Where magic has never died...
Felicity should have known that her cousin would try to frighten her with one of his illusions on the most important day of her life. But when she opened the door to her room to fetch her wrap and saw the apparition before her, she gasped with astonishment.
The wooden floor had cracked apart to reveal a gaping hole. Felicity leaned forward and peered over the edge, an odor of rotten eggs burning her nose. Her lavender-blue eyes watered as she looked down into an abyss that glowed from a river of lava flowing at the very bottom.
Cousin Ralph's magic had surpassed his rank, just as Uncle Oliver had predicted. As a viscount's son, he shouldn't have been able to create any illusions, much less something this vivid.
Felicity swallowed and lifted her chin. Ralph's illusions usually came to her in dreams, and it startled her that he'd become powerful enough to send her one in the daytime. Still, it could only be an illusion, no matter how well crafted, and she'd have to cross it to reach the white lace shawl she needed. But she hated heights.
Uncle Oliver's impatient voice-loudly wondering what could be taking her so long to fetch a wrap-carried up the stairs. Felicity took the deepest breath she could within the confines of her corset, lifted the ruffles of her skirts and sprinted across the room, landing in a very unladylike sprawl atop her settee. Her heart pounded at an alarming rate and her hands shook when she reached for her wrap, but a smile of grim satisfaction spread across her face.
And then she glanced down.
The settee shifted, slowly sinking into the chasm.
Felicity rolled, thankfully hit a solid surface with her feet, and leaped across the room, catching the edge of the chasm with her fingers. Her feet flailed and she could feel the heat of the lava flow up her skirts, and she swore she'd get even with her cousin.
She'd never been caught up in one of his illusions to this degree. But his magic kept growing stronger, and she had little of her own to counter it.
"My goodness, Miss Felicity!"
Felicity looked up into the freckled face of her newest lady's maid.
"I near stepped on ye! Whatever are ye doing?"
Felicity wiggled her toes and glanced over her shoulder. The lava burped and a fresh wave of rot hit her nose. "What does it look like, Katie?"
The Irish girl stepped back, her eyes wide, and crossed herself. "Ye're lying on the floor, miss. Wiggling like a fish."
Felicity sighed. She'd lose another maid. Again. It was hard enough to get good servants, but when only she could see the illusions, the hired help had a tendency to think she was a bit mad. Her fingers had started to slip, and her shoulders to cramp. "Would you mind giving me a hand, then? I can't seem to get up."
Katie nodded, the red hair that had escaped her cap bouncing along her flushed cheeks. Although tiny, she had enough wiry strength to flip Felicity right on her feet.
"Now, then." Felicity brushed at the dust covering the front of her white gown. "I think you should go straight away to the upstairs maid and tell her the floors must be mopped more often. Really, when one wants to wiggle like a fish, one should not be subjected to such filth."
Katie nodded again, backing down the hallway as if afraid to turn her back on her mistress. Felicity watched her bound down the stairs as if the hounds of hell were after her, and tried not to feel too sad.
Sometimes Felicity thought she might be going a bit daft. For the umpteenth time she wished she could get away from magic, find some nice untitled, unmagical man who couldn't light a fire without some ordinary matches...
Aunt Gertrude passed her in a rush of whispering silk and lavender scent, spun to a halt and narrowed her eyes. "Is that you, Felicity? I've been looking for you everywhere. Lord Wortley has become most impatient with the wait, and you know how your uncle gets when he's inconvenienced."
Lady Gertrude Wortley grasped her niece's hand and towed her down the stairs, the feathers in her hat leading the way like the prow of a great ship. She swayed like one as well, the bulk of her thighs creating a rolling motion, her huge bustle a pendulum of silk. Felicity adored her aunt, who had been her surrogate mother since Felicity's parents had died. But Aunt was plagued by headaches, and she rarely left her personal chambers. They shared the same home, but Felicity seldom saw her.
Aunt Gertrude looked surprisingly well. Felicity could never see a resemblance to her aunt in the photographs of her mother. Aunt lacked the coal-black hair and violet eyes of her mother, and instead was gifted with mousy brown hair, watery blue eyes, and a plain face. If she'd been a beauty in her youth, it had faded with the years and her illness.
When they reached the bottom of the staircase, Aunt Gertrude bobbed her head at her scowling husband and ushered Felicity out the great door, down the marble steps and into their coach. Uncle Oliver and Ralph climbed in and sat in the opposite seat, both dressed in black top hats and double-breasted frock coats. At seventeen, Ralph looked like a younger version of his handsome father, his face just beginning to lose the fullness of a boy's. Ralph's mahogany brown hair was matched with similarly colored eyes, whereas Uncle Oliver's eyes glittered gray. And Uncle Oliver didn't sneer at her with disdain.
Aunt Gertrude finally let go of her hand. "Felicity, dear," she whispered. "Your palms are so sweaty. Don't tell me you've forgotten your gloves?"
Felicity shook her head and pulled the lengths of satin from the pocket of her skirt, ignoring Ralph's snort of contempt. While she struggled to pull the cloth over damp skin, she glared at him beneath her lashes. Let him gloat over the fright he'd given her while he had the chance. If he wanted to continue to behave like a child-even though he was due to reach his majority in a few months-she would accommodate him.
Even though she had little to no magic, there were other ways she could get even: like pepper in his soup, powder in his top hat, holes in his breeches. She'd had to get creative over the years, but she just couldn't let him bully her without any consequences.
If only Uncle Oliver would do something about it. But whenever she complained, Ralph would either lie or point out that if Felicity worked harder on garnering her own magic, she'd be able to counteract any of his measly spells.
Uncle glanced at her and lifted an imperious brow. Felicity quickly turned to look out the window, staring at her reflection in the glass. She admired the three white feathers in her hair, the way Katie had done up her black locks into twists and curls, then let the back fall in waves where it flowed down her back like a river of silk. Her pale face still had a flush of pink from her fright, and her black lashes outlined the bluish-violet of her eyes, so that even in her reflection they seemed to glow.
She might have been vain, but she'd become so accustomed to people overlooking her presence that she felt sure her features weren't particularly extraordinary. Felicity knew that if she thought herself the tiniest bit handsome it was because she'd reached an age where she resembled the photographs of her mother... and who didn't think that their own mother was beautiful?
Especially when one's mother was dead.
"Do you think," she asked no one in particular, "that if my parents had lived, I would have inherited the power of a duchess?"
Stunned silence rocked with the coach over the cobblestones. Felicity never mentioned her parents; it always seemed to bring such horrible reactions from Aunt and Uncle.
Uncle Oliver scowled and cursed beneath his breath. Ralph's mouth dropped open in the most unbecoming way, and Aunt Gertrude rushed to fill the silence.
"Lord Wortley, I'm sure it's just her nerves. It's most difficult to face a presentation, especially without the support of one's parents."
Uncle Oliver looked ready to implode.
"I mean," stuttered Aunt, "when she's likely to fail at the tests, it's understandable... isn't it?" She patted Felicity gently on the hand, but her eyes glinted with a warning. "We all feel the loss of the duke and duchess, dear. Especially when one reminds us of their absence."
Felicity tried not to flinch when Aunt mentioned her probable failure. But Uncle Oliver let out a gust of breath and his features relaxed. Ralph let out a smug giggle.
"Just wait," he boasted, "until my presentation. At least then the lands will stay in the family."
"Dear Ralph," sighed Aunt Gertrude. She fingered her pearl necklace. "That's something to be grateful for now, isn't it, Felicity? If you don't have the magic required to be the next duchess, at least your cousin might be the next duke."
Felicity tried to look grateful. She knew her lack of magic to continue the title had to be a great disappointment to Aunt and Uncle, and she shouldn't begrudge her cousin because he carried it in his veins. But she'd been duchess-of-honor for her parents' holdings for so long she felt they belonged to her. She didn't care much for Stonehaven Castle, nor their London mansion, but Graystone Castle was home. It was her parents' legacy to her...
"Look at Lord Gremville's new coach and four." Uncle Oliver's voice dripped with disdain.
Felicity stared out the window. Marquesses' powers were limited to illusions and the transfer of objects, so she knew that the white unicorns with golden horns weren't real, that the gilded coach camouflaged a plain black finish. Still, the sight took her breath away, and she longed to stroke the foreheads of the animals.
"Oh, yes," said Aunt Gertrude, still fingering the pearl in the necklace she habitually wore. "Unicorns are at the height of fashion now. Much better than those ghastly gargoyles they had last season."
"Foolish of him, don't you think, Father?" Ralph's lips thinned into a narrow line, making his handsome face look cruel. "How long can a marquess's powers last, a few hours or so? He'd have to renew the spell in the middle of the presentation, and the wards are too strong for him to get past them. It'll be interesting to see the real condition of his nags."
"Perhaps. But perhaps it would be equally delightful to have a son who could hold his illusion for even that long."
Ralph shrank in his seat, and Felicity couldn't help feeling a pang of sympathy for him. For some ridiculous reason, Uncle felt her absence of power forgivable because of her gender. But Ralph lacked that excuse. She thought Uncle had unreasonable expectations for his son; after all, Uncle was only a viscount, his powers limited to alchemy and herbs. Yet he expected Ralph to attain the power of a duke, to go beyond illusions to the actual changing of matter. Ralph's powers already entitled him to the expected rank of a marquess, or at the very least, an earl.
The coach lurched to a stop, and Felicity blinked with surprise and a sudden panic. They had reached Buckingham Palace so soon? The door opened and just as Felicity descended from the coach, the clouds cleared and the sun lit the palace. The diamond-studded walls threw prisms of color in her eyes. She squinted to admire the fanciful arches over the windows, which had been shaped into mythical beasts and ancient battles of wizardry.
Felicity averted her gaze from the warding spells that surrounded the walls. Although barely discernible, if she looked too long it always made her feel queasy.
It would be several hours before her official presentation in the palace. She had to be tested first. The guards herded their group toward a small, unremarkable building. It didn't look more important than the palace itself, but within those walls titles had been made or broken.
As they waited in line, Felicity stared at the mosaic-tiled walk. If the wards of the palace could make her queasy, the ones surrounding the Hall of Mages would make her violently ill. Designed not only for defense, but to keep the magic released inside those walls contained, the wards roiled in dizzying motion.
Aunt Gertrude patted her shoulder and murmured encouragement. Felicity lifted her chin and locked her trembling legs. They all expected her to fail. And she couldn't blame them, since she could barely manage to light a candle with the magic she possessed. But she knew she had magic; it just always seemed to be hiding from her. And lately, she'd discovered a small secret.
If she looked for her magic, it evaded her. But if she relaxed a bit, she could feel it gathering from all the tiny crevices in her body, and she'd managed, just a few times, to use it.
Felicity prayed that she could accomplish that feat again today. She endured the agonizing wait by imagining how pleased Aunt and Uncle would be to realize that she did carry a bit of her parents' power. Not enough to permanently keep her parents' title, but at least enough to hold the title of honor until another qualified for the dukedom.
"Lady Felicity May Seymour?"
She looked up into the face of a novice, his purple robes indicating his rank. He looked over her head at Aunt Gertrude, who shook her head with disgust and laid her hand gently on Felicity's shoulder.
"This is Duchess-of-Honor Stonehaven."
The novice blinked. "I apologize, I didn't see you standing there. Would you follow me, please?"
Felicity strengthened her resolve. She embraced Aunt and Uncle as if she'd never see them again, as if she went to her doom instead of a testing of entitlement. Ralph's sneer of disgust made her abruptly loosen her hold.
She followed the novice down so many hallways and through such myriad corridors that without a guide she knew she'd never find her way out again. Strange sounds issued from behind several closed doors. Green lights and blue smoke bled through cracks in the frames and seeped into the halls. Felicity grabbed a pinch of the novice's robe and held on.
"Don't worry," he said. "Not enough can get out to harm you."
"Enough of what?" she gasped.
He only chuckled and opened a door embellished with a golden crown. He pushed her through and closed it behind her, and when Felicity looked up she saw a half dozen white-gowned girls.
One-by-one they'd be called out to face their test. She hadn't thought about it, but experiencing this holding cell with other equally nervous, jittery, giggly girls felt like a subtle form of torture.
She didn't know any of the girls, but they all seemed to know each other, whispering encouragement and adjusting hair feathers. Felicity had never cared for the city, always preferring to live at Graystone Castle in Ireland. Aunt and Uncle had indulged her, though now she wished they hadn't. It might have been comforting to have a friend to talk to. But they all ignored her, so she just concentrated on relaxing. Which seemed ridiculous, considering her situation.
Felicity fought against her corset to breathe as deeply as she could. Ralph's illusions had taught her about fear from a very young age. When faced with a three-headed green monster slobbering noxious purple goo all over one's bedcovers night after night for several years, she'd learned to isolate the fear from her brain.
As she got older and his illusions became more sophisticated, her skill at managing fear had only increased.
So, she breathed, and acknowledged the pounding of her heart without thinking she'd die from it, and let the weakness in her knees flow out through her toes. She gave her body permission to be afraid, already knowing that the fear had a limit to what it could do to her. But she must let her mind relax. Must allow the little bit of magic given her to gather at her fingertips, so that when the time came she'd be able to-
"Duchess-of-Honor Stonehaven, please enter." Another novice held open a door from across the room and scanned the sea of white ruffles. His eyes slowly focused on her as she approached. "The prince is most eager to meet you." And he bowed aside, waving her through the door with an unnecessary flourish of his arm.