The Burning Sky
Read an Excerpt
Just before the start of Summer Half, in April 1883, a very minor event took place at Eton College, that venerable and illustrious English public school for boys. A sixteen-year-old pupil named Archer Fairfax returned from a three-month absence, caused by a fractured femur, to resume his education.
Almost every word in the preceding sentence is false. Archer Fairfax had not suffered a broken limb. He had never before set foot in Eton. His name was not Archer Fairfax. And he was not, in fact, even a he.
This is the story of a girl who fooled a thousand boys, a boy who fooled an entire country, a partnership that would change the fate of realms, and a power to challenge the greatest tyrant the world had ever known.
Fire was easy.
In fact, there was nothing easier.
They said that when an elemental mage called forth flame, she stole a little from every fire in the world. That would make Iolanthe Seabourne quite the thief, gathering millions of sparks into one great combustion.
That flame she sculpted into a perfect sphere ten feet across, suspended above the rushing currents of the River Woe.
She beckoned with her fingers. Streams of water shot up and arced over the fireball. Stray droplets gleamed briefly under the sun before falling into the flame, releasing sizzles of steam.
Master Haywood, her guardian, used to love watching her play with fire. He had not been alone in his fascination. Everyone, from neighbors to classmates, had wanted her to show them how she made little fireballs dance upon her palm, the same way Iolanthe, as a child, had asked Master Haywood to wiggle his ears, clapping and laughing with delight.
Master Haywood’s interest, however, had run far deeper. Unlike others who simply wished to be entertained, he’d challenge her to make intricate, difficult patterns and draw entire landscapes with filaments of fire. And he’d say, My, but that is beautiful, and shake his head with wonder—and sometimes, something that felt almost like unease.
But before she could ask him what was the matter, he’d ruffle her hair and tell her he was taking her out for ices. There had been two years during which they’d had many, many cups of ices together, lumenberry for him and pinemelon for her, sitting by the window of Mrs. Hinderstone’s sweets shop on University Avenue, just a five-minute walk from their house on the campus of the Conservatory of Magical Arts and Sciences, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the entire Domain.
Iolanthe hadn’t had pinemelon ice in years, but she could still taste its tart, fresh tingle on her tongue.
“My, but that is beautiful.”
Iolanthe started. But the voice belonged to a woman—Mrs. Needles, in fact, who cooked and cleaned for Master Haywood three days a week here in Little Grind-on-Woe, about as far from the Conservatory as one could get without leaving the shores of the Domain. Not that Master Haywood earned enough to hire help anymore, but some housekeeping had been included as part of his compensation.
Iolanthe dissipated the fireball still hovering in the air above the fast, white-foamed river. She didn’t mind juggling apple-sized handfuls of fire for the children, or provide a few garlands of dancing flames at Little Grind’s solstice ball, but it embarrassed her to display her abilities to this extent, with enough fire on hand to burn down the entire village.
Unless you are actually performing at the Majestic Circus, Master Haywood had always urged her, think twice about exhibiting your powers. You never want to appear a braggart—or worse, a freak.
She turned around and smiled at the housekeeper. “Thank you, Mrs. Needles. I was just practicing for the wedding.”
“I had no idea you were such a mighty elemental mage, Miss Seabourne,” marveled Mrs. Needles.
In the Old Millennia, when elemental mages decided the fate of realms, no one would have given Iolanthe’s middling powers a second glance. But these were the end days of elemental magic. Compared to the majority of elemental mages, who could barely call forth enough fire for a night-light—or enough water to wash their own hands—Iolanthe supposed her powers would indeed be considered mightier than average.
“Mrs. Oakbluff and Rosie—and all their new in-laws—will be so impressed,” continued Mrs. Needles, setting down a small picnic basket. “And Master Haywood, of course. Has he seen your performance yet?”
“He was the one who gave me the idea for the big fireball,” Iolanthe lied.
The villagers might suspect Master Haywood to be a merixida addict who neglected his sixteen-year-old ward, but she refused to portray him as anything other than a most solicitous, attentive father figure.
In the seven years since his troubles started, she’d developed a certain demeanor, a second personality that she wore like an exoskeleton. The Iolanthe who faced the public was a darling: a confident, outgoing girl who was also wonderfully sweet and helpful—the result of having been deeply cherished her entire life, of course.
She had grown so accustomed to this exterior that she didn’t always remember what truly lay underneath. Nor did she particularly want to. Why fester in disillusion, bewilderment, and anger when she could float above and pretend to be this sunny, charming girl instead?
“And how are you today, Mrs. Needles?” she turned the questioning around. Given a choice, most people preferred to talk about themselves. “How’s the hip?”
“So much better, ever since you gave me that joint-easing ointment.”
“That’s wonderful, but I can’t take all the credit. Master Haywood helped me make it—he’s always hovering about when I’ve a cauldron before me.”
Or perhaps he’d locked himself in his room for an entire day, ignoring Iolanthe’s knocks and the trays of food she’d left outside his door. But Mrs. Needles didn’t need to know that.
No one needed to know that.
“Oh, he’s lucky to have you, he is,” said Mrs. Needles.
Iolanthe’s cheer faltered a little—did she ever fool anyone, in the end? But she remained resolutely in character. “For running a few errands now and then, maybe. But there are far easier ways of getting chores done than raising an elemental mage for it.”
They chuckled over that, Mrs. Needles good-naturedly, Iolanthe doggedly.
“Well, I brought you some lunch, miss.” Mrs. Needles nudged the picnic basket closer to Iolanthe.
“Thank you, Mrs. Needles. And if you’d like to leave early today to get ready for the wedding, by all means, take as much time as you need.”
That would get Mrs. Needles away from the house before Master Haywood awakened testy and disoriented from his merixida-induced stupor.
Mrs. Needles placed a hand over her heart. “That’d be nice! I do love a wedding, and I want to look my best in front of all those fancy city folks.”
Rosie Oakbluff’s wedding was to take place in Meadswell, the provincial capital sixty miles away. At the wedding, Iolanthe would light the path on which the bride and groom would walk arm in arm toward the altar. It was considered good luck for the lighting of the path to be performed by a friend of the bride rather than a hired elemental mage, and no one minded too much that Iolanthe was less a friend to the bride than someone trying to bribe the mother of the bride.
“I will see you at the wedding,” she said to Mrs. Needles.
Mrs. Needles waved, then vaulted, leaving behind a faint distortion in the air that quickly cleared. Iolanthe checked her watch—quarter to one in the afternoon. She was running behind.
Not just for the wedding. She was at least half a term behind in her academic reading. Her clarifying potions kept failing. Every last spell from Archival Magic fought tooth and nail against her efforts at mastery.
And the first round of qualifying exams for upper academies began in five weeks.
Elemental magic was elder magic, a direct, primordial connection between the mage and the universe, needing no words or procedures as intermediaries. For millennia subtle magic had been the pale imitation, trying without coming close to matching the power and majesty of elemental magic.
But at some point the tide had turned. Now subtle magic possessed the depth and flexibility to suit every need, and elemental magic was its clunky, primitive country cousin, ill-adapted to the demands of modern life. Who needed fire-wielding elemental mages when lighting, heating, and cooking were all done with much safer, much more convenient flameless magic these days?
Without a sound education in subtle magic, elemental mages had pitifully few choices in careers: the circuses, the foundries, or the quarries, none of which appealed to Iolanthe. And without stellar results on the qualifying exams and the grants they’d bring, she would not be able to afford to attend an upper academy at all.
She checked her watch again. She’d run through her routine for the lighting of the path one more time, then she needed to check on the light elixir in the schoolroom.
A snap of her fingers brought a fresh sphere of fire five feet across. Another snap, the fireball doubled in diameter, a miniature sun rising against the steep, treeless cliffs of the opposite bank.
Fire was such a pleasure. Power was such a pleasure. Would that she could bend Master Haywood to her will just as easily. She laced her fingers, then yanked them apart. The fireball separated into sixteen trails of flame, darting through the air like a school of fish, taking fast turns in unison.
She clasped her palms together. The streams of fire formed again into a perfect sphere. A flick of her wrist had the fireball leap high in the air and spin, tossing out countless sparks. Now her hands pressed down, half submerging the fireball into the river, sending up a huge plume of hissing steam—there was a large reflecting pool at the wedding venue, and she planned to take full advantage of it.
“Stop,” said a voice behind her. “Stop this moment.”
She stilled in surprise. Master Haywood—he was up early. Dismissing the fire, she turned around.
He used to be a handsome man, her guardian, golden and fit. No more. Limp hair hung about his pale face. Bags drooped under his eyes. His thin frame—he sometimes reminded her of a marionette—looked as if it might rattle apart with the least exertion. It never not hurt to see him like this, a shadow of his former self.
But a part of her couldn’t help being thrilled that he had come to watch her rehearse. He hadn’t shown much interest in her in a long time. Perhaps she could also get him to help her on some of her coursework. He’d promised to homeschool her, but she’d had to teach herself, and she had so many unanswered questions.
But first, “Afternoon. Have you had anything to eat?”
He shouldn’t have vaulted on an empty stomach.
“You cannot perform at the wedding,” he said.
Her ears felt as if they’d been stung by bees. This was what he’d come to tell her? “I beg your pardon?”
“Rosie Oakbluff is marrying into a family of collaborators.”
The Greymoors of Meadswell were rumored to have turned in more than a hundred rebels during and after the January Uprising. Everyone knew that. “Yes, she is.”
“I did not realize,” said Master Haywood. He leaned against a boulder, his face tired and tense. “I thought she was marrying a Greymore—from the clan of artists. Mrs. Needles corrected my mistake just now, and I cannot let agents of Atlantis see you manipulate the elements. They would take you away.”
Her eyes widened. What was he talking about? If Atlantis had a special interest in elemental mages, wouldn’t she have heard about it? Not a single elemental mage she knew had ever attracted Atlantis’s attention simply by being an elemental mage. “Every circus has a dozen mages who can do what I do. Why should Atlantis pay any mind to me?”
“Because you are younger and have far more potential.”
Two thousand years ago she would have not have questioned him. Differences among realms then had been settled by wars of elemental magic. Good elemental mages had been highly prized, and great elemental mages, well, they’d been considered Angels incarnate. But that was two thousand years ago.
“Potential for what?”
Iolanthe bit the inside of her lower lip. Merixida, in sufficient quantities, caused delusion and paranoia. But she’d always secretly adulterated Master Haywood’s homemade distillate with sugar syrup. Did he have a stash somewhere she didn’t know about? “I’d love to be a great elemental mage, but there hasn’t been a single Great for the last five hundred years anywhere on earth. And you forget that I can’t manipulate air—no one can be a Great without having control over all four elements.”
Master Haywood shook his head. “That is not true.”
“What is not true?”
He did not answer her question, but only said, “You must listen to me. You will be in great danger if Atlantis becomes aware of your power.”
Iolanthe had volunteered to light the path at the wedding. She could only imagine what the bride’s mother, Mrs. Oakbluff, would think were Iolanthe to suddenly announce, hours before the ceremony, that she had thought better of it.
Her pocket watch throbbed. “Excuse me. I need to take the light elixir out of the cauldron.”
She’d also volunteered to take care of the wedding illumination. Silver light elixir was the current craze; but a light elixir that emitted a true silver light without any tinge of blue was both difficult and time-consuming to make—and once mature, radiated for precisely seven hours.
The entire enterprise was fraught with the possibility of failure. Iolanthe had started with five batches, and only one had survived the curing process. But the risk was worth it. The Oakbluffs wanted to show their much wealthier in-laws that they were capable of putting on an impressively elegant wedding, and a successful batch of silver light elixir went a long way toward achieving that goal.
Iolanthe vaulted, hoping Master Haywood wouldn’t follow.
It was spring holiday; the schoolroom was empty of pupils and their usual clutter. The equipment for the practicals was located at the far end, underneath a portrait of the prince. She uncovered the biggest cauldron and gave its contents a stir. The elixir stuck to the spatula, thick and opaque like a sky about to rain. Perfect. Three hours of cooling time and it should begin to radiate.
“Have you heard anything I said?” Master Haywood’s voice again came behind her.
He didn’t sound angry, only weary. Her heart pinched as she unpacked the sterling ewer Mrs. Oakbluff had given her for the light elixir. She didn’t know why, but she’d always felt a nagging suspicion that she was somehow responsible for his condition—a suspicion that went deeper than mere guilt at not being able to take care of him as she would like to. “You should eat something. Your headaches get worse when you don’t eat on time.”
“I don’t need to eat. I need you to listen.”
He rarely sounded parental these days—she couldn’t remember the last time. She turned around. “I’m listening. But please remember, a claim as extraordinary as yours—that I’ll be in danger from Atlantis by doing something as commonplace as lighting a wedding path—needs extraordinary proof.”
He was the one who’d introduced her to the concept that extraordinary claims needed extraordinary proofs. Such a sponge she’d been, soaking up every one of his words, giddy and proud to be the closest thing to a daughter to this eloquent, erudite man.
That was before his mistakes and lies had cost him position after position, and the brilliant scholar once destined for greatness was now a village schoolmaster—one in danger of being sacked, at that.
He shook his head. “I don’t need proof. All I need is to rescind my permission for you to go to Meadswell for the wedding.”
The only reason she was going to Meadswell in the first place was to save his employment. Rumor was that parents who’d soured on his inattentiveness to their children were urging Mrs. Oakbluff, the village registrar, to dismiss him. Iolanthe hoped that by providing a spectacular lighting of the path, not to mention the silver light elixir, Mrs. Oakbluff might be persuaded to tilt her decision in Master Haywood’s favor.
If even a remote village in desperate need of a schoolmaster wouldn’t retain him, who would?
“You forget,” she reminded him. “The laws are very clear that when a ward turns sixteen, she no longer needs her guardian’s permission for her freedom of movement.”
She could have left him more than six months ago.
He pulled a flask out of his pocket and took a gulp. The sickly sweet scent of merixida wafted to her nostrils. She pretended not to notice, when she’d have preferred to yank the bottle from his hand and throw it out of a window.
But they were no longer the kind of family whose members raged honestly at one another. Instead, they were strangers conducting themselves according to a peculiar set of rules: no reference to his addiction, no mention of the past, and no planning for any kind of a future.
“Then you will simply have to trust me,” he said, his voice heavy. “We must keep you safe. We must keep you away from the eyes and ears of Atlantis. Will you trust me, Iola? Please.”
She wanted to. After all his lies—No, this is not match fixing. No, this is not plagiarism. No, these are not bribes—she still wanted to trust him the way she once had, implicitly, completely.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t.”
She’d never before acknowledged openly that she had only herself to rely on.
He recoiled and stared at her. Was he searching for the child who’d adored him unabashedly? Who would have followed him to the end of the world? That girl was still here, she wanted to tell him. If he would only pull himself together, she would gladly let him take care of her, for a change.
He bowed his head. “Forgive me, Iolanthe.”
This was not an answer she’d expected. Her breath quickened. Did he really mean to apologize for everything that had led her to lose faith in him?
He moved all of a sudden, marching toward the cauldrons while unscrewing the cap of his flask.
“What are you—”
He poured all the merixida that remained in the flask into the light elixir on which she’d slaved for a fortnight. Then he turned around and pulled a mute, openmouthed Iolanthe into his arms and hugged her hard. “I have sworn to keep you safe, and I will.”
By the time she comprehended what he’d done, he was already walking out of the schoolroom. “I will inform Mrs. Oakbluff that you will not be able to perform the lighting of the path this evening, because you are too ashamed that your light elixir failed.”
Iolanthe stared at the ruined light elixir, a flat, mildew-green puddle without any hint of viscosity. Silver light elixir she’d promised Mrs. Oakbluff, but silver light elixir could not be had for love or money at the last minute.
Despair swamped her, a bitter tide. Why did she try so hard? Why bother saving his post when no one else cared, least of all he himself?
But she was too accustomed to brushing aside her self-pity and dealing with the aftermath of Master Haywood’s actions. Already she was at the bookshelves, pulling out titles that might help. The Novice Potionmaker did not deal with light elixirs. The Quick Solution: A Classroom Handbook to Potionmaking Mistakes provided only guidance for light elixirs that emitted a foul smell, solidified, or wouldn’t stop fizzing. The Potionmaster’s Guide to Common and Uncommon Draughts gave her a lengthy historical perspective and nothing else.
In desperation she turned to The Complete Potion.
Master Haywood loved The Complete Potion. She had no idea why—it was the world’s most pretentious doorstop. In the section on light elixirs, beyond the introductory paragraphs, the text was in cuneiform.
She kept flipping the pages, hoping for something in Latin, which she read well, or Greek, which she could manage with a lexicon, if she had to. But the only passages not in cuneiform were in hieroglyphs.
Then, all of a sudden, in the margins, a handwritten note she could read: There is no light elixir, however tainted, that cannot be revived by a thunderbolt.
She blinked—and hastily tilted her head back: she had no idea there were tears in her eyes. And what kind of advice was this? Placing any elixir in a downpour would cause irreversible damage to the elixir, defeating any hope of repairing it.
Unless . . . unless the writer of the note had meant something else, a summoned thunderbolt.
Helgira the Merciless had wielded lightning.
But Helgira was a folkloric character. Iolanthe had read all four volumes and twelve hundred pages of The Lives and Deeds of Great Elemental Mages. No real elemental mage, not even any of the Greats, had ever mastered lightning.
There is no light elixir, however tainted, that cannot be revived by a thunderbolt.
The author of those words certainly had no doubt it could be done. The swirls and dashes of the penmanship brimmed with a jaunty confidence. As she looked up, however, the prince in his portrait expressed nothing but disdain for her wild idea.
She chewed on the inside of her cheek for a minute. Then she pulled on a pair of thick gloves and grabbed the cauldron.
What did she have to lose?
The prince was about to kiss Sleeping Beauty.
He was tattered and sweaty, still bleeding from the wound on his arm. She, his reward for battling the dragons that guarded her castle, was pristine and beautiful—if blandly so.
He walked toward her, his boots sinking ankle deep in dust. All about the garret, in the gray light that filtered past the grime on the window, cobwebs hung as thick as theatrical curtains.
He was the one who had put the details in the room. It had mattered to him, when he was thirteen, that the interior of the garret accurately reflect a century’s neglect. But now, three years later, he wished he had given Sleeping Beauty better dialogue instead.
If only he knew what he wanted a girl to say to him. Or vice versa.
He knelt down beside her bed.
“Your Highness,” his valet’s voice echoed upon the stone walls. “You asked to be awakened at this time.”
As he thought, he had taken too long with the dragons. He sighed. “And they lived happily ever after.”
The prince did not believe in happily-ever-after, but that was the password to exit the Crucible.
The fairy tale faded—Sleeping Beauty, garret, dust and cobwebs. He closed his eyes before the nothingness. When he opened them again, he was back in his own chamber, sprawled on the bed, his hand atop a very old book of children’s tales.
His head was groggy. His right arm throbbed where the wyvern’s tail had sliced through. But the sensations of pain were only his mind playing tricks. Injuries sustained in the imaginary realm of the Crucible did not carry over to the real one.
He sat up. His canary, in its jeweled cage, chittered. He pushed off the bed and passed his fingers over the bars of the bird’s prison. As he walked out to the balcony, he glanced at the grand, gilded clock in the corner of the chamber: fourteen minutes past two o’clock, the exact time mentioned in his mother’s vision—and therefore always the time he asked to be awakened from his seeming naps.
In the real world, his home, built on a high spur of the Labyrinthine Mountains, was the most famous castle in all the mage realms, far grander and more beautiful than anything Sleeping Beauty ever occupied. The balcony commanded splendid views: ribbon-slender waterfalls cascading thousands of feet, blue foothills dotted by hundreds of snow-fed lakes, and in the distance, the fertile plains that were the breadbasket of his realm.
But he barely noticed the view. The balcony made him tense, for it was here, or so it had been foretold, that he would come into his destiny. The beginning of the end, for his prophesied role was that of a mentor, a stepping-stone—the one who did not survive to the end of the quest.
Behind him, his attendants gathered, feet shuffling, silk overrobes swishing.
“Would you care for some refreshments, sire?” said Giltbrace, the head attendant, his voice oily.
“No. Prepare for my departure.”
“We thought Your Highness departed tomorrow morning.”
“I changed my mind.” Half his attendants were in Atlantis’s pay. He inconvenienced them at every turn and changed his mind a great deal. It was necessary they believe him a capricious creature who cared for only himself. “Leave.”
The attendants retreated to the edge of the balcony but kept watch. Outside of the prince’s bedchamber and bath, he was almost always watched.
He scanned the horizon, waiting for—and dreading—this yet-to-transpire event that had already dictated the entire course of his life.
Iolanthe chose the top of Sunset Cliff, a rock face several miles east of Little-Grind-on-Woe.
She and Master Haywood had been at the village for eight months, almost an entire academic year, yet the rugged terrain of the Midsouth March—deep gorges, precipitous slopes, and swift blue torrents—still took her breath away. For miles around, the village was the only outpost of civilization against an unbroken sweep of wild nature.
Atop Sunset Cliff, the highest point in the vicinity, the villagers had erected a flagpole to fly the standard of the Domain. The sapphire banner streamed in the wind, the silver phoenix at its center gleaming under the sun.
As Iolanthe knelt, her knee pressed into something cold and hard. Parting the grass around the base of the flagpole revealed a small bronze plaque set into the ground, bearing the inscription DUM SPIRO, SPERO.
“While I breathe, I hope,” she murmured, translating to herself.
Then she noticed the date on the plaque, 3 April 1021. The day that saw Baroness Sorren’s execution and Baron Wintervale’s exile—events that marked the end of the January Uprising, the first and only time the subjects of the Domain had taken up arms against the de facto rule of Atlantis.
The flying of the banner was not in itself particularly remarkable—that, at least, Atlantis hadn’t outlawed yet. But the plaque, commemorating the rebellion, was an act of defiance here in this little-known corner of the Domain.
She’d been six at the time of the uprising. Master Haywood had taken her and joined the exodus fleeing Delamer. For weeks, they’d lived in a makeshift refugee camp on the far side of the Serpentine Hills. The grown-ups had whispered and fretted. The children had played with an almost frantic intensity.
The return to normalcy had been abrupt and strange. No one talked about the repairs at the Conservatory to replace damaged roofs and toppled statues. No one talked about anything that had happened.
The one time Iolanthe had run into a girl she’d met at the refugee camp, they’d waved awkwardly at each other and then turned away embarrassed, as if there had been something shameful in that interlude.
In the years since, Atlantis had tightened its grip on the Domain, cutting off contact with the outside world and extending its reach of power via a vast network of open collaborators and secret spies inside the realm.
From time to time, she heard rumors of trouble closer to home: the loss of an acquaintance’s livelihood on suspicion of activities unfavorable to the interests of Atlantis, the disappearance of a classmate’s relative into the Inquisitory, the sudden relocation of an entire family down the street to one of the more distant, outlying islands of the Domain.
There were also rumors of a new rebellion brewing. Thankfully Master Haywood showed no interest. Atlantis was like the weather, or the lay of the land. One didn’t try to change anything; one coped, that was all.
She lowered and folded the banner, setting it aside to avoid damage. For a moment she wondered whether she could truly endanger herself by putting on a display of fire and water. No, she didn’t believe it. During the two years before they came to Little Grind, they’d lived right next door to a family of small-time collaborators, and Master Haywood had never objected to her showing fire tricks to the children.
She nudged the cauldron so that its metal belly was snug against the pole, the better to absorb the jolt of the lightning. Then she measured fifty big strides away from the pole, for safety.
Just in case.
That she was preparing for anything at all to happen amazed her. Yes, she was a fine elemental mage by current standards, but she was nothing compared to the Greats. What made her think she’d accomplish a feat unheard of except in legends?
She gazed up at the cloudless sky and took a deep breath. She could not say why, but she knew in her gut that the anonymous advice in The Complete Potion was correct. She only needed the lightning.
But how did one summon lightning?
“Lightning!” she shouted, jabbing her index finger skyward.
Nothing. Not that she’d expected anything on her first try, but still she was a little deflated. Perhaps visualization might help. She closed her eyes and pictured a bolt of sizzle connecting sky and earth.
She pushed back the sleeves of her blouse and drew her wand from her pocket. Her heart pumped faster; she’d never before used her wand for elemental magic.
A wand was an amplifier of a mage’s power; the greater the power, the greater the amplification. If she failed again, it would be a resounding failure. But if she should succeed . . .
Her hand trembled as she raised the wand to point it directly overhead. She inhaled as deeply as she could.
“Smite that cauldron, will you? I haven’t got all day!”
The first gleam appeared extraordinarily high in the atmosphere, and seemingly a continent away. A line of white fire zipped across the arc of the sky, curving gracefully against that deep, cloudless blue.
It plummeted toward her—searing, bright death.
A column of pure white light, so distant it was barely more than a thread, so brilliant it nearly blinded the prince, burst into existence.
He stood mute and amazed for an entire minute before something kicked him hard in the chest, the realization that this was the very sign for which he had waited half his life.
His hand tightened into a fist: the prophecy had come true. He was not ready. He would never be ready.
But ready or not, he acted.
“Why do you look so awed?” He sneered at his attendants. “Are you yokels who have never seen a bolt of lightning in your lives?”
“Do not stand there. My departure does not ready itself.” Then, to Giltbrace specifically, “I am going to my study. Make sure I am not disturbed.”
His attendants had learned to leave him alone when he wished it—they did not enjoy being sent to clean the palace guards’ boots, haul kitchen slops, or rake out the stables.
He counted on their attention returning immediately to the burning sky. A glance backward told him that they were indeed again riveted to the extraordinary, endless lightning.
There were secret passages in the castle known only to the family. He was before the doors of his study in thirty seconds. Inside the study, he pulled out a tube from the center drawer of his desk and whistled into it. The sound would magnify as it traveled, eventually reaching his trusted steed in the stables.
Next he drew an heirloom field glass from its display case. The field glass pinpointed the location of anything that could be sighted within its range—and its range extended to not only every corner of the Domain but a hundred miles beyond in any direction.
His fingers shaking only slightly, he adjusted the knobs of the field glass to bring the lightning into sharper focus. It had struck far away, near the southern tip of the Labyrinthine Mountains.
He grabbed a pair of riding gloves and a saddlebag from the lower drawers of the desk and murmured the necessary words. The next instant he was sliding down a smooth stone chute at a near vertical angle, the acceleration so dizzying he might as well be in free fall.
He braced himself. Still, the impact of slamming onto Marble’s waiting back was like running into a wall. He swallowed a grunt of pain and groped in the dark for the handles mounted on the old girl’s shoulders. With his knees he nudged her forward.
They were at the mouth of a hidden expedited way cut into the mountain. The moment the invisible boundary was crossed, they hurtled through a tunnel twelve feet in diameter—barely wide enough for Marble to fit through with her wings folded.
The darkness was complete; the air pressed heavy and damp against his skin. They shot upward, so fast his eardrums popped and popped again. Then, a pinprick of light, which grew swiftly into a flood of sunshine, and they were out in the open, above an uninhabited peak well away from the castle.
Marble opened her great wings and slid into a long swoop. The prince closed his eyes and called to mind what he had seen in the field glass: a village as ordinary as a sparrow, and about as small.
It would have been preferable to vault alone. But vaulting such a great distance on visual cue, rather than personal memory, was an imprecise business. And he did not have the luxury of proceeding on foot once he reached his destination.
He leaned forward and whispered into Marble’s ear.
Iolanthe was flat on her back, blind, her face burning, her ears ringing like the bells on New Year’s Eve.
She must still be alive then. Groaning, she rolled over, pushed onto her knees, and clamped her hands over her ears.
After a while, she opened her eyes to a fuzzy spread of green cloth—her skirt. She raised her head a little and looked at her hand, which slowly swam into focus. There was a scratch but no blood. She sighed in relief. She’d feared that her ears had bled and that she’d find bits of brain on her palm.
But the grass around her was brown. Strange, the moor atop the cliff had recently turned a boisterous green with the arrival of spring. Her gaze followed the expanse of withered grass and—
The flagpole had disappeared. Where it once stood, black smoke rose from an equally black pit.
She struggled to her feet, stuck her wand back into her pocket, and tottered toward the crater, feeling as if her legs were made of mush. The smoke made her eyes water. Grass, dry as tinder, crunched beneath the soles of her boots.
The crater was ten feet wide and as deep as she was tall; the flagpole lay drunkenly across the top. This was mad. When the lightning struck, its electrical charge should have safely dissipated into the ground.
Then she spied the cauldron, sitting upright at the very bottom of the crater, filled with the most beautiful elixir she’d ever seen, like distilled starlight.
A laugh tore from her throat. For once, Fortune had smiled upon her. The wedding illumination would be perfect. Her performance would be perfect—oh, she was going to perform, all right. And Mrs. Oakbluff just might forgive Master Haywood for the prank he’d pulled on her, telling her—ha!—that there would be no silver light elixir for her daughter’s wedding.
A whoosh overhead made her look up. A winged beast, something of a cross between a dragon and a horse, shot past her. It had come from the north, flying with astonishing speed toward the coast. But as she watched, its wings flapped vertically to reduce its forward momentum.
Then it swung around to face her.
The prince could not believe his eyes.
He had vaulted quite close to where the lightning had actually struck, but Marble had shot by too fast for him to get a good look at the mage atop the blackened cliff. But now that he had turned Marble around…
The long dark hair, half of it standing up from electrical shock, the ruffled white blouse, the green skirt. There was no mistaking it: the elemental mage who had brought down lightning was a girl.
Archer Fairfax could not be a girl. What in the blazes was he to do with a girl?
The next moment the girl was no longer alone. A man in a black robe materialized and sprinted toward her.
Iolanthe stared at the winged beast. It was iridescent blue, with sharp, barely branched antlers on its equine head and a spiked, crimson-tipped tail.
A Barbary Coast peryton.
They were very fashionable in the cities, but not in the hinterlands. What was one doing here, immediately after she’d summoned a bolt of lightning?
“What have you done?”
Master Haywood! His black schoolmaster’s robe billowed behind him as he raced toward her.
“I repaired the light elixir,” she said. “And you don’t need to worry about the crater, I’ll take care of it—and put the flagpole back where it belongs.”
She commanded earth too, if not quite as well as she commanded fire and water—and lightning.
“My goodness, what happened here?” Mrs. Greenfield, a villager, also appeared. “Are you all right, Miss Iolanthe? You look a fright.”
Master Haywood drew his wand, yanked Iolanthe behind him, and pointed the wand at Mrs. Greenfield.
“Obliviscere!” he shouted. “Obliviscere! Obliviscere!”
Obliviscere was the most powerful spell of forgetfulness—and illegal for mages without a medical license to use. Mrs. Greenfield would lose six months, if not a year, of memories.
“What are you doing?” Iolanthe cried.
Mrs. Greenfield dropped to her knees and vomited. Iolanthe started toward her. Master Haywood caught Iolanthe’s sleeve. “You come with me.”
He had a death grip on her arm. “You come with me this moment if you want to live!”
They both startled at the sound of wings beating above—the peryton. It carried a rider. She squinted for a better look. But the next moment, she was looking at her own front door.
Master Haywood shoved her inside. She stumbled.
Mrs. Needles poked her head into the vestibule. “Master Haywood, Miss Seabourne—”
“Get out!” Master Haywood bellowed. “Leave this instant.”
“I beg your—”
Master Haywood pushed Mrs. Needles out of the house and slammed the door shut. He dragged Iolanthe into the parlor and pointed his wand at the ceiling. The tip of the wand shook.
She swallowed. “Tell me what is going on!”
A satchel fell from nowhere into his arms. “I already told you. Atlantis is coming after you.”
From the open windows came the sound of the peryton’s wing beats. The hairs on the back of Iolanthe’s neck stood up.
“What should I do?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper, her hand clenched about her wand.
A loud knock struck the front door. She jumped.
“Master Haywood, open the door this minute!” The voice belonged to Mrs. Oakbluff, who also served as the village constable. “You are under arrest for the assault on Mrs. Greenfield, as witnessed by Mr. Greenfield and myself. Miss Seabourne, you come with me too.”
Master Haywood thrust the satchel into Iolanthe’s arms. “Ignore her. You need to leave.”
She hurried after him. The satchel was heavy. “What’s in the bag?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never opened it.”
In a corner of his bedchamber stood a large trunk, which had followed them through many moves. As he unlocked the trunk and lifted the lid, she saw its inside for the first time. It was completely empty—a portal trunk. “Where am I going?”
“I don’t know that either.”
Her stomach twisted. “What do you know?”
“That you have put yourself in terrible danger.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Now get inside.”
The house exploded. Walls caved; debris hurtled. She screamed, threw herself down, and shielded her head with the satchel. Chunks of brick and plaster pummeled her everywhere else.
When the chaos had died down a little, she looked around for Master Haywood. He was flat on the floor among the wreckage, bleeding from a head wound. She rushed to his side.
“Are you all right, Master Haywood? Can you hear me?”
His eyelids fluttered open. He looked at her, his gaze unfocused.
“It’s me, Iolanthe. Are you all right?”
“Why are you still here?” he shouted, struggling to his feet. “Get in the trunk! Get in!”
He grabbed the satchel from her and tossed it into the trunk. She took a deep breath and hauled herself over the trunk’s high sides. He pulled on the lid. She held it open with the palm of her hand. “Wait, aren’t you coming w—”
He crumpled to the floor.
Through the chalky air, a matronly figure advanced. Mrs. Oakbluff waved her wand. Master Haywood’s inert body went flying, landing with a thud in the next room and missing being impaled upon a broken beam by mere inches.
Mrs. Oakbluff came at Iolanthe.
Where had they vaulted?
The village was not big, but it still had some forty, fifty dwellings of varying sizes. The villagers stopped what they were doing to gawk at Marble, her shadow gliding on rooftops and cobbled streets like a harbinger of doom.
The prince assessed the situation. Were he the father or the guardian—who obviously understood the implications of what the girl had done—would he have already gone on the run? Unlikely. He would want to return to their home nearby, where he had a bag packed for just such an emergency and a swift means to safety.
But where was home?
The prince had zoomed past the small house that sat apart from the rest of the village when a movement caught his eye. He turned his head, hoping it was the man and the girl rematerializing. Only one mage, however, stood before the house—not the long-haired girl, but a squat woman.
Disappointed, he continued his search. Only to see, a minute later, the same house shaking violently before collapsing on itself.
He reined Marble as close to a full stop as he dared and vaulted for the now crooked front steps of the house.
“What are you doing?” Iolanthe wanted to shout in indignation, but her voice was barely above a whimper.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Mrs. Oakbluff smiled, but her square face was without its usual rustic goodwill. “Did you know I once worked in demolition?”
“You destroyed our house because I damaged the flagpole?”
“No, because you resisted arrest. And I need the credit for your arrest, young lady—I’ve been in this wretched place too long.”
Credit for her arrest, not Master Haywood’s. Mrs. Oakbluff, soon-to-be in-law of Atlantis’s staunchest collaborators in all of Midsouth March, clearly believed seizing Iolanthe would bring her special rewards.
The fear that had been welling up in Iolanthe suddenly boiled over. She yanked on the lid of the trunk, but it refused to lower.
“Oh, no, I’m not letting you go so easily,” said Mrs. Oakbluff.
She raised her wand toward Iolanthe. Without thinking, Iolanthe reacted. A wall of fire roared toward Mrs. Oakbluff.
The prince first secured the house with an impassable circle to keep out other intruders. The front door still stood more or less intact, but the wall around it had crumbled. He stepped over the debris strewn across the vestibule, and barely had time to duck as a tongue of fire roared in his direction.
But the fire did not reach him. Instead it pivoted midair and shot back where it had come from. He followed it toward the back of the house and stopped in his tracks.
A dozen trails of hissing, crackling flames, vicious as serpents, attacked the housebreaker, who frantically shouted shielding charms. The girl, now covered in plaster dust, stood in a tall trunk, her arms waving, her face a scowl of concentration.
Some of the housebreaker’s shielding charms took. Behind their barricade, she pointed her wand at the girl.
The prince raised his own wand. The housebreaker fell to the broken floor. The girl gawked at him a moment, raised both hands, and pushed them out. Fire hurtled toward him.
“Esto praesidium!” The air before him hardened to take the brunt of the fire. “Recall your flames. I am not here to harm you.”
With a turn of her wrists, the wall of flame reconfigured into a battering ram.
Good thing he had fought so many dragons. “Aura circumvallet.”
Air closed around the fire. She waved her hands, trying to make her fire obey her, but it remained contained.
She snapped her finger to call forth more fire.
“Omnis ignis unus,” he murmured. All fire is one fire.
The new burst of flame she wanted materialized inside the prison he had already made.
He approached the trunk. Sunlight slanted through the broken walls into the room, sparkling where it caught particles of plaster in the air. One particular ray lit a thin streak of blood at her temple.
She yanked at the trunk lid. He set his own hand against it. “I am not here to harm you,” he repeated. “Come with me. I will get you to safety.”
She glowered. “Come with you? I don’t even know who…”
Her voice trailed off; her head jerked with recognition. He was Titus VII, the Master of the Domain. His profile adorned the coins of the realm. His portraits hung in schools and public buildings—even though he was not yet of age and would not rule in his own right for another seventeen months.
“Your Highness, forgive my discourtesy.” Her hand loosened its grip on the trunk’s lid; her gaze, however, remained on guard. “Are you here at Atlantis’s behest?”
So she knew from which quarter danger came. “No,” he answered. “The Inquisitor would have to step over my dead body to get to you.”
The girl swallowed. “The Inquisitor wants me?”
“I will tell you later. We need to go.”
He appreciated her wariness: better wary than naive. But this was no time for detailed answers. Each passing second diminished their chances of getting out unseen.
“The mountains, for now. Tomorrow I will take you out of the Domain.”
“But I can’t leave my guardian behind. He—”
Too late. Overhead Marble emitted a high, keening call: she had sighted the Inquisitor. He untwisted the pendant he wore around his neck and pressed its lower half into the girl's hand.
“I will find you. Now go.”
“But what about Master—”
He pushed her down and slammed the trunk shut.
The moment the trunk closed, its bottom dropped out from underneath Iolanthe. She fell into utter darkness, flailing.
Copyright © 2013 by Sherry Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children's Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without express permission of the publisher.