Thick white snowflakes swirled around me, bouncing off my spellcast bubble of protection and forming a shifting veil between me and my companions.
Now that Lord Cosgrave was no longer being confronted with the appalling social awkwardness of my presence, his instructions rang out with the natural confidence of any magician in his own territory. “We’ll need to spread out, gentlemen, to cover as much area as possible. The toll station is three miles to the north, and Miss Fennell’s party should have set off in the right direction, but the land’s rough enough that the ladies could have taken a wrong turn nearly anywhere in this weather. All the fairy passageways should be safely locked up from their end at this time of year, thank Christ, but that won’t save our guests from rabbit holes and sprained ankles — or from the cold.
“And this isn’t only family we’re worrying about now. M’wife has great aspirations for her cousin — we may be speaking of a future member of the Boudiccate, if all goes well! The chit’s full to bursting with political potential, apparently. So we’d better not lose her in a simple snowstorm, if we don’t want to lose all of our funding in the next round of government votes.
“Grant, strike northwest, would you? There’s a good man. Quentin, northeast. And Miss Harwood…” He cleared his throat, his expression mercifully obscured by the veil of falling snow between us. “If you wouldn’t mind, it’s probably best … that is, as you’ve only a magnetic compass to rely on in your search…”
“Of course,” I said tightly. “I’ll walk directly north.” The safest route … and also by far the least likely.
I would only discover the perfectly-politically-minded Miss Fennell if she hadn’t taken a single misstep along the way.
Cosgrave’s exhale of relief was only just audible over the whooshing of the winter wind between us. “Good-o. If you do come across Miss Fennell and her friends, you know, you needn’t worry about trying to alert the rest of us. Just come directly home at once. Best thing for all of you, don’t you think?”
I couldn’t bring myself to answer in words. Instead, I set forward on my assigned path, glad to let the snow whip into a cold wall between us.
Within five feet, the men’s voices behind me had turned into a low, indistinguishable rumble. Within ten, I could hear nothing but the soft, inhuman hiss of snow and wind all around me, and every muscle in my shoulders eased in gratitude at the pure relief of it.
The sky was a mix of pale grey and white. The snow rushed past my bubble of protection, leaving me dry and warm and perfectly, beautifully alone within it.
For the first time in four months, there was no one at all to witness me — or to overhear me, either. I could have screamed or raged or finally wept with full abandon for everything that I had lost through my own recklessness, and everything that would have been so different by now if only…
No. I took deep, steadying breaths and forced all thoughts of if only from my mind. I would not allow myself to be that pitiful anymore.
I had given up all of my last, desperate hopes of ever retrieving my magic two long months ago. I might never again recognize myself without my magic … but there was only one way to survive the bleak, powerless future that lay before me. I had to lock away my simmering fury, grief and fear and think only of what lay around me now, in each instant, without ever letting my mind travel to what might happen next.
So I held my lantern high before me and crossed the bare white landscape with long, ground-eating strides that stretched my skirts with every step. I breathed in deep, and I let myself glory in every hiss of snow against my borrowed boots as I strode further and further from the suffocation of the house party and everything that awaited me there.
I was free for this single, icy interlude, and I would absorb every moment of it as a gift.
The pebbles and crushed shells of the Cosgraves’ long front drive crunched beneath the snow at first, but they were soon replaced by the elegant gardens that encircled the house, framed with sculpted knotwork hedges for protection. Snow clung and glittered on the bare brown branches, all carefully maintained in their ancient patterns. This deep in the elven dales, only the most reckless landowner would fail to add such protections to her property, no matter how old and how entrenched the treaties between our twinned nations might be.
Luckily, the fairies had already made their own annual pilgrimage deep underground after Samhain, so there were no dangerous fey lights to glitter and distract me from my path across the countryside, nor mushroom circles to carefully avoid. As for the elves … well, who ever knew what the elves were doing in their ancient halls within the hills and dales of this county? Nothing that they ever cared to share with humans, that was certain. We paid our tolls to use their land and lived in peace, as we had for centuries. That was all that mattered.
Perhaps there were scholars who could have told me more of the elves’ secrets, but I realized now that I had never thought to ask in all my hard-won time at the Great Library of Trinivantium. After all, I’d grown up outside these dales, with nothing in my own daily life down south to pique my curiosity … and back then, I’d had my own magic to focus on without worrying over theirs. That, as far as I was concerned, was ancient history — and it was my brother who was the historian in our family.
As I left the knotwork gardens behind, the landscape ahead turned rough and rocky, and I found myself, for the very first time, rather regretting that lost opportunity for knowledge.
The reality of elves might be lost in the mists of time in my own home county, but here, I could quite easily imagine a pair of elven riders, white and glittering as the snow themselves, emerging from a hidden doorway in any one of the high, sprawling hills that rose around me.
There were no neat, plowed fields in this area; only sheep and cattle roamed the bleak beauty of this land, and they were all safely enclosed for the winter. Lady Cosgrave’s tenants themselves were, too, in tightly shuttered cottages scattered here and there along the rocky ground. Lights glowed through the thick cloths that covered the windows, but not a single curtain twitched to mark my passage.
It all felt astonishingly freeing. I found myself swinging the lantern in my hand as I walked up the rocky hills, crunching my way through the thin layer of snow and humming a scandalously bawdy old magicians’ ballad — one that I had never been meant to learn from my fellow students at the Library when I’d finally, reluctantly been admitted to their company.
I had learnt it, though, of course, absorbing that knowledge with the same greedy joy as the spellwork that I’d fought so hard to master. I still remembered the night I’d first heard it — in Trinivantium’s local coffeehouse, which we’d all tumbled into for the evening, collectively tipsy with jubilation from leftover magical residue and the exhilaration of a challenging project well-mastered. As we all found our places along the two long, battered tables in the dark, crowded room, my black academic robes covered every inch of my gown every bit as neatly as the others’ robes covered their own trousers and coats; and I think several of them had nearly forgotten by then, after all the initial noise and drama of my arrival, that I wasn’t one of their gender as well as their colleague.
It was by far the best evening I had ever had in my life. Free of all chaperones and disapproving tutors, we all sang together late into the night and sent spells crackling with sparkling showers of light over our heads. And then…
When the coffeehouse owner finally, pointedly began to extinguish the candles around us, well after midnight, Rajaram Wrexham had detached his long, lanky figure from the opposite wall, where he’d spent all evening absorbed in conversation with the other scholarship students —
— or at least, he had seemed to be utterly absorbed, every time I’d sneaked a secret glance in his direction —
— and walked with unmistakable purpose straight to me. “We’d better escort each other home, don’t you think, Harwood? The streets are dark this late at night.”
“You think I can’t protect myself?” I demanded.
His dark eyebrows shot up in response. “Hardly. I’ve seen you at work, remember?”
Aha. A delicious frisson of satisfaction ran through me as I met his intent gaze and finally realized: he had been watching me, too…
The unmistakable sound of a branch snapping came from directly behind me, startling me out of my reverie. My heart juddered uncomfortably in my chest as I scanned the rocky hillside around me through the shimmer of falling snow, taking in my surroundings for the first time in far too long.
There were no trees on this barren spot of land. So where had that snapping branch come from?
The last ones I remembered passing had been… Oh.
I turned with mingled dread and anticipation, already knowing, somehow, what I would see.
Wrexham stood three feet behind me.
* * *
My ex-fiancé’s tangled black hair showed the disorder of his spellcast travel; the branch that lay before him must have snapped off one of Lady Cosgrave’s elaborate knotwork hedges, caught up in the whirlwind of his passage.
The contrast between the vivid memories that I’d only just escaped and the reality of his presence before me now was so striking that for a moment I couldn’t speak. For one dizzying instant, the two figures — Wrexham then and now — seemed to overlap each other in my vision.
Of course he wasn’t that lanky twenty-year-old boy anymore, the intense scholarship student from a Maratha-Anglish sailor’s family, with too-long hair, secondhand robes, and the most brilliant magical mind in our class … at least, until I’d joined mid-year and become his competition.
First, we’d competed for top honors. Then we’d egged each other on. And then…
He had grown into himself over the years, his lankiness filling out into a hard, lean strength. And his work for the Boudiccate had brought him honors far beyond any that we’d ever competed for in our years at the Library, along with comfortable financial security. The gleaming polish on his knee-high boots, and the elegant, multi-caped greatcoat he wore now, were both unmistakable reminders, snapping me out of my daze:
The man I looked at now wasn’t the boy who’d once dazzled me. No, he was the adult I’d shouted my most venomous words at two months earlier, when he’d arrogantly and unforgivably refused to understand what should have been obvious for any simpleton to see.
He was the one I’d driven away to save us both.
There were shadows under his eyes now that I hadn’t seen two months ago. His light brown cheeks, still dusted with dark stubble from his journey, looked disconcertingly hollow.
But I would not worry about him. I would not.
Instead I looked pointedly from his tangled hair to the branch that lay at his feet. “You were in too much of a hurry to protect Lady Cosgrave’s hedges? Not very well-mannered for a houseguest.”
He arched one dark eyebrow, his narrow lips quirking into a half-smile. “And you’re worrying about propriety now? You really have changed, Harwood.”
The familiar name ran like a knife beneath my ribs, making me suck in a breath. “Miss Harwood,” I said icily, “if we’re worrying about propriety. We’re no longer affianced, if you recall.”
“Oddly enough,” said Wrexham, “I have no difficulty at all in remembering that small detail.” He nudged the branch with the toe of one gleaming boot. “You needn’t fear that Lady Cosgrave will kick up a fuss. She was the one who urged me to catch you up ‘with all haste.’ She was concerned about your welfare, apparently.” There was a decidedly sardonic tone to his last words.
I could have hissed with exasperation. Curse our hostess! Once a politician, always a practiced maneuverer of people — and of course, she was one of Amy’s closest friends. I knew exactly what she’d been up to with that humiliating strategy.
Letting out my held breath, I crossed my arms and glared up at him. “And you? You thought you had to come running to…what? Save me from the terrible dangers of a snowstorm?”
“Hardly,” Wrexham said. His smile reappeared, turned rueful. “I’ve seen you at work, remember?”
Damnation. The echo of our past was too much for me to bear. I turned and struck out blindly across the uneven ground, only hoping that my feet were still carrying me north. “You can tell our hostess that you’ve confirmed my safety,” I called back to him. “So you’ve done your duty as a guest.”
“Ah, but we haven’t found Miss Fennell yet, have we?” Wrexham fell smoothly into step beside me, his greatcoat swishing about his long legs. “Lady Cosgrave wishes all the magicians of our party to join the search.”
“Then —” No. I snapped my teeth shut just in time, before I could give in to temptation and order him to search elsewhere.
My ex-fiancé might be infuriating, but he was no fool. I couldn’t afford to drop such obvious clues … and if I truly hadn’t any feelings left for him anymore, as I’d claimed so vehemently two months ago, then I shouldn’t mind where he chose to conduct his search. No, I should be perfectly cool and collected in his company.
I said, with poisonous sweetness, “Shall we talk about the weather?”
“If you like.” He glanced up at the snow-clouded sky, walking as easily up the steep slope of the hill as if we were taking a morning stroll about a garden. “It wasn’t meant to snow for at least another three days. Don’t you find this storm a bit peculiar?”
I rolled my eyes. “As if weather wizardry were ever reliable.” It was one of the first things we’d been taught after my arrival at the Library, as our tutors fought valiantly to clear our minds of superstition and instill a more Enlightened approach to magic.
“It could be, though. If they forgot about trying to mimic the ancient druids and took a more modern approach — or if someone would finally devote the time and effort to persuading any of the non-human beings to share their own strategies … hmm.” Wrexham broke off, his voice sharpening. “Where are we, exactly?”
“You don’t know?” I slanted a glance up at him through the falling snow. “You just traveled directly here, remember?”
“Yes, but I wasn’t aiming for any particular geographical point.” His words sounded abstracted as he peered into the distance, frowning. “I was aiming for you, of course.”
But there was no of course about the matter. That particular spell took an enormous amount of power and effort … and, far more unsettlingly, a bone-deep familiarity with its target.
I kept my tone light even as my fingers tightened around my lantern and compass. “It’s a pity no one in our party knows Miss Fennell well enough to do the same. But — ahh!” I gasped as the ground suddenly lurched beneath our feet, sending me stumbling forward. “What was that?”
Beneath us, the ground had re-settled … but in the distance, a boulder shifted up and down.
Boulders didn’t move on their own.
Wrexham and I both turned with the swift, unspoken instinct of long practice until our backs nearly touched and we could survey the entire landscape together.
Snow flurried past my bubble of protection. A rock rolled slowly past my feet, tumbling downhill.
Wrexham said, his voice deceptively casual, “Neither of us knows this territory. So how did you happen to choose your path?”
I grimaced, glad that he couldn’t see my face as I made my confession. “Without any finesse whatsoever, I’m afraid. All I have is a plain magnetic compass, so I’ve followed it.”
And I had, even as my wayward memories had wandered elsewhere. My booted feet had walked north across snow-covered fields and even up this rugged hillside, following the compass’s magnetic lead…
…But the rest of me hadn’t paid nearly enough attention to where I was going.
This was the problem with memories — and with useless, distracting emotions in general. This was why I should have known better than to come to this house party in the first place! I might already have lost my magical abilities, but there was no excuse for giving up my mental capacities as well.
My gaze swept across the barren, rocky hillside that we stood on, identical to every other hill ranging in the distance…until it moved.
The ground shivered beneath my feet.
Another rock rolled past us.
I took a deep breath and gripped the lantern’s handle to hold it steady as the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place. “It seems,” I said to my ex-fiancé in as calm a tone as I could muster, “you may have a chance to discuss non-human methods of weather prediction after all … because I’m reasonably certain that we are standing on a troll.”