Read an Excerpt
The Frost Maiden
The Frost Maiden is coming. Sparks of news, fanned by hot winds of gossip and speculation, blew outward from the Fire Warlock's path and landed on dry tinder. Within minutes, the Fortress was ablaze with hustle and bustle: castle staff converged on the receiving rooms for visiting royalty to spruce up spotless furnishings and replenish gold leaf showing no sign of wear. Scholars never before seen outside library or dining room dogged their footsteps, demanding attention to frayed hems and stained cuffs. Sven Matheson, would-be Flame Mage, jogged down the stairs with a doorstop of a book under his arm, casting about for spells that would trouble a visiting water witch. Captains of the guard barked orders to subordinates to polish their boots and hone their arms. And do them both at once, now!
I watched the feverish activity with a sour stomach. In the Fortress's thousand-year history, no Frost Maiden had ever set foot inside its walls. What sea change would tomorrow's visit bring?
The crackling rumours met the firebreak of the castle walls and checked. Little traffic flowed between castle and the town of Blazes during the mid-afternoon lull, but the delay would not last long. My fiancé — the retired Fire Warlock, Jean Rehsavvy — had gone to the school for a conference with the Practical Arts teacher. I chewed on my lip. He shouldn't hear the news from a bevy of fire witches with burning eyes, eager to fan the flames with tales of how he reacted, but chasing after the new Fire Warlock to make sure he sent a message might be pushing my luck.
A hand the size of a bear paw landed on my shoulder. I staggered.
"What are you waiting for?" the Fire Warlock growled. "Get down there and tell Jean she's coming. I don't want him hearing some garbled fifth or sixth-hand story. I especially don't want him hearing it from Flint."
"Me? I agree, but couldn't you —"
"No dice." He turned and walked away. "It's your fault she's coming. You tell him."
* * *
I hurtled down the Fortress stairs. A boisterous squad of guards at the foot bandying about 'Frost Maiden' and 'Himself' scrambled for cover as I approached. I passed them without comment, and loped through the gate and across the causeway over the dry moat. The school stood on the far side of town, but I could run for miles. Years ago, before I graduated to long skirts, I outran all the boys my age in Lesser Campton.
As if whispered comments about my unfeminine behaviour were not already widespread. I stopped short at the far end of the causeway. The retired Fire Warlock never ran. That august luminary never even hurried. How could I hold my head up if anyone laughed at me — or worse, him — because I was not dignified enough to be his consort? I took a few mincing steps down the road.
Burn it. At that pace, I'd get there next week. Worse, he would ask what was wrong.
A long, swinging stride said serious intent without, I hoped, conveying panic. I gave everyone I met a polite greeting without stopping to chat. Most looked relieved rather than offended.
A survey of the neighbourhood near the school showed housewives and servants unpacking trunks and airing out dwellings abandoned during the siege. High-pitched laughter and childish yells echoed from the schoolyard, but otherwise all was quiet. No knots of people whispered on street corners, no gossips banged on neighbours' doors.
Thank God for that.
Emma Johnson, Practical Arts teacher, met me at the gate on her way out. "He's around back," she said, waving at the school. "Playing with the children, bless him. It does my heart good to see him enjoying himself."
All thoughts of the Frost Maiden flew out of my head when I walked into the schoolyard. In a swarm of howling, running schoolchildren, Jean pelted across the playground, a boy of about ten in hot pursuit. A girl blundered in the way, and the boy grabbed her arm. "You're it."
Jean threw a brilliant grin in my direction and kept running. I gaped for a few seconds, then hurled myself into the girl's path. She careened into me. I pushed her away. "I'm it," I said, and gave chase.
For a few minutes, the words dignity and embarrassment meant little, compared to the pleasure of playing in fresh air on a fine spring day. But too soon, Jean stumbled. He was breathing hard, and his face had gone grey.
I barrelled through the mob, yelling, "Stop. Enough." He leaned on me as I marched him to a bench, and offered no resistance when I pushed him prone.
The children crowded around. "Are you all right, Your Wisdom?" "You don't look so good." "I'm sorry, sir, if we hurt you."
"No one hurt him," I said. "The Fire Office's magic kept him young for a hundred years, but it's gone. His own body has had to take over again, and it's not used to the strain yet. He tires quickly."
Jean smiled at the worried faces. "I will recover, but you must continue today's game without me." He tapped the tallest girl. "You are it."
The swarm scattered, shrieking, and surged across the playground.
"I'll have to remember that," I said. "That was more effective than telling them to go away."
"But perhaps not entirely fair. I was not 'it'." His colour returned as he lay quiet on the bench, watching them play. "Mother Celeste warned against overexertion, but I did not listen."
"And will you listen now? How about a picnic by ourselves? That would get us out of the Fortress to enjoy the spring weather, but still be sedate."
"Would it be?" He looked at me with devils in his eyes. "You and I, alone, when the mere prospect quickens my pulse?"
On any other day, his gaze would have set my own heart racing and my face burning. I gripped the top rail of the bench back with both hands. It was a shame to have to spoil his mood.
"I would enjoy a picnic," he said. "Tomorrow morning, perhaps, we can go south for warmer weather."
"Not tomorrow. That's what I came to tell you. The Frost Maiden is coming tomorrow morning."
The sparkle in his eyes dimmed. "Is she?" He swung his feet off the bench and levered himself upright, facing away from me. He stared up at the curtain wall. "To the Fortress? Why?"
"What do you mean, why? To see you. To apologise, as she said she would."
He gazed into the distance without speaking, as remote as the unapproachable Fire Warlock. I wiped my hands on my skirt, and resumed my death grip on the bench. "Beorn doesn't believe she wants to make amends, but I do."
"So you have said, and I believe she intends to. She is too prudent to lie to a warlock."
"I thought you would be pleased."
"I do welcome a reconciliation between the Fire and Water Guilds, but I would rather she apologised to the reigning Fire Warlock, as one Officeholder to another, than to me as an individual, woman to man."
"But weren't most of her insults directed at you personally?"
"Yes, and that is the rub. Apologies will revive memories of quarrels best forgotten. Many affronts still have the power to wound, and when faced with her regrets, I will have to make apologies for my own shortcomings."
"What for? I've never heard you say one unkind word about her."
"Fault for the rift lies with both guilds, and I am not blameless."
"What could you have done or said that was as nasty as what she said to us in the Earth Mother's Warren?" Her prediction of a near-fatal romance had been a personal insult directed at both of us. Months later I still steamed, remembering. I might have forgiven and forgotten if it had not been spot on.
He interrupted his study of the looming Fortress to glance at me out of the corner of his eye. "Forgive me for not enlightening you."
I made a face at the back of his head.
He added, "And despite my desire to modernise Frankland, ushering the Frost Maiden into the Fortress is not a change I welcome. She does not belong there."
My stomach began to unknot, and I slid into place beside him on the bench. "I thought I was being spiteful for feeling that way."
"Not at all. The Fortress is our unassailable refuge, and we do not want that sanctuary breached. If I must meet her, I would prefer outside the walls, but that would be an unforgivable rebuff to her offer of reconciliation."
My stomach knotted up again. "Jean?"
"If it's a normal reaction, the other members of the Fire Guild will be furious, won't they?"
He pondered for a bit before answering. "Probably not. I had considered her coming from the Fire Warlock's perspective, not from the stance of the lesser ranks. Only you and I and Beorn are so steeped in the history, and aware of our own limitations, that we understand how vulnerable the Fire Warlock is, and how necessary that refuge. The rest of the Fire Guild will think it fitting, as she evidently does, for her to come here. They will imagine the power on display must overwhelm her, and will jockey for position to watch her grovel. No, you need not fear becoming a pariah for having brought her here."
I relaxed against the back of the bench and breathed a long sigh. "Thank you. Grovel? I can't imagine her ever grovelling. Or letting anything, even the Fortress, intimidate her."
"Nor can I. I certainly never succeeded." He rose and offered me a hand. "If we must —"
A column of fire twice my height erupted in the middle of the playground. The roar echoed off the stone walls of the surrounding buildings. Jean went rigid. Children fled, screaming. Warlock Flint, as thunderous as a storm cloud, stomped out of the fire.
"Why the hell," he bellowed, "is that frostbitten ice witch coming here?"
Jean faced the younger warlock with thin lips and glittering eyes. "Watch your tongue. She —"
"She doesn't belong here."
"You heard Lucinda's story —"
"Yeah, it's all her fault." Flint stabbed a finger at me. I edged behind Jean. "I knew all along she's a traitor. She'll let that harpy in, and —"
"How dare you show such disrespect towards two of our most powerful witches —"
"Two of a kind, yeah, and that kind is bad —"
"Each has, in her own way, proven herself a true daughter of Frankland —"
"You've got no right to let that icicle just march in —"
"Sorceress Lorraine is coming to make peace. Of course we will welcome her into the Fortress."
"Still sweet on her, aren't you? After all this time." Flint's gaze flicked to me, and I backed away. "You think pretty-boy Sven will still want you after Silverpolish here dumps you for her?"
The cords in Jean's neck bulged. "You have outdone yourself this time, you cad."
"So what? You can't threaten me with lightning now."
"You think not? Fool." Jean flashed glowing red, as if lava flowed in his veins. Thunder boomed. Flint recoiled. I clamped my hands over my ears and ran for shelter. A blast roared behind me.
"I beg your pardon for frightening you," Jean said into the sudden silence.
I peeked around the corner of the school building. The schoolyard was deserted except for him. I left cover and went to meet him. "That blast was Flint jumping through the fire?"
His colour had returned to normal, but his eyes smouldered. "Of course. I trust you will not make such ostentatious displays when you master that skill. The smallest burst needed is enough to unnerve a mundane."
"Yes, sir. Did he really think you would have hit him with a lightning bolt?"
He shrugged. "That dolt's mind mystifies me. I could have directed a strike at the far corner of the schoolyard to demonstrate I am still capable, but I am relieved it was not necessary. I should not have lost my temper."
He offered me his arm. An instant later, we stepped out of a small fire onto the causeway at the Fortress's foot. The guard saluted and wished us a good day. I kept a tight grip on Jean as we walked under the portcullis and into the tunnel through the walls.
Jean said, "One would think I could learn to ignore everything that fool says. I cannot fathom why I let him push me into a rage."
"You expect better behaviour from a warlock?"
"Hope for, yes. Expect, no. I would rather not dignify his accusations with any notice, but the issue should not fester between us. Does my former relationship with Sorceress Lorraine trouble you?"
Never, ever, lie to a warlock. With as light a voice as I could manage, I said, "Should it?"
As flat a denial as I could hope for. No equivocation, no whisper of a lie. "Then how could it? But what did you say about welcoming her into the Fortress?"
Jean's lips twitched. "You should know the most effective way to force a warlock on a course of action he would rather avoid is to order him not to. Stop laughing, girl."CHAPTER 2
She Throws the Gauntlet
Jean sat at the supper table, brooding over his coffee, long after everyone else had gone. I sat across the table from him, fishing for topics to take his mind off the Frost Maiden, but he met all my sorties with polite inattentiveness. Then René bounced in, demanding we resume fighter training.
Jean's eyes lit, and he rose from the table. "Certainly. I welcome the distraction. A short bout and off to bed. We will sleep better for it."
I stayed seated. "Do you need me? I have a book I want to read."
Jean frowned down at me. "Are our practice sessions so onerous?"
"Didn't I demonstrate I can take care of myself without flaming someone?"
"Your lock was effective, yes, but you had the advantage of surprise. Once the Empire's agents understand what you can do, they will not give you time to prepare. Can you throw a lock on an enemy wizard the instant he threatens you?"
"Or on more than one wizard?"
"That lock wouldn't be any good, either," René said, "against a mundane with a knife."
My cheeks got hot. "I could flame him. Not enough to kill him, but enough to stop him while I run away."
René's nose wrinkled. "Warlocks don't run away. That's talking like a girl."
My face, even my ears, burned. "I am a girl. I don't want to fight."
Jean's shoulders sagged. "My dear, I too deplore the necessity, but our preferences have little bearing. You are a warlock. The world will not let us forget that. The emperor will set a price on your head, to avenge what you have done to the Chessmaster. You will learn to defend yourself, or you will die."
"It's not fair. Those shouldn't be the only two choices."
"Life is seldom fair, my love, and those choices ..." His voice trailed off, and his eyes took on a faraway look. I glanced at René. He shrugged.
Jean refocused on me. "I beg your pardon, my dear. There is a third choice, and I have been remiss in not recognising my duty to you. I offer as justification the fact that it is a choice available to you only if you marry another warlock, and until the war's end that did not seem possible."
"Jean, what are you talking about?"
"Simply that it is my duty now, as your fiancn, and soon, as your husband, to protect you from harm."
"To shield his fragile wife — her person, her mind, all she possesses — is a man's most sacred responsibility."
René and I gaped at him. He looked quite serious.
"You will, of course, be constrained in your activities. You will not leave the Fortress except in my company."
"Jean, you can't —"
His voice was crisp with command. "And you will forego other dangerous activities, including jumping through the fire on your own."
I shot out of my chair. "Don't you dare do that to me. I'll damn well learn to fight. I'm not going to sit at home and knit while you're out adventuring, you louse, you ..."
His eyes creased into a smile. I stopped. "I've been had."
René said, "Huh?"
I said, "How do you make a warlock do something she doesn't want to do? Order her not to."
We walked together to the practice room, with Jean chuckling.
"Protect me, my foot," I said. "I saved your life, remember?"
"How could I forget? You are not helpless, my love. We would all be ill served if I treated you so, but the freedom to act on your own also permits you to put yourself at risk. Knowing you will, and I cannot prevent it, frightens me."
"I know. I'm sorry, Jean. I'll try harder."
René said, "If you can't order a warlock around, how's she going to handle that bit about 'love, honour, and obey'?"
"Burn it," I said. "I forgot about that."
Jean threw back his head and hooted. He was still laughing when I flamed him.
* * *
The townsfolk began gathering on the causeway at dawn. When the guards opened the gate, they flooded in, rushing to good vantage points on the stairs. By ten o'clock, they packed the unmoving stairs, the open space inside the curtain wall, the ramparts, and the terraces. Only the cordoned-off paths the Frost Maiden would travel remained clear.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Engine of Lies"
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Howe.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.