My name is Louisa Rose Ditton. I work and live at Coldthistle House, a house for boarders and wanderers. A house owned by the Devil. The usual reaction, and my own once upon a time, is to give a gasp of outrage if you are of one moral persuasion, a guffaw of skepticism if you’re of another. But I assure you—promise you—that it is so. The Devil owns this house and all of his who live and work within it. The walls are his, and the gardens. The food we eat for sustenance and the sweets we have for pleasure—everything belongs to him, and he gives it to us at his leisure. It is not so hard a life when you happen to be someone like me. An outcast, a foreigner, and, some would venture, a Changeling. We are all of us odd and cursed in Coldthistle House, and growing more cursed and odd by the day. The only requirement of employment here is to do your job thoroughly and without complaint. My particular post is that of host and maid. I welcome our guests. I tidy their rooms.
And when they meet their untimely and certain demises, I see to the mess. He takes care of us, the Devil, and in return we do as we are told. Cook, clean, sweep, mend, and frighten to death the rogues, villains, and crooks that ever darken the door of Coldthistle House. Chapter One Malton, England Autumn, 1809 The road to Coldthistle House was dark and dangerous. So said the woman taking me there, the English rain driving as slow and steady as the wagon. She found me at the Malton market, where I told fortunes and read palms for pennies. It earned me clucked tongues and black looks from passersby, God-fearing folk who would alert the local parson and see me driven out of their town. But pennies, even ill-gotten ones, will feed you. Telling a fortune is no easy thing. Indeed, it appears simple, but to tell the future convincingly, one must make the deed all feel as natural and wending as a river cutting its path.
Truly, it comes down to reading what resides in people’s eyes, how they breathe, how their glance shifts, how they dress and walk and hand over their coins. I was on my last fortune of the morning when the old woman stumbled upon me. The market day would happen rain or shine, and this was another day of rain in a long, drizzly spell of dreary days. Nobody lingered. Nobody but me, it seemed, and I lacked the respectable reasons of the farmers and craftsmen selling their wares. The girl in front of me blushed and kept her head down under a thick woolen scarf. It matched her plain, sturdy frock and the coat buttoned over it. Little bursts of tufted yellow-and-gray wool peeked through the weave. She had a fanciful streak. A dreamer.
Her ruddy cheeks grew redder and redder still as I told her future. “Ah, I see it now. There is a love in your life,” I said softly, echoing her expression. An old, cheap trick, but it worked. She squeezed her eyes shut and nodded. The teachers at Pitney School had all but beaten the accent out of my voice, but now I let it come back, let the soft Irish lilt color the words the way this girl wanted them colored. Pinks and purples as vivid as her cheeks. “But ’tis not a sure thing, is it?” “How did you know that?” she whispered, her eyes opening on a gasp. I didn’t. A dreamer.
A reacher. Truly girls of this age—my age—were as open to me as a map. I’d traded such fortunes for sweets and books at Pitney, risking the rod or worse. “His family dislikes the match,” I added, studying her closely. Her expression fell, her gloved hands in mine clutching with a new desperation. “They think I’m low because of the pig farm. But we never go hungry! So much snobbery and over pigs!” “But he is your true love, aye?” I could not help myself. Just as I needed the pennies to eat and that eating to live, I needed this, too. The power. Did it work every time? No.
But when it did . The girl nodded, wetting her lips and searching out my gaze. “I would do anything for him. Anything at all. Oh, if you could only see Peter. If you could see us together! He brings me apples at luncheon, apples he buys with his own coin. And he wrote me a poem, the sweetest poem.” “A poem?” Well, then they were practically married. I gave her a secretive smile. “I sense a future for you two, but it will not be easy.
” “No?” “No. ’Tis a hard road unfolding ahead, but if you take the greatest risk, you will reap the greatest reward.” Her mouth fell open a little, the desperate thing, and I let my smile dwindle to deliver her fate. “An elopement is your only hope.” Running away. A choice that would likely end in the two lovers being disowned and shunned. He might get another chance at a life and a wife, but she would not. The words burned a little in my throat after the fact. Why tell the girl such a thing, Louisa? It felt different, even wrong, when in the past, tricking my snobby schoolmates at Pitney had felt like a personal victory. The young woman’s eyes widened at me in alarm.
“E-Elope?” It was as if it were a curse, so hesitantly did she say it. “Or find another to love,” I hastily added. There. Well enough. I had offered an alternative, and that made me feel less the cur for taking the girl’s pennies. The casual way I offered the substitute made her grimace. She did not believe true love was a thing to throw away, as I do. “But you knew that already.” “Surely I did,” the girl murmured. “I only needed to hear you say it.
” She placed two pocketwarmed pennies in my palm and looked up at the gray, sinister clouds. “You have the gift, do you not? You can see the future, tell fates. I see it in your eyes. So dark. Never have I seen eyes so dark or so wise.” “You’re not the first to say it.” “I hope I’m the last,” the girl said, frowning. “You should find yourself a better path. A Godfearing path. Maybe it would brighten those eyes.
” How fear would brighten my eyes, I could not say. I doubted she could, either, really. I closed my fist around the money and took a step back. “I like my eyes just the way they are, thank you very much.” The girl shrugged. The bloom on her cheeks had faded. Sighing, she hunkered down into her scarf and fled the market, her well-worn boots splashing in the puddles between cobbles. “She won’t soon forget ye, and that’s a fact.” The old woman’s voice, thin as a reed, didn’t have the intended effect. I had seen her lurking, after all, and expected her to pounce sooner or later.
I turned slowly at the waist, watching the crone emerge from the soaked overhanging of a market stall. Fewer than a dozen yellow teeth and pale gums flashed at me, a pauper’s smile. Her hair sprang out from under her tattered bonnet in dry bunches, as if it had been lightly scorched over a fire. Still, there was the skeleton of beauty behind the sagging flesh, an echo of wild loveliness that time or misfortune had tried to quiet. A complexion as dark as hers meant a laborer’s life in the sun or else a foreign heritage. Whatever her birth, I doubted it was anywhere near North Yorkshire. “Do you make a habit of following little girls?” I asked primly. My true accent vanished. I hoped my arch schoolroom voice sounded half as severe as those of the teachers who had forced it upon me. “Thought you might need assistance,” she said, lowering her head down and to the side.
“A little cheer on this dreary day.” I might have known she would reach for my hand and the money in it; thieves were as common as merchants on market days. My hand snapped back and behind my skirts, to obscure the coin in the dampening fabric. The crone sniggered at me and drew closer, staring up at me with one good eye. The other swam with milky rheum. Her clothes, such as they were, reeked of wood smoke. “I’ve no interest in robbing you.” “Leave me be,” I muttered, eager to be rid of this nuisance. When I turned, her bony hand flashed so quickly toward me it seemed a trick of the eye. Her grip on my wrist was crushing as a blacksmith’s.
“Would it not be better if that paltry sum was more? Not coin enough for scraps and a flea-ridden bed but a real day’s earnings . ” With that same unnaturally strong grip, she wrenched open my fingers and placed her hand over mine. The space between our palms grew suddenly hot, a lick of fire passing between us, and when she took her hand away it was not pennies but gold in my grasp. How was it possible? I sucked in a gasp of surprise, then remembered myself and remembered her, too. If she led a life on the road telling fortunes, then I should not be shocked at her penchant for sleight of hand. No doubt the coin had been hiding up her sleeve, ready for just such a dazzling purpose. “You must want something from me,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “Else you would not be so generous to a stranger.” “Just a gift,” she said with a shrug, already wandering away. Such moments of luck never sat right with me—surely such riches came with a price.
“Keep warm, girl,” the crone added as she hobbled away. “And keep safe.” I watched her disappear behind a cheerfully painted fish stand, the tattered ends of her coat trailing behind her like a shroud. There was no reason to wait longer. If this fool of a woman was so interested in being parted from her money, then I would not refuse her the pleasure. At once, I ran with the hint of a merry skip to the shop window I had passed on my way into the town. Meat pies. The smell was intoxicating, dampened not a jot by the drizzling rain. Lamb, fish, liver, veal . With the coin in my fist, I could afford one of each and be spared the pain of choosing.
It would be a feast the likes of which I had not tasted in, well . In truth, I had never been faced with such overabundance. The man tending the shop window pulled up the rain shade as I approached, leaning out and stacking his immense forearms like ham hocks on the sill. Ham. Yes, I’d have one of those as well. Beady blue eyes regarded me from under a cap. His must have been a profitable trade, for his clothes were new and not mended. “One of each, please,” I said, unable to keep the smile out of my voice. Those eyes staring down at me shifted to the side. Then they slid over my face, my bedraggled hair and muddied frock.
His fingers drummed on the sill. “Beg your pardon, my girl?” “One of each,” I repeated, more insistent. “’Tis five pence a pie.” “I can well read the sign, sir. One of each.” He simply grumbled in response and turned away, returning a moment later to face me and my growling stomach, handing across six kidney-shaped pies in piping-hot paper. They were released to me slowly, as if he were allowing me plenty of time to rethink my recklessness and run. But I received the first pie and then the next, handing over the gold and feeling very satisfied with myself indeed. The satisfaction did not last. The instant he set eyes on the gold, his demeanor changed from one of reluctant cooperation to rage.
He snatched up the coin and kept behind the rest of my food, knocking most of it off the windowsill and back into the shop. “What’s this? Don’t think a drowned rat like you would be flashing around this kind of money. Where did you get it?” he shouted, turning the gold this way and that, trying to determine its authenticity. “I earned it,” I shot back. “Give that back! You have no right to keep it!” “Where’d you get it?” He held it just above my reach, and like an idiot I tried to scramble for it, looking every bit the desperate urchin. “Give it back! You can keep your bloody pies! I don’t want them anymore!” “Thief!” he thundered. From inside the shop, he produced a silver bell as big as his fist and began ringing it, screaming at me above the clanging din. “Ho, men, we have a thief here! Look lively!” I ran, dropping pies and abandoning the gold. The bell rang hard in my ears as I pelted through the market square, feet splashing in puddles, skirts growing muddier and heavier by the second as I tried to vanish into the dissipating crowd. But all eyes turned to me.
There was no escaping the mob I could sense forming in my wake, the ones who would come for me and throw me in the local jail or worse. Up ahead, the buildings cut away to the left, and an alleyway sliced a narrow route toward the outskirts of the village. I had time, but only a little, and this might be my only chance for escape. It might also lead me toward more men who had heard the cry of “Thief!” but I dashed off a hope for the best and slid on mud-slicked feet into the alley. I collided with a brick wall and paused, catching my breath, screaming when a hand closed around my shoulder and yanked. Spinning around, I came face-to-face with the rheumy-eyed crone and her yellow grin. “Changeling eyes, that’s what the girl saw,” the woman croaked, as if there had been not a hitch in our previous conversation. “But a sturdy good frock and boots only mended the one time. Soft hands. Not a maid’s hands.
” That one eye focused to a slit. “A runaway, eh? An orphan on the run. I can see it. The life of a governess wouldn’t be for you.” “What does that matter?” I spat out breathlessly. There was no time for idle chitchat. “So you do what I do—you’re a traveler. You tell fortunes and the like, so what?” “I do, and with more discretion than you, girl,” the woman said with a croak of a laugh. The laughter made the echo of her lost beauty glimmer, almost truly visible. Still gripping my shoulder, she dragged me to the opposite end of the alley and pointed.
I looked toward the church she indicated and the crowd meant to come for the thief, for me. A mob. By now the girl I had told the fortune to would have repeated the story, and they would be hunting not just a cutpurse but a witch, too. It would be her father and her brothers, the priest, and whoever else felt like driving a starving girl out of the village and into the menacing cold. I had suffered and survived this banishment before. Perhaps this time they sought graver punishment. “Repent,” the old woman hissed. “I beg your pardon?” “That’s what they want from you, surely. Oh, they’ll take you in,” she said, laughing again, the sound whistling through her broken teeth. “Show a little contrition.
Works, doesn’t it?” The mob expanded. It wouldn’t be long now before they felt bold enough for a confrontation. Thief. Witch. No, it wouldn’t be long now. The crone had conjured gold to give me, and if she gave it so freely, then there was more where that came from. She might be clever, but I could be cleverer. I could make that gold mine. “I know a place, girl,” the crone said. She paid no heed to the riot forming just down the street.
She only had eyes—one eye—for me. “Soft hands now can be hard hands soon. I can find you work. Dry. Safe. Plenty of food. Got a spot of pottage and a hunk or two of pork in my wagon. It will last us the ride, if you’re keen to ride, that is.” Not the choice I had hoped to make that day. Rather, I simply wanted to decide where to spend a few coins for a hot meal and a bed for the night.
But that dream was dashed for the moment. A new dream formed in its place—me with pockets full of gold and a way to start a new life. The crowd spilling out from the church, however, was a vastly different story. She latched on to my fidgeting. “Hanging is no end for such a pretty, pale neck.” “How far?” I asked, but I had already turned to follow her, and she led me away from the view of the church, toward another muddy alley running between an alehouse and a butcher’s. “And what would the work be like? Are there any children to teach? My French is passable. My Latin . Well, I know a bit of Latin.” “Nothing like that, girl.
Just scrubbing, sweeping, seeing to some easy guests. It can be hard work but honest, and you won’t want for a thing.” Not ideal, perhaps, but better than begging or thieving, or spending a full morning at work only to come up with a few lousy pennies. Or swinging from a noose. And the gold, I reminded myself; there could be more gold. “Where is this place?” I asked, hit by the smell of the butcher’s and the sourness of a fresh kill being gutted somewhere inside. “North, just north. Coldthistle House, they call it, a place for boarders, my girl, and a place for the wayward and lost.”