Labyrinth of Lies and Sacrifice

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Chapter One

Today, I was going to burn to death.

That one thought echoed through my mind as I raced through the meandering streets of Varich in the predawn gloom, a paper-wrapped parcel stuffed under my arm and my market bag bouncing against my hip. My dress, stained from where I’d spilled hot wax on it far past midnight, rustled and flapped like a circus tent in a strong wind. I’d given up trying to move silently and lunged into an all-out sprint—which was tricky when juggling a package containing my heavy wedding gown.

Or rather, the gown I’d wear to my wedding. I doubted I’d survive the fire mage marriage ceremony, considering I wasn’t a fire mage.

This thought had kept me awake most of the night, sweating in my bed, considering and reconsidering all the awful ways this day would unfold. As I skittered around the corner beside the Guild’s private club, my eyes traveled up to the single lit window shining out over the empty street. If anyone inside saw my pale face darting by, they’d likely make one of two wrong assumptions: that I’d stolen the item I carried or that I was hustling home after an illicit night out. Either way, if someone was watching, they’d come for me.

And I couldn’t afford to be questioned on why I was carrying a dress the color of ash—the color every woman wore to wed a fire mage.

A faint groaning drifted down the quiet street, and I glanced into the deep shadows under the grand arched entrance to the Guild’s headquarters. A woman was on her knees, offering supplications to the magical elite. The woman, dressed in black, blended in with the shadows.

Heart racing as fast as a trapped mouse, I shoved my hand into my market bag, fumbled for the two apples rolling around, then scurried forward and set them carefully on the ground beside the beggar. She glanced back at me, eyes red from tears, then fell forward again in her rhythmic petitions. My heart sank. The mages who ran the Guild paraded around town like saviors in their color-coded robes and their fancy rings, doing the king’s bidding and ensuring that the rest of us knew our place in life.

“They won’t help you,” I hissed at the woman, as I tried to cram the wedding dress back into my bag. Two months ago, the Guild had thrown her husband in the Labyrinth, a magical prison built by the king, for allegedly stabbing one of the king’s guards; they weren’t about to support his wife, even if she was most likely a widow by now.

I couldn’t afford to loiter in front of the Guild, so I took off down the street once more. Guild members lived above the law in many cases and considered it their fate-gifted duty to assist the lawmen in meting out punishments of their own devising to petty criminals. I wasn’t in the mood to parade around town in a pair of shackles or find a black X tattooed on my hand in the blink of an eye. I hadn’t stolen anything, despite the fact that I was running like a thief in the darkened streets. Mother had paid for this dress with our own money—a testament to how much she wanted me to marry this stranger. But if a Guild member asked, I’d lie and say I just thought the dress was pretty enough to steal, because the alternative to being branded a thief was far worse.

If the Guild discovered I was to be married today, they’d send a representative from one of the magical affinities to observe the wedding. Since the war, all mage weddings were to be witnessed by the Guild, recorded for posterity, and the unions subsequently tracked for any progeny. All mages had to be on record. Birth dates. Death dates. Marriage dates. Affinity Age. Amount of magical blood: full, half, quarter.

And I wasn’t on any records yet.

My affinity hadn’t settled into anything useful yet—the curse of the quarter mage—and if it did, my mother was determined to prove it was fire magic rather than the other magic I might have inherited: mind magic. If I manifested that affinity, I’d be tossed in the Labyrinth before I could say fates forbid.

So, it was burn to death or be thrown in a prison designed to drive me mad. One would at least be quicker.

My legs throttled on toward home while my mind entertained the possibility of running away. But with every hurried step, I couldn’t bring myself to deviate from the well-known roads that would take me to our cottage, where I would don this wedding gown and cart off to the temple to either get married or die. A crackling sliver of hope, as blatant and alluring as a candle in a dark room, the one that told me I’d survive and that I’d finally find my place in this world, pushed me onward…a hope that said, what if, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I actually was a fire mage?

A few minutes later, I blasted through our front door, and my mother tossed a disgusted look toward my dirty hem—or perhaps her scrutiny was intended for all of me. My brothers, Archer and Danny, were still asleep in the bed tucked into the far corner, but my loud entrance woke them.

“Out, out!” my mother barked, shooing them toward the door. “Vera must get dressed, and it’s bad luck for a man to be in the building.”

Groggily, my two younger brothers stumbled into the small garden behind our front wall. Archer shot me an I’ll get you later look and shook his head, his long blond hair swishing over his shoulders. Danny squatted down on his ankles and began picking at the weeds between the lettuce and the flowers. Mother shut the door, a little too forcefully, and practically dove for the parcel containing my wedding dress.

“Did anyone see you?”

“No, Mother.”

Her hiss of relief seared my already frazzled nerves.

An hour later, my mother tossed a heavy black cloak over my shoulders, concealing the dull gray lace beneath. She stepped away quickly, but not so fast that I missed the cringe on her tired face.

I pursed my lips. “I will not light you on fire on the way to the temple.” Though if I did, at least it would prove I’m your precious fire mage. The thought weighed heavy in my stomach.

She looked me up and down. “Keep the cloak wrapped tight as we exit the carriage. No one can see you. No one can know a fire mage wedding is taking place.”

“Until it’s over, and I’m still alive, and you can finally celebrate my burdensome existence.”

My mother pinched her thin lips, for once not retaliating. She was, if possible, more nervous than I was today, the day our family would—once and for all—learn which quarter of magical blood truly ran in my veins. Of course, it wasn’t her head that would have a flaming ring of fire placed on it.

But I wouldn’t think about that now. My eyes rolled from one end of our tiny sitting room to the other. Thin curls of candle smoke lifted to the soot-stained ceiling, infusing the room with the faint honey scent of beeswax. The flickering flame danced, impressing me with its loveliness, a cruel reminder that fire could both heal and hurt, light and destroy. A shudder crawled down my spine as I tried to make the flame stand straight. It was the simplest of the fire mage tests…and one I’d failed enough times to know this magic wasn’t in my blood. But I’d also passed twice—forcing a flame to stand erect and still as a sculpture—just enough to call into question my entire definition of myself. Enough to convince my mother that I would be a good wife for a fully trained, fully terrifying fire mage.

This would be the last time I set foot in this house, the house that had raised me. I’d known this day would come, and yet it grated on me, a bit like the scratchy wool of my school dress.

For everyone else, weddings were a cause for celebration, occasions to be marked with friends, flowers, and fine food. My wedding, however, was a secret—unannounced, unadorned, and unaccompanied by food of any kind.

I met my mother’s eyes, but she looked quickly away. Was that a twinge of regret? Or sadness? Surely not. I tried to parcel out what well-guarded emotions might swim in her depths, as this might be my final opportunity to do so. If I could but pull one tear from her eye on this day of our parting, would it satisfy me?

“Mother,” I said, my own throat stupidly thick. I tried to shove my emotions into the box I usually kept them in, but they were misbehaving today.

“You must not look at anyone on the street, or any temple staff not involved in the ceremony. Until it is over, that is, and you are…”

“No longer your problem.” No longer alive threatened to squeak out of my clamped throat, but my voice failed and I couldn’t say it.

She cut flat eyes at me that warned of provoking her. “You are marrying a man capable of handling you. You will never be anyone’s problem again.”

I angled my chin to the side as if slapped. She always did have the best way of compiling sentences, stacking up words like perfect little hammer strokes to my wellbeing. Eighteen years of hammering me into the earth. Today, for her at least, would be the final nailing of the coffin.

The giving away of her quarter-mage daughter.

The room screamed memories at me: wrestling my brothers, completing schoolwork, sitting in front of the fire, wishing I had the guts to stick my hands into the flames and make the fire obey me.

So rare was my magic’s appearance that in eighteen long years, we had still never witnessed its true manifestation. All the full and half-mages would be graduating next year, and I’d be making babies for some fire lord who only needed a vehicle for his powerful children to enter the world. A vehicle that wouldn’t protest, as my mother assured me I was not to do.

I tugged my eyes from the worn lattice chairs by the window. Archer, with his incessant bouncing, had busted both seats so many times that we’d positioned the biggest books we owned across the frame rather than paying to repair the lattice again. The emptiness of the chairs struck me as a solemn thing, almost like a pair of gravestones. No more evenings crammed beside my younger brother, finishing lessons until the light of day faded into starlight.

Danny, who’d always had to sit on the floor, would take my place in the chair on the right. That was good. But it still hurt.

In a final, desperate attempt to save my own life, I walked over to the burning candles and stretched my palm out over a flickering flame.

“Vera, what are you doing?” my mother snapped.

“I’m not a fire mage, no matter how convenient that would be for you.” And for me.

Her eyes danced between my hand and my face.

My skin smarted from the heat. I jerked my hand away. “See? The fire burns me too.”

Being able to light candles from across a room was not evidence that I was a burner—the other term for fire mages. Every affinity had a title, like architect or burner or, in the case of mind mages, meddler—though I was fairly certain they’d gone by a different name before the war. Some people went as far as calling mind mages vampires, as they fed on the minds of other people. I’d been teased with enough vampire jokes at school to heartily prefer the term meddler to anything else. Though I’d never once shown any signs of having the affinity for mind magic, that was the only other type of magic in my heritage, and mages could only manifest one kind of magic.

“Curse the king’s canaries, Vera,” she hissed. “Your grandfather was a fire mage. It is in your blood. We’re not going through this again. A wealthy man has agreed to marry you, which is more than we could have ever wished for.”

“It’s exactly what you’ve always wished for.” I kept wide, unfeeling eyes on her. My blood was certainly more my maternal grandmother’s than my mother’s or even my father’s, as evidenced by my dark hair, rounded nose, deep set eyes, and stork legs. My mother took after her father, the fire mage, in all but magic. Stocky, blonde, and sharp as icicles.

“And he knows what Nan was, doesn’t he? You promised you would tell him.”

My mother, her long hair piled on top of her head, turned toward the door to our cottage. “We are leaving.”

“You didn’t tell him.”

“It won’t matter once you’re married.” She shrugged and pulled on a traveling cloak from the peg by the back door. Her cloak had been scrubbed of all stains, at least the removable ones. She looked presentable, if a little worn around the eyes, as she sighed and reached for the door.

It was the law to divulge all magical heritage to one’s betrothed. Before the wedding. But in our case, we’d hung every hope on the fact that affinity would turn out to be fire magic. If we were wrong, I’d be dead anyway.

She yanked open the door and stepped into the bright sunlight. Outside, my brothers’ voices launched into so many questions at once that I couldn’t catch a single one.

A wave of panic swept over me. Dead. Burned. Finished. Like punches from my brother, the thoughts pelted my mind. My hand still stung from where I’d held it over the fire a moment ago. I stared at the flame across the room, anger blazing in my chest. Stand still, I commanded it silently.

The flame reached higher, freezing for a single heartbeat. I gasped, but the flame went back to flickering merrily.

Archer popped his head in the doorway, his long hair swishing past his face. “You are finally ready? What were you doing in here so long?”

“Putting on a lace wedding dress.” I lifted my arms and the cloak parted slightly. “I hooked my thumbs in the silly sleeves six times.” I attempted to put out the candles with another silent command, but nothing happened. I marched to the candles and blew them out.

He quirked an eyebrow and stumbled forward into the room. “You’re really leaving us.”

My arms fell back to my sides. Tears immediately welled up. I wanted to quash them, but they dumped over my cheeks and poured off my chin.

“I’ll still see you.”

“When?” He snorted. His beliefs about my magic were as ill-founded as my mother’s, but somehow, the hope in his voice that suggested I would survive this wedding and actually be too busy as a wife and mother to see my own brothers brought a smile to my face that temporarily loosened the invisible gallows noose around my throat.

“I won’t miss your graduation,” I said.

He glanced at the floor. “That’s in two years.”

“Then I’ll come to your recitals.”

“Mother might not…”

I stormed forward. “Oh, she will let you continue learning piano or I will burn this house down.”

His eyes widened.

“Not really, Arch.”

“Oh, right.”

After a quick shove in the shoulder, I pulled him into a tight hug. He hugged back. It was the first time we’d really hugged in…a long time. Since we’d stopped pretending to ride the broom like it was a horse.

His arms loosened, and we stepped apart, awkwardly clearing our throats and wiping away tears. Archer was already taller than me.

“Stop growing, or Mother might think you have grandmother’s blood in there somewhere.”

His smile faltered. “Da was tall.”

“Arch, you do realize that even if you turn out to have some sliver of Nan’s blood, you’ll still be the same person?”

Archer and Danny had never shown any signs of having magic, to my mother’s great delight. At nine, it wasn’t unheard of that Danny might still manifest an affinity, but he’d never shown a single early sign of possessing magic. But Archer, at sixteen, was quickly aging out. The oldest documented age of an affinity showing up was seventeen, but that was rare, and Archer had never experienced any strange bursts of magical ability, the way I did. No, Mother only had to worry about one of her children turning out to have her mother-in-law’s wicked mind magic.

“What if you turn out to have her magic?” Archer asked.

I moved like I was about to shove my elbow into his stomach. He braced with his palms out to block me and then chuckled.

“Then I’ll die today when that ring of fire descends onto my head.”

Archer’s bright face collapsed into a tight frown. “Don’t say that.”

Outside, Danny yelled from the carriage to hurry up. With a sigh, I walked past Archer toward the still open door.

“Such is life for the Mystery Quarter,” I muttered, using one of the nicknames my schoolmates had thrown at me over the years. Quarter mages were rare; magic usually manifested powerfully, both in full-blooded mages and in half-mages. For magic to be fitful, passive, and unidentifiable by the Guilds was like having an incurable illness, and people feared it would contaminate them should they get too near. Being magicless was far superior to being occasionally magical.


I spun back to face my brother. He seemed entirely too old in that moment.

“If I’m not a fire mage, then we all know what I am,” I muttered.

My brother’s face paled, and it looked like a boy’s face again despite his stature. “You are a fire mage. So what if your magic is spotty? You’re a quarter, not a full.” He hesitated, then added, “You don’t have to marry him.”

I wanted him to be right about my magic, that it would come through for me on the day I needed it most. I didn’t want to die today, and though I could acknowledge that I might die, I could no more believe that I would than I could believe my arms were wings.

I nodded, trying to encourage him, but my stomach felt hollow as the next words fell from my mouth. “It’s just the next prison, Arch. It won’t be that different.”

Before he could reply, I stepped outside into the blinding sunlight.