Authors: A.J. Maguire
Tags: #Science Fiction
Copyright © 2014 A.J. Maguire
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in Canada by Double Dragon eBooks, a division of Double Dragon Publishing Inc. of Markham Ontario, Canada.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in writing from Double Dragon Publishing Inc.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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First Edition December 21, 2014
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For six copper bits and two brass coins, he should have been afforded a window seat. Winslow hid a scowl behind his fist and tried desperately to ignore the whining child just behind him. He thought it might be better if the kid cried or wailed. That would be preferable to the whimpering pitch of the little girl trying to get her mother's attention; but it would not have drowned out the chatter of the woman sitting beside him.
Fates help him, Winslow doubted he would ever forget the sound of Cosata Divenhurst-Lorlain, the newest-and if she dared say so herself, brightest-recruit to the Tormey University of Engineering. Given the tight confines of the train car, the proximity of his barely cushioned seat to hers, and the fact that there were only three other patrons nearby, he understood why she'd chosen him. The three other people included the simpering girl and her mother, and one blissfully snoring older gentleman two seat rows in front of them.
Winslow's strictly polite upbringing barred him from making any unkind remarks about his general disinterest with all things technology. He was a Witch-Born and therefore more prone toward the natural order of things. And, truth be told, Winslow didn't give a damn how water came through a pump, just as long as it was hot enough to fill his bath.
he thought and closed his eyes,
what I wouldn't give for a hot bath and five minutes of quiet
"Am I boring you, sir?" Cosata's phlegmy voice penetrated his thoughts again.
It would serve the girl right if he introduced himself now, after three quarters of an hour listening to her prattle. She didn't seem to care or notice that she had to call him "sir" because she hadn't bothered to ask his name. Even if she had, he wouldn't have told her the truth. It was better that no one know that he was Witch-Born, at least until he had checked all of the Warding Pillars in Magnellum. None of the individual House Witches whose lands he inspected would like his trespass, and the Council would most assuredly take offense.
Aside from bringing dishonor and becoming a general headache to his own family, Winslow didn't think there was much the Council could do about it, but Elsie had been adamant about the discretion. And with almost a full year of travel behind him, Winslow could understand why. She wasn't afraid of the Council, she was afraid of the Untalented. There was a low and ominous growl amongst the Untalented people, a discord and a distrust, and all of their blame was shifting toward the Houses.
"It would seem that I must be boring you, since you have the gall to fall asleep."
Winslow felt his left eye twitch and battled down a few snide remarks. Opening his eyes, he looked at her again. She was pretty when she was quiet; pert nose and puckered mouth, but her brown eyes glared at him.
"No, not at all. I find the internal workings of pistons quite fascinating."
The glare turned hard, "I spoke of pistons more than forty minutes ago. You've not paid attention to a word I've said!"
Winslow turned in his seat so that he could face her more directly. To hell with his genteel breeding, he'd had quite enough. "Have you always been socially inept?"
"Or is it simply a custom of your family to presume that whoever is nearest to you must hear your life's story?"
"How dare you!"
"Well, I have to assume that your preoccupation with yourself is either something you were born into, or a matter of your upbringing."
Cosata's chin lifted and she made a half-snorting, half-wheezing sound just before she found her voice again. "And here I thought you were an educated gentleman. Come to find out, you're just a . . ."
Her words were cut short as they were both thrown forward. Winslow's face smashed into the seat in front of him. He felt the bridge of his nose snap and bit down on his tongue. Vision blurred and face throbbing, he barely grabbed hold of the seat before the train car pitched leftward. He was airborne a second later as a violent jolt slammed through the car.
The fabric of the seatback tore under his grip and Winslow finally came out of his daze. Summoning his magic, he tried to prepare for the next crash. An instant later, the car behind them came barreling through the rear end of the cabin. His body bounced off the ceiling and he was tossed out of his seat.
He hit the next set of seats at a horizontal angle. His temple knocked into the corner of an armrest with unforgiving force. Searing pain flashed through his vision and he saw dazzling sparkles just before his entire body got wedged into the foot space between two rows of seats. Grunting in pain and trying to find his focus, Winslow was almost too late in noticing the threat.
The force of impact between the two train cars made an accordion out of the iron and copper frame. He felt the pressure of the seat legs against his back and knew he was about to be crushed.
With a shout of mingled fear and anger, Winslow shoved back against it, calling on his Witch-Born Talent for more strength than he'd ever summoned before. Metal screeched against metal and the grind of derailed wheels against rocky ground throbbed through the iron floor. He concentrated on his Talent as the car began to fold around him. And somewhere else, somewhere close by, Winslow heard the distinct sound of Cosata Divenhurst-Lorlain choking on a terrified sob.
Gritting his teeth, Winslow prayed the Fates would be merciful.
Valeda Quinlan hurtled through the entrance of Delgora Hall, propelled forward by the hem of her borrowed skirt-which she had just managed to step on. She heard the wretched thing rip, which caused her to gasp, but she was too busy trying to catch herself to care. Her beloved but much-worn portfolio flew out of her hands just seconds before she fell headlong onto the marble floor. The impact smacked into her palms, jolted through her arms, and bruised her left knee.
By some miracle, she had managed to keep from landing on her nose, and praised the Fates that she wouldn't have to meet with House Witch Delgora with a purple and swollen face. After a dazed moment she realized that her papers had snapped free of their hemp binding and were now littered across the floor. Two Delgora servants rushed to help pick them up, more concerned with clearing the marble walkway than the order they should be in.
Valeda made a valiant effort not to curse at them because they were only trying to help, and hurried back to her feet. The unfamiliar heeled boots-also on loan-made her left ankle roll and she hissed in mingled irritation and pain. So help her, she was going to throttle Margaretta for insisting that she wear the outfit.
"Thank you," she said, flustered. She checked the far end of the grand hall before taking the piles of leaflets. To her relief, the large, plush House Seat was empty, meaning that House Witch Delgora had not been witness to Valeda's tumble.
"Are you all right, Miss?"
"Yes, thank you." Valeda paused, startled to find so few bodies occupying the room. While she was pleased that she hadn't just made a fool of herself in front of a score of well-to-do Untalented Court members, it wasn't normal to have only six people inside a great hall. Especially if two of those six were servants. She spotted three black and white chainmail tunics at the far end of the room, signifying that the men wearing them were Warders, which only heightened Valeda's curiosity.
"What is going on?" Valeda looked to the servant beside her, only to discover that he wasn't a servant.
Being the lead writer for the
, her job required her to know the faces of every dignitary in Magnellum. Her embarrassment resurfaced as she recognized the blunt-toothed smile and slick blond hair of Montgomery Taven; Ambassador of House Witch Minne Orzebet.
"Honestly? I've no idea." Montgomery nodded to the House Seat. "Vicaress Leona mentioned something about opening the gardens for tea."
"Where is House Witch Elsie Delgora?"
"I've heard rumors that she is overseeing the construction of an ark."
Valeda felt a thrill shoot up her spine.
So it's true,
House Witch Delgora really is building a haven.
Montgomery shook his head in bafflement, clearly unaware of what sort of madness could force a Witch to such an extreme. Valeda, however, had a clue. Or, well, it was a hunch, really. But it was a hunch that she believed with every fiber of her being.
Magic, the God of Magnellum, was gone.
Valeda could sense his absence as though she were a Witch-Born herself. She just couldn't prove it. Yet.
Forcing herself to laugh, she busied her hands by making a neat stack of her papers, "I thought that was a joke."
"No, no. No joke. It's about six miles south of here." Montgomery's mouth seemed to tighten for a moment. "I've been waiting two days to speak with the Witch or the Consort, but they will not allow 'outsiders' to visit the construction site."
She mentally noted the wounded pride in his voice. "Two days?"
"But I hear the Witch and Consort are to be present for the tea gathering, so I suppose that's something."
"Yes, that's something." Valeda fought a wince because the words sounded so lame. She was distinctly outclassed by the Ambassador and she knew it. She'd interviewed such well-known men and women before, but was always reminded of her little one-bedroomed apartment when they stood so close. Men like Ambassador Taven had apartments in manors where their respected House Witches resided, as well as private homes of their own.
The Ambassador seemed to sense her discomfort because he gave her a compassionate smile and bowed his head, "How rude of me, jabbering away without proper introduction. My name is Montgomery Taven, though you probably already knew that. Friends and pretty young ladies, such as yourself, are permitted to call me Monty."
There was nothing lascivious about the introduction from the tall, dignified man beside her, and Valeda decided almost instantly that she liked him. He was older in the refined sort of way that most Witch-Born grew into, as though time itself had nothing but kindness to offer the man. His smile was gentle, crinkling his eyes into a warm, blue twinkle, and though she knew him to be ten years her senior, Valeda couldn't help but think him handsome. Immaculately dressed in shades of navy, Monty was trimmed with coppery tones. The fringe of his waistcoat was lined with the color, and she was fairly certain that the buttons on his jacket were, in fact, made of highly polished copper. The handle of his cane matched the buttons, glinting up at her in the sunlight.
Copper was apparently in fashion, or so Margaretta had informed her, and House Witch Delgora had a keen eye for such things.
You can't go insulting the Witch before you've even opened your mouth. You'll do enough of that when you begin to harass her with your questions
." Margaretta had said it all so sensibly that Valeda had listened.