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Chapter Six of Dead Magic

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Since Dead Magic will be coming out in a little less than a fortnight, I thought I would share the first few chapters here to whet your appetite for its release on November 10th. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be releasing a few more of the opening chapters. I hope you enjoy!
If you missed it, here are chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, chapter four, and chapter five.

Chapter Six
The Reading

Emmeline wasn’t certain what happened the night before with the book, but she didn’t like its aftereffects. Dressing that morning, she pulled aside the curtain and was pleased to find the road below free of spirits. At breakfast, she quietly picked at her eggs, listening to the sound of her uncle’s newspaper rustle while hoping her tea would begin working on her foggy mind after a restless night. She released a tense breath and tried to think about something other than how much she wanted to close her eyes. To sleep in meant she had to be ill and submit to her aunt’s examination, and that wasn’t something she could stand.

“What are your plans for the day, Emmeline?” Aunt Eliza asked casually, but Emmeline knew it was the beginning of an interrogation if she didn’t approve of the answer.
Pursing her lips, Emmeline fought the urge to spit back an answer that would only cause her allowance to be cut until she was sufficiently miserable. “I’m going to the Spiritualist Society and maybe have lunch or tea with Cassandra if I feel like it. What do you think I’m going to do? She’s the only one I’m allowed with.”
Eliza Hawthorne’s jaw dropped before snapping shut. As she began her usual diatribe on respecting elders, Emmeline’s eyes traveled to the door behind her. The door to her uncle’s laboratory had been constructed to blend into the wainscoting and the damask wallpaper with only the undersized doorknob to betray its camouflage. Normally, she scarcely noticed it, but now it was calling to her. Her aunt’s words died away as she watched the knob, waiting for it to turn. The room grew heavy as if a storm would burst at any moment, and amidst the faint rumblings, it felt as if someone waited on the other side. Her heart pounded in her throat as a voice rose from the threshold. It came as a gravelly whisper, barely audible, but with each hissing syllable, it became clear that it came for her.
I am strong. I decide who I read. No one can harm or speak to me unless I allow it. I am in control, she repeated to herself, walling up her mind against the invader as her mother taught her over a decade ago. When she looked up, the air had cleared and the figure had gone.
Emmeline shook off the energy humming through her. That hadn’t happened since she was a child. She had been so careful to keep her guard up in her uncle’s house. With the basement being used for autopsies and the occasional procedure, it could be a place where spirits who died violently might linger. Rubbing her eyes with her knuckles, Emmeline released a tired sigh. If only her mother was still here, she would know what to do.
“Emmeline, did you hear what I said?”
Looking up, she expected to find her aunt angry, but instead, she found her green eyes softened with concern. “Yes, Aunt Eliza. I’m sorry for being cross with you. I didn’t get much sleep.”
“Why don’t you stay home and rest?”
“No!” she cried a little quicker than she meant to. “No, I’m quite all right. I’m only going to listen to a lecture, nothing taxing.”
Eliza nodded, probing her niece with her doctor’s eye. “If you’re certain, but I will walk you there. Just in case.”
***

Shrugging off her aunt’s arm, Emmeline slipped into the Spiritualist Society, her mind far away as she unpinned her hat and handed it to the maid along with her parasol. She released a huffed breath and smoothed her dark curls in the mirror, which had become frayed in the humidity and were expanding at an alarming rate. She should have brought the book with her. Since leaving the house, its absence nagged at her mind like a bad itch. She couldn’t shake the image of masked bandits tearing her room apart and making off with the book before she could even properly look at it. Part of her wanted nothing more than to return home and make certain it was safe, but that was foolish. It would be fine as long as no one knew about it except her and Cassandra.
“Just the woman I was looking for,” Cassandra called with a smile as she emerged from the hall. “You have a reading to do in ten minutes.”
Emmeline bristled. “Are you joking? I didn’t have anyone scheduled today. Did Nostra do this? I was supposed to be attending Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lecture. She knew that, and if I miss it, I—”
Grabbing her arm, Cassandra dragged her into the empty front parlor. “Just be quiet and listen. I did it.”
“But why? You knew I wanted to go.”
“Yes, but I think you will like this much better than a lecture on faeries,” she replied with a playful grin as her friend cocked a contrary brow. “It’s your Mr. Talbot.”
“Are you serious? Are you certain it’s him?”
“As certain as I can be. The appointment was made for Nadir and Leona Talbot. That’s his cousin, isn’t it?”
“So she’s taken her maiden name? Hmm. I guess the divorce is finalized.”
“You really need to stop reading the gossip pages.”
“Ugh! And today my hair decides to look dreadful,” Emmeline cried as she broke from her friend, and pawed at her hair in the hearth mirror. “Is he as handsome as the drawings in the papers?”
“Even better. Well, go on. They’re waiting for you upstairs in the Blue Room.” She waited for her friend to move or at least look pleased. “What’s wrong?”
Emmeline stared at her feet before meeting her friend’s tawny eyes. “What if I make a fool of myself?”
“I highly doubt you will ever play the fool.”
At the sound of Cecil Hale’s smooth voice, Emmeline whipped around to find him standing in the doorway watching them with an amused glint in his eyes. Her face and breast flushed at the skim of his gaze over her dark red dress.
“I’ve seen your abilities, Miss Jardine, and you have nothing to worry about.”
“That’s very kind of you, Lord Hale. Will you be going to the lecture?” Emmeline asked, shifting to put her best features in view.
Tilting his head back to reveal his long, graceful neck, he studied the ceiling’s tin tiles. “Actually, I was hoping to sit in on your reading if you don’t mind an audience.”
“I would like that,” she replied, ignoring Cassandra as she rolled her eyes.
With a smile, Emmeline kicked herself for agreeing to do the reading. She hurried up the steps to the Blue Room with Lord Hale at her heels, her heart racing at the thought of having her favorite author and Lord Hale in the same room. It was a dream she didn’t know she wanted to have until now, two men she admired, both watching her, maybe even wanting her. It was like a plot from one of her hidden books.
With a slow breath, she prayed to her mother to help her and opened the door. The room was as hideous as she remembered it with every surface, including the carpet and wallpaper covered in a blue paisley that had faded to periwinkle in the sun. Despite its hideous upholstery, it was her favorite room to work in. There were no tables or cabinets for a medium to hide behind in the Blue Room, and it was there that her powers shined.
Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of Nadir Talbot sitting on the sofa. She had seen etchings from the court case in the newspaper, but somehow, she had never pictured him as a living being. As the door creaked, Nadir rose and turned toward her, revealing a strong nose to match his expressive byzantine eyes and sensual lips. Waves of unfashionably long black hair dusted the shoulders of his fern-green suit, which had been expertly tailored to accentuate his gracile frame. He was as handsome as she had imagined, but as she approached her seat at the head of the circle, she tried to remember to breathe and not look too interested with Lord Hale hanging about. Sitting beside him was his cousin. While she shared his complexion and eyes, Leona Talbot’s expression was somber, dour even, as she stared into her lap. Like a Renaissance Madonna, her features were in the constant war between softness and severity. Upon seeing Emmeline, Leona’s reddened eyes ran appraisingly over her form before returning to her hands with a frown.
Curtsying to the Talbots, Emmeline bit back a smile at Mr. Talbot’s smoldering gaze. She had never expected to be so close to one of her idols. She had followed him through the murder trial, and even if his character was still seen as dubious in many circles, she didn’t take the lack of a conviction in the case to mean he was guilty. As Emmeline took her seat, she noticed how Cecil kept his distance, barely suppressing a sneer at her clients.
“Welcome to the London Spiritualist Society, Mr. Talbot, Ms. Talbot. This is Lord Hale, my associate. And my name is Emmeline Jardine. I’m a spiritualist medium.” At the word medium, Nadir Talbot’s lips twitched into a bemused grin. She knew that smile well; he was a skeptic. Locking eyes with him, she added flatly, “As you can see, my séances don’t involve a table or spirit cabinet. They distract from the experience and are the hallmark of a fraud. So if you’re expecting theatrics, I would suggest you find another medium. Now, who is the reading for or is it a shared relative?”
At her question, Mr. Talbot turned to his cousin. She released a tight sigh and reached into her reticule to retrieve a stack of letters tied in twine, their dark brown seals had cracked and their edges had been worn soft by many hands.
“He wrote these. Is that enough to—?”
“It will do,” Emmeline replied with a smile, but when she reached for the letters, Ms. Talbot hesitated before placing them slowly in her palm. “What is it you want to know?”
Leona Talbot stared past Emmeline as she drew in a long, slow breath. “I’m not certain. I guess I want to know if he’s all right… wherever he is.”
Emmeline nodded. “Now, let’s move closer and hold hands to keep our energy bound within the circle. Mr. Talbot, Lord Hale, please rest your hands on top of mine.”
Emmeline didn’t always tell her clients to join hands, but when it gave her the opportunity to be in contact with two handsome men, she would milk her gifts for all they were worth. Loosely holding the stack of letters she began to clear her mind until she felt the gentle pressure of a hand closing over hers. Nadir Talbot’s fingers were warm against her hand, and if she focused her mind, she could feel the scrape of callouses where he held his pen. Another hand clasped hers. Emmeline shivered at the hum passing beneath Lord Hale’s fingertips.
Closing her eyes, she fought to ignore the gazes of the men beside her and slowed her breathing. The sound of steamer cabs clattering a floor below disappeared and was replaced by the babble of water gurgling somewhere nearby. Emmeline’s nose flooded with the damp of earth and the fragrance of greenery. Opening her mind’s eye, she found massive palm trees rising all around her, turning the sun into panels of stained glass as it shown through their leafy boughs. For a moment, Emmeline thought she had been sent to a tropical forest or an uncivilized island, but as she pushed aside the branches before her, she found that she was encapsulated within a great steel and glass dome. Where had the letters taken her? A few feet ahead, the path curved out of sight into a patch of vines and low, scruffy plants. It was strange not to see the spirit standing before her. Usually, they were ready and waiting for her, but in this spirit’s world, she had no choice but to follow the dirt-dusted bricks into the mist.
As she came around the bend, the foliage peeled back to reveal a square pool framed by soaring white columns and mosaics of nymphs. Sitting at the water’s edge in a burgundy wingback chair was a man with a book. His aquiline nose and sharp grey eyes gave him the quiet ferocity of an eagle, which honed in on Emmeline the moment she stepped into view. Lowering her eyes to his chest, she could make out the faint outline of a ragged hole in his shirt and waistcoat, and as she locked onto his face, the image faltered. The stripes of grey in his hair overtook what was left of the brown, and for a moment, his face appeared wrinkled and pinched.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, shutting the book and rising from his chair to loom over her.
His eyes sliced into her, lingering on her wild curls before running down her body in a languid line. Emmeline swallowed hard and steeled herself against his intrusive gaze.
“I was sent here to speak to you.”
“Well, I don’t want to talk to the likes of you, so get out.”
Emmeline rolled her eyes. So he was going to be one of those. Most dead were very happy to have a human ear to gab in, but those who tended to be hostile in life continued to hold to old grievances and bad behavior even in the afterlife. People never changed.
“The joke is on you because I can’t leave until you talk with me.” Defiantly meeting her gaze, he turned and headed for his chair, so Emmeline added, “It was Leona Talbot who wanted me to speak to you.”
He stopped mid-step, his eyes losing their edge for a brief moment. “Why?”
“She cares about you and wants to know you’re all right. I don’t know why she would care about a rude old man like you. If you don’t want to talk, I guess I will be going, then. You seem fine to me.”
Emmeline was about to leave the way she came when he called out, his voice less harsh than a moment before, “Leona asked you to check on me? Did she say anything?”
“No. I don’t think she knows what she wants to say. You’re Randall Nash, aren’t you? Her life is quite unsettled right now because of you. Is there anything you want to say to her that would make things better?”
“Tread carefully, little girl, you aren’t nearly as clever as you think you are. Leona was like you once.” Turning his attention to the temple behind him, his eyes locked on a bald spot in the garden. “You can tell her that my plant is in jeopardy, and I want it to be safe again. It’s the earl’s fault. If he hadn’t stuck his—”
Nash’s voice trailed off as he and Emmeline froze at a reverberation traveling through the earth. The water in the pool rippled and danced with a roll of thunder in the distance. The air in the greenhouse grew still, thickening with the taste of rain tainted with the scorch of burnt wood. Emmeline’s heart thundered up her throat as she met Nash’s light grey eyes.
“If you’re doing that, stop. You aren’t going to scare me off.”
Nash raised his gaze to the grey sky that had once been blocked by the greenhouse’s metal beams. Cocking his head, he seemed to listen to something beyond Emmeline’s senses. “They’re coming for you.”
Her pulse throbbed in her neck as another echo of energy passed through the garden and climbed her legs. It was like something out of a nightmare from her childhood. The giant’s heavy footsteps chasing her in his garden. Closing her eyes, Emmeline tried to wrench her mind out of the vision, but every time she opened her eyes, she was still in the spirit world. Oh, god. I’m trapped, she thought.
Emmeline opened her mouth to speak and found herself alone. Nash had disappeared along with the artificial forest. All that remained was hulking and ancient. Before her stood a gravel lane lined with towering yews. They had grown unnaturally tall, twisting in on themselves like a bonsai and contorting into the vague suggestion of faces or beasts. Emmeline’s breath came in icy puffs, roiling through the air before disappearing into the blackness pressing in around her. Something paced at the end of the path, and with each movement, the smell of water and fire grew stronger. The air suffocated her, burning her nose and throat. The thing was drawing closer. Emmeline willed her legs to move, but she stayed rooted in place. Where could she run to? When she had been in the greenhouse, everything had seemed so solid, so real, but now, the ground beneath her seemed only inches thick and would collapse under her at any moment, as tenuous as a puff of squid ink.
A face emerged from the shadows at the end of the lane. Emmeline’s heart pounded in time with the pulse of energy emanating from the creature’s body. It was barely more than the shades it hid within, but as it swept close, searching for her with wide, sightless eyes, she could make out the long face and branched horns of a stag. Where a body and limbs should have been, the darkness churned without forming anything that remotely resembled a body. A dozen skinny tentacles whipped toward Emmeline before sinking into its back, flicking out for a taste of her energy. They’re coming for you.
“What are you?” she yelled, her voice cracking with fear and her body trembling. “Tell me. Tell me what you are!”
Raising her gaze to the hollow points where the creature’s eyes should have been, the breath seeped from her body. There was no humanity in it. The cephalopodic monster had no life in it. Never had it been of her world, and as it fixed its gaze upon her, she could taste its hunger for flesh. Looming over her, it seemed limitless, the energy radiating from its wraith-like body overwhelming. Bile rose in Emmeline’s throat as she turned her head and closed her eyes at the creature’s tentacle skimming along the delicate aperture of her neck. It wanted her.
Emmeline felt the ground beneath her feet. She focused on the softness of it, the vision of it being no more than a shoe-sole thick. As the creature rose to swoop upon her, the ground gave way and she was falling.

 


If you enjoyed what you read, you can pre-order Dead Magic here and have it delivered to your Kindle on November 10th. Paperbacks will also be available closer to the release date.

Stay tuned for more chapters and previews to come.

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Chapter Three of Dead Magic

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Since Dead Magic will be coming out in a little over a month, I thought I would share the first few chapters here to wet your appetite for its release on November 10th. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be releasing a few more of the opening chapters. I hope you enjoy!
If you missed it, here are chapter one and chapter two.

Chapter Three

 The Junior Curator

 Looking up from his research notes, Immanuel Winter bit down a grin. Everything was falling into place. After only eight days in London, he found that he suddenly had everything he always wanted. He had moved in with Adam Fenice, he had a job as a junior curator at the Natural History Museum, and he never had to set foot on Oxford University’s grounds ever again. Immanuel leaned back in his chair, arching his back as he ran his hands through his hair and stretched. Wayward blonde curls sprang to life at his touch. The best part of this transition from student to professional was the privacy. No longer did he have to contend with constant rabblerousing from other students or having to find a secluded spot in order to work. Now, he had an office with a door he could close and like-minded employees who were, for the most part, peaceful.

His office was just how he had pictured it when Professor Martin told him that he had called in a favor with Sir William Henry Flower at the museum and secured a position for him in the zoology department. Most of the room was taken up by his desk, which was already covered with stacks of paper after only four days of work. Behind him and in the space between the door and the windowed wall were shelves and drawers for taxidermy creatures, fossils, and jarred specimens. The office’s previous occupant had been with the museum for years before it moved to South Kensington and had accumulated a veritable cabinet of curiosities and a small library of texts. At times, Immanuel felt as if he was merely borrowing the old curator’s office, but he was glad he hadn’t moved into an empty room, knowing he would have had very little to add besides a handful of textbooks from his time at Oxford. Even if the office didn’t have any personal touches yet, it was bright and clean and his.

Something shifted in the damaged side of Immanuel’s vision. He turned in time to watch a three foot swath of pale green wallpaper flop off the plaster. Immanuel sighed. That was the third time that had happened since he moved in. He opened the drawers of his desk one at a time, searching for anything he could use to secure it. Pins. He had seen dissection pins the other day, but where? As he yanked the bottom drawer, he heard the familiar tinkle of dozens of small things sliding together. Inside, surrounded by hand-written research notes and correspondence was a wooden box no bigger than a tea chest. Pulling off the lid, he snatched his hand away. Where he had expected to find a jumble of loose metal pins, he found a pile of bleached bones. Immanuel carefully lifted the box onto his desk, tipping it sideways to coax the bones to slide away from the skull. A blank-eyed face stared back at him with fangs bared. From the size and shape, he knew it had once belonged to a decently large housecat.

Immanuel stared down at the disarticulated creature. Its vertebrae lay scattered across the bottom of the box alongside ribs and leg bones, which had separated long ago. Why had the previous curator kept a cat skeleton in his desk? It wasn’t as if they were rare or that the museum didn’t already have a specimen on display. He chewed on his lip with his eyetooth, his eyes locked on the cat’s empty sockets. The longer he stared, the more clearly he could imagine its pointy ears and the curve of its tail. Since he gained a hint of Emmeline Jardine’s power, he had touched far too many corpses not to expect the cat’s death to be gruesome. When he touched the dead, he witnessed their final moments, and most specimens’ lives ended with the distant retort of a gun, the beast blissfully unaware while Immanuel screamed in his mind for them to run. Now that he was preparing his own lunch and helping with dinner, he often found his latent talents showed him the moment of squirming agitation before a chicken’s head was lobbed off or a cow’s throat was cut. It was enough to make him consider becoming a vegetarian.

He sighed. He had to know if the cat had met an unseemly end. If that was the case, at least he could bring it back to Baker Street and give it a proper burial. Adam wouldn’t mind, and if he did, he would simply wait for him to go to work and bury it anyway. Drawing in a deep breath, he braced himself for whatever godawful fate the cat could have suffered. Immanuel reached into the box and gently stroked the smooth spot between the cat’s ears. The bright office dimmed into a darkened bedroom. The moon peeked through the bed curtains and a fire crackled somewhere nearby, but the sound was drowned out by the rhythmic gurgle of purring. Ahead of him, he could make out a pair of fuzzy legs with the ink-dipped markings of a Siamese. A wizened hand lifted the sheets and pulled them up to the cat’s chin.

Immanuel released a breath as his lips curled into a relieved smile, but it quickly faded as a wave of grief washed over him that he hadn’t anticipated. The skeleton cat had been a beloved pet, one the previous curator had apparently kept until his own death. Maybe he should bury him after all. As he closed the box and carefully placed it back in the bottom drawer, he made a note to ask someone about the old curator. Opening the cabinet behind his desk, he found the jar of t-shaped pins he had been searching for. Immanuel dragged his chair over to the wall with the fallen paper. Taking a pin, he twisted it through the thick wallpaper and into the plaster, but when he tried to secure the other corner, the pin refused to sink in. With the heel of his hand, he hammered it home.

“Mr. Winter!”

Immanuel whipped around in time to meet the penetrating gaze of Sir William Henry Flower. The swivel chair spun beneath him as he tried to step down. Stumbling forward, the museum director caught his arm. Immanuel’s face reddened, turning a deep shade of scarlet at the sound of pins tinkling behind him followed by the flop of paper. Sir William Henry Flower stared down his patrician nose at the young curator. He stood only an inch taller than Immanuel, yet his air of authority gave him a presence that made Immanuel wish he could disappear into the wallpaper.

“Is everything all right in here?”

Swallowing hard, Immanuel straightened and nodded quickly. “Yes, sir. I— I was just trying to secure the paper.”

“We could hear you trying in the hall. Have Miss Nelson contact the maintenance staff to fix it.” The museum director’s light eyes roamed over the shelves before coming to rest on the jumble of books and papers across the desk. “How is the research coming? Have you found everything you needed?”

Immanuel pushed his chair back to the desk, suddenly aware of the chaos in which he had been working. Every inch of the six foot long tabletop was used to hold an open book or allow him to see multiple pages of notes. If he had another two feet of space, he knew he would have filled that, too. He hadn’t even worked there a week, yet he was already making a mess. Drawing in a long, silent breath, he banished all thoughts of being fired. At least one of his colleagues had to be worse.

“Yes, sir. I’m still getting the lay of the land, but the librarians have been very helpful.”

“Very good. It may be a good idea to check the specimen room in the storage cellars and take some measurements and notes yourself.”

“I will, sir. I didn’t know if I was allowed to do that. Touch the specimens, that is.” He swallowed hard, hoping he could hold off visiting the basements until he could bring a pair of gloves from home.

“Museum staff can borrow whatever is needed to further their research. If you have any questions about protocol, Mr. Winter, just ask one of the other curators or librarians. As you may be aware, there is a staff meeting today at one in the Shaw Room. You haven’t been with us long, but I think you should be present to see how things operate. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes, sir.”

Giving Immanuel a firm nod, Sir William turned to leave but stopped on the threshold. A wave of nausea rippled through Immanuel’s gut as he realized the older gentleman’s gaze was resting on his brown-blotted eye.

“I have been meaning to ask, but have you had your eye examined by a physician?”

The urge to run his fingers over the bump of raised skin that bisected his right brow was nearly irresistible. Immanuel’s hands twitched at his sides, but he quickly clasped them behind his back.

“Yes, sir. I was under a doctor’s care after the—,” he paused. What could he call it? Even after six months, he didn’t know what to say when asked about how he received the scar that clouded one blue eye with a half-moon of blood-brown. Immanuel’s jaw tightened and his eye burned. He wished he could pretend it never happened. “After the incident.”

“Was it treated?”

“Sort of. At the time, there were more pressing injuries to treat. The doctor couldn’t completely restore my sight in that eye, but it doesn’t trouble me much. I have grown accustomed to it,” he replied, his voice tightening.

“Very well. Remember the staff meeting is at one in the Shaw Room.”

Holding his breath, Immanuel watched Sir William leave, shutting the door behind him. At the sound of the glass rattling in its frame, Immanuel darted to the window. He wrenched open the pane and leaned out on his elbows. Summer air flooded his lungs as he exhaled the vision of Lord Rose looming over him and breathed in London’s unique perfume to keep his mind from conjuring the demon’s smoky breath. The earthy fragrance of Hyde Park down the road brought him back to the reassuring pressure of his office’s wooden floorboards beneath his feet and the paper on seal physiological evolution flapping against his desk behind him. Immanuel raked a rain-spattered hand through his hair. If Sir William had continued to question him, how long he could have lasted before the memories tore him from reality? Lord Rose is gone, he reminded himself as he did nearly every day. Lord Rose is dead and gone.

 

***

 

Walking down the wood-lined hall, Immanuel’s gaze traveled over the engraved brass signs beside each door. The Shaw Room, he repeated to himself as he made it to the end of the hall in less than a dozen long strides. It had to be there somewhere. He should have asked Sir William where it was. He thought he had known, but there were so many rooms named for founders, and after a while, they became as tangled as the streets he tried to memorize on his way to work. Rounding the corner, he resisted the urge to check the time. He didn’t want to know how late he was. Immanuel’s pulse fluttered at the thought of being dismissed in front of the senior and junior staff. It would take all his strength not to walk off London Bridge— if he could find it.

Why had they even hired him? It was something he had wondered since he received the news that the famed museum director had agreed to take him on as a junior curator sight-unseen. He had a hard time believing that Sir William had taken Professor Martin’s word about his student’s intellect and ability to articulate a skeleton as if by instinct. Perhaps it wasn’t often that Elijah Martin called in favors, and it made him wonder what Martin had done for the director.

Upon meeting him on the day Sir William had agreed upon for him to start his duties, the only thing the director had asked was his position on evolution. Satisfied with his belief in Darwin’s theories, he passed him off to the nearest curator, who happened to be Peregrine Nichols. At least it had been Nichols and not one of the museum gentry who were as white-haired and stoic as Sir William himself. Nichols was a junior curator, too, but had been hired a few years earlier in the botany department. He stood over a head shorter than Immanuel with boyish brown hair and long, dark eyelashes. Even if he was half a decade older, he had the fragile, delicate features of a child and the rapid-fire speech of a sideshow barker. As Mr. Nichols led him past cases of specimens, pointing out the ones he worked on along with those Immanuel would have to update soon, he caught him up on museum politics.

“You’re lucky you weren’t here for it. It was chaos, utter chaos for months when they left. Most were junior curators and assistants complaining that they couldn’t pay for their wives. Pfft, a crock. You know how people are, they always want more money than they could hope to get. We get paid well for what we do. By the by, do you have a wife?”

“No,” Immanuel answered a little too quickly as they skirted a mass of schoolchildren who stared up at the stuffed elephants in awe.

“Well, then I guess I don’t have to worry about you running before you even get settled. It would be nice to have someone to talk to who didn’t live with one of these,” Peregrine said with a chuckle, hooking a thumb toward the mastodon skeleton. “Your predecessor, Mr. Masters, was nice enough, a bit eccentric. You will have to get accustomed to that. There isn’t much that’s normal in a museum. Anyway, just stay out of Sir William’s way and do as he says. He’s been eagerly awaiting your arrival.”

When Immanuel’s eyes lit up, Peregrine continued, “Albert Günther, the old Keeper of Zoology, retired early after a fight with Sir William over the theory of evolution being forced upon the new exhibits. If you can’t tell, old Günther was more than a little agnostic when it came to evolution, and Sir William can’t stand that. It’s black or white with him. Anyway, he’s been forced to manage zoology along with his duties as the director, but now, you’re here to help bear most of the burden without the higher title.”

“Do you have any advice? Is there anything I should know?”

Peregrine tilted his head in thought, his pink lips pursed. “You went to Oxford or Cambridge, right? Well, then you know it’s all politics. It isn’t just what you know but who you know. The good thing is you seem quiet, trainable, and you’re replacing another German, so you should fit right in.”

More than anything, Immanuel hoped he was right.

Immanuel froze at the brass plate marked, The Shaw Room. Taking a calming breath, he adjusted his notepad and smoothed a wayward curl over his scarred eye. As he scooted inside, a dozen grey heads turned toward him, murmuring half-hearted greetings before returning to their conversations. It was like being back at Oxford. The entire room was lined in richly polished woods from the far-reaches of the empire and smelled faintly of leather and brandy. An oil painting of the museum’s founder, Sir Hans Sloane, hung over the hearth. The man’s curly powdered wig hung down in long heavy locks like a spaniel, his eyes staring ahead impassively as his hand rested on a book of botanical prints.

Before Immanuel could locate a free seat around the long, mahogany table, Nichols caught his eye and pointed to the chair beside him. Immanuel didn’t know how he missed Peregrine. His blue suit shone against a sea of somber blacks and greys, reminding him of Adam’s penchant for flashy fabric. Adam. He suppressed a smile at the thought of what waited at home and shimmied behind the senior staff to the empty seat. The moment he sat and tried to steady his breath, Sir William called the meeting to order with a rap against the table.

“I’m certain you all know why I have called a meeting today. The gala is in less than a fortnight, and we have plenty of work to do. The invitations, food and other sundry have been taken care of, but all of the specimen tags in the museum must be up to date, especially in the great hall and the ancient botanicals exhibit.”

A silent groan passed through the room while Immanuel and Peregrine stayed silent.

“Everything must be in top shape. You never know who will show up. We must present ourselves as if we know Her Majesty will be there. Mr. Glenmont, are the preserved plant specimens ready?”

A middle-aged man with gold-rimmed spectacles lurched awake. “Huh? Uh, yes, sir. The live specimens from the horticultural society are also ready to be picked up.”

“Very good.” Sir William raised a white brow at the little man nearly bouncing beside Immanuel. “Mr. Nichols, do you have everything under control with the specimen cards?”

“Yes, sir, completely done. Well, except for the silphium, but I’m nearly done. The Earl of Dorset sent me his notes, but they are rather hard to read.”

Immanuel’s ears perked at the familiar name.

“Mr. Winter, do you have something you would like to add?”

At the sight of everyone staring at him expectantly, he opened his mouth, then closed it before uttering softly, “I— I would like to help if I could. I particularly liked botany and did well in it.” He licked his lips. Should he say it? “The Earl of Dorset is my flat-mate’s brother-in-law, so I could possibly speak to him and clarify any questions we have.”

Immanuel paused as a murmur passed through the room.

“You know him?” Sir William said.

“The earl wrote his own notes?” one of the curators asked over him, his hoary beard in stark contrast to his lilting voice.

“I— I would assume so, sir,” Immanuel replied, his eyes sweeping from face-to-face before returning to his lap. “From what my flat-mate has said, Eilian Sorrell is a well-respected mechano-archaeologist and researcher. He found the silphium at his estate in Dorset.”

“Well, I’ll be. Never thought you would know an earl,” Mr. Nichols added with a shake of his head. “I would greatly appreciate Winter’s help if you can spare him, Sir William.”

Sir William thought for a long moment, his eyes flickering between the two young men. Immanuel resisted the urge to shrink beneath his hard gaze. Had he overstepped his bounds?

“It’s a bit irregular, but I don’t believe the zoological specimens are too out of sorts. Be sure to read and alter the cards for the pinnipeds. You are our resident seal expert, Mr. Winter.”

Immanuel inwardly sighed at the title. That probably meant more nights coming home smelling like decomposing walrus. Poor Adam. Perhaps a trip to the arctic would be his punishment for not knowing his place or for ruining the gala with poorly written cards. As Sir William moved on to other topics of greater interest to the rest of the curators, Immanuel replayed the conversation over in his mind. His heart thundered in his ears, blocking the men’s urbane, muted voices. It was like being before the dons and professors at Oxford. Every word had to be scrutinized to decode layers of forethought, alliances, lies, and useless politics. That wasn’t his way. It was hard enough to remember to refer to Adam as his flat-mate after months of waiting to share a bed, but that was a matter of life and death.

“Meeting adjourned. Mr. Winter, please stay behind. I would like to speak to you for a moment.”

Immanuel’s eyes widened, but as he looked up, Peregrine caught his gaze.

As Peregrine pushed away from the table, he gave Immanuel a half smile. “I wouldn’t be too worried,” he whispered. “If he was going to sack you, he would do it in his office.”

Swallowing hard, Immanuel clutched his notepad to his chest, waiting for Sir William to approach. When the last man filed out, the museum director turned to him, his face unreadable.

“You said your roommate is the Earl of Dorset’s brother-in-law?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are they close?”

“Yes, but—” It dawned on Immanuel where this line of questioning was going. “Yes, sir, he is the only family the countess has left. Adam Fenice and I spent Christmas with the earl and countess in Greenwich last year, and I believe they have gone shooting together as well.”

Sir William nodded, running a hand over his bearded chin thoughtfully. “I will have to extend an invitation to Mr. Fenice. If you and the countess are going, he may feel slighted if he is overlooked.”

“His cousin and her husband are going as well,” Immanuel added, staring at his feet.

“Who?”

“The Hawthornes, sir. Dr. Hawthorne is the Coroner to the Queen.”

“Very well. The earl made a sizeable donation along with the silphium, and I won’t lose their patronage over a slighted relative. Give my secretary his name, and I will make certain to personally invite him.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m certain he will appreciate it.”

When Sir William turned his attention to the snifter on the sideboard, Immanuel slipped out. A wry smile crossed his lips as he passed the men who had just been in the meeting. Their gazes fell upon him with a newfound respect. No longer was he some no-name German boy. He knew nobility and that would establish him better than age or experience ever could.


If you enjoyed what you read, you can pre-order Dead Magic here and have it delivered to your Kindle on November 10th. Paperbacks will also be available closer to the release date.

Stay tuned for more chapters and previews to come.

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