Aundurian Empire, 1867
“Sienna Lynn, you are under arrest for illegal possession of magic,” announced a man in a wide-brimmed black hat. His evil, predatory face and sinister smile sent a shiver down my spine. He was dressed in an ankle-length leather raincoat and knee-high boots. They were polished so brightly that they reflected the light from an oil lamp that hung beside the door. The first snow of December had already fallen in the city and water pooled from the thick soles of his boots.
“You have the wrong address,” I lied with a gulp. “My name is Catherine Starr. I work as an apprentice in a sewing shop. I know nothing about magic.”
Ignoring my protest, the man stepped over the threshold of my tiny apartment. Two brutes followed him. They wore blue uniforms with high collars and silver buttons emblazoned with the emblem of the imperial house: a phoenix with flaming wings. They were gendarmes of the Seventh Division, searching for illegal sorcerers. And the man in the black hat had to be an exorcist. Only they were allowed to wear civilian clothes.
The hallway became too crowded, and I had to step back into the only room.
“We made a mistake, you say.” The man’s gaze pierced me sharply. “Then how do you explain this?”
He rummaged in his coat and pulled out a rolled-up piece of parchment. I knew what was on it. My portrait was drawn with incredible accuracy. My green eyes and my dark, wavy hair. And the promised reward of two of my sewing salaries.
“That’s not me,” I said, barely glancing at my portrait. My heart was racing, and I struggled to keep calm.
How had they found me? I had tried so hard to be careful. And what was I supposed to do now?
My apartment was on the second floor, directly above the store. I could jump out the window, but would I survive the fall? Not enough snow had accumulated for a soft landing.
I glanced at the window. One of the panes was ajar, letting in the frosty air. The man in black shifted his gaze.
“Don’t even think about it,” he said dryly. “Even if you survive, our people down there will catch you anyway.”
Wow, how many gendarmes were brought in to arrest me? This was their third try, and the Seventh Division hated to lose.
My governess had noticed the first signs of magic awakening in me when I was nine. I had tried to sculpt a horse out of clay but couldn’t get the legs right. They were either too thin, so they buckled, or too thick and ugly. After trying both, I had become angry and threw the horse on the floor, where it suddenly burst into purple flames.
“Oh my goodness!” Madame Josephine had exclaimed. “The witch!”
She lifted the hem of her skirt and ran out of the house.
I had to put out the fire myself. I covered it with a tablecloth and stomped on it. And then I sat in the corner for the rest of the day, shivering because I was afraid of what my parents would say.
They owned several haberdashery stores and always worked late. I rarely saw them and stayed under the supervision of the governess. My parents felt guilty and bought me many toys. Life wasn’t so bad, even though we hardly knew each other.
“Sienna!” shouted my mother from the doorway. Madame Josephine had told them. And, as it turned out, not only them.
I didn’t even have time to pack my things.
My father grabbed a cab on the street and hurriedly took me to my grandma’s house in the village.
Although my parents were quite wealthy, we didn’t belong to the nobility. Only the nobility could use magic and study it in expensive academies. All others unlucky enough to be born with forbidden powers were turned into “pacified ones”—the living dead, obedient to the system.
The magic came from emotions, and therefore, it was withheld from them in the first place. After the Rite of Purification, the pacified could no longer love or hate. They became another cog in the gigantic machinery of the empire. The pacified continued to work, retaining their intelligence and most skills that had nothing to do with art, for example. But they weren’t prone to rebel. The authorities were very pleased with that for obvious reasons.
After I was separated from my parents, I never saw them again. I lived with my grandmother for a few quiet years. I helped her with chores and took care of the cattle. To the best of my ability, I avoided other children. I didn’t allow myself to have friends, let alone fall in love.
The neighborhood kids sometimes teased me for being a weirdo, called me names, and threw pine cones and rocks at me. But I managed to keep my cool and not react. I was proud of my levelheadedness and self-control. Although my grandmother was sometimes sad when she saw my loneliness, I had to reassure her that everything was fine. And also reassure myself.
In the meantime, the magic in me continued to grow. I felt it flowing through my veins. The magic was so hot that I did not feel cold anymore. Even on the frostiest winter days, I could walk around without a jacket. But I tried not to, so no one would suspect me of being a witch.
Trouble came when I was sixteen. This one time, I lost control and the magic burst out of me.
It was the beginning of June. A boy from the city came to our village. He was thin and long like a stick, wore round glasses and loose clothes. His name was Patrick. He was visiting distant relatives and planned to stay in the village all summer. I often saw him with an easel and paints.
Patrick drew well and was preparing to attend art school. He was used to getting up at dawn and going to the river. He drew endless sunrises and sunsets, trying to capture the “right mood.” We saw each other often when I was fetching water from the river or doing laundry. At first, I didn’t want to talk to him, but he was so friendly and affable that I gradually sympathized with him.
Patrick told me all about art and showed me how to paint, how to choose the right brushes, how to mix colors in the right density, and how to see what was invisible to the naked eye—a moment of true beauty. That was exactly what he was trying to portray, wasting canvases over and over again.
On that unfortunate morning, Patrick finally succeeded. He woke me up by tapping on the window and showing me the painting through the cloudy glass. While I was getting dressed, a gang of village boys stormed my grandmother’s yard. They started teasing Patrick, taking the painting from him and throwing it at one another. The poor guy tried to get it back but was too slow. He got tangled in his shoelaces and fell.
“What are you doing?” I shouted from the porch. “Give him back his picture!”
But that only spurred them on. The boys screamed, and one threw Patrick’s masterpiece into a mud puddle. My friend couldn’t take it. He jumped up and attacked them with his skinny arms. They punched him in the nose and broke his glasses, blood splattering.
And a storm boiled inside me. The magic I had diligently held back for years burst in all directions. Purple flames consumed the porch where I stood, trees and bushes nearby, a fence a little farther away, feed troughs, and, worst of all, the village boys. Their clothes and hats caught fire. Some fell and rolled on the ground; others hastily took off their jackets and tried to run away. But one of them must have come behind me, as I was hit on the head with something hard.
I woke up on a wooden floor, wrapped in a blanket and tied with rope. I looked like a caterpillar. Around me was an unfamiliar room that seemed to be a barn. Crates and barrels surrounded me. I wanted to scream, but I had a rag in my mouth and could only mumble.
I had tried to summon magic to help, but my outburst was so powerful that I had no strength left. I had lain helpless in the barn until the gendarmes of the Seventh Division arrived. Only then, there hadn’t been an exorcist with them at that time…
“Mademoiselle Lynn,” the dry voice of the man in the hat brought me back to reality. “I don’t advise you to fight back. Under the new rules, we aren’t required to take illegal mages alive.”
I looked again at the paper he was holding. The saddest part of the whole story was that my portrait, so accurate and even beautiful, had been drawn by Patrick. My magic scared him so much that he sided with my captors.
“What is your name?” I asked the exorcist, stalling for time.
The man raised his pointed eyebrows in slight surprise and, after a pause, answered, “Nelson.”
“Well, Monsieur Nelson,” I said as calmly as I could. “As I’ve already told you, you’re mistaken. I’m not Mademoiselle Lynn, and I don’t possess magical powers.”
After I had managed to escape the barn, I’d learned a few essential things. First, no one could tell if someone had magic in them until it manifested. So, if I didn’t give myself away, they’d have nothing on me.
And second, I didn’t need any spells to summon the purple flames. I didn’t even need my hands. It was enough if I was very angry, sad, or scared. If I wanted, the gendarmes would have been on fire by now. The only problem was that I hadn’t attended an academy and didn’t know how to control my magic. Once let loose, no one could guarantee that the neighboring apartments where the children lived, or the sewing shop, whose owner was always kind to me, wouldn’t catch fire.
That’s why it was so important to stay calm.
But the exorcist… I had never met one, but I had heard they could suppress another’s magic. It was their gift, like my purple flames. But could they also sense the magic in others? Perhaps my first statement wasn’t entirely true.
“Then I assure you,” the man replied, “we’ll get to the bottom of this. Come with us.”
He pointed to the door. One of the gendarmes took out heavy, rune-covered handcuffs, and my stomach sank. No, they knew for sure who I was.
“Let me get my documents.” I smiled tightly and went to the desk.
There was no time to think. I pushed the open windowpane with my shoulder, then like a cat, I jumped out the window. I felt something shove me in the back. Another person’s magic entered my body and instantly paralyzed me.
Under the window of my apartment was the sewing shop’s red awning. I had hoped to catch the edge and land on my feet, but now, unable to move, I just rolled down headfirst.
My face was about to say hello to the snow-covered cobblestones when suddenly someone grabbed me with strong hands, and I stared into gray eyes.
The man was about ten years older than me. He was tall with brown hair and a strong, clean-shaven chin. He wore a dark green coat of soft wool and a scarlet scarf that lightly tickled my nose.
“What’s going on here?” he asked menacingly, holding me in his arms.
Paralyzed, I could only blink.
“Your Excellency.” A gendarme approached us, pulling off his cap as he walked. “We’re trying to arrest a witch.”
A few wrinkles stretched across my rescuer’s brow, and he looked at me questioningly. I blinked helplessly again.
Don’t give me to them.
I tried to say it out loud, but only an inarticulate “moo” came out. His Excellency frowned and turned back to the gendarme.
“On what grounds do you arrest her?”
The young man hesitated and looked down at his feet.
“I’m not allowed…” he began.
My rescuer was visibly annoyed by all this, and I felt his muscles tense.
“Last name?” he asked a little louder.
“N-n…” the gendarme muttered.
“Leave him alone, Count,” came Nelson’s voice. “He has no right to reveal the details of the investigation. But trust me, we have enough reasons to believe this girl is a witch.”
His Excellency looked at me again and said in a barely audible voice, “Blink if it’s true.”
And I blinked. I was foolish enough to confess it. But there was something irresistible in the stranger’s gray eyes. It was impossible to lie to him.
Or maybe my brain was paralyzed along with my body.
“I’ll take her,” the count suddenly announced, then turned and carried me toward the carriage at the street corner.
My heart began to pound.
What did he mean by taking me? Where to? What for?