A world of enchanted injustice needs a disenchanting woman in an all-new fantasy series by the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Paper Magician.
The orphaned Elsie Camden learned as a girl that there were two kinds of wizards in the world: those who pay for the power to cast spells and those, like her, born with the ability to break them. But as an unlicensed magic user, her gift is a crime. Commissioned by an underground group known as the Cowls, Elsie uses her spellbreaking to push back against the aristocrats and help the common man. She always did love the tale of Robin Hood.
Elite magic user Bacchus Kelsey is one elusive spell away from his mastership when he catches Elsie breaking an enchantment. To protect her secret, Elsie strikes a bargain. She’ll help Bacchus fix unruly spells around his estate if he doesn’t turn her in. Working together, Elsie’s trust in—and fondness for—the handsome stranger grows. So does her trepidation about the rise in the murders of wizards and the theft of the spellbooks their bodies leave behind.
For a rogue spellbreaker like Elsie, there’s so much to learn about her powers, her family, the intriguing Bacchus, and the untold dangers shadowing every step of a journey she’s destined to complete. But will she uncover the mystery before it’s too late to save everything she loves?
Release date: November 1, 2020
Print pages: 300
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Charlie N Holmberg
Abingdon-on-Thames, England, 1885
Elsie hadn’t meant to burn down the workhouse.
She hadn’t mentioned this to the constable when he’d come around to question her and the other children. She hadn’t said anything at all. It wasn’t a matter of who had started the fire. Everyone knew it had been Old Wilson, whose knuckles ached when it rained and whose body trembled a little more every year. He’d dropped the lamp. Broken the glass. Spilled the kerosene. But that’s not why the rug and walls had lit up. It wasn’t why the big block of a building raged orange and yellow behind them, its smoke stinging Elsie’s eyes.
She hadn’t known the pretty rune on the wall was a fireguard. She hadn’t known it was important. She’d pointed it out to both Betsey and James, but neither of them could see it. She’d wanted only to touch it, trace it. And when she did, it had vanished beneath her fingertips. She hadn’t told a soul. Didn’t want to get into trouble. Didn’t want the workhouse to throw her away, too.
That had been a month ago. So when Old Wilson had dropped his lamp, there’d been no magic to stop the fire from eating up the whole place.
Elsie hated the workhouse. She didn’t feel so terrible watching it crumble, but she did feel bad that everyone had been put out of their beds, that the constable was being so mean, and that Old Wilson would get in trouble.
Elsie didn’t know where they would send her now. Another work- house? With new people, or the same ones?
One of the boys beside her started to cry. Elsie didn’t know what to say. She wanted to help, but telling the truth wouldn’t help them— it would only hurt her. She didn’t want to give them a reason not to love her.
She stepped away. The police had told everyone to stay put, but the fire was so hot. Elsie didn’t go far, just a few steps, then a few more. Turning her face toward the tree shadows behind her, she let it cool off in the damp air that smelled like storms.
She was picking out shapes in the shadows when a hand touched her shoulder. She flinched, sure it was the constable. Sure Betsey or James had tattled on her, saying she had seen a rune and broken it—
But it was a cloaked figure who stood beside her, face obscured by a cowl. “My dear,” the voice within said, “what is your name?”
Elsie swallowed, her throat tight. She glanced back to the fire, to the shouting men trying to contain it.
“Don’t mind them. You’re safe. What is your name?”
Elsie peered into that cowl, but the darkness hid any discernible features. The voice was quiet and feminine. “E-Elsie. Elsie Camden.”
“Such a pretty name. How old are you?”
The compliment took her by surprise. “E-Eleven.” “Wonderful. Come with me, Elsie.”
Her feet were slow to move. “Are you taking me to another workhouse?”
The cowl shook from side to side, revealing a weak, fleshy chin. “Not if you do as I say. You’re very important, Elsie. I need your help to make the world a better place. I need to use that special talent of yours.”
Elsie dug her heels into the soft earth. She knew it. She knew she was one of them. A spellbreaker, born with one kind of magic instead of taught a hundred.
“If you register me, they’ll know I did it,” she whispered.
The hand on her shoulder squeezed. “Yes, they will. And you’ll get into a lot of trouble. Noose around your neck, no doubt. But I would never ask you to do such a thing. You’ll help me, and I’ll help you. We’ll keep you safe, and you’ll never be the government’s pet. We’ve a lot of good work ahead of us, sweet Elsie. Helping those who need it, not those in power. Come on, then. I know a good place to hide, and we’ll get you a bite to eat. How does that sound?”
The heat of the fire prickled Elsie’s scalp.
She was wanted? She was important? Her spirit felt too big for her body, blooming like a wild rose. Elsie smiled, and the cloaked woman led her away.
She never did see her face.
London, England, 1895
Elsie could just barely hear the toll of Big Ben in the distance. Four o’clock. A decent enough time for breaking the law.
But when the law wasn’t fit, was it really a bad thing to break it? Slipping around a corner, Elsie pulled the letter from her pocket.
Although London was only an hour’s ride by omnibus or carriage from her home in Brookley, she was not familiar with this particular neigh- borhood. She usually burned the letters right away, but she’d feared she might get lost if she didn’t bring this one along.
The note had found its way to her despite the fact that it hadn’t been delivered by post. As always, the sender had not signed it, although the small seal of a bird foot stamped over a crescent moon was identification enough.
That wasn’t their real name, obviously. But Elsie didn’t know what else to call them. She hadn’t seen any of them since she was eleven, ten years ago. But they kept in contact. More often than usual, lately. Either the world was getting worse, or they were on the cusp of making real change, and including her in that change.
At first, they’d given her small tasks, local tasks. She’d dis-spelled an unbreakable wall, magically fortified centuries ago, which had sat in the middle of farmland. The local tenants had spent months writing to their lords, petitioning for the spell’s removal for the sake of planting, but she was the one who’d helped them. Some of the early tasks she’d been given didn’t even require her fledgling spellbreaking. Delivering bread baskets to an orphanage had been the first to take her away from her home, and she’d managed it, getting lost only once. As her gifts improved, so the tasks she was given became bigger, more important. Elsie became more important, and the occasional coin or candy left with her missives told her the Cowls were grateful, that she was of real value to them.
Mind returning to the present, Elsie rechecked the address. A young woman hawked roses from a basket on one corner, and across from her was a small shop with a bright-blue sign reading Wizard of all Trades. Elsie rolled her eyes. Not at the boldness of the color, but at the idea of being a wizard-of-all-trades. Only someone needing a very small spell or someone with no comprehension of magic would visit such a place. For when a person learned magic in all four alignments, they would be very weak in each of them, no matter how much magical potential they possessed. There was a reason people specialized.
Not that it pertained to Elsie. Specializations were only for spellmakers.
Pulling her eyes away, she crossed at the next intersection. This neighborhood was so large and so winding . . . she was sure she’d passed her turn. But she couldn’t retrace her steps. Couldn’t do anything to draw suspicion. So she shoved the letter back into her pocket and strolled, enjoying the sunshine, trying not to think too hard on the novel reader she’d finished just before getting this latest missive. Oh, but it was hard not to think on the mystery! The baron in disguise had just confided his secret to Mademoiselle Amboise, completely unaware that she was betrothed to his enemy! There were so many ways the plot could unwind, and the author had cruelly ended the piece right there, forcing Elsie and thousands of others to wait for the continuation. Were it Elsie’s novel—that is, she was no writer, but if she were—she would have Mademoiselle Amboise get into some sort of trouble. Perhaps with a highwayman? The lady would be forced to relinquish the information before she could give it to the villainous Count Neville, only to later learn the highwayman was actually the baron’s long-lost brother and rightful heir!
And to think she had to wait another two weeks to read what hap- pened next.
Oh, wait, here she was. Swallow Street. She glanced up at the rows of large houses, thinking on how many families could fit into one of the behemoths, before walking down the road. The elaborate homes on one side of the street were guarded by wrought iron fences. The houses on the other side were closed in by a high brick wall. She found Mr. Turner’s house easily enough on the brick side. It was three stories high and white with navy tiles, windowed on all sides. Black shutters, blue drapes, a large elm growing up along its east side. Bold white cor- nices, bay windows, everything a wealthy person could want.
These folk didn’t want the poor traipsing around their doorstep, that was for sure.
Elsie hid her frown as she approached the end of the street, then turned onto the next road and looped back to approach the Turner home from behind. Despite the crowded nature of the city, these estates didn’t have a second row of buildings at their backs. The wealthy demanded nice gardens to accompany their nice houses. Meanwhile, their tenants worked their land and paid their dues without so much as a cheers! sent their way.
Which was precisely why Elsie didn’t feel bad about breaking the law.
It would be sneakier to do it at night. Surely a burglar or the like from one of the tales in her novel reader would have acted at night. But Elsie was already a single woman venturing about on her own; she needn’t ruin herself by doing so after sundown. Times were changing, yes, but people’s minds were slow to keep up.
A man passed by her, tipping his hat in greeting. Elsie smiled and nodded back. Once he’d left, Elsie touched the brick wall encircling the Turner home, letting its roughness pass beneath her fingertips. Searching for anything magicked.
A few feet ahead of her, a rune shimmered once and shied away, as though embarrassed by Elsie’s scrutiny. A physical spell, if she could see it. Different spells manifested themselves to her in different ways. She could feel rational runes, hear spiritual ones, and smell the temporal. Physical spells, however, liked to be seen. They were the dandies of the magic world.
The thing all runes had in common was their knot-like quality. At least, Elsie liked to think of them as knots. And like knots, they could fray over time. The more masterful the spellmaker’s hand, the more stubborn the knot was to untie. The ones she could see— physical spells—were made of light and glitter, bright and pretzel- like, loose if the man casting them had been lazy or simply wasn’t talented.
Aspectors were usually men, anyway.
There were two kinds of wizards in the world—those who cast spells, and those who broke them. The spellmakers, known as aspec- tors, paid a king’s ransom for the spells they took into their bodies, yet another means of benefitting the rich and rebuffing the poor. But God had a way of making things even. He’d been generous with the other side of the coin, for spellbreakers were born with the ability to dis-spell magic, and it didn’t cost them a farthing.
Elsie couldn’t handle any of the four alignments of magic herself, but she could detect spells and unravel them like knots. This spell was decently tied, but not terribly so. An intermediate or advanced physi- cal spell of hiding. It concealed a door, Elsie was sure of it. And it just so happened that Mr. Turner had a habit of “losing” his tenants’ rent and forcing them to pay double. The people who depended on him for their livelihoods could barely keep food on the table, while this man lounged with the peerage and had servants at his beck and call. This was the sort of injustice the Cowls often addressed—with Elsie’s help. She would disenchant this door, and the Cowls would take back the money he had stolen. Very Robin Hood of them. And Elsie was their Little John.
Pushing her palms into the spell, she pulled on the ends of the knot. There were seven of them, and she would need to unravel them in the reverse order of their placement. Fortunately, Elsie had encountered this spell before. She’d know how to proceed, once she found the loose end.
In a matter of heartbeats, the spell faded, and the creases and hinges of a brick-heavy door became visible to her eye.
“Who goes there?”
Elsie’s heart leapt into her throat. She pulled away from the wall as though it had stung her. It was not a constable, but a man in a fine waistcoat and trousers, a gold watch chain swinging from one of his pockets. Upon recognizing his face against the late-afternoon sun, how- ever, Elsie almost wished it had been a constable.
Squire Douglas Hughes. The squire who presided over her home- town. Brookley was close enough to London that it wasn’t particularly odd for her to see him here. But it was bad luck.
Not because she feared he’d recognize her—despite the fact that she’d worked in his house for a year, she doubted he would—but because Squire Hughes was the epitome of everything she hated. He was rude to the common folk and a sycophant to the aristocrats. He hoarded his money and passed off his squirely duties whenever he could, and when he could not, he bore them with the utmost disdain and didn’t attempt to hide it. He held his nose when he passed farmers. And he’d once trodden upon Elsie’s foot and not even stopped to see if she was all right, let alone apologize for it.
This was the beast the Cowls fought against, though thus far the secretive group had not deemed him important enough for action.
How she wished they would. If the Cowls were Robin Hood, this man was Prince John.
Forcing a relaxed demeanor, Elsie walked up to meet him instead of letting him come to her. She didn’t want him to notice the seams of the door. Mr. Turner was a wealthy man, and therefore the squire might actually care that Elsie had been snooping about his property.
Biting the inside of her cheek, she curtsied. “I apologize if I’m disturbing anyone. I work for a stonemason; I was just admiring the brickwork.” It was only half a lie.
The man raised a fine eyebrow. “The brickwork? Surely you jest.” He eyed her, but not with any recognition. Rather, he seemed confused by her clothing—particularly her skirts, as if it confused him that a woman could work outside of service. Elsie certainly wasn’t dressed as a maid.
Elsie couldn’t make herself blush, but she glanced away as though embarrassed.
Squire Hughes said, “Don’t loiter. Your employer would be angry to see you wasting time.”
She was tempted to snap back, to insist her employer had given his blessing for her to be here, but that wouldn’t strictly be true. While Ogden was undeniably generous with her time, he hadn’t a clue what she spent it on. If she left now, she could get back to Brookley by dinner and he’d be none the wiser.
She curtsied again. “I beg your pardon.”
The squire didn’t so much as nod, so Elsie excused herself word- lessly, walking a little too fast to be casual. Once she turned the corner, she straightened her spine and squared her shoulders.
No, she didn’t feel bad about breaking the law. Not one mite.
* * *
The sun was setting when Elsie made it back to Brookley; she’d paid a hansom cab to take her as far as Lambeth and had walked the rest of the way. She shredded the letter from the Cowls in her pocket. The oven would be hot about this time, and she could cast the bits into the coals without any trouble.
Sometimes she wished she had a confidant, but she counted herself lucky all the same. The Cowls had rescued her from the workhouse and lifted her from a destiny of poverty. The least she could do was protect their secrecy.
Brookley was just south and a little east of London, wedged almost equidistant between Croydon and Orpington. It was an old town well kept by those who lived there. The main road spiraled through the center like a river of cobblestone, a thoroughfare that led south to Clunwood and farmland before continuing on to Edenbridge. It was small and quaint, yet had everything a reasonable person could need—a bank, a post office, a dressmaker, a church. Granted, if one wanted a millinery, they’d have to head into either London or Kent, but seeing as Elsie was set on hatwear, that didn’t bother her particularly much.
One of the best things about Brookley was that the stonemasonry shop sat on its northern side, down a small road curving off the main one, so it was a fairly private affair to walk to and from the direction of London.
Elsie kicked dirt from her shoes before letting herself in through the back door of the house attached to the studio. There were a few shirts hanging on a clothing line overhead. The smell of mutton wafted through the air. In the kitchen, Emmeline, the maid, stirred a pot on the stove. Elsie had been in that position for several years after escaping the squire’s household, until Ogden had promoted her to his assistant and brought in a new employee.
After hanging up her hat and setting her chatelaine bag on a table, Elsie waved to Emmeline before venturing down the hallway, around the corner, and into the studio, which was by far the largest room in the house. The counter by the door served as a storefront, and the rest of the space was filled with tarps, uncarved and half-carved stone, easels, canvases, blankets, and an array of shelves holding a collection of tools and utensils in every shape a person could imagine, as well as a great deal of white paint; a man who could change the color of anything with a simple touch needn’t spend money on pigments. Cuthbert Ogden hunched on a stool just shy of the center of the room, surrounded by two lamps and three candles, delicately placing snow on the tiles of a manor he’d painted on a canvas half as tall as he was. There was something comforting about seeing him working like that, something familiar, something safe. Elsie needed those kinds of somethings in her life.
“You’ll need glasses if you keep squinting by candlelight.” She picked up a nearly extinguished candle and set it closer to his work.
“I am young and hale yet.” His low voice seemed to creep along the floorboards.
“Hale, yes,” Elsie said, and her employer glanced over to her, his turquoise eyes sparkling in the light. His dark brows crooked in a mock disapproving manner.
“Fifty-four is not old,” he quipped. “Fifty-five is.”
Ogden paused, nearly touching his paintbrush to his lips in thought. “I’m not fifty-five, am I?”
“You turned fifty-five in February.” “I turned fifty-four.”
Elsie sighed and tried to hide the smile on her lips. “Mr. Ogden. You were born in 1840, the same day the queen married Prince Albert. You brag about it to everyone.”
Ogden’s lip quirked. “I’m sure they married in 1841.”
“Now you’re just being difficult.” She stepped up behind him, avoiding a lamp, and surveyed the painting. Ogden had managed to make a gray winter sky look cheery. A heavy wreath with red ribbon on the front door denoted Christmas. Snow at the top of the house, the chimney, the bottom two corners. Ogden had a strange thing about adding details at the edges of the canvas first before moving in toward the center.
“Does it snow often in Manchester?”
Ogden shook his head. “No, but it was the client’s request.” “Christmas is seven months away yet. Seven and a half.”
“But I will need to put this away and look at it again in a few weeks.” Ogden’s eyes stayed on the painting, squinting and scrutinizing. “And then have you take it to the framer’s. That will take up another month, and then if they request corrections . . . you know how it goes. How was your evening?”
Elsie shrugged. “Uneventful. A long walk and some window browsing.”
Ogden stuck his pinky finger in the white paint on the palette in his off-hand. Elsie felt the spell as it sparked out of him, and the white brightened until it nearly glowed. He was a physical aspector, but not a very strong one. Strength in aspecting varied from person to person, although it seemed to be bestowed at random, not by genetics. The spells Ogden knew were all novice level. Spells that made only slight changes to the physical world around him—like changing the color of paint. Ogden didn’t seem to mind, though. Enough for an artist to get by. He’d told her that himself on more than one occasion.
Elsie watched him dip his brush and touch its fine tip to the eaves of the manor and the leaves of a tree on the grounds. It looked like real snow. With artistic talent such as his, Ogden didn’t need powerful magic.
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