The vineyards at Chateau Pape Clement in Pessac, France were a sight to behold in the summer of 1876.
I know. I know. Everyone hates flashbacks at this point in the story, but it is necessary for you to fully understand why I would even consider giving up everything I believe in to save Victoria from my own order.
Members of the Collective gather for a summit every thirteen years—a mage’s decade. It is under the pretense of scholarly pursuits, where we discuss our latest and greatest research with one another. But also, we drink. A lot.
So it was convenient to hold the events at the vineyards. We rented the chateau from Jean-Baptiste Clerc, who had expanded the vineyard in the brief years he owned them, commercializing his wines to be amongst the greatest in France. Though the inquisition had ended 42 years prior, our numbers had yet to recover from all the murder, death, and mayhem. Still, the manor would have been too small for all the mages without shoving several of us in each room.
With our dimensional pockets, this wasn’t really a problem so much as an excuse to mingle. As it would happen, I shared a small storage closet with five others who had as little clout as I possessed in those days. Even though I was approaching 70, that is quite young as an ethermage. As a journeyman, I had only been officially practicing the art for about 60 years. It would be another 40 before I could be considered for the test to join the guild of masters.
And though my mentor was Grandmaster Caderyn of the Celtic Collective, I was barely more than a clerk for the Collective, which earned me few perks. Likewise, Abigail and Aiden had come as grunts from the Hebrew order in Jerusalem. After their father had died, their mother had moved them from Ireland to her homeland in Israel. I’d never learned all the details, but soon after Abigail had bonded to Artemis, Aiden joined the Celtic chapter and had not spoken to his mother, Grandmaster of the Hebrew Collective, since.
But I am getting ahead of myself. This flashback has a better beginning. That debacle would all come long after the summit.
It was a short trip along a single ley from the Isles of Man off Ireland to France, which dumped me out in the middle of Paris. Fog rolled off the Seine River, climbed the shores and settled atop the cobbled road—one of the few broad stoned streets not replaced with the small rocks from macadam design after the revolution of 1871. The white cloud obscured my feet below the ankles. I could smell bread in the air from a bakery I could not see.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
I had been expecting a steward from the summit, but I had not seen the woman walking from the bridge until she spoke. Immediately, I was struck by two things. First, her piercing blue eyes lit the morning gloom, sparkling somehow despite the lack of ambient light. She wore a gown of ornate fabric, expensive enough to feed a commoner’s family for a year. The lace along the top covered very little of her shoulders and hugged her form to the waist, then plumed out in a bell-shape. Her pale skin contrasted her black hair, which was pulled into an intricate bun.
The second thing that hit me about her was the raging torrent of ether surrounding her. She was strong in the art with a natural talent equal to, if not greater than, my own.
Her lips quirked up as she studied me as well, broadening as she approached.
“Aye,” I finally croaked out. “Beautiful. Beyond words.”
She smiled. I melted. My mouth went dry. To this day, I could not say how I walked without tripping on my rubbery legs. I extended a hand to her. The tremble I felt inside did not reach my fingers. Thank the gods.
“I am Liamorandus Fianna of the Celtic Collective. But, please, call me Liam.”
She extended her fingers. After I bent over and kissed them, she left her hand atop mine. I know such a gesture is nothing to the kids these days, but that smallest touch sent my heart fluttering. It was practically a declaration of interest. And since I had not dated in over two decades, it stirred desires I had not known still existed. I mean, 70 isn’t old for magi standards, but between hunting Lovecraftian beasties and quelling the ambitions of the gods, there was time for a bit of romance.
At least, that’s what I told myself as she said, “I am Victoria Deletante of the Franc Collective.”
“Victoria,” I said, tasting the name, “like the Roman goddess of Victory.”
“Do not worry. I left my chariot at home.”
I snorted out an inelegant laugh. “Probably for the best. They went out of fashion with the coach.”
“Out of fashion?” An arrogant, Scottish voice asked from behind me. “Never.”
I turned to see a man dressed like a rich count with fiery red hair and matching stubble. His ruffled, white satin blouse plumed out of a black doublet. Red and gold trimmed the seams of his leather cape. His cocky grin put me instantly on edge. He strutted over and bowed, cape flourishing as he whipped it to the side.
Before he could introduce himself, a woman appeared beside him and shoved hard enough to topple him. He glared up at her. “Oy. You ruined my entrance.”
“I was just saving you the trouble of doing so yourself.”
And that was how I met Aiden and Abigail MacGregor, son and daughter of Robert MacGregor, also know as Rob Roy, who was basically Robin Hood in the flesh. Both carried their father’s rebellious nature and their mother’s immense skill in the art of ether magic.
“I’m Abigail MacGregor. That is Aiden.”
Aiden stood, meticulously cleaning the dirt from his cape and backside. “We have come from the Hebrew Collective.” He glared at Victoria. “I presume you are the steward for the summit?”
She shrugged dipping her chin toward her bare shoulder. “Oui.”
At the time, I did not speak French, but I knew the word for yes. Aiden, however, threw a string of sounds, vaguely French at her after that. With his Scottish accent, his sounds were harsher than hers, but Victoria obviously understood his meaning. Beside him, Abigail shook her head and added to the conversation.
A few seconds later, they all regarded me expectantly. I shrugged. “My apologies. I speak nine languages. French is not one of them.”
Victoria’s eyes widened. “Nine? I am not sure if I should be insulted.”
“Definitely not,” I assured her. “I do not share my mentor’s distaste for France.”
“Grandmaster Caderyn does not like France?” Aiden cut in.
“How did you know my—”
“Your reputation proceeds you, Liamorandus,” Abigail said.
“Reputation?” I said, dumbly. “What reputation?”
Before they could answer, another pair exited the ley and hurried onto the bridge. Both wore traditional wizard’s robes, voluminous and flowing, with only their almond-skinned faces revealed. One was tall with a heart-shaped face. Her dark hair was long and straight, spilling down the front of her robes. The other was short, barely over five feet, hair cut like a page.
“Are we late?” the taller woman asked, dark eyes drinking me in.
“No,” Victoria answered.
The Indian woman’s gaze lingered on me for a few more seconds. She smiled before turning to regard Victoria. “This is good news.”
“I am Amoli Bhatti,” the short one said. “This is Mayra Chander. We come from the Bharata Collective.”
“I am Victoria Delatante,” she said, bowing her head slightly, “of the Franc chapter. I am your steward for the extent of the summit. Now that we are all here, shall we get settled into our room?”
“Room?” Aiden asked. “As in singular?”
“Many will be attending the summit this year. Did you not bring your dimensional pocket as instructed?”
“He brought it,” Abigail said. “He simply enjoys being contrary.”
“Do not,” he said, expression petulant.
“See?” Abigail said with a smile.
“I do,” Victoria said, politely. “If it would please you to follow me?”
Without waiting for a response, she assumed mistform. I quickly dematerialized and leapt behind, staying close to the wyther trail caused by her use of ether. We zoomed over a waking Paris, swirling the fog as she soared out of the city and across the country, southwest.
We landed in a vast field of summer flowers. Once everyone rematerialized, panting and breathing hard, Victoria waved a hand revealing a small boat. Instead of sails, it had translucent wings protruding from the sides.
“All aboard,” Victoria said with a smile.
Steps appeared from the side. Aiden reached them first and tromped up, frowning. “A bit small, isn’t it?”
“Do not be an ass,” Abigail said, following.
“After you,” I said to Amoli and Mayra.
“Such a gentleman,” Mayra said, walking up the steps. I gave a polite smile and nodded my thanks at the compliment.
With a foot on the lowest step, Victoria stopped me with a glance. She motioned conspiratorialy for me to come closer. When I did, she said, “I would keep an eye on that one, were I you.”
“Have you not heard of the aggressive promiscuity of the Bharata Collective?”
I had, in fact, heard things, but I said, “No. Aggressive?”
She shrugged, drawing my attention to her bare shoulders. Though she said, “You’ve been warned,” it sounded more like, “You’ll see.”
I gave a thankful bow and said in the stiffest voice I could manage, “I am eternally grateful that you would defend my chastity, Madam Delatante.”
“But of course,” She said with a wry smile. “As your steward, my only job is to serve you.”
“And the others.”
“Sure. And the others.”
As I stepped into the boat, I felt a burning in my chest. I’m pretty old to be this taken by someone within minutes of meeting her, but somehow I knew this weekend would be magical indeed.
Victoria followed, gathering ether as she moved to the helm. As we ascended, the sun rose behind us in streams of pinks and purples, glittering along the wings of the vessel. They flapped in the wind, carrying us all to our fates.
Sometimes, Loki can be kind.