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Excerpt

The Deepest Night
The Sweetest Dark Series, Book 2
Bantam [Hardcover]
ISBN-10: 0345531736 ISBN-13: 978-0345531735

CHAPTER ONE

Once there were dragons everywhere. Knit from the bones of the earth and the glory of the heavens, they hovered in the Divide, that thin wedge of existence that separates feral, untamed magic from safe, tamed lives.

They glistened metallic bright, thin as whips and swift as lightning. They scored the skies with wings and claws but walked on land as well, able to assume the shape of their mortal enemies—humans—when they wished. To live among them in human disguise.

They called themselves the drákon.

They hunted and fed. They wed and bred. Throughout history, human and drákon destinies entwined, but it was only humans who scribbled down the tales: about how dragons devoured crops or babies or virgins (one French anecdote I read swore they preferred truffles) and apparently were never quite smart enough to avoid being hacked to death by blokes in shining armor.

Then the drákon vanished. Just like that. Extinction came and ate them up like they were even more delicious than a virgin carrying a baby carrying a truffle through a wheat field.

Or so I surmised. Because as far as I could tell, there were only two of us left in this great and awful year of 1915, and ruddy little information to be found about even us two. Up until a short while ago, we both thought we were as human as anyone else.

But no.

There was me: Eleanore Jones, orphaned, impoverished, a slum girl scholarship student from the ghettos of London somehow improbably attending the prestigious Iverson School for Girls.

And the other, a boy as opposite my guttersnipe background as could be: Lord Armand Louis, the Most Honorable Marquess of Sherborne.

For a few short days and nights of my life, there had been Jesse, too. He wasn’t a dragon. He was much, much more dazzling than that.

But I couldn’t think about him yet.

Not yet.

***

So this is what you need to know first:

Ages ago off the wild and jagged coast of Wessex, England, a stubborn fist of limestone and forest eroded from the mainland to become an island with no name. An island that sometimes wasn’t even an island.

When the moon pulled just so, the island would shrink, surrounded by the blue salty waters of the Channel.

When the moon let go, the isle grew dry again, a mountain sitting on golden sand.

Ages after that, someone thought to build a castle upon it. The warlords then needed constant eyes to keep watch over the boats and tides, to stave off invasion by the barbarians who dwelled just across the sea.

The island had no name, but the castle had always been called Iverson. It was vast and eerie and composed of things like turrets and battlements and Gothic buttresses. It had a domed glass conservatory, a haunted grotto, and secret tunnels hollowed through its walls. Most significant, it had me and about a hundred other girls within it, plus a scattering of stern-faced teachers and staff. Iverson had been my home for approximately two months, ever since I’d been sent there from the orphanage in London because the Germans were bombing everything in sight.

(The orphanage, by the way, had been called Blisshaven, and you can imagine how appropriate that name was. Iverson’s headmistress informed me that it’d been blown to bits four weeks after I’d left. I’d stolen a bottle of fine Riesling from her cellar that very night to celebrate its demise.)

My world of late had become a tumbling kaleidoscope of color and change. For the first time in my memory, I had a home of sorts. I had a room of my own. I had enough to eat. I had fellow students who nearly tolerated me, and one in particular who loathed me. I had the zealous attention of a handsome lord, whether I wished it or not—which had everything to do with the tolerating and the loathing.

And I had known true love. Then lost it.

Dear Eleanore, blue-deviled again! How absolutely refreshing.”

Lady Sophia Pemington, the only girl at Iverson who would voluntarily be seen with me, plopped down in the chair next to mine at the library table and regarded me with her icy pale eyes. She was something of a mystery to me, a queen-of-the-class-at-any-cost type who still showed flashes of occasional generosity. She was also ruthlessly cunning—a trait I couldn’t help but admire, since we shared it. In another life, we might have been genuine friends.

“You know, my nanny would say that if you aren’t careful, your face will freeze like that.”

“Like what?” I asked.

Sophia screwed her features into an expression that could only be described as tragic, with sad pouty lips and woefully wrinkled eyebrows. She rubbed a hand across her hair, freeing flaxen strands from her normally tidy chignon.

I closed the French grammar text I’d been pretending to study and leaned back in my chair. The library at Iverson was properly tall and stately, trimmed in mahogany and polished brass and drowsy, post-luncheon students. Afternoon sunlight streaked through the stained-glass windows behind me, painting the table and my hands and Sophia, blue and amber and red.

“Is that supposed to be me?”

The lips grew poutier.

“My hair isn’t that messy,” I pointed out.

“Now,” she emphasized, dropping the face. “You should have seen yourself after—”

And Lady Sophia, who normally had all the tender instincts of a barracuda, stopped herself short. Even she knew some subjects were forbidden.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean—”

“Of course not.” I pushed to my feet. “Excuse me.”

But I’d stood up too quickly, and had to sway there a moment with my hands gripping the chair until the gray spinning fog cleared from my vision.

I’d been shot not long ago, you see. Shot more than once. It turned out that even dragons masquerading as girls needed time to recuperate from serious blood loss.

Sophia had a hand on my arm; she actually looked concerned. “Don’t be a ninny. I wasn’t trying to chase you off.”

“No,” murmured a new someone, just to our right. “You haven’t sense enough for that.”

Lady Chloe Pemington, brunette and gorgeous and a year older than her stepsister and I, had paused in a particularly brilliant patch of painted light. She granted us both a blood-red smile.

“Do have a care, darling sister. I’ve heard that once one touches true filth, it’s ever so hard to get clean again.”

“Well, that certainly explains your mouth,” I said. “Although it does make one wonder what you’ve been putting in it.”

“Not Lord Armand,” Sophia noted, which was really the best possible blow, because everyone knew that Chloe loved Armand, and had for years. She loved his enormous manor house and his family connections and his automobiles and his servants and most especially his glamorous future as a rich-rich-rich duke.

But Armand, it seemed, had finally noticed the tin beneath her gilt. Most of the other students were of the opinion that he was falling in love with me.

They had no idea we shared a bond far stranger and darker than that.

Chloe’s eyes had gone to slits. “How dare—”

I flicked a hand at her, cutting her off. “Oh, marvelous. Are you about to go on about me daring things again? Truly? I’d think you’d have a new diatribe by now.”

Mrs. Westcliffe, the school’s headmistress, entered the library with a staccato clicking of heels and a rustling of black organdy skirts. She spotted us at once and paused, her gaze keen and her shoulders stiff; the three of us together could only mean trouble.

Chloe drew in a long breath through her nose. She exhaled, took a step closer to Sophia and me, and brought back the red smile.

“Soon we shall be off enjoying the summer, holidaying with all the very best people, attending dances and dinner parties and living the kind of life you will only ever read about in the rag sheets. And where shall you be, Eleanore? Which lice-ridden dosshouse shall be taking you in?”

“One with only the very best lice,” I whispered back to her, but she was already swishing away.

***

Nightfall on the island nearly always meant velvet skies swept with stars, and the Channel filling the air with the tang of salt, and the slow, rhythmic drumbeat of waves crashing against the rocky shore.

As a child in London, I’d never smelled the sea, nor seen the heavens so spangled. I’d never known nights any hue other than black or brown or sooty gray, but here they came saturated in color.  Navy, sapphire, indigo. And, very rarely: deep, pure amethyst.

An amethyst sky had welcomed me the first night I’d set foot upon the isle. It had reappeared for my first visit to Jesse in his cottage in the woods, and again for the night I’d been shot and Jesse had died.

It shone past my window on this night as well. It was a purple so thick and luminous I might well believe something Other than nature had created it. Something magical.

Less than a year ago I would have laughed at the thought. Tonight, though . . . tonight I wondered.

I leaned out past the sill of my room’s sole window, surveying the stars. My hair was unpinned, draping over my shoulders to tickle my crossed arms. In direct sunlight it looked an ordinary pale mousy brown, but when I glanced down at it now, I was unsurprised to see it had gone almost as purple as the heavens. It did that, taking on other tints, reflecting back whatever color was near, especially pink. I’d thought perhaps it was a dragon trait, but since Armand’s hair always seemed to be the same glossy chestnut, I couldn’t be sure.

My eyes were like that, too. Changeable. Lavender gray most of the time . . . except, apparently, when they flashed incandescent. I’d never seen it happen—I guess I’d have to be looking in a mirror—but Armand and Jesse had told me about it.

I was sixteen years old, more or less. It was peculiar to think of my own body as a stranger, but it was. I was learning new things about it nearly every day.

The room assigned to me at Iverson encompassed the top floor of one of the smaller stone turrets. It was round and crammed wall to wall with just a bed, an armoire, and a bureau. The other girls at the school all shared lavish suites bedecked in jeweled glass and rosewood and lace, but I didn’t think any of that compared to what I had been given: Privacy. Solitude. A window glazed in a thousand diamond pieces, with hinges that worked and a view to the sea and the mainland bridge beyond.

And the stars.

Oh, the stars, twinkling and winking at me.

come out, they sang, a celestial chorus only I could hear. come out, beast. come fly to us.

Somewhere belowstairs, from one the parlors perhaps, a clock began to chime, followed by a cascade of others.

Midnight. Perfect.

I stepped back from the window so my nightshirt wouldn’t blow away, took a deep breath, and Turned to smoke.

***

I’m not sure how best to describe what it’s like. Imagine all the weight of your body, all those heavy pounds of muscle and bone and fat, abruptly melted away. You still exist, but you’re vapor. Diaphanous coils, elegant and twisting, lighter than air. You can see and hear, even control your direction. You’re not cold or warm. You feel no physical pain.

Only the hunger to fly.

This is the first step to Becoming a dragon.

As smoke, you can sift through an open window, float out past the walls of a castle. You can spread yourself as thin as sea spray or bunch up thick like a cloud. You can rise and rise and hear the stars more clearly than ever before, pulling at you, celebrating you. Humming and praising.

You belong to them; they belong to you. And there will always be an aching, festering fragment of you that yearns to just keep going up, forever and ever. To never touch the earth again.

***

I glided over the smooth manicured lawn fronting the castle, the tidy rose gardens and the sinister huge hedges that had all been pruned into animal shapes, wolves and lions and unicorns. I might well have been an odd sliver of mist, or the creeping fog that uncurled from the woods to slink along the grounds. Except I moved as nothing else did.

I left Iverson behind me, soaring farther into the forested center of the island. Black spiky crowns of birch and beech skipped past, their leaves flashing purple. Meadows opened up and closed again. If I dipped too low, the forest’s branches would tear me into pieces. It wouldn’t hurt, but it wouldn’t be especially pleasant, either. I made certain to remain above the trees.

As compelling as the stars’ songs were, I had a different goal in mind tonight besides just flight.

I knew the way to the cottage by heart. It sat alone and empty in an uncivilized portion of the woods, a place none of the other students would dream to venture. As far as I could tell, none of the staff came out here, either. The windows were shuttered. The door was locked, but it was wooden and old and no longer quite fit the jamb. The gaps were easily wide enough for smoke to slide though.

I Turned back to girl on its other side. Nude. Chilled.

I didn’t like to linger here. It might have been my imagination or just a depressing truth, but the air inside Jesse’s cottage was still scented of him, and I didn’t like to breathe it. I think deep down I was worried that one day I’d breathe it all gone, and that would be the last of him. The last time I remembered his fragrance.

I removed a shirt and trousers from his closet, got dressed, and left by the door—then doubled back when I realized I’d forgotten the shovel stored by the woodshed. None of Jesse’s boots fit me, so I went barefoot along the trail that wrapped around the cottage and vanished into the trees.

Leaves and grass folded soft beneath my soles. The tip of the shovel made a soft chuck into the ground with my every other step. A breeze slipped by in fits and starts, ringing me in the perfume of wildflowers and bracken and mossy logs.

It was bloody dark. But I was able to find my way by memory . . . and by following the subtle, lilting music that was gradually growing louder ahead.

Dragons hear all manner of music that humans don’t. It was one of the reasons I’d spent a year of my life imprisoned in the hell of Moor Gate, because I kept asking the adults around me to explain all the unending songs. Songs from the stars, of course. But also from metals. From stones. Songs from stickpins or emeralds or iron bars, each one unique, strident or gentle, a ballad or a symphony—the music never ceased.

Not even when I was given the electrical shock treatments.

Not even when they submerged me in the ice baths.

Not even the morning they’d killed me because they could, and then forced my dead heart to beat again.

The music I followed tonight was muffled, because it emanated from several feet underground. I stopped finally at a tall rowan tree, leaned the shovel against it, and sat down at its base. I eased back against the trunk, dug my toes into the peat, and waited.

It wasn’t too much longer before footsteps approached.

CHAPTER TWO

“Miss Jones,” Armand greeted me, winding his way through a strand of whispering beeches.

“Your Grace,” I answered.

“Not quite. That’s still my father.”

My eyes had adjusted to the night by then, and I was able to make out the pale folds of his scarf, the ghostly outline of his face and hands against his linen duster.

He would have driven from his mansion on the mainland to as far as the island bridge, then walked the rest for stealth. I wondered that he hadn’t gotten hot in that coat.

“Your . . . lordiness. Whatever you are now. I don’t know the proper address for a marquess, I suppose.”

“Lord Sherborne,” he supplied smoothly, coming close to the rowan. “Or simply my lord. But you can call me sweetheart.”

“I don’t believe I will.”

His teeth flashed in the gloom; I’d made him smile. “We’ll see.”

Armand had nearly everything in the world he could possibly want. He had money, social status, and inhumanly good looks. His family owned the castle and the island the castle sat upon, along with most of the mainland nearby. He lived in a monstrosity of a manor house perversely named Tranquility, a few miles inland. He was intelligent, brooding, and dangerously magnetic in that way somehow unique to young men born to power. He’d been booted out of Eton twice and I still couldn’t think of a single girl at Iverson who wouldn’t give her right arm—or, more specifically, her left-hand ring finger—to him at the drop of one of his expensive hats.

Especially since his older brother, the previous Marquess of Sherborne, had been so accommodating as to go and get himself killed in the war. So the future Mrs. Armand was guaranteed a duchess’ coronet.

I used to think it was selfishness or just boredom that had him constantly showing up at Iverson to seek me out. The desire to rebel against his father and Westcliffe and all the sticky spiderwebs of rules that entangled us both. I was hardly a seemly companion for the son of a duke, and everyone knew it, especially me.

Then we’d found out. About being dragons, I mean. And about how it would be in his nature to hunt me like this till the end of time.

I don’t which of us was more appalled.

But Armand’s drákon blood was thinner than mine, and his powers were only just emerging. He couldn’t Turn to smoke or dragon yet, so at least I had the advantage over him there. He knew if he pushed too far, I’d Turn and leave.

“Bloody dark,” he commented, settling down beside me. He was holding something bulky in his hands.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Really?” He stilled. “Is that a dragon trait? You can see in the dark?”

Now I was the one smiling, though I was glad he couldn’t tell. “No, my lord. It is bloody dark.”

“In that case . . .” He rummaged through the bulky thing, and suddenly I smelled cheese and salty olives and bread and smoked fish.

“Good God,” I said, my mouth beginning to water. “Did you bring a picnic?”

“A small something, perhaps. And . . .”

And a lantern, as it happened. He struck a match; the delicious food scent was briefly overwhelmed by sulphur, and then the amethyst shadows retreated against a small yellow glow.

“That’s better,” he said.

I drew my knees up to my chest. “Someone might see.”

“Who the devil,” Armand responded cordially, replacing the lantern’s glass, “is going to see all the way out here in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? I’m not going to attempt to eat Russian caviar in the dark, Eleanore. It stains. And this is a new coat.”

“Very well.”

He sent me a glance from beneath his lashes. With the light cast up from below, he was all stark jawline and cheekbones and diabolical dark brows. I saw the dragon in him then as clear as could be. Only his eyes were reassuringly familiar: rich cobalt blue, the color of oceans, of heaven’s heart.

“Hungry?” he asked, soft.

There was an implication in his tone that he meant for something other than food.

“I’ve never had caviar,” I said deliberately.

His gaze fell from mine. “Then I’m honored to be the one to offer it to you now.”

And that is how I discovered that caviar is one of the most purely revolting substances ever to exist. I actually had to spit it out and wipe my tongue clean with a fresh piece of bread to get the disgusting fish-jelly flavor out of my mouth.

“Charming.” Armand was smearing more onto his own bread with a delicate silver knife. “Glad to know all those lessons in deportment aren’t being wasted.”

“What josser was the first person to slit open a sturgeon and see a slimy blob of eggs and think, Right, I’m going to eat that?” I swiped again at my tongue. “I never thought there existed a food I wouldn’t like, but you, my lord, have proven me wrong.”

“A first!”

“And last. What else did you bring?”

Ten minutes later, I realized I was the only one still eating. Crickets had begun to chirp sleepily from the bracken, filling the silence. I glanced up to discover Armand watching me, his face shadow-sharp and inscrutable. The last of the bread and olives lay untouched by his feet.

“Westcliffe doesn’t want you coming back next year,” he said abruptly.

I brushed some crumbs from my shirt. “That’s hardly a revelation. She thinks I’m your doxy.”

“She’s sent letter after letter to Reginald, implying it’s time to find a new scholarship girl. To cut you loose.”

Reginald was the duke, and my sponsor at the school. I’d only ever heard Armand refer to him as “dad” once. Right after His Grace had tried to murder me.

“What does he write back?” I asked.

“Nothing, so far. I’m afraid all her letters have been regretfully mislaid.”

I smiled, shaking my head. “You can’t keep that up.”

“No, I know. Eleanore—Lora—listen.”

But he didn’t say anything else, just kept staring at me, fierce. The flame of the lantern maintained its small, steady burn between us.

Crickets. Leaves rustling. Very dimly: the surging pulse of the sea.

“Don’t worry.” I tried to sound confident; I was an excellent liar, but Armand had a hardness to him that wasn’t easily fooled. “They’ll probably send me to another orphanage, but just for the summer. It won’t be for long, and I’ll be fine. You know I’m not nearly as helpless as I seem. I’ll land on my feet, no matter where I end up.”

“Another orphanage—or worse.”

“No.” I was pleased my voice didn’t crack. “That won’t happen, I assure you.”

Hell would freeze over first. The moon would plunge from the sky, cats would bark and dogs would weep tears of rubies and pearls. I would never, ever return to Moor Gate, or any place like it. I would never let demented people like that have control over me again.

Armand ran a hand through his hair, leaving a muss. “There is another option. We get married. You stay with me.”

My attention zagged back to him; I’m sure my mouth had fallen open. “Married.”

“Yes. Kindly try not to sound so horrified.”

I covered my lips with both hands, then forced myself to drop them to my lap. “You—you’re not of age yet.”

“I will be in a month.”

“Well, I’m not of age yet. I haven’t the faintest idea when I’ll be eighteen.”

He frowned. “You don’t know how old you are?”

“No. I don’t even know my birthday.”

“How you could celebrate it if you don’t . . . ?”

I only looked at him.

“Oh. Right. Orphanage.”

“And the fact that I have no memory of my life before 1909. The only thing I know about myself at all is that I was born on a steamship. And only because Jesse told me that, and the stars told him.”

Armand picked up a fat green olive and held it between his finger and thumb, glaring down at it. “The stars, of course. Always the bloody damned stars.” He flicked the olive to the trees, and all the crickets went quiet.

Jesse had been a star. Of the stars, human-born but with all the sorcery of the firmament rushing through his veins. He’d been a creature caught between realms, like us, and had recognized what Armand and I were long before we two did.

Everyone at Iverson assumed Jesse Holms to have been nothing more than the simple hired hand he’d pretended to be. But he’d become my light and my guide into my drákon Gifts. It was because of him that the stars now spoke to me, instead of just singing their wordless songs.

“Don’t you hear them yet?” I asked gently.

“Yes, I hear them. I just don’t like what I hear.” Armand climbed to his feet, slapping noisily at the folds of his coat. “Look, waif, I haven’t got all night. I have to wake up early for another excruciatingly instructive meeting with my farms manager about some cows or something, so let’s get this over with. Did you bring the shovel?”

I rose to my own feet, lifting a hand to indicate the shovel, obviously just beside me.

He grabbed it, said, “Let’s go,” and moved off without another look.

I collected the lantern and the picnic basket and followed him. Neither of us really needed illumination to find the place where I’d buried my chest of gold a few weeks before, but I didn’t want to leave any evidence of our meeting behind.

Like me, Armand heard the music of the metal and strode straight to it.

I’d chosen an area that looked like any other in the woods, littered with decomposing leaves and pine needles, a few handy ferns growing lush and random around it. Oak roots pushed through ivy and peat, sinking gnarled tendrils all the way down into the bedrock.

There was a gap in the root system exactly wide enough for the chest. A little too far in any direction, and a treasure seeker would end up just slashing at wood.

Armand sank the shovel into the perfect center of the proper spot.

I would have done the digging myself, but he’d insisted. I hadn’t told him, but the truth was that burying the chest in the first place had made me so ill I’d actually passed out. I kept forgetting I was supposed to be on the mend.

“I’ve counted every piece,” I warned him, watching the shovel jab in, lift out, great mounds of moss and dirt piled to the side.

He didn’t glance up. “You think I’d steal from you?”

“Only once.”

“Your faith in me is gratifying.”

“Not especially wifelike, I presume?”

The shovel stabbed extra deep; his voice came ironic. “No. Not especially.”

Minutes later the blade thunked into the lid of the chest, and all the gold-song within went sharp in response. Armand straightened, tossed the shovel aside, and clambered out of the shallow hole.

“All yours,” he said with a sweep of his hand.

I lay flat on my stomach at the edge and reached down. The chest had no lock—I hadn’t thought there’d be a point to locking it, and anyway, I’d nicked it from Jesse’s cottage and didn’t have the key—so all I had to do was lift the iron tongue of the latch to raise the lid.

It was hard not to gasp. My treasure was beautiful, it really was. Gold glimmered and sang and gleamed up at me, magnificent even in the feeble light. But since it had come from Jesse, not pirates, it wasn’t anything ordinary like ingots or doubloons.

It was a jumble of solid gold branches and acorns and leaves, pinecones and flowers. It was the work of a naturalist, of an alchemist who had lived amid nature, who had appreciated the unspoken splendor of the wild.

Jesse’d been able to transform any living thing into gold, another secret he’d taken to his grave. The contents of this chest had been his final gift to me.

So technically I wasn’t impoverished any longer. I had all this. And I had it out here in the forest because there were maids and enemies and no locks on any of the doors at Iverson, and no reason on earth for an urchin like me to possess anything of value, much less a collection of sculpted golden objects.

Armand kept his distance. I could hear his heartbeat, though, how it had quickened at the sight of the treasure, a cadence that matched my own and the precise tempo of the music that lifted from the chest.

“Hurry,” he urged, low.

I picked up one of the pinecones. It was on top of the tangle, a cool and heavy weight in my hand. I scrambled back from the edge and held it out for Armand to see.

“Will this do?”

He nodded, not even looking at it. “Done?”

“Yes.”

He bent down and grabbed the shovel again.

***

It wasn’t until the hole was filled once more, the music muted, and we were on our knees carefully rescattering the old leaves and needles that Armand sat back on his heels and spoke.

“Jesse’s gone, Lora. Gone forever. Nothing can change that.”

“I know.” I crumbled a clod of dirt between my fingers, watching it dissolve into dust. “But we can’t help whom we love.”

Armand sighed, bitter. “No. We can’t.”

***

I awoke the next morning in time for breakfast, which was a relief. I was always hungry, and oversleeping meant I’d have to wait until luncheon for food. By then I’d be seeing spots from lack of nourishment.

Apparently my drákon metabolism wasn’t quite as ladylike as might be hoped. Respectable young Englishwomen barely bothered to eat; the other girls at Iverson only nibbled at their meals and whined about their too-tight corsets. I, on the other hand, ate so much I had to hide it from Mrs. Westcliffe, and half the time I snuck about with no corset at all.

That fact alone was probably enough to get me booted from the school.

Did you hear about that tramp Eleanore? It turns out she was running around stark naked beneath her clothes!

Well, not entirely. I did usually bother with a chemise, because otherwise I got cold.

I rolled from my bed. My feet hit the stone chill of the floor and I hastened to the wardrobe, pulling open the doors to survey what I had to wear today.

Five white long-sleeved shirtwaists, all identical. Five dark plum slender skirts, also identical. Five sets of plain black stockings; ten garters. One pair of black buttoned shoes.

We all wore the same uniform at Iverson, society girls and slum girls alike. To be frank, it was a relief not to have to don my shabby Blisshaven clothes for class, even though I did still have to resort to them for the weekends. Sometimes it was just easier to mix with the herd.

A hard rap sounded on my door. It opened before I could respond, and Gladys, the maid appointed to my room, walked in with a pitcher of fresh water.

“Oh,” she said, unenthusiastic. “You’re up, then.”

I smiled at her. She brought the pitcher to the bureau and plunked it down hard, sloshing water across the wood.

“What time is it?” I asked sweetly.

“Sorry, miss.” She dried her hands on her apron, avoiding my eyes. “Been so busy, I forgot to look at the clock.”

One of Gladys’ tasks was to ensure that I was awake before breakfast was served. So far, she’d not managed it once, and that was not an accident.

Scholarship students were never local girls. I could have tried to explain to her that it wouldn’t have mattered even if the duke hadn’t set that rule; that a slippery combination of destiny and magic had brought me here to the castle, not just dumb luck.

But Gladys was skinny and hostile and too old inside for someone who was only about twenty. I’d wager she’d lost any last faith in magic the day she’d needed money badly enough to take this job.

Should she and Chloe ever join evil forces, I might be in real trouble. Fortunately, Lady Chloe stooping to converse with a common housemaid was about as likely as Kaiser Wilhelm showing up bearing roses at our door.

“Thank you,” I said brightly to Gladys’ back as she stomped out of the room.

I tried to be nice to her. Usually. I’d hate working here, too.

***

What Iverson lacked in electricity, enough water closets, and proper heating, it made up for in grandeur. The chambers were all done up in burnished fixtures and sinuous furniture. The staircases were of carved marble, the rugs were plush, the paintings massive and ornate.

Our dining hall was the original great room of the castle, a space so huge that the sunbeams slanting in from the windows barely reached its center, thick slices of light that blinded you on and off as you passed through them and struck rainbows from the crystal pendants of the chandeliers. Table after table was laid out in orderly rows, one for each year of students. The teachers’ dais had been placed against the southern wall, where they could critique our manipulation of forks and knives without the light in their eyes.

I made my way to the tenth-year table—blinded, not; blinded, not—sailing past the usual giggles and gossip of the other students as though I couldn’t hear any of it. Seating was assigned, so I wasn’t stuck at the end of our table because I was the last to arrive, which I was. I was stuck there because that’s where Westcliffe had put me.

I took my chair next to Malinda Ashland’s. She lifted her nose in the air and reached for the teapot between us before I could, just barely managing not to whack me with her elbow.

Pretty, snooty Malinda. No doubt she secretly wondered if Westcliffe bore her some grudge, fixing me next to her.

The rest of the girls of my class were hardly more pleasant. Beatrice, Caroline, Lillian, Stella, Mittie. I’d describe them to you, but to be honest, all you truly need to know is that they were the pampered, drawling daughters of the empire’s so-called best families. On weekends they wore cashmere and chiffon and gemstones. They knew all the rules of lawn tennis and polo and would sooner curse out loud in front of their mothers than sip champagne from a sherry glass. I existed as a boundless source of scandal for them, and that was about all.

Except for Sophia, their leader. Ever since she’d started speaking to me, they’d backed off a bit.

A bit.

“Pass the bacon, please,” I said to Malinda, who ignored me.

I leaned past her for the platter. I didn’t bother to stop my elbow from knocking into her hand just as she was lifting her cup.

She let out a hiss, shaking the tea from her fingers. “Eleanore, really! Were you raised by wolves?”

“Worse,” snickered Lillian, on her other side. “Plebeians.”

“Wolves have better manners than certain humans I know.” I scraped the last few pieces of bacon onto my plate, then moved on to the scrambled eggs. “At least they share.”

“Only after the alpha has had his fill,” chimed in Sophia, at the far end of the table.

“Or hers,” I added pointedly, with a glance at her nearly empty plate.

She sent me a lazy smile. “True enough. But then, leading a pack of lesser minds can be such exhausting work. Still, someone’s got to be in charge.”

“Someone,” echoed Beatrice, pausing over her grapefruit. “Rather odd thing to say. They’re just wolves.”

Sophia never took her eyes from mine. “Pour me another cup, Bea, won’t you?”

“Of course!”

The hardest part of meals for me was figuring out how to eat as much as I wanted without attracting adult attention. In Blisshaven there had been no assigned seats, no snowy crisp tablecloths, no chinaware, no fine silver. There had been minders instead of professors, and they’d all carried wooden batons. Breakfast had been nonexistent, tea was nothing but day-old bread, and dinner was usually a thin fish stew or veggie soup or—only on Sundays—gristly bangers and mash. About once a year someone from the government would show up for a tour, I suppose to ensure we orphans weren’t wasting any of their enormous goodwill, and suddenly our boots would be patched and our clothes mended and there were apple slices to share, or crumpets, or even gingerbread.

Imagine going from that to this: Huge salvers of roasted meats, steaming in their juices. Seafood lapped in creamy rich sauces. Vegetables no longer dissolved into soup but sautéed or baked or boiled, so you could tell what they were. Fresh rolls, so fresh the insides were still warm when you tore into them. Butter and jam, white sugar and chilled milk. Whole apples, pears, persimmons. Bread pudding, iced cakes, sweet biscuits for dessert.

Every day. Every single day.

It isn’t sloth or even birth that pins the poor in their place. It’s hunger. Hunger kinks you up. Keeps your mind obsessed and your body cramped and shivering, and you dream of how lovely dying is going to be because no one ever goes to bed starving in heaven.

I added more eggs to my plate. Malinda rolled her eyes and gave a sniff.

“Look at her,” fake-whispered Lillian to Caroline, loud enough for all the table to hear. “Speaking of wolves! She bolts down her food as if it’s the very end of the world, doesn’t she?”

“As if she’s doomed never to dine again!” Caroline fake-whispered back, stirring sugar into her tea, clink-clink-clink.

I didn’t bother to respond. As far as my stomach was concerned, it might well have been my last meal. You never knew.

I was nearly a third of the way through when I heard the ominous, unmistakable rustling of organdy and the snap of high heels against stone.

Blast.

I slowed my chewing, swallowed, and lifted my gaze to find Mrs. Westcliffe standing beside my chair. I hoped like hell there weren’t any egg bits on my face.

“Miss Jones,” she said, pinch-lipped.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You will join me in my office, if you please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I cast a longing look at my unfinished breakfast.

Now, Miss Jones.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I pushed back from the table. Westcliffe was already pacing away, so I don’t think she noticed the giggles that whipped up anew, my classmates with their hands pressed over their mouths, their eyes sparkling with malice, and Sophia real-whispering “Dooooooom” under her breath as I walked past her.