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Chapter 1

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“It is said that the basic building block of all magic is the mana that we store within our core and shape to cast spells, but I would posit instead that more instrumental yet is faith. If we do not believe that magic exists, if we do not believe that we are capable of shaping mana, then we cannot even begin. Will is the root of all arcana, and force of will is born of belief.”

—The Foreword to Fundamentals of Arcana, Albrecht Magnus

The orphanage in Telas Norn was no place for children. Perched on top of a cliff overlooking the endless blue horizon of the Ceaseless Sea, the three stories of grey stone capped with green copper tiles might have looked picturesque from the outside, but inside it was damp and cold all year round. The flagstones in winter were so cold they felt like knives in the childrens’ heels. Sylvas Vail grew up there and hated every moment of it. 

He’d been considered lucky by the others because he had been given a name before the Flux took his parents, but he would have traded that name away in a moment if it got him out of that miserable place. If someone had wanted to adopt him, he would have changed anything they wanted, been anyone they wanted. But nobody ever wanted him.

“Vail?” The matron’s voice echoed through the halls. “Where is Vail?”

Sylvas kept to himself as much as he could, trying to hide the deep desperation to escape from this awful place, but if he had friends in the orphanage, they would have known where to find him. It was a part of the building no longer in use, because looking out the windows and down could give the toughest orphan vertigo as the waves beat at the cliffs below, and because the stone of the place was beginning to crumble. It was just dangerous enough that Sylvas knew he’d be left alone there.

“Vail!” He could hear his name being called distantly. Softer than the sound of the waves down below. The family name of a family that no longer existed. The name that made the others resent him. Ignoring a summons from the matron was a surefire way to get a beating and even worse duties than he’d already drawn. There might have still been a cane with his name on it when he got downstairs to the greeting hall, but it would be less painful than if he waited. He could survive the cane. He’d done it before. He could do this.

He made good time scurrying along the halls as quietly as he could. Being late was unforgivable, but running was an offense too. Contradictory, like so many of the rules here. They were simply meant to know where and when they were meant to be somewhere and be there without prior instruction. Supposedly, they were being molded into the kind of kids that someone wouldn’t mind taking home, but even at twelve, Sylvas had come to the conclusion that he was never going to be that kid.

At the last moment he slowed his pace to a walk, and entered the Greeting Hall with the same placid expression on his face that he’d been cultivating for years. He was ready for the Matron, for the snarling and demands that came with her, but he was not ready for what he found in the hall.

Adoptions were few and far between. One or two a year. And it was only during adoptions that outsiders came into this building, and more specifically, this room. Today, there was a crowd.

“So kind of you to join us Vail.” The matron said with a smile. A smile with malice lurking behind it. He would pay later for making their guests wait on him.

But in spite of the promised punishment, Sylvas couldn’t take his eyes off the visitors. This was not a family looking for a child. This was not even several families. None of the people gathered here in their robes of black and red looked to be related to one another, but there were hints of similarity here and there in their features that Sylvas couldn’t shake. A nose here. A jawline there. Pieced together, he could have assembled a picture of the Grand Duke of Telas Norn.

What were nobles doing here? A farmer might adopt a boy for the width of his shoulders and the burdens he could bear, but nobility was all about bloodlines and heredity, none of them would ever want a child unrelated to them around.

“This is the one?” A woman of impeccable breeding, pallid skin, and a frighteningly hungry expression asked the matron while staring down at him.

“Vail knows his letters, his numbers, and he tests well.” That was the closest that Sylvas had ever heard the matron come to saying something complimentary about him.

There were other orphans in the room, over on the sidelines, being talked to individually by the strangers in their strange garb, but slowly all eyes began to turn to him.

“He reads for pleasure?” The woman dragged her gaze off him, and back to the Matron.

The matron was forced to concede that point too. “Every book in our meagre library.” 

It wasn’t right of course. Sylvas didn’t read for pleasure. He read to escape. He read in the desperate hope that somewhere in one of these books he might find some answer to the riddle of his circumstances. Something that might get him out of here.

“You know your history, boy?” The noblewoman’s attention was back on him, and he found his cheeks flushed.

“What I’ve been able to read of it, milady.” He was quite proud of himself for remembering the correct way to address someone of her station. He’d never expected to meet anyone but commoners for the rest of his stay here, and nobody but beggars in the street when he turned sixteen and they cast him out.

It gave the woman pause. “I am not a lady of the court, boy. I am… no-one at all.”

His brows drew down. She was lying, obviously. Anyone with eyes could see the familial resemblance to the ruling family of the city state, and anyone with a nose could tell that she was perfumed with oils that nobody shy of a merchant could afford. But if she wanted to lie, he would go along with it. “Apologies, ma’am. I mistook you for someone else.”

This brought a thin-lipped smile to the noblewoman’s face. Which in turn brought an even thinner-lipped smile to the matron’s face. Adoptions were the solution to half of her problems, and the generous donations that the orphanage would receive from these new patrons would be the solution to the other half. The better Sylvas performed, the sooner she could be rid of him.

“It seems to me, Mr Vail, that you would appreciate it if I spoke plainly with you.”

Sylvas nodded tentatively.

“We represent an ancient order that has guided the hands of the Grand Dukes since time immemorial. It is our intent to adopt as many of your number as are capable to join our ranks.”

Sylvas wet his lips and glanced to the Matron, who remained stone-faced. “The Heralds?”

“Now where did you hear that name?” The smile on her face had grown still. It didn’t reach her eyes.

The Heralds of the Hollow Heart were a legend. A myth. Something that people snuck into the history books as an in-joke or nod to silly stories for children. Yet here this woman stood, acting as though she were one of them, and their secret was in danger of being revealed. The Heralds, in the stories of Telas Norn, were like the witches and wizards in the fairy tales the countryside children knew. Magical.

“Books.” He managed to blurt out. He was too old to believe in fairy tales.

For the first time, the noblewoman drew down her hood, revealing the scarlet of its lining, and the gorgeous tumble of raven hair that she’d set loose. “We are not in books.”

“There are… mentions of the name.” His head was already spinning trying to piece this all together. “Holes in history where you’d have fit in.”

“Quite the little academic.” The woman’s heavy gaze turned back to the Matron, and Sylvas breathed easy again. There had been a palpable sense of danger there for a moment. “Clever, well mannered, none-too-ugly and to all appearances quite the obedient little thing. Tell me, why hasn’t he been adopted yet?”

Sylvas grit his teeth. Things had been going so well. He’d actually felt a brief spark of hope that this might have been his last day in the orphanage. It had been foolish of him really.

“He is all that you say he is ma’am.” The matron once more conceded a compliment to Sylvas. “But there is an oddity to him.”

All that the Matron had to do was keep her mouth shut and Sylvas could have been out. Why did she have to tell this beautiful stranger about his oddities.

“Pray tell,” The Herald smiled again, inviting. “What oddities have kept him an orphan? A violent temper? A vicious cruelty to him?”

Sylvas kept his teeth clamped shut against those horrible accusations. He had no temper, so far as he could tell. When he hit the others, it was to protect himself, not to sate some hunger for violence. The same went for cruelty. He was only as cruel as this place forced him to be to survive.

“Things go amiss around Vail.” And just like that the matron had damned him.

The Herald’s smile began to ease. “He steals?”

“Not as such, no. But the things that he needs tend to show up around him. Things he had no way of getting.” The Matron was being very careful not to actually lie about him or the many suspicions she could not prove, but obviously she didn’t want to face the consequences of handing off a wicked child to someone of power and influence either. “Lost things seem to show up around him to. He returns them to their owners promptly, but… it is odd.”

“Odd indeed.” The herald’s smile seemed to have deepened as the Matron spoke instead of dismay spreading across her features as Sylvas had feared. “May I have some time alone with the boy?”

The Matron looked like she’d been pinioned by the unexpected request. On the one hand, she couldn’t say no to a wealthy patron, on the other, she couldn’t risk Sylvas speaking out of turn. She turned to look at him, met his gaze and when he nodded to her, it was as much to confirm that he knew when to keep his mouth shut as it was to confirm that he was content to talk alone with the stranger. The Matron stiffened, irritated to have Sylvas in any position of power over her, but she stepped away all the same.

He decided that the best thing to do was tell the truth. Or as much as would ensure he didn’t get in further trouble. “I do not steal. I don’t know why things find their way to me, but I swear that I have never taken anything that…”

The Herald had sunk down to her haunches so that they were eye to eye, and now she cut him off with the brush of a fingertips on his lips. “Things simply appear around you?”

He leaned away a little, perturbed by her gentle touch. He had not known a gentle touch in living memory. “I realize it sounds ridiculous, but truly. I have no control over it whatsoever.”

“Would you like to?” She cocked her head to the side and smiled.

Sylvas was at a loss. “I beg your pardon ma’am?”

“Would you like to have control over this power you possess?” She was smiling now, all the more intently than she had been before. As though the very thoughts she was voicing were making her excited. “Would you like to study it, expand upon it, make it your life’s work?”

There was no script for this situation, nothing the Matron had coached him to say, so he fell back on what he did know. “I do not know what you mean ma’am. Whatever work you might have, I swear I’ll turn my hand to and work at diligently, but…”

When she smiled again, it set off a little flutter in Sylvas’ stomach. “Do you know that different is just another word for special?”

“I… I don’t understand.” When all eyes had turned to him on arrival, he had felt like he wanted to run, but under this intense scrutiny, he didn’t even think that he could get his feet to move. It was as though the weight of her stare was holding him in place.

“The reason you do not fit in amongst these children, and these dried up husks left to tend them, is not because you are different. It is because you are special. Things do not appear around you because you are odd, but because you have a gift.”

He found the courage to ask, “What gift might that be, ma’am?”

“You know of the Heralds.” This close, Sylvas could see that she wore some sort of powder on her face, to make her look paler and to disguise the fine lines on her face. She might have been as old as the Matron, beneath the mask of makeup. “You know our area of expertise. Why don’t you tell me?”

It felt like his usually quick wits were lagging behind. “Are you trying to tell me that magic is real, ma’am?”

“I am trying to tell you that if all that I have been told about you is true, then you will be the one and only child that the Heralds take from this place. You will be taken to the Temple Tower of Telas Mirmir to apprentice with the Grand Masters of my order, and you will be trained in our rites and our ways. So the question becomes this.” She leaned in close enough that her breath warmed his cheek. “Do you believe that magic is real?”

It was a cruel joke. To ask a child who had suffered as Sylvas had suffered whether or not there might still be some wonder in the world. Something true and beautiful beyond all this misery and hardship. Magic was a story that the older kids told the little ones to get them to sleep at night. Nobody with any sense believed it was real any more that they believed that the Heralds were real. Yet here one stood, right in front of Sylvas. Either that or a very bored noble with a very cruel sense of humor.

He could prove himself hardened to the world, or he could let her think him vulnerable. If she wanted a vulnerable child to torment, then it would still be better than the orphanage. He said what she wanted him to say. “Magic is real.”

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