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3.

Rob got up, dusted himself off, and gave Lilah a pathetic look. “Lilah,” he said, “tell me for real. Did I just die?”

“You got over it,” said Lilah. “Annelise, you grab Salagon. Rob, just go. Jump straight to the office, the moment you left, nothing fancy. Understand?”

“You saved my life.”

“Yeah, well, you canceled death on me, so I guess you saved my life too. Okay? We’re even. Now no more talk. Just go. Go!”

“Gone,” said Annelise, and in a moment, she and Salagon were.

“What are you going to—?” asked Rob.

“Clean up,” said Lilah. “Go on, go!”

Rob almost said something, thought better of it, twisted his ring and vanished. Lilah was alone with her thoughts and the storm and the remaining wizards. “Well,” she said, “I really would love to stay and hang out, but—!” She waved a hand and the storm vanished. The four started to get up and look for their wands. A waterlogged bat was flopping around a few meters further off. “Not done with you buttheads yet,” she said. “Sek il dak ag ra,

The bat, and three of the four wizards, dropped to sleep. The fourth, a pale-haired woman in dark leather, rolled and came up with her wand out, a snazzy steel number. “Trt kar ho nin goth!” she shouted.

“Been tried, honey,” said Lilah. “Kno eur.” The death spell was reflected back, and while the blonde wrestled with her own curse, Lilah, without further taunting, tweaked her ring and vanished.

But then she was between. And while between was usually an uneventful enough place, this time was different.

4.

For the first moment, Lilah felt the usual acceleration through emptiness, the usual rush of an airless wind, and also, now she thought of it, the usual sense of things impotent that might otherwise have been potent.

But there was a gravity. It wasn’t something holding or pulling her back: it was dragging her in a different direction, drawing her out of her course and toward some other destination. And that moment of acceleration, which usually was so brief as to not be a moment at all, so stretched past the level of her noticing that she began to wonder when it would end. When she was a girl, she had fallen off a roof once, and the fall had seemed to stretch for minutes. This was like that.

Except that she wasn’t just falling. Someone was pulling her. Someone was trying to redirect her. Lilah had time to think: This can’t be good. Instinctively she resisted, and as she had time to consider, she could not come up with a reason not to trust to her instinct.

So she threw her entire mental, spiritual and magical weight against the force. She was not anywhere. There was nothing to be seen. But she could feel her progress, her fall, grind to a halt, as if she had willed herself not to hit the ground.

She had hit the ground as a girl, outside her mother’s shop. And now it all came back, all of it in a flood, all her history charging past her mind’s eye while her mind’s feet dug into this eldritch turf, while her mind’s fingers scrabbled for holds in this otherworldly passage.

People came running to her, checking her for injury, doting on her. They took her inside her mother’s shop, where her mother tried to look like she cared. And all the while, she felt someone watching, watching her, watching over her. And she would find out who that was.

And that was the hatchway into all the rest of her past chronology.

Lilah Bay was born in Zente, the capital city of Padva. Her mother was an alchemist named Idyllia Bay, a bright child herself who had never grown up, a child of the dark-skinned underclass of Padva who had the talent to escape her circumstances, yet a victim of her own caprices and addictions. Lilah’s father was of the pale-skinned upper class, and he was dead in a fight with the man who competed with his dealer, all before Lilah was out of diapers.

But her father was from a good family, and his father was a good man. He was Philip Hugo Lavecrest, the fourth of that name, a banker and a solicitor at court and a man who could make things change. It was not in his interest to do so very much, but he strove, as Lilah later learned, to wrest her from Idyllia, and somehow the two of them had forged a sort of compromise. Idyllia thought Lilah should stay in the shop and do her mother’s work—wasn’t that enough in the area of developing her obvious talents? But the Old Man got Lilah into the Institute, and she never looked back.

Lilah saw him now, substantial and fragile, ensconced in his big chair behind his big desk yet full of pent-up energy, frightening and yet—and yet, once he knew he had intimidated her, there were those gleams of sunlight through his storm clouds. She owed him so much. But she owed her mother so much, her mother who, if she had her way, would have kept Lilah working in the back of a dingy little shop. Oh, the arguments they had had, teenage Lilah and her mom. Lilah had never, in all the years since, felt even the smallest wish to have those years back, or to go back and find her mother’s grave. The Old Man, however: how often she had wished she could face him again, dare the fire and ice in those pale eyes, the challenge of that non-smile. Yes, she had met that challenge. She had.

But the challenge was there because he was not. The challenge was there because he had died, and because of the way he had died.

Lilah was in her last year of seven at the institute. It was the swiftest course, and she, with her brains and her hard work and her total abandon, had kept up. She had broken no rule, she had exceeded every standard, she had accepted every challenge because no challenge at the Institute was as great or as comprehensive as the challenge of Philip Hugo Lavecrest IV. She did not even dare speak his name within those walls for fear that they would think she was banking on him, banking on her banker grandfather, to help her through.

And then, in October of her final year, she heard the news. Mr. Lavecrest was gone. It was said he had died of a sudden stroke, but Lilah, driven to break rules for once, had to know. And she had found out. She had found him laid out in his chamber, in his best robes. She knew her alchemy, though she was no alchemist herself: she knew what had come to him. It had not come from within.

Lilah returned to the Institute that night. She said nothing, and no one knew. The friends she had made there might have marked a change, but if so, they did not mark it for long.

By then her mother was dead as well. In June, Lilah Bay had completed the prescribed course of study and was a doctor of wizardry: it was the highest certificate one could earn there, and the rest one had to win for oneself.

The only sign left by that night in Philo Lavecrest’s private room was this: given many opportunities, including that of disappearing into the cosmos and emerging as whatever she wanted to seem to be, and clad in whatever glory or oblivion she chose, Lilah Bay signed on to the fledgling Padva Magical Constabulary. The unit, consisting at first of five wizards and one doctor of wizardry, headed by an aristocrat with some talent of his own, had been created because, to no one’s surprise, the fall of dragons and giants and wandering goblins and the rise of wizards and priests, the rolling, exponentially exploding powers that men and women had learned to seize or coax from the mighty penton, had made sorts of crimes commonplace which were barely imaginable a generation earlier.

Lilah Bay struggled on, dug her feet into the unseen floor and her fingers into the invisible walls, while her memory blew out of all its prisons.

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