Read a sample from THE TETHERED MAGE by Melissa Caruso


I can explain!” I sprang to my feet, banging my head on the low ceiling of the listening post. “I was just—”

Ciardha lifted a finger to her lips. “A Cornaro does not need to explain, Lady. But your mother would be disappointed.”

Shame scalded my neck. “I shouldn’t have eavesdropped.”

“No, Lady. Eavesdropping is a fine tradition of the Raverran elite. You shouldn’t have gotten caught.” She st7epped aside and gestured me out of the secret room. “You need to be more aware of your surroundings, Lady. For your own safety.”

“Ah.” My voice came out thick with embarrassment. “I’ll work on that.”

“Still, La Contessa will be pleased you are taking an interest in politics at last.” Ciardha’s cocked head suggested a silent question mark.

I sank into a chair by the library fireplace. “I’m not so much interested in politics as worried about Ardence.”

Ciardha nodded. “You have friends there.”

“Yes. All my friends from the university.” I laced my fingers and squeezed them together. “My old study partner, Venasha, has a baby. She and her family are at risk from this foolishness.”

Venasha had a theory that new surroundings sparked the mind, so I’d spent hours poring over books with her in all manner of unlikely places: an amulet shop, a boat moored in the River Arden, the university roof. We’d found lacy undergarments up there once, and Venasha had somehow become convinced they belonged to her philosophy professor; I hadn’t been able to look the professor in the eye since.

“Plus Domenic is the duke’s cousin,” I added, “so he may take some of the blame. And Uncle Ignazio, of course.” My shoulders hunched under the memory of my mother casually proposing to strip him of his office. “The doge as much as told me he intends to use my Falcon to threaten anyone who goes against the Serene Empire. So it’s not political. It’s personal.”

Ciardha smiled faintly. “All politics are personal, Lady.”

“I don’t like the idea of being used against my friends.”

“Then, Lady, I have one piece of advice.” Ciardha caught my eyes with her dark ones. “Don’t let them use you.”

“The Grace of Wisdom must hate me, to stick me with such a bunch of idiots.” Zaira faced Marcello and me, arms crossed, in a bare-walled classroom. A half circle of wooden chairs embraced a low, broad stage at one end of the room. Marcello and I had taken seats with one empty chair between us, but Zaira remained standing.

“If you will deign to talk to us nonetheless,” Marcello said wearily, “we can finish the interview regulations require us to conduct with new Falcons, and move on to the training for which Lady Amalia has come to the Mews. I only have an hour before I need to take a boat to the mainland to investigate an accusation of cattle cursing.”

Zaira snorted. “Good to know I rank below cows for you.”

Oh dear. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised we were off to a bad start, but he’d stumbled straight into that one.

Marcello looked as if he might argue, but sighed and let it pass. “So. Zaira, welcome to the Falcons. Our first priority after assuring your safety is taking care of your family. Is there anyone who might be worried about you?”

“You asked me this before.” Her face was a locked gate, hard and blank.

“And you didn’t answer. So I’m asking again.”

Zaira’s shoulders moved in the barest shrug. “I don’t have family.”

She said the word as if it were a particularly filthy social disease with which she disavowed all connection.

Marcello’s voice softened. “Even family whom you don’t care for, or whom you think don’t care for you?”

“No one.” Zaira clipped the words off with utter finality.

“Friends?” Marcello pressed. “Business associates? It’s important for us to know about your connections. Not only do we want to do right by you but we want to make sure Raverra’s enemies can’t use them against you.”

Zaira made a show of peering at Marcello’s face. “Your black eye is fading. If you keep asking me the same question over and over, I can refresh it for you.”

Marcello winced. “All right. How about enemies?”

“Orthys,” she said immediately. “May the Demon of Corruption rot his poxy bowels.”

“His men who attacked you said something about an indenture contract,” I remembered.

“The old bilge rat claims he has a piece of paper that means my mother sold me to him, and I have to work for him.” She showed her teeth. “But I don’t have a mother. And I can’t read. And paper burns.”

“Ah.” I digested this compelling legal argument. “Well, I’m glad he didn’t get his hands on you.”

Zaira shot me a contemptuous glare. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking you saved me from anything. A jess is worse than any damned indenture contract.”

Marcello passed a hand across his eyes. But he didn’t rise to her bait. “So you were serving out this indenture contract to Orthys, and you ran away?”

“He never had me in the first place. I was free as the seagulls who crap on the Imperial Palace until you jailers found me.” She spat on the floor. Marcello winced at the practiced smack of it striking the polished boards. I looked away. “I never heard of this contract until five or six years ago. My dear mother didn’t stick around after I was born to tell me about it. Orthys comes through town every few months, so I have to dodge his scum when his ship is in port.”

“He’s a smuggler?” I guessed.

“I’m sure he’s a fine, upstanding, tax-paying citizen of the Empire like everyone else around here who tries to drag a girl off against her will.”

Marcello ignored that. “So who raised you, if you have no family and didn’t grow up working for Orthys?”

Zaira flung herself down in a chair at last, as far from us as possible, with an attitude of exhaustion. “No one. It doesn’t matter. Grace of Mercy’s tits, can we skip my life story? Once there was a girl named Zaira, who lived just fine in the Tallows until some stuck-up morons shut her up in the Mews and bored her to death. The end.”

“All right.” Marcello sighed. “There are more questions I’m supposed to ask you, but we can move on to training instead.”

Zaira straightened, her eyes glittering. “Oh? You’ll have to loose my fire, if you want me to practice using it.”

I glanced at Marcello. That sounded like a terrible idea, especially when she said it so eagerly.

He leaned on his elbows, meeting Zaira’s gaze. “Before we get to any practical training, we have to first build a partnership between you and your Falconer.”

“Partnership,” she said flatly. “Is that what you call it?”

“An equal partnership,” Marcello affirmed. “Your Falconer can’t give you orders. Only your superior officers can do that. Some of whom, I will point out, are Falcons.”

“Oh, so I suppose they can just order their Falconers to come with them whenever they want to leave the Mews?” Zaira raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“They don’t need to order anyone. They can just leave when they want, and their Falconers accompany them. Because they trust each other.” Marcello put his hand over his heart, straining forward as if he could will Zaira to relent and believe him. “The first thing a Falcon and Falconer must learn—the first and most important—is trust. That is the foundation on which any partnership stands. Without it, we can’t move on.”

Zaira’s lip curled. “I suppose now you’ll expect me to sit here and listen to a lecture on how you can’t count on a Tallows brat like me.”

Marcello’s brows dug a groove between them, and for a moment I thought he’d argue with her. But he shook his head. “No. I’m saying I can’t expect you to trust someone who brought you here by force. Not yet. We have to earn your trust. By the time we’ve done that, we’ll already know we can rely on you as well.”

“Well, you’re out of luck, then. Because I don’t trust anyone.” Zaira stood and turned her back on us, staring out the window at the sea.

“You could learn,” I said.

“This lesson is over.” Her voice was flat and hard as a dagger blade. “If you want trust, go buy it in the market with your mountain of gold, rich brat. Mine isn’t for sale.”

Out in the hall, Marcello slumped against the wall like a sail when the wind dies. “She’s impossible. I don’t know what to do.”

“You must have had this problem before.” I hesitated a moment, then leaned my back against the fine oak paneling beside him. “Surely not every Falcon comes eagerly to the Mews.”

“No, they come as children. It’s very different. Our challenge is getting the parents convinced this is best for their child, and settling whether the family will move into the Mews too, or if they’ll just visit each other.” A shadow passed through his eyes. “Or sometimes the child has no family, but if that’s the case, usually we’re rescuing them from a situation bad enough they’re thrilled to be here. I’ve never had to deal with a new, uncooperative adult Falcon.”

“Never, in five years?”

“The mage mark is usually fully formed by four years old. It’s too hard to hide, and we find them, if someone else doesn’t first. But you’ve seen her eyes—her mage mark is black, and you can barely make it out. She must have hidden it all these years.”

I let out a long breath. “That’s why she doesn’t have anyone close to her. No friends, no partners, no lovers. Because they would meet her eyes.”

“Grace of Mercy.” He brought a hand to his face. “That’s awful.”

“It sounds like a terrible way to live,” I agreed.

“I don’t know how we overcome that to build a bond between you.” He gave me a rueful half smile. One dimple formed a comma on his cheek, and suddenly the space between us seemed too narrow and too warm. “Especially with you only here for an hour or two at a time.”

I wanted to protest, but it was the truth. I drummed my fingers against the wall, turning the problem over in my mind.

“I should take her out of the Mews with me.” It was a daunting notion.

He ran his fingers through his hair, a worried gesture. “Yes. Graces help us, I think you should.”


was not a word that came up in casual conversation. But I found myself nonetheless terrified it would somehow slip out.

It didn’t help my peace of mind that Zaira kept glaring around the market in a manner suggesting frustrated disappointment that nothing was bursting into flame. With canopied wooden stalls overflowing with fruit and vegetables and thick crowds moving between them, there were a disturbing number of flammable objects about. I supposed I wouldn’t have to worry about unleashing Zaira to burn Ardence if she burned Raverra first.

“This is stupid,” Zaira grumbled, fingering a cluster of honeyfruit. The merchant glanced nervously at her scarlet uniform as he haggled with another customer. “I don’t want to shop for moldy vegetables. I want to go talk to the ragpicker in the Tallows.”

The vegetables were far from moldy. I didn’t come to the produce market often myself—my interactions with food tended to begin when it arrived prepared at my table—but the lush greens and vibrant reds of the bounty around me shone bright as precious jewels. Scents of peach and fig teased me, and the calls of the merchants made a lively music. The Temple of Bounty loomed benevolently over the square, its columns carved with fruit and flowers; shrinekeepers passed out the merchants’ leftover grain and bruised fruit to the poor on its steps.

I had to make this work, no matter how grumpy Zaira was. I had no doubt my mother and the doge would both receive reports of this outing.

“I did ask the lieutenant if we could go find this ragpicker of yours.” I glanced at Marcello, who hovered a few paces away. His eyes shifted from me to Zaira. He’d been watching us closely all morning. “He felt we should start with something simpler.”

Zaira snorted. “You mean he thinks that if we go to the Tallows, I’ll knife you both and dump you in a canal.”

“Well, perhaps.”

“I notice you didn’t have any trouble overruling him when he asked you to wear a uniform.” The black ring around her pupils made Zaira’s stare even more pointed.

I glanced down at the golden falcon’s-head brooch pinned to my shoulder, the only concession I’d allowed poor Marcello. “On that question, my mother was his invisible opponent. In the matter of the ragpicker, she was his invisible ally.”

Zaira lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “Your mother can turn invisible, now?”

“Of course not! I meant—”

“I know what you meant. You meant you’ve got jelly for a spine and always do what your mamma says.” She jerked her head at Marcello. “And Lieutenant Black Eye over there isn’t any better.”

“That’s not true!” I almost added, If you met my mother, you’d understand. But she might take it as an invitation, and I wasn’t sure I could survive those two in the same room.

Zaira turned away from the fruit stand, boredom in the slouch of her shoulders. “Of course it’s true. Or we’d be in the Tallows right now, talking to the ragpicker. Come on, I see someone selling meat on a stick.”

Forcing my annoyed frown smooth, I stepped up beside her so I wasn’t left trailing behind like a servant. Marcello moved in to walk at her other side. When Zaira picked out three hot skewers of chicken and mushrooms, Marcello paid for them from a purse embroidered with the winged horse of Raverra.

An Ardentine accent in the crowd jolted my memory, spilling other images of Ardence from the cauldron of worry that had simmered in the back of my mind since I overheard the intelligence briefing. The old men fishing off the Sunset Bridge, who told Venasha and me grisly stories of the Battle of the Arden, when the imperial infantry had lured Vaskandar into a deadly trap during the Three Years’ War. The heartbreakingly perfect taste and cloud-light texture of the half-penny summernut pastry from the corner bakery across from the university library. Throwing coins in the Wishing Fountain outside the Temple of the Grace of Luck—Venasha had wished for her baby to be a girl, and I had wished for Domenic to notice me. Neither of us had gotten what we wished for, but were happy enough with the results anyway.

My sunny bedroom at the Serene Envoy’s Palace, with its window overlooking the garden. Ignazio would be moving out now, to make room for the new envoy. One with a heavier hand at the tiller, whatever that meant.

Nothing good, I suspected, for the people and places I loved.

“Be careful,” Marcello murmured, pulling me back to Raverra and the bustling market, his breath tickling my ear. “There may be pickpockets in the crowd.”

Willing myself not to flush never worked. “Of course.”

“Our charge possibly among them.”

I looked more sharply at Zaira. Even in the crowded market, most people left an uneasy space around her bright Falcon’s uniform. A brocaded patrician couple eyed me as well, from a distance; the woman whispered to the man behind her hand, no doubt spreading gossip about the Cornaro Falcon. My mother would like that. Or they could be commenting on my breeches, which my mother would like less, but at least my coat was impeccably fashionable this time, covered in baroque gold embroidery over rich green velvet.

Not everyone gave Zaira a wide berth, however. She brushed by a shawled gentlewoman whose dreamy attention stayed locked on the mounds of golden apricots she was perusing.

A moment later, I noticed a dark lump tucked into Zaira’s hand.

Marcello lunged for her arm, turning it to reveal a small leather purse.

“Give it back,” he hissed.

Zaira yanked her arm free. She threw the stolen purse into Marcello’s chest. “Do it yourself.”

No one in the crowd had noticed anything yet, but from the stubborn lines of Marcello’s shoulders and Zaira’s jaw, this could explode into a full-blown scene any minute. The last thing I needed was rumors flying around that the Cornaro Falcon was a thief.

“I’ll do it.” I scooped the purse out of Marcello’s hands before anyone could object.

I hurried to the lady Zaira had jostled, who now contemplated purple-tipped tartgrass, and tapped her shoulder.

“Excuse me. I think you dropped this.”

The woman gasped in recognition, and she heaped such profuse thanks on me I had trouble disentangling myself. By the time I made it back to Zaira and Marcello, they were deep in argument.

“Maybe you should have thought about whether you wanted someone like me in this uniform before you forced me to wear it,” Zaira snapped.

Marcello turned to me, grimacing. “My apologies, Lady Cornaro. The last thing I intended was to embarrass or endanger you. We should return to the Mews.”

Zaira’s dark eyes flickered, and she tensed. I had the impression she was ready to bolt off into the crowd.

Marcello must have thought the same, because he lifted his hand, and all at once four large men surrounded Zaira. A moment ago, they had been part of the crowd: farmers and workmen. They made no move to threaten her. One pretended to point out the spires of the Temple of Bounty to another, while two compared purchased fruit. But they stood between her and any possible escape, poised and ready on the balls of their feet.

Zaira laughed. “So, I’m not a prisoner, am I?”

“Apparently you should be, given your behavior,” Marcello retorted.

“I did it to draw them out.” Zaira surveyed the four disguised soldiers, hands on her hips. “And it worked. Though I’d spotted three out of four. Might want to work on that.”

I’d had no idea about any of them. I turned to Marcello, biting back anger. “Lieutenant Verdi, I thought we were here to build trust. Was this necessary?”

He winced. “For your safety, my lady, yes.”

My hands curled tight at my sides. I didn’t trust myself to speak.

Zaira had no such compunctions. She rolled her eyes. “Yes, because I’m so terrifying, especially with your stupid jewelry keeping my fires out.”

“I’m sorry it came to this.” I fought to keep my tone level. “Perhaps we can try again soon, with more honesty on all sides.”

“I’ve got something better than honesty now,” Zaira said. “Truth. Now I know how to value all your talk about trust and partnership.”

“And I have your measure as well,” Marcello replied through his teeth. “Now I know how you survived in the Tallows.”

He didn’t say the word, but it hung silent in the air between them. Thief.

We took two boats back to the Mews. Marcello and I rode in one, and Zaira and the disguised guards in the other. Marcello must be worried she’d try to heave us out into the lagoon if we sat with her. By the glower on her face, I couldn’t blame him.

He remained silent at first, as the uniformed oarsman guided us down the Imperial Canal, always keeping Zaira’s boat at our side. Other craft gave the red-and-gold boats space, passengers and oarsmen casting dubious glances at Zaira’s uniform. No one wanted to tangle oars with a Falcon.

After today, I didn’t much fancy her company myself. Why couldn’t I have put the jess on a nice, willing artificer or alchemist, who could collaborate with me on magical research? But here I was, tethered for life to a surly pickpocket of a fire warlock, with whom the only thing I shared in common was that someday we might bring disaster upon a city I cared for.

“I didn’t handle that well, did I,” Marcello said at last, his brows drawn down in worry.

“No. You didn’t.” I wasn’t sure what angered me more: that I hadn’t known about the guards or that they’d been necessary.

He sighed. “I shouldn’t have kept the guards a secret from either of you. I’m sorry. I hoped Zaira wouldn’t notice, and feel less like a prisoner, but it backfired.”

“What were you so afraid of, anyway? Did you know Zaira was a thief?”

“No.” Marcello glanced down into his lap. His rapier hilt and the butt of a flintlock pistol flanked his hips. It must have taken a fair amount of practice to master boarding a boat with the former. “The soldiers weren’t to keep her in line. They were there to protect you.”

I stared. “Me?”

“Both of you.”

“Marcello, I go out in the city without escort all the time. It’s insulting to pretend I need four guards—four secret guards—in a public market in broad daylight.”

“I know, my lady. It’s excessive.” He rubbed the back of his head. “But your safety is my first priority. If anything happened to you…” He trailed off, glancing away at the canal.

“Yes?” The end of that sentence mattered. I willed him to finish it.

“Well, for one thing, I’d probably lose my position.” He laughed, but it was a stiff sound, not his usual free and easy one. “I can only imagine what they’d do to me if I allowed harm to come to the Cornaro heir. And Zaira’s security is critical to the Empire. The doge is after the colonel already, asking if our new fire warlock is safe and sound and ready for duty. And the colonel’s on me to let me know it’s my head if she isn’t. If anything happened to either of you, at best I’d be heading back home to tell my father and brother they were right, and I failed.”

My lips tightened against his words as if they were sour wine. “I see.”

For a moment, silence lay between us. It was an uncomfortable thing, heavy and rough, like a wet wool blanket.

Finally, he met my eyes. “Also, my lady, I consider you a friend. If it isn’t too presumptuous.”

Something eased in my shoulders. “Not at all.”

This time, the quiet that fell on our boat was softer, punctuated by the working of the oar and the rush of the prow through the deep green waters of the lagoon.

“Well,” he said at last, “at least you and Zaira can agree on one thing.”


His mouth quirked. “That a certain lieutenant is an infuriating fool.”

“Only sometimes.” I smiled, so he wouldn’t take it too much to heart. “Most of the time, I think we’d still disagree about you most vehemently.”

The last of my anger slipped away as the Imperial Canal fell behind us and our oarsman rowed us toward Raptor’s Isle. But something else crept in after it, growing with the inexorable chill of the shadows that swallowed the canals each day at sunset.

The doge is after the colonel already, asking if our new fire warlock is safe and sound and ready for duty, he’d said.

Ready for duty.

For Marcello, that word meant following his colonel’s orders and keeping his Falcons safe. For me, it meant fulfilling my social obligations and learning to govern the Empire. But for Zaira, duty meant destruction and death.

She was such a skinny thing, hunched grumpily in her boat, glaring across the water at the Mews. It seemed impossible she could contain so much fire.

All I wanted on returning home from our disastrous outing in the market was to skulk off to my room and bury myself under the covers with my Muscati spread across my knees, consoling myself with artifice theory and perhaps a rosemary biscuit. But Old Anzo waited for me in the foyer, and diverted me from my path to the stairs with a discreet cough.

“La Contessa wants you in the drawing room, Lady Amalia.”

Foreboding lodged in my throat like an olive pit. The drawing room door was closed. That meant Council business.

“Should I change first, Anzo?”

He shook his head, sympathy softening the motion. “I believe she wants you now, my lady.”

Perhaps she merely wanted to ask me how my day had been, and the drawing room door was closed because she had a headache. I straightened my lace cuffs and took a deep breath.

“All right. I’m ready.”

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