IN THE DARKNESS, a bitter smile crossed her lips. It’s just a candle, Vi told herself. One single candle in the holder at the edge of her bedside table. Vi took a deep breath, trying to quell her nerves. It was ridiculous, laughable even; she was a Solaris for the Mother’s sake. Yet she was more daunted by this one candle than she would have been facing down a beast in the jungle. Most Firebearers could light it with a thought. She should have been able to do the same. Vi’s hands balled into fists, clutching her bed sheets over her knees. Deep within her was an insurmountable wall. She was on one side, barely able to do more than dredge up a spark of magic. On the other was the power of her forefathers. Her fingers relaxed, and she reached out. The burnt wick drew a dark line of soot across her hands, nearly invisible in the night. “It’s just a candle,” Vi repeated aloud, searching for a sliver of magic.
“A tiny spark, that’s it.” White lightning flashed in the darkness between her fingers. The wick caught the heat, ignited, and she breathed a sigh of relief. For a brief second, Vi watched the fire dance around her fingertips and imagined the stable little flame was her own. Vi pulled her hand away quickly, pushing aside the thinly woven blanket covering her bed along with the thought. She didn’t have time to spend on fantasies. There were things she wanted to do and not much time to do it. Her obligations as the Crown Princess would begin all too early. The air was heavy with the aroma of fresh wood, sap, and the damp tang of morning. Vi had smelled this perfume her whole life. Her chambers were cut into the trunk of one of the massive trees of Soricium—capital of the North. The wooden walls of her room were sleek, polished. They contrasted with the gnarled ceiling of decorative roots and branches that spilled down, weaving into each of the four corners of her bed, all crafted by the magic hand of a Groundbreaker. As she moved beyond the foot of her bed, the halo of light from her candle glinted off gilded frames lined on the dresser opposite. There were several, but they all contained carefully painted portraits of the same three people—her mother, father, and brother.
The family she should have been reunited with three years ago. The family that lived far to the south in the Empire’s capital, Solarin. The family that had traded her away in a political deal. “Another year,” she murmured to the pictures. Her eyes landed on the flaxen tresses of her brother—a direct contrast to her own dark locks. No one would guess they were twins by looking at them. Vi tried to swallow the lump that grew larger in her throat the longer she looked at the portrait. “Happy birthday to you, too, brother.” Vi turned away from the painted, staring eyes of her family and toward the small pile of supplies stacked in the corner between the dresser and her window. Everything was as she’d left it the night before, and the night before that. Her quiver hung on its peg, bow attached, the fletching of half a dozen arrows peeking out from the top. A metallic sun—the Solaris sigil—glinted as the candlelight moved over it before illuminating the clothing she’d neatly folded on a chair underneath the quiver. She would only be gone for three days. Not much was needed. But Vi took stock of every article of clothing and ration as though her life depended on it.
Three precious days of freedom were all she got every year. It was the best thing her birthday had ever brought her. “One more thing and I should be set,” Vi muttered to herself, straightening away from her packing. Grabbing her candle, she strode out of her bedroom. The living space of her quarters held a table and two couches for her use—though Vi rarely used them when she was alone. Which meant she rarely used them at all. The main entry had four doors; the bedroom Vi just left was one. Clockwise, the next door led to her personal study, after that was her classroom, and then the main door which led to an outer balcony that connected to the rest of Soricium’s fortress by rope bridges and wide branches alike. She’d always thought of her chambers like a daisy. The sitting room was its yellow center and everything else spun out around it like petals in the trunk of a giant tree. Vi ventured to her study. In the daytime, the room would be illuminated by the window above the drafting table sandwiched between the bookshelves that lined the walls. Now, her candlelight fell on every hanging map and book spine. But it also revealed something that shouldn’t be there. Candle wax dribbled over the edge of the holder and onto her fingers, but Vi didn’t notice.
Her breath caught in her throat as she engaged in a staring contest with five foreign objects. It wasn’t the first time presents had been left for her, but it caught her off guard every year. Some wicked little corner of her mind would always tell her that this would be the year her family would give up on her. That they had never wanted her to come home to begin with—never wanted her to begin with. The doubts would compound into stories about how her parents had been eager to make the deal with Sehra, now Chieftain of the North. That the peace assured by Vi spending her first fourteen years of life as a ward was only a fringe benefit, and not the main goal. She knew better. The deal had been struck well before Vi was conceived. Before her parents were even wed. Had it not been for it, she may not even exist, as her father was originally betrothed to Sehra… But every time her birthday approached, Vi seemed subconsciously keen to avoid logic, and the doubts grew louder. And every time she saw the stack of presents, the doubts were silenced for a blissful second. Vi crossed the room, resting her fingers lightly on the ribbon of one of the packages. “When did he stash you in here?” Setting her candle down, Vi gravitated to a suspiciously cylindrical present wrapped in Solaris blue and Imperial gold. She recognized her brother’s script on the card. The Senate had never let her brother come north to visit.
They’d argued that having both heirs in the hands of former enemies of the Empire was far too great a risk, making a huge deal of it every time it was brought up. So while her mother and father had visited, Vi only knew her twin through letters and portraits. Vi unwrapped the delicately embossed paper, exposing the contents within. As expected, it was a document tube. Even on her most bitter day of the year, Vi found a smile. Only a map from her brother could do that. Carefully sliding out the parchment, she unfurled the delicate blueprint. “The Solaris Castle—Rose Garden,” Vi read aloud, then set about finding an open spot on her shelves to pin the sketch among the others her brother had sent her of the castle in Solarin. The bookcases were so cramped that not even shadows could squeeze between the spines—packed to the brim with manuscripts of all shapes and sizes, scrolls, and stacks of papers. Pinned on the outward facing edge of the shelves were maps, some created by professionals, others drawn entirely by or embellished with her own hand. In the swirling lines of ink and charcoal were countless stories of places she’d never get to see, and yet, felt like she somehow knew. Places that she longed to someday visit… if she only ever had the chance. Vi found a relatively open spot, tacking the blueprint in place by its top corners so she could lift it to still access the shelves behind. Her fingers trailed the lines of the architect’s skilled hand, and she silently thanked whatever nameless artist her brother had found this time. Returning to her table, Vi skimmed over the gifts from her parents, Aunt Elecia, and Uncle Jax.
They were of predictable shapes, mostly books. It made a singular, strangelooking parcel stand out all the more. It was wrapped in black silk and nearly feather-light. A small black envelope had been slid under the black ribbon, fastening it together. Vi undid the knot at the top, lifting the letter and affirming her suspicions. Black was a peculiar color in the Empire. No one wanted to associate with it… unless they were a Sorcerer. On the back of the envelope was a silver seal: a dragon curling in on itself made a perfect circle, split in two and off-set. It was called the Broken Moon, and it was the symbol of the Tower of Sorcerers. She slid her finger underneath, gently tearing open the letter. Dear Vi, Forgive my informality in addressing you, but you will always be a dear child to me as I have been by your mother’s side since long before you were born. I was there waiting as she delivered you and your brother. I held you when you were a babe. And your mother is still one of my dearest friends in the world, confiding in me all the pains she feels at your absence. I have only ever known and loved you as Vi, nothing more or less.
When your mother was seventeen, she began to manifest and was Awoken to her powers with the help of your father. She has consulted me with her worries surrounding the fact that your powers have yet to Awaken. I have told her not to fret, and will pass on the same advice to you. I believe in you, Vi. That statement was nearly enough to make her stop reading and throw the letter in the trash. Not to worry, that was easy to say by someone across the world who knew nothing of her. What could this man possibly understand about her struggles with her magic? Vi doubted he had been born into a long line of illustrious Firebearers, only to have his magic be nothing more than a cheap parlor trick. Still, curious about the package, and already halfway through, Vi kept reading despite herself. I would like to offer this token to remind you that magic has an odd way of finding us when we need it most. It has been in my possession since before you were born. Many years ago… when the world was at its darkest, and hope seemed all but lost, your mother found the strength to overcome overwhelming odds and be reunited with her power, thanks to this. I’ve held onto it for years as a reminder to never give up, no matter how impossible a situation I may find myself in. Now, I think you may need it more than me. Perhaps it will help you find your magic, as it helped rekindle your mother’s after her channel was forcibly closed. Your friend who cannot wait to meet and teach you, Fritznangle Chareem, Minister of Sorcerery Her eyes lingered on the word “teach.
” There was nothing to teach. He’d said it himself, didn’t he? That he understood her magic had yet to fully Awaken? Still curious, Vi looked to the parcel, unwrapping the silken scarf to reveal a small, silver necklace. “A locket?” Vi lifted it, squinting at the chain. She couldn’t place where she’d seen the links before, but was certain she had. There was an undeniable familiarity about it. The chain fastened around a loop at the top of the locket where there was a small button she depressed. She stared at the plain face—white with black numerals. “A watch.” Vi continued to stare at the hands, but they were still. “A… broken watch?” It was certainly an unexpected gift. Her father had been known for his love of watchmaking, a fascinating art that was said to have originated in Norin. Perhaps this had once been a gift from him to her mother? Vi snapped the cover closed. In the motion, her spark leapt from her fingers unbidden. The arc of white-hot lightning crackled around the watch, engulfing it, and for a brief second, there was something there… but her attention was immediately stolen by the second arc of flame—which landed on her drafting table. “No!” Vi reached out her hand as the papers—all her work—caught the fire.
She’d never seen parchment go up in smoke so fast. Control it, Vi willed mentally. She tried to envision her magic extending out from her, engulfing the flames, gaining command over them. But they wriggled and writhed, slippery and shifting; she couldn’t get a grab on it and before she knew it, her whole precious study would be gone. Her only connection with the home she was supposed to have would be ash. She would be— The flames blinked out of existence without warning. Vi stared, wide-eyed, at the blackened edge of her desk. In the moment, the fire had burned for what seemed like forever. Like a whole inferno had surrounded her. In reality, it had been a scorch and mere seconds. But had she really… Vi brought her hand to her face, staring at her palm in wonder. “Don’t get too excited.” Vi’s back went rigid and she turned slowly to the source of the voice. Jax leaned in the door frame, arms crossed over his chest. His long black hair, the same color and nearly the same length as Vi’s, was tied in a messy knot at the top of his head.
Half of it was spilling down his shoulders. “It was you, wasn’t it?” “You’d know if it was you,” he replied, painfully simple. Sure, she’d know if she suddenly had control over her magic. Just like she’d know if she was fully Awoken to it and not just peering through the crack in the wall between her and her power. “I see you found your presents.” The change in topic was welcome. She’d postpone thinking about magic for as long as possible. “Thank you for dropping them off. It was a nice surprise.” She knew the presents had been sent ahead months ago. But Jax always kept them hidden, waiting for her birthday. She knew he did it to try to cheer her up on the day and Vi never had the heart to tell him it made no difference in her overall mood. “You get anything good? Or just more boring books and maps?” “Books and maps are not boring.” Vi knew he was trying to get a rise from her and she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. “Maybe if you’d tried reading one once in a while, you wouldn’t be such an uncultured vagrant.
” “That’s Lord Uncultured Vagrant, thank you very much.” Vi gave a snort of laughter at the remark. “What’s that?” He motioned to the watch in her hand. Vi stared at it, forgetting she’d been holding it at all. The metal was warm under her skin, almost too warm. She’d melt the delicate gears inside if she wasn’t careful. Luckily it’d been broken before her spark had decided to dance around it. “The Minister of Sorcery—” “You can just say Fritz.” Jax chuckled. “Fritz, right… Well he sent this for me.” Vi fastened the watch around her neck. “It suits you,” her uncle appraised. His eyes lingered, as though he too found it oddly familiar. It seemed his mind went in a similar direction as hers initially. “Did your father make it?” “He didn’t say.
” Vi shrugged. “Just said it was my mother’s.” And that alone was reason enough for Vi to keep it close to her heart. “You’ll have time to go through the rest of the gifts later.” Jax looked to one of the windows of her study. The dark morning was finally giving way to the first hazy colors of dawn. “We should get down to the pits.” “Do I have to?” Vi dared to ask, knowing better. “It’s my birthday.” She may hate the day, but she’d gladly use it as an excuse. “Yes.” “You are truly heartless.” Her words had no bite and Jax’s grin assured her he didn’t take them personally. “One of my many positive traits.” “Let’s get this over with.
” Vi rolled her eyes dramatically as she started for the door. The rules of her life were simple, structured, and painfully clear. If she followed them to the letter, remained the model future Empress, her reward would be reuniting with her family. She would be liberated from her beautiful, comfortable prison. In theory. In practice, she was supposed to have been returned when she turned fourteen. But three long years had dragged on, and here she was on her seventeenth birthday. Still in the North. Still a ward confined to Soricium—the fortress, specifically, for her “safety.” Still stuck feeling trapped, repetition defining her days as she continued to try to jump through political hoops so high and obscure, she barely knew where she was half the time. There had been delay after delay, issue after issue, preventing her from heading south. The years had slipped by until, at seventeen, growing bitterness had all but replaced waning hope. Every effort she had ever expended toward this one goal seemed more futile by the day, and now she headed for the most futile effort of all: sorcery training.