Winds Against Progress

Wind Against Progress – Chapter 10: Euterpe

He’d told her his name was Silyen.

Euterpe couldn’t say for sure how long he’d been visiting her here at Orpen. But he’d been just a boy when he came for the first time.

On that day she had been sitting in a deckchair in the sunshine, looking around for Puck, who must have scampered off after rabbits again. She heard the soft sound of a violin playing somewhere nearby. It seemed like ages since she’d last seen anyone, so she had called out to the musician, inviting him into the garden. A short while later a dark-haired young boy appeared between the rose bushes, and when she gave him a wave he followed the box-hedged path to where she sat.

He’d stood there looking at her with some astonishment – and she was no less surprised by him. He was aged about ten, and his resemblance to her and Thalia was startling. It was almost like seeing a male version of herself. For a fleeting, confused instant, Euterpe wondered if this child was her brother. But how could you have a brother and not know it?

A dull throbbing started up at the base of her skull – she must have been sitting in the sun too long without her hat. But she forgot her discomfort when the strange boy’s glance flicked past her to the house behind. His face lit up with wonder.

‘Is that Orpen?’ he’d asked. ‘Orpen Mote?’

‘Yes. Don’t you know it?’

She turned to follow his gaze towards her beloved home. The sky was blue today and the moat was less water than mirror, holding a perfect reflection of the house. Orpen’s lower parts, vanishing into the water, were solid stone; the upper half was plastered and timbered. Small leaded windows were inset here and there, in a crooked line. Sometimes they were stacked up over two storeys, sometimes three. The great octuplet chimney, eight flues all in a row, loomed over the North Range. However, there was no smoke pluming from them today. In fact, the whole place was uncharacteristically tranquil.

‘But Orpen is lost,’ the boy said, seeming reluctant to look away. ‘It’s gone.’

‘Lost?’ she said, puzzled. ‘Well, you appear to have found it well enough. Did someone let you in through the gate?’

‘You did,’ the child said, holding out his hand. ‘I’m Silyen – Silyen Jardine. And you’re Euterpe Parva. But you’re younger.’

‘Younger? I’m twenty-four, which makes me quite a bit older than you,’ Euterpe told him. He really was a peculiar child.

The boy – Silyen – scowled and looked like he wanted to correct her, so she quickly took the offered hand and shook it. It was small and fine-boned but his grip was firm, and she felt the rasp of calluses from his violin bow.

‘You’re a Jardine?’ she asked. ‘We are to be relatives, then. My sister Thalia is engaged to marry Whittam, Lord Garwode’s heir.’

Whittam was a beast and Garwode a bully, Euterpe thought privately, but she wasn’t going to share that opinion with her Jardine visitor.

‘They’re not married yet?’ Silyen asked. He appeared disconcerted to hear it, though he recovered his composure quickly. He waved his hand, dismissive of weddings as only a young boy could be. ‘It doesn’t matter. We are relatives already.’

And Euterpe supposed that was the truth. The Jardines and the Parvas had been connected for hundreds of years, through Cadmus Parva-Jardine himself, and his father Lycus the Regicide. Both men had lived here at the Mote, and their likenesses still hung on the walls. Their faces were as familiar to Euterpe as those of her own sister and parents. In fact, Silyen bore a more than passing resemblance to them – much more so than to his actual family, the red-haired, green-eyed Jardines.

‘Would you like to see the house?’ she asked the boy. ‘I think you’d like some of the portraits.’

His smile, unexpectedly, was just as impish as her sister’s.

Silyen had been wide-eyed as they’d walked through the house, and had run his hands over everything. He’d rapped his knuckles on the armour in the hall, and picked at threads in the corridor tapestries until she’d told him off. He’d even stopped to smell the flowers she’d had cut that morning and placed in a vase in the dining room. He was clearly a clever child, and she thought she knew what room he’d like most.

When she opened the nailed-oak doors to the library the boy had actually run in. He stood there spinning in a circle, face upturned with delight, bathed in the muted sunshine that filtered through the protective blinds. He’d gone round the room taking books from the shelves and opening them, holding them carefully by the spine. He’d turn a few pages, before replacing a book and moving on to another.

She wasn’t surprised when Silyen Jardine had come to visit her many times, after that first occasion. She read to him from beloved books, like Tales of the King. They would walk around the garden and grounds together, and Euterpe would point out plants or interesting bits of architecture. Silyen particularly liked hearing stories of her childhood, and the scrapes she was led into by her bold younger sister.

‘Tell me about how you and Thalia would go skating,’ he’d beg.

So she’d tell again the story of their favourite pastime: midsummer ice-skating. How Thalia would appear at Euterpe’s bedroom door on the hottest days of the year, holding two pairs of bladed white boots, and would drag her downstairs past their amused parents and out to the moat. There, Thalia would anchor her sister, while Euterpe leaned out from the bank and dabbled her fingers into the water. A few tingling moments later it would be frozen down to its bed like thick green glass, and the girls would lace on their skates and spend the August day swooping up and down on the cooling ice.

As Silyen continued to visit, though, he stopped asking for these childish recollections. Euterpe noticed physical changes in him, too. He grew taller. During several visits his voice squeaked, then one day he spoke to her in a man’s tones.

Time must be passing, and Euterpe sometimes wondered how it was that so little had happened in her own life. Her sister’s marriage hadn’t yet taken place, nor did her own wedding to darling Winterbourne get any closer.

She never saw anyone to ask them why that was, though. And whenever she tried to work things out herself, it all became more confused, not less. An ache would swell at the back of her head. It was simpler just to sit and enjoy the breeze, watching the butterflies and wondering where on earth naughty Puck had hidden himself.

She and Silyen fell into a routine. They would walk round the garden and moat, where it was always sunny and warm. Then they’d go indoors and her visitor would sit at the great library table going through some book or another that he’d picked from the shelves. Euterpe would settle into a window seat with a novel or sketchbook.

Her family was never around during Silyen’s visits. She would have loved to present him to Thalia, who she knew would be as amazed as she was at how much this strange young man resembled them both. And it was such a shame she hadn’t been able to introduce him to Winterbourne either.

The man she had set her heart on was exceptional, gifted, she told Silyen proudly. He had been top of his year at Oxford and was now at the start of what she knew would be a brilliant legal career. Winterbourne was fascinated by politics, but as a second-born would never sit in the House of Light.

Silyen had smiled at that, and offered the observation that Winterbourne would make a fine Chancellor. And Silyen also knew – everyone did, he said – how very devoted Zelston was to Miss Euterpe.

One summer afternoon a little while after – and how long this summer had been – Silyen closed the book he was reading. He sat back in the library chair, raised his arms above his head and stretched. It was the unmistakable behaviour of someone who has completed either a demanding race or a demanding book.

‘Finished?’ she asked.

‘Finished all of them,’ Silyen said, flexing his fingers. Euterpe heard the fine bones crunch, like a bird in Puck’s little jaws. ‘That was the last.’ He pushed the book away from him.

‘The last?’ Euterpe scoffed. ‘Not even a bookworm like you could have read everything this library contains. You’re giving up. I don’t blame you – that one’s rather boring.’

‘So I gathered,’ Silyen said. ‘You only managed to get halfway through the first chapter.’

Euterpe looked at him in astonishment.

‘How on earth do you know that?’

Silyen held up the book, open at the first page. There was the engraved frontispiece, all in Latin. It proclaimed the text an eighteenth-century Dutch treatise on the use of Skill for the conjuration of trade winds to the Indies.

It was the book that had inspired Harding Matravers’ infamous voyage, Euterpe remembered. She’d thought it might be exciting but it had proved tedious in the extreme. She’d persisted for a few pages, attracted by the author’s account of the isle of Java, but had abandoned the volume once it turned technical. Her family had a reputation for scholarship, but Euterpe had never been interested in the workings of Skill. The great power she sensed in herself frightened her and she used it as little as possible.

Silyen was turning the book’s pages, each covered in thick type so heavy it was deeply impressed into the paper. Then suddenly there was no more lettering, just blank, yellowing quires of paper. Euterpe blinked in surprise.

‘You stopped here,’ Silyen said. ‘Page . . .’ – he turned back to the last printed sheet – ‘twenty-three. And this one you never read at all, did you? Such a shame.’

He reached across the table and pulled towards him a handsome, heavy volume bound in green leather. The lettering on the spine was in Ancient Greek – a language Euterpe did not understand, though she recognized the book itself. She had never even opened it.

‘The title says it’s about whether certain Greek myths are accounts or allegories of Skill,’ the boy said. ‘Sounded intriguing, but—’

He fanned open the book. There was nothing printed inside it. Every page was blank.

‘All these books,’ he said, frustration evident in his tone. ‘Lost to the world once, and now lost again, to me.’

What did he mean? Euterpe stood up and went to the table to examine the volume.

And that ache was back again. A compression at the base of her skull as if someone held her by the scruff of the neck, like a surplus kitten being hoicked from its indifferent mother. Euterpe rubbed her fingers there. She wished Silyen would leave; she needed some time alone, to rest.

But the boy showed no sign of leaving. He leaned back in his chair and watched her from under lowered eyelids, with those bright black eyes so like her own.

‘These aren’t the only books in here, are they?’ he said. ‘There are others, locked in a box. And you’ve looked through all of them, haven’t you? The journals of Cadmus Parva-Jardine.’

Despite herself, Euterpe’s hand flew to her throat. Her fingers closed around a slender velvet ribbon tied there. At the end of the ribbon, tucked into the front of her dress so it was hidden from sight, hung a little iron key.

‘How do you know that?’ she asked. ‘There are plenty of rumours about this library and what it contains. Commoners seem to believe that half the volumes in here are written in the blood of their kind, on parchment made of human skin. But no one outside my family – not even members of your family – knows about those notebooks. They are protected by a hereditary Quiet. We Parvas can only tell our children, and only the children of the heir can pass the secret on.’

Silyen looked at her for a long time before responding, as if weighing up what to say. When he spoke his tone was careful and his head tipped to one side, observing her.

‘My mother told me about them.’

Pain flared inside Euterpe’s head. It shot sparks across her vision like the Great Hall hearth when fire finally caught and sent kindling whooshing up the chimney breast. She swayed and pressed one hand to her temples, the other clutching the key. Her breathing came fast and shallow, and she struggled to get it back under control.

A question had come into her head. A mad, foolish question, but she couldn’t not ask it.

‘Am I your mother?’

Of course she wasn’t. How could she be? They were too close in age. She was twenty-four, and Silyen looked around fifteen. Except he had been ten when they first met, which would make her twenty-nine now – and she wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t. She was Euterpe Parva and she was twenty-four years old. Her sister was Thalia Parva. Her beloved was Winterbourne Zelston. Her Jack Russell, Puck, was the most rascally dog in the world, and she lived here at Orpen Mote with her darling parents.

And something awful had happened. Something too terrible to think about.

She staggered backwards and sat down on her favourite window seat.

Don’t think about it, then. Don’t think about it.

Euterpe closed her eyes. She heard Silyen’s chair being pushed back from the table, the creak of a floorboard as he came over to her. She felt the touch of a cool hand on her forehead – definitely not a child’s hand any more. Then an arm went around her shoulders and another scooped under her knees, and she was being lifted, carried. A door was kicked open, then another; one more. Then sunlight flooded over her skin. She heard the bees and smelled the flowers. Almost crying with relief, Euterpe Parva let sensation rinse away thought.

When she woke some time later, she was in her deckchair and she was alone.

The next time Silyen came, she led him straight to the library. There, in the middle of the table, stood the cedarwood box. She had fetched it in readiness for his visit. That wasn’t a decision she had made lightly. But for some reason she didn’t fully understand, it now felt terribly important that another pair of eyes should see the notebooks.

Silyen paused in the doorway. The expression on his face as he looked at the box reminded her of the boy he’d been when they’d first met. He’d gazed at Orpen Mote as if it had been conjured from a storybook. Was he feeling as Euterpe had, when Winterbourne handed her the champagne that day in the garden and she had found a diamond ring sparkling at the bottom of her glass? Silyen appeared rapt, as if gazing on the perfect fulfilment of his most secret hopes and dreams.

Euterpe suddenly missed Zelston so much it hurt.

‘I wish Winter was here,’ she said, unable to help herself. ‘Or my sister. I feel like I haven’t seen them for ever such a long time. I don’t even remember the last time I saw my parents. You come and visit, but where are they?’

Silyen’s expression was hard to read. It looked like concern, but oddly dispassionate. Like a doctor hearing a patient declare that she feels much improved, when he knows her condition is terminal.

Was she ill? The thought had crossed her mind. It would explain why she was so often confused, why she spent so much time sitting in the fresh air, left in peace and quiet. Had she been ill, and was now convalescing? Perhaps Silyen was some sort of doctor.

But no, he was a boy of fifteen, and plainly the relative he said he was. And she had something to show him. Yes.

She led him over to the box on the table, fished out the little key around her neck and fitted it to the lock. She heard the complicated four-tongued mechanism click and slide. Lifting the lid, she carefully took them out, one by one. Eleven slim volumes bound in pale vellum, each spine thickly ridged and incised with a number filled in black. They smelled faintly of old leather, musty ink made from who knew what, and the lingering scent of cedarwood. The covers had been worn to an ivory sheen through centuries of handling.

Euterpe’s were among the hands that had held these books. She’d loved them since she was a small girl. She opened one, showing Silyen. The text was written in a crabbed, curling hand. It was as if the author had tried to cram as much as possible onto one page, because he feared there wouldn’t be enough paper in the world to hold every thought in his head.

Euterpe didn’t understand much of what the journals described, but she cherished their connection with her famous ancestor. Loved, too, the occasional verses that Cadmus composed in memory of his dead wife; or his scribbled observations on nature and the seasons. She delighted in the vivid pen-sketches of plants and animals.

Most of all, she treasured the passages overflowing with guilty, heartsick love for his Skilless young son, Sosigenes. The boy they never spoke of, who was a secret folded up and concealed like a love letter in the bosom of their family. It was Sosigenes’ plight that drove Cadmus’s relentless experimental, analytical exploration of his Skill and what it could do.

All through her childhood, Euterpe had sat in her window seat looking through the notebooks. She had empathized with her many-times-great-grandfather, and absolved him of both the acts laid at his door, and the hidden things he had done. She had turned every page.

Silyen’s hands were trembling, she noticed, as he finished his check of the journals and laid the last small volume down on the cloth-covered table.

‘Thank you,’ he said, turning to her. His voice was uncharacteristically hoarse. ‘Thank you so much. You don’t know how important this is.’

And so they resumed their routine, except instead of library books, Silyen studied the journals of Cadmus Parva-Jardine.

A few other things changed, too. When they walked round the moat, it would be Silyen pointing things out and sharing anecdotes from the notebooks. He recounted scraps of family history, noted alterations to the building and garden made by Cadmus, and repeated the man’s witticisms at the expense of members of other great families. Silyen’s recall was prodigious, and when she teased him about it, he confessed that he was memorizing large parts of the books by heart.

He was still getting taller, too, though he wasn’t thickening up into the muscular build of the Jardines. Euterpe thought of Whittam, her sister Thalia’s betrothed, and shuddered. They must be married by now, she supposed. But if they were, why had she not been at the wedding?

After a time, she noticed that Silyen had finished reading all the notebooks. One day he sat very quietly in the library, just looking at the journals spread out in front of him. Euterpe watched him nervously from the window seat. What else could she show him, to keep him coming to Orpen?

But she needn’t have worried. He merely began again, this time seeming to select the books at random. Or he’d set two or three alongside each other, flipping back and forth as if comparing, connecting.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked, after several visits had passed in this fashion. ‘You must have read them all ten times by now.’

Silyen looked up, startled. She hardly ever spoke when they were in the library.

‘I’m trying to decide what he got right and what he got wrong,’ he said.

Euterpe scoffed, not unkindly.

‘Cadmus knew more about Skill than anyone who’s ever lived.’

‘Is that so? He thought more about it, perhaps. But knew more? There’s one huge thing he didn’t know, that’s quite plain in this record.’

Euterpe stared at her friend. He clearly wanted her to ask, so with a sigh, she complied.

‘Why his son has no Skill,’ Silyen said.

She blinked in surprise. Those were the parts of the journals that she knew best – the bits that made her cry. What had Silyen seen that she had missed? That every other Parva heir who had read them had also failed to see.

‘Bit of a coincidence, don’t you think,’ Silyen said, ‘that the man with the strongest Skill in all our history should sire a child with none at all.’

His words hung between them. Euterpe could almost see them eddying and spinning in the resinous sunlight. Ideas trapped in amber, perfect and unchanging.

‘If it’s not coincidence,’ she said, ‘then what is it? Lots of Skill in one generation uses it up for the next?’

The boy would have tutted if he’d not been so well brought up.

‘All Cadmus’s other children were perfectly normal. No, it’s much simpler than that. Cadmus took it.’

‘Took it?’ Euterpe sprang to her feet, brimming with indignation on behalf of her slandered ancestor. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. He loved that boy more than anything. You’ve read his words: he was haunted his whole life by his son’s lack of Skill. Besides, how can you “take” Skill? I can’t believe the hours you’ve spent reading, and a stupid notion like that is the best you can manage.’

‘You seem a little defensive,’ Silyen said, in that bloodless way he sometimes had. At such times the inquisitive black-eyed teenager almost disappeared, leaving only the mechanical operation of an analytical brain. ‘I wonder why. Your sister, Thalia: her Skill is rather paltry, isn’t it? She can hardly boil tea in a cup. Which makes me wonder about you.’

Euterpe couldn’t bear it. She was not having this conversation. She just wasn’t. She threw her sketchbook down on the floor and ran out of the library. When, some hours later, Silyen walked past her deckchair on his way to the garden gate, she pressed her lips together and did not bid him goodbye.

More time passed. Still Winterbourne did not visit. Still Thalia did not appear, a plate of scones in one hand and a jug of cool lemonade in the other. Still naughty Puck did not come bounding up, tail wagging, a scrappy bundle of feathers between his small, sharp teeth.

Euterpe’s headaches became worse. The pain was bad even when she sat quite still in her chair in the garden. The buzzing of the bees was so loud as to be unendurable. She felt dizzy when she stood. She stole a glance at her own reflection in the parlour mirror one day, just to see how bad she looked. But the face that stared back at her was still radiant, pink-cheeked, unshadowed and unlined. She was still twenty-four and beautiful.

Forever twenty-four.

Fear slid down her spine like a cold key, stopping her breath.

‘What has happened to me?’ she asked Silyen the next time he appeared, walking down the box-hedged path from a garden gate that was always just out of sight. ‘Why am I not getting older? Why do I never see anyone, apart from you? It feels like it is summer always. And my head is getting worse. I can barely think straight any more.’

She studied his face; emotions passed across it, as insubstantial as cloud over sky. Then finally, like the sun, that smile – the same she’d seen the very first day all those years ago. It was Thalia’s smile, no doubt about it. And it had indeed been years since Silyen had first walked into the garden. Euterpe realized that now.

Years in which he had changed from boy to man – and she had not changed at all.

Euterpe’s skull felt as though it was breaking in two like an egg being cracked from within. She was terrified of whatever strange new life might come crawling out, naked and misshapen.

‘This will hurt,’ Silyen said, holding out both hands to pull her to her feet. ‘But it’s about time. I’m quite curious, too. Mother’s told me about it, but not the whole story. And Zelston’s never uttered a word.’

He put his hands on Euterpe’s shoulders to steady her. Then he turned her slowly around to face the house.

Orpen Mote was a charred ruin.

Her childhood home. Everything she had ever known: burned to ashes. She remembered now. It had been an accident. An ember fallen from the hearth as the household slept.

She and Thalia had been away from home that night, at a ball at Lincoln’s Inn. Winterbourne had shaken her awake in the early hours, in a cold guest room. She remembered how she had felt in that instant: breathless with longing that he had finally come to her instead of waiting till their wedding night.

Until she saw from his terrible expression that that was not why he had come at all.

Her parents had died from the smoke without ever waking, their Skill useless to save them, their slaves, or their home.

Euterpe gasped at the onrush of memory. Only Silyen’s hands held her up as she swayed.

‘Look,’ he whispered in her ear. ‘There.’

She looked to where he pointed. Three people stood close together, a small white-and-tan dog running in circles around their feet, whining. She recognized Thalia’s graceful form, the strong, dark figure of Winterbourne – and there, supported between them, herself. Tears streamed down her other self’s face. Her hair was loose and unkempt, and she seemed unable to stand upright under the weight of her despair.

As Euterpe watched, the grief-stricken girl’s knees buckled. Winterbourne caught her in his arms and tenderly lowered her to the ground.

Euterpe saw herself huddle face down upon the scorched and ash-strewn earth. She heard herself let out an inconsolable cry and scrabble through the grey muck as if hoping by some miracle to unearth her parents, whole and unharmed.

Then the first bird dropped from the sky.

None of the three they were watching noticed. They were already surrounded by so much devastation. But Euterpe and Silyen saw what the trio did not.

They saw the wind whip through the still air, sending a plume of ash gusting upwards like a filthy geyser. Debris spiralled in the eddy and a charred and blackened tree, gutted by fire, toppled to the ground.

Another bird fell heavily: a mallard, flying from the lake. The sky above the ruins of Orpen darkened, and a tangle of cloud was spun by an unseen hand into a skein of storm. Rain lashed down. More small feathered shapes plummeted to the ground.

Euterpe heard Silyen inhale sharply.

‘You,’ he said. He sounded almost excited. ‘Your Skill. Incredible.’

Euterpe didn’t feel excited. She felt sick at heart. Her Skill terrified and disgusted her.

‘Look!’ the pair of them heard Thalia say, as she directed Winterbourne’s gaze away from the girl in his arms. The two stared towards the water meadow on the far side of the river, the one that fed the moat.

The river had created a natural firebreak and the fields there had remained fresh and flower-filled, even as the house burned. But now the grass was bending, waving, as if under an approaching wind – and where it bent, it died.

‘It’s her!’ Thalia cried, raising her voice to be heard above the drumming rain. ‘It’s not something she can control; it just happens. I’ve seen it once or twice before, when she’s been really upset. But I’ve never seen anything like this. We have to stop her.’

Puck gave a shrill howl and huddled closer to the stricken girl’s skirts. Then the breath went out of him and his legs folded. He curled up against his mistress in death, as he had in life.

From her vantage point in the garden with Silyen, Euterpe let out a choked sob. Tears coursed hotly down her cheeks.

‘Stop her!’ Thalia yelled at Winterbourne, looking half deranged herself now. Her hair was plastered across her face by the raging storm. Overhead, sheet lightning lit up the blackened sky. ‘I can’t. I’m not powerful enough. But you can.’

Euterpe watched her lover bend over her crumpled other self. The girl was shaking violently with the uncontrolled Skill that coursed through her, venting itself in havoc and destruction. But even so Winterbourne gathered her up and held her to him, tight against his chest. He placed a soft kiss upon her forehead.

The words he spoke were too quiet to be heard by the watchers in the garden. But Euterpe knew them.

Remembered them.

‘Hush,’ he told her, his voice charged with Skill. ‘I love you. Be still.’

The girl in his arms went limp. With shocking suddenness, the storm ceased. Thalia rubbed both hands over her face and pushed back her hair. She looked in disbelief at the devastation around her, and at the clear blue sky above.

In the sun-drenched garden, Euterpe’s memory cracked open. A hideous understanding crawled out.

She felt Silyen’s hands upon her shoulders. The young man – her sister’s child – turned her towards him, and she looked up into his face.

‘So now you know,’ he said. ‘And soon, it’ll be time to leave this garden. They’re both waiting for you. They’ve waited for years.’

 


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