Samir had been summoned to Archwizard Girald’s office, high atop the tower of the Star. The spiral stairs that circled the center of the tower from bottom to top was said to be over a thousand stairs long, but Samir had never been determined enough to count. All he could say for sure was that it was long enough.

How much had it been designed to discourage uninvited visitors? Novices like himself had to trudge up on foot. The Archwizard—and likely most of the wizards who visited him—could simply whisk themselves around, using magic that absolutely wasn’t taught to novices. Particularly not novices who hadn’t declared yet what order they planned to join.

Endless and exhausting, especially since—Varajas slung over his shoulders, a weight almost beyond his limits—he was a student, not some soldier or noble child who spend his days training his body.

Maybe this climb was a punishment because Samir hadn’t made up his mind yet. Or maybe Girald believed that in the years it would take Samir to reach the top, he would have the time he needed to finally make a decision.

Samir made it all the way to the Girald’s office, and didn’t feel too many years older. He was ready to agree there were a thousand stairs. He was ready to agree to anything if it meant he didn’t have to climb them again.

The door was open, but Samir took a moment to lean against the wall, catching his breath. He heard voices inside—two men and a woman. One of the men was Girald. The two other voices were new to Samir. Was he early? No. If anything, he was late. So those people were meant to be here while he was. Curious.

Not that Samir had the first idea what the Archwizard had summoned him for anyway. In his eight years at school, he’d been in the same room with Girald no more than a handful of times. It was a big school, and Girald did very little teaching himself. He had an order to manage and his own research to maintain. Periodically he took on his own apprentices—new graduates into the Star who had showed particular promise—and those wizards usually went on to become teachers at the school, so it wasn’t as though Girald’s influence wasn’t felt in the classrooms. But it all meant that Samir was entirely at a loss for why Girald might want to see him.

But then, all he needed to do to find out was stop lurking in the hall. His breathing had returned to normal, and the heat had faded from his face, so he felt ready to present himself. Boldly, he stepped into the doorway.

“Ah, Samir.” Girald was leaning casually against the wall next to one of the tall, wide, windows that circled the office. He had a glass of wine in his hand. His smile was utterly relaxed. All the airs of a man relaxing with friends.

Girald was old—wizard-old—but you’d never know by looking that he’d held the tower for almost two hundred years now. There wasn’t a trace of gray in his auburn hair; not a single wrinkle to be found on his square, handsome face. “Come in,” he said. “Meet my guests.”

Next to Girald, in the window seat, a delicate, pale woman with the star sigil around her neck. Her feet were pulled up in a comfortable tuck, and she seemed utterly unconcerned at the open window behind her and the endless drop to the ground far below. She also lazily swirled a glass of wine in her hand. “This is Wizard Sidaine,” Girald said, and she gave a spare nod.

The third person in the room was a man with iron-gray hair and sharp, assessing eyes. He gazed at Samir from a chair well away from the open window. “And this is Innokent.”

With an eye sigil at his neck, that made him Archwizard Innokent. Which meant Samir was standing in a room with two Archwizards an no idea what they wanted from him.

He gave a polite nod. “Master Girald. Master Innokent. Wizard Sidaine. It’s my pleasure.”

Innokent spoke in a silky voice that instantly set Samir on edge.“Better manners than the last one.”

“Excuse me?”

Girald sighed. “Please excuse the Archwizard, Samir. I’m not even sure why he’s here.”

“Because your cellars are exceptional, Girald. As ever.”

Samir waited, pretending to a patience he didn’t feel. He’d never felt any particular warmth towards Girald. Respect for the Archwizard, yes, but something about him had always made Samir a little uncomfortable. Maybe it was the way he always stared too long, too close, like he was sizing Samir up for a meal.

And now Innokent, who Samir was discovering an instant repulsion for.

Sidaine sighed. “Both of you are assholes. Samir, I apologize.” To Girald, she said, “Perhaps you should talk to the boy instead of over him.”

All right. Samir was now cautiously in favor of Sidaine.

“Very well,” Girald grumbled. “Samir, I want to talk about your future.”

That was the conversation Samir had been dreading. “I’m seventeen. I’m not required to graduate for another three years.”

“You’ve been here nine years already. All your teachers say you could have easily passed the graduation exams a year ago.”

“I like it here.” Samir didn’t miss the eye roll from Innokent. Another point against him. “I like the classes. I like learning. I’m not hurting anyone by putting off advancement.”

“That isn’t how it’s supposed to work,” Girald said. “When you’re ready to graduate—”

“But I’m not ready. I just told you.”

“Darling,” Sidaine said, and there was kindness in her tone. “I understand, I do. It’s wonderful to be here, surrounded by your friends, enjoying your studies. The atmosphere, the community. But there’s more. So much more. And a talent like yours shouldn’t be languishing doing student work.”

What had Girald told her about Samir? Or had she been talking to his teachers? “What do you know about my talent?”

“You have so much potential,” Girald answered. “And your teachers have been very clear that you are well matched to the Star.”

“I run a small—well, I wouldn’t call it a school, exactly, but a program. Apprentices with exceptional talent. From both our order,” she nodded at Girald, “and from the Eye. An academic focus. Pushing the boundaries of magic as we know it. Girald and Innokent keep their eyes open for promising additions to the group, and now here we are.”

“What do you mean by a program?”

She gave a warm laugh. “My own little conceit, I suppose. I like to think I’ve pulled the best parts from the schools—working together on our studies. More experienced wizards helping the newer ones. There’s no specific curriculum, and certainly no pressure to leave. It’s really the next best thing to staying in school.”

“Except you’d be exploring your full potential,” Girald said. “Not restricted to student magic.”

“Truly growing into your power,” Innokent added, smooth and silky in a way that set Samir’s hair on end.

“You can’t stay here forever,” Girald added.

“Don’t push the boy,” Sidaine said. Then, to Samir, “Think about it, please. You’d be an excellent addition to our family.”

“I will think about it.”

All three wizards looked pleased, and Samir didn’t know why that should make him uncomfortable.

But it did.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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