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The Silent Tower
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
"Has the archmage returned?"
The wizard Thirle looked up sharply at Caris' question, strongly reminding the young man of a fat gray field rabbit at the crack of a twig. Then he relaxed a little. "Not yet." He picked up the garden trowel he'd dropped when Caris' shadow had fallen over him on the brick steps of his house, where he had been kneeling. He got to his feet with the awkward care of the very fat and dusted off his black robe. "Can I help you?"
Caris hesitated, his right hand resting loosely around the hilt of the sword thrust through his frayed silk sash. He cast a quick glance at the doorway of the house next door. Like all the houses on the Mages' Yard, it rose tall, narrow, and cramped-looking from the flagstones of the little court, dingy with age and factory soot. Two or three of the other sasenna, the archaic order of sworn warriors, lingered, waiting for him on the steps. Like him, they were clothed in the loose black garments of their order, crisscrossed with sword sashes and weapons belts; and like him, they were sweaty, bruised, and exhausted from the afternoon's session with the swordmaster. He shook his head, and they passed into the shadows of the carved slot of the doorway.
"I don't know." He turned back to Thirle, noting automatically, as a sasennan must, the tiny details—the sweat on his brow, the twitch of his earth-stained fingers—and wondered what it was that troubled him. "That is ..."
The look of preoccupied nervousness faded from the fat man's eyes, replaced by genuine concern. "What is it, lad?"
For a moment, Caris debated about simply shrugging the problem off, pushing it aside as he had pushed it aside last night, and returning to the only matters that should concern the sasennan—serving his masters the mages and bettering his own skills in the arts of war. "I don't know whether I should be asking this or not," he began diffidently. "I know it isn't the Way of the Sasenna to ask—a weapon asks no questions of the hand that wields it. But ..."
Thirle smiled and shook his head. "My dear Caris, how do we know what the dagger thinks when it's sheathed, or what swords fear in the armory when the lights are out? You know I've never approved of this business of the sasenna being—being like those machines that weave cloth and spin thread in the mills, that do one job only and don't care what it is."
Under the warm twinkle in his eyes Caris relaxed a little and managed a grin at Thirle's heresy.
Of the dozen or more houses around that small cobblestoned court on the edge of the ghetto of the Old Believers, only eight actually belonged to the Council of Wizards; of those, three were rented out to those—mostly Old Believers—who were willing to live near wizards. Few mages cared to live in the city of Angelshand. Of those few, Caris had always liked Thirle.
The Archmage, Caris' grandfather, had been absent since Caris had come out of the morning's training. If he did not return before dinner, there was little chance Caris would be able to speak with him until tomorrow.
It was not the Way of the Sasenna to fear, and Caris did not think he could endure another unsleeping night with the secret of his fear gnawing his heart.
But having spent the last five years in rigorous training of muscle and nerves, he was uncertain how to speak of fear. Nervously, he ran his scarred fingers through his short-cropped blond hair, now stiff with the drying sweat of training. "I don't know whether I should speak of this," he said hesitantly. "It's just that—A weapon wasn't always what I was." He struggled with himself for a moment, then asked, "Is there any way that a mage can lose his magic?"
Thirle's reaction was as unexpected as it was violent. A flush of anger mottled the fat cheeks and layers of chin. "No!" He almost shouted the word. "We are born with powers, some greater, some lesser. They are like our flesh, like our souls."
Confused at this rage, Caris began, "Not even ..."
"Be silent!" Thirle's face had gone yellow as tallow now with fury. "You might have been mageborn to begin with boy, but your powers never amounted to anything. There's no way you could know about power. You are forbidden to speak of it. Forbidden!" he added furiously, as Caris opened his mouth to explain.
To be sasenna is first to serve; when, after three years' grueling training in the arts of war and the sneakier deaths of peacetime, Caris had made the last decision of his life, he had sworn his warrior's vows to the Council of Wizards. The vows held good. He closed his mouth, willing himself not to feel the scathe of astonished hurt, and made himself incline his head.
His hands shaking, Thirle picked up his trowel and watering can and hurried through the door of the house, slamming it behind him. Standing on the step, Caris observed that the little mage had been so agitated that he'd left half his beloved pot-plants, which clustered the step and every windowsill within reach, unwatered. Across the city, the big clock on the St. Cyr fortress began striking five. Caris would have less than an hour for dinner before going on duty in the refectory when the mages ate.
Confused, Caris moved down the step with the sasennan's lithe walk. He felt shocked and stung, as if he had been unexpectedly bitten by a loved old dog; but then, he reflected a little bitterly, it was not the Way of the Sasenna to pat even a loved and toothless old dog without one hand on one's knife. He made his way to the house next door that was shared by the novice mages and the sasenna of the Council with the frightening chill that lay in his heart unassuaged.
It was years since Caris had even thought of himself as mageborn. He was nineteen, and for five years he had given himself, heart and soul, to the Way of Sasenna. But he had originally entered it, as many mageborn did, only as the gateway to greater learning, which had never materialized.
His powers, he knew, had never been much—a sharpness of sight in the dark and a certain facility for finding lost objects. In his childhood he had desperately wanted to become a mage and to take the vows of the Council of Wizards in order to serve and be with his grandfather, who even then had been the Archmage. From studying the Way of Sasenna as a means to an end, it had become an end in itself; when he had realized, as he eventually had, that his powers were insufficient to permit him to become a wizard, he had remained as a sasennan. When it had come time to take his warrior's vows, it was to the Council that he had taken them.
Was that why Thirle had refused to reply? he wondered. Because Caris, having what he had, had turned from it?
It might have explained his refusal to answer, but, thought Caris uneasily, it did not explain the note of fear in his voice.
At dinner that night Thirle was absent—odd, for though the wizards in general ate plainly, the little botanist was still very fond of the pleasures of the table.
There were seven wizards and two novices who lived in the Court. The fourteen sasenna who served them regularly traded off dinner duty, some serving, some standing guard, as there were always sasenna standing guard somewhere in the Yard—a few still sleeping, or just waked and ready to go on night watch. Though few of the thieves and cutpurses that swarmed the dark slums of Angelshand would go near the Yard, the mageborn had long ago learned that it never paid to be completely unguarded.
A little uneasily, Caris noted that the Archmage had not yet returned. His place at the high table had been taken by the Lady Rosamund, a beautiful woman of about forty, who had been born Lady Rosamund Kentacre. Her father, the Earl Maritime, had disowned her when she had sworn the vows of the Council of Wizards—not, Caris had heard rumored, because in doing so she had revealed herself to be mageborn in the first place, but because the vows precluded using her powers to benefit the Kentacre family's political ambitions. Undoubtedly the Earl had known—his daughter had been nearly twenty when she had sought out the Council—and had probably arranged to have her secretly taught in the arts of magic by one of the quacks or dog wizards who abounded in such numbers in any major city of the Empire. But for Lady Rosamund, the half-understood jumble of piesog, hearsay, and garbled spells used for fees by the dog wizards had not been enough. To obtain true teaching, she must take the Council Vows, the first of which was that she must never use what she had learned either to harm or to help any living thing.
"He should never have gone without a guard," she was saying, as Caris bore a tray of duck and braided breads up to the high table.
Beside her, the thin, tired-looking Whitwell Simm protested, "The Regent wouldn't dare ..."
"Wouldn't he?" Cold fire sparked in her green glance. "The Prince Regent hates the mageborn, and always has hated us. I'm told that the other night, after a ball in the city, he was getting into his carriage when an old man, a shabby old dog wizard, accidentally brushed up against him on the flagway. Prince Pharos had two of his sasenna hold the old man while he almost beat the poor wretch to death with his cane. The rumors of what goes on in the dungeons of the old Summer Palace, which he has taken for his own, are a scandal. He is as mad as his father."
"The difference being," remarked Issay Bel-Caire on her other side, "that his father is not dangerous, except perhaps to himself."
At the foot of the table, the two novices—a short, red-haired girl of seventeen or so and a creamily dark, thin girl a few years older—said nothing, but listened with uneasy avidity, knowing that this was not merely gossip, but something that could easily affect their lives. Near them old Aunt Min, the most ancient of the mages who dwelt in the Yard, sat slumped like a little black bag of laundry in her chair, snoring softly. With a smile of affection for the old lady, Caris woke her gently up; she lifted her head with a start and fumbled at the tangle of her eternal knitting with hands as tiny and fragile as a finch's claws, muttering to herself all the while.
Whitwell Simm said, "Even if the Prince hates us, even if he believes our magic is nothing but charlatanry, like that of the dog wizards, you know he'd never dare to harm the Archmage. Neither the Council nor, as a matter of fact, the Church, would permit it. And we don't know that Salteris has gone to the Palace ..."
"With the Regent's sasenna everywhere in the city," retorted Lady Rosamund coolly, "it scarcely matters where he goes. Prince Pharos is a madman and should have been barred from the succession long ago in favor of his cousin."
Issay laughed. "Cerdic? Maybe, if you want quacks and dog wizards like Magister Magus ruling the Empire."
Her ladyship's aristocratic lip curled at the mention of the most popular charlatan in Angelshand, but she turned her attention to her plate with her usual air of arctic self-righteousness, as if secure in the knowledge that all opposing arguments were specious and deliberately obstructive.
Caris, clearing up the plates afterward and getting ready for the one last training session with the other sasenna, which the incredible length of the midsummer evenings permitted, felt none of the wizards' qualms for his grandfather's safety. This was not so much because he did not believe the mad Regent capable of anything—by all accounts he was—but because Caris did not truly think anyone or anything capable of trapping or harming his grandfather.
Since Caris was a child, he had known Salteris Solaris as his grandfather, a mysterious man who visited his grandmother's farm beyond the bounds of their Wheatlands village, sometimes twice in a summer, sometimes for the length of a winter's storm. He had known that afterward his mother's mother would sing at her household tasks for weeks. The old man's hair had been dark then, like that of Caris' mother—Caris took after the striking blond beauty of his slow-moving, good-natured father. But Caris had the Archmage's eyes, deep brown, like the dark earth of the Wheatlands, the color of the very old leaves seen under clear water, tilted up slightly at their outer ends. For a time, it had seemed that he had inherited something else from him besides. When he had taken his vows as sasennan to the Council, it had been with the aim of serving the old man as a warrior, if he did not have the power to do so as a wizard. Only lately had it come to him that there would be a time when it would not be the old man who was its head.
Caris was too much a sasennan even to think about his grandfather, or the secret fear, which he had carried within him, during that evening's training. With the endless, tepid twilight of midsummer filtering through the long windows of the training floor on the upper storey of the novices' house, the swordmaster put the small class through endless rounds of practice sparring with split bamboo training swords. Ducking, parrying, leaping, pressing, and retreating under the continuous raking of barked instruction and jeers, in spite of five years of hard training Caris was still sodden with sweat and bruised all over by the time he was done, convinced he'd never be able to pick up a sword again. He was familiar with the sensation. In that kind of training, there was no room for any other thought in the mind; indeed, that was part of the training—to inculcate the single-mindedness critical to a warrior, the hair-trigger watching for the flick of an opponent's eyelid, the twitch of the lip or the finger, that presaged a killing blow ... or sometimes the sense of danger in the absence of any physical sign at all.
By the time it was too dark to see, it was past ten o'clock, and Caris, exhausted, stumbled with the other sasenna back downstairs to bathe and collapse into bed. It wasn't until he was awakened by he knew not what in the tar-black deeps of the night that he remembered his grandfather and what he had wanted to ask of him, and by then it was too late.
His magic was gone.
Long before, Caris had given up his belief in his magic. Only now, lying in the warm, gluey blackness, did he understand how deeply its roots had run and how magic had made the skeleton of his very soul. Without it, life was nothing, a hollow, gray world, not even bitter. It was as if all things had decayed to the color and texture of dust—as if the color had been bled even from his dreams.
He had heard the mages speak in whispers of those things by which a mage's power could be bound—spell-cord and the sigils made of iron, gold, or cut jewels, imbued with signs that crippled and drained a wizard's powers, leaving him helpless against his foes. But there was nothing of that in this terrible emptiness. His soul was a mold with the wax melted out, into which no bronze would ever be poured—only dust, filling all the spaces where the magic had been.
He would have wept, had the Way of the Sasenna not forbidden tears.
Unable to bear the hot, close darkness of the sasenna's dormitory another moment, he pulled on his breeches and shirt and stumbled downstairs to the door. The Way of the Sasenna whispered to him that he ought also to put on his boots and his sword belt; but with the loss of his magic, all things else seemed equally trivial and not worth the doing. The fresher air out on the brick steps revived him a little. Across the narrow, cobblestoned Yard, he could hear the sleepy twittering of birds under the eaves of the houses opposite. Among the squalid alleyways of the Old Believers' ghetto, a cock crowed.
Thirle had said that it could not happen—ever. But it had happened to him last night, a few moments' sickening waning that had wakened him, his heart pounding with cold terror. It was something he knew even then should not happen, as Thirle had said ... And now magic was gone completely.
He leaned against the carved doorframe, hugging himself wretchedly, wondering why he could feel almost nothing, not even real grief—just a kind of hollowness that nothing, throughout the length of his life, would ever again fill. Looking across to the tall, narrow windows of his grandfather's little house, he wondered if the old man had returned. The windows were dark, but that would not necessarily mean he was asleep—he often sat up reading without light, as the mageborn could do. Perhaps he would know something Thirle did not.
But at the same time, it seemed pointless to speak of it now. Gone was gone. Like his long-departed virginity, it was something, he told himself, that he would never recover. To the west, a drift of noise floated from the more populous streets of Angelshand, from the bawdy theaters on Angel's Island near the St. Cyr fortress, and from the more elegant gaming halls near the Imperial Palace quarter. Carriage wheels rattled distantly on granite pavement; voices yelled in all-night taverns.
Excerpted from The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1986 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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