There are precisely three reasons why parents send their daughters to Briarwood School for Young Women.
Reason Number One: It looks good on an apprenticeship application.
Reason Number Two: A coveted apprenticeship will lead to a proper marriage with a man of high character established in a well-esteemed faction.
And finally, Reason Number Three: Nothing makes a girl realize she needs to marry well like spending four years with the matronly spinster teachers at Briarwood.
The problem is the apprenticeship written in loopy calligraphy on the rolled-up parchment in my hand won’t lead to a proper marriage and all the honor that accompanies such a union. It’s not even with the right guild.
And that’s why, on a sunny Thursday, just before noon, I storm through an office door, not bothering to knock. It careens open and crashes against a rubber stopper at the bottom of the wall, creating a loud thump followed by an obnoxious twang as the spring returns to its original position.
The man in the posh leather and dark wood office looks up from his laptop, catches the first glimpse of me in my pristine white tasseled cap, gown, and three-inch heels, and has the audacity to smile. The indulgent expression crinkles his twenty-six-year-old face, but it does nothing to calm my mood. In fact, it might make it worse.
This man, who sits before me in a pressed gray suit, sharp vest, and tie that probably cost more than most wedding rings, is the current head of the Magical Law and Enforcement department of the Royal Guild. Even though he’s the youngest man to take the position, Lord Finnegan—as most refer to him—is one of the most feared and respected men in America’s magical community, possibly even the world. And rightly so. At any given time, he has the power to sign an official decree and have one of my kind tossed into the Dungeons—a fortified jail deep below the city—and stripped of their magic. Sometimes permanently.
On top of that, he’s the next in line to rule—and likely will very soon considering our current Grand Duke is eighty-seven years old and plagued with random bouts of dementia.
But I don’t fear him. My father took Finn under his wing when he was fresh out of graduate school, and he’s graced our dinner table more times than I can count.
“What is this?” I demand, slapping the paper against the desk.
Finn folds his hands in front of him. “It’s a pleasure to see you, Madeline.”
I point the rolled up, official piece of parchment at him, scowling. “First, let’s go over the fact that you missed my graduation.”
He sweeps a hand over his desk and the piles of papers on it. “As you can see, I’m rather swamped. We had a trio of pixies—”
“Never mind,” I interrupt, giving the desk another swat. “What kind of twisted idea of a joke is this apprenticeship assignment?”
Sighing, Finn sits back in his chair and crosses his arms. “I take it you have a problem with it?”
“Problem?” I say, trying to control my voice so it doesn’t come out as a screech. “I’m supposed to throw fund-raising banquets for the guild, not track down criminals.”
A position in the Knights’ Guild—that’s the assignment Finn’s given me. As far as I can tell, he wants me to be a glorified secretary to a small team of knight marshals—aka bounty hunters—who arrest Aparians on magical benders and bring them to justice.
It’s a catastrophe.
I’m supposed to be choosing fine china and mulling over the correct paper weight for invitations—I’m supposed to be biding my time, waiting for a marriage offer from a man with an esteemed position in the Guild. What I’m not supposed to be doing is chasing after rule-breaking parole violators.
Suddenly, visions of polyester slacks and orthopedic shoes dance in my head, making me ill.
“I’m afraid your knack for precision has made you just the girl for the job,” Finn says, thoroughly unruffled by my anger. “You applied for an apprenticeship with the Royal Guild, and I put you where you are needed.” He pins me with his eyes. “Which is truly what the apprenticeship is about, isn’t it? We find the members of our society fulfilling careers, where they’ll thrive using their innate talents to serve others.”
Bloody, archaic socialism is what it is, yet tradition is the word people like my father and Finn like to toss around.
I narrow my eyes at the man in front of me, knowing he and only two other people in the world know what my “innate talents” are. Fine. If he wants to play this game, so be it.
“How long?” I bite out.
“How long what?” Exasperation finally twinges his voice, giving me a small thrill of triumph. If I’m angry, he might as well be too.
“How long do I have to stay in the position before I can move up?”
Finn tosses his pen aside and lets out a long-suffering sigh, looking very much like he’s resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “Madeline—you’re going to be working with a team of the top three knight marshals on the continent. You’ll be making five times as much as you would in a hospitality position. There is no moving up—this is as high as it gets. You’re welcome.”
I level him with a cool look of pure indifference. “Then when can I move down?”
He doesn’t resist the eye roll this time, but he waves his hand in the air as if thinking it over. Finally, he says, “Six months.”
Six months. As in actual months? Twenty-six weeks? One hundred eighty-three days? Half an entire year?
Feeling faint, I unroll the apprenticeship decree and fan myself with the curled paper. “Father is going to be most displeased.”
I didn’t take the time to seek my parents out after the ceremony. Assignment in hand, I hightailed it to the gleaming, mirrored offices of Bannerbrook and Wright. I didn’t even bother to shed the cheap material of my graduation gown before I entered the building that humans believe to be a snooty law office on a massive scale.
“I spoke with your father a week ago,” Finn informs me.
“And he agreed?”
Raising his chin ever so slightly, Finn says, “You applied to my guild. Ultimately, it’s my decision to make.”
Magic curls inside me, twisting and twirling like a ribbon. Yanking off the cheap graduation gown, revealing the black satin pencil skirt underneath, I stalk toward the desk, taking the largest steps the fitted outfit will allow.
Finn’s eyes darken, and a smile toys at the corner of his mouth. If I weren’t so angry, I’d warm at the raw appreciation on his face. But I am angry. “And why did you make the decision, Finn?”
Just because I can, I take a string of magic, an invisible cord, and wrap it around him and his chair. It’s just a flimsy thing, made from compressed air molecules—a parlor trick really. Though I’ve studied the elements, I’ll never truly master them. My magic simply doesn’t work that way.
Fully dropping the professional facade, Finn lets out a groan. “Has anyone ever told you you’re sexy when you’re angry?”
“I’m a wise man.”
I lean down, meeting him at eye level. “You’ve mentioned that too.”
“Free me,” he commands, though he could easily shake off the magic if he desired.
Like my father, he belongs to the Draconem faction—the Dragons—and his raw elemental magic is far stronger than mine. He comes from a line of pure royalty, rich with power. I, on the other hand, come from a line of thieves and cheats.
Finn shifts in his chair and pins me with his eyes. “Madeline, I have things to do.”
“To whom did you give my apprenticeship?” I ask sweetly, slowly tightening the invisible rope.
Finn studies me, perhaps trying to anticipate my reaction to the answer he’s withholding. Whatever he’s about to say, I’m not going to like it. Finally, he says, “Maisy.”
“Maisy?” I rear back, shocked. Since I left right after I got my assignment, I had no idea Finn gave the position to my closest friend.
“Your scores are too high to put you in hospitality,” he has the nerve to point out. “Everyone would know I gave you the position simply to keep you close, and I can’t have people thinking I’m playing favorites. Besides, I need you on the team.”
I close my eyes, counting to ten. When I find I’m still ready to throttle the man, I continue to twenty.
“Madeline,” he coaxes, his voice softening. “Don’t be angry.”
Slowly, I open my eyes. “Six months…and then I get my job.”
“You know I can’t—”
I lean forward, bringing my face close to his. He smells like expensive cologne and all my girlish dreams. I’ve wanted this man since I was seventeen. Letting my lips barely brush against his, I say, adding the tiniest bit of magical charisma to my voice, “I want that job, Finn.”
“You’re evil,” he murmurs.
“Yes, well. I think we’ve already established that.” I place a feather-light kiss at the corner of his mouth. “It’s working though, isn’t it?”
He angles his head, almost fighting against my bonds. “When doesn’t it?”
We’ve dated in secret, on and off, for years.
“Swear to me, Finn. Six months, and then I move to my position here,” I breathe.
He growls—a delicious sound—and finally snarls, “If you release me.”
“Done,” I agree, already pulling my magic back, setting him loose. Immediately, his hands move to my waist, tugging me closer.
Finn’s kisses are sweetened espresso, French chocolate, that first spoonful of crème brûlée. They’re decadent and forbidden, and I will never tire of them.
But I can’t have him, not the way I might like. Though my father is the head adviser to Finn’s uncle, the Grand Duke himself, I share none of Father’s blood. I was secretly adopted, taken in by my parents as a baby. And though I’ve been fully embraced in this glittering royal world I call my own, I’ll never be considered good enough for Lord Finnegan—not if people learned where I came from. And they would.
Because of that, I need to find a suitable marriage on my own—something I cannot do if Finn has me tagging around a bunch of knights. And he well knows it.
Just as I’m settling onto Finn’s lap, moving in for more, the door swings open, startling us both. I leap away from Finn, horrified. Moments like these are the stuff gossip is made of.
But it’s not a hennish maid or simpering clerk standing in the doorway. It’s a man.
And even though I’m flustered—even though I was just making out with Finn—my eyes wander over the newcomer, taking in his six-foot-three, built-like-a-gladiator frame and trim, coffee-brown hair.
“I see you’re hard at work,” the man drawls, glaring at Finn with a look that could rival the one I wore when I arrived.
Finn smooths his vest, looking slightly less unsettled than I. “Impeccable timing, Gray. We were just talking about you.”
“I very much doubt that.” The man steps inside and swings the office door shut. He doesn’t quite slam it, but the move is just as effective. His eyes slide over me, and he gives me such a look of disdain, I want to slap him. “You may leave now.”
“Excuse me?” I demand, resisting the urge to check to see if my lipstick is smeared. Judging from the pinkish rose smudge on Finn, I’d say it probably is.
“You heard me.” The man gestures behind him. “Out the door, princess.”
Well, I never.
Finn closes his eyes and rubs his temples, looking positively vexed. “Gray, this is Madeline.”
Gray nods like he figured as much and didn’t need Finn’s help to come to the conclusion. With narrowed eyes, he takes me in. I tilt my nose into the air, refusing to squirm under his scrutinizing gaze.
“Madeline, this is my brother, Gray,” Finn says, continuing the awkward introduction. “The Knights’ Guild’s head knight marshal and the leader of your new team.”
Read the rest in Guild of Secrets, the first book in the Obsidian Queen series!