I taste the bitter wind, feel it lifting me. My wings carve the air. The courtyard spins below: flashes of grey limestone, olive-green vegetation, up-tilted faces.
Mind magic. Our tutor has supplied a hawk – a female merlin – and I’m struggling to cope with the animal’s primitive brain. It’s almost worth the effort. Circling on a thermal, above the twisting world, I glimpse a sort of happiness. So why do I hate these lessons? None of the other student adepts worry
that it’s somehow wrong to enter another creature’s mind. Why do I always have to be the odd one out?
Because I will not be my father’s child.
A girl stands to one side, away from the others. Her hair is a red-gold mass. Her lips are slightly parted, as if she is about to speak; her eyes greenish-grey and frowning. Despite the merlin’s warm feathers, I shiver. It’s uncanny to look down out of the sky and see yourself through another creature’s eyes. I turn away and twist sideways to soar, circling up inside the prisoning walls of the courtyard. Higher, higher, until the tiled roof of the Academy falls away, until I am far above the city, with its circlet of olive groves and earth-red fields. I hear the wind in the trees and dry winter grasses, the whisper of running water; smell the warm blood of sparrows and rabbits hiding in the undergrowth.
The pain of longing fills me. It is as though there is a hand clenched around my heart. Escape! Fly over the net of fields to the distant blue haze of mountains. But I can’t live in the hawk. To leave my human body for too long is death. And I cannot die yet. I have a debt to pay.
A flash of white. A dove flutters twenty feet below and a red haze of images floods the merlin’s memory: blood, warm and bitter; ripping into soft plumage; gulping rich gobbets of flesh. We fold our wings against our sides and dive. All is silent but for the whistle of the wind in our nostrils and the thud of blood in our ears. Fierce joy. Heartbeats. Slender neck stretched in terror. White wings frantic.
I try . . . I do try. Two times now I have failed to kill. My heart thrills to the merlin’s desire, but I can feel the dove’s fear as strongly as my hawk’s hunger. We jackknife in the air, twisting sideways, wings tucked, talons out and spread. A glimpse of my face, far below. Pale, as though about to faint. I tear the hawk away in a rage of failure. We swerve, missing the dove by a feather’s breadth.
The merlin screams in frustration and the binding is broken. I fall with a sickening swiftness.
For the next few seconds I’m too busy fighting giddiness to pay attention to my tutor or the words he’s shouting. I concentrate on securing the merlin’s tether – the thin strand of conscious thought that keeps the bird twisting lazily on the thermals, to soar free and escape. My lesson has been disastrous enough without losing one of the Academy’s hawks.
‘If you haven’t the stomach for the kill, withdraw and leave the bird to get on with it! You prevented, Lady. Don’t try to deny it.’
I blink the last of the dizziness away and turn to face him. Aluid’s bulging eyes threaten to pop from their sockets.
‘A mage must be able to use the eyes and ears of any animal they turn to their purpose.’ My tutor’s voice grows pompous. Aluid smooths the front of his saffron-coloured robes and thrusts out his chest. I recognise the signs: it will be a long lecture. He should thank me for giving him so much enjoyment.
‘To fly great distances ourselves is tiring. A hawk or eagle can do it for us. But not if we interfere with their natural habits. This is the third time you’ve stopped your hawk from killing. It is not lack of skill . . . so what, Lady? Squeamishness?’
I shake my head. How can I explain what I don’t understand myself? The other students have gathered near, a semicircle of curiosity and mild malice. Watching their tutor bait the stuck-up daughter of the Archmage is one of my classmates’ favourite entertainments.
I gaze over their heads to where the merlin circles, a graceful shadow in the sky. I hear the dove on the ground nearby, scratching for shelter.
I stare at Aluid. He can’t mean it. Contorting your mind to fit the strange shapes and pathways of an animal’s brain is among the most tiring of magics. After three sessions my head aches and my body feels sucked dry, as though I’ve just climbed to the top of the Tornados mountains beneath the sun of a midsummer’s day. ‘N-no!’ I stutter.
‘You refuse?’ Aluid straightens. Red pushes up under his sallow skin.
‘With respect, Tutor –’
I feel him take the hawk. Aluid wrests the creature’s mind from me and sends us all plummeting towards the dove.
It would have been insulting had I been ten and untalented, but to invade a creature under the control of a sixteen-year-old student adept is unforgivable. Disbelieving laughter fills my ears as the others realise what has happened. My tutor doesn’t notice that I haven’t left the bird. I fight to pull my consciousness away – ill with nausea at an intolerable intimacy of mind and mind.
I fall. We fall. White wings flutter as the dove takes to the air. Too late. Slow, plump, warm food. Rich blood. Tender flesh. Aluid’s concentration shifts. I feel him merge deeply with the hawk in anticipation of the kill, and at last I have room to wriggle free and slip back into my body.
Images fill my mind: memories of violation, of the secret I’ve held in my heart for so many years. Helpless anger, hatred, bitter loss – the companions of my childhood flood through me and I lose, for a crucial second, my only weapon: self-control. I glare at my tutor through half-focused eyes that see another time, another tormentor. I reach up a stiffened arm and strike them both across the face.
The hawk squawks. Awareness slides back into Aluid’s eyes. The merlin, freed, gives a joyous scream, wheels into the sky and is gone. The dove flutters to the ground.
My tutor puts a hand to the reddening mark on his cheek. His nostrils flare; his lips are white lines of fury. I stare at him in horror as the old nightmare fades. It’s only because I am Benedict’s daughter that I’m not lying in the dust, writhing in pain. Laughter dissolves into shocked silence. The circle of students presses closer. I feel their staring eyes, hear their breathing quicken in anticipation.
How can I have been so stupid? My tutor may have humiliated me, but most do that. Aluid has the power to hurt me far more than I have hurt him. But will he use it? It seems he will. My stomach twists tighter at each word hissing through his clenched teeth.
‘That bird was worth a hundred and fifty secs.’ My tutor draws in a honking sniff of outrage. ‘You can ask your father to advance you the money. After you tell him you have violated the third precept. I will accompany you to the palazzo.’ He smiles a tight, anticipatory smile. ‘Now.’
My father, Benedict, Archmage of Asphodel, possesses a library which is one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen. Carved redwood bookcases stand between the long windows, each shelf laden with volumes bound in leather and tooled in gold and copper. If you are allowed to take down a book and lift its heavy cover, you find illuminations decorated with ground lapis lazuli and gold leaf. Scribes long dead transcribed the words, copying each letter in elegant tracery. Scribes who could not read what they wrote. It is a room that fills me with horror.
Aluid holds the heavy wooden door wide for me, bowing with a courtier’s grace, an insolent smirk on his face. I long to slap him again, but as soon as I step into Benedict’s library I’m trembling too much to give my tutor another thought.
My eyes seek it out immediately: the paperweight. I hardly notice Aluid leave to fetch my father. My feet take me forward until I’m pressed against the cedar-wood desk. The paperweight is a heavy glass disc the size of an outspread hand. The rounded top is inlaid with silver in an intricate design of twisting curves –
Benedict’s mage mark. It shines in the slanting afternoon light, exquisite, costly, the symbol of my father’s power. But its perfection is marred: at one edge of the disc a red stain wells up through the silver tracery like a bleeding wound. The mark of blood.
One long-ago spring night when I am nine, I wake to find myself alone.
‘Swift?’ I call. When she doesn’t answer, fear of the dark grabs my throat and I struggle for breath. Where is she? It’s her duty to be with me. To keep the darkness away. Suddenly, my panic is replaced by a greater fear, for I know where she is.
‘Time take you, Swift!’ I scrabble under the bed for my slippers, bump my head and mutter all the swear
words I know. She’s taught me most of them.
As I sneak along the palazzo corridors towards my father’s library, my mood is as dark as the night. But now that I am properly awake, I’m more afraid than angry. Swift is the only person I have ever loved; the only person who loves me. I would die for her . . . for a Tribute child. It’s stupid and shameful, but it’s true.
‘Please,’ I pray to Time. ‘Protect her, even if she is only a Tribute child. Don’t let my father have set wards on the library.’
Time is good. Blessed be Time. Heart thudding, I push open the library door a narrow crack and squeeze through. She’s there, sitting at my father’s desk, a candle beside her, a book splayed open. She is reading. Blasphemy! But I am the one who taught her . . .
Relief makes me giddy. I rush at her. ‘Fool!’ I hiss. ‘Do you want to die?’ And I hug her to me with all the fierceness of love.
Swift pushes me away. Points to the book on the desk. ‘I’m glad you came. I need to show you this.’ It’s a dusty old history book. Benedict’s library is full of volumes on mage-craft, but Swift avoids these. Instead, she searches out stories of the past. ‘Idiot!’ I hiss. ‘You know what will happen if you’re found here.
Why do you risk your life to read about dead people?’
‘I want to know the truth.’ She stares at me, her face intent, her eyes glowing. It scares me, that hunger. ‘This was written by a Maker. It tells all about their rebellion. The Makers didn’t defeat the mages because evil spirits helped them. That’s all lies. Ordinary kine, people like my mother and father, Tribute slaves like me, rose up and rebelled. Magic was wiped out on the other side of the Wall. If it happened there, it can happen here.’
Heresy! ‘That book is from the forbidden shelves, isn’t it?’ I stare at her, appalled. We’ve got to put it back. Now! I slam the book shut. As I do, my hand brushes against the paperweight that sits on my father’s desk.
‘Look!’ I grab Swift’s arm. A light glows in the centre of the glass disc. The swirls of silver on its surface seem to move, like a snake slowly unwinding its coils. There is a strange buzzing in my ears.
‘Don’t touch it!’
She’s only a Tribute child: she can’t help being frightened by magic. I ignore her and place my palm on the paperweight. It’s warm. And through the glass I feel, like the beating of a heart, a pulse of fear and pain. And now I’m frightened too. I snatch my hand away, grab the book and turn around, pulling Swift after me.
But it’s too late. My father stands in the doorway. Benedict walks forward. Takes the book from my numbed hands. Swift presses close to me.
‘This is not on the permitted reading list.’ Benedict examines the cover. His eyes lift to me, move to Swift,
cowering behind. ‘If it was indeed you who read it.’
‘Of course it was.’
‘I wasn’t aware you were such an eager student of history. Or of anything very much. Am I to believe that
a new-found thirst for knowledge has dragged you from your bed in the middle of the night?’ His smile is sour.
‘And why is she here?’
‘I’m afraid of the dark.’ And that is true – not that he would know.
‘Weakness.’ He sighs. ‘And you are a bad liar.’ His eyes turn to Swift. I hear her catch her breath. I reach backwards and take her hand.
‘You . . .’ he says slowly, ‘. . . have been a mistake. A misjudgement.’ His face grows stony. ‘I have been self-indulgent . . . But no matter. I will mend my error.’
We know. Both of us. We know.
‘Leave her alone!’ I shout. ‘If you touch her, I swear, I’ll kill you.’ I mean it. I have never meant anything so much.
He looks at me with distaste. ‘Control yourself, Zara! You carry your mother’s taint of emotionalism. Go
back to bed. I will decide your punishment tomorrow.’
Reprieve. I’m too shocked with relief to think. I scurry towards the door, pulling Swift behind me.
‘The Tribute child stays.’
His voice freezes us to statues. He hasn’t needed to use magic. I turn to face him. ‘No.’
‘You taught her to read. You know the penalty. She will pay it.’
‘She can’t read!’ It’s a hopeless lie. I know he won’t believe me – that I will be punished for my rebellion. I stand at bay, hating him, fearing him. But never dreaming of what will happen next.
Benedict is motionless, his eyes locked on mine. He breathes rapidly, his lips pulled back from clenched teeth. And I am suddenly deathly afraid. My father’s emotions are never easy to read but now I sense . . . I know . . . that some border in his mind has been crossed. And that there is no going back.
One moment I am whole, separate, my thoughts my own. The next, Benedict invades my mind. He is inside my head; scattering my thoughts, dominating my will, controlling my body. I no longer possess my innermost self. The bit of me that should always be mine alone is now his. I try to fight – to push him out – but it’s like trying to hold off an avalanche. The taste of him is vile, the humiliation so gut-twisting I long to vomit, but I can’t breathe or move, even though nausea is choking me. My father examines my memories methodically, coldly, then withdraws his consciousness. I fall to the floor, retching. I’m shaking with horror. A mage may mind-control an animal, or even kine – non-magic commoners – but no mage ever invades the mind of another. It is an unspeakable crime. Benedict has broken the first precept.
Movement. I lift my head to see Swift running at my father. Something flashes silver-grey in her hand and disbelief gives way to pure terror as I realise she has a blade – there is no hope for her now. Benedict must see it at the same time, for his face twists with shock.
She is granted that much victory. And then she is flying through the air. Her body slams into a bookcase with a sickening thud. Half a dozen books slide from the upper shelves and fall on her.
I stagger to my feet and stumble to my father’s desk. He ignores me: I can do nothing to hurt him. He strolls across the room towards Swift. I grab the paperweight with both hands. I will smash him. Hatred rises in my throat like tar. The weight of the glass disc surprises me. I struggle to lift it overhead. That sound again . . . a buzzing.
‘Put it down.’
Swift lies motionless on the floor behind Benedict. He seems to have forgotten her. His eyes – glittering with something my child’s imagination mistakes for fear – follow the movement of the paperweight as I heft it higher. I have his attention now.
I’m growling like a street dog. I feel my mouth stretch into a snarl and I throw the thing at him, using my mind as well as my arms. ‘I’ll kill you!’ I scream.
I am nine. I have barely learnt to melt stone. Did I really think I could hurt the Archmage? But I do hurt him. As I feel him take the paperweight from me, I splinter off a fragment of glass and send it flying through the air. I aim for his eye, but I miss. It buries itself in the flesh over his cheekbone. Blood spurts from the hole in his face like water from a fountain, but Benedict doesn’t make a sound. He catches the glass disc with his mind; returns it to the desk; extracts the splinter from his face and melds it back into the paperweight, a bloody smear on the glass. And he hurts me.
Oh, he hurts me. Every muscle in my body spasms into cramp. The agony is unbearable. I roll on the floor, screaming. Begging to die. I think he will kill me. I see a look in his eyes . . . but then his lip curls. The pain retreats but darkness gathers and wades towards me. I fight him. I scream for Swift, try to crawl across the floor to where she lies like a dead thing. I glimpse her face. Her eyes are open. I see her blink. Then darkness, cold and wet and unrelenting, grabs my throat and I fall.
I am unconscious for days. They tell me that when I finally wake, I cannot speak. Much of that year remains dark and lost. I don’t try to remember.
I never see Swift again.