The Ink Master’s Silence – C.J. Archer

Lhen events have not been going one’s way for some time, it can take a period of adjustment before realizing all will be well. Finally, a week after his magic watch had been fixed, I allowed myself to believe Matt was going to live. He looked handsome and healthy in his full evening attire as he sat opposite me in the carriage. The lines of exhaustion had smoothed away, the color returned to his skin, and the spark to his eyes. It was both thrilling and humbling to know that I had helped save him along with the doctor magician, Gabriel Seaford. Not only that, but Sheriff Payne was in prison. For the first time since arriving in England, Matt was free. Almost. There was only the marriage to his cousin Patience standing in his way of complete happiness. Sometimes, when he looked at me with love and affection, I didn’t mind that we couldn’t be together yet. I had his devotion, after all, and he had his health. We were fortunate in so many other ways; surely I could settle for being in his life in a minor capacity, if I could not be his wife. But when I thought on it further, on the long future stretching before us and the prospect of spending it as mere friends, it shattered me. “India? Are you listening to me?” he asked. “You’re miles away.

” “I’m right here, admiring how well you look tonight.” He hooked a finger inside his stiff collar and stretched his neck. “I loathe formal wear. This shirt is as hard as a plank of wood.” “Wishing you were back in the wilds of California, wearing leather chaps and a cowboy hat?” “You’ve been reading too many dime novels. I knew it was a bad idea for Willie to lend you her copies.” “No chaps?” “Only on special occasions.” He leaned forward and rested his hands on my knees. The mischievous smile that was never far from his lips nowadays hinted of things to come…one day. “Like the one I just mentioned.

” “Are you going to a costume ball?” He sat back with a satisfied smirk. “I knew you weren’t listening.” “So…you’re not going to dress up as a cowboy?” “I will if you want me to.” His eyes positively sparkled. I liked this side of Matt very much. It made the ache in my chest bearable. “One day, and in private, just for you,” he added. He leaned forward again and caught my hand in both of his. He pressed it to his lips, lightly kissing the knuckles through my glove. “I should warn you that in the mean time, I am going to seduce you.

” “Is that so?” I whispered breathily. “And how do you plan on seducing me?” “I can’t tell you that or I’d spoil the fun.” I ought to remove my hand and tell him not to talk about seduction. We were neither married nor betrothed, and as far as his family and Patience were concerned, they were engaged to be married. But I didn’t want to see the light fade from his eyes or a mask of polite civility slam into place. Nor did I want to admit there was any possible outcome other than the two of us being together. I didn’t want to admit it even to myself. As far as we were concerned, there was a way out of his entanglement with his cousin. We just needed to find it. If only Matt would tell me how his uncle could force him down the aisle.

He continued to deny that there was a reason beyond his sense of cousinly duty, no matter how much I cajoled, begged, or argued with him. According to Matt, by publicly agreeing to the union, he was shielding Patience from gossip that might arise from Lord Cox ending their engagement due to her past indiscretions. Matt claimed he was saving her from a life of spinsterhood, and her sisters too since they would be tainted by association thanks to Patience’s scandalous liaison. I knew there was more to it, however. Matt went to great lengths to avoid answering me when I asked him directly if his uncle had threatened him. Those conversations inevitably led to him kissing me until my wits abandoned me and I forgot my resolve. “Now that I have your attention, I wanted to tell you where I went today.” The light from the passing streetlamps struck the left side of his face and cast the right side in shadow. Dark and fair, a gentleman and a rogue, happy and healthy yet never far from death. That was Matt.

“I hoped you would, in your own time,” I said. Matt had been out most of the afternoon and had so far refused to tell me where he’d been. “I didn’t want to say in front of the others. They’d pepper me with relentless questions. I visited Lord Cox. He’s in London on business.” My hopes rose. “And?” He put up his hands and my heart dove again. “He is still refusing to take Patience back. The man has higher morals than most clergymen, and he’s stubborn.

He even seems to care for her and how the situation is affecting her, but not enough to change his mind.” “Caring isn’t enough,” I muttered. “Only love would do. “I even sketched out her future for him and he still refused to relinquish. The man’s a coward.” I was about to make excuses for Lord Cox but swallowed my words. Matt was right. Lord Cox was a coward for not being prepared to protect Patience from gossip by marrying her. “He thinks I’m going to step into the void and considers himself off the hook,” Matt went on. “I told him he’d been taken in, just as my uncle intended.

I informed Cox I wouldn’t be marrying Patience but have not formally denied the arrangement for her sake. He seemed somewhat interested in that piece of news.” “But not enough to resume their engagement.” “No.” “So your visit was in vain,” I said heavily. “Not entirely. I did make him promise not to tell anyone what Payne told him about Patience’s past. He agreed. He even seemed offended that I felt a need to extract that promise.” I scoffed.

“Given the speculation swirling around their broken engagement and his cowardice, your lack of faith in him is understandable.” I only knew about such speculation because Miss Glass, Matt’s aunt, had informed me every day. She seemed to want to make sure I knew why I was sacrificing my own future. I couldn’t deny that it hurt that she thought Patience’s happiness more important than mine, yet it was understandable that she’d support her niece over her companion. “It’s one thing off my mind, at least,” Matt said. “And another nail in the coffin of my uncle’s scheming. Her secret will remain safe, no matter what happens. Payne can’t do anything from prison, and Cox will keep his silence.” I leveled my gaze with his but did not see hope in it. “Yet speculation as to why they ended their engagement will remain unless she’s betrothed to you,” I said, annoyance making my voice hard.

“That’s the excuse you’re going to give me for not ending the charade now, isn’t it?” He looked out the window. “Tell me, Matt. Tell me what Lord Rycroft is doing to force your hand.” The coach slowed to turn a corner. “I think we’re here.” He picked his hat off the seat beside him and slapped it on his head. “Are you ready to see what Lord Coyle wants?” I sighed. “You’re infuriating.” He leaned forward and pressed his palms to the wall behind either side of my head. “And madly in love with you, India.

” His warm breath brushed my ear then his lips tickled me, sending a wave of tingles spreading through me. “Never forget that. Never forget that I will get out of this entanglement. I just need time to find Cox’s weakness.” “You’re going to blackmail him into marrying her?” He pulled away to look at me. “You sound shocked.” “I suppose I thought you above underhanded tactics.” “I am going to do everything in my power to be released from this obligation, I promise you.” He lightly kissed my nose, my chin, my throat above the pearl choker necklace Miss Glass had loaned me. I struggled to maintain my train of thought.

“Everything except tell me what your uncle has over you.” “Everything in my power.” It was the closest he’d come to an admission that Lord Rycroft was indeed blackmailing him. Lord Coyle’s footman opened the carriage door and offered me his hand. Matt adjusted my shawl, skimming his thumb over my arm, and indicated I should exit. It wasn’t easy to concentrate as the footman escorted us inside. I was very aware of Matt’s imposing presence at my side and the simmering desire between us. All of that fled, however, when I handed my shawl to a different footman in the entrance hall. I stood in the very spot where I’d been attacked by Mr. Pitt, the apothecary, magician, and murderer of Dr.

Hale. My watch had saved me then. Sheriff Payne broke that watch and it remained to be seen if the new one Matt bought me would do the same. I hoped I’d never need to find out. “Are you all right?” Matt murmured, his hand at my back. I nodded and followed the footman up the stairs to the drawing room, where Lord Coyle waited with three other gentlemen and a woman. “Welcome, Miss Steele,” Coyle said, bowing over my hand. “And Mr. Glass.” The greeting was pleasant enough but brisk, almost dismissive.

It confirmed that the invitation had been extended to Matt because I’d refused the earlier ones, and Lord Coyle assumed I’d accept if I came in Matt’s company. He was right, of course. The earl made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t yet sure if he was friend or foe. I did know that he had a keen interest in all things magical. We’d seen his collection of objects infused with magic in the hidden room off the library. I assumed this evening was taking place in order to convince me to infuse a watch or clock with my magic so he could add it to his collection. I thought it harmless enough, but Matt wasn’t so sure. He didn’t want me to display my magical abilities, in any way, to anyone. I agreed with him, to a certain extent, simply because I didn’t want every craftsman in London asking me to use my extending spell on their own magic.

Yet I wanted to live openly, without hiding what I was from the world and in fear of reprisal from the artless. Lord Coyle introduced the other guests to us. Mr. and Mrs. Delancey were beyond middle age, like Coyle, and greeted me enthusiastically. Sir Charles Whittaker was younger, about forty, with streaks of gray through his hair. He was more reserved than the Delanceys but I liked that he gave my hand a firm shake. Usually men didn’t shake my hand, and if they did, it was limp. It was a minor thing but important. The third gentleman, Professor Nash, was a similar age to Sir Charles, with thinning hair and spectacles.

He couldn’t stop staring at me, even after introductions, and I felt quite uncomfortable as we sat. The drawing room held few feminine touches. Understandable, considering Lord Coyle was a lifelong bachelor. Even the sofa had sturdy legs and was upholstered in burgundy velvet. There were no vases of flowers, no portraits of family members, and decorations consisted almost entirely of white marble busts of men I didn’t recognize. We spent a few short minutes in polite conversation that felt as though it were being carefully directed by Lord Coyle. I learned that the professor was an expert in history, but Coyle cut him off before he could tell me his particular field of study. Mr. Delancey was a banker, and going by the diamonds at his wife’s throat, he was very successful. Sir Charles seemed to have no profession.

Perhaps, like Lord Coyle, his income came from land holdings. It was something of a relief when the butler informed us that dinner was served. The long table was made for larger parties than we seven, so we sat at one end. Miss Glass wouldn’t have liked to see the women outnumbered by the men but the arrangement worked well enough. We were into the second course when I realized the footman refilled my glass at every opportunity. It was near impossible to tell how much I’d had to drink. I made a conscious effort to abstain for at least a while. I eyed Matt, sitting opposite, wondering if he was being as careful. Considering his past battles with liquor, I suspected so. He seemed rather on edge, his gaze flitting between the other guests and our host.

He rarely showed impatience, so that put me on edge. I wished Coyle would just get on with it and tell us why he’d invited me. We had to wait for the final course of jellies, ice cream, French pastries and lemon water ice to learn the reason. Lord Coyle dismissed the servants and waited until the doors closed. It wasn’t he who spoke first, however, but Mrs. Delancey. “So you’re a magician, Miss Steele,” she said, as if it were normal to ask. Beside her, Matt tensed. He did not speak, did not indicate in any way that I shouldn’t answer in the affirmative, but I knew him well enough to know that he didn’t want me to. “What an odd question, Mrs.

Delancey,” I said with what I hoped was smooth indifference. I’d come prepared for this conversation and did not plan on giving anything away without first learning why I was here. “Oh, it wasn’t a question,” Professor Nash said. “Lord Coyle has already told us that you are a magician. She was merely encouraging you to tell us more about your magic.” Mrs. Delancey touched the large diamond pendant at her throat as she laughed. “Nash has a habit of over-explaining things, Miss Steele. He’s so incredibly clever that I think he believes we’re all too stupid to understand subtlety.” The professor blushed and concentrated on his food.

“What is this all about, Coyle?” Matt demanded. “What rumors have you been spreading?” “Truths, Mr. Glass,” Lord Coyle said. “Not rumors. I’ve observed enough to know that Miss Steele is a magician. I want to assure you both that whatever you say here will not leave this room. My guests are not only discreet, they have an interest in keeping magic private.” “Why?” I asked. “I’m a collector of magical objects, which you already know. The Delanceys and Sir Charles are also collectors.

Our collections are unique, and that makes them valuable among our acquaintances. If magic becomes publicly known, our artifacts suddenly become commonplace. Everyone will want a magical object.” “Thereby increasing the value of your collection,” Matt said. “Isn’t that what you want?” “Values won’t increase. At the moment, only a select few can afford to obtain the objects from a small number of sources—known magicians. If the entire world is aware of magic, and magicians come out of the woodwork and sell their magic-infused wares, then prices will plummet. It’s simple economics of supply and demand.” “Our collections will become worthless,” Mr. Delancey added.

“I haven’t spent the last twenty years seeking out the rarest pieces for that to happen.” He picked up his glass. “You understand my meaning, Miss Steele?” “Perfectly,” I said tightly. “As long as magicians fear discovery and backlash from the guilds, they’ll remain in hiding and prices for their products will remain high. Your collections will retain their value. Essentially, you’re trading on fear.” Mr. Delancey sipped his wine, his eyes glittering as he stared at me. We understood one another perfectly. His wife, however, pressed a hand to her chest as if to still a racing heart.

“You make us sound quite avaricious. Let me assure you, that is not the case. It’s not about the value of the objects, you see, but about their uniqueness. What is the point in a collection when objects are easy to find and purchase? All our friends belong to the club—” “Club?” Matt pressed. “Fellow collectors. It’s not an official club, just an informal gathering of individuals who like to pass on information to one another about magical objects, where to buy them, that sort of thing. We are members.” She indicated all of them except the professor. “If our collections become pointless, then our group becomes pointless, and our friendships will disintegrate. It’s that which I value most, Miss Steele.

” She might, but I didn’t think the men in the room did, particularly her husband. “And what about you, Professor?” I asked. “You’re not a member of this club?” He pushed his spectacles up his nose. “No, but I am well aware of it. Lord Coyle approached me a year ago and told me all about it. I’ve given lectures at some of their meetings.” “On what topic?” Matt asked. “The history of magic. It’s my specialty.” “Which university teaches the history of magic?” The professor chuckled.

“I am a professor of history at University College here in London. As far as the university is concerned, I specialize in medieval studies, but my real passion is magic.” I must have stared rather stupidly at him, because he smiled sympathetically at me. “You probably have some questions, Miss Steele,” he said. I had quite a few, but I bit my tongue. Matt was right to be cautious. We knew nothing about these people. “Very few outside the collectors’ club know about my specialty,” the professor went on. “I don’t want to be ridiculed any more than you do.” “It’s not ridicule that worries us,” Matt said darkly.

“Are you a magician, Professor?” “No, but my grandfather was. He could manipulate iron but not to any great extent. He could bend it a little, shape a small piece into something else, but his magic was relatively weak. Magic in my family ended with him, but my interest in it is strong. I’ve spent my life researching it and have traveled extensively in search of original texts that mention magic.” “And what has your research taught you?” I asked. “A great many things, but mostly I’ve come to the conclusion that magical powers have diminished to such an extent that it’s almost useless. Nowadays, magicians can perform a few simple tricks, but in the past, magic could alter reality. Objects could be manipulated into something else entirely. Perhaps magic even changed the course of history.

” A mapmaker apprentice had once told me stories of sketched rivers flowing off magical maps into real life. My own grandfather believed that ancient disasters, miracles and myths that seemed impossible could be explained by the use of magic. I did not tell the professor any of that. “Such magic appears to be lost forever, thanks to the dilution of bloodlines,” the professor said. “Except, perhaps, in a select few,” Lord Coyle added. “You, for example, Miss Steele, can make a watch save your life.” “No, sir. You’re mistaken, “I said. “A watch is an inanimate object. I cannot make it do anything.

.

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