Every year, when the long days of summer began their inevitable decline into fall, the winds in Aalwell changed direction. Instead of skimming along the coast, they began to blow inland, carrying the scent of sea and salt over the low-lying lands at the base of the cliffs. Unfortunately, they also carried the scent of the harbor, of rotting fish, of soggy streets, of too many unwashed bodies. The cliffs trapped most of the scent, confining all but the occasional foul whiff to the Harbor District. And this year when that wind change came, Alysoon Rai-Brynna reconsidered her decision to continue living in her late husband’s manor house rather than taking up residence in the royal palace above the cliffs. Her father had all but begged her to pack up her children and join him, but decades after he’d divorced her mother and made Alys and her brother technically illegitimate, she still hadn’t forgiven him. If the king wanted to spend time with his bastard daughter and his grandchildren, he could come down to the Terrace District; Alys would not go to him. Besides, the manor house was her home and had been for more than twenty years. She’d learned to live with the occasional foul whiff long ago.
On the most oppressive of autumn days, the gentry of the Terrace District either stayed inside their perfumed homes or flocked to the risers for a trip up to the Business District at the top of the cliffs. The merchants of the Business District loved oppressive autumn days above all others. Alys and her children had spent the last two days shopping, and if her eighteen-year-old daughter, Jinnell, had her way, they would spend a third. And probably a fourth. And a fifth. But Alysoon wasn’t about to let a few smelly breezes keep her from her weekly visit to the Abbey of the Unwanted, where her mother had resided since the divorce.
“But the Abbey will be intolerable!” Jinnell protested. “And you need some new gowns for winter now that you’re out of mourning.”
Alys suppressed a smile. She knew a disingenuous argument when she heard one, just as she knew the moment they reached the Business District, it wouldn’t be her own gowns they ended up shopping for.
“I do need new gowns,” Alys agreed, because it was true. Her winter wardrobe was almost two years out of date thanks to her year of official mourning. She doubted that her true mourning would ever end, but at least the grief was no longer quite so sharp as it had once been. “But I don’t need them today. And your grandmother is expecting me.”
Jinnell groaned dramatically as only a teenager could do. “Every time you visit the Abbey, people talk—and that’s not doing my marriage prospects any favors.”
Alys resisted the urge to roll her eyes. As long as the king was providing a generous dowry—over and above what Alysoon herself could offer from her husband’s estate—Jinnell’s marriage prospects were in no danger. As her daughter was well aware.
“I’ve been visiting the Abbey once a week since before you were born,” Alys said. “The damage is done, and I promise I’ll find you a nice goat farmer to settle down with. I’m sure we can find one under the age of sixty who will take you despite the disgrace I’ve brought down upon you.”
“Very amusing,” Jinnell said with a sour look on her usually sweet face. “I’ll die of boredom here. All my friends are shopping today.”
“You might try reading a book,” Alys suggested, receiving in response exactly the expression of disdain she expected. Alys had spent her whole life rebelling against the prevailing opinion that girls need not be educated beyond the basics required for managing a household, and jumped at every chance to read—especially if the subject matter was considered useless or inappropriate for females. Her daughter, however, would never dream of cracking open a book unless it was forced upon her.
“As you wish,” Alys continued with a careless shrug. “I’m going to the Abbey, and if you’re worried about death by boredom, you can always come with me. Your grandmother would love to see you.”
Jinnell wrinkled her nose. “Maybe in a month or so when the winds change again.”
Alys wasn’t surprised by the answer, and while she did on occasion force both of her children to accompany her on these visits, Jinnell was right and today would be especially unpleasant, thanks to the wind.
Leaving her daughter to sulk and her son to catch up on some lessons he’d neglected, Alys headed to the coach-house, which housed her carriages, horses, and chevals. Her groom was currying Smoke, her late husband’s horse, when she entered the coach-house. The poor creature was a shadow of his former self, his coat no longer gleaming, his head hanging in a habitual droop. Unlike Alys, Smoke had no friends and family to help ease the pain of loss and relieve the loneliness. Although Alys knew how to ride a horse, it was considered highly improper for a woman of her station to do so, and her son preferred his own horse to his father’s. Alysoon fed the horse a lump of sugar as an echo of grief stabbed through her and tightened her throat.
“Which cheval would you like, my lady?” the groom asked.
Alysoon swallowed her grief and glanced over the row of inert chevals against one wall. “The black, I should think,” she said. It was the least lovely of the chevals, covered in plain black leather with no adornments, but it would show the dirt of the Harbor District the least.
The groom bowed, then moved to the chosen cheval. His eyes turned milky white as he opened his Mindseye and fed some Rho into the cheval, which promptly came to life and gave a very horselike snort and stamped one wood-and-leather leg. As if the crafter who’d made it thought someone might mistake it for a real horse despite its lifeless eyes or its complete lack of personality. Then again, it wasn’t temperamental or missing its master, as the real horses were.
The groom hitched the cheval to Alysoon’s smallest carriage as her coachman, Noble, emerged from the servants’ quarters in the rear of the coach-house.
“The Abbey, my lady?” he asked as he helped her into the carriage, but it wasn’t really a question, for he knew her routine by heart—as did the rest of her household.
Falcor, her master of the guard, arrived right on Noble’s heels. He would sooner fall on his sword than allow Alys to leave the house unaccompanied. She had nothing against the men of her honor guard, but they were just one more reason she longed for the days when Sylnin was alive. As long as she’d had a husband to “look after” her, her father had allowed her to refuse the honor guard that was her due as a king’s daughter. But the day after Sylnin had passed, Falcor and his men had shown up on her doorstep and refused to leave. She frequently had to remind herself not to be unkind to the men who had no choice but to follow orders.
Alys allowed Falcor to climb onto the back of the coach without demur, having long ago resigned herself to the intrusion. Many women enjoyed more freedom when they became widows, but thanks to her royal lineage, Alys had less. She drew the sheers over the carriage’s windows.
The carriage descended the three sets of terraces, then clattered through the crowded streets of the Harbor District, the cheval expertly dodging pedestrians and horse-drawn carts and pits in the road, passing fish markets and taverns and storehouses all teeming with noonday business. Alys’s cheval carriage was well-known along this route, and while the street merchants eyed it longingly, none tried to approach and offer her their wares. It was unseemly enough for a woman of her stature to set foot in the Harbor District. To make purchases there was unthinkable.
The carriage eventually wended its way to the half-moon-shaped Front Street, which ran from one end of the harbor clear to the other. A massive warship was docked at the naval base near the Citadel, its crew and a platoon of dock workers busily repairing and refitting it after its tour of duty. Several smaller warships were docked quietly nearby, and one was putting out to sea, most likely for patrol duty. Aaltah hadn’t seen true war since Alys was a child, and these days Aaltah’s navy mostly did battle with pirates and smugglers. But the Lord Commander of the Citadel made sure all soldiers and sailors were kept battle-ready, for the kingdoms and principalities of Seven Wells had a habit of war that stretched back to the very beginnings of recorded history.
Between the naval base and the dockyard at the other end of the harbor, the water was packed tight with a ragged flotilla. Here was where the commoners who weren’t rich enough to afford a home on land settled, with their rickety crafts of questionable seaworthiness. Whole families lived on tiny boats with open cabins, braving the weather for easy access to Aal, the primary element produced by Aaltah’s Well. Thanks to the Well, Aal was almost as plentiful here as Rho, the most common of all elements. Aal was the primary element in many spells associated with movement—including the spell that powered the cheval—and was thus one of the mainstays of Aaltah’s economy.
The flotilla was responsible for a good deal of the Harbor District’s stink, and it seemed that every year at this time, some city councilman would bring a proposal to the king to outlaw it. And every year, the king refused, because having so many commoners who could see Aal was convenient when a great deal of Aaltah’s economy relied on the export of Aal-infused magic items.
As the carriage made its way down Front Street to the Abbey at the far end of the harbor, Alys opened her Mindseye, secure in the knowledge that no one would see her doing it through the window sheers. Her physical vision blurred and became indistinct as the elements of magic came into crisp focus.
As with anywhere in the known world, the most immediately visible element was Rho—pure white globes the size of pebbles. Every living thing was surrounded by sparkling motes of Rho, and the Well spilled thick clouds of it into the atmosphere. The second-most common element this near the Well was, of course, Aal, which in Mindsight looked like a child’s glass marble in a mixture of white and cloudy blue. Mingled with the motes of Aal and Rho were countless other elements, forming a beautiful tapestry of colors that never failed to take her breath away. Alys reached out to touch a radiant royal blue mote with flecks of gold in it, and for the millionth time, she wished she’d been born a man so that the world of magic were open to her. Her son, Corlin, was just beginning his magical education as adolescence developed his Mindseye. Many times she had been tempted to crack open his primer, which he often left lying around after his lessons, but she had so far resisted the urge.
Reluctantly, Alys closed her Mindseye. It was her particular form of self-torture to gaze longingly at that which was forbidden to her. Every time she opened her Mindseye, she told herself that this would be the last time, that she would not allow herself to be tempted yet again. But it was always a lie, and in the privacy of her home, with her husband gone and a locked door between herself and the rest of the household, she had occasionally been known to dabble. Very little, however. Forbidden to read spell compendiums and able to recognize and name only a handful of the myriad elements she could see, it was too dangerous for her to do any serious experimentation.
The Abbey walls loomed before her, twice again as tall as the nearest buildings. While the place was not technically a prison, no one had seen fit to inform its designers of the fact. Built of cold gray stone, with narrow windows and unlovely blocklike towers, it inspired a sense of foreboding in Alys’s heart every time she passed through its gates. It was a stark reminder of what would happen to her if she were ever caught “dabbling” in magic. Being the king’s daughter afforded her many freedoms that other women lacked, but that freedom had its limits.
Just past the Abbey’s walls lay the purpose of the Abbey’s existence: the Women’s Market. Stalls and booths were set up all along the courtyard’s perimeter, each manned by at least one red-robed abigail and selling the magic that only women could create. Love charms, minor healing potions, beauty enhancers, sex enhancers—and sex. This was called the Abbey of the Unwanted because it
was filled with women no one wanted as wives. Women who were
unchaste—or at least accused of being so. Women who were disobedient, who caused trouble, or who inconvenienced their husbands or fathers. Women like Alys’s mother, who had gotten in the way of her husband’s desire to marry another.
All were tainted beyond redemption in the eyes of society, and with that taint and the virtual imprisonment that resulted came
the permission to practice magic. Polite society might frown upon women practicing magic, but that didn’t stop polite society from buying and using the magic created by these ruined women. Likewise, polite society might consider it inappropriate for a woman to have sexual relations with anyone but her husband, but that didn’t stop Aaltah’s men from buying the sexual favors of whichever young and pretty abigail caught their eye.
The stalls selling magic items were dwarfed by the pavilion at the far end of the courtyard, where the Abbey’s most desirable displayed themselves as merchandise, their long red robes put aside for tiny scraps of red fabric that covered the bare minimum of their bodies. Men mobbed the pavilion, placing bids on their favorites, competing with one another in bidding wars that sometimes devolved into brawls.
Once upon a time, Alys’s mother had been one of those women. Thirty years old when she was set aside, Brynna Rah-Malrye would have been considered too old to work the pavilion had she been any other woman. But a woman who had once been queen was too profitable a commodity to pass up, commanding a higher price than any three women combined. The thought that her father had allowed her mother to be so humiliated and abused lit a fire in Alys’s veins every time she entered the Abbey’s courtyard and saw the pavilion. He could shower her with gifts and affection until the day he died, and still she would never forgive him.
It was a time Brynna never spoke about with her daughter, and Alys was happy to keep the silence. She was also glad that when she’d visited her mother in the Abbey as a child, she hadn’t understood what those women in the pavilion were selling.
Now, after more than three decades as an abigail, Brynna was the abbess, the highest authority within the Abbey. Queen of the Unwanted Women, as it were. It was small comfort to the woman who’d once been the Queen of Aaltah.
Alys was expected, and her carriage was met by a young abigail whose face was marred by an enormous wine-colored stain over the pale gold skin of her right cheek and the bridge of her nose. The deep crimson robes emphasized the mark, and Alys noticed the girl stood at a slight angle to greet her, as if trying to keep that side of her face in shadow.
“The abbess is ready for you, my lady,” the girl said in a voice barely above a whisper, her body still canted as she dropped a curtsy.
Alys wanted to tell the poor child that the mark was not a cause for shame—or at least that it should not be—but doubted it would do much good. Odds were high the girl had been relegated to the Abbey precisely because her family had been ashamed of her appearance and deemed her unmarriageable. At least the stain meant she didn’t have to work the pavilion.
The shy abigail led Alys to the abbess’s office, within the Abbey’s highest tower. The room was large by the Abbey’s standards, and even relatively comfortable. Small windows on three walls provided more natural light than in other parts of the Abbey, and a candelabra fitted with large luminants made the room even brighter. The luminants were an indulgence, which Alys had gifted to the Abbey so that her mother and the abigails did not have to live in gloom. But while the abbess was in charge of the Abbey’s day-to-day working, she had to answer to the king and the king’s council—including the lord high treasurer, who’d declared Alys’s gift fully taxable. Over Alys’s strenuous objections, the treasury had seized all the luminants but five, allowing the abbess to keep them as long as she used them only for herself as a personal gift from her daughter.
The cold stone floor was covered with a warm red rug that was growing threadbare in patches, and there was a cozy seating area with a ragtag collection of mismatched chairs situated before the fireplace. More evidence of the treasurer’s greed, allowing the women of the Abbey no more than the bare minimum of comfort while they debased themselves to fill the Crown’s coffers.
The abbess was sitting in one of those chairs, sipping from a steaming cup of tea, when Alys was shown in. She set the tea aside when Alys entered, rising slowly to her feet and mustering a wan smile as she held out her hands to her daughter.
Brynna Rah-Malrye had once been a stunning beauty, with perfectly smooth tawny skin, a cascade of raven-black curls, and deep brown eyes that radiated warmth. The Abbey—and time—had stolen much of that beauty. Stress and austere living had etched her face in lines and wrinkles, and her glorious hair, now iron-gray, was perpetually hidden under a red wimple. Even her eyes had lost their luster as cataracts encroached.
Alys took her mother’s gnarled hands and gave them a squeeze. Ordinarily, the abbess’s dull eyes came to life when Alys visited, reminding her of the vibrant woman she’d once known. Today, the abbess managed a smile, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes, and Alys could see the tension written on her face in bold print.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” Alys asked as the two women hugged.
“Nothing, my child,” the abbess said, though she held the embrace for longer than usual.
Alys shook her head and peered into her mother’s face. She was not imagining those shadows under her mother’s eyes or the sharp crease between her brows.
The door squeaked as the young abigail closed it, and Alys could hear the soft shuffle of the girl’s footsteps as she retreated. She watched the door and waited until she could no longer hear footsteps before turning to her mother once more.
“What is it?” she demanded.
Her mother gave her another wan smile and gestured toward one of the chairs. “Please sit. And have some tea.”
Alys sat on the very edge of the chair but didn’t even glance at the tea set. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
The abbess slowly resumed her seat, the slight tightening around the corners of her eyes telling Alys that her arthritis was giving her trouble again. There were potions that could ease her symptoms, but they were pricey imports and beyond the Abbey’s meager budget. Alys didn’t like to think of her mother as an old woman, but the abbess was sixty-two, and today she looked more like eighty.
“There is truly nothing wrong, my child,” the abbess said. “I am fine.”
The abbess held up her hand to interrupt Alys’s protest. “I am fine, all is well, but I have something important I must speak to you about.” She sighed and shook her head. “I have struggled to figure out how to start.”
Alys smoothed her skirts just so her hands would have something to do. All was clearly not well, no matter what her mother said. But her mother never spoke without thinking long and hard about her words, and there was no use getting impatient with her. Even if patience was a trait Alys herself lacked.
The abbess sighed heavily, and a corner of her mouth lifted in a wry smile. “I must apologize in advance for the incomplete information I am about to give you. I know you will have questions, and most of them I will not be able to answer.”
Alys almost groaned at that, holding back the sound with an effort. Her mother spouted off cryptic, nearly unintelligible warnings and advice all the time, and never seemed to notice or care that Alys didn’t understand. If she was apologizing in advance, this was going to be far worse than usual.
Alys must have made a face, because her mother chuckled, the sadness momentarily lifting. “Yes, I know I often say things you don’t understand. You’re just going to have to trust me when I say it’s for a good reason.”
Alys arched a brow. “You mean other than because you enjoy tormenting me?”
“Well, there’s that, too.” Unexpectedly, she reached out and squeezed Alys’s hand. “I can never adequately convey how much it’s meant to me that you’ve continued to visit me all these years.”
Alys shook that off. “I don’t understand how anyone can just pretend you don’t exist.” As the king did. As Alys’s brother did. As all her mother’s old friends did.
Her mother shrugged. “It’s the custom, and most people don’t have the courage to defy custom.”
Alys would hardly label her own defiance as courage. Everyone knew she was the king’s favorite—if only because she alone withheld her affection. And the king’s favorite could flout some of the most rigid customs without undue hardship. Of course her father wouldn’t be around forever, and her relationship with his heir—her half-brother, Delnamal—was nowhere near as cordial. He had more than once promised to bring her to heel when he became king.
“You’re my mother,” Alys said simply. “You will always be my mother, no matter what happens.”
“Yes, and that may well cause you some . . . difficulties in the days to come.”
“What do you mean?”
“Something is going to happen tonight. Something . . . momentous. Something that will change the world in ways I can’t entirely foresee.”
Alys’s stomach knotted, and her chest felt tight. Her mother was not prone to hyperbole—much the opposite, in fact—and if she said something world-changing was going to happen, she meant it literally. “What is it?” Alys asked, her voice coming out high and breathless.
“I can’t tell you.”
Alys let out a sound between a sigh and a growl, bunching her skirts up in her fists to keep from grabbing her mother by the shoulders and giving her a good shake. “You can’t do that! You can’t tell me something momentous is going to happen and refuse to tell me what!”
“Of course I can,” her mother responded with an incongruous half-smile. “I’m a seer. It’s what we do.”
Alys had never been able to determine whether her mother could genuinely foresee the future or whether she meant that in a more figurative manner. There were rumors of spells that allowed women to see the future, but conventional wisdom labeled those rumors false. Alys was not so sure. “Mama—”
“There’s a reason I can’t tell you, Alysoon. Trust me.”
Alys jumped up from her chair and started pacing before the unlit fireplace, unable to contain the angry energy that coursed through her blood.
She loved her mother, she really did. But did she trust her? Even before her mother had been banished to the Abbey, she’d had a hard streak in her, a level of brutal practicality that Alys could never match. Life in the Abbey had certainly not softened her, and though she was not unkind, she was not especially kind, either. It was all too easy to imagine the reason she “couldn’t” tell Alys what was going to happen was that she knew Alys would not like it.
“It makes no sense to give me a vague and ominous warning when you have no intention of explaining,” Alys snapped.
The abbess pushed to her feet once more, drawing herself up to her full height and putting on her sternest, most repressive expression. “You’ll understand soon enough, and throwing a tantrum won’t aid your cause.”
“I don’t have a cause,” Alys said petulantly, but she knew continuing the argument was pointless. Her mother was an immovable object when she wanted to be.
The abbess reached into the folds of her crimson robes and pulled out a small book bound in blood-red leather and stamped with gold leaf. Some of the gold leaf had been worn off, as if from too much handling, and the spine was cracked almost to the point of coming apart. She held the book out to Alys, who took it from her and frowned at it.
Heart of My Heart, the title declared, and Alys’s lip curled in distaste. She’d known at once from the red binding that it was a book meant for women, but the title declared it was some kind of romantic drivel, with which Alys had no patience. She quickly thumbed through the pages, just to confirm her initial impression, and saw it was even worse than she’d thought—not just a love story, but love poems. She tried to hand the book back to her mother, but the abbess didn’t take it.
“It’s for you,” her mother said.
Alys rolled her eyes. “I might read love poems if someone held a sword to my throat and threatened me with death, but there’s no guarantee.” She was much more apt to read about adventures on the high seas, or accounts of great battles, or biographies of kings past. Anything that wasn’t considered appropriate reading material for a woman, she found intensely intriguing.
The abbess smiled with genuine humor. “Alysoon, my child, I have known you for quite a long time, and I’m not expecting you to develop a sudden passion for love poetry.”
Alys frowned and peered more closely at the book, scanning through a few lines on a random page. It was definitely love poetry, of just the treacly sweet flavor that set her teeth on edge. She couldn’t see her mother reading it, much less herself. And yet the book was worn and clearly well-loved.
“I don’t understand.”
“But you will. After tonight’s events, feed three motes of Rho into the book and you will see why I’ve given it to you.”
Her mother was telling her to use magic? All Alys’s life, her mother had warned her to keep her Mindseye firmly closed, to resist the temptation to explore. To the point that Alys could practically recite the lectures word for word. (Which, come to think of it, she had, though Jinnell was so painfully proper by nature it had never seemed necessary.)
What had changed?
Alys opened her Mindseye, sure it was safe here in the abbess’s closed office. She expected to see the book teeming with elements, all bound together in some complex spell that required only Rho to complete it. Instead, what she saw was . . . a plain book of love poetry. Perhaps not surprising, as paper was considered nearly useless as a spell vessel, but feeding Rho into an ordinary book would have no effect whatsoever.
Alys looked at her mother, just to make sure her Mindseye hadn’t suddenly gone blind, and there was indeed a halo of Rho surrounding the older woman. The luminants in the candelabra were filled with some red-orange element Alys didn’t recognize, and the air in the room was swimming with motes like dust in the sunlight. Either the book was filled with elements beyond Alys’s ability to see, or it was exactly what it looked like.
“I can’t see any elements in it,” Alys said, closing her Mindseye so she could see her mother’s face more clearly.
“That’s rather the point, my child. No one looking at it would have any reason to suspect it isn’t exactly what it appears.”
Alys shivered. “Why?” she asked, knowing full well she would not get an answer. At least not a satisfactory one. “Why don’t you want anyone to know it’s a magic item?”
“That’s another question you will learn the answer to before the sun next rises.”
Alys was tempted to throw the book to the floor and stomp on it. Of all the mysterious and frustrating conversations she’d ever had with her mother, this was by far the worst.
“Would it kill you to give me a straight, clear answer?”
“No, but it might change things that must not be changed. What will happen tonight will be difficult for a great many people—especially for you—but it is for the greater good, and I can’t risk altering what I’ve foreseen.”
Alys sank back down into the chair, her anger draining as dread pooled in the pit of her stomach. What was going to happen tonight?
Her mother laid the back of her hand against Alys’s cheek, a comforting gesture that did nothing to soothe the turmoil that roiled within her.
“I love you very much,” her mother said, and there was a catch in her voice that made Alys’s eyes sting with tears. “Never doubt that.”
Alys looked up at her mother’s face, shivering to see and hear so many unguarded emotions from a woman so determinedly stoic. “Is something going to happen to you tonight?” Because in light of all the ominous warnings, the sadness in her mother’s eyes suddenly looked very like a goodbye.
The abbess didn’t answer. But perhaps her silence was an answer in and of itself.
Nadeen Rai-Brynna awoke with a start, shocked she’d managed to fall asleep at all, if only for a few minutes. A glance out her narrow window showed the moon high in the sky.
The time had come, Nadeen realized with a potent mixture of excitement and terror, hope and dread.
The bed creaked as, beside her, Kamlee stirred sleepily, missing her warmth. She held her breath, hoping she hadn’t made a tragic mistake by letting him spend the night. He ordinarily slept like the dead, and she’d been sure she could slip out without waking him. Fully aware that she was taking an unacceptable risk by spending the night with her forbidden lover, Nadeen had done it anyway. If she woke him and he somehow interfered . . . But she couldn’t face what she had to do tonight without showing him one more time how much she loved him. It was all she could do not to dive back under the covers and snuggle up to the man who’d made the last few years of her life the happiest she’d ever known. Her mother, the abbess, would be livid if she knew, would pile on the shame and guilt until Nadeen staggered under the weight of it.
Nadeen let out a slow, shuddering breath as she slid out of the bed. A moonbeam provided just enough light for her to find her robes and pull them on. How she wanted to light a candle so she could look at Kamlee’s face one last time, but that might make this night even harder.
She hesitated in the doorway, dizzy and disbelieving, her mind repeating the sentence the time has come in an endless, echoing loop. A part of her had never truly believed this was going to happen, had been sure something would stop them. Surely the Wellspring would rise up to prevent their assault on its very essence. Maybe someone would wonder at the coincidence that both the abbess and her daughter conceived and bore children in the Abbey, despite the easy access to contraceptive potions that were almost always effective. Or maybe Vondeen, Nadeen’s daughter, would lose her virginity before they had a chance to perform the ritual. Such was not uncommon in the Abbey, where a pretty girl was expected to begin working the pavilion the moment she became a woman. But of course the abbess had planned for that and declared they would perform the ritual on the night Vondeen shed her first woman’s blood. Tonight.
Tears stung Nadeen’s eyes as she made her way through the Abbey’s dark and silent halls toward the abbess’s office. Vondeen was only fourteen years old, and Nadeen had never known a kinder, purer soul. It was her sacred duty as a mother to protect her daughter, and in that most vital of all women’s duties, she was about to fail.
Both the abbess and Vondeen were already present when Nadeen entered the office, which was brightly lit with luminants. She had blinked the tears out of her eyes before stepping inside, but they welled again the moment she caught sight of her daughter, with the pale skin and green-gray eyes she’d inherited from her Nandel-born father. Today, the girl had donned her red abigail’s robes for the first time, but she looked to Nadeen like a child playing dress-up. Certainly too young to give her life, even for a great cause. It was all Nadeen could do not to burst into sobs.
Vondeen leapt from her chair and hurried to embrace her.
“It’s all right, Mama,” the girl said, hugging her tight. “I’m ready, and I’m not afraid.”
Nadeen hugged her daughter back fiercely, not sure she could bear to let go. The spell they were set to cast tonight had been generations in the making, built by a succession of gifted abbesses who’d seen what no one else had seen—and who’d had the courage to act on it. It was well known that magical aptitude ran in certain families. In the Abbeys, it was similarly well known that the rarer feminine gift of foresight also ran in families, though only women who inherited that gift from both sides of their families could use it. And so the abbesses of Aaltah had set about manipulating bloodlines based on what they saw, strengthening and concentrating the abilities they needed. A love potion slipped into a client’s drink. A contraceptive potion withheld. A marriage falsely predicted to be unfruitful when the bloodlines were analyzed . . . The fate of the world rested on these small acts of feminine defiance.
Brynna Rah-Malrye had completed the process by bearing Nadeen and breeding her with that repulsive Nandel princeling to produce Vondeen. Generations had labored to produce these three women—the virgin, the mother, and the crone—who were the only ones who could complete this epic spell.
There was no turning back, no matter how high the cost or how much it hurt.
The abbess joined in the embrace, hugging her daughter and her granddaughter. “I hope you know I love you both,” the abbess whispered.
“I love you, too,” Vondeen said with no hesitation.
Nadeen’s throat tightened to the point she couldn’t speak, could hardly breathe. She respected her mother a great deal, but respect was not the same as love. How could she love a woman who’d brought her into this world only because she was needed for this spell? How could she love a woman who’d ordered her into a known rapist’s bed and even ordered her to conceive by him, shaming Nadeen into not taking the contraceptive potion that all women in the Abbey drank when they were working the pavilion?
No, Nadeen couldn’t truthfully say she loved her mother, and she had a hard time believing her mother loved anyone at all. Even her first daughter, Alysoon, who was conceived and born out of love, was now but a tool for the abbess’s use. Nadeen had never met her half-sister—she suspected Alysoon didn’t even know she existed—and wondered if the woman had any idea how her life was about to change, what her mother planned to put her through.
The abbess rubbed Nadeen’s back as if comforting a small child. “I don’t expect you to say it back, daughter.”
“Mama loves you, Gran,” Vondeen said. “Even if she doesn’t know it.”
That brought a hiccup of near laughter from Nadeen’s throat. Vondeen always saw the best in people despite Nadeen’s efforts to warn her how dangerous—and disappointing—that could be. Despite knowing she’d been bred to fulfill a purpose, like a horse. It was unthinkable that Nadeen could allow this precious girl to be sacrificed.
“I can’t do it!” she said, twisting out of the shared embrace. The tears she’d been fighting so hard to hold off refused to be denied, and her whole body shook as she backed away.
She expected a rebuke and a lecture about her responsibilities from her mother, but instead it was Vondeen who stepped forward and took hold of her shoulders in a firm grip.
“You have to, Mama,” the girl said. Her voice was calm and steady, her eyes showing no hint of fear or doubt. “We were born to change the world. It’s our purpose, and it’s noble, and it’s worth any sacrifice.”
How could a fourteen-year-old girl be so ready to sacrifice her own life for the greater good? Just like her daughter, Nadeen had been raised knowing her destiny, but when she’d been fourteen, she had resisted that destiny with every bone in her body. With more than half her life still ahead of her, she’d cried that it wasn’t enough and had gone so far as to try to flee the Abbey and her fate. She’d been caught before she’d set foot outside the gate, and soundly beaten for her efforts. Not yet abbess, her mother had begged for leniency, and Nadeen knew the beating could have been far worse.
How could Nadeen’s daughter be such a pillar of serenity and fearlessness when Nadeen herself was made of fear and pain and doubt?
She was weak. Selfish. Unworthy.
Still the abbess said nothing, made no attempt to soothe Nadeen’s terror nor even remind her of her duty. Nadeen didn’t look at her mother, couldn’t bear to see the look of stern disapproval, maybe even contempt, as she proved herself too cowardly to fulfill her life’s purpose. She shuddered, her knees going weak, and sank to the floor. Vondeen, still holding her shoulders, sank with her, until both women were kneeling on the threadbare rug.
Nadeen buried her face in her hands as undignified sobs rose from her chest. She was a liar and a fraud along with all her other faults. It wasn’t Vondeen’s life she was so desperate to save: it was her own. Even after a lifetime of preparation, she wasn’t ready to die for their cause, and a wave of humiliation broke over her and nearly drowned her.
She felt Vondeen move closer, drape her arm over her back as the girl whispered soothing words and crooned like a mother with a crying child. Completing the humiliation.
Nadeen felt as if she were being torn in two. Half of her was the sobbing, terrified woman who cowered on the floor and required her fourteen-year-old daughter to offer comfort and aid. The other was the avenger of women who’d been bound since birth to a cause she believed in with all her heart and to which she had pledged her life.
But it was so much easier to give one’s life to a hypothetical future, especially one that might never exist. Certainly the sacrifice had never seemed real to Nadeen. Even a few hours ago when she’d taken Kamlee to her bed in what was meant to be a final farewell, some part of her had never truly believed she wouldn’t return to her lover’s arms.
“Please, Mama,” she heard her daughter whisper into her ear. “We have to do this. You promised me I would never have to sell my body in the pavilion, and that is exactly what I shall have to do if we don’t cast this spell. I will be just one more unwanted woman in this world with no higher purpose to lend me the strength to endure. Surely that’s not what you want for me.”
Nadeen sucked in a great gasp of air. She hadn’t for a moment considered what the consequences of her refusal would be, had thought only about the continuation of her own life and Vondeen’s. But Vondeen was too beautiful to escape the pavilion, where she would sell herself day after day, night after night, for the Abbey’s coffers, lying with any man who bid for her, no matter how cruel or venal or sickening. All so that the Abbey could turn over the lion’s share of its profits to the Crown while its women lived in near poverty.
Nadeen knew exactly how dreadful it was to work the pavilion, how degrading and painful and soul-crushing. She’d survived nearly fifteen years of it herself before she’d become too old to bring a good price, and on those nights when she’d suffered the most repulsive of her clients, she’d retreated to a place where she could dream of fulfilling her destiny, a place where all her suffering was worth it.
Vondeen would not have that same shield if Nadeen couldn’t find the courage to do what she must. How much worse would the humiliation and pain be when she knew she’d suffered it for no purpose, that she’d been lied to and betrayed by the woman who’d brought her into this world and promised her an important place
Nadeen drew in another deep breath, pushing down the fear that had escaped the containment she’d built inside her chest. She was still racked with tremors, her nose stuffed and her eyes swollen, but she stiffened her spine and sat up straighter, looking into her daughter’s eyes. Eyes that still showed no fear, only steely determination. Eyes that would show fury and pain, contempt and betrayal, if Nadeen let her fear win. She swallowed hard, willing that fear to drain away, or at least to go back into hiding where she could ignore it and move forward.
“What I want for you,” she said in a voice hoarse and raspy with tears, “is a long and happy life.”
“But that’s not something within my reach,” Vondeen answered swiftly. “It’s beyond the reach of most women in this world, beyond their hopes, even. But we can change that for them.”
Vondeen’s eyes glowed with something uncomfortably close to fanaticism, but Nadeen supposed that was to be expected, given the girl’s upbringing. Privately, Nadeen wasn’t so sure their spell would have as positive an effect on the lives of women as Vondeen hoped. Not for the current generation, at least. But for the youngest girls and for girls born in the future, when the spell had had time to settle and the worst of the shock had worn off, the world would be better. Of that, Nadeen had no doubt.
Nadeen wiped her eyes and cheeks with the back of her hand, then dried her hand on her robes. One more shuddering breath, and she felt nearly like herself again. She gathered Vondeen into her arms for one last hug, then finally glanced up at her own mother, who hadn’t spoken a word.
To Nadeen’s surprise, the abbess’s back was turned as she bent forward and gripped the back of a chair with white-knuckled hands. When she finally turned to face her daughter and granddaughter once more, there was a suspicious shine in her eyes, though her face looked composed, the expression an obvious mask over her emotions. Nadeen was oddly comforted to know her mother was not as unaffected as she pretended to be.
The abbess nodded briskly. “It is time,” she said, then knelt on the floor with a wince of arthritic pain and pulled back one corner of the rug, revealing the flagstones beneath. The abbess’s eyes went white, and she touched one of the stones, feeding Rho into it to trigger its spell. The stone rose into the air and slipped to the side, opening a twice-hidden compartment—hidden to the physical senses
by the camouflaging stone and hidden to Mindsight by a secrecy spell so strong only a handful of people had the skill to see past it.
Inside the compartment lay a stemmed cup of hammered copper crusted with a hodgepodge of gems, some precious, some semi-precious. For nearly a century, each successive abbess had added those gems, each filled to capacity with elements—some exceedingly rare—from all across Seven Wells. Those elements, bound together, formed the makings of a spell more powerful than any yet imagined. It needed but one more element to be triggered—an element only these three women could produce.
The abbess lifted the cup gently from its compartment, setting it on the floor and drawing out the three daggers that were stored with it. Nadeen and Vondeen watched the abbess’s slow, deliberate movements with a combination of terror and resolve. Their hands had come together, fingers gripping one another, sharing their love and courage.
The abbess placed the daggers in a triangle around the cup, taking a position behind one and waiting for Nadeen and Vondeen to join her. Nadeen found she was shaking, not sure how she would find the courage when the moment of truth arrived. Vondeen offered her an encouraging, courageous smile, then let go of her hand and went to kneel behind a second dagger. Not trusting herself to stand, Nadine shuffled into her own position on her knees.
In Mindsight, the cup was nearly blinding to look at, elements of all colors and sizes writhing and roiling within it. Most of them were feminine elements, though some were visible only to the most powerful women in the world. But some were masculine as well, elements that no woman should be able to see. Elements that Brynna, Nadeen, and Vondeen could see only because they had all been bred for the purpose.
Each woman reached for a dagger. The abbess brushed back the sleeve of her robes, revealing her wrinkled, age-spotted arm with its mapping of deep blue veins. With a steady hand, she placed the tip of the dagger against her skin, about halfway up her forearm. Then she slashed quickly downward to the wrist, laying open her flesh and letting loose a river of blood.
It was done with no hesitation, and only a slight tightening at the corners of her eyes indicated that it had hurt. She held out her bleeding arm, letting her blood splash into the waiting vessel. At first, Mindsight revealed only Rho, the element of life, in that blood. But as the blood continued to pour out unchecked, a new element shimmered into existence.
Kai. The death element. Elusive, powerful, and visible only to men of the noble houses—and to these three women.
Kai motes were unmistakable—crystalline in structure, whereas other elements were spherical. Their form and coloration were unique to the individual who produced them. Brynna’s Kai was glossy black in color with three distinct crystals jutting out like teeth.
Fear escaped its captivity once more, and Nadeen’s hand shook as she pushed up her own sleeve. The abbess had closed her eyes, whether because she couldn’t bear to watch or because she was losing consciousness, Nadeen didn’t know.
Nadeen bit down hard on her lip, hoping to distract herself with that little pain as she held her arm out over the vessel and lifted the dagger. I’m doing this for all the women and girls who will come after me, she reminded herself. She made the cut swiftly, giving herself no time to think. Her shaking hand made a mess of it, creating a jagged wound instead of her mother’s neat slice, but the blood flowed freely, rushing to enter the vessel. She dropped the knife and almost knocked over the vessel, but the deed was done, and there was no turning back now. She whimpered when she saw her own Kai appear, proving that her cut was true and would take her life. Her Kai was a deep, heart’s-blood red. She reached out with her trembling hand and nudged her Kai toward her mother’s. The two motes fit together perfectly, creating a mostly smooth red and black crystal with one jagged gap.
Nadeen sobbed freely and without shame as her daughter calmly slashed her own wrist and held it over the vessel. Somehow, although they hadn’t planned it that way, the three women ended up holding one another’s hands as they bled their lives into the vessel, willing the spell it contained to rise up and spread over all the world.
Vondeen’s Kai appeared. Pure white like Rho, Vondeen’s Kai slid easily into the space left between Nadeen’s and Brynna’s. The three Kai motes now formed one large, multicolored crystal, which Vondeen nudged into the spell vessel. The crystal drew the trapped elements out of the vessel, binding and combining with them, the power of the spell’s birth causing the copper to melt to a steaming pool.
One by one, the women’s grips faltered, dizziness overtaking them as the strength drained from their bodies with their blood. And the spell they had completed rose up from the pool of molten metal and cracked gems and sank into the earth, making its way down to the Wellspring, the source of all magic. And changing everything.
Alys spent the whole day waiting for the momentous event her mother had predicted, but the afternoon and the evening were unremarkable. Jinnell continued to sulk about having to spend the day at home, complaining bitterly of the harbor smell. Either her daughter had a hound’s nose, or she was just complaining on general principle; the manor house was well insulated from the harbor breezes, and each room held a vase of sweetlace flowers that filled the air with their scent. Corlin was equally sullen, bored with his lessons and taking his cues from his sister. Alys’s tension did little to soothe either of her children.
By the time Alys headed up to her bedroom for the night, she’d halfway convinced herself her mother’s warnings had been overwrought. She had just sat down at her dressing table so her maid, Honor, could begin the long process of releasing her hair from its carefully arranged braids when the floor seemed to shudder beneath her. A mild, brief pulse that was not entirely unfamiliar. The earth did seem to have a tendency to shake once in a while in Aaltah, though it was never anything serious. Once or twice in her lifetime, Alysoon had felt a quake strong enough to knock over an unsteady bottle or glass, but nothing worse than that.
Alys met Honor’s eyes in the mirror. “Well, that was exciting,” Alys said. The comment was meant to be light and flippant, but thanks to her mother’s predictions, Alys’s pulse was racing and her entire body tense.
Her maid chuckled and plucked at one of Alys’s braids. Unlike Alys, she didn’t read any ominous portent in that minor quake and seemed to dismiss it from her mind the moment it was past.
Alys’s insistence on reading and studying history meant she was aware of the potential dangers of the shaking earth in ways few women were. There had been no serious quakes in Aaltah for centuries, but Alys had read about one that occurred almost four hundred years ago. That quake had caused the sea to swell and flood the entire Harbor District. Thousands had died, and it had taken decades to rebuild all that was lost.
The earth shook again, a little harder this time, rattling the perfume bottles on Alys’s dressing table and causing Honor to sway and almost fall. The maid laughed again when the shaking subsided.
“Enough excitement for one night,” Honor said with a cluck of her tongue, reproving the earth as though it were an ill-mannered child.
Alys’s chest felt tight, her hands cold and clammy. Surely she was reading too much into this ordinary occurrence. But her heart insisted on pounding, and she was almost holding her breath as she willed the earth to do as it was told and be still.
The next quake brought a portrait crashing down from the wall and spilled three tall bottles of perfume. And it didn’t stop there. Honor tottered sideways and grabbed on to Alys’s shoulders to support herself.
“Pardon, my lady!” she cried, but she didn’t let go.
“Sit down!” Alys barked at her as she braced herself against the dressing table, her spindly chair rocking precariously. The spilled perfumes formed a waterfall over the edge of the table, the sweet, delicate scents overpowering. Alys sneezed and grabbed for a bottle, hoping to recap it, but it rolled off the edge of the table and shattered.
Letting go of the table to reach for the bottle proved to be a mistake. Alys’s chair tipped sideways, and the legs skidded, sending her tumbling to the floor on top of her poor maid. Honor stifled a cry of pain, and Alys rolled off her, staying on the floor and grabbing hold of the other woman’s hand as the world continued to shake.
Outside her door, she could hear the rest of the servants calling to one another, and she heard ominous clatters and bangs. Something fell over with a shriek of breaking glass.
“The children,” Alys gasped, trying to get to her feet, but the earth was shaking too hard, and she quickly stumbled and went down.
Alys had never felt anything like this before. A pair of luminants, set into the wall with heavy iron sconces, dropped to the floor, the glass shattering and releasing the trapped elements, snuffing the light. And still the earth shook and bucked beneath them. From all around came the sound of shouts and thuds and bangs. Blind in the darkness, Alys reached for where her maid had fallen and touched a shoulder.
“We have to get out,” she shouted, fearing the house might collapse. How they would make it down two flights of stairs to the ground floor and an exit, she wasn’t sure, but better to try than to cower uselessly on the floor.
“Go!” Honor cried. “I’m right behind you.”
Knowing she could never stay on her feet, Alys crawled on all fours, hampered by the three layers of skirts and long trailing sleeves of her evening gown. She wished she’d dispensed with the formality of dressing for dinner after Sylnin had died, but old habits were hard to break. She looked over her shoulder, checking on Honor, but could see nothing in the oppressive darkness. She just had to hope the maid was following. Under her breath, she prayed that Jinnell and Corlin had fled from their rooms on the floor below and were on their way to the relative safety of the outdoors.
Groping blindly in the dark, Alys bumped into a wall and felt her way along it until she reached the doorway. She fumbled for the knob, her fingers finding it then slipping off as an especially hard lurch pitched her to the side.
An earsplitting shriek rent the air, followed by an even louder series of bangs and crashes so strong she could feel them shaking the floor even through the movement of the quake. More frantic screams and shouts from outside the closed door, and behind her Honor cried out, “What was that?”
Alys had no answer, though she was sure it was the sound of something huge collapsing. She was just glad her own house was still standing, though she had little confidence it could withstand much more shaking. Grimly, gritting her teeth, she reached for the doorknob again, this time getting a firm grip and yanking it open.
There was no light in the hallway outside, and as Alys crawled, her hands encountered jagged shards of glass from more broken luminants. She called a warning to Honor over her shoulder, but it wasn’t possible to be particularly careful. Alys winced as a sliver of glass cut into her palm. She gathered her long trailing sleeves and wrapped them around her hands, giving herself as much protection as possible as she continued to push forward, sweeping the glass aside to create a path.
It was hard to stay oriented in the darkness, but Alys kept moving in what she felt certain was the direction of the staircase.
The earth shuddered to a stop, the sudden stillness almost as unnerving as the shaking. The household was still filled with the sound of shouting voices, with the crunching of broken glass underfoot and the banging of doors. From somewhere down below, a child was wailing at the top of his lungs, but he was too young to be Corlin. The cook’s apprentice, Alys guessed, and while she hoped the boy was unharmed, she was glad the voice wasn’t her son’s.
She yelled out her children’s names, but doubted they would hear over all the other voices even if they were nearby.
“Are you all right, Honor?” she called, her whole body tense as she waited for the shaking to start again.
“Yes, my lady. And you?”
Alys winced as her cut hand began to throb to the beat of her heart. “I think so.”
Somewhere below, on the second floor, a luminant was lit, and Alys was almost surprised to find they hadn’t all been destroyed. The light was feeble and far away, but at least it was enough to help orient her. She looked around and found that her long, torturous crawl had taken her little more than a body’s length from her bedroom door and that she’d been crawling straight toward the edge of the hallway, where a banister used to be. All that was left of it were a few nails that had been ripped out when it fell over the edge, no doubt landing in the foyer two stories below.
The light got brighter, and Alys saw her steward, Mica, rushing toward the stairs, eyes searching the balcony above, holding a brightly glowing luminant as he picked his way through glass and other debris.
“Lady Alysoon!” he shouted, and Alys realized he couldn’t see her, blinded by the light he held in his hands.
“I’m here!” she responded. “And I’m all right. Where are the children?”
He breathed a visible sigh of relief as he started up the stairs, taking them two at a time until he came upon a large painting that had fallen from the wall and blocked the way.
“They’re outside and safe,” he said, and Alys’s heart rate finally started to calm.
“Is anyone hurt?” she asked, finally trusting that the quake was over and climbing shakily to her feet.
Mica worked his way around the fallen painting and made it to the head of the stairs. Alys shook her head in amazement at the damage. There was not a luminant left on the walls or ceiling, and every tall piece of furniture had fallen down. But at least it was all superficial damage, as far as she could see. No ominous cracks in the walls, no dust raining from the ceiling. Something large had collapsed and made that horrible noise, but it wasn’t her house.
She didn’t have to be told that the people of the Harbor District had not fared so well. The crowded streets and ramshackle buildings, many decades past their prime, could not have withstood the force of that quake. She prayed history would not repeat itself and bring a wave that would swamp the district—and destroy the ragtag flotilla.
“I haven’t seen anyone seriously injured,” Mica responded, frowning at her bloodstained sleeve. “Except, perhaps, you.”
She waved off his concern. “I’m fine. Just a little cut.” A cut that throbbed uncomfortably. She wondered if it was still bleeding but didn’t want to unwrap her sleeve to see. She’d worry about getting it properly bandaged once she’d had a chance to assess the damage.
With Mica’s help—and with the light of his single luminant—Alys made her way down the stairs. Honor followed Alys down to the second floor and then veered off, heading for a huddled group of housemaids who looked lost and frightened. One girl held a lit candle, and the others were practically clinging to that small circle of light. Honor technically had no authority over the housemaids—they were under the housekeeper’s purview—but she exuded calm and confidence, and Alys could see the girls start to relax the moment she took charge.
On the first floor, she found several footmen beginning to clear the debris in the light of a hastily lit candelabra fitted with candles. All looked up when she passed, ready to drop everything if she issued new orders, but she saw no reason to interrupt them.
She stepped outside to the welcome sight of her children, sitting together on a bench in the garden, a lit luminant at their feet. Corlin was dressed in his nightclothes, his hair tousled. His feet were up on the bench, his arms wrapped around his knees. For once, he and his sister weren’t bickering. Jinnell, still dressed although her hair was down for the night, had one arm draped around her little brother’s shoulders, offering silent comfort though her own eyes were wide and shocked-looking and there were tear tracks on her cheeks.
Jinnell spotted Alys first, leaping to her feet with a cry of sheer joy and throwing herself into her mother’s arms. Alys hugged her tight, her own eyes now stinging with tears as she wondered how she could ever force herself to let go. Corlin, always more reserved than his boisterous sister, hovered just out of arm’s reach.
“Are you all right, Mama?” he asked, his eyes locked on her bloodstained sleeve. His lower lip quivered until he bit down on it. A boy was allowed to cry, though only in the direst circumstances. A man was not. And Corlin was anxious to prove himself a man, though the law would consider him a child for four more years.
“I’m fine,” she assured him, releasing Jinnell from her embrace. She ached to hug Corlin and tell him everything would be all right, but he was well past allowing such displays of affection. She settled for reaching out and squeezing his shoulder—a gesture he accepted with manly stoicism.
At this time of night, the third level of the Terrace District would usually be silent, but tonight Alys could hear people shouting in all directions. There were very few lights visible in any of the neighboring manors, but mostly the damage didn’t look too terrible. There were some downed trees and broken windows, and a few small outbuildings looked like they might need to be torn down. Of course, from this secluded back garden, and with so little light, there was a lot Alys couldn’t see. But she kept remembering her mother’s ominous warnings and the teachings of history.
“I want to go back inside and get a better view,” she told Jinnell and Corlin. “Wait here, and I’ll be right back.”
Jinnell immediately grabbed her arm. “What if the shaking starts again? Shouldn’t we stay outside?”
It was a fair question, and though Alys was familiar enough with history to worry about a swell from the sea, she didn’t know how likely the earth was to shake some more. Should she order all the servants out of the house, just in case? She should at least make sure no one was seriously hurt. Mica said he hadn’t seen any serious injuries, but she doubted he’d toured the entire house before coming to find her.
Her instincts said the water was a greater threat, and standing outside would not protect them from that. They needed to get to higher ground, just in case. Alys regarded her children, trying to judge whether they were aware of the danger. Corlin was an indifferent student of history, at best, and while Jinnell had had the best education Alys and her husband could provide, she was much more concerned with being ladylike and paid much more attention to subjects deemed more “appropriate” for girls—poetry and music and fashion and etiquette.
Alys’s thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Falcor and two of his men. The honor guardsmen rarely interacted with the family on the grounds of the manor, keeping themselves as unobtrusive as possible per Alys’s request, but she wasn’t surprised they sought her out in this crisis.
Falcor was carrying a small bag with him, and after giving her a respectful bow, he opened up the bag to reveal salve and bandages.
“Mica said you were hurt, my lady,” he said as his men checked on Corlin and Jinnell.
“It’s nothing,” Alys responded. “We can deal with it later. I need to arrange for a few belongings to be packed. I think we should spend the night at the palace.” She made eye contact with the man and willed him both to understand her implication and to refrain from putting it into words in front of the children. The honor guardsmen were all Citadel-trained and certain to know about the centuries-old disaster.
“That would be wise, my lady,” he said, holding the eye contact in a meaningful way. “But it will be a long trip and will require a cheval carriage. The risers were destroyed in the quake.”
Alys drew in a startled breath, remembering that huge crash. The risers were built into the cliffs and ran beside a long metal track, powered by magic. Those who could afford the fare could make it to the top of the cliffs in about ten minutes, whereas the common folk had to use the long, zigzagging paths on either side of the city. The trip was exhausting for those on foot and not much better for those who traveled by horse and cart. A cheval—which would not tire from the climb and was far more sure-footed than a horse—would shorten the trip, but it would still take the better part of an hour.
“Then we’ll take the carriage,” she said, about to move off to find Mica, but the guardsman had the temerity to step into her path.
“Let me bandage your wound first,” he said. “It will only take a minute, and you wouldn’t want to get an infection.”
Alys considered arguing, but quickly determined it would only delay her more. Falcor and his men took their orders from the Lord Commander of the Citadel, not Alys. Ordinarily, they would obey her, but not when they thought her safety might be at risk. The cut on her hand wasn’t much of a threat in Alys’s mind, but thanks to her father’s “gift” of an honor guard, it wasn’t her choice to make. Gritting her teeth against the injustice of not being allowed to make her own decisions, Alys held out her hand.
Falcor smoothed some salve on the cut, then wrapped it neatly in a clean white bandage. He moved at a gratifyingly brisk pace, but the process felt like it took an eternity. When he was finally satisfied, Alys hurried the children into the house, urging them to change quickly into traveling clothes. She found Honor on her way up to her own room on the third floor and bade the maid follow and help her change.
Servants had lit candles in all the hallways and were busily cleaning up the worst of the mess. Honor grabbed a candle from the hall to light Alys’s room, and Alys began stripping off her soiled dress before the door was closed behind her. Honor headed for the wardrobe, but Alys stopped when she passed in front of the window.
In the dark of night, she should have seen nothing more than the occasional flicker of lighted windows in the distance, but her window glowed with flickering orange light. When she looked out, she saw that the Harbor District was on fire. She gripped the cold stone of the windowsill and stared with horror.
It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Very few people who lived in the Harbor District could afford luminants, so their lighting was provided almost entirely by fire. How many candles and lanterns had been knocked over as the earth shook? Alys covered her mouth to stifle a sob. From her window at the highest level of the Terrace District, she could see the streets filled with frantic people, small silhouetted figures trying to organize bucket brigades in what was surely a lost cause.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the blazing fires illuminated the harbor front, where Alys could see numerous boats mired in land that had been covered in water. Residents of the flotilla were picking their way through the muddy bottom, trying to find paths between the listing, grounded boats that were nearly on top of one another, sometimes being forced to climb over or duck under. And many of those boats were on fire, too.
But the worst news was what that suddenly dry land portended. The surge was coming, and Alys had no idea how long it would take to arrive or how high it would reach. The vast majority of people in the Harbor District had no way of knowing what was coming, having no education in history whatsoever. They should all be running to higher ground, not wasting their time in a futile battle with fires that were beyond controlling.
Honor brought a traveling dress, and Alys almost decided against changing, but the last thing she needed was to be tripped up by her layers of skirts and trailing sleeves, so she allowed Honor to help her out of her evening dress, ripping stitches in her hurry to change.
“Shall I pack a bag for you, my lady?” Honor asked, but Alys shook her head.
“Never mind that. Let’s get the children to the carriage.”
Just before she left her room, Alys grabbed the little red book her mother had given her and tucked it into a pocket of her traveling dress. She didn’t have time to look at it now, but the moment she had some peace and privacy, she intended to feed some Rho into it as the abbess had instructed. She wondered briefly if her mother and the rest of the abigails were safe. The Abbey was right at the harbor’s edge and would most definitely suffer if the sea surged. But there was nothing she could do for them right now, and Alys tried to take comfort in the conviction that her mother had known full well what was coming. Surely she would have taken precautions to protect the women in her care.
Jinnell and Corlin both dragged their feet and complained bitterly about their mother’s decision to go to the palace.
“It will take forever to get there with the risers out,” Jinnell said. “And I don’t care if the house is a mess. I’d rather sleep in my own bed.”
“And I’d just rather sleep,” Corlin added with a dramatic yawn.
Alys didn’t want to scare them by explaining her own fears, and she didn’t have time for an argument. “We’re going, and that’s final,” she snapped at them, using her fear to create a façade of anger. She’d rather they think her ill-tempered than frightened. “The sooner we get moving, the sooner we’ll arrive.”
The complaining didn’t stop, but at least the children followed when she made her way to the coach-house. Falcor and his two guardsmen were already mounted on sturdy chevals by the front of the building, ready to escort their charges to the safety of the palace. Alys wondered if Falcor’s men had balked at riding chevals, which was considered unmanly except in the case of dire need. She was glad her master of the guard wasn’t so proud as to insist on riding horses and making the trip four times as long. Alys nodded to them as she bustled Jinnell and Corlin into the coach-house and well-nigh shoved them into the waiting carriage.
“I’ll join you in a moment,” she told her children, then shut the carriage door on their protests.
Alys could get her children to the guaranteed safety of the cliffs, but when she thought of all the helpless men, women, and children of the Harbor District, none of whom knew what was coming, she realized she couldn’t just leave. No doubt there were others—especially soldiers of the Citadel—who would do their best to get people to higher ground, but they would need all the help they could get.
Noble was standing by the cheval’s flank, waiting for her to get into the carriage before feeding Rho into the cheval. Alys walked briskly to his side and lowered her voice to just above a whisper.
“I want you to take the children to the palace as fast as you can,” she told him.
His brows creased in puzzlement. “What about you, my lady?”
“I’m not going,” she said, offering no explanation. “That’s why you have to go fast—so that Falcor and his men won’t realize I’m not in the carriage.”
Noble gaped at her, and she knew a protest was coming. She cut it off before the coachman had time to form words.
“If you value your position, you’ll do as you’re told.” She glared at him to let him know she meant what she said. She hated to be such a shrew—it was not at all her way to threaten her servants’ livelihoods—but she didn’t have the time or patience to deal with the male insistence on protecting women whether they wanted it
Noble drew back as if slapped. “Yes, my lady,” he said, his lips barely moving as his shoulders went stiff with indignation. His eyes filmed over as he opened his Mindseye to find some Rho for the cheval. But instead of activating the cheval, he merely
stood there, his face going entirely bloodless and his jaw dropping open.
“What is it?” she asked, holding on to her patience by the thinnest of threads.
He opened and closed his mouth a few times as if struggling to find words. The thread holding Alys’s patience broke. “Start the cheval!” she snapped at her coachman, but he seemed incapable of speech or action.
With her sense of urgency too overpowering to ignore, Alys did the unthinkable and opened her Mindseye. At least the children were already in the carriage and couldn’t see, and the coachman seemed too shocked to even notice. Her worldly vision blurred behind the riotous colors of the elements. And suddenly, Alys knew exactly what had stolen her coachman’s voice.
She had expected to see what she always saw with her Mindseye: a sea of snow-white Rho, peppered with a generous dose of blue-marbled Aal and numerous other elements. But tonight, the sea was no longer snow white.
Alys turned her head left and right and blinked a couple of times, just in case her imagination was running away with her, but no. The most common element, the one that was gathered around her own body and her coachman’s, the one that should have been Rho and should have been pure white, was . . . not.
It looked very like Rho and was every bit as plentiful. But instead of being pure white, each mote had a small spot of red in it. There was not a pure-white mote of Rho anywhere.
Alys had no idea what would happen if she touched these red-spotted motes, nor what they would do. But there was no normal Rho in sight, and she needed Rho to activate the cheval and get her children to the safety of the cliffs. She reached out and grabbed the nearest motes and shoved them at the cheval.
The cheval snorted and stomped its hoof, just as it always did when fed Rho. Alys closed her Mindseye and shuddered. The coachman had turned his back on her, too prudish to watch his lady working magic. She hoped that meant he would keep his mouth shut about what he’d seen.
“Get the children to the palace!” she ordered him, and he finally seemed to snap out of his stupor. He climbed shakily up to his perch, eying the cheval with unadulterated suspicion. Alys worried for a moment that he might refuse to drive the coach, but perhaps her sense of urgency had finally gotten through to him. He slapped the reins, and the cheval started forward.
The last thing Alys saw as the coach drove out of the coach-house was her daughter sticking her head out the window and staring back at her in wide-eyed surprise. Jinnell called out something, but Alys couldn’t hear over the rattling of the coach. She stepped sideways into a pool of darkness as the honor guardsmen followed the coach. She needn’t have bothered hiding, for none of the guardsmen looked back.
Hoping that wasn’t the last she would ever see of her children, Alys hurried back to the house to organize the servants and do what she could to get as many people to higher ground as possible.