Chapter One

 

 

THE STORM blew me in. Rain lashed against the coast, pounding breakers against the shore and boulders, against the beach and the squat little lighthouse.

Most of all, it pounded against my carriage, which rocked alarmingly from side to side. I held on to the wheel grimly and stared ahead. It took all my strength, and not a small bit of magic, to keep the wheels gripping the road and the lightweight, horseless buggy from blowing away and tumbling down the cliffs into the foaming, apoplectic sea.

The engine sputtered threateningly and gave out just before the lighthouse. I threw my cloak tighter around my shoulders, ducked my head, and ran for the shelter ahead of me. Shelter in more ways than one, and it felt as though I was running in more ways than one also. Howling, the wind tore at my clothes, ripping at my cloak, tearing it from between my fingers. The strings snapped, and it flapped away like a large black crow. I was soaked instantly, hair flattened to my head, grim, cold water plastering my clothes to me. The wind shrieked triumph and cackled laughter at me.

I pounded at the door to the house connected to the lighthouse. I rattled the knob in desperation. Behind me, the carriage toppled gently onto its side and edged away. I sent a quick flick of magic to glue it in place so it wouldn’t fall over a cliff.

Then I turned back to the house and nudged the lock with a tendril of magic. The door flew open under my hand. I burst into a small room lit with a glowing hearth, books coating its walls on cozy bookshelves. The wind forced the door open the rest of the way, banging it against the wall with a loud crack. Wind and rain flew in, parallel to the ground, and warmth and dryness flew out.

I stared into an astonished young man’s face. He looked about my age and was seated on a small couch not far from the fire, within reach of the bookshelves. He wore a red short-sleeved shirt and blue shorts that were just a little too short both for this weather and for his muscular, hairy legs. His bare feet were propped on the edge of the couch, and he had a book open, but he wasn’t reading it. He was looking at me with the widest gray eyes I’d ever seen, utterly shocked.

“Shut the door!” cried a female voice, and with a quick flap of skirts and curled red hair, here she was: my sister. I turned and braced myself against the door, fighting the wind to get it closed. She threw herself against it as well. Grunting, we fought back the wind. The door nearly banged us against the wall.

And then the stranger was there, throwing his weight against it too, his shoulder next to mine, nearly shoving me out of the way. He grunted, once, and then the door shut for all three of us.

“Wow! That’s some wind!” And then he took a step back, self-conscious again. “Hello.”

“Hello.” I nodded at him curtly. I wasn’t quite sure about my sister having a man here. She had good employment, and I supposed some man might want to live off her. But I wasn’t pleased. I visibly saw him swallow and decide not to offer his hand for shaking. I must have looked a bit fierce in that moment, windswept and intense.

“Hey, hey,” said my sister, giving me a sharp nudge in the ribs. “Be nice! This is my assistant, Rupert. Rue.”

“Hello,” said Rue, giving me a faint nod.

“Hello,” I managed, trying not to sulk. The last thing I wanted was to have to use my company manners while visiting my sister.

“And this is my brother Elly. Be nice, Elly!”

“Elliot.” I grimaced.

She turned to face me then, bright-green eyes snapping, a crooked smile on her square, freckled face. Her hair plastered to her face almost as hard as mine did, even from that brief fight with the wind.

She smiled rakishly at me and reached out to tug at my shirt. “You always did like to make an entrance. You look like a drowned rat.”

I smiled softly in return. “You’re one to talk.” I gave her a light tap of my knuckles on the shoulder, and then I found myself in one of her tight hugs. All encompassing, warm, sturdy, steady, and soft. And I closed my eyes and just breathed, for what felt like the first time in months.

When we drew apart, my smile was apologetic. I tugged uselessly at my shirt and glanced at Rue again.

He had beautiful hair, wavy and thick with loose curls, dark as the night sky, dappled with fine threads of white through it. His skin was as tanned as a fisherman’s. He looked healthy and strong, slender and youthful-looking but well muscled, with slim wrists and ankles.

“I’ll check the light.” He moved away to give us our privacy.

“Where’d you get him?” I asked. I followed her into the lovely kitchen, so warm.

“Be nice. I’m glad to have an assistant. And he needed the work—to get away from his family for a bit, I think.” She went to pour tea, pulling down a large red mug for me and a smaller, slimmer white mug for her. The familiar glug-glug-glug of the tea leaving the pot reminded me of home, made me feel grounded already. I took a deep, shaky breath. The warmth of the kitchen comforted me, but my damp clothing stuck close.

I tugged at the shirt and grimaced. “Listen, Mary, I’d better go change. You’ll have to tell me all the gossip in a minute.”

“Any clothes?” she asked without turning from the stove. She finished pouring the tea and began to spoon sugar into hers, then mine. The spoon made a ting ting ting against the pottery, like a small bell.

“Um.” I ran a hand back through my wet hair. “In the carriage. It blew over.” I grimaced at the thought of going back out for my luggage.

She laughed. “It’s all right. Go take a bath. I’ll bring you some clothes.”

I raised a brow. “Ooh. You keep men’s clothes on hand now, do you?”

She gave me a swat on the stomach. “Shut up. I have some things for bad weather.”

I snickered at her. “You’ve got a beau, you’ve got a beau.”

“You’ll get a fat lip in a minute.”

I escaped with a laugh, steps clattering toward the bathroom. I already felt better for talking to her. More human and sane, more like myself. I felt less as though I’d been banished.

The bathroom floor was stone and felt as though it went straight down into the earth. I liked the sturdiness of the worn-smooth surface beneath my feet. I reached over and turned the hot water on to fill the tub. Steam rose around me. I stripped down without ado and climbed in. The turbulent water swirled around me as the tub filled. I breathed deep of the steam, resting my arms on the sides of the tub. It felt good to let go. I closed my eyes.

The raging fury assaulted me, shaking me to my core. Closing my eyes and lowering my barriers let the strange magic of the storm flood me. I opened my eyes quickly and sat up straighter, tingling and discomfited, shivering inwardly. The wildness of the storm hadn’t touched me as deeply when I was drenched by it. That was all on the surface; this was deeper, troubling. I felt the full fury of the storm, not just here, but stretched for miles along the coast and out to sea. The wild, uncontained magical and natural strength of it—for an instant, I had felt it all, and it terrified me. My magic hadn’t been so uncontrolled for years. Except for the one time, the reason I’d been sent here. What was happening to me lately?

I clung to the sides of the tub, my eyes wide. I hadn’t done that in ages, opened myself to accidentally taste the full fury of nature that way. That was one of the best things about getting proper magic training—I didn’t have to deal with that anymore. So what was going on? Just another symptom of whatever the hell it was?

I calmed my breathing and reached down deep, feeling the strength of the rock beneath us, holding this building sturdy, as it had for longer than I’d been alive. The strength of the rock held a quieter magic, and slowly, as I filtered the storm out and tuned in to the rock, it quieted me.

Someone knocked at the door. I hadn’t even begun to scrub. I reached for a fat, gray sponge and the soap. “Come in!”

“Clothes.” The door creaked and slid open. Rue slipped into the steamy room and put down a set of clothes. I pretended to wash my chest, but actually, I just watched him. He moved with a confidence and purpose I found myself envying. He looked at home in his body, as if it obeyed him without question, as if he had never been clumsy once in his life.

He gave me a nod and a small smile and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

The storm battered close again, and I closed my eyes quickly and felt for the stone’s strength. I searched deep, pulling it to me, pooling it around me. My breathing deepened and grew slower as I relaxed. But I felt something else, strangely. It was close now, shining, elemental, whimsical, and raw, but without the steadiness of the earth magic. Something living and magical, but wilder than I was used to. An animal? Something like an animal? I felt farther, reaching after it, this shining, glowing creature. Even magical apes at the Boston zoo had never drawn me so. I reached and felt and stretched for the creature. For a moment, I could almost taste and feel its size and strength and personality—and then something snapped.

I opened my eyes, jolted back to the present as cleanly as if someone had slammed a magical door. I rubbed between my brows. The storm raging around me was just that, now, with my magical awareness shut tight. The stone beneath was just stone. I glanced over the side of the tub down at the floor.

Damn it. I grimaced at the sight of what I’d done. Smooth stone flooring had rippled toward me in little waves, pooling, pushing up against the tub. I’d reached for the stone to steady my magic. It now sat in an uneven wasteland. I couldn’t go without wrecking anything, could I?

This floor had been here longer than I’d been alive, and I’d managed to ruin it in one careless moment. I grimaced and climbed from the tub onto the craggy, uneven ripples of stone. Cold water sheeted off me. I still hadn’t washed properly, but my skin was wrinkled and puffy. I reached down for the magic of the stones, but I couldn’t find it now. I tried again, but it didn’t work. I sighed, stared at my handiwork, and then dried off.

I’ll fix it tomorrow.

I pulled on the oversized gray cardigan Rue had left for me. It had large, cable-knit stitches and the worn smell of old sheep beneath the cleanness. I could sense it had all come from one animal; the unmixed fiber sat smoothly against my skin, a sighing, easy comfort. The neck was stretched out, and there were darned patches near the waistline, but I could already feel this would be my new favorite piece of clothing. It was earthy and true and sturdy, the steady sort of clothing a wizard should wear.

The trousers were more problematic. They were cut to fit Mary’s fertile female hips, not my narrow, barren male ones. In the end, I had to work some magic to keep them from falling to my knees with my first step.

When I emerged, I found Mary and Rue seated at the table. He sat over a cup of tea, munching steadily through a scone with the deadly serious appetite of youth. His hair was healthy-looking. So why did he have streaks of gray in it? He was surely far too young.

He looked up as I entered the room, his cheeks puffy with mouthfuls too large. His gray gaze met mine, steady and calm, with a smile he hadn’t shown me earlier. There was a look of liking in his expression.

He rose, moving to give me his seat and take a chair nearer the corner. I accepted it, because it seemed such a natural thing, and only a moment after I sat did I wonder at it. He ducked his head and pushed the plate of scones toward me.

Mary was watching me. She moved a mug toward me slowly. It made a low, scraping sound across the wood table, a friendly sound, like checkers sliding across a wooden board.

A great burst of wind and rain tore against the house, smashing at the battened-down shutters, making the whole house shiver. A whistling roar like that of a train seemed about to bear down on us. I shivered involuntarily and crouched over my cup, trying to draw all my senses in so I couldn’t accidentally reach out and feel the storm again. Its fingers tore at the edges of my awareness, ragged wind fingers, too much power, too close. I thought guiltily of the floor in the bathroom and didn’t reach down to anchor myself. I shut my eyes and weathered it, holding on to the mug. The one sheep’s wool guarded my upper body, and the steady grain of the kitchen table rested under my elbows, but they were small comfort against that fierce magic.

Mary closed a hand over my upper arm and squeezed. She knew more than most how I had struggled, even in the old days before the worst (or best) of my magic had hit. Things touch a wizard more deeply sometimes, both the good and the bad. There is a reason for the stereotype of the mad, old wizard. I can get drunk on a rainbow. I can get the heebie-jeebies over a storm.

I can accidentally ruin the wizard parliament when I’ve had too much blackberry wine. And then I can be sent away in disgrace.

I scraped fingers back through my hair and took a shaky breath. “I’m afraid I’ll have to fix your bathroom floor later,” I informed Mary. She smiled and nodded, giving my arm a light squeeze.

When I looked up, Rue was watching me with an interested expression, as though reading a fascinating article or book. He met my gaze, and I saw him smile. It was a complicated smile, part friendly, part sympathetic. I recognized in it something I desperately needed: the offer of friendship. I didn’t know how he could’ve decided I was worth such an offer when he had barely spoken a word to me—but I accepted that he had.

He reached out to me, and, hardly knowing what I did, I reached out and took the hand he offered. He squeezed it, a comforting strength in his surprisingly firm grip. He had callused hands, I was surprised to note. Mary clasped my upper arm, Rue held my hand, and we sat out the violent blasts like that, together, the three of us: the absurdly strong wizard, and the normal people who were somehow yet stronger than he.