Authors: Margaret Rogerson
“That makes for the third time this month,” Hargrove was saying, “and I’m simply at my wit’s end. The girl is half-wild. Vanishing off to who-knows-where, getting into every possible kind of trouble—just
last week, she released an entire crate of live booklice in my bedchambers!”
Elisabeth barely stopped herself from shouting an objection through the knothole. She’d collected those booklice with the intention of studying them, not setting them free. Their loss had come as a tremendous blow.
But what Hargrove said next made her forget all about the lice.
“I simply have to question if it’s the
right decision, raising a child in a Great Library. I’m certain that whoever left her on our doorstep knew we are in the practice of taking on foundlings as our apprentices. But we do not accept those boys and girls until the age of thirteen. I hesitate to agree with Warden Finch on any matter, yet I do believe we ought to consider what he’s been saying all along: that young Elisabeth might fare
better in an orphanage.”
While unsettling, this was nothing Elisabeth hadn’t heard before. She endured the remarks knowing that the Director’s will assured her place in the library. Why, she could not say. The,
Director rarely spoke to her. She was as remote and untouchable as the moon, and equally as mysterious. To Elisabeth, the Director’s decision to take her in possessed an almost mystical
quality, like something out of a fairy tale. It could not be questioned or undone.
Holding her breath, she waited for the Director to counter Hargrove’s suggestion. The skin on her arms tingled with the anticipation of hearing her speak.
Instead, the Director said, “I have wondered the same, Master Hargrove. Almost every day for the past eight years.”
No—that couldn’t be right. The blood slowed
to a crawl in Elisabeth’s veins. The pounding in her ears almost drowned out the rest.
“All those years ago, I did not consider the effect it might have on her to grow up isolated from other children her age. The youngest apprentices are still five years her elder. Has she displayed any interest in befriending them?”
“I’m afraid she’s tried, with little success,” Hargrove said. “Though she may
not know it herself. Recently I overheard an apprentice explaining to her that ordinary children have mothers and fathers. Poor Elisabeth had no idea what he was talking about. She quite happily replied that she had plenty of books to keep her company.”
The Director sighed. “Her attachment to the grimoires is . . .”
“Concerning? Yes, indeed. If she does not suffer from the lack of company, I
fear it is because she sees grimoires as her friends in place of people.”
“A dangerous way of thinking. But libraries are dangerous places. There is no getting around it.”
“Too dangerous for Elisabeth, do you think?”
, Elisabeth begged. She knew these weren’t ordinary
books the Great Library kept. They whispered on the shelves and shuddered beneath iron chains. Some spat ink and threw tantrums;
others sang to themselves in high, clear notes on windless nights, when starlight streamed through the library’s barred windows like shafts of mercury. Others still were so dangerous they had to be stored in the underground vault, packed in salt. Not all of them were her friends. She understood that well.
But sending her away would be like placing a grimoire among inanimate books that didn’t
move or speak. The first time she had seen such a book, she had thought it was dead. She did not belong in an orphanage, whatever that was. In her mind’s eye the place resembled a prison, gray and shrouded in damp mists, barred by a portcullis like the entrance to the vault. Terror squeezed her throat at the image.
“Do you know why the Great Libraries take in orphans, Master Hargrove?” the Director
asked at last. “It is because they have no home, no family. No one to miss them if they die. I wonder, perhaps . . . if Scrivener has lasted this long, it is because the library wished it to be so. If her bond to this place is better left intact, for good or for ill.”
“I hope you are not making a mistake, Director,” Master Hargrove said gently.
“I do as well.” The Director sounded weary. “For
Scrivener’s sake, and our own.”
Elisabeth waited, ears straining, but the deliberation over her fate seemed to have concluded. Footsteps creaked below, and the office’s door clicked shut.
She had been granted a reprieve—for now. How long would it last? With the foundations of her world left shaken, it seemed the rest of her life might come tumbling down at
any moment. A single decision by the
Director could send her away for good. She had never felt so uncertain, so helpless, so small.
It was then that she made her vow, crouched amid the dust and cobwebs, grasping for the only lifeline within reach. If the Director was not certain that the Great Library was the best place for Elisabeth, she would simply have to prove it. She would become a great and powerful warden, just like the
Director. She would show everyone that she belonged until even Warden Finch could no longer deny her right.
Above all . . .
Above all, she would convince them that she wasn’t a mistake.
“Elisabeth,” a voice hissed in the present. “Elisabeth! Are you asleep?”
Startled, she jerked upright, the memory swirling away like water down a drain. She cast around until she found the source of the voice.
A girl’s face peered out from between two nearby bookcases, her braid flicking over her shoulder as she checked to make sure no one else was in sight. A pair of spectacles magnified her dark, clever eyes, and hastily scribbled notes marked the brown skin of her forearms, their ink peeking out from beneath her sleeves. Like Elisabeth, she wore a key on a chain around her neck, bright against her
pale blue apprentice’s robes.
As luck would have it, Elisabeth hadn’t remained friendless forever. She had met Katrien Quillworthy the day they had both begun their apprenticeship at the age of thirteen. None of the other apprentices had wanted to share a room with Elisabeth, due to a rumor that she kept a box full of booklice underneath her bed. But Katrien had approached her for that very reason.
“It had better be true,” she had said. “I’ve been wanting to experiment with booklice ever since I heard about them. Apparently
they’re immune to sorcery—can you imagine the scientific implications?” They had been inseparable ever since.
Elisabeth covertly shoved her papers to the side. “Is something happening?” she whispered.
“I think you’re the only person in Summershall who doesn’t know what’s
happening. Including Hargrove, who’s spent the entire morning in the privy.”
“Warden Finch isn’t getting demoted, is he?” she asked hopefully.
Katrien grinned. “I’m still working on that. I’m sure I’ll find something incriminating on him eventually. When it happens, you’ll be the first to know.” Orchestrating Warden Finch’s downfall had been her pet project for years. “No, it’s a magister. He’s
just arrived for a trip to the vault.”
Elisabeth nearly tumbled from her chair. She shot a look around before darting behind the bookcase next to Katrien, stooping low beside her. Katrien was so short that otherwise, all Elisabeth could see was the top of her head. “A magister? Are you certain?”
“Absolutely. I’ve never seen the wardens so tense.”
Now that Elisabeth thought back, the signs from
that morning were obvious. Wardens striding past with their jaws set and their hands clenching their swords. Apprentices forming clusters in the halls, whispering around every corner. Even the grimoires seemed more restless than usual.
. Fear thrilled through her like a note shivering up and down the strings of a harp. “What does that have to do with us?” she asked. Neither of them
had so much as seen a regular sorcerer. On the rare occasions that they visited Summershall, the wardens brought them in through a special door and ushered them straight into a reading room. She was certain
a magister would be treated with even greater caution.
Katrien’s eyes shone. “Stefan’s made a bet with me that the magister has pointed ears and cloven hooves. He’s wrong, naturally, but I
have to find a way to prove it. I’m going to spy on the magister. And I need you to corroborate my account.”
Elisabeth sucked in a breath. She glanced reflexively at her abandoned desk. “To do that, we’d have to go out of bounds.”
“And Finch would have our heads on pikes if he caught us,” Katrien finished. “But he won’t. He doesn’t know about the passageways.”
For once, Finch wasn’t Elisabeth’s
greatest concern. The Book of Eyes’ bloodshot, bulging stare flashed through her mind. Any of those eyes could have previously belonged to someone like her or Katrien. “If the magister catches us,” she said, “he’ll do worse than put our heads on pikes.”
“I doubt it. The Reforms made it illegal for sorcerers to kill people outside of self-defense. He’ll just make our hair fall out, or cover us
in boils.” She wiggled her eyebrows enticingly. “Come on. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, at least. When will I ever get to see a magister? How many chances will
have to experience magical boils?”
Katrien wanted to become an archivist, not a warden. Her job wouldn’t involve dealing with sorcerers. Elisabeth’s, on the other hand . . .
A spark blazed to life inside her breast.
Katrien was right; this
an opportunity. The other night, she’d resolved to try harder to impress the Director. Wardens were not frightened of sorcerers, and the more she learned about their kind, the better prepared she would be.
“All right,” she said, rising from her crouch. “They’ll most likely take him to the eastern reading room. This way.”
As she and Katrien wound through the shelves,
Elisabeth shook off her lingering misgivings. She did try not to break the rules, but her efforts had a curious way of never working out. Just last month there had been the disaster with the refectory’s chandelier—at least old Mistress Bellwether’s nose looked mostly normal now. And the time she’d spilled strawberry jam all over . . . well. Best not to dwell on that memory.
When they reached
the bust of Cornelius the Wise that Elisabeth used as a place marker, she cast around for a familiar crimson binding. She found it halfway up the shelf, its gold title too worn and flaked to read. The grimoire’s pages rustled a drowsy greeting as she reached up and scratched it just so. A click came from inside the bookcase, like a lock engaging. Then the entire panel of shelves swung inward, revealing
the dusty mouth of a passageway.
“I can’t believe that doesn’t work for anyone but you,” Katrien said as they ducked inside. “I’ve tried scratching it dozens of times. Stefan, too.”
Elisabeth shrugged. She didn’t understand, either. She concentrated on trying not to sneeze as she led Katrien through the narrow, winding corridor, batting away the cobwebs that hung like spectral garlands from
the rafters. The other end let out behind a tapestry in the reading room. They paused, listening, to make sure the room was empty before they fought their way out from behind the heavy fabric, coughing into their sleeves.
Apprentices were forbidden from entering the reading room, and Elisabeth was both relieved and disappointed to discover that the room appeared quite ordinary. It was a manly
sort of space, with a great deal of polished wood and dark leather. A large mahogany desk sat in front of the window, and several leather armchairs encircled a crackling fireplace, whose logs
popped and sent up a fountain of sparks when they entered, making her jump.
Katrien didn’t waste any time. While Elisabeth looked around, she went straight to the desk and started rifling through the drawers.
“For science,” she explained, which was frequently what she said right before something exploded.
Elisabeth drifted toward the hearth. “What’s that smell? It isn’t the fire, is it?”
Katrien paused to waft some air toward her nose. “Pipe smoke?” she guessed.
No—it was something else. Sniffing industriously, Elisabeth tracked the smell to one of the armchairs. She inhaled above the cushion, only
to recoil at once, her head spinning.
“Elisabeth! Are you all right?”
She sucked in gulps of fresh air, blinking away tears. The caustic odor clung to the back of her tongue thickly enough that she could almost taste it: a scorched, unnatural smell, like what she imagined burnt metal would smell like, if metal were able to burn.
“I think so,” she wheezed.
Katrien opened her mouth to speak,
then shot a look at the door. “Listen. They’re coming.”
Moving quickly, they squeezed behind the row of bookcases lined up against the wall. Katrien fit easily, but the space proved cramped for Elisabeth. At the age of fourteen, she had already been the tallest girl in Summershall. Two years later, she towered over most of the boys. She kept her arms rigid at her sides and breathed shallowly,
hoping to appease the grimoires, who were muttering in disapproval at the intrusion.
Voices came from the hall, and the doorknob turned.
“Here you are, Magister Thorn,” said a warden. “The Director will arrive shortly to escort you to the vault.”
Her stomach somersaulted as a tall, hooded figure strode inside, his emerald-green cloak billowing around his heels. He crossed to the window and
flicked the curtains open, then stood gazing out across the library’s towers.
“What’s happening?” Katrien breathed below her shoulder. “I can’t see anything from down here.”
Elisabeth’s perspective consisted of a horizontal slice above the books’ spines. She couldn’t see much, either. Slowly, carefully, she inched sideways for a better angle. The tip of the magister’s pale nose came into view.
He had taken down his hood. His hair was pitch-black and wavy, longer than the men wore it in Summershall, shot through at the left temple with a vivid streak of silver. Another inch to the side, and . . .
He’s hardly any older than we are
, she thought in surprise. Both the silver streak and his title had prepared her for someone far older. Perhaps his appearance was deceiving. He might maintain
the semblance of youth by bathing in the blood of virgins—she had once read something to that effect in a novel.