Page 8

 Sarah Rees Brennan

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“Deal,” said Kami, and hesitated. “Do you mind that I’m still friends with Holly?”
“No. I’m still friends with Holly. I just—it just hurts, because I was stupid, and I ruined things, and now everything is awkward. I wish we were all still comfortable. I want to put everything back the way it was.” Angela paused. “Is that what you want?”
To put everything back the way it was, when Jared still seemed to care about her.
She’d always thought the truth was important. If he’d only cared because of the link, it was better to know.
“No,” said Kami slowly. “I don’t know what I want.” She paused. “I thought Jared kissed me tonight.”
“You thought?” Angela repeated. “Like, you had a kissing hallucination?”
“It was in the corridor,” Kami said. “It was dark. I thought it was Jared but it might—it might have been Ash.”
Angela blinked. “Excuse me? Might?”
“One of those mistaken-identity makeouts,” Kami said defensively. “They happen.”
“Oh, sure,” Angela replied. “In Shakespearean comedies, all the time.”
“You are full of cruelty and mockery,” Kami said. “My heart breaks to think of the day I entrusted you with the fragile flower of my girlish friendship.”
Angela obviously wanted to laugh, and was holding back. Kami appreciated it.
“Ash, huh,” said Angela.
“I know what he almost did to you,” Kami said. “I’m sorry. I would never have done it on purpose.”
“It happens,” said Angela. “So I hear. Look, he almost did something really bad, but he didn’t. He helped me escape instead. I don’t like him, but I barely like anyone. You can make out with him if you want. I mean, you seem as if you could use some cheering up. Didn’t you like him before?”
She had. It seemed like so long ago, when Ash had come into her headquarters and she’d thought he was the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen in her life. He still was.
“Is he a terrible kisser?” Angela asked in a practical way.
“No,” Kami said disconsolately. “He’s a good kisser. He kisses like a minx. Like a minx on fire.”
“That doesn’t sound good.” Angela looked at her, half amused and half concerned.
Kami lay back on her one remaining pillow. “I really thought it was Jared,” she said to the shadowed ceiling. She’d wanted it to be, but she didn’t know if she’d wanted it because she wanted him—or if she’d wanted to feel like he cared about her, in any way at all.
It was the most ridiculous situation in the world. She couldn’t blame Angela for not being able to take it seriously. It was just that she missed Jared so much, and couldn’t seem to stop. She missed who she used to be when she had the link. She missed being sure of herself. She missed the whole world, the way it used to be. She didn’t know what she wanted, except to stop feeling like this.
“College, I’m telling you,” said Angela.
Kami laughed softly. “If you want to get out of this town so badly, why are you willing to face down sorcerers to defend it?”
“Basically because sorcerers are jerks,” said Angela. “And because they tried to hurt you, and they tried to hurt me, and I will not let anyone do either.”
“Thanks,” Kami whispered.
They lay side by side, staring up at the ceiling where the gauzy fabric that Angela despised cast shadows flirting with moonlight. They were silent so long that Kami thought Angela had fallen asleep.
“Maybe I was a little scared to tell you about me,” Angela said at last. “But even while I was scared, I knew I was being dumb.” She rolled on her side away from Kami, decisively ending the conversation. Kami smiled at her best friend’s back.
* * *
Aurimere, Kami thought, was extremely chilly in the morning and extremely intimidating all the time. This room in Aurimere House was one of the oldest parts of the building, something like a feasting room or a great hall with a fireplace big enough to roast a wild boar in, a curved ceiling like a church but with painted rafters, and rough stone walls. Part of one wall had been taken out to put in a window that stretched from floor to ceiling in hundreds of small yellow panes, the kind of glass that had always been clouded because that was how glass was made hundreds of years ago. The glass transformed the winter garden of Aurimere: turning dead grass into a bright carpet, dipping every bare branch in gold.
Lillian called it the Counting Room.
Kami had been afraid that Lillian would shut the door of Aurimere in her face, especially since it was so early that she had left both Angela and Rusty still catatonic. But Lillian had answered the door in her robe and then had, albeit with an air of weary resignation, led Kami into this room. Here she had shown her a large table, dark wood in the shape of a half-moon.
“Uh,” Kami said, “very nice. Antique?”
Lillian, possibly the only person in the history of the world to pull off being condescending while in a faded pink wrap, began to open up sections of the tabletop, sliding compartments with swift, silent efficiency. “All of Sorry-in-the-Vale used to come pay tribute to us,” she said. “These are records from four hundred years ago until thirty-two years ago, when our power was broken.”
Because Lillian’s parents, the Lynburns of Aurimere, had gone to stop the Lynburns who lived across the valley in Monkshood Abbey from killing people. They had succeeded, but Lillian’s father had died and Lillian’s mother had remained an invalid the rest of her life. Lillian’s mother had taken the Monkshood son, Rob, into her home. And now there was the same battle to fight again.
“So it’s like a rent roll, in a way,” Kami said, hand hovering over compartments, curious but aware she had to be careful.
“Except the sorcerous families never gave us money,” said Lillian. “We traded in favors and rituals, blood and marriage. So many sorcerers intermarried, it is hard to keep track. But it is a place to start, if you must insist on making a list of those who might be potential sorcerers. I think the list will be too long to make any material difference. But you are free to waste your own time.” She gave Kami a nod and left the room.
“Well,” Kami said into the echoing silence, her voice small, as if pressed flat by heavy stones. “Splendid.” She dragged up a chair, its back topped by carved hands on either side. She sat down, despite the feeling that those two hands might fasten on her shoulders at any moment, holding her captive there. She pulled her trusty notebook out of her bra, took a folded yellow slip of paper out of one compartment, and read the words written on it in a crabbed black hand: Gytha Prescott: bought protection for her children by offering herself as a sacrifice. The date on the top of the page was 21 December, 1821.
Kami was on her second notebook page of dates and names when she heard the door of the Counting Room swing gently open.
“Morning, Kami,” said Ash, in his most charming voice.
Kami kept her eyes fixed on her notebook. She was sure that her ears turned bright purple with embarrassment and gave her away. “Morning,” she said, clearing her throat.
“I was wondering if you could maybe use some help.”
Fatalism settled on Kami. Things were the way they were, messed up and absurd. She couldn’t change that, and she had an investigation to carry on. “I could,” she told Ash. “Pull up a chair.”
Ash did not seem disturbed by the creepiness of his own chair, though he was so much taller than Kami that the wooden fingertips were actually brushing both his shoulders. Maybe to a Lynburn, it felt like a benediction.
Kami had decided to look on him as a potential source of information rather than a potential source of extreme kissing-related embarrassment.
“Hey, sorcerer boy,” said Kami, tapping the page of the book she was reading. “What does ‘house-warding’ mean?”
“Cutting a man’s throat on the first stone laid of a new house, and burying him under the threshold.”
Kami stared at him. Ash went scarlet.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That record’s from 1902, isn’t it? It was probably an animal’s blood. And if it was a sorcerer’s house, the warding would be more specialized.”
Kami thought of the spell her mother had done with Jared’s mother, Rosalind, using blood and hair. Using her mother’s own hair. “Could you prevent someone from coming in?” she asked. “If you have their blood or their hair, you can make a special spell directed at them, right? Have you done that, to keep Rob out of Aurimere?”
Ash hesitated. “Yeah.”
“Do it for Angela and Rusty’s house. Do it for Holly’s. Do it for mine.”
“I can’t,” Ash said. “Not to keep another sorcerer out. He’ll use magic against the spell. My mother has to use a certain amount of power to keep Aurimere safe all the time. If we wanted a stronger spell, we’d have to kill for it.”
“Because death is a source of power,” Kami murmured.
“So’s life,” said Ash, the dull flush still in his cheeks. He fixed his eyes on the ledgers. “It depends on what way you choose to get power.”
Kami’s face must have spoken for her, because Ash burst out, “It didn’t seem so bad, at first.”
Kami raised her eyes from her notes. “The killing didn’t seem so bad?”
“It was just animals,” Ash said. “Father-son hunting trips. I wanted—he wanted to spend time with me. It felt like there was nobody like us in the world. Neither of my parents let me make friends with people at school, and we moved around so much.”
“Until you moved back here,” Kami observed, her tone cutting. “And your father told you to watch your cousin’s source. So on your first day, you made a mad rush to join the school paper, and you did a good job of pretending to like me. Whatever you reported back about me to your father, it was enough that he was sure I was a source. And he tried to kill me.”
Ash bowed his golden head. “Kami,” he said, his voice hushed. “I do like you.”
Kami did not know what to say, so she waited until Ash spoke again. “It wasn’t all lies, I wasn’t pretending. I just did some terrible things. I was wrong and I’m sorry. I’m trying to make up for it now.”
Ash must think that Kami was awfully judgmental for a girl who had been making out with him wildly the night before.
Kami gnawed on her pencil in distress at what her life had become. “I know,” she said, more gently. “I’m sorry about your dad. And to a lesser but still significant extent, I’m sorry about your mum.” She wondered if you could get lead poisoning from excessive pencil biting, and decided to stop.
Kami looked up, disconsolate, into Ash’s smile. It was still a lovely smile, but it was more hesitant than usual, and that made it look more real.
“Thanks,” he said.
It was comforting, having a guy seem like he wanted to be around her. Kami feared she was setting a low bar here. He’d kissed her, he thought she’d kissed him back, and he was so good-looking that people stopped and stared at him in the street. It was distracting and wonderful, being the sole focus of someone that beautiful.
And he liked her, he’d said so. As easy and reassuring as that. No laying claim to her soul, and no possibility of hatred.
Kami cleared her throat again. “Funny thing,” she said, tapping the crackling-thin paper in front of her, curling up like an autumn leaf. “The names of almost every family in Sorry-in-the-Vale are here, sorcerers or not. Except mine.”
“It wasn’t like that, between your family and mine,” Ash said. “There weren’t specific trades made, or services done. The bargain was made a long time ago, that they would guard and serve us. Until the power of the Lynburns was broken, and your grandfather ran away.”