Myrlie knew she wasn’t supposed to be in the attic without adult supervision, but Aunt Lilyah had been squirrely about the whole thing ever since Aunt Kelly went missing, and Aunt Lavey was trying to pretend everything was normal, and her mother was the sort that ignored the Aunt House unless she needed something, and then it was all about what the Aunt could give her, right there, right then.
Besides, the house’s wards liked her, they always had. She’d been five years old when she’d first snuck over to have tea with Aunt Kelly, and the wards had let her in even then. She didn’t want to stop sneaking over just because Aunt Kelly was missing, and as long as she was sneaking over unsupervised, she might as well go into the hidden corners of their Aunt House, which, despite not being all that old (so said everyone), was still sufficiently creepy and mysterious for her.
She’d heard the Root Family had attics bigger than the house itself. She wasn’t sure if that was exaggeration or truth, but what her family’s Aunt House had was a very nice office-like room that just happened to have an archive hidden in what looked like a closet on first glance.
She’d been six or seven when she’d first discovered that Aunt Kelly’s house had secret passages, and nine before anyone else had realized she knew. They were useful for getting out of a room you weren’t supposed to be in, that was for sure. And they were useful for finding things you weren’t supposed to know about, too — like the archives.
She knew there were diaries in there. There were even a few carefully hand-written copies of The Really Old Diaries (That was how Aunt Kelly talked about them, like they had capitals in them) and a few photocopies, folded into journal-sized pages and sewn together with robin’s-egg-blue embroidery thread.
Myrlie liked those best, the old diaries that weren’t so old that she was worried about handling them, the copies where you could still see the specks and ink-blots. She had known just where they were, but the archive looked like someone had been in here since she’d last snuck in. The old chest had been moved, the old file cabinet had been unlocked.
It had to be Aunt Lilyah. She hadn’t seen any of the other grown-ups come and go since Aunt Kelly had disappeared, and she’d heard her great-aunt Sylverie mention how the wards had seemed “temperamental” lately.
She knew that word. It meant “not doing what we want,” and she’d heard it applied to Aunt Kelly, Aunt Lilyah, and herself more than a few times.
Myrlie squatted down on the floor to open the chest Aunt Lilyah had moved. It was unlocked and the books inside had been moved — not disordered, just piles shifted around a bit. The topmost book was one of her favorites, a photocopied journal from an Aunt-in-waiting in the Civil War era. She picked it up, and something slid from under it, falling deep into the chest between stacks of books and hat-boxes.
Why the Aunts needed so many hats, Myrlie had never figured out, but Aunt Kelly had told her in no uncertain terms that she was never, ever to undo the ribbons that held boxes closed, never, unless there was an Aunt present and telling her to do so.
She couldn’t reach to the bottom, and she wasn’t sure even her hand could get into the little crevice where something had fallen. So she moved the boxes carefully as she unpacked the chest, keeping her fingers off of the ribbons.
The oldest books had been wrapped in newspaper or butcher paper, folded up like she covered her school books or wrapped like presents, some tied with loop after loop of silk ribbing. She avoided those ribbons, too; when she slipped and her fingers brushed against a faded yellow bow, she could feel the tingle of magic leaking out of the book.
Her uncle Fred, in a moment of irritated drunkenness, had once muttered that the Aunts kept more power “locked up away, tied up in pretty bows” than most people would ever dream existed in the whole world. Myrlie had thought he was angry. Now she wondered if he was right.
She wasn’t supposed to know about power, now, and Aunt Kelly’s tolerance of her snooping and sneaking ended anytime she started poking at the things of magic, no matter how nice it smelled or how good it felt. Myrlie kept moving books and boxes, ignoring — or pretending to ignore, at least — all the little suggestions that were travelling up her fingers.
Down there, way down at the very bottom, lodged between two packages wrapped up in paper and silk, Myrlie found the little envelope. She dumped the contents into her palm, but all it turned out to be was three glass beads in a sort of bright blue.
Oh, there you are. The voice brushed against her mind like a purr. Not Tansy, though. You’re new. How interesting!
Lilyah had spent an informative hour downtown in the central library. The book she’d been looking for, Limits on and Protections from Witch-Craft, had actually been available, much to her surprise. She had learned quite a bit about Burke, Rhoda from her style of writing and the points she chose to make — no wonder someone in the family had called her out!
The biographical note in the end matter had given Lilyah even more material, and a good half of her time had been used perusing the local history section, from birth notices to obituaries.
Rhoda Burke had lived a quiet life, if the history was to be trusted, no matter what her book suggested. She’d never married, never had any children, and gone to her grave quietly and alone, her fortune unspent.
Lilyah found that unlikely. There were parts of Burke’s book that were directly in conflict with the family’s ideals and motives, and there were parts that would quite effectively foil any number of plans the family had made over the years. That sort of thing — readily available in a book printed by a well-known publisher — would not have gone unnoticed or unpunished.
But exactly how? The card had said something about three beads from a fringe. There hadn’t been any beads attached but, knowing the family, the beads had to exist somewhere in the vast archives — either in Aunt Kelly’s attic or in the root family’s, or lost in some branch family. The question was: which one? And were three beads significant enough to go looking in all the family archives?
We really ought to computerize, she was thinking as she let herself back into Aunt Kelly’s house. The wards tingled at her; maybe they didn’t like computers? She’d certainly heard crazier theories.
Three beads. Three beads from a fringe. And a biography that was completely innocuous, after a book that was nothing but. Lilyah let herself be drawn back to the secret rooms of the attic, not quite knowing what she was looking for. More information on Burke, Rhoda? The beads, lost among the floorboard cracks?
She opened the door on her niece Myrlie, sitting among the journals and the hat-boxes. Her eyes were glowing an eerie peacock blue. She opened her mouth, and a cheerful, malicious, adult voice came from her child’s lips.
”Oh, and you must be the adult, the proper Witch. I was hoping you’d get here soon. Myrlie and I have been having such a nice chat…”
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