I ditched the bike at Mrs. Townley's front steps and bounded in without knocking. Mrs. Townley was where I usually found her -- in the sitting-room, working on a blackwork sampler. It was completely reversible, covered in her tiny, neat stitches, and the repeating geometric patterns appeared to form subtle shades of grey across the fabric. Her crow Peck perched above her on the green wingback chair, staring intently down at her hands.
"Evening, Mrs. Townley," I said politely out loud.
"Good evening, child." She turned toward me, still stitching evenly, but her blind eyes did not focus on mine. "How was your trip outside?"
"Fair," I said, thinking first of rain and then of Keefe.
Her hands paused, and I saw the lines of her face break into a smile. "Just fair?"
"Well, I got rained on," I admitted.
She tutted sympathetically.
"And I brought your book," I added, holding it out to her. Peck cocked an eye at the book, an encyclopedia of embroidery stitches, and Mrs. Townley put down the sampler and took it with as much care as though she were receiving an infant.
"Well, this is lovely! Just what I'd been hoping for. Thank you, child."
"Happy to help. I'm not sure what I should do next time, though. I got a temporary library card, but they want my address to get a permanent one."
"Ah," said Mrs. Townley. "Well, there's more than one way to sidestep that issue, my girl. I suppose the easiest thing would be to talk to Tom Herrick."
"Outsiders sometimes have need of a decent farrier, and Tom's one of the best," Mrs. Townley said. "I'm sure that if you need it, he'd lend you the use of his business address."
Not many people in Corey had businesses outside, though it was necessary to make enough money to buy the few things that couldn't be had in town. But every adult in Corey performed some service to others to keep the town smoothly running and well appointed. As Dad liked to put it, "Corey is like a family. You don't charge family members, you use your talents to help them -- and in turn they help you when you need it." It was a system that had worked well for some three hundred years.
"I'll ask him. Thank you, Mrs. Townley."
I lingered for a moment. I'd been meaning to ask Mrs. Townley something, but I couldn't remember what it was. I felt sure it would come to me in a moment, but Mrs. Townley said gently, "Best run along home, dear. Your mother says it's time for supper."
"Oh! All right. On my way."
Mum had already set the table by the time I got home, and I noticed she had put down an extra place.
"Who's eating with us tonight?" I asked, and Mum turned from the stove and clapped her hand to her forehead.
"No one," she said, shaking her head. "Can't believe I did that again. Your mother's going senile. Could you please put it away for me?"
I carelessly sent the silverware to the drawer and the extra plate winging toward the highboy, and Mum ducked as it went soaring over her head. She gave me The Look.
"Honey, not everything has to be done by magic," she said testily.
"Mum, I'm at home. Nobody cares."
"It's a bad habit. If you really want to travel, you'd better start getting in some practice now."
My mother, who came from a long line of Corey tailors and dressmakers, was casual about venturing outside the limits of the Conscient -- her family thought nothing of going to Salem, Boston, New York and other cities further afield for the latest fashions, fabric and other information-gathering. But she was also very protective of Corey and thus very strict about preparing oneself for such trips.
Dad, on the other hand, was a woodworker whose conservative family disapproved of going outside Corey for anything but absolute necessities. Even as an adult he seemed to regard the rest of the world as a romantic but dangerous place, and at supper he plied me with questions until I began to protest that my food was getting cold. I found myself sliding away from mentioning Keefe. I wasn't exactly sure why I didn't want to discuss him with Mum and Dad, but I felt strangely protective of Keefe; I wanted him to be my personal secret, something I didn't have to share. After supper and dishes, I fled up to my room at the top of the house.
My great-grandfather, who must have shared Dad's romantic mind, had built our house in a massive old oak tree -- the kitchen and dining room close to the main trunk, and other little rooms like satellites up in the branches. A few years ago I'd claimed one of the topmost bedrooms for my own. I lay on the bed, flipping through my commonplace-book -- Public Niceties, emergency information, sketches and drawings, various spells and charms, mnemonics and useful factlets -- until I found a bit of blank page, and began to tentatively sketch my best attempt at representing Keefe's inner cathedral. It was rough-edged and clumsy and didn't begin to approximate the real structure of his mind. After a while I gave it up and turned over, staring out my window at the dispersing rainclouds scudding along over a full moon.
The window was wide open, letting in the cool night air. Something about the scent of it called to me, beckoning me out, and there was no reason to resist, so I let myself out through the window and into the welcoming night. I soared, just letting the air take me, up and up, lazily spiraling until I had reached a height where I could look down on all of Corey. Soft lights twinkled in the windows and yards of houses old and new, spread out in random patterns through the town. Soft branches of beech, pine and hemlock trees half-concealed the town below, and in the distance I could make out the silvery glimmer of the lake. Soft sounds rose up to me from below -- a baby fussing, the Phillipses practicing a song together, Mr. Herrick working late in the foundry, Jed Conant working out a new spell with his ocarina, the soft bleating of a lamb. I hovered in the air, drinking in all of Corey, feeling the warm embracing safety of my home and neighbors and the Conscient as a whole.
Mum surprised me. I hadn't seen her coming up to join me, and suddenly there she was beside me in the air. I started.
"Mum! You scared the life out of me!"
She chuckled. "Sorry if I spooked you." She, too, looked down on Corey with warm satisfaction. "Lovely this time of night, isn't it?"
"I used to like to come up here during a snowfall. My mother always said I'd catch my death." She turned to me matter-of-factly. "So, when were you planning on talking about this boy you met today?"
"Mum," I said irritably, "stay out of my head."
"Honey, you were practically broadcasting your thoughts. We need to work on your control."
"It's nothing. He paid for my library card, is all. I... just thought it was a nice thing to do."
"Ah. So you have no other interest in him."
"Well, I'm glad you realize he isn't for you."
"I know, you've heard it before. It's just a reminder. Picking a sweetheart from Corey -- it's not just necessary for our own safety, it's better for everyone."
"I know. But--"
"But nothing. It's kept Corey safe for three centuries. It's not going to change just to suit you, hmm?" Mum gave me a quick hug. "Don't stay out here all night," she added affectionately. "I don't want you to catch your death either." And she was off, circling slowly down through the trees.
I stayed there, hovering in midair, for some time, the clouds casting shadows across my face as I stared up at the moon. I knew there were perfectly good reasons for those with the knack to be so cautious. Feelings of jealousy, fear, anger, hatred, violence against people like us had been going on long before the Salem trials and the founding of Corey, and I knew it was still going on outside against people who were too different. Since our people would never defend themselves with force, the only other option was to hide from those who would do us harm -- and hide we did, creating a town in a place thought to be completely inaccessible to outsiders. Somewhere in my commonplace-book was a more complete explanation -- something about Corey's land being tuned to a slightly different frequency than that of the outside world, and how only those who were born within that land could access that frequency -- but I didn't think too much about the technical aspects of it. All I knew was that I could call to Corey and it would let me in.
And it wouldn't -- couldn't, as far as I knew -- let in outsiders. That was why we were cautioned not to get too close to outsiders -- not that they were necessarily any more bad or evil than we were, but that friends from outside Corey couldn't be invited over for parties or sleepovers or even given our addresses. And we were never to show off our knack, our particular talents or abilities, outside of Corey. Aside from being rude, we risked exposure and potential persecution or worse -- not just for the individual who crossed the line, but for every one of us. Imagine a government, or a corporation, of outsiders discovering a hidden townful of people who could fly, read minds, heal, make themselves invisible... they'd experiment on us, force us to be their spies and soldiers if they could. They would use our magic as weapons against others, a thought too horrible to be borne.
No, not all of them were like that. Keefe couldn't be like that, I was sure. But there were always enough bad apples to make trouble for us. So outside we had to be cautious and discreet, act like them, and keep Corey safe and secret. Only within the safety of town could we let go completely and be ourselves.
I was never quite sure who started the first notes of the Evensong, but soon other voices joined in, the simple melody growing into a deeper harmony, then into a unified hymn of sweetness that I couldn't help but join, adding my small voice to the chorus of voices below me that seemed to support my body on a swell of warm sound. All of Corey sang together at the close of day, a tradition that had existed before Corey itself was founded, and the sound of praise and thanksgiving in the moonlit darkness washed away my troubled thoughts and left me still and calm. When it came to an end, I lingered for a few more moments, then flew down to my bedroom window and let myself in. I was asleep in less than ten minutes.