Chapter no 13

Sorcery of Thorns

“HOW CHARMING YOU look.” The demon came forward and draped her wrists over Elisabeth’s shoulders, her eyes shimmering crimson in the candlelight. Her inhuman beauty was at once alluring and uninviting, like a sculpture made of ice. “Then again,” she went on, “it isn’t difficult for mortals to look charming. You are all so delicate, so endearingly soft and fragile, like kittens. Won’t you come with me?”

A familiar sensation of woo>y calm descended over Elisabeth. Her eyes drooped, suddenly heavy, and she fell into the demon’s cold arms. But though she no longer had control over her body, her thoughts remained clear. The desire to give in and trust didn’t overpower her as it had before. For some reason, the demon’s inAuence wasn’t working as it should.

What was it Silas had said? She had resisted him. Ferhaps she was resisting now.

The demon didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. She smiled and brushed a lock of hair away from Elisabeth’s cheek as if she were a doll. Then she took Elisabeth’s hand in hers, frigid as death beneath the glove’s rough lace. “What a sweet girl you are,” she said, and led her out of the music room, back into the hall.

Elisabeth caught glimpses of herself in the mirrors they passed: ripples of sapphire silk and chestnut waves, her own face as blank as a mannequin as she walked at the demon’s side. Her panic was muAed and far away, an intruder pounding on the door in some hidden recess of her mind. Oddly, she was grateful for it, because the lack of fear allowed her to think. She guessed this was Ashcroft’s servant, Lorelei. The color of her eyes was identical to the Chancellor’s mismatched red one. But what did she want? Where were they going?

They traveled deeper into the manor, hand in hand. Lorelei took her through a salon, where Hannah stood polishing the silver with a dreamy expression, humming to herself—snatches of the same song Lorelei had been singing moments ago, slightly out of tune. She didn’t so much as glance in their direction.

Several turns later, they reached a polished oak door. Firelight Aickered on the parquet underneath. Lorelei entered without knocking, revealing the same study that Ashcroft had stepped out from earlier that day, when he’d appeared from thin air in front of everyone.

A 1re crackled in the hearth on one side of the room. On the other, a great arched window looked out over a black ocean of trees, beyond which lay the glittering lights of the city. Ashcroft sat at a desk opposite the door. Not merely sitting, but staring down at a grimoire, his hands braced on either side of it, gripping the desk’s edges. His ga>e was unfocused, and his arms shook with tension. An ominous pressure 1lled the air. The grimoire Aoated above the desk, its pages drifting weightlessly, as though it hung suspended in water. The other grimoires in the shelves along the walls whispered and rustled uneasily.

Lorelei lowered Elisabeth onto a divan. As soon as she touched the cushions, she went boneless. One of her legs slid oP to hang at an awkward angle, but she was powerless to move it. She felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

“Master,” Lorelei said.

Ashcroft sucked in a harsh breath, surfacing from his trance. He stared in their direction uncomprehendingly, his brow creased. Then he blinked, coming back to himself. He unfastened his cloak and swept it over the grimoire, hiding it from view. Elisabeth’s ears popped as the pressure in the room returned to normal.

“What is this? Has something happened to Miss Scrivener?” He crossed the room in a few quick strides and took Elisabeth’s wrist, pressing his thumb to her pulse. Then he frowned at Lorelei, perplexed. “You’ve glamoured her. My orders . . .”

“Were not to harm her. I thought we should have a talk, master.”

“Don’t be upset,” Ashcroft said. “Everything has worked out quite perfectly.”

“You could have told me what you were planning!” Her voice lowered to a hiss. “You invited all those humans to come watch! Those reporters!”

“My dear, you know how I prefer to conduct my aPairs. The more publicly I go about my business, the less room there is for speculation.”

Lorelei paced over to the window and drew the curtains. “It isn’t just the reporters. You’ve involved that sorcerer, Thorn. I don’t like it. His servant has a reputation.”

“Don’t we all?”

“You don’t understand. I grew up hearing stories about Silas in the Otherworld. Can you imagine what it takes for a being to become notorious in ouv realm?” She wrapped her arms around herself and smoothed her hands over her bare skin. She stood staring at the curtains, as though she could still see out into the night, far across the city. “You shouldn’t court the attention of one such as him.”

“He might be fearsome, but he isn’t omniscient. I made sure our helpers remained out of sight.”

Lorelei didn’t reply. Ashcroft crossed to the study’s cabinet and poured himself a drink from a crystal decanter. He sat down on an armchair across from Elisabeth and thoughtfully swirled his glass. He studied her face for a moment, then took a sip.

Elisabeth knew she wasn’t supposed to be hearing any of this as she lay glassy-eyed and compliant on the divan. They spoke as though she weren’t even in the room. And something, she was beginning to reali>e, was terribly wrong.

Ashcroft leaned back and crossed one ankle over the opposite knee, his glass loose in one hand. “Better Nathaniel than someone else from the Magisterium,” he went on 1nally. “If the girl saw something she shouldn’t, don’t you imagine that a diPerent sorcerer might have spelled the evidence from her long before she reached Brassbridge? But Nathaniel—I knew he wouldn’t harm her. I must say, I was quite relieved when he stepped forward with a solution to that particular challenge.” He took a sip. “Otherwise, I would have had to resort to more drastic measures. And you know how much I hate getting my hands dirty.”

Elisabeth’s mind spun sickeningly. Her instincts screamed at her to run, to 1ght, but she couldn’t so much as twitch her little 1nger.

“You should have sent more 1ends, master. You should have ended this instead of drawing it out. Now you can no longer kill her. There are too many humans involved.”

“The intention,” said Ashcroft, “was never to kill her. I merely required an excuse to bring her here. We have only just begun, Lorelei. Whatever mistake occurred in Summershall, I can’t aPord to make it again. There must be no more surviving witnesses.”

“Then what are we to do with hev?” Lorelei spat.

“Who’s to say she’s a witness? She may have seen nothing.” “Even if that is true, she will prove a liability.”

Ashcroft stood. “I know how to deal with her. Lay her out on the Aoor, please, Lorelei. As if she’s taken a fall. Make it look convincing. Then leave us and fetch Hannah.”

The demon’s cold hands curled under Elisabeth’s armpits. “You are infuriating, master,” she murmured.

“Ah, but that is precisely why my life tastes so exceptional to you demons.” He raised the crystal glass, reAecting prisms across his handsome face, and winked. “The bolder and brighter the spirit, the 1ner the vintage.”

Elisabeth’s cheek pressed against the wool carpet. Now she could only see an expanse of patterned 1bers awash in the ruddy glow of the hearth. Thoughts circled in her head like vultures, bleak and inescapable, as Lorelei arranged her boneless limbs: Ashcroft was the saboteur. He had killed the Director. He had sent the 1ends. He was responsible for it all. Nothing seemed real—not the roughness of the carpet against her cheek, nor the warmth of the 1replace soaking her gown. A chill settled deep inside her. Earlier that day, she had come within seconds of sealing her own fate by telling Ashcroft what she knew.

Lorelei’s steps receded. A moment later, a gentle touch alit on Elisabeth’s shoulder. She Ainched—a real Ainch, a physical reaction. The glamour was wearing oP.

“Miss Scrivener?” Ashcroft asked softly. “Miss Scrivener, can you hear me?”

She wanted nothing more than to Ay upright, to defend herself, to scream loud enough to rouse the entire manor, but her only hope of survival was to play along. She raised herself on her elbows, her hair hanging in a curtain

around her face. The sour burn of champagne crept up her throat, and her stomach roiled.

“Do you remember anything? Are you hurt? Allow me to help you.”

“I don’t . . .” Elisabeth shook her head, keeping her face downcast as Ashcroft assisted her upright. She stumbled over a wrinkle in the carpet.

“Careful, now. You’ve taken quite the fall. Hannah”—the door opened

—“could you return Miss Scrivener to her room? She seems to have had an accident.”

“Oh, Miss Scrivener!” Hannah exclaimed.

A Aurry of conversation followed, most of which Elisabeth did not hear, her head pounding numbly with horror. Ashcroft had never intended for the 1ends to kill her. He had expected her and Nathaniel to 1ght them oP, and for the event to reach the papers. He had engineered the entire thing so that he would have an excuse to call oP the Magisterium’s questioning and bring Elisabeth here, to his manor, as his guest.

As his prisoner.

“Yes,” Ashcroft was saying, “she entered the study and simply collapsed— I’ve no idea what she was doing wandering around the manor 

“Oh, sir, I’m so terribly sorry! I’m afraid that must be my fault! I looked for her everywhere—”

“Flease don’t blame yourself,” Ashcroft said kindly. “I will call for a physician 1rst thing in the morning. Rest assured that Miss Scrivener will receive nothing but the 1nest care.”

• • •

The next day, Elisabeth sat staring at the silver molding on the bedroom’s wall as the physician’s stethoscope pressed against her chest. She had spent the last twenty minutes breathing in and out according to his instructions, allowing him to peer into her mouth, eyes, and ears, and sitting still as he probed her neck and underarms, muttering indistinctly about glands.

While she waited, she clung grimly to hope. Ashcroft didn’t know that she had overheard everything last night. All she needed was a moment alone with the physician, and she could explain the situation and get help. But Hannah, who had fussed over her all morning, refused to leave her side. She sat on the

plush white love seat beside the bed, wringing her hands. Mr. Hob stood near the door, waiting to show the physician back downstairs.

Elisabeth couldn’t trust anyone except the physician. If Hannah was any indication, the servants held their employer in high esteem. At best, she wouldn’t believe Elisabeth; at worst, she’d go directly to Ashcroft. And if she did, Elisabeth would be doomed.

“Hmmm,” the physician said as he removed the stethoscope’s ivory trumpet. He jotted something down in his notebook, frowning.

She wouldn’t be surprised if her heartbeat sounded abnormal. She could barely sit still, and she hadn’t slept. The reAection in the vanity’s mirror showed that she was as pale as a ghost, with dark circles beneath her eyes.

“And you say that you grew up in a library,” the physician went on. “Interesting. Do you read many books, Miss Scrivener? Novels?”

“Yes, of course. As many as I can. Doesn’t everyone?”

“Hmmm. Just as I thought.” He scribbled another note. “An excess of novel reading, combined with the excitement of the past few days . . .”

She failed to see how any of this was relevant. “May I speak to you alone?” she asked.

“Of course, Miss Scrivener,” he replied, in a mild, indulgent tone that raised her hackles. But at least he dismissed Hannah and Mr. Hob from the room. “What is it you would like to speak to me about?”

Elisabeth took a deep breath, waiting until the door clicked shut. Then she launched into an explanation immediately, racing through the details of the aetherial combustion in Summershall, the attempt on her life the night before last, and what she had witnessed in Ashcroft’s study. She spoke in a forceful undertone, aware that Hannah might attempt to eavesdrop on the other side of the door. “So you see,” she 1nished, “you must notify someone at once—someone who isn’t involved with the Magisterium, in case any of the other sorcerers are loyal to the Chancellor. Anyone at the Collegium would do, or even the Queen.”

The physician had dutifully taken notes the entire time. “I see,” he said, adding one 1nal Aourish. “And how long have you believed the Chancellor to be responsible?”

“I don’t belieue he is responsible. I know he is.” Elisabeth sat up straighter. “What are you writing?” Among the physician’s scribbled notes, she had

made out the word “delusions.”

He snapped the notebook shut. “I know all of this must be very frightening for you, but try not to agitate yourself. Excitement will only worsen the inAammation.”

She stared. “The—what?”

“The inAammation of your brain, Miss Scrivener,” he explained patiently. “It is quite common among women who read novels.” Before Elisabeth could think of a reply to this baAing remark, he called Hannah back into the room, who looked pinched with worry. “Flease tell the Chancellor that I prescribe a strict period of bed rest for the patient,” he said to her. “It is clear that this is a classic case of hysteria. Miss Scrivener should exert herself as little as possible. Once the swelling in her brain subsides, her mind may return to normal.”

May return?” Hannah gasped.

“I regret to say that sometimes these cases are chronic, even incurable. I understand that she is a foundling, staying here as a ward of Chancellor Ashcroft? Allow me to write down a recommendation for Leadgate Hospital. I am closely acquainted with the principal physician. If Miss Scrivener fails to recover, the Chancellor need only send a letter—”

Elisabeth’s blood pounded hot with anger. She had listened for long enough. This physician was just like Warden Finch, just like Ashcroft: a man who thought he could do whatever he liked to her because he happened to be in a greater position of power. But he was wrong.

When he stood, she gripped his arm with enough force to halt him in his tracks. He tried in vain to pull away, then gaped at her as though seeing her for the 1rst time, his mouth opening and closing like a startled 1sh. She tugged him close. No match for her strength, he lost his balance and nearly toppled face-1rst onto the bed.

“Listen to me,” she said, in a low, 1erce murmur too quiet for Hannah to hear. “I didn’t grow up in an ordinary library. I grew up in a Great Library. You may scoP at books, but you have never seen a real book in your entire life, and you should count yourself lucky, because you wouldn’t survive a moment alone with one.” She tightened her 1ngers until he gasped. “You must go to the Collegium at once. The Chancellor said that he’s only just begun. Whatever he is planning, more people will die. Do you understand? You must . . . you must . . .”

The physician had paled. “Miss Scrivener?” he prompted.

Elisabeth let go of him and pointed at the mirror. Or rather, at Mr. Hob’s reAection—for although the butler stood outside in the hallway, the mirror made it possible to see him around the corner, waiting. Only he was no longer a butler, or even a man.

“Look,” she whispered.

Mr. Hob’s suit was the sole feature that remained unchanged. But now it hung on a gaunt, slumped, inhuman frame. His complexion had turned a sickly shade of lavender, and his skin looked grotesquely melted, gobbets of Aesh dangling from his cheeks and chin like drips of tallow. His ears were pointed on the ends; his purple hands were clawed. Worst of all were his eyes, unnaturally huge and round and pale, like saucers. They shone in the shadows of the hall, a pair of gla>ed moons ga>ing back at her.

Glancing uncertainly between Elisabeth and the physician, Hannah opened the door the rest of the way. Mr. Hob didn’t react. He stood silently, unblinkingly, with his horrible shining eyes, as everyone else stared at him.

“You see,” Elisabeth whispered. “He is a demon. Some kind of goblin, or an imp.”

There came a long pause. Then, the tension shattered. The physician cleared his throat and leaped away, skirting quickly toward the door, as if Elisabeth might lunge out of bed and attack him. As if she were the demon, not Mr. Hob.

“As I was saying,” he said to Hannah, “please give my recommendation to the Chancellor at the earliest opportunity.” He shoved a piece of paper into her hand. “This is obviously a very serious case. Leadgate has state-of-the-art facilities 

He didn’t appear the slightest bit distressed by Mr. Hob as the butler led him out of sight. His voice receded down the hallway, extolling the virtues of ice water baths for the “mentally disturbed.” Elisabeth sat stunned and shaking as his reaction sank in. None of them had been able to see Mr. Hob’s true form except for her.

The mirror framed her reAection, alone. Trembling beneath a thin nightgown, the blood drained from her face, Elisabeth had to admit that she looked every inch the girl the physician claimed her to be. And she was

trapped in Ashcroft Manor more certainly than she had been imprisoned in the Great Library’s dungeon, at the mercy of her greatest enemy.

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