Read The Smoke-Scented Girl Online

Authors: Melissa McShane

Tags: #quest, #quest fantasy, #magic adventure, #new adult fantasy, #alternate world fantasy, #romance fantasy fiction, #fantasy historical victorian, #male protagonist fantasy, #myths and heroes

The Smoke-Scented Girl

The

Smoke-Scented Girl

 

 

Melissa McShane

 

 

 

 

Night Harbor Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Melissa McShane

ISBN-13 978-0692368497

Published by Night Harbor Publishing

All rights reserved

 

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any
way whatsoever without written permission except in the case of
brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters,
businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are
the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or
locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover design by Ronnell D. Porter

Prologue

Being reborn hurt more than dying did. She
felt as if she were being sculpted by giant hands, molded like clay
and forced back into human form. Skin grated on bone, bone crushed
her lungs and stomach and the heart that never stopped beating,
even when it was disintegrated into a burning mist. She cried out
in agony, but heard nothing, and wondered if she had ears yet.

Then, as always, the fire left her, and she
was Kerensa again. She fell to the ground, her hands and knees
cracking the brittle, glassy crust that was all that was left of
the bare earth beneath her. The air felt like knives in her chest
as she sucked in a breath, then another, and sobbed great tears
that steamed as they struck the ground. She crouched naked and
alone in the center of the firestorm’s aftermath. Smoke wreathed
her, blinded her, filled her nostrils with the smell of wood and
bubbling tar. She pushed herself to her feet, wobbled, took an
involuntary step back to steady herself on the rapidly cooling
surface and felt her foot come down on something hard but brittle.
She kicked it away in terror and revulsion, felt ash stick to her
bare foot, and choked back bitter bile. There weren’t many bone
fragments this time. Only one victim, thank the Twins—not that They
were interested in her thanks.

She’d tried to lead the man away from the
houses, but he’d shoved her into the narrow, dark space between
them, and now both were blazing, the fire spreading too rapidly, as
if it were a living thing crawling up walls and across roofs after
its prey. The roaring in her ears, the sound she could never
identify, was replaced by more normal sounds, screams and shouting
and the distant nasal honking of the fire brigade’s horns. The
thick smoke flowed into the street like drifting fog. Everyone who
could still see was looking at the burning buildings; no one was
looking at her. That wouldn’t last long. A naked woman drew even
more attention than a burning one. She staggered through the narrow
space and went around a corner to duck into the alley. She’d stowed
her bag here when she felt the fire begin to take her. Her fingers
shook as she dug through it—plain rough linsey-woolsey dress, her
precious shoes, a kerchief to wrap around her long blonde hair.
Someday some urchin would find her bag before she returned to it,
and that didn’t bear thinking on.

She came back out of the alley, bag over her
shoulder, and looked up at the burning buildings. The fire had
nearly consumed the house on the right; the other burned less
fiercely but was still doomed. The fire brigade was taking far too
long; the fire would spread to both houses’ neighbors before they
arrived. She closed her fist hard on the leather strap and turned
away. Nothing she could do.

Hoarse, desperate screams cut across the
clamor of the bystanders. Kerensa glanced over her shoulder and saw
a man tearing at the hands restraining him, trying to reach the
front door which was limned with orange fire. The man’s screams
were unintelligible, but she had no trouble interpreting them. Fire
tore at her heart.
My fault
, she thought,
my fault,
and she tossed the bag back down the alley, kicked her shoes after
it, and darted through the crowd, shoving hard until she reached
the front line of onlookers who stood well back from the blaze.
They watched the fire silently, with the expressions of people who
were grateful it wasn’t their lives being devoured. No one heeded
her, just another woman in the crowd, so no one stopped her as she
pushed through the line and ran for the door. Another shout, but it
was too late; she had the door open and shut behind her in two
seconds.

That brief gust of air made the fire roar.
She ignored it. However much air she fed it, it could not consume
her. The claustrophobic hall of the cheap lodging house had narrow
doors opening off it on both sides, single rooms that would house
two or even three families each, and she moved down the hall
quickly, glancing inside each room. Empty. Steep stairs that would
have been unstable even if they weren’t wreathed in fire waited at
the end of the hall; she took a deep breath, choked on the heat and
smoke, and began to crawl up them. One snapped in half as she put
her weight on it. She lurched, and clawed at the next step to keep
from falling through. Eyes watering from the smoke, she kept
crawling.

The hall at the head of the steps was
identical to the one below. Grateful that there were only two
floors, she crouched low to stay below the smoke and then had to
scramble backward as a burning beam sagged and fell almost on her
head. She yanked on the hem of her dress, caught beneath the fiery
wood, and slapped at the glowing, shriveling fibers to put them
out. The fire was spreading more quickly. She climbed over the end
of the beam that wasn’t on fire and began checking the rooms,
trying to hear human sounds above the laughter of the fire.

She mistook the woman for a bundle of old
rags and would have moved on if the woman hadn’t seen her and cried
out. She huddled in a corner, cradling a toddler who wasn’t moving,
and shied away from Kerensa in mindless terror as she approached.
Fire rolled along the ceiling and crept down the walls toward them
both. Kerensa cursed and snatched the child out of the woman’s
arms. She couldn’t tell if it was even still alive, but the mother
wailed and lurched forward, and Kerensa grabbed her upper arm and
pulled her into the hallway, over the beam and down the stairs,
heedless of the flames, driven by the crackling and howling of the
fire devouring the house. Near the foot of the steps she tripped
and tumbled to the bottom, dragging the woman and the child with
her. She half-landed on the child, who stirred and began to cry.
Not dead, then.

The woman heard her child’s voice and clawed
desperately at Kerensa, who pushed the toddler into its mother’s
arms and then shoved the woman to the ground when she would have
risen to her feet. “Stay low!” she shouted, though she knew the
woman was too terrified to understand her, and crouched in
demonstration. She took the woman’s upper arm again and urged her
forward, creeping on hands and knees to match the woman’s halting
pace. Her kerchief hung loose and her hair fell forward over her
face, curling up from the heat. It was going to be too hot to
breathe in a moment, even low to the ground as they were, and they
still had to get through the front door. Flames scurried up the
walls and across the ceiling, gold and yellow and red like autumn
leaves. The fire was beautiful and she loathed it.

The door was entirely aflame now, and Kerensa
imagined she could see the heat radiating from the latch and from
the iron hinges. The woman reached out for the latch, but Kerensa
pushed her aside and took hold of it herself. It was so hot her
brain told her it was cold, bone-searing cold, and she gripped it
tightly and pulled it open. Fire erupted around her as air blew
through the opening and the flames went wild. Part of her sleeve
caught fire, but she didn’t have time to think about that, she
needed to get those two out, two lives for one—surely that would
make up the balance.

She turned, and couldn’t see the woman for
the smoke rushing past, so she dropped to the ground and felt
around. She found a piece of cloth, an ankle, groped her way up the
woman’s body and found her arm, now so familiar to the touch. The
woman didn’t move. Kerensa found her face, which felt blistered
from the heat, and thought she could feel breath sighing in and out
of her nostrils. Kerensa’s muscles burned with fatigue and heat,
and she wanted to collapse, but she got under the woman and heaved
her over her shoulders, then picked up the child, unconscious
again, and half-crawled, half-staggered toward the door.

She was barely aware of passing across the
threshold, there was so much smoke, but then someone lifted her
burden from her back and she took that as a sign that she could lie
down. She curled gently around the child and hoped it wasn’t a
corpse she was cradling. A fit of coughing struck her, and someone
lifted her head, another person took the child from her, and then
she was choking on cold water that tasted of soot. Or maybe it was
her mouth that tasted of soot.

“Damn fool woman, like to get yourself
killed,” said the man holding the flask.

“She saved two lives,” said a woman.

“Still a damn fool thing to do,” the man
muttered. The flask was withdrawn. “Can you stand?”

Kerensa shook her head. The damn fool thing
wasn’t running into the fire, it was letting everyone see her come
out.
Shouldn’t have done it. Couldn’t have done anything
else.

A great moaning creak sounded over the dull
roar of the fire, and a cry went up. Her two ministering angels
left her side, and Kerensa rolled to her feet and ran. Behind her,
the house collapsed on itself with a crash, and the fire’s
clamorous roar redoubled. It sounded victorious. She didn’t look
back.

Her bag was still where she’d thrown it. She
put on her shoes, wrapped her hair around her head and tied the
kerchief over it, dunked her still-smoldering sleeve in the
downspout of a rain gutter to douse it, washed her face with what
water was left. In the distance, thunder growled. The rain would
come too late to make a difference. She wiped her face with a clean
kerchief from her bag, then walked away down the street. Two lives.
Two lives, against who knew how many dead. She’d stopped counting
months ago. She walked faster, though she knew it didn’t matter how
fast she moved or what direction she took. The leather strap of her
bag felt slick in her left hand; she closed her right hand,
unmarked by the red-hot latch, into a fist. Thunder, again, like
the laughter of the gods mocking her. She walked until the fire was
far behind her and then kept on walking out of town, trailing
behind her the acrid scent of smoke.

 

Chapter One

Failure was a puddle of liquid wax, seeping
through the cracks in the blackened oak table and dripping
noiselessly to the tile floor beneath. Evon dropped heavily onto
the low stool that put his eyes even with the table top. From that
perspective, the molten ivory beeswax made a thin meniscus in which
the lonely wick, defying gravity, still stood erect, white and
uncharred. The wax had no odor to it, but if it did, it would
probably reek of his growing despair. Evon closed his eyes, which
felt dry and gritty as if he hadn’t slept in...how long had he been
working on this spell? A day? Two? He could feel his diminishing
magical reserves as a knot of tension at the base of his spine that
radiated cold down his legs and up his arms. He rubbed his eyes,
blinked, and stood to find a cloth to wipe the table with, quickly,
before the wax solidified and he had to waste time chipping it off.
The hanging lamps, glowing dimly with spells that he ought to renew
soon, cast strange, fuzzy shadows over the table and whitewashed
walls. He swept the cooling wax off the table and into his hand,
squeezed it, then pinched it into a roughly human shape. Man of
wax, subject to his whim. He really had been working on this spell
for too long.

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