Less than a month until release day, and I’m sharing the first 3 chapters of my book Out of Ashes for anyone who wants to check it out. Maybe even sign up for an ARC. It’s freeeeeeee. Find the form here or DM me on Instagram or TikTok for more about the book.
Prologue – Elements
I dream of raging flames, of wild magic I refuse to embrace, for it is nothing more than a curse to me. So I cast it away and pretend I never held such power.
If there is a worse time to interrupt me than during my evening reading, I cannot think of one as service bells chime from outside my room. Dragging my attention from my book I’ve been lost in, I sigh. The small clock on the table beside me declares there is still a quarter hour before I am to fetch dinner for my ailing uncle, and I’ll be damned if I lose a precious second of my flighty story.
Rain on the window blurs my vision of the back garden, and dark clouds block the early spring sun from my small room, which is only a fraction larger than the servants’ rooms on the lower floor. I inch my wicker chair closer to the oil lamp on my nightstand and tilt my book to get more light.
Relishing in a world where magic wielders do not have to hide their star-blessed talents, unlike in this one, I read on. My imagination fills my simple room with a magical forest and hovering fairies that jingle instead of speaking.
Harsh service bells replace the fairies’ gently tinkling, and panic rises in my chest. I hurry into the hallway of newly fitted electrical lamps, straightening out my simple blouse and layered skirt.
The hallway leads to a landing that overlooks the lavish foyer. Paintings of my uncle and his five children hang on every wall in the large townhouse. My cousins are all married now, the youngest being several years older than I, leaving me to tend to their father until his wealth becomes theirs.
I cross the upper landing, gripping the bannister before it curves away to lead down the staircase. Velvet-covered benches line the walls just inside the large, glass-paned door on the lower floor. The bland space sucks what little energy I have left at this time of day, and if it weren’t for the vase of flowers in the central table, it might appear as if nobody lived here.
The live-in nurse ascends the stairs, hugging a bowl of ice. The water sloshes with her rushed steps.
“Is everything all right?” I ask her.
The nurse shakes her head. “Mr. Knightflame has had one of his episodes. The doctor is on his way, and I am doing all I can until he arrives.”
I rest a hand over my rapid heart, tears pricking at the back of my eyes. Without a word, I take the bowl from her and move swiftly but carefully to my uncle’s room so the nurse can run on ahead.
My uncle’s room is dim, with only a sliver of light through the dark curtains. He always preferred to shut out the light in his study when working, but to shut it out of his room too… Just another sign he is not long for this world.
“I’ll tend to this,” I say to the nurse and place the bowl on the nightstand by my uncle’s bed. I have been tending to him since his health deteriorated over a year ago, but with the more frequent attacks, his eldest son finally hired a nurse.
A pile of towels sits on another table with various bottles of pre-prepared treatments where the nurse now stands, picking one out. I soak a towel, my hands jerking even before they hit the icy water. The nurse gives a soft smile as if to comfort me, yet it does little.
As I face my uncle, my heart lurches at his flushed skin, clouded eyes, and auburn hair pasted to his face. His unfocussed gaze passes over me until cracked lips twitch into a faint smile, and he pats my hand. “Clair?”
A sob escapes me over the man who took me as an orphaned child and allowed me to stay long after the banks paused my trust fund when I turned twenty. My upbringing was either covered by my parents’ money, and when that stopped two years ago, I earned my keep as a cook, occasional nanny to his grandchildren, and doing other small tasks.
“How are you feeling, Uncle?” I ask, dabbing his burning forehead with the icy towel.
Wide blue eyes dart about, and he clasps the bedsheets, whimpering and trembling. “Where am I?” He blinks and purses his lips. “What am I doing here?” Thrashing in the bed, he knocks the water bowl onto the floor.
With a yelp, I jerk back, bumping into the nurse.
“There, there, Miss,” she lulls, patting my arm. “It’s normal for someone to be disoriented after an episode. Best stay back.”
Nodding, I sob and cover my mouth with my hand. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Her soft voice calms me, but does not take away the fear of seeing my uncle deteriorate with every episode. They have grown more frequent, each time leaving him less and less of the busy man he once was.
Nodding, I bite back more sobs. “I know, I just wish they would let a witch tend to him, not that you’re…” I swallow. “Apologies. I didn’t mean to imply anything other than I wish I could better manage his pain.”
“I understand,” she says. “I have used such treatments on other patients, but the younger Mr. Knightflame insists on only natural ingredients.”
I want to protest and say that magic is natural, but I would be a hypocrite, having not touched magic since I was six years old.
An intent cough tears me away from the woman, and Edward stands in the doorway. He is the spitting image of his father in older paintings, with vibrant auburn hair, eyes as blue as a summer sky, and taller than an average man. His glare stills me as he towers, and I would rather not be around him right now. I step past him, but he grabs my arm, fingers pinching.
Wincing, my gaze shoots to him. “Let me go, Edward.”
He does no such thing. “He will not survive another episode.” Edward’s voice is cold and factual rather than a man losing his father. “It is time for me to make the decisions on how this household is run, and I want you gone by week’s end.”
The words strike me hard, and my gaze shoots to his impassive expression. “But… I have nowhere else to go.”
He leans in, eyes dark and uncaring. “That is your problem, witch. Not mine.”
My face tightens. “I can continue working for my keep, if that’s what you’re worried about.” My uncle tried to negotiate releasing my full trust fund to me, but unless I marry, it will stay with the bank along with my parents’ estate.
Edward contemplates something for a moment, then trails a finger across my cheek. “Such a shame you’re a witch. I might have use for a pretty thing like you in other ways.”
Bile rises in my throat. “I am your cousin.”
He waves a dismissive hand. “Distant cousin, but do not fear. I have no interest in keeping a witch in my house. You are the abomination my family tried to wean out of their blood, but your parents saw fit to curse us with another generation if your kind.”
The slice of his words cut deep, but I pull my shoulders back and hold my chin high. My uncle, while often too busy to spend much time with me, happily gave me comforts, education, a home when I had nothing left. But once again, death steals far more than it should from me.
“Very well.” My voice comes out shaky and hoarse. “There is nothing left for me here, anyway.”
Striding from the room, I hold my breath until I am far from him. I stop just inside my bedroom door, chest heaving and tears dampening my cheeks. The lamp’s flame cries as if sensing my distress. The fire often whispers to me, yet I cannot speak back, not since…
Blue flames tinge my vision, and screams from the past shatter my attempt to steady myself. My heart pounds, and I stumble into the table, my book dropping to the floor with a slap.
That sound… The chair falling, the dress sparking, the fire spreading and chasing me from my home.
No, please no. I scrunch my eyes and breathe, slow and deep, in and out, reminding myself that is in the past, and I am safe. I lean on the table to steady myself and focus on the droplets of rain pooling on the sill outside the window.
Fires of Hell. What am I going to do now?
1 – Moontrance
I dream of a full moon in a starless sky. Statues stare up at it, entranced by its silver light.
Mooncurses are the last thing I need to deal with on the one-year anniversary of my uncle’s death. The grief still hits me hard, and my body trembles when I fight off the sobs. At least I have the mundane task of collecting plants so that I am alone for a while.
Long after sunset, when twilight descends, the stars greet me one by one as I find what I need by the riverbank. Some ingredients I can collect early and keep for future treatments, but some have a precise time they need to be plucked.
A leaf falling during the moon’s first light.
A blood petal that has seen the stars only once.
The moon and starlight give them a little extra zing that encourages natural healing, calmness, or sweet dreams. In the wrong balance, they could do more harm than good and send someone into a slumber for weeks, or drag them so far into calmness that they become void of all emotion. I’ve seen it happen when inexperienced witches play at being nurses. But I have learned to carefully monitor each treatment and its undesirable effects.
The day’s warmth fades into chilly air that fills my lungs as I gaze along the river. It is peaceful here, calming and freeing on the edge of Sacred Grove. Rows of red-brick terraced houses follow the river on one side, while the other is thick with trees and foliage.
My eyes fall on the path that leads to the cemetery atop the nearby hill, and choke on a sob. I cannot recall entering my family’s mausoleum to pay respects to my parents, and today is another cruel reminder of this wretched world. A robin perches on the top of the gate to the cemetery. My heart aches over how my mother used to say that robins were the spirits of loved ones watching over us.
The melodic clicking of hooves grows close, and a carriage turns a corner to the riverside passage. The driver nods and tips his top hat. “Evenin’.” He often passes this way, ferrying quarry workers back and forth.
I raise a gloved hand. “Good evening.”
He nods again and urges the horses on. The carriage’s lanterns reflect in the water, and the distorted images captivate me. There is something inexplicably beautiful about the light within the darkness. So clean, so vivid, so mesmerising. Once the carriage has gone, all is quiet again.
“Clair?” A soft light washes over the plants around me and my basket, and I jerk my head up to see a mass of copper curls lit by a floating flame. “I thought that was you.”
I smile at Scarlett as she lowers the flame to light up the plants. “Thank you,” I say. “But you should be resting.”
She shrugs and pokes around in my basket. “I can’t stand the waiting, so I came to see if you needed any help.”
I take in her naturally pale skin, cheeks a little pink, and press the back of my hand to her forehead. “You’re a little warm.”
Scarlett curls her lip up. “I’m fine. The less time I spend with the Old Wench in the infirmary, the better.”
I snort a laugh. “It’s not so bad.” We share a look over the lie. It was the complete opposite to the clean quarters, good meals, and privacy I had with my uncle despite my wretched cousins. Most days, I stayed out of the way other than the tasks I did to earn my keep.
“I suppose it’s not when we get to sneak rum from the tavern.” She almost skips alongside me as we stroll down the path leading back to the town.
As we turn from the river and into the row of narrow houses leading back to the infirmary, the stars whisper, begging me to stay in their light. They blessed my ancestors millennia ago, leaving us with the power to wield the elements.
“A star can only shine through the darkness of the night sky. You will shine true through any darkness,” my father used to say. I force thoughts of my father out of my mind, for I have had enough reminders of loss for one day.
Even at this late hour, groups of evening strollers enjoy the tranquillity of this side of town. My uncle’s home is only slightly further along the street, but I have not returned since his son forced me out. If it weren’t for Scarlett arranging a job in the infirmary, I don’t know what I would have done.
A small group of strollers glare at me and Scarlett, tutting and muttering that our kind are not welcome in this part of town. Scarlett’s hands glow, and she jolts her body towards them, laughing as they squeal and run away.
“Humans,” she huffs. “So easily startled.”
I tut and tap her arm. “You are terrible.”
As Scarlett and I weave through the cobbled streets closer to the less desirable part of town, stragglers loiter in doorways, puffing on whatever enhanced tobacco takes their fancy. Familiar faces head towards the Witch’s Brew tavern, where I often have a drink with Scarlett after a long day at the infirmary. It is one of the few places where the magically inclined can use their power without the sneers of humans.
A merry jig sounds from the open door, and I glance through the murky window to the violinist who frequents the tavern. On any other day, Scarlett would swipe the violin and prance about to her own music. Her cheerful melodies always brighten a dull day.
Once in the small infirmary, I kiss her cheek, and point to the back where the mooncursed patients go. “I’ll be right through the moment the treatment is ready,”
Scarlett goes a shade paler, and fire flares in her eyes before she closes them tightly. “All right.”
I slip her cloak off and refrain from scolding her for being out so late. Uncloaked, she has the figure one might expect of a barmaid. Slim waist, plentiful chest, and thick coppery locks that turn scarlet by the fire, the kind of hair that makes any man’s head turn and the women envious, including myself.
“Mary, we’re back,” she calls out.
A grunt of acknowledgment sounds from down the long hall as I slip into the apothecary kitchen. Cupboards fill one side of the room with a large sink, and on the other, several tables make a workspace with shelves mounted above.
I pull out various knives and chopping boards along with a mortar and pestle, and carefully mix the ingredients I have just collected. Two small oil lamps light the shelves with their rows of herbs. Moonlight trickles in the narrow window above the sink.
Pots boil on a large stove in the corner, the smoky fire inside burning my nostrils. I just cleaned this yesterday. The old thing is a bugger at times. I wipe my loose dark waves from my sweat-slicked face and take a few small vials from the shelf.
A thorn from a rose in bloom. The lady from the flower shop three streets along saves rose thorns for me when they’re in season.
A feather from a star-blessed wing. A swift’s feather is the most reliable since they still fly at twilight.
A pine needle from the sight of the sea. Once a month, a merchant witch delivers various ingredients that we cannot obtain locally.
Star-kissed water. I leave a bowl on the roof the night before.
The kiss of one who possesses magic. Unfortunately, this is the one ingredient I cannot add on my own.
Now that the ingredients are finely chopped and crushed together, I add them to the water on the stove, stirring it and tilting it to the moonlight for added effect.
“Mary,” I call out. “The treatments are ready for the final spell.”
A huff sounds from outside the door as if she has been waiting for me to call for her. She stomps in and wipes blood-stained hands on her apron, which already has a grotesque array of colours from whatever ailments she has been tending.
Her greying brown hair is pulled into a messy bun, and hazel eyes fall on the stove. “About bloody time. The mooncursed are getting restless.”
“Apologies,” I say. “I am still working on the ideal balance of herbs. Last time, it took longer than I had hoped to take effect.”
“They pay a lot for this,” she grumbles. “Better be worth the wait.”
I refrain from frowning at the woman as she shoves me out of the way. “I would like to be as thorough as possible to give them the best treatment.”
“It didn’t kill ‘em last time, so they’ll be fine.” Mary leans over and blows a kiss into the dancing steam. It swirls and coils up in a watery tornado before dropping back into the pot.
“Should’ve hired an earth witch, not a fire witch with no fire,” she mutters and heads out of the door, tutting as though I have inconvenienced her.
I scowl at the back of her head. If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t even have this treatment. Scarlett warned me that Mary was never satisfied. Either everyone was too fussy or too slow for her. Lucky for Scarlett, she is more suited to working for Mary’s husband in the Witch’s Brew tavern.
Carefully, I decant the brew into vials in a tray and take them into the corridor stretching from front to back of the building. Doors lead off to small rooms, all with patients too poor for the town’s main infirmary or in need of magical healing.
At the end of the corridor, I rest the tray on my hip and open the last door. Four beds line opposite walls. Each bed is sectioned off with bars and locking mechanisms for the entrances in a central walkway. I often wonder why a guest house has such ghastly things that resemble a prison, but Mary is so often in a bad mood that I fear asking. Still, the barred areas are rather useful for our more… troubled patients, and Mary has placed runes on them to protect against wayward magic. A sick witch or warlock can be rather unpredictable.
Two men occupy the furthest beds, while Scarlett occupies the one nearest the door. She looks up, eyes glazed and skin blemished as she clutches her stomach. Her copper curls are pasted to her face, reminding me of when I tended to my uncle, and sweat beads drip down her forehead.
“Careful. It is still quite hot.” I hand her a vial.
“Thank you.” She scrunches her eyes and gulps it down in one go, accustomed to the treatment now she has had it a few times.
My lips purse at the awful mooncurse her spiteful mother placed on Scarlett when she was an adolescent. Only the one who placed said curse can lift it. When I started working on a treatment, Scarlett jumped at the chance to try it, though no two people are the same when it comes to the mooncurse.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
She opens her palm, and a small flame forms. With a wave of the hand, the flame passes to the candle by her bed. “About as shit as I look, probably.”
“The treatment should work faster this time. You might still have some discomfort until I can make a more effective one, but it will help you rest.”
“You have a real talent for this, Clair. Shame you don’t have your magic anymore.”
I laugh, and awkwardness squirms in my belly. “That’s what the Old Wench just said.”
Scarlett chuckles and glances over at the grumbling men. “Best see to them. That younger one’s been spouting tornadoes.”
I nod and follow the bars to the end. The younger of the men, a warlock, was here last month, but the other arches a dark eyebrow as I place the vials on the floor by the bars. I hand one to each of the men.
“It don’t do nothing nasty.” The warlock says to the older man. “Just helps with the mooncurse’s symptoms.”
The older man sniffs the vial before cringing.
“It is not too unpleasant,” I say. “But I will try to make it taste better next month if you like.”
The older man holds up the vial to the light. “How do I know it won’t make me worse?”
Keeping my distance from the bars, I pull the chair out from by the unused bed and take a seat. I often stay to see how the treatment affects the various symptoms of a mooncurse. It is an unpredictable thing. “It works for this gentleman.” I gesture to the younger man. Mary never asks their names, and the patients never offer.
“It helped,” the warlock says. “Better than scaring the missus and little one back at home. I nearly blew the windows out with my air magic the first full moon after I was cursed. But last month, just got the shakes after taking this.”
“And my friend,” I point to Scarlett lying back on the bed, “used to have awful pains and fevers but sleeps through the worst of it now.”
The older man nods and tips back the vial. “How long until it works?”
Scarlett’s snoring rumbles from her bed.
I smile. “A few minutes at most. Just relax. I will stay awhile as to be sure you are comfortable.”
He arches an eyebrow again and sits back on the bed. The air warlock’s eyes flitter open and shut until he is out like a candle.
“He ain’t gonna start snoring and blowing a gale, is he?” The older man pokes at the bars between him and the younger man.
“You will not notice if he does,” I say with a reassuring smile.
He tips his chin at me. “You speak too proper to be workin’ in a place like this. You runnin’ from somit? Family troubles, or a nasty fella?”
My head drops to my fingers picking at something crusted on my apron. “I…I needed employment after my previous patient passed away. He had an untreatable disease.” I added that last part so I don’t come across as incompetent, though it isn’t entirely true. If my cousin had sought magical treatment, my uncle could have lived out his final years in comfort. Rage brews in me at my wretched cousins and how they let their own father suffer because of their prejudices against magic.
The man leans forward and squints at me. “I recognise you from when the missus used to deliver to the Knightflames. You’re Cassiopeia d’Èclat, aren’t you? You survived that fire at Starfall House.”
My hands clench, and memories of wild blue flames spring up. Heat floods my skin while I force back the thoughts. I twirl the strings of my apron in my fingers. “Yes. But that was a long time ago.” My identity is no secret, but I most do not ask, especially now I go by Clair. They tend to assume I hold an uncanny likeness to the fire witch who fears the fire.
“Thought you were a witch like that one.” He nods in Scarlett’s direction.
“If you call a witch with no magic a witch?”
“Why you got no magic?”
My nose pinches. “Do you always ask this many questions of strangers?”
He shrugs. “Just curious. Got nout else to do until that treatment starts workin’.”
I half-smile. “Next time, I shall bring you a book to satisfy your curiosity over witches and warlocks.” Getting to my feet, I straighten my apron and go to check on Scarlett.
“Can’t read,” he shouts.
Of course not. I am surprised the patients here find the coin for mooncurse treatments. Eight people have a standing order to deliver the treatment to their homes, which costs double. Mary sends one of the barmaids from the tavern to deliver them. I often wish I could go to escape this place.
More snoring comes from Scarlett, her breathing steady. In another few hours or so, she may wake up and drift in and out of consciousness, but at least it spares her the agonising pain and fever she used to get.
The older man is still awake, and I return to where I left the vials. “What happened to you that you became cursed?” I ask.
His nose pinches, and he presses a hand to his forehead. “My younger sister pissed off a warlock, and he cursed the whole family. Can’t remember much of the last full moon.”
“Oh. That must be—”
Doubling over, he groans and grabs one of the bars.
“Are you all right?” I have never seen a reaction like this, and I fear my concoction has harmed him.
A low growl comes from him, and his head snaps up with preternatural darkness in his wide eyes. No. A wild one. He bares his teeth and launches in my direction. His arms flail at me through the bars, and I reach for another vial. It slips away and under the air warlock’s bed.
“Waves and winds!” I drop to my knees, avoiding the wild one’s clutches. His fingers catch my apron as I scramble for the vial. “Mary!” I call out. “Help.”
Within seconds, she is running in and grabbing the man’s hand while I reach for the vial through the bars.
Growls and grunts sound from above me, and my fingers fumble over the smooth glass containing the concoction. Twirling dust sends the vial sliding in my direction. I swipe it up and get to my feet. The warlock’s eyes are half-lidded, his fingers playing at the air. He smiles before going limp.
I hold out the vial and open the lid. Mary twirls her fingers over liquid and sends it flying into the wild man’s mouth. He sputters and grabs his throat before stumbling back onto his bed. Eyes rolling into the back of his head, he convulses on the bed until he drops in a sprawling heap. Mary and I do not move for several moments in case he resists the second dose, or worse, dies.
“Double dose‘ll cost ‘im extra.” Mary turns on her heels and heads for the door.
“Thank you,” I say to her and the warlock who is unconscious again. My heart thuds in my ears, and my breath comes in sharp gasps.
Shaking my head, I return to the kitchen to tidy up. My hands shake as I clean the vials and make a list of ingredients I need more of. My shoulders sag, and I drop onto the stool by the window. Is this my life now? Dirty stoves, infections, and wild mooncursed men in cages?
I knew it was coming and that my time in my uncle’s home was limited, but I didn’t expect to descend into this vile place. My trust fund is useless without a husband, and who wants a witch with no magic?
“Cassiopeia d’Éclat?” A deep voice startles me, and I turn to face a man a few years my senior standing in the doorway with a kind smile.
Cassiopeia. My father’s choice of name that I changed the day I lost him.
Gathering the last of my day’s strength, I stand on aching feet. “Yes, but if you need any treatments, you will have to negotiate the price with the owner first.”
He takes off his top hat and places it on the hook by the door. My gaze falls on a bunch of cheerful sunflowers in his hands.
“I am not here for treatments,” he says. “I am here to offer my sympathies.”
“For Mr. Knightflame’s passing last year.”
I never expected anyone to offer their sympathies to me, the unwanted distant niece. Still, his words fill me with warmth and bring a smile to my face. “Thank you. Did you know him?”
“I knew him a long time ago and wanted to pay my respects, but you weren’t at the memorial earlier. I just came from the house looking for you.”
I purse my lips and slip off my apron since I am done for the night. “Why me?”
He smiles again, blue eyes bright. “My name is Jasper. Perhaps you remember me.”
I search my thoughts for any familiarity of the dusty blonde-haired man, but most of my childhood memories are of loss and pain. Slowly, something appears in my mind’s eye, a young boy pushing me on a swing and picking flowers with his sister. “Jasper Skylark?” Interesting.
He is from one of the six founding families of Sacred Grove, as were the Knightflames and my parents, my mother being the sole member of the Starfall family until she had me. “I remember you, but not much, I am afraid. How have you fared?”
“I suppose it’s no secret that my family has fallen on hard times, and we are…” He shakes his head. “I am in the employment of Lord Landry, who also sends his condolences.”
I recall the Landry brothers far better, twin warlocks from another founding family. One has gone travelling, as far as I know, and the other offers little more than a casual nod when our paths cross. “That is very kind of him.” Why not come himself? “But I hardly know him anymore.”
“Well, he remembers you fondly. Perhaps we could talk for a moment.”
Any excuse to get out of this place. “Yes. It would be nice to hear of old friends.” I lead him outside and away from the infirmary.
Our feet tap on the cobble streets, and bellows of lewd remarks from the brothel along the street fill the air. The men who frequent the brothel are full of comments and inappropriate gestures to any woman they pass on their way in or out.
“When I went to visit you,” Jasper says. “The Knightflames said you’d left months ago, and they didn’t know where you’d gone.”
Lying bastards. “My friend works at the Witch’s Brew tavern and arranged a job in the infirmary for me almost a year ago.”
“I am sorry. Had I known, I would have come to see you sooner.” He pats my arm as if no years have passed since our last interaction. “Maybe what I have to say will be good news after such a sorrowful day.” The yellow flowers remain in his free hand, unusual for this season.
“In what way?” I ask.
“As you may know, Lord Landry lost his wife a few short years ago, and his children are in need of a certain type of guidance that has been hard to find.”
My eyes narrow. “You mean magical guidance?”
Jasper waves a dismissing hand. “I mean someone who appreciates the nurture and understanding the children require in their… delicate situation. The lord would like to offer you employment looking after the young Nina and Dorian.”
“I see. Well, I have looked after children on occasion, but my experience might not be enough for a nanny.”
“Not just a nanny. It will involve various tasks like teaching the children, some cooking, and household organisation. You will have your own room, meals, and clothes provided. Plus some coin for personal spending.”
A carriage passes us, forcing us close to an awful stench by the wall. The only unsavoury smell I was used to at my uncle’s home was from the carriage house. What I wouldn’t do to smell horse dung in place of whatever is by my feet right now. “I am afraid I lost my magic when I was younger.” It wasn’t technically a lie, but I never told anyone that I bound my own magic so it might spare me whatever dark fate I felt brewing.
His bright blue eyes hold mine. “Lord Landry is aware of that, and it makes no difference to him. I will help you get settled in the manor and show you your tasks.” He raises the flowers, and their petals give a gentle wave at me.
The gesture comforts me, and I smile at Jasper. “Do you like it there?”
“Yes. My sister and I are quite happy. She is the maid and an air witch, and the carriage driver is a water warlock. Lord Landry is a kind employer and a little lax with some formalities and magic.”
This is too good an offer to be so simple. “Why me?” I ask again.
“Because Lord Landry wants to repay your family for the help they gave his father that kept his business going.”
For a long moment, I ponder the offer. The Landry brothers are as good as strangers. However, the idea is tempting. It is not like I will miss the job in the infirmary, and Jasper is offering far more than I ever had living my with my uncle. I did not mind the cleaning or cooking or caring for my uncle, but my cousins…. And the magic…
I have lived so long without it that I cannot begin to imagine what the children are going through. They lost as I did, yet they still have a parent to guide them. While my uncle had a flicker of Earth magic, he rarely used it, and his children never acknowledged the fact that they were descended from witches and warlocks. I grew up as human as they come.
“I will help you adjust to any tasks you are unfamiliar with.” Jasper’s voice snaps me from my thoughts.
More shouts sound from down the street. Women with very little clothing whistle and wink at Jasper, but his gaze falls on one of the scantily-clad gentleman puffing on something that does not smell like simple tobacco. He winks at Jasper, making my companion blush.
God, anything has to be better than working in this dank street.
“Yes,” I say. “I will accept his offer.”
“Wonderful, Cassiopeia.” Jasper claps with an elated grin.
The name brings up a rage I refuse to let control me. “There is one thing. Please call me Clair. It is my middle name.”
He smiles and raises my hand to kiss my knuckles. “Clair. A beautiful name, indeed. I’ll send a carriage for you tomorrow.”
If I didn’t just see him acting coy and blushing over a man, I might blush myself over his charm. I return the smile, curtseying a little in gratitude. “Thank you.”
Jasper tips his hat and heads to the end of the street. He gets in the far side of a shiny black carriage.
Before heading back to the infirmary, I glance over my shoulder at Jasper’s carriage. Dark eyes gleam through lace curtains on its nearest side, too dark to be Jasper’s. They see something I hide. But what do those eyes hide?
2 – Fire Within
I dream of raging flames, of wild magic I refuse to embrace, for it is nothing more than a curse to me. So I cast it away and pretend I never held such power.
My boots click on the damp cobbled street as I near the Witch’s Brew tavern, and I keep my head down and out of the wind. Despite my new employment, I still deliver my mooncurse treatments for Mary and check on Scarlett during the full moon. I shiver and wrap my coat tighter around myself, a flimsy shield from winter’s bite, but I almost have the coin for a more luxurious one this year.
Footfalls alongside me cause me to glance up, and I smile at Scarlett.
“Shouldn’t you be more careful in the fancy new clothes Lord Landry buys for you?” She gestures to my hem skimming the ground.
My deep blue velvet skirtand silk blouse are safe from the earth’s stains, thanks to the protection runes that Jasper’s sister puts on all the clothes. There is little that could damage anything I wear now that I live among the magically inclined. “And shouldn’t you be working?”
She shrugs and tucks a red curl behind one ear. “The Old Wench had me delivering some treatments, and I took the long way through the park. Lord Landry lets you out late, doesn’t he?”
I laugh. “I meant to come earlier, but I had a little trouble putting Dorian and Nina to rest. They will sleep well with my hot cocoa.” The children in my care can be quite charming when they want to be. But occasionally, I imagine throwing the little sprites in the river and letting them float downstream. “How are you feeling?” I ask, placing my hand on her forehead.
She waves off my doting with a smile. “Your latest recipe is much more effective, and I’m not so drowsy from it. Besides, I needed an excuse to escape the tavern for a short time. The Old Fart was complaining about me playing the violin for the patrons again. They buy more ale, so I don’t see his problem.”
I roll my eyes. “He is old and cranky, just like his wife.” We chuckle, and I hook an arm in hers, taking in her naturally rosy cheeks and bright smile. Pride swells in me at how effective my treatments have become. The maid I work with adds the final spell that Mary used to, so everything is ready for the patients. “I will walk with you back to the tavern.”
“I’m honoured.” She pats my arm, and we amble towards the tavern.
We stop at the end of the alley leading towards the tavern. The sign creaks in the light wind up ahead.
“Best get inside,” I say to Scarlett. “You will catch a chill.”
Her skin glows a soft amber, and its warmth emanates towards me. “I think I’ll be just fine.” She bids me goodnight with a hug.
Smiling, I turn to the quiet alley and head towards the infirmary to drop off my pouch of vials. Air rushes by, unusually tepid for such a cold night. I shudder from the change in temperature and hurry on my way, my footfalls echoing in the quiet street as sounds fade to near silence.
A scream shatters the stillness, and my heart drops into my belly. I hitch up my skirts and rush back to Scarlett and more screams. Almost tripping, I make it to the end of the alley where all is pitch black, not even moonlight. A faint glimmer of amber pulses and illuminates Scarlett as she backs into the alley wall.
“Scarlett!” I scream and take a step to run when a gust of air forces me back.
Shadows ripple until the shape of a man forms between us, pure black and featureless. Churning smoke blocks my vision, but her scream resonates through the whirlwind. Before I reach her, my lungs burn as the air thins around me.
Sputters of Scarlett’s fire penetrate the darkness. “Clair, run!”
Sounds of ripping fabric freeze my blood. “Scarlett!” I scream again into the raging shadows. I scramble for her hand, failing to push through and dizzy from lack of breath.
“Stop fighting, you wretched whore,” the shadowy man grits out, his voice a rumbling echo.
Breath comes in short gasps while my chest tightens. My muscles stiffen, and I lose the will to move. Swirls of light flash before me in shapes of runes, and invisible bindings on my wrists and ankles lock me in place. Scarlett must have them too. I pull and twist in my bindings, but they are like steel manacles in mid-air. Scarlett’s screams ebb into desperate whimpers.
I call for any thought or idea to help. Something within me answers. Fire flares in my mind as I see Scarlett through the shadows. She floats off the ground, still as a statue, while the man rips at her sleeves. Her fingers flinch and spark before gusts of wind snuff out any semblance of a fire.
Heat races from my heart to my hand before glowing in white-hot light. Breathing deep, I finally take in air and rip free of the invisible bind. My burning hand punches through the shadow, taking Scarlett’s hand and pulling her from the man’s trap.
Scarlett drops into me and turns to the shadows still swarming, a fireball emerging in her palm. I stand by Scarlett’s side, my hand glowing and sparking as I hold it up towards the shadow warlock. My hand trembles as I will my inner fire into it. My fire? For a moment, she fixates on the fire before reaching out. Magic sparks between us, and flames entwine around our hands. It explodes in magenta and cobalt flashes.
Shadows battle through the fire, and I tighten my grip on Scarlett. Magic fills me, and I draw a reveal rune in the air. It lights up and launches towards the shadow man. It embeds itself in his chest, fizzling and sparking with the shadowy form. The smoke becomes flesh and clothing. I grab his jacket, but he stumbles back before whisking away in plumes like a wraith.
My head pounds, spots filling my vision. Power pulses in my veins, and fear rages at unleashing the magic I bound as a child. Gasping, I bend over and release my supper onto the wet cobbles while Scarlett rubs my back.
“Who in all the fire and winds was that?” Scarlett asks, her breath heaving.
The alley is quiet once again, no trace of the man of shadows. “I have no idea.”
“Are you all right?”
After long moments, I catch my breath and straighten. “No. You?”
“Thanks to you.” There is somewhat of a chuckle in her trembling voice. “But you… you used magic. You told me it was bound.”
I nod, heat still searing in my hand. “It was.” My body drops into Scarlett’s embrace. “I could barely breathe, and I thought he was going to…” I cannot bring myself to finish the thought.
She sniffs and takes my shoulders, her gaze locking on mine. The lace over her bodice hangs down, and more rips show flashes of skin. “Probably a wild mooncursed warlock. I have a good mind to go and burn his whatsits off for that.”
Nodding again, I bite back the sting of tears and shock that has me trembling. No amount of Scarlett’s warmth can take away the fear of what just happened, yet she seems far calmer than I. She is used to occasionally violent tavern goers, but none so intent on hurting her.
Dust marks her skin where part of her sleeve was torn. A single line with a coil running along it. “What’s this?”
Scarlett looks down and scratches at her arm as the dust floats away. “A rune maybe? He was ripping pieces of my clothes and touching my skin like he was drawing.”
I tilt her arm to the moonlight. “It must be the old language. I have never seen one like that before.”
She smooths down her sleeve and heads towards the alleyway leading to the tavern. “Rum?”
Despite myself, a small chuckle escapes me, and I take hold of my senses as best I can. Just a mooncursed warlock. All over. “Please do not say anything about…” I raise my still glowing hands. “If anyone asks, you scared him off.”
She eyes me for a moment then taps a finger to her lips. “Not a word. I promise.”
We barely take two steps when she halts and picks something up from the ground. She holds a button up to the moonlight and twists it in her fingers. The silver button has leaves engraved on it, far too lavish for those who live around here. They glimmer and shift like tiny runes.
“I’ll show this to Inspector Grayson in the morning.” She pockets the button. “He might be able to use it to find whoever that was.”
Clutching hands, we hurry inside the tavern. Hunters with pints of ale and flintlock rifles tend to dominate these parts, along with some quarry workers. The fires about the place roar with a flourish of Scarlett’s hand. Scarlett Tamer is of the dramatic type and often refers to herself as a fire tamer through well-stacked logs and a kiss of magic. Their quiet melody hums about, only audible to those who hold the fire element.
I tend to ignore the fire’s music, but the magic in me hums back like a duet out of time. It still tingles under my skin, begging for me to release it again. No. Never again.
“Scarlett!” The Old Fart glares at her, his belly about to burst his buttons. “Get behind the bar, now!”
Scarlett returns the glare. “It’s a full moon. I’m supposed to get the night off if I deliver the treatments.”
He grunts. “‘alf an hour won’t kill you.”
The only other ladies around are those offering to share a bed for a price, their breasts bulging as the Old Fart’s belly.
“Clair!” the Old Fart shouts. The man only has one volume no matter how close he is. “We need more of them calming potions of yours.”
I reach for the pouch of vials under my coat. Where is it? I must have dropped it running back to Scarlett. Luckily, I have some in my coat pockets and hand them to the Old Fart, grateful I do not have to go back into the alley and take them to the infirmary myself.
“The missus has a few influenza patients who could do with a knockout,” he continues. “And I’m close to doing it myself with my fist. Been screaming out back ‘alf the bloody day along with them mooncursed folk.”
Scarlett and I share a look as she reaches for an apron to cover her damaged clothing. He eyes a piece of wayward material from Scarlett’s bodice. “You been rompin’ on work time?”
She snarls at him. “It was a damned mooncursed warlock. Thought it might be one of the men who skipped a treatment. I’ll be letting the Inspector know about it in the morning.”
“Best that be all,” he says.
“The patients,” she says. “Are they the same mooncursed as before, the wild one and the air warlock and have they been here all night?”
“There are two more. ain’t left far as I know. That wild one ain’t capable of making it out of bed, let alone outside. Now get to work. Patrons ain’t gonna serve their own ale.”
When his back is turned, Scarlett gives him an unsavoury gesture with her middle finger. She slides a glass of rum my way. “As promised.”
“Thank you.” I knock back half a glass with shaking hands.
“On the house, since you did just save my life.” Scarlett cups her hands around mine, still on the rum glass. “I didn’t think there were any shadow witches or warlocks in Sacred Grove anymore.”
A sliver of moonlight creeps in through the tavern’s front windows. “Me neither. And so volatile…” Words halt in my throat as I ponder another gulp of my drink.
“I am so glad I only have elemental magic and not that pesky shadow magic. Imagine me, mooncursed and with shadow magic.”
I bite my tongue over how little she truly understands of my magic. She has it easy with a spark here, an occasional flame there. If she knew the power that lies in my blood, she would not speak so lightly of it.
Scarlett leaves the bottle by my glass and wipes the bar before hauling a barrel of ale from the end of the bar. The woman has some mystical strength to carry that all by herself. After several glasses of rum, my trembling lessens somewhat, and I feel settled enough to walk home.
The Old Fart grunts and swipes the bottle away. “Concoctions tomorrow, yes?”
“I cannot promise. This was my evening off.”
“Then I’ll be taking the price of the drinks from Scarlett’s wages, shall I?”
If only he knew what she and I had just been through, even he might allow us a free drink. “No need. I’ll get them here somehow.” I make my way to the door to brave the cold air once again.
Buttoning my coat, I hurry past the narrow-terraced houses with apartments on each level. They are barely big enough for a couple, let alone the families of five or more that occupy them. I cover my nose with my hood from the stench of whatever is festering in the drains. Heavy rain is on its way and might wash away the worst of the stink. Shouts echo across the street from neighbour to neighbour. In the park, the scent of flowers and trees floats under my nose, replacing the unpleasantness of the lower town as I near the area where the high society dwells.
Sounds vanish, save for the tapping of my own feet. I tighten my coat and quicken my pace for fear the shadow warlock might have followed me from the tavern. It is a long walk back to the manor, and I regret refusing the carriage my employer lets me use on my free evenings.
The streets are wider with space for two carriages, or the motorcars that have recently grown popular, to pass one another, and the occasional evening stroller nods to me. Gas lanterns adorn the pavements on both sides as I pass the grander dwellings. Gradually, the small gardens become spacious lawns, townhouses become independent with gates and gas lighting. But the one beyond the end of the row is the grandest. Shade Manor.
At the manor’s gate, I fumble for the keys with my frozen fingers. The key is fiddly, and I sigh with relief as I unlatch the main gate. With one last glance out, I close the gate and lock it behind me.
The Lord of Shade Manor keeps a simple garden with a wide pathway to the front door and another leading off to the carriage house. Blackened slate vanishes against the backdrop of the starless sky. The manor towers compared to the nearby houses with an arched entryway and a canopy where a carriage can wait out of the rain. Balconies loom over the dark-curtained rooms of the lower floor. The place fills me with chills I cannot explain, yet within holds warmth in abundance.
Once inside, I hang my coat and open the tap on the entryway’s gas lamp for some light. The Lord insists on keeping it low for when he returns late from his factory or when he plays cards at the gentlemen’s club.
I cross the foyer, only to catch myself in the mirror. The bun in my deep brown hair is a little askew with stray tendrils by my ears, and my cheeks are flushed red against my pale skin. I tuck my loose hair away and run to the fire in the library for its warmth. Not only is it my favourite room because of the hundreds of books in there, but it is also off limits to the children. I stop short at the head poking up from the armchair facing the hearth.
“Miss d’Éclat, is that you?” The Lord stands up and turns to me. His voice is low and soft. Shadows hide him from my sight, but I know he is looking right at me. I feel his stare even through the darkness.
“Apologies, Lord Landry. I was delayed.” I think it best to spare him the story of the attack, yet the magic still thrums through me.
“It is quite all right. This is your free evening to do as you wish. And how many more times do I need to tell you to call me Nathanial, Miss d’Éclat?”
“As many times as it takes for me to unlearn my manners, Lord Nathanial.”
In the months since I arrived, he has played this silly game with me, and I play along. The formality clashing with casualness is purely for amusement since we both come from Sacred Grove’s original founding families. My mother’s family home, Starfall House, is notably larger than this, though I have not seen it since her death save for a small glimpse through the surrounding woods.
Dark curls rest on Nathanial’s forehead, and his pristine shirt is a little undone under a charcoal waistcoat. The light of the fire catches his face, and he looks at me with wide brown eyes as if he is in shock. I must look a drunken mess after the evening’s events and the rum.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he says with wrinkled brows. “Are you all right?”
No. “Just a little mishap when I visited Scarlett at the tavern. Nothing to worry about.”
His brow scrunches further, and he takes a moment before speaking again. “Come sit with me. I have just finished a book I am sure you will enjoy.”
I smile at the idea of reading one of his suggested books. No matter my previous mood, I always take great delight in all the books in here. Adventures, discoveries, flighty ideas fill the books he reads as they fill my dreams. It is as if the writers saw into my mind and turned my strange ideas into a story.
“What is this book about?” His fingers catch mine as he hands it to me. Stunned, I gape and let his touch linger. I could let him stay there all night. He hands me a glass filled with his favourite brandy. I know that scent, the scent of a sleepless night ahead for him.
“It is a story of love and great power.” He releases the book.
“What greater power could there be in a story than love?” Did I really just say that?
“There are many forms of power. But you are right. A good story begins and ends with love.”
Or tragedy. I want to add.
Logs glow brighter in my periphery, and I bite my tongue at how grand ideas of love and magic irk me so. Love and magic can be either tranquil or chaotic, but together, they can be destructive. My parents taught me that lesson.
My eyes shift to the only painting of his wife. She is with the two children. The youngest is on her lap, just two years old when their mother died almost three years ago. The eldest, now almost seven, stands by her side. No smile brightens her face, no arms hold her children, no light shines in her eyes. She looks sad, lost, broken, like my mother when I last saw her. To lose a wife so young brings me such sorrow for Nathanial, but several years have passed now, and I wonder if he will ever want another.
The book he has given me is a weighty one. “It must be a grand adventure to have so many pages.”
A crooked grin spreads across his face. “Some of the grandest adventures I have read have had just as many pages.”
Do not swoon, Clair. The widower has captured too much of my heart to hide it, but one cannot hide a first love, except maybe from the person one has fallen for. I often wonder if his thoughts travel to where mine do, or if he is just being friendly or thinks me too young. Perhaps he thinks me too innocent, though he would be wrong there. I have had a lover or two despite my lack of husband prospects, and I enjoyed their attention while I had it.
The fire licks toward me. Clamping down my magic with gritted teeth, I glare at the fire, willing it to stop toying with me. “You should try your hand at writing, yourself. I imagine you have plenty of pretty words to fill a book.”
“Can you keep a secret?” His fingers tap on the book in my hand.
Tilting my head, I wonder what possible secret he could bestow on me. “If you ask, I will keep it.”
Swiftly, he turns and rushes to the bureau. He fumbles through papers and pulls out a collection of parchment wrapped inside a black leather cover—somewhat of a book. “I wrote it.” He swipes a hand through his thick, dark hair and says, “I had not planned to share it, but… I wondered… would you read it? Tell me the truth if I should pursue this or if you think it is folly.”
The breath catches in me at such a request. I did not even know he wrote. He is full of surprises. “Why me?”
“You were educated properly, were you not?”
“And I trust you.”
“Who else has read this?” I ask.
My heart dances. I put the first book in the bureau and rest my hand on his. “I shall read yours first.”
“Don’t be silly.” He swipes his book from me and hands me the other.
“I am not silly.” Smiling, I take his book. “I will read it and give you my honest thoughts. Unless it is terrible. Then I will run away to avoid you.” I give a playful grin.
Nathanial laughs, deep and infectious, that I cannot help but giggle like a giddy schoolgirl. “Do not run from me, Clair.” His fingers brush my cheek, and his stare locks me in place. “You can tell me anything, good or bad.” Shadows swallow his face as he turns from the fire.
I stare a moment, contemplating my next words. Should I even tell him of the shadow warlock? What good would it do? After all, it would not be the first time a mooncursed warlock went a little wild this time of the month. “I had rum. A lot of rum.” My cheeks instantly flush at my admission.
“And I had brandy. A lot of brandy.” He laughs again and turns to leave. “Goodnight, Clair.”
The fire flares, and I scowl at its stupid grin-like form. I never respond with magic, only a foul word or two until now. I gulp down the brandy on the table and decide a distraction is in order.
I pick up Nathanial’s book, and with more curiosity than ever, I begin my adventure.
Thank you for reading. If you want more, ARCs are available until the end of January. You can sign up here. The ebook is available for pre-order and will be on KU and paperback from February 14th on Amazon.
2 thoughts on “Out of Ashes – A Sneak Peek”
Reblogged this on Love Fantasy Novels and commented:
Still looking for ARC readers, so I’m sharing the opening chapters of Out of Ashes.
Reblogged this on Books Less Travelled.