POLITICS - A Wizard's Forge excerpt
Marble columns adorned the face of the brothel, a carpet skimming the steps down to the cobbled street. Ashel whistled softly at a brass knocker. Traine had twice as many thieves as slaves. How did the knocker remain fixed on the door and not carried off in someone’s pocket?
Simlael rubbed his hands together. “This is what I’ve dreamt of since I was a lad, boys.”
Bellin, face flushed red as his hair, held Ashel’s arm. “You cannot go in there.”
Exchanging a grin with Simlael, Ashel hefted his pouch. “I think I can.”
“I’m not talking about the cost!” His eyes darting at passersby, Bellin leaned closer. “If you get into trouble—”
“Come on,” Simlael snorted. “Leave the old biddy here.”
“I just want to see,” Ashel assured Bellin as he mounted the steps. “We’ll meet you back at the Guildhouse.”
A woman, clad only in strips of gauze tied to a ring round her neck, admitted them. Ashel’s cheeks flamed at glimpses of creamy brown skin molded in luxurious curves. Since he’d arrived in Traine, he’d grown accustomed to mistresses walking nude through the streets—or, at least, he no longer feared the buttons might burst off his trousers. The buttons strained in their buttonholes now. “Maybe this was a mistake,” he muttered.
Simlael cast him a scathing look as they followed the woman to a parlor furnished with silk-upholstered chairs and gleaming tables. Carpet thick as summer grass cushioned their steps, and damask draperies graced doorways leading elsewhere. Patrons garbed in silk and erinsheen chatted while gauze-clad youths strolled among them. Ashel and Simlael sat upon a vacant couch and took the wine offered by a green-eyed boy of twelve. Ashel’s stomach flopped over, thinking what duties the boy might have. His mother’s railing against Trainer debauchery rang in his mind as a girl the same age kneeled before them and handed them cards discreetly printed with services and fees. “Anyone who pleases you.” She gestured at the courtesans scattered among the patrons: mature men and women down to youths barely into puberty. They’re not slaves, Ashel reminded himself. The courtesans belonged to a guild, just as he did.
“Well, I see one I like. Or maybe two,” Simlael said, hopping off the sofa. “Don’t know how long this’ll take, my boy.”
Ashel lounged back, examining his cuticles. “See you in ten minutes.”
“Ha! I’ll see you back at the Guildhouse.” His friend put a finger alongside his nose. “Don’t let Bellin’s nattering stop you from having fun.”
He gathered a pair of youths, waggled his eyebrows at Ashel, and followed them out. Sipping wine, Ashel watched the other patrons. One woman, her hair braided with silver twine, beckoned to a young man with sculpted biceps and thighs. Pulling aside the gauze covering his hips, the woman pursed her lips. With a curt nod, she glided out, courtesan in tow.
“You’re a beauty,” a woman purred, sitting beside him. Blue silk strips cascaded from the band of jewels round her neck. Dusky aureoles peeked through the gaps in her gown, and Ashel’s blood rushed to his groin.
Do not act like a lusty bumpkin, he ordered himself. Imparting his best smile, he raised his glass. “Only one of many in this room.”
“Let me tell your fortune.”
His eyes fell on the card, but she covered it with her hand. “To serve the prince of Latha would be an honor, Your Highness.”
He glanced after Simlael. “You know who I am?”
“Who you must be—two younglings come into my establishment, clearly Lathan by their dress and speech, or lack of it.” She smiled slyly. “It’s disconcerting, hearing voices in your head but not in your ears.”
“I’ll speak aloud then,” he said in Betheljin.
“Oh Highness, your voice is as easy on the ears as you are on the eyes, but in this house you must do as you please.”
“I’m pleased to continue listening to your deductions.”
A contralto laugh turned the air a sultry red. Ashel’s heart thudded, his palms moist as she leaned closer, her hand sliding up his thigh. “As I said, two Lathan younglings stroll in and one may be the comeliest youth I’ve ever seen. Considering my business, that’s quite something. There could be only one conclusion. It’s an honor to serve you, Your Highness. I’ll tell your fortune upstairs.”
Her hand pressed into his crotch, and the buttons of his trousers threatened to pop. His breath came in short gasps, and he had to swallow a yelp as the woman pressed against him. “No charge,” she breathed.
Elesendar. His hand floated toward the gaps in her garment and those plump brown breasts, his lips hungered for the salty skin below, his fingers longed to glide along her thighs, he yearned to feel her hands reaching round his—
“I’m sorry, madam,” he said, thrusting himself off the sofa. “I shouldn’t have come.” Setting his wine glass on a table, he reached for his pouch. “For the wine—”
“No charge,” she said with a wry wink. “But come again, when you’re ready.”
Outside, the afternoon heat pressed upon him, and he considered heading for the docks and a plunge. The stink of dead fish and raw sewage might cool his ardor better than the water, but he’d never survive Simlael’s ribbing and Bellin’s disgust. Instead he turned toward the Guildhouse, choosing a path that led him past a warehouse sporting a mural of a woman descending to a valley full of erin. Three rams stood in front of the herd, their horns fierce in a brilliant sunset. Facing them, the woman clasped her hands in supplication. It was a mystery why this painting of a Lathan mountain valley should be here, in the richest, most powerful capital in Knownearth, but Ashel enjoyed the reminder of home, and he found something new each time he studied it. Today, a hint of white caught his eye, and when he peered closely, he saw the artist had included Elesendar’s Shrine on a bluff overlooking the valley. “Samantha Farrak giving herself up,” he breathed, then kicked himself for not recognizing the painting’s subject sooner. He was studying to be a Loremaster, for Shrine’s sake.
“Samantha Farrak indeed,” a passerby said, halting beside him. Blond hair framed a handsome face, the man’s skin bronzed from sunshine. The gemstones and thread of gold adorning his vest bespoke wealth; the brawny pair of guards, eyes flicking over the street, marked him as a Citizen. “Without her sacrifice,” he continued, “the Erin Alliance would never have come about.”
Ashel smiled to cover a tick of nervousness at the bodyguards’ threatening glares. “But it would never have been drafted without Lieutenant Grossmont.”
“A scholar of the Logs! Oh, but you’re Lathan. Did you attend the Academy?”
“I’ll be teaching there once I return home.” Ashel relaxed, pleased to find one of Traine’s first rank who cared about something more than profit.
The Citizen’s blue eyes sparkled. “A fine institution, with a well-deserved reputation for excellence. Are you headed to the Minstrels Guildhouse now?”
At Ashel’s nod, the man declared he had business in that direction, and they walked together, talking of the mural’s artist and how various influences on art, architecture, and music crisscrossed between nations. Ashel felt he’d found a kindred spirit and welcomed the arm the Citizen placed on his shoulder. When they paused in front of a silversmith’s, the man pointed at a silver flute in the window. “Have you ever seen its like?”
Ashel’s lungs emptied of breath. That single instrument probably cost more than three months’ provisions for the entire Lathan army.
“Gold in the morning, pink in the evening,” the Citizen quoted an old poem. “The spires of Traine deny the shame of her people.”
“Those lines were penned two hundred years ago to protest the Betheljin monopoly on metal ores,” Ashel said as they resumed walking.
His companion smiled. “You do know your history! Some say it’s still true. What do you think?”
Ashel glanced at the bodyguards, then squared his shoulders, determined to honor the man with an honest opinion. “I’ve found many glorious things here, sir. I don’t begrudge the Citizens their wealth, but you have slavery and crushing poverty too, and a society founded on the backs of the starving and the despised will collapse, sooner or later.”
“Ah, but in Latha, the Guilds guard their capital as closely as the Citizens watch theirs.”
“My nation’s war with Relm has lasted a long time. The Guilds are weary of the cost.”
The man’s smile sharpened. “Well said, young man, and here is the square. I hope we meet again. Farewell.”
When Ashel entered the Guildhouse, the apprentice on door duty told him Jovial wanted to see him. He knocked on the Guildmaster’s office and pushed open the door at her call.
“What have you been up to? Bellin stomped in here an hour ago and declared he’d just witnessed the unraveling of Latha’s moral fiber.”
Ashel clenched his fists. He’d thought Bellin had outgrown tattling to the masters. “We were studying Trainer culture, as instructed.”
Jovial raised an eyebrow. “In a brothel.”
He offered an innocent smile. “It’s a well-regarded profession here. The Commissar has brothel-lords on his council.”
“And when I found you dicing away your passage home, you reminded me the gambling dens play a vital role in Traine’s economy. Bellin is right that you should take more care. Remember where you are and who you are, Ashel. Traine may be a neutral capital, but the Relmlord keeps a home here—you could run into him anywhere, any time. And after the Guild swore we could protect you without a boatload of guards, the last thing I need is to be forced to inform your parents that the Relmlord has had you snatched off the street and is holding you for ransom.” He started to protest, but she waved him to silence. “You’re performing tonight at the Commissar’s.”
An impish thought produced a grin. “What’ll you do if the Relmlord is there and has me snatched out of the Commissar’s parlor?”
Jovial glared at him. “The Guild used to cane journeymen for cheek like that, prince or no.”
“Luckily I apprenticed in more benevolent times.” He sobered. “You know the only reason the Commissar asked for me is because I’m a prince who sings. I’m no more than a novelty to him.”
“Be that as it may, you’re going.” The corners of Jovial’s mouth tilted upward. “The Commissar pays well. You might even earn enough for a cabin on the ship home, instead of a hammock in the hold.”
† † †
As midnight approached, Ashel changed into the ceremonial robes of the Guild, hesitated, then slung the spun crystal sash over his shoulder, declaring his status as a Lathan royal. A novelty indeed.
Jovial waited for him downstairs, her hair done in elaborate curls sparkling with crystal dust. Glintil shell shimmered around her throat and at her ears, and a jeweled brooch held her cloak about her shoulders. She smiled as he came in. “Try not to look so uncomfortable. A minstrel must use everything to his advantage. If being a prince gets you a gig, be a prince!”
In the Commissar’s palace, a butler led them into the largest hall he’d ever seen. Crystal chandeliers hung from a lofty ceiling covered with mirrors. Lamplight reflected on a floor blazing with red and gold silk. Elaborate costumes bedecked the guests, from chandelier-bumping turbans to an emerald gown with a train so long two yawning children had been employed to carry it.
The butler’s voice echoed across the babble, announcing them: “The Minstrel Jovial of Alna, Master of the Guildhouse in Traine. The Recorder Ashel of Narath, Prince of Latha.”
Jovial led him to a sitting area where courtiers surrounded a sharp little man. “Commissar Parnden,” Jovial said aloud in Betheljin, asking Ashel in mindspeech to put on his best rustic-prince face, “your invitation came as such a pleasure! May I present his Highness, Prince Ashel of Latha.”
Ashel bowed and offered his hand. An enormous diamond strapped to the Commissar’s forehead seemed to crush his neck into well-padded shoulders, so the man looked like he was drowning in orange silk. Parnden clasped Ashel’s hand, his grip soft and his grin malicious. “How is your lovely mother? I was schooled in Latha, you know, and miss the sight of her. But here you are, her very image, if she were a fine young man, that is. Here, sit with me.”
Hiding revulsion behind his stage smile, Ashel accepted a glass of wine while Jovial excused herself to oversee the musicians. Halfway across the room, she dipped her knees to a tall, blond Citizen—the art connoisseur from that afternoon. The Commissar smiled devilishly at the man’s approach. “There’s someone else who attended your Academy and knew your mother and father. You ought to meet.”
Ashel stood, his gut twisting with foreboding.
“We met this afternoon.” The Citizen dipped his shoulders and offered his hand; his grip might have broken the bones of someone who had not spent years stretching for chords on a harp. “And now we’ve run into each other again, just as I hoped.”
“Ah, you know each other already?” Parnden sniggered. “And yet the watch reported no trouble today.”
Ashel cursed himself for the biggest fool in Knownearth. Snatched off the street. That pair of bodyguards could have stuffed him into a carriage before anyone noticed. “We weren’t properly introduced. Lornk Korng, I presume?” His heart quailed at the lecture he’d receive from his mother for acting the rube in front of the Lord of Relm. And like a buffoon he’d told Latha’s enemy that the Lathan Guilds were tired of paying for the war! Elesendar’s Shrine, it was lucky his father hadn’t made him the Heir.
The Relmlord flashed white teeth at him. “Pleased to make your formal acquaintance. How are your parents?”
“Well. The Lathan border expands every day.”
Lornk laughed. “By fall we’ll have regained our rightful lands. Perhaps by winter we’ll have won through to Narath. I haven’t dined at the Manor in”—his eyes rolled over Ashel—“twenty years? Certainly before you were born.”
Ashel returned a tight smile. “Olmlablaire is something to behold, I hear. I look forward to the day when its bannerpoles bear Latha’s flag.”
Jovial came over and rescued him. Nodding to the Commissar, he walked to the dais and picked up his harp. His great-grandfather, a master minstrel, had carved it and won the heart of Latha’s Ruler with it, so becoming her consort. This harp, Ashel thought. Music, not politics. The notes drifted into his mind as he sat. When they assembled themselves, he began to sing.
His voice had settled into a baritone a few years before, and he reveled in its power as the audience’s contempt for a rustic prince from a poor country turned to admiration. Even the Relmlord bent forward, indigo eyes staring intently. In response, Ashel shifted his selections to heroic sagas about Lathan heroes overcoming great odds. He sang of Kara, Knownearth’s greatest wizard, and of how she defeated the beast that rose out of the sea. He sang about Saelbeneth, his ancestor and leader of the Council of Wizards that went to the fabled Direiellene to defeat the evil sorceress Meylnara. Casting a dagger at the Relmlord, he sang of the founding of the Erin Alliance, and how Samantha Farrak sealed the bargain with her death. Snuffling, the emerald-clad woman dabbed her eyes with a silk handkerchief, an action echoed by others around the room. And Ashel reminded them all that Elesendar chose Latha as the home for His newborn children. Latha was the birthplace of humanity, and their spirits returned to Latha when they died, to be reborn as cerrenils in the forest of Kiareinoll Fembrosh. Ashel’s chest filled, his voice broadened when he saw Elesendar shining through a window, adding His light to that of the candles. Good timing, said the showman in him.
When he finished, the audience stood enraptured, the applause slow to begin, but soon clapping and cries slaked his thirst. The Relmlord’s scowl convinced him he’d won a battle in their war, and he gladly answered Citizens’ questions about the Academy and how often it accepted foreign students.
“See, Ashel,” Jovial teased, “you love the glory.”
The hours passed, and the ensemble played country reels mixed with stately waltzes, the courtiers dancing as gaily as Lathan villagers at Landing. When golden dawn shone through the windows, the courtiers and other musicians retired, leaving Ashel and Jovial alone with the Commissar and Relmlord. Jovial curtsied to them, and Ashel returned the bows of the two men. As he turned to leave, the Relmlord grasped his hand.
“Sometimes I forget why Latha is so important,” he said. “Tonight, you reminded me. Farewell, Your Highness, and give your mother my love.”
Ashel’s eye twitched, his sense of victory unraveling. Nodding again at the Commissar, he strode to the exit, Jovial hustling after.
“I thought you weren’t interested in politics,” the master said when they reached the square.
“Do you believe in evil?” he asked, suppressing a shiver as he thought of the Relmlord’s last words: Give your mother my love.
She pursed her lips. “I believe in misunderstandings.”