Beatrix pulled into an empty space on Cathedral Street and stared at the ornate apartment building across the road, a rush of adrenaline making it shimmer for an instant like a Gothic mirage.
Ella—friend, confidante, co-conspirator—shifted in the seat beside her. “Ready?”
If they were caught in the midst of what they came here to do, they’d be thrown in prison. If they’d miscalculated about the woman waiting for them in that building, prison. If this went well but a later step tripped them up—prison.
She would never be ready. But she had to do this. Assuming, of course, that the magically binding Vows she’d taken didn’t stop her.
“Let’s go,” she said.
She jumped out of her car, the old door groaning with complaint, and held up her skirt as she walked through the slush on the street, focusing on her intentions so there would be no mistake. As Ella caught up with her, Beatrix waited for the warning signs—for the taste of pomegranate in her throat, for her body to stop obeying her.
Peter’s words came back to her, charged with anger and distress: You can’t do it. You Vowed to cause me no harm. You Vowed to cause your sister no harm.
What she now planned was far more daring than what he’d been arguing against. But she made it through the revolving door without incident. She pushed the elevator button and rode with Ella to the tenth floor, nothing forcing her to retreat.
This was the right thing to do. This could save her sister’s life.
Or go terribly wrong. She paused on the welcome mat at Apartment 1012, heart racing.
“You’re certain?” she said.
Ella gave one of her irrepressible grins. “Absolutely.”
Beatrix wished she had Ella’s confidence. She thought of her sister and knocked on the door.
“Once more unto the breach,” she murmured.
The lock turned and the door opened, revealing Joan Hamilton, president of the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic, Baltimore chapter. Tall, fashionable, razor-sharp valedictorian of her class at Hazelhurst College.
“Hello,” she said, pressing an errant pin into deep-brown hair. “Oh—I thought Lydia was coming, too.”
Lydia, Beatrix’s sister, had no idea what they were doing. Lydia and strategist Rosemarie Dane were meeting with Schoen’s Sugar union leaders downtown to convince them to bring the rank-and-file to her planned march on Washington in June—she wanted both sexes there in substantial numbers. After that, they had two meetings in walking distance with Baltimore legislators in preparation for the impending session. Beatrix wasn’t on the hook to pick them up for hours.
How her sister would react if she did know what they were up to was a question Beatrix tried not to dwell on.
“She couldn’t make it,” Ella said breezily.
Joan’s lips twitched. “Well—I’m sure the three of us can manage. Come on in. Tea?”
Beatrix sat on Joan’s couch—a Béfort like the one in her own sitting room, except new and immaculate—and wished there were a spell for reading minds.
Joan seemed an ideal first choice for their underground effort. She was one of the few local leaders in the organization who lived absolutely alone—not with parents, not with a husband, not in a boarding house or on campus. She had none of the financial problems that pressed their treasurer to turn spy. She’d helped Lydia from the very beginning, when Lydia was just a freshman at Hazelhurst. And something about her wry smile implied she wasn’t easily shocked.
But none of that guaranteed she wouldn’t be horrified by what they wanted to do.
“Were you able to get January fifteenth off?” Ella asked.
That was the day the General Assembly convened. Lydia wanted to meet with legislators—again.
Joan let out a sigh that fully communicated her answer before she gave it. “No. I’m sorry—I did try. ‘Oh, no, Miss Hamilton, I couldn’t possibly do without you. Who would take my notes and fetch my coffee?’ ”
Beatrix licked dry lips. “What about the promotion? Have you heard anything new?”
“An outside hire got the job. No college degree, six months less experience than I have. And yes,” Joan said, a sardonic edge creeping in, “a man. Imagine that.”
“I’m sorry,” Beatrix said, sympathy warring with calculation. Did this make it more likely Joan would agree to commit multiple felonies for Lydia and women’s rights?
“They just can’t see past my sex. Or my race,” Joan added. “Either way, my job’s an intentional dead end. Tell the college graduate that ‘secretary’ is just the first step, keep her there until one of the men in the office marries her, then repeat with the next naïve young thing hoping to make something of herself.”
All three of them sighed in unison.
“Do you ever wish sometimes that you could just skip ahead to the future?” Joan said. “You know, to live in an era where we’re treated like real people?”
Beatrix glanced at Ella, who gave her a pointed look as she said, “Three dozen times a day at minimum.”
Beatrix swallowed, testing for pomegranate, a part of her hoping for it. Her throat was clear. Hands shaking, she said, “Could you show me to your powder room so I can … freshen up?”
“Me too,” Ella said, patting her hair. “I’m worried my braid is coming undone.”
Joan’s brow furrowed at this uncharacteristic concern about appearances, but she gestured behind her. “It’s just down the—”
“Do show us,” Ella said, putting out a hand to help Joan up.
Joan opened her mouth, apparently thought better of whatever she’d been about to say and got to her feet.
They made an odd little parade, all of their dresses swish-swishing against their ankles in the sudden quiet. It seemed almost unnecessary to put a finger to her lips once they got into the bathroom and closed the door, but she did it anyway. Then she and Ella ran their hands across every nook in the small space, checking for invisible devices that might be listening, filming, spying.
Joan watched, asking no questions. A quick study. A good choice.
“Seems clean,” Ella murmured.
Joan wrapped her arms around herself. Voice equally low, she said, “You think I’ve been bugged? I thought they only tapped your phone—”
“As far as we know. It’s not likely you have bugs, but we couldn’t take that chance.” Beatrix dipped her hands into her pockets, feeling the smooth, reassuring solidity of the demarcation stones there. Then she stepped closer to Joan and whispered, “What’s your opinion of magic?”
Joan gave a strained, disbelieving laugh. “What?”
“What bothers you—wizards, magic or both?”
Though the woman still looked nonplussed, her answer was prompt. “Just wizards. The ones keeping typics, and us especially, from having equal rights, I mean.”
Beatrix nodded. She’d expected as much, but she’d never specifically asked, and plenty who belonged to the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic believed in the original mission of the group—before her sister took charge and changed it to ending wizards’ stranglehold on the government.
“Well?” Joan whispered.
“There’s something we want to tell you,” Beatrix said, the thud of her heart loud in her ears. “It’s serious, it’s dangerous, and if you agree to hear it, you must promise to keep it a secret.”
Ella, standing just as close on Joan’s other side, added, “Absolutely, swear-to-die promise.”
Joan stared at them, eyes very wide.
“It’s all right to say no,” Beatrix murmured. “This is about women’s rights, in a manner of speaking, but not the League.”
“It’s about magic, isn’t it?” Joan’s voice wavered with some strong emotion. “You wanted to know what I thought about it. That’s it, right?”
Beatrix forced her voice into something resembling calm and said, “You would need to promise before we could explain.”
“I promise. I swear I will keep this secret. Tell me.”
Abruptly, second thoughts rose from the acid in her stomach, wended up her esophagus and gathered like a choking vapor—no hint of pomegranate—in the back of her throat. What was she doing? They needed to stop right now. They needed to get out.
Joan put a hand on her arm. “Can women do magic?”
Gulping air, Beatrix took out the demarcation stones, two in one palm, two in the other, and laid them in each corner of the bathroom. Joan stared at these lesser-known symbols of magic use, evidently confused. Then she looked up to see Ella assuming a spellcasting position with a pair of oak leaves in hand—magically preserved, as green as the day they were picked—and sucked in a breath.
“Lang rēad lēoht,” Ella said. The leaves puffed to vapor in her hand.
Red light washed over the bathroom and everything in it. No spots of white appeared—no spells were cast here before, at least not recently. That, at least, was a relief.
Joan sagged against the sink. “Oh my God. Oh my God.” She pressed her hands over her eyes. “Oh my God.”
Ella reversed the spell, soundproofed the bathroom and returned the stones to Beatrix. Only then did Joan manage another word.
“How many—how many women are doing magic?”
“Just three that we know of,” Beatrix said. “The two of us and Rosemarie—not Lydia.”
“We’re protecting her,” Ella said. “The wizards are trying to kill her.”
“What?” Joan jerked forward, eyes on Beatrix. “What do you mean?”
Beatrix couldn’t answer. Her lungs burned. She tried not to listen as Ella explained, but the memory of that night surged at her anyway. The massive crane arm cracking, falling, her sister directly below. Her own horror as she watched, helpless, from hundreds of feet away. Teleporting there without having any idea how and pushing Lydia out of the way.
She’d expected more attempts. They all had. But more than two months had passed since Lydia barely escaped death, right after winning the election for national president of the League. Two months. What were the wizards planning?
Every morning, Beatrix woke more on edge than before. Every morning, she thought: This could be the day. If she didn’t do something, she would be driven insane by degrees.
The room went silent. Ella had finished.
Joan straightened to her full height. “So you want me to help protect Lydia.”
“It would be excellent to have another person who could,” Ella said, “but that’s not why we’re telling you.”
“We want to teach you magic,” Beatrix said, leaning in, keeping her voice down, “and have you teach other women. Then those women would teach more women ad infinitum. Joan—we want to start an underground movement.”
“Oh,” Joan said, very quietly.
Ella stepped closer, the three of them forming a tight triangle. “Nearly every woman can do magic, or at least that’s the conclusion the wizards reached in tests decades ago. If we make it so tens of thousands of women actually are doing magic—”
“My God, that would change everything,” Joan said, almost to herself. She looked at them, eyes widening. “We could run for Congress.”
Beatrix nodded. “The Twenty-Fifth Amendment says magic users, not wizards—‘only magic users may be elected to national office.’ We could kick the wizards out whether it’s repealed or not.”
Joan considered her. “You don’t think Lydia will succeed?”
“She’s put herself in danger. Terrible danger.” Beatrix closed her eyes for a second and got herself under control. “This is Plan B—give the magiocracy a far bigger problem to contend with so they stop focusing on her altogether.”
“Ah,” Joan said, nodding.
“But you must understand, what we’re proposing is highly illegal,” Beatrix murmured. “Even attempting to cast spells, if you’re not a wizard, is a felony. So is teaching magic to anyone who isn’t selected for one of the wizardry academies. I don’t think they’d arrest many thousands of women stepping forward at once, but a handful operating in secret? No question.”
“We won’t think any less of you if you decide the risk is too high,” Beatrix added.
Joan glanced at Ella, then back at her. “Could you … give me a moment?”
They did. Beatrix sat on the edge of Joan’s couch, waiting, unable to talk to Ella for fear of bugs, trying to ignore the thought jittering in her head: What have you done.
The idea seemed so good in the safety of her house. Yes, we must, Ella had said, all strategy and enthusiasm. But they could end up undermining all of Lydia’s hard work. They might even irrevocably harm her, never mind the Vow they’d both taken. For all its implacable force when it kicked in, how could it predict the future?
And Peter. Her employer, teacher, unasked-for lover. The only wizard in Ellicott Mills. Whom else would the feds blame if she were found out, but him?
She felt … She grasped about for how, exactly, and came up with the feeling of being him, in one of their disconcerting linked dreams, as his life spiraled out of control in Washington and he made the fateful decision to come home to Ellicott Mills.
“Calm down,” Ella muttered. “You’re going to damage the couch cushions.”
Beatrix hadn’t even noticed she’d grasped them with both hands.
Ella scooted closer. “This isn’t like you. Even the night Lydia was elected and—well, even that night, you were a lot more composed than the rest of us.”
She hadn’t felt like it. But she supposed she normally managed to keep her internal gyrations to herself. Except now she couldn’t.
Now that she was going directly against Peter’s wishes.
She pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes, beginning to see what was happening. Good God, her Vow to Peter was insidious. It couldn’t physically stop her from doing this—not this—but it could certainly make her feel as if she were making a terrible mistake.
“I’m OK,” she said, taking a deep breath, then another. “I’ll be OK.” And she steeled herself, pressing the emotions that weren’t hers, the ones she disavowed, into a tight ball.
If she could resist him in every situation except their dreams, even with his desire for her thrumming through her veins, feeling so much like actual desire for him—if she could do that, then she could put up her chin and barrel through this. Just recognizing the problem was a relief, in fact. Now she could shove all the caustic second thoughts she’d been having into the internal box labeled Peter’s.
The bathroom door opened. Joan’s heels clicked against the floor. Beatrix and Ella jumped to their feet.
Even before Joan opened her mouth, Beatrix knew her answer from the angle of her shoulders and the look in her eyes.
“I agree,” Joan said.
“Good,” Beatrix said, and meant it.
. . . . .
Peter knew why his stomach had been variously sinking, flipping and clenching for seemingly no reason all afternoon—Beatrix—but not what had made her so tense. She hadn’t mentioned anything she would be doing over the weekend, no League events that wizards might be sabotaging.
But then, she hadn’t said much to him for two weeks, not even in dreams.
He debated going to her house and seeing what was wrong, assuming she was at Cedarlawn. But the emotion bleeding through to him wasn’t terror. It would really be better to not engage.
He sighed. The gulf that had opened up between them, just as they’d gotten within arm’s reach, seemed impossible to bridge. His anger had largely burned itself out—hers too, he thought. But the distance remained. It wasn’t until she proved her internal compass wasn’t infallible that he realized how much he’d relied on her for navigation through the dangerous waters they both treaded.
But she hadn’t actually done anything yet. Perhaps she never would. When push came to shove, surely careful, watchful Beatrix wouldn’t risk her freedom and her sister’s hard-earned reputation with a wild scheme she’d thought of while flush with new power.
Careful, watchful Beatrix, who’d risked those exact things when she took his ill-advised bait to cast spells in the first place.
He gritted his teeth and tried to concentrate on the runes in front of him, not the insidious thoughts of her that curled around his brain like smoke. He managed it for perhaps ten minutes when a familiar shave-and-a-haircut knock on his front door set every nerve alight.
He took the two flights down at a rapid clip. But the person distorted through the peephole was not her.
“Martinelli,” he said, opening the door to the man who’d been his deputy director, back when he was the Army’s chief weapons developer. Four months and a lifetime ago.
He’d been so busy for most of it that he’d barely had time to worry about whether Tim Martinelli would get his job, or whether it would go to a more inventive, more dangerous researcher. Four months was enough time for a decision.
Martinelli held up a bottle of scotch, the golden liquid glimmering in the afternoon light. “Well, Omnimancer—can I persuade you to stop omnimancing for an hour and have a drink with me?”
His lips quirked of their own accord. “It’s a Saturday. Do you think I do nothing else?”
“You live in a town with one traffic light, boss. What else could you do around here?”
Peter laughed—at the gap between Martinelli’s assumption and reality, mostly—and stepped back to let the man in. “That’s particularly insulting, coming from the office stick-in-the-mud.”
“Less talking, more drinking. Where’s your kitchen?”
Martinelli bustled about the space, finding tumblers and ice, and they retreated to the receiving room. Peter cast a soundproofing spell out of habit, but he didn’t think Martinelli had come to talk shop. People who worked on highly sensitive projects were not permitted to share their classified information with those who quit.
He sipped at the alcohol. It slid down his throat with just a hint of bite.
“Good?” Martinelli said.
“Very.” He wanted to ask if it meant the promotion had come through, but he didn’t trust himself to say the words calmly. So he went with, “What’s the occasion?”
“Felt bad for you.”
“Also,” Martinelli said, swirling the liquid in his glass, “there’s no one worth insulting with you gone.”
“I miss you, too,” he said, surprised by the strength of the ache in his chest.
He had given up a lot in his escape home—an important job, a big salary, a lovely old townhouse in Washington—but the loss he felt most deeply was companionship. No one here was his friend. Most in Ellicott Mills wanted something from him, granted, but he unnerved them. The League women distrusted him. And Beatrix—
But that was his own fault.
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
Martinelli nodded. “How long do you plan to stay out here, decompressing or whatever it is you’re doing?”
What he was doing, besides ironically helping the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic, was attempting to neutralize the incredibly dangerous weapon he’d invented for the Army. An explosion set off by Project 96 could level the downtown of a large city. He’d arranged matters so the Army had a replica that would eventually degrade, while the original sat hidden in the forest beyond his house.
So—he’d stay for however long it took to counter this portable cataclysm. Assuming he wasn’t arrested or killed first.
“I worked at the Pentagram for years,” he said, aiming for jocular but falling short. “That requires a lot of decompressing.”
Martinelli ran his hands through his hair, long and silver like every other wizard but thinning on top. He looked tired for just a moment, but then he gave that grin of his that made him look slightly maniacal and not at all middle-aged.
“It’s a woman, isn’t it.”
Peter blinked, thrown. “What?”
“You moved here because of a woman. Getting away from or moving closer to?”
“Neither.” He was relieved that Martinelli assumed the reason was sex rather than something job-related, but still: “What do you take me for?”
“Well—never tagging along with you on Friday nights, I cannot say.”
He didn’t feel up to the conversation about why he would never sleep with a woman and skip town, not after growing up as the result of such circumstances. He simply downed the rest of the scotch in his glass and held it out for a refill.
Martinelli poured a generous amount. “You getting inundated with requests from the townspeople?”
He gave the man a what-do-you-think look. “Enough to keep me occupied until the end of time. It’s not just the town, it’s the entire county. Plus the occasional resident of neighboring counties, hoping I won’t notice.”
“What’s next on the to-do list?”
“Why? You want to help me eradicate the hibernating aphids from Mr. Sederey’s farm?”
Martinelli finished his drink and grinned again. “OK. Lead on, Omnimancer.”
“I’m serious. C’mon.”
Peter wondered whether Martinelli was conducting official reconnaissance to see whether he was really omnimancing. Well, he was. Just not the jobs that could be done behind closed doors. And he couldn’t think of a downside to a tag-along, so off they went to help Mr. Sederey.
Once the demarcation stones were in place, Peter gestured to Martinelli. He wanted to help? He could cast. Even after the walk, Peter still felt buzzed from the scotch.
A moment later, they both gaped at Martinelli’s results. The field had turned an alarming shade of orange.
“Uh,” Martinelli said. “Is that a … side effect of killing the bugs?”
Peter couldn’t take his eyes off the soil. Holy heck, what if they couldn’t get that spell off? “No. Do you think you could—”
Martinelli hurriedly cast the generic reversal—which only worked on spells you’d cast yourself, and occasionally not even then—and they both heaved sighs of relief as it took effect.
Martinelli was the first to start laughing. It was a while before they could stop.
“You were hazing me, weren’t you,” Martinelli said, poking him. “Admit it.”
“No, I swear I wasn’t. But next time you’re about to tell me that omnimancing isn’t rocket science …”
“Hah! Noted. Also—you take it from here, thanks very much.”
After they’d dealt with the bugs, Mr. Sederey rushed over to plead for help with his calving heifer in distress. It was off-season and the vet was out of town. Yes, of course they’d do their best.
A lot of trial and error later, Peter had blood and calf poop up to his shoulders and a grin that probably rivaled Martinelli’s. The calf was alive. The mother, too. They’d done it. The spells had been only marginally helpful, but they’d done it.
“Stay for supper,” Mr. Sederey urged. “The missus is getting an early meal on the table right now.”
Peter turned to Martinelli. “Can you?”
Martinelli hesitated, then shrugged. “Why not.”
“Need to call your wife?”
He shook his head. “Visiting her mother.”
Martinelli gingerly pulled leaves from his coat, which was sun-yellow in contrast to Peter’s midnight blue, and cast a cleaning spell over them both. After that, they had a lovely meal with the farmer, his wife, their three teenage sons and a daughter who looked to be about the age of Beatrix’s sister.
None of them seemed unnerved to have two wizards at their table. Perhaps people were getting used to him. A cheering thought.
When he and Martinelli walked back to the overgrown Victorian on the town’s highest hill, stumbling in the twilight over the uneven pavement and joking about it, he felt so good. Happy.
Martinelli elbowed him. “Are you interested in Lillian Sederey?”
He needed a second to remember that was the daughter’s name, and then he laughed. “No! She’s, what, twenty? Far too young.”
“Oh, far too young.” Martinelli snorted. “Bushwa. What are you, whippersnapper, all of twenty-six?”
“Thirty-three, thank you very much.”
“A perfectly respectable age gap. She seems nice. If you’re going to stay …” Martinelli stopped halfway up the driveway, turned and looked down Main Street, the soft glow of fading sun and Christmas lights showing only the beauty, not the boarded-up stores or decades-old cement. “If you’re going to stay, you should find someone to take care of you.”
He didn’t want someone to take care of him. He wanted Beatrix. God help him.
“Are you going to stay?” Martinelli looked at him, and if the question was on behalf of Army superiors, the man’s face showed no sign of it. “Do you have any plans to come back?”
Whatever the reason, the truth would do. “Absolutely none.”
Martinelli nodded. He continued up the driveway.
Peter caught up with him. “What, no more appeals to my better judgment? No cracks about bugs and cow gunk?”
Martinelli’s smile was tinged with something that wasn’t humor. “I get it now, boss. I didn’t before, I admit, but—I had fun today. I can’t remember the last time I had fun at the Pentagram.”
Peter said nothing. The thought of his last six months there, and at the test facility in New Mexico, choked off any response he could have given.
“And out here,” Martinelli said, “you get to save animals instead of sacrificing them.”
They crested the hill in silence, Martinelli’s tan DeSoto coming into view—the reason Peter had had no advance warning of the arrival. Spellcasting detection charms did not detect wizards driving sedans into Ellicott Mills.
“I can put you up for the night if you’d rather not drive back. Or give me two reds”—Peter held out a hand for the leaves he knew Martinelli would not cough up—“and I’ll teleport you and your car home. Like an actual wizard.”
“I now have to do all the teleporting to and around the test site, I’ll have you know. The miseries your scurrilous desertion has brought upon me.” He grinned. “I like to drive, and it’s only six o’clock, so no need to give me a bed—but thanks.”
Martinelli clasped his arm, got into the car and turned the key in the ignition. And Peter made himself ask the question.
“Are you chief weapons developer these days? Is it official?”
Martinelli rolled his eyes. “They’re still considering their options, the philistines. You know how the Army is. Turns out Franck’s quite ill, so their options aren’t that impressive”—Peter’s heart leapt at that, and then he immediately felt bad for taking pleasure in poor old Franck’s bad health—“but they’re hyper-focused on other leadership changes at the moment. Did you know that Mercer retires next week?”
News to him. Probably not good news. Lt. Gen. Mercer had seemed at least a bit uncomfortable about the turn the weapon had taken.
“Who’s the new overseer?” he asked, trying to project unconcern.
Martinelli shrugged. “Some buddy of the vice president’s.”
Peter hadn’t seriously thought the Army would come to its collective senses about the weapon, but he must have been unconsciously hoping, because his stomach sank. The vice president was a hawk’s hawk.
“I listened to you, you know,” Martinelli said. “I asserted myself. I gave them a dozen reasons it should be me replacing you.”
It wasn’t possible for his stomach to sink further, so it writhed instead. He should have told Martinelli to get out of that nightmare. Instead, he’d practically ordered the man to dig himself in deeper because Martinelli wasn’t clever enough to uncover what he, Peter, had done.
It was a betrayal. No way around it.
“Good luck,” he croaked.
He watched Martinelli wind down the long driveway and disappear around the curve. His state of mind was such that when he finally noticed that his stomach was zipping with something other than wretchedness, he knew immediately that what he felt wasn’t his emotion.
Wherever she was, whatever she was doing, Beatrix was a mass of nervous excitement.
He really, really hoped that didn’t mean what he thought it meant.
. . . . .
Joan grinned back at them as the results of the last spell on their to-do list prickled their skin like a sudden chill.
“It worked?” she asked. “The bathroom’s protected?”
“It worked,” Beatrix said, all but the tiniest remnants of her earlier tension gone. “You’re really good at this.”
Joan’s high-wattage smile faded a bit, and she sat on the closed toilet seat. “I’m exhausted. Does that get better with practice?”
Ella gave Beatrix a look that needed no translation. Tell her. Tell her that spells—leaves and words and body positioning—were difficult because they were the wrong way to go about it. That women could bend magic differently—more powerfully than wizards.
But that was the promise of the method Beatrix had stumbled onto. She’d tapped it twice under trying circumstances, to amazing effect. She’d had dramatically less impressive results since then, and Ella’s weren’t much better so far. They’d hoped to skip spells altogether with Plan B, negating the unfortunate need for leaves in the dead of winter. But it was clear now that the magic they’d codenamed “knitting” (“women’s work,” Ella had cackled) wouldn’t be ready for a while. And they couldn’t afford to wait.
“Beatrix?” Joan said. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, breathing deeply, pushing the building panic down. “Sorry. This will always be taxing, but it does get easier with practice.”
Joan nodded. “OK. So now I—what, find other women to teach, women I trust, and tell them to do the same?”
“Only people who aren’t part of the League,” Ella said. “And don’t say anything to make them think this has some connection to the group. Also, no one should tell the people they’re recruiting who recruited them.”
“And they need to be brave,” Beatrix said. “Brave enough, at least, to be willing to go to Washington and be part of a mass public demonstration of women’s magic skills.”
“And just recruit two women,” Ella said. “Each of them should teach just two more, and so on.”
Beatrix tapped the sink to reinforce the point. “That’s very important. Only two.”
“Each recruit should report back up the line if there’s a problem, and if it’s something that can’t wait, you should call us—but remember the phone is bugged, so just say, ‘I promised to let you know how my sister is doing, and I’m afraid she’s still ill.’ ”
Joan’s expression was grave, but she didn’t object. “What if it’s the middle of the day?”
Beatrix bit her lip. “Then call me at Omnimancer Blackwell’s. It’s almost always me who answers the phone anyway. But in that case, say your sister is ill, and could I put her on the omnimancer’s list.”
“Did you get all that?” Ella asked, shooting Joan a sympathetic look.
“Call if there’s a major problem, say my sister is ill. Don’t tell the recruits this has any connection to the League, or who recruited whom. Pick brave women, no more than two.” Joan cocked her head. “But wouldn’t three or four speed things up?”
“No! Imagine the consequences of telling the secret to someone who shouldn’t be trusted.” The hard rock of Peter’s anxiety and dismay twisted in Beatrix’s stomach. “Be very careful.”
“Be paranoid, actually.” Ella’s smile was grim. “Assume you’re being watched, just in case.”
Beatrix was getting so used to being paranoid that it seemed like second nature. And now, as Ella handed Joan the parcel of leaves they’d brought, Beatrix clutched the pomegranate in her pocket and fought against the paranoia that urged her to put Joan under a Vow. Vows closed loose lips, it was true, but they were a corrupt magic. They used you against yourself. The very idea was so distasteful, so easy to abuse, that even the magiocracy thought them beyond the pale. She never wanted to turn to them again.
And yet here she was with a pomegranate. Just in case.
“Any other questions?” she said after they ensured that Joan had sufficiently hidden the leaves.
Joan bit her lip thoughtfully. “No, I … oh, wait, yes: How did you figure all this out?”
Her words hung in the air a moment. Beatrix swallowed convulsively as a warning from her Vows ghosted up her throat.
Ella cleared her own throat. Her Vow prevented her from talking about Peter’s role, too. “Research. Trial and error,” she said.
But Joan, too-quick Joan, was already leaping ahead. She stared at Beatrix. “Your town omnimancer—is he on our side?”
Quick as lightning, the pomegranate was out of the pocket, Beatrix’s lips forming words of persuasion. In three minutes flat, she and Joan were standing in interlocking circles of demarcation stones, Joan looking down at the piece of paper with the neatly penned paragraph that would rob her of a portion of her free will.
“I see,” Joan murmured. “You took one of these, too.”
Then: “Ic gehāte,” she said. I vow.
And Beatrix couldn’t tell whether her own Vows had compelled her to do that, or the feelings for Peter that were not hers, or simply her need to protect him—assuming that, too, wasn’t manufactured. She didn’t think it was. But she really couldn’t know.
Want to know details about the amount of violence, sex, romance, angst, etc., before you decide whether to read? Find that here. (Readers who want a heads up about discussions of past traumatic experiences should take a look.)