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Valerian Bone Chapter One

A missing fiancée. A personal grudge. A secret to destroy everything.

Farewell wanderlust, you’ve been oh so kind

You brought me to this party, but you left me here behind

And so long to the person you begged me to be

She’s down, she’s dead

Instead, what is left but this old satin dress and the mess that you left when you told me I wasn’t right in the head.

~ “Farewell Wanderlust” by The Amazing Devil

1. Monday Morning Blues

AS MUCH AS I PROFESSED I was a normal, if slightly strange, human being, the fact was I was nowhere near ordinary.

If you wanted proof of such behaviour, that Sunday, I sat at my kitchen table glaring at a candle refusing to light.

On the first anniversary of the disappearance of my fiancée, Rosalind, I stuck to my childhood customs, and lit a tapered white candle every night until the candle caught flame. Once the flame took, your person wasn’t coming back.

The sorcerers of England were peculiar like that.

And so, at half past ten on the ninth of August, I released a choked sob when the candle resisted the steady stream of matches I fed it. Even after a year, Rosalind still remained hidden somewhere I couldn’t find her. I was the only one who seemed to remember this.

Most of the sorcerers had long since given up hope, they believe the ritual to be nothing more than an old superstition, a party trick, the fantasies of the stupid.

This candle trick had told my mother that my father had died in a war he wanted no part of. Lighting the candle was what told me my mother had died avenging his death.

And, in Rosalind’s case, I didn’t have a body as proof of death. I wasn’t giving up hope until the candle gave into the flame. Or someone presented me with Rosalind’s corpse.

The problem, I had found, was that everyone believed she’d either run away and didn’t want to be found, or she was dead already. They’d given up.

They didn’t know Rosalind.

I had an accompanying spell for the candle trick, an old rhyme passed down through my mother’s bloodline, as the candle trick itself was my father’s, both of which alleged to keep the person safe until they came home.

Blessed be those under the wings of the raven. Keep them safe until they find a haven. Blessed are those hidden from the sun, light the way for the missing one.”

Magic, regardless of what the idiots at Morgaine’s Academy taught, was about intent more than hand waving and fancy words. If I intended for Rosalind to remain safe, she’d stay safe as long as I had the power to back my words.

If there wasn’t a body and the candle refused to light, I’d keep doing what I had been doing until something different occurred. And go to buy more matches. The ten I had left wouldn’t last long at the rate I was going through them.

If no-one else was looking for her, then perhaps Rosalind might have to save herself. Out of the two of us, Rosalind was the sensible one with a steady income. I was the one who was more likely to get run over by a car daydreaming up alchemical formulae no-one would want to know about.

All I knew was that she disappeared looking into something, and no-one had seen her since.

But it was Sunday night, and hoping for something unattainable wouldn’t get me rested enough to face the morning.

The morning always came with too much cheer for my liking, at a far too early hour. Summer mornings were like the sun only just slipped beyond the horizon before it changed its mind to come back again.

Rosalind always said I needed blackout curtains, but the curtains were on the list of things I intended to buy but never got around to purchasing.

Still, the candle told me enough to hope that one day I’d know enough to understand what had happened.

But that day wasn’t today, or tomorrow, or any day soon.

I had a list of things I had to do before I could rest easy at the thought of Rosalind not coming back, such as paying off the business loans I couldn’t afford without using Rosalind’s income or my inheritance, or pay the rent on my business property, or buy food for humans and that damn stray cat.

Rosalind was out there somewhere, but right now I couldn’t so much as think in a straight line.

Perhaps everything would look better in the morning.

I hoped everything would look better in the morning.

Except, it wasn’t all right in the morning.

The only newspaper for English sorcerers, the Trojan Times, arrived through the subscription box at seven-thirty sharp. The box, a ratty old thing by the front door, shrieked to let me know the paper had yet again arrived on time and I fell out of bed at the sound of it.

Rosalind had the idea for the subscription box. The thought of the paper appearing near enough on the doorstep whenever they released the newest issue seemed like a good idea at the time.

It wasn’t a good idea now.

The Cambridge air already stunk of petrol fumes, and the heat did nothing to eradicate it from the neighbourhood. Birds chirped away like they weren’t dying of noxious fumes along with the humans.

But the paper held my attention when I saw the front page. Everything faded away at the sight of the two images on the front page.

The first was a picture of Regis Ambrosides, the current headteacher at Morgaine’s Academy, in all his glory. The image was almost the replica of the one taken after he’d killed my parents five years ago, almost to the day, in fact. Ambrosides still resembled a two-eyed Woden in damask medieval robes edged in gold. His tousled shoulder-length hair was more white than grey, making him look more like a grandfather more than a killer. He joined another man in the picture, a bald man shaking hands with Ambrosides and coming up to stand under Ambrosides’s chin. He was tall. I remembered that from when he’d dragged me kicking and screaming from my bedroom to attend a trial I didn’t remember.

His article commended him for assisting in another round-up of evil sorcerers, as if the operation with my parents wasn’t enough. Ambrosides was the head of the only school in England offering to teach magic. He had more than enough access to impressionable young minds. What did he need to get involved in legal matters for?

It didn’t matter. Most of England still believed him to be kind and not at all the hardened sorcerer who fought in the battles himself.

People believed what they wanted to, wasn’t I reminded of that enough?

And where was my blasted cat?

The damned thing first turned up not long after I’d left the hospital five years ago and hadn’t let me go since.

The cat usually emerged with the paper, but not today. It didn’t judge me, either, not for the sigils I’d tattooed all over my torso, neck and arms for protection, not for my parents, and not for the number of times I sat in my office staining my fingers with ink in the attempt at perfecting the latest scheme I had.

And I didn’t judge the cat for being the size of a golden retriever. If it wanted to grow that big, I wasn’t complaining.

The cat would turn up when it turned up.

But the article which went with the picture of Ambrosides didn’t cheer me up at all.

We are pleased to report that last night, the esteemed sorcerer Regis Ambrosides assisted the special task force of the Sorcerer’s Council in arresting the terrorist group . . .

A load of bullshit was what it was.

. . . The group, who had taken to terrorising the western coast since January, were apprehended, and detained at the scene of the crime. The evidence was gathered before anything could be identified . . .

If anything, they only had circumstantial evidence, and they didn’t want the reporters to know. That’s what they did with my parents, and countless others in their war, to pretend the Council knew what they were doing. They rounded up anyone who so much as mentioned blood magic or Mother Magic in passing and claimed them as an evil sorcerer.

. . . In recognition of his services to the Sorcerer’s Council over the years, the head of the task force, Edgar Matherly awarded Headteacher Ambrosides the Silver Oak . . .

I would destroy the paper at the rate my hands were clenched the pages. So I turned the page to read the other article in the hopes I’d receive some good news that morning.

The second story wasn’t the heart-warming, rescue-a-cat-from-a-tree article I had hoped for.

It was a rambling article, the sort you had when there wasn’t much to go on but had to report on anyway.

From what I could understand through the circular phrasing and vague mentions, they fired Thomas Gaunt from Morgaine’s Academy last night for misconduct.

But nowhere in the article was the usual detail of the specifics and motive. It was three hundred words summed up as Alchemy Teacher Fired, And We Don’t Know Why Because No-One Knows Anything. The picture wasn’t even of Gaunt, just a panoramic shot of the academy itself, nestled away in the Pennines.

The picture was magnificent though, the squat Norman castle stark against the setting sun.

It meant that the school would open in a month without an alchemy teacher, though, and I doubted they’d ask me to fill in for the role.

I needed the cash, but who would want to hire someone whose parents were so evil they were slaughtered by the hero of the hour. Particularly as the hero of the hour had gone and got involved in things headteachers really shouldn’t.

But no-one was complaining. I supposed once you’re a hero, you’ll always be a hero.

It was a strange time to fire someone for misconduct, I thought. The beginning of August was the time everyone was in a mad rush to get everything ready for the start of term, shouldn’t you fire a teacher at the beginning of the holiday instead? The new staff member would then have the whole six weeks to prepare. Or fire them over Christmas, when you have a new teacher lined up and ready to take over.

It made no sense. The article didn’t contain anything of value at all. There never was.

Anastasia had once told me she thought the Trojan Times was the sorcerer’s equivalent to the Daily Mail. A gossip rag dressed up to resemble a respectable newspaper that far too many people trusted to tell them the truth.

But Anastasia was the herbalism teacher at the school. Perhaps she had some inside gossip she could tell me about what really went on last night. We were due to have our monthly gossip session over lunch, anyway.

The day Anastasia Caiazzo didn’t have gossip was the day the gods returned to walk the earth.

But first, I had to inspect the amount of red in my business’s ledger. Apparently, Cambridge wasn’t the right place to have an apothecary, despite sitting on the ley line hosting the sorcerer’s city of Corvia.

There was no time like the present to castigate yourself for profit when time ran away from you.

My apothecary business venture was, I thought, rather wittingly called Freya’s Fantastical Elixirs. The Georgian shopfront sat on Trinity Street, squashed between a bookshop and a coffeehouse, and looked more weather-beaten than the roofs of the universities.

This was my attempt to avoid the large and bloody inheritance my family name had left me.

It wasn’t going well.

While I had some interest from the tourists and university students, a side effect of having a sorcerer do business in a university town, there wasn’t much business from the sorcerers who lived on the other side of the ley line.

The shop had been open for two hours, and the only person who ventured inside was an old lady who looked like she’d both smelt something rotten and sucked on a sour apple. Her puckered face pinched together under her cloche hat as she browsed the shelves of vibrant liquids in blown glass vials and sachets of herb mixes. I doubted she could smell them if that was her usual expression. Still, a customer was a customer, no matter how much I wanted to shake her by her shoulders to see if her perfectly coiffed hair was a wig.

She came over to the till after about fifteen minutes of her inspection, black lace purse in hand, and said in a voice laced with acid, “I have an order to collect under the name Nightingale.”

The only order for collection today was a personalised love elixir. The original elixir was less of a date rape drug and more of a mixture designed to recreate the personal fragrance of whoever had sparked your interest at the time of smelling the fumes. This one was a straight-up date rape drug designed for ingestion. A specially requested date rape drug for the matriarch of one of the more influential sorcerer lineages.

No other apothecary in the country would dare to sell such a thing.

But if it meant I could keep a roof over my business, I’d damn well sell the blasted thing for as much as I could.

“That’ll be three florins, then.” I put the fifty-millilitre vial on the counter. “Or fifty pounds and eighty pence if you prefer.”

The woman spat on the floor. “Don’t be ridiculous. Such a thing is illegal. If it’s not one florin at the most, I’ll report your dealings to the authorities.”

The dual currency was headache-inducing, but necessary if I wanted my business to straddle the magical and non-magical worlds.

One florin of sorcerer’s currency was equal to nineteen pounds and sixty pence. It was also seven lire or one hundred and forty soldi. One lira, just to be picky, was two pounds eighty or twenty soldi. And one soldo was fourteen pence. This was what happened when the sorcerers of old clung to the Florentine currency of the Middle Ages and lived in the twenty-first century.

Somehow, it worked.

But nineteen pounds wouldn’t pay the bills, not if I was selling contraband.

“One florin and three lire,” I said. “Twenty-eight pounds. The ingredients and length of brewing time require an expert eye. You won’t find this level of excellence anywhere else.”

The woman spat again. “I’ll give you six lira and be done with the matter. Why they let inherited evil in charge of businesses is beyond me.” She dumped three bronze coins on the counter, snatched the vial and stalked off. The bell above the door jingled her exit, stage left.

Well. Sixteen pounds eighty for a date rape drug. Something told me she wouldn’t take into consideration everything that went into her brief night of pleasure.

It also meant I had to go over the finances again to see how much I couldn’t pay the bills. From the top of my head, I was screwed. But I needed to be sure of how screwed I really was before I dipped into the inheritance fund for the seventh time this year.

But the ledgers were, when I stared at the pages, terrible. There was no other way to describe it.

I didn’t have any profit at all, and no matter how many times I cut back on things for the home, I was still struggling to break even after four years.

I’d moved back to the family home a few weeks after Rosalind disappeared, purely so I didn’t have to worry about the rent for an apartment I couldn’t afford. The house looked like someone had shrunk a French chateau on the spot which backed onto the River Cam, a prime piece of real estate I wouldn’t have afforded by myself, and yet I moved back in after swearing I never would. Because how else are you supposed to live when you can’t make ends meet?

If I wasn’t paying off money on the business, I was buying food and paying to run the house.

The family fortune I swore I’d never touch was trickling its way into my dedicated bill-paying account to do everything. The money my ancestors built up with blood, blackmail and bribes, the money I used to make my life more comfortable.

It was a few simple taps on an app to transfer the money over, but it still felt like consigning my soul away to the family legacy every time I opened the app. I had enough money in the family accounts that the interest made interest, so I’d be fine if I ended up living on that for the rest of my life, but it was the principle of the matter.

Using that money meant I was relying on the family to live. And I wanted to pay my own way in the world.

The last surviving member of the House of Bone wouldn’t be a lazy, good-for-nothing waste of space.

The few simple taps were routine, so I wasn’t sure if I was deliberate or not when my finger skidded over the screen, and I transferred enough money to clear the rest of the business loan.

It didn’t even make a dent in the fortune.

I still felt like I had to scrub my hands with scalding water and a lot of soap, though.

The ledger still sat on the desk, white pages a spotlight from where they gleamed up from the black painted wood of the desk. I supposed now was a good a time as any to go over the numbers in depth.

But the numbers blurred together on the page, the ink fading away as I tried to make sense of where my business was failing me. Surely, there had to be a logical explanation for why I was making so many losses. Something must explain why I had to go without milk for a week more than I was comfortable admitting.

This business was the only way I had found I could get a job in the magical world. It was where I could put my mastery in alchemy, something many people suggested I didn’t need, to good use.

People asked why the only living Bone would need to make a living when I had the money right there. It was like they didn’t care about the personality behind the name.

And the ledger, when the numbers stopped playing around and I could read past the stinging in my eyes, told me that those same people refused to pay the full amount every single time.

Just because my name was Valerian Bone. Because every Bone before me had built up the reputation of skirting the line between a good sorcerer and an evil sorcerer and been proud of it. Just because I could hold my head up high and sleep at night.

Every single customer who came from magic refused to pay me.

How was I meant to take that?

I had more losses each month, I read, than I had client orders. Every time I had created a personal elixir or concoction, that client had paid me three-quarters of the price, at the most.

I was only just covering my expenses after the rent of the building.

It was ridiculous that people who didn’t know me were doing such a stupid thing. And they got away with it because any retaliation would give them cause to believe I was a carbon copy of my dearly departed family.

My family, the people who taught me to listen to the world and act in a way which put me on top. My life was the most important thing to me, they told me, and no-one should take it from me.

But my family wasn’t here now, because sorcerers who didn’t know them decided their way was best. My family wasn’t here because someone took their lives from them.

And those same people weren’t listening to the world. I was showing them, by making an honest living, that I wasn’t like the few Bones in the history books. But they let their preconceptions drop a handful of lire on the counter and flounce away.

So what was the point of showing them something they refused to see because some charismatic pillock said something?

If Rosalind were here, she’d set things straight.

Rosalind’s fire was a beauty to behold. Her passion had her hands dancing through the air, red-painted nails catching the light. She’d collect the full price every time. She’d done it before when she sold her articles to the Trojan Times, and they wanted to pay her a smaller amount because she was female and didn’t work directly for them. Her silken hair, I remembered, had sliced the air every time she turned a corner in her pacing, whipping and singing. Her rant had lasted for hours.

But Rosalind wasn’t here, and I had to work out how to do things by myself now.

I couldn’t do things by myself.

The only option was to close the physical shop. If I used one of the empty rooms in the house as a lab, I could still make the stock to sell. I’d just have a mail-order business rather than a physical address.

Closing the shop felt like giving up, closing the shop after so much effort, but what had I got to show for it?

Relying on the blood money would have to do until I could create a sustainable and recurring income.

I was twenty-five years old and still working out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

By half-past nine, I had given up on paperwork and portalled over to the Dancing Witch to meet with Anastasia earlier than planned.

The pub was in Wiltshire, on another ley line, acting as a bridge to Corvia. It was the sort of old pub which had changed little since its establishment under the reign of King Henry VIII. The walls were still wattle and daub, the roof sat crooked and uneven in the skyline, and the dark wooden furniture creaked every time you sat on the bench seats, or leaned against the sticky bar, or breathed near the groaning doors.

But the coffee more than made up for the shitty atmosphere of nosy fuckers with nothing better to do than speculate who I’d kill off and why.

And Anastasia Caiazzo was late.

She wasn’t usually late, I’d discovered after knowing her for three years, but this time she was.

When she finally turned up, gliding along the tacky floor in her five-inch stilettos with actual stiletto blades in the heels and clutching a glass of J2O in her long-fingered hand, it was to smirk at me to suggest I was the one who turned up early.

I glanced at my watch with a raised eyebrow in return.

“Have you read the paper?” I asked. “It seems like every time I open it, there’s Ambrosides’ face again.”

Anastasia sipped her J2O without leaving lipstick marks on the glass. “You’re just jealous you’re not on the front cover after being the fifth apprentice Flamel took before he retired.”

I pouted into my coffee. “Flamel’s been an alchemist for eight hundred years. I’m the only one this side of the Victorian era he’s taken on. If that’s not worth at least a footnote, I don’t know what is. And apparently, your school’s firing teachers in the middle of the summer holidays now.”

She groaned. “Am I a source of gossip for you now? Is that all I am? Every time we meet up, you demand stories.”

I glared at her over the rim of my mug. “Where else am I supposed to get all the latest fashion advice? Your shoes are viable weapons, and yet you refuse to teach me your ways.”

“Fine.” She downed the rest of her glass. “But I know little more than you, and only because the plants talk to me. The first I heard it confirmed was in the paper this morning.”

“Plants talk?”

“To herbalists, but that’s not the point. None of us knew of it before this morning. It was a complete shock. Thomas had always seemed so normal.”

I hummed into my coffee.

Anastasia spotted someone over my head. Her face lit up like a neon Christmas tree as she scrambled to her feet to call them over.

She clambered out of the booth to greet a tall man whose oversized gold-rimmed glasses shone against his dark skin. He was tall, but Anastasia wore her shoes to give herself the height she lacked.

The man held out a hand. “I’m Dejan Elyas, you must be the Valerian Bone I’ve heard so much about.”

I shook his hand. My father had told me I had to have a good grip if I wanted to impress people, and my grip was strong. But Dejan Elyas had a stronger grasp of my hand, hard enough to show me he could back up the muscles.

“Whatever she’s told you,” I said, “only half of it was true. I have never swum naked in the Cam, and I didn’t put laxatives in my aunt’s figgy pudding.”

Dejan’s mouth twitched.

Anastasia had a hand on Dejan’s arm. “Dejan’s the potions teacher at Morgaine’s.”

“And also your latest boyfriend,” I added. “I’m an alchemist.”

Anastasia herded us back to the booth before someone else could claim it. “You’re an experimental alchemist. Every time someone says it can’t be done, you laugh in their face and prove them wrong. And then you laugh at them again when you present them with the evidence.”

“That was one time,” I said. “And Henry Bainbridge fucking well deserved it.”

Dejan frowned. “Who’s Henry Bainbridge?”

And before I could launch into a laundry list of everything wrong with Henry Bainbridge, Anastasia cut in. “He’s Valerian’s rival in the field of alchemy.”

“He’s just mad because Flamel picked me over him.”

“But you’re an alchemist,” Dejan said, sounding like that fact was the most confusing thing about me. “What the fuck even is the elixir of life?”

Anastasia shrank in her seat.

I grinned. “It’s the Holy Grail of alchemy. Everyone thinks the Grail exists, that it’s the source of immortality created by Nicolas Flamel. But they’re wrong.”

“Isn’t Flamel still alive? He has to be if you’re his apprentice.”

“He’s dead now,” I said. “It was all over the international papers a few years ago. He died not long after I’d earned my mastery, actually, but England somehow thought the death of the world’s leading alchemist wasn’t English enough for the papers. But Flamel’s long life wasn’t the result of the elixir of life, there’s no such thing as an elixir of life. The elixir was the product of some alchemist’s gin-induced daydream during the Georgian times and the idea stuck.”

Dejan nodded. “There are a few potions like that, urban myths where no-one can prove it but people all assume exists anyway.” He glanced at his watch, an expensive thing, and frowned. “I’ve got that appointment in ten minutes,” he told Anastasia, “so I can’t stay and be friends with Valerian.”

Anastasia nodded. “I’ve got to pick up my new dress.”

I leaned forward and rested my elbows on the table. I ignored how the sticky surface stuck my skin to it. “Are you leaving me? We haven’t even been here for half an hour.”

Anastasia dropped a few lire on the table. “Get yourself another coffee, you look like you need one.”

Dejan stood and offered his hand again. “It was nice to meet you, Master Bone. I look forward to future conversations with you.”

“Fuck,” I said, “you mean that. I can’t even hate you because you’ll enjoy the academic discussions with me.” We shook hands again, and Dejan traipsed after Anastasia through the pub towards the fake door leading to Corvia.

I snatched the lire and bought myself another coffee.

Why did everyone keep leaving me?

The Dancing Witch grew busier as the morning wore on. People bustled in and out of the bar, and I had to wonder what the regular humans thought of so many people strutting towards the out-of-order door and not returning.

Most sorcerers, I had found, were arrogant in their supremacy. Unfortunately, real estate in Corvia was premium, and so unless you owned a business and had the above rooms at your disposal, sorcerers had to live in human England and make the trek to a ley line if they wanted to access the city.

My coffee lasted me all of an hour, but the pub housed drunks at all hours of the day. The bartender refused to sell alcohol on principle, but it didn’t stop the idiots from getting shitfaced before they arrived at the pub. When one of them barged into my table, he didn’t seem to realise it was a table preventing him from progressing his way into the wall.

“Service!” he slurred. “We need more beer. It should be a public holiday that the bastards are defeated. They flattened my property, they did, and now that Ambrosides rounded them up, they won’t be doing that again in a hurry.”

This drunken idiot, I knew, sold hard-to-attain goods to panicking rich sorcerers who didn’t quite have the prestige to make it to the big leagues, but found themselves invited to the galas and dinner parties with nothing to impress their hosts. If his stock of dragon hearts or salamander tongues ran out, it would be him not receiving an invitation to one of those dinner parties.

When he glanced at me, though, his lips pulled back into a snarl. “A public holiday,” he said to the entire room, “to also celebrate the deaths of all evil sorcerers. In commemoration of those who died to defend our homes and lives from the bastards who would have rid us of our peaceful existence.”

It sounded, on the surface, like something respectable. But as a business owner was making the proposition, it wouldn’t have taken long for it to turn into a commercial commodity.

I brought my coffee up to my lips and downed the dregs, staring the bastard right in the eye as I did.

The bastard either didn’t get my message, or he ignored it. He pulled a chair and stood on the seat. “A commemoration of the day Regis Ambrosides defeated the notorious Bone family, a public celebration for the day good defeated evil.”

The rest of the bar thought this was a magnificent idea, if their cheering was anything to go by.

Unfortunately for me, the drunken idiots blocked the exit with their mass. I was stuck finishing my coffee amongst people who didn’t do their own research before jumping to conclusions. The sound wall of their late morning festivities might as well have perforated my eardrums for all the ability I had to hear myself think.

It left me slumping in my tacky vinyl seat and wondering if teleporting out would draw more attention than shoving my way out of the pub if I wanted t to breathe air not soaked in booze.

But the drunken salesperson had other plans for me, and he pushed his ruddied face right up until I was breathing in alcoholic flavoured air.

I hoped the unimpressed expression I gave him told him just how much I appreciated not being able to vacate the premises at a reasonable hour.

“The Bones were a rotten lot,” he said, his bloodshot eyes glazed over and flicking around as everyone quietened down to focus on what he would do next. “It went down the very marrow of their bones. They were all evil. There wasn’t one of them that ever turned out right. The whole lot of them, down to the last one still standing, isn’t immune from that sort of bad blood.”

I had to remind myself that repeatedly acquainting his face with a rigidly edged object commonly used in the construction of walls wasn’t a good idea while on public premises.

He continued like I was a statue. “It was a good thing Ambrosides killed your parents, boy, there was too much evil in the world without them adding to it.”

The worst thing my parents had ever done, I thought, was to not subscribe to the common belief that the world was black and white. My father taught me about balance, about how the light created the darkness it sought to destroy. About how good needed something evil to defeat in the name of truth, justice and honour.

My mother had often told me heroes often created their own villains, so we would see them as saviours once they’d defeated them.

But you couldn’t persuade the brainwashed.

I couldn’t persuade a pub full of idiots that I wasn’t about to slaughter them all where they stood just because someone declared my family name to be evil.

And yet, because I, too, was an idiot, I said, “You know, they thought the hypothesis for inherited depravity was nothing but human wishful thinking back in the previous century. Multiple research papers will tell you there is nothing to suggest such a thing is possible, complete with genealogy and the passing down of genes and chromosomes. There is no such thing as bad blood regarding pure genetics. At most, it’s only with a combination of situational, economical and learnt behaviour which brings out any potential trait society deems evil.”

I had lost them. I might as well have ranted at a brick wall for all the intelligence these idiots displayed.

One of them blinked. “Then what the fuck is alchemy if not a branch of dark magic?”

I narrowed my eyes at such blatant stupidity. “Are you calling Nicolas Flamel evil?”

The Original Idiot staggered before the crowd. “There are shades of evil,” he declared, “just as there are shades of power and shades of goodness.”

If it weren’t for my mobile phone tucked into my suit jacket pocket, I might have assumed I’d time travelled back three hundred years to visit the witch hunts.

I needed to leave before I punched someone in the face. I sidestepped towards the door as the drunken salesperson began a rant about how easily people could give into predetermined evil with the slippery slope of dark magic.

It was only when he spun around and socked me in the jaw that I realised how fucked I really was.

I couldn’t retaliate. Everyone believed Ambrosides when he said there was a clear divide between good and evil. Everyone would believe everyone else when they said I retaliated with unreasonable force, even though I would have the clearest bruises on my translucent skin. Well, visible under the tattoos, anyway.

So instead, I concentrated my efforts on dodging his attacks and making my retreat to the exit.

“Fight back,” he screamed in my face. “Aren’t evil bastards supposed to fight back?” He shoved me enough that I stumbled. “Are you a coward now? Is that why you’re not fighting back?”

I didn’t fight back. I made a mad dash for the exit.

The throng of people all tried to grab me and haul me back, but I ducked under their hands and careened towards the creaky door with the peeling paint.

The drunken salesperson’s voice called out insults and taunted behind me, but I didn’t listen.

Right up until he said, “Do you think that girl you dated ran away from you because you abused her?” The crowd stopped their grabbing hands to observe this fresh development unfold. “Me, I think that whole disappearance story was you covering your tracks to hide what you did behind closed doors.”

I forced myself to only clench my fists instead of launching myself at the bastard.

But I supposed, just as good and evil were crystal clear in their minds, so too was the belief that nothing was beyond the capabilities of a Bone.

He was goading for a fight. He wanted attention, he wanted the validation of standing before the influential bastards and saying, “look at me, I punched Valerian Bone in the face.”

I took a few deep breaths and turned on my heel. I wouldn’t give in to this petty excuse for a brawl.

The drunken salesperson chose that time to lay a heavy, sweaty paw on my shoulder. “Or did she run away because you weren’t pleasing her right and she wanted to find a better man who’d give her what she really needs?”

I thought of Rosalind’s fire, the way she’d decked a stranger who’d dared to grope her, the time she’d kneed a man in the bollocks because he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The way her red-painted lips had parted as she bared her teeth, how she drew her hand back to punch hard enough to chip a few teeth.

A thump had my vision clearing, the rage fading away to reveal a scene rather reminiscent of Rosalind’s.

The drunken salesperson was sprawled on the floor, spitting bloodied teeth, with a beautiful bloom of a bruise along his ruddied cheekbone.

“Don’t you ever,” I said, my tranquil fury making my voice low and dangerous and causing people to back away, “insult Rosalind like that again.”

This time, when I turned to leave, the crowd parted before me.

My bitterness had me twisting my hand and flicking my wrist to generate a portal.

It was not a common thing to use portals for transport, not least because sorcerers were lazy bastards and teleported everywhere. But where there were wards to block teleportation, no-one had yet figured out how to prevent a portal created without words.

I designed my portals for a specific hand gesture that only someone with long and flexible fingers could do. I hadn’t yet found anyone who could prevent this portal from opening, and it was this creation that had Nicolas Flamel awarding me my mastery.

I stepped through the portal to silence, the swirling vortex closing behind me as I arrived in my family’s Cambridge home.

The house known as Blackbein Hall was often the subject of misspelling and critique from those whose own houses were larger but less fanciful of grandeur.

The shrunken French chateau, which backed onto the River Cam and resembled the letter ‘H’, was an interior study of white panelling and golden accents. Displaying this aesthetic well was the ballroom, the two-story entrance hall, and the dining room. The drawing room contrasted red upholstery with dark wooden furniture, but the library featured more earthen tones. The lawns imitated the formal gardens of larger estates, white stone statues and all, but the master suite directly above the ballroom had undergone extensive renovations when I moved back in.

I’d replaced almost everything, and once you’d reached the balcony created by the dual grand stairs, the only door in front of you was to the bathroom. I’d turned the rear-facing room into a personal alchemy lab, the front one into my bedroom, and the bathroom between them. A sitting room with royal blue and gold accents. The lab was all-natural wood, the bathroom in cream, and the bedroom in deep red, and all had white wood and pale brown panelling.

The kitchen was more like a smaller version of the sort found in country estates, a worktop running one length, a large fireplace, a range cooker and refrigerator along the other wall, a standalone sink by the back door, a cabinet for all the crockery, and in the middle, a large table.

I stepped out of the portal and almost crashed into one suit of armour of the pair standing guard on either side of the front door.

Rosalind was more graceful on her feet in her combat boots than I was barefoot. She also would have kept her temper while someone insulted her.

I dragged my feet to my personal lab, just to reassure myself that Rosalind was safe, wherever she was.

My mother had taught me a ritual, one condemned for straddling the line of dark magic, which could show the sorcerer if the person was safe enough where they were. The dark magic element came from the use of oleander and nightshade. The Sorcerer’s Council declared them controlled substances in the middle of the previous century.

I was running low on my stockpile of oleander and nightshade.

The ritual itself was harmless. The oleander and nightshade were, with a few other herbs and more fleshy ingredients, added to a heatproof container to stew over a low flame for a few minutes. Once they’d marinated the water enough, they’d create an image of the person you wanted to see.

Only when the image formed in my basin, it blurred into saturated transparency.

The result was inconclusive.

Damn it.

I rinsed out the solution, and the wards around the house vibrated at a frequency to make me drop the basin in the sink.

Blood coded the wards. Any of the family was free to come and go. If they hadn’t added you to the wards, permission had to be granted before access was allowed. And a rather insistent buzzing suggested something wanted to get through by any means necessary.

The buzzing came from the receiving room, a cross between a formal study and lounge with two large portraits of Ragnarr Brynhildsson and his wife Áslaug Grímsdóttir, the Bone family ancestors, staring down over the sofas and chairs. A desk faced away from the French doors and towards the bookcases framing the entrance hall door, and an oversized fireplace sat on the opposite wall beside a drinks bar.

On the desk sat an instant message box. If a sorcerer placed a letter addressed to someone in the box and tapped the closed lid three times, the box would deliver the message. Being the opulent House of Bone, this was a gilded message box, and the gold inlay shone in the late morning sun. It also pulsed in time with the buzzing of the wards.

While many dangers could occur from messages, I let the letter through the wards by tapping the box three times.

The lid sprung open, and inside on the plush red velvet cushion lay a letter in thick cream parchment bearing the wax seal of Morgaine’s Academy for the Mystical Arts.