Hundreds of years before the great Mage War, a land lies, unknowing, on the edge of catastrophe...
Barl is young and impulsive, but she has a power within that calls to her. In her city, however, only those of noble blood and with the right connections learn the ways of the arcane. Barl is desperate to learn-but her eagerness to use her power leads her astray and she is banned from ever learning the mystic arts.
Morgan holds the key to her education. A member of the Council of Mages, he lives to maintain the status quo, preserve the mage bloodlines, and pursue his scholarly experiments. But Barl's power intrigues him-in spite of her low status.
Together, he realizes they can create extraordinary new incantations. Morgan's ambition and Barl's power make a potent combination. What she does not see is the darkness in him that won't be denied.
A Blight of Mages is the new novel set in the world of Karen Miller's bestselling debut The Innocent Mage.
About the Author
Karen Miller was born in Vancouver, Canada, and moved to Australia with her family when she was two. Apart from a three-year stint in the UK after graduating from university with a BA in communications, she's lived in and around Sydney ever since. Karen started writing stories while still in elementary school, where she fell in love with speculative fiction. She's held a variety of interesting jobs but now writes full-time.
Read an Excerpt
A Blight of Mages
By Miller, Karen
OrbitCopyright © 2011 Miller, Karen
All right reserved.
There were times—many times—when Barl thought the sound of ticking clocks would drive her mad.
Not that the clocks ticked while they were being created, of course. And once they were completed they ticked just long enough to prove they were in perfect working order, and not a moment longer. After that they were warded between tick and tock and remained hushed as midnight until they reached their destination, so that the artisanry’s wealthy patron had the privilege of setting his or her ruinously expensive purchase into motion.
But even so, she could still hear the wretched things.
Or perhaps what I’m hearing is the rest of my life ticking into oblivion, into obscurity, into nothing but eventual, echoing silence.
Before her, on the sturdy workbench that had become almost her whole world, sat her partly completed current work piece. This time she was creating a journey clock for Lord Artur Traint, Mage Inspector of the Eleventh district. At the tender age of twenty-two she was the youngest, least experienced clock mage in the artisanry. According to her self-appointed betters that meant she should be flattered and honoured and humbled by this task.
Instead, she was offended.
A mole had more artistic integrity in its whiskers than Lord Traint did in all his overweening body. If only he could be guided toward a more daring construction. If only someone would listen when she pointed out the neglected opportunities in the district inspector’s humdrum design. But no, he was a great lord, born to one of the seventy First Families’ upper ranks, so she must defer to his lack of taste and daring, she must abase herself before his withered imagination, she must—
“Barl Lindin! Do you work or do you frabble?”
Both, she wanted to say. But Artisan Master Arndel, owner of the artisanry, was a stickler for the courtesies and the scourge of any mage who idled time. Hiding the impatience that would get her in trouble, she looked into the bony face looming above her on the other side of her bench.
“Master, I thought to revisit the question of Lord Traint’s clock design. Perhaps if we—”
“Revisit?” Arndel’s wide brow creased with his displeasure. “Mage Lindin, if you raise the topic again we will revisit the question of your suitability for this task. Our duty is to fulfill the patron’s expectations, not indulge our own whims.”
“I’m sorry,” she said stiffly. “I thought our duty was to exceed expectations. If a patron can be shown a better way to—”
“Better?” Up went Arndel’s scraggly eyebrows. “By whose lights, Mage Lindin? Do you suggest I substitute your judgement for Lord Traint’s?”
When his lordship’s judgement was lacking? Yes. Of course. But she couldn’t say that. Not exactly. “I was only thinking that—”
Arndel narrowed his muddy green eyes. “Mage Lindin, as I have told you already, there is more to being a clock mage in my artisanry than a desirable bent for the magic. It would seem, however, that my wise words fall upon stony ground.”
Barl felt her cheeks warm, knowing too well how her fellow mages were enjoying the Artisan Master’s displeasure. Every reproof she earned from stolid Arndel was a carelessly tossed gift to those who resented her for being who and what she was: the best mage they would likely see in their lifetimes.
“No, Master Arndel,” she said, and lowered her gaze that he might not see her hot resentment. “I understand perfectly.”
“Yes?” Arndel’s voice was soaked in skepticism. “Then it is past time you proved it.” His severe finger lifted in warning. “Mage Lindin, you are a young woman with some talent, I allow, but not the wit or the wisdom that will permit me to permit you to override a loyal patron’s wishes. You are required to create the clock as Lord Traint has envisioned it. Are your skills unequal to the task?”
No, you prosing fool, my skills are wasted!
She wanted to shout the words loudly enough to raise the artisanry roof. But if she did, she’d only be rewarded with dismissal. She couldn’t do that to Remmie. He’d sacrificed far too much for her to throw this position aside, no matter how confining she found it.
“Mage Lindin?” Arndel rapped out her name as though he were striking his knuckles to the bench. “Do you attend me?”
Staring at the inked design for Lord Traint’s tedious journey clock, she took a moment to be certain her voice and face were schooled to repressed obedience. Then she looked up again.
“Master, I apologise. I thought only to surprise Lord Traint with a small and unexpected delight.”
A soft snort from Ibbitha Rannis sounded from the artisan bench beside her, as Arndel’s creased brow creased a little deeper.
“Mage Lindin, you must curb your unfortunate tendency toward fancy. A precocious mage is a dangerous mage. Think upon that, rather than the unrequested rearrangements of a patron’s commission.”
“Master,” she said, lowering her gaze a second time. She felt so hot with anger now she thought she might easily ignite the fool. Which would well serve him right, but…
Bear with it, Barl. You must bear with it.
Arndel nodded, not entirely convinced by her show of meek acceptance. One of the other mages raised a hand, desiring his assistance. With a final, critical glance he answered the call for help, leaving her to fume at the various components neatly arrayed on the bench, and the clear crystal shell of the prosaic clock she was being forced to complete. What it could be, what it should be, sang in her blood.
Traint is an idiot. And so is Arndel.
With the Artisan Master occupied elsewhere, Ibbitha shifted along her bench seat until she was close enough for whispering.
“Truly, Barl. You never learn, do you?”
Not counting Remmie, Ibbitha was the nearest thing she had to a friend. Talented enough, in a mundane sort of way, her fellow clock mage lacked energetic imagination or ambition and was a stickler for convention, uninterested in challenging a single rule or restriction handed down by Dorana’s Council of Mages or the Guild of Artisans or Artisan Master Arndel. Staid. That was Ibbitha. A friend of convenience, not of the heart.
She’d never had much luck when it came to making friends.
Mindful of their irascible employer, Barl risked a sidelong glance. “Nonsense,” she whispered back. “I’m learning every day.”
“Yes, but what?” said Ibbitha. “You—”
Daggered looks from the diligent mages around them killed what remained of Ibbitha’s scolding lecture. Not mourning its death, Barl returned to her clock-making, hardly needing to think about each incant and counter-ward as, with scant effort, she continued to build Lord Traint’s lamentable timepiece.
I am bored. I am so bored. I deserve much more than this.
Later, when the artisanry emptied for the midday meal break and they were sitting alone on a stone bench in the sunshine, Ibbitha resurrected her scold.
“You must be more careful, Barl,” she said, dabbing a napkin daintily to her lips. “And you mustn’t be greedy. It was nearly two years before I was permitted to create commissioned clocks. And you? Why, you were accorded that privilege after a mere seven months! Why can’t you be satisfied with that?”
Roaming her gaze around the other mages in the garden, lunch box on the bench beside her, Barl polished a plum on her green linen skirt. “Why is a babe not satisfied with crawling? Why does it struggle to first stand on its own feet, then walk, and then run?”
Ibbitha wrinkled her snub nose. “You are a babe if you think rubbing Arndel across his grain will get you what you want. Besides, there is nothing wrong with Lord Traint’s clock design.”
Barl looked at her in wonder. “You truly believe that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Ibbitha, prickling. “Why would I say it if I didn’t believe it?”
“You wouldn’t,” she said, and took a bite of plum. Rich purple juice tickled down her chin. Another bite splashed more juice to her skirt. She vanished it with a thought and a flutter of her fingers, then nibbled the rest of the plum’s sweet flesh off its stone.
“I’ll never understand you, Barl,” said Ibbitha, staring. “Why can’t you accept things the way they are? Given your family background…” She trailed away, uncomfortable. As a rule, such things weren’t discussed. Everybody knew what rank everybody else’s family was and how they fitted into the wider tapestry of Doranen society, and that was enough. Gossip on the subject was keenly discouraged. “Well. You know.”
Barl swallowed a bitter laugh. Oh, yes, she knew. Didn’t she beat her fists every day against the constraints of family and her proper place and what was and was not acceptable when one hadn’t been born with the right pedigree?
“Anyway,” Ibbitha added. “What is so terrible about Lord Traint’s clock design?”
“Ibbitha…” She sighed. “If I have to explain it then you’ll never understand.”
Cheeks pink, grey eyes bright, Ibbitha folded her napkin with quick, overprecise little movements. “I see.”
Bother. Her impatience had landed her in trouble yet again. Remmie was forever taking her to task over it. A little kindness never goes astray, Barl. Nobody likes to be thought a fool, even if they are one. Not that Ibbitha was a fool, exactly. She was simply prosaic.
Around the garden, their fellow artisans were collecting themselves in dribs and drabs, the brief midday break coming to an end, a long afternoon of clockworking and leadlighting and ceramics and weaving and glassmaking ahead of them.
“Ibbitha, I’m sorry,” she said, and touched placating fingers to her sort-of friend’s arm. “I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant to say was—”
Ibbitha patted the napkin into her emptied lunch box. “Please don’t, Barl. You said precisely what you meant, so don’t insult me further by trying to pretend otherwise.”
“Fine. I won’t,” she said, lobbing her plum stone into the garden’s fringing of flowers. “Instead I’ll say that Lord Traint’s clock will keep perfect time with all the grace of a farm hog trying to run on ice. The man is a boor, Ibbitha, lacking any hint of imagination. He understands function, I grant you, but has no comprehension of beauty or elegance.” A chance here to mend fences a little, so she took it. “Not like you, for instance.”
Ibbitha was too shocked to notice the compliment. “Barl, how can you say such things? Lord Traint has a second cousin whose wife was considered for the Council of Mages. His third cousin designed two fountains in Elvado. And his grandfather submitted a new incant for ratification and patent. True, it was rejected, but even so, he submitted. And you call him a boor?”
Simmering with frustration, Barl warded shut her own lunch box then translocated it home with an impatient finger-snap.
“What does any of that have to do with his talent? None of those achievements belong to him, Ibbitha.”
“He’s a district inspector!”
“Only because he’s a Traint. If he wasn’t I’ll wager he’d not lay one finger on an inspector’s seal. Artur Traint is living proof that family connections count for more than talent. And why should that be? Why should you, or I, or any mage in Dorana be denied opportunities, denied anything, simply because we weren’t lucky enough to be born into a First Family?”
“I declare, Barl, sometimes you talk the most arrant nonsense,” Ibbitha retorted. “How can you claim that you or I have been denied opportunity when every day we are free to create mageworks that are the envy of Dorana’s magickless neighbours? The least of our clocks are admired in Trindek and Feen and Manemli, oh, everywhere. This artisanry is becoming famous. And if you think Master Arndel would risk its reputation on a mage whose background is little more than adequate, who has flitted from calling to calling, as feckless as a bee, and who is never satisfied no matter how much favour is shown her, well—Barl, if I have to explain your situation then I don’t suppose you’ll ever understand.”
It was the worst scold Ibbitha had ever given her, and mostly it stung because it was true.
Which it shouldn’t be. Every word she utters only goes to prove I’m right about how unjust things are.
But when it came to mage rankings, it seemed there was no justice. There were rules and protocols and dictates and acceptable. And because the rules had held sway for so long, because certain important people made sure they continued to hold sway, nothing changed.
Why won’t Ibbitha see it? Why doesn’t she rile up when she’s told by the Council of Mages what she is and isn’t permitted to do and to be? And for no better reason than a family name? Why should that handful of men and women decide our fates?
“I understand well enough, Ibbitha. The wrong blood is flowing through my veins. What you don’t seem to understand is that I don’t care, and I don’t see why anyone else should care either. Nor do I see why my family tree, however stunted some may call it, should be the yardstick by which I am judged as a mage.”
“Oh, Barl.” Tartly sympathetic, Ibbitha shook her head. “Life will seem far less harsh once you stop kicking against it. If only you’d accept things as they are, if you’d stop rubbing Artisan Master Arndel against his grain, he might let you create a little mantel clock of your own to sell through the artisanry shop. He doesn’t deny your talent. Nobody could. It’s your temperament that’s questioned, and not without cause. What a pity it would be if your own stubborn pride should make you stumble when the path before you was always clear.”
The path before her had been laid with bricks not of her choosing and meandered pointlessly toward a future littered with opportunities denied. But if she flew at Ibbitha for reminding her of that unpalatable truth then likely she’d lose the woman’s shallow friendship, and she didn’t want that. So she sighed and nodded, making sure Ibbitha would think her scolding was welcome.
“You’re right. Patience and I aren’t well enough acquainted. And of course the journey clock’s design isn’t anywhere near as bad as I complain.”
“I should say it’s not!” said Ibbitha, taking a suggestive step toward the garden gate. Tardiness was deeply frowned upon by Master Arndel. “Lord Traint’s taste is the very definition of elegantly refined simplicity.”
No, it was the manifestation of a stunted mind, but there was no use in saying so to Ibbitha, who was forever dazzled by a mage’s social standing. As for Arndel, he was just as bad. Artur Traint was a lord, he was a district inspector, and his purse was full of coin. The man’s dull sensibilities counted for nothing compared to those useful attributes.
Defeated, Barl walked with Ibbitha back to their workroom. There she spent the afternoon finishing what she’d begun, and before the day was over Lord Traint had his lacklustre journey clock.
Called to inspect it, Artisan Master Arndel walked round her bench, lips pursed as he considered the completed piece. Standing well to one side, giving him free rein to examine her work for nonexistent defects, Barl felt the hard stares of her fellow mages. Not a one of them could complete even a simple clock like this so swiftly or so well, even though they’d been artisans here for three years or more and came from families twice as illustrious as her own.
You see? Talent does count for something. It can’t always be about the family name stitched to our heels.
“Hmm,” Artisan Master Arndel grunted at last, halting. “I can detect no flaw in the piece, Mage Lindin. Your incants and counter-wards mesh smoothly, and your crystal work is pleasing.”
Her crystal work was magnificent, but Arndel would never admit it. Not only was it better than the work of every other artisan whose talents he employed, it was better than his own—and he wasn’t a man to take pride in the achievement of a mage who stood below him. Take credit for it, yes. He was more than willing to do that and would, when Lord Traint came to collect his clock. Not claim the piece was of his making, of course. But he would suggest and imply and hint and wink that without his constant oversight the finished clock would have been sadly inferior.
And because this was his artisanry she had no choice but to let him. So she feigned gratification.
“Thank you, Artisan Master.”
Arndel’s flickering glance was suspicious, seeking insincerity or sarcasm. Detecting none, for he was nowhere near as clever as he imagined himself to be, he nodded.
“Therefore let this be a salutary lesson, Mage Lindin. When one remains constrained by the limits of design, one is free to perform such work as may be pleasing. Shall we hear the tick of Lord Traint’s new clock?”
As clock mage, it was her final task to release the clock’s temporary warding so that its voice might be tested for precision and a certain sweetness in the air. In this, and only this, was an artisan permitted to indulge his or her individual whim. A clock’s tick belonged to no-one but its maker.
Barl stepped to the bench. Looking down at this thing that she had, with despair and contempt, created for a man whose ordinary mind could envisage nothing more daring than a square crystal box touched here and there with gold, she heard the caged mage within herself wail.
It could’ve been so beautiful. Given the chance I’d have created a clock to make the sky weep for days.
With a whisper, she set the ugly thing’s voice free.
“Very nice,” Artisan Master Arndel said, grudging, as the sweet tick-tock-tick echoed through the workroom in harmony and counter-harmony, doubled and trebled notes shivering the air.
Barl looked down, outwardly modest, inwardly seething. Nice? Nice? You cantankerous old mole. “Thank you, Artisan Master.”
With a snap of her fingers Lord Traint’s clock sounded the hour, and even the most unfriendly artisan in the workroom smiled to hear the lilting carillon of notes. Watching Arndel from beneath her lowered lashes, Barl saw a spasm of jealousy clench his face for a heartbeat, then let go.
“Yes, that will do,” he said, as though she’d presented him with a correctly salted boiled egg. “Step back, Mage Lindin.”
So she stepped back and waited for him to master ward the new clock between ticks. That was his right, as Master of the artisanry. The balance of the clock’s purchase price bought the sigil that would unward it. Assuming Lord Traint accepted his finished commission, and he would, she had no doubt of that, she’d receive a token payment on top of her weekly artisan’s wage.
But for all her work it was Arndel who’d emerge the richer, in both purse and reputation.
Which is theft, pure and simple.
The injustice of it burned.
As soon as he’d departed, taking Lord Traint’s warded clock and the inked design with him, Barl began the methodical task of clearing her workbench.
First, the emptying of the sand trays. Since Dorana had no fine sand fields of its own, sand for crystal alchemy was imported at great expense from Feen and Brantone and Iringa. With the unused sand returned to its stone jars in the storeroom, next she had to collect the unused gold in its nuggets, shavings and dust, for there again was Dorana a pauper. One gold mine only within its jealously guarded borders, and that did not yield the finest red gold found beyond them. Silver and copper of its own Dorana possessed, and in plenty, but every remaining skerrick of those elements she also had to collect for later use. Artisan Master Arndel treated all his supplies as though they were sand and gold. Next she took the gemstones not used for the clock’s inner workings, rubies and emeralds and topaz, and saw them stowed safe in the artisanry gem drawers. Last of all she purged the workbench with a cleansing incant. That made sure no lingering memory of Lord Traint’s journey clock could catch in the next working she undertook and spoil its unique design.
By that time the work day had drawn to a close and the artisanry’s other clock mages were leaving. With her own piece still only three-quarters completed, Ibbitha warded her bench.
“Barl, are you coming?”
She opened her mouth to say yes, then abruptly changed her mind. I shouldn’t. It’s madness. If I’m found out I’ll be dismissed. But even as her heart leapt at the terrible thought, she knew she was about to be reckless.
“I can’t,” she said, pretending irritation. “The cleansing incant hasn’t taken properly. Finishing Lord Traint’s clock tired me more than I realised.”
“It’s beautiful work, Barl,” said Ibbitha. For all her prosy scoldings, she could be generous. “You should be proud.”
In moments like this she felt sick with the need to pretend that her caging didn’t chafe. “I am. You were right, I’m lucky to be shown such trust by Artisan Master Arndel.”
A small, pleased smile softened Ibbitha’s habitually disapproving face. “I’m glad you see it. Can I help you with a stronger cleansing incant?”
“No, I’ll manage. I’d not keep you from Arno’s eager embrace.”
A faint blush. Newly wed Ibbitha was so terribly proper. “Well, if you’re sure, I’ll see you on the morrow, Barl.”
Barl watched the workroom door shut behind her, then pretended to fuss over her bench as the last three artisan mages departed, bidding her a disinterested farewell. As soon as she was alone she leapt back from her bench. Excellent. Now she could play.
Although, to be clever, she should wait a little while to make certain Arndel didn’t return. To pass the time, she gave Ibbitha’s work in progress a cursory inspection. A betrothal clock for Lady Isolte’s eldest daughter. Ho hum. Oh, the actual design was pretty enough, but as a clock mage Ibbitha was hardly inspired. There were so many ways she could stamp herself onto this clock, lift it from pretty enough into the realm of magnificent, and she’d not taken advantage of even one. Ibbitha’s problem was that she had no vision. She never looked past the confines of an inked design to the hinted possibilities that lay between and beyond the lines.
I don’t think it would even occur to her to try. I could make Lady Isolte’s girl a glorious betrothal clock. Given the chance, I could make it sing.
Instead she was lumbered with journey clocks, shackled to the parched imagination of patrons like Artur Traint. What she was doing now was barely a step up from where she’d started in the artisanry, making the cheaper, less fastidious trade clocks that were sold throughout Dorana and into its neighbouring lands.
Arndel is a nubbin. Why won’t he admit my true worth? He has to know it would only enhance his reputation.
There was still no sign of the Artisan Master. Surely she’d be safe now. Heart skittishly thudding, she withdrew to the storeroom. Just this once she would craft a clock worthy of her gifts.
A trickle of nervous sweat tickled her spine. Hurrying, she tipped the raw ingredients for her dream clock onto the floor. Three types of rare sand, pink and silver and blue, gemstones for weight and counterweight, gold and silver and copper for pendulum and cradles. She didn’t need Lord Traint’s inked parchment to guide her, the journey clock’s design was etched in her memory. Squat and uninspired, functional, plain. And all the incants needed was a little tweak here, a twist there, a subtle realignment in this note and that one. So simple. So elegant. How could Traint not see?
Sigil by sigil, breath by breath, the journey clock she’d longed to create grew beneath her sure, steady fingers. Not a slow process this time, since she’d created it once already. But now the clock’s sheer crystal housing glowed, alive with a pearlescent sheen. It rose swiftly before her, slender and strong, not squat, not merely functional, but a tender, eloquent expression of hope. Journey clocks were made for travelling, and here was a clock to travel full of dreams and possibilities. Created to echo the dreams of the traveller who carried it.
When the clock was finished she knelt gasping, close to tears. If only she could show this piece to Lord Traint, instead of the spiritless lump of crystal Arndel had taken away with him. That clock was correct in all its particulars, scrupulously accurate, possessing no soul. But this clock?
This is the clock that deserves my beautiful chiming. This is the clock that should sing with my voice.
And no mage could ever see it.
She sketched a warding sigil, then uttered a harsh unmaking incant to collapse the reimagined clock into sand and gold and gemstones. Did weep, just a little, seeing it destroyed. And then she returned each individual component to its proper place so that Artisan Master Arndel would be none the wiser for her meddling.
She nearly ran into him as she came out of the storeroom.
“Mage Lindin!” he said, surprised and not pleased. “Why do you tarry here? Your fellow artisan mages are long departed.”
“I know, Artisan Master,” she murmured. “I’m sorry. I had some little difficulty cleansing my bench.”
His eyes slitted, as though he were reluctant to believe her. “You did? That seems… out of character.”
“I was weary,” she said, holding his suspicious stare without flinching. “But the bench is cleansed now. Would you care to inspect it?”
His gaze shifted to her empty workbench then back again. “No. Such matters are your responsibility, Mage Lindin. If your cleansing incant was inadequate, your next commission will tell the tale.”
“Has the commission been decided upon, Artisan Master?”
Now he looked her up and down, his resentment of her gifts, that added coin to his treasury, clear in his face.
“You are impertinent. It is for me to broach such matters, not you. Be gone.”
“Artisan Master,” she said, bowing her head, and escaped the workroom before he did something disastrous like banish her back to the making of ordinary clocks.
The late summer light was fading, but that didn’t matter. There was glimfire to guide her way, should she need to conjure it. Or she could do what every other artisan mage did and translocate herself home. Only she didn’t care for travelling magics. She rarely admitted it but they made her feel weak and unsteady. Besides, they denied her the pleasure of the sweetly scented fresh air. Arndel’s artisanry sat on the greenly grassy outskirts of Batava hamlet, where she and Remmie lived, at least for the moment. Her solitary walks to and from work each day helped clear her mind of leftover clock maging and gave her precious time to herself for dreams.
Not that there’s much use in dreaming. Dreams won’t change what’s wrong in Dorana. Only the Council of Mages can change the rules and it won’t. Not until it’s made to, anyway.
And there was wickedly little hope of that. The General Council was too busy with day-to-day concerns, collecting taxes and enforcing the mundane rules and dealing with Dorana’s neighbours and the complicated trading arrangements they made with the outside world. Its members seemed perfectly happy to leave the intricate laws of magework to their sister council. Sometimes she thought she was the only mage breathing who cared for what was right and just. Everyone else she knew was like Ibbitha, content to settle for the crumbs dropped careless at her feet by Dorana’s supremely selfish First Families.
I love him to pieces, I do, but sometimes I can’t believe we’re related.
The laneways she walked were bordered each side by flower-straggled hedgerows. Fireflies danced above them, glimmering brightly in the lowering dusk. Tonight, though, not even their whimsical beauty soothed her. Rankled still by the loss of that other clock, the clock Arndel should have let her create, that he’d as good as stolen from her, she stamped the damp grass underfoot and with each step imagined Lord Traint’s inferior clock smashed to shards beneath her heels.
I’m glad no-one will ever know I made it. Let every mage who sees it think Traint’s journey clock is Arndel’s monstrosity. He deserves to be tarred with that brush. My day will come. In time the whole world will know my name. It will see what I’ve created and be dumbstruck with awe.
It was almost properly dark by the time she reached home. Stars pricked overhead, and glimfire lamps burned in the unshuttered windows of the hamlet schoolmaster’s cottage.
“There you are!” said Remmie, turning from the sink as she entered the kitchen. “I was about to do a searching for you.”
Though she was tired and disgruntled, she couldn’t not smile at her brother as she sniffed the fragrant air. “Yes, here I am, you fussy old mother hen.”
“Hen yourself,” he said, shoulders hunching. He didn’t much care for that kind of teasing. “Do you think I don’t have enough to contend with, that I need fears for you rattling round in my head?”
The mood she was in, it would be far too easy to strike sparks with him. She took a deep breath and after a heart-thumping moment let go of her peppery temper, along with all her bitter thoughts. Remmie was the soft, kindly one, and always had been. The boy in him still felt the too-soon loss of their parents, was quick to dark imaginings and leaping to the worst conclusions. With her own scars from that wounding long since healed, she found it easy to forget.
“I tarried at the artisanry,” she said, her voice deliberately gentle. “Not thinking. I’m sorry. Is that mutton-and-barley stew on the hob?”
“Not that you deserve any,” he said. “Why did you tarry? There’s no trouble at Arndel’s, I hope.”
His question stung, but it wasn’t entirely unfair. They were each other’s only family and he had picked up and moved with her every time her restless impatience caused her to fall foul of an employer, or abandon one position in search of the next. And if she fell foul of Artisan Master Arndel, or lost patience entirely with working in his artisanry, her brother would follow her again.
Which was why she strove so hard to stay sweet with Arndel, to not care so much that she wasn’t properly appreciated. Remmie wanted to stay in Batava. Teaching in its little school pleased him, deeply. He never would listen when she wailed that he wasted himself on other people’s offspring.
“Not the kind of trouble you’re imagining,” she said, sliding into one of the two chairs at the small kitchen’s table. “My work for Arndel is well-prized. He knows he’ll suffer if he dismisses me.”
“Good,” Remmie said, turning to face her, and not even trying to hide his relief. “But still, since I’m neither blind nor doltish, I know something’s fretting you. What’s wrong?”
He always knew. Even when she did her best to hide her feelings, even when any other person in the world would never suspect she was churned on the inside, where it didn’t show, Remmie could tell.
Sometimes it was irritating, having a twin.
Remmie was staring at her, his blue eyes alight now with a rueful, affectionate resignation. She looked away from him.
He sighed. “Barl…”
By rights she should be setting the table for supper. He liked to cook and she didn’t, so he cooked and she set the table and helped clean up after. But instead of doing her part she sat where she was, thoughts tumbling like leaves in an autumn bluster.
Abandoning the sink, leaving his stew to simmer fragrantly on the hob, her brother crossed to the table and slid into its other chair.
“Come on, Barl. You know I’ll have the problem out of you in the end.”
She shrugged, one-shouldered. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s not. It never is,” he said kindly. He was so patient, little wonder he made a good schoolteacher. “Is it Arndel again? Has he done or said something to tweak your nose?”
“I’d like to tweak his nose,” she muttered. “His and Lord Traint’s.”
Remmie laughed, but there was a groan inside it. “Why? What have they done now?”
Since she’d get no peace until she answered, she told him how she’d been tasked to create Traint’s tedious journey clock. Her brother listened carefully, like always, no interruptions, and when she’d finished her tale of woe he sat back in his chair, his arms folded and his chin sunk to his chest.
“Well, you know what they say, Barl. He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
“Perhaps they do, but I don’t need you to say it. I need you to say I’m right and that old snicket Arndel is wrong!”
“Oh, Barl.” Remmie’s fingers tightened. “What difference would that make? For better or worse, Arndel pays your wage which means you’re beholden to his wishes. I know you don’t want to be, but that’s the way it is.”
What a pity she hadn’t laid the table. If she had, she could throw a spoon at him. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“And so I am! You know I am. Always. I don’t mean to nag or sound unsympathetic. I just hate to see you fretted.”
“You’d be fretted too, if you’d been forced to make such a clodhopping clock.” She blinked hard against a sudden sting of tears. “I wish you could’ve seen the one I made after. Remmie, it was beautiful.”
“Yes, I’m sure it was,” he said, his face shadowing. “Only…”
“Only it was a foolish risk,” she said, impatiently contrite. “Yes. I know. I won’t do it again.” She pulled a face. “At least I’ll try not to. But Remmie—”
His lips tugged into a wry smile. “It was make the clock your way, just once, or burst.”
She’d feel less guilty if he didn’t understand. If he blustered and railed at her she wouldn’t feel so selfish. If once, just once, he’d properly lose his temper with her, scold her for being high-handed and thoughtless, then she’d not have to feel so mean. But he never did. It just wasn’t Remmie.
As she frowned at him, vexed by his unnatural niceness, he shoved his chair back. “Any measure, what’s done is done and no harm done. This time. Now do set the table, would you? Supper’s ready.”
So she set the table and he filled two stoneware bowls with the rich mutton and barley he’d cooked. Fresh, cool cider and thickly buttered bread rounded out the meal. Halfway through his tale of the day’s classroom antics he interrupted himself, his expression comical.
“Oh, I nearly forgot! Word came from Elvado this morning. The Council of Mages has ratified four new incants, and there’s to be a public demonstration of them to mark the occasion. I’m asked to take my pupils to see it. Will you come?”
Belly griping, Barl bit her lip. Doubtless it was petty, the urge to refuse her brother because she resented those unknown mages whom the Council had decided to honour. But she felt what she felt. There was no point denying it.
“I can’t go if it’s a working day,” she said, poking her spoon through her stew, pretending interest in food so Remmie might not see what raged beneath her indifferent surface. “Arndel would never give me leave.”
“There’s no need to ask, for it’s not,” Remmie said, cheerful. Either she’d fooled him, for once, or he was choosing to ignore her rewoken ill temper. “The demonstration’s to be held next Winsun. In the plaza outside Elvado’s Hall of Knowledge, no less.”
The Hall, yes. Of course. That fabled place of breathtaking beauty, where Dorana’s vastly powerful Council of Mages laid down the rules of magework by which everyone else had to live.
Still, it could be worse. They could hold the ceremony at the College. I don’t think I could bear that.
“There’ll be a terrible crowd,” she said, hunting for a cloud to dim Remmie’s smile. “We’ll not see a thing.”
“Ah, but we will,” he said, unclouded. “On account of being with the children. The Council made sure to mention there’d be a special place reserved for all attending students and their teachers.”
Well, didn’t he just have an answer for everything?
“Elvado’s too far from here to ride in carriages. We’ll have to translocate.”
“You can chew on some runip berries before we leave. They’ll settle your stomach well enough.” Remmie pushed his emptied bowl away, the faintest hint of irritation shading his voice. “Or you could not come.”
That would be the easiest answer, certainly. Let Remmie herd his little flock, leaving her to dream alone of beautiful, mageworked things, and how one day she’d escape the confines of Arndel’s artisanry. Besides, it would only be a torment to her, visiting Elvado. There were excellent reasons why she’d stayed away.
“Please, Barl,” her brother said, wheedling. “We can throw a coin in the plaza’s great fountain for Mama and Pa. Didn’t we promise we’d do that one day? But we never have. And it’s bad luck not to keep that kind of promise.”
Oh, well, now that was playing dirty. “One day, yes,” she muttered. “But does it have to be next Winsun?”
“Surely next Winsun’s as good a day as any.”
Of course it was. Staring at the blue-and-yellow checked tablecloth, she swallowed a resentful sigh. She’d have to say yes. If she didn’t, she’d give Remmie pause for thought. She’d have him fretting and nagging and niggling…
“Fine,” she said crossly, lifting her gaze. “I’ll come, but only so we can toss the remembrance coin. Oh, and so I can laugh myself sick watching you chase after your gaggle of school brats like a three-legged sheepdog.” She raised a warning finger. “But don’t you even think of asking me for help herding them. Other people’s snotty-nosed children are your delight, not mine.”
Remmie was grinning. “Don’t fret. Barton’s coming too, with his class. He’ll help me keep order.”
“Barton Haye?” Her heart sank. “Oh.”
His grin turning sly, Remmie reached for the last piece of buttered bread. “Of course Barton’s coming. I think he’s more excited than the children. He’ll be tickled even pinker when I tell him you’re joining us.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Yes, well, while you’re at it you can tell him I’m walking out with one of the mages from the artisanry.”
“Tell him yourself,” he retorted, around a crammed mouthful. “Barton’s a good fellow. I’ll not fib to him on your account.”
“It would be a kindness if you did, Remmie. Coming from me it’ll only prick his pride worse. Besides, I don’t want to lie to his face.”
“But you’ve no trouble asking me to?” Finished eating, he began collecting his plate and bowl and cutlery. “You steal my breath, Barl. You truly do.”
She handed him her own bowl and spoon, balanced on her crumb-strewn plate. “I don’t see why. Since you’ve such a fondness for him I’m surprised you didn’t offer.”
Remmie clattered their used dishes into the sink. “Look. I know Barton isn’t your dash of salt but—”
“Is he anyone’s?” She laughed. “I can’t see it. He’s short and skinny and his ears stick out. And when he laughs he—”
“Don’t!” Remmie said, turning. “Why must you be unkind? What do a man’s looks count for? Barton Haye has a good heart, he’s gentle and patient and a gifted teacher. If he’s not as handsome as you’d have him, how is that a crime? You’d best believe you could do far worse!”
Taken aback, Barl blinked at him. “I had no idea you’d appointed yourself Barton Haye’s champion. Perhaps you ought to walk out with him yourself, if he’s such a catch.”
And that, of course, was exactly the wrong thing to say… for last year, abandoning the Eighth district’s village of Granley out of loyalty to her, Remmie had left behind a young woman who might have become more than merely the sister of someone he taught school with.
Her contrition heartfelt this time, she reached out a hand. “I’m sorry. Truly. That was a heedless jibe to make.”
“I’m not trying to push Barton onto you,” Remmie said, calm as buttermilk now, as though she’d not hurt him or apologised. “Only you never seem taken with anyone. Perhaps if you did…” He shrugged. “But you don’t. I worry you’ll end up old and alone.”
Probably that was true. But she thought he also worried he’d end up old and alone, from staying loyal to her. It wasn’t something they talked of. She wouldn’t know where or how to start. But after Granley she’d not been able to pretend so easily that what she did made little difference to her loyal, long-suffering brother.
“I won’t be unkind to Barton,” she said, subdued. “I won’t walk out with him, but I’ll not make you ashamed of me.”
Remmie’s lips curved a little, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Be sure I’ll hold you to that. It’s a small school, Barl, and we teach cheek by jowl together in it. I don’t want my peace with Barton cut up.”
“It won’t be. I promise. Please, Remmie, don’t be cross.”
“I’m not,” he sighed. He was far too nice a man for grudges. “Though doubtless I should be.”
Relieved, she bounced to her feet. “It’s because you’re not that I love you. Now finish telling me of your day while I do the dishes.”
When the kitchen was clean again they went their separate ways, Remmie to sprawl in the cottage’s pocket-sized parlour and read a book, while she retreated to her room to continue her private magework.
During her walks to and from the artisanry, she’d had an idea for a new kind of translucent clock-housing crystal, thinner and lighter and stronger than the crystals Arndel had them use. Those crystals were created with incants of his own devising, and jealously guarded, but her crystal was better than all of his. Or it would be, once she’d perfected the incant for its creation. It called for a tricky marriage of fine Manemlin silver sand with the argumentative grittiness of Brantish coarse black. Nearly five months it had taken her, to scrimp and save enough coin for a small-weight of silver sand. So far the incant’s creation had defeated her, but she was undaunted.
And once she’d perfected the mageworking, once she had a flawless sheet of crystal as proof, she’d show it to Arndel… making sure, of course, to stress how his own incants had inspired her. Then perhaps he’d agree to her crystal’s use in the artisanry. He might even sponsor a patent submission to the Artisans’ Guild and then the new crystal could be named after her.
She didn’t care how hard she had to work or what small luxuries she had to give up to make sure she had enough of the costly silver sand. She didn’t care how long it took to perfect the incant. What was time? Just another tool.
Settled at her small workbench, she dropped a pinchful of silver sand into a waiting crucible. The promise of success burned bright in her blood.
This incant is only the beginning. Before I am done I’ll be the best artisan mage Dorana has ever seen.
A day and a half after she’d completed Lord Traint’s journey clock, Artisan Master Arndel gave her a new commission, a nursery clock for one Lady Ancilla Grie. Clearly he resented passing her the task, but with no other artisan free or skilled enough and his own time swallowed by an established patron he couldn’t afford to offend, he had no choice.
“And let me remind you there can be no deviation from the requested design,” the Artisan Master said, scowling. “Lady Grie is a mage of great reputation and influence. Next to Lord Bren, the greatest in these eastern districts. Nothing is more important than pleasing her.”
Or more disastrous than earning her ire. So had their rival artisanry in the Seventh district township of Valdere learned, to its dismay, when its Artisan Master made the mistake of countermanding Lady Grie’s specifications.
“Tympanne has all but ruined herself,” said Arndel, thrusting his face close. “Where Ancilla Grie leads, many lords and ladies follow. Her patronage, added to Lord Bren’s, could be the making of this artisanry. Put that in jeopardy, Mage Lindin, and you will rue the day you first drew breath.”
Unmoved by his lip-spittled fervour, Barl nodded. “I will give Lady Grie no cause for complaint.”
“See that you don’t,” Arndel hissed, finger jabbing. “For you’ll not be the only Lindin to suffer from a misstep.”
Remmie. The old mole would dare to threaten blameless Remmie? She felt her blood turn molten. You scabrous toad. Biting back fury, she bowed her head, showing Arndel only what he wanted to see, an obedient underling.
“Yes, Artisan Master,” she murmured. “I understand.”
Nearly six days it took her to complete the nursery clock… and to her surprise, the work was a pleasure. The artisanry’s new patron was no Artur Traint. Lady Grie’s design was charming, full of whimsical grace, and challenging enough to keep her mind off dark thoughts of the upcoming trip to Elvado.
For if I go, it will hurt me. And if I don’t go, I’ll hurt Remmie. No matter what I do, it seems someone always ends up hurt.
Those six days were the happiest she’d spent in Arndel’s employ, even though she had to attempt the clock’s crystal housing twice. The first time she misjudged the crucial balance between the superfine Brantish blue sand and the heavier grey sand from Trindek’s Istafarn desert. Moments after coalescence the crystal collapsed into blobs of grainy, useless glass. Shocked speechless, Barl could only stare and nod as Arndel berated her for wasting her time and his jealously guarded supplies.
“I’m sorry, Artisan Master,” she said, once his tirade ended.
“As you should be! Don’t make me regret giving you this commission, Mage Lindin.”
Oh, how it galled her to be wrong in front of him. To have failed in a task she’d assumed would be simple. “I won’t, Artisan Master. You have my word.”
Arndel glared, unappeased. “You have but four more days to complete this clock, Mage Lindin. Do not waste them.”
Spurred mercilessly by such a public failure, the muffled snickers of the other mages burning in her ears, her second attempt at the clock housing succeeded. Shimmering like Lake Nartana, jewel of the Second district, the crystal’s flawless beauty stunned her to tears and helped to bolster her shaken confidence.
“Better,” said Arndel, grudging, called to inspect her progress. “Now get back to work.”
Hunted by a sense of urgency, haunted by the fear of failure, Barl finished Lady Grie’s nursery clock eight minutes before midnight on the fourth day following her disastrous mistake.
Alone in the artisanry, driven to sleeping there the past three nights so she might complete her task on time, she let the tears fall as she stared at the beautiful nursery clock.
I’m not imagining things. I was born for this. For greatness. Now not even Arndel will be able to deny it.
Next morning, Winsun Eve, Lady Grie herself came to hear the clock’s first sounding. Scant weeks from giving birth, her body bursting ripe, she swept into the artisanry’s private viewing room in a cloud of rich rose scent. Arndel trailed behind her like a fart.
“And of course, Lady Grie, if the piece does not meet with your approval we will simply begin again,” he declared, with a pained enthusiasm. “But I think you’ll agree that—”
“Hush,” said Lady Grie, one finger imperiously raised. Her sunrise silk gown rustled, murmuring of wealth and authority. “Incessant chatter bores me.”
Too exhausted to feel nervous, Barl clasped her hands tightly behind her back, kept her face tactfully blank and watched Ancilla Grie as the woman inspected her commission. Roamed her sharp gaze over the nursery clock’s arching crystal rainbow, with every bright colour shining, rested it on the small boy quaintly fishing with a rod and line, and then on the pond fringed with nodding bulrushes. Last of all she stared at the leaping crystal fish… and smiled.
“Yes,” she said softly. “I knew I wasn’t mistaken. That fool Tympanne said my design could not be executed, but I knew it could be… by the right mage.”
Torn between triumph and the importance of never criticising a Guild colleague, Arndel gobbled something in the back of his throat.
Lady Grie’s amethyst-blue stare shifted. “You. Young woman. Why do you stand there pretending servility? What have you to do with the making of my clock?”
Barl looked to Arndel. She knew better than to answer without his permission. The Artisan Master was resentful enough of her already. Offer him the smallest excuse to whet his temper on her, and he’d snatch it.
“This is Mage Lindin,” Arndel croaked. “She—she—” His larynx convulsed. “Under my strict and constant supervision, she made your clock.”
“She made it?” Lady Grie’s finely arched eyebrows echoed her surprise. “Not you, Master Arndel?”
Clasped fingers tightening to breaking point, Barl took a small step forward. “It’s true I performed the incants and conjurations, Lady Grie. But Artisan Master Arndel made certain of every syllable. Not a single piece in this artisanry is created without his involvement, or released to a patron without his permission. If the clock pleases you, my lady, you have him to thank.”
Arndel cleared his throat. From the look on his face it would be easy to think he’d swallowed a hedgehog.
“Mage Lindin’s work is of the highest standard, Lady Grie. There isn’t another mage in my artisanry I’d have trusted with your design.”
“I’m sure,” said Lady Grie, pettish. “But why did you trust her with it at all? For the exorbitant fee I’m paying I expected you to make my nursery clock.”
“Lady Grie, it would’ve been my great pleasure to do so,” said Arndel, chin lifted. He was astonishingly close to looking down his nose. “But I had already undertaken a commission from Lord Bren. You were unwilling to wait and I was unwilling to inconvenience a patron who has shown this artisanry much grace these past two years.”
Barl held her breath. That was more spice than she’d ever thought was in the old trout. She might not like him but she could respect him for that much, at least.
“Indeed?” Unexpectedly, Lady Grie laughed. “A proper answer, Artisan Master. I will expect no less a defence of me in the future.”
Arndel’s thin lips stretched wide in a smile. “The future? Most certainly, Lady Grie.”
“Not so fast, Artisan Master. There are conditions.” Lady Grie smoothed the vastly curved front of her glorious dress. “Firstly, I must be satisfied with the clock’s sounding. And secondly—”
“Yes, Lady Grie?” Arndel prompted, after a moment.
Ignoring him, Lady Grie shifted round. “You. Mage Lindin. What does your family call you?”
Barl loosened her clasping fingers, making sure to keep her gaze far from Arndel. “Barl, Lady Grie.”
“Hmm.” Lady Grie sniffed. “Odd name for a girl, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps, but I find myself content.”
“And if I tell Artisan Master Arndel that should my first condition be met, my second condition is that you, and only you, are to execute my commissions? Would that content you, too?”
Barl felt her heart stutter within its cage of curved bone. Moistening her lips, she risked a glance at Arndel. His eyes bulged at her in a face now flushed dusky red.
“My feelings in the matter are of no import, my lady. But should Artisan Master Arndel agree to such an arrangement, I would of course be honoured.”
“Ha!” said Lady Grie, trenchantly amused. “And I suppose butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, either.” She turned back. “Well, Arndel?”
“This artisanry would be pleased and proud to serve you, Lady Grie,” Arndel replied. Only someone who knew him well, who worked with him day in and day out, would hear the lemon tang in his voice. “And of course I will assign your commissions to any mage whose work you find pleasing.”
“And you’ll agree never to argue with me when it comes to what I want?”
Arndel bowed. “Of course, Lady Grie. She who pays, says.”
“What about you, Mage Lindin?” Lady Grie demanded. “Do you agree, as well?”
“Certainly not,” she said, and met Lady Grie’s challenging stare with a challenge of her own. “If I believe you’re mistaken in your desire or design, I’ll tell you. I could hardly call myself an artisan mage and lie to you, could I? That would be disrespectful to both of us.”
“Mage Lindin!” Arndel’s voice exploded the silence. “You stand too high in your own esteem! Please, Lady Grie, I beg you, accept my most—”
But Lady Grie laughed again. “Restrain yourself, Arndel. Begging is so unattractive. Mage Lindin, it seems you have fire in your belly. I like that.” Her gaze flickered to Arndel. “It makes a nice change from being fawned over.”
Wary, Barl offered the woman a slight bow. “It’s not in my nature to fawn, Lady Grie. All I can promise you is my best work and my honesty.”
“And I’ll take them both, gladly,” Lady Grie replied. “Provided I’m thoroughly satisfied with my clock. Let me hear its tick and chime.”
A catch in her breathing. A hitch in the steady beating of her heart. She’d spent nearly eleven hours perfecting the nursery clock’s voice. If Lady Grie should find it displeasing…
But she won’t. She can’t. She doesn’t seem a lackwit.
Arndel was glaring, daring her to fail. If Lady Grie was displeased there was no doubt Mage Lindin would be held responsible and cast into the cold.
On a breath, in a whisper, she released the nursery clock’s voice. A ticktock of silence… and then the steady, rhythmic sound of a horse’s hooves on beaten earth filled the private viewing room. Clop-clop-clop-clop, ticking time with a jaunty air.
“Oh!” Lady Grie clapped her hands once, delighted. “How diverting. And the chime?”
Smothering her own pleasure, Barl silenced the tick-tock. Then, her heart hitching again, she sketched the brief sigil that would set free the nursery clock’s chime.
“Beautiful,” whispered Lady Grie, as the liquid music of a marsh warbler’s cry softened to silence. “Mage Lindin, that was beautiful.”
Yes. And so difficult to recreate with an incant that she’d thought until the last moment the task would defeat her.
“Thank you, Lady Grie,” she murmured. Relief and the crushing fatigue she’d been fending off combined to make her head swim and her eyes blur. “I’m very happy you like it.”
Lady Grie nodded to Arndel. “Mage Lindin is a credit to you, Artisan Master. I look forward to seeing what she creates for me next. Now, shall we discuss the particulars of our arrangement?”
Barl didn’t need the Artisan Master’s quirked eyebrow to tell her that here was her cue to depart the viewing room. Somehow, she managed a bow to Lady Grie without falling over. Another bow to Arndel, because he’d feel the slight if she didn’t. Then she escaped to the artisanry garden, where the sun shone unhindered by cloud and a riot of flowers scented the warm air. Safely alone, she folded to the short, sweet grass, pressed her palms to her face and let the joy bubble free.
No more tedious journey clocks. No more being tethered to someone else’s inferior imagination. At last… at last… I have the chance to become the mage I was born to be.
“Barl!” Remmie’s face lit up like a solstice lantern. “That’s wonderful! Ancilla Grie is the oldest daughter of the highest ranked First Family in the district. There’s nobody she doesn’t know. Once she starts talking about you, showing off the clock you made her, your name will become a byword in some of the most important houses in all of eastern Dorana. Perhaps even all the way to Elvado!”
Sent home an hour early by Arndel, which was his notion of a substantial reward, Barl sprawled in the cottage parlour’s saggy-bottomed armchair and grinned at her brother, who perched on the windowsill like a cheerful cockadiddy.
“You’re just relieved this means I’ll have no want to move on in another month or three.”
Remmie reddened, as she knew he would. “It’s true I’m not afflicted with wanderlust, like some people, but that doesn’t mean I’m not truly pleased for you. Barl—”
“Sorry,” she said, hands lifting. “I know you are. I’m pleased for me too, I suppose. And you’re right. If this arrangement goes well, if Lady Grie doesn’t interfere with my work, I’m sure the itch will die out of my heels. Once I’m happy, Remmie, once I know I’m where I’m meant to be, I’ll have no need to move on.”
“You say that now,” he muttered. “And I’m sure you mean it. But you’re a restless spirit, Barl. You’re so eager to see what’s over the horizon that you can’t see what’s right under your nose.”
Startled, she stared at her brother. He sounded almost bitter. And that wasn’t like him. He was all sunshine, where she was dappled shadow. Had she so badly misread him, then? Had she completely mistaken how deep his feelings had run for that girl in Granley?
I must have. He’s not said as much, never mentioned her since we left there, but…
She wasn’t used to misreading Remmie. Shaken, she slid from the armchair to the carpet and knelt earnestly at her brother’s feet. If she didn’t make this right, convince him she did appreciate his love and loyalty, the matter would rub and rub between them until the festered wound hurt them both.
“Would it help if I promised, Remmie? I will.” She crossed her palms over her heart. “I promise I’ll not drag you harum-scarum across the country again.”
Remmie drummed his fingers on the windowsill, restless. “You shouldn’t make a promise you know you can’t—you won’t—keep.”
“I will keep it!” she insisted, indignant. Hurt that he would doubt her word. “How can you fling it in my face I wouldn’t?”
He groaned. “Because I know you, Barl. You mean well, you always do. But something will happen, you’ll fall into one of your snits, Lady Grie won’t pay you enough respect, or she’ll interfere, and you’ll storm out of the artisanry in a raging temper swearing you’ll never, never, never go back, and—”
Barl pushed off her heels and rested her hands on her agitated brother’s knees. “No, Remmie. I won’t. Do you hear me? This is my word to you, my solemn unflinching word. Batava is your home, now. I’ll not ask you to leave it.”
Arms folded, he stared over his shoulder at the majestically sinking sun. Its mellow rose-gold light set his pale hair afire. A muscle leapt along his jaw.
“I know you’ll not stay with Arndel forever,” he said at last, his voice low. “You’re ambitious, and you’ll outgrow him. I do understand that. But if you mean what you say… at least for now… if you promise that what Lady Grie is offering is enough to keep you content a while longer, then I’ll believe you. And I won’t pretend I’m not well pleased for it.”
“I never asked you to pretend,” she said, still stinging.
He shrugged. “Yes, you did. But that’s neither here nor there. If it’s been hard for me, it’s not been easy for you either. I do know that, Barl.”
For all their closeness, their easy camaraderie, she and Remmie rarely bared their tender hearts to each other. She liked to tell herself it was because twins had no need of cumbersome words but that wasn’t entirely true, and she knew it. If they never spoke honestly of how her restless nature affected him, then she was spared discomfort.
And that was a prickling thing to know of oneself.
“I’m content enough at the artisanry,” she said firmly. “I moan about Arndel, but in truth I know full well I’m lucky to be there. And now, with this chance to make beautiful things for Lady Grie, my fortune is even brighter. I’ve no need to look toward the horizon, Remmie.”
“I must get supper started,” he said, almost smiling, and slid off the windowsill. “Come and peel potatoes, and tell me incant by incant how you made Lady Grie’s nursery clock. Since you always find an excuse not to come and talk to my pupils, a second-hand accounting will have to do.”
“I’m not a teacher,” she protested, guilt-seared, and clambered to her feet. “Or a storyteller. You wouldn’t have me embarrass you in front of your flock, would you?”
That made Remmie laugh. “For an arrogant woman, Barl, you have the oddest notions.”
“Arrogant? Arrogant?” Outraged, she stared after him. “Would an arrogant women peel potatoes? I hardly think so!”
“You haven’t peeled anything yet,” he said, heading for the kitchen. “So come along and prove me wrong!”
Oh, he was impossible. But he was her brother, and she loved him, and she owed him for the loss of that insipid girl in Granley.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she said, and followed him out.
Staring around her at the fabled city, Barl pressed a fist to her roiling midriff.
I should’ve eaten more runip berries. Heaving scrambled eggs over the cobblestones would hardly be polite.
“Mage Lindin! You look unwell, is aught amiss?”
Swallowing a groan along with her travel sickness, she turned to Remmie’s inconvenient friend, Barton. “Naught, Mage Haye. Thank you.”
His overhelpful expression collapsed in the face of her briskness. “Oh.”
Remmie looked up from his goggling, giggling, pointing pupils. So many of them, bobbing about like corks in a stream. It was a wonder he could keep their names straight.
“My sister doesn’t translocate well.”
“What a shame,” Barton Haye said again, annoyingly sympathetic. “Then perhaps, Mage Lindin, you could try—”
Hold your tongue, Remmie. “Runip berries, yes, I know,” she said, smiling tightly at Barton Haye. “Thank you.”
Remmie’s lips pinched. He didn’t care for her manner in front of his pupils. But for one thing the wide-eyed school children were too distracted by Elvado’s glorious Hall of Knowledge, towering over them, and for another, well, Barton had brought it upon himself.
He’s no business being solicitous with me.
Barton turned aside. “We should discern where the Council desires us to stand for the demonstration.”
“Agreed,” said Remmie. “We’re here in plenty of time, but doubtless there’ll be crowds arriving within the hour. We want to find the best vantage point before giving the children a chance to explore.”
Hearing that, the chattering horde of pupils broke into a louder clamour. Barl stepped well back, leaving Remmie and Barton Haye to their self-inflicted task of calming them. When that was done, and Barton had launched into a lecture about Elvado’s central plaza, she tugged her brother several prudent steps sideways.
“I think I’ll take a wander elsewhere until the Council deigns to grace us with its presence.”
Remmie started to object, then changed his mind. “If you like. Don’t get lost. We’ll look for you in a little under an hour’s time.”
As always, he’d taken great pains with his appearance, wearing silk for the occasion instead of his customary linen and wool, with a gold and carnelian stud in his right ear. His long hair was intricately braided, a thin, bright blue ribbon threaded sinuously through it. He was so fine she had to smile.
“What?” said Remmie, suspicious. “Barl, what mischief are you—”
“None!” she protested, and patted his brocade weskit with its bold emerald and purple stripes. “What a mind you’ve got, always seeking the nefarious. I was only thinking I have a very dashing brother. A compliment I think I regret, now.”
“A pity I can’t return the sentiment,” he said, grinning. He was forever twitting her about wrinkled tunics and flyaway hair. “Still, I suppose I should be grateful that at least your stockings match.”
Wretch. To say such a thing, with Barton Haye listening! She’d have to devise a suitable revenge for when they were alone.
“I’ll see you presently, Mage Lindin,” she said, repressive. “Mage Haye.”
Barton nodded, very formal. “Mage Lindin.”
So that was him discouraged, any road. Good.
Abandoning Remmie to his child-ridden fate, Barl turned her back on the plaza with its magnificent fountain, mosaicked with unicorns and mermaids and dolphins and eagles, and made her way along the nearest of the wide, crowded thoroughfares leading away from the city centre.
Elvado was so full of ambient magic that she felt like a lute plucked from every direction. Blood and bones thrumming, she threaded a path between the pedestrians jostling around her. So much noise, after sleepy Batava and the disciplined artisanry. So much colour and movement. And all the tall, beautiful buildings, pane after pane of stained glass struck by sunlight into fiery, living jewels. Gold and silver and the blue-grey ores of Brantone and Ranoush, worked with skilled hands and magic into shimmering spires.
We are such a clever, colourful people. No wonder we’re gazed upon with envious eyes.
Not that there was cause for concern in that. As the only mage race in the world, they had nothing to fear. Not even Vharne’s best swordsmen or Iringa’s famed horse warriors or the singing assassins of Feen could cost the mages of Dorana a single night of sleep. Let them squabble amongst themselves. Dorana was safe and always would be.
One advantage of being a gifted clockmaker was that she needed no help to feel the steady passing of time. The sense of it lived inside her, sitting lightly behind her eyes. So with no fear of provoking Remmie by returning tardy to the plaza, she walked the wide streets of Elvado. A city not simply beautiful, but gracious, its sunlit air sweetened by an abundance of fresh flowers, its sunlit streets thoughtfully shaded with wide-branched, lacy-leafed foiuta trees. In the scattered pocket-sized parks she wandered by, djelbas heavy with blossom towered above the neat grass, haughty as the potentates of Trindek.
As she walked she passed herbal shops and alchemists, medicinals and a library. In Artisan Row she lingered before each immaculate window, marvelling at the beauty of the tapestries, the weavings, the wood turnings and the musical instruments stringed and fretted and ivory-keyed. A good thing the only businesses permitted to trade on Winsun sold food, else she’d be leaving Elvado with an empty purse and so many purchases she’d need to hire a carriage to get home.
She lingered longest before a clockmaker’s workshop. Forehead pressed to its cool, clean glass she stared at the journey clocks, the bedside ticktockers, the grand vestibule clock, nearly tall as a tree, and the whimsical wedding clock with its stiffly dancing bride and groom. The gilded name above the workshop’s warded door read Markus Stokely, Artisan Mage. She’d never heard Arndel mention him. His clocks were passable. Pleasant, even. But they weren’t anywhere near as good as hers.
Cheerful, she kept walking.
Beyond Artisan Row was the fabric district, and there she sighed over silks and velvets and brocades and satins, over beads and buttons and lush furs imported from the brutish Iringan wilderness and beyond. On Bakers’ Square she bought a sweet mouthful of cherry pie, its buttery crust and fruity filling a symphony on her tongue. Whoever had baked it was a true artisan.
She walked on again, licking her lips. Everywhere she stepped, everywhere she looked, Elvado’s grandeur stole her breath. Yes, oh, yes, it was a beautiful city. And so long as the First Families ruled in Dorana, she would never call it her own.
Without warning a swift rush of resentment stung her, so sharp she had to reach out a hand to the yellow wall beside her. The injustice of her plight closed her throat and blurred her vision. Killed the memory of that cherry pie and the lingering pleasure of the fabulous nursery clock she’d made. What she could learn here, at the College of Mages. Given the chance, what could she become?
But I’ll never know, will I? I won’t be given that chance.
She could hear Remmie’s voice scolding her.
Count your blessings, Barl. You have Ancilla Grie and her patronage, which is more than most unranked mages can even dream of.
And though that was true, it wasn’t enough. Besides, what was true today might not be true tomorrow. Who knew how long Lady Grie’s approval would last? A week ago it had been Tympanne Ranett perched on her ladyship’s silken shoulder… and now the celebrated Master Artisan was spurned.
Only a fool trusts in the whims of a spoiled First Family mage. The only mage I can rely upon is myself.
She straightened and took a proper look around. She’d walked a goodly distance from Elvado’s central plaza. Here was a hushed residential district, gaily painted houses pressed shoulder to shoulder along a much narrower flagstoned side street, with window boxes and polished brass door-knockers and curtains drawn to keep the world at a polite distance. Some wardings here and there, too, put in place by mages not inclined to trust human nature.
How very wise of them.
She’d wanted to find the College of Mages, to stand before its open gates and dream, but if she didn’t start back to the plaza now she’d be tardy. And that would leave Remmie in a stew of worry and he’d likely scold her in front of Barton Haye.
So she retraced her steps, pushing her way through and around the throng of mages heading for the plaza. Reaching it, she sighed. An hour ago it had been merely dotted with people. Now the plaza was crowded, all but the spouting tip of its fountain hidden by town dwellers and visitors eager to witness the day’s so-called historic events.
“There you are!” Remmie said, pleased, as she elbowed the last few gawkers aside to join him in the Hall of Knowledge’s beautifully tiled forecourt. “They haven’t started yet.”
“So I see,” she replied, looking at the imposing dais that had been set up directly before them. “It seems I rushed back for nothing.”
Remmie rolled his eyes. “Did you have a good wander?”
“I wasn’t bored,” she said, shrugging. More than that she’d no intention of sharing, not with Barton Haye’s sticking-out ears so close by and flapping.
“Well, we had a delightful adventure,” said Remmie, not in the least fooled by her show of indifference. “Over there, not too far away—” He pointed eastward across the crowded plaza. “—there’s a maze, where you must decipher a slew of clues to discover the incants that will let you find your way out again. Without the right incant in the right place you can’t escape. Very clever, it was.”
“And highly entertaining,” added Barton, turning. “Your brother and I left our fates up to the children.”
“Luckily for us,” said Remmie, mock pompous, “we’re excellent teachers.”
One of his students, short and chubby with a splotch of ink on his collar, looked up and grinned. “Lucky we’re excellent pupils, you mean.”
As the other Batava children collapsed into giggles, Remmie reached out a finger and flicked the plump boy’s nose. “Instead of congratulating yourself, Rine, why don’t you take care of that blot on your shirt? Or do you want these fancy-pants township children to think mages from the Eleventh district don’t know how to look smart?”
“Blot?” The boy half-strangled himself trying to see. “Oh. Sorry.”
Glancing around the specially roped-off student area, Barl saw that quite a lot of the gathered children were flashily dressed and possessed a certain polished sophistication that spoke of lives lived without benefit of seeing cows through the kitchen window. And then she saw that some of those polished children were flicking supercilious looks toward Remmie’s plainly-garbed pupils. Little nudges, hurried whispers, sly smiles hinting at unkindness and an unearned superiority. First Family brats every one of them, she had no doubt, and dearly deserving of more than a flick on the nose.
“Never you mind, Rine,” she said to the boy, surprising herself. “There’s more to magework than clothing. A clean collar wouldn’t have whisked you out of that maze.”
“Oh!” said the boy, caught between pleasure and uncertainty. He wasn’t used to hearing his teacher contradicted. “No. I s’pose not.”
“But—” said Remmie, his voice heavy with warning, “a neat mage is a careful mage, and a careful mage is a mage less likely to do himself or anybody else a mischief. Don’t you agree, Mage Lindin?”
If she didn’t say yes, Remmie would punish her with cold leftovers for a week. Or worse, make her cook for herself.
“Yes, of course. It’s very important.”
“Very important,” Remmie repeated, staring at the boy Rine. “And don’t—”
Interrupted by a tuneful fanfare, he shifted his teacherly gaze to the Hall of Knowledge’s grand entrance. The fanfare played again and the jumble of conversations around the plaza died down. Cutting through the ringing silence, the sound of Elvado’s grand clock tolling the hour. Barl closed her eyes, touched to stillness by its deep, solemn chime. Sudden excitement rippling through the crowd broke her reverie. Looking for its cause, she saw a procession of men and women emerge from the Hall of Knowledge and make their stately, gold-and-brocade way to the dais.
Dorana’s revered and feared Council of Mages.
Barl felt her jaw tighten. She knew the Council’s leader was one Lord Varen, but had no idea who the rest of them were. Didn’t care. What did it matter which First Family claimed them? All that mattered was that by their arrogant decree she must forever believe herself to be inferior, just because she was unranked. Was supposed to accept her secondary status, uncomplaining, and forget stillborn dreams of attending the College.
She turned as Remmie’s hand came to rest lightly on her shoulder. In his eyes she saw a sorrow that drifted perilously close to pity. But she didn’t want his pity. She wanted him angry, sharing her outrage, her burning desire to right what was wrong in Dorana.
How can he be my brother, my other half, and be so complacent?
She saw him hear the unspoken question, but before she could speak he shook his head. “Not now. The children. Barton.”
And he was right, about that, anyway. Not about anything else. About everything else he couldn’t be more mistaken. She shrugged his hand away and turned back to the dais.
The Council’s members had climbed to its top and now stood neatly arranged, the three men and two women staring over the crowd. A pace back and to one side stood the last three mages, all women, each one dressed in silks, decorated with jewels, trembling with ill-concealed excitement and pride. But there were four new incants approved, so where was the fourth mage to be honoured? Surely he or she wouldn’t risk insulting the Council by not attending?
Lord Varen, a man well past his seventieth year if the lines in his face spoke the truth, stepped to the edge of the dais and raised his hands.
“Winsun greetings to all. The Council of Mages welcomes you on this auspicious occasion.”
An enhancement incant carried his melodious voice to every mage in the plaza.
“With us this day stand three talented mages,” Varen continued, “who by virtue of their diligence and creative vision have created new incants for our lexicon of knowledge, and in doing so further burnish the lustre of Dorana’s magical heritage. Mage Lakewell… Mage Tranter… Mage Folet—” One by one, the women stepped forward as their names were called. “Dorana thanks you for your service to our arcane lore.”
As applause rippled through the audience gathered in the plaza, enthusiastic from the gathered school children, more polite and restrained from everyone else, each of the three acknowledged mages pressed a hand to her heart and lowered her head in humble appreciation… or an excellent imitation of it.
Watching them closely, Barl felt a pang of envy so sharp she had to swallow. That Mage Folet was so young, a mere handful of years older than she and Remmie. Yet there the woman stood, elevated to the status of an Incant Mage, her name to be recorded for all time in the Council register.
For one terrible moment, she thought she might weep.
“Alas,” said Lord Varen, his expression darkening, “magic is not without its dangers. Today we mourn the loss of Mage Brahn Sorvold. Two days ago, emboldened by his recent success, he attempted an even more daring incant… and paid for his ambition with his life.”
Shocked gasps from the crowd. Remmie and Barton murmured to their students, patting heads, whispering reassurances. Barl frowned, disapproving. They might be children, but they were mages first. There was no such thing as being too young for the truth. But if she opened her mouth on that score Remmie would be furious.
Again, Lord Varen raised his hands. The agitated crowd hushed.
“But this is not the time or place for grief,” he said, his green gaze steady. “We are gathered here to celebrate new magic. Mage Lakewell?”
The oldest of the three honoured mages took another step forward. Lord Varen nodded at her, then joined his fellow councillors. Excitement thrummed through the waiting crowd.
Mage Lakewell’s lips moved as she silently recited a short incant. Next she sketched a sigil on the air, where it glowed molten gold. In her outstretched left hand appeared a small flowerpot, but instead of a ripe bloom it contained a single stalk of renna, rotting with grain blight.
Those mages close enough to clearly see the pot and its contents sighed. Grain blight was a curse gifted them by the careless farmers of Feen, who three summers before had failed to purge their own crops of the disease before its spores blew over the border into Dorana. Used in ale-making and baking a sour, nourishing bread, renna grain was highly prized. Being a fickle crop it grew grudgingly elsewhere, which meant importing the grain was difficult and ruinously expensive. All of Dorana was pinched by the shortage.
Barl felt her fingers curl, nails biting her palm. So, had Mage Lakewell defeated renna blight? For if that was her achievement…
Another sigil burned the air, this time the bright crimson of fresh blood. Another sigil, dark green, then one of sky blue, and finally a fifth of storm-cloud purple. The plaza’s air crackled, prickling bare skin and stirring unbound hair. Mage Lakewell recited a second silent incant, her lips moving too quickly for the syllables to be discerned. Her right hand hovered above the blighted stalk of grain, outstretched fingers slightly hooked. In her face, a fierce concentration.
With a shudder that shook the plaza’s cobblestones and splashed the water in its fountain, the incant ignited. Remmie and Barton’s transfixed pupils squealed. Even the fancy-pants First Family children cried out, and more than a few of the adult mages behind them. Barl caught her breath as the magic’s power surged through her, searing nerve and bone and muscle.
Now the potted stalk of grain was obscured by a thick greenish haze. There was sweat on Mage Lakewell’s face and she breathed deep and hard. The incant was costing her.
“A’bar’at!” she said, the command bursting from her in a grunting of pain.
A flash of light. A roar of discharged power. The greenish haze vanished to reveal a healthy stalk of renna.
Cries of joy. Rapturous applause. With a careless wave of her hand Mage Lakewell returned the pot to wherever it belonged and waited for the acclaim to subside. Her lips were curved in the merest hint of a smile.
Remmie turned, his face alight with admiration. “Remarkable. Don’t you think so, Barl?”
“It was well done,” she admitted, because it was, and she couldn’t with honesty say otherwise.
Mage Lakewell stepped back, and into her place stepped Mage Tranter. Her great achievement was an incant to render harmless any poison brewed, on purpose or by accident, from the fruit of the yababi bush. Since yababi was the favoured poison of certain warlike Ranoushi clans, and a crucial ingredient of extensively popular yababi paste, which had been known to turn rancid and kill by mistake, thanks to Mage Tranter Dorana stood to make a good deal of coin.
Remmie and Barton and a few of their pupils were distressed by Tranter’s use of live rabbits to demonstrate both poison and cure but really, what did they expect? Volunteers from the audience? Rabbit served up in a stew or used to demonstrate magework, there was no difference, surely. Dead was dead.
Mage Folet’s newly patented incant was far less bloody. She’d devised a method of showing where an object had been in the previous nine hours.
“Nine hours?” Barl muttered to Remmie, under cover of the resulting applause. “Make it a full day and perhaps there’d be some use to it.”
“Doubtless that will be her next achievement,” Remmie replied. “In the meantime, petty pilferers far and wide will think twice before taking what doesn’t belong to them. There’ll be a market for that incant well beyond our borders.”
Which meant more riches for Dorana, with every sale tariffed by the General Council.
A nod from Lord Varen had Mage Folet rejoining her companions. Then, at another nod, the youngest councillor stepped forward. Brahn Sorvold might have succumbed to his own arrogant ambition, but it seemed his final achievement would still be honoured.
Tall and pleasingly lithe, his golden hair pleated away from a hawkishly handsome face, the councillor lifted one graceful, beringed hand. Seeing him properly, Barl blinked.
With careless authority the councillor summoned to himself the items required for dead Mage Sorvold’s incant. Looking past his striking appearance, she saw that just like every First Family mage she’d ever encountered there was a haughty arrogance to the man.
But despite the knot of old, cold anger tangled in her chest, she couldn’t help admiring the way his long fingers danced their way through a complicated sequence of sigils. The way his molasses voice caressed the incant’s syllables. The gleam of unbridled pleasure in his piercing blue eyes as he caused first unrefined gold, then silver, to melt into crude, formless liquids. The councillor smiled to see their destruction, smiled wider still as his audience gasped and groaned. Barl bit her lip, staring.
There’s so much power in him. Can’t anyone else feel it? Is the whole world made of straw, that no-one else feels it?
His seamed face impassive, Lord Varen was watching with no more anxiety than if he waited for a kettle to boil. Surely he must feel the beautiful mage’s power. But if he did, he gave no outward hint.
Remmie could feel it. There was tension in the back of his neck, in the way his hands were thrust deep in his pockets. The corners of his mouth were tucked deep, betraying his unease. Barl frowned.
Don’t be a fool, Remmie. Power should be embraced, not feared.
The powerful mage on the dais held the glass vial of liquid gold in his left hand, the vial of silver in his right. Steadily he emptied them into the shallow glass bowl he’d summoned and set before him on a conjured stand. Hot metal kissed hot metal, hissing, breathing out pungent steam. Finished, he tossed the vials into nothingness then spread his arms wide and drew fresh sigils to left and right, so swiftly she couldn’t keep track of their shapes. The air sizzled and smoked, bright jewel colours blinding.
Not a sound in the plaza. Even the children were struck dumb.
With a joy that was almost like laughter, the councillor sang out the syllables of dead Sorvold’s incant. They ignited the shimmering air and set the melted gold and silver in the glass bowl to wild swirling. Round and round they whirled, melding and muddling into one gleaming silver-gold mass.
The councillor clapped his hands sharply. Whispered a single word under his breath. His fingers traced two final sigils. Barl felt the pull of them, felt the punch through her ribcage and the burn in her blood. Her heart leapt as she was trapped in the power of the incant, the power of raw power, the glory of great work. She nearly cried her heartache aloud.
Me. Me. That should be me.
Now the councillor was muttering more swift syllables. The newly melded precious metals rose in a slender column, as lithe and elegant as the mage who created it. Like a weaver with his spindle he coaxed the blended gold and silver higher, then higher still, his planed and angled face alight with pleasure. The column caught the sunlight and blazed fire. Around the plaza, mages broke into fresh applause. Children squealed.
Barl closed her eyes, fighting tears.
Me. Me. That should be me.
When she could bear to lift her eyelids, she saw the glorious silver-gold column suspended in the air, caught fast in a web of magic. It looked like a frozen flame, a captured sunspark.
It looked like magic brought to life.
The councillor raised his right hand, fingers clenched to a fist… and Barl knew, she knew, what he was going to do.
An unmaking? With no safeguards? You can’t be so rash!
“Ri’ga!” commanded the councillor. “Ba’vek!”
She gasped as the unmaking incant punched through her. Beside her Remmie flinched, feeling it just as keenly, but he ignored his own pain to care for Batava’s frightened children. So did Barton. Every mage in the plaza was distressed to some degree. Unmaking incants of that strength were restricted, their use almost never approved. Too much could go wrong with them. And this one was brutal. Why would the Council countenance its use when—
And then Barl turned back to the magic-melded gold and silver column… and saw exactly why.
“Remmie,” she whispered, reaching for him. “Look.”
Distracted by upset children, he started to scold her for bothering him. But Barton Haye choked and pointed, forestalling him. And then the plaza was full of pointing, gasping mages.
“That’s not possible,” said Remmie. “Is it?”
The powerful unmaking incant had failed.
“It was once,” she breathed. “But not any more.”
Somehow, incredibly, Brahn Sorvold had created a fusing incant that could not be destroyed.
With a careless snap of his fingers, the councillor vanished the unharmed gold and silver column, then returned to his fellow councillors. Lord Varen stepped forward, hands raised, and waited for the excitement in the plaza to subside.
“The Council of Mages thanks you for attending this Winsun demonstration. And, in memory of Mage Sorvold, opens the Hall of Knowledge to public enjoyment for the next three hours.”
“Did you hear that?” Barton demanded of Batava’s pupils. “What an honour. The Hall is hardly ever open to the public.”
As the children set up a clamour, Barl frowned at Remmie. “So we’re to feel grateful? When magic is a birthright belonging to all Doranen, and the Hall of Knowledge is—”
“Please, Barl,” her brother sighed. “Don’t spoil this for the children.”
She felt her eyes sting. I knew this was a mistake. I knew I shouldn’t have come. “Fine. I’ll not say another word.”
And she didn’t. Not while she loitered behind her brother and Barton and their goggling pupils as they shuffled their way through the Hall of Knowledge, into its lofty workrooms and hushed libraries, up its majestically spiralling staircases and along its wide corridors lined with glorious stained-glass windows. Not while they crowded onto its broad balconies and squealed to see sun-kissed Elvado spread far and wide below them. Instead she feasted her hungry gaze on every locked door and barred passageway. Stared after the Hall’s resident mages, who threaded their purposeful way through the crowding gawkers and whose shuttered gazes hinted at magics held aloof from those deemed unworthy of their grace. Closed her eyes and breathed in the Hall’s power, felt it chime through her, making promises it could not keep.
Heartsick, she folded her arms so tight her ribs threatened to break.
I deserve to be here. This wondrous city should be my home.
Not wanting to waste a rare opportunity, after the Hall was again closed to public scrutiny Remmie and Barton let their pupils explore the plaza’s surrounding streets, keeping them in Elvado as late as they dared. By the time they finally returned to Batava’s schoolhouse and saw the weary children into the keeping of their parents, the late afternoon was fast surrendering to dusk.
“Is something wrong?” said Remmie. “You’ve not said a word for hours.”
Walking beside him back to their cottage, Barl shrugged. “You’re the one who told me to be quiet.”
“True. But I only meant—”
“I know what you meant.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to toss that coin for Mama and Pa.”
“I’m not,” she said. “It’s a private matter. As if I’d want Barton Haye gawking.”
Remmie sighed. “I knew you were cross.”
“I’m not cross! I’m thinking.”
“Barl.” Remmie’s fingers caught her elbow, tugging her to a halt. “I know that look, too. What are you plotting?”
She winced at the scarcely muffled despair in his voice. “Nothing you need worry about.”
Even in the dim, dusking light, though no anger showed in his narrow face or gentle eyes she could tell he was angered by her reply.
“I mean it, Remmie,” she insisted. “What I choose to do doesn’t change anything for you.”
He shook his head. “That’s not true and you know it. How can I be happy when you aren’t? Barl, you promised, and now—”
“I promised I’d not drag you with me, and I won’t!” she said, struggling not to shout. “The truth is I never have done. Following me has always been your idea. Admit it.”
“Don’t change the subject,” he muttered. “We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about how you won’t—you never—” He shook his head, torn between frustration and bafflement. “Why can’t you stay satisfied for more than five minutes? I thought you liked making clocks.”
“I like it well enough,” she said, shrugging again. “But I want more than clocks.”
“And you’ll have more, won’t you? With Lady Grie as your patron, you’ll have—”
Remmie wasn’t a nubbin, he was just being contrary. “With Lady Grie as my patron I’ll do what Lady Grie wants. It won’t be about what I want.” Defiant, she stared at her brother. “And I want Elvado.”
“Oh, Barl.” Turning away, Remmie took hold of his long, ribbon-threaded braid and tugged. “I thought you’d abandoned that idea.”
“I did,” she said, glowering. “But now I’ve come to my senses.”
He rounded on her. “No, you’ve lost your senses. The College of Mages is out of your reach.”
She stamped her foot, as though they were both five again. “Says who? Remmie, three hundred years ago only First Family members were allowed to be mages. Would that have changed if someone like me had given up her dream as hopeless?”
“I’m not saying it’s fair,” said Remmie. “There’s no just reason for you to be kept from studying in Elvado.”
“No, and no hard-and-fast written rule, either. Under the College’s code, Remmie, which I’ve studied back to front and sideways, I have every right to be admitted as a student there.”
“I know,” he said, his voice tight with frustration. “But Dorana is governed by unwritten rules too. Like it or not, Barl, First Families make the important decisions and that means no unranked mage will ever be recognised as worthy of a College place.”
She could hate him for being so easily cowed. “Remmie, you know my gifts. They’re your gifts too, if only you’d stretch yourself to use them. I am worthy of College acceptance. And if I have to shout until every stained-glass window in Elvado shatters, the mages who gatekeep the College will hear me. There’s greatness in me and I won’t let them ignore it.”
“There’s something in you. And all I can say for certain is it’s not modesty.” He turned away again, fingers linked around the back of his neck. “Barl, I wish you’d think about this.”
“I have. I’m going to petition the College to reconsider my application. I’ve got more experience now. Nearly three years worth.”
Remmie glared at her over his shoulder. “If you had ten years more experience, it still wouldn’t matter. You were foolish to apply the first time, and you’ll be just as foolish to apply again.”
He wasn’t going to talk her out of it. “So you say.”
“And I’m right. You’re being hopelessly naïve, Barl. This is all moonbeams and dreamdust. And when you’re turned down again? How long before you let the disappointment goad you into some foolish loss of temper? How long before you’re dismissed from the artisanry and we’re homeless again and traipsing from district to district in search of work you’ll accept?”
Guilt-struck, resentful, she stared at her brother. “You’re so sure they’ll reject me.”
Instead of answering, he scuffed his booted toe through the lush grass verging Crackbone Lane. Then he sighed.
“I’m sorry, Barl. I just don’t want you hurt.”
“I won’t be.”
Remmie frowned, his eyes chilling. “In other words, you’ll do what you want, like always. Fine. Write to the College. Ask them to admit you. But when your heart’s broken for good this time, Barl, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
No,” said the old man, querulous, his voice a disgruntled wheeze. “Morgan, what is this nonsense? Are you fevered? Are you deaf? The energies as they exist, as you have combined them, are not compatible. They must be balanced counterclockwise, else the sigils, once confirmed, will not support the connecting incantation.”
Morgan looked down so his father wouldn’t see how close he was to saying something unwise. A cutting retort danced on his tongue. The need to lash out, to remind his father he was a man, not a boy to be commanded or treated like an ignorant student, was almost overpowering.
But he stayed silent. There’d be no profit in indulging his sorely tried temper. Hold tongue and endure: this was his life now and had been, almost without respite, for the past stifling eleven weeks. How much longer it would last he could not tell, nor could his father’s pother advise. Since his heart seizure, and the attack of palsy that followed it, Lord Danfey’s health had been gravely uncertain. His faculties were like a tide now at ebb, now on the rise, and while relieving his own feelings with an acidic retort might briefly satisfy, such self-indulgence would end only in estrangement… or worse.
“Well?” his father demanded. “Do you understand what I am telling you, or must we return to the schoolroom so I might refresh your memory on the basics of sigil creation?”
“No, my lord,” he said, and clasped his betraying hands behind his back. “I need no reminding. But if I might be permitted to explain—”
“What?” His father glared. “School me, would you? When I was creating sigils at half your age?”
“No, my lord. Of course not. But I fear I have not made clear my—”
“School and condescend to me! And this is the conduct of a dutiful son, is it?”
Morgan stared at his experiment. Cupped in their crucibles, the three barely coalesced sigils he struggled to confirm glittered in the intermittent sunlight shafting through his attic workroom’s plain round window. He could feel the latent power in them, feel the warp and weft of competing energies alternate hot then cold against his skin. The sigils would collapse soon, undone by the fragility of their incomplete creation.
And I will lose near a whole month’s work, see Dorana creep closer to danger, for no other reason than a sick old man’s pique.
He looked up. “My lord, if you would hear me out?”
That same intermittent sunlight played across his father’s sunken, sallow cheeks and for a moment bleached the shadows beneath his bloodshot eyes. His drooping left eyelid twitched, an echo of past trouble. Perhaps a harbinger of more trouble to come. But to suggest as much would provoke a storm of abuse.
“Do I hear you aright?” said his father, derisive. “You’ll stand there and tell me, in the face of all accepted practice, that a clockwise balancing must be pursued?”
“In this instance, yes,” he replied. “Since I am attempting to reconfigure a basic transmutation incant I must redistribute the energies antithetically, or risk—”
“Risk blowing the roof off this mansion!” his father shouted. A thread of spittle glistened on his too-pale lips. “And you cannot expect me to remain sanguine about that.”
“I admit the incant is volatile,” he said, choosing his words with continued care. “But worthwhile, I am convinced.”
His father grimaced. “Worthwhile for what purpose? Do you say there is a sudden, overwhelming need for a new transmutation incant? No matter of urgency has reached my ears and reach me it would, though I am ridiculously confined to this estate.”
“My lord…” Morgan swallowed a groan. Why must you turn this into an argument? Would you have me bar you from my work? “There is no immediate crisis, it’s true, but—”
“But you will not accept constraint.” Pinching the bridge of his beakish nose, a familiar gesture of goaded self-control, his father breathed out hard. “And so we come to it. This new incantation, is it commissioned by the Council?”
Telling his father a point-blank lie was out of the question. “No.”
“Sanctioned, at least?”
Heart seizure and palsy had left his father weakened, but still he managed to stamp about the attic with his fingers fisted. “Morgan, what are you thinking? There are prohibitions.”
“That do not apply to me,” he pointed out. “As a member of the Council, I—”
“Its junior member!” his father said, turning. “And newly seated. Do not let being chosen to demonstrate Sorvold’s confounded incant go to your head! If Brice Varen should learn of your experimenting I cannot imagine he will salute your daring. Rather he’ll wonder if the Council’s choice of you to replace Andwin Bellem was rash.”
“That is your opinion, my lord,” he said, unable to keep the stiff offence from his tone. “I choose to see the matter differently.”
“Yes, of course you do,” his father muttered. “And so leave me wondering if it’s any great surprise I am plagued by pothers when you persist in such reckless pursuits.”
With a sigh of released energies, the crucible-cradled sigils on the cluttered workbench collapsed in a flare of blue light.
“There!” said his father, triumphant. “You see? They did not hold, Morgan, and it was folly to dream they would. As my son, you should know better. As your father I expect better. You are a Danfey. There are standards to maintain.”
Making sure to hide his dismay, and his resentment at being held accountable for his father’s ill health, Morgan looked away from the emptied crucibles with their faint blue smears of dissipated energy.
“Forgive me,” he said, his throat tight. “I intended to please, not disappoint.”
With halting, shuffled steps and a rustle of silk tunic, his father came close and tapped a finger to his cheek. “Perfect your magecraft within the bounds of law and I will be pleased.”
A fresh prickle of resentment. “The law must bend itself to the weakest amongst us, not taking into account the strengths of greater mages.”
“Mages such as yourself?”
“Yes!” Morgan waved his hand across the emptied crucibles. “My lord, the choice is plain. Either we remain mired in the familiar, dooming ourselves to stagnation, or we accept the challenge of the unfamiliar and push ourselves to greater heights.”
Heights that will save us when the need arises.
“Morgan—” His father pinched the bridge of his nose again. “Brahn Sorvold thought like that.”
“I am not Brahn Sorvold!” he snapped, then took a deep breath to subdue his own temper. “My lord, I know what I’m doing.”
“As do I!” said his father. “You tempt fate.”
“No, my lord. I simply encourage it to smile on me. I am a councillor, it’s true, but the Danfey name can rise higher.”
“And it can fall,” his father retorted. “Or be pushed, by those who do not relish your achievements. By mages who wait in the shadows for the chance to see you eclipsed.”
He shook his head. “Small mages, my lord. Jealous and spiteful. As a Danfey should I fear them?”
“As a Danfey you should fear nothing,” said his father, with all the strength left to him. “But prudence is a survival trait, Morgan, not a fault. Dorana’s mages are bound by rules for good reason. Magework kills the careless without compunction! And a father should not be asked to bury his only son.”
He had to harden his heart against the pain in his father’s voice. But even as he felt that echo of distress, he felt a fresh wash of resentment drown it.
Perhaps not, my lord. But should an only son be held prisoner by his father’s unfounded fears?
And they were unfounded. Magework might well be dangerous, but he was not that overpraised sot Brahn Sorvold. Besides, success and timidity could not leap to achievement’s summit hand in hand. His father should know that it was unjust of him, to demand in one breath that he bring honour to the Danfey name, then in the next berate him for being too bold.
“Morgan…” Lord Danfey’s clawed left hand gestured at the roomy attic. “Why do you lock yourself away in here for days on end, in pursuit of new incants, when those you’ve already perfected still await Council ratification? You wish to impress me? Get your patents and you can be sure, I will be impressed!”
“I assure you, my lord,” he said, wincing, “I have done all within my power on that score. Now I must wait. And in the meantime—”
“Yes, Morgan, I know! In the meantime you are determined to pursue these new incantations, these—these experiments of yours—to whatever end awaits you. A father’s broken heart is no counterweight to your ambition.”
And that was a monstrously unfair thing to say.
“My lord, you wrong me. Did I care for you as little as you seem to think, would I have remained on this estate these past weeks of your confinement? Would I have abandoned the Council duties so recently placed upon me, risking censure? Risking worse?”
His father plucked a kerchief from his sleeve and dabbed his loosened lips dry of spittle. “No.”
“Indeed, no. And you’re peevish to say otherwise.”
“Peevish?” His father’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a word for a dutiful son to use against his father, is it?”
Of course not, but of a sudden he was in a mood to be contrary. “It is when a dutiful son is smarting.”
Instead of answering that, his father picked up the nearest emptied crucible and trailed a fingertip through its blue smear of wasted power. After a long silence, he put it down and frowned at his stained skin.
“Why do you want to create a new transmutation incant, Morgan?”
He answered readily, but not entirely honestly. He had to. Presented with the whole truth, Greve Danfey would mock and scold.
“To see if I can.”
“To see if you can,” his father murmured, looking up. Not even the after effects of recent illness could dull the sharpness of his regard. “And what manner of difference would it make, did you succeed?”
It wasn’t only mockery and criticism that concerned him. His father was weakened, wandering in purpose, and might easily betray a confidence. That would likely see him ruined.
“I don’t know, my lord. I won’t, until I’ve succeeded.”
And I will succeed, you may be sure of that.
Harsh glare softening, his father wiped his finger free of blue residue then tucked the stained kerchief back into his sleeve. “Even as a child, Morgan, you were never satisfied. You were born hungry, not for the wetnurse’s milk but for every experience to be wrung from the world.”
He couldn’t fathom if that was compliment or complaint. Wary, he made sure to remain dutifully deferential.
“Do you say that is a fault, my lord?”
“I say what I said before,” his father replied. “A prudent man is not to be despised. You may run to your destination, or you may walk. Running is faster but in walking one has time to see the journey’s pitfalls. To notice those traps laid for the unwary.”
Morgan hid his growing irritation behind a smile. “True. But will you accuse me of arrogance if I say I can avoid pitfalls and leap traps as I run?”
“Accuse?” His father laughed, the sound slurred with weariness. “No. To accuse implies the chance of innocence. In this case I must declare it, for you are guilty through and through.”
“And is that a fault?”
Another slurred laugh. “Show me a modest mage and I’ll show you a charlatan. Arrogance a fault? Never. Without arrogance no mage would cast his first incantation.”
“And yet you are displeased with me.”
“Not for this,” his father said, jerking his chin at the workbench and the stained crucibles. “Though I do question your flouting of the rules. No, your magework could never displease me, Morgan. But it can frighten me. It does frighten me.”
“My lord—” He stepped closer. “There is nothing to fear. My skills are more than equal to this small task.”
His father raised an eyebrow. “Or so you believe.”
“My lord, belief implies uncertainty. I have no doubts.”
“And perhaps I would be less frightened if you did.”
With an effort Morgan kept himself relaxed. This is his weakness talking. He has grown an old man before my eyes. “If you are unsettled, my lord, I suspect there is more than magework to blame. It is past time we sat down to luncheon. Ranmer was most particular that you pay close attention to your belly.”
“My belly is my business,” his father said, scowling. “None of yours, nor of any meddling pother.”
“Meddling Ranmer saved your life, my lord. We would both be well-served did you not forget that.”
His father grunted, not liking the reproof but knowing better than to contradict bald fact.
“Besides,” he added, coaxing, “if your private belly is not growling, mine is. And I would not sit at the table in solitary splendour. Shall we adjourn to the dining room?”
He braced himself for a tart reply, but instead his father looked around the attic workroom. “You are a fine mage, Morgan. I expect you will achieve feats no other mage in our history has even dreamed of attempting. But you would do well not to dismiss my call for caution as the ramblings of a decrepit.”
“My lord, I do not,” he said, prepared to tell that one lie. “Your advice is always welcome.”
His father sniffed. “But rarely heeded.”
And there was the tartness he’d been expecting. Best sweeten the old man before their relationship soured entirely. “If you’re in the mood for dispensing advice, my lord, I would appreciate your wisdom regarding my work here. After luncheon, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” said his father, grudging. Pretending indifference, though the gleam of pleasure in his eye said otherwise. “If you are determined to chart this course.”
“I am,” he said, pretending apology. “I must, if I would stay true to myself as a man and a mage.”
“Yes,” his father said, with a heavy sigh. “That would be the crux of it… and on that head I cannot complain.”
So in better accord they made their way downstairs to the dining room, where servants brought them their delayed midday repast. Scarcely tasting his own meal of cold chicken and dressed greens, from the corner of his eye Morgan watched his father’s half-hearted attempt to empty his bowl. Watched the old man’s shaking hand spill the soup from his spoon onto the tablecloth and down the broad napkin tucked into his padded brocade tunic.
It was a painful sight but he could not spare himself, no matter how much he might wish to or how deeply he ached for even a single day’s respite. He could not hand his father’s care to another. Lord Danfey’s dignity would not permit it. And in truth, neither would his own. Pother Ranmer he could trust never to speak of his father’s weakened condition, the occasional instability of intellect, but no other man or woman than that.
It wasn’t only a question of dignity. Greve Danfey had enemies, and his plight could be—would be—used against him, to hurt him and his son. Only a fool handed an adversary a weapon.
And of all the things I am, a fool is not amongst them.
With an exclamation of disgust his father let the spoon drop, plucked the napkin free and hurled it to the floor, then slumped in dour, frustrated silence. Knowing that to speak now would do no good, Morgan finished his own meal, drained his goblet of wine, dabbed his lips clean and pushed his emptied plate away. Only then did he look to his morose father.
The unconsumed pea and ham soup was growing cold, a thin skin congealing across its porridgy green surface. Already today Lord Danfey had refused his breakfast. He could not be permitted to refuse luncheon as well, for beneath his padded tunic he was close to skin and bone. So if he must once again be fed like a babe, so be it. No loving son could sit idly by as his father willfully starved.
“Perhaps one more mouthful, my lord,” he murmured, picking up the spoon and dipping it into the bowl. “So I can make a good report to Pother Ranmer when next he visits.”
With a feeble wave of one hand his father sent bowl and spoon flying across the chamber. The heavily aromatic soup splashed tablecloth, wall, floor and Feenish rug indiscriminately, painting Lord Danfey’s displeasure wide for all Dorana to see.
“My lord…” Morgan frowned at his pea-stained sleeve. “You must eat.”
His father sneered. “I’d eat if those cursed servants brought me food. That’s not food. It’s slop.”
“By the scales of justice!” his father bellowed. “Do not prate to me of pothers! Do not task me with soup! Do not—do not—” He broke off, gasping, the stubborn phlegm curdling noisily in his chest. One frail fist beat at his breastbone, forcing more angry words into his throat. “You say you regret displeasing me, Morgan, yet what do you do but find ways to salt my wounds? You look to feed me as though I was an infant, you dismiss my concerns about your magework, and you refuse to pay attention to your single most pressing duty.”
Stung by the attack, Morgan sat back in his chair. He lashes out because he’s shamed. Because he cannot reconcile himself to what he’s become. But understanding why his father railed at him didn’t mean he wasn’t hurt.
“My lord, you speak in riddles. I have shirked no duty.”
“No?” His father stabbed at the dining room’s frescoed ceiling with one pointed finger. “Then instead of locking yourself away in that attic of yours, experimenting, why are you not busy finding yourself a wife? How little you must truly care for the Danfey name and legacy, to leave me languishing with no hope of our future! Are you so eager to call this mansion and my title your own that you’d seek to kill me with despair?”
Jaw tight, temper freshly woken, Morgan summoned his will and whispered an incant. The soup stain on his sleeve vanished. With another harshly breathed incant he translocated soup bowl and spoon to the kitchens. That left the stains on tablecloth, wall, floor and Feenish rug. He raised a hand to banish them, but his father snatched at his forearm.
“Leave be!” he said, savage. “Am I a tit-sucking babe, that I can’t attend to my own mess?”
Morgan folded his hands on the dining table. It was a matter of pride that they did not clench to show white knuckles.
“No, my lord.”
“No,” his father echoed, bitter. “Then keep your incants to yourself.”
Greve Danfey had never been a robust man. In his childhood there were fevers. His prime had lasted but four years and after that had come a slow descent into bouts of haggard ill-health. For many years he’d managed to keep his weakness at bay, but no longer. Twice in the past year he’d flirted with dying and twice Ranmer had pulled him back from the brink. Morgan was loath to admit it, but the truth could no longer be denied: a third reprieve seemed unlikely.
Watching his father sweat over a simple cleansing incant hurt him in ways the shouted, intemperate words never could.
“There,” his father said at last, rheumy, tear-filled eyes defiant. “You see? I’m not dead yet.”
He forced a smile. “I know you’re not, my lord.”
“My lord.” Glowering, his father blotted his forehead dry of sweat with the napkin. “A lip-service respect. That’s all you have for me.”
And that hurt, too. “No, my lord. You have from me all the honour due to you.”
“It is so,” his father said, stubbled chin trembling. “One son, I have. One son.” He was staring through the chamber’s windows now, communing with the clouds and the afternoon sun dipping in and out between them. “And in him resides all hope for our proud family. But will he marry? Will he sire a son who’ll carry the Danfey name stitched to a broad and alabaster brow? He will not. He dallies with incants nobody needs, instead of with a woman.”
Morgan slid from the chair to the floor beside his father, bruising his knees even though there was a rug beneath them. “Please, my lord. You mustn’t distress yourself. We can talk of my marriage another time. For now, bend your thoughts toward regaining your strength. How many more days do you want to spend prisoned within this mansion? You must eat, you must rest, you mustn’t fret yourself with my future.”
“Your future?” His father snatched up the crumpled napkin and threw it in his face. “Have a care for your future, should I? When you care naught for the Danfey legacy?”
He was a fool to persist, but the injustice here was untenable. “How can you accuse me of not caring? Am I not the first Danfey to earn a seat on the Council of Mages?”
His father flinched at the question. Appointment to the Council had been Greve Danfey’s ambition, denied him due to a misstep in his youth. Never reconciled to the blunder, he was both proud and resentful of his son’s success.
He’ll not admit it, but I’ve surpassed him. Therein lies the seed of all his caution and rancour. And were he not my father I would rip out his meanness by its roots.
“My lord?” he persisted. “Have I not honoured you with that?”
“Yes, and I’ve already praised you for it,” his father muttered. “Don’t look for me to repeat myself. Besides, it would be of more use if you’d barter the honour into a taking of marriage vows. Perhaps I’d live longer if I had before me the timely prospect of your heir.”
Morgan bit his lip. Unkindness piled upon unkindness, and no way to portion all blame to his father’s poor health. This was an old wound rubbed to new rawness by recent events.
“My lord, I but learn the lessons you would teach,” he said, goaded enough to indulge in a little unkindness of his own. “Fathers with eligible daughters do not care to be flattered into submission. Nor are they vulnerable to the demands of a man so lately come into Council prominence. Given past Danfey indiscretions, a touch of circumspection cannot go astray.”
Another flinch as his father noted the barb. “And too much circumspection can run you to ground. In learning from my mistake, best you not make one all your own.”
“Morgan,” said his father, fastening thin fingers to his shoulder. “You are thirty-six, unmarried, and you have no son. Yet here you kneel claiming you respect me. What am I to make of that, when words and deeds stand so far apart?”
The grip on his shoulder was painful, but he made no attempt to shrug his father’s hand free. If Greve Danfey chose to see his only child’s unwed, childless state as a mark of disrespect then what could he say to the complaint? The only answer to satisfy was a wife with a belly full of grandson.
“Morgan, Morgan…” With a sigh, his father released his shoulder and patted his cheek instead. “The girl died fourteen years ago. Will you mourn me as long?”
Luzena, his youthful passion. Eternally preserved in a stone coffin, her beauty arrested out of time. A flower he’d been too reverent to pluck before she was formally his to touch. He’d loved her, brutally. Her death had marred him. His father was cruel to beat him with her memory, but there was no use saying so. In this instance Greve Danfey was the one who’d been ill-used… or so the old man felt.
“Don’t speak of mourning, my lord. Such talk is nonsense.”
“Another insult,” his father said, sour as stale milk. “You’re in fine fettle today, Morgan. But you’re wrong and I’m right and I think I’d rather you smothered me in my sleep and had done with it. A slow death by disappointment is little to my taste.”
At times like this love was hard to find. “If I answered that charge as it deserved, my lord, then you would have cause to accuse me of disrespect.”
A flicker of shame in the old man’s eyes, quickly extinguished. “If you’re so shy of facing facts then it could be I’m mistaken and you’re not fit for marriage.”
“And it profits us how, my lord, to bandy words of your dying?” Morgan retorted, uncoiling to his feet. “You might chafe me with this carping on marriage and sons but the fault isn’t so great that I’d repay it by describing your funeral long before you’ve drawn your last breath!”
“Carping?” His father slapped the table. “What right have you to throw such a word in my face?”
“And what right have you, my lord, to call into question my duty to you and this family? There is time for me to sire a son. I am not a dying old man!”
“So you admit my decline at last.” His father smiled, revealing loosened teeth and pale gums pinpricked with blood. “That’s progress, of a sort.”
Pained by the words, by his father’s grotesque physical decline, Morgan retreated to the dining room’s wide windows and stared across his family’s estate toward distant, sun-glittered Elvado.
“Why are we wasting precious time with harsh words?” he said at last. “Have I ever said I wouldn’t marry? Have I ever said I would let this family die when I die?”
“No,” his father admitted. “But Morgan, who knows better than you that life is unpredictable? If it weren’t you’d be a husband with sons enough to carry their grandfather’s body in solemn procession to the family crypt.”
“Yes, my lord. I would,” he said, and thought he heard the ghost of Luzena’s sweet laughter. “But I had a wake, not a wedding. How unnatural a man your son would be if he did not grieve the loss of his unconsummated bride.”
“Grieving for one year is natural. Grieving for fourteen is unbecoming. Morgan, it’s unmanly. And yes, it is disrespectful to me. It is past time that you chose another bride.”
He turned away from the window. “You think because I don’t speak of this that I’ve given it no thought. You’re wrong. But the plain fact is, my affections are not engaged. You’d have me court an eligible young woman with false coin?”
“Affections are like the moon!” said his father. “They wax and they wane. You fancied yourself in love with Luzena Talth and perhaps you were, greenly. But had she lived you might well despise her today. It happens. Affections have no place in this business. When you choose a wife you do not ask Do I love this girl? You ask Is she born of a First Family? Can her bloodline strengthen our own? Has she enough to recommend her that I’ll stiffen when it’s needful she be planted with my son? Those are the questions you must ask. Tell me that love answers any of them and then I’ll listen to talk of affections.”
Morgan stared at his father. As well as stripping his flesh, illness had caused much of the old man’s hair to shed, leaving him bald in spreading patches. His scalp was scaled and oozing, the rot defying Ranmer’s many ointments. Even so, he’d refused to have his remaining hair clipped close. As though surrendering to the scissors was the same as surrendering to death.
“Did you ever love my mother?” he said, almost whispering.
“She stiffened me. It amounts to the same thing.”
He continued to stare, torn between revulsion and fascination.
I loved my mother. I loved Luzena. I do not count that as a weakness. Did I never see this in you before, this cool, cruel detachment?
No. Because not even one day in his life was he given cause to doubt his father’s fervent love for him.
And if you can love me, how could you not love the woman who birthed me?
“You never remarried,” he said, cautious. “I would ask you why not.”
His father shrugged. “I had no need of a second wife. I had you.”
There was flattery in that, even though he was still disconcerted. “And if I, like Luzena, had died untimely?”
“If that had happened I would have found another woman to bear me another son,” said his father. And then he frowned. “Morgan, enough. You are years too old for giddy romanticism. Breeding the next generation of mages is a serious matter. Perhaps with Luzena you could indulge whimsy, but that time is gone. Let me speak plain: I want your word given to me, here and now, that aside from your Council duties your only concern will be the finding of your unborn son’s mother.”
Before he could stop himself, his gaze flicked up as though it could penetrate every chamber between this dining room and his attic workroom.
“Your experiments?” With a grunting effort, his father levered himself to standing. “Morgan, I forbid your experiments! Until I see you wed, and hard on your vow’s heels learn of a son in the woman’s belly, I tell you there will be no more magework in this house.”
“And I tell you there will be, my lord. When I was that green youth promised to Luzena then perhaps you could forbid me. But like Luzena, those days are long dead. You are my father and I honour you but do not presume to—”
“Presume?” Fresh spittle flecked his father’s blanched lips. “When I house you? Feed you? If there is presumption to speak of, Morgan, of a surety it is yours.”
“And there’s a calumny, my lord,” he retorted. “When I stay because you beg me not to leave, because you will not hear of me finding rooms in Elvado, when I stay because—”
“Because this is your home!” said his father, and thudded back into his chair. “Where else would you live?”
Heart pounding, Morgan glared at him. “I would live where no man thinks to forbid me my life’s work.”
“Morgan… Morgan…” His father clasped trembling hands, each breath a wet whistling in and out of his soft lungs. His eyes were teary again. “I spoke hastily.”
“My lord, you spoke from your heart.”
“Hastily and from my heart, yes,” his father admitted. “I would not deny you your life’s work, Morgan. Therein lies Danfey glory. But in pursuing it, would you deny me your heir?”
How can I deny him anything when he looks so pale and poorly?
“Of course not.”
“Then let us not quarrel,” his father said, beseeching. “Let us instead make our own vows. You will choose yourself a wife before the leaves fall, and I will not plague you about antithetical incantations.”
He returned to the dinner table. “Almost, but not quite. I will choose a wife, and you will aid me with my antithetical incantations. My lord, this quarrel started because I asked you to be my second set of eyes. Let us end it with you helping me put a finger on where my reworking of the transmutation sigils went awry.”
His father coughed, trying to hide his feelings. “You would trust me so far?”
“My lord…” Morgan kissed his father’s forehead. “Talk nonsense like that and you’ll have us quarrelling again.”
“No, no,” said his father hastily. “That’s behind us. Come. You can show me these newfangled sigils from the beginning.”
“Now? Perhaps now is too soon. Perhaps you should rest, then—”
“Talk nonsense like that and you’ll have us quarrelling again,” said his father, mock-scolding this time. “Enough, Morgan. I am not dying quite yet. Let us return to your attic and do magework together.”
Excerpted from A Blight of Mages by Miller, Karen Copyright © 2011 by Miller, Karen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Dorana, centuries before the Mage War, Barl Linden has incredible talent but is refused advanced training as a student mage by the Council of Mages. She knows her social status prevents her from proper instruction as the Council of Mages limits who is acceptable based on family. Due to his powerful autocratic father, Morgan Danfey is the youngest mage ever appointed to sit on the Council. He feels a horrific danger will assault Dorana, but since he lacks specificity his warnings are ignored as youthful inanity. Mages like his father insist they can handle any threat. Fearful and desperate he begins to study the forbidden magic that he concludes is the only hope against what he vaguely foresees coming. When Morgan and Barl meet, each recognizes much in common with the other. They share great magical skill; a belief the rules are too restrictive; and a forbidden attraction. This is a well written super fantasy that focuses predominantly on the initial meetings between Morgan and Barl prior to their heroics in the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology. The story line is fast-paced and loaded with action, but driven by the lead couple though there is much more. However, for fans of the saga, A Blight of Mages lacks some of the levels of suspense of the other Mages thrillers because we know what is to come after the events of this prequel. Still in spite of knowing the future, readers will appreciate the salad days of the dynamic duo as Karen Miller affirms her incredible fantasist writing skills with an exciting tale. Harriet Klausner
This is the book that starts it all...must read.
starts out a bit slower than the rest of the series, but it doesn't disappoint, great prequel to the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series.
I loved this book. It answered so many questions from the mage duology. I would say that if you want to read the mage books then read this one first and then you will understand everything faster and not have any unaswered questions when you finish the duology.
Reviewed by Author Anna del C. Dye. for Readers Favorite This is a great book on tape that is not only entertaining, but also a well-done audiotape. The voice is pleasant to the ears, well-defined and enjoyable. This is a sequel to the 'Innocent Mages' series, which already has two books in it. I don’t know anything about them, except that the reviews are good. Barl is a special mage whose extraordinary powers are ready to burst out, yet no one pays attention to her because she is of lesser birth. She finds that her work as a clockmaker is a waste of her superior powers and insists on proving the university of mages wrong. Morgan Danfey, the youngest mage ever appointed to sit on the Council of the first blood, feels that a horrific danger will assault Dorana, his homeland. These warnings are strong enough to make him study the forbidden magic, even against his father and the council’s will. When Morgan and Barl meet, each recognizes many things in common with the other. Both their magical skill and their belief that the rules are too restrictive unite them. Then there is the forbidden attraction they have for each other. The story portrays lovable characters and an easy to follow story. The authors did a good job developing the characters in this book to make them the deep and strong characters used in the rest of this series. The plot isn’t the strongest I have seen. But it is just enough to whet your appetite for the other books in the series. It is good for late teen and adults alike.
This, the prequel to the excellent pair of duologies in the Kingmaker Kingbreaker universe is the story we've been waiting for, It is eminently readable on it's own, and I would suggest it as the entry point for the series. Set 600 years before the others, it deals with the romance between the mages of Barl and Morgan, and how it all went wrong. As ever, Karen's excellent characters drive a plot through a well imagined world.Barl is a young unranked mage working in a local Artisan's workshop making clocks. She knows she's better than this and capable of far greater magics, but her passions always run high and self-control is not one of her strengths. This surprisingly, doesn't effect her magical abilities, but does greatly effect her ability to get on with people. Fortunately for her, her brother Rennie is a source of much calm and restraint. Barl is forever getting over-excited, and causing harm, before returning home thoroughly apologetic and contrite - until the next time. Morgan is almost the reverse, although equally highly imbued with magical abilities, he is older, male the sole son of a querulous, ill, father and heir to a great estate. Morgan has great restraint and calm exterior, driven by his father to become one of the land's greatest mages - but also to marry settle down and provide a son for the family name to continue. Recently elected to the Council of Mages he finds these petty politics somewhat distracting from his great works. He is sure he can sense an impending disaster to the land, and only if he can just get these spells to work, will the land be saved. When Barl applies to the Council for permission to study at the Mage College, (something as an unranked mage she does not normally have the right to do - an injustice which seethes through her everyday), she meets Morgan, and power attracts power. Together they can work wonders.Those who've read the succeeding books, will know what comes next, but in some ways this spoils the tension and drama, and I feel this book will best be read as starting point, without that knowledge. Although the ending third is somewhat rushed, it does tie up all the plot points we come to expect with just a couple of minor exceptions. The immortality spell that Barl creates, is mentioned, and then seemingly forgotten throughout the rest of the text. Already a long book, there are a couple of big jumps in time and events which maybe could have done to have been more fully explored - creating a duology of prequels as in the rest of the series. Or else maybe less time could have been spent on some of the earlier scene/character setting. The Olken get particularly short shrift, although enough details are laid for the founding of the future books.The interplay between Barl and Morgan is superb, many great sparkles of dialogue, from the first anguished meetings tot he blossoming of romance, and then the sudden sour realisation that it has all gone wrong. Morgan is perhaps less well crafted than Barl, initially I had no problems but it is never fully explained why he feels so driven to protect the land, or why he suffers no doubts about his course of actions.Overall though his is yet another excellent offering from Karen Miller, something I feel every fantasy fan should read.
I have really enjoyed Karen Miller's other books, including Innocent Mage and the Awakened Mage; however, A Blight of Mages was just plain terrible. The dialog was drawn out, tedious and just boring. I skipped page after page and didn't miss a thing. It seemed like she was just trying to plump things up to make a fatter book. That was bad enough, but at least there was a good story going along.. until the last 150 pages or so. At that point the entire story shifted, went completely off track. She resorted to multiple pages of text in italics to yank the storyline away from the rest of the book, inserted it into a new place with a wholly new set of characters, introduced virtual superpowers to the heroine, and then ended it not with a conclusion, but with a period. Extremely disappointing. A waste of good reading time.
Dont reply to this. And if you do, I wont see it. Ever.