Chapter no 16

Sorcery of Thorns

“THERE MUST BE some mistake,” Elisabeth said to the freckled boy behind the counter. “Master Hargrove has known me my entire life. He wouldn’t send this reply.”

The paper shook between her 1ngers. The terse message read only, We haue no vecovd of an a99ventice named Zlisabeth Scviuenev at the Gveat libvavy of Summevshall. Underneath, in lieu of a signature, someone had stamped the Collegium’s crossed key and quill. That meant the letter had been written by a warden, even though she had addressed it to Hargrove.

The clerk looked sympathetic, but his eyes kept darting nervously to the glass front of the post office. “I’m sorry, miss. I don’t know what to tell you.”

The paper blurred as she attempted to focus. This was wrong. Surely she was—she was—

“It’s Finch, the new Director,” she heard herself say. “He must have intercepted my letter. He’s stripped me from the records 

Someone cleared his throat nearby. Elisabeth glanced over her shoulder in time to see the well-dressed gentleman in line behind her whisper something to his wife, both of them eyeing Elisabeth with a combination of disapproval and unease.

She looked back at the clerk and saw herself through his pitying ga>e. She had been sleeping on the streets for the past few days. Her hair was tangled, her clothes dirty. Worst of all, her urgent attempts to contact the Great Library of Summershall were beginning to resemble the actions of a madwoman. An unfamiliar feeling of shame burned inside her stomach.

“Flease,” she said, the words rasping through her sore throat. “Can you give me directions to Hemlock Fark? I know someone who lives there.”

The clerk wetted his lips, glancing between her and the waiting couple. She could tell he didn’t believe her. “Could I post a letter for you instead, miss?”

Elisabeth had used all of Mercy’s money sending the 1rst letter. She couldn’t pay for a second. Suddenly, the shame overwhelmed her. She mumbled an apology and ducked past the staring couple, pressing a hand to her mouth as she Aed from the post office. As soon as she reached the street, she doubled over in a coughing 1t. Fedestrians gave her a wide berth, shooting her troubled looks. With a trembling hand, she folded the letter and slipped it into her pocket.

Her fever was getting worse. Yesterday morning, after sleeping huddled up and shivering in a doorway, she had woken with a cough. Today she felt so disoriented that she’d barely found her way back to the post office.

Her heel slipped on something slimy as she started down the sidewalk. A wet newspaper, pasted to the gutter. She peeled it free and held its translucent headline to the light, even though she had already read the article a do>en times since her escape from Leadgate. THIRD ATTACK ON A GREAT LIBRARY— FETTERING IN FLAMES, the front page proclaimed. Beneath that there was an illustration of a spiny, deformed monstrosity—the paper’s interpretation of a Male1ct—howling in front of an inferno. The article went on to say that there had been at least two do>en casualties in the village, some lives claimed by the Class Nine Male1ct, others by the bla>e. The number made her head spin. Traders from Fettering occasionally stopped by Summershall’s market. She might have met some of the people who had died.

Near the end, there was a quote from Chancellor Ashcroft: “Rt this time me belieue the saboteuv is a foveign agent movbing to undevmine the stvength of Rustevmeevish magic. The Magistevium mill sto9 at nothing to a99vehend the cul9vit and vestove ovdev to ouv gveat bingdom.”

The paper crumpled in her hand. The attack had happened while she was trapped in his manor. He had lied to reporters while she lay in bed.

She was running out of time to stop him.

Yet the letter’s response had left her unmoored. Weeks ago she wouldn’t have bothered with the letter; she would have charged straight to the Collegium and pounded on the front doors until someone answered. Now she knew that if she did that, she would be turned away, or worse. She had

counted on arming herself with Master Hargrove’s good word to prove that she was someone worth listening to. The anticipation of holding his response

—of being vindicated at last—was what had kept her going through the long, cold nights and the gnawing ache of hunger. Now she had nothing.

No . . . not nothing. She still had Nathaniel. But days of searching hadn’t led her any closer to Hemlock Fark. The city was huge; she felt as though she could remain lost within it forever, growing ever more invisible to the people passing by, until she faded away to a shadow. No one had proven willing to help her. Few were even willing to look at her.

She didn’t know if Nathaniel would be any diPerent. But of everyone in Brassbridge, he was the only person she could trust.

A glimpse of a short, slim boy passing through the crowd yanked Elisabeth to a halt. She stood fro>en on the sidewalk as people Aowed around her. It didn’t seem possible. Either her fever was causing her to hallucinate, or Silas had appeared as though she had summoned him out of thin air by thinking his master’s name. Could she be mistaken?

She whirled around, searching for another sign of him across the street. Her ga>e latched onto a slight 1gure stepping neatly through the afternoon bustle. The young man wasn’t wearing Silas’s green livery, but instead a 1nely tailored suit, a cravat tied impeccably around his pale neck. But his hair— pure white, held back with a ribbon—could belong to no one else. He was not a hallucination. He was real.

She hesitated, wavering, and then rushed across the street, the dismayed shout of a carriage driver chasing in her wake. She scanned the crowd once she reached the sidewalk, but Silas was no longer in sight. She hurried along in the direction he had been heading, peering into the windows of shops as she passed. Her own dirty reAection stared back at her, pinched and desperate, her blue eyes bright with fever. She broke into a jog, trying to ignore the 1re that roared in her lungs as she urged her body to move faster.

There. A Aash of white hair ahead, turning onto a side street. She hastened after him, barely noticing that the buildings around her had grown dilapidated, the traffic thinner, its carriages replaced by carts 1lled with junk and wilted produce. Crooked eaves hung over the narrow avenue, strung with unused laundry lines. The damp, dark corners stank of urine. Silas stuck out

like a sore thumb in his expensive suit, but no one spared him a second glance. The same wasn’t true for Elisabeth.

“Where are you going in such a hurry, little miss?”

Her heart tripped. She kept her ga>e 1xed straight ahead, as though she hadn’t noticed the man’s leering face in the periphery of her vision. But he didn’t give up, as she’d hoped. A boot crunched broken glass behind her, and multiple shapes detached from the shade of a nearby building.

“I said, where are you going? Maybe we can help.”

“Give us a smile for our trouble, eh?” another man suggested.

Silas was too far ahead, a shape glimpsed behind a passing cart. Elisabeth tried to call out. Though she only made a hoarse, pathetic sound, he paused and began to turn, a yellow eye Aashing in the light.

She couldn’t tell whether he had truly heard her, or whether the reaction was a coincidence. She didn’t have time to 1nd out. “Silas,” she whispered. And then she ran.

Favement scuPed beneath her heels. When the men moved to cut her oP, she dodged from the main street and into an alley, stumbling over crates and sodden drifts of newspapers. Rats Aed squealing toward a branching alleyway, and she followed them, hoping they knew the best place to hide. As the deep shadows enveloped her, her boots skidded on something slippery. A putrid stench hung in the air, and puddles of Auid shone on the cobblestones, covered in Aoating scum. She had wandered into the rear of a butcher’s shop. Her breath came in labored, agoni>ing rasps.

“This way!” a voice called. The men were close on her heels.

Elisabeth staggered to the end of the alley and around the corner, only to draw up short at a dead end. The building that backed up against this alley looked abandoned. Its windows had been bricked over, and the door, once painted black, was badly peeling and secured with a padlock. She jerked at the doorknob, but the padlock held.

Footsteps splashed through the puddles. There was no use trying to be quiet; her pursuers would notice the adjoining alley any moment now. Fueled by terror, she dug her 1ngers into one of the wooden boards that crisscrossed the door and yanked with all her might, staggering backward when it wrenched free with a metallic squeal of protest. The board had come loose in her hands. Bent, rusty nails protruded from the ends.

She armed herself not a moment too soon. A man appeared at the mouth of the alley, his trousers spattered with congealed blood. His hair was closely shorn, and scabs covered his gaunt cheeks. Revulsion twisted Elisabeth’s gut at the look in his eyes.

He grinned. “There you are, little miss. How about that smile?” “Stay back,” she warned. “I’ll hurt you.”

He didn’t listen. With a yellow-toothed grin still 1xed on his face, he took a step forward. Elisabeth braced herself and swung. The board struck his shoulder and lodged there, stuck fast. He howled, falling to his knees, reaching for the makeshift weapon. When she tore it back out, the nails made a horrible squelch. An arc of blood spattered the brick wall.

Shocked, she stumbled backward until her shoulder blades struck the door. She had slain a Male1ct and battled demons, but this was diPerent. He was a person. No matter how evil he was, he wouldn’t disintegrate into ashes or return to the Otherworld if he died. His moans of pain throbbed sickeningly in her ears.

Ogcium adusque movtem. Was it her duty to 1ght him, even risk killing him, if escaping his clutches meant saving many more lives?

“Over here, you idiots!” the man snarled, clamping his hand over his wet, torn sleeve as he shoved himself upright, using the wall for support. Blood bubbled over his 1ngers as he glared at Elisabeth. “And be careful! She’s found herself a weapon.”

There came no reply from the butcher’s lot. “Did you hear me?”

The alley was silent as a tomb. “Stop fooling around!” he snapped.

There came a faint splashing sound from around the corner. And then a soft, courteous voice said, “Do not judge your friends too harshly. I fear they are indisposed.”

“Is this some sort of joke?” He limped back for a look. All the color drained from his slack face. “What—what ave you?” he stammered.

“That is a difficult question to answer,” the whispering voice replied. “I am an ancient thing, you see. I have brought about the fall of empires and attended the deathbeds of kings. Nations now lost to time once fought wars over the secret of my true name.” He sighed. “But presently, I am

inconvenienced. My day’s plans didn’t include traipsing down a squalid alleyway to dispatch a handful of second-rate criminals. Not in a clean suit, and certainly not in a new pair of shoes.”

The man’s eyes bulged from his head. He tried to run, but that was a mistake. Elisabeth didn’t see what happened after he Aed past the corner, out of sight. She only heard a choked-oP scream, followed by a silence so thick it made her ears ring.

She slid down the door, the stained board clattering to the ground. A cough sei>ed her body and shook her like a rabbit in the jaws of a hound. She blinked back tears as Silas stepped into view. He looked just as he had on the street, except for a spatter of blood on his face. He Aicked a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed the blood away, then examined the soiled handkerchief, pursed his lips, and cast it aside.

“Miss Scrivener,” he said, giving her a minute bow. “Silas,” she gasped. “I’m so glad to see you.”

“Curious. That is not what people usually say to me at a time like this.” “What do they usually say?”

“Generally they cry, or wet themselves.” He studied her. “What are you doing here? Master Thorn and I assumed you would be back in Summershall by now.”

Elisabeth didn’t have the energy to explain Ashcroft and Leadgate. She was no longer certain that the tears in her eyes had to do with how hard she had been coughing. She knew she shouldn’t be this relieved to see Silas—that he was evil, a murderer, a warden’s worst enemy. But he didn’t pretend to be anything other than a monster. In that way, he was more honorable than most of the people she had met since leaving Summershall.

“Did you kill those men?” she asked.

“When one calls upon a demon, one must be prepared for death to follow.”

“I didn’t . . .”

“You spoke my name. You wished for me to save you.”

“You could have let him run,” she said. When he said nothing, only looked at her, she added, “I suppose you will tell me they were bad men, like last time.”

“Would that make you feel better, miss?”

She felt a dull twinge of horror upon reali>ing that it would. And once a person began to think that way, she wasn’t certain how they ever managed to stop. A shiver ran through her. “Don’t say it,” she whispered. “Silas—I’ve seen such terrible things. I’ve . . .”

He knelt in front of her. He reached for her, and she Ainched, but he only placed a bare hand on her forehead, his touch so cold that it burned. “You aren’t well,” he said softly. “How long have you had this fever?”

When she didn’t reply, unsure, he began to unbutton his jacket. She shook her head as he moved to tuck it around her. “I’ll get your clothes dirty,” she protested.

“It matters not, miss. Up you come.”

He lifted her from the ground as easily as he had the last time. Elisabeth wondered if this meant she was 1nished starving, running, sleeping in the rain; perhaps she could stop 1ghting, just for a little while. She turned her face against his chest as he carried her away. “You’re a proper monster, Silas,” she murmured, caught halfway in a dream. “I’m glad of it.”

If he replied, she didn’t hear him. She Aoated through the world as if set adrift in a lifeboat on a gently rocking sea. The next thing she knew, Silas was saying, “Stay awake, Miss Scrivener. Just a little while longer. We’re almost there.”

She reali>ed, foggily, that Silas had loaded her into a carriage, perhaps some time ago. Her head lolled. She blinked and the street came into focus beyond the windows, the grand houses of Hemlock Fark rolling past.

Her eyelids sagged, and her ga>e fell upon Silas’s hands, resting folded on his lap. The claws that tipped his long, white 1ngers were exquisitely clean and manicured—and sharp enough to slit a person’s throat. When he saw her looking, his lips thinned. He slipped his gloves back on, whereupon all evidence of the claws disappeared.

Soon Nathaniel’s manor loomed into view. It had been constructed at the intersection of two angled streets, giving it a curious wedge shape. With its profusion of gargoyles, carvings, and pointed stone 1nials, it resembled a castle squashed down into a brooding, 1ve-story triangle. When the carriage came to a stop, Silas lifted her out. She watched him pay the driver in befuddled fascination. How curious it was to watch someone treat him like a

gentleman, not a demon or even a servant, the driver tipping his hat in respect.

The manor’s front door had six knockers, each in a diPerent si>e, shape, and metal. As Silas opened the door, he struck the plate second from the top. Though it was made of solid verdigris-Aecked copper, it made no sound; instead, a bell rang deep within the house. Elisabeth guessed that each knocker corresponded to a Aoor, with the sixth and lowest belonging to the cellar. Silas caught her up in his arms again, and brought her inside.

Footfalls pounded upstairs. Nathaniel appeared on the landing, taking the steps two at a time. Elisabeth stared. He wore only a pair of comfortable trousers and a loose white shirt, which billowed out around him as he tore barefoot down the stairs. His black hair was such a mess that the silver streak almost wasn’t visible. She had never imagined him like this, unguarded, novmal, but of course he couldn’t spend his entire life wearing a magister’s cloak and a cynical smile. Underneath it all, he was still a boy of eighteen.

Silas helped Elisabeth into one of the leather armchairs in the foyer. She was as limp and weak as she had been under Lorelei’s inAuence, the last of her strength spent defending herself in the alley.

“Silas!” Nathaniel exclaimed. “Do you have my—augh! What is that?” “That is Elisabeth Scrivener, master.”

Nathaniel stiPened, taking in the sight of her. Emotions Aashed across his face too quickly to follow. For a moment, shock prevailed. His ga>e skipped over her bruised skin and 1lthy clothes. Then he withdrew inward, his expression hardening.

“This is a surprise,” he observed in a clipped tone, descending the rest of the stairs at a measured pace. “Why is she here? I thought I told you that I—” He cut himself oP with a quick glance back at Elisabeth, his lips pressed to a thin line.

“She requires a place to stay,” Silas said.

“And you thought it would be an excellent idea to bring her here, of all places?”

“Look at her. She is ill. She has nowhere else to go. When I found her, she was being pursued by criminals.”

Nathaniel’s eyes widened, but he recovered quickly. “I suppose next you’ll be rescuing orphans and helping elderly widows across the street. This is

absurd.” His knuckles had turned white on the banister. “Since when do you care about the welfare of a human being?”

“I am not the one who cares,” Silas said softly. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You care about her, master, more than I have seen you care about anything in years. Don’t attempt to deny it,” he added when Nathaniel opened his mouth. “There is no other reason why you should wish so fervently for her to leave.”

Elisabeth didn’t understand what Silas was saying, but something terrible happened to Nathaniel’s expression. He seemed to reali>e it, and looked away. “This is a wretched idea,” he bit out, “and you should know that better than anyone.”

“I do know better than anyone.” Silas crossed the foyer to stand before him. “Better than you, certainly. And thus I can say with con1dence that isolating yourself in this house isn’t going to spare you from your family’s legacy. It will only drive you to ruin.”

Nathaniel’s face twisted. “I could order you to take her away.”

For a moment, Silas didn’t reply. When he did, he spoke in a whisper. “Yes. According to the terms of our bargain I must obey any command that you give me, no matter how much I dislike it, or how greatly I disagree.”

Nathaniel stepped forward. With his far greater height he towered over Silas, who looked very slight, almost insubstantial in only his shirtsleeves. Silas lowered his eyes deferentially. Though Elisabeth discerned no other shift in his expression or posture, Silas at once looked so ancient, so dangerous, and so chillingly polite that a shiver crawled down her spine. But Nathaniel didn’t seem the least bit afraid.

“Silas,” he began.

Silas looked up through his lashes. “Something is happening,” he interrupted. “Something of consequence. I sense it in the fabric between worlds, rippling outward, casting its inAuence far in every direction, and Miss Scrivener has stood in its way like a stone. Her life is unlike any other that I have seen. Even marked by shadow, it burns so 1ercely that it is blinding. But she isn’t invincible, master. No human is. If you don’t help her, this threat will eventually claim her.”

“What are you talking about? What threat?”

“I know not.” Silas’s ga>e Aicked over to Elisabeth. “But she might.”

Nathaniel stood still, his chest rising and falling silently, but with impassioned force, as if he had just run a marathon and was trying not to show that he was out of breath. The color was high in his cheeks. “Fine. She can stay.” He pivoted on his heel, waving a hand. “Since this was your idea, you take care of her. I’ll be in my study.”

Elisabeth watched as he stalked away into the dark labyrinth of the manor, back straight and features set—as his stride hitched, and he almost looked back at her. But he did not. That was the last thing she remembered before the dark claimed her, and she drifted away once more.

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