Unfortunately, Gideon had shared the secret location with his former friend, Lord Vesper. At the time, it had seemed like a worthwhile risk….
He looked back at Damien’s beachfront manor house — not nearly as fine as the Vesper family castle on the mainland but still a stately home of golden limestone and oaken beams. It had once been a simpler dwelling, the original Cahill home on the island, but Vesper had wasted no time remodeling. He’d added a boathouse, servants’ quarters, a storehouse, and a smithy. Small boats waited at the dock for the baron’s pleasure. Mysterious shipments arrived as the tides allowed, making Gideon uneasy.
He turned toward the back of the island — toward home. Nestled at the base of the island’s cliffs stood the present Cahill manor, a simple but solid two-story oaken structure built by Gideon’s grandfather. It had housed three generations of Cahills. At present it sheltered everything Gideon held dear — his wife, Olivia, his children, his alchemy lab, his research.
A simple footpath, less than a mile long, separated the Cahills from their neighbor Lord Vesper, but the path was overgrown with weeds. Every time Gideon walked the distance, it seemed farther. Each time, he found it harder to pretend friendship with the man he had once admired.
Gideon tugged at his gold ring — a memento from his only trip abroad, many years ago, to visit his dying father in Milan. Damien believed the ring was a family heirloom. In a way, it was. Gideon’s father had given it to him on his deathbed. But Gideon doubted even his father, a true genius, had understood just how terrible the ring’s secret was.
Twenty-four hours … Gideon’s legs began to shake. He must try to finish the new variation of the serum. And he had larger priorities as well: protecting his family, protecting the secret formula. But convincing Olivia and the children would be almost as hard as outwitting Damien Vesper. He took a deep breath and headed for home.
The dining table was in the garden. For weeks, Olivia had been grumbling about the need to clean it. Apparently, she’d taken advantage of the sunny morning to do the job. She’d drafted the children to help. Gideon stopped at the edge of the apple orchard and watched, cherishing the sight of his family and dreading what he had to tell them.
Luke and Thomas must’ve just carried the massive table outside. Their clothes were soaked with sweat.
Luke — never one for manual labor — winced as he picked a splinter from his palm. He was the tallest and oldest of their children — twenty-three now, a man full grown, as he never tired of reminding them. Most young men his age would’ve been married with families of their own by now, but Luke was not one for domestic bliss. He griped constantly about the sacrifices he’d made, coming home from his studies at Oxford to help his parents, but truth be told, he hadn’t done well at university. People outside the family tended to find him … unsettling.
He had Olivia’s raven hair and Gideon’s furrowed brow and preoccupied scowl. His frame was long and wiry, rather snakelike, and in fact when he annoyed his siblings (which was often) they called him “the last snake in Ireland.” Gideon chided the younger siblings when they said such things, but as much as he loved his elder son, he couldn’t help agreeing there was a disquieting quality to him. He tended to creep into places where he should not be, silent and cold-eyed, always watching, ready to strike if attacked.
His younger son, Thomas, was built more like a barrel maker or a barrel itself — stout, squat, and solid. Gideon had little doubt Thomas could’ve carried the dining table by himself, though it weighed several hundred pounds and was a good eight feet long. Thomas was only thirteen, but he’d beaten grown men at arm wrestling and once in a fit of rage had broken down a door with his head. His siblings joked that this had addled his wits, but Gideon did not agree. Thomas spoke rarely, and he might not be the quickest thinker, but he did think. Given time, he could work out almost any problem. At the moment, he was staring with distaste at a wad of oily rags his mother had given him.
“Go on, then,” Olivia commanded. “Luke, you, too. The table won’t polish itself. And girls, for goodness’ sake! Jane, come over here. Katherine, what are you doing?”
The girls were distracted as usual. Jane, the youngest at ten years old, was chasing a butterfly through the chrysanthemums. Quite late in the autumn for butterflies, Gideon thought, but leave it to Jane to find one.
She was a wisp of a girl with long straw-colored hair and eyes that seemed to drink in everything they saw. Her hands and dress were stained with paints. Gideon had to smile at that, as she shared his habit of writing notes and sketches everywhere, even on her arms and clothes.
Katherine, fifteen, was a different story. She’d plopped herself down cross-legged in the cabbage patch and was fiddling with the centerpiece from the dining table — a bronze astrological globe Gideon’s father had sent them from Italy years ago. As always, Katherine wore a frock and breeches like a boy. Her dark hair was cut short. She was busily disassembling the globe, her fingers working at the joints and hinges. Perhaps Gideon should’ve been angry, seeing a family heirloom destroyed, but in truth he was surprised it had lasted this long. Katherine took apart everything, and Gideon understood. He’d been the same way at her age.
He stepped out from the shadows of the apple orchard, and Olivia noticed him first. As always, he caught his breath when their eyes met.
No matter that they’d been married twenty-five years. She was as beautiful and formidable as ever — her long curly hair still black as midnight, her green eyes still piercing. Gideon often reflected that the children had gotten their best qualities from Olivia. She saw value and beauty in even the smallest things, like Jane. She could fix nearly anything, like Katherine. If her family was threatened, she could be as dangerous as a coiled viper, like Luke. And like Thomas, she was strong willed and stubborn enough to break down any door — although she didn’t need to use her head. One of her stern looks was usually quite sufficient.
She blew a strand of hair from her face and set her hands on her hips. “Well, Gideon Cahill. If you’re done chatting with His Lordship, perhaps you’ll help me with this unruly mob.”
“Papa!” Jane beamed, holding up her cupped hands, in which she’d caught her butterfly. “Look what I found! May I paint its wings?”
“No, child.” Gideon tried to repress a smile. “It would hurt the poor creature.”
Jane pouted. “But I can make him much more colorful.”
Katherine snorted, glancing up from her disassembled heirloom. “Don’t be silly, Jane. You and your ‘art’ will destroy the world.”
“Will not! And I’m not silly, am I, Luke?”
Gideon found it strange how much Jane adored her oldest brother, but then again, she could see the smallest good in even the most unlikely places. Despite his look of utter distaste for being here, in the bright sunlight, doing physical labor with his family — Luke managed a dismissive shake of the head. “No, Jane, dear. Your art, at least, never left something valuable in pieces.”
Katherine’s ears turned red. “I’ll put it back together!”
“Like you did the miller’s wheel last year?” Luke asked. “We had no flour for a month.”
Thomas stepped toward him, pushing up his sleeves. He might’ve been ten years younger than Luke, but that had never stopped Thomas from a fight. “Leave her alone, Luke.”
“Stop it!” Olivia ordered. “I won’t have this at the dinner table!”
It was an absurd comment, as the dinner table was in the garden, but the children became quiet. They were used to their mother’s cardinal rule: no fighting at the table. This was their neutral ground, their only place of peace.
“Now,” Olivia continued, “we need to get this table cleaned. And no more fighting.” She looked at Gideon for support.
“Your mother is right,” he said. “But first … gather ’round, children. I have something important to tell you.”
His tone must’ve been graver than he realized, because none of them argued. Jane let the butterfly go. Katherine set down the globe. The boys stepped away from each other warily. All of them approached the table, instinctively arranging themselves at their usual spots for dinner.
“Husband?” Olivia knit her brow. “What is it?”
“Children,” Gideon said. “There may be some trouble ahead. You know of my alchemy work, my search to cure the Black Death.”
“Does one of us have the plague?” Thomas asked with alarm.
Jane tilted her head quizzically. “No, I’d have noticed that. The complexion changes, the color of the eyes. Have you found the cure, Father?”
“No, it’s something different,” Luke guessed. “He’s found something even more important.”
Gideon stared at his elder son. “How do you know this?”
Luke shifted his feet. “Just speculation. I simply—”
“He was sneaking around last night,” Katherine grumbled. “I saw him coming out of your laboratory, Father. He’s always sneaking around.”
“Liar!” Luke snarled.
Thomas grabbed for his brother, but Gideon shouted, “Stop! All of you!”
He tried to control the tremor in his voice. “Luke, you cannot enter my laboratory. It’s wrong and it’s dangerous. But that’s not the most important issue at present. You’ve guessed correctly. I’ve found something — something I need your help with. All of you.”
He reached under the edge of the dinner table and found the secret lever. The latch released, and four small drawers sprang open — one at each setting where his children normally sat.
“Father!” Katherine said with glee. She ignored the contents of the drawer, even though it glowed with a faint green light. Instead, she examined the drawer itself. “A pressure lock? A concealed trigger? This is brilliant!”
Jane gingerly picked up her own package — a parcel the size of a folded dress, wrapped in velvet, tied in twine. Tucked under the twine was a glass vial with a cork and a leather strap. Jane picked up the vial. Even in the bright sunlight, the liquid inside glowed, staining her fingers emerald green.
“It’s beautiful,” she murmured.
“Be careful, my dear,” Gideon said. “That is your future.”
“Husband!” Olivia warned. “This is too dangerous. You promised —”
“I promised only as a last resort, Olivia. Believe me, if there was any other way —”
“Father, what is this?” Luke demanded. He held up his own parcel, similar to Jane’s.
Thomas held up his gift as well, a bulkier bag of objects tied with a leather cord. His glass vial looked tiny and fragile in his massive hands.
“It’s glowing,” he announced.
Gideon ran his trembling hands along the scarred surface of their dinner table. He had a terrible suspicion this would be the last time they were here together. He saw the gouge Thomas’s knife had made last Easter. He saw the red stain burned into the table from the time Luke had mixed herbs, wine, and rare chemicals stolen from the lab to make his own “plague cure” when he was ten. In another corner, Katherine had carved something that looked like a dragon. Gideon still remembered the conversation: My dear, there are no such things as dragons. She had looked up defiantly. There should be. Perhaps I will build one some day. Even young Jane had been quick to leave her mark. Her place at the table had been previously scarred from generations of Cahills, but she’d filled in those scars with various paints — as if color could heal — and created a web of beautiful lines.