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Tessa, whose head had begun to ache, wished Jessamine would cease to speak of “catching” husbands the way one might catch a cold, or a runaway cat.
“I could introduce you to all the best people,” Jessamine continued. “There would be balls, and dinner parties—” She broke off, looking around in sudden confusion. “But—where are we?”
Tessa glanced around. The path had narrowed. It was now a dark trail leading between high twisted trees. Tessa could no longer see the sky, nor hear the sound of voices. Beside her, Jessamine had come to a halt. Her face creased with sudden fear. “We’ve wandered off the path,” she whispered.
“Well, we can find our way back, can’t we?” Tessa spun around, looking for a break in the trees, a patch of sunlight. “I think we came from that way—”
Jessamine caught suddenly at Tessa’s arm, her fingers claw-like. Something—no, someone—had appeared before them on the path.
The figure was small, so small that for a moment Tessa thought they were facing a child. But as the form stepped forward into the light, she saw that it was a man—a hunched, wizened-looking man, dressed like a peddler, in ragged clothes, a battered hat pushed back on his head. His face was wrinkled and white, like a mold-covered old apple, and his eyes were gleaming black between thick folds of skin.
He grinned, showing teeth as sharp as razors. “Pretty girls.”
Tessa glanced at Jessamine; the other girl was rigid and staring, her mouth a white line. “We ought to go,” Tessa whispered, and pulled at Jessamine’s arm. Slowly, as if she were in a dream, Jessamine allowed Tessa to turn her so they faced back the way they had come—
And the man was before them once again, blocking the way back to the park. Far, far in the distance, Tessa thought she could see the park, a sort of clearing, full of light. It looked impossibly far away.
“You wandered off the path,” said the stranger. His voice was singsong, rhythmic. “Pretty girls, you wandered off the path. You know what happens to girls like you.”
He took a step forward.
Jessamine, still rigid, was clutching her parasol as though it were a lifeline. “Goblin,” she said, “hobgoblin, whatever you are—we have no quarrel with any of the Fair Folk. But if you touch us—”
“You wandered from the path,” sang the little man, coming closer, and as he did, Tessa saw that his shining shoes were not shoes after all but gleaming hooves. “Foolish Nephilim, to come to this place un-Marked. Here is land more ancient than any Accords. Here there is strange earth. If your angel blood should fall upon it, golden vines will grow from the spot, with diamonds at their tips. And I claim it. I claim your blood.”
Tessa tugged at Jessamine’s arm. “Jessamine, we should—”
“Tessa, be quiet.” Shaking her arm free, Jessamine pointed her parasol at the goblin. “You don’t want to do this. You don’t want—”
The creature sprang. As he hurtled toward them, his mouth seemed to peel wide, his skin splitting, and Tessa saw the face beneath—fanged and vicious. She screamed and stumbled backward, her shoe catching on a tree root. She thumped to the ground as Jessamine raised her parasol, and with a flick of Jessamine’s wrist, the parasol burst open like a flower.
The goblin screamed. He screamed and fell back and rolled on the ground, still screaming. Blood streamed from a wound in his cheek, staining his ragged gray jacket.
“I told you,” Jessamine said. She was breathing hard, her chest rising and falling as if she had been racing through the park. “I told you to leave us alone, you filthy creature—” She struck at the goblin again, and now Tessa could see that the edges of Jessamine’s parasol gleamed an odd gold-white, and were as sharp as razors. Blood was splattered across the flowered material.
The goblin howled, throwing up his arms to protect himself. He looked like a little old hunched man now, and though Tessa knew it was an illusion, she couldn’t help feeling a pang of pity. “Mercy, mistress, mercy—”
“Mercy?” Jessamine spat. “You wanted to grow flowers out of my blood! Filthy goblin! Disgusting creature!” She slashed at him again with the parasol, and again, and the goblin screamed and thrashed. Tessa sat up, shaking the dirt out of her hair, and staggered to her feet. Jessamine was still screaming, the parasol flying, the creature on the ground spasming with each blow. “I hate you!” Jessamine shrieked, her voice thin and trembling. “I hate you, and everything like you—Downworlders—disgusting, disgusting—”
“Jessamine!” Tessa ran to the other girl and threw her arms around her, pinning Jessamine’s arms against her body. For a moment Jessamine struggled, and Tessa realized there was no way she could hold her. She was strong, the muscles under her soft feminine skin coiled and as tense as a whip. And then Jessamine went suddenly limp, sagging back against Tessa, her breath hitching as the parasol drooped in her hand. “No,” she wailed. “No. I didn’t want to. I didn’t mean to. No—”
Tessa glanced down. The goblin’s body was humped and motionless at their feet. Blood spread across the ground from the place where he lay, running across the earth like dark vines. Holding Jessamine as she sobbed, Tessa could not help but wonder what would grow there now.
It was, unsurprisingly, Charlotte who recovered from her astonishment first. “Mr. Mortmain, I’m not sure what you could possibly mean—”
“Of course you are.” He was smiling, his lean face split from ear to ear by an impish grin. “Shadowhunters. The Nephilim. That’s what you call yourselves, isn’t it? The by-blows of men and angels. Strange, since the Nephilim in the Bible were hideous monsters, weren’t they?”
“You know, that’s not necessarily true,” Henry said, unable to restrain his inner pedant. “There’s an issue of translation from the original Aramaic—”
“Henry,” Charlotte said warningly.
“Do you really trap the souls of the demons you kill in a gigantic crystal?” Mortmain went on, wide eyed. “How magnificent!”
“D’you mean the Pyxis?” Henry looked baffled. “It’s not a crystal, more like a wooden box. And they aren’t so much souls—demons don’t have souls. They have energy—”
“Be quiet, Henry,” Charlotte snapped.
“Mrs. Branwell,” Mortmain said. He sounded dreadfully cheerful. “Please do not concern yourself. I already know everything about your kind, you see. You’re Charlotte Branwell, aren’t you? And this is your husband, Henry Branwell. You run the London Institute from the site of what was once the church of All-Hallows-the-Less. Did you honestly think I wouldn’t know who you were? Especially once you tried to glamour my footman? He can’t bear being glamoured, you know. Gives him a rash.”
Charlotte narrowed her eyes. “And how have you come by all this information?”
Mortmain leaned forward eagerly, templing his hands. “I am a student of the occult. Since my time in India as a young man, when I first learned of them, I have been fascinated with the shadow realms. For a man in my position, with sufficient funds and more than sufficient time, many doors are open. There are books one may purchase, information that can be paid for. Your knowledge is not as secret as you might think.”
“Perhaps,” said Henry, looking deeply unhappy, “but— It is dangerous, you know. Killing demons—it’s not like shooting tigers. They can hunt you as well as you can hunt them.”
Mortmain chuckled. “My boy, I have no intention of racing out to fight demons bare-handed. Of course this sort of information is dangerous in the hands of the flighty and the hotheaded, but mine is a careful and sensible mind. I seek only an expansion of my knowledge of the world, nothing more.” He looked about the room. “I must say, I’ve never had the honor of talking to Nephilim before. Of course, mention of you is frequent in the literature, but to read about something and to truly experience it are two very different things, I’m sure you’ll agree. There is so very much you could teach me—”
“That,” Charlotte said in a freezing tone, “will be quite enough of that.”
Mortmain looked at her, puzzled. “Pardon me?”
“Since you seem to know so much about Nephilim, Mr. Mortmain, might I ask if you know what our mandate is?”
Mortmain looked smug. “To destroy demons. To protect humans—mundanes, as I understand you call us.”
“Yes,” said Charlotte, “and a great deal of the time what we are protecting humans from is their own very foolish selves. I see that you are no exception to this rule.”
At that, Mortmain looked actually astonished. His glance went to Henry. Charlotte knew that look. It was a look only exchanged between men, a look that said, Can you not control your wife, sir? A look, she knew, that was quite wasted on Henry, who seemed to be trying to read the upside-down blueprints on Mortmain’s desk and was paying very little attention to the conversation.
“You think the occult knowledge you have acquired makes you very clever,” said Charlotte. “But I have seen my share of dead mundanes, Mr. Mortmain. I cannot count the times we have attended to the remains of some human who fancied himself expert in magical practices. I remember, when I was a girl, being summoned to the home of a barrister. He belonged to some silly circle of men who believed themselves to be magicians. They spent their time chanting and wearing robes and drawing pentagrams on the ground. One evening he determined that his skill was sufficient to attempt the raising of a demon.”
“And was it?”
“It was,” Charlotte said. “He raised the demon Marax. It proceeded to slaughter him, and all of his family.” Her tone was matter-of-fact. “We found most of them hanging headless, upside down in the carriage house. The youngest of his children was roasting on a spit over the fire. We never did find Marax.”
Mortmain had paled, but retained his composure. “There are always those who overreach their abilities,” he said. “But I—”
“But you would never be so foolish,” Charlotte said. “Save that you are, at this very moment, being that foolish. You look at Henry and myself and you are not afraid of us. You are amused! A fairy tale come to life!” She slammed her hand down hard on the edge of his desk, making him jump. “The might of the Clave stands behind us,” she said, in as cold a tone as she could muster. “Our mandate is to protect humans. Such as Nathaniel Gray. He has vanished, and something occult is clearly behind that vanishing. And here we find his erstwhile employer, clearly steeped in matters of the occult. It beggars belief that the two facts are not connected.”
“I—He—Mr. Gray has vanished?” Mortmain stammered.
“He has. His sister came to us, searching for him; she had been informed by a pair of warlocks that he was in grave danger. While you, sir, are amusing yourself, he may be dying. And the Clave does not look kindly on those who stand in the way of its mandate.”