Category: Chapters


Week 3, Chapter 3

Chapter Three

“The Outain commander Ustain. Do you know him?” asked Adept Belay.

Kam nodded. “I have worked with him before.”

“Good,” said Father. He glanced at me and said, “He is here for a visit.”

What did that have to do me? “I don’t understand.”

“You and Kam will be his escort while he is here,” Father announced.

Escort? I frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

“Show him the city. Be a friend. Keep him out of trouble.” He paused. “Kam, you will be his military guide while he is here.”

I stared at Father. “I don’t understand what is so special about him.”

“Sir . . . Sire. May I?” said Adept Belay.

Father nodded permission to the Adept.

“He may be a rogue magician,” said Adept Belay.

I choked on my egg pastry.

Kam pounded on my back until it came flying out my mouth.

What? What?” I burst out. “You can’t expect me too – I am not going to – I am not a magician!” For the first time in my life, I was glad I wasn’t.

“Sir, she is just a girl. She can’t be expected to deal with -”

“Her mother dealt with magicians at a younger age,” Father said mildly.

“She was raised to it,” I snapped. “I am not.”

Mama’s family was one the premier magician families in the whole country. They had produced more natural magicians than anyone else, so mama had told me, and nearly all the rest were wand magicians. I wasn’t sure what the differences were, but mama had wanted to tread the boards and for that they had disowned her.

“That will be your best defense,” the adept said.

“I don’t understand,” I repeated.

He leaned forward. I tensed, leaning back, sensing the tight whiplash of magic rising from him. Not rising more than a few inches from his skin, but I wanted to keep at least an arms-length between us.

“He will know your ancestry and he will understand your enmity for all magicians.”

He would not; I had made no secret of how badly I wanted to be a magician.

“Your rejection from acceptance into the ranks of magician apprentices will only make that more believable. He will be open to trusting you,” the adept concluded. He stared at me expectantly.

“That doesn’t make me feel any safer,” I said.

“You are my daughter,” said Father gently. “Even if he is a rogue magician, he will not harm you. At least not in my city. Kam will make certain of it.”

“Yes, sir,” said Kam.

Why did he have to be so agreeable?

“He isn’t a magician either,” I protested. “He can’t-”

“No, he is not. He never will be because he, too, is related to his Majesty. However, he has had pre-apprentice schooling,” said Adept Belay.

Pre-apprentice schooling? Only children of nobility got to do that and only families who were willing to disinherit their children if they were accepted. It was a point of prestige for them and conveniently got rid of third and forth sons. Which, I realized, Kam was. He had three older brothers.

“He was expelled from apprentice rank when his mother married his Majesty,” continued Adept Belay. “But he learned enough to recognize a natural mage when he sees one.”

“But his family -”

“I adopted him formally,” said Father. “His mother did not.”

Oh. I supposed that would work. Father hadn’t disowned him and it was illegal to adopt a child you had disowned.

I glanced sideways at him. He looked stern and controlled. He’d wanted to be a magician, too. I wondered if he resented Father for that. I couldn’t tell. He was as magician like as most soldiers. How far had he gotten in his training?

“You can recognize other magicians?” I asked him.

“I know when someone is performing magic,” he said.

That wasn’t quite the same thing. But maybe it was good enough.

“Why me?” I asked Father. “There have to be others that can do this.”

“No one I trust as much I trust you. No one else has a reason to be unhappy with the Magicians’ Guild.”

Meaning no one else in the family had created such a public row about not being a magician apprentice.

I slumped in my chair. “How will I meet him?”

Father smiled. “In two days there is a soiree. Kam will be your escort.”

Perfect. I might get out of this yet. “I don’t have a dress and no seamstress will finish one so soon.”

“Madam Tari is waiting in your room. She will manage, I am sure.”

Hell. Who had thought of having Madam Tari waiting? Father couldn’t have. I am not sure he ever noticed clothes.

“Your mother is waiting with her,” he added. “She’s thinks you need more clothes for this season’s activities and I’ve decided to indulge her.”

“I’ve no space to put more clothes!” Not to mention Asa would tease me mercilessly if I showed up with ball gowns.

“They will stay in your room here,” Father said.

The room that mama used for storage now.

Father laughed. “Smile, Isi. I’ve yet to see a daughter so displeased with the prospect of new clothes. Go on, now. And, mind, don’t discuss this with anyone else.”

“I’m always smiling, Father.” I forced a smile, rising. “Good day, Father. Adept Belay.”

Kam rose, bowed to them both, rose again, walking backward to the door.

The door shut softly behind us and I found myself relaxing.

Kam glowered down at me. “Where is your room?”

“The Round Wing.” It was named for the large round tower and off to the side. It was really only connected to cellars; you had to go underground to get anywhere else. I’d loved playing games down there when I was younger. But it was not near the front public wing, not in the west servant wing, not close to the east diplomatic wing and nowhere near the rear family wing. I suppose that was part of why Father had installed us there. He didn’t want his Queen and mama to be too close.

“Of course you are. Where else would you be?” He held out his arm, like he had before, looking at me expectantly.

What? Did he think he was going to come into my rooms with me? “Good day, my lord.”

I tucked my hands behind my back and walked down the hall to Father’s library. The cellars were easy to get to from there.

His footsteps were loud behind me, than his fingers closed on my right wrist and jerked me around. I stumbled back and glared at him. “Let go! You have no -”

He loosened his grip, but didn’t let go. “You,” he said slowly, “will not keep me from doing my duty.”

“I am not! I don’t want to!” I jerked my wrists, but he held them tight. “You are hurting me.”

“No, I am not. Did you hear what his Majesty said?”

I scowled at him. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get free until he was good and ready. “That I am to get new clothes. Now.”

“He ordered me to be your bodyguard.”

I shook my head. “No, he didn’t, he just said that -”

“That’s what he meant,” said Kam.

“No, he -” I cut myself off. Obviously, he wouldn’t believe me. “I will go ask him. Right now.”

He studied me, than nodded and let me go. I marched back into Father’s little study. The adept was just getting up and he sat back down when he saw me.

Father looked quizzically at me. “Yes, Isi?”

“Kam thinks you ordered him to be my bodyguard,” I burst out.

After a moment, Father said, “I did.”

I took a deep breath and tried to sound reasonable. “You told him to watch over me, but that’s not the same thing as being a bodyguard. And I don’t anyone hovering over me when I am in class or rehearsing. It’s not necessary and he’ll be in the way and I will be safe enough. This rogue magician isn’t going to do anything and I’ll be safe enough.”

“You’re going to be contending with a rogue magician. Yes, contending. Isi, make no mistake, this will not be easy, and Kam will assist you as much as he can. Won’t you?” Father looked behind me to Kam.

Kam had closed the door and was leaning against it. “Yes, sir, I will. Though I wish you would reconsider. She is just a girl.”

“Another reason why he is likely to trust her,” Father said. “Go on, now.”

Kam was a large, imposing presence. He looked very out of place in mama’s living room, covered as it was by fabric and lace and bowls of shiny beads. He had insisted on being here and now looked deeply uncomfortable. I hoped he rotted in his discomfort.

Mama had roped Kam into pushing the table to the side so there would be room for me. I stood, barefoot on the slightly dusty floor and dressed only in new linen shift. My stone was safely hidden in mama’s bedroom, under a pile of clothes. The windows were open to the kitchen gardens and the scent of fresh herbs relaxed me enough to ignore Kam. Yards of bright blue lacy cotton and the lighter silk lining lay crumpled at my feet. More fabric was draped and pined about my body. Madam Tari bustled about me, making marks and sometimes snipping with a pair of small scissors. Her assistants sat in the corner, preparing lengths of silk ribbon with beads.

Week 2, Chapter 2

Chapter Two

He handed me into the carriage and settled down beside me. The driver was a young soldier, maybe two years older than me, and he set off the moment we were seated.

I ignored the passerby and turned my attention to Kam. “When did you get back, my lord?”

“Seven days ago. You weren’t at the ziggurat yesterday,” he said.

Kam went to the royal ziggurat. Usually mama went, too, always on Father’s arm. The priest couldn’t deny Father, but he was a prissy idiot and glowered at me every time I went with him. I had no idea if he objected to me because I was Father’s bastard daughter or because I was an entertainer apprentice. I never went because of him and if Father asked, that’s what I would say. “I had studying to do.”

Kam curled his lip. “Of course you did.”

“You -” I started, but another carriage rolled up beside ours and my heart sank. My step-mother.

Our carriage came to a stop. The driver recognized her, too.

Two of her daughters were inside with her. She wore a cream and gold dress. It set off her dusky skin beautifully. Her gold and ruby crown gleamed in the morning sun. She always wore the crown, as if she needed its reassurance she really was Father’s wife. I suspected she even wore it to bed. She eyed me like I was the dirtiest mongrel she had ever seen.

“Kam, what are you doing with this – this -”

“Taking her somewhere, mother,” he said, voice mild. “I would appreciate if you didn’t stop us.”

“You must not -”

“I must do my duty, mother. Now, driver, if you please.”

Our carriage started again and I breathed a sigh of relief. She was another reason I avoided the ziggurat. The woman practically lived there.

I studied Kam and wondered at how short he had been with his mother. Only now did I see tension in the lines of his body. His face, too, his usual mask was less causal than I remembered.

“You’ve never spoken that way to your mother before.”

He snorted. “I doubt you have ever heard me speak to my mother before.”

I had, always in public. Kam was unfailingly polite, even when his mother was throwing a screaming fit.

Kam felt no need to make conversion and I was very aware of the silence between us. I didn’t say anything else, just watched the palace come closer.

The palace was large enough to see from almost anywhere; at least its walls are. Good luck trying to see past them or get beyond them.

One of the guards was always a magician. This time she was an upper journeyman; I knew because she had a gold half-moon pinned to her uniform. A lower journeyman would have had a silver moon.

She examined both the driver and Kam, to make sure they were both really real. Everyone is examined, even the Queen, so it is no insult. But higher ranking people usually get higher ranking magicians to test them, but Kam was not bothered by having a mere journeyman test him. He’d told me once that his military rank was more important than his noble rank.

She examined me too. Her fingers were cool on my brow and and I had to keep from tensing. My breath was slow and deep, like they’d taught us to relax and make the body look as natural as possible.

Her magic trailed down my body. It felt like icy drizzles of rain. I willed my stone not to respond. It became a cold hard lump between my breasts. No way to tell if it was responding to her magic or to me.

She nodded to Kam and stepped away, signaling. I slumped in my cushioned seat in relief. Thank god.

The palace was large and imposing. Made of an ugly gray stone, it gave the impression of a squatting, growling wolf.

The driver dropped us at the front steps and went back to wherever carriage drivers go.

The stairs were wide enough for only one person and a guard stood next to each step. Kam motioned for me to go first. So I lifted my terribly wrinkled rose silk dress and climbed. I ignored the guards as thoroughly as I could.

The inside of the palace wasn’t any more reassuring, filled as it was with dour stone statues and paintings of battles. Kam took firm hold of my elbow – I suppose he didn’t want me wandering around – and led me forward.

He took me up to the second floor, past filigreed balconies, the throne room, the grand ballroom and the smaller receiving room. The second floor had smaller versions of everything on the first floor and a few studies besides for the use of Father’s ministers.

Father waited for me in the small sitting room adjacent to his personal library. I don’t know if he ever used the library. Father’s wasn’t really the scholarly type and the library probably suffered because of it. But I did know he used this sitting room for informal, yet official meetings.

The room was wooden. Wooden table, wooden carvings decorated the walls, wooden slats covered the glass windows. It had pale green silk curtains, too, but the covered the slats.

Breakfast covered the table. Father looked up from a plate of sweet cakes and smiled. His smile lit up his face and I couldn’t help but smile back.

“Isi,” he said, holding out an arm.

I hugged him and his solid bulk was still reassuring, for all that I wasn’t a child anymore.

He let go and surveyed me. “Has that guild of yours feeding you right? You are too thin. Sit, eat. I had the kitchen make your favorite egg pastry and spicy bread.”

I laughed. “They do well enough.”

Now that Father had pointed them put, I saw a whole platter of egg pastries. My mouth watered.

“Kam, you – ah, my lord magician, excellent timing.”

My heart stopped and my mouth dried up. Hell and damnation. I hadn’t expected to deal with magicions. Not beyond the gates.

I looked up and found myself staring at the full crimson robes of an adept. The symbol of his rank, a large gold circle crossed by a sword, was pinned to his chest. A heartbeat later I recognized his craggy seamed face. He was the Magician Minister. I’d seen him eating through a window last night.

Oh, this was bad.

Father patted my hand. “He’s harmless, Isi. Sit. Eat. You, too, Kam.”

I realized that Kam had been watching the magician warily, like a man watching a serpent someone had told him was harmless.

“Yes, sir,” he said and dutifully took the chair beside me. Calmly, he filled a plate with spicy bread and the pepper spread.

I decided to follow his example.

When the magician decided to sit with us, I kept my eyes on my own plate and prayed no one would notice me. No such luck.

“Isi,” said Father.

I looked up. “Father?”

“This is Adept Belay. Adept Belay, my daughter Ising, my step-son Kam.”

I nodded at him, not trusting myself to speak. Tam gave one short, brisk nod.

“Such verbose children you have, sire,” he said.

Father snorted. “There is no need to be afraid,” he said to us.

I looked down at my plate.

“Yes, sir,” Kam said.

“You shall see,” said Father.

I hoped I never would.

“Isi, how much do you know about Outain?”

I blinked. Outain was a northern province, nestled inside the mountains and the way there wasn’t easy. They were an odd people and for all that they belonged to this country, their ways were supposed to be very different. Sometimes I dreamed I’d been born there, because the children of their nobility had all the freedoms of the peasants. Even their bastards. Maybe especially their bastards, because they were counted among the peasants. Here, bastards weren’t. But we weren’t nobility either. We didn’t have the freedom of the peasants or the privilege of the nobility. Most of us ended up either in the army or working as an entertainer; both places could have people from any class.

“Just that their ways are different, Father. I’ve never met one,” I said.

“Kam?”

“Their soldiers are among the best. They have no peer with the bow, the sword and the staff. They are as disciplined any officer can ask for. They lack education and are rather provincial.  In addition, they are very willful and stubborn.” Kam’s voice was cold and precise.

Adept  Belay brows rose. “You have Outain soldiers under you?”

“I have commanded Outain soldiers, yes,” said Kam.

I wondered at the differences in how they said that.

Week 1, Chapter 1

Chapter 1

I clutched the ragged sack in my fingers. The stone thrummed in my hand, sang contentedly in my head. The cobbles beneath my bare feet were hard and slick with rain. I ran as quickly as I dared; I wanted no one asking what a scruffy girl was doing out at this hour. Especially here, so near the Magician Square. Its wide expansive splendor was covered with sleeting walls of rain and surrounded by squalor. Father would be furious.

The sack was a lowly thing to carry a blood stone in; they were usually carried in jeweled silk bags and displayed in cages of gold. But I was a lowly apprentice myself, and if the blood stone couldn’t tolerate such treatment, it shouldn’t have called me! I was not a blood magician; their apprentices never lacked for money, to say nothing of the masters.

No, I was an entertainer; we tread the boards in every city in the country and quite a few larger towns, too. When I completed my apprenticeship, I would have a permanent position with the Royal Theater here. Every other entertainer would have needed to fight and claw for such a position, but I was also the King’s bastard daughter and so even if I was denied entrance to the Magician’s Guild no matter how I begged and pleaded, I could never be denied the theater.

I tossed my wet, bedraggled hair out of my eyes and glanced behind me. A few inspectors, some magicians in their long black robe and some people who looked like they had wealth to hire a magician or two. No one was paying me any mind; people never noticed beggars.

I slipped from the square into a side street and slowed, panting. Houses, here, that magicians lived in.  I shoved the sack inside my shirt, safe and out of sight. Most of the houses here belonged to magicians and all of them were surrounded by a sparkling ring, like a moat. Magical protections; I knew enough to pretend I did not see them.

I kept my head down, wet hair over my face and started to run again. Past the houses, past the market after, I turned into Beggars Lane. Beggars Lane was a narrow little street, little more than an ally.  Aunt Sebina’s shop was here. It was a spindly building, drafty in winter, hot in the summer. People said she was a witch, but I had never seen any sign of it. She was just a herbalist. I loved it here, the smell of fresh herbs and scented lotions. Aunt Sebina had closed up shop and gone north for a week to visit someone. She had left me the key, because she knew how much of a refuge the shop was for me.

It took only moments to get inside. I shut the door against the storm and just rested against it. I had never been more grateful to Aunt Sebina.

I breathed deeply and took the stone out of my bosom. It was hard inside and when I dumped it into my palm, it glowed a beautiful blue, as if someone had poured the sky inside. It was as large as my little finger, polished to a mirror finish and . . . was it pulsing? I stared at it, fascinated. It warmed in my fingers and a golden light pulsed inside, like a miniature sun. Its song grew louder in my head, gained the joy of a Noel morning recital.

“Well, hello there,” I whispered to it.

Magicians generally named their stones. What would I name mine?

“A bath first,” I told it. “I am wet and cold. Than we go back to the theater.”

The stone came into the bath with me and I nestled it among her collection of lotions and creams. It looked as out of place as a tomato in a bushel of onions. After, I dressed in my normal theater clothes – pink cotton sleeveless shirt, trousers and leather slippers. I didn’t wear skirts so much unless it was a costume. Aunt Sebina didn’t have a mirror so I was forced to braid my hair around my head by touch. It was hopelessly curly and there was no other way to deal with it. I dumped my beggar rags out back. I could always get more if I needed them.

I sat on Aunt Sebina’s bed, stone in my lap. “What do I do with you?” I asked it. It hadn’t stopped its humming since I’d taken it, but it didn’t answer me. Not that I thought it would. “We have to go back to the theater.” I tucked it back inside my shirt, slipped on the oiled leather poncho I had stored by the door and left.

I was soaked to my skin by the time I got back. All of the city’s theaters were in Theater Circle and the Royal Theater was its queen. The Royal Theater was a grand affair, all rosy marble and silvered glass, and domed like the king’s own bald pate. Delicate balconies ringed it; several restaurants were housed on the top floor and the theater’s own musicians provided entertainment. The façade was covered with carved reliefs with scenes from classical plays; the inside had paintings and tapestries of them.

I entered through the side. The main stage was just down the hall and tonight’s performance must have been coming to an end, because the audience erupted into applause. My room, sadly, was in the bottom level. Well, four of us apprentices slept in the same room. I slipped inside as quick as I could, before they could come streaming out.

Not so much as a candle was lit and I had to make my way to bed by touch. Luckily, I was on the bottom bunk, the on the left wall. The wall was smooth beneath my fingers and though I could not see it, I knew it was white washed. Directly above was the training stage; the instruments classroom, the voice classroom, and the library were up there too. Our small yard was right outside; we learned acrobatics there. There were rooms below the other classrooms, too. I was glad I wasn’t in any of them; music lessons tended to get loud. The window was along top of the wall, between the two bunks, tiny and shuttered against the rain. Our trunks rested under it. Their tops were flat so they doubled as tables. Grateful I managed to get my bunk without banging a leg against them, I felt for the sleeping robe I had left folded on my bed. The stone came into bed with me.

* * *

“Up! Lazy Apprentices!”

I awoke to Mistress Raine’s scarred face inches from mine. “Mistress. Morning.”

“Morning indeed, Ising,”she said. Mistress Raine had a posh accent and it went oddly with her face. “Up you get. A messenger has arrived to take you to your father, and as such you are excused from classes.”

My heart skipped a beat. Did my father know I had the stone? How could he know? “W-what?”

“A messenger. From your father,” she repeated.

“Oh lucky princess Isi,” called Rose from the bunk above me. “She will miss Master Elim screaming at her.”

“Lucky,” I muttered. “Where is the messenger?”

Mistress Raine favored me with an irritated look. “He is upstairs in the Nightsky Lounge.”

Nightsky, named for the sheer number of theater stars that relaxed there, was the best lounge in the whole theater and this messenger must have impressed someone a lot to be allowed up there.

“You will dress and go up to receive up him,” she went on, studying each of my roommates in turn. “The rest of you have class shortly.”

“Yes, Mistress,” they all said.

Here I only had one set of clothes my father would approve and it had been sitting at the bottom of my trunk for months. I dug it out and sat staring at its wrinkles while the others dressed around me. I ignored them; I had gotten used to the sight half-naked girls around me.

“Aww, poor Isi’s dress has a crinkle in it. Maybe – ”

“Shut up, Asa.”

“Oh, you, well, princess -”

“Leave her alone, Asa.”

I shot a grateful look at Bark. She was a magician’s daughter and my best friend. She smiled at me. “I will fix your hair.”

Well, no help for it. Father would just have to accept it and put it on. The dress was a couple seasons out of date, puffed sleeves instead of the cap sleeves that everyone wore today and pale pink instead of the brighter colors that had become popular in last few months. Bark did something to my hair, weaving ribbons into it, and winding it about my head like it was a circlet.

The messenger was really my step-brother. Father’s wife’s son by a previous marriage and a duke’s heir as well. He wore his Captain’s uniform and since he never came to the capital, probably Mistress Raine had not recognized him. She would have said if she had. Ising, a prince has come to see you. I’d never had much to do with him; he didn’t approve of me and I didn’t really care if he did. But he was handsome enough and the girls were probably all in a tizzy over him. God knew they had him so surrounded.

I cleared my throat. “Ladies. My Lord.”

He looked up, away from Tira. She tossed her glorious black hair and said, “Isi! How nice to see you. I am told your classes for today are canceled. Surely and this -”

“We need to go. It’s not a good idea to keep my father waiting.”

She paled. “Your – his majesty asked . . .”

“Yes.” I smiled sweetly, enjoying her discomfort.

Kam extracted himself from her arms. “Yes, he did. I am afraid we must go. Come, Ising.” He held out his arm to me, like we were going out.

I eyed him. But I decided to be polite and take his arm.  The silk of his uniform was warm under my fingers. “I have a carriage waiting.”

“Of course you do.” I turned, following him out.

There really was carriage, and right outside the front gates, too. An official carriage, complete with matched horses and the King’s sigil in black and purple, used only by people on the King’s business.