From The Ashes (The Ministry of Curiosities #6)

From The Ashes (The Ministry of Curiosities #6)

C.J. Archer

Chapter 1

Yorkshire, December 1889

"Miss Holloway! Stop slouching!" Mrs. Denk's cane smacked across my back. I felt the bite of it against my skin, through all the layers of clothing. My breath left my body and my eyes watered. I arched away from her. "Young ladies do not have round shoulders."

I gritted my teeth until the sting lessened. "I am not a lady." Instead of straightening my back, I tipped my head forward so that the book balanced there slipped off and crashed to the floor. It landed face down, bending some pages and stretching the spine.

Air hissed through Mrs. Denk's nose. Whenever she became angry, her heavy breaths made a hissing noise through her nose. The headmistress and deportment teacher at the School for Wayward Girls seemed to become angry a lot, mostly with me.

I expected her stick to come down on my back again, but it did not. She stepped into view. The other girls in the old banqueting hall shuffled away, clearing space around us. They sensed confrontation, and if there was one thing the girls at the so-called school hated, it was confrontation, particularly with the formidable Mrs. Denk.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my roommate, Alice, shake her head, warning me not to cross the headmistress again. I tried to convey with a look that I would be all right, that Mrs. Denk wouldn't harm me, only attempt to frighten me with her sharp tongue and punishments that were nothing compared to what I'd experienced in years past. I must have failed, because Alice looked worried, and she wasn't usually a worrier.

"Pick that up." The tiny lines around Mrs. Denk's mouth whitened with the pursing of her lips. The rest of her face was otherwise smooth, a remarkable feat for a woman who must be in her late forties. Some of the other girls speculated that she'd done a deal with the devil to keep her skin youthful, but if that were true, she should have asked the devil to stop her hair from going gray too. Mrs. Denk rarely showed emotion, except for the occasional tightening or flattening of her lips, and that was more likely the reason for the lack of wrinkles. I would never think of a wrinkly face as something to be lamented again, but rather a sign of a passionate nature and a full life.

I bent to pick up the book, not because she'd ordered me to, but because I didn't like to see a book damaged, even a dull one about the art of being a lady. Instead of returning it to my head, I placed it on the occasional table that made up part of the obstacle course through which I was attempting to maneuver.

"Return it to your head, and continue with the exercise," Mrs. Denk said in her crispest tone that had more than one girl trembling.

Once again, Alice shook her head at me. We'd only known one another ten days, but she already had my measure. Most likely because I'd clashed with Mrs. Denk from my first day. I didn't like a bully, and the headmistress was the worst kind—a bully in sheep's clothing. At least Lincoln had never pretended to be anything else.

I swallowed down the lump in my throat that formed whenever I thought of him, which, unfortunately, was often. Instead, I summoned the anger that was never far away. Not anger directed at him—it was no longer as sharp or hot—but anger at myself for allowing him to treat me as he had.

"No," I said with more calmness than I felt. I knew I presented a tough exterior to Mrs. Denk and the other girls and teachers, but inside, part of me quailed when she held the cane in both hands and her eyes brightened with a cruel gleam. If it weren't for my anger fuelling me, I wouldn't have tested her patience so, but I found I couldn't quell my anger any more than I could accept her authority over me. Every order she gave, every attempt to turn me into a ladylike figure of grace and poise, triggered my rebellious streak.

Where had the bloody thing been when Lincoln had bundled me into the coach and sent me away from Lichfield?

Mrs. Denk's lips pinched even more. Her nostrils flared and the hissing breaths became a wheeze. "Put the book back on your head, Miss Holloway. Now."

"I don't see the point of this." I flung my arms wide to indicate the banqueting hall that probably hadn't seen a banquet since the castle's medieval days.

"The point is that your guardian sent you here so that you would become a lady."

I snorted. "I doubt that's the reason he sent me. And do not call him my guardian. He's not. No one is." Before she could counter me, I added, "I am not, and never will be, a lady, Mrs. Denk. No matter how many times you force me to walk with a book on my head, or how many times you make me enunciate my vowels, or whip me with your cane. I'm a gutter rat. A ne'er do well. A homeless waif." A discarded fiancée, I might have added, and an abomination against God, as my adopted father had once called me. But I did not. Speaking those words out loud hurt too much and I didn't want tears to well when standing up to Mrs. Denk. She was the sort of woman who fed on the weaknesses of others and used them to her advantage.

One of the other girls gasped, and another suppressed her surprise with a hand over her mouth. The rest simply stared at me. No doubt it was the first clue they'd had regarding my background. Despite speculation and gossip behind my back, I'd not told them anything about my past, since they had not asked me directly. Only Alice had, and I'd told her my story, leaving out the part about my necromancy and the specifics surrounding my going to live with Lincoln at Lichfield Towers. Of the girls in our deportment class, she alone showed no shock at my words. She simply frowned and warned me with her eyes to stop pushing Mrs. Denk to her limit.

C.J. Archer's Books