Necromancer Vow by Olivia Helling by Olivia Helling - Read Online

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Necromancer Vow - Olivia Helling

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help.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Steals naughty children from their homes,

Takes them to his dirty den,

And they are never seen again.


English Nursery Rhyme

Chapter 1

April, 1810

Mayfair, London

Blood and yellow bile soaking into the drugget. Fingers clawing the bedlinens.

I tightened my grip on the novel lying open on my lap. I mustn’t think about that, I had to read. But no matter how long I stared, the printed words swam across the page.

I covered my eyes with my wrist, but after three hours of hiding in Byrne’s drawing room, after three hours of wiping the moisture from my eyes in case that was the moment Andover finally appeared, even that small pressure scraped my eyeballs like sandpaper.

Byrne had bought me my own copy of The Fallen, explaining with a wry grin he was overjoyed I’d found a book I didn’t mock. My bottom lip trembled at the memory, and I bit down until it stilled.

Read. I had to read, and not think. Never think. I concentrated on the words:

As sudden as a storm at sea, the Fallen loomed behind him. The shadow of wings spread across the wall-hangings.

You know my desire, Felton said.

The Fallen knew every tarnish blighting a man’s soul.

Every moment, I grow older. Every moment, I march towards death. Ten years from now, twenty. He clenched his fists. I refuse to perish like—

Like a human? The words whispered through his head. A hymn and a curse, a prayer and an imprecation.

Like the swine filling the streets. The rats crowding London’s slums. I am your servant. I deserve better.

Then you know what we desire. Offer her soul to us.

My Dolores? Whatever—

I wrenched my gaze up to the fireboard. My fingers pressed against the pages. Squeezing, the paper wrinkled. I stilled my hands, resisting the urge to rip them from the book and hurl them into the hearth. Byrne’s cursed servants had to block the drawing room’s fireplace, just because April warmed the city.

It’s only fiction, I told myself. It’s only make believe. None of it could happen.

Except these incredible beings did exist. The Fallen could trade immortality for a soul. They could have saved Byrne, if I hadn’t been an incubus, if I’d had a soul to trade them.

I placed one hand on top of the page, hiding Felton’s pleas to the Fallen. The character wasn’t even ill. He had decades left to spend with his beloved, and yet he got to make a deal with the Fallen, while Byrne suffered.

The phantom stench of bile and blood assaulted me. I gagged, bending over my book and knees. Byrne bending over the edge of the bed as he retched, with only half a second to suck in enough breath before the next volley. More often, that half second was stolen by his cries of pain.

Gin. I needed gin. Gin would settle my stomach. I wiped my mouth. Gin would make me forget for an hour.

I leaned back against the settee, the wood ridge digging between two vertebrae in a refreshing sting, as I gulped stale air. If I scurried off to raid Byrne’s liquor cabinet, or worse, took to the streets to find a few bottles of my own, Andover wouldn’t be able to find me. If I returned with my head full of liquor, I wouldn’t understand him. I had to stay sober, I had to stay in Byrne’s drawing room until the physician departed.

I lifted up the book to throw it across the capacious room, cursing so loudly I didn’t notice Andover until his placid voice cut through. Mr Snow, whatever is the matter?

Byrne was the matter. I dropped the book and whirled around, clenching the back of the settee. Is he all right? Is he… I choked on the next word.

He hesitated on the threshold, as if the head servant had no right to intrude on his master’s hired whore. No, I wasn’t his whore any longer. I was Byrne’s lover. The master is sleeping now.

What the devil does that mean? What sort of sleeping? What did the physician say?

He pursed his lips. He said it was nothing exceptional.

Nothing exceptional? Nothing exceptional! I spun on my heels, gesturing at the ceiling, as if God looked down on me to answer my demands. But God did not appear to demons, nor had any care for necromancers.

He meant it’s nothing unusual.

So we should expect every hale and healthy man to keel over from stomach pains?

He tilted his head, waiting for my temper to pass. He needn’t say it; Byrne wasn’t hale or healthy.

I rubbed my hands over my face. I couldn’t seem to stop taking the part of a lovesick maiden. This was why Andover had whisked me out of the bed chamber, half-filled bottle of laudanum still clutched in my hand, when the physician had answered his summons. This was why I couldn’t meet with the physician and wring his neck for his flippant diagnoses. My arms trembled as I choked down fear-fraught pleas and damnations.

He still has time. His soft words pierced the haze.

Not trusting myself to speak, I nodded. Time, yes. If only I knew how much. I could count the number of thrusts until a man spent himself inside me, but I couldn’t count this. Perhaps it was for the best. That gift would be a special kind of torture.

He continued, He still sleeps peacefully.

How did Andover know my mind so well? But he’d always been there, watching when I hadn’t thought I was being watched. How much had Byrne confided in him?

I need to see him, I said.

Now would be a good time for you to return home, sir.

I was no ‘sir.’ I need to see him.

You need some rest, he said. The cocks will crow soon.

I’m fine.

You should rest.

I need to see him! I pushed past Andover, jostling his shoulder. He yelped, but I had already dashed into the corridor. My footsteps fell harder as I approached the door, until my toes dragged.

Andover had left the door ajar, revealing the foot of the bed. Blankets lay flat over the edge, the end tucked tightly under the mattress, a signature of Andover’s newly made bed. A world apart from the pile of blankets Byrne had kicked to the end, his toes still shoving them farther away as he writhed.

The butler appeared behind me, his presence crawling along my back like the angel of death standing over my shoulder. He did not move to caution me, to prepare me for the sight the door still hid. His silence must mean he’d been concerned for my well-fare rather than protecting me from a terrible sight. It had to be.

Still, my hand hesitated next to the knob.

One prod, and the door would creak open, the whole bed chamber laid before me. One prod, and I would know.

Andover still observed me. Tomorrow, would he report my hesitation? Would Byrne see me for the failure of a lover I really was?

Shove it, I whispered, and pushed open the door. It creaked open slowly.

The hearth burned low, leaving most of the room in shadow. The physician had covered the bedside table in a new assortment of medicinal bottles, mere shadows in the dim light but for the glints along their curves. Bottles arranged all over my journal.

I hissed in a breath. I’d meant to read Byrne my latest missive, but Byrne had curled on his side, pain wringing through him, and the journal had been wiped from my mind. I should have hidden it. What if the physician had accidentally knocked it off the table during his ministrations, or Byrne had knocked it over in his convulsions? What if it had fallen open on the ground, our sins for all the world to see?

Sir, Andover said softly.

I shrugged him off, stepping into the room to see through the thick velvet bed drapes. Byrne slept deeply, his slack face sheened with sweat. His chest pushed the layers of blankets up and down. Had the physician tapped his abdomen again? I tried to remember how distended it had been the last time I’d glimpsed beneath his banyan robe, but Byrne didn’t often do casual nudity anymore. Mostly I saw the swaths of blankets and dared not excavate the layers.

His complexion was so pallid, so sickly, so small, so thin, so still, that the only sign he still lived was the sweat.

If I may suggest, sir, perhaps some breakfast first, Andover said.

Yet another meal to choke down in the corner table, with Death looming over me in the shadows. Or I could follow Andover to