Steel’s Edge – Ilona Andrews

“MY lady?” Charlotte looked up from her cup of tea at Laisa. The young girl held an envelope of thick, heavy paper. “This came for you.” A sudden pain pierced Charlotte’s chest, as if something vital had broken inside her. She felt cold and jittery. It was bad news. If it were good news, she would’ve gotten a scryer call. She felt the urge to squeeze and crumple her blond hair in her fingers. She hadn’t done that since she was a child. “Thank you,” she made herself say. The maid lingered, concern stamped on her face. “Can I get you anything, my lady?” Charlotte shook her head. Laisa studied her for a long moment, reluctantly crossed the balcony to the door, and went inside. The envelope lay in front of Charlotte. She forced herself to raise her cup of tea to her lips.

The rim of the cup shuddered. Her fingers were shaking. She focused on that rim, calling on years of practicing control over her emotions. Calm and collected, that was the mantra of the healer. An ef ective healer is neither callous, nor tenderhearted, her memory whispered in her mind. She doesn’t permit herself to succumb to passion or despair, and she never allows her craft to be compromised by her emotions. She had lived by this creed for twenty years. It never failed her. Calm above all things. Calm.

Charlotte took a deep breath, counting each rise and fall of her chest. One, two, three, four . ten. The cup in her hands was motionless. Charlotte drank from it, set it down, and tore the envelope open. Her fingertips had gone numb. The ornate seal of the Adrianglian Academy of Physicians marked the top of the paper. We regret to inform you . Charlotte forced herself to read it, every last word, then stared past the white stone rail of the balcony at the garden below. Down there, a sand-colored brick path ran to the distant trees.

Short silvery grass trailed the path on both sides, flanked by a row of low emerald hedges, beyond which flowers bloomed: roses in a dozen shades, their heavy blossoms perfect; constellation shrubs with bunches of star-shaped flowers in crimson, pink, and white; yellow knight spears, their delicate flowerets shaped like tiny bells . She would not be blooming. She would not bear fruit. The last door had slammed in her face. Charlotte hugged herself. She was barren. The word pressed on her, like a crushing physical weight, a heavy anchor around her neck. She would never feel a life grow inside her. She would never pass on her gift or see the shadow of her features in her baby’s face. The treatments and magic of the best healers in Adrianglia had failed.

The irony was so thick, she laughed, a bitter brittle sound. In the country of Adrianglia, two things mattered most: one’s name and one’s magic. Her family was neither old nor wealthy, and her name was ordinary. Her magic was anything but. At four years old she had healed an injured kitten, and her life took a sharp turn in an unexpected direction. Medical talents were rare and highly prized by the realm, so rare that when she was seven, Adrianglia came for her. Her parents explained the situation: she would leave them to study at the Ganer College of Medicinal Arts. Adrianglia would house her, teach her, nurture her magic, and in return upon completion of her education, Charlotte would give the realm ten years of civil service. At the end of that decade, she would be granted a noble title, making her one of the coveted elite, and a small estate. Her parents, in turn, would receive a lump sum of money to soothe their grief at losing a child.

Even at that age, she realized she had been sold. Three months later, she left for the College and never returned. At ten she was a child wonder; at fourteen, a rising star; and at seventeen, when her service officially began, Charlotte was the best the College had to offer. They called her the Healer and guarded her like a treasure. In anticipation of assuming her title, she had received instruction from the best tutors. Lady Augustine, whose bloodline stretched back through centuries all the way to the Old Continent, had personally overseen her education, ensuring that Charlotte entered Adrianglian society as if she had always belonged within it. Her poise was flawless, her taste refined, her behavior exemplary. By the time she emerged from the College, now Charlotte de Ney, Baroness of Ney and the owner of a small estate, she had healed thousands. But she could never heal herself. Neither could anyone else.

After eighteen months of treatments, experts, and magic, she held the final verdict in her hand. She was barren. Barren. Like a desert. Like a wasteland. Why her? Why couldn’t she have a baby? She’d healed countless children, pulling them from the brink of death and returning them to their parents, but the little nursery she had set up next to their bedroom would remain empty. Hadn’t she earned this little bit of happiness? What had she done that was so horrible that she couldn’t have a baby? A sob broke from her. Charlotte caught herself and rose. No hysterics. Elvei would have to be told.

He would be crushed. Children meant so much to her husband. She took the stairs down to the path leading to the northern patio. The old house sprawled in the garden like a lazy white beast, a seemingly random three-story-high collection of rooms, patios, balconies, and stone stairways. The northern patio was on the opposite side of the manor, and she required a few minutes to compose herself. Her husband would need her support. Poor Elvei. She had just been settling into her new life when Elvei Leremine came to her with a proposal. She was twenty-eight at the time, barely a year out of the College, and lonely. The life of a Healer didn’t leave much time for romantic pursuits.

The idea of being married and sharing her life with another human being suddenly seemed so appealing. Baron Leremine was considerate, gracious, and attractive. He wanted a family, and so did she. When a year had passed with no children, she underwent an examination, taking the first step on the grueling eighteen-month journey. She wanted a baby. She would surround her child with love and warmth, and her son or daughter would never have to worry about being ripped out of her arms because even if her talent passed to her baby, she would go to the College with them. Charlotte stopped for a moment and squeezed her eyes shut. There would be no baby. A week ago, the months of treatments, tests, and waiting had caught up with her. She felt alone, desperate, and terrified of the future, just as she had when she was seven years old and walking through the massive stone gates of the Ganer College for the first time.

And so she sought out the same person who had comforted her then, the woman who became her mother after her natural parents surrendered her. She had gone back to Ganer College to speak with Lady Augustine. They had walked through the gardens together, just like she was doing now, drifting along the curved stone paths, the College’s forbidding stone walls behind them. Lady Augustine hadn’t changed much. Dark-haired, graceful, her face classically beautiful, she didn’t walk, she glided. Her demeanor was still regal, her features were elegant, and her magic, which could soothe the most violent psychotic in a breath, still as potent as ever. “Do you think this is a punishment?” Charlotte had asked. The Lady arched her eyebrows. “Punishment? For what?” Charlotte clenched her jaw. “You can tell me anything,” Lady Augustine murmured.

“I won’t betray your confidence, sweetheart. You know this.” “I carry something dark in me. Something vicious. Sometimes I feel an edge of it, looking through my eyes from inside me.” “You feel the urge?” the older woman said. Charlotte nodded. The urge was a constant specter hanging over every healer. They could knit together devastating wounds and purge diseases, but they could also harm. Using the destructive side of their magic was forbidden.

“Do no harm” was the opening statement of the healer’s oath. It was the first words of the first lesson she had received, and over the years she had heard it said countless times. Harming was seductive. Those who tried it became addicted and lost themselves to it. “Is it growing stronger?” Lady Augustine asked. Charlotte nodded. “Pardon you for being human.” What? Charlotte glanced at the older woman. A mournful smile curved Lady Augustine’s lips. “My dear, do you think you’re the first to have these thoughts? Our talents provide us with the means both to heal and to harm.

It’s in our nature to do both, yet we’re asked to shut half of ourselves off and heal for years and years. This creates an imbalance. Do you think I haven’t imagined what I could do if I unleashed my power? I could walk into a roomful of diplomats and plunge the country into war. I could incite riots. I could drive people to murder.” Charlotte stared at her. Of all people, her adoptive mother was the last person she would imagine having those thoughts. “What you feel is normal. It’s not a cause for punishment. You’re under a lot of stress, and your body and mind are on the defensive.

You put yourself under so much pressure, and that makes you vulnerable. You want to lash out, but Charlotte, you must keep your magic under control.” “What if I stumble?” Charlotte asked. “There is no such thing as stumbling. You are a healer or you’re an abomination.” Charlotte winced. “I have faith in you. You know what the consequences are.” She knew. Every healer knew about the consequences.

Those who harmed turned into plaguebringers, slaves to their own magic, existing only to deliver death and disease. Centuries ago on the Old Continent, an attempt was made to use the plaguebringers as a weapon during a war. Two of the healers had walked out onto the battlefield and let themselves go. Neither army survived, and the plague they unleashed raged for months and smothered entire kingdoms. Lady Augustine sighed. “The realm takes us from our families so young because they seek to indoctrinate us. Even with this careful upbringing, they ask for only ten years of service because what we do wears us out. We give so much of ourselves. We’re the last hope of so many people, and we’re exposed to horrible things: wounds of violence, dying children, families torn by grief. It’s a heavy burden to bear, and it has an effect on you, on me, on all of us.

To feel the destructive urges is natural, Charlotte. But acting on them will make you a murderer. Perhaps not right away. Perhaps you can even control it for a time, but in the end, the magic will consume you, and you will walk through the land spreading death. There are no exceptions to this rule. Do not become an abomination, Charlotte.” “I won’t.” She would contain the darkness. She had to—she simply had no choice. They walked in silence for a few moments.

“Let us imagine the worst,” Lady Augustine said. “You’re infertile.” Charlotte’s heart had skipped a beat. “Yes.” “It doesn’t mean you have to be childless. There are hundreds of children waiting to be loved. You can’t give birth, Charlotte. That’s only a small part of being a parent. You can still be a mother and know all the joys and tortures of raising a child. We get too hung up on bloodlines and family names and our own stupid notions of aristocracy.

If someone dropped a basket with a baby on your doorstep, would you really hesitate to pick it up because the baby wasn’t of your blood? It’s a baby, a tiny life just waiting to be nurtured. Think on it.” “I don’t have to. I would take the baby,” Charlotte said. She would take it and love it. Whether she carried it to term didn’t matter. “Of course you would. You are my daughter in everything but blood, and I know you. I think you’ll make an excellent mother.” Tears warmed the back of her eyes.

Charlotte kept them in check. “Thank you.” “What does your husband think of all of this?” “Children are very important to him. His inheritance depends on producing an heir.” The older woman rolled her eyes. “Conditional succession? Oh, the joys of having a noble bloodline and a little bit of money. Is this some new development? I don’t recall this being a condition of your marital contract.” Charlotte sighed. “It wasn’t.” “Did he mention at any point before your wedding that he required an heir?” Charlotte shook her head.

Lady Augustine’s face iced over. “I do not appreciate being lied to. When did you find out?” “When we realized there was a problem with conception.” “This was a conversation the two of you should’ve had before either of you signed your name to the contract. Not only that, but it should’ve been formally disclosed.” She looked into the distance, the way she did when she was trying to recall things. “How could I have been so wrong? He seemed like such a solid match, a temperate man. Unlikely to cause any problems.” A temperate man? “What does that mean?” “Charlotte, you need someone steady, someone dependable, who will treat you with consideration. You’ve done over a decade’s worth of healing, and your magic is starved and tired of doing the same thing over and over.

It doesn’t take much to upset this apple cart. That’s why I remained here.” Lady Augustine indicated the garden with an elegant sweep of her hand. “Serenity, beauty, and a low likelihood of psychological or physical trauma. That’s why after a bloody war, some veterans become monks.” So what, she was somehow too fragile to live her life outside of College walls? Charlotte gritted her teeth. “Perhaps Elvei didn’t know about the conditions for succession.” “Oh no, he knew. We grow up knowing, Charlotte. He deliberately hid it because I would’ve never given my consent to your wedding.

” Charlotte raised her head. “If he made that a requirement of the marriage contract, I wouldn’t have married him. I didn’t want to enter into a contract to produce a baby. I wanted a marriage, and I think he did, too.” “He wanted children with a healing talent,” the older woman said. Charlotte stopped. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Lady Augustine said. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was coarse of me. I’m so furious, and it’s clouding my judgment.

It’s my fault. This was exactly the sort of thing I was trying to avoid, and I’ve failed you. I’m so, so sorry.” “I’m not a child,” Charlotte said. “I’m almost thirty, and I’m responsible for my marriage.” “You’re educated, but Ganer College hasn’t prepared you for the realities of the world outside these walls. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you don’t have the experience of interacting with people outside a controlled environment. You’ve never been betrayed, hurt, or tricked. You’ve never suffered humiliation. I look into people’s souls every day, and what I see there fills me with joy, but also with dread.

I wanted so much to spare you.” She was talking as if the end of her marriage was a foregone conclusion. “My marriage isn’t over, and Elvei isn’t some sort of callous villain. So he didn’t tell me about his succession. It’s a rather regrettable oversight, but we will deal with it. I understand that love doesn’t happen overnight, but I think he cares for me, and I care for him, deeply. We’ve lived together for almost three years. We wake up in the same bed. He told me he loved me when I began the fertility treatments.” Lady Augustine studied her.

“Perhaps you’re right, and he simply loves you. If he truly cares for you, he’ll deal with it.” They took another step. The mix of worry and anxiety roiled inside Charlotte. Heat rose behind her eyes, and she clamped her hand over her mouth. Lady Augustine opened her arms. Charlotte’s last defenses snapped. She stepped into the welcoming embrace and cried. “My sweetheart, my precious one. It will be all right,” Lady Augustine soothed, holding her.

“It will be all right. Let it all out.” But it wasn’t all right, and now Charlotte had to tell Elvei about it. What they said about coming to love a person you live with was true: she had come to love him. He was always kind to her, and she could use some of that kindness now. She felt weak and helpless. So helpless. The path brought her to the northern patio. Her husband sat in a chair, drinking his morning tea and peering over papers. Of average height and muscular build, Elvei was handsome in that particular aristocratic blueblood way: precise features, carved with a perfection that seemed a touch distant, square jaw, narrow nose, blue eyes, brown hair with a hint of red.

When she woke up next to him, with the morning light playing on his face, she often thought he was beautiful. Charlotte came up the steps. Elvei rose and held out a chair for her. She sat and passed him the letter. He read it, impassive, his pleasant face calm. She had expected more of a reaction. “This is unfortunate,” Elvei said. That’s it? Unfortunate? Her instincts told her something was seriously wrong with that placid expression on his face. “I truly care for you,” Elvei said. “Very deeply.

” He reached over the table and took her hand in his. “Being married to you is effortless, Charlotte. I have nothing but admiration for what you do and who you are.” “I’m sorry,” she said. The logical part of her knew she had nothing to do with her infertility. She didn’t cause it, and she had done everything in her power to fix it. She wanted a baby as much as Elvei. But she felt guilty all the same. “Please don’t be.” He leaned back.

“It’s not your fault or mine. It’s just an accident of fate.” He was so calm, almost cavalier about it. It would’ve been better if he cursed or threw something. He sat still in his chair, but every word he said was a small step back, increasing the distance between them. “We can adopt,” she said, hopeful. “I’m sure you could.” Alarm blared in her head. “You said ‘you.’ Not ‘we.

’” He pushed a piece of paper across the table to her. “I thought that things might turn out this way, so I took the liberty of preparing this.” She glanced at the paper. “Annulment?” Her composure shattered. He might as well have stabbed her. “After two and a half years, you want to annul our marriage? Are you out of your mind?” Elvei grimaced. “We’ve been over this before: I have three years from the beginning of marriage to produce an heir. My brother is engaged, Charlotte. I told you about that two months ago. He’ll have three years to produce a child.

If I divorce you and remarry, I’ll have six months before becoming ineligible to inherit. You can’t make a baby in six months. I need an annulment, so my three years can restart, or Kalin will get there before me. He still might, all things considered, as marriage takes time . ” This wasn’t happening. “So you’re just going to pretend that everything we shared in these years doesn’t exist and discard me? Like trash?” He sighed. “I told you, I have a great deal of admiration for you. But the purpose of this marriage was to have a family.” “We are a family. You and I.

” “That’s not the kind of family I require. I can’t lose the manor, Charlotte.” She was cold and hot at the same time, all hurt and anger iced over by shock. “Is it money? You do realize that I can make us as much money as we need.” He sighed. “You’re so flawless most of the time that occasionally I forget you’re not a blueblood by birth. No, of course, it’s not the money. Whoever owns the manor rules the family. It’s my inheritance; I was born first, I studied most of my life to take care of our family interests, and I won’t let it slip away.” “It’s just a bloody house!” Her voice snapped.

Elvei’s composure melted, the polite veneer sliding off him. His voice rose. “It’s my childhood home. My family goes back sixteen generations. Do you expect me to just let my idiot brother get it while you and I pretend to play house here, in this decrepit ruin? No, thanks. I have higher ambitions in life.” The words burned. “Is that what we were doing?” she asked quietly. “When you and I made love in our bedroom, we were playing house?” “Don’t be melodramatic. We both enjoyed it, but now we’re done.

” The outrage swelled in her, mixing with hurt. Last night he’d kissed her before they fell asleep next to each other. This was the man she woke up to every morning? “Elvei, you realize, you’re telling me that I have no value to you except as a broodmare?” “Don’t make me the villain in this.” Elvei leaned back. “I’ve gone with you to all the tests and treatments. I listened patiently while you got excited over this specialist and that, I sat in the waiting rooms, and I gave it as much time as I could. There are no more treatments left. I just want to have a child, like any normal healthy adult.” Every time she thought she had reached the limit of hurt, he twisted the knife a little more, digging deeper and deeper inside her, cutting at a raw wound. “So I’m abnormal?” He spread his arms.

“Can you conceive? No. You are defective, Charlotte.” Defective. He actually called her defective. The pain inside her began to smolder with rage. “I’m curious, what’s the next word you’ll reach for? How cruel will you be, Elvei?” “You cost me two and a half years.” Two and a half years of disappointment, of painful procedures and shattered hopes, of feeling like she was crippled, but no, it was all about him. She would never have a child of her own, but he only saw himself as the injured party. She should’ve seen this in him. She should’ve known.

How could she have been so stupid? “You’re a terrible human being.” He surged to his feet and leaned over the table. “Had I married someone else, I would’ve inherited by now. I tried to end this with as much civility as possible, but you’ve decided to cause a scene. I need an heir, Charlotte, and you can’t give me one. What’s so complicated about this? I’m done letting you waste my time.” “You told me you loved me.” She still remembered how his face had looked when he said it. “You needed encouragement to begin the therapy. Dear gods, Charlotte, are you really that naive or are you just stupid?” The words slapped her.

The darkness inside her shivered, stretching, getting ready to escape. She clenched herself around it, trying to hold it back. “Let me spell it out: I married you because of your healing, which you could pass on to our children, and your poise. You are attractive and educated, and I knew that you would never embarrass me in public. Other than that, there wasn’t much to recommend you.” The air turned thick and scalding like boiling glue. She couldn’t breathe. “You’ve been a blueblood for less than three years. My family came to this continent on the Second Fleet, and they were already titled.” The darkness writhed inside her, begging to be released.

“My father is an earl; my mother was a baroness prior to their union. Your father is a cook and your mother is a waitress. In what world could you possibly think that you were in any way equal to me? I granted you a favor. I flattered you by my proposal, Charlotte, and you fell short. Accept it with dignity. I believe an apology is in order.” He’d pushed the blade so far into the wound that he reached the darkness she hid deep inside. Her defenses burst. The darkness slithered out, coating her skin from the inside out. “You’re right.

You will sit down now and apologize to me.” Menace suffused her voice. He stared at her. “You’re hardly in a position to give me orders.” Her magic slid out of her and wrapped over her arms, curving around her body in rivulets of black backlit with deep, intense red. She had never seen it red before. The pale gold of healing, yes, hundreds of times. But this dark, furious black and red? No. So this is what the magic of an abomination looks like. “I can blight your entire family, you moron.

I am the Healer. Pick a plague, and your sixteen generations will end right now.” Elvei’s mouth gaped. “You wouldn’t.” The magic lashed out from her like a striking serpent and bit him. Elvei jerked, his face puzzled. She felt her magic sting him, cutting at the lining of his throat, and a rush of unexpected pleasure flooded her. Oh gods. Fear shot through Charlotte. She jerked the dark current back, pulling her power into herself.

She’d let it have just a merest taste, a tiny bite, but it wanted more, and she had to strain to keep it contained. Elvei coughed, harder and harder, clamping his hand over his mouth. Blood dripped from between his fingers, staining his skin with bright, hot scarlet. He started to rise but froze halfway. She realized she hated him, and hurting him made her happy. Power coursed through her, grim but exhilarating. Her magic begged for more. No. She couldn’t let it. “Sit.”

.

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