Sorcery of Thorns(10)

By: Margaret Rogerson

And froze.

The sorcerer had sunk down onto one knee and clasped his hands atop the other. Firelight played across his pale, angular features. She tried to avert her eyes, but couldn’t. As her heart threw itself against her ribs, she wondered whether he was using magic to lock her gaze in place, or whether she was simply too terrified to look away. His every feature projected villainy, from his dark, arching eyebrows to the sardonic twist of his mouth.

“Are you hurt?” he asked at last.

She said nothing.

“Can’t you speak?”

If she didn’t answer, he might hurt her to provoke a reaction. Trying her best, she managed another croaking sound. Amusement glittered in his eyes.

“I was warned I’d see some strange things in the countryside,” he said, “but I admit, I didn’t expect to find a feral librarian roaming the stacks.”

Elisabeth possessed only the vaguest notion of what she must look like, aside from the parts of herself that she could see. Ink stained her fingernails, and dust streaked her robes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had remembered to brush her hair, which stuck out in tangled chestnut-brown wisps. Her spirits lifted a cautious fraction. If she were dirty and homely enough, he might not find her worth his time or his magic.

“I didn’t expect you to find me, either,” she heard herself say. Then, horrified, she clapped a hand over her mouth.

“So you can speak. You’d just rather not speak to me?” He lifted an eyebrow when she nodded. “A wise precaution. We sorcerers are terribly wicked, after all. Prowling the wilds, stealing away maidens for our unholy rituals . . .”

Elisabeth didn’t have time to react, because just then, a knock came on the door. “Everything all right in there, Magister? We heard a crash.”

That deep, gravelly voice belonged to Warden Finch. Elisabeth reared back in alarm, protectively gripping her wrists. When Finch discovered her out of bounds—out of bounds and speaking to a magister—he wouldn’t bother with the switch; he would cane her within an inch of her life. The welts would last for days.

The magister’s gaze lingered on her for a moment, appraisingly, before he turned toward the door. “Perfectly all right,” he replied. “I’d prefer not to be disturbed until the Director’s ready to take me to the vault, if you don’t mind. Sorcerer’s business. Very private.”

“Yes, Magister.” Finch’s reply sounded grudging, but his footsteps moved away from the door.

Too late, Elisabeth’s foolishness sank in. She should have called out to Finch. She could think of several reasons why the magister might want to be alone with her in private, and a caning paled in comparison.

“Now,” he said, turning back to her. “I suppose I should clean up this mess before someone blames it on me, which means you have to move.” He unclasped his hands from his knee and offered her one. His fingers were long and slender, like a musician’s.

She stared at them as though he had aimed a dagger at her chest.

“Go on,” he said, growing impatient. “I’m not going to turn you into a salamander.”

“You can do that?” she whispered. “Truly?”

“Of course.” A wicked gleam entered his eyes. “But I only turn girls into salamanders on Tuesdays. Luckily for you, it’s a Wednesday, which is the day I drink a goblet of orphan’s blood for supper.”

He looked entirely serious. He didn’t seem to have noticed her robes, which labeled her an apprentice, and therefore an orphan by default.

Determined to distract him, she took his hand. She hadn’t forgotten her mission for Katrien. When he pulled her up, she pretended to stumble, and landed with her fingers buried in his black-and-silver hair. He blinked at her in surprise. He was almost as tall as her, and their faces nearly touched. His lips parted as if to speak, but no sound came out.

Her breath quickened. With that startled expression on his face, he looked less like a sorcerer who bargained with demons and more like an ordinary young man. His hair was soft, the texture of silk. She didn’t know why she would notice such a thing. Hastily, she snatched her hands from him and backed away.