In the black void, he heard his name.
He couldn’t make out the other thin, distant words, but he thought it might be Beatrix. Was he not dead? He felt something—a faint pressure, like a squeeze of the hand—and tried to move, to squeeze back. That brought on a pain so searing he could think of nothing at all for an indeterminate amount of time.
When he came back to himself, he still had no idea where he was or in what condition. What had come before, he remembered with exacting and terrible precision. How Miss Knight (no, Draden, Marbella Draden, the vice president’s daughter) had tried to kill him and hundreds of thousands of other people. How he’d lain helpless as she chanted the incantations that set off his horrific weapon, using his own life force to power the explosion. How Beatrix had teleported the payload stone from the shadow of the Capitol Building to the New Mexico desert, saving D.C.
But he’d thought there would be no saving him. So what had happened after that?
He considered the possibility that he really was dead, stuck in limbo or in a waystation to hell. Then, as if someone was slowly turning up the volume around him, he went from hearing the faintest suggestion of sounds to conversations he could understand.
He was lying in a hospital bed, comatose. No one—least of all him—knew if he would recover. He certainly couldn’t seem to talk or indicate in any way that he was aware. Anytime he tried to move his limbs, tongue or other parts of his body, that terrible pain hit and the outside world receded, so he tried only occasionally and never while Beatrix was there. He didn’t want to miss a word she said.
She was often there, holding his hand. She talked to him oh-so-carefully, no doubt afraid her one-sided conversations with him were being recorded. He could hear the strain in her voice, the choked emotion in her pauses. She was contractually heartbroken.
He should have died. If he had, these emotions forced on her by the Vows they’d taken—the binding spells he’d insisted on—would be gone. The will he’d written leaving her everything he owned would kick in. Instead, she was jobless and distraught.
This truly was hell. Yet again, he’d dragged her there with him.
He progressed to begging. Please, God, let me die. Please, just grant me this one request. Or get me out of this coma, if you prefer, but please don’t leave me like this.
Nothing changed. He floated in the abyss, aware of his body only when a nurse shifted him or Beatrix took his hand, and then only in the faintest of ways—as if he were hanging on to the physical world by a spider’s thread.
There was nothing he could do but feel terrible and drift between consciousness and unconsciousness.
It took him longer than it should have to realize that when he fell into the latter state, he was sleeping.
Desperate excitement now filled him. Dreamside. If he slept, he could get dreamside—all he had to do was time it right. He could talk to Beatrix there. He could strategize with her about what she could do. He could ask her everything he badly wanted to know.
Thank God for dreamside. He never thought he would see a silver lining to the Vows, but this was surely it.
. . . . .
Beatrix looked down at Peter, to all appearances simply asleep, and bitterly wished the Vows had not been broken. Then she laughed under her breath at the irony—how she’d longed for a way out that didn’t involve death, hers or his, and how impossible it had seemed until it actually happened. But if his heart hadn’t momentarily stopped, dreamside would still exist. If dreamside still existed, she could talk to him—and there was a great deal they needed to talk about.
She could not, of course, access his bank account. The question of how his care was to be paid for followed her like a wraith. The hospital had let the question go unanswered so far, but it seemed clear that this could not continue for long. Already, he’d been here for three weeks and four days. He had no insurance—and neither did she, for that matter, nor any source of income. The bill for her own hospitalization had not yet been sent to her, but the knowledge that it was coming pressed on her like a weight. She would not be able to pay it. And that would be nothing to the expense of Peter’s care.
She knew he had no next of kin, because he’d had to live at the Academy after his grandmother died. But if only she could talk to him—if only dreamside still existed—then surely there would be some action she could take that would present itself, something they could figure out together.
Assuming, of course, that he wasn’t for all intents and purposes dead.
Twenty days had passed since she thought he’d squeezed her hand, and he had made no movement since. She’d been so hopeful. The nurses and doctors had all warned her not to make too much of it until there were repeat performances, though, and they were right. It could have been an unconscious twitch. She might have imagined it entirely. Because surely if he had done it knowingly, he would have done it again.
She’d told him she felt it—she’d told him right away. The very next visit, she’d tried for hours to get him to do it again. You can, I know you can! I’ll ask you questions, and you can squeeze once for “yes” and twice for “no”!
But nothing happened. She had to stop talking about it to him because the very thought made her want to rage and sob. For one short day, she’d been all but certain he would wake up. And then her hope retreated, bit by bit, moment by moment, an oceanful of hope now shrunk to a muddy puddle.
“Hello, dearie! You’re here late today.”
She looked up into the lined face of Nurse Weller, who was smiling at her. Always cheerful, Nurse Weller.
“I lost track of time,” she said, squeezing Peter’s hand and letting go, getting to her feet. “How are you?”
“Oh, can’t complain.” The nurse walked out with her. “Any luck on the job front?”
“No, not yet.” She sighed, glancing back at Peter’s door. “The other day, when I wondered how many coma patients you’d seen recover, and you said three-quarters of them …”
“How quickly did they wake up?”
Nurse Weller’s smile flickered. “Oh, at different times,” she said, a little too brightly even for her.
“How many after three weeks?”
She expected Nurse Weller would say something vague, cheerful and untrue, but she’d underestimated her. “Well—two.”
“Did they really recover? Or—or did they wake up but were never the same?”
Nurse Weller shook her head and sighed, and that was an answer. “But you mustn’t give up hope, my dear,” she added. Beatrix nodded automatically. She followed the twisting hallways out of the hospital and walked in the biting sleet to Union Station, numb.
The train rumbled northward as she looked through the help-wanted pages, distracting herself from thoughts of Peter by brooding about how desperately she needed a job.
Before, she and her sister had managed on the patchwork but livable income of her paycheck plus the rent from Rosemarie, Miss Massey and Ella (not Marbella, she refused to call her Marbella). Now, Rosemarie’s rent was all they had. Miss Massey, who’d roomed with them so long and so quietly, had reluctantly moved out a week earlier to care for the children of a newly widowed cousin in Hagerstown. And Ella—Ella was the reason for Peter’s coma and Beatrix’s once-ordered life lying in tatters around her.
With Lydia’s final tuition bill paid, they could make do with less, but not this precipitous a drop. She’d done the math. In eight days, they would spend their last dollar.
She needed to find a job in Baltimore, Washington or Annapolis. Despite the expense of the train rides, those were her only options, with her car broken and no one in Ellicott Mills hiring.
She circled an ad for a receptionist, realized she’d applied for it already and crossed it out. She worked her way through the “Employment for Ladies” page—really three-quarters of a page—without finding a single job she hadn’t already tried to get.
She scowled at it. Then, for fairness’ sake, she flipped through the “Employment for Gentlemen” pages (there were three of those) and scowled at them, too. They were full of far more interesting positions—doctor, research scientist, translator, legislative aide …
Her breath caught. Wanted: Legislative aide for Maryland Senator Mitchell Gray of Ellicott Mills. Start immediately.
Whoever took that job would help Gray shepherd the bill to repeal the Twenty-fifth Amendment—to revoke the requirement that only magic-users could hold national office. He’d better find someone good.
With a sigh, she read the rest of the newspaper front to back, looking for something she didn’t find, had not expected she would find, but obsessively looked for every day—some sign of Ella. The county school board had said it was in the dark about where their former teacher had gone mid-semester. The state Department of Education had said it had no record of any other school hiring her. The county police took note of the fact that Ella had packed up her things before disappearing and were not inclined to treat it as a missing-persons case. Beyond poring over the paper, Beatrix had run out of ideas.
Where was she? Was she still in the grip of madness, plotting murder and destruction?
“Ellicott Mills!” the conductor bellowed. Beatrix stuffed the paper into her bag and hustled off the train.
Normally she took the shortcut home, through the forest, but that required passing by Peter’s dark, empty house. She couldn’t stomach it. She walked the long way around instead, arriving at her own house with aching legs.
Lydia met her at the front door with a question in her eyes. Beatrix shook her head. They each knew what they meant. There was only one question to ask when she arrived home from visiting Peter, and—day after day—only one answer to give.
“I’m sorry,” her sister murmured.
Dinner was somber. Afterward, Lydia hooked her arm through Beatrix’s and said, “Let’s go for a walk. I could use some fresh air.”
It was dark and cold outside, but the house was full of the magiocracy’s listening devices. Out they went.
Lydia said nothing until they were halfway down the path through their fallow backyard garden. Then she said, “I’m going to withdraw.”
Beatrix stopped dead, but before she could say a word, her sister added, “We’ll get three-quarters of the money back, and we need it—it’s the only solution. I’ll withdraw, and we’ll both look for work.”
“Lydia, it’s your last semester! We’ve worked so hard for this, and to stop now—”
“It’s just a delay. I will finish.” Lydia sounded as determined as ever. “But this time I’ll earn the money to pay for it.”
“How will you work and run the League? And push for Gray’s legislation? And finish planning the march? You can’t do all this at once!”
The national Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic, deftly transformed by Lydia and Rosemarie into the force pushing for an end to wizards’ death grip on American politics, was holding a march in Washington in June. Together, the march and the typic-rights legislation consumed Lydia. Beatrix couldn’t imagine how that organizing could continue just on nights and weekends.
Her sister gave a wan smile. “You’ve had too much to do for years. It’s time for me to take on my fair share. You know it is.”
“You have done your fair share,” Beatrix said, taking her sister’s hand. “You have. I’m sorry I ever made you feel as if you haven’t. But the money we won’t get back if you withdraw—that’s six months of savings. You have to give me more time to find a job, please.”
Lydia shook her head. “The deadline is tomorrow. I can’t wait.”
With no other arguments to marshal, Beatrix said, “Rosemarie won’t stand for it.”
“She says it’s my decision.”
“Bee, this is the only option we’ve got. I won’t let us starve.”
Beatrix tried to catch her breath, an echo of the panic attacks she thought she’d conquered. She was powerless to help Peter, to find work, to stop any of this from happening—
“I’ll be back,” she said, and dashed for the road, her sister calling after her, “Bee? Bee!”
The trip took about fifteen minutes. Striding in the now total darkness, she rehearsed what she would say and avoided the occasional car. But when she arrived at Senator Gray’s house, she found it as dark and empty as Peter’s.
She sank onto the porch, unable to face the walk back. Of course he wasn’t there. The legislature was in session—what had she expected? She was just considering whether there was any gain in waiting when a pickup truck came around the bend in the road and, to her joy and anxiety, pulled into the driveway.
Straightening her spine, she walked to meet Gray.
“Miss Harper?” He slammed his door and frowned, which seemed a bad omen, but quickly added, “What’s wrong?”
She swallowed a laugh that would surely sound insane. What wasn’t wrong? “I saw your ad for a legislative aide and wondered—what happened to Mr. Vance?”
Gray’s frown deepened into a full-out scowl. “He skipped out on me without so much as a two-weeks’ notice, that’s what happened to him.”
“To ‘spend more time’ with his family.” Gray gave an expressive snort. “The man isn’t even married!”
“The wizards got to him?”
She tamped down the reflexive fear this prompted, the apprehension that her sister really could be at risk. She knew where that fear took her. She would not be so easily led down that road again. Voice steady, she asked: “Did they threaten him, do you think?”
He shook his head. “No, he seemed happy—they probably paid him off. Now I have to find a replacement on top of everything else! With seven-and-a-half weeks left in the blasted session!”
Beatrix breathed in and slowly exhaled. “Hire me.”
Gray rolled his eyes. Not a promising beginning. “I assure you, I will find an aide and keep pushing on the legislation. Don’t think you have to babysit me, Miss Harper.”
“I don’t,” she said. “I want you to hire me because I think I’d do an excellent job.”
This time, he laughed. Worse and worse. “Miss Harper, there has never been a lady legislative aide, and I doubt there ever will be. This is a job for a man.”
There was a great deal she wanted to say to that. With effort, she merely said, “Oh?”
Gray shifted from one foot to the other. “Well—yes.”
“It—it just is.”
“I certainly hope you’re using more persuasive arguments when you’re trying to convince your colleagues to vote for your bill,” she said.
“There’s literally never been a lady—”
“There’s never been a typic elected to Congress in our lifetime, either. Sometimes change is good.”
She smiled. He crossed his arms.
“You have no political experience,” he said.
“Oh, come now, Senator!”
“Fine, you have no legislative experience. You’ve never organized a press conference or researched policy or rounded up support for a measure.”
“Do you recall the excellent coverage in the Star about how the magiocracy tried to ruin Lydia’s conference? I convinced Helen Hickok to write about it. And the conference itself—the only reason we had a place to hold the all-important vote is because I found it at the last minute. I did most of the research for Lydia about the best way to undo the Twenty-fifth Amendment. And I’ve gone with her to meetings with legislators to persuade them that your bill is in their interest.”
She let that sink in, then added, “I’m basically doing this job already. Don’t you think it’s time to put me on staff?”
Gray said nothing for a moment. Was he changing his mind? She looked at him, heart thudding in her ears.
“I can’t, Miss Harper,” he murmured. “I’m having a hard enough time convincing some of these senators that getting rid of the Twenty-fifth isn’t a ruse to put ladies in charge of everything. ‘Better wizards than females,’ etc. etc. Think how it would look if I hired one.”
“For one of the least powerful jobs in the General Assembly!”
He gave an expressive sigh. “It’s not about reason. It’s about how it makes people feel.”
She couldn’t very well argue against that. Wasn’t that the way politics always worked? Wasn’t that why women were treated the way they were, generation after generation, for no logical reason at all?
“I desperately need this job,” she said, hating that she was doing this—reduced to begging. “Please. If you don’t hire me, Lydia will drop out of Hazelhurst.”
He stared at her. “What? Why would she do that?”
“Because we’re about to run out of money. If she withdraws tomorrow, she’ll get most of the semester’s tuition back.” She closed her eyes, wishing she could block out the entire conversation as easily. “You’re my last hope.”
“Oh—oh, I see. I’m sorry, Miss Harper, I don’t know why I didn’t think about the financial implications for you when Omnimancer Blackwell had to be hospitalized. I’ll … help you find something. One of the assembly’s secretaries is leaving the middle of next month to get married—I’m almost certain I can get you that job.”
She sighed and made herself look at him again. “I appreciate it, Senator, I do. And I will wholeheartedly accept that assistance. But Lydia’s dropping out tomorrow. She just told me her plan, and I can’t talk her out of it. Either I have a job offer tonight, or she won’t graduate this spring.”
She knew this was neither here nor there to him. He didn’t care whether Lydia finished her education. It made no difference to his Twenty-fifth campaign, and if anything, having the chief instigator and supporter drop out of college would leave him better off with his sexist colleagues.
“Thank you all the same,” she said, turning to go.
“OK,” he said heavily. “You can start tomorrow.”
She swiveled, staring at him. “What?”
“But you will be a secretary, do you understand? Technically you’ll be filling the open position, but you will not be my aide, and as soon as we can get you into an actual secretarial slot, you won’t be reporting to me.”
“Yes,” she murmured, thrown by his change of heart—however grudging. “Absolutely. Thank you.”
“It’s a ridiculous waste of money and time for your sister to withdraw now,” he said, frowning at her as if she had been in favor of the idea. “How do you Harpers get me into these messes?”
With appeals to emotion rather than reason, apparently—not that she’d done it intentionally.
“When should I be at work tomorrow morning?” she asked.
“Eight.” He heaved a deep sigh. Then he gave a groan that made clear how little this plan suited him. “Meet me in the Senate cafeteria.”
“Yes—thank you again,” she said, and hurried off lest he change his mind.
She spent the first part of her walk home buoyed by overwhelming relief. But the reason for Gray’s decision to help began to eat at her. It seemed implausible that there wasn’t an unstated, obvious one hiding behind the explanation he’d given. And the more she thought about the plan he’d laid out, the less overjoyed she felt about it. An unneeded secretary, that was what she would be. Meanwhile, he would have none of the day-to-day help he required for the uphill battle to repeal the Twenty-fifth.
She slipped into her house, unseen except by the invisible tele-vision camera the magiocracy had pointed at the door, and ducked into the study to look at train maps so she could plan her route to work. And that, too, was a letdown.
She would have to take the B&O almost to Baltimore, then catch the B&A. And because the magiocracy had not gotten around to repairing the track from Annapolis to Washington, which apparently required money instead of magic, she would have to retrace her steps to get to Peter. She’d be lucky if she saw him an hour a day.
If the magic she was trying to infuse him with every time she held his hand really would bring him out of his coma, if only she gave him enough of it, then she needed to spend more time with him, not less. That assumed, of course, that the life energy the weapon stole was the same as magical potential, as Peter once hypothesized. And that magical potential was the same as magic itself. And that she could transfer raw magic from her body to his.
This was the muddy puddle’s worth of hope she was left with, full of ifs and assumptions. Still, that puddle was all she had.
Could she move Peter to the hospital in Annapolis? Would they agree to take a transfer patient with no apparent way to pay?
She sighed. One thing at a time. She wrote a brief explanation on a piece of paper and went to find her sister, who proved to be sitting on their parents’ bed, looking younger than her nearly twenty-one years with her arms around her legs and her auburn hair hanging unbraided down her back.
Lydia read the note, her face expressing the surprise and joy she could not make audible with the magiocracy listening in.
Oh, Bee! she wrote. This is incredible!
Beatrix nodded, glad she had not included what it would cost her. She didn’t want Lydia to decide she should drop out of college after all.
That’s not to suggest I’m surprised Senator Gray hired you, her sister added. You’ve been so essential to our success.
Beatrix swallowed, blinking back tears. It was still a bit unexpected to hear—or read—such words from her sister, after years of being taken seemingly for granted. They’d used up (and then burned) many pieces of paper in the last few weeks, trying to put their relationship on a better footing.
This was not the easy friendship she’d had with Ella, before the literal explosion. But she and her sister understood each other better now, were both trying harder, and that was a blessing she did not discount.
But what about Mrs. Thomas? Lydia asked, referring to Gray’s secretary. Surely she hasn’t left?
Beatrix took her pen back and wrote a fuller explanation of what had happened. She finished by adding: He’s doing this for you. He wants you to graduate.
She looked closely at Lydia as her sister read these words. Lydia looked surprised, with no blushing cheeks or other sign of romantic attachment.
Still, Beatrix knew better than to assume. Do you have feelings for him? she asked.
Lydia shook her head. We’ve never once talked about anything other than the business at hand. You don’t think he has feelings for me, do you?
Beatrix raised her eyebrows. Unclear, but you’re beautiful and he’s probably not immune. Be careful, she added after a moment’s thought. Some men don’t take no for an answer, and he’s just put you in his debt.
Lydia wrapped an arm around her. With the other, she wrote: He’s not Garrett.
Beatrix closed her eyes. Wizard Theo Garrett, before his death at Ella’s hands, kept coming back after she—Beatrix—turned down his offer of marriage in terms that should have left no doubt about her feelings. Then he discovered her illegally casting spells. She would marry him and testify against Peter, he declared, with prison as the unstated alternative. Later, after the police inaccurately concluded that Garrett was to blame for Peter’s near-death, they told her he’d forged her signature to obtain a marriage license and might have been planning to drug her to get her to the altar. The man he had once seemed to be was not the man he was. Who knew what Gray might do?
Lydia nudged her, and she realized her sister had been writing while she was worrying. You won’t go to work you-know-how—you’ll take the train, right?
Right, Beatrix wrote.
Teleportation, as they’d previously discussed, was out of the question. Too many opportunities to be discovered. There would be no second escape from a prison sentence for felony magic use.
That was a perfectly good reason, but Beatrix had another that she couldn’t bring herself to explain. She never again wanted to work magic that didn’t rely on leaves for fuel. The women-only casting that she and Ella had codenamed “knitting,” no external fuel required, was simply too dangerous. Her skin itched as she thought about it. She felt a scream building in her throat.
She wrote a message about getting ready for bed and escaped the room.
When she lay down later, alarm set an hour and a half earlier than normal, she tried to calm herself. She needed a restful sleep.
But nightmare versions of Ella and Peter invaded her dreams.
“It’s all your fault,” this Peter croaked, blood dripping from his mouth.
“You showed me how to knit,” Ella cried, eyes wild, hair matted, “and look what it’s done to me!”
Peter groaned. “I warned you. I told you we had no idea where the fuel was coming from.”
“I’m the fuel, it’s me, me,” Ella screeched, leaping at her.
Beatrix ran, the naked limbs of trees catching at her as she stumbled through the forest. Finally, she sank to the ground, shivering. Helpless as she was to keep variations on this theme from replaying night after night, she knew even now that this was a dream—the real nightmare was that the accusations from these figments of her imagination were probably true.
Peter and Ella reappeared, moving fast. As she staggered away, she heard him calling to her, voice thin and oddly distant.
Something about it made her stop and turn. The next instant, the Peter-that-was-not-Peter bowled into her, his eyes the fathomless sockets of a skeleton as his skin slid off his face.
She jerked up in bed, mercifully awake. The alarm was ringing.
“Bee?” her sister said, hoarse with sleep.
“Yes?” She could hear the tremble in her voice.
“You were screaming.”
“Bad dream,” she murmured, feeling her way out of the room in the dark.
. . . . .
By running full tilt, she managed to get to the Senate cafeteria with two minutes to spare. Gray was already there, sitting alone at a table with a cup of coffee. He sighed when he saw her. Perhaps he’d been hoping she wouldn’t show up.
After he looked around, clearly checking that no one was in earshot, he murmured, “You recall my office is bugged?”
She nodded. “I won’t talk to you about anything important there.”
“You’re not to go there at all.”
She blinked at him. “Senator—”
“You’ll only be on my staff for a few weeks. It’ll be easier for everyone if no one notices.”
“I’ll be on the payroll. Someone will notice.”
“Nevertheless,” he said grimly, “don’t come into my office, avoid talking to me in public and do not identify yourself as my secretary.”
She took a deep breath and smiled. “How would you suggest I get work done on your behalf?”
That was one detail to which he apparently had not given any thought. After a moment, he consulted some paperwork and made notations. “Here—this week, attend the hearings I circled and take notes.”
“All right. And get them to you … how?”
He hesitated. “I’ll pick them up from your house after work.”
“My house is also bugged, remember. And there’s a tele-vision camera aimed at the front door.”
He scowled. “Fine, fine! I’ll meet you here at 5. Give them to me then.”
She nodded and stood to go. “The first hearing isn’t for two hours. Should I go to HR first?”
“Wait until 8:30. I need to explain matters to the payroll chief.” He downed his coffee. “The ID they’ll give you—don’t display it. Just act as if you’re here as a regular citizen.”
Good God. “Yes, Senator,” she said, and left.
Seven hours later, ID squirreled away in her bag like contraband, she trudged back to the cafeteria with pages of notes she doubted Gray would even glance at. She sat at an empty table and tried to think of something useful to do with her remaining time on the clock.
She started by making a list of senators sitting on the committee that would have to give his Twenty-fifth legislation a thumbs up before the full Senate could vote on it. She added brief intel about their political backgrounds and what they’d said to the League on the matter—most claimed to be on the fence. Then she outlined a recommendation for a joint press conference with the Sugarworkers, who’d told Lydia they would come to her June march on Washington in large numbers.
Gray’s arrival nine minutes late felt like an eternity of waiting, as anxious as she was to go so she could get to Peter. She would miss the train she’d hoped to take, shrinking her hour at the hospital to forty-five minutes.
“Here are the notes,” she said quickly, “and here—”
“Shhh,” he admonished her under his breath. “Don’t talk. Just go.”
In an equally quiet voice, she said, “I simply wanted to point out there’s also some research here for—”
“I thought I made clear that you are not an aide.”
She mastered the urge to snap. She could not do without this paycheck.
“Oh, perfectly clear,” she murmured. “I’m just the sort of secretary who wants her employer to succeed, despite all the forces lined up against him.”
Including his own idiocy, she did not add. She stalked out.
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