* * *
“Are the rooms to your liking, Elloren?”
Aunt Vyvian beams at me as I join her at the balcony table. Fenil’lyn bows and graciously takes her leave.
“They’re lovely, thank you,” I reply, a bit dazzled. “I’ve never seen anything like…” I look out over the spectacular view of the ocean. “Well, like any of this.”
She smiles, pleased. “Well, it’s your birthright. Enjoy it. Your uncle’s deprived you for far too long.” She gestures toward a chair with a light wave of her hand. “Please. Sit. Enjoy the view with me.”
Delighted, I take a seat opposite her, a deep green rug beneath our feet covering the gray stone of the balcony. Lanterns hang on multiple stands and cast the table in a soft glow that reflects off the fine porcelain with tiny, golden pinpricks of light.
A plate’s been made up for me—slices of a citrus-glazed pheasant, precarved on a side table, thin lemon slices decorating the succulent bird; wild rice with dried fruit and nuts; baby carrots. Fresh bread steams between us alongside a dish of butter molded into flowers. A pitcher of mint water and a basket of fresh fruit also adorn the table. And a small table by the balcony’s side wall holds a steaming pot of tea, a tower of small pastries and a bouquet of red roses in a crystal vase.
A servant stands still as a statue by the tea set, a young blue-skinned Urisk woman with vivid sapphire eyes who stares straight ahead into the middle distance, her expression carefully blank. It’s hard to remember she’s a person and not a statue, she’s that still.
Aunt Vyvian’s gaze wanders over me as she sips her water.
I find myself longing for her approval. I try to sit straight, my hands folded lightly on my lap, mimicking her graceful posture. My clothing may be shoddy, but at least I can try to mirror her refined ways.
“Tomorrow I’m sending you to the premier dressmaker in Valgard to have an entire new wardrobe fitted,” she tells me with a small smile. “You can take it to University with you.”
It’s like she can read my wishes, and I’m overcome with gratitude. We’ve never had enough money for fine clothing. A warm rush rises in my neck and cheeks as I blush at her kindness. “Thank you, Aunt Vyvian.”
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to accompany you.” She sets down her glass and cuts into her pheasant. “I’ve Mage Council business to attend to, but I’m having three young women join you. They’ll be your peers at University.”
“Oh.” I’m nervous and elated by the thought of meeting fellow scholars. I take a bite of the pheasant and it falls apart in my mouth, the glaze bright with lemon and spiked with fresh herbs.
“You’ll like Paige Snowden and Echo Flood a great deal, I’m sure of it,” she muses, taking a neat bite of her food. She dots her mouth with her napkin. “They’re the daughters of Mage Council members. Lovely young women. Pleasant and morally upstanding.”
But—she mentioned three young women. I blink at her in confusion, wondering if I heard her wrong.
“And the third?”
Aunt Vyvian’s mouth grows tight, her face darkening, eyes cool. “That would be Fallon Bane, dear. I very much doubt you’ll like her.”
I gape at her. “Then…why…?”
“Her father is Malkyn Bane. He’s a military commander and has a great deal of Council influence. He’s also a Level Five Mage.” She says this with the gravity it’s due, and I nod and take note of it as I pull a warm piece of bread from the basket.
Level Five Mages are not common, which is why my Level Five brother Trystan is a full-fledged Weapons Guild Mage at the tender age of sixteen.
“Malkyn Bane’s children are all Level Five Mages,” Aunt Vyvian continues with great significance.
I freeze, bread and butter knife in hand. “You can’t mean his daughter, too?”
Aunt Vyvian slowly nods. “Fallon Bane is a Level Five Mage, as are her two brothers.” She gives this a moment to fully sink in.
I gape at her. “A female? With that much power?” That high level of power is almost exclusively held by males, with the notable exception of my grandmother.
My aunt’s face fills with bitter frustration. “That kind of power rightfully belongs in our line. Especially with how much you look like Mother.” She shakes her head, her brow going tight. “But even Trystan, with his great promise, is no match for Fallon Bane. Especially since he got such a late start in his training, due to your uncle’s negligence on that front.” She lets out a frustrated breath and gives me a level look. “Fallon’s only eighteen, and she’s already on the outer reaches of Level Five, Elloren. Much like your grandmother was at her age.”
I remain frozen as realization washes over me. “She’s the next Black Witch.”
Aunt Vyvian’s eyes darken. “No. I refuse to believe it. One of your children will hold that title. Or Trystan’s. But not Fallon Bane. That power is our legacy. Ours alone. No matter how much Fallon Bane and her family like to strut about and pretend they’re the heirs to it.”
I knit my brow in question. “But even if she’s not the Black Witch…if she’s so dangerous, and if you dislike her so—then why is Fallon Bane going dress shopping with me?”
It seems almost comically bizarre.
Aunt Vyvian leans forward and looks me straight in the eye as if conveying something of deep importance. “Because sometimes in this world, it’s good to know what you’re dealing with.”
“I don’t understand.”
Her eyes narrow. “Fallon is obsessed with Lukas Grey.”
Ah, him again.
“No,” she puts in flatly. “Not to my knowledge. From what I’ve seen, Lukas has little interest in the girl.” My aunt’s face twists into a disgusted sneer. “Even though Fallon throws herself at him quite wantonly.”
Warmth spreads through my cheeks as I start to realize where all this is going. Lukas is a prize. And Aunt Vyvian is actively plotting for me to win him. Away from Fallon Bane.
“You want me to spend time with Fallon Bane so I can size up the competition?” I say, disbelieving.
Her eyes take on a sly gleam. “There is an opportunity here, Elloren.”
Worry pricks at me. I might not even like this Lukas Grey, so there’s that. But there’s an even larger concern.
I set my bread and knife down and level with her.
“Aunt Vyvian. You’ve really gone out of your way for me. And I don’t want to disappoint you.” A nervous dismay ripples through me—I don’t want to lose her kind regard. I’ve been hungry for a mother figure for so long, for female guidance. But she has to know the truth. “I have no experience in society. There’s just no way I can…swoop down into it and…fit in with this Lukas Grey, or anyone else, for that matter.” I slump, losing heart as I take in the tiny, elaborate braids that decorate her long hair. I’m hungry for knowledge of such pretty ways. “I don’t even know how to do my hair. Or use makeup properly. Or…anything.” If I had my mother…
Aunt Vyvian pats my hand and gives me a warm, maternal smile.
“You don’t have to know anything, dear.” She gives my hand a gentle squeeze. “I’ve taken you under my wing. And that’s the best place to be. Simply sit back, enjoy it and follow my lead.”
I smile shyly, encouraged, as I hold on to her cool, smooth hand.