Steel’s Edge

The Edge lies between worlds, on the border between the Broken, where people shop at Wal-Mart and magic is a fairy tale—and the Weird, where blueblood aristocrats rule, changelings roam, and the strength of your magic can change your destiny…

Charlotte de Ney is as noble as they come, a blueblood straight out of the Weird. But even though she possesses rare magical healing abilities, her life has brought her nothing but pain. After her marriage crumbles, she flees to the Edge to build a new home for herself. Until Richard Mar is brought to her for treatment, and Charlotte’s life is turned upside down once again.

Richard is a swordsman without peer, future head of his large and rambunctious Edger clan—and he’s on a clandestine quest to wipe out slavers trafficking humans in the Weird. So when his presence leads his very dangerous enemies to Charlotte, she vows to help Richard destroy them. The slavers’ operation, however, goes deeper than Richard knows, and even working together, Charlotte and Richard may not survive…

Available November 27, 2012.

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PROLOGUE

“MY lady?”

Charlotte looked up from her cup of tea at Laisa. The young girl held an envelope of thick, heavy paper.

“This came for you.”

A sudden pain pierced Charlotte’s chest, as if something vital had broken inside her. She felt cold and jittery. It was bad news. If it were good news, she would’ve gotten a scryer call. She felt the urge to squeeze and crumple her blond hair in her fingers. She hadn’t done that since she was a child.

“Thank you,” she made herself say.

The maid lingered, concern stamped on her face. “Can I get you anything, my lady?”

Charlotte shook her head.

Laisa studied her for a long moment, reluctantly crossed the balcony to the door, and went inside.

The envelope lay in front of Charlotte. She forced herself to raise her cup of tea to her lips. The rim of the cup shuddered. Her fingers were shaking.

She focused on that rim, calling on years of practicing control over her emotions. Calm and collected, that was the mantra of the healer. An effective healer is neither callous, nor tenderhearted, her memory whispered in her mind. She doesn’t permit herself to succumb to passion or despair, and she never allows her craft to be compromised by her emotions.

She had lived by this creed for twenty years. It never failed her.

Calm above all things.

Calm.

Charlotte took a deep breath, counting each rise and fall of her chest. One, two, three, four . . . ten. The cup in her hands was motionless. Charlotte drank from it, set it down, and tore the envelope open. Her fingertips had gone numb.

The ornate seal of the Adrianglian Academy of Physicians marked the top of the paper. We regret to inform you . . .

Charlotte forced herself to read it, every last word, then stared past the white stone rail of the balcony at the garden below. Down there, a sand- colored brick path ran to the distant trees. Short silvery grass trailed the path on both sides, flanked by a row of low emerald hedges, beyond which flowers bloomed: roses in a dozen shades, their heavy blossoms perfect; constellation shrubs with bunches of star-shaped flowers in crimson, pink, and white; yellow knight spears, their delicate flowerets shaped like tiny bells . . .

She would not be blooming. She would not bear fruit.

The last door had slammed in her face. Charlotte hugged herself. She was barren.

The word pressed on her, like a crushing physical weight, a heavy anchor around her neck. She would never feel a life grow inside her. She would never pass on her gift or see the shadow of her features in her baby’s face. The treatments and magic of the best healers in Adrianglia had failed. The irony was so thick, she laughed, a bitter brittle sound.

In the country of Adrianglia, two things mattered most: one’s name and one’s magic. Her family was neither old nor wealthy, and her name was ordinary. Her magic was anything but. At four years old she had healed an injured kitten, and her life took a sharp turn in an unexpected direction.

Medical talents were rare and highly prized by the realm, so rare that when she was seven, Adrianglia came for her.

Her parents explained the situation: she would leave them to study at the Ganer College of Medicinal Arts. Adrianglia would house her, teach her, nurture her magic, and in return upon completion of her education, Charlotte would give the realm ten years of civil service. At the end of that decade, she would be granted a noble title, making her one of the coveted elite, and a small estate. Her parents, in turn, would receive a lump sum of money to soothe their grief at losing a child.

Even at that age, she realized she had been sold. Three months later, she left for the College and never returned.

At ten she was a child wonder; at fourteen, a rising star; and at seventeen, when her service officially began, Charlotte was the best the College had to offer. They called her the Healer and guarded her like a treasure. In anticipation of assuming her title, she had received instruction from the best tutors. Lady Augustine, whose bloodline stretched back through the centuries all the way to the Old Continent, had personally overseen her education, ensuring that Charlotte entered the Adrianglian society as if she had always belonged within it. Her poise was flawless, her taste refined, her behavior exemplary. By the time she emerged from the College, now Charlotte de Ney, Baroness of Ney and the owner of a small estate, she had healed thousands.

But she could never heal herself.

Neither could anyone else. After eighteen months of treatments, experts, and magic, she held the final verdict in her hand. She was barren.

Barren. Like a desert. Like a wasteland.

Why her? Why couldn’t she have a baby? She’d healed countless children, pulling them from the brink of death and returning them to their parents, but the little nursery she had set up next to their bedroom would remain empty.

Hadn’t she earned this little bit of happiness? What had she done that was so horrible that she couldn’t have a baby?

A sob broke from her. Charlotte caught herself and rose.

No hysterics. Elvei would have to be told. He would be crushed. Children meant so much to her husband.

She took the stairs down to the path leading to the northern patio. The old house sprawled in the garden like a lazy white beast, a seemingly random three- story- high collection of rooms, patios, balconies, and stone stairways. The northern patio was on the opposite side of the manor, and she required a few minutes to compose herself. Her husband would need her support. Poor Elvei.

She had just been settling into her new life when Elvei Leremine came to her with a proposal. She was twenty- eight at the time, barely a year out of the College, and lonely. The life of a Healer didn’t leave much time for romantic pursuits.

The idea of being married and sharing her life with another human being suddenly seemed so appealing. Baron Leremine was considerate, gracious, and attractive. He wanted a family, and so did she. When a year had passed with no children, she underwent an examination, taking the first step on the grueling eighteen- month journey.

She wanted a baby. She would surround her child with love and warmth and her son or daughter would never have to worry about being ripped out of her arms because even if her talent passed to her baby, she would go to the College with them. Charlotte stopped for a moment and squeezed her eyes shut. There would be no baby.

A week ago, the months of treatments, tests, and waiting had caught up with her. She felt alone, desperate, and terrified of the future, just as she had when she was seven years old and walking through the massive stone gates of the Ganer College for the first time. And so she sought out the same person who had comforted her then, the woman who became her mother after her natural parents surrendered her. She had gone back to Ganer College to speak with Lady Augustine.

They had walked through the gardens together, just like she was doing now, drifting along the curved stone paths, the College’s forbidding stone walls behind them. Lady Augustine hadn’t changed much. Dark- haired, graceful, her face classically beautiful, she didn’t walk, she glided. Her demeanor was still regal, her features were elegant, and her magic, which could soothe the most violent psychotic in a breath, still as potent as ever.

“Do you think this is a punishment?” Charlotte had asked.

The Lady arched her eyebrows. “Punishment? For what?”

Charlotte clenched her jaw.

“You can tell me anything,” Lady Augustine murmured. “I won’t betray your confidence, sweetheart. You know this.”

“I carry something dark in me. Something vicious. Sometimes I feel an edge of it, looking through my eyes from inside me.”

“You feel the urge?” the older woman said.

Charlotte nodded. The urge was a constant specter hanging over every healer. They could knit together devastating wounds and purge diseases, but they could also harm. Using the destructive side of their magic was forbidden. Do no harm was the opening statement of the healer’s oath. It was the first words of the first lesson she had received, and over the years she had heard it said countless times. Harming was seductive. Those who tried it became addicted and lost themselves to it.

“Is it growing stronger?” Lady Augustine asked.

Charlotte nodded.

“Pardon you for being human.”

What? Charlotte glanced at the older woman.

A mournful smile curved Lady Augustine’s lips. “My dear, do you think you’re the first to have these thoughts? Our talents provide us with the means both to heal and to harm. It’s in our nature to do both, yet we’re asked to shut half of ourselves off and heal for years and years. This creates an imbalance. Do you think I haven’t imagined what I could do if I unleashed my power? I could walk into a room full of diplomats and plunge the country into war. I could incite riots. I could drive people to murder.”

Charlotte stared at her. Of all people, her adoptive mother was the last person she would imagine having those thoughts.

“What you feel is normal. It’s not a cause for punishment. You’re under a lot of stress, and your body and mind are on the defensive. You put yourself under so much pressure, and that makes you vulnerable. You want to lash out, but Charlotte, you must keep your magic under control.”

“What if I stumble?” Charlotte asked.

“There is no such thing as stumbling. You are a healer or you’re an abomination.”

Charlotte winced.

“I have faith in you. You know what the consequences are.” She knew. Every healer knew about the consequences.

Those who harmed turned into plaguebringers, slaves to their own magic, existing only to deliver death and disease.

Centuries ago on the Old Continent, an attempt was made to use the plaguebringers as a weapon during a war. Two of the healers had walked out onto the battlefield and let themselves go. Neither army survived, and the plague they unleashed raged for months and smothered entire kingdoms.

Lady Augustine sighed. “The realm takes us from our families so young because they seek to indoctrinate us. Even with this careful upbringing, they ask for only ten years of service because what we do wears us out. We give so much of ourselves. We’re the last hope of so many people, and we’re exposed to horrible things: wounds of violence, dying children, families torn by grief. It’s a heavy burden to bear, and it has an effect on you, on me, on all of us. To feel the destructive urges is natural, Charlotte. But acting on them will make you a murderer. Perhaps not right away. Perhaps you can even control it for a time, but in the end, the magic will consume you, and you will walk through the land spreading death. There are no exceptions to this rule. Do not become an abomination, Charlotte.”

“I won’t.” She would contain the darkness. She had to—she simply had no choice.

They walked in silence for a few moments.

“Let us imagine the worst,” Lady Augustine said. “You’re infertile.”

Charlotte’s heart had skipped a beat. “Yes.”

“It doesn’t mean you have to be childless. There are hundreds of children waiting to be loved. You can’t give birth, Charlotte. That’s only a small part of being a parent. You can still be a mother and know all the joys and tortures of raising a child. We get too hung up on bloodlines and family names and our own stupid notions of aristocracy. If someone dropped a basket with a baby on your doorstep, would you really hesitate to pick it up because the baby wasn’t of your blood? It’s a baby, a tiny life just waiting to be nurtured. Think on it.”

“I don’t have to. I would take the baby,” Charlotte said.

She would take it and love it. Whether she carried it to term didn’t matter.

“Of course you would. You are my daughter in everything but blood, and I know you. I think you’ll make an excellent mother.”

Tears warmed the back of her eyes. Charlotte kept them in check. “Thank you.”

“What does your husband think of all of this?”

“Children are very important to him. His inheritance depends on producing an heir.”

The older woman rolled her eyes. “Conditional succession? Oh the joys of having a noble bloodline and a little bit of money. Is this some new development? I don’t recall this being a condition of your marital contract.”

Charlotte sighed. “It wasn’t.”

“Did he mention at any point before your wedding that he required an heir?”

Charlotte shook her head.

Lady Augustine’s face iced over. “I do not appreciate being lied to. When did you find out?”

“When we realized there was a problem with conception.”

“This was a conversation the two of you should’ve had before either of you signed your name to the contract. Not only that, but it should’ve been formally disclosed.”She looked into the distance, the way she did when she was trying to recall things. “How could I have been so wrong? He seemed like such a solid match, a temperate man. Unlikely to cause any problems.”

A temperate man? “What does that mean?”

“Charlotte, you need someone steady, someone depend-able, who will treat you with consideration. You’ve done over a decade’s worth of healing, and your magic is starved and tired of doing the same thing over and over. It doesn’t take much to upset this apple cart. That’s why I remained here.” Lady Augustine indicated the garden with an elegant sweep of her hand. “Serenity, beauty, and a low likelihood of psychological or physical trauma. That’s why after a bloody war, some veterans become monks.”

So what, she was somehow too fragile to live her life outside of College walls? Charlotte gritted her teeth. “Perhaps Elvei didn’t know about the conditions for succession.”

“Oh no, he knew. We grow up knowing, Charlotte. He deliberately hid it because I would’ve never given my consent to your wedding.”

Charlotte raised her head. “If he made that a requirement of the marriage contract, I wouldn’t have married him. I didn’t want to enter into a contract to produce a baby. I wanted a marriage, and I think he did, too.”

“He wanted children with a healing talent,” the older woman said.

Charlotte stopped.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Lady Augustine said. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was coarse of me. I’m so furious, and it’s clouding my judgment. It’s my fault. This was exactly the sort of thing I was trying to avoid, and I’ve failed you. I’m so, so sorry.”

“I’m not a child,” Charlotte said. “I’m almost thirty, and I’m responsible for my marriage.”

“You’re educated, but Ganer College hasn’t prepared you for the realities of the world outside these walls. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you don’t have the experience of interacting with people outside a controlled environment. You’ve never been betrayed, hurt, or tricked. You’ve never suffered humiliation. I look into people’s souls every day, and what I see there feels me with joy, but also with dread. I wanted so much to spare you.”

She was talking as if the end of her marriage was a foregone conclusion. “My marriage isn’t over, and Elvei isn’t some sort of callous villain. So he didn’t tell me about his succession. It’s a rather regrettable oversight, but we will deal with it. I understand that love doesn’t happen overnight, but I think he cares for me, and I care for him, deeply. We’ve lived together for almost three years. We wake up in the same bed. He told me he loved me when I began the fertility treatments.”

Lady Augustine studied her. “Perhaps you’re right, and he simply loves you. If he truly cares for you, he’ll deal with it.”

They took another step. The mix of worry and anxiety roiled inside Charlotte. Heat rose behind her eyes, and she clamped her hand over her mouth.

Lady Augustine opened her arms.

Charlotte’s last defenses snapped. She stepped into the welcoming embrace and cried.

“My sweetheart, my precious one. It will be all right,” Lady Augustine soothed, holding her. “It will be all right.

Let it all out.”

But it wasn’t all right, and now Charlotte had to tell Elvei about it.

What they said about coming to love a person you live with was true: she had come to love him. He was always kind to her, and she could use some of that kindness now.

She felt weak and helpless. So helpless.

The path brought her to the northern patio. Her husband sat in a chair, drinking his morning tea and peering over papers. Of average height and muscular build, Elvei was handsome in that particular aristocratic blueblood way: precise features, carved with a perfection that seemed a touch distant, square jaw, narrow nose, blue eyes, brown hair with a hint of red. When she woke up next to him, with the morning light playing on his face, she often thought he was beautiful.

Charlotte came up the steps. Elvei rose and held out a chair for her. She sat and passed him the letter.

He read it, impassive, his pleasant face calm. She had expected more of a reaction.

“This is unfortunate,” Elvei said.

That’s it? Unfortunate? Her instincts told her something was seriously wrong with that placid expression on his face.

“I truly care for you,” Elvei said. “Very deeply.” He reached over the table and took her hand in his. “Being married to you is effortless, Charlotte. I have nothing but admiration for what you do and who you are.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. The logical part of her knew she had nothing to do with her infertility. She didn’t cause it, and she had done everything in her power to fix it. She wanted a baby as much as Elvei. But she felt guilty all the same.

“Please don’t be.” He leaned back. “It’s not your fault or mine. It’s just an accident of fate.”

He was so calm, almost cavalier about it. It would’ve been better if he cursed or threw something. He sat still in his chair, but every word he said was a small step back, increasing the distance between them. “We can adopt,” she said, hopeful.

“I’m sure you could.”

Alarm blared in her head. “You said ‘you.’ Not ‘we.’ ” He pushed a piece of paper across the table to her. “I thought that things might turn out this way, so I took the liberty of preparing this.”

She glanced at the paper. “Annulment?” Her composure shattered. He might as well have stabbed her. “After two and a half years, you want to annul our marriage? Are you out of your mind?”

Elvei grimaced. “We’ve been over this before: I have three years from the beginning of marriage to produce an heir. My brother is engaged, Charlotte. I told you about that two months ago. He’ll have three years to produce a child. If I divorce you and remarry, I’ll have six months before becoming ineligible to inherit. You can’t make a baby in six months. I need an annulment, so my three years can restart, or Kalin will get there before me. He still might, all things considered, as marriage takes time . . .”

This wasn’t happening. “So you’re just going to pretend that everything we shared in these years doesn’t exist and discard me? Like trash?”

He sighed. “I told you, I have a great deal of admiration for you. But the purpose of this marriage was to have a family.”

“We are a family. You and I.”

“That’s not the kind of family I require. I can’t lose the manor, Charlotte.”

She was cold and hot at the same time, all hurt and anger iced over by shock. “Is it money? You do realize that I can make us as much money as we need.”

He sighed. “You’re so flawless most of the time that occasionally I forget you’re not a blueblood by birth. No, of course, it’s not the money. Whoever owns the manor rules the family. It’s my inheritance; I was born first, I studied most of my life to take care of our family interests, and I won’t let it slip away.”

“It’s just a bloody house!” Her voice snapped.

Elvei’s composure melted, the polite veneer sliding off him. His voice rose. “It’s my childhood home. My family goes back sixteen generations. Do you expect me to just let my idiot brother get it while you and I pretend to play house here, in this decrepit ruin? No, thanks. I have higher ambitions in life.”

The words burned. “Is that what we were doing?” she asked quietly. “When you and I made love in our bedroom, we were playing house?”

“Don’t be melodramatic. We both enjoyed it, but now we’re done.”

The outrage swelled in her, mixing with hurt. Last night he’d kissed her before they fell asleep next to each other.

This was the man she woke up to every morning? “Elvei, you realize, you’re telling me that I have no value to you except as a broodmare?”

“Don’t make me the villain in this.” Elvei leaned back.

“I’ve gone with you to all the tests and treatments. I listened patiently while you got excited over this specialist and that, I sat in the waiting rooms, and I gave it as much time as I could. There are no more treatments left. I just want to have a child, like any normal healthy adult.”

Every time she thought she had reached the limit of hurt, he twisted the knife a little more, digging deeper and deeper inside her, cutting at a raw wound.

“So I’m abnormal?”

He spread his arms. “Can you conceive? No. You are defective, Charlotte.”

Defective. He actually called her defective. The pain inside her began to smolder with rage. “I’m curious, what’s the next word you’ll reach for? How cruel will you be, Elvei?”

“You cost me two and a half years.”

Two and a half years of disappointment, of painful procedures and shattered hopes, of feeling like she was crippled, but no, it was all about him. She would never have a child of her own, but he only saw himself as the injured party. She should’ve seen this in him. She should’ve known.

How could she have been so stupid? “You’re a terrible human being.”

He surged to his feet and leaned over the table. “Had I married someone else, I would’ve inherited by now. I tried to end this with as much civility as possible, but you’ve decided to cause a scene. I need an heir, Charlotte, and you can’t give me one. What’s so complicated about this? I’m done letting you waste my time.”

“You told me you loved me.” She still remembered how his face had looked when he said it.

“You needed encouragement to begin the therapy. Dear gods, Charlotte, are you really that naive or are you just stupid?”

The words slapped her. The darkness inside her shivered, stretching, getting ready to escape. She clenched herself around it, trying to hold it back.

“Let me spell it out: I married you because of your healing, which you could pass on to our children, and your poise. You are attractive and educated, and I knew that you would never embarrass me in public. Other than that, there wasn’t much to recommend you.”

The air turned thick and scalding like boiling glue. She couldn’t breathe.

“You’ve been a blueblood for less than three years. My family came to this continent on the Second Fleet, and they were already titled.”

The darkness writhed inside her, begging to be released.

“My father is an earl; my mother was a baroness prior to their union. Your father is a cook and your mother is a waitress. In what world could you possibly think that you were in any way equal to me? I granted you a favor. I flattered you by my proposal, Charlotte, and you fell short. Accept it with dignity. I believe an apology is in order.”

He’d pushed the blade so far into the wound that he reached the darkness she hid deep inside. Her defenses burst. The darkness slithered out, coating her skin from the inside out.

“You’re right. You will sit down now and apologize to me.” Menace suffused her voice.

He stared at her. “You’re hardly in a position to give me orders.”

Her magic slid out of her and wrapped over her arms, curving around her body in rivulets of black backlit with deep, intense red. She had never seen it red before. The pale gold of healing, yes, hundreds of times. But this dark, furious black and red? No. So this is what the magic of an abomination looks like.

“I can blight your entire family, you moron. I am the Healer. Pick a plague, and your sixteen generations will end right now.”

Elvei’s mouth gaped. “You wouldn’t.”

The magic lashed out from her like a striking serpent and bit him. Elvei jerked, his face puzzled. She felt her magic sting him, cutting at the lining of his throat, and a rush of unexpected pleasure flooded her. Oh gods. Fear shot through Charlotte. She jerked the dark current back, pulling her power into herself. She’d let it have just a merest taste, a tiny bite, but it wanted more, and she had to strain to keep it contained.

Elvei coughed, harder and harder, clamping his hand over his mouth. Blood dripped from between his fingers, staining his skin with bright, hot scarlet.

He froze in his seat.

She realized she hated him, and hurting him made her happy. Power coursed through her, grim but exhilarating.

Her magic begged for more.

No. She couldn’t let it.

“Sit.”

He dropped into the chair.

“You’ll have your annulment,” she said. “However, you have lived here all this time, and since you don’t wish to be treated as my husband, I will treat you as my boarder. You’ll reimburse me for rent, food, clothing, gifts, and the services of my staff. You came into this sham marriage with nothing, and you will leave with nothing.” It was a small price to pay, but she couldn’t just let him walk away free and clear. Her anger wouldn’t let her. She had to have a nominal compensation. If she didn’t, her magic would exact its own price.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

“I’m not interested in your financial troubles,” she said.

“I financially supported you all these years, and you don’t get to take advantage of me. I’ll have my lawyer draft an invoice, and you will pay it in full, or I will force you to make a much more public apology.”

All blood left his face. “You’ll have your money.”

“Send it to the Dawn Mother charity.” The money would go to heal children. Some good would come from this nightmare.

Her magic begged to have another tiny nip of him. Charlotte clenched her power in her fist and kept it contained.

“Apologize to me for being a heartless bastard.”

“I apologize,” he said, his voice wooden.

Charlotte concentrated. Magic coated her arm, the radiant golden hue of healing. “Give me your hand.” He stretched his hand over the table. His fingers trembled.

She locked her fingers on his wrist, fighting revulsion. They had awakened in the same bed this morning. She’d lain there, thinking that he was handsome and that she would’ve liked to have his children, while he must’ve been going over the conditions of annulment in his head. The document had been drafted by a lawyer, which took time. Elvei must’ve begun the preparations for this moment days ago. Her mind struggled to accept that he could be that cold.

She forced the thoughts away and concentrated on repairing the lacerations in the lining of his throat that she’d made.

A moment, and his internal wounds closed. She released him and wiped her hand on the tablecloth.

“You may go. Your things will be sent to you when the charity informs me that your payment has been received.”

He jumped to his feet and ran out.

She sat there, alone, on the patio of a house that no longer felt like home and wondered what she would do next. The dark current of power coiled and twisted around her. She felt its hunger, beckoning her. It wanted to be fed.

Finally, all the endless lessons and instructions made sense. Her teachers had said that using the healing gift to harm was addicting, but they neglected to mention why.

Hurting her ex-husband had brought her pleasure. She wanted to do it again.

Do not become an abomination, Charlotte.

There were no exceptions to the rule. The dark magic would resurface, and the joy it brought would consume her.

She’d follow its dark lure into the unthinking abyss where only the next moment of pain- induced euphoria would matter. She was a ticking bomb. She had to contain her powers at any cost.

Charlotte slumped against the chair. She had few options.

She could go back to Ganer College and hide away from the world. No, returning to the College where everyone knew her and her marriage was out of the question. Their pity would drive her over the edge.

She could remain in the manor and live in seclusion and hope that isolation would reduce the temptation to use the dark side of her magic, but she didn’t want to be Charlotte de Ney either. Lady de Ney was a stupid, naive girl who was blinded by a handsome face and the promise of a happy tomorrow. She had thought that after the years of training and service, she deserved to be loved for who she was, as if love was some sort of a right. If she stayed here, she would have to face her neighbors and friends and explain why her marriage had been annulled. No, that wouldn’t be a good idea either, especially since Elvei would be moving in the same circles, hunting for a new wife.

At the memory of Elvei, the magic surged inside her.

Charlotte hugged herself. Injuring him felt so good. She could imagine making him sick. Maybe just a little bit.

Nothing drastic. She knew where he lived before their marriage. He still owned that house and would likely return there. And if he married, she might make his happy blushing bride just a little less vivacious. The thought of it would gnaw at her until it consumed her, then she would do it. It was wrong and evil. She knew it, but she was so worn down and her emotional wounds were too raw. She wasn’t sure how long she could hold out. She had to disappear someplace away from bluebloods, Adrianglia, and Elvei.

Her memory served up a half- forgotten incident from many years ago when she had been called to heal a group of soldiers. She recalled feeling a strong magic boundary, an invisible wall that seemed to sever their world, and watching the soldiers come through it, one by one, their faces twisted by pain. She spoke to one of them while sealing his wounds. He told her they belonged to the Mirror, a secret counterespionage agency. They had been traveling outside their world, the man had said, in a place where magic was weak. He called it the Edge. The man had been delirious, and she would’ve dismissed him if she hadn’t sensed the invisible wall rising like a barrier of pressurized magic.

In this Edge, a place of weak magic, the pull of the darkness might be weaker too, so even if it managed to get the upper hand, she would do less harm.

The real question was, could she find it?

***

ÉLÉONORE Drayton leaned back in her rocking chair and sipped the iced tea from a tall glass shaped like the center of a daffodil. The spring sun warmed the porch. Éléonore smiled, cozy in all of the layers of her torn clothes. She had been feeling every single one of her 109 years lately, and the heat felt so nice.

Beyond the lawn, a road ran into the distance, and on the other side, the Edge woods rose, dense, nourished by magic.

The air smelled of fresh leaves and spring flowers.

Next to her, Melanie Dove, herself no spring chicken, raised her glass to the light and squinted at it. The sun caught a thin gold thread spiraling inside the glass walls. “Nice glasses. They from the Weird?”

“Mhhm. Keeps the tea cold with magic.” The glasses worked even here, in the Edge, where the magic wasn’t as strong. It didn’t keep the ice from melting indefinitely as the note with it promised, but it lasted a good five to six hours, and, really, who couldn’t drink a glass of tea in five hours?

“The grandkids got it for you?”

Éléonore nodded. The glasses came by a special courier, straight from Adrianglia in a box with Earl Camarine’s seal on it, the latest in the stream of presents. Rose, the oldest of her grandchildren, had picked them out and written a nice note.

“When are you going to move there?”

Éléonore raised her eyebrows. “Trying to get rid of me?”

“Please.” The other witch shook her gray head. “Your granddaughter married a loaded blueblood noble, your grandsons have been after you for months to move, but you sit here like a chicken on a compost heap. In your place, I’d be gone.”

“They have their own lives, I have mine. What am I going to do there? The boys are in school all day. George is thirteen, Jack’s eleven, and Rose has her own marriage to worry about. I don’t even have a place of my own there. Here I have two houses.”

“Earl Camarine will buy you a house. He lives in a castle, woman.”

“I’ve never taken anyone’s charity, and I’m not about to start now.”

“Well, in your place, I would go.”

“Well, you’re not in my place, are you?” Éléonore smiled into her tea. They had been friends for fifty years, and for the entire half century, Melanie had been telling anyone and everyone what they should have done with their lives. Age only made her more blunt, and she wasn’t all that subtle to begin with.

Truth was, she missed them. Rose, George, and Jack, she missed her grandbabies so badly, her chest ached sometimes at the memories. But she didn’t belong in the Weird, Éléonore reflected. She’d gone to visit and would likely go again, but it didn’t feel like home. The magic was stronger, and she’d probably live longer, but here in the Edge, in a space between the Weird with all its magic and the Broken with none of it, was her true place. She was a Drayton and an Edger, through and through. She understood this small town; she knew all of her neighbors, their kids, and their grandkids. And she had power too. A certain respect. When she threatened to curse someone, people stood up and listened. In the Weird, she’d just be a stone around Rose’s neck.

It is inevitable, she reassured herself. Children leave the nest. Everything is as it should be.

A truck rumbled past the yard, Sandra Wicks at the wheel, her bleached blond hair a teased mess.

“Hussy,” Melanie said under her breath.

“Yep.”

Sandra waved at them through the window. Both witches smiled and waved back.

“So did you hear about her ‘friend’ near Macon?” Éléonore asked.

“Mhm. The moment her husband leaves, she hightails it through the boundary into the Broken. It’s a wonder her magic still works, as much time as she spends there. Someone ought to clue Michael in.”

“Stay out of it,” Éléonore told her. “It’s none of your business.”

Melanie grimaced. “When I was her age . . .”

“When you were her age, they thought wearing a camisole instead of a corset was risqué.” Melanie pursed her lips. “I’ll have you know, I wore a slip.”

“Well, aren’t you a rebel.”

“It was made of rayon, too.”

A woman stumbled around the bend of the road. She walked unsteadily, swaying as she put one foot in front of the other, her blond hair rolled up on her head, her face smudged with dirt.

“Who the hell is that?” Melanie set her glass down.

Between the two of them, they knew the entire population of East Laporte, and Éléonore was dead sure she’d never seen this woman before. Woolen clothes, Weird cut. Anybody from the Broken would be in jeans or khakis, shoes with heels or sneakers. She wore boots, and she was walking funny.

The woman swayed and fell down on the side of road.

Éléonore rose.

“Don’t,” Melanie hissed. “You don’t know what she is.”

“ Half- dead, that’s what she is.”

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

“You have a bad feeling about everything.” Éléonore stepped off her porch and hurried down the road.

“You’ll be the death of me,” Melanie muttered, and followed her. The woman slowly turned and sat up. She was tall, but thin, not naturally either. Starved, Éléonore realized. Not a teenager, a woman, around thirty or so. Still a girl by Éléonore’s standards.

“Are you all right, dear?” Éléonore called.

The woman looked at her. Yes, definitely from the Weird and from means, too: the face was pretty and unlined, no doubt well taken care of at some point, but now haggard, sharpened by the lack of food, and stained with dirt.

“I’ve been shot,” she said, her voice quiet.

Mon Dieu. “Where?”

“Right thigh. It’s a flesh wound. Please.” The woman looked at her, and Éléonore read desperation in her gray eyes. “I just want some water.”

“Éléonore, don’t you dare take her into your house.”

Rose was many miles away, and this girl in the dirt didn’t look anything like her, but somehow there were shadows of her granddaughter in the stranger’s face. Éléonore grasped the girl’s hands. “Try to get up.”

“This will end in tears,” Melanie grabbed the girl’s other arm. “Come on. Lean on me.”

The woman pushed herself upright and gasped, a small, painful sound. For a tall girl, she weighed near nothing.

They got her up the steps, one tiny step at a time, inside, and onto the spare bed. Éléonore pulled her woolen trousers aside. A small red bullet wound gaped in her thigh.

“Melanie, get the first- aid kit.”

“I am, I am.” The witch went into the kitchen

“Is the bullet out?” Éléonore asked.

The girl nodded.

“How did you get shot?”

“There was a boy . . .” Her voice was weak. “With a broken arm. I tried to heal the break, and his father shot me.” Surprise and outrage vibrated in her voice.

Healing magic was really rare, almost unheard of.

Éléonore frowned. What in the world was she doing here in the Edge?

Melanie popped in the doorway with a first- aid kit. “If you can heal, why don’t you fix the hole in your leg?”

“Can’t heal myself,” the girl told her.

“I think you’re lying,” Melanie said, passing the kit over.

The girl raised her hand. Her fingers brushed Melanie’s age- stained arm. A faint stream of golden sparks flared from her fingers, sinking into Melanie’s skin. The dark liver spots melted.

Éléonore gasped. Melanie stood frozen.

The girl smiled, a sad, sagging curving of lips. “Can I please have some water?”

Her leg was still bleeding.

“Get her some water, Melanie.”

“What am I, a servant?” Melanie went into the kitchen.

Éléonore unscrewed a bottle of rubbing alcohol, poured some on the gauze from the kit, and pressed it to the wound.

The girl jerked.

“You’re from the Weird, aren’t you? What are you doing here in the Edge?”

“I had to leave,” the girl said. “I had a horse and money.

Somebody stole it. I tried to earn more, but nobody will let me heal them. I tried to help this man’s child, and he shot me. He shot me! What kind of insane place is this?”

“That’s the Edge for you.” Éléonore squeezed some Neosporin from a tube onto the wound. “We don’t take kindly to outsiders.”

Melanie reappeared with a cup. The girl drank in big, thirsty swallows. “Thank you.”

“Who shot you?” Melanie asked. “What did he look like?”

“Tall man, red hair . . .”

“Face like a weasel?” Melanie asked.

“More like a stoat,” the girl offered, her voice weak.

“Marvin,” Éléonore and Melanie said in one voice.

“He’s our resident paranoid nut,” Éléonore continued.

“The man can’t sit still in church because he’s scanning the ceiling for black helicopters.”

“What’s a helicopter?” the girl asked.

“It’s a big metal contraption with a propeller on top. The police in the Broken use them to fly around.”

“What’s the Broken?”

“Oh, boy.” Melanie sighed.

“The place you came from is called the Weird,” Éléonore said. “You passed through the boundary to get here, a magic barrier, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, now you’re in the Edge, between the worlds. On the other side of the Edge, there is another magic barrier, and past it there is another place, just like the Weird, except that world has no magic.”

“That’s why it’s called the Broken,” Melanie said. “If you go there, it strips the magic off of you.”

“What do you mean, it has no magic?” the woman asked.

Éléonore continued working on the wound. The bullet had entered the thickness of the girl’s outer thigh and exited two inches later. Barely more than a graze. Marvin couldn’t hit a herd of elephants if they were coming straight at him.

“What’s your name?”

“Charlotte.”

“You sleep now, Charlotte. Don’t worry. You’re safe. You can stay here until you feel better. Nobody will shoot you here, and we’ll have plenty of times to talk about the Broken and helicopters.”

“Thank you,” Charlotte whispered.

“You’re welcome, dear.”

The girl closed her eyes. Her breathing evened out.

Éléonore finished dressing the wound.

“Found yourself another bird with a broken wing,” Melanie said. “And you wonder where George gets it.”

“Look at her. How can you turn her away?” Her friend shook her head. “Oh Éléonore. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

***

IT was the evening of the next day. Éléonore sat on the porch of her house, drinking iced tea from the Weird glass and watching the Edge swallows glide back and forth, snacking on mosquitoes.

The screen door swung open behind her. Charlotte stepped out onto the porch, wrapped in the blanket. Her hair was a mess, and her face was still pale, but her eyes were clear.

“Feeling better?” Éléonore asked.

“Yes.”

“Come sit by me.”

The girl lowered herself in the chair carefully. That wound must’ve still hurt.

“How’s that leg?”

“It’s just a graze,” the girl said. “I’m sorry I went all to pieces. It was shock and dehydration more than anything.”

“Here.” Éléonore pushed the platter of cookies toward her. “You look like it’s been a while since you ate.”

Charlotte took a cookie. “Thank you for helping me. I don’t know how to repay you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Éléonore said. “Where are you from? In the Weird, I mean. What country?”

Charlotte paused for a second. “Adrianglia.”

“My granddaughter married a man from Adrianglia,” Éléonore told her. “Earl Camarine.”

“The Marshall of the Southern Provinces,” Charlotte said.

Maybe she knew Rose. “Exactly. Do you know him?”

“I’ve never met him,” Charlotte said. “I do know the family by reputation.”

She looked at the woods. Exhaustion showed on her face in a weary, slack mouth and dark circles under the sad eyes.

There was clearly a “past” there, Éléonore reflected. The girl didn’t seem like an escaped criminal. More like she was a victim, running from something, alone but determined.

She’d seen that precise look on her granddaughter’s face when Rose ran out of money or the boys came up with some unexpected emergency. It was a “Life kicked me again, but I’ll make it work” look.

“So where are you headed?” Éléonore asked.

“Nowhere in particular,” Charlotte said.

“Well, you’re in no shape to go anywhere.” Charlotte opened her mouth.

“No shape,” Éléonore said. “My granddaughter left a house behind. I meant to rent it out, but never found anyone trustworthy enough not to destroy the place. It’s full of cob-webs now, but if you’re not scared of soapy water and a broom, you should be able to put it back together. You can stay there for a while. And if you want to practice healing, we can do that, too. You just need a proper introduction to people. Things are done a certain way here.”

Charlotte was looking at her, her eyes wide, looking stunned. “Why? You don’t even know me. I could be a criminal.”

Éléonore sipped her tea. “When Earl Camarine first showed up in the Edge, I wasn’t happy with his arrival. My granddaughter is special, Charlotte. All grandmothers think their grandchildren are special, but Rose truly is. She is kind, smart, and determined. She practiced for years and taught herself to flash white, just like the best of the bluebloods.

And she is beautiful. Her mother died, and her father . . .” Éléonore grimaced.

“I didn’t make good choices during my life. I didn’t marry wisely, and I’ve managed to raise a son who ran out on his own children. John left Rose and her two brothers without a dollar to their name. At eighteen, Rose was a mother to two toddlers. She was stuck here in the Edge, working a dreadful job in the Broken, and trying to raise her brothers. I wanted so many wonderful things for her, and instead I watched her wither slowly, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. And then Declan Camarine came, and he promised her everything: that he would love her, and care for her, and take care of George and Jack. I warned her it was too good to be true, but she went with him anyway. Turned out that I was wrong. She lives like a princess now. Her husband loves her. They are talking about children, when the boys get older.”

A brief flash of pain reflected on Charlotte’s face. So that was it. She was running from a broken marriage or a dead child. You poor girl.

Éléonore smiled. “My granddaughter is happy, Charlotte.

She has everything I ever wanted for her. When she first left, I worried about her fitting in with the bluebloods, but her mother-in-law stepped right in and took her under her wing. I’m no duchess, but now I have an opportunity to do the same. I want to pay Providence back for the blessings of our family. We Draytons are many things: pirates, witches, rogues . . . but nobody ever accused us of being ungrateful. A family has to have standards. Even in the Edge. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need.”

ONE

THREE YEARS LATER

RICHARD Mar ran through the woods. The wound in his side wept dark blood, almost black. A bad sign. His liver was likely lacerated. Congratulations, he told himself. You’ve finally managed to get yourself killed and by an amateur, no less. Your family would be so proud if they knew.

In his defense, it hadn’t occurred to him that a man would conceive, conspire, and execute a plan of having his own sister raped by a scumbag just to lay a trap for him. Despite everything Richard had seen, that depth of human depravity had eluded him thus far. He’d thanked Jackal Tuline for correcting that oversight by separating his head from his body. Unfortunately Tuline had six accomplices, and while overall they demonstrated a remarkable lack of proper training, one of them had managed to run him through.

Tree trunks flashed by him, the huge Adrianglian pines straight like masts. His breath came in ragged, painful gasps. Hot pain chewed on his side, biting at the wound with every step.

A distant howl rolled through the forest. The slavers had hounds, and he was leaving a bloody trail. He was in quite a jam, and he saw no way out of it.

The trees swayed around him, turning fuzzy, then coming back into focus. His vision was failing. Richard shook himself and pushed forward. He had to get to the boundary.

Beyond the boundary lay the Edge. With the Weird’s woods stretching for many miles in every direction, the Edge was his only chance. Not that the Edgers would help him out of the goodness of their hearts. He had been born in the Edge and knew better than most that in the space between the worlds, it was every man for himself. But the Edgers, a paranoid and suspicious lot, owned guns and had itchy trigger fingers. They would see a group of armed slavers ride through their land and shoot at them as a matter of principle.

Dizziness seized him, tossing him against a tree trunk.

Richard grabbed the fragrant bark to steady himself, his fingers sticking to the sap, and willed the trees to stop spinning. Come on, get a grip. This is no way to die. At least he could go out in a flash of glory instead of bleeding out under some pine.

The forest melted into a gray, rain- drenched swamp.

Richard smelled the pungent aroma of the swamp herbs mixing with the stench of stagnant water. He’d know this scent anywhere— he’d grown up cloaked in it. He ran across the sluice of muddy soil to the clearing buttressed by the cypresses. Wide holes gaped in the ground like dark mouths.

He checked the first one and saw the body of a child, a pale thin form, floating facedown in two feet of brown water . . .

Richard shook his head, flinging the memory away. The woods reappeared. He was hallucinating. Splendid. He pushed from the trunk and kept moving.

In the distance, another dog howl rolled, more to the west. They must’ve broken into two groups. They were a cowardly lot, but they had a lot of practice chasing runaway slaves and were distressingly good at it.

The brush ended abruptly. He saw the ravine, but too late.

The carpet of needles shifted under his feet, the edge of the hill collapsed, and Richard rolled down the slope and crashed into a tree. His ribs crunched, and the pain clawed at his side.

The swamp mud squelched under his feet. A man rushed him, weaving between the holes, sword in hand, mouth gaping wide in a scream, his wet hair plastered to his skull by the rain. Richard slashed. The body fell apart before him.

Another slaver charged from the left. A second sweep of Richard’s sword, and the slaver’s head rolled off his shoulders and tumbled into the nearest hole. Red blood gushed from the stump of the neck, and splashed onto the sludge . . .

Reality slammed into Richard in a rush of agony. He gritted his teeth, rolled to all fours, clumsy like a baby learning how to walk, and forced himself upright. A familiar dull pressure pushed at his skin and insides. He took a step forward, and the wall of magic ground against his senses. The boundary. He couldn’t see it or smell it, but it pushed on him, as if an invisible hand pressed against his insides. He’d reached the Edge. Finally.

A big furry body sailed over the edge of the ravine. Richard spun about, unsheathing his sword. The sun caught the long, slender blade. The wolfripper dog landed on the slope and sprinted forward, 170 pounds of muscle sheathed in short, dense black fur. Richard leaned forward, closing his left hand on the small ultrasonic emitter in the sword’s pommel. A gift from his brother. Kaldar had bought or probably stolen the gadget on one of his excursions to the Broken, and it worked in the Weird. The slavers’ dogs hated it, and Richard used it often. He’d never been much for killing dogs.

They only did what their masters told them to do.

Three people cleared the top of the ravine. Two men, one thin to the point of being scrawny, the other wearing leathers and holding a dog leash, and a woman, tall, muscular, and with hard eyes. The slaver scouts. Hello there.

The dog was almost to him, running fast on massive paws, rugged, big- boned, bred to kill a pack of wolves and get home in one piece. Fifty feet. Thirty.

Richard squeezed the emitter. The sound, too high for human ears, lanced at the dog’s sensitive eardrums.

The beast halted.

“Get ’im!” the slaver with the leash yelled. “Get! Get!” The wolfripper bared big teeth.

Richard squeezed the emitter again, holding the switch for a few painful seconds.

The dog whined and trotted over to the side, circling behind him.

The scrawny slaver on the right of the dog handler swore and pulled a gun from his waistband. Slavers were opportunistic thugs— most of them had barely enough magic to be born in the Weird or the Edge but not enough to succeed at life. They evened the odds with cruelty and Broken contraband weapons, counting on the element of surprise.

The slaver pointed the gun at him. He was young, blond, and the way he held the weapon, sideways, made Richard’s head hurt.

“We need him alive, you moron,” the dog handler said.

“Dude, fuck that.” The black barrel stared in Richard’s face. “I’ll take him out right now.”

“Is he an apprentice?” Richard asked, bracing himself.

“What?” The woman stared at him.

“Is he a scumbag in training?” Richard glanced at the gunman. “At least have the decency to hold the gun properly, you fool. If you don’t know how, pass it to someone who does. I’m not going to suffer being shot at by anything less than a full- fledged lowlife.”

The shooter sputtered. “Screw you.”

The gun barked, the sound booming through the woods.

Richard flashed, panning his magic in a defensive screen.

Translucent white magic pulsed, forming a half sphere in front of him for a second, just long enough to knock the bullet aside. Even at full health, he couldn’t maintain the shield for longer than a moment, but with the right timing, it was enough. He used to flash blue, but being in the Weird had improved his magical strength.

The slaver spat another curse and fired, squeezing the trigger in a rapid rhythm. Boom, boom, boom.

Richard flashed, matching the cadence of shots a moment before they rang out. The white screen pulsed, deflecting the projectiles.

Boom, boom, boom.

A sharp yelp cut through the shots. The gun clicked. The man was out of ammunition.

Richard turned. The dog had fallen. The idiot had shot their own dog. That’s what happened when the destructive potential of a man’s weapons exceeded his intelligence.

“What the hell did you do that for?” The dog handler stared at the dog panting in pain on the grass. “You’re taking the heat for this one. There’s no way the fine’s coming out of my pocket.”

“Damn it.” The gunman shoved the gun back into his belt.

“Could’ve told you that,” the woman said. She was the tallest of the three and had the rawboned build of an experienced fighter. “Bullets aren’t going to hurt a blueblood.”

He wasn’t a blueblood. Far from it. Richard pondered the three slavers. “So far you’ve shot your own dog and wasted twelve bullets. Any other attempts to dazzle me with your superior fighting skills?”

“We have to go down there and get him,” the woman said.

The two slavers looked at him. Neither moved.

“No,” the dog handler said.

“It’s a bad idea,” the thug with the gun added.

“Oh, you whiny bitches.” The woman shook her head.

“Look at him, he’s fifteen years older than you and barely standing. He’ll probably bleed out before I get down there.” Richard let himself sway. It wasn’t exactly difficult in his current condition. He needed all three of them within striking distance because the trees were threatening to melt again.

“I’m going down there,” the woman said. “And just so you know, whatever bonus I get, I’m not sharing.” She started down the slope. The thug with the gun spat to the side and followed her. The dog handler looked at Richard for a long moment and descended after them.

The woman pulled a lean, long sword from her sheath.

The dog handler brandished an axe with a short handle. The third slaver pulled out a baton.

Richard fought to stay upright. A drop of blood dripped down from the saturated fabric of his doublet and fell onto the pine needles. Another . . .

The woman struck. She was tall and fast, with sure footing and a good reach. In the split second between reading the intent in her eyes and her body processing it, Richard released his magic. It stretched in a thin lethal line over his blade, coating its edge. He stepped forward, avoiding her lunge, and cut in a savage overhand stroke across her arm.

The flash- coated sword sliced through human sinew and bone like sharp scissors through tissue paper. The severed limb fell to the ground.

Before she managed to produce a scream, Richard buried his blade in the chest of the dog handler, piercing the heart, freed it with a tug, turned, and struck backward, sliding his blade along his side into the third slaver’s groin.

The woman finally screamed. He beheaded her with one sharp stroke, spun and finished the scrawny slaver with a single vicious cut to the throat.

Three bodies fell to the ground.

Richard’s head swam. His legs gave out. He dropped to one knee, thrusting the sword into the ground and holding on to it like a crutch. What should’ve taken three cuts had required five. “Simply embarrassing,” he whispered. Two red drops splashed onto the green leaves— his blood. The brush around him was stained with it— some of it his, some of it from the slavers.

The dog whined next to him. Richard focused and saw two brown eyes looking at him with a silent canine plea.

“I’m sorry, boy. I can’t help you.”

Richard forced himself up and staggered forward, to the boundary.

The magic enveloped him, crushing, squeezing, as if the air itself had grown heavy and viscous. His body screamed in protest, feeling a part of its magic being stripped away.

The Edge was his limit. He’d tried to enter the Broken once and nearly died. The very magic that made him good with his sword kept him anchored. It felt like he was dying now, but he would survive. He just had to keep going. One foot in front of the other.

A step.

Another step.

The magic licked his skin with a serrated tongue, and the pressure vanished. He was through.

The forest swayed around him, the trees sliding to the side. Richard stumbled forward. Cold slid along his skin.

His leg muscles trembled, struggling to support his weight.

Cotton clogged his ears, followed by a deep, overpowering nausea. He crashed, half-blind, through the brush.

The swamp clearing stretched before him. The slavers lay dead, delivered by his blade to the afterlife. He dashed from hole to hole. Dead children looked back at him with opaque eyes.

“Sophie! Sophie!”

“Here!” His niece’s voice sounded so weak.

“Where are you?” Holes filled with children slumped in the muddy water. He checked each one, sprinting back and forth in panic. A corpse. Another corpse. She was here, somewhere. He had to find her.

The world turned black. He ripped through the darkness by sheer will and saw the edge of a dirt road running through the woods, little more than two tire tracks with a strip of grass growing between them. He wasn’t sure if it was real or a remnant of some memory.

The blackness smothered him.

Richard clenched his teeth and crawled toward the road.

This was not the end. He wouldn’t be dying now. He had things to do.

The rain-drenched clearing with its cypresses swam into his view.

“Help me!” Sophie called.

He stumbled over the bodies of slavers, tracking her voice.

“Help me!”

I’m trying, he wanted to tell her. I’m trying, sweetheart.

Hold on. Wait for me.

The darkness stomped on the back of his head. The world vanished.

* * *

CHARLOTTE surveyed the groceries laid out on the island of her kitchen. Almost done. Only the big log of ground beef was left. She sliced it with a knife into five equal portions—

each one would be enough for a dinner for one with leftovers for lunch— and began wrapping them in plastic.

The first time she’d hired an Edger to bring her groceries from the Broken, the woman had delivered a big pack of ground beef. Charlotte had frozen the whole thing as it was, in the wrapper. Unfortunately, it turned out that once you defrosted the beef in the microwave, it wasn’t safe to refreeze it again. She ended up throwing half of the meat out. Lesson learned.

Cooking was just one of the things she had to learn in the Edge. At Ganer College, staff prepared her meals, and at her estate, she had employed a cook. Charlotte sighed at the memory. She’d never truly appreciated Colin until she had to fend for herself in the kitchen. Éléonore had given her a cookbook, and if Charlotte followed the recipes exactly, the result was passable, occasionally even tasty.

Decades spent learning to mix medicines ensured that she had good technique and paid attention, but if she didn’t have the exact ingredients on hand, trying to substitute things ended in complete disaster. A few weeks ago she watched Éléonore make banana bread. It was all “a handful of fl our” and “a dash of cinnamon” and “add mashed bananas until it looks right.” Charlotte had dutifully written everything down and when she’d tried to re-create the recipe, she ended up with a salty loaf- shaped rock.

She’d learned other lessons as well. Being humble. Living a simpler life. The dark magic inside her had long fallen dormant, and that was just the way she liked it.

Bright sunlight spilled through the open window, drawing warm rectangles on the kitchen floor. The day was beautiful.

The air smelled of spring and honeysuckle. When she finished, she would go outside and read on her porch swing. And have a nice glass of iced tea. Mmm, tea would hit the spot.

“Charlotte? Are you in there?” A familiar voice called from the front porch. Éléonore.

“Maybe.” Charlotte smiled, wrapping the last chunk of ground beef in plastic.

Éléonore swept into the kitchen. She looked to be around sixty, but she’d let it slip last year that a 112th birthday wasn’t such a bad thing for a woman to endure. Her clothes were an artful mess of tattered and shredded layers, all perfectly clean and smelling faintly of lavender. Her hair was teased into a fluffy gray mess and liberally decorated with charms, twigs, and dry herbs. In the middle of her hair nest sat a small cuckoo clock.

Éléonore worried her. In the three years Charlotte had known her, the older woman’s physical condition had steadily slid downhill. Her bones were getting thinner, and she was losing muscle. She’d slipped on an iced- over path four months ago and broken her hip. Charlotte healed it, but her talent had its limits. She could only heal up to the existing potential of the body. In children, that potential was high, and she could even regenerate severed digits. But Éléonore’s body was tired. Her bones were brittle, and coaxing them into regrowth proved difficult.

Old age was the one disease for which there was no cure.

In the Edge, as in the Weird, people fueled their life spans with magic, but eventually even magic gave out.

The cuckoo clock sagged.

“It’s about to fall,” Charlotte said.

Éléonore sighed and pulled the clock out of her hair. “It just doesn’t want to stay in there, does it?”

“Have you tried pins?”

“I’ve tried everything.” Éléonore surveyed the island filled with meat and vegetables, all in perfectly sized portions, wrapped in plastic or placed into the Ziploc bags. “You obsess, my dear.”

Charlotte laughed. “I like having an organized freezer.” Éléonore opened the freezer and blinked.

“What?” Charlotte leaned back, trying to figure out what the hedge witch was looking at. Her freezer wasn’t really gapeworthy. It had four wire shelves, each with a neat label written in permanent marker on a piece of white tape: beef, pork and chicken, seafood, and vegetables.

Éléonore tapped the nearest label with her finger. “There is no hope for you.” She sank and landed on a stool. “Charlotte, do you ever make a mess just for the fun of it?” Charlotte shook her head, hiding a smile. “I like structure. It keeps me grounded.”

“If you were any more grounded, you’d sprout roots.” Charlotte laughed. It was true.

“You and Rose would get along,” Éléonore said. “She was the same way. Everything had to be just so.” Rose was a constant presence in most of their conversations. Charlotte hid a smile. Being a substitute Rose didn’t bother her at all. She long ago realized that for Éléonore there was no higher praise, and she took it as a compliment.

“I’ve come for a favor,” Éléonore announced. “Because I’m selfish that way.”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “What may I do for you, your witchiness?”

“How are you with handling teenage acne?” Éléonore asked.

“Acne is a side effect of the body’s normal processes.” Charlotte began stacking her bags into the freezer in neat little towers. “I can treat it, and it will disappear for a while, but eventually it will come back.”

“How long is a while?”

Charlotte skewed her mouth. “Six to eight weeks, give or take.”

Éléonore raised her hand. “Sold. A friend of mine, Sunny Rooney, has two granddaughters. Nice girls. Daisy is twenty-three and Tulip is sixteen. The parents have been out of the picture for a while— their mother died a while back, and their dad passed away six months ago. Daisy has a decent job in the Broken, so Tulip lives with her. She’ll be starting a new school in the Broken this fall, except her face is all messed up, and Daisy says it’s causing her a lot of stress. They tried creams and washes, but it won’t go away. They’re in the front yard now, hoping you might take a look. I’ll take care of their bill. I know you just worked on Glen’s stomach problems two days ago, and I do hate to ask, but you’re their last hope.” She’d heard that one before. Charlotte sat the last bag into the freezer, washed her hands, and wiped them on the towel. “Let’s see what we have.”

***

THE two girls stood at the edge of the lawn. Short and about sixty pounds overweight, Daisy had a round face, big brown eyes, and a nervous smile. Tulip was her polar opposite.

Thin almost to the point of being underdeveloped for her age, she stood half- hiding behind her sister. Her skinny jeans sagged on her. Her tank top, designed to be formfitting, shifted with the wind. She had caked makeup on her face, and the thick pale paste made her skin appear bloodless. If not for the same chocolate hair and big eyes, Charlotte would’ve never guessed they were related.

Neither of the young women made any effort to approach.

A ring of small plain stones, each sitting a few feet apart from each other, circled the house, and both Daisy and Tulip kept well away from it. The stones didn’t affect Éléonore—

she had put them there in the first place.

“You left them outside of the ward stones?” Charlotte murmured.

“It’s your house,” Éléonore murmured back.

Charlotte walked down the path and picked up the nearest stone. Magic nipped at her. A small rock the size of her fist, the ward stone was rooted to the ground. Together, the stones formed a magic barrier that guarded the house better than any fence. The Edge wasn’t the safest of places. The Weird had sheriffs, the Broken had cops, but in the Edge, wards and guns were people’s only defense.

“Come on in,” Charlotte invited.

The women hurried to the house, and she dropped the rock back in its place.

“Hi!” Daisy offered her a hand, and Charlotte shook it.

“It’s so nice to meet you. Say hi, Tulip.” Tulip promptly hid behind her sister.

“It’s okay,” Charlotte told her. “I need you to wash your face. The bathroom is straight through there.”

“Come, I’ll take you,” Éléonore offered.

She smiled, and Tulip followed her up the porch steps and right into the house.

“Thank you so much for seeing us,” Daisy said.

“No problem,” Charlotte said.

“God, this is awkward. I’m sorry.” Daisy shifted from foot to foot. “It’s just that we tried all the creams and prescriptions, and they’re saying laser treatment is the only option.

I’m a CPA. I make okay money but not that kind of money, you know?” She laughed nervously.

And that’s what always got her, Charlotte reflected. That uncomfortable pleading look in the eyes. People looked at you like you were the answer to all their prayers. She wanted to help— she always wanted to help— but there were limits to what magic could do.

Daisy offered an awkward smile. “Mrs. Drayton said you might be tired. Thank you for seeing us anyway.”

“Not a problem.” Charlotte smiled. “Why don’t we go into the kitchen?”

In the kitchen, they sat at the island, and she poured two glasses of iced tea. Daisy perched on the edge of her chair, looking like she wanted to bolt.

“This used to be Rose’s house,” Daisy said. “My best friend’s sister went to high school with her. I saw her flash at the Graduation Fair. It was crazy. Pure white. Nobody from the Edge ever flashes white. Do you flash?” In the Edge, most people had a magic talent. Some were useful, some not, but every magic user could flash with practice and proper training. Flash was a pure stream of magic. It looked like a ribbon of light, or sometimes, a whip of lightning. The brighter and paler the flash, the stronger the magic. The strongest flash, pure white, could cut through a body like a cleaver through a stick of warm butter. It was a lethal weapon, and Charlotte had seen the wounds it left, in great detail.

“I don’t flash,” Charlotte said. She’d never learned to do it because there was no need. “That’s not my talent.” Daisy sighed. “Of course. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned Rose.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Charlotte said. “Éléonore talks about her and the boys all the time.” Daisy fidgeted in her seat. “So how do you know Mrs.

Drayton? You’re friends, I take it?”

Éléonore was more than a friend. The older woman was her chosen family. “When I first came to the Edge, I came out more to the west, near Ricket. I’d walked away from my horse for a minute to relieve myself, and someone stole it and all of my money. “

“That’s the Edge for you.” Daisy sighed.

“The plan was to find work, but nobody would let me heal them. I walked from settlement to settlement, trying to find a place to fit in, and when I came to East Laporte, I was starving. No money, no place to stay, my clothes were torn up and filthy. I was at the end of my rope. Éléonore found me on the side of the road and took me in. She made me welcome and got me my first clients. She’d go with me to all of my appointments and chat people up while I worked.

I owe her everything.”

There was more to it than simple gratitude. Éléonore missed her grandchildren terribly. The older woman had such a strong urge, almost a need, to take care of someone, Charlotte reflected, just as she herself felt the same urge to cure an illness or fix a broken limb. They were kindred spirits.

Éléonore emerged from the bathroom, leading Tulip by the hand. The girl’s face was a sea of hard red bumps buried under the skin. Cystic acne. The precursors to scarring were already there.

“Sit,” Charlotte invited.

Tulip obediently sat on the stool. Éléonore put a small mirror on the island. “Just in case.”

“Look at your sister for me, okay?” Charlotte slid her fingertips over the hard bumps on Tulip’s left cheek. Magic coated her hand, a steady stream of glowing golden sparks.

“It’s pretty,” Tulip whispered.

“Thank you.”

“Will it hurt?”

“No, it won’t hurt at all. Now look straight ahead for me.

Just like that.”

The sparks penetrated the skin, finding the tiny infected hair follicles. The magic pulled on Charlotte. It was a curious feeling, as if some of her vitality were being sucked away, converted into the healing current. Not painful, but alarming and uncomfortable unless you were used to it.

Charlotte closed her eyes. For a moment all she saw was darkness, then her magic made the connection and the cross section of Tulip’s skin appeared before her. She saw the pores, the hair shafts, the ruptured follicle walls spilling infected fluids into the dermis contaminating the nearby follicles, and the severely inflamed sebaceous glands.

Charlotte pushed slightly, testing the flesh. Her magic saturated the tissues of the cheek completely. She opened her eyes. The inner workings of Tulip’s face remained before her, almost as if she were looking through two different sets of eyes at the same time, choosing what she wanted to focus on next.

Charlotte numbed the nerve endings reaching into Tulip’s skin. “Look straight ahead for me.”

The flesh of Tulip’s check contracted. The pus spilled out of a dozen tiny lesions.

Tulip blinked, surprised. “It didn’t hurt.” Charlotte tore a package of an alcohol wipe, plucked it out, and swiped it across the cheek. “See? I told you.” She concentrated on restoring the injured tissue, purging the infection. The bumps on Tulip’s face shivered and began to melt, dissolving into healthy, pink skin.

Daisy gasped.

The last of the acne vanished. Charlotte let the current of her magic die, picked up the mirror, and held it up to Tulip.

“Oh my God!” The girl touched her clear left cheek. “Oh my God, it’s gone!”

This was why she did it, Charlotte reflected, brushing Tulip’s hair from her face. The spontaneous simple relief when the disease was gone. It made everything worth it.

“It’s not gone forever,” Charlotte warned. “It will probably be back in six to eight weeks. Let’s do the right cheek now. We don’t want you to be lopsided—” A vehicle screeched to a stop in front of the house.

“Who in the world could that be?” Éléonore rose of her chair.

“Let’s see.” Charlotte strode to the screen door and out onto the porch.

At the edge of the lawn, Kenny Jo Ogletree jumped out of a beat-up Chevy truck. Sixteen, broad- shouldered but still lanky, Kenny had been one of her first patients. He’d climbed a pine to chainsaw a branch off so it wouldn’t crash on his mother’s house and fell. Two broken legs and bruised ribs from the chainsaw dropping on top of him. Could’ve been worse.

Kenny’s face was pale. She looked into his eyes and saw fear.

“What’s wrong?” Charlotte called out.

He ran to the truck back and dropped the tailgate. “I found him on the side of Corker’s road.” A man lay in the truck bed. His skin was alabaster white against the dark leather of his clothes. Blood pooled around him in a viscous puddle.

Charlotte dashed down the path, past the ward stone, and into the truck. Her magic swirled from her hands, into the body, and back into her hands. The interior of the body flashed before her. Anterior abdominal stab wound, laceration to the right hepatic lobe, severe loss of blood, hemorrhagic shock. He was dying.

Charlotte leaned over the body, pouring her magic out. It wound about her, binding her and the dying man in a glowing whirlwind of sparks. Her reserves began to drain, as if the magic funneled her very life force out. She directed the current deep into the liver. It fl owed through the portal vein branching like a red coral inside the fragile organ tissues.

The golden sparks lit the blood vessels from within. She began regenerating the walls, sinking bursts of magic into the liver lobe to mend the damage.

His temperature and blood pressure dropped again.

She pushed more magic into the injured tissues, trying to pull the body out of shock. It fought her, but she anchored it to life with her magic and refused to let go. He would stay with her. He wasn’t going anywhere. Death wanted him, but Charlotte had claimed him, and he was hers. She couldn’t create new life, but she could fight for the existing one with everything she had. Death would just have to do without.

His heart fl uttered like an injured bird. He was in danger of cardiac arrest. She wrapped her magic around his heart, cradling it with one loop of the current while feverishly mending the tears in his flesh with the other. Each heartbeat resonated through her.

Pulse.

Stay with me.

Pulse.

Stay with me, stranger.

The lesions in the liver closed. The blood pressure stabilized. Finally. Charlotte knitted together the injured muscle and accelerated blood production.

I have you. You won’t die today.

The man’s breathing steadied. She encouraged circulation and held him, watching the internal temperature creep up. She was burning through what meager fat reserves he had to generate blood cells. There wasn’t much— he was practically all muscle and skin.

The internal temperature approached normal levels. The heart pulsed, strong and steady.

She held on to him for a little while longer just to make sure he was past the danger point. He had a powerful healthy body. He would recover.

Charlotte disengaged, slowly, a little at a time, and sat back. Her head swam. Blood stained her hands. Her nose itched, and she rubbed the back of her wrist against it, dazed and disconnected from reality.

The man lay next to her, his pulse even. She gulped the air. She was out of breath as if she had run some sort of crazy sprint. The familiar post- healing fatigue anchored her in place. Her muscles ached. The weariness would let go in a minute. During her time at the College, a difficult emergency healing like this was usually followed by a daylong bed rest for the healer, but she was no longer healing someone every day. She wasn’t near her limit.

She’d beaten Death again. The relief flooded her. That’s one life that didn’t have to end. One man who would survive to see his family. She had made it happen, and seeing his chest rise in an even rhythm made her deeply happy.

His hair was very dark, a glossy, almost bluish black. It fanned around his head, framing his face. He was no longer pale. He probably never was as pale as she perceived. Years of practice attuned her senses to react to specific signs of distress in her patients, and sometimes her magic distorted her vision to produce the diagnosis faster. The man’s skin had a pronounced bronze tint, both from a naturally darker tone and sun exposure. His face was precisely sculpted, with a square jaw, a strong chin, and a nose that must’ve been perfectly shaped at some point but now was too wide at the bridge, the result of an old injury, most likely. Short, dark stubble dusted his jawline. His mouth was neither too wide nor too narrow; his lips soft; his forehead high. His body was in superb shape, but the gathering of faint laugh lines at the corners of his eyes betrayed his age. He was at least as old as she, probably a few years older, mid to late thirties.

His skin and clothes were stained with mud and blood, his hair was a mess, and yet there was something undeniably elegant about him.

What a handsome man.

The man’s eyelashes trembled. Charlotte leaned over, alarm pulsing through her. Her magic sparked. He should’ve been out. His body needed every resource to heal.

The man opened his eyes. He looked at her, their faces mere inches apart. His eyes were dark and intelligent, and that intelligence changed his entire face, catapulting him from handsome to irresistible. “Sophie,” he said.

He was delirious. “It’s over now,” she told him. “Rest.”

His eyes focused on her. “Beautiful,” he whispered.

She blinked.

“I know that voice.” Éléonore climbed into the truck. “Richard! Mon dieu, que s’est-il passé? 

Richard tried to rise. His pulse sped up to dangerous levels.

“No!” Charlotte struggled to hold him down. He strained under her. He was strong like a horse. Her magic still spiraled around him, wrapping him in a cocoon of sparks, straining to heal the damage as he moved. Without knowing it, he was leaning on her healing power like a crutch. “I have to put him under. He can’t move, or he’ll rip everything open.”

“Who did this to you?” Éléonore asked. “Richard?”

Richard pushed against Charlotte, lifting her deadweight.

She felt the newly mended tissue tearing. His hold on her magic faltered. She felt him slip.

Richard’s eyes closed, and he crashed back into the truck bed. Charlotte leaned over him. Out cold.

Éléonore turned to the boy. “Kenny, help us get him into the house.”

Kenny grunted. Magic snapped, accreting around him.

He reached over, picked Richard up like a toddler, and carried him inside. Charlotte dropped the ward stone back in place, and the four of them followed him.

“Where to?”

“Guest bedroom on the right.” Charlotte pushed the door open.

Kenny deposited Richard on the spare bed and turned around. “I’ve got to get to mom’s house.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Éléonore said. “Say hello to your mother for me.”

Kenny nodded and went out.

Charlotte knelt by the bed. Richard’s pulse was still even.

Good. “How do you know him?”

Éléonore sighed. “I’ve met him before. His first cousin married my grandson-in-law’s adopted cousin. We’re family.” Family, right. “Is he a blueblood?”

“No. He lives in the Weird now, but he’s an Edger like us, from the Mire. When I first saw him, I thought the same thing— some sort of noble house. But no, he’s an Edger.”

“Who is Sophie?” A wife? Perhaps, a sister?

Éléonore shrugged. “I don’t know, dear. But whoever she is, she must be very important to him. I can tell you that Richard is a skilled swordsman. He was teaching my grandsons how to fight the last time I was in the Weird. Whoever ran him through is likely dead.”

Charlotte let her magic slide over Richard’s body. A skilled swordsman. She could believe that— his spare body was strong but supple, honed by constant exercise. His blood pressure was still too low. In time, his body would replenish the blood he lost, but it would take a while, and she didn’t want to gamble.

He had called her beautiful.

She knew she was a reasonably attractive woman, and he had been delirious, so it shouldn’t have mattered, but for some reason it did. She had stayed away from romantic relationships in the Edge— one Elvei was enough— and she had almost forgotten she was a woman. A single word from a complete stranger touched off something feminine inside her. She felt unreasonably pleased when she remembered his saying it, as if he’d given her a gift she really wanted but didn’t expect. He would never know it, but she was grateful for it.

Charlotte rose and got her cell phone.

“Who are you calling?” Éléonore asked.

“Luke. Richard will need a blood transfusion, the sooner the better.”

“Should we leave?” Daisy asked.

Éléonore held her finger to her lips.

“Yes?” Luke answered.

She put him on speaker. Holding the phone to her ear was really awkward. “It’s Charlotte. I need A+.” It had taken her a few weeks to learn the Broken’s medical terminology, but with help of books, she had eventually prevailed. She’d identified Richard’s blood type when her magic slid through his veins.

The EMT fell silent. “I can get you two bags. Five hundred.”

Two pints. It would have to do. “I’ll take it.”

“Meet me at the end of the road in twenty.” Luke hung up.

“Five hundred dollars?” Daisy’s eyes were the size of saucers.

“Highway robbery,” Éléonore said.

“He’s the only source of blood for Edgers, unless we do a person-to-person transfusion.” Charlotte shrugged. “It’s just money.” She could always make more.

“Do you want us to leave?” Daisy asked again.

“I have to meet him and get the blood, but if you don’t mind waiting, I can work on Tulip when I come back.”  She was tired, but she couldn’t very well send Tulip out with one cheek clear and the other pockmarked with acne.

Daisy pursed her lips. Tulip pulled on her sleeve. The older sister sighed. “We’ll wait.”

“Please make yourself welcome,” Charlotte said. “There is tea and snacks in the fridge. I’ll be back in half an hour or so.”

The girls went into the kitchen.

“Thank you for doing this for him,” Éléonore said.

“It will help him heal. Like you said, he’s family.” Charlotte smiled and pulled a medical dictionary off the shelf.

In the hollowed-out space inside lay her cash reserve. She plucked the stack of twenties and counted out five hundred.

“Will you keep an eye on him?”

“Of course. Charlotte, take a gun.”

“It’s just down the road.”

Éléonore shook her head. “You never know. I don’t have a good feeling about this. Take a gun just in case.”

Charlotte took a rifle from the wall, chambered a round, and hugged Éléonore.

“I’ll be back.”

“Of course.”

Charlotte went outside, crossed the lawn, and got into the truck. The car used to belong to Rose, and she had finally learned to drive it last year. It lacked the elegance of the Adrianglian phaetons, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

She turned the key. The engine started. There was something about Richard’s face that called to her. She wasn’t sure if it was the handsome masculine lines or the fiery intensity in his eyes. Or maybe it was because he thought she was beautiful. Whatever it was, she had become invested in his survival. She wanted to see him open his eyes again and hear him speak. Most of all, she wanted him to safely recover.

Five hundred was a small price to pay for that.

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