Authors: Alyxandra Harvey
Beware! Now I know a language so beautiful and lethal
My mouth bleeds when I speak it.
* D P G R O U P . O R G *
Gretchen was on her way
to the Worthing musicale when her head exploded.
She finally knew exactly what a ripe melon felt like when it burst open. Frankly, it was knowledge she could have done without.
She’d told her chaperone that she was leaving for Lady Worthing’s annual musicale from the Rowanstone Academy, she’d told the school she was leaving from home, and she’d avoided her mother altogether. All to snatch a few minutes alone without a hovering chaperone or a lady’s maid who would tattle her every deed to her parents. Gretchen fancied herself rather clever at subterfuge. But now, clearly as a punishment for lying, her head was exploding.
And it still wouldn’t excuse her from another tedious evening, more’s the pity.
Magic burned inside her like embers, just waiting to catch. But instead of doing something exciting with it, she was on her way to an event where young ladies were expected to sing and perform for eligible young men of the aristocracy, dragged there by their own mothers. In the last two weeks alone, she’d attended three balls, the opera, the theater, and two supper parties. She’d danced the quadrille with a perfectly polite peer’s son, curtsied at duchesses, and only hidden in the library twice. A girl could only take so much.
Not that her current magical state was much of an improvement.
She pressed her brow against the cool glass of the carriage window and tried to figure out what was happening. She caught glimpses of gargoyles crouched over rain gutters and roof corners, but they remained still and unanimated. No dark magic had awakened them; there were no warlocks roaming the sidewalks and no Greymalkin Sisters, who had so recently terrorized London. There was only a group of gentlemen with ivory-handled walking sticks gathered outside a chophouse, and a woman hurrying home with an armful of paper-wrapped packages.
Gretchen pounded her fist on the roof until the coachman stopped. She stumbled out onto the pavement. “Just need some air,” she croaked. “I’m not well.” She must have looked as green as she felt, because he didn’t protest.
There was an odd grinding in her head, like the rusty cogs of some invisible clockwork. Her magical gift, called Whispering, was most unhelpful. It warned her when a spell was going badly, but unfortunately that warning came in needles of sound and
pain. She still hadn’t learned to decipher it or control it. She’d barely learned not to be ill when it pressed down on her like this.
She stepped onto the pavement and wrapped her hand around a lamppost to steady herself. Another surreptitious scanning of the area didn’t make her present predicament any easier to understand. The cold iron was weathered under her hand, scraping slightly at her palm. Her witch knot flared once. All witches had the symbol on their palm, visible only to other witches. Gretchen already noticed it tended to itch when magic was being worked. A closer look revealed a sigil scratched into the lamppost. It was mostly lines intersecting with small circles. She didn’t know what it meant. The black paint flaked off as she traced the pattern, altering one of the lines.
The lantern above her shattered.
Glass rained down as one of the gentlemen gave a shout of alarm and rushed forward. “Are you well, miss?”
Gretchen nodded mutely. She might have been pelted with shards of broken glass, but the respite from the awful buzzing sound in her head was well worth the risk. Whatever prompted the lantern to break had also silenced her inner magical storm.
He frowned at the broken light. “I know they say gaslights are safe, but that’s the third one this week I’ve seen shatter.”
Gretchen knew perfectly well the gas lamps weren’t faulty. Something magical was at work. The sudden and blessed quiet in her head attested to it.
“May I escort you home?” the gentleman offered, bowing politely.
“My carriage is waiting just there,” Gretchen said, “but thank you.”
She waited until he’d rejoined his friends before circling around the lamppost. There were no other symbols, nothing to suggest spell ingredients anywhere else in the vicinity.
Her familiar pushed its wolfhound head out of her chest and leaped down on the pavement. The giant dog was the form her magic took, glowing like moonlight through an icy lake. All witches had a familiar they could send outside of their bodies to various magical ends. As he closed his misty teeth around her hem and tugged, Gretchen assumed most familiars were better behaved than hers.
Another glowing wolfhound raced toward her, barking. His dark eyes were sad. It was her twin brother Godric’s familiar, but he rarely sent it out. He said it made him feel nauseous. The dog gave another low woof and then both familiars raced away. If Gretchen concentrated very carefully, she could see what her wolfhound saw, though the lights glowed brighter and the colors were exaggerated, and all of it was smeared like a chalk drawing in the rain. Still, she recognized enough of the buildings and their soaring columns to know he was running down Bond Street faster than any regular animal could run. He turned onto Piccadilly and down to the Strand, following it all the way to the area around London Bridge.
Either Godric had sent his wolfhound to fetch her, or else it had come looking for her of its own accord.
Either way, her brother was in trouble.
• • •
The goblin markets were as crowded as a midsummer fair. Witches mingled with warlocks, goblins spat on cobblestones, and changeling children pilfered magic trinkets from shops pressed together like disreputable lovers. This was the London Bridge ordinary folk never saw. Under the pomegranate lanterns, pegasi were as common as draft horses, and strange ingredients filled glass jars at every turn. Every rooftop, no matter how flimsy and poor, was crowned with a gargoyle crouching protectively, ready to gobble up stray magic.
Cautious witches draped themselves with evil-eye beads, carried white-horse banishing powder, and filled their pockets with salt and iron nails. All of these ingredients could be had at any booth, but the stronger, and slightly more illegal, items were purchased from a Rover. Or a hag, but hags were even worse than the scarred, belligerent Rovers, who swaggered down the bridge, fighting and stealing and generally making a nuisance of themselves. They weren’t quite warlocks, but they certainly flirted with the boundaries of magic and good sense.
Tonight Moira was alone under the bridge. The other Madcaps had scattered as soon as the Order doubled its patrols. The rooftops were barely safe, never mind now that the Greybeards were even more insistent on claiming every witch for their own. Especially Madcaps, since they had a way with gargoyle magic. But a Madcap would not be claimed, not in life or in death. Moira would make sure of it.
Madcap funerals were rare—too often a Madcap witch went missing, her bones never to be found again. But Moira had held her friend Strawberry when she died and knew exactly where the body was taken. She’d stolen it herself from the back of a Greybeard’s cart, still wrapped in a preserving spell to keep it from decomposing.
It was bad enough that Strawberry was murdered by a bleeding debutante for the warlock Greymalkin Sisters. She deserved a better send-off than what the Order had planned for her. The bones of witches ground down to a powder made an excellent ingredient for protective charms or more nefarious magic. They wouldn’t use a lady of quality for that kind of thing, only a raggedy orphan like Strawberry. If anything, Moira was even more determined to have a proper, traditional Madcap funeral, the kind rarely seen in London since the Order closed its iron fist around the city.
The soles of her feet itched, but she didn’t need her warning magic to tell her she wanted to be anywhere but here. Sensing her mood, a fat little gargoyle circled her head like a bumblebee. She’d spelled him back at the Greymalkin House to distract the house gargoyle so she and the Lovegrove cousins could get in. But now it wouldn’t go back to sleep. “It’s time,” she whispered to it.
The moon was bright enough to outline ships, rowboats, and mudlarks farther down the river, scavenging for lost trinkets and dead bodies. Dead bodies sometimes came with gold teeth or buttons. Strawberry’s bones would only come with Madcap magic and a gargoyle guard.
Her friend lay in a tiny, splintered rowboat, her blond hair spread out and woven with ribbons. She was sprinkled with salt, and there were apples, a cheap clay gargoyle, and an iron dagger for her journey through the Underworld to the Blessed Isles. Not that Strawberry would even know what to do with the dagger regardless of which side of the veil she inhabited.
The side of the boat was painted with a single blue eye and hung with an illusion charm to keep the funeral hidden from those without the magic to see it for themselves.
Moira sprinkled the flower petals into the black oily water of the Thames. Boats glided past, lanterns hanging on prows. She wished she knew the old farewell song free witches sang, before they were reduced to a handful of coal-stained Madcaps.
“May you find your way to the Blessed Isles,” she whispered instead. The torch in her right hand flickered wildly, searing the water, the white sheet, the staring painted eye. She refused to let tears fall, no matter how her throat burned. She lifted her left palm, displaying her witch knot in salute.
“Oi, you’re wasting good magic,” someone barked suddenly behind them.
Moira learned long ago to react first, question later. She tossed the torch but it missed the boat. Still, she managed to fill each hand with a dagger. She threw one, and it slammed into the shoulder of a Rover. He fell back, cursing. The others pushed closer, teeth flashing in angry sneers.
“Back off and we won’t gut you like a fish,” one of them said.
“Back off and
won’t feed your liver to my gargoyle,” Moira shot back. Her familiar, a russet tabby cat with a bent ear, leaped out of her chest, hissing. Rovers rarely traveled in packs. No one liked them, not even other Rovers.
“I knew this would end badly,” she muttered.
“Take me to London Bridge,” Gretchen directed her coachman.
He twisted to glance at her. “Are you daft?”
“I have ten shillings in my reticule. It’s yours if you’ll do it.”
“And what will you offer me widow when your mam kills me dead?”
“A guinea, then! And it’s only for a moment; you can cart me off to the bloody musicale afterward,” she assured him, the wind snatching at her short hair as she ducked back inside the carriage. “It will drag on for hours. I won’t miss a thing.”
“Get back in there before someone sees you,” he grumbled, but he continued down Bond Street instead of turning into the residential neighborhood where the Worthing mansion reigned. He pulled the horses to a stop at the edge of the bridge. “Fresh Wharf and London Bridge at this time of night?” he asked. “You shouldn’t—”
But Gretchen had already hopped out and darted into the thick shadows with a carefree, “Won’t be a moment!”
Gretchen had no idea what Godric was doing down near the bridge, so close to the goblin markets. He might not deny his magic the way their mother did, but he certainly wasn’t keen to embrace it. There was just enough moonlight to make out the
masts of ships, the looming shadow of the Tower, and a collection of warehouses.
Godric’s familiar dashed ahead of her and then back to make sure she was following and then ran ahead again. Walking alone at night was dangerous business, never mind in a white silk gown and an emerald necklace. She didn’t exactly have anywhere to hide a dagger or a pistol on her person. Voices drifted out of taverns, and torches burned, leaving soot on the walls.