Chapter One ONE
“I DIDN’T DO THIS!” Nathaniel insisted, leaning out the manor’s front door, gazing helplessly at the vines thrashing up along the thorn hedge, the animated topiaries prowling through the garden, and the threatening magical gale that howled around Thorn Manor, carrying past leaves and branches and loose cobblestones in a whirling cyclone. “I swear upon Baltasar’s unholy grave, I didn’t do a thing.”
Elisabeth gave him a skeptical look. “Most of the time when you say that, it turns out that actually—”
“Yes, yes, I know.”
“Like when it started raining teacups on Laurel Avenue—”
“I thought we agreed not to talk about that.”
“And the time a lightning strike blew off one of the Magisterium’s towers—”
“Point taken. But I didn’t have another nightmare last night, did I? You certainly would have noticed.”
She felt herself turn pink. “No. You didn’t.”
He grinned at her, looking unfairly handsome in just his nightshirt, with his sleeves billowing and his dark hair whipped in every direction by the wind. “Anyway, all of this must have something to do with the manor’s wards. Look at the street past the gates, it’s completely normal.”
She squinted through the streaks of swirling debris, and saw that he was right. The rest of Hemlock Park appeared to be enjoying a sunny, peaceful February morning. That failed to ease her mind. Especially because, standing just past the cyclone, a crowd had gathered; and at the very front stood a group of—
“Reporters,” Nathaniel said darkly.
“Elisabeth Scrivener!” they called out in excitement, noticing that the front door had opened. “Magister Thorn! Would you care to comment on the situation? Have you lost control of your magic? Is it true that your demon is back?”
Nathaniel only frowned. Then another reporter shouted, “Is this likely to impact your preparations for the Midwinter Ball next w—”
Elisabeth didn’t hear the rest, because Nathaniel had hastily drawn her inside and slammed the door behind them.
“You know, I find that I don’t mind it a great deal after all,” he said later that day, cheerfully watching a shrub sail past the foyer’s window. “In fact, I believe the view is growing on me.”
“You can’t leave it this way forever,” Elisabeth pointed out. “It’s trapping us inside, too. We’ll starve. Also, that looks like it came off the roof.”
Nathaniel used his cane to slide the curtain open a little wider, watching with interest as a giant chunk of masonry went spinning by. The crowd of spectators screamed and ducked. If anything, Nathaniel only looked more pleased.
“Oh, I’m sure we have enough provisions to last us a few weeks. And if the roof starts leaking, I can simply use magic… Scrivener?” he asked in alarm. “Where are you going?”
She didn’t answer, because she had drawn Demonslayer and charged out the door.
A moment later she charged back inside, chased by an army of vines swarming at her heels, their dagger-length thorns clattering angrily across the foyer’s tiles. She was wild-eyed, with leaves tangled in her hair.
“Their heads grow back!” she shouted, hacking at the vines.
“Of course they do!” Nathaniel yelled. “They’re magical topiaries! I could have told you that, if you hadn’t charged outside to fight them in your pajamas!” He summoned a gout of emerald fire that burnt several vines to ashes, filling the room with the potent stink of aetherial combustion. But it didn’t seem to help. As soon as the ashes pattered to the floor, another wave of vines swarmed inside to fill the gap.
They stretched from the hedge all the way indoors, their numbers inexhaustible. The more Elisabeth hacked at them, and the more Nathaniel scorched them with fireballs, the more they multiplied like the heads of a hydra. The tide of battle finally turned when Mercy emerged from the hall, let out a full-throated battle cry, and whacked the vines with a broom. This seemed to work for a moment, if only due to the element of surprise: the hedge shrank back, appearing rather shocked. Before it could rally, Elisabeth forced her way to the door and shoved it shut with all her strength, slamming it on a single thorny tendril that had enterprisingly snaked back inside. When it refused to retreat, she lopped off the end with her sword.
They all stood watching in silent horror as the vine flopped around on the carpet, still alive. Eventually Mercy had the presence of mind to trap it beneath an overturned dustbin.
“Suppose we’re stuck inside, then,” she observed as the dustbin hopped and rattled furiously across the carpet.
“So it would appear,” said Nathaniel cheerfully. “How terribly inconvenient. It’ll take me weeks to sort this out.”
Elisabeth paused, remembering what the reporter had started to say earlier, and then rounded on him. “What is the Midwinter Ball?”
He was busy dusting burnt-up vine ash off his sleeves. “Trust me, Scrivener, you’re better off not knowing. Imagine being stuffed into a sorcerer’s fusty old ballroom, where the chandeliers are enchanted to drip wax on anyone who criticizes the hors d’oeuvres, and getting tortured to death with small talk for hours.”
“It is a social occasion, mistress,” contributed a whispering voice from the hall.
“Exactly,” Nathaniel said.
Sometimes, Elisabeth still felt a frisson of surprise when Silas appeared. Standing in the hallway’s shadows, he looked like a ghost, and it was easy to imagine him as one—pale, insubstantial, his narrow silhouette poised to melt into the wainscoting at any moment. She had difficulty shaking the idea that he was a figment of her imagination, or even an illusion conjured by Nathaniel during one of his nightmares. But he was undeniably real. She had touched him. Earlier, he had served her breakfast.
She couldn’t make out his face, but she got the impression he was trying his best not to look at the layer of ash coating the foyer’s tiles—or, for that matter, notice the dustbin juddering its way determinedly toward the parlor. He continued softly, “It is a yearly tradition among sorcerers, meant to uphold the relations between houses. Every winter, a different magister is chosen to host the ball.”
Elisabeth evaluated Nathaniel in suspicion. Over the past few weeks, she had caught him feeding formal-looking letters into the fire. “You’re supposed to host it this year, aren’t you?”
“I don’t see why I should.” He had gone back to dusting off his sleeves. “Until barely two months ago, I was no longer a sorcerer.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to get out of it by using the manor’s wards?”
“No, but I wish I’d thought of that. Brilliant, isn’t it?” Outside, someone screamed.
“Reporter,” Mercy declared, peering through the curtains. “Still alive.”
“More’s the pity,” Nathaniel said.
At some point Silas had stepped into the light, though Elisabeth hadn’t seen him move. His marble-white features looked no less unearthly in the late-afternoon glow leaking through the leaded panes, which winked with the shapes of debris swooping past, casting flickers of shadow across the foyer’s checkered tiles. “Perhaps we might retire to the dining room. I have prepared your supper, which is growing cold.”
His soft voice held no indication of a threat. Nevertheless, everyone scrambled to obey.
The dining room proved to be turned out in rare style even for Silas. Lit tapers reflected on the long table’s polished walnut surface and glimmered from a profusion of silver utensils and tureens. Each place had been formally set with fine porcelain and jade chargers—not just their three places, but the table’s full complement of eighteen. Mercy hesitated at the threshold before stiffly taking a seat, her face grimly set, as though preparing herself for battle.
Elisabeth’s brow furrowed in concern, but then Silas returned with a platter in his hands, and her mind disintegrated at the smell. She had devoured three portions of flaky white fish, lost in the spice of the ginger sauce and the delicate crunch of snow peas, before she regained the capacity for rational thought. When she finally looked up, Nathaniel was prodding his meal with his fork.
She felt a twinge of sympathy. The prospect of publicly reemerging into magical society couldn’t be easy for him. Not after his injury, and the reporters, and the questions circulating about his sorcery. But her goodwill promptly vanished when the conversation turned to fixing the wards, and he pretended to go to sleep.
“If no one gave them orders, why would they have woken up?” Mercy asked after an uncertain glance at Nathaniel, who was sprawled across his chair, snoring extravagantly. “Is the manor trying to tell us that we’ll be in danger if we leave the house? It isn’t something like Ashcroft again, is it?” By now she had been filled in on nearly every detail of last autumn’s events.
Silas glanced at her beneath his lashes. Elisabeth tensed. She couldn’t explain it, but for some reason a jolt of alarm shot through her every time he acknowledged Mercy’s presence, even though he’d been nothing but polite to her ever since he’d returned and found her working as a servant in the manor.
To her obscure relief, he only said, “Not necessarily, miss. Ancient spells such as the ones laid down in this manor’s foundations often grow temperamental with age. I believe it is more likely that something has occurred to trigger a minor modification to the wards. Sorcerers have added their own clauses over time, some of which are quite specific. Can any of you think of anything out of the ordinary you have done in the past twenty-four hours?”
He asked this in a very mild tone of voice, but at once everyone turned to look at Nathaniel, who proved that he was awake by opening his eyes and sputtering in protest.
“Well, I can’t,” Mercy said stoutly.
“I was in the study all day yesterday, working,” Elisabeth put in.
“I was barely home!” Nathaniel exclaimed. “I was at the Magisterium consulting on Ashcroft’s artifacts. I didn’t get back until well after dark, and then—”
The two of them exchanged a look, remembering.
“What is it?” Mercy asked.
“Nothing,” Elisabeth said quickly. And really, it couldn’t be important. She had slept in Nathaniel’s room plenty of times before; she had done it nearly every night during his recovery, so she could be there to help him if he needed to get up to use the water closet or started having a nightmare. The wards hadn’t objected then. Granted, she had been sleeping on the floor, and most of the time they hadn’t been touching each other…
But it wasn’t as though they’d done anything last night. Just a little kissing. A few minutes of kissing, and then they’d gone to sleep.
“Indeed,” said Silas ambiguously. “In that case, master, I recommend that we retire for the evening, and discuss this more tomorrow.”
Silas insisted on drawing Elisabeth a bath, which she had to admit wasn’t unwarranted as she watched the water in the copper tub turn brown, swirling with bits of leaves. At least he hadn’t made her wash her hair; he had relented to her protestations with a sigh, and placed an ivory comb on the nightstand instead.
When she had finally succeeded in conquering her unruly tangles, she soaked for a while with her eyes closed, listening to the soft sounds as he moved around the room, opening and closing drawers. Then she forced herself to sit up, her arms clamped over her chest as still-steaming water sluiced from her skin. Silas had laid a towel over the folding screen and placed a clean set of nightclothes across the foot of the bed. Craning her neck, she could see him just beyond the screen’s edge: he stood turned away, casting a critical gaze over her ruined clothes, which hung limply from his hands.
She rarely got the chance to look at him without him noticing. Silently, she studied him in the lilac room’s gauzy light. Upon cursory inspection, he looked exactly the same as he had before that fateful night in the Royal Library, his alabaster beauty untouched. But Nathaniel was convinced that he had been injured by the Archon. He couldn’t explain how he knew, only that he could sense Silas’s unwellness like a shadow at the corner of his mind.
Silas had never revealed how he had survived the confrontation, or what had happened to him afterward in the Otherworld. If Elisabeth watched him steadily enough without interruption, she began to grow aware of something different about him, though she couldn’t explain exactly what: only that he seemed to fade, to become thinner and more insubstantial. At times she imagined she glimpsed pain lurking deep in his yellow eyes, as difficult to interpret as the impassive gaze of a wounded feline.
Whatever ailed him, she was glad Mercy worked here now, so he didn’t have to do everything on his own. As soon as she had the thought, she regretted thinking it. Silas was as adept at reading her as ever. His eyes flicked to hers, and his lips thinned.
“Isn’t it better to have help?” she blurted out. “It’s just—it’s a big house. You don’t have to do everything alone.” You don’t have to do it at all, she didn’t add, for the matter had already been raised, and Silas had insisted on resuming his role as a servant with a strange brittle intensity that had put an end to the discussion immediately.
“As you say, mistress,” he said. He helped her step out of the bath, wrapping the towel around her shoulders with his eyes averted. Then he gave a slight bow, and left.
Elisabeth bit her lip. She dried herself off and tugged on her nightgown, followed by the matching silk dressing gown. When she was done, she caught her own reflection in the mirror, rippling across the glass: the cream-colored silk trimmed with a pattern of spring vines, her unbound hair shining in waves nearly to her waist. She touched the silver strands glittering among the brown, representing the single day of life that Silas had taken from her—a match for Nathaniel’s own token payment. Out of habit, she lifted Demonslayer from her nightstand. Then, before she paused to think, she made her way down the hallway to Nathaniel’s bedroom.
She had said something to offend Silas, but she didn’t know what, or at least why. As she padded down the hall, she reflected that she wondered many things about him that might never have answers. She wondered if, when he walked into the Archon’s circle to sacrifice himself, he had thought Nathaniel might die anyway. Nathaniel almost had. She wondered how he had felt when he came back to find Nathaniel alive, and whether, during all those weeks he’d waited for a summoning that never came, he took it as proof that the worst had come to pass. Most of all, she wondered if he noticed the pall of grief that had filled the manor like cobwebs in his absence; if he knew how much he had been missed. She hoped that he did. But there were some things she couldn’t talk to Silas about. She saw the look in his yellow eyes, and knew it would be like touching him with iron.
When she appeared in Nathaniel’s doorway, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, gazing toward the darkened window in thought. She lingered outside, overwhelmed by a sudden shyness. Even though she had been present for every stage of his recovery, she often found herself feeling newly tentative around him in private. Everything he had endured at Ashcroft’s hands seemed to have made him older, more mysterious, more powerful—a man and not a boy, as though over the past months he had crossed some invisible threshold to adulthood. This was easy enough to overlook when he was being ridiculous—which, granted, accounted for most hours of the day—but when they were alone together, the humor with which he armored himself temporarily set aside, she found it burningly impossible to ignore.
Standing there, she must have made a sound. He looked up and paused, taking her in. He didn’t appear at all surprised to find her holding a sword at the entrance to his bedroom. His eyes were very dark, his hair slightly damp. Her stomach performed a sort of effervescent tumble, like an ice cube dropped into a fizzing glass of champagne.
“You might as well sleep here again,” he said, still watching her intently. “If a topiary comes crashing through the window, we may need to fight it off together.”
Elisabeth eyed the bed. It was a great monstrosity with its four carved posters and embroidered hangings and piled-up pillows, more than large enough for two. “But you don’t think we caused this by sleeping together? Sleeping in the same bed, I mean, and kissing.”
“It isn’t as though we’ve never kissed in this room before,” Nathaniel pointed out, his eyebrows rising. Her cheeks flamed. With some effort, she managed not to glance at the window seat. “And even if we did offend the house with our shocking indiscretions,” he went on, “the damage is already done. I hardly imagine we can make it any worse.”
She wasn’t so sure about that, but she moved toward the other side of the bed anyway, hung up her dressing gown, and slipped beneath the covers. Demonslayer went beside the nightstand, within easy reach. “No kissing,” she said. “Just in case.”
He rolled over to face her. “Yes, my terror,” he said obediently, with a wicked sparkle in his eyes.
She took one of the pillows and placed it firmly between them, which made Nathaniel laugh. He snapped his fingers, and the hangings slid free from their ties to close with a quiet swish around the bed, shutting them out from the world.