Chapter no 11

Sorcery of Thorns

THE COACH FASSED tall, grand houses of gray stone, stacked tightly alongside each other like books on a bookshelf. Bright blooms of foxglove and deadly nightshade spilled from their window boxes, and wrought iron fences bordered them in front, guarded by statues and gargoyles that turned their heads as the coach passed. Heraldic devices were carved upon the pediments above the front doors. Many of the houses were clearly centuries old, their elegant facades wrapped in a sense of untouchable wealth.

She watched a woman exit a carriage, jewels glittering on her ears. A small child opened the door for her, and Elisabeth assumed he was the woman’s son until she dismissively handed him her shopping parcels. She saw the boy’s eyes Aash orange in the light before the door swung shut. Not a boy—a demon.

“Does this entire neighborhood belong to sorcerers?” she asked Nathaniel. Her stomach writhed like a nest of snakes. The saboteur could live in any one of these houses. He could be watching her even now.

“Almost exclusively,” he replied. He was looking out the opposite window. “It’s called Hemlock Fark. Sorcerers like their privacy—our demons are a bit like dirty laundry, not a secret, but an aspect of our lives that commoners rarely see, and one that we prefer they don’t think about too much. A lot of old blood around here, as you can probably tell. Sorcerous lineages that go back hundreds of years, like mine.”

Curiosity snuck through her guard. “I thought all sorcerers belonged to old families. Aren’t you born into it?”

“I suppose that’s true in the sense that magic is an inheritance.” Nathaniel spared her a glance. “Or rather, demons are. A highborn demon can only be summoned by someone who knows its Enochian name, and families pass

those names down through the generations like heirlooms. But occasionally a dabbler with no magical heritage digs up the name of a notable demon in some obscure text and manages to summon it. They have to keep the demon in the family for a few decades before the old houses begin to consider them respectable.”

Dabblevs and cviminals. That was how the Lexicon had referred to people who summoned lesser demons, like 1ends. True sorcerers didn’t stoop to that level.

Not unless they wanted to eliminate a witness, and blame the murder on someone else.

Disturbed, Elisabeth mulled this over as they passed a park full of ancient oaks and winding gravel paths, and then a patch of urban woodland that made her feel like she was back on the outskirts of the Blackwald. The coach turned onto a drive Aanked by marble plinths. A matching pair of stone gryphons sat atop them, Aicking their tails and sunning their mossy wings. Eventually a structure came into view beyond a hedge, 1rst visible as a Aash of light on the copper of a domed cupola.

“Oh,” she breathed, pressing her face to the window. “It’s a palace!”

She felt Nathaniel watching her. When he spoke, he sounded oddly reluctant to correct her. “No, just Ashcroft Manor.”

But there was no “just” about the building they were heading toward, an immense white manor surrounded by lavish gardens. Its rooAine of towers, domes, and elaborate cornices resembled the skyline of a miniature city, and the sunlight threw da>>ling prisms from a glass-roofed conservatory attached to its side. The drive circled around a large fountain directly in front, and as they drew nearer she saw that the water lifted by itself, splashing in vortices that continually changed shape: 1rst it formed a group of translucent maidens leaping into the air like ballet dancers, who merged into a rotating armillary sphere, which next split apart into a pair of rearing horses, their manes tossing droplets across the drive. A few of the droplets struck the coach’s windows and clung to the glass, sparkling like diamonds.

“And Silas says I’m extravagant with my magic,” Nathaniel muttered.

Elisabeth made an ePort to stop gaping openmouthed as they neared the manor. A crowd of people stood scattered around the drive, but as far as she could tell, they weren’t sorcerers or even servants. They all wore brown tweed

jackets and had notebooks tucked under their arms, repeatedly consulting their pocket watches as if they were in a great hurry. When they heard the carriage approaching, they looked up with hungry, eager expressions, like dogs waiting for scraps to be thrown from the dinner table.

“Who are those people?” Elisabeth asked uneasily. “They look like they’re waiting for us.”

Nathaniel slid over to her side of the coach, looked out, and swore. “Chancellor Ashcroft’s allowed the press onto his estate. I suppose there’s no escaping them. Courage, Scrivener. It will all be over soon.”

When Silas opened the door, a wave of sound immediately swamped the coach. No one spared Silas a glance; they focused on Elisabeth as she stepped outside, jostling between themselves for a better position near the front of the crowd.

“Miss Scrivener!” “Do you have a moment—” “I’m Mr. Feversham from the Bvassbvidge Inquivev—” “Over here, Miss Scrivener!” “Can you tell us how tall you are, Miss Scrivener?”

“Hello,” she said bemusedly. All the men looked very similar. Never before had she seen so many mustaches together in one place. “I’m sorry—I have no idea.” She had grown since the last time Katrien had measured her.

“Is it true that you defeated a Class Eight Male1ct in Summershall?” one of the men asked, already scratching away frantically in his notebook.

“Yes, that’s true.” “Completely on your own?”

She nodded. The man’s eyes nearly popped from his head, so she added kindly, “Well, I had a sword.”

Another tweed-clad reporter dodged through an opening. “I see you’ve been spending a great deal of time alone with Magister Thorn. Has he declared his intentions?”

“I wish he would,” Elisabeth said. “He hardly makes sense half the time.

Knowing his intentions would be helpful.”

Nathaniel made a choking sound. “She doesn’t mean it that way,” he assured everyone, taking Elisabeth’s arm. “She’s a feral librarian, you see— raised by booklice, very tragic. . . .” He tugged her out of the crowd and up the manor’s front steps.

The double doors were engraved with a baroque-style gryphon. A footman dressed in golden livery stood in front of them. Elisabeth eyed him suspiciously, but he didn’t have strangely colored eyes, nor did he repel her thoughts the way Silas had while exerting his inAuence. He was a man, not a demon.

“The Chancellor will arrive momentarily,” he said, and Nathaniel groaned.

“What?” she asked.

“Ashcroft enjoys making grand entrances. He’s an insuPerable show-oP. The press can’t get enough of him.”

Elisabeth thought it was rather hypocritical for Nathaniel to complain about people making grand entrances when he himself had arrived at Summershall in a carriage carved all over with thorns, and had made every statue in the courtyard come alive and at least one of them wave a sword, but she decided to keep that to herself, because she had just caught a whiP of aetherial combustion.

She stumbled back as a thread of golden light >ig>agged through the air in front of her, like a rip appearing in a piece of fabric. The doors to the manor rippled, distorted, as a man pushed a Aap of air aside and stepped through, aPording a glimpse of a warmly lit study behind him. Elisabeth blinked, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. It was as if the world had transformed into a scene painted onto a set of curtains, and this other room was what lay beyond them. The man—the Chancellor—let go of the air, or the curtain, or whatever it was, and the sliver of study closed up behind him. As quickly as it had broken, reality returned to normal.

Chancellor Ashcroft beamed, bowing to the reporters as they broke into applause. Though he was almost old enough to be Elisabeth’s father, he was undeniably handsome. His brilliant smile revealed laugh lines around his eyes that gave him a look of mischievous good humor, and his thick, glossy blond hair didn’t show a hint of gray. He wore a golden cloak over a pearl-white suit, with an embroidered gold waistcoat on underneath.

“It’s so good to see you, Nathaniel,” he said. “And you must be Miss Scrivener. I am Oberon Ashcroft, the Chancellor of Magic. What a pleasure to meet you.”

He took her hand and kissed it. All the words Aew out of Elisabeth’s head like a Aock of startled pigeons. No one had ever kissed her before, even on her hand. When Ashcroft straightened again, she saw that while his right eye was bright blue, the left was a deep, gleaming crimson that caught the light like a ruby. Remembering what Silas had told her, she guessed that the crimson eye was his demonic mark.

“Miss Scrivener, I must apologi>e for the danger you encountered last night. I never imagined that such a thing could happen—1ends, running wild through the streets—but that’s no excuse for failing to ensure your safety while you were under the Magisterium’s protection.”

“Don’t you mean its custody?” she asked. A few of the reporters gasped, and Elisabeth fro>e, feeling a stirring of panic.

But Ashcroft didn’t look angry. Instead, he gave her a rueful smile. “No— you’re quite right. The Magisterium made a mistake, and it would be distasteful of me to pretend otherwise. How are you coping?”

His concern took her aback. “I . . .”

“You’ve been through a terrible ordeal. Accused of a crime you didn’t commit, imprisoned, attacked by demons, and of course the loss of your Director, Irena. She was a remarkable woman. I had the pleasure of meeting her some years ago.”

Suddenly, Elisabeth’s eyes prickled with unshed tears. “I am well,” she said, squaring her shoulders, willing the tears to retreat. This was the 1rst time anyone had suggested to her that she had a right to grieve the Director’s death, rather than accusing her of being responsible for it. Ashcroft even knew the Director by name. “I just want whoever killed her to be caught.”

“Yes.” He looked at her gravely. “Yes, I understand. Excuse me for a moment . . .” He turned to the reporters. “I called this press meeting to make a brief announcement. Following the events of last night, and having reviewed certain discrepancies in the official report from Summershall, Miss Elisabeth Scrivener is no longer a suspect in our investigation.” Shock jolted through Elisabeth. “She is, instead, to be commended by the Magisterium for her brave actions in Summershall, which saved countless lives. The loss of a Class Eight grimoire is devastating to Austermeerish magic, but Miss Scrivener made the best choice available to her in a critical situation, and she performed to the highest possible standard. I will be personally sending a

letter of recommendation to the Collegium, advising the preceptors to consider her for warden’s training when she completes her apprenticeship.”

Elisabeth swayed on her feet. A hand steadied her, a light, unexpected touch between her shoulders. Nathaniel stood at her side, ga>ing straight ahead.

“As you know,” Ashcroft was saying, “the Great Libraries were built by my ancestor, Cornelius, so my commitment to bringing the saboteur to justice is far more than just a professional concern 

Elisabeth found that she could no longer follow the words. Her heart felt like it had grown too large for the con1nes of her ribs. She tried to keep her posture straight, desperate to look worthy of the Chancellor’s praises, while privately, shamefully, another part of her wanted to hide. She had never known that hope could hurt so badly, like blood rushing back to a deadened limb.

She was grateful when afterward, as the reporters dispersed, Ashcroft drew Nathaniel aside to speak to him alone. She studied the gryphons on the door, pretending she couldn’t hear snatches of their conversation through the sound of carriage wheels crunching on gravel.

“Before you leave,” Ashcroft was saying in a low voice, “I wanted to thank you for what you did for Miss Scrivener.” He paused. “Ah. I see. You haven’t told her, have you?”

Nathaniel’s reply was indistinct. What were they talking about? If only she could see their faces. The footman came past carrying her trunk, and she moved out of the way. When she looked up, Nathaniel was nowhere to be seen. Glancing around wildly, she saw him stepping briskly toward the coach, his emerald cloak billowing at his heels.

“Nathaniel!” she called out, as he began to climb into the coach. He Ainched at the sound of her voice. Then he angled his face, waiting.

“You were going to leave without saying good-bye,” she said.

“Good-bye, Scrivener,” he said promptly, without looking at her. “It truly was a pleasure, aside from the time you bit me. Try not to knock over any of the Chancellor’s bookcases.”

Elisabeth had a strange feeling in her chest, like a soft piece of parchment being torn, just a little. She might never see Nathaniel again. She still didn’t have his measure, but they had fought together last night—saved lives

together—and surely that counted for something. Surely it was enough for him to want to shake her hand, or at least look her in the eye before he left.

She wished she had something better to say. But she couldn’t think of anything, so she only said, “Good-bye.”

Nathaniel hesitated for a long moment. Silas, sitting in the driver’s seat, passed a glance between the two of them, as though he could see something between herself and Nathaniel that she could not. Then Nathaniel nodded, in a formal sort of way, and climbed inside and shut the door. Silas Aicked the reins. The coach began to move.

So that’s it, she thought.

She watched the coach grow smaller as it traveled along the drive, the sun shining from its lacquered roof, feeling a loss she couldn’t explain.

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