Read a sample from THE TETHERED MAGE by Melissa Caruso


The room would have been quite pleasant if it didn’t look as if animals had been nesting in it. The wardrobe stood open, with everything from petticoats to corsets strewn across the furniture and floor. Plates streaked with sauce and half-full glasses stood on tables, chairs, and windowsills, and lay spilled and broken on the rug. Warlocks needed to eat a lot to fuel their magic, but I still didn’t see how one skinny girl could have consumed so much in less than a full day. To complete the disaster, every drawer and chest had been flung open and dumped on the bed. Ink and cosmetics stained the fine coverlet.

In the center of the chaos stood the girl from yesterday, a wild cascade of unbrushed curls tumbling down her back. She wore a midnight-blue gown that must have been the finest of the dresses they gave her; it seemed shockingly out of place in the filthy room. She’d been admiring herself in an oval mirror. As I hesitated in the doorway, she glanced over her shoulder.

“So, you’re my jailer,” she sneered. “Lady Amalia Cornaro.”

I stepped into the room, placing my foot between a spilled wineglass and a tangled heap of stockings. “I fear you have me at a disadvantage. We were never properly introduced.”

The girl snorted, turning to face me. “‘I fear you have me at a disadvantage,’” she repeated. “Well, that’s nice. You can’t have all the advantages.”

Ignoring a stab of annoyance, I tried again. “So… what’s your name?”


I waited a moment for a surname before I realized none was coming.

“Well, Zaira, I’m hoping we can get along, since we have to work together for the rest of our lives.” I extended my silk-wrapped package. “I brought you a gift.”

Zaira lifted a contemptuous eyebrow. Without a word, she crossed the room, stepping on clothes and plates, and snatched the parcel out of my hand. This close, I could see the mage mark in her eyes: an extra ring around the pupil. Hers was black, and her irises were so dark it was easy to miss. So that was how she’d managed to hide it.

She tore away the yellow silk, casting it onto the floor, and barely glanced at the amber necklace before tossing it onto the bed.

“This wasn’t enough?” She shook the golden bracelet on her wrist. “You had to get me a collar, too?”

I caught a retort between my teeth and forced a polite smile instead, as if she’d said thank you.

“My lady,” Verdi broke in from behind me. “Perhaps it would be best to try another time.”


I’d forgotten he was there. I turned to find him hovering in the hallway. “Actually, could you give us a few moments alone, Lieutenant?”

“Are you sure?” He didn’t need to say a word of warning; his black eye spoke for him.

“Quite sure.”

“All right,” he agreed dubiously. As he closed the door behind me, he added, “Call if you need me. I’ll wait out here.”

The door clicked shut, leaving me alone with my Falcon.

Before Zaira could speak, I blurted, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” Zaira’s brows lifted.

“I only meant to help you. Against those men.”

“Well, if you were trying to help me escape, you did a stinking-awful job.”

“This wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t know I’d bind you to me. But I couldn’t let you burn down the city.”

“So now you’ve trapped me here for the rest of my life.” Zaira tugged at the jess. “Don’t expect me to thank you.”

“I don’t. But we’re both stuck with this situation, and I’d like to make the best of it.”

“That’s very well for you to say. You’re not the one locked up in here.”

I refrained from pointing out I hadn’t seen a single locked door inside the Mews. “Is it so bad? They’ve given you every luxury. The people I saw on the way in looked happy.”

“Of course they’re happy. They were raised here. They don’t know any better. And,” Zaira added, glaring, “they can leave.”

“You can, too. Just not alone.”

Zaira snorted. “I’m sure you’ll be happy to take me out with you anytime I want. You’ll drop everything and head right over to the Mews whenever I call. Three times a day if I like.”

I didn’t need my mother to tell me that could never happen. “Well…”

Zaira adopted a prancing, limp-wristed stance. “You’ll come get me for all your fancy parties. We’ll have tea with the doge each Thursday. And when your mamma retires and you’re on the Council of Nine, you’ll gladly spend hours with me every day, following me around while I do my shopping.”

“That’s not realistic, and you know it!” I snapped.

“No,” Zaira agreed, dropping the foppish act. “What’s realistic is maybe once a day you’ll pause and wonder how I’m doing, and a couple times a month you’ll take me out for a horrible, awkward afternoon in town. And I’ll have to act like I love it. Because when you’re starving, you’ll eat shit like it was a feast.”

“I… I hope not.” I yearned to make promises. To tell her I would come every day, and we could go wherever she wished. But I could feel my mother watching me, from all the way across the lagoon. Never make promises, La Contessa always said, unless you are certain you can keep them. And even then, if you can, make the promise in your mind only, to yourself. “I would like to do better by you than that.”

“Good intentions don’t buy bread.”

“Well, what do you want to do so badly that you’re desperate to get out of here?” I asked. “Forgive me, but you didn’t seem very happy where you were.”

Zaira looked away, anger in the line of her shoulders. Her gaze fell on the room’s single window—and through it, across the lagoon to the city.

“There’s an old man,” she muttered, grudgingly.

“Who? Your grandfather?”

“Hells, no.” Zaira brushed the idea off like dust. “If I have any family, they don’t care enough to let me know it, so they can rot. No, just an old ragpicker. I owe him.”

“You want to see him?” I tried to imagine visiting a ragpicker. And explaining to my mother afterward.

“No, idiot.” Zaira shook her head. “I told you, I owe him. I want to pay him back.”

“Well”—I struggled to force out the words—“I suppose, if that’s what you truly wish, then when Lieutenant Verdi gives his permission…”

Zaira made a gagging noise. “Stop, before you make yourself a liar.” She looked me up and down, as if assessing how little a cheap vase was worth. “You did try to stand up to Orthys’s lot for me. I don’t owe you anything, but in return for your good intentions, I’ll tell you mine.”

Zaira stepped in close, her voice dropping to a hiss. “Here’s what I intend, Lady Jailer: the minute you release me, the very second you drop this stupid binding, I am going to burn my way out of here. And if anyone gets in my way, I’ll burn down the whole cursed Mews if I have to. Do you understand?”

“You make yourself quite clear, yes.”

“Good.” Zaira smiled. “Then call your watchdog. I think we’re through.”

Verdi sighed. “I suppose it was too much to hope she’d warm to you.”

“It’s hard to imagine her warming to anyone, unless you count setting them on fire.”

I sat on a bench in the Mews garden. Lieutenant Verdi perched on the head of a stone lion, a rueful smile on his lips. Honeyfruit bushes surrounded us, teasing the air with their delicious scent. The muffled calls of a formation drill in another courtyard belied the peace of the scene.

“I’m sorry for wasting your time, my lady.”

“She didn’t give me a chance.” I ripped a leaf from an inoffensive bush. “The worst part is, she has a point. Zaira’s going to be trapped here most of the time in a way other Falcons aren’t, whose Falconers have no duties but to follow them around and keep them safe. And it’ll get worse when I ascend to the Council of Nine.”

Verdi spread his palm and examined it, as if he might read instructions there. After a moment he said, with exquisite care, “You could try living in the Mews. For a few days a week, at least. We really aren’t such terrible company.”

I shook my head. “It’s not possible. The quality of the company isn’t the issue, I assure you. I can’t do anything that places me under your colonel’s command, even symbolically. Which includes living in the Mews.”

His hands flexed on his knees. “So you’re telling me you can’t do anything to so much as imply you take your duty as a Falconer as seriously as your duty as your mother’s heir.”


“I see.” His shoulders tightened with frustration. For a moment I thought he would shout at me. But then he let out a long sigh, anger descending into disappointment. “That makes matters difficult, my lady.”

I’d rather he’d shouted. The taste of guilt soured my mouth. “I’m sorry.”

“If a Falconer can’t live in the Mews and accompany their Falcon, the whole system falls apart. The serenity of the Empire depends on the loyalty of the Falcons, and we can’t win their loyalty without giving them freedom.” He lifted rueful eyes to my own. “I may have already gotten an earful from Colonel Vasante about what an impossible situation it is militarily that you’re across the lagoon from your Falcon. For Zaira personally, it’s a prison sentence.”

“I don’t want to do that to her.” I started shredding my leaf. “If the jess binds Zaira’s magic, she’s not a threat, is she? Those with magic too weak to bear the mage mark don’t have to stay in the Mews. They can live their lives however they want. With the jess on, Zaira has less power than they do. Couldn’t you set her free, Lieutenant?”

“Please, my lady, call me Marcello.”

“Marcello, then.” My face warmed. It was the legacy of my barely remembered Callamornish father; I blushed far more easily than a pure Raverran would, with their darker, olive-bronze skin.

“And I wish we could just let her go, but it’s not that easy.” His tone became somber. “What do you think would happen if she wandered the city alone, without you there to unbind her power if she needed to defend herself?”

“I’m guessing the answer you’re fishing for isn’t ‘She could live a normal life, happily ever after.’”

“She’s a warlock,” he said. “Even artificers and alchemists have to guard against kidnapping. There are murder attempts on our two storm warlocks every year. If we let Zaira go, she’d be dead or captured within the week. And if someone found a way to get the jess off, they might turn her fires on Raverra.”

“I thought the whole point of jesses was that you couldn’t get them off. At least, not without the Falconer’s permission and the Master Artificer’s help.” It was the key to the Serene Empire’s power. Hundreds of years ago, when all the other nations and city-states of Eruvia either hunted down the mage-marked or fell under their rule, Raverra’s invention of jesses offered an alternative. A way to hold the mage-marked accountable to the rule of law and keep them from being used against their own country by the unscrupulous, at the cost of their independence. The slim golden bracelets had remained one of the Empire’s most closely guarded assets ever since.

“No magic is absolute, as you saw when Zaira’s fires fused her jess shut. They’re supposed to be indestructible—I’ve never heard of jesses being so much as scratched before.” Marcello shook his head. “We can’t take the chance someone could find a way to remove or circumvent them. Not with a fire warlock.”

I twirled the mangled leaf stem between my sap-sticky fingers. All that remained was a ragged spray of veins. “It still seems wrong, to keep her against her will.”

“Maybe. Maybe it’s the lesser evil to keep the Falcons protected here, and not the good I wish it was.” He surged restlessly to his feet and began to pace. “You’ve hit on the core of every argument I have with the colonel. I believe the primary duty of the Falconers is to protect and care for the mage-marked. Or at least, that’s how I want it to be. But nothing I do, no amount of compassion I can bring to my work here, changes the fact that this is a military corps. These are soldiers.” A shriek of laughter rose up from elsewhere in the garden, and he winced. “Even the children.”

“And they have no choice.” That was the part that bothered me, like a splinter under my fingernail. “From the moment they’re born.”

“The mage-marked don’t have much chance to make choices, even if the Falconers never find them.”

Some heavy knowledge burdened his voice. I’d heard tales of all manner of tragedies happening to mages: murdered by superstitious folk, forced to use their powers in unsavory ways, or cast out in fear by their own families. Those without the mage mark could at least hide their abilities; and some did quite well in the open, starting magic shops or finding wealthy patrons. But the weaker magic of those without the mage mark was far less of a temptation or a threat. Perhaps one in a hundred people could manipulate magical energy at all; but without the mage mark, their capacity was limited and they lacked precise control. There was only so much they could do.

The mage-marked were a hundred times again more rare, and could channel far more power, handling it as easily as breathing, thanks to the additional magical dexterity and perception that came with the telltale ring in their eyes. They were human beings, people who loved and dreamed and feared the same as I did, with families and lives of their own. But their power was also a priceless resource, and some saw only that. I could only imagine the sort of awful stories Marcello had seen unfold in his years as a Falconer.

“Marcello.” I hesitated, rolling the question around in my mind to find a way to put it. “Have you ever unleashed your Falcon to… to do harm?”

“No,” he said quietly. “My Falcon is an artificer; she just makes things. So, no. I haven’t had to face that. But after five years in the Falconers, I’ve seen what magic can do. I gave the order to release a vivomancer, who bespelled a lion to kill three brigands in Osta. That was… messy. And I ordered a storm warlock to sink a pirate ship with all hands on deck.” He shook his head. “Magic doesn’t kill cleanly.”

I crumpled the mangled leaf. “I suppose it’s no different from when the Council of Nine passes a judgment of death. I should get used to the idea.”

“Maybe not. Maybe you should never get used to it.” He smiled sheepishly, as if I’d caught him doing something foolish. “The colonel thinks I’m soft. She says I’ll have to toughen up if I want to take over the Falcons someday.”

“And is that what you want?” I tried to picture him commanding the Empire’s most important military unit. I sat in on military councils a couple times a month, out of my mother’s hope I’d learn something; they were full of hard-eyed old men and women, jaded and cold. Marcello had too much warmth and expression in his clean, young face.

But he nodded, with firm resolve. “Yes. There’s no better place from which to champion the Falcons than the top. I’m already second in command of the Mews itself—which sounds like a more important job than it is; I’m mostly in charge of training, since the Mews has never seen combat. But I could do more if I were the colonel.” He smiled, and something moved in my chest at the pain in it. “Besides, for as long as I can remember my father and brother always insisted I’d be a disappointment. I can think of no better way to prove them wrong.”

“Really? Your own family?” The idea seemed foreign and threatening. “I disappoint my mother all the time, but because she expects more of me than I deliver, not less.”

He sank back down onto his lion head. Some old, bitter ache ghosted his eyes. “My brother is the golden child, the heir, born of the first, beloved wife, who died too young. My little sister and I are the unwanted afterthoughts born of the inconvenient second wife who ran off to join the theater and left us behind.”

“That’s cruel. To abandon her children like that.”

Marcello shrugged. “I don’t blame her. Much. My father can be a hard man to live with. There’s a reason I became a Falconer at fourteen. Well, more than one, but getting out of his house was part of it.”

I stared at him. A wistful gravity had drawn his brows down and sobered the lines of his face. Some quality about him had been nagging in the back of my mind since we met, like a piece of a song I’d forgotten. Something I never saw in my mother’s world of carefully chosen words and courtly glamour. I recognized it at last: vulnerability.

For a moment, I couldn’t think of any words that weren’t stupid, and busied myself fiddling with a loose thread on my jacket.

“Marcello,” I asked at last, “what will we do about Zaira?”

He let out a long breath. “We try again tomorrow. It’s the only thing we can do.”

La Contessa pulled me aside in the foyer of our palace, less than a minute after I’d stepped out of my boat on returning home from the Mews.

“It didn’t go well, did it?” she said after one glance at my face.

“She’s not happy with me, Mamma.”

“I want to hear everything. But right now I have a few of the Council here, to discuss intelligence updates. Wait for me in the library; I’m sure you can amuse yourself there.”

“An intelligence meeting?” I frowned. It wasn’t the usual day, which meant something had happened to trigger one. “Does it have to do with my Falcon?”

“Perhaps. I hope not. Now, go to the library, and I’ll join you there afterward.”

“Yes, Mamma.”

She slipped back into the drawing room from which she’d emerged, as if swept once more into the center of intrigue by a powerful current. I turned dutifully toward the library, though after my ill-fated meeting with Zaira and my mother’s ominous pronouncement, I was more in a state of mind to brood than to read.

My mother’s voice floated after me, through the drawing room door: “Back to the matter of Ardence.”

I froze in midstep, as if she’d said my name. Ardence again. And a matter she hoped wouldn’t involve my Falcon.

It couldn’t be good for the city I’d called home for a year to draw such interest from the Council of Nine, whose attention was rarely healthy even when there was no chance of fire-warlock involvement. But before I could hear more, Anzo, one of our older servants, breezed through with a wine tray, casting me a sideways glance as I hesitated in the foyer. I had no legitimate reason to linger; if I was still here when he emerged from the drawing room, he’d shoo me gently but firmly off.

There was a listening post in the library, though. I hurried on my way.

The leather-and-old-pages smell of the library drained the tension out of my shoulders, and my favorite fainting couch beckoned me to sprawl with a good book and order a glass of sweet dessert wine and some biscuits. But instead of succumbing to the pull of my usual shelves of history, science, and magical theory, I made straight for a certain narrow bookcase in the wall the library shared with the drawing room. I hooked my fingers behind a carved vine in the decorative molding and eased open the secret door, careful not to yank too vigorously and spill the books as I’d done once as a child.

The narrow room between the walls held nothing more than a bench with a red velvet cushion, barely wide enough for my hips, and an artifice circle drawn on the wall. The runes and pattern of concentric circles amplified sound coming into the listening post, and reduced it going out.

I settled myself in and shut the door, plunging myself into darkness. The doge’s voice immediately surrounded me.

“—new duke has gone too far. Fractious nobles daydreaming about Ardentine independence is one thing, but if Duke Astor Bergandon himself has levied a tax on Raverran merchants, that’s in direct violation of the Serene Accords. I will not countenance such a brazen challenge to the agreement that forms the foundation of the Empire.”

I gripped the edge of my bench. That didn’t sound good. What was the duke of Ardence thinking? Raverra gave its vassal states almost complete liberty to govern themselves; but the Serene Accords, the pact that defined the fundamental relationship between Raverra and the tributary cities and countries of the Empire, were inviolate.

“This only proves what I’ve been saying. We allow city-states like Ardence far too much license.” That was a new voice, a nasal male tenor: Baron Leodra, who fancied himself my mother’s rival. “The Serene City should take direct command, to put a stop to such nonsense before it can occur.”

“Duke Astor has been granted no more license than his father, or all his Bergandon ancestors before him, who abided by the Serene Accords peacefully for two hundred years.” La Contessa’s tone dismissed Leodra’s suggestion. “The issue isn’t that Ardence rules itself. It’s that this particular duke is an ass.”

“And yet the Serene Envoy to Ardence, your own cousin, requested weeks ago we empower him to overrule Duke Astor.” Leodra’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “I say we take it a step further and remove the duke of Ardence from power entirely.”

“Do you want all our tributary states to rebel?” my mother asked acidly. “Because that’s what will happen if you forcibly remove a sovereign ruler for so little reason. I worked too hard to bring the entire nation of Callamorne into the Empire to lose it over a minor disagreement with a single city. And as for my cousin…” Silk rustled. “Ignazio had a fine rapport with the old duke, and has maintained warm relations with Ardence as Serene Envoy for ten years. However, it seems this new duke is too brash to respond well to Ignazio’s subtle guidance, and fails to understand how severely he has provoked the Serene City. We need a heavier hand at the tiller until Astor Bergandon settles down.”

“You would remove your own cousin from such a coveted post?” The doge’s dry surprise mirrored my own shock. Ignazio—Uncle Ignazio, as I called him—had hosted me during my year in Ardence, and was the one who brewed my elixir. He’d indulged me with gifts of alchemy and history books, and hours of intelligent conversation. I couldn’t imagine he’d be happy to lose his position as the imperial power behind the ducal throne of Ardence.

“Call him home to give him some other honorable title.” I could hear the shrug in my mother’s voice. “Make him the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He’s quite good with numbers.”

“We must respond to Ardence’s treason with decisive punishment, not a new nursemaid,” Baron Leodra objected. “Besides, we already have a Chancellor of the Exchequer. I appointed her last spring.”

“And she’s a dull creature, without flair or imagination, who makes mistakes.” The clink of a glass. “She can be removed.”

“Very well.” The doge’s voice cut across Baron Leodra’s indrawn breath. “We can discuss Ignazio’s replacement as Serene Envoy at tonight’s general meeting of the Council. Do we have any other new information pertinent to the Ardentine situation?”

“One more thing.” La Contessa’s voice dropped, and her tone went grim. “Something that could cause us far more trouble than breaking the Serene Accords, if we don’t counter it soon.”

I strained to listen.

Light fell across me, illuminating the artifice circle on the wall, and the voices went silent. I whirled to find Ciardha standing in the open door, one eyebrow raised in elegant disapproval.

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