Emry Merlin hurried through the dark London streets, cursing her good-for-nothing brother. Of course he’d pick a night like this to cause trouble. What had started as a tentative drizzle was now an enthusiastic downpour, and Emry shivered beneath her wet cloak as she squelched her way down the Strand.
Half an hour ago, she’d been lying in bed reading a novel about love-crossed pirates. Then a castle guard had knocked on her door, concerned that Emmett still hadn’t returned from the tavern.
“I think somethin’s wrong,” Tristan had told her. “He had this tortured look, like he was goin’ off to do something reckless. But reckless shouldn’t take four hours.”
“No, it shouldn’t.” Emry had lowered her book and considered the young, frowning guard with a sigh. “Do you know which tavern?”
“He said he was headed to the Tipsy Merchant.”
She knew it, but only by reputation. The tavern was a haunt of the city’s rougher types: petty criminals, laborers spoiling for a fight, and the occasional guard when they had coin to lose, and when they didn’t, but couldn’t help gambling anyway.
“I’m going after him.”
Tristan had blanched. “By yourself?”
“I’m a wizard.”
“But you’re also a lady, and it ’ent safe, down that way, late at night.”
Emry had assured him that she’d take precautions.And I have
, she thought. Under her sodden cloak, she wore a boy’s tunic and hose. Her dark hair, which fell just below her chin these days, was tucked beneath a hat. It was a hasty disguise, and one that wouldn’t hold up on close inspection, but still. It was better than traipsing through the city—not to mention the mud—in skirts.
As she walked, she considered creative ways to torment her brother if it turned out nothing was actually the matter. Death by a thousand parchment cuts was currently winning. Honestly, there was mud inside her boots.
Emry drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders as a gust of cold air cut through the wet fabric. Between the late hour and the rain, London’s streets were empty. The merchants’ shops were boarded up for the night, and not even the vendors were out with their carts and wares.
Even though she’d lived at the castle as herself for more than a month now, there hadn’t been many opportunities to venture beyond its walls. The city still felt new to her, a living thing full of dangerous turns and secrets tucked into the shadows. But dangerous and secret were two things that had never intimidated her, and she wasn’t going to let them start now.
Especially since Tristan had called her alady
. She wasn’t anything like the fashionable court ladies in their low-cut gowns who made pleasant conversation about the weather. But that’s what she got for being the sole female apprentice at Castle Camelot, training to be the prince’s own court wizard.
Meanwhile, Emmett had settled in easily, strutting the corridors in his courtier’s finest, nodding hello to every lad his age, and not bothering to magic away the telltale ladies’ perfume that often clung to his jacket.
He had never needed to pretend to be anyone other than who he was—the great wizard Merlin’s son and rightful heir. It was his unshakable confidence that so often led him to trouble. And it was Emry who so often got him out of it.
Yet she was the one the king had placed on probation.
Her cheeks burned with resentment when she thought about it. How King Uther had summoned her to his apartments two days after she and Arthur had nearly died at the hands of Morgana le Fay. The king’s icy glare as he’d accused her of encouraging Arthur to seek out life-threatening danger. “Since you share your father’s talent for magic, you may remain an apprentice, for now,” the king had allowed, his eyes dark with malice. “But give me a reason, and you’re gone.”
She had gritted her teeth and mumbled that she understood, even though what she really understood was that she still hadn’t proven herself, despite everything she’d done.
“Remember your place, girl,” Uther had warned as she sank into a curtsey. “And stay the hell away from my son.”
So, she’d avoided Arthur in the corridors, pretending she didn’t see his hurt and confusion when she accidentally met his gaze across the Great Hall. Pretending it didn’t hurt her as well. Because she would do anything to keep studying magic.
And that included marching halfway across London to either rescue or drill some sense into her foolish brother. If Emmett got himself dismissed from his apprenticeship, she worried the king would send her away, too. There was no way King Uther would commit to the next court wizard being a woman.
The Tipsy Merchant was down by the docks, in a rough-and-tumble part of the city where the half-timbered houses were pressed so tightly together and tilted so precariously forward with their oversize upper stories that the slender streets resembled tunnels.
The tavern’s roof was in desperate need of thatch, and the windowless exterior was more wattle-and-daub than wood. She paused on the front steps, cracking the tension from her neck as she gathered her magic and pushed back her hood.Extergio.
The unspoken spell released with an elegant snap. Emry held back a grin as her formerly sodden cloak flowed warm and dry from her shoulders, and the mud melted from her boots.
Much better. She took a steadying breath and pushed open the door.
It was a low-ceilinged place, noisy and dim, with cloaked patrons hunched over their cups and their dice and their business. She’d been right about the roof needing repairs. A couple of ceramic pots had been placed under the worst leaks, and rainwater dripped into—ugh, she really hoped those weren’tused
She edged past one with distaste. The tavern stank of sweat and damp wool and spilled ale. Dice clattered against a battered wooden table, and a burly man in an oilskin cloak let out a foul curse as his opponent scooped up a pile of winnings.
Definitely not one of her brother’s usual haunts. But he’d gotten banned from enough respectable taverns that it was only a matter of time before he tried a dodgy place like this. Emmett had an unfortunate habit of making cards and dice change to his favor more often than was plausible.
Emry spotted him immediately. He sat alone in a small booth, hunched over a table littered with empty mugs of ale, hair hanging in his face. At least he wasn’t bleeding, which was a relief. And he still had his clothes on. He was wearing his new jacket, a fine blue velvet with silver buttons and fur trim. He should have known better. No, he did know better. But he never thought that rules applied to him, and he clearly hadn’t started today.
“You’re the worst,” Emry grumbled, sliding into the booth. “I hope you know that.”
Her brother merely gave her a tired smile, his chin propped in one hand. “I do love a good lecture,” he slurred. “Go on, then.”
Emry rolled her eyes. “What’s the point? You’ve never listened to me before.”
“That is entirely untrue,” Emmett protested. “I listened when you said parting my hair down the middle made my eyebrows look uneven.”
“Not what I meant.” Emry shot her brother a glare.
Emmett shrugged. “Still counts.” He lifted his mug and took such an enormous gulp of ale that Emry suspected he was trying to quench something deeper than his thirst.
“I’m probably going to regret asking, but why exactly are you—”
“Guinevere said we shouldn’t see each other anymore,” he blurted miserably.
So, that was the problem. She’d wondered when their foolish fling was going to end.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Emry said. “She’s engaged.”
“To Arthur.” Emmett waved off the crown prince as though he were merely an annoyance. “But I don’t see that making a difference to you.”
“Of course it does. Why do you think I’m keeping my distance?”
“You are?” Emmett frowned. “I thought you’d just gotten really good at sneaking.”
Emry fought to keep her voice steady as she said, “I’m his wizard, and that’s all.” That was all she ever could be. Even though it was hard. Especially because it was hard. Anything more would only make her feel smashed into a million pieces when it ended. Which it inevitably would, because apprentice wizards didn’t wind up with royals. Because—oh
She bit her lip, staring across the table at Emmett, her twin in more ways than she could count. No wonder he’d parked himself here, at this disreputable tavern, sinking deeper into his cups as he delayed his return to the castle.
“I’m sorry about Guinevere,” she said softly. “You’ll find someone else. You always do.”
“Not this time.” Emmett stared down at his empty mug of ale, considering it with a sad smile before adding it to the collection. “Is it supposed to hurt like this?”
“Being incredibly annoying? I wouldn’t know.”
“Having your heart torn to shreds by the most flawless woman to ever live.”
Emry snorted. “She’s hardly flawless. Her lips move when she reads. And she’s overly obsessed with her hair.”
“Hey!” Emmett looked betrayed.
“It was never going to last.”
“Still.” He sighed, looking lost. “I’d hoped.”
“And I’d hoped you’d learned to stay out of trouble by now.”
“You didn’t have to come,” Emmett said.
“Of course I did.” Emry sighed, hating that she had to spell it out. “If you get dismissed from the castle, do you think the king will letme
Emmett looked taken aback, as though this was the first time he’d considered that his foolish actions might have consequences for anyone besides himself.
Emry glanced around the tavern and noticed a table of dockworkers glaring at them. Four nasty-looking brutes, each of them big enough to grip a broadsword one-handed, and strong enough to make it look easy. The largest one cracked his knuckles without breaking eye contact, and another bared his teeth and drew his rough-spun cloak aside, flashing a sharpened blade.
Emry swallowed nervously. Tristan’s alarm that she would march into the Tipsy Merchant by herself, not knowing what trouble her brother was in, seemed slightly less unwarranted now.
“Friends of yours?” she asked.
Emmett shifted guiltily. “They seemed all right before I won their purses at cards.”
“You didn’t.” Emry groaned.
Emmett’s face scrunched. “They’re waiting to follow me out. I’ve been desperate to piss for an hour, but haven’t dared. Those chamber pots on the floor are absolute torture.”
Emry drummed her fingers against the table, trying to think. “How’s your magic holding up?”
She’d figured as much. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a knife?”
Emmett had the good sense to look embarrassed as he confessed, “It ruined the lines of my jacket.”
Unarmed, drunk, and out of magic. Not to mention dressed like his pockets were lined with gold. What a mess. Emry sighed.
“This is the last time,” she grumbled, glancing around for something that could cause a commotion. And then she spotted the casks of ale behind the bar. A dozen of them, stacked nearly to the ceiling. Perfect.Transigo
, she urged.
Six enormous casks of ale burst open, spraying fountains of amber liquid across the tavern. The place quickly descended into chaos. Men rushed forward, mugs held aloft, shoving each other out of the way, and swinging angry punches at anyone who shoved them back. The barkeep shouted in protest, scrambling for rags that he could use to plug the holes.
Emry admired the melee for a moment before turning to her brother with a grin.
“Exit stage left,” she said grandly, grabbing her brother’s arm and dragging him from the tavern.
The air still smelled of rain, but the downpour had stopped. Hopefully it would hold until they got back to the castle.
“Come on,” she snapped, squelching down the alley.
But Emmett didn’t follow. Instead, he ducked down a narrow footpath, stopping outside a bricked-up window and fumbling with his trousers.
“What are you d—” Emry started to ask, as her brother began pissing against the wall with a dramatic sigh of relief. “Ew, Emmett!”
“I told you I was desperate!” he protested. “Don’t watch!”
“Wasn’t going to!”
Emry stomped around the corner, grumbling. “Hurry up,” she complained, only to be met by a long, ominous stretch of silence. “Emmett?” she called, with growing concern. But her brother didn’t answer.
She marched back toward the tavern to check what was going on. And then a rough hand snaked out of a shadowed alcove, catching her around the throat.
“Goin’ somewhere?” her captor growled, the tip of his dagger sharp against her side.
She swallowed down a scream, her heart hammering, as the man’s fingers pressed bruises into her neck.
“Not anymore,” she said in her best boyish tones.
It was the menacing dockworker who’d flashed his knife at her. And his companions had her brother. The bald one held Emmett’s arms behind his back, and the thickset one had a blade at Emmett’s throat. The third, a wiry, brown-skinned lad who couldn’t have been older than sixteen, stood lookout.
Sard. So her distraction hadn’t
“We don’t appreciate bein’ cheated,” growled the bald one.
“How exactly did I cheat?” Emmett retorted. “Magic?”
“Shut yer smart mouth.” The man landed a blow to Emmett’s jaw that had him spitting blood.
Emry winced. At least it had been a fist and not a knife.
Her captor seemed to be the leader, since the rest kept looking to him for approval. All of them were armed and angry and drunk enough to think a knife fight in an alley was a good idea. Her brother’s magic was spent, and they didn’t have a weapon between them except her magic.
Which meant she’d have to get creative. And she hated to get creative.
“Stealin’s a terrible crime,” said the leader. “At sea, a man would lose a finger. As would any who helped him.”
He grabbed Emry’s hand and pressed his dagger across her knuckles, drawing a thin line of blood. She hissed in pain.
“Well, well,” he said, breaking into a rotting grin as he peered at her more closely. He stank of ale and fish and unwashed linen, and Emry’s stomach twisted with disgust. “This lad’s a lass.”
“Keep your hands off my sister!” Emmett shouted, struggling against his captors.
“Sister? Even better.” The man stroked his thumb across Emry’s jaw, and she twisted away in revulsion.
“You’re going to regret that,” she warned.
“Is that so, girly?” He grabbed her chin and forced her gaze on his, an unabashed hunger in his eyes. “Forget the finger. I’ll take a bit o’ rough with the lass.”
“Don’t touch her!” Emmett cried, struggling against his captors.
The bald man landed a swift punch to his gut, and Emmett doubled over, coughing. Before he could straighten, the man’s fist connected with his jaw, hard, and he went down on his hands and knees. A cruel smirk bloomed across the thickset man’s face as he twisted his filthy boot into Emmett’s back.
“My coat!” Emmett cried.
The man sneered, delivering a vicious kick that sent him sprawling facedown in the mud.
They were out of time. Emry didn’t have a plan, but some hasty magic would have to do.
An illusion of fire should scare them off.
Before she could cast a spell, she felt a foul hand on her arse. Every nerve in her body went white-hot, and a strange, icy magic burst from the silver scars on her palms.
Emry gasped as purple flames sprang to life, twisting up her arms and hovering above her hands. Ropes of fire shot out, engulfing the four men in a very real blaze.No.
She hadn’t meant to do this.
The magic pulsed through her veins, cold and wrong. It was the same power that had flowed through the stones the night she’d opened the door to Anwen, the world beyond hers. A power she didn’t want, and had tried so hard to ignore.
But there was no ignoring it now. Emry watched in horror as the men stamped and shouted, desperate to snuff the searing flames.
” she cried, but the flames didn’t even flicker.Come on
, Emry thought.Extinguo!
The cold, bright magic pulsed again, and silver sparks danced at the edges of her vision. She stumbled as the flames shot out again, hitting the nearest building. Emry winced, but thankfully, the building was too wet to catch fire. Instead, the damp thatch gave off a thick, pungent smoke that filled the alley.
“Stop it! Please!” Emry cried, shaking her flame-coated hands and blinking back tears.
The flames faded, and she drew in a shallow breath, her whole body trembling. It was over. The heavy scent of charred wool filled the air, and dimly, through the smoke, she watched as the men staggered away, coughing and moaning but no longer on fire.
She felt light-headed and strangely hollow as she bent over her brother, giving him a gentle shake. “Emmett, it’s over,” she said.
His eyes fluttered open. He groaned and spat out a mouthful of blood, pushing to his knees.
“What happened?” he asked, wincing. “Was there fire?”
If he didn’t know, she certainly wasn’t going to tell him. “I cast an illusion,” Emry lied. “Scared them off.”
“Must’ve been some illusion.” Emmett leaned on her as he struggled to his feet. He was caked with grime. A nasty bruise was blooming along his jaw, and his lip was bleeding.
“Thanks, by the way,” he said, “for whatever you did back there.”
“Don’t mention it,” Emry said tightly.
What she’d done was the last thing she wanted to talk about. She’d set four men aflame with a dangerous spell she hadn’t cast. And she didn’t know how, or why, or when it would happen again. She’d thought she had a handle on the unfamiliar magic that surged through her, that she could keep shoving it down. But it had broken through her defenses.
“Let’s just get back before we’re missed,” Emry said.
The king’s threat came back to her, making her shiver under her cloak:Give me a reason, and you’re gone
Copyright © 2023 by Robyn Schneider. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.