Home > Sorcery of Thorns(5)

Sorcery of Thorns(5)
Author: Margaret Rogerson

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.

A magister. 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 I 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 was 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.

For Katrien’s benefit, she gave a slight shake of her head. His hair was too thick for her to tell whether or not he had pointed ears. If he had hooves, the hem of his cloak concealed them.

She followed up the signal with another, more urgent shake of her head. The magister had turned in their direction, his gaze fixed on the shelves. His gray eyes were extraordinarily light in color, like quartz, and the look in them as they scanned the grimoires turned her blood to ice. She had never seen eyes so cruel.

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