What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Considering how few of Queen Victoria's Londoners knew of it, the great Romanesque fortress was dreadfully imposing, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met the powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadow, the Ripper and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She knew simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow-white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gifts. But this arched stone doorway offered a portal to a new life, an education far from the convent--and an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death....***
A young woman, the likes of which London had never seen, alighted from a carriage near Bloomsbury and gazed at the grand facade before her. Breathless at the sight of the Romanesque fortress of red sandstone that was to be her new home, she ascended the front steps beneath the portico with a carpetbag in tow. One slender, gloved hand heaved open the great arched door; Miss Percy Parker paused then stepped inside.
The foyer of Athens Academy held a few milling young men, papers and books in hand. Their jaws fell in turn. In the diffuse light cast by a single chandelier they saw a petite, unmistakable apparition. Dark blue glasses kept eerie, ice blue eyes from unsettling those stares that she nervously returned. Much of her snow-white skin was hidden from view by a scarf draped around her head and bosom, but only a mask could have hidden the ghostly pallor of her fine-featured face.
The sudden tinkling of a chandelier crystal broke the thick silence. Percy's gaze flickered up to behold a young man, equally pale as herself, floating amid the gas flames. The transparent spirit wafted down to meet her. It was clear from the stares of the young men of solid mass, rudely focused on Percy, that they were oblivious. She herself acknowledged the ghost only subtly, lest she be thought distract as well as deformed.
The spectral schoolboy spoke in a soft Scots brogue. "You'd best give up your pretensions, miss. You'll never be one of them. And you're certainly not one of us. What the devil are you?"
Percy met the spirit's hollow gaze. Behind her glasses, her opalescent eyes flared with defiance as she asked the room, her voice sweet and timid, "Could someone be so kind as to direct me to the headmistress's office?" A gaping, living individual pointed to a hallway on her left, so she offered him a "Thank you, sir," and fled, eager to escape all curiosity. The only sounds that followed were the rustling layers of her sky blue taffeta skirts and the echo of her booted footfalls down the hall.
HEADMISTRESS THOMPSON was scribed boldly across a large wooden door. Percy took a moment to catch her breath before knocking.
She soon found herself in an office filled to overflowing with books. A sharp voice bade her sit, and she was promptly engulfed in a leather armchair. Across the desk sat a severe woman dressed primly in grey wool. Middle-aged and thin, she had a pinched nose and high cheekbones that gave her a birdlike quality, tight lips twisted in a half frown. Brown hair was piled atop her head, save one misbehaving lock at her temple.
Blue-grey eyes pierced Percy's obscuring glasses. "Miss Parker, we've received word that you're an uncommonly bright girl. I'm sure you're well aware that your previous governance, unsure what to do with you, supposed you'd best be sent somewhere else. Becoming a sister did not suit you?"
Percy had no time to wonder if this was sardonic or understanding, for the headmistress continued: "Your reverend mother made many inquiries before stumbling across our quiet little bastion. Considering your particular circumstances, I accepted you despite your age of eighteen. You're older than many who attend here. I'm sure I needn't tell you, Miss Parker, that at your age most women do not think it advantageous to remain...academic. I hope you know enough of the world outside convent walls to understand." Headmistress Thompson's sharp eyes suddenly softened and something mysterious twinkled there. "We must acknowledge the limitations of our world, Miss Parker. I, of course, chose to run an institution rather than a household."
Percy couldn't help but smile, drawn in by the headmistress's conspiratorial turn, as if the woman considered herself unique by lifestyle inasmuch as Percy was unique by fate. But the woman's amiability soon vanished. "We expect academic excellence in all subjects, Miss Parker. Your reverend mother proclaimed you quite proficient in several languages, with particularly keen knowledge of Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Would you consider yourself proficient?"
"I have no wish to flatter myself--"
"Honesty will suffice."
"I'm f-fluent in several tongues," Percy stammered. "I'm fondest of Greek. I know French, German, Spanish and Italian well. I dabble in Russian, Arabic, Gaelic...as well as a few ancient and obscure dialects."
"Interesting." The headmistress absently tapped the desk with her pen. "Do you attribute your affinity for foreign tongues to mere interest and diligence?"
Percy thought a moment. "This may sound very strange..."
"It may shock you how little I find strange, Miss Parker," the headmistress replied.