He understood what Julian had meant now. Rather than charge forward, Nicholas’s feet came to a sudden, halting rebellion. Rain ran down his face in rivulets, soaking him as he studied the twin spires of a Gothic church. Around him, the sweet faces of the buildings stretched up into the low-slung clouds, the precise curves and angles of the gables and finials glowing in the odd light. At first look, it had all seemed rather simplistic in design, but he was almost delighted to find that the city defied him, that it refused to be absorbed in a single glance. The roads and paths away from the market curved into shadows, inviting mysteries. There was an unreal quality to the place, one that made it seem as though it had been someone’s dream, imagined into stone and timber.
Sophia smacked the back of his head, knocking him out of his reverie.
“‘We must make haste! We cannot delay!’” she said, in a mocking version of his voice. “So let’s stand around and gawk where anyone can see us!”
Despite having sworn to himself that he wouldn’t keep rising to her taunts, Nicholas felt himself bristle. “I was—”
“Good evening, sweet lady and kind sir.”
Nicholas spun around, searching through the sheets of rain for the source of the small voice. A young blond boy dressed in a gold-and-ivory doublet and jerkin, his hose dampened by mud and rain, stood a few feet away, glowering at them. The feather on his jaunty little cap was wilted, and flopped as he tilted his head. “My mistress has invited you to take tea with her.”
A hot cup of tea sounded like heaven itself, actually. But Sophia answered before Nicholas could accept. “We take wine, not tea.”
He could have argued against that, very strongly, but the boy pouted in response and executed a smart little bow. Sophia smirked at Nicholas, just as he’d begun to suspect he’d missed something—some sort of code.
“If you and your…guest…would please follow me?”
Their golden child led them around the tower the passage had emptied into, and Nicholas was arrested by the sight of a large clock on its side layered with symbols, arms, charts. At first glance, the intricate layers of its face reminded him of nothing so much as the astrolabe.
Sophia retraced her steps back to him, her eye squinting at it. “Will you please take that ridiculous look off your face? It’s an astronomical clock.”
Which told him nothing other than that this, perhaps, was like a great geared astrolabe that also served the useful function of telling time, rather than corrupting it.
The boy continued on through the streets of Prague with the ease of a native, ignoring the architecture, the art embedded in the city’s skin. Behind him, Nicholas was so absorbed in the wonders of the city that it took him longer than it might have otherwise to notice the peculiar thing unfolding around him.
He slowed his pace, wondering if it was his eyes, or…Nicholas was exhausted, practically dragging himself forward. But, still, he’d felt the sting of invisibility and dismissal far too many times to let this stand.
The next small cluster of men and women approached quickly, giving him another opportunity to investigate. But—again. He sucked in a breath, watching as the soldiers, the young woman, an elderly man, all stopped despite the rain, and turned their backs as he, Sophia, and the boy passed them.
“What are you huffing and puffing about?” Sophia asked. “You sound like a teakettle about to go off.”
“We’re being shunned,” he said in a low voice, so the child wouldn’t hear. “Or at least, our guide is.”
Sophia’s bewildered expression turned to one of muted surprise when he pointed it out to her, splashing through the puddles of the next narrow street. What confused him, truthfully, was that, despite their firm action, these people bore no signs of disgust, or even scorn. No obvious markers, such as sneers, or hateful, distrusting eyes. In fact, their expressions were as serene as marble statues, and once their party had passed, the men and women would turn back around and continue on their way. It made his skin prickle and tighten around his bones.
The boy glanced over his shoulder and must have caught his expression, for he said, “Don’t be troubled, sir. They cannot help it.”
Which meant…what, precisely? They were somehow being compelled? And in such perfect uniformity?
“Oh, I’d forgotten about this,” Sophia said, waving away his attempts to engage her on this. “Some trickery to ensure there are no real witnesses. Grandfather—Ironwood—believes the Belladonna loaded everyone in this city with so much gold they don’t dare breathe her name, let alone acknowledge her or her guests.”
While money could buy a great deal, no matter the century, this seemed a step beyond mere coordinated cooperation. Nicholas crossed the short distance between himself and the nearest woman. She looked to be a servant, perhaps, as she was older and wore unadorned clothing. On closer inspection, the basket over her arm carried a small heap of vegetables, covered with a piece of burlap. She went impossibly still as Nicholas stepped closer to study her impassive face, and risked a faint tap between her shoulder blades.
The woman did not move, except to breathe. Not so much as a blink.
“You said she was not a witch,” Nicholas whispered as he caught up to Sophia and the boy again. “You swore it!”
“She isn’t,” Sophia insisted, glancing back over her shoulder just as the woman shook herself, as if coming out of a deep sleep, and turned to continue on her way. Nicholas did not miss the rare flicker of uncertainty on her face as she admitted, “At least…I am reasonably certain she is not.”