I had scarcely closed the door to my room when Mrs. Townley summoned me. Come, child; there's not much time and a great many things to do. She was standing just beneath my window, her bearing very erect, with Peck sitting on her shoulder, looking up.
Be right down, I replied. She was unusually early; the sun hadn't yet set. Most evenings she waited until after dark to start our rounds. But wherever it was she was going, she'd be away from Corey for a few weeks, and she might be expecting me to teach in her place. In the next several hours I might well be getting a crash course in any remaining skills I lacked. I grimaced at the thought.
Well, it couldn't be helped. I drew my blue cloak out of the closet, threw it over one arm, opened the window and let myself out into the air, drifting down to meet Mrs. Townley. She nodded at me perfunctorily.
Ingersolls first tonight, she told me. Come along. And she turned and made her way toward the square, letting me trail along in her wake. I followed on foot, still wondering to myself. In fact, I was so lost in thought that I almost missed the first notes of the Evensong -- but soon the trickle of sound broadened into a great river, its notes plashing and swirling all around me like a current of praise, and I opened my mouth and let it fill with sweet, cold song, joining the rest of the Conscient in the selfless joy of the moment.
The Evensong seemed to sweep me along until I drew up even with Mrs. Townley, and I was so lost in the complex sweetness of that night's evolving melody that at first I took little notice of her. But as we continued toward the Ingersolls' house, I saw something, and the realization shocked me into a moment's silence: Mrs. Townley was not singing the Evensong. Her eyes were shut -- though that made little difference as Peck was there to guide her -- and there was a hard tension around her lips, almost like pain. When the last notes of the song had died away, she seemed to loosen and sag, as though she carried a weight on her shoulders far greater than Peck.
"Mrs. Townley?" I asked, softly. "Is something wrong?"
Nothing is wrong, child, she responded. You have a lovely voice. It shapes well to the song. Then: Mrs. Ingersoll is expecting us. Would you kindly run ahead and let her know I shall be along presently?
"Happy to help," I said, still a bit unsettled at Mrs. Townley's silence during Evensong. And I dutifully went on ahead, though once when I looked back Mrs. Townley had stopped along the path, and it almost seemed to me that she was wiping her eyes. But it might have been a trick of the light. I'd never seen Mrs. Townley cry, not even at her husband's funeral.
Mrs. Ingersoll was working late; the leaded windows of her studio glimmered in twilight and lamplight. She responded to my call with typical cheeriness. Come on in, sprout, and have a little something to drink. I slipped in through the side door, gave her a quick hug and took a glass of Juneberry punch from a tray.
I didn't like to play favorites, but Mrs. Ingersoll was easily one of my favorite people. She was probably in her forties then, tall for a woman -- over 6 feet -- and built sturdily, with large, scarred hands and close-cropped dark hair. She preferred practical trousers over skirts, and usually carried a pair of antique pince-nez in her breast pocket for detailed work. I'd never seen Mrs. Ingersoll simply sitting; she was always busy at work on something, but she also had a talent for listening to others. "Come tell me about it while I work on this" was one of her most frequent phrases. And she made wonderful Juneberry punch.
"So how are your folks?" she asked, carefully scoring a pane of glass. "Fay never stops talking about her woodworking these days. Your mum have a nice birthday?"
"I think so," I said uncertainly, remembering her sudden tears after supper. "Something made her sad, though. I'm not sure what it was."
Mrs. Ingersoll thought for a bit before she responded. "Some people find birthdays trying when they reach a particular age," she said. "Could be your mum is like that." She glanced up. "Well, hello, Mrs. Townley. Hi, Peck."
"Evening, Dorothy," replied Mrs. Townley, and I realized they were the first words I'd heard her speak aloud that evening. Her voice was hoarse and jarring, compared to the calm no-nonsense quality of her thoughts. Peck preened, apparently pleased to be acknowledged.
"You sound a little parched," said Mrs. Ingersoll. "Care for a drink?"
"Oh, no, dear, thank you. Actually, I was hoping that project might be complete by now."
"Finished this afternoon, in fact." Mrs. Ingersoll turned and pulled a little tooled leather pouch off a nearby shelf. She handed it to Mrs. Townley, who opened it and took out a pair of smoked spectacles. Peck flew to the windowsill and looked on, curious, as Mrs. Townley faced him and gingerly set them on the bridge of her nose.
"How's the fit?" asked Mrs. Ingersoll. "They may need a little tweaking..."
"Oh, not at all, Dorothy. These are lovely. Light as a feather, too." Peck cawed raucously, and Mrs. Townley shushed him. "Thank you very much for your service."
"If I might ask..."
"Oh, I'll be doing a little business out of town and I can't bring Peck with me," Mrs. Townley said lightly, but in a tone that suggested she would answer no further questions on the subject. "You know how outsiders can be." She removed the glasses and slipped them into their pouch. "Now tell me, how is little Fay coming along with her apprenticeship?"
While the two talked, I killed time wandering around the studio looking at Mrs. Ingersoll's glass works in various stages of completion. She had installed several windows in our house, including my bedroom window, and I always enjoyed the figures -- dragons and deer and hummingbirds -- that she put into the glass.
All right, child, pay attention. Now's as good a time as any to learn the fade. The comment startled me, as Mrs. Townley was still talking with Mrs. Ingersoll; she seemed capable of carrying on at least two disparate conversations at once, without a break in either.
What do I need to do? I asked.
Here. And the basic information was there, all neatly placed in my head. Now it's a subtle art, and as such it requires hands-on practice. So you're going to try it out on Dorothy.
Fade Mrs. Ingersoll?! Oh, but... but I can't do that!
Child. The thought had an edge of impatience. There's no need to be squeamish. You're just going to fade a tiny snippet of our conversation from her mind, that's all. It's something that might well have slipped from her memory all by itself. Now then... right... here.
Nervously twisting my hands, I concentrated on Mrs. Ingersoll's mind from across the room, using my newly-received knowledge to strip out a bit of the conversation that Mrs. Townley specified -- actually, the bit where she'd said she was leaving Corey on business. Peeling it away left the same translucent scar I'd seen Mrs. Townley make in Renee Flint's mind. Mrs. Ingersoll didn't even seem to notice that I was damaging her thoughts, stealing a memory out of her head. Somehow that just made it worse.
"...good to see that she's finding her vocation, isn't it?" Mrs. Townley hadn't even paused the conversation for a moment. "Well, Dorothy, we'd best be on our way. Thanks again for your service and your beautiful work."
"Happy to help," Mrs. Ingersoll smiled. "Come by any time, either of you." And she turned back to her work as we let ourselves out. But I couldn't imagine myself returning to the glazier's studio any time soon. I didn't think I could face Mrs. Ingersoll after what I'd done to her. Not even if she never knew that I'd done it.
* * *
Mrs. Townley left Corey before daybreak, escorted by Gerry Putnam. She'd explained exactly whose education would need close tending in the next few weeks, what could be left undone until she returned, what Peck was and was not allowed to eat. She had me memorize everything and repeat it back to her several times. I could practically have said it all in my sleep, if I'd been able to get any. My dreams were filled with dark pits and pendulums tipped with razor edges that left fresh translucent scars on anything they touched, and I woke many times shivering.
The cold light of morning was just starting to lighten my room when the dreams woke me for the final time. I wanted out, away from the troubled thoughts of my own head. Barring that, I thought maybe I'd get out of the house for a while. It would give me a chance to clear my mind.
I slipped out my window -- these days it was getting more use than the front door -- and climbed up to the roof, sitting down on the ridge to get a look at Corey in first light. There wasn't much to see at that hour. Patches of fog lingered here and there, especially near the lake, and everything was still and dark, other than the occasional bleat from the Phillipses' farm. It would be a good half hour before the Daydawn.
Why didn't Mrs. Townley sing the Evensong? Everyone sang in Corey. And where on earth had she gone, and on what business? It didn't make sense. But there really wasn't anyone I could ask about it...
I stood straight up on the ridge. Peck would know where she'd gone -- or at least he'd served as Mrs. Townley's eyes when she read that letter from outside. Whether he'd be able or willing to tell me anything about it, I didn't know, but he must have some useful information in that little crow brain of his.
I didn't even bother to go back inside and fetch my cloak. Instead I took a running start along the ridge and leapt into the grey morning air. It was wicked cold flying at that hour, especially without a cloak, but it helped jolt me fully awake. In very little time I slid to a landing on Mrs. Townley's front steps and ran inside.
"Peck! Hey! You awake?"
I got a dull caw of response from the bedroom.
"Come out here. I need to ask you something."
In response Peck sent me an extremely rude mental image. Apparently he wasn't much of a morning bird.
"Peck," I said, trying to sound as imperious as Mrs. Townley sometimes did, "she is going to be gone for several weeks. I'm the one who's going to be responsible for feeding you. Now are you going to come out here, or are you going to be a very hungry bird?"
Scrabbling sounds from the bedroom. Finally Peck appeared, winging his way to a chair back. He alighted and cocked his head at me.
"Thank you. Now... where did Mrs. Townley go?"
Peck's thoughts were less word-based and more visual than human thoughts. He sent me an image of Mrs. Townley heading down the road that led out of Corey.
"Yes, Peck, I know she left town. But she said she had business outside. What was it?"
In response Peck sent me a bizarre image of Mrs. Townley walking arm in arm with a bird-headed man.
"What? That doesn't make any sense."
But the image returned, highly colored, and Peck hopped on his perch as if he were insisting on the thought. I sighed. I should have known better than to ask a bird for information, even one as relatively bright as Peck. He probably had no idea where she'd gone.
"Oh, fine, then. You want some breakfast?"
Peck cawed appreciatively, spread his wings and flew to my shoulder. It didn't feel at all comfortable having him there, but I took him into the kitchen anyway and fixed him something to eat. While he proceeded to make an unholy mess with his breakfast, I thought about the image Peck had sent me. Something about it seemed familiar -- maybe something I'd read? -- but I couldn't quite place it. Then again, it might very well be an image Peck had chosen completely at random, just so I'd feed him. I sighed.
Maybe Mrs. Sanger would have an idea. I needed to go to the library anyway; I wanted some ideas for things I could do with Keefe that would be cheap or free, and the library seemed a good place to start looking.
Meanwhile, I had some crow mess to clean up.