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The Burning Sky

The Elemental Trilogy - 1

by

Sherry Thomas

To J, who is as kind, smart, and hilarious as he is gorgeous, and who has loved this story since it was but a blob

CHAPTER 1

FIRE WAS EASY.

In fact, there was nothing easier.

They said that when an elemental mage called forth flame, she stole a little from every fire in the world. That would make Iolanthe Seabourne quite the thief, gathering millions of sparks into one great combustion.

That flame she sculpted into a perfect sphere ten feet across, suspended above the rushing currents of the River Woe.

She beckoned with her fingers. Streams of water shot up and arced over the fireball. Stray droplets gleamed briefly under the sun before falling into the flame, releasing sizzles of steam.

Master Haywood, her guardian, used to love watching her play with fire. He had not been alone in his fascination. Everyone, from neighbors to classmates, had wanted her to show them how she made little fireballs dance upon her palm, the same way Iolanthe, as a child, had asked Master Haywood to wiggle his ears, clapping and laughing with delight.

Master Haywood’s interest, however, had run far deeper. Unlike others who simply wished to be entertained, he’d challenge her to make intricate, difficult patterns and draw entire landscapes with filaments of fire. And he’d say, My, but that is beautiful, and shake his head with wonder—and sometimes, something that felt almost like unease.

But before she could ask him what was the matter, he’d ruffle her hair and tell her he was taking her out for ices. There had been two years during which they’d had many, many cups of ices together, lumenberry for him and pinemelon for her, sitting by the window of Mrs. Hinderstone’s sweets shop on University Avenue, just a five-minute walk from their house on the campus of the Conservatory of Magical Arts and Sciences, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the entire Domain.

Iolanthe hadn’t had pinemelon ice in years, but she could still taste its tart, fresh tingle on her tongue.

“My, but that is beautiful.”

Iolanthe started. But the voice belonged to a woman—Mrs. Needles, in fact, who cooked and cleaned for Master Haywood three days a week here in Little Grind-on-Woe, about as far from the Conservatory as one could get without leaving the shores of the Domain. Not that Master Haywood earned enough to hire help anymore, but some housekeeping had been included as part of his compensation.

Iolanthe dissipated the fireball still hovering in the air above the fast, white-foamed river. She didn’t mind juggling apple-sized handfuls of fire for the children, or provide a few garlands of dancing flames at Little Grind’s solstice ball, but it embarrassed her to display her abilities to this extent, with enough fire on hand to burn down the entire village.

Unless you are actually performing at the Majestic Circus, Master Haywood had always urged her, think twice about exhibiting your powers. You never want to appear a braggart—or worse, a freak.

She turned around and smiled at the housekeeper. “Thank you, Mrs. Needles. I was just practicing for the wedding.”

“I had no idea you were such a mighty elemental mage, Miss Seabourne,” marveled Mrs. Needles.

In the Old Millennia, when elemental mages decided the fate of realms, no one would have given Iolanthe’s middling powers a second glance. But these were the end days of elemental magic. Compared to the majority of elemental mages, who could barely call forth enough fire for a night-light—or enough water to wash their own hands—Iolanthe supposed her powers would indeed be considered mightier than average.

“Mrs. Oakbluff and Rosie—and all their new in-laws—will be so impressed,” continued Mrs. Needles, setting down a small picnic basket. “And Master Haywood, of course. Has he seen your performance yet?”

“He was the one who gave me the idea for the big fireball,” Iolanthe lied.

The villagers might suspect Master Haywood to be a merixida addict who neglected his sixteen-year-old ward, but she refused to portray him as anything other than a most solicitous, attentive father figure.

In the seven years since his troubles started, she’d developed a certain demeanor, a second personality that she wore like an exoskeleton. The Iolanthe who faced the public was a darling: a confident, outgoing girl who was also wonderfully sweet and helpful—the result of having been deeply cherished her entire life, of course.

She had grown so accustomed to this exterior that she didn’t always remember what truly lay underneath. Nor did she particularly want to. Why fester in disillusion, bewilderment, and anger when she could float above and pretend to be this sunny, charming girl instead?

“And how are you today, Mrs. Needles?” she turned the questioning around. Given a choice, most people preferred to talk about themselves. “How’s the hip?”

“So much better, ever since you gave me that joint-easing ointment.”

“That’s wonderful, but I can’t take all the credit. Master Haywood helped me make it—he’s always hovering about when I’ve a cauldron before me.”

Or perhaps he’d locked himself in his room for an entire day, ignoring Iolanthe’s knocks and the trays of food she’d left outside his door. But Mrs. Needles didn’t need to know that.

No one needed to know that.

“Oh, he’s lucky to have you, he is,” said Mrs. Needles.

Iolanthe’s cheer faltered a little—did she ever fool anyone, in the end? But she remained resolutely in character. “For running a few errands now and then, maybe. But there are far easier ways of getting chores done than raising an elemental mage for it.”

They chuckled over that, Mrs. Needles good-naturedly, Iolanthe doggedly.

“Well, I brought you some lunch, miss.” Mrs. Needles nudged the picnic basket closer to Iolanthe.

“Thank you, Mrs. Needles. And if you’d like to leave early today to get ready for the wedding, by all means, take as much time as you need.”

That would get Mrs. Needles away from the house before Master Haywood awakened testy and disoriented from his merixida-induced stupor.

Mrs. Needles placed a hand over her heart. “That’d be nice! I do love a wedding, and I want to look my best in front of all those fancy city folks.”

Rosie Oakbluff’s wedding was to take place in Meadswell, the provincial capital sixty miles away. At the wedding, Iolanthe would light the path on which the bride and groom would walk arm in arm toward the altar. It was considered good luck for the lighting of the path to be performed by a friend of the bride rather than a hired elemental mage, and no one minded too much that Iolanthe was less a friend to the bride than someone trying to bribe the mother of the bride.

“I will see you at the wedding,” she said to Mrs. Needles.

Mrs. Needles waved, then vaulted, leaving behind a faint distortion in the air that quickly cleared. Iolanthe checked her watch—quarter to one in the afternoon. She was running behind.

Not just for the wedding. She was at least half a term behind in her academic reading. Her clarifying potions kept failing. Every last spell from Archival Magic fought tooth and nail against her efforts at mastery.

And the first round of qualifying exams for upper academies began in five weeks.

Elemental magic was elder magic, a direct, primordial connection between the mage and the universe,

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