Despite what either of my sisters may say, I actually possess a great deal of common sense. That was why I waited until nearly midnight on the last night of our journey into Devon before I climbed out of my bedroom window.
Luckily, my family was staying on the first floor of the inn, so the rope I’d brought along in case of emergencies was more than long enough. Luckier yet, I knew a useful secret: it’s much easier to sneak out in the middle of the night when you can make yourself invisible.
I landed on the grass with a thud that sent the rope jerking hard against the window’s edge. It was the moment of truth: I held my breath, watching the darkened window and searching for the faintest sign of an outraged older sister awake and ready to use all of her considerable powers – even scandalous witchcraft – to try to force me back to safety.
Nothing. My shoulders relaxed.
Not for the first time, I blessed my sister Angeline for the fact that she slept like the dead. If our older sister Elissa had been the one sharing a room with me, the noise would have woken her in an instant, and then there would have been goodness only knows how much commotion and offended propriety.
It was the first time I’d actually been glad that she was gone.
Elissa was one of my favourite people in the entire world, and ever since she had moved to London with her new husband last autumn, I had missed her every single day. When it came to matters of propriety, though, she was the prissiest female I had ever met. And there was nothing in the world quite so improper as magic.
That was one of the reasons I loved it so much.
Grass tickled my bare feet as I took a deep, exhilarating breath of cold night air. My magic-working buzzed in the back of my head, strong and steady.
I was on a mission, and for once, no one in my family was going to stop me.
I turned around, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. I’d landed to one side of the sprawling old timber-framed inn, which backed onto a hill dotted with trees. By the top of the hill, the trees thickened into a true forest, dark and full of secrets. We were only a mile away from the sea, the closest I’d ever been to it in my life, and I could smell a hint of salt in the air, exotic and intriguing.
To my left, the thatched cottages of the village below stood dark and silent. To my right, the trees whispered to themselves in the shadows and a cool breeze ruffled my hair with the promise of adventure.
I knew exactly which way to go.
There was no one in sight, but I held my magic-working steady to stay invisible as I hurried past the stable block and up the hill, towards the darkness of the forest. Can’t see me, can’t see me, can’t see me… The night around me might look empty, but I knew what I’d seen earlier that day – and the day before, at the last inn we’d stopped at – and, most telling of all, outside our own ramshackle vicarage back in Yorkshire.
I was being followed, and I didn’t care for it one bit.
I waited until I was deep into the trees and nearly fifty yards beyond the inn before I let the magic-working slip. Ha! My mysterious follower could spend the rest of the night lurking about the inn, for all I cared. But he couldn’t possibly have seen me leave…which meant that I was free.
For the next five days, until Angeline was safely wed, I would have to be as proper, prim and ladylike as a saint, for my sister’s sake. Her terrifying future mother-in-law, Mrs Carlyle, was already on the lookout for even more reasons to despise my sister, and I wasn’t about to hand her any. But we weren’t at Hepworth Park yet, and I had Guardian practice to do.
I knelt down on the damp grass in the centre of a moonlit clearing. I closed my eyes and felt the breeze on every inch of my skin.
Air, surround me. It was a silent command, with all the power of my will behind it. I sucked in my breath and felt the cool night air draw in around me. My hands rose to my sides…
And a familiar voice spoke from just three feet away.
“I thought that was you I heard clambering about,” said my brother, Charles.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” My eyes flashed open. The magic-working fizzled out before it could even take hold.
Charles was standing beneath the nearest tree, his blonde hair rumpled and his coat and waistcoat both unbuttoned. He looked as if he’d been out for a night of wild dissipation – which, knowing Charles, was probably the truth.
“What on earth are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Charles said. He reached out one hand and pulled me up with effortless strength. “Not really the done thing, y’know, Kat, wandering around the wilds in the middle of the night.”
“No, really?” I glared at him. “Well, it’s lucky you were here to enlighten me, then. We all know what a model of propriety you are!”
Charles shrugged. One of the most infuriating characteristics of my older brother was his utter refusal to be drawn into any argument. “I reckoned you might not have thought it through,” he said.
“You…” I shook my head, gaping. I couldn’t even finish the sentence.
Charles thought I might not have thought through my actions carefully enough? Charles?
It was too ridiculous to even bother with a defence. Instead, I eyed his rumpled clothing. “What were you up to, anyway? And how did you find me?”
“I heard you knocking about in the next room,” he said. “When I looked out of my window, I saw the rope dangling down. Well, I was pretty sure Angeline wouldn’t be crawling out, so…”
Curses. I’d remembered to make myself invisible. If only it had occurred to me to make the rope invisible as well.
“What were you even doing in your room at that hour?” I said. “Don’t you usually drink till dawn in inns like ours?”
He looked absurdly offended. “Dash it, Kat. I’ve been as sober as a judge since last September. You know that.”
I blinked at him. “I do?” I tried to cast back my memory. It was true that I hadn’t seen Charles foxed for a surprisingly long time – but I’d assumed that was only because he hadn’t managed to escape Stepmama’s clutches. As far as I could tell, the only things he’d ever learned at Oxford, before he’d been sent home for bad behaviour, were how to drink until his brain turned to porridge and – and now that I thought of it, this might be related – how to lose horrific amounts of money in pointless card games.
“I’ve changed my ways,” he said. “I’m practically a saint nowadays. Didn’t you even notice?”
“Erm…” I tried to think of a diplomatic answer.
It was too late. “Might’ve known,” he said, shaking his head. “Sisters always notice when you do something wrong – oh, yes – but when you finally try to mend your ways…”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’re right, I should have… Wait.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Didn’t you sneak out to play cards at the pub last month? And the month before, when Stepmama took Angeline to Harrogate to buy her wedding clothes? And—”
“That hardly counts!” Charles looked like an offended judge. “I didn’t drink while I was there. And anyway, I won every time.”
“I always do, nowadays,” he said, and slumped against the nearest tree trunk. “It’s taken all the fun out of it. So I’ve decided to give up gambling, too.”
Brothers were completely baffling.
I sighed and brushed the grass off my skirt. “Never mind. As long as you’re here, you can make yourself useful.”
He almost knocked himself out against the tree as he lurched backward. “Devil take it, Kat, you know I don’t get involved in your magical nonsense.”
“It isn’t nonsense.” I advanced on him purposefully. “But if you’ll just help me, I can get it done much faster.”
He was flattened against the tree trunk now, staring at me with as much horror as if I were aiming a loaded pistol at him. “I mean it, Kat. You and Angeline can play at witchcraft all you like, but I know what magic’s like now, and—”
“This is not witchcraft,” I said, “and it isn’t wild magic, either, so you don’t have to act like such a frightened kitten about it. Just because your idiotic university friends got you into that mess last autumn—”
“If you’d nearly been sacrificed to a blasted Roman goddess, you wouldn’t be so calm about it either,” said Charles, and began to edge around the tree. “Look here, I can see you’re actually doing fine now on your own, so—”
“I saved you from being sacrificed,” I said. “Remember?” I grabbed his coat sleeve before he could get away. “Tonight is my last chance to practice before my initiation. Half the Guardians in the Order don’t even think I ought to be allowed in, just because Mama practiced witchcraft.”
Well, that wasn’t quite the whole truth, actually. In the old days it had only been Mama’s past that had made the rest of the witch-hating Order of the Guardians disapprove of me, but nowadays, the fact that I’d stripped the hereditary Head of the Order of all his magic powers – and his wits – had just as much to do with it.
I’d done that to save Charles’s life, though, and that was something I could never hold against him or pretend to regret – not even to win an argument.
So I skipped that part of the explanation and only said, making my voice as sweet and plaintive as possible, “Do you really want me to make a fool of myself in front of all of those important people?”
I knew exactly the moment that I won. Charles’s shoulders sagged even before he spoke. “Fine,” he said. “But considering the whole lot of them would be drummed out of Society if anyone found out they were practising magic…”
“I know, I know, I know.” I dragged him back to the grass where I’d sat before. “Sit down here.”
He eyed me warily as he lowered himself to the ground. “This isn’t going to hurt, is it?”
“Don’t be absurd.” I sat down across from him, raising my hands. “You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.” I closed my eyes and focused. Air, surround me. “Everyone wishes they could fly.”
“I beg your pardon?” Charles’s voice sounded more like a squeak.
I couldn’t spare the energy to answer him.
Pressure was building in the air around me, much stronger now than the first time I’d tried. I lifted my hands slowly, cupping the night air. It felt thick and tangible against my palms, like butter. Higher up, it pushed against my chest so hard, it hurt to breathe.
I’d never done this before. My tutor, Mr Gregson, had told me that it might not be possible for me to do it yet without help. He’d even told me, meaning to be kind, that I wouldn’t need to – that the other Guardians would understand if I left out that part of my initiation next week, as I’d had to wait so long to receive my proper training.
The very thought of leaving anything out set my teeth on edge. Oh, the other Guardians would certainly understand if I did a half-baked initiation. They would understand, and they would titter behind their hands, and then…
“Kat?” said Charles. “I say. Are you in pain?”
Oops. I’d been gritting my teeth so hard, my head hurt. I unclenched my jaw and let out my held breath in a sigh. Focus. The air had gone thin in my hands again as the magic working fizzled out.
I took a deep breath and forced my shoulders to relax. Air, surround me.
I could do this. I was a Guardian by birth, just as my mother had been. It was the only connection to her that I had left.
To save Charles, I’d had to sacrifice my most cherished possession: Mama’s magic mirror, her own inherited portal to the Guardians’ Golden Hall. Even though I’d never known my mother, I knew it was the decision she would have wanted me to make. But the rest of the Order didn’t agree with me. Not at all.
One portal was passed down in each Guardian family. One, and only one, to be protected and valued above all else. I didn’t know how many generations had used Mama’s mirror before I’d inherited it, but when I’d thrown it into the bubbling waters of Bath to complete the rite of wild magic and save Charles’s life, I had, in the eyes of the Order, forsaken it in the most outrageously careless fashion. As far as they were concerned, I’d shown disdain not just for my portal but for the Order itself…and that didn’t bode well for my initiation.
Oh, they couldn’t refuse to admit me, not after I’d saved Britain from invasion by the French and saved the Guardians from the scandal of their own Head’s treason. But in order for my initiation to take place, I would need a new portal…and to hear all the grumbling, you’d think I was demanding the Crown Jewels. It had been eight months now since I had lost Mama’s mirror, and just as Mrs Carlyle had made excuse after excuse to delay my sister’s wedding, the Order had made excuse after excuse for why the time was never exactly right for me to finally be granted a new portal and initiated.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, everyone had been outraged by Mama, too. First the Order had expelled her for secretly practising witchcraft, and then she’d scandalised all of England by letting the secrecy drop. In the eyes of Society, there was no crime worse than publicly practising magic of any sort – and the other Guardians in the Order weren’t the only ones who still sputtered with fury and disgust whenever Mama’s name was mentioned.
But I’d agreed to join the Order in the first place not only to fight malevolent magic-workers, but also to restore Mama’s reputation as a Guardian. I might have had to give up her mirror, but I would be dashed if I’d let the snobs who’d expelled her for her curiosity and courage look down their noses at me during my own initiation ceremony.
I deserved a new portal. And I would prove it.
I cupped my hands and lifted the air in them. Power buzzed through my body, rising upward. I felt the night around me in my grasp.
Air, support me.
At first I thought it was only my imagination. Then I felt cool air brush underneath the skirts of my dressing gown.
I opened my eyes. Charles was staring at me, his mouth wide open…
And I was hovering a full inch above the ground.
I had to bite my lip to keep myself from laughing with sheer delight. Serious, mature magic-workers wouldn’t laugh when they did magic. I tugged at the air. It lifted me two inches higher. The cool night breeze billowed the wide sleeves of my dressing gown around me like a pair of muslin wings.
I couldn’t hold back my laughter anymore. It burbled up from my chest and overflowed. I tugged myself half a foot higher and met my older brother’s astonished gaze. It only made me laugh harder. “If you could see your face right now—”
“Well, what do you expect of a fellow?” But Charles was grinning too now, and looking astonishingly like the brother I used to know before Stepmama sent him off to boarding school. “Come on, then, Kat, follow through on your promise. You’re not going to sit up there all night on your own, are you?”
“Absolutely not.” I closed my eyes and felt through the darkness. “Ready?”
I could hear Charles’s grin in his voice. “Do your worst.”
Air, surround him –
A twig snapped just ten feet away, as loud as a gunshot in the silence of the night.
My eyes flared open. I twisted around in midair.
A dark figure stood between the trees, watching me.