Chapter One: Anette
Oh, that infuriating man!
I stomped away from Gaul as if the four demons I’d just driven back into the woods were still on my heels. That gods-damned gorgeous jerk! I’d just saved his stupid life. I’d driven away four honest-to-gods demons with nothing more than a dagger, not to mention burned Leif when he’d tried to throw me to the monsters.
Gaul hadn’t stopped Leif, and Gaul didn’t have a damned thing that would have stopped those demons, and we both knew it. So what did Gaul say to me when it was over, when I’d defeated Leif and beaten back the monsters that had killed two Citadel Masters right in front of us?
What the hell are you?
The words burned in my mind, making magic spark and snake down my skin. My cheeks felt hot and my heart hammered in my eardrums as if I really were sprinting instead of just stalking blindly down this muddy, rain-streaked road to nowhere.
What are you?
Not who are you, as if he’d just then realized I was the descendant of Lord Valrion the Duskbringer. Not what did you just do to save my worthless life? But what are you, as if I were no different from the monsters I’d just dispatched to the woods. As if waving my family’s ancient demon-slaying dagger at a pack of actual freaking demons that were threatening both of our lives had just fundamentally changed who I was.
My chest tightened. Rainwater blurred my vision.
Of course it changed who I was. Gaul had thought I was something sweet and innocent, a suitable pretend girlfriend carrying his pretend child. A convenient cover story.
Now, though. Now he knew better. And now Gaul would treat me just like everyone else in the kingdom treated wildmages. Those horrid posters in Mayhaven swam to the front of my mind with their charcoal sketch of Vethe’s face and the details of his execution.
I shivered despite the burn of my magic and the fire of my rage. Gaul knew I was a wildmage now. I had to put some space between us now, before he called the king’s soldiers to drag me to the executioner’s—
Despite myself, I spun around and scowled at Gaul. He was trotting through the mud as rainwater poured off his hair, his face a hard mask.
“Where are you going?” he called.
I turned around. Fuck him if he though I would answer that. His heavy boots splashed closer to me.
“Anette,” he called again. “You’re following the Citadel Master.”
My steps faltered. What in the gods’ green earth was he talking about?
“One of them ran away,” Gaul said. He pulled up beside me and his voice dropped until it was a whisper. “Before the fighting started. He said—”
“Not here,” I whispered as the memory came back to me.
My entire body went cold. I turned to Gaul, my anger fleeing in the face of a greater wave of fear. “What did he mean, ‘Not here?’”
Gaul shook his head. “I have no idea.”
I narrowed my eyes at Gaul’s idiotic non-answer. “It means he wasn’t surprised to see demons,” I spat. “It means he was only surprised to see them here.”
Gaul nodded. He looked angry, or possibly even afraid.
“So, where did he think they should be? Where would a Citadel Master expect to see demons?” I demanded, my voice rising.
“Anette.” Gaul’s expression softened as he leaned closer to me. “It might be best if this particular Citadel Master didn’t know that we survived. Not yet.”
I scowled at Gaul. “What are you trying to say?”
“Can we please get off the road?”
I glanced from the wave-ruffled lake to the darkness beneath the trees and bit my lip. “The demons—”
“Could be anywhere,” Gaul agreed. “But the demons are scared of—”
He waved his arm at my hip, gesturing vaguely at the place where I’d ripped my skirt in half in order to reach B’thyen the Lifegiver, the ancient dagger my family had preserved through the generations for the sole purpose of bleeding demons into wildmages who’d gone and given themselves mage fever.
And, yeah, apparently demons don’t like it. That was news to me.
“Whatever that thing is,” Gaul finished with an uncomfortable nod toward B’thyen’s hilt. “So, at the moment, I’m more concerned about the Master who escaped.”
He reached forward. His fingers brushed my arm. I yanked away from his touch.
“Why are you even here?” I demanded, trying to keep my voice at a whisper. “Why did you follow me? Are you just waiting until you can hand me over to the king’s soldiers for being a wildmage?”
Gaul blinked, then ran his fingers through his hair, scattering water droplets.
“No,” he sighed. He looked exhausted. “No, Anette, I’m not. I’m not going to hand you over to anyone. I’m here because there’s a Citadel Master who now knows exactly how to get to the wildmage camp where Lyria might end up. And Vethe,” he added, like my brother was an afterthought.
The implications made me feel like I’d just been punched in the stomach. “Oh, no,” I groaned.
“Listen, though. You know who else knows how to get to the wildmage camp?” The hint of a smile danced around the edges of Gaul’s mouth. “I do,” he whispered.
“Gods,” I sighed.
I suddenly felt very wet, very cold, and very, very hungry. Gaul was right, of course. Now I remembered the Citadel Master who’d turned on his heels and fled down the road, although at the time I’d barely registered that fact as my mind screamed in terror at the four snake-like demons barreling down at us like incarnated monsters born out of my worst nightmares.
But yes, Lief had been telling the Citadel Master how to reach the wildmage camp. Now the Master would know. The flames that had lit up the forest behind me as I’d fled Raven’s Wing leapt into my memory.
No, the Citadel would not leave a wildmage encampment in peace. But, gods, I was so tired. It felt like I’d been running since Henrix had woken me a lifetime ago with his bony hand on my shoulder, thrust a bag in my lap, and told me to go to Mayhaven.
“Fine,” I said. I wiped my sodden hair from my eyes and ran my hands down the front of my ruined dress as if there were anything I could do at this point to redeem my appearance. “Which way do we go?”
Gaul frowned into the forest. “Through the woods. Come on, let’s get off the road.”
He ducked into the woods and turned around to hold back branches for me. Mud squelched under my boots and thorns tore at what was left of my skirts as I followed him. Rainwater traced a cold path down my neck, and I thought one last time of the orange glow we’d seen across the water, all those lanterns flickering in the warm little houses of Crowsport.
“Keep your eyes and ears open,” Gaul said without turning around. His voice was a low growl against the steady thrum of rain on leaves and branches.
“Sure,” I grumbled. As if I’d been planning on blundering through the forest with my damn eyes closed like some kind of lunatic.
What the hell are you?
Gaul’s words burned through my consciousness, bringing another rush of anger as hot and bright as my magic. What am I? Hendrix’s rough assessment, spoken casually like any other naked fact, rose out of the murky depths of my memory.
“I haven’t seen anyone with more power,” he’d told me once, after a day of training. It had been late fall, when the leaves scuttered over the cobblestones of the courtyard like mice in the cellar. We’d been sitting together in the last of the sunlight, watching the shadows race up the broken walls of the southern wing.
“You’ll do well in the Citadel,” Hendrix had finished.
Then he’d taken a swig of water, stood, his joints cracking in loud protest, and walked through the doors of Raven’s Wing, leaving me gasping in open-mouthed disbelief. Hendrix did not praise; it was not his way. He felt wildmages learned best by knowing what they did wrong, not right, and never before in my life had Henrix commented on my talent. I’d had no metric by which to judge the strength of my magic, especially after Vethe left Raven’s Wing.
So I’d clung to that passing moment in the autumnal courtyard, kept it close to my chest, fanned it like an ember. Someday, I’d thought, that ember will become a fire. I’d imagined it would happen at the Citadel, under the tutelage of the Masters, and thanks to whatever money-making scheme Vethe, Hendrix, and Hylene happened to wrangle into existence.
But then Citadel burned Raven’s Wing, and now two Masters lay dead in the mud behind me. I doubted there was enough money in the Kingdom to buy me safe passage into the Citadel now.
I still had my magic, though, hissing and purring beneath my skin, ready to ignite another son of a bitch like Leif, or to start a fire and keep the darkness at bay. I had my dagger, the ancient blade that had cowed four demons into submission. I had my magic, and my training.
What the hell was I?
I was the gods damned great-great-great granddaughter of Lord Valrion the Duskbringer. The Lady Anette Scarvian. Wildmage. Wielder of B’thyen the Lifegiver.
And I was going to survive whatever the gods threw at me.