Grey Carteret woke in a foul mood.
One generally did when one woke lying face down in a gutter reeking of things best left unmentioned, with no idea of how one arrived in said gutter. Particularly when one also woke feeling as if all the angels in heaven and the demons of hell had spent the entire previous night fighting across each of the two hundred and six bones in one’s body. Even more particularly when such rude awakenings had been occurring with increasing frequency.
He groaned, which made the pain in his head crescendo with unfortunate familiarity, and he rolled over, which was worse. Every one of his battlefield of bones shattered.
Or they felt like it. Grey supposed they must still remain fastened together, since he could, after a fashion—the fashion of an ancient crone—move. He brought a hand to his face and wiped away the worst of the stinking muck, so that he dared open his eyes.
Nothing seemed to offer imminent catastrophe, given what his blurred vision could tell him. Little, save that he was in a dark, narrow, and more important, empty alleyway. So he shut them again.
He thought he ought to pause for a moment and count his blessings, since he apparently wasn’t in danger of dying in the next few moments. Not that he could stop it—death—in his current condition. Which led him back around to blessings and the counting thereof.
One, he was alive. Two, he was still reasonably well clothed, as it seemed he had retained his frock coat, which was a true blessing in the damp chill of a London October. Three, his bones were not actually—he didn’t think—broken, though his head felt decidedly shattered. The odd thing was, he didn’t remember drinking. Not last night.
Grey had decided, after too many recent mornings waking up like this, that he wouldn’t have any alcohol to drink. Not even a single “off to bed” brandy. He wouldn’t go out. He wouldn’t toddle round to any of his clubs. He would stay at home and work in his workroom. Had he changed his mind?
He would reason all that through later. The time had arrived to assemble himself and get the hell out of wherever he’d landed this time.
He crawled up the rather slimy brick wall beside him to a more-or-less sitting position, cracking an eye open again. He hoped the state of his vision was due to the lack of light in the alley, and not the state of his eyes. “I’ve lost another damned hat,” he muttered.
“No, you ain’t.”
Grey winced at the piercing voice right next to his aching ears, and turned to see his hat hovering a scant few inches beyond the end of his nose. Good thing he hadn’t opened both eyes. They’d have crossed.
He took the hat and settled it gingerly on his head. It hurt even his hair, but perhaps it would keep all the pieces of his head contained in a single whole.
“I got your stick, too,” the same agonizing voice shrieked. “I watched ‘em for ya, wouldn’t let no one pinch ‘em, nor your coat neither. An’ I wouldn’t let ‘em cosh ya nor shiv ya. I been watchin’ out for ya, guvnor.”
Grey cracked open his other eye to acquire an accurate view of his walking stick. It took a moment for the two images to swim their way together and become one, so that he could know which stick to reach for.
The stick was attached to a surprisingly clean hand which sprouted from a wrist positively black with dirt. Grey squinted, trying to see the person beyond the hand and wrist. There was a checked cloth cap with a blurred face beneath. “Who the bloody hell are you? And where did you come from? You weren’t there before. I looked.”
The silver-headed stick vanished, pulled back beyond Grey’s admittedly meager reach. “Wot kind o’ gratitude is that? After all I done for ya?”
The lad had a point. Grey assumed the creature was a lad, given the high-pitched voice and the trousers. “Sorry,” he said, since a gentleman never failed to offer apology when one was due—though everyone agreed Grey wasn’t much of a gentleman. “Foul mood. Bad head. Makes one a trifle cranky and forgetful of good manners.” He took a deep breath so he could go on. “Thank you very much for watching over my person and my belongings.”
“Now, give me my bloody stick and tell me who in blazes you are!” Grey couldn’t roar as he’d have liked to, given his head and the rest of his aching bones, but he did his best. It wasn’t as if he really wanted to know the boy’s name, except it seemed as if he ought to know who had done him such a favor.
“Cor, you ain’t got ‘alf a temper.” The boy eased a fraction closer and held the stick out, tip first, as if afraid to get any closer. Smart lad. Even if Grey wasn’t quite up to snuff at the moment.
“Foul mood. Remember?” He used the stick to haul himself to his feet. “Your name, young sir.”
“Ah. Parkin. Yes, thank you.” Grey’s eyes were beginning to focus more effectively. The lad was tall for eleven, or maybe twelve. He had delicate features beneath the grime coating his face. Poor lad.
Grey had suffered the same affliction at the same age, though he’d finally grown out of it. Mostly. These days, women called him beautiful.
Men gave him a wide berth. Partly because he’d long ago taught himself to fight viciously with any weapon to hand, and to hell with so-called “rules of honor.” Primarily, though, they left him alone because as Magister of the Conjurer’s Guild, he was the most powerful conjurer in all of England.
Who couldn’t keep from waking in odd places with no memory of how he arrived there. At least this time he’d acquired a protector.
Grey searched his pockets, but they were empty of coin, as well as wallet or watch. He sighed. “I suppose it was too much to expect that you might have guarded my pockets as well as my person.”
“If your pockets’re empty, they was emptied ‘fore I found ya.”
“Ah.” Grey frowned. Parkin did deserve a reward for his faithful service. More than just a coin or two, if the lad was willing. “Whereas after I arrived and fell—literally—under your care, I lost nothing. Perhaps I should hire you to escort me back to my home.”
“P’raps you should.” Parkin swaggered a little. “But it ain’t coin I want. Wot I want is for you to make me your apprentice so I can learn magic.”
“I don’t take apprentices.” The instinctive response was out before Grey recalled that just this past summer in Paris, he had considered breaking his longstanding rule against apprentices. But that had been in special circumstances.
He turned to start hobbling down the dark, narrow alley, unable to stride away as he wished, due to his crumbled-up bones. “Go to the Council Hall. Take the test. If you pass it, they’ll admit you to the school.”
The boy followed, offered support on the side opposite Grey’s cane. “No, they won’t,” Parkin said. “Even though I have enough magic to have kept you hidden and safe half the night, they won’t let me in.”
Grey gave the lad a sharp look. What had happened to his speech? “Of course they will. You’ll be admitted straightaway. That’s quite a good talent.”
“I’ve been hiding myself for years now. It was simple to hide you as well. And they won’t admit me because—“ Parkin tugged Grey to a halt—an easy task—and looked around. A broad-backed navvy stomped past the end of the alley. Otherwise the street was empty.
Parkin leaned in, stretched on his toes. Grey reluctantly bent his head to listen. He truly did not want to hear Parkin’s pitiful secrets.
“I can’t go to magician’s school,” he whispered into Grey’s ear, “because I am female.”
Astonishment shivered through Grey as he straightened to stare at the boy—the girl— No, she was a young woman.
He could see it now, the feminine nature of the delicate face. Her small frame didn’t boast many curves, but she was past childhood. He couldn’t see the color of her hair beneath the flat cap, but eyes of amber rayed over a blue outer rim gazed back at him beneath dark brown brows. She might be almost pretty if she weren’t so thin, and so dirty. Her true age was impossible to discern, but children aged early on the streets.
He wondered whether he ought to be offended that she’d lied to him, and decided against it. Offense would be expected, and he invariably did whatever was not expected, or he tried to. Though he supposed that could become expected. Besides, she hadn’t actually lied. She’d merely allowed him to assume.
Grey shook off the wandering thought and indulged his curiosity, another thing he did whenever possible. “If you’re not Parkin, who are you? Were you using magic just now to hide the fact of your gender?”
He walked on down the alley, able to do so a bit more efficiently now, though the pain refused to leave him. He hurt in every joint, every tiniest part of his body. If he wished to reach home sometime before the day’s end, and he did, he would have to find a cab. “Parkin” followed him, of course. She wanted something from him.
“Parkin is my family name. My Christian name is Pearl.” She whispered the last, looking about her again for eavesdroppers.
They’d emerged from the alley into a slightly wider street, one a carriage might actually be able to pass along. They were near the river. Grey could tell by the reek of mud and rot and wet, and by the speech of the people clustering thicker on the street. Speech Miss Pearl Parkin had echoed until recently.
It was early, dawn barely beginning to lighten the sky. Grey usually saw dawn because he’d been up the whole of the night before, rather than waking to greet it. Had he gone drinking last night? What could he have imbibed that would leave him in such a state? He’d never had a hangover like this one.
A knot of people, idlers and children, the sort who slept in doorways, had gathered round one of the doorways off to the right, toward what appeared to be an even larger street. Grey paused, watching them because they were there, trying to get his bearings. Until he knew where near the river he was, he wouldn’t know which direction to take for home, or where to find a cab.
Miss Parkin planted herself in front of him. “I use magic to disguise myself, yes,” she said. “When I’m not hiding myself altogether. If I were a boy, I’d go to that school. But I’m not, and I can’t, and now that my father has died, I need a way out of this place where he’s left me. But the only thing I can do is magic, and that will earn me nothing here but a short drop.”
Grey firmed his lips to hide the effect her desperation had on his unruly heart. It was too soft by far, usually in what his family deemed inappropriate circumstances. He, and they, would prefer it remain cold and hard at all times, but he could not prevent it from reacting to the oddest things. Like Pearl Parkin’s plight.
He watched the gathering crowd, augmented now by people heading off to work with their baskets and carts and tools, who tried to pass and got caught up in whatever was happening.
Pearl clutched at his coat, trying to pull his attention back in her direction. She’d never lost it. His eyes might be turned toward the growing crowd, but all his attention—what he could squeeze past the regiment of drummers beating on his head—was focused on the dainty creature beside him.
“My hiding magic would be perfect for thieves,” she whispered, her fingers digging into his forearm. “There’s some as ‘ave—who have asked me to do it for them. I’ve put them off. I’ve hidden from them, but I can’t hide all the time. I have to earn my supper, don’t I? I can’t do that if I’m hidden, if I want to do it honestly, which I do. And if I give in to Nosey, I don’t know how long it’ll be till he finds out I’m a girl and—“
She shuddered, and Grey’s heart twisted. Or maybe the twist was lower, in his gut. He knew someone who had suffered that sort of insult at far too young an age. She’d recovered admirably, but the attack had left deep scars. He wanted to help this girl. But to take her as apprentice?
“Magicians can take female apprentices,” she said. “I read the papers. I know about the lady Mr. Tomlinson took as his apprentice, even though he’s alchemist and she’s wizard. If he can take a girl apprentice, so can you. And if he can climb out of Seven Dials on the back of his magic talent, then so can I.”
Grey wanted to help her. He did. But not that way. He didn’t take apprentices. He didn’t want to be in authority over anyone, hemming them about with rules. He paid no attention to rules himself—except for those immutable ones like gravity and inertia and conservation of magic. How could he be expected to impose rules on others?
“What are they doing there?” He indicated the murmuring crowd, and edged round Miss Parkin to hobble in that direction. Hangovers didn’t make you ache so much all over, did they? By the time he reached them, Pearl Parkin at his elbow, he could walk almost normally, or appear so. It still hurt.
“Toby’s gone to fetch the peeler,” someone said in a confident tone.
Immediately, a good quarter of the crowd melted away, no doubt due to a disinclination for an encounter with London’s police representative, and Grey was able to move closer. Though not to shake off Miss Parkin.
“’Oo are you?” One of the locals turned a suspicious eye on him. “’Oo’s the toff?” she asked the general vicinity.
“’E’s Magister Carteret,” Miss Parkin said in her husky, pretend-boy’s voice. She pronounced Grey’s surname “Carterette,” rather than the correct “Carteray.” Oh, the woes of Norman French ancestry.
“Magister? Wot’s that? Some kind of fancy magistrate?” Someone else asked that.
“It means I’m head of the conjurer’s guild,” Grey said, trying to infuse a soupçon of authority into his voice. “And one of the Briganti, the magicians’ police. What’s happened here?”
And how did Miss Parkin know who he was? It was a question that should have occurred to him much earlier. One he would have to ask later, in the unfortunate event that there was a later with Miss Parkin.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea, exposing a sea of red.
No, not a sea. Not even a pool. Blood covered the murdered man’s naked, mangled body, but it had not flowed onto the stones of the street below him. He’d been tossed after his death into the doorway where he lay, like a broken doll.
Grey opened his senses—sight, smell, hearing, touch—and that other sense with many names. The sense that registered the presence of magic. He was a conjurer, attuned to the magical range of spirits, but he was able to sense the deep tones of the alchemist’s earth-and-elements magic. He could sometimes pick up the lighter range of a wizard’s herbal magic, though it was a strain. In the past few weeks, he’d learned to faintly hear, or feel, or—or taste the thick, coppery cry of the blood magic of sorcery.
He could taste it now. The faraway cry of innocent blood for justice. But overlaid everything else, over the soft booming of the stones beneath their feet, over the faint scent of herbs and talismans worn against illness, over the taste of blood that settled in the back of his throat, Grey could hear the loud, off-key, echoing blare of conjury twisted awry.
Rage surged up in a towering wave, sweeping away his aches, clearing out the lingering fog from his mind. Someone had used this man, his agony as his bones were broken one by one, and then his slow death as he choked on his own blood after the bones of his face were broken—used it in an attempt to call a demon. Spirits were not powerful enough, that this murderer thought he required a demon to do his bidding?
Grey’s hands hurt. He realized he’d closed them into fists so tight they began to cramp, the pain worsened by last night’s unremembered abuse. He wanted to find the murderer, this stinking smear under society’s rock, and inflict the same torture upon him.
“Who is he? Does anyone know? Can you tell?” Grey found his handkerchief miraculously still in his pocket and bent to collect a bit of the dead man’s blood. Perhaps the sorceress could do something with it.
There was only one sorceress. In the world, not just in England. Amanusa Greyson was currently in Scotland, taking stock of her sorcerous inheritance as well as enjoying a belated honeymoon with her new husband.
“I fink ‘e’s Angus Galloway. By the red ‘air.” Someone pointed a grubby finger, and sure enough, the man did have red hair. Curly. Almost the same color as the blood beginning to dry on his obliterated face.
“Has anyone seen Angus Galloway this morning?” Grey stood to ask.
“I smell magic—“ An old woman’s voice wavered in a raven’s croak over the crowd.
They parted again and she came through. Withered, gnarled, bent so far over that her head came no higher than Grey’s waist, she was led by the hand toward the murdered man. She sniffed, turning her blind eyes this way and that. They’d brought out their local witch.
Grey eased back, unnerved by the way those milky eyes seemed to see things not there. He knew better, but she unnerved him nonetheless. She might have some magic ability, but it was untrained. Most likely, she used confidence tricks and the ignorance of the masses to bolster her reputation, until her abilities were more rumor than magic. Still, those eyes disturbed him.
“Dark magic,” she croaked. “Black as the depths of hell.” She got that much right.
“I smell magic, too.” Pearl’s whisper startled him, though it shouldn’t have. He hadn’t been able to shake her yet. “But it doesn’t smell dark. It smells…like blood.”
“Gather it up,” Grey murmured.
“How?” She scowled up at him.
“That sense you have that can smell it—reach out and touch the magic with it.”
Grey watched her, but he couldn’t see, or sense, anything. “Have you done it? Can you touch it?”
“I think so.” Pearl’s forehead creased in adorable effort, just between her eyes. Damn it.
“Grab hold of it.” He held up a finger to forestall her speaking, whether question or complaint. “Works differently for different people. Some wrap around it like arms and scoop it in. Some suck it up like a liquid. Some sink their fingers in it like a wad of raw wool and drag it in. Experiment. See what works best for you.”
Her hands twitched, but she didn’t actually move them as her frown deepened. “Scooping,” she said finally. “But it’s rather like trying to fill a water bucket with my bare hands.”
“Improvement comes with practice.” Grey watched the old woman.
She moved around the pitiful twisted body from one side of the door where he lay discarded, to the other, sniffing and peering and finally tasting. She reached out with a shockingly long arm to touch a sticky droplet of blood on the poor man’s face and touched it to her tongue.
“Conjury,” she cried. “Great and powerful conjury was worked here! Magic from the depths of hell.” Didn’t the woman have any other metaphors?
All eyes snapped to Grey. Eyes filled with rage.
He drew himself up straight, refusing to cower. He did hope Toby arrived quite soon with that policeman. “You might want to scarper,” he said to Pearl from the corner of his mouth.
“I’ll stick.” She backed off a step. “But from here. You might need someone on the outside.” And her features blurred. She became unnoticeable, unimportant.
A man’s rough shout rose over the rising angry mutter. “Demons come from ‘ell. Conjurers kill to summon demons!”
“Conjury cannot summon demons.” Grey spoke loudly and precisely, hoping the locals’ ingrained deference toward “their betters” would outweigh their native resentment of those born to privilege, at least temporarily. “Only God has power over hell’s demons. God and their master, Satan, who works according to his own whims and not those of petty mortals. Satan may have been present during this abomination.” He let his rage and horror into his voice. “But Satan’s presence was not due to conjury.”
“’Ere! Wot’s all this, then?” The policeman—and Toby, presumably—had arrived at last.
Grey took advantage of the distraction to slip his bloody handkerchief to Pearl and watched it vanish into her blur. He expected to be taken up for questioning at the very least, and wanted to be sure the handkerchief with its innocent blood got to Amanusa. Who knew what would happen to it—or to him—if the police found it in his pocket?
The people in the crowd all spoke at once, allowing the uniformed man through to see the body. Grey could pick out the words “murder” and “conjury” and “hell” from the cacophony. He saw fingers point at him, felt hands grab and hold him, felt the little jabs and vicious pinches where the bobby couldn’t see.
He couldn’t see Pearl’s blur any more. He hoped she got away. He hoped he didn’t see her little elfin face again. Not unless he was there when she delivered the handkerchief to Amanusa’s justice. He didn’t need an apprentice. Especially not a tempting little morsel like this one.
The policeman blew his whistle. Other officers arrived. Higher-ups were sent for, and a detective to begin inquiries into the murder. The hands holding Grey were exchanged for policeman’s hands, and then for manacles. Eventually he was put into a wagon and transported to the nearest police station, where he was locked up and left to rot.
Or to contemplate his dire situation. Whichever came first.
While Grey felt very much as if he were already rotting, and while most would agree that he had always been spoiled rotten, he thought he ought to try contemplation first. It seemed more productive than rot.
Astonishingly enough, given his checkered past, Grey had never actually been arrested before. Not the sort of arrest where one had one’s wrists pinioned by dashedly uncomfortable, heavy, cold, iron manacles and was placed in a dank, cold, stone-walled cell with an iron door that closed with a forbidding, permanent-sounding echo-y clang. While still wearing the uncomfortable, hard, rough, cold manacles.
Grey considered calling out, requesting the manacles be removed, but he rather doubted anyone could hear him, and if they did, he doubted even more that they would comply with his request. He was a conjurer. Next to sorcery, conjury was the most feared of all the magics.
Since there hadn’t been a sorceress in existence the past few hundred years, until Amanusa took up the mantle so recently, conjury suffered the slings and arrows of the superstitious and fearful. Likely these poor ignorant souls thought cold iron a bar to his magic, as if he were one of the fae.
The only thing that barred his magic was the willingness of the spirits to rise, and that depended on the rise of the moon and the dark of the night. Mostly.
He sighed as he slumped against the wall behind him. The cell was small, but it didn’t need to be large, as it held nothing but a solid metal bunk hung from the wall with heavy chains, where he now sat, and a bucket for a chamber pot. At least the place was dry, though this near to the Thames, “dry” was a relative term. He saw no actual droplets of water trickling down the gray stone blocks of the walls.
There were ghosts, of course. He could sense them all through the building, which had been properly warded by a government conjurer to keep them at bay. He supposed he could entertain himself by counting up the ghosts, or reinforcing the local man’s work. Later, maybe.
Ghosts were tetchy. One never knew what might set them off, and unlike spirits, they weren’t reasonable. They’d been trapped on earth, usually by the violent circumstances of their deaths, and those circumstances sent them out of control.
Or would once night fell. Ghosts were as shackled to night as—as his hands by these manacles.
He tried to be grateful that they’d shackled his hands in front rather than behind, so he could use the chamber pot when it became necessary. Which, actually, it rather was, since he’d woken not long ago and hadn’t yet made his toilette. That took up a few minutes of time, which then became instantly endless again. Grey feared he wasn’t very good at this contemplation business, and even worse at rotting. He needed something to do.
The blasted cell had a tiny window high in the wall at the end opposite the door, nearly blocked by other buildings crowded round. It let in a pale watery shade of almost-light, and did not allow him any view of the sky when he tried looking out it. Yesterday had been a daylight moon, rising at 9:33 a.m. and setting at about 4 p.m. The days were getting shorter, but hadn’t yet reached December’s darkness, so he had had to deal with a strip of moonless daylight before nightfall had given back his magic.
Today would be a daylight moon as well, as would the next several. He didn’t have his charts to know the exact time of moonrise, but it would be sometime between 10:30 and 10:45 a.m. He felt his waistcoat pockets again. No, he did not have his watch. Whether stolen or left behind in his night of–forgetfulness–he didn’t have it now to know what time it was and whether the moon, or any spirits, were awake.
He had one spirit who would answer his call whatever the time. But he hated to disturb her. Surely he was not so feeble that he could not endure a few hours of isolation without having to conjure up a bit of distraction. And he didn’t dare risk disturbing a ghost without a spirit to back him up, even in broad daylight. Relatively speaking. It wasn’t precisely broad. More watery gray.
Grey lay down on his hard metal bunk, without the comfort of even a single thin moth-eaten blanket, and threw an arm up over his eyes. Of course, since his hands were bound together, the other arm came too, and he nearly brained himself with the blasted manacles. The weight of his arms dangling one from the other made the cuffs dig even deeper into his wrists. And now that he was motionless, rotting, his body reminded him that the whole of it still ached. Especially his head.
No, his face. His forehead and his cheekbones and his nose and even the hinge of his jaw throbbed and pounded as if they’d been stuffed with lint and set afire, and then placed in a linen press and the wheel turned till it crushed him. A faint idea stirred in the depths of his brain, possibly rolling to the surface, but it sank again when a voice came whispering through the door.