A spellbinding new fantasy series that combines thrilling intrigue, engaging characters and a captivating new magic system. Look for new chapters every Wednesday for the next six weeks!
“Here, my lady? Are you sure?”
As the narrow prow of my boat nudged the stone steps at the canal’s edge, I wished I’d walked, or at least hired a craft rather than using my own. The oarsman was bound to report to La Contessa that her daughter had disembarked at a grimy little quay in a dubious corner of the Tallows, the poorest district of the city of Raverra.
By the time my mother heard anything, however, I’d already have the book.
“Yes, thank you. Right here.”
The oarsman made no comment as he steadied his craft, but his eyebrows conveyed deep skepticism.
I’d worn a country gentleman’s coat and breeches, to avoid standing out from my seedy surroundings. I was glad not to risk skirts trailing in the murky water as I clambered out of the boat. Trash bobbed in the canal, and the tang in the air was not exclusively salt.
“Shall I wait for you here, my lady?”
“No, that’s all right.” The less my mother knew of my errand, the better.
She had not precisely forbidden me to visit the pawnbroker who claimed to have a copy of Muscati’s Principles of Artifice, but she’d made her opinion of such excursions clear. And no one casually disobeyed La Contessa Lissandra Cornaro. Her word resonated with power in every walled garden and forgotten plaza in Raverra.
Still, there was nothing casual about a Muscati. Only twelve known copies of his books existed. If this was real, it would be the thirteenth.
As I strolled alongside the canal, my mother’s warnings seemed ridiculous. Sun-warmed facades flanked the green water, and workers unloaded produce from the mainland off boats moored at the canal’s edge. A bright, peaceful afternoon like this surely could hold no dangers.
But when my route veered away from the canal, plunging into a shadowy tunnel that burrowed straight through a building, I hesitated. It was far easier to imagine assassins or kidnappers lurking beyond that dim archway. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d faced either in my eighteen years as my mother’s heir. The book, I reminded myself. Think of the book.
I passed through the throat of the tunnel, emerging into a street too narrow to ever see direct sunlight. Broken shutters and scarred brickwork closed around me. The few people I passed gave me startled, assessing glances.
I found the pawnbroker’s shop with relief, and hurried into a dim wilderness of dusty treasures. Jewelry and blown glass glittered on the shelves; furniture cluttered the floor, and paintings leaned against the walls. The proprietor bent over a conch shell wrapped with copper wire, a frown further creasing his already lined face. A few wisps of white over his ears were the last legacy of his hair.
I approached, glancing at the shell. “It’s broken.”
He scowled. “Is it? I should have known. He asked too little for a working one.”
“Half the beads are missing.” I pointed to a few orbs of colored glass still threaded on the wire. “You’d need an artificer to fix it if you wanted it to play music again.”
The pawnbroker looked up at me, and his eyes widened. “Lady Amalia Cornaro.” He bowed as best he could in the cramped shop.
I glanced around, but we were alone. “Please, no need for formality.”
“Forgive me. I didn’t recognize you in, ah, such attire.” He peered dubiously at my breeches. “Though I suppose that’s the fashion for young ladies these days.”
Breeches weren’t remotely in fashion for young ladies, but I didn’t bother correcting him. I was just grateful they were acceptable enough in my generation that I didn’t have to worry about causing a scandal or being mistaken for a courtesan.
“Do you have the book?” I reminded him. “Muscati’s Principles of Artifice, your note said.”
“Of course. I’d heard you were looking for it.” A certain gleam entered his eye with which I was all too familiar: Cornaro gold reflected back at me. “Wait a moment, and I’ll get it.”
He shuffled through a doorway to the rear of the shop.
I examined the shell. I knew enough from my studies of artifice to trace the patterns of wire and understand the spell that had captured the sound of a musical performance inside the shell’s rune-carved whorls. I could have fixed a broken wire, perhaps, but without the inborn talent of an artificer to infuse new beads with magical energy, the shell would stay silent.
The pawnbroker returned with a large leather-bound book. He laid it on the table beside the conch shell. “There you are, my lady.”
I flipped through the pages until I came to a diagram. Muscati’s combination of finicky precision in the wirework schematics and thick, blunt strokes for the runes was unmistakable. I let out a trembling breath. This was the real thing.
The pawnbroker’s long, delicate fingers covered the page. “Is all in order, then?”
“Yes, quite. Thank you.” I laid a gold ducat on the table. It vanished so quickly I almost doubted I’d put it there.
“Always a pleasure,” he murmured.
I tucked the book into my satchel and hurried out of the musty shop, almost skipping with excitement. I couldn’t wait to get home, retreat to my bedroom with a glass of wine, and dive into Muscati’s timeworn pages. My friend Domenic from the University of Ardence said that to read Muscati was to open a window on a new view of the universe as a mathematical equation to be solved.
Of course, he’d only read excerpts. The university library didn’t have an actual Muscati. I’d have to get Domenic here to visit so I could show him. Maybe I’d give the book to the university when I was done with it.
It was hard to make myself focus on picking turns in the mazelike streets rather than dreaming about runic alphabets, geometric diagrams, and coiling wirework. At least I was headed in the right general direction. One more bridge to cross, and then I’d be in polite, patrician territory, safe and sound; and no lecture of my mother’s could change the fact that I’d completed my errand without incident.
But a tense group of figures stood in the tiny plaza before the bridge, frozen in a standoff, every line of their bodies promising each other violence.
Like so many things in Raverra, this had become complicated.
Three broad-shouldered men formed a menacing arc around a scrawny young woman with sprawling dark curls. The girl stood rigidly defiant, like a stick thrust in the mud. I slowed to a halt, clutching my satchel tight against my side, Muscati’s edge digging into my ribs.
“One last chance.” A burly man in shirtsleeves advanced on the girl, fists like cannonballs ready at his sides. “Come nice and quiet to your master, or we’ll break your legs and drag you to him in a sack.”
“I’m my own master,” the girl retorted, her voice blunt as a boat hook. “And you can tell Orthys to take his indenture contract and stuff it up his bunghole.”
They hadn’t noticed me yet. I could work my way around to the next bridge, and get my book safely home. I took a step back, glancing around for someone to put a stop to this: an officer of the watch, a soldier, anyone but me.
There was no one. The street lay deserted. Everyone else in the Tallows knew enough to make themselves scarce.
“Have it your way,” the man growled. The ruffians closed in on their prey.
This was exactly the sort of situation in which a young lady of the august and noble house of Cornaro should not involve herself, and in which a person of any moral fortitude must.
Maybe I could startle them, like stray dogs. “You there! Stop!”
They turned to face me, their stares cold and flat. The air went dry in my throat.
“This is none of your business,” one in a scuffed leather doublet warned. A scar pulled at the corner of his mouth. I doubted it came from a cooking accident.
I had no protection besides the dagger in my belt. The name Cornaro might hold weight with these scoundrels, but they’d never believe I bore it. Not dressed like this.
My name meant nothing. The idea sent a wild thrill into my lungs, as if the air were alive.
The girl didn’t wait to see what I would do. She tried to bolt between two of the men. A tree branch of an arm caught her at the waist, scooping her up as if she were a child. Her feet swung in the air.
My satchel pulled at my shoulder, but I couldn’t run off and leave her now, Muscati or no Muscati. Drawing my dagger seemed a poor idea. The men were all armed, one with a flintlock pistol.
“Help!” I called.
The brutes seemed unimpressed. They kept their attention on the struggling girl as they wrenched her arms behind her.
“That’s it!” Rage swelled her voice. “This is your last warning!”
Last warning? What an odd thing to say. Unless . . .
Ice slid into my bone marrow.
The men laughed, but she glowered furiously at them. She wasn’t afraid. I could think of only one reason she wouldn’t be.
I flattened myself against a wall just before everything caught fire.
Her eyes kindled first, a hungry blue spark flaring in her pupils. Then flames ran down her arms in delicate lines, leaping into the pale, lovely petals of a deadly flower.
The men lurched back from her, swearing, but it was too late. Smoke already rose from their clothing. Before they finished sucking in their first terrified breaths, blue flames sprang up in sudden, bold glory over every inch of them, burying every scar and blemish in light. For one moment, they were beautiful.
Then they let out the screams they had gathered. I cringed, covering my own mouth. The pain in them was inhuman. The terrible, oily reek of burning human meat hit me, and I gagged.
The men staggered for the canal, writhing in the embrace of the flames. I threw up my arm to ward my face from the heat, blocking the sight. Heavy splashes swallowed their screams.
In the sudden silence, I lowered my arm.
Fire leaped up past the girl’s shoulders now. A pure, cold anger graced her features. It wasn’t the look of a woman who was done.
She raised her arms exultantly, and flames sprang up from the canal itself, bitter and wicked. They spread across the water as if on a layer of oil, licking at the belly of the bridge. On the far side of the canal, bystanders drawn by the commotion cried out in alarm.
“Enough!” My voice tore out of my throat higher than usual. “You’ve won! For mercy’s sake, put it out!”
But the girl’s eyes were fire, and flames ran down her hair. If she understood me, she made no sign of it. The blue fire gnawed at the stones around her feet. Hunger unsatisfied, it expanded as if the flagstones were grass.
I recognized it at last: balefire. I’d read of it in Orsenne’s Fall of Celantis.
Grace of Mercy preserve us all. That stuff would burn anything—water, metal, stone. It could light up the city like a dry corncrib. I hugged my book to my chest.
“You have to stop this!” I pleaded.
“She can’t,” a strained voice said. “She’s lost control.”
I turned to find a tall, lean young man at my shoulder, staring at the burning girl with understandable apprehension. His wavy black hair brushed the collar of the uniform I wanted to see most in the world at the moment: the scarlet-and-gold doublet of the Falconers. The very company that existed to control magic so things like this wouldn’t happen.
“Thank the Graces you’re here! Can you stop her?”
“No.” He drew in a deep, unsteady breath. “But you can, if you have the courage.”
“What?” It was more madness, piled on top of the horror of the balefire. “But I’m not a Falconer!”
“That’s why you can do it.” Something delicate gleamed in his offering hand. “Do you think you can slip this onto her wrist?”
It was a complex weave of gold wire and scarlet beads, designed to tighten with a tug. I recognized the pattern from a woodcut in one of my books: a Falconer’s jess. Named after the tethers used in falconry, it could place a seal on magic.
“She’s on fire,” I objected.
“I know. I won’t deny it’s dangerous.” His intent green eyes clouded. “I can’t do it myself; I’m already linked to another. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t an emergency. The more lives the balefire consumes, the more it spreads. It could swallow all of Raverra.”
I hesitated. The jess sagged in his hand. “Never mind. I shouldn’t have—”
“I’ll do it.” I snatched the bracelet from him before I could think twice.
“Thank you.” He flashed me an oddly wistful smile. “I’ll distract her while you get close. Wits and courage. You can do it.”
The Falconer sprinted toward the spreading flames, leaving the jess dangling from my hand like an unanswered question.
He circled to the canal’s edge, calling to get the girl’s attention. “You! Warlock!”
She turned toward him. Flame trailed behind her like a queen’s mantua. The spreading edges crawled up the brick walls of the nearest house in blazing tendrils.
The Falconer’s voice rang out above the clamor of the growing crowd across the canal. “In the name of His Serenity the Doge, I claim you for the Falcons of Raverra!”
That certainly got her attention. The flames bent in his direction as if in a strong wind.
“I don’t belong to you, either!” Her voice was wild as a hissing bonfire. “You can’t claim me. I’ll see you burn first!”
Now she was going to kill him, too. Unless I stopped her.
My heart fluttering like an anxious dowager’s handkerchief, I struggled to calm down and think. Maybe she wouldn’t attack if I didn’t rush at her. I tucked my precious satchel under my coat and hustled toward the bridge as if I hoped to scurry past her and escape. It wasn’t hard to pretend. Some in the crowd on the far side beckoned me to safety.
My legs trembled with the urge to heed them and dash across. I couldn’t bear the thought of Muscati’s pages withering to ashes. I tightened my grip on the jess.
The Falconer extended his hand toward the girl to keep her attention. “By law, you belonged to Raverra the moment you were born with the mage mark. I don’t know how you managed to hide for so long, but it’s over now. Come with me.”
The balefire roared at him in a blue-white wave.
“Plague take you!” The girl raised her fist in defiance. “If Raverra wants my fire, she can have it. Let the city burn!”
I lunged across the remaining distance between us, leaping over snaking lines of flame. Eyes squeezed half shut against the heat, I flung out an arm and looped the jess over her upraised fist.
The effect was immediate. The flames flickered out as if a cold blast of wind had snuffed them. The Falconer still recoiled, his arms upraised to protect his face, his fine uniform doublet smoking.
The girl swayed, the fire flickering out in her eyes. The golden jess settled around her bone-thin wrist.
She collapsed to the flagstones.
Pain seared my hand. I hissed through my teeth as I snatched it to my chest. That brief moment of contact had burned my skin and scorched my boots and coat. My satchel, thank the Graces, seemed fine.
Across the bridge, the gathering of onlookers cheered, then began to break up. The show was over, and nobody wanted to go near a fire warlock, even an unconscious one.
I couldn’t blame them. No sign remained of ruffians in the canal, though the burned smell lingered horribly in the air. Charred black scars streaked the sides of the buildings flanking me.
The Falconer approached, grinning with relief. “Well done! I’m impressed. Are you all right?”
It hit me in a giddy rush that it was over. I had saved—if not all of Raverra, at least a block or two of it—by myself, with my own hands. Not with my mother’s name, or with my mother’s wealth, but on my own.
Too dangerous to go to a pawnbroker’s shop? Ha! I’d taken out a fire warlock. I smiled at him, tucking my burned hand into my sleeve. “I’m fine. I’m glad I could help.”
“Lieutenant Marcello Verdi, at your service.” He bowed. “What is your name, brave young lady?”
“Well, welcome to the doge’s Falconers, Miss . . .” He stopped. The smile fell off his face, and the color drained from his bronze skin. “Cornaro.” He swallowed. “Not . . . you aren’t related to La Contessa Lissandra Cornaro, surely?”
My elation curdled in my stomach. “She’s my mother.”
“Hells,” the lieutenant whispered. “What have I done?”