In a world inspired by 16th century Italy, magic is a common occurrence. Everyone in the realms of Epidalio and Zafiria is gifted with it at birth, but with every spell cast, their power wanes.
Gaiane Asares is the result of an accurate selection by her mother, the queen of Zafiria. She’s infinitely powerful; a weapon of mass destruction kept segregated in a tower and used against her will to conquer Epidalio.
Meanwhile, in Epidalio, Leo was born with no magic at all, a rarity. She lost her home and family when Zafiria attacked, and her resentment toward the invaders still burns.
Gaiane manages to escape her gilded cage, and the two girls cross paths. But when war threatens the land again, their loyalty will be put to the test. Will they manage to overcome their differences in the name of freedom?
Get carried away into the sparkling world of Italy in THE OTHER SIDE OF MAGIC by Ester Manzini—out next Tuesday, April sixth. Pre-order your copy NOW!
"You can do it."
Her mother’s voice fluttered against the shell of her ear.
“You were trained for this. You were born for this. I believe in you.” The hands clutching her fingers shook just a little. Exaltation, of course. Not fear.
Gaiane squeezed her eyes shut. Staring at her mother’s face, so ageless and confident, made her doubts feel twice as big and silly.
Mother knew best. Mother knew what to do, and if she said she was ready, Gaiane needed to be. She nodded once, and the cold metal of the collar around her neck bounced against her collarbones.
A precaution. A constant companion in the ten short years of her life. Peeking from under her lashes, Gaiane caught the faintest glimmer from the ornament. Smooth and plain, a perfect ring of polished iron keeping her magic subdued. So different from the silver and gold of her mother’s crown or her father’s brooch—a queen and her consort.
She couldn’t take it off
She hated it. Even if it was for her own good.
Her quarters, at the top of the highest tower in Zafiria's royal palace, were crowded. The whole Council shuffled at the edge of Gaiane’s attention. From the ridge of the arched ceiling, where a large chandelier glimmering with golden light globes, the two sloping sides descended in a blaze of lapis lazuli blue sky and silver stars. The immaculate walls, inter‐ rupted here and there by slender columns hosting more magical lights, were covered in bookshelves, and the spring sun shone through the great windows, glittering in gold on the bars.
“I’m going to open the seal, my little dove. And after that, I only need you to trust me. Will you, Gaiane?”
She could. She needed to—wanted to, because it was one thing to heed Queen Cibele Asares’ command, but having her mother caress her hands and call her by her name filled the ever gaping void in Gaiane’s heart. Gaiane would do anything to please her mother, in those rare moments she had to spare.
Gaiane took a deep breath and tried to focus on her hands, gently held in her mother’s grip. Golden rings sparkled on her fingers, white and silver silks embroidered in a motif of stars and butterflies on her wrists.
She shifted into place, the soft blue carpet tickling her bare feet.
She forced herself to swallow her dread and straighten her back, she then raised her head.
The queen was staring at her. No, her mother, with her ivory skin and shiny black hair, with her bluebell eyes and the freckles on her nose. Gaiane could see herself in those refined features, less so in the black ring flashing under her hairline. Under the black paint, it was fading. Gaiane’s was still as black as when she was born. It was never going to change.
“Will you, my daughter?” her mother asked again, and this time Gaiane looked her in the eye.
“Yes,” she said. Behind the queen, the whole council was standing at a respectful distance.
Her father was there, his graying hair and the dimple on his cheek when his lips curled in a smirk. The members of the Council held their breath at Gaiane’s consent, and the sound made her little birds uncomfortable. Chirping and fluttering around in their gilded cage, the soft little creatures mirrored Gaiane’s nervousness.
The queen dropped her hands and got to her feet, towering above Gaiane with a triumphant smile.
“Come, then.” A slow flick of her chin, and she moved to the large window between the bookcases behind her.
Gaiane hesitated. Her eyes went to the only person in the room not wearing silks and jewels.
“Your majesty, she’s still very young. You’re asking a lot of her.” Alcmena’s voice rose high and clear, with no trace of fear. Gaiane envied her strength, even if such insolence was unseemly in a servant.
“Thank you for your concern. The House of Asares greatly appreciates your loyalty,” the queen said, her face unchanged but for a spark of steel in her eyes. Gaiane shivered in the cold implications of her mother’s words, but Alcmena stood still. Her grey hair was neatly combed back in a high bun, and her aquiline nose scrunched lightly as she bowed.
“And I know your daughter, your majesty. She’s of course skilled enough for the task, but the effects on her young mind…”
“Are we really wasting our time listening to a tutor? The siege is at a crucial point, and we need to strike now.” Her father took a step forward, and for a terrible second Gaiane feared he wanted to shove Alcmena back. Diocle, though, was a smarter man than that: he simply ignored the old lady and stared at his queen with no trace of subjection. “We need Gaiane to be ready. And I know she is.”
In the look they exchanged, Gaiane could see a world of unsaid truths, all just beyond her grasp. But before she could wonder about her parents’ behavior, the queen shook her long braids.
“I must agree with Lord Diocle. It’s not the time for doubts, and your presence here endangers the princess’ efforts, Alcmena. Please, escort her out of the tower,” she said, and from behind the elegant crowd two guards stepped forward.
Gaiane held her breath. Panic was clawing its way up her throat again, and her vision blurred with tears when she saw Alcmena sigh in acceptance.
Before turning her back to the room, the woman looked at her. Her eyes sparkled, and thin lines appeared at the corner of her mouth as she smiled.
“You can do it, my darling princess. Breathe, focus, and count to ten. You’re a good child,” she said in a whisper, and Gaiane sniffed. Despite her fear, her doubts relented. Alcmena knew her: she’d taught Gaiane to read and to sing, to feel the energy run under her skin and to entwine it with the world’s weave whenever the collar was removed. She was a friend, and she believed in her.
I need to prove to you that your teachings were not in vain.
A wink turned into a nervous look at the guards closing in around her, and Alcmena left.
The door closed with a small thud, and a nervous wave rippled the audience.
“You grace, we need to hurry. According to our plan the troops are already…”
“I know, Alcibiades. I didn’t ask for your report,” the queen snapped. The old counselor pressed his lips in a tight line and his nostrils flared. Gaiane almost felt sorry for him, but then her mother turned to her once more. “Gaiane, it’s time you fulfill your destiny.”
And now, without her mentor to anchor her to reality, all Gaiane had left was the burning desire to please her mother. With a lump in her chest and tears still prickling in her eyes, she followed her mother’s gesture and reached the window. The shutters were open, and the golden bars were warm against her skin when she touched them.
Her hands looked so small on the dark stones of the windowsill, pale and frail like the white finches tweeting in their cage. A deep breath, a silent iteration of the religious formulas to the Mother Goddess and the Spirits of the Ancients, and she looked at the vast landscape unfolding hundreds of feet under her prison. Her head spun at the sight of endless green fields and dark woods, faded mountains in the East and silver stream of a river - the Arrowhead Creek, tributary to the Itia river, running south to its estuary in the…
Gaiane shook her head and banned the relief of academic distractions. She filled her lungs with the crisp spring air as her mother’s fingertips descended on her collar.
She tried not to look. Not to hope—it was just for the time being, just for this enterprise she was called to. A moment of freedom in her own cage.
In the distance, the villages of Epidalio were miniatures no bigger than her toys. A sawmill here, a cluster of houses of white plaster and dark wooden beams there. The line dividing the land from her own Zafiria was clear in her mind, but not in the real world. The border was less than fifteen miles from the palace, an invisible barrier between the woods.
She couldn’t see the queen’s soldiers. Their marks on the countryside, though, were everywhere: smoke was rising from a burned down barn, a scatter of black in the middle of the forest.
The troops were already laying siege to Nikaia, the capital of Epidalio, and people were suffering for it. It was her duty to put an end to this war. “Everything I’ve done, everything you’ve been through, has been leading up to this,” her mother whispered to her ear. “Your birth. Your sacrifices. Your studies.”
Gaiane let tears roll down her cheeks as the queen’s fingers worked their way around her collar. A part of her was drawn to the movement, to the subtle patterns of power unlocking the seals to her magic, mysterious beyond her understanding. She was an instrument her mother was playing, and the melody was too arcane for her to remember.
She couldn’t look away from the fires punctuating the land. “Gaiane, my child, this is going to be different from your usual exercises. You’ll be the source of all our troops’ spells, and I want you to pour yourself entirely in this task.” A click rang through Gaiane’s bones, and the iron collar weighted differently around her neck. “You can turn Zafiria into an empire, ruled by those who rightfully deserve it. By virtue of our power. Of our sacrifices.”
“Your majesty, I daresay we’re wasting precious time with all these encouragements.” Diocle's words rumbled across the room, and the Council murmured in outrage. The queen glared at him, but quickly returned to Gaiane.
“Guide them. Spur them. And today they’ll call you conqueror, and not just princess.”
Emotion swelled in her belly. Gaiane tried to steady her voice, but when the collar fell in her mother’s palms, a tiny sob bubbled from her lips.
She turned her face to look at the queen.
It was silly, but Gaiane needed to ask.
“Will… it be back? After?” A quick glance at the collar, the urge to rub her throat barely controlled.
Queen Cibele smiled, and her blue gaze shifted from Gaiane’s face to something behind her.
“We’ll see. The better your performance, the higher the chances to leave your tower for good.”
And it was true. It had to be true, because Gaiane trusted her mother, and a queen would never lie. Not to her daughter.
Free from her collar and free from her prison. It was the last incentive Gaiane needed.
She looked at the world spreading around her tower. Some‐ where, beyond the screen of smoke, men and women were fighting. Dying. She could stop this and bring peace. Her heart drummed against her ribcage. Light and delicate like the fluttering of her birds’ little wings.
She closed her eyes. The ring on her forehead burned like the sun, sending waves of energy through her nerves. Even in the darkness she could see it--lines of light under her colorless skin, bursting from her heart and melting with the golden glow covering the whole world.
It only awaited her command. Everyone’s souls sparkled like pinpricks of sunshine, everywhere. Some were dimmer, some brighter, none as blinding as her own. A pattern of crossing lines and flashes of light covered everything. People and elements, and she was one with them.
Gaiane searched for the soldiers. Here they were, fiery profiles against the walls of a faraway city. Nikaia, she knew it, with its thick towers and sturdy battlements. She gritted her teeth as her own men died one by one. Their arrows weren’t precise enough, their armors too frail. More people died when‐ ever a Zafirian soldier found its mark. A red mist of fog shrouded the distant battle.
Her power throbbed and pawed for release. Shaking in her bones and thumping in her skull, magic begged her to breathe and let it all out.
Not yet. When I’m told so, not yet.
Her nails chipped against the windowsill.
Queen Cibele's command broke the dam.
Gaiane sunk her fingertips in the cold stones and bared her teeth.
She was not built for restraint. Her power would never fade or diminish. For the first time, she could just let it go. She poured it all in that single, desperate outburst. To end a war, her mother had said.
To conquer a kingdom.
Magic flowed through her, beyond her. Down the tower and over the fields, through the trees and across the rivers. She pulled at the strings holding the world together, and her power reached the soldiers. It blended with theirs, and she felt their surprise as if it were her own.
Steel was invulnerable now. Arrowheads pierced stone and flesh and never missed. A simple spell from the knight guiding the charge turned to a devastating outburst that tore a gate from its hinges.
The blue tide of Gaiane’s spell washed over the land and made everything shine and cast deep lights.
Too clear. Too vivid.
In the time of a quickened beat of her heart, it all came back to her. She wasn’t just lending her energy to the troops—she was living the battle with them. With every single soldier, and hundred, thousands of details cluttered her head. A gasp, and Gaiane staggered back. Blood pooling on the streets, painting the grey stones of a wall. The chorus of cries from the wounded, the dying, the survivors. Pain—so much pain she couldn’t breathe, broken bones, severed limbs, a little child face down in the mud, his head dented. The horses rolling their eyes at the sky, shattered legs, and froth at their mouth.
Death. It invaded her mind—a nameless horror draining her wits, sucking out her power.
Colors dulled, shadows deepened, and Gaiane swayed.
Her eyes shot open, and her voice rose to a wail. To a scream, beastly and high-pitched. It scorched her throat and crushed her lungs.
Darkness swallowed the battle, the fields and woods, the golden bars at her window. Her mother’s face, concerned and triumphant.
She screamed, and darkness reclaimed her.
It was the pocketknife’s fault. Little more than a child’s toy, with a dull blade barely good for whittling soft pine wood. Da didn’t want her to handle anything bigger, and she had to beg Ma to let her keep that one knife. It was small enough for her hands, at least.
Leo squinted and adjusted herself on the thick ash branch, letting one leg dangle and her bare heel bounce against the bark. With the tip of her tongue between her teeth, she studied the chunk of durmast she’d stolen from the carpenter’s pile of scratches. He wouldn’t miss it anyway, and she needed to practice.
Maybe it depended on the wood instead? Old Barlin had tried to explain to her that for a little girl it was better to start with something softer, keeping the hardest kinds of carving wood for another time. Leo scoffed at the thought. First, she was ten, not a little girl. She was taller than most of the kids her age, too. And second, how was she supposed to learn if all they allowed her were toys and condescension?
She snorted and shook her head. The two tight braids running from the top of her head to the base of her neck tickled her.
She stuck the tip of her knife under a particularly stubborn knot and twisted it, dropping shavings in her lap. Too hard indeed, and with a subpar tool, too.
If only Da weren’t that anxious…
A bee buzzed near her ear, and Leo swatted it away with her blade. This place was good, but the bugs were a nuisance. Though this tree was tall enough to scare most of her friends out of the idea of climbing it, and no adult would ever think a ten-year-old would dare to go that high.
It was quiet, and nobody would come looking for her.
“Here I can do something worth learning,” she grumbled to herself. Her mood soured instantly, and she stabbed the wood with such hostility the blade slipped and almost hit her skin.
The thought of school made her angry.
No, not angry. Sad? Not exactly. But whenever she sat with her seventeen classmates in the dim lit room, with that sourfaced, boring Galeno writing endless streams of twitching symbols on the blackboard, an invisible weight crushed her chest. Each year, that traveling teacher pestered the village with his presence, and each year Leo hated him a little more. He called her lazy and sloppy, glared at her and frowned whenever she improvised a new reason for her missing homework. After her last ‘the billy goat ate it’, she was running out of ideas. And the goat hadn’t even liked her papers, either.
It wasn’t her fault if the lessons made her terribly nervous. “You’re distracting your classmates!” Galeno used to say whenever some other kid blamed a failed spell on her.
Even in the warm spring sun, shielded by the leaves that extended like a green, lacy canopy above her, she shivered. The yearly lessons she had to attend were what nightmares were made of: the boredom of learning through Galeno’s flat voice, geography and the basics of religion—the Mother who made fields, cattle and people fertile; the spirits of the ancestors that apparently were still checking on the living—were nothing compared to the books Leo couldn’t read, riddled with magic secrets and spells woven in every blot of ink.
As if that wasn’t enough, all kids old enough to walk were already proficient in magic, showing off the black ring on their brows. Hers was still smooth and evenly brown. What other people were born with, a talent as natural as breathing, still slipped her grasp. Leo couldn’t tell why; and the grown-ups insistence on waiting, because of course magic would come to her, too, only made her feel more wrong.
The knot was sturdier than expected. She wiped her sweaty cheeks with her forearm and stared into the distance. Colorful banners already adorned Elertha’s Mill square, and a pole wrapped in red and white ribbons emerged from the treetops.
Soon, the Spring Festival would turn the plain simplicity of the Mill into its festive version. Which, in Leo’s opinion, was equally as boring, only in a fancy outfit. She couldn’t think of many ways to make the cluster of clean roads, white plaster and dark wooden beams houses, and even the pretentious shape of the slightly taller building for assemblies interesting. The flowers at the balconies and swallows nesting under the mill’s roof were nice, but only added to the hopelessly rural look of the place.
And at least the swallows got to leave…
The chatter for the upcoming Festival covered the murmur of the river. And sure enough it covered the footsteps under her tree, because when a sharp voice called her name, Leo almost rolled down the branch in surprise.
“Leo! Spirits’ sake, I’ve been looking for you all morning!”
Leo rolled her eyes and stuck her knife in the branch, crossing her arms over her chest.
Of course her mother would come to look for her. Because of course Galeno had sent word of her skipping class.
“Come down immediately!”
“Ma, it’s not…”
“I’m not joking, Leo. I have no time to waste, so you better bring your sorry hide here this very moment.”
“The whole village is paying for master Galeno's lessons, and you avoiding him is both a waste of money and a shame! Honestly, why are you like this? I thought you’d learned how to behave after last year…”
The stern tone surprised her a little. Ma wasn’t the strict one, and being scolded like that meant something was off.
In the past three years, Leo had done her best to avoid Galeno, and most of the time Ma had found a way to excuse her. Magic was necessary, and children were supposed to learn how to master it and get to work with their families as soon as possible. Those who showed an inclination or desire to delve into magic any further could attend some of the colleges in Epidalio’s larger cities, even in the capital Nikaia, if they were particularly gifted; everyone else was expected to put their powers to use in the fields or their families’ businesses.
Leo was hard-working enough, but in the wrong way.
With a sigh, she picked her knife up and placed it at her belt.
“Fine,” she grumbled. Going down was easier but way more terrifying, and she tried not to look down as she perched herself on one branch, and then another, lower and lower still.
Eventually, when she was still six feet up the trunk, she jumped down and landed with a grunt among the grass.
When she looked up, Ma was glaring at her. Alright, something was really off.
Her mother was pretty. She had always been, with flawless brown ski