Keeper of Enchanted Rooms
A house of haunted history and ill temper. Make yourself at home in this beguiling novel of love, magic, and danger by Amazon Charts and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Charlie N. Holmberg.
Rhode Island, 1846. Estranged from his family, writer Merritt Fernsby is surprised when he inherits a remote estate in the Narragansett Bay. Though the property has been uninhabited for more than a century, Merritt is ready to call it home―until he realizes he has no choice. With its doors slamming shut and locking behind him, Whimbrel House is not about to let Merritt leave. Ever.
Hulda Larkin of the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms has been trained in taming such structures in order to preserve their historical and magical significance. She understands the dangers of bespelled homes given to tantrums. She advises that it’s in Merritt’s best interest to make Whimbrel House their ally. To do that, she’ll need to move in, too.
Prepared as she is with augury, a set of magic tools, and a new staff trained in the uncanny, Hulda’s work still proves unexpectedly difficult. She and Merritt grow closer as the investigation progresses, but the house’s secrets run deeper than they anticipated. And the sentient walls aren’t their only concern―something outside is coming for the enchantments of Whimbrel House, and it could be more dangerous than what rattles within.
Release date: November 1, 2022
Content advisory: brief scene of domestic violence
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Keeper of Enchanted Rooms
Charlie N Holmberg
May 17, 1818, London, England
Silas took up the brush and started smoothing Marybelle’s coat, even though the stable hands had already tended her. It was late, the sun long since set, and most of the servants had already turned in. But Silas liked being out in the stables. He’d gotten used to the smell. There was something peaceful about the animals, who stood and endured their confined spaces with little complaint. Just as he did.
The horse in the next stall over nosed the back of his head, blowing warm air over his neck. Smiling, Silas reached back and stroked the velvet between the animal’s nostrils. “I’ll get you next.” He ran the short-bristled brush over Marybelle’s flank. Inhaled the scents of horseflesh and hay. Relaxed as much as his sixteen-year-old frame would let him. A few lights still shined through the house windows; he imagined his mother was having her hair wound into curling papers right about now. He should turn in, too. His new arithmetic tutor would be arriving early tomorrow to train him for Oxford, or maybe Cambridge.
He heard the sound of another horse walking before he picked up the stuttering gait of the man leading it. His stomach tightened. He glanced to the back of Marybelle’s stall. Enough room to squat down and hide, but if he was seen, there’d be no opportunity to escape. Instead, Silas set the brush aside and carefully unlatched the stall door, hoping to sneak around back and enter the house through the servants’ door.
He’d almost made it into the shadows when his father’s voice called, “Who goes there?”
Silas cringed at the slurred words. His father was drunk. But if he kept walking, his father might think him one of the staff—
“Silas!” he barked.
Dread filled Silas’s gut as he turned. “Want me to help you with the horse?” He had a sliver of luck in his blood, inherited from his grandmother. He prayed it would cooperate with him now.
His father had a lead on the animal, but the mare seemed to be all that held him up. He had a bottle in his hand, and his cheeks slouched like he’d aged himself into jowls. He was never this drunk. Silas couldn’t tell if that was a good thing or a bad one.
Not taking his eyes from Silas, his father crooked a finger. The bolt on the nearest empty stall clicked, and the door swung open. Silas couldn’t blame his father for using magic; in his condition, it was probably easier than stabling the horse physically.
But his father didn’t put the horse away. An invisible hand shoved against Silas’s back, drawing him close enough to smell the whiskey wafting off his father like mist off the sea. And when the hand shoved him into the stall, Silas’s nerves lit up, every last one of them, until his blood raced and his skin burned.
“L-Let me get you to bed,” he said.
His father stepped into the stall and closed the door, leaning heavily on it for the stiffness the magic had left in his legs. “Excused me,” he rumbled. “They excused me. For”—he laughed—“drunken behavior.”
Silas peered beyond the stable, praying a servant, his mother, his brother, anyone would come by. “Who excused you?”
His stomach plummeted. “You were dismissed?” No wonder he was so drunk. Both of Silas’s parents were members of the King’s League of Magicians. They’d practically been groomed for it from birth.
Oh no. This wasn’t going to be good for him. Silas held his hands up, palms out, as though calming a rabid dog. “Let’s get food in your stomach—”
His father threw the bottle. It collided with Silas’s shoulder. A spell—the same one his father had used to pull him in here—burned in Silas’s blood, begging to be released, but he didn’t use it. It always made his father angrier when he used magic. His father hated that Silas had more magic than he did, thanks to the added pedigree of his mother.
Silas didn’t defend himself when the first fist struck, nor the second. This was habitual, for them. It passed quicker when he took it. Another blow, another. Any moment now, his father would be done, and he’d sneak back inside, find something to nurse the bruises—
The kick to his ribs cracked bone and ripped air from his lungs.
His weakest spell, luck, was not with him today.
Silas slammed into the back wall. This is wrong. His father had never broken a bone before, and—
Dizziness engulfed him. A blow to the head. Silas didn’t remember falling to his knees. His skull radiated pain. Had he been hit with the bottle, or a kinetic pulse?
“Father—” he tried, but a fist hit the side of his mouth, cutting his cheek on his teeth. Silas couldn’t help it; he covered his head. He had to.
“You think you’re better than me?” his father raged, slamming the toe of his shoe into Silas’s hip. “You think you . . . can take my place?”
“No!” Silas cried, fire radiating up his spine. His father stumbled back but shot out a kinetic blast that attempted to crush Silas’s entire body. Blood spilled from his lips. Stars danced across his eyelids. Something snapped and ached.
His father had never hurt him this badly before. Never.
“Please!” Silas begged.
A second magical blast had bile coursing up Silas’s throat. Acid splattered over his shirt.
I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
“I’ll show you—”
Silas’s blood lit white hot.
Kinesis blasted from his body and slammed his father into the stall door. Broke it off its hinges. Sent man and door skidding across the manicured lawn. The horses whinnied and reared in their stalls as Silas’s bloody fingers clambered for a grip. His joints seized with the use of power, but he worked his hands, knuckles popping, and strained to stand. Wheezing, he lifted his head and peered through the sweaty locks covering his eyes.
His father didn’t move.
Limping, holding his middle, Silas crossed the distance between them, the stiffness gradually easing. His father’s chest still rose. His breathing was loud in the quiet night. Had no one heard them? Or did the staff merely not want to hear, knowing they could do nothing to stop the master of the house? They’d never once stepped in to save Silas or his brother.
His father’s hand gripped grass as he lifted his head, eyes finding Silas. “I’ll . . . kill . . . you . . .”
The invisible hand wrapped around Silas’s throat.
Silas didn’t even think. Had he thought, maybe he could have coaxed the spell from his neck. Maybe he could have lulled his father into sleep and passed another day in his shadow. But he didn’t.
His necromancy came from his mother’s side. It seemed eager to serve, to penetrate his drunken father’s skin and mix with his soul. To drain him until the kinetic spell broke and his head thumped back against the ground. But the other spells grew jealous, and they rode along the path, merging with the first, stretching unseen lines between father and son—
Silas woke with his face pressed into the lawn. When had he . . . ? His ribs stung with every breath. The left side of his body, where he’d taken the kinetic blows, burned and pulsed with new bruises. Iron slicked his teeth. Scabs matted his hair.
Beside him, his father still breathed as though drawn into the deepest of slumbers.
But despite the injuries, despite the misery entangling his body and screaming in his bones, Silas felt . . . different. He felt . . . strong, somehow. Not in a physical sense but a metaphysical one. His magic . . . His magic felt like a thousand brilliant candles within him. Like it had . . . grown?
He stared at his father’s face. His slow breaths still reeked of alcohol.
Using a hand unattached to himself, Silas let the fingers pinch over his father’s windpipe. No more.
The breaths stopped.
And the surge of strength snuffed out. So suddenly that Silas found himself gasping for its loss. He gaped at his father’s corpse. Had he taken . . . but he couldn’t have . . . could he?
One thing was certain, as Silas carefully, joint by joint, pulled himself upright once more.
No one would ever have power over him again.
September 4, 1846, Baltimore, Maryland
The reading of a will was far more exciting when one hadn’t been disinherited thirteen years prior. Indeed, Merritt Fernsby was not sure why the lawyer had contacted him at all.
He hadn’t come with his family, of course. He hadn’t spoken to them in a decade. Hadn’t been allowed to. There were letters in the beginning, all from him—the start of his writing career, in a melancholy sort of way, but melancholy things always made for great fiction. The coddled and content seldom told good stories. And though he was thirty-one years of age as of last March, he had yet to start a family of his own, for various reasons he could get into but never did.
And so he was very interested to receive a telegram from Mr. Allen, his maternal grandmother’s estate lawyer. Interested and confused, he’d made the trip out to Baltimore to satiate his curiosity. If nothing else, it might make good fodder for an article, or perhaps his work in progress.
“I’ll get to the point, Mr. Fernsby.” Mr. Allen leaned casually against his desk with papers in hand. He seemed to loom over Merritt and the well-worn chair he sat in, like a vulture sniffing out a fresh carcass, which was a somewhat harsh metaphor given that, thus far, Mr. Allen had been nothing but polite and professional.
Merritt wondered if his parents and siblings had been called into this office as well, or if Mr. Allen had made the trip out to New York to read the will to them there. Admittedly—and Merritt loathed to admit it, even to himself—he’d hoped they’d be here. Death often brought people together, and—
He swallowed hard, keeping his tongue at the back of his throat, until the familiar disappointment burned up in his stomach.
He pushed objectivity into his thoughts. Perhaps they had all come to Baltimore to see Grandmother before she passed. Then again, Merritt had, at best, only seen his grandmother once a year during his childhood, and he couldn’t quite remember the scale of sentimentality between her and his mother.
He wondered what his mother looked like now. Did she have lines in the corners of her eyes? Did she wear her hair differently, and had it started turning gray? Perhaps she had gained weight or lost it. Wincing, Merritt shut off the wondering early; the more he wondered, the less he could remember.
He realized then that Mr. Allen was still talking.
“—weren’t included in the rest,” he was saying, “but an addition was made some time ago.”
Merritt put two and two together. “How long ago?”
He checked his papers. “About twenty-five years.”
Before the disowning, then. He wondered if his grandmother had forgotten to take him off. Then again, the break had been his father’s doing. Perhaps Grandmother had, despite never trying to contact him, still cared for him. He preferred that explanation to the other. Of course, there was always a third possibility: guilt might have prevented her from removing his name.
“To my grandson Merritt Fernsby, I leave Whimbrel House and anything that might be left within it, along with its land.”
Merritt sat straighter in his chair. “Whimbrel House?” When Mr. Allen didn’t reply quickly enough, he added, “That’s it?”
Mr. Allen nodded.
Merritt wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but the mention of a house had him distracted. “I’ve never heard of it. A real house?”
“I don’t believe false ones can be inherited.” Mr. Allen put the papers down. “But I looked into the matter myself; it’s all in order.”
“How did my grandmother own a second house?”
Mr. Allen leaned back to open a drawer in his desk. His shuffled a few things around before pulling out a large envelope. Withdrawing a new set of documents, he said, “The property came into the Nichols line some time ago. Before that . . . Well, it hasn’t had a tenant in a very long time.”
“How long is very long?”
He flipped a paper. “Last recorded resident was 1737.”
Merritt blinked. That was over a century ago.
“Understandable,” Mr. Allen went on. “The place is out of the way, on Blaugdone Island in the Narragansett Bay.” He glanced up. “Rhode Island.”
Which meant marshland. “I’m aware of it.” A house abandoned for a hundred years in the middle of a marshy island . . . It must be in terrible repair.
“Commuting would be difficult. Unless you own an enchanted watercraft.”
Merritt shook his head. “Fortunately, I don’t have need to commute.” Although he’d made his name in journalism, Merritt had recently sold his second novel to his publisher—the first having been a moderate success—and one could write novels anywhere there were ink and paper available.
He rubbed his chin, noting he’d forgotten to shave that morning. Having been on his own since he was eighteen, he’d learned how to shingle roofs, place floorboards, grease hinges, the lot of it. There would be a great amount of work ahead of him, but he might be able to fix up the place.
It would be nice not to share walls or pay rent. And finally break away from the Culdwells.
Mr. Culdwell was Merritt’s landlord. He was a crochety moose of a man who was grisly even on his best days. And though Merritt was always timely with his rent, the bloke’s grandson had recently moved to the city for school. Culdwell, of course, wanted to house him in Merritt’s space. When Merritt refused to move out in exchange for a month’s returned rent, Culdwell had blatantly said there would be no renewal of contract come October. Which, obviously, put Merritt in something of a bind.
Plus, Culdwell’s wife was nosy and smelled like broccoli.
So the pertinent questions were, how poor was the condition of Whimbrel House, and how much did Merritt actually care?
“I . . . might divulge one other thing listed here.” Mr. Allen’s mouth skewed to the side almost in distaste. A thick line formed between his eyebrows.
He shrugged. “I’m not one for superstition, Mr. Fernsby, but it does state here that the previous tenant claimed the place was haunted.”
Merritt laughed. “Haunted? This is Rhode Island, not Germany.”
“Agreed.” While it was possible for magic to root itself in inanimate objects, it had become so rare—especially in a place as new as the States—that the claim felt incredible. “But haunted or not, the parcel is yours.”
Merritt knit his hands together. “How large of a parcel is it?”
Mr. Allen glanced at the papers. “I believe it’s the entire island. Roughly eighteen acres.”
“Eighteen,” Merritt exhaled.
“Marshland, mind you.”
“Yes, yes.” He waved his hand. “But wasn’t Jamestown built on the same? Folk are always multiplying and expanding. If the house is unsalvageable, there’s the land. I could sell the land.”
“You could, with the right buyer.” Mr. Allen didn’t hide his skepticism as he handed over the papers. “Congratulations, Mr. Fernsby. You’re now a homeowner.”
Despite his ever-growing curiosity, Merritt did not spend the extra money to take the kinetic tram out to Rhode Island; he took a train, a wagon, and then a boat. By the time he crossed a good portion of the Narragansett Bay and reached Blaugdone Island, he understood why no one had bothered to live there. It was vastly out of the way. There was something uncomfortable yet incredibly appealing about how out of the way it was.
Because after the hired boat dropped off Merritt and the one bag he’d packed, he heard a beautiful thing.
Now, Merritt did not hate noise. He’d been raised in a sizable town and lived in a bustling city for over a decade. He was used to it. It was familiar. But the only time cities got quiet was during heavy snowfall. So it was strange for a place to be both quiet and warm. There was something about the hush that made him realize he was completely alone, on an island that may have been untouched by humankind for . . . years. A century, even. But it didn’t bother him, not precisely. After all, Merritt had been alone a long time.
The cry of a bird broke the silence momentarily, announcing Merritt’s arrival to others. Shading his eyes from the sun, he spied what he believed to be a heron off in some tall grass between trees. The leaves had not yet changed on the elms and oaks spotting the land, but they were certainly thinking about it. Just beyond that was a nub of a shadow—the house, most likely. He walked toward it, and the heron took off, long legs trailing behind.
The earth was moist beneath his shoes, the local plant life wild and untouched. He recognized some of it: weeping cherries, golden aster, autumn olive. He thought he smelled chrysanthemums as well, which had the effect of relaxing his shoulders. He hadn’t realized they’d been tense. Crouching, he pinched some soil between his fingers. It looked rich; if he started a garden now, he might be able to wheedle some garlic, onions, and carrots out of it before the frost hit.
A cottontail thumped and darted from his path—he’d have to cut down some of this grass—and a flock of swallows watched him from a slippery elm. The house grew in size, enough to garner some color—was that a blue roof? Blue shingles were a surprise, given the age of the house. Time faded colors. That, and most of the early roofs in the States were thatched.
The house continued to grow to two stories, and its sides took on a yellow hue. Merritt’s steps quickened, startling a feeding bird—a whimbrel—from a puddle. He’d half expected the house to be slanting one way, to have gaps between weathered boarding, to shelter large families of mice. Hence his decision to pack a single bag. It wasn’t his intent to stay; this visit was exploratory.
He approached the house from the north; it faced east. When he came around to the front, his lips parted as sea-scented air puffed his hair back.
The house was . . . fine.
It was perfectly fine. In fantastic condition, at least from the outside. No weathering, no missing shingles, no broken windows. The nature around it was wild, but surely someone lived here for the place to be so pristine. It could almost be brand new, though the style was certainly colonial.
“I’ll be,” he said, and followed it with a whistle, which seemed appropriate. He squinted at the windows but couldn’t see much within. So feeling strange, he approached his front door and knocked. He didn’t know how to feel when no one answered. Had he expected someone to answer?
“Surely someone has been keeping it up . . .” Perhaps they had vacated the premises after the place was bequeathed to him, but Mr. Allen had said there had been no recent tenants. Squatters, perhaps? Very handy squatters?
There was a key in the lawyerly envelope in his bag, but when Merritt tried the handle, the door opened with only the slightest creak of its hinges. It was early afternoon, so sun shined through the windows, which were only lightly pocked with trails of rain. The moderate reception hall looked every bit as fine and put together as the exterior. At the end was a set of intact stairs and a door. Leaving the front door open, Merritt stepped in, marveling. He’d intended to open that second door, but his attention was diverted by the rooms stemming off either side of the reception hall—a dining room on the right, with a table already set for a party of eight, and a living room on the left, fully furnished in burgundy and forest green.
Merritt gaped. He had considered that his grandmother’s will was set to dump an unwanted parcel on him, leaving it to him to let it rot or try to sell it, but this house already looked . . . amazing. More than he could afford, unless he managed to pull an Alexandre Dumas and make bank off his publisher.
“Thank you, Anita,” he murmured, reaching out and touching the wall. There was a portrait there of a British woman, though nothing else to denote who she might have been. She seemed to look at him, wondering about the transition of ownership just as much as he did.
He turned to the living room, stepping reverently. Everything was in order, like it’d been prepared for him, though a heavy coat of dust lined every available surface, and the furniture had some wear. But no sign of rodents, or even a fly. He ran his hand over the back of a settee before peering through the next doorway, which led to a sunroom. The plants there were either dead or overgrown, as though whoever had been caring for this house lacked a green thumb. But Merritt owned a sunroom. The thought put a weird pressure in his chest he didn’t quite understand.
Turning back, he was a quarter of the way through the living room when something caught his eye. Turning toward the window, his gaze fell upon a burgundy armchair, upholstered in velvet, maple leaves carved into the armrest and legs.
And it was melting.
Merritt squinted. Rubbed his eyes. Inched closer.
It was . . . most definitely melting. Like a candle under too hot a flame. The seat dripped onto the carpet, though the carpet didn’t absorb or repel it. The drips simply ceased to be. Meanwhile, the wood glistened with perspiration and wobbled, ready to break under the lightest touch.
“Good Lord,” Merritt mumbled, stepping away. He caught himself on the settee, and his hand pushed through its soupy exterior.
Yelping, he wrenched back, toppling onto the carpet, quick to get his legs under him again. Drips of settee clung to his fingers, then puffed away as though they never were. Once the walls began warping, Merritt sprinted back into the hall, his breath coming fast, his previously gooped hand to his chest.
“What on earth?” he asked, spinning about.
The portrait’s eyes followed him.
Something thumped up the stairs.
Swallowing, Merritt bolted for the front door.
It swung shut and locked just before he reached it.
September 6, 1846, Boston, Massachusetts
Hulda Larkin sat in the smaller foyer in the back of the Bright Bay Hotel, which was specifically sectioned off for the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms, or BIKER for short. The bench was backless, but pushed up against a wall to compensate for it, and had a false rosebush off to one side and a real potted fern off to the other. She was going through her latest purchase—a receipt book full of seafood recipes—inserting tabs on the most sensible meals. She had just returned to Boston yesterday after a six-week assignment in Canada, overseeing the preservation of a well-warded longhouse off the shore of Lake Ontario. She’d been called down to the office only an hour prior.
She didn’t have to wait long. Miss Steverus, the young receptionist, bounced in as Hulda placed the third tab, announcing, “Ms. Haigh will see you now.”
Closing her book and stowing it away, Hulda stood and shook out the ruching on her skirt before offering a polite nod and heading into the office. It was a fairly large room with expansive windows backlighting a heavy desk and the petite, elegant woman who sat behind it. One wall was covered in shelves like a library, while the other was completely bare.
“Myra,” Hulda said with a nod and smile.
“The timing is perfect.” Myra Haigh stood from her chair and walked over, swiping a folder off the corner of her desk with the grace of a ballerina. Her black hair was curled and pinned meticulously, crowning lightly tanned skin, one of the few things that gave away her Spanish heritage. Although she was nearing her fiftieth year, she looked younger, perhaps because she was always at the ready, always available, and always aware. She never went on holiday or rested when ill, save for a bout of fever in 1841 that had had the institute pleading for her quick recovery. Myra Haigh was BIKER, more than any library or office space ever could be.
“I have a new assignment for you,” Myra declared.
Hulda blinked. “Already? Overseas?” Her trunks had only arrived that morning. Though BIKER was based in Boston, they often took on international work, especially when their parent organization, LIKER—the London Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms—was shorthanded. Magicked homes were far more common in Europe than the States.
“No, actually. A new resident has inherited Whimbrel House.” She opened the folder and handed it to her. “My sources say he moved in yesterday.”
Blueprints and a single sheet of information stared up at her. “Whimbrel House? I’m not familiar with it.” She read. “Rhode Island?”
“Indeed. It’s long abandoned for obvious reasons. Used to be a safehouse for necromancers during the mess with Salem.” She clucked her tongue in distaste. “I got the telegram late last night. The new owner’s name is Merritt Fernsby.”
Hulda scanned the information sheet. The house had been inherited from an Anita Nichols.
“It looks to be a raw trade,” Myra added.
Hulda let out a long breath. “Oh dear. Those are always interesting.” A nonwizard moving into an enchanted house was a delicate situation. She turned back a page. “This is a very thin file.”
“I’ll credit that to my predecessor,” she said with a tone of apology. “It’s a lone house out of the way, sparsely inhabited over the years, and its denizens hardly carved their names into the walls.” She knit her fingers together. “I know you’ve only just returned, but could you leave today? It’s only two hours by tram and boat. I’d rather not let it sit.”
Sit and risk the resident damaging the house, or the house damaging the resident. Hulda nodded. “My things are still packed away, so it’s no bother.” Though for the initial review, she’d just bring her handy black bag. She never went anywhere without it.
Myra clapped her hands. “God bless you. I couldn’t send anyone else, Hulda. You really are our best.”
Hulda rolled her eyes, though the praise warmed her. “Only because Mrs. Thornton is still in Denmark.”
“Pah.” Myra set her hand on her shoulder. “It’s a bit out of the way. Take the kinetic line into Providence. BIKER will reimburse you.”
Nodding, Hulda turned toward the door, still poring over the small file.
Myra knit her fingers together. “Do be careful.”
Pushing her spectacles higher on her nose, Hulda said, “I always am.”
Whimbrel House was rather charming. Enchanted buildings tended to be, but this one’s appeal was amplified because it was swathed in nature, wild grasses tipped with afternoon sunlight, an unseen egret crying in the distance. The smell of the ocean clung to everything, and it cooled the breeze, which would be very pleasant in the height of summer. Granted, it was already September, and Hulda would not be here long enough for the year to turn and come back to July, but it was a nice enough thought.
The place had a steeply gabled roof and a variety of windows, big and small, circular, circle topped, and rectangular. Oak shades stained darkly, blue shingles that glimmered teal beneath the direct sun. It wasn’t a particularly large house, which meant it would require a smaller staff. In truth, that would make matters easier, both for hiring and for the new owner’s pocketbook. It was hard enough for BIKER to find people adequately familiar with magic to hire, let alone ones who were employable.
Approaching the door, heavy tool bag hanging off her shoulder, she took up the brass knocker and rapped four times. Loudly. Hulda preferred not to repeat herself.
For a moment, all was silent. Then she heard the sound of something thick crashing onto the floor—several somethings—followed by a brief shriek. Pulling out her folder, she glanced at her information one last time, just to be sure. Merritt Fernsby.
“Hello?” His voice was pitched high on the other side of the door, and desperation leaked through the wooden fibers.
Hulda pushed up her glasses. “Mr. Fernsby?”
“Please help me!” he cried. “It won’t let me out!”
Oh dear. Hulda opened her bag. “How long have you been in residence?”
The doorknob jiggled. “Who are you? I tried breaking a window, but—oh God, it’s looking at me again.”
“Please refrain from damaging the premises.” She pulled out her crowbar. “What is looking at you?”
“The woman in the portrait!”
Hulda sighed. Houses like this really should be run through BIKER before they were handed out to average citizens. “Stand back, Mr. Fernsby.” She wedged the crowbar between door and jamb, then murmured, “Really, little house. He’ll never take care of you if you behave like a child.”
She tugged a few times before the latch gave and the door swung in, and then she returned the crowbar to her bag.
Four fingers wrapped around the door and wrenched it open.
He stood just shy of six feet. The document said he was thirty-one years old—three years Hulda’s junior—though with the bags under his eyes, he looked older. He had light-brown hair that hung unfashionably about his shoulders and was in need of combing. His nose was straight save for a slight widening in the center of the bridge. His clothes were of good make, but he wore a multicolor scarf instead of an ascot, and the scarf had certainly seen better days. The first two buttons of his pale-yellow shirt were undone—no, all the buttons were off by one, something that niggled at Hulda’s brain, demanding to be fixed, but she was a housekeeper, not a valet. The poor man had one foot bare and one socked, and his panicked blue eyes looked at her with an eagerness that suggested he hadn’t seen another human being in years.
Not entirely unexpected.
“Hello, Mr. Fernsby.” She extended her hand. “My name is Hulda Larkin. I’ve been sent here on behalf of BIKER, or the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms. As you have recently inherited an enchanted home—”
“Oh thank God.” Mr. Fernsby tried to shake her hand, but the moment his fingers reached the doorway, part of the doorjamb detached and bent, barring his path. Closing his eyes, he slumped against wood. “It won’t let me leave.”
“I see that,” Hulda remarked. She reached forward herself, her hand passing easily into the house.
“I wouldn’t, if you want to be able to go home,” he warned.
She offered him a firm smile. “I am a professional, I assure you. May I come in?”
He gaped at her. “You want to come in? By all means, it’s yours! Just get. Me. Out.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that until I’ve done an assessment of the abode.”
He blinked like she was the one going mad. “Assessment of the abode? Just”—he thrust his hand at her—“pull me out!”
She frowned. “I’m assuming you paid enough attention in school to know magic doesn’t work like that.”
He blinked at her. “What school did you attend?”
Hulda frowned. It was true that most education boards in the United States included instruction only on magic’s historical importance, not the craft itself, such as the seizing of British kinetic ships during the infamous Boston Tea Party. Hulda had spent several years studying abroad in England, where the categorization and use of magic was much more prevalent, both in the schoolhouse and in the country at large.
Mr. Fernsby scrubbed his eyes. “It’s haunted—”
“Possibly, likely not,” she interjected. “Haunting is only one possibility for an enchanted—”
“Blazes, woman.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine! Come in, and see how it treats you.” He stepped aside, allowing her entrance, but cast a wary glance at a portrait on the north wall.
The house groaned as she strode in, her shoes clacking against the hardwood floor. Whether or not the house would keep her confined had yet to be determined. She glanced around—it was light outside, but the sun struggled to permeate the windows. Shadows clung to the stairs and walls, casting the rooms—as far as she could see—in incomplete swathes of darkness. The eyes of the portrait to her right were following her, she noticed, so she nodded a greeting. “It seems to be in very good repair, considering its history. Granted, that is typical for strongly spelled structures.”
Mr. Fernsby wiped a hand down his face. “A-And how do you know about this place?”
“It is our business to know.” Reaching into her pocket, she retrieved a card and handed it to him. The information for BIKER—save its address, which was seldom given out—had been stamped upon it, along with her name.
“Has the house spoken to you?” she asked.
He gaped. “Spoken to me?”
She pulled off her gloves. “You need not be so aghast, Mr. Fernsby. Magic is uncommon in today’s age, but hardly unheard of. I took the kinetic tram to get here.” A tram powered by kinesis, one of eleven schools of magic.
“Yes, yes.” He rubbed his eyes. Likely hadn’t slept last night, assuming he’d stayed the night. “I am aware, but it is particularly”—he waved his hand, trying to find a suitable word—“dense here.”
“Indeed. As is the case with domiciles. Enchantments existing outside a flesh body do not receive the normal backlash from the constant casting of spells.”
He shifted. “Pardon?”
“I will need to take a tour if you would like it diagnosed,” she continued. “An enchanted house cannot be well kept without a thorough diagnosis.”
Mr. Fernsby ran a hand back through his hair. No wonder it looked so unkempt.
“You mean diagnosing the type of magic?”
“Among other things. There are several reasons for a house to be enchanted.” She pushed up her glasses. “It could simply be under a spell, or built on a site where an abnormal amount of magic was expelled. It could have specifically been built to be enchanted, which is common. Or there could be half a dozen other explanations. Perhaps the materials used were magicked, or a wizard possesses it, or it is very old and gained sentience on its own, which is unlikely given the colonial style. Sometimes homes are just unhappy with their floorplans and choose to enchant themselves, merely so they can amend—”
Something thudded upstairs. Mr. Fernsby jumped.
Tilting her head, Hulda listened, but heard nothing more. “Is anyone else in residence?”
He shook his head.
Clearing her throat, Hulda finished, “It would be best for me to see the house and determine the source of the magic, if you don’t mind.”
Mr. Fernsby looked through the house, almost as though frightened by it. Hulda couldn’t blame him; the walls of the reception hall were beginning to melt. Chaocracy, most likely. The eleventh school of magic.
“Anything to get me out,” he muttered.
“It is my goal to see you well situated. Enchanted houses can be tamed.” When he gave her an incredulous, bloodshot expression, she gestured to the right. “Perhaps we’ll start in the dining room?”
Mr. Fernsby shifted. “T-The dining room table ate my wallet. That must sound utterly absurd to you—”
“Not at all.”
“It nearly ate me.”
Fishing through her bag, she pulled out a string necklace with a red embroidered sack hanging from it and handed it to him. “This is a ward.” She pulled out a second for herself. “Wear it, and it should offer some protection as we move through the house—”
“Nothing is foolproof.” She slipped her own ward over her head before meeting his eyes. “They’re dangerous to keep on the person for too long; portable spells like these can have strange effects on the body, but it’s safe to keep in-house, otherwise.”
Mr. Fernsby picked up the sack in his hand and turned it over. “How does it work?”
“This is first-rate magic. Very expensive.” She gave him a look that hopefully said, Please don’t break it. “This ward in particular is a chaocracy ward. Order and restoration, specifically. Very few people are at risk of having too much order in their lives, so I doubt the house will wield it against us.” They were packed with obsidian dust, but each sack also contained some blood and a fingernail from the wizard who had created them. Mr. Fernsby seemed an excitable sort, however, and she determined it would be better not to mention that.
“May I?” She gestured toward the dining room.
Mr. Fernsby nodded and followed her. The shadows darkened significantly as she entered, trying to choke out the light coming from the large window on the east wall. They did a decent job of it.
“It wasn’t like this when I first arrived,” Mr. Fernsby said as she approached the table.
“What was it like?”
“Like a normal house.”
“Hm.” She set her hands on the back of the chair—eight total. It was a small dining room, though a host could sit twelve if he was in dire straits. The table was already set, though dusty.
Rapping her knuckles on the surface, she said, “Come now, give it up. What is the point? You certainly can’t do anything with his wallet, now can you?”
The floor creaked like they stood on the deck of a ship sailing into troubled waters.
Reaching into her bag, Hulda pulled out a stethoscope, inserted the earpieces into her ears, and pressed the drum into the tabletop. She shifted it around a few places, tapping with her free hand, until she found a spot where the wood sounded compact. Pulling out a smaller ward, she dropped it on the table, and the furniture belched up a well-used leather wallet.
“You’re a saint.” Mr. Fernsby snatched up the wallet before the table could consume it once more.
Gesturing to the west door, Hulda asked, “And through there?”
Mr. Fernsby wrapped his free hand around the ward hanging from his neck. “Admittedly, I haven’t explored that way yet.”
That didn’t surprise her. The doorway was completely dark.
Retrieving the ward and slipping it into her pocket, Hulda pulled free a small lamp. She twisted a dial on it, and it illuminated.
“What is that?” Mr. Fernsby asked.
“Enchanted lamp. Conjury and elemental. Fire.” She held it before them and led the way.
“Without even a match? Why don’t they have those lining the streets?”
“Because they’re expensive, Mr. Fernsby.”
Hulda approached the door, holding her light high. According to the blueprints, the breakfasting room was through here—
The door swung for her. She jumped back, but not quite far enough—
Two hands seized her waist and hauled her into the dining room, the door just narrowly missing her lamp. It would have shattered the glass—and the spells—completely.
Mr. Fernsby released her, but that did not stop embarrassment from burning in her cheeks. She held the light away from her face to conceal it, then smoothed her skirt. “Thank you, Mr. Fernsby.”
He nodded, scowling at the door. “Nearly lost my nose to one upstairs.”
This house was proving more troublesome than Hulda had anticipated. She set the small ward on the floor by the door. She’d only brought eight with her, which had seemed like an overindulgence at the time.
The door did not resist her when she walked through this time, though she stepped quickly, and Mr. Fernsby followed suit. The breakfast room was about half the size of the dining room and had another set table that sat four. Walking its perimeter, Hulda said, “You could knock out that wall if you want to host a larger party.”
The house grumbled, like it was a stomach and they the food.
“I don’t intend to even host myself.” He turned suddenly, searching the shadows for something. “This place is unlivable.”
“It would be a great loss to you, to give up so quickly,” Hulda warned. “Whimbrel House hasn’t been inhabited for some time, which may be why the place acts so poorly. You couldn’t even sell it in this state. If nothing else, it would be a financial loss.”
He seemed to consider that.
She stopped at the next door. “I presume the kitchen is through here.” The door did not resist her. It was a little brighter in this room, since flame flickered from an iron chandelier overhead. The kitchen had both a hearth and a woodsmoke stove, as well as good counterspace and a pump-operated sink. “Very nice. Do you have a stool?”
“Nice?” Mr. Fernsby repeated. “Are we in the same house?” He peered around and found a three-legged stool on the other side of the hearth. He brought it over, but had crossed only half the distance when he started shrieking.
“Get it off, get it off!” He flung his hands out, but the stool’s seat sucked onto them, melting and climbing up his arm. It couldn’t seem to get past his elbow, though, which meant the ward he wore was working.
“And how does this benefit you?” Hulda asked the ceiling.
The lights on the chandelier flickered.
Sighing, Hulda went to Mr. Fernsby and grasped his shoulder. “Try to calm down.”
“It’s eating me!”
“It’s simply having a tantrum.” She grabbed one of the stool’s legs, though it was soft as warm wax, and pulled. Despite its liquid state, the stool was still one thing, and it gradually slid off Mr. Fernsby’s arm. When Hulda released it, it plopped onto the floor like a mud pie. She reached into her bag for a ward, but the stool reshaped itself on its own.
Before it could change its mind, she placed it beneath the chandelier. “If you could spot me, Mr. Fernsby.” She didn’t want the thing deliquescing while she stood atop it.
He stepped to her side, eyeing the stool. “You’re very cavalier about this, Miss Larkin.”
“Mrs. Larkin will do.” She stepped up.
He glanced at her bare left hand. “You’re married, then?”
She focused on the chandelier. “It is proper to call a housekeeper by Mrs. regardless of her matrimonial state.” She pulled out her magnifying glass and ran a finger around its rim. It, too, was enchanted, and refocused itself to suit her needs. Mr. Fernsby inched behind her to get a better look, letting out a weak whistle.
Ignoring him, Hulda focused on the flames. “See how they’re not actually extinguishing? Likely Whimbrel House does not possess elemental magic.” She made a mental note and stepped off the stool. There was an enclosed porch just behind the kitchen, but with the floor bubbling like tar, she determined it best not to explore it at this time.
The house creaked significantly as they returned to the reception hall. Wielding her lamp, Hulda opened the door by the stairs to find the toilet. She stepped inside, examining the mirror, but found it ordinary.
When she moved to the far corner, Mr. Fernsby following behind, the door slammed shut, startling her, and all six walls, including the floor and ceiling, began to crush inward, warping the toilet and sink as though they were made of clay. Piping shoved Hulda into Mr. Fernsby, who caught her by the shoulders as the wall behind them grew spikes.
For the first time since arriving, fear curdled in her stomach.
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