Cecilia’s left foot cramped as she finished the last turn of the Olney Step, and dropped into a curtsey. Despite years of brutal physical training, her dress was damp with sweat, the cotton sticking to her skin.
“That was much better. I can tell that despite your attitude, you’ve been practicing,” Sylvie said, sipping a glass of water. Her dress was impeccable, and not a hair on her head was out of place even though she’d spent the past hour going over each step of the complicated dance with Cecilia.
“How is it that I look like I’ve run miles and you look like you barely took a turn around the room?” Cecilia grumbled.
“Ladies don’t sweat,” Sylvie chided.
Sylvie giggled. “They also don’t swear, so you may as well get it out of your system now.”
Cecilia let out a string of expletives.
Sylvie fell into her chair in a fit of laughter. “You’re funny when you’re angry.”
Cecilia lifted her mess of curls from her neck, trying to cool down. “I don’t feel funny.”
The Olney Step was one of her favorites and she’d spent many evenings sneaking off to pubs and bars to learn as many folk dances as possible.
“It’s hard to believe that you’re about to embark on the Gauntlet and you’re more worried about a little step dance,” Sylvie said. “It’s hardly as threatening as enemy hunters waiting to attack in the forest, or enchanted woods leading you in circles for an eternity.”
“It’s not the dance that scares me. It’s the scrutiny.”
Sylvie rolled her eyes. “You faced more scrutiny in that ridiculous contest today.”
Cecilia sighed. “But I’m great at strategy and archery. Tomorrow night, it will be everyone at court and all their feelings and judgments rushing at me in a tide of disapproval.”
Cecilia had always sensed people’s emotions, but it was an unusual magical gift that she had little help learning to control. Though she’d learned to tune in and out, large crowds where hundreds of emotions hit her at once were still a struggle.
“How do you know they’ll disapprove?” Sylvie asked.
Cecilia pinned her friend with a look. “At the last afternoon tea, I dropped a spoon and everyone stared at me like I’d committed some atrocious crime. I wish I could just skip the Godsball and go straight to the rest of the festival. That’s the part I actually enjoy.”
“Do you really feel that way, or do you think maybe you’re making light of everything so you’ll miss your mother less?” Sylvie asked.
Cecilia’s anger tugged away, leaving her with a knot of grief around her heart. Her mother, Rosalee, died when she was six. At the time, her memory witch powers were just beginning to come forth. Unfortunately, her lack of training meant some of her most prized memories were lost to her. She could hold on to millions of memories, both hers and others, yet the ones she wanted desperately eluded her.
Aunt Clara did her best to fill the gap, as had Rainer’s late mother, Maura McKay. But now that she was formally being introduced to the court, Cecilia felt her mother’s absence more acutely.
“I hardly remember her.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to miss her,” Sylvie said, placing a hand on Cecilia’s shoulder. “Especially amid all this change.”
Cecilia smoothed her hands over her dress. “Do you think she would be proud?”
The thought slipped out before she’d realized she was speaking aloud.
“Cece—” The look of pity on Sylvie’s face made her cringe. “Of course she would be proud. You’ve grown into a smart woman and a talented witch.”
Cecilia scoffed. “Yes, of course. So talented, I summon storms without meaning to.”
Sylvie shook her head. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Few people have to master so many types of magic. I still struggle with summoning earth.”
“Liar. You make earth magic look easy,” Cecilia countered.
“I know,” Sylvie said, fluffing her hair with a triumphant grin. “I just wanted to hear you say it.”
Cecilia laughed. “Your ego rivals most hunters.”
“And why shouldn’t it? I intend to be the best at what I do.”
Cecilia arched a brow. “Lead men on?”
“Use their weaknesses against them to get what I want.”
“And what does the radiant Sylvie Brett want?” Cecilia asked.
Her friend shrugged. “Respect. Homage. Maybe tears. I’m sure I’ll know it when I see it.”
Cecilia admired her friend. Sylvie was so self-contained.
But six months ago, when she abruptly ended her secret relationship with her guardian, Cal Bennington, something shifted in Sylvie, turning her colder. It wasn’t as if their love was built to last, since guardians were forbidden from having relationships with their witches, but Cal was a good man, and Cecilia was shocked by the sudden turn in her friend’s feelings. Since their breakup, Sylvie had been sharper—more determined to flex her power over men.
“And what does Cal think about your plans?” Cecilia asked.
Sylvie crossed her arms. “Cal understands what is expected of me, just as I understand what is expected of him.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
Emotions swirled Sylvie like a miniature storm, sluggish grief mixing with burning anger. “I don’t want to talk about Cal anymore. I don’t have hard feelings and we both knew it wouldn’t be forever. Yes, I’m sad that it ended, but it was necessary. I don’t regret it, but things change and I can’t move backward. The only thing that matters now is what’s ahead of me.” She smoothed her delicate hands down her pink silk dress. “Now, if you’re done deflecting. You should head home and get some rest. These next two days will be taxing and you need your beauty sleep if you’re going to stand next to me at the ball.”
Cecilia laughed and swatted her friend’s arm. “Gods, I hope you never lose your vanity.”
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