It was a cold morning in early February, but outside the windows of the old farmhouse, the world was still cloaked in blackest night. Not even the sliver of a moon silvered the frost and snow crusting the yard and the rock-strewn hills beyond. Only the pale starlight showed Miriam Cantor the barn where she must go to feed the geese and the ducks.
She hesitated before opening the back door and venturing forth into the profound stillness only found just before the dawn in deep winter. But it was not the silence that made her hesitate, nor the darkness, nor the chill ?— ?nor was it fear of what predators might be between her and the barn. At least, not animal ones. Foxes and weasels did not frighten her; it was the threat of who might be out there, not what, that caused sweat to prick at her neck and under her arms even in the raw predawn.
Her worry was absurd, she knew it was. There were no Nazis prowling through the frigid gloom. There were no Nazis anywhere nearby, not down the lane in the picturesque village of Hawkshead, not in the houses of their distant neighbors. Here in the north of England, she was safe—and yet every morning, Miriam had to remind herself of that before she could pick her way along the path that wound its way through the hoary remains of last year’s victory garden.
“Who’s the real goose here?” muttered Miriam as she let herself into the barn. The truth was, if Nazis ever did intrude upon their privacy, her “aunt” Nancy, whose treasured flock impatiently pecked at Miriam’s shoes, would know. Mrs. Nancy Blackwood was no mere widow living quietly with her daughter and ward on a farm in England. Nancy Blackwood was a diabolist—a natural scientist who had summoned a demon and worked with it and its essences rather than more traditional chemicals or creatures. Her demon lent her certain unusual abilities in exchange for sharing her experiences and her body.
Nancy was also the official Librarian for the Société des Éclairées, the current worldwide organization of diabolists. The Société formally oversaw the education of individuals interested in working with demons—or rather, the powerful, ineffable beings they called demons. That meant Nancy had more methods of protecting herself than the average widow—more than the average diabolist, even—to protect her home and the books within the Library beneath it.
It was also true that Miriam, as Nancy’s apprentice, was not entirely helpless. Even so, she was only fifteen and had not yet passed her Test.
Miriam rubbed at her numb and dripping nose before starting to scoop grain onto the ground. She, like most apprentices, spent a lot of time pondering demons and their abilities, but actually summoning one was something only Master diabolists were allowed to do. As an apprentice, she was limited to minor works of diablerie, such as concocting armamentaria—the diabolical potions, pills, and powders that were the essence of the Art. Before she advanced beyond that, Miriam would need to pass her Test, and then submit the results of her Practical for judgment by the Société before she would be deemed qualified.
Even an apprentice diabolist could do much without actually summoning a demon, however. For instance, by using diabolic essences culled from plants and minerals, Miriam had created a potion that let her assess an opponent’s weaknesses if she had to strike out with fist or knife, and a pastille that granted her increased strength and speed. Keeping a phial of the former and a small tin of the latter in her pocket helped Miriam stay calm when she needed to venture into the village.
The trouble was that the effects of apprentice armamentaria did not last long. Creating them was a process intended to educate, not endure. But once Miriam had summoned her own demon, she, like Nancy, would be a powerful diabolist, capable of ever so much more.
As she scattered grain on the ground, Miriam’s mind strayed to a different farm, in a different country, where she’d fed different ducks. Her aunt—a real aunt, her father’s sister Rivka, whose farm outside of Weimar had been seized by the Nazis—had also kept poultry, and goats too.
They’d stopped visiting her long before that, when the laws had made it difficult for their family to do much of anything without being harassed. The last time they all went out as a family, a boy had thrown a stone. A policeman had laughed when it hit Miriam’s father in the back. That was when Miriam’s mother and father had written to Nancy to ask if their daughter could live with her, in England .?.?.
No—she could not think on that now.