In the land of Ferremore, from the deepest shadows cast by the Inscish Mountains to the pristine shores of the Canjen Sea, from the sleepy towns dotting the vineyard hills to the crowded streets of the capital city, all was miraculously at peace.
The country, with its many trade routes and deep-water bays to welcome ships laden with cargo and plentiful deposits of precious metals, had long been coveted by its neighbors. Bad enough that it was so financially blessed, but it also was the seat of the terrifically powerful Senate of Sorcerers. The Senate might not owe the Ferrem king their fealty, but the other royal houses of the continent chafed at the perceived affront to their own consequence.
Thus, for generations, the armies of Ferremore fended off incursions at every border until those neighbors that so resented any Ferrem prosperity banded together during the reign of King Casmar I to push their advantage. They very nearly succeeded in wiping Ferremore from the map.
Besieged on every side only a few years ago, poised not on the brink of war but utter destruction, it truly was stunning that it even remained standing. That it flourished beyond even its past pinnacle was a miracle.
A miracle in the shape of one incomprehensibly incredible woman.
In another world, one where this heroine had never been born (to parents— star-crossed lovers no less—whose tragic passing early in her life fuelled both their daughter's meteoric talents and uncompromising desire for justice), all-out war between Ferremore and her neighbors would still be raging. Every magically-talented youth would be stationed on the front lines, hoping their power would be the one to turn the tide of battle.
That such a heroine appeared, as beautiful as she was indefinably alluring, at such a crucial moment in history could only be the work of divine intervention.
(Though the story of her parents—the warrior witch and the healer priest from the far-off plains beyond the mountains who put aside their peoples’ ancient distrust to fall in love—became common knowledge in Ferremore and beyond, there were always whispers that it was more than their powers that combined to create such a singular, unprecedented child.)
Or perhaps she was simply that truly, undeniably, extraordinary.
A bona fide magical prodigy, she mastered her magical gifts by the tender age of sixteen and outshone both classmates and teachers without even trying.
(The halls of Jagenmoll remained as hallowed as ever, it hardly being the Academy’s fault no one on staff was equipped to instruct such a unique, once-in-a-millennium talent.)
A masterful tactician and warrior, as deadly with a spell on her lips as she was with her ancestral greatsword in her hand, she could have beaten back the country’s enemies with one arm tied behind her back.
(She hadn’t, of course, but no one suffered any doubt that she could have.)
An enchanting orphan who had earned the king’s trust and the loyalty of his entire court.
(What use she might have for courtiers’ regard was never even considered, politics having never much interested her beyond the preservation of her adopted home.)
She was all of this and more, the truth, for once, living up to the legend.
Naturally, such a guardian would be far too modest to ever take such credit, but that didn’t stop her fellow countrymen from lavishing it upon her.
Thus, from border to border, and even beyond, none could possibly live in ignorance of the great Mariensa X’Tençu, the Savior of Ferremore.
Just as none could deny that ever since she accomplished this incredible feat, had secured the lasting safety of her country, she had not been seen within its borders.
Oh, there were plenty of stories about where she’d gone: the princesses she’d saved and the empires she’d toppled, ancient curses broken and proposals received, starting with her own king’s. Many of them were even true.
Mariensa, it seemed, was destined for the world beyond Ferremore.
Which, as it turned out, was exactly what brought her back.
Atop a rocky outcrop reaching out into the aquamarine waters of the Bay of Vivence, the early morning waves coating her in a fine spray of sea salt, sat a young woman. Her silken, silver hair danced in the breeze, flowing down the line of her spine, straight but not unnaturally stiff. Her classically lovely face was as smooth and calm as the waves beating against her seat weren’t. She made for a serene, composed tableau.
Naturally. After all, she was meditating.
More accurately, she was trying to meditate.
Mariensa frowned, a single wrinkle forming between her delicate, perfectly shaped brows as her lush lips pulled down. Back at Jagenmoll, her teachers had always stressed the importance of meditation and mindfulness in enhancing their students’ magical ability, that magic could only come to a wielder at peace with themself.
Mariensa, though, had never found that to be the case. Maybe she was just more enlightened than her peers, at ease with herself in a way that they weren’t. Her magic had always, even before she’d been accepted into the exalted ranks of Jagenmoll Academy sorcerers-in-training, leapt to obey her every call and command. Even now, as uneasy as she ever felt, she had no doubt she could cast any spell she pleased.
Still, she sort of wished she’d paid more attention to those lessons now. A little bit of mental clarity might be nice.
As she achieved most things she set out to do, and some that she didn’t, Mariensa had faith she would get there.
It might, however, be easier if something wasn’t tickling her nose...
She wrinkled the delicate bridge, like a sneeze was on its way, and huffed. Raising a hand, she batted away the offending stimulus.
“I’m meditating here,” she complained, cracking open one eyelid to reveal a striking lavender orb, unusual annoyance reflected in its crystalline depths.
Just as unusually, her clear ire didn’t spur immediate apologies from whosoever was so rude as to inspire it.
Emerald, feline eyes blinked back at Mariensa, utterly unimpressed.
Her lashing tail batted away so unceremoniously, the large and impressively sleek cat nimbly leapt from her companion’s damp perch back to the safety of dry land. Mariensa might look quite charming with a misting of sea water, but Cyrene was in no mood to join her. Her coat—only a shade or two darker than Mariensa’s own hair, though unlike the human’s, hers was spotted with a deeper pewter, dappling her in shadow—would receive no improvement from the salt spray. Her claws, long and lethal but retracted into her silent paws, would become no sharper being honed on the rocks.
Anyone who looked upon her would know instantly what she was, but all would be hard pressed to believe what they saw. Mist Leopards, those fabled masters of illusion native to the Vanishing Isle, largely thought to be a myth all its own, were the stuff of stories.
It was only fitting that one had become Mariensa’s bonded and sworn familiar.
You may be trying , Cyrene’s mental voice echoed into Mariensa’s mind, velvet smooth as ever, but you certainly haven’t managed it yet. And watching you simply sit there is not so entertaining as some of your admirers would have you believe.
“No one has ever watched me just sitting around,” she protested, believing it herself. It wasn’t often that she was at leisure to simply sit around. There were too many things to do, incredible, impossible feats to accomplish.
Mist Leopards, as a rule, did not roll their eyes. It being well beneath their dignity. Cyrene held true to form. Nonetheless, Mariensa could practically feel the urge echoing through her head.
If you must lie to yourself, fine. I can hardly stop you, but I needn’t follow your example.
“And I would never ask you to,” the young woman replied, giving up on meditation altogether. Her posture didn’t relax an inch, but she did stretch her arms above her head, relishing in the sweet strain of stiff muscle.
Will you ask me to wait any longer when home is practically within pouncing distance? she demanded, arch in the way that came so naturally to her kind.
“It’s my home. You’ve never even been there.”
What’s yours is mine, Star-Born , Cyrene replied, invoking the title her queen had granted the young woman when she first appeared in the clan’s hunting grounds. Rather than subject the human to the same fate all her brethren before her had met, recollection of some long-past premonition had stayed the matriarch’s paw. Warily, the Mist Leopards watched this intruder, long enough for Mariensa to prove, through magical feats and her own silvery hair, that she was indeed the heroine that had been foretold. That she also demonstrated a few illusory tricks the likes of which even the ancient queen had never seen was only another point in her favor. It was not just anyone who could out-enchant the cats.
By the end of that first meeting, Mariensa bravely standing her ground as the prowl materialized in the forest around her, the legendary Mist Leopards of the Vanishing Isle had forged the first Accord with a human ally since the last Age of Champions.
Thus, when Mariensa left the Isle to pursue her next adventure, Cyrene went with her.
Of course, Mariensa knew little of this. Cyrene’s dame had assured her it never did any good to alarm humans with matters like prophecy or destiny. It only made them terribly unreliable. Privately, Cyrene suspected that this human would never fold beneath the pressure of predestination, but she had grown too fond of her to ever run that risk.
So, it was without reservation that Mariensa could smile at her mythical feline companion, though the sweet expression remained only for a moment before her gaze drifted beyond Cyrene and to the city looming across the bay.
New towers had been erected since she’d gone away, but the palace still rose gracefully above the urban sprawl, its great golden dome glimmering in the morning sun. To the east, the sterner silhouette of Jagenmoll loomed, the very air around it filled with the ambient magic endemic to any place home to millennia of sorcerers.
Ferrem City. The capital. Home.
It was well past time to return.
Though Garryn Merak should have been pleasantly tranquil after a long morning spent in the practice yards, sparring with his men to keep them fighting fit and drilling them in his latest battle formations however unlikely it was they would ever need to use them, as he approached his apartment in the Guards’ Wing of the palace, his preternaturally acute senses kicked into high alert.
Crimson eyes swept the hallway, taking in the familiar space in a single blink. Nothing was out of place.
And yet, something had most certainly changed. The subtlest itch of another’s enchantment irritating his magical senses. It could have been something as simple as one of the Royal warlocks renewing the wing’s lamp spells or as nefarious as a foreign curse sinking its claws into the very foundations of the palace, some new threat rearing its head.
Warily, he advanced. This wouldn’t be the first time assassins had infiltrated the palace, though their target was usually the king. Merak had dispatched each of them with the terrifying ease due the youngest King’s Guard Commander—the only full-blooded Ophorin ever, though he couldn’t fathom why; his powerful wings and battle magic made him the perfect bodyguard for royalty—in Ferremore’s history; he could handle whatever had come for him.
It was as he laid his hand on his door that two new sensations struck him.
First: the lock spell on his door had been obliterated, washed from existence by the kind of overpowering force only the greatest of sorcerers could dream of controlling.
Second: that scent. Wisteria and wild lightning.
Only one person in all the world smelled like that.
Even knowing that, his mind rebelled.
After all, Mariensa X’tençu deigning to return to Ferremore? To the capital city? The heart of the king’s palace?
Impossible. It defied belief.
And yet, as he pushed open his door and revealed his rooms, Merak had to reevaluate his conception of the possible.
Because standing there at his desk, perusing his latest reports with interest, was Mariensa. If he weren’t looking right at her, older and wiser than she’d been the few years they’d shared the grounds of Jagenmoll but undeniably herself, Merak wouldn’t believe it.
In the years since she’d left, many had tried to imitate her striking appearance. All sorts of spells and potions were said to bless the user with the Savior Sorceress’ starlight locks and amethyst eyes, but none could confer her innate grace or magnetism. Often imitated, never once duplicated.
This, however, was no pale comparison. And it wasn’t magic, either.He was too practiced, too talented, a sorcerer to fall for any mere illusion. Even if he weren’t, an Ophorin’s eyes simply didn’t lie.
(If they did, he doubted they’d be able to conjure up this. He’d been too busy at the Academy, plotting ways to foil Ensa’s and secure his place at the top of the class, to have anticipated the way a gangly, overly talented little witch could turn into the woman before him. She was still all silver hair and big, piercing eyes and willowy limbs. But now her power was content to settle beneath her skin, no more stray sparks of magic flaring up with shows of temper she’d seemed to reserve only for him.)
The question wasn’t whether or not this was the genuine Savior of Ferremore; it was what she was doing here. With him.
Unabashed by her discovery, Mariensa gave him a dazzling, infuriatingly lovely, smirk. “Hello, Merak.” She kept poring over his documents with interest, which probably meant she’d broken into the locked drawer holding the reports meant for King Casmar’s eyes only.
Still, he rather doubted she’d returned home so unexpectedly, without the fanfare the city’s populace would have raised in her honor, simply to rifle through his apartment.
“Ensa,” Merak murmured, smirking right back as her lips pursed in remembered distaste for the nickname. Which was precisely why he used it. He might be Commander of the King’s Guard, a sorcerer and warrior of no mean skill, but he wasn’t above taking an easy leg up on what was sure to be an interesting conversation. He’d always needed every advantage when going toe-to-toe with Mariensa back at the Academy. Merak allowed himself to relax, leaning up against the door frame and crossing his well-muscled arms over his chest. “I suppose I should be honored to be your first port of call, but you have broken into my rooms.”
Mariensa was matter of fact as she replied, “With that travesty you call a lock spell on your door, Garryn, I was practically invited in.”
It was now Merak’s chance to rest on the back foot, and he scowled openly. “The fact that I bothered to put any enchantment on my door would say otherwise.”
“Fine, then I broke in. What are you going to do about it, Captain of the Guard?”
“Commander. And much as I might personally enjoy it, I certainly won’t be arresting the Savior of Ferremore ,” he drawled, a little intrigued by the way Mariensa broke eye contact at the title. The crystal sparkle in her eyes dimmed, her face achingly lovely for all the sadness it displayed. Merak had always enjoyed provoking a reaction from her back in school, taken great pleasure in watching the ever-sweet Ensa come to a boil as she couldn’t shake off his antagonisms. This, however, was not the same. He had no interest in her heartache.
So, standing straight and tall, he stepped back with an inviting grin and left his apartments. This had two functions. One, Mariensa’s distress melted into affronted surprise as she followed after him by instinct. Two, the adrenaline coursing through his system needed an outlet. Having expected some sort of enemy, Merak was too wound up to enjoy a cozy chat with Ensa. He needed to fight or fly, and since Mariensa had not yet spontaneously sprouted wings (though if anyone ever should, it certainly would be her), fighting it would have to be. He may have spent hours this morning in the weapon’s yards, but he could do with a serious workout.
“Perhaps,” he said, sliding her a look from the corner of his eye as Ensa fell into step beside him, “I’ll see if she would divulge why she’s bothered to break and enter when surely there are others who would gladly welcome her visit. Not that I can blame her, of course. Many have been tempted to try.”
It wasn’t even an exaggeration. Mariensa might have called his magical lock a “travesty,” but that didn’t mean everyone thought so. Not one of his many admirers had managed to get past his security measures, which was for the best. Merak was happy to flirt with the pretty, young things of his king’s court, but he’d rather not come home to an ambush.
It was no surprise when Mariensa didn’t react. She’d always been immune to his charms, which was largely why she’d been such a satisfying rival. No distractions from the serious business of demonstrating who was the best.
Which wasn’t to say that Merak was wholly opposed to distractions, particularly with this older, cagier version of Ensa, though he doubted they were in the cards at the moment. Not when her expression settled into complete seriousness.
“I assume you’ve heard about Master Norsen.”
“Of course,” he replied, leading her into his private practice court. A rack of blunt weapons stood by the wall, and he selected a sword for himself. “I’m surprised you have. I didn’t know Ferrem’s news traveled so quickly. What corner of the world did it have to reach to find you?”
“Ferrem’s news might not,” she said, ignoring his question. What Ensa didn’t ignore, however, was Merak’s pointed glances at the remaining weapons, making her way over to pick up a pair of twin knives for herself. She twirled them experimentally, a little clumsy, and took up a position opposite him. “But the Senate is a different matter.”
The Senate of Sorcerers. Though it might be housed in Ferremore, the convocation drew members from the entire continent and governed all practitioners of magic, from the lowest apprentice all the way up to the very savior of nations.
Of course it was unreasonable to read into the fact that Mariensa, before she had gone anywhere else—it would’ve been in the very air of the entire city if she’d been in the capital any longer—had come to find him. They might have enjoyed their rivalry back in school, but that hadn’t meant they enjoyed one another.
For Mariensa to track him down, something bigger had to be at play.
“For the first time in more than a century,” she intoned, somehow managing to remain engaging in spite of her unyielding intensity as they circled each other, “there is a vacant seat in the Senate.”
“Yes, I’ve heard.” His dark wings mantled behind him, stirring the dirt at their feet, but Ensa didn’t blink. “It’s taken over the City’s gossip mill ever since Norsen stepped down.”
“Then you must have heard that the frontrunner to take her seat its—”
“Master Foulev, yes.”
Ensa’s cool, lilac eyes positively burned as she stared Merak full in the face, daring him to brush this development aside. He had no desire to.
Just like her, he remembered Master Foulev’s lessons at Jagenmoll, his casual cruelty when he felt a student’s natural talents were beneath him. He’d cared little for more mundane arts, and longed to be sent to the warfront to prove himself above the position of mere Master of Magical Theory. Now, without the war to fuel his ambitions, it seemed his goals had turned political.
To allow him to take a position of power that could control the direction of magical life for the next century or more was only asking to visit that contempt on generations of young talent.
It wasn’t saving an entire country. It was maybe more or maybe less.
But it would certainly be worthwhile.
“Something tells me you have a plan.”
On anyone else, the curl of Ensa’s full lips would have been a categorical smirk, the very definition of the expression. On her, it was merely a very self-satisfied smile, one that did nothing to diminish the clarity or beauty of her spirit.
“When have I not had a plan?”
This time when she twirled her knives, they flashed expertly between her hands, almost too fast for Merak to catch, and the perfect distraction as she darted in and started both their duel and their tentative partnership.
As it turned out, years of mostly aimless wandering had done little to dull Mariensa’s tactical acumen.
Which was a blessing as it seemed she would need every ounce of it.
Rikard Foulev, as awful a teaching master and worse a man as he was, proved to be an unfortunately worthy adversary for her skills.
It was a matter of no difficulty to harness the ever-churning rumor mill of Ferrem to start a whisper campaign against Foulev's appointment to the Senate of Sorcerers. It was an entirely different issue to get anyone in the capital to believe a word of it.
Foulev was too deeply entrenched with the city's wealthiest, the lucky few who controlled the oldest institutions in the country even more thoroughly than the king ruled the country.
He'd spent decades currying favor, flattering and flirting his way into the confidences of those with too many secrets to ever keep them all. But once they let go of a few, it took only one unscrupulous soul to put those private matters to work for his own gain.
Hardly anyone with any power to influence the issue was willing to risk their reputation.
All it took, however, was one.
Though she had never found herself entirely easy in formal court occasions, Mariensa would sacrifice a few nights' comfort if it meant preserving the future of her fellow sorcerers.
And she couldn't deny that the gowns she got to wear weren't worth dealing with the crowds and the demands for attention from every courtier who recognized her. Which was most of them. After all, trailing yards and yards of delicate lace and silk, all dyed to complement the color of her eyes, through the ancient palace of Ferrem wasn't an experience to treat lightly. Mariensa, of course, had done just that several times, having made very good friends with the king in the months leading up to her preemptive defeat of the wolves waiting on Ferremore's doorstep. Still, she was appropriately aware of what an honor most people would consider it.
Just as she was aware of what an honor her own presence was considered.
Foulev might have thought it would be enough to curry favor with the capital's elite. He surely hadn't thought to factor in someone those elites would clamor to impress themselves.
So, Mariensa played the gracious guest of honor at several of the king's most lavish parties, the conquering heroine come home at long last. And when her opinion was solicited regarding the vacancy in the Senate, she made no secret of her preferences.
Which was why it was something of a surprise that it took three whole evenings for her machinations to be challenged, and by Master Rikard Foulev himself.
The arena of battle: the dance floor.
Gallantly, he applied for her hand and swept her away from a press of admirers without hardly hearing her response.
Mariensa had grown taller since she was sixteen, but she still felt small beside her former Magical Theory instructor as he twirled her expertly between other couples.
"It would appear that you still have not learned to hold your tongue, Miss X'tençu," he observed shortly, sure to keep a pleasant smile on his face.
Mariensa had no such desire and peered up at him, repulsed and not caring who saw. "What matter should I remain silent on? Your documented opinions on the superior rights that should be afforded to the magical? Or perhaps your disciplinary file from your time at Jagenmoll?"
"Since you should know nothing of that," he hissed, "I believe that would be a good place to start."
"Since," she countered, equally heated, "I made more than a few complaints myself, I believe I'm uniquely suited to speak on that matter. You are the last man who should be given more influence. In this kingdom or beyond. I suggest you start believing that yourself. You won't like the consequences otherwise."
If it weren't for his bevy of cosmetic glamors, there was no doubt that Foulev would have turned a shade that would have clashed most horrendously with Mariensa's gown. As it was, his cheeks puffed out as he drew a monumental breath to lay into her.
Before he could build up the necessary steam, a heavy, strong hand clapped down on his shoulder.
"If you'll excuse me," Merak interjected, smoothly ignoring his former instructor's apoplectic rage, "the lady has promised me this dance."
Just as smoothly, he extracted Mariensa's hands from Foulev's grip and twirled her away.
She couldn't help but laugh, the sound light and musical and somehow perfectly in tune with the band.
"I thought he was about to explode!"
"I thought he was about to explode you ," Merak returned, aiming for equal joviality but not quite able to hide his concern.
Her amusement turned softer, almost touched. Merak had proved himself a good ally these past weeks. Steadfast and clever and with as many friends as she had. There was no question he was just—or perhaps nearly—as powerful as she was, in different ways.
"He could try," she said.
He snorted. "I suppose it would be hard for him to claim a Senate seat when he was just a bit of ash left on the king's ballroom floor."
"I would not smite him!"
"You'd be well within your rights. Even he'd agree. 'Any magical attack may be met with equal force.'"
Mariensa groaned, nearly leaning her forehead against one of Merak's impossibly broad shoulders in her despair.
"I can't believe he's still quoting that like it didn't become obsolete during the Third Reformation."
Merak grinned and tossed something back, to which Mariensa could only rebut.
So absorbed in their lightning-quick back and forth, they didn't notice the fading of conversation and music and light around them. Not until they were bathed only in moonlight, completely alone on one of the small, overlooked terraces off the ballroom. They turned to some melody that didn't yet exist, perfectly in time with one another. Once more without noticing, their own words fell away until they simply gazed at one another, bodies drifting closer with every swaying step.
Gilded all in silver, it was impossible to resist her draw, and Merak didn't even try. He leaned down, letting his lips brush against the high arc of her cheekbone.
"You will make a magnificent senator, Ensa," he breathed, pulling her close and inhaling that storm and bloom scent that wafted so delicately from her skin.
She hummed with real pleasure at the contact, but the contentment was all too brief.
"Senator? I'm not going to be a senator," she protested, pulling back just enough to meet his gaze.
"What? Of course you will. Why else would you have come back?"
"To make sure Foulev wouldn't," she replied with complete sincerity. Whatever power and influence she had garnered in her life, she had never sought it out. It simply seemed to come to her, moths attracted to her inner light. "I'm not campaigning for myself."
"Then who?" he demanded. She'd already turned down a king's hand—to say nothing of all the others that must have been offered on her travels—surely she couldn't also refuse a senator's seat.
"Me? I'm Captain of the King's Guard."
"You could be both."
"I don't think I want to be both."
"Well, I can't untell all those courtiers in there not to appoint you to the Senate."
He laughed. "What do you think I've been telling them?"
By this point, they had stopped any pretense of dancing but had yet to let go of one another, staring into each other's eyes. In sync, steel resolve girded their gazes.
"I suppose this is just another competition for us, then."
"We've plenty of practice," he allowed. "Will I get a reward when I inevitably win?"
"Oh, Garryn," she breathed, her lips just a hairsbreadth from his. "You won't have to worry about that."
She was, of course, correct. Still, when she was proven right, she was a gracious enough winner to share her victory with him.