Hildegarde revelled in the victory for roughly two days before slipping back into restlessness. Now they had the conditions, it was Daisy’s job to find out how to undo them, and there was nothing Hildegarde could do to help. Even being in the room was enough to put Daisy off.
There were only three conditions, which seemed very few to Hildegarde. It was only as January crept on, days shrinking one after the other, that she realised how long-winded the process of Reading could be. The first condition of the enchantment had been to leave three sprigs of lavender under a rock, forget about them, then retrieve them once their presence was recalled. Daisy’s question was simple – how to undo the impact of that process – but she struggled to frame it accurately. Even when she finally managed it, she often received answers that were indecipherable, or unworkable.
“It said we had to take a bird corpse to Norway,” Daisy muttered, four days after the phone stunt. “I’ll tweak the question. There’ll be another way.”
Meanwhile, Hildegarde’s days were lost to signing lessons and meals and outings with Paris, just as they always had been. She was trapped in a wheel. She began to worry, again, about what would happen even if they did break the seal on the tower. Could they kill Kesec? How? With what?
She scoured the library at the estate, searching history books for any mention of assassinated degas and how they were killed, but found nothing specific. Hildegarde doubted that Vie kept any books on the matter - not with Daisy loose in the house. She might have done better in the public and university libraries, but she and Paris didn’t visit them often enough, and they were so vast that she never even knew where to start.
As January drew to a close, her desperation grew.
Then she got lucky.
When she went to her signing lesson on the first of February, the mousey woman came to the door and told Hildegarde that Mr Atkinson had had to leave.
“His wife’s quite ill at the moment, miss,” she said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to reschedule your lesson. I meant to call ahead, but it’s been very short notice—”
To Hildegarde, it was like missing out on eating mud. She told the mousey woman that he should take as much time off as he needed – thirty or forty years; whatever he needed – and then bounded down the steps with such a spring in her step that it was probably distasteful. If she ran, she might catch the chauffeur – he often stopped to buy tobacco after he dropped her off, so if she got to the car before he left—
She stopped. Or…
Or she could stay here. The possibilities rolled out to her: two and a half hours in the centre of York, unstructured and unsupervised. She couldn’t get into the university library without Paris, but the public library was twenty minutes away. She’d have the whole morning to search.
She wouldn’t be able to keep the missed lesson a secret, but she could easily say that the chauffeur left before she got back to him. They might ask why she didn’t telephone the estate, ask them to come and collect her, but – well. The home number was always slipping her mind.
She peered around the corner onto the main road, checking that the chauffeur’s car was nowhere in sight. Then she stepped onto the pavement and set off at a jog. Twenty minutes.
Or at least, it was supposed to take twenty minutes. Hildegarde must’ve taken few wrong turnings somewhere – she’d visited the public library far less than the university – and she wound up in a tangle of unfamiliar streets, where the roads were quieter and the buildings newer.
Her boots were still rubbing, blistering the soles of her feet. She stopped to roll the top of her socks down over her heels, leaning against a gate as she did it. It was a school gate; the sign on the front said St. John’s Secondary. Unfamiliar name. She needed to retrace her steps.
But she paused after she’d pulled her boots back on, looking through the bars of the gate. A small courtyard lay behind it, much smaller than the grounds at her old school, but crammed with more students than she’d ever seen in one place. There were girls plaiting each other’s hair, jostling, laughing; two kids scrapping by the bins; boys older than Dante kicking a battered football between two rolled-up blazers, braying like animals when the goalie let it through.
She tried to remember what she used to do at breaktimes, but her memories came up fuzzy. Half-remembered dreams.
Her eyes swept the courtyard again. The boy guarding the goal was stocky, with dark hair and skin. He looked like—
Shock rippled through her. Before she realised what she was doing, she had her face to the rungs of the gate.
“Hey!” she shouted. “Hey, Albie!”
He looked round, along with most of the other boys. Even from this distance, she saw his eyes widen. Hildegarde waved him over, not sure why she was doing it – because she was out of options, and lost, and he was familiar.
“Hildegarde?” he panted, when he reached the gate. “What are you- how are you here?”
“How are you here?” Hildegarde said. “I didn’t realise you were at school. I thought you worked in that shop.”
“Only weekends,” he said. “I mean- I used to help in the week, but my dad found out, so…” He suddenly looked horrified. “I’ve not been avoiding you, if that’s what you’ve been thinking. I looked out for you at weekends, but—”
“I don’t have lessons then,” she said. Hildegarde glanced over Albie’s shoulder. “All your mates are staring at me.”
He thumbed his eyebrow. “They’re not really mates, just…” he cleared his throat. “They’ll be wondering who you are.”
“Hm.” Hildegarde tilted her head left, looked directly at the group, and cupped her hands around her mouth. “I’m his drug dealer! Do you guys want smack as well?”
“Hildegarde!” Albie hissed.
The boys looked nonplussed. They backed off a little, muttering together, and Hildegarde laughed. Albie looked at her as if she was mad. His eyes kept skirting the road behind her, like he expected a degas to jump out from between the parked cars.
“Relax,” she said. “There’s nobody with me.”
He looked back at her. “Why not? Are you- you’re not in trouble?”
She shook her head. “Just trying to find the library. You know where it is?”
His brow creased. “Not near here. It’s sort of…near the town centre? Down King Street. Do you know it?”
“Nope, but I’ll find it.” She nodded towards the boys, who were frowning at her. “Better get back to your not-really-mates, then.”
He glanced over his shoulder. Hildegarde thought she saw him cringe.
“I’ll show you where it is,” he said. “As long as- only if you don’t mind, I mean. It’s just, it’s double physics this afternoon, so…”
Hildegarde watched, surprised, as he clambered over the gate and jumped down next to her. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she’d thought him Dante-ish. His voice had the same fidgety quality, his eyes the same startled gleam. But Dante would never flounce out of school in full view of his classmates. Not for a stranger.
She eyed him steadily. “Lead the way.”