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The Unbound Empire

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The Unbound Empire

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Author: Melissa Caruso
Publisher: Orbit, 2019
Series: Swords and Fire: Book 3

1. The Tethered Mage
2. The Defiant Heir
3. The Unbound Empire

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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The final volume of the Gemmell Morningstar Award-shortlisted Swords and Fire fantasy trilogy, in which political scion Amalia and her bound fire warlock Zaira must save the Empire from a ruthless, magical enemy. Perfect for fans of Tamora Pierce, The Queen of the Tearling, and Uprooted.

While winter snows keep the Witch Lord Ruven's invading armies at bay, Lady Amalia Cornaro and the fire warlock Zaira attempt to change the fate of mages in the Raverran Empire forever, earning the enmity of those in power who will do anything to keep all magic under tight imperial control. But in the season of the Serene City's great masquerade, Ruven executes a devastating surprise strike at the heart of the Empire - and at everything Amalia holds most dear.

To stand a chance of defeating Ruven, Amalia and Zaira must face their worst nightmares, expose their deepest secrets, and unleash Zaira's most devastating fire.


Chapter One

I had expected the prison to be darker. But the corridor down which the guard led me was awash with brilliant light.

Luminaries blazed in unadorned brackets all down the white stone hallway, which someone had swept and scrubbed spotlessly clean. A line of stout doors bore intricate artifice wards graven in broad scarlet circles above iron bars and locks. Each one represented a life sealed neatly away, bound in metal and magic.

Horrified pity stirred in my chest as I thought of the people behind those doors, locked away from fresh air and human company. I reminded myself that these cells held only Raverra's most dangerous and irredeemable criminals: traitors, murderers, and renegade mages who turned their powers deliberately against the innocent.

Or, in some cases, all three. Like the man I'd come to visit.

Still, my stomach lurched as the guard stopped before a door two-thirds of the way down the corridor. She gave me a wide-eyed backward glance that told me she knew full well who my mother was, and what would happen to her if this visit went wrong.

"This one," she said, and swallowed. "You're sure, my lady?"

I nodded, curling my hands closed to hide the sweat on my palms. He had no power to harm me, now. If this was a trap, it was a desperate and foolish one. And if it wasn't, I wanted to hear what he had to say.

"I'm sure," I lied.

The guard placed her palm on the seal, which flared with vivid red light. She turned a key, lifted a bar, and, with her hand near her pistol, opened the door.

It revealed a dim box of layered darkness, disconcerting after the brightness of the corridor. I clutched the lace of my cuffs and tried to piece out shapes from the shadows.

"Don't they give you any light?" The words burst out before I could stop them.

"I prefer it this way," came a too-familiar voice, rough with disuse or emotion.

Details emerged as my eyes adjusted: the blocky shapes of a writing desk, a chest of drawers, a bed. A slit window, thin as my arm, showed a narrow slice of night sky and a meager handful of stars. And there, in the farthest corner on the edge of the bed, slouched the lean shadow of a man.

Ignazio. My mother's cousin. Once powerful and respected, the former Serene Envoy to Ardence. My family, my mentor--and the man who had, on various occasions, poisoned, kidnapped, and attempted to murder me.

The cramped room smelled faintly of sweat and wine. I couldn't bring myself to step inside, even with the guard hovering protectively beside me. Ignazio had always been so neat and meticulous, with his sober dark velvet coats and spotless lace collars. His voice had been smooth and controlled, sometimes lightly mocking. Four months in prison had changed him--or perhaps it had all happened in that one moment when his careful schemes collapsed, bringing his life down in ruins around him.

Memories of him warred with this sour collection of shadows: Ignazio, presenting me with my first magical theory text, his eyes sparkling benignly. Ignazio, watching me with aloof regret as I lay dying of the poison he'd given me ten years before. I failed to suppress a shudder.

"Why do you prefer the darkness?" I asked.

"Perhaps I want to be remembered as I was, not as I've become." He shifted, and enough light fell on his face to pick out dark stubble on his cheeks. "You got my message, I take it."

"Yes. You said you had information." I tried to make my voice a crisp blank page, untouched by the history of pain between us, but it crumbled at the edges like an old letter.

"Of course." A bitter gleam of starlight caught the corners of his eyes. "Four months in prison, and neither you nor your mother sees fit to pay a family visit. But I say I have information, and you're here the next day, sure as the moon rises."

The guilt that stabbed me was the sort of cut only family could inflict, no less deep for its lack of justice.

"You tried to kill me," I reminded us both.

"If I'd tried harder, I wouldn't be here. But now I have something you need. Oh, you don't even know how much you need this." He rose, slowly unfolding the thin length of him. The guard shifted behind me, but Ignazio came no closer. "And you can get me out of this place, Amalia."

"If you want to negotiate your release, why are you talking to me, and not my mother?" I asked sharply.

He went still. For a moment, his breath rustled the darkness around him.

"I don't want this to become another of her victories," he said at last. "She would take what she wanted and cast me aside like a soiled napkin. But you, you'll keep your word." Ignazio turned toward the window. The feeble light cast stark hollows beneath his eyes and in his cheeks. "And I owe you this. I won't deny I've done you wrong."

"Then tell me what this great important mystery is, that you've somehow learned while locked in prison." I folded my arms, which not so coincidentally brought my hand closer to my flare locket, ready to unleash its blinding flash if he made any sudden moves. He was stalling. He had nothing, and this was a trap after all.

He turned toward me, his face falling into shadow. "I've been talking to Lord Ruven."

The name dropped into my mind like a black stone down a dark well.

"That's not possible," I protested. But the slit of a window drew my gaze, and I knew it was. Ruven had passed messages with seagulls before, to Istrella in her tower when she'd fallen under the control of his poison. The smallest opening would suffice when birds and rats and insects could all be Ruven's agents.

"You are too apt a student of magical science to believe in the impossible," Ignazio said.

"Perhaps." I stopped myself before letting the promise of secrets draw me a step forward. "Are you so close to him, then?"

Ignazio grunted. "That viper is no friend of mine. We stirred the same pot in Ardence, but I refused to ally with him then. He seems to harbor hopes that prison has changed my perspective, and he's been trying to recruit me."

"Why does he want you?" Ignazio didn't answer immediately, and I turned the question over in my mind. "Alchemy. This has to do with his command potion, doesn't it?"

"You still have a sharp mind, I see." Ignazio bowed mockingly, starlight sliding over his back. "It has come to his attention that I have some knowledge of Demon's Tears, which happens to be one of the very few alchemical poisons known to remain in the system for longer than a week. He wishes to enlist my expertise in designing a way to make his potion's effects permanent."

Hells. That potion was dangerous enough when it wore off in a few days. "You didn't tell him anything, did you?"

"I'm not a fool." The calm control I remembered had returned to his voice. He held power again at last, and he knew it. "But although you and your mother seem to wish to forget it, I am a Cornaro. I know how to manipulate an enemy. I let Ruven think I'd help him in return for my freedom, to coax his plans out of him."

I was glad the light behind me cast my face in shadow, so he couldn't see my eagerness. Ruven had been ominously silent these past two months, and the doge was certain he could make no moves with winter snows choking the passes through the Witchwall Mountains; but I rather doubted he was meekly waiting for spring. "And did you learn anything?"

"Oh, yes." Ignazio laughed, a grim, humorless rattle. "It's a good plan. If you don't stop him, he could threaten the Serene City itself."

"Then tell us how to stop him."

"Of course. The irony is too sweet, that I will become Raverra's savior." He paused. "There is, naturally, a price."

"Your freedom," I guessed. "I don't have the power to grant it to you."

"Your mother does. Tell Lissandra." He drew back into the shadowy corner in which I'd found him, his outline blurring into the general darkness. "Tell her and the rest of the Council that if they want to still have an empire to rule when the snow melts, they must let me go. I'll retire quietly to a country estate like a good boy, if they wish. I'll even let them come by to thank me if they bring along a good bottle of wine."

"I'll pass along your offer. You'd best actually have something good, though," I warned him.

"I am well aware how much my cousin despises those who waste her time. I would never presume to do so." He folded himself back up on the edge of his bed. "I want their promise, in writing, with the imperial seal. Once I'm free, I'll tell them everything I know about Ruven's plans."

"Isn't there anything you can tell me now, if it's so urgent?"

A moment's silence. Then, "For you. Not for your mother, or the Council." His voice dropped almost to a whisper. I leaned toward him, despite myself, holding a lungful of the sour air to catch his next words. "He's planning to turn our own against us. Don't trust familiar faces."

"I could already have guessed he'd try to use his potion to infiltrate the Serene Empire." I tried to sound unimpressed by this piece of information to coax out more. "Is that all you have?"

"Don't dismiss this so lightly." Ignazio's voice roughened, trembling. "I have every right to hate you, for landing me here. And I'm forced to admit you have even more right to despise me. Believe it or not, however, I'm trying protect you. So listen to me. This isn't some mere plot to seize a remote outpost; the Serene City is in danger. You are in danger." He drew a deep breath; when he released it, his usual controlled irony returned. "If I give you any more, your mother will figure out Ruven's plans on her own, and I'll lose my bargaining chip."

"Very well." Foreboding clung to me like cobwebs. I had to restrain the urge to brush myself off. "I'll attempt to impress the urgency of the matter upon the Council, and hope they respond to you quickly."

"If they don't, it'll be their fault when Ruven flings open the gates of the Nine Hells. And if he does, I doubt even Lissandra Cornaro can get them shut again." Ignazio sounded tired now, as if our encounter had exhausted him. "Good night, then, Amalia."

I couldn't quite bring myself to wish him the same, even for politeness's sake. I gave a curt nod and turned to go. The guard, avoiding my gaze, caught the door to close it.

"Amalia." Ignazio's voice floated out after me, from his darkened room. "You know Ruven better than anyone in Raverra. You know what he can do. We can't let him succeed."

"He won't," I promised.

The heavy door closed between us. The guard slid bolts and bars into place, and the seal carved into the door flared briefly with reddish light.

* * *

The guard escorted me through narrow corridors, past more locked doors. It was unsettling to think a human being lived behind each graven seal, a life full of thoughts and dreams that the Empire had deemed too dangerous to allow the simple grace of freedom. It was easy to think Ignazio deserved it; setting aside what he'd done to me, he'd also kept kidnapped children in a lightless drain and threatened a city with destruction to advance his own political fortunes. In theory, only such terrible crimes were supposed to earn imprisonment in a sealed cell. But I knew too much about the workings of power to presume that not one silenced voice behind those sturdy doors was innocent.

We passed through double sets of guarded, artifice-sealed doors and reemerged into the administrative wing. As I crossed the grand entry hall on my way out--a stern, soaring space of unadorned white marble, dominated by a single statue of the Grace of Majesty with a set of scales and a forbidding expression--Ignazio's warning gnawed at me.

Ruven was dangerous enough when we knew exactly what he was planning. If we couldn't discern his move before he made it, we might fail to block a crippling stroke.

"Lady Amalia," said a smooth, diffident voice. "I'm surprised to see you here."

I glanced up and found myself face-to-face with Lord Caulin, the doge's secret liaison with the imperial assassins and the criminal underworld, and the newest member of the Council of Nine. His slight build, mild expression, and unassuming posture made him easy to overlook, but it was perilous to underestimate him.

I forced a smile across my clenched teeth. Lord Caulin had tried to trap me into a choice between murder and treason a couple of months ago, and he was no ally of mine. But he had power, and it accomplished nothing to antagonize him. "Lord Caulin. I could say the same to you."

He modestly smoothed the simple silk cravat that adorned his chest in place of the more showy lace most Raverran nobility sported. "My business takes me to the prison on a regular basis, my lady. There is much to be learned from its inmates. As perhaps you are well aware?"

The tilt of his head invited more information. I hesitated. I needed to bring Ignazio's offer before the Council, and I could think of no reason to hide it from Caulin, but I didn't trust him.

"Come now, my lady," Caulin coaxed. "We may sometimes be political adversaries, but we are not enemies. Not when it comes to the safety and security of the Serene Empire. We're all on Raverra's side, are we not?"

"I am always on the side of the people of the Serene Empire," I said.

"Then we cannot possibly be opposed." His mouth moved in a perfunctory smile, but his eyes flicked across my face, assessing. "Did your mother send you here?"

"I was visiting Ignazio," I said reluctantly. "He has information on a plan of Ruven's. This is only a guess, but given that he spoke of turning our own people against us, I suspect it's a scheme to use his command potion to sabotage the Empire."

"Ah." Caulin nodded. "That fascinating potion. I'm not surprised. It doesn't take much imagination to think of a hundred ways he could use it, and he'd be a fool not to try."

I didn't doubt Caulin had thought of a hundred ways he would use it, if he could. "Ruven is no fool. Have your own connections learned anything relevant? If he's attempting to place someone in a key position in the Empire under his control, he might well hire a Raverran poisoner."

"Investigating that angle is precisely why I'm here." Caulin's lips thinned in a smile. "You think like a true daughter of the Serene City, Lady Amalia."

I shifted uncomfortably. Somehow that didn't feel like a compliment, coming from a man whose methods I despised. "Thank you."

His eyes took on a gleam I didn't like. "You should use that mind to the Empire's benefit."

"I like to think I do, Lord Caulin."

"Do you?" He raised his brows. "One might argue that your current attempts at lawmaking serve no one but our enemies."

He meant my proposed act to end the forced conscription of mages, into which I'd been pouring countless hours and every crumb of political influence I had. Attempts at lawmaking shouldn't have stung, coming from a man who'd never tried to pen a law in his life, but it set my teeth on edge.

"One might argue that," I agreed stiffly, "if one lacked both the wisdom to recall that the mage-marked are imperial citizens and the foresight to realize that it only strengthens the Empire to free them."

Caulin's tone shifted, becoming softer, more dangerous. "It's a waste to bend your efforts toward foolish gestures that could deprive Raverra of its most formidable weapons just when we have greatest need of them."

"The mage-marked aren't weapons. They're people," I said. "They deserve a choice."

"The security of the Empire sometimes requires that we control other people's choices." Caulin shrugged, as if this were an inconvenience to be tolerated, like a light summer rain. "Choice can be dangerous. You would do well to remember it."

A certain edge in his tone sent prickles down my back. "Dangerous? Surely you aren't threatening me, Lord Caulin."

"You?" He laughed. "Oh, I would never threaten the daughter of La Contessa. No, no. That would be folly. I merely meant that as you make your political moves upon the board, you may wish to consider how they endanger the more vulnerable pieces around you." Caulin's eyes went flat as black glass. "It would be a pity if your friends wound up as casualties of your principles."

I drew in a sharp breath. He still smiled, his demeanor mild and affable except for those eyes full of old death. But I knew whom he meant: Marcello, my Ardentine scholar friends, perhaps even Istrella or Zaira. He could have them killed, if he chose, and no one would ever trace it back to him; that was his job, after all.

I'd known this was coming. It was inevitable, now that I was taking my place on the stage of Raverran politics. My friends would be in danger so long as my enemies saw them as weaknesses.

"Vulnerable?" The voice that came out of me was cold and hard. "Oh, I think not."

"Is that so?" Caulin asked, all innocent curiosity.

Once, he might have successfully intimidated me. But I had made the choice to kill my own cousin to save others, when I held the terrible destructive power of Mount Whitecrown beneath my hand; whatever soft spots remained in me had been blasted away in the volcano's fire.

"You are a fool if you think them unprotected," I said. "It's not my mother's retribution you should worry about. It's mine."

He lifted his eyebrows, affecting an expression of mild concern, and said nothing. But those black eyes analyzed me.

I stepped closer to him. "Let me be absolutely clear, Lord Caulin. I will not bury my meaning in false pleasantries. If you touch my friends, I will destroy you."

The absolute certainty of it hummed angrily in my pulse and resonated in my voice. It didn't matter that Caulin outranked me, or that I was only an heir with little power of my own. I would find a way. And Caulin heard it.

He regarded me awhile, considering, as if I were a difficult passage he was translating from Ancient Ostan.

"I'll bear that in mind, Lady Amalia," he said at last. "But in return, do me the favor of considering the impact your little law could have. I would prefer to be your ally, not your adversary."

I drew in a breath to tell him exactly how much consideration I'd given to the impact this law could have: The nights lying awake wondering if I was going too far, or not nearly far enough. The long discussions with my friends at the Mews over what it might mean for the safety of mage-marked children and the people around them. The hours poring through history books, analyzing the forces at play, the pendulum swing of action and reaction that had rocked the ships of nations since long before the Serene Empire existed.

But before I could utter a word, the echoing patter of running footsteps sounded in the broad marble hall. The ragged urgency of the sound pierced my chest with a thin sliver of alarm; after two months home safe in Raverra, my nerves still expected danger in every sudden motion, every sharp word.

The guard who'd conducted me through the prison halls ran toward us, her eyes wide, gasping for breath.

"Lady Amalia!" she called. "Come quickly! It's your cousin, Lord Ignazio. He's... I think he's dead!"

Copyright © 2019 by Melissa Caruso


The Unbound Empire

- SpaceAndSorcery


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