Magic is gone and Valeda Quinlan knows it, she just can’t prove it. Determined to learn the truth, Valeda finds herself at the mercy of Elsie Delgora, the last known Witch to have ever seen Magic. Scrambling for survival amidst the noble Houses of Magnellum, Valeda agrees to help Elsie in return for Magic’s location. But the help Elsie needs is more than Valeda bargained for. Sent on a mission to find Lord Winslow Agoston, Valeda is confronted by powers far beyond any Witch-Born and forced to take on an even larger role in the fate of Magnellum.
For six copper bits and two brass coins, he should have been afforded a window seat. Winslow hid a scowl behind his fist and tried desperately to ignore the whining child just beside him. He thought it might be better if the kid cried or wailed. That would be preferable to the whimpering pitch of the little girl trying to get her mother’s attention; but it would not have drowned out the chatter of the woman sitting beside him.
Fates help him, Winslow doubted he would ever forget the sound of Cosata Divenhurst-Lorlain, the newest – and if she dared say so herself, brightest – recruit to the Tormey University of Engineering. Given the tight confines of the train car, the proximity of his barely cushion seat to hers, and the fact that there were only three other patrons nearby, he did understand why she’d chosen him. The three other people included the simpering girl and mother, and one blissfully snoring older gentleman two seat rows in front of them.
Winslow’s strictly polite upbringing barred him from making any unkind remarks about his general disinterest with all things technology. He was a Witch-Born and therefore more prone toward the natural order of things. And, truth be told, Winslow didn’t give a damn how water came through a pump, just as long as it was hot enough to fill his bath.
Blimey, he thought and closed his eyes, what he wouldn’t give for a hot bath and five minutes of quiet.
“Am I boring you, sir?” Cosata’s phlegmy voice penetrated his thoughts again.
It would serve the girl right if he introduced himself now, after three quarters of an hour listening to her prattle. She didn’t seem to care or notice that she had to call him “sir” because she hadn’t bothered to ask his name. Even if she had, he wouldn’t have told her the truth. It was better that no one know that he was Witch-Born, at least until he had checked all of the Warding Pillars in Magnellum. None of the individual House Witches whose land he inspected would like his trespass, and the Council would most assuredly take offense.
Aside from bringing dishonor and becoming a general headache to his own family, Winslow didn’t think there was much the Council could do about it, but Elsie had been adamant about the discretion. And with almost a full year of travel behind him, Winslow could understand why. She wasn’t afraid of the Council, she was afraid of the Untalented. There was a low and ominous growl amongst the Untalented people, a discord and a distrust, and all of their blame was shifting toward the Houses.
“It would seem that I must be boring you, since you have the gall to fall asleep.”
Winslow felt his left eye twitch and battled down a few snide remarks. Opening his eyes, he looked at her again. She was pretty when she was quiet; pert nose and puckered mouth, but her brown eyes glared at him.
“No, not at all. I find the internal workings of pistons quite fascinating.”
The glare turned hard; “I spoke of pistons more than forty minutes ago. You’ve not paid attention to a word I’ve said!”
Winslow turned in his seat so that he could face her more directly. To hell with his genteel breeding, he’d had quite enough. “Have you always been socially inept?”
“Or is it simply a custom of your family to presume whoever is nearest to you must hear your life’s story?”
“How dare you!”
“Well, I have to assume that your preoccupation with yourself is either something you were born into, or a matter of your upbringing.”
Cosata’s chin lifted and she made a half-snorting-half-wheezing sound just before she found her voice again. “And here I thought you were an educated gentleman. Come to find out, you’re just a …”
Her words were cut short as they were both thrown forward. Winslow’s face smashed into the seat in front of him. He felt the bridge of his nose snap and bit down on his tongue. Vision blurred and face throbbing, he barely grabbed hold of the seat before the train car pitched leftward. He was airborne a second later as a violent jolt slammed through the car.
The fabric of the seatback tore under his grip and Winslow finally came out of his daze. Summoning his magic, he tried to prepare for the next crash. An instant later the car behind them came barreling through the rear end of the cabin. His body bounced off the ceiling and he was tossed out of the seat row.
He hit the next set of seats at a horizontal angle. His temple knocked into the corner of an armrest with unforgiving force. Painful white flashed through his vision and he saw dazzling sparkles just before his entire body got wedged into the foot space between two rows of seats. Grunting in pain and trying to find his focus, Winslow was almost too late in noticing the threat.
The force of impact between the two train cars made an accordion out of the iron and copper frame. He felt the pressure of the seat legs against his back and knew he was about to be crushed.
With a shout of mingled fear and anger, Winslow shoved back against it, calling on his Witch-Born Talent for more strength than he’d ever summoned before. Metal screeched against metal and the grind of derailed wheels against rocky ground throbbed through the iron floor. He kept his focus on his Talent as the car began to fold around him. And somewhere else, somewhere close by, Winslow heard the distinct sound of Cosata Divenhurst-Lorlain choking on a terrified sob.
Gritting his teeth, Winslow prayed the Fates would be merciful.
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