That planets had spun and turned themselves out of their orbits to aid in my conception. That magma from the heart of the earth had speared through choking rock channels, stealing carbon and diamonds for me, jetting high to fall and die upon the surface of the world in a celebration of lava and flame.
That the moon had slowed for my birth, and the sun had blinked, and the stars had created a celestial new chorus from my name.
When I was a child, everyone believed that I was an ordinary human girl. Even I believed it, which shows you how little I knew.
I looked almost like a regular girl, though. Maybe one who was paler than normal, a little thinner, a touch more swift to react to sudden sounds or bright lights.
My eyes are gray. Not the gray of a sullen sky or sea but the unlikely lavender-gray of a nimbus surrounding a winter moon, colors both opaque and translucent at once.
My hair seems brown. It’s such a light brown that it’s almost the color of nothing, but that’s a trick, one I can’t control. Depending upon the hour of the day and the aspect of the clouds, my hair shines any color from fawn to pale pink to gold.
In the month of February, in the year 1909, I had been found wandering aimlessly along the streets of one of the most massive cities ever built by man: London. I was starving, alone, and ten years of age.
I’d been noticed first by a team of pickpockets—but there was nothing on me to steal, not a farthing or even a modest silver chain—then by a pair of prostitutes, who only eyed me up and down. Finally a tinker showed me some mercy, guiding me toward a constable before melting off down an alleyway.
I could not speak. I had no words to describe my situation, only my stare, which most of the grown men at the station avoided within seconds. I think they found it far less uncomfortable to study the barren walls of the station house or gaze out the grimy windows.
They gave me a blanket, an eel pie from a vendor, and a mug of gin. I claimed a spot on the floor behind the main desk and fell asleep.
Eleven hours later, since no one in the parish of St. Giles had come forward to claim me, I was handed over to the local orphanage, a miserable well of scrubbed faces and forsaken souls.
St. Giles was a knot of blighted streets and crumbling buildings. The relentless odor of gin and beer mingled with the constant stench of rotting garbage, and unwelcome offspring there were as common as dirt. As the fifth anonymous child abandoned to the Blisshaven Foundling Home so far that year, I was assigned the name Eleanore, surname Jones. Gradually—no one even noticed when or how—Eleanore evolved into Lora, which became the name I answered to.
Speech returned in stages. Little words first, popping past my lips. Pie. Blood. Comet.
Then bigger ones. Steamship. Regina. Aria, gemstone, field gun, museum.
To the astonishment of the proprietors of Blisshaven, I shaped every word with the sort of precise, lilting intonation that indicated I might have just stepped foot from the king’s court—or so I overheard them mutter. I couldn’t explain it; I couldn’t prevent it. That was simply how I spoke. And for all my elegant words, I never once told anyone where I’d come from or mentioned any second of my life before the day the tinker had found me.
I didn’t remember. I really didn’t.
Like all the orphans crowding the Home, I felt certain that I did not belong where I was. That someone, somewhere, was surely searching for me, because I was special.
Unlike all the rest of the orphans, I was right.
I began to hear things.
Elusive noises, pretty sounds no one else seemed to perceive. As I grew older, they blossomed into full melodies. Snippets of song followed me about, trailing my every step. Even when I cupped my hands hard over my ears, I couldn’t stop the notes from seeping around my fingers, tickling the inside of my head.
At the age of twelve, I realized the songs were coming from the high stone wall surrounding the Home. From the metal rings and keys of the matrons who walked the halls with their nightsticks. From the pale, blazing diamond fixed in the stickpin the Home’s director, Mr. H. W. Forrester, wore in his necktie every single day.
From even the distant stars.
They weren’t the worst of it, though. The worst was the voice. The one that seemed centered not inside my head but instead just exactly inside my heart.
It was cunning and fiendish, whispering the maddest things: That it was natural that gemstones would sing to me. That it was good to hate the Home, with its dull walls and dull boiled turnips and dull spiteful girls who openly scorned me, who tripped me in the hallways and dipped my plaits into ink pots during our few hours of schooling.
And I wanted to. I was trapped and friendless, and if I’d had the slightest notion of how to smite anything, I bloody well might have.
I grew up considered by one and all to be peculiar at best, aloof at least, and most likely destined for the streets the day I turned seventeen, since even the factories had standards for hiring.
None of them knew that each black night, long after they themselves had curled into their dreams, I would steal from my bed to perch upon the sill of the window close by, my no-color hair a slippery curtain against my back. I would press my palms flat against the glass and gaze down at the cobblestone courtyard below, four long stories below, and puzzle over the fiend in my heart.
So finally I did.
The Moor Gate Institute for Socially Afflicted Youth
Case File No. 039985-27b
Subject: Eleanore Jones, Aged 16 years (approx.; actual DOB unknown)
Date: August 28, 1914
Date Admitted: October 21, 1913
Assoc. Dr. Julius M. Sotheby, assigned.
Subject is physically hale child of unknown descent, average height, underweight. Complexion, hair color, eye color: Fair.
Subject admitted Moor Gate via Blisshaven Foundling Home. See: Mr. Henry Forrester (director). Subject physically, verbally combative in Home; Melancholy; Antisocial; Complained of constant, nonexistent songs/voices; Unusual sensitivity to tastes, colors, smells.
Diagnosis: Behavior consistent with adolescent Feminine Hysteria.
“Tell me, Eleanore. How are we feeling this morning?”
“I’m pleased to hear it. How was breakfast?”
“It was fine.”
“Mrs. Pearl informs me you finished all your eggs.”
“And . . . how did they taste?”
“They were fine.”
“Powdered, were they?”
“I . . . suppose.”
“You couldn’t tell?”
Appetite showed marked improvement in past six months. No weight gain as yet. Subject no longer leaves meals unfinished.
“And how did you sleep?”
“Really, Eleanore? None?”
“I . . .”
“Mrs. McLeod left a note here for me. It says she heard you moaning last night on her rounds. Tossing about. You don’t remember that?”
“I—I might have dreamed. I’m sorry, I really don’t recall.”
“That’s all right. That’s just fine. We don’t remember every single dream, do we?”
Subject initiates and maintains eye contact. Visible trembling of hands first witnessed in October ‘13 vanished. Hair combed and plaited. Shirtwaist neat.
“I understand you’ve been paying particular attention to another girl here. Hattie Boyd. Eleanore? Is that right?”
“Yes, sir. Hattie’s nice.”
“She certainly doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of anyone else. Intentionally speechless. Afflicted with unpredictable spells of rage or sudden screaming. Does she ever speak to you?”
“No words whatsoever?”
“Why, then, are you kind to her? What is it precisely that makes her nice?”
“Hattie . . . needs a friend. I understand that. So I try to be her friend.”
Subject demonstrates evidence of reemerging Feminine Virtues: Compassion. Docility. Tenderness.
“Tell me about the songs, Eleanore.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The songs you hear. Are they still haunting you?”
“No, sir. I don’t hear them any longer.”
“Truly? That seems peculiar, don’t you think? When you first arrived here, you insisted they were everywhere. In the stones of the walls, in the nails in the doors. The iron bars of the cells. Do you recall that?”
“Yes. But . . .”
“I’m sorry. They simply aren’t here any longer.”
“Are you quite sure about that?”
“Yes. Quite sure. I suppose it was rather as if . . . they grew fainter and fainter during my time here. During the treatments. And now they’re no longer here at all. Doctor.”
Subject’s marked improvement in all Areas of Concern indicates treatment course successful. Recommend discharge in one month. In the interim, continue treatment course: Daily ice bath submergence, mercury tonics, biweekly harnessing/electrical shock.
“Is it true, what the nurses are saying? About the war?”
“What is it you think they’re saying?”
“That now that we’ve declared against the kaiser, we’ll be under attack. That he’ll send his aeroplanes straight to London, and his armies right after.”
“It’s really none of your concern. You need only concentrate on getting well.”
“This war, child, will be concluded in a matter of months. His Majesty will see to that. The Germans will never have a chance to reach us here, neither by air nor land nor sea. We are safe as can be. I assure you, there is absolutely nothing for you to worry about.”
EIGHT MONTHS LATER
Victoria station was cavernous, a fairy-work construction of wrought iron and steel and great canopies of glass, with locomotives that heaved and puffed into their slots by the platforms like groaning, overstuffed beasts. I’d never been in a place so big before. I’d never seen so many people amassed together at once.
I stood with my single suitcase clutched in one hand and my ticket in the other. Men and women in fine coats and hats pushed by me as if I was invisible—which, in a way, I was.
I had a coat, but it was rather obviously too small. Once it had been a decent black worsted, but that was several owners past. By the time it had been given to me, the dye had faded to more of a drabby charcoal, and the cuffs were frankly tattered. Sometimes, were I caught in the rain with it without an oilskin, my skirts would darken and my wrists would end up stained with bracelets of gray.
I had a hat, too, plucked straight from the donation bin. It was straw, a summer hat even though summer was very much done, and so plain that it couldn’t be termed in fashion or out. A hairpin stabbed through it into the thickness of my chignon, a pin that never stopped humming against my scalp. The buffed steel ribs stretching across the glass ceiling above me sang a deeper bass, great reverberating ba-ba-BUM-bum sounds that were nearly drowned out by—
Stop. We don’t think of that.
The canopy revealed a murky sky. It was not yet noon, but the sun had been swallowed by London’s ever-present miasma of fog and soot. A sheet of paper pasted to a pillar nearby declared in hasty lettering that the gas lines had been damaged in last night’s bombing, and there was no gas to burn in the jet lamps along the walls. Everyone around me was wrapped in shadow. We were ghosts in the steamy stink of the station.
The East Smithfield Ladies’ Society for Relief—that’s what their banner read—had set up a table of free biscuits and hot tea for all the departing soldiers jamming the platforms. A quartet of pink-cheeked women was pouring cups as quickly as possible from the urns. Tommies surrounded them, laughing and shifting their rifles awkwardly from shoulder to shoulder as they drank.
The tea smelled stale. The biscuits, however—oh, the biscuits were nearly still warm, and iced with maple sugar. I wished devoutly that one of the Tommies would offer me one, but not a single man returned my stare.
A young boy to my left was sobbing. He had hugged both arms around his mother’s knees, refusing to let go.
“Now, Bobby,” she was pleading with him over and over, her hat dribbling faux blackberries and her skirts all bunched up by his grip. “Now, Bobby, please.”
He wasn’t the only child in tears. There were scores of them, probably hundreds, all over the station, everyone wan and sniffling and red-eyed, their parents—if they’d come; sometimes it was clearly only the nannies—forcing smiles and making promises that no one in their right mind would believe, no matter how young.
“It’s just for a while, sweetheart. Just a short while. You remember your auntie’s farm, don’t you? All the fine ponies and sheep? Of course you remember—”
“—and I’ll come get you soon. As soon as I can, me and your grandmum both. Soon as I can—”
“—Because you’ll be safest there, that’s why. I’ve made up my mind about this, Sally, you know that I have, so do stop arguing with me about it; you’ve given me the migraine. I need you to get on that train this instant—”
“—it’ll be over in no time. Right? Right? We know that. Buck up, son, there you are! Milk a few cows for a few weeks, and there you are. Home again quick as a wink, m’boy, I swear.”
There was no one accompanying me to offer any lies about returning to the city soon. I’d left the foundling house alone, astonished enough that they’d paid for the hansom cab to get me to the station. It would have been a very long walk.
I turned my gaze to the ceiling once more, inhaling the scent of damp wool and biscuits and tea, watching the billowing steam from the trains wind upward in corkscrews, condense into rows of silvery tears strung along the steel ribs.
Then I moved past Bobby and his mum, shouldering my way through the crowds to the train that would take me away from this place.
What with the dismally methodical determination of the Germans to blow us all to smithereens, it seemed a strange miracle none of the glass above me had yet cracked.
The ticket agent stood over me, his gloved hand flat out in front of my nose. I’d been daydreaming, gazing out the window at the last looming shadows of the city whipping by. With my eyes half closed, with my breath clouding the pane, the outlying dregs of London became one long, lovely smear of mist.
The agent startled me out of my reverie; my head jerked back and my hat mashed against my seat.
“Righto,” he said cheerfully enough, but his hand didn’t move.
Ticket, ticket—I straightened my hat and patted my empty coat pockets. Where had it gone? I’d begun to run both hands rather desperately down my skirt before I recalled I’d stuck it in the suitcase at my feet.
I bent over to snap open my case. The stout woman crammed next to me shifted irritably. The third-class compartments had rows of narrow wooden benches and too many passengers and precious little else. My bench mate had been pushing her boot against my bag for the last half hour, as if she could shove it through the wall of the train to get it out of her way.
She reeked of days-old sweat and chickens. I wished I could shove her out of the train.
“All the way to Wessex, then?” the agent inquired, still jovial, his hand punch biting holes in my ticket with a series of rapid click-click-clicks.
He cocked his head and gave me a dubious squint. “Land Girl, izzit?”
I knew I looked young; I was small and angular in all the wrong places, something the too-tight coat seemed to emphasize. But the Land Girls, those strapping city girls headed out to England’s farms to finish the work all our fighting young men could not do, were usually at least eighteen. However old I actually was, I knew I was nowhere near that.
“School,” I said, and the man’s face cleared. He gave me back my ticket.
“Aye. Wessex, then. Good luck, luv.”
He walked on. As the train rocked back and forth, the chicken-woman began to brush at the wrinkles in her dress, using the movement as an excuse to force me harder to the wall. She spread her legs and jammed her foot up against my case again.
I had not grown up in the halls of Blisshaven for nothing. I freed my own foot and kicked down against her instep. For someone my size, I was surprisingly strong.
“Oh, I’m awfully sorry,” I said sweetly, meeting her outraged look. “Was that your foot? I had no idea. It’s so dreadfully tight in here, don’t you agree? I swear, I can hardly breathe.”
I had to do that only twice more before she got up and left.
The hours crept by. As the sky beyond my window grew glummer and darker and the stops more frequent, the train began to empty. Around four I rummaged in my case and found the meal that had been packed for me back at the Home: an apple, a thick slice of buttered bread, and an actual, amazing seared pork sausage.
The Home had never been overly generous with food, and meat was already becoming scarce. I stared down at the sausage in its waxed-paper packet, genuinely shocked that someone in the kitchens had thought to give it to me. Perhaps it was meant as a final farewell.
The air raids were taking their toll, and the government had recommended sending as many children out of London as possible. Blisshaven itself had been hit nearly right off. No one had been killed, but the entire northern section, a decrepit warren of leaky pipes and peeling paint that had served as our schooling arena, was now rubble. Most of us considered it an improvement.
So the Home had been emptied. I was, in fact, the very last orphan to leave, and I knew this was not because I was the eldest or the youngest or the least or most attractive, or any of the other rumored criteria that had been whispered about the dormitory in the days after the hit.
I knew I was the last because I was tainted. I had been sent to Moor Gate.
All the other wards had been scattered to the four corners of the kingdom, sent to whichever other foundling homes had room to take in more of the unwanted.
But for me. I hadn’t been assigned to another orphanage.
“The Iverson School for Girls,” Mr. H. W. Forrester had informed me, examining me like a nearsighted owl from over the tops of his spectacles. “It enjoys a sterling reputation. You are fortunate indeed they had an unexpected opening for a new charity student.”
“Yes, sir,” I had replied. I had been summoned to the hallowed office of the director, seated with well-mannered precision at the edge of the chair before his desk. The room was cramped with bookcases and cabinets and the lace curtains behind him were caked with dust; it was a little surprising more of it hadn’t flaked off from the air strikes.
Mr. H. W. Forrester had fleshy jowls and salt-and-pepper hair greased with pomade and veiny, restless fingers that tended to tap across the scattered sheets of paper before him. I was very careful never to look even once at the diamond stickpin in his tie.
“It’s on the southern coast, set near Idylling. Seat of the dukes of Idylling. The Louis family, you know.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Lovely area. I myself spent a holiday there once.” He leaned back in his chair, his gaze taking on a faraway cast. “Sandy beaches. Balmy breezes. One may sea-bathe in utter comfort. . . .”
I counted silently to twenty, then cleared my throat. “What happened to her, sir?”
Mr. Forrester lowered his gaze back to me. “To whom?”
“To the other girl? The one who left the opening for a new student?”
“Why, I’m certain nothing happened to her, Eleanore. Really, what a question. I trust you will manage to curb that macabre bent of yours once at Iverson. You won’t make many friends that way.”
“No, sir,” I agreed, and pressed my lips shut.
London wasn’t the only part of the country being attacked. The dailies were full of articles about how the Germans were beginning to bomb the coasts, as well, as far as they could go in their massive zeppelin airships.
Wessex. I’d bet the sterling school of Iverson had found itself with a sudden slew of student openings.
“The headmistress, Mrs. Westcliffe, has been made aware of your particular . . . personal history and has decided to take you in anyway. Provisionally, I might add. The duke himself sponsors the school, you know, and has granted it a very generous endowment for a select few impoverished students. You are an extremely lucky young woman, Eleanore.”
“I expect you to make the most of this opportunity.”
“I shall, sir.”
“Indeed. Not many patients from Moor Gate will ever be offered such a reprieve. You must always remember them and your months spent there. Strive to succeed for their sakes, as well as your own.”
I wondered, very seriously, if Mr. H. W. Forrester had ever noticed the curtain cord hanging down the wall just behind him or considered how easy it might be to wrap it around and around his neck.
He leaned forward again, his jowls swelling over his collar, and frowned at me with his owlish disapproval. The diamond securing his tie flared.
“You seem much improved from your first years here, child, but do not give me reason to regret this arrangement. Obey the headmistress without question, and fulfill all your duties to the duke and to the school.”
He frowned at me for a moment more, then sighed. “That will be all, Miss Jones.”
And it was. That had been my last evening in the Home.
Idylling, Iverson, dukes and bombs and sea-bathing . . .
I didn’t care if the Huns shelled it every night, if the duke wanted me to dance a jig for my suppers, or if the school itself was situated smack in the middle of the South Pole. It would be better than Blisshaven, I told myself, savoring each chewy bite of that cold sausage on the train. Better than Moor Gate.
Better than anything, really. How could it not be?
Of course, that last, hopeful thought occurred to me only hours before I would meet Jesse and Armand, those two savagely different and yet dangerously similar creatures who were destined to dig their talons into me and change my life forever.
Excerpted from The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abé . Copyright © 2013 by Five Rabbits, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.