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CHAPTER SIX

RIONA

The floorboards creaked underneath her as she ventured down the corridor into the Donmagh Printing House and Library, which was attached to the Donmagh residence. It had been a while since she’d been here, and never in this corridor, and never when it was this quiet. She pressed a palm against the cool stone, appreciating the moment alone and the stillness of the house at this hour. Even in this quiet town of human veterans and a strong hatred for half the blood pumping through her veins, the presence of the Spirit Mother sleeping beneath the earth rose through the floor, warming her skin.

In every town she and Fingal had visited, the library was the epicenter of business and trade. Not so in Ashdown, probably due to its size and distance from the capital. Perhaps the town name held a clue to its current economically despondent state.

After Ollivan helped them pick up and deliver the paper, it had taken another fifteen minutes to get rid of him. He was charmingly persistent about seeing her again while she remained in Ashdown, and that made her fear for his life. As kind as he had been, his bluster reminded Riona of the men she’d encountered on her travels with Fingal. Their true motives lay buried beneath good deeds and the promise of favours. They often died at Fingal’s hand. He could see past men’s words, into their hearts without magic. Years of loss and heartbreak were a kind of power. She envied him, in that way. She didn’t know what it was like to know something without knowing it through magic, as the Spirit Mother’s whispers were sometimes indistinguishable from her own thoughts. Under Fingal’s protection, she’d suffered less, and maybe learned nothing because of it.

Riona also slowed him down—she couldn’t fly, her magic carried unexpected consequences, and it attracted the very forces they wanted to avoid. Better for their mission if she stayed safe and hidden, Fingal would say.

Well, Fingal might be her protector, but he didn’t get a say in what she could or couldn’t do. In three days, when he returned, she intended to tell him so.

And if he didn’t return…

She tried not to think about that possibility. He always came back for her. No matter what.

That was their sacred agreement.

“Fingal, hurry back,” she whispered. She closed her eyes, trying to sense him, but he was too far away. That was for the best. She didn’t want to worry him unnecessarily.

At the end of the hallway was a set of eight-foot-tall double doors. Images of men with swords in one hand and a book in the other were etched into the wood. She scoffed at them and turned both latches, throwing the oak doors open.

The library had two floors, both identical in their rows of shelves and tomes. There were few windows, possibly to prevent fading and sun damage. Desks had been built into the walls with chairs for reading and study. She descended a few steps to the first floor. There was a separate room in the back: she heard Nora and Donnoch within, loading the paper into the machines, talking about their printing deadline.

She closed her eyes again. Connor was on the second floor. There was no one else in the building, or on the property.

Inhaling, she forced herself back to the landing, and up the creaking wooden stairs. She had to be careful not to use her magic in any significant way. On the road, she’d been careless. She’d nearly helped Connor. Her magic had gathered in her hands, yet she had let it fade. His magic was strong—he could handle it—and she carried the guilt of not helping up the stairs to the second floor.

What did he think of her, truly? That she was an evil fae, unwilling to help a person in need? He had no second thoughts about helping his friend. He had just done it.

He was a good man. His blood was not tainted with the sins of his family. Nora and Donnoch had done their fair share in the war—to Fingal—to her—but Connor remained untouched by all that.

She had to ensure he stayed that way.

“Hello? Can I help you—?” Connor briefly peered from behind the shelf. His face was dirty with soot. He hid again behind the stacks of books. “Oh. Hi, Ree. I thought Ollivan was going to take you up to see the horses.”

“I declined. Sometimes I make animals uneasy.” She frowned. “What are you doing?”

The smell of burnt pages hit her. Not just any kind of burnt—magically burnt. Smoke, layered with pungent spice, could not fool even the dullest of noses. At his feet, she noticed a stack of charred volumes.

She’d smelt that before.

“Connor? Did you—?”

She stormed around the shelf, facing him full on, heart pounding. It looked like a tornado had passed through this row of shelving. Books lay open all over the floor, pages bent and burned. She waded through a sea of bound galleys to Connor, who was crouched on the floor. Steam rose from a long, once-green cloak draped over Conner, was now covered in black soot. His face was smeared with charcoal, as if he had been shoved down a chimney. His olive green eyes remained clear, and he smiled at her.

“I…I was practicing,” he said. “But I didn’t know this one was a fire tome.”

He held up a book. It looked like someone had ripped out all the pages and spilled ink on the inside jacket.

“You…you won’t tell Mother and Da…will you?”

Riona glanced at the empty bookshelves and the destroyed tomes at her feet. “I think it will be hard to hide.”

True. No doubt if they saw this, they’d blame her, and not him. “Why are you wearing a cloak?” she asked.

“You are,” he pointed out, and then quickly added, “The tomes are dusty, especially the old ones. My job is to re-shelve out-of-place books. I happened to come across an arcane one. Sometimes they slip through the initial sorting, especially if Mother sorts when she’s tired. Mother and Da don’t allow arcane tomes in the library. I have to keep the ones I find in my bedroom, locked in a chest.”

He was rambling again, but Riona didn’t mind. Connor was unhurt. That was what mattered. “And you decided to just…try it out?”

“Well, after my success on the road today…” he said sheepishly. “I know I don’t have my full license yet, just my temporary practitioner’s permit. There’s an allowance for some magic use before taking the exam, to practice.” Unauthorized magical use was a serious crime. Difficult to enforce in places like Ashdown, no wielders around. Easy to enforce in populated areas. After all, magic senses other magic. The Imperial Guard kept an ear to the ground and reported any missed infractions to the Chief Magistrate.

Riona picked up a few of the charred volumes. Even though it wasn’t her magic, it was magic all the same—if the fae militia sensed it, if they were nearby, they might come and investigate…

“Let me guess,” Connor said. “You don’t have a license to practice magic.”

“Why do you think that?” She closed her eyes briefly. Nora and Donnoch, still in the printing room downstairs. The nearest person was a cart on the road, less than a celim away. Human.

“Because…well…you’re on the run, you said you only went to the Tower once…I guess it doesn’t matter. Your magic is strong.”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Why? I felt it on the road. When you…” He trailed off, embarrassed. “Fae are naturally gifted, I know. Even if you’re a…I mean, you’re part-human…so…”

She ran a hand through her hair and tried to pretend that she didn’t hear him, but there was no escaping it. How could she explain it to him without scaring him away?

“I had a teacher when I was young. That’s why I can control my magic now,” she said. Part-truths could get her by, for now. She gathered up the sootiest volumes and searched for a way to destroy them without magic.

“Will you teach me?”

Her gaze lifted from the tomes to the window directly ahead, overlooking the field stretching into the forest beyond. “I can’t.”

“Why?”

So many reasons. Magic was dangerous. It brought out the evil inside. She couldn’t contaminate him. It was best if after these three days, she never saw him again. She tucked some of her hair behind her ear. “I don’t have a license. Nora and Donnoch wouldn’t…approve…if they discovered we were talking about this.”

“What happened between you and them? How do they even know you?”

“I met them before,” she said.

“When? How?”

“In the war.”

“But…the war ended fifteen years ago. And you can’t be…” It dawned on him. “You’re…older than me. Fae age faster, live longer.”

“I’m a little older than you,” she admitted. “Only by a year, if that.”

“So you’re seventeen.” He frowned. “Wait, have you met me before?”

“Not…exactly.”

“Why won’t you give me a straight answer?” The charred volume in his hand began to sizzle.

She grabbed the volume from him. She couldn’t risk him attracting any more attention. “What Nora said. Talking about the war is hard. Fae have perfect memories. I remember everything since I was born. We met when I was really young. I was two years old, if that.” Then, later on, when she was around eight or nine. But Connor wouldn’t remember that.

“Did you hurt them?”

“Not…no.” Another half-truth. She was only a child then. She tried to tell herself that Fingal carried all the blame, but she couldn’t bear to see him so weighted down by her. She was, and always would be, a burden—at least, until she escaped Riklar and his fae militia, and established a safe place to hide. To blend in.

“A lot happened during the war,” Connor said slowly, as if not completely convinced at her explanation. “People are still trying to piece it together. I can’t imagine remembering everything about my life.”

She nodded. “I…didn’t mean to yell at you.” She sighed. “Sorry.”

“Now you’re the one doing the apologizing.” His lips twitched into a smile. “It’s all right. I shouldn’t be asking you so many questions anyway. It’s rude. I just met you. You’re just…you’re just the most interesting person I’ve ever met. In my life.” He stared at her. “I wish my life was as exciting as yours.”

“No, you don’t,” she said. “Riklar Dheenidiannel knows I want to stop him. That…because of my power, because of what I am, I am a threat to him. Humans with magic is sickening to him. But a half-fae with power as strong as mine is worse. Spending your life running is no kind of life.”

“So he wants to use you. Or kill you. For your magic.” Connor stacked the books. “That’s awful.”

“Yes.” In situations like this, Fingal would put an abrupt end to the conversation. He’d always tried to spare her from talking about the fae and what they did to her. She felt a little lighter talking about it with Connor. Putting the truth—or most of the truth—out in the open relieved the burden. She wouldn’t have to carry the weight of her past in front of him anymore.

Not that it really mattered. In a few days, she’d be gone.

They stacked books in silence for another minute or two, but Connor couldn’t abide not talking. “You don’t have to help. I made this mess all on my own. If they find out I destroyed an entire shelf of books, they will never let me leave here.”

“I don’t mind,” Riona said. There was something calming about the mindless task, now that she’d quelled his curiosity for the time being. Later they’d make supper, and even though she’d have to endure Nora and Donnoch’s company, at least she had Connor to dilute that pain. Then she could go to sleep in a real bed, in a real house and not a forest floor, and dream real dreams, not nightmares of the fae taking her away from Fingal.

“Well, there’s a disposal box outside the house. Collection comes every three days for us. We can hide them in here, find some of Mother’s perfume to hide the burning smell…”

Something fell and crashed on the floor in the next row behind Riona. “What was that?” she asked, spinning around. She gripped the shelf tightly and readied her fists. If it was the fae, she wouldn’t hesitate. Forget the books. She would raze the whole library if it meant keeping Connor—and even his family—safe.

It was the good thing to do.

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“It’s all right,” Connor said dismissively. “I just bumped the shelf and knocked over some tomes. I know, I’m clumsy. Let’s just clean up.”

Fear bloomed in Riona’s stomach. A specific kind of fear: a liquid alarm that ran through her blood, warning her of an approaching danger.

The two faint dimples encasing his mouth faded. “What?”

She dropped the charred volumes and rushed across the room to the window, squinting against the yellowing afternoon light. Curse her fae eyes. There was a black dot in the field, mingling with the browns and greens of the trees of Stovel’s Wood that stretched beyond the outer limits of Ashdown, all the way to Drohoven. “Connor, do you see someone out there?”

“Where?”

He strode over to the window. She couldn’t tear her gaze from the dot. It wasn’t moving. It could just be an animal. She could use her magic to find out, but if it was the fae militia, they’d know, they’d attack…

“It kind of looks like a person,” Connor said. He sounded unsure.

So they’d found her. “I…I don’t want to use magic.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

He tried to touch her arms to reassure her, but she recoiled into a shelf, causing it to wobble. She shook her head. If he touched her, he would sense her again, and she wasn’t prepared for him to see that darkness swirling in her. She’d barely kept the bad blood from him before.

But her sleeve caught on one of the books behind her, exposing her wrist and lower arm. Fae skin was supposedly perfect. All humans envied it. Yet hers, on her arms at least, lay a secret she didn’t even want Fingal to know about. The scars, years old now but still present, seemed much angrier in the sunlight.

She pulled down the sleeve. It was too late. Connor had seen.

The black dot forgotten, he gave her a curious look. “Where did you get these scars? Who hurt you?”

His eyes were too kind. She couldn’t bear to look at him. She also couldn’t bear to lie.

“I did,” she whispered.

Fingal could protect her from many things, but he could not protect her from her fae blood. She had tried to get rid of it, foolishly, but of course it hadn’t worked. She hadn’t tried in a long time now. The scars were a reminder of her weakness. Her struggle to do good, always, to save everyone and anyone.

“Connor? What happened here?”

Connor and Riona’s gazes met. They’d gotten distracted. The books!

The two of them scrambled out of the row to the middle of the library to meet both Nora and Donnoch. They stared, wide-eyed with horror, at the stacks of charred volumes, ruined pages, and hardbacks torn and tattered, scattered on the floor.

Nora’s eyes settled immediately on Riona. “What have you done?”

“It wasn’t her, Mother,” Connor said. “It was me.”

“You are making his magic stronger,” Nora continued, advancing on Riona. She stepped back cautiously. Nora might be unarmed, but she’d seen her fight on many occasions. She didn’t need a weapon.

Riona also couldn’t let him take the blame—he needed to go to the Tower. As corrupt as it was, it was the safest way for him to learn to control his magic.

“You’re right, it was me. I did this,” she lied.

Donnoch rarely lost his temper; his face was red. “Either of you could have burned the library down. The house, even!”

“Don’t listen to her, it really was me,” Connor pleaded.

Nora looked alarmed. “If she’s making you say this…”

Donnoch cut her off. “I don’t care who did it. Part of the library is ruined. Countless bits of local history, destroyed, unrecoverable, not without access to the Tower and their magical archivists.”

“I can pay for it,” Connor said desperately. “When I go to the Tower for my exam…”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Nora said flatly.

“Mother—”

“That’s enough.” Nora returned her gaze to Riona. “Come with me, please.”

Riona wasn’t in a position to argue. She quietly followed Nora down the stairs to the double oak doors. Glancing behind her, she saw Connor, cradling his tattered robes and playing with the frayed ends. It was made with expensive fabric: possibly imported from the capital. Now it was ruined, and just by being there, she had made it worse for him.

Next time, on Wingtorn.

In the past, Nora, Donnach, and Brendan celebrate their victory.

Fingal struggles to hide the truth about his new charge.

Riona gets a new name.

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