Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jeff Wheeler continues his wondrous Harbinger series in which two young women unite as two worlds approach the brink of war…
Though relations between Princess Seraphin Fitzempress and her father have been strained, Sera's royal position has remained unchallenged. Filled with self-doubt, she struggles to grasp the Mysteries—her greatest trial yet.
An education in the enigmatic magic is a necessary one, should Sera plan to rise in her station and invoke her powers during war. But the emperor's death now leaves both Sera and her ambitious father eligible for the throne—a contest the prince regent intends to win. Even if it means an alliance with a rival empire.
Sera's hope lies in Cettie, a waif raised in the world below, whose life has intertwined with Sera's in the most unexpected ways. The Mysteries come easily to Cettie, and her studies have begun to yield new insight into her growing powers. But those same powers put Cettie in the path of those who would destroy her.
Now as the threat of war ignites and an insidious sickness spreads throughout the kingdom, Sera and Cettie will need to gather their courage and fight for each other's lives…and for the future of their endangered world.
Release date: August 28, 2018
Print pages: 334
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The prince regent, Willard Richard Fitzempress, had made a habit of reading the gazette called the Mirror Gate every morning at breakfast. He had a special set of gloves he used so the ink wouldn’t smudge his fingers as he turned the flimsy pages. He had even visited the factory where the popular paper was produced and had received a royal welcome and tour. The smell of the place was odious, and he’d shielded his mouth with a handkerchief to mask the stench, but he had enjoyed observing the artists hard at work sketching the pictures used on the pages. The owner had also introduced him to the people who wrote the different articles—some of whom praised him, many of whom condemned him. He knew their names.
Reading the Mirror Gate gave him a glimpse of the empire that he did not get from his briefings with the ministers. Humanity was a teeming cauldron of emotions. He was grateful that he lived skyward up in Lockhaven, the hulk of interconnected palatial rock that hovered above the masses lurking in tenements and slaving at factories in the City below. It was only right for the rulers to live above the ruled.
This morning, the picture on the cover of the Mirror Gate had him transfixed. An artist had sketched a fanciful piece representing the cholera morbus disease. The picture was of a grotesque man dressed in tattered rags, a food satchel strapped around his shoulder. His pants were pulled up with colored strips of cloth, showing off the festering sores beneath. He wore no shoes, no gloves. His face was riddled with pockmarks, and his sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, highlighting his muscular arms. Two men lay sprawled in the street at his feet—one an aging banker by the looks of him, the other a dockworker whose cap had fallen onto the ground. The wild man was gripping a woman in a teal-colored dress around the waist and forcing his mouth onto hers. The woman’s wrap, plumed hat, and gloves all marked her as a member of the upper classes. The eyes of the man, the Cholera Morbus, were fierce and intense as he gazed at the woman in his arms. She was kissing him back willingly, one hand on his chest, the other around his neck.
It was an intentionally provocative piece of artwork. Everyone who looked at the picture would know who the woman was. And everyone either knew someone who had been lost to the disease rampaging in portions of the City or knew of someone.
And as he stared at the picture, letting his tea grow cold, he imagined that he was the Cholera Morbus, and the woman in the picture was Lady Corinne. Clearly the artist had intended to provoke the readership’s sympathy by coloring the woman’s dress to match the favored color of the mistress of Pavenham Sky, one of the most respected ladies of the court. The epidemic, which had first broken out a year before, was felling rich and poor alike, much to the alarm of the populace. No one was safe from its deadly grasp. Not even the wealthiest citizens, who dwelled in Lockhaven and the other floating sky manors, were immune. If she were to die . . .
He gazed at the picture, his mind racing, his heart beating faster and faster at the thought of losing her . . . of losing Corinne. Even though he knew why the artist had chosen her image—she was the picture of wealth and class—the feelings made him desperate to see her again, to assure himself that she was safe. For the first time in his life, he was in love.
When he glanced up and looked at himself in the decorative mirror hanging on the wall, he saw his own grotesqueness and hated himself. He was getting older and losing the vigor he had enjoyed in his youth. Since becoming the prince regent, he had been kept so busy that his body had become disgusting to his own sight. Yet the sight of her in that monster’s arms made him wonder. Would she go to him willingly?
A shudder went through him. Such thoughts were dangerous. The lady’s husband, Admiral Lawton, was a powerful man—no, the most powerful man in the empire, despite his unwillingness to serve in government. Richard had asked him twice to serve as the lord high chancellor, but he had refused both times, claiming that his various business interests would have made it impossible to avoid charges of corruption, even if he divested himself of them. His appointment would have brought the admiral—and his wife—into the prince regent’s inner circle. In his weaker moments, Richard knew that was why he continued to curry the man’s favor.
“Are you done with the gazette, my lord?” asked his secretary, Mr. Case, holding out a white-gloved hand to take it. “Shall I dispose of it?”
“No!” the prince regent said abruptly. He startled himself with the violence of his response. “No,” he said in a more temperate tone, “I wasn’t finished with it.” He glanced at the picture again, trying to quell an inner shudder as the lurid colors washed over him. Those who produced the gazette were experts at stirring the people’s emotions. They did so deliberately to keep the people chasing injustices instead of focusing on the causes of them. Most of the gazettes were funded by one of the ministries. Though the Mirror Gate was undeniably more independent than most, its contents were still carefully orchestrated. Public content had to be, or the people would rise in defiance as they had on occasion in the past. “Insurrection” was a nasty word . . . to him and his kind.
“On second thought, Case, take it up to my study.” He folded the paper and handed it to his secretary, who tucked it unceremoniously under his arm. The prince regent gripped the teacup and took a shallow sip, wincing at how tepid it had become. He’d sat transfixed by the image for longer than he’d realized. “This epidemic, this disease, is truly causing me grave concern.”
“Of course, my lord,” Case said, always obedient to his whims. “My wife’s niece just perished from it, sir.”
“Hmmm,” the prince regent grunted, the image still fixated in his mind. “Ghastly business.”
“Indeed, sir. Do you think . . . do you think it is a sign of a true Blight?”
The prince regent looked at his secretary as if he were daft. “You believe the government caused it? Please, Case, I thought you were more sensible than that. Why would we unleash a plague deliberately on the populace? It’s absurd.” Of course, there was a Blight Leering, hidden deep inside Lockhaven by the Ministry of Thought and guarded day and night, but it was a jealously kept secret. He had been to look at the stone face himself, had felt the dark magic brooding within it. No one had enacted it. No one would dare.
“Is it absurd?” Case asked pointedly, giving him a sharp look. “Could it have come from one of our trading partners, then?”
The prince regent made a flippant hand gesture. “Whenever a contagion begins to affect the populace, we are always quick to attribute it to supernatural causes. Surely the cholera morbus is one of the Mysteries, but it is a Mystery of Wind, and the best objective minds are working to solve the problem. If Brant Fitzroy cannot solve the contagion, then we are all of us doomed.” The image from the page flashed in his mind again. He squirmed in his chair, wanting to see it again and wishing he hadn’t handed the paper over to Case.
The man still looked skeptical. Did his belief represent how the larger population felt? Did they truly think the disease had been unleashed by the government? It was impossible. But people always looked for a scapegoat when there was a terror in the land. Why not look above?
He was growing agitated again. Since he and his wife had separated four years ago, his feelings had been growing increasingly ungovernable. He couldn’t abide the woman who was his wife, yet he risked the world’s displeasure if he divorced her. They had married to improve their family fortunes on the recommendation of their parents, but he had always been drawn to a certain married lady. No, he must not think of it anymore . . . he had to control his thoughts. The remedy was staying busy.
“What is on my schedule for the day?” he asked Case with agitation, gritting his teeth.
“You meet with the Minister of Law this morning to discuss a possible trade war with the court at Kingfountain. Then you have a sitting with the artist Jacomay, who has been commissioned to do a painting for the new currency. The privy council meeting is set for this afternoon, followed by a state dinner with the ambassador of Naess—”
The conversation was interrupted when the door opened without so much as a warning knock. The prince regent turned, an angry scowl on his face for the intrusion on his breakfast, and prepared to scold the intruder soundly. But the scowl quickly turned to an expression of startled surprise when the prime minister entered, a grave look on his haggard face.
“Lord Prentice! What has happened?” The prince regent pushed his stuffed chair away from the table and rose hastily to his feet. His knees groaned, and the sudden movement made him a little light-headed.
The prime minister advanced and, with only a glance, dismissed Mr. Case. The prince regent watched as his secretary left, the paper still folded beneath his arm. Despite the turbulence of his thoughts, he found himself hoping Case would remember to bring it upstairs. The door shut, leaving the two men alone.
“Grim tidings, Prince Regent,” the prime minister said. He smelled of stale sweat, and perhaps a hint of brandy.
“Speak, man! Are we at war? What has happened?”
The prime minister chuckled in a grim humor. “War? Wouldn’t that solve so many of our problems. No, Prince Regent. Your father, the emperor, died earlier this morning. He breathed his last at fifteen minutes past five. Doctor Brooke is no doubt scurrying away as we speak, to tell Fitzroy.”
The news, delivered indelicately, came as a physical blow, though not because the prince regent would mourn his father. The light-headed feeling persisted, and he found it difficult to breathe. He set his palms on the ornate table to steady himself.
“What does this mean, Prentice? What does this mean?”
“It comes as a surprise, for the emperor’s health was beginning to improve earlier this week. He couldn’t speak or write, but he was no longer bedridden. He would take the air in a sturdy wooden chair fixed with wheels. Not to mention the countless Gifts of Healing he received. All means, both magical and otherwise, were exhausted. And all failed in the end.”
“Surely he didn’t choose someone this morning to be his heir. Did he? Did he?”
“Don’t weary yourself, Prince Regent. He did not. He was incapable of articulation. What it means, Richard, is that the privy council will now choose the empire’s new ruler. And it may not be you.”
The prince regent felt the veins in his temples start to throb painfully. The worried agitation in his belly flared into panic. “But Seraphin is only sixteen, not eighteen. She is underage. She cannot be named empress!”
“No, she cannot. Not yet. And as you and I both know, she has struggled to master certain aspects of the Mysteries, even at Muirwood Abbey. The order of our society must be maintained, Richard. At all costs.”
The prince regent closed his fist and slammed it on the table. “She cannot because she is illegitimate, Prentice! It’s no wonder she cannot, her blood is spoiled!”
He watched as the prime minister’s eyes flashed with anger. It was an old argument—one they’d never settled between them. His Corinne had opened his eyes to his wife’s duplicity and the princess’s illegitimacy, yet the others in power refused to see the truth.
“The investigation could never prove that, my lord,” the prime minister insisted, echoing his thoughts. “Even the secret one you commissioned without the privy council’s sanction. If you continue to pluck on those harp strings, I can assure you that the privy council will bar your right to the throne completely! Do you want to become the emperor or not?”
A watery sickness weakened the prince regent’s legs, and he nearly collapsed into his chair. “I’m so close, Prentice. So close!”
The prime minister strode forward and gripped his shoulder firmly. “I came here, Richard, to advise you. If you want to be named emperor, you must appear to have earned it through your own merits. You must be seen as the less risky alternative. Your daughter—”
“Don’t call her that!” Richard quailed, flinching.
The prime minister sighed and released his grip. “The princess has been studying the Mysteries for four years at the most prominent school in the empire. Her companion, of choice, is that young woman Fitzroy found in the Fells. It is no secret how he feels about the poor. Were he to become prime minister, and I’ve no doubt the princess would appoint him to that position, I can assure you that our way of life would be compromised. The proper order would be upset. Destroyed. And with sicknesses such as the cholera morbus raging, now is not the time for an inexperienced empress and a misguided prime minister! There are many on the privy council who already see you as the less risky option. But they still remember how you tried to sabotage your d—the princess’s rights. She may be sixteen and unimpressive in stature, but she still commands sympathy. The populace loves her. They do not love you. I must speak plainly in this. How you react, in this very moment, will be crucial in determining your future and the future of the empire.”
The prince regent stared at the table settings, his mind whirling with thoughts. If Seraphin were chosen as empress, he would be ruined forever. She would never forgive him for the way he had treated her since learning of his wife’s adultery. But hadn’t he hired tutors for her at great expense? And what had she done with his money but waste it daydreaming, climbing trees, and writing fanciful letters to a middling young officer? He was livid whenever he remembered those accursed letters. The young man had refused to surrender the notes Seraphin had written to him. After four years that young man would nearly be finished with his schooling. Soon he would be assigned to a sky ship in the fleet, and Seraphin, no doubt, would make him rise to the greatest heights. Well, if the prince regent had his way, he would have the lad court-martialed for some insignificant offense. Or assigned to one of the most distant posts in the empire.
Yes, he would get his revenge. How dare the privy council accuse him of standing in the way of her education? How dare they insist that she be sent to Muirwood Abbey as if she were truly of the blood?
“Did you even hear what I said?” the prime minister said in a chastising tone.
The man’s domineering attitude was becoming grating. He wouldn’t confess that his mind had been wandering down dark paths. “What must be done, Prentice? She’s a child still, even at sixteen. A willful, disobedient, haughty child. Cannot the privy council see that? She could ruin us all.”
“I see that, Richard,” he replied smoothly. “If you want to be chosen by the privy council, you must do exactly as I say. Or both of us will lose our places.”
Sera squinted at the iron lamp, willing it with all her might to grow brighter. Each Leering had a face carved on it, and each face held an expression reflecting one of the many human emotions. The little stone face carved into the rock behind the frosted glass was hidden, but no doubt it was smiling mockingly at her. The light did nothing but continue to shine sweetly, innocently, as if completely unaware of Sera’s increasing vexation. She screwed up her nose and “pushed” her thoughts at it, trying to make it obey her. Brighter. Far brighter! she ordered. She was Seraphin Fitzempress, a princess of the empire. Surely she could manage it. But, no, she didn’t even have the power to affect a small stone. It was the bitterest of disappointments that she continued to fail at such simple tasks.
“You’re trying too hard.”
Her friend and companion Cettie was sitting at the window seat, a book in hand, her dark hair falling over her shoulders. Sera glanced at her, feeling the frustration boil even more. Commanding the Leering stones was effortless for Cettie. Her friend could use them to light the room, cause the hearth to blaze, and produce the scent of daffodils—all while sneezing.
Well, maybe that was an exaggeration.
Sera envied her friend’s affinity with the magical aspect of the Mysteries, the power that made manors and castles and cities anchor in the sky like clouds or allowed sky ships the size of whales to sail through the sky. Before coming to the school, Sera hadn’t even known about whales. But her classes at Muirwood Abbey had taught her many wonderful things about her world—and expanded her consciousness by introducing her to the worlds connected to the empire through magical rifts in the universe. She had learned a wealth of information about the Mysteries of Thought, Law, War, and Wind. The only thing the school couldn’t teach her, unfortunately, was how to effectively make Leerings work at her command. That, it would appear, came down to talent.
“Of course I’m trying hard,” Sera said with a tone of exasperation. “I’m giving it everything I have. The carving is mocking me. I know it is.”
“It’s made of stone,” Cettie said. “They can’t do that.”
“This one can,” Sera said with a huff. “The only time I can affect them is when the Aldermaston is nearby. It’s like he gives them a wink or something and tells them to obey me. Otherwise they don’t do a thing!”
“He doesn’t,” Cettie said, shaking her head. She set her book down on the cushion and then turned her head and looked out the window. Her gaze focused, and her nose scrunched in a pretty way. Cettie’s nose always did that when she was thinking something over. Sera found it endearing, but her friend hated the way it brought attention to her freckles. These past years, they’d learned so much about each other. While Sera had unburdened herself about her father, who’d attempted to disinherit her, and the less agreeable side of being a princess, Cettie had told her about growing up in the Fells. Her father was a retired dragoon, a military man. He’d had a dalliance with a lady he didn’t know, years ago, and Cettie had been the outcome. The girl’s deed had been sold, again and again, to progressively worse guardians. Currently, her birth father was married to his landlord’s outspoken daughter, and both were fighting with Cettie’s guardian, Minister Fitzroy, to prevent him from adopting her. And despite Minister Fitzroy’s new wealth and power as the Minister of Wind, they had been unsuccessful at determining her mother’s identity. The old housekeeper at Fitzroy’s manor, Mrs. Pullman, might know the truth, but she refused to speak to it. She was languishing in a fetid jail in the Fells for her crimes against the Fitzroy family.
Sera sighed. There—she was doing it again. Her thoughts tended to flutter from one idea to another, an incorrigible butterfly that couldn’t be tamed. She had tried for four years to learn how to focus, to keep her thoughts directed and not distracted. Four years was a long time to work on a weakness and see so little improvement. Even the breathing exercises that Cettie had tried to teach her didn’t work. Her mind just would not sit still. At least she had done well in her classes.
“There’s someone watching,” Cettie observed.
“That gawky student from the Law classes who likes you?” Sera asked.
Cettie turned and looked back at her, her expression serious. “No. It’s a man, not a youth. He was leaning against the building, watching the street. He was looking at our place, I think.”
Sera joined her at the window seat, but she could only see the throngs of students passing down the main street from the school to the center of town. “I don’t see anyone.”
“He’s over—oh, he’s gone. That was strange. It felt like he was watching us. Oh well. The problem, Sera,” she said, touching her arm, “is you’re trying too hard. You have to coax the power to do your bidding. To beckon it, like you would a little bird. You do it best when you’re gentle. I’ve seen you do it without the Aldermaston, so I know you can.”
Sera bit her lip, her voice lowering. “I’m trying, Cettie. I’ve been here for four years, and I still cannot work the Leerings reliably. If I can’t succeed, I will never fulfill my destiny. I may learn every last bit of information about the Mysteries, but an empress must be able to command the Leerings of Lockhaven to defend the people. If we are attacked again, like we have been in the past, people could die. Every book of wisdom I’ve read says something similar. I understand the principles. Why won’t they work for me?”
Cettie rose from the window seat, a look of sympathy on her face. “But listen to yourself. You’re worrying,” she said calmly.
“I know! I cannot turn that part of me off.” Sera started wringing her hands and pacing. “I cannot will away the responsibility that may be coming to me. It terrifies and excites me. My grandfather may leave us at any time, and if he does, there’s a chance I might be given the crown. There has never been an empress so young before. Not even Empress Maia.”
Cettie nodded. This was an old conversation for them, and they each knew their part. “And all your expectations for yourself are tangling your feelings into knots. You cannot force this. It’s quite the opposite.”
Sera knew her friend was right, but her anxiety was like a muscle she couldn’t relax. “I wish there was a way to force it. To command all Leerings to obey me in the name of the future empress!”
Cettie’s mouth turned into a solemn little frown. “Don’t even tease about that, Sera. Your thoughts are not secret from the Knowing.”
She said it in such a gentle, imploring way that Sera felt chagrined. “I’m sorry. You’re right, of course. I should be patient, deliberate, thoughtful. It sounds so boring sometimes. I want it now! I fear I’ll go mad if I can’t ever learn to make the Leerings work. I do try, you know.”
“Let’s give your mind a rest and take a walk in the village.”
“Splendid idea! If you spot the man who was staring at us, let me know, and I’ll give him a scolding,” Sera said. Cettie knew just how to calm her. Whereas Sera had spent most of her childhood bound to her large, sprawling manor, she now had the freedom to do as she liked. No longer was she forced to climb trees to get a look at the outside world. Even then she’d been limited—the City below had been smothered in fog more often than not, and though she had been able to see most of Lockhaven, the floating portion of the imperial city, from her perch, seeing wasn’t the same as experiencing. The schools of learning, the abbeys, were an in-between place. Although they were physically grounded, each of them was separated from the populace in some way. Some, like Muirwood, were on lands surrounded by water. Others, by woods and fences. Yet they taught the magic that made cities hover in the sky.
The girls both grabbed their shawls from the pegs by the door. The small room was so much simpler than Sera’s elaborate home. As a princess, she could have chosen to stay at the Aldermaston’s beautiful manor, but she had insisted on dwelling with the hundreds of other students in the hamlet of Vicar’s Close. The dormitory was so very simple, consisting of a small living room, kitchen, and loft to sleep in—identical to the row of other dwellings comprising Vicar’s Close—and yet she loved it. Bunches of dried lavender hung from the walls, adding a sweet fragrance to the air, making it feel more like a home.
It was late afternoon, and the cobbled street bustled with students and those who lived in the community. She could see the spires of the abbey over the wall and felt a wave of nervousness again. Sometimes the beautiful abbey felt like a reminder of her own failures. Linking arms with Cettie, she started walking away from the abbey toward the center of the village. Just being outside lifted Sera’s mood.
“It’s him,” Cettie said with a sigh.
Sera saw him instantly. It was the young man studying the Mysteries of Law, Mr. Skrelling. Of course he was the one watching them. Cettie had probably only denied it out of embarrassment. Prior to studying at Muirwood, Mr. Skrelling had worked for Sloan and Teitelbaum, the advocates who represented Fitzroy. The firm had possession of his deed and had sent him to advance his usefulness to them. Even though he had left Sloan and Teitelbaum for the duration of his studies, he continued to work on Cettie’s case—the search for her mysterious mother—which he oft used as an excuse to speak with her. He’d been making a nuisance of himself for years, going out of his way to speak to them in his awkward, formal manner.
“Should we turn and go to the abbey instead?” Sera asked conspiratorially.
“We’re already walking his way. That would be rude, Sera.”
“Isn’t it rude of him to accost us every time he sees us?”
“Sera,” her friend said warningly.
The young man collided into a bookshop cart as he attempted to cross the street abruptly. The bearded man pushing it railed at him for not watching where he was walking. The young advocate in training rose, dusting off his fine jacket, and started to accuse the driver of gross negligence. He was so discomfited and upset that he didn’t see Sera and Cettie hurriedly slip away.
“Did you see that?” Sera said, unable to stifle a giggle. “Mr. Skrelling literally walked into the cart himself and then accused the man pushing it of doing something wrong. I had a class with him last year. He was insufferable, and he kept challenging the teacher.”
“He is rather opinionated,” Cettie said, glancing back. “I pity him truly. He doesn’t see how he comes off to others.”
“Yes, and it is our solemn duty to educate all men on their failings,” Sera said lightly. They exited the street into the village square crowded with students. It would be easy to lose Mr. Skrelling there. “All except for that one,” Sera said, grinning. She nodded her head to a young man and woman who stood nearby. “Adam Creigh, as gallant as ever. It appears he has been ambushed by Phinia. He has the patience of an Aldermaston,” she added under her breath.
“He does indeed,” Cettie agreed. “I don’t see Anna. He’s usually with her and her friends.”
Phinia and Anna were the daughters of Cettie’s guardian, Minister Fitzroy, and Adam was a boy the minister had pledged to educate. He’d grown into a robust man of eighteen, with ruddy cheeks, light brown hair, and an easy, comfortable smile. Despite his all-too-common tale of woe—his poor father had wrecked the family’s fortunes and stooped to selling Adam’s deed—he usually seemed in good cheer. And why should he not? Whereas most lost children found themselves legally entailed to scoundrels who’d force them into near slavery, Fitzroy was intent on educating his charge and empowering him to be the doctor he wished to be. And so, even though he was clearly embarrassed by Phinia’s attention, Adam was duty bound to smile, and he did. As a good-natured young man, he never deliberately caused offense. All the more reason for them to intervene and save him from his own kindness. That, and her suspicion that Cettie harbored feelings for him—feelings she’d never express because of her loyalty to Anna, who had worshipped him for nearly her whole life. The youngest Fitzroy daughter was also sixteen and had blossomed into a stunning beauty, becoming the darling of the school when she had joined them at Muirwood two years ago.
“Let’s save him. Poor soul.”
Cettie balked. “I don’t think we should interrupt.”
“The young man is clearly suffering and seeking an escape from his situation. Come on.” A good tug on Cettie’s arm won her compliance, and she dutifully followed Sera to the fountain at the center of the main square. Plumes of white water gushed from the hub of the fountain’s many Leerings. The ornate sculptures depicted a conflict that had ended centuries before, a commemoration of an event that no one remembered anymore. Sera didn’t care much for history. She was more intrigued by the possibilities the future presented.
Phinia saw them approach, and her eyes flashed with irritation at the intrusion.
“Hello, Phinia,” Sera said. “What a pleasant afternoon. You look upset. Is something wrong?” She arched her eyebrows innocently.
“Yes, something is wrong,” Phinia said, a bit of a whine in her voice. “Mr. Creigh is going to work in the Fells after finishing here.”
Sera was confused. “Hasn’t that been your plan all along, Adam? You’ve often said so.”
“Indeed, Miss Fitzempress.”
“How many times do I have to tell you to call me Sera?”
“My feelings of propriety compel me to persist all the same,” he answered with an apologetic shrug. “Yes, I do plan to become a doctor in the Fells. It is clear that is where the most help is needed. The City has been struck hard by the contagion over the last year, but nowhere is the spread quicker or more violent than in the Fells. Hello, Miss Cettie.” He gave her a small bow, and Cettie flushed in response, poor dear.
“But it is so dangerous!” Phinia complained. “Why not go back to work for Father’s mines? The doctor there is getting older; I’m sure he would appreciate your help.”
“I could do that, I suppose,” Adam said respectfully. But it was clear from his tone that he didn’t intend to.
“The cholera morbus is so dangerous,” Phinia pressed. “I don’t want you to go to the Fells. I know Anna feels the same way. I’m her sister, and I must look after her. Promise me that you won’t. You must promise me.”
“Phinia,” Cettie said. She managed to pack that one word with plenty of meaning.
“Do you want Adam to die?” Phinia said scathingly, unleashing her claws. The oldest of Fitzroy’s daughters still didn’t fully approve of Cettie, even though her family had become impossibly rich with Cettie’s help. Sera suspected she was jealous of all the attention and praise Cettie had rightfully earned. “No one knows the cause of it, but nearly everyone who’s stricken by it dies. Those living in the tenements are struck down the most.”
“All the more reason,” Adam said with controlled patience, “that it needs to be studied by every available doctor. A plague is a Mystery. It can be solved, just like other things.” He gave Cettie an admiring look.
Cettie and Fitzroy’s discovery of the storm glass, an invention that could accurately predict weather patterns, had brought unspeakable riches to Fitzroy’s income. Because he owned Cettie’s deed, he was entitled to all the profits. Although he wanted to bequeath a significant portion of the wealth to his charge, an annuity that would rival that of any young woman in the empire, he could not do so until she was legally adopted; otherwise her greedy relations could snatch the money away from her before she could spend a farthing of it. The case was tangled and complicated, and it frustrated Sera to no end. But Cettie would certainly not lack for suitors, regardless of the outcome.
“Anna and I could not bear it if anything happened to you,” Phinia said with exaggerated emotion. “You must reconsider. Cettie, he listens to you. Tell him!”
Cettie flushed again. “I’m sure he is very well aware of the danger, Phinia.”
Phinia’s eyes flashed with hot emotion.
“I would go to the Fells today if I could,” Adam said, stepping forward, “but we all know I must first pass the Test. The breakouts of cholera morbus last for a month or two and then disappear, only to reappear elsewhere. How does it move? Some tenements get decimated, while others, blocks away, remain untouched. Everyone is afraid of it, and people flee as soon as it appears in their community. Does that not increase the risk of it spreading?”
“Isn’t the Ministry of Wind studying it?” Sera asked him. This topic did interest her, very much so, and she was certain Fitzroy himself was trying to address it with the best doctors in the empire.
Adam shook his head. “There has been little time to study it. Doctors are working day and night trying to cure those who have it, trying to find the best remedies to treat it. Thousands are afflicted and dying. Every qualified person is needed right now, and here I am living in peace and comfort.” He shook his head, clearly vexed by the situation. She sympathized with his motives. She, too, wanted desperately to save her people from the ills of their world.
Phinia reached out and put her hand on his arm. “You mustn’t go!”
He looked down at her hand. To touch another person in such a way was a breach of propriety, and she’d clearly done it in an effort to force her will. His eyes darkened with anger, but his voice was still controlled when he spoke to her.
“We attract those things that we secretly fear,” he told her. “Some men fear the sight of blood. Some men fear sickness. I do not fear these things.” Then he looked Phinia in the eye. His anger seemed to soften, though his words were quite clear. “Please do not attempt to infect me with your worries.”
And what do you fear, I wonder? Sera asked herself. She was impressed by Adam’s self-control, his disciplined mind. If she could only borrow a portion of such a will, she’d have the Leerings heating her bath in a trice.
Phinia’s hand dropped away. She looked as if she’d been reprimanded by her father.
Adam looked over their heads, seeing that someone else had joined their small group. “Good day, Miss Fitzempress. Miss Phinia. Miss Cettie.” He nodded and then stalked away.
Sera turned and saw Mr. Skrelling standing there, fidgeting. Though it was hardly charitable of her, Sera wished he would simply vanish, or that they would. He was tall and gaunt, and though he was dressed in the fashions of the day, his vest was much too big for him.
“Ah, Miss Fitzempress. Miss Cettie. Miss . . . Seraphin? My pardon. I come bearing news of the utmost importance. If you will pardon my intrusion into your conversation, I thought it best to speak to you at once.”
Strangely, he wasn’t talking to Cettie, whom he normally doted on. He was addressing Sera. Phinia had already sulked off, no longer interested in them now that Adam had gone away.
“What is it, Mr. Skrelling?” she asked, determined to end the conversation as quickly as possible.
“If you do not consider it an impudence?”
“I do not. Speak up, please. What is it?”
“I’m gratified to hear that, ma’am. I would not, under any circumstance, seek to be bothersome to Your Ladyship. To either of you,” he added, directing a thin-lipped grin at Cettie. Smoothing down his unwieldy dark hair, he turned back to Sera. “Miss Fitzempress, I come to you with news. I will not disclose how I came upon this information, because that is relevant neither to the purpose nor to the point. But if I understand it correctly, and I believe that I do, your grandfather, the emperor, is now . . . well . . . there is no other way to say this except bluntly . . . he is deceased.”
He may as well have shoved her backward into the rushing fountain.
Everything was going to change.
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