Winter of Eleven
(Three days earlier)
The kitchen cat was dead, and Morrigan was to blame.
She didn’t know how it had happened, or when. She thought perhaps he’d eaten something poisonous overnight. There were no injuries to suggest a fox or dog attack. Apart from a bit of dried blood at the corner of his mouth, he looked like he was sleeping, but he was cold and stiff.
When she found his body in the weak winter morning light, Morrigan crouched down beside him in the dirt, a frown creasing her forehead. She stroked his black pelt from the top of his head to the tip of his bushy tail.
“Sorry, kitchen cat,” she murmured.
Morrigan thought about where best to bury him, and whether she could ask Grandmother for a bit of nice linen to wrap him in. Probably best not to, she decided. She’d use one of her own nightshirts.
Cook opened the back door to give yesterday’s scraps to the dogs and was so startled by Morrigan’s presence, she nearly dropped her bucket. The old woman peered down at the dead cat and set her mouth in a line.
“Better his woe than mine, praise be to the Divine,” she muttered, knocking on the wooden doorframe and kissing the pendant she wore around her neck. She glanced sideways at Morrigan. “I liked that cat.”
“So did I,” said Morrigan.
“Oh yes, I can see that.” There was a bitter note in her voice, and Morrigan noticed she was backing away, inch by wary inch. “Go on now, inside. They’re waiting for you in his office.”
Morrigan hurried into the house, hovering for a moment near the door from the kitchen to the hallway. She watched Cook take a piece of chalk and write KICHIN CAT—DEAD on the blackboard, at the end of a long list that most recently included SPOYLED FISH, OLD TOM’S HEART ATACK, FLOODS IN NORTH PROSPER, and GRAVY STAYNES ON BEST TABELCLOTH.
“I can recommend several excellent child psychologists in the Greater Jackalfax area.”
The new caseworker hadn’t touched her tea and biscuits. She’d traveled two and a half hours from the capital by rail that morning and walked from the train station to Crow Manor in a wretched drizzle. Her wet hair was plastered to her head, her coat soaked through. Morrigan was struggling to think of a better remedy for this misery than tea and biscuits, but the woman didn’t seem interested.
“I didn’t make the tea,” said Morrigan. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”
The woman ignored her. “Dr. Fielding is famous for his work with cursed children. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. Dr. Llewellyn is also highly regarded, if you like a gentler, more maternal approach.”
Morrigan’s father cleared his throat uncomfortably. “That won’t be necessary.”
Corvus had developed a subtle twitch in his left eye that appeared only during these mandatory monthly meetings, which signaled to Morrigan that he hated them as much as she did. Coal-black hair and crooked noses aside, it was the only thing father and daughter had in common.
“Morrigan has no need of counseling,” he continued. “She’s a sensible enough child. She is well acquainted with her situation.”
The caseworker chanced a fleeting look at Morrigan, who was sitting beside her on the sofa and trying not to fidget. These visits always dragged. “Chancellor, without wishing to be indelicate… time is short. Experts all agree we’re entering the final year of this Age. The final year before Eventide.” Morrigan looked away, out the window, casting around for a distraction, as she always did when someone mentioned the E-word. “You must realize this is an important transitional period for—”
“Have you the list?” Corvus said, with a hint of impatience. He looked pointedly at the clock on his office wall.
“Of—of course.” She drew a piece of paper from her folder, trembling only slightly. The woman was doing rather well, Morrigan thought, considering this was just her second visit. The last caseworker barely spoke above a whisper and would have considered it an invitation to disaster to sit on the same piece of furniture as Morrigan. “Shall I read it aloud? It’s quite short this month—well done, Miss Crow,” she said stiffly.
Morrigan didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t really take credit for something she didn’t control.
“We’ll start with the incidents requiring compensation: The Jackalfax Town Council has requested seven hundred kred for damage to a gazebo during a hailstorm.”
“I thought we’d agreed that extreme weather events could no longer be reliably attributed to my daughter,” said Corvus. “After that forest fire in Ulf turned out to be arson. Remember?”
“Yes, Chancellor. However, there’s a witness who has indicated that Morrigan is at fault in this case.”
“Who?” Corvus demanded.
“A man who works at the post office overheard Miss Crow remarking to her grandmother on the fine weather Jackalfax had been enjoying.” The caseworker looked at her notes. “The hail began four hours later.”
Corvus sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair, shooting an irritated look at Morrigan. “Very well. Continue.”
Morrigan frowned. She had never in her life remarked on “the fine weather Jackalfax had been enjoying.” She did remember turning to Grandmother in the post office that day and saying, “Hot, isn’t it?” but that was hardly the same thing.
“A local man, Thomas Bratchett, died of a heart attack recently. He was—”
“Our gardener, I know,” Corvus interrupted. “Terrible shame. The hydrangeas have suffered. Morrigan, what did you do to the old man?”
Corvus looked skeptical. “Nothing? Nothing at all?”
She thought for a moment. “I told him the flower beds looked nice.”
“About a year ago.”
Corvus and the caseworker exchanged a look. The woman sighed quietly. “His family is being extremely generous in the matter. They ask only that you pay his funeral expenses, put his grandchildren through college, and make a donation to his favorite charity.”
“How many grandchildren?”
“Tell them I’ll pay for two. Continue.”
“The headmaster at Jackalfax—ah!” The woman jumped as Morrigan leaned forward to take a cookie, but seemed to calm down when she realized there was no intention to make physical contact. “Um… yes. The headmaster at Jackalfax Preparatory School has finally sent us a bill for the fire damage. Two thousand kred ought to cover it.”
“It said in the newspaper that the lunch lady left the stove burner on overnight,” said Morrigan.
“Correct,” said the caseworker, her eyes fixed firmly on the paper in front of her. “It also said she’d passed Crow Manor the previous day and spotted you on the grounds.”
“She said you made eye contact with her.”
“I did not.” Morrigan felt her blood begin to rise. That fire wasn’t her fault. She’d never made eye contact with anyone; she knew the rules. The lunch lady was fibbing to get herself out of trouble.
“It’s all in the police report.”
“She’s a liar.” Morrigan turned to her father, but he refused to meet her gaze. Did he really believe she was to blame? The lunch lady admitted she’d left the stove burner turned on! The unfairness of it made Morrigan’s stomach twist into knots. “She’s lying, I never—”
“That’s quite enough from you,” Corvus snapped. Morrigan slumped down in her chair, folding her arms tight across her chest. Her father cleared his throat again and nodded at the woman. “You may forward me the bill. Please, finish the list. I have a full day of meetings ahead.”
“Th-that’s all on the financial side of things,” she said, tracing a line down the page with a trembling finger. “There are only three apology letters for Miss Crow to write this month. One to a local woman, Mrs. Calpurnia Malouf, for her broken hip—”
“Far too old to be ice-skating,” Morrigan muttered.
“—one to the Jackalfax Jam Society for a ruined batch of marmalade, and one to a boy named Pip Gilchrest, who lost the Great Wolfacre State Spelling Championship last week.”
Morrigan’s eyes doubled in size. “All I did was wish him luck!”
“Precisely, Miss Crow,” the caseworker said as she handed the list over to Corvus. “You should have known better. Chancellor, I understand you’re on the hunt for another new tutor?”
Corvus sighed. “My assistants have spoken to every agency in Jackalfax and some as far as the capital. It would seem our great state is in the throes of a severe private tuition drought.” He raised one dubious eyebrow.
“What happened to Miss…” The caseworker consulted her notes. “Linford, was it? Last time we spoke you said she was working out nicely.”
“Feeble woman,” Corvus said with a sneer. “She barely lasted a week. Just left one afternoon and never returned, nobody knows why.”
That wasn’t true. Morrigan knew why.
Miss Linford’s fear of the curse prevented her from actually sharing the same room with her student. It was a strange and undignified thing, Morrigan felt, to have someone shout Grommish verb conjugations at you from the other side of a door. Morrigan had grown more and more annoyed until finally she’d stuck a broken pen through the keyhole, put her mouth over the end of it, and blown black ink all over Miss Linford’s face. She was prepared to admit it wasn’t her most sporting moment.
“At the Registry Office we have a short list of teachers who are amenable to working with cursed children. A very short list,” said the caseworker with a shrug, “but perhaps there will be someone who—”
Corvus held up a hand to stop her. “I see no need.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You said yourself, it’s not long until Eventide.”
“Yes, but… it’s still a year away—”
“Nonetheless. Waste of time and money at this stage, isn’t it?”
Morrigan glanced up, feeling an unpleasant jolt at her father’s words. Even the caseworker looked surprised. “With respect, Chancellor—the Registry Office for Cursed Children doesn’t consider it a waste. We believe education is an important part of every childhood.”
Corvus narrowed his eyes. “Yet paying for an education seems rather pointless when this particular childhood is about to be cut short. Personally I think we should never have bothered in the first place. I’d be better off sending my hunting dogs to school; they’ve got a longer life expectancy and are much more useful to me.”
Morrigan exhaled in a short, blunt oof, as though her father had just thrown a very large brick at her stomach.
There it was. The truth she kept squashed down, something she could ignore but never forget. The truth that she and every cursed child knew deep in their bones, had tattooed on their hearts: I’m going to die on Eventide night.
“I’m sure my friends in the Wintersea Party would agree with me,” Corvus continued, glaring at the caseworker, oblivious to Morrigan’s unease. “Particularly the ones who control the funding of your little department.”
There was a long silence. The caseworker looked sideways at Morrigan and began to gather her belongings. Morrigan recognized the flash of pity that crossed the woman’s face, and she hated her for it.
“Very well. I will inform the ROCC of your decision. Good day, Chancellor. Miss Crow.” The caseworker hurried out of the office without a backward glance. Corvus pressed a buzzer on the desk and called for his assistants.
Morrigan rose from her chair. She wanted to shout at her father, but instead her voice came out trembling and timid. “Should I…?”
“Do as you like,” Corvus snapped, shuffling through the papers on his desk. “Just don’t bother me.”
Dear Mrs. Malouf,
I’m sorry you don’t know how to ice-skate properly.
I’m sorry you thought it was a good idea to go ice-skating even though you’re a million years old and have brittle bones that could snap in a light breeze.
I’m sorry I broke your hip. I didn’t mean to. I hope you are recovering quickly. Please accept my apologies and get well soon.
Miss Morrigan Crow
Sprawled on the floor of the second sitting room, Morrigan rewrote the last few sentences neatly on a fresh sheet of paper and tucked it into an envelope but didn’t seal it. Partly because Corvus would want to check the letter before it was sent, and partly on the off chance that her saliva had the power to cause sudden death or bankruptcy.
The click-clack of hurried footsteps in the hallway made Morrigan freeze. She looked at the clock on the wall. Midday. It could be Grandmother, home from morning tea with her friends. Or her stepmother, Ivy, looking for someone to blame for a scratch on the silverware or a tear in the drapes. The second sitting room was usually a good place to hide; it was the glummest room in the house, with hardly any sunshine. Nobody liked it except for Morrigan.
The footsteps faded. Morrigan let out the breath she’d been holding. Reaching over to the radio, she turned the little brass knob through squealing, static-filled airwaves until she found a station broadcasting the news.
“The annual winter dragon cull continues in the northwest corner of Great Wolfacre this week, with over forty rogue reptiles targeted by the Dangerous Wildlife Eradication Force. The DWEF has received increased reports of dragon encounters near Deepdown Falls Resort and Spa, a popular holiday destination for…” Morrigan let the newscaster’s posh, nasal voice drone in the background as she began her next letter.
I’m sorry you thought TREACLE was spelt with a K.
I’m sorry you’re an idiot.
I’m sorry to hear you lost your recent spelling bee because you’re an idiot. Please accept my deepest apologies for any trouble I may have caused you. I promise I’ll never wish you luck again you ungrateful little
There were now people on the news talking about the homes they’d lost in the Prosper floods, crying over pets and loved ones they’d seen washed away when the streets ran like rivers. Morrigan felt a stab of sadness and hoped Corvus was right about the weather not being her fault.
Dear Jackalfax Jam Society,
Sorry but don’t you think there are worse things in life than bad marmalade?
“Up next: Could Eventide be closer than we think?” asked the newscaster. Morrigan grew still. The E-word again. “While most experts agree we’ve one more year until the current Age ends, a small number of fringe chronologists believe we could be celebrating the night of Eventide much sooner than that. Have they cracked it, or are they just crackpots?” A tiny chill crept along the back of Morrigan’s neck, but she ignored it. Crackpots, she thought defiantly.
“But first: More unrest in the capital today as rumors of an imminent Wunder shortage continue to spread,” the nasal newscaster continued. “A spokesperson for Squall Industries publicly addressed concerns at a press conference this morning.”
A man’s voice spoke softly over the background hum of murmuring journalists. “There is no crisis at Squall Industries. Rumors of an energy shortage in the Republic are entirely false, I cannot stress that enough.”
“Speak up!” someone yelled in the background.
The man raised his voice a little. “The Republic is as full of Wunder as it ever has been, and we continue to reap the rewards of this abundant natural resource.”
“Mr. Jones,” a reporter called out, “will you respond to the reports of mass power outages and malfunctioning Wundrous technology in the states of Southlight and Far East Sang? Is Ezra Squall aware of these problems? Will he emerge from his reclusive lifestyle to address the problem publicly?”
Mr. Jones cleared his throat. “Again, these are no more than silly rumors and fearmongering. Our state-of-the-art monitoring systems show no Wunder scarcity and no malfunction of Wundrous devices. The national rail network is operating perfectly, as are the power grid and the Wundrous Healthcare Service. As for Mr. Squall, he is well aware that as the nation’s sole provider of Wunder and its by-products, Squall Industries has a great responsibility. We are as committed as ever—”
“Mr. Jones, there’s been speculation as to whether the Wunder shortages could have anything to do with cursed children. Can you comment?”
Morrigan dropped her pen.
“I—I’m not sure… I’m not sure what you mean,” stammered Mr. Jones, sounding taken aback.
The reporter continued. “Well, Southlight and Far East Sang between them have three cursed children listed on their state registers—unlike the state of Prosper, which has no cursed children at present and has remained untouched by Wunder shortages. Great Wolfacre also has a registered cursed child, the daughter of prominent politician Corvus Crow; will it be the next state hit by this crisis?”
“Once again, there is no crisis—”
Morrigan groaned and turned off the radio. Now she was being blamed for something that hadn’t even happened yet. How many apology letters would she have to write next month? Her hand began to cramp at the thought.
She sighed and picked up her pen.
Dear Jackalfax Jam Society,
Sorry about the marmalade.
Morrigan’s father was the chancellor of Great Wolfacre, the largest of four states that made up the Wintersea Republic. He was very busy and important, and usually still working even on the rare occasions when he was home for dinner. On his left and right would sit Left and Right, his ever-present assistants. Corvus was always firing his assistants and hiring new ones, so he’d given up learning their real names.
“Send a memo to General Wilson, Right,” he was saying when Morrigan sat at the table that evening. Across from her sat her stepmother, Ivy, and way down at the other end of the table was Grandmother. Nobody looked at Morrigan. “His office will need to submit a budget for the new field hospital by early spring at the latest.”
“Yes, Chancellor,” said Right, holding up blue fabric samples. “And for the new upholstery in your office?”
“The cerulean, I think. Talk to my wife about it. She’s the expert on that sort of thing, aren’t you, darling?”
Ivy smiled radiantly. “The periwinkle, dearest,” she said with a tinkling, breezy laugh. “To match your eyes.”
Morrigan’s stepmother didn’t look like she belonged at Crow Manor. Her spun-gold hair and sun-kissed skin (a souvenir from the summer she’d just spent “destressifying” on the glorious beaches of southeast Prosper) were out of place among the midnight-black hair and pale, sickly complexions of the Crow family. Crows never tanned.
Morrigan thought perhaps that was why her father liked Ivy so much. She was nothing like the rest of them. Sitting in their dreary dining room, Ivy looked like an exotic artwork he’d brought back from a vacation.
“Left, any word from Camp 16 on the measles outbreak?”
“Contained, sir, but they’re still experiencing power outages.”
“Once a week, sometimes twice. There’s discontent in the border towns.”
“In Great Wolfacre? Are you certain?”
“Nothing like the rioting in Southlight’s slums, sir. Just low-level panic.”
“And they think it’s due to Wunder scarcity? Nonsense. We’re not having any problems here. Crow Manor has never functioned more smoothly. Look at those lights—bright as day. Our generators must be full to the brim.”
“Yes, sir,” said Left, looking uncomfortable. “That… hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public.”
“Oh, whine, whine, whine,” croaked a voice from the opposite end of the table. Grandmother was dressed formally for dinner as usual, in a long black dress with jewels around her neck and on her fingers. Her coarse, steel-gray hair was piled in a formidable bun atop her head. “I don’t believe there is a Wunder shortage. Just freeloaders who haven’t paid their energy bills. I wouldn’t blame that Ezra Squall if he cut them off.” She sliced her steak into tiny, bloody pieces as she spoke.
“Clear tomorrow’s schedule,” Corvus told his assistants. “I’ll pay the border towns a visit, do a bit of hand-shaking. That should shut them up.”
Grandmother gave a mean little laugh. “It’s their heads that need shaking. You have a spine, Corvus—why don’t you use it?”
Corvus’s face turned sour. Morrigan tried not to smile. She’d once heard a maid whisper that Grandmother was a “savage old bird of prey dressed up as a lady.” Morrigan privately agreed but found she rather enjoyed the savagery when it wasn’t aimed at her.
“It’s—it’s Bid Day tomorrow, sir,” said Left. “You’re expected to make a speech for the local eligible children.”
“Good lord, you’re right.” (Nope, thought Morrigan as she spooned carrots onto her plate. He’s Left.) “What a nuisance. I don’t suppose I can cancel again this year. Where and when?”
“Town Hall. Midday,” said Right. “Children from St. Christopher’s School, Mary Henwright Academy, and Jackalfax Prep will attend.”
“Fine.” Corvus sighed unhappily. “But call the Chronicle. Make sure they have someone covering it.”
Morrigan swallowed a mouthful of bread. “What’s Bid Day?”
As often happened when Morrigan spoke, everyone turned to face her with vague looks of surprise, as though she were a lamp that had suddenly grown legs and started tap-dancing across the room.
There was a moment of silence, and then—
“Perhaps we could invite the charity schools to Town Hall,” her father continued as though nobody had spoken. “Good publicity, doing things for the underclass.”
Grandmother groaned. “Corvus, for goodness’ sake, you only need one idiot child to pose for a photo, and you’ll have hundreds to choose from. Just pick the most photogenic one, shake its hand, and leave. There’s no need to complicate things.”
“Hmm,” he said, nodding. “Quite right, Mother. Pass the salt, would you, Left?”
Right cleared his throat timidly. “Actually, sir… perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to include the less privileged schools. It might get us a front page.”
“Your approval rating in the backwoods could do with a boost,” added Left as he scuttled down the table to fetch the salt.
“No need to be delicate, Left.” Corvus lifted an eyebrow and glanced sideways at his daughter. “My approval rating everywhere could do with a boost.”
Morrigan felt the tiniest tremor of guilt. She knew her father’s major challenge in life was trying to maintain his grip on the affections of Great Wolfacre’s voting public while his only child brought about their every misfortune. That he was enjoying his fifth year as state chancellor despite such a handicap was a daily miracle to Corvus Crow, and the question of whether he could sustain this implausible luck for another year was a daily anxiety.
“But Mother’s right, let’s not overcrowd the event,” he continued. “Find another way to get me a front page.”
“Is it an auction?” asked Morrigan.
“Auction?” Corvus snapped. “What the devil are you talking about?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” He made a noise of impatience and turned back to his papers. “Ivy. Explain.”
“Bid Day,” began Ivy, drawing herself up importantly, “is the day when children who’ve completed preparatory school will receive their educational bid, should they be lucky enough.”
“Or rich enough,” added Grandmother.
“Yes,” Ivy continued, looking mildly put out by the interruption. “If they are very bright, or talented, or if their parents are wealthy enough to bribe someone, then some respectable person from a fine scholarly institution will come to bid on them.”
“Does everyone get a bid?” Morrigan asked.
“Heavens, no!” Ivy laughed, glancing at the maid who’d come to place a tureen of gravy on the table. She added in an exaggerated whisper, “If everyone were educated, where would servants come from?”
“But that’s not fair,” Morrigan protested, frowning as she watched the maid scurry from the room, red-faced. “And I don’t understand. What are they bidding for?”
“For the privilege of overseeing the child’s education,” Corvus interrupted impatiently, waving a hand in front of his face as though trying to brush the conversation away. “The glory of shaping the young minds of tomorrow, and so on. Stop asking questions, it’s nothing to do with you. Left, what time is my meeting with the chairman of the farming commission on Thursday?”
“Three o’clock, sir.”
“Can I come?”
Corvus blinked repeatedly, a frown deepening the lines in his forehead.
“Why would you want to attend my meeting with the chairman of—”
“To Bid Day, I mean. Tomorrow. The ceremony at Town Hall.”
“You?” her stepmother said. “Go to a Bid Day ceremony? Whatever for?”
“I just—” Morrigan paused, suddenly unsure. “Well, it is my birthday this week. It could be my birthday present.” Her family continued to stare blankly, which confirmed Morrigan’s suspicions that they’d forgotten she was turning eleven the day after tomorrow. “I thought it might be fun…” She trailed off, looking down at her plate and dearly wishing she hadn’t opened her mouth at all.
“It’s not fun,” sneered Corvus. “It’s politics. And no, you may not. Out of the question. Ridiculous idea.”
Morrigan sank down in her chair, feeling deflated and foolish. Really, what had she expected? Corvus was right; it was a ridiculous idea.
The Crows ate their dinner in tense silence for several minutes, until—
“Actually, sir,” said Right in a tentative voice. Corvus’s cutlery clattered onto his plate. He fixed his assistant with a menacing stare.
“W-well… if you were—and I’m not saying you should, but if you were—to take your daughter along, it might help to, er, soften your image. To a degree.”
Left wrung his hands. “Sir, I think Right is… um, right.” Corvus glowered, and Left rushed on nervously. “Wh-what I mean is, according to polls, the people of Great Wolfacre see you as a bit… er, remote.”
“Aloof,” interjected Right.
“It couldn’t hurt your approval rating to remind them that you’re about to become a… a g-grieving father. From a journalistic point of view, it might give the event a unique, er, point of interest.”
Corvus was silent. Morrigan thought she saw his left eye twitch.