Authors: Margaret Rogerson
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 ruffled as
if stirred by a breeze. They moved faster and faster, flipping on their own, until they reached a point about halfway through. Then they halted with a flourish 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 bronze.
The Magisterial Houses of the Kingdom of Austermeer,
read the section heading at the top. And then, beneath that:
Of all the sorcerous families, none are so powerful as those descended from the great sorcerers granted the title of “Magister” by King Alfred during the Golden Age of Sorcery, as a reward for the miraculous feats they performed for the crown. It was these first magisters who founded the Magisterium in the early sixteenth century. The organization, which began as a private occult society, later developed into a governing council from whom a Chancellor of Magic is elected every thirteen years. . . .
Elisabeth skipped onward, skimming the paragraphs until a familiar name caught her eye.
House Ashcroft, elevated to prominence by Cornelius Ashcroft, also known as Cornelius the Wise, is celebrated for its participation in a number of public works that have shaped the landscape of present-day Austermeer. Cornelius Ashcroft laid down the Inkroads and transported thousands of tons of limestone for the construction of the Great Libraries in 1523, while his successor, Cornelius II, raised Brassbridge’s famous Bridge of Saints from the waters of the Gloaming River in a single day.
Meanwhile House Thorn is known for the darkest of all magics—necromancy—with which the house’s founder, Baltasar Thorn, repelled the Founderlander invasion of 1510 using an army of dead soldiers raised to fight for King Alfred. Though necromancy is classified as a forbidden art as of the Reforms of
1672, concessions exist for its use during wartime. The might of House Thorn is credited with the kingdom’s continued independence from its neighbors, who have not threatened Austermeerish soil since the War 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 realized.
The grimoire stirred beneath her hands. Without prompting, it flipped to a different section. She only had time to read the chapter heading,
Demonic Servants and Their Summoning
, before a knock sounded on the door. She froze, 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.”
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 dizzying 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? Perhaps 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 fight.
“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 flushed and his lips reddened, which gave him a startlingly debauched look, enhanced by his disheveled hair and cynical, penetrating gaze. The effect 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 floor. 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 finished.”
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. Proof 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 gaze flicked 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 Malefict. 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 scrutinizing her. “You’re awful at it. Even if you weren’t, that tactic wouldn’t work on me.”
“Pretending 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 flooded Elisabeth’s cheeks. The tray’s edges bit into her fingers. 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 sacrificed 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.
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,
So he does remember me from the reading room, after all
“I was finding 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 floor, devouring it
with her hands. She barely noticed in between bites that someone, somewhere else in the inn, was laughing.
USTERMEER’S COUNTRYSIDE FLOWED past the coach’s window. They passed farms, and rolling wildflower meadows, and wooded hills tinged gold with autumn color. Mist pooled in the hollows between the valleys, and sometimes stretched
fingers across the road. As the afternoon shadows deepened, the coach clattered into the Blackwald, the great forest that slashed through the kingdom like the stroke of a knife. Everything grew dark and damp. Here and there among the undergrowth stood shocking white stands of birch trees, like specters floating among the black gowns of a funeral party. Gazing out at the gently falling leaves,
the thick carpets of ferns, the occasional deer bolting into places unseen, Elisabeth was enveloped by a pall of dread, as though the mist had seeped inside the coach and surrounded her.
Nathaniel would make the attempt here, she was certain. When he reached the city without her, he could claim she’d run and vanished among the trees. In a place like this, no one would find a girl’s body. No one
would even bother looking.
Escape felt increasingly hopeless. She had tried again last night, but after breaking her room’s window and climbing down the roof, Silas had been waiting for her in the inn’s garden. Strangely, she didn’t remember the rest. She must have been overcome by exhaustion. Afterward she’d had an unsettling dream of being back in Summershall’s orchard, digging the emergency
salt canister out from under the angel statue. But this time the statue had come alive, and looked down at her with vivid yellow eyes.
A nudge against her hand interrupted her thoughts. Frowning, she tore her gaze from the forest to the grimoire on her lap. This was the third time it had bumped her with its cover, like a dog begging for attention.
“What is it?” she asked, and the Lexicon gave
another, more insistent nudge, until she loosened her grip and it flipped itself open with an eager flutter.
It had opened to the same section as last night,
Demonic Servants and Their Summoning
. Elisabeth shuddered. Illustrations from books flashed through her mind: drawings of pentagrams and bleeding maidens, of demons with horns and snouts and tails feasting on entrails like ropes of sausage.
But the Lexicon wanted her to read this for a reason. Steeling herself, she bent over the pages.
Relatively little is known about demons even within the sorcerous community,
it told her beneath the heading,
in part due to the danger of conversing with demons, who are notorious deceivers, and will seize any chance to betray their masters. For once a bargain with a demon is struck, it is in the demon’s best interest to see its master dead; thus it may secure another bargain with a new master, and maximize the amount of human life that it receives in payment.
Demons populate a realm known as the Otherworld, a plane adjacent to our own, which is the source of all magical energy. Without the connection established by a demonic bargain, humans cannot draw energy from the Otherworld. Therefore sorcery’s very existence is contingent upon the summoning and servitude of demons—a regrettable, but necessary, evil. It is both a blessing and a curse that demons crave mortal life above all else, and are therefore eager to treat with humans. . . .
Could this be Nathaniel’s weakness? She grasped in vain at the thought. Her head felt muddy, as though she had been reading for hours instead of
only seconds. The grimoire nudged her hand again, and she realized she’d been staring off into space. Determinedly, she rubbed her eyes and continued reading.
The Otherworld teems with hordes of lesser demons: imps, fiends, goblins, and the like, which are not difficult to summon; but they do not make reliable servants, for they are little more intelligent than common beasts. Being the province of criminals and unskilled dabblers, lesser demons are illegal to summon as of the Reforms. True sorcerers seek only the service of highborn demons, which for all their danger may be bound to the conditions of their summoning, and therefore compelled to obey the orders given to them by their masters.