A scream got hung in my throat, and I choked awake with it lodged halfway to my lips. I registered the unyielding press of the hardwood floor under my butt and the comforting wedge of the corner where I invariably spent my days huddled in a nest of sheets. I cracked open my eyes, which were damp with tears, and then I screamed again, louder and longer, until my uvula swung like a clacker against the sides of a cowbell.
A wraith billowed in front of me, its emaciated arm extended, its skeletal fingers outstretched.
Alerted by my frantic shrieks, Woolly flipped on every light in my bedroom and cranked them to blinding levels like halogen alone might banish the creature.
“What do you want?” I touched my stinging cheek, the skin beneath my probing fingers icy where it had caressed me. “What are you doing in here?”
The creature didn’t voice an answer—I wasn’t certain it could do more than wail—but it did swing its withered arm toward the window.
I flicked my wrists, shooing it away before shoving to my feet. Keeping a wary eye on it, I crossed the bedroom, but it just hovered there. Through the glass, I spotted my new neighbor standing in the grass, gazing up at me. Through me, really. His main focus centered on controlling the wraith.
Linus Andreas Lawson III wore a pair of green-and-white-striped cotton pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt. His dark-auburn hair, mussed from sleep, hung around his face. His full lips mashed into an unforgiving line, and his jaw flexed with his concentration. His eyes, so blue they appeared black from this distance, brimmed with power.
Hands trembling, I fumbled open the latch, nudged up the sash, and leaned out the window. “What is that thing doing in my room?”
Thirty seconds lapsed, tracked by the alarm clock on my desk, before he blinked clear of the darkness swirling through his eyes.
“I heard you.” He cleared his raw throat, as though he had been the one screaming. “Woolly wouldn’t let me in, so I sent the wraith to check on you.”
The last time Linus unleashed his wraith, it stole my undead parakeet right out of its cage and left behind an invitation I couldn’t refuse.
“You broke into my house?” I snarled up my lip, grateful my heart pounded now for reasons other than terror. “Again?”
“Woolly granted me permission.” He had the nerve to act offended I would suggest otherwise. “She was worried about you too.”
“Is that true?” I jerked my head back in the window. “You let it in here?”
A guilty moan escaped the floorboards under my desk.
“You haven’t left your house in a week. The only person you’re allowing in or out is Amelie.” An undercurrent of annoyance rippled through him. “We’re wasting time.”
Ah. Message received. What he meant was I was wasting his time.
And maybe I was. Just a little. Mostly to mess with him since I was still irked he had been foisted on me. But I had also been digging through boxes in the attic, thumbing through tomes in the library, exploring all the old girl’s nooks and crannies, in search of clues that might help solve the mystery of what had happened to Maud, and to me. Only the basement, sealed behind its spelled door, escaped my grasping hands.
The floor register hummed an inquiring noise, and the latch on the window flicked open and then shut.
While I appreciated the sentiment, I waved away her offer. “There’s no use locking him out now.”
A quick scan of the room proved the wraith had vanished along with Linus’s concentration, so there was that. I turned back to the man standing in my garden.
“Join me for breakfast.” He made it an order. “We need to establish a schedule.”
Facts were facts. I couldn’t avoid him forever. And he had offered to feed me. “Okay.”
The window squeaked an apology when I lowered it, and the latch snicked back into place.
“I’m not mad.” I trailed a finger down the cool glass. “I was just startled, that’s all.”
I shot Amelie a brief text to let her know I was venturing out into the world—or, you know, across the yard—so she wouldn’t worry if she popped by and found the house empty for a change.
“I’ll be back in a bit,” I told Woolly as I pulled on clothes. “Unless the breakfast is lame. Say a bowl of those high fiber cereals served with almond, soy, or cashew milk. In which case, I will scurry home for my usual bowl of strawberry oatmeal with real dehydrated apple bits—” masquerading as strawberries, “—and full-fat milk.”
Let Boaz keep his frozen blueberry waffles and imitation maple syrup. I had standards.
On my way through the living room, I stopped to check on Keet, who hung upside down from his swing like a bat from a cave ceiling. I reached through the bars and scratched his cheek. “Stay weird, my friend.”
Barefoot, I padded through the kitchen and out onto the back porch where I checked the wards. Weak, a faint melody that tickled my ears, but steady. Pleased our meager protections were holding, I hit the stone path that wound through the rose garden and led to the carriage house.
The mingled scents of coffee and frying meat hit my nose when I walked through the door Linus had left propped open, and my stomach rumbled in appreciation for the spread decorating the kitchen counter.
“You’ve been making yourself at home.” The living room and eating areas had been tidied, all surfaces dusted, and a few of them polished. “Did you do all this, or did you bring in someone?”
The idea of a stranger on the grounds without my permission set my molars grinding.
“I violated your hospitality once.” He caught the drift of my thoughts. “I won’t do it again by inviting someone onto your property without asking.”
“Time will tell,” I muttered, unwilling to forgive him just yet. An acknowledgment of wrongdoing wasn’t an apology, after all.
“I had time on my hands, so I got organized.” He returned to his station at the stove. “I clean when I need to think.”
This sleeker Linus bore only a passing resemblance to the solemn boy he had once been, with red cheeks and pudgy fingers, but the lightning flash of intelligence in his eyes remained unchanged.
“In that case, you’re welcome to visit me anytime you’ve got something on your mind.” I approached the table and spotted a newspaper folded neatly into quarters. The word ghost leapt from the headlines. “Do you mind?”
“Help yourself.” He palmed a set of tongs and sizzling commenced. “I’ve digested all the news I can stomach for one evening.”
His choice of reading material was the local paper, not the weekly Society-issued bulletin, and the heft of the newsprint was peculiar in the digital age. The story that caught my eye was an interview from a bed-and-breakfast owner who claimed her resident spook had vanished.
“Now that’s something you don’t read every day.” I glanced up from the article. “Most humans want their homes and businesses to be ghost-free. She wants hers back.”
“Her business is dependent upon thrill seekers and ghost hunters.”
“Hard to bill your B&B as the most haunted in Savannah if you’re down a ghost, that’s for sure.” I refolded the paper and tucked it beside his place setting. Humans might not know the difference, but everyone else would note the lack. “An interview in the local paper wasn’t her brightest idea. Anyone searching for haunted lodgings will see this and be warned away.”
“Perhaps that’s part of her plan,” he mused. “What’s better than an active haunting? Proof the soul continues on in some form?”
“A banished ghost,” I reasoned, following his line of thought. “Proof that the soul can be made to discontinue?” I used the word proof here lightly. “And if exorcists are real, then so too must be what they exorcise.”
Basically, a backwards way of proving the existence of ghosts by proving the sudden absence of one.
Nodding, he focused on the hissing pan before him. “Meaning she can lure in a fresh crowd.”
“People who want answers as to how it was done or if it was done at all.”
“Some of those will be return visits from ghost hunters or would-be exorcists, but it opens the door to religious elements and other opportunities her previous business model was unable to capitalize on.”
The haunting was a well-documented case that had drawn national attention, meaning any number of the TV shows, ghost hunting crews, fanatics or casual enthusiasts might come back to compare their original findings against their current ones. The publicity might not save her business in the long run, but it would buoy her for a good while if she milked it properly, and she was squeezing the teats of public interest with both hands.
“Are your dreams always that intense?” He selected pale sausage links from the fryer and placed them onto a paper towel-lined plate. The package near the sink claimed they were made from chicken and apples. I had my doubts. “Is it all right to ask?”
“I might as well be honest with you.” I stole one of them, burning my fingertips, and started nibbling before it cooled. Hmm. My doubts appeared to be unfounded. The sausage was delicious. “You’re going to hear me on occasion if tonight is any indication. You have my permission to use noise-dampening sigils if you want.”
“It happens every night?”
Every. Single. One. “Pretty much.”
“There are sigils to help you sleep—”
“No.” I choked on the bite I’d sucked down my windpipe. “I don’t want to risk being stuck in the dream.”
“The dream.” He moved on to stirring a double boiler filled with creamy grits, and I wondered if he realized avoiding eye contact made talking to him easier. “As in it’s the only one you’re having? A recurring nightmare?”
“Yes.” I helped myself to a glass of orange juice from the fridge. “And before you ask—I don’t remember what happens. I wake up terrified with a vague sense of déjà vu, but that’s it.”
“Do you mind?” He palmed a bag of sliced artisan bread on the counter and passed it to me. “The toaster smoked the first time, but I cleaned out the dust. Maybe open the window just in case?”
The toaster had been cocooned inside a knitted cozy. Dust shouldn’t have been an issue. But if he was paying me a kindness by offering a breath of fresh air to clear my head, I wasn’t about to complain.
The window required a hard jiggle before it raised, but that first gasp of night air paid off my sweat equity in full. As my lungs expanded, the tightness in my chest from talking about the dream lessened. But it refused to budge all the way now that I was paying it attention, so I shifted my focus elsewhere.
The same breeze tangling my hair rustled the lush ivy climbing wild over the eastern wall. I ought to thin it. I needed to trim back the roses too. The peonies wilted on their stems, their heads in need of cutting. So much had gone undone during my absence, and I’d done nothing to rectify the situation. As much as it pained me to admit, the garden was looking shabby.
Maud would have a conniption fit if she was here to see this.
A pinching sensation in my chest warned me away from those thoughts. They hurt too much to examine this early, so I asked Linus for a distraction. “Who taught you how to cook?”
“Books. Food Network. YouTube.” He checked a saucepan full of simmering water and bobbing eggs. “Our old cook, Louie, used to let me help him prepare breakfast on the weekends. I figured it was a skill I should learn for when I moved out on my own.”
“You have a driver. You didn’t want a cook too?” He could certainly afford both.
With reluctance, I abandoned my view and the nascent dream of hiring a gardener to whip the property back into shape while I started on the toast.
One of my duties as Dame Woolworth would be rebuilding my household from the ground up, but that could wait until I decided what staff I wanted on the grounds with me and how often. Until I figured that out, I was fine being on my own.
“I don’t have a driver. I borrowed Mother’s.” He passed me a glass butter dish and a dull knife. “I don’t need a cook. I can fend for myself or order takeout. Atlanta has everything I could want.”
The knife clattered from my hand onto the counter. “You live in Atlanta?”
He must have heard the shock in my voice that his mother let him that far out from under her thumb.
“Yes.” He cocked an eyebrow at me. “I teach at Strophalos University, among other things.”
Knock me over with a feather.
Linus was actually qualified for this job? I’d assumed his mother had palmed her most loyal pawn off on me to act as her spy while training me in advanced resuscitation theory. She couldn’t very well auction my services to the highest bidder then sit back and hope for the best. Not when clients would expect a one hundred percent success rate as a return on their investment. But this? He was a bona fide teacher from a prestigious university who could offer me the education Maud had denied me. That didn’t make his apron strings any shorter, but it did make him crashing in my carriage house that much more appealing.
“What about your classes?” Selfishly, I had only considered how the Grande Dame’s proclamation affected me. I had dismissed Linus as a throwaway heir, one of his mother’s yes-men, and that had been shallow of me. At least this was all to my benefit. He had nothing to gain by helping me except his mother’s favor. As her only son, he must be drowning in that. “How long will you stay?”
“I’m on sabbatical.” He plated the sausage, grits, and soft-boiled eggs. After I added a few pieces of buttered toast to his burden, he carried it all to the table. “I can stay for a year before I have to file more paperwork. I won’t know if that will be necessary until after we start your training.”
“What about your home?” I rinsed out my glass then poured milk for each of us since that had been his breakfast beverage of choice for as long as I could remember. “What about your friends?”
“The loft will still be there when I return.” He carried two pressed napkins to the table and placed them at our settings. We both stood there, looking at one another. “Thanks to modern technology, my colleagues are never more than a call, text, video chat, or DM away.”
I startled when he crossed to me, but all he did was pull out a chair and wait for me to sit. I did, and then I returned the favor. The table was small, meant for two even though it had four places, and I stretched out my leg to push his seat back with my toes.
“Thank you.” He let me take a few bites before starting on his own meal, but he didn’t have much of an appetite. “There are seconds if you’d like more.”
A flush I blamed on the steam rising from my plate pinked my cheeks. “Are my table manners that bad?”
One too many frozen dinners had left me ravenous for a home-cooked meal, and this one was excellent.
“No.” He bit the edge off his toast, chewed methodically, and had trouble swallowing even that one small bite. “I just don’t want the food to go to waste.”
The first helping vanished before I registered its taste, and I heaped a second plate high with leftovers. He watched me eat, his fascination making me slow the fork-to-mouth action. I demolished the sausage before the awkward scrape of my silverware drove me to conversation.
“The night I helped unbreak your nose—” after Woolly had slammed her front door in his face to bar his entrance, “—you told me we would address my magic, but I skipped class the next day.” And the six days that followed. “Can we do a makeup lesson?”
“Of course.” He sipped his milk, but the level remained unchanged. “What would you like to know?”
The desperate edge in my voice shamed me. “Will I ever get it back?”
“You still have your magic, Grier.” He set down his glass then watched until the ripples stilled. “The drugs and disuse have stunted it, but it’s like a muscle. The more you practice, the more you learn, the stronger you’ll grow.”
Torn between disappointment that it wasn’t a quick fix and relief it was repairable at all, I nodded.
“Now.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Time for a pop quiz.”
The milk in my mouth soured. “I heard you should wait thirty minutes after eating before taking a test.”
The look he shot me confirmed his professorial status. It said he’d heard every excuse in the book at least three times, and hearing them a fourth wouldn’t do me any good. I sat up straighter while he cleared the table and hoped I didn’t make a total fool of myself.
“We’ll start off easy with a review of material you should have covered with Maud and go from there.” He placed a thin stack of graph paper in front of me then passed me a pen, the plain, black-ink kind. Not one of his modified ones. “Draw me four basic defense sigils for a home.”
For a home. Those three words cemented his promise to help me restore the wards around Woolworth House, and I sat a little straighter in my chair.
Despite the wording of his request, sigils didn’t fall into animate and inanimate categories. They were singular, and it was up to the practitioner to modify them based on their application.
“Here goes nothing.” Summoning the designs from my rusty memory, I worked to get the fine details correct as I blocked each one out in its own grid. The pen was slippery in my hand when I finished. “There you go.”
He slid on a pair of black-frame glasses that made the blue of his eyes that much darker then lifted the paper.
The silence while he graded my work left me bouncing my leg under the table.
“Explain each of these.” He placed the paper back in front of me and tapped the largest one. “Start here.”
“This one protects against attacks both physical and magical.” I pointed out the next with the pen cap. “This one is for strength. It’s a combination that boosts the power of any other sigil.” The next was a nifty modification to the one I had used during my escape from Volkov. “This is an obfuscation sigil. It doesn’t disguise a home as much as it makes the residence so uninteresting no one notices it. Or, if they do, they don’t remember it for long.” The last was a staple in my arsenal. “This one is for healing. It can’t fix a cracked foundation or physical damage, but it can bolster failing wards until repairs can be done.”
Poor Woolly was covered in them.
I set the pen down before my sweaty grip sent it flying. “What does that mean?”
“Your technique is superb. You were trained with a brush, and some students can’t divorce the sensation from one medium to the next, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t proceed with an altered pen like the one you used to heal my nose. Unless you have a personal preference?”
“Having a pen like yours might come in handy.” For homework, it would mean less drying time for my notes too. “You once mentioned using a brush for resuscitations and other ritualistic work. I think that would be my choice too.” He hadn’t stopped staring at that paper. “What did I do wrong?”
“The sigils you’re using, the way you’re drawing them, is nonstandard. I don’t recognize the style at all, even though I can read it well enough to tell what it does.” He braced his palm on the table, tracing the curves with his fingertip. “It’s not wrong. It’s personalized in a way you don’t typically see in fledgling necromancers. It’s like a signature. Are all your sigils drawn this way?”
“I…guess?” I rubbed my thumb over the tabletop. “I copied them down the way Maud taught me.”
“Maud didn’t teach you this.” He canted his head toward me. “Has anyone else seen your work?”
“Amelie and Boaz.” I had no other necromancer friends, no High Society friends at all.
“They would have no reason to recognize the symbols, correct?”
A few Low Society necromancers were self-taught to maximize what little power they had inherited. Even rarer was the prodigy whose natural power propelled them to High Society status. But, as much as it pained Amelie to have any limits imposed upon her, that was not the case for either of my friends.
“No.” I propped my elbow on the table and my chin in my palm. “Why would that matter?”
“Let’s try an experiment before I answer.” He sketched out an unfamiliar design on a fresh sheet of paper. “This sigil muffles sound.” I winced at the reminder of how I woke him. “The most common usage is insulating the walls of homes in predominantly human neighborhoods. I want you to draw it for me.”
I shook out my hand and gave it a go. The lines were simple, and it only took a minute to complete and then check against the original. “Ta-da?”
Linus claimed each paper then held them in opposite hands while he compared the finished products. His brow creased as his gaze flicked back and forth. “Do these sigils look identical to you?”
“I’m out of practice,” I groused, “but it’s not that bad. You’re acting like you can’t tell they’re meant to be the same thing.”
“No, I’m trying to understand.” He held them up, side by side, facing me. “These are not identical. They’re the same at their core, but yours incorporates a flourish. Mine are standard, unembellished. It’s a habit picked up from teaching that makes it easier on my students.” He flipped the pages over, facing him, and studied them again. “Fascinating.”
“Is fascinating a good thing?” Right now, it sounded like a polite way of saying Maud had been right to condemn me to a life as an assistant rather than as a practitioner.
“Mother was wrong about your blood,” he said distractedly. “It’s not just that, it’s this too. Your mind…” He shook his head then tucked the papers away, no doubt saving them for later deliberation. “I’m starting to understand why Maud kept us separate even when we studied the same lessons.”
“She didn’t want anyone else to see what I see.” A frown sank into place. “Do you think this is the reason she enrolled me in human school?”
As much as I longed to hear him say yes, that her decision was a protection and not a condemnation, I couldn’t shake those engrained insecurities that came from being told by one of the world’s most gifted practitioners that I wasn’t enough.
“No one can know for sure, but it seems likely given what we’ve learned.” He crossed the room, and I lost track of him behind the trunks. “I wish we had access to her library. She must have made notes about your condition. She could never leave a good puzzle unsolved. Reading those would help us understand how your brain functions, how your blood works. We could save time building on her knowledge.”
“The basement won’t open for me.” I hammered my heel against the nearest chair leg, but it did nothing to dispel the frisson of unease shivering through me. “It’s the one room Woolly can’t manually unlock.”
Going down there hadn’t ranked high on my priority list until the Grande Dame explained what it meant that I was goddess-touched. That’s when it hit me that whatever Maud had known, I had to know too. I hadn’t tried breaking the wards. Yet. Assuming they could be jimmied. Given how determined Maud had been to hide my nature from me while she was alive, I was willing to bet the extra layers of security activated after her death wouldn’t crumple under a lock-breaker sigil and a few swipes of my brush.
Odds were good Linus could batter his way into her inner sanctum. He was an apt pupil, after all. But once the wards came down, I had nothing to replace them, and I couldn’t afford to leave the library vulnerable.
“That’s too bad.” Wood scraped over metal in the direction Linus had gone. “We can add that to our to-do list.”
Mentally, I scratched that right out. There would be no witnesses when I descended those stairs for the first time post-Maud, and that meant I had to figure it out on my own.
“I hope you don’t mind.” Linus reappeared with a rectangular bundle wrapped in butcher paper. A wide burlap ribbon banded around its middle, and a white wax seal had been pressed to its seam. “I brought you a gift.”
“What is it?” I accepted the parcel and weighed it in my hands. “It’s heavy.”
“Open it.” He leaned a hip against the table. “I commissioned it for you a few months ago.”
Startled by his casual mention of the timeline for my release, I forgot what I had been about to do.
“Mother lobbied for over a year to have you exonerated,” he explained. “I had time to prepare.”
Too bad I hadn’t been given the same forewarning. A spark of hope goes a long way in the dark.
“You can always save it for later.” His hands sank deep in his pockets. “You don’t have to open it now.”
But he had put time and effort, and likely a good bit of money, into buying this for me. The way he kept pushing his glasses up his nose before they got a chance to slip told me he was excited to see my reaction. He had done the same thing as a boy each time he picked up a new mystery novel from the library.
“I’m curious what’s put that look on your face,” I admitted as I tore into the package then froze with numb fingers. A shudder of revulsion rocked me, and I had to fight my instinct to drop the thing onto the table. “This is, um, wow. You shouldn’t have.”
I stared at the grimoire, and the grimoire stared right back.
Exposure to light caused its nine eyes to squint after so long in its wrapping. The cover was a patchwork blend of black and brown leather in varying shades that had been stitched together with broad thread. The hide was smooth in places and rough in others. I peeked at the underside and found it sewn from similar scraps, these covered in lumpy warts. Cracking open the cover, I flipped through the hundreds of pages of crisp, white paper awaiting my mark then set it back on the counter.
“What’s it made of?” I rubbed my finger between two yellow eyeballs with slitted, vertical pupils, and its lids fluttered with pleasure. “It’s…livelier than the ones Maud used.”
Crimson leather with gold inlay was more her style. Even in that regard, she had been a traditionalist.
“A number of things I imagine.” He tapped the corner. “A goblin who consults for Strophalos makes them from creatures who have been condemned to death by Faerie.”
“You know an actual goblin from actual Faerie?” The fae were ruled by the Earthen Conclave in this world. That was the governing body the Society brushed against when fae caused issues for necromancers. But the location of their home realm, and how they accessed this one, was a secret fae immigrants guarded with their lives. “Have you ever seen him without glamour?”
“Yes, and no.” Linus straightened. “Contact with the fae is forbidden outside contracts negotiated between our solicitors, so I’m not allowed to speak to him directly. I’ve never actually met him.”
About what I’d expected to hear but still comforting to learn that even the vaunted Lawson reach was limited.
“Well, thank you.” The thing was so ugly, it was almost cute. “It was kind of you to think of me.”
“Ah.” He held up a finger. “You haven’t asked what it does.”
I examined it for clues. “Other than blink creepily?”
“Write a combination sigil, something basic, but leave a quarter of it unfinished.”
I did as he instructed then waited for the magic to happen.
“Close the book.” He gave it about thirty seconds. “Open the cover.”
“The book completed the sigil,” I marveled. “How?”
“More eyes on a problem make for less work.”
I laughed under my breath. “That is such teacher logic.”
He shuffled my quiz papers into a neat stack then turned to carry them back to the office. I captured him by the wrist, and his pulse jumped under my fingertips. Wisps of black clouded his eyes when he glanced back until he blinked them clear, and I loosened my grip.
“Thank you,” I said again, meaning it this time. “You didn’t have to do this.”
“I wanted to,” he countered, holding so still he seemed to enjoy being caught. “I want to help you, Grier.”
Him and everyone else with something to gain, but all this help was five years too late in coming.
“I should go.” I released him and stood in a rush, snagging the grimoire at the last moment. I couldn’t afford to forget why he was here or who had sent him. “This—” I gestured around the mess we’d made in the kitchen, “—was nice.”
His gaze dipped to the chair I had vacated. “What are you doing for breakfast tomorrow?”
Boxes of oatmeal, all bought on clearance, awaited me in the pantry. “Reconstituting dried fruit?”
“Would you consider joining me?” Linus still hadn’t glanced up from my seat. “I have bacon.”
How could I say no to that? “Are nightly pop quizzes going to be a thing with us?”
A smile flirted with his lips. “It’s not a pop quiz if I warn you ahead of time.”
Flushing because he was right, and I wanted to impress him despite the nagging voice warning me not to care what he thought of me, I darted through the door into the cool garden before I stuck my foot in my mouth again. I might eat a lot of PB&J, but toe jam was not my favorite flavor.