Read a sample from THE TETHERED MAGE by Melissa Caruso


The most powerful man in the world stood barely taller than I did, not counting the ducal crown. Niro da Morante was young for a doge; it was a lifetime post, and the Assembly rarely elected anyone with an undue allowance of lifetime remaining. His hair still showed dark between broad streaks of gray. But his deep-set eyes gleamed with a relentless intelligence, and he had a presence about him that had nothing to do with the richness of his robes—or even the fact that he commanded an empire spanning most of the continent of Eruvia.

As I curtsied to him, those dark eyes drank in every piece of knowledge he could glean from my appearance. It was hard to forget, even here in the grand salon of my own house, that here was a man whose word held the power of war and peace, prosperity and ruin, life and death.

This must be how other people felt talking to my mother.

My petticoats swept the marble floor as I finished the curtsy. My mother uttered words of greeting, and I made appropriate noises. Servants swirled around like dancers, offering him wine and refreshments, which he waved away. The hall stretched too large around us, built to host masquerade balls and the occasional state ceremony. I spent little time in this room, with its frescoes showing the accomplishments of Cornaro doges and its \gilded molding overwrought almost to the point of hysteria. It was meant to impress guests, not to live in.

When the doge settled into the chair we offered him, it was with an air of dissatisfaction—not with our hospitality, or even with me, but with the entire situation.

“I wish to speak to my new Falconer alone,” he said.

The servants discreetly withdrew from the room. My mother smiled, all grace and poise. “Surely there is nothing you would say to my daughter I could not hear as well.”

I couldn’t help but notice the emphasis they both placed on my.

The doge raised an eyebrow. “Is she a child, to hide behind her mother’s skirts?”

Stung, I opened my mouth, but a sharp jab at my shoulder stopped me. My mother’s hand lay there, casual and relaxed; but she’d reversed a ring so the stone pressed into my skin in warning.

“Amalia is fully capable of standing on her own,” she said, with more confidence than the collected history of our prior conversations would suggest. “But what could you have to discuss that must be kept private from her mother, and your old friend?”

The corner of the doge’s mouth quirked. “Nothing. But you know as well as I, Lissandra, that if you are in the room, it will be a conversation between you and me, not with your estimable daughter.”

There was a silence. The ring still dug into my shoulder.

La Contessa laughed, and dropped the doge an ironic curtsy. “Very well, Niro. I can’t deny you’re right. I’ll leave you two unchaperoned, then.”

My mother’s velvet skirts swished. The salon doors opened and closed. I was alone with the doge.

He gestured me to sit, his eyes lingering on my overbandaged hand.

\I settled onto the edge of a chair, as best as I could in my corset; between the plunging waist and stiff stays, it seemed designed for ladies who never sat down. Layers of gathered silk and petticoats rustled and bunched beneath me. This was why I preferred a jacket and breeches.

The doge raised his brows. “Well, Lady Amalia. You have chosen an… untraditional method to become one of my Falconers.”

Every word he chose staked a careful position on a playing board I couldn’t see, counting points I couldn’t reckon. My gauze-wrapped palm grew damp.

“Your Serenity, I assure you I had no intention of doing any such thing. My only aim was to protect Raverra from balefire.”

“Regardless. You and your Falcon pose quite a pretty problem.” He spread an empty hand as if to show me. “Normally, we bring Falcons into the Mews as children. And Falconers live in the Mews as well, undergoing several years of training before they link to a carefully chosen Falcon, at which point they forgo all other responsibilities, oaths, and titles. If they are of a patrician family, they lose the right to sit in the Assembly.”

My mother would never stand for that. “But of course, that is impossible in this case.” I kept my tone light but unwavering. “As I am the Cornaro heir.”

The doge gazed at me thoughtfully. Across the room, a clock ticked. Dozens of painted dignitaries watched me from the frescoed ceiling.

“Do you know,” he said at last, “why the ruling families of Raverra are forbidden to be Falconers?”

“To avoid giving one family too much power.”

“Yes. But that’s not the only reason.” He leaned forward. Deep in his dark eyes came a gleam, like sunken gold. “Do you understand, Amalia Cornaro, the paradox of force?”

I hesitated. “I’m not certain to what you’re referring, Your Serenity.”

“The naval and magical power of Raverra is unparalleled. None doubt it is the foundation of the Empire, along with our great wealth. And yet we haven’t needed to use force to secure our position in decades. It is precisely because all know we are capable of exercising unstoppable military power that we do not need to do so. It is by the implicit threat of war we secure the peace of Eruvia.”

“True power wields a light touch, because a light touch suffices,” I quoted my mother.

“Usually.” His eyes narrowed. “But what happens, Lady Amalia, when someone attempts to call our bluff?”

“But… the power of the Serene Empire isn’t a bluff.”

“No. No, it is not.” Satisfaction in his voice, he leaned back in his chair. “As Celantis learned, three hundred years ago. You know the story, I presume?”

“Of course.” It was a story Eruvia had found hard to forget, as the Serene Empire of Raverra continued to grow from the few coastal cities of its cradle. “Raverra and the island of Celantis were at war. When the doge moved the fleet and the Falcons into position to attack Celantis, he offered them one last chance for peace, but the king of Celantis sent back the emissary’s head as his reply. So the doge shot one more message over the city walls on an arrow: You may think your kingdom powerful, that it can destroy one man. But with one man, I will destroy your kingdom. And he”—I swallowed—“he unleashed his fire warlock.”

“That’s right.” There was no humor in Niro da Morante’s smile. “The balefire swept the city, in three days and nights of terror. For each victim the flames claimed, they grew stronger, feeding on the lives of the fallen. After a hundred deaths, and a thousand, nothing could stop the blaze, not even the warlock himself. Only the word of the Falconer could end it.”

I nodded mutely, my lips pressed tight.

“But by the doge’s order, the Falconer withheld that word, until the king of Celantis was dead at the hands of his own people and the generals came out to surrender and beg for mercy.”

That Falconer had watched Celantis burn, knowing he could stop it at any time with one word. But he chose not to speak that word, out of loyalty to his doge. Did that silence cause him pain? Did he wake from nightmares every day for the rest of his life, hearing the screams, smelling the burning flesh?

“Since then, few indeed have dared refuse Raverra, the Serene City.” The doge steepled his fingers. “Thus, we have not needed to burn any more kingdoms. So you see the role a fire warlock plays in maintaining the serenity of the Empire.”

“Yes.” He’d circled back to my Falcon. He must be closing a trap. My heart beat twice for every tick of the clock. “Knowing we have a fire warlock makes it far less likely anyone will start hostilities with us in the first place.”

“And you also see why I cannot afford any doubt that if I call for you to unleash your Falcon’s fire, you will do as I command without hesitation.”

There it was. I stared, caught. A cynical smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. You see? it said. It’s not so easy.

“Your Serenity,” I said slowly, “should the security of Raverra require me to unleash my Falcon, I will do so.”

“No matter what the target?”

“I will defend Raverra if it is threatened.”

“Hmm.” His eyes flicked across my face as if he were reading a page. “You agree, then, to follow my orders?”

I clenched my bandaged hand until pain flared in it like a red sunrise. I couldn’t say yes, but I couldn’t say no. I hoped he didn’t see on my face how I wished my mother were in the room to answer for me.

“I cannot imagine, Your Serenity,” I said at last, “you would ever ask me to release my Falcon save for the security of Raverra.”

The doge laughed, thin lines fanning beside his eyes. “Well said.” He stood; I followed suit. “Very well, then. I suppose that will have to do for now.”

It seemed the game was over. But I had no idea if I’d won or lost.

“You will require at least some training,” he said. “We can’t have you accidentally saying the release word and burning down the Mews.”

Release word? Now I was afraid to say anything at all. The doge saw it, and laughed again.

“Report to the Mews at your convenience tomorrow morning, and we will make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Your Serenity, with due respect, I cannot move into the Mews.”

“Perhaps you cannot. But you can pay a brief visit there, to receive some simple training.”

That seemed reasonable enough. “Yes, Your Serenity.”

“Until we meet again, Amalia Cornaro.”

I stood alone in the grand salon as they escorted the doge to his boat with proper honor and pleasantries. My legs trembled as if I’d ridden twenty miles.

Before he’d been gone long enough for me to consider sitting down, my mother glided into the room.

“That will do,” she told me without preamble. “You didn’t lose us any ground, and that’s what matters.”

“You were listening? You eavesdropped on our conversation!”

“My dear child, of course I listened. Your great-grandfather didn’t go to all the trouble of building secret spying chambers into this palace so his heirs could respect the privacy of others. Now, we need to determine our next move.”

Our next move. My mother had never included me in her machinations. I wasn’t sure whether to be proud or afraid. Probably afraid.

“Mamma… What about the Falcon?”

“It shouldn’t compromise our control over the Falcon for you to take some lessons at the Mews. Just don’t let them order you about or give you a military rank.”

“That’s not what I meant.” I struggled to put into words a worry that had been growing in my mind like a gnawing caterpillar. “No matter what happens, this girl and I are linked for the rest of our lives. She can’t leave the Mews without me.”

“True,” my mother agreed. “It’s an awkward situation.”

“If she doesn’t like me, it could be very awkward.”

“Then,” she said, “make her like you.”

Make her like you.

For my mother, no doubt it was that easy. But I was not, as I had proven on numerous occasions, my mother.

To be sure, most people I knew acted as if they liked me. The Cornaro name drew throngs of admirers at each genteel party my mother pulled me from my books to attend. But even with my scholar friends from the Imperial Library or the University of Raverra, there was a certain unctuous note to their smiles as we bent over books together, an oil of flattery and fear lubricating their words. I’d had to travel to Ardence, where not everyone realized I was that Amalia Cornaro, before anyone would point out flaws in my artifice designs or argue with me over the causes of the Three Years’ War.

I didn’t know how to tell if someone liked me, let alone encourage them to do so if they were not already thus inclined.

La Contessa often brought a gift the first time she paid someone a visit. I’d lay a wager the ragged, starving-thin girl from the Tallows hadn’t gotten many presents in her life. So on my way to the Mews, my valiant oarsman battled the morning market traffic to secure me a spot to disembark and visit a jewelry booth. I bought the first trinket that caught my attention, a pretty amber necklace. A bespectacled woman wrapped it in silk for me with careful fingers.

Back in my golden-prowed boat, I wondered what she was like, this woman I was bound to for the rest of my life. Spirited, certainly. Clever, perhaps, to have hidden the mage mark for so long. The sort of person I’d want as a friend, if I hadn’t destroyed all chance of that the minute I slid the jess onto her wrist.

The sort of friend my mother would never approve, if she weren’t a Falcon.

My boat escaped the exuberantly congested Imperial Canal and navigated the short distance across the green waters of the lagoon to Raptor’s Isle, nudging up against the visitors’ dock between rows of sleek military cutters. The gray walls of the Mews loomed above, forbidding despite delicate stonework and pointed arches. Protective artifice runes ringed every door and window, sealing them against assassins and arrows. Armed guards with muskets and sabers watched me. No one came forward to hand me out of the boat. Thank goodness I’d worn boots and breeches again today, though the embroidered brocade bore as little resemblance to what I’d worn in the Tallows as a peacock’s plumage did to a sparrow’s.

Just as I started to become uncomfortable under the assessing stare of the guards, the bronze doors flew open. Lieutenant Verdi strode out to meet me, a relieved smile on his face.

I stared. A black eye shone gloriously purple from beneath his wavy bangs.

“Lady Amalia Cornaro.” He bowed. The guards, hearing my name, stood straighter. “I’m so glad you came.”

He did sound glad. Too glad, with an edge of desperation. “Is something amiss?”

Verdi grimaced. “Come in, my lady, and I’ll explain.”

I had never been inside the Mews before, though I’d seen its fortresslike walls and irregular scattering of towers across the water all my life. I’d always imagined it to be a moody, brooding place full of mad sorcerers, and was disappointed when Verdi led me through the outer fortifications into a lovely garden.

Flowering trees and shrubs created nooks and private spaces. A young man sprawled under a tree reading a book; on an open, grassy lawn, a handful of shrieking children kicked a ball around. Golden bracelets glinted on their wrists. Only a pair of uniformed officers, pistols at their hips, reminded me that this was a military stronghold; they crossed the garden briskly, heading for the gate.

I drew closer to Verdi as my guide in this forbidden place. I caught a soldierly whiff of leather, gunpowder, and steel from him. It was nothing like the wine-and-rosewater miasma that wafted off the dandies at court.

“How is she?” I asked, pulling my mind firmly back to the matter at hand. “My Falcon?”

Verdi touched the edge of the bruise around his eye. “She’s… not transitioning well.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.”

The corner of his mouth quirked in acknowledgment. It was a little thing, but the informality sprouted a seedling of hope in my chest.

We passed a pair of girls who sat chattering by a fountain. One wore a jess, and one didn’t—Falcon and Falconer, I supposed. Lieutenant Verdi nodded to them, and they waved back. After he passed, they burst into stifled giggles, but he didn’t notice. I wished I could linger behind and find out whether it was because of the bruise, or if they thought he was handsome. But I’d always been terrible at that sort of conversation.

“We’ve treated her with respect, and set her up in comfort in her own room.” Verdi gestured to one of the many-windowed brick buildings surrounding the rambling garden. “But it doesn’t matter. You were there yesterday; you can guess how it is.”

“She hates being shut in here.”

I’d heard of peasants trying to fake the mage mark in their children so the whole family could move into the Mews. But I supposed one would feel a bit differently about it if one were knocked out and dragged here.

“She considers us enemies.” Verdi sighed. “Especially me. I’m hoping you may have more luck with her.”

“Me? I’m the one who caught her.”

“But you stood up for her first. That must count for something.”

I remembered the gleam of the jess on her limp arm. “I doubt it.”

Verdi stopped and turned to me, his brows drawn together. “My lady, please. I know you owe me nothing. But Colonel Vasante, the commander of the Falcons, has charged me with salvaging this mess I’ve created. I’m doing my best, but Falcon and Falconer are a pair. A team. I need your help.”

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t put the jess on her.” Quenching the warlock’s fire and unintentionally claiming her for the Falcons was a rare thing I’d done on my own, as Amalia, not as the Cornaro heir. I couldn’t turn away from it and let the consequences fall on Verdi and my Falcon alone. “I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you, my lady.” He put his hand over his heart and bowed; I glimpsed the hollow of his throat down the collar of his doublet. “I’ll pray to the Graces it’s enough.”

The autumn air seemed warmer as we continued past rosebushes and an herb garden to one of the brick dormitories. Verdi led me through the unlocked door and up an oak-paneled staircase.

“One way or another, we have to introduce you two,” Verdi said as we reached the second floor. “If she seems too, ah, aggressive, we can cut it short.”

I clutched my silk-wrapped package. “Is there anything I need to know before I meet her?”

“I wish I could tell you anything about her, but she won’t talk about herself or her past. We don’t even know enough to contact her friends and family to let them know what happened to her.”

I had a bleak suspicion there might not be anyone to tell. “That’s unfortunate.”

“One important note. Whatever you do, don’t say ‘Exsolvo.’”


He whirled. I caught a white flash of eyes, and his hand clamped over my mouth. I teetered on the edge of the topmost stair, tasting the salt on his palm, the word caught on my tongue.

He steadied me, his strong hand warm against my back. Then he quickly released me. His face was chalk pale.

“I’m sorry, my lady. But you must not say that word, not even out here. Not halfway across the world. That’s the release word.”

I laid a bracing hand on the wall, my heart stumbling. The taste of his skin lingered on my tongue. It took a moment to sift through mingled indignation and embarrassment to grasp the meaning of his words.

“Oh!” I remembered the doge’s grim joke about burning down the Mews. Two syllables more, and it would have lost its humor. “So, if I say that, she gets her magic back?”

“Yes. And in her current mood, she wouldn’t hesitate to use it.”

I swallowed. “What’s the word to seal it again?”

Revincio,” he replied. “That one you can say all you want.”

Revincio,” I repeated.

“You’ve got it. Don’t forget that one.” He winced. “And I apologize again for being so familiar, my lady.”

I waved his words off. “Don’t. I’d far rather get grabbed than set the castle on fire or fall down the stairs.”

“A lady of sense. Still, I’d appreciate if you didn’t mention it to the colonel.”

“I’ve already forgotten it.”

It was a flat-out lie. The print of his touch still warmed my back.

As he led me down a long hallway, he didn’t seem quite sure what to do with his hands, and his eyes kept drifting sideways to catch glimpses of me. If I’d noticed him glancing at me, I must be looking at him, too. I peeled my gaze off the clean lines of his face and stared resolutely at the portraits of long-dead Falcons on the walls.

He stopped at last at a sturdy oak door. “Here we are.” He eyed the handle as if it might transform into a viper at any second. “Are you ready?”

I took a deep breath. “Probably not. But I’m willing to try.”

“Brave lady.” He flashed me a grin, showing dimples I hadn’t noticed before. “But I already knew that.”

I warmed inexplicably at the words.

Verdi squared his shoulders and knocked on the door.

“Go away,” a rough voice called in response. “I warned you, if you come in here again, I’ll give you a matching pair.”

He gave me a you see how she is shrug. “Perhaps another time, my lady,” he said.

“It’s all right.” If I didn’t do this now, I’d lose my courage. “Excuse me,” I called out. “I’m Amalia Cornaro, your new Falconer. I was hoping to meet you.”

There was a pause. Then she replied, “Come in, then. I suppose I’d better see your face, so I can hate it better.”

“My lady, you don’t have to do this,” Verdi murmured. “If I send you home with a black eye, I’ll never forgive myself.”

“I don’t bruise easily,” I assured him.

I opened the door.

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