a little force.
Ashton finally stopped playing and turned to look at his sister. “I think I play the piano rather well. Perhaps not technically well . . .”
“Or well at all,” Violet said, smiling.
“If I were speaking to someone who was about to do me a very large favor—indeed, who was about to assist me in a most unorthodox scheme—I think perhaps I’d be a little nicer.”
Violet narrowed her eyes. She did need his help, so she forced a falsely cheerful smile. “Anyone can play technically well, brother,” she said sweetly. “But you play with real feeling.”
“Thank you,” Ashton said with a large grin. “Your compliments mean ever so much to me.”
“Father is about to leave, and we must say good-bye.”
“Ah,” Ashton said, and closed the piano. He stood, took Violet’s arm, and walked with her toward the door. The two of them were as attractive a pair as two seventeen-year-olds of fine English breeding could be. Violet was a lovely specimen of her gender, with dark auburn hair, which always seemed to have the look of having been blown in the breeze for a while. She was fair, with rosy cheeks, and though she was a bit tall, she had a fine, womanly figure. Her strong- jawed oval face showed her great intelligence in both the sparkle of her clear gray eyes and the sharply arching smirk of her bow-shaped lips. She seldom took pains with her appearance, and so possessed a carefree beauty that would not have been out of place in a gothic romance of the sort she loathed. Ashton, also with pale skin and auburn hair, had a more dandyish appearance—as carefully dressed as Violet was careless. He often carried a cane, and wore outlandish bespoke jackets made by a tailor in London.
Their father, Dr. Joseph Cornwall Adams, was one of the leading astronomers in the country, and Violet and Ashton had grown up crawling the winding tower of stairs to the observatory on the top of their manor, where they would stare at the various devices that moved lenses and recorded images of the night sky. But each of the children had learned different things from this. Ashton had focused on the romance of the stars and the night sky, and as he grew, devoted his energies to poetry and the arts, whereas Violet saw the brass instruments her father used and decided she would be the next to design such devices. By the age of eight she had fashioned herself a lab in the basement of the manor, where she taught herself the Great Principles of the Sciences: natural, chemical, and especially mechanical. To deny her genius would be to deny the truth, for she was truly gifted. Since then she had managed to create many marvelous inventions, much to the delight of her brother and the chagrin of Mrs. Wilks, their governess.
Ashton and Violet headed to the entry foyer and watched the servants load their father’s coach in the rain. It was difficult for Violet to hold still, as she was anxious for her father to go. It was not that she wanted him gone—in fact, she already missed him, and was sad at his parting—but she had spent the past few weeks orchestrating a great scheme, which would help her to fulfill her dreams, and she could not begin it until her father had left.
“Children,” Mrs. Wilks said from behind them, “come away from the door. It’s a little drafty, and you’ll catch cold.” She beamed at them until they moved away. She had been their governess since birth, and their mother’s maid and friend before that. She had named the twins after their mother died in childbirth, and had raised them as a foster mother. And though she was filled with love for them, she was also filled with worry. Consequently, the twins often regarded her as they would a maiden aunt who loved them nearly to the point of suffocation and would have preferred they stay safe, probably bundled with many quilts and tied to their beds, where nothing bad would ever happen to them and where she could spoon-feed them her love and possibly also homemade pea soup.
When the carriage was loaded outside, the three of them looked up the stairs as if expecting Mr. Adams to appear with a flourish, bid them all good-bye, leap out the door and into the coach, and drive it away himself. Had that actually happened, however, they all would have fainted from shock, as Mr. Adams was not one for flourish. A moment later, Mr. Adams came carefully down the stairs, holding a bulging briefcase in one hand and a few loose papers in another. He read them as he walked, trusting his feet to find the next step.
“Father, do be careful,” Violet said.
“Ah. Violet, Ashton, Mrs. Wilks,” he said, as if he were surprised to see them all standing there.
“The coach is ready, sir,” Mrs. Wilks said. “If you don’t leave soon, you’ll miss the airship.”
“Ah, well, I have time to say good-bye, don’t I?” Mr. Adams asked. Mrs. Wilks nodded.
“Are you excited, Father?” Violet asked, giving him a hug. “America must be wondrous.”
“Indeed, I am rather excited. Not just to see America, but also for the conference. All the great minds in the field of astronomy and cartography will be there. It seems a great number of them feel that the proper place to put the First Meridian is in Greenwich. Ha!” And here he laughed a little, a sweet, cheerful, sort of coughing laugh, suitable to a man of his years and his temperament. “It is a good thing that we will have a global meridian, of course, but it was a mistake placing England’s in Greenwich. I certainly hope we can fix that by placing it somewhere else for the entire globe.” He smiled, making the creases around his eyes wrinkle into deep lines. Violet smiled also, for her father’s amusement made her happy. He was a short man, about fifty years of age, with a long, gray, bushy mustache. His shoulders were often thrown back a little too far, and his chin was always a little too high, perhaps stuck that way from constantly gazing up through his telescope. His clothes were usually shabby and too loose, but he knew how to dress himself well if he were going to meet anyone outside the household. His eyes, once a sharp gray like his children’s, had become softened and blurry over time, like dissolving clouds. He blinked perhaps more often than is common, and sometimes had to force himself to smile, because in truth, al- though he loved his children, he always felt a little sad for having lost their mother, whom he had loved more than the stars.
“Will you bring me back an arrowhead?” Ashton asked, also hugging his father.
“One for me as well!” Violet said. “Oh? Well, yes, if I find any.” “You’re going to be there a year. The conference won’t take that
long, will it?” Violet asked. “Well, the conference doesn’t even start until October of 1884.
But there are a series of smaller conferences beforehand, and some ridiculous social meetings of various astronomers. . . .” Mr. Adams looked off distantly, as if dreading interacting with his peers.
“So you can explore! And bring us back arrowheads,” Ashton said, satisfied.
“I’ll see what I can do. Now, you children must promise to be good, and listen to Mrs. Wilks.” Their father smiled, and they smiled back. They needed him to be comfortable and trusting for what they had planned next. Luckily, he was comfortable and trust- ing, and his head was so filled with the night sky that he couldn’t see the small deceptions his children would sometimes practice on him.
“Actually, Father, Ashton and I have decided to spend the season in London.”
“Well, Mrs. Wilks will go with you, then.”
“Oh no, Father. Mrs. Wilks needs to stay here to look after the manor. I’ll get a maid more suited to city life. One who knows the most modern hairstyles, and about dresses and hats and things.”
“Hats?” her father asked. “I know about hats,” Mrs. Wilks said. “I hear they’re very fashionable. Last time he went to the city,
Ashton brought me back a gray top hat with a green ribbon and a white veil. He says all the women were wearing them.” Ashton nodded.
“Were they? Well . . . I haven’t really noticed.”
“Mrs. Wilks knew nothing about it, either. So you can see why I’ll need a new lady’s maid.”
“I know about hats now,” Mrs. Wilks said, crossing her arms. “I suppose,” Mr. Adams said, a finger on his chin. “This seems a sudden decision,” Mrs. Wilks said, frowning. “Perhaps we could discuss it more thoroughly through the post. The children and I will send you a note explaining why they want to spend the season in town—”
“I want to spend the season in town so that I am ready to come out at the end of the year,” Violet said, batting her eyelashes.
“Come out?” Mr. Adams’s eyes shone with happiness. Finally, his daughter was going to start behaving like a proper girl, get married, and give him grandchildren, which he secretly desired, because he loved the way babies smelled like flour, and how they would reach out and touch all his astronomical instruments because the stars were still new to them. He had been hinting around the subject for years, afraid to suggest it, in case she was offended. But now, she had decided upon it herself, and he could already imagine the tiny grand- babies in his arms. At that moment, he would do anything for his daughter. He blinked, and planted a kiss on her forehead. “If those are your plans, dear child, then you should enact them. Mrs. Wilks, you shall tend to the household here. Come February, Violet will find a maid in town, and her brother shall take over the sometimes difficult task of guarding her reputation. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? You can have a break from them.”
“I don’t know, sir—,” Mrs. Wilks said, raising her hand up as if to stop the conversation from going any further.
“Oh, don’t worry so much, Mrs. Wilks. I promise to be very good,” Violet said, lowering her eyes. She would need to be in town long before February, but Ashton had a plan for that. “And I will write to you every Sunday so you know we’re safe and sound. You should stay here, though, and rest. Think of how hectic the season is in London, and how it would afflict your nerves.”
“My nerves are quite fine, I think,” Mrs. Wilks said.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Wilks,” Mr. Adams said, clapping her on the shoulder. “They’ll be quite all right.”
“If you say so, sir.” Mrs. Wilks looked more anxious than usual. She started to twist a stray brown curl around her finger.
“And I know they will look after each other. You will, won’t you? A girl with your sister’s beauty is liable to catch the attention of all the rogues in London. You must pay careful mind that she is always on guard.”
“I’ll watch out for her, Father,” Ashton said. Violet held back a snicker at this. “In fact, I was thinking that in order to better ac- quaint her with how the season works, we could both go down to London as early as October, for the little season.”
“Little season?” Mrs. Wilks asked.
“Yes,” Ashton said. “It is the season before the season—attended by bankers, civil servants, and small gentlefolk who don’t have estates out of town. And, more important, artists: poets, painters, literati, and the like. There will be readings and small exhibitions.”
“Will that be appropriate?” Mrs. Wilks asked. “I doubt there will be many ladies among the literati.”
“Why, some of the bankers have wives, and the wives of the small gentlefolk and civil servants will be there. Besides, Mrs. Wilks, you speak as though poets don’t have wives, or indeed, that poets cannot be ladies.”
“A woman poet is hardly a lady,” Mrs. Wilks said. “I think it’s a splendid idea,” Mr. Adams broke in. “It will be a good example of how ladies in society behave, even those of lesser society. We can’t have you talking only about springs and levers during the season, now, can we, dear?” he said, his eyes twinkling.
“Of course not, Father,” Violet said sweetly.
“Very well. You may go in October. But, Ashton, mind the art she sees is all . . . decent.”
“Of course, Father,” Ashton said, grinning at Mrs. Wilks, whose brow was furrowed.
“Have a safe trip, Father,” Violet said. “And, if you can remember, make a note of the operating system of the airship—steam powered, I’m sure, but is the steering mechanism spring based, or does it use additional tanks of compressed air? And if so, how many? And where are they located on the ship?”
“I will try to remember to find that out,” Mr. Adams said, sighing. “Now, come wave good-bye to me as I go.”
The three of them walked outside into the rain, which had lightened considerably. The carriage was waiting, loaded up with Mr. Adams’s luggage, and pulled by two strong black steeds. Violet thought, not for the first time, how convenient it would be if her father would just buy one of the new, steam-powered coaches which did not require horses, and moved very quickly, but he had thus far denied all her requests for one.
Mr. Adams hopped into the carriage before he could get very wet. With one final look at his children, he rapped the window. The driver took off, pulling the carriage out of the courtyard and down the drive. Violet and Ashton stayed outside, Ashton even waving his handkerchief, until they couldn’t see the carriage any longer.
Mrs. Wilks still stood in the doorway, her lower lip wobbling slightly. “So you’re goin’ to London, are you?” she asked, her eyes widening, as if already seeing the dangers that awaited them.
“Yes, Mrs. Wilks, but not till the season starts in October. So you will have us all summer!” Ashton said with a smile, then bounded forward, kissed her on the cheek, and ran inside to try his hand on the harp, which he insisted he was picking up a real talent for.
Violet tried to slip past the stunned Mrs. Wilks, but she caught her arm. “You’ll be a good and proper young lady, won’t you?” Mrs. Wilks asked, putting her other hand on Violet’s arm. “Your father is a good man, but he doesn’t see how dangerous the city can be to a young girl. You won’t do anything that might shame him?” She looked Violet up and down, a pleading look in her eye, her chin jiggling slightly.
“I’m always a good daughter,” Violet said with an innocent smile. This did not fool Mrs. Wilks, who had long ago learned that mischief was native to Violet’s soul. She knew Violet had a good heart, but also knew Violet was willful and independent, and not in the least bit ordinary. She loved Violet, in her way, but she also feared that one day Violet’s forthright nature would land her into the sort of trouble from which Mrs. Wilks could not extricate her. So she stared at Violet a little while longer, hoping to transfer some of her own reserved nature into the girl through eye contact, until Violet smiled again, curtseyed, and left the hall, heading toward her bedroom.
The estate, called Messaline, was one of those large and traditional manses of the gentlemen scientists of the day, just outside of London. Though originally decorated in natural hues which suited the late Mrs. Adams’ taste, in recent years, Ashton had made changes to modernize the décor, creating striking contrasts of ivory and ivy, brown and gold.
Though he had often tried to bring his sensibilities to Violet’s bedroom, Violet insisted it remain untouched by Ashton’s rennovations. It was a room unencumbered by the sorts of dolls and pillows that were so often found in young ladies’ bedrooms of the time. The only indication that this was in fact Violet’s room was the many books piled up on her dressing table, texts by Babbage and Ada Byron, John Snow, and of course, Duke Algernon of Illyria, the great scientific mind of the age. All his books, from his first, The Mechanics of Biology, published in 1840, until his last, Transplantation of Living Organs to Better God’s Creatures, published a few years after his death, lined the shelves where another girl would have kept her powder and sewing supplies. Several large, shabby notebooks were piled on her writing desk, their pages frayed and sticking out from under the worn leather covers.
Violet threw herself on her bed and withdrew a portfolio from under her pillow. She unlaced the ribbons binding it and took out the papers within, to gaze at them again. These were the application papers for Illyria College, where, if her scheme succeeded, she would be spending the coming year. Illyria was currently the best scientific college in the world. While many colleges of the day required letters of reference and banker’s notes, Illyria admitted students upon proof of their scientific genius alone, and gave them a completely free education. What it did not do was admit women. Violet found this quite frustrating, as some of Illyria’s counterparts, such as Cambridge, which had begun accepting women into their classes, even if they could not yet get degrees. Violet had no doubt she was the equal of any male applicant of the day. This seemed so absurd and unjust that the only clear solution was to apply under her brother’s name with the intention of disguising herself as him and spending the year in the guise of a man.
She was interrupted from her reverie by her brother’s sudden arrival. “And so, dear sister, it begins,” he said dramatically.
“Yes. Are you sure it wouldn’t be better to abandon the pretense after the interview?” Violet asked, continuing a conversation from the day before. This had been Violet’s plan before Ashton convinced her that she would have to stay in character for the entire first year. His variation certainly seemed more daring than hers, and she liked to be daring. Though she was an unconventional young woman, Violet still had a great fear of bringing shame upon her family and her father’s name, and dressing travesti was liable to bring plenty of shame with it.
Ashton answered her with a grin. “You surely couldn’t shame the family any more than I plan to,” he said. She laughed and embraced her brother tightly. It could be risky, but the rewards would be worth it.
“It’s going to be a good year, isn’t it?” Violet said.
“I certainly hope so.” Ashton planned to spend the year at their townhouse, free to do whatever he liked as Violet wrote letters to Mrs. Wilks, assuring her of their continued good behavior. It was her brother’s price for his cooperation in the scheme.
“Don’t let Mrs. Wilks catch you looking at that,” he said, gesturing towards the application on her bed. Violet nodded, too, and crossed to the bed, sneaking one more look as she put it away. Ashton, seeing her get reabsorbed in the papers, laughed and left.
The application required, of course, a name and address, as well as educational history—Violet had written “Private Tutors,” for be- tween her father and her books, she felt she was well educated in the sciences, and because of Mrs. Wilks, knew a very little French. There was also an essay on the state of the modern sciences, and detailed plans or formulae for some scientific invention, such as a clockwork automaton, or chemical formula of invisibility, or perhaps an example of a surgery successfully resulting in the creation of a two-headed bird—or, in Violet’s case, a most interesting perambulator. All the applicants who made it through the first review were expected to produce the completed product at the interview, but Violet had finished her perambulator a while ago, as a favor for Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. Wilks’s sister and a nursemaid who sometimes visited the manor. Violet was still unsure that her essay, on the soon-to- come development of a steam-powered airship that would penetrate the heavens and visit distant planets was quite up to par. But it felt well reasoned, and she had been on several steam-powered airships in her years, and had thoroughly examined their various mechanisms. She thoughtfully licked her finger and flipped through her essay one more time, though, just to be certain.
When she had finished rereading her application, and found it still met with her approval, Violet went down to the basement to work on her devilish machines. It hadn’t been easy to create a laboratory in a basement that was intended to be used as a wine cellar. However, Violet knew from a young age that she would not be able to achieve scientific greatness in her bedroom, and so painstakingly directed the servants in cleaning out and remodeling the basement. There was still a small wine cellar, of course—in fact, it was all one would notice at first, if one were to go down to the basement. But there was also a door, a rather thick door, with heavy bronze hinges. From the crack under the heavy door, one might see lights flickering occasionally, as one is wont to do when staring at the door to a scientific laboratory.
The laboratory within was more cozy than one might have expected. Several candles were set about, and a large bronze potbellied stove flamed cheerfully against a wall. A wide table took up most of the space in the room, and it was strewn with books, papers, sketches, notes, and various bits of machinery and scrap metal. A desk stood against another wall, also with some books on it, and a small chemistry station, filled with vials of mysterious liquids. A few stools were set about, and one large brown armchair by the fire in which Violet would read when her hands had tired of tinkering. The whole room smelled of warm stone and heated metal, of wood and paper, and Violet loved it.
Currently, she was working on a toy. Normally, she wouldn’t have bothered with such things, but she wanted to be prepared at her Illyria interview to demonstrate that she could create not only great works of mechanical genius, but also the simpler affectations of the playful scientist, clockwork dancers and the like, which would impress the soft-minded among the nobility. She had worked out all the basic principles, and created the basic constructs: a large clock- work mother duck and several rolling ducklings that would follow her path without any attachments, due to magnetized pieces that the mother duck left in a trail as she moved along on the power of her springs. However, since this was a toy, she needed to make it ornate, and so planned to spend the rest of the day doing careful metalwork and affixing glass gemstones she had pried out of the costume jewelry that Mrs. Wilks had given her as a child. The mother duck was mostly done, with sparkling green eyes and carefully engraved feathers, and even a gold-gilded beak. But the ducklings were giving her more trouble: they felt unfinished. She sat down at the table and stared at the line of unembellished ducklings. Their bodies were cast out of brass, and had only the basic shape of ducklings, supported on strong brass wheels. The mother duck’s head swung back and forth as it rolled, thanks to a simple clockwork mechanism, but the ducklings were too small for that sort of effect. Violet’s eyes widened as she realized that she could give them thin wings that flapped slightly as they rolled. She instantly opened a large sketch pad and worked out the basic structure of the wings. She could even make them out of real feathers, with simple brass wing bones. She rang the bell that hung near the door to the lab. A moment or so later, one of the younger servants came down. Violet suspected that it was only the servants who were in trouble with Mrs. Wilks who were sent down to her, as a sort of punishment. This one was a boy, a few years younger than Violet, who probably worked in the kitchens. Violet looked up at him briefly. He held his shaking hands together, and his knees were bent as though he were preparing to run.
“I need feathers,” Violet said, looking back at her metal ducklings. “At least four dozen of them. By the day after tomorrow. Strong ones, not the downy sort. Preferably from a duck, but as long as they look like they’re from a duck, it doesn’t matter..”
The nervous serving boy nodded and left the laboratory quickly. Violet stoked the fire and got out her tools to begin fashioning the bronze wing bones.
There was little that satisfied Violet more than the feel of metal in her hand. She enjoyed conceiving of new inventions, yes, but to actually put them together and feel each cog and spring click into place, to feel her designs living and working in her hands, was what pleased her most. She had one of those rare minds that could pick out from a dozen seemingly identical springs which was strongest, which had the most flexibility, which was the most likely to break. By glancing at an inferior invention, she could tell you what was wrong with it, and how it could be repaired. She worked for a few hours, crafting three pairs of beautiful skeletal wings and attaching them to each duckling. Testing each duck, she rolled them forward and back, happy to see their little naked wings flap up and down as though they were trying to take flight.
The clock on the wall, which had kept perfect time ever since Violet designed and made it by hand at age nine, chimed seven o’clock, and Violet quickly ran upstairs and washed her hands before heading into the dining room. Mrs. Wilks served supper promptly, and became more nervous the later someone got. Violet and Ashton ate their soup with a quiet contentedness while Mrs. Wilks sat at the far end of the table, knitting with what Violet felt sure were unnecessarily long needles.
“Ashton,” Violet said when her soup was half-finished, “I am going into town tomorrow, and I was wondering if you would escort me. I have visited the town house on only a few occasions, and never lived there, so I think it would be best to inspect it and see what I need to bring from home.” Violet tried to sound as casual as possible. Really, she just needed an excuse to go into London without Mrs. Wilks so that she could deliver her application in person. She longed to look upon towering Illyria College, and though she doubted they would let her through the gate, she hoped that she could at least glance inside as they opened the door to take the application.
“I’ll go with you,” Mrs. Wilks said, not looking up from her knit- ting. She was not a foolish woman. In fact, her constant anxieties made her more than keen to the trouble Violet’s sudden change of lifestyle could bring. There was probably some deeper scheme be- hind it, and such schemes were invariably trouble. Trouble was a great fear of Mrs. Wilks’s.
“Oh no, Mrs. Wilks,” Violet said sweetly, “I couldn’t ask you to do that. You have so much to do here. And besides, I was hoping you would go to the dressmaker and ask for samples of various colors. I will need new dresses, after all. At least six, I would think: three for the evening, and three for daytime. Or do you think I will need more? I am so unversed in these things. I don’t even know what colors look right on me, which is why I so hoped you would bring me some, so I may hold them up to my face in the mirror and decide if they suit my complexion.”
Ashton snorted into his soup, trying to cover his laughter.
“We can stop by a dressmaker in London, then,” Mrs. Wilks countered. “I’m sure they have plenty of fabrics in all the latest styles.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Violet answered. “London dresses are so much more expensive, and we have been ordering my dresses from Mrs. Capshaw since I was a child. It would be cruel to go to some- one else now, when the dresses will finally be seen by people outside the household. If you feel uncomfortable going to Mrs. Capshaw alone, Mrs. Wilks, then we can both go the day after tomorrow.”
“I don’t feel uncomfortable going to Mrs. Capshaw alone,” Mrs. Wilks said, blinking rapidly. She could sense Violet trying to manipulate her. Like many things, this made her anxious. “Why don’t you and I go into London tomorrow, and then to Mrs. Capshaw the day after?”
“Oh, Mrs. Wilks,” Ashton said, grinning, “I couldn’t tear you away from your duties here. I shall gladly escort my sister into town tomorrow. I was hoping to buy a new cigarette case, anyway.”
“You don’t smoke,” Mrs. Wilks said slowly, turning her head to Ashton.
“No, but I plan to start,” Ashton replied. Mrs. Wilks sighed. Against the both of them, what could she do? She would have thrown her arms up in exasperation, but such large gestures at the dinner table invariably knocked things over.
“Very well,” Mrs. Wilks said. “Violet, you and I will go to Mrs. Capshaw together the day after tomorrow, and spend all day looking through her drawings and fabrics. I won’t have you going to your first season in London dressed like a country girl.”
“Oh, of course, Mrs. Wilks,” Violet said, looking as kindly as she could, in order to soothe Mrs. Wilks’s nerves. Her expression also contained some of the joy that was radiating within her at the chance to see Illyria tomorrow. It was well worth a day of being prodded by Mrs. Capshaw and inspecting seven shades of pink fabric that all seemed the same to her. She was looking forward to tomorrow, and to October, when she felt quite sure she would begin life as a student at Illyria College . . . and, incidentally, as a man.
THE next morning, Violet was awake before the maid came in to rouse her. The maid, a young girl from a nearby farmhouse, was startled to find her mistress pacing in her closet. Violet almost always enjoyed sleeping in, and almost never went into her closet. “I don’t know what dress matches the top hat my brother bought for me,” Violet said to the maid with a sigh. The maid, who was un- used to Violet speaking to her, wasn’t sure if she should answer, so instead she went about the motions of making the bed and starting up the fire in the fireplace. “Do you know which dress should be worn with a top hat?” Now Violet was asking her directly. She felt like a trapped animal, too frightened to speak, and not sure how to escape. She was new, but had already heard stories of Miss Violet Adams and her sinister inventions. The older maids said that they’d heard clanging at all hours of the night from the basement, and that Violet had crafted a serving man entirely of bronze, which she used to kill those servants she didn’t like and for other unladylike purposes, the thought of which made her blush.
Violet stared at the maid, holding a top hat in one hand and tap- ping her foot. “Do you know which of my dresses I should wear with this?” Violet asked again.
The maid shook her head and left the room quickly. Finding Mrs. Wilks down the hall, she tugged frantically at her sleeve and told her that Miss Adams was behaving most strangely.
Mrs. Wilks’s eyes widened in concern, and she took off down the hall. When she burst into Violet’s room to find Violet holding the top hat and looking confused but unharmed, she breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“Oh, Mrs. Wilks, thank goodness. Could you tell me which dress I ought to wear with this hat that Ashton got for me?”
“I think that hat would be a little hot, miss, in August. Perhaps a summer hat would be more appropriate?”
“Oh, I had rather hoped to wear this hat, though, because Ash- ton bought it for me in London—do you really think it will be too hot?”
Mrs. Wilks was confused by Violet’s apparent earnestness. Violet had not asked Mrs. Wilks her opinion on anything since childhood. She smiled and reached out for the hat. Violet gave it to her, and Mrs. Wilks rubbed the felt in between her fingers. She could tell Violet wanted to wear it, that this hat would somehow be a comfort to her, and she hated to deprive Violet of comfort.
“It will be a little hot, but this felt is thin. You should wear the green coat over the gray riding outfit with it.”
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Wilks,” Violet said, and turned back to her closet. “Where are they?” Sighing again, Mrs. Wilks helped Violet dress herself, and even arranged her hair in front of the vanity, Violet rudely tapping her foot all the while. But when Mrs. Wilks’s work was complete, and they gazed in the mirror at Violet’s reflection, it was a pleasure to see. Violet seldom dressed up so nicely, and when she did, she appeared a real, sophisticated woman instead of some awkwardly large girl with too-fierce eyes. Violet put the hat on and studied herself in the mirror. “This is splendid,” she said, and she meant it, for while she had never cared about her appearance beyond looking decent, and while she knew nothing of fabric, all ladies—in fact, all people—enjoy the look of themselves in well-tailored clothing. Mrs. Wilks was also happy to see Violet so grown up and elegant. Perhaps she hadn’t let Mr. Adams down in attempting to make his little girl into a woman of whom Mrs. Adams would be proud.
“Come down to breakfast, then,” Mrs. Wilks said, “and take off the hat until you are outside.” Violet obeyed, excited about the day. Her brother was already seated at the table, having helped him- self to eggs, toast, and kidneys. Today he had on a fine blue suit and white shirt, with a white rose tucked into his lapel. When his sister first entered, he almost didn’t recognize her, and stood up, assuming a guest had come to call. Then, looking fully at her face, he burst out in joyous laughter.
“Do I look ridiculous? Mrs. Wilks, are you playing a trick on me, dressing me like a clown?” asked Violet anxiously.
“No, sister, you look splendid, but it is quite alien to me, seeing you dressed so elegantly.”
“I wanted to wear the hat you gave me,” Violet said, sitting down, “and truth be told, the clothes are not uncomfortable. The corset is a little tighter than usual, yes, but it makes my back stay perfectly straight. And the bustle isn’t nearly so bad as it looks.” Ashton smiled and sat down again.
“You will be the toast of London,” he said. Violet stuck her tongue out at him in response. “Well, I suppose we can dress you as a lady. The behavior, however, will take some teaching.”
Too excited to really eat, Violet nibbled on a little bit of bread and butter, not paying much attention to it. How could Ashton take so long at breakfast, knowing what excitement she must feel? She kicked him under the table.
“All right,” he said, glaring at her. “All right. Let’s call the carriage, and we’ll head into town.” Violet popped up from her chair like a loose spring and headed for her room to collect her things. She carefully folded her application and put it in her handbag, covering it with some money and a scarf, so no one would see it. Then she ran back downstairs, where Ashton was finishing up a cup of tea. She groaned and headed to the courtyard to meet the carriage.
The weather was much more pleasant today: the sun shining brightly over the pastorally rolling hills and trees. Mrs. Adams’s gar- den sparkled brightly in green and purple. When the carriage drew around, it was still muddy from taking Mr. Adams to town yesterday, but the horses looked well rested, and the carriage driver, a hand- some youth named Antony, looked ready for the journey.
“We’re going to London, today, Antony,” Violet said, hopping up into the carriage excitedly.
“I know, miss. I’m takin’ you there,” Antony said, and nodded.
Ashton came out of the house a moment later, strolling in far too leisurely a manner for Violet’s tastes. He winked at Antony as he climbed into the carriage himself, and then, finally, they were off.
It was a long ride, a little more than an hour to London. Though she was excited, Violet was a smart enough girl to at least make an attempt at patience, even if she didn’t really feel it. She spent much of the ride staring out the carriage windows, for though she did not posses her brother’s poetic sensibilities, she was not immune to the romance of the natural world. She admired the great sweeping trees and the long winding brooks that babbled so peacefully, and she enjoyed the wildflowers and the green hills they passed through.
“How will you spend the day?” she asked her brother. He was gazing out the window, probably composing odes to the fields or to the field hands.
“I will go to the town house and find out if there is anything in particular we need for the season, since you said you would be doing that. Then I may grab a pint with a few friends I have who are still in the city.”
“That sounds lovely. I don’t have much else to do besides deliver my application, so I may ask Antony to drive me around London a little, so I can get a feel for it.”
“If you want a feel for London, then you’d do better to walk. A carriage ride through the park is all very well, but to truly know London, you should spend a little time on foot, explore the small alleyways and crannies, perhaps take the underground railway.”
“I long to see the functionality of the trains beneath the city. It’s rumored that the Duke of Illyria put a train station of his own de- sign beneath the college when he build it, powered in some mysterious fashion.”
“That sounds ridiculous,” Ashton said. “It may sound it, but it is quite possible, in theory.” “You scientists have created a great deal that seems as though it shouldn’t work in theory. Didn’t your hero, Illyria, manage to success- fully create an elephant the size of a house cat?”
“Yes,” Violet said, proudly.
“And Babbage’s analytical engines can predict patterns the human eye cannot see?”
“Well, yes, but only if the person using the engine is a skilled reckoner. You can’t just ask the engine how many people will be born in Cambridge next year. You need to know what you’re doing. And Illyria’s elephant actually was a house cat. He just took the skin of an elephant and transplanted it onto the cat, along with a trunk and large ears. It still behaved quite like a cat, jumping around and rubbing its head against things. It never once trumpeted its horn. Science has its limits.”
“That sounds positively ghastly. Don’t tell me stories like that any- more.”
“I’ve never been particularly interested in the Biological Sciences, but by all accounts, the cat seemed quite happy. It loved playing with its long nose as though it were a piece of string.” Ashton shuddered, but Violet continued anyway. “And it wasn’t as though it were just some house cat. It was a cat that had been badly burned and lost much of its skin already. A great many biological scientists aren’t so generous.”
“I prefer the mechanical songbirds you can buy on street corners.”
“If you want a mechanical songbird, let me make one for you. Anything you buy on a street corner will be broken within a fort- night, I’m sure,” Violet said with a sigh. The carriage had reached the outskirts of London, and she could see the looming, powerful buildings, and smell the smoke in the air.
“So, the duke just had elephant skin lying around in case his cat should explode?”
“He was experimenting with using it to heal factory workers who were badly burned—he felt it was close to human skin, but tougher, more durable, and so would protect the workers better. At the time of the cat incident, though he wasn’t really ready to try the procedure yet.”
“That doesn’t explain giving the cat an elephant head.”
“That was the suggestion of his student, Erasmus Valentine. He thought that it would be more attractive that way.”
“So, did anything come of these elephant skin bandage experiments?”
“The duke died before he could try it on human subjects. No one carried on the research.” Violet slumped her shoulders and looked down at the floor of the carriage.
“Well, I’m happy you’re the scientist in the family. I’ll stick to poetry and art, and all that nonsense.”
They had entered the city. Outside were more carriages and people walking in front of them. The place smelled like smoke, sweat, and manure, but Violet didn’t mind. She was closer to Illyria now. She could feel the great gears of the place turning, vibrating through the cobblestones and dirt to the wheels of her carriage and up through the soles of her feet, which were tapping impatiently.
“Our house isn’t on the fashionable side of the park,” Ashton said, “but it’s not on the unfashionable side, either. It’s the right sort of place, because no one is watching you, but you have a view of every- one else.”
“I won’t be spending very much time there, if all goes according to plan,” Violet said.
Outside on the street corner was one of the mechanical bird merchants. He propped a long stick over his shoulder, carrying cages filled with little brass birds, all fluttering and singing in a repeating pattern.
“Ah,” said Ashton, following her gaze, “now that you see one, you want one. Should I hop out and buy you a bird?”
“No,” Violet said, still looking at the birds, frowning. She could hear the inferior quality of the birds’ mechanisms. Poorly made inventions always made her unhappy.
Their carriage rolled along gradually, through the less dignified parts of town and eventually into the more dignified parts—though, according to Ashton, just because the houses were better kept didn’t mean the denizens of them were.
“Lady Daphne Bertram, since the death of her husband, has been having a most obvious affair with Sir Haberdash,” he said as they passed Lady Bertram’s house. This was the fifth house they had passed where Ashton claimed to know intimate details of the occupants’ lives.
“How do you know all this?”
“I have friends in the city, so even if I don’t usually spend the whole season here, I know the gossip. It’s the reason I don’t spend the season here: What’s the point when I already know everything? And, of course, I would hate to be away from you, dear sister.” He patted her knee to demonstrate fraternal affection, Violet rolled her eyes. A few more houses, a few more scandals, and the carriage came to a stop in front of their home. She had been to the town house several times before, and it was as she remembered it. Elegant, white, a bit plain. She understood why her parents had never spent much time here; stars and flowers were far more interesting than anything these whitewashed walls could offer. The city had its charms, to be sure, but Violet preferred working in a small, dark underground laboratory in the country to working in a small, dark, underground laboratory in the city because in the country, no one—aside from the easily ignored Mrs. Wilks—would force her to dress up, do her hair, and go to dances where the people spun about like the gears and springs she wished she was working on at home. Except, of course, for Mrs. Wilks.
Antony hopped down to open the door for them, but Ashton held up a finger, and Antony turned away politely to give the twins a moment alone.
“Now, Violet,” Ashton said, taking Violet’s wrist. “I’m afraid I must be serious for a moment.”
“Pray, don’t,” Violet sighed. Her brother would occasionally use this statement to preface a dreary lecture on the dangers of the world, as though he were an elder brother, and not a twin, as though she were a child who knew nothing of the world. And though she conceded that she knew little of the world, and he knew more, she did not appreciate such lectures. Normally she would half listen, supposing his dreariness to be an extension of the poetic mind, for- ever seeing the dark shadows of life. So she looked at the ground and prepared herself for the depressing condescension that was to come.
“Before I step out of this coach,” Ashton said, “before you go and turn in that false application, you must understand something.” Violet felt her brother’s eyes on her, staring at her, asking her to raise her eyes to meet his. She kept her head down. He squeezed her wrist, but continued. “If you do this thing, enact this scheme, and if you are caught, it will not just mean humiliation for you and father. Dressing in a man’s clothing is illegal.”
“Just a misdemeanor,” Violet said defensively.
“Yes. But if the current duke is embarrassed by the scandal you cause him, he can also issue charges of fraud and impersonation. Father may be a gentleman, but he is no duke. If the duke wishes, he could probably have your head.”
“I’d be executed?”
“It is the worst possible outcome, yes. More likely, you would just be sent to prison for upwards of twenty years. Father would go bankrupt trying to free you, and of course, this would ruin his reputation. And that is just if the duke finds you out. I hope I need not dwell on the . . . unpleasantness that can befall a young lady surrounded by men. I just read of a Beth Kindly, who, when we were children, tried to disguise herself as a man and enter Oxford.”
“I know,” Violet said quietly. She had read of her as well. There had been an article in the paper two nights ago, following her release from prison.
“Her roommate discovered her and took gross advantage—”
“I know,” Violet said louder, and looked up at Ashton. Her eyes were wet. “Why are you trying to frighten me so? This was your idea.”
“It was an idea for a play. And it was fun to come up with it. But I need to know you understand, Violet, that if you make this idea a reality, the stakes are high. Twenty years in prison, unable to work on your inventions, Father and I selling off Messaline, you losing your youth, most of your life, or worse. Is all that worth it for one year at Illyria? Think before you answer, dear sister. I will go along with it if it is.”
Violet stared down at the carriage floor. The carriage was pulled by two horses, and Violet could think of twenty better designs, better even than the horseless ones that drove about, spewing smoke and whistling. But she could not make them on her own, and even if she could, no one would ever hear about her work.
“It is worth it,” she said, raising her eyes to meet her brother’s.
His gray eyes stared back, cool as iron. “All right,” he said, dropping her hand. “Then best of luck to us both.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
Ashton opened the door to the carriage and hopped out, then looked back up at his sister. “And, Violet?”
“Keep in mind also, that even if your plan succeeds, you’ll be revealing yourself at the end of the year, and then some of what I have just mentioned will apply again. Think it over during the carriage ride. If you choose not to get out when you reach Illyria’s gates, I will not think any less of you or your brilliance. It would be a shame to nurture your mind if in the end, it lost you your head.”
Violet swallowed and nodded, unable to say anything. “Antony,” Ashton said to the coachman, “drive slowly.” “Where to, sir?” Antony asked. “My brilliant sister,” Ashton said with a pleased look, “wishes to visit Illyria, and perhaps drop off a letter there. You know where it is?”
“Yes, sir,” Antony said.
“Thank you,” Violet said. “And it would mean ever so much to me if you didn’t mention this little side trip to Mrs. Wilks. It’s perfectly innocent, I promise, I just want to see if they’ll let me see the astronomy tower. I want to plan a surprise for when Father comes home, but Mrs. Wilks will think it ever so scandalous and begin to fret. Even if they don’t let me through the door, which they probably won’t.” Violet said.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come in for some tea before go- ing out again?” Ashton asked, looking up at his sister, who was still sitting in the carriage.
“No,” Violet said sternly, “I want to go see the college. It’s what
I’m here for. I’m sure it won’t be long. You’ll still be here when I re- turn, most likely.”
“Provided you don’t spend hours just gazing through the gates.”
“I shan’t promise anything,” Violet said, and closed the carriage door. Violet waved to her brother from the window.
ILLYRIA College was on the Thames, near Charing Bridge and just a little north of and across the river from the Houses of Parliament. It had been designed by Illyria himself, working with the American architect Le Baron Jenney, who devised the metal frame of the building, and with the engineer Elisha Otis, who built the mechanical lifts. The building itself was six stories high, with an astronomy dome and two large clock towers at the top. It was built directly on the river, with a huge waterwheel of Illyria’s design used to power most of the laboratories in the building, as well as the elevators, the water pumps, and much of the lighting. The book Violet had read, The Building of Illyria College, by Caleb Leeds, had dashed through all the interesting parts about how the building worked, focusing more on its history and how the Duke of Illyria and Le Baron Jenney had gotten on, as well as people who visited it and come out saying what a lovely building it was. He also spent a few chapters on the rumors of secret meetings of brilliant scientists at Illyria, rumors that Violet found ridiculous—why would scientists need to meet in secret, after all? Violet suspected that in fact Mr. Leeds had never actually been inside the building, but it was one of only a few texts on the college, and so she had read it cover to cover, several times.
She had passed by the college in the carriage a few times, since her father loved to drive along the Thames. She had often pushed herself against the window during such rides, straining to see the complexities of the tall, polished-stone building that rose up against the water, or make out the figures on the ornate clock towers. The clocks—designed by Aaron Lufkin Dennison—were supposedly marvelous things up close, with life-sized human and animal automata that moved and sang differently according to the hour. The simpler of the clocks told the time, but the other traced the paths of the celestial world, constellations and planets all ticking along at their own pace. And each constellation had been modeled into a complex automaton by the duke, so that each corresponded to a great thinker. Leo was Leonardo da Vinci, and Capricorn was John Snow. Violet didn’t know which ten other lucky minds had been chosen to adorn the heavens, but she wanted to go up to the clock towers and walk among them—a statue garden devoted to Reason and Sensibility.
Violet gazed out at London and swallowed. Her brother’s warning had not been lost on her. She was smart enough to know that her plan was risky in ways she could not foresee. But she also knew she had to try. To stay locked away in the basement, working alone on her inventions, seemed too small for her now. If she ended up in prison . . . or dead . . . she could at least know she tried, and that she had been a woman worthy of Illyria. She did not want to think about what else could happen to her if she were discovered by a group of men, and so she swallowed, dabbed her brow with a hand- kerchief, and stared intently at the water, imagining gears beneath it, turning each ripple and wave. Her hands shook despite her efforts to clasp them in her lap.
The carriage stopped, and Violet stared out of the window at the gate of the college. Antony opened the door for her and helped her out. She paused to gather her bravery. The hot August sun beat down on her, and she felt that perhaps she should have listened to Mrs. Wilks and not worn the top hat. In fact, she would have preferred not to wear any hat, let alone her gloves or the small jacket or the dress. She would have much preferred one of her simple white dresses that she wore in the heat of her laboratory.
“I shouldn’t be long, Antony,” Violet said, and set her jaw. The gates to the grounds were slightly ajar, so she pulled them aside and let herself in. It was probably a bit undignified, she thought, going alone toward this great tower, but she didn’t care very much. No one of any importance was there to see her, as it was August, and besides, what would they say if they did? That she was taking in the gardens at a college? She could hear the steady, heavy sound of the water- wheel now, the half-groan of gears not sure they could handle the stress—but they could, Violet could tell by listening—and the sound of water, pouring over itself and splashing again into the river. It was a steady, comforting sound, and she matched her footsteps with it, feeling as though she belonged.
She came to the door and breathed in with awe. She was close enough to touch the building now, to admire the careful carving around the huge stone doorway: interlocking gears and springs mingled with flowers and stars, blending science and nature. She admired the building for a while before reaching out and laying her hand on it. The stone felt cool and strong through her glove, and she could even feel the building pulsing under her hand. She yearned to enter, but knew that would have to wait awhile longer. Women were forbidden within the building itself, and being discovered within would not reflect well on her—her brother’s—application. So, she balled her hand into a small fist, grabbed at the large door knocker shaped like a great hand holding out a gear, and knocked as loudly as she could. She could hear it reverberating through the halls, and then the sound of a bell ringing. It was probably a clever device built on the vibrations of the door knocker on the other side, Violet thought with excitement. After waiting what seemed like forever, she raised her fist to knock again, when she heard a voice behind her.
“I’m afraid everyone is out right now. The school is on break, so there’s very little staff, and the professors are away for the summer. Is there something you needed help with?”
Violet turned, raising her chin, as she assumed she was being ad- dressed by a servant. But the man behind her did not seem to be a servant at all. Certainly, he wasn’t dressed like one, in a fine gray suit, golden tie, and a shirt of soft blue. He wasn’t styled like a servant either, with rich brown hair parted neatly on one side and swept back with oil. His eyes bespoke great intelligence and also, she half thought, gentleness.
“I am dropping off an application for my brother,” Violet said after she realized she had let the silence hang for too long. “He is applying to the college for next semester.”
The stranger held out a hand, and Violet reached into the purse to produce her application.
“I’m Ernest,” the man said. “I’m the headmaster here.”
“Oh,” said Violet, surprised, and extended her gloved hand for him to take. “I’m Violet Adams, Your Grace. I am a great admirer of your father and, of course, your fine institution.”
She bowed her head slightly. She had read of the current duke. He was said to be a great thinker and headmaster, but he had never published a paper or produced a single noted invention. Some said he was just not his father, and knew it, and so left off inventing altogether, while others said he was the sort who could never pull his thoughts together enough to finish a project. Some simply said he was the spoiled child of a brilliant man, without an original idea of his own, but looking at him, Violet thought that maybe there was a touch of his father in him, around the eyes and chin. His mouth, though thinner than his father’s, had the same half-soulful expression that she had seen in all the photographs and sketches of the late duke, but with less intensity. This duke, Ernest, was per- haps thirty, and tall, with a fair complexion and hazel eyes.
He bowed slightly over Violet’s hand, then smiled at her.
“It is always a pleasure to meet an admirer of my father,” he said softly.
“Well, then you must nearly always be in a state of pleasure,” Violet responded, taking back her hand. It was inappropriate, she thought, to be in the company of a young gentleman without an escort. She glanced over the duke’s shoulder, out past the gate and at her carriage, to see that Antony was still there, and felt a little safer when she saw him leaning against the carriage, facing them.
The duke laughed at her joke and nodded. “Yes, I often meet admirers of my father,” he said, and looked down for a moment, “but seldom are they young ladies. You are dropping off your brother’s application, you said?”
“Yes,” Violet said, taking it out of her purse. “I told him I would do it, as he thought it might be bad luck to come here himself.”
“Well, I shall bring it inside for you, as I am afraid I cannot let
you in. But if you’d like, I can give you a tour of the gardens,” he said, offering her his arm. Violet raised an eyebrow. A tour of the gardens would be lovely, and it would give her a chance to observe the building more closely, but she did not know this young duke, apart from his lack of reputation and various theories about him in scientific journals. While he may have had some of his father’s characteristics, he might be a brute in scientist’s clothing. But Violet was never one to shy away from something new, especially if it could give her some advantage, and certainly being kind to the duke would make him look favorably on her—her brother’s—application.
So she took his arm, and said, “That sounds quite nice, though not as nice as seeing the inside of the college.”
“You’re not the first lady to say so, but I’m afraid I can’t let you in. My father decreed that, like the King of Navarre, the students were to have no female companionship within.”
“And there are no exceptions?” Violet asked sweetly.
The duke smiled, but looked away. “Well, my apartments are in the building itself,” he said, “and my ward lives in my apartments, as does her governess. And sometimes my godmother, the Countess Lovelace—Lady Byron—comes to visit.”
Violet was shocked, but tried not to let it show. She was instantly jealous of his ward, whoever she was, and even jealous of the governess, for being able to walk the hallowed halls to which she so desperately sought entry. She could not envy the Countess Lovelace though. She was one of the greatest scientific minds of the century, and deserved to be there far more than Violet did. “I am a great admirer of Lady Byron’s,” Violet said. “It must be an honor to have her as a godmother.”
“Ah, yes. They became close after my father saved her life with an experimental surgery he pioneered. A few years later, I was born, and my parents thought Aunt Ada would be a good god- mother.”
“To have grown up surrounded by such brilliant thinkers must have been wonderful.” The duke stared out at the river, then nodded slowly. They had walked to the edge of the gardens, where the river lapped against the walls of the college. The huge waterwheel turned, the water rushing over and under it. Violet stared at it awhile, studying its artful craftsmanship, the way each paddle bent at exactly the right angle, the way the wheel itself was low enough in the water to feel the full force of the river’s current.
“Do you like gardens?” the duke asked, “or did you just want to see the wheel up close?”
“I confess,” Violet said, “I had a keen interest in the wheel. I hoped that by seeing it, I could understand better how it works. But it seems to me that it’s just a waterwheel of brilliant design. I cannot see how it powers the whole building.”
The duke smiled at her, and Violet smiled back, feeling a little embarrassed.
“I did not mean I meant to take advantage of your kindness,” Violet said.
“I did not think that you had. And I will tell you how the water- wheel powers the building: with gears. Interlocking ones. Every- where. The inside of the building is constantly clanking with the sound of gears, like living inside a giant mechanical contraption. Which I suppose it is.”
“Fascinating,” Violet said, still staring at the waterwheel.
“But let me show you some of the gardens,” the duke said. “I hope you have an interest in them?”
“My mother was the gardener, and while I appreciate the chemical extracts taken from flowers, I know only the most rudimentary horticulture.” Violet nodded as politely as she could. She did not like being thought of as the sort of young lady who was interested in nothing but flowers.
“But do you enjoy the way they look, and smell?” “Well, yes,” Violet said, surprised at the question. “Then that is all you need to enjoy them.” Violet blinked at this, a bit thrown, but let the cheerful duke lead her around the gardens. He showed her hydrangeas, which looked to her like clockwork made of delicate petals. She said so, and the duke smiled broadly, showing a row of fine white teeth.
“I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re quite correct. Nature can be very mechanical, and all the more beautiful for it.”
“If I recall, the petals themselves grow in a sort of mathematical formula,” Violet said.
“I thought you said you knew only the most rudimentary horticulture.”
“Math isn’t horticulture.”
“I suppose that is true. Tell me, does knowing that the petals grow in a pattern dictated by mathematics make you appreciate them all the more?”
“Yes,” Violet answered simply. “Why?” “Because I can see that both Mother Nature and I have something in common: a love of numbers.” She laughed, and the duke laughed, too, in time with the sound of water rushing over the great wheel.
“You are a very clever girl. If your brother is anything like you, I’m sure he’ll make a fine student.”
“My brother and I are twins. Identical in nearly every way.”
“Excellent,” the duke said. “I look forward to meeting him. Now, let me show you the snapdragons.” The duke took her, arms in arm, around the garden. At times, Violet nearly forgot that she walked in the great shadow of Illyria and its forbidden halls. The duke seldom spoke of science, though when she brought it up, he responded intelligently. Instead he spoke of the color of the flowers and their stems. While Violet found this sweet, after he had shown her the snapdragons, the asters, and the nasturtium, she began to think that he spoke of the flowers’ beauty not because he didn’t know about the sciences, but because he felt the sciences were inappropriate to discuss with a woman.
“Have you studied much of the science of flowers, or only their loveliness?” she asked him when they came to the dahlias.
“To talk of how a flower grows seems to me a tedious subject when outside the classroom,” he said, his voice a little hurt sounding. “We are not scientists, you and I, nor are we gardeners.”
“I am a scientist,” Violet said, pulling her arm gently out of his.
“Yes,” he said, “I mean, when we walk through the gardens, we are not scientists. We are merely enjoying the gardens.”
Violet pursed her lips. She felt she was being condescended to by a man whose most notable claim of intelligence was having a brilliant father, and she was tired of it. “Thank you, Your Grace, for this lovely tour,” she said, “but I’ve been here too long already. I hope you will accept my brother’s application. He is quite brilliant.”
“I hope that we accept him as well,” the duke said, his brow fur- rowed. “Let me walk you to your carriage.”
“That’s quite alright,” Violet said. “I know the way.” She turned quickly and left the confused duke standing alone with the dahlias, their huge pink starburst blooms drooping slightly out of pity for him. For the duke was quite taken with Violet. He admired her wit, and that she had not fawned over him simply for being a duke. He did not entertain any romantic notions, for he had only just met her, but he had enjoyed her company, and was sad that she had so suddenly abandoned him when he thought they had been enjoying sweet conversation and beautiful flowers. He rubbed the spot on his wrist where her hand had lain moments ago, looked down at the sagging dahlias, and nodded slowly, thanking them for their under- standing.
Violet, did not feel particularly understood as she left the garden and got into her carriage, which had grown stuffy in the heat. The duke, and the unexpected encounter with him, had taken her quite by surprise. She thought she had maintained her dignity, but when they stopped over the hydrangeas and their careful, mathematically arranged petals, she realized that perhaps the duke was just entertaining himself. A woman with an interest in the sciences, she imagined him thinking. How unique; how amusing. I shall show her the flowers and see what she says, as it is summer, and I am quite bored.
Violet sighed. Perhaps he did not think that. But she could think of no other reason for his showing her the gardens, and for his clever talk, or his open smiles. She had had a few male friends in her time but none had made her feel quite like the duke had. Being inexperienced in romantic feeling, Violet had assumed what she was feeling was his disdain. She leaned into the carriage seat and took off her top hat. Stray wisps of her dark hair clung to her wet brow, and she pulled them away, annoyed. She didn’t hate the duke, she knew, but she rather wanted to. It was then and there that she decided that it wasn’t just to Illyria-the-school that she would show her uncanny brilliance, but also Illyria-the-Duke.