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"It may not happen here."
"That's what they said about the Plague."
Shavus Ciarnin, Archmage of the Order of the Morkensik Wizards, flashed an irritated look at his old friend's pupil—Rhion the Brown merely pushed his spectacles a little more firmly into place on the bridge of his nose with one pudgy forefinger and returned the glare calmly. Old Jaldis the Blind brushed a tendril of milk-white hair from the tattered blanket that wrapped his thin shoulders and moved a little closer to the brown wall of chimney bricks which was the tiny attic's only source of heat. "So they did," he observed mildly. "I do not see how it can happen here ... or how it could have happened at all. But this lack of understanding on my part does not alter the fact that it has happened there ..."
"Don't be a fool," Ciarnin snapped irritably. His scarred, sun-darkened face seemed to darken still further, cold blue eyes appearing very light in their deep sockets. "Magic can't just cease to exist! Magic is! It's an element, like the light of the sun, like the air we breathe! Men could no more stop it from existing than they could keep the sun from rising by shaking their fists at it."
"To our knowledge," the blind mage replied in his curiously sweet, toneless voice.
Huddled in his threadbare cloak at his master's feet—the room only boasted two chairs—Rhion could barely recall what Jaldis' true voice had been like. He'd only heard it upon one occasion, when he was sixteen, a few months before the old king's troops had arrested Lord Henak, Jaldis' then-patron, and torn out Jaldis' tongue and eyes to keep him from witching them while they'd brought the traitor earl and his court mage to trial in the High City of Nerriok. The only reason they hadn't cut off the wizard's hands as well was because they'd feared he'd die of gangrene before judgment could be passed.
For the eleven years since his acquittal, Jaldis had spoken by means of a curved rosewood box which hung strapped to his chest, a sounding-chamber filled with intricate mechanisms of silver, reed, and gut, even as he saw—after a fashion and with head-splitting concentration—by means of a pair of massive spectacles wrought of opal, crystal, and gold. Charging the left lens with spells of seeing had been Rhion's first attempt at major magic, and he still remembered the shuddering surge of joy he'd felt when he'd seen the lattices of the crystal's inner structure shift and change, seen life stir deep in the opals' pale, fiery wells. The sense of release had been almost like the physical breaking-open of some locked core of bone deep in his chest, the realization that all those dreams, all those longings, all the strange madnesses which had whispered in his mind since childhood had been real ...
He remembered, too, the week of vomiting and delirium which had followed, for of course he'd been far too young to attempt anything like the power needed for such spells. He'd tried desperately to keep his illness hidden—it had been his parents' first clue to their only son's abilities, and he'd come back to consciousness to the news that they had published, in all the temples of the Forty Realms, the notices of his death.
Though he'd never told Jaldis, Rhion's own extreme shortsightedness dated from the casting of those spells.
"And yet you must admit, Shavus," that thin, buzzing drone went on, "that there are places in this world where there is no air—in the depths of oceans and rivers—and no light, in caves and crevices ... indeed, for half the turning of the day there is no light anywhere. And there are places, as we all know, where magic does not exist."
"Bah," the Archmage grunted, and the back of his cracked and much-mended chair creaked with the uneasy movement of his shoulders. The attic room above the Black Pig Inn, which had served Jaldis and Rhion as lodgings for the last two and a half years, was unheated, save for the warmth which radiated from the bricks of the kitchen chimney. On snowy midwinter evenings like this one it saved them from freezing to death, but when the turgid warmth of the low-plains summers held the city of Felsplex in its grip, the room was unspeakable. There was no fireplace in the room itself, nor any kind of candle or brazier—the landlord having an almost hysterical fear of fire—but, despite the fact that the windows were closed against the bitter cold by heavy wooden shutters, the lack of light posed little problem for wizards. Though the three men—young, middle-aged, and old—sat in complete darkness, Rhion could see the Archmage's square, ugly face and coarse shock of iron-gray hair as easily as if the room were flooded with daylight. And he saw how the pale eyes shifted at the mention of such things. "Any fool knows about those."
"But this is more than the Chambers of Silence," Jaldis went on, "that lords build into the dungeons of their palaces to hold a wizard's power in check—more than the pheelas root that numbs our skills, more than the spells of silence, the fields of silence, that a powerful mage can weave to cripple his mageborn foes." Behind sunken and shriveled eyelids ruined muscles moved, as if his destroyed gaze could still encompass the gray-haired old ex- soldier opposite him and the short, sturdy young man at his feet. From the top of a stack of books beside his chair, Jaldis' opal spectacles seemed to review the room with a bulging, asymmetrical gaze, and the old man's hand, deft and shapely before arthritis had deformed it, stroked subconsciously at the talismans of power which festooned the rosewood soundbox like queer and glittering seaweed upon a rock.
"I am speaking of a world, a universe, where magic does not exist at all, and has not existed for many years."
"And I'm saying such a thing's preposterous," Shavus retorted. "What you think you heard ... what you might have seen ..." He shook his head again, angry and dismissive, but Rhion saw the heavy, corded hand fidget uncomfortably with the snagged brown wool of his robe.
"I know what it is that I felt." Jaldis' thin face hardened with a flash of angry pride, though the monotonous voice of the soundbox did not alter. "I have opened a Dark Well and through it have seen into the Void which lies between all the infinite number of universes of which the Cosmos is made! And in that Void ..." The sweet, shrill tones sank. "In that Void I heard a voice crying out of a world where magic had once existed, but now exists no more."
"Jaldis, old friend ..." Shavus leaned forward placatingly, causing the ruinous chair to emit an alarming creak. "I'm not saying you didn't see it, didn't hear it. But I am asking how, if magic has ceased to exist in some other universe, someone there could make his voice heard in the Void? I've studied the Void as well, you know. I've opened Dark Wells into it, to try to glimpse something of how the Cosmos is formed ..."
"I'm glad someone has," Rhion remarked, folding his arms around his knees and huddling a little more deeply into his faded black cloak. "The other night when Jaldis asked me to get a message to you about this was the first I'd even heard of the things."
"Which is as it should be," the Archmage snapped irritably. "It is not a branch of knowledge for the young—or the light-minded."
He turned back to face the blind man, bundled like a drying skeleton in cloak and quilts which all but hid the tattered brown robes of the foremost Order of Wizards in the world. His tough, seamed face softened. "Old friend, in all my studies of the Void, in all my communications across it and through it, I've never encountered a world where magic in some form didn't exist. I'm not denying that you heard something. But one piece of hearsay is damn little grounds to risk the hideous danger of crossing the Void itself, as you're asking me to do ..."
"Not asking, Shavus," the old man said softly. "Begging. Someone must go there. Someone must help them. Don't you see that ..."
Heavy footsteps on the narrow wooden spiral of the stairs made the whole building shudder. The Black Pig rose four floors above the common rooms and kitchens, a rickety inverted ziggurat of ever-protruding balconies and upper floors seemingly supported by a mystifying web of clotheslines and makeshift bridges over the streets and by the surrounding buildings against which it leaned. Rhion frequently wondered what would happen if any of the overcrowded tenements, taverns, countinghouses, or gimcrack temples of unpronouncable foreign gods that made up the river quays quarter of Felsplex were to disappear. Beyond a doubt the entire district would come crashing down like a house of cards.
It was the landlord. Rhion recognized the tread. Pulling his cloak tighter about him, he got to his feet and navigated delicately among the few pieces of furniture which cluttered even that tiny chamber, summoning a blue-burning shred of magelight to flicker like will-o'-the-wisp above his head. The wavery gleam only served to make the room appear dingier, its moving shadows outlining with pitiless emphasis the cracks in the plaster of the walls, the stained beams from which bunches of winter mallow and stork grass hung drying, the chipped cups and water-vessels, and the precious books and scrolls arranged neatly along the table's rear edge. Darkness would have been less depressing, but Rhion had long ago learned that those who were not mageborn found wizards' ability to see without light disproportionately unnerving.
"Lady to see you," the landlord grunted, scratching his crotch.
"Are you—er—a wizard?"
Rhion was awfully tired of the question and of the dubious look that invariably accompanied it. He'd grown his beard as soon as he was old enough to do so, but the short-clipped, scruffy brown tangle evidently did nothing to dispel the boyishness of his face nor the way his wide-set blue eyes were magnified by the lenses of his spectacles. Short, unobtrusive, and of the compact, sturdy build which slips so easily into chubbiness, even without a wizard's ability to move unobserved he would have been the last person anyone noticed in a crowd.
The lady who was waiting for him in the smallest of the inn's private parlors had obviously been expecting someone a little more impressive.
He considered responding with Are you—er—a lady? but suppressed the impulse. He and Jaldis needed the rent. Instead he smiled genially and said, "We come in all shapes and sizes, mistress. Would you trust me more if I had horns and a tail?"
She let out an unsteady titter and her eyes, above a concealing veil of purple-embroidered silk, strayed to the hem of his robe as if she really expected to see the jointed tail of a scorpion-grim peeking out.
Inwardly, Rhion sighed. Gold pieces to barleycorns she wants a love-potion ...
"And how may I serve you?" he asked, still with a smile and the reflection that asking the question in his capacity as wizard was an improvement upon doing so in the capacity of bar-boy, a position he'd occasionally filled at the Black Pig when things got bad. If my father could see me now ...
She leaned forward, her little purple-gloved hands clenched upon the scrubbed oak tabletop. "There is ... a man."
Rhion sat down on the opposite side of the table, folded his hands, and nodded encouragingly. Above the edge of the veil, her eyes were dark, enormous, and painted with green kohl and powdered gold; her cloak was lined with marten fur. From his days of loitering in the most fashionable scent shops in the City of Circles, he could price her perfume to within a few royals, and it wasn't cheap.
She went on, softly and simply as a child, "He must love me or I shall die."
"And he doesn't."
The delicate brows above those immense eyes puckered tragically. "He doesn't know I'm alive. He is fickle, frivolous ... his affections turn on a whim. Give me something that will draw him to me, something that will make him love me ..."
Rhion had never, personally, been able to fathom why human beings persisted in craving the love of people who didn't know they were alive, but this was far from the first time he'd encountered the phenomenon, or used the proceeds to put food on the table.
"Look," he said gently. "Are you sure he's the kind of man you want? If he's that fickle, that frivolous ... A love-potion won't change what a person is. Only—and only temporarily—whom they want."
"That is enough," she breathed, and clasped her hands at her breast as if to contain the throbbing of her heart. Her cloak, falling back a little, showed strand upon strand of filigreed silver beads at her throat, gleaming against a ground of ribbon and featherwork like a field of summer flowers. "If only I can have the chance to win his regard, I know I can make him love me. If once I hold him in my arms, I know he will come back." She swayed forward and clutched his hand, as if fearing he would rise to his towering five-feet-five and denounce her as a strumpet. "Oh, name your price!"
They always said, Name your price, but Rhion had learned over the years what the going rate on love-philters was and had also learned that the rich especially would be screaming for the magistrates if the sum quoted were so much as a dequin above it.
He fetched candles from the mantelpiece, noting automatically as he passed the door of the common room the two chair bearers and the linkboy, drinking wine from boiled-leather cups beside that room's enormous hearth. Unlike the attics, the commons and the private parlors downstairs were pleasantly warm, redolent of beer and woodsmoke, sweat, onion stew, and the sawdust that strewed the floor. Judging by their clothes, the chair bearers were hired men, probably ex-slaves who'd bought themselves free and gone into business, for of course his client, no matter how rich she was, would have used hired bearers to bring her here, rather than her own household slaves.
No lady of respectable family would let her own servants know about coming to a place like the Black Pig, let alone to visit a wizard. People did visit wizards, of course, and pay for their services, in spite of the fulminations of every priest of every god in the landscape, the same way his father had visited the more expensive prostitutes and his mother had visited those skilled in the dyeing of hair. They just didn't talk about it. As he brought the tapers back to the table, he was aware of the way his client clutched her cloak about her and of the apprehension in the doelike eyes gazing at him from above the veil. She flinched when he sat down again, drawing as far from him as the high-backed chair would allow; and when he said, "Take off your glove," her painted eyelids made as great a play as if he'd asked her to remove her dress.
From a pocket in his robe he took a twist of paper containing the herbal powder that was the basis of all love-philters, a supply of which he kept made up beforehand. From another pocket he drew the piece of red chalk he always carried and a goose-feather. He explained, "For a love-potion to work, it has to carry the ... the scent, the essence, of your flesh."
"I know." Her voice sank to a whisper. "They said you ... you would mix it upon my naked body."
Before he could stop himself Rhion said, "Well, generally we do, but this table's awfully hard and the fire's gone down ..."
"I would not mind the cold." Her eyes smoldered, and Rhion bit his tongue in exasperation, both at himself for making the joke and at her for not realizing it was one.
"A hand will be fine."
She removed her glove and offered her soft little palm, scented with attar of roses. Rhion turned her hand over and poured a quantity of the powder on the back. "If you'll keep silent now," he remembered to say. He'd never had a client yet, male or female, who, if not silenced beforehand, didn't feel compelled to relate the details of the affair while he was trying to concentrate on the spells.
She let out her breath, looking a little disappointed.
He took the woman's thumb and little finger gently in his own two hands, which rested on the table on either side of hers. Closing his eyes, he slowed his breathing and stilled his thoughts, calling up and focusing the power that rose from within himself like the slow expansion of a single candle's light gradually illuminating some enormous, darkened room. This was the part of spell-weaving that he loved and the part that made him most uneasy at times like this, the most vulnerable in the presence of these representatives of the mundane world for whom wizardry was a matter of rumor and whisper and dread.
Excerpted from The Rainbow Abyss by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1991 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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