Sired by magick and violence, sixteen-year-old Liara is found guilty of witchcraft and banished from her tiny village by the very priest who raised, then betrayed her. However, a mysterious mage steps forward to assume custody of her: Nagarath, the Wizard of Parentino, whose secret spellwork has long protected both Liara and Dvigrad from the ravages of war.
Despite Liara’s best hopes, Nagarath refuses to apprentice her to his craft but tasks her instead with the restoration of his neglected library. Liara gleans what magickal knowledge she can on the sly, determined to learn, come what may. But the first test of her stolen knowledge goes awry and renews an evil wizard’s interest in the people of the Limska Draga valley.
Only by tapping Liara’s inherent magick and joining it with his own can Nagarath protect Parentino from suffering a horrible fate. However, her discovery of his secrets destroys their fragile trust and ignites the darker tendencies of her gift. Now, he must rescue her from the influence of his mortal enemy before their powerful new alliance destroys them all.
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About the Author
M. K. Wiseman was born in Wisconsin but lived in New Mexico for a time, falling in love with the Southwest. She later returned to Milwaukee, immersing herself in her Croatian culture. With degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in animation/video and library science she lives for stories. Books are her life and she sincerely hopes that you enjoy this, her first.
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LIARA was out in the garden when Old Woman Babic marched purposefully up the steps of St. Sophia's, face alight with a mix of fury and condemnation.
"Oh, Father Phenlick is not in, Zarije," Liara offered, rushing to the fence. When the hard-faced matron did not return Liara's half-smile and greeting, she wasn't surprised — she was used to that. The familiar epithets hung unspoken in the air: fey child. Orphan waif. But the look of smug victory in Zarije's eyes as she strode past alarmed Liara.
The book! Dropping a bundle of weeds next to discarded tools, Liara ran in through the back door of St. Sophia's, intent on her monk's cell — one of her hiding places for all manner of stolen trinkets. Not that she considered her treasures stolen, exactly. No, things such as Zarije's precious prayer book were Liara's way of having a life independent of charity. People ought to care more for their things if they wanted them back. And now here was Zarije, wanting her book, and Liara with no good lie ready on her lips.
Maybe I can pass it off as having just picked it up. Liara sweated through her rapid journey through the stone halls of the church building. She thought quickly. Her story needed details. At sixteen years of age, she'd found ample opportunities to discover exactly what it took to pass a lie as gospel truth. That's it. I found it when I cleaned the pews this morning. On the floor, right by the —
Gone! Zarije Babic's prayer book wasn't where Liara had left it, this fact ascertained by the bleak reality of an empty room. It was not as if she wasn't used to emptiness. The Father demanded simplicity of all under his roof. Rather, someone had raided Liara's cache, her collection of castoffs, trinkets, and ill-gotten gains. Even the secret place she'd hewn from under a loose flagstone lay exposed, the slab knocked askew as if to say, 'Yes, even here.'
Was she ever going to catch it now. Old Woman Babic had never liked Liara — but who did, in this crummy little town? And family prayer books were worth a fortune. Not that Liara could have done anything with it, but such books were precious. Only half a dozen existed in all of Dvigrad, all owned by the Church and wealthiest of families.
Like Zarije's, who'll likely have my hide for her next book. Liara gave vent to the colorful and wicked image, smiling darkly. It was sort of a fun challenge, this getting out of trouble. And Liara was an adept, having had sixteen years to practice — ten of them as a ward of the Church.
Father Phenlick wouldn't hurt her. Liara wasn't even sure he could. For all his gruffness, he was a gentle sort. The man had to be a hundred years old. No, the real danger was further angering Zarije, a woman who could have her revenge in the form of slights and whispers, who could set the children of Dvigrad after her with a word.
* * *
The clattering, disorganized sound of booted feet reverberating on stone floors caught Liara's ears too late. Even the clamorous heralding of a half-dozen of the Venetian guard wasn't enough to prevent her from running smack into the lead soldier as she rounded the corner.
Before rough hands could detain her, Liara sprang backwards, long black hair whipping around her startled face as she sought to regain her composure. The words bubbling up on her lips died under the withering gaze of Father Phenlick, standing in the midst of the armed men.
Liara could practically hear the good Father's lecture, one she'd heard so many times before. See, my girl, this is what comes of running in the halls. Casting her eyes to the side, Liara carefully sloped her shoulders, projecting just enough humility to spare her the familiar words, while her brain tried to register what exactly was going on.
Had Old Babic called the guards on her? Unlikely. Even though the woman had the biggest mouth and largest portion of trade in Dvigrad, she couldn't possibly hold sway over even a fraction of the guardsmen. No, they had to be there on Church business.
A prickle of fear shot down Liara's spine — fear mingled with excitement. Mayhap there was an invasion coming.
"Come, Liara." Father Phenlick's words shook the girl out of her tumble of thoughts. He sounded gruffer than usual — more than ever before, in fact. Though his face was stern, Father Phenlick's guiding hand was gentle, his touch at Liara's back almost nonexistent as he escorted her down the hall, as if he recoiled from contact. A look at the armored guard confirmed it: they were afraid of her. At this revelation, Liara completely forgot that she was supposed to have let the Father know Zarije was looking for him.
Their short walk concluded, the priest invited, "Into the vestry, if you please. We must speak privately."
'Privately' apparently involved half-a-dozen of Doge Contarini's finest.
Seeing the woman's smirk as they entered, Liara instantly regretted having taken that detour to her room. It would have been nice to have the edge on things, to have gotten first into Father Phenlick's good graces before this rather public interrogation.
No matter, she had her answer ready. Couldn't Liara be just as surprised at the turn of events? There was no proof that she'd stolen the items in question. Perhaps, she'd only had them hidden for safe-keeping. And wasn't the incursion into her rooms equally unjust?
One of the soldiers shut the door, moving to stand in front of it. Inwardly, Liara rolled her eyes.
Though it doubled as the place where Father Phenlick met with parishioners, the vestry was barren, a small cell not unlike Liara's own. Where some men might preach austerity, Father Phenlick lived it.
Even so, Liara startled at the hollow, empty look in the good Father's face as he turned to question his ward. "Let me first warn you, my girl: there are serious charges being laid against you." The priest nodded his head, indicating the guard's and Zarije's, presence. As if Liara needed a reminder.
"How many times have we had this conversation, Liara?"
In answer, Liara shuffled her feet, fixing her eyes downward. Phenlick valued humility. And while it wasn't her first choice for self-defense, the tack he was taking demanded it. Liara rehearsed her story, waiting for the priest to continue.
"I thought that what we had here was a mere proclivity for not returning what others had ... lost." She looked up sharply, noting that Father Phenlick's lips twitched with a small bit of the humor she had come to rely upon. Her heart lifted and she fought the impulse to cast Zarije a triumphant glance.
Liara and her reluctant master had made her shortcomings a game between them, after a fashion. Then again, between the circumstances of her birth and her preference for solitude, Liara liked to think she fit Phenlick's expectations. She was, in many ways, the priest's most rewarding challenge, whether he realized it or not.
Phenlick's near-smile collapsed into a stern frown, drawing Liara's thoughts back to the present. His next words carried no hint of humor. "But it would seem that your light-fingered ways are not an occasional lapse in judgment — in morality — but a modus vivendi for you. And that is a serious problem for someone who wishes to remain a ward of the Church."
Liara flicked her accusatory gaze to Zarije. If that woman undid everything for her ...
"Liara." The barked word drew her attention back on Dvigrad's priest. "Have you an explanation for yourself?"
"Now, see here. The Republic's laws against thieving —" One of the guards stepped forward, a lanky fellow with drooping mustaches. Liara frowned, disliking him immediately.
Phenlick's eyes flashed and he pointed a bony finger at the guardsman, restraining him with a look. "Hsst. Our agreement was to let the girl speak."
His bright gaze turned back to her, where she stood trembling in the center of the room. "Liara?"
"I took it. But only because it was so very pretty and I've never had anything pretty," Liara blurted out, her eyes on Zarije. She felt the rush of heat before the blush hit her. Guilt, though she tried to pass it off as anger. Liara's least desire was to apologize to that woman and her words amazed even her. But they had everything — almost everything — and this was a game Liara was unused to playing. The rules had changed.
Father Phenlick, too, looked surprised. "The book?"
Liara nodded, gulping air. Lie. Lie your way out of it. There's still time.
Slowly, Father Phenlick shook his head, as if reluctant to continue. Father Phenlick, man of God, and surest man she knew. Liara felt for him, felt bad that she'd caused him such apparent anguish.
It's just a book. A book that you already recovered. She tried to telegraph her thoughts with a look. It won't happen again. I promise. Like a hundred such promises that had preceded it.
But Father Phenlick stared at the wood of his desk, unable to meet her gaze. "Liara. You know that it's not just the one —"
A knock on the door made everyone jump. Two more soldiers stood just outside the vestry.
"If you please, Father, we've ... we've found the rest of it. In a hollowed-out tree."
Around her, Liara could feel the tension grow in the room. Hands tightened on hilts and armored legs tensed, ready in case the girl should run.
"I —" Liara found herself tongue-tied, unable to defend her actions or lie her way out of her predicament. She felt exposed, violated. The rules had changed, indeed. The tree was her nest — her staking a claim on a little corner of the world and filling it with things that delighted her. It was just like the cache in her cell, but multiplied tenfold. She had whiled away many an hour in the hollow of the old tree. The thought of these men rifling through it, judging her, hating her ... the guilt Liara felt quickly melted away under the heat of newly ignited anger.
She wanted to ask how they'd discovered it, but found she couldn't, rage robbing her of her voice. However, in the second it took her to find it again, Phenlick had risen from his chair, exiting the room to hold hushed conversation in the hallway. Zarije moved to follow, stopped short by one of the soldiers barring her path with a quiet but nonnegotiable frown.
From where she stood, Liara couldn't quite make out the angry exchange. But from the strain on her face, it appeared Babic could not hear either. Liara indulged a satisfied smirk, feeling her pulse retreat from its frantic rush. Again she ran her argument in her head: Father Phenlick would help. He always did.
As if in agreement with her thoughts, Father Phenlick reentered the room, leaving the two soldiers out in the hallway. Liara felt the fledgling sense of triumph leak out of her. There was something new in Father Phenlick's eyes.
Pain. That's what she saw. Pain, compassion, and disappointment. Guilt returned in full, redoubling its attack on Liara's conscience.
"It would appear that even I was greatly mistaken as to the scope of things. Liara, if you please —" Again the hovering, apprehensive guiding hand of Phenlick followed her out the door. Plus, the eight Venetian soldiers. Plus, Zarije, whom no one dared stop now that things had gotten interesting.
Interesting, yes. Buoyant again, Liara yet refused to see the discovery of her secret haven as complete disaster. Perhaps now Phenlick would see how desperate she was to have anything to call her own. Maybe now he'd see that she needed something to grab hold of in her empty little life.
The two soldiers who'd discovered Liara's nest took the lead, Father Phenlick hurrying his steps to catch up with them and engage in another agitated conversation, the harsh whispers of his words drifting back unintelligibly. This left Liara surrounded by the remaining six soldiers. And Zarije.
Even so, she refused to let it scare her. Phenlick's words had turned to wild gesticulation. It appeared that he was not of a mind that they should all be dragged out into the forest for a mere repeat of the discussion they'd just had in the vestry. Liara agreed. Most of the items secured in the trunk of her tree were private — embarrassing, even.
Liara performed a quick inventory in her head and decided to make her move. Jolting forward as their little party exited Dvigrad's front gate, she spoke up, "Father, may I —?"
A soldier's gloved hand pulled her back, harshly cutting off her words.
At her side, Zarije huffed, "Silence, you ungrateful, pernicious, living and breathing curse of a —"
The brief scuffle brought Phenlick's attention back on them, stopping Babic from continuing. The woman fixed the priest a simpering smile, earning his disinterest. But the poisoned words, accompanied by the soldier's quick restraint, had begun their work. Liara hiked the rest of the short distance in sullen silence, fear warring with anger and bringing a flush to her cheeks.
They passed the woodman's cottage, Liara ducking her head, hiding amongst the soldiers in case her friend should be home. She did not desire any further witness to her disgrace, much less his. Oh, to be found out — and in such a manner. Mortifying!
Her thoughts circling back, she wondered at how they'd discovered her tree at all. She'd been going there for over eight years with nary a disturbance. And why nosy old Babic was being allowed to come along ...
But then, in asking the question, Liara had her answer: Phenlick's strange disquiet and careful but distant treatment of Zarije in the face of the Venetian guard. That woman had gone above the priest's head and he was none too happy with her, Liara was sure of it.
And she could bet Babic hadn't just today noticed her book gone missing. Her gossip's tongue had likely gone 'round town taking note of every complaint of missing trinkets and treasures, biding her time until she had built a case against Liara, one big enough to reach the ears of the guard and set them searching the woods for the place Dvigrad's outcast had spirited herself away to for hours on end.
I'll have to start anew. Liara stumbled blindly over a rock in her path, her mind already leaping ahead. Perhaps a spot near the river, one with a better roof and softer floor. Somewhere I can stay whole days, if needed. The hollow of a tree offered no comfort, even with her improvements — years of effort and luck.
The small company came to a slow halt, their escort craning their necks to espy their mark. This provided Liara with the answer to her first question, that of the manner of the guards' discovery.
Curse the sunlight, wind, and greedy birds of the woods. Liara glared at the damning evidence before her. Tangled in the lower branches of her tree winked the bright gleam of metal. A coin on a chain. Liara remembered the one — it had some sort of foreign markings. She'd been delivered up by one of her own trinkets, likely dragged out of its hiding place and then abandoned by any one of the little trespassers who called the woods home.
She had nothing. Couldn't they just leave well enough alone?
The color was back in Phenlick's cheeks. It gladdened Liara to see it. More so, he seemed a touch amused by the entire proceedings. Rome's representative dragged out into the forest in search of a cache of lost ribbons, coins, feathers, and chips of precious stones? Preposterous.
Still, Babic loomed up at Liara's elbow, forbidding as ever and quite sobering. "That's it. That necklace there I heard about last week. Went missing under mysterious circumstances, it did. I only heard about it when I —"
"Thank you, madam. As I said, we'd found the rest of the items the girl's been taking. Along with a lot of other ... things." This from the captain of their military escort and said with a curl of the lip. Liara wanted to kick him. Things, indeed. She'd been collecting her treasures since she was eight. What did they expect?
"Show me." Phenlick's command came tired, renewing Liara's confidence. If he was sick of this whole affair, then perhaps it was already half-forgotten.
Moving to the side, the guard afforded Phenlick — and consequently Liara and Zarije — a closer look within the bole of the tree. Feeling her chest tighten in horror and indignation, Liara gasped. These men had cut away at all her careful concealment of the entrance, such as it was. Hacking with their swords and sticks, the military men had not just discovered Liara's hideaway, they'd defiled it. Tears stung her eyes and, shamefaced, she blinked them back.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bookminder"
Copyright © 2016 M. K. Wiseman.
Excerpted by permission of Hamilton Springs Press, LLC.
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