Chapter One

 

WILLIAM LOOKED up at the solid marble doors of Efeldon University with growing irritation. The gleaming white stone blended seamlessly into the walls that enclosed the grounds, while the various buildings and ostentatious spires jutted out above the walls. He had half expected to cross a moat. If there had been one, it probably would have had tropical fish swimming through it and sparkles floating in the water. The kingdom of Efeldon was a strange place, but the one thing he thought he’d never get used to was the seemingly universal desire of its people to create eyesores out of buildings that should have been utilitarian and practical.

William would never have designed a school of magic with so many interconnected buildings; the map he had been given upon accepting the job was a clear sketch, but it hardly made sense. Most of the buildings were squeezed together, some connected by suspended walkways, while others were stranded a few minutes’ walk from the rest of the campus. Still others were so isolated and far away that they didn’t even appear to be part of the school. William took a last disheartened look at the mass of buildings pricking the skyline and pushed one of the doors open.

It was obnoxiously heavy. Clearly no one had thought of that when they chose marble.

His annoyance softened, though, as he entered the campus and felt the rush that accompanied a new school year. It was the start of the fall semester, and the first-year students were easy to pick out in the crowd by their uncertain gaits and the stacks of texts they were carrying. In stark contrast were the senior students, who ambled along toward very defined points, weighed down only by satchels and a book or two under one arm.

Navigating the crowds of students, he reached the main building and stepped inside. The air was fresh and cool, in contrast to the early fall heat, and he suspected elemental magic at work. Only giving himself a moment to survey the interior—the ceiling stretched four stories up in the entryway, and the room was easily spacious enough for its seventy or so occupants to mill about—he made for the welcome desk.

There was a long line of students, and Will took his place at the end of it and self-consciously ran a hand through his hair. He had taken great care with his appearance, preinterview jitters insisting that his hair wasn’t right, his boots not clean enough.

He had looked at his reflection in the mirror of his inn room and been less than satisfied. His dark hair, just to his chin, was wavier than usual. His brown eyes were hungry and scared as they looked back at him through the mirror. Maybe it had been his imagination, but he thought his skin had even looked paler, wan and sickly in the early morning light. Will had always battled the shut-in scholar look, and he thanked the gods that he had filled out a little more before coming to Efeldon for his interview. His colleagues at the Yvenne College used to remind him to eat while he was dashing from his research-assistant gig to class and back. Well, he’d finally had the time to feed himself after the budget cuts.

William blinked a little at the sound of a cough. He was next in line.

Two receptionists stood behind the desk. One young woman was writing on parchment, her quill flying across the page. He approached the less preoccupied one and donned his best professional smile.

“William Yderis. I believe you have my assignment.” He spoke in a composed and steady voice despite his underlying nervousness. It was important to do so; even if he didn’t believe it, the facade gave him an eventual confidence that was real. It was one of many things he had learned working for his previous employer, when he was a research assistant at the Yvenne College of Magic during his graduate studies. Inwardly he had been displeased at the idea of moving all the way from Yvenne College, the hub of magical study, to a frankly unknown school like Efeldon University. But budget cuts had left no room for his department, and he hadn’t had much experience beyond the obscure branch of elemental charmcrafting anyway. He was rubbish with applied magics and struggled to even create a small, flickering light—hence his interest in charmcrafts. Since spells infused the objects with power, even someone with no trace of magical gift could use them.

Besides, he hadn’t been in a place to turn down the admittedly ample pay and the free room and board that Efeldon offered him, and he still had to write his dissertation and earn his PhD.

Which brought him here, to a magical college he feared had more money than sense, and about as much sense as substance, in the hopes that this assistant professorship would afford him the opportunity to conduct his own experiments and complete his degree.

“Ah, yes.” The receptionist had finished looking through a bound-leather folder and took out a document tabbed with his last name. “Yderis, I believe you are reporting to the elemental magic building, the Wind Wing.” At the uncertain flicker of his eyes from her to his map, she added, “That will be the most northeastern building on your map. You should pass by the ballomancy and symphomancy buildings on your way if you exit that door.” She pointed helpfully across the room to a set of large oaken doors opposite the desk.

“Thank you for your help,” said William, and he gave a brisk bow and headed off.

Almost exactly fifteen minutes later, and sweating slightly from the inland Efeldon heat—it was not the temperate air of thickly forested Yvenne—he had passed the buildings dedicated to dance magic and musical magic to arrive at an enormous building.

He pushed through a set of heavy doors and into the refreshing air of another magically cooled building. There did not appear to be any signs directing him from the entrance, another offensively large room, to any of the wings. Luckily, he saw a student walking past and called out.

“Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the Wind Wing?” His tongue rebelled at the ridiculousness of the name. In the Yvenne College of Magic, every department had a specific and impressive title. None of the professors there would have been caught dead saying “the Wind Wing.”

The young man, who was clutching his magical tomes with a frantic air that confirmed he was a student, paused and rocked on his heels, appearing to think. After a moment he said, evidently distracted, “Take a right and you’ll see stairs at the end of the hallway. Go up five flights, and then you’ll see a room at the end of that hallway. Take those stairs up two more flights, and you’ll be in the tower.”

Before William could ask the student whether or not the Wind Wing was composed entirely of one tower, the man had rushed off. Alone but with some idea where he was going, William proceeded to turn down the hallway and mounted the stairs, going up five flights as he’d been told. There was an ornate carpeting on the stairs that annoyed him, but he pushed down his exasperation at the extravagance and walked briskly down the fifth-floor hallway until he came to the room at the end. It was smaller than any of the previous rooms, and round, but it was still big enough to house a group of twenty comfortably. William started up the spiral staircase that wrapped sinuously around the inside of the tower, wondering if this was really where he was going to hold class.

When he reached the second story of the tower, he stepped off the landing into a thickly carpeted room adorned with hanging tapestries in colors gaudier than a charmcrafter’s tool belt. Deep purples, blues, golds, and whites festooned the walls, some clashing with the crimson carpeting. The drapes were white silk trimmed in gold embroidery and—William blinked—tied back with massive gold tassels. As he stood there surrounded by nauseating decadence, he heard footsteps from above.

Good, he thought queasily. Maybe I can speak to someone about this. He didn’t think he could concentrate well enough to teach in a room that looked like a brothel had thrown up inside it.

His gaze had just snagged on a bright tapestry that depicted a lascivious woman molding herself to the bare torso of another equally lascivious woman when the rich tones of a stranger’s voice rang out.

“You must be Will.”

Too surprised to be annoyed, he turned and began to say, “It’s William, actually—”

The words stopped. His mouth hung slightly open as his eyes settled on the stranger.

Luminous, dancing lavender eyes looked back at him, framed by long, flawless hair the color of spun gold. Lustrous and silky, it looked like it might glow in direct sunlight. A perfectly charming smile widened, drawing his gaze to decidedly thin lips. The man had the sort of sharp features and pointed, thin nose that might have looked eagle-like on another, but something beneath his skin glowed, his complexion almost golden. With that, he came off looking more like a sun god. There was something about his sparkling eyes and his smile that softened his features further.

The man before him was clad in luxurious violet robes with lavender accents to match his eyes, and his form, tall and more muscular than the ones normally seen at a magical college, seemed to almost vibrate in place.

William’s gaze finally settled at the point where the man’s tunic opened in a deep V that reached past his collarbone and halfway to his navel. Absently William wondered if the man was in the field of electromancy, given the way his body appeared to shimmer in place, as if he were some relation to the hummingbirds of Yvenne.

Those thoughts were dashed as the man floated toward him, barely seeming to touch the ground with each step. Perhaps he was a professor in the Wind Wing, then. He dearly hoped the man had a better name for the department than the secretary had led him to believe.

“Archmage Karsus.” The man’s lavender eyes settled on his with a sense of locking onto a target. As if he had found something he had been searching for, the archmage stretched out a hand to him. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“And you,” said William, taking the hand. The name was somehow familiar.

He barely had time to feel the archmage’s soft palm against his before he was pulled forward. Thrown off balance, he fell against the archmage’s chest and collided with warm, bare skin. For a moment he caught his breath, puzzled. Then indignation took over. Fuming, he straightened up and brushed himself off. When he looked up, he saw the other man smirking. The archmage was, regrettably, a good hand taller than he was.

William directed a disapproving look at the other man. “What is your problem?” This must be the guy who never grew up. There was one in every department, a macho-fueled, childish….

The archmage laughed under his breath, eyes not leaving him. It was as if he was savoring William’s discomfort. He watched him appraisingly, perhaps expecting William to react in an amusing fashion. When it was clear that William was just going to stand there with folded arms, the archmage answered him.

“I was testing you,” he said lightly. “Never too early to take stock of a new apprentice.”

“Sorry, apprentice?” William said it carefully, certain that Karsus had the wrong man. “I’m William Yderis. I start my professorship tomorrow. Assistant professor, I mean.” He was going to elaborate, but he resisted saying “the Wind Wing” again.

“I know who you are. Or did you think I pulled your name out of the air?” The archmage raised a well-shaped golden eyebrow.

It occurred to William that the man had called out to him first. An uncertain feeling, cold and unwanted, began to form in his stomach. “If you know who I am,” he persisted stubbornly, “then surely you know about my assignment.”

The lavender eyes at last slid away from his, but it was a guilty sort of slide. Almost in a murmur the archmage said, “This happens frequently.”

A chill came over the room that had nothing to do with elemental cooling systems.

“What,” said William in a clipped, dangerous voice, “do you mean by ‘this’?”

“You had better step into my office.” Archmage Karsus turned and, with a glance back over his shoulder, proceeded up the tower’s spiral staircase.

 

 

“SO THAT’S how it is.” William tried very hard to stifle a sigh, and it came out sounding more like a growl. “There was never a professorship?” He was seeing red, and it wasn’t just that the archmage’s entire office was done in shades of crimson.

“Administration has been known to do this in the past,” Archmage Karsus admitted. He did not leave room for William to speak before he followed that with “I understand the place this puts you in, Will, but I want you to know—”

“It’s William.”

“I prefer Will. Gives you a youthful, boyish air.” The archmage gestured carelessly with a hand that glinted from its many golden and bejeweled rings.

As William’s horror at finding his job offer mysteriously missing turned into annoyance at the archmage himself, he started to notice more of his surroundings. This, of course, was no mercy.

The former blur of red came into focus, and William gritted his teeth. There were deep bloodred curtains, crimson carpets, and white walls that were hung so thickly with red velvet tapestries that the white only peeked out like a toothy smile. Even the lampshade, perched on a gaudy gold-plated base, glowed like a demonic beacon from the archmage’s desk.

Mercifully, the desk was not red.

William closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. By all that is holy, what have you done to this room? he wanted to demand, but that was out of the question. Instead, he sucked in a breath in an effort to steady himself.

“Does the nickname bother you so?” Karsus prodded, sounding more interested than concerned. “My name is Taliesin, you know. Have to shorten it. Always been a mouthful.”

More like a handful, William thought, defeated. He opened his eyes and was careful to concentrate on the polished, sensible oaken desk. “Ta-lee-eh-sin.”

A ripple of low laughter alerted him to the fact that he had spoken aloud.

“Tal is fine when we are alone,” the archmage told him. “But the rest of the campus will expect you to address me as ‘sir.’”

Flustered, William got to his feet. “I never said I would agree to be your… your servant!”

He didn’t have to see the archmage’s face to know how cold his eyes became just then. Archmage Karsus let the angry words linger in the air, almost questioningly, until they became unsure of themselves, and William could hear his own frightened heartbeat in the silence.

Then the archmage pierced the quiet. “You crossed through two kingdoms to get here. Now here we are.” He paused significantly, and then his voice became predatory, full of thirst. “Do you know how long I had to wait before they found me an apprentice, Will?”

William resisted to the urge to lick his dry lips, to bring some sort of moisture back. “No,” he admitted weakly.

“A very, very long time.”

William bristled in spite of the intimidation. “I have a dissertation to write, and you expect me to accept this bait and switch?”

The archmage considered him a moment, chin resting on a beringed hand. Then he spoke, a wryness in his intelligent voice that William hadn’t anticipated. “Let me be very clear. I am the most powerful person on this campus. If I were to inform the Chancellor of this regrettable situation, I could get you a course to teach by this afternoon, license to run independent experiments, and the guarantee of publication for your dissertation.”

Oh, thought William faintly. He’s that Archmage Karsus. It was the only name worth knowing that came from EU, a name he had seen on countless articles and collaborations. Which explained why it had sounded familiar.

“All I ask of you,” the man went on, seeing William caught, “is a willingness to assist me with my research.”

William shifted in his seat and told himself he wasn’t squirming under the archmage’s intense gaze. “And the hours?” he asked, pretending there was still some question as to his acquiescence.

Taliesin smiled in a way that was distinctly predatory. “I am a reasonable man, Will. Today I will need you for a couple hours following our meeting, and then again after your class.”

“My class?” William’s mouth went dry.

Taliesin inclined his head slightly, smiling enigmatically.

It seemed there was an arrangement to be made after all. William dismissed his nervousness and said, “Very well.” By the way Taliesin’s lips quirked farther upward, he was pleased with William’s succinct acceptance.

He signed the contract with no shortage of misgivings, and he took a deep breath as he set the quill down on its rest.

William made the mistake of getting up as the archmage rose and came around his desk. Taliesin blocked his path out of the office and took one step toward him, then another. His heart beating fast, a cold ball of ice in his stomach, he took a hurried step back, then another, and another.

His back hit a bookshelf and the archmage took one last step, until their noses almost brushed. Hot breath mixed in the space between their lips. William drowned in lavender eyes that took in his surprise in one long drink of a look.

“Let us get to work, then.” The archmage’s eyes looked deep into his, impressing upon him their seriousness.

Abruptly Taliesin broke away, turning and making for the door, leaving William to catch his breath. There was a low laugh, almost a giggle, from the archmage’s direction.

Fucking hell, thought William.