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Chapter no 19

Sorcery of Thorns

FINDING A JOB at the Royal Library proved less challenging than Elisabeth had anticipated. As it turned out, a maidservant had quit just that morning after a giant booklouse skittered up her leg, and the Royal Library was in need of an immediate replacement. Elisabeth demonstrated to the steward that she would be an ideal candidate by lifting up one end of a cabinet in his office, uncovering a booklouse underneath, and stomping on it, much to the delight of a young apprentice who happened to be passing by. She then sat down opposite the steward’s desk and answered a number of job-related questions, such as how quickly she could run, and whether she strongly valued keeping all ten of her 1ngers. The steward seemed impressed that she found all of his questions perfectly reasonable. Most people, he explained, walked straight out the door.

“But this is a library,” she replied in surprise. “What do they expect—that the books mon’t try to bite oP their 1ngers?”

After her interview with the steward, she had to meet with the Deputy Director, Mistress Fetronella Wick.

Elisabeth had never heard of a Deputy Director, but she gathered that the Royal Library was large enough to need one. She instantly understood upon entering the office that she was in the presence of an exceedingly important person. Mistress Wick wore the indigo robes of a decorated senior librarian, clasped high about her throat with a golden key and quill. Her hair had turned silver with age, but that didn’t diminish the elegance of her artfully piled braids. She had dark brown skin against which her white eyes appeared almost opalescent, and her posture was so impeccable that Elisabeth felt her own gangliness 1ll the room like a third presence. She was certain Mistress Wick could sense it, though she was clearly blind.

“You may be wondering why you have been brought before me,” said Mistress Wick without preamble. “Here in the Royal Library, even the position of maidservant is a great responsibility. We cannot let just anyone enter our halls.”

“Yes, Mistress Wick,” Elisabeth said, sitting petri1ed in front of the desk. “It is also a dangerous job. During my time as Deputy Director, several

servants have been killed. Others have lost limbs, or senses, or even their minds. So I must ask—why do you wish to work in a Great Library, of all places?”

“Because I . . .” Elisabeth swallowed, and decided to be as honest as she could. “Because I belong here,” she blurted out. “Because there’s something I must 1nd, and I can only 1nd it here, among the books.”

“What is it you wish to 1nd?”

This time, she spoke without hesitation. “The truth.”

Mistress Wick sat silently for a long time. Long enough that Elisabeth grew certain she would be turned away. She felt as though her very soul were being examined; as though Mistress Wick could sense her true intentions for coming here, and at any moment would summon a warden to arrest her on the spot. But then the Deputy Director rose from her chair and said, “Very well. Come with me. Before you begin your training, you must visit the armory.”

They exited the offices and walked together down a pillared hallway, their footsteps echoing from the vaulted ceiling high above. Reinforced glass cases were set into alcoves along the walls, casting strange, diPerently colored glows across the Aagstones. The cases did not contain grimoires. Instead, they held magical artifacts: a skull radiating emerald light, a chalice 1lled with a draught of night sky, a sword whose pommel was twined with morning glories, the Aowers blooming, dying, and blooming again as Elisabeth watched, their fallen petals crumbling away to nothing. She forced herself not to slow down, mindful of Mistress Wick’s hand resting on her shoulder. But when she passed the next case, she drew up short in surprise.

Inside it was a fro>en mirror, the icicles so long that they had merged and formed a translucent pedestal. Frost crystals swirled around the mirror as though a bli>>ard howled behind the case’s glass.

“We are in the Hall of Forbidden Arts,” Mistress Wick explained. “Every artifact in this place was banned a hundred and 1fty years ago by the Reforms. They are relics of an era past, preserved to remind us of what once was.” She moved toward the case, holding out her hand. She traced her 1ngers across the plaque. After a moment, Elisabeth reali>ed she was reading the engraved letters by touch. “This is a scrying mirror,” she said, drawing her hand away, “created by the sorcerers of old, with which one can ga>e through all the mirrors of this world. It is believed to be the last of its kind. The rest were con1scated and destroyed, and no one knows how to make them any longer.”

Elisabeth inched closer. “Is the mirror dangerous?”

“Knowledge always has the potential to be dangerous. It is a more powerful weapon than any sword or spell.”

“But the mirror is magical. Sorcery.” Elisabeth knew she shouldn’t say more, but she yearned for answers, not only about the mirror, but about the change taking place within her heart. “Shouldn’t that automatically make it evil?”

Mistress Wick sharply turned her head, and she immediately regretted asking. Yet the Deputy Director only placed her hand on Elisabeth’s shoulder and ushered her away, moving with such surety that it was obvious she could navigate the hall on her own. Elisabeth was the one being guided through this dangerous place, not the other way around.

“Some would say so,” Mistress Wick said. “But there is always more than one way to see the world. Those who claim otherwise would have you dwell forever in the dark.”

The armory lay at the far end of the Hall of Forbidden Arts, guarded by two statues who held their spears crossed in front of its ironbound doors. Mistress Wick Aashed them her Collegium pin, and they lifted their spears away. The doors groaned open without a touch.

Elisabeth stared in ama>ement. Beams of sunlight fell from high upon cloaks and swords and canisters, and even upon archaic suits of armor that stood at attention along the pillars, their metal polished to a high shine. A line of statues arrayed along the back appeared to have been used for weapons practice; they had chunks missing here and there, and weary expressions fro>en onto their faces. Only one person was in the room. A boy stood at a

trestle table near the center, spooning piles of salt onto the centers of scraps of fabric. The completed product formed small round bundles, like coin purses, tied shut with twine. He looked up as they entered and oPered Elisabeth a friendly smile.

“Good afternoon, Farsifal,” said Mistress Wick. “Elisabeth, Junior Librarian Farsifal will make sure you are out1tted for duty.”

“Hullo,” said Farsifal. Elisabeth liked him at once. He looked about nineteen, his pale blue robes belted over a plump stomach. He had a pleasant face, and a short thatch of blond hair that stuck up in places.

After Mistress Wick left, he bustled around the armory fetching items and laying them out for her on an empty section of the table: a leather belt, covered in loops and pouches, and a hooded white wool cloak, which was stamped on the back with a key and quill, and lined on the inside with a thin layer of chain mail.

“I had no idea I would be able to wear something like this,” she said, reverently touching the cloak.

“Even servants have their own uniforms here,” Farsifal replied proudly. “Though of course, it’s mostly out of necessity. If you’re going to work in the Royal Library, you need to be wearing iron—especially these days, with everything that’s going on. Now, these are called salt rounds,” he said, demonstrating how to hang the salt bundles on her belt, and how the thin fabric burst when Aung against the Aagstones, releasing an explosion of salt into the air. “If you ever run into trouble, using them should buy you enough time to run and alert a warden.”

“Do I get a greatkey as well?” she asked hopefully, glancing at the two keys on Farsifal’s key ring. Librarians earned the second when they graduated from apprentice to junior librarian.

He gave her an apologetic look. “Afraid not. Security reasons, and all that. You’ll have to knock on the staP door at the beginning of your shift, and someone will let you in ” He frowned thoughtfully, looking past her. “Say,

is that your cat?”

Elisabeth turned, confused. A AuPy white cat sat on the Aoor behind her, staring up at them with yellow eyes. It was quite small for a fully grown cat; it could be a kitten, she thought, or perhaps it was just dainty. And strange . . . those yellow eyes looked terribly familiar. . . .

Her heart skipped a beat. “Yes,” she choked out, seeing no other option. “That is—my cat.”

“It’s all right,” Farsifal assured her. “Cats are always welcome in the Royal Library. They catch booklice, and they know to stay away from the grimoires. Having a cat with you might even help keep you safe, since they’re so talented at sensing magic.” To her horror, he went over to Silas and picked him up, holding him aloft at eye level. “What a lovely cat you are! Are you a boy, or a girl?”

“He’s a boy,” Elisabeth said hastily, when Farsifal appeared to be about to duck his head and check. “His name is—er—it’s”—she gulped—“Sir Fluffington.”

Dangling from Farsifal’s hands, Silas gave her a look of extreme reproach.

Farsifal beamed. “Lovely,” he repeated. “Well, you can have him back.” He passed Silas over. “I’ll show you around a bit, though don’t worry about learning your way just yet. You’ll have plenty of time to do that during training. First oP, this is the Northeast Wing, where all the offices are 

Elisabeth hung back as Farsifal chattered away, staring aghast at the demon in her arms. His nose and the pads on his paws contrasted pinkly with his snowy fur. He was very AuPy. She felt an alarming urge to press her face against his belly, as though he were truly a cat and not an ancient, immortal being.

“Did Nathaniel send you to make sure I didn’t get into trouble?” she whispered. Silas gave her a slow blink, which seemed to mean “yes.” She scowled. “I’m not going to get caught by Ashcroft. I went sixteen years without seeing a sorcerer in Summershall—I’m not about to run into one here. And in any case, I’ll be wearing a hood.”

“Mew,” said Silas. Even his meow was adorable. Elisabeth shuddered and put him down. He trotted after them, swishing his plumy tail.

Farsifal led her through the remainder of the Northeast Wing, past the reading rooms, and into the central atrium, which could have 1t the entire Great Library of Summershall inside. It was a colossal octagonal space from which the four wings branched oP beneath arches embellished with bron>e scrolls and angels. The domed roof was made of stained glass, deep blue and spangled with constellations. Gracefully sculpted marble stairways ascended to the upper levels, where the shelves rose higher and higher until they grew

lost in the dome’s indigo-tinted ha>e. Librarians bustled across the checkered marble Aoor, their status diPerentiated not only by the number of keys on their key ring, but also by the shade of their robes, ranging from light to dark blue.

While Farsifal chattered on, she shut her eyes, letting the echoing, papery murmurings of the grimoires wash over her. She hadn’t reali>ed how badly she’d missed being in a Great Library until now—like something deep inside her, misaligned since leaving Summershall, had shifted back into its proper place. She was home.

She clung to the sensation as Farsifal showed her the statues that moved ladders on command, the tiled map of the library set into the center of the atrium’s Aoor, and the pneumatic tubes hidden behind the bookshelves that carried messages across the building at lightning speed. While he did so, he explained what she could expect working alongside grimoires.

“You catch on awfully fast,” he said, impressed. “It’s too bad you aren’t an orphan. Oh, that came out wrong. What I mean is, you would’ve made an excellent apprentice.”

The compliment struck Elisabeth like a blow. For a moment she felt disoriented, as though she had been thrown outside her body. When people looked at her now, they didn’t see an apprentice librarian, and certainly not a future warden. Ferhaps they were right. After using a forbidden magical artifact and conspiring to steal from the Royal Library, even stopping Ashcroft might not be enough to earn her apprenticeship back. Was this shadow of her former life all she had left?

“Thank you,” she said, ga>ing at the Aoor so Farsifal wouldn’t see her expression.

Fortunately, he didn’t notice anything wrong as he ushered her toward the entrance to the Northwest Wing. Foreboding prickled Elisabeth’s skin as they drew near. The angelic 1gures carved around the archway had skulls beneath their hoods, and the entrance was cordoned oP with a velvet rope. Beyond the rope, shadows engulfed the wing. A thick mist spilled across the Aoor, and low mutterings and whispers chased down the corridor, reverberating from the stone. They seemed to be coming from behind an iron gate that reared from the darkness, over a do>en feet tall, mist swirling around its edges.

She dimly heard Farsifal explain that this wing contained the entrance to the vault.

“But what is that gate?” she asked.

“That’s the entrance to the restricted archives. The grimoires inside there are almost dangerous enough for the vault, but not quite. Don’t worry—you won’t be assigned to the Northwest Wing. Now, if we hurry up the South Spire, we might be in time to see the wardens training on the grounds.”

As they turned to go, Silas stared bright-eyed into the wing’s shadows, and she wondered what he saw that she could not.

• • •

When Elisabeth got back to Nathaniel’s house that night, she was so exhausted that she ate supper and fell directly into bed. Then she woke early the next morning and began the 1fteen minute walk to the Royal Library through Hemlock Fark, Silas trailing after her in the predawn gloom like a cat-shaped ghost. It wasn’t likely that Ashcroft would happen to pass her in a carriage, but just in case, she stayed oP the main street and took a circuitous route through hedged-in walking paths and a section of wooded park. She passed only servants plucking breakfast herbs from the backyard gardens, tossing out shovelfuls of soot, and emptying their households’ chamber pots. She felt a squirm of guilty embarrassment upon reali>ing Silas must normally be responsible for those tasks—though truly, she couldn’t picture him doing them.

The last leg of the walk took her past the Collegium’s grounds. Horses poked their noses out of the stone stables, smelling sweetly of hay and warm bodies. A low-hanging mist silvered the lawn where wardens practiced swordplay. She tried to ignore the ache in her chest at the sight of the dormitories, decorated with gargoyles and ornate gables, where wardens lived when they began their training. Now that she had come to scrub the Aoors, her dream of joining them seemed as though it belonged to someone else.

Once she reached the servants’ entrance of the Royal Library, she was instantly put to work by an old servant named Gertrude, who supervised her closely as she hauled a soapy bucket across the Aagstone Aoor. Next she swept and dusted an unused reading room, and helped Gertrude carry out the rugs to be beaten. As the day stretched on, frustration simmered beneath her skin.

She wouldn’t get any closer to locating the Codex with Gertrude watching her like a hawk. The elderly servant even insisted on taking lunch with her, which eliminated all hope of Elisabeth sei>ing a chance to sneak oP and check the catalogue.

But an opportunity arrived after lunch, when Elisabeth moved an armchair to sweep underneath it, and in doing so disturbed a nest of booklice. The lice went skittering in every direction, gray and chitinous, the young ones no larger than chicken eggs. Elisabeth let out a ferocious cry and began smacking them with her broom. When several Aed toward the door, she at last sensed the taste of freedom.

“Slow down, girl!” Gertrude shouted, but Elisabeth pretended not to hear as she dashed around the corner, chasing the lice with her broom lofted like a javelin. Gertrude soon fell behind, whee>ing. From there, Elisabeth only had to make a few more turns before she was out of sight.

She checked herself as she entered the atrium, reducing her speed to what she hoped was a purposeful-looking stride. She cut a path through the librarians and ducked behind a pillar. The catalogue room was set into the facet of the octagon opposite the Royal Library’s front doors. All she had to do was sneak inside, go through the catalogue drawers, and 1nd the card with the Codex’s location. But when she peered around the pillar, her spirits plummeted.

The room bustled with activity. Librarians of every rank climbed ladders and consulted each other over desks, overseen by a bespectacled archivist. No one would look at her twice if she were wearing an apprentice’s pale blue robes, but she was certain the archivist would notice her if she went up one of the ladders and started going through the tiny gilded drawers that covered every inch of the walls. And there weren’t many places to hide in there, aside from beneath the desks and behind a few display cases containing grimoires.

She eyed the nearest display case. The grimoire inside looked familiar, and indeed, she recogni>ed it from Summershall, where another copy was on display in the hall outside the reading room. It was an ostentatious-looking Class Four called Madame Bouchard’s Harmonic Cantrips, its cover bracketed in gold and stitched with peacock feathers. Elisabeth’s heart raced as a plan began to unfold within her mind. The only problem was that she couldn’t do it alone.

A throaty growl drew her attention to the nearest section of bookcases. A marmalade-colored cat crouched there, fur standing on end, its tail lashing back and forth. Opposite it sat Silas, looking supremely unconcerned. As the other cat continued to yowl, he raised one of his dainty paws and licked it.

“Silas,” Elisabeth hissed. She went over and scooped him up. The other cat bolted. “I need your help,” she whispered, ignoring the strange look sent to her by a passing apprentice.

Silas ga>ed at her levelly. “It’s important,” she tried.

His tail Aicked, in a fashion that suggested he was feeling inconvenienced.

She suspected he still hadn’t gotten over the Sir Fluffington incident.

“If you leave me to my own devices,” she told him, “I’m likely to get into trouble, and I’m certain Nathaniel wouldn’t appreciate that.”

Silas’s yellow eyes narrowed. Slowly, he blinked.

Elisabeth sagged in relief. “Good. Now, here’s what I need you to do 

None of the librarians in the catalogue room paid any mind when, a few minutes later, a small white cat trotted inside. Not a soul reacted when he leaped onto one of the desks and minced across it. But they did pay attention when Silas launched himself at the glass display case, knocked it askew, and promptly streaked from the scene, looking for all the world like an ordinary cat that had gotten himself into unexpected trouble. Everyone fro>e as the case wobbled once—twice—then tumbled to the Aoor and shattered.

Madame Bouchard’s Harmonic Cantrips seemed to have been waiting its entire life for this moment. It rose gloriously from the wreckage, unfurling a set of paper wings, which were a good seven or eight feet across. As the librarians shielded their heads from its Aapping pinions, it spread its pages wide and unleashed a shrill, operatic wail. Desks trembled. Drawers rattled. The archivist’s spectacles cracked. Librarians Aed in every direction, covering their ears against the ear-splitting vibrato.

Elisabeth waited until the last librarian emptied out before she darted inside. She set her teeth against the noise—seeing that it possessed an audience, Madame Bouchard had launched into an aria—and glanced around at the drawers. The cataloguing system was diPerent here than in Summershall, and there had to be thousands of drawers altogether. However, she swiftly determined that the drawers were divided into seven diPerent

columns, with bron>e numerals 1xed above them ranging from I to VII. Those had to represent grimoire classes, with classes Eight through Ten omitted from the public catalogue.

She had previously estimated that the Codex was either a Class Five or a Class Six. She clambered up the ladder belonging to the Class Five section 1rst, and found the drawer marked “Fe—Fi.” After Aipping through the cards and 1nding nothing, she checked the drawer labeled “Ci—Co,” in case the grimoires were catalogued by title instead of author. When that proved unsuccessful, she moved to the Class Six section with her nerves shrieking nearly as loudly as Madame Bouchard. During the brief intervals in which the grimoire paused for breath, she heard shouts ringing across the atrium, rapidly drawing closer.

She found the Codex’s card in the last drawer she checked, glanced at it, and slammed the drawer shut. As she leaped oP the ladder, a warden came striding inside with a salt round at the ready and a length of iron chain. He stared at Elisabeth in bewilderment. She sei>ed her broom and clutched it tightly.

“What are you doing in here?” he shouted over Madame Bouchard, who was now energetically practicing scales.

Elisabeth swept a bit of broken glass aside. “I’m cleaning up the mess, sir!” she shouted back.

A whirlwind of chaos ensued. The warden at last handed her oP to an equally baAed librarian, who said, “Well, I must commend you for going above and beyond the call of duty, girl,” and brought her back to Gertrude, who gave her a thorough scolding. But Elisabeth wasn’t in any real trouble, for she could hardly be punished for sweeping a Aoor.

She spent the rest of the day meekly obeying Gertrude’s commands. Under diPerent circumstances she wouldn’t have been able to wait to race back home and tell Katrien what she had done, as it was exactly the sort of story that her friend would love. But what she had seen on the catalogue card shadowed her mood like a dark cloud. She didn’t want to tell Katrien about it; she didn’t even want to think about it herself.

The Codex Daemonicus wasn’t going to be easy to steal, because it was shelved in the restricted archives of the Northwest Wing.

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