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Mage Bride Free Preview

Mage Bride Free Preview

Mage Bride Free Preview

A scream of horror died in my throat as I bolted upright, sending the bed covers tumbling onto the floor. Pressing a hand to my thumping heart, I took deep gulps of thick air to calm myself. Menacing golden eyes flashed in my memory, and I fought to keep the cloying panic down.

It was only a dream. A nightmare. The monster wasn’t real.

But it felt real, the type of dream that was so intense, so realistic it lingered, imprinted on one’s memory like a bad omen. I almost felt searing heat blooming across my bare shoulders and claws digging into my side hard enough to draw blood. Yet it was only a dream. There was no monster with golden eyes and curled horns meant for impaling, for monsters did not exist in the known lands. I was safe in the Academy of Mages.

Even as the icy grip of the nightmare faded, reality sank in and I lurched out of bed, only to be dragged back by the heavy manacles around one leg. The plain decor of the windowless room left me feeling suffocated, but in reality, it was the runic silver bracelets around my ankles and wrists that made me feel trapped because they suppressed my magic.

I was a prisoner in the Academy of Mages, and today, my fate would be determined.

A tap came at the door and I spun to face it, my fingers going to my black curls. Usually, I preferred my appearance to be impeccable, my honey brown skin glowing with health, my glossy black curls tamed to fall gracefully around my shoulders, and the clothing that draped my willowy frame stylish yet modest. Being a prisoner and worrying myself sick hadn’t done me any favors. I felt—and likely looked—much older than my twenty-five years.

The door was an invisible slit in the wall which opened with magic, and only the guards knew the magical words to open the holding cells. Since I was a prisoner waiting for my sentence, the mages imprisoned me in the Academy of Mages instead of deep in the dungeons. Were they coming already? The lack of windows in the room made it difficult to tell time, yet it seemed early for them to come for me. I wasn’t ready. Truth be told, I’d never be ready.

The door slid open and a ball of bright colors burst inside, hurling across the room toward me. It took a full moment to ensure my eyes weren’t betraying me before surprise propelled me forward.

“Lessie!” I gasped as my best friend embraced me. Tight. “How are you here? You’re supposed to be in the floating city, not here.”

“I came as soon as I heard,” Lessie announced, releasing me only enough to look at my face. “I’m so sorry, Phera. I never imagined they’d detain you like this.”

Shame washed over me but I held her gaze, keeping my voice low. “They were right to detain me, Lessie. I broke the law. I knew what I was doing and did it anyway.”

“Surely no. Phera! If what you say is true, they’ll take your magic. They’ll take everything from you.”

Letting go of her, I rubbed at my wrists. “All my hopes are pinned on the hearing, that the judges will be sympathetic. I only used dark magic for the greater good.”

Lessie’s mouth turned down. “I want to hear the entire story in your own words.”

“If we have time, I’ll tell you, but Lessie, you shouldn’t be here. I don’t want to get you into trouble because of what I’ve done.”

“Nonsense.” Lessie sniffed and hefted a bag onto the bed. “I brought clothes. You can’t wear a prisoner’s garb to the hearing. They’ll judge you right away. A modest dress, nothing too revealing, and your hair neatly done will go a long way. Who is representing you?”

I held her gaze, even though I wanted to look away, to sink into my shame. “No one. I used blood magic, Lessie. There’s no defense for it.”

Lessie sat down heavily on the bed, as though all the breath had been drained from her body. “It’s worse than I thought,” she moaned.

“But the academy knows me,” I protested, clinging to gossamer threads of hope. “I began my training at eighteen and I studied here for four years. All the mages can vouch for my character. I’ve only been gone three years. I’m still the same person.”

Lessie squeezed my hand, tears shining in her bright brown eyes. “I hope you’re right. I hope they see it that way. Using dark magic, blood magic, is unforgivable. Our studies here at the academy taught us about corruption and darkness and sorcery. They won’t forgive you outright.”

“I’ve thought of that.” I squirmed, taking my hand out of hers to hug myself. The magical bracelets banged together with a loud clanging sound. I winced. “The most I can hope for is to avoid the dungeons, and the ability to work myself back into their good graces. Remember when we first began our studies? A woman named Chiny worked here. No one paid her much attention, but I discovered that she’d been a mage. Her magical powers were suppressed—I don’t know why—but instead of being punished in the dungeons, she served her sentence as a prisoner in the academy, working off her years of service. They gave her a chance. Why not me?”

Lessie leaned back on her elbows, one foot tapping against the stones. Her eyes narrowed as she calculated my options. “True, we don’t know what she did to gain such a light sentence. I’m afraid, Phera, terrified for you. If given the opportunity, I’ll speak out and vouch for you with everything I have. But answer me this, are you remorseful at all? If you had the chance to go back, would your actions be different?”

I pressed my lips together. It was one question I’d wrestled with on endless nights. I had broken the sacred code that all mages adhered to, but it was out of desperation. My words turned vicious when I spoke. “I stopped a horrible, terrible, dangerous person, and I’d do so again in a moment.”

Lessie pressed a hand to her head. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Phera, your zeal is admirable, but this time, you went too far. Never let the court know you aren’t sorry and don’t get that look on your face. They’ll lock you in the deepest, darkest dungeon and slay the only person with the magical code to set you free.”

I nodded. “I was reckless and got caught. It won’t happen again.”

Lessie sighed. “I believe you, but will they?”

I already knew the answer to that question. Despite the firmness in my tone when I spoke to Lessie, everything inside of me was silently screaming. In one moment, I’d thrown away my entire life and the idea of never using magic again or of being locked away was overwhelming. I didn’t want her to see how frightened I was, so I turned my back to her, throat raw, tears burning the back of my eyes.

Lessie, sensing my needs, stood and opened the bag. “Let’s get you ready.”

 

* * *

 

It was one thing to be brave with Lessie, alone in my cell, but quite another to hold my head high in front of the entire assembly. Those gathered included renowned mages from across the known world, instructors from the Academy of Mages, and a few rows of students, pen and paper in hand, ready to “learn” from the proceedings. Head high, I walked past the rows of gossiping mouths to my seat at the front bench. The judge’s pulpit was empty, but the governing committee of mages—my judges—took their seats on stage. Some of them had traveled far to be here, hence why I’d been locked up for a few weeks—to give everyone ample time to arrive.

I was grateful to sit down, and even though the guards had separated Lessie and me, just knowing she’d forsaken her post and traveled back to support me gave me strength. But not enough. All the hope and bravery I’d had speaking with her faded under the sharp glares of those assembled. I’d get the maximum sentence, and just the thought of being locked away made a sharp pain climb up my belly. The judgmental whispers and open stares of disbelief made me want to sink into the floor. I couldn’t do this.

The gavel banged down on the pulpit and Mage Margot rose to her feet. She was one of the instructors at the academy and had been there for decades. She was a small woman, only five feet tall, with bird-like bones, but her presence commanded attention. Although she was blind, she had a keen sense about her, and now her commanding tone boomed across the auditorium. “All rise for Lord Pieter.”

Lord Pieter strode in from the back of the room, walking the length of it, his deep-purple robes billowing out behind him. A thick, black beard and mustache covered most of his expression and bushy eyebrows hid his deep-set eyes. He was known for his firm yet fair judgments, but my heart still faltered when he took his place behind the pulpit and those dark eyes examined me. Regret washed over me. He was one elder I regretted disappointing. When I’d graduated from the academy, he’d shaken my hand and told me I showed great promise.

I’d dashed those dreams to dust. It wasn’t any easier with Mage Margot either. Even though she couldn’t look me in the eye, I sensed her disapproval from the bench. Pressing my hands together, I kept my back straight and fixed my gaze on a speck of peeling plaster on the wall.

Lord Pieter cleared his throat, causing a reverent silence to hang over the assembly. “Today, we have gathered to pass judgment on the case of Mage Phera and the use of dark magic, which is forbidden to all mages. Such an act is unforgivable and requires the most severe punishment. Let me clear. What was done was unacceptable and if those of you gathered here should know that any attempt to use dark magic, even though the intention may be for good, shall come under the authority of this court. Yesterday, I was willing to hear witnesses and testimony to this case. However, as of early this morning, everything has changed.”

What had changed? My mouth went numb, and despite my intention to remain focused and calm, my gaze moved from the peeling plaster to his face. I squeezed my fingers together, trying with all my strength to keep my leg from bouncing up and down with anxiety. It sounded as though he intended to be lenient and hear my side of the story, but now judgment would come fast and heavy. I was to be an example of what happened to mages who stepped out of line.

“Last night, we received an urgent and surprising message from the Ice Lords of the North.”

Lord Pieter paused, knowing the impact of his word. A ripple of surprised murmurs burst through the crowd. I frowned, wishing I could turn around to see Lessie’s expression. What did the ice lords have to do with me?

We knew little about them and their lifestyles. I’d heard the words savage and uncultured used when speaking of them, but in truth, ice lords kept to themselves, willing to live on the edges of the unknown lands. They refused to trade or permit mages to set foot in their land. In accordance with the peace treaty, the ice lords kept an outpost, used for communication. However, no mage had set foot there in decades.

Diplomacy required that the ice lords remain in the good graces of the governors of Ethunia, the southern lands. After all, they had signed the peace agreement, although it came with strict stipulations that no mage was to enter their lands unless explicitly invited. And that explicit invitation had never come.

In historical studies at the academy, there was debate on why the ice lords kept their land closed to others. There was speculation that, despite signing the treaty, the ice lords lived in direct contradiction of the policies and practices they were supposed to uphold. I was never interested in why, because there were much loftier placements to vie for. Every mage competed for placement in highly desired countries across the known world of Ethunia.

But ice lords? Dread coursed through my veins as Lord Pieter continued to speak and the murmurs of surprise brought on by his announcement died down.

“For the first time in our history, the Ice Lords of the North have requested a mage or two to assist them in a delicate matter concerning life and death. At the Academy of Mages, we aim to uphold law and order and maintain peace across Ethunia. The ice lords have made it known that this is a case which threatens peace and jeopardizes the work we’ve done throughout the decades. Because they are part of the known lands and have signed the peace treaty, this is a request we cannot deny. Therefore, mages will be appointed to assist them in their time of need.”

Lord Pieter paused again, giving time for more argumentative conversation to take place in the assembly. But I wished he’d go on. A buzzing had started in my ears and a terror gripped me. A sneaking suspicion was taking hold, but I wanted him to speak, to clarify what he was asking—or rather, demanding.

“Placement is important here. As mages, your position in this world is critical and the country you serve gives you power far beyond your magic. A placement with the ice lords is not an elevation of a career but a degradation, a punishment.”

His eyes locked on mine, and a silent scream began in my mind.

No.

No, no, no, no, no!

Lord Pieter picked up the gavel. “Mage Phera, please stand.”

A wave of faintness came over me, but I managed to stand firm in front of my elders, my instructors, my peers, and mages who were once my friends. This was humiliation at its finest.

“Phera, your title of mage has been stripped and your magic has been suppressed for purposefully indulging in dark magic. Your intent is not pertinent and does not matter. You knew the laws of this land and you willfully ignored them. I hereby sentence you to ten years in the dungeons or ten years serving the ice lords on the edges of the unknown lands. It is your choice.”

Ten years. The longevity of the term rang in my mind. My mouth opened, yet no words came out. I swallowed and tried again as the assembly waited, all eyes on me.

“I will serve the ice lords.”

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