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A darkness strangeand lo.., p.17
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       A Darkness Strangeand Lovely, p.17

           Susan Dennard
 
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  He twisted his face away.

  “Does it hurt you to resist it?”

  “Yes,” he whispered, emotion thick in his voice, “but I keep hoping that if you learn necromancy and free me, then the command will end. Or if I could just find this Old Man—before Marcus does—I can fulfill Elijah’s final order. Then this constant ache will stop. And then,” his voice turned into a snarl, “I can destroy the bastard who stole Elijah’s body.”

  But to free Oliver—or destroy Marcus—I would need to train my necromancy. I wet my lips, almost relieved that I had to train if I wanted to help my demon.

  No! I screamed at myself. You can’t practice necromancy! You promised Joseph.

  A frustrated groan slid from my throat. What was happening inside me? Why were my heart and my head in such disagreement?

  Oliver’s forehead knit with concern.

  “Go on,” I said shakily. “Let’s find a place to . . . to train.” I gestured for him to lead the way, and he pulled me through a crumbling doorway and into a grand hallway. In one corner a wide staircase curled up . . . only to stop halfway, with a pile of smashed marble beneath. Overhead, the gray clouds floated somberly by.

  I found a broken column and eased down. Oliver insisted on first dusting off his own broken column—“Do you know how hard it is to get limestone off a suit?”—before finally settling across from me.

  My stomach grumbled. “What a shock,” I said drily. “I am hungry. Again.”

  “It’s part of the necromancy, you know.”

  “Yes, I guessed that. Whenever I do a spell, I find I’m famished afterward.”

  “No.” He shook his head. “You’re only famished when the spell wears off—and you will stay famished until you cast another.”

  I tensed. “What are you saying?”

  “I’m saying you cannot make that hunger go away unless you train.”

  “So, this”—I patted my stomach—“is a craving for more magic? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

  Oliver didn’t reply, but the wariness in his eyes told me all I needed to know.

  “So I am like an opium addict?” My voice grew high-pitched and sharp. “I need more spells to feel good? To feel normal?”

  “You’re too bloody strong. I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly. You have a lot of magic to control, but it means there’s a lot of magic to control you.”

  “You knew this would happen. You should have told me! I don’t want to be addicted to necromancy, Oliver.” I jumped to my feet and staggered to the foot of the broken stairs. I wanted . . . no, I hungered to destroy Marcus—that was all—but what was the price?

  I pressed my hands to my face. Stupid Eleanor.

  Footsteps thudded behind me.

  “What if I do magic the way Joseph does?” I demanded, my hands muffling my words. “Will the hunger stop?”

  Oliver strode in front of me and pulled down my hands. Everything about his expression—from the slant of his brow to the sag of his lips—was apologetic. “I don’t know if that will stop the hunger, El.”

  “But I would be using electricity—external power instead of my own.” I searched his face for an answer. “Would that end this . . . this addiction?”

  “Perhaps,” Oliver said, his nostrils flaring. “But then you’ll be using electricity. A magnificent idea in theory but ultimately absurd.”

  I gulped. I remembered thinking something similar at Madame Marineaux’s—about how inefficient the influence machine was.

  “There are limits to what you can do with electricity,” Oliver continued, releasing my hands. “You cannot make a phantom limb, you cannot cast a dream ward, and you certainly cannot defeat Marcus.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because it is weak, Eleanor.” He lifted his chin imperiously. “Electricity isn’t natural. It’s . . . it is a fake power.”

  “How do you know?” I asked. “Have you ever used it?”

  “No,” he spat. “And I never will. Setting fire to my veins? It will change me. Kill me. And for what? A single blast of power that I can’t even control. I use real magic, El. I am made of soul, and using my power is as safe and natural as breathing. Just as your magic is.”

  “But my natural magic is addictive.” My voice came out quick. “And in the end I’m limited. I only have so much spiritual energy inside of me.”

  “But you can enhance your power, El.” He drew back his shoulders. “And you can control the cravings. Without Joseph’s method.”

  “How?” I breathed. “How?”

  “Supplement your magic.” He took a step toward me, staring straight into my eyes. Not once did he blink.

  He looked dangerous. Demonic.

  “Blood,” he whispered. “Sacrifice.”

  For half a second I considered the words. But then the weight of those words careened into me. I staggered back. “No, no, no.” I lifted my hands. “You told me you didn’t approve of sacrifices.”

  “I don’t mean human.” He sniffed. “Spiritual energy is in the blood of any living thing, El. Simply drinking the blood of an animal will—”

  “Stop!” cried a high voice from another room. “Stop!”

  Gravel skittered, and Oliver and I whirled around just as Jie hopped through a burned-out window and into our room.

  “Did I hear him right?” She stared at me, her eyes huge. “Are you talking about sacrifices? And necromancy?” She punched a finger toward Oliver. “And did he call himself a demon?”

  “J-Jie,” I stammered. Where had she come from? “I can explain.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Yes.” But when I tried to say something, I found that my mouth would only spring open and closed. I turned a desperate face to Oliver, but he looked as stunned as I felt.

  “Well?” She planted her hands on her hips. “Say something, Eleanor. Is he really a demon?”

  I nodded slowly. All the blood left her face. “Oh God,” she whispered, shaking her head and backing up. “I have to tell Joseph.” She spun on her heels, spraying pebbles, and hurried toward the nearest doorway.

  “Wait!” I darted after her. “Please—I’ll tell you everything. Just don’t tell Joseph.”

  She paused. “Why not? He’s already worried about you—and you know he is. He told you to stay away from black magic.”

  “But I have no choice!”

  “You always have a choice,” she snarled.

  “No. I don’t. I would have died had I not used my magic, had I not bound myself to Oliver.”

  She retreated two steps and gasped. “You bound to it?”

  “Him,” Oliver snapped. “I am a—”

  “Shut pan.” Jie bared her teeth at him. Then she turned to me. “I’m telling Joseph about this.”

  “No!” I lunged for her. “Please! Let me . . . let me at least explain.”

  “I don’t want to hear any explanations from you.” Her eyes roved over me, repulsed. Betrayed. “You know a demon is causing les Morts. What if it’s him?”

  “What?” Oliver straightened. “How ridiculous—”

  “Really?” She thrust her chin at him and then at me. “For all I know, you’re both raising the Dead.”

  “Jie!” I reared back. “How can you say that?”

  “Easy. We think a demon is murdering these people, and what do you show up with? A demon. And on top of that, you’re learning necromancy. It’s not a hard conclusion to make—especially when the moment you came to Paris was the moment les Morts started rising again.”

  “No.” I grabbed the sides of my face. “Jie, you know me! I’m not a murderer!”

  “I knew you,” she spat. “And that Eleanor wouldn’t do necromancy. But fine.” She threw her hands up in defeat. “You wanna keep secrets from me, then keep ’em. But Joseph has to know about this.”

  “And I’ll tell him!” I blurted.

  “Why should I trust you?” she sneered. “You’ve lied to us—lied to me.”

  “No!” I shoute
d, anger rising over my fear. “It’s not Oliver. It can’t be Oliver. He was in America. With me.”

  She shook her head, her lips clamped tight. “You’re a necromancer now, Eleanor, and that makes us enemies.”

  Then, with a final jaw clench, she pivoted around and burst into a run. I immediately shoved after her. Oliver shouted for me, but I didn’t hear. I had to stop Jie. Had to make her see things my way.

  I pushed my legs faster. By the time I reached the open courtyard, I had broken into a full sprint. My ankles twisted on loose stones and white dust puffed onto my skirts, yet Jie stayed far ahead.

  So I ran harder. My lungs seared and my vision turned hazy, yet still I ran—out of the ruins and into the gardens after Jie’s shrinking figure. Flowers blurred in the corners of my eyes as I barreled onward, aiming for the street. For the hotel. For the almost-vanished Jie.

  By the time I reached the hotel, my body shaking, I had given up.

  Joseph was going to find out sooner or later anyway. What was the difference in defending myself to Jie than in doing it to the both of them? Let Jie tell him. For now I wanted to be alone to process everything that had happened—that was happening. I didn’t know what I was doing anymore.

  So I hauled myself up to my bedroom, sat on the edge of my bed, and stared at the carpet. Thoughts flashed through my mind one after the other—from the letters to animal sacrifices to the Black Pullet. Now I knew with almost complete certainty why Marcus was seeking my letters—and why Oliver wanted them as well. Yet this knowledge did me little good. I was no closer to stopping Marcus than I had been before, for I had now lost the only people who could help me.

  After a few minutes of these agonizing thoughts, I realized that simply waiting for the inevitable—for Joseph to find me—was more than my nerves could stand. So I decided to put my brain to work.

  I had new information; I should at least try to use it. It was time to dig through my sheaf of confusing letters. I could focus on those without thinking about myself. I would push all my other problems to the back of my mind, and I would go to the library to see what I could learn about the Black Pullet.

  Of course, it wasn’t as easy to leave the hotel as I had anticipated. As soon as I found Elijah’s letters in my carpetbag and hurried back down the main stairs, a tugging began to tickle in my gut.

  At the final step, the hair on my neck stood straight on end. Oliver was near.

  Yet I didn’t see him anywhere, so I resumed my trek—carefully, slowly—toward the foyer. It was as I passed the gentlemen’s smoking room, gray smoke billowing through its doorways, that I realized where he was hiding. So I crept to the heavy red curtains that draped the entrance and risked a glance inside. Through the haze, I could make out bulky scarlet sofas and beyond that a gold-and-black bar.

  A bar over which hunched a gray-suited young man, no doubt nursing a gin between his long, demon fingers. For several seconds I watched him, yet not once did he turn.

  I can sense him, yet he’s not sensing me. What I couldn’t tell was whether his obliviousness was from the gin or from a lack of desire to find me. But either way, this was my chance to sneak out unnoticed and conduct my research alone. So with my letters in one hand, I gathered up my skirts in the other and twisted around to walk away.

  But I instantly stumbled back. A tall figure stood squarely in my path.

  “Excusez-moi,” he said in stilted French, “mais je ne—” The young man broke off, his eyes widening in recognition. “Empress?”

  That was when my own recognition kicked in. I choked.

  Of course I had to run into Daniel Sheridan at that precise moment. He was dressed to the nines in a wheat suit, white tie, and even whiter pair of gloves. As if that wasn’t out of character enough, there was a gleaming gold monocle lodged in his left eye and a book—the book on manners, I realized—in his hand.

  Despite looking unusually foppish, he also looked rather spectacular—ridiculous monocle and all. The wheat of his suit blended into the sandy blond of his hair so that, in the brightly lit hall, he positively glowed.

  I cowered. Had Jie talked to him? And what if Oliver decided to come over right now?

  “What are you . . . doing here?” Daniel spoke with the same strange pauses he’d used earlier in the day.

  I forced my knees into a curtsy. “Mr. Sheridan. I was just, um, taking a peek at the room.” I flourished my letters toward the smoking room. “I thought perhaps . . . Jie . . . was in there?”

  “Um, no. It is for men . . . gentlemen only.”

  “Oh! So you haven’t seen Jie in there? Or . . . at all?”

  “Not since this morning.”

  My breath shot out. Daniel didn’t know. “Well,” I said, beginning my retreat, “if you see her, please tell her I was looking for her—”

  “Wait!”

  I paused, my heel midair. “Yes?”

  “Um, how are you?”

  “What?” My foot dropped with a thud. “I am fine. And . . . you?”

  He tugged at his tie. “Fine, fine. Thank you.”

  “All right, then.” I let my gaze flit over his shoulder. Oliver was still focused on his drink—thank the merciful heavens. Now if I could somehow slide my conversation a few feet to the right . . .

  Daniel swiveled his head into my line of sight. “Are you looking for someone?”

  “No!” I squeaked. “I mean, that is to say, of course not—I don’t know anyone in Paris, do I?” I laughed shrilly. “No, I am merely soaking in every detail of this fine room. Lovely example of Parisian decor.”

  Oh dear, what was I blathering on about? “Well,” I rushed to add, “good day to you, Mr. Sheridan!” I whirled around to hurry for the street.

  But Daniel slung out a long leg and stepped in front of me. “Are you going to the post office?”

  “What?” I frowned.

  “You’re carrying a stack of letters.”

  My gaze dropped to my hand. Sure enough, Elijah’s letters were still grasped tightly in my left fingers. “Ah, right. These do look like documents worth mailing, but no . . . no, I’m not going to the post office today.” I made to scoot around him.

  He sidestepped, blocking me once more. “Then where are you going?”

  I hesitated and wracked my brains for a good response, but all I could conjure was the truth. “Well, I-I’m going to the library. These letters are from Elijah, and I thought there might be a clue in them.”

  “A clue?”

  I lifted one shoulder. “Something to explain why Marcus wants them. He came all the way to Philadelphia—even approached my mother for them.”

  “Oh?” Daniel slid his hands into his pockets, waiting for me to go on.

  “I believe Marcus wants the Black Pullet, yet no one knows how to raise it—whatever it might actually be. All I know is that it’s some creature from the spirit realm that can grant its master immortality and endless wealth, but there’s some critical step in this whole summoning process that remains unknown. It’s possible Elijah figured out what that step is, and maybe”—I held up the letters—“there’s an answer in here.”

  Daniel nodded once. “Would you . . . would you like some company?”

  “No!” The word shot out before I could stop it.

  Bright pink exploded on Daniel’s face. “Oh, uh . . . of course. I just thought you might, um, want a companion. And by companion, I meant you might want me to join you . . . to keep you safe, of course. You did say Marcus might show up at any time, and . . .” He trailed off, dabbing at his hairline.

  One would think that seeing Daniel—the young man who’d had his fair share of pleasure in discomfiting me—at a loss for words would be wholly entertaining for me. Instead, it made my insides squirm.

  “I-I know where the library is,” he continued, still stammering. “I could keep a lookout while I guide you there. And I have research to do myself, so . . .” His eyes dropped to his shoes. “Never mind. It was rude of me to . . . to intrude. For
give me.”

  He turned to go.

  Maybe it was the way his cheeks burned scarlet or the way his shoulders dropped a few inches. Or maybe it was the way he said “forgive me”—the way he actually seemed to mean those two words. Or maybe I was simply desperate to get him away from the hotel before Jie told him the truth. But whatever the reason, the outcome was the same. “Daniel!”

  He stopped and looked back.

  “I . . . I don’t actually know the way.” I took a step toward him. “So an escort—and bodyguard—would be welcome.”

  And with those words, Daniel’s lips cracked wide in a breathtaking smile.

  My heart jolted, and a thousand emotions—emotions I didn’t understand, didn’t want to understand—exploded in my chest. But biggest of all was a hollow ache that seemed to start in my heart and radiate outward.

  I jerked around before he could see the horror no doubt lining my face, and as I scurried for the entrance, all I could think was, Why did I just agree to let him join me?

  And why, why, why did he have to go and smile?

  Chapter Fourteen

  Much to my chagrin, Daniel insisted on being a proper escort. Not only did we walk at a painfully slow, ladylike pace, but I was forced to rest my left forearm as lightly as possible in the crook of his elbow.

  It was an excruciating walk across the street to the Tuileries, and if he had still been toting that dratted book on etiquette, I’d have commanded that he burn the thing. Thank goodness he had dropped it off with a footman on his way from the hotel. As we trailed the sidewalk beside the gardens, I inhaled deeply. The air tasted crisp—like new beginnings—in the way only an autumn afternoon can.

  “Nice day,” Daniel mumbled, guiding me east toward the burned-out palace.

  I nodded. It was more than just a nice day. It was a stunning one. I wanted to skip and shout and kick at pebbles and pretend that this moment was nothing more than a September afternoon ripe with opportunity. Pretend there weren’t monsters hiding in the shadows. That there weren’t demons, or binding agreements, or hateful mothers, or best friends I had betrayed . . .

 
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