Spellmaker – Charlie N. Holmberg

Elsie Camden sat on the edge of her bed, reading over something she most certainly was not supposed to have. Folded lines crossed it, one down and three across, the creases growing thin from how often she had opened and closed the page. The scrawl was red—the color of rational aspectors—and in the handwriting of whoever had died to create it. She might never know his or her name, and perhaps it was best not to know. By all means, she was translating a piece of the spellmaker’s corpse. The Latin-to-English dictionary she’d borrowed from the vicar was worn and well used. Peeling along the spine. Elsie had confirmed her suspicions several lines ago, but felt the urge to be thorough. To study the spell all the way to its end. It was a master spell, without a doubt. A master spell of forgetfulness, of memory stealing. Long term. Exactly how long, Elsie wasn’t certain, even as she went over the last words on the opus page, but one of the words translated to years. Years were tricky—the spell might not be as useful as Elsie had previously hoped, especially since Ogden seemed to have, more or less, recovered from his ordeal at the dock and her discovery of his secrets. He’d been under the spiritual control of another aspector for a decade, forced to help perpetrate crimes he would never condone.

Elsie had been used, too, but their adversary had twisted her mind instead, tricking her into thinking she was using her spellbreaking ability for a good cause, when in fact she’d been furthering a perverse agenda. At least neither of them had been made to kill directly. Still, the knowledge that they had, however unwittingly, helped in the demise of so many weighed on them both. Their adversary had arranged for the murder of several aspectors in order to steal their opuses, and this spell was from one of those books. That made it beyond dangerous to keep, and yet Elsie couldn’t bring herself to get rid of it. It was too valuable. But she couldn’t sell it, couldn’t use it . Sighing, she tucked the spell securely back into her bodice, taking a deep breath to dispel residual anxiety. Elsie still struggled to stomach the knowledge that Master Lily Merton, the cheery old spiritual aspector who spoke like a song and befriended everyone, had done such horrid things. Was she working with others? Others who knew what they were doing, like Abel Nash? There was no possible way Master Merton would be able to control multiple people at once.

Had she already set her eyes on a new pawn now that Ogden had been released? Or would she try to get him back? A week had passed since Elsie had pulled Merton’s controlling spell off her employer’s chest, freeing him from spiritual enslavement. And now . she kept expecting something to happen. Merton to turn herself in. Police to show up at her door. Bacchus to . to what? She swatted that thought away like an annoying fly. She had enough worrying thoughts without a big, hearty man infiltrating them. But nothing had happened. Lily Merton had stayed to herself, and there’d been no more deaths or robberies.

Which was good, of course, except it meant the law wouldn’t find her on its own. Ogden had left the authorities an anonymous tip five days ago, pointing to Merton. But there was nothing in the papers. The Wright sisters weren’t even gossiping about it. Which led Elsie to conclude the tip had been laughed off. Master Merton was a sweet old woman hopping from dinner to dinner to recruit nice young girls to her atheneum. Obviously she wasn’t secretly a manipulative assassin. Which meant Ogden and Elsie had to handle this themselves. It was just . neither of them knew exactly how.

There was no possible way to turn in Master Merton without revealing themselves. Elsie was a spellbreaker, and Ogden a master rational aspector, both unregistered. Elsie might be able to maneuver herself into life in prison or at a labor camp. But Ogden . the courts wouldn’t be lenient with him. Standing, Elsie strode to her window and looked out over Brookley, seeing a few passersby. Nothing and no one of import—no lurking henchmen, no bubbly killers, no constables or bobbies. She sucked in another deep breath, forcing herself to calm down, then smoothed her bodice and hair and left her room, heading downstairs toward the smells of luncheon. Emmeline was just setting a grouse-and-carrot pie on the table in front of Ogden, who leaned hard into a fist, elbow propped on the dining room table, his reading glasses perched low on his nose as he went over a ledger. He looked up as Elsie approached and simply shook his head.

Nothing on his end, either, then. Elsie wasn’t entirely sure she’d be able to eat, despite all Emmeline’s hard work. The maid’s pastries had greatly improved over the last year. Emmeline turned about and lit up. “Oh, Elsie. Telegram came for you.” Elsie’s pulse quickened as Emmeline fished around in her apron pockets and retrieved a small envelope. It had a grayish tint to it. Elsie’s stomach hit the floor. The Cowls’ letters had been the same color.

Their orders—Merton’s orders, for they’d been from her—had always arrived in nondescript envelopes slipped into her things. Each had included information about how her actions would help the country’s poor, only most of it had been lies. But no . she’d never get another of those letters. Ogden had penned all of them, and he was now free from his spell. Surely Master Merton wouldn’t attempt to contact her directly. Not that Elsie could use the evidence to indict her. Even if Elsie hadn’t destroyed all her letters from the Cowls, they implicated Elsie as a willing participant in criminal activities, and the handwriting could be used against Ogden. Offering the best smile she could manage, Elsie thanked Emmeline, took the envelope, and sat at the table, opening the letter as Emmeline sliced the pie. She could feel Ogden’s eyes on her, but the note had nothing to do with Master Merton.

The handwriting was the postmaster’s, the message from Bacchus Kelsey. She saw his name before anything else, and her chest tightened. I’d like to see you soon. Can we arrange a meeting? Licking her lips, Elsie folded the message tightly and stuck it under her leg. She hadn’t seen Bacchus—that was, Master Kelsey—since he’d appeared in Ogden’s hospital room after being freed from a mound of cement conjured by an opus spell. Something the police still didn’t understand, but thanks to Ogden’s ability to withstand and deflect the mind-twisting of a truthseeker, they didn’t suspect him, Elsie, or Master Kelsey of any wrongdoing. Elsie badly wanted to see Bacchus, talk to him, stroll with him . but she feared for him, too. Merton had to suspect—at the very least—that Elsie knew the truth, and Bacchus had been Merton’s most recent target. If he were to become involved in the hunt to get the spiritual aspector behind bars, he would likely become her target again.

It would be better for the Algarve aspector to remain uninvolved. Better, indeed, if he were to sail back home to Barbados as soon as possible, regardless of how miserable Elsie would be to have an ocean between them. “Elsie?” Ogden asked, oblivious to the pie being served to him. Emmeline smiled. “It’s not from Mr. Kelsey, is it?” Elsie felt her ears heat. “It’s Master Kelsey, Emmeline.” “Oh, right.” Of course, her friend seemed not at all put off by the reminder that Bacchus was now echelons above Elsie in status. “But is it?” A lie formed in the center of Elsie’s tongue, but one look at Ogden had her swallowing it.

There’d been too many lies between them, intentional and unintentional. He needed to know. “It is,” she answered, and Ogden’s shoulders slumped. “He just wants to visit before his departure.” Emmeline looked despondent. “So he’s still leaving?” Straightening and accepting her own slice of steaming pie, Elsie answered, “Of course he’s leaving. He was only in England for his advancement to mastership, and that is done. Why else would he stay?” She kept her eyes fixed on the small pool of gravy oozing onto her plate, but she felt Ogden shake his head at Emmeline. Did he know her so well, or was he reading her thoughts? That was how rational magic worked—it affected the mind. Mind reading, telepathy, the dampening or surging of emotions .

But she would know if Ogden used magic on her, wouldn’t she? One of her abilities as a spellbreaker was to detect magic. Physical spells could be seen, rational spells had a certain feel to them, spiritual spells had a sound, and temporal spells had a smell. She’d been on pins and needles the last week, waiting for the sensation that Ogden was using his magic on her. But it had not yet happened. Either Ogden had refrained from nosing around or he was very adept at hiding his magic, as he’d been for the near decade she’d known him. Either way, Elsie couldn’t help the tar-thick thought that bubbled up the base of her skull. It was better for Bacchus to leave, not just because it was safer, but also because he’d held her hand. Because she was calling him by his first name. Because she’d kissed his cheek and could still feel it upon her lips. Elsie had let him get too close.

Any closer, and he was liable to discover whatever it was that turned people away from her, that marked her as forgettable, unwanted, unlovable. Alfred had found it, as had her mother and her father, her siblings. With his spell gone, Ogden would likely discover it soon enough, too. “Oh, Elsie,” Emmeline said, reaching for her, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I was curious, is all.” Snapping to attention, Elsie bucked up and pasted on a smile. “Oh no, Emmeline. I’m not bothered at all. I was just thinking about the last novel reader we had, and how it seemed so hopeless for the baron at the end.” Emmeline nodded.

She appeared to believe her, but Elsie wasn’t sure. “Only one left in that story. Oh, it should be here any day now!” Emmeline snatched a teacup and filled it, handing it to Ogden, who added far too much sugar and cream, as usual. In truth, Elsie had completely forgotten about her novel reader schedule. Was it that time again already? She pressed the tines of her fork to her pie. It did smell good, which helped unwind the knots in her stomach. The utensil cut easily through the crust—Emmeline had baked it perfectly. Elsie couldn’t remember the last time she’d made a pie herself . last summer, perhaps? When Emmeline had rolled her ankle. It had been perfectly edible, but it hadn’t looked or smelled nearly this good.

Elsie slid the morsel into her mouth. The meat was almost too hot, but the buttery flavor eased her tension. She chewed, smiled, and said, “Bless you, Emmeline, this is—” A firm knock sounded at the front door. Elsie nearly dropped the fork. The telegram beneath her leg burned like an ember. Had Bacchus meant today? Perhaps the telegram had come yesterday and Emmeline had forgotten about it? Her body knotted up again, muscles straining, bones near to crunching. She touched her hair. He could join them for lunch. That would give her a moment to get her thoughts together . Emmeline, who’d been about to sit down, said, “I’ll answer it,” and hurried from the dining room into the workshop, which occupied the front of the house.

Elsie couldn’t see her, but she paused, listening—and then stiffened. Like a feather across her skin, she felt the birth of a rational spell. But the rune wasn’t directed toward her. No, Ogden had leaned back in his chair, his attention focused on the front of the house. Could he really read a mind from this far away? Or had he cast something else? Elsie was the least experienced with rational spells, so she wouldn’t be able to tell without more practice. “What are they saying?” she whispered, but Ogden was concentrating, so Elsie stood, tossed her napkin on the table, and went to see for herself. Likely just an order for something chiseled; Elsie had delivered all of Ogden’s finished pieces yesterday, so it wouldn’t be a pickup. But when Elsie entered the studio, Emmeline glanced back at her with fright in her eyes. Two policemen stood in the doorway, their dark-navy uniforms buttoned up tightly to their chin straps. “Is that her?” the taller one asked Emmeline, but the maid didn’t answer.

Elsie’s heart lodged into her throat so tightly she could barely talk around it. “Is that who? Might I ask what has given our maid such a fright?” “Elsie Camden?” the other officer asked. A chill coursed up her arms, but Elsie stood erect. “I am she.” The officers glanced at each other before stepping into the house. Only then did Elsie notice there were more beyond the threshold. The taller man lifted a pair of handcuffs. “You’re under arrest for the practice of unregistered spellbreaking. Come with us gently if you’d like to avoid a scene.”

.

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