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Crouching in the darkness of the closet, I stilled as footsteps approached. My instincts screamed to run. I stared at the thin ribbon of light under the door, shadows of shoes paused. I silently urged them to walk away. All I wanted was one day of peace. One day. The knob turned. No luck. With a whoosh of fresh air, my hiding spot was exposed.
"For sand's sake, Opal, what are you doing in there?" my mother asked.
I suppressed a sigh. The truth—hiding from her—wouldn't help. "Looking for my boots?"
Her scowl deepened as she pushed back a lock of graying hair. "They're on your feet."
I straightened. "Oh…yes…well."
"Come. There are a thousand things we need to do, and you're wasting time." She shooed me through my room and downstairs to the kitchen. "Sit and read me the guest list while I cook lunch."
My gaze swept the long wooden table filled with paper, swatches of fabric, lace, sequins, sewing patterns and half-completed decorations—enough clutter to force us to eat in our formal dining room. I cursed my sister Mara under my breath. Before returning to work at the Magician's Keep's glass shop, Mara had asked our mother to plan her and Leif's wedding, trusting her with everything. Smart girl. She remained a safe five-day journey away from Mother's all-consuming new passion.
When I failed to sit at the table, she stabbed a spoon at the chair. "Guest list, Opal."
"You've been over it a hundred times."
"I want to be certain—"
"You haven't missed anyone. It's perfect. Stop worrying."
She dried her hands on her apron. The stained white fabric covered her chest and long skirt. "Do you have something better to do? Did I interrupt your moping time?"
"I'm not moping." My voice whined. Not a good sign.
"Resting, recuperating, moping, it's all the same." She hauled a kettle filled with water over to the glowing coals in the hearth.
"No it isn't. A lot has happened—"
She pished at me. My own mother!
"Stop wallowing in the past. What's done is done. Focus on the future. We only have one hundred and fifty-three days until the wedding! Then it's only a matter of time for grandchildren and maybe you and Kade…?"
Yanking the chair out with a loud scrape, I plopped on it. I snatched the list from the pile and read names aloud as my mother continued to bustle about the kitchen. She had mentioned Kade almost every day since I'd arrived. Sixty-three days of missing him, dodging her questions and being drafted to help with preparations for an event two and a half seasons away. How could one woman be so irritating? For a second I wished for another family. A sensible one without all this… stuff, like the Bloodrose Clan, living in austere isolation.
"Opal, stop making that face."
I glanced over the list, but her back was to me. Long strands of hair had sprung from the knot she had tied this morning. She rolled dough with quick efficiency.
"How did you know?"
"I'm your mother. I see all. Hear all. Know all."
I laughed. "If that's true, then why do you ask me so many questions?" Ha. Got her!
Her hands stilled. She turned to me. "Because you need to hear the answers."
My father's arrival saved me from a retort I didn't have. He filled the room with his large frame. Even though most of his short hair had turned gray, he still looked young. My brother, Ahir, bounded in behind him. A mirror image of our father except Ahir's thick black hair brushed his shoulders.
"Hey, mop top," I said to Ahir.
"What's up, peanut?" He smirked.
I used to tower over him, but now he was six inches taller than my own five-foot-seven-inch height.
Before I could throw another insult at him, he handed me an aqua-green glass vase. "New recipe. Look at the clarity. Sharp."
I examined the glass in the sunlight. The cold crystal felt dead in my hands. No throb of potential. No song vibrated in my chest. Nothing. My glass magic was gone. Although painfully aware of my loss, a small part of me hoped to feel a spark every time I touched glass…only to be disappointed each time.
"Working with this melt is pure joy," Ahir said. "Let's go over to the factory, I'll gather a slug for you to try."
I gave him a tight smile, letting him know I saw through his blatant attempt to interest me in creating with glass again. But no magic equaled no passion. Before Yelena had uncovered my abilities, I hadn't known about the magic. It had been masked by my desire to create. Now, the inert lump in my hand was just another reminder of my useless existence.
"I think I'll go for a ride instead." Returning the vase to Ahir, I left the kitchen. My mother's protests about missing lunch followed me to the shed.
My family owned an eight-kiln glass factory, not horses. However, when I decided to stay for a while, my father cleaned out the shed, converting it into a temporary stable for Quartz. The small enclosure had room to hang my tack and saddle, and to give Quartz shelter from bad weather. Being a Sandseed horse, she preferred to graze in the Avibian Plains bordering our land.
No one would dare bother a Sandseed horse in the plains. I scanned the tall grasses. They swayed with the wind. The reds, yellows and oranges of the cooling season had faded into the gray and brown dullness of the cold season. I shivered, thinking of the miserable weather yet to come. Believe it or not, I had been anticipating this time of year. The fierce storms on the coast had abated. Kade planned to spend a few weeks with me, until the Commander of Ixia had invited him to demonstrate his Stormdancing powers, taming the killer blizzards blowing from the Northern Ice Sheet.
Kade had invited me along, except I hated the cold and would rather not be anywhere near the ice sheet. Plus what would I do there? I would have no job other than keeping Kade's bed warm. Well… That wouldn't be a chore at all. I smiled, but sobered. Despite my mother's intentions, my one reason for being home wasn't to help with Mara and Leif's wedding. I needed to make a decision.
Unease twisted. My bad decisions outweighed my good ones by two to one. I had a thirty-three percent chance of getting it right. Dismissing those useless thoughts, I stepped into the plains to search for Quartz.
After I traveled a hundred feet, magic pressed on my skin as if I pushed against a giant sponge. I waited for the pressure to dissipate as the protection determined I wasn't a threat. It was usually suicidal to walk into the plains without permission from the Sandseed Clan. Their defensive magic would confuse me, sending me into a panic, convinced I was lost. This time, my new immunity blocked the Sandseed's magic. I could sense it, but it registered my presence as a magical void. Nice perks, yet…
Without my glass magic, I felt as if a chunk of my soul had been sliced off. I had no regrets over my actions, sacrificing my powers had been the right choice. So if I wasn't moping, then why the ache? Why did I feel trapped in the shadow world?
All maudlin thoughts vanished when Quartz trotted into view. Considered a painted mare, her coat was a patchwork of white and auburn colors. The darker color covered her face, except for a white star between her soft brown eyes. Forgoing a saddle and bridle, I hopped onto her back and left my worries and Mother's wedding plans far behind.
Sitting in the living area later that evening, I addressed envelopes. My mother had appealed to my ego by complimenting my handwriting and had bribed my stomach by baking my favorite pie—black raspberry.
Warmth and light pulsed from the fireplace. I felt better after my ride with Quartz. Mother sat in her favorite chair, sewing Mara's veil. Ahir sprawled on the floor, snoring, and Father worked on bills. A true moment of family peace. And like all such moments, it was too good to stay true for long.
A knock on our door broke the silence. Mother glanced at me in confusion, then brightened. "It's the printer! He said he might be done with the invitations tonight, and I told him to bring them over right away."
Silk and lace filled her lap. Before she could untangle herself, I offered to answer the door. I suppressed a sigh. If the invitations were indeed here, I would have to stuff them into the envelopes, sealing them with wax. A tiresome chore.
I glanced through the peephole. Shadows covered the face of a man holding a bottle. Not the printer. He must be the local winemaker Mother commissioned to distill the special wed ding wine. She spared no expense, and, for that, I was glad.
When I had sacrificed my magic, the power had transformed into diamonds. The Sitian Council had returned them all to me, and I had plenty of money to pay for all the wedding expenses—my gift to Mara and Leif.
I opened the door and froze in terror.
Valek, the Commander of Ixia's personal assassin, waited outside. Only one reason for Valek to be here.
"Hello, Opal. Sorry for the surprise visit. Is this a bad time?" he asked with a pleasant tone and quizzical smile.
It was always a bad time to die.
I gaped at Valek. He stood on our front step within killing distance.
"Opal." My mother's voice cut through my panic. "Don't stand there like a simpleton. Invite your guest in."
I stuttered a few words and backed up with numb legs. His smile widened as my mother approached. The need to warn her lodged under my ribs. My body's functions had disconnected, scattering my thoughts.
"You must be Opal's mother," Valek said. He shook her hand. "Your cooking skills are legendary, Mrs. Cowan. I wouldn't be surprised if the Commander invites you to cook for him in Ixia."
The wrinkles on her face disappeared as she blushed, erasing years of worry and stress. "Please, call me Vyncenza, Mr…?"
"Valek." His name erupted from my mouth. "What are you doing here?"
"Opal, don't be rude."
"Mother, this is Valek." I gestured. "The Commander's—"
"Security Chief," he said. "And this is one of our finest vintages of Ixian Ice Wine." He presented the bottle to my mother.
"Thank you. This is my husband, Jaymes."
My father shook his hand. Ahir woke and jumped to his feet. He grinned at Valek in awe as he pumped his arm. The whole surreal scene swirled in front of my eyes like snowflakes.
"But, Mother. Valek is—"
"Practically family. Come in. Come in. You must be hungry. Jaymes, open that cognac your brother sent us. Ahir, fetch our good glasses." She escorted Valek to the couch and hustled off to the kitchen as Ahir and my father hurried to complete their tasks.
Valek caught me staring. He smiled. "Relax, Opal. I'm not here on official duty."
My heart resumed beating. "Then why are you here?"
"Since I'm practically family, I thought I should meet your parents."
A stretch of truth only my mother could believe. Valek was Yelena's heart mate, and Yelena was Leif's sister; ergo, once Leif married Mara, Leif's family, including Valek, would be part of ours.
"What's the real reason?" I asked.
"Later," he said as my mother burst into the room carrying a tray loaded with food.
My father poured drinks and everyone settled in for a cozy chat. I listened to the small talk in amazement. Valek's infamous reputation didn't seem to bother anyone but me. And I should know better. Why would the Commander order my assassination when it was well-known my glass magic was gone? Unless he knew about my immunity? Only one other person in the world could make the same claim. And he sat next to me, sipping my uncle's cognac.
But Yelena had promised not to tell anyone about my protection. Besides Kade, Zitora and Leif, no one else knew. Not my parents or siblings or friends. Not Valek. I trusted Yelena. Then why was he here? No idea. I would have to wait.
An eternity later, my mother f inally stopped offering Valek our guest room when he promised to return the next day to tour the factory. I escorted him outside and down the lane to the gate.
"Spill," I ordered.
Amusement flashed in his blue eyes as a smile quirked, softening the sharp features of his face. His pale skin almost glowed in the moonlight, an obvious contrast to the mostly darker-skinned Sitians, including me. Wearing a nondescript short gray cloak and black pants, he didn't quite blend in, but he didn't stand out, either. I gathered from his lack of disguise he wasn't working undercover.
Valek scanned the empty street before he answered. "Yelena sent me to help you."
"Help me with what?"
"No idea. All she said was you needed help. Are you on a mission for the Council?"
I laughed. "No. Unless you consider wedding planning an act of espionage."
"Hmm… My napkin folding skills are renowned. I can make a swan in seconds."
"Don't tell my mother or you'll be folding napkins for days."
"Days?" Valek's left eyebrow rose.
"The guest list is up to f ive hundred names with more being added hourly."
"Sounds like quite the party. However it's not the reason Yelena sent me."
I suspected why, but wanted to make sure. "What were her exact words?"
"She said, ‘Opal needs your help.'"
"You've traveled all this way without asking her for more details?"
"Of course." His tone implied I lacked intelligence for asking such a question.
So sweet. He had absolute faith in his heart mate.
When the silence lengthened, he asked, "Does this have anything to do with losing your magic?"
I suppressed my immediate annoyance over the word "losing." Why did everyone insist on using that word? Losing something implied a potential to find it again. Same with "lost." So sorry you lost your magic, Opal. As if all I needed to do was search for it. No. It was gone. Never to return. Unless I used blood magic and that I wouldn't do. Besides being illegal, it was far better to be without power than be addicted to it. Than to kill for it.
Valek's voice snapped me back to the problem at hand. Yelena sent him for a reason. She hadn't shared my secret with him, but she thought I should. "I need some time. Can we talk tomorrow?"
"Of course." He bade me a good-night and disappeared into the shadows.
My night was far from restful. The decision to inform the Sitian Council about my immunity to magic flipped from yes to no and back again. My past dealings with the Council were rocky at best. Magicians who graduated from the Keep usually worked for the Council, but I had broken that tradition by going out on my own. This wouldn't have been too big a problem, except I took my glass messengers with me.