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A Study in Ashes

Book Three in The Baskerville Affair

A Study in Ashes by Emma Jane Holloway
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Chapter One

London, September 16, 1889

Ladies’ College of London

7:10 a.m. Monday

“You are not welcome here,” said the man in the quietly understated brown suit. “Forgive my blunt speech, but I cannot make it any more plain. Those of us on the faculty have established policies.”

Those of us on the faculty. That meant this man who had interrupted her work was a professor. Evelina Cooper gripped her notebook until her knuckles hurt, wishing it was heavy enough to knock reason into his head. Surely he could see the equipment in this place was infinitely superior to what they had at the Ladies’ College. And what harm was there in her using it? She wasn’t in anyone’s way.

The man waited for her to acknowledge his words—no doubt expecting swift obedience—but Evelina couldn’t look at him. A painful knot lodged at the back of her throat, like a stillborn wail of frustration.

“I am happy to assist you in clearing away this equipment,” he offered, “and we’ll say no more about this incident.”

Stubbornness made her stall, and she fiddled with the photograph slipping out from between the pages of her book, tucking it back into place. It was of her uncle Sherlock, his likeness no doubt at home between the ruled pages of formulae and lecture notes. If someone had tried to toss Sherlock Holmes out of a lab, he would have knocked the offender down. But young ladies were expected to be meek and mild.

Marginal politeness was a more attainable goal. “Your offer of assistance is kind, sir, and yet I don’t understand why I can’t use this facility.”

“I think you do. None of the sciences are required for a Lady’s Certificate of Arts.” He swept a hand around the laboratory. “Therefore, all this is unnecessary for students of the female college.”

“I protest that logic, sir.” It came out stiff with displeasure, but Evelina knew she had lost.

“Miss, be reasonable.”

“I am perfectly reasonable, sir, which is why I am astonished by this restriction.” Evelina twisted her silver bracelets around, fingers alive with agitation.

Her gaze searched the high-ceilinged room, though there was nothing to find in the gray shadows. The laboratory, with its rows of tables and shelves of gleaming equipment, was empty this early in the morning. Most of the students were still groping for their second cup of tea. And the fact that the door to the lab had been locked hadn’t slowed her down for more than half a minute.

He gave her a hard look from under beetling eyebrows. He wasn’t one of the creaky old dons of the University of Camelin—not yet, anyhow—but he had perfected the glower. “Perhaps you should consider something in the line of elocution or moral philosophy.”

Evelina bit her tongue. Do my morals appear to need philosophy, sir? Outside of picking the lock, that is?

The man harrumphed at her silence. “Domestic management, then. Or maybe literature.” He pronounced the latter with a curl of the lip.

Evelina looked away before her temper led her down a regrettable path. She had powers this man had no idea about. She could command spirits of earth and tree. She had dabbled in sorcery and tasted death magic. She had nearly bled to death in a Whitechapel gutter and had made enemies and allies of some of the most powerful men in Mayfair—one of whom had bound her magic to his service with the pretty silver bracelets she was forced to wear. And yet she couldn’t get a seat in a proper chemistry class.

At last, she let out a sigh. “I am an eager student of languages and literature, but I am here to study science.”

“A worthy ambition,” said the man. He might have bottled the tone and put it on the shelf next to the other dangerous acids. “But perhaps the practical work is a little beyond your scope.”

Bugger that. Evelina’s equipment was already set up to begin her exercise. Surely, if she got through it without a mistake, he would see she had a right to be there?

The exercise was of intermediate difficulty, a standard every serious student in the field was expected to know. She reached for the striker and, with a deft movement, lit the gas in the burner. A pale flame sprang to life, and she settled her flask of solution into place. Much depended on getting the exact proportion of alcohol to pure water, and then adding just the right amount of several organic compounds, but she’d measured carefully. “Your kind concerns about my abilities are unfounded, Professor . . . ?” She let the question dangle. The man hadn’t given her his name.

But he knew hers. “Miss Cooper,” he snapped, “turn down that flame at once!”

Months of frustration made her balk. She stiffened her posture and stood her ground. “I am here to study science. Therefore, I require access to equipment and materials.”

More specifically, she was there to learn the connection between science and magic. Evelina’s mother had been gentry, the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, but Evelina’s father had been a commoner and a carrier of magic. She’d yearned all her life to make sense of these two opposing legacies, because surely everything was ruled by the same natural laws. If she understood those, there was much she might understand about herself.

But first she had to learn the basics, which was why she had wanted a higher education. Of any place, a university should have been eager to throw open the doors to new ideas, but all she’d met so far was a wall of cold displeasure. Never mind telling them about her magic—they still hadn’t seen past the fact that she wore petticoats.

There was a tense moment of silence as the gas hissed and bubbles formed at the base of the liquid. The solution heated quickly, but not fast enough to calm her mounting temper. She could hear Professor No-name’s quick, irritated breathing as he hovered uncertainly at her elbow—flummoxed by her insubordination but too outraged to back away.

She felt her stomach coil into an aching knot. Her fingers crushed the heavy, dark fabric of her skirts until she forced them to uncurl and pick up a glass wand, ready to stir her concoction. She kept her features deliberately bland, hoping that as long as she reined in her mood, she would have the upper hand. That always works for Uncle Sherlock.

Finally, No-name spoke. “I will say this one last time. Students of the Ladies’ College of London are not permitted to use the Sir Henry John Bickerton Laboratory for the Advance­ment of Chemical Science.”

“But are we not part of the university, along with the other colleges?” Evelina asked tightly. “I believe our tuition flows to the greater institution.” Except that the students resident at the Ladies’ College experienced shorter academic terms, had access to fewer courses, and were only granted an LCA rather than a proper bachelor’s degree.

“The young men will someday attain positions of economic importance, whereas women will not. Squandering resources where they will never amount to anything is simply poor management.”

Evelina couldn’t stop herself from making a derisive huff as she measured out grains of crystalized aether onto a scale. The lime-green sand pattered into the steel pan. “Perhaps a sound understanding of the volatile properties of sodium bicarbonate will assist me in perfecting my muffins, Professor . . .” She let the name dangle once more, this time more rudely.

“Professor Bickerton. And this is my laboratory, young lady.”

That surprised her enough that she spun to face him, spilling grains of aether onto the tabletop. This dead squib is the mighty Bickerton? If he’d made assumptions about her, she’d done the same to him. She smoothed her skirts with her free hand, a little flustered. The man held one of the most important faculty chairs at Camelin. “Sir!”

He adopted a lecturing stance, his hands clasped behind his back. “And I note you are attempting the reconstitution of crystalized aether into liquid form. What industries require liquid aether, Miss Cooper?”

Her brain stalled for a moment, then lurched forward awkwardly, like a poorly maintained engine. “Aeronautics, primarily. Also weapons manufacturing, cartography and exploration, and some forms of advanced telegraphy.”

“You neglected to mention submersibles and a few branches of agriculture. Do you plan a career in any of these fields, Miss Cooper?”

“No, sir.” She felt her cheeks heat.

“As I thought,” he said with a twist of his mustached lip. “And what is the most salient point about liquid aether in the laboratory, Miss Cooper?”

She answered quickly, eager to redeem herself. “Aether is stable, which is why it has replaced hydrogen as the fuel of choice for dirigibles. But it will ignite if exposed to a steady, high heat. Ergo, one must be careful to regulate temperature to avoid combustion.”

“Indeed. And the fact that your solution is at a rolling boil demonstrates your inability to translate theory into safe practice.” He chose that moment to make a grab for the jar of salts.

“I would have turned down the heat!” If you hadn’t distracted me! Already on edge, Evelina jerked at his movement, snatching the open container out of reach. Their hands collided and a thick plume of green salts flew into the air, coating the entire table and plopping into the bubbling solution.

“Bloody hell,” she cursed before she could stop herself. Boiling aether equaled an explosion.

She felt Professor Bickerton’s grip on her arm and was wheeling around to protest when he pulled her under the heavy oak table. She opened her mouth to complain, but the professor’s weight shifted away, and then he was scrabbling at the floor, shutting off the valve that supplied gas to the worktables.

Terror made her entire body clench into a ball. Instinctively, Evelina raised her hands over her face. She squeezed her eyes closed as Professor Bickerton drew her closer, sheltering her with his arm. And then, right above them, the aether dissolved and came to a boil. She knew the moment it happened because the skin of her face went tight, and her ears popped. Then a blast of light turned Evelina’s vision red through her eyelids—followed by the crash of glass and the rustling rush of flame. She felt rather than saw the rush of air like a wing sweeping across the laboratory, brushing aside everything in its path.

When Evelina uncoiled moments or years later, she felt deaf and blind, and her entire body was shaking. She scrambled out from under the table, boot heels catching in her skirts. Pages of her notebook fluttered to the floor like glowing feathers. With a pang, she thought of her photograph, but there was no chance it had survived.

Green flames licked across the work surface above, but her apparatus had been the only equipment in the path of destruction. In truth, the scene wasn’t as bad as she’d expected, and that helped tame her panic. She stopped, gathering her wits and looking around for the heavy copper-sided fire extinguisher. The air was choking, the smoke heavy with the minty scent of aether distillate.

There! She lunged toward where the extinguisher sat at the front of the room. It was heavy, three gallons of liquid in a solid metal canister, but she heaved it onto a nearby table and depressed the plunger. Inside, a vial of sulfuric acid broke and mixed with sodium bicarbonate to create a carbon dioxide propellant that pressurized the water. Evelina aimed the hose at the flaming table, nearly catching Professor Bickerton as he rose.

She saw his eyes widen, his finger point. Her eyes followed the direction of the gesture and suddenly understood his wordless yelp of dismay. The flames were slithering around the fallen jar of aether salts where she had dropped it, and the container was open and still half full. If a generous pinch had done this much damage, what would twenty times that do?

Her throat closed as if a giant fist had clenched around it. She aimed the spray of water in the direction of the jar, hoping to at least stem the tide of destruction. The hose jumped in her hand, alive with pressure, but it wasn’t enough. With a hungry green flame, the fire licked toward the jar, dancing along the worktable like an evil spirit. Somewhere outside the room, a bell was clanging. They were no longer the only ones aware of this catastrophe.

Her eyes met the professor’s and she saw his face turn chalk-white. He dove for the door and she took her cue, dropping the hose and leaping toward the exit. They nearly collided.

“Run!” Evelina cried, and she pushed the man ahead of her. Cold certainty said they wouldn’t make it out in time.

She turned at the last moment to summon her magic. She needed power, and she needed it fast; there was no time to summon a deva or weave a spell. That meant the more dangerous option of grabbing the fear-fueled energy already inside her and using sorcery.

She shuddered as the dark side of her power reared up, savage and ready to fight. It whispered of hunger, sliding through her with the deadly ease of a serpent—but it held the strength she needed. Evelina was backing away, aware that Professor Bickerton was almost through the door and yelling at her in confusion. He would have no idea what she was about to do, and with luck would never figure it out.

She raised her hands just as the contents of the jar ignited, sending shards and fire and crystallized aether in every direction. The shield of her power surged into place in time to deflect the shower of glass. Force jolted the shield, numbing her arms with the blow. She stumbled, falling to one knee, and braced for what came next, sending a fresh wave of magic surging forward. It wavered as it encountered the resistance of the bracelets, but steadied a second later; the barrier held. She reeled, giddy with the sensation.

Then the aether exploded in earnest, the airborne crystals finding flame. Glass shattered throughout the room, the combustion crushing beakers and retorts, flasks and tubes, and a bank of locked cases filled with myriad substances in stoppered vials. The glass doors of the chemical stores burst in spinning shards, seeming to splash like water through the smoking air. Then the eruption of chemicals met a storm of fire, and the hammer of expanding gasses smashed into Evelina’s protective shield and hurled her through the air.

She landed outside the laboratory door, her back smacking against the hard ground. A wave of sick dizziness rose up, making her head spin as a blast of heat raked over her skin. She rolled over, her hands over her head as the ground shuddered with an explosion. Hands grabbed her, hauling her to her feet and dragging her across the lawn. Her shoulder joints protested as she tripped on her hems and went down, slamming her palms into the ground. Her relentless rescuer heaved her back into a forward stagger.

“No, no, please, let me sit down,” she murmured, but she couldn’t hear her own voice. The blast had done something to her ears.

A fit of coughing took Evelina, her eyes and nose streaming from the fog of chemical stink. She fished for her pocket handkerchief, dimly aware that it was Professor Bickerton at her side. She was glad he was all right—even if his face was a peculiar shade of outraged purple as he shouted at her.

And then she began to understand part of what he was saying, because he was repeating it over and over again. “You foolish girl!” He was so angry, he was spewing saliva.

Evelina stopped, the will to move her feet deserting her. The incident hadn’t been entirely her fault, but she could tell he was going to make it sound that way. She shut her eyes, exhausted. It was abundantly clear that she shouldn’t have defied the man—and yet even now she recoiled at the idea of meekly abandoning her equipment and crawling away.

“I will see you expelled!” Bickerton finished with a roar loud enough to penetrate her stunned hearing.

Expelled! Her eyes snapped open. She clutched at her bracelets, knowing they bound her to this place for her own safety—because the alternatives for a magic user like her weren’t good.

“You cannot!” she protested.

“Take note and learn, Miss Cooper.” Then he turned on his heel and went to speak to the horde of men arriving to deal with the disaster.

Expulsion? What will Keating say? What will he do to me?

Jasper Keating, the man they called the Gold King, had soldered the bracelets around her wrist—a mark of his patronage and her prison. Wherever she went, the bracelets signaled her presence to Keating’s minions, making her easy to find. They also delivered a painful shock if she strayed out of bounds. She was his property as surely as if she were in chains.

He was one of the steam barons, the foremost businessmen in the Empire with interests in everything from coal to war machines. He’d learned of her magic when she’d bargained away her freedom for the life of the man she loved. And now that he knew her secret, freedom was out of the question; magic users were under an automatic sentence of death.

He’d allowed her to attend the university as long as she never left the grounds. The arrangement was generous, given that the alternatives for someone with magical Blood were execution or a short, brutal future as a laboratory rat. And now—at least as far as public opinion went—she’d shown that his generosity was misplaced. Her patron did not like being in the wrong.

Another small explosion went off inside the burning building, letting out a cloud of stink and sparks. Evelina sank to the ground with a noise halfway between a groan and curse. Mr. Keating is going to be very displeased indeed.


From the Paperback edition.
Random House Publishing Group; December 2013
352 pages; ISBN 9780345545671
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Title: A Study in Ashes
Author: Emma Jane Holloway
 
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9780345537201
9780345545671