by Gail Dayton
“Tell me again why we have come to the dead zone this time?” Elinor Tavis stood well away from the zone’s boundary, where the moss on the brick tipped over the border from struggling to dead and the bricks themselves began to lose their grip on the wall they’d been built into.
“One more time, but this is th’ last, a’right?” Harry Tomlinson, master of magic to Elinor’s apprentice status, let the Cockney in his voice fall where it liked. When he was back in London’s East End where he’d grown up, it seemed to fall more often than usual, but when he tried to control his accent, it only brought more attention to how he sounded, so mostly he didn’t try. “We got word from Paris they’ve been ‘avin’ trouble with the warding we build round the dead zone there.”
“What sort of trouble?” Elinor moved a pace or two closer and Harry turned around to glare at her.
Didn’t help. She closed the gap between them, gliding to stand at his elbow, a scant half step behind him. Only that half step farther from the dangers of the dead zone. Elinor was not the most obedient of apprentices.
Being that she was an apprentice wizard and he was a master alchemist, he mostly stayed out of her way and let her study what she liked. Sometimes he…dealt with the male wizards wanting to interfere with her studies. It was a magic-master’s duty to protect his apprentice, after all. So he was relieved she at least gave him the half step.
“What sort of trouble?” Elinor asked again. She was like that, keeping on till you told her what she wanted to know.
“Not sure, exactly. They don’t know. In Paris.” Harry glared into the dead zone again. Not that he could see much on this cold, wet, gloomy January morning. It wasn’t raining, or even misting exactly, but the air was…thick. Made it hard to see. “It’s makin’ odd noises, the warding wall in Paris. Screams, like, or squealing sounds. An’ they don’t know why.”
“Does the wall look any different? The one in Paris?”
“Dunno. They didn’t say it did. Didn’t say it didn’t, neither.” Harry propped his hands on his hips. “They ‘aven’t sent the report yet, only word by conjurer that there’s trouble.”
He scowled at the ruined territory beyond the faint iridescence of the magical boundary wall protecting London from the dead zone and keeping it from growing larger. They needed to stop the other zones from growing too–the one across the river in Bermondsey and all the others scattered over England and Europe. There were even a few appearing in America, he’d heard.
“I hate dead zones,” he growled, carefully pronouncing the “h” in “hate.”
“Why?” Elinor asked.
Why? That was a stupid question. “‘Cause they’re dead. They look dead, all crumblin’ and falling down. They smell dead–”
“How can you tell?” Elinor made a face. She’d finally quit complaining about the East End smells, but only because he ignored every complaint.
“Yeah, it stinks here. It smells like rotten veg an’ animal muck an’ the Thames at low tide, but that’s just ‘ow life smells sometimes. Death stinks too. In there, that’s beyond death. Nothin’s left. Even the magic’s dead, an’ magic gives life its flavor, don’t it?
“An’ if the magic keeps dyin’ an’ the dead zones growin’, it’ll suck all the magic an’ all the life out of everybody an’ everything until there’s nothin’ left but monsters. And it’ll kill me first, which means I won’t be able to stop it.”
He paused, a little shocked by his tirade. He knew what he thought about the dead zones. He just never thought he’d say it aloud. “Any road, that’s why I ‘ate the dead zones. ‘Cause they hated me first.” He looked at Elinor. “You asked.”
“Oh.” Elinor nodded, like he’d said something profound. She thought a moment. Elinor was always doing that, thinking. Likely that was why she was such a bang-up wizard. The only reason she hadn’t already taken and passed the master’s test was that she was female. The other wizards–all of them male–didn’t like that about her.
There hadn’t been female magicians in more than 200 years. Not since the witch burnings back in the 1600s, when the Magician’s Council decided it wasn’t safe for women to work magic. Since then, the male magicians–especially the few men who could master what had been the primarily feminine art of wizardry–had become comfortable in their boys’ club. They didn’t want to let the girls back in to play.
They hadn’t really wanted to let Harry in either, given his background, but with his talent for magic they’d had to. They would let the women in for the same reason.
Harry intended to make sure of it. He wasn’t so stupid as to ignore the talents of a master-level magician just because she had tits instead of a cock.
Besides, women’s magic was necessary to destroy the dead zones. They hadn’t quite figured out how yet, but Harry knew in his gut it was so. Sorcery, the school of magic that was as female as alchemy was male, had been completely lost since the last sorceress was burned. The next sorceress, Yvaine’s successor, was discovered just last summer, and only with the four great magics working together had they been able to wall up the dead zones. First the one in Paris and then this past November, this one in London’s East End.
“I said–“ Elinor poked him in the side, hard. “What do you hope to find, then, by standing here staring at the warding wall? Since you don’t know if it should look different.” She huffed out a breath and Harry edged over a step, not sure if she intended to poke him again.
“It’s not as if I don’t have a dozen–a hundred other things I need to be doing,” she said. “I have a magister’s challenge coming up in just over a week, if you’ll recall. I don’t even know what we’re going to do. Dueling potions? Wands at 20 paces?”
“That’s right–wizards use wands too, don’t you?”
Elinor rubbed her arms briskly, shivering. “Harry, I’m cold. Can we discuss it in the carriage? Have you seen everything you wanted to see?”
“No. But I reckon I’ve seen everything there is to see.” He was disappointed, not finding anything not expected, but keeping Elinor from freezing was more important. “Come on, then.”
He took her arm, wishing he could tuck her under it, share some of his warmth and a few of the capes on his many-layered greatcoat, but she wouldn’t allow it. She was his apprentice. He was her magic-master. Their connection had to be strictly professional, completely above reproach. She wouldn’t risk anything that might knock her back from the few steps forward she’d taken toward her goal, becoming a master magician, the first among many female wizards yet to come.
Harry had to respect that. Both the talent and the determination. And he did.
He respected her. He admired her. Trouble was, he also wanted her. Wanted to strip the layers of clothing from that softly rounded shape and sink right into her softness. How stupid was that then, to walk through half the day with a cockstand from wanting a woman who didn’t want you back? A woman you knew–knew for certain sure–wanted only magic and accepted it from you only because she couldn’t get it anywhere else?
Then again, nobody ever accused Harry Tomlinson of being a brain. Powerful, yes. Practical and able to make things work one way or the other, but not the most brilliant chap around.
They were almost to the carriage–horses hated dead zones even more than Harry did–when the beasts started misbehaving, stamping and neighing and trying to rear.
“What the devil?” Harry set Elinor aside where she’d be safe from the slashing hooves and hurried to help his coachman settle the animals.
He caught the bridle of the near lead animal while Sharkey caught hold of the off lead. They were good horses, not too high-strung, and they settled quickly with someone at their heads. The one Harry held snuffled at his coat as if for reassurance and he stroked its nose. He’d always liked horses, even before he could afford to own them.
Elinor’s scream sliced through his brain and shot him into action. He was across the alley in a flying leap, thrusting hands into pockets for his weapons as he raced to her side.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” He pushed his thumb into one of the hard pellets as he drew it out, cracking the clay, making ready.
“There!” Elinor pointed at the ground, fumbling through the slits in her skirts for her dangling pockets as she danced about, rather like the horses had been, though Harry would never say so.
“Rat? Just kick it. It’ll run off.” Harry slowed his pace, but only slightly. If a rat or mouse got up into those hoops and petticoats, they’d never get it out. “Shake your skirts. It won’t like the shakin’.”
“It’s not a rat, you idiot!” She drew out a vial of something–wizard magic–and swept her skirts to one side, the hoops belling up on the other. “Look!”
It was a machine. Small, perhaps the size of a rat terrier, made of the bits and pieces left behind in the dead zones when the people fled, like the other machine-creatures that had begun appearing in the zones some six months ago. They hadn’t been made by human hands. Harry and his fellow researchers were fairly certain about that, especially since magic was as deadly to the machine things as the dead zones were to living things. But this machine was outside the dead zone. And it wasn’t dead.
It scuttled from side to side on a multitude of tiny legs made from three-penny nails, trying to escape Elinor’s stamping feet and swinging skirts. It humped its way over the cobbles back toward the dead zone, clashing its dinner-plate jaws full of jagged metal teeth as it went. Why wasn’t it dead? Where had it come from? And what had it been doing?
Harry threw his pellet at the thing, invoking the spell with a growled, “Ignis,” an instant after it left his hand. Fire burst from the pellet in a brilliant glare that had Harry shading his eyes with an arm. It crashed into the monster’s carapace, where it burned, a spot of incandescence on the dark, dull surface, seeming to have no affect at all.
Elinor uncapped her vial.
Harry took it from her. “You’ll lose the machine under your skirts.” He excused his action. “Do I pour it on?”
“Pour or splash, either one. Do it! It’s getting away–” Her voice rose in a wail as she pointed.
Harry ran after it. Good thing its short little legs didn’t cover ground too terrible fast. He threw the contents of the vial in the machine’s direction. Most of the potion splattered on its dull shell, some splashing on the cobbles. The potion on the stone hissed and foamed. That on the machine discolored the shell, turning it dark brown around the still-burning spot of fire. Nothing more.
“Why isn’t it reacting?” Elinor asked, from right beside him. “That potion should eat through anything. We have to catch it, find out why.”
“Stay back.” Harry pushed her behind him. “Remember your skirts.”
“Stupid hoops,” she snarled, but she stayed where she was.
He pivoted, armed another pellet, and threw it with deadly accuracy to burst over the still-charging machine. It should have been deadly. Refiner’s fire burned until it was quenched. Didn’t seem to be bothering this beast a bit.
Except that it turned. Instead of scuttling toward the dead zone, it came marching toward them, metal teeth clashing alarmingly. It seemed to move a great deal faster when advancing rather than running away. The fire flared up, catching the now-dried potion alight. The creature kept coming.
Elinor moved up beside him again, her skirts belling out nearly a yard in front of them. Harry caught her arm and spun her back. “Maybe you don’t care about your skirts,” he growled. “But if you’re hurt, who’ll heal me?”
“Of all the selfish–”
Harry had already turned away. He cracked a third fireball, but kept it in his hand. No use throwing it, if it didn’t work. Maybe the thing was like a hedgehog. Not so tough underneath.
He rushed it, ignoring Elinor’s cry. Alarm or annoyance, didn’t matter. A puff of smoke or dust–something–exploded from the creature just before he reached it and flipped it over with a toe, exposing its bristly underbelly. The nail-legs covered almost the entire surface, attached to an odd gearing system.
Harry slammed the pellet into the midst of the gears, shouting the spell as he threw it. The fire exploded with the force of his will, knocking him back on his arse and cracking the creature’s hull.
The spell should have blown it to bits, but it only knocked the merest crack in the thing’s outer armoring.
Harry scooted back, in case it sprouted legs from its top and started on again. The blast left him a bit dizzy. And there was a sting in his middle. He put a hand over the pain and muttered “Extinguo,” to put out any stray fire.
It still hurt. Maybe it wasn’t fire.
“Where are you hurt?” Elinor was there, bending over him.
“Get back.” He pushed at her, feebly. What happened to his strength? “I only cracked it.”
“Cracked–your head?” Elinor began running her fingers through his hair, probing his skull.
“No, damn it, the machine. Bloody ‘ell, woman, don’t you ‘ave sense to stay out of a battle zone?” He pushed her again, stronger this time.
“It’s dead.” She pointed, moving to the side so he could see past her skirts. “A crack was apparently enough. Where are you hurt?”
Harry ignored her fussing to heave himself to his feet and stagger over to the machine. It rustled its legs menacingly at him. But she was right. It wasn’t dead yet, but it was dying.
He swayed as he poked it with his toe. The flames burning its underside licked out to touch his boot. He’d fireproofed them when he bought them, so no worry there. The thing clashed its jaws at him once, twice, then went still. Harry poked it again, staggering this time when he lost balance. The machine didn’t stir and he caught himself with a hand on the nearest wall. Dead enough to quench the battle fires. Harry gestured as he spoke to do so.
“See? It’s dead.” Elinor inserted herself under the arm holding up the wall and pulled it down across her shoulders, like she thought he couldn’t stand on his own. “Come along, now. Let’s see how badly you’re hurt.”
“I want it.” Harry looked back at the machine while Elinor bore him off to the carriage, his head feeling not at all the thing. All fuzzy-like. “I want the lads in the lab to look at it. Why didn’t the fire ‘urt it? Or your potion? Why didn’t the magic kill it? And how did it get out o’ the dead zone? Wot was it doin’? An’ how many others got out while we wasn’t lookin’?”
“We will find answers to all those questions,” Elinor said. “But first, I am going to discover where you are injured and treat that injury. Your coachman will fetch the machine for you. You will not handle it yourself.”
“Fine,” he grumbled. And a bloody pain in the arse it was, to be not just alchemist, but magister of the alchemist’s guild and thus the most susceptible to the deadly no-magic of anyone in all of England. He couldn’t even carry a damned machine in a bloody basket without feeling breathless.
“Here we are,” Elinor said. “Up you go.”
Sharkey, his coachman, was opening the door, his wizened face expressionless as always, except for a twitch in one eye. That twitch–Harry began to worry. Maybe he was hurt more than he thought.
It took both Elinor and Sharkey to shove Harry into the carriage. Elinor climbed in after.
“Take the basket.” She dragged it from beneath the back-facing seat and thrust it into the coachman’s arms. “And go fetch my–Mr. Tomlinson’s specimen. It’s dead and the fire’s quenched. It can’t hurt you.”
“Right, miss.” The coachman bobbed his head, his flyaway white hair floating in the breeze of his motion as he hobbled down the alley.
Now, finally, Elinor could see what Harry had done to himself. She struck a match to light the carriage lamp.
“I ain’t so feeble I can’t light a lamp,” Harry protested.
Elinor ignored him. She planted a hand high in the middle of his chest and pushed him over onto his back, her heart pounding with alarm at how easy it was. Just how hurt was he?
She yanked open his jacket, too worried for buttons, and stifled her gasp when she saw his waistcoat soaked in red. “Did you know you were bleeding?” She kept her voice even, informative. It wouldn’t do to alarm the patient. The waistcoat buttons were loose in their buttonholes and came open easily.
“Is that wot it is?” Harry got an elbow under him as if he intended to sit up and have a look.
“Stay still.” Elinor pushed him back down. It wasn’t any more difficult this time.
She worked at his shirt buttons. They wouldn’t rip–she’d tried–and she didn’t have time to rummage in her bag for scissors. She got down to the last few and tried tearing it open again. This time it worked and she spread the shirt wide, exposing Harry’s chest and abdomen.
Relief flooded through her, inappropriate and inevitable. Something had skidded along his ribs and dug itself a home in the muscle under his arm. She’d envisioned worse. Much worse.
Images of destruction, of wrecked bodies and missing–she thrust them from her mind. Harry was injured–not too badly–and needed healing. She could heal him. She would allow herself that much. She reached for her bag, sitting on the opposite seat where it belonged, and opened it. Numbing potion first.
She lifted his arm out of the way and poured the potion liberally along the wound. It was simple to make and the ingredients were cheap and easily come by. No need to be stingy with it.
“Keep your arm there,” she ordered as she drew her forceps from its spell-lined spot and whispered a few cleansing words to reinforce the spell. “This shouldn’t hurt.”
“Wot shouldn’t ‘urt?” Harry’s native accent floated in and out as it pleased, without seeming to follow much rhyme or reason. He craned his neck to peer at his injury.
“This.” Elinor punctuated the word by grasping the foreign object and working it out of the wound.
“What is it?” Harry reached for it and she gave it to him, forceps and all.
“A splinter. A very large one.” Elinor pressed hard on the wound to stop the bleeding, then flushed it out with the clean water she carried. She used another, smaller forceps to probe for any threads of his clothing or broken-off bits of dart that might remain.
When she was satisfied the wound was as free of foreign matter as she could make it, she delved into her bag, selecting the proper ointment. That jar, the watercress-based, was better on burns, but she should have plenty of the other, with the bindweed and dock she’d put in as an experiment. A successful one, she thought. Yes, the next jar along had the bindweed ointment.
Harry turned the forceps this way and that, examining the thing that had been in his side. “Biggest splinter I ever saw. It’s not wood. I’m not sure it’s metal either. I don’t know wot it is. Where did it come from? Before you pulled it out o’ me, I mean. How did it get in me?”
“I haven’t a clue.” Elinor opened her jar, scooped out a good-sized dollop and began to spread it over Harry’s injury. “Did you scrape against something when you lost balance?”
“No, it ‘appened before that. Right when I flipped the machine over. I thought I’d burned meself again.” He put a finger out as if to touch the splinter, but didn’t. He went very still instead, as Elinor stroked ointment over Harry’s skin with her fingers.
His stillness changed things. The air became charged with awareness. With waiting, perhaps anticipation. Elinor’s senses drank it all in, making her even more aware. Of the horses stamping on the cobbles outside, making the carriage shift ever so slightly. Of the smell of herbs and magic and underneath that, the scent of Harry. And that made her notice how his skin felt beneath her fingers, how his broad muscled chest looked beneath shirt and waistcoat and jacket. How absolutely motionless he was.
She looked up and found him looking back at her, his hazel eyes gone dark and hooded, his nostrils flared, though he–was he holding his breath? His tongue slipped out to touch his lower lip and retreat, drawing her attention to his mouth. The most perfect mouth in all England.
There. She’d thought it and the world hadn’t come to an end. Harry Tomlinson had a perfect mouth–cupid’s bow on top, full and sensuous below. The rest of him–well, he had a very nice chest, now she’d got a look at it, and a stomach to match, but really, he was an ordinary Englishman.
He had light brown hair that generally looked as if he’d cut it himself with hedge clippers. He didn’t, but it stuck out in all directions unless he brilliantined it flat to his head and even that sometimes didn’t help. He had an ordinary nose and a broad English face and light hazel eyes that changed colors depending on his mood. And that mouth. That perfect, beautiful, all-too-kissable mouth.
“I got that thing wot you wanted, miss.” The voice of Harry’s coachman outside broke the spell.
Elinor jerked her fingers off Harry’s side. Where she’d been caressing him more than healing. She wanted to close her eyes in mortification, but focused them on the inside of her bag instead, hunting the bandages.
“Yeah, thanks, Sharkey,” Harry called through the window. She could feel him watching her as he sat up. “Put it in the luggage boot, will ya?”
Elinor wondered at the informality between employer and servant. It was easier than wondering at her own behavior. Had they perhaps known each other before? Before Harry entered the academy?
“You know wot I think?”
About what? About Elinor’s inexcusable overstepping of the bounds of propriety? About–?
“I think this came from the machine.” He brandished the forceps at her when she finally came up from her bag with the bandages that had been staring her in the face. “I think the bloody thing shot me.”
His exaggerated outrage made her want to laugh. She kept it to a smile. “How so?”
She laid a row of gauze over the long wound, sticking it in place with the ointment.
“For one thing, I feel tremendously better since you took it out of me. I think it was making me sick while it was stuck in me. ‘Cause o’ the no-magic.” He peered at it again. “You think maybe it’s made of bone? Animal bone, maybe? I think it’s a weapon. Look, it’s pointed at this end. Sharpened. And there’s hooks at the other.”
Elinor looked, when he waved the forceps under her nose. She caught his hand and held it still, where she could see. “You’re right. It does look like a dart, or arrowhead. And rather like it might be bone.”
“What?” She looked up, alarmed by his tone. “What’s wrong?”
“If these things ‘ave projectile weapons and they can get out o’ the dead zones…”
“Oh.” Elinor realized she still held his hand and let it go. “Dear.”
She hadn’t wrapped his injury yet either and all this motion was threatening to dislodge the gauze. She lifted the roll of bandage and only then realized how it would be.
The bandage had to go around his torso. Underneath his clothing. Elinor would have to reach around him to wrap it. She was not a tall woman and her arms were sized in proportion, which meant that, in order to get the bandage around him, she would have to get very close to that torso. That powerfully muscled, utterly male, virtually naked torso.
Think about something else. The machines. She picked loose the end of the bandage. “Do you think any more machines have got out of the zones?”
“Dunno, do I?” He chewed on a corner of his lower lip. “Reckon I better get Grey’s Briganti on it.” He named the magicians’ police force. The Investigations Branch was headed by the magister of the conjurer’s guild, Lord Greyson Carteret.
“Not your committee?” Elinor placed the bandage end over the shallow side of his injury. “Hold that. No, with your other hand. Keep your arm up. Both arms.”
He contorted himself obediently into the position she demanded, one elbow cocked high while the hand held the bandage end in place, leaning forward so she could work the roll under his shirt and around his back.
She should have had him take off his jacket, at the least. She hadn’t wanted him to be any closer to naked than he already was, for fear of her inappropriate reactions. Instead, it was worse. The jacket’s weight made it more difficult to pass the bandage beneath his clothing, so that she had her face pressed against Harry’s warm, solid, naked chest with her arms around him far, far longer than was good for her.
Harry cleared his throat. “I–no, not the committee. I want my lads takin’ that beastie apart, learnin’ ‘ow it ticks.” He paused a long moment, while Elinor was busy trying to get a great clump of shirt linen out of the way, pushing her cheek hard into his chest to reach farther.
When she was able to move on, bringing the bandage up the other side, where the deepest part of his injury lay, Harry moved on, too. “Grey’s boys are better at trackin’ things than mine are. They can do that bit. ‘Sides, protectin’ the public from rogue magic, or no-magic’s what the Briganti do, isn’t it?”
“It is, yes.” Elinor started round again. It would take more than one ring of bandage to protect his injury.
The extended exposure to temptation further weakened her already crumbling will. She couldn’t stop herself from burrowing her nose into his chest to breathe him in. He wasn’t long from his morning ablutions, so she could still smell the soap, but over that was the smell of Harry and magic. His scent was inextricably mixed with the deep, earthy smell of alchemy.
Harry cleared his throat again. His voice was still rough and gravelly when he spoke. “If any of the creatures did get out,” he said. “I don’t reckon it was many. And they’d be small, I think. Like that one, or smaller.”
“Mm.” Elinor started on the third round of bandage.
How shameless was she to hurry through laying it over his injury so she could once more put her arms round him with impunity? What kind of wanton would regret that each pass of the bandage covered up more of his chest and gave her less bare Harry skin to press her face against? Whatever kind it was, that was her.
After years of believing that she was above all base physicality, devoted purely to loftier pursuits of the intellect, of magic and human welfare, her true nature was rather literally rubbing itself in her face. Her nature was just as–well, natural as the next woman’s. She had the same inborn mating instinct and that instinct seemed to have fixed itself upon her magic-master.
Which left her with one more question. What was she going to do about it? Dolt, Elinor scolded herself. The answer was simple. She would simply have to rid herself of these inappropriate feelings. She could not–would not–succumb. It was unthinkable.
And she was running out of bandage. She brought the end across and fastened it down with a safety pin. She tidied up the bandage, smoothing out minor pleats and picking off stray threads.
She was still touching him, though over the bandage and that lightly, when she looked up at him. He held his arms over his head, waiting for her to finish. Now, he brought them down, settling his hands on her shoulders. His eyes still possessed that dark, intent, focused look. Focused on her.
Why? Or was she an idiot for wondering? She’d never had a man fix his attention on her like that, which was why she was still virgin at the past-ripe-and-nearing-withered age of twenty-seven. Not that she’d ever encouraged any man to do so. Had she encouraged Harry? She hoped not. She’d never meant to.
His tongue slipped out, dampened his lower lip, and retreated. He lowered his head. Elinor lifted hers and that beautiful mouth of his touched hers, a soft, sweet brushing of his lips.
He lifted his head to look at her, as if to gauge her reaction to that slight kiss. Whatever he sought, he must have found, for he kissed her again.