Faryn twisted her copper-colored braid around her hand as she stared at the auditorium clock. Professor Valerian’s lecture should have started forty-five minutes ago, and if tonight’s crime was to go as planned, Faryn couldn’t afford to run late. She considered slipping out, but this was the last chance she’d have to hear Shaun Valerian lecture before she graduated.
The restless stir of students hushed as magic shimmered behind the podium. A moment later, a young man materialized, carpet bag in hand. Dropping his luggage and kicking it beneath the podium, he brushed his tawny hair out of his eyes. “Sorry I’m late. I got held up by a nest of sky wyverns.”
His bright hazel eyes swept the room, and for one moment, Faryn could have sworn they rested on her front row seat. She had to be imagining things, but a responsive smile curled her full lips anyway. Of course, if Shaun Valerian ever actually noticed her, she’d probably implode with sheer ecstasy.
Digging a sheaf of battered notes out of his back pocket, he said, “Today we’re talking about wild magic—what causes it, what its effects can be, and whether or not we should work to tame it.”
Faryn opened her notebook, but it was only camouflage. She had no intention of wasting the hour looking down at notes, when she could be gazing at the man behind the podium.
Shaun began, “Wild magic is the name we give to natural confluences of magions. Usually, these sparks of power remain inert and spread evenly throughout the atmosphere, unless channeled by a creature with essence—like me.” He stabbed his pointer finger into the air and a line of fire appeared. He flicked his wrist and the line twisted itself into a glowing caricature of his own face. The auditorium rumbled with laughter.
Faryn’s mind drifted away from the mechanics of magic. If the academy administration expected her to pay attention, they should hire less attractive teachers. Older ones, for sure. Shaun didn’t look like he could be more than twenty-five. Only six years older than me. It would also help if he didn’t transport straight onto the stage with the smell of adventure wafting off him. She wondered whether he could give her any tips for her burglary, and then her mind drifted to the rare nest he’d so casually mentioned. She’d give her eyeteeth to see wyverns on the verge of hatching.
She slipped into a daydream where Shaun took her to see the nest. They’d watch as the hatchlings exploded out of their air-woven eggs, ballooning to ravenous adult size in minutes. The forest would go up in flames as the starving dragons drove out game for their first meal. Sweeping her up in his arms, Shaun would transport her to safety, accidentally leaving his shirt behind and—
Faryn snapped back into the present and realized that a pair of brilliant hazel eyes held her own. There was no doubt—Shaun Valerian was leaning over his podium, looking right at her. His intent gaze made her feel caught in the act, her daydream exposed.
A scarlet blush exploded across her face. Cursing the fair skin that went with her red hair, Faryn took deep breaths, trying to think of anything but a shirtless Professor Valerian, and completely failed to cool her cheeks.
Valerian was still staring at her, a quizzical look on his face even as he continued to speak.
If she stayed, she’d look like she was on fire for the rest of the lecture. Good thing she had to go anyway. Clutching her notebook, she stood and hurried toward a side door. On the threshold, she risked a look back. Valerian had paused to watch her exit. After a horrified moment, Faryn realized everybody else was staring, too. She ran.
By the time she reached the front steps of the Academy for Thaumaturgical Study and Practice (Outskirts campus), her face had returned to its normal color. He’s noticed me now, she thought, and wanted to crawl into a hole for the rest of her life. At least she was graduating in the fall, never again in danger of looking Shaun Valerian in the eye.
Faryn took a deep breath and shoved the humiliating episode out of her mind. Lengthening her stride, she headed for the gates.
She had a bag to pack, a train to catch, and a factory to rob.
Cora stabbed her pointer finger through the air, channeling her essence to attract magions. She muttered, “Bind,” as she willed the little sparks of power in the air around her into a spell line that she twisted around her piled ebony curls. Her hair enchantment complete, she examined her reflection in her dressing table mirror, trying to see her pale face with its green eyes and her slender figure dressed in gauzy pink as a stranger might. As a stranger was about to do.
Tonight, she would meet Damorin Ardaya for the first time. Tomorrow, she would marry him.
Peering into the mirror told her she’d been eating too many strawberry munches, making her gown the tiniest bit tight. Mercy be on her if her future mother-in-law noticed.
Spinning away from her reflection, she darkened the room lights and crossed to her window. The family mansion was built atop a hill, and the lights of Estoria City lay below her like a beach of tiny jewels, glittering so intensely they blotted out the stars. She would miss this view.
Pressing her forehead against the cool glass, she reminded herself that she needed this marriage. When her grandfather died, she would be the last Demestheln, guardian of a vault full of some of the most powerful magical artifacts in Estoria. The jackals were gathering, and she needed an ally. Damorin Ardaya, head of his House, seventh skillhouse magi, and youngest Ambassador of Magic ever, was powerful enough to defend her. Her grandfather also swore Damorin was a good man, and goodness was rare amid the politics of the Council’s highest levels.
But in the darkness of her room, Cora admitted to herself that she wanted more than an ally, more than power, more even, than goodness. She wanted companionship. She wanted a family. She wanted to find more in her marriage bed than the required heirs.
Jalwa help her, she wanted love.
“It’s time to go down.”
Cora turned and found her grandfather, Stephanus Demestheln, standing in the doorway, his smooth silver hair glinting in the hall light. “So soon?”
Her voice must have quavered because he stepped into the room, flicking a finger to turn the lights back up. He examined her face. “Are you all right?”
“I’m …” Terrified, she thought. “… nervous. I wish Ambassador Ardaya could have returned sooner.”
“My dear, you’d better practice calling him Damorin.”
Cora forced a little smile. “It’s odd to think of becoming joined to someone I’ve never met.”
She shivered even as the words left her lips because she wasn’t just marrying Damorin—since he was seventh skillhouse, the highest rank in the Council of Magic, she had to bond to him. Most marriages were limited to vows. Their wedding would center around the spell that would link her essence to his, connecting them for the rest of their lives.
Stephanus sighed and took her hands. “I know. Matters in Qingshan became very complicated, but … well, you’ll know more about it than I do by tomorrow night.”
By marrying Damorin and bonding to his essence, Cora would share his Council rank and his security clearance, receiving an instant promotion from fifth skillhouse to seventh. She was too practical to deny the advantages, but part of her wished she could have earned it through her own research and accomplishments.
“Such mystery,” she said, trying to sound light.
Stephanus didn’t smile. Instead he dropped her hands and shut the door. He stepped close. “After the ceremony tomorrow, tell Damorin about the Ravek Valley.”
The blood drained from Cora’s face. “You said we would never speak of that.”
“Things are happening that—” He broke off, obviously on the verge of saying too much. “You’ll know tomorrow. I think it could be important. You came back, Cora. No one has come back for a thousand years.”
“Only because you caught me,” she said. “He’s seventh skillhouse. He could have me arrested.”
“I’m seventh skillhouse,” Stephanus reminded her.
“You’re my family.”
“He will be. You can trust Damorin.”
She lowered her eyes. “I don’t know him. He hasn’t been a voluminous correspondent.” Three letters. He’d sent her three letters. No, he’d sent her two, and his secretary had sent her one, informing her that the ambassador’s return to Estoria was delayed until the day before the wedding.
“I do know him. I watched him grow up. Trust me, Cora.”
She patted his arm. “Of course, I do.”
Stephanus kissed her cheek, pulled open the door, hesitated. “Are you certain you don’t want your cousin here tomorrow? It’s not too late. I would be happy to arrange a transport—”
Cora shook her head. “I’m sure Faryn has other plans by now. I wouldn’t want her to feel obligated, and I … I don’t think she would enjoy herself very much.” She took Stephanus’s arm and led him out of the room before he could ask more questions. She didn’t want him to realize the truth.
They walked down the stairs arm in arm, through the great hall with its vaulted arches and mosaics, toward the large salon where the chatter of the wedding party made a bright hum. She tugged on her grandfather’s arm, halting their progress. “Could I meet Damorin before going in?”
“I should have thought of that.” He squeezed her hand. “Wait in the library. I’ll bring Damorin and Amara when they arrive.”
Cora could have done without her almost mother-in-law being there, but it was still better than meeting her betrothed in front of a room full of people. Giving Stephanus a grateful smile, she hurried toward the library, welcoming the thought of a final moment of solitude. But when she pushed open the door, she found a tall stranger leaning against the mantelpiece. He turned as she entered, and Cora couldn’t help gasping. She knew that strong jawline, the deep-set, gray eyes, the dark hair that fell over his forehead in a disciplined wave. She’d looked at his portrait every one of the dozen times she’d been in the Ardaya mansion. “You’re taller than I expected,” she told her bridegroom, but what she meant was that he was even more handsome in person. A warm blush lighted her cheeks.
He smiled but looked puzzled. Of course he didn’t recognize her. Why should he? Cora asked herself, squashing a flash of disappointment. She never had sent him her picture. She’d been waiting for him to ask.
She cleared her dry throat. “I’m Cora.” She paused. When he didn’t say anything, she added, “We’re getting married tomorrow.”
Something dark flickered across his face. Dismay? Disappointment? But it disappeared beneath a repetition of the polite smile.
“Magi Cora, I apologize again for arriving so late. It was unavoidable. I know my absence must have inconvenienced your preparations.”
Cora flinched. Damorin’s speech sounded exactly like the polished, hard phrases of his letters. His use of formal address only made it worse. Did he expect her to call him “Ambassador”?
Trying to make her smile warm, she stepped forward and held out her hand. “I didn’t mind. I only wish we’d had a little time to get to know each other.”
He took her hand and placed a swift kiss on her knuckles, ending the contact almost before it began. Cora pressed her rejected hand against the folds of her skirt.
He said, “We’ll be together the rest of our lives. A few weeks more or less before the wedding won’t make any difference.”
The door swung open and Lady Amara Ardaya entered the room, followed by Stephanus. His eyes brightened. “I see the two of you found each other.”
Cora waited to see how her grandfather responded to her future husband’s frigid style, but to her surprise, Damorin’s expression lightened with pleasure as he stepped forward with his hand extended. “How are you, Stephanus?”
The elder man ignored the hand and pulled Damorin into an embrace. “Well enough, considering you’re about to take my best companion from me.”
Bewildered by the change in her betrothed, Cora looked away and saw Amara Ardaya’s face. The woman looked murderous, her mouth pinched into a thin line and her clenched fists not quite hidden by the velvet folds of her skirt.
Amara caught Cora’s gaze and immediately smoothed her expression. Tilting her head, she examined Cora with eyes the same clear gray as her son’s and said, “That’s not one of your new dresses, is it? It seems a little snug.”
Cora was so used to swallowing Amara’s barbed comments that she barely felt the sting. She only thought she’d done the right thing in not inviting Faryn.
Stephanus waved a hand, and a salver with four flutes of Caladoner sparkle wine appeared on the library table. “To new beginnings,” he said, when they all held a glass.
Cora held up her share of the swirling gold and rose liquid. “New beginnings,” she murmured. But as she clicked her glass against those of her future family, she saw only the old life that was ending.
Dear Squincher Turd,
You are more of a beast than the larats chained to your mill. This is your last warning: Stop the animals’ suffering or I will write to Fringe City Fanfare and expose you.
You better believe I’m sincere,
Magi Faryn Montphish
That was the last of several letters Faryn had directed to Simius Slagle, president of Slagle’s Finer Flours. Each had asked for better working conditions for larats, and all had been ignored until she’d threatened to go to the newspapers. Slagle had then informed her that unless she stopped she—and her father—would regret it.
Faryn pulled a hairpin from the braid tucked beneath her black knit hat and inserted one of its stiff prongs into the lock of the Finer Flours factory paddock. “This is what you get for threatening me, Slagle,” she muttered. After a moment of judicious wiggling, the hairpin caught the tumblers and the lock snapped open. Faryn caught her breath, but the night watchman was patrolling the other side of the factory. He wouldn’t be back this way for at least half an hour.
Regaining her nerve, she pushed the gate wide open. She darted across the open space to the dark stable. Even with the floor-to-ceiling double doors rolled back, she gagged on the stench as she penetrated the building. “Apparently the honest businessman can’t spare a couple of rupins for clean straw,” she muttered, coming to the last stall on the row.
A larat slumbered in the corner, balanced on its four broad feet, the muscular hind legs looking out of proportion to the slender front ones. Faryn opened the stall and made a low, clucking noise. The larat started awake and looked around, head swiveling on its long, slender neck and its large eyes gleaming in a narrow face covered with curly wool. Patchy wool. Even in the faint light, Faryn could see the bald spots that were the result of starvation and abuse. Tears burned at her eyes, and she pinched the bridge of her nose as hard as she could. Stop it, you crybaby. Now is not the time.
Forcing the tears back, she pulled a sugar lump from her pocket. “Come on, fella.” The larat, more used to blows than coaxing, approached cautiously. After it lipped the sugar from her palm, it let her scratch it under the chin. “Come on then,” Faryn said, leading it into the aisle before she repeated the process with the animal on the opposite side.
Fifteen minutes later, twenty larats clustered behind her. They spread word of her coming down the row, and by the time she got to the end, they were poking their heads over the stall doors, eager for their treats.
The twenty-first stall held the grand matriarch of the flock. Unlike her neighbors, she did not stick her head out in grateful eagerness. She stood majestically in the center of the stall, waiting. “Hello, grandmother,” Faryn said respectfully, offering double handfuls of sugar lumps.
The old larat lipped them thoughtfully, examining Faryn first with one eye and then the other.
“With your permission, I’d like to take your family for a midnight run, one that might get you out of here for good.” Faryn stepped alongside the larat and placed a hand at the base of her neck. “May I?”
The larat licked her lips, snorted, and knelt so that Faryn could climb on.
“Yes!” cheered Faryn, gripping with her knees. With a sharp whistle to the rest of the flock, she bounded out of the stable, across the paddock, and into the open field beyond. The other twenty larats followed, their hind legs propelling them forward in long, graceful leaps.
Faryn had hoped to cover at least half the distance between the factory and the nearest suburb, but they were only a quarter of the way when the night breeze carried an angry shout to her ears. Groaning, she bent over the larat’s neck and pleaded, “Hurry, Grandmother. If we don’t make the mayor’s lawn before they catch us, it will all be for nothing.”
The larat increased her pace, and the manicured hedge-wall of the Silver Lake subdivision was within sight by the time Faryn saw the shadows of pursuers behind the flock. Despite her head start, they were gaining fast—their grain-fed horses tore up the turf, while her larats were so malnourished and exhausted that their pace already lagged.
“A little farther, grandmother,” Faryn pleaded. “A hop over the wall, two streets, and we’re there.”
She felt the elderly larat gather herself, and they sailed over the hedge with inches to spare.
“Well done!” Faryn cheered, then winced as crashing shrubbery signaled that not all the larats had cleared the barrier.
They covered a block, then two, and now she heard iron-shod hooves ringing against the street stones. Slagle’s guards would be on her in another minute. It didn’t matter. Lights were flashing on along both sides of the street, sleepy residents awakened by the thunderous passing of the flock.
One final burst of speed brought them to the largest, grandest home in the community, with a prime lake-side view. Galloping onto the perfectly manicured lawn, she whispered, “Good luck, grandmother,” and threw herself onto the soft turf. She rolled twice and bounded to her feet, already running.
“There he is!” One of the mounted men had seen her and turned his horse in her direction.
Behind her, the mansion’s door flew open, and the famous tones of Fringe City’s mayor boomed across the lawn. “What in Jalwa’s name is going on?”
Faryn ducked under a larat staggering with weariness, and then hopped a hedge. She wished she could risk staying and explaining how Slagle’s larats were dying from overwork and slow starvation, but the mayor would have to figure it out on his own. The hoofbeats drew closer.
Desperate, Faryn took flying leaps over two flower beds, barely skirted a birdbath, and leapt up a set of porch steps into a deep doorway, hoping the shadows were enough to hide her. She should have brought her fencing blades.
She fought to quiet her ragged breathing, to be silent and still. The next moment, a hard hand grabbed her shoulder. Another pulled the black cap from her head. Her long braid fell over her shoulder.
Faryn sensed the brief tension of magions gathering, and then a small ball of fauxfire blossomed. Faryn gaped at the face looming above her own. “Professor Valerian?”
He scowled at her. “You! You ran out in the middle of my lecture today. Hasn’t anyone ever taught you about public decorum?”
Faryn winced, but this was no time for embarrassment. “Please, Professor, you have to hide me. If those men find me …” She gasped as hoof beats echoed down the street.
Valerian glanced from her to the street, then shoved her down behind the ornamental shrubs that lined the right side of his porch. Faryn crouched gratefully behind the cover, listening as the horses clopped slowly up the street, then stopped.
“I’m sure he ran this way,” one voice called, and then boots marched up the front walk.
“Excuse me, sir, but have you seen a suspicious looking man run past here? He was wearing all black, including a hat.”
Faryn glanced up and saw Valerian’s hand tuck the black knit hat into the pocket of his long duster.
“I haven’t. I just came outside to see what all the hullaballoo was about.”
Before Faryn’s pursuer could reply, there came a soft slip slap, like bedroom slippers. A shrill voice on the other side of the shrub cried, “Really, this is enough! You have been warned, sir. You have been warned on multiple occasions, and now you do this! Larats running wild through the streets!”
“They aren’t mine, Madam Divalawn,” Valerian answered, but the voice continued as though she hadn’t heard him.
“Strange magic at all hours of the day and night, no respect for the rules or the peace of your neighbors. Have you no decency, sir? Have you no sense of public decorum?”
Faryn bit her lip to hold back a laugh as the professor was hit by the same scolding he’d given her.
“The larats aren’t mine!” Valerian shouted. The complaining voice silenced. “However,” he continued more calmly, “I believe this gentleman can help you. Perhaps you should take your conversation in the direction of the mayoral mansion. The disturbance seems to be coming from over there.”
“Oooh,” moaned Madam Divalawn, and then she snapped, “Very well. But don’t think I’ve forgotten you owe the homeowner’s association 3,500 rupins in fines. And you, explain while we walk. If I find that you have willfully broken the regulations …” Her voice faded into the distance, the boot steps following.
“All clear,” Valerian said. He opened his front door. “You’d better come in.”
“No, thank you,” Faryn said, backing toward the steps. “I have to catch a train.”
Valerian grabbed her arm, and despite herself, a thrill ran up Faryn’s spine. “Let me rephrase: If you don’t explain yourself right now, I’ll turn you over to the merciless Madam Divalawn.”
Faryn grimaced and preceded him through the door. She couldn’t help looking around curiously once inside, however. Shaun Valerian had held an appointment at the Outskirts campus of the Academy for two years, but he had been gone for most of that time, pursuing research abroad and showing up only twice a year to give his required lectures.
The house stood bare of any personal touches, and the furniture looked as though it had been purchased as a lot and left where the movers had dumped it. There was a peculiar smell in the air—pungent spice and dust. Not ordinary household dust, more like …
“Are you all right?”
Faryn realized she’d been sniffing loudly and straightened her face. “I’m fine.”
Valerian pointed a finger at her. “Explain.”
Faryn, with a desperate feeling that nothing but the truth would suffice, plunged in. “Something had to be done for the larats. It’s disgraceful the way he treats them, and nobody seems to care, even though there are laws against the exploitation of magical creatures—”
“Larats aren’t classified as MCs,” Valerian interrupted.
“They ought to be. The only reason they were excluded from the law was because they don’t respond to a basic revelation spell. But if, as Zoologist Moreau speculates, their essence activates only when it encounters wild magic events, such as are common in their native habitat, they wouldn’t.”
Valerian’s hazel eyes crinkled with interest. “But it’s impossible to create a controlled wild—” He broke off and frowned. “That’s beside the point. Who’s mistreating larats?”
“Simius Slagle,” Faryn said with loathing. “I warned him if he didn’t reform, I’d go public, and then he threatened to burn down my father’s carpet warehouse, which is why I’ve got to make that train to New Caladon at the west side station, because I left on it and everybody thinks I’m still on it, and if they find I’m not, then I won’t have an alibi, and Slagle will know it was me.” She paused for breath.
“What did you hope to gain by stampeding the larats through an inoffensive suburb?”
“The mayor owns a larat ranch in Dencin province and has campaigned for their rights before. I thought if he saw how they’ve been mistreated, he might do something about it.”
Valerian rubbed his chin, which was dark with stubble. “That’s a decent plan,” he acknowledged. “Particularly the alibi. You’ve got a sleeper berth? Retired early and conspicuously, then went out the window?”
“Yes,” said Faryn, pleased that he understood without her having to explain. “I’ve really got to go, or the train will pull out without me.”
Valerian glanced at the clock. “We’ll transport, there’s plenty of time.”
“We?” Faryn asked uncertainly.
“I’m travelling by the same train, as it happens. But see here, how did you get past the security? Doesn’t Slagle alarm the place?”
“Standard Magilert system, with the real focus on the factory doors and not much on the stable. I just picked the paddock lock with a hairpin. Most retail magical alarm systems are vulnerable to non-magical attempts to bypass them.”
Valerian grinned. “Honestly, it’s as if some people exchange brains for magic.”
“I know what you mean,” Faryn said, and they smiled at each other.
“Shall we go?” He stepped forward and loosely wrapped his arms around her.
Faryn swallowed hard and tried to ignore the butterflies in her stomach. It wasn’t the first time she had transported with a professor. It was just that Shaun Valerian was so … masculine. Nothing like the Academy boys with their skinny shoulders and wispy beards that looked like hot chocolate smeared on their chins. Shaun had a proper growth of stubble, which looked prickly but also …
“We’re here,” he told her, looking amused.
“Oh!” Faryn jumped backward. She hadn’t even noticed their transport to the station.
“That’s our train.” Valerian pointed. “Let’s slip around back.”
Fortunately, the platform was deserted, and nobody saw them as they jumped down onto the tracks and walked the length of the cars.
“That’s my window,” Faryn said, pointing upward. “Thank you for your help, Professor.”
“Anything for the larats,” he whispered.
She was preparing to levitate when Valerian clasped her waist and lifted her up to the window.
“Thank you,” Faryn said, flustered again. She pulled herself through the narrow opening. The high bunk was built right under the window, so she only had to crawl onto it. She turned around to say goodbye and found Valerian crawling in after her. “What are you doing?”
“Didn’t I mention that nobody can know I’m on this train? I imagine they’ll be doing a thorough search before we reach the desert, but your locked berth is one place they’ll never think to look.” He crammed his broad shoulders through the window. “Bad enough I had to leave to give that fool lecture,” he grunted, dragging himself onto the bunk. “Worse if I get assassinated on the way back.”
“Assassinated?” Faryn squeaked.
“Don’t worry. Like you, I was supposed to board at the main station. They’ll think I missed the train and the search will just be to make sure I didn’t slip past them.” He slid off the bunk to the tiny strip of floor between it and the compartment wall. Scrunching himself down against the wall, he stretched out his legs and put his hands behind his head.
Faryn stared down at him in disbelief. “Are you going to be here the whole trip?”
“Just until we reach the desert. I’ll get out of your hair then.” He looked up, and she could just make out his mischievous grin. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Jalwa no, she thought. Aloud, she said, “I guess this means you can’t rat me out to Slagle.”
“Mutual blackmail,” he agreed. “Why are you going to New Caladon?”
“I have an archaeological internship,” she answered. “How about you?”
She didn’t really think he would tell her, so she wasn’t too disappointed when he only said, “Research.” After a pause, he asked, “How long have you been interested in archaeology?”
“It’s been a hobby for a few years. I was dragged into it by this friend and got addicted. I wanted to do something real with it before I graduated and had to worry about making a living.”
“Hmm,” he murmured, as though he actually found her remark interesting. Faryn thought he might ask about her areas of special interest, but his next question was, “Why did you turn bright red and leave in the middle of my lecture?”
Faryn flushed hot from her head to her toes. After a long, painful moment, she said, “Research.”
His soft laughter was lost in the rumble of wheels and magic as the train left the station.