London, July 1788
The basement room admitted no light or warmth. Likewise, no cries of despair escaped its thick stone walls. Sera balled up her fists until her nails dug into her palms and held in her scream. While no one outside the room might hear her, she would and she refused to release the pent up rage.
She stood before a long and narrow workbench. On its surface, a row of bottles in various pretty hues. Her guardian and master, Lord Branvale, had left her with a simple spell to cast over a range of potions to preserve them and stop the oils going rancid. Yet her mind struggled to grasp the threads needed to weave the magic together.
Bah. She hated preservative spells that grated over her skin in an unpleasant fashion. How she longed to craft magic that worked with Mother Nature. To encourage trees to soar to unusual heights, or orchids to bloom in the middle of winter. Her fingers itched to dig in the soil and have dirt under her nails.
Instead, she was making things that glowed prettily in a bottle as they sat on a lady’s dressing table. Every day, Branvale berated her and bemoaned the fact that the council decided she should be allowed to live. All her failures proved the inferiority of women mages, and would justify the council’s policy of smothering baby girls, so power transferred to the more deserving males.
Sera let out a gasp as a nail punctured her skin and a droplet of blood welled up. With effort, she let out a deep breath and shook her hands free of tension. Her anger directed not at herself, but at the ignorant men who controlled her life.
At the age of five, every mage was taken from their parents and given over to a mentor to be trained in the use of magic, and to learn the history of mages in England. Plucked from the arms of a mother who must have loved her, they thrust Sera at a man who peered down his nose at her, scoffed at her feeble attempts, and constantly reminded her of the inferiority of her sex.
She wanted to scream. Stupid, small-minded, ignorant men. A certainty dwelt in her bones that she contained more ability than any of them, but she needed to find her unique way of casting. Every day, she vowed to prove them all wrong and to light up the sky with her gift. Except she struggled to light the tinder in the grate.
A long sigh escaped her chest, and her shoulders sagged. With hands flat on the bench, she bowed her head and, for a single, lonely second… despair flashed through her. Then she shook it away. Again. She must try again. Only if she finished the task could she escape the stuffy room.
Branvale had a reputation for his potions and lotions that removed wrinkles, brightened the skin, and returned the sparkle to ageing eyes. He thought his method proprietary and that no one could ever replicate it. Except Sera spent long hours refining his work once he had done the mixing and casting. She knew the contents off by heart, and his secret spells were little more than pleasant smelling illusions.
Closing her eyes, she considered the required spell anew. This time, she ignored the method her master drummed into her and considered her own way of achieving the same end. Instead of imposing a preservative into the potions that were sought after by noble ladies, Sera worked with the oils and herbs and extended their lifespan.
Her way took longer. Each ingredient individually examined and coaxed into altering its form. Rather than forcing them to comply, she enhanced them from the inside. By the time she finished, the entire row of bottles vibrated with a faint song and a sparkle added to their glow. Work done, she placed stoppers in the bottles.
Arching her back, she relieved cramped muscles from a day bent over the table. Then Sera removed her apron and hung it on a hook by the door, before scrubbing her hands in a bowl of water. The dirty water then tossed down a drain in the corner, where it gurgled and swirled before racing off to join the rest of the wastewater.
She hurried from what had once been a storeroom through the servant’s hallway. A quick glance at the clock in the servant’s hall as she passed confirmed she had perhaps an hour before Lord Branvale returned and demanded to see her work. With haste, she hurried on to the bright kitchen.
In the most warm and welcoming room of the entire house, Sera pulled out a chair and sat at the long oak table. The skylight above cast watery sunlight over her as she poured a mug of light ale from the jug and took several long gulps of the refreshing drink. Her throat was parched from a long day in the former cellar and her stomach complained about the lack of sustenance.
“Here, that stomach’s so loud you’d wake sleeping babes.” Rosie Privatt, the cook, used a towel to pick up a plate from the stove and carried it over. Under the cast iron lid, she had kept warm a few sliced pieces of beef, potatoes, and long beans. While short of stature, Rosie had a generous smile and kind nature. When Sera joined the household, Rosie had been the cook’s assistant and, from their first day together, she had treated the young mage like a sibling.
“You are a gem, Rosie. I would starve without you.” Sera picked up a fork and silenced her grumbling stomach.
Her statement was literally true, as their master often worked Sera for long hours with no respite. He didn’t care if she ate or not, but he certainly ensured that he never skipped a meal. Not that she received any special lack of attention, Branvale treated all the servants under his roof poorly. His status as one of England’s mages confirmed, in his mind, his superiority over everyone else.
In many ways, Sera preferred the way he treated her, as she found kindred spirits below stairs. They existed in their own world in the twilight rooms beneath the townhouse. Staff became her family and ensured she was fed. In return, she did what she could to protect them and crafted small enchantments and wards that made their lives easier.
Sera lived on a knife edge, never knowing when the experiment of letting her live would be declared a failure. Twice a year, she was trotted out to the mage council to be assessed and to attempt to grow a blade of grass in the barren soil around the tower. After her lacklustre performance, the older mages would cluster together like a pack of vultures. Some shook their heads and murmured how her power was wasted inside a female vessel.Return to Opening Gambit