Chapter no 14

Sorcery of Thorns

OVER THE NEXT few days, Chancellor Ashcroft treated Elisabeth with nothing but solicitous concern. She was con1ned to her room during the mornings and evenings, but for a brief time in the afternoons, Hannah dressed her and brought her down to the conservatory for some fresh air. There she rested under Hannah’s supervision in a cushioned wicker armchair, with a blanket over her legs, breathing in the humid, earthy sweetness of plants and Aowers. A riot of blossoms and lacy ferns enveloped her, their exotic petals dripping with moisture. This would have formed the very image of paradise, had she not also been surrounded by demons.

Now that she had seen Mr. Hob’s real form, she saw demons everywhere. They scuttled to and fro on errands. They swept leaves from the Aagstones, watered the pots, and pruned the Aowers. Most were less imposing than Mr. Hob: smaller, their skin scaled instead of wattled. Some had sharp teeth, and others long, pointed ears. All of them were dressed incongruously in Ashcroft’s golden livery. Guests often strolled along the paths, but they never spared the demons a second glance. To them, the creatures appeared as nothing more than ordinary servants. And the demons likewise ignored the guests, going dutifully about their tasks.

It was not the demons themselves that frightened Elisabeth, but rather the question of how Ashcroft had gotten so many to obey him. They were clearly lesser demons, not highborn demons like Silas and Lorelei. What had he promised them? What oPer could possibly be tempting enough that they were willing to don uniforms and serve him? The possibilities were too horrifying to imagine.

She waited breathlessly for a chance to speak to someone, anyone, from outside the manor, but none of the guests ventured close enough for her to

warn them. They observed her from a distance, as if she were one of the Chancellor’s rare hothouse specimens: a carnivorous pitcher plant, or a poisonous oleander.

That afternoon, she forced herself not to Ainch as a demon crept closer with a pair of shears and began trimming a palm behind her. Its skin was bright red in color, and its eyes were pitch black from edge to edge. Hannah hummed obliviously, tugging a needle through her embroidering hoop. The tune was lilting and odd—another one of Lorelei’s melodies.

Whispers caught Elisabeth’s attention. A group of girls her own age stood peering around a splashing indoor fountain, dressed in silk and lace. She could only imagine what she looked like to them, sitting stock-still, darting tense glances at a servant.

“What a pity,” one of them said. “It was so kind of Chancellor Ashcroft to take her in. I hear she is quite mad.”

“No!” exclaimed another, clutching her parasol.

“Oh, yes. Apparently she assaulted a physician. She nearly knocked him to the Aoor, according to Father. Her state of derangement results in beastly strength.”

“I’m not surprised. She’s enormous! Have you ever seen a girl so tall?” The 1rst said archly, “I might have once, in a traveling fair.”

“I heard from Lady Ingram,” yet another put in, “that she behaved strangely at the dinner the other night. She spoke little, and when she did, she was rude and appeared to have never been taught any manners. The warning signs were there from the start, said Lady Ingram.”

Anger boiled up inside Elisabeth, threatening to spill over. She didn’t hate easily, but she found in that moment that she hated Lady Ingram, hated these girls—how could they be so cruel and speak of manners in the very same breath?

A girl gasped. “Do you see how she’s glaring at us?” “Quickly, run—”

Elisabeth’s fury drained away as they Aed out of sight, their dresses’ ribbons Aouncing through the palm fronds. This, she had just reali>ed, was yet another element of Ashcroft’s plan.

Horribly, it made a great deal of sense. The more he displayed her in public, the more his guests could gossip about her, becoming increasingly

convinced of her madness. Meanwhile, they saw for themselves that he was sparing no expense to keep her comfortable and well. Just as he placed an illusion on his servants, he wove a greater deception around himself, all without expending a single drop of magic. Even if Elisabeth did manage to speak to someone, they would only see her attempts to seek help as further evidence of her derangement.

She saw no way out of the trap he had built for her. Escape wasn’t an option. If she attempted to run, he would know that she suspected him, and the game would come to an end. She would lose any chance she had left to expose him, however small. Her only choice was to play along.

Somewhere outside the conservatory, a clock chimed the hour.

“Come along, dear,” Hannah said, rising from her chair. “It’s time for your daily visit with the Chancellor. What a kind man, to take such a personal interest in your recovery. I do hope you appreciate everything he’s doing for you.”

Elisabeth bit her tongue as she followed Hannah out of the conservatory. If only Hannah knew his true purpose for summoning her to his study every day. Dread closed in on her with every step she took into the manor’s shining, mirrored halls. By the time she reached the study, her insides were in knots. She struggled to control her expression as the door swung open, revealing Ashcroft wiping his hands on a cloth.

“Good afternoon, Miss Scrivener. Why don’t you come in?” Though he sounded as warm as ever, she glimpsed a spark of frustration dancing within his mismatched eyes. It was the only sign that these visits hadn’t yet yielded the information he desired. “Hannah, would you bring us tea?”

At his welcoming gesture, Elisabeth stepped inside and sat rigidly on the sofa. She forced her eyes not to stray to the grimoire on Ashcroft’s desk. He always covered it with his cloak before she entered, but she knew it was the same grimoire he’d been studying her 1rst night in the manor. Its presence left a sour, musty taste on the back of her tongue. The way he was scrubbing at his hands suggested it was equally unpleasant to touch.

Ashcroft set the cloth aside and settled across from her in his favorite armchair. He looked so genuinely concerned that, despite everything, she could almost believe that some part of him cared about her. Then sunlight

struck the depths of his ruby eye, and she remembered in a Aash the way the Director’s red hair had spilled across the Aoor.

“How are you feeling today?” he asked, with a gentleness that made her skin crawl.

“Much better, thank you.” She swallowed, gathering her courage. “I think I might be ready to leave now.”

Ashcroft’s brow furrowed sympathetically. “Just a few more days, Miss Scrivener. The physician was most emphatic about the importance of bed rest.”

She looked down, trying not to let her terror show. Luckily, the physician hadn’t included what she’d told him in his notes. Ashcroft wouldn’t bother with these meetings if he had.

A knock heralded Hannah’s return with a tray of tea and iced cakes. Elisabeth made a show of nibbling on them, even though she could barely force their sweetness down. Her stomach lurched when the door clicked open again. This time, it wasn’t Hannah. She had only a few seconds of warning before Lorelei’s glamour wrapped around her like a warm, smothering blanket. Then Ashcroft leaned forward, folding his hands in front of his knees.

Every day, this was how the interrogation began.

“Now, Miss Scrivener,” he said, “why don’t we talk about the attack on Summershall again? Let’s see if you remember any new details, shall we?”

He sounded as kind as he had a moment ago, but the good humor had drained from his expression. Elisabeth knew that she walked along a knife’s edge. One slip, and he would 1nd out that Lorelei’s glamour wasn’t working as it should, compelling her to tell the truth. A single lapse could spell death. She strove to keep her expression blank and her voice wooden, grateful for the glamour’s numbing inAuence. Without it, she wouldn’t be able to sit and face Ashcroft calmly. More importantly, she wouldn’t be able to lie.

“Can you tell me why you woke up that night?” Ashcroft pressed. “Did you hear something? Sense something?”

He had already asked her that question many times. She took care to keep her answer the same. “A storm blew in. The wind was loud—it blew branches against my window.”

He frowned, dissatis1ed. “And when you got out of bed, did you feel any diPerently than normal?”

He wanted to know how she had evaded his sleeping spell. But even Elisabeth didn’t have an answer to that question. Mechanically, she shook her head.

Ashcroft’s jaw tightened. It was the 1rst indication that his patience had limits, a reaction that left her ill. She didn’t want to witness what he was capable of when he lost his temper.

A sound came from Lorelei in the corner, where she was applying rosin to the bow of a violin. Today she wore a crimson gown that matched her lips and eyes. It was so long that it spilled oP the chair like a waterfall and formed a shimmering pool on the carpet, as though she sat in a puddle of blood. “The girl is hiding something from you, master,” she said.

Ashcroft looked around. “Are you certain? Is that possible?”

The hair stood up on the back of Elisabeth’s neck. She forced herself not to react, aware that she could betray herself with any movement.

“If she has a secret, the impulse to protect it may remain, even through a glamour. Most humans haven’t the fortitude. But this girl is strong-willed. Her spirit burns as brightly as a Aame.” Lorelei glanced at Elisabeth beneath her eyelashes, a gesture so like Silas that goose bumps spread across her arms. “I do so wish I could taste it.”

Ashcroft leaned back, steepling his 1ngers. “What do you propose I do?” “Enter her mind. Take the memory from her by force, and destroy the


“It’s too early for that. She must be seen for a few more days before I get rid of her. If news of her fate reaches the papers, I will need witnesses to support the physician’s diagnosis.”

Lorelei gave a delicate shrug. “Very well, master. And you’re certain her presence here isn’t distracting you from your work?”

Ashcroft glanced at his desk, at the grimoire hidden beneath his cloak. Based on the way it had levitated that 1rst night in the study, Elisabeth guessed it was a Class Five, or even a Class Six. Frivate ownership of grimoires Class Four and up had been made illegal by the Reforms. If Ashcroft was willing to keep something that dangerous in his home, the book had to be important.

He sagged back in his armchair, shadows etching deep lines across his face. “It’s proving stubborn,” he said, “but I’ll have what I need before Harrows.”

Elisabeth’s pulse quickened. The Great Library of Harrows was located in the northeast corner of Austermeer, where the Blackwald met the mountains

—the most remote possible location to store high-security grimoires. Descriptions she had read of the place painted it as a fortress built of black stone from the bones of the Elkenspine Mountains. Its unbreachable vault contained two of the kingdom’s three Class Ten grimoires. Did he aim to attack it, like Summershall and Knockfeld?

Whatever his plans, the grimoire on his desk clearly played some essential role. And no matter the risk, she had to 1nd out what it was.

• • •

Her chance arrived two days later, when Mr. Hob appeared in the doorway in the middle of her questioning. “A visitor,” he announced in his deep, garbled voice. “Lord Kicklighter here to see you.”

“With no word ahead?” Ashcroft’s expression darkened. “I’ll meet him in the salon. Lorelei, watch over Elisabeth.” He strode from the room, and a moment later Lord Kicklighter’s greeting boomed down the hall.

Elisabeth’s mind raced. Judging by the length of Kicklighter’s handshake the other night, Ashcroft was going to be occupied for at least a few minutes. She felt Lorelei’s bored ga>e tickling over her. All she needed was to get the demon to leave the study for a few seconds. But she had nothing to work with. If only she were closer to the bookcases, she was certain she could manage to knock one over.

A decorative mirror on the wall aPorded her a view of herself sitting on the couch. She looked drawn and pale, at odds with the extravagant amethyst gown Hannah had laced her into that morning. She was growing used to the way the expensive corsets squee>ed her chest, but at tense moments like this, the garments still made her feel short of breath.

An idea struck her like lightning. She gasped loudly, drawing Lorelei’s attention. Her hand Aew to her breast. Then she rolled her eyes up into her head and collapsed onto the carpet with a lifeless mhum9, landing so hard that she rattled the teacups on the coPee table.

Silence. Elisabeth felt the weight of Lorelei’s regard. Once she seemed to decide that Elisabeth wasn’t faking it, she rose with a whisper of satin and stepped over Elisabeth’s prone body on her way outside. As soon as she had gone, Elisabeth hiked up her skirts and scrambled to the desk. Bracing herself, she swept away Ashcroft’s cloak.

The grimoire lay open beneath a length of iron chain stretched along the valley of its spine, its pages 1lled with a slanted, spiky script. That was all she had a chance to observe before a wave of malevolence crashed against her, forcing her a step backward. A man’s voice roared wordlessly within her mind, tearing at her in a maelstrom of anguish and fury.

She didn’t have time to wonder whether she’d made a mistake. The edges of the room darkened; the grimoire’s pages whipped as if the study’s windows had been thrown open during a howling gale. She clenched her teeth and pushed against the grimoire’s will, stretching out her hand, trembling with the ePort. Sweat beaded her brow. Even the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece seemed to slow, like the air had turned to treacle. At last her 1ngertips brushed leather, and a confused, sickening rush of emotions thrummed through her body. Longing. Rage. Betrayal. She had never felt anything like it before. She swallowed thickly, wishing she had iron gloves to dampen the grimoire’s psychic emanations.

“I’m not your enemy,” she forced out. “I’m here as a prisoner of Chancellor Ashcroft. I intend to stop him, if I can.”

At once the man’s voice fell silent, and the pressure in the air disappeared. Elisabeth fell forward, catching herself on the desk, her muscles quivering from the strain. The grimoire now lay quiescent. Her desperate guess had proved correct—its malice and fury had been meant for Ashcroft, not for her. “What does he want from you?” she murmured. Carefully, she lifted it

from the desk.

Its cover was bound in strange scaled leather, crimson in color, which reminded her unsettlingly of the imps in the conservatory. A 1ve-pointed pentagram was embla>oned on the front. Age had faded the title, but the words remained legible: The Codex Daemonicus.

Her heart skipped a beat. She had read this grimoire’s title before, and not long ago. Where had she seen it? In Nathaniel’s coach, traveling through the Blackwald . . .

I’ll haue mhat I need befove Havvoms, Ashcroft had said. Whatever he needed, it sounded as though he would 1nd it in this book. She wracked her memory, trying to recall why the Lexicon had mentioned this volume. It had been in the chapter about demons. All she could remember was that it supposedly contained the ravings of a mad sorcerer, who claimed to have hidden some kind of secret inside—

Footsteps clipped down the hall. Breathless, Elisabeth snatched Ashcroft’s cloak and yanked it back over the grimoire. Hoping that its psychic screams had been audible only to her, she scrambled across the room and threw herself back on the Aoor, arranging her limbs as closely to their original position as she could manage.

She wasn’t a moment too soon. A shadow fell over her just seconds later, and then an acidic smell seared her nostrils, >inging through every nerve in her body. She shot upright, strangling back a shout, only for Lorelei to catch her in an unyielding grip, a suggestion of claws pricking through the lace of her gloves. The demon held a crystal vial full of what appeared to be salt.

“There, there,” she soothed, her tone cloyingly sweet. “You’re all right. It was just smelling salts, darling. You had a little spell, but it’s over now.”

“Give her to me,” Ashcroft said. “This farce has gone on long enough. It’s time.”

Lorelei let go of her and stepped back. Before Elisabeth could react, Ashcroft sei>ed her and spun her around. His expression was terrible to behold. It was as though he had spent all of his kindly charm putting up with Lord Kicklighter, and he had none left to maintain the act.

His patience with her had reached an end. Now, she was about to meet the monster beneath the man.

“Listen to me, girl,” he said, and shook her until her teeth rattled, “you mill tell me what you know.” And then he splayed his palm over her forehead, and Elisabeth’s thoughts exploded outward like a newborn star.

The study vanished; everything went pitch black except for her and Ashcroft and sharp-edged silver fragments that hung glinting in the darkness around them. Familiar images Aowed over the surfaces of the fragments in silent Aashes of color and movement. They were her own memories, Aoating in a void like the shards of a shattered mirror. Each one showed a diPerent

scene. The Director’s red hair shining in the torchlight. Warden Finch raising his switch. Katrien’s laughing face.

Though Elisabeth still dimly felt the Chancellor’s brutal grip on her arm, in this place, he stood apart from her. He turned, taking in the fragmented memories, and then raised his hand. The shards began to spin around them in a glittering cyclone, blurring together to show him not just isolated fragments out of order, but whole memories, Elisabeth’s life Aowing past on a shimmering river of glass. Distorted sounds echoed through the void: laughter, whispers, screams. Her stomach clenched as she saw herself as a little girl bounding through the orchard toward Summershall, her brown hair Aying out behind her, Master Hargrove struggling to keep up. These were hev memories. They were not for Ashcroft to see.

“Show me what you’ve been hiding,” the Chancellor commanded. His cruel, hollow voice rang from every direction.

The bright summer afternoon faded away, replaced by a ghostly image of Elisabeth descending the Great Library’s stairs in her nightgown, a candle raised high. She felt his magic drawing the memory out of her, a force as inexorable as the undertow of a tide, and panic squee>ed her lungs. She could feel the memory, hear it, smell it. She watched as Memory-Elisabeth unlocked the door and stood ga>ing wide-eyed into the dark. Any second now she would notice the aetherial combustion, proof that a sorcerer had committed the crime.

Elisabeth had to stop it. But she couldn’t resist the pull of Ashcroft’s sorcery. She sensed that if she fought him, her memories would shatter into a thousand pieces, gone forever. He would destroy her mind—her very life—if he had to. She needed to show him something.

So she reached deep inside herself, where her most precious memories were hidden, and found something that she could give.

“Do you know why I chose to keep you, Elisabeth?” the Director asked.

Elisabeth’s breath caught. The memory had sped forward to the moment that she had found the Director’s body. They were the same words from the vault, but this time whispered from the Director’s dying lips, last words meant for Elisabeth alone. She had succeeded in blurring the two memories together. And it felt real, because to her it mas real. Grief and longing speared

her heart like an arrow. She had never expected to hear the Director’s voice again.

“It was storming, I recall.” The halting words fell from the Director’s cracked lips. “The grimoires were restless that night 

Ga>ing up at the memory, Ashcroft frowned. “The Great Library had claimed you.”

Ashcroft shook his head in disgust and turned away. He gestured, and the shards began to disintegrate, crashing like a sheet of water toward the Aoor.

“No!” Elisabeth shouted. Too late, she remembered what Lorelei had said two days ago. Tabe the memovy fvom hev by fovce, and destvoy the vest.

“You belonged here 

Reality Aooded back in a tempest of color and sound. Someone was screaming. Elisabeth’s throat was raw. All of her was raw, and she tasted salt, and copper, and the world stank of singed metal.

Ashcroft’s voice coasted above her agony like a ship on a calm sea. “She knew nothing. That memory she hid from us—it was just a sentimental triAe. Important to her, perhaps, but not to us. Fetch Mr. Hob. The arrangements have been made.” His voice receded, or perhaps that was her getting farther away, tumbling down into some dark place from which there was no return. “She will be sent to Leadgate tonight.”

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