“Blood me as your heir.” Silviu Lovasz let his magic rise and weave into the tone of his voice, sending it out with his words.

“Why should I?”

Mother Madeleine Davenold nearly blended in with her pillows, pale and frighteningly motionless. Only her eyes still held evidence of the fierce woman she’d been a week ago, before dark magic had infiltrated her defenses. A woman who prized the concept of Family above all else. Family was everything to the old lady.

Silviu had experience dealing with such a sentiment, however, having often manipulated the same driving emotion in his older brother. Influencing others was a talent Silviu wielded ruthlessly, and in Madeleine’s weakened state, it would be easier than it had ever been before to gain a foothold.

“I will take care of them.” Silviu pushed a little harder. “Trust me.”

Silver light spread out over the woman’s fragile skin, shimmering brightly before sinking in. Her eyes glazed. Silviu felt his magic meet the Davenold strength and slip through. With the dark spell poking holes in her resistance, Madeleine couldn’t stand against him.

Burrowing deeper, his talent took hold as the woman’s breathing turned ragged. Magic set down roots and reached farther. Silviu had a vision of tendrils curling out—only to meet a snarling black wall that surged up to reject the influence with a violent expulsion.

Madeleine screamed softly, clutching her chest. Silviu was knocked back as the silver light retracted into his soul with a painful snap.

The dark magic had blocked his efforts.

The two witches stared at each other in grim astonishment. Madeline rubbed her chest with a shaking hand. “What was that?”

“Dark magic.” Silviu refused to elaborate. There was no way he’d admit that he’d tried to gain influence over her. He rushed toward her to evaluate the damage he might have done.

Madeleine’s pulse was weak but steady under Silviu’s fingertips. The magic coursing through her veins was cool and smooth, nowhere near the raging river it used to be. There wasn’t a trace of the dark magic energy that he’d felt, but that didn’t mean it was gone.

“How do you feel?”

The old woman’s eyes flashed with amusement. “Terrible.”

“Then why do you look as if you’re enjoying some private joke?”

Madeleine smiled. Her pale, papery skin stretched taut over her cheeks, lifting the sagging flesh until she appeared almost beautiful. A pang shot through Silviu’s chest as he realized his betrothed would look like the Davenold Mother when she reached the same age.

Madeleine’s voice was a thread of sound. “Because you’ve been doing all you can to save my life when it would be in your best interest to let me die.”

Something inside him rebelled at the thought. “That’s not quite true.”

“I suppose you think I can still be of use to you.”

Silviu closed his eyes and again searched for the spell draining Madeleine of strength and life. He couldn’t find the origins, couldn’t even feel its presence, but he could sense the changes within her. Every day she was weaker, every day a step closer to death.

“I expected to have your guidance when I joined the Council.” Silviu released Madeleine’s wrist and eased a hip onto the bed next to hers. “I haven’t even been formally named to my Family’s seat yet. I need your influence over others to further my cause.”

“I doubt that.” Her black eyes, still sharp with intelligence in spite of her ailment, narrowed. “You’ll do just fine on your own.”

“If I have to.” Silviu’s shoulder rose and fell as his mind busied itself with modifications to the plans that had been in place since he was four years old. “You taught me well, but it would be easier to have you at my side.”

“You’ll have Georgeanne.”

He nodded, satisfaction racing through him at the old woman’s simple statement. “Yes, you’ve trained her well, too.”

Madeleine studied him for a long moment, a hint of suspicion in her eyes. Silviu met her gaze calmly, years of practice supporting his serenity in the face of such a thorough examination. His own father had a habit of watching him in the same manner.

“She knows how to handle herself in politics,” Madeleine finally said. “I’ve made certain she was an asset to you and your rise to power. And vice versa.”

“I know. We’ll work together to achieve our goals. She’ll cement your Family’s influence over the other matriarchal houses and extend your reach over the patriarchal witches when I lead the combined covens.”

“That was the plan.”

A plan that had been concocted twenty-three years before, when the matriarchal Mother had agreed to betroth her infant granddaughter to the youngest son of a patriarchal coven. Reap and Bane were the rarest of witches—one with too much magic, the other with none. Silviu’s Reap magic merged into the blocked Bane magic Georgie contained within her, making them the strongest Matched pair the world had ever known.

Silviu considered it their right to rule over the combined covens.

Legend suggested the pairing was able to join their talents into a force that could fell every witch before them. Together, Silviu and Georgeanne wielded a power that could pull each other back from the brink of death—a fact they’d learned when Georgie had nearly been injured by the same dark magic targeting the Davenold Mother.

“A thousand generations ago,” Madeleine mused, “our community was torn apart by countless wars. The witches who walked the traditional, matriarchal path versus those who wanted to follow Fathers.”

“I know the history very well,” Silviu reminded her.

She frowned him into silence. “And when the war eventually dwindled down, they all saw how devastating it had been. To the world and especially to our community. The truce resulted in the Schism, Silviu. Motherhouses to one side of the divide, Fatherhouses to the other.”

“With a High Seat to lead them all,” he said impatiently. “A position you’ve held for half your life, a position I intend to hold for the rest of mine. What is your point?”

“You’ve been trained to take that position. Every tutor I sent to you and every burden your father heaped on your shoulders has all been to get you to the top of the covens’ hierarchy.” Madeleine’s eyes flashed and a secretive smile played at the corners of her mouth. “But you won’t get there without Georgeanne. Witches respect you, Silviu, but you are still a Lovasz.”

“I can overcome that flaw. I know how others feel about my Family, but they also associate me with the Davenold coven. I’ve made damn sure of it.”

Madeleine smirked. “When I step down from the High Seat, the Davenolds won’t be eligible to reclaim it for a hundred years. Term limit laws were carved into stone and set with blood. Binding, for all time.”

Silviu knew the restriction. Anything set with blood, where the magic of a witch was concentrated in powerful doses, was unbreakable. “Yes, that’s why you agreed to allow Georgeanne to take my Family name, rather than insisting on me taking yours, as is typical of matriarchal men.”

“A Lovasz would be eligible to take the High Seat,” Madeleine admitted. “It’s just a shame that your grandfather’s volatile blood runs through your veins. I wonder if the other covens will trust you enough to give you the position.”

“You were supposed to help them understand that I would be a good choice.”

“Was I?” Her brow lifted. “Whatever I have done has been for my granddaughter and my Family, not for you.”

“It amounts to the same thing. My best interests are Georgie’s too. Both of us need to occupy a place of power to protect ourselves.”

Madeleine shifted on the pillows until she sat a little straighter. “You know how everyone will react if they find out she can break magic, if they learn how powerful you both are. Especially together.”

“They’ll dig out the pitchforks, light the torches and mob the castle gates, I know.” Silviu looked away from the woman’s shrewd gaze, but returned to it almost immediately. “Fear will prompt a few assassination attempts anyway. I’m prepared for it.”

“Are you?” Madeleine’s eyes turned cold. “I need my granddaughter in a position of power just so her life is not in jeopardy.”

A position such as the Davenold Mother, the Council High Seat or the wife of the man who occupied the High Seat. Silviu already knew it and he’d had a similar conversation with the wily old woman a week ago in the Ngozi stronghold. He wished he could read Madeleine’s thoughts to better anticipate her plans. She was even trickier than his father, who was more skillful at manipulation than most witches.

Madeleine’s lips tightened. When she spoke, it was obvious from her tone that she’d rather hold on to her secrets and only shared them because her hand was being forced by the dark magic draining her of life. “I don’t know if Georgeanne can hold the power of my bloodline. Her Bane imperviousness rejects every other magic but yours.”

“Yes, we’ve discussed this already.” Silviu’s eyes narrowed.

“Two witches of myth and nightmares,” she drawled. “Whatever will you do if you’re not chosen for the High Seat?”

Silviu fought to keep his features impassive. “I’ll challenge for it, if necessary.”

“My boy, you still have much to learn.”

He froze, facts rearranging themselves in his brain with lightning speed. Understanding was nearly instantaneous. “You think the witches are more likely to vote Georgie into the High Seat.”

“She’s perfect, don’t you think? She’s been actively involved in politics for both sides of the Schism for the past decade. She’s fought shoulder to shoulder with witches persecuted in the Asian witch hunts. She’s occupied the Davenold Council seat for three years now.”

Silviu met Madeleine’s cold stare. “You don’t even know if she can take the Davenold Family power, and that’s her bloodline. How do you expect her to take the combined magic of all the covens?”

“Do you really believe the covens would give a single witch all their magic to contain within them? That arrangement works inside familial bonds, but giving an outsider such authority would be unthinkable. Reigning over all the families, the High Seat is only able to access the power as it flows past.”

“It flows through you, but doesn’t reside inside you?” That was very different from his understanding of a Family’s power—which was wholly housed within the Family leader, every witch of the bloodline contributing to its strength.

Satisfaction lit the old woman’s face. “Georgeanne would be perfectly capable of filling the position. Perfect, period, considering what everyone believes her deficiency means for her talents.”

“She’s Bane. Others won’t understand that my magic can unlock hers.” Silviu’s lips twisted. “They will believe she won’t be able to use the magic of the High Seat.”

Madeleine hummed. “That works in her favor, don’t you think?”

“Before or after they try to kill her?” Silviu’s heart raced in his chest at the mere thought. “When they discover what she can do, their fear will be boundless and unpredictable.”

He knew everything legend could tell him about Bane witches along with everything Georgeanne herself had proven true. He’d learned that being Bane had distinct advantages, but Georgie’s newly discovered talent would only increase the fear others felt for the so-called deficiency.

“I love my granddaughter. I love my Family. I chose you to protect them after I’m gone.”

“You want me to protect them, but refuse to give me the means to do so!”

Madeleine took a deep breath. “I’m tired, Silviu. Leave me now.”

“Blood me as your heir, Madeleine.” He had to try, but he didn’t dare send his magic out again.

“I will never blood a Lovasz man to lead the Davenold women. I would rather let the power choose its own heir from amongst my Family.”

“And if it doesn’t choose Georgeanne?” Silviu got to his feet but didn’t move toward the door. “Your Family will go to war with itself.”

“Then you’ll protect her.” Madeleine still managed to look authoritative, even with her eyelids drooping in exhaustion. “She’s your weakness.”

“She’s my Magic Match. That’s not a weakness, but a strength.”

“Together, you will rise to lead the covens and Davenold Motherhood will cease to matter. I’ll ask you what your father asked me, when he devised this crazy scheme. Who would value a different Family leader when the Council High Seat is of the Family?”

Silviu understood what the wily old woman meant. The High Seat ruled them all, and if Georgeanne held the position, the Davenolds would naturally look to her for leadership regardless of who their Mother actually was. Vasile Lovasz had counted on that very concept when he’d chosen to endorse his youngest son in his pursuit of power, rather than the rightful Lovasz heir.

Surrendering the field for the moment, Silviu did as he was asked when Madeleine repeated her command for him to leave. He paused at the door to add one last thought to the woman’s plots and hoped his words would find fertile ground to grow in.

“Matches share power, Mother Davenold. Mine is Georgeanne’s and hers is mine. The magic flows between us, so if you blood me as your heir, Georgie will still have access to the full force of your Family’s strength.”

Madeleine’s weary eyes snapped open. Her words, when they came, tumbled through Silviu’s head—until doubts and suspicions piled up. Especially as she was essentially on her deathbed.

“I’m counting on that,” she told him.