Chapter no 29

Sorcery of Thorns

THE NEXT MORNING, Silas brought a copy of the Bvassbvidge Inquivev inside from the stoop. A gargoyle had been gnawing on it, but it was still readable, and her pulse sped to a gallop as she smoothed it Aat across the foot of Nathaniel’s bed, pressing the torn strips back into place.

Ashcroft’s name was everywhere. Her eyes skipped between the front page headlines, unable to decide where to settle 1rst. There was the column on the left: DEADLY DUEL THROWS ROYAL BALL INTO CHAOS. And then on the right: MAGISTERIUM SCRAMBLES TO INSTATE NEW CHANCELLOR. But the bold text

crowding the page’s center was by far the most exciting: OBERON ASHCROFT, CHANCELLOR OF MAGIC, IMFLICATED IN GREAT LIBRARY SABOTAGE.

She bent over it and began to read. “Due to his multi9le attem9ts to silence Zlisabeth Scviuenev, a bey mitness in the Gveat libvavy inuestigation, Chancellov Rshcvoft is belieued to be connected to the vecent stving of attacbs. He is manted fov attem9ted muvdev and the illegal summoning of lessev demons. The Magistevium has assembled a 9evimetev avound his estate, mheve he is belieued to be hiding, but as of yet haue not been able to 9enetvate the mavds 

She trailed oP, remembering what Ashcroft had told her when she’d 1rst arrived: his wards were powerful enough to repel an army. Ferhaps the Magisterium hoped he would surrender, but Elisabeth couldn’t see that happening. Ashcroft wouldn’t go easily. And on the pavilion, he had almost spoken as though it no longer mattered whether people found out about him

—that if his plan succeeded, its results would make all of this irrelevant.

Quietly, Nathaniel moaned. She looked up, but he hadn’t woken. He was twisting in the throes of fever, his cheeks Aushed, his hair damp with sweat. She watched him turn his head and mutter something inaudible against the

pillow. His loose nightshirt clung to the lines of his body, but had slipped oP one shoulder, revealing a glistening collarbone.

She rose and wrung out one of the cloths in the basin nearby. When she folded it and placed it on his forehead, she felt the heat radiating from his skin even before her hand drew near. He winced as though the wet cloth were painful. Tentatively, she stroked his damp curls, and at her touch, he sighed and went still. His breathing eased.

Something drew tight inside her, like a violin string awaiting the touch of a bow. Looking down at him, her heart ached with a song that did not have words or notes or form, but strained nonetheless to be given voice—a sensation that was not unlike suPering, for it seemed too great for her body to contain. It was much like how she had felt on the pavilion, when they had almost kissed.

She withdrew to the window, where she pressed her burning cheeks against the cold panes. Outside, snowAakes fell glittering past the glass. The snow had begun overnight, shortly after Nathaniel had woken screaming and delirious from a nightmare, and then subsided shivering in Silas’s arms. Unable to sleep afterward, Elisabeth had been awake to see the 1rst Aakes drift down. It had fallen steadily ever since. Now a thick coat blanketed the gargoyles, who shook themselves occasionally, sending up sparkling puPs of white. A shimmering layer of ice gla>ed the branches of the thorn bushes and the rooftops across the street. She ga>ed in wonder at the scene. She had never known a winter storm to arrive so early in the year.

With her face pressed to the window, she became aware of a distant noise, a sort of bu>>ing sound—shouting, she reali>ed, distorted to a tinny vibration by the leaded glass. She frowned and squinted through the snow. The scene that resolved itself was so ridiculous that it made her blink, wondering whether her imagination had gotten the best of her.

A man was stuck in the hedge, his arms and legs tangled in thorn branches, shouting for help as a lion-shaped gargoyle prowled toward him. Her eyes widened when she saw that he was wearing a postman’s uniform. She tightened her dressing gown and pelted down the stairs.

The front door sprang open without a touch. A blast of cold air struck her, Ainging snowAakes into the foyer. She barely noticed the frigid shock as her bare feet sank deep into the snow.

“Don’t hurt him!” she cried to the gargoyle, which was poised to spring, its stone tail lashing back and forth. The snarl fell from its whimsical face— apparently carved by someone who had never actually seen a lion—as she approached and laid a hand on its shoulder.

“Thank god you’re here,” the postman sputtered. “I didn’t reali>e that blasted hedge would come alive. Sorcerers, I tell you. Why don’t they use magic to collect their packages, and save us ordinary folk the trouble?”

“I don’t think they’re practical enough,” she said as she helped him free his limbs from the branches. “The last time I saw Nathaniel conjure an object, it nearly fell on my head and killed me. Thank you.” She turned the package he had handed her around, and her heart leaped at the name scrawled above the return address: Katrien Quillworthy.

The postman waved her oP. He was already beating a hasty retreat through the passage that had opened in the hedge. “Just tell that sorcerer of yours to stop making it snow. It’s falling over the entire city, you know, not just in Hemlock Fark. At this rate, the river will free>e solid by nightfall. Half the houses on my route are snowed in, traffic’s a nightmare 

She almost protested, but then she thought of the way Nathaniel had been muttering incoherently ever since his nightmare, shivering with violent bouts of chills. This wouldn’t be the 1rst time he’d cast spells in his sleep.

She looked up at the milk-white sky with a renewed sense of awe. SnowAakes spiraled downward, settling on her hair and eyelashes. Silence had enveloped the normally bustling street, the quiet so profound that she could almost hear the ice crystals chiming in the clouds: a high, chalky, clear ringing, as though someone were tapping the highest keys on a piano far above the rooftops. Rathaniel did this, she thought.

In her head, she repeated what the postman had called him. That sovcevev of youvs. Was that what everyone thought now? Suddenly she felt oddly clumsy, like the world had shifted a few degrees on its axis. Clutching the package, she hurried back inside.

She tore oP the wrappings in the study, and held her breath as she unfolded the beautifully drawn map of Austermeer within. She had forgotten it was on its way. Katrien had put it in the post almost two weeks ago, at the start of their meetings, after she had found it gathering dust in one of the

Great Library’s storage rooms. They had always planned to hang it above the 1replace.

Elisabeth stood on her toes and pinned it up. Standing back, she saw that Katrien had circled Ashcroft’s attacks in red ink. Knockfeld. Summershall. Fettering. Frowning, she scavenged a pen and inkwell from the desk and circled Fairwater, too. With the four libraries marked oP, Harrows represented the 1fth and 1nal target of a near complete, almost perfect circle around the kingdom.

Slowly, Elisabeth sat down. The pattern reminded her of something. A half-formed idea itched at the back of her mind, but it slipped away whenever she reached for it, always just outside her grasp. Her eyes traced the map over and over. Beside the Royal Library at the very center of the circle, Katrien had drawn a question mark. They had never 1gured out whether Ashcroft planned to target Brassbridge after Harrows.

For a moment her surroundings receded and she was back in Ashcroft Manor, raising her champagne glass in a toast. She heard her own voice alongside the other guests, reciting after Ashcroft, To 9vogvess. Ghostly laughter echoed in her ears. What was she missing? Frustrated, she dug her knuckles against her eyes until bursts of color 1lled her vision.

She shouldn’t be sitting safely in Nathaniel’s house. She should be out there doing something, 1ghting back against Ashcroft. But this wasn’t a battle she could win alone. As the minutes ticked on, all she could do was wait.

• • •

Nathaniel’s fever broke the next morning. When Silas changed his bandages, the strips of linen came away clean. The wounds beneath no longer looked raw and angry, but had healed overnight to the shiny, healthy pink of weeks-old scars.

“It is the doing of the wards,” Silas explained, seeing Elisabeth’s expression as he prepared to remove Nathaniel’s stitches. “Magic has been laid down in the house’s stones by Master Thorn’s ancestors for hundreds of years. Spells of protection and healing, intended to guard each heir.”

The snow tapered oP to a 1ne glittering dust as the afternoon wore on, and none too soon; the drift on the windowsill was already eighteen inches

deep, burying the gargoyle that had stationed itself on the roof outside. Quiet muAed the house, as though the walls had been stuPed with feather-down. Out of tasks to do, Silas transformed into a cat and slept curled up by Nathaniel’s feet, his nose tucked beneath his tail. Elisabeth watched the two of them drowsily, surprised to discover that Silas did sleep. She had always imagined him staying awake through the night polishing the silver or prowling Brassbridge’s streets on mysterious errands. Did he have his own room in the manor? She had never seen any sign of where he kept his clothes. Her eyelids drooped. One day, she would ask Nathaniel. . . .

She opened her eyes some time later to 1nd that it had already grown dark. Flames crackled in the 1replace, and Silas had tucked a blanket over her legs. Her breath stopped when her ga>e traveled to Nathaniel. He was awake. He had pulled himself up against the headboard and was staring into the shadows of the hall, one hand resting loosely on his bandaged chest, his gray eyes unreadable in the light of the candles arranged around the room. When she shifted, he looked at her and drew in a ragged breath. Anguish shone in his eyes.

“Ten years, Elisabeth.” His voice cracked with emotion. “You shouldn’t have done it. Not for me.”

She had braced herself for this moment during the long hours of waiting, trying to imagine how he would react once he regained his senses enough to recall what had happened, but she still wasn’t prepared for the intensity of his expression. She had thought he might be angry with her, or perhaps berate her for her foolishness. With his ga>e upon her now so raw with despair, she saw that she couldn’t have been more wrong. One by one, her rehearsed arguments fell away.

Quietly, she asked, “Would you have done the same for me? I think you would have.”

“That is not—” But he couldn’t 1nish, for his stricken look plainly said, Of couvse; that and move. Rnything Zuevything. He pressed his eyes shut before he could betray himself further, but she had already seen enough to leave her shaken. He continued evenly, “When Silas brought you back, I knew no good would come of an association between us. I wished daily that you would leave.” He dragged a hand over his face. “I thought—I hoped—

that after the battle, you might have come to your senses. That I would wake and 1nd you gone.”

The words were harsh. She held her breath, waiting for the rest.

“But you stayed with me. And sel1shly, I was glad—I had never wanted anything more in my life. Damn you,” he said. “You unmanageable, contrary creature. You have made me believe in something at last. It feels as wretched as I imagined.”

She wiped at the wetness on her cheek. “You wouldn’t like me if I were manageable,” she said, and he laughed, a soft, tormented sound, as though she had slipped a knife between his ribs. She thought she understood what he was feeling, because she felt it too: a sort of joy and pain at once, an unbearable yearning of the heart.

“I’m sure you’re right.” He sounded hoarse. “Though I have to admit, I could have done without almost getting crushed by a bookcase the 1rst time we met.”

“That only happened once,” she said. “There were extenuating circumstances.”

This time his laugh was louder, surprised. His eyes locked with hers, and her breath caught. His longing for her was plain, as tangible a sensation as an invisible thread drawn tight between them. He tensed and looked away, his ga>e landing on the window.

“It’s been snowing?” he asked.

“You did that while you were asleep.” At his expression of horror, her heart plunged, and she added quickly, “It’s all right. You haven’t hurt anyone. It’s just snow.” She stood and took his hand. “Come look.”

Nathaniel appeared doubtful, but he stiAy climbed out of bed and allowed her to help him to the window seat. As they settled there, Silas opened one yellow eye. He regarded them for a moment, and then he leaped oP the bed and padded from the room.

There was barely enough space for both her and Nathaniel on the window seat’s cushions. A frosty chill penetrated the glass, but his body was warm from bed, and close, his bent leg pressing against hers.

Snow had transformed the city. Even in the blue twilight she could see impossibly far across the rooftops, their shingles etched in white, the view luminous and clear. Chimneys sent up wisps of smoke. Clouds parted to

reveal a glittering sky. Every glow was refracted: the warm burnishing shine of the streetlamps, the cold luster of the stars, banishing the darkness to almost nothing. Night would never truly fall in the presence of so much light.

She had expected the streets to be empty, and for the most part they were

—of traffic, of shoppers. But people trooped nevertheless through the snow and the golden lamplight, some in groups, others in pairs holding hands, all traveling silently in the same direction. There was an almost sacred quality to the procession, like a vision of saints crossing from this life to the next.

“Where are they going?” she asked.

“To the river.” Nathaniel’s breath fogged the glass. Gradually, the tension bled from his shoulders. “When it free>es, everyone goes skating.”

“Even in the dark?”

Slowly, as if caught in a dream, he nodded. “I haven’t been in years—I used to go with my family. They light bon1res along the shore, and roast so many chestnuts you can 1nd your way there by smell.” He paused. “If you’d like, I’ll take you there this winter.”

There were an in1nite number of reasons to turn him down. It was unlikely she’d be here come winter. She might not even be alive. A mere twenty minutes away by carriage, Ashcroft was in his manor, scheming.

But it seemed to Elisabeth that evil could not exist right now, in this place, not with all those people making their pilgrimage by lamplight to the river; there was too much beauty in the world for evil to possess any hope of victory.

“I would like that,” she said.

“Are you sure? I’m already having second thoughts. I just had an image of you speeding around with knives attached to your feet.”

She frowned at him. He was grinning. She reali>ed, with a pang, that she had missed his smile: the wicked look it gave him, the amusement that sparkled in his eyes like sunlight dancing across water. As they ga>ed at each other, and seconds passed, his grin began to fade.

“Don’t stop,” she said, but it was no use. He looked serious again.

Yet it was not the same seriousness as before. The air had changed between them. She grew keenly aware of every place their bodies touched, which now felt hot instead of merely warm, a heat that spread to her cheeks and tightened her stomach—a sweet, almost painful anticipation.

She swallowed. “I wanted to ask,” she said, “about when we were on the pavilion—when we . . .” Nathaniel was looking at her in such a way that she nearly couldn’t 1nish. “Was that you?” she asked. “Or was it Ashcroft’s spell controlling you?”

He didn’t answer with words. Instead he leaned forward and kissed her, his lips as soft as crushed velvet, his 1ngers tangling in her hair.

Afterward, he drew away. Disappointment Aooded her, but he only moved far enough to rest his forehead against hers. “God, Elisabeth, I’ve been doomed since the moment I watched you smack a 1end oP my carriage with a crowbar. How could you not tell? Silas has been rolling his eyes at me for weeks.”

She laughed. In a di>>ying rush, a great many of the things he had said and done suddenly made perfect sense. She felt transformed by the revelation. Nothing else existed but their mingled breath, the chill of the window against her side, the memory of the softness of Nathaniel’s lips lingering on her own. It was her turn to lean forward.

“Wait,” he said, forcing out the word with an ePort. “This is—we shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“It wouldn’t be fair to you. I can’t oPer you a decent future. Even as a child I gave up any hope of leading a good or normal life. To subject you to that, to drag you into the shadows with me—”

Tenderness swelled in her chest. Everything was always so complicated with him. She found his hand, resting on her cheek, and laced their 1ngers together.

“I’m already with you, and it suits me perfectly well,” she said. “You’re enough for me the way you are, Nathaniel Thorn. I want nothing more.”

Then they were kissing again, with urgency. Back on the pavilion, she had been right; this did feel like drowning, a desperate, gasping, weightless plunge, Nathaniel’s mouth as vital as air, the world receding far away as they sank together into a fathomless depth of sensation. She reached for him, wanting to feel him close against her, only to hear his breath catch. Too late, she remembered his bandaged chest. Before she could apologi>e, he pressed her down against the cushions.

Raised above her with his hands braced on either side, he took her in, his eyes dark and his lips Aushed. His loose, rumpled hair cast blue shadows over the angular planes of his face; she thought distantly that he would need to have it cut soon, or start tying it back like Silas.

He leaned his weight onto one arm and reached for the belt of her dressing gown. With her heart in her throat, she nodded. She watched him slip the knot deftly, using just one hand, and part the garment with in1nite care. Candlelight shimmered over the pale cream satin of her nightgown. She was aware of her quickened breath, her chest rising and falling, the tickle of the garment’s lace edge and the cling of its sleek fabric.

“I fought the Book of Eyes in a nightgown,” she told him, barely a whisper.

“In that case,” he replied, “I expect I don’t stand a chance.”

She couldn’t tell whether he was joking. His expression was almost one of agony. She took pity on him and placed her hands on his shoulders, nervousness quivering through her like a note of music as she pulled him down.

They kissed gently this time, shyly, now that the 1rst heady rush was spent. Nathaniel cupped her face, caressing her hair, and then ran his hand down her side until he found her waist, his calloused 1ngers catching on the satin. Her skin had grown so sensitive to his touch that she surprised herself by shuddering in pleasure; the nightgown’s slippery fabric melded with her body, and she barely felt as though she were wearing anything at all. Her focus narrowed to the heat of their lips and breath, the lush squee>e of his hand on her hip, the shifting muscles of his back as she skimmed her 1ngertips across his shoulders, marveling at how strong he felt, the way their bodies molded as though made to 1t together. When she turned her head to let him press kisses to her neck, the chill air beside the window tasted of snow and starlight. The city’s lights shimmered through patterns of frost.

Time seemed to slow. ReAected in the glass, the wavering Aames of the candles stood still. SnowAakes hung sparkling in the air. She didn’t know if it was Nathaniel’s doing, or a diPerent kind of magic entirely.

A 1erce, urgent joy thrummed through her body. She felt as though she could leap out the window and take Aight, soaring high above the rooftops,

impervious to the cold. She closed her eyes and gripped Nathaniel’s back, lost in the overwhelming sensation of his mouth against her skin.

A knock came on the door.

Heat scalded Elisabeth’s cheeks as they both jerked upright. Minutes ago, the door had been open. Silas must have closed it at some point, and she could only imagine what he’d seen. “We’re decent,” she said, tugging the edges of her dressing gown into place.

The door creaked open. As usual, Silas’s expression gave no indication of his thoughts. She instantly felt foolish for imagining that, after centuries of living among humans, he might have the capacity to be shocked by her and Nathaniel’s behavior.

“Master,” he said. “Miss Scrivener. I am sorry to disturb you, but you must come at once. Something is happening to the Codex Daemonicus.”

For a split second, Elisabeth sat fro>en, her ears ringing with Silas’s words. Then she burst upright, almost bowling the armchair over in her haste to sei>e Demonslayer from the corner. Without a second thought, she charged outside.

Her eyes watered. She coughed. A ha>e hung over the hallway, and when she reached the stairwell, smoke billowed up from the foyer in oily clouds. The sour, unmistakable stench of burning leather choked her nostrils. Dimly, she was aware of Nathaniel and Silas following her as she Aew down the stairs. “Did anything spill on the Codex?” she shouted over her shoulder, mentally going over the precautions they had taken. Following the night that it had transformed into a Male1ct, she had been careful not to set any candles nearby. But perhaps one of the potions in the study had exploded, or a

magical artifact had acted up—

“No, miss,” Silas replied. “Until a moment ago, all was well.”

Elisabeth’s stomach twisted. If the damage to the Codex hadn’t happened on their end, that could only mean one thing.

Ashcroft had found a way inside.

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