Authors: Margaret Rogerson
She was almost finished when the Observatory’s door creaked open. She looked up, expecting Gertrude with another task. Instead she caught a glimpse of a gold cloak entering the room.
“What would you like to speak to me about, Deputy
Shock numbed her at the sound of Ashcroft’s voice, as though the floor had collapsed and plunged her into frigid water. She darted behind a pedestal, clutching the mop to her chest. Hiding there, frozen, she listened to the rustle of Mistress Wick’s robes, willing her not to lead Ashcroft any nearer. No doubt the two of them believed the room to be empty.
Elisabeth’s gaze strayed
to the bucket of soapy water sitting a few feet away, and cold sparks danced over her skin. As long as Ashcroft didn’t glance in the wrong direction . . .
“Just moments ago, we received news from a courier,” Mistress Wick said. “I thought you should be the first to know that the Great Library of Fairwater has been sabotaged.”
Elisabeth’s breath halted. Turning, she peeked through the interlocking
rings of the instrument atop the pedestal. The pair of them had stopped near the center of the room, where an array of mirrors reflected a concentrated beam of sunlight onto the tiles. Ashcroft stood partially inside it, the light slicing a stripe across his sleeve and winking brightly from something in his hand. He held a decorative walking stick, the gold handle carved into the shape of a
“Oh, dear,” he said. “I am so terribly sorry.” Though he sounded genuine, amusement shone in his mismatched eyes. “Were there many casualties?”
“Four wardens and three civilians are dead, poisoned by the Malefict’s miasma. Director Florentine survived, but she sustained a serious head injury. Reportedly, she cannot remember any details of the attack.”
Ashcroft’s lips curved
into a satisfied smile. A head injury, or the effects of a spell? Elisabeth’s stomach turned. If only Mistress Wick could see his expression.
As the two of them continued speaking, she remembered last night’s meeting with Katrien and Nathaniel. By this point, they were almost certain that Ashcroft didn’t leave Brassbridge when the attacks happened. Unless he knew an unheard-of spell powerful
enough to transport himself halfway across the country, he couldn’t possibly have carried out the attacks in person—not the one on Fettering, while he was interrogating Elisabeth every day in his study, and not this one, either; his clothes showed no signs of travel. Nathaniel’s best guess was that he had to be working with another sorcerer as an accomplice.
Finally, Ashcroft turned to go. “I
will return to the Magisterium at once,” he was saying. “I assure you, we have our best sorcerers on the case.”
“If I may speak bluntly, Chancellor, I fear your best sorcerers may not be up to the task. Thus far, only the Great Library of Harrows remains untouched. The saboteur has even targeted the Royal Library without consequences. . . .”
A shiver ran through Elisabeth as Ashcroft opened
the door for Mistress Wick. Of course word of the Codex’s disappearance had already reached him—the moment they’d attributed its theft to the saboteur, it had become part of the investigation. Would the Collegium have given him access to the Royal Library’s records? And if so, would he bother taking a look at the new servants who had been hired?
Halfway out the door, he paused. His fingers thoughtfully
caressed the carved gryphon’s head. He turned to scan the Observatory, his ruby eye passing over the instruments. She tensed as his gaze neared the bucket, but he didn’t appear to see it; his attention swept onward toward her hiding spot. She ducked out of sight, her heart pounding in the roof of her mouth. Even after the door clicked shut a moment later, she remained paralyzed for the
better part of a minute before she dared look again.
Ashcroft had gone. She was alone.
• • •
That night, a solemn mood hung over the study. Nathaniel had spent all day working on his illusions for the Royal Ball, but the butterflies flapping incongruously around the room failed to lift Elisabeth’s spirits. Over the past few days it had seemed more and more possible that Ashcroft had put his
plans on hold, and that they might have extra weeks or even months to apprehend
him. No one knew what to say to Elisabeth’s news. Her painful decision not to return to the Royal Library had drawn a sympathetic look even from Silas.
She took a deep breath. The time had come to make an admission. “I don’t think Prendergast is going to tell me anything about Ashcroft’s goal. He still doesn’t trust
me. And if I’m the only person who’s able to visit him, which seems likely, we can’t use the Codex as evidence. We have nothing left to go on.”
She looked around at their faces and saw the truth reflected there. The three of them believed everything she had told them, despite never having witnessed any sign of Prendergast for themselves. But to everyone else she would merely come across as a
girl who had escaped from a mental hospital, making wild claims about a stolen book. They had reached a dead end. Gloom descended over the study, punctuated by a lash of rain against the windows.
Finally, Silas stood. “I shall fetch some tea.”
Somehow, the tea helped. Elisabeth cradled her steaming cup, grateful for the warmth that spread from her stomach down to her toes. She offered Nathaniel
a faint smile when he joined her by the fire. The rain had intensified to a steady drumming outside. Wind moaned through the eaves, and the fire hissed as droplets found their way down the chimney. The green glow of the flames turned Nathaniel’s eyes the same color as the storm he had summoned on her first night in the city. He hesitated before speaking.
“I wanted you to know—in the end, if we
aren’t able to stop Ashcroft, I’m not going to abandon you afterward. I—”
He looked troubled, on the verge of some difficult confession. A bolt of nerves flashed through her, as though loosed by a crossbow, thudding straight to the pit of her stomach.
“I’ll do everything in my power to restore your position with the Collegium,” he finished, casting his gaze into the fire. “To make sure you’re
safe, in a place where Ashcroft will never find you. Knockfeld, perhaps, or Fairwater—somewhere that sorcerers don’t often visit.”
Elisabeth nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She didn’t understand the disappointment that stung her eyes. He was offering her exactly what she wanted. It was just that she had thought, for a moment, that he might say something else.
“What do you think Silas
and Katrien are talking about?” she asked, desperate to change the subject. The two had been deep in conversation for several minutes.
“My best guess is that they’re plotting world domination.” Nathaniel narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think we should leave them alone together. It unsettles me.”
“At least if they take over the world, we won’t have to worry about Ashcroft any longer.” She watched
a butterfly land on top of the scrying mirror and fan its sapphire wings. No doubt Ashcroft would be at the Royal Ball, too. She wouldn’t even be able to see Nathaniel’s completed illusion. . . .
She sat up straighter. “Wait a moment. I’ve thought of something.”
“Tempting as the prospect is,” Nathaniel said, “we are not attempting world domination. It sounds fun in theory, but in reality it’s
a logistical nightmare. All those assassinations and so forth.” At her blank look, he explained, “Silas used to tell me bedtime stories.”
“I’m serious,” she insisted. “I’ve had an idea. We may not have the evidence to make an official accusation against Ashcroft, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. We can still show everyone who he truly is.”
“I don’t follow.”
“We confront him in public,
at an event where all the important people in Brassbridge can see his reaction. He believes he destroyed my mind. And even before he used that magic on me, he had no idea that I overheard everything he said while I was under Lorelei’s glamour.”
She saw the moment that Nathaniel understood, because his expression went carefully neutral. “You want to take the offensive,” he said slowly. “Reveal
yourself to Ashcroft, and make a public accusation before he can regain control of the situation.”
She nodded, leaning forward. “Everyone might think I’m raving mad at first, but there are too many suspicious coincidences to ignore. He won’t be able to talk his way out of it. And with
by my side, accusing him along with me . . . think about it. Even if he tries to hurt us, he’ll only prove—”
“No,” Nathaniel interrupted. “Far too dangerous.” He stood and briskly clapped his hands. “Meeting adjourned.”
She grabbed his sleeve and yanked him back down before he could cast the spell to dismiss Katrien. “When is the Royal Ball? It’s soon, isn’t it?”
“The ball is this weekend, Miss Scrivener,” Silas provided. “Master Thorn, of course, is expected to attend, and his
invitation includes a companion.” When Nathaniel shot him a look of betrayal, he returned an angelic smile. “You did not order me to be silent, master.”
Elisabeth ignored Nathaniel’s sputtered protest. “Silas, would you be able to keep an eye on Ashcroft for us? Without him seeing you?”
He considered the question for a moment, then inclined his head. “I could follow him throughout the night,
in case he
attempts to retaliate. The Chancellor’s servant, Lorelei, is not a significant threat to me. Nor are the lesser demons in his service.”
A shiver ran down her spine as she recalled the way Lorelei had spoken about Silas in Ashcroft’s study. “The Royal Ball would be a perfect opportunity,” she said, turning back to Nathaniel. “And with Silas watching out for us, we would be far safer.
Please,” she added. “I know this is a last resort, but it could be our only chance to stop him.”
“You might as well do it,” Katrien said from the mirror. When all three of them looked at her, she shrugged. “Provoking the kingdom’s most powerful sorcerer, turning Elisabeth loose in a ballroom . . . what could possibly go wrong?”
RESENTED WITH THE genuine article, Elisabeth conceded that it had, indeed, been foolish of her to mistake Ashcroft Manor for a palace. The real palace was so large that she couldn’t see the entire building through the
carriage’s window. Instead she gaped at its towers upside down in the reflecting pool, which flashed past for an eternity, lit by votives floating on the water. She felt as though they had passed into a different world, leaving the city far behind. The drive up the lane clung to her like a spell—the trees sparkling with fairy lights, hedges trimmed into geometrical mazes, and fountains in the shape
of swans and lions, everything veiled in the alluring shimmer of dusk.
But her bewitchment faded like a glamour as the coach slowed, joining the line of carriages pulling up at the front doors. The carriages stretched in a chain all the way around the reflecting pool, ejecting an endless stream of guests, who ascended the steps in candlelight. Soon, she would have to convince all of them of Ashcroft’s
Her stomach lurched when the coach came to a full, final stop. A servant in the palace’s rose-colored uniform opened the door, and Elisabeth accepted Nathaniel’s hand, stepping down carefully in her tightly laced silk shoes. His severe expression faltered as his hand grazed the cape covering her gown.
“Scrivener,” he said carefully, “I don’t mean to be forward, but is that a—”
hidden underneath my dress? Yes, it is.”
“I see. And how exactly is it—”
“I thought you didn’t mean to be forward.” She squeezed his arm. “Come on,” she said, with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Let’s go.”
Chandeliers glittered through the palace’s windows, almost too dazzling to look at directly. She was aware of a number of curious looks being sent in her direction as they mounted the stairs,
everyone eager to see the first companion Nathaniel had ever brought to the ball. Her heart pounded. If only they were attending as a real couple, about to pass the night dancing and laughing and sipping champagne.
At the top of the stairs, a pair of footmen ushered them inside. Slowly, she let go of Nathaniel. Pillars soared upward to a curved ceiling painted with moving clouds and cherubs.
The gold-and-cream clouds drifted across the pastel blue sky, and the cherubs fanned their wings. The archway at the far end of the hall had to lead to the ballroom, its entrance sending down a curtain of golden leaves. Guests gasped in delight as they stepped through the illusion, vanishing into the room beyond.
A servant approached to take Elisabeth’s cloak. She hesitated before she undid the
ribbon tying the garment at her throat, feeling the silk glide through her fingers, the fur and velvet lift away. Afterward, she resisted the urge to fold her arms across
her chest. The air chilled her bare skin as though she had shed a skin of armor.
Nathaniel glanced at her, and paused. He hadn’t yet seen her in her gown. The chandeliers threw prisms over its ivory fabric, setting the ruched
silk aglow with a silvery sheen. Golden leaves flowed across the bodice, clustered at the top to form a scalloped décolletage, and again at the gown’s hem, where they floated atop a sheer layer of organza. Pearl earrings shivered against her neck like chips of ice.