Home > Sorcery of Thorns(7)

Sorcery of Thorns(7)
Author: Margaret Rogerson

When she looked up, however, the sorcerer was staring at her as though she’d grown a second head. Clearly, he had expected her to be afraid.

“Where is the smell?” she asked, emboldened.

He appeared momentarily at a loss. “The what?”

“That smell—the one like burnt metal. That’s sorcery, isn’t it?”

“Ah.” A line appeared between his dark brows. Perhaps she had overstepped. But then he went on, “Not exactly. It accompanies sorcery sometimes, if the spell is powerful enough. Technically it isn’t the smell of magic, but a reaction when the substance of the Otherworld—that is, the demon realm—comes into contact with ours—”

“Like a chemical reaction?” Elisabeth asked.

He was looking at her even more strangely now. “Yes, precisely.”

“Is there a name for it?”

“We call it aetherial combustion. But how did you—?”

He broke off as another knock came on the door. “We’re ready for you, Magister Thorn,” said the Director outside.

“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, I—one moment.”

He glanced back at Elisabeth, as though he half expected her to have vanished like a mirage the instant he turned away. His pale eyes bored into her. For a moment, it seemed he might do something more. Utter a parting word, or conjure a spell to punish her for her insolence. She squared her shoulders, bracing for the worst.

Then a shadow crossed his face, and his eyes shuttered. He pivoted on his heel and started for the door without speaking. A final reminder that he was a magister and she a lowly apprentice librarian, wholly beneath his notice.

She slipped back behind the shelves, breathless. A hand darted out and gripped hers.

“Elisabeth, you’re absolutely mad!” Katrien hissed, materializing from the darkness. “I can’t believe you touched him. I was poised to jump out and bludgeon him with a grimoire the entire time. Well? What’s the report?”

Her nerves sang with exhilaration. She smiled, and then for some reason began to laugh. “No pointed ears,” she gasped. “They’re completely normal.”

The reading room’s door creaked open. Katrien clamped a hand over Elisabeth’s mouth to smother her laughter. And not a moment too soon—the Director was waiting outside. She appeared as stern as always, her tumble of red hair gleaming like molten copper against the dark blue of her uniform. She glanced back into the room, and paused; after a moment of searching, her gaze unerringly found and held Elisabeth’s through the shelves. Elisabeth went rigid, but the Director said nothing. One corner of her mouth twitched, tugging at the scar on her cheek. Then the door clicked shut, and she and the magister were gone.





THE MAGISTER’S VISIT marked the last exciting event of the season. Summer arrived in an onslaught of scorching heat. Soon afterward, an epidemic of Brittle-Spine left everyone exhausted and miserable, forced to massage the afflicted grimoires with foul-smelling ointment for weeks on end. Elisabeth was assigned to care for a Class Two called The Decrees of Bartholomew Trout, which developed a habit of wiggling provocatively every time it saw her coming. By the time the first autumn storm blew over Summershall, she never wanted to see another pot of ointment again. She was ready to collapse into bed and sleep for years.

Instead, she jolted awake in the dead of night, convinced she had heard a sound. Wind lashed the trees outside, howling through the eaves. Twigs pelted against the window in staccato bursts. The storm was loud, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had woken for a different reason. She sat up in bed and threw off her quilt.

“Katrien?” she whispered.

Katrien rolled over, muttering in the throes of a dream. She didn’t rouse even when Elisabeth reached across the space between their beds and shook her shoulder. “Blackmail him,” she mumbled against her pillow, still dreaming.

Frowning, Elisabeth slipped out of bed. She lit a candle on the nightstand and glanced around, searching for anything amiss.

The room she shared with Katrien was located high in one of the library’s towers. It was small and circular, with a narrow, castle-like window that let in drafts whenever the wind blew from the east. Everything looked exactly as it had when Elisabeth had gone to bed. Books lay open on the dresser and slumped in piles along the curved stone walls, and notes belonging to Katrien’s latest experiment littered the rug. Elisabeth took care not to step on them as she crossed to the door and drifted into the hall, her candle enfolding her in a hazy glow. The library’s thick walls deadened the wind’s howling to a faraway murmur.

Barefoot, dressed in only her nightgown, she drifted down the stairs like a ghost. A few turns brought her to a forbidding oak door reinforced with strips of iron. This door separated the library from the living quarters, and it always remained locked. Prior to the age of thirteen, she hadn’t been able to unlock it herself; she’d had to wait for a librarian to come past and usher her through. Now she possessed a greatkey, capable of unlocking the outer doors of any Great Library in the kingdom. She wore it around her neck at all times, even when sleeping or bathing, a tangible symbol of her oaths.

She lifted the key, then paused, running her fingertips across the door’s rough surface. A memory flashed before her: the claw marks on the table in the vault, which had scored the wood as though it were butter.

No—that was impossible. Grimoires only transformed into Maleficts if damaged. It was not something that would happen in the middle of the night, with no visitors and all the grimoires safely contained. Not with wardens patrolling the darkened halls, and the Great Library’s colossal warning bell hanging undisturbed above their heads.

Resolving to banish her childish fears, she slipped through the door and locked it again behind her. The atrium’s lamps had been dimmed for the night. Their light glimmered off the gilt letters on books’ spines, reflected from the brass rails that connected the wheeled ladders to the tops of the shelves. Straining her ears, she detected nothing out of the ordinary. Thousands of grimoires slumbered peacefully around her, velvet ribbons fluttering from their pages as they snored. In a glass case nearby, a Class Four named Lord Fustian’s Florilegium cleared its throat self-importantly, trying to get her attention. It needed to be complimented out loud at least once per day, or it would snap shut like a clam and refuse to open again for years.

She stole forward, holding her candle higher. Nothing’s wrong. Time to go back to bed.

That was when it struck her—an eye-watering, unmistakable smell. The last few months fell away, and for a moment she stood in the reading room again, bending over the leather armchair. Her heart skipped a beat, then began pounding in her ears.

Aetherial combustion. Someone had performed sorcery in the library.

Quickly, she snuffed out her candle. A banging sound made her flinch. She waited until it happened again, quieter this time, almost like an echo. Now suspecting what it was, she snuck around a bookcase until the library’s front doors came into view. They had been left open and were blowing in the wind.

Where were the wardens? She should have seen someone by now, but the library seemed completely empty. Chill with dread, she made her way toward the doors. Though every shadow now possessed an ominous quality, stretching across the floorboards like fingers, she skirted around the shafts of moonlight, not wanting to be seen.

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