Chapter 1 - Vanished
Leda breathed out as she gazed at The Blue House. She sat listening to the whir of the orb that powered the carriage. If she waited long enough, if she just sat very still, perhaps time would stop. Perhaps all of it would stop being real. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to get out at all.
But she saw the door to The Blue House open, and a solemn, older witch in a slate grey dress, glided down the stairs and cross to the carriage.
“Your mother is waitin’,” the old witch spoke into the open window, her voice a little hoarse from the cold, and impatient that she had to come all this way to beckon a spoilt Stryker girl into the house. Leda didn’t dare ask her what kind of state her mother was in. She kept those questions for her sister, Valentina. But Valentina wasn’t there. Valentina had vanished, and that’s why Leda was there.
“Everyone’s waitin’,” she added coldly before turning her shoulder and going back inside. Leda’s gaze darted to the yawning door that the old witch walked back into, and she had the sudden urge not to be left behind. She pushed opened the door and slipped out. She gazed at the retreating figure. After she slammed the carriage door shut she jogged after her. The Blue House stood tall, delicate-looking, with elaborate cornices and blue birds and blue ivy painted along the sides of the house. It looked like a confection, and it was difficult to believe that Valentina wasn’t inside. When Leda finally pushed herself through the threshold, she expected to hear Valentina’s ringing voice greeting her. But she was met with a stunning silence that made her heart stop. She could still smell Valentina, still feel her lingering presence as Leda was led down the corridor that opened up to other rooms in the house. She could hear the distant echo of voices-- tense and mixed.
The old witch, threw open a pair of doors at the very end of the corridor, before the French doors that boarded the house and the garden. Leda approached slowly. The light poured into the hallway from her mother’s favorite room where she liked to receive visitors, and she could hear her mother’s voice, which sounded like coins falling onto a hard ground. Irena Stryker was just rising from behind a table, which she had made into a make-shift desk.
There were two other warlocks in there as well. The first one Leda spotted as uncle Pyramus, who had flaming red hair and yellow eyes. He sat on a pale blue divan with one ankle over his knee. The other was a tall, bald man, with a long blonde mustache that curled at the ends. He would’ve appeared delightful, even jolly, if Leda hadn’t noticed two bronze scars that crossed his face. His bright yellow eyes squinted at her when the doors opened.
Then there was her mother. Irena Stryker had a face where the skin was stretched tight, leaving a vague frame of thin lips and large, protruding eyes with long, black lashes. Her striking features rendered a beautiful and terrifying face. Valentina possessed some of her mother’s features: her pale skin, her bright blue eyes, and her thin lips that were always on the verge of spitting out a deadly curse.
And when Leda locked eyes with her mother, Irena’s cold expression sank to the table-- Leda was yet another thing, it seemed, that she had to deal with.
Leda watched her mother gather her breath to explain the strange girl’s presence. How was she going to do it, Leda wondered to herself. Complete denial? Full ownership-- which would be a first. Irena kept Leda at arm’s length publicly and privately. She even sent Leda to live with her aunt Gemma, near the edge of London. There was nothing more mortifying to Irena than to have a daughter that could barely conjure a flame when it was dark.
“This is Leda-- Valentina’s sister,” Irena waved a hand in her direction-- flippant yet somehow formal.
Leda blushed. Well done, Irena.
The bald man bowed slightly and smiled, ushering her in, when he realized that Irena wasn’t going to go to those lengths to be hospitable.
“I’m Drust Aster,” he held out his hand, and Leda shook it weakly, “I’m heading the search for your sister.”
But the words didn’t seem to register. Leda glanced around, dazed, and when she finally caught Pyramus’ eye. He winked at her solemnly.
“Would you care for some tea? Did you have breakfast?” Drust now seemed to just want to get those particular questions out of the way, and Leda didn’t much care for the formalities. She sank into a chair, closing the circle of bodies, and didn’t say a word. She wasn’t sure if she was more frightened by what she was about to hear, or too exhausted... overwhelmed... the shock was a strange, invisible fog that filled every part of her, and she didn’t know what to do or what to think.
She just stared back at Drust Aster, her bright blue eyes were like quarter-moon diamonds that were at once, sharp and icy, but Leda’s expression was all innocent curiosity.
Drust folded his hands behind him: “I suppose there’s no point beating about the bush--”
"--there really isn't." Leda's voice was surprisingly low and sharp given her wide-eyed appearance. To Drust Aster she looked like a beam of golden winter light, with her pale blond hair and her square, innocent face. But Leda heard what other warlocks said about her: she was simple. Too stupid. The only thing she was good for was to sit and look pretty. Such a waste. And all the words and gossip that Leda heard over time only seemed to whittle something down in her until it was jagged and dangerous.
But having a sharp, angry wit never did anyone any good, if they had something to lose. And for Leda, she couldn't afford to lose what had been so tenuously granted to her: some kind of home with other warlocks, instead of being cast out into the human world where warlocks were reviled. Even if other warlocks saw her as nothing less than a pretty doll, safety was staying in the confines of your own kind.
Drust Aster glanced at her, but it was to Leda's surprise that he blushed a little and didn't seem in the least bit angry, and sank down in a seat next to her: "When was the last time you saw your sister, Miss Stryker?"
Leda glanced at her mother, who was looking directly back at her. But Irena only looked away.
"Two weeks ago," Leda braided her fingers in her lap. "But we usually see each other every weekend after lessons."
"You see," Irena sat back, "she knows nothing."
Irena really didn't want her there. Leda should've just stayed in the carriage.
"She went missing two weeks ago," Drust turned to look at Irena, but Leda sat up immediately.
"Two weeks?!" Leda switched her gaze to her mother, "you said she has just gone missing!"
The sides of Irena's mouth folded with annoyance, and Pyramus was just sitting up and pulling at the sides of his jacket, readying himself for the storm.
"I have my reasons for telling you now."
"You lied!" But Leda knew that the last thing her mother was interested in was treating her fairly.
"I saw her two weeks ago," Leda sat up, turning back to Drust Aster's now interested and face, feeling her own drain of all its blood from fresh panic, "which would mean... could mean I was the last to see her!"
Leda suddenly pressed her lips shut and sat back, realizing that a swell of tears was dangerously close to breaking through.
Drust kindly and quietly passed a piping hot cup of tea and placed on the table beside her chair, but Leda pressed her eyes to the window where the light poured through.
"Did she say anything?" Drust Aster's voice was like the calm break in the middle of a storm, attempting to steer the conversation back to Valentina. "Anything strange?"
Valentina's warm, dark face under dappled sunlight sprung to Leda's mind. Her seductive, heavy-lidded eyes. Then her wide mouth, ready to smile, to flirt, to curse.
"Let's run away!" Valentina said suddenly, gathering her knees up to her chest where they sat.
To run away from everything? Everything that was safe? A thick cloud of fear formed in Leda's chest as she gazed up at her sister-- did she mean it?
"Away from everyone?" Leda tried.
"Everything!" Valentina's eyes flashed darkly at her.
Valentina's eyes narrow: "Especially her."