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London was waiting, and so was I.
Tonight was an official gathering of Her Majesty’s sorcerers--my first since being commended to the royal Order--and as the city’s church bells tolled seven o’clock, my stomach fluttered with nerves. We were a country still at war with monsters, but at that moment attacking hellbeasts were the furthest thing from my mind. The thought of going inside the palace made me wildly uneasy.
From out Blackwood’s carriage window, I watched the sorcerers as they rode up to Buckingham Palace on horseback or floated out of the evening sky to alight upon the ground with ease. They adjusted robes and ran hands through their hair as they hurried inside, trying to look presentable. I stayed hidden inside the carriage, my gloved hands folded tightly in my lap.
Two months before, when I’d arrived at the palace, it had been blazing with lights, ready for a grand ball. Now it was darker, more somber. It was a place of business. My business now.
“Your first Order meeting,” Blackwood said, sitting opposite me. “You must be excited, Howel.”
“Excited or numb with terror?” That was a joke. Mostly. “What should I expect?” I still felt awkward in my black silk sorcerer’s robe. It wasn’t designed for a woman. I was the first female to be inducted into the royal Order by a monarch, at least in recent memory. And so I fidgeted, pulling at the collar.
“I’ve never been inside.” He patted the handle of his stave. “Only commended sorcerers may enter. But I have heard,” he said, attempting to sound all business and knowledge, “that it’s quite impressive.”
“Something that might impress the great Earl of Sorrow-Fell?” I said. Flicking my gloved fingers, I shot a few embers at him. The cool night air quickly swallowed my fire. Blackwood laughed, bolstering my courage. He wasn’t much in the practice of laughter, though I liked to think he’d got more used to it after months of living with me.
“Do I have to worry about you bursting into flames every time you mock me?” he asked, wiping at his sleeve as the footman opened our carriage door. Blackwood stepped out and handed me down. I shivered. The evening was cool, a reminder that summer was nearly done.
“Don’t be absurd. I mock you far too often to set fire to myself every single time.” I took his arm, and we made our way to the palace’s entrance. Around us, sorcerers were greeting each other. I searched for my friends, Dee or Wolff or Lambe, but saw none of them.
Blackwood cut through the crowd gracefully, men twice his age stepping aside for him and nodding. I’d never have imagined this was his first Order meeting. He moved about in his robe with ease, as if he’d been wearing it all his life. Perhaps he’d practiced? Or it could be that he was simply good at everything to do with being a sorcerer.
I was surprised how many of the sorcerers were young, my age or only a few years older. I knew I should have expected it--a group of tottering old men couldn’t be expected to win a war--but seeing others plucking awkwardly at their robes, laughing too loudly and then ducking their heads in embarrassment, made me feel less alone. We entered the palace through a large, arched doorway and turned down a carpeted hall before making our way outside again, into the grand courtyard. In the center of the yard, a great black dome awaited us. We filed through the door, and I gasped as we entered a room of pure night.
I’d been inside obsidian rooms before, but this was an obsidian cathedral. The ceiling soared above us, fifty feet at least. No windows interrupted the smooth, dark expanse of stone on either side. The only source of natural light came from the large, round glass ceiling. It allowed the moon to cast a baleful eye upon the proceedings. Sconces lined the walls, the flickering fire lighting the way to our seats.
Whoever had designed this room had taken inspiration from the Senate of ancient Rome: tiered seating, much like an amphitheater, went up several floors in a semicircle. Most of the younger sorcerers clumped together in the back rows.
It felt rather like the day I’d first come to Master Agrippa’s, only so much worse. At least when I’d first arrived in London, everyone had thought I was their great prophesied girl destined to bring about the end of the Ancients. Now as they turned to stare, we all knew that was not true. I had played a key part in destroying one of the seven monsters--Korozoth, the Shadow and Fog--but at the cost of shattering the protective ward around the city, leaving us all vulnerable to attack.
Yes. Feeling all the sorcerers’ eyes upon me, it was definitely worse.
“Howel, ease up. I prefer to keep my arm.” Blackwood’s voice was tight with pain.
“Sorry.” I relaxed my grip and began the calming exercises Agrippa had taught me months before. Imagine a stream of cool water running down your hands. The exercises kept me from going up in flames at bad moments.
The room was rather bare, all things considered. The only other things of note were a raised dais, upon which stood a backless obsidian seat--for the Imperator, I shouldn’t wonder--and a large square pit with four compartments. One compartment held burning coals, one a pool of water, one rich earth, and one was empty save for a floating white feather that perpetually hovered inches from the ground. I’d read about this; it was an elemental square, like an altar in a church. Holy to sorcerers.
Everyone who entered walked up to the square, knelt, and touched their forehead to the edge. Was it wrong to find the whole thing a bit silly? We moved toward the square. Blackwood genuflected, and then I followed.
Kneeling before the elements, my body settled into profound stillness. I could feel the quiet whisper of the earth resonating through me, could sense the fire that pulsed below the surface of my skin. It was as if a cool, invisible hand had been laid on my shoulder, assuring me that I belonged. Gently, I touched my head to the cool obsidian. When I stood, I felt a bit dizzy and grabbed on to the edge. A sorcerer in his late twenties helped me to stand.
“It’s a bit of a rush the first time you experience it. You’ll find your feet,” he said, not unkindly. I thanked him and then went to join Blackwood. He was seated in the second tier and looking about at the crowd expectantly.
“I don’t think everyone will be here,” he mused as I sat down. “But whoever’s in London will come.”
I might see some of the boys after all. It had been months since Lambe had been in town, and I’d barely spoken to Wolff since the commendation. God, I hoped they’d be here tonight. Them, or Dee . . . or Magnus.
Then again, perhaps I didn’t need to see everyone.
“The Imperator should begin with formally inducting all the newly commended sorcerers,” Blackwood said. “But he might not. I’ve read that Imperators past--Hollybrook, for example, who held the title from 1763 to 1801--sometimes required a small blood oath. Apparently it was a grisly mess.” Blackwood’s eyes seemed to glow as he looked at the Imperator’s still-empty throne. “Don’t be afraid to speak up if you wish. There’s no formal structure for these sorts of things. Whitechurch is our leader, and he may ask for specific advice from the Masters, but everyone in the Order has a right to question or offer opinions.”
“You know quite a bit about the Imperator’s office,” I said.
Blackwood looked a bit sheepish. “I confess it’s a job that’s always interested me. Though there’s an unofficial rule that says Blackwoods can never be Imperators--we’re too influential already.”
“They’d be mad not to consider you,” I said. Blackwood would be one of the best choices for a leadership role. Even though he’d only just turned seventeen, he had a cooler head than most men twice his age. He sat up even straighter, his green eyes brightening.
“Howel!” Dee bolted up the stairs toward Blackwood and me, as excited as an overgrown calf in clover. I didn’t care. Someone from my old Incumbent house was here, besides Blackwood. Dee ducked into our row, jostling a pair of sorcerers, and sat on my skirt. It took a couple of tugs to get it out from under him.
“Dee! I didn’t think you’d be back from Lincolnshire. Did you battle Zem?” I said, stifling a laugh while he tried to yank his robe into propriety. Dee’s red hair was a brambled mess. He must have flown here.
“I didn’t get up close, but the Great Serpent was at work burning down masses of fields. Suppose the Ancients want to destroy crops, what with the winter coming. I got to work in the rain unit, you know. Even managed some lightning.” His round face flushed with pleasure. Well, he should have been proud. Summoning lightning was a bloody challenge.
“You must have won a great victory.” I smiled at him.
“We put the fire out, at least. How is everyone at home?” he asked, painfully trying to sound casual.
He was clearly asking about Lilly, my maid. He’d liked her since we’d all lived in Agrippa’s house together, though he’d never made his feelings known. Normally I’d have been worried about a young gentleman chasing a maid--those sorts of things didn’t usually end well for the girl. But I knew Dee would sooner cut off his own hand than harm Lilly. And if he didn’t, I’d do it for him.
“Everyone is very well. Everyone,” I said with a wink. Dee blushed harder, if such a thing were even possible. His skin practically glowed.
“What was that about?” Blackwood whispered.
“I don’t have to tell you all my secrets,” I said primly, fluffing my skirt.
“Pity. I’d like to know them.”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking, and I studied him a moment. Blackwood’s profile was strong and distinguished in a shaft of moonlight, and the look in his eyes utterly distant. No matter how much time I spent with him, he could be as inscrutable as the dark side of the moon.
“All rise,” a sorcerer called at the door. Instantly, I was on my feet, alongside Blackwood and the rest of the room. We were silent as a black-robed man entered, walked up the steps of the dais, and seated himself upon his throne. Horace Whitechurch, Imperator of Her Majesty’s Order.
When I’d first met him, I’d thought him the thinnest, most unassuming old man, with white hair and wet black eyes. Now I could feel how his strength radiated outward. In this room, coupled with the power of the elemental square, I imagined him as the beating heart of a great body, his life force nourishing each one of us in turn. This man was strength.
“Be seated,” he said, and we all obeyed in a whisper of silk. “To business. I shall be brief.” He paused, as if gathering his words. Then, “There has been an attack on the queen.”
He said it so matter-of-factly. Sharp cries sounded throughout the room, echoing off the high walls. Blackwood, Dee, and I looked at each other with horror. Whitechurch cleared his throat, restoring silence.
“Her Majesty is well. She herself has not been assaulted, but a message was found in the queen’s bedroom,” Whitechurch continued. He took something from his robes and held it up for all of us to see. It looked an ordinary type of letter. “From R’hlem.”
Holy hell. The Skinless Man, the most fearsome, the most intelligent, the most ruthless of the Seven Ancients, left a message in the queen’s bedroom? This time, there was no outcry. The room, as one, held its breath.
Finally, one young man in front of us stood. “How can we be certain it’s from him, sir?”
“The message was found,” Whitechurch said, unfolding the paper, “pinned to the body of one of Her Majesty’s footmen.” My stomach tightened to think about it. “A shadow Familiar was found painting on the walls with the poor man’s blood.”
I unsheathed Porridge and held it in my lap. I swore that the stave warmed in my hand, as if giving me comfort.
A shadow Familiar, he’d said. Could it have been Gwen? I recalled her the night of our commendation, laughing wildly as she pulled Agrippa away into the air. My heart twisted. Even now, the thought of Agrippa hurt. He’d welcomed me into his home, trained me. He’d been the first to believe in me. True, he had also betrayed me, but that part didn’t seem to matter any longer.
“What became of the Familiar?” someone else called out. Blackwood was right: Order meetings were quite informal.
“We burnt the thing. It did not return to its master.” Whitechurch turned his eyes down to the paper in his hand.
A cold sweat broke out along the back of my neck. It was as if I’d gone back to that night months before, when I’d come face to face with the Skinless Man. It had been an illusion, and a damned good one. The monster had caught me by the throat and nearly choked me to death. Thinking about that one burning yellow eye in the center of his forehead, the bloodied stretch of his muscles, the . . . I nearly vomited.
The worst part of all this was that if one of R’hlem’s agents had gained access to the palace and the queen’s bedroom, then we were not nearly as safe as we’d hoped. After the ward came down, we’d erected barriers all around the edges of the city, barriers patrolled day and night. But clearly it hadn’t been enough.
At least the queen was unharmed. At least he hadn’t succeeded in attacking her. Unless it was R’hlem’s plan to instill fear in us.
I knew from experience that fear could lead people to do terrible things.
Whitechurch began reading, “ ‘My dear Imperator, I pray you’ll excuse the messy delivery of this salutation. One must always make an impression.’ ” Even though Whitechurch spoke those words, I could hear R’hlem’s voice saying them, his tone deep and soft and sinister on the edges. “ ‘It has been rather a dull summer, wouldn’t you agree? I admit that my dear Korozoth’s destruction was a bit of a puzzle to me. But if there is anything I enjoy in this life, it is a challenge.
“ ‘I’ve decided to give you fair warning: I am preparing an onslaught to bring your Order to its knees. I will show you horror, my dear Imperator. I will give you the very taste of fear. And you know that I am a man of my word.’ ”
Excerpted from "A Poison Dark and Drowning (Kingdom on Fire, Book Two)"
Copyright © 2018 Jessica Cluess.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Children's Books.
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