The Treachery of Beautiful Things Online - Ruth Long

prologue

The streetlights flickered on outside the window and Jenny looked up from her book. The artificial orange glow etched the silhouettes of leaves and branches against the glass.

In the other room, Tom’s flute sang out, trilling through an arpeggio before breaking into “Haste to the Wedding.” She heard Mrs. Whitlow laugh. Tom’s music could bring delight to anyone, even the vinegar-faced music teacher who had, after two long years of lessons, declared Jenny unteachable. Mother wouldn’t hear of that, naturally, so now Tom got a double lesson, and Jenny? More time to read. And their mother was none the wiser.

Jenny absently slid her locket across its chain and turned back to her novel. She liked it better lost in between the words, with Tom’s melody filling her head like a musical score.

“All right, shrimp?” Tom was smiling down at her. It was already fully dark outside. She hadn’t noticed the time pass. “Ready to go home?”

She looked up at her big brother, taking in his light, slightly rumpled hair, the smile that turned up one cheek, his eyes crinkled at the corners despite their grim, gray cast, and closed her book. Jenny didn’t bother with a bookmark. She read like Tom played. Constantly. Hungrily. Her brother already had his backpack slung over his shoulder, the flute sticking carelessly out of it.

“Sure,” she said, pretending not to notice his forced cheer. She slid her book into her schoolbag and followed him into the chilly evening. “We’re going to be late for tea.”

“We’ll take the shortcut,” he said, hopping down the steps two at a time.

Jenny opened her mouth to argue, but Tom crossed the road before she could say a word. In sunlight, she wouldn’t think twice about taking the route past Branley Copse. It cut the trip home in half. But now, with the sun gone down behind the distant hills—

“Oh, come on, Jenny.” Lately his laugh had developed a sharp, staccato edge. “Stop being so scared.”

Jenny shifted her bag from one shoulder to the other. She couldn’t hold it against him. No one could hold anything against Tom. His smile alone, the jokes that hung around his eyes, would soon persuade them to his side.

Tom strode ahead and Jenny ran to catch up before his long strides left her behind. At fourteen, he was already almost as tall as Dad. No wonder he called her shrimp.

“What did she say about the audition?” Jenny finally asked, careful to keep her eyes straight ahead.

Tom shrugged. “It’ll be fine. Listen.” He reached back and pulled out the flute like a musketeer drawing his sword. The notes floated out through the twilight, haunting and beautiful. For a moment the music beguiled even her. But not entirely. There was something about the stiffness of her brother’s shoulders…She peered up at him in concern. Tom had a wildness about him tonight, something just a bit desperate, as if his music scared him and yet he needed it. His eyes slid closed, and for a moment she felt like she lost him, or maybe on hearing his music, lost a little part of herself.

They reached the tree line and turned to walk along its edge, leaving the streetlights behind them.

To her left, the ground rose to a mound where the trunks took root, forming a lattice of increasing darkness the deeper she stared into the woods. She and Tom were only cutting along the edge, Jenny reassured herself, not actually going through the trees. And Tom was there beside her, playing his music, just because he could.

Jenny paused, breathing deep for a moment, the notes clear and crisp as the air itself. They floated around her, soared and trilled, setting the hairs on the back of her neck shivering. They reverberated through her body, harmonizing with the rush of blood through her veins. The wind picked up, the trees moving almost in time to the music, the patch of woodland swelling in the darkness to embody something old and vast, the ancient forests that had once covered all the Weald. And all because of Tom’s music, she thought distantly. Music that was more than half magic.

Tom broke off abruptly, sighing. The forest seemed to subside, his pied piper trick over. Jenny shook her head. Her imagination. That was all. Dad always said so.

She slid her locket back and forth along its chain nervously.

“You’ll twist that right off one of these days,” Tom teased. “Then where will you keep your secrets?”

Jenny let go of the empty locket and