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Circle of Fire
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There are some secrets sisters aren’t meant to share. Because when they do, it destroys them. This stunning conclusion to Michelle Zink’s Prophecy of the Sisters trilogy will make saying good-bye bittersweet for readers.
Table of Contents
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The gowns are heavy in my arms as I leave my chamber. There are no windows to gather light, and I make my way carefully down the richly papered hallway by the light of the sconces flickering along the wall. Milthorpe Manor has been in my family for generations, but it is still not as familiar as Birchwood, the home in New York where I was born and raised.
Even still, this house does not harbor the ghosts of the past. Here, I do not have to remember my younger brother, Henry, as he was before his death. I do not have to wonder if I will hear my twin sister, Alice, whispering from the Dark Room as she conjures frightful, forbidden things. If I will see her, prowling the halls, at any hour of the day or night.
Not in the flesh, in any case.
It is Aunt Virginia's idea that I should seek advice from Sonia and Luisa regarding which gown to wear to tonight's Masquerade. I know my aunt is trying to help, but it is a testament to the changed nature of my friendship with both girls that I now must brace myself to be in their presence. Or, more accurately, in the presence of Sonia. Although she and Luisa returned from Altus weeks ago, the tension felt in the early days of their return has not abated. In fact, it seems to grow with each passing day. I have tried to forgive Sonia her betrayal in the wood leading to Altus. Am still trying to forgive it. But every time I look into the chill blue of her eyes, I remember.
I remember waking, Sonia's kind face above me, her warm hands pressing the hated medallion to the soft skin at the underside of my wrist. I remember her voice, familiar from many months of shared confidences, feverishly whispering the words of the Souls who would use me as their Gate to bring forth Samael.
I remember it all and feel my heart harden just a little more.
The Society's Masquerade is one of the year's most celebrated events. Sonia, Luisa, and I have been anticipating the event since they returned from Altus, but while they quickly settled on costumes, I have remained indecisive.
My mask, chosen and created long ago, was not difficult. I knew immediately what it would look like, though I have never attended a Masquerade and make no claim of creativity in matters of fashion. Nevertheless, it came to me as easily and clearly as if I had seen it in a store window. I commissioned it shortly thereafter by describing it to the seamstress and watching her sketch it on a thin piece of parchment until it looked just as I imagined it.
But while I set upon the idea for a mask quite easily, my indecisiveness forced me to give up the possibility of having a gown made. Instead, I chose two from those already hanging in my wardrobe. As Aunt Virginia suggested, I will ask Sonia and Luisa for assistance in deciding, but while it was once a ritual of friendship I would have relished, now I only dread it. Now I will have to look into Sonia's eyes.
And I will have to lie and lie and lie.
Arriving at the door of Luisa's room, I lift my hand to knock but hesitate when I hear the raised voices coming from within. I place one of them as Sonia's and hear my name spoken in frustration. Leaning in, I do not even pretend that I'm not going to listen.
"There is nothing more I can do. I have apologized over and over. I have submitted without complaint to the rites of the Sisters on Altus. Lia will not forgive me, whatever I do. And I'm beginning to believe that she never will," Sonia says.
The rustle of fabric is followed by the thud of wardrobe doors before I hear Luisa respond. "Nonsense. Perhaps you might try to spend time alone with her. Have you asked her to ride with you at Whitney Grove?"
"More than once, but she always has an excuse. We haven't been since before you arrived from New York. Before Altus. Before… everything."
I cannot tell if Sonia is angry or only sad, and I feel a moment's guilt as I think of the many times she has asked me to Whitney Grove. I have denied her even as I have gone alone to practice with my bow.
"You simply must give her time, that's all." Luisa is matter-of-fact. "She bears the weight of the medallion now—in addition to the burden of decoding the final page of the prophecy."
I look down at my wrist, peeking out from the yards of silk and lace. The strip of black velvet taunts me from beneath the sleeve of my gown. It is Sonia's fault that I must bear the medallion alone. Her fault that I must worry it will make its way to the mark of the Jorgumand, the snake eating its own tail with a "C" in its center, on my other wrist.
No matter how many excuses Luisa makes for Sonia, these things will always be true.
My inability to forgive brings with it a powerful blend of resentment and despair.
"Well, I'm getting tired of pandering to her better nature. We are partners in the prophecy. All of us. She is not the only one who feels its burden." The indignation in Sonia's voice stokes the fire of my anger. As if she has any right to feel indignant. As if forgiving her should be that easy.
Luisa sighs so loudly that I hear it from the hall. "Let's try to enjoy the Masquerade, shall we? Helene will arrive in two days. This is our last night to be friends as we once were."
"I am not the problem," Sonia mutters from within the room. A rush of blood heats my cheeks, and I attempt to check my temper before raising my hand to knock on the large wooden door.
"It's me," I call, trying to smooth the tremor in my voice.
The door swings open and Luisa stands in its frame, her dark hair lit with burgundy from the lamplight and fire in the room.
"There you are!" Her cheerfulness sounds forced, and I imagine her trying to push aside the conversation she has just had with Sonia. For one irrational moment, I feel that she is complicit in Sonia's betrayal. Then I remember Luisa's loyalty and the pain she must feel standing between Sonia and me. My petulance dissipates, and all at once I am surprised to find that it is not so difficult to smile.
"Here I am. And I've brought two gowns for inspection."
Luisa's eyes drop to the armful of fabric in my hands. "I can already see why you cannot make up your mind. They're both beautiful! Come." She steps back, allowing me entrance.
Sonia's eyes meet mine as I enter the room. "Good morning, Lia."
"Good morning." I try to feel the smile I give her as I cross to the carved mahogany bed at the center of the room. The shyness around my dearest friend is new, for once we spoke of everything and nothing. Once, it was Sonia and I together in London while Luisa remained in New York with Aunt Virginia and Edmund, our family driver and trusted friend. Recalling the many days Sonia and I spent riding at Whitney Grove, speaking of our hoped-for futures and laughing over the too-proper girls of London society, is one of the many ways I try to remember my love for her. "I come bearing dresses!"
She approaches the bed as I lay the gowns across the coverlet. "They're gorgeous!"
I stand back, eyeing the two dresses critically. One is crimson, a daring choice for any young lady, but the other, a deep emerald, would set my eyes off nicely. It is impossible not to think of Dimitri when I imagine myself in either of them.
As if reading my mind, Luisa says, "Dimitri will not be able to take his eyes off you, Lia, whichever gown you choose."
My spirits lift ever so slightly as I think of Dimitri's eyes, dark with desire. "Yes, well, that is the idea, I suppose."
Sonia leans over, fingering the fabric, and for the next thirty minutes we speak of nothing but dresses and masks until I finally decide upon the scarlet silk. For the next thirty minutes we pretend that all is as it used to be and that the workings of the prophecy do not stand between us. We pretend because it will do no good to say aloud the thing we all know—that nothing will ever be the same again.
I sit at the dressing table in my room, clad only in a chemise and stockings as I prepare for the Masquerade.
It is with some scandal among the household staff that I have shirked the use of corsets and maids since my return from Altus nearly three months ago. It was not my intention to shun the trappings of modern fashion. For a time, I allowed a maid to help me dress for formal occasions, as is proper for a young lady of my stature. I stood silent and resentful as I was bound and laced into a corset, my feet shoved into elaborate shoes that pinched until I had to fight the urge to throw them across the room.
But it was no use.
I could think only of Altus silk, a whisper against my bare skin, and the luxurious freedom of bare feet or sandals.
Finally, after a particularly long night socializing with the spiritualists, Druids, and psychics of the Society, I came home to Milthorpe Manor and announced my intention to dress myself from that moment forward. There were only token protests. Everyone had already noted the changes in me. Nothing I did came as a surprise, and the staff seemed resigned to having an eccentric mistress.
I reach for a pot of powder, gazing into the mirror as I sweep the fine particles across my forehead, my cheeks, my chin. The young woman staring back at me is hardly recognizable as the girl who first came to London. The girl who fled her home, her sister, the man she loved.
And yet, it is this new person who seems most familiar. Her emerald eyes flash like those of my dead mother, the angular cheekbones pronounced as if to remind me of the sacrifices I have made on behalf of the prophecy.
It is no wonder the round-faced girl who first came to London is nothing but a memory.
The dull sheen of Aunt Abigail's adder stone catches my eye in the mirror. I reach up, closing my fingers around the rock and wondering if it is my imagination that it is only warm.
It has become a daily ritual—testing the temperature of the powerful stone given to me by Aunt Abigail—for even as my own strength has grown, I remain convinced that little else stands between the Souls and me. Aunt Abigail gave her life for my protection, imbuing the stone with every ounce of her remaining power as Lady of Altus. When the stone's heat is finally gone, any protection received from it will be gone as well.
And it grows colder by the day.
I turn away from the mirror. There is no point thinking about the things over which I have no control. Instead, I pace the room as I contemplate the mystery of the prophecy's final page. The page itself, found in the sacred cavern at Chartres, is gone forever, burned to ensure it never falls into the hands of Samael or his Lost Souls. Even still, the words inscribed on it are a mantra I never forget. A reminder that there is still the possibility of a future in which the prophecy does not stalk my hopes and dreams.
I remember it almost without consciousness, reciting the words in my mind as I ponder their meaning.
Yet from chaos and madness One will rise,
To lead the Ancient and release the Stone,
Shrouded in the sanctity of the Sisterhood,
Held safe from the Beast, and
Setting free those bound by Prophecy's
Past and impending doom.
Sacred Stone, released from the temple,
Sliabh na Cailli',
Portal to the Otherworlds.
Sisters of Chaos
Return to the belly of the Serpent
At the close of Nos Galon-Mai.
There, in the Circle of Fire
Lit by the Stone, bring together
Four Keys, marked by the Dragon
Angel of Chaos, mark and medallion
The Beast, banished only through
Sisterhood at Guardian's door
With the rite of the Fallen.
Open your arms, Mistress of Chaos
To usher in the havoc of the ages
Or close them and
Deny His thirst for eternity.
There are things we know. That I am the one called to find the Stone once hidden by the Sisters of Altus. By my ancestors. That freeing those bound by the prophecy means freeing myself as well as the keys—Sonia, Luisa, and, now, Helene. That it means freeing future generations of Sisters and liberating mankind from the dark chaos that would ensue should Samael arrive in our world.
And that Alice is working even now to prevent that liberation.
But it is the location of the Stone that Dimitri and I cannot seem to decipher, and I must have it to complete the Rite at Avebury. We have so far assumed that "shrouded in the sanctity of the Sisterhood" means it is hidden at a site deemed spiritually significant. It is possible we are wrong, but since the final page of the prophecy was buried in the cavern at Chartres—one that also housed an underground temple revered by Sisters past—it seems the best of all assumptions.
The mantel clock chimes seven times, and I cross to the wardrobe, removing the scarlet gown from its depths as I continue thinking about the possible locations we have eliminated and the nine that are left. Pulling the gown over my head while I try not to disrupt my pinned hair, I chafe against the frustration that we cannot entirely discount even those sites we have crossed off the list. We have been looking for a place deemed important by our ancestors—one that can be linked to the history of our people or the prophecy. But we have only our research on which to base our conclusions. The smallest piece of forgotten history could change everything.
And there is something else that stands in the way of our deciphering the final page.
Return to the belly of the Serpent at the close of Nos Galon-Mai.
It is clear from Avebury's previous significance that the belly of the serpent is there, but we have been unable to find reference to the eve on which we are supposed to gather to close the gate to Samael. I had hoped to find it in one of Father's many reference books, but we have searched every book in the house and scoured the bookshops of London to no avail.
A knock at the door causes me to start.
"Yes?" I call out, looking for the shoes I had custom-made to be both comfortable and passably fashionable.
"Edmund is ready with the carriage," Aunt Virginia says through the door. "Do you need help dressing?"
"No. I'll be down in a minute."
I am relieved when she doesn't force the issue. Dropping onto the bed amid a rustle of silk, I spot my shoes peeking from under the mattress. I spend only a moment wishing for the comfort of bare feet before slipping into the little heels.
It could be worse. And there are some things even I cannot change.
I am in the carriage on the way to the Masquerade when I think I see her.
We are making our way through the streets of London, Sonia and Luisa sitting across from me as we clutch our masks. The lush fabric of our gowns fills the carriage, Sonia's deep blue rustling against Luisa's plum-colored silk. I look down at my own crimson skirt, feeling strangely unmoved by my decision to wear it. A year ago I would have chosen the emerald in an instant. I tell myself the scarlet gown was the only suitable choice for the mask I had commissioned before I began considering dresses, but I know it is only half true.
The red gown is more than a simple match for the mask. It is a mirror to my own feelings of power since Chartres. Since fighting off one of Samael's deadliest minions, one of his Guard. I wonder how I can revel in that power even as I am uncertain it will be enough to face the future.
This is what I am thinking as I turn my gaze out the curtained window to the bustling streets. Darkness stalks the city, seeping from its corners toward the center of town. London's many citizens must sense its presence, for they seem to hurry ever faster as they make their way to their homes and places of work. It is as if they feel its breath on their neck. As if they feel it coming for them.
I am shaking this dark notion from my mind when I see a young woman standing under the gaslight near a busy corner. Her hair is arranged in a style that would be considered elaborate, even by Alice's standards, and her face is leaner than I remember my sister's. Still, I have not seen her in person for some time, and every morning I am faced with my own changing reflection.
I lean forward in my seat, uncertain if it is fear, anger, or love that gallops through my veins as I hope for a better view of the woman. I am half-ready to call her name when she turns slightly toward the carriage. She does not face me. Not entirely. But she turns enough so that I see her profile. Enough so that I am quite sure it is not Alice after all.
She turns to make her way down the street, disappearing into the smoke from the street lamps. I press myself back against the carriage seat, not knowing whether it is relief or disappointment that presses against my heart.
"Lia? Are you all right?" Luisa asks.
I steady my voice, aware that my pulse is racing. "Fine, thank you."
She nods, and I attempt a smile in the moment before closing my eyes, trying to calm my quickened breath.
It was only your imagination, I tell myself. You have too long been sought by Alice and the Souls. You see them on every corner, every street.
I wish suddenly that Dimitri was next to me, his muscular thigh pressed against mine, his hand caressing my fingers beneath the folds of my gown. Yet, even as I wish it, I force my breathing to slow, my mind to clear. It is unwise to rely too heavily on others.
As Edmund pulls the carriage up to St. Johns, I cannot help but marvel how normal everyone looks. Of course, the members of the Society are normal in many respects, but even still, I have never seen so many of us in one place at one time. I almost expect there to be a glow, a hum, something to mark the sheer number of those with supernatural powers in attendance.
But no. It looks like any gathering of London's wealthy and overdressed.
"How on earth did Elspeth manage a church?" Sonia's voice is very near my ear, and I realize that we have all leaned forward, craning our necks at the window in an effort to get a better view of the men and women stepping from carriages and making their way up the stone walkway.
"I have no idea how Elspeth manages half the things she does!" Luisa laughs aloud, that dear, unselfconscious laugh that brings to mind the birth of our friendship more than a year ago.
"I must confess that I asked no questions about the Masquerade's venue, but now I find I'm quite curious," I say. "Surely the Queen would be displeased to find a gathering of such heathens at one of London's churches."
Sonia makes a "Psh!" sound before continuing. "Byron told me many concerts and balls are held at St. Johns."
Her words are delivered with such calm that it takes me a moment to register what she has said. It must take Luisa the same moment, for at once, we both turn to Sonia.
She blushes, and I am surprised to find that after all that has happened, Sonia can still blush at the mention of a gentleman.
"I saw him at the Society after we returned from Altus." Her gaze cuts to Luisa. "He's the one who first told me about the Masquerade."
A burst of cold air assaults the interior of the carriage as Edmund, very dapper in formal attire, opens the door. "Ladies."
Shivering, Luisa pulls her wrap tight around her shoulders. "Let's go, shall we? It seems Dimitri isn't the only gentleman eagerly awaiting our arrival!"
It is easy to offer her a smile. No one but Luisa could be so gracious as to wish Sonia and me well when she has left her own beau in Altus.
The thought of the island is a warm breeze across my heart—a series of lightning-fast impressions. The smell of oranges, waves crashing against the rocks below the Sanctuary, silk robes against naked skin.
I shake my head, willing myself toward the one person who brings me closest to all of it, though I am worlds away.
We don our masks in the carriage before stepping from its warmth and making our way to the cavernous hall. Slipping through the crowd packed at its periphery, I cannot help but feel I am in a strange kind of sideshow. The costumed faces of those around me seem suddenly garish, my own mask too snug against my face. The masks make conversation difficult, and I am relieved when a man, tall and thin as a rail, removes his disguise to reveal himself as Byron. He bows, taking Sonia's hand, and she smiles shyly as they move to the dance floor. A moment later Luisa departs with a fair-haired gentleman who cannot take his eyes off her. I watch my friends sparkle under the adoring gazes of the men twirling them across the floor and can hardly fathom that we are the same three girls who met in New York not so long ago.
I am considering the merit of making my way to the refreshments when I notice a man standing amid the crowd some distance away. I know it is Dimitri, though we agreed to keep our masks a secret from each other until tonight. It is his shoulders, I think, and the way he holds his body, as if ready to defend himself—and me—that make me certain it is him.
He turns, his eyes holding my gaze in the moment before he begins striding through the crowd with single-minded purpose. His mask is exquisite, large and adorned with onyx stones set amid shimmering silver glitter and deep red feathers.
As if he knew I would choose the scarlet gown all along.
When he reaches me he takes my hand, but he does not bend to kiss it. Dimitri does not pretend to follow London's rules. His big hand enfolds my smaller one, and he pulls me close until I feel the hard plane of his body. He stares deeply into my eyes in the moment before he lowers his mouth to mine. His kiss is passionate and lingering, and without thinking, I bring my hand up to touch the dark hair curling at his neck. We part reluctantly, some of the people closest to us raising their eyebrows before turning back to their own business.
He leans toward my ear, his voice a secret meant just for me. "You look ravishing."
"Why, sir, how very forward of you!" Lifting my chin to look in his eyes, I bat my eyelashes, pretending to be coy. I give up, laughing, a moment later. "How could you be sure it was me?"
"I might ask you the same thing." He favors me with a grin. "Or am I to assume that you gawk at every gentleman in a feathered, bejeweled mask?"
"Never." My voice becomes serious. "I only have eyes for you."
Dimitri's eyes darken. I recognize the expression as desire from the many hours spent locked in each other's arms since our return from Altus.
"Come." He holds out a hand. "Let's dance. It won't be quite as it was on Altus, but if we close our eyes, we might pretend."
He pulls me through the crowd, carving a pathway with his mere presence. As we near the dance floor, Sonia whirls past in Byron's arms. She looks happy, and in this moment I do not begrudge her the enjoyment.
"Good evening, Miss Milthorpe. I heard you might be in need of a particular kind of expertise." The voice, coming from just behind me, is not loud, but it gets my attention nonetheless.
Tugging on Dimitri's arm, I stop my forward progress through the crowd and turn to the man standing amid the revelers. He is aged, as evidenced by his white hair and the wrinkles that fold across his hands. His mask is black and green and surrounded by peacock feathers, but it is the midnight blue robe that gives him away, for he is fond of wearing it even at the more intimate gatherings of the Society.
"Arthur!" I smile as I recognize the elderly Druid. "However did you recognize me?"
"Ah, Miss. My senses are not what they once were, but I'm still a Druid, through and through. Even the extravagance of your costume could not hide your identity."
"You are wise, indeed!" I turn to Dimitri, trying to speak above the crowd without shouting. "I imagine you're acquainted with Mr. Frobisher, from the Society?"
Dimitri nods, holding out a hand. "We've met on several occasions. Arthur has been most welcoming since I've taken a room there."
Arthur shakes Dimitri's hand, admiration shining in his eyes. He speaks softly, leaning in to be heard. "It is always an honor to extend hospitality to the Brotherhood."
The introductions dispensed with, I remember Arthur's earlier words. "You mentioned expertise?"
He nods, pulling something from his pocket and holding it out toward me. "There is word underground that you are looking for information. This is an address for some acquaintances of mine. They might be able to assist you."
I reach out, feeling the smooth, crackly surface of folded parchment as it is placed in my palm.
"Arthur, who told you about our need for information?" Worry shades Dimitri's eyes. "Our inquiries are supposed to be kept in the strictest confidence."
Arthur nods, leaning in again as he clasps Dimitri's shoulder with a reassuring hand. "Not to worry, Brother. Word travels slow and careful in these circles." He straightens, gesturing to the parchment in my hands. "Call on them. They'll be expecting you."
Turning to go, he disappears into the crowd without another word. I would like to open the paper now, to see who might be the keeper of the answers we seek, but the name and address will be impossible to read while I am being jostled about at the Masquerade. Dimitri watches me as I fold the paper twice more before opening the drawstring bag that swings at my wrist. I set the paper amid the silk lining and tug the ribbons shut.
Its presence steals the lightheartedness I felt only moments ago. It is a reminder that there is still much to do. That no Masquerade, no ball, no dark-eyed man can render me free of the prophecy. That is something only I can do.
As if sensing my worry, Dimitri reaches for my hand once again. "There will be time enough for that tomorrow." His eyes hold mine. "Come. Let's dance."
I let him lead me forward, to the center of the great room, where he does not hesitate before pulling me onto the dance floor. There is no room for worry as we spin among the brightly colored gowns, the feathers and jewels of the masks passing in a blur. Dimitri's strong hand is at my waist, and I give myself over to his lead, relieved to allow someone else to be in charge, if only for a dance.
The music builds to a crescendo and then turns into something else entirely. This time, I am the one tugging on Dimitri's hands, pulling him off the dance floor.
- On Sale
- Aug 3, 2011
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers