The boy shot out the kitchen door and into the blinding afternoon sun. He skidded on loose gravel and nearly dropped the leather-bound book that seemed too big for him, a book he had just filched from his father’s library. He clutched it to his thin chest, heart throbbing so fiercely it was as if that small organ had sprouted wings, along with a sharp beak that pecked fast and hard against the cage of his ribs. It wanted out. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.
He swallowed, trembling with a confusion of emotions that had no other escape, and blinked the glare into submission. An expanse of smooth-raked, chalk-white pebbles unmarked by boot, hoof, or wagon wheel swept to the verge of grass where the lawn began, which itself unfurled in a lush green carpet to the edge of the beckoning woods, a silent shout of brown and green and white apple blossoms in the haze of summer heat and shimmery insect choir. There, off the tame paths favored by his tutor on their boring nature walks, was a limestone cave, low-ceilinged and pungent, that served him as a hidey-hole, a private place away from the tedious attentions of parents and tutor. In its cool confines, by candlelight, he spent the hot summer afternoons reading books and performing experiments of his own devising.
Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. He wriggled again, his heart as eager as he was. He clasped the book ardently, enjoying the smell of it—like age, like secrets.
Today he had a treat in store. A rare volume of natural history from across the sea. From the lands of the Kinwiinik Traders. For months he had regarded it behind the locked glass case of his father’s private library, a tempting new addition too valuable for him to touch, though his father had given him a peek between its covers, into sheet-sized pages so splashed with color it was as if a rainbow had spilled there. Ever since, the boy had known he would steal the book and bring it to his special place. Only the certain knowledge of the punishment this would occasion had kept him from acting sooner. But today he had been unable to resist the memory of those magical colors any longer. He had taken the key from Wickfield while the man slept off—with wall-rattling snores—the bottle of wine that invariably accompanied his lunch, crept up to the library, unlocked the case, pulled down the heavy book with trembling hands, and then dashed through the house, down empty halls and stairs, even the servants sleeping at this dead hour, the kitchen so strange in neat repose that he tiptoed across the still-damp tiles of the floor, holding his breath, heart fluttering, finally emerging at the back of Highcombe. He swallowed again, shifted the bulk of the book in arms already growing tired with the weight of it, then set off at a run, boots crunching across the gravel.
He stopped short. That was not the beating of his heart. Not this time. Maybe not ever. It came from behind. Behind and above. He turned, holding up the book as if it were a shield.
From a window on the second floor, a man gazed down, tapping at the glass with one knuckle. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. He thought at first it was Wickfield, but then the man leaned into the light, exposing his haggard face. The boy froze, a butterfly pinned to the mounting board. The man in the window was shouting. The boy could see his mouth move, but no sound was coming out. Just the quick raps of his ringed knuckle against the glass. The sound sent jolts of pain through his head.
“Run!” cried the man in the window. “Get away from this place!”
But it was too late. The boy was gone. If he had ever been there. William, Duke Tremontaine, gazed down a moment longer at the empty courtyard. A wave of dizziness assailed him, as if the floor were shifting beneath his feet. Hadn’t he been that boy? Or would yet become him? Time was such a strange and inconstant thing! Surely he had stood there once, gazing up, the book clutched in his arms, to see his own face staring back, wizened with age and a knowledge that to others seemed like madness. But not madness. Oh no, the opposite! Wisdom. Understanding.
But why in the name of all that was holy did it have to hurt so?
He clutched his head, moaning, and turned from the window to stagger across the carpet to a chair. He flung himself into its cushions, twisting the ring on his finger.
So much that had seemed to be true and real was false. False Diane. False Wickfield. Even Highcombe itself, and those who dwelled here. All false. Liars. Counterfeits of what they claimed to be.
The City, too, was false. He had lived there once. Had loved. A beautiful boy had betrayed him. As they all betrayed him.
Was someone at the door? He rushed over, pressed his ear to the wooden panel, not daring to breathe, listening. He knew they were coming for him. The false ones who wore the masks of friends and lovers. False Diane. False Rafe. Coming to kill him. Or worse.