Chapter One

I stopped my horse to get my bearings. Never did well to barge into new situations.

And this was certainly a new situation.

Swever Hall looked just like any other centuries-old holding with such a grand name: a house built out of the pale gray stone native to the area with two three-story wings on either side of the central main entrance. The wings were probably there so the school it housed could put as much separation between the boys and girls as possible.

There were arched doors and windows trimmed with carved stone. The road circled before the entry. The bare-branched trees that had crowded the road since I’d turned off the highway gave way to a rolling lawn still dormant and snow-dusted from Fallow. About a moon’s time stood between this region and green. Across the lawn, a wall butted against the Hall’s far wing. From the vines and decor along the wall’s top and the conical shape of the trees that poked just above it, I guessed that area to be a garden. Roofs of outbuildings jutted over the garden walls here and there. Paths wide enough for vehicles, some paved, some not, led deeper into the campus.

It was what I had expected. Wealth and grandeur had little imagination. Especially here in the central region of the Kingdom barely a three days’ ride from King’s Place.

And yet I had come anyway.

Three moons before, as our part of the world was firmly entrenched in the waning warmth of the Harvest season and most were seeking to end their year’s travels instead of beginning new treks, I had received a message at my room in Puchestown, one of the anal sores on the relative prosperity and stability of the Sky Kingdom. I almost hadn’t opened it - there was a reason I was living in a place I considered to be an anal sore, after all - but I have always been a curious creature. And my employer, Vawna, had been standing beside me when I received the letter.

I’d been eyeing the letter, trying to decide if I would bother with it, when she’d snatched it up. “Not to worry. I’ll read this for you.”

I received no letters. She was hiding her curiosity under the kindness of reading the letter to me because I couldn’t read it myself. I allowed it because she was one of the few people I trusted in that town.

She had slitted open the wax seal with her dagger and unrolled the paper. After a moment of scanning, she’d narrowed her eyes, cleared her throat, and read the contents aloud.

The message had been addressed from Bejarm Avercraft, the headmaster of this mildly illustrious pillar of magic education filled with children from the minor nobility, the wealthiest merchants and industrialists, and even a few of the Rewens that ruled the Sky Kingdom’s districts. Headmaster Avercraft was inviting me to visit the school and discuss a position teaching a year-long seminar on magic manipulation. The letter informed me the headmaster had received a recommendation and, after evaluating my records and references, considered me a good fit. The letter was also clear the position was for the upcoming school year only, though a permanent position was possible if the seminar went well. If I was interested in discussing the offer, he asked that I arrive at least a half-moon before classes would start back for the new year.

“You’ll accept, yes?” she had said after finishing reading and refolding the letter.

I had shrugged. “Me? Teaching? Does that sound right?”

“You taught my girls to protect themselves,” she had pointed out.

“That was fighting. That’s what I’m useful for. This is magic. At a school filled with trained mages. What do they need me for?”

Her eyes had narrowed again. “As though your magic means nothing.”

I’d shrugged again. “Those types usually act like it means nothing.”

For the next moon, she had pestered me about the invitation, going on about opportunities and how I wasting my life by staying in the aforementioned anal sore. Personally, I’d thought that a bit hypocritical coming from a woman who’d lived in the place her entire life and ran a successful business within its borders.

I’d finally agreed to the visit. She was right - I was getting tired of my self-imposed exile and it was time to return. If not to who and what I’d left behind, then at least something away from Pucheston. I wasn’t ready to face the people I’d left behind. This had seemed a good compromise.

So I had sent a message informing the school I would be coming to hear the offer and packed my things.

Seeing the place, I wished I’d let the letter burn.

Reaching the stairs leading to the set of double doors wide and tall enough for a teamster to drive his load through, I dismounted and tied Bray to one of the posts lining the side of the driveway.

The entry soared above my head as I stepped through the door. Even with the cavernous ceiling and the stone, the room was warm. A curving staircase built of dark stone wide enough for five or six people to walk up side-by-side stretched up the right side of the room, leading to a semi-circular and columned balcony that overlooked the entry. Polished and carved beams supported the domed ceiling far above, a ceiling I now realized was striated with narrow rectangular windows. Wealth and grandeur, indeed. The craft mages required to build this place would have been expensive to hire.

Opposite the front entrance, a dining hall stretched out from the back of the house, while open doorways on either side, one under the staircase, seemed to lead to hallways. A fireplace taller than me was centered on the left side wall. Three two-seated sofas ringed the floor before the fireplace. A wide door stood on either side of the fireplace with a bench and rune-powered lamp beside both. A similar door stood between the entry and the stairs on the right wall. A dark-skinned woman dressed in the simple long skirt and button-front bodice I associated with King’s Place office staff stepped out of that door and looked at me as I examined the room. The somber not-quite-black colors made her easy to overlook. I had a feeling that was her intention. “Investigator Nyine Hunter?” the woman enquired.

Former investigator, yes.” I turned toward her. “Most recently, I’ve been a guard.”

“I see.” Her tone said my title wasn’t relevant to her. “Headmaster-Minor Solak will be with you shortly.”

“Do I have time to care for my horse?” I asked.

“I will call for a stableboy,” she told me before disappearing through the door again. I shifted before the door closed and saw the room was a small, immaculate office, with a set of double doors leading into another room behind it. Maybe the headmaster’s office?

I stepped back out the door and waited until a young man who looked just barely into his apprenticeship approached. “Investigator Hunter?” he asked.

“Yes.” I didn’t bother correcting him. I passed over Bray’s reins. “Careful. She bites some. Never know when.”

“Yes, Investigator,” he responded, though his expression said he considered himself a far better horseman than the oddly-attired woman in front of him. Then Bray snaked her head around and grabbed his upper arm. I smirked at his yelp and re-entered the Hall.

After a few minutes of watching people hurry through the entry, all of who gave me curious glances, a round man just barely shorter than me hurried in my direction. His skin was light golden-brown, he wore a robe in an orange color a sunset would envy, and what was left of his hair was graying. “Mistress Hunter!” he said brightly through puffing breaths. “I am Headmaster-Minor Solak. Come, come. Let us take a walk through the gardens as we talk, yes? Such a wonderful day for a walk.”

I wanted to ask if he was certain his heart could take the exercise, but somewhere in my twenty-seven years, I’d learned to curb my tongue. Sometimes, anyway. Instead, I merely walked at his side as he led me back out the door and around to the gardens the left side of the building.

“So delighted you could take the time to hear our offer,” Solak said. “We feel you are uniquely suited to this seminar.”

“I would like to know why,” I said. “I’m not sure how I could be seen as a teacher. My only formal education was an evaluation by Headmistress Pike at Nesdigh when I was seventeen. And I was at Nesdigh only because the school was required to see me.” By the order of some of those people I had been avoiding for the past three years.

He chuckled. “Precisely why we believe you fit this role. Please, tell me, what is Swever Hall known for?”

I shrugged. Most of the Kingdom’s schools were known for one or two specialties, and I’d met enough former students in my previous life to feel that general knowledge was fairly accurate. “Adept soldier-mages.” Unlike Nesdigh, which turned out superior beings who liked snubbing everyone else because they couldn’t possibly be smarter or more skilled. Those few days had been some of the most annoying in my life. The faculty who’d been forced to work with my friends and I had probably felt the same way about us.

He tilted his head and gave me a small, cunning smile. Hm, more to this man than the cheerful glutton he looked to be. “Only that?”

“Well, there have been some particularly strong mages out of this school…” If he wanted a history lesson, he was going to be disappointed because I couldn’t actually name any of those people. Schooling had never been one of my interests.

“‘Mages of note’,” he said. “As our placards around the realm proclaim. Rewen Tillat the Fire-Willed, Sesqia of the Reaches, Brenne the Whisperer. And others. Those are perhaps the most infamous. Though we are not the top school for training battle mages in the Sky Kingdom, there are other institutions who strive to be even a tenth as accomplished as we are.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “You’re very confident.”

He laughed. “We are particularly gifted at taking average mages and making them very good through a disciplined and rigorous curriculum so they may return home to be useful for their families.” I detected a bit of sarcasm in those words. Hm, the headmaster-minor didn’t like that, did he?

We turned a corner along the garden path and a small lawn opened before us where a group of adolescent girls and boys sat in a circle talking. The students glanced over at us with murmured greetings to Solak and curious glances at me but returned to their conversation. Solak continued, “However, we have found the truly gifted souls such as those I just listed do not flourish under the mantle of discipline.”

He turned to face me. “We have several students who flounder in their studies. They have been tested. All are exceptional in their potential for magic use.” He paused, eyes holding my gaze pointedly. “Their potential is the problem. When their control is ironclad, they do well. When they are upset, or tired, or angry, or sad—.”

“Which is all the time because they are growing,” I interrupted.

He chuckled. “Indeed. When life overwhelms them, the results are—erratic.”

“They blow up spells,” I translated.

He dipped his head in acknowledgement. “They have become difficult students in their own ways because they do not understand what is happening and their instructors are ill-equipped to respond to their needs. Learning to manipulate magical energy as you do will help them control their spells as well as give them the tools to become the powerful mages their natural talent tells us they could be.”

I dropped my eyes to stare down at the cobblestone path we stood on. “I grew up doing magic this way. Everyone around me did. You do understand the dangers?”

His chuckle told me he understood all too well. “I am a scholar, Investigator Hunter. Forgive me, Guard Hunter. Resource after resource throughout my career has expounded the dangers of magic manipulation and reminded us why a reliance on spells and potions grew to popularity so quickly when introduced to our kingdom during the last dynasty. I am also aware the most gifted among us all eventually turn to it when spells prove ill-equipped to allow them to use magic at the highest levels of their capabilities. Also, you will find there are several students here who come from similar circumstances as you. They grew up in areas where manipulation of the elemental magics is not only common, it is necessary for survival.”

Those words summed up my childhood.

“This is why we approached you with our offer. Few people are capable of allowing these children to flail about until they find their own ground. Who understand when to stand back and when the magic is too much.” His lips twisted into a wry smile. “You seem to have a natural gift for pushing others to explore their magics. Master Artifactor Dines Weaver speaks highly of you. He gives lectures here during the interim sessions.”

Oh. Dines. That was how they’d found me. Well, it certainly wasn’t Langfelles or AnTwalla - since the two of them were halfway across the Lower Continent, fighting and whoring and whatever else they could get into. Somehow I doubted their word would carry as much weight, anyway. And everyone else who knew me wanted me for their own causes.

Why Dines considered me a friend, I’ve never figured out. I was more cruel than kind in our adolescent days. He’d grown up to be an extremely forgiving man.

Wait… “Master Artifactor?”

“Oh? You hadn’t heard?”

“I’ve been living in Puchestown, Headmaster-Minor. The news there tends to focus more on whether or not the smugglers were raided again and how much the rich visitors were taken for than on an inventor’s accomplishments.”

He chuckled. “Indeed, indeed. Yes, Dines received his guild approval at the end of Growing this past year. From what I understand, he has been involved in establishing his patents since then.”

I didn’t stop the soft smile that stretched my lips. Dines had finally accomplished all of his goals. “Received the guild’s rather grudging approval, I’ll bet.” Dines was my age. A couple of months younger, actually. The youngest Master Artifactor I knew of beyond him was in his forties.

“There was a bit of pressure on the guild by the royals and the military, from what I understand. Everyone knew he has the talent and knowledge to pass the testing. The panel was just being grumpy.”

Grumpy. One way to put it.

“And what Dines told you is...favorable to you?” After all, I’d helped Dines “learn” tracking magic by abandoning him in a ravine when we were ten. He had eventually made it back to the village we’d grown up in - by using skills that had nothing to do with tracking magic.

He looked me squarely in the eye. “Yes.” He probably didn’t know about the ravine incident. The village adults certainly hadn’t thought it funny.

“There is another element to your appeal to us. Your background and your references speak to a certain—flexibility of the mind.”

My brow furrowed. What did that mean?

He smiled gently at my obvious confusion. “Something others may consider a liability but we see as a valuable asset. You survived one of the most heartbreaking attacks our nation has ever seen, adjusted to a new life, became a valued investigator for the foremost law enforcement agency in our realm, and have now emerged, seemingly unscathed, from a sabbatical in one of the most lawless—.” Here he grimaced. “—areas of the realm.” I grinned at that. Not many people would be so polite as to refer to three years in the Dreves as a “sabbatical.” “If you can pass your problem-solving skills to the students as well, this experiment of ours will be a quite the success.”

“I suppose you want me to accomplish that without putting the students through the trauma I experienced,” I said drily.

His response matched my dry tone. “It is preferable. Traumatizing students results in poor marks on your evaluations. It is unlikely we would be able to offer you a position next year.”

“Reasonable.”

“Now, to the specifics. The pay is decent and includes room and board for both yourself and your horse. Should you remain here as a full time member of our faculty after this first year, you will receive a budget for supplies and continuing education. All of that will be detailed in your contract. This school year is a trial period. Upon the end of the year, we will evaluate the need for your expertise and renegotiate the terms of your contract if we wish to continue with and expand your role. Should this role not move forward, we may be able to offer you another position, perhaps as a weapons instructor. Do you accept our offer, Guard Hunter?”

Do practically nothing at a posh boarding school? Or go back to a life of waking up at the bottom of a sour-smelling tavern in Pucheston? Hmm…

“Yes,” I said. “When do I start?”