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A temptation of angels, p.1
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       A Temptation of Angels, p.1

           Michelle Zink
A Temptation of Angels






  An imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


  An imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

  Published by The Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700,

  Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Zink

  All rights reserved

  ISBN: 978-1-101-57487-4

  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility

  for author or third-party websites or their content.

  Book design by Jasmin Rubero

  Text set in Perpetua Std

  Printed in the U.S.A.

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  CIP is available.



  For Steven Malk,

  who never stops believing.

  Table of Contents









































  Though it was late, it was not the sound of arguing that woke Helen in the dead of night.

  She lay in bed for a long time after retiring, listening to the rise and fall of voices coming from the library. It was a familiar sound, comforting rather than worrisome. Her mother and father often met with the others, though the meetings had become more frequent and heated of late. Yet, there was something about this night, the cadence of these voices—however familiar—that made Helen’s nerves tingle, as if they were humming too close to the surface of her skin.

  At first, she tried to decipher the words drifting through the vents set into the floor of her chambers, especially when they sounded in her father’s familiar baritone or the strong, clear voice of her mother. But after a while, Helen gave up, opting instead to let her mind wander as she stared at the canopy above her head.

  Her thoughts settled on the morning’s fencing exercises and her argument with Father. It was not the first time she had rebelled against the recent addition to her curriculum. She still failed to see how fencing could contribute anything to her schooling, but Father’s word was law when it came to her education. He knew well that Helen’s prowess lay in the strategy of chess, in the logic problems and cryptographs she could solve faster than he, not in the agile movement required of her on the ballroom floor where they practiced fencing. Still, he pushed. Using the foil out of deference to her inexperience was his only concession. Were Father working with one of his usual sparring partners, he would, without question, have used his saber. Now, in the muffled quiet of her bedchamber, Helen vowed that in time Father would use a saber with her as well.

  She didn’t remember slipping into the emptiness of sleep, and she did not awaken gently. It was the sound of hurried footsteps down the hall that caused her to sit up in bed, her heart racing. She did not have time to contemplate the possibilities before the door was thrown open, candlelight from the sconces in the hall throwing strange shadows across the walls and floor of her sleeping chamber.

  Scooting to the headboard, she pulled the coverlet to her chin, too frightened to be ashamed for her childish behavior.

  “You must get out of bed, Helen. Now.”

  The voice was her mother’s. She moved into the darkness of the room, the strange shadows disappearing as she crossed to the dressing table. She fumbled with something—the glass jars and scent decanters atop the vanity clinking noisily together.

  “But… it’s the middle of the night!”

  Her mother turned then, and a shaft of light from the hall illuminated the valise in her hand. The realization that her mother was packing, packing Helen’s things, blew like a hurricane through the confusion of her mind. Her mother was across the room in seconds, leaning over the bed and speaking close to her face.

  “You’re in grave danger, Helen.” Her mother pulled the coverlet from Helen’s shivering body. Her nightdress was twisted around her thighs, and the cold air bit her skin as her mother’s hand encircled her arm, already pulling her from the warmth of her bed. “Now, come.”

  The carpets were cool under Helen’s bare feet as she was led to the wall next to the wardrobe. Her mother reached into the bodice of her gown, pulling from it a chain with something dangling at its end. It caught the light spilling in from the hall, glimmering faintly in the darkness as her mother removed it from her neck. Fear coiled like a snake in Helen’s stomach as her mother pushed aside the large mirror in the corner, bending to the paneled wall behind it. She continued speaking as she worked something against the plaster.

  “I know you won’t understand. Not yet. But someday you will, and until then you must trust me.”

  Helen was oddly speechless. It was not that she had nothing to say. Nothing to ask. She simply had so many questions that they washed over her like waves, one right after the other. She had no time to formulate one before the next carried it away. She could not make out what her mother was doing, bent forward in the darkness, head tipped to the wall, but she listened as something scratched against the wallpaper. A moment later, her mother straightened, and a door swung outward, revealing a hole in the plaster.

  Even in the dark, Helen saw tenderness in her mother’s eyes as she reached out, pulling Helen roughly against her body. In her mother’s hair, Helen smelled roses from the garden, and on the fine surface of her mother’s skin, the books to which her head was always bent. They were a memory all their own.

  “Helen… Helen,” her mother murmured. “You must remember one thing.” She pulled back, looking into Helen’s eyes. “You know more than you think. Whatever else you discover, remember that.”

  Voices erupted from downstairs, and though the words themselves were indistinct, it was obvious they were spoken in anger or fear. He
r mother dared a glance at the door before turning back to Helen with renewed fervor.

  “Take this.” She thrust a piece of crumpled paper into Helen’s hand. “Take it and sit very quietly, until you know they’re gone. There is a stair that will lead you beneath the house and back up again farther down the road. Join with Darius and Griffin. The address is here. They will take you to Galizur. You have everything you need, but you must be silent as you make your escape. If they hear you, they will find you.” She paused, forcing Helen’s chin up so that she was looking straight into her eyes. “And this is important, Helen: If they find you, they will kill you.”

  “I won’t leave you!” Helen cried.

  “Listen to me.” Her mother’s voice became firmer, almost angry as she grabbed hold of Helen’s shoulders. “You will do this, Helen. You will get out of here alive, whatever else happens. Otherwise, it’s all for nothing. Do you understand?”

  Helen shook her head. “No! Mother, please tell me what’s happening!” But she already knew her mother would not. Already knew, somehow, that they were out of time.

  Her mother lifted the chain from around her neck, placing it around Helen’s. A key at the end of it fell to the front of her nightdress.

  Holding her daughter’s face between her hands, Helen’s mother leaned in to kiss her forehead. “Lock the door from the inside. Use the pendant to light your way—but don’t make a move until you are certain they won’t hear you. And be safe, my love.”

  Helen was shoved into the hole in the wall, the valise pressed against her until she had no choice but to wrap her arms around it. She ducked, stumbling through the small doorway, trying not to smack her head. Her mother paused one last time, as if reconsidering, and then, without another word, she began to push the door closed. She became a smaller and smaller sliver, disappearing bit by bit until she was gone entirely in the small click of the door.

  “Lock it, Helen. Now.” Her mother’s voice was a hiss from the other side of the wall. Helen fought a surge of panic as she heard the wallpaper smoothed over the keyhole, the mirror dragged over the opening to her hiding place.

  It was worse than dark inside the wall. It was as if she had fallen into nothingness. She set the bag down, feeling for its clasp in the darkness. She had no idea what was on the piece of paper her mother had given her, but it was damp with the sweat of her palm. She couldn’t read it now if she wanted to, and she pushed it inside the bag.

  She reached for the chain around her neck until she found the key at its end. Grasping it in one hand, she fumbled around the edge of the wall in front of her with the other, trying to locate the lock she knew must be there. Her hands shook with rising panic. The door cut into the wall was almost seamless, making it nearly impossible to find in the darkness. She was on her third pass when she finally felt a slim line in the plaster. Running her fingers slowly over it, she felt for the keyhole. It seemed like far too long before she finally came upon it.

  She was trying to fit the key in the lock when noise burst from somewhere beyond the chamber. She could not fathom its direction, for she was wrapped in the muffled cocoon of wood and plaster that was her hiding place. Still, she strained to decipher the sound. She thought she heard shouting… weeping. And then a crash that caused her to startle. The key dropped from her hand, falling with a clink to the floor. She hesitated only a moment.

  Whatever was happening was going to get worse before the night was over.

  Feeling along the floor for the key, Helen tried to ignore the noise from the rest of the house. Her hiding place was not large, and it only took a few moments for her fingers to close around the chain attached to the key. She grasped it carefully in one hand and felt again for the keyhole. This time, it didn’t take long.

  Using both hands, she lined the key up with the hole in a couple of tries, turning it quickly and scooting away from the hidden door until her back stopped against a solid block of wood. She had only a few moments, a few precious moments of silence, before she heard the thud of boot steps.

  At first the footfalls were distant. Helen thought they would pass her chamber completely, but it wasn’t long before they grew louder and louder and she knew they were inside her room. She had a flash of hope. Hope that it was Father coming to get her. To tell her that whatever danger had been in the house had gone. But she knew it wasn’t him when the boot steps slowed. There was no rush to the door of her tiny room to free her from its darkness.

  Instead, the footsteps made a slow pass of her chamber before stopping suddenly in front of the hiding place. Helen tried to slow her shallow breathing as she waited for the footsteps to move away, but they didn’t. Whoever had entered her chamber was still there. She held as still as possible, attempting to calm her mind with the knowledge that she had spent many hours in the room, and there had never been any hint of the secret door, even during times of bright sunlight. Surely this stranger would not be able to see the opening in the dark of night and with her great dressing mirror pushed in front of it.

  For a few seconds, it worked. She began to breathe a little easier in the silence.

  But that was before the room outside exploded into riotous noise. Before she heard the dressing table cleared of its bottles and jars, the glass thudding against the carpets and shattering against the wood floorboards. Before she heard the bureau overturned, the armoire pushed over. And yes, before she heard the heavy carved mirror guarding her hiding place tipped to the floor, the glass shattering into a million pieces.


  In her mind’s eye, Helen could see her pursuer surveying the newly destroyed room, scanning the floors and walls for the hiding place that was hers. She heard the breathing, raspy but unlabored, even through the wall.

  Somehow, she knew it was a man, though she could not have said why. Perhaps it was the heavy boot steps, which had now fallen silent. Or the aggressive energy probing the space between her chamber and the inside of the wall, where she hid, crouched and still.

  Whatever it was, she felt the man searching on the other side.

  She cursed her stupidity for not having located the staircase before he arrived, if only to give her some hope of escape. Now she had no choice but to be quiet. To wait as Mother had instructed her to do.

  She remembered the game she played with Father when she was small. It was called Find the Way Out, and on any given outing, be it to the park, a museum, or a restaurant for tea, Helen’s father would command her to locate both the nearest and least obvious of exits. She had enjoyed the challenge in the safety of Father’s company.

  There was no such safety here.

  Something scraped the outside of the wall, and Helen’s head jerked up in response to the sound. It seemed impossible that the man on the other side of the door could not hear her breathing. That he could not feel her cowering as she felt him seeking.

  The sound became fainter, and she imagined him circling her chamber, running his hands over the walls. He was completing his circle, the sound coming back around, when the footfalls of another interrupted his progress.

  “Where is she?” The voice was garbled, but Helen could still make out the words. She tried to place their direction, deciding that whoever spoke them was likely standing in the doorway of her bedroom.

  She held her breath in the pause that followed, waiting for her pursuer to answer. The seconds stretched, and she could not help wondering if perhaps the man knew exactly where she was hidden. If he was simply toying with her for his own amusement.

  His voice, when it came, was younger and clearer than Helen expected, even muffled as it was from outside her hiding place. “She’s not here. They must have moved her before we arrived. What of the others?”

  She held her breath, waiting to hear the fate of her parents and their colleagues.

  “Taken care of.” The breath caught in Helen’s throat as she frantically tried to decipher the meaning of so simple a phrase. She did not have long to ponder the matter before the other man asked a
question of his own. “What should I do now?”

  Helen’s whole life was suspended in the pause that followed. It crashed to the floor with the answer.

  “Burn it.”

  The words were almost impossible to comprehend. Surely they did not mean to burn the house in its entirety. Surely she would not be trapped in the wall as the house fell in flames around her.

  It was a comforting brand of denial, and she clutched the valise more tightly to her chest as the boot steps on the other side of the wall turned and made their way from the room. The house grew silent, and her brain settled into an oblivious lethargy. She remained very still even after the first tendrils of smoke drifted up through the floorboards and her forehead began to bead with sweat, the temperature slowly rising within the walls.

  It was not until something crashed beneath her, followed by the unmistakable crackle of flames from her chamber, that she was shaken from her stupor. Her mother’s words drifted on the smoke that seeped with ever-increasing thickness through the floor and walls.

  There is a stair that will lead you beneath the house and back up again farther down the road.…

  She had told Helen to wait until the house was silent, but Helen knew it would never be silent again. Not until it was ashes. She was already fighting the urge to cough and gasp, the smoke filling the small room as her nightdress stuck to her skin in the heat of the fire.

  Letting go of the valise with one hand, she reached around her neck for the pendant that had been hers since her tenth birthday. She had a flash of her parents, their smiles tinged with something like awe as she had removed the pendant from its elaborately wrapped gift box. Her mother had knelt beside her, leaning in for a bone-crushing embrace.

  It’s an important heirloom, Helen. Never remove it. Never.

  Her eyes shone in the candlelight from the elaborately set dinner table, and Helen had nodded with a lump in her throat, though she did not know if it was from worry or affection. She had placed the strange object—a rod with a translucent prism glittering at one end and a filigree metal crown at the other—around her neck.

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