Chapter 1

The city was alive. It was cold in Daragoth, still in the clutches of winter, and the rooftops were coated with treacherous ice. Though still at dusk, below in the streets, men moved. In the distance, the markets could be heard. Music, laughing, voices raised in a heated discussion of pricing. Yet Sera wondered how many of the wanderers on the streets were honest men, and how many were thieves and criminals.

The city of Daragoth had a reputation. You heard these things, even in the high walls of the Lyce D'Arcane. The thieves were bold in Daragoth, and organised. Rival factions battled for the streets, unchecked by the city guard. Or so they say. The thought that danger might lurk around any corner excited Sera a little. While anything could happen when living in the same building as around eighty young mages, the elders were always on hand to make sure things never went too far. It was either that, or the Scorned would act. No one but the Scorned wanted that.

Sera looked again out into the city from her perch. It was a confusion of different architecture. Some buildings were short and well built. Others towered up, higher than they should have dared build. She wondered if the top inhabitants felt the wind when it came. Wood was the building material of choice for the city, although there were some of stone, especially closer to the market squares. Indeed a large bell tower stood above the buildings around it near one square. She wondered if she'd be allowed up into it at this time of night. Stone walls surrounded the city, although the gates had apparently been open for over sixty years now, and only a few men were given the job of prowling the edges. It was an ugly city, and yet, Sera decided that she liked it, as far as looks went. It looked like a place were things happened.

"Are you done up there?" Arterus called from down below. "It'd be nice to get something to eat at some point tonight."

Sera carefully climbed down the side of the building she'd chosen as her vantage point. It was a little trickier than the stone brick walls of the students quarter at the Lyce D'Arcane, and the cold had made her fingers stiff, even through her gloves. When she got down, she looked at her friend Arterus and smiled. He had a long face, and a brow that protuded a little too far forward, but she had to admit that he was comely in an old fashioned sort of way. Some of the girls at the school had said as much when she found out they were both being apprenticed to Delgard. But she'd told them to stop being so ridiculous. They were friends, nothing more. Besides, Arterus had told her he had a girl waiting for him out in the country.

"The market's over that way," she said. "From up there I can hear it."

Arterus sniffled. He'd had a cold ever since they'd arrived. "I still don't think it was a good idea to climb up there," he said, as they started to walk down the lantern-lit streets.

"You sound just like Gideon," Sera said, playfully. "'Guuuys, we're going to get into trouble.' I wonder how he's doing with old Parchon."

"Probably better than we're doing with Delgard."

"He's not that bad," said Sera. "He did give us allowance to go to the market tonight."

"Sure, he's not a bad guy," said Arterus. "But we've barely done anything in the three days we've been here. I thought the point of being apprenticed to someone was so you can see how mages interact with the world. He gives us some books to read, then locks himself up in his study for half the day."

"We just finished final exams and you want to do more work?" Sera laughed. "Now you really do sound like Gideon."

"I'm just saying. And it's not only that as well. I've heard things..."

"What kind of things?"

"I heard his uncle was the Heart-stealer."

"Really, Arterus? You're going to hold that against him. The guy who's grandfather was a member of the Fire Bay Seven? Clearly you must be about to kidnap a Calfari ambassador and try to start a war."

"Well I was never apprenticed to a man who practiced illegal magics," said Arterus. He frowned. "Or maybe we are. There's a reason why Delgard got passed on for the council position while old witless Farstod got it. Who knows what Delgard's uncle was teaching him."

"Probably as much as Delgard's teaching us," said Sera. "Um. I lost track of where we were going."

"Perhaps I can help you with that," said a soft voice behind them. They turned to see a tall man in a black hood. He was less than eight feet away from them. Sera hadn't heard him at all. The man shifted his head so they could see his face. It was a round face, made ugly by a rash that went from brow to throat, and a thick nose, bent out of shape.

"See I often help people in need. Lots of people I find are in need of being in a better place than this one. I also find that these people are in need of having a lot less money, cause they clearly don't deserve having it if they walk down a street like this after dark."

Sera glanced at Arterus and saw him tremble, his fists clench. Oh god, she thought. He's going to get us both killed.

"I'll have you know," said Arterus, his voice sharp and low. "That I am not someone you should threaten lightly. My father is a powerful man, and all I have to do is say one word, and everything you've ever loved will be destroyed."

"Oh," said the man. "Well I was inclined to take your money, then show you how to get where you needed to go. But now I'm just going to have to kill you."

Metal glinted in the man's hand in the dim light. Sera murmured the old words, and a ball of flame hovered above her fingertips. The man burst off in the other direction quicker than Sera had hoped, and as he disappeared into the night, she heard a faint: "Fucking wizards!".

"We're lucky he didn't know that was an illusion," said Arterus.

She glared at him. "Shut up," she said quietly. "He's not the only thief in Daragoth."

They walked the rest of the way in silence. Of course it hadn't been a real fireball. The last pulse had been several hours ago, and at that point she was more interested in trying out some simple illusions out of one of Delgard's books. Perhaps she should prepare something more protective next pulse, just in case. It'd mean she'd have less energy left for practicing other spells, but seeing as she'd often channel some of it away anyway, it wouldn't be too much of an inconvenience.

The sounds of the marketplace grew louder, the lights brighter, and the air warmer, as they neared their final destination. They passed several people on the street, all less threatening than the one they met before. Soon they stepped out into a large square, full of stalls and music. Sera was surprised by just how many people were there, and by the sheer variety. Rich lords and poor farmers alike, as well as foreign merchants of all colour and size. She sidestepped a large hard-eyed man, with skin near as pale as the ice covering the city and a cloak of black, shaggy fur.

An enchanting smell brought her to a stall where a man of ruddy complexion was turning a whole pig on a spit. Sera felt her mouth begin to salivate.

"Cut you a piece off fer four princes," said the man, smiling. "Five and you get the sauce."

"It smells so delicious," said Sera. "But I only have three princes."

The man chuckled. "Tell you what, since you're a pretty, young thing, I'll let you have a piece for three. It'll be smaller, mind."

Sera ate the pork with great speed, and it proved to be even more tasty than the smell had let on. She turned to see what Arterus was doing. He appeared to be haggling with a man over a wooden walking stick. Let him keep his walking stick, she thought. The money was supposed to be for food.

And there was plentiful food around. Stalls full of sweet cakes and candied fruits, succulent meats, steamed vegetables. A large pot of stew boiled a few yards away, the hot air above warping the air. There was something about the place that seemed much more alive than the musty teaching halls of the Lyce D'Arcane. She tapped Arterus on the shoulder, and got him to follow her down to the side of the square, where several street acts where in performance.

They watched an older man with more than one scar on his face lower a sword down his throat, to the applause of a small crowd. Nearby, with considerably more panache, a short balding man entertained his crowd.

"I am indeed, Meldar the Magnificent, and also Meldar the Magician," he said. "And magic is not just for the Mages, oh no. Everything I have learnt, you can do too, when you say the right words."

He grabbed a hat off a nearby folding table and showed the inside to everyone around him, then put it on his head. Then he motioned for a young girl to come forward.

"All you have to do, is say these three words, and point at the hat: 'insignificant, maleficent, magnificent!'"

The girl repeated the words as best she could, and the man's hat started to shudder. A dove burst outwards and upwards, knocking Meldar's hat to the floor, and startling the girl. Racous applause followed.

Arterus scoffed. "It's all a trick," he said. "There's no magic there."

"It's fun though," Sera said as the man proceeded to astound the crowd by seemingly teleport a ball to different areas of his body, then behind the previous girl's ear. "I wonder why mages never make money this way."

"There are laws about using magic in the streets," said Arterus. "Don't you remember?"

"I always fell asleep in Figgus's lectures. 'Magic and the State' - such a bore."

"We can't own land either," said Arterus. "Once I graduate, I'm going to work with my father to change the way we get treated. Starting with the travel restrictions."

Sera decided not to mention the fact that Arterus hadn't seen his father in over seven years.

They moved further on, where a young man was juggling five balls with great precision. Up and over they went - and round - as he begun to move within the crowd, teasing them with false movements. Soon, he was near Sera and Arterus, and he winked at Sera, before moving onwards. Sera thought he was kind of cute, with his soft features, and floppy hair. She glanced over at Arterus, who was patting down his pockets frantically.

"What's up?" she asked.

Arterus growled. "The juggler! He stole my money!"

Sera turned to look for the man, but he was already gone, and the people around them had begun to dissipate.