Chapter no 3

Sorcery of Thorns

ELISABETH’S EARS RANG. She choked in a cloud of dust. When her vision cleared, the magister was standing over her. “What’s this?” he asked.

Her fearful cry emerged as a croak. She Aung herself away from him, scrambling amid the pile of books and broken shelving. Half-blind with terror, it took her longer than it should have to reali>e that she felt 1ne, with the exception of several highly unmagical splinters. He hadn’t cast a spell on her. Her scrabbling slowed, then stilled. She looked over her shoulder.

And fro>e.

The sorcerer had sunk down onto one knee and clasped his hands atop the other. Firelight played across his pale, angular features. She tried to avert her eyes, but couldn’t. As her heart threw itself against her ribs, she wondered whether he was using magic to lock her ga>e in place, or whether she was simply too terri1ed to look away. His every feature projected villainy, from his dark, arching eyebrows to the sardonic twist of his mouth.

“Are you hurt?” he asked at last. She said nothing.

“Can’t you speak?”

If she didn’t answer, he might hurt her to provoke a reaction. Trying her best, she managed another croaking sound. Amusement glittered in his eyes.

“I was warned I’d see some strange things in the countryside,” he said, “but I admit, I didn’t expect to 1nd a feral librarian roaming the stacks.”

Elisabeth possessed only the vaguest notion of what she must look like, aside from the parts of herself that she could see. Ink stained her 1ngernails, and dust streaked her robes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had remembered to brush her hair, which stuck out in tangled chestnut-brown

wisps. Her spirits lifted a cautious fraction. If she were dirty and homely enough, he might not 1nd her worth his time or his magic.

“I didn’t expect you to 1nd me, either,” she heard herself say. Then, horri1ed, she clapped a hand over her mouth.

“So you can speak. You’d just rather not speak to me?” He lifted an eyebrow when she nodded. “A wise precaution. We sorcerers are terribly wicked, after all. Prowling the wilds, stealing away maidens for our unholy rituals . . .”

Elisabeth didn’t have time to react, because just then, a knock came on the door. “Everything all right in there, Magister? We heard a crash.”

That deep, gravelly voice belonged to Warden Finch. Elisabeth reared back in alarm, protectively gripping her wrists. When Finch discovered her out of bounds—out of bounds and speaking to a magister—he wouldn’t bother with the switch; he would cane her within an inch of her life. The welts would last for days.

The magister’s ga>e lingered on her for a moment, appraisingly, before he turned toward the door. “Perfectly all right,” he replied. “I’d prefer not to be disturbed until the Director’s ready to take me to the vault, if you don’t mind. Sorcerer’s business. Very private.”

“Yes, Magister.” Finch’s reply sounded grudging, but his footsteps moved away from the door.

Too late, Elisabeth’s foolishness sank in. She should have called out to Finch. She could think of several reasons why the magister might want to be alone with her in private, and a caning paled in comparison.

“Now,” he said, turning back to her. “I suppose I should clean up this mess before someone blames it on me, which means you have to move.” He unclasped his hands from his knee and oPered her one. His 1ngers were long and slender, like a musician’s.

She stared at them as though he had aimed a dagger at her chest.

“Go on,” he said, growing impatient. “I’m not going to turn you into a salamander.”

“You can do that?” she whispered. “Truly?”

“Of course.” A wicked gleam entered his eyes. “But I only turn girls into salamanders on Tuesdays. Luckily for you, it’s a Wednesday, which is the day I drink a goblet of orphan’s blood for supper.”

He looked entirely serious. He didn’t seem to have noticed her robes, which labeled her an apprentice, and therefore an orphan by default.

Determined to distract him, she took his hand. She hadn’t forgotten her mission for Katrien. When he pulled her up, she pretended to stumble, and landed with her 1ngers buried in his black-and-silver hair. He blinked at her in surprise. He was almost as tall as her, and their faces nearly touched. His lips parted as if to speak, but no sound came out.

Her breath quickened. With that startled expression on his face, he looked less like a sorcerer who bargained with demons and more like an ordinary young man. His hair was soft, the texture of silk. She didn’t know why she would notice such a thing. Hastily, she snatched her hands from him and backed away.

To her dismay, he grinned. “Don’t worry,” he assured her, smoothing his tousled hair. “Young ladies have sei>ed me in far more compromising locations. I understand the impulse can be overpowering.”

Without waiting for her reaction, he turned to study the wreckage. After a moment of consideration, he raised his hand and spoke a string of words that left her ears bu>>ing and her head turned inside-out. Da>ed, she reali>ed that he was speaking Enochian. It was unlike any language she had heard before. She felt as though she should recogni>e the words, but the moment she tried to repeat them to herself, the syllables trickled from her mind, leaving only a raw, resounding silence, like the air after a deafening clap of thunder.

Her hearing returned with a susurrus of rustling paper. The pile of spilled grimoires had begun to stir. One by one, they lifted into the air, Aoating in front of the sorcerer’s extended hand amid swirls of emerald light. They spun and Aipped and shuAed, sorting themselves back into alphabetical order while behind them, the fallen bookcase righted itself with a labored creak. The broken shelves fused, whole again; the grimoires Aew back to their original positions, a few reluctant stragglers switching places at the last second.

Magic, she thought. That is mhat magic loobs libe. And then, before she could stop herself, It’s beautiful.

She would never dare give voice to such a thought aloud. The sentiment verged on betraying her oaths to the Great Library. But a part of her rebelled against the idea that in order to be a good apprentice, she should close her

eyes and pretend she hadn’t seen. How could a warden defend against something they didn’t understand? Surely it was better to face evil than cower from its presence, learning nothing.

Emerald sparks still danced across the tidied shelves. She stepped forward to touch the grimoires, and felt the magic skate across her skin, bright and tingling, as though she’d plunged her hands into a bucket of champagne. Surprisingly, the sensation wasn’t painful. Nothing happened to her body— her hands didn’t change color, or shrivel like a prune.

When she looked up, however, the sorcerer was staring at her as though she’d grown a second head. Clearly, he had expected her to be afraid.

“Where is the smell?” she asked, emboldened. He appeared momentarily at a loss. “The what?”

“That smell—the one like burnt metal. That’s sorcery, isn’t it?”

“Ah.” A line appeared between his dark brows. Perhaps she had overstepped. But then he went on, “Not exactly. It accompanies sorcery sometimes, if the spell is powerful enough. Technically it isn’t the smell of magic, but a reaction when the substance of the Otherworld—that is, the demon realm—comes into contact with ours—”

“Like a chemical reaction?” Elisabeth asked.

He was looking at her even more strangely now. “Yes, precisely.” “Is there a name for it?”

“We call it aetherial combustion. But how did you—?”

He broke oP as another knock came on the door. “We’re ready for you, Magister Thorn,” said the Director outside.

“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, I—one moment.”

He glanced back at Elisabeth, as though he half expected her to have vanished like a mirage the instant he turned away. His pale eyes bored into her. For a moment, it seemed he might do something more. Utter a parting word, or conjure a spell to punish her for her insolence. She squared her shoulders, bracing for the worst.

Then a shadow crossed his face, and his eyes shuttered. He pivoted on his heel and started for the door without speaking. A 1nal reminder that he was a magister and she a lowly apprentice librarian, wholly beneath his notice.

She slipped back behind the shelves, breathless. A hand darted out and gripped hers.

“Elisabeth, you’re absolutely mad!” Katrien hissed, materiali>ing from the darkness. “I can’t believe you touched him. I was poised to jump out and bludgeon him with a grimoire the entire time. Well? What’s the report?”

Her nerves sang with exhilaration. She smiled, and then for some reason began to laugh. “No pointed ears,” she gasped. “They’re completely normal.” The reading room’s door creaked open. Katrien clamped a hand over Elisabeth’s mouth to smother her laughter. And not a moment too soon— the Director was waiting outside. She appeared as stern as always, her tumble of red hair gleaming like molten copper against the dark blue of her uniform. She glanced back into the room, and paused; after a moment of searching, her ga>e unerringly found and held Elisabeth’s through the shelves. Elisabeth went rigid, but the Director said nothing. One corner of her mouth twitched, tugging at the scar on her cheek. Then the door clicked shut, and she and the

magister were gone.

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