“Welcome to Illvya.”
The words echoed around Sophie Mackenzie’s head and she suddenly felt oddly detached from her body. “I think—” She took a step forward, swayed, and then steadied as her husband’s arm came around her waist.
“Sophie?” Cameron said urgently at the same time as Henri Matin said, “Madame?”
“I am quite—” Sophie started, but the room spun around her and she squeezed her eyes shut against the sensation.
“Lord Scardale, perhaps you should help your wife to a chair,” Henri said. His voice was deep, the musical tones of the Illvyan accent underscored with concern or something close to it, which eased the swirl of fear in her head and stomach somewhat.
The next moment, Cameron swung her up, around—which made her head whirl faster—and then settled her into a chair. She kept her eyes closed, still feeling as though the room was spinning around her, focusing on trying to convince herself she was sitting still and safe. The knot in her stomach had loosened into a writhing sensation that was far more unpleasant. She breathed through her nose, determined not to throw up.
“It’s been a long journey,” Cameron said, sounding fierce. “She needs to rest.”
No. She needed to know that they were safe. She couldn’t rest until they were safe. They had fled from the palace in Kingswell in the dark of night, leaving a dead assassin behind them. They had risked everything to leave Anglion and cross the ocean to the country that was Anglion’s sworn enemy. It was entirely possible they had merely jumped from frying pan to fire, and she could not let her guard slip until she knew if that were the case.
She opened her eyes. “I am quite well.” There. She managed the entire phrase that time, though the sentiment was no truer than it had been on her previous attempt.
Cameron’s face came into focus, above her. He stood by the chair, clear blue eyes darkened by fatigue and worry. Henri stood next to him. His eyes, lighter by several shades than her husband’s, were a blue closer to the pale silver of his hair. And they were, in comparison, far more composed. But there was an equal amount of skepticism in each of their gazes. Clearly neither man believed her claim. She couldn’t fault them for that. She didn’t believe it herself.
But she was determined to go on. “Mis—I’m sorry, I do not know the correct form of address,” she said to Henri apologetically, struggling for the words. Her Illvyan was not fluent by any stretch of the imagination, and her education in the language had definitely not included the finer details of wizardly protocol. Given that Anglion considered the wizards of Illvya to be anathema and heretics, her teachers presumably hadn’t thought such things necessary.
“The correct term is Venable, for a wizard. Venable Matin. I’m not sure how you would say it exactly in Anglion—no, you say Anglish, do you not? Mine is not perfect,” Henri said with a small flick of his fingers, as if to indicate that he took no offense in her ignorance.
“Since we are in your country, it does not seem to matter what we Anglions call the language,” Cameron said. “And your grasp of it, however you name it, seems admirable.”
Henri nodded once. “That is kind of you to say. Perhaps it will improve further on your acquaintance. Still, I do not know the precise translation of Venable. Honored wise one would come close, I suppose. And, if you do not care to correct me on what your language is called, then I shall not quibble over my titles tonight. Besides, as I am master here at the Academe, you may call me Maistre Matin, to be more exactly correct. It is simpler.”
Sophie smiled, hoping the expression didn’t reveal the depths of her exhaustion. Her stomach was settling, but that only left her more aware of how much the rest of her ached for sleep. “Maistre Matin, then. I would like to know where my husband and I stand. We are seeking asylum here in Illvya. At least for a time. We need to know if it will be granted to us. And under what conditions.”
Henri pursed his lips. “It is a long time since an Anglion witch—at least one of your status—made her way to these shores.” His eyes looked oddly dark for a moment. Then he blinked and they were as before.
“My status? I’m not sure I understand you,” Sophie said.
“We get a small number of Anglions arriving here, of course. It is not common but it does happen. Though, more often, men than women. And of the women, more often those without any power, or only some small power, already dedicated to your goddess. But I do not recall the last time there was a royal witch on our shores. Let alone an unbound one. I imagine we’d have to dig into the history books quite far back to find someone in that state.” He pushed the fabric of his robe back from where it had fallen over his arm and the cloth seemed to shimmer slightly, catching the light with a dark rainbow gleam that was echoed in the black jewel in his heavy gold ring.
“Unbound?” Her stomach clenched again. How did he know that? What did an Illvyan know of the rites of the goddess? Or that, in her case, they had failed.
“Is that not the right term? Undedicated, perhaps?” The maistre pursed his lips, gaze intent on her. Then he glanced at Cameron. “Though perhaps . . . not entirely unentangled.”
Unentangled. Cameron went tense beside her. Sophie didn’t let her gaze stray to her husband. Could Maistre Matin sense the bond between them? If he could tell that she was not bound to the temple, then the answer was almost certainly yes.
“Relax, Lord Scardale, I mean no harm to you or your wife. And, to be frank, my fam would stop you before you could draw your sword or your gun. They are very fast, the familiaris sanctii.”
“You have a demon here? In this room?” Sophie’s heart began to pound and only the fact that she was so tired kept her seated. A demon. The stuff of every tale of horror she had ever been told as a child. A creature like the one that had greeted them at the door to the Academe, skin the color of stone and dark metal, eyes black and knowing. It was a measure of how exhausted she was that she hadn’t managed to react with more than mild alarm at the sight. Or stepped within the doors of L’Academe di Sages at all.
“Do not look so worried, Lady Scardale. I assure you that Martius is perfectly safe. And as for what unbound means, well, I’m sure you know that as well as I. Though, I will confess, I am intrigued to learn how a royal witch in full possession of her powers did not undergo your temple’s so-called ritual.” His lips pursed again, as though he had tasted something sour.
Sophie swallowed, unsure what was safe to tell him. She needed time to think. To adjust to their new reality. To rest. But there was no rest if there was no safety. “I—”
“That is a story for another time,” Cameron interrupted. “My wife asked you a question. Do you grant us asylum?”
Henri shrugged. “Asylum is not mine to give, Lord Scardale. For now, I will grant you the safety of the Academe and such protection as we can offer. Other details will be . . . decided later.”
“Decided by whom?” Cam demanded.
Henri looked amused. “By those who rule here in Illvya. Or rather, those who make decisions. Namely the emperor and his parliament. The latter like to think they wield some influence. Though I’m sure you are familiar with that idea from your home country.”
“Queen Eloisa rules alone,” Cameron said stoutly.
“I hope for her sake that that is true,” Henri said. “Though your presence here may suggest otherwise. Unless—” He broke off. “But come. Your lovely wife needs sleep and food, Lord Scardale, and I imagine that such things would not be unwelcome for you either.”
“Our safety?” Sophie managed, even as visions of a soft place to lie down began filling her head, so enticing that she suddenly wanted to cry. She swallowed. She could endure a little longer.
“Is guaranteed for tonight,” Henri said. “In the morning, I will have to inform the emperor of your arrival.”
“But—” Cameron started.
Henri cut him off with a gesture. “It cannot be avoided, my lord. And it is better that he hears it directly from me rather than from rumor.”
“What happens then?” Cameron demanded. He looked poised to . . . what? Fight his way out? That couldn’t possibly work. Not when the venables had demons at their beck and call.
“The emperor will decide what happens next. But he is not in the habit of harming Anglion refugees. I doubt he will change his methods with the two of you. But for now, the best thing you can do is rest. You have my word, no one will harm you under my roof. So come, Willem will take you to your accommodations. You can eat and sleep and bathe, and perhaps, in the morning, you will do me the kindness of telling me news of my daughter.”
He looked suddenly wistful and Sophie hid a wince. Chloe de Montesse had been a refugee in Kingswell for close to ten years. That must be how long it had been since Henri had seen her. Might be how long it had been since he’d had any news or word of his daughter at all. Was that how it would be with Sophie’s family? Would she never see them again?
No. She couldn’t think about that. If she did, then she would definitely cry. She formed a polite smile with an effort and the instincts ingrained from her time at court. “Of course, sir. I only know your daughter a little, but I would be glad to tell you what I can about her.”
“As will I,” Cameron said. He touched Sophie’s shoulder lightly and then offered his hand to help her up. “But for now, we would be grateful for that food and a chance to sleep.”
The young man—Willem—who had shown them to the maistre’s chambers was waiting outside the door when Henri opened it again to usher Sophie and Cam out. Perhaps he had been waiting there, he and the two young crows who had accompanied them on their journey through the Academe, the whole time.
At the sight of Sophie, the smaller of the two crows squawked, sprang from Willem’s shoulder, and flapped five or six feet to alight on her right shoulder.
“Tok!” Willem said, despairingly.
Henri looked curious and tilted his head, pale eyes fixed on the crow. It squawked at him defiantly, the noise ringing in Sophie’s ears, and its claws suddenly gripped her shoulder more firmly, the power in them clear despite the thick weight of her woolen cloak padding her.
“You have made a friend, Lady Scardale,” Henri said, still speaking Anglish.
“Sorry, Maistre,” Willem muttered in the same language. “He is overly curious, that one.”
“It is often so with ravens,” Henri said. “And often that is a sign of a good familiar. That one is from Scilla and Tieko’s latest clutch, isn’t he?”
Willem nodded. “Just as willful as them.”
“Hopefully just as strong,” Henri said with a small smile. He clucked his tongue at the bird, extending a finger to touch its beak.
Sophie felt the weight of the bird shift on her shoulder as it cawed at the maistre. Familiars were another strange Illvyan thing. She had heard tales of animals working with mages but knew nothing of how such things might be achieved in practice. The crow, however, seemed harmless enough. Though harmless was perhaps not the best description for something with claws that gripped so tightly and a long, pointed beak that was mere inches from her eyes.
She decided to ignore it. There were more dangerous things than crows in this building, and she was still feeling lightheaded. And she would happily murder someone to feel clean. She had not bathed or changed her clothes for several days. Goddess knew what she smelled like. Maybe that was why the crow—raven, whatever it was—was attracted to her. Crows ate carrion, didn’t they?
“Willem, take Lord and Lady Scardale to one of the guest chambers. Perhaps the Bleu,” Henri said.
Willem gave a shallow bow and then nodded at Henri. “Of course, Maistre.”
“We will talk more in the morning, once you are rested,” Henri said, nodding at Sophie. “Willem will organize a meal for you tonight, if you wish, and bring you to break your fast in the morning.”
“Thank you, Maistre Matin,” Sophie said. “You have been very kind.”
“You are most welcome,” Henri said with a slight emphasis on “most” that made Sophie’s unease rise again.
But she was too tired to try and work out any hidden meaning behind his words. She knew so little of Illvya. Only the tiny pieces of information that the temple, and the royal family, allowed to be included in Anglion lore. From such scant knowledge, she doubted she had any hope of deciphering the maistre’s intentions, even if she were in full command of her faculties rather than half-asleep on her feet. The man was right. There was nothing more they could do tonight. They could begin to understand their new circumstances in the morning. She merely offered a small curtsy to Henri and then turned back to Willem.
Cameron tucked her left arm through his. She leaned into him gratefully, her stomach twisting again as they began to follow Willem’s pale head along another series of corridors and stairways that left her completely bewildered as to where they were in the building. She couldn’t focus enough to notice any particular details of the route they walked. She was vaguely aware of soft carpets beneath her feet and patterns and colors on the walls, but it took all her energy to keep placing one foot in front of the other. It seemed as though they were walking miles, though it couldn’t be nearly that far.
The length of their journey through the building left her in no doubt that the Academe was a sizeable structure. Not quite as large as the palace at Kingswell but definitely heading toward that scale. The Illvyans took the teaching of magic seriously, it seemed.
She wondered how many of the Arts were taught here. In Anglion, the temple oversaw all three branches of the Arts to a degree but was really only involved in teaching earth witches like Sophie. The military took care of the blood mages and the practitioners of the Arts of Air had their own schools and secrets. But maybe in Illvya all magics were studied under one roof? Certainly the presence of the familiaris sanctii they had encountered on arrival suggested that all four branches of magic were taught here. Including the water magic that was anathema in Anglion because it involved the strange creatures.
Anglions were told that Illvyan wizards were secretive and that the demons they commanded deadly, but that did not appear to be the case so far. Though the mere fact that Henri hadn’t imprisoned or killed her and Cameron on sight didn’t mean that the Illvyans were allies. Far from it. She was under no illusion that she and Cameron were safe. But as the maistre had said, there was nothing to be done about that tonight. All she could do was follow Willem through the endless halls and face whatever came next.
Cameron didn’t think he’d ever been quite so grateful to see a bed in his life. Not even after coming off weeks of sleeping rough on patrol in the Red Guard. For a moment it was all he could think of, the sound of Willem closing the door as he exited the chamber registering only vaguely. There was nothing he wanted more than to crawl into the bed fully clothed and sleep for several days. But sleep was going to have to wait.
He remembered the key Willem had handed him, the one currently biting into the hand he was clenching too hard. Turning from the bed, he crossed to the door to turn the key in the latch and test the handle.
He left the key in place and turned to study the room. It was sizeable, nearly equal to the main room of his brother’s apartment back in the palace in Kingswell.
And his brother, Liam, was the Erl of Inglewood, one of the highest-ranked men in the kingdom. The space the Mackenzies were allocated in the palace reflected that power. The fact that this, a mere guest chamber, was so large made Cameron uneasy. Illvya was rich, drawing its wealth from the empire it controlled as well as its own resources, and the size of the Academe demonstrated that the mages enjoyed their share of that wealth.
With wealth and magic came power.
And with power came politics, intrigue, and ambition.
Exactly the same things that had endangered them in Kingswell. Only here, the players were unknown.
And those unknown players now held his and Sophie’s fate in their hands.
There hadn’t been much time to think when they’d made the choice to leave Anglion. Now they were going to have to deal with the consequences of that choice. Beginning tomorrow. Neither of them was capable of strategizing tonight. But he wouldn’t rest until he was satisfied that this room was as secure as he could make it.
He walked a circuit of the room, noting bars over the windows that ran in a tall row along the far wall. The glass in several of them was ajar slightly, allowing a breeze that carried the unfamiliar fragrance of the city beyond to enter. Some of the notes in the scent were familiar—the smells of too many people, horse dung, and wood smoke. Bread and roasting meats. A distant hint of water from the harbor he knew lay to the northeast. But the familiar was mixed with a strange oily smell and unknown spices, enough to drive home the stark reality that they were no longer in Anglion.
He stared through the glass. The black metal barring it was cunningly wrought, shaped into ornamental figures that softened the impact somewhat and obscured part of the view of the dark-cloaked city. The bars were clearly meant as a barrier. The question was whether they were intended to keep the occupants of the room in or some threat from the world beyond the window out.
Either way, the bars didn’t move at all when he reached through the window to test a set with a few fierce pulls. It would take explosions or some magical attack to shift them. There was little he could do to ward against either of those eventualities, so for tonight he would have to hope they would be protection enough. As for keeping him and Sophie in, well, he doubted either of them would make it more than a few hundred feet down the road before keeling over from exhaustion. Nor did they have any notion where they might escape to. He intended to start rectifying that ignorance as soon as possible. Knowing the terrain was the basis for any good strategy.
The breeze had a cool edge to it and he closed the windows. The last thing either of them needed was to catch a chill. Illvya was supposed to have a similar climate to Anglion, but the days had still held the last heat of summer when they’d left Kingswell and here it felt more truly like the early weeks of autumn that it was. He stared down at the strange cityscape a few seconds more, then drew the curtains across to block it from sight. It was an odd kind of relief when the view—and all it represented—was hidden.
The vivid blue and silver fabric of the curtains was heavy in his hand as he tugged them into a better position, the floral pattern on it more intricate than any he’d seen in Anglion. Similar fabric formed the layers of covers on the bed. More strangeness. Instead of carved wood, the bed frame was made from black metal, curved into arcs of artful branches and flowers at either end in an impressive display of skill.
He made himself look away from the bed, lest he give in to the temptation it offered, and continued his inspection. There was only a single door. Willem had mentioned a bathing room farther down the hallway. They were both filthy from their journey, but he hoped Sophie was as tired as he was and would be willing to forego a bath until morning.
A servant had delivered a small meal of bread, ham, cheese, and a selection of fruit only minutes after Willem had left. Jugs of water and beer and a pot of steaming tea of some sort rested on a low table set near the fire. He was hungry, but the thought of eating made him feel even more tired. Sophie had ignored the food, too, though he’d coaxed her into drinking a little tea.
The only other pieces of furniture in the room were a large armoire where their inadequate bags were now stowed and a cluster of three chairs arranged around the table. The fire was alight. Good, and not only for the warmth the flames provided. The flames would also be a deterrent for anyone who might try to enter a room through a chimney flue. Not that he had any idea how the Illvyans built their buildings compared to Anglion structures.
Inspection completed, and his immediate concerns about potential entry points for attackers quelled, he walked over to collapse onto the bed, tempted to groan in sheer relief at the fact that they were both still alive and he was finally horizontal on a surface that didn’t sway like a ship beneath him.
But there was no answering flop from Sophie following his lead. She’d been silent while he’d prowled around the room, standing by the fire in her wrinkled and stained gray dress, sipping her tea until she’d finished the cup and put it down. He lifted his head, propping himself up on his elbows. Sophie was staring at the door as though she expected it to burst open, hands fisted in her skirts.
“What is it?” he asked. Her face was too pale, too drawn. Shadows the same color as her dress pooled beneath her eyes.
“They have demons here.”
True. And that thought should have been disturbing. But his body was at the point of being unable to truly process their new circumstances. “Yes. But so far they don’t seem inclined to . . . .” He hesitated, trying to make sure he didn’t frighten her. Demons, if the tales were true, could kill a man in seconds. Without so much as touching him. But he was not about to remind Sophie of that. “Maistre Matin guaranteed our safety.”
She threw a glance back at him that made it clear that she was not heartened by Henri Matin’s words, or overly inclined to trust the Illvyan. He forced himself back to his feet before the siren song of the well-padded mattress could lure him down to unconsciousness. Obviously he wasn’t the only one in the room thinking of their vulnerable position.
“Sophie, love, you need to rest.”
“And I suppose you can just sleep knowing a demon could walk through this door any second?” Her voice was too high. She’d been so steadfast in their headlong journey from Anglion, but apparently she had reached the point where she was struggling to continue to maintain her composure.
A demon could do more than walk through the door. They could probably move through the wall. Water magic was strictly taboo in Anglion, and while he had been a member of the palace’s Red Guard, not even that position allowed him access to any detailed knowledge of what a water mage was capable of.
The tales he had been raised on painted demons as near-invincible forces of mayhem and destruction, limited only by their aversion to salt and the will of the mages who controlled them. The salt part was true. The familiaris sanctii could not travel by sea. That fact, and the resulting inability for Illvya to bring them in force across the strait that separated the mainland from Anglion, was perhaps the sole reason that Anglion was not part of the Illvyan empire.
But as for the rest, well, he did not doubt demons were powerful—there had to be a reason that Anglion had forbidden the use of the magic that summoned them so many centuries ago—but he didn’t know truth from fiction beyond that.
But he did know that his wife was afraid. And that he did not want that to be true. He couldn’t completely remove the fear—they had just abandoned everything they knew and fled to a country where they were alone and, apart from his soldiering skills and their combined magic, relatively defenseless—but he could try to make her feel safe for the night. If she slept, she would regain her strength. She would face what came in the morning. They both would.
He moved to her side. “We’ll set wards.”
She shook her head. “I’m too tired.”
“There must be a ley line here,” he said. “Illvyans practice three of the same magics we do. They need ley lines to draw on. I can’t imagine they would build the school for their mages where they couldn’t access one.”
He sent his senses out and down, seeking the ley line. He hadn’t noticed one before now but he hadn’t been looking for it, having more immediate concerns. The room they’d been given was several floors above the ground, but the ley line would most likely be a strong one. It would have to be to serve so many mages in one place.
In Kingswell, finding the ley line would be as easy as reaching out for the hand of a lover or an old friend. He knew every inch of the palace and the countryside surrounding it. The thought of it gave him a sudden sharp stab of grief, the knowledge that he might never see it again sinking like a knife through his chest. Pain that only sharpened with the realization that never seeing the land or the palace also meant never seeing the people who lived within the palace walls or anywhere else in Anglion. Including his family.
But he couldn’t afford to think about them now. He had to focus on here and now. His only priority was protecting Sophie. Right now, that meant finding the ley line.
He searched farther down still, following the stone of the walls, layer by layer toward the earth.
And there—a buzz of magic. Faint, and a somewhat different sensation to the lines he was used to, but that might be because he was exhausted. His fingers wrapped around Sophie’s as he reached for the source of power. She was stronger than him, and together they were stronger again. If they could connect with the ley line, if nothing else, it would restore some energy to them.
The first time he’d touched Sophie after she stepped onto a ley line had changed both of their lives. One could almost consider it the moment that had led to this one they found themselves in now. Caught up in the intoxication of that first headlong, uncontrolled rush of power, they’d had sex. Something unmarried royal witches were definitely not supposed to do.
That moment of madness had led to their marriage, to the discovery that Sophie’s power could not be bound to the goddess as every other royal witch’s power was, because she and Cameron had formed some sort of bond between them during that first coupling. It was the root of their troubles. Had earned them the hostility of the Domina and of Queen Eloisa, to whom both Sophie and Cameron were sworn. Sophie’s status and untamed power—a threat to the throne given she stood sixth in line to the crown—had presumably led to the attempt on her life that had convinced them both that they needed to flee the country.
But here, in this place, the ley line was something to help solve their problems, not cause them. Or so he hoped.
“Can you feel it?” he asked as he stretched his senses deeper into the earth. The ley line, unfamiliar as it was, felt strong. Strong but distant. But still usable, as far as he could tell. He eased his power toward it. There was an odd sensation, as though the line itself was pushing back at him, resisting his demand for access, but then it yielded and warmth flowed through him as the magic let him in.
Sophie’s fingers tightened around his. “Yes,” she said, sounding spent. But there was a sudden flare of power through his fingers as she added her strength to his. Then a second jolt, far stronger than the first, as she made the connection to the ley line.
The fog of fatigue clouding his head eased as the power began to flow faster. The reviving effect of the magic would be temporary, but it should last long enough to let them do what was needed. “Good. Let’s set the wards.”
They worked together, laying the wards over the door and windows. Sophie’s were unsophisticated—after all, she was still new to her power and her training was far from complete—but strong. He added some tricks he’d learned from his time in the Red Guard and hoped the combination would be enough to put her mind at ease. He didn’t know if the wards would actually stop a demon, or even one of the Illvyan mages, but the important thing was for Sophie to believe they could.
“There, that’s enough.” He let go of her hand and stepped back. “Time to rest, love.”
There was color in her cheeks again and the shadows under her eyes seemed lighter. The magic had done her some good, but she needed sleep. And food. His stomach was growling now that some of his energy was restored. Sophie would be starving, too.
“Ground the magic back into the stone,” he prompted. Too much power from the ley line would make her restless.
“I know,” she said. She sounded annoyed at the reminder, but annoyed was better than scared. He let the magic he’d been holding go, and it rushed away from him, as though the ley line—stronger here than those he’d used in Anglion—was pulling it back. The sensation wasn’t entirely pleasant. Did it feel the same to Sophie? She was stronger than him, which made her more sensitive to the ley lines. The first time she’d seen one, she’d said it looked like a river of golden light, whereas he saw it only as a faint shimmer.
But if the difference in the ley line had disturbed her, her face didn’t show it. He decided not to ask, merely took her hand and led her over to the table, determined that she should eat. And then, at long last, they could sleep.