The audience clapped and cheered as the violet cloud of smoke disappeared. In place of the smoke was an old man dressed in a gaudy sky blue cloak. He clutched a long black twig he claimed was a wand in his gnarled hand, waving it around as he shouted some jumbled words and pointed it at a small child at the front.

To the untrained eye the purple powder he threw at the little girl would be unnoticed, as would the woman who grabbed her as the smoke obscured her from vision. But to Princess Ellsbeth of Sarra, with an untrained but powerfully and magically Gifted eye, it did not go unnoticed. And if she had not been thinking about how he may just be doing this because they were no other jobs, she would have turned him in to her father for treason to the Crown – King Louis of Sarra regarded faux wizards and their pretended magic as the worst crime that could be done, even more than plotting against him.

Luckily for many of the "mages", Louis could not tell the difference between the phonies and the real ones. Like now, as he applauded the man with cheerful vigor.

"Good show, man, good show," he called, and the man grinned and bowed. Ellsbeth groaned and rolled her eyes, watching her elderly father hurry toward him with his hand outstretched, his silver hair glinting in the sunlight like new metal.

Queen Lillian rested a pale, bony hand on her daughter's arm. "You know how he is, dearest," she murmured in her frail, breathy voice.

"So you know that the man is a fraud?" Ellsbeth asked dryly. "Like practically every other so-called mage we encounter."

"Now, Ellsbeth, be kind – "

"You're too soft, Mother."

"I know, love. But I'd rather be soft than cruel, even if they both make a bad Monarch."

"Father is neither soft nor cruel and he still is a bad Monarch."

"Ellsbeth! Hush it. You're father is not – "

"He's a fool," she said bluntly, "and you know it. Father makes so many mistakes."

"And each one is fixed," Lillian said angrily. Seeing her weak, delicate mother furious was ironically humorous; a livid devil trapped in a woman's thin, pale, blond body.

"Fixed for now," Ellsbeth corrected smoothly. "Later there will be consequences. A year ago, when Father sent the troops to guard the north border instead of the south even when a messenger told him that there were bandits at the south border and the north border was protected? And the bandits got in? Yes, he managed to eradicate the raiders, but the number of wounded and dead stirred anger in too many Sarrans."

"It was an honest mistake," the Queen offered weakly.

"But one that could have been prevented."

Silence. Ellsbeth, used to it, settled herself in a more comfortable position in her chair. Lillian stared at her for a moment with faded blue eyes.

"You'll be a good Queen, daughter," she said softly. "I can already tell."

Better than you and Father put together, an inner voice chimed. Ellsbeth shifted uncomfortably.

Though she loved her father dearly, there were many things that he had done – so many mistakes – that she would not have done. However better he was than his father, King Thomas, a tyrant who was feared but had nonetheless expanded the Sarran territory by conquering the nearby country of Kyjen and a small portion of Takut, Louis was still foolish. He meant well, but things rarely turned out the way he expected. Many of the peasants wished for his death so Lillian the Gentle could take the Throne by herself. They deemed her a worthy Sarran, perfect for ruling alone. She had lowered taxes and given considerably more liberty and choices to low classes that many had only dreamed about.

An equal amount wished for Louis to rid himself of his wife. Mostly these were the harsh members of the Court and men who had served under Thomas the Barbarian, people who thought that the Queen had softened him into a puny King. Ellsbeth saw both sides of the coin – and she agreed with both.

More than Louis' and Lillian's followers put together wished for them both to die so Ellsbeth herself could be put on the Throne. Not only was she evenhanded, but she was also open for a marriage to a Prince – currently the Prince of Takut, Jonah – who could help Sarra's defenses considerably. She was not looking forward to that prospect, but if it helped Sarra…

As Louis broke contact with the magician, Ellsbeth said thoughtfully, "If I could just get him to send me to the Locorial…"

"You will not be sent to the Locorial, Ellsbeth, and that's that," Lillian whispered fiercely, with the familiarity of someone who had had this conversation before.

"Why not, Mother?" Ellsbeth hissed back just as hotly. "I am of age, and Sarra could use a mage-Monarch."

"I will not lose my daughter to black magic," she said firmly, her voice rising slightly in volume.

"Ellsbeth, are you talking about that Locorial again?" King Louis said sharply.

Ellsbeth met his hazel eyes squarely, and when they narrowed, she dropped them. True, she was the King's daughter…but treason was treason. Louis would willingly send her to the gallows, if it went against his single-minded rules.

"Yes, Father," she said softly.

She heard his sigh and chanced a glance up at him. He looked stern, angry, and sad. Such conflicting emotions sent a knife through her heart, but she ignored the stab of guilt. If she could just convince him…only him…Lillian didn't matter…

"But, Father," she rushed on, "don't you see that if I become a full-fledged sorceress I will be able to help Sarra as no other Monarch could? It would be a tremendous improvement to Sarra's well-being, and I could put up magical shields all around the border, and – "

"Enough has been said, Ellsbeth," Louis said tonelessly. "I've said it once and I'll say it again – no child of mine will become a witch!"

With expressionless features, Antoinette of Maderna watched impassively as men shoved women against tables or on couches and lifted up their skirts. Ale and smoke was thick in the stale air, as was the smell of vomit and sex odors. She watched with blank informality as her father Duke Curtis disappeared into the next room with the nineteen-year-old daughter of a baron. She watched with blank informality as her mother Duchess Sanina grabbed the baron's collar and pulled him down on top of her.

She watched with blank informality a typical party at the house of Maderna.

Toni stifled a sigh, fearful of drawing attention to herself, and straightened in her rickety, squeaky chair. Her thin fingers twiddled idly, nervously, despite the impassive mask she wore. Dust tickled her nose and she resisted the urge to sneeze.

From out of nowhere a hand came and grabbed her wrist, yanking her up roughly. She was twisted around painfully to face a redhead with red-rimmed eyes and sour breath that smelled of the plentiful ale. He grinned lecherously at her before running his free hand along her buttocks and thighs. Letting out a shriek of indignation, all calm pretense forgotten, Toni writhed violently in his grasp, momentarily loosening his hold on her. Taking that brief second, she seized it, and with quick reflexes she reached for the hilt of the sword hanging from the wall.

Eyes like fireballs, she whipped the blade from its scabbard and whirled around. The man stepped back, shocked; she stepped forward, furious. She raised the sword above her head and brought it down toward the man. It sliced through the air, making a delightful ringing sound at it did. Somebody screamed and goblets crashed to the floor in a horrible clamor as the guests realized what was going on. Five inches away from the cowering man, no longer arrogant, an incensed voice broke the anxious silence –

"Antoinette!"

At the tip of the man's bulbous nose the silver blade halted, and slowly Toni turned her head to see her livid, red-faced father in a stiff stance only a couple feet away. Her anger cooled immediately; swiftly replaced by fear.

"Papa," she croaked. "This man, he tried to molest me."

"Don't give him that, missy," a portly woman barked, planting her hands on her wide hips. "I saw the whole thing."

"And what happened, Lady Lydia?" Curtis asked calmly, his hard eyes never leaving his daughter's frightened face.

"Well, it's like this, Curt," Lydia huffed. "The little tart sidled up to poor Harold like the slut that she is, and started rubbing her nasty little hands all over him. Of course, like any sane male would, Harold responded and started touching her, and she fought him and twisted the whole tale around."

"That's not true," Toni cried, tears pricking the corner of her eyes, tears that she stubbornly ignored. "I was sitting in that chair, and he came up to me and started to – "

"Enough, Antoinette," Curtis roared. "You have done enough damage for one night."

"But, Papa – "

"I did not raise you to be a liar!"

"You did not raise me at all!"

All at once, Toni knew she had crossed the line. A deadly calm surfaced on her father's handsome features and he fixed upon her those cruel, gray-green orbs.

"Go to your room."

"Papa – "

"First, you disobey my orders and go to Master Cormick and learn weaponry—after I had strictly told you not to! Next, you embarrass me by coming up with an unladylike dream to go to the Locorial to become a knight – a foolish dream if I ever heard one. Now, you shame me in front of my friends by lying to my face and to the faces of those who know the truth. What next, Antoinette? Will you run away? I hope you do - you're nothing but a nuisance."

Humiliation burned her ears and her face felt like it was on fire. This is what she lived her life through. This is what she stayed here for. Her grip on the sword tightened and she took a step toward him. As soon as she did somebody – the sole servant, Samuel, no doubt – grabbed her around the waist and threw her over his shoulder. Literally kicking and screaming, she was toted up the crooked winding stairs and thrown in her cramped, hot room. Then the door was slammed shut and the lock clicked ominously.

Toni crossed her arms petulantly and sat down hard on her mattress, listening to the heavy footsteps of Samuel as he clambered back down the stairs. Curse the sleazy old windbag! The only true friend she had was Master Cormick, the weapons-master, who said that she was more than qualified to be trained inside the legendary Locorial, and even that was a fragile friendship at best.

She sighed, and stood up. I guess I it's time to take matters into my own hands.

A tall silent figure skulked quietly in the shadows the torches' light could not reach. It was Princess Ellsbeth, but few would recognize her easily unless they knew her well and saw her up close. Her amber-gold eyes were magically transformed to a sapphire blue, because anyone who met the girl never, ever forgot the strange color of them – very rarely did they meet someone with golden eyes tinted lightly, almost unnoticeably with orange and brown – and her hair was dyed bright red. Her garments were no longer the comfortable, flashy dazzling colors of royalty, but a peasant girl's ill-fitting patchwork. It hurt her slightly to have to sneak out of her own palace like some common villain, but it was the only way she knew how to get what she wanted. And what she wanted was to become a sorceress. She never had and never would know why her father – and especially her tranquil mother – adamantly refused to send her to the Locorial. It would be a great service to Sarra, her country, her life, they had to know that…and yet they refused to acknowledge it.

Her younger siblings, seven-year-old twins Prince Marshall and Princess Marsha, tried to understand. For children so young they had a remarkable intellect and enjoyed challenges. They were good as far as siblings went – and royal children rarely liked each other, even less love each other. Royalty played a difficult game, and the rule was simple: get the Throne. She knew of ancestors who had killed older siblings just to get hold of the Throne. In the end, the youngest child was the one who proved to be the deadliest of all.

Of course, Ellsbeth's youngest sibling Prince Thomas put no doubt in anyone's mind that he would be ruthlessly intent on getting his grimy hands on the Throne. The four-year-old was a monstrous brat who lived up to the name of his grandfather well. She pitied the country if it ever fell into Thomas' hands – which, the chill running down her spine told her, it may very well do. As notoriously tyrannical as the late King Thomas the Barbarian, the child had created a reputation for being cruel and unjust. It was because of him, mainly, that Ellsbeth firmly stood to her dream to become the greatest and most memorial of the Sarran Queens.

She knew little of her ancestors, with the exception of her barbaric grandfather. Lillian's father was virtually unknown, as he had left before his daughter's birth and she was raised by her stepfather Duke Rasein, who now lived in the mountains as a monk, in his stead, and her mother Varasani had been a pretty but practical and cold woman who had died years back. Louis' mother especially was never talked about. There was not even a portrait of her. Even Thomas had a painting. All she knew about her grandmother Heather was that when her husband died and her son had been a mere infant she had taken control of Sarra and became sole Queen. Supposedly, something drastic happened, and Heather was overthrown.

Ellsbeth reached the end of the corridor and tried the knob. It was locked. No matter. She touched the lock with the tip of her index finger and saw a thin line of red flicker briefly as it streaked inside the door's very core and unlocked it with a click. A smile teased her lips. If they thought they could lock out a sorceress, untrained though she may be, they thought wrong.

From behind her a door slammed, and in her surprise she blundered into a knight's suit of armor. With a screeching clang it crashed to the floor in a heap of rusted metal. She abandoned all pretense of stealth and raced toward the great doors that led out into the courtyard.

"Hey, you!"

She did not stop. Faster than her thoroughbred horse Flay she ran – or so it seemed to her she did – until she reached the edge of the courtyard, where the woods start, and slipped inside. Had there been a servant out there to see her, all they would have seen was a flash of scarlet that was her curly hair as she disappeared in the shadowy depths.

Perhaps if Duke Curtis had been looking out the window that morning as the sun rose he would have noticed the thick cord of white sheets tied together. Maybe if Duke Curtis had been turned around in his chair instead of filling out papers to send his child away to a convent he would have seen that child sliding down the rope.

Antoinette landed gracefully on the dewy ground with a muffled thud. Clutched in her hands were two saddlebags, filled with a boy's apparel. She glanced up at the window above her, back slightly bent in a half-crouch so she would not be noticed, and defiantly stuck her tongue out at the man she called father.

Nimbly and quietly running to the stables, she saddled her feisty, shaggy-haired pony Turnip. After mounting with relative ease, she clucked to him softly and sent him bouncing along down the paths that went to the woods. Turnip tossed his head eagerly and snorted; he had not been out for days and he was ready for a brisk walk on this crispy cool morning. Toni patted his neck and gently pulled back on the reins. She was relieved to find him willingly cutting back on his prancing – she was not in the mood to control an unreasonable pony, much less one that bucks.

Toni fingered the necklace encircling her neck. It was an invaluable black opal pendant, easily fitting his frame. The frame in itself was priceless – it was pure gold and engraved with genuine diamonds, both by themselves precious and richer than House Maderna itself. It had been given to her time forgotten, by a sister unmentioned. Jadelyn of Maderna was rarely spoke of, and her portrait – one taken when she was twelve, a year before she fled her home, a painting of a girl with long reddish blond hair and jewel-green eyes – was dusty and set in a darkened corner of the gallery. Toni only knew of this sibling because of a hushed conversation she had eavesdropped on. It seemed Jade had had a similar dream to battle evils that threatened Sarra, and had also pursued her dreams. She may not be a knight – it was too much to hope for – but she must be a warrior of some kind…unless she had inadvertently died in a skirmish of some sort.

The pendant fell between her fingers and a dark shadow passed over her face. If that was the Fate that had befallen her sister…her lips thinned. Then she would uphold Jade's dream. She would fulfill it and would hope that Jade the angel – if that was indeed the case – was watching and feeling satisfied her vision was accomplished, through her sister.

Ears perked, Turnip quickened his step to a lethargic jog. Toni shivered, sighting an exit. If her calculations were correct (and they usually were) the Locorial would be right outside these woods…

It was a sight to behold. The dirt road spaced out into a wide clearing, with trees on all sides except directly behind the building that loomed in front of horse and rider. The Locorial, though two miles away from the actual Palace and separated by a dense wood, was part of the Monarchs' Palace. It was at least six stories high, huge, enclosed inside a rectangular brick wall with the only entrance and exit a gate on either side, one of which was facing her and the road. In the back of it she suspected was a courtyard, and probably some more warrior and wizard training equipment. But the most magnificent thing about it was its roof – it actually twirled around in fast circles, as it had since it was built. Obviously it took a powerful wizard to have done this. It probably took all of his or her magic and life energy…so either the wizard died immediately, or shortly after, drained of magic energy and life energy.

Seeing her coming, the two guards poised at the gate straightened importantly.

"Can we help you?" the older one asked, his voice raised slightly above the gently groaning roar of the roof. He looked to be in his early forties or late thirties. The other one could hardly be past twenty-five.

"Show me where I can sign into the Locorial," she ordered imperiously. Maderna was an old ducal house, dating back practically to Sarra's founding; her status was far above these guards and most everyone else here, save other ducal children, and she was going to make sure everyone knew it.

The oldest one frowned; he was used to being treated with more respect than this greenhorn was giving him. His younger colleague, however, grinned cheekily at her.

"Well, now, aren't you the bold one," he said. "I'll take you to whoever you need to go to. Is it Lord Hitomi or Master Cecil?"

"Whoever teaches knights – "

"Oh, no you don'," the older one said sternly, crossing his massive arms over his broad chest. "This is the fourth job this week you'll of skipped, and probably the thousandth time you'll get fired."

"Come on, Rusty," the younger one said cheerily. "No one will know I skipped."

"That's what you said last time, and the time before that. And the time before that. And the time before that. And every time you say that seemed to get fired."

"But this time will be different!"

"Of course it will, Randy. That's what you said last time, and the time before that. And the time befor—"

"Okay, okay, I get it."

"Good."

"So…Can I go?"

Rusty threw his arms up in the air, and Randy grinned teasingly.

"What a respectful, intelligent brother I have," Rusty grumbled.

"You're brothers?" Toni asked in surprised.

Now that she thought about it, however, they did look like blood relations – she just had not noticed because of the immense age difference. They shared the same wheat-gold hair and they had identical, dark gray sloe-eyes. Randy was thin, lanky, and sharp-boned, much like a sleek yet ragged wolfhound; Rusty was not fat, but he had heavy muscle tone, and he was bull-necked and brawny, like a bulldog.

"Sadly, yes," Randy said mournfully. "I know what you're thinking: how can anyone as elegant and refined as me be related to someone as, as stubby and barbaric as that?"

"Hold your tongue, cur," his brother snapped, though not unkindly.

Randy chuckled and turned to Toni. "What's your name, youngling?"

"Antoi – Antonio of Maderna. Call me…Tony."

"Tony, huh? Well, pleased to meet you."

"I didn' know Maderna had a son," Rusty said thoughtfully. "I was only aware of a daughter."

"There is one," Toni said evenly. "My older sister, Jadelyn."

"Jadelyn, eh? Lovely name. How old is she?"

Toni made swift estimated calculations in her brain, then guessed, "Twenty-one."

"I thought there was a daughter more your age," he said, brows drawing together in puzzlement.

Finally, she thought, I can use one of Papa's unlimited bastards to my advantage!

"Oh, there's a daughter who is a year younger than me, my half-sister, Rikka."

"Is your sister Jadelyn…pretty?" Randy asked hopefully.

"Yes. But she's hopelessly in love with another," Toni replied tartly. Randy looked crestfallen.

"Pity. Come along then, Tony, let's get you signed in the Locorial."

"No!" Rusty cried in dismay. "You can' just abandon your post!"

"Rusty, settle down," Randy soothed, smiling indulgently. "I'll be back before anyone even notices I'm gone."

Shoulders slumped and grumbling, the older guard settled back at his post as his younger brother led Toni away.

Ellsbeth approached the sinister-looking guard timidly, hands clasping a tattered bag full of a commoner's attire to her chest; this was one she did not recognize, possibly one of the new recruits or a veteran in the army. She hoped he had never seen her before. Even though her eyes were transformed into blue and her hair had been dyed ruby, her facial features were the same. She had the power to change those also, but it would wear her out swiftly and she could not count on her magical barriers to keep other sorcerers from detecting the aura of such great magic surrounding her. The man's fierce slanted eyes flicked over to her face shrewdly. They were a lovely shade of gray, she noticed, surprised, the kind a lady might possess, although completely lost on such a big, strong brute.

"I'm here to become a sorceress," she murmured in a soft, subdued voice – the voice of a frightened commoner girl.

"Through the doors ahead," the guard ordered gruffly. "Wait for a servant. If you call for one, you'll wake the entire Locorial up and make enemies your first day. When the servant comes tell them your purpose and they will take you to Master Cecil."

"Thank you, sir," she said, dipping a nervous curtsy.

"One more thing, lass," he said, reaching out swiftly and locking her upper arm in a painfully tight grip when she walked by. "My brother Randy – he's s'posed to be here, with me, at his post, but he went with a lad to meet Lord Hitomi. I'd appreciate it if you would tell anybody who asks that he's still here with me."

"Of course," she said.

"There's a good girl," he praised, releasing her from his grasp. His hard face broke out into a startlingly friendly smile. "Tell me, what's your name?"

"Elsa Dean," Ellsbeth replied, ducking into another curtsy.

In reply he bowed. "I am Rusty of Gregon," he told her. "'Tis good to meet you, lass."

"As to you," she returned, curtsying one more. For good measure she dipped into another one.

"Now, begone with you," he waved in dismissal, his smile gone from his face but radiating in his eyes. Why, he was almost handsome, in a tough, surly way. "I wish you luck, lass, for a fair amount don' pass their training."

Ellsbeth smiled. "Thank you mightily for the warning," she said.

His head tilted. "You don' sound much like a common wench," he noticed doubtfully, almost suspiciously.

"My mother used to work in the Monarchs' Palace," she explained carefully. "She adopted the use of their vocabulary, and taught it to me."

"I see," Rusty said. He turned back to face the road. "Step lightly, lass. Master Cecil is not an easy man to get hold of; 'tis likely you'll be stuck waitin' the whole day while he teaches his classes and talks to impo'tant people."

She curtsied. "Thanks again, Lord R – "

"None of this 'lord' business either," the guard interrupted. "'Tis simply Rusty. My older brother Raphael inherited the title of lord and sir. I am but Rusty."

"Then thank you…Rusty."

"Aye. And don' forget about Randy!"

"I won't," she called from the steps.

Ellsbeth opened the great double doors apprehensively and wide-eyed, listening to their ominous creaking, and slipped inside the dimly lit room. Her mouth dropped opened in shock. She supposed this room was the mess hall, for it was unnaturally vast and furnished with numerous long tables. Doors lined the walls, all closed. Soft snores could be heard coming from the first door on the right and the first door on the left. That familiar tingle stood the hair on her arms on end; it was what happened when there was so much magic around her, and it was even worse with all this Old Magic, which was preserved in the structure itself. She could hear a faint grinding sound somewhere up above, hardly noticeable except to the keenest of ears, and assumed it was the circling roof.

"Miss?"

A small servant Raqi girl twittered nervously beside her; Ellsbeth never heard her appear. She was sweet looking, with an appealing mouth, large eyes and short, curly locks of shiny dark hair. She stepped softly, perhaps the reason Ellsbeth never heard her through her dumbfounded awe, and her dark skin – the trademark of all Raq natives – blended easily with the shadows.

"Are you here to learn sorcery or to apply for a job as maid?" the young woman – no, girl – asked.

"Sorcery," Ellsbeth replied, smiling warmly. The Raqi curved her lips tentatively back, a ghost of a smile that was gone almost as soon as it came.

"Then follow me," she ordered, "and you must be quiet about it, otherwise you'll awake the apprentices and novices."

The Raqi girl turned around and head toward the snoring door on her right. Ellsbeth followed briskly though silently, fighting back a sudden headache. Too much trauma in one day, she thought unhappily. And poor me, I'm only ten. Very few people realized her age, for she acted so regal and adult even as a young adolescent. She was forced to mature emotionally and mentally early, due to the responsibilities that come with being first-born and therefore Heir. She never had a childhood, unless you count standing next to the King and Queen and greeting court nobles and commoners alike for hours at a time a childhood. Then the twins were born, and when she turned about seven she was forced to watch them to prepare for any children she would have in the near future. The prospect of screaming little demons running around the Palace did not appeal much to her, and bearing younglings into the kind of life she led appealed even less.

A dark corridor greeted the two girls when the Raqi opened the door, as did the increasing volume of the snores, which, Ellsbeth found when she followed the dark-skinned girl down the corridor, came from behind the hundreds of doors that lined the long, crooked corridor. After several minutes of walking, the Raqi servant girl stopped at the end of the corridor and let herself in the last door, beckoning for her to follow.

The end door opened to a small empty room with another door on the other side. The waiting chambers, Ellsbeth presumed. Gesturing for her to remain, the Raqi stuck her head inside the door and called softly,

"Master Cecil!"

Louder: "Master Cec – "

"Be silent, you silly girl, do you want to wake the entire Locorial?"

Neither the voice nor the owner of the voice was mad. In fact, the man who stepped out of the door, forcing the Raqi servant to retreat a step, appeared downright cheerful. His sensuous mouth was stretched into a languid smile, warming his large brown eyes. A tangled curtain of long curly brown hair crowned his handsome, narrow face. Looks aside, his build was nothing much to be proud of: his shoulders were thin and delicate, his waist femininely thin, his height small. Tall for her age of ten, Ellsbeth stood almost at eye level; two or three more inches grown on her part and they would be the same height. Cecil smiled kindly.

"And what is your name, child?"

"Elsa Dean," she replied.

"Elsa," he nodded. His sharp gaze turned to the Raqi girl. "Jeita, take Elsa's bag and stay here while she comes with me."

Nodding curtly, Jeita removed the tattered bag from Ellsbeth's grasp and moved quietly to the wall next to the door she had entered and clasped her hands domestically in front of her, awaiting further orders. Cecil jerked his head behind him toward the door in a gesture for Ellsbeth to follow him; she obeyed, tagging his heels like a trusting puppy. He closed the door behind them and then turned to face her, watching as she surveyed the room, which was furnished with nothing but several chairs, a desk, and yet another door that no doubt led to his personal chambers.

"So," he began thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes sharply at her. The gaze unnerved her – he was, after all, a powerful sorcerer. Her only advantage was what little training she had; when she was found with magic a bit too uncontrollable and powerful for her parents' taste, they put her under the guidance of their close advisor, Hannog, who was possibly the most powerful sorcerer in the Sarran Kingdom, for a short period of training, enough time to learn to control her magic and put up shields. Spells and potions and magical transformations had been picked up from sneaked peeks at old and forbidden spellbooks.

"You are here for the best of magical training," Cecil continued, settling comfortably and gracefully in the chair behind the desk, still observing her shrewdly. "Only here can you even hope to achieve such skills and training. From your shields, I can see you have had some training – good, I have neither the time nor the patience to teach a youngling such simple and easy methods. I am going to test you and the limits of your abilities and then ask you several questions before I do anything, however. Is that all right?"

Ellsbeth nodded briskly, feeling the oncoming trepidation beginning to smolder. By all appearances, her shields looked exactly like those that kept her magic from leaking; certain magical probing, however, could lead someone to find that they were screening something twice as precious.

"Okay then." Cecil held up a bright orange feather. "First test: change this into a simple rock."

Like she was taught to do, Ellsbeth closed her eyes and ears, permitting nothing to distract her. She searched her mind, heart and soul for a flare of scarlet, the color of her magic. It was not hard for her, since this had been the first thing that sharp-eyed hawk-like Hannog had taught her. The ball of red magic was closed tightly in a wall of shields in the back of her mind, pulsing with each heartbeat. She took a thread of it to be used, carefully inching it out of her shields (it was too much work to take the barriers down, grab a thread, and then put them back up, for there was always the threat her magic would decide at that moment to break loose), and then throwing it to the feather. The orange feather glowed red for a second, and when the color disappeared there was just a smooth pebble half the size of a toddler's palm resting on the desk.

"A little slow for one with Locorial potential," he murmured, "but nonetheless faster than the average Gifted student." He changed the pebble back into a feather with a speed she admired. "Next, vanish it."

This time, the process took less time, and the feather disappeared in a flash of red. Cecil reached over and passed his hand over it, nodding his approval.

"It's still there," he said. "Good. You don't know how often students take me seriously and vanish it all together." He sighed mournfully. "It's so hard to find a good phoenix feather nowadays." The feather reappeared. "Something a bit harder now. Transform it once more into an animal. I'm rather partial to cats."

Child's play, Ellsbeth thought giddily. Since Hannog had taught her how to control and use her magic, she had been prone to playing slight tricks on the servants she disliked, vanishing or transforming objects to get the despised servants in deep trouble with the King and Queen.

Red light enclosed the feather in a sphere, taking the shape of a small feline, and then emitted a thick cloud. When the opaque dust cleared, a black kitten blinked sleepy, bemused blue eyes at them and mewed plaintively.

"How sweet," Cecil murmured wistfully. "'A world without cats is a world without oddity'," he quoted. "Change it back, Elsa."

When the kitten was once again a soundless feather, Cecil opened a drawer and groped inside, frowning as he searched for something. With a small noise of triumph, he withdrew his arm, his hand clutching a simple block of wood.

"This is something that takes practice," he told her. "This method of sorcery is called Obtaining. Do you know what that is?"

"The ability to retrieve something from another room, area, or even country," Ellsbeth replied promptly.

"Good girl," Cecil said, impressed. "All the sorcerers and sorceresses of the world can vanish, transform, and Obtain objects; the only difference in them is what and in what speed they can." Seeing her confused look, he hastened to specify. "For example, I – if I am not too vain to say so – am one of the more powerful sorcerers of our time. Therefore, I can vanish, transform, and Obtain things rather swiftly and from a farther distance, and have more variety in what I can. Others, the less powerful and unskilled ones, can barely vanish a stick less in less than an hour, much less Obtain one from the next room. It would take them days, at the least."

He held out the smooth, splinter-less block out for her to take. "I want you to Obtain this wooden block's twin from the waiting chamber. You'll not have noticed it; I've placed it in the far corner on the left when you exit this room. Just focus on the chamber, focus on that particular corner, and then – "

Pop. A flicker of scarlet light later revealed a wooden block, identical to the one she held in her left hand, tumbling neatly into her right outstretched hand from the air several inches above it. Cecil blinked, once, twice, utterly dumbfounded. The younglings who came to study at the Locorial had to be told what to do; very rarely could a child Obtain with such ease as this red-haired peasant girl (she was a common peasant, he knew, for her plain garb and fief-less name all screamed the obvious), without sweating or swaying – if not outright fainting – from lack of energy. Immediately, this put him on his guard. There was no way in Hell that an ordinary peasant could have mastered such arts. And other things baffled him as well: her proper speech, vocabulary, and accent were all the signs of a rich and cultured merchant, if not a high-ranking noble; her posture was correct and stiff; and there was something about her magical barricades that told him she hid something.

And it was none of his business. Cecil tested Elsa's aura and found every fiber of her body benign, if stubborn and strong-willed and a tad bit too rebellious, and lacking any evil intent. As long as her purpose in coming here was strictly to learn and protect the weak, he would not deny her. Many young boys and girls who arrived her were escaping something: abusive parents, arranged marriages, even scorn for possessing magic, claiming to be something they were not. And many of them lied, saying their parents sent them here because they were proud of their magic or some sort of implausible nonsense. Besides, the realm needed talent such as this – the Crown needed it.

"Impressive," he praised. "I've not seen such talent in one so young. Now, how old are you, m'dear?"

"Ten, eleven this September," Ellsbeth replied.

"Your parents' names? They must be proud of such a powerful child."

Cecil did not miss the flicker of alarm cross her face, but did not comment. Instead he watched as she bowed her head as though in sorrow, or perhaps shame – a rather unconvincing act, he thought, amused, for it was plain as day on her face she was prepared to tell a falsehood – and murmured quietly,

"Joseph and Lakita. My parents are strongly against magic, sir. They were against this the whole time, but I knew I had to be trained. A hedgewizard lives there, and he taught me how to Obtain."

"And where do you live?"

"Burtrona," she replied without hesitation.

Caught in the act, he thought smugly. Burtrona had been his hometown, relatively small, and everyone knew everyone. His mother, Leanne, knew everybody and everything; he would have known if there was anybody named Joseph and Lakita Dean. In addition to that, Burtrona had no hedgewizard. They didn't even have a physician!

"Interesting," he nodded. "I have a cousin there."

Actually, I have ten cousins there, and a numerous amount of aunts and uncles and siblings, he thought, smiling.

"Congratulations," he said. "Your talent has proved sufficient enough. The Locorial welcomes you, young one, and your magic as well."

A clumsy trumpeting broke the morning silence, startling Ellsbeth and ruining the proud moment. Cecil smiled apologetically. "I know," he told her. "I really must find a new trumpeter. Jeita! Come!"

Abruptly the door opened and the Raqi servant Jeita peered uncertainly inside. "Sir?"

"This is Elsa Dean, Jeita. She will be your mistress from now on." He turned to Ellsbeth. "Every mage-novice and page is given a personal servant; I give Jeita to you." He turned back to Jeita. "Show Elsa her room in the novice's wing – I believe it's the third door on the left – and then bring her back to me so I can test the extent of her talent."

Ellsbeth frowned, confused. "How would you know where my room was?" she asked curiously. "I just arrived."

"This structure has magic of all kinds," he chuckled. "It lives, in a strange way, and knows many things even us mere mortals do not." Her bewildered expression forced another chortle out of him. "You'll understand soon enough."

A building that lives, and knows more than we do? she thought, awed. Incredible.

"Go now, young one," Cecil ordered. "Do you have anything other than clothes in that bag? No? Then dispose of it. You'll be measured for uniforms and clothing appropriate for a Locorial student, and that will be all you wear."

Jeita and Ellsbeth curtsied obediently, and then the Raqi led her out the doors into the corridor.