Authors: Margaret Rogerson
“How? I never told you my name.”
“The Director did.” Seeing her expression, he explained, “I wanted to know the name of the girl who almost murdered me with a bookcase. It seemed wise, in case I ever crossed paths with you again.”
“Did the Director say anything else about me?”
“No.” Then, after a pause, “I’m sorry.”
A lump closed Elisabeth’s throat. She turned back to the view. As she watched the sky deepen to indigo, a sick feeling of despair pooled in her stomach. Soon the journey would reach its end, and she did not know what, or who, awaited her there. She could no longer put a face to the Director’s killer.
In the dark, her first impression of the city’s streets
was an imposing one. Buildings nearly as high as her Great Library reared from the fog, candlelight wavering through their windowpanes. She had never seen so many structures in one place, nor even a fraction of the people. As their coach wove through the traffic, pedestrians bustled past: men with walking sticks and top hats, and women wearing high-collared dresses trimmed in lace. They carried
shopping parcels, hurrying across the street and climbing in and out of carriages with a sense of urgency that seemed foreign to Elisabeth, accustomed to the sleepy rhythm of country life. Everything was painted by the hazy glow of the lamps, which Nathaniel informed her did not run on magic, as she’d assumed, but rather an invention called gaslight.
The carriage finally rolled to a stop on a
narrow, gloomy side street. Numbly, she followed Nathaniel outside. The fog enveloped her boots and eddied around the hem of her dress. The nearest streetlamp had gone out, submerging them in shadow. There were no other people in sight.
“This is the lodging house where the Magisterium has arranged for you to stay,” Nathaniel said. “I may see you briefly at your hearing tomorrow, but otherwise,
you’re rid of me from here onward.”
Elisabeth gazed up at the lodging house in silence. Once it had been a dignified brick building. Now its forbidding walls
were blackened with soot, and bars had been affixed to its windows, the metal leaving rusty streaks down the brick. She folded her arms across her stomach to suppress a shiver.
“Odd,” he went on, speaking to himself. “There’s supposed to
be someone waiting for us—but no matter, I can take you to the door. . . .” Without looking, he offered her his arm.
Elisabeth barely saw the gesture. She was still staring up at the lodging house. It reminded her of the orphanage she had imagined as a child, the grim place where she would be cast away, unwanted and forgotten. “You’re going to leave me here?” The words forced themselves out,
Nathaniel hesitated, his expression wiped clean. A heartbeat passed. He looked young and very pale in the dark. Then he stepped forward, motioning for Elisabeth to follow.
“Don’t tell me you’ve succumbed to my charms,” he said over his shoulder. “I assure you, no good will come of a passionate affair between us. You, a small-town country librarian, me, the kingdom’s most eligible
bachelor—you needn’t scoff, Scrivener. It’s true—go out on the street and ask anyone. I’m quite famous.”
But Elisabeth hadn’t scoffed. The sound that had escaped her had been a stifled cry of alarm. In a nearby alley, behind the extinguished streetlamp, a group of figures stood watching them: hulking and shining-eyed, their breath steaming in the night. She blinked, and they were gone—but she
was certain she hadn’t imagined them.
She opened her mouth to warn Nathaniel, who was by now several paces ahead. But before she could make another sound, a rough grip seized her around the waist and yanked her toward the alley. A hand crushed her mouth, and the cold point of a knife appeared at her throat.
HE HAND CLAMPED over Elisabeth’s mouth reeked of sweat. When she tried to bite it, her teeth couldn’t find purchase against the man’s palm. The taste of his skin filled her mouth: bitter and metallic, like dirty coins. She
threw herself against his hold in a panic, only for the blade to press more firmly against her throat. She fell still, rattled by her own helplessness. He dragged her a scuffling step backward. Then another.
She didn’t know what awaited her in the alley, but she suspected it was far worse than this man and his knife.
Nathaniel paused with his foot on the lodging house’s bottom step. “Scriv—”
he began as he turned, only to fall silent, calmly taking in the scene. “For heaven’s sake,” he said. “What is all this about?”
Her captor must have smirked, because his breath wafted foully over her cheek.
“What do you want?” Nathaniel persisted. “Money?” He glanced between the knife, Elisabeth, and the man restraining her, whereupon he made a face at what he saw. “No, let
me guess. A wart
remedy? If I were you, I suppose I would be equally desperate.”
He didn’t seem impelled by any sense of urgency. But as he spoke, he discreetly flicked together his thumb and middle finger, the motion almost hidden by the folds of his cloak. A single green spark flew from his fingertips. Nothing else happened.
“Can’t cast a spell on my knife.” The man’s coarse voice vibrated against Elisabeth’s
back. He sounded pleased with himself. “It’s pure iron. Made sure of that.”
“Well, you can’t blame me for trying.” Nathaniel’s gaze drifted toward the alleyway, casually, then back to them. “The alternative causes such a mess. Blood is impossible to get out of silk, and I can’t tell you how many times my servant has had to wash questionable stains from this cloak.”
A soft, resigned sigh came
from very close nearby. Her captor flinched and yanked her around toward the source, but no one was there: only a dim expanse of empty street, littered with discarded newspapers.
“I’m afraid I’ve lost count,” said Silas’s whispering voice directly behind them. The ghost of a breath fluttered Elisabeth’s hair.
Her captor spun again, but once more, he was met with nothing. Elisabeth felt his heart
pounding through his shirt. The blade trembled in his slippery grip. An image floated to the surface of her mind, like a drowned, ghostly flower rising from a deep pool: Silas standing in a dark wood, his hands folded behind his back. But that hadn’t actually happened, had it? She had seen it in a dream.
“Stay back,” the man warned. “If you make a move, I’ll cut her. Don’t matter to me whether
she lives or dies. And I’m not alone, neither—”
“You never did explain to me what some of those stains were, master,” Silas said.
“Best if I leave that to your imagination,” Nathaniel replied.
“Where the bloody hell are you?” her captor roared, and then his roar turned into a scream. Both the knife and the hand fell away at once, and Elisabeth stumbled forward; but Nathaniel was there, and
he caught her before she fell.
She gagged and spat on the ground, desperate to rid the man’s taste from her mouth. “There are more,” she gasped, “more men, in the alley.”
“I’m truly sorry to have to tell you this, for both our sakes,” Nathaniel said, “but those are not men.”
As if in agreement, a growl shuddered through the dark. A shadow detached itself from the mouth of the alley and prowled
into the glow cast by the faraway streetlamps. The light delineated a long, snarling muzzle, much too large to belong to a dog. Slit-shaped nostrils flared as they scented the air. Steam gusted from them on the exhale. A pair of horns emerged next, curved and frontward-pointed. Mist flowed over black scales, shifting as powerful muscles bunched beneath them. Not a man—and not an animal, either.
“They are demons,” she whispered.
“Lesser demons. Fiends.” Nathaniel glanced behind them. “Highly illegal to summon, in part because they’ll do practically anything for the promise of a . . . oh, never mind.”
“The promise of a what?”
Nathaniel winced. “A meal. That charming gentleman with the knife probably told them they’d get to eat you.”
Given what she knew about demons, Elisabeth wasn’t
surprised. As the fiend came fully into view, ribs strained against its starved-looking sides. Vertebrae bulged from its spine like
knuckles. It resembled a huge, gaunt hound that had been skinned and armored in scales.
Before she could reply, two more of the creatures prowled into sight, cutting her and Nathaniel off from the route that led past the lodging house. Their breath fogged the air,
and their narrow eyes shone red. Whinnies rang out as the horses spooked, but the fiends’ attention didn’t waver, fixed hungrily on Elisabeth.
Silently, Nathaniel nodded toward the building. She caught his eye to signal that she’d understood. Together they moved backward toward the steps, matching each other’s slow, deliberate movements. As they went, Nathaniel muttered an incantation. Emerald
light spun out between his cupped hands, coiling like a rope.
“She’s stringy,” he insisted as the fiends advanced, speaking in a conversational tone. “A bit gamey. Do you see all that hair? There’s practically nothing underneath it.”
A snarl came from behind them, reverberating through Elisabeth’s bones. Hot, fetid breath gusted across the back of her neck. They turned simultaneously to find
a fourth fiend crouched on the stoop, blocking the door. Saliva hung in quivering strings from its jaw.
“Worth a try,” Nathaniel said, and pulled Elisabeth toward him in a hard embrace.
The world exploded around them. A shower of brick, wood, and metal erupted outward, crashing down amid a billowing cloud of dust. She was aware of Nathaniel’s heart thundering against her own, of the muscles
of his shoulders pulling taut as he wrenched something back to him—a rope of emerald fire, a whip. He lashed out again, and this time she saw the whip strike the side of the building, which collapsed so quickly it seemed to
turn into liquid, cascading downward in a waterfall of stone. A single high-pitched yelp sounded from beneath.
He released her body, but kept hold of her wrist, towing her
through the wreckage. She couldn’t tell where the fiends were buried. The silence was as thick and choking as the dust that filled the air, punctuated by the clatter of a brick tumbling to the ground as the debris settled.
“I need you to get inside the coach,” Nathaniel explained, a snap of urgency breaking his composure at last. “They won’t stay down for long. What are you doing?”
had tugged her arm from Nathaniel. She kicked aside a stray brick and snatched up a metal bar that had rolled free from the rubble. She clutched it and scowled at him. His eyes assessed her. A slight change came over his face, a recalculation.
“Very well, you unutterable menace,” he said. “Help me hold them off.” He nodded toward the driver’s seat.
She climbed up first. Silas was nowhere to
be seen. She seized the rail for balance as the coach shuddered, rolling forward a few precarious inches. The wheels creaked ominously against the brakes. Any moment now the horses were going to take off regardless of whether the carriage came with them. Judging by the sweat lathering their coats, that moment would be soon. She considered the incomprehensible tangle of reins.
Instead of springing
up beside her, Nathaniel hesitated. He looked over his shoulder. Dust obscured the street behind them, but in one place an eddy stirred the cloud.
The moment she saw it, a fiend hurtled from the spot with a reverberating snarl. Nathaniel’s whip cracked, meeting the demon in midair. Green fire curled around its neck, and a leisurely flick of his wrist sent it flying back into the wreckage.
horses screamed, straining against their restraints. Nathaniel threw his whip aside, yanked on the brakes, and vaulted toward the coach as it lurched into immediate motion. He clung to the edge for a breath-stopping moment as the wheels jolted over loose bricks, throwing the vehicle to and fro like a ship on storm-tossed waves. Elisabeth stretched out a hand. He took it, and she pulled hard, lifting
him into the air. Another yank, and his weight struck the bench beside her. Without waiting to see his reaction, she twisted around to face the rear. He took up the reins and snapped them. The horses straightened their course.
As the buildings slid past, the dust began to blow from the rubble in tatters. Shapes heaved themselves from the debris, and crimson eyes winked to life in the dark. She
tightened her hold on the metal bar.
“I thought you didn’t know how to drive a carriage,” she shouted over the pounding of hooves.
“Nonsense,” Nathaniel shouted back. “I’m a fast learner when properly motivated.”
The coach veered around the corner onto another deserted street, its far wheels lifting from the ground with the force of the turn. They were picking up speed, fast, but the fiends
had joined the chase. They streamed from the ruin, teeth bared, shaking dust from their horns. Elisabeth counted six, and felt a clutch of panic.
“Does this qualify as proper motivation?” she asked.
“That depends. How close are they?”
A fiend pulled away from the pack, gaining on them with startling speed. It drew up alongside the coach’s rear wheels, sprinting like a greyhound, and angled
its head, evaluating her with a glittering red gaze—calculating, she realized, the distance
for a jump. The moment it gathered its haunches, she swung her makeshift weapon.