It has been three thousand years since a white mage has been seen upon Rasann.
In the midst of a volcanic eruption miles outside of her village, Ember discovers she can see magic and change the appearance of things at will. Against her mother’s wishes, she leaves for the mage trials only to be kidnapped, and in trying to escape discovers she has inherited her father’s secret—a secret that places her in direct conflict with her father’s greatest enemy.
At the same time, Kayla is given guardianship of the sapphire flute, and told not to play it. The evil mage C’Tan has been searching for it for decades and the sound alone is enough to call her. For the flute to be truly safe, Kayla must find its birthplace in the mountains high above Javak. The girls’ paths are set on a collision course—a course that C’Tan is determined to prevent at all costs.
Jarin smoothed the final rope of stone decorating the altar. The orange magic of Bendanatu flowed through him in a circle of energy that allowed him to mold the cold stone with his hands. There was no dust to blow away, no chisel marks to scar the perfection of the glossy black surface. The heat of his hand alone sculpted the pictures and polished them as smooth as onyx until they reflected the candlelight by which he worked. He sat back on his heels and inspected his creation.
The flat panels on the top and sides depicted the seven Guardians of Rasann creating the world, each holding a keystone that rooted magic to the land. C’Tan had been adamant that the altar remain untainted by color, leaving only the dark of the onyx she brought him.
If he’d had his way, the altar would burst with color, from the sapphire of Klii’kunn’s flute to the deep amethyst of Hwalan’s handheld eye. Jarin sighed with a small ache of regret, but still he was pleased. The interwoven vines running along the upper edge had turned out particularly well, roping in and out in endless knots that were the best he’d ever done, but then, there was reason for that. This was not just any commission he’d taken. This was for his sister, C’Tan—or Celena Tan, as she’d been called as a child.
He rubbed his hand over the top one last time, his fingers catching slightly on the raised image of S’Kotos holding a heartshaped gem. Why C’Tan had wanted The Destroyer on the altar’s top, he didn’t understand. She’d given him some kind of convoluted explanation, but it had made no sense.
Jarin shook his head and stood. He separated the fine chains hanging about his neck and placed a finger on the stone that hung at his throat. It warmed at his touch, suddenly alive and listening, prepared to transmit every word he spoke into his sister’s waiting ear. No matter how often he used the stone, it always amazed him that he could speak to C’Tan as if she stood before him, whether she was in the kitchen or riding her dragons in a neighboring county. He could hardly wait to share his news. The altar was done! Nearly a year of work, and it was complete.
The spell activated instantly, catching C’Tan mid-sentence as she spoke. “. . . don’t want any excuses. The master requires the child’s soul in order to negate the prophecy.”
Jarin froze in shock, holding himself completely still as he listened to the unfolding conversation, expecting any moment for C’Tan to laugh at the joke she was playing at his expense.
“Yes, I have a rather full understanding of that, Mistress,” Kardon, C’Tan’s servant, said, “but I am not sure you are aware that she is not the only child of the prophecy. The keystones must each be held by a balanced one in order for Him to be sealed. She will be drawn to the stones, so why not use her to find them? Why waste this resource when it is so close?” His voice gave Jarin the chills, as it always did.
It was as cold as a midwinter freeze and just as dead. “She is only one link in the chain.”
“Yes, but she is a link within our grasp here and now, and the Master wants her sealed. Besides, have you forgotten she is the link to them all? She is The Chosen One! The Binder! Distasteful as it may be, she must be soulbound to that stone.” Her voice was different than Jarin remembered, full of bitter anger and razor scorn.
“I have no qualms binding the babe to the stone, Mistress. I only question your motives in following S’Kotos’ directions.”
There was a slap that made Jarin wince.
“Never question my loyalty to the Master,” she said, her voice low and menacing. “Now go and collect Shandae before I decide to offer you on that altar.”
Jarin’s heart froze again at his daughter’s name, the cogs finally turning into place. Shandae, his little baby girl, was the child of prophecy? She would bind The Destroyer? Of course he knew the legends. He’d grown up hearing them, playing the parts as a child, but he’d never really believed them—until now.
Jarin yanked the chain from his neck, sickened with panic and fear, and flung the stone at the altar. Instead of bouncing off the slick surface, it stuck to the image of The Destroyer as if it were made of tar instead of stone. Chills raced up the back of his neck, and he did the only thing he could.
By the time he reached the main hall, he’d shifted into the form he inherited from his father. Hair sprouted across his body, his nose lengthened, his back curved, and in an instant Jarin had gone from man to wolf, his clothes merging with the snow-white fur. Only the pendant his father had given him years before still thumped against his breastbone. Its magic never had allowed him to hide it with his clothes.
Once across the drawbridge, his paws dug at the soggy earth, kicking up clods that spattered his hindquarters, littering the grass behind him as he raced toward home. If he’d been in man form, he would have been cursing, shaking his head at his blindness and stupidity, but he wasn’t. Tonight he was wolf, snarling through the grass, praying he was not too late to save his child from the betrayal of C’Tan. His own sister was willing to steal the life of his child. His hackles rose at the thought.
He wasn’t even three hills from the castle when he knew time had run out. The riders were being sent. Jarin’s sharpened wolf senses could hear C’Tan scream at her guard. “After him! Bring him back alive, or I’ll have your hearts!” The horses tore across the drawbridge, hooves tharumping, chain mail clinking as they raced away from the castle.
Fool! he thought. He should have taken the stone with him—that would have given him more time to escape. But what was done was done. Time was the one thing he needed, and he’d thrown it away with the communication stone. Obviously C’Tan had found it already. Jarin glanced over his shoulder at the loud “hyah!” echoing across the hills. They were nearing the top of the first hill now. The captain of his sister’s guard whipped his horse down the other side. Jarin guessed he had a five, maybe ten-minute lead on the guard.
It wasn’t enough!
He howled, putting on a burst of speed that took him up a grassy slope, past the ghostly forest of whispering aspen, through the flower-filled meadow, and up a final hill. His muscles bunched as he labored up the steep slope, breath coming hard until at last he reached the crest and paused. For only a moment he took in the glowing magelight Brina had left burning and allowed himself to feel the ache of loss.
His sister was gone, to be replaced by an enemy who only looked like her. What had happened?
Jarin shook it off before he loped down the hill, a low growl coming unbidden to his throat. It wasn’t the first time his sister had hurt him, but he’d never expected her betrayal.
The light of home pulled him on, guiding him as a lighthouse for a storm-tossed ship—warm, yellow, and safe. But tonight the light was a beacon for his pursuers as well as for him, and he did not want the evil ones to be guided so easily. With a single whisper of thought, the light went out, and Jarin sat panting in the darkness, his haunches chilling on the damp ground as he took time to change into human form once more. He couldn’t surprise Brina with that bit of himself—not tonight. He’d never quite known how to tell her about his other form, and now he chafed at the delay.
His body shifted, like clay molded by an unseen hand. The hunched wolf stretched and straightened until he stood erect, with only a few pops to settle his spine. The thick hair withdrew to a single mop of black, and Jarin shrugged his clothing back into place.
He stepped through the thick wooden door, shutting it firmly behind him, then placed a hand on each side of the doorframe. The stones he had embedded in the wood months before began to hum under his touch, and in seconds he had activated the protection spell. The air shimmered around him, and the magic settled into the wood with a whoosh. That would hold C’Tan’s guards for a bit, maybe long enough to save his family.
“Brina, I need you!” he called to his wife, racing to their bedroom at the back of the house. Pulling out bags from the trunk at the foot of their bed, he stuffed them with whatever clothing lay nearby.
“What are you doing home? I thought you were going to be helping your sister late tonight. I’ve got dinner on the stove if you’re hungry,” she answered, stepping from the kitchen and wiping her hands on her apron.
Jarin wasted neither words nor time. “We’ve got to go, Brina. Get Shandae and meet me at the stables.”
“Whatever for? Jarin, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?”
“C’Tan . . .” he choked. He dropped his head, but forced himself to hold his composure. “C’Tan has betrayed us. We must leave.”
“C’Tan? Betray us? But she’s your sister!”
He stopped what he was doing long enough to meet his wife’s eyes. “My sister no longer,” he said, gritting his teeth. “We’ve got to leave.”
Brina hesitated only a second longer, then left the room, returning quickly with little Shandae. Jarin took her in his arms and glanced at the sleeping one-yearold, so peaceful in sleep and spirited when awake, so much like the both of them in the best ways. He brushed a lock of dark hair away from the child’s face. He laid the babe gently on the bed and pulled the emotion inside. Not now. He couldn’t deal with it now.
“Grab whatever food you can.”
“All right, Jarin, but why? What’s going on?” Brina ran to the kitchen and frantically stuffed a satchel, fruit hitting the floor in her frenzy. Jarin watched her through the open doorway for only a moment before he returned to his packing.
“C’Tan has turned to S’Kotos, and she wants Shandae,” Jarin said over his shoulder.
He glanced across the room at her silence and watched as her eyes turned from the warmth of mid-day to an icy winter gale. She nodded sharply to her husband as if afraid to speak.
And then time ran out. The sound of horses thundered down the hill, slipping and squealing in the wet grass, the guards cursing as they tumbled.
“Leave, Brina!” Jarin said, gathering up the bags and the sleeping child.
“What do you mean, leave? You’re coming with us!”
“I’ll be right behind you,” he tried to reassure her, but his heart felt the lie. “I’m going to send the horses up to the hilltop. Anything else you need, take it now,” he said, tying off one of the bags and laying it at Brina’s feet. He took his small family into his arms and began to pull the power to him that would save them, but he suddenly realized there was one thing he had left to do.
He slipped his pendant from beneath his shirt, the final gift his father had given him. It would no longer do Jarin any good, but it might save the life of his child.
Jarin whispered to the carved silver wolf as he tied the necklace around his daughter’s neck. Fear made his hands shake, desperation made his eyes tear, but the chant never faltered.
“Keep her safe. Hide her from the magic eye,” he begged of the amulet.
The enemy was at the door. He could feel C’Tan breaking through his spells one by one. It was almost too late, but he would save his family, no matter the cost to himself. Shandae must live. He brushed away the baby’s hair and placed his palm gently on the side of Brina’s face. She blinked rapidly for a moment, then set her jaw. He wrapped his arms tightly around them both and let the breath of power roar to life, a cyclone of magic circling tightly around his family.
“I love you,” he whispered. Then he let go.
“No!” Brina screamed, reaching for him, but it was too late. Her hand passed through his arm as her body was instantly transported to the hill overlooking their home.
His attention immediately switched to the horses corralled on the far side of the valley. “Monster, Bluebell. Go to the woods and wait for Brina. Keep her safe.” The horses sent a questioning thought but immediately agreed, and Jarin felt them race toward the fence and soar over in a single leap.
Within seconds, his thoughts were back with his wife.
“Go home to your sister, Brina. Kalandra surely has forgiven you by now, but if you cannot do the same for her, go to Ezeker in Karsholm. At the very least, seek out the Bendanatu. What family I’ve got, you can find through them. Be safe, love. Now go,” he whispered through the line that still connected them. He sent a final swell of love before letting go, her angry, pleading cries cut off like a knife. He only hoped he’d have the chance to make it right.
Cold spread from toe to top and he shivered, trying to shake away the winter of body and soul that settled over him. Death awaited him tonight. He could feel the icy breath of the specter watching from the darkness. Deep in his bones, a voice whispered that his time had come.
Jarin gathered more of the breath of power. He pulled it to himself until he nearly glowed with it—enough to burn himself out if not released soon. It was no different than an archer putting arrow to string, or a swordsman going into fighting stance. He was prepared to use magic to defend himself and only hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. He had one chance to do this and do it right, and could only pray it would work.
The barrage on his shields reached a crescendo, and he knew he could hold them no longer. Rather than damage himself fighting a lost cause, he pulled all the power of his shields into himself, closed his eyes, and waited.
There was a moment of breathless silence, and then the door exploded inward in a shower of splinters. Jarin didn’t even duck. He knew who would be on the other side when the dust settled.
Jarin didn’t say a word. He watched as the air cleared and his sister stepped through the doorway, her red satin robes glittering in the magelight that still bounded about the room from the broken protection spell, her pale yellow hair standing up with the static of it. She paid it no mind. Instead her eyes sought his immediately, the rage in them as visible as the magelight.
“We seem to have a problem,” she said, her voice full of ice.
“Not of my causing. Why don’t you come in, and we can discuss it.”
“I think not.” She smiled, though it never reached her eyes. “You have something that belongs to me.”
“She was never yours to take, Celena.” Jarin leaned against the wall, arms across his chest, trying to hide with casual arrogance the fearful power he’d pulled to himself, waiting for the right moment to be released.
“Don’t call me that,” she snarled. “Give me the child.”
The time was close now. The suppressed power burned. Jarin hugged himself tighter to keep from shaking as C’Tan left her guard at the doorway, pushed past him, and tore through the house. She howled in frustration and rage, moving from room to room and finally circling back to him. Her hands glowed with a blue flame that engulfed them, but did not burn.
“Where are they?” she hissed from between clenched teeth.
“Gone, Celena Tan. You will not have my child.” His eyes flashed fire. C’Tan began to laugh.
“You’re a fool, Jarin. I’ve got S’Kotos and all his agents at my beck and call. You might be able to fool me for a time, but you can never escape The Destroyer. S’Kotos wants the child every bit as much as I do, though for different reasons. We’ll find her. It’s a shame you won’t be around to see it."
“What happened to you?” His voice shook with anger and the power that burned within, but at least the fear was gone.
C’Tan stopped laughing, and Jarin saw a flash—small as it was—as some humanity returned to her eyes, haunted and pained. That was the girl he’d known, the child he’d loved—but the ice returned and she shrugged.
“Life happened. Enough said. I don’t want to do this, Jarin. Give me the child and you can live. You can always have more children. You must give me this child.”
That was too much. Even with all he’d heard from her, he could not take the callous dismissal of his only daughter any longer. Jarin let the power surface and simmer just below his skin. “I’ll not let you use my child for evil. You’re insane.”
“Don’t call me that!” she screeched. Her eyes narrowed in anger, and the blue flame around her hands burst once again to life. She drew back her arm as if to throw the ball of fire, but paused. Her eyes focused on the cyclone of sparkling energy in which he’d immersed himself.
She cursed and hurled the flame at him as she raced for the doorway, but it was too late. Jarin relaxed his hold on the power, and it roared to life like a tornado, twisting outward quickly. Stones littered the yard as the walls bowed, the beams high above sagging with the sudden loss. Chaos reigned as his home began toppling about him. Jarin’s ears ached with the blast, but he was not done. He reached out one hand and a great rope of flame shot toward his sister, lassoing and holding her in place as the house collapsed around them. The flames never touched Jarin—he was used to his gift. There was nothing that could hurt him here. Relief flooded through him as C’Tan tried to run for the door. She wasn’t going anywhere. The lasso tightened around her as she struggled, her hair and clothing catching fire as she fought and screamed in his grip.
There was a great crack directly above. Jarin looked up to see the squared wood he’d cut and formed with his own hands, the largest piece of the house, fall directly toward him. He lunged out of the way, throwing himself to the left, but the wood ricocheted off another fallen beam and followed him. On his knees, there was nothing more Jarin could do. The wood caught him across the chest, and he had but a moment of regret before he was pinned by the tree-sized beam. It crushed the breath from his lungs. What small margin of control he had over the whirlwind was lost.
He’d burned himself out, and now C’Tan’s flames were going to finish the job.
The fire burst around him, and Jarin was able to turn his head just enough to see that he was not the only one caught in the conflagration. C’Tan lay pinned beneath a pile of rubble, half in and half out of the doorway. Her hair was burned almost completely away, her skin a reddened mass of flesh. Perhaps the blast was enough after all, enough to destroy the enemy he’d once called sister.
Jarin choked with the heat and smoke as darkness glazed his vision. At that moment he knew. Death had come to claim him.
Brina screamed when the house crumbled. She stepped out of the treeline and looked down the hill at the ruins of her home, then sank to the earth. She clutched Shandae as sobs racked her body. Ash and smoke carried up to her, and she choked with the smell of blackened earth and burning flesh, but still she did not leave. She watched as C’Tan’s guard pulled her from the burning rubble and raced her back to the castle. She watched as even the stone burned and melted in the heat. At the top of the hill, she fell to her knees and wept as her entire life went up in smoke.
The horses snorted and stamped. Shandae awoke once or twice, but went back to sleep quickly with her mother’s constant rocking. Brina was unsure if she rocked to comfort herself or the sleeping child.
Jarin was gone. The link that had always grounded her—the bond between them—had snapped the instant Jarin had been taken by death. She’d felt a flash of crushing weight, the sear of flame, an ache of relief and regret as he’d slipped from this life into the next.
As the black of night turned to the misty gray of morning, Brina picked her way down the slope to inspect the ashes of her home, unable to leave until she saw proof that Jarin was truly dead. She knew she was going against Jarin’s dying wish, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to know.
She got as close as she could, but the heat of the charred remains and the baking stones would not let her get close enough to know for sure.
There was no way Jarin could have survived the blaze, but she couldn’t give up hope, despite the severance of their bond. She couldn’t live without him. Jarin had saved her from her murderous father, had taken her from Kalandra’s scorn and Tomas’s disbelieving taunts. They’d never believed the horror she’d witnessed. Only Jarin had given her a way out of her past, a place to forget.
Brina screamed at the sky.
She fell to her knees, pleading with the heavens for an answer.
“Why?” she whispered as the tears fell unchecked.
As she knelt before the ruins of her home, staring into the embers of the fire that had destroyed her life, she remembered Jarin’s final words, one line in particular standing out: “Go to Ezeker in Karsholm . . .”
Brina couldn’t go to her sister, as Jarin had suggested. She couldn’t afford to take the chance that her father would find her there. And she knew nothing of the Bendanatu and had no desire to start now.
No, the safest place was with few people, a place where no one knew her so she could forget her old life and start anew. She and Shandae had to hide, from her family as well as C’Tan. She had to be dead to all of them. C’Tan knew how to find her otherwise.
And so she took a new name, one she’d avoided for most of her life, for it was full of ache and loss. It belonged to her battered and dead mother and her long-gone sister who had died at her father’s hand; a name that reflected their pain and the agony of betrayal and was now etched in her very soul.
What other name could there be, now that deadness pierced her heart and soul?
“Marda,” she whispered.
But what of the child? What name would reflect her loss, yet keep her anonymous to C’Tan?
Brina, now Marda, stared into the glowing coals for an answer. They blinked and wavered back at her, and she suddenly knew. A bitter smile crept across her face as she stared at her baby, so much like her father, and brushed away a lock of dark hair as he’d done not so long ago.
“Ember,” she called the sleeping child. “Ember Shandae. For the glowing coals our lives have become.”
Marda nodded once and dashed away the tears that had plagued her the night long. She could afford them no more. She turned her back on the stone and coals. Straightening her shoulders, she left her home and heart behind.
Kayla cradled her flute in the crook of her arm and curtsied to the politely clapping nobles. Her stomach jumped as she waited for her final and favorite song to begin. She glanced upward, gauging the morning light. She wanted to finish her performance just as the sun crested over the outdoor theater. The applause died quickly, and still she waited for the expectant stillness to come over the room before she nodded to the orchestra behind her. She had more to accomplish with this final song than just entertainment for nobility or a welcome to the king. Oh yes, there was much more at stake.
The strings whispered a soft tremolo, the short strokes vibrating with sharp intensity that would carry her through the visions she needed to play. She lost herself in the sound as it began to build, the lower strings entering, the brass adding its muted blow, and Kayla closed her eyes to better see the picture within her mind, the image of home searing her eyelids in vivid detail.
And then she began to play.
Soft, so soft it seemed only a breath of sound, the flute came alive with her kiss. The instrument became her voice, expressing the poetry she felt in her soul, passing on the memories she held there. Her audience lived her thoughts without ever realizing what she had done, never knowing the doors she had opened between them. Even she didn’t know how she did it, but this once she took a chance on their ignorance and dared to try. She had to. It was the only way she could complete the path she’d set for herself ten years before.
The sight of a hawk greeting the morning sun spun out with her breath, carrying the crowd on a journey with her above the towers of Darthmoor to weave amongst the snapping piñons, past the strong walls of her home. As she played, the quiet room drew her more deeply into the music until the audience faded away. The music was a place all its own. The hawk called again through her flute, and the strength of Darthmoor answered in the brass. Back and forth, the call, the answer, until the hawk flew away and the horn and drum sang a song of pride and strength that came from the very stone of the keep itself.
The song was simple, easily played, the images familiar to all in attendance. There was neither man nor woman there who had not stood on Darthmoor’s walls, witnessing the rising and setting of the sun, the majesty of the mountains that guarded them, so the pictures were no surprise to the audience, causing no suspicion as she tampered with their thoughts. Her heart raced, and she could not help the light sweat that broke out on her brow, but her hands held calm and unwavering as she pulled the assembly into the height of her dream.
Selfish. She knew she was being selfish in this performance, too focused on impressing the right people to play it with passion, but she had grown so tired of the insults, the dismissals as if she were below the people of Darthmoor, unworthy of even their glance. Now she held more than their glance.
She had their adulation. She could see it in their eyes, in the way they held themselves so perfectly still, bound by her power. They were lost in her music, unknowingly caught in her spell, and she only prayed it would be enough to free her family from society’s chains. Not selfish, she told herself. This is for Lady Kalandra. I do this for Mother, she whispered in her mind. Hardening her heart, she poured herself into the final phrases of music. The image of sun setting and moon rising came, and all of Darthmoor lay still in the silence of night. Her final note faded away to nothing. It was done. All that remained was to see the reaction.
Kayla lowered her head, still holding the flute to her lips, reluctant to let the moment pass when she was so at one with the music. There was not a stir—not a rustle, not a single breath as the audience sat transfixed for several long seconds—and then the room seemed to breathe a collective sigh before it erupted around her. She’d done it! There was no way they could keep her family exiled after that performance. People surged to their feet and clapped madly, whistling and howling their praise. Even King Rojan beamed as he stood and applauded.
Kayla took a deep breath, the tension leaving her shoulders. She actually let a smile creep through for a moment as she curtsied time and again.
The audience quieted as the curtains descended, the conversational buzz already beginning, but she ignored it. There was nothing more that could be done, and she felt confident her plan had succeeded. Kayla gathered her rosewood case from the back of the stage and fell to cleaning and taking apart her instrument, smiling to the first violinist and mouthing a thank-you for his good work. He beamed back at her and bowed. She latched the case and wound her way down the stairs to mingle with the crowd she had just finished entertaining. Before stepping into the grand hall, Kayla checked her hair to be sure her ears were covered. It wouldn’t do to remind them of her half-evahn heritage when she’d just gained their approval.
The Duke and Duchess Domanta waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. Kayla was disappointed their son Brant was not with them. He’d promised he would come.
“Congratulations, Kayla. That was an amazing performance,” the duke said, taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. “I have never heard Darthmoor’s Honor played with quite such fervency. Not since Rajanya himself played it. Masterful.”
“Why, thank you, sir.“ Kayla looked at him from beneath her eyelashes, bowing over his hand. “Praise for such a humble player is vastly appreciated."
The duke laughed. “Despite growing into quite an attractive young lady, you have not changed one bit from the little sprite who used to hide in my stables and steal away my son.”
“Hush, sir!” Kayla mockingly reprimanded the man she loved and earnestly hoped someday to call Father. “You’ll ruin the reputation I am working so hard to gain, and how then could I earn your favor?”
He roared a great belly laugh that rang across the room, then patted her cheek and met her fiery eyes with twinkles of his own.
“You needn’t worry of me ruining your well-earned reputation, my dear. Right now you could talk the king into presenting you a duchy of your own.”
Her heart raced. The duke was hitting a little too close to home. He gave her shoulders a squeeze and spoke low, compassion and laughter lacing his voice. “I’m not sure how the nobles will accept a titled outsider, especially one of mixed parentage. Darthmoor will never be the same again, that’s for sure, but personally? I think it would be great fun.” He gave her shoulder another squeeze and released her, smiling. “It’s about time the pompous wake up and let go of their prejudice toward the evahn, don’t you think—even if it is only in letting a half-evahn into their elite circle.”
Kayla’s smile froze. The duke was much wiser than he appeared and had come right to the heart of the matter. She let it go because she knew he meant well, though she never appreciated mention of her half-human status.
A genuine smile crept across her face. This man reminded her once more of why she loved his son so very much. Brant and his father were two of a kind.
“Why don’t you come by and see Brant later,” the duke continued, winking. “I’m sure he’ll want to congratulate you himself. He was very unhappy about having to miss your performance today, but that’s the way of it when you run an estate. Sometimes things cannot wait.”
Kayla’s heart quickened a bit. Brant had been behind her completely since the day they had decided on a plan to restore her family honor. She laughed to remember it now. They’d only been seven and ready to take on the world, and now ten years later their dreams just might be ready to appear. “I’ll be there, sir. You can count on it.”
“Good. I’ll let Brant know to expect you.”
Brant’s mother then spoke, and Kayla groaned inwardly. “I wasn’t sure what to make of you at first, young Kayla, but you have done your family proud. Your performance was marvelous. All my boys were absolutely enraptured when you began Darthmoor’s Honor.” A gangly young man with foppish hair and rouged cheeks walked up behind the duchess and took her arm at the elbow. “Oh, have you met Matios? His sonnets are simply divine. I’m sure the two of you have much in common.”
The boy drew himself up proudly, and Kayla fought the urge to roll her eyes. It seemed there was a new “artistic genius” in residence at Dragonmeer each month, all of whom the duchess insisted on calling her “boys.” Sometimes it was a musician, at other times an artist or poet, but so far as Kayla could tell, none of them had a single ounce of talent.
“I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure,” Kayla answered, taking his limp hand in her own.
He kissed her knuckles, a sloppy kiss that left her wanting to wipe her hand on the back of her dress. But that would be the quickest way to offend the duchess, and she had only just gained some slight measure of favor from Brant’s mother. She’d always longed for the woman’s approval, but the evahn prejudice was too well-rooted in the heart of her society. Kayla had learned long ago it was a hopeless battle. Until society changed, the woman would never like her.
“Kayla! Lady Kayla!” a young girl called from the middle of an approaching swarm. Saved from having to find something unobjectionable to say, Kayla excused herself from the duchess’s snare and turned to face the gaggle of girls that surrounded her.
“Oh, you were sensational, lady. I wish I could play like that,” the leader cooed. Kayla had to fight a smile with the girl’s fawning. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.
“I’m so glad you liked it,” Kayla said, bowing her head in acceptance. It was only polite, despite the girl’s age.
“How’d you learn to play like that?”
“Lots of long hours and hard work, I’m afraid. And a good teacher never hurts.” Kayla gave her staple answer, though it was not entirely true in her case. Besides, what she spoke was truth . . . it just wasn’t her truth.
“Excuse me,” called a voice from Kayla’s left. Her heart stilled. It was a voice the entire kingdom knew. She turned slowly and curtsied to the tall, skinny man who looked more like a scarecrow than a living being.
“Chamberlain Pedran, to what do I owe this honor?”
Pedran cleared his throat. “His Majesty wishes to speak with you privately, Mistress Kayla. Would you please follow me?”
“Of course,” she gushed, embarrassed at how heartfelt her response actually was. She could not afford to let anyone know just how much this meant to her.
“Excuse me, it was nice meeting you,” Kayla called as she left the group of young girls who had so kindly saved her from Duchess Domanta. She wanted to like the woman, for Brant’s sake, if nothing else, but it had never been an easy task.
Kayla turned and nearly stumbled as a huge hooded man stepped in front of her. He held a long box under his arm, much like the rosewood case she used for her flute. She stared into the cowl of his robe for just a moment, catching a flash of white teeth and shadowed curl across his cheek, though whether it was a scar, or hair, or something else, Kayla couldn’t tell. The man nodded slowly to her, gave a slight bow, then faded into the crowd. Kayla shook herself. She felt odd, but threw the feelings aside to scurry after Pedran out of the great hall and through the corridors of Dragonmeer. They wound upward quickly through the long ramps that led from level to level. Kayla had lost her breath by the time they reached the fifth floor, and Pedran wasn’t even breathing hard, despite his advanced years.
Now Kayla’s hands shook as they hadn’t during her performance. She’d never met the king before, and her stomach was understandably jumpy as she approached the great double doors to his personal quarters.
“Wait here, please,” Pedran ordered, though not unkindly.
Kayla nodded as he slipped inside and, she assumed, into the king‘s presence. She stood there only a minute at most before the chamberlain returned, the hooded man she’d nearly run into at his side.
Pedran held the door open wide, and once again the stranger nodded toward her as if he knew her somehow. He reached up to pull the cowl forward, so she never caught sight of his face, but his hand was covered with blue tattoos that swirled in random patterns. It gave Kayla chills. She watched him turn to her right and stroll casually down the hall, his strength apparent in the roll of his shoulders and sureness of his step. Why was he meeting with the king? Such a strange man. She shivered and glanced toward Pedran, then back at the cowled figure, but he was gone. She jumped when the king’s chamberlain spoke.
“The king will see you now, Mistress Kayla. This way, please.“ Pedran bowed slightly and lead the way through the door. For some odd reason, it surprised Kayla that such a large hinge hardly squeaked. Kayla completely forgot the stranger as she passed the doors to the king’s hall.
The room was amazing.
Kayla couldn’t take it all in at a glance and so found herself ogling about like a village girl. The ceiling of this one room was higher than her entire house, with sweeping, arched beams and windows. There were tremendous lengths of velvet at the glass, marble on the floors, and more gold in ornamentation than Kayla had seen anywhere. It was too much, almost offensive to her in the misuse of such needed funds. An entire family could live for a year on the gold from a single lamp, and there were dozens of them.
Without her noticing, Pedran had stopped before the king, and Kayla bumped into him. She reddened, stepped back, and bowed nervously.
“Pardons, Pedran, Majesty,” she said, bowing again, more slow and deep the second time, examining the king from beneath her lowered lashes.
King Rojan was in his middle years. He was not a tall man, nor was he large, and though he did not seem to be powerful in appearance, the energy and strength of his position rolled off him in waves that were undeniable.
“It’s all right, Kayla. It’s a bit ostentatious for my taste, too.” King Rojan gestured at the gaudy décor and smiled.
Pedran cleared his throat. “Your Majesty, I have not yet presented the girl to you. Etiquette, sir, is—”
“I know, Pedran, I know,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Go ahead and present her so we may speak.”
Pedran cleared his throat again, and Kayla could tell that he disapproved, but he straightened himself and continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “Your Majesty, I present to you Kayla Kalandra Felandian, daughter of Countess Kalandra and Felandian of the evahn kingdom of Fashan.”
“Welcome, Kayla.” The king‘s voice was soft, but full of strength. “It is an honor to meet one of such great talent.”
Kayla curtsied low before him. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I am honored that you think so.”
The king chuckled and Kayla looked up, startled. “You know I’m right, Kayla. You couldn’t play with such passion and confidence otherwise. I felt you . . . shall we say . . . tinkering, my dear. We need to talk.”
The king turned to his chamberlain and dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “You can go, Pedran. Kayla and I have some matters to discuss.”
Pedran seemed confused. “Sir?” The old man stepped forward and whispered loudly in the king’s ear, though Kayla still heard every word. “I am always a part of your meetings. Have I done something to offend Your Highness?”
King Rojan shook his head with apparent patience and spoke softly. “No, Pedran. Kayla and I have some personal items to discuss, and I wish to do it alone. Take no offense, my friend.”
Pedran nodded stiffly and bowed his way from the room, pulling the large doors shut behind him.
Kayla’s heart hammered in her chest. He had felt her today? How was that possible? She would never have used her power if she’d thought she would be caught. She had only meant to right some injustices. If she had been nervous before, now she was close to terror as she stood shaking before her king.
She was not relieved by his next words.
“I have heard of that which you seek.”
Kayla was still.
“You are a bit young for a duchy yet, but I don’t think you’ll have much longer to wait. You shall have your title in time.”
Kayla’s heart slowed. A title? She hadn’t expected it so quickly, but would take any hope she could, even if it was only a carrot dangling before her at the moment. The king’s word was law. If he said he would have her duchy, then she would have it, and she couldn’t help the relief that washed over her.
“That is not the reason you were summoned, though, my child. I brought you here to present you with a gift . . . and a calling.” The king moved his hands from his lap, and Kayla saw he held the box she’d seen earlier. He stroked its length with gentle, loving fingers.
“This belonged to my grandfather,” he said as his fingers trailed down the polished surface of the box. “He gave it to me to keep safe until I found its new guardian, and I believe that should be you. Your playing today showed me not only your abilities, which are tremendous, but also your heart. And it is the latter that is most important.”
King Rojan opened the box, and a faint blue glow shone from its depths. Her eyes widened.
“What do you feel?” he asked as he turned the box around for her to admire.
She sucked in a breath of awe. What didn’t she feel would have been a better question. Kayla knew of this flute, as it was the dream of every flautist alive to possess it. It was made of sapphire, said to have been cut whole from mines that birthed the stones of power, and was supposed to have incredible power. Legend told of its ability to manipulate the elements and give the bearer protection with its bond.
The flute tickled her senses in a way nothing had before, not even the visions the music brought. She felt warm, alive, multiple—as if there were more to her than just the self that stood before the king. She felt powerful and humble, weak and strong. There was no end to the contrasts she felt. She stared at the instrument and finally met the king’s eyes with frustrated confusion, unable to mouth the things her heart spoke.
King Rojan smiled. “That’s what I thought. You can feel it, can’t you? You feel it the way you felt the music today.” He leaned forward, intense and anxious.
Kayla could only nod.
He sat back, apparently satisfied.
“I have it on the best of authority that S’Kotos himself has been trying to get his hands on this instrument since it came into existence. It is not just a gift, but also a calling.”
He beckoned her even closer and signaled for her to kneel before him, then took the flute in his hand and rested the mouthpiece on the crown of her head. It sent an electric shock through her. Whispers of music echoed through her entire being, and his next words seemed to have been spoken in the vastness of the concert hall and not the cloth-lined walls of his quarters."
“Kayla Kalandra Felandian, I hereby call thee to bear this flute in defense of Darthmoor. I name thee Guardian of the Crystal Flute and bearer of the sapphire power. I transfer the calling, I give the gift, I call you up to take this upon you. Guard it with thy life, thy heart, thy hearth, for in the end it will stand against S’Kotos in healing the world Rasann. Dost thou accept this calling?”
His voice echoed in her mind, and she knew she would forever remember every single word.
“With all my heart,” Kayla heard herself respond, awe in her voice.
“And wilt thou stand against S’Kotos and his evil minions throughout time?”
“Evahn folk live a long time, Kayla. It could be many years before you are called to give up the Sapphire Flute. Are you sure you wish to accept it?” He seemed to be straying from the formal speech, but it didn’t matter. Kayla would do anything in her power to obtain that instrument. She could feel its soft tones calling to her as it lay upon her head, and her hands itched to hold it, her mouth longing to bring life to the sound.
“Your Majesty, I would die before letting it fall into the hands of The Destroyer. I shall guard the flute with my very soul.”
King Rojan smiled. “Then claim thy calling, Kayla, for the flute was made for thee to possess.”
Kayla lifted her hands slowly toward the glowing blue flute that sang her name, but as she reached, the king pulled it from her head and laid it back in the box. She nearly cried out when it left her head, her hands automatically reaching for it. The king took her wrist and met her eyes.
“One last thing, child, and this is the hardest to ask of you. The age of The Chosen One is upon us, and the time will come that he will call you up to stand with him against The Destroyer. Until The Chosen One claims you, you must not play the flute.”
Kayla’s heart fell. Not play it? It would be sheer torture! The most beautiful sound, the purest tones, would not be hers to play?
“Kayla, hear me.” The king‘s voice pressed at her, and his hand squeezed her wrist to the point of pain. “You must listen. If you play this flute before it is time, you could destroy us all. Do not let S’Kotos find it because the allure was too great for you to resist. This is the flute of the Guardians. It can be heard by any who are tuned to it. So long as the flute does not sound, it will hide itself. You must guard yourself against The Destroyer and his minions, especially from C’Tan.” Kayla shivered at the name of The Destroyer’s most terrifying disciple. “She would claim the flute for herself and has been searching for decades. Do not take the chance and call down S’Kotos upon us! Guard it, hide it, keep it safe, but do not play it until the time is right. Do you understand?”
Kayla nodded. She would do anything to get the flute, even if it meant hiding its sound from other ears. Her eyes were drawn back to it hypnotically.
The king sighed. “Then its power is in your hands. I pray that you will keep us safe.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Kayla eagerly took the box and pressed it to her breast. “I will guard it with my life.”
He smiled sadly. “I’m afraid that’s what it will take, child.”
Ember sat on the roof of her stepfather’s home, the rough shingles putting slivers in her backside. But at the moment she didn’t care. She was too busy enjoying the privacy the roof provided and pondering the change her dreams had taken the night before.
There had never been a time she’d been without the dreams, at least not that she could remember—dreams all varied on the same theme—magic. Most nights Ember was in a group of some kind, other times she stood alone, but the one consistent thing in each of the dreams was the blonde woman who attacked and destroyed her with magic each and every time. No matter what resistance Ember used against the woman in her night-time visions, she always won and Ember was left dead.
But last night had been different. Ember had dreamed of a group of seven, each one glowing with a different color. Of them all, she recognized only her stepbrother Aldarin—and an unknown woman who had visited her in previous dreams.
Ember stood in the midst of the group, holding a staff topped with a crystal. Streams of light flowed from each of the other six into her staff. One of the men wore glowing armor and battled with a black dragon, while another of her group played a sapphire flute and battled a mage with sound. The blonde woman stepped back and stumbled against something, and was destroyed instantly, her eyes staring blindly. This was the first time anyone in her dreams had used magic against the woman—also, this was the first time Ember had survived.
There was a part of her that knew the dreams were more than common, something much bigger than herself. They seemed a prophetic vision.
The desire to learn magic had been with her from her earliest times. Her dreams now revealed what could be if she obtained her power. If this vision really did come true, if she ever did have to face this woman, she just might survive.
For some reason Ember glanced up right then, just in time to see Devil’s Mount in the far distance explode and spit its depths into the sky. She wasn’t worried; not really. The spells Ezeker and his coven of magi had cast over Karsholm protected the village from the mountain’s fiery breath. Still, she shivered as another blast exploded upward, adding to the ever-growing mass of gray ash blocking the sunrise. The sky darkened as she watched.
The upward thrust of mushroom cloud reached its pinnacle, and it began to fall earthward, small green sparkles dancing on its leading edge. Ember caught her breath, her heart racing with excitement and fear as the sky grew dark as midnight and the magelights flickered on, having been extinguished only a half hour before.
As the noise and concussion of the blast reached her, she clapped both hands over her ears, astounded at the volume even at that great distance from the mountain. She buried her head between her knees until the sound faded, leaving her ears ringing and sounds muffled. She shook her head and blinked as the magelights so recently burst to life, sputtered and died completely.
Ember stared in astonishment. That was not supposed to happen. Not once in her sixteen years had she ever seen the magelights extinguished in the dark. They were as dependable as the morning sun. She stared for a long time, sure that at any moment the lights would flicker back to life, but the orbs remained dark.
Instead, delicate flakes of ash began to settle around her, turning her brown hair into a mass of gray that set her to coughing. That was definitely not supposed to happen. No weather should penetrate the shields unless the magi allowed it. The domes over Karsholm held back everything that threatened the city—even rain, when it came in flood-like amounts. The ash falling around her told her the mage shields had dissolved.The smell was awful, much the way she imagined S’Kotos’ Helar must smell; full of acrid smoke hinting of burning oil and rotten eggs. Still, she stared at the lamppost until white fluttering wings landed on its top. The white hawk that always seemed to be watching screeched and awoke her to the reality of the situation. He screamed again, then rose into the air and flew at her, as if shepherding her back to the house, green swirls trailing in his wake.
Ember’s heart pounded in her chest, the fear finally taking over as she realized how little distance a day’s journey truly was from a fire-spewing mountain. She scrambled up and over the cedar shingles, then dove through the window to her room. She slammed the window shut and latched it, little poofs of ash swirling around her, settling to the floor. The hawk fluttered to a landing just outside her window and cocked his head. His piercing eyes caught hers, a faint green glow coming from his shoulders.
Ember blinked, but the glow was gone by the time she opened her eyes. Strange, she thought. She stared outside as the ash began to cover everything within sight. In a very short time the air was so thick with it, she could no longer see past the rooftop, let alone to the high road that marked Paeder’s property.
“Great. Happy birthing day to me.” She kicked the wall, only distantly feeling the pain in her big toe.
At that moment all she wanted to do was crawl back into bed and bury her head under her blankets. She had a feeling the eruption of Devil’s Mount was going to create problems for her mother— problems she didn’t want to deal with today. There was enough going on without her mother’s overprotectiveness getting in the way.
Paeder’s cough echoed up the stairs to her room. He usually woke up coughing, but not like this. Today her stepfather sounded as if his lungs were turning inside out. It had to be the ash. Ember doubly cursed the volcanic explosion.
The medicines worked less each time, and the sickness that rotted his lungs stole his life, until his mountainous strength faded to nothing more than a fragile shell of the man he’d once been. Ember had already lost one father—she really didn’t want to lose another, and it didn’t seem there was anything more Ezeker could do for him.
She threw herself off the bed and crept down the stairs, hoping for a moment to visit with the man who had been her father since before she could remember. Her mother’s voice stopped her at the midlanding.
“Get out of here! Get, get!” Marda yelled. Ember heard a flutter of wings and the window slam shut. She was sure the white hawk was in Paeder’s room again. It seemed to like her stepfather, for some reason, and only Marda was bothered by it. The twins had crept close enough to pet the bird on several occasions, but never Ember, no matter how she longed to caress the silky feathers.
Glass clanked against spoon as Marda poured medicine for Paeder and tried to soothe his cough. Ember crouched down on the stairs and watched through the railing.
“Take it, Paeder,” Marda pleaded.
“It isn’t working,” Paeder said. His breath came in strangled gasps that sounded painful. They probably were, though the man rarely complained.
“Now, now, it will help for a while. Take the medicine, Paeder,” Ember’s mother soothed, but there was no denying the steel in her voice. There was the slurp of medicine and a clank as the spoon was laid on the bedside and the deep hacking began to subside. Ezeker’s magic increased the potency of the syrup, and though it would take effect quickly, it didn’t last long anymore. None of them wanted to face the truth, though it was there staring at them in Paeder’s hollowed eyes—he was dying.
“You’re going to break her heart,” Ember’s stepfather finally croaked. That stole Ember’s attention in a way nothing else could. Her breath caught and set her heart to racing in an angry pitter-pat.
She froze on the stairs, her ears straining to hear more.
“Hush, now, husband. We all do what we must.” Marda’s voice caught. She picked up a fallen blanket and began to fold it. “I don’t dare send her now. This eruption is not natural. There is ill afoot—I can feel it.”
“You can’t know that.You can’t hide her forever, wife. She needs a chance to live.” Ember’s heart squeezed at the pleading she heard in his voice. There was never any doubt that Paeder loved her, whether they shared blood or not. He’d raised her. She was as much his child as the boys, and she knew it.
“I know she does, but . . . not yet. I can’t let her go to those trials. I can’t afford to take the chance,” Marda said from just inside the door. Ember glared at her mother’s head. She was going back on her promise again. Ember’s stomach burned with disappointed anger.
“But you already promised her—” a cough cut Paeder off.
“I know, I know, but I just can’t. She’ll understand.”
Paeder gave a sharp blast of laughter before coughing again. Marda gave him another spoonful of the syrup.
“This blasted ash. It does nothing but rush you to your grave. What a time for the shields to fail.” The snarl in Marda’s voice was obvious. “I’ll send Ember to town for more medicine.” Paeder caught his breath enough to answer. “Don’t do this to her. She deserves the chance to try. It’s her birthing day, Marda. Don’t ruin it for her,” he begged.
“I have no choice. She will not go to the trials, and I will say no more on it.”
Ember crouched in the middle of the stairs, despair battling with anger. Marda had promised. Promised! It wasn’t fair.
Her mother chose that moment to exit Paeder’s room and stopped briefly when she saw her daughter on the steps. She paused only a moment, then moved to the sink and began to scrub at the dishes.
“So I suppose you heard?” Marda asked, as if it was of no importance.
Ember scowled at her mother and made her way to the kitchen. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned one hip against the counter. “Which part? The one where you send me to town running errands on my birthing day? Or where you tell Paeder I can’t go to the mage trials?”
“Well, I’m glad to have that out of the way. I’m sorry, Ember, but you can’t go.” Marda didn’t even have the decency to look at her.
“What do you mean, I can’t go? I have to go! You’ve been finding some excuse or another for eight years, and this is my last chance.”
Marda continued washing dishes. “Just what I said—you’re not going,” she answered, an edge creeping into her voice.
“But nothing, Ember,” Marda said as she threw the dishrag back in the water and turned to face her daughter. “What do you want me to do? Plug up Devil’s Mount just so you can go to the trials? In case you haven’t noticed, all the magic is out. All of it. There’s no protection over Karsholm or the roads, no running water, no weather charms—nothing. It’s all gone. How do you expect to get to Javak under these conditions?”
“We can take the boxcar,” Ember said, referring to the wagon the family rarely used. “It would protect us.”
“And what about the horses? What will protect them? How are they supposed to breathe in all of this?”
That stumped Ember. “I don’t know, but Ezeker will come up with something. I have to do this, and so does Paeder. He’s got to get some help at the Mage Council, and I’m still having the dreams. Ezeker said—”
“I know what Ezeker said,” Marda interrupted and turned back to her dishes. “Paeder can’t go out in this anymore than you can. It will kill him. And as for your dreams, well, we’ve had this conversation before. They’re only dreams. They don’t mean anything. I’m sorry, Ember. You’re not going.”
Ember couldn’t drop it. This was her last chance. The next trials would be after her seventeenth birthing day, and by then, she would no longer qualify. “You let the twins go—why not me?”
“Your brothers are men.” Marda shrugged. “Besides, I had no say in that decision, and you know it. That was for their father to decide.”
As if Ember wasn’t acutely aware she didn’t have a father. That hurt almost as much as her mother’s stubborn refusal. Ember lost her temper. “I can’t believe you! It’s my life, it should be my decision, not yours, and I want to go!” She couldn’t help stomping her foot.
Marda remained silent, and Ember gave up talking to her. She wouldn’t change her mother’s mind, not in a million years, but there was no way she was going to miss the trials this year. She’d find a way. Somehow. Her dreams had shown her it was something she had to do if she hoped to survive. In the meantime, she had to get out of the house before she really lost her temper.
The door slammed as she stormed from the house. She was angered further when her mother called out as if nothing had happened between them. “Don’t forget to pick up Paeder’s medicine from Ezeker’s!”
Ember pretended she couldn’t hear as she pounded across the yard, the chickens scattering from her path to the high road, finding her way more by memory than sight. Between the ash and the tears that started the moment she slammed the door, she could hardly see a thing. She knew she was being rude, but at the moment she was too hurt, too angry, to care. She’d get the medicine, but not because of Marda.
She’d get it for Paeder.
“It’s not fair.” She kicked at the ash that dragged at her feet. “It’s my birthing day, and I should be able to have at least one thing I want. Can’t she let up just this once? I only want to try to be a mage. It’s not like they’d accept me anyway,” she grumbled out loud, then sneezed.
From her earliest memories, the magi had fascinated her, and she’d become particularly attached to her uncle Ezeker. The things he did to help people were astounding, from concocting the medicines that kept people like Paeder alive, to the simple kindness of fixing imperfections like clubbed feet and cleft palates. Ember wanted to make something of her life as he had, not settle for being just a wife and mother like Marda. There was nothing wrong with her mother’s life, she supposed, and it was something she wanted someday—but she just wanted more.
Ember rubbed at the pendant that never left her skin, tracing the familiar form of the emeraldeyed wolf ’s head. At times like this, it acted as a worry stone, helping to free her from the vice-like grip of anger.
“Ember!” A voice called from behind her. She spun, startled, having completely missed hearing the hoof beats through the ash.
“Aldarin? Is that you?” she hollered, recognizing her oldest stepbrother’s voice through the curtain of gray. “What are you doing out in this stuff? Where’s Ezeker?”
“He’s at the Sipes’. Little Waeli smashed his hand pretty bad, and he’s got quite a bit of repair work to do if the boy is going to use it again.” A light cut through the darkness until Ember was finally able to make out her stepbrother through the ashfall. “What are you doing out in your nightgown?”
Ember only then realized she hadn’t dressed. “I had a fight with Mum and forgot to change,” she answered rather sheepishly.
Aldarin chuckled, but didn’t pursue it. He pulled her up on the back of his horse. Ember wrapped her arms around his waist as he turned the horse to take her home. “What time would you like us to pick you up for the trials?”
“I can’t go,” Ember said, fighting the wave of anger and disappointment that washed over her.
“What do you mean, you can’t go?”
“I asked Mum the same question not ten minutes ago.”
Aldarin grunted. “What is wrong with that woman? She’s been promising you for . . . how many years now? What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do, Sis. You stay home and listen to Mum.” Ember could hear Aldarin’s grin.
She snorted. “Not likely.”
“Meaning I’m going, whether she likes it or not. I’ll walk there if I have to, but I am not going to miss these trials, not again. I can’t afford to do so. I’ve at least got to try.” Her thoughts turned to Paeder once more. If she could make it through the mage trials, she’d have a chance to help him. There had to be something magic could do that medicine could not.
“Good for you, Em. So, what’s got her so worried this time?”
“I overheard her telling Paeder that she thinks the volcano isn’t natural and I’d be in danger.”
Aldarin was quiet for a long moment. “She could be right,” he finally muttered, but continued without explaining. “So, do you want to come with us? We’ve got horses to spare, and with half the guard tagging along, Marda can’t do much about it—though you might want to consider sneaking out, just to be on the safe side.”
Ember laughed, knowing full well he was right. “Oh, yes. Most definitely.”
“Good,” he said and squeezed her hand. “Only, do you think you could get dressed first? I really don’t think you’ll make much of an impression in your dirty nightgown.”
Ember slugged him in the shoulder, but continued to laugh as he carried her through the darkness toward home.