Seya paused at the top of the hill, staring down at the sprawl of buildings and streets in the distance below. It had been nearly ten years since she’d had set foot in Starling. A decade since her mother’s death; since the Uprisers’ March had come to her hometown and tore her world apart; a decade since she’d severed the bond that had anchored her through her childhood. She’d never intended to return, especially not like a dog slinking home with its tail between its legs, to beg favors from a woman who might just as soon throw her back out on her ear. There was no one to blame but herself for that possibility, of course. Just another stupid, emotionally-fueled decision that had blown up in her face like always.
No—no, there was DeGraffenreid too. The scar tissue that laced across the back of her left hand drew uncomfortably taut as she clenched it into a fist, the thick, sweat dampened fabric of the fingerless dueling glove she wore crinkling across her palm uncomfortably. She didn’t dare take the glove off, even though she had lost the right one weeks ago in yet another hurried and all too necessary midnight flight from some city whose name she’d already forgotten—had she ever even learned it? It hardly mattered, and it was far better to be thought a little odd than for people to see what she’d done to escape DeGraffenreid’s hold over her.
DeGraffenreid, the notorious traitor, former commander of the Fifteenth, the man who’d forced his pinnacle on her, then used that bond to coerce her magic out from under her. Just thinking about him made her chest tighten with fear.
No, don’t think about it, don’t think about him. He had burned his way across half of Caldona chasing her, finally giving up to focus his efforts on his terrorist campaign in the capital. Seya had not stopped running, and the constant fear and guilt were beginning to take their toll.
She made an attempt to center herself before panic took hold in earnest: deep, even breaths, all the negative emotions tucked away, a forced calm spread through her aura—a very forced calm. She’d always been bad at centering. It had been easier when she’d had an anchor.
If Vico was still here, in Starling—but no. She didn’t dare to contemplate the idea. Too damn dangerous even to hope.
The rumble of a car coming up the road from behind her jolted Seya back to herself. She stuffed her left hand into her pocket hastily as it passed by, and adjusted the strap of her battered knapsack over her shoulder. Her jaw was clenched from the tension as she walked on toward the city. The vehicle’s automagic engine left a rippling wake in the resonance permeating the road, which dissipated quickly upon reaching the wards that edged the pavement; the fact that she could sense something so small and commonplace meant she had let her shields slip again. The effort required to maintain them was an endless drain on her energy, but she could not let them go, not completely. Once she got into town, she’d need them to be steady. The last thing she wanted was to be noticed. Dragging them back into shape, she trudged on.
The streetlights were just beginning to come on as she hit the city limit sign. She paused there, shutting her eyes against the orange and gold of the sunset that crowned the hills west of Starling, its brilliance reflected by the river that ran along the eastern edge of the city. The searing colors reminded her too much of the fire that had driven her out of Keraday on a hot, early autumn day ten months before.
She couldn’t think of that, and she wouldn’t think of what would happen if Winter refused to help her. She raised her hand to shield her eyes and opened them to look out over a landscape much changed from her memory.
Starling had not been a large city when she left, and it still had only modest pretensions to such. With no high clan in residence, it was too far away from the capital to be of much interest politically, even after the rampant industrialization of the automagic industry that had spread rapidly in the wake of the Upriser’s March. Though it appeared Starling was not entirely immune to that expansion; there were a number of water refineries along the river that had not been there before, and the once-pastoral fields that had butted against the city’s border had been sectioned off in many places by fenced-in factories. The air around them buzzed with the residual effects of the automagic they were creating and the highly regimented spellwork such magic entailed, disturbing the natural elemental lines and spiritual resonances that criss-crossed the gently rolling plain. The disruption had a chaotic quality she associated with poorly managed magic and unappeased spirits. A particularly disturbing aura hung over the blackened hulk of a building on a hill at the northeast edge of town, the end result of a disastrous elemental rebound. The dissonance of it lingered almost imperceptibly in the resonances of the unclaimed areas of the countryside, not fresh, but not old enough to have happened during the war, either. Seya had found this to be a sadly common occurrence in the more out of the way counties of Caldona, where government oversight of magic was scarce and often underfunded since the restructuring of the clan system after the war. Seya recalled that place had belonged to old Talbot, head of one of Starling’s older, if much less prominent clans, though after a decade, she supposed it could have belonged to anyone. She had not been given much opportunity to keep track of news concerning her hometown.
The main road into town was lined with businesses that had not existed in her childhood: bars, mage-tech repair shops, billboards advertising specialty auto-magics of questionable quality. The one old charge station that used to sit at the crossroads right at the edge of town was gone. Seya felt a pang of regret for it; she had spent a good portion of her youth loitering there with Vico and an ever-rotating assortment of friends, spoiling for duels and practicing stupidly dangerous magic. She looked rather askance at the brightly lit corner shop that replaced it. The spellwork of the sign gave a flashy glow in the dimming evening light, advertising speedy elemental charging for all vehicles at reasonable rates, hot food, cold drinks, charms, and the usual assortment of auto-magic spells for the convenience of those with low mage levels or simply a disinclination to waste energy or effort on the small bits of magic that were becoming ever more necessary in the rapidly modernizing country.
Seya paused to glance in the window—the idea of a cold drink was awfully appealing after walking in the blistering summer heat all day—but the funds from her last short-lived job had dwindled to a handful of pocket change. The glimmer over the door caught her eye. She recognized the Malthusius sigil and recoiled automatically, even though it had been nearly a decade since she had seen it last.
She walked on, a tremor of trepidation growing as she passed through the new industrial district on the north edge of town, a much-expanded residential area, and on into downtown. The Malthusius mark still peppered doorways in the shopping and business districts as well. Ten years was a long time—well, nine years, four months and sixteen days—but she supposed some things would never change. She wasn’t exactly surprised that Corin Malthusius had maintained such a hold over Starling despite the restructuring of the clan system’s hold over Caldona’s political landscape. The general had stripped the clan heads of their semi-noble status as law-makers and enforcers after King Etaine’s abdication, but many of those clans that remained after the dust of that change had settled still had wealth and property and a stranglehold on magical education, and that was power enough to make them a force to be reckoned with.
That was one of the many reasons she did not want to linger on the grudging acknowledgement that Malthusius was more a force for good than bad in the city where she’d lived the first sixteen years of her life, and indeed, the parts of the city maintained by Corin’s clan were relatively free of the chaotic taint of dissonance that hung in the air outside of town. His energy lines were were strong and stable, and his affiliated businesses looked to be doing well. She couldn’t help but notice that the buildings with Corin’s mark were all just a little nicer than the rest. One did not outdo a Malthusius. Still, she had spent her entire life hating the man himself for the trail of havoc he’d left through her childhood; she saw no reason to give him cause to try to claim her again after so long.
It was Winter she had come to see, and that was more nerve-wracking than any run-in she could have imagined with Corin. Winter Halcyon had been her magic teacher, and Seya had vanished without finishing her instruction, without even saying goodbye. Compounding that was the fact that she had been fostered at the Halcyon school even before her mother’s death—Winter and her husband Dalen had been her legal guardians at the time. She didn’t want to contemplate too deeply how they had reacted to her sudden disappearance right as the Uprisers were sweeping through the area, unleashing magics both dissonant and destructive, and stirring up dangerously divisive politics into the bargain.
Seya figured the best case scenario was getting the door slammed in her face. She was afraid to contemplate the worst. She didn’t know how much they might have heard about her, if anything. DeGraffenreid had signed her up to the Fifteenth under an assumed name, with faked aural traces and forged papers, and the whole squadron was listed as dead after that last battle in Chelsa before the Uprisers’ Flight, but Seya did not like to take for granted that no one from the military would be looking for her. She already knew very well that DeGraffenreid was, and Starling was where he had found her. It was no small stretch to think he had eyes here.
But you’re not thinking about that, she told herself sternly. She was just going to be there long enough to get told off by her old magic teacher, maybe get something to eat before she fell over in a dead faint in the middle of the street on the way out. Please, whatever gods may be listening, let that be the worst that happens.
Seya generally preferred to avoid the attention of gods as much as possible, but this was a special case.
The streets were a blur by the time she reached Halcyon, her nerves stretched to the limit. She almost lost her resolve just standing across the street from the school. Here, though, was one place that didn’t seem to have changed at all in the last decade. The five acre plot where it sat had once been the very heart of Starling. Back then it had been much bigger, the city blossoming around the edges of the Starling’s expansive estate, but the high clan that had given the city its name had fallen on hard times, growing smaller and less influential, finally dying out completely. The crumbling manor house and compound buildings had long been demolished, and the last few aged Starling, desperately impoverished by the growing monopoly of the Malthusius, and the encroachment of other, newer clans, had been forced to sell off portions of their property, the city crowding in bit by bit until only this handful remained.
To Seya’s relief, the magic the Halcyons had cultivated there seemed untouched by the threads of disruption that wove throughout the rest of the town. Of course Winter would never allow such a thing to happen. The last Starling had sold the property to Winter because she had the strength and skill to keep the heart of their city true to the old Caldi magic that had prevailed before the Waves had begun over a century before, and out of the hands of the Malthusius and others like them who saw it as a resource to be exploited for power and profit.
The school itself was a generously proportioned two-story house, remodeled extensively to make room for the students Winter and Dalen had fostered on and off throughout their respective careers as teacher and healer. It was built of the heavy, cream-white stone from the local quarries, and framed with ancient, towering trees that lent an impression of stateliness despite the utilitarian design—Winter had always said there were better things to spend her money on than the architectural falderals favored by the clans. The front yard was still lush with Dalen’s herb beds, fragrant in the warmth of the evening. She remembered every stone of the low wall that ran along the front of the property. The gate still stood open. People had thought that unwise, considering Winter’s contentious relationship with the city’s clans, who already had little trust for a charitable school, much less one teaching such an unusual mixture of old Caldi and newer, foreign magics, but she wouldn’t have it shut. A school of magic is for helping people, she always said, and you can’t help them when you’re shutting them out.
Of course there had been the occasional hot-head who took that as an invitation to start trouble, but Winter was strong, a high elementalist and champion duelist, a daughter of an old and powerful high clan herself, the Montreides, and even though she had disclaimed the Montreides bond along with its name, it didn’t take her long to establish a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Even Corin, her foremost opponent, had eventually let them be. Between the blow to his reputation after losing their first fight, and the fact that people tended to genuinely like the Halcyons, he had decided it just wasn’t worth it, politically.
Not that he hadn’t caused trouble for them occasionally. Especially after Seya started living there. It made her cringe to remember all the things Winter and Dalen had done for her, put up with for her. Had she ever appreciated it? She knew what she was going to be asking, but her other options were worse—she could throw herself on the mercy of the military tribunal, but the moment for that had passed years ago. There was no one else left to ask, and she couldn’t keep running, because there were precious few places left for her to go.
She spent a few minutes loitering in the shadowy space between the street lamps. It was already dark, and she figured waking everyone up would further decrease her already slim chances of finding help, but she also couldn’t afford a place to sleep for the night. Over the last few years she’d become an expert on picking up under-the-table odd jobs, but the farther she got from the capital, the longer the roads got between cities, and correspondingly fewer such opportunities arose. And people were warier than ever of strangers walking around with their defenses as high as she had to keep hers, now that the Uprisers were making trouble again.
Her stomach was starting to complain about how long it had been since breakfast, too, so she screwed up her courage and crossed the street.
She got a good sense of the wards around the place as she approached the gate. They were only there to keep the magic seated on the property stable, not to keep people out, but she did notice as she passed through that they felt different than she remembered. It wasn’t Winter’s calm, neutral spellwork. This barrier carried a warmer, definitely masculine impression with a hint of clan magic under the original spellwork, though it lacked the markers that would have defined the origin. Winter never used clan magic, not even undesignated spellwork. Seya hoped that only meant she had found a student or an assistant she trusted enough with the ward spells, one whom, like herself, had left their clan and had not yet shed all the habits they’d learned there. She reinforced her shields, which had slipped again, and stepped through.
Halcyon’s magic felt much the same as it had when she had studied there—a cool, calm magic seated in earth and water, a soft blue-green glimmer in her sense, perfect for nurturing spiritual connections, teaching, and growing the medicinal herbs for Dalen’s healing practice. It remembered her, if the way it lapped with gentle, eager familiarity against her aura was any indication, and the reaction quickly caught the spirits’ attention. The smaller ones drifted out of their seats as she walked along the stone-paved path around the house, and trailed after her, enthralled and slightly petulant at the weight of her shields. She told herself it was only her magic they remembered, her ridiculous magic that couldn’t help catching everything—but it had been so long since there was anyone to be happy to see anything of her, and they were just young, rather silly little plant spirits, so she could not find it in her to begrudge them. The older, more sapient tree spirits were more circumspect, but she felt their attention, their recognition, and reduced her shields to greet them properly, extending her hand—just the right one—and her sense, and letting them touch her aura, just a little. She didn’t want to catch them. Nothing good ever came of letting anyone or anything get caught by her magic.
But gods, it felt so good to relax, if only for a moment. To soak up a little good, clean energy. It had been a long time since she had touched properly maintained magic. Not since—but she wasn’t thinking about that. She shut her eyes and sighed. Home. It was a bitter thought, considering how it would probably end. So she stood there a little longer, soaking in the feeling of it while she could.
There are never enough hours in the day, Zan thought, as he paced through the kitchen garden, checking the spells that protected the plants from pests and the harsh heat of the season. The little glow of spelled light illuminating the rows of greenery started drifting away as he mused on the things he still had left to do. He raised a hand absently to halt it and draw it back to its place over his shoulder.
Some of the spellwork on the plants was showing signs of dissipation, but nothing too serious; he could probably let Adiel fix them tomorrow. It was good practice, even if Adiel was already close to mage certification level in his studies, though Zan sometimes felt a little guilty for relying on his foster student so much. Halcyon was supposed to be taking care of Adiel, not the other way around. Not that Adiel complained. He took the notion that he was indebted to Halcyon far too seriously for a boy of seventeen.
Zan was just going to have to take the time to hire himself a proper assistant soon, like Aren and Kaya kept telling him. Adiel would be graduating in autumn, after all, and if Zan’s class schedule got any fuller, he really wouldn’t have enough hours in the day to devote to the upkeep of Halcyon’s spiritual resonance, which was already considerable, and would only become more so if he managed to add a third elemental to the bond. He paced around the house to the space he’d cleared for that project. The little furnace where he intended to nurture a new fire elemental was surrounded by a circle of stone tile, set directly into the rich, black soil. The stones of the tile and the furnace had been collected from all over Halcyon, to give the new elemental a secure connection to the earth elementals that provided the bulk of the bond’s energy, but the space itself was just far enough from the bond’s seat to keep from triggering a polarity reaction with the younger, not quite as sensible water elemental. With two powerful earth elementals to provide balance, Zan didn’t expect to have any problems bringing it in, but better safe than sorry. He could move the fire elemental to the seat after the three elements had been properly harmonized.
It would be a while yet before he’d need to worry about it anyway; it took months, if not years, to nurture an elemental spirit, and he still had to turn in paperwork to the Bond Authority and the Elemental Commission, and wait for their authorization.
And there were still other preparations to complete before he began the laborious process of bringing a simple flame to sentience, but those were not on his to do list for the evening. Zan had just started his nightly check on the spellwork of the boundary wards when he felt the tell-tale shifting in the resonances that meant someone had come onto the grounds. He frowned, looked down at his watch—it was almost nine. Only someone with a problem would show up at Halcyon’s gate at such an hour.
Or someone wanting to cause one.
Abandoning his task, Zan cut through the grounds toward the front gate, sending his sense out through Halcyon’s bonds, noting with some surprise that whoever it was had already gotten the spirits’ attention. He was considering asking one of the older spirits to relay more information for him, but then he rounded the front corner of the house and found the intruder standing on the edge of the path, communing silently with one of the older tree spirits. For an instant he caught her in profile; a sad face, much too young for the level of the spiritual resonance glowing in her aura. That vanished so suddenly he almost thought he had imagined it, except he was still blinking away the afterimage it left in his sense. The girl eyed him warily, retreating into her shields, shoulders hunching, her eyes flicking away, her hair falling over her face before he could get a clear view of her features. It was too dark to make out much anyway, but she had a desperate, ragged look about her. He had a sudden impulse to bring her inside and make her a sandwich.
“Good evening, miss, is there something I can help you with?” he said.
“Didn’t mean to intrude,” she said, ducking her head even more. “Is—is Winter here? I need to see her.”
“I’m afraid Winter doesn’t live here anymore. She left after her husband died.”
She did look up at that, her eyes widening with shock. “Dalen—died?” The shock gave way quickly to a sheen of tears. Strangely, a shiver of her grief echoed through the resonances as if she was one of Halcyon’s bonded, but Zan was certain he had met all the former students who had taken the Halcyon pinnacle, and he did not recognize her. Halcyon recognized her, that much was certain. His wariness faded a bit.
“I’m sorry. Did you know them well?” he asked.
“I—I was a student here,” she said faintly. “A long time ago. How—?”
“It was his heart. A congenital condition, there was nothing the healers could do about it. Winter decided to take his remains back to Thelassa so he could be put to rest with his tir. She is not currently planning to return.”
“I see,” she said, swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. “I mean—he was pushing seventy—I guess it shouldn’t be this much of a shock.” But it was, if the waver in her voice was any indication. She looked utterly lost.
“Maybe there’s something I can do for you? I’m Zandre Montreides.” He held out his hand. “I’m Halcyon’s bondmaster now.”
She ignored the outstretched hand, folding her arms across her stomach. “No. No, I don’t think there is. Sorry to have bothered you,” she said, turning abruptly down the path toward the gate.
Zan raised a hand, but she was gone before he could think what to say to stop her. The shiver of her grief remained in the resonances long after her slight form had disappeared into the night.