Seventeen years after the events of chapter LXXXIX . . .
I get a summons from the palace. It’s from my half-sister, the younger Lady Gwella. It’s a surprise. We’ve never been close, even though we’re almost the same age. No one was ever close to Gwella. She was just so reserved, growing up, always mature beyond her years. She never played the usual childhood games.
The summons doesn’t say what it’s about. Maybe it’s about my mother. She’s been pilloried and thrown into the dungeon again. It’s happened so often now I’m told one of the cells is named after her. Not that it bothers her. She’ll be out in a week. You don’t keep a pregnant woman in the dungeon. Just whom she’s pregnant by is a question. For once, she’s not telling. The answer must be a whopper.
Gwella receives me in her quarters, the Court Magician’s workshop. She’s lived here since taking the role over from Chypa the Stranger last year, at age sixteen. To my surprise, she greets me with a hug and calls me brother. She invites me to sit in her parlor, has a servant bring in drinks, and then dismisses him.
I look Gwella over. Seeing her is oddly like looking into a warped mirror. We could be twins. We have the same coloring and the same short, slight build we got from our father, Tollon the Wanderer. At least so I’m told, as neither of us has ever seen the man; he left Auspulia before we were born. Gwella’s filled out nicely on her narrow frame these last two years. Me? I do sword practice every day, and I still couldn’t intimidate five-year-olds.
“Your mother, Lady Evana, has really done it this time,” Gwella tells me. “Do you know who the father is?”
I shake my head. “My mother’s her own woman, Gwella. I imagine she’s had an affair with some titled fool who now doesn’t want to explain to his wife what he was doing.”
“Close,” she replies. “The king.”
Stefano? I shake my head. “Can’t be. He’d have told me. Besides, he’s fourteen.”
“Old enough to get a lady pregnant, and I doubt he wants to confess to his friend that he’s been bedding his friend’s mother. Particularly since, knowing your mother, she seduced him.” Gwella takes a sip from her drink. “The dowager queen will have a fit when she finds out. The last thing she wants is another succession crisis. And the thought of her son cavorting with a political subversive just is not going to help at all.”
I have to admit that Gwella’s probably right about my mother and King Stefano. Rather that deal with that thorny topic, I seize on the implication of the rest of what she said. “The queen doesn’t know yet?”
“Inacha has her hands full with the usual politics of the regency. But let’s just say she’ll figure it out sooner or later.”
Since Gwella’s telling me this, I figure she has something in mind. “And you’re talking to me about this because?”
“Let’s just say I’m willing to smooth over this little affair, for a price.” Gwella gives me her “I have you over a barrel” look.
“And the price is?” I know I’m not going to like this.
“I’ve decided I need an apprentice.” She grins at me.
“No. No way, Gwella.” Apprentice to Gwella? She for whom “I told you so,” is the start of every conversation? I desperately try to think of reasons why this won’t work that I can offer her. “The queen will never allow the son of a political subversive to hold a position at Court.”
Gwella leans back in her chair and laughs. It’s one of the few times she ever seems as young as she is, when she laughs. “On the contrary, Effran, it’s perfect. I’ll tell Inacha your being my apprentice will bind your mother to the Court.”
“You know that won’t work. My mother’s her own woman.” How many times do I have to say this?
“It doesn’t have to work,” Gwella answers me. “It just has to sound good, long enough for Inacha to accept that her first grandchild will come from . . . ah . . . that ‘arrant strumpet,’ I believe is the phrase she uses these days. Inacha dotes on kids. Once that child is born, problem solved.”
“And your price for this is that I become your apprentice?” I hope she’s not serious.
“Exactly. Not negotiable, Effran.” All traces of her youth vanish from Gwella as she gives me one of her serious looks.
“Why me?” I ask.
Gwella smiles a remarkably quirky smile, and that youth comes back into her. It’s disconcerting how quickly her appearance shifts as much as it does. “I could say I want to keep it in the family. I could say it would be hard to recruit a good apprentice when I’m so young myself. Truth is, Effran, you’re not cut out to be a warrior or a revolutionary. You don’t have the temperament or the physique. While you could win respect as a magician. So?”
I throw up my hands. “I don’t think I’m being given much choice here.”
Trust Gwella to be to the point. So I give in, for now. “What do I have to do?”
Gwella gives me a girlish smile again. “Well, I’d like you to go to the market and get me some dragon’s teeth.”
THE END of Magician’s Apprentice