"Define the Irish Question between 1800 and 1917," Nathan read aloud.
"If we knew the question," his mother said, "we might be able to work out the answer."
"I don't think that'll satisfy Mr. Selkirk," Nathan said, sighing. He pushed his history essay aside and replaced it with a plate of buttered toast with honey and cinnamon, a recipe of his uncle's. The honey had oozed just the right distance through the toast and he bit into it with enthusiasm, if a little absentmindedly.
His mother noted his abstraction and knew or guessed the reason, but was prudent enough to say nothing. He was fifteen now, too told to press for confidences. She only hoped, if there was trouble, he would tell her in the end. The summer had been long and uneventful, a summer of normal teenage preoccupations: success (and failure) at cricket, doing homework, not doing homework, friends, fads, hormonal angst. They had managed a trip to Italy, looking at palaces and pictures in Florence and then staying with Nathan's classmate Ned Gable and his family in a villa in Umbria. Annie had feared they would never afford their share of the rental but somehow Uncle Barty had found the money, though he wouldn't accompany them. These days he rarely left the old manor at Thornyhill, deep in the woods.
Yet he wasn't really a stay-at-home sort of person. He had told Annie once that he was born in Byzantium before the fall of the Roman Empire, which, she worked out, made him about fifteen hundred years old. He called himself Bartlemy Goodman, though it was probably not his name. She might have thought him mad or unusually eccentric if she hadn't known him so well and seen what he could do, when the occasion demanded it. He had taken her in on a cold lonely night long ago when she was pursued by invisible enemies, becoming an uncle to both her and Nathan, and as her son grew up into strange adventures Bartlemy had been their counselor and support. But there had been no adventures this summer, and now autumn was failing, and the wind blew from the north, plucking the last ragged leaves from the treetops, and Nathan was restless with the feeling of deeds undone, and worlds to be saved, and time slipping away.
Soon, Annie thought, he'll start sleeping badly, and there was a tiny squeeze of fear at her heart that she could not suppress.
I sleep too deep, Nathan thought, and I dream too little and too lightly. The portal was closed, the connection broken: he could no longer roam the multiverse in his head, following trails he could not see on a quest he did not understand. He had dreamed his way through other worlds--the ghost-city of Carboneck in Wilderslee, and the sky-towers of Arkatron on Eos, where the Grandir, supreme ruler of a dying cosmos, sought for the Great Spell that would be the salvation of his people. Nathan had retrieved the Cup and the Sword to bind the magic, and now only the Crown was wanting--the Crown and the sacrifice and the words of power, whatever they might be. But there had been no dreams for nearly a year, and the pleasures of cricket and the problems of history were not enough to fill his life.
"How's Hazel?" his mother asked, helping herself to a piece of his toast. "I haven't seen her lately."
Hazel was Nathan's closest friend: they had grown up almost as brother and sister, though getting on rather better than most siblings. Adolescence had brought friction but had never driven them apart.
"You know Hazel." Nathan spoke around munching. "She didn't exactly like her mum's old boyfriend, but I think she approved of him. She doesn't approve of the new one at all."
"Because he's so young?"
Annie smiled. "Well, all I can say is good for Lily. I think Franco's very sweet."
"He's Italian," Nathan objected.
"How insular! Besides, you didn't mind the Italians last summer."
"That was in Italy!"
"Suppose I got myself a toyboy," Annie said. "How would you feel about that?"
"You are joking, aren't you?" Diverted from thoughts of other worlds, Nathan looked really alarmed.
"Look, you know, if there's someone, it's cool with me--as long as he's nice and really cares about you--but . . . well, I'd rather have a stepfather than an older brother!"
"Nicely put," Annie said. "Still, I doubt if the situation will arise."
Nathan couldn't ever recall her having a proper boyfriend, even though several men had been interested. He said: "You must have loved Dad very much." Daniel Ward had died before he was born, killed in a car crash when he fell asleep at the wheel.
"Very much," she said. Only he wasn't your dad . . . Your father was a stranger who waited beyond the Gate of Death, waited for my love and longing to open the unopenable door, and when I would have given all that I had for all I had lost he took me, body and soul. He seeded my womb and sealed up my memory, and until you grew up so unlike Daniel--until I found the courage to unclose the old scar in my mind--I never knew the betrayal and rape hidden there.
But she loved Nathan, conceived in treachery, child of an unknown being from an unknown world, so she kept her secret. She saw his father's legacy in the mysteries that surrounded him, but she told herself, over and over, that he did not need to know. One day, perhaps, but not yet. Not yet.
That night, Nathan went to bed thinking of the Irish Question, and dreamed of the sea.
At Thornyhill Manor, Hazel Bagot was having a lesson in witchcraft.
"But I don't want to be a witch," she protested.
"Good," said Bartlemy. "That's the way to start. Now you need to learn what not to do. Otherwise you could bumble about like you did last year, conjuring dangerous spirits and letting them get out of control. Someone might get hurt. It nearly happened once, you know that; you don't want it to happen again. The Gift is in your blood. You need to know how not to use it."
"Why couldn't we have done it in the summer, when the evenings were still light?" Hazel said. She was wishing she had stayed at home, watching Neighbours and annoying Franco.
"Dark for dark magic," Bartlemy said. "In summer, magic is all sparkle and fun, and the spirits come to us dressed in their best, scattering smiles and flowers. In the winter you get down to the bone, and the true nature of things is revealed."
Hazel said no more, remembering how she had summoned Lilliat, the Spirit of Flowers, to win her the love of a boy at school, and how Lilliat had turned into Nenufar the water demon and nearly drowned her rival.
Bartlemy gave her tea and cookies, and she sat for a while eating, insensibly reassured. Bartlemy made the best cookies in the world, cookies whose effect was almost magical, though he insisted there was no spell involved, just good baking. Anyone who ate those cookies felt immediately at home, even if they didn't want to, comforted if they needed comfort, relaxed if they needed to relax. Long ago another cook had tried to steal one for analysis, hoping to work out the ingredients, but he had eaten it before he got it home and the urge to commit the crime had vanished.
"I don't want to be like my great-grandmother," Hazel explained at last. "She lived for two hundred years, until she didn't care about anyone but herself and she'd curdled inside like sour milk. I don't think I want to live on when my friends are dead; it would be so lonely. And I don't want to be mean and bitter like her."
"Then learn from her mistakes," Bartlemy said equably. "You won't be mean and bitter unless you choose. I will teach you what you need to know for your safety and others', but how you use the knowledge--if you use it--is up to you. Tonight I think we will make the spellfire. That will do for a start."
He showed her how to seal the chimney and light the fire crystals, which cracked and hissed, shooting out sparks that bored into the carpet. Then he threw on a powder that smothered the flames, and the room grew smoky, and Hazel's eyes watered from the sting of it. Presently Bartlemy told her to speak certain words in Atlantean, the language of spellcraft, and the vapor seemed to draw together, hovering in a cloud above the hearth, and then the heart of the cloud opened up into a picture.
To her astonishment Hazel saw her mother with Franco, climbing the stairs to the bedroom, laughing and hurried. She was embarrassed and looked away. "Remember, the magic responds to you," Bartlemy said. "Magic is always personal. The pictures may have meaning for you, or they may not--sometimes their import won't become clear till long after--but it is something in your thought, in your mind, that engenders them. You are the magnet: they are the spell-fragments that are drawn to you. What do you see now?"
"The past," Hazel said. "At least, I think so."
She saw the Grimthorn Grail surrounded with a greenish nimbus: the snake spirals around the rim seemed to move, and a man with a dark alien face was gazing into it, speaking words she couldn't hear. In the background stood a woman with black hair bound up in a white veil or scarf, the ends of which hung down behind her in fluted creases. Her features, too, were somehow alien--her eyes too large, the proportions of her face elusively wrong--yet she was the most beautiful woman Hazel had ever seen. She held a tall yellow candle, and either they were indoors or the night was windless, because the flame burned absolutely still. Then Hazel saw the same man lifting a sword--the Traitor's Sword, which Nathan had brought back from Wilderslee--and there was a dim figure sprawled in front of him, on a kind of table or altar, and when the Sword fell blood jetted up, and as the woman proffered the Cup to catch it red spattered on the cloth that bound her hair. Both man and woman drank from the Cup, and she lifted a Crown from the thing on the table and put it on his head--a misshapen Crown of twisted metal spikes--and lightning stabbed up from the Crown, splitting the sky in half. For an instant Hazel glimpsed a symbol drawn in lightning, something she recognized, though she couldn't think from where: an arc bisected by a straight line, enclosed within a circle. Then the vision went dark, and she heard a voice crying out in an unknown language, words that seemed full of anguish or regret.
"What does it mean?" she asked Bartlemy, but he shook his head.
"This is Nathan's story," she said, "not mine," but her smoke-reddened eyes were wide, fixed on the changing images, and she no longer looked away.
"Keep in mind," he pointed out, "the pictures are relevant, but there may be no logic to them, and no chronology."
Now they were looking at a river--a slow lazy river, dimpled with sunlight, with the occasional overhanging willow, and little eddies scooping out pools under the bank, which vanished in a mudslide. A tidal river with hazardous currents beneath its dimpled surface, and lurking weeds that could entangle flailing limbs, and rafts of floating rubbish wedged here and there, hiding among the debris a child's shoe, a waterlogged teddy bear, an upturned hand. The River Glyde, which flowed through the village of Eade down the valley to the sea--the river where Effie Carlow, Hazel's great-grandmother, had been found drowned, though Hazel knew she had never left the attic of their house. She heard the voice of the spirit called the Child chanting an old doggerel, though the smoke-scene showed only the stream.
"Cloud on the sunset,
Wave on the tide,
Death from the deep sea
Swims up the Glyde."
And suddenly Hazel found herself wondering whose hand she had seen among the flotsam--whether it was her great-grandmother or some more recent victim, someone yet to be discovered . . .
A boat moved up the river, surely too large a boat for such a narrow waterway. It was all white, with white sails and a white-painted mast and a white prow without name or identification, and it looked faintly insubstantial, almost a ghost-ship. A woman stood in the bow wrapped in a long white cloak pulled tight around her body, with a drooping hood covering both hair and face. The picture shifted until Hazel thought she should be able to glimpse a profile--the tip of a nose, the jut of a chin--but under the hood there was only darkness. The boat drifted on, fading into mist, and then there was just a swan, wings half furled, floating on the water. Hazel had always hated swans, ever since one attacked her as a child; she thought they had mean little eyes.
She said: "That was her, wasn't it?"
Bartlemy said: "Perhaps. But remember: to come, she must be called. Nenufar is a spirit; there are laws she cannot evade. Have you called her?"
"Of course not!"
The vision dimmed, dissolving into smoke, and at a signal from Bartlemy she unblocked the flue. Gradually the air cleared, and she saw that the fire crystals had burned away; the room was ordinary again. An old room with heavy wooden beams, diamond-paned windows, lamplight soft as candle glow on the shabby Persian rugs and worn furniture. And in the middle Bartlemy, fat and placid and silver-haired, with eyes as blue as the sky. There were more cookies but Hazel didn't take one, not yet, though his dog sat looking hopefully at her--a huge shaggy dog of questionable ancestry, known as Hoover, whose age was as indeterminate as his master's. Suddenly it seemed to Hazel that the world was complex and baffling beyond her understanding, and magic and reality were no longer separate but part of the same puzzle, tiny fragments of a jigsaw so vast and intricate that its billion billion pieces could never be fit together, not though she had a hundred lifetimes. Her thought was too small, and infinity was too big, and she felt crushed into littleness by its immensity, its multiplicity, by the endless changing patterns of Chaos. Bartlemy asked her, "What troubles you?" and she tried to explain, groping for the words to express her diminishment, her confusion, her fear.
Bartlemy smiled faintly. "We all feel that way sometimes," he said, "if we have the gift of perception. Embrace your doubts: if there is such a thing as wisdom, they are part of it. I've had my doubts for more than a thousand years. Actually, I've always believed that the answer to everything must really be very simple." And he added, unconsciously echoing Annie on Irish history: "The problem is finding out the question."
Excerpted from The Poisoned Crown by Amanda Hemingway. Copyright © 2007 by Amanda Hemingway. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.