Ruthless Magic excerpt
When I’d rehearsed this conversation with my father in my head, I’d been a shining example of wit, passion, and the famous Lockwood composure. Unfortunately, my imagination had lied. I was on the verge of pacing a hole in his study’s Persian rug, and I appeared to have lost my ability to string more than three words together. All of which was extremely bad timing, given that the course of my future as a mage might be decided in the next half hour.
I managed to partly untangle my tongue. “What I mean is, no official decisions have been made yet. For what track I’ll be put on at the college. Right?”
Dad nodded. He’d shut his laptop after he’d welcomed me in, and now he stood by his broad mahogany desk. Behind him, the drapes were pulled back from the tall windows. The warm sunlight pouring in caught on the distinguished sprinkling of silver in his light brown hair.
“The placement committee won’t meet until the letters have all been sent and the acceptances received,” he said.
I drew in a breath. The smells of Dad’s study were a mix of intimidating and comforting: all those ancient leather-bound magical texts on the shelves at my left, the lingering hint of woodsmoke from the fireplace at my right. “And Granduncle Raymond will have some say in my placement. That’s what he’s coming to talk to you about.”
Dad sounded calm enough, but that impression wasn’t the whole story. My right thumb spun in a rhythmic circle against my fingertips—a simple casting I’d used so often it’d become automatic. A dissonant ripple of tension sharpened amid the ever-present whisper of magic against my skin. Dad didn’t think Granduncle Raymond was going to have anything inspiring to say about my abilities either. It was scarcely a secret that I was the least favorite grandnephew.
“You will be Chosen, Finn,” Dad added. “There’s no doubt about that.”
“I know.” The fact of it didn’t settle my nerves. It was one small certainty leading to a vast unknown.
“Of course you’d like to have some say in your career. I’ll try to see that you’re offered a few options.”
My throat constricted. What I’d like was to be able to conduct the magic around us as easily as I could breathe—to conjure and ’chant so well that the College of the North American Confederation of Mages would be begging for my attendance rather than squeezing me in as a token to appease my family.
I’d tried. O gods, how I’d tried. I’d memorized so much ancient Greek and Latin I dreamed in it. I’d pored over texts on technique until my eyes felt ready to bleed, and I’d performed the scales until my voice was hoarse. I’d spent years practicing the meditations and calculations that were supposed to hone the mind and attune it to the magic. So what if none of it had been quite enough? I would keep trying, all the way through college and every day after.
“I’m aware I’m barely ranking above the bottom quarter of my class,” I said—flippantly, to offset the uncomfortable twist in my gut at the admission. “I realize I won’t end up as advisor to the Director of the Joint Staff like Margo or as chief whatever-it-is-he-does-in-that-penthouse-office like Hugh. I just want to be doing something real. Something useful.”
As Dad had done when he was little older than me, campaigning for mages to finally step out of the shadows and fully contribute to society. We have a gift, he often said. It gives us a responsibility to help everyone, not just the magical.
“I want to get on track to enter the National Defense division,” I went on.
Dad’s eyebrows rose slightly. “That work requires a significant measure of applied magic.”
“Yes, and I know I’d have to settle for a minor position because of that. But I’d rather be doing what I can to preserve the country than be head inputter of tax records or secretary of office supplies.”
“I don’t have any direct sway. It’s your granduncle who’ll make the recommendation.”
“Right. So I thought, when he arrives, I could perform a demonstration. Show him how I’ve advanced my skills in a relevant area. To help... inform his recommendation.”
“Hmmm.” Dad rubbed his jaw. “What sort of demonstration are you planning?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “I was hoping you could advise. I’m reasonably competent at locating and tracing, though I still need to work on my range. I’ve been building my shielding abilities, and I think I’ve found an enhancement to standard practice that might be useful in certain scenarios. And—”
Interest lit Dad’s face. He leaned back against his desk, his hand resting beside the obsidian paperweight I’d made him when I was seven. He’d kept the damned thing all this time even though the ’chantment on it was so weak that disturbed papers would merely coast more slowly rather than holding in place—unless they were actually beneath the weight, which defeated the purpose of having ’chanted it. I could do a proper job of it now, but it seemed embarrassingly childish to offer.
“Let’s see this shield of yours,” Dad said. “Innovation counts for a lot.”
I straightened the collar of my linen button-down, willing away my nerves. Then I inhaled deeply. The quiver of magical energy tickled over my tongue. If time hadn’t been of the essence, I might have reveled in it for a moment.
With every thought trained on my intent, I rolled the words over my lips at a lilting cadence: “Qua requieverit herba, moenia...” The magic trembled through my muscles and bones as the rhythm of my voice twined with the energy’s innate melody. Some shuddered away from me, as always, but I felt a significant portion resonate in harmony.
Modulating my poetic phrase at a steady volume, I directed the rising hum of magic into a shimmering barrier between Dad and me. My hands lifted with it, guiding my focus. I had to pitch the vibration perfectly so that any offensive casting would bounce off rather than shatter the shield. When I’d asked Prisha to test my last attempt, my construction had held up to a good battering.
I slid into a new phrase, calling a glinting play of light into the shield’s surface—a pattern to soothe the minds of anyone observing it. The effect wasn’t entirely my own invention, but I hadn’t read about it being put to this use before. In the midst of an attack or a bomb scare, presumably reducing panic would be a valuable feature.
My view of Dad had blurred. A smile crossed his lips. He was impressed.
I sang the poetic lines again in a crescendo and pushed the conjured shield up to the ceiling and out to the walls. The energy raced through me, piercing the roots of my teeth and the bases of my fingernails, but I could carry it farther. I’d never cast a barrier much bigger than myself before, but protecting only one person was hardly the scale National Defense required. I should at least—
I pushed a little too hard, too fast, and the magic I’d managed to bend stretched too thin. A tear opened in the shield. It gaped wide before I could catch it, as swiftly as the bag of winds loosed by Odysseus’s sailors. A groan escaped my mouth.
The glittering mass crashed to the floor and shivered away into the air.
Dad’s face fell with it. His shoulders drooped for an instant before he suppressed his immediate reaction.
A hot burn formed behind my eyes. I blinked quickly. The only thing that could make this disaster worse was him witnessing me break into tears.
“Well…” I began. My voice came out a croak. I cleared my throat, my thoughts darting to Granduncle Raymond’s periodic reminiscences of the city’s “golden days.” “Perhaps a cabaret show instead?”
Dad’s lips twitched with amusement: a tiny consolation for my crushing failure.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “I know how hard you’ve worked.” He rested his hand on my shoulder with a reassuring squeeze. The gesture only twisted me up more.
Before I could hit on some way to salvage the situation, the doorbell chimed. Granduncle Raymond had arrived early. I trailed after Dad into the hall, but I didn’t quite trust my composure enough to follow him downstairs.
Dad’s smooth tenor and my granduncle’s dry, gravelly bass carried up the stairwell. As always, Granduncle Raymond got straight to the point.
“It’s time we talked about Finnegan.”
“He’s right upstairs—”
“Just the two of us.”
Dad couldn’t argue with that laying-down-the-law tone, not when Granduncle Raymond literally did lay down the laws across all the Confederation with the other nine members of the inner Circle. There were some lines even family didn’t cross.
Their footsteps approached, along with the intermittent tap of Granduncle Raymond’s walking stick. Just for show—the old man’s stout frame still carried him without a hitch. To spare myself being dismissed directly, I ducked into the adjoining guest room.
At the click of the study door shutting, an impulse struck me. It would be a simple thing even for me to ’chant the plaster a touch thinner, temporarily, so the voices would travel through. Normally I wouldn’t have considered listening in on a private conversation, but it was my life they were hashing out.
I sat on the bed’s goose-down duvet and pressed my pale hands to the maroon wall. After riffling through my mental compendium of memorized verses, I settled on a line from a Greek play. I murmured it to send the magic wriggling through the particles of plaster beneath the wallpaper. A chalky taste crept into my mouth.
Granduncle Raymond’s voice filtered through the wall. “...certain expectations of magical performance. We don’t want to put him in a position where he’ll cause us embarrassment.”
“I don’t believe that will be a problem,” Dad said tightly.
“He’s your son. I understand. But we need to be realistic. The committee will examine his Academy records and propose a career based on those, within my guidelines. And I expect that proposal to go unchallenged.”
“There isn’t any chance we could arrange a special curriculum for him, to see if his abilities could be further extended?”
Granduncle Raymond guffawed. “Have you denied him any opportunity in the last sixteen years? He’s had his chance to shine if he were going to.”
I closed my eyes as hot shame washed through me. Dad’s reply was too quiet for me to distinguish the words.
“Keep in mind we have a delicate situation to maintain,” Granduncle Raymond said. “The mage-averse factions within the Dull leadership are making noise again. We haven’t brought any decisive victories abroad in too long. It’s vital that the Confederation as a whole, and the families in the Circle in particular, appear competent to anyone looking on. Before this... intermingling, a more flexible solution might have been possible.”
“We failed society much more often when we were working in secret,” Dad said with the flatness of an argument he’d made too many times before.
“But at least then the Dulls couldn’t hold our failures against us. Or attack us for faults they merely imagine. Your father...”
I pushed off the bed before Granduncle Raymond could finish his sentence. My grandfather was his trump card in any political argument with my father. Shortly after the Unveiling, Granduncle Raymond’s younger brother Edward had been killed at a public conference turned anti-magic riot.
Dad spoke of him as a hero. Granduncle Raymond made him sound like a victim of misguided principles.
As I wandered across the room, a flash of unnatural color outside the guest bedroom window caught my eye. Frowning, I stepped up to the glass.
Partly hidden by the branches of the elm outside, a spiral of colorful sparkles gleamed against the muted blue of the sky. The image was clearly magical.
I didn’t recall hearing plans for an official display. Technically, all noncommercial magic usage was legal as long as it didn’t break any other laws, but large-scale, amateur public conjurings were rare. What was this?
Any excuse to leave Granduncle Raymond and his disparaging remarks behind seemed like a good one. I hurried down to the front door and out into the August heat. The intersection where 81st Street opened up to Madison Avenue would give me the best view.
I stopped on the corner amid the acrid tang of car exhaust and craned my neck. My jaw went slack, and the twisted feeling inside me was swept off by a wave of awe.
The unwinding spiral I’d observed from the window was merely the tail—the tail of an immense serpentine dragon soaring across the sky. The rich green-and-blue speckles of its scales darkened to violet along its belly and blazed orange at the tips of its wings and the crest of its head. The illusion swerved around a puff of cloud, and the hues shifted as if reflecting the sunlight.
The vibrations of the magic tingled in my ears, on my tongue, and over my skin, pulsing in time with the dragon’s dance. The sensation drew an ache like homesickness into my chest.
Such a conjuring required not only power but meticulously controlled skill. Hearkening the magic, I knew I’d never cast anything even half that potent.
The Madison Avenue traffic had slowed. Astonished faces peered through windshields at the sky. If I found the dragon impressive, I couldn’t imagine how it struck the magicless.
None of their heads turned at the flit of a smaller conjuring that streaked past me: someone’s letter of evaluation. A shiver of anticipation shot down my spine, but there was no telling whom it was meant for. This segment of the Upper East Side had been an enclave for mages since well before the Unveiling, and all of us who’d turned sixteen in the last school year would receive our letter today.
After Granduncle Raymond’s comments about what awaited me once I received mine, I’d rather look at the dragon.
A bright voice rang out behind me. “There you are!” Prisha slung a slim brown arm over my shoulders. “Gawping at the sky?”
I elbowed my best friend lightly. “I’d say that’s worth gawping at.”
Prisha tilted her head to contemplate the dragon. “Ah, I could pull that off if I really wanted to.”
“I’d like to see that,” I said, keeping my tone light. Prisha liked to act as if she didn’t attempt major castings because she simply didn’t care to, so I might have been the only person who knew she cared very much—about how people saw her, about their expectations of her. Although the Mathurs were old money, they were the newest of new magic. Prisha was the first to show any talent. Everyone else in our year at the Academy had magic intertwined through their ancestry, like I did.
Better to do a lot of little things very well, Prisha had told me in one of her rawer moments, than to try something big and bungle it and watch them sneer as if they knew all along that I’d never measure up. Given the number of textbooks I’d smuggled out of the Academy library to page through in secret in my bedroom—because everyone at the Academy expected a Lockwood to come by his talent effortlessly—I had no trouble sympathizing.
“Probably a Chosen, right?” I said with a nod to the sky. “That’d be one way to celebrate.”
“I could think of a few better,” Prisha said.
At the slight edge in her voice, I glanced over to search her face. Was she worried? She ranked in the upper half of all our classes, even if not by a large margin. The college accepted a varied number of novices each summer, but they always took about two thirds of any academy year. She was a shoo-in.
Before I could say as much, Callum Geary stalked out of the building opposite us. Long skinny legs holding up a stout torso balancing a boxy head topped with a sprinkling of russet hair—a haphazard figure that matched his erratic temperament.
“What’s the big deal out here?” he demanded.
He must have noticed us from the window. The Gearys had money but not as much as some. They owned only the second floor of that divided townhouse. He wouldn’t have been able to make out the dragon itself from there.
I motioned wordlessly. It was my policy not to speak to Callum unless absolutely necessary. That was easier than you might expect, considering we were classmates and near neighbors, because Callum rarely cared what anyone except him had to say about anything.
He ambled across the street toward us, crossed his arms, and purposefully-by-accident smacked his elbow into my ribs. Squinting up at the dragon, he let out a snort. “How pretty,” he said. “It must be a girl conjuring that—or a fruit, I suppose.”
Prisha’s arm tensed against my shoulders. Did Callum even know he’d just insulted her twice in one go?
“Thanks for weighing in,” I said, dry as dust, and remembered why I had policies about Callum when he trained his narrow stare on me. What talent he lacked in casting, he made up for with inventiveness of other sorts. The last time he’d given me that stare was in seventh year, shortly after which his hand had “slipped” to staple my sweater sleeve to the back of my hand.
I suspected he’d been restraining himself at least a little all this time, hoping that if he wasn’t too blatant of a bully, he’d still be Chosen despite his terrible grades. If he was Dampered after today, which he almost certainly would be, he wouldn’t have even that small motive to rein himself in.
But it was still today, the Day of Letters, so Callum had larger concerns than me. He swung around with a ram of his heel that would have broken toes if I hadn’t yanked my foot out of the way, and sauntered back into his house. The door thudded shut behind him.
“Thank the Fates we won’t have to deal with him at the college,” I said under my breath. After the procedure was complete, the Dampered took on apprenticeships tailored to their remaining fragment of magical ability.
“Indeed.” Prisha ruffled my hair and then started to pull me back toward my house. “Your bangs have gotten all floppy again, Finn. You need an occasional haircut if you’re going to look civilized, you know.”
“And trick people into believing I am civilized?” I said. “That seems unfair.”
She rolled her eyes. “Please. You’re the least boorish person I know. When was the last time you even inconvenienced anyone?”
My thoughts hurtled back to the conversation I’d overheard a half hour ago—to the inconvenience I was to my entire family. As we paused by my front door, I took minor comfort in seeing my granduncle’s Lexus had departed.
“Whatever,” I said shortly. Prisha gave me a questioning look. I might have told her about the epic failure of my conjured shield and the comments I’d overheard, but not now, not here on the street. I grasped at a change of subject. “How was the club last night?”
“The usual,” she said with a shrug. “Drinks and music and lots of pretty girls. Some of them are straight, by the way. Next time I’ll drag you along.” Her eyes glinted with mischief. We both knew my coordination on a dance floor resembled a drunken antelope.
“Then I couldn’t be your cover story for your parents.”
“Oh, I’m sure we could—”
She cut herself off as a bright beam flitted into view. It hit my door and transformed into a small ivory envelope.
The twisting in my gut returned. I detached my letter of evaluation and ran my finger over the sealed flap.
“Well, open it!” Prisha said. “I know you’re in.”
“Of course,” I said. “Because I’m a Lockwood.”
“No. Because even the Confed has to know that stubborn determination is at least as good a superpower as flashy wand-waving.”
She spoke with such assurance the clenching inside me relaxed. We were going to take on all of it—the college, whatever careers they threw at us—the two of us, together, as always.
I tore open the envelope and pulled out the crisp paper inside. My gaze dropped straight to the stark black lettering halfway down the page.
We are pleased to announce that Finnegan Lockwood has been chosen for admission to the College of the North American Confederation of Mages.
“Congrats,” Prisha said, clapping me on the back. “All in the world is as it should be.”
“Yes.” I’d expected a rush of emotion reading the words, but all I felt was dull discomfort.
It occurred to me then that Prisha had never said why she’d come looking for me. “Shouldn’t you be at home, waiting for your letter?”
“Ah, well.” The grin she offered me faltered.
“Pree?” A chill jabbed through my stomach.
“I just wanted to make sure you’d gotten yours,” she said. “And it arrived with good timing, because it appears my visit is over.”
“Prisha!” her eldest brother called, coming into view on the other side of the street. He strode across to us. “I’m glad you’re predictable. No phone again?”
Prisha made a not-entirely-believable gesture of apology. One of the advantages of being born into a family of Dulls, she’d said to me more than once. Leave my phone at home, and they can’t harass me.
“Father wants to discuss preparations with you,” Amardeep said. “You’ve had time to tell Finn by now, haven’t you?”
“Tell me what?” If she’d already gotten her letter, she’d have been waving it in my face. Unless...
“It doesn’t make a difference,” Prisha told me. “I’m not going to be Dampered. I’m taking the Exam.”
“What?” She turned to go, but I grabbed her wrist, waiting until she looked at me. “If you weren’t Chosen, you’ve got to appeal. The Confed makes mistakes. This has to be a mistake.”
She’d ranked higher than me in all our classes. She’d done everything anyone could have asked.
“An appeal will take weeks. And if I lose, then the Exam will be over and I won’t have any choice in the matter,” Prisha said. Then, more softly, she added, “I’ve already declared, Finn.”
“Let’s go, Prisha,” Amardeep said. “There’s a lot to cover.”
Preparations, he’d said. How could she prepare? No one who hadn’t gone through the Mages’ Exam knew what the trials entailed, other than that the Confed made them brutally hard to ensure those vying for a second chance at the college deserved their spots.
The handful who made Champion each year got an excellent deal, set up with a prominent mage as a mentor to help them catch up with their Chosen peers. However, where they succeeded, dozens didn’t. The penalty for rejecting the Circle’s judgment unwisely was harsh. Those who failed had their magical ability not Dampered but utterly burned out of them. A few examinees didn’t just fail but died during each year’s Exam.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Prisha said in her more usual brisk way. “I’m sure the Exam isn’t half as hard as the stories make out. I’ll see you soon.”
Her hug was so swift I didn’t have time to return it before she hurried after her brother.
But, Pree, I thought, dread gripping me. It didn’t make sense.
My hand closed around my letter, creasing the paper. I shoved it into my pocket and pushed open my front door.
The sight of the foyer with its antique furniture and molded ceiling sent acid into the back of my mouth. In that moment, I hated the house and all the old-magic history it represented. No matter what Prisha said, she knew as well as I did that the Circle’s decision for me hadn’t been about “determination.”
“Finn?” Dad came around the curve in the staircase and halted when he saw me. “It arrived?”
“Yes,” I said. “Chosen, of course. But Prisha wasn’t. She’s... she’s going to take the Exam.”
Dad’s expression flickered. I thought I saw relief there alongside concern—and a certain resignation. “I’m sorry,” he said, walking the rest of the way down. “But if that’s what she wishes to do, it’s her choice.”
“She shouldn’t have had to make it,” I said. “She should have been Chosen! She had the talent. What in Hades’s name is the point of Dampering if we’re going to lose mages like her to it?”
“The Circle has always needed to make difficult decisions about who and how many they can keep proper order with,” Dad said. “And now... just one generous ruling resulting in a mage gone off the rails could undo the harmony we’ve managed to achieve since the Unveiling.”
“No one could think Prisha is going to become some sort of criminal.”
“New-magic candidates have no established family record of behavior or loyalty. The Circle has higher requirements for skill to overcome that basic concern. If there’s anything worrisome in the family history, they take that into account as well. Which isn’t to say I agree with all of their reasoning—”
Normally Dad’s calm, measured way of speaking comforted me. Now I only felt ill. “That isn’t reasoning. That’s... that’s just prejudice.”
“I understand why you’re upset, but this could be a good chance for her, Finn. If she makes Champion, she’ll have the opportunity to improve her abilities through individual guidance, with all the avenues that will open up for her.”
She should have had that opportunity without risking all her magic. If anyone should have had to fight for it...
It should have been me.
“I want to give her my spot,” I said abruptly.
Dad’s eyebrows rose. “You know it doesn’t work that way. What the Circle decided for Prisha is completely independent from who was Chosen.”
I did know that, but how could I support it? I’d realized I hadn’t fully earned my acceptance into the college, but at least my gain hadn’t hurt anyone.
My heart started thudding. I’d been ready to challenge my career placement. Maybe what I ought to challenge was the foundation on which it was based. I couldn’t give Prisha my spot, but I could at least show the Circle I knew what they were doing wasn’t right.
“Have you accepted yet?” Dad asked, and I shook my head. “Well, don’t leave them waiting. Then we should call your mother at the office. She wanted to hear as soon as the letter came.”
He motioned for me to follow him down the hall, but my feet had melded to the floor.
Was I mage enough to meet the Exam’s ordeals? I’d wanted to prove I was worthy of more than being shunted into a convenient spot that needed filling. I should have to prove myself.
Prisha shouldn’t have to face the Circle’s judgment alone.
“Finn?” Dad said.
I fumbled in my pocket for the slip of paper. As I raised the letter to my lips, my pulse beat hot and heavy in my head. My mouth opened.
“Finnegan Lockwood declares for the Mages’ Exam.”
People were staring at me, but I was used to that. You’d think it was our neighbors’ civic duty to keep an eye on “that witchy girl” and her witchy family. At home, they stared at me and my parents when we were going to and from school and work, when we leaned out the open windows of our apartment to catch a summer breeze. At least the people passing Brooklyn United Collegiate this Saturday afternoon had a good reason to gape.
“De colores, de colores,” I murmured in the singsong tone Abuelita had cooed the lyrics to me with years ago. The hues of my dragon’s scales deepened against the sky. I tipped my head, and the conjured image whirled to the left, closer to the sun.
The wrought iron fence along the school lawn pressed hard against my back, but otherwise my body was barely earthbound. The hairs on my arms were standing up, and a tingling glow filled my lungs, washing out the hot still air that hung over the street. Magic hummed through me and around me. The entire world was an instrument it was played on, and right now an awful lot of it was playing a song for me.
For me and Javier. That’ll show them, he’d have said. They can’t ignore that.
Three years ago on this day—the Saturday before the last week of summer vacation, the Day of Letters—my older brother and I had stood on the patchy concrete steps outside our walk-up, and he’d conjured his own dragon. He hadn’t been able to cast it this high or draw it this vast, but it had been beautiful enough to take my breath away.
When I’d started conjuring today, I’d meant to make one like his. But the more magic I’d drawn through me, the faster it had rushed in, and I hadn’t wanted to shut any of it out. So my dragon soared amid the clouds, more than big enough for both of us.
If some part of Javi still existed in the world, somehow, he couldn’t ignore this. He’d give me a sign, wouldn’t he?
I reached out through the hum of the magic for the slightest hint of his presence. All I felt was the vacant space beside me like an ache around my heart.
This is the last magic I’ll get to cast freely, he’d said to me back then. When my letter comes, it’ll be the Confed deciding how I use it.
He’d never talked that way to anyone else. I was the only one he’d known understood him completely. But even so, I’d had to say, with a thirteen-year-old’s dogged optimism, Maybe you’ll be Chosen.
Javier had laughed. No, the mages don’t want some passable-talent street-magic naco coming to their college, not unless I win that spot. But they have to take you. Even the Confed has to accept a gutter-girl who can ’chant circles around their old-magic flunkies. I’ll make sure of it. His smile had turned a little crooked then, with the kind of hope he didn’t dare let out as anything other a joke. And hey, maybe after that I can get myself named first magical advisor to the NBA.
He’d wanted to hold on to the magic just as much as I did.
I made sure they’d take me, I thought to him now. I’d followed the Confed’s rules, learned from their books, picked up every skill they could have wanted from any novice. At the college and after I left, I’d still be answering to them, but I’d still have the magic and the full license to work with it too. That was all that really mattered.
I stretched my awareness up toward the sky. No whisper of Javi answered. The ache grew, eating at the glow inside me. Pricks of a different kind of pain pinched at my joints from the effort of the extended casting.
No matter what I tried, I couldn’t find him. Which meant it was time to admit I never would.
I was on my own.
Adjusting my focus and my tone, I drew the dragon down, pulling my words tighter around it to shrink it. The resonance of the energy itched at the roots of my teeth. I cast it toward the flat brick face of the high school.
“De colores, de colores.”
The scales sank partway into the bricks, leaving a shimmering impression. I let the magic rush out of me to fix the ’chantment there. Not with so much power to make it permanent but enough that it would last the week. My dragon sprawled across the front of the school from end to end, its belly resting against the lintel over the main doors.
A smile crossed my lips despite the pang in my chest. Javi had always said the Dull schools wanted us to be even smaller than the Confed did. I’d felt the truth of those words in the stuffy halls beyond those windows, watching backs turn when I passed, hearing hushed gossip behind me. The tutorial room and Mr. Jones, the Dampered mage who’d taught us novices, I would miss a little. All the required literature and math and sciences with the Dull student body, and the teachers who’d eyed me after every test as if I might have conjured my A’s? Not a chance.
I wouldn’t be back here, but I’d left a mark so people could see the beauty of magic when they passed by. It didn’t seem fair that they’d never hearken it like I did, but maybe I could make something that evoked a little of the breathtaking feeling I loved inside them. Maybe someday they’d stare at a casting with excitement instead of apprehension, like the magic deserved.
I pushed away from the fence toward home. Mrs. Hernandez was sweeping the front step two doors down when I reached my apartment.
“Bruja-ratera!” she muttered, letting go of the broom with one hand to make the sign of the cross.
I didn’t look at her. She’d called the police on Mom once for supposedly giving her the evil eye. “Witch-crook,” her insult meant, translated literally. As the only magical family in the neighborhood, we got all the suspicion and hostility that came along with that.
When we were kids, Javier and I used to debate whether it would be better or worse if the Unveiling had never happened and the mages had kept their secrets to themselves. Of course, it was hard not to settle on worse when, without the Confed’s mandatory testing, Mom and Dad might never have been identified as more than a little “sensitive,” which meant they would never have ended up in the one magical tutorial class for all of Brooklyn and Queens, which meant they might never have met and we wouldn’t have been around to consider the alternatives.
Once I got through the college, once I had a permit to use my talent toward employment, we’d be able to move. There weren’t many new-magic families in general, but there had to be an area of the city that was a little friendlier.
As I climbed the sweltering stairwell, I pulled an elastic band from my jeans pocket and swept my dark hair into a ponytail it was only just long enough for. Our building had no air conditioning. The back of my shirt was damp by the time I reached the third floor.
A small white envelope was fixed to the outside of the apartment door. My breath caught. My letter was already here.
I peeled it off. There was nothing to be anxious about. For the last three years, I’d been heading to the Manhattan Academy of Aspiring Mages—where I was at least allowed into the library for free—every day after class to study. And even before then, Mr. Jones had said I was the strongest talent he’d ever seen in his tutorial class. Much stronger than the last student marked as Chosen by the Confed.
That former student was a magimedical consultant for the whole state now. A Harlem guy originally from the Manhattan-Bronx Tutorial had been appointed advisor to the mayor last month. The Confed made a little room for us when we proved ourselves worthy to their standards.
Still, I clutched the envelope unopened as I stepped into our cramped living room.
Mom was embroidering a blouse at the desk that doubled as a dining table when she wasn’t working. Perched between the streaks of sunlight from the narrow windows, she looked worlds away from the rest of the apartment. That impression didn’t totally disappear even when she raised her head and smiled at me. A sliver of distance remained in her eyes.
“Was that really necessary, cariño?” she said, nodding to the window.
She’d seen the dragon. The realization gave me an unexpected thrill.
Ages ago, Javi and I used to come back from family trips to the local library weighed down with fantastical picture books. We’d spend the afternoon conjuring the illustrations to life while Mom and Dad applauded. Sometimes Javi had sat back with a grin, simply taking in the spectacle, but he’d never shown any resentment that he couldn’t keep up. He’d always been my best audience.
“It felt like something I had to do,” I said. “After what…” Javi’s name caught in my throat. If Mom—and let’s be honest, Dad too—lived partly somewhere else these days, it was a place called Grief. And that was already enough my fault.
“You know what I’ve said about showing restraint,” Mom said, but the chiding was gentle.
That was why I never put on a show of my skills for her anymore. She hadn’t even liked me going to the Academy so often. She’d never outright discouraged me, but she hadn’t been able to completely hide her edginess either. She didn’t understand why sharing the magic mattered so much to me. How could she when she hadn’t hearkened it properly in decades?
Her gaze fixed on the envelope in my hand. She set down the blouse. “It came.”
“Yeah.” My grip on the envelope tightened. I wondered if she was thinking of the first time she’d seen a child of hers holding one of these.
“You haven’t opened it yet.”
“I will. It just... It seems so final.”
Mom came over to rest her hand on my back. “Whatever they decide, it doesn’t mean anything about who you are,” she said firmly. “There are many paths to happiness.”
I stiffened. “You don’t think I’ve done enough to get in?”
“I think if anyone should be Chosen, it’s you,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you should rest all your hopes on it. You can have a good future either way.”
She and Dad were both Dampered. At first everything was... fuzzy, the way you can almost go deaf after you hear a very loud sound, she’d said when I’d asked her how it had felt. You know the magic is there, but you can’t make it out. After a few weeks, the fuzziness, it condenses into just a single note. You can still reach the magic through that. But the rest you can’t hearken at all.
It was true that they’d always seemed happy enough. From what they’d told me, their talents had been relatively weak like most new-magic mages’ were, so maybe they hadn’t hoped for anything more. The magic they’d been left with was still useful.
Mom’s talent had “condensed” into an affinity for thread and fabric that made her stitches stronger than any machine could manage. The custom-designed clothes she sold online brought in a better income than she’d gotten at the dry cleaners she used to work for. Dad’s culinary affinity hadn’t done him any professional favors, since no restaurants around here wanted to risk posting the legally mandated disclaimer for food prepared with magic—most Dulls got extra paranoid about what they put in their bodies—but I knew it meant a lot to him when we gushed over our family meals.
Still, I had trouble imagining only being able to see one color or taste one flavor. I wouldn’t even get a choice in it. For all we knew, the Confed decided even that. Do you really think it’s a coincidence Mom and Dad got perfectly set up as the domestic help? Javier had said once.
I wasn’t sure if his assumption had been right, but I didn’t plan to find out.
“I know,” I said to Mom. “But I have to get in.”
Mom put her arm right around me, tugging me closer. She wasn’t so distant that she’d missed what I hadn’t said.
“You know Javier would have been proud of you no matter what,” she said. “We can’t change the way they think.”
I leaned into her. “He was going to change them. That was the whole reason he— If he hadn’t wanted to make sure they chose me—”
I choked up too much to say the rest. Javi hadn’t trusted the Confed to take me either. He’d gone into the Mages’ Exam for me. If he hadn’t been determined that I should keep all my ability, he’d have accepted being Dampered, but he’d thought if he could make Champion then he could advocate for me from within—carve out a space that their prejudices couldn’t deny me.
When he’d died, he’d died for me.
I was twice the mage I’d been when he’d left. I could complete the most difficult exercises in the Academy’s most advanced texts. I’d shown up for every assessment with a smile and all the politeness I had in me. What more could they want?
“Rocío,” Mom said. I straightened up, gritted my teeth, and ripped open the envelope. The folded paper inside sprang open as I yanked it out.
We regret to convey that Rocío Lopez has not met the requirements for admittance to the College of the North American Confederation of Mages. The timing of her scheduled Dampering is recorded below.
Then a date, three days from now. A time, an address. I hardly saw them. I read the first sentence again, the paper creasing under my thumbs. Has not met the requirements...
“No,” I said. “That’s not possible. No.”
Mom took the letter from me and read it with her other hand at her temple. But she didn’t look surprised. She’d tried to warn me.
“Is there something you knew I needed to do that you didn’t tell me?” I blurted out, my voice shaking.
Her gaze darted up. “Oh, cariño, no,” she said. “It’s only... The Confed seems so hesitant to accept any new-magic families. I’ve started to wonder if it’s not just because we often have lesser talents—if maybe they reject those with great talents too, because they don’t trust us enough to let us keep them. I didn’t want to hold you back when I wasn’t sure, but with this… I have to think it isn’t that you didn’t meet their requirements so much as that you exceeded them too far.”
I stared at her. “They don’t trust me? I’ve never—I would never hurt anyone. I’ve never given them one reason to worry.”
“And Javier wouldn’t have hurt anyone either. But there are different ways of hurting. The Confederation doesn’t like differing opinions.”
This was the most critically I’d ever heard her speak about the Confed. I was speechless for a second. “You think because Javi disagreed with the way they do things, they made it so he—”
“No,” she said, “but... I don’t think they appreciated his intentions. Perhaps they tested him harder than the others because of that.”
“And what about me? They’re going to Damper me for being good at magic, no matter how well I’ve followed their rules, just because I might think some of those rules are stupid? As if my opinions somehow make me dangerous?”
Even as I said the words, I thought of the dragon I’d cast at the school. It had been beautiful to me, an act of art. Would some people who walked by think it was scary? My gut clenched.
I’d be back there in ten days if I let the Confed Damper me, mixed in with the Dulls as if I were a regular student, attending only one class a week with Mr. Jones to help me adapt to my restricted talent. And then what? I’d live the rest of my life hollowed out and scraping by?
No. There was so much I’d wanted to do. A strangled noise escaped me.
“It’ll be okay,” Mom said, reaching for me again, but I didn’t want to be comforted into acceptance.
“It will,” I said. “I don’t have to let them do this.”
The color leached from her tan face. “Rocío, no.”
“Why not?” I said. “If I’m so good that they’re scared of me, I’ve got to be good enough to make it through their Exam, haven’t I?”
“Is it worth the risk?” she said. “After what happened to your brother—”
“You just said you think they tested him harder. I can handle that.” I motioned wildly at the living room—the room where, aside from hastily eaten meals, I’d hardly spent more than five minutes in the last three years. “What have I been working so hard for if I can’t handle it?”
She grasped my arm. “Please, Rocío. Nothing good ever comes from arguing with them.”
“I’m not going to argue. I’ll be taking the opportunity they freely offer everyone. ‘A second chance’—isn’t that what they say? I’ll take that chance and prove they’ve got no reason to—”
The hum of magic that was always around me shifted, and a little tremor ran through it, a stirring of intent. My skin tightened. Neither of us was casting. Dad was off at work.
Mom’s fears trickled into me. Were they, someone from the Confed, watching me to see how I’d respond to the letter?
I backed up a step. Mom’s brow knit. She wouldn’t be able to hearken that small shift, but she could tell something was wrong.
“I need a minute,” I said. “I need—” I needed to be somewhere I could think this through without her resistance, without Javi watching me from the family photo over the couch, without whatever unknown person evaluating my reaction.
A childhood lullaby tripped onto my lips. “Quiere que lo lleven a pasear en coche.” With each word, I pulled at the magic around me until the hum rose into a roar. The room around me blurred. My lungs hitched, an electric crackle stung my eardrums, and in a blink, I found myself elsewhere.
My legs swayed for a second before I caught my balance. I stood on a rocky shoreline. Water lapped at the pebbles a few inches from my sneakers.
A putrid sewage smell arrived with the humid breeze. To my left, a bridge stretched across the water to another shore maybe half a mile distant, where stark white walls rose from flat concrete.
My mouth fell open. I might have laughed if I hadn’t felt so sick.
This was why you never performed a major casting when you weren’t thinking straight. I hadn’t told the magic where I wanted to go, only that I wanted to be away, so it had brought me to the place that had been on my mind right before I’d cast.
I was looking at Rikers Island, site of the Mages’ Exam for the last twenty-six years. The place where my brother had died.
It used to hold a prison, Javi had told me. After the Unveiling, the Confed had wanted a place to conduct business away from non-magical society, and the government had given the island over when asked. The mages had renovated the site to meet their needs, but it still looked cold. Cruel. I wasn’t sure what they used the place for other than the Exam, but I wouldn’t want to work there.
Pebbles rasped behind me. I jerked around.
A guy was standing several feet down the shoreline, where the rocks met trees. He must have already been there when I’d arrived, but he didn’t look concerned by my sudden appearance. Now he meandered toward me, his shoulders slouched in the thin gray overcoat he wore over a T-shirt and jean shorts.
At first, because of his posture and the unevenness of his gait, I thought he was at least middle-aged. Then he stopped and lifted his head, and I noticed two things at once: the little sigil like a curved X on his left temple, blacker than his dark brown skin, and the familiar shape of his features.
“Sean?” I said. He’d been part of our tutorial class—two years ahead of Javi and five ahead of me, so we’d only been in the same group for a couple years in elementary school. But he and Javi had been friendly.
Sean had declared for the Exam too, and the result was etched on his skin: Burnout. Where once he’d hearkened magic, now he’d find only a void—not even the single note Dampering would have left him with.
He looked at me, his eyes twitching as if he couldn’t quite place me. “Rocío,” he produced after a long silence.
“Yeah. I—” I was going to say it was good to see him, but it wasn’t really, not when he looked as unsteady as he did right now. “What are you doing here?”
He shrugged and glanced toward the island. “This day, sometimes I just... I need to see it.” His gaze slid back to me. “You got your letter.”
I nodded, fresh pain slicing through me. “Dampered.”
He grimaced. “So you’re going to declare?”
I took a breath and hesitated. Looking at the island with its impenetrable blankness, I’d lost the certainty I’d felt in my living room. The Confed hadn’t even been able to send back a body for Javi’s funeral, whatever it was that happened to him.
“Don’t!” Sean said—so abruptly I startled.
“What?” I said.
“Don’t,” he said again. He wasn’t even looking at me. I had the weird impression he was talking to the island. “Don’t. Stay away.”
“Why?” I asked. “What do they do there?”
All kinds of rumors passed down from the tutorial’s older students to the younger. Traps that would torture you, battles with creatures we’d been taught didn’t really exist. No one actually knew, though. Except the people who’d been there.
“It’s...” Sean shuddered so hard the hem of his coat flapped against his knees. “I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
“If I just had some idea—”
Sean shook his head, violently enough that my voice dried up. He took a step toward the water, and his expression softened. “I was so close,” he rasped.
His hand balled at his side. He spun on his heel and stalked away. A prickle crept up my spine as I watched him go.
But Sean hadn’t been that much more skilled than Javi, and he was warning me after five years without speaking to me, without any idea what my abilities were. If he’d been so close, then I had to be able to make it.
Javi had been willing to fight for me. How could I not fight for myself? I could either put myself in the Confed’s hands for five days or let them destroy every hope I’d had for what the rest of my life might hold.
Is it worth it? Mom had asked.
Yes. It was worth everything.
My feet felt suddenly steady against the ground. The same lyrics that had transported me from the apartment rose to my lips. As I sang them out in a rush, the magic whipped around me. The landscape blurred. With another crackle, I was stumbling next to Mom’s desk on my living room’s scuffed parquet floor. Mom flinched in surprise where she was standing near the door.
“Rocío,” she said, but I was looking at my letter. She’d left it lying on the desk. There was no point in talking. I’d only draw out her pain if I let her think she might change my mind.
I snatched up the paper and flipped it open.
“Rocío Lopez declares for the Mages’ Exam.”