Home > Sorcery of Thorns(4)

Sorcery of Thorns(4)
Author: 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?”

No, 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.”

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