Read an Excerpt
By Mills, K.E.
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Mills, K.E.
All right reserved.
A different New Ottosland, eighteen days after the Stuttley’s staff factory debacle…
Love at first sight.
Monk Markham, sprawled on a not-terribly-impressive carpet in a totally awkward and compromising position, looked up into a face that until now he’d only seen through the ambivalent lens of two different crystal balls.
The face belonged to Her Royal Highness Princess Melissande of New Ottosland.
“What the hell?” Her Highness demanded. “You’re not Gerald!”
Just like that, no warning, no reprieve… the world was abruptly divided in two: the time Before this moment, and the time After it. And without anyone bothering to ask his permission, he suddenly wasn’t the same man and never would be again.
Princess Melissande’s face wasn’t beautiful, like his sister Bibbie’s. It was plain and round and pinkly embarrassed, with severe green eyes and a scattering of freckles and a framework of springy rust-reddish hair and a pair of prim spectacles sliding down its blunt nose. It was a face full of character—and determination—and courage.
The first time he’d seen it he hadn’t actually seen it, because it was hidden behind a voluminous veil. As for the second time, not only was it distorted by Dunwoody’s truly cheap and nasty crystal ball, it had been mostly crowded out by Dunwoody.
Gerald and a princess, sitting in a tree…
Except it wasn’t a tree, it was a fountain. And though it had been a bit tricky to tell, he was almost sure Her Highness had been what polite society called squiffed.
Mind you, given what Gerald’s been getting up to while my back’s turned, I’m in the mood to get bloody squiffed myself.
Never in a million years would he have said that kind and gentle and above all else ordinary Gerald Dunwoody could ever land himself in this kind of trouble.
But then I never would’ve said he could turn a cat into a lion, either. Third Grade wizards who used to be probationary government compliance officers—until they accidentally blew up a staff factory—can’t do Level Twelve transmogs. Everybody knows that.
Well. Everybody except Gerald, apparently.
And now some mad king’s trying to kill him or worse, he’s about to incite an international incident and I’ve got a used-to-be-human talking bird telling me what to do.
Having wearily flapped herself onto the nearby royal bed, she was telling him now.
Ignoring Reg, he managed to smile at startled royalty. Waggled his fingers at her and hoped she couldn’t tell she’d tipped him ass over teakettle.
This is ridiculous. I don’t believe in love at first sight. It’s a side effect from the portal. Some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain. It’ll wear off. It has to. I’m far too busy to be in love.
It took him two tries before he could unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
“Hi there, Your Highness. Monk Markham. Remember me?”
Please. Please. Say you remember.
“Vaguely,” Her Highness snapped, haughtily repressive, and shuffled herself backwards. “How did you get here?”
He sat up. “Long story. Where’s Gerald? Because he’s not in his apartment.”
“I neither know nor care,” said the princess, frosty as mid-winter. “I consider myself gravely deceived in Gerald Dunwoody.”
“Deceived?” Catapulted headlong into battle, her weariness forgotten, Reg chattered her beak. “You watch what you’re saying about that boy, madam, there’s not an ounce of deception in him! And not for want of my trying, either. A good wizard needs a dash of the devious but will he listen? No, he won’t.”
“Is that so?” The princess glared at Reg. “Then why did he hex my doors so I can’t get out of my apartment after he swore blind he’d help me?”
“How should I know?” said Reg. “I haven’t been here. But I’ll bet you a new hairdo it wasn’t Gerald. Or if it was he had a very good reason. Probably something to do with saving you from yourself. The ether knows you could do with it. Those trousers, girl! With that shirt? With any shirt?”
Monk looked at her. Really, Reg? Really? You think this is the time for a fashion critique? “Um—look—maybe we should be concentrating on—”
The women ignored him. “Of course it was Gerald. Who else could it be?” Her Highness retorted. “And what do you mean you haven’t been here? Where have you been? And what are you doing in my bedroom? With Markham? Answer me!”
So Reg answered, at length, all her acerbity given free rein. To pass the time as she pontificated he clambered to his feet and gave his portable portal a quick once-over, just to make sure it was still in working order. When Reg was finally done explaining, the princess rounded on him. Behind the prim spectacles her green eyes blazed with temper.
As if this is my fault. Well, it’s not. I’m just along for the ride.
Except maybe, sort of, it was his fault. Or partly his fault.
Because if I hadn’t shown Gerald that stupid Positions Vacant advertisement…
“Well, Mr. Markham?” the unexpected love of his life demanded, and used a handy chair to haul herself upright. “Don’t stare at me like an idiot. If Gerald is missing, then why is he missing? What the hell is going on around here?”
It took quite a long time to tell her, because Reg insisted on interrupting and making trenchant personal observations about the princess and one-upping her about how she was the former Queen of Lalapinda and so forth, which inevitably led to more acerbic exchanges and a certain amount of metaphorical hair-and-feather pulling. If he’d not been so worried about Gerald and exactly why there’d been such an enormous spike on the Department of Thaumaturgy’s etheretic monitors he would have found it rather amusing. Like vaudeville.
At least, it was like vaudeville until he got to the part about how King Lional was suspected of some very nasty goings-on and likely had something truly horrible planned for Gerald. It broke his heart to tell the princess that. Seeing her pain, feeling her shock, his pleasure at impressing her with how he’d casually invented the portable portal evaporated.
“Come on, ducky,” Reg said gruffly, breaking Her Highness’s stunned silence. “You don’t honestly expect us to believe you never once looked at Lional sideways, do you?”
Arms folded, head turned towards the window, the princess—Melissande—shrugged.
Monk flicked Reg a reproving glance—which naturally the bloody bird ignored—then took a hesitant step towards the woman who’d turned his life inside out just by existing. “Don’t mind her, Melissande. I’m sure—”
“No,” said the princess. “Actually, the bird’s right. I just—I didn’t—I couldn’t—I mean, I never thought he’d actually hurt anyone… but—” Her voice caught. “It’s true I’ve always known he could be unkind. And I don’t recall inviting you to call me Melissande, Mr. Markham.”
She turned. “So. We’re in a pickle. Don’t suppose you’ve got any bright ideas about how we’re going to get out of it, do you?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But first things first. We can’t do anything while we’re stuck behind locked doors.”
“Then what are you waiting for?” said Reg. “Get out to the foyer and unlock them, Mr. Markham!”
But that was a whole lot easier said than done.
One touch to the apartment doors’ binding incant and he broke into a cold and sickly sweat. Snatching his hand back from the polished timber, he shook his head.
Oh, bloody hell. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.
“You’re right. They’re hexed. But Gerald didn’t do it.”
Standing off to one side, the princess glared. “Don’t be silly, Mr. Markham. Of course he did.”
No. No. I’ve got a first name. You can use it. “Call me Monk,” he said, then pressed his palm flat to the doors a second time. For her, not for him. He already had his answer. The same sickly surge of thaumic energy roiled through him, tangled and twisted and hideous. Bile rose in his throat, burning.
“Well?” Reg demanded, perched on the back of a book-laden chair. There were books on the floor, too. There were books everywhere. Her Royal Highness Princess Melissande was as big a book fiend as he was.
Bloody hell. She’s perfect.
“Well can you get us out of here or can’t you?”
With an effort he focused on the job at hand. “I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the most powerful barrier hex I’ve ever come across.”
“Then it has to be Gerald’s,” Melissande insisted. “Because there isn’t anybody else in New Ottosland who could’ve put it there.”
“Mel—Your Highness—I wish that were true,” he said. “It’d make my life a whole lot easier if it was.”
Melissande started tapping her toes. “Fine. Then who was it if it wasn’t Gerald? And don’t say Lional, because he’s not a wizard.”
Bloody hell. I don’t want to tell her. Except he had to. Not only was she ranking royalty and had the right to know… he had no right to protect her. And if he tried she’d probably smack him.
“Look. Your Highness. I know this is going to sound crazy, but—”
“Then it must be true,” said Reg, snippy. “Everything in this cockeyed kingdom is crazy.”
“Thank you,” Melissande said coldly. “Mr. Markham?”
“The doors were hexed by a single wizard,” he said quietly. “But there are five First Grade thaumic signatures in the hex.”
“So?” said Melissande, her arms folded tight and her chin lifted, as though she could hold the terrible truth at bay.
“So we have five missing First Grade wizards, all of whom reported to your brother the king—and who all disappeared before Gerald got here.”
She didn’t want to believe him, couldn’t bear the thought of her brother murdering five innocent men and stealing their potentias. So he made her prove it to herself using a thaumically-charged gift the missing wizard Bondaningo Greenfeather had given her.
It was the cruelest thing he’d ever done.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t have a choice.
Giving her a moment to compose herself, he turned to Reg. “A non-wizard stealing potentias? I’ve never come across anything like it.”
“You wouldn’t have,” the bird said darkly. “Seeing as you’re a nice young man who doesn’t read that kind of grimoire. But I’ve known men who do, Monk. Crazy or not, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s true that mad bugger Lional’s not a wizard, but all it takes is one tiny thaumaturgical spark to start the fire. Now get us out of here so we can rescue Gerald before he becomes victim number six.”
Breaking the mad king’s filthy hex nearly finished him. Sick and shaking he forced himself inside its intricate workings. Tried not to hear the faint, terrible screams of those five dying wizards as he unraveled the incant strand by dirty, stinking strand.
The power of its final unbinding blew him clear across the foyer.
Melissande rushed to his side. “Monk—Monk! Are you all right?”
And suddenly the blinding headache and nausea were worth it.
He groaned. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Not in my foyer you’re not, Mr. Markham! Just you pull yourself together!”
“I will,” he mumbled. “I promise.” Blearily he blinked around him. “Reg?”
Lalapinda’s former queen was hovering between the splintered remains of the foyer doors, wings flapping up a hurricane. “Yes, that’s me! Now get off your skinny ass and let’s go, Mr. Markham!”
Melissande’s fingertips brushed against his cheek. “Are you really all right? Are you sure you can do this? Find Gerald, stop Lional? Save my kingdom?”
Mesmerized by her stern and steady gaze, Monk nodded. Cleared his throat. “Yes. I think so.”
“Good,” she said, with the swiftest, sweetest smile. “I think so too. Now you heard the bird, Mr. Markham. Get up off your skinny ass. You and I have work to do.”
The warm glow of her touch, and her smile, carried him through the fear that he’d not be able to locate Gerald—fed into the ebullient joy when his best locating incant did find him—and lasted right up to the moment they saw the dragon.
On the other side of a palace skylight’s sparkling glass, lazily floating on an updraft like an enormous crimson and emerald striped seagull—with teeth and talons—the fantastic creature opened its massive jaws and belched a fearsome plume of fire.
Staring astonished at the impossible beast, Monk felt a fresh wave of sickness crash over him—because here was the explanation for that enormous thaumic spike.
Gerald, Gerald. What have you done?
Because it had to be Gerald. It couldn’t be anyone else.
“Yes,” Melissande whispered, with tears in her voice. “Grimthak.”
“Grimthak?” he said. He couldn’t tear his gaze from Gerald’s impossible creation. “And who the bloody hell is Grimthak?”
“A Kallarapi god,” said Melissande. “Monk—Mr. Markham—get us out of here. Now.”
With Gerald’s location set into the portable portal’s destination node, there came one nasty moment when he thought he wouldn’t be able to adjust the device’s parameters to accept simultaneous travel by two adults and a bird.
Come on, come on, Markham, you pillocking plonker. Are you a genius or aren’t you? Pull your finger out. Get it done.
“Ha!” said Reg, as his rejigging of the portal’s matrix finally took and a pinpoint of light in the air before them began to blossom. “About time, sunshine. What took you so long?”
Bloody hell, Gerald. How do you stand it?
“Sorry,” he said curtly. “But I assumed you’d want to reach the other side in one piece.”
Perched on Melissande’s shoulder now, the bird sniffed. “Let’s leave the witty banter for when we don’t have a dragon on top of us, shall we?” She bounced a little. “Come on, Your Highness. Giddyup. Let’s go.”
“Don’t look at me,” he told Melissande. “I’m not the one who rescued her from the wilderness.” Then he held out his hand. “To be on the safe side.”
The brilliant portal shimmered like a lake in bright sunshine. He nodded. “Why not? On three. One—two—”
They leaped through it on three.
A dizzying rush… a wrenching unreality… and then they ripped through the air on the other side of the thaumaturgical conduit and landed with a bone-rattling thud onto cold dirt in the sudden dark.
“Ow! That’s my face!”
Hastily he snatched his hand away. “Sorry, Melissande. Gerald, are you in here?” And then he winced and froze. “Um, Your Highness, not to complain or anything but your elbow’s in a very precarious part of my anato—”
“Monk?” said a disbelieving voice. It sounded small and frightened. “Is that you?”
Gerald? Since when was Gerald small and frightened? But before he could speak, the bird rattled her tail. “Oh, yes, fine, ask about Markham first why don’t you? When I’m the one sitting here faded to a mere shadow of my former glory after flying and hitching from here to Ottosland then convincing Markham and his idiot colleagues that your life was in danger and then risking my life again to get back to this ether-forsaken kingdom using Markham’s highly illegal and practically untested portable portal! And why is it so dark in here? Why doesn’t somebody turn on the lights?”
Oh. Right. He snapped his fingers. “Illuminato.”
“Reg!” cried Gerald, and fell to his knees. “Oh my God, Reg, you’re alive!”
And then Reg was saying something, scolding again, she was always scolding. But Monk didn’t pay any attention. He could hardly make sense of the words. Because Gerald—Gerald—
Bloody hell. Gerald. What happened to you?
There wasn’t a mark on him. Not a scrape. Not a bruise. But his face had gone so thin and there were smeared shadows beneath his eyes and his eyes—his eyes—
Oh, Gerald. What have you seen?
His friend was clutching Reg so tightly the bird could hardly breathe. “Lional said you were dead, he said he’d killed you!” He was practically babbling. But Gerald never babbled. “He did kill you, look, there’s your body! Over there!”
Feeling sick again, Monk stared as Gerald and Reg fussed at each other over some trick with a dead chicken. He could feel his heatbeat’s dull thudding in his ears.
This is bad. This is very bad. Something very bad’s happened to Gerald.
He turned at the light touch on his arm. “Your Highness?”
So she’d been watching him. She could feel his dismay.
I wonder if that means she’s ass over teakettle too?
It’d be nice if it did. He was feeling horribly alone.
And then Gerald was asking him about how they’d found him and the portable portal. He explained everything, quickly, but instead of being pleased about it Gerald suddenly looked sick. Said something about a lodestone and how he’d forgotten Lional didn’t reactivate it but before they could sort that out—and before he could stop her—the love of his life was shouting at his horribly altered best friend.
“What the hell were you thinking, Gerald? Making a dragon?”
Gerald flinched. “I’m sorry.”
But Melissande wasn’t in the mood for apologies—and it seemed that Gerald had no intention of defending himself. So he tried to stop her—and the look she gave him was like being stabbed.
Reg flapped from the cave floor to his shoulder. “Don’t,” she said softly. “With Lional off his rocker and the Butterfly Prince disqualified on grounds of mental health, as in not having any, she’s New Ottosland’s ruler now. She’s got a right to ask.”
Maybe she did, but he didn’t have to like it. Gerald’s face was scaring him.
“So what did Lional promise you in return for his dragon?” Her Royal Highness demanded, magnificent in her anger. “Gold? Jewels? Land? What did he promise you?”
Silence. And then Gerald lifted his sad, shadowed eyes. “You don’t want to know what he promised me, Melissande.”
Except he couldn’t turn away from it. Gerald was his best friend. Gerald was here because he’d shown him that advertisement. Whatever had happened, he was partly to blame. So he couldn’t stay silent. He had to speak up.
“Lional tortured you, Gerald. Didn’t he?”
On his shoulder, Reg gasped.
And Melissande, oh Melissande, she didn’t want to hear it either. She didn’t want to be the sister of a man who could do something like that. So she tried to blame Gerald and even though it had been love at first sight he was angry with her, so angry, because Gerald didn’t lie. Was she blind, not to see it? Couldn’t she see he’d been hurt? But when he tried to defend his best friend she turned on him. It was all a mess, such a terrible mess, and he had no idea how to clean any of it up.
And then he heard—really heard—what Gerald was saying. Like a coward, he wanted to run.
No. No. I don’t want to hear this.
But how could he not hear it, after Gerald had lived it?
Eventually the sickening tale of cruelty and suffering came to an end. Melissande, the love of his life, stood like a weeping marble statue and on his shoulder Reg felt turned to stone.
He looked at Gerald, and Gerald looked back. The cost of that confession was etched in his face. The price of his endurance—the finding of his limit—was etched deeper still. “There’s something else,” Gerald said tiredly. “Lional’s controlling the dragon using the Tantigliani sympathetico.”
So Gerald explained. Melissande swayed, close to folding to the cave’s dirt floor. But she didn’t, because she was Melissande. He wanted to hold her—and kept his hands to himself. She’d never forgive him if he made her look weak.
Feeling bludgeoned, he shook his head. “Bloody hell, Gerald. Every wizard who’s ever tried that incant has gone mad. Even Tantigliani in the end. You say Lional’s lost himself inside the dragon’s mind? Does that mean…”
Gerald was like a man cut out of paper. Like a man mere heartbeats from crumbling to ash. “Yes.” He glanced at Melissande. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I’m pretty sure it’s too late for Lional.”
Stirring at last, Reg rattled her tail feathers. “Then the only way to stop the dragon is by capturing the king.”
Monk touched a fingertip to her wing. “He’s as good as half a dragon himself now.”
“Fine,” she said, shrugging. “Then we don’t capture him. We kill him.”
And because there hadn’t been enough raw emotion already, her blunt assessment sparked another passionate row. Melissande wept again and this time he did touch her. He put his arms around her—and she didn’t push him away.
Reg flapped over to Gerald, who cradled her against his chest. “Honestly, Reg. Have you heard of being tactful?”
“If being tactful will kill that torturing bastard, Gerald, I’ll tact up a storm,” she said grimly. “You see if I don’t.”
Well, yes, obviously, but—
“I know you want to be the one to stop them, Gerald,” said Melissande. Stepping away, she smoothed her hands down the front of her shirt, putting her armor back in place. “But Lional broke you once. He could break you again.”
Gerald’s flinch was like a sword running through his own body. “Melissande.”
She turned on him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Markham, but I can’t afford kindness just now. My kingdom’s at stake. Or are you going to tell me you think he’s up to it?”
Damn. Damn. She had to ask him that, didn’t she? With Gerald standing there, after everything he’d just said… after everything he’d endured. Days and days of unspeakable torment. Gerald, the Third Grade wizard who could turn lizards into dragons. Who’d tried and tried not to…
And who did break. He did.
With an effort Monk met his best friend’s sad, quiet gaze. “I don’t think we can decide anything stuck in this cave,” he said, his voice rough. “I think we need to portal out of here and see what’s happening back at the palace.”
Reg nodded. “Good idea, sunshine. And then we can—”
“No,” said Gerald. “Reg and I can portal to the palace. You and Melissande should go back to Ottosland, to the Department. Corner your Uncle Ralph, Monk, and kick up the biggest stink the place has ever seen until those hidebound bureaucrats get off their asses and send some help.”
“Absolutely not,” Melissande snapped. “I’m staying here. I have to be seen. The people need me. I won’t be the second person in my family to let them down on the same damned day!”
“No—Melissande—the only hope your people have is if you stay safe!” Gerald insisted. “Let Rupert fly the family flag, he—”
Her expression changed. “Oh, lord. Rupert. I forgot about Rupert! I have to find him, he’ll be terrified. And if Lional finds him…” She spun around. “Well, Monk, don’t just stand there. Get that portable portal of yours working and take us out of here! Now!”
By a minor miracle he managed to get them onto the palace’s roof. The dragon was nowhere in sight. Neither was Lional. But what they could see struck them all to grieving silence.
In every direction distant pillars of black smoke churned into the sky. Closer to the palace, outbuildings not reduced to mounds of rubble smoldered and burned; the greedy crackling of flames reached them in fits and starts on the erratic, smoke-laden breeze. Staring over the roof’s balustrade they saw great burned patches in the gravel and on the grass edging the palace forecourt, as though someone had upended huge barrels of acid onto them. Even at this height they could smell the acrid stench of the dragon’s poison. See the remains of what once had been people, laughing living New Ottoslanders, reduced to charred and stinking carcasses.
Monk reached for her, but Gerald grabbed her first. “No, Melissande, think. If Rupert is dead there’s nothing you can do for him. And if he isn’t that means he’s hiding. Either way you’ve got a lot more to worry about than the fate of one man.”
A creak and flap of wings and Reg landed on the balustrade beside distraught Melissande. “He’s right, ducky,” she said sternly. “The only man you need to be thinking about is Lional. Because strictly speaking he’s not a man any more. He’s an abomination. And abominations have to be destroyed.”
Oh God. Reg, you really need to learn tact.
Melissande walked away and he went after her, leaving Gerald and Reg to do what they liked. “Your Highness—Melissande—please, Melissande. Wait.”
She slowed, then stopped. Turned. Not weeping now, but white-faced beneath her scattered freckles and shivering with distress. “What?”
Helpless, he looked at her. Spread his hands wide, then let them fall. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Just… don’t walk away.”
“From you?” she said, incredulous. “Monk Markham, I barely know you. Why do you care?”
If I tell her I love her she’ll pitch me off this roof. Or she’ll laugh in my face, and then I’ll have to jump.
“I don’t know,” he said again, shrugging. “I just do.” He tried to smile. “Do you mind?”
Behind him, Reg and Gerald were arguing. Snatches of pain blowing fitful in the breeze. Something about stopping Lional. Fighting fire with fire. Reg was furious. Gerald sounded despairing. This was turning into one hell of a day.
Now Melissande looked helpless. “Do I mind?” she muttered, harassed, pressing a hand to her forehead. “I don’t know. I suppose not. I mean, all right, strictly speaking, it’s presumptuous and a terrible breach of royal etiquette and protocol and—”
“Does all that claptrap really matter?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. “No. Not really. But if I am going to be queen then I should at least notice it. You know. In passing.”
The breeze swirled again, laden with more painful argument and the raw stench of death. Flinching, Melissande closed her eyes.
“I don’t know how this happened,” she whispered. “How did this happen?”
To hell with protocol and etiquette. Monk wrapped his arms around her and let her hold on tight.
“I’m sorry,” he said, rocking her. “But we’ll fix this, Melissande. All right? We’ll fix it.”
With a shuddering sigh she relaxed against him. “You promise?”
She tipped her head back. Looked up. Beneath her shock he caught a glimpse of humor and breathtaking strength. “You realize I’ve no sane reason to believe that?”
“In my line of work, Your Highness, sanity is overrated,” he said… and would’ve said something else, something truly crazy, only Reg’s sharply raised voice stopped him.
“—Lional dead, Gerald, you’d be the danger. And whoever tried to stop you, well, they’d need to read the Lexicon too. And it wouldn’t end there, I promise you that. Say this hypothetical wizard succeeded and managed to kill you. All it means is there’d be another rotten wizard who’d have to die… and so the Lexicon would be used again… and again… and again. Is that what you want, sunshine? Every last good wizard in the world dead because of you?”
His altered face still chalky-white, fired up with an awful, unfamiliar desperation, Gerald turned on her. “What else can I do? The magic I know doesn’t have teeth, it doesn’t have talons, it can’t kill Lional or his damned dragon! I have to use the Lexicon, Reg!”
“No!” Wings wildly flapping she launched herself into the air to hover furiously above him. “I’d rather see you dead—I’d rather kill you myself than see you—”
Now what? With a chill of foreboding, Monk followed interrupted Reg’s outraged stare. What the hell? Camels? Were those camels? And those glinting things—were they swords?
“Oh blimey!” Reg groaned. “That’s all we need!” Dropping back to the balustrade she glared at Melissande. “Oy! You! Madam-Queen-in-Waiting! Front and center, ducky, New Ottosland’s got visitors!”
Excerpted from Wizard Squared by Mills, K.E. Copyright © 2010 by Mills, K.E.. Excerpted by permission.
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