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Tilly Wallace

Opening Gambit

Opening Gambit

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She’s been a pawn for too long. It’s time to take control of the game…

The first female magic user to reach adulthood in centuries, Seraphina Winyard is viewed as a freakish chattel by some… and as a danger to erase from history by others. Held captive and humiliated like a performing animal, she cannot dream of a future, and has no hope in the present. Until she escapes.

But when her former guardian is murdered, suspicion falls on Seraphina. Aided by the brilliant surgeon Hugh Miles, she must discover how to wield her power to find the true murderer before her leash is replaced by a noose.

With her life at stake, Sera has to hurry. The deeper she digs, the more she discovers she is a pawn in someone else’s game. A game of magic and lies that intends to resurrect an ancient evil. The endgame will shake England to its core and threaten everyone she loves…

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London, July 1788

The room off the cellar 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 the scream. While no one outside the room might hear, she would, and she refused to release the pent-up rage.
She stood before a long, narrow workbench. On its surface waited 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 from going rancid. Yet her mind struggled to grasp the threads needed to weave the magic together.
Bah. She hated preservative spells—they 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 to 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 had decided she should be allowed to live. All her failures simply proved the inferiority of women mages, and would justify the council’s policy of smothering baby girls so that their power might transfer to more deserving males.
Sera let out a gasp as a fingernail punctured her skin and a droplet of blood welled up. With an effort, she let out a deep breath and shook her hands free of tension. Her anger must be 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 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, the council 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 possessed 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, 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, including the fact that 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 had drummed into her and considered her own way of achieving the same end. Instead of infusing a preservative into the potions that were sought after by noble ladies, Sera worked with the oils and herbs to extend 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 muscles cramped 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. She tossed the dirty water down a drain in the corner, where it gurgled and swirled before racing off to join the rest of the wastewater on its course to the river.
She hurried from what had once been a storeroom and along the servants’ hallway. A quick glance at the clock in the servants’ hall as she passed confirmed she had perhaps an hour before Lord Branvale returned and demanded to see her work. 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 carry it over. Under the cast iron lid, she had kept warm a few slices of beef, potatoes, and long beans. Short in stature, Rosie had a generous smile and a kind nature. When Sera had 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 twelve mages confirmed, in his mind, his superiority over everyone else.

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