The usual caveat: This is a work in progress, and every word that follows is subject to change. Enjoy!
“Mag—uh, Holgren, there's a bunch of soldiers downstairs,” Keel told me. “Again.”
“The same as yesterday?” I asked, not really paying attention. I was working out a trap for whichever rift-spawn we could corner. I was fairly certain I could tear a leaf from the sorcerer-king's page, so to speak, and apply it to the situation at hand. Lacking basics such as paper, ink, or pen, I was writing in the air, the silvery notations visible only to my magesight. Likely I looked mad to Keel, but he didn't comment.
“No, these ones are mercenaries. They've got four iron chests. They look heavy. Say they're from the bank.”
“Ah. Yes. I'll be right there.” I hardened my notes and stepped out of the chamber. Keel was looking pensive.
“What is it, Keel?”
“Promise you won't get mad?”
“No. But I promise I wont kill you. What?”
“Are you crazy?”
“No more so than any mage, and far less than many I have met.”
“That's not really comforting.”
“I'm sorry, I thought you wanted truth, not comfort.”
“Before I met Amra, I'd never met anyone with power like you and Magister Greytooth have. I guess I don't know what's normal for you lot.”
“Keel, I'll tell you a secret that only Amra knows: I detest being a mage.”
He gave me a look that said he was now convinced I was insane.“But you are really good at it. Really, really good. Scary good.”
“How would you know that? You've only seen me fail.”
“First, because Amra told me so. Second, because I heard about what you did to Fisk. Third, I was there yesterday morning when Steyner's man tried to bash his way in. If you aren't powerful, I don't think I know what the word means. And I really don't see how anybody can not like having power.”
“Some people are masters of arithmetic. Doesn't mean they want to spend their time doing long division.”
“But we aren't talking about numbers. We're talking about magic! Power!”
“All power comes at a price,” I told him, but he shook his head.
“You don't agree?”
“From what I've seen, it's the powerless that pay while the powerful do whatever they want.” The bitterness in his voice was unusual, for him. But I did not press.
“Well, let's go down and receive my delivery.”
“What have they got?”
“Another kind of power.”
~ ~ ~
Perrick Leed was wearing pale yellow this time, and had traded his tri-cornered had for what looked like a velvet sack. But then I knew as much about fashion as I did about the Emperor of Chagul's favorite concubine.
“Magister Leed. You'll have to introduce me to your tailor,” I said by way of greeting, and he smiled politely.
“Magister Angrado, good morning. May we enter?”
“Of course,” I said, and brought down the wards and moved aside so that they could haul in four iron casques, each with an imposingly large lock.
“If I could impose upon you gentlemen to bring them upstairs?” I said to the armsmen. There were a few grimaces, but no muttering. The bank must have been paying them well. They were a mixed lot; Camlachers, Lucernans, Nine Cities men. I wondered where Leed had hired them from, and asked as much.
“Bellaria is at war with itself,” he replied. “Such conflict draws mercenaries. You'll find a ready pool of them, wharfside, and many more at Jedder.”
“A small town a day's sail south,” he explained as we climbed the stairs to the second floor. “Those who do not have an inclination to fight for the rebels wait there to be hired by the would-be Syndics. Those who prefer the rebel's cause, or knew no better before taking ship, end up wharfside here in Bellarius.”
“Just set them against the wall, if you would,” I told the armsmen, and they complied. Then they retreated back downstairs, leaving only Leed, Keel and myself in the dusty second floor of the Citadel.
“Is there something I should sign, Magister?” I asked Leed.
“Of course. After you've counted the coin, sir.”
“I'm certain that won't be necessary.”
“Sadly, I must disagree with you, Magus. Vulkin and Bint does love its procedures, and abhors any anomalies regarding them. I would be let go in an instant were you not to count the coin in my presence and confirm that all is as it should be.”
I sighed. “Very well, Magister Leed. I wouldn't want to be the cause of any disturbing anomalies.”
Keel snickered, and I gave him a questioning glance.
“Do mages always talk like that when they get together?” he asked.
“Like there's a prize for whoever uses the fanciest word.”
Leed gave a slight smile. I considered the question.
“Pretty much,” I finally decided, and turned to Leed. “The keys, sir?”
~ ~ ~
It was all there; forty chains of Lucernan mint. Forty thousand marks. I signed and Leed and his entourage departed.
“That's a shit-ton of money.”
“Yes it is.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Some of it goes to Moc Mien to keep you from getting knifed by his crew while we're in Bellarius. A lot more goes to him for assisting me in trapping a rift-spawn.”
“You don't need forty large for that.”
“Correct.” I scooped up a double handful of marks and handed it to him. “First, find and hire two armsmen who can be trusted.”
“How do I know if they can be trusted?”
I smiled. “I trust your judgment.” I'd also be putting them under a Compulsion. “One stays here, one follows you everywhere.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Did your arm heal itself while I wasn't looking? You need a bodyguard, Keel. Bellarius is far from safe, and I've already made an enemy of one of the warring factions. You will likely be a target.”
“All right,” he said, not liking it. “What else?”
“Go to Moc Mien and tell him to come see me to collect his fee. After that, find us a housekeeper who can cook and can be trusted, and send them to me, here. Then order some decent furniture for all of us, and get a tailor for you and I. Have them come this evening. I also want a fisherman's net, as strong and big as you can find. Better make it two. Do you need to write this down?”
“No. Can't write anyway. Or read, for that matter.”
“We'll have to rectify that at some point, but there's no time now. What else? Best if the housekeeper is male or a very old woman. Everyone will be staying at the Citadel for the duration of our stay, and since there's a distinct lack of privacy here I don't want to bother putting up partitions. We'll likely be leaving in a few days. Which reminds me. See if there are any ships for sale.”
“You want to buy a boat?”
“No. I want to buy a ship. They're generally much bigger than boats.”
“What kind of ship?”
“I'm not sure yet. Find out what's available, and then we'll discuss it.”
“Yes. How are you passing back and forth from the Girdle to the Gentry-controlled portion of the city?”
“That will no longer do, after today. Like it or not, I am now a power in Bellarius. You, as my representative, cannot be sneaking about. It will lessen my honor and my status.”
He looked at me as though I'd suddenly started speaking Chagul.
“I'm completely serious. There's no chance any of the factions will learn to love me in the brief time I'll be here, so that leaves fear.”
“Love? Fear? You said we're probably leaving in a few days, but you're talking like you want to rule this place.”
“We are in the middle of a three cornered civil war, Keel. We are in possession of the Citadel, the only physical symbol of authority left in this midden of a city, since Amra pulled down the Riail. You know very well what I want, and it isn't to become a despot. But the three factions assume we are a fourth, I guarantee you, and it won't matter what I say to the contrary. So I won't bother.”
“All right, I guess I can understand that. But why not just ignore them until your business is finished?”
“I would do just that, if there was any hope they would return the favor. There isn't. You saw that yesterday. If I was content to stay in the Citadel, it wouldn't matter, but we have business in the city below, and so we must play the part.” As much of a stupid, monotonous waste of time, energy and money as it would be.
“Yeah, but what part, exactly? I'm still not clear on that.”
“I will play the part of a dangerous, inscrutable archmage whose motives are unknown, but undoubtedly dark and arcane. You will play the role of my trusted servant, who speaks with my voice.” I looked him over. “Hmm. You'll probably need a haircut to manage that. Add a barber to the list. Also a cobbler. Your big toe is sticking out.”
“You look pretty shaggy yourself.”
“It sounds nicer than 'homeless.'”
“Fine, send a barber and a cobbler up for both of us, then. Go, the day isn't getting younger.”
He turned to go, then turned back.
“You need a symbol.”
“If you're going to play the part of a power. You need a symbol.”
“Absolutely. The Gentry all have their heraldry nonsense. Even the crews have got their versions of 'em. If you want to mark your territory or your property, you have to have a mark. It'll be expected, Holgren. Seriously.”
“All right. What do you suggest?”
“You remember that one thing you tried, where fire shot out of all the windows and almost cooked me along the way?”
“I already apologized for that.”
“People are still talking about that in the Girdle. Not me getting burned up, of course; how would they know about that? But they're still talking about the night the Citadel burned.”
“They think that's when the Telemarch died. Your symbol should be a burning tower. If you're serious about making people think they should be scared of you.”
“That's... that's not a terrible idea actually. I'll work on it. You get going.”
~ ~ ~
Keel was gone for perhaps an hour before my first visitors of the day announced themselves by trying to break down the front door with cannon fire.
I felt the intense if fleeting pressure on the wards at the same time I hear the hollow boom of the cannon ball striking them.
“Imbeciles,” I said aloud and got up from the table where I'd been working on Keel's burning tower badge. I opened the door.
In the street below, Steyner's halberdiers were back, this time joined by a three-man cannon crew. They were wearing the emerald and jet of Isinglas mercenaries. I couldn't see the cockade they wore that would tell me which company they served. Not that it mattered.
They had a short, stubby little bronze perrier that was still smoking. They were perhaps twenty yards away, and a few of the halberdiers had obviously been struck by shrapnel when the stone ball had shattered against the wards and then been flung away at high velocity. Two men were screaming. A third wasn't, his head being almost completely gone. The idiot captain in half-plate was, sadly, unharmed.
I stepped outside, waited until I caught the captain's attention, then said “I warned you.”
Then I summoned up my well and disincorporated him. Or, as Keel would have it, I made him go 'splat.'
I do not kill lightly. I take no enjoyment from it. But I have no qualms about ending a life. Life is cheap, cheaper than it ought to be, perhaps. But it is what it is, and there isn't a mage alive that would countenance the sort of disrespect the fool had shown by assaulting my sanctum. Most would have slaughtered every man present, but I had made my point, and was content.
I considered telling the others not to come back, but that seemed pointless. Either they would or they wouldn't and telling them was far less effective than showing them. Finally I just shrugged to myself and went back inside.
~ ~ ~
My second caller was a big, beefy sailor, his thinning hair pulled back in a queue. He only had one hand. If he noticed the remains of Steyner's captain on the way up, he said nothing.
“Magister Holgren, then?”
He tugged on an imaginary forelock with an imaginary hand and said “Name's Marl. I've come to cook and keep house.”
“Keel told you the position's requirements?”
“Aye. Marketing, cooking, cleaning. I'm to lodge here. The position will likely be temporary.”
“Come in then, master Marl.” He entered, and I sat at the table. When I invited him to do the same he declined.
“Keel explained the basics. I'll let you know the finer points. Then you can decide whether you still want the position.”
“As you say, Magus.”
“You're well aware the city is unstable. Many think I wish to become its ruler, or hope to use me to make them ruler. Anyone who serves me should be aware that this means they may be targets, for those hoping to extract information if nothing else.”
“People might try to pump me for information, or worse. I understand.”
“You'll be doing the marketing, so you will be in danger. Keel is also hiring armsmen. One will accompany you whenever you leave the Citadel.”
“I will lay two spells on you. The first is a Compulsion not to betray any secrets you may learn while in my employ. This Compulsion is voluntary; you have to agree to it. The second spell is simple tracking magic; if someone takes you or you get into trouble, I'll know where you are and can come collect you. These two spells are non-negotiable requirements of your employment. Are you agreeable?”
“Will they hurt?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Will they let you read my mind?”
“Not a single stray thought.”
“How much is the pay, Magus? Your boy was somewhat vague about that. He said 'at least double whatever you're making now.'”
“What are you making now?”
“Nothing, being unemployed at present.” He smiled.
“What were you making before you became a man of infinite prospects?”
“Two gold, six silver a month.”
“Then I'll pay you eight.”
“No. Eight gold.”
“That's too much, Magus.”
“Three gold for your services. Five for your hazard.” I scooped out a handful of marks from my purse and counted out twenty. “Your first month in advance. The rest is for marketing. If you need more just tell me, but I'll expect a weekly accounting.”
“As you say, Magus.”
“Any other questions, Master Marl?”
He looked around. “Where's the kitchen, then?”
~ ~ ~
The third caller was an old man pulling a hand cart. The steep incline had obviously worn him out. Inside the cart were two fishing nets, reeking of the sea. I foolishly hadn't specified to Keel that they should be new.
Live and learn.
I tipped the man a couple of silver for his trouble, and brought the nets inside. If I hadn't needed a bath and a change of clothes before that, I certainly did after. I dumped them on the floor and called out for Master Marl.
“Aye, magus?” he replied, half-climbing the stairs and poking his head up from what I just knew he would refer to as the galley, if only to himself.
“Any idea how to make these less rank and less slimy?”
“Aye, I can do it, magus. Will you be needing them today?”
“Tomorrow will serve.”
“D'you need 'em dry?”
“No. Just not sopping wet.”
“I'll have 'em ready by morning. But I'll need to buy a tub. Among many, many other things.”
“Noon tomorrow is soon enough.”
There was another knock on the door.
“Would you like me to get that, Magus?” asked Marl, and I shook my head.
The furniture had arrived.
Five beds, five smallish wardrobes, three silver-backed mirrors in wooden frames, another table and six straight-backed dining chairs, a couch whose pastel embroidery made my eyes want to bleed. Bedding. Linens. Chamber pots. Pitchers. A coat rack. A boot scraper. A porcelain flower vase. Pewter tankards and stamped iron utensils. Other things I didn't bother to unpack and identify.
Keel was having entirely too much fun.
I had them dump it all there on the first floor. Keel could have fun setting it all up, as well. I tipped them well. Bellarius, being dishearteningly vertical for the most part, couldn't boast much in the way of draft animals. Human toil was the norm.
“D'you want me to get started on all that, Magus?” Marl asked me, face impassive. Here was a man unafraid of work.
“No, let's leave it for Keel, shall we? I asked him to buy a few necessities, for a few days. It looks like he cleared out every furnishings shop in the city.”
“Well, to be fair magus, the shopkeepers are hurting. Like as not he paid a pittance for all these goods.”
“Speaking of which, have you worked up a list of what you'll need for the kitchen?”
“Aye. I'll be going marketing now, with your permission. And I'll pick up my kit while I'm about it.”
~ ~ ~
By the time the next knock on the door came, I'd fashioned four burning tower badges. It was intricate work, and being practically frivolous, I rather enjoyed it. I rarely had a chance or a reason to be artistic with the Art. The intricate, precise work required a level of concentration I was familiar enough with. The consequence of failure was nothing at all; a feeling I'd almost forgotten.
I'd transformed a few marks into the shape of the Citadel, then tied and hardened tiny little flickering flames of green witchlight to come licking out of the windows. The effect was somewhat gaudy, and I'd need to renew each of them every few days. But I was pleased with the result.
There was another knock, more insistent this time.
I got up from the table, expecting Moc Mien. I went and opened the door.
It wasn't Moc Mien.
The man at the door was a hulking brute with a scar that ran up his face and creased his shaved, tanned scalp. His eyes were a dirty green, small, and rather evil-looking. The teeth he exposed with his insincere smile were very, very white, though. He was dressed in woolen trousers and a leather jerkin that was too small to go all the way around his barrel chest. A silver amulet on a chain gleamed between his overdeveloped pectorals.
“Did Keel send you?” I asked, thinking it was one of the mercenaries.
“No. Gabul Steyner did.” And then he punched me in the face. Through the wards.
Through the Telemarch's wards.
I staggered back, momentarily stunned, and he followed me in, as if the wards simply weren't there. He punched me again, and I fell to the floor, ripping power from my well as I went down. With a flick of my wrist I released it, regretting for Marle's sake the mess of blood and tissue that was about to coat the room.
“They all do that,” the man said, standing over me and waving his hands in a parody of a mage casting a spell. “And then they all get that stupid look on their faces when nothing happens.” He smiled. “I never get tired of that.”
He picked me up by the front of my shirt and threw me onto the table. Everything on it went flying. I bounced once and tumbled to the floor. I landed hard and awkward on my side, with an awful wrench to my shoulder, one hand twisted behind my back.
He flung the table aside and squatted down, reaching for my neck.
“What do you want?” I asked, and then his hands were squeezing the breath out of me. Hard.
“I got what I want; Steyner's money. Now he gets what he wants. You dead.”
So, the muscles of my arm shrieking in abused protest, I pulled Amra's knife out of my belt where I kept it at the small of my back, and plunged it into the side of his neck.
He fell back. I kept the knife. He put his huge hands to the wound, but it was pointless. I'd hit the artery. He looked at me in shock.
I worked myself up to a squatting position, spat blood out of my lacerated mouth. A piece of tooth went with it.
“They all get that stupid look on their faces, when a mage sticks steel in them instead of waving his arms around,” I panted, an ugly, oily hate possessing me. “You should have run me through with a sword as soon as I opened the door,” I continued, over his dying grunts. “But no, you had to make it personal. You had to mix business and pleasure, you miserable, twisted shit.”
Then I leaned over him and, with a violence-shaky hand, reached out and took the amulet from his neck, snapping the chain. Then I sat back.
As soon as I'd touched the thing, I'd become completely cut off from my well. I knew what it was. For whoever touched the thing, magic simply didn't exist. I'd heard of such things before, but had never actually seen one. They were rare artifacts even before the Cataclysm, and completely impossible to fabricate nowadays. How this murderous thug had gotten hold of one was a mystery.
“Thanks for the magical sink,” I told him as the spark faded from his eyes, slipping the amulet into my pocket. “It might prove useful.”
Then, with a groan, I got up and dragged his carcass out to the street.