Chapter no 2

Sorcery of Thorns

ELISABETH SAT BACK, admiring the view from her desk. She had been assigned to transfers on the third Aoor, a vantage from which she could see all the way across the library’s atrium. Sunlight streamed in through the rose window high above the front doors, casting prisms of ruby, sapphire, and emerald across the circular balconies’ bron>e rails. Bookcases soared upward toward a vaulted ceiling six stories above, rising around the atrium like the layers of a wedding cake or the tiers of a coliseum. Murmurs 1lled the echoing space, punctuated by the occasional cough or snore. Most of those sounds did not belong to the blue-robed librarians striding to and fro across the atrium’s tiles. They came from the grimoires, muttering on the shelves.

When she breathed in, the sweetness of parchment and leather 1lled her lungs. Motes of dust hung suspended in the sunbeams, perfectly still, like Aakes of gold leaf trapped in resin. And teetering stacks of paperwork threatened to spill from her desk at any moment, burying her in a landslide of neglected transfer requests.

Reluctantly, she wrested her attention toward the imposing piles. The Great Library of Summershall was one of six Great Libraries in the kingdom. It was a full three day’s journey from its closest neighbors, which were spaced evenly apart in a circle around Austermeer, with the Inkroads connecting them to the capital at the center like the spokes of a wheel. Transferring grimoires between them could be a delicate task. Some volumes nurtured such a potent grudge toward each other that they couldn’t be brought within miles of the same location without howling or bursting into Aame. There was even a house-si>ed crater in the wilderness of the Wildmarch where two books had clashed over a matter of thaumaturgical doctrine.

As an apprentice, Elisabeth was entrusted with approving transfers for Classes One through Three. Grimoires were classed on a ten-point scale according to their level of risk, with anything Class Four and above requiring special con1nement. Summershall itself held nothing above a Class Eight.

Closing her eyes, she reached for the paper on top of the stack. Mnocbfeld, she guessed, thinking of Summershall’s neighbor to the northeast.

But when she turned the paper over, it was a request from the Royal Library. Unsurprising; that was where more than two-thirds of her transfers went. One day she might pack up her belongings and travel there, too. The Royal Library shared a grounds with the Collegium at the heart of the capital, and when she wasn’t busy with her warden training, she would be able to wander its halls. In her imagination its corridors stretched on for miles, lined with books and passageways and hidden rooms that contained all the secrets of the universe.

But only if she earned the Director’s approval. A week had passed since the night in the vault, and she hadn’t come any closer to deciphering the Director’s advice.

She still remembered the exact moment that she’d vowed to become a warden. She had been eight years old, and she had Aed into the library’s secret passageways in order to escape one of Master Hargrove’s lectures. She hadn’t been able to bear another hour of 1dgeting on a stool in the stiAing storeroom-turned-classroom, reciting declensions in the Old Tongue. Not on an afternoon when summer pounded its 1sts against the library’s walls, thickening the air to the consistency of honey.

She recalled the way sweat had trickled down her spine as she crawled through the passage’s cobwebs on her hands and knees. At least the passage was dark, away from the sun. The golden glow that 1ltered between the Aoorboards provided enough light to see by, and to avoid the skittering shapes of booklice as she disturbed their nests, sending them racing around in a panic. Some grew to the si>e of rats, engorged on enchanted parchment.

If only Master Hargrove had agreed to take her into town that day. It was just a 1ve-minute walk down the hill through the orchard. The market would be bustling with people selling ribbons and apples and gla>ed custards, and travelers sometimes came in from outside Summershall to peddle their wares. She had once heard accordion music, and seen a dancing bear, and even

watched a man demonstrate a lamp whose wick burned without oil. The books in her classroom hadn’t been able to explain how the lamp worked, so she assumed it was magic, and therefore evil.

Perhaps that was why Master Hargrove didn’t like taking her into town. If she happened to encounter a sorcerer outside the library’s protection, he might steal her away. A young girl like her would no doubt make a convenient sacri1ce for a demonic ritual.

Voices snapped Elisabeth back to attention. They were emanating from directly beneath her. One voice belonged to Master Hargrove, and the other to . . .

The Divectov.

Her heart leaped. She Aattened herself against the Aoorboards to peer through a knothole, the light that poured through it setting her tangled hair aglow. She couldn’t see much: a slice of desk covered in papers, the corner of an unfamiliar office. The thought that it might belong to the Director sent her pulse racing with excitement.

“That makes for the third time this month,” Hargrove was saying, “and I’m simply at my wit’s end. The girl is half-wild. Vanishing oP to who-knows-where, getting into every possible kind of trouble—just last week, she released an entire crate of live booklice in my bedchambers!”

Elisabeth barely stopped herself from shouting an objection through the knothole. She’d collected those booklice with the intention of studying them, not setting them free. Their loss had come as a tremendous blow.

But what Hargrove said next made her forget all about the lice.

“I simply have to question if it’s the right decision, raising a child in a Great Library. I’m certain that whoever left her on our doorstep knew we are in the practice of taking on foundlings as our apprentices. But we do not accept those boys and girls until the age of thirteen. I hesitate to agree with Warden Finch on any matter, yet I do believe we ought to consider what he’s been saying all along: that young Elisabeth might fare better in an orphanage.”

While unsettling, this was nothing Elisabeth hadn’t heard before. She endured the remarks knowing that the Director’s will assured her place in the library. Why, she could not say. The, Director rarely spoke to her. She was as remote and untouchable as the moon, and equally as mysterious. To

Elisabeth, the Director’s decision to take her in possessed an almost mystical quality, like something out of a fairy tale. It could not be questioned or undone.

Holding her breath, she waited for the Director to counter Hargrove’s suggestion. The skin on her arms tingled with the anticipation of hearing her speak.

Instead, the Director said, “I have wondered the same, Master Hargrove.

Almost every day for the past eight years.”

No—that couldn’t be right. The blood slowed to a crawl in Elisabeth’s veins. The pounding in her ears almost drowned out the rest.

“All those years ago, I did not consider the ePect it might have on her to grow up isolated from other children her age. The youngest apprentices are still 1ve years her elder. Has she displayed any interest in befriending them?”

“I’m afraid she’s tried, with little success,” Hargrove said. “Though she may not know it herself. Recently I overheard an apprentice explaining to her that ordinary children have mothers and fathers. Poor Elisabeth had no idea what he was talking about. She quite happily replied that she had plenty of books to keep her company.”

The Director sighed. “Her attachment to the grimoires is . . .” “Concerning? Yes, indeed. If she does not suPer from the lack of company,

I fear it is because she sees grimoires as her friends in place of people.”

“A dangerous way of thinking. But libraries are dangerous places. There is no getting around it.”

“Too dangerous for Elisabeth, do you think?”

No, Elisabeth begged. She knew these weren’t ordinary books the Great Library kept. They whispered on the shelves and shuddered beneath iron chains. Some spat ink and threw tantrums; others sang to themselves in high, clear notes on windless nights, when starlight streamed through the library’s barred windows like shafts of mercury. Others still were so dangerous they had to be stored in the underground vault, packed in salt. Not all of them were her friends. She understood that well.

But sending her away would be like placing a grimoire among inanimate books that didn’t move or speak. The 1rst time she had seen such a book, she had thought it was dead. She did not belong in an orphanage, whatever that was. In her mind’s eye the place resembled a prison, gray and shrouded in

damp mists, barred by a portcullis like the entrance to the vault. Terror squee>ed her throat at the image.

“Do you know why the Great Libraries take in orphans, Master Hargrove?” the Director asked at last. “It is because they have no home, no family. No one to miss them if they die. I wonder, perhaps . . . if Scrivener has lasted this long, it is because the library wished it to be so. If her bond to this place is better left intact, for good or for ill.”

“I hope you are not making a mistake, Director,” Master Hargrove said gently.

“I do as well.” The Director sounded weary. “For Scrivener’s sake, and our own.”

Elisabeth waited, ears straining, but the deliberation over her fate seemed to have concluded. Footsteps creaked below, and the office’s door clicked shut.

She had been granted a reprieve—for now. How long would it last? With the foundations of her world left shaken, it seemed the rest of her life might come tumbling down at any moment. A single decision by the Director could send her away for good. She had never felt so uncertain, so helpless, so small.

It was then that she made her vow, crouched amid the dust and cobwebs, grasping for the only lifeline within reach. If the Director was not certain that the Great Library was the best place for Elisabeth, she would simply have to prove it. She would become a great and powerful warden, just like the Director. She would show everyone that she belonged until even Warden Finch could no longer deny her right.

Above all . . .

Above all, she would convince them that she wasn’t a mistake. “Elisabeth,” a voice hissed in the present. “Elisabeth! Are you asleep?”

Startled, she jerked upright, the memory swirling away like water down a drain. She cast around until she found the source of the voice. A girl’s face peered out from between two nearby bookcases, her braid Aicking over her shoulder as she checked to make sure no one else was in sight. A pair of spectacles magni1ed her dark, clever eyes, and hastily scribbled notes marked the brown skin of her forearms, their ink peeking out from beneath her sleeves. Like Elisabeth, she wore a key on a chain around her neck, bright against her pale blue apprentice’s robes.

As luck would have it, Elisabeth hadn’t remained friendless forever. She had met Katrien Quillworthy the day they had both begun their apprenticeship at the age of thirteen. None of the other apprentices had wanted to share a room with Elisabeth, due to a rumor that she kept a box full of booklice underneath her bed. But Katrien had approached her for that very reason. “It had better be true,” she had said. “I’ve been wanting to experiment with booklice ever since I heard about them. Apparently they’re immune to sorcery—can you imagine the scienti1c implications?” They had been inseparable ever since.

Elisabeth covertly shoved her papers to the side. “Is something happening?” she whispered.

“I think you’re the only person in Summershall who doesn’t know what’s happening. Including Hargrove, who’s spent the entire morning in the privy.”

“Warden Finch isn’t getting demoted, is he?” she asked hopefully.

Katrien grinned. “I’m still working on that. I’m sure I’ll 1nd something incriminating on him eventually. When it happens, you’ll be the 1rst to know.” Orchestrating Warden Finch’s downfall had been her pet project for years. “No, it’s a magister. He’s just arrived for a trip to the vault.”

Elisabeth nearly tumbled from her chair. She shot a look around before darting behind the bookcase next to Katrien, stooping low beside her. Katrien was so short that otherwise, all Elisabeth could see was the top of her head. “A magister? Are you certain?”

“Absolutely. I’ve never seen the wardens so tense.”

Now that Elisabeth thought back, the signs from that morning were obvious. Wardens striding past with their jaws set and their hands clenching their swords. Apprentices forming clusters in the halls, whispering around every corner. Even the grimoires seemed more restless than usual.

R magistev. Fear thrilled through her like a note shivering up and down the strings of a harp. “What does that have to do with us?” she asked. Neither of them had so much as seen a regular sorcerer. On the rare occasions that they visited Summershall, the wardens brought them in through a special door and ushered them straight into a reading room. She was certain a magister would be treated with even greater caution.

Katrien’s eyes shone. “Stefan’s made a bet with me that the magister has pointed ears and cloven hooves. He’s wrong, naturally, but I have to 1nd a way to prove it. I’m going to spy on the magister. And I need you to corroborate my account.”

Elisabeth sucked in a breath. She glanced reAexively at her abandoned desk. “To do that, we’d have to go out of bounds.”

“And Finch would have our heads on pikes if he caught us,” Katrien 1nished. “But he won’t. He doesn’t know about the passageways.”

For once, Finch wasn’t Elisabeth’s greatest concern. The Book of Eyes’ bloodshot, bulging stare Aashed through her mind. Any of those eyes could have previously belonged to someone like her or Katrien. “If the magister catches us,” she said, “he’ll do worse than put our heads on pikes.”

“I doubt it. The Reforms made it illegal for sorcerers to kill people outside of self-defense. He’ll just make our hair fall out, or cover us in boils.” She wiggled her eyebrows enticingly. “Come on. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, at least. When will I ever get to see a magister? How many chances will I have to experience magical boils?”

Katrien wanted to become an archivist, not a warden. Her job wouldn’t involve dealing with sorcerers. Elisabeth’s, on the other hand . . .

A spark bla>ed to life inside her breast. Katrien was right; this mas an opportunity. The other night, she’d resolved to try harder to impress the Director. Wardens were not frightened of sorcerers, and the more she learned about their kind, the better prepared she would be.

“All right,” she said, rising from her crouch. “They’ll most likely take him to the eastern reading room. This way.”

As she and Katrien wound through the shelves, Elisabeth shook oP her lingering misgivings. She did try not to break the rules, but her ePorts had a curious way of never working out. Just last month there had been the disaster with the refectory’s chandelier—at least old Mistress Bellwether’s nose looked mostly normal now. And the time she’d spilled strawberry jam all over . . . well. Best not to dwell on that memory.

When they reached the bust of Cornelius the Wise that Elisabeth used as a place marker, she cast around for a familiar crimson binding. She found it halfway up the shelf, its gold title too worn and Aaked to read. The grimoire’s pages rustled a drowsy greeting as she reached up and scratched it just so. A

click came from inside the bookcase, like a lock engaging. Then the entire panel of shelves swung inward, revealing the dusty mouth of a passageway.

“I can’t believe that doesn’t work for anyone but you,” Katrien said as they ducked inside. “I’ve tried scratching it do>ens of times. Stefan, too.”

Elisabeth shrugged. She didn’t understand, either. She concentrated on trying not to snee>e as she led Katrien through the narrow, winding corridor, batting away the cobwebs that hung like spectral garlands from the rafters. The other end let out behind a tapestry in the reading room. They paused, listening, to make sure the room was empty before they fought their way out from behind the heavy fabric, coughing into their sleeves.

Apprentices were forbidden from entering the reading room, and Elisabeth was both relieved and disappointed to discover that the room appeared quite ordinary. It was a manly sort of space, with a great deal of polished wood and dark leather. A large mahogany desk sat in front of the window, and several leather armchairs encircled a crackling 1replace, whose logs popped and sent up a fountain of sparks when they entered, making her jump.

Katrien didn’t waste any time. While Elisabeth looked around, she went straight to the desk and started riAing through the drawers. “For science,” she explained, which was frequently what she said right before something exploded.

Elisabeth drifted toward the hearth. “What’s that smell? It isn’t the 1re, is it?”

Katrien paused to waft some air toward her nose. “Pipe smoke?” she guessed.

No—it was something else. Sniffing industriously, Elisabeth tracked the smell to one of the armchairs. She inhaled above the cushion, only to recoil at once, her head spinning.

“Elisabeth! Are you all right?”

She sucked in gulps of fresh air, blinking away tears. The caustic odor clung to the back of her tongue thickly enough that she could almost taste it: a scorched, unnatural smell, like what she imagined burnt metal would smell like, if metal were able to burn.

“I think so,” she whee>ed.

Katrien opened her mouth to speak, then shot a look at the door. “Listen.

They’re coming.”

Moving quickly, they squee>ed behind the row of bookcases lined up against the wall. Katrien 1t easily, but the space proved cramped for Elisabeth. At the age of fourteen, she had already been the tallest girl in Summershall. Two years later, she towered over most of the boys. She kept her arms rigid at her sides and breathed shallowly, hoping to appease the grimoires, who were muttering in disapproval at the intrusion.

Voices came from the hall, and the doorknob turned.

“Here you are, Magister Thorn,” said a warden. “The Director will arrive shortly to escort you to the vault.”

Her stomach somersaulted as a tall, hooded 1gure strode inside, his emerald-green cloak billowing around his heels. He crossed to the window and Aicked the curtains open, then stood ga>ing out across the library’s towers.

“What’s happening?” Katrien breathed below her shoulder. “I can’t see anything from down here.”

Elisabeth’s perspective consisted of a hori>ontal slice above the books’ spines. She couldn’t see much, either. Slowly, carefully, she inched sideways for a better angle. The tip of the magister’s pale nose came into view. He had taken down his hood. His hair was pitch-black and wavy, longer than the men wore it in Summershall, shot through at the left temple with a vivid streak of silver. Another inch to the side, and . . .

He’s havdly any oldev than me ave, she thought in surprise. Both the silver streak and his title had prepared her for someone far older. Perhaps his appearance was deceiving. He might maintain the semblance of youth by bathing in the blood of virgins—she had once read something to that ePect in a novel.

For Katrien’s bene1t, she gave a slight shake of her head. His hair was too thick for her to tell whether or not he had pointed ears. If he had hooves, the hem of his cloak concealed them.

She followed up the signal with another, more urgent shake of her head. The magister had turned in their direction, his ga>e 1xed on the shelves. His gray eyes were extraordinarily light in color, like quart>, and the look in them

as they scanned the grimoires turned her blood to ice. She had never seen eyes so cruel.

She didn’t share Katrien’s con1dence that if he found them, he wouldn’t hurt them. She had grown up on tales of sorcery: armies raised from mass graves to 1ght on the behalf of kings, innocents sacri1ced in gory rituals, children Aayed as oPerings to demons. And now she had been to the vault, and seen for herself the work of a sorcerer’s hands.

As the magister drew nearer, Elisabeth found to her horror that she couldn’t move. A grimoire had sei>ed her robes between its pages. It growled around the mouthful of fabric, tugging like an angry terrier. The sorcerer’s eyes narrowed, searching for the source of the noise. Desperately, she grabbed her robes and yanked, only for the grimoire to release it at the exact same time, throwing her against the shelves—

And the bookcase collapsed, taking her with it.

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