British Raj, 1858
Mary Lennox met a genie once.
It came to her when she was eight years old, in the depths of those five dismal days between when her mother, Mrs. Lennox, was alive and when Mary knew for certain that she was dead.
Mary knew her mother in that distant, reverent, and mysterious way that others knew creatures of myth. In fact, when Mary woke that first morning to find her mother gone, she was quick to assume she had just left, as she often did. A socialite to the last, her mother found the seclusion of motherhood in Calcutta indescribably dull. Every night, Mrs. Lennox would leave their bungalow of hushed voices and long shadows to scent out entertainment elsewhere. Sometimes Mrs. Lennox would return home the morning after a night of dinners and parties. Sometimes the morning after that. One could never be entirely certain, least of all Mary. Mr. Lennox was rarely home himself; too many new fortunes to exploit.
On the second day of her mother’s vanishing, Mary asked her ayah where her mother had gone.
Her ayah was a woman of callused fingertips and herb-scented skin, charged to mind Mary since the day of her birth. She was younger than Mrs. Lennox, but with four children of her own, and Mary often wished she could have been her fifth. Because she knew, in some unformed way, that she—like her family—truly belonged neither to this country she loved so dearly, nor to this woman she loved even more.
But her ayah would tell Mary many things. She would tell her stories of how the sun came to hang in the sky, how the sea became so wide, how the stars became so bright. Even so, she never lied. Not until now.
She looked Mary in her eyes and did not blink when she said, “She will return soon.”
On the fourth day, Mary stood before her mother’s portrait and studied it intently. She’d begun to lose bits of Mrs. Lennox. Her eyes: a dark and luxurious blue, while Mary’s were the dusty brown of desert sand. Her skin: an angelic alabaster, while Mary’s was a jaundiced yellow. Her voice: light and pleasant to the ear, while Mary’s was grating and loud. Now, these were not opinions Mary’s young mind had formed about herself. They were widely known and discussed regularly by Mrs. Lennox and her husband, when he was not too busy chasing his fortune as a merchant to join them. Even then, Mary’s mother seemed indifferent to her only child; Mary remembered clearly watching her mother cover her ears during dinner upon hearing her daughter’s laugh for the first time. From that point forward, Mary endeavored not to laugh in her mother’s presence.
On the fifth day, the genie came to her.
Mary saw its blurred and fleeting image through the tears she shed into her pillow that night. It was a figure that could have been mistaken for a person if it hadn’t been for the living embers that served for eyes, the whipping flame that served for a tongue, and the crackling black magma that served for skin.
It sat at the edge of her vision, perched rather primly on a damask chaise and smoking a long, queer pipe.
“I’m dreaming,” she said immediately, before her mind could draw its usually fantastical and far-from-reasonable conclusions.
“Oh yes,” the genie said. Its breath smelled of burnt bread, and its voice snapped like a campfire. “Or, at least, that is what I’m sure they will say when you tell them you have seen me.”
The hungry curiosity that had earned Mary the name pishi from her ayah now came creeping forward.
“Am I not dreaming?” she asked. Even though she was cold with fear, an excitement like the genie’s eyes burned in her chest.
“There are many tears in this city,” the creature said in answer. “But yours must be the loudest. I was passing through, minding my own business, and I was struck by a pitiful mewling coming from that very window. I thought perhaps it was a creature in pain. Tell me, what has a little British girl to cry about on such a cool night?”
“My mother’s gone,” Mary said.
“She is,” the genie confirmed.
Little more was needed for Mary.
When spindly tears leaked from her eyes, she knew they weren’t from sadness, but from a righteous and heartbroken anger.
What will become of me?
“Great things, little pishi,” the genie said. “That is my gift, to dry those angry tears. You will see the world’s wonders through a keyhole, flee across the countryside, earn the love of a prince and the friendship of a princess, tell stories that echo through the ages, and more. All of the great adventures and ambitions of your heart will be fulfilled. But, as with all things, there is a price.”
“What price?” Mary asked. “My father is rich. Whatever it is, I can pay it.”
“Oh no,” said the genie. “The cold coins of an empire will not pay this debt.”
Anxiety rushed like lightning down Mary’s back. She knew what story she’d fallen into, and she knew how it ended. How many of the characters in her ayah’s stories had paid similar debts?
Still, she did not hesitate. “I shall pay it.”
The genie’s grin chased away the lurking darkness with a hearth fire’s glow.
“Be brave, Mary Lennox,” it said. “That is the payment I demand of you if all of these wishes are to come true. Be brave. Go forward into your destiny, and never look back.”
Seven Years Later
The heels of Mary’s boots clipped against the stone floors with military procession, casting an echo that extended forth like a bugle call. People halted and moved from her path, struck with bewildered expressions. She did not spare them a passing glance. Her arms swung at her sides, hands balled into fists and eyes set before her, never looking back.
And if she felt like Joan of Arc, marching into battle, it was not completely unwarranted.
Because her head was mostly shaved.
Morning had broken upon the cloistered halls of the Select Seminary for Young Ladies and Gentlemen and filtered through thick-paneled windows to cast pools of light on the gray stone before Mary’s feet. For a moment, polite society’s premier boarding school for the children of the nouveau and the mercantile was once again a medieval citadel, and Mary wasn’t the fifteen-year-old bane of Headmistress Minchin’s existence, but a Knight Templar robed in divine virtue. The Lennox family crest had “I’ll defend” on it. At her hip, she could feel the heavy weight of a longsword touched by angelic fire. On her arm was a longsword as strong as Excalibur itself, and on her chest was a burning heart.
The grand doors to the seminary’s dining hall opened before her and rose-colored light shone in from both sides, transforming it into a majestic throne room. Mary’s snooty classmates were now bickering courtiers. Her teachers and governesses were black-draped clergy. And at the far end of this throne room, flanked by the most gallant of knights, was a princess called Sara.
Mary felt eyes upon her as she walked swiftly and proudly down the narrow columns between dining tables. Laughter ceased and morphed into shocked whisperers. Young ladies pointed, young gentlemen laughed, and the teachers looked as if they might swallow their tongues.
Sara Crewe was the only one who saw her and smiled. Which made sense, since Sara's dark curls were the only others in the hall that had been shorn off.
Next to her, Cedric Errol—unshorn—looked like he might cry.
Mary wore her proudest grin as she sat between Sara and Cedric at their secluded end of the dining hall. Outcasts by nature, the three were occasionally ridiculed—more often ignored—by their stylish peers, and thus pleasantly left to their own devices. But not today. Today, the three might as well have been Dumas’s musketeers brought to life. Mary actually liked the sound of that.
Before Mary could even pour her morning cup of tea, Cedric was admonishing her.
“You are absolutely raving mad,” he said.
“Is that how you must greet me every morning, dear Cedric?” Mary asked before biting into buttered toast. “Why not a pleasant ‘good morning’ or ‘how fares the weather in the girls’ dormitory’?”
Cedric was born to be an old man, forever squinting over the rim of his spectacles and shaking his metaphorical cane at rambunctious youths. He even laughed as adults laughed: short, low, and slightly bitter. But still, he laughed, and Mary considered that to be a morning’s good deed.
“Mad you may be,” Sara said, grasping Mary’s hand. “But what you have done also makes you my dearest, truest friend.”
Sara’s brown hands glowed with health and beauty, in stark contrast to Mary's own thin fingers, her skin transparent as the dried palm-leaf manuscripts found in the temples of Thailand and Indochina. It made her squeeze her friend’s hand all the tighter.
“What manner of true friend would I be to let you suffer in this way?” Mary asked. “Minchin is a beast for what she has done, and I mean to hold her to account. Cedric, you are a Judas for not joining me.”
“I doubt it would have the same impact, Mary,” he said.
“It’s the thought that counts, as you well know. How will injustice and cruelty be overthrown if not through brotherhood and unity? How will evildoers be stopped if not by the love of dearest friends? Who was King Arthur, truly, without his brave and loyal knights of virtue?”
“Are we to be the knights of virtue to your King Arthur, then?” Cedric teased. “I must say, I thought he would be taller.”
Mary was not deterred.
“The world’s ignored and inspired are our King Arthur, Cedric,” said Mary. “All we do, we do in defense of them.”
Sara raised a glass of buttermilk above her head, her once-proud mane of black hair now patchily sheared close to the scalp. Cedric raised his glass halfheartedly, and Mary lifted her own above wilting yellow hair that was now cropped in fits and starts about her ears. She only slightly regretted using the scissors without a mirror.
The glasses clinked together.
The next sound to fill a room shocked into silence was the metallic song of Minchin’s silver chatelaine, forever at her waist and weighed down by two dozen iron keys. It was a slow and fearful rhythm that followed the headmistress, like the chains on Marley’s ghost. All eyes became fixed on plates and cups, all hands folded demurely into laps. All except Mary, who kept her head defiantly raised and her hands tented before her on the table.
“Mary, don’t,” Cedric said. He may have had no knowledge of what she meant to do, but he knew she always meant to do something.
She winked at him over the lip of her teacup.
Headmistress Minchin climbed the steps to the table at the far end of the room where all heads of departments sat, raised upon a dais like a vicar in a pulpit. A pair of plain silver pince-nez sat at the end of her pinched nose, forcing her to look both above and below at the same time. It created an unsettling sensation for the student or teacher caught in the crosshairs of her gaze. Minchin stood as if the straightness of her stance held back the red tide of the end times, and perhaps for her, the prospect of disrespectful and uneducated children inspired the same sentiment.
“Good morning, children.”
For such a slight woman, she had the voice of a mountain, which bounced about the high-ceilinged room. She loomed over them.
The children echoed, “Good morning, Mistress Minchin.”
The headmistress’s head swiveled from one end of the dining hall to the other, assessing and observing each student and teacher, as if her skull were a piece of clanking machinery. If one listened closely enough, one could hear the screech of unoiled hinges, metal on metal.
“This morning, we give thanks for the strength of our minds and the resoluteness of our character. Here at the Select Seminary for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, we pride ourselves in producing impeccable members of this, our grand empirical society. Young men of honor, fortitude, intelligence, and gallantry. And young women of poise, beauty, purity, and—”
Mary heard the hitch in the headmistress’s voice—what might have been a gasp in a woman with significantly less “poise”—and knew she had been spotted. She then heard that metallic screech again, the harsh cry of a train coming into a station. Mary imagined a great smokestack rising from the top of Minchin’s head, billowing forth foul-smelling black coal smoke. The image made her giggle cruelly.
Minchin drew in a thin breath and said in a low, rumbling voice, “Obedience.”