A Pocket Full of Murder
PROPPED ON THE FLOUR-DUSTED stand, the Book of Common Magic looked as innocent as the ordinary cookbooks tucked behind it. Only the tremor in Isaveth’s fingers as she turned the pages betrayed her apprehension. She’d never made spell-tablets all by herself before. Perhaps she should go to Aunt Sallume’s and ask . . .
But then she’d have to pass the Kerchers’ house again, and Isaveth didn’t like that idea at all. Not that their cottage was much worse than any of the others on Cabbage Street: There was nothing unusual about soot-stained brick, peeling paint, and a porch cluttered with old beer crates, even if the hole in the upstairs window did look like a fat spider sitting in its web. She’d been bold enough earlier that morning, with Mimmi clinging to her hand and Lilet scowling at her heels;
she’d marched her sisters straight past the Kerchers’ and around the corner to Aunt Sal’s without a second thought.
Only, the porch had been empty then, and now it wasn’t. Through the window she could see her schoolmate Loyal Kercher lounging on the front steps, with his elbows at the top and his legs stretched all the way to the bottom, smacking a mouthful of chew and waiting for his next victim to walk by. As soon as he spotted any girls or boys young enough to intimidate, he’d jump out in front of them, all sneering mouth and leering eyes, and he wouldn’t move until they told him their business and begged him to let them pass.
The thought of submitting to such injustice made Isaveth hot all over. She’d rather die than give Loyal the satisfaction, no matter how big he’d grown this past year.
Anyway, it wouldn’t be right to trouble Aunt Sal with her dithering, especially when she already had Lilet and Mimmi and her own two little ones to look after. Isaveth was almost thirteen now, not a child anymore. It was time she learned to make magic on her own.
Lighting the stove didn’t worry her; she’d done that plenty of times when her sister Annagail was late coming home from the shirt factory. And though Isaveth might singe her fingers if she got careless, making spell-tablets
wasn’t really dangerous. Her biggest fear was wasting binding powder and their even more precious store of magewort, neither of which would be easy to replace with her mother gone. Worse still, what if the magic didn’t take? Isaveth would have burned good coal, and turned an already too-warm house into a furnace, for nothing.
Yet if she didn’t try it, nobody would, and the ingredients would go to waste anyway. Lilet and Mimmi were too young to make spells, let alone sell them. And though by rights the book belonged to Annagail, her older sister never touched it; she had no gift for spell-baking, and she’d been hesitant to do it even when Mama was alive to help.
But if Isaveth turned out to have even half her mother’s talent, she’d be able to peddle those little squares of heat and light for five citizens each. A hundred cits to a merchant, five merches to a noble, two nobs to a regal, ten regs to an imperial . . . not that Isaveth had ever seen that much money, but she’d often dreamed about it. Even fifty cits—a mere ten tablets’ worth—would be enough to buy a big loaf of crusty bread and a fresh egg for everyone in the family. How wonderful that would be! It had been so long since Papa had steady work, they’d been living mostly on beans and potatoes and the few scraggly onions they could coax out of their garden.
Even the cheapest meat was a luxury, and Isaveth could scarcely remember the last time she’d eaten a whole egg all by herself.
Mustering her courage, Isaveth prepared the baking pans, greasing them well with falsebutter so the tablets wouldn’t stick. The recipe in the Book of Common Magic looked simple, but all around it were notations in a familiar, delicate hand: Double magewort and halve binding powder in cold weather. Sift flour for neevils before mixing. Wash hands thoroughly!!!
A familiar ache rose in Isaveth’s throat. It had been half a year since Devra Breck died, but her presence still lingered in this kitchen, as though she had only stepped out and would be back at any moment. Softly Isaveth repeated the notes to herself, listening to the echo of her mother’s voice in her memory. Then she dragged the big stoneware bowl out of the bottom cupboard and started assembling the ingredients.
* * *
An hour later Isaveth had flour all over her apron, a sifter full of wriggling neevils, and hair limp with sweat. But the tablets had come out from the first baking golden and firm to the touch, just as they ought to be. She sprinkled them with binding powder and cut them into squares with the silver knife—a sacred heirloom, and the only
valuable thing her family still possessed. Once that was done, she slid one pan back into the oven and hurried to set the other in the brightest shaft of sunlight she could find. In a few minutes she’d know if her magic had worked.
It was hard to believe that even such simple spells had once been beyond the reach of ordinary folk like herself, the crystals and precious metals required too expensive for any but nobles and the wealthiest merchants to afford. The ways of magic were sacred, the early Sages claimed, and too sophisticated for uneducated people to understand.
Yet there’d been a few poor folk who defied the ban, working out cheaper ingredients through trial and error and passing on recipes by word of mouth. Little by little the craft had grown and spread—especially among Isaveth’s Moshite ancestors, who had excelled at finding herbs and minerals with magical properties—until the nobles could no longer suppress it.
So they’d called it Common Magic, to distinguish it from their own more elegant and refined Sagery. And though at first most nobles deemed the use of such magic beneath them, they soon came to appreciate the economy and practicality of those spells, and adapted them for their own use as well. Now half of Tarreton ran
on spell-power, and there were whole factories dedicated to turning out tablets much like the ones Isaveth was making. Stored heat, stored power, stored light . . .
Was it her imagination, or did the kitchen feel cooler? Cautiously Isaveth approached the oven. A glance through the peephole assured her the burner hadn’t gone out, but when she held her hand close to the door, she felt no warmth. The tablets were soaking up all the heat. Her magic was working! Isaveth clapped her hands together with delight and dashed to the front of the house to see how her other pan was doing.
It was harder to judge this batch, since no spell could possibly capture all the light streaming through the window. The only sure test would be to take one into a darkened room and crumble it or drop it in a glass of water. Yet the flecks of magewort that dotted the tablets were glowing, and that was a good sign.
Isaveth let the pans sit a little longer, to be sure they’d soaked up all the light and heat they could hold. Then she dusted both batches with more binding powder, said a blessing over them—that wasn’t in the recipe, but it couldn’t hurt—and set them on racks to cool.
She’d done it! She’d made real magic all by herself. After all the filthy, miserable hours she’d spent collecting rags and scrap metal to help her family, Isaveth could
only regret she hadn’t worked up the nerve to try spell-baking sooner.
The town clock tolled the hour, and Isaveth looked up in surprise. Could it really be three bells already? Wiping her hands, she closed the Book of Common Magic and put it away. Then she crossed to the open window and leaned out across the sill. A pack of scrawny boys half her age were running about the street, calling to one another in shrill voices—“Gimme the ball, it’s my turn!” “Hey, that’s no fair!”—but Isaveth ignored them. If she concentrated hard enough, she might be able to hear . . .
The distant whistle of a peddler, his cart full of clinking bottles. The flap-snap of Missus Caverly’s sheets drying on the line. But though Isaveth felt sure that someone in the neighborhood must be listening, she heard none of the music she yearned for—the triumphant opening theme of Auradia Champion, Lady Justice of Listerbroke.
It came on every Duesday afternoon, the most exciting talkie-play Isaveth had ever heard. It even got repeated on Fastday evenings for those who might have missed it. But Papa had sold their crystal set six months ago to help pay for her mother’s memorial, so Isaveth had been reduced to eavesdropping on her neighbors ever since.
Sometimes she was lucky enough to overhear part of the story. But not today.
With a sigh Isaveth stepped back and let the curtain fall. It would be unfair to blame her father for selling the set, and there were a lot worse things to miss. But according to Morra Caverly, who’d heard last week’s episode while she was working, Auradia had been captured by a handsome thief lord who tried to charm her into pardoning his men, and when she refused, he put a knife to her throat. Of course Auradia would thwart him and escape, but Isaveth was itching to know how.
There was no help for it, then. She’d just have to write her own version of the story. Isaveth ran to fetch the box that held her stub of lead-point and the few scraps of paper she’d been hoarding. Then she settled herself on the back step and began scribbling as fast as her thoughts could go.”
“Release the men you captured, or die,” hissed the thief lord, pointing his dagger menacingly at Auradia. “That is my final offer.”
Even tied hand and foot to a chair with a gang of ruffians closing in upon her, Auradia Champion did not falter.
“Never,” the noblewoman retorted with a proud lift of her chin. “Kill me if you must, but I shall not release your men. My Lawkeepers will keep them in custody until a new Lord or Lady Justice is appointed, and then they will hunt you down and punish you as your wickedness deserves. You cannot escape! Surrender now, before it is too late!”
“What are you writing there, Vettie?”
She looked up, blinking, as the sights and sounds of Auradia’s world faded away. Morra Caverly stood by the fence, a laundry basket balanced against her hip and her blond head tilted quizzically.
“Oh, nothing much,” said Isaveth, coloring. Part of her would have liked to show the neighbor girl her story and ask what she thought, but Morra was letter-blind: She could read printed words only with great difficulty and had never learned to write. “Just one of my Auradia stories.”
“Another one? What an imagination you’ve got!” Morra set down her basket and stretched to unpin a bedsheet from the line. “So what’s all this for, then? Are you hoping
the folk that make the talkie-play will hire you if you’re good enough?”
That would be wonderful, but Isaveth hadn’t thought that far ahead. She was too young to look for proper work yet, and she still had her schooling to finish. “Maybe,” she said, absently twirling the lead-point between her fingers. “I want to be a writer of some sort, but I’m not sure what kind. Only . . .”
Morra dropped the folded sheet into the basket. “Only what?”
“Whatever it is, I want to be really good at it. Good enough to make lots of money.”
“And be famous, too, I suppose? So you can float off to Uropia and get a ladyship from the regent?”
“Why not?” asked Isaveth, taken aback by the other girl’s sour tone. Usually Morra was cheerful and good natured, but now she sounded bitter. “I wouldn’t be the first to do it.”
“Well, you’d be the first from this place, that’s certain.” Morra waved a hand at their surroundings: a line of pinched-looking cottages that ranged from run-down to ramshackle, with narrow strips of backyard divided by fences and the coal-lane running behind them. Even the midday sunlight couldn’t banish the smog from the nearby factories, nor could the shouts of the neighbor
children drown out their relentless din. “I don’t blame you for wanting to get out of Cabbage Street. But to do so well by yourself that people forget where you came from? That’d take a miracle of the Sages.”
Isaveth liked Morra, but she didn’t like it when she talked like this—as though being fifteen and cleaning house for a few merchants’ wives made her more mature than Isaveth would ever be. If growing up meant abandoning her dreams, Isaveth wanted no part of it. “But if I did become a noble, I could help people and make the world a better place. Like Auradia did.”
“Yes, but she was born noble, and she wasn’t a . . .” Morra stopped, made a face, and started over. “Anyway, Auradia lived in another city a hundred years ago. I don’t see our nobles helping anyone but themselves.”
“There’s Eryx Lording,” Isaveth pointed out, though it was hard not to be distracted by the words Morra had left unsaid: wasn’t a Moshite, like you. “Everyone says he’s the opposite of his father, and that’s bound to be a good thing, isn’t it?”
“It would be if he was ruling Tarreton right now. But we’re stuck with Sagelord Arvis, and Seward says he’ll surely ruin this city before his son ever gets the chance to fix it. He’s such a misery-miser that other cities scarce want to trade with us anymore, and there’s so little work
at the box factory, Da might be let go any day . . .” Morra’s voice cracked, and she gave a sniff. “Well, never mind that. You’ve got your own troubles. But you can see why I don’t think much of nobles at the moment. Though I’m sure you’d make a fine one.”
Now Isaveth understood. Morra’s older brother, Seward, had a passion for politics and no shortage of strong opinions about how the city was being run, and if he’d been filling Morra’s head with gloomy talk, it was no wonder she was anxious. Yet the Sagelord’s greed and callousness had done so much damage to Tarreton’s fortunes already, Isaveth found it hard to imagine how things could get much worse.
She thought of her father, trudging the streets with his wheely-cart in search of work. A year ago Urias Breck had been a stonemason, skilled at his craft and respected for it. He’d raised walls, laid drive paths, and built garden follies for the nobles and wealthy Sages who ruled the city. But the project he’d staked all his hopes on had been canceled without warning, and there’d been no more offers since. So now Papa had to make do with whatever small jobs he could find.
Then there was Annagail, bowed over a sewing treadle in the dusty heat of the shirt factory. Until their mother died, she’d been working hard to finish school so she
could train as a healer. But the cost of the memorial had eaten up all their savings, and when it became clear that Papa could no longer earn enough to support them, she’d left Isaveth in charge of the younger girls and taken the first job she could get. It was hard work in the factory, with long hours and little pay, and she would have been happier as a nursemaid or even a scrubber. But most wealthy folk were Arcan and preferred not to keep a Moshite girl about the house if they could hire a Unifying one instead. So sewing shirts was the best Annagail could do.
Which was why Isaveth wanted so badly to succeed at something, whether that meant becoming a famous writer or merely a good spell-baker. She knew too well the uncertainty and hardship that Morra only feared, the hollow ache of hunger and the bone-gnawing chill of snowy nights without fuel. There had to be a way out of this trap of poverty, both for herself and for her family—and Isaveth was determined to find it, no matter what Morra or anyone else thought of her chances.
“Let’s talk about something else, then,” she said brightly, setting her writing box aside. “Did I tell you I made spell-tablets today?”