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Romance lovers are falling for the Sons of Destiny
“Enchantments, amusement, eight hunks, and one bewitching woman make for a fun romantic fantasy . . . humorous and magical. A delightful charmer.”
—Midwest Book Review
“A must-read for those who enjoy fantasy and romance. I so thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful . . . novel and eagerly look forward to each of the other brothers’ stories. Jean Johnson can’t write them fast enough for me!”
—The Best Reviews
“I love this world and the heroes and heroines who reside there . . . a lively, wonderful, and oh-so-satisfying book. It is long, beautifully written, and entertaining. Light and dark magic are everywhere . . . fantasy romance at its best.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“A complex fantasy-romance series.”
“A fun story. I look forward to seeing how these alpha males find their soul mates in the remaining books.”
—The Eternal Night
“An intriguing world . . . an enjoyable hero . . . an enjoyable showcase for an inventive new author. Jean Johnson brings a welcome voice to the romance genre, and she’s assured of a warm welcome.”
—The Romance Reader
“An intriguing and entertaining tale of another dimension . . . quite entertaining. It will be fun to see how the prophecy turns out for the rest of the brothers.”
Sons of Destiny novels by Jean Johnson
Table of Contents
I would like to thank NotSoSaintly, Alexandra, and Stormi for their invaluable assistance in continuing to help me edit my writing; Alienor for allowing me to bounce ideas off her forehead like crumpled little wads of paper that my muse can then chase after like a cat; PiperKirby for being my cold-reader for this novel and waiting so patiently to actually get to read it; and of course the Mob of Irate Torch-Wielding Fans (this time around, it’s for putting up with my insistence that fruitcake not be used as any sort of a weapon, though stale baguettes are still fair game).
A special mention also goes to: Dale, Janet, Betty, Ann, Adelaida, and Dr. Tuan, for allowing me to take over their break room at the dentist’s office on a quarterly basis; Yvonne at the Infusion Center, for letting me have a chair and something to prop my laptop on so that I may continue to write during each four-hour session; my father, for putting up with my lugging around said laptop to so many of his various appointments; and my mother, for taking him to some of his appointments, too, so I don’t have to deal with rush-hour traffic. Bleahhh.
If anyone is interested in joining the Mob of Irate Torch-Wielding Fans (and is eighteen years or older; sorry, but you have to be an adult to join), you can visit us at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MoITWF. Or you can come visit my website at www.jeanjohnson.net, where all are welcome!
P.S. The teaser at the end is imperfect. Apologies!
The Third of Sons shall meet his match:
Strong of will and strong of mind
You seek she who is your kind
Set your trap and be your fate
When Lady is the Master’s mate
Time passed strangely for Dominor of Nightfall. It came and went in muzzy bursts. He had vague, fleeting recollections of the things happening around him: wooden walls that creaked, the tang of the sea ever in his nostrils, voices muttering around him, hands forcing him to get up and walk around when he was too dizzy. He recalled how the floor was too uncertain underfoot for him to readily stand when he was made to do so, and of being fed minty-flavored food and drink that instinct said he shouldn’t eat, yet his captors forced upon him while he was too muddled to resist. And he had memories of eating that herbed food until the world swirled away once more.
He remembered a familiar voice, its source strangely distant yet right there in his ear, desperate to reach him. The voice comforted him with its familiarity, though he couldn’t have said who even he himself was most of the time, let alone the name or the face that went with that voice. He was aware of the omnipresent chafe of chains at ankles, wrists, and throat, of a faint memory that he had once worn fine, tailored clothes, not the rough fabric rubbing against his flesh. He hadn’t always smelled of sweat and worse things, of unclean things, but that was due to the fact that he wasn’t allowed to bathe, nor allowed enough clarity in his wits to tend to himself.
And then it happened. They didn’t come with the bitter-minty flavored food. The world rocked even more dizzily underneath Dom as he lay chained to his bed; his surroundings swayed and creaked dismally, slanting first this way, then that way at unnerving angles, while his mind slowly woke. The cloud obscuring his senses eased enough that he could hear the shouts and the snapping riggings, smell the rain and the sea, and the captive mage knew he was on board a ship on the ocean.
Dominor remembered the Mandarites and their falomel-laced food. He remembered the oddly dressed, arrogantly opinioned Lord and his two duplicitous sons. And he remembered that he was captive on a ship that, from the sound and feel and smell of it, was caught in a bad summer storm, one that seemed to go on and on. Long enough that the last of the mage-confusing drug wore off. As the minutes turned into hours, Dominor became increasingly, uncomfortably aware of how filthy he was, how hungry and thirsty, and most of all how angry he was. When Dominor realized that, when his head was clear enough to think, he tested the chains keeping him bound more or less in place on his thin-palleted bunk while the ship surged with each hill-like wave.
The chains were padlocked to thick iron staples set too firmly in the bulkhead walls for him to dislodge physically in his drug-weakened state. He tried a simple unlocking spell next, but the energy just glowed briefly for a moment, then sank into the manacles clamped at neck, hands, and feet. He tried a more complex spell, one that lit up the small cabin he was in, showing the walls, sea-damp from water seeping through the decks because of the storm. Symbols on the stout, silvered metal simply absorbed it. As they did so, the metal clamped around his wrists, ankles, and throat warmed briefly. Warningly.
He didn’t know those symbols—magical languages were among the very few things that just didn’t translate well without intense study, not even with the aid of the Ultra Tongue spell—but he recognized their effect. They were absorbing his energies. If he threw all of his power at them, they might overload and break . . . and most probably burn off the flesh attached to them. Or, if they were forged with the right sort of enchantments, they could latch onto his powers and drain him to a lifeless husk.
An unpleasant thought.
Then again, so was the possibility of starving to death. Or rather, dying of thirst. That would happen first. His mouth felt like it had been scrubbed with sand, then powdered with dust. The heaving of the ship around him didn’t help; it reminded him of the liquid that lay beyond the hull. It was too salty to drink, of course, but it was a form of water, and he wanted water. Preferably without any mind-and-power stealing falomel in it.
Odds are, they’ll try to keep me drugged until we reach landfall . . . unless I can talk them out of it, Dominor offered to himself. It was a slim hope, but not an impossible one. They’re so full of themselves and their males-are-superior attitude that if I pretended to listen and pretended to convert to their ways, they’d probably decide to trust me.
Not too quickly, of course, he reminded himself. His mind was finally clear enough to have the room for cunning, for plotting and laying out his strategies. They’d not believe a sudden conversion. Not when they’ve kept me chained like an animal. They’ll expect some initial rage—and I have plenty of that! But if I ask the right questions, I can steer the conversation toward the idea of converting-the-prisoner. Like the question of what could they possibly offer me as an enticement to stay, when I’m Her Majesty’s Lord Chancellor.
His mouth twisted wryly. Kelly of Doyle, the woman his eldest brother had married, had made that outrageous claim. The redheaded outworlder had proclaimed herself Queen of Nightfall, the island where he and his seven brothers had lived for three years after being exiled from their homeland, Katan. Her arrival and subsequent romance with his eldest brother, Saber, had fulfilled a prophecy spoken in verse by a woman born a thousand years before. The Seer Draganna had predicted the birth of four sets of twins, all of them mages, all of them with unique Destinies. One of those Prophetic Destinies had been the warning that some unspecified disaster would occur if the eldest ever bedded a virgin.
The Council of Mages of Katan, in their so-called wisdom, had exiled Dom and his brothers to Nightfall to prevent them from meeting any women; if they were the Sons of Destiny, then all of them had to be removed, supposedly “for the greater good of Katan.”
The Council hadn’t accounted for the meddling of the youngest of them, Morganen, whose predicted Destiny was to match-make all of his siblings. He had hauled in a woman from another universe entirely to argue with, be courted by, and eventually marry the eldest of them. Even if it meant summoning the Disaster foreseen for them so very long ago.
And the Prophesied Disaster turns out to be the very same misogynistic idiots who have managed to capture me. At least, I hope my presence on this ship was the only Disaster that befell us when Saber married Kelly . . . It was an ignoble way to fulfill a prophecy, being captured and chained. Still, it only affected himself and his siblings. It wasn’t a Disaster that affected all of Katan.
Dominor was glad no one could see him like this. They had taken away his finespun clothes and given him rough homespun that stunk of sweat and sea and the desperate need for a bath. His chains had enough give in them to allow him to check under the pants. No under-trousers. They’d even taken away his shoes and his socks. They had clothed him in ugly, stained, beige leggings and a matching, long-sleeved shirt. At least, he thought it was beige; the storm gray light coming through the one porthole in the room didn’t really lend itself toward discerning colors.
A tentative exploration of his hair, once silky-clean, proved it was now rather greasy and tangled, especially at the back. From the growth of hair on his jaw, he judged he’d been drugged for at least a week and a half, if not longer. Dominor grimaced in distaste as he fingered his mustache and beard. He hated facial hair. The mustache, if allowed to grow long, tickled his nostrils and interfered with his food, and the beard just plain itched. Not to mention the males in his family line had never been all that hirsute, which meant that his beard would look scraggly and scrawny even when fully grown. If a man couldn’t grow a decent beard, he didn’t look respectable, in Dominor’s opinion.
Maybe I can jump-start the “conversion” process by demanding some civilized amenities, like a shave. I could imply to them that I’d be a lot more willing to listen if they were a lot more willing to treat me well . . .
The door to his cabin opened, startling him. It banged shut again as the ship pitched the wrong way, making someone yelp, then curse and wrestle it open again. The younger of the count’s sons fell inside as the ship shifted and tilted the other way, barely hanging on to the oil lamp now lighting the chamber. A waterskin dangled off his elbow, adding to his burdens. Dominor recalled the names of his captors.
Lord Kemblin Aragol, Count . . . no, Earl of the Western Marches, that was it; representative of King Gustavo the Third. His elder son is named Kennal, and this one is called Eduor. The one who tricked me into drinking that drug-laced alcohol. He still doesn’t look old enough to shave.
“Oh! You’re awake.”
Yes, state the obvious, you little whelp. Dominor leveled him with a firm look and spoke with the lilt of the Mandarite accent, which was how the Ultra Tongue potion he had drunk translated their language. “Yes. And I am not happy with my accommodations. Is this how you convince male mages from other kingdoms to work for you?”
A deliberate shift of his wrists made his chains rattle. Eduor flushed. He blinked a few times, cleared his throat, and braced himself as the ship rocked again. Looking around, he hung the oil lantern on a hook next to the door, then faced Dominor again, clutching his waterskin. “Er, well . . . here, you must be thirsty!”
“If it has falomel in it, I will shove that bag through your digestive system. In reverse,” Dominor added not-quite-blandly, shifting to sit up on the bed. He couldn’t go much farther than that, maybe enough to use the chamber pot . . . if there was one in the small cabin. He hadn’t seen one, yet. But it was enough slack to lend weight to his threat.
Eduor stared at him, eyes wide. His fingers tapped on the bag clutched to his chest. “Right. I’ll, ah, be back shortly!”
The door banged shut behind him. At least the idiot had left the lantern. Not that the yellowish glow of the flame lent much to the dismal décor, but it did shed enough light for him to focus on the planks lining his cramped, closet-sized prison. Unfortunately, counting knotholes was only marginally more entertaining than drifting through a minty, mindless haze.
* * *
The heaving swells tossing the ship had eased to an exaggerated rocking motion by the time he was visited again. At least he’d found a lidded chamber pot wedged under his bunk in a small cupboard. Dominor disliked traveling by ship; the facilities were primitive, the opportunity for hygiene less than adequate, and in his case, the accommodations literally stank. Disgruntled, he fixed the man who entered with a hard, unhappy glare and struck first.
“Lord Aragol, I am deeply displeased with the way you have treated me. Not one iota of this situation is disposing me to look favorably upon helping you. When we spoke at the palace, you suggested there were enticements for a mage of my abilities. Wealth. Status. Power. Prestige. Where in any of that does it include chaining me like a common thief, drugging me senseless, and giving me clothes only the poorest of commoners would be delighted to wear?”
Kemblin Aragol lifted his goatee-covered chin slightly. He had dispensed with the hat and the waist-length jacket, but still wore the rest of his finery, including that ridiculous codpiece-thing at his crotch. “In order to get you far enough away from your homeland that you would be forced to stay long enough to listen to us, it was necessary to keep you drugged and thus cooperative and unable to harm yourself. It really isn’t our intent to let harm come to you. But with the drug we use to subdue mages, it tends to relax everything in the body, including . . . digestive muscles,” Lord Aragol finished delicately. “Thus it was necessary to remove your clothing and give you something that would not matter if it were . . . stained. Though we have done our best to keep you reasonably clean.
“But, now that you are awake and aware again, we can start treating you like the honored guest you will be, once we reach the shores of our homeland.”
Dominor folded his arms across his chest. “Prove it, and I’ll believe it. But you have a long way to go to regain my trust,” he added in warning. “Starting with undrugged food and drink. I am thirsty and hungry . . . and if I detect falomel or any other drug in any of it, you will not find my response civilized.”
The earl unhooked a flask from his belt and tossed it at Dominor. “Water, nothing more. I’m afraid the sea is still too rough for a proper, cooked meal, but I can have some bread and cheese brought to you, and some fruit.”
“That would be civilized.”
Nodding, Lord Aragol stepped into the corridor, giving a command to someone beyond the door.
Taking his time, Dominor sniffed at the contents of the flask. He shook it a little, sniffed again, then ventured a small sip. Nothing more than water. Despite the pressure of his thirst, Dominor continued to take only small sips. If the water was drugged, he was not going to let it completely shut down his reactions.
The earl’s eldest son, Sir Kennal, entered the cabin. In his hands was a basket with a linen bundle. His father followed him. At a nod from the elder male, the younger one stepped forward and offered the basket to Dominor. “Our apologies, Lord Mage, for any inconvenience caused by the assertive manner we used in our insistence that you visit Mandare. We wish very strongly for you to see the wonders and advantages of our land that await a powerfully gifted male mage like yourself.”
“Assertive manner”? Is that the polite Mandarite version for “kidnapping”? Dominor asked silently. One of his dark brown eyebrows rose in un-quelled skepticism, but he accepted the basket without a word. It had slightly overripe grapes, a quarter-loaf of somewhat fresh bread, and a wedge of soft cheese inside the linen napkin. He wasted a small portion of the water in the flask to dampen his hands, scrubbing his fingers on the linen to clean them, since he couldn’t use any spells and there wasn’t a washbasin in his cabin. Breaking off a small piece of the bread, he sniffed it carefully, then took a cautious taste.
“It isn’t drugged, anymore,” Kennal offered with earnest sobriety. “The storm has driven us far to the south and east; we need merely turn north and we shall soon reach the shores of Mandare. Once we have sighted land and discerned our location, we will be able to put to shore long enough to take on fresh provisions.
“If we have not been driven too far east, then we should be very close to the Port of Mandellia, which is but a day’s journey from our estates,” he continued with rising enthusiasm, as Dominor tested one of the grapes next. “Once we have arrived there, we have a full dozen of the most beautiful slave girls who will bathe you and shave you and please you in any way you desire.”
Kemblin touched his son’s shoulder, taking over. “In fact, as our most honored guest, you will be pleasured as soon as you cross the threshold of our entry hall. Our slaves are well trained; they will be delighted to kneel before you and give you a most fitting welcome.”
Unsure what they were talking about, Dominor eyed them warily. “What exactly is this ‘most fitting welcome’?”
“Their mouths,” Kennal told him and gestured at the exaggerated lump of fabric centered over his groin. “They are trained to kiss and suckle your masculinity.”
For a moment, Dominor felt his groin tighten at the thought of a woman pleasuring him in that way. It had been far too long since his last encounter with a willing female . . . and that was where the heat in his loins chilled. These men are chauvinists of the highest order. They turn their women into slaves, with no choice and no free will. Even a working wench has more dignity and decision in her chosen career than a slave “trained” to please a man.
He carefully hid his distaste from the other two, adopting a thoughtful look. “Trained, you say? I could take any pleasure of them I’d like? And they would not say no?”
“Their purpose is to please a man in any way he desires,” Kemblin Aragol reassured him, smiling through his goatee. “My slaves are well behaved, you have my word. None of that tedious courting is necessary, nor will any of them say ‘no’ when a man is in the mood for his rightful pleasure.”
“And do they wear contraceptive amulets?” Dominor asked him sardonically. He couldn’t allow the illusion of caving in too quickly, or they would not believe him. So he added dryly, “Or do you think to have them plowed with my seed, to hopefully reap the harvest of my magical abilities behind my back? No doubt you would have me plow a female mage, to strengthen the possible outcome.”
“I will not deny that it would be a good idea for you to spread that seed as far and wide as possible,” the earl admitted with a shrug. “Any Mage Lord may sow his seed upon any slave girl of a ripe enough age, whether or not he owns her. It is preferred, however, to have a male mage cast his seed into the womb of a woman without magic; otherwise, that only seems to strengthen their lineage, not ours. Mage-bitches wear amulets against bearing fruit for that reason, as well as enchantments and chains to bind their powers. You may rut with any woman at my estate and need not worry; only those who are worthy can be successfully bred.”
“I am not inclined to beget bastards,” Dominor denied instinctively. Inwardly, he winced; his vehemence against rampant procreation didn’t exactly fit in with the Mandarite culture. But Lord Aragol merely nodded in reassurance.
“I can understand why, milord! No doubt you would want to have a hand in the training of any mage-born son you seeded. It is more likely for outlanders to be successful in such endeavors, which is why we seek their numbers so insistently.”
“And yet we compensate them most handsomely for moving away from their former lives to live among us,” Kennal added quickly. “Your rank would be at least equal to my father’s, and you would have the ear of our King, as a Mage Lord!”
“You would not be missing the status you had as Lord Chancellor of Nightfall, I assure you,” Kemblin told Dominor, neatening his moustache with the edge of his finger. “Indeed, your status might even be higher, depending on the strength of your magics. You yourself admitted Nightfall is but an island; Mandare spans nearly the whole western edge of a continent. You could be deeded a stretch of land larger than your former isle, with farms and craft shops, villages and villeins working to ensure your prosperity.”
“And all the women you could want,” Kennal stated, grinning with the enthusiasm of a young man who knew he wasn’t going to be turned down. A thought which disgusted Dominor; the youth was good looking enough that he shouldn’t have to coax a woman under normal circumstances, yet here he was, gloating that he didn’t have to coax at all—to Dom, the prize wasn’t worth it, if there wasn’t any effort involved. Kennal continued, his hazel eyes bright, “You’ll find a lot of your fellow noblemen will want to offer you nubile, luscious slave girls, in the hopes of currying favor with you, slaves trained in a hundred exotic arts, all of them humbled and subservient. You’ll be showered with gifts of all kinds, even for the smallest of your spells.”
“Or, if you like a bit of spice in your pleasures, you can visit the slave markets, buy an untamed woman and teach her where her place lies,” his father finished, his hazel eyes darkening with a hint of cruelty intertwined with his sexuality. “Kneeling at your feet, worshipping you for your Gods-made superiority.”
Holding his tongue, Dominor carefully did not point out that, if only the women were being born with magical powers, the Gods of both Mandare and its enemy, Natallia, clearly wanted the women to be considered superior. Of course, he knew that his attitude about magic making one superior came from having been raised in a magocracy, where the most powerful mage was made the King or Queen at each five-year turning of the throne’s succession. He also knew that other lands ruled themselves in different ways. True, Aiar-that-was, to the far north, had once been a magocracy much like Katan before its sundering. But the land of the distant Threefold God of Fate was rumored to be a hereditary monarchy.
A knock on the door came as a welcome relief from the awkwardness of the conversation. Kemblin stepped outside. After a moment, his son Kennal followed, leaving Dominor alone in the cabin. With the door shut between them, the chained mage was free to relax his wary vigilance just a little.
Dominor was arrogantly proud of his powers and skills, his civility and his superiority, but he was proud of them because they were facts, not because they were opinions. There were women mages on the Council of Katan who were roughly his equal in skill and knowledge; there were noble-born sons and daughters who were of his family’s rank or higher. Those few who were more powerful than him, he acknowledged their superiority and sought to better himself in strength and stamina for comparison. Those with greater knowledge, he sought to study and learn from them. Those with greater rank and civility, he bowed to when necessary.
It was just that, living on an island with only his brothers for companions and the occasional trading vessel for contact with the rest of the world, he was used to not having his superiority challenged. Morganen was more powerful than all of his older brothers, true, but Morg didn’t want to lead anyone. Rydan was more powerful than Dominor, but the sixthborn of the eight of them was strange, reclusive, and disinclined to compete against his siblings. Saber was lesser-powered when it came to magic, and acknowledged that to Dominor, but he had been trained to be the next Count of Corvis before their exile; he was also the eldest and took it upon himself to keep his siblings in line as the head of their exiled family.
The rest of the brothers, Wolfer, Trevan, Koranen, and even Dominor’s own twin, Evanor, didn’t bother much with ranking themselves against one another. Dominor needed to compete; he was thirdborn and third-powered, and it rankled at times. It was a little irksome that Wolfer, secondborn, hadn’t a very strong competitive spirit within him. For the elder male, hunting was its own purpose, not about seeing who brought back the tastier game. And while the shapechanger would still compete for sport with his next-youngest sibling, once he had learned to curb his temper and not grow angry at Dominor’s taunting whenever he won a footrace or a knife-toss, Wolfer had treated Dominor with a sort of indulgent good humor that was irritating.
Not to mention Wolfer’s magic was average in strength at best.
Trevan’s idea of sport and contest lay in pleasuring women; Dominor had competed with the fifthborn brother to see who could better seduce a certain village girl in their past, but the redhead hadn’t cared if a woman was also the prettiest in the village. Dominor liked to surround himself with luxuries, with beautiful things. He added ornamentation to the artifacts he created for the traders. Trevan did make nice things and had a knack for spell-carving wood, but he didn’t go out of his way to seek recognition for his talents. The thirdborn of them craved that sort of recognition.
Koranen and his twin, Morganen, had only been twenty when they had left the mainland; moving to the Isle had been more of an adventure for the second-youngest brother than an exile. Kor’s affinity with fire meant that it was dangerous for him to indulge in his passions with a woman, too, so they could not compete on that score. As the seventhborn of the four sets of twins, he wasn’t even remotely interested in trying to outrank himself socially, since there were six elder brothers in the way, and his powers were indeed attuned more specifically to the element of Fire than the general usefulness of Dominor’s own broader-based magic. No competition, there.
As for Dominor’s own twin . . . Evanor just didn’t bother to compete with his older brother.
Dom had once held ambitions to join the Council and govern Katan; Ev was content to govern a mere household. Dominor loved the feel of silk and velvet on his body; Evanor was content to wear wool and cotton. Dom wanted to have his advice acknowledged as helpful, even wise; Ev was contented when his brothers wiped the mud from their boots after he chided them. They were as different as day and night, as city and village. Dominor loved his twin dearly and certainly missed his presence deeply, stolen far from his home and his kin as he was . . . but they weren’t identical twins, by any means.
Really, of all of us to have been kidnapped, I’m probably the best choice, he thought with a wry twist of humor. Evanor is toogentle and guileless to disguise his opinion of these Mandarites and their insane opinions about one gender being superior to the other. Koranen is too . . . young, I guess one could say. Too impetuous and hot-tempered. Morganen might be all right in this situation, but he isn’t enough of an actor to seem truly “convinced” by these imbeciles’ rhetoric. Rydan, with the way even the most potently spell-locked doors tend to unlock and open themselves for him, would probably have escaped these chains during the storm, and then . . . I don’t know . . . flown himself free? I wouldn’t be surprised if he had that sort of power. Come to think of it, Morg probably knows a spell to free himself from antimagic manacles such as these.
Annoying little twit. It irked him that Morganen knew more than he did. Somehow, he knew more than Dominor, had learned more, for all that the thirdborn son had bought the lion’s share of magical tomes through the years, and was older by four more years’ worth of studying as well. He loved the youngest of his brothers, but Morganen also roused most of Dom’s competitiveness. Rydan didn’t, but then Rydan didn’t play such games anymore.
Dominor returned his thoughts to how his brothers would react.
Trevan, for all he’s a self-proclaimed womanizer, would be appalled at the thought of “slave girls,” and would not be able to pretend anything different. Wolfer would be snarling and snapping and growling. No dissembling there. Saber might have the mind and the cunning to dissemble and pretend to go along with his captors, having been trained by our father for the world of Katani politics . . . but he wouldn’t have the magical strength to get himself back home again once he was free.
His brothers were undoubtedly seeking a means to rescue him, even as he sat there on the bunk, nibbling on some of the soft cheese he had been given. Dominor knew he could be annoying, what with his competitiveness, his high opinion of himself, and his need to prove himself better than the rest of his siblings. It was a bid for attention and respect that was as established in his nature as his birth order. But he also knew his brothers cared for him and would back him to the hilt, as surely as he would support them.
I think Evanor Sang to me, while I was delirious with falomel poisoning, Dom decided. That was the distant voice I heard in myear, I’m sure of it. But now . . . I hear nothing. He might be just sleeping, or busy with some task, but it’s also possible I’m beyond his range of ability to Sing. Which means beyond the range of most scrying mirrors. It will take all of their craft and cunning to create a means of locating me. Even then, it’s not guaranteed the mirror would be strong enough to turn into a Gate over such a long distance, with no paired mirror at my end to stabilize the connection. A pity the aether isn’t stable enough for the great Portals to be opened, anymore.
Which means I definitely need to work on freeing myself, so that either I can find my own way home, or a way to connect some mirror locally to their efforts, even if the link would only be strong enough to communicate, and not actually cross—
The door opened and Lord Aragol stepped back inside. He flashed Dominor a broad, quick smile that made the points of his goatee-moustache quiver. His younger son, Eduor, accompanied Kennal as they crowded into the small cabin. This time the youth carried a cut-glass goblet, into which he poured a blush wine from a bottle that his father uncorked in Dominor’s presence. It looked like they were going to try to recruit him with the temptation of more of the “finer things” of Mandarite life.
Dominor braced himself to play the part of a slowly, reluctantly convinced potential ally, while the ship continued to heave and rock from the waves caused by the end of the storm.
Mikor jerked his head up from his studying. His mother, accustomed to such noises coming from down the hall, tapped him on the shoulder. “Mind your quill, Mikor. You’re risking a drop of ink on the page.”
“Yes, Mother,” the nine-year-old murmured. He bent his head over the wood-pulp sheet and continued marking down the answers to the sheet of questions his honorary aunt had given him as a test of his knowledge of the world’s history. A moment later, another outraged scream broke his concentration again, making him jump.
This time, it was accompanied by a crash. Even Mariel flinched, though normally her placid temperament withstood the often fiery outbursts from her best friend. A moment later, another crash echoed from the chamber at the end of the hall, followed by a string of oaths that made Mariel grateful for the muffling effect of the thick wooden door. Her young son would pick up such bad habits soon enough, but it would be nice to put that off for a few more years, if she could help it.
A particularly sharp smashing sound made Mikor flinch and glance at his mother. “Um . . . shouldn’t you go see what is upsetting Aunt Serina so much?”
“Oh, yes, throw me into the lioness’ den, when she asked me to keep anyone from disturbing her,” his mother muttered. Sighing, she stroked his dark, thumb-length curls back from his forehead. He looked like what he was, a blend of his late father, Milon, and her. His father’s slightly upturned nose and dark hair, her curls and cheerful smile. She gave him that smile as she ruffled his hair. “If I die in there, you still have to finish your test, you know.”
Mikor groaned but let it pass.
Leaving him to bend his head once more to his answers, Mariel left the library and headed up the corridor. Like most of the Retreat, it had been carved out of the rugged stones of the Natal mountain range. The chamber she had left had tall, thin windows that allowed plenty of light to enter for reading, carved as it was from the northern face of the Retreat’s cliffs. But where she was headed was located along the southeastern face of the mountain and up one level. Technically her friend’s workroom was right next to her bedchamber, but one had to go down and around and up again, through the library, to get to either.
Stopping before the thick wooden door at the end of the passage, she lifted her knuckles and rapped politely on the door. “Serina? It’s Mariel. You might as well open up; better for me to ask what’s wrong than to have the nuns badgering you to death.”
A muffled oath came back in reply, followed by a sizzling sound. Mariel guessed it was some sort of cleaning spell, for when Serina bid her to enter, the floor was free of debris. Well, mostly free; there was a pile of pot shards near one of the chalkboards, spell-swept out of the way. There were also a couple of broken shards on top of the papers littering the large desk in the center of the chamber. Serina, her long pale hair disheveled, swept a few stray locks out of her reddened face. Mariel didn’t even have to ask what was wrong as she shut the door behind her, glancing to her left at the far end of the room. After only a few moments, the cream-clad mage huffed and began her complaint without prompting.
“I’ve tried every variation imaginable . . . magic potential, magic affinity, nobility of bloodline, commoner class . . .” One of her slender hands waved dismissively at the chalk-scribbled slateboards in the frames surrounding her paper-strewn desk in the center of the room. “I’ve even tried to factor in hair color, for the Moons’ sake! It cannot be done! Not with the materials on hand!”
Mariel, seeing a bit of scarlet on her friend’s finger, moved forward with soothing murmurs. Catching the sorceress’s hand, she crooned over it, letting her healing magic seal the scratch. “There, there. If the materials on hand won’t work, then where can we find ones that will?”
Serina swept her free hand through her hair once again. “Out-kingdom, I guess! Guchere . . . maybe even as far away as the Five Lands. But not the Moonlands. There’s no one there I can use.”
“No one?” Mariel asked, releasing her friend’s hand in her curiosity. “You said materials, and yet you need a person?”
Letting out a rough sigh, Serina retreated to her desk, where she slumped onto her padded leather chair. “I told you; the cure to the Natallian problem of mage-births is not unlike the problem we had in the Moonlands, of raising the mountains over our valley and screening it from the rest of the Five Lands. We had to bind all of our mage-borns’ magic into the spell to make it solid enough to keep out the other Five Lands when the old Draconan Empire was sundered. I left the Sixth Land when I was fourteen, before my powers were bound, so that I could learn and use my magic freely. I did and do go back from time to time, especially during the summers when I was released from the Academy each year. That’s when I studied the old spells we used to use, including that one.
“Not that I can repeat it,” the taller woman added with another sigh, slouching back in her chair, “since that was managed at the will of the Gods as well as the efforts of mere mortals. But I know how the spell was constructed. The spell that drains away males’ magic and gives it to otherwise unGifted females here in Natallia is not that dissimilar. It can be unmade! But it requires a very specific ritual, and the components—for all that they are two living, thinking beings—must have very specific factors about them. Specific requirements, specific qualities . . . !”
She stopped, frustration lifting both of her hands to her hair. Her fingers only slid partway through the silk-fine strands before she grimaced and shifted. Tugging her hair out from under her hips, she made no protest as Mariel moved around her chair, gathering up the long locks so that they could be braided out of her way. For all that Mariel was only two years older than her, and Serina far more powerful as a mage, the shorter woman was too set in her ways after nine years of habit to not be motherly on occasion. Serina’s own dislike for handling the mundane matters of life didn’t discourage Mariel’s mothering. The mage could handle things competently; she simply preferred to focus on her work.
“So, why don’t you outline these requirements?” Mariel coaxed her friend, as she worked on plaiting the thigh-length strands in her hands. Not that the braid would last long; Serina had a bad habit of tugging on and playing with her hair whenever she was thinking. Or frustrated. It actually surprised the older woman that her friend hadn’t already tugged her scalp bald.
One of the taller woman’s hands gestured in a limp circle at the slateboards. “It’s all there, written down. I’ve parsed the requirements for altering the spell onto the boards.”
“I’m not an arithmancy expert. I’m a Healer,” Mariel retorted, finger-combing a snarl out of her friend’s pale blond hair. “Spell it out in laywoman’s terms for me. The simplified version.”
“The simple version? That damned spell has permeated all of Natallia, that’s what’s wrong. Including the lands claimed by those senseless idiots,” she added with a snort, meaning the men of the Independence of Mandare. “Call it what they will, those lands are still Natallian and have been saturated with the enchantment imbued into the Font for over eight hundred years. It doesn’t help that their midwives are still casting the same blessing on each newborn that was keyed into the initial spell, the same as the rest of Natallia. In fact, we can only be glad the Gucherans have their own birth customs and have resisted the Font’s influence.
“The greatest reason why the rare male is born with magical power is usually because he has an outlander mother or father who does not permit the blessing to take place. Which is how I learned that the blessing has an actual influence on the transfer of magic among the local newborns.” Her hand came up to rub at her brow, bracing her head. Thankfully, Mariel didn’t need it upright, since she was past that point in the braiding. “Initially, I thought the spell would have to be undertaken by a pair of Natallians born under that blessing in order to undo the effects of that blessing with some new variation, but that won’t work.
“For one, the blessing is too pervasive and culturally difficult to shift. For another . . . the alterations I want to make just won’t work if the participants in the ritual are born-and-bred Natallians, steeped in the enchantments of the Font’s magic. Because the aether is saturated, the spell is deeply set into the very bones of the locals. It would resist the change far too much. No, I need clean specimens to enter the Font and perform the ritual.”
“Enter the Font?” Mariel choked, almost losing her grip on the strands of hair she was plaiting. “By the Gods! You cannot be serious! Only the most powerful of mages can enter the Font and emerge unscathed.”
“And yet that is one of the requirements. That’s why no one from my homeland will do. And I don’t know if there’s anyone in the Five Lands who fits the rest of the requirements,” Serina agreed wearily. “The original spell needs to be followed very closely in most of its ritual, in order to keep from disrupting the aether terribly, because the spell will be crafted in the very heart of the Font. Subtle changes are necessary. The Font magnifies all magical effects exponentially.
“To that end, the couple involved in the ritual need to be very strong mages in and of their own. They also should be physically fit to withstand the stresses, which means preferably before middle age, yet still old enough to have their magics firmly under control,” she listed as Mariel resumed braiding her hair. “Someone in their late twenties or early thirties would be preferable, for that reason. They also need to be single, with no commitments to another person, and willing to undergo at least some sort of mating with their ritual partner, if not a marriage outright.”
“Why a mating?” Mariel asked, curious. She tried not to think of her own mating ceremony with her late husband, Milon. It had been a wonderful celebration; she could still remember the cherry blossoms filling the temple. The wedding of a Seer of his power had been turned into a nationwide celebration; Seers were rare and deeply valued by all, whatever their gender. There was no telling yet if Mikor had the Inner Eye like his father, or if he had inherited her Healing affinities, or some magic of his own, or perhaps none at all, but then he was still only nine.
“The original ritual was something of an impromptu marriage celebration. Which complicates things even further,” Serina sighed wearily, one hand propping up her chin with the aid of her elbow on the armrest of her chair, the other idly touching the papers on her desk. “It wasn’t meant to be such a binding enchantment. It was, in effect, an accident. A great, scaly cockup.”
“A great, scaly cockup?” Mariel repeated the Moonlands saying, curious.
“I exhausted myself and my postcognitive spells, discovering that little fact.” Her fingernail straightened one of the papers on her desk, though it didn’t make an impact on the overall mess. “It wasn’t during their time in the Font itself, but in what I gleaned of the hours and days before and after. Just a few carelessly gasped but heartfelt words between two lovers. Two lovers who happened to be very powerful mages, who just happened to think it would be kinky to make love in the middle of a magical wellspring!”
Her fingers snapped out, flicking their tips at the papers on her desk. They shifted a little bit at the impact, but didn’t flutter to the ground.
“Idiots,” she snorted. Sighing roughly once again, Serina lolled back in her seat as soon as Mariel dropped her braid, the tail end of it secured with a murmured spell. Serina tipped her head back and peered up at her friend. “You know, I wasn’t sure about the opportunity your husband thrust upon me, when he claimed he Saw me as the next Guardian of the Retreat, two years ago. I thought he was insane. Even after he explained Foreseeing me finding a way to quell the war between Natallia and Mandare through some spell laid upon the Font, the way to restore a badly needed balance throughout the region. I initially thought he was talking about some more direct means of ending this stupid, pointless war.”
“I know,” Mariel murmured, pressing her hand to the younger woman’s shoulder. “So did I. But his visions, while strong and accurate in hindsight, were never that precise.”
Serina covered her friend’s hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. “No Seer’s predictions are ever completely clear. They’re layered in meanings that we cannot fully comprehend until after their events have already unfolded. He certainly didn’t know that the vision he had of riding down into the valley was a precognition of where he would be when those rocks fell. I’m sure he wouldn’t have gone, if he’d known.”
Mariel’s mouth curved in a sad, thoughtful smile as she moved to face her friend. “I think he would’ve, regardless. He said a few things during our marriage-night that made me think he knew his time was going to be short. Something about me being twice as much loved with all the breath in a man’s body. A man’s body, not his body. Surely he wouldn’t have said that if he hadn’t Foreseen me eventually being widowed and thus free to find love with another. I certainly wouldn’t have divorced him of my own free will, nor cheated on him; I loved him too much for that.”
Rising from her chair, Serina moved around the furniture and pulled her friend into her arms, resting Mariel’s cheek against her shoulder. “You’re one of those lucky women who get to enjoy more than one love in the span of their lives. While some of us only get fleeting, meaningless encounters while we search for relationships with more substance.”
“I think the hope of regaining love in my life is the only thing that keeps me going, some days,” Mariel muttered. “Well, that and Mikor.”
“Mikor is a handful. How is his test going?” Serina asked.
“Steadily . . . and don’t distract me from what you’re not telling me,” Mariel scolded her friend, pulling back. The top of her light brown curls barely tickled the taller woman’s nose, but she did have an intimidating mother-glare, when she cared to use it. “What other requirements await the problem at hand? There has to be something more, if you broke into your stash of throwing vases.”
Serina chuckled, but it was a short, flat sound. She did have a set of shelves near her desk that were filled with cheap clay pots, perfect for throwing and breaking as a physical stress reliever. “Unfortunately, as I was saying . . . the participants have to be mages. Ones powerful enough to enter the heart of a Font and not only survive, but have enough concentration free to do . . . other things.
“And they have to be a male and a female, because one of the ‘other’ things they have to do . . . is conceive a child,” she confessed after a wince of hesitation. Mariel’s hazel eyes widened. Serina nodded. “Not only that, the female has to definitely be powerful as a mage . . . because she has to come back and give birth in the Font . . . and her husband has to give the blessing inside the Font in unison with her, to cement the alterations to the spell. Doing so will permanently weld the magics to the blessing being used all across the affected lands.
“This is why it is so vital for these Fonts to be guarded carefully, wherever they are found!” She tried running her hand through her hair again, only to tangle her fingertips in Mariel’s efforts. Unable to dislodge her hair, Serina paced instead. “And, as it is my duty to guard this Font . . . I have to be the female involved. That way I can at least ensure that my half of the ritual takes place without any mistakes. If there are any mistakes on either side, I’ll know exactly what went wrong, because I’ll have been right there when it happened.”
It took Mariel only a moment to figure out what was agitating her friend so much. “Oh.”
“Yes. ‘Oh.’ Remind me to buy more pots to throw,” Serina added in a dry aside. “So not only do I have to find a male who isn’t a Natallian or a Mandarite”—she paused here for a derisive snort over that latter option—“but I have to find a male who is magically strong enough to endure the Font and the ritual twice . . . I have to find one I’d be willing to marry! Even if it’s only in a primitive, oath-taking, fertility-based sort of way. Which means I need a man who is not only willing to get married, beget a child, and enter the heart of the Font twice, but one who is intelligent enough to keep up with me,” the mage added as she paced the half-circle of slateboards and back again. “They’re not exactly as common as daisies, you know—and I haven’t seen a daisy since I left the Draconan Empire!”
“Why does he have to be smart enough to keep up with you?” Mariel asked, curious. “It sounds to me like you just need a sort of temporary mate-of-convenience. So long as he goes through the first part of the ritual and is willing to show up for the second part, you technically don’t need him to stick around for the rest of it. Certainly not after the child is born and the new enchantment has been successfully cast and cemented in place.”
Serina stopped her pacing and stared at her short, curly-haired companion. She blinked. “Well . . . I’d always pictured myself as getting married for good. That’s the whole point of marriage, isn’t it?”
“The point of marriage is to provide an emotionally supportive, stable home for both parties involved, predominantly for the raising of children,” Mariel corrected her. “Shared resources and responsibilities make raising a child easier than trying to do it on one’s own. But you’re independently wealthy, thanks to your Moonland pearls; you have or can buy all the resources you need. Including servants to help with the responsibility of raising a child, should you be husbandless at any point.”
“Well . . .” Serina couldn’t come up with anything to say against that idea, other than a half-mumbled, “Well, I wouldn’t want to take away the father’s rights.”
“Not all men are interested in raising children. The act of begetting them, yes,” Mariel sighed, then shook her head. “I think your quest to find an outlander mage strong enough to enter the Font, and biddable enough to heed your directions for the ritual, even if you have to oath-bind him into doing so, will be hard enough to complete. I admit it would be very nice for you to marry the man of your dreams—”
“—What dreams?” Serina interrupted with a snort, pulling her braid over her shoulder and fingering its plated strands as she started pacing again. Gesturing at the slateboards, she added, “Lately, all I can dream of are mathemagical formulas and arithmancy equations! And not the fun kind, either. This has been a very frustrating challenge for me. Not that I’m not loving it, but I’ve hit so many dead ends.”
“Yes, well, perhaps you should just settle for someone who can give you a good bedding while you’re in the Font,” Mariel offered. Her pragmatic statement made Serina narrow her eyes warily. Mariel shrugged expressively. “What? I’m just being practical about it! I mean, it seems to me that, if you’re the one who has to enter the Font to ensure it’s guarded properly, well . . . you’re mired in the local aether. The longer you stay here, the more the botched spell will seep into your bones, making it difficult for you to alter the spell.”
“I know,” the younger woman agreed glumly, flipping a hand at her chalkboards to indicate it was already factored into the equations.
“And you are twenty-and-seven,” Mariel pointed out as Serina paced again. “You might have another twenty or so years of viable childbearing age, but that’s only a rough estimate. Some women do become crones in their early thirties, and only the Gods know why. The sooner you get this taken care of, the better, or so it would seem to me. I say, as soon as you find a good candidate for the ritual, go for it. Don’t necessarily wait to find the perfect man.”
“You just want me to get bedded,” Serina quipped, slanting her friend a wry look, “so I’ll be more biddable and throw fewer vases out of frustration.”
“It’s been six months!” Mariel reminded her. “You’re a perfectly healthy woman. You should be visiting a bed-slave in one of the Thrall Houses, if you don’t have a lover or a husband. One tumble for some magical ritual is not taking care of your sexual needs adequately.”
“It’s been eight months,” Serina corrected her. “And I’d need to practice before entering the Font with whomever it is that I’ll pick. This is a Tantric ritual, after all. It takes skill and concentration to be able to cast magic in the midst of all that physical pleasure,” she added, getting distracted by the equations again. “We’ll probably have to duplicate what happened before and not improvise—thank the Gods the original couple were a bit more inventive and experimental than just ‘Insert Rod A into Cog B’ types! I’d be bored to tears if they were.”
Mariel snorted inelegantly, choking on a suppressed laugh.
“Oh, laugh all you want,” Serina chided, stopping in her pacing and braid-fingering. “I cannot calculate exactly what sort of interactions in the Font will be needed until I have the male in question in my possession, so that I can cast my diagnosis spells upon him. For all I know, hair color will play a part in the overall equations!”
“Well, if that’s so, unless your predecessor was a platinum blonde, you’ll be in serious trouble just for your own participation,” Mariel quipped. That earned her a scowl for her efforts. “Lighten your mood, Serina! Look on the bright side of all this. Most healthy heterosexual males would leap at the chance to have lots of practice sex with a beautiful woman such as yourself. Male mages are no different from anyone else, in that regard. You shouldn’t have any trouble convincing a likely candidate to follow your lead.”
“Male mages who are strong enough to have sex in a wellspring of pure magic are usually arrogant creatures,” Serina reminded her friend, pacing again. “You mentioned making him take an oath-bond to follow my lead. That might help. Of course, in order to get a male mage of sufficient power into a position where he’d take that oath-bond . . . He’ll want something. I’ll have to hear what his price will be and consider it carefully.”
“Ending the inequality between the genders and the underlying cause of this damned, ongoing war is worth almost any price,” Mariel returned quietly, as her friend pondered the problem. “Not any price; there are some things one shouldn’t compromise over. But don’t quibble too much.”
“I’m very good at calculating the risks,” Serina dismissed, tugging on the end of her braid. “It’s what those risks will be that worries me.” She glanced at the clock on the mantle over the hearth, half-hidden by one of the slateboards. “Mikor should be done with his test in another quarter-hour. I’d better tidy this up and prepare to grade his work. I want to have it done before going to supper.”
“Will you be dining with the nuns this evening?” Mariel inquired, curious.
“Yes. Mother Naima wanted to discuss my accompanying another crafts shipment, this time down to the coast. Port Blueford is having its Town Faire, and she wants ‘adequate protection’ for the journey.” She rolled her tawny brown eyes. “She keeps claiming I need to get ‘into the fresh air’ more often. As if I don’t enjoy plenty of fresh air whenever the wind blows—which is nearly constantly, here in a mountain home!”
“I think she enjoys the prestige of being temporary Guardian while you’re gone,” Mariel observed. “And the wind blows no less frequently when you live next to the sea.”
“But it smells nicer, to me.”
“So, why are you complaining about a trip to Port Blueford, if you love the smell of the sea?” Mariel quipped.
“Because the Bay of Blueford is too far from any port frequented by foreigners, given how it cleaves the middle of the southern coastline halfway to the heart of Natallia?” Serina retorted dryly. Shaking her head, she returned to the subject at hand. “As soon as that child is born, the Mother Superior can have the whole job. She has the magic to manage it!”
Once again, she tried to run her hands through her hair, only to be thwarted by the plait confining it. Her fingers shifted to worry at the spell-bound end instead.
“Don’t misunderstand me, Mariel; I’ve enjoyed my time here as Guardian of the Font. I’ve learned a lot, between reading all the tomes in the Retreat’s library and researching that birth-spell. But I’m a coastal girl, not a mountain girl. I need the tang of the sea in my lungs. Fish in my diet. Sand between my toes!
“I only have to be here for the impregnation and the birthing, and then I can leave. That would fulfill what Milon Saw of my presence here and the impact my research and efforts will have.” She gave her friend an unhappy look. “Of course, I’d hate to leave you behind. I was never as close to my own sister as I’ve become with you, what with her being the next Singer of the Moonlands, and all. We didn’t have that much in common, and she always had more of Mother’s attention.”
“I’ve grown close to you, too,” Mariel agreed. “You kept me together and going, after Milon’s fall. But leaving the Retreat . . . I don’t know if I’m ready for that. Not unless I knew there was a destination to go to. I’m the sort who likes to put down roots for stretches at a time. I’m not a world-wanderer like you.”
“I’ve already traveled half the length of this continent,” Serina reminded her wryly. “I’m not as enamored of journeying as I used to be. But I do know that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life here. I’m a healthy, red-blooded woman. I’m not the type to turn myself into a nun if I can help it.”
Mariel laughed softly. “I should hope not, if you’re planning on reenacting a sex ritual.” She glanced at the clock and nodded. “Time’s almost up. Let’s go make sure my son’s not cheating and looking in the history texts while we’re elsewhere.”
That earned her a chuckle from Serina, who wasn’t fooled as to why Mariel came into her study in the first place. “Don’t you mean, let’s go reassure him that his ‘dear Aunty’ hasn’t murdered his mother in a frustrated rage with a mis-flung vase?”
* * *
Dominor’s head ached with rhetoric. Fallacious rhetoric. To the question of why men were supposedly superior, all he received for a concrete answer was the fact that men were physically bigger and stronger, on average. Dom couldn’t deny that. But the opinion that men were smarter had no solid basis in fact, as far as he could tell.
In Katan, boys and girls received the same education in reading, writing, and mathematics until the age of twelve, when they had the choice of apprenticing in a particular trade or taking additional studies. Schooling from the age of six to twelve was paid for by the government; beyond that was the realm of private tutors and apprenticeships. Though his family hadn’t quibbled at purchasing the services of private, professional instructors, Dominor had noticed during his earlier schooling years that girls were just as capable as boys. Slightly more so, in fact, considering that they were more willing to settle down and pay attention to their lessons than boys tended to be.
There had been a girl, the daughter of a professional scribe, who had challenged him academically in his fifth year of schooling. Dom had beaten her in the end-of-term tests, but not by that wide of a margin. It had also taken a lot of late-night studying to do so. Women were definitely not intellectually inferior to men. The examples Kennal provided, supporting his father’s claims, were easily debunked in Dominor’s mind: Their “slave girls” simply weren’t given the same level of education as the males of Mandare, so naturally they would seem more ignorant. The thing was, ignorance was curable by education. Stupidity, on the other hand . . . well, that led to idiotic notions that could not be easily dislodged from the feeble minds of those who clung to them.
Like the so-called superiority of males over females as a whole.
For two days now, Lord Aragol and his sons had talked themselves hoarse, extolling the virtues of the Mandarite philosophies and way of life. The more Dominor heard, the more he wanted to dig in his heels, to challenge their notions and assumptions; the more he had to endure of their spiel, the more he wanted to get off their ship. Unfortunately, to be able to gain their trust in the hopes of coaxing them into releasing his chains, he had to pretend to slowly begin to agree with their delusions. He had earned the loss of the chains binding him to the bunk and the cabin, but still bore the manacles and collar suppressing his powers. They still didn’t trust him far enough for that privilege.
Men and women weren’t superior to each other; they were complementary! The only superiority one could attain was in pitting oneself individually against someone else. Not in pitting one gender against the other. This Mandarite philosophy was as fallacious as believing that skin color had something to do with a person’s superiority! The people of Katan came in all shades, from pale and blond along the southern coastline, to near-black in both skin and hair color along the sun-drenched northern shores, close to the region of the world known as the Sun’s Belt. There was no difference in the abilities of the mages from any region that could be linked to something as silly as eye and hair color, let alone reproductive organs.
For the third time that day, a sailor knocked on the door of his cabin, interrupting Eduor’s blushing but animated recital of how he’d made his first slave girl obey him, dominating her—and thankfully interrupting the way he was privately sickening his literally but not figuratively captive audience.
The man muttered in Kemblin’s ear, making the expedition leader start and widen his eyes. Jaw tightening, he dismissed the sailor and cleared his throat, interrupting his younger son. “I’m afraid the rest of your tale will have to wait, Eduor. We have a pressing concern to handle. Lord Dominor, you’ve heard many of the advantages of life as a Mage Lord among the Mandarites,” he stated smoothly, persuasively. “You’ve even agreed with most of the facts we’ve presented to you. I would rather have waited until we reached my estates to do this, but . . . it seems we are in danger from a Natallian warship. We have been trying to outrun it, but it has slowly gained on our position since it was first spotted on the horizon shortly after you roused from your, ah, slumbering.
“I’m afraid they will not hesitate to sink us, milord. This puts your own life in jeopardy, alongside ours,” Kemblin continued, his tone persuasive. “Now, from what you’ve revealed about yourself in our conversations, you apparently have enough magic to defend this ship and assist it in escaping its pursuit. I am willing to release your enchanted shackles, if . . .”
“If?” Dominor inquired, arching a brow as he took the verbal bait being dangled in front of him. Somewhere nearby, something boomed loudly. It sounded to the captive mage like the gun-thing that the Mandarites had demonstrated back at the palace. Dom wished he had the type of gun-thing that Kelly had borrowed from her native universe to show the Mandarites that the people of Nightfall were advanced in all ways and therefore weren’t the least bit intimidated by their visitors’ nonmagical weapons.
“If you swear upon your magic that you will join and aid our cause in defeating the Natallians,” the earl finished as the echo of the weapon cleared itself from their ears.
Dominor stalled for time. “For how long? Until we’re free of that warship? Or a month, or a year?”
Lord Aragol smiled. “Do you really think we would want to let go of you that easily? A mage of your status? How about for a minimum of ten years? That’s long enough to beget a couple of sons and see if they have any magery in their veins.”
Frustrated but suppressing it, Dom opened his mouth to say he would consider it when another sailor banged on the door, yanking it open without leave.
The Mandarite gasped out his message. “Two more warships have just revealed themselves, dropping their mirage spells! They’ve set us up for a stunning, and they have some sort of new shielding that sends our cannonballs astray!”
“Swear your oath, mage, and I’ll set you free!” Kemblin snapped, staring at Dominor. “Rescue us, and you’ll be a duke of our land!”
He couldn’t do it. He could not agree to such a hellish bargain. If there was one thing Dominor disliked, it was arrogant idiocy masquerading itself as superiority . . . and this gender-thing was the most idiotic reason for anyone to go to war that he had ever heard. If there was one thing he wasn’t, it was an idiot. A fool, maybe, but not a dumb idiot. Lifting his chin slightly, he gave his reply arrogantly.
“I am Lord Dominor, Chancellor to Her Majesty, Queen Kelly of Nightfall. I’ll take my chances with the Natallians. Women tend to be more reasonable when it comes to honoring the sanctity of diplomats from foreign nations, in my experience.”
With a growl of anger, Lord Aragol grabbed Dominor by the wrist and hauled him out of his cabin, shoving him down the short, narrow corridor, past the doors to his and his son’s cabins. Thrusting the younger man out onto the midlevel of the ship’s poop deck, he pointed at the two warships in view, one of them looming startlingly close. Balanced on each bowsprit, sheltered behind a blurred curtain of protective magic, two figures stood in plain view. Crackling energies played over their hands. The ships were spaced too wide apart for the Mandarite vessel to have turned in time.
“See your folly firsthand!” Kemblin shouted, shoving him almost over the railings. “They don’t care who you are, only that you’re a male on a Mandarite ship! By the rights of man, I hope they castrate you for your foolishness!”
Magic swirled and arced out between the two large warships. A sieve-like net of pastel energies crackled and connected just as the bow of the Mandarite ship crossed its territory. Sailors yelled and scrambled for cover. A few even tried to fire their pistols, but it was no good; the moment the energies swept over the men at the foredeck, they slumped insensate to the planks underfoot, weapons too poorly aimed to have done any good.
Dominor had only a heartbeat to crouch and brace himself before the stunning-spell swept over him, shocking away the world. Only the world didn’t go away. The manacles at his throat, wrists, and ankles grew uncomfortably hot for a moment, then slowly cooled again. Around him, Kemblin Aragol and his two sons had dropped to the deck, rendered just as unconscious as the rest of the ship’s fallen crew . . . but Dominor was unaffected.
Rigging creaked overhead, and the wind flapped in the sails. Without a man to hold the rudder steady in its attempt to turn away from the Natallian vessels’ trap, the ship straightened out. Magic sparkled up over the timbers, and the ship jolted, shuddering as it slowed under the force of the spell laid upon its hull. Lines were tossed out by the nearer of the two warcraft; within a very short time, the Mandarite ship was towed up against the larger vessel, and both men and women swung down on ropes, boarding.
With little choice but to play the part assigned to him at the start of this Disaster, Dominor stood and straightened his threadbare clothes. He hadn’t been given his clothing back, under the excuse that without a real bath to cleanse himself, with nothing but seawater to scrub himself, he would only stain his finery. It had been a ploy to keep him under the Mandarite’s control, he knew, and it irked him that he didn’t look the part he was about to play.