Folks, it’s finally here: the release date for THE IMPOSTERS OF AVENTIL is tomorrow, and I’m just thrilled we’re here at this milestone Maradaine crossover event of a book. I’m super excited, especially since Locus Magazine says it’s “a fun, fast-paced adventure with lots of disguises, secrets, tragic romance, humor, goofy sports, and a big hint of bad things to come.”
So what more do you need? Another excerpt to entice you? All right, if you demand it.
Delmin Sarren didn’t even have to look in Almers Hall to know that Veranix wasn’t there. Not that he had expected him to be there, but he needed to at least make the appearance that he was looking.
More to the point, Delmin realized that he didn’t, in fact, need to look. His magical senses had always been his strongest asset as a student—Professor Alimen had even said that Delmin was one of the most gifted he had ever taught in that regard—but over the course of the summer he had grown even more adept with understanding what those senses were telling him.
Specifically, he had learned Veranix’s unique flavor—that seemed the best word to Delmin—to the point where Delmin could sense whenever Veranix was nearby. That might have been due to the incident at the end of the semester with Cuse Jensett’s numinic batteries, fueled with Veranix’s magic. Delmin had been so inundated with Veranix’s numinic flavor he couldn’t help but notice even a hint of it.
Not unlike how a scent would trigger a memory of nausea.
Now Delmin was thinking of Veranix as Aunt Iasta’s mushroom soup, instead of doing the thing he actually needed to do, which was find Veranix before the Grand Tournament opening ceremony began.
A glance around Almers and the other dorms—just looking at the buildings themselves—told Delmin all he needed to know.
Delmin ran down the walkway toward Bolingwood Tower, and more importantly, the carriage house. If Veranix was anywhere on campus—besides where he was actually supposed to be, which was the opening ceremonies—he would be at the carriage house. But there was no sign that he was currently there.
Delmin felt the faintest whispers that he had been there recently, and the tendrils from those whispers—delicate smoke of numinic traces—left the carriage house and went off to the campus wall. Delmin could barely sense them, but if he really needed to, he could probably follow them along whatever route Veranix took once he left the carriage house.
If nothing else, this had convinced Delmin that his numinic senses were, in fact, more sensitive and finely honed than any other mage on campus—student or otherwise—including Professor Alimen. If the professor could sense Veranix with this much detail, he would have long ago figured out about Vee’s secret life as the Thorn and put a stop to it.
Delmin ran back to the Haveldale Center. Veranix knew where he needed to be, and when he needed to be there. Even though “when” was ten minutes ago, there was nothing more Delmin could reasonably do.
He was capable of tracing Vee through the streets of Aventil and Dentonhill, following himinto whatever dangerholes See decided to jump into in his quest to stop every effitte dealer in town. But actually doing that, going there—that was not something Delmin was emotionally prepared to do. Twice he had put himself in danger, and that was two times too many.
What he could do was report back to the opening ceremonies and honestly say that he couldn’t find him, and hope that Veranix wasn’t bleeding in a ditch somewhere.
Crowds were still filing into Haveldale Center, but they were all using the main entrances, not heading to the loading entrance that led underneath. That was where Delmin needed to get to. Just as he was approaching the wagon-sized tunnel, he felt the sharp, distinctive taste of Veranix suddenly come up on him, strong and hard.
A moment later Veranix Calbert was standing in front of him, as if he had flown in with the wind.
“Saints almighty!” Delmin shouted. “How— what— why in the blazes—”
“Sorry,” Veranix said. “Didn’t realize how late it was, had to cheat a bit to make it.”
“Cheat?” Delmin asked. He noted that Veranix was, if nothing else, dressed appropriately for the ceremonies, in his University of Maradaine uniform, with gray-and-red striped scarf and hat, fourth-year pips on his collar. All just like Delmin was himself. But something seemed off about Veranix’s appearance.
“I’ve got to be honest, I don’t fully understand what I’m doing when I do it. Am I making myself fast, or everything else slow, or am I changing how time works around me? I don’t know.”
Delmin didn’t even have the words. Changing time? Could magic do that? Could Vee do that? And so casually to not even realize? It sickened Delmin to think, yes, if anyone could be so skilled yet so careless, it would be Vee.
“The point is, I ran here, really fast. I don’t recommend doing it often.”
Delmin grabbed Veranix’s arm and pulled him into the entrance. “Vee, do I have to remind you that we actually have to perform magically in about five minutes? I’m kind of counting on you not to make me look like an idiot up there.”
“I’ll be fine,” Veranix said. “This is showmanship, not real magic.”
Something was off in Veranix’s numina flow. Delmin was surprised he didn’t notice it at first. “Vee,” he said quietly. “Are you wearing it?”
“Do you mean—”
“Yes.” Delmin’s annoyance was surely coming through in his clipped tones.
“I did say I to rush to get here on time.”
“You said you had to cheat.”
“And I’m not going to take it off while doing delicate and powerful time-changing magic,” Veranix said. “That would be crazy.”
Sometimes Delmin wondered if anything worked properly in that addled skull of Veranix’s. That Veranix even owned a smuggled, Poasian-made cloak woven with napranium, the incredibly rare numina-drawing metal that fueled him with incredibly powerful levels of magic when he was being “the Thorn”—that alone made Delmin deeply uncomfortable. Delmin didn’t even want to think about its intended owners and the original intent behind making it. The idea that Vee was about to wear it—this thing that in no way he should be in possession of in the first place—in front of a crowd of thousands was enough to make Delmin want to scream.
“Fine,” Delmin said. “I mean it’s not like if something goes wrong, you’re dressed as the Thorn under all that.”
“Of course you are. You probably even have your weapons.”
“I’m not losing another bow—”
“What am I—”
“There you two are!”
Madam Irianne Castilane was an official from either the College of Protocol or the Office of Intercollegiate Relations—or possibly both—but she missed her true life’s calling as a parade sergeant. The opening ceremonies were her orchestration, planned in meticulous detail. And part of that detail involved a display of spectacle and wonder performed by the two fourth-year magic students she was informed were Professor Alimen’s best students.
And she utterly refused to listen to any argument regarding how Delmin and Veranix were Alimen’s “best students” in completely different, perhaps even contradictory, ways. She did not care for one moment that Delmin was not her man to perform a display of spectacle and wonder.
Delmin had pleaded to Professor Alimen,, who merely suggested this was an excellent opportunity for him to test his practical skills.
“I managed to find him,” Delmin said meekly.
“Madam Castilane, I deeply apologize—”
“Spare me, Mister Calbert,” she snarled. “You missed nearly every rehearsal, so I’m not interested in hearing your apologies. What I want is you up on that platform ten minutes ago.”
“Yes, of course,” Veranix said. “Delmin, do you think I could do that?”
“What?” Delmin asked.
“Get there ten minutes ago.”
Delmin bit his lip to keep from screaming in horror. “Sweet saints above, don’t even joke about things like that.”
They hustled through the tunnels to the backstage area, where a myriad of random performers from the University of Maradaine were all gathered—athletes of some sort, some army cadets with drums, and the Girls’ School Ovation Squad. Delmin had a hard time believing that the last thing was something that actually existed.
“You’re late,” Vellia Sansar, captain of the Ovation Squad said with a sneer.
“Impossible,” Veranix said, matching her sneer with a smile. “We can’t start without us.”
Vellia Sansar was definitely not a mage, because her gaze would have set Veranix on fire.
Veranix clapped his hands and looked around the gathered group. “All right, let’s do this! University of Maradaine! U of M! U of M!”
Vellia’s sneer melted away, turning to the rest of the Ovation Squad. “U of M! U of M!”
The squad, athletes, and cadets all joined in. Delmin started doing the same, despite himself.
Veranix was still going strong, and there wasn’t any sign on his face that he was doing this as a facade or joke. Right now, in this moment, he was giving his full energy to the performance, the ceremony.
He kept clapping as the athletes ran up the steps to the stage, followed by the Ovation Squad.
Veranix pulled Delmin closer to him. “All right, Del. Like we practiced. Track me and follow the energy, use that to guide you.”
“I know that,” Delmin said.
“Good.” He looked out at the stage as the athletes did a series of acrobatic maneuvers across it. There was something in his expression that was almost wistful. Then he turned back to Delmin. “One of us is supposed to be on the other side of the stage, right?”
“Yes,” Delmin said. “It’s you.”
“Right. And it’s blue, blue, white, fire, blue, white, blue, lightning, and then the big finish?”
“Switch the lightning and the fire,” Delmin said. “Like every single other time you asked.”
“I’m telling you, it’s dramatically better—”
“Vee! The drums are starting! Other side!”
A buzz of numina wrapped around him, and then he was gone. For half a moment, that signature flavor of Veranix’s magic was a solid wall of energy stretching to the other side of the stage.
“All right,” Delmin said to no one in particular. “Blue, blue, white, lightning. You can do this.” He almost believed it as he stepped up to the stage.
* * *
Even from her place high up in the topmost level of Haveldale Center’s seats, Kaiana Nell found the opening ceremony performances awe-inspiring. She had never seen its like, and from the sounds of the packed audience, many of them felt the same way. Bodies flipped and bounded in unison, as the Ovation Squad leaped from one part of the stage to the other, clapping and chanting. The drumbeats punctuated each moment, each stop of a foot, and each one hit Kaiana deep in the center of her body.
And then there was the real show.
Veranix and Delmin had refused to talk about what they were assigned to do. Veranix had refused out of his love for drama, milking the surprise out of it. Delmin, on the other hand, had kept quiet out of sheer terror.
The two of them took their places at opposite sides of the stage—from her vantage, two tiny figures in school uniforms—and then the stage lit up.
Of course, a series of oil lamps, lenses, and mirrors were already lighting the stage, but it changed completely when Vee and Del took their places.
An arc of blue light stretched between the two of them, which then pulsed and burst into a bright blast of blue that shot out over the crowd. Shouts and shrieks pierced the air as the blue light flew over their heads.
Then again with a white light, and then blue again, and then a blast of lightning that danced over the performers and the crowd.
A tap came on her shoulder. “Miss Nell?”
She turned to see Ebbily, one of the new young men on the campus grounds crew. A good forty more people were hired just for the games, and they were going to need every one of them to keep the playing fields and the rest of the campus in shape.
And once the games were over, most of them would be out of work.
“What is it, Ebbily?”
“We, uh, found something that requires your attention. At least, I was told it did.”
Kaiana sighed. “Requires your attention” was the game the old hands on the staff were playing on her. Most of them resented her promotion to grounds supervisor, second to Master Bretten. Bretten, of course, had been grounds supervisor when Master Jolen was killed, but Kaiana had almost never interacted with him. Jolen had made a point of keeping her isolated from the rest of the staff. Now she was dealing with all of them.
The staff all hated and resented Kaiana’s promotion—the Napa girl living in the carriage house, the new supervisor? But the school administration wasn’t hearing any of that. Kaiana, as far as they were concerned, had saved the whole university from Cuse Jensett, and the promotion was her due.
So the game: she was the supervisor, so any and every annoyance or problem “required her attention”. They were all going to make sure she never got a moment’s peace again. Pulling her away from the opening ceremonies was more of that.
“All right,” she said, getting up from her seat. She slipped her way down the back stairs of the grand auditorium to one of the service exits, and then followed Ebbily to the problem.
Down on the lawn outside the Haveldale Center two of the old hands—Lash and Rennie—were standing around, leaning on their tools, smug expressions on their face.
“Sorry to disturb you, Miss Nell,” Lash said. “It’s just, we’re cleaning up the mess these kids made—”
“Yes, of course,” Kaiana said, striding over and glaring at him with everything she had. Her eyes were the one weapon she knew she had—she was going to lock on to the gaze of every damn one of these men and hold it until they broke and stared at the ground. They wanted to intimidate her, but she’d fought Red Rabbits and Jensett. These guys weren’t going to scare her one bit. “What’s the situation?”
“Well,” Rennie said, “we’re used to the regular junk and mess they all make. But we found something different, and thought maybe you should take a look at it.”
This had to be a joke, she thought. Someone threw up in the bushes, or a student passed out, or some other absurdity.
“All right,” she said. “What is it?”
“Right here,” Lash said, pointing to the ground at his feet. “These.”
Kaiana crouched down, keeping her eye on him. She wouldn’t put it past him to do something crude. As soon as she down all the way, she looked at where he had pointed.
Even in the moonlit night, it was clear what she was looking at. Three glass vials.
She grabbed one and stood up, holding it up to the light of the moon to get a better look at it. A thin film of fluid lined the inside of it.
Effitte. Here on the campus.
She crouched down and grabbed the other two vials. “Thank you, this is very important, indeed. I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.”
“You do?” Rennie asked. He wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“Yes. In fact, if any more of these are found, I want to know about it immediately. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Miss Nell,” Ebbily said.
“Well, sure,” Lash said. “We’ll let you know. You going to stop it, Miss Nell?”
“Maybe she’s the Thorn,” Rennie said, laughing.
“That true, Miss Nell?” Lash added. “You been out there, killing gang boys?”
“Pardon?” Kaiana asked. That was unexpected.
“You didn’t hear about that?” Lash asked. “Yeah, everyone was talking about it. The Thorn killed some gang boy, and the sticks are going All-Eyes on him.”
“When?” Kaiana asked, not bothering to hide her interest. “This was tonight?”
“Why do you care?” Rennie asked.
“Because I like to pay attention to what’s going on, Rennie,” she said. “That’s how you stop trouble before it happens. Now you must excuse me.”
Holding back her anger, she walked as quickly as she could until she was confident she was out of their sight, and then broke into a run around the Haveldale Center to the service entrance. Veranix should be done with the performance by now. He needed to know about the effitte, and she needed to know who he killed and why.
The performance had ended by the time Kaiana reached the backstage area. Veranix was engaged in animated conversation with no fewer than four members of the Ovation Squad, who all fawned over every word he said. Delmin hung about a few feet away, clearly intimidated by everything around him. He spotted Kaiana and came straight over.
“Did you see it?” he asked.
“A bit,” Kaiana said. Seeing his face drop, she added, “What I saw, you did wonderfully. I got pulled away. The usual game.”
He nodded. “Sorry about that.”
“This time it actually was important.” She glanced back over to Veranix. She was not catching his eye, which she could understand, him being engulfed by Ovation like that. All four of them, traditional Druth beauties, with fair skin and light brown or honey blond hair. Kaiana would have stuck out standing with them, with her tawny complexion and dark black hair.
Not that Veranix really cared about things like that. He just loved an audience, no matter who it was.
She gave a sharp whistle, and he immediately took notice. With a polite word, he extracted himself from the quartet and came over.
“Did you see it?”
“You were fine,” Kaiana said. “We have a situation.”
He nodded and kept walking, until the three of them were out of eavesdropping distance from the rest of folk backstage.
“Two things,” she said. She opened her hand to show him the vials. “These were found on campus.”
His eyes hardened, and for a moment his entire appearance seemed to ripple. “When?”
“Just now,” she said. “There’s more, though. You’re going to have to be careful—”
“I’m always careful, Kai . . .”
She declined to remind him of the incident two months ago where she had to rescue him from Cuse’s device.
“Apparently the Aventil Constabulary has called an All-Eyes out for you tonight.”
“They have?” A look crossed his face that seemed both perplexed and proud. “I wonder what that’s about.”
“I hear it’s about the person they think you killed.”
Now his face was just confusion. After a moment of stammer, he finally said, “Tonight?”
Delmin looked uncomfortable. “You were just out there, Vee. I mean, maybe someone—”
“No, that’s not right,” Veranix said. “I didn’t kill—I didn’t even fight—anyone out there tonight. Blazes, I wasn’t even in Aventil.”
He looked back and forth at Kai and Delmin, as if he needed to find reassurance from the both of them.
“I swear, whatever it is that happened . . . it wasn’t me.”
THE IMPOSTERS OF AVENTIL
Summer and the Grand Tournament of High Colleges have come to the University of Maradaine. If the heat and the crowds weren’t enough to bring the campus and the neighborhood of Aventil to a boiling point, rumors that The Thorn is on the warpath—killing the last of the Red Rabbits—is enough to tip all of Maradaine into the fire.
Except Veranix Calbert, magic student at the University, is The Thorn, and he’s not the one viciously hunting the Red Rabbits. Veranix has his hands full with his share of responsibilities for the Tournament, and as The Thorn he’s been trying to find the source of the mind-destroying effitte being sold on campus. He’s as confused as anyone about the rumors.
When The Thorn imposter publicly attacks the local Aventil constables, the Constabulary bring in their own special investigators: Inspectors Minox Welling and Satrine Rainey from the Maradaine Grand Inspectors Unit. Can Veranix find out who the imposter is and stop him before Welling and Rainey arrest him for the imposter’s crimes?