Since you all enjoyed the first chapter of Paper Crowns so much, I thought I’d give you a larger taste of Paper Hearts and give you some fun for the day, since I still can’t type much thanks to my finger. 😉 Merry Christmas!
There was one thing of which I was absolutely, one-hundred-percent certain, and it was that this was a bad idea.
The door in front of me was not a particularly frightening door; just white, normal wood with an average door handle. The house was not particularly frightening, either, although it was more like a cottage than anything else. It had a squashed look to it; the sort that made you tilt your head when you saw it to make sure nothing was wrong with your eyes.
No, the bad idea came from the knowledge that Azrael – if he still lived here – had no idea I was standing outside on his doorstep. I wouldn’t have been there in the first place, except he seemed to have the awful habit of not responding to the letter I sent him; or any of the letters after that.
The first letter had been a very polite and respectful request for an apprenticeship. Dear Mr. Azrael, Wysling – although I really had no idea whether Azrael was his first or last name, or whether ‘Mr.’ was appropriate or not. The second letter began slightly less cordially, with To Azrael. I had the feeling it was not his actual name, as Azrael was, according to some cultures, the archangel of death.
I was fairly certain archangels of death did not reside in squashed, white cottages in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The cab fare to get here had been enormous, and the thought of spending that same amount to get back to civilization made me shudder.
“Standing outside staring at the front door will get you nowhere,” I said aloud, straightening my shoulders and steeling my gaze. “Knock.” I obeyed myself and knocked four solid times on the door.
“Go away,” said a voice from the other side.
At least, I thought it was coming from the other side, until I said, “Mr. Azrael?” and the voice replied, “Do I look like a wysling to you?”
I blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said,” the thick, scratchy voice repeated, “do I look like a wysling to you? What do you want, anyway? He doesn’t like visitors, especially ones with large suitcases who look as if they’re about to move in.”
I decided someone inside was playing a trick on me, so I lifted my fist to knock again. Just before my hand struck the wood, the voice said, “I wish you wouldn’t do that. It isn’t a pleasant feeling, you know.”
I lowered my hand. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t quite understand. Would you mind showing yourself?”
“I can’t really show myself any more than I already am,” said the voice. “You aren’t blind, are you?”
My mind was twisting itself into knots trying to understand what was going on. “No?”
“Was that a question? Don’t you know?” the voice barked.
“No!” I said loudly.
“No, I’m not blind, and yes, I do know! Look, would you stop playing around? I’m here to speak with Mr. Azrael.”
The voice laughed so hard the door rattled on its hinges. “Mister Azrael!” it chuckled. “My dear girl, I’m not playing around. If anyone is playing around, it’s you.”
I’d had enough. I lifted my fist and, ignoring the pleading “Oh, please, don’t do that!” I knocked as sharply as I could over and over again.
“Open up!” I called, pounding away. “This is an absolutely detestable way to treat visitors!”
“Azrael!” the voice boomed. “AZRAEL! Hurry! Help! She’s beating me to death!”
My hand slowed to a stop several inches in front of the door. As I tried to make sense of this, another, muffled voice from inside shouted, “Oh, for pity’s sake; just let her in!”
“I was only doing what you asked,” the voice sulked. The knob turned and the door swung inward. “You nearly dented me with those knuckles,” it added as I stepped inside with caution. My answer faded in my throat as I took in the room. I had been expecting – well, something a little more magical than what I saw. My mind had conjured visions of vials and bubbling green liquids and bones hanging from the ceiling by black threads. The reality was far different.
A fire crackled in a large fireplace to the right, and to the left was a counter with cabinets above and cabinets below, and a sink overflowing with pots, pans, bowls, cups, spoons, forks, and knives, all of which were in desperate need of scrubbing.
The rest of the room was Spartan in contrast – a table in the middle of the room with a few chairs around it, and nearer the fireplace, a plush (if threadbare) chair and a small, lumpy sofa. There were two windows on the far wall, but both were small and let in only the barest bit of light. The far left corner wasn’t really a corner at all; it was a staircase that disappeared after a few steps.
I risked a few more steps inside and saw the walls on either side of the door were lined with shelves, and the shelves were lined with books. A quick glance showed they ranged from The Art of Paper-Folding to The Joy of Cooking, to more mysterious volumes with titles like Intermediary Wysary and The Lives of Eridanus, Vol. 3 1/2.
I walked toward the stairs and called up, “Is anyone up there?”
A loud twanging sound answered me, but it came from the other side of the room. I turned around, puzzled. “Hello?”
It sounded again, and this time my eyes landed on the cello propped up in the corner near the fireplace. Each of its four strings vibrated with a deep hum. I lifted my suitcase to my chest like a sort of shield, and advanced on the instrument. “Are you speaking to me?”
One chord responded.
Well, I was in a wysling’s house.
“I’m sorry,” I said, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the wysling had not come down the stairs or appeared out of thin air. “I’m afraid I don’t understand cello. I’m not very musical.”
The cello twanged again and went silent. I stood and waited for it to make more noise, but it seemed to have had enough of the one-sided conversation and refused to make another sound.
I turned my eyes to the mantle. It seemed to be the wysling’s place for setting anything and everything, like an open miscellany drawer. A cinnamon candle, half-burnt; a large glass globe, a folded paper heart that seemed to actually be beating, a jar of wishbones (all of them broken) and a sagging marionette lined the mantle from one end to the other.
I reached out a finger and touched the marionette’s dangling foot. Its painted eyes and hair were brown, its mouth was a thin red line across the lower part of its face, and it was sadly lacking in the nose department. “Poor thing,” I said, feeling really sorry for it.
The head turned, and the staring eyes looked me full in the face and blinked. “Who are you?” it asked.
My heart leaped a good eight inches and I screamed louder than I had ever screamed before in my life. I jumped backwards, clutching my suitcase like I was drowning and it was a life preserver, but the heel of my boot caught on the rug between the sofa and the chair. I screamed again as I fell back, expecting to land hard on the ground – I can see myself when the wysling shows up, sprawled unconscious on the rug! – but two hands caught me by my armpits.
“Patrick,” said a congenial-sounding voice, “who is this?”
“I don’t know.” The marionette on the mantle climbed to its feet and spread its tiny wooden hands in a helpless gesture. “I woke up and there she was; a great, big, ugly face looming in front of me. I nearly died of fright!”
“That’s a lie!” I drew myself up indignantly. “You were as calm as a cat.”
“Doesn’t mean I wasn’t frightened,” the marionette shot back.
I frowned and decided to ignore it. I turned to face who I assumed would be Azrael, but found myself temporarily silenced. I had expected a long, flowing beard, robes that swept the floor, a wooden stick, and a pointed hat.
Instead, he was tall and thin and looked quite young, with curly ginger hair, hollow cheeks, and black eyes that seemed to stare straight through my forehead and the back of my skull to the mantle.
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling very uncomfortable sandwiched between the young man in the sweatshirt and the marionette behind me. “I thought you were the wysling.”
“I am the wysling,” he said, folding his arms across his chest.
“You can’t be,” I said, quite sure of myself. “He’s much older than you.”
The young man’s eyes widened and he looked over my head at the marionette. “Good heavens,” he said. “Patrick, is this true?”
“I think she’s right, Azrael,” said Patrick, shaking his head, his painted features turned in an expression of consternation. “You can’t be yourself. You aren’t old enough.”
“Oh, well,” said Azrael, shrugging his shoulders. “I suppose I’ll just have to keep on fooling myself.” He fixed his gaze on me and I shrank a little beneath the blackness of his eyes. “Now that you know who I’m not, I’d dearly love to know who you are.”
“Rooney,” I said faintly. “Rooney Harper.”
The marionette behind me gave a cackle of laughter. “What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s mine,” I snapped, irritated at the marionette’s whole attitude. “And I’ll thank you not to laugh at it. You’re only a marionette, after all.”
Patrick stopped laughing and glared at me. After a moment of silence in which Azrael drummed his fingers along his biceps and Patrick made a series of grotesque faces at me, the wysling snapped his fingers and pointed. “The letter! Or I should say the letters. I’ve a veritable ton of them on my desk.”
“I only sent seven,” I reminded him.
“And I responded to none of them,” said Azrael, raising an eyebrow. “I thought you’d get the hint. I don’t need an apprentice.”
“But I’m already here!” I said, clutching desperately at straws. “And – and I could help. I can’t pay you much, but I can…um…I could clean!”
The wysling turned and blinked at the spotless room. “Ah, yes,” he said after a moment of pointed silence. “Dig me out of the squalor I’m living in.”
Bother, I thought, and tried again. “Your kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes, and so is your counter. The entire state of your kitchen is a disgrace to wysary.”
“You want me to take you on as an apprentice in exchange for doing the dishes?” He threw back his head and laughed, as if it was the best joke he’d heard in a year.
He was beginning to get on my nerves, too. “I can cook, too,” I said.
The laughter ceased abruptly and he peered down at me with a shrewd expression on his face. “Can you,” he said.
“I can, and better than you can, I dare say.” I lowered my suitcase and tilted my chin up. “You’d only have to take me on probation. If you don’t like my cooking, you can send me away again.”
“I could send you away now,” he said, but his face was thoughtful.
“Don’t do it,” said Patrick, obviously alarmed.
“You don’t eat, so you don’t get a say,” was the wysling’s response before he turned back to me. “All right,” he said. “You can cook and scrub and dry plates to your heart’s content.”
“And you’ll teach me wysary?” I did not want him to take me on as a servant and forget his end of the bargain.
He rocked back on his heels but only said, “If I don’t choke on your cooking and die a tragic death.”
Patrick wailed – something about a girl ‘ruining our peaceful way of life’ and ‘wreaking havoc’ – but I held my hand out anyway. The wysling stared at it for a moment as if he had never seen one before, but eventually he gave it a brief shake.
“You realize,” he said, “being a human and everything, you’ll probably stink at any sort of wysary.”
“I am prepared to stink,” I responded, lifting my head in defiance. “But hard work and determination have to make up for something, don’t they?”
“Do they?” he asked, looking doubtful.
“I’m sure they do,” I said, with a firm nod of my head.
“Well.” He cracked his knuckles, all ten of them in succession, like a burst of fireworks. “Take Patrick upstairs and he’ll show you to the guest room. Also, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t hit the door quite so hard. It gives it a headache.”
I spun around to stare at the back of the door, painted white like the front. “It was the door talking?”
“What did you think it was?” asked Patrick, looking disgusted. To Azrael, he said, “She’s hopeless. She didn’t even know a wysered door when she saw one.”
The wysling tilted his head and swung it in the marionette’s direction. “Just show her the room.”
“Aren’t you even going to ask me?” Patrick folded his arms.
Azrael smiled brightly. “Patrick, would you pretty please mind showing Rooney her bedroom? I’d be ever so happy if you would!”
“It’s always work with you,” the marionette said, scowling while Azrael rolled his eyes and returned his features to normal. To me, the marionette added, “Pick me up; I haven’t got all day.”
“Yes, you have,” said Azrael. He glanced down at the polished leather suitcase in my hand and asked, “What’s all that?”
“Personal things,” I said, giving it a small heft. “Clothes, my toothbrush, and my – er, other things.” I cut my list off rather short, not wanting to mention my underwear or my journal, both tucked neatly underneath several tee shirts and pairs of jeans. I was wearing a dress at the moment because I had wanted to look my best. Now, I was not sure it had been worth it.
“Come on, Patrick,” I said, seizing him carefully around his carved wooden middle and lifting him off the mantle.
“You’re squeezing too hard!” he cried, smacking at my hands with a clattering sound. “Oh, I can’t breathe! Murder! Help! Help!”
I brought him up to my face and gave him my fiercest glare. “Are you always like this?” I wanted to know. “Because I have four little brothers and two little sisters, and I know how to deal with tantrum-throwers like you.”
It was impossible for a marionette to go pale, but he very nearly did. “Have you really?”
“Yes,” I lied. I only had two little brothers, but I was not about to tell him so.
He folded his arms, significantly quieter. “Go up the stairs and to the left,” he muttered.
“Thank you.” The staircase was short – only twelve steps, which accounted for the low ceiling and small size of the house – but the second floor was nice and reminded me of a country bed and breakfast. The floors throughout the house were all a warm, reddish wood, as were the walls and doors and rafters. Upstairs was a hallway with two doors on the left and one door on the right, and a last door at the very end of the hall.
“The guest room is the one farthest down on the left,” sighed Patrick. “It’s unlocked.”
I pushed the door open and set my suitcase on the floor. It was a small room, but I was used to small rooms. There was a bed with a quilt and one fluffy pillow and a window that looked out across the green, waving grass and the forest beyond. A shelf and a nightstand were the only other decorations, aside from a picture on the wall across from the bed.
Inside the golden frame was a painting of a young woman with red hair and a crown on her head that looked suspiciously like it was made of paper. There was a smile on her face, and curled in her lap was a strangely blue cat.
Before I could make heads or tails of the picture, Patrick said, “All right, I’ve shown you your room. You can put me down now.”
I looked down at him, but before I set him on the floor I remembered to ask, “Where’s the bathroom?”
“Across from Azrael’s room,” I said.
“You mean there’s only one?” I asked, horrified at the thought of sharing a bathroom with a wysling who was already proving himself irritating.
“Yes,” said Patrick, rolling his painted eyes. “But you seem like a stubborn, mulish kind of person, so I’m sure you’ll stick it out.”
I wanted to drop-kick him across the room. Instead, I set him down on his feet and watched with mingled fascination and disturbance as he clattered his way out of the room and around the corner.
With a sigh, and the feeling I’d thrown myself head over heels into a situation much deeper and more difficult than I’d thought, I collapsed onto the bed and stared at the beams stretching over my head.