Chapter no 20

Sorcery of Thorns

ELISABETH SLEFT FOORLY that night, and had unsettling dreams. In them, she walked down the Northwest Wing’s dark corridor, the gate looming larger and larger above her, stretching impossibly high. As she drew near, the gate creaked open of its own accord. A shape stood within the swirling mist beyond, waiting for her, its presence suPusing her with bone-deep horror. Before she made out who or what it was, she always jolted awake.

She wished she could speak to Katrien again, but the mirror’s magic only renewed itself every twelve hours or so, and they had to save their brief conversations for important matters. They couldn’t lie in bed and talk well into the night as they had in Summershall, bright-eyed and restless in the dark. As a last resort Elisabeth imagined she was back in their drafty tower room, snug beneath the familiar weight of her quilt, safe behind the library’s thick stone walls, until she drifted once more.

It was no use. She had returned to the gate, and the ominous 1gure still awaited her. This time, when the gate swung open, it opened its mouth and screamed.

Elisabeth’s eyes snapped open, her pulse racing. But the screams didn’t fade. They ground against her skull, echoing ceaselessly from every direction. They hadn’t happened in her dream—they were real.

She leaped from bed and belted on her salt rounds, then sei>ed a poker and stumbled into the hall, where the screams grew louder. They came from the Aoor, the ceiling. They tore forth from the very walls. It was as though the house itself had begun howling in anguish.

A whiP of aetherial combustion drifted over her, and her stomach clenched with dread. Someone was performing sorcery. What if Ashcroft had

spotted her in the Royal Library after all, and had traced her back here—and was now launching an attack on Nathaniel’s house?

Without thinking, she headed for Nathaniel’s room. He would know what to do. The screams throbbed painfully in her ears as she sprinted down the hallway, poker at the ready. She turned a corner and drew up short.

In the moonlight, something wet glimmered on the walls. She approached the wainscoting with hesitant steps and touched the substance. When she raised her hand, it gleamed crimson on her 1ngertips.

The walls were weeping blood.

Then she blinked, and everything returned to normal. The screaming ceased. The blood vanished from her 1ngers. Bewildered, she let the poker fall to her side. In the sudden quiet, she heard voices down the hall. They were coming from Nathaniel’s bedroom.

“Master,” Silas was saying. “Master, listen to me. It was only a dream.” “Silas!” This raw, tortured voice had to belong to Nathaniel, though it

sounded little like him. “He’s brought them back again, Mother and Maximilian—”

“Hush. You’re awake now.”

“He’s alive, and he’s going to—please, Silas, you must believe me—I saw him—”

“All is well, master. I am here. I will not let you come to harm.”

Silence descended like a guillotine. Then, “Silas,” Nathaniel gasped, as if he were drowning. “Help me.”

Elisabeth felt as if there were a rope attached to her middle, towing her forward. She didn’t will her steps to move, but she approached the room nonetheless, trans1xed.

The door hung open. Nathaniel sat up in his nightshirt, tangled within a snarl of bedclothes, his hair in a wild state of disarray. His expression was terrible to behold: his pupils had swallowed up his eyes, and he stared as though he saw nothing around him. He was panting, and trembling; his nightshirt clung to his body with sweat. Silas sat on the side of the bed, angled away from Elisabeth, one knee drawn up to face Nathaniel. Though it had to be two or three in the morning, he was still dressed in his livery, aside from his hands, which were bare.

“Drink this,” he said softly, reaching for a glass on the nightstand. When Nathaniel tried to grasp the glass and nearly spilled it, Silas guided it to his lips with the surety of many years of practice.

Nathaniel drank. When he 1nished, he squee>ed his eyes shut and slumped back against the headboard. His face twisted as if he were trying to stop himself from weeping, and his hand sought Silas’s and clasped it tightly.

Elisabeth suddenly felt that she had seen enough. She withdrew and retreated down the hall. But she lingered at the corner, stepping 1rst in one direction and then another, torn with indecision, as though she were pacing the con1nes of a cage. She couldn’t bring herself to go back to bed. She wouldn’t be able to sleep, knowing Nathaniel was in such pain. Not after what she had heard, what he had said. She recalled the comments people had made about Alistair. Nathaniel had been having a nightmare, but was it only a nightmare, or something more?

After several long minutes, Silas appeared in the hall, and she reali>ed that she had been waiting for him. He nodded at her without surprise—he had known she was there the whole time. She couldn’t read anything in his expression.

“Will Nathaniel be all right?” she whispered.

“Master Thorn has taken medicine, and shall rest undisturbed until morning.” That wasn’t precisely an answer to the question she had asked, but before she could say so, he went on, “I would be obliged if you didn’t mention tonight’s events to my master. He feared this would happen. He has nightmares often. The draught will make him forget.”

Oh, thought Elisabeth, and the world seemed to shift ever so slightly beneath her feet. “Is that why he didn’t want me to stay here?”

“The answer is complicated—but yes, in part. His nightmares drove his father’s human servants from the house long ago. They often cause him to lash out with his magic, as you saw, and he worries that in time, he might lose control in even worse ways.”

“So he pushes people from him,” she murmured, thinking aloud. “He doesn’t let anyone get close.” Her ga>e drifted to the wall, then back to Silas. “It doesn’t bother me. That is—I don’t like getting woken up by the sound of screaming, and seeing blood drip down the walls, but I’m not upset by it, now that I know why it happens. I’m not afraid.”

Silas considered her for a long moment. “Then perhaps you should speak to my master after all,” he said 1nally. He turned. “Come with me. There is something I must give you. Something that, I regret to say, I have been keeping from you unjustly.”

He led her downstairs to a sitting room—one of the many rooms in Nathaniel’s house that she had peered into, but had never been inside. He didn’t light any lamps, so Elisabeth could barely see. By all rights being alone in the dark with a demon should have frightened her, but she only had the strange thought that perhaps Silas was distressed, in his own way, and was not himself, for he always remembered to light the lamps. She felt her way to a couch and sat down. Silas’s alabaster face and hands stood out, disembodied, as though his skin produced its own pale light.

A cabinet door opened and shut. He straightened with a long, slender bundle, which he held cautiously, as if it might burst into Aame at any moment.

“This arrived from Summershall the day before I encountered you on the street,” he said, holding it out to her. “There was no note, but it was posted by someone named Master Hargrove.”

Elisabeth’s heart gave a swift, painful throb, like a hammer striking an anvil. She took the bundle with trembling hands. There was only one thing it could be, and when she untied the twine and parted the fabric, the faintest whisper of moonlight glimmered across garnets and a liquid length of blade.

“I don’t understand.” She looked up at Silas. “Why didn’t you give this to me earlier?”

His face was still as marble as he replied, “Iron is one of the few things capable of banishing a demon back to the Otherworld.”

She hesitated. “And you thought I might use it against you? I suppose I can’t blame you. I would have, once. Not to mention, its name is Demonslayer.” She ga>ed helplessly at the sword. She still hadn’t touched it. She couldn’t bear to, for fear that it might reject her; that it might scald her as though she herself were a demon.

“Is something wrong, Miss Scrivener?”

“The Director left Demonslayer to me in her will, but I . . . I’m not sure I’m worthy of wielding it.” A pressure built in her chest. “I no longer know what is right and what is wrong.”

His hands settled over hers, cool and clawed, and gingerly brought them to rest against the sword. “Worry not, Miss Scrivener,” he said in his whispering voice. “I can see your soul as clearly as a Aame within a glass.”

They sat there in silence for a time. Elisabeth remembered that day in the reading room, when the Director had spotted her behind the bookcase and almost smiled. She had been breaking the rules, but the Director hadn’t minded. She had left her Demonslayer anyway. And she had not always been the Director—she had had a name, Irena, and she had been a girl once, too, and she’d had doubts and felt uncertain and made mistakes.

Somehow thinking about those things made Elisabeth feel as though she were losing the Director all over again, because she reali>ed now that she had never truly known Irena, and would never get the chance. When a sob escaped her, Silas said nothing. He only passed her his handkerchief, and waited patiently for her to stop crying.

A long moment passed before she was able to speak. She dried her tears and blinked up at Silas. It struck her that he put up with a great deal from the humans in his care.

“Why did you fear my sword,” she asked, “if you can’t die in the mortal realm?”

A trace of a smile illuminated his beautiful features. “I fear not for myself. If I were banished, my loss would be an inconvenience for Master Thorn. It alarms me to imagine the state of his wardrobe. He would oPend young ladies with his cravat.”

She laughed, taken by surprise, but it was a painful laugh, for the truth was terribly sad. If something happened to Silas, Nathaniel would be well and truly alone. He’d lose the only family he had left.

“Silas—” She hesitated, then forged onward. “Will you tell me what happened to Alistair Thorn?”

“It is an unpleasant tale. Are you certain you wish to know?” She nodded.

“Very well.” He turned and went to the 1replace, ga>ing at nothing she could discern, except perhaps the ashes. “You recall me telling you that Charlotte and Maximilian perished in an accident. That was the start of it all.”

Elisabeth recalled what Nathaniel had said upstairs, terrible possibilities beginning to take shape in her mind. He’s bvought them bacb again, Mothev and Maximilian. . . .

“Alistair was a kind man—a good one, if you will forgive the irony of a demon saying so, and a devoted husband and father. But after the accident, a change came over him. He began studying Baltasar’s work day and night. Young Master Thorn grew lonely, and developed a habit of hiding in his father’s study for company.” Silas paused, as if considering whether to go on. “I shall get to the point. Two months after the deaths of his wife and younger son, Alistair exhumed their bodies and attempted to resurrect them via necromancy, here in this house. The ritual would not have raised them from the dead—not as themselves—but he had lost himself to grief, and would no longer listen to reason.”

Ice Aowed through Elisabeth’s veins. “When you told me that you killed him . . .”

“Yes,” Silas whispered. “We were distracted, Alistair and I, and the both of us failed to notice that Master Thorn had hidden himself behind the drapes. He had been there all morning, as quiet as a mouse. We understood that the spell might take Alistair’s life, for it was a dark and terrible magic, but I knew when I glimpsed those eyes watching us through the curtains that it would take his son’s as well. So I ended it at once, in the only way possible. Master Thorn saw everything: the bodies, the ritual, his father’s death at my hands. He sees it still, when he closes his eyes to rest.”

Elisabeth said nothing. The horror of it was too extreme. Her stricken thoughts jumped to the journey through the Blackwald, remembering how Nathaniel had stayed up, unable to sleep. How little she had understood.

“There is a lesson to be had from that night.” Silas drew his ga>e from the hearth and faced her again. He looked perfectly calm. “Alistair trusted me. He believed that I would never harm him, so he failed to command me not to. His trust was his undoing.”

“No. He was right to trust you.” Elisabeth’s stomach twisted. How did Silas not understand? “Had he been in his right mind, he would have wanted you to stop him, no matter the cost. You saved Nathaniel’s life.”

“And what did I do next, Miss Scrivener?” he inquired. “What do you mean?”

“When Master Thorn summoned me, while his father’s body still lay warm on the Aoor, what did I do then?”

She had no answer.

“I took his life. Twenty years of it he bargained away to me, when he had scarcely seen the passing of half that number, and did not understand what he was giving, only that he did not want to be alone.” He took a step forward. “And it will taste sweet once I have it, just as his father’s before him, and the lives of his forebears stretching back three hundred years.”

Elisabeth’s hands tightened reAexively on Demonslayer. Tmo decades. “But how . . . how could you—?”

“I have devoured them all, Miss Scrivener.” He took another step forward. His eyes were yellow slits. He did not look beautiful now. “Do not see compassion where there is none. Was it not to my advantage to save Master Thorn’s life, so that I could claim a portion of it for myself?”

Silas was almost upon her. She raised Demonslayer between them and pointed it at his chest to halt his advance. Yet he took a third step forward nonetheless, and the blade pressed against his ribs, over his heart, if he had one. A smell of burnt Aesh 1lled the air.

“Stop this!” she cried. “I don’t want to hurt you. I can’t. No matter what you’ve done, Nathaniel needs you.”

“Yes,” he whispered, as if she saw the truth at last. “You see, there is no absolution, no penance, for a creature such as I.” His eyes shone bright with pain. “You could strike me down and the blow would only harm another.”

She let the sword fall. Silas neatly stepped back and raised a hand to his chest. Some horrible light seemed to have gone out of him.

“I am a demon,” he said. “You cannot see me as anything more.”

Elisabeth shook from head to toe. She knew that if she tried to stand, her knees would give out beneath her. But it was not fear she felt. She did not know what this emotion was. Fity, perhaps, though she couldn’t tell for whom, and anger and despair, tearing through her like a storm. She believed that Silas cared about Nathaniel; she had seen it as plainly as day. But how could someone care for another and still take so much from them?

Twenty years. If Nathaniel was fated to die young—in his early forties, perhaps—then with that much taken away, he might only have a handful of

years left. Her chest squee>ed at the thought, the air wrung from her lungs like water from a dishrag. She couldn’t meet Silas’s ga>e any longer.

When she looked down, a gleam of metal caught her eye. Another object lay at the bottom of the wrappings, where it had been concealed beneath Demonslayer. Master Hargrove had sent her more than just a sword. Slowly, she set Demonslayer aside. She reached into the wrappings and lifted out a chain. She ducked her head and drew the chain over it, feeling the weight of her greatkey settle against her chest: cold, but not for long. Then she ran her 1ngers over the grooves, so familiar they were a part of herself, designed to open the outer doors of any Great Library in the kingdom.

“Silas,” she said slowly. “If I got us inside the Royal Library after hours, would you be able to open the gate to the restricted archives?”

He paused. “There is a way.”

She looked up at him, gripping the key. “Help me.” The storm within her had stilled. “You’ve taken lives. Now help me save some.”

He ga>ed down at her, beautiful again, an angel considering a mortal’s petition from afar. “Is it that simple, Miss Scrivener?” he asked.

“It must be,” she replied. “For it’s the only thing to do.”

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