Take the key from behind your grandmother’s portrait. I am certain your father still keeps it in the foyer—no one will have touched it in years, I hope. But you, darling, will be able to find the key.
Walk to the end of the hall and open the cellar door. It has no lock; do not fear closing it behind you. Go inside.
Be careful when you walk down the stairs; the wood is weak and treacherous. Bring a candle. The cellar is very dark.
At the bottom of the stairs, turn left. An old writing desk lurks there, in the shadows. Push it aside. No doubt you’ve grown up a good strong girl, and won’t need help.
Look: there is a door in the wall.
You won’t see a keyhole, but run a finger over the place where one would be. I know no daughter of mine will mind the dust.
Twist the key into the keyhole. You might need to worry it a little.
There, darling. You’ve found it. Use it well.
My mother was wrong about one thing: the cellar door did have a lock. Stepmother locked me inside enough times for me to know.
She was right about everything else. I was plenty strong enough to push aside the writing desk; I only cursed myself for never having done so before.
Of course, I’d thought Mother’s workshop was long since destroyed. I’d seen the fire myself.
Besides, that desk had long been my dearest friend. The first time Stepmother locked me in the cellar, a forgotten stack of brown and brittle paper in its top drawer and a cracked quill and green inkbottle underneath provided me with hours of amusement. I drew improbable flying machines and mechanized carriages; I drew scandalous, shoulder-baring gowns with so many flounces and so much lace that their creation would have exhausted a dozen of the Steps’ best seamstresses.
Not that Stepmother hired seamstresses anymore. I provided her with much cheaper, if less cheerful, labor. I sewed all of her and my stepsisters’ dresses, though my fingers were not small or nimble enough for the microscopic stitching they required. I took care not to show how much I preferred fetching water and chopping wood to sewing. Stepmother considered ‘hard labor’ the most punishing of my chores, so she assigned it often.
I never told her how those chores offered me precious, rare glimpses into my memories of Mother. I could see her face, wreathed in a subtle powdering of soot, laughing at my disapproving father as she carried a cord of wood or a sloshing pail of water down to the cellar. Until recently, those memories, and a few of her smallest inventions, were all I had of her.
I had to hide her machines from Stepmother, of course: the whirling contraption that dusted cupboards for me, the suction seals that kept mice out of the drawers, the turn-crank in one closet that polished shoes. Mother had taught me enough to keep her machines in repair. When she was alive, she’d dreamed of my going to Esting City for a real apprenticeship, as she herself had always longed to do. But Father would never hear of it.
Anyway, neither of them were able to help decide my future anymore. Now that they were gone, all I knew was that I could not abandon their house to the Steps.
I digress. Father always told me not to worry over things that can’t be helped, but I never took his instructions to heart.
He died on New Year’s Eve, the year I was ten. I wept noisily over the dispatch letter that announced his death, smearing tears onto the sleeves of what I didn’t know would be my last new dress for years. Stepmother stood silent behind me.
He had taken his new wife, with her two mewling, puny daughters, only a few years earlier. I’d tried to befriend Piety and Chastity at first, to beguile them into joining me for a horseback ride, a walk, or even a simple game of boules on the lawn.
When I finally understood their horror of fresh air, I tried sharing my books with them. These, at best, were met with glazed expressions and simpering giggles behind my back. At worst, their pages were ripped out and replaced them with ladies’ magazines. To improve my taste, my stepsisters said.
At least in those days I had books of my own.
After Father died, the Steps grew so much worse. Within a day of his death they ousted me from my lifelong bedroom, and I was too stunned with grief to argue. My room was next to my stepsisters’, and Stepmother said they needed the additional boudoir space. She liked everyone to think that she would never grant her daughters any excess, but in private she spoiled them as if they were the Heir’s famously beloved horses.
On the night after she dismissed our housekeeper, she told me to wash the supper dishes. Then—the only time I’ve done it—I did rebel. I screamed at her like a child, like the child I still was. My position in the family was all I had left to tie me to my parents’ love. Though I’d felt it slipping away, until that moment I had chosen denial.
Clearing my eyes of tears, I stared my stepmother down. She looked back at me. Though I had only seen coldness and distance in her face before, I saw something else then. I saw challenge. We both knew what she was doing: she was making me a servant. But I began to think she might be testing me, preparing me for some sacred rite of entrance into her true family. Making sure I was a good daughter.
So I nodded, and I looked down, and I retreated to the kitchen. When your heart is broken, it’s easier to follow rules. I kept waiting, too, hoping I might pass her test. I carried that hope with me like a rosary, counting the worn beads each time she assigned me some yet more menial chore.
If it were ever a test, I must have failed.
Despite what she has reduced me to since Father’s death, though, I still cannot believe Stepmother is entirely evil. Do not mistake me: she is cruel, sharp, and she spoils her own children to a fault, while denying me any scrap of affection. She takes a hypocrite’s great pleasure in her own abstinence. She enjoys denying herself more than she would ever relish an indulgence. I could list her flaws for days.
But she gave me my mother’s letter. I didn’t know why she did, or why she didn’t read it first. Perhaps, I’d thought, it was because she loved her own daughters too much to disrespect another mother’s wishes; perhaps I would never know the reason.
It must have been her, I thought, finding the envelope slipped under my doorjamb one autumn morning.
on her sixteenth birthday
Stepmother even gave it to me on the correct day.
After dusk, I crept through the hall to the portrait of Grandmother. She cut an imposing figure atop her huge black stallion, Jules. Mother’s family had long been famous for their hunt horses, and Jules was the greatest stallion they ever produced. There were rumors, even, that Fey blood ran in Jules’s veins—but if that were true, the records of it would have been destroyed years ago, after King Corsin’s quarantine on Faerie. No one would admit to the least association with the Fey any more, not after a Fey assassin killed the last Heir.
Our country had to learn how to live without magic, after that. We were still learning.
Still, with his long, powerful legs, streaming mane, and bright-gleaming coat, Jules looked as beautiful as Fey horses were said to be. Mother used to tell me that together, he and Grandmother could put the men to shame at the foxhunt—I always loved hearing that story.
No key hung on the wall when I took down the picture. Annoyed, I squinted at the letter again.
Take the key from behind your grandmother’s portrait.
I puzzled for a moment—then had to laugh at my own stupidity.
I dug a ragged fingernail into the paper at the back of the frame. It exploded in tiny brown fibers that blanketed my hand to the wrist and suffused the air with feathery, antique dust. I grinned, feeling rough metal against my finger. I hooked my fingertip around the key and pulled it from the frame.
It was a skeleton key, quite large. The prongs on its shaft were many and complex.
I pocketed it quickly and rehung the portrait, feeling like the heroine in a two-penny storybook. Grandmother watched me from her gilded frame.
I kept near the wall as I walked to the cellar door. I could hear Piety’s snores and Chastity gibbering in her sleep. Stepmother slept even more deeply than they did. Still, I stayed silent as a huntress, groping toward the secret I could sense just ahead of me. Any false step might wake the Steps and pull it out of my reach.
I double-checked the lock on the door and crept down the stairs. I held my candle high. I had chosen a plain kitchen candlestick—Stepmother would miss the scented beeswax. So it was by a crude and greasy light that I found my mother’s gift.
It was easy enough to push the desk aside; finding the door was harder. The flickering candlelight revealed nothing until I practically had my nose to the seam. I was covered in spider-silk before I saw it.
But there it was, obscured behind seven years of grime . . . and something else. Something not quite a shadow—something I might have thought was magic, before the quarantine. Dark, with a darker shine. But as I put out my finger to touch it, it vanished, and I thought I must not have seen it at all.
I stepped back, relishing this last moment of mystery. I put a fair amount of force behind the key, expecting rust to have diminished its fit.
But it slipped in like a foot into a slipper, and I stumbled against the opening door.
A rattling overhead drew my attention. There were round, spiked shadows in the darkness of the ceiling, rotating at the same rate that the door was pulling open—being pulled. Inside the room, a hissing sound stopped and started in a heartbeat pattern.
I picked up my candle and entered.
The door swung shut behind me, as smoothly and quickly as it had opened. I didn’t feel trapped—I felt welcomed, wrapped in my mother’s love. I surveyed my inheritance with awe.
There were charts on the walls, mapping the inner mechanisms of a thousand wonders. There was a coal-powered loom, a sewing machine—thank goodness, I thought, my finger still stinging from the last time my needle had slipped—and an automated rocking chair and cradle. This last made my heart ache with loneliness for her and for my own childhood, but I could not stop to examine it further; I was too curious about her other designs. I was particularly drawn to an acidic rainbow of dyes painted into a line of circles, next to long notations of their formulas. I could smell the oil lubricating the gears that had swung open the door.
A bookshelf on the far side of the room completely covered the wall. It sagged into a smile under the weight of its leather-bound occupants. Stuck into the wall amid the books, a desk sat draped with reams of paper and half-finished diagrams. A pair of glass and leather goggles rested on top of one blank sheet, still dusted in soot. I recalled the pale rings around Mother’s eyes.
I jumped when the room’s thick silence broke. A small chest on a low shelf thunked once, and again, in a determined beat.
I sighed, relieved that no one had discovered me. But what lay in that dark box?
Years of unhappiness had made me fearless. I expected a family of rats, and when the thing in the chest scurried into shadows as I opened the lid, I assumed I was correct.
Then I heard the soft whirring of gears, and my nervousness dissolved into delight. I had found another of Mother’s creations.
I lowered my palm gently into the box. I found myself cooing and nickering to the thing inside, as if it were a shy cat.
“Come on, now,” I said quietly. “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.” I turned my gaze politely away.
I felt a delicate nipping at my little finger and had to laugh at the sensation. Something rounded pressed against my palm, and I looked down.
A metal horse nuzzled my finger. No taller than my hand at the shoulder, he was the most delicate little toy I had ever seen . . . and yet more than a toy: he moved of his own volition, and the way he regarded me was more than lifelike—was life itself.
He was made with too much care, too much precision, to be intended only as a plaything. His head and neck were copper, gone a bit green, and his flanks were blown glass. Through it, I could see his clockwork musculature turning back and forth as he pranced beneath my fingers, and even a tiny clock face that looked as if it had been taken from a small pocket watch. He had no mane, but a tail of silver chains that he flicked back and forth and lifted for balance when he moved. Etched into his right flank was the name Jules II. Subtle puffs of steam blew from his nostrils. When I stroked his belly, I felt the heat of some inner furnace.
The chest that held little Jules was, in fact, a sort of stable in miniature. There was a bottle of oil and a rag in one corner. A crinkle of green rust, his outline, blossomed in another; he had clearly lain dormant for years. But how had he known to awaken? And what else could my entrance have aroused, in my mother’s world of mechanical wonders?
I lifted Jules from his confinement and set him gently on the floor. He reared up on his steel haunches and looked at me pointedly. We regarded each other.
Then he set off at a canter toward the far corner of the room. I followed—though I paced him easily, of course, even when he broke into a jingling gallop. I felt as if I’d stumbled into Faerie.
Jules halted in front of yet another door, just as subtly set into the wall as the first had been. This one was wider, and streaked in places with dried grease.
I saw a smudged black handprint among the streaks. When I placed my own hand there, it matched exactly. I knew even before I pushed the door open that here was where Mother kept her workshop, and the first room was simply a designer’s studio, a repository.
I opened the door and more gears sprung to my aid. The hissing was louder in here, and the air was humid with steam.
Jules pranced eagerly at my feet, his metal hooves clacking against the stone floor. Before me lay a world of possibilities.