A Shadow Bright and Burning (Kingdom on Fire #1)(10)

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I know them well. Those are scars that Korozoth gives his victims, and Korozoth attacks London on a regular basis. Some believe that the Unclean are bound to the Ancients who mark them and call to them.”

“But if Korozoth is already attacking the city, would Rook’s presence make that much of a difference?”

“Well.” Agrippa appeared stumped. “No, but—”

“Master Agrippa.” I swallowed to keep my voice from breaking. Rook was not going to leave me, not today, not ever. “I want to help you, but I can’t do so without Rook. You must take us both, or none at all.” Agrippa studied me with interest. I raised my chin, hoping my expression was determined enough. Rook kept silent.

“Very well,” the sorcerer said at last. “He’ll have a place in my service. If that is what you want, Rook?”

Rook bowed his head. “I can do all manner of work, sir. You won’t be disappointed.”

“I’m sure I shan’t. Well, Miss Howel?”

There was nothing left for me here. Nothing left for us.

“I’ll come with you.”

Agrippa smiled in satisfaction. Rook’s hand found mine. We would go together.

THE NEXT MORNING, THE CARRIAGE PULLED up to Brimthorn so I could collect my things. I shook hands with all five teachers and smiled at the youngest two, Margaret Pritchett and Jane Lawrence. We’d grown up together, though we weren’t as close as I’d have liked. My friendship with an Unclean made them keep their distance.

I was walking away when a child’s voice wailed, “She can’t leave! Let me go.” Sarah broke through the lines and flung herself at me, sobbing. I knelt and caught her, hugging her tight. She cried on my shoulder as I stroked her hair. “They say you’ll never come back,” she whimpered.

“I will someday.” I thought of Colegrind’s beatings, of his roving hands. I wouldn’t let Sarah or the others remain at his mercy. I squeezed her and said, “I swear it.”

Sarah let go reluctantly. Getting up, I walked to Colegrind for a few last words. He leaned on his birch cane, running his thumb along the handle lovingly. He’d find an excuse to use it on one of the girls before too long. He always did.

“Have you forgotten something, Miss Howel?”

“Remember me by this.” I grasped his cane and set it on fire. With a curse, he dropped it to the ground and stamped the flames out, breaking the blasted thing in two. “I will be back.” I stared into his eyes. “So take care how you treat the children.”

Colegrind grunted as I turned and climbed into the carriage. Rook sat up in front with the coachman. We rumbled down the lane, waving. The girls raced after us, calling goodbye. I felt a pain in my chest as I watched them disappear. Much as I hated Brimthorn, it had been home and felt safe. Where I was going, nothing was certain, and everything was dangerous.

We traveled for three days and nights, barely stopping to rest. Agrippa sat with his stave in hand, always on alert for signs of Ancients or Familiars. Having discovered me, he seemed fearful that something catastrophic would occur.

I watched the countryside roll by our window, excitement and nervousness mounting with every passing day. I’d never set foot in London before. What would it be like? Sometimes for reassurance I would tap on the roof of the carriage three times, wait, and smile when Rook knocked back in answer.

Finally, it was the day of our arrival. I leaned out the window with a thrill of anticipation. As we neared the city proper, however, my excitement faded. I paled at the horror that lay before me.

All about me were buildings half-demolished, brick blackened by soot, and people living in the open streets. The sky was a metal gray, and the air tasted oily. Ragged, filthy men slept on doorsteps, and women and children huddled together for warmth. Young boys swept the road of horse manure. Little girls dressed all in black sat on street corners, selling strange wooden dolls.

They cried, “Totems, totems for sale. Korozoth. R’hlem. Molochoron. Protect yourself with the power of a totem.”

“Is this truly London?” I whispered. Brimthorn had been oppressively gloomy, but not burned and ravaged.

“This is outside the warded territory.” Agrippa sighed as he looked out the window. He didn’t seem to like it any more than I.

The totem children noticed our elegant carriage and called to us, leaping up and down in excitement.

One of the girls, a tiny blond creature, ran toward us, calling, “Totems, totems! Take one home!” The horses reared up, and we jolted to a halt. There was a scream. I leaned out the window to discover the girl lying in the street.

Agrippa grabbed my arm. “Stay inside,” he said.

As the child wailed in pain, an old man with the blackest skin I’d ever seen burst through the crowd, raced across the road, and fell beside her.

“My li’l Charley,” the man wept, wrapping her in a shockingly bright cloak of purple, orange, and red. “My p-poor li’l girl.”

“Shouldn’t we do something?” I asked. Agrippa looked white and pinched with worry. He opened his door and leaned up to speak with the driver while I craned my neck out the window. The child’s sobs tore at me. With a half-apologetic glance back at Agrippa, I climbed out of the carriage.

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