Across the border, the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are preparing for war. But before an invasion can begin, they must call a rare gathering of all seventeen lords to decide a course of action.
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It seemed a shame to burn a place so green.
The tiny island interrupted the path of the prevailing current from the Serene City, and trash collected along its curving inner shore. It was a mere mound of rock and sand, a navigational hazard without even a name. But flowering bushes edged the narrow strip of beach on which we stood, giving way to an improbable clutch of young trees and brush in the center. A salty breeze off the lagoon coaxed sighs from leaves that had so far escaped the encroaching yellow of autumn.
The whole place appeared far too flammable. Not that it mattered much, with balefire.
I calculated angles and took three steps across the sand. It couldn’t hurt to stay upwind. This might be a training exercise, but it could still kill us all if things went wrong.
Zaira lifted her brows beneath the windblown tangle of her dark curls. “Are you done dancing around? We’re not here to practice the minuet.”
I judged the space between us. Three feet, perhaps. Not nearly enough for me to make it to safety if she lost control. But then, thirty feet might not be enough either.
I nodded, heart quickening. “All right.”
“I won’t set you on fire,” Zaira promised. “This time.”
“I trust you.” I didn’t add, when you’re you. There was no trusting what she became when the flames took her.
She glanced at Marcello, who waited a good fifty feet away along the gray stretch of sand. He stood at apparent ease, his black curls loose against the collar of his scarlet-and-gold uniform, the Mews looming watchfully over his shoulder across the calm lagoon waters. But his hand, hooked so casually into his belt, touched the grip of his pistol.
Not that it would do him much good. The only thing that could stop Zaira’s fire was the word I could speak to seal it. However, in this exercise, I wasn’t supposed to; Zaira was practicing control. Which meant that if I made a tiny error in judgment, waiting a second too long, people would die.
I much preferred my university days, when failing a practical lesson would have meant nothing worse than a stern lecture from my professor.
“Are you ready?” Zaira called.
Zaira held out a hand to me, palm up, as if she expected me to put something into it. The jess gleamed golden on her stick-thin wrist.
My mouth went dry as blown sand. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“No, I came out here for a picnic. Of course I want to do it. Release me.”
I drew in a breath of damp sea air, then let it go again, shaping it into the most terrible word I knew.
Zaira closed her hand. When she opened it, a pale blue flame licked up from her fingers.
It was a small thing, for now, but wicked as a hooked knife, lovely and fatal. It clawed the air with hungry yearning. Balefire.
The slim twist of flame leaned toward me, against the wind. I took a step back.
“Hold your ground, Lady Amalia.” It was Balos’ voice, deep and firm. He stood twenty feet down the beach in the opposite direction from Marcello, along with Jerith, his Falcon and husband. “You need to get used to it. You can’t let it distract you in an emergency.”
“It’s hard not to get distracted by something that wants to kill you,” I muttered.
“It’s nothing personal.” Zaira grinned, but the tightness around her eyes betrayed her strain. Graces preserve us—she was afraid, too. “It wants to kill everyone.”
“Now light something on fire,” Jerith called. Somehow, he sounded more like a child daring a schoolmate to cause trouble than an older warlock instructing a young one.
Zaira flicked her wrist at a squat bush with shiny, round leaves. A spark leaped from her hand, searing a bright path through the air, and landed inside it. Blue-white flames sprang up from within the bush, crawling hungrily up its blackening branches, withering every leaf to ash.
“Keep it contained,” Jerith said. The mage mark gleamed silver in his eyes as he watched Zaira’s face. “Don’t let it spread.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Zaira snapped. Sweat gleamed on her temples.
“Oh? Then what’s that?” Jerith jerked his chin at the fire.
Only a jutting charred stick remained of the bush. But the blue flames reached higher than ever, straining for the tree branches above. Thin lines of flame meandered outward, searching, following the bush’s roots under the ground.
One slithered along the sand’s edge—thin, powerful, and rapid as a snake—heading toward Marcello. Memories of figures writhing in an agony of blue fire and the stench of charring human meat seared my mind. I sucked in a breath, but held back the word to seal her power again, though it strained behind my teeth.
I had to trust her to handle it. That was half the point of this exercise.
Zaira reached toward the racing line of fire, as if to gather it back, but it only leaped higher. A faint blue gleam shone in her eyes. Marcello took a hasty step backward, but the flame was faster; it would reach him in seconds. I opened my mouth to cry out the word that could save him.
“Zaira!” Jerith called sharply.
Zaira sliced a hand through the air. The balefire winked out, leaving a smoking black smear on the ground.
“See? Fine.” She tossed back her mane of dark curls. “Completely under control.”
But her hands trembled ever so slightly, before she shoved them into her skirt pockets.
“Revincio,” I sighed, sealing her power. My knees felt ready to buckle with relief.
Jerith shook his head, a diamond glittering in his earlobe. “Control will be much harder when it’s a company of Vaskandran musketeers or some Witch Lord’s pet chimera coming at you with venomous claws.”
I shifted my feet uneasily. “We’re not at war with Vaskandar.”
Jerith laughed. “Oh, don’t be coy, my lady. Your Council secrets are safe with me. Anyone who’s heard word of their troop movements knows they’re preparing for an invasion. It’s only proper we afford them the same courtesy in return.” He jabbed a finger at Zaira. “And that means improving your control to the point where Lady Amalia can release you without worrying about getting set on fire along with the enemy.”
Anger flashed in Zaira’s eyes. “So the Empire can use me as a weapon.”
“No. So you don’t kill anyone you don’t mean to.” Jerith’s smile was bitter. “The Empire will try to use you as a weapon whether you’ve got good control or not.”
Balos slipped a thickly muscled brown arm around the storm warlock’s slim shoulders, and I wondered if Jerith spoke from experience.
Marcello approached, a frown marring his brow. I couldn’t help but appreciate the flattering lines of his uniform doublet. Never mind all my efforts to remind myself over the past weeks that we weren’t courting—couldn’t court—at least not yet. I wasn’t ready to throw away the power of political eligibility.
“That was better,” he said.
Zaira flicked a glance down the beach to the ashy remains of last week’s practice. I’d had to seal her, that time. “Damned right it was. Do you think I’d put up with any of you if this wasn’t working?”
“We should try again,” Marcello suggested. “For longer, this time.”
I eyed the tangle of brush and overhanging branches surrounding the charred stump of the bush Zaira had burned. “Maybe in a place where it won’t spread quite so easily.”
Marcello’s eyes caught mine for a moment. Their corners crinkled with wry amusement. “Good idea. I won’t deny my heart got some exercise at the end, there.”
I smiled back, but an uneasy flutter stirred under my breastbone. In the weeks since we’d returned from Ardence, he’d been friendly and courteous, professional to a fault; it was as if we’d never shared that desperate kiss, at what I’d thought was our final farewell. I wasn’t sure anymore, when he smiled, whether I glimpsed an undercurrent of hurt beneath it.
His gaze slid away, scanning the beach. “How about over there?”
He gestured to a line of barnacle-crusted rocks that extended into a thin spit a short distance down the beach, at the point of the tiny island’s crescent. Balefire could burn on stone—or water, for that matter—but at least a chance breeze wouldn’t dip a tree branch into the flame.
Zaira shrugged her indifference, so we started over in that direction. She seemed in no hurry, and though I’d worn breeches, my city boots turned awkwardly on the soft, sliding sand; we soon fell back behind the others.
It was just as well. There was something I needed to ask her, a gnawing unease I had to face.
“Jerith’s right,” I said quietly. “It’s no feint, this time. Vaskandar is preparing for war. And you know what the Council will ask you to do.”
“Yes, I heard. Musketeers, chimeras.” She tugged gently at the jess on her wrist, as if testing whether it might come off at last. “Should be easier than burning some scraggly old bush, frankly. Small is harder.”
“Are you…” I tried to think how to phrase my question. “How do you feel about this?”
“Why does everyone ask about my feelings? Graces’ tits, you and Terika…” She clamped her mouth shut.
“Perhaps we care about you.”
Zaira snorted. “Must be nice to have the luxury to worry about bilge like that. In the Tallows, you learn feelings are worthless. They’re what drunkards piss away the morning after.”
Some things were worth arguing with Zaira about, and some weren’t. “I don’t want to see you put in a position where you’re forced to use your fire to kill.”
“As opposed to what? Roast meat skewers in the market? There’s not much else it’s good for.” She shook her head. “You heard Jerith. To the Empire, I’m a tool for killing, nothing more. And they’re not half wrong. If I stay in the Falcons, I’ll leave a wake of ashes through Vaskandar. Your pretty little qualms and niceties won’t change that.”
That if bordered on treason. Imperial law gave the mage-marked no choice, compensating them with riches and lavish comforts for their mandatory conscription into the Falcons. But I had no doubt Zaira could successfully run away any time she chose; it was only knowing she could leave that had reconciled her to staying. For now.
“I wish I could get my Falcon reform act passed before war breaks out.” I kicked at a rock, sending it skittering across the sand. “So every mage could choose whether to become a soldier. But my mother says there’s no way I’ll get the support I need in the Assembly with Vaskandran armies at the borders.”
Zaira gave me a sideways glance. “That thing, still? It’ll never pass.”
“Once the Vaskandran threat eases, it might,” I insisted. “I have a few dozen members of the Assembly willing to back it already. I just need time.”
“A few dozen. Out of a thousand. Forgive me if I don’t wait like a good little girl for you to free us.” Zaira stopped, hands on her hips. “You don’t think that’s why I’m still here, do you? Because I’ve got hope for your stupid law?”
“No.” I raised my brows. “I assume you stayed for Terika.”
Zaira’s brows twitched. “I like Terika,” she admitted. “But if you think I’d let her chain me to the Mews, you don’t know me.”
“I suppose not,” I sighed.
“I’m here for one reason.” She leveled a finger at me. “To learn to control my power well enough not to hurt anyone. Well enough to hide. Because now the world knows I exist, and there’s nowhere I can run where they’ll ever leave me alone.”
“Ah.” I didn’t know what else to say; it was true.
“They might swallow your law for artificers or alchemists. Devices and potions don’t make people wet their breeches the way balefire does. But they’re too afraid of warlocks.” She shook her head. “No sane person wants someone who can single-handedly destroy a city on a whim to wander around free. The whole continent of Eruvia wants me locked up safe in the Mews—or better yet, dead.”
“I don’t want you locked up or dead,” I protested.
“Oh?” Zaira lifted a skeptical brow. “If I decided to run away and take my chances in hiding, what would you do?”
It was an uneasy question I’d worried at frequently over the past weeks. Not least because it was hard to imagine any future where Zaira would be content to stay cooped up in the Mews for long. “I’d try to find a way for you to do it legally. To convince the Doge and the Council to let you go.”
“They’d never let me go, and you know it.”
“Well, then, I’d use my influence to do what I could to stop the Empire from coming after you. To keep you safe.” My heart skipped a beat at the inherent rebellion in that declaration; my duty as a Falconer would be to help them find her.
But then, I was more than just a Falconer.
“Safe?” Zaira let out a bark of a laugh. “I make everything unsafe. I’m danger salt—add me to anything, and I make it more interesting.”
“I can’t deny that seems an apt assessment. But if you ran away, where would you go? What would you do?”
Zaira kicked at the sand in silence, scowling. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “If I knew, I’d already be doing it. But this is the first step: getting my fire under control. After that, I can figure out what to do next.”
“So you’re only remaining with the Falcons until then?” My throat felt strangely tight. Of course I wanted Zaira to be free, and my life would certainly be quieter without her in it. But it would be a lonely sort of quiet.
“That depends.” Zaira’s voice dropped low. “After that idiocy in Ardence, I made myself a promise. If the Doge orders me to burn down people who don’t deserve it, that’s the line. I’m gone.”
I nodded. “I understand. But if he orders you against Vaskandar? What then?”
“If they invade us, that’s different.” She brushed off the thought of war with the Empire’s most powerful neighbor as if it were an annoying insect. “I’ve heard the stories of the Three Years’ War from the wrinkled old relics in the Tallows. Grandfathers strangled in their beds by bramble vines, children fed to bears—the Witch Lords don’t know mercy. If they come across our borders, I’ll show them they’re not the only demons in the Nine Hells.”
Ahead of us, Marcello stopped at the crest of the rocky spit as suddenly as if the wind had slammed a gate in his face.
“What’s that in the water?” Fear bleached all the color from his voice.
Jerith and Balos hopped up beside him and looked down on the other side of the rocks. Balos clapped a hand to his mouth; Jerith swore.
Zaira and I exchanged glances and ran to catch up with them.
Zaira crested the rocks first, her skirts whipping behind her. She took one look down into the water and gave a decisive nod, as if confirming a suspicion.
“Dead,” she said.
I scrambled up on the low line of rocks with the others, and saw what they’d been looking at.
It bobbed against the rocks, caught there by the rising tide, black water lapping against brilliant scarlet wool. I caught a glimpse of dark hair spreading like floating seaweed, bloated white fingers, and the gleam of gold trim on a too-familiar uniform jacket. Then I had to look away, clasping my arms across my lurching stomach.
“Grace of Mercy,” I whispered.
“He’s one of ours,” Marcello said grimly. “A Falconer.”