“You have paint on your cheek.”
Grace reached up to her face, her thumb rubbing against a streak of dried paint. She pulled her hand away, light blue flecks decorating her thumb. She rubbed her hands on her jeans, turning towards Alex. The other woman was dressed in dark skinny jeans, an ice blue designer shirt, and brown leather sandals. Her blonde hair was set into loose, delicate curls, the sides pinned away from her face. She was lounging back easily in her seat, smiling at Grace in a way that made the younger mage shift uneasily on her chair.
“Young one,” Alex said, amusement lacing her voice. “You must learn to relax and calm yourself.”
Grace laughed. “What makes you think I’m not relaxed?”
Alex raised an elegant brow, the corner of her mouth lifted curiously. Grace gulped and turned away, looking out the window over the busy street of London. It was a clear, sunny day, without the barest trace of a cloud in the sky. A cool, soft breeze blew through the area, playing with loose strands of Grace’s hair. She and Alex were at a small bistro, waiting for Alex’s sister to arrive for lunch. Afterward, they would go all over London, searching the best of shops for dresses.
Grace had received a message earlier that morning, as she was painting an image of the castle where she and her friends had gone to the meet and greet. Alexandra D’Angelo, and her sister María, wished to meet with Grace. They wanted to have lunch with her and to shop for dresses for the upcoming ball. Grace barely had time to change her clothes and shower before Alex arrived in a sleek, black car. A short time later, they arrived at a restaurant called Bleeding Heart Restaurant. The interior was nicer than anything Grace had ever been to, and as she looked around at all of the nicely dressed people, she suddenly felt very poor and shabby. The men wore designer clothes and expensive suits, while the women wore beautiful dresses and pricey clothes. Meanwhile, Grace was wearing paint-stained jeans and a plain, light green T-shirt.
“Finally,” Alex groaned as the front door opened. Grace turned her head, watching as another beautiful young woman made her way to their table. She looked like Alex did, with the same almond-shaped, stormy gray eyes, and high cheekbones. But where Alex had blonde hair, her sister had dark brown hair, currently tied back into a ponytail. She wore very little makeup, and she wore skinny jeans, high brown leather boots, and a maroon shirt.
Alex’s sister stared at Grace a moment, then smiled as she said, “You have paint on your cheek.”
Grace sighed, reaching up to wipe the paint away again. Alex’s sister laughed and turned to Alex, saying, “You didn’t tell her that we were coming here?”
Alex shrugged. “Didn’t think much about it.”
Her sister sighed. She pursed her lips, gazing at Grace’s outfit. She grinned and said, “I’m going to let you borrow some of my clothes for today. Yours will be on your bed at home, folded neatly. Now…”
The mage snapped her fingers, and a brisk wind blew through the restaurant. It stopped in an instant, and when Grace looked down at herself she blinked in surprise. Gone were the old, painted jeans and T-shirt. Instead, she was now wearing white Capri jeans, white Converse sneakers, and a fitted pale, sea green sleeveless shirt. When Grace reached up to touch her cheek, the paint was gone.
“Huh,” Alex’s sister muttered. “That looks better on you than it does on me.” She waved a hand airily. “You can keep the outfit. Lord knows I can do without a few.”
Alex laughed, then said, “This is my sister, María. She’s the candidate for the D’Angelo clan.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Grace said, bowing her head slightly towards the mage. María nodded in return.
“Let’s order food, then we’ll talk,” María said.
As Grace glanced over the menu, she listened as Alex and María discussed María’s tardiness. From what Grace could gather, she had been busy with a class at the nearby university. As they spoke, Grace couldn’t help but notice that their voices had a very light accent. It was faint, almost easy to miss. What was it…? Italian?
When their food finally arrived, Grace said, “Why did you bring me here?”
Alex smiled, and María said, “Because, my sister and I want to get to know you.”
“Why? You’re running in the tournament, and Alex already told me she was sponsoring you. So why am I here?” Grace’s stomach lurched as the two mages stared at her, seemingly dumbstruck. Grace had the sudden, fleeting thought that the D’Angelo sisters may be very old, and had never had anyone speak to them like that before. The fear fled as suddenly as it had arrived—Grace no longer cared whether she was bold or not.
Alex’s eyes flicked nervously to her sister. María continued to stare at Grace a moment, then she threw her head back and laughed. Alex let out a relieved breath, and then María said, “You’ve got guts, speaking to me like that. These days, there aren’t many people who would dare. I admire that about you.
“You’re right, though. I’m running in the tournament, my sister is sponsoring me, and we have no real need of you.”
Rage blossomed deep in Grace’s stomach. Her fingers twitched, and she could feel her magic surge through her. María smiled and said, “Right now, that is.”
Grace frowned. Her anger softened somewhat into curiosity, but she could still feel the magefire just underneath her skin. “What do you mean?” she asked.
Alex picked up her knife and fork, cutting up her lemon and garlic chicken. She brought a piece of chicken to her mouth and silently chewed while she watched the scene unfold before her.
“There are three, maybe four, competitors who have a chance at the throne,” María said. “MacEntyre, D’Angelo, and Petrov. The only other candidate that may stand a chance is from the Beaumont clan. But that is very unlikely.
“Diana Petrov only stands a chance because of her clan’s wealth. They are easily the richest of the thirteen clans, and that is the only reason why she got as far as she did.”
María took a bite of her seabass and, after swallowing, said, “You and I got this far for completely different reasons. I have trained for this for centuries, have worked hard and prepared for this. You have your family’s honor in mind, as well as your inborn talents.”
Grace scoffed. “Talents?”
“Mm-hmm,” Alex affirmed, swallowing a swig of water from her glass. “Grace, do you realize how talented you are?”
María chuckled. “We met with Malcolm the other day,” she said. “He told us about you, about your talents and abilities.”
“Such as?” Grace was thoroughly confused now. Her parents had always commented on her artistic abilities, but she rather doubted that was what the D’Angelos were referring to.
The sisters laughed. “Malcolm never told you?” María asked. “It doesn’t surprise me. He’s always been that way with his pupils. Let’s start with this—even amongst the MacEntyres, who are the strongest in their abilities of magefire, you are the youngest to hold the flame. Only seventeen, and being able to conjure strong blasts of magefire? It’s never been heard of.”
“It makes us wonder why your parents blocked your magic,” Alex continued. “Hid you and your late sister away from our world. The D’Angelos and MacEntyres have always been close allies. We would have taken you in, would have protected you as if you were one of our own.”
“No matter,” María said, waving a hand. “What’s done is done, and there’s nothing we can do about any of it.
“But we’re not here to discuss your parent’s choices,” María continued. “The fact of the matter is, you’re powerful, Grace MacEntyre. More than any of the clans, especially the Petrovs, realize. So, while neither one of us will be sponsoring the other, for obvious reasons, I would like to make an alliance with you.”
Grace blinked, taken aback by surprise. “Why me?” she asked.
“Because, whether you like it or not, you are the future of your clan,” Alex said. She had set her fork down and was leaning towards Grace, a fierce look blazing in her stormy eyes. “One day, you may very likely have children. And whether you do or not, there are still undoubtedly other members of the MacEntyre clan, hidden out in the world. Duncan Carter has terrorized you and your own for a very long time, but it’s ending. Here, and now, with you. You are the small rock that shifts the mountain and causes the coming avalanche, and I, my sister, and my clan wish to ally ourselves with you.”
“The alliance is this,” María said. “Regardless of who becomes Queen, we swear that we will back and support one another. I will offer you and your clan protection, no matter the outcome of the tournament.”
María snapped her fingers, and a heavy, rolled up parchment landed softly on the circular table. Grace picked it up, and after unrolling the first few inches saw that it was the heading of the agreement. Grace opened and closed her mouth several times, unable to decide how to answer. Finally, María said, “I can see this is a lot to take in. How about this—you look over the agreement, and consult with your comrades. Then, you can give me your answer the night of the ball. I’m sure this is something we can agree on?”
Grace nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I will definitely think about it.”
María smiled, clapping her hands together. “Excellent!” she exclaimed. “Now, let’s finish our meal before it gets too cold. Then, we can go shopping!”
“Well?” Grace asked Malcolm, Basil, and Beck later that night. “What do you think?”
Beck glanced between his best friend and the parchment on the table, the ends slightly curled. She had arrived only moments ago, carrying a black garment bag and the rolled up parchment. Before even going to put away the dress she had purchased, she draped the bag over the back of one of the chairs in the sitting room and laid the parchment out on the table. He and Malcolm were already in the grand sitting room, discussing the upcoming ball, and the tournament. Basil arrived shortly after Grace did, and she told them about her meeting with the D’Angelo sisters.
Malcolm leaned back in his seat, his fingertips pressed together under his chin. He was staring at the parchment, a thoughtful look in his blue eyes. Finally, he looked up to Grace. “I think you should do it.”
Grace blinked. Beck gaped at him, but Basil didn’t seem too surprised with Malcolm’s answer. “You do?” Grace asked.
“Absolutely,” Malcolm replied, rising gracefully to his feet. “The D’Angelos are a very powerful clan, and they were the first to aid the MacEntyres when Duncan Carter started terrorizing them. Eventually, your clan drew away completely from the world of magic, and if they weren’t killed off by Duncan’s men, they eventually died from lack of using their magic.”
“You can do that?” Grace asked.
“Oh, yes,” Malcolm replied. “It’s our magic that gives us immortality. But, if a mage chooses to block their magic, refusing to let it out, then they’ll age quickly, and die a normal, human death. It’s why your parents blocked your magic, why your aunt blocked hers. It was sending a beacon to Duncan, summoning him and his men to your location. It was the only way to ensure your safety, at the time.
“So, yes, I do believe that this is a very wise course of action. I am not enough to protect you, nor is Basil and Beck. We need the full support and protection of a clan; that is, until yours can begin to rebuild.”
Grace stared down at the parchment for a moment. She looked to Basil, and then to Beck. “Well?” she asked. “What are your thoughts and opinions?”
“I agree with Malcolm,” Basil said. “You know I’ll protect you, always and forever. But, he’s right. We’re not enough, and I remember Alexandra and María D’Angelo. They’re good, honorable mages. They’ll keep their word.”
Grace nodded. “Beck?”
Beck smiled, but even to him it felt hollow. “I’m thinking the same thing,” he said. “If they can keep you safe, then by all means, I’m for it.” Maybe they can keep her safe from me as well, Beck thought.
Grace nodded again. “Very well,” she said. She leaned towards the parchment, and when Malcolm snapped his fingers, a pen appeared on the table beside the agreement. Grace allowed her eyes to briefly scan the text, then she signed her name at the bottom, next to two other signatures that had to be Alex’s and María’s.
“Great,” she said, rolling up the agreement. “That’s settled, then. I’m going to hang this up,” she gestured to the garment bag, “and finish my painting. Coming, Basil?”
Basil leapt to his feet, following Grace as she made her way up the stairs. Beck, who had been standing, lowered himself back into his seat, staring at the dying flames in the fireplace. Malcolm levitated a log into the flames, and within moments the log was cracking in the heat.
Malcolm sat in the chair across from Beck, crossing a leg over his other knee. He clasped his hands together in his lap, staring at the young Seer. Beck averted his gaze, unwilling to look Malcolm in the eye. He knew the mage wanted to talk to him about more than just the ball, or the tournament. Beck’s stomach suddenly growled in hunger, the sound so loud that there was no chance Malcolm didn’t hear it. Indeed, when Beck glanced over to Malcolm, the mage had a worried look on his face.
“Why don’t you go to the kitchen and get something to eat?” he asked, though Beck it was not a request.
Beck shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m not hungry.”
Malcolm laughed, though it was without humor. He leaned forward towards Beck, resting his elbows on his knees. “Why are you not eating?” he asked. “Why, even months later, are you still punishing yourself for something you had no control of?”
Beck remained silent for a long time. He continued to punish himself because he still had nightmares. He could still see plainly, as if it were yesterday, Grace curled into a ball. That night, he had wanted to inflict pain onto Diana Petrov. He had wanted her to suffer with everything she feared, and he had succeeded. Unfortunately, he had no control of his powers, and he had caused Malcolm, Grace, and Basil to suffer as well. Malcolm had been the only one to break the spell, and he had broken Beck out of the trance he was in. He wanted to make Diana suffer, but in the process, he hurt Grace as well.
Malcolm sighed. “Say something, Beck. Please. This silence, it’s killing me. What you’re doing to yourself, it’s killing me. Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately?”
Beck shook his head, and after a snap of Malcolm’s fingers, a small mirror appeared in Beck’s lap. He picked it up, his hand shaking as he held the mirror before him. His face was gaunt, his cheeks somewhat hallowed. He was slightly paler than normal, and his sandy blonde hair, normally thick and messy, hung in limp strands over his sweaty forehead. Disgusted with himself, he put the mirror on the table between him and Malcolm.
“You’re going to end up killing yourself,” Malcolm said, his voice catching on the last word. “You’re not Mejhan, and you won’t come back.”
“Good,” Beck muttered before thinking. “Maybe then I won’t hurt anyone else.”
A shocked silence filled the room, and then Malcolm was suddenly crouching before Beck. How had he moved so silently?
“Don’t,” Malcolm choked. “Don’t say things like that.”
“I’m scared,” Beck whispered, looking into the mage’s electric eyes. “I’m terrified that at any moment, I’ll lose control, and I’ll hurt someone I care about. I’m scared that I’ll hurt Grace or Basil again. Or you.”
Before he knew it, Beck was pulled off his chair and onto the floor. Malcolm threw his arms around Beck, holding him tightly to his chest. Beck froze for a moment, and then he hugged Malcolm back, burying his face into the crook between Malcolm’s shoulder and neck. He began to sob, and he couldn’t stop.
“You won’t hurt me,” Malcolm swore. “You won’t lose control again, I promise.”
“How?” Beck asked.
“I’ll call Ma Donna,” the mage said. “She’ll be able to help you. Have you been using the stone?”
Beck nodded. Ma Donna was a Seer, like him. Malcolm had taken Beck to see her a while ago, when he was having difficulties in separating his dreams from his visions. She gave him a rune covered jade stone, to help him focus. He was supposed to meditate for at least half an hour before going to sleep, holding the stone in his hands. His dreams and visions hadn’t been as terrible since then.
“Good,” Malcolm said. Beck felt Malcolm press his lips against his temple, and warmth seemed to spread through him. “If it takes every ounce of magic I have, I’ll help you beat this.”
Beck couldn’t talk; his throat, so dry before, had closed up on him. Instead, he tightened his hold on Malcolm, the only thing that was keeping him connected to the world.
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