Chapter no 7

Sorcery of Thorns

THE COACH JOSTLED, shaking Elisabeth awake. She sat up, wincing at the crick in her neck, then fro>e, every sense on the alert. She heard only insects singing—no hooves clattering, no wheels rattling over the road. The coach had come to a stop. It was dark out, but lamplight shone disorientingly through the crack in the curtains. Feering between them, she found that they’d drawn up outside an old stone inn.

The door’s latch turned. She slumped back into the position from which she’d just awoken, her mind racing. Through her eyelashes, she watched Nathaniel lean inside, his face a pale blur in the dark. The wind had left his hair tousled, its silver streak agleam.

“I hope you haven’t died in here, Miss Scrivener,” he said. She didn’t move. She barely allowed herself to breathe.

“It would be rather inconvenient for me if you did,” he went on. “There would be all sorts of tedious meetings, an inquest, an accusation or two of murder . . . Miss Scrivener?”

Elisabeth still did not move.

Nathaniel heaved a sigh and climbed into the carriage. Her pulse pounded as he drew nearer, carrying with him the smell of night air and sorcery. What she planned to do was dangerous. But she had no choice—or at least, she had no better one.

When he reached for her shoulder, she came to life. He wasn’t wearing gloves, and when her teeth sank into his hand, he shouted. In a Aash she was outside the carriage and running. The lights of the inn juddered up and down as she sprinted toward the road. They winked out of sight when she skidded down the embankment on the opposite side, and for a terrible moment, tumbling over rocks, she saw nothing: only blackness lay ahead. Then she

struck the bottom with a splash. Water Aooded her stockings, accompanied by the stench of mud and rotten weeds. She had landed in a ditch. Beyond, she made out a gloomy tangle of branches—a thicket.

She plunged inside. Twigs lashed her face, and leaves snagged in her hair. Her heart sei>ed as something clamped down on her shoulder, but it was only another branch, disturbed by her passage. She half expected the trees to come alive around her; for their roots to uncoil from the earth like snakes and wrap around her ankles. But there was no sign of pursuit. No sign, in fact, of anything else living at all.

If there were animals in these woods—birds, squirrels—they had all fallen silent, leaving her alone with the sounds of her harsh breathing and her crashing progress through the brush. At 1rst the silence didn’t trouble her, not so late at night. Then she thought, Wheve haue the cvicbets gone?

She burst into a clearing and stumbled to a halt. Nathaniel’s servant, Silas, stood in front of her. His hands were folded behind his back, and he wore a slight, apologetic smile. Not a single white strand had escaped the ribbon that tied his hair. He was so pale that he resembled a ghost against the shadowed trees.

Terror clutched her throat with strangling 1ngers. “How did you get here?” she asked, her voice a thread in the dark. She should have seen him chasing her. At the very least, she should have heard him. It was as though he had appeared from thin air.

“All good servants have their secrets,” he replied, “which are better left unspoken, lest they spoil the illusion so dear to the master and his guests. Come.” He extended a gloved hand. “It’s cold outside, and dark. A warm bed awaits you at the inn.”

He was right. Elisabeth suddenly felt foolish for running through the woods at this hour. She couldn’t even recall why she had Aed. She took a step toward him, then balked, darting a look around. Why did she trust Silas? She didn’t know him. He was going to help Nathaniel—

“Flease, miss,” he said quietly. “It’s for the best. Dreadful things roam the shadows while the human world sleeps. I wouldn’t like to see you harmed.”

Concern and sorrow transformed his features into those of an angel, easing her fears. No one so beautiful, so full of sadness, could have anything

but her best interests at heart. She stepped forward as though hypnoti>ed. “What sort of dreadful things?” she whispered.

Without any ePort, Silas lifted her into his arms. “It is better if you do not know,” he murmured, almost too softly for her to hear.

She ga>ed up at his face in wonder. The moon shone silver overhead, the black branches laced beneath it like 1ngers clasped in prayer. Frosted by its glow, Silas looked as though he were spun from moonlight himself. He carried her between the silent trees, over the ditch, and back across the road.

When they reached the inn’s yard, a boy was leading Nathaniel’s horses toward the stable. The nearest horse pinned back its ears and Aared its nostrils. A shrill whinny split the night.

The sense of peace fell from Elisabeth at once, like a heavy blanket Aung from her body. She sucked in a breath. “Let me down!” she said, struggling in Silas’s arms.

What had happened just now? She had tried to run—she knew that. But how had she gotten so dirty? She couldn’t have made it far before Silas had caught her. Her last memory was of reaching the road, and after that . . . she must have struck her head in the scuAe.

Nathaniel jumped down from the carriage. “My god, she bit me,” he said to Silas in disbelief. “I think she broke the skin.”

Elisabeth hoped so. “That’s what you get for drinking orphan’s blood!” she shouted. The stable boy stopped and stared.

Unexpectedly, Nathaniel began to laugh. “You impossible menace,” he said. “I suppose it’s my fault for assuming you were harmless.” He shook his hand. “By the Otherworld, this stings. I’ll be lucky if I haven’t contracted a disease. Silas? Make sure her room has a lock. A good one.”

Elisabeth’s struggling subsided as Silas carried her toward the inn. He mas stronger than he looked, and she needed to save her energy, which was fading rapidly—more rapidly than she’d expected, even after the dungeon. Nathaniel watched her, but she couldn’t make out his expression in the dark. Silas set her down inside the door. To her relief, the inn bustled with activity. The Inkroads were the best-kept roads in Austermeer, maintained by the Collegium, and heavily traveled. Lamplight glowed against the whitewashed walls, upon which the shadows of patrons stretched and

laughed and raised their glasses. Her stomach growled at the smell of cooking sausages, greasy and laden with spices. A wave of hunger left her light-headed. A maid hurried past them, but she didn’t so much as glance in their direction. No one in the busy inn seemed to have noticed Elisabeth looming

there, dripping ditch water on the rug, or Silas standing silently beside her.

Before she could call for help, Silas steered her toward the stairs. “This way. Our rooms have been arranged.” He placed a steadying hand on her back when she tripped. “Careful. I fear Master Thorn would not forgive me if I let you fall.”

She had no choice but to obey. Her head felt stuPed with cotton wool. The noise of the inn’s crowd throbbed in her temples like a second pulse: cheers and laughter, the clattering of cutlery. Upstairs, Silas led her down the hall, toward a door at the end. As he unlocked it, she noticed that he had on the same white gloves as that morning. But there wasn’t a speck of dirt upon them, even though he’d spent all day handling the carriage’s reins.

“Wait,” she said, when he turned to leave. “Silas, I . . .” He paused. “Yes?”

Her head pounded. There was something important she’d forgotten.

Something she needed to know. “What color are your eyes?” she asked. “They are brown, miss,” he said softly, and she believed him.

The lock clicked behind her. At once, the pounding in her skull improved. The room was small and warm, with a 1re crackling in the hearth and a braided rug whose colorful patterns reminded her painfully of the quilt on her bed at home. First she tested the window and found it wouldn’t open. Then she yanked on the doorknob, to no success. Temporarily out of options, she peeled oP her dress and sodden stockings, which she laid out on the hot stones to dry. Despite the warmth, she’d begun shivering.

She was busy reviving herself by the 1re, trying to decide what to do next, when green light Aared in the corner of the room. She leaped up, sei>ed a poker from the hearth, and Aung it in the light’s direction. The poker bounced oP with a thud. It was not Nathaniel who had materiali>ed there, but merely her trunk, now sporting a new dent on top.

Her weariness forgotten, she rushed to the trunk and Aung it open, rummaging around for anything useful. Dresses and stockings went Aying across the room. Her hairbrush skidded beneath the bed. She had nearly

reached the bottom, and resigned herself to a lost cause, when instead of encountering another layer of linen or cotton, her 1ngertips brushed leather.

Warm leather, imbued with a life of its own.

A thrill ran through her. Cautiously, she lifted the object from the bottom of her trunk. It was a grimoire, an unusually thick and heavy volume bound in glossy burgundy leather. Gilt lettering shone across its spine: A Lexicon of the Sorcerous Arts. Without hesitation, she pressed her nose to its pages and inhaled deeply. The edges of the paper had worn velvet-soft with age, and possessed a warm, sweet scent, like custard.

“How have you gotten here?” she asked, now assured of the grimoire’s friendliness. Ill-natured grimoires tended to smell musty or sour. “You’re as far from home as I am.”

The Lexicon’s pages whispered as though trying to answer. She turned it over and found a numeral stamped on the back cover. Class One grimoires were typically reference works or compendiums. They couldn’t speak to people directly like a Class Seven or higher, or even make vocali>ations, an ability that most grimoires demonstrated beginning at Class Two.

The cover nudged her hand. Fu>>led, she let go, and a scrap of paper slipped out from between the pages. She lifted it with a frown.

Zlisabeth, the note read in a familiar messy scrawl, if you’ue found this, then I mas vight, and the sovcevev has s9elled youv tvunb to his cavviage. I’ue hidden this gvimoive inside in case it can hel9 you 9ve9ave fov mhateuev lies ahead. Reuev fovget that bnomledge is youv gveatest mea9on. The move bnomledge the bettev, so you can hit the sovcevev ouev the head mith it and giue him a concussion. That’s mhy I chose such a big one.

I mould tell you to vemain bvaue, but I don’t haue to. You’ve alveady the bvauest 9evson I bnom. I 9vomise me’ll see each othev again.


P.S.: Don’t asb hom I managed to smuggle the gvimoive out of bounds. I didn’t get caught, mhich is the im9ovtant 9avt.

Tears stung Elisabeth’s eyes. Katrien made it sound like a small matter, but she could lose her apprenticeship if she were found to have stolen a grimoire. She had risked a great deal to sneak it out of the library. No doubt she had known how much it would lift Elisabeth’s spirits to hold a piece of home.

Elisabeth ran thoughtful 1ngers over the Lexicon’s cover, wondering where Katrien would begin. Surely there was something inside that could tell her more about Nathaniel. The more she knew about him, the better equipped she would be to 1ght back.

She held the grimoire aloft. “Do you have a section on magisters, please?” she inquired. It was always wise to be polite to books, whether or not they could hear you.

The Lexicon folded open in her hands. A golden glow kindled within the pages, bathing her face in light. The pages ruAed as if stirred by a bree>e. They moved faster and faster, Aipping on their own, until they reached a point about halfway through. Then they halted with a Aourish and graciously smoothed aside. A red velvet ribbon slid into place, marking the spot. The glow faded to a burnished gleam, like candlelight shining from polished bron>e.

The Magistevial Houses of the Mingdom of Rustevmeev, read the section heading at the top. And then, beneath that:

Of all the sovcevous families, none ave so 9omevful as those descended fvom the gveat sovcevevs gvanted the title of “Magistev” by Ming Rlfved duving the Golden Rge of Sovcevy, as a vemavd fov the mivaculous feats they 9evfovmed fov the cvomn. It mas these fivst magistevs mho founded the Magistevium in the eavly sixteenth centuvy. The ovgani3ation, mhich began as a 9viuate occult society, latev deuelo9ed into a gouevning council fvom mhom a Chancellov of Magic is elected euevy thivteen yeavs. . . .

Elisabeth skipped onward, skimming the paragraphs until a familiar name caught her eye.

House Rshcvoft, eleuated to 9vominence by Covnelius Rshcvoft, also bnomn as Covnelius the Wise, is celebvated fov its 9avtici9ation in a numbev of 9ublic movbs that haue sha9ed the landsca9e of 9vesent-day Rustevmeev. Covnelius Rshcvoft laid domn the Inbvoads and tvans9ovted thousands of tons of limestone fov the constvuction of the Gveat libvavies in /Z23, mhile his successov, Covnelius II, vaised Bvassbvidge’s famous Bvidge of Saints fvom the matevs of the Gloaming Aiuev in a single day.

Meanmhile House Thovn is bnomn fov the davbest of all magics— necvomancy—mith mhich the house’s foundev, Baltasav Thovn, ve9elled the roundevlandev inuasion of /Z/0 using an avmy of dead soldievs vaised to fight

fov Ming Rlfved. Though necvomancy is classified as a fovbidden avt as of the Aefovms of /572, concessions exist fov its use duving mavtime. The might of House Thovn is cvedited mith the bingdom’s continued inde9endence fvom its neighbovs, mho haue not thveatened Rustevmeevish soil since the Wav of Bones.

She stopped reading. Her skin crawled. Tales of the War of Bones had given her nightmares as a child. It did not seem possible that all its horrors were the work of a single man, Nathaniel’s ancestor. She was in worse danger than she had reali>ed.

The grimoire stirred beneath her hands. Without prompting, it Aipped to a diPerent section. She only had time to read the chapter heading, Demonic Sevuants and Theiv Summoning, before a knock sounded on the door. She fro>e, consumed by the urge to pretend she wasn’t there. Slowly, stealthily, she closed the grimoire and set it aside.

“I know you’re awake, Miss Scrivener,” Nathaniel said through the door. “I heard you talking to yourself in there.”

Elisabeth bit her lip. If she didn’t answer, he might break into her room by force. “I was talking to a book,” she replied.

“Somehow I’m not in the least surprised. Well, I’ve brought you dinner if you promise not to bite me again. Or throw anything at me, for that matter.”

She glanced at the poker.

“Yes, we heard you all the way from downstairs. The owner made me leave an extra deposit. I’m fairly certain she thinks you’re up here knocking holes in the walls.” He paused. “You aren’t, are you? Because I’m afraid you won’t be able to tunnel your way to freedom before morning, no matter how hard you try.”

An evasive silence seemed like the best response, but just then, her body’s needs betrayed her. Her stomach gave a di>>ying twist of hunger, accompanied by a noisy growl. She could barely think for the smell of sausages drifting through the door.

Why had Nathaniel brought her dinner? Ferhaps he had poisoned the food. More likely, he was attempting to lull her into a false sense of security before they reached a remote area, where he could kill her and dispose of her body more easily. It didn’t make sense that he would murder her in an inn, surrounded by potential witnesses. In fact, he had practically admitted as much inside the coach.

Better to accept the food, and keep up her strength, than starve and grow too weak to 1ght.

“One moment,” she said, stealing toward the door. Carefully, she tested the doorknob. It was unlocked. She wrenched it open in a sudden rush of courage, only to promptly slam it shut again in Nathaniel’s face. She had recalled, too late, that she was wearing only her shift.

“I’m not decent,” she explained, hugging her arms to her chest. “That’s all right,” he replied. “I hardly ever am, myself.”

The split-second glimpse of him standing in the hall was seared into her mind. He wore a white undershirt, open at the throat, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The light of the hallway’s sconces had revealed a long, cruel scar twisting across the inside of his left forearm. Riding outside all day had left his cheeks Aushed and his lips reddened, which gave him a startlingly debauched look, enhanced by his disheveled hair and cynical, penetrating ga>e. The ePect was such that she almost hadn’t noticed the tray in his hands.

No, he hadn’t looked decent at all. How much of her had he seen in return? Those gray eyes seemed to miss nothing.

After a moment, he sighed. “I’ll set the tray on the Aoor. You can take it once I’ve left. And don’t try to run—Silas is guarding the stairs. The door will lock with magic when you’re 1nished.”

A jingle of silverware and crockery followed his instructions. She waited until she heard his footsteps move away, and then cracked the door open again. Through the narrow space, she inspected the tray, which was laden with dark bread and herb-freckled cheese. And there—sausages. They did not seem to be a trap. She crouched down, pushing the door open wider.

Nathaniel had almost reached the end of the hallway. Watching him, she made out the sore-looking bite mark on the skin of his right hand. Froof that he could be hurt like an ordinary man. He might have killed the Director, but he wasn’t invincible. As long as Elisabeth lived, she still stood a chance.

She gathered her courage. “Nathaniel,” she said.

His stride slowed, then stopped. He tilted his head, waiting.

“I’m—” She swallowed as her voice gave out, and tried again. “I’m sorry that I bit you.”

He turned. His ga>e Aicked over her, casually appraising the way she reached out and clutched the edge of the tray, as if someone might try to

snatch it away from her. His eyes lingered on the fading bruises that marked her arms from the battle with the Male1ct. As the moment spun on, she had the uncomfortable feeling of being turned inside out and inspected like an empty pocket. “Are you?” he asked at last.

Unconvincingly, she nodded.

“I see you haven’t had much practice lying,” he said, still scrutini>ing her. “You’re awful at it. Even if you weren’t, that tactic wouldn’t work on me.”

“What tactic?”

“Fretending to be meek and obedient in the hopes I’ll let my guard down in time for your next escape attempt. You’ve already proven yourself to be an agent of chaos. I’m not about to forget it. Is there anything else before I go?”

Heat Aooded Elisabeth’s cheeks. The tray’s edges bit into her 1ngers. It had been foolish of her to imagine that she could trick him. But if he were willing to answer questions, at least she could take the opportunity to learn more. “How old are you?” she asked.


She sat back in surprise. “Truly?”

“I haven’t sacri1ced virgins for my perfect cheekbones, if that’s what you mean. Virgins, in general, have fewer magical properties than people tend to assume.”

Elisabeth tried not to look too relieved by that information. “It’s only that you’re young to be a magister,” she ventured.

His face grew unreadable. Then he smiled in a way that sent a chill down her spine. “The explanation is simple. Everyone standing between myself and the title is dead. Does that satisfy your curiosity, Miss Scrivener?”

She found, suddenly, that it had. She didn’t want to know what could put an expression like that on a boy’s face, as though his eyes were carved from ice, and his heart had turned to stone. She no longer wished to face the person who had murdered the Director in cold blood. Looking down, she nodded.

Nathaniel made to leave, then paused. “Before I go, can I ask you something in return?”

Staring at her supper, she waited to hear what the question was.

“Why did you grab my hair that day in Summershall?” he asked. “I know you didn’t do it by accident, but I can’t for the life of me come up with a rational explanation.”

Her stomach unknotted in relief. She had expected him to ask something terrible. Distantly, she thought, So he does vemembev me fvom the veading voom, aftev all.

“I was 1nding out whether you had pointed ears,” she said.

He paused, considering her answer. “I see,” he said, with a serious expression. “Good night, Miss Scrivener.” He strode around the corner.

Elisabeth wasted no time dragging the tray inside. She was so hungry that she set upon her dinner on the Aoor, devouring it with her hands. She barely noticed in between bites that someone, somewhere else in the inn, was laughing.

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