Home > Steel's Edge (The Edge #4)

Steel's Edge (The Edge #4)
Author: Ilona Andrews

PROLOGUE


“MY lady?”

Charlotte looked up from her cup of tea at Laisa. The young girl held an envelope of thick, heavy paper.

“This came for you.”

A sudden pain pierced Charlotte’s chest, as if something vital had broken inside her. She felt cold and jittery. It was bad news. If it were good news, she would’ve gotten a scryer call. She felt the urge to squeeze and crumple her blond hair in her fingers. She hadn’t done that since she was a child.

“Thank you,” she made herself say.

The maid lingered, concern stamped on her face. “Can I get you anything, my lady?”

Charlotte shook her head.

Laisa studied her for a long moment, reluctantly crossed the balcony to the door, and went inside.

The envelope lay in front of Charlotte. She forced herself to raise her cup of tea to her lips. The rim of the cup shuddered. Her fingers were shaking.

She focused on that rim, calling on years of practicing control over her emotions. Calm and collected, that was the mantra of the healer. An effective healer is neither callous, nor tenderhearted, her memory whispered in her mind. She doesn’t permit herself to succumb to passion or despair, and she never allows her craft to be compromised by her emotions.

She had lived by this creed for twenty years. It never failed her.

Calm above all things.

Calm.

Charlotte took a deep breath, counting each rise and fall of her chest. One, two, three, four . . . ten. The cup in her hands was motionless. Charlotte drank from it, set it down, and tore the envelope open. Her fingertips had gone numb. The ornate seal of the Adrianglian Academy of Physicians marked the top of the paper. We regret to inform you . . .

Charlotte forced herself to read it, every last word, then stared past the white stone rail of the balcony at the garden below. Down there, a sand-colored brick path ran to the distant trees. Short silvery grass trailed the path on both sides, flanked by a row of low emerald hedges, beyond which flowers bloomed: roses in a dozen shades, their heavy blossoms perfect; constellation shrubs with bunches of star-shaped flowers in crimson, pink, and white; yellow knight spears, their delicate flowerets shaped like tiny bells . . .

She would not be blooming. She would not bear fruit. The last door had slammed in her face. Charlotte hugged herself. She was barren.

The word pressed on her, like a crushing physical weight, a heavy anchor around her neck. She would never feel a life grow inside her. She would never pass on her gift or see the shadow of her features in her baby’s face. The treatments and magic of the best healers in Adrianglia had failed. The irony was so thick, she laughed, a bitter brittle sound.

In the country of Adrianglia, two things mattered most: one’s name and one’s magic. Her family was neither old nor wealthy, and her name was ordinary. Her magic was anything but. At four years old she had healed an injured kitten, and her life took a sharp turn in an unexpected direction.

Medical talents were rare and highly prized by the realm, so rare that when she was seven, Adrianglia came for her. Her parents explained the situation: she would leave them to study at the Ganer College of Medicinal Arts. Adrianglia would house her, teach her, nurture her magic, and in return upon completion of her education, Charlotte would give the realm ten years of civil service. At the end of that decade, she would be granted a noble title, making her one of the coveted elite, and a small estate. Her parents, in turn, would receive a lump sum of money to soothe their grief at losing a child. Even at that age, she realized she had been sold. Three months later, she left for the College and never returned.

At ten she was a child wonder; at fourteen, a rising star; and at seventeen, when her service officially began, Charlotte was the best the College had to offer. They called her the Healer and guarded her like a treasure. In anticipation of assuming her title, she had received instruction from the best tutors. Lady Augustine, whose bloodline stretched back through centuries all the way to the Old Continent, had personally overseen her education, ensuring that Charlotte entered Adrianglian society as if she had always belonged within it. Her poise was flawless, her taste refined, her behavior exemplary. By the time she emerged from the College, now Charlotte de Ney, Baroness of Ney and the owner of a small estate, she had healed thousands.

But she could never heal herself.

Neither could anyone else. After eighteen months of treatments, experts, and magic, she held the final verdict in her hand. She was barren.

Barren. Like a desert. Like a wasteland.

Why her? Why couldn’t she have a baby? She’d healed countless children, pulling them from the brink of death and returning them to their parents, but the little nursery she had set up next to their bedroom would remain empty. Hadn’t she earned this little bit of happiness? What had she done that was so horrible that she couldn’t have a baby?

A sob broke from her. Charlotte caught herself and rose. No hysterics. Elvei would have to be told. He would be crushed. Children meant so much to her husband.

She took the stairs down to the path leading to the northern patio. The old house sprawled in the garden like a lazy white beast, a seemingly random three-story-high collection of rooms, patios, balconies, and stone stairways. The northern patio was on the opposite side of the manor, and she required a few minutes to compose herself. Her husband would need her support. Poor Elvei.

She had just been settling into her new life when Elvei Leremine came to her with a proposal. She was twenty-eight at the time, barely a year out of the College, and lonely. The life of a Healer didn’t leave much time for romantic pursuits. The idea of being married and sharing her life with another human being suddenly seemed so appealing. Baron Leremine was considerate, gracious, and attractive. He wanted a family, and so did she. When a year had passed with no children, she underwent an examination, taking the first step on the grueling eighteen-month journey.

She wanted a baby. She would surround her child with love and warmth, and her son or daughter would never have to worry about being ripped out of her arms because even if her talent passed to her baby, she would go to the College with them. Charlotte stopped for a moment and squeezed her eyes shut. There would be no baby.

A week ago, the months of treatments, tests, and waiting had caught up with her. She felt alone, desperate, and terrified of the future, just as she had when she was seven years old and walking through the massive stone gates of the Ganer College for the first time. And so she sought out the same person who had comforted her then, the woman who became her mother after her natural parents surrendered her. She had gone back to Ganer College to speak with Lady Augustine.

They had walked through the gardens together, just like she was doing now, drifting along the curved stone paths, the College’s forbidding stone walls behind them. Lady Augustine hadn’t changed much. Dark-haired, graceful, her face classically beautiful, she didn’t walk, she glided. Her demeanor was still regal, her features were elegant, and her magic, which could soothe the most violent psychotic in a breath, still as potent as ever.

“Do you think this is a punishment?” Charlotte had asked.

The Lady arched her eyebrows. “Punishment? For what?”

Charlotte clenched her jaw.

“You can tell me anything,” Lady Augustine murmured. “I won’t betray your confidence, sweetheart. You know this.”

“I carry something dark in me. Something vicious. Sometimes I feel an edge of it, looking through my eyes from inside me.”

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