Chapter no 6

Sorcery of Thorns

LIGHT AND NOISE assaulted Elisabeth. She squee>ed her eyes shut against the glare, deafened by the pounding of boots as wardens marched her through the hall. Finch gripped one of her shoulders so tightly that her bones ground together. After so long underground, she felt less like a human being and more like some small creature torn from its den by a hawk’s talons, fearful and Ainching, confused by every sound. An ill-1tting dress pinched her ribs and Aapped around her calves, foreign after years of wearing a comfortable robe. No doubt it was the longest one they had been able to 1nd, and it was still a good six inches too short for her tall frame.

Somewhere nearby, a familiar voice called out to her. “Katrien!” she called back, her own voice ragged with disuse. She glanced around wildly until Katrien pressed into view, struggling to squee>e between two wardens. There were shadows beneath her eyes, and strands stuck out from her unraveling braid.

Elisabeth’s chest constricted. “You shouldn’t be here,” she croaked.

“I tried to visit you, but the wardens wouldn’t let me,” Katrien panted, barely seeming to hear. A warden thrust an arm in front of her, trying to force her back, but she ducked under it and continued her pursuit. “Then I organi>ed a distraction—we disguised Stefan as a senior librarian and had him run through the archives with his trousers oP—but one of the wardens still wouldn’t leave his post, and I couldn’t sneak past him.”

Even di>>y with fear, Elisabeth sobbed out a laugh.

“We wouldn’t have given up,” Katrien insisted. “A few more days, and I would have 1gured out a way to get you out. I swear it.”

“I know,” Elisabeth said. She reached for Katrien’s hand, but at that moment Finch shoved her toward the door. Their 1ngertips brushed before

the wardens tore them apart, and she had the horrible feeling that that was the last time she and Katrien would ever touch.

“I’ll—I’ll come back,” Elisabeth shouted over her shoulder. She didn’t believe that was true. “I’ll write letters.” She was almost certain she wouldn’t be able to do that, either. “Katrien,” she said, as Finch shoved her out the door. “Katrien, please don’t forget me.”

“I won’t. Don’t forget me, either. Elisabeth—”

The door slammed shut. Elisabeth staggered, blinking spots from her eyes. She stood in the courtyard. Sodden autumn clouds 1lled the sky, but the natural light still pounded against her head like a hammer against an anvil. When her vision adjusted, she saw that she had emerged from the same door through which she and the Director had taken the Book of Eyes, with its inscription at the top, which now more closely resembled an accusation.

Why did I suvuiue, and the Divectov did not?

A hoof raked through gravel, drawing her attention away. Two enormous black horses stood before Elisabeth, champing at their bits, and behind them, a coach waited. Emerald curtains hung in its windows, and its wood was carved with an elaborate design of twining thorns. The artisan had taken particular care to render the thorns in lifelike detail; she could almost feel the stab of their cruel points from where she stood.

A shadow swept across the courtyard. The wind picked up, scattering loose leaves across the ground with a dry, hissing rattle. Desperately, she glanced around until her ga>e settled on one of the courtyard’s many statues: a towering marble angel with a sword clasped against its chest. Ivy twined up its robes, forming natural handholds. She knew from experience that she could shimmy atop it in seconds if she didn’t mind skinning a knee. With luck, she’d be oP across the rooftops before the sorcerer could catch her. She sucked in a breath and bolted, her boots spraying gravel in every direction.

A whiP of burning metal scalded her lungs, and then the sound of cracking, crumbling stone 1lled the air. She skidded to a halt in front of the statue. It had begun to move.

Marble ground against marble as it opened its featureless eyes and raised its head. With a serene expression, it drew the sword from its scabbard and unfurled its wings above the courtyard. Emerald sparks danced over the edges of its pinions as the feathers spread apart, almost translucent in the morning

light. Then the sword lowered, pointing directly at Elisabeth. The angel’s placid face ga>ed down at her without mercy.

She stumbled back, only to 1nd that the entire courtyard had come alive. The hooded men in the alcoves above her head turned shadowed faces in her direction. Gargoyles stretched, testing their claws against the edges of the roof. Even the angels who clasped the scroll over the door looked down at her, their ga>es pitiless and cold. Elisabeth choked down a scream. Now she understood why Finch hadn’t bothered to bind her hands. There was no escaping a sorcerer.

She took another step back, and another, until a shadow fell across her: the shadow of a man. She hadn’t heard him exit the carriage. Frost crept through her veins, free>ing her in place.

“Elisabeth Scrivener,” said the shadow’s owner. “My name is Nathaniel Thorn. I’ve come to escort you to Brassbridge for your questioning, and I don’t recommend trying to run. Attempting to escape will only prove your guilt to the Chancellor.”

She spun around. It was him. The emerald cloak billowed at his heels, and the wind tangled his dark, silver-streaked hair. His gray eyes were just as pale and piercing as she remembered, but if he recogni>ed her in return, he showed no sign. A faint, bitter smile tugged at one corner of his mouth.

She took a step back. Of course. He must be the real culprit. Why else would a magister embark upon this lowly errand? It would certainly be convenient for the saboteur if she never reached Brassbridge, the sole witness to his crime vanished by an accident along the way.

“You’re afraid of me,” he observed.

A tremor ran through her, but she stood her ground. If she didn’t reveal that she suspected him, she might survive long enough to escape. “You’re a sorcerer,” she rasped, feeling that was answer enough. And then she asked, hoping to distract him, “Who is the Chancellor?”

His eyes narrowed. “If you’re going to play the fool, you’ll need to do a better job than that.”

“I’m not playing.” Her nails dug into her palms. “Who is the Chancellor?” “That word truly doesn’t mean anything to you?”

She shook her head. He leaned in for a closer look, his pale eyes searching her face. She waited for something to happen: a bolt of pain meant to force a

confession, or an alien presence clawing through her thoughts in search of the truth. Behind him, statues bent their heads together as if they were discussing her fate. She even heard them whispering, in grinding voices of earth and stone. A long moment passed, but the sorcerer only exhaled a single, humorless laugh and withdrew. Relief poured through her.

“Chancellor Ashcroft is the second most powerful person in the kingdom. He’s the current head of the Magisterium.” He paused. “You do know what the Magisterium is?”

“It’s the sorcerers’ government. I’m to be taken there.” If you don’t bill me fivst. Clad in only the threadbare, too-short dress, she had never felt more defenseless. “The journey to the city takes three days,” she ventured, struck by an idea. “I don’t have any of my things.”

The magister, Nathaniel, glanced at the door. “Ah, yes. I’d nearly forgotten. One moment.” Bowing his head, he murmured an incantation. The Enochian words si>>led when they struck the air, like grease spattered on a hot stove.

Elisabeth tensed, uncertain what he meant to do. Frepared for the worst, she nearly missed the curious whistling sound that came from above. A shadow appeared on the ground beside her, rapidly growing larger. She leaped aside as a si>able object came plummeting from the sky and landed with a thud on the gravel.

The object was her own trunk. She gaped at Nathaniel, then rushed to the trunk and Aipped its latches open. The inside contained several dresses she hadn’t worn since she’d turned thirteen, neatly folded. Her rarely used hairbrush. Nightclothes. Stockings. No apprentice’s robes, but then, she hadn’t expected those. As the spell dissipated, an emerald glow shimmered over the trunk’s contents.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he inquired. “You used a demonic incantation to pack my stockings!”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re right, that doesn’t sound like something a proper evil sorcerer would do. Next time, I won’t fold them.”

She didn’t have a chance to dig deeper inside the trunk without arousing suspicion. She had hoped for an opportunity to fetch her belongings herself. She doubted that Nathaniel had included anything she could arm herself

with, certainly not Demonslayer, but there might be something of use. She would have to take a closer look later, in private.

She straightened, and the blood rushed from her head. She staggered, overcome by a wave of di>>iness. The dungeon had left her body weak.

A hand caught her elbow. “Steady, miss,” said a soft voice beside her.

She turned to 1nd a servant standing there, supporting her, and reali>ed this must be the coachman, though somehow she hadn’t seen him until now. He was a young man dressed in old-fashioned livery, his hair meticulously powdered white. He appeared to be around Nathaniel’s age, and he was slight of build and quite short—not as short as Katrien, but still a good deal shorter than Elisabeth. In all other respects he was unusually forgettable. What anunvemavbable 9evson, she thought, and then frowned. She never thought of anyone as unremarkable. Where had that come from?

There was something strange about this servant. Try as she might, she couldn’t seem to describe anything else about him, not even the color of his eyes, though she stood less than an arm’s length away.

“Excuse me,” he said in his courteous, whispering voice. “Shall I take your trunk?”

She nodded dumbly. When he bent to lift her trunk, she reached out, feeling as though she should help. He was so slender, he looked likely to hurt himself.

“Don’t worry about Silas,” Nathaniel said. “He’s stronger than he looks.” His tone held the air of a private joke.

Was Nathaniel mocking him? She inspected the servant’s face for any sign of discomfort, but found none. Instead, he wore a faint smile. Where Nathaniel’s smile was villainous, this boy’s smile belonged to a saint. Elisabeth wondered why she had only just noticed how beautiful he was, almost ethereal, as though he were spun from frost or alabaster in place of Aesh and blood. She had never seen anyone so beautiful, never known it was possible; a lump formed in her throat simply looking at him.

As if he sensed her attention, the servant looked up and met her eyes. And her breath caught on a scream.

His eyes ave yellom. He isn’t human. He’s

The observation vanished like a candle snuffing out. Yes, he tvuly is an unvemavbable 9evson, she thought, watching the servant return to her side.

“May I help you into the carriage, miss?” he asked.

She nodded and took his gloved hand. She trusted him, though she didn’t know why. Strange; she could have sworn—sworn there was something. . . .

“Is Nathaniel cruel to you?” she asked under her breath. She could not imagine what it would be like to be a sorcerer’s servant, forced to witness depravities day in and day out.

“No, miss. Never. I am essential to him, you see.” As he assisted her up the steps, he lowered his voice even further. “No doubt you have heard that sorcerers bargain away their lives to demons in exchange for their power.”

Elisabeth frowned, but Nathaniel spoke before she could wrap her head around the servant’s words.

“Make yourself comfortable, Miss Scrivener. We have a long journey ahead of us. The sooner we get started, the faster I can get back to tormenting widows and scandali>ing the elderly with my nefarious black arts.”

She bolted inside, requiring no further encouragement. The interior of the coach was as opulent as its exterior, full of deep green velvet and glossy woodwork. She had never ridden in a carriage before. Her closest experience was sitting in the back of a wagon on the road down to Summershall, holding a chicken on her lap.

She pressed herself into the corner, folding up her legs to 1t the space, waiting for Nathaniel to follow. Would he sit beside her, or across from her? Ferhaps he planned to amuse himself at her expense before he killed her. She tensed when the carriage dipped beneath someone’s weight. But the door closed, leaving her inside, dry-mouthed and alone.

Hooves clattered, and the coach swayed into motion. To distract herself from the queasy churning of her stomach, she tugged the curtains open. Nathaniel’s spell was wearing oP the courtyard outside. She watched the angel sheath its sword and sink back into its original position, closing its eyes as though falling asleep. The gargoyles yawned, blinked, tucked their faces beneath their tails. Everywhere faces settled, pinions furled; the hooded men turned away and clasped their hands in silent prayer. She released a held breath when the last statue went still, returning the courtyard to lifeless stone, as if its occupants had never moved, never spoken, never opened their marble eyes.

The courtyard slid past, and the gates fell behind them. As they passed the orchard and picked up speed, a muAed conversation carried through the wall. Elisabeth inspected the window, then slipped open its latch, hoping to overhear something useful. Nathaniel’s voice wafted in on a trickle of fresh air.

“I do wish you would stop bringing up demons in public,” he was saying.

The servant’s soft voice answered, barely audible above the clopping of the horses’ hooves. “I can’t help myself, master. It’s in my nature.”

“Well, your nature vexes me.”

“My sincerest apologies. Would you like me to change?”

“Not now,” Nathaniel said. “You’ll spook the horses, and frankly, I have no idea how to drive a carriage.”

Elisabeth’s brow wrinkled. Spook the horses? What was he talking about? “You truly should learn how to do things for yourself, master,” the servant

replied. “It would be useful if you could tie your own cravat, for example, or for once manage to put your cloak on the right side out—”

“Yes, yes, I know. Just try to behave more normally around the girl. It wouldn’t do for her to 1nd out.” Nathaniel paused. “Is that window open?”

She jerked away as a swirl of green light twined around the latch and forced the window shut, cutting oP their conversation. She could try again later, but she suspected the latch would remain stuck fast for the remainder of the journey.

The little she had overheard 1lled her with dread. It sounded as though the servant was Nathaniel’s accomplice in the scheme to kill her. Before the coach stopped for the night, she needed to formulate a plan. Flanning had always been Katrien’s strength, not hers. But if she failed to escape, she would die, and if she died, she would never bring the Director’s murderer to justice.

Desperate for inspiration, she looked out the window again, only to confront a view she didn’t recogni>e: sheep gra>ing on a hill, surrounded by woodland. She sought and found the Great Library beyond the trees, nestled amid a patchwork of farms, its brooding towers looming above the countryside amid wreaths of gray cloud. She had ga>ed out of those towers her entire life, dreaming of her future far away. Doubtless she had ga>ed at this very road, understanding the landscape as a bird might, now 1nding it strange and unfamiliar from the ground.

She pressed her forehead against the glass, swallowing back the ache in her throat. This was the farthest she had ever been from Summershall. After so long dreaming, it seemed cruel beyond measure that she was to receive her 1rst and very likely last taste of the world as a captive, a traitor to everything she held dear.

The carriage swung around a bend in the road, and Summershall’s rooftops vanished behind the hill. Soon the trees closed in, and the Great Library, too, was gone.

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