At Any Cost (Bound Trilogy Prequel Novella)- chapter one

A perfect party, Maggie thought as she retreated toward the food. If only I deserved it.

A lavish spread of desserts covered the table, so that not even a hint of the rich mahogany surface showed between plates of tiny cakes, baskets of fresh fruit, and a centerpiece of spun sugar candies stacked into a glittering castle. Wine flowed as though from an unending spring. Music filled the air, the notes laughing their way through the crowd of students and guests, mixing with hushed conversations and the soft rustle of dresses on the dance floor.

Maggie reached for a glass of wine—her sixth of the evening—and let her focus soften as she watched the party go by. Her father, headmaster of the finest school to ever teach young Sorcerers and Sorceresses, had spared no expense for his only daughter’s twenty-second birthday celebration. The dining hall had been transformed. Literally, in some respects, thanks to one talented young Sorcerer’s gift with illusion. The lamps on the walls, filled for the night with rare dragon oil, burned brighter than Maggie had ever seen them, casting an ethereal glow over every face, every gown.

A birthday party fit for a queen, or perhaps a Sorceress. Maggie brushed a hand over the skirts of her dress, smoothing the deep red folds, and wondered whether she was an imposter for playing along with it, or merely a fool. She was no queen, and never would be. The island nation of Belleisle didn’t even offer the position. And she certainly was no Sorceress. Though she’d lived her life surrounded by magic, she’d never felt the faintest hint of it in herself, nor expected it. The biology of magic, though not an exact science, was clear. A Sorcerer and Sorceress could never produce children. A Sorcerer and a Potioner—which her mother had been—could, but their children would inevitably be devoid of magic. Maggie had been doomed to an average life from the moment her parents met.

She sipped her wine again and admired the way the light sparkled in the liquid’s clear depths. Each glass lifted her spirits, or at least eased her boredom. It made the lamps glow brighter as she watched the party go by without her.

No one would notice if I slipped away.

She gave her head a quick shake. No self-pity. Not tonight. 

Tonight was her night, her turn to have everyone’s eyes on her. Not on the brightest students, whose skills and talents continually cast shadows over everyone else. Not on her father, the greatest Sorcerer in Belleisle or, she suspected, anywhere else. Not his new wife Emalda, a talented Potioner from across the strait in Tyrea. This was Maggie’s night to be the center of attention, to shine on her own.

She stepped back into the shadows near the table. Just not yet.

“Why are you hiding?”

Maggie smiled, but didn’t turn toward the soft, familiar voice. “I’m not hiding. I’m drinking.”

Graceful brown fingers wrapped around the stem of her glass. Maggie allowed her friend to set the wine on the table, just out of reach.

“It doesn’t seem to be doing you much good.” Rashel’s deep violet eyes sparkled as she tucked a loose strand of Maggie’s black hair behind her ear. “Get out there. Dance. Make memories. Meet someone who doesn’t skulk around dessert tables.”

“I’m not sure the ones on the dance floor are any better,” Maggie said. “Most of them usually ignore me, but tonight it’s, ‘You look stunning, let’s talk about your father’s work on island defenses. Or perhaps his wealth. Or better yet, let’s talk about me. Did I tell you about my…’” She wiggled her eyebrows. “‘Magic?’”

Rashel giggled. “They can’t all be that bad, but I guess you see more of that side of them than I do.”

Maggie traced a finger absently along the pale skin above the neckline of her dress. “For beautiful people who are supposed to have lives of greatness ahead of them, my father’s students can be terribly dull.”

“That’s a matter of perspective,” Rashel said as she watched the students and older guests, magical and not, mingling on the dance floor. “I’m sure they find themselves a fascinating topic of conversation.”

“Undoubtedly. If only my small, regular-person mind could comprehend how fascinating they truly are.” Maggie kept her tone light, but her stomach tightened as she fought back the wave of envy that always came with being around the students. There had been a time when she’d followed them around like an adoring puppy, wishing to be one of them one day. The students, and the few girls in particular, had doted on her. As Maggie grew up, she’d realized how unlike them she truly was. She’d never lost her desire to be someone special who could change the world, but had accepted that such greatness fell only to those with vast magical power and the long lives that came with it.

In another setting, Ernis Albion’s pretty and intelligent daughter might have shone bright as the sun. Not everyone on the island possessed magic. But here at the school she felt like the smallest star in the sky, consistently dulled by those with more thrilling destinies.

I need to get away. Go somewhere where no one knows who I am. A smaller village on the south shore, perhaps. An assumed name, just to see what might happen. She sighed and looked longingly at her half-drunk glass of wine on the table.

Maggie turned her attention away from her wine-induced self-pity and looked Rashel over, from her intricately-styled chestnut hair to the black slippers that peeked from beneath the hem of her shimmering green gown. “You look lovely,” she said. “Where have you been all night? Leaving the guest of honor to sulk over the pastries. Imagine.” She gave her friend a teasing smile.

Rashel’s cheeks flushed, and she dipped her chin. “I did meet the nicest fellow. Didn’t want to ruin your perfectly foul mood with good news, though.”

“Did you really?” Maggie moved toward the dance floor and pushed up onto her toes for a better look at the party guests. A young man raised a hand in quick greeting as Rashel stepped beside Maggie.

“Shel,” Maggie whispered, and grinned. “He’s not a Sorcerer, is he?”

“No.”

“Judging by the faded shoulders on his suit, I’m guessing he’s not wealthy, either.”

“I suppose not. Van has just taken over his father’s farm. He says it’s lovely, though.”

“Well, well.” Maggie made her way to a nearby alcove to sit on a red velvet settee, a hideous thing her mother had thought elegant. Rashel followed, but remained standing, sending quick glances back toward the dance floor. “Shel, I can’t imagine you as a farmer’s wife. He’s adorable, though.”

Rashel would find her way, Maggie had no doubt. As a talented mid-level Potioner, Rashel’s skills would be in demand anywhere she went. Though Potioners didn’t channel magic and shape it the way a Sorcerer could, their skills with recognizing and combining the magical qualities of substances made them the nation’s healers, among other things. Wherever she went, Rashel would be needed and cherished, her gifts recognized. She would make a difference in so many lives.

Maggie’s gaze drifted back to the dance floor, only a sliver of which was visible between the bodies of the other guests. She was accustomed to being surrounded by these beautiful folk, whose magic healed them and kept them young. Her own father had lost count of his age a century ago, yet barely looked fifty, and she’d become used to seeing his students unchanged ten years after they’d left the school. But tonight, in the glow of enchanted dragon oil flames, they seemed transformed. Ethereal.

“Don’t,” Rashel whispered.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t compare yourself. I can see it in your eyes. Enough moping, now. It’s not like you.”

“I know. I think that last glass of wine was a mistake. Possibly the last three.” She blinked back unexpected tears. “I’m just getting tired of it. Tired of being overlooked, and yet having expectations dangling over me. Tired of being wanted for the wrong reasons once powerful men decide I might be useful to them. Tired of—” She bit her lip. Rashel knew the stories of her little heartbreaks well enough. Sorcerers she’d been drawn to for their charm or their looks, only to learn that they wanted to use her to move into important social circles—or to satisfy other selfish needs. And then they’d be gone.

Rashel pursed her lips, deep in thought. She crouched and took Maggie’s hands in her own. “Remember the pact?”

Maggie snorted, and a blond-haired man with a prominent belly hidden under his waistcoat turned with a disapproving scowl. She ignored him. “What were we, eight years old? Not even?”

“True love at any cost,” Rashel said so solemnly that Maggie almost laughed again. “You were upset because some old fool suggested that your father should marry you off to a Sorcerer as soon as possible so you could be used to build up the island’s magic.”

Maggie remembered well enough. Though without power herself, she carried within her great potential that could be passed on. If she married a Sorcerer, their children might carry both his magic and whatever came through her from her father’s line.

Her lip lifted in a half-hearted sneer at the memory. “As if I were a flipping prize sow. At least Father stood up for me and said I’d never have to be with someone I didn’t want.” If anything, he’d directed her away from his students. She wished she’d listened better before she’d had her heart broken, but she couldn’t help it. Power fascinated her.

In a way, that old sod who had so offended her had been right. Her position did seem to mean she was destined to seek association with power, either magical or political. Everyone knew it, no matter what her father said.

It was the men attached to that power who disappointed her every time.

“So find someone you do want, silly thing.” Rashel smiled. “Don’t resign yourself to whatever fate it is you’re contemplating through that fermented haze you’ve worked up. You only get out of life what you put into it. Get out there. Dance. Make some regular fellow get over his nerves about the great Sorcerer’s daughter. Make the ones with magic swoon over your natural charm. Get off your ass and give them something to be attracted to other than your damn father.”

The deep rumble of the school’s master clearing his throat sent Rashel leaping to her feet.

“Sir! I didn’t mean—”

He chuckled, and Maggie smiled softly up at her father. When he was around, she felt like a flower in the sun, blossoming under his attention. The school kept him busy, though, as did his work with the governor in protecting their tiny nation from threats. His was a life of greatness and worth.

“She was just cheering me up,” Maggie said.

“Quite effectively, I see.” Albion adjusted the hem of his jacket, a plain thing that closed high on his chest, adorned with black buttons that matched the fabric. He usually wore brown robes that Maggie thought suited him well, in spite of them being far from fashionable. The cut of this suit sharply emphasized his height and lean build, but its harsh color did nothing to harden the warmth of his expression.

He offered his daughter a hand and pulled her to her feet.

“Cheer up, Magdalena. This celebration is for you. Enjoy it.”

Magdalena. Only her father and those she barely knew called her by her full name, which she considered old-fashioned and far too grand for a regular person. Like the party, it made her feel like an imposter, but he insisted on using it.

“I will,” she said. “Thank you. It’s a lovely party.”

Her father opened his mouth as though to say more, then nodded and left without another word.

“I didn’t mean…” Rashel whispered again, eyes wide. “Did I say ‘ass’ in front of him?”

Maggie patted Rashel’s arm. “He knew what you meant. And it’s not like you’re his student. He’s not going to expel you over it.”

“He could still have Emalda fire me. I’m such an idiot.” Though Rashel’s talent wasn’t of the caliber required for Emalda to take her on as an apprentice, she’d hired the girl to help out with her duties at the school and gain experience.

“She wouldn’t.”

“Maybe.” Rashel’s gaze shifted to the dancers, then beyond. “Will you be all right if I excuse myself?”

Maggie gave her friend a little push. “Have fun.”

Rashel squeezed her hand and darted off, cutting across a corner of the dance floor and nearly getting herself run over by a pair of former students.

True love at any cost. Rashel certainly seemed intent on hunting it down, wherever she might find it, confident in what she had to offer the world.

Potential must be such a gift when it’s yours, Maggie thought. When you know you’re special because of who you are, not who you came from, or—a shiver ran up her back at the memory of that horrid old man’s suggestion. Or who you might some day produce. When you’re the wine, not the vessel.

Speaking of which—

She stepped back to the table, scooped up her glass, and downed the rest of the contents.

“Fancy a spin around the floor?”

She turned to find an unfamiliar face. The young man smiled at her. The beautiful young man, she corrected herself, taking in his deep green eyes, the brown hair that curled carelessly around his ears, and the broad shoulders under his finely made jacket.

“I saw you watching, and thought I might make the offer,” he continued when she didn’t answer.

“Oh, thank you, but no.”

He held out a hand, and when she shook it, he pulled her fingers to his lips and kissed the back of her hand. “You don’t remember me?”

“I’m afraid not.” Whether it was the wine or the attention, the room suddenly felt warmer. Maggie resisted the urge to fan herself. He’s probably just like the others.

“Jensen Whittaker. I attended the school about fifteen years ago, and returned to my family’s home on the south shore when I finished. You were only a girl the last time I saw you. The years have been most kind.”

Maggie swallowed her nerves and pushed aside her memories of heartbreak. You only get out of life what you put into it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you again, then,” she said. “What brings you back to town?”

He smiled again, warm and open. “Your party, of course. Your parents made it sound like the event of the season, and they weren’t wrong.”

“I’m so glad you could come.” She mentally pinched herself. The conversation felt stilted. Awkward. She waited for him to turn it toward what really interested him, but he just smiled.

“Did you…” She set her empty glass down and waved off the servant who offered to re-fill it. “Did you enjoy your time at the school?”

“Oh, of course. Top marks in everything but history. Never had much of a mind for dates, I’m afraid.”

“I adore history.” In fact, her own bookshelves were lined with dusty tomes that even the most dedicated students never hunted down in the library. What others found dry, she could drown herself in. Great lives. Great people. The past seemed so full of them.

“It can be interesting,” she added. “If you ignore the dates and imagine the stories. It’s all how you look at things, isn’t it?”

He tilted his head to one side. “It may be.”

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” she asked. “Maybe I will take that dance after all. I just need a moment.”

“I look forward to it.”

She gathered her skirts and hurried to the nearest powder room to freshen up. She ran a finger under her eyes, tidying the smear of black makeup that lined her lashes for the evening. He’s quite nice. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror. The young woman reflected there was not perfect. Not ethereal. But tonight, she felt beautiful.

Maybe I’ll offer to tutor him in all that history he missed out on. See what happens.

She glided down the empty hallway, surprised at how certain she felt on her feet after more drinks than she was accustomed to. Rashel, she decided, was right. She could find someone who wanted her for herself. She would not be overlooked anymore. I’m attractive. I’m smart. I’m interesting. I’m useful.

Her feet picked up speed as she circled the corridors outside the great hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jensen from another angle before she approached, to see whether he was watching for her as Rashel’s new friend had for her.

Voices drifted from a small study room, rarely used except by students who wished for privacy for reasons other than school work. Male voices, and the door was open. She slowed her pace, not wanting to draw attention as she passed.

“Think you’re in there?” a deep voice asked.

A sigh. “Might be. I don’t think she’s interested in marrying for money or power.”

Maggie stopped just outside the door.

The first voice chuckled. “Power is all you offer. It’s the money you’re lacking in.”

“I’ll offer her something else.” Jensen, she realized, and her breath stopped. “Take an interest in whatever it is regular people like. Not play up the magic to try to impress her.”

The “regular people” dig stung. Maybe he didn’t mean it like that.

Jensen sighed. “Gods, but she seems dull. Not a breath of magic in her. It must be a burden for her father. He’ll probably thank whoever steps in and takes her away.”

His friend chuckled. “And I’m sure Miss Albion will be well supported.”

Maggie’s throat tightened. Don’t do it.

She stepped into the room.

“How wonderful that you’d be willing to take the burden on yourself,” she said, glaring daggers at Jensen. “Poor thing. At least you’d be able marry me, have children worth spending time with, and find someone you care about after I die and leave you this fortune you seem so certain I’ll come into.” She held her chin high, but couldn’t help the tremble of anger and hurt in her voice. “Or would you offer me the consideration of waiting that long?”

She didn’t pause to wait for an answer, or to enjoy the horror in the two men’s eyes. She spun on her heel and stalked from the room before either could answer. Once free of them, she ran until she reached her little room on the top floor of the school, set apart from the students. She locked the door behind her and collapsed onto the bed, tears streaming down her face.

Don’t cry over those idiots.

She scrubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands, pressing until the tears retreated. A few minutes later, the beautiful red dress hung in her closet, and she wore her most comfortable cotton sleep pants and a sleeveless undershirt, though her hair remained in its elaborate knot at the back of her neck.

She took a leather-bound history book from the shelf at random and flipped through the pages. Great people with great magic and great purpose filled the pages, achieving impossible things or suffering horrid defeat.

Either way, they were remembered. Special. In control of their fates, on their own terms.

As I will be, she decided as she laid her head down, book clutched to her chest. Somehow.

This novella will be available as a gift to newsletter subscribers. To sign up, visit http://www.katesparkes.com.

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