Love & Magic! Read a Chapter from TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea
Author: Lilia Shrayfer
February 9, 2020
Whether February 14th brings Valentine’s Day or Singles Awareness Day for you this year, we all could use a little more romance in our lives. The following is a chapter from Lambda Literary Award winning TJ Klune’s forthcoming The House in the Cerulean Sea (Tor, March 17th). As a caseworker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, Linus Baker spends his days overseeing the well-being of gifted children in government-sanctioned orphanages. When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management, he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children and their elusive but charming caretaker, Arthur, live. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
Linus Baker, for what it was worth, did care about the children he was tasked with observing. He didn’t think one could do what he did and lack empathy, though he couldn’t understand how someone like Ms. Jenkins had ever been a caseworker before being promoted to Supervision.
And so when faced with a perceived threat, and even though everything felt topsy-turvy, Linus did the only thing he could: He moved to protect the children.
Talia squawked angrily as he shoved her behind him toward Sal and Chauncey. “What are you doing?”
He ignored her, the ringing in his ears he’d heard since he’d arrived on the island now turning into a full-blown roar. He took a step toward the open door, and he swore on everything he had that the darkness settling outside had somehow gotten darker. He believed if he stepped out onto the porch, the stars above would be blotted out, and all that would remain would be eternal night.
“What’s going on?” Chauncey whispered behind him. “I have no idea,” Talia said irritably.
Sal barked nervously, a high-pitched yip. “Probably,” Talia said.
Linus took a step toward the door. He should have realized that accepting this assignment was going to be the last thing he’d do. He wondered if Lucy had already taken out Mr. Parnassus and whoever (or whatever) had been in the main house with them. He couldn’t be sure if there were other things that Extremely Upper Management hadn’t made him aware of. If there was a clear path, perhaps he could get the children to the car. He’d need to get Calliope into her crate, but he’d rather have an angry cat to deal with than a devil. He didn’t know how he’d get them off the island, but—
He stepped onto the porch.
It was darker, perhaps darker than it’d ever been before. He could barely see the flowers just off the porch. Everything else was lost to the darkness. It was as if the night were a living thing and had consumed the world. Linus’s skin felt electrified.
“Hello,” a sweet voice said from beside him. Linus gasped and turned his head.
There, standing at the edge of the porch, was a child.
Lucy looked exactly as he had in the photograph. His black hair was windswept, and his eyes were red and ringed with blue. He looked so small, but the smile on his face was twisted into a sneer, and his fingers were twitching at his sides, as if he were barely restraining himself from reaching out and tearing Linus limb from limb.
“It’s nice to see you,” Lucy singsonged before giggling. “I knew you’d come, Mr. Baker. Though, by the time I’m done with you, you’ll wish you hadn’t.” The smile widened until it seemed like his face would split in half. Flames began to rise behind him, though they didn’t seem to burn the house, and Linus couldn’t feel the heat that should have been pouring off of them. “I’m going to enjoy this far more than you could ever—”
“That’s enough, Lucy.”
And just like that, everything switched off.
Lucy groaned, and the red disappeared from his eyes. The fire subsided. The blackness winked out, and the remains of the sunset appeared on the horizon. The stars were bright, and Linus could see the main house across the way.
“I was just having some fun,” Lucy muttered, scuffing his shoe against the porch. “I’m hellfire. I am the darkest parts of—”
“You still need to have a bath after supper,” the voice said, and Linus felt his heart skip a beat. “Perhaps we could save the hellfire and the darkest parts for tomorrow.”
Lucy shrugged. “Okay.” And then he ran past Linus into the house, shouting for Talia and Chauncey. “Did you see what I did? He was so scared!”
Linus looked off the porch.
There, standing in the grass, was a man.
He was unlike anyone Linus had ever seen before. He was spindly. His light hair was a mess, sticking up at odd angles. It was starting to gray around his temple. His dark eyes were bright and glittering in the near-dark. His aquiline nose had a bump in the center, as if it’d been broken once long ago and never set right. He was smiling, hands clasped in front of him. His fingers were long and elegant as he twiddled his thumbs. He wore a green peacoat, the collar pulled up around his neck against the sea breeze. His slacks appeared too short for his long legs, the hems coming up above his ankles, revealing red socks. He wore black-and-white wing tip shoes.
“Hello, Mr. Baker,” Arthur Parnassus said, sounding amused. “Welcome to Marsyas Island.” His voice was lighter than Linus expected, almost as if there were musical notes behind each word. “I do hope your trip was most pleasant. The ocean can sometimes be rough in the crossing. Merle is . . . Merle. He’s from the village, after all.”
Linus was flabbergasted. He remembered the blurry photograph from the file. In it, Mr. Parnassus had been standing against a blue background, and he hadn’t been smiling. But there had been a jovial arch to his eyebrow, and Linus had stared at it for longer than was probably proper.
He looked younger in person, far younger than his forty-five years suggested. He was as fresh-faced as the young people who came into DICOMY with their shiny degrees and ideas about how things should be done rather than how they actually were. They quickly learned to fall in line. Idealism had no place in government work.
Linus shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. It wouldn’t do for someone in his position to sit here gawking at the master of an orphanage. Linus Baker was nothing if not a consummate professional, and he had a job to do.
“Do you often greet your guests with threats of death and destruction, Mr. Parnassus?” he asked sternly, trying to regain control of the situation.
Mr. Parnassus chuckled. “Not usually, though it should be said we don’t have many guests. Please, call me Arthur.”
Linus was tense, listening to the babble of voices behind him. He felt uncomfortable having someone like Lucy behind him, out of sight. “I think Mr. Parnassus will suffice. I will be Mr. Baker during the course of this visit. From you and the children.”
Mr. Parnassus nodded with barely concealed delight. Linus couldn’t be sure what, exactly, about this situation necessitated such a response. He wondered if he was being mocked somehow and felt a wave of anger roll over him. He managed to push it down before it could contort his expression.
“Mr. Baker it is, then. My apologies for not welcoming you in person upon your arrival.” He glanced at the house over Linus’s shoulder before looking back at him. “I was otherwise detained with Lucy, though I suspect he attempted to conceal your presence from me.”
Linus was gobsmacked. “He can . . . do that?”
Mr. Parnassus shrugged. “He can do many things, Mr. Baker. But I expect you’ll find that out for yourself. It is the reason you’re here, isn’t it? Phee informed us of your arrival, and Lucy decided he’d welcome you in his own special way.”
“Special,” Linus said faintly. “That’s what you call it.”
He took a step toward the porch. “This is an unusual place, filled with things I don’t believe you’ve witnessed before. It would be best if you put your preconceived notions behind you, Mr. Baker. Your visit will be much more enjoyable if you do.”
Linus bristled. “I’m not here for enjoyment, Mr. Parnassus. This is not a vacation. I’m here as ordered by the Department in Charge of Magical Youth to determine if Marsyas Orphanage should remain as is, or if other actions should be taken. You would do well to remember that. The fact that the children were running amok with no supervision isn’t the best start.”
Mr. Parnassus barely seemed affected. “Running amok, you say? Fascinating. And I’m aware of what it is you’re here for. I just don’t know if you are.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He zigged when Linus expected him to zag. “You gave Theodore a button.”
Linus blinked. “Pardon?”
Mr. Parnassus was at the bottom of the steps. Linus had barely seen him move. “A button,” he repeated slowly. “Brass. You gave it to Theodore.”
“Yes, well, it was the first thing I found in my pocket.” “Where did it come from?”
“What do you mean?”
“The button, Mr. Baker,” he said. “Where did the button come from?”
Linus took a step back. “I don’t . . . I don’t quite know what you mean.”
Mr. Parnassus nodded. “It’s the little things. Little treasures we find without knowing their origin. And they come when we least expect them. It’s beautiful, when you think about it. He loves it dearly. That was very kind of you.”
“I was all but ordered to give it to him!”
“Were you? How about that.” He was on the porch in front of Linus. He was taller, much taller than he had appeared on the grass in front of the house. Linus had to tilt his head back to meet his gaze. He had a freckle that nearly formed a heart below his left eye. A lock of hair had fallen on his forehead.
Linus flinched a little when Mr. Parnassus extended a hand. Linus stared at it for a moment, then remembered himself. He took the offered hand in his own. The skin was cool and dry, and as the fingers wrapped around his own, Linus felt a little curl of warmth in the back of his mind. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Mr. Parnassus said. “Regardless of the reason you’re here.”
Linus pulled his hand away, palm tingling. “All I ask is that you let me perform my duties without interference.”
“Because of the children.”
“Yes,” Linus said. “Because of the children. They are the most important thing, after all.”
Mr. Parnassus studied him, looking for what, Linus didn’t know. Then, “Good. I’m pleased we’re off to such a wonderful start. That bodes well for what will certainly be an illuminating month.”
“I wouldn’t call it wonderful—”
“Children!” Mr. Parnassus called. He bent over deftly, sweeping Sal’s discarded clothing in his hand. “Come now, would you?” There was a stampede of feet behind Linus, some heavy, some sounding as if they were squelching. Linus was jostled as they ran by him.
Sal was first, still a tiny Pomeranian. He yipped nervously, giving Linus a wide berth before jumping up on Mr. Parnassus, tail wagging. “Hello, Sal,” Mr. Parnassus said, looking down. Then, remarkably, he barked, a high-pitched yip. Sal responded in kind with a series of barks before taking off toward the house. “You brought a cat?”
Linus gaped at him. “You can speak . . .”
“To Sal?” Mr. Parnassus asked. “Of course I can. He’s one of mine. It’s important to Talia. Thank you for showing our guest around the grounds. That was very kind of you. And Chauncey. I doubt there has been a better bellhop in all the world.”
“Really?” Chauncey warbled, eyes swaying on his stalks. “The entire world?” He puffed out his chest. Or, rather, he appeared to puff out his chest. Linus couldn’t be sure he had a chest at all. “Did you hear that, Talia? The entire world.”
Talia snorted. “I heard. You’ll have your own hotel before you know it.” She glanced up at Linus as she stroked her beard. “You’re welcome for not braining you with the shovel when I had the chance.” She winced slightly when Mr. Parnassus spoke in a low, guttural sound, almost as if he were choking.
It took a moment for Linus to realize he was speaking Gnomish.
Talia heaved a great, dramatic sigh. “Sorry, Mr. Baker. I promise I won’t brain you with my shovel. Today.”
And with that, she and Chauncey went down the stairs and headed toward the main house.
Linus felt a cold chill race down his spine when he heard the floor creak behind him. Lucy appeared beside them, smiling maniacally up at Linus. He didn’t appear to blink.
“Yes?” Linus asked in a croak. “Erm, can I help you?”
“No,” Lucy said, smile widening. “You can’t. Nobody can. I am the father of snakes. The void in the—”
“That’s enough of that,” Mr. Parnassus said lightly. “Lucy, it’s your turn to help Ms. Chapelwhite in the kitchen. You’re already late. Hop to it.”
Lucy sighed as he deflated. “Aw, seriously?”
“Seriously,” Mr. Parnassus said, reaching down and patting him on the shoulder. “Get a move on. You know she doesn’t like it when you shirk your responsibilities.”
Lucy grumbled under his breath as he hopped down the stairs. He glanced back over his shoulder at Linus when he reached the bottom. Linus felt his knees wobble.
“He’s bluffing,” Mr. Parnassus said. “He actually loves working in the kitchen. I think he’s just putting on a show for you. Quite the little entertainer, he is.”
“I think I need to sit down,” Linus said, feeling numb.
“Of course,” Mr. Parnassus said easily. “You’ve had a long day.” He glanced at his wrist, pulling back the sleeve of his coat to reveal a large watch. “Dinner is at half past seven, so you have a bit to get settled. Ms. Chapelwhite has prepared a feast in your honor as a welcome to Marsyas. I’m told there will be pie for dessert. I do love pie so.” He took Linus’s hand in his own again, squeezing gently. Linus looked up at him. “I know why you’re here,” he said quietly. “And I know the power you wield. All I ask is that you keep an open mind, Mr. Baker. Can you do that for me?”
Linus pulled his hand away, feeling off-kilter. “I will do what I must.”
Mr. Parnassus nodded. He looked as if he were going to say something else, but instead shook his head. He turned and stepped off the porch, following his charges into the dark.
He didn’t look back.