Unguilded, p.2

Unguilded, page 2

 

Unguilded
 



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  “It seems she has disappeared,” Valerio Valendi said. “What did the two of you discuss?”

  “Our shared disappointment,” Arabella said. “And the consequences—for both of us.”

  “Ah yes, you will need to find another Mage for the villa. Unless you plan to return?”

  “I already have someone in mind,” she replied. Since the child she left behind had no magic, Guild Law demanded she find a replacement. “A minor talent, but enough to make him Villa Secundus.”

  “I see.” Valerio’s voice held amusement. “A position that is currently filled by your husband.”

  “Yes.” She lifted her chin and met his steady gaze.

  “And the girl, you do not know where she went?”

  “No.” Arabella dropped her eyes. “She said she was going downstairs. I assumed to rejoin all of you.”

  “Which she did not do,” Valerio said. “I have searched the house magically, and she is not here. Come and sit. We must discuss our options.”

  Arabella followed the Secundus into the small living room. He had taken her at her word—or at least he hadn’t challenged her. He’d even been amused.

  Arabella’s current position within the guild was already precarious. Now that it was certain Kara Fonti had no talent, she needed both a political alliance and to bear a child with potential. Valerio Valendi was a powerful Mage—ambitious and ruthless—which made him very dangerous. But he was a man. And, she thought, not immune to her charms. A child of theirs must inherit power. But if it didn’t she would still have years before it was known, years in which—with Valerio’s support—she could establish and strengthen her position within Mage Guild.

  KARA MADE HER way down through the villa. Down steep rock stairs hacked out of the mountain, worn smooth by torrential rains and decades of use. Down winding, narrow alleys where she hugged walls and hid in shadows. Down past the high square where the weekly market was held and Merchants sold goods that had been dragged uphill by stocky burros, cousins to the animals that roamed free on the mountain. Down through the lower villa, where the wooden doors were set two steps above the cobbled lane to safeguard against flooding. And finally, down to the lower square that was enclosed by warehouses on two sides and stables on a third.

  The cobbles ended. The dirt road that stretched out into the valley had been hardened by animals and wagons over long years of use. This road would take Kara out of the villa she’d spent her whole life in, out of the only life she’d known. As her mother suggested, she would leave the country. But she’d have to get to Rillidi, the port city, in order to do that.

  Firelight lit the handful of people still in the square—probably Merchant Guild delivering goods for trade. They huddled in chairs that ringed a small table, and hushed laughter drifted her way.

  Kara glanced up at the shining white walls and dark roofs of Villa Larona. She clenched her hands, trying to slow her breathing and push away her apprehension about walking out of the villa and into the darkness of the valley.

  She’d had no chance to think since leaving her father’s house. She needed to sit for a moment before she walked away from her life.

  She slipped through the half-open door of a stable. The air carried the earthy odour of animals and something big moved nearby—large feet shuffling straw. There was a snort from a stall along the far wall, but no voices. Kara crept down the aisle, her shoes scuffing the dirt floor.

  A large brown head swung out over a stall door and into her path, and Kara stopped, startled. Huge brown eyes stared at her, and then the horse snorted softly. Kara reached a hand out, but paused when she saw grey-black mist snaking along the horse’s neck. She stepped closer to get a better look, but the horse backed up into the stall.

  “I’ll check the nags and be right back,” a voice said from just outside the stable. “The Mage Guild Secundus will have my balls if anything happened to his horses while I was playing cards.”

  Kara held her breath and glanced around. She couldn’t be found, not in here. She eased the stall door latch up and crept inside. The horse, mist swirling along its flanks and neck, pawed at the straw. Kara tucked herself into a corner at the front of the pen, shrinking away from the animal.

  Muffled footsteps came towards her as the stable hand walked down the row of stalls, muttering to himself. When he was even with the stall she was in, the horse snorted.

  “What’s got you spooked, big man,” crooned the voice. “Though if I had that Mage on my back I might be a bit uneasy too.” He chuckled. “That other Mage though, I’d not mind to take a ride on her. She’s a fine one.”

  Kara held her breath and tried to sink farther into the shadowed corner of the stall. Straw poked at her through her shawl, and her skin itched, but she ignored it, praying for the stable hand to stay on the other side of the door.

  “You’re fine, so settle down,” the voice said. “Got a card game waiting.”

  Solid footsteps headed away from her, and Kara took a shallow breath. Her heart pounded as though she’d run all the way to Primus Diallo’s house, at the very top of the villa.

  A shout, followed by laughter, filtered to her through the open stable door.

  “Coming, coming,” the stable hand’s voice replied, farther away from her now.

  Kara stood and peeked over the rough wood of the stall—the door shut, muffling the noise from the square.

  She was safe, for now. She leaned against the stall and slid to the ground, her legs suddenly weak. She would not cry. Nothing was ever gained by feeling sorry for herself. She’d learned that when Noula had moved in. Besides, wherever she ended up, it couldn’t be worse than the future Mage Guild had planned for her.

  Kara wiped her hands on her skirt and looked up. The horse eyed her from the opposite corner, the grey-black mist still swirling around it.

  She frowned. She’d first seen mist like this when she was eight and the Mage Guild Tester had come for her initial test. A faint blue cloud had enveloped him, and Kara had been delighted. She’d thought of him as the Blue Mage, though she’d been too shy to mention it. The blue was similar to the colour of the columbine flowers that grew on the side of the mountain so Kara picked flowers for him each visit. When she turned thirteen, Noula had forbidden it. It wasn’t seemly for a young woman to give a grown man flowers, she’d said. By then the Mage Guild Tester’s visits caused so much anxiety that she’d stopped wondering what caused his blue mist.

  Then her mother and Guild Secundus Valerio Valendi had arrived—and like her tester, they had their own swirls of mist.

  Kara had hoped to ask her mother about the mists when she’d asked to see the sunset, but Kara had forgotten about it once her fate as a breeder had been confirmed.

  She stepped a little closer to the horse. The mist eddied away from her, as if blown by a gentle breeze. She blew out softly, but the mist didn’t react. She lifted a hand, and the mist swirled away from her fingertips.

  According to the stable hand, this was Mage Guild Secundus Valendi’s horse—and the mist was the same shade of grey-black that surrounded him. Had his mist, whatever it was, somehow rubbed off onto the horse?

  She wished she’d asked her mother. Kara paused. Maybe it was better this way. Being able to see the mist might prove that she had enough magic to be promising as a breeder. It wasn’t a sign that she had real magic—the Mage Guild Tester had been very clear about what to expect when her magic found her.

  “It will feel like a soft wave has washed over you,” he’d said. “And for a moment your head will feel so light that you won’t believe your feet are still on the ground.” There had been no mention of coloured mists.

  “What does this do to you?” Kara whispered. She placed her hand on the horse’s nose.

  It snorted and backed up a bit, just out of reach, the skin on its neck twitching.

  Kara reached out again, this time to the horse’s neck. Again the mist retreated from her hand. She stroked the warm brown hide, and the horse leane
d into her touch. The mist eddied away from her hand and bunched up along the animal’s back. Kara plunged her hand into the middle of it. The mist around her hand started to change colour, going from grey-black to white. Startled, she snatched her hand away.

  Slowly, the mist continued to whiten. Was this the horse’s natural mist colour? Did horses naturally have mist? She’d only seen one other horse in her life, the dappled grey that had belonged to the Mage Guild Tester, and there had been no mist swirling around it, not even the blue of the Mage who owned it. But Secundus Valendi was the second most powerful man in all of Tregella—his magic would be very strong. Had riding the horse transferred Valendi’s mist to it, or had he somehow deliberately put the mist on the horse?

  She glanced into the other stall—there was no cloud of violet surrounding her mother’s horse. Was Valendi’s magic that much stronger than Arabella Fonti’s? Kara shivered. Her mother was the strongest Mage seen in this part of Tregella in generations, how much more powerful was the Mage Guild Secundus?

  She examined at the horse. The mist, now a white cloud, gently swirled around the animal. Had it thinned out? Yes, she could see through it to the horse’s hide. As she stared, the mist faded until not a trace of it remained. The horse snorted and shook itself, its skin quivering from neck to tail.

  Kara stepped away and pressed herself against the rough wood of the stall door. The mist was gone. Because of her—because of whatever she’d done to it when she’d petted the horse—the mist was completely gone.

  The horse took a couple of prancing steps towards her and tossed its head. Could it feel the difference? The animal tossed its head again. She didn’t have any more time to worry about this—she’d already been inside the stable too long.

  Kara eased open the stall door and slipped out into the aisle. She latched the door and crept towards the stable doors. Her pack firmly settled on her back, she pulled her shawl over her dark hair. Carefully she tugged open one tall door. The group was still in the lower square, their quiet conversation a steady murmur in the still night.

  With a deep breath, she rounded the corner and headed behind the stable, out of sight of the square. When she reached the road, she looked back, once, before she hurried off into the night, towards an uncertain future.

  Chapter two

  IT WAS JUST before dawn, and Arabella stood in the doorway, staring out across the rooftops and down towards the valley floor. Banio Fonti—her husband—hovered behind her.

  “A search party is not required,” Arabella said sharply. “The Mage Guild Secundus will handle this.”

  “But I feel some responsibility,” Banio stuttered. “That our daughter should prove to be so defiant.”

  Arabella turned her head and stared at him. “I gave her to you to raise,” she said. “So I do not share your responsibility.” She turned to the valley vista, watching the line of shadows retreat as the sun rose over the mountains. “Valerio Valendi has agreed to deal with the child. He has already sent a spell to find her.” And kill her.

  It had taken some time to convince Valerio, and she’d had to play the grieving and reluctant mother, but her years within Mage Guild had taught her how little men understood women, and how readily they believed in a mother’s love.

  Noula was another matter. After her initial distress at not being able to find the girl, she’d had the impudence to ask Arabella what she had said to her. Noula would not question her again—not if she wanted her own child to live. Because a mother’s love did exist, for some. For Noula’s son, apparently.

  She stepped back, forcing Banio to scuttle out of her way. How she longed to be out of this Gyda-forsaken villa!

  “I will see the Villa Mage Guild Primus,” she said.

  “Yes, Donna,” Banio replied. “But it is early. He may not yet be awake.”

  “Wake him!”

  “Of course,” Banio said.

  A smile curved her lips as he half-bowed. He had been so smug all those years ago, when he’d had the power to allow her to escape this villa. Now she had all the power.

  “What should I tell him you wish to discuss?”

  “Our marriage,” Arabella replied. “I want it ended.”

  “End our marriage?” Banio’s voice was a whisper.

  “Yes,” Arabella said. “With the child gone, so is the reason for our marriage.”

  “But . . .” Banio shut his mouth. He dropped his eyes to the floor, and his shoulders sagged. “I may lose my position within the guild.”

  “A position you have because of me—because of my sacrifice.”

  Banio’s eyes met hers, and she saw defiance in them.

  “You would contest me on this?” she asked softly. “Remember who I travel with. I could have you sent somewhere else.” She had hated growing up here—couldn’t leave fast enough—but there were worse places within Mage Guild. Even if he lost his current position, Banio could salvage a higher rank here than he would somewhere new—where he wasn’t known. He looked away, and she smirked.

  “I will bring the Villa Primus at once.” Banio’s gaze dropped to the floor again, and he bowed formally as Arabella swept from the room.

  She heard the front door open and close even before she’d reached the small sitting room. Valerio’s spell would take care of the girl, and with her marriage finally dissolved, she would finally sever all ties to Villa Larona.

  THE NIGHT HAD been cold, much colder than Kara expected. Nearly dawn now, the frigid wind still whipped across the valley and right through her woolen shawl. She pulled it tighter and tucked her chin into her chest.

  The road followed the winding path of the River Dag, and the rushing rumble of the water sounded dangerous in the gloom. Shadowy willow trees lined the river, their limbs swaying and swishing in the wind.

  She’d stopped once to quench her thirst, stumbling through the night to crouch at a wide bend in the river, scooping up the icy water with one hand. Her fingers never felt quite warm after that, even when tucked inside her shirt, next to her skin.

  She glanced behind her—the road was empty—there were no signs of pursuit. Lights from houses in Villa Larona dotted the mountainside and there, near the top, a light that might be her father’s house.

  She imagined her mother, beautiful and implacable, and Papa trying to hide his fury. And Noula—angry, bitter Noula—forced to keep the tea pot full and serve the woman who was taking away what little she had.

  Kara shook her head. Noula deserved it. The woman had made her feel unwanted, an outsider in her own home. And Papa had allowed it. All he cared about was his status—status he had because Kara was a potential Mage and the granddaughter of the Villa Mage Primus. But Grandfather died and Kara never found magic, so her use to her father vanished.

  She felt numb, both physically and emotionally, as she trudged along the road. Would the searchers carry lights? Would she be able to see them coming for her?

  If she were caught, Mage Guild would take her to Rillidi and pair her with someone with more magic than anyone in Larona had. She would have no choice in the matter—old men would decide who she bedded, who she lived with, how many children she gave birth to. She would never have her own place or anyone who cared about her. Except for any children she bore—children who might end up like her, with no magic, no choice, and no real place in the world.

  Kara stumbled on a rut in the road, remembering the way Mage Guild Secundus Valendi’s blue eyes had appraised her when they’d met. She would never be able to refuse such a powerful man if he decided to father children on her.

  She tightened her shawl around her shoulders and shivered, her eyes on the road, watching one foot shuffle forward, then the other, over and over and over. Her breath puffed out in a cloud, and she clutched at her shawl.

  Now that it was dawn she could see the road. The sun kissed the top of Villa Larona, and the white houses at the summit sparkled against the clear blue of the sky. She had hoped to make it as far as the fork where the Larona a
nd Mountain roads met before dawn came, bringing the expected search party. But she was still hours away from safety.

  Searchers would assume she’d go to Rillidi. There was no other possibility for her—other villas were too small for her to hide or disappear in. Villa Merchant was the closest villa to Larona, and from there it was a short ferry ride to Rillidi. That was the route everyone would expect her to take—the route that would be most closely searched. So that was the route she didn’t dare travel.

  No, she would take the longer, more difficult road that wound through the Zaltara Mountains. It meant days, even weeks of travel, but eventually she’d get to Rillidi Port and find a ship that could take her away from Tregella. Her mother’s guilders and jewels would be enough for that, she hoped.

  Fear shuddered through her, and she stumbled and almost fell again. Stop it. She would not be afraid! She would turn her fear into anger—anger that she had no good choices in life, anger that the guild that should protect instead would use her. But it was harder to bury her fear with anger when she was tired, and her feet ached after a long night of walking, and Mage Guild would be pursuing her soon.

  It was now too light to risk being caught on the road. She looked left, up the mountain to a line of pine trees that traced a ridge not more than a mile away. If she could make it there she could find a place to hide—a small cave or crevasse, maybe even a thicket of brambles.

  Kara stepped off the road. Dew from the long grass dampened her skirt and her shoes. She trailed a hand along the plants, wiping cool, wet fingers over her dusty face.

  It was uphill, and the closer she got to the ridge, the steeper the incline became. Halfway up, the slope became rocky, and she had to scrabble, grabbing at the tough dry plants that clung to the hillside. Again and again she checked over her shoulder, praying that the valley road would remain empty of riders.

  It took her an hour to reach the top of the ridge. Her hands were covered in scratches, and the wool of her shawl had pulls and tears. Her tongue felt thick with dirt and dust and exhausted, she lay down in a pocket of tall grasses. Just a few minutes rest, and then she’d be on her way. Later she’d find some water, find one of the mountain springs or small streams that fed into the Dag, and search for something to eat.

 

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