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Chapter one

"Don't stare at him. Don't fiddle with anything. Don't fidget, hum, whistle, laugh or speak to him at all unless he addresses you directly."

"Okay. Sure." Kia did her best to restrain her tongue and keep to single word answers. She had way too many questions, and wasn't known for keeping her thoughts to herself. In fact, her blurting had caused her to be exorcised from the classroom more than once though her professors usually referred to it as arguing. At a college devoted to sorcery and magic, arguing could be considered a safety hazard.

Kia climbed the tower spiral behind the elf princess, clunking each step with her boots and trying to focus on not falling back down the long stairway. It was far too easy for an ordinary, somewhat clumsy, human to make an ass of herself in the company of elves. Graceful, beautiful, snooty-ass elves. Kia swallowed and tried not to look down, tried not to resent the regent for her current status—teetering on the lip of a stairway with empty air below and nothing but uncertainty overhead.

Trapped.

Kia's temper matched her fire-red hair. She didn't need any help getting into trouble. She flicked the piercing in her lower lip nervously with her tongue, the best way she'd found to keep her mouth busy... and quiet.

It wasn't exactly that she didn't respect authority. Her mind just had a tendency to offer better alternatives.

"Whatever you do, don't argue with him," Lyssia continued to prepare her for facing the man at the top of the tower.

"Why would I?" Perhaps her reputation had preceded her. If the rotten teachers had suggested she was a problem student, why had Lyssia summoned her at all?

The princess stopped dead.

"You've obviously never met him." She muttered it to herself, but Kia heard it easily enough. "We're almost there now. I think that's everything. Do you have any questions?"

Did she? Lords yes. Lyssia had scared away most of the little ones, however, leaving only the obvious thing remaining. "Why me?"

"Hmm." Lyssia looked up, as if she could see through the stones. "For one thing, you're very good. Much better than the other candidates he's seen so far."

"For one thing?"

"Evander is a major problem of mine." She started off again, but this time she eased forward, keeping her eyes pointed up and taking each step as if it might vanish beneath her insubstantial weight. "I'm hoping you can solve it for me."

"How so?"

"A sorcerer needs an apprentice, Kia. Even the royal sorcerer. He's been up here without one for far too long. Lords only know what kind of trouble he's brewing on his own."

"But he wouldn't—"

"He hasn't picked an apprentice after ten years in this tower. Rejects every damn one of them. So don't get your hopes up, but do your best. I need him managed soon."

"I'll try, but—"

"Good. Now whatever you do, don't act scared of him. He can smell fear."

Kia tried to hear a joke in the princess's tone, but the elf whisked up the stairway again and left her to wonder. She'd heard of the royal sorcerer of course. Everyone had. But she was beginning to wonder what kind of animal Lyssia meant to give her to.

Since Evander the Wise had taken up the post as Lyssia's primary magical aide, whispers of his deeds burned across Oskandria like wild fires. Not just rumors either. He'd routed an orc invasion with a single spell, they said, and bested more dragons than three of his predecessors combined. Word was, he also didn't play by the rules and his reclusiveness had spawned a mighty heaping of speculation as to his real nature.

Kia had stretched a few rules herself in her four years at school, but she'd never expected to be plucked from her classes by a royal hand. Lyssia had sought her out, had arranged for her schooling to be put on hold so that Kia could travel to the palace for testing. She'd only revealed the final aim of that testing a few moments ago. To try out as Evander's apprentice. Kia's knees warbled and threatened to fold. If she screwed this up, her classmates would never let her live it down.

The stairway stopped abruptly at the face of an oaken door. It had been reinforced at the hinges with iron and patched in one spot with a metal band and rivets.

"This is it," Lyssia whispered. "Remember, don't speak unless spoken to."

"Is it going to bother him that I'm a woman?"

"I don't see why. Evander dislikes all people equally."

"Oh." Kia nodded and then realized what the princess had said. "What?"

"Here we go." Lyssia didn't knock on the door.

It was always a mistake to walk in on a working sorcerer. They'd learned that in their first semester, and the student involved had been carted home to face a life of farming with only one arm and far less hair than he'd come to school with. But when the princess opened Evander's door, only silence and darkness answered.

Kia held her breath and tensed her muscles in case she had to duck for cover, run, or drop and roll. The princess remained fully upright. She stood with all the stiffness of her race, although some of the rigidity may have been lent by her reinforced leather corset. Her long neck twisted to one side and then the other as she surveyed the room beyond the open doorway. Her sheer skirts trailed nearly to where Kia crouched, ready to bolt. Lyssia only crossed both arms together in front of her breast and glared at the darkness.

"Turn on the wretched lights, Evander."

"Why?" His voice slithered from the room like a serpent, long and low. Each word measured the distance between them, soft and full of danger. The tone made Kia's skin prickle. "Does her highness require me to attend another public function? Should I put myself on display for more dignitaries, perhaps?"

Lyssia sniffed, and her silvery hair shimmered. It piled in looping braids atop her head, a glowing contrast to the blackness. "Stop pouting and turn on the damn lights."

"Fine." The invisible snake snapped it's jaws on the word, Kia stepped down one stair, and the room flooded with brilliant light. "Better?"

"Only if you mean to blind your new apprentice before you test her."

"Bother." The light dimmed to a normal level. "Not another one, Lyssia. Have mercy."

The princess looked over her shoulder. She found Kia crouched near to the stones and raised one eyebrow higher than usual. She jerked her head toward the door and gave Kia a glance that conveyed just how important this first impression needed to be. Get up, that look said. Make a good show.

But that meant facing whoever owned that voice. Not to mention the fact that he obviously didn't want an apprentice at all. Kia ran her tongue over the metal in her lip and tried to fidget away more nerves than she'd felt since leaving home for school.

"Come on," Lyssia whispered. She marched into the room then, and Kia followed automatically, doing her best to stand as tall as a poor, slightly talented human could manage.

The room occupied the entire top of the tower. Slate tiles made a grid of the floor, and though the walls went round in a circle, that girth was so large as to make the curve less obvious. Tables and shelves lined them, without any form of visible organization, and on the tops rose piles and platforms of books, papers, metal gadgets, preserved animal parts and the occasional potted plant.

The place reeked of charcoal and a permanently blended incense, scents so mangled as to be unidentifiable. There were braziers smoking, pots bubbling, birds—birds—fluttering in the high corners, and one mammoth dragon skull perched on its butt end against a far wall.

To work here. Lyssia meant for her to work here, in a place as mysterious and powerful as its owner's voice. Kia set her jaw tight and lifted her chin. She couldn't fail now. How could she see this, all this, and walk away from it? The taunting of her classmates wouldn't sting nearly as bad as losing this opportunity.

"I don't want an apprentice." Now the voice sounded petulant, a child's complaint against unwanted vegetables. It came from beside the doorway, and Kia had to twist around to see the owner. The sorcerer might have changed tactics, but his goal remained clear. They were invading his space, and he wanted them gone.

Kia ducked in behind Lyssia, half hid in the woman's shadow, and peered at the man who would test her skills. Evander, royal sorcerer of Oskandria, high elf of the same ancient clan from which Princess Lyssia came, looked nothing like the monster the ruler had made him out to be. Only the scowl hinted at his disposition. The rest of him was undeniably glorious.

One hundred percent elf from his pointed ear tips to the toes of his heavy black boots, Evander stood a good foot taller than the princess. His snow white hair hung loose to his hips except for a pair of impossibly tiny braids at each temple. These he'd pulled back behind his ears, accentuating a face twice as pretty as Lyssia's.

Faint, curving tattoos followed his high cheekbones. They lent his frown a deeper shadow, however, and his sharp, ice blue eyes flickered from his princess to the annoyance she'd brought into his lair.

"That's a human," he said. "You're getting desperate."

"She's very good. The best I've even seen yet." Lyssia's tone booked no argument. She got one, just the same.

"And you're the expert on apprentices, I suppose. Perhaps you should stay up here and do my work, and I'll attend to your throne then?"

"I am not unskilled, you'll remember."

"And I'm no diplomat." Evander sniffed and stepped away from the wall.

Kia forgot for a moment that they were debating her. The elf sorcerer moved like honey flowing. Each gesture was measured, considered, and then executed with the typical elvin grace, but melded with the deliberate intellect of a master sorcerer. He peered around Lyssia at her, and his eyes held her entranced, frozen as if they truly could cast her in ice.

"I don't need an apprentice," he said.

Kia felt the rejection like a slap that time. This room, this opportunity dangled in front of her, and he meant to snatch it away again without even giving her a chance to try for it.

"Yes you do," Lyssia said. "If for no other reason than to manage this disaster."

"What disaster?" Evander released Kia from the grip of his attention and turned the full chill of his mood on the princess. "This room is exactly in the order I prefer it."

"That book is on fire."

"What?" He spun that time, lost a fraction of his composure in the realization that one of his braziers had, in fact, caught a book on fire. His arms waved in an arc. The sleeves of the heavy red robe he wore billowed, and the flames died. A single line of smoke rippled up to the rafters. "Bother."

"You see?" Lyssia crossed her arms again and winked at Kia over her shoulder.

As if they'd won, Kia thought, but she very much doubted that they had. The way she saw it, they'd only irritated the beast.

"You bring me imbeciles," Evander complained. He kept his back to them now, as if they weren't worth noting, and he moved to the nearest table and adjusted a stack of papers. "Idiots. I can't work with them."

"You haven't even tried."

"What? This one? What does it matter? The last seven were morons. Why should this one be any better?"

"You will test her." Lyssia's tone shifted now. He'd pissed her off good, and Kia held in place when the princess marched toward the sorcerer. "You'll do it, Evander, or I'll schedule a full month of diplomatic dinners."

"You wouldn't." He stopped fiddling with the papers and stared up at the wafting smoke.

"Try me." Lyssia stood taller and stuck out her chin.

They left Kia to herself, standing alone inside the door, forgotten except as a topic for their argument. She was unwanted, invisible, and he'd never, ever let her work here.

"She probably can't even cast a column of fire."

"You are the most difficult man..."

Kia focused on the slate tiles in the center of the room. Don't speak unless addressed, Lyssia had said. Well, Evander was not about to address her, and casting magic wasn't exactly speaking. She drew the symbols in her mind, pulled the ambient magic out of the ether and felt the full weight of the room's history in that flow. Sparky wild magic with a mind of its own.

It tasted of him, of charcoal and orneriness.

She drew the power into her skin, molded it with her intent backed by the magic of the sigils she'd selected. Then, she threw it outward, anchoring the package with a final symbol, to a tile in the middle of the floor.

Flame lifted from the square of stone. It rippled upward. An eruption of fire rising in a dense, dancing column. It burned under her command and made a pillar seven feet high before flickering back on itself like a fountain. Kia held the spell, kept the fire alive and waited for anyone to notice what she'd done.

"....perfectly capable of maintaining my own affairs. What is that?"

It didn't take long.

"I believe it's a column of fire," Lyssia answered. She put a little triumph in her voice, but the look she cast at Kia held a warning.

Be still, it said. Don't push your luck.

"Barely." Evander sniffed, pulled himself out of his argument with Lyssia, and focused instead on Kia. The eyes. This time when they found her they had a darker edge. "So the monkey can do a trick, I see."

Kia held the spell together, but only just. The flames at the top shot a few sparks, sputtered as if a gust of wind had snatched at them. Evander seized up that weakness. He meant to force her to lose concentration, to distract her into failure. But at least he was actually testing her now.

"Can your pet manipulate it?" He still didn't address her directly either. He kept his words for Lyssia, but he unleashed a fully self-satisfied smile upon Kia. "Can she change its form?"

Kia focused. She ignored the sorcerer, even when he stalked closer to her. The column tried to resist her, and she couldn't help but suspect his hand in that. Still, she drew the lines in her mind, imagined the form she wanted, and pressed her full desire to succeed into the weaving.

The column shifted. It branched and flowered, transforming into a burning tree in full bloom.

Evander harrumphed and stepped directly in front of her. He leaned in, and her view of the column was replaced by a fall of white hair and a pair of eyes that darkened like gems now, glinting, daring her to keep going.

"Make it taller."

Kia stretched the tree another three feet.

"Now shorter."

She cut it down to half size.

"Hotter," he said.

Kia sucked in a breath and stared directly into the blue of his eyes. The fire tree blazed white hot, but Evander didn't even turn to look.

"Passable." His lips moved like honey too, making soft graceful lines. "Now make it fly."

Fly?

Her mind scrambled for his meaning. She sorted mentally through sigils she'd memorized, texts she'd read until her eyes crossed, even the ones she wasn't supposed to have read. Nothing about flying fire leapt to hand. The column spell was always anchored to the spot where you cast it.

She changed its shape again, made a phoenix out of the flames and moved the long wings in a mimicry of flight.

"That's fluttering, monkey. I said fly."

Kia bit her lip and stared at him. Lyssia had said it, hadn't she? Don't stare directly at him. One look in her eyes and Evander knew she hadn't a clue what he wanted. One look, and he shook his head and turned away.

"This is what you bring me?" He forgot her, focused on the princess and Kia became invisible again, insignificant.

Not one student in her school could do a column of fire manipulation. Not one sorcerer in history could make fire fly. The man was unreasonable. His test wasn't fair. But then, maybe that was the test.

"It can't be done," Kia said.

Evander turned slowly, honey again, dangerous. The horrified look on Lyssia's face confirmed it. Kia had stepped too far. The blue eyes stormed now, but the sorcerer's face grew impassive, blank of anything but contempt for her stupidity. He waved his arms again, dismissive, so easy.

The fire broke apart. A hundred individual flames danced in its place. They burned in mid air, without anchor. Then, they swirled as if caught in a draft, arching up and around like sprites flying. Evander's fingers flexed, and the flying fire ascended like a cloud of sparrows, curved over Kia's head and vanished, one by one.

He turned away without comment, and it was Lyssia who caught Kia's eye, who let her know how deeply she had failed.

Chapter Two

"Leave me alone, Lyssia. I have actual work to do."

"You need an apprentice, Evander. Eventually, you'll have to pick one."

"To clean up my mess? Surely, you're not that offended by my clutter, highness."

Kia's heart sank into her boots. She'd never see this room again. She's never get close to that skull. She'd go back to school now, spend two more years rehearsing normal, orderly spells in rooms full of equally un-stunning pupils who would never let her live this failure down.

"You know the situation, sorcerer. What about Leonardo? You need backup."

"Ha. For what?"

The princess lowered her voice. The two whispered their argument, not for Kia's ears, not for the monkey to hear. She cringed smaller and felt the failure burning in her face. Her eyes roved the room, dying for a chance to explore it, and her fists tightened at her sides. Her jaw clenched. It hadn't been a fair test. He'd never even wanted to give her a chance.

"No one!" The sorcerer's shout reached her. Whatever Lyssia had suggested in quiet, had infuriated Evander. He stood like a column of fire himself now, burning mad and shouting without any remnant of grace in his words. "No one can cast a spell on me, Lyssia. No one can do it."

"Your defenses are not impervious, sorcerer. Eventually someone will breach them."

"Leonardo? Ho!"

"You cocky bastard. Do you know what he's doing right now? He's training apprentices!" Lyssia threw up her hands and stalked to the dragon skull, spun in a flurry of skirt and stormed back. The sorcerer remained rooted like the pillar. Something about his stance, however, the jut of his chin had the edge of a dare to it.

Kia reached into the magic again. His room was thick with it, with stored power and unchecked spellwork. She pushed through the ether. Her mind swam in it. She found the current that flowed unwaveringly away from the sorcerer. Then she inhaled and slithered up it, looking for a way inside.

He had his share of defenses—the sorcerer hadn't been exaggerating about that. There were loops in the power he'd wrapped around himself, more loops than in princess Lyssia's hair. Kia found snares and pits and dead ends, and once, something dark knotted around a sigil that she couldn't identify.

She gave that one a wide berth, but continued to probe at the sorcerer's edges, softly, imagining in her mind the tread of mouse feet against thick carpet. Stealth, searching for a chink, something very small and unguarded.

The arguing voices lifted and fell, making a tide of emotion, waves emanating outward from Evander and the princess. Kia circled beneath them, let the fury mask her efforts while her body held perfectly still all the way across the room.

There.

"Won't have substandard magics in my tower."

A tiny light. A star in the darkness.

Kia moved toward the hole, the pinpoint of an opening. Whatever she might cast through that would have to be small, insignificant. But if it wasn't obvious, what was the point?

She shuffled through old spells in her memory, flipped sigils over and over in her thoughts and then latched upon the perfect simple transformation. She cast it without hesitating. Any second the sorcerer would feel her creeping. Kia threw her spell into the chink and then snapped back to her own existence.

She heard Lyssia laughing before she opened her eyes.

"What demon has possessed you, Lyssia?"

"No one can cast a spell on you, Evander. I see that now."

"That's right. Without my consent... What? Have you gone dotty, woman?"

The princess bent in two and held her sides to contain her mirth. She gasped for breath, coughed out the words between giggles. "Your hair, mighty sorcerer."

"Whatever are you talking about?" Evander conjured a mirror from thin air. The sight of himself cut off any further retort. Kia might have enjoyed that victory a great deal more if the sorcerer hadn't spun in her direction. "You!"

The heat of his anger ignited the magic in the room. He rushed her and, invisibly, every item sparked and shimmered with their owner's reaction to her intrusion. Unfair, she thought, considering the magic in the room had helped her breech the man's defenses.

That injustice did little to arm her against the full fury of the sorcerer leaning his face in to hers. The man had seriously high cheekbones, even for an elf, and when he was angry, the tip of his long nose twitched a little. His fingers wrapped around one long segment of his hair, deep brunet now, and he waved it like a mad little flag in front of Kia's eyes.

"How?"

"Easily, apparently," Lyssia answered from across the room, from safely out of reach of Evander's temper.

Kia faced that alone now, and she did her best to keep her chin up, to meet the gaze in those blue eyes without flinching. Something had changed in them. The sorcerer's temper blazed, certainly, but there was something else behind it, something deeper and less angry.

"It's a simple transformation spe—"

"Yes, I know that." He leaned back enough to pinch the bridge of his nose and shake his head at her. "But how did you possibly cast it? It's a trick, maybe? Some illusion of change supposed to impress me?"

"Oh, I think I'm well past any chance of that." Kia let her temper flare. He implied that she'd cheated, the arrogant, overconfident, uppity...

He growled at her, breaking her train of thought completely. It was the least elf-like sound she'd ever heard, a low, frustrated, out of control rumble. His nose twitched again, and Kia was struck by a sudden case of the tingles. Evander loomed larger and prettier than ever. He squinted sapphire eyes at her and tilted his head to one side, causing a cascade of silky, brown hair.

"How?"

Beautiful he might be, but she reminded herself that he had still completely screwed her over. Now she'd bested him, and he wanted to blame it on a trick. What more could he do aside from denying her what he'd already taken away? What worse could he do now than send her away from his tower? She set her jaw, summoned the last of her courage and let him have it.

"I slipped it through a hole in your defenses while you were whining about how useless I am."

Evander's lovely jaw dropped open. Kia heard the princess's gasp in the distance, an unimportant background sound now. She didn't need Lyssia to inform her she'd gone too far. She'd known it when she spoke, and she could see it now, reflected in the sorcerer's total shock. He'd frozen, as chilled as his coloring, with his mouth agape and only the faintest hint of a sparkle in his eyes.

Kia lifted her chin and glared at him outright.

"I—" Lyssia started to speak, but Evander's hand flew up and silenced her before she could get a word out. He closed his mouth, stood upright again and peered at Kia as if he'd only just noticed her there.

When he spoke, he made a lecture of each word. "I. Do. Not. Whine."

Kia held her breath. Despite the current evidence, she did know when to keep her mouth shut. The elf stared at her for another moment. His eyes narrowed, then softened just a little. Then he spun away again, flicked her with the hem of his robes, and marched back to the table where the princess stood, shaking her head.

"Evander."

"Standard probation." He snapped the words as he breezed past Lyssia. He paced to the far end of the room, trailing a cloud of red robes and long hair. "Get her quarters and tell her I start early. Sunup will be considered late!"

Lyssia sprang to life again. She bustled to Kia's side and snatched at her elbow, dragging on her, whispering words that made no sense.

He'd said, probation. He'd said, get her quarters.

"Move," Lyssia whispered. "Before he changes his mind."

Changes his mind.

Kia shuffled ahead of the princess, but her thoughts whirled faster than her feet.

By the time Lyssia shut the door and they were both safely on the stairway again, it had started to sink in. She wouldn't be sent away. She hadn't failed at all. Lyssia confirmed it with a little clap of her hands and a mighty grin.

"You did it!"

"I. Oh." She'd called him a whiner. She'd insulted him and now she'd be his apprentice. She would have to work with him every day. The tower swirled around her.

"Steady there," the princes said. "Rotten place for a tumble."

Every day. In that room. With that man.

"You're going to throw up, aren't you?"

"N-no." Kia swallowed the urge. She blinked her eyes until the stones stopped spinning. Lyssia peered at her. She still held Kia's elbow, but she'd backed away to arm's length just in case. "I'm just. What just happened?"

"He picked you," Lyssia said. "And after you told him off."

"Why?"

"I'm not completely certain." Now the elf's eyes narrowed. She gave Kia an appraising look, the look one gives a horse before deciding to pay for it or not. "Let's get you into a room. If I'm lucky, you just might help fix two of my problems."

"What's the other one?" Kia's legs steadied, and she followed Lyssia down the stairs on her own volition, only using one hand to steady herself against the wall.

"Nothing to worry about," the princess nearly sang it. "Come on. You're going to need some rest. He wasn't kidding about sunup."

Sunup. Kia scrambled down the stairs and digested the situation as she went. She'd passed. Somehow. She wasn't even sure what the hell had just happened, but somehow, it turned out she was the royal sorcerer’s new apprentice.

Evander's. She shivered and imagined two blue eyes that sparked and sparkled like ice.

Evander waited until they started down the stairs to celebrate. Once the echoes faded enough to tell him they were out of earshot, he clapped his hands together and let his mood loose. Finally. Lords help him, if it had taken much longer to find a proper apprentice, he'd have ended up under Leonardo's boots.

After all these years Lyssia had finally brought him someone with actual talent. She'd brought him someone willing to stretch beyond the rubbish in their books, someone who would dare to... He chuckled and ran a hand over his hair, shifting it back to its original color with a touch.

He'd left her an opening, of course. No one could cast a spell on Evander the Wise without his consent. But she'd done it. She'd seized the opportunity. Pity she was human. He shook his head. No matter, really. No one was perfect.

This woman had guts, and Evander wouldn't have anyone mucking about in his magics who didn't. She had control, too. He'd infuriated her more than once and, aside from the ridiculous insult, she'd held herself together. She'd start working on the flying flame trick right away, too. He saw it in her eyes when he'd shown her. No way could she let that go now.

Perfect. And not a moment too soon.

A woman though. That could get complicated. But she'd actually attacked him. Him! He'd scared her good too, and still...

He hadn't whined. He doubted he could even if he tried. A little more respect might be in order.

She had lovely eyes.

Bother. It definitely could get complicated.

Not to worry, though. He'd get her straightened out soon enough, had enough jobs around the place. Things needed sorting out. He hadn't seen his good hat in at least three weeks, maybe months. Just a little discipline and they'd get off on the right foot. Start her out cleaning until the defiance settled into drive.

They'd have to do it fast, though. Leo wouldn't wait long. The bastard had designs on Evander's tower, on his place at Lyssia's chair, and Lords help the kingdom if the fiend succeeded. Leonardo caused enough problems when he didn't have an official title to back him. It would have to be fast, yes. But slow too.

She'd be perfect.

He hustled to the back table, the one he'd been working on this week and the only one that still had a visible surface. Even here the rubbish had begun to stack up and get in his way. He'd have to get her cleaning first. They could worry about Leo after that, after she'd learned her place in the tower.

After she'd worked out the flying flames trick, perhaps.

He chuckled to himself and dug through the pile of tools for his looking glass. Why his hair? He plucked the blackened mirror from the heap and squinted at his reflection. Brown wouldn't suit him in the least.

Evander tapped the mirror twice and drew the viewing sigil in his mind. The black surface rippled and flared to life. He shoved some papers aside and laid the mirror flat on the table. The surface shifted like water, clarified and displayed an image of the stairwell outside his doorway. He used the tool to see who might be calling before deciding whether or not to singe them to a crisp for interrupting his work.

Occasionally, he also used it for spying, a breach of ethics he wasn't particularly proud of, but one that could save lives when necessary. Today, ethics did not come into play. The woman would be his apprentice. She'd have no rights to anything without his having a say in it.

At the moment, he expected to find her settling into the temporary dormitories.

The elvin palace operated more like a small city, employing any number of persons for tasks Evander felt quite comfortable not understanding. The majority of them didn't apply to him, but as he figured it, most carried a probationary period similar to that for apprenticeships. The dormitories housed the individuals and apprentices still in their trial period.

Only those who passed into permanent residence were ever quartered inside the palace proper.

While he had little doubt he'd found his permanent assistant, a stint in the low end housing would build character and a little humility. He expected to find her there, unpacking her meager belongings and possibly contemplating how to make fire fly.

He did not expect to find her shirtless.

His head snapped up, he fixated on the rafters and pretended he'd seen nothing. Putting on a different shirt was all. He could wait. The spider webs were really getting quite thick. He'd need to have her knock those down before the birds got caught.

Evander rocked from foot to foot and tried to calculate how long it would take to change a shirt. Should be safe now, provided she'd already done the trousers. Complicated. Drat it all. Already complicated. He squinted at the shadows overhead. Something had gotten caught in the rafters. What was that?

He snapped his fingers, kept his gaze above table level, and summoned the errant item from the cobwebs. It wafted down like a filthy, slightly rumpled leaf. His hat. Well, there you go. One thing knocked off her to-do list already. He snuck a quick peek, just to check.

Fully clothed thankfully, and fully engaged in conversation with a strange man.

Evander sighed and flicked the dust from his hat. Flirting would have to be against the rules. Consorting with strange men in hallways led to all sorts of complications, emotional situations, crying on the job. Definitely have to put a stop to that. He leaned over the mirror and tried to ascertain if the woman was reciprocating or not.

Seemed a bit soon, too. Her first day in the palace and some swarthy ape-like fellow hunts her down in the hallway. He could understand that, he supposed. A new woman in the dormitory, and not an unattractive one. Lovely eyes, of course. Blue. Long red hair with black streaks over it in places, like embers in a brazier. The figure... his face heated.

Lords. He hadn't meant to see that.

Still, the buffoon in the hallway didn't need to see it either. It certainly didn't look like she was interested to him. Couldn't the man take a hint?

Evander considered a simple hex, reconsidered, and then thumped a fist against the table. Drat and bother. Not one day on the job yet and it was already complicated as hell.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Frances Pauli writes speculative fiction with romantic tendencies. She is the author of multiple series including: The Changeling Race, Princes of the Shroud, and Kingdoms Gone. In her spare time she crochets, collects tarantulas, and shows hairless dogs. Her fiction reflects a variety of genres and themes, but nearly always contains romantic or humorous elements.

Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
The books that influenced me the most are diverse, but almost always romantic deep down. If I had to pick three, they'd be The Year of the Unicorn by Andre Norton, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, and Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Andre Norton is my all time favorite. I am also inspired by Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett, Shakespeare and Mervin Peake.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
I write to get the voices out of my head. I've always told myself stories, and eventually, they'd piled up so deeply that I found myself forgetting them. It's that fear of losing the story that pushes me to write, to finish, and to always keep going.

Next in:
Romance
Rosario's Revenge
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A Force of Nature
A military romance can be a steamy force
Whisper People
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