Of course, a sensible woman would never have accepted the invitation in the first place.
To attend a week-long house party filled with bickering gentleman magicians, ruthlessly cutthroat lady politicians, and worst of all, my own infuriating ex-fiancé? Scarcely two months after I had scandalized all of our most intimate friends by jilting him?
Utter madness. And anyone would have seen that immediately … except for my incurably romantic sister-in-law.
Unfortunately, Amy saw the invitation pop into mid-air beside me as we sat en famille at the breakfast table that morning. She watched with bright interest as I crumpled it up a moment later in disgust … and then she dashed around the table, with surprising agility despite her interesting condition, to snatch the ball of paper from my hands before I could toss it into the blazing fire where it belonged.
Naturally, I lunged to retrieve it. But I was too late.
The moment she smoothed it out enough to read the details, her eyes lit up with near-fanatical ardor. “Oh, yes, Cassandra, we must go! Just think: you will finally see Wrexham again!”
“I know,” I said through gritted teeth. “That is exactly why we are going to refuse it!”
“Now, love…” Her eyes widened, and she gave me her most innocent look … which put me on guard immediately. Kind-hearted, loyal, and adorable are all phrases that may apply very well to my brother’s wife; innocent is not one of them, and never has been.
She had, after all, been my mother’s final and most promising political protégée.
“I should think,” she said now, as if idly, “that you would wish to show everyone how little notice you take of any gossip. After all, if we refuse this invitation, you know everyone will say it was because you were too afraid to see Wrexham again.”
My teeth ground together. “I am not afraid of seeing Wrexham.”
“Well, I know that,” Amy said, looking as smug as a cat licking up fresh cream. “But does he?” Well. It isn’t that I don’t know when I’m being managed. But there are some possibilities that cannot be borne. And the thought of my ex-fiancé’s dark eyebrows rising in his most fiendishly supercilious look at the news of my cowardly refusal…
I drummed my fingers against the table, searching for a way out.
Behind my brother’s outspread newspaper, an apparently disembodied voice spoke. “Better leave early,” my brother said. “It’s meant to snow next week, according to the weather wizards.”
Amy sat back, smiling and resting her hands on her rounded belly…
And that was how the three of us ended up rattling through the elven dales in mid-winter, with the first flakes of snow falling around our carriage.
Poor Amy stopped chattering half an hour into our journey, her pretty face setting into pained lines and her dark brown skin taking on a grayish hue. As I watched her, my toes tapped once, twice, and then a third time beneath my skirts.
I forced myself to look away.
The carriage bumped over a particularly large rock, and a tiny, muffled squeak escaped from Amy’s lips. My fingers clenched. All it would take was the simplest little spell to relieve her misery … if only a competent, functioning magician sat beside her.
No matter how hard I tried, I could never manage a full day without a reminder of my failure.
Beside me, Amy breathed deeply and leaned back against the seat.
All the taxes had been paid on our carriage, the glowing seal stamped proudly on its side less than a month earlier, so the trolls who guarded these dales stood unmoving in the falling snow, letting us drive past without incident. As the wintry sun lowered in the sky and the snow thickened, their massive, looming figures took on the indistinct shapes of rugged, rocky green hills … at least, until another carriage turned onto the road behind us and the closest troll swung into lumbering motion, its massive, moss-covered arms swinging by its sides.
I craned to look back through the window, grateful for the distraction, but the swirling snow obscured the scene behind us.
“Idiots,” said my brother calmly. “Thought they could get away with their old tax seal till the end of the year, probably.”
“They aren’t being foolish and resisting, are they?” Amy cracked her eyes open, frowning.
“Oh, no, they’re going quietly enough.” Jonathan snorted, crossing one leg over another. “But I shouldn’t fancy having my carriage swung about in the grip of a troll all the way to the local toll station. Would you?”
“Ugh —!” Amy’s face crumpled. She lifted one gloved hand to her lips and squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
“Think of ginger root,” I told her hastily, as I gave her husband a narrow-eyed look. “And dry biscuits. And —”
“No food, please.” Her voice was muffled by her hand. “Not while I’m still thinking of swinging carriages.”
“Sorry, love.” Jonathan looked chagrined. “We can’t be far from Cosgrave Manor now. If this dashed snow would only clear up a bit… It wasn’t even supposed to start snowing for two or three more days!”
But the too-early snowfall ignored its orders, thickening more and more until our progress had been slowed to a near-walk. It was nearly another hour before we finally arrived at our destination. Amy was positively green by then, her face pinched tight, and I was vibrating like a maddened dog with frustration.
The simplest, smallest little spell…
It would have been so easy to whisk her nausea away only four months earlier. But of course she hadn’t needed any of my spellcraft then, and now that she did…
I stalked out of the carriage at Cosgrave Manor with my spine stiff and my skirts swishing about me, ready to rip to verbal shreds anyone rash enough to get between me and the privacy of my guest bedroom. There, I could let out all of my useless rage and then compose myself before facing any crowded drawing rooms or inane small talk…
…Or, worst of all, my ex-fiancé. I couldn’t face him now. Not yet.
I should never have agreed to come here in the first place.
But the house was already in an uproar when we stepped into it.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Lady Cosgrave stood in the front hall with one hand pressed dramatically to her forehead, while her husband and two other men I recognized as competent magicians pulled on greatcoats and hats with grim frustration on their faces. Two more of Angland’s finest politicians stood beyond our hostess, dressed in their finest fairy-silks, waving their glittering, elven-made fans in disapproval, and wearing their most supercilious expressions as they watched their husbands prepare themselves for the wintry weather. These ladies were dressed to rule, not for outdoor management, and this was clearly not the entertainment they had planned.
“Just find them, please,” Lady Cosgrave told her own husband, in a tone that had been strained to breaking point. “And when I get my hands on that child — ah!” She broke off as she finally spotted us standing in the doorway of the foyer. “Amy! And Mr. Harwood, of course, and Cassandra, too. How wonderful to see you all. But —”
“But what’s amiss, Honoria?” Amy hurried forward to take her hands. Anyone who didn’t know my sister-in-law well would never guess at how ill she must still be feeling even now that we were out of the carriage — but, being Amy, her attention was focused purely on our hostess and her expression was filled with genuine concern. “Have we come at a poor moment?”
“Oh, no, hardly. In fact…” Lady Cosgrave sighed and traded glances with the other two members of the Boudiccate who stood behind her. “Well,” she said, “we could certainly use another member for our search party. We’ve just had a spelled message to alert us that my young cousin’s party has been lost in the snow. She was traveling with a group of friends whose carriage was confiscated — can you believe that anyone could be so foolish as to forget to pay their taxes before such a journey, at this time of year? — and the tyrants at the toll station turned them out to find their way here without a single gentleman to accompany them on their way.”
“By foot in this weather? Without a magician in the party?” Jonathan raised his eyebrows. “Good Lord.”
“I know you can’t help us with the magical aspect, Mr. Harwood,” Lady Cosgrave said. “But hardly anyone is here yet to help because of this dreadful snowstorm. So if you wouldn’t mind being a pair of extra eyes for the search…”
Amy only gave the slightest fraction of a wince. But it was enough.
“My brother will be far too busy to help,” I told our hostess firmly. “Amy needs rest after our journey, Honoria, even if she doesn’t wish to admit it. She needs to lie down and be looked after for a good hour now, and Jonathan should be the one to look after her, for all of our sakes. But I can take his place, I promise you.” “You?” Her eyebrows arched. “But, my dear…”
“Cassandra!” Amy said. “You know —!”
“You needn’t worry,” I told them both with a snap in my voice. “I won’t be fool enough to cast any spells of my own.” I might still be battling despair every day, but I wasn’t — anymore — at that bleak point where I’d consider risking my life for that brief satisfaction. “But Jonathan couldn’t have cast any in the first place, could he? So why shouldn’t I take his place in this search party, if no magic’s required for it?”
Jonathan snorted, and Lady Cosgrave’s eyebrows rose even higher, but it was my sister-in-law, of course, who was officially the head of my family … and there were very few people who knew me as well as she did, nowadays. So after looking into my eyes for a long, fraught moment, Amy blew out her breath. “Very well,” she said. “But please: be careful.”
“Of course,” I said, and gave her a wry smile. “Haven’t I spent the last few months learning how to do just that?”
Amy would never be so disloyal as to deliver any retort where outsiders could overhear it. But her expression spoke the words almost as clearly as Jonathan whispered them a moment later, in the ancient Densk that he and I had used for years as a secret language, as he arranged his heavy greatcoat around the shoulders of my hooded pelisse and I stepped into a pair of Lady Cosgrave’s own tall, fur-lined boots:
“That’s exactly what worries us.”
My family loved me. And I was more grateful than words could ever acknowledge for their protection. It would not even be too gross an overstatement to say that it had saved me after the events of four months earlier.
But as Lord Cosgrave pushed open the front door and the four members of our search party stepped out from the safety of the heated manor house into the wild and whirling snow, I finally tasted something I hadn’t experienced in months of being cosseted and consoled for my loss at every turn:
Cold, bracing air filled my lungs. Jonathan’s greatcoat draped me in warmth.
I stepped forward and smiled as snow kissed my cheeks.
“Miss Harwood.” Lord Cosgrave cleared his throat as he passed me a lantern. “If you wouldn’t mind…”
“Of course.” My smile tightened. The other men avoided my eyes.
I knew them all, of course. I’d been the only woman in a group of men more times than I could count in my adult life, until all lingering discomfort — at least on my part — had worn away entirely. There was a time when every magician in the country had known my name after I’d first fought my way into their ranks, aided by the power of my own family name and by Jonathan and Amy’s staunch support. The newspapers, naturally, had found it all hilarious: The lady who thought she was a magician.
But if Jonathan could bear the caricatures they’d done of us — the Harwood Horrors; siblings born to the wrong sexes? — so could I. And I’d won the grudging respect of my peers, by the end.
So they all knew exactly how I’d fallen four months earlier.
It took every ounce of my strength to stand still now, with my chin held high and a cool expression stitched onto my face, as Lord Cosgrave moved in a slow circle around me, chanting the spell of protection from the elements. It was only what he would have done for Jonathan, I reminded myself — and Jonathan had lived all his life without the ability to work magic. Not every man could do spellwork, of course, even in our elite cohort, just as I couldn’t possibly have been the first woman to be born with that natural ability. I was only the first to be bold enough, brash enough and — most of all — lucky enough, in our modern era, to finally break free of the roles we’d all been assigned centuries earlier, and win a public space for myself that others might follow.
But Jonathan was different.
I would never know the full truth of how my brother’s school years had gone — although I had my suspicions — but I knew exactly how he interacted with the other men of our cohort now. If it were Jonathan standing here in my place, they would all have been laughing as the spell was cast for his protection, and he’d have been making the most jovial remarks of all as the four of them grinned at each other in utterly complicit masculine conviviality.
Now, the soft hiss of the snow was the only sound outside the tightly-closed-up house apart from Lord Cosgrave’s monotonous chanting. My jaw tightened as he mispronounced the second word in a row, but I restrained myself, with an effort, from correcting him. As he finally completed the circle, the spell clicked shut, and a warm, dry circle formed around me.
…Almost dry, anyway. There was a sliver of a leak just behind my neck. Icy water trickled down my hood. I could have told him exactly how to re-cast the spell with more clarity and precision, to avoid any such leaks in the future.
Five months earlier, I could have shown him myself.
Now, I nodded stiffly and held up the lantern, straining to be off. “Has a tracking spell already been set on this?”
“Ah…” Lord Cosgrave’s eyebrows beetled downwards. “We don’t have Miss Fennell’s exact direction, so —”
“Not for her, for the house,” I said. “If I should get turned around in the snow.”
He blinked, and I could actually see him remembering: unlike the rest of them, I couldn’t cast my own way home. “Oh. Right-o,” he said, and coughed.
It would have helped by an infinite amount if any of the men around me had only sniggered or had the decency to look even slightly contemptuous of my weakness.
The pity that the three of them oozed instead, as they unanimously averted their eyes from my figure, was thick enough to incite justifiable homicide. My fingers tightened around my lantern. At least Wrexham wasn’t among them, I told myself. The idea of letting him cast laughably simple magic for me while I stood uselessly by and did nothing… The spell clicked into place, sending a tingling thrill through my skin where it touched the handle of the lantern.
I strode forward into the whirling snow before I could lose my self-control entirely.
Note: You can also read Chapter Two on this site and read a later excerpt (set at a supper party full of romantic tension, interfering family members, and the worst weather wizard ever!) over at USA Today’s Happy Ever After blog.)