Latona of the Vitelliae, mage of Spirit and Fire, is eager to wield her newfound empowerment on behalf of the citizens of Avenbut societal forces conspire to keep her from exercising her gifts, even when the resurgence of a banished cult plots the city's ruin. To combat this threat, Latona must ally with Fracture mage Vibia, the distrustful sister of Sempronius Tarren.
While Latona struggles to defend their home, Sempronius leads soldiers through wartorn provinces to lift the siege of Toletum, where Latona's brother Gaius is hemmed in by supernatural forces. Sempronius must contend not only with the war-king Ekialde and his sorcerers, but with the machinations of political rivals and the temptations of his own soul, ever-susceptible to the darker side of ambition.
Though separated by many miles soon after their love affair began, Latona and Sempronius are united by passion as they strive to protect Aven and build its glorious future.
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690 ab urbe condita
Februarius Central Iberia
In the deep of winter, hundreds of miles from her own village, from the broad flat river and gently sloping hills of her home, Neitin of the Lusetani clung to the arms of the birthing stool, trying to bring forth life in cold and desperation. When the pangs faded, Neitin hung her head, sobbing helplessly, her sweat-soaked chestnut curls hanging like curtains on either side of her face.
“Good, good!” The midwife rubbed between her shoulders. “Not far to go, I think.”
Neitin wanted to protest that she couldn’t possibly do this, not a moment longer, that if this child didn’t get out of her right now she would walk into the dark shadows of the underworld gladly, but she held her tongue. Another woman might make those protestations. Neitin was the wife of the erregerra, the Lusetani war-king, and she could not admit to such weakness. Choking her sobs back into her throat, she scraped her feet against the deerskins that covered the ground inside her tent, trying to get them solidly underneath her. “I want to walk.”
The midwife helped her to stand properly, nodding. “That will be good for you. Walk until the next pains hit.”
One hand rubbing at the back of her neck, Neitin paced the length of the tent, from her bed to the flaming brazier, stoked hot to chase out the hard winter chill. Small comfort, to catch her breath, when she knew the agony would return.
Before it could strike again, however, the thick woolen tent door jerked open. Neitin looked up sharply; everyone she wished to see was already inside the tent, with the exception of her husband Ekialde, who would not be allowed in until after his child was born. When she saw the dark-headed man who had entered, her lips pulled back from her teeth in an instinctive snarl.
Bailar, uncle to her husband and leader of their magic-men, sidled in, letting the tent flap snap in the wind behind him. Reilin, first of Neitin’s younger sisters, rushed to hold it closed, but as she skirted around Bailar, she bowed her head in respect.
Neitin had no intention of showing such deference. “This is no place for you. Why have you come?”
Bailar’s shoulders hung low, giving him a demure appearance that ill-suited his true nature. “I knew your husband had sent for a woman from a nearby village,” Bailar scarcely gave the midwife a glance, “but I feared the assistance might be . . . insufficient.”
The midwife gave no indication that she took umbrage, but Neitin took plenty on her behalf. “This honored lady has been dedicated to divine Nabia’s heart and magic for thirty years,” she said. “I assure you, she has things well in hand.”
Bailar’s mild expression did not change. “We heard a great deal of screaming.”
“And have you never heard women in childbirth before?” Neitin growled. “No doubt your own mother shrieked fit to split the heavens, bringing forth one such as you.” She had long since outgrown civility with this man, the fiend she blamed for their current predicament, out in the wilds of the central forests, so far from home. He had led her husband in this madness, he had lured Ekialde with promises of grand victories in the name of the war-god, he had convinced Ekialde that dark magics, so long disused by civilized magic-men, were appropriate. Neitin pleaded for Ekialde to set this man aside, or at least to take equal counsel from others, to no avail.
She might not be able to pry him away from her husband, but she could damn well forbid him her own company.
“There is nothing here for you.” She staggered toward him, nostrils flared. “I stand at the threshold of Nabia’s realm. It is nothing to do with you.”
Bailar regarded her coolly, impassive in the face of her panting breath and flushed, sweaty face. “You are in a great deal of pain, Lady. I take no offense, of course.”
She spat at his feet.
This, too, Bailar ignored. “You may yet have need of aid. Endovelicos sees all things, as the sun and the moon do. We are never out of his realm.”
“If I need Endovelicos’s assistance,” she said, swiping at the damp locks of hair falling in her face, “I will send for my uncle. Not for you. I would never—” She grimaced, silenced for a moment as her whole world narrowed to the agony overtaking her body. The wracking cramps could not fully divert her fury away from Bailar, though, and when the pain ebbed, she found her tongue again. “I would never invite your darkness so near this sacred moment. You pollute everything you touch, but you will never touch this babe. You understand me? Never. Not at the moment of its birth and at no time in its life.”
“Your husband may—”
“My husband may respect you in matters of war, but this is hearth and home!” Neitin’s words stampeded over his. “I will not be gainsaid in this, and he will neither persuade nor overrule me.” She could hardly stand unaided, but she made no move to lean on either her sisters or the midwife. She was determined to face Bailar with her spine as straight as she could manage and the earth solidly beneath her bare feet. “So get out.” When he did not move, she screamed, “Get. Out! Or I swear, I will devote the rest of my waking days to seeing you brought as low as you deserve to lie!”
Bailar gave her a mocking little bow. “Women in childbirth are often frantic. I understand.”
He left then. Neitin wanted to throw something at his departing back. That he should have the nerve to treat her with such condescension, such smugness—but the thoughts would hardly string together. Her knees buckled, and the midwife’s arms were swiftly around her, keeping her from falling. For a moment, the pain obliterated all other thoughts in her mind, and another ragged scream tore from her throat.
Only when the anguish receded could she regain herself to speak. “You keep that man out of here,” Neitin snarled at her sisters, her dark eyes wild with rage. Her face contorted as another spasm wracked her, but as she huffed through the pain, she pointed at the door of the tent. “You keep him out, and you keep him away.”
“Sister—” the youngest began.
“You have heard me! Do you think I speak in jest?”
Her sisters exchanged worried glances, no doubt debating who they should be most afraid of: the magic-man whose powers grew by the day or their beloved sister in the throes of childbirth. Their tribe held that this was a time of great power, wrapped in Nabia’s arms. A mother could tell no lies in these hours, with her soul in full flood, and her wishes were to be heeded as though they came from Nabia herself.
In the end, religious conviction outstripped the mingled fear and respect they had for Bailar. The youngest sister went to tie the tent flaps shut, but Reilin, only a year younger than Neitin, halted her. “Stay here with her. Ditalce and I will stand guard outside, that neither Bailar nor any of his men approach the tent.” She walked over, with her long warrior’s stride, and kissed Neitin’s dewy forehead. “These hours are yours, sister, and they are blessed. Nabia’s grace will see you through them.”
Neitin felt little grace in the next hour, but as dawn approached, so too did her babe. Outside the tent, the blackness of night gave way to the eerie cobalt-blue that raced ahead of the sun. All at once, the buffeting winds calmed, just in time for another scream to join Neitin’s: tiny lungs, shrieking their indignation at so rude an introduction to the world.
A moment later, Neitin’s youngest sister raced out of the tent. “A boy! A son!” She did not pause as she shouted this to her sisters, but rather raced across the camp toward the tent where her brother-in-law and his war-band had kept vigil. “The erregerra has a son!”
As a cheer went up throughout the camp, inside the tent, Neitin half-swooned on the birthing stool, watching through heavy-lidded eyes as the midwife cut the cord of life and swaddled the babe. Somehow, she found the strength to grab the woman’s arm. “The afterbirth—”
“It’ll be along in a moment, my dear, never fear. I looked to the stars last night; they said you are in no danger, so it should come away clean. No risk of fever.”
“No, that’s not what—” Neitin blew out her breath. Tears had rushed to her eyes; she felt exhausted and elated at the same time. “Wretched Bailar will want it for some foul purpose, I have no doubt. He must not have it. You, you must keep it safe, and cast it in the river for Nabia.”
The midwife stared at her a moment, eyes wide. “Of course,” she said. “That is what is right and proper—”
“Right and proper have little meaning in this camp, honored lady,” Neitin said, hoping the earnestness in her voice and eyes would be convincing.
This mattered, more than she could express. She belonged to Nabia, mother-goddess, not to Bandue, the war-god, and so would her son. Whatever hell Bailar led them into, Neitin could at least keep her son’s soul safe from his perfidies.
“He may order, or he may resort to subterfuge, even threats of violence. Whatever happens, he must not have it.”
The midwife nodded. “I understand, little mother.”