Magic Study

By: Maria V. Snyder

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:




A wholehearted thank-you to the one who holds down the fort while I’m doing book events, who gets the dishes done and the kids to soccer, who has been my biggest fan and supporter from the very beginning, my husband, Rodney.



To my Seton Hill University critique partners, Chun Lee, Amanda Sablak, Ceres Wright, thanks for all the help. Also many thanks go to my Seton Hill mentor, Steven Piziks. I hope you find enough descriptive details!



I couldn’t forget to thank my Muse and Schmooze critique group for their continued support and guidance. Your help has been wonderful and our biannual retreats and coffee bar conversations are much loved.



Many thanks and praise goes to my excellent editor, Mary-Theresa Hussey. Despite her busy schedule, she always finds time to answer my million questions. Once again, Phil Heffernan has created another gorgeous cover. Thank you so much!



And a heartfelt thanks to Susan Kraykowski and her horse Kiki. Without them both, I wouldn’t have learned how to ride, and I wouldn’t have discovered the unique bond between horse and rider.





To my children, Luke and Jenna,

a constant source of inspiration and love.

You both are truly magical.



In loving memory of Anthony Foster.





Chapter One




“We’re here,” Irys said.



I looked around. The surrounding jungle bulged with life. Overgrown green bushes blocked our path, vines hung from the tree canopy, and the constant chatter and trill of jungle birds beat at my ears. Small furry creatures, who had been following us through the jungle, peeked at us from their hiding spots behind huge leaves.



“Where?” I asked, glancing at the three other girls. They shrugged in unison, equally confused. In the thick humid air, their thin cotton dresses were soaked in sweat. My own black pants and white shirt clung to my clammy skin. We were tired from lugging our heavy backpacks along snake-thin jungle paths, and itchy from hosting unnameable insects on our skins.



“The Zaltana homestead,” Irys said. “Quite possibly your home.”



I surveyed the lush greenery and saw nothing that resembled a settlement. During the course of our travels south, whenever Irys had declared that we had arrived, we were usually in the midst of a small town or village, with houses made of wood, stone or brick, hemmed in by fields and farms.



The brightly dressed inhabitants would welcome us, feed us and, amid a cacophony of voices and spicy aromas, listen to our story. Then certain families would be summoned with great haste. In a whirlwind of excitement and babble, one of the children in our party, who had lived in the orphanage in the north, would be reunited with a family they hadn’t known existed.



As a result, our group had grown ever smaller as we’d traveled farther into the southern land of Sitia. Soon, we had left the cold northern air far behind, and were now cooking in the steamy warmth of the jungle with no sign of a town in sight.



“Homestead?” I asked.



Irys sighed. Wisps of her black hair had sprung from her tight bun, and her stern expression didn’t quite match the slight humor in her emerald eyes.



“Yelena, appearances can be deceiving. Seek with your mind, not your senses,” she instructed.



I rubbed my slick hands along the grain of my wooden staff, concentrating on its smooth surface. My mind emptied, and the buzz of the jungle faded as I sent out my mental awareness. In my mind’s eye, I slithered through the underbrush with a snake, searching for a patch of sunlight. I scrambled through the tree branches with a long-limbed animal with such ease that it felt as if we flew.



Then, above, I moved with people among the treetops. Their minds were open and relaxed, deciding what to eat for dinner, and discussing the news from the city. But one mind worried about the sounds from the jungle below. Something wasn’t right. Someone strange was there. Possible danger. Who’s in my mind?



I snapped back to myself. Irys stared at me.



“They live in the trees?” I asked.



She nodded. “But remember Yelena, just because someone’s mind is receptive to your probing doesn’t mean you’re permitted to dive into their deeper thoughts. That’s a breach of our Ethical Code.”