The beginning....

Annabelle sat still—still as a glass statue behind her desk in a classroom as chilly as unkindness. The log in the stove had long since burned up to an ashen crisp, and the air around her mouth frosted with the release of every cautious breath.

She had dressed hastily, not in her school uniform, but her dress from home and it pinched her waist, because it was last year’s. As for her hair, she had not combed it at all, and unruly wisps curled around her head in a sort of unholy halo.

Mrs. Brutankle stared down at her from the front of the room, keeping a good distance, as though afraid Annabelle possessed a contagious germ. At last she spoke. “You are to leave your uniforms in the closet, and take only the clothing you wore when you arrived at school.” She cleared her throat with an unpleasant hawking sound. “You may be well used to a wealthy lifestyle, but you must give that up, immediately. You are destitute. As of this morning, the Justices of the Shiversvalle Commonwealth have dispossessed your father of his entire fortune and you are as penniless as a stray mongrel.”

She searched Annabelle’s face, possibly looking for evidence of these tiding’s brutality upon her spirit. But then she frowned, dissatisfied to see that Annabelle had neither collapsed her shoulders nor dropped her gaze to the floor, but was staring back at her, concentrating as much self into her expression as she could muster.

“Did you hear what I said? You are penniless!”

Annabelle didn’t blink.

Mrs. Brutankle blinked a great deal, and she also sniffed. “You, child, must learn to feel and wear your shame in your appearance. It should touch your face and bear down your shoulders. You have nothing and you are nothing—and you are worse than nothing. You have robbed the great Commonwealth and her precious Queen. You are treachery’s spawn! And yet, you are lucky. Far luckier than you deserve. A respectable lady has written, and has proposed to take responsibility for you. The legal work has already been taken care of. You must be on the train this very morning. Out of here for good.”

Annabelle swallowed thickly, and for the first time that morning, she dropped her gaze, and felt her cheeks burn with an awful, scorching shamefulness.

* * *

Mrs. Durham had to call an emergency meeting for the Ladies Aviary Goodwill Society on account of the delicious gossip that had been stirring up the great city of Childerbridge.

Good gossip was perishable and Mrs. Durham wasn’t the kind of lady to let spoil an entree of this quality. She held her tongue through tea service and initial small talk, which was unfortunately necessary, though tedious.

“I can’t tell you what trouble I’m having keeping a servant to look after my pigeon deck,” Mrs. Holmes complained. “I’ve lost my third girl in two weeks.”

“You poor, dear.” Mrs. Hathaway, soothed, though she’d all but lost her hearing and had no idea what Mrs. Holmes had said.

Mrs. Durham tutted. “Ginger, dear. Nothing more about your pigeon befouled roof. He have far more momentous matters to discuss today. You are aware, of course, of what happened at the Shadewicken Palace last week.”

“I never read the newspapers, Hannah, they’re too vulgar,” said Mrs. Honey.

“Certainly,” Mrs. Durham conceded, but it’s a lady’s duty to come to the aid of her Queen, even if it is only to share her emotional burdens.”

“The Queen! Whatever ails her?” Mrs. Holmes was so alarmed, she almost spilled her tea.

“The crime of the century, that’s what. It isn’t strictly corroborated, but there is a very strong rumor going around that the Crown Jewels are stolen!”

Now Mrs. Holmes not only spilled, she dumped the entire cup in her lap. “What! Oh, this is terrible!” She dabbed her skirt with the table linen.

“Terrible indeed!”

“But who has done it?”

“A perfectly tragic person. An entertainer. He calls himself a magician.”

“Not that man with the doves—at the Millenium?”

“Yes exactly!”

“I saw his show last season. He made an entire flock of doves completely disappear. It was astonishing. I wanted to call the humane society and make a complaint.”

“Well, he couldn’t make a diamond brooch disappear. They caught him with a it in in his coat pocket.”

“Then they’ve recovered everything? All of the jewels?”

“Nothing but the broach. And the magician maintains he’s innocent, though his grubby prints were found all over the broach. They arrested him on the spot, him blustering all the while that he was set up. And indeed, there seems to have been another person involved, but he’s disappeared.”

“But who was the accomplice?”

“The Queens own carriage driver. If you can imagine! A man called Jacob Undwich. He had a beard as red as a fox, and his lowlife friends call him Red Jake.”

“But the authorities must find him. No one can get away with such a crime!”

“The magician claims they’ll never find him, because Unwich had tricked him into opening up a magical portal and he escaped into it. Utter nonsense, all of it. And of course they’ll find him, but you can imagine the Queen’s fright. The thief from her own staff. The palace must be in a perfect turmoil.”

“I should say so,” said Mrs. Holmes, still dabbing her skirts.

“They say,” said Mrs. Hurst, “the magician had a daughter at school, but she cannot remain at school, of course. She has no living kin and no one will have the child of a national traitor. Pitiful creature.

“Indeed,” Mrs. Holmes set down the linen and glanced up from the tea stain on her skirt. “What do they call the girl?”

“Haven’t the faintest idea.”

“But suppose she’s good at scrubbing up after pigeons? I should inquire.”

The ladies around the tea table all gasped in unified horror.

“Well, I’ve just got to get somebody. And she’s been turned out of her school. I expect she’s unlikely to get any kind of really good situation under the circumstances…”