FOR THE PAST FIVE years, Ceony had wanted to be a Smelter.
However, while most graduates of the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined got to choose what material they dedicated their craft to, Ceony had been assigned. “Not enough Folders,” Magician Aviosky had explained in her office.
Less than a week had passed since Ceony had heard this, and she still felt the tears that had stung the back of her eyes. “Paper is a wonderful medium,” Mg. Aviosky had continued, “and one that’s lost credit in recent years. With only twelve acting magicians left in that discipline, we have no choice but to direct a portion of our apprentices that way. I’m sorry.”
So was Ceony. Her heart had broken at those words, and now, standing before the gate of Magician Emery Thane’s lair, she wished it had stopped beating altogether.
Her hand gripped the wooden handle of her suitcase as she stared up at the monstrosity, even worse than her fitful dreams had imagined it to be. If it weren’t bad enough that Mg. Thane—the only Folder this side of the River Thames—lived on the wild outskirts of London itself, his abode looked like the creation of a campfire story. Its black walls stood six stories high. Scraps of worn paint peeled beneath the fingers of a sudden, foreboding wind that picked up the moment Ceony stepped foot onto the unpaved lane leading away from the main road. Three uneven turrets jutted up from the house like a devil’s crown, one of which bore a large hole in its east-facing side. A crow, or maybe a magpie, cried out from behind a broken chimney. Every window in the mansion—and Ceony counted only seven—hid behind black shutters all chained and locked, without the slightest glimmer of candlelight behind them. Dead leaves from a dozen past winters clogged the eaves and wedged themselves under bent and warped shingles—also black—and something drip-drip-dripped nearby, smelling like vinegar and sweat.
The grounds themselves bore no flower gardens, no grass lawn, not even an assortment of stones. The small yard boasted only rocks and patches of uncultivated dirt too dry and cracked for even a weed to take root. The tiles composing the path up to the front door, which hung only by its top hinge, were cracked into pieces and overturned, and Ceony didn’t trust a single one of the porch’s gray, weathered boards to hold her weight long enough for her to ring the bell.
“I’ve been shot to hell,” Ceony murmured.
Mg. Aviosky, her escort, frowned beside her. “Never trust what your eyes see at a magician’s home, Miss Twill. You know that.”
Ceony swallowed against a dry throat and nodded. She did know that, but she didn’t care to, not now. The dark, foreboding mansion seemed a reflection of herself and everything that had gone wrong the last few days. Perhaps she had jinxed herself last night when she had gathered all the paper she could find in the hotel and burned it sheet by sheet in the fireplace while Mg. Aviosky consulted a map in the receiving hall. Or perhaps Mg. Thane was proof that Ceony’s imagination needed a great deal of expanding.
Ceony bit down a sigh. She had come so far during her nineteen years of life, and now everything she had achieved—at steep odds, no less—seemed to flit away from her, leaving her cold and empty. All her aspirations were now to filter down to simple paper. Ceony would spend the rest of her days writing ledgers and reading outdated books, her only cheer in life penning letters home that would open themselves upon arrival. Of all the materials Mg. Aviosky could have chosen—glass, metal, plastic, even rubber—she had chosen paper. Mg. Aviosky obviously did not realize that the reason Folding had become a dying art was because the skills it enabled were so completely useless.
Refusing to be pulled along like a schoolgirl, Ceony straightened her back and trudged up the lane toward the gates. The fence itself was little more than spears shoved into the ground butt-first and tied together with barbed wire. The wind’s strength built with every step, threatening to blow Ceony’s hat off as she reached for the gate’s catch—
The scenery around her changed so abruptly Ceony jumped, nearly dropping her suitcase. Her hand rested on a simple chain-link fence, and not one built from the refuse of old battles and dilapidated prisons. The sun broke through the clouds above, and the wind settled down to the faintest, most uneven breeze. The house before her shrunk to three stories, built of simple yellow brick. The shutters, all open, were white, and the porch looked sturdy enough for an entire team of horses to prance upon.
Ceony lifted her hand, wide eyes taking in the transformation. She half expected that breaking her connection to the gate would restore the dreary illusion, but the house remained the same when she released the catch. The path to the door was unpaved, but an array of red, violet, and yellow tulips lined it instead of jagged rocks.
Blinking, Ceony unlatched the gate and stepped closer. Not tulips. At least, not real ones. Every flower in the yard looked to be crafted of Folded paper, each blossom perfectly creased. The buds appeared real—so much so that, when a cloud passed over the afternoon sun, they all closed their petals ever so slightly. Like flowers trying too hard to be flowers.
With a quick glance, Ceony noticed the strips of paper hanging from the chain-link fence, and beyond them whole sheets of paper taller than any person and wider than the buggy that had brought her here. An illusion. Ceony recalled attending a lecture on espionage at the school last winter where the speaker had mentioned using paper dolls to mask one’s appearance, but she had never imagined using the tactic for an entire house, however it was done.
Mg. Aviosky stepped up beside her, casually pulling off her silk gloves finger by finger. The transformation didn’t jar her one bit, but she didn’t gloat, either.
Ceony half expected Mg. Thane to show up at the door there and then, but the door—now of solid wood and painted such a light brown it looked orange—remained closed and quiet.
Perhaps he’s not evil at all, Ceony thought with a frown. Just mad.
Passing the paper flowers, Ceony stepped up to the door, Mg. Aviosky not a pace behind her, and knocked firmly with her knuckles, trying to stand as tall as her five-foot-three frame would allow. She absently touched her hair, which was the color of uncooked yams and hung over her left shoulder in a loose braid. She had purposely chosen not to do it nicely that morning, just as she didn’t wear her best dress or her student’s uniform. She had nothing to be excited for—why dress up? It was clear Mg. Thane had made no special allowances for her.
The knob turned without the faintest trace of footsteps on the other side, and when the door opened, Ceony screamed and fell back a step.
A skeleton greeted her.
Even Mg. Aviosky seemed surprised, though she only showed it by pursing her lips and adjusting the round-framed glasses that sat atop a rather prominent nose. “Well,” she said.
The eyeless head of the skeleton looked up and down almost mechanically, and Ceony, with a hand over her heart, realized all six feet of it was comprised of paper—its head, its spine, its ribs, its legs. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of pieces of paper, all white, rolled and Folded and pinched together to connect in a variety of joints.
“He’s mad,” Ceony said, aloud this time. Mg. Aviosky sniffed loudly in a subtle attempt to scold her.
The skeleton stepped aside.
“Any more surprises?” Ceony asked no one in particular as she entered the house, staying as far from the skeleton as the narrow doorframe would allow. The house started in a long hallway that smelled of old wood and branched off in three directions, two to the right and one to the left. The first right opened onto a small front room that, despite being filled with clutter, was deftly organized: everything from candlesticks to books shoved in a most orderly fashion onto shelves, with clay ocarinas, marble sets, and more books crammed into straight lines across the mantel. Ceony noticed every detail of the room, as she was prone to do—such as the threadbare cushion on the couch, which told her Mg. Thane preferred to sit on the far-left side and scooted back. A small wind chime hung in the corner—an odd place for a wind chime, as no wind would pass through the front room unless he opened the window, and even then, very little. She surmised that Mg. Thane liked the look of it, but not the sound.
A perfect stack of unread mail sat on a side table in the corner next to what looked like a music box and some sort of blacksmith’s puzzle, which rested in perfect alignment with the stack and the box. Ceony had never known a pack rat to be so . . . tidy. It disturbed her.
The closed door to the left of the hallway hid whatever room lay beyond it, but instead of walking farther into the house to see what the second right revealed, she shouted, “Magician Thane! Your guests are here and would greatly appreciate a real person at the door!”
“Miss Twill!” Mg. Aviosky said in a suppressed sort of hiss as the paper skeleton shut the front door. “Manners!”
“Well, the absence is rude, isn’t it?” Ceony asked, hating how childish the words sounded in her mouth. She cleared her throat and sucked in a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m a little on edge.”
“No need to remind me,” Mg. Aviosky quipped just as a real person emerged from that second right, some sort of ledger in his hands.