An Ominous Prologue
King Aeros approached the Gate, boots echoing on the polished marble floor. For three centuries, the Gate had stood firm against everything he could throw at it. Now, though…
He fanned out his wings in a glory of silver and crimson feathers. Behind him, his court’s interest sharpened, but not a wing, tail, horn, or ear among its various members twitched. They knew not to distract him—or risk drawing his ire if the Gate resisted him again. King Aeros smiled. A well-trained court was truly a thing of joy, but they need not have worried. Obviously, he would not try this publicly without being certain of the result; he’d run his own private tests last night.
Still, his court did not need to know that. He ran his fingers down the stone columns, savouring their palpable anticipation, following the pattern of oak leaves. There were no oaks in Faerie, but this Gate did not lead to one of Faerie’s many kingdoms.
His touch fell upon a stone acorn buried among the leaves. He drew up ropes of magic, filling the air with his signature of storms and metal, and twisted. The space between the stone columns shimmered.
The Gate activated.
King Aeros paused for effect, taking a moment to sweep his long silver-white hair back from his face, the jewels woven into the braids chiming gently as he did so. Then, with deliberate slowness, he extended his hand. It passed through the shimmer and disappeared. He pulled it back, inspecting the faint hint of moisture on his skin; it was raining on the other side. Mortal rain.
Closing his hand into a fist, he turned back to the court, letting rivulets of storm charge wash over his wings in triumph, the lightning tamed to his will. He spread his primaries to maximise the impact. Drama should accompany this sort of announcement.
“The Iron Law is revoked. The Mortal Realm is open to us once again.” His smile widened.
It was not a nice smile.
Chapter 1: Stariel House
Hetta Valstar rummaged through her makeup bag and frowned. Was cherry a sombre enough shade? Or was it too cheerful? Maybe a paler shade would be better. It was easy to visualise a demure rose, which meant it would be equally easy to illuse her lips to appear the same colour. But if someone was rude enough to inspect Hetta with a quizzing glass, they’d know it for illusion. My aunts will almost certainly be that rude. In fact, they’d probably disapprove of real lipstick almost as much as the illusory kind; Hetta doubted the North was up to date with Southern fashions. Perhaps no lipstick at all would be preferable.
Hetta began emptying her bag of its contents. She’d just spotted the lipstick tube when the train crossed the border into Stariel Estate. Between one second and the next, a tidal wave of homecoming surged over her. She gasped, dropped the bag, and groped for the side of the bunk bed. The world spun.
Stariel. All the Valstars had at least a touch of the land-sense, but she’d underestimated how it would feel to have that connection snap back into place. A part of her that had lain dormant for years burst into life, as alarming and exhilarating as a second heartbeat. Home, it pulsed. Home, in direct counterpoint to the fact that the estate wasn’t home anymore. How could she have forgotten the intensity of it? All those years in the South—where the idea of a land magically connecting with its people would be deemed preposterous—had dimmed the memory.
She leaned against the bunk, heart pounding, and tried to centre herself. Lipstick. I was searching for lipstick. It had rolled out of the bag and under her berth. She knelt, cursing the dress’s unyielding hemline. The land’s vast presence loomed over her, both familiar and alien, as she fished about haphazardly for the lipstick, three-quarters distracted.
Her land-sense slowly settled into its accustomed place, taking that first rush of intensity with it. Despite Hetta’s unrelenting—and unwanted—sense of homecoming, the estate itself didn’t so much as flicker as it accepted her back. No emotion at all emanated from it. Hetta tried not to feel a tiny bit disappointed at Stariel’s lack of reaction, even though it was egotistical to expect otherwise; she was, after all, just one of many Valstars. It probably hadn’t even noticed she’d been gone for so long. Did it know why she was here now, why everyone of Valstar blood was swarming back? Her stomach clenched, a slow feeling of dread settling, and she angrily shook her head. Where was the dashed lipstick?
Hetta mentally poked at her land-sense as her fingers brushed the cool metal tube. Well, at least Stariel accepted me back without a fuss. Perhaps her family would take their cue from the land; neutral acceptance would be preferable to the disapproving reception she feared was coming.
She stood, weighing the lipstick in one hand. They have no power over me now, she reminded herself firmly. I am a grown and independent woman. She’d built a life for herself outside Stariel’s grasp—a life she’d be returning to in two weeks, after the Choosing. Surely she and her relatives could maintain civility for two weeks? Especially since her father wouldn’t be there.
My father is dead. Stariel’s lord is dead.
The words struck soft as feathers. They weren’t real enough yet to have weight, though they’d hummed in the background for a little over twelve hours now. Dead.
She opened her mirror-compact with a snap. This was no time for wool-gathering. The train would reach Stariel Station soon, and she needed to be ready by then. But exactly what form should her readiness take? She drew in a long, steadying breath, filling herself with determination. Her family would see only a confident, put-together young woman when she arrived. And a fashionable one too, she decided. Her aunts’ sensibilities could go hang. I don’t care what they think of me.
A tiny voice pointed out that she was spending an awful lot of time worrying about what to wear for someone who didn’t care what her relatives thought of her. She ignored it and focused on carefully applying the cherry colour. By the time her lips were painted, the mirror showed a picture of perfect composure. Let Aunt Sybil call the colour vulgar; she wouldn’t recognise glamourous sophistication if it bit her on the nose! Hetta pursed her lips in satisfaction and began to pack up her things.
When the train stopped at Stariel Station, Hetta was the only passenger to alight. A handful of assorted goods were unloaded along with her trunk, presumably awaiting pickup, before the train pulled away from the station. Hetta watched it until it curved around a bend and disappeared, taking her tangible connection to the South with it and leaving her entirely alone.
Small sounds magnified with the train’s absence—jarringly natural sounds, rather than those of the city she’d become accustomed to. She swallowed, feeling suddenly small and out of place. Wind rustled in the bracken, and in the distance came the baaing of sheep. Stariel Station was some distance from Stariel Village, properly known as Stariel-on-Starwater, and there was only farmland and forest in sight.
It was only then that Hetta realised no one knew she needed collecting from the station.
“Drat.” She’d forgotten to arrange it in the scramble to pack and book a ticket on the sleeper train. The telegram notifying her of her father’s death had arrived only the day before, in the break between the matinee and evening performances. I was performing illusions without even knowing he was dead. The thought slid in, quiet and unsettling as a ghost—and just as unnecessarily morbid. It made not a jot of difference, so why dwell on it?
She arranged her scarf more securely around her neck. In Meridon, the great Southern capital, the weather was still mild, but here in the North the air held the bite of coming winter.
Would any of her family think to meet the sleeper train after sending that telegram? After all, it was the only way for Hetta to return home, and they must be expecting her. But she didn’t fancy sitting with her luggage in the bitter wind on the strength of that hope. If no one was already here waiting for her, then whoever had sent the telegram hadn’t told Wyn, Stariel’s butler as well as Hetta’s friend, that she’d been summoned. Wyn would never leave her here to wait in the cold. That meant she was probably relying on Aunt Sybil to remember her, since the terseness of the telegram had been very much in that aunt’s style.
Aunt Sybil wouldn’t deliberately forget about Hetta, would she? Perhaps she just hadn’t made the logical connection between sending the telegram and the arrival of the sleeper train the next morning. The oversight would be understandable, with everyone preoccupied with funeral and Choosing arrangements.
Perhaps there was a public telephone somewhere nearby. Her spirits lifted at this thought, though she didn’t know whether her father had seen fit to install the new technology at Stariel House. There’d been no telephone line when she’d left. But it was worth a try. She burrowed her hands into her coat pockets and went in search.
Ten unfruitful minutes later, she concluded there was no public telephone. But the ticket office would have one inside, surely? She checked her watch again—it was just before eight o’clock on Monday morning. What time did the office open? Memories of the village stores’ opening schedules didn’t fill her with optimism. Unlike Meridon, where one could depend on stores opening at the same time each day, as advertised, Stariel marched to a more flexible drumbeat.
She went over to examine the goods that had been unloaded from the train. They consisted of such thrilling items as the mailbag and a small crate marked ‘Smithson’s Manufacturing’. In Meridon, someone would have taken charge of them as soon as they were delivered. Here, it was anyone’s guess when someone might be along to collect them. It didn’t help her, but she couldn’t help smiling at the more lackadaisical attitude of the countryside.
Of course, there was one other way she could attract attention. She pulled off her left glove and stared thoughtfully at her palm. Concentrating, she called up an image she’d used in the play yesterday: glittering purple snake-demons writhing in smoke. She’d meant to summon an illusion only a few inches high, more as an idle thought than any serious attempt at a signal, but the snake-demons that emerged were as tall as she was. They burst from her in a riot of colour, their eyes glowing with life, scales realistic enough that they flashed in the weak sunlight. Startled, she snuffed them out of existence and frowned at the space they’d filled. She’d fed the illusion too much power—and a Master of Illusion should not make such a miscalculation. She must be more rattled than she’d realised. That was the first principle of magic, after all: controlling one’s emotions.
She took a few deep breaths, though she already felt quite calm. Should she send a giant signal leaping fifty feet into the sky? On the one hand, someone would be bound to come and investigate. On the other, since her decision to train in magic had been a key factor in her exile, it probably wasn’t the best way to begin her visit. Besides, it’s childish to deliberately try to shock my family at such a time, she told herself sternly. Even if it’s still completely nonsensical of them to disapprove of my choices, given how magical Stariel is! But she knew the cases weren’t the same, much as she might rail against the unfairness of it. Quite apart from the magic, Stariel wasn’t a well-born woman working in a theatre house. Dens of iniquity and loose morals, Hetta thought with a smile. She’d quite enjoyed the loose morals, truth be told.
She’d just decided to walk towards the village in search of someone when the whirring sound of a vehicle came from the road. She went to wave it down, but it proved unnecessary. The vehicle, one of the new kineticars, was clearly heading for the station. The kineticar pulled up, and a man Hetta knew well got out. He was large and broad-shouldered, with cherubic brown curls, warm hazel eyes, and a ready smile that Hetta knew from personal experience could set hearts a-flutter.
“Angus!” she burst out as he came towards the station. “Oh, how glad I am to see you.”
It took a few seconds for comprehension to replace confusion on the man’s face.
“Henrietta Valstar! I nearly didn’t recognise you.” His gaze travelled swiftly over her person, from her neatly styled auburn hair to her smart black boots, warming with approval as he took in her trim figure. “By Simulsen, Hetta, you’ve turned out well.”
“Yes, I know.” She held out her arms and made a show of making a half-pirouette for his inspection. “Feel free to continue complimenting me.” Angus laughed, and her heart gave a traitorous flutter. She’d been hopelessly infatuated with Angus as a gawky teen; he’d been oblivious to the interest of someone he saw as a mere schoolgirl. He wasn’t looking at her like a schoolgirl now. “But I ought to call you Lord Penharrow now, hadn’t I?” She’d heard he had succeeded his father to Penharrow Estate, Stariel’s neighbour, three years ago.
Lord Angus Penharrow broke into a broad grin, showing the dimple in his left cheek. She’d forgotten the unfairly attractive impact of that dimple. “Nay, you’d best call me Angus. It makes me feel ancient to have you calling me ‘Lord Penharrow’. Unless you wish me to call you Miss Valstar. I don’t want to offend your notions of propriety.”
Hetta laughed. “You have no idea, Angus, of the impropriety I’ve been involved with these last few years. The shoe is on the other foot. No doubt I’ll scandalise the locals with my modern ways.”
He chuckled. “That I’d like to see.” He took in the trunk resting beside her and his expression abruptly sobered. “You’ve come up from Meridon for the funeral, I suppose.” He shook his head. “A sad business. I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing. I’ve always held Lord Valstar in high esteem.”
Hetta narrowly avoided raising her eyebrows. The younger Angus had treated her father with disinterested politeness on the rare occasions she’d seen them interact. She doubted their relationship had grown any closer in the intervening years. Her father wasn’t an easy man to get along with, even sober, and letters from home had given her the impression that he’d only become more so as age and infirmity caught up with him.
“Thank you,” she said diplomatically. “And yes, I’m here for the funeral—and the Choosing.” She assumed an expression of self-deprecation. “But I’m afraid in the rush to get here I forgot to inform my family of my arrival.” She batted her eyelashes at him with exaggerated motions. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in rescuing a damsel in distress? It is, I know, somewhat out of your way, but you would win my undying gratitude and a warm feeling of virtue from getting to play the white knight.”
The dimple made another appearance. “I can hardly leave you stranded here on the platform, can I, with an offer like that?”
She grinned. “Thank you, my lord.” She went to gather her luggage. Angus seemed surprised when she deposited her trunk next to the kineticar while he fetched the small crate he’d originally come for.
“You thought I’d turn you into my porter as well,” Hetta said shrewdly.
“None of my sisters would carry their own trunks,” Angus replied, an odd expression crossing his face. Hetta had the strong impression that he thought her behaviour unnatural. She gave an internal sigh. It wasn’t unexpected. The North was more old-fashioned than Meridon. How lowering it was to find that one’s childhood hero was only a mortal man after all. However, Angus recovered quickly and stowed her things securely in the vehicle. Determined not to unsettle her rescuer further, Hetta allowed him to open the door for her.
“Your chariot, my lady,” he said with a grin.
They conversed amicably as they drove. Angus shook his head as they passed water-logged fields occupied by sad-looking sheep. “Drains are the future of modern farming,” he remarked. “My father started them at Penharrow years ago, and I can’t say he was wrong to do so. Increases productivity remarkably.”
“Father was always very traditional,” Hetta said. She knew very little of farming. Father hadn’t considered it an appropriate subject for a girl. “But perhaps the new lord will be keen to modernise.”
Angus shot her a quick, searching glance. “Perhaps,” he said, and Hetta knew he wanted to ask who she thought would be chosen. Though why he thinks I’d have any insight into it when I haven’t set foot here in years is a mystery. On the other hand, surely her family’s dynamics wouldn’t have changed that much? She turned the possibilities for the new lord over in her mind; she hadn’t yet given it much thought. It was hard to imagine anyone other than Lord Henry Valstar in that role. My father is dead. Her chest tightened, and she had to force her fingers not to curl into fists. How dare her father be dead when she was still so very angry at him?
No one ever knew for sure who Stariel would choose, but historically it did often go from father to eldest son. That would mean Marius. Marius had always taken her side. He’d openly risked their father’s displeasure, visiting her in the great Southern capital when he could. Father never thought Marius would be chosen though. No, unless things had changed significantly, Hetta knew exactly who was expected to inherit: her cousin Jack. He was everything Lord Henry’s eldest son was not: blunt and practical, and traditionally masculine in all the ways that counted with the old lord. He had the strongest land-sense in Hetta’s generation. Hetta frowned at the passing countryside. Even if Father thought Jack would inherit, it didn’t justify treating Marius as a failure. There was more to life than this dashed estate!
They passed through the village of Stariel-on-Starwater. Not much had changed in six years, and Hetta’s anger at her father’s favouritism faded under a swell of nostalgia. She and Marius had ridden down to the village often. There was the tea shop where they’d frequently over-indulged in clotted cream scones. There was the farrier’s workshop. There was the post office with its odd carved owl on the sign, the building impossibly quaint now in comparison to the much larger ones in Meridon. Had the village always been this small? And yet each difference gaped at her like a missing tooth: the apothecary had transformed into a hat shop; the white fence was grey and peeling; and one of the mature walnut trees on the village green had become a rotting stump.
“Have you missed it?” Angus asked.
Hetta started, pulled from her memories. She considered her answer. “In part,” she said after a pause. “How little it has changed since I left! I feel like I’ve gone back in time.”
“We must seem terribly provincial to you,” Angus remarked. He said this with an unruffled assurance that belied his words. He did not value the so-called sophistication of the South.
Hetta couldn’t resist the urge to tease. “Oh, yes. I confess I don’t know how I’ll occupy myself in such a backwater until the Choosing. I’m sure there won’t be any conversation worth having with anyone here. In fact,” she added seriously, “I’ve become steadily more convinced of this all morning.”
Angus snorted, but again that odd look crossed his face. Hetta gave herself a stern mental lecture on appropriate moments for levity, but she couldn’t help wishing that one of her Meridon theatre friends were here.
It began to rain as they drove, a sudden downpour typical of the North’s climate at this time of year. In seconds, the world faded into greyness, and the sound of rain on the kineticar’s roof made conversation difficult. They slowed to cross the Home Bridge, and Hetta knew they were only a few miles away from Stariel House. The kineticar’s tyres clattered on the uneven surface.
The rain eased as they rounded a bend and the house came into view. With its trio of turrets, stone walls, and high, arched main entrance, the central part of the structure bore a strong resemblance to a medieval castle. The Valstar crest flew at half-mast from the highest turret, but other than that it was much the same as when she’d left all those years ago. The sight hit Hetta with the force of a blow. Home, her land-sense pulsed again. Hetta huffed internally at the sensation. This wasn’t home anymore, magical connection notwithstanding, and she refused to be sentimental about a building. Stariel House wasn’t even a pretty building, taken in its entirety, since generations of Valstars had seen fit to add a mish-mash of architectural styles to the central castle core.
Before she could ask him to do otherwise, Angus had pulled up outside the formal front entrance and switched off the engine. Why had she let herself get so distracted, drinking in the sight of the house? She would’ve preferred to arrive at the back tradesman’s entrance near the kitchens, where she could have slipped in without fuss, but she supposed that was wishful thinking. There was, inevitably, going to be fuss. A strange heaviness formed in her chest. What if they didn’t accept her back now Father was gone?
She took a deep breath and got out of the car. Angus followed and lifted out her trunk before she could make a move for it.
“Thank you,” she said.
The formal entryway rose before her, familiar and intimidating all at once. Mythical creatures made of stone guarded the bottom of the stairs. Hetta had named them Spot and Reginald in a fit of whimsy long ago. Reginald was a horned greyhound-like creature; Spot was a large cat with three tails. Both came from local fairy stories.
Heart racing, she mustered her courage and marched up the steps to the main door before raising the knocker and bringing it down in a four-beat tattoo. As she stood waiting, oddly dizzy with anticipation, she found herself thinking of a scene from the play where the hero entered the demon’s lair. She dismissed the likeness as fanciful, a little annoyed with herself. There were no theatrical snake-demons here. Unless we count Aunt Sybil, she thought. Besides, in all probability it would be Wyn opening the door, since he was apparently butler now, and not one of her relatives, so there was no reason for this anxiety in any case.
Despite these reassurances, her nerves stretched, waiting. She was just wondering if she should knock again when the door opened and Hetta found herself staring into her older brother Marius’s spectacle-framed eyes.