About the Author
Michael McClung was born and raised in Texas, but now kicks around Southeast Asia. He's been a soldier, a cook, a book store manager, and a bowling alley pin boy. He is the author of All the World a Grave, Music with Dancing, and the Amra Thetys series.
Read an Excerpt
The Thief Who Wasn't There
Amra Thetys #4
By Michael McClung
Ragnarok PublicationsCopyright © 2016 Michael McClung
All rights reserved.
"There's a bunch of soldiers downstairs," the boy, Keel, announced.
I ignored him. Insinuating my own intangible, extemporaneously fashioned command key into the Telemarch's wards was a finicky, delicate business. It was not unlike picking an imaginary lock with an imaginary set of picks, except the consequences of failure wouldn't be imaginary in the least.
It would have been impossible were the Telemarch still alive. It required intense concentration, and it wasn't the safest magic I'd ever attempted. But if I could co-opt the deadly cobweb of defenses the Telemarch had laced into the stones of the Citadel, I wouldn't have to worry about anybody interfering with or interrupting my true work.
The mesh of magic woven about and through the tower was so dense and multihued, it was difficult to see through it to the physical world when using my magesight. Thank the dead gods I didn't need two eyes to see in three dimensions while working with the Art. Gently, gently, I pushed with my will against the node I was virtually certain commanded the wards, and perhaps much more. If I was right, well and good. If I was wrong — well. Being wrong about it would not be healthy. The wards were deadly the way water is wet, with enough power hardened into them to last a generation. Enough power to punish a failure on my part in a spectacularly conclusive manner. Rarely had I ever seen anything like them in our magic-poor age.
I could have left them alone and set up my own wards, nearly as puissant as the Telemarch's, given time, though not so durable. I did not have time. Every day, every hour that passed might mean Amra's death. But the time for haste had passed, and all my hurrying over the past week hadn't brought her back.
"Uh, Magister Holgren?"
"Just call me Holgren," I told the boy, not for the first time. "And magister is a little old-fashioned and formal in any case. What do they want?"
"They wanted to see the Telemarch. I told them he'd karked it. Then they said they wanted to see whoever was living here now."
"How do they know anybody is living here now?" I said, not really paying attention. I'd almost got my key to be accepted by the Telemarch's wards. If it wasn't simply luring me into committing myself to doing something I'd regret. The Telemarch, from what I'd seen of his applications of the Art, had a nasty turn of mind. But the node I was trying to infiltrate was definitely the heart of the wards. If I could subvert it, it would give me mastery of the Citadel's defenses. How much more it would afford me access to, I didn't yet know. There were strands that ran deep into the mount, and there were other strands that spread out across the city itself. All of them were intriguing.
I realized Keel had been talking, and that I had no idea what he'd said.
"I said all the weird lights and stuff probably gave them a clue that the Citadel isn't empty."
Some of the spells I'd tried to locate Amra with had been rather flashy. Others had been incredibly loud. None of them had given me what I wanted.
"Magus? They said if you don't come down, they're going to come up."
With a mental and mostly imaginary click, the key finally punctured the disturbingly elastic membrane of the node and slotted perfectly, as far as I could sense, into the mesh of the Telemarch's commands. It was enough for now. Later I could explore just what I did and did not have access to, beyond the outer wards. For now, I had to deal with the locals.
They probably wanted their Citadel back. They weren't going to get it until I was finished. Messengers had come over the last few days, petitioning the Telemarch to take sides in the civil war that was burning sullenly through the city's streets. I'd given Keel instructions to ignore them. Soldiers, however, were a different matter.
I stood up, stretched, then with a swipe of my hand broke the circle of dust and blood I'd laid down for the work I'd just completed. Such things weren't strictly necessary, but I found they helped me to concentrate. I followed the boy downstairs to talk to the soldiers.
"What faction?" I asked him as we descended.
"Council. Steyner's men." Two of the Council of Three had survived the chaos, madness, magic and rioting that had engulfed Bellarius since the night of Amra's disappearance. Both of them believed they should be the next Syndic. The third faction, the Just Men, wanted to set up a democracy, Nine Cities-style. Or maybe something completely different. Keel's accounts varied, and my attention was less than complete. Apparently their leadership, and goals, were somewhat fluid at this point.
While I was rooting for the rebels in an abstract sort of way, I didn't have time for politics. The city of Bellarius and all the rest of Bellaria could have any style of government it wanted, or none at all, as far as I was concerned. Just so long as the various factions stayed out of my way and left me to my work.
"Uh, magus?" Keel said as we approached the main door.
"What is it, Keel?"
"Did you maybe want to put on your eye patch?"
"Ah. Yes. Thanks." I'd taken it off when I'd started work that morning. It was still new, and distracting. I hadn't wanted to be distracted. Well, no more distracted than losing an eye the week before made me. I pulled the thing out of my pocket and slipped it on.
"Maybe a little more to the right, magus," Keel commented. I gave him a glare. And adjusted it.
He nodded in satisfaction and opened the door. Gray, cheerless light dribbled in out of a gray, cheerless sky. Outside were twenty halberdiers in Steyner's maroon and yellow, their breaths pluming in the chill air. They were led by a captain in half-plate.
"You are the mage who has taken up residence here?" the captain asked, after looking me over.
"You are required to vacate the Citadel immediately, by order of Syndic-elect Gabul Steyner."
"That's not going to happen," I said.
"Then we will be forced to remove you."
"You'll be forced to try. I warn you, captain, it won't go well for you or your men." With a mental whisper I activated the Citadel's base wards, the primary layer of protections the Telemarch had built into the tower using the Art. The ones meant to repel physical threats.
The captain stepped to the side and ordered his men to enter and evict me. I stood inside the threshold and watched, arms folded. I was curious as to what the Telemarch had wrought. I knew this layer of wards' purpose, but not how it would be made manifest. I hadn't had the time to study the wards in detail, and no opportunity to experiment.
The first pair of halberdiers tried to enter, and were rebuffed, as if they had encountered an invisible wall. They tried again, with the same results.
"Hack at it," their captain told them.
"Oh, yes, do," I said. One of the halberdiers glared at me. The other wore an expression that suggested he wasn't getting paid enough. He stepped back to give his compatriot room to swing.
The first hauled back with his overgrown axe and brought it down with not-inconsiderable force on the doorway's invisible ward. The halberd was immediately ripped out of his hands. It flew, spinning and with impressive speed, out and away from the Citadel, the haft cracking the halberdier in the face along the way. The man fell down in a moaning, bleeding heap. The halberd fell somewhere in the Girdle. I hoped that it hadn't split somebody's head open. In any case, it would likely end up in the hands of the rebels, so all in all I was not unsatisfied with the outcome.
"Right then," I said to the captain. "If you're done wasting my time, I have work to do."
"The Citadel is the rightful possession of the ruler of Bellaria!" he said in a tone that verged on whining.
"Yes, well. When he or she shows up, perhaps I'll be more accommodating," I replied. "Meanwhile, if you bother me again, I'll turn you into a pink mist."
I closed the door in his flushed face.CHAPTER 2
I'd given up on any quick solution to the puzzle of Amra's disappearance after exhausting every reasonable approach to the problem that Greytooth and I could come up with. That wasted a week, but I had, at least, confirmed three things: that Amra wasn't dead, that the Telemarch definitely was, and that Amra was almost certainly nowhere in the world.
That left everything outside the world. Which was a very large area to search. Technically, it was an infinity. Multiple infinities. But at least I had her point of departure. And so too, in a sense, it had me. I was tied to the Citadel, or at least keeping the Citadel from anyone else, because of that room where Amra had disappeared.
There was a very real chance that I would need that room to bring her back. I didn't know how big a chance; I had no way to calculate the odds. But as I wasn't willing to gamble her life on needing it and not having access to it, the Citadel had to remain in my control.
It was unfortunate that the Citadel stood at the top of Mount Tarvus. There is something, I have noticed, in those interested in power over their fellow men and women. Something that will not allow them to abide another looking down on them, figuratively or literally. Kings and priests sit and stand elevated above the masses to be seen, true, but just as importantly to separate themselves, to put themselves above. It is an unsubtle statement of relative worth. Lesser being are made to bow and kneel for the same reason. It is more than show.
In Bellarius, the ruling class had taken it to an extreme with their useless tower building. The correlation of power to elevation was dyed into the fabric of Bellarian society as deeply as that of family and duty and revenge in the Low Countries. Why else was Hardside, the only appreciable stretch of level ground in the city, left for the desperate and destitute to inhabit?
It wasn't because of the occasional albeit serious flooding. That was a simple engineering problem that Gol-Shen had been dealing with handily for centuries, and at far less expense and inconvenience than it must have cost Bellarians to build vertically up the side of a mountain. No, in Bellarius the low ground was for lesser beings, and Hardside, being the lowest ground, was for the lowest of the low.
Which meant that the Citadel, squatting atop the mount's peak, was for the highest of the high. The various factions couldn't help themselves seeing my occupation of it as a challenge to their own notional authority.
If that were all there was to it, I wouldn't have much cared. If I knew for a certainty I would only need the Citadel for a certain, specific amount of time, I could have just ignored their belligerence. Weathered out whatever mischief they mustered up. But I didn't know how long I would need the Citadel for, and I couldn't just sit behind its warded walls. There were things out in the city that I needed, not the least of which was food.
So. In addition to setting my plan for finding Amra into motion, I was also going to have to play the part of a prospective ruler of Bellaria. To a degree, at least, and for a time. And all because of an empty room.
I climbed the stairs to the top floor, to look for the hundredth time at the Telemarch's inner sanctum. Or rather, the space that had contained his inner sanctum.
There wasn't a precise line where the room ended. Take the ugly, skull-shaped door, for example. The exterior of the door was as solid, and tasteless, as it had ever been. The interior of the door, however, no longer existed. Or at least the interior surface was as gone as gone gets.
It did not cease to exist at a precise point. The interior surface of the door, and the entire room, just faded. The nearest analogy I could manage was that of someone dipping a brush in ink and dragging it across a sheet of parchment. At first the line would be a solid black, but as the ink was used up, the line would become fainter, patchier, until it disappeared entirely.
In this case, the ink was reality itself. What the brush had been, and whose hand had guided it, I could only speculate. In all probability I had the metaphor reversed, and reality had been erased rather than applied. It made no difference, really, since all I had at this point was speculation.
I entered the room, wishing for at least the fiftieth time that I'd known what it had looked like before it had gone missing.
Keel had been following me. I hadn't really noticed until he failed to follow me into the room. He didn't like the room. Said it gave him the mimis, whatever those were.
"Hurvus will be around this afternoon to check your eye, Magus," he said to my back.
"What's to check? It's not there anymore." I'd burned it myself. Mages couldn't afford to leave body parts lying around. Too many nasty things could be done with them.
"You know what I mean," Keel said, discomfort plain in his voice.
I sighed, and nodded. "I do."
"We've nearly finished off the Telemarch's larder. Down to dried beans and ham bones. I have a little coin, enough for a few days' groceries, but I don't know what's available now."
"Because of the riots and the barricades."
I turned around. "No, Keel, I mean why are you still here? This last week I have not been the pleasantest person to be around. Why are you still here, telling me about appointments and provisions?"
His face got a little pale, and a little angry. "Did you want me to leave?"
"No. I just want to know why you're here instead of out there. You told me you were one of the Just Man's followers, before."
He nodded. "I was. But Ansen's dead. He doesn't need any help. And I don't much like the direction the Just Men have taken these past few days, if I'm being honest."
"What do you mean?"
He looked down at the floor and frowned. "They've brought back impalement. For captured gentry, and for Blacksleeves. For people labeled informants and collaborators. There's a lot of people sitting on spikes, down on the wharves." He shook his head. "Even the Syndic didn't do that."
"That's barbaric. I understand your reluctance to be associated with it."
He shrugged. "Anyway, they don't need me. And Amra's alive, somewhere. I owe her."
"I'm doing everything I can to get her back, Keel."
"I know, magus. And I know I can't really help with that. But I can remind you your wound needs checked, and I can make sure there's food ready when you remember to eat." He shrugged again, clearly uncomfortable being forthcoming and mature. He was still young.
"I want to do what I can," he continued, "even if it isn't much." His narrow face broke into a grin. "Plus, I'm supposed to be gone from Bellarius. Since I'm still here, I'd rather be holed up in a fortress with a magus than out on the street where Moc Mien's crew can get hold of me."
I smiled. It hurt. "Ah. Amra's friend. I'd forgotten about him. All right. If you're going to be my representative in the city below, I can't have you dodging his crew all the time. Best to deal with him now rather than later." I left the inner sanctum, dug into a pocket and came up with a few marks. I passed them to Keel. "After you buy us something in the way of provender, I want you to invite Moc Mien up for dinner tonight. I want to talk to him."
"Don't tell me you don't know where to find him."
"It's not that. If he sees me again he's going to do very bad things to me. Permanent things."
"He won't." I dug out another mark, pulled a whisper of power from my well, and scribed the Hardic rune for 'parley' just above it. The rune floated and turned slow circles, as buttery gold as the gold mark it drew its reality from. I gave it enough power to last the day, and hardened it so that it wouldn't fade once I turned my attention away from it.
I flicked the coin to Keel. "Give him that. You'll be fine. He'll respect the parley."
"Not so sure about that," Keel said.
"Would you disrespect a mage's offer of parley? Trust me."
"All right," he said, both morosely and dubiously. "Anything else?"
I was going to need much more hard currency than I'd brought along with me on my voyage from Lucernis. If bad turned to worse, I'd need it in immediately spendable form. And I could not count on being able to pop down to the bank to make a withdrawal. Or that if I did, the bank wouldn't be razed to the ground. By all the dead gods, I disliked being stuck in the middle of a civil war.
"Do you know where the banking house of Vulkin and Bint is?" I asked him.
"All the banks are on the same street, so yes."
"I'll need you to carry a letter there for me. I'll write it out in a moment."
"They're not going to let me in the door. Especially not since the rioting."
"You don't have to go in. Just deliver the letter to the doorman. And on your way back invite Greytooth to dinner."
"So we're having a dinner party."
"It would appear so. Better buy some decent wine."
"Keel, if you don't start calling me Holgren I'm going to write it on a stick and beat you with it until you remember."
He smiled. "That sounds like something she would say." No need to explain who 'she' was.
"Where do you think I got it from?"
"All right, Holgren. One more question?"
"Why the change? For the last week you've barely spoken, or slept, or eaten. Everything has been about the magic. Now you're making plans like you're going to be here a while."
It was a good question. The boy was perceptive, if annoyingly young. "The change is because I've exhausted all my quick, relatively sane options for finding her."
"So? What now?"
"From this point forward, haste is a liability. She lives, that much I know, not hope. While that remains true, I have to walk a knife edge in regards to what I can and should attempt, to find her and get her back. I have to walk that edge. No more sprinting. The consequences could be dire."
He shook his head. "I don't really know what you mean."
"I'll explain all you're likely to understand, and probably much more. But tonight at dinner, not now."
Excerpted from The Thief Who Wasn't There by Michael McClung. Copyright © 2016 Michael McClung. Excerpted by permission of Ragnarok Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPart I: Bellarius,
Part II: Lucernis,
Part III: Hells,
Part IV: Nowhere,
Part V: Bellarius,