|Mine to Spell (Mine #2) Series: Mine, Book 2 By Janeal Falor|
Stephenâ€™s daughter, take control of your property or we will do so for you.
Property meaning me. The words are glowing, bright and yellow with flecks of crimson, hovering above that perfect birthday cake. Waverly says that in Envado they have candles on cakes. Why they would do such a thing, Iâ€™m uncertain, but after this fiery display, itâ€™s not something worth even attempting. Itâ€™s too much like the threat of a hex, burning hot, and ready to slam into me.
Zade zaps the spell with a flash of blue, but not quickly enough. Even the youngest girls know something is wrong. They hover together with their eyes wide. Even though they are only courting and not officially engaged still, Zade puts an arm around Serena as if it will protect her. A twist of longing aches in my chest for someone to care for me that much.
Though Serena may be feeling differently. Her chin is tilted up the way she does when sheâ€™s determined. Sheâ€™s probably thinking on how to deal with this newest threat, but Iâ€™m doubtful it will solve the true problem. Me.
This birthday means Iâ€™m eligible to be sold to a warlock husband. Most girls donâ€™t get tested for magic on their birthday, but they at least have plans to even if itâ€™s a couple of years in the future. But the only plans here were cake and kindness. Obviously that didnâ€™t work out so well. Living in a society where only warlocks control everything and only they do magic was bound to ruin my day no matter how much I wanted it to be different.
â€œThe property is protected,â€ Zade says. â€œNothing more than harmless threats can get in.â€
Probably true, but the way it cracked the joy from us only moments agoâ€”itâ€™s not exactly harmless.
â€œCan we please return to enjoying the festivities?â€ Serena folds her arms like sheâ€™s trying to keep herself together.
Iâ€™d do the same if I thought itâ€™d help. Instead, I thread my fingers through my necklaces, keeping a neutral expression tightly in place.
â€œCertainly.â€ Zade motions to Waverly. â€œWould you like to cut a slice for everyone?â€
â€œIâ€™d be happy to.â€ She bounces over to the cake.
â€œZade and I will be in the study,â€ Serena says. â€œPlease carry on and enjoy yourselves.â€
The girls giggle happily now that the spelled words are gone and cake is coming, easily covering Zade and Serenaâ€™s exit. I wish I could so easily forget, but instead, I go on pretending as usual. Despite being adept at it, I rather despise it.
â€œWhat an exciting day.â€ The words are all too cheery spilling from my lips. â€œThe only other time Iâ€™ve ever seen so many treats in one place was the tournament last year.â€
â€œDid they make a cake as pretty as Waverlyâ€™s?â€ Sally asks.
I donâ€™t even recall if they had cake. â€œNo one could make a cake as pretty as Waverlyâ€™s.â€
â€œOnly because I cheat.â€ Waverly acts as if nothing has happened. She slides the first piece on a plate and passes it over to me. â€œHappy birthday!â€
Her voice is a little too perky, but I chime back just as happily, â€œThank you!â€
Her smile becomes softer at the corners, less forced. At least my pretending appears to be good. Even if Iâ€™m faking my happiness, itâ€™s still satisfying to boost anotherâ€™s mood. The girls receive their treat, starting with the youngest.
Next, she serves mother, whoâ€™s gained quite the sweet tooth with this pregnancy. The last thing father left us before the Grand Chancellor took him in to custody was another sister to be born sometime in the next several months. Mother seems to be taking this pregnancy like all the rest, but I can't help but wonder what will the baby's life be like never having his cruel influence in it?
My bracelets jangle as I force myself away from such thoughts to eat some of the white cake with pink frosting. Any other day, the rich sweetness would be fantastic, just not now. Instead, it sticks to my mouth like a giant gob of honey, and my throat wants to clamp shut, refusing admittance to its passage. Thatâ€™s just perfect.
I shovel in the bites regardless, not wanting to hurt Waverlyâ€™s feelings, and take a big swig of milk after each one. At least thatâ€™s easier to swallow. By the time I finish my slice of cake, my mouth and throat ache from forcing them. I never want to eat cake again. But itâ€™s done, and Iâ€™ve pretended long enough to make a getaway.
â€œThank you again, Waverly.â€ After pushing myself to my feet I say, â€œIâ€™m going to wander around some.â€
â€œCheck to make sure that Serena knows weâ€™re running low on sugar,â€ mother says, clueless as to my real intent. Probably due to exhaustion. This pregnancy seems to be harder on her than I remember the others being.
But Bethany, the third eldest sister, and Waverly arenâ€™t as clueless.
â€œIt will work out,â€ Waverly whispers as I brush past her.
Bethany gives me a look that says she knows exactly what Iâ€™m doing. Not that it matters. As long as the little girls arenâ€™t worried, and mother's content, I can do as I wish. Itâ€™s the first time my birthday has ever been celebrated, after all. Even if itâ€™s no longer much of a celebration.
â€œIâ€™m going to make certain it does,â€ I tell them.
I stride down the hall toward the front of the house, not bothering to knock when I reach the study. Itâ€™s a simple thing to nudge the door open. It may be wrong, but catching Serena and Zade making lovey eyes at each other sends a giddy thrill through me. They'll both go red and start stammering, but won't lose the happy glow that they must get from each other. My sister is finally happy. Only when the door creaks open this time, neither of them has a glow to lose.
Zade is pacing one side of the study while Serena is on the other, rigid in her chair and staring out the picture window. The painful knot in my stomach tightens as I move into the room. Itâ€™s worse than I feared.
I shut the door behind me and say, â€œI believe I should be included in this discussion.â€
â€œWho says we are discussing anything?â€ Serena retorts.
â€œYou said we were going to do birthdays different now that father is gone, and I could have things the way I want. Well, I want to know whatâ€™s going on. Itâ€™s about the latest threat, isnâ€™t it?â€ Still neither says anything. â€œThe threat was because of me. I deserve to know.â€
Serena jumps to her feet. â€œIt wasnâ€™t because of you. It was because of me.â€
â€œClearly, Iâ€™m the one whose blood should be tested to see what warlock wants to buy me, so of course itâ€™s because of me.â€ Anger bites my words more than I meant to let out. I clench my teeth to trap it back inside.
â€œThere's enough to fight out of this room, let's not bring it in here,â€ Zade says before going to Serena. â€œShe does have a right to know.â€
She bunches her fist. â€œMy freedom was supposed to enable us to make choices for ourselves, not keep us locked up and scared.â€
â€œI know, but things take time. Hopefully, theyâ€™ll get used to the way things are with you now,â€ Zade says.
â€œBut they arenâ€™t getting used to it fast enough,â€ I say. â€œThatâ€™s the seventh threat weâ€™ve had this week, and by far the most foreboding. Most hinted about my coming of age and being sold, of which weâ€™ve had no intention of following their expectations. The only other thing we could do is return to class, and that isnâ€™t an option. You remember what it was like. What they teach about women subjecting themselves to warlocks.â€ And how I spent most of the time convincing everyone class was right where I wanted to be. At least it kept us safe, like we need to be now. Too much danger haunts my family.
Serena collapses back into her chair and rubs her temple. â€œI know.â€
The silence, thick with worries, doesnâ€™t last long before the door opens and Bethany slips inside, closing the door behind her. â€œMother wasnâ€™t feeling well again and went upstairs to rest. Waverlyâ€™s taking care of the girls. Whatâ€™s going on?â€
â€œWeâ€™re discussing the threats,â€ Serena admits.
â€œWhich are about me,â€ I add.
Serena glares at me. No matter that it upsets her; itâ€™s all too true.
â€œWhat can we do?â€ Bethany asks. â€œItâ€™s not like weâ€™ll return to the ownership of a man.â€
Unless the council somehow forces us to. The way things are going, it seems rather likely.
Serena says, â€œWeâ€™ll figure something out.â€
â€œHow much time do we have left to figure something out before these threats become more than just threats?â€ I ask, trying to keep my emotions from flying.
By the tightening of her mouth, I know Iâ€™ve hit onto the real problem. What started as us staying around the house out of uncertainty has become us being caged out of fear. The servants, or Zade, bring everything we need, and even they are cautious. Yet regardless of this, there are a few who have ventured to us, like Councilman Daniel and his wife Annabelle who helped Serena at the ball, but mostly we are avoided.
â€œWe can figure something out.â€ But her repetitive words are as small as her voice.
â€œWe can.â€ I hesitate a moment but not long enough to really let the fact of what Iâ€™ve been considering since the threats started coming I'm going to do sink in. â€œI will enter the marriage pool.â€
Gasps sound from the girls, and Zade stares at me in shock.
Once she starts to breathe again, Serena says, â€œYou canâ€™t!â€
â€œAre you going to stop me?â€
Her lips press into a thin line. The command not to place myself for sale is right there, waiting to tumble from her. I can see it in her eyes, but it goes against everything sheâ€™s tried to do as owner master. As my master.
â€œNo.â€ Her words come out harsh, but firm. â€œI wonâ€™t stop you as an owner. But as a sister, Iâ€™m pleading with you not to do this.â€ I open my mouth to reply, but she plunges on. â€œPlease, please donâ€™t do this. You know what theyâ€™re like. How theyâ€™ll treat you.â€
â€œIâ€™ve always enjoyed the company of warlocks more than you do.â€ Her face crumples against my words. My true words. Just not true for the reasons she suspects.
â€œPerhaps, but being owned by one isnâ€™t what you want. I know it. Youâ€™ve reveled in the freedom more than any of the other girls. Youâ€™ve taken your own room with glee, enjoyed spending time alone and getting up in the middle of the night without repercussions. If you go back to being owned by a warlock, those are only a few of the things that will end. Much of your life will grow a great deal worse.â€
Exactly what Iâ€™ve been trying not to think on. With those big, begging eyes, it would be so easy to give into her pleading, so I switch my gaze to the person in the room most likely to side with the safety of my family. Zade. â€œIf I enter the marriage pool, do you think it will ease some of their fears? Do you think it will help show them that Serena canâ€¦ handle her property?â€
His eyes stay perfectly trained on mine, and I have to wonder if heâ€™s struggling not to give into Serenaâ€™s pleading as well. â€œI canâ€™t guarantee anything. You understand that, donâ€™t you?â€
He rubs the back of his neck. â€œIt would probably go a long way toward helping. It would give those supporting us something to help prove that Serena isnâ€™t different from other warlocks. It would show people sheâ€™s in control and willing to follow societyâ€™s ways, which is something hard to dispute and fight against. Though there will still be those that are unhappy just with the fact that sheâ€™s a woman.â€
He moves closer to me. Most of the time I forget that as an Envadi how much taller he is than me but at a moment like this, with my neck tilted back to look up at him, every inch of his height is a stern reminder of the seriousness of the situation. â€œYou know if you enter the marriage pool there will be little we can do to prevent your ownership by a warlock. From when I checked before, we know the magic in your blood is more potent than Serenaâ€™s, and there were many who tried for her hand. There will be many applicants, and she will have to choose one. Iâ€™m sure she will let you pick which one youâ€™d like, but youâ€™d still be giving your ownership back to a warlock.â€
Even though I already know all this, somehow his statement rages through me more than Serenaâ€™s threats. But what will happen to my family if I don't show compliance to society's ways? It's not something I want to dwell on. My mouth is dry, making my reply harder to get out than it should. â€œI understand.â€
Serena moves next to Zade, somehow bearing down on me even more than he is, despite being my height. â€œAre you certain you do?â€
I nod, even though the ever-growing desire to never have started this conversation builds. I almost wish I had never come to the study after them.
â€œTheyâ€™ll not only use you as a breeder to make powerful warlock babies, but theyâ€™ll want the magic in your blood for themselves. Itâ€™s too strong for them not to.â€
â€œAnd you still wish to do this?â€
I push past the choking in my throat, letting my words come out clear and strong. â€œIt will help our family. Iâ€™ll be happy to do my part.â€
Serena wrenches me into a hug. â€œWe can find another way.â€
But we canâ€™t, and even if we could, would we discover it in time to help? Doubtful. I pull out the facade I spent years wearing, the one I hoped I would never need to use again. â€œDonâ€™t worry yourself over it. You know how I enjoy all the attention from warlocks.â€ About as much as I enjoyed punishments from father, but I give her my winning smile, as if it will be the best thing that has ever happened.
She scrutinizes my expression, probably looking for some hint Iâ€™m faking this all. But she wonâ€™t find it. Cracks donâ€™t happen.
â€œAre you certain? Absolutely certain? Thereâ€™ll be no changing your mind.â€
â€œOf course I am. Iâ€™ll ready myself to go to the testing center.â€
Her eyes grow wider. â€œRight now?â€
â€œYou heard Zade. We canâ€™t let them doubt you any longer.â€
She gives a jerk of a nod and with a voice calmer than I expected, says, â€œIâ€™ll call the carriage.â€
â€œThank you,â€ I choke out, struggling to rein in the building frustration and loss so it doesnâ€™t come screaming out.
I turn to hurry from the room, but Bethany stops me. Her eyes are bright with unshed tears. She gives my hand a squeeze, a silent show of support and longing, and then moves to clear the way.
I saunter through the hall, past the kitchen, toward the stairs like I have some happy purpose, trying desperately not to let myself race to my room as I wish. The younger girls call after me, but I canâ€™t let myself do more than give them cheery hellos and hurry on. Vaguely, I hear Bethany saying something to them. She probably followed me out, anticipating such a thing. I step faster, up the previously forbidden stairs, down the empty hall, and into my room. My very own.
Serena was furious when she discovered there were enough rooms in father's house for each of us girls to have her own, and still have extra rooms left over. If father were around, instead of in a prison somewhere, Iâ€™m sure she would have knocked him out with her gun again. I felt the same. After cramming together in a couple small rooms our whole lives, realizing there was more than enough room to spare sent us both into a fit. But even if it wasnâ€™t a surprise, it was one more thing that we had no control over.
Apparently, thereâ€™s still much we have no control over, even when I try to pretend otherwise.
But now we each have our own rooms, and she was kind enough to let me pick the one I wanted first. The choice has made it much easier to keep secrets.
I close my door, working extra hard to have it make the slightest click when it latches and not to slam it. After itâ€™s closed and locked, it doesnâ€™t take long to secure my room. Itâ€™s almost without thought the motions come to me. Sally often likes to hide under my bed or in my closet which I double check for. Once Iâ€™m sure the room is clear of sisters, I draw the thick curtains, even though a tree thick with foliage is right outside my window, making it difficult to see in.
When Iâ€™m positive nothing that takes place in this room can be seen, I do one of the few good things I ever learned from father. I feel the power in me, the eager glow inside me flaring to life, yearning to respond to my will. I seize hold of it and launch it in a clear, save for a few crimson streaks, barely visible spell straight at my throat. It wraps around my voice just as I demand, blocking all sound. Then I scream.
I stare at the stack of papers on the kitchen table, which looks large enough to wallpaper my room with. But itâ€™s time. Time to make a choice. Iâ€™d much rather faint in front of everyone again, as I did when I saw my blood during the testing. At least that part is over.
Waverly entertains the younger girls with her antics outside while Bethany prepares dinner in the kitchen. Serena and Zade are sitting at the table, trying to be helpful, though they have yet to be so. Still, I wish I could switch places them, or with any of the others. Or go back to my room, cast the silencing spell, and scream some more.
â€œI didnâ€™t think there would be so many.â€ The stack is just so large. I knew there would be a lot of interest in me, but this much is unfathomable.
Serena and Zade exchange a look but say nothing. Iâ€™m too busy trying to keep myself together to figure out what the look is even supposed to mean.
â€œThis is good.â€ Not really, but I press on. â€œWeâ€™ll be able to find a worthwhile warlock with so many options.â€ There has to be at least one. Please be one.
Serena places her hand on mine. â€œNot we. You. We will aid you as much as we can. However I wonâ€™t make the decision of who will own you next. If I could decide anything, youâ€™d be gaining your freedom instead.â€
Freedom. A word more magical that any spell I can cast. And yet, even if I were as free as she is, I wouldnâ€™t be really free to do what I love most. Magic.
What would happen if they knew I could cast spells? If the warlocks knew? The council? Or, Master forbid, the Grand Chancellor? It goes against everything society wants, what the council and Grand Chancellor want. Everything they talk about and feel. Freedom wouldnâ€™t bring the ability to do magic. No. Trying to make us appear as if weâ€™re still a normal family, a family that complies with their expectations, is what they want and what will keep the girls safe.
Waverly bounces in the back door, short of breath. â€œYour sisters are wild. I canâ€™t keep up with them. Presha is watching them while I take a break.â€
â€œThey werenâ€™t wild before you came along.â€ And it makes me smile, a true smile, like nothing else has since my birthday. Everyone in the house has grown happier since Waverly started spending much of her time with us.
Serena laughs. â€œNow you have more sisters than you know what to do with.â€
Waverly returns the laugh as she heads to the wash basin. â€œItâ€™s true. I do, but Iâ€™m not the only one. Zade has his hands full of them, too.â€ She gives him a sly look. â€œMaybe he wants more sisters permanently.â€
Serena and Zade both blush and pointedly look anywhere but each other. Usually their antics are endearing, but now it just reminds me Iâ€™ll never have anything like that unless I can find a miracle in this stack.
I skim another application, but the words mush together after the first line. All my choices are the same: Will give lots of money for my purchase; Will restore some honor to the family name; Have great magic to join with mine in passing down to their sons. As if I want that to happen. None of the options are remotely appealing, but the thought of having a son with one of them is enough to make me vomit. Or hex each and every one of them.
Yet, thinking of all the magic makes me wonder about something Iâ€™ve wanted to know for a long time. Something only a warlock outside Chardonia would know. One who just happens to be sitting at the same table.
â€œZade,â€ I say, â€œdo women in Envado do magic?â€
The room goes horridly quiet. Itâ€™s as if father cast a silencing hex on everyone and everything. I shouldnâ€™t have let the question slip. Except I want to know. I canâ€™t be the only woman in the world that does magic, can I?
No, I canâ€™t possibly. There have to be others like me somewhere, only where are they? Why am I so alone? Envado seems like a good place to start looking for answers. Or at least I thought it did until the already awkward silence keeps pounding on like a beating that will never end.
I focus harder on the application before me, trying to pretend the answer doesnâ€™t matter. Though the longer the stillness permeates the air, the more I change to pretending as if the question was never asked.
Serena finally says, â€œWhat a strange question. You know only men do magic, which is just as well. Even if there are good things done with magic, thereâ€™s too much hexing involved.â€
Her words singe me right at my hidden desire to be known for doing magic and to be accepted for it, yet itâ€™s not as if sheâ€™s aware of how personal a question it is. I risk glancing at Zade. A strange look is on his face, one thatâ€™s impossible to decipher.
Those at the kitchen counter arenâ€™t any better. Bethanyâ€™s eyes are innocent and wide with shock. Waverly is frozen with a glass of water partway to her mouth. Sheâ€™s the first to come out of her trance, taking a sip of her drink before putting a big smile on her face.
â€œReally, Serena?â€ she says. â€œMagic isnâ€™t that bad. I thought you liked what we did with the ball.â€
â€œTrue,â€ she concedes. â€œZade did a great job with everything.â€
Waverlyâ€™s smile dims some but doesnâ€™t disappear entirely. â€œYes, Zade did.â€
I scrutinize her, searching for a deeper meaning.
â€œHonestly,â€ Serena replies, â€œitâ€™s not that I didnâ€™t enjoy it. I did. Yet, itâ€™s hard to forget the consequences that followed. Zadeâ€™s life almost ended, and he was injured. You were knocked out. Luckily there were no lasting effects from that. Nathanielâ€™s fiancÃ©e was killed. That is what magic brings.â€
But it doesnâ€™t always.
Not that it matters. It doesnâ€™t. At least not to the well-behaved, boy-crazy, family-saving girl Iâ€™m pretending to be. Back to acting as if I didnâ€™t ask, and putting all my focus on which warlock will be my next owner.
Blast. Just the thought makes me wish Iâ€™d never gone through with this, but there are too many others depending on me. I canâ€™t abandon them when Iâ€™ve finally grown brave enough to help. There hasnâ€™t been a single threat since I was tested, and Iâ€™m not about to take that relief away. Not that I could anyway.
Zade pops out of his trance, bolting to his feet. â€œI think Iâ€™ll go see if any of the girls want another shooting lesson.â€
He strides from the room, boots pounding across the floor. The silence that follows manages to be more awkward than before, even without my asking a forbidden question.
We pretend to work at our tasks, none of us looking at each other. At least Iâ€™m still pretending. Perhaps Serena really does find the pattern of the table interesting, Waverly enjoys staring at half-empty glasses of water, and Bethany thinks her vegetables a prize worthy of staring instead of chopping.
Serena runs her hand across the table, drumming her fingers a few times before saying, â€œI didnâ€™t mean his spells were bad.â€ She stares after his long-retreated form. â€œPerhaps I should assist him.â€
â€œIâ€™ll help with the girls so you can talk,â€ Bethany says. â€œIf you donâ€™t mind taking over for me, Waverly? Or would you prefer to distract the girls?â€
â€œIâ€™m still recuperating from distracting the girls last time. Theyâ€™re always more energetic than I expect. Why donâ€™t you go ahead, and Iâ€™ll finish up here?â€
Bethany nods and coaxes Serena out the door.
My question broke things more than I expected. The guilt brings a sharp sting to my eyes, leaving the applications too blurry to read. I blink away the pain, wondering if theyâ€™ll sort their differences.
Waverly works on the vegetables, the snap of her knife familiar. Though sheâ€™s occupied with the task, she keeps an eye on me as I muddle through the mess of papers. And what a mess it is. I donâ€™t know what to do with any of them, strewn as they are across the table.
What do I look for in a potential new owner? How much money theyâ€™re willing to pay for me? How much clout they have in politics and with fellow countrymen? How each one says theyâ€™re the best choice out of all the candidates? The one thing that doesnâ€™t sway me: how much magic they will pass on to ourâ€¦ sons. I grip the seat of my chair until my fingers ache.
â€œMaybe you should make piles,â€ Waverly suggests. â€œStacks of men who are no good, okay, and maybe. Something like that. Then you can look closer at the better options.â€
Why didnâ€™t I think of something like that? It seems so simple. â€œThat would make it easier.â€
Yet, I still canâ€™t do anything but stare. The words just wonâ€™t come into focus.
â€œWhat if I helped? These vegetables are about done anyway and wonâ€™t need my attention while simmering. I could help go through and take out warlocks I know you wonâ€™t want, the ones who are obviously rude and condescending.â€
The tears want to come again but not with stinging, more like soothing relief. Itâ€™s the best thing someone has said since I plunged into this crazy scheme. â€œThat would be fantastic.â€
In less than ten minutes she has a growing pile for me to go through and an even bigger pile set aside for fire starter. Iâ€™ve never been so grateful for assistance before, or so enthused to start a fire.
Looking through the applicants still brings on a headache, but at least I can focus. Once I get into a rhythm, I stop thinking about what the papers are actually for, what they mean, and it gets easier to toss them where they need to be. I divide them into more piles, as Waverly suggested, for sorting later. No decisions have to happen now, only narrowing the options.
Together we work, making progress on the requests. After some time, she says, â€œWhy were you wondering about women using magic?â€
My fingers tighten around the paper theyâ€™re holding. I try to shrug nonchalantly except if feels more like a jerk. â€œThe thought just crossed my mind.â€
The papers rustle, filling the room with their shuffling. I should let it go. Not say another word on it, but Iâ€™ve wanted to know most of my life. With the changes coming to my life, I yearn to know more than the usual, but caution urges me toward the silent survival route.
Quietly, I ask, â€œDo women use magic?â€
I pretend to focus on the paper in front of me, but really Iâ€™m paying heed to her every move. Not that sheâ€™s moving. Sheâ€™s still again, like the first time I asked. Everything seems to depend on what she says next, but sheâ€™s not speaking. She lowers the paper to the table as if itâ€™s a sleeping baby being laid down in its cradle before studying my face. Not just looking, searching.
Whatever sheâ€™s hoping for, she must come to a decision. â€œEven if they did.â€ Her words are so faint they can barely be heard. â€œChardonia would never allow it. Especially not the council and the Grand Chancellor.â€
I swallow past the sudden thickness in my throat. We return to sorting, but her words donâ€™t leave me. All afternoon they ricochet around my head, more pressing than the warlocks, one of whom may become my future owner.
Perhaps whether or not other women can do magic shouldnâ€™t be my question. My real question should be: What will the Grand Chancellor do if Iâ€™m caught?
When Serena and Zade return several hours later, they stand close together. Yet, something is off. Both are stiff, as if theyâ€™re afraid what will happen if they relax. Perhaps afraid of what will happen if they let their words loosen too much and bring trouble again. I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s hard to comprehend the type of relationship they have. Itâ€™s nothing like mother and father's, and that is the only relationship I know. Not for much longer, though. The pile of acceptable applicants is small. Too small.
Serena takes the chair next to me while Zade sits across from us.
â€œSo,â€ she says. â€œHave you made any progress?â€
After giving my necklace a tug, I randomly pick one of the three choices Iâ€™ve narrowed it down to. At this point, thereâ€™s nothing different about any of them. All are rich warlocks offering much for possession of me but say little else. Any warlock who said anything more always said something distasteful. â€œContact this one. And make sure he pays for me before you sign anything.â€
â€œYouâ€™re making the decision so soon?â€
Thereâ€™s no holding back my emotions any longer. This isnâ€™t something I want any more than she does, but thereâ€™s a part to play. I focus all my negativity into cheer. It comes out in a squeak of giddiness. â€œNaturally I did, Serena. I canâ€™t wait until Iâ€™m with my new owner. Excuse me while I go embroider a handkerchief with his name on it.â€
The stunned look on her face makes an apology want to tumble from my lips, but thereâ€™s no saying the words. I spring from the room like Iâ€™m the happiest woman in Chardonia, not the one returning to a world full of hexes and beatings and warlocks. A world where my own spells will have to be even more hidden. A world I despise.
The next day it takes a concentrated effort not to let sparks fly. Literally. I try to spend my time alone in my room with the curtains drawn, wondering why I didnâ€™t pick one of the other three applications it had come down to. One who wouldnâ€™t insist on signing the engagement contract the day after I accept it.
The spells that flare out of me are hot and angry, once even triggering a fire. I throwing a blanket over it and put it out quickly enough. The charred coverlet is now hiding at the bottom of my trunk. At least the smell was easy to chase out by opening a window.
When I leave my room, not only is it hard to keep my frustration from showing, but itâ€™s extra difficult to pretend Iâ€™m excited to be sold, to be owned by some man who will treat me like father did for years. It was easier to pretend interest in men when I was only watching them for their spells. Now even that sounds unappealing.
Soon, Iâ€™ll be officially owned by a warlock again, instead of having the freedom of Serena owning me. Learning a few new spells is pointless in comparison to that. Why learn new spells if itâ€™s near impossible to cast them?
Itâ€™s likely I've made the wrong choice.
The study where weâ€™re sitting, waiting, is dreary. Not because of the weather outside the picture window, but for whatâ€™s brewing in here in the midst of forbidden books, a desk, plush chairs, and my dark secrets. I canâ€™t stop my fingers from moving from my necklaces to my bracelets before twisting my rings and doing it all again. My face paint is thick, a heavier reminder of how I'll have to return to wearing it all the time now as society expects.
Serena breaks the silence. â€œMay I ask something?â€
Please donâ€™t. But I force a cheerful face. â€œBy all means.â€
â€œIâ€™ve been wondering, why did you choose Edward as your owner?â€
â€œHe seemed like he might be good. There wasnâ€™t anything aggressive sounding in his application.â€
â€œYes, butâ€¦â€ She bites her lip. â€œHe didnâ€™t provide much information save for the basics.â€
I shrug like it doesnâ€™t matter. Because it doesnâ€™t.
â€œItâ€™s onlyâ€¦â€ She hesitates a moment than hurries on. â€œIf this is truly the choice you wish to make, Iâ€™ll support it, but he was one of the highest bidders. And, well, I want to make certain you made the choice because you thought he would be the best for you and not because of the money. We have enough for our needs from my own sale. And Iâ€™m sure Zade would assist us with anything should a need arise.â€
â€œItâ€™s not the money.â€ Or at least not wholly. I figure if one option looks the same as another, she might as well have more coin from my sell. I force all my frustration to come out as excitement. â€œHeâ€™ll be fantastic. Iâ€™m certain of it. And Iâ€™ll get to have Katherine design an engagement dress, and then a wedding dress. Itâ€™ll be fantastic.â€
â€œAwful lot of fantastic.â€ Her mouth bunches as if she disagrees but is trying not to say so. Not that I blame her. I disagree as well. â€œWell, if itâ€™s what you want?â€
â€œObviously, it is. Iâ€™m happy.â€ So fakely happy. â€œAnd eager to meet him when he gets here.â€ Which should be much too soon. When Serena sent his acceptance, his reply was swift and his desire to see me even swifter. For good or ill, heâ€™s coming. At least itâ€™s here at home and not at his house like Serena had to meet Thomas.
Zade enters and, without a word, begins pacing the room. Serena watches a moment before staring out her window, her hands knotted in her lap. Waverly and Presha are entertaining the girls so we wonâ€™t be disturbed and so Edward wonâ€™t see how wild theyâ€™ve become under Serenaâ€™s care. Laughing and playing as if they were boys. Itâ€™s difficult not to be jealous of what theyâ€™re gaining while I sacrifice.
Yet thereâ€™s no undoing the past. The only thing I can affect is the now and the future. The future holds nothing bright, except keeping my family safe. Nothing but standing happy yet aloof, wishing I could spell myself out of this. But the only thing I can spell away is my voice when my frustration can no longer be bottled.
Itâ€™s difficult to determine how much time passes as we wait. Itâ€™s long and cold. No forcing of enthusiasm or mindless chatter. I must save all my energy for when Edward arrives. My new owner.
â€œZade,â€ Serena interrupts the silence. â€œDo you know anything of this Edward?â€
â€œVery little. Heâ€™s never been in a tournament, doesnâ€™t do much publicly, and is very wealthy, keeping almost as many servants and tarnished as the Grand Chancellor.â€
It's difficult to think of him having tarnished. At least servants are paid or are working off debts. The tarnished are already forced to be bald, barren, and have their face not only tattooed but the tattoos spelled to glow a different color every month to make certain they're checking in with the council. Can't have them breaking any rules. It makes me sick to think of people treating someone like my close friend Katherine that way. But maybe Edward is like Serena. Taking in as many tarnished as possible and treating them well.
Serena looks at me before glancing back out the window. Perhaps itâ€™s something I should have thought to ask before. What will he be like? I donâ€™t even know his age. Some applicants included it, but it wasnâ€™t a requirement. What if heâ€™s as old as father? What if Iâ€™m his fourth wife, soon to be tarnished with the first girl I bear? Other than having a child, this is the preferable option.
Itâ€™d be difficult to be tarnished, especially with the ever-growing restrictions placed on them, but at least I wouldnâ€™t have an owner. Katherine would surely take me in and help me learn the ways of the tarnished. How to deal with someone keeping track of my movements. Of being filled with unbearable agony if I leave an area I'm supposed to be in. Of having that pain kill me if I don't return to where I'm supposed to be. I swallow past the growing tightness in my throat.
Dearest Katherine, ever since they changed the law keeping tighter control over the tarnished, itâ€™s been strange seeing her tattoos glowing a different color every time I see her. Itâ€™s impossible to imagine what my appearance would be if Iâ€™m thrust under the same conditions.
The clattering of a horse coming up the drive pulls my attention to the present. My magic feels as if itâ€™s surging inside me, struggling to be free. It wants to cast a spell. Any spell. Something to relieve the pressure shackled within me.
A few moments later, thereâ€™s a knock on the front door. Serena rises to her feet and nods at Zade. He pecks her cheek with a swift kiss before leaving, though he wonâ€™t be far. Close enough if we need him, but out of sight.
A moment later, Bethany enters. â€œMay I present Edward Stafford?â€
I give her a flicker of a smile before she moves aside to let my new owner in. My owner. My erratic magic suddenly stiffens, my pulse dropping to nothing.
The man who steps in is younger than I expectâ€”mid-twenties perhapsâ€”dark, thick hair, long nose, and a blank expression.
Serena recovers before I can decide what to feel about this first impression. â€œIâ€™m Serena. Please have a seat.â€
Without a word, he sits at the desk. A bit presumptuous, yet I suppose even if Serena has the status of a warlock, it would be hard to change a lifetime of habits. He still hasnâ€™t looked my way. Not that I want him to, but does he even know Iâ€™m in the room? Does he care where his soon-to-be property is? What I look like? Who I am? Thomas didnâ€™t want to see Serena before he signed the contract. Perhaps most warlocks are this way.
Yet the thought that I made the wrong choice nags at me.
â€œMay I introduce you to Cynthia?â€ Serena must be wondering the same thing.
â€œNo need. Just show me the paperwork.â€
I press my lips together and try not to let his words upset me. What did I expect from a man who barely filled out his paperwork and offered an obscene amount of money? His bid for me was one of the highest: that must have been all he had to offer.
Perhaps itâ€™s a good sign. If his conversations are always so short, I wonâ€™t be lectured as much. Father always did talk too much. Maybe Iâ€™ll be able to find a sort of freedom, not the type I have with Serena, but something in my own way.
â€œIt wouldn't take long to introduce you,â€ Serena persists.
â€œWe'll meet soon enough.â€ He smiles in a manner most charming.
â€œVery well.â€ Her tone is stern, like she trying to bite back everything she wants to say. Her movements appear stilted and forced as she hands him the paperwork that will bind my sale. An urge suddenly strikes to burst it into flames as I did the blanket, but I contain myself.
He skims it and flashes a black and silver spell at it. His signature. Iâ€™ve never seen anything quite like it, but it happened so fast, I couldnâ€™t catch much. Most spells happen too fast for me to learn much even though I'm constantly trying.
I expect him to say something to Serena about her not being able to spell her signature or demand to spell it for her. Instead, he silently watches as she uses the special pen Zade spelled for the occasion since she doesn't do magic herself. It has to be sealed with magic as well as a signature. I didnâ€™t get to see him cast that spell, but the pen flashes an emerald green at the tip as she writes.
The moment her pen lifts from the document, he whips the paper in front of him, scans it, and stares right at me, a hungry grin on his face. The change is so sudden and jarring, thereâ€™s no time to fake anything. My pure shock must be showing.
I hurry to exchange the surprise from my expression for something more pleasant. Despite the itch to, I donâ€™t move or fuss under his stare, yet neither do I look down like I should. Might as well start my new ownership off with the expectation of defiance, even if Iâ€™m pleasant about it. It doesnâ€™t seem to bother him, though. Another good sign?
He stands and heads for the door. â€œCome.â€
Is he speaking to me?
â€œWould you like us to join you somewhere?â€ Serenaâ€™s voice sounds as confused as I feel.
He whirls around and sneers at her. â€œNot you. Iâ€™ve no further use for you, wench. I was speaking to my property.â€
The condescension in his voice makes me want to hurl a hex at him. What have I done?
Serena slowly rises, her back as straight as when she would face father for punishment. â€œWhere are you taking her?â€
â€œShe and her whereabouts are no longer your concern.â€
As if summoned by his words, the clopping of more horses sounds outside. Does this mean heâ€™s taking me with him? Now? That canâ€™t be. The engagement ceremony isnâ€™t for another month. I need time to plan, to think.
The room suddenly seems very, very small. Everythingâ€™s too close. Cramped.
â€œYou canâ€™t take her now,â€ Serena persists. Her voice sounds far away.
â€œBecause no one takes a bride before the wedding.â€
His smile slants up one side of his face. â€œAh. But you know better since you were also taken before the wedding.â€
Her fist tightens in her skirt. I must do something before this morphs out of control. This was supposed to help them, not make things worse. If I donâ€™t go, things will be much, much worse. And whatever consequences might befall Serena, I will mostly likely be forced to go anyway.
Zadeâ€™s certain to have heard all of this and be on his way. I have to act before he gets here. I shake the hold thatâ€™s frozen me and force my legs forward. Edward reaches a hand out to me and snakes it around my shoulders the moment Iâ€™m within reach. It takes all my willpower not to pull away and pulverize him with a hex. Only a lifetime of practicing saves me from following instinct.
I canâ€™t look at Serena. Canâ€™t face what this must be doing to her. That Iâ€™m walking into what she always protected me from. Heâ€™s not going to be as bad as father, though. Iâ€™ll be fine. Everything will be fine.
Except I canâ€™t convince myself of that enough to give her a forced smile.
â€œNo,â€ Serena says.
Edward yanks me toward the door, but Zade stands in the way, blocking every inch of the opening and then some.
â€œWhere are you going?â€ Zadeâ€™s voice is low, threatening.
â€œIâ€™m taking whatâ€™s mine. No different than what you did, only I wonâ€™t be stupid enough to give my property away.â€
It takes all my willpower not to flinch.
â€œIâ€™ll pay you to let her stay longer.â€
For a brief moment hope kindles, but Edwardâ€™s cold chuckle extinguishes it. â€œDidnâ€™t you see how much Iâ€™m paying for her? Money is nothing to me. She is everything.â€
A chill rushes through me. Why am I everything? Why do I matter so much? Iâ€™m simply a girl whoâ€™s trying to help her family. That should mean nothing to a Chardonian warlock. My magic then? But it's not everything. Is it?
This canâ€™t be happening. Yet somehow it is. Zade doesnâ€™t move. I canâ€™t let this escalate any further. Serena protected me for this long; itâ€™s my turn to be the protector, even if it is the last thing I ever wanted to do.
â€œPlease step aside, Zade. Iâ€™ll be fine.â€ My words come out sure and steady, like I mean them to be, not like the fearful quivering overwhelming my insides.
Zadeâ€™s eyes dart toward me, narrowing like heâ€™s going to contradict my words. But thankfully, he moves aside. Edward grips my upper arm and strides toward the hall.
Suddenly, Zade reaches out to Edward. â€œIf you mistreat herâ€”â€
â€œYouâ€™ll what? Thereâ€™s nothing you can do. Sheâ€™s my property. Any interference will constitute you breaking the law. Iâ€™d hate to see you lose your Chancellorship over something so trivial.â€
Anger flames at the insult. If anything, the last year has taught me that no one is trivial. But now isnâ€™t the time to fight. I will Zade to leave it, but he doesnâ€™t get my silent message. â€œThe Chancellorship may be important, be sheâ€™s more important. Donâ€™t forget it.â€
Zadeâ€™s words and stance warm me, yet are also enough to make me want to cower even though Iâ€™m not the one heâ€™s threatening. Edward only laughs, this time big, happy and loud, crowding the small space further. â€œOh, I wonâ€™t forget how valuable she is. You can be assured on that count.â€
He yanks me forward, digging into my arm so hard there will be a bruise later. I clench my teeth to keep from crying out.
â€œAt least let me get her things,â€ Serena calls out.
â€œThe only thing of yours allowed to enter my house is her. And she is no longer yours.â€
The words are sharp against my ears. Part of me is aching to struggle against this, but most of me is still attempting to process it. This was just supposed to be a meeting to sign me over to him. Nothing more.
He continues jerking me forward, out of the house and into the carriage. I tumble onto the wooden bench as Serena calls out something I canâ€™t make out. Edward slams the door shut, and Iâ€™m left in darkness. Alone.
When the carriage finally stops, and Iâ€™m allowed out, night has fallen, replacing daylight with heavy clouds. The house appears to be big, though itâ€™s difficult to discern in the moonlight that attempts to peek from behind one of those clouds. Whatever the building's exact size, it rivals Zadeâ€™s house. There are no servants or anyone around except us. Even the horses and carriage have been led away by servants I didnâ€™t see. I shiver, my thick skirts not enough to warm me.
â€œFollow.â€ Edward strides toward the house.
Left with no other choice but the one Iâ€™ve forced upon myself, I do so. He leads me inside where there are a few dim electric lights on, but itâ€™s almost as dark as it was outside. The scent of fresh air trails in with us, yet as we go along, itâ€™s replaced with the musty smell of disuse. Where is everyone?
The further we twist through the halls, the stronger the urge to run back the way we came grows. Shouldnâ€™t there be at least one servant here? Someone to greet him? To take care of his needs? Zade said he had lots, but where are they?
Edward turns down yet another hallway. Still no one in sight. What can he possibly have planned? Is he going to brand me tonight instead of waiting for the engagement ceremony? Leave some sort of tattoo on my neck that claims me as his forever unless tarnished?
I canâ€™t keep quiet any longer. â€œWhere are we going?â€
He spins around so fast I almost trip into him. â€œShut up.â€
Without another word, he hurries down the hall. Fine. I can shut up. I can also stop following him.
Between his erratic behavior and the lack of people, I donâ€™t dare discover what his plan is even if it means severe punishment for trying to escape him. Blast. This isnâ€™t helping my family, and it certainly isnâ€™t helping me.
I turn to retrace the path out. Except, which way is out? Not only is this place massive, and weâ€™ve twisted through much of it, I was too busy wondering about unimportant things to pay attention. Foolish act.
A moment later he realizes Iâ€™m no longer following. â€œCome. Now.â€ His tone is the same as before but with an undercurrent that sends a streak of fear darting through me.
Slowly, I angle toward him. Though weâ€™re about twenty paces apart, the stone coldness of his words demand obedience. These are the orders of a warlock who is always obeyed. My body knows those orders so well, trained to follow them from birth. It leans forward to surrender, but I canâ€™t do it. I canâ€™t.
Iâ€™ve brought myself far enough to keep my sisters out of trouble. They shouldnâ€™t have any problems now if heâ€™s the one that is supposed to control me and not Serena. I wonâ€™t suffer myself to be led toward whatever doom he has waiting for me. Not just sneaking away. Itâ€™s too late for that, but openly defying him. The instant the decision is made must show on my face because at that moment he strides toward me. So I take the only option left. I turn and run.
His footsteps are heavy on the floor behind me, closing in. It wonâ€™t be long before he catches me. I push myself faster, wishing Iâ€™d worn breeches regardless of having to meet him this morning. When I come to a cross-section, I randomly dart down a hall, willing it to be the correct one. Before Iâ€™ve gone two steps, a hand wraps around my arm. Caught.
He snatches me to him, anger narrowing his dark eyes. â€œDonâ€™t run again, or there will be punishments.â€
His words mean nothing. Father used to say and do much worse. Yet his grip, vice-like around my arm, means thereâ€™s no choice but to comply. I struggle anyway, jerking away from him.
A powder blue spell shoots from him, straight at me. Itâ€™s weaker than anything father ever threw at me but still enough that I float up in the air a few inches, drifting in a sort of bobbing motion behind him as he continues on. I flap my arms and legs every which way but continue floating after him. All my struggling is useless.
My anger brews my magic into a storm worthy of capsizing the entire house. But it's entirely useless. I punch my fist in the air and give a growling scream. Edward doesnâ€™t even bother to acknowledge it.
We turn again, but this time into a room. Its grandeur is dimly lit by electric lights showing a space crammed with books, all of which seem to have titles related to magic. Chairs and a sofa dot the room, all matching the velvet red drapes.
He directs the spell holding me to the far wall, away from all the books and chairs. I wobble over against my will. As much as this makes me think of father, being around a new spell is distracting. Rarely do I get to see a spell so close for so long. In spite of its obvious lack of power as it struggles to keep hold of me, itâ€™s fascinating. Iâ€™m studying it, wishing I always had more of a chance to see spells like this one. When I'm not the object of its hex.
Then I realize, not only has it distracted me from my angerâ€”but from Edward. Heâ€™s only a few paces away, a wild look shining in his eyes.
Distraction flees. Thereâ€™s nothing left save for bludgeoning fear. His face, which was so deceptively bored before, has grown excited, eyes wide, mouth slightly open like heâ€™s thirsty for something. And the only thing around is me.
Serenaâ€™s experience with Thomas last year at the tournament flashes through my mind. I kick and thrash as hard as I can toward him, but nothing changes about my predicament. His eyes only grow hungrier as he steps closer. I scream for help, but his crooked smirk silences me.
â€œNo one can hear you. Even if they could, they wouldnâ€™t step in the way of what belongs to me.â€
Fear tightens my throat, but I force words out. â€œYou canâ€™t. The law saysâ€”â€
â€œThat I own you. I wonâ€™t wait for the engagement ceremony for what I want.â€
The engagement ceremony? Not the marriage ceremony? The unexpectedness of the comment rattles me a moment. And that moment is enough for his spell to propel me toward him. I steel myself to fight, to bite and claw and thrash, but instead of him grabbing for me, he pulls out a knife.
Fear closes my throat tighter, but I canâ€™t lose my wordsâ€”not now. I need them to save me.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ I sound calm. Reasonable. Not at all the frantic girl screaming inside me. Iâ€™ve never been so thankful for the tightness of my true emotions. Perhaps I can convince him to stop whatever has been planned.
Or perhaps not. His answer is to bear his teeth in a hungry jeer which rids my remaining control. With one fluid motion, he slices my wrist. My blood immediately flows, red and bright. The world sways at the sight. I struggle to hold on, to figure out whatâ€™s going on, what heâ€™s doing, but focusing is growing harder.
My blood wells until it starts to drip. Instead of reaching the ground, he catches it with a powder blue spell like the one heâ€™s using to hold me. Then he does something even stranger. He slices his own wrist open. He uses the same spell to stop his blood seeping from his wound.
The dizziness from all the blood helps to chase away my fear but also muddles my thoughts. I only know that this is bad. Very, very bad.
Yellow streaks grow throughout the spell holding my blood. The spell pulls my blood toward him. And something else starts to tug, something deep inside. My magic. Heâ€™s taking my magic. Panic claws at me.
As the strongest wave of dizziness attacks, I know I have to do something before itâ€™s too late. The world is darkening around me, trying to force me to succumb, but it hasnâ€™t taken me yet. I slam a spell at him. Iâ€™m so far gone, I donâ€™t even recognize what spell it is, but it flings him across the room and plasters him there.
I crash to the floor. Without him hovering, thereâ€™s no spell keeping me or my blood in place. The blackness creeps further over my vision, but I canâ€™t give in. Not now. I hold whatever spell Iâ€™m using on Edward steady and focus a second spell toward closing my wound. I push my power into it, willing the blood to return into the wound and heal quickly so I can deal with the issue that is Edward. And a much bigger issue: exposing my long-kept secret to one of the worst people possible. My master.
I open my eyes and discover no blood in sight. The wooziness remains, but at a manageable level. And he didnâ€™t manage to steal any of my magic. After several deep breaths, I pull myself together enough to stumble over to Edward. Heâ€™s bound against the wall, whimpering, my bronze spell forcing him in place.
Blast. I didnâ€™t mean for that to happen. Then again, I donâ€™t know what I meant to happen. His grin has been replaced by wide-eyed shock. Well, the plan to become his possession is ruined far beyond repair. Might as well go all the way.
I gather my eager magic for a spell father always used on Serena when she was younger and would try to run. The spell ripples from me and surges straight toward him. Its golden flare is streaked with red, hot and fiery, as it encircles his wrists. They are almost like an extension of me, feeding off my fear, tightening around him so he canâ€™t hex me again.
He lets out a whimper as I use the spell to lift his hands above his head. He struggles against it, attempting to shove his wrists free, but they hold. A silvery spell darts from his hands. It bites into my chain spell, trying to weaken it.
The weakening is tiny, barely anything at all. Yet if it continues, will it be enough to get through? How long can I hold this spell anyway? I donâ€™t know enough to stop him. But if I cover his hands, sort of bind them, maybe that would stop him? Itâ€™s worth trying. If I donâ€™t do something, Iâ€™ll end up back under his power, and my magic will mean nothing to me and everything to him.
And worseâ€”what will the council do to me? To my sisters? Will the council think they are involved? I have to fix this.
The red streaks flare brighter as I propel the spell out harder, making the bands thicker and heavier until they are big enough to wrap around his hands. My folly may be the undoing of my sisters. This will be enough to keep him from sneaking free. It has to be.
He struggles again, faint flashes appearing from his fingers beneath the gold and red, but nothing happens. It seems, for now at least, he canâ€™t do anything other than grunt and squirm about. Feigning a confidence I donâ€™t feel, I lean over until my face is inches from his.
â€œThis is what weâ€™re going to do. You are going to release your ownership of me, just like Chancellor Zade did with Serena and I will go free.â€ He starts to say something, but I interrupt him. â€œYou made it clear earlier you know all about it. Thereâ€™s no escaping this. Do you have servants?â€
He doesnâ€™t respond.
â€œDo you?â€ I yell, fear sounding so much like anger.
â€œYes,â€ he croaks out.
â€œI donâ€™t know, lots. Over fifty.â€
Thank the magic. â€œWeâ€™re going to gather them all together and you will tell them of my freedom. Then after I leave, you will tell everyone you know, everyone, that you changed your mind. That you didnâ€™t want me but didnâ€™t want to tarnish me because Iâ€™m just so nice.â€ His eyes tighten, but I press on. â€œThat you gave me my freedom and no one is to bother me.â€
He starts to shake his head. I tighten the already snug spell on his hands and wrists, emphasizing my control.
â€œYou will do this. And then you will never, ever speak to anyone about what I can do, or I will make sure they all know, with vivid detail, how easily I overtook you. Do you understand?â€
His face goes pale and finally he gives the slightest of nods.
â€œGood.â€ I hope. If my threat doesnâ€™t work, I donâ€™t know what fate will befall me and my family. â€œTake us to your servants. And if you make one wrong move, weâ€™ll be right back here going over this again. Only next time, I wonâ€™t be so kind.â€
Once more he nods, his lips giving a strained twitch. I release him from the chain spell but keep my hands up, ready to clamp them back in place.
He shrinks away and without a word leads me through the house. I follow, not trusting him, but having no other choice. If he should do anything contrary to what I asked, Iâ€™m ready to act however may be needed. Even if it means being harsher than a chain spell. At least I think I am ready.
We move from one hall to another, to another. How anyone can stand living in such a labyrinth is beyond me. Iâ€™ve no idea if weâ€™re going anywhere useful or not. Though, perhaps that is the point. Wandering does afford plenty of time for thinking. Or rather, worrying. Mostly about what a terrible mistake Iâ€™ve made. What if he doesnâ€™t keep quiet? What if he tells others about me? What will happen?
Thereâ€™s no way to know. Besides, what other choice did I have? He was trying to take my blood. Thinking about it is making my head spin again. My thoughts are jumbling, piling up in a mass of worry. I need to focus on getting out of here. Then I can figure out what damage my actions caused, and if thereâ€™s anything that can fix it.
After a while of walking and turning down halls, we finally stop. He has led me to the kitchen. Makes sense. Thereâ€™s always someone in the kitchen. Itâ€™s larger than Iâ€™ve ever seen, with an unfamiliar-looking electric cooktop, long counters, and two sinks. Six servants turn to him, their heads, whether the tarnished bald or not, lowered. They were all hiding in here, I suppose.
He addresses the closest servantâ€”a male, lower class. â€œGather everyone here as quickly as you can.â€
Though Edward doesnâ€™t sound as confident as when he was at Serenaâ€™s house, if I hadnâ€™t hexed him myself, I wouldnâ€™t have any idea what heâ€™d just been through. My threat may be enough to make this happen with the servants at least.
The retainer scurries away, presumably to tell the others the latest order. The others return to their task. We wait in silence, me standing a little behind him, ready to bolt or cast a spell as soon as itâ€™s needed. Every so often, one of the servants shifts or grabs another cooking utensil, but they donâ€™t do much, either. They must be frightened of him as well.
When no one returns, I start to wonder if he somehow tricked me. Did he give some sort of signal to the servant and I didnâ€™t notice? Something that said for him to bring the closest law officer? And do what to me? I donâ€™t know. However I do know I donâ€™t want to find out. I was watching the entire time.
While Iâ€™m hesitating over what to do, one of the doors opens. I jump and bend my knees to run. But itâ€™s not a law officer. Itâ€™s a tarnished servant. I relax some, but stay ready to run.
The servant is out of breath but hurries to the center of the kitchen and stands with his back straight, arms at his sides, head lowered. Itâ€™s the fact that heâ€™s out of breath that finally clues me in. This house is big. Of course itâ€™s going to take time for everyone to gather together. From the way the servant is acting, it would appear theyâ€™re coming as fast as they can. Iâ€™m such a ninny.
Still, I donâ€™t let down my guard.
Servants continue trickling in, slowly at first, but soon the kitchen is crammed full of them. Yet, somehow they manage to give both Edward and me a large berth. Theyâ€™re pressed against each other so tightly, itâ€™s a wonder they can breathe. Where were they all when I first arrived and so desperately wanted to see another human?
Finally, the original servant he sent off says, â€œWeâ€™re all here, master.â€
There are so many of them. More than Zade has running his home, and he has a lot because he tries to protect and help as many lower class and tarnished as he can. This is what I need to hope that Edward giving my freedom will be acceptedâ€”a room full of witnesses. The biggest relief doesnâ€™t just come in their numbers, but that most of them are lower-class men. Their word will be accepted more than the women, and especially the tarnished.
But gossip will spread from everyone gathered. Hopefully, across town or wherever I travel to. I donâ€™t even know where I am, let alone where to go. Thereâ€™s no time to panic about that now. I have to finish dealing with this first.
â€œThis is my latest acquisition, Cynthia.â€ His voice sounds strangled. Iâ€™m no longer hexing him, so why is he so agitated? â€œShe isâ€”That is to say, I am going toâ€¦â€
He looks to me with a sort of begging look on his face. What is this for? Does he really believe Iâ€™d succumb to that? He must be a complete dunce. Thereâ€™s no chance Iâ€™m not taking my freedom. I scowl at him. Itâ€™s then he does something a warlock never does,. He lowers his head.
â€œI am going to set her free.â€ His voice cracks. â€œI donâ€™t wish to own her but donâ€™t wish to tarnish her. She shall be as free as any warlock, just as her sister Serena.â€ It almost sounds as if he is in tears as he turns toward me. â€œNow get out.â€
I want to remind him to keep the second half of my demand, but I donâ€™t want the servants to hear. That would be worse than saying nothing at all. Instead, I nod and move to leave. Only I have no idea where the entrance is. Iâ€™m lost. Of all the times Iâ€™ve been grateful Iâ€™ve perfected faking my emotions, none have even come close to this moment.
I smile at the closest servant, a man with a thin scar on his right temple. â€œWould you please show me the way out?â€
The servant looks startled, then turns toward Edward for permission, but my owner of not even a day has already departed.
Once the servant realizes the master is no longer here, the uncertain look leaves his face. With a most solemn expression, he says, â€œIâ€™d be honored.â€
The rest of the servants must also feel it would be an honor as well, because as Iâ€™m shown out, they all follow. All of them. It canâ€™t be easy or comfortable traveling after me though such a confined space. Still they come. Quietly, yet gently moving with me through the maze of the house.
When we reach the entry, the only area familiar in this place, the servant I asked for help says, â€œI would offer you a carriage, butâ€¦â€
â€œI will manage. Thank you.â€ I face everyone. â€œThank you all.â€
They nod, eyes bright as they watch me leave. With my head held high I step out of the house, walk down the lane and out onto the road. Once I'm out of sight of the mansion, the reality of what just happened slams into me. Iâ€™m free, free as any warlock. The dirt is hard beneath my shoes as I do a running sort of skip down the road that would make my younger sisters proud. Iâ€™m as light as air, and happier than Iâ€™ve ever been.
I break out in a full run, pushing myself as fast as I can. The stretch and burning in my legs is as good as casting any spell. Then my foot slips in a hole. Suddenly Iâ€™m falling, down, down, downâ€”I slam into the packed earth. Pain splits up my knee, hands and face. I lay on the ground, letting the pain eat into my reality.
What am I doing? Itâ€™s late at night, and Iâ€™m alone, running in the middle of the road because I donâ€™t have an owner anymore? It almost sounds nice until the other side of that freedom crushes in on me. I have nowhere to go, nothing to wear but this dress, which is probably torn and dirty, though itâ€™s too dark to see for sure. Iâ€™ve nowhere to eat, nowhere to sleep. This freedom came with a price I didnâ€™t even know I would have to pay.
I roll onto my back and stare mindlessly at the stars above me. What did I just do? What have I done? Naturally, I want to be free, but I should have thought about the consequences of my actions more. Not only am I left with nothing, but I havenâ€™t an idea whether or not Edward will stay true to his word. If he calls for law officers to retrieve me, will it matter if a group of servants saw him release me? Even if there were so many of them?
Whatâ€™s worse is not what may happen to me, but what Iâ€™ve done. I wrap my arms around myself. Iâ€™m just like father.
The thought makes me ill. What I did to Edward is exactly what father would have done. If I had done something wrong and Serena stepped in to save me from punishment, he would have punished her. Perhaps he would have taken it further, but the concept is the same. How can I be just like him? My stomach roils until Iâ€™m scrambling to the side of the road, heaving.
Once finished, I pull myself up and limp down the road. I canâ€™t stay where there are only thoughts of how like father I am, where I could be captured at any moment. I donâ€™t know where Iâ€™m going, but I need to get farther from where I am. From who Iâ€™m becoming.
I spend all night trudging along. Walking and walking, yet unsure if it does me any good. For all I know, Edward lives in the countryside without another soul for miles. Or perhaps he lives right next to town, but I went the opposite direction. Blasted windowless carriages. Iâ€™d hex them all to be burnt to charred ash if I could.
Night deepens. My legs and feet ache, each step makes the pain expand, tearing into my muscles. My stomach growls, mouth dry. Itâ€™s like father's here punishing me, once again locking me in the basement for two days, but thereâ€™s nothing to be done for any of it. Perhaps thereâ€™s some spell for conjuring food, but Iâ€™ve never seen or heard of one. I know of nothing to aid this insane mess I've thrown myself into.
I shove on. Thereâ€™s no other choice. I must find someone, or somewhere, that can help. I donâ€™t want to escape a life of being owned only to die of thirst and starvation on an unfamiliar stretch of road. Walking becomes a mind-numbing journey. Canâ€™t allow myself to think or feel. Dirt and rocks beneath my feet, dark abyss all around.
Finally, thereâ€™s a light off in the distance. The closer I get, the more the light multiplies. Itâ€™s a town. For a brief moment, the weight pressing me down lightens. But then itâ€™s back, heavier than ever. Without knowing what awaits me there, I canâ€™t be glad. Itâ€™s not home. The carriage ride to Edward's was much too long for me to have reached my home on foot, and thatâ€™s the one place that would make me truly happy. If Iâ€™m fortunate, maybe I can find some food and avoid being apprehended.
Fortune is not my friend.
As I enter the town, I keep to the shadows. The houses are mostly dark, but a rare few have the glow of electric lights and several have the softer glow of candlelight. Stepping lightly, I try to stay in shadows of houses without any light.
It must be past curfew. Though I may have my freedom, thereâ€™s no way to prove it. Besides, itâ€™s doubtful most warlocks would care even if there was proof. Since gaining my freedom wasnâ€™t public, as Serenaâ€™s was, no one would notice or care if I disappeared. At least no one with the ability to do anything about it.
There are so many houses here. More than Iâ€™ve ever seen in one place. They vary more in shape and size as well. Some are tall and skinny, while others sprawl across the land. The further into town, the more the sprawling ones give way to the tall, skinny ones. No sign of food anywhere. From houses to the few shops scattered among them. With so many houses, there must be a lot of people in them. Where do they all get their food?
It doesnâ€™t matter. My limbs can barely move. I stumble around like someone who drank too much wine. My eyelids droop. Iâ€™m worse off than a toddler at nap time. As Iâ€™m searching for a place to hide and rest, loud laughter echoes down the street.
I press myself against the closest house, pulse drumming through me. Several young warlocks are wandering down the street, playfully pushing each other and casting spells, though itâ€™s difficult to tell what type. Itâ€™s not important right now anyway. Fool of a girl, I canâ€™t be trying to learn when their presence means danger.
I slink along the edge of the building, trying not to draw attention to myself before I reach the corner and slip to the other side. Inch by inch, I grow closer to my goal. Iâ€™m almost there, almost there. Iâ€™m going to make it without being spotted! My foot kicks a rock. The resulting crash is loud, too loud. I freeze.
My hands flex, magic pulsing through me. But the warlocks continue cajoling each other as if they heard nothing. I relax the back of my head against the wall behind me before slinking along again, this time paying extra attention to what my feet are touching.
A few more steps and Iâ€™m around the corner. As I enter the alley, I let out a sigh and hurry away. Except Iâ€™m not safe yet. Their raucous laughter is growing closer and Iâ€™m still visible from the street. I rush to the other end, hoping their noise covers mine. Only the other is a dead end. A brick wall.
Panic claws at me as their sounds come closer. I shove it away as I struggle for a solution. The only things here are garbage bins. Disgusting. But not so vile that I would risk getting caught instead of hiding. Holding my breath, I dart behind them.
I close my eyes and make myself take shallow breaths as I listen to the warlocks, hoping they pass by my alley. They ignore my silent plea. Their teasing gets slowly louder and closer. I wrap my arms around my legs, squeezing myself into a ball as they near the alley.
â€œWhereâ€™re you going, Saban?â€ one calls out.
â€œNeed to take care of something.â€
â€œWhat? Down there?â€
Down there? As in down here? Please, no, no, no!
â€œOld Grayson could use a little extra something. Heâ€™s always so rigid.â€
One of the voices is getting closer, and the footsteps. Blast! They crunch against the pebbles and dirt, heading straight for me. If he comes close enough to the tins, Iâ€™ll be seen, and thereâ€™s nothing to be done about it.
Well, there is something. Iâ€™ve always kept my magic secret until yesterday, but if it comes to either my being caught and punished, or using magic, I could hex him. Possibly. But would this be one more thing to make me like father? Would it make me more like the rest of the warlocks? Their cruelty is something I never, ever want to emulate again. But to protect myself, perhaps that is acceptable as long as I donâ€™t become overzealous. My hands shake as I hold them up, ready to defend myself.
The footsteps move closer. The shaking grows more violent, the energy inside me trembling with it. Suddenly, thereâ€™s silence.
â€œHurry it up, Saban.â€
â€œThere are some things you canâ€™t hurry,â€ the closer voice shouts back.
The boys laugh. What are they talking about? Is he trying to slowly sneak up on me? Purposefully making a mess of my emotions before dragging me out of the alley? If so, itâ€™s working. Though the strain on my nerves makes me feel like my magic will erupt at the first sight of him. Itâ€™s not a consequence heâ€™d expect. However, as bad as my hands are shaking, my aim would be ineffective.
I take several slow, steadying breaths like Zade taught us to do when shooting. Thereâ€™s a strange sound. Like something I should recognize, but donâ€™t. Like a spray of water landing on something hard? Oh, filth! Is he taking care of his personal business in public? Revolting!
The sound trickles on for much too long before finally stopping. Iâ€™m so shocked and dismayed that the shaking in my hands has lessened at least. But as his footsteps sound again, the shaking returns. Until I realize the sound is fading away. I let my shaking hands fall to my lap as he and his friends leave, laughing over his crude manners as they go. Still, I donâ€™t relax until thereâ€™s no sound left.
Once itâ€™s silent for a minute, I start to lean back against the wall. The thought assails me of what that warlock just did. My back goes hexed straight.
Ugh. How incredibly foul. The only place that would be worse to be right now is back at Edwardâ€™s. As exhausted as I am, there wonâ€™t be any relaxing this close to where someone relieved himself. I just canâ€™t.
I stand, brush myself off, and walk toward the streetâ€”this time keeping far from the walls. Not far enough, though. My skin itches with the need for scrubbing. I brush myself off again, but it does nothing to ease the feeling. When Iâ€™m to the street, I cringe and creep toward the wall, though I donâ€™t touch it. Only the need to stay safe and hidden is keeping me here.
I peek around the corner and examine the street. No one is coming. When Iâ€™m sure no oneâ€™s there, I slink out and hurry away from the tainted alley. The extra energy coursing through me after almost being caught wanes. I pass several alleys before I finally pause in front of one.
This isnâ€™t where I want to hide. What makes this alley different from the last one? It could be just as tainted. My eyes drift closed as I try to find a solution. My body sways out where anyone could see. The realization means it doesnâ€™t matter if the alley is tainted or not. If things stay like this, I will be caught.
I enter, taking my time and carefully sniffing. It doesnâ€™t smell pleasant, like mildew and kitchen waste, but at least it doesnâ€™t smell like a water closet. I make my way to the back and hunker down behind the bins. The stench of waste is stronger here, but at least Iâ€™m out of sight.
I shift around to make myself comfortable, but itâ€™s impossible to gain any sense of comfort in this place. I give up and simply huddle tight with my eyes closed. The swirling drift of coming sleep quickly follows.
A drip wets my face. I jolt awake, fearing someone is now using me like the previous alley. But thereâ€™s no one. Just another drip and another. Coming faster and thicker. Itâ€™s raining. Of course it is.
Itâ€™s cold and wet. All. Night. Long. At least my gloves supply warmth, little though they add. And my thick skirts protect me some, but still manage to get soaked through.
Morning comes just as wet and cold. My stomach aches, reminding me the elements arenâ€™t my only problem. I need to find food, and hopefully better shelter than I had last night. Thereâ€™s much to fear from wandering about, like what will happen to me if someone should recognize Iâ€™m unchaperoned, or worse, Edwardâ€™s recent purchase in need of punishment followed by a swift return. Yet, if I continue like this, there wonâ€™t be anything left of me to punish.
I peek around a bin. Thereâ€™s no one in the alley, though two warlocks pass by on the street without glancing my way. I jerk back. Itâ€™s not so bad being cold, wet, and hungry. Telling myself that doesnâ€™t work as well as I think it ought.
Suppose Iâ€™ll have to pretend to myself as well as everyone else. The only things I have are the clothes and jewelry Iâ€™m wearing. When father was my master, I used to keep food hidden on me somewhere, a habit I should never have given up, even if things seemed safer. I sigh and comb my hair back with my fingers before returning it to a bun, letting my magic smooth it down.
Once Iâ€™m feeling a little more prepared for what may await me, I stand and plod to the street. No one is paying me any mindâ€”yet. I step out and move along as if this is exactly where I belong, keeping my face lowered, and pretending like Iâ€™m following someone even though no male leads me.
People wander around, walking down the street, going in and out of shops. Mostly males, but occasionally a woman accompanies one. I make my way to an empty area and stand next to a building, out of the way, not knowing what to do or where to go. What I need is information. And food. And shelter. A bath would be nice as well. But where does one go to discover any of that? Itâ€™s not like I thought this through. If I hadâ€”no, if I had thought it through, I would have done the same thing. Except to perhaps make a plan for what to do afterward. Then again, maybe not. Plan making isnâ€™t a skill Iâ€™ve ever excelled at.
For the most part, Iâ€™m ignored. Save for one man, with an umbrella protecting him from the downpour, hiding his features from me. Every time I peek down the street heâ€™s still there, hovering. The only reason heâ€™d have for watching me isnâ€™t good.
Heâ€™s thin but in a strong sort of way. The way his coat hugs his frame speaks of trim muscles, not the bulge so many warlocks carry. He's short, at least short compared to Zade, though probably just taller than me. I canâ€™t know for certain without him coming closer. And he is coming closer. Blast.
Pretending a nonchalance I donâ€™t feel, I head away from him. My legs throb with the desire to move faster, to race away, but I force myself to stroll. Slowly, I increase my pace until Iâ€™m going as fast as I dare. Is he following? I canâ€™t look back. Which is safer? Stay on the main streets or use a side street? If I take a side street, it could be another dead end, but the main streets have warlocks who will side with him.
My stomach rumbles, growling with a gnawing pain as if I needed to be reminded of one more problem. Iâ€™m hungry and dirty and tired, sloshing as fast as I dare through the mud, without any idea what to do.
Suddenly, the warlock is at my side, strolling next to me as if this was planned all along. Except I donâ€™t even know who he is. Heâ€™s perhaps a year or two older than me, my height as I suspected, with dark skin just like the way I make a cup of chocolate with a dollop of cream stirred in. It tugs at a memory of others having darker skin at the tournament last year. Deep-brown eyes hiding behind the framed windows on his face also stir memories. Those like him wore red at the tournament, I believe.
Thereâ€™s a faint smile teasing his lips that, despite its size, seems to radiate joy. Probably not the type of joy that will bring me any happiness.
â€œCan I help you, miss?â€ His odd request drawls out in a slow, lazy sort of way.
My pulse is pounding so hard it almost hurts, yet I donâ€™t know whatâ€™s making it faster this warlock or my quickening pace. Probably both. Iâ€™m careful to keep my head lowered and voice submissive. â€œNo, I donâ€™t think so, sir.â€
The statement doesnâ€™t deter him from continuing on, nor does it stop him from staring at me. Not that I expected it to, but things would have been easier.
â€œAre you certain? You look lost.â€
This statement does the strangest thing to me. Tears build, stinging for release. But itâ€™s a feeling I know how to suppress. Whatâ€™s harder is suppressing the fear. â€œIâ€™m fine.â€
He gives a small snort as if he doesnâ€™t believe me, then gives my neck a not so subtle glance. â€œIs your owner around?â€
My unbranded skin says I should still be under my fatherâ€™s control. I cover it with my hand, but itâ€™s too late. Should have stayed in my cold, little alley. Might as well hope the truth can save me before something drastic is needed, like a spell. â€œThe only owner I have is myself.â€
His eyebrows rise. â€œSerena?â€
Her name startles me into looking straight into his rich, brown eyes. It's only for a brief moment before I remember myself, yet it's enough to prove my willfulness. Of course warlocks know her name. Am I going to spend the rest of my life having my status compared to hers? â€œNo.â€
His eyebrows crinkle together, creating a thin line between them. It makes me want to look at him full on instead of out of the corner of my eye and discover how true of a reaction that really is as he answers. â€œBut sheâ€™s the only Chardonian woman who isnâ€™t ownedâ€¦ Unless youâ€™re not Chardonian?â€
â€œI am.â€ Unfortunately. The way he keeps staring at me makes me wonder what heâ€™s planning that he doesnâ€™t want to let me out of his sight. At least it gets rid of the desire to look at him closer. He is the enemy, I remind myself. All males are except Zade.
â€œMy status is newly acquired.â€ As in, so new I donâ€™t know if Edward has told anyone else yet like Iâ€™m hoping heâ€™s done. Like he must do if Iâ€™m to survive.
â€œAh. I see.â€ His smile widens. â€œIs that why you look so lost?â€
I have an urge to ramble a reply, one that would likely turn into my life story if I started. This man is making it difficult to keep myself in check. Why doesnâ€™t he just do whatever it is heâ€™s going to do to me? Why do they always have to turn it into a game? â€œI do not look lost.â€
His smile shifts to one that says he doesnâ€™t believe it, but heâ€™ll humor me. Like the type of smile one would give to a small child who doesnâ€™t know better. â€œForgive me if I misinterpreted your standing out in the rain, watching everyone go by with big, hungry eyes like you donâ€™t know what to do, as lost.â€
I scowl at him. Has he been watching even longer than I thought? And then I realize that my emotions are slipping through. Again, apparently. What is it about him that is making me lose control? Itâ€™s not him. Itâ€™s the situation. Iâ€™ve never been in one like this before, and itâ€™s making me break. I grasp my emotions back tightly within while keeping my head lowered.
â€œThank you for your concern, but I assure you, thereâ€™s no need for your assistance.â€
â€œHmm.â€ He nods his head like he finally understands what Iâ€™m saying, but instead of leaving like I hope, he says, â€œThen I imagine youâ€™d turn down an offer to share my umbrella?â€
I most definitely donâ€™t want to share an umbrella with some warlock. Warlocks are trouble. Not only trouble, but also harbingers of tarnishings and death. Besides, Iâ€™m already soaked. Nothing will change that now. Not even a kindly-offered umbrella.
â€œThat would be a correct assumption.â€
â€œWhat about my coat then? Would you take it?â€
Why is he so persistent? Does he have to leave one of his things with me as a way to prove Iâ€™m doing something wrong to one of the local law officers? Or is this just the way foreign warlocks behave? At least, Iâ€™m assuming heâ€™s a foreigner. â€œTruly, Iâ€™m fine.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re shivering.â€
The cold had left my mind until he pointed it out, but I really am shivering. I donâ€™t remember the last time it was this cold. And sometime while weâ€™ve been talking, my rapid pace has slowed. Though the season is starting to warm, at any time spring could turn even worse than it is now. Tonight. What am I going to do? Whatever it is, I can at least keep from completely freezing.
â€œI believe I could accept it.â€
His grin morphs into a winning one, yet still manages to stay small and warm. Itâ€™s a smile like Iâ€™ve never seen before. He hands me his umbrella before taking his coat off. I try to keep the umbrella over him, keeping the rain from dripping on him. Itâ€™s heavier than I expect, and my arm wavers. The umbrella tilts to the side. Before I can right it, the water pooling on it falls, splashing on his head, drenching him.
I brace myself for a hex that never comes. Perhaps the mistake didn't bother him as much as I expected? Who knows what this strange man thinks. At least his coat was already off and stretched out toward me so it's still fairly dry? Perfect way to treat the person saving me from freezing to death.
â€œSorry.â€ Did I just apologize to a warlock? One day Iâ€™m hexing a warlock, the next Iâ€™m apologizing to another. Itâ€™s unprecedented. And not to be repeated.
He laughs. â€œDidnâ€™t really want to stay dry anyway. Rain is refreshing.â€
Refreshingly cold. Such an odd male.
He leans away from me and shakes the water from his hair, droplets spotting on the strange framed windows in front of his eyes. The short, dark locks glisten over those now water-sparkled eyes. Itâ€™s hard to concentrate as he helps me into his coat, first one sleeve then, after switching the umbrella to his now free hand, the other.
As he reaches out to take the umbrella back from me, our hands brush. I snatch my hand away and pull the coat tighter. Itâ€™s warm from being wrapped around him and smells faintly of something sweet and spicy. My shivering abates somewhat only to be replaced by my stomach growling again.
His brows raise again. I glance away, willing my cheeks not to pick this moment to heat and give me away.
â€œI will be on my way then, miss. Unless thereâ€™s something else I can help with?â€
Still having a hard time believing the only reason he stopped me was to give his coat, I shake my head.
â€œVery well then,â€ he says as if he expected my silent response, and turns.
As he starts to walk away, I call out, â€œBut your coat. How will I return it?â€
â€œKeep it,â€ he calls over his shoulder and rounds a building.
Keep it? As in, it belongs to me now? I pull it tighter around me savoring its warmth but also trying to decipher what it means to have something of my own. Not just something father purchased, and is letting me use, but something truly mine. Perhaps my first thoughts of him giving it to me to use as some sort of leverage with a law officer were correct. It doesnâ€™t make sense though. A warlock doesnâ€™t need such evidence. The fact Iâ€™m out here all alone and claiming to not have an owner is enough for punishment to be dealt.
So then why give me his coat?
A while later, much past time for lunch, Iâ€™m still wandering through the town. Iâ€™ve become so turned about; Iâ€™m not sure how far I am from where the man gave me his coat. At least Iâ€™m warmer, but it only does so much good. What I need is some sort of information and help from someone I can trust. Food, shelter, communication with home. But thereâ€™s nothing.
Thereâ€™s been no tarnished to attempt to get help from. Theyâ€™re the only ones I trust, and even then I donâ€™t know how far my trust goes. I spotted one, and followed her to a house, but she slammed the door so fast my words were good for nothing but banging on the wood. I donâ€™t blame her. Talking to me would probably only lead to her getting in trouble.
Which brings trouble. If my being around causes trouble, I shouldnâ€™t go home. Not that I know where it is anyway, but I had hoped. Perhaps I can still send a message to Serena and she could at least send me a few clothes along with enough money to doâ€¦ well, something.
The longer I wander, the more my stomach feels hollow and angry. When was the last time I ate? Iâ€™ve had water, but food? I donâ€™t even remember for certain. Back at home, there was a small roll for breakfast before Edward came, though with my nerves it was difficult to eat. How long ago was that? Over two days, I think. The pain in my stomach makes it hard to think.
The rain makes my hair soggy, something my spell has dealt with before. It feels as if itâ€™s slipping from its bun, but I donâ€™t dare fix it in public. Even if I were to dart into an alleyway, there are too many people and someone may follow. Thereâ€™s nowhere safe from prying eyes. It canâ€™t be expected that my hair remain perfect in such weather. Naturally, they can and will, but I donâ€™t know how women manage it without magic. I do my best to smooth it, and hope itâ€™s enough to draw any unwanted attention away from me.
Suddenly, I realize a warlock is striding in my direction. Not just any warlock. Black breeches, orange shirt, baton hook at his side. A law officer. My hands go clammy. Is he coming for me? Have I finally been caught? Whatâ€™s to become of me if I am his intended target?
I cross the street. He crosses as well. My pace quickens. So does his. My heart races, magic banging about inside me, but I keep my outward appearance in check. This canâ€™t be good. I glance behind my shoulder and heâ€™s almost to me. I pick up the pace so Iâ€™m almost running.
â€œStop,â€ he calls out.
Which is worse: to stop and listen, or to run? Neither are likeable options, but I stop. Running can come later if needed, with a hex to give me a head start. Only itâ€™d better not come to that. Perhaps he only wants to tell me to fix my hair and leave it at that. Unlikely, but I can pretend to myself as well as others. I have options. Just not good ones. I keep my head down and my back straight, not letting any other reason for him to find fault with me to slip out.
â€œWhereâ€™s your owner?â€ he demands.
A few people on the street stop to watch. I donâ€™t know whether itâ€™s good or bad they look on. I do know this is a bad, bad situation.
â€œHeâ€™s justâ€¦â€ Not a he, heâ€™s a she whoâ€™s me. Blasted words. If Iâ€™m confusing myself. Heâ€™s not only going to be confused, but bring more trouble for thinking Iâ€™m untruthful.
As if to prove my fears just, he pulls out his baton and smacks it against his hand. â€œWhereâ€™s your owner?â€
A beating. Thatâ€™s what he has in mind for me. My gaze canâ€™t tear itself away from his baton, which slaps against his hand several more times. It will be painful. Not what I want, yet something I can handle. What comes after the beating, though? Why did I think coming to a town full of people and law officers was a good idea?
I open my mouth to say something, though Iâ€™m still trying to formulate what, but before I speak, a voice with a drawl says, â€œDo you have a problem with this woman?â€
Coat Man. Without his umbrella now and more soaked than ever. What is he doing here? And why is he interrupting?
The questioning warlock scowls, his crooked teeth bared. â€œAnd just who are you?â€
â€œA friend of her owner.â€
My owner? Does this mean heâ€™s claiming to be my friend, Edwardâ€™s friend, or Serenaâ€™s? And why, exactly, would he claim such a thing?
â€œDoubtful,â€ the warlock scoffs. â€œWith your looks and accent, youâ€™re not from around these parts. More like someone who needs to be shown their place.â€
Coat Man shrugs, nonchalant-like. â€œWhether you believe it or not, Iâ€™m watching over her. And as for showing me my place, Iâ€™m here from Chryos preparing for the tournament. Your country so graciously invited me to come.â€
Chryos? Tournament? That explains so much. If men from Envado, like Zade, are different, why wouldn't men from other countries be courteous as well? Do they do things like offering their coats to cold women without another purpose? Though claiming to be a friend of my owner is a little farfetched and watching over me?
â€œYour country may have the coal the council wants, but it doesnâ€™t mean the rest of us are gracious about anything.â€ The crooked-toothed warlock spits. â€œBest stick with her. You wouldnâ€™t want your friend in trouble because sheâ€™s wandering alone and doesnâ€™t look as she ought.â€
â€œPoint taken, sir. Thank you for your help.â€
The warlock glares at Coat Man and then at me before storming off. Relief drenches me, easing my magic but not my posture. The gathered crowd dissipates once the law officer is gone, though with many backward glances. The Chryon lingers, thumbs hooked in his pockets.
Once the listening ears are far enough away, I say, â€œWatching over me?â€
â€œItâ€™s not a lie.â€ Though his words are defensive, his hands remain in his pockets, as if heâ€™s relaxed.
â€œYes, it is. You donâ€™t know me or my owner.â€
â€œYou are wearing my coat.â€
The statement sends an irrational amount of embarrassment flooding through me, but I donâ€™t let that show. â€œA coat doesnâ€™t make you friends with my owner. Besides, you said I could keep it, which makes it mine.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve got me there.â€ He leans in a little closer, and suddenly my mouth feels dry. â€œBut I did give it to you.â€
My mind is blank. I canâ€™t think of a single response. Nothing that would bring any sense to this situation. I canâ€™t even reach my usual fake smile that everyone falls for. Yet he grins, his small yet powerful grin, like he knows it.
What is wrong with me? This is a warlock Iâ€™m thinking about. Thereâ€™s not a single, valid reason I should be turning into the puddled mess Iâ€™m always pretending to be around warlocks. I jerk away. His smile dims and for some reason it makes me want to lean back in, which only makes me angry with myself. I divert my gaze back toward the ground where it should have been the entire time.
â€œIt is true that I was requested to watch over you,â€ he says.
This pulls me out of my ridiculous thoughts and helps my stoic face regain its facade. â€œOh? And who ordered that? Edward?â€
â€œWhoâ€™s Edward?â€ He sounds so genuinely puzzled that I have to believe Edward truly didnâ€™t send him. Except then, who did? He continues, â€œWhoever he is, Iâ€™m helping anyway. What would have happened just now if I hadnâ€™t?â€
I have no idea, but just thinking on it sends my magic spiraling madly again. â€œDo you know? Being a foreigner, itâ€™s not as if you know the customs here.â€
He rocks on the balls of his feet, yet says nothing. Perhaps Iâ€™m mistaken. He could know. Perhaps theyâ€™re even harsher to their women in Chryos. Maybe doing kind things like giving women their coats when itâ€™s raining is a way to lift them up so when theyâ€™re punished, the women have all the farther to fall. I have farther to fall.
In any case, his point is correct. Whatever happened wouldnâ€™t have been good. Very well. He wins. For now. But Iâ€™m not admitting it aloud. I cross my arms in front of my chest and stare him down.
â€œI have a friend whoâ€™s good at helping with situations like yours,â€ he says.
A friend? Thatâ€™s not cryptic. â€œHow do you even know what my situation is?â€
â€œPlease. Youâ€™ve been outside, in the rain I have to add, since sometime before I went to the bakery this morning. Chardonia women never do that. And, though itâ€™s not very gentlemanly of me to mention, your stomach keeps growling.â€
I want to cover my stomach. I want to, but I donâ€™t. His mention of the bakery only makes the sounds louder. Still, I keep my arms crossed, not lowering them even an inch. I donâ€™t even give him the satisfaction of a reply.
Though my cheeks are hot, which is reply enough.
â€œSo weâ€™re agreed your situation could use some, ah, aid,â€ he says.
â€œI implied nothing of the sort.â€
He ignores me as if I didnâ€™t say anything. Which I shouldnâ€™t have. Why do inappropriate things keep spewing out of my mouth?
â€œMy friend thinks we may be able to help. Heâ€™s actually making his way here to check on another situation close by, and said heâ€™d stop by and help with yours,\ as well.â€
Great. Two warlocks shoving their way into my situation. Just what I need.
â€œI know you probably donâ€™t want to trust me, but Zaâ€” my friend really is a good guy. Heâ€™ll do what he can.â€
â€œZade? Chancellor Zade? Is that who you were going to say is your friend?â€
â€œPossibly,â€ he hedges. â€œWhat if he is?â€
â€œThat would change things.â€
â€œAnd what if he isnâ€™t?â€
â€œThat wouldnâ€™t change things.â€
He sighs and pushes the strange window things farther up his nose. â€œFine then. Itâ€™s Chancellor Zade. Youâ€™ve heard of him?â€
Heard of Zade? If this wasn't so dangerous, I'd laugh. This has to be some sort of joke or, more likely, a trap. I put on my hard, no-nonsense expression disregarding the worry quivering through me. â€œWhat is it you want from me? Do you work with the council? Are you going to drag me somewhere no one will be able to find me? Are you here to punish me? To tarnish me? To kill me?â€
â€œSo you are in trouble?â€
How am I giving too much away again? â€œIâ€™m done speaking with you.â€ I stride off.
Of course, he follows after. â€œPlease, let me help. We can go to a restaurant and wait for Zade there. Itâ€™s a nice, public place. Iâ€™ll buy you something to eat while we wait.â€
Being in public doesnâ€™t mean safe. Yet his words keep tumbling though my mind. I stop, the boardwalk creaking beneath my feet. Zade, come here? Itâ€™s a trick. It has to be. Zade should be with Serena, or doing whatever else it is heâ€™s always disappearing to do when itâ€™s not a council day. But if it is Zade, my problems would be a lot more manageable. If.
Even if itâ€™s not Zade, Iâ€™m hungry. This isnâ€™t going to be a chance Iâ€™ll have again. I can claim a need to use the water closet and slip out when no one's looking. Because of father, I had a lot of practice with that. I'd even distract them with some sort of spell if I had to.
He says, â€œI really donâ€™t want to pressure you, but I think you should comeâ€”wait. Did you just say youâ€™ll come?â€ This time Iâ€™m the one to raise my eyebrows at him. â€œRight. Letâ€™s go.â€
Hopefully, this isnâ€™t as bad of a decision as the rest of the ones Iâ€™ve made lately.
I follow him into a restaurant. There are no tarnished eating at this one, unlike the only other restaurant Iâ€™ve been to. The tarnished are only servers. Most everyone else is a warlock, and very few women dot the place.
He leads me to a table in the back corner. As we weave past the other tables, I hunch in on myself trying to become small, unnoticeable, with my head down as I remain a step behind. It feels as if everyoneâ€™s eyes are on me, boring into me and learning all my secrets. I wish he would have picked a table up front so at least we wouldnâ€™t have been paraded through them all.
Once seated, everything changes. Coat Man sits with his back to one wall, and Iâ€™ve got mine to the other. Having my back to the wall already lends a sense of security, even if itâ€™s only a small sense.
We have a good view of the entire room without making ourselves conspicuous, but most of the room has a harder time looking at us without straining their necks. And soon they forget about us anyway, going back to their meal.
Or at least they appear to forget about us. I donâ€™t trust that their unprying eyes mean unprying attitudes. I keep a close watch on them, the door, and the man Iâ€™m sitting next to. I canâ€™t forget heâ€™s brought me in out of the rain and is buying me food, though it doesnâ€™t change the fact that heâ€™s a warlock who hasnâ€™t proven himself unwarlock-like. His coat is still warm, wrapped around me, and dripping on the wood floor.
The waitress bustles to our table, a disgusted look on her face directed at me. Outwardly, I donâ€™t let her scowl bother me, and I stare right back at her, but inwardly I want to crawl under the table and hide. Itâ€™s not like I want to be wet, dirty, and making a mess everywhere.
Finally, she looks away from me and I feel like Iâ€™ve won some victory, though in reality the only thing Iâ€™ve really managed is to drip more on the clean floor.
â€œWhat would you like to eat?â€ Her voice is much more pleasant than expected.
â€œHow about two bowls of stew, milk, and as many rolls as you can bring us.â€ Then he turns toward me. â€œIf thatâ€™s good with you?â€
I struggle not to gape at him. Heâ€™s asking my opinion? Perhaps he truly does know Zade. Heâ€™s been the only warlock to show concern over my preference. â€œThat would be acceptable.â€
Honestly, itâ€™s more than acceptable. At the moment, Iâ€™d eat anything.
â€œIâ€™ll have it right out.â€ Before the waitress goes, she glances at me again, but this time with a questioning look. Probably the first time sheâ€™s seen a warlock care about a womanâ€™s preference. What sort of thoughts will it put into her head?
In the silence that follows, thereâ€™s only the low hum of other patrons conversing and my dripping. Well, not just my dripping. Iâ€™m also attempting to watch Coat Man without giving away that Iâ€™m doing so. It flickers to my awareness that heâ€™s wet and dripping as well. Not only that, but because of me, he doesnâ€™t have a coat. His arms are crossed as if heâ€™s trying to keep his heat in.
I pick at the hem of the sleeve on the coat he gave me, feeling like I should return it, but all too aware of how cold it was last night. Cold and wet. If I give it back, Iâ€™ll have nothing to protect me from that. He said I could have it, and I need it. Yet, itâ€™s hard to remember when heâ€™s shivering.
â€œIf you donâ€™t mind,â€ he says, â€œI think Iâ€™ll be more comfortable if I dry off.â€
Apparently, I wasnâ€™t so subtle in my staring at his dripping state. But what does he mean by dry off? Itâ€™s not as if there is a towel or blanket nearby. And then he does something that has me gawking.
He casually flicks his wrist, a sky blue spell, tinted with a darker blue, glides from his fingertips. The light brushes against him, leaving everything it touches dry.
I try not to be too blatant in my staring, except Iâ€™ve never seen anything quite like it. Itâ€™s difficult not to be wide-eyed. Warlocks are rarely casual with magic. I want to study it, to see if I can discover how to duplicate it. But he quickly dries and no longer has any use for the spell. The light is extinguished before thereâ€™s much time to examine it. Thatâ€™s how spells always are. Tiny glimpses, which leave me aching for more.
â€œI know itâ€™s not something causally done in Chardonia, but if you donâ€™t mindâ€¦â€ He runs a finger across the side of his framed windows a few times leaving me wishing he would just say what he wants to say. â€œI could dry you off as well.â€
The words are more than I hoped for. Not only showing me the spell again but helping me not be soaked? Please! Yet I mustnâ€™t sound too eager. I think of how Serena would answer, the slight disdain for magic still hasnâ€™t left her tone after all these months and the few spells Zade has shown us. â€œI suppose.â€
â€œI donâ€™t have to if you donâ€™t want me to.â€
Perhaps too much disdain. â€œIt would be nice to be dry.â€
His forehead wrinkles, but he casts the spell. This time itâ€™s not just sky blue, but has red twirling around it. It moves much slower toward me than it did with him, a lazy floating as if it doesnâ€™t have the entire restaurant of warlocks as an audience. Perhaps heâ€™s trying not to frighten me off, except Iâ€™m anything but frightened.
The colors, heat, and flow of light are fascinating as they creep closer and closer until they brush my skin and clothes. The spell doesnâ€™t linger against my skin, not compared with how long it took to reach me. It feels as if a gentle breeze has picked up everywhere it touches, drying me. The red parts from the blue, seeping even closer, warming me.
When the spell pulls away, all too soon, Iâ€™m feeling much better. Warm, dry, and, though I didnâ€™t suppose it could be, even more eager for the coming food. Plus, there was a spell that wasnâ€™t a hex, which just lingered near me. That never happens. A swell of giddiness envelopes me, making me wish I was alone to work on figuring out how to replicate the spell.
The coat is stifling now that Iâ€™m warm and dry. I keep it wrapped around me, nervous over losing another barrier between me and the world, but the heat grows. Itâ€™s hot, making sweat bead on my back. This is ridiculous. Iâ€™m no more or less in danger without the coat on, only more uncomfortable.
I take it off. And though I donâ€™t want to return it, with how things are going so far, I canâ€™t keep it either. Heâ€™s been much too generous for that.
I hold it out to him, my grip refusing to be anything except tight on its collar. â€œThank you.â€
â€œYouâ€™re welcome, but I meant it when I said keep it. I donâ€™t need it.â€
I grip the coat even tighter, not believing he doesnâ€™t need it. Itâ€™s not like I couldnâ€™t see him shivering before. But if heâ€™s going to insist, Iâ€™m not going to refuse. I drape it on the back of my chair, arranging it so my back presses against it. Every so often I let the back of my arm brush against it, reminding me that itâ€™s there. â€œThank you.â€
â€œYou already said that.â€ His smile grows. â€œBut youâ€™re welcome again. Iâ€™m happy to help however I can. Iâ€™m Lukas.â€
And here Iâ€™ve been calling him Coat Man, not that he ever need know it. Itâ€™s a good name, like Luke. Familiar and different all at once, like he is. Iâ€™m still trying to process what the rest of what he said means when the waitress brings our order. She sets a steaming bowl in front of Lukas before placing one before me. As soon as the food is in front of me, itâ€™s a struggle not to gulp it down.
She places a basket of rolls in the middle of the table. â€œIs there anything else you need?â€
â€œNo. Thank you,â€ he tells her.
And I feel guilty because the spoon is already filled and in my mouth. I pretend as if this was my plan all along. Women usually donâ€™t speak much around warlocks anyway. Though, they also usually wait for their owner or other warlocks to eat before starting. I own myself, though, and thatâ€™s good enough for me, even if she doesnâ€™t know it, and he probably doesnâ€™t believe it. Yes, that was my plan all along.
The thought spurs me on faster, though I still use my manners as I devour my stew. The food is so good. Hot and savory. I donâ€™t know the last time I ate something so delicious. Or perhaps itâ€™s because I havenâ€™t eaten anything in almost two days. Before I know it, the soup is gone. The empty bowl is depressing, but of course I donâ€™t let it show. Instead, I grab a roll and, now that my appetite is somewhat suppressed, daintily nibble on it.
â€œYou must have been hungry,â€ he says.
I shrug as if my behavior is normal.
He chuckles. â€œIâ€™ll order you another bowl when she comes back.â€
Part of me feels as if I should protest. Why is he being so nice? What does he want? I canâ€™t pay with money, yet this must mean somethingâ€” the question is, what? Whatever it is, if things get too intense and threaten my freedom, I have a plan.
â€œAnother bowl would be welcome.â€
His grin grows, but I donâ€™t understand how exactly. The size stays the same, but something in his expression is happier. Eyes brighter or smile lines deeper. Itâ€™s hard not to study his face to identify exactly what changed.
When the waitress returns a few minutes later, Lukas orders another bowl of soup, which doesnâ€™t take long to arrive. Soon Iâ€™ve finished two bowls of soup and an absurd amount of rolls. My stomach feels much better but knows hunger wonâ€™t be far off.
Remembering this, I sneak a roll into the pocket of my dress while heâ€™s staring at the door. Yet another reason to thank Katherine and her clever clothing designs. If I ever see her again. I might not. Itâ€™s a sobering thought. Thereâ€™s room for three more rolls, which I quickly stuff in.
The wait without eating is more awkward than before. The noise of warlocks speaking is a pointed reminder that we arenâ€™t talking. And that all their deep voices are nothing like my high one. Thereâ€™s only one other woman here who isnâ€™t serving, and she is doing well at keeping her head down and mouth shut. I canâ€™t follow suit.
â€œHow much longer are we going to have to remain here?â€
He shrugs like itâ€™s no big deal, but the line of his jaw is taut. â€œIt shouldnâ€™t be much longer before he gets here.â€
Or Zade isnâ€™t coming at all. I twist the ring on my index finger, no longer hungry. Food is stashed away for later, and Iâ€™m dry. Perhaps I should go now instead of waiting. The likelihood that Zade is really going to be the one to walk through those doors is slim.
Itâ€™s still raining out. Guess the staying dry part wonâ€™t last for long. Yet it canâ€™t be helped. I pull the coat off the back of the chair and stand.
â€œPlease wait,â€ he says. â€œHeâ€™ll be here soon.â€
â€œYou said that. Itâ€™s time for me to go.â€
â€œSit for just another five minutes. If he doesnâ€™t come, you can go. No questions asked.â€ I donâ€™t trust him, but it is still raining outside, and I do have a plan. â€œPlease. People are starting to notice.â€
And heâ€™s right; the warlocks are paying more attention to us again. If Lukas really wants to stop me, heâ€™ll have all the help he wants. I sit, letting the attention drift away so I can have a clear run to the door. And if itâ€™s not clear enough, well, I pull my magic close by for quick use. At least the coat is in my lap now and easy to access without alerting him Iâ€™m about to escape when the time comes.
â€œYou donâ€™t trust me,â€ he says, yanking me from my escape plot. â€œIâ€™m sure you have good reason not to. But I really am only trying to help.â€
Foolish words that tug at me, making me want to believe him, even though I know I shouldnâ€™t.
â€œWhy do you wear those strange windows on your face?â€
His eyebrows lift. â€œYou donâ€™t know what glasses are?â€
â€œGlasses?â€ Sounds like something you drink from, except they are on his face.
â€œThey help me see. When I don't wear them, everything looks blurry.â€ He takes them off and holds them out to me. His eyes are even a deeper brown without them on. â€œTry them. Theyâ€™ll make things look different, not clear like they do for me, but you can still see what theyâ€™re like.â€
Without them, he looks as if heâ€™s missing something. As if the glasses are a part of him. Iâ€™m staring again and heâ€™s waiting for me to take the glasses. I snatch them out of his hand and shove them onto my face.
The world looksâ€¦ strange. Tilted almost, and a little nauseating. And the person who just walked in the restaurant looks familiar. Like I know whoever it is, but stretched funny. Zade. I pluck the glasses off my face as he comes striding toward us.
If it wasnâ€™t for all the warlocks around, Iâ€™d jump up and give him a hug before he could make it two steps in the room. Itâ€™s actually him! Though the fact that I was wearing Lukasâ€™s glasses makes me feel as if Iâ€™ve been playing some bizarre sort of game instead of desperately needing help. I hand back the glasses as if itâ€™s the most natural thing in the world but as quickly as I can.
The business Zade was checking into, was that me? If so, at least Iâ€™m making things easier for him and not harder, not one more thing to add to his list. Except, itâ€™s as if I am the entire list. One created of my own ineptitude, trying to help and instead making things worse. As anxious as I was for his help, Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™m ready to see his response.
The tension in his jaw lessens enough that itâ€™s still evident even from the corner of the room, though the way he stomps over brings a pit of chaos to my stomach. His long legs make quick work of getting to us, all eyes on him, except for Lukas, whoâ€™s leaving some coins on the table.
Zade doesnâ€™t bother sitting. â€œLetâ€™s go.â€
If we were at home, Iâ€™d tease him about being grumpy, that itâ€™s been too long since he saw Serena even though he saw her yesterday. Instead, the pit of chaos grows into my chest as well, while I hurry to follow him out of the restaurant. Lukas hurries to his side and they lead me through the streets, Zade staying properly forward facing as a warlock should. Not Lukas though, he gives me many backward glances. Iâ€™d like to think it means something, that his concern has been proven as true as his connection to Zade. Yet, itâ€™s the type of unwarlock-like behavior that will bring the wrong sort of attention.
When Zade finally stops at a house, the mass of chaos is skittering frantically searching for something calm. Lukas pulls out a key, but as he unlocks the door, he mixes a spell with it. With his back blocking most of the view, I only catch a flash of bronze and no clear view of what he did.
He holds the door open and ushers us in. Zade casually looks around, though knowing him itâ€™s anything but casual. He then continues his storming on into the house. I hesitate a moment, remembering his temper, before crossing in. I only hope his temper isnâ€™t in too foul of a mood today.
Zade is already moving on to another room, which turns out to be a study, and flips on an electric light. When I follow, he grabs me by the shoulders before pulling me into a hug. A tight one that squishes the air from me.
â€œYou're safe.â€ His words are strangely shaky.
â€œSafe from everything but being squeezed to death,â€ I gasp out.
He releases me. â€œSorry. We've just been so worried. I've been so worried.â€
â€œBut I'm fine.â€
â€œYesm you are.â€ His eyes narrow and he begins pacing the room. â€œSit.â€
Yes, the temper is definitely struggling not to manifest now that he knows I'm not dead or worse. Oh, fabulous. As much as I want to argue with him, there's no sense making Zadeâ€™s temper any worse. I really do need his help. Iâ€™ve bungled things badly this time. Not just badly, but horrifically. They thought they were sending me off to keep everyone safe, and instead, Iâ€™ve brought more danger to us all.
Lukas hovers in the doorway, watching Zade pace the room. He glances my way, gaze sympathetic, I try to hide all the turmoil roiling inside me.
â€œHow did Edward come to free you?â€ Zade finally demands.
I ignore the stark feelings pounding through me and struggle with what to say. How do I answer? This is Zade. He freed Serena. He has given us all a reason to hope. Heâ€™s put his life on the line for us. If I canâ€™t trust him, I might as well hex myself mute for the rest of my life.
Zadeâ€™s jaw flexes, his temper probably struggling with me not responding. I glance at Lukas.
Zade looks pointedly at him. â€œWhy donâ€™t you take a walk while I talk to Cynthia?â€
Lukas glances at me, as if looking for my permission. Why he would want it is unfathomable. At least with Zade, I know where I stand. I know nothing about Lukas. I nod at him, letting him know Iâ€™m fine with Zadeâ€™s request.
â€œIâ€™ll be back in a while if you need anything,â€ he says to me and quickly leaves the room.
Once heâ€™s departed, I open my mouth, but Zade already knows what I want. He casts his salmon-colored, eavesdropping-preventative spell. Itâ€™s pretty to look at, but now isnâ€™t the time to be staring at spells.
As soon as it surrounds us, I forge ahead. â€œI hexed Edward.â€
To Zadeâ€™s credit, he doesnâ€™t look surprised. If anything he looks even more tired. And older. He slumps onto a nearby chair and rubs his forehead.
â€œDo you know what will happen if he tells the council?â€
I swallow. â€œNo.â€
â€œEvery single person around you with the exception of me, though they hate me enough to add me to the list, will be spelled to forget you ever existed.â€
Never existed? His words bite, stinging into me as if theyâ€™re a hex. No one will remember they care for me? Or that they hate me? I donâ€™t know what I was expecting, but this certainly wasnâ€™t it.
â€œAfter youâ€™re completely forgotten by everyone outside the council, in a secert meeting youâ€™ll be sacrificed to the Grand Chancellor.â€
Horror rips through me. The girl from the tournament, the only sacrifice Iâ€™ve ever seen, flashes in my mind. The blank expression on her face as she climbed onto the sacrificial stone. Her silent acceptance as the Grand Chancellor sliced her neck and spelled her blood into him. I realize Iâ€™m shaking. I clasp my hands together. â€œI didnâ€™t know.â€
â€œThis is my fault. If I'd known youâ€™d figured out how to tap into your powers, I would have said something.â€
He bolts to his feet and slams his fist into the wall. I clasp my hands tighter as he studies the dent he made. â€œI should have said something anyway. Serenaâ€™s just so afraid of magic, and none of you seemed interested. Except when you were deciding who to marry, you asked about other countries. I should have known. I shouldnâ€™t have been so caught up in my own problems. And I shouldnâ€™t have hit the wall.â€ He faces me, his shoulders slumped with defeat. â€œIâ€™m sorry.â€
Itâ€™s difficult to focus on his words; Iâ€™m too worried over what will happen to me if they find out. â€œIt will be fine. Edward wonâ€™t tell.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t know that.â€ His gaze cuts into me, exposing my uncertainty.
â€œHe wonâ€™t. He was frightened when I hexed him, even afterward when he was telling the servants he was freeing me, he seemed distressed. None of this will be heard of.â€
Zade collapses into a chair and places his head in both hands.
â€œPlease donâ€™t worry,â€ I say, putting more emphasis into it than I feel. â€œIâ€™ll be fine.â€
Still, he says nothing.
â€œHe released me. Gave me my ownership like you did to Serena. He doesnâ€™t have any power over me.â€
â€œThatâ€™s something at least.â€ He leans back in his chair. â€œYes, itâ€™s something. As long as he doesnâ€™t tell anyone why he released you, there may be a chance this doesnâ€™t end badly.â€
I hope Edward doesnâ€™t. I hope that my threat was enough to keep him from saying or doing anything. But how can I know for a surety? Thereâ€™s no guarantee those I love will remember me and that I will not be sacrificed.
In the silence that follows Iâ€™m uncertain what to say or do. Iâ€™ve never been in a position like this before. How did Serena feel after she was freed? I wish I would have been there to see her, to see what freedom was like without the worry of the high cost that may accompany it. If I would have escaped to the ballroom just a little earlier, I could have. Yet missing something important, especially something for my sisters, wonâ€™t happen again unless I choose it to. I can go where I want. I just donâ€™t have anywhere to go.
Or perhaps not entirely. The one place I want to be is the last place I should probably go right now. If I go home, Iâ€™ll take the extra strain of my freedom with me. If I stay away, maybe I can at least minimize the impact.
â€œI donâ€™t think I should return with you. Serena has enough problems. My presence, especially now that Iâ€™m freed, is only going to complicate them. If I stay away, perhaps it wonâ€™t be as bad.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right.â€ Some of the strain eases from his face. â€œBut as soon as she finds out youâ€™re free, and not coming home, sheâ€™s going to be upset.â€
Iâ€™m already upset enough for the both of us. â€œWill you at least send my love? And to Waverly and the girls? I miss them.â€
â€œThereâ€™s one other thing. I hate to ask, but do you know where I can stay until I determine what to do? I donâ€™t want to be a burden, but Iâ€™d prefer to not be outside in the rain again, one night was enough.â€
â€œIâ€™ll figure something out.â€ He looks at me, really looks at me for the first time since he came to the restaurant. â€œNo one should have to sleep in the rain. I have your clothes. Serena didnâ€™t know if Edward would buy you anything or not, or even if heâ€™d accept them, but she sent them just in case. At least now we wonâ€™t have to worry whether or not heâ€™ll allow them.â€
â€œOne good thing at least.â€
â€œI should have grabbed your trunk first thing when I realized it was you in the restaurant and not some other girl, but the circumstance was distracting. Let me fetch it, and Iâ€™ll think about what to do with you. Wait here.â€
Heâ€™s out of the room before I can say anything. Heâ€™ll think about what to do with me? I clench my teeth.
Yet my frustration seeps out of me as my limbs realize their heaviness. Exhaustion soaks through me. I just put all my problems on him. What else did I expect, if not help? If Iâ€™m truly free, I donâ€™t want to let others manage my problems. I must learn to take control of them. Except, itâ€™s not like I have any money, or any knowledge of what to do next. Perhaps Iâ€™ll be stuck the rest of my life depending on Zade for support. That sobering thought swirls in my head as I lean back and close my eyes.
â€œCynthia.â€ Someone shakes me awake.
I blink at Zadeâ€™s blurry face until he comes into focus. I must have drifted off. How long was I asleep? I rub my eyes and then sit up in a more dignified manner. Lukas is standing behind Zade. Whether his presence is good or bad, I canâ€™t decide.
â€œYour trunk is in the bedroom.â€ Zadeâ€™s words pull me out of my wonderings as he hands me a heavy bag. â€œThis should last you a while. Iâ€™ve got to go now. Iâ€™m sorry I canâ€™t stay longer. Thereâ€™s a council meeting I must attend tomorrow, and if I donâ€™t leave now Iâ€™ll never make it in time. Iâ€™ll return when I can, and Iâ€™m sure Serena will send a message.â€
And I believe she will as well, except his tone says, unlike me, heâ€™s not happy. Not happy at all. Itâ€™s too late to do anything about it. Heâ€™s out the door before I have time to process any of what he said or thank him. That council meeting must be serious. Lukas looks just as wind-blown by Zadeâ€™s departure as I feel, staring after him long after he canâ€™t be seen.
Itâ€™s just us now. And Iâ€™m certain to look a messâ€”smeared face paint and my tangled hair. And the smell. Please donâ€™t let me smell foul. Not sure why I care, though. Itâ€™s almost as if that girl I pretended to be for years, crazy about boys, is becoming a real part of me. Frightening. The need for sleep must be scrambling me more than I thought.
â€œI suppose I should show you to your things,â€ he finally says.
â€œI suppose so.â€
I follow him through the house, hoping it doesnâ€™t take long so I can get cleaned up soon. The hall is tight, crowded in. There are no electric lights, only the light from the candle heâ€™s carrying. Though fatherâ€™s house had electric lights most of my life, many of the girls at school had never even seen it. Perks of father being on the council, perhaps? Yet Edward had it as well, and heâ€™s not on the council, though he did seem ridiculously wealthy.
â€œWhose house is this?â€
He shrugs one shoulder. â€œItâ€™s for people like us who need a place to stay.â€
â€œUs?â€ Hot embarrassment rolls through me. Heâ€™s not an owner or a brother. Heâ€™s, well I donâ€™t even know who he is. â€œI canâ€™t stay here with you.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry. Iâ€™m going somewhere else. At least until the tournament starts and all the hotels are filled.â€
Relief fills me, but itâ€™s tainted with guilt at kicking him out of his house. As we reach a room where I see my trunk resting at the foot of the bed, I realize what he said. The tournament. Itâ€™s six weeks away, and I have the status of a warlock.
I am a warlock.
All thoughts of going to sleep flee. A warlock! An inkling of an idea so fantastic yet so wildly out of reach tempts me. How can I make it happen? â€œAre the cupboards stocked?â€
â€œThey are. You shouldnâ€™t have to worry about going hungry or venturing out for something.â€
â€œThank you.â€ Though Iâ€™m not grateful for losing my excuse to leave this place, him being here can still be used to some advantage. â€œPlease let me make dinner as a small repayment for your kindness, especially when I was short with you.â€
â€œYou werenâ€™t short.â€
I wave his response away. â€œDonâ€™t be so amiable. I was. Itâ€™s been long enough since lunch that you must be hungry. The least I can do is make you a hot meal.â€
He shifts toward the door, shoulders slumping forward. â€œI donâ€™t know if I should.â€
â€œPlease, let me. It would make me feel better.â€ Except for the guilt from using him, but it canâ€™t be helped. â€œIf youâ€™re worried over how long it will take, I can be quick.â€
After another moment of hesitation, he says, â€œTime isnâ€™t the issue. Donâ€™t you want to get cleaned up?â€
I must smell after all. â€œIf you donâ€™t mind waiting a bit, I can clean up fast and get something made even faster. Iâ€™m used to helping my sisters.â€
â€œI can wait. I have a few things I need to pack up to take with me anyway.â€
â€œPerfect. Weâ€™ll eat shortly then.â€
I hurry to the room, which is now mine, to clean myself up and put on fresh clothes before he changes his mind and leaves, stashing the rolls I snuck early on a dresser. Itâ€™s doubtful Iâ€™ll have an opportunity such as this again. I dress, again grateful Katherineâ€™s clothing designs allow me to do this myself. Once Iâ€™m presentable, I scurry to the kitchen where, to my relief, heâ€™s sitting at the table working on some papers.
â€œDo you need help finding anything?â€ he asks.
â€œI can manage.â€
â€œWell, if thereâ€™s something you canâ€™t find, donâ€™t hesitate to ask.â€
After opening the pantry and finding ingredients to make soda biscuits and smoked ham, I ask, â€œHow long have you been in Chardonia?â€
I measure my flour into a bowl. â€œHow did you become acquainted with Zade? You arenâ€™t from the same country.â€
â€œNo we arenâ€™t, but outside of Chardonia, many countries interact frequently.â€
Which isnâ€™t really an answer to my question. â€œSo you two interacted previously?â€
â€œDo you need help with anything?â€
â€œIâ€™m fine. Thank you.â€ Why is he still deflecting? I havenâ€™t even started the hard questions yet. Besides, I can make biscuits in my sleep. â€œYou and Zade?â€
He twists the pen in his hand. â€œLetâ€™s just say we have similar interests.â€
What does that mean? â€œYou want to be on the Chardonia council?â€
â€œAre you kidding me? Those guys are crazy.â€ He coughs. â€œI mean, thatâ€™s not really my thing.â€
â€œWhat is your thing?â€ The phrase feels odd on my tongue.
â€œIâ€™m not sure Iâ€™ve entirely figured that out yet.â€
Doubtful. Heâ€™s obviously up to something, though the idea is familiar enough. There have been more times than not Iâ€™ve thought the same thing. Still, how much more can I get out of him? If I accost him enough on a subject heâ€™s reluctant to speak of, perhaps the questions I truly want answers to will be such a relief, he'd be happy to respond. â€œHow well are you connected with Zade?â€
He shrugs, but doesnâ€™t look me in the eye as he replies, â€œWell enough.â€
Must be well enough if Zade is comfortable not only leaving me with him but trusting Lukas to continue to stay in my presence. I clear my throat and roll out my dough with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm. â€œAre you planning on entering the tournament?â€
â€œI am. Thatâ€™s what this paperwork is for.â€
So Iâ€™ll need paperwork. I throw the biscuits in the oven and slice the ham â€œAnd thatâ€™s why youâ€™re here. Have you been here long enough to know your way around town?â€
Perfect. I plate the ham and add some fruit. â€œPerhaps tomorrow you can show me the town.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know if that's a good idea.â€ He shifts in his chair. â€œItâ€™s not a big deal, but Zade told me to keep an eye out for trouble, and this seems like it could lead to trouble. But I thinkâ€¦â€ He shakes his head. â€œWhy do you want to go?â€
After pulling the soda biscuits from the oven and plating several, I set his plate in front of him. â€œJust thought itâ€™d be nice to have a better idea of where I am. Especially if trouble comes.â€ Donâ€™t need to mention the fact that Iâ€™m going to go searching for it.
â€œI suppose it probably would be best to make sure you know your way around. Will tomorrow morning work?â€
I suppress my real grin for fear it will give away how deeply I feel about this. â€œIt will suffice.â€
The next morning, I discover a town very different from the one I encountered upon first arriving. At first, Iâ€™m still lost, but it doesnâ€™t take long for Lukas to orient me. While showing me how to get to the market, he also points out the quickest ways out of town and the hotel heâ€™s lodging in.
Once safety is covered, we wander around shops figuring out where to find food and clothes, though itâ€™s probably something I shouldnâ€™t do without Lukas. Even though Iâ€™m running toward trouble, Iâ€™m not entirely stupid.
He doesnâ€™t say anything, yet the way he hesitates with everything around the shopping area, constantly checking our surroundings, he doesnâ€™t appear comfortable either. Iâ€™ll just try not to need anything. Right. There was plenty of food in the pantry and any clothing needs that come about Iâ€™ll order through Katherine anyway.
â€œSo,â€ I say casually, trying to bring up what I want. â€œThe tournament. Have you turned in your paperwork?â€
â€œNot yet. I filled out paperwork to get in the country, so they know, but I havenâ€™t turned in the paperwork to enter the tournament yet.â€
â€œYou turn the paperwork here in town, correct?â€
â€œYes, itâ€™s just around the corner.â€ His gaze shifts to the left but quickly flickers back.
â€œWe could turn it in now since we happen to be close. Then you wouldnâ€™t have to return later.â€
Suddenly his full attention is on me with a strange, intense look. â€œIs there something you need there?â€
â€œCertainly not.â€ I laugh the cute way girls do. No more pushing for now. â€œWhat would I do there? I just thought it might save you some time.â€
His lips pinch together as if he doesnâ€™t believe what Iâ€™m saying. Which he shouldnâ€™t. â€œItâ€™s not much extra time. Besides, they probably wouldnâ€™t look kindly on having a woman brought in. And as much as I think youâ€™re capable of being outside on your own, this town makes life hard enough without worrying if a law officer, or someone worse, will stop by.â€
Though I dislike it, heâ€™s correct. Yet itâ€™s a problem Iâ€™ll have to handle at some point. I need to do this. And I may not know which building is exactly the one I need, but I know the general area. This excursion has been a success.
As if to prove Lukasâ€™s point from a moment ago, a warlock bumps into him, almost shoving him to the ground.
I expect an apology spell, or at least a head nod or something. Warlocks are usually respectful toward each other, even if they arenâ€™t respectful to women. But not this warlock. He sneers at Lukas, whipping up a mix of anger and fear in me as he says, â€œWatch where youâ€™re going.â€
â€œMy mistake.â€ Lukasâ€™s response yanks my attention from the offending warlock. Why is he admitting fault when he clearly wasnâ€™t?
The warlock seems surprised as well. He pulls back a moment before growling and getting in Lukasâ€™s face. â€œDonâ€™t let it happen again. I donâ€™t like foreign scum touching me.â€
That explains the antagonism usually reserved for women. Lukas nods his head, and the man strides away, seemingly satisfied.
â€œWhy did you let him treat you such?â€ Even being a foreigner, Iâ€™d expect him to demand better. Heâ€™s a warlock. They donâ€™t ever get pushed around. Until now.
Lukasâ€™s shoulders slump. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter.â€
Except it does. I didnâ€™t know foreign warlocks, except the Envadi, had a difficult time of things.
â€œWe should go,â€ he says.
Together, we head back toward the house, and while Iâ€™m grateful we went, it feels as if I lost more than I gained.
Warlocks have been coming and going from the medium-sized building all morning. Women never enter. Instead they're forced to wait outside with another male while their owner goes in. Iâ€™m the only woman alone, of course. Yet with so many people about no one appears to notice.
The area has an almost jovial air about it. Warlocks bantering and laughing as they go in. Even a few foreigners, tall like Zade, or darker-skinned like Lukas, come in and out of the building. This has to be it.
Except I canâ€™t bring myself to do anything about it. If I enter, thereâ€™s no turning back. Conundrum. I canâ€™t bring myself to go in, yet I canâ€™t bring myself to leave either. This is the one chance to show everyone what a woman can do.
The idea has been growing in my mind like an uncast spell clambering to happen. The feeling only grows bigger and fiercer as time passes, restless to have me follow through. This is something I want. The women of Chardonia need to see that we can do magic. Not only just casting spells, but succeeding at them. Those blasted warlocks need to be shown they canâ€™t keep us in the dark any longer.
The problem is, Zadeâ€™s words keep coming back to me, about them erasing part of everyoneâ€™s memories and sacrificing me. If thatâ€™s what they would do when I was owned, what would stop them from doing it now, even though I have the status of a warlock?
My footsteps slowly lead me away from the place I need to be. I want to make a difference, but peopleâ€™s memories being erased and becoming a sacrifice wonâ€™t help anything. I want the impossible.
The next day is rather droll as I think on how to fix my fear of entering the tournament, though I do hear some strange noises in the morning. Thereâ€™s nothing out the window when I check, so I continue my hopeless musings until midday when thereâ€™s a knock at the door. I open it to find Lukas carrying a bag sagging with food.
â€œHey, I brought you some fresh fruit and vegetables in case you were running low.â€
â€œOh.â€ Not really running low. And Iâ€™m not sure if I want to spend time with a warlock I donâ€™t really know. Except, maybe, I can discover more from him about the tournament. Like when thereâ€™s going to be the most amount of people at the tournament sign ups. That may be my best chance, to be around so many people that it would be too difficult to erase all their memories. Is that even possible? I donâ€™t know. I have to hope, and for a foreigner he seems to understand the process well. Or at least better than me.
â€œThank you.â€ I gesture for him to come in.
He carries the bag into the kitchen and sets it on the table. â€œNot a lot, just the produce plus some fresh bread, milk, and eggs. If thereâ€™s something else you need, just let me know.â€
That is a lot of food. â€œNo, this is more than generous of you. Youâ€™ve shown me around. I could have obtained this myself. I hate to be a bother.â€
â€œItâ€™s no bother.â€ Meaning itâ€™s easier to get things for me than to have to take me wherever I want to go with the constant threat of death hovering. I probably shouldnâ€™t mention that I checked to see if Serena had sent a letter while I mailed one to her and Katherine.
And I definitely wonâ€™t mention all the staring at the tournament building thatâ€™s been going on. Or how I had to hide with the Grand Chancellor came striding down the road with his son Nathaniel and entered the building. They probably were there to sign Nathaniel up for the tournament. Nathaniel may have helped my sister at the ball, but I still don't trust him. Especially not with his father around. Both men are deadly.
â€œWell,â€ he says, breaking my thoughts.
He scratches his cheek. â€œI suppose I should be going.â€
Not yet! I need more information. Or maybe just enough information to give me a boost in confidence. Besides, itâ€™s been so quiet here all week. I donâ€™t want to be alone, even if it means inviting him to tarry.
I clink my bracelets together. He seemed nice enough from the little interaction weâ€™ve had. He seems to be a warlock more like Zade than father. â€œWhy donâ€™t you stay? You brought more food than I need. I could cook you dinner again.â€
â€œThis is too much food?â€
I laugh. â€œI couldnâ€™t possibly eat this all myself before it goes bad.â€
â€œOh.â€ He looks sheepish a moment before joining in with my laughter. â€œI always did eat a lot.â€
Not that his trim frame shows it. â€œThen youâ€™ll stay?â€
â€œSuppose it would only be fair, so I donâ€™t make you waste food.â€ He grins at me, and something inside me melts like one of Waverlyâ€™s chocolates.
My hands shake. I grab a bowl to distract myself from it and get to work. The strange feeling doesnâ€™t leave; instead, it persists in trying to get me to think on his smile. Itâ€™s a very nice smile. Warm and personal. And in no way related to the information I need to find out from him. I need to focus on getting answers, not strange, melty, shaky-making feelings.
â€œDid you turn your paperwork in for the tournament?â€ I ask.
Good thing he didnâ€™t do it when I was stalking the place. â€œAre there many others signed up yet?â€
â€œMore than last year at this time. Interest is picking up. I think many people from other countries are more curious since a Chardonian woman gained her freedom. Serena is becoming famous.â€
I wonder what sheâ€™d think of that. â€œWere you there last year? Did you see Zade win?â€
His smile sobers into a line. â€œI did.â€
Was he sickened as I was by the whole turn of affairs? Not that it turned into a horrid event like we thought it would,. It was the best thing that could have happened. Yet, Serena being won first by Thomas and then Zade shouldnâ€™t have had the chance to happen. â€œWhat do you think of our ways?â€
â€œWhat do you think of them?â€
That they are wrong. â€œI donâ€™t know much about our ways. Women are kept in the dark as much as possible. I know little.â€
â€œDoes that bother you? I canâ€™t tell how you feel about it. Youâ€™re hard to read.â€
I slip him a smile. A real smile. That was the best compliment anyone has ever paid me. But then I let it fade. â€œOf course it bothers me. I canâ€™t believe it doesnâ€™t bother more women.â€ As much as this is a good topic of conversation, itâ€™s breaking away from what I want to know. â€œSo you signed up for the tournament last year as well?â€
â€œNo. Last year I was just spectating. My mentor, Arthur, signed up, and I followed him around a lot.â€
â€œDid he sign up a ways out from the tournament as you did?â€
â€œNo. Itâ€™s too busy right now. The wait is really long, both to get in the country and to sign up. Everyone wants to declare themselves while itâ€™s early. Thereâ€™s much to be won if you kill, someone, many like to show off the fact they think theyâ€™ll excel at it.â€ He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. â€œIs there a reason youâ€™re so interested?â€
I falter. â€œJust curious is all.â€
â€œAre you sure thatâ€™s all? Because it seems like thereâ€™s something more to it.â€ When I donâ€™t respond, he continues. â€œDoes it have anything to do with the same reason you were outside the tournament headquarters yesterday?â€
He did see me. Blast. My hesitance at him discovering my intentions vanishes for distrust. â€œYouâ€™ve been following me?â€
He shrugs, completely unashamed. â€œI thought you would know someone is keeping an eye on you. Zade said there would probably be attempts on your life and to keep someone close.â€
â€œOh, he did, did he?â€ The one male I thought capable of giving women our space and freedom. Naturally, heâ€™d turn out more like them. I hate this. I hate the way things are. That hate simmers in me, pulling at my magic, tugging at my will.
â€œCalm down. Heâ€™s trying to help.â€
â€œBy dictating my life? By having me followed? Iâ€™m sick of this life. And youâ€”â€ I point the spoon at the door, splattering sauce everywhere. â€œâ€”can leave now.â€
He stands, completely ignoring the fact Iâ€™m huffing like a crazy person, and keeps his voice soft. â€œI know this is hard, and not what you want. Iâ€™d be just as angry. If you really want me to go now, I will, but Iâ€™m not going to stop protecting you.â€
â€œClearly, Iâ€™m fine on my own. Thereâ€™s no need for any of this.â€ Why am I losing my temper with him? Why canâ€™t I hold myself together?
His voice is calm, too calm for how much Iâ€™m yelling. â€œYouâ€™re not fine. Weâ€™ve already stopped two attempts on your life.â€
The words fizzle my anger into coals of fear. â€œTwo? That canâ€™t be. Iâ€™d know if there had been attempts.â€
â€œYou didnâ€™t know because they were stopped before they got to you. Because weâ€™ve been doing exactly what you want us not to do. Weâ€™re giving you as much freedom and privacy as we can, but weâ€™re not going to let it go just so you can feel better about yourself. You need us.â€
â€œThere were strange noises outside this morning. Was that one of them?â€
No. â€œYou really stopped two attempts?â€
â€œWell, I personally only stopped one, but Xyer stopped the other.â€
The unfamiliar name is something easier to grasp on than my life being threatened. â€œWhoâ€™s Xyer?â€
â€œA friend of Zadeâ€™s.â€ He waves his hand. â€œBut thatâ€™s not important right now. Whatâ€™s important is you know we are protecting you.â€ He inches closer, his voice going soft. â€œIâ€™m sorry for the intrusion this causes.â€
All day Iâ€™ve been so lonely, yet Iâ€™ve had people watching over me and I didnâ€™t even know it. Not only that, but theyâ€™ve risked their lives for me. Xyer, a man I donâ€™t even know, and Lukas, who I barely know. He turns and heads for the hall leading to the entry.
â€œWait. Donâ€™t go.â€ He stops, but doesnâ€™t turn around. â€œIâ€”Iâ€™m sorry, I didnâ€™t know.â€
He finally looks at me, but doesnâ€™t say a word. His gaze is unnerving; his cocoa-colored eyes feel as if they can see through me, into me like no oneâ€™s ever been able to before. I feel exposed. And stupid. Very stupid.
â€œIt was wrong of me to get upset with you. I didnâ€™t understand the situation. Iâ€™m not usually so volatile, itâ€™s justâ€¦â€ Just something about you makes it hard to keep my feelings inside. â€œPlease ignore what I said. You can stay. I wonâ€™t fling anymore food about.â€
Finally, he chuckles. â€œIt does add some nice color to the place.â€
I hurry to clean up the sauce. â€œIâ€™m so embarrassed.â€
Once itâ€™s cleaned, I take the fruit, biscuits, and chicken to the table. Without any sauce. Thereâ€™s been enough of that. Suddenly, heâ€™s beside me. His hand reaches for a biscuit and puts it on the plate. Iâ€™m frozen, watching him serve himself. Iâ€™ve never seen anything like it. Not ever. The only males who serve are tarnished and lower class. Even Zade doesnâ€™t serve himself. Or maybe he does when Iâ€™m not around, or perhaps he wants to let his servants do it so they have work or something, I donâ€™t know. Whatever the case may be, Iâ€™m entranced by the idea of a man helping with womenâ€™s work.
He finishes loading his plate before looking at me. â€œAre you all right?â€
â€œUmâ€¦â€ My throat catches. I clear it, and then continue. â€œIâ€™m well. Thank you for your help.â€
â€œIt's my pleasure.â€
We stare at each other a moment. Awkwardly. I twirl away from him and hurry to finish eating my own plate of food, though my thoughts are too busy for me to be hungry.
â€œSo,â€ Lukas says, â€œyou never answered my question. Is there more to your interest with the tournament or is it really just curiosity?â€
Hmmm? Thatâ€™s all? His tone implies he suspects more. And there is more. Heâ€™s saved my life. With him being from a different country, he has to think differently than all the Chardonian warlocks. And Zade trusts him. More than that, I think Iâ€™m beginning to trust him. He doesnâ€™t act like any other warlock, not even Zade. As good as Zade is, Lukas may just be better.
â€œFine. You win. There is more to it. I want to enter the tournament.â€
His eyes widen. â€œYou know how to do magic?â€
If Iâ€™m going to do this, I might as well take it all the way. My magic is eager to answer, heating within me, hungry to show itself. I let it out in a spell that explodes with pink and purple dancing overhead. Harmless, nothing more than colored lights, a display of my pure magic, yet by his widening eyes, effective.
â€œYes, then,â€ he finally says. His eyes relax, his smile, so small, but bringing so much warmth to the room.
It takes a moment to process the fact that heâ€™s happy about this. I thought heâ€™d be upset like Zade. Perhaps uncaring or irritated that I did it, but joy? Never that.
â€œWhy just staring at the headquarters then?â€ he asks. â€œWhy havenâ€™t you entered?â€
I stop the spell, using it as an excuse to turn away so he wonâ€™t see the flush of embarrassment racing through me. The words are painfully accurate. I should have entered by now. He said it was the busiest time. There was a plethora of warlocks coming in and out of the building. I should have risked that it would be enough.
â€œItâ€™s not that easy. I donâ€™t even know if my freedom has been made known yet. Theyâ€™ll be more likely to punish me than to let me enter.â€ Excuses, but at least theyâ€™re something. â€œEven if word has spread, what is there to make them believe I am the girl that was freed?â€
He cocks an eyebrow at me. â€œIs this all thatâ€™s bothering you?â€
â€œNo.â€ How does he read me so well? Probably because I give too much away in his presence. Why do I continue doing that?
â€œWhat is it? Please let me try to help.â€
Here we go. I take a deep breath. â€œDo you know what they do to women in Chardonia who do magic?â€
His face loses even the hint of joy. â€œItâ€™s part of why Iâ€™m here.â€
This conversation is bringing more and more surprises. I thought he was just here for the tournament. â€œWhat do you mean?â€
â€œYou donâ€™t know about Zade?â€
â€œZade? What does he have to do with any of this?â€
â€œEverything. Well, not him specifically, I suppose, but wellâ€¦I should let him tell his own secrets. Suffice it to say that some in Chryos donâ€™t like whatâ€™s going on here. The new changes with the tarnished have made it more difficult for them to get out. Weâ€™re still getting a few tarnished men who make it, but no women have made it for a long time. And the stories weâ€™re hearingâ€¦â€ He shakes his head as a disgusted scowl crosses his face. â€œWe wanted to help before, when so many were coming to our country in need of aid. I must admit that when the flow lessened, many thought we shouldnâ€™t help anymore, but my own desire only grew.â€
â€œWhich is why youâ€™re here helping me, because of these refugees youâ€™ve seen in your country?â€
â€œIf it doesnâ€™t stop, Iâ€™m afraid of what could happen. Weâ€™re trying to help fix things before they get worse.â€
â€œBy having you come here and enter the tournament?â€
He scoots his chair closer. My chest constricts, and I grip the handle of my fork tighter as he says, â€œItâ€™s getting harder and harder for foreigners to enter Chardonia other times of the year, except for trade, which is strictly regulated. The tournament is the one excuse we can use to get closer to our goal.â€
He moves his hand. Is he going to touch me? My breathing quickens. What is it going to feel like? Except instead of his hand moving closer, he adjusts his glasses. Disappointment arcs through me. What is going on?
He scoots back, and I can breathe again. I use the opportunity to focus on the topic and not on my confusing feelings. â€œJust an excuse? What are you planning to do while youâ€™re here then?â€
â€œIâ€™m going to help you safely register for the tournament, and then weâ€™re going to practice until youâ€™re ready to defeat them all.â€
For the first time since I decided to enter in the tournament, hope courses through me with the thought that it may actually happen.
My nerves bounce about like bits of magic bursting to get free as we near the tournament headquarters three days later, yet I donâ€™t let them show. I do slow, though. With Lukas at my side and a plan in place, thereâ€™s no reason not to go through with this. I can do it. It will work. Except knowing so doesnâ€™t make it any easier to slog on.
â€œYou do know that by participating in the tournament, you could die,â€ Lukas says.
And there is that. â€œThank you for being so encouraging.â€
â€œSorry. It just occurred to me we never talked about the usual risks. The fact youâ€™re a woman trying to cross into a manâ€™s world and the council hunting you down seemed like enough.â€
Yes, all that. With everything against me, the usual risks seem minor in comparison. Warlocks did die last year though, some of them hexed painfully to bring about their end. My voice is small. â€œI know.â€ And I keep walking.
He nods like he approves of my determination. Or perhaps heâ€™s just agreeing. The door to the building swings closed after a warlock enters.
â€œIâ€™m right here,â€ Lukas says.
The words are reassuring as he opens the door for me and guides me in with a hand on the small of my back. The light touch is comforting. I draw strength from it, but the moment the door closes behind us, itâ€™s gone. The loss is immediate and aching, especially with everyone in the room staring right at me. Not the type of staring one wants either but the type of stares that send girls crying into dark basements.
Iâ€™ve seen those looks before. Too many times. Iâ€™ve survived them. Serena may have done much to protect me, but I wasnâ€™t wholly kept from punishment. Iâ€™ve lived through hexes before; I can live through them again. Whatever comes, Iâ€™ll take it and come out stronger. Or dead.
Wish that thought had not have come. Itâ€™s harder to paste the smile on my face. Yet, I do it. I give a smile thatâ€™s faker than a warlock being kind and march to the end of the long line.
The warlocks stare at me as if Iâ€™ve jewelry pouring out my ears. The desire to stare at the wood-slatted floor is unbearably strong, rife with years of acquiescing, yet I keep my gaze firmly locked on the white wall behind the warlocks at the counter. No longer will I look down for them.
The warlocks at the counter are having a hurried conversation while one of them sends a spelled message flying out the window. As they debate, the collar of my dress grows more choking, tighter and tighter as if someone has hexed it to render me unconscious. Yet, there is no hex plaguing me, only the stifling expectations of womenâ€™s dress crowded by my fears.
Thankfully, Iâ€™m not forced to wait long with the imaginary hex. Unthankfully, one of the warlocks from behind the counter has stopped debating and is heading straight for me, meaning a real hex could be unleashed momentarily.
We have a plan. This will work.
â€œGet out. Women arenâ€™t welcome.â€ A burgundy hex flickers at his fingertips, proving my fears valid, but he doesnâ€™t strike me. Yet.
â€œThat may be. Except Iâ€™m not just any woman.â€ I widen my smile in spite of it all. â€œI am Cynthia, Stephenâ€™s daughter, and I was given my freedom, which means I have the status of a warlock.â€
The manâ€™s face scrunches with anger and disbelief, but his eyes contain a hint of fear. â€œThat canâ€™t be. Those are just rumors.â€
I want to cower. To slump my shoulders, lower my head, and play the dutiful role Iâ€™m accustomed to. But if I could play that role well enough to trick everyone, I can do the same with this one. I can and I will. â€œNot rumors. Truth. So Iâ€™d suggest you treat me with the proper respect.â€
â€œNo buts,â€ Lukas interrupts. â€œItâ€™s as she says.â€
I chafe at him having to enter the conversation. When we discussed it, I knew it was likely needed, yet I wish I could have accomplished this on my own. Lukas hands the warlock several official letters. One of which certifies the fact of my freedom. Procured from Zade, rather unwillingly though still quickly, from Edward. The whole thing was official. It even had spelled on it Edwardâ€™s confession so there can be no doubt about its authenticity.
The other letters are from high-ranking warlocks of influence, both in this country and others, who explain how anxious they are to see me perform in the tournament. Some are wondering if I can actually cast spells, or if I will be making a fool of myself for their enjoyment. No matter, though. They should give validity to me so I can at least sign up without payment of death. In this building anyway There's no telling what will happens once I leave. No telling if the officials will go along with the plan, either.
Heâ€™s taking much longer to scan the letters than I expected, his face bunching together more and more as he reads until it looks like he bit into a bad lemon. Finally, he folds the papers and moves to put them in his coat. Lukas calmly holds his hand out.
â€œIf I may,â€ Lukas says, though from the tone of his voice itâ€™s clearly not a request. The manâ€™s nose flares, but he hands them back.
Lukas proceeds to read aloud, the words making everything more real. Almost too real. I canâ€™t believe Iâ€™m actually here doing this. Hearing about my freedom, read aloud to a room full of warlocks. Hostile warlocks. I force myself not to edge closer to Lukas as he finishes.
â€œAnd just so we are all clear,â€ Lukas continues, â€œI have personally sent an official letter to all those of high rank both in Chardonia and its surrounding countries, declaring that Cynthia has the status of a warlock and is using that status to enter the tournament. Iâ€™ve already received replies. Her performance is highly anticipated.â€
And hopefully this is enough to keep them from murdering me and trying to erase everyoneâ€™s memory. Thereâ€™s simply too many memories that would need to be erased, some not even in this country, in places where the council and Grand Chancellor have no control.
The warlock sputters, glares at me, then stomps back to his place behind the counter. He calls out a gruff, â€œNext.â€
They are truly going to let me sign up? The plan had merit, yet to see it actually work makes me want to dance across the floor letting spells of yellows, golds, and reds twist through the room in rhythm with my happiness.
But we agreed it'd best to keep my magic contained, to make them wonder whether or not Iâ€™ll actually perform any spells.
It takes a moment, but then the next warlock clear at the front of the line steps to his spot. Things begin again after that. The line moves slowly, but still moves. The stares are still hostile, but I do my best to ignore them. My collar is still choking, only not as strong of a panic-gripped, hex-like fear as before.
The movement of the line has no real pattern. Sometimes it quickly moves through warlocks. Other times it doesnâ€™t move at all. When the warlock before me is called to the counter, my collar suddenly tightens again, encircling my neck more roughly than ever. I struggle to keep my expression neutral and breathing calm.
Forever seems to pass before a warlock calls out, â€œNext.â€™
I stumble forward, ignoring my ungraceful gait, and hand the warlock my prefilled application, grateful Lukas had the forethought to help me fill it out. We went over it together an innumerable amount of times, making sure there was nothing they could find fault with.
The warlock scrutinizing it takes longer than on any of the other applications, longer than I stood in one spot while in line. His finger taps over every line, traces every word. Even with the extra time we spent preparing it, heâ€™s likely to find something amiss with this sort of scrutiny.
Suddenly, a warlock slams the door open, striding straight to us. The warlock looking over my paper says, â€œAh, Chancellor Ryan, weâ€™re so glad you could make it to help us with thisâ€¦ dilemma.â€
The Chancellor? As in the second-highest warlock in the government besides the Grand Chancellor? The Chancellor position held by only two individualsâ€”him and Zade. The Chancellor that Zade and Serena both loathe?
â€œLet me see the paperwork.â€ Chancellor Ryan studies my paperwork with even greater interest.
Why did he have to come? I hold myself as still as possible, waiting for news. The world pricks with black spots as the breaths I take are too shallow. His hands can just as easily tear my application apart as they can give me what I desire.
The world tilts and sways. Ever so slightly, I lean forward, balancing my weight against the counter. I force myself to take deeper breaths, clearing not only the spots from my vision, but the possibility of fainting in front of a room full of warlocks who likely wish to see me dead.
Finally, the Chancellor thrusts the papers back at the warlock. â€œSorry. These are legitimate. Good news though. Sheâ€™ll probably be dead on the first day.â€
Fear scrambles my insides, yet I work to keep my face calm. The warlock scowls, but sets the papers aside, makes a note in his ledger, and thrusts another stack of papers at me.
â€œNext,â€ he calls out.
I grab the stack, hurry past the Chancellor and out of the building as fast I can, while still maintaining my dignity. Once weâ€™re a few blocks away, I finally slow and take a deep breath of fresh air. My head clears and thoughts come easier.
â€œThe Chancellor came just to look over my papers.â€
â€œNo one said it would be easy.â€
â€œAt least this part is over.â€ Though I already saw what the warlock wrote, I take a closer look. Lukas peeks over my shoulder.
â€œLooks great,â€ he says
â€œDueler number two hundred twenty-three.â€ Thatâ€™s going to be me. That is me. I am officially entered into a tournament that has ever had any woman do any kind of work at except serving the warlocks or being sacrificed. And most definitely never had a woman dueler.
â€œYou know what this means, right?â€
â€œThat death will come from either the council trying to kill me or a warlock in the tournament.â€
â€œNope. It means we need to practice.â€
The thrill of his words flares inside me. Being able to not only practice magic but doing it with another person dulls the fear. And then I realize itâ€™s not just another person Iâ€™m going to be practicing with but Lukas. The thrill intensifies. I wonder what new types of spells he knows that Iâ€™ve never even seen before.
When he said we needed to practice, he meant it. As soon as we return to what I now think of as my house, even though itâ€™s not really, he leads me to the sitting room that Zade took me to the first time I arrived.
I donâ€™t even bother trying to hide how like an unstarched dress I feel. I plop down on the couch, letting it support all of me. That was an experience like none other and not in a good way. To think itâ€™s only the beginning of whatâ€™s to come. Lukas sits across from me, elbows on his knees, hands clasped together in front of him, and eyes intent on me. Too intent. I sit up straighter.
â€œWhat do you know about fighting in a tournament?â€ Lukas asks, not giving me any time to think over how terrifying the experience of signing up was. Just as well, since it drudged through my thoughts unceasingly on our return.
â€œNot nearly enough, Iâ€™m certain.â€
He smiles at me, soft and comforting to my taut nerves. â€œDonâ€™t worry. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m here. Letâ€™s start with what you do know.â€
I let his reassurance build my lack of confidence. â€œIt was difficult to learn much of anything at the tournament last year. No one wanted to tell me anything, and I was afraid of asking too many questions. I know thereâ€™s some sort of a point system. And time limit. If youâ€™re killed, your stuff goes to the winner. Luckily, I donâ€™t have anything.â€
His gaze grows intense with something much stronger than talking about spells. â€œYou have something more important than simple things.â€
I duck my head down so he wonâ€™t see the flush flooding my cheeks.
He clears his throat and continues as if he never said anything, which is probably for the best, yet it leaves a tinge of disappointment. â€œYouâ€™ve figured out the basics. You have two minutes to attack your opponent as many times as you can. Attacks to the limbs are worth one point. Attacks to the head or torso are worth two points.â€
â€œSo itâ€™s as if you attacked someone physically. Arms and legs wonâ€™t be as effective as vital areas of the body.â€
â€œExactly, but it must be with a spell. And any form of defending yourself from an attack is one point.â€
â€œNo differentiating of points for defending? It seems like those spells could vary a lot.â€
â€œThey do, and defending is important, but Chardonians donâ€™t think itâ€™s as meaningful as attacking an opponent where they could be critically injured.â€
I donâ€™t want to think on the critically injured partâ€”neither giving nor receiving. â€œChardonians donâ€™t think? What about other countries? Do you have a tournament like this in Chryos?â€
â€œAll the time. And other countries, too. Chardonia is the only country that doesnâ€™t participate in tournaments outside of its own. Most other countries are fairly friendly, but travel between countries is very difficult so itâ€™s not as easy to maintain as weâ€™d like.â€
â€œTruly? Do women participate in other countries? In Chryos?â€
He laughs. â€œYouâ€™re insatiable.â€ I twist my hands together under the table, wondering if thatâ€™s good or bad, but before I can decide, he continues, â€œThe tournaments in other countries vary a lot. Some are small, a lot are bigger, mostly because Chardonia makes it tougher and tougher for outsiders to come in.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re here. And others come. Why not just go to another countryâ€™s tournament?â€
â€œTrust me, most do. But some, like me, are trying to get in to help. Or, in the case of this year, seeing if any changes are happening. Others want to show Chardonia up. I donâ€™t know why they still think that, when only a Chardonian council member has won for as long as anyone can remember.â€
â€œSomeone from the council always wins?â€
â€œAlways. Well, except last year the Grand Chancellorâ€™s son won, but he might as well be on the council.â€
Itâ€™s true. I remember, after Zade beat Thomas and won Serena, hearing the announcement while I was waiting for her to wake and fretting she might not. For many hours I feared father wouldnâ€™t allow her to. â€œWell, I suppose weâ€™ll have to see what we can do about that then, wonâ€™t we?â€
And it hits me that not only are we both competing in the same tournament, but that we may compete against one another. I donâ€™t want to fight him. Though with as many participants as there are, itâ€™s highly unlikely weâ€™ll have to fight against each other, unless we both make it far in the tournament. If that happens, well, Iâ€™ll concern myself with it if it happens.
I change the subject to distract myself from that disturbing line of thought. â€œWhat about women? You didnâ€™t answer that question.â€
â€œOnly because you ask so many questions itâ€™s hard to keep up.â€ I start to apologize, but he smiles and says, â€œItâ€™s not a bad thing. I like it.â€
He does? Thatâ€™s certainly new, but something I could become accustomed to. â€œWhat about women then? Do they enter tournaments in other countries?â€
* * *