It was a good job, or so Rose’s cousin had told her again and again. She had no right to complain, not when a rich man like Astrophel Sterling was willing to take her into his home and give her a position managing his various accounts. It seemed he had so much money he couldn’t look after it on his own and had nothing better to do with it than pay for a crippled girl to live in his house and play bookkeeper.
“It’s better than facing a firing squad,” Philip had said as the carriage brought them to Sterling’s manor. “If Astrophel didn’t owe me a favor, that’s exactly where you would be for getting involved in a revolt.” He must have seen her frown, for he leaned across the carriage and set his hands on hers. “Having a scarred hand doesn’t make you a cripple, Rosie. You’re brilliant, and I know you’ll do well. He needs the help, and you need the protection.”
Philip – she couldn’t think of him as Pippin any longer, not after he had executed one of her comrades – wasn’t wrong. Though she was sure she would be able to manage without some rich man’s protection, she wasn’t sure how Sterling had managed without her. All his accounts were in disarray, and it had taken her a month to get everything in order. It was a wonder he hadn’t accidentally gone into debt, since it was clear he knew nothing about running a household. She suspected he was a younger brother who had only inherited through some unfortunate accident.
But that wasn’t the only thing that alarmed her about him. He wasn’t just careless; he was downright strange. She wouldn’t have expected anyone named Astrophel to be normal, but he went far beyond what his name might suggest.
He was thin and pale, and at their meals (and he continually invited her to eat with him, which she hardly minded) he barely ate. He looked as though he barely slept, too, and the hollows above and below his cheekbones made them look far sharper than they should have. He was startled by small noises and shied away from shadows.
And he was young. Rose had expected to work for someone old enough that his mind would have started to go, but Sterling – calling him Astrophel was too familiar, and she wasn’t about to call him sir – was about Philip’s age, possibly a few years younger. There was something haunting him, but she couldn’t tell what.
Even if she could have told, it wouldn’t have been her place. Her job was to manage his accounts, and once the ones from the past were all rewritten and put in order, it was a remarkably easy job. The other servants reported to her about the household spendings and whatever income Sterling got from his lands, and she made sure every penny was accounted for. Once she’d even lectured a maid for spending some of the household money for herself, and it had felt wonderful to have a way to ease her temper.
Now that she didn’t have as much to do, she found herself sitting up late at night to read. Before the revolution she had always gone to bed shortly after sunset, but it was hard to sleep while trying to overthrow an emperor. She could have blamed her current late nights on the habit that had come from those months, but she suspected her employer’s insomnia was rubbing off on her. The other servants looked haunted as well, and even if it wasn’t to the same extent that Sterling was, something in the house made them nervous. Rose had even found herself looking wan and weary, and she thought she’d somehow managed to lose weight, even on the rich food the cook served.
At least his library was well-stocked. Rose had spent the past month working her way through some scientific literature and had lately been considering taking a break to read some poetry. The Romantic tradition sounded interesting, or perhaps the now banned Enlightened.
Then she heard the scream.
Shadows, reaching out, writhing just beyond the corners of his sight, always there but never seen, ever since he had opened that gate that should not have been opened, ignored the warning that should not have been ignored. Pages stained in blood should have told him to run, but he hadn’t heard their words, not until it was too late, not until he had stared into what lay beyond his mind and known just how deep the universe went, that there were stones and stones stacked to the bottom, and some of those stones were skulls…
Fingers, hands pressing against him, and he realized a moment later that they were not part of the dream. His eyes opened, but he could not have said whether he truly woke, for all he saw were the writhing shadows, twisting in a way that nothing ought to. “No,” he gasped, trying to push them away, but the hands were warm and rough, and they came with a voice.
“Sterling! Sterling, wake up! You’re dreaming.”
“No,” he said again, but this time it was a refusal. It had been no dream but a hint of whatever he had opened inside his mind and outside the world. “No…”
“Damn it. Philip never told me you were crazy. He just said you needed me.”
He did need the voice. It was steady and strong, like solid ground, and it drove the shadows from his vision so he could see the speaker, her red curls in disarray, her cheeks paler than they had been when she had first stood in his home, her green eyes reflecting yellow candlelight so she barely looked human, but she was, delightfully so, and he flung his arms around her, pressing his cheek against her neck to feel her pulse and the air running up and down her throat. He wanted to say her name – and it was the simplest name to say – but the only sound that would come from his mouth was a dry, shaking sob.
“The shadows,” he whispered, his breath rushing across her skin. “They move in ways they should not.”
She sighed, and he did not care that it was in frustration. That frustration could hurt, but it could also protect, and for a single moment he thought she might face the shadows herself to save him. He would never ask her to go into danger for him, but if she were willing, he would accept it.
“It was probably just a bad dream,” she said, and pushed him off her shoulder just enough to press a hand against his forehead. “You haven’t got a fever, at least. I’m your bookkeeper, not your nurse.”
He grabbed her hand, though the sudden movement startled her and made her eyes grow wide. “It was no dream,” he said. “There are shadows. They move in ways they should not. Please believe me.” He was not sure what to do if she did not. He could not send her away, for his friend’s sake and for hers and for his. He needed her there.
“The shadows,” she murmured, and her eyes darted about the room. Frowning, she pulled her hands from his and stepped away. “Those shadows?”
She saw them too. Joy and horror rose within him: joy for being not entirely mad and horror that perhaps the shadows could see her. He needed to protect her, more even than he needed to protect himself, but he did not know how. If he could not save himself, if he was too weak to do anything against the shadows when it was his life threatened, how could he attempt to protect the one who might need to protect him?
And still she moved away, following the shadows with her gaze. He followed them as well, where they danced around a door he tried to keep hidden. He must have forgotten to cover it with curtains tonight – or perhaps the shadows had moved them – for now it was wide open and she was making her way toward it.
“What’s through here?” she asked, in her voice all the innocence that her sharp glares must have hidden during her time in his house.
He had to protect her.
“No,” he gasped, nearly falling from his bed. “No, please!”
But she did not listen. She opened the door.
It looked like a laboratory, but clearly it couldn’t be. The books laid haphazardly on the counters had strange symbols in them, and the shadows that shouldn’t have been moving cleared away as soon as Rose laid her eyes on them. Perhaps it really was a laboratory, but it must have dealt in magic, and illegal magic at that.
“Please,” Sterling whispered from behind her. “Tell no one.”
Rose rolled up her sleeves. “Of course not,” she said. “I have to set this in order for you.”