Sorcery of Thorns

ELISABETH FIDGETED IN her seat. Under diPerent circumstances, the wait would be making her sleepy. Sun poured in through the window, glancing from the Collegium’s bron>e spires, casting a warm rectangle across her chair. Snores issued from a grimoire resting open on a stand in the corner, who occasionally woke up and whee>ed dyspeptically before lapsing back into slumber. The room smelled of parchment and beeswax. But this office belonged to Mistress Fetronella Wick, and Elisabeth was wound as tightly as a spring.

She nearly leaped from her skin when a loud, sucking mhoosh broke the near silence, followed by a thump and a rattle. Just a delivery via the system of pneumatic tubes, arriving in the office from somewhere else in the Royal Library. Even so, her knuckles turned white. If she kept gripping the armrests like this, her 1ngers would go numb.

“Are you all right?” Katrien asked.

Elisabeth jerked her head up and down in what she hoped passed for a nod.

“If they’d brought us here to clap us in irons,” Katrien said, “I’m fairly certain they would have done it already.”

Elisabeth glanced at her friend. Katrien was wearing a set of pale blue apprentice’s robes, her greatkey hanging against her chest. She was short enough that the chair’s edge hit her below the knee, forcing her legs to stick out in front of her, a pose that made her look uncharacteristically innocent.

“But it never hurts to come prepared,” she went on, craning her neck to inspect the desk’s contents with interest. She was particularly fascinated by Mistress Wick’s paperwork, which wasn’t written in ink or regular script, but

rather embossed with rows of bumpy-looking dots. “I snuck in a set of lock picks and a metal 1le just in case. They’re in my left stocking.”

“Katrien! What if someone 1nds them?”

“Then I suppose we’ll have to resort to the second 1le. But I have to warn you, that one will be less pleasant for you to retrieve if I’m incapacitated. It’s in my—”

Katrien clapped her mouth shut as the doorknob turned. Mistress Wick entered, resplendent in her deep indigo robes. The sunlight glinted on her key-and-quill pin as she took a seat opposite them behind her desk. Though her eyes never shifted in their direction, Elisabeth nevertheless experienced the same sensation of scrutiny as last time.

Last time, when she had sat in this office and lied.

“Elisabeth Scrivener. Katrien Quillworthy. I thought it would be most efficient to deal with both of you at the same time.”

What did that mean? Elisabeth shot Katrien a look of pure terror, which was met with a shrug.

“First,” Mistress Wick said, “I would like to update you on the situation with the scrying mirror. I appreciate your candor, Scrivener, in bringing the artifact to the Collegium’s attention.”

In the aftermath of the Archon’s summoning, Elisabeth had been too exhausted to do anything but babble out the truth—all of it—in one long, barely interrupted stream to the wardens who had dug her out of the atrium’s rubble. Shortly thereafter, the scrying mirror had been con1scated from Nathaniel’s attic. Now a stab of panic set her heart pounding. For the 1rst time, she reali>ed that her honesty might have gotten Katrien in trouble, too.

Relief Aooded her as Mistress Wick went on, “Based on my strong recommendation, the Freceptors’ Committee has decided to omit the mirror from both of your records. There are some in the Collegium who would not look kindly on your use of a forbidden magical artifact, even in pursuit of saving the kingdom. I would prefer the information to never fall into their hands.” She turned her head slightly. “Now, Quillworthy.”

Katrien sat up straighter. “Yes, Mistress Wick?” she said, with a politeness that instinctively caused Elisabeth to brace herself, as that particular tone, coming from Katrien, had once preceded a 1recracker going oP in Warden

Finch’s face. This time, however, it seemed as though Katrien meant it sincerely.

“I’m pleased to share that the Committee has also approved the transfer of your apprenticeship from Summershall to Brassbridge, also on my recommendation. Once this meeting has 1nished, you will be shown to your new accommodations in the Royal Library.”

Elisabeth barely kept herself from laughing out loud in delight. She and Katrien shared a grin. From now on, they would only be a 1fteen-minute walk away.

“My suggestion to the Committee was inAuenced not only by your ePorts against Ashcroft,” Mistress Wick continued, “but also your bravery in exposing ex-Director Finch’s crimes. Had you not investigated his activities, it is possible he would never have been caught.”

Their grins broadened. As it turned out, Finch had been using his new privileges as Director to illegally smuggle grimoires into the hands of private buyers. The entire time Katrien had been helping them with Ashcroft, she had also been plotting to rescue Summershall from his tyranny.

“You did excellent work, Quillworthy. I look forward to watching your career advance, and of course, providing any references that you require. Speaking of which—Scrivener.”

A Aush spread across Elisabeth’s face. She was so convinced of her impending humiliation that she found that she couldn’t speak. She looked down at her lap instead.

“Firstly,” Mistress Wick said, “I knew who you were the moment you set foot in the Royal Library. Had I objected to the situation, I wouldn’t have allowed the steward to hire you.”

“Oh.” Elisabeth paused. Blinked. “How did you know?”

“Most prospective maidservants are not quite so sanguine about books that bite oP people’s 1ngers. The steward was very impressed. Now, I have something here to give you.” She removed a parcel from her robes and passed it across the desk. “It will not bite oP your 1ngers,” she said dryly, when Elisabeth hesitated to take it.

Uncertain, she accepted the parcel with trembling hands. She undid the string, folded the blue paper aside—and stopped breathing. From within, a newly forged greatkey gleamed up at her. Most of the Great Libraries’ keys

were tarnished from age and use, but this one was brand new, shining as brightly as gold.

“I know you likely would have preferred your old one back, but we were unable to recover it from the wreckage.”

Mistress Wick’s voice faded out. For a moment Elisabeth was back there, feeling the atrium quake, watching it collapse around her. After Silas had entered the circle, the dome had caved in, leaving her, Nathaniel, and Ashcroft buried under tons of debris. Long minutes of silence had followed as she waited for help to arrive. Finned alone beneath the rubble, she’d had no idea whether Nathaniel had survived.

She blinked, and just like that, she was back in the sunlit office. She carefully touched her arms, but the last of her bruises had faded weeks ago.

“It’s all right,” she said, looking up from the greatkey. “I think I’m ready for a new one. But does this mean . . . ?”

Mistress Wick nodded. “Your apprenticeship has been officially reinstated

—if you choose to accept it. I will be honest: there are those on the Committee who did not wish to allow your return. But they are outnumbered by those who regard you as a hero. There is no doubt in my mind that you will be accepted for warden’s training should you decide to pursue it.”

Elisabeth paused. “I’m no longer certain that I . . . want to be a warden.” Nothing compared to the relief of speaking those words out loud. “In truth,” she said, growing bolder, “I don’t know what I want to do any longer, or who I want to be.” She looked up from the greatkey and oPered, “The world is so much bigger than I once thought.”

Mistress Wick looked thoughtful. “I know that your view of the Collegium has changed. But do not forget that the Collegium, too, can change. It simply needs the right people to change it. There are a number of other, equally important posts in the Great Library in which you could make a diPerence. Wardens tend to forget that not all battles are fought with swords.” Her voice gentled. “But you do not need to make a choice now. This key is a promise that whatever you decide, or don’t decide, you are always welcome in the Great Libraries.”

Elisabeth did miss wearing her apprentice’s robes; the long sleeves were useful when there wasn’t a handkerchief around. She tried not to sniP too

loudly as she wiped her cheeks.

“Finally,” Mistress Wick said, turning to both girls, “I must ask you to keep Cornelius Ashcroft’s purpose for the Great Libraries a secret—for now. At the moment, only a handful of people know what actually transpired that day. The truth will get out eventually, but the preceptors wish to ensure that when it does, the Collegium is prepared to weather the storm.”

And what a storm it would be. As Elisabeth exited the office a minute later, she wondered what kinds of gatherings robed officials were holding in dusty rooms, discussing the revelation that the Great Libraries had been created to summon the Archon. Soon, the news would tear the Collegium apart. And oddly enough, she thought that might be a good thing. It was about time that the old gears got ripped out and replaced with something new.

She and Katrien turned a corner. Deep in her thoughts, Elisabeth almost collided with a boy wearing the robes of a junior librarian.

“Hullo,” he said, brightening at the sight of them. He turned from Elisabeth to Katrien. “Are you Katrien Quillworthy? My name’s Farsifal. I’m the one who’s supposed to show you to your room, and then give you a tour of the library.” He swiveled back to Elisabeth, beaming. “And you must be Elisabeth Scrivener.”

“Fleased to meet you,” she said, sticking out her hand.

He gave it a conspiratorial shake. He also, possibly, attempted to wink— either that, or a piece of dust had Aown past his spectacles and gotten in his eye. She couldn’t tell which.

It had been a relief to discover that he was still alive. Contrary to her expectations, few librarians had perished during the summoning. When Ashcroft arrived with an army of demons to begin his ritual, they had barricaded themselves here in the offices of the Northeast Wing. Surprisingly, after the atrium collapsed, Farsifal himself had borrowed an axe from the armory to break them out.

Elisabeth prepared herself to walk on alone. Before they went their separate ways, Katrien caught her arm. “How are you doing—truly?” she whispered under her breath.

Elisabeth attempted a smile. “I’m all right.”

Katrien’s expression grew serious. “I know you cared about him. He meant a lot to you.”

She nodded, her throat tight. “It’s been . . . difficult. But things are getting better.” Hoping she wasn’t changing the topic too obviously, she glanced at Farsifal. “You’ll like Farsifal. He’s kind. Smart. And—er, gullible.”

“Oh, perfect,” Katrien said.

“Don’t get him into too much trouble.” She had a strong feeling that Farsifal was going to replace Stefan as Katrien’s unwitting collaborator.

She grinned. “I will, but I’ll get him out of it afterward. I promise.”

Elisabeth spirits lifted as she crossed the atrium. The sound of workmen hammering echoed throughout the space, nearly drowning out the friendly rustling of pages. The sorcerers were long 1nished by now, but she had been there to watch them work as they raised the shattered balconies, mended pillars, made the bookshelves whole again, like a marvel at the dawning of the world. The atrium wasn’t quite as it once was; half the shelves stood empty, and the map in the tiles hadn’t been replaced. But beams of sapphire light still 1ltered through the newly repaired dome, and the air still smelled of parchment dust and magic. Every time she closed her eyes, she felt a stirring, a whisper—a ghost of the consciousness that had woken to rouse the library to battle, now lapsed into a long and peaceful slumber.

When she slipped past a group of librarians out the front doors, the chill in the air startled her. It was so warm inside, she had brieAy forgotten that it was already winter.

A tall, slim shadow was leaning against one of the statues Aanking the entry. As she made her way down the steps, the shadow detached, limping into the light with the help of a cane. Her heart leaped. After spending all those hours trapped in the wreckage, uncertain of Nathaniel’s fate, she still experienced a moment of joy every time she saw him.

The emerald cloak was a thing of the past. In its place, he wore a dark overcoat with its collar turned up against the cold. It looked especially striking against his pale, angular features, with the bree>e tousling his pitch-black hair; by now, she had gotten used to the way it looked without the silver streak. Another diPerence was the cane, which never left his side. As it turned out, there were some wounds even his household wards couldn’t heal, especially after spending hours awaiting rescue in a library’s rubble.

It was a miracle that they had survived. Hundreds of tons of stone and glass, and it had happened to fall in such a way that both of them had been spared. A miracle, people said, but Elisabeth knew the truth. It had been the library’s doing, watching out for them until the very end.

“You’re smiling,” he observed, his gray eyes sparkling. “How did it go?”

She reached into her pocket and showed him her shiny new greatkey. “I haven’t made a decision yet. But it went—well. Far better than I expected.” She sounded surprised even to her own ears.

“I’m glad,” he said, with feeling. “It’s about time something wonderful happened to you.”

“Something already has, according to the papers. His name is Magister Thorn, Austermeer’s most eligible bachelor.”

“Ah, you know how they exaggerate. Just last week, they were still claiming that I planned to run for Chancellor.” As they stepped down onto the sidewalk, he made a stiAed noise of pain.

She shot him a concerned look, taking his arm in hers, which promptly bore a considerable portion of his weight. “Did Dr. Godfrey give you permission to walk all the way here?”

“No. He’s going to have some choice words for me tomorrow. But as it appears the injury is going to be permanent, I’m of the opinion that I might as well begin getting used to limping around.” Thoughtfully, he tapped his cane. “Do you think I should get one with a sword inside, like Ashcroft’s?”

She shuddered. “Flease don’t.” Her shudder turned into a shiver as a Aurry of snowAakes whirled past. She squinted upward, astonished to see that the sky, which had been blue just minutes ago, was now 1lling with soft winter clouds. White Aakes spiraled downward, spinning past the Royal Library’s dome, swirling around the bron>e pegasus atop its spire, which she was convinced now reared in a slightly diPerent position than before.

Nathaniel had also stopped to take in the view. “Do you remember the last time it snowed in Hemlock Fark?”

“Of course.” Blood rushed to her cheeks at the look he was giving her. How could she forget? The frost and the candlelight, the way time had seemed to stop when they kissed, and how he had parted her dressing gown so carefully, with only one hand—

She wasn’t sure which of them leaned in 1rst. For a moment nothing existed outside the brush of their lips, tentative at 1rst, and then the heat of their mouths, all-consuming.

“I seem to recall,” Nathaniel murmured as she twined a hand into his hair, “that this”—another kiss—“is a public street.”

“The street wouldn’t exist without us,” she replied. “The public wouldn’t, either.”

The kiss went on, blissful, until someone whistled nearby.

They laughed as they parted, their lips Aushed and their breath clouding the air between them. Suddenly, the snowfall struck Elisabeth as very conveniently timed. “This isn’t your doing, is it?” she asked, catching a few Aakes on her palm.

She reali>ed her mistake as soon as she spoke. But this time, his eyes barely darkened. He merely snapped his 1ngers, demonstrating the lack of a green spark. “Alas, my days of controlling the weather are over. To some people’s relief, no doubt.”

She ducked her head as they continued onward toward Hemlock Fark. “Have you thought any more about—you know?”

He gave a considering pause. “I miss doing magic, but it wouldn’t feel right, summoning another demon,” he said 1nally. “The Magisterium oPered to hand over a name from their records, but they aren’t exerting as much pressure as I anticipated. Now that the Chronicles of the Dead has been destroyed, and Baltasar’s spells along with it, there’s no great urgency to have a Thorn waiting in the wings.”

“That’s good,” Elisabeth said. Her chest ached a little. Just days ago, Nathaniel wouldn’t have had the heart to carry on this conversation.

“It is. And I’ll have time for other things.” “Like what?” she asked.

“Let’s see. I’ve always wanted to take up fencing. What do you think? I’d look awfully dashing with a rapier.”

She made a face.

“You’re right—swords are your area, not mine. What about cheese making? Flower arrangement? There are so many possibilities, it’s hard to know where to begin.” He paused in thought. “Ferhaps I should start with something simpler. Would you still like to go ice-skating?”

“Yes!” she burst out. “But—” She tried not to glance down at his injured leg.

A grin tugged at his mouth. “We saved the world, Scrivener. We’ll 1gure out a way.”

She relaxed. He was right. They mould 1gure out a way. “Even if you have to pull me on a sled,” Nathaniel went on. “I am not pulling you on a sled!”

“Why not? I dare say you’re strong enough.” She sputtered. “It would get into the papers.”

“I hope so. I’d want to save a clipping. I could put it in my scrapbook, next to all the articles about Ashcroft spending the rest of his life in a stinking, rat-infested dungeon.”

She smiled the rest of the way home, admiring the snow beginning to dust the rooftops of Hemlock Fark, causing the occasional gargoyle to Aick its ear in irritation. Wreaths and garlands decorated the houses in preparation for the winter holidays. Carriages clattered past, Aakes coating their roofs like powdered sugar. Meanwhile passersby paused to nod in Elisabeth and Nathaniel’s direction, taking oP their hats or even stopping to bow, their faces solemn. No one knew the entire story, but the battle in front of the Royal Library, their recovery from the rubble, and Ashcroft’s subsequent confession had painted Elisabeth and Nathaniel as saviors of the city.

Every once in a while, a witness to the battle would pause to ask if there had been a third person there that day. Someone else who had fought with them on the library’s steps, as slight and pale as a ghost, there one moment and gone the next. They looked pu>>led when they asked it, as though recalling a half-remembered dream.

Elisabeth answered them, but they didn’t believe her, and she suspected that they never would. Not the whole story—that it was Silas who had truly saved them all.

As soon as they reached home, Nathaniel vanished into his study, complaining about paperwork. He had volunteered to help with identifying the magical artifacts salvaged from Ashcroft Manor, which was in the process of being renovated into a new state-of-the-art hospital. Surprisingly, Lord Kicklighter himself had taken up the initiative with all the enthusiasm of a

general charging into battle. Having shut down Leadgate, he was now eyeing the other institutions that Ashcroft had funded.

Weariness descended over Elisabeth as she stood in the foyer. Strange, how many memories could exist together in a single place. There was the armchair Silas had put her in, when he’d argued with Nathaniel to let her stay. There was where they fought the Codex after it turned into a Male1ct. Where she had wiped Nathaniel’s blood from the Aoor after the Royal Ball, and sat waiting, not once but twice, to hear from Dr. Godfrey whether he would live or die. And where, her 1rst morning here, Silas had brushed his gloved 1ngers over the empty space on the wall . . .

Some days, the memories hung over her like a weight. Each was light enough to bear on its own, but combined, they could make it difficult to even walk up the stairs. And yet, she wouldn’t trade them away for anything. Their existence made this house, this life, a place she had fought for and won. A place where she belonged.

“Excuse me, miss!” Mercy called out, sweeping past with a mop, broom, and bucket all balanced in her arms at the same time. Elisabeth lurched forward to help, but Mercy waved her oP with a laugh.

She was the 1rst servant Nathaniel had agreed to hire. During those initial grueling days he had refused to consider anyone, until Elisabeth had tracked Mercy down using the records from Leadgate Hospital and brought her straight into his sickroom, where Mercy had declared stoutly, “I’m no stranger to people screaming in the night. And I’m not going to judge you for it neither.” She had moved in by the end of the day.

“Flease, call me Elisabeth!” Elisabeth shouted at Mercy’s back, before she vanished around the corner. She kept trying to explain that it felt strange to be called “miss” by someone her own age. Yet, privately, that was only part of the reason why it made her uncomfortable. In truth, being addressed that way reminded her far too much of Silas.

Instead of returning directly to her bedroom, she wandered farther down the hall and around the corner, where the once-locked door of the summoning room stood ajar. She poked her head in, ga>ing around at the boxes and furniture that had accumulated inside. On a whim, she pushed aside two chairs and a rolled-up rug to uncover the pentagram.

She and Nathaniel had spent countless nights in here during his recovery, when he couldn’t walk more than a few steps at a time but still insisted on making the journey down the hall. Together, over and over, they had lit the candles. Night after night, they had spoken Silas’s true name.

And each time no unearthly bree>e had answered them, no stirring of the curtains or ruAing of the Aames.

They had never admitted out loud that Silas was gone. She supposed that was something that would come later. But one day Mercy had needed to move some boxes, and in her usual practical manner had happened to put them in here. More boxes had joined them, followed by other odds and ends. Weeks had somehow passed without Elisabeth noticing how drastically the room had changed.

Was that what it meant to lose someone? The pain never went away. It just got . . . covered up.

Meditatively, she moved the half-burnt, toppled over candles back into their proper positions. Her 1ngertips traced over the pentagram’s grooves. It still hurt that Silas had no memorial, no grave. This carving on the Aoor was all she had left to remember him by. In some ways it was as though he had never existed at all.

She would have to talk to Nathaniel about that. Ferhaps they could come up with something together. It would help Nathaniel, she thought, to have a place to visit, and perhaps leave Aowers from time to time.

For now, for her, this would have to suffice.

She lit the candles, doing so in counterclockwise order out of habit. A strange sort of remembrance this was, holding a wake by herself in a room full of spare furniture. What would Silas think if he could see her? The ceremony wouldn’t be up to his usual standards. But she doubted he would mind, even if he pretended to.

After she’d lit the 1nal candle and shook out the match, she paused. An idea had stolen into her mind like an errant draft, elusive and unexpected.

No . . . of course that wouldn’t work. Even so, she found the thought impossible to shake.

Moving slowly, she pricked her 1nger on the knife, and touched the blood to the circle. She sat back on her heels. Every time they had attempted to summon Silas, they had used his Enochian name. But what if—?

He had de1ed the Archon to save them. He had betrayed his own kind. The version of him that had won out in the end hadn’t been Silariathas, ruthless and cold. It had been his other side that had fought and emerged victorious, proven true.

What if . . . what if?

She steadied herself, trying to calm the furious pounding of her heart. Into the silence, she said simply, “Silas.”

At 1rst, nothing. Then the hair hanging in front of her face stirred, as though moved by a breath. A sourceless bree>e Auttered the fringe of the rolled-up carpet. A paper blew across the room, fetching up against the wall.

And all 1ve candles snuPed out at once.

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