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Court of Shadows by Madeleine Roux (1)

Remember, my girl, my drunk of a father used to tell me. Every man has his limits. From the smallest to the tallest, they all have a weakness. You have to know it, girl, but you have to know yours, too. See the wall before you crash into it.

Surely this was my wall, standing before the Devil while he offered to strike a bargain with me. I looked at the birds behind him, and they all stared back at me, the little liquid beads of eyes trained on me. They were silent to a one. It felt like a bad omen, as if even these animals couldn’t believe that I was seriously considering saying yes.

But I was. I did not know if I was in control or out of it, but at least it was a feeling besides regret and loneliness. I had a purpose now, one I saw clearly: I would meet this Croydon Frost and punish him for what he did to me and my mother, punish him for the punishment of the father I had actually suffered, and most of all, punish him for cursing me with this Changeling’s body.

And if I could rob him of some of his riches and use them to escape all the strangeness I had come to know, then so much the better. Better still, I could help my friends out of employment that forced them to murder.

Mr. Morningside’s eyes glowed, as bright and enticing as embers on a cold night. Still, I was not reckless enough to lose all sense of caution or propriety. I tucked my hands behind my back and rocked on my heels, choosing my next words very carefully.

“May I know the terms before I agree to them?” I asked.

“You may,” he said at once. “I’m only making a modest request.”

I nodded and took a deep breath. “All right, then; what is it that you want?”

He sat back down and reached for a brandy decanter hidden under a mountain of creased papers. Pouring himself a drink, he sipped it slowly and tipped his head back, regarding me down the length of his thin nose.

“I’ve been struggling to make sense of a rather important journal,” he said. At once, my attention fell on the scribbly pages in front of him. “Yes, that. I won it for a dear price at auction. Cadwallader’s of London. Funny old place; they only deal in rare goods from our side of things.”

“The Unworld,” I murmured.

“And the Upworld, and anything but the mundane,” he explained, taking another drink. “Had a lovely trio of shrunken heads that day, but my real interest was in this journal. Cadwallader knew it, too; said an odd fellow gave it to him for a song, thought it was an old bit of junk.”

Mr. Morningside put down his cup of brandy and flipped the leather cover on his desk, closing up the journal. He then nudged it toward me. I came up flush to the desk and leaned down slightly to get a better look. It was yellowed with age and some of the pages had suffered badly from water. A strip of leather dangled from the edge, a means to wrap up the journal and tie it shut. There was nothing at all written on the cover.

“Honestly, it does look like an old bit of junk. It looks perfectly ordinary to me,” I said.

“There’s nothing ordinary about it,” Mr. Morningside replied with a chuckle. He opened the cover and turned it, showing me the scribbles more directly. They were rows and rows of minuscule pictures. I picked out a bird and what looked like a wibbly line, possibly a wave. There were larger drawings, too. A long blue snake filled the bottom half of the page. “It belonged to a young man I’m very interested in. There are languages similar to what he used, but this journal is written completely in a shorthand of his own devising. I’ve been unable to translate anything but a few stray words here and there.”

I stood back and smiled, finding that Croydon Frost’s letter and the journal were now right next to one another. A translation. It hardly seemed like the sinister sort of demand one would expect from the Devil.

“And you think that I can read this journal because I translated my father’s letter?”

“Precisely,” Mr. Morningside replied, cheerful. “If I prayed, you would be the answer.”

“What’s so important about this journal?” I asked. If I was going to learn the terms of this bargain, I wanted to know everything.

“That’s not your concern,” he assured me. “It’s a big job and it may take up most of your time. I’ll make sure Mrs. Haylam knows that you will be less available for your usual duties. I’ll arrange a quiet space for you to work, and for now I’d like to keep this our little secret.”

My ears perked at that. A secret? If Mr. Morningside didn’t want anyone to know about the journal, then perhaps my being in possession of it would put me at an advantage. It might give me leverage over him. Or it might put me in danger. Both possibilities seemed equally likely. I glanced at the journal again, fighting my natural tendency toward curiosity.

“Is this going to get me in trouble?” I asked.

“It’s my journal, not yours, Louisa. If anyone should ask questions about it, you can come to me and I’ll handle everything.” He stood and fixed his cravat again, putting his fingertips lightly on the desk. “Give me proof that you’ve translated in full, say, the first entry, and I will arrange for your father to come. Whatever you choose to do with him is fine with me. You say when he comes and when he goes, and that will be that.”

It all seemed so simple. Unnervingly simple.

“Sometimes . . .” I sighed and pinched my lips together. “Sometimes I cannot make my powers do anything unless I’m upset.”

He was already reaching for one of the scattered pieces of parchment on his desk and a quill. Dunking the nib in ink, he wrote in huge, looping letters: CONTRACT.

“Is that so?” he asked, uninterested. For just an instant, he glanced up from his work, and if I didn’t know better, I would think he looked truly happy. Relieved. “Well then, I suggest you find a solution to that problem. You want to be a rich girl, don’t you, Louisa? You want to have your revenge. . . .”

“That’s not the only thing I want.”

He paused, eyes glistening with renewed interest. “Oh?”

“My plans, remember? I want you to let Chijioke and Poppy out of their contracts. And Mary, too, if she ever returns. I know they have some kind of arrangement with you and Mrs. Haylam. I’d like Lee to come with us, too. There must be some way to free him from the house.”

Mr. Morningside tilted his head to the side, then squeezed his eyes shut. “Let me think . . . Ah yes, Chijioke and Poppy signed three-hundred-year resolutions with us. They are bound to serve the black book so long as it remains here at the house. Three hundred years have not passed, Louisa. You are asking me to let go of nearly my entire staff.”

“So? Replace them. You can find some other Dark Fae to do your bidding, can’t you?”

He scoffed at that. “Actually, your kind are not so easily replaceable. But I see your conundrum. A mere letter to your father is not much of a prize, I suppose. And I do admire your tenacity. Haggling with the Devil. You don’t see that one every day.”

Grinning, he put quill to paper. “Mrs. Haylam is fanatical about order, so this will deeply unsettle her. Do you know how this house works, Louisa? How we work? This is a little atmosphere in balance. My workers and I reap the souls of the evil; the shepherd sees to the souls of the good, or occasionally the unconventionally evil. These contracts keep the whole apparatus running smoothly. . . . You are asking me to tip a carefully balanced scale.”

I swallowed, sensing he was going to refuse me.

“But on the whole, it does feel like a fair bargain to me. After all, without this translation, I will be facing greater scrutiny from my peers, and that is not something I desire at all.” He glanced around at the office, his eyes coming to rest quite noticeably on the nearest perched bird. “No, scrutiny of the house will not do at all.”

I said nothing as he drew up the contract. It was not all that long or complicated, and I read it over several times while he waited patiently, turning his back to me and fussing with his birds. One hopped onto his elbow and he chucked it under its feathery beak.

I, Louisa Rose Ditton, hereby enter into a forever binding contract with Henry I. Morningside. In a period deemed reasonable by both parties, I will fulfill my portion of the contract, which includes:

A full, written translation of the agreed-upon journal

A statement attesting to its accuracy

Secrecy regarding its contents unless otherwise stipulated by H. I. Morningside.

The second party, H. I. Morningside, will make every possible effort to bring, by force or otherwise, Mr. Croydon Frost to Coldthistle House for a length of time I deem appropriate. His lodging, food, and furnishings will be provided gratis by Coldthistle House. Disposal of any corpse or corpse-like material will be undertaken by H. I. Morningside or his associates. Successful translation of the provided text will also nullify the sworn contracts of Chijioke Olatunji, Poppy Berridge, Mary Caywood, and Rawleigh Brimble, subject to their consent.

Failure to produce the translated journal will result in immediate termination.

So it is sworn by both parties under laws earthly and otherwise, on this May the 29th, 1810.

I spun the quill in my fingers and read the contract once more, searching and searching for some clever point of deception that he might use to trick me. The line about termination did seem a bit troubling, and I put the contract back down on the desk and pointed to it, waiting for him to turn around and notice. He didn’t.

“Termination,” I said. “You mean you’ll let me go from the house if I don’t finish the translation?”

At last he turned around, still cooing over the bird on his arm. It was a common raven, but its eyes sparkled with unnatural intelligence. Mr. Morningside gave me only half attention, one eye dancing in my direction. “That’s your interpretation. It simply says ‘termination,’ does it not?”

“Oh, so you’ll kill me over a silly journal?” I pushed the contract back toward him. “No, thank you.”

Mr. Morningside rolled his eyes at me, placing the raven back on its perch. It cawed softly and began cleaning its feathers. “Always so dramatic.”

“What other meaning would it have?” I demanded. “I want that line clarified or I won’t sign.”

“Fine.”

As I watched, the ink on the parchment describing the penalty for my failure blurred and rearranged, the letters re-forming to say, Failure to produce the translated journal will result in a wage cut and the forfeiture of H. I. Morningside’s pin.

The pin. I touched where it was stuck to my apron. That little thing was my only guarantee of freedom from the house. It would be terrible to lose it, but it at least seemed like a far fairer, and clearer, punishment.

“Very well,” I said, drawing in a huge breath. I felt shaky and light-headed as I touched the quill nib to paper. My nerves were obvious in the quality of signature I gave. But it was signed. I had done it. I blew out that breath and straightened, locking eyes with Mr. Morningside. He gave a slight nod and reached for the contract, adding his elegant signature right next to mine.

With a snap, he sanded the signatures to keep them from running, then folded up the contract and unearthed a stub of wax from the mess on his desk. He held the black wax over a candle, turning it evenly back and forth. I watched it grow slick and runny, and felt a pit growing in my stomach. Had I really just signed a contract with the Devil? Had I gone completely mad?

“Now, that bit of business done, I think we can get you to work, yes? Let’s see . . . Why don’t we say you’ll be finished in one week? That seems like more than enough time.”

And there it was, the rub I should’ve seen coming. Stupid girl.

“One week! That isn’t reasonable at all! You must understand that I’m very new to this. . . .”

“And you’re also entirely capable. Have a little confidence, my dear! A little pride! The Court convenes any day, and this is a pressing assignment, Louisa. An assignment I would not entrust to just anyone. One week is more than enough if you put your mind to it.”

“The Court?” I echoed. “This has something to do with your trial?”

He gritted his teeth and smeared the melting wax over the folds of the contract, pressing his signet ring into the spreading glob. “It might. Does that change your decision? Not that it matters, of course; you did sign.”

I know I did.” I closed my eyes tightly and covered my face with both hands. God, but I wanted to strangle him. A week. If I could somehow find a way to consistently use my Changeling powers, then it might just be enough time. If not . . . “I will do what I can.”

“And that’s all I ask, Louisa.” Mr. Morningside picked up the journal and trotted around the end of his desk, flashing me a brilliant smile before inclining his head toward the door. “Now, let’s see if we can’t find a cozy hideaway for you and this wee book of secrets.”