In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.
Witchmark—the debut novel from C.L. Polk—is available June 19th from Tor.com Publishing.
The memo stank of barrel-printing ink and bad news. Oh, it began with the usual hurrahs, our boys victorious and finally coming home, but it ordered me to banish sixteen patients from my care by week’s end. I didn’t have ten men who were safe to send home to their families. This could not stand, and I’d tell Mathy to her face.
Green-tinged gaslight in the stairwell gave way to the lobby’s white-gold aether lamps, and I suppressed a wince at the familiar prickle and whine of modern lighting. The clerk at reception waved me over, but I ignored the message slips in her hand.
“Have you seen Dr. Matheson?”
“Good evening, Dr. Singer. She left twenty minutes ago.” She nodded her head leftwards.
Matheson had sent her memo late to escape before the news spread. She wouldn’t be the one to send veterans home before they were ready. That responsibility was on me.
“You aren’t the only one to ask.” The clerk thrust messages into my hand. “They all left early. Department heads, board members… It’s a bad one this time, isn’t it?”
“Mandatory patient discharge.” My fingers barely grazed hers, but the old wound to her shoulder joint throbbed a dull red to my talent. My fingers itched to heal it. I drew away.
She curled message slips into tubes and slid them into labeled cubbies. “Well, it’s to make room for the soldiers coming home, isn’t it?”
It was. The war in Laneer was over, and as predicted, Laneer surrendered to Aeland’s might. A happy event, to be sure. But when I thought about the fifty thousand soldiers on their way home, the chance they shared my patient’s problems… I ignored the sick feeling in my gut, stuffing the messages in my coat pocket beside the crumpled memo. “What about Robin?”
“Haven’t seen her. The nurses are in a meeting.”
This damn memo, and no Robin to commiserate. “Thank you. Have a quiet evening.” I gave her a polite nod and headed for the exit, faltering as I pushed the heavy door open.
It’s perfectly safe out there. I knew it, but I still had to scan the trees when I stepped through the hospital doors. Their branches bent heavy with ripening apples, not the weight of enemy snipers.
Perfectly safe. Laneer’s everlasting summer and gunfire were an ocean away. I was home in Kingston, where carriage wheels and bicycle tires hissed along rain-dampened streets, the air crisp with a streak of winter. I patted my pockets, searching for cigarettes I didn’t carry anymore. Maybe Robin would let me have one. Solace knew I needed one, after my day.
Brass carriage bells, trilling bicycle bells, and shouting sounded, not far away and coming closer. A carriage careened around the corner. Cyclists scattered like startled fish. The driver hauled on the reins, putting his weight against the carriage brake. “Emergency!” the driver cried, stilling his agitated horses.
Cold pooled in my gut. We weren’t an emergency hospital. If they needed a surgeon, I’d have to take up the scalpels I hadn’t touched since I came home from the war.
The coach door banged open, and a broad-shouldered gentleman leapt out, bearing a sick man in his arms. The patient’s face rolled toward me, and my heart kicked against my chest. Not just sick; by the waxy look of his skin, this man was dying. He lifted his trembling hand to claw at my coat lapels.
I put my arms under the patient’s shoulders and knees. “I’m Dr. Singer, sir. I’ll take it from here.”
“I found him in the street.” Instead of letting go, the gentleman grasped my arms, and between us we made a carry chair. He nodded to me over the patient’s head. “I’m Tristan Hunter.”
He adjusted his grip on my sleeves and ran like we had to outpace a tin grenade. Where had he learned to move casualties like that?
The sick man groped for me again.
“Sir? Can you tell me your name?”
“Nick Elliot,” the sick man said. “Help me, Starred One. I am murdered.”
I stumbled. The gentleman glanced at me, wide-eyed.
“He’s raving.” My excuse was feeble.
We rushed past the crowd huddled around the lobby wireless, their faces pop-eyed and staring at us. A competence of nurses strode out of Audience Hall A. Robin—thank the Guardians—broke from their midst, following us to an empty treatment room. Mr. Hunter handled the turn and dump in the dark as competently as any medic I’d worked with in the war.
He stepped back to snap on the light. The harsh white glow of aether prickled over my scalp and blazed over Mr. Elliot’s pale face, the bruised hollows around his eyes deep violet.
Robin stretched a pair of rubber gloves over her hands, but I didn’t bother. She caught my overcoat as I shrugged it off, her hand already out for my bowler.
“Poison,” he gasped. “In the tea. Please, Starred One. Help me.”
Don’t say that out loud. I tore his vomit-stained shirt open. Abalone shell buttons plinked on the tile floor. I planted my bare hand on his chest and choked down a gasp.
Mr. Elliot’s aura was the green of new spring leaves. A stranger with a witch’s aura, dying on my table? This was a disaster.
Robin handed me a stethoscope. Mr. Elliot’s pulse tied a stone to my hope of saving him, his labored breathing an off-time rhythm shuddering in his skinny chest.
“Is there an intravenous kit left?”
Robin threw open supply drawers. “No.”
“Find a kit. Find two. Run.”
Robin dashed out of sight. I spread my fingers over the stranger’s chest. The deep scarlet light of his heart faltered. Gray particles gathered in his stomach and kidneys: dull, but with a feeling of metal. He had been poisoned, and not by bad food or filthy water. I couldn’t save this man without magic.
Tight muscles in my arms and legs quivered. I could save him. Then he would talk. Then I’d wind up in the asylum… or worse, my family would save me from the asylum.
Mr. Elliot dragged in a tattered breath. “I got too close. They needed the souls. The war—”
He gagged and rolled away from me, retching. I held him steady. “Don’t try to talk.”
He dragged in ragged breaths and kept talking. “Find my murderer, Sir Christopher.”
I froze. “I’m Dr. Singer.”
He groped for my arm. “Promise me.”
A crackling line of static rushed over me. Tendrils of green light shot from his fingers and twined up my arm. I fought his grip, but the vines held fast, stretching from his grasping fingers.
I lurched backward, trying to break free. He held on and toppled from the exam bed, landing on the tiles with a cry. The light-vines constricted, sinking under my skin.
Nick Elliot raised his head. He was on his last shreds of life, his grip on my arm trembling.
“Take it,” he said. “Please. Use it to save them.”
There was no time to ask who I was saving, or from what. The souls, he said. And he knew my real name.
“Please, Sir Christopher,” he panted. “The soldiers… they deserve the truth.”
The truth about what? The war? I wasn’t sure the soldiers in my ward could handle any more truth. I tightened my grip on his hand. “I will.”
Nick’s power wound around me, trying to connect with mine. He needed my help to do this. I stopped fighting the vines for one breath and reached out.
I hadn’t linked with anyone for years. I had thought I never would again. His agony shuddered through me, his desperation closed my throat, and his power filled me as he yielded every speck.
The treatment room faded as a vision took me. I stumbled on worn carpet patterned with pink roses, tripped on my way down the stairs. My insides felt shredded, and I lurched over tiny black and white tiles to a glass-fronted door. I had to get help. I had to live.
The light-vines faded and his body went limp. I was Nick Elliot no longer; his last urgent memory faded with his life. I felt for a pulse, for breath, but it was merely ceremony. He was dead.
Robin stood in the doorway clutching an IV kit. She dropped it on the counter and knelt next to me. “Are you hurt?”
Robin stared at me, raising her gloved hand to hover next to my temple, as if there was something there to see. Hot and cold raced over my skin. Pins and needles spread from my fingertips, crawling up my right arm. “Am I bleeding?”
“No.” But her brows were bunched together. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m all right,” I said. “Help me get him on the table.”
His power welled inside me. I had to check to make sure I wasn’t spilling light every time I moved. What had he done to me? I scrambled to my feet and tried to lift Nick Elliot’s body.
Robin stared over my shoulder. “Sir? What are you doing in here?”
Cold fear prickled down my back.
Mr. Hunter stood behind me, tucked into the corner where he’d seen and heard everything.
* * *
My hands turned to ice. He would tell Robin as soon as he worked past the denial. He’d tell everyone in hearing range a witch had worked a spell on me, that the witch had called me Starred One and worse, Sir Christopher. But how had I failed to notice him?
“Forgive me,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in the way. One never knows quite what to do in these situations.”
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Robin said. “He was in a lot of pain. Would you like to take a moment in the hospital lobby? Or I can find an empty treatment room…”
Yes. Get him out of here.
“Thank you, I’m quite well.” He gave her a slight bow, his smile polite before he regarded me. “Doctor, do you need to sit down? You look shaken.”
Blast this man. What was his game? He’d seen everything, but he looked at me with polite concern. I stood up straighter. “I’m fine, thank you. I hate it when I can’t save them.”
Robin and I laid Nick Elliot on the table and straightened his limbs, closed his staring eyes.
Mr. Hunter stood at the foot of the examination table, hands behind his back. “He said he’d been murdered. Was he?”
“It’ll take a death examination to find out,” I said. The police have to be notified, in any case.”
The cabinet on the left held sheets. I unfurled one over Nick Elliot’s body, draping him in white-laundered linen. “You said you found him in the street.”
Mr. Hunter tugged a corner of the sheet so it fell evenly. “At West Fourteenth and Wellston.”
“West Fourteenth? Wakefield Cross Hospital is closer.” Robin bent and picked up the buttons.
“He asked to come here.”
My heart thumped hard—once, twice. A witch had passed the best hospital in Kingston to come here. To come to me. I shuffled to the treatment room’s stone sink and turned on hot water. I wet a scarlet bar of soap and used the circling of one hand ringed around the other to calm down and think. Mr. Hunter had seen. He’d seen it all. And he hadn’t said a word.
“We need to report it,” I said.
“I’ll get him sent downstairs.” Robin had the beginnings of a medical file piled up on the counter. “You’ll handle the exam?”
The antiseptic scent of carbolic acid rose from my soap-slippery hands. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“We have the luncheon fundraiser tomorrow.”
“Guardians, save me from that waste of time.”
Mr. Hunter stood up a little straighter, frowning at my language. I dried my hands on a linen towel. “I’m sorry, sir, but I must attend this. If there’s nothing else I can do for you?”
“Actually…” Mr. Hunter took my Service coat and my second-best hat. He presented them as if he were my footman. I draped my coat over my left arm, caught the brim of my hat in my hand. Paper crinkled in the pocket—the damned memo.
“I’d like a private word. I won’t take much of your time.”
Here it was. Threats. Blackmail. Whatever he wanted for his silence.
“We can talk in my office.”
I climbed the eighty steps to my office with a quivering stomach and trouble on my heels. I willed my feet to move, kept my head high, and tried not to betray my lack of advantage or leverage. Mr. Hunter could report that a witch had called me Starred One, and I would wind up in an examination. I’d never get out.
Mr. Hunter kept pace with me up all four flights of stairs. “You climb these stairs every day?”
“More than once,” I said. “Come in.”
He took it all in at a glance. I scarcely had enough floor for my desk, and the guest chair folded flat to lean against the deep windowsill until someone needed it. He’d have to sit sideways, or there would be no room for his knees between my desk and the ceiling-high wall of shelves.
He bent over to peer at paper-bound penny novels, stood straight to inspect my small collection of medical journals. He eyed the distance from wall to wall and grimaced.
His scorn stiffened my spine. I had a fine view of the south garden. Plenty of doctors envied my view. “You wanted a private place to talk.”
“I don’t imagine you’d want this conversation overheard any more than I do.”
He removed his gloves and hat, and in other circumstances I would count the sight of him as a moment of joy. His hair was long enough to braid into a single golden rope. The plait lay on his shoulder, hanging over the lapel of his coat. His formal clothing was unmarred, as if Nick Elliot’s sickness hadn’t dared smirch his appearance. He dressed in the latest fashion, and his face belonged on the cinema screen—golden-skinned symmetry, with graceful bones and keen blue eyes. Lines around his mouth indicated a mirthful nature, and the light in his eyes suggested that he found something amusing without seeming cruel. It added up to the handsomest man I’d seen in years. It was a shame gentlemen didn’t become actors.
Because he was a gentleman. His coat was good cashmere, his gloves fine kid, but there was more to him than money—ease and privilege rested in his manner. So when he put out a hand, I took it. His face rippled as if I saw him through old glass. I kept my expression pleasant with years of training. But the wavering distortion over his features… What was that?
“So. You saw everything,” I said.
“I’m afraid so.”
“And you’ll keep silent, if—”
His mouth curved, and he was dazzling. “This is where I threaten and extort, is it? Shall I ask you for money, or demand wicked deeds?”
My head came up and I faced him square on, uncurling my fisted hands. “Get on with it, will you? It’s late.”
His smile faded. “Forgive my jest, please. I don’t want to be connected with a witch any more than you do, Doctor. If anyone hears he tried to touch you with his power…”
“I’ll be ruined,” I sighed. “Tell me what you want.”
“I wanted to find someone like you.”
He knew. Did he know what Sir Christopher meant, too? My stomach quivered, and I tried to calm it with a slow breath. He thrust straight to the gut, his honesty a blade. He was looking for a witch. He was going to get in my business and stay there. I had to get rid of him. But I knew in my bones that this good-looking bit of trouble was going to stick.
I said nothing. People speak to fill a silence, to seek a connection. I stood patient and attentive and waited.
He smiled at me. Not placating, not a hint of uncertainty in it. “I want to know who killed Nick Elliot.”
He did? I put the desk between us and aligned the reports on my desk blotter. “Why? You didn’t know him.”
“Call me an altruist.”
If I hadn’t been raised so well, I’d have laughed in his face. Altruist. Indeed. “There must be more to it. Why do you want to know who killed Nick Elliot?”
He tilted his head, and I fancied his eyes reflected the lamplight the way a cat’s would. “Interesting. You don’t deny he was killed, Doctor.”
Oh, rot. “I won’t know until I do the exam.”
He leaned toward me. “Will you do it now?”
“I have to get home before my landlady locks the doors.”
“Ah. You want me to get to the point.” Mr. Hunter leaned on my filing cabinet. “I need to know why magic is dying.”
I stilled. Magic dying? It wasn’t. He was wrong—
Blast! He’d shocked me with his pronouncement. I scrambled to make up for it.
“I see,” I said. “How am I supposed to know the answer?”
“I want you to help me find it. You and Nick Elliot are the only witches I’ve met in Aeland. Mr. Elliot is dead. But here you are, alive and free.”
And I had promised Nick, hadn’t I? He had given me his power so I could find the… truth. About the war, I guessed. The war I had come to loathe, the war that had left so many men shattered inside. Mr. Hunter wanted to help, but he knew too much about me already, too many of my secrets. I had no choice but to deny it. “You want my help in finding out who poisoned Nick Elliot, and knowing will lead you to— No, it’s insane. I can’t help you.”
“You can, Sir Christopher. And I can help you.”
My breath caught in my throat. This was worse than blackmail.
I had been found.
Run, I told my useless legs. Run!
“You’re afraid,” he said. “Don’t be. I’m in as much danger as you.” Mr. Hunter raised one hand clenched in a fist. The edges of his fingers glowed red, and he opened his hand to show me a tiny light. The core of it glowed brighter than a candle, brighter than gas lamps, nearly as bright as aether.
If he told the truth, it could only mean two things: He was a lowborn witch in fine clothing, or he was a runaway mage like me. He offered me this show of magic as a token of trust. He could report me, but I could report him back.
If he wasn’t lying. But I should report him, if I knew what was good for me.
I tried for one last bluff. “I’m sorry. How are you making that light?”
“Like this.” He lifted the light and touched it to my hand.
Another sense of self touched mine, tense and hopeful in the instant before the sensation of power linked with my own. I snatched my hand away. The light stuck to my fingers, wavering without his touch to steady it, fading, dying without him.
“Link to it,” he said. “Touch it the way you would a heart.”
The light steadied, a little dimmer than it had been. It balanced on my fingertips and my blood rushed, the magic making me feel taller, clear-sighted, powerful.
I’d missed this so much.
He touched me again, guiding my efforts. “You’re alive. You’re free. But you’re untrained.”
The little light glowed. I had the trick of holding it, of feeding it droplets of the power to burn.
I lifted my gaze from the light to Mr. Hunter’s face. His warm smile reflected the wonder I felt. I couldn’t see the link between it and me. I tried to coax it into brightening—
A breeze rattled a loose windowpane. A draft made my gas lamp flicker, the cold trickling into my thoughts: Could someone see us? I closed my fist. My bones were shadows bathed in scarlet before the light extinguished, leaving me small and cold. I’d completely fallen into his hands.
“Help me find out who killed Nick Elliot, and everything I can teach you before Frostnight is yours.” He propped his chin on the pad of his thumb and the second knuckle of his index finger, examining me again. “Starting with how to hide your true nature, I think. You shine, Starred One, to anyone with the power to see.”
Possibilities lay outside the door he’d cracked open. If I could appear mundane to highborn mages with the trick of seeing magical auras, Kingston could be mine to walk again. “What happens then?”
He hesitated. “I have to go home.”
Only until Frostnight. How much trouble could he be, if he would be gone in eight days?
Too much trouble, and I knew it. “I can’t help you. I have patients to tend.” But Nick Elliot had bypassed a better hospital and tried to tell me something about the war and its soldiers before he died. What did he mean? And who would want him dead for it?
“I’d never ask a healer to abandon his patients,” he said. “But if I can teach you something you can use to help them, wouldn’t it be worth it?”
If he could help me do something about what I saw when I touched them—
No. No more miracles. But whatever Nick Elliot knew, it had died with him, unless someone worked to find it out. If Nick had known what troubled my patients, why they suffered, if their worst fears of violence would come true…
The third stair from the top creaked. Mr. Hunter’s eyes widened in alarm, and we sprang into action. I took my seat as if we had been chatting over my desk. He unfolded the guest chair and slouched in it. No footsteps sounded in the hall. Rubber-crepe shoes. A nurse.
The silhouette in the frosted window was dark and short, the knock familiar. Robin pushed the door open and sidled halfway through. “You can leave the reports until tomorrow. The police aren’t coming.”
“They’re not? Why?”
“Everyone’s at another murder. Killer’s a veteran, like the last one. Horrible, from what I gather.”
Robin caught sight of Mr. Hunter and ducked her head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
He stood up. “Please don’t worry, Mrs.…”
“This is Miss Robin Thorpe,” I said. “Robin, meet Mr. Tristan Hunter.”
“Delighted, Miss Thorpe.” He offered his hand, but covered it to a more formal half-bow when Robin bent her head in greeting.
“My apologies, Mr. Hunter, but I’ve just been handling the body. A pleasure to meet you,” she said, and turned her attention on me. “Miles, didn’t you hear me? You don’t need to do that report now.”
“I should take my leave so you can go home, Doctor. I hope you will consider my offer. May I have your answer tomorrow?”
I wavered. It was unwise to step outside of the anonymous role I’d fashioned for myself, to get involved, but whatever Nick had known, if it would help my patients… I needed it. Damn it.
“Come in the afternoon. I’m off shift at four, and I have a luncheon to attend.”
“I look forward to seeing you then.” He left with a touch of his hat. My skin tingled as if he still touched me, guiding me in keeping the light ablaze.
Robin waited until Mr. Hunter’s footsteps took him to the first landing, her hands on her hips. She turned to eye me once the sound of his departure faded.
My pens lay askew on the blotter. I laid them out in parallel lines, tidied the reports in front of me. “He wants to know if Nick Elliot was murdered. May I have a smoke?”
She grinned. “No. Bad days only.”
“I lost a patient. Is that bad enough?”
“No. Why would Mr. High Hat care if it was murder?” Robin asked, eyes narrow. “Didn’t he say he found Elliot in the street?”
“What if he killed Nick Elliot himself and wants to snarl up any investigation?”
Clever Robin. But if he had, why didn’t Mr. Elliot accuse him? “I didn’t think of that.”
“I suppose you can tell the police he’s a little too interested,” Robin said. “They’re the ones who’ll be doing the investigating, after all.”
“I can do that.” I had no intention of doing that. All Mr. Hunter had to do was report me, and I was done for. “What are you still doing here? Aren’t you supposed to split your shift for the luncheon?”
“You need to go home too. I need you to be extra charming to a rich dowager at the luncheon tomorrow. They’re cutting laundry again.”
So the board’s savage little economies had struck Nursing, this time. Beauregard needed money, but it was trying to eat itself. “I’ll ask her for five thousand marks.”
I had expected her to smile at promising such an outrageous sum, but she stuck her hands in the pockets of her heavy gray skirt. “There’s something else.”
“I gave my notice. I’m going to medical school.”
I caught my breath.
Robin was the best nurse in the hospital. She was my friend. Everything would go to shambles without her. She’d have patients waiting a year to see her the moment she became Dr. Robin Thorpe. She was leaving the hospital… leaving me.
A good man would be happy for her. “Excellent. Congratulations. Queen’s University?”
“Yes. I start with the Frostmonth term.”
The waiting list in my head doubled. “Those tiny hands of yours are perfect. You’ll need to stand on a box.”
She laughed. “I could use stilts.”
The ache curled around my heart. She’d be the best. “I’ll miss you.”
“No, you won’t. We’ll stay in touch. Though you should leave here.” She described the hospital with a sweeping gesture. “You’re a better doctor than this.”
“They need me.” None of the other physicians in Mental Recovery had seen the war. They didn’t know how the ‘hopelessly outgunned’ Laneeri had fought back with surprise, silence, and savagery. The men here needed me. After everything I had been forced to do in Laneer, I could never abandon them.
Robin sighed. “Okay. I’ll let it go for today. But you need to go home.”
“I should write my reports—”
“They can wait, Miles. Go home. Sleep in your own bed, and let’s have fun at the fundraiser tomorrow.”
“What would I do without you?” I would find out, wouldn’t I? She would be gone right after Frostnight.
“You’ll manage.” Robin handed me my hat, determined to see the back of me.
* * *
I was nearly home when I smelled fire. The sight of it soon followed: A narrow wooden house burned in the middle of the block, its gables ablaze. A soot-streaked woman stared numbly at the furniture her family had dragged out of the house, piled on the street as onlookers brought blankets, water, and prayers.
I was off my bicycle in a moment. “I’m a doctor,” I called. “Is everyone all right?”
A big man in a leather welder’s coat brought me a little girl, pale and crying. “She won’t stop.”
“Are you her father?”
“Neighbor. Father’s on shift at the presses. Everyone got out, but the closest fire wagon’s on Trout Street.”
The heat of the flames made my face feel tight, while the night breeze blew cold on the back of my neck. Clouds crowded the sky, joined by black smoke rising from the burning house. “Are all the neighbors out?”
He waved at the collection of people in the street who carried furniture, toolboxes, uniforms, and food out of their homes. The wind was on our side at the moment, but the tall, narrow houses on the nineteenth block of East Raven Street jostled each other’s shoulders. A gust could set the next roof burning, and the next, and one fire wagon against a block ablaze would be pissing on a campfire.
The cold breeze on my neck crawled, and a high whine sounded in my ears, the way aether felt, only moving closer. The crowd parted for the long nose of a sleek, fabulously expensive black automobile.
I shrank back, holding the crying girl in my arms. She’d inhaled a little smoke, but being out in the fresh air would cure her. I shielded my face behind her as the heavy doors of the car opened and a man emerged.
He was dressed for an opera premiere. He rounded the nose of the car and opened the passenger side, bowing to the woman who exited the vehicle in a cloud of lavender cigarette smoke. A sparkling black gown draped over her elegant pale limbs, and a snow fox stole embraced her shoulders. I knew her family by the patrician sweep of her long nose and the icy paleness of her hair. She was a Carrigan, a Storm-Singer, and if she looked my way it was all over.
My heart battered against my breastbone. She didn’t look at me or any of the crowd in the street, choosing to focus on the bank of cloud above the fire, amber light glowing on her skin. The man waited two steps behind her. She stood with her head thrown back, her fur looped around her shoulders, and did magic right under the noses of the people standing in the street.
She gave no outward sign of her effort, but her Secondary’s knees sagged as she took as much of his strength as she pleased. I shuddered. That would have been me, if I hadn’t escaped. Nothing but a Storm-Singer’s minion, my own gifts dismissed as useless.
I turned my face away when the Storm-Singer and her lackey returned to the car. They drove out of sight as clouds billowed overhead, huge and dark with water. Droplets landed on the upturned cheeks of the onlookers. The little girl in my arms stopped sobbing as a raindrop splattered on her forehead, and she scrambled out of my arms crying, “Rain! Rain!”
Soon the nightgowns of the evacuated neighbors stuck translucently to their skin. They praised the rain as a miracle, hugging each other in relief. It was a miracle, for them. They had no idea that the wealthy woman in shiny beads and fur had saved their homes with magic; how could they? Magic was rare, a dangerous curse. It brought no one good fortune. I mounted my bicycle, heading east as fast as my legs would take me.
I had to be small, as unremarkable as a mouse. If Mr. Hunter could teach me to shield my power, I could stop riding along back streets from home to work. I’d have to stick to the East End, but I could enjoy a restaurant, attend the cinema, socialize outside of the hospital without worry. And if Nick held the key to the nightmares and urges that troubled my patients, I couldn’t turn that aside.
When I crossed the intersection of East 32nd and Magpie Road, the pavement was utterly dry. My near discovery and the overflowing feeling of Nick’s power made me sick. I’d only escaped because I was beneath their notice. I only survived because I was supposed to be dead.
I tightened my grip on the handlebars and pedaled harder.
A Humble Mouse
I scared sparrows off the high iron fence around the Beauregard Veterans’ Hospital gardens at half past six in the morning. I fumbled the bicycle lock with my gloves still on, but my fingers still tingled with Nick’s power and the need to use it.
The heels of my best shoes echoed through the lobby. The seats collected around the silent wireless set sat vacant. I said good morning to a pair of surgeons in scarlet officer’s tunics. Their medals swayed as they gave my gray flannel suit disapproving stares. Disapproval, not horror or revulsion. My secrets would have been all over the hospital if anyone knew. Breathing came easier.
Half the aether lights were still off at the nursing station for the Mental Recovery Unit. Smiles greeted me, but the unit nurses kept working, undisturbed by my presence.
No one knew, then.
I shivered and retrieved my white doctor’s coat from a hook, wishing I had a cardigan to wear underneath. One of the nurses laid newspapers at the best-lit desk in the nursing station for me while the coffee burper finished brewing.
“Thank you, Kate.”
Kate nodded. “Will you change into your uniform later, Doctor?”
“I didn’t bring it.” Would she understand? “It doesn’t feel right.”
She studied me. “You were at Kalloo.”
I’d spent my whole tour there. “Mobile Hospital 361,” I confirmed. “Beauregard Battalion.”
The doubt in the set of her mouth eased. “I had three brothers in Princess Anna’s.”
Had. “Did any of them come home?”
“Albert’s coming home right now.”
Her smile faltered.
I offered my handkerchief, but she had one. All her brothers gone to die in Sir Percy’s War. Lost siblings left a gap that hurt to touch, and I couldn’t help remembering my own as I patted Kate Small’s hand. She collected herself and moved to gather the night logs, leaving me with the pair of papers that represented the two sides of Kingston.
The Herald’s front page bore a photograph of Dame Grace Hensley cutting the ribbon for Kingston’s newest aether-powered battery exchange depot. A Hensley Triumph, the headline read, followed by 300 New Jobs in Time for Soldiers’ Homecoming.
I ran my fingers over Dame Grace’s face and shoved the Herald aside.
The Star had stopped the presses in favor of printing a screamer, the paper’s stark, huge headline only a single word: Horror!
Some bold photographer had risked arrest for the photo sprawled across the front page, and they had to have cast-iron nerves to have stepped into that abattoir. I knew what those black streaks on the wallpaper had to be; the forms under the white covering sheets were too small, too still.
I read the story of Cpl. James Badger, who had taken up a kitchen knife to stab his wife and children before turning the blade on himself. Neighbors had reported he became silent and withdrawn after his return from the war. A poisoning had nothing on this. Nick’s story would fill a space between competing ads for aether-powered wireless receivers and telephone service.
“How awful.” Kate set the logbooks down and read over my shoulder. “Do you think—?”
I caught her eye, and neither of us dared say it. I pushed the Star off my station’s blotter. “Do you want the paper?”
She folded it closed. “The patients shouldn’t see this.”
“You could try holding it back.” The men would hear the story on the wireless. They’d tell each other, and stories grew in the telling.
The burper stopped gurgling. I pushed my chair back, but she said, “You take it black?”
“I do, thank you.”
A copy of yesterday’s memo lay on the counter, reminding me that I had to discharge a third of my patients. In all the excitement of yesterday, I’d given it little thought.
“Has anyone seen Dr. Matheson?”
“Not this early. The memo?” Kate gave me a steaming cup to cradle in my hands.
“No one wants to send so many home, Doctor.”
Not without a cure, or even confirmation of what I hardly dared think: that the veterans in my hospital unit and Cpl. James Badger had more in common than their combat service. If I sent a man home to bloody results, I’d never forgive myself. I had to find Nick Elliot’s secrets. I hoped they would tell me what to do. “I know. But they’re not ready.”
Kate patted my shoulder and left me to read last evening’s paperwork. The duty logs were a chronicle of frustration: Patients wouldn’t sleep. Patients wouldn’t take their tonics. Patients were resistant.
Dollars to buttons Dr. Crosby had the night shift. A glance over my shoulder confirmed it—he sat inside the call office with his lips crushed between his teeth, shedding miles of ink from his glass-barreled pen. I went back to the logs and learned who lay sleepless in the dark, who had nightmares, who shuffled through dim corridors unable to let the night go by without someone to stand watch.
The morning murmur between the nurses on shift change stilled. I ducked.
You’re perfectly safe, Miles. Don’t be a fool.
I tugged at my shoelaces before I raised my head, following the path of craned necks and turned heads to the unlit north corridor.
Young Gerald was out of bed. He swept his crutches ahead of him, and they landed with a muffled thump, rubber feet against wooden floor. He swung between the crutches’ legs, the whole lurch of his body landing on one bare foot. The creak-thump! of his crutches put a shiver down my spine.
I halted a nurse who moved to chivvy him back to bed. “It’s still the blue hour, Young Gerald.”
“Morning, Doc. You’re not wearing your uniform.” Plow-lines of worry lined his forehead. “Is something wrong? Aren’t you going to the lunch with the others?”
“I am.” I crossed my arms in a posture of sternness, but winked at him to soothe his worry. “What’s got you up and bothered?”
“Old Gerald, Doc.” His face was pinched up, his dark hair pillow-rumpled. “He’s got the morbs.”
“To me. He wouldn’t talk to Dr. Crosby last night.” Gerald’s crutch creaked under his shifting weight as he avoided Dr. Crosby’s eye. Another shiver dug tack-tipped fingers into my back.
“Well, let’s see if he’ll talk to me.”
* * *
We kicked up the dust heading back to Ward 12, a high-ceilinged room with north-facing windows showing a coal-dust sky. No gas lamps shone here to disturb patients with a fragile hold on sleep. Seven men lay on their beds.
In the fourth bed from the door, Old Gerald lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. Weariness lined his face, but he dug his fingernails into his palms. His lips moved in soundless speech, the shapes of his words a short phrase muttered again and again.
Young Gerald thumped over and settled in his own bed, covering his leg with gray woolen blankets. “The doctor’s here.”
Old Gerald turned his head, catching the younger with a look. “You told.”
“Had to,” Young Gerald said. “You’d do it too if it were me.”
“You’re young,” Old Gerald said, as if the distance between their ages were more than ten years.
“You’ve got a family,” Young Gerald said. “I don’t even have a sweetheart. What about them?”
Enough. I leaned between them and poured them each water to drink. Old Gerald went quiet. Young Gerald’s lips pinched together, frustrated at the interruption.
I offered Old Gerald a glass. He eyed it, but took a wary sip.
“I know you’re feeling under the weather today. We don’t have to talk about that.” I didn’t want to. If Old Gerald talked to me of setting off to the Solace by his own hand, I’d have to section him. I hated the rule that stripped patients of their right to despair. I’d been there and knew all too well what it felt like.
So I pushed the conversation onto safer paths. Dr. Crosby had already complained about this, but I asked. “Did you sleep, Old Gerald?”
“Can’t,” he said. “He dreams, when I take the tonic.”
Ah. Pieces of the picture came clearer. “What does He dream of?”
“Killing,” Old Gerald said. “And the fierce terrible joy He takes in it. Kills everyone on the ward. Young Gerald, Sniffy, Nurse Robin—horrible, the things He smiles at. I can’t sleep, Doc.” Old Gerald clutched at the blankets. “You don’t know what He’ll do. If I sleep—”
I snatched back my urge to reach out, to comfort him. Full of Nick’s power as I was, it would too easy to use it. His brown eyes were wide, and his gaze darted all around the room. He breathed in tight gasps through his mouth. If I took his pulse, his heart would be racing. Had he been in this panic all night?
Gerald Grimes wasn’t even my worst case. How could I thrust sixteen of these men into the street, with nothing and no one outside the hospital to help them? Blast this war, and a curse on those who thought battle fatigue was a myth and an excuse. I shoved my anger aside. If Gerald thought I was angry at him, that would just make it worse.
“I can give you a tonic for sleep, if you want it.” Stupid question. But I had to ask.
“Please try a tonic, Old Gerald,” Young Gerald said. “I’ll sit up. I’ll watch.”
“Can’t. He’ll—” Old Gerald’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t.”
I wasn’t surprised by his confession. Many of the men here shared Old Gerald’s delusion. Right now he needed to feel safe enough to sleep. Not a miracle. No one would even notice. My fingertips tingled with Nick’s power, impatient, barely contained.
No one needed to know what I’d actually done.
“I have an idea. You can go to sleep, if I put Him to sleep.”
“Can you do that?”
“Let’s see, shall we?”
I fumbled around in my pockets and unhooked my fob watch. A few hours of sleep would go unnoticed. It would sink into the routine of the morning. I took his wrist. His heartbeat fluttered, exhausted but still running for its life. Crescent-shaped welts reddened the palm of his hand. My vision slid out of ordinary focus and locked on the glowing paths of life inside Old Gerald’s body: the rush of air as he breathed, the pulse of blood as his heart beat, and the red-brown muck concentrated in Old Gerald’s head.
I raised the watch. “Keep your eyes on the watch. Follow it, and listen to my voice.”
I’d never seen anything like it until I’d come here. Some of my patients had it whirling in their head, like a mass of tiny insects raging over the humped wrinkles of their brains. This could be my patients’ madness. It could be the source of the worst patients’ nightmares and horrific temptations. I’d been too afraid to touch it. But Gerald was getting worse, and I had to send men home.
It’s only one patient. I touched the writhing edge of the mass with my overflowing power.
“Imagine a box,” I said. “A nice, strong box, and He’s inside it. The box is sealed, and He can’t get out.”
Old Gerald breathed slow and deep. I took the mass of red-brown energy and contained it.
“Now picture the box getting smaller. Smaller and smaller. He’s still trapped inside, but the box shrinks smaller, so He shrinks smaller. Tinier. Less important.”
I forced it to fold up small. It lurked underneath the twin lobes of his brain, tiny, but refusing to disappear.
“You’ve done it,” Old Gerald said. “That’s put him away.”
It had bled off the feeling of being too full with power. I breathed more freely. “Sleep, will you? Even a nap. I’ll send a nurse to dose you if you need it.”
Other patients were awake, waiting their turn to speak to me. I would miss the shift meeting if I stayed. If I walked out now, soft lines of trust between me and my patients would break, lines that would take more work to knit up.
The choice was no choice at all.
I sat down next to Bill Pike, who’d been Prince Richard’s First Cavalry of my own Beauregard Battalion. He had the same kind of nightmares as Old Gerald, of killing and murder and sick, dark glee. I thought of Cpl. Badger in the paper this morning as Bill grabbed the sleeve of my white coat and levered himself upright.
“Help me, Doctor. He wants to kill you.”
* * *
Eleven o’clock saw me trying to write up all my notes. My last entries had little more than a line or two, smudged with my haste. The Kingston Benevolent Society was hosting this luncheon and Mr. Hunter’s words lingered in my mind. I shone to anyone with the power to see.
How important was this benefit? It was important to us, but was the cause worthy enough for the attention of any of the Royal Knights? An awful vision of a Stanley or a Pelfrey’s eyes widening as they recognized a dead man from across a crowded room made me nauseous. I imagined running from the hotel, being caught, being taken back home to give up my power to a Storm-Singer.
That shut it completely. I couldn’t chance it. I had to get caught up in something and miss the coach. Paperwork. Reports. Nick Elliot.
Perfect. I hadn’t done the urgent care assessment.
I headed for the Urgent Care ward and collected blank forms, squirreling away a few extra copies to hoard in my office. I had to telephone a request for a death examination file. When it arrived, I would have lost track of time.
“Miles!” Robin called.
Drat. There she was, and she was picture perfect. She wore her long, braided hair in a net that shone with tiny, colorful stones that matched the ones dangling from the beaded shoulders of her sea-blue dress.
“Robin,” I said. “You look splendid.”
“You need to hurry; the coaches are here.”
She led the way up the stairs to my office. The soles of her shoes tapped against the rubber stair treads, scuffed on the tiled landings, each noise grating on my ears.
“I’ll meet you there. I just—”
“Miles Singer, I know you,” she said. “You have forms in your hands. You’ll think, I just need to note this down so I don’t forget. Then the next thing you know all the coaches will be gone and you’ll have missed the whole luncheon.”
Double drat. “I wouldn’t.”
Robin dismissed my protest with a wave. “You’ve never been invited to a benefit, Miles. This is important. Don’t sabotage your career.”
She stood in the doorway, waited for me to put on my coat, and escorted me out into the street where the coaches waited. Robin picked a coach and set her satin-gloved hand in mine when I helped her inside.
Doomed. I nodded to the doctor across from me, one of the fellows not garbed in a scarlet officer’s tunic. “Is this lunch a fuss and production? I’ve never been to one.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Lunches aren’t as important as dinners. Wait until someone asks you what your department needs before talking about it. What’s your specialty?”
He chuckled. “Enjoy your lunch and relax.” He looked out the side window, ending the conversation. His dismissal comforted me. I was on the bottom rung. I could stay out of sight, unnoticed, unknown.
We traveled to the Edenhill hotel, a finger of steel and glass challenging the silver-clouded sky. Our parade of twenty-four doctors and nurses in sack suits, day gowns, and dress uniforms multiplied in the smoked glass mirrors on the walls, and we poured into the Starlight ballroom.
Two dozen round tables for eight gathered on one side; a sitting area for the movers and shakers lounged on the other. The mass of us mingled under hundreds of glass globes suspended from the ceiling. Each was its own gentle aether light, bathing the crowd in a glow meant to mimic a nighttime sky visited by a wink of fireflies. Drafts made the globes sway and click, nearly unheard in the buzz of conversation and the high-pitched whine of aether.
Some of the champagne the waiters had served to the aristos managed to trickle over to us groundlings. Robin caught two glasses of the stuff, and we stood still for the first fizzy sip. It was sweet, with green grass and meadow flowers on the nose—Miss Vanier’s Deer Valley? Perhaps it was. I stole a bit of the ballroom’s wall, keeping the crowd between me and the wealthy, seated hosts.
“You can’t hold the wall up, silly. Look. There’s a wealthy dowager now.”
I spotted the butterfly pin on the lapel of her smart day gown. “She’s still mourning.”
“Gray is just the fashion now—oh, wait. Sharp eye, Miles.”
Dr. Matheson stepped out of the crowd. She wore an hourglass of a day gown the color of a midnight sky. It suited her golden skin and dark hair, but the set of her face was impatient.
I tried my best to smile. “Dr. Matheson. You look lovely.”
She eyed my flannel suit. “You’re not wearing your uniform.”
“I need it ready for the Homecoming,” I said. “Imagine if I spilled crab chowder on it.” As if the Edenhill would stoop to serving crab chowder to members of the Benevolent Society! I had to fight a smile at the idea. “I need to talk to you. About the memo.”
“I can’t exempt your patients from the discharge order. You’re straight out of luck.”
“They’re not well enough.”
“No. Sixteen beds won’t even be enough for the men coming home. Now chin up.” She tweaked the lay of my necktie. “You’ve never come to a benefit.”
“I can duck out and go back to the hospital, if you like.”
Robin kicked me in the ankle.
Mathy worried at my pocket square. “Relax. Imagine they’re your patients. You’re a wonder with your patients. You can talk to them. Don’t worry.”
Maybe this was how your mother treated you, even when you were a grown man. Maybe she would have fixed my tie and asked if I were all right.
I smiled around the ache. “Thanks, Mathy. You better get in there and start the speeches—”
“Actually, I was looking for you,” she said. “Come with me. I’ve been asked to make an introduction.”
Doomed. “Me? Who would want—I mean, who are we meeting?” Another doctor. Another psychiatrist. No one important. Please. I tucked Robin’s hand into the crook of my arm. She squeaked in protest, but walked with us through the crowd.
Dr. Matheson dragged me to the velvet rope separating us from the wealthiest and most important of the attendees, the hosts. My hope thumped to the parquet floor. I kept pace with her, but every step made the band around my chest tighten a notch, and then another.
She shot us straight toward a clutch of posh young people dressed in the highest of daytime fashion. They wore sack suits and sinuous silk gowns in the non-colors of the cinema, all fog and smoke and deep coal shadows, their hair combed back in shiny, careful ripples. Their leader lounged in the center of a lily-back settee, listening to the man perched on the arm of her seat. She threw her head back and laughed, echoed by her entourage.
Dr. Matheson lurched to a stop, anchored by the bolt that had passed through me and fixed me to the floor. Robin halted by my side, standing as tall as she could. My throat squeezed shut as the leader stared at me, her mouth open, her posture as still as mine.
We both saw a ghost standing before us.
“Chris,” my sister said.
“Grace,” I replied. “It’s Miles, now.”
For a few whispered moments, the Starlight Room held its breath.
“Miles.” All at once she stood eye to eye with me. When had she grown so tall? I thought I’d never see her outside of newspaper photographs again, but here she was, watching me with whiskey-brown eyes so like our mother’s. Like mine.
“I thought you were dead.”
Traces of the girl I knew lived inside the woman—her jaw more pointed, the soft cheeks melted away, the dimple in her chin identical to mine. Grace, who had been painting butterflies the morning I climbed down the elm tree next to my bedroom window and left her life forever.
Or more accurately, until now.
My heart raced. I couldn’t run, couldn’t cause a scene. All these eyes and respectability jailed me, forced me to smile as if this were wonderful.
“That’s because I didn’t write.”
“You bastard.” She seized me in a tight hug.
My sister. I raised my arms and hugged her back. She crushed me close, and she muffled a sob next to my ear. It wouldn’t do to rock her as I had when she’d come to her brother in tears. It wouldn’t do to wrest myself free and run, run until my legs gave out.
My sister had found me, and my freedom was at an end.
Excerpted from Witchmark, copyright © 2018 by C.L. Polk