Chapter 1

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Everybody knew that there was something odd about that house. It was pleasant enough on the outside: A stately modern mansion, with tall windows and turrets so high up you could see the sea if you were sitting in one. There were shiny black spires on the rooftops, stained glass in purples and reds and golds, a lovely wide porch on the ground floor, and a smaller one on the floor above. There was even a small docking port at the very top, where a small airship could attach itself to pick up or drop off passengers. (Larger ships, of course, had to dock at the sky port in the nearby town of Shifford.)

In the front garden, a white wooden swing swayed gently from a branch on the tree. The house's color was a steely blue, the trim a creamy white, and pink roses climbed up the sides, nearly to the rooftop. There were flowers everywhere. Indeed, the front garden was a living bouquet of purples, blues and yellows, and in the back, more roses of every shape, color and size. No, it was not the house's appearance that caused people to keep away-it was what was inside.

As a little girl, Annabel Pickering had known to always cross the street to avoid walking in front of that house, lest she be cursed by the crazy spinster who lived there with her even crazier niece. The neighbors said the woman never slept, that very strange noises came from the house in the dead of night. They all knew that the girl wasn't right in the head, and young girls were warned that if they didn't behave properly, they might end up like the old spinster: all alone . . . and quite mad.

As it happened, Annabel rather liked being alone. She was thirteen years old, nearly fourteen, and lived with her mother and father, along with their very old, very fat, longhaired cat, Mathilde. Unlike most of her friends, Annabel had no siblings. She often wished that she did have a sister to share her games and adventures with, although judging by the hostility her friends expressed for their own brothers and sisters, she thought that perhaps she was better off without one.

Her family lived in a lovely house with a beautiful garden on the same street as the great steely-blue one: Chestnut Lane. She spent long hours reading by herself, in the little spire on the fourth floor (where no-one ever went, but where she could sit surrounded by windows on three sides), or out in the garden listening lazily to insects buzzing by, sitting under the shade of her favorite apple tree or in the honeysuckle arch her mother had built.

Like most young girls of her age, Annabel collected pictures of the Queen and had a few on the walls of her room. One in particular, her favorite, showed Her Royal Highness seated, not on the throne but on an ordinary chair, with a photographer's background behind her. The background had a hint of pink to it that perfectly complemented the tones in the Queen's cheeks and lips, and she wore a tremendous flowing gown of sparkling pale blue satin all the way down to her ankles, which were barely covered. Her shoes were also satin, but silvery, and she wore brilliant sparkling strands of diamonds and silver around her neck and a slender diamond tiara in place of her usual regal crown.

Annabel supposed that she liked this picture best because it made the Queen seem as if she could be any proper young lady and not the ruler of the free world. It made it seem possible that one day a similar picture might be taken of Annabel, wearing a dress just as beautiful.

Annabel was a spindly and very serious girl. Her parents said that when she had been very little, she had always looked as if she had just been startled. She had large brown eyes and long straight brown hair. She was strong, from summers spent riding ponies at The Chelsea Bridge School of Riding and Horsemanship, yet slight of build, with a lightly freckled face topped by those wide inquisitive eyes and a sharp little nose perched high above a thin line of a mouth-all of which came together to give her the appearance of a very intent little bird.

On occasion, adults had referred to her as "sullen," and once or twice Annabel had overheard them. She'd thought then that they must be very foolish people indeed, to believe they could understand what was going on inside a person simply by looking at the face. In fact, she was not "sullen" at all. She simply did not smile as much as other girls her age tended to, and that was usually because she was busy thinking.

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