Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXXII

The story so far: Tollon and Inacha were supposed to escape, but Inacha was found with a sword in her hand, buried deep in the guts of the Prince of Tanifisay. Now read on . . .

How Inacha came to drive a sword through Prince Aynascotauretartovon’s body we may never know. According to the Mistress of the Robes, Inacha was drugged. When she recovered, she remembered nothing of what happened. But she’s woken up screaming twice since then.

Technically, we’re both under arrest. But at least we’re not in the prison. The Mistress found a pair of connected rooms for us. The only reminder of our status is the pair of armed guards outside the door. We’re well fed, and servants clean the place every day. But we have little idea of what’s going on elsewhere in the castle. Politics, I gather. Prince Aynascotauretartovon left no direct heir, so the Mistress is juggling various cousins, uncles, and at least one domineering great-aunt.

I’ve been preparing some spells to use if our situation becomes more perilous. Since we lack any friends or allies in the region, I figure I’ll have one shot at getting us away. I don’t want to waste it.

After five days, we are summoned to a private royal audience, still under guard. Sitting in the prince’s throne is a thin, middle-aged woman who looks as if she’d rather be wallowing in a pig sty than dealing with us. The herald calls her Princess Tomollischentlema. The Mistress is brought in after us and stands beside us. It does not look good that she’s shackled.

Rulers often have their equivalent of Star Chamber proceedings

The princess has a harsh nasal voice. “We are displeased with the fate of our illustrious predecessor. For a prince to die at the hands of another is a crime that deserves summary justice. We have informed ourselves of the facts. So there will be no trial. No evidence is needed, no pleas will be entertained. I will pass judgment and it shall be executed forthwith.”

She stands up. The chamberlain hands her a ceremonial sword with jewel-encrusted pommel. She descends, walks over to Inacha, and points the sword at her throat. “You killed the prince. He was a stupid and cruel man, and deserved to die. That you were drugged when you did it means you can claim no reward.”

She walks over to the presumably ex-Mistress, and holds the sword to her throat. “You were in charge of the government, responsible for protecting the prince. You failed the realm by protecting him; you failed him by not protecting him. You deserve nothing.”

She lowers the sword and walks over to me. She doesn’t raise the sword to my throat. “You’re a bard. My cousin loathed your kind. I would reward you. But you are a conspirator with these other two. So this is your doom. All three of you are banished from Tanifisay. If you are within our realm after three days, you are outlawed and may be killed with impunity.” She reaches into a purse hanging by her side, and pulls out a small bag, which she holds out to me. “Take this, and sing more songs, bard.” I take it. It’s a bag of coins. I’m not so uncouth as to look into it then, but bow and say, “Thank you, Your Serenity.”

She barks out a laugh. “I am not serene, and neither is my realm.” She turns about, walks back to the throne, turns and faces us. “Judgment has been given. The prisoners are dismissed. The guards will accompany them until they have departed the realm.” She sits down.

We are returned to our rooms, the ex-Mistress with us. The guards thoughtfully remove her shackles before leaving us alone. I presume they’re still guarding the door. The former Mistress of the Robes looks around, takes a seat, and invites us to do the same. “I think that went off quite well. Tomi can be imperious when she pleases.”

Inacha catches on immediately. “That was planned, then.”

“Entirely,” is the response. “It makes life easier for her, and you’re free to go hunt this Chypa the Stranger you mentioned. Why are you looking for her anyhow?”

My turn. “We think the magician Lady Vorana has taken control of the Auspulian government and possibly done in her former husband, the Court Magician Sarton. I was Sarton’s apprentice. Chypa was another of Sarton’s wives, and also a magician. I’m told there’s little love lost between the ex-wives. So I’m trying to recruit her to go back to Auspulia and deal with Vorana.”

“I hope you’re a better magician than bard, sirrah,” the ex-Mistress says. “I’m Chypa.”

END PART SEVEN

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXXI

The story so far: Tollon has broken out of the prince’s prison, only to be wrestled to the floor by the Mistress of the Robes. She has her own agenda. Now read on . . .

Just when I think my luck can’t get any worse, it doesn’t. Instead, the Mistress of the Robes lets go of my arm. And as she stands up, she says to me, “Pick up your sword, put it away, and come with me. I don’t have time for this nonsense. And neither do you.”

I stand up with some difficulty, because my right arm still feels a bit numb. So I pick up my sword with my left hand and look to the Mistress of the Robes.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she says, and heads down the corridor.

I sheath my sword and have to run to catch up. She sees me, nods, and while she keeps walking speaks to me in a low voice. “You and your assistant are a pair of fools if I ever saw any. You excite his lust, and expect him not to do anything about it? Why couldn’t you just fail like the others?”

Trying to keep my own temper under control, I point out, “There’s this little business of being sent off to the galleys as a slave.”

She snorts. “The auditions are a fraud to keep the prince entertained and busy. No one actually gets sent to the galleys. I’ve seen to that.”

I think of what to say, and resort to, “Pity you didn’t tell my assistant that.”

She shoots me an angry glance. “I’m supposed to share state secrets with lying Auspulians? Just what are you people doing here?”

“Would you believe looking for a woman named Chypa the Stranger?” I ask.

That earns another snort. “You have a poor way of doing it.”

I have no reply to that. We walk in silence. Every time we meet guards, they salute the Mistress. When we arrive at the prince’s personal quarters, she simply orders them to let us in, and they do.

Princes know how to decorate lavishly

What is in front of us is nothing I expected. It’s the prince’s receiving room. It’s gorgeously decorated. The prince himself is splendid in a flashy green and gold uniform with plenty of medals. Standing in front of him is Inacha. She’s wearing a low-cut gown in matching colors that flatters her figure. They make a splendid pair.

There’s just one thing that ruins the effect: the sword Inacha has thrust through the prince’s body, pinning him to the wall behind him. Blood ran down the sword onto Inacha’s hand, and there’s a pool of it on the floor. The prince is clearly dead. And Inacha is standing there, hand still on the sword, with a blank look on her face.

The Mistress of the Robes curses under her breath, and then sighs. “This is going to require some changes to my plans.”

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXX

The story so far: Their quest for the mysterious Chypa the Stranger has developed a slight hitch: Tollon has been thrown into prison by the Prince of Tanafisay! And who knows what’s happened to Inacha. Now read on . . .

One of the more desirable cells in the prison

I’ve been pummeled, shackled, and tossed into a prison cell. It’s a wonder they didn’t gag me, just for kicks. Speaking of which, I’m probably badly bruised by the guards’ kicks.

But I am a magician. I’ve slain dragons, I’ve conversed with gods. I am not going to lie here helpless.

Sarton’s Rule: a court magician must be prepared to deal with the loss of favor. I hope it’s stood him in good stead. It’s why he insisted I learn spells related to escaping from guards and prisons. And I have accumulated enough power on my own to handle this. Though one has to be careful. Summoning the strength of ten men to try to break shackles is more likely to break bones first. Displacement spells are much better. One spell displaces the shackles from my limbs, the other unlocks the cell door.

See? Imprisoning a magician is futile. Well, except I still have to evade armed guards, find Inacha, get us out of this castle, and avoid pursuit.

One of those problems I can address with another of Sarton’s hobby horses: a spell of observation. One guard outside my door, two at the entrance to the prison. And the one outside my door is quickly taken out by a sleeping spell. I step outside into the corridor and take the sword from his slumping body.

I hear a noise coming from the prison door, and rush down there to be in position to tackle whoever comes through. To my delight, it’s the Mistress of the Robes. Before she can react, I grab her and hold her in front of me, sword at her throat. “Tell your guards to drop their swords,” I order her.

The Mistress is cooperative. “Drop your swords,” she orders. Then, “Give me the keys, and all of you step inside.” She speaks in a lower voice to me, “I presume you’d feel safer with them locked up.” The guards step into the prison, we exit, and she locks the prison door. She then drops the keys to the floor.

“As you can see, Randuscon, or whatever your name really is, I’m being very cooperative,” she says in a calm voice. “So let me warn you that using me as a hostage won’t work. The prince is a sadist. He would enjoy watching you cut my throat.”

“Why should I believe you?” I ask. I’m not falling for this.

“Why do you think I’m here? To measure you for stylish prison attire?” And she laughs.

Good question, but also a delaying tactic. “You’ve got one shot at this, lady. Make it a good one, or the prince may yet get to watch you die.”

“Very well. I don’t need a rival for the prince’s bed. I’m here to help you both escape.”

Welcome news, if true. “You have a plan?”

“Who do you think gives the orders around here? The prince?” She laughs again. “He has good looks, good manners, and is good for nothing. He’s perfect.”

“Jig’s up,” I say. “If that were true, you wouldn’t need to help us escape. You could just order our release.” And I start to haul her along with me.

The Mistress of the Robes suddenly reaches up with both hands, grabs my right arm, squeezes it so hard I drop the sword, then pivots and twists my arm behind my back, forcing me to the floor.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXIX

The story so far: In search of the mysterious Chypa the Stranger, Tollon and Inacha find themselves taking on the role of performing artists before the prince of Tanafisay. Now read on . . .

The prince admires Inacha before addressing me, “I am not familiar with Marsgoland. Where is it?”

“Your Serenity, for that is how I would address you among my people, for rulers bring peace, and, alas, we are too oft’ afflicted by war, it is beyond the Narthavian Mountains, which shut us off from the blessings of trade with this part of the world. I had the help of fourteen of the barbarous natives, and yet lost all the members of my party save Inacha in the crossing of them. For the trails were narrow and perilous, the beasts sly and fierce, and the White Death, oh, it is not to be spoken of in front of women. Inacha, who slew a mountain cat, was stricken mad at seeing its victims, and recovered only by forgetting everything, even her name.” I lay this on with the thickest version of my native accent I can manage.

The Mistress of the Robes, who once again looks bored, looks at me with half-lidded eyes as she observes, “It must be a queer place, this Marsgoland. For the people there speak just like a native of the hill country of Auspulia.”

Yikes! How does she happen to know my accent?

Inacha interjects, “How perceptive of Your Ladyship. We sojourned there last year, talking with that land’s bards. For my master is not just a creator and reciter, but a scholar.” She looks at me pityingly. “He studies so hard to get the accent right, and then can’t shake it for months or even years after.”

The Mistress is not finished with me. She asks, “Did you master the tracka?”

The what? “Your Ladyship, it is no longer played.”

She shrugs, closes her eyes, and sighs. “A pity. I always wanted to see how a pig’s bladder can make music.” A wave of tittering sweeps the room.

The prince takes control. “So, what have you for us? And will your lovely assistant dance for us?”

“Your Serenity, we will perform a duet. Alas, my assistant has not been able to dance since her mind was upset by the White Death.” Which is to say we had not planned on her dancing, and I don’t know if she can.

Inacha has other ideas. “Your Serenity, my master fears for your well-being. Ladies of Marsgoland are trained in dancing even in the womb, and our arts have driven men to obsession and even madness. But Your Serenity strikes me as a man of unusual wisdom, who may watch safely. Your subjects,” she makes a sweeping gesture, “may not be so fortunate.”

What has gotten into the woman? Doesn’t she realize the prince will order her to dance now? Which he does. “I will see you dance, lady. My subjects can take their chances.”

I am about to protest, when Inacha fixes me with a look. She has something in mind. Well, we were advised to be showy. Here goes. “This is the tale of the Champion of Marsgoland.” And we begin.

The story we’re telling is something we cobbled together out of some famous Auspulian plays. We structured it as a dialogue between the Champion and the lady he is romancing. In the best story-telling fashion, there are numerous repetitive lines, which makes recovering from a slip of the memory quite easy.

Some dancers can even cause men to betray their countries

Inacha surprises me. At first, we both just stand. And then, during one of my pieces, she begins moving. It doesn’t look like dancing, not at first. And then she switches styles and her movements become more fluid when it’s her turn to recite. As we progress, I gradually see what she’s doing. She’s developing two different styles of dance, one to represent the Champion, the other his lover. The Champion’s dancing evokes his strength. While his lover’s dancing is increasingly seductive. Before we’re even half way through, all eyes are on Inacha. I have trouble taking my own off her. As I pick up her gestures for the Champion, I begin making them myself when it is my turn. And so our song becomes a duet of dancing as well. When Inacha throws herself into my arms at the end, my kiss is genuinely passionate. For a moment, I forget where we are and what we’re about.

We separate and take our bows. The prince still seems mesmerized by Inacha. And then he regains awareness of his place. He comes down from his throne, takes Inacha’s hand, and kisses it. He looks at us both with a smile. “Well done, bard. You shall both be appropriately rewarded for such a marvelous performance.” He walks back to his throne, sits, summons the steward, gives him instructions. He then says to me, “My steward will see to your needs. Again, my congratulations on such a stunning performance.”

We’re dismissed and led out of the audience chamber into a side corridor. The next thing I know, I’m sprawling on the floor from a massive blow. Someone’s kneeling on me. And I head Inacha screaming.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXVIII

The story so far: While hunting for Chypa the Stranger, Tollon posed as a bard, which now means he must perform before the prince of Tanifisay. But first, the other contenders take their turns . . .

The first “bard” proves to be of wretched quality. The prince sternly sentences him to be a galley slave, remarking offhandedly, “that it will improve his lung capacity.”

The second, the more confident foreigner, gives a decent performance. The prince actually applauds, albeit with no great enthusiasm. And then he orders the bard to serve at the court of Baron Gerstomphantisiaca. The courtiers break out into laughter, and even the Mistress of the Robes allows a slight smile to cross her face. Inacha quietly informs me that Baron Gerstomphantisiaca is known both for his poverty and for being tone-deaf. The prince has sent him half a dozen bards before this.

Tari is up third. The prince hails him from his throne like a long-lost companion. “Ah, my favorite scoundrel, here to prove my thesis that since all bards are scoundrels, all scoundrels can be bards. What have you for us, Tari?”

“Something I hope will please Your Majesty and my mistress, um, I mean that gracious lady, the Mistress of the Robes.” Tari recovers quickly from his stumble.

But not quickly enough. The prince turns to the Mistress of the Robes, and asks, “Did you hear this arrant thief and braggart claim you for a lover?”

Now the Mistress of the Robes sits on the king’s left hand, slightly lower down, in a plain chair that does not compare to his throne. She has generally looked bored and disinterested up to this point. Now she sits up and looks Tari over. “I do not think so, my lord,” she replies. “But let us find out.” She points to the guards. “Seize him.” And when they do, she says, “There is one way to be sure. Strip him.” Which the guards do.

The Mistress of the Robes looks Tari over. She shakes her head and turns to the prince. “I do not recognize him.” And then she sits back and relaxes.

“Very well. Guards, release him. Tari, begin your performance.”

Tari, who has withstood this humiliation without flinching, starts to gather his clothes.

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing there, Tari?” the prince inquires.

“Getting dressed, my lord,” replies Tari.

“You must be getting hard of hearing, Tari. I ordered you to perform. I said nothing about getting dressed first.”

That rattles Tari. He starts to speak, stops, looks longingly at his clothes, and then drops them to the floor. He looks away for a few moments, and then begins a song.

Tari actually has a good voice, loud, clear, and controlled. Alas, his wits are not quite clever enough to match. He’s not doing an original composition, but a heroic ballad called “The Fair King’s Voyage.” And he’s massacring the meter, as well as the pronunciation of all the longer words. The effect is quite comic. People start tittering. The tittering spreads. The prince, who has been frowning, catches the mood and can’t help but smile. When Tari hits the famous catalogue of heroes, he is stumbling so badly, he calls the heroes “whores.” The catalogue unintentionally turns into one double entendre after another.

Finally, the prince, who by now is laughing, calls a halt. “Cease, Tari. I swear, now I understand why the Lady Mircalla was so jealous and why she wanted to see her lover Sir Edmund bloodily hewn.” He turns to the Mistress of the Robes. “Have you ever heard such an absurd performance?”

She hasn’t even cracked a smile during the performance. In dismissive tones, she answers the prince. “Quite. It was so well done one might almost wonder if it were deliberate.”

Tari’s future

The prince will have none of it. Turning back to Tari, he says, “You’re no bard, Tari. But I could use a fool, and you could use a change of clothing. Here, steward, take him and fit him in motley, and find a room for him in the castle.”

Tari is all effusive thanks. And as he turns to go, he drops me a wink and a smile. It seems the Mistress of the Robes was right.

The master of ceremonies announces, “Randuscon Elioscar Tenlennith voy Scarnta, and his assistant Inacha sy Ian, from Marsgoland.”

We’re up.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXVII

The story so far: In trying to find Chypa the Stranger, Tollon and Inacha have arrived in Tanafisay. Tollon sought to hide his identity by claiming to be a bard, only to find that means he must audition for the prince. Now read on . . .

There are four of us waiting for our chance to audition as bards before Prince Aynascotauretartovon. (Call him “Art.” Just don’t do it to his face.) I’m the only one with a companion, whom the other three have all hit on at least once. Judging from that alone, maybe they are well qualified to be bards.

Two of the other three are foreigners. The one native is full of cheery news. “The prince likes to imposed tortures . . . ah,  I mean challenges, on bards who fail to meet his standard.”

The more worried of the other two foreigners asks, “How many bards fail to meet his standards?”

The native, whose name is Montrovsitaricalcemon (goes by “Tari”), replies, “Oh, about 19 out of 20. The prince has an indulgent nature.” That last is uttered without a trace of sarcasm.

“So why are you here, Tari?” I ask.

Tari laughs. “I made the mistake of bilking the prince’s cousin of 16,000 reals. The prince, who is a merciful man, offered me the option of twenty years in the mines, or competing. Seems there’s a lack of competition, given the mortality rate.”

The less worried foreigner heaves a sigh of relief. “Good. That’s two of you that don’t stand a chance.”

“Who’s the other?” asks Tari.

The foreigner points to me. “If he’s a bard, I’m a goldsmith.”

We’re getting on each other’s nerves, not surprising since we’ve been cooped up in a castle suite for three days. At least they’re maintaining us in style, though they’re also charging us for our food and lodgings. Well, they aren’t charging Tari: he’s broke.

Inacha is immune to the tensions, largely because she’s charmed the guards into letting her out of our suite twice a day, on the excuse that she is not claiming to be a bard. She’s just been out, and returns with a smile on her face and a nod to me. We retire to our private sitting room.

“How goes the practice?” Inacha asks.

“My most marvelous speech dauntingly demonstrates many artful alliterations.” This does not quite get the smile I was hoping for. I add, “Tari tells me the prince is hard to please.”

The most famous Mistress of the Robes, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, wearing the gold key of her office

“I just spent an hour talking to him, to the horror of the guard accompanying me.” Inacha’s eyes twinkle. “Also to the Mistress of the Robes, who was sympathetic. Seems a bard seduced the prince’s mother. His own paternity is in question. It doesn’t give him a positive attitude.

“Still, I got some helpful tips. Appearances count; be showy. If you can’t speak with a native accent, make your accent quite foreign; it will intrigue the prince. And it’s his Mistress of the Robes who will determine what sentence will be imposed on us if you fail. She’s either his actual mistress or maybe she’s just the dominant partner in their relationship. It’s hard to tell without seeing them together.

“Oh, and the auditions are tomorrow morning.”

“We were told three days from today,” I point out.

Inacha nods. “They did tell us that. They lied, deliberately. The Mistress of the Robes tells me they always do that. The idea is that the bards will have to be more spontaneous and improvise, thus showing their real talent.”

All I can say in reply is, “Did I ever mention I lost every debate in school?”

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXVI

The story so far: In their quest for help from Chypa the Stranger, Tollon and Inacha arrive in the port of Tanafisay.

My apologies for posting yesterday’s chapter much later than usual, by the way.

Now read on . . .

“It really is a sea serpent!”

Checking out the new arrivals

We’re standing in the admissions hall of the port of Tanafisay. Never heard of such a thing before. Apparently the port is picky about who it lets onshore. Mounted on the northern wall is a lengthy hide or skin of some snake-like beast with gills that could swallow a good-sized dog. It’s got fangs, grinding teeth, presumably four eyes, and even little legs. It doesn’t look like it died happy.

We arrive at the desk of the clerk or magistrate, whatever she is. “Names? Occupations? Reasons to visit Tanafisay?” It all comes rattling out.

Inacha goes first. “Inacha sy Ian. Information broker. Assisting employer.”

My turn. “Randuscon Elioscar Tenlennith voy Scarnta. Bard. Research trip for material.” Who worries about a bard?

She looks narrowly at me. “Where’s your instrument?”

“I sing. And I wanted to see what instruments you have here that I can take back to Marsgoland.”

She looks dubiously at me, but scratches some lines on a form and hands it to Inacha. She points off to our right. “Go through door 13. Give them the form. Next.”

Dismissed, we walk over, open door 13, and enter.

“Close the door behind you.” The voice comes from another clerk or magistrate, who looks almost identical to the one we just left. Same green hair and skin, and red eyes.

We close the door, step up to the front of the desk, and hand over the form. The woman looks it over. “Bard, eh? Well, let me tell you, Mister,” she looks down at the form, “Tenlennith voy Scarnta, the prince doesn’t like loafers. Or panhandlers. Or bards. Do you get my drift?”

I nod. “I’m getting the picture.”

“So, you’ve got two choices. Turn around and take your tush back to whatever mean, hardscrabble land birthed you, or audition before the prince. He’s not kind to failures, I should add.”

Inacha jumps in. “What if my revered employer revealed he has several other useful skills?”

“Then we’d charge him with fraud and sentence him to twenty years in the mines.” She turns to me. “Your call, bard, or whatever you are.”

I try to impress with a verse:

“The city prince,

an audience,

my road to fame,

Randuscon’s my name.”

The woman shakes her head. “It’s your life.” And rings a bell.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXV

The story so far: Tollon’s been forced to flee the city, taking Inacha with him. He’s not happy. Now read on . . .

I’m living with three mysteries. And it’s driving me crazy.

I’ve been traveling with Inacha for two weeks now. She’s attractive, sensible, and witty. We’ve even had to make do with sharing a bed on occasion. But we aren’t having a sexual relationship. Neither one of us has brought it up, and I can’t figure out why.

Inacha’s been very helpful with mystery #2: Chypa the Stranger. Inacha strikes up a conversation with the men in some inn or tavern we’ve stopped at, and eventually they come up with some story about Chypa. A lot of them sound like legends, but many of them come with a solid fact. Like a plaque in the park where Chypa killed a brutal earl.

And then there is mystery #3: what’s going on back home in the Kingdom of Auspulia? Thanks to the ring she gave me, I can communicate with Lady Gwella, who tells me her husband is raising an army to fight the king. But it’s a mystery to her, too, what is going on in the capital. Is Sarton alive? Did Vorana kill Zilla and take over Gehulia? What’s happened to Evana? To Paviara? No way to find out.

“Stop fretting,” Inacha tells me as she joins me at the stern. She knows me well enough already to tell that’s what I’m doing.

We’re on the ship Theonava, sailing for the port of Tanafisay. The stories have it that Chypa went there, decades ago. For lack of any better leads, we’re going there.

“At least I’m not sick in our cabin,” I grumpily reply. I’ve never been to sea before, never suffered from sea sickness. It’s an experience I could have done without. Inacha, who’s also never been to sea, didn’t suffer at all.

“I’ve been talking to the captain,” she says, smiling at me.

“Let me guess. He has a story about Chypa.”

Chypa don’t back down for no one

Inacha frowns at my tone, and then shakes it off. “Seems she sailed on one of the big freighters, and defeated a man-eating sea serpent that crawled onto the deck. The creature’s hide is supposed to be on display in Tanafisay.”

“Chypa seems to have done everything,” I sourly reply.

Inacha nudges me. “What’s eating you? I’m beginning to think you were more pleasant when you were sick.”

I stare out to sea, back to Auspulia. “So far, I haven’t actually done anything, except run away. Meanwhile, for all I know, everyone I care about is dead. Or worse.”

Inacha leans on the railing, looking out in the same direction. “I’m a failed suicide, Tollon.” She turns to me. “Did you know that?”

I shake my head, wondering where this is going.

“Failure as a daughter, failure as a waitress, failure as a whore. And then I topped it off by being a failure as a suicide.” She shakes her head. “But I’m not a failure. You’re a short, slight figure of a man, but you killed a dragon, two of them, even. How’d you do that?”

“Luck.”

“Brains.”

“Luck.”

“Magic.”

“Luck.”

Inacha laughs. “Okay, luck. You’re a lucky guy. Put that luck to use. And maybe the brains and magic you say you don’t have.”

“I didn’t say . . .” I stop, mid-sentence. I see what she’s doing to me. “You’re not going to trick me into a good mood.”

“Thank the gods for that,” she exclaims. She turns and leans on the railing, looking out to sea again. “Knowing how to stay in a bad mood is essential.”

It takes me a bit of time to say it. “I’m sorry.”

Inacha keeps looking out to sea as she speaks. “It’s easier for me. There’s no one back there I care about much. I’m on an adventure. I’ve got a dragon-killing wizard beside me. I’m alive.” Now she turns to me. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life, Tollon. But it’s really your adventure, not mine. And I’m fine with that. How about you?”

Inacha’s made her point. Instead of answering her, I lean on the rails and stare out to sea. Maybe we’ll find Chypa. Maybe she’ll help. And maybe I’ll have to consider how to proceed if we can’t find her. After all, I’m a dragon-killing wizard who’s tangled with gods.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXIV

The story so far: On the run from the law, Tollon worries that a magician might also be hunting him. Now read on . . .

Zilla is pessimistic. “I often dismiss Sarton. But that’s because he’s been uninterested in what goes on in Gehulia. In a fight, I’d lose. So if this Vorana has displaced him, I won’t be able to protect you, Tollon.”

We’re in Zilla’s office, in what passes for a respectable street in Gehulia. Here, Zilla is herself, a middle-aged woman, and not the withered crone she plays out on the streets. There are only two other people who see Zilla as she really is: her lover and her clerical assistant.

“That’s if she finds out I’m here,” I point out. “And you’d sense any magical work in the neighborhood, wouldn’t you?”

Zilla gets up and goes to the window behind her desk. Looking out at the street, she says, “I would, and I have. It started two days ago. Someone’s testing the limits of my power. Whoever it is, they’re pushing a lot harder each day.” She turns and looks at me. “This isn’t just about you, I’m sure, not with the sort of power I’ve felt. Someone’s planning a magical attack on Gehulia, a major one, probably within the next pair of days.” She frowns. “And I tell you, Tollon: they are going to win.”

Grim news. “What are you going to do?”

She sits back down in her chair and shrugs. “Stay. Fight. Quite possibly die. I don’t have much choice. I’d be too vulnerable if I tried to run.” She offers me a sad chuckle. “You’ve come to me for help. Now the only help I can give you is advice. You’re young, you’re capable, but you haven’t yet had the time to build up your own power enough to slug it out with an experienced magician.  And, as you’ve found out yourself, gods are capricious. They are not to be relied upon.

“So leave Gehulia. Flee this city. Go find an ally you can depend upon. I can give you a name: Chypa the Stranger. If you can find her, you can depend on her.”

I ask the natural questions. “Where do I find her? And why can I trust her?”

One tribe of wanderers are religious pilgrims

Zilla shakes her head. “Where you can find her, I don’t know. She wanders all over the world.  But if you go looking for her, you will find her. As for trusting her, I’ll let you be the judge. She’s my aunt and Sarton’s third wife. And she’s definitely no friend of Vorana’s.”

With Zilla’s words ringing in my eras, I go back to my lodgings, a room in a sprawling boarding house on the east edge of Gehulia. I pack up what I need: clothes, money, a single grimoire I borrowed from Zilla, and the remaining dragons’ teeth. I’m all set to leave when there’s a knock at the door. Sword in hand, I open the door.

Inacha stands there, dressed in nondescript riding clothes. Without preamble, she says, “I have two horses ready. Zilla says you’ll need help finding Chypa the Stranger. And I am an information broker.”

It looks like I won’t be traveling alone.

(To be continued . . .)

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Magician’s Apprentice Chapter LXIII

The story so far: Hunted for his role in helping the Earl and Lady Haulloran to escape, Tollon has taken refuge in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Gehulia, where he finds himself with some unlikely jobs. Now read on . . .

I’m waiting for Inacha to finish buttoning up her blouse. She’s the forty-third woman who’s unbuttoned her blouse for me today. And, no, I’m not sleeping with all of them. Or any of them. Particularly not Inacha.

Gehulia is not quite the anarchic neighborhood it appears to be. And the reason is the magician Zilla. She runs it, keeping the legitimate and criminal businesses carefully in balance, effectively punishing those who try to upset that balance.

I find this out because as part of the deal I’ve struck with Zilla to hide out in Gehulia, I’m working as one of her lieutenants. So I get to see her operations from the top to the bottom.

Take the job I’m just wrapping up. The fastest way to spread the deadly passion fever, as you might expect from the name, is through prostitution. So I’m doing the rounds of all the businesses that use them, checking that the prostitutes aren’t developing the red patches on their backs that are the first sign of the disease. Zilla sticks me with this duty fairly frequently, because a lot of the women are attracted to me and I have to keep declining their attentions. This is Zilla’s idea of humor, making me do this.

So I always end these inspection trips at the Broken Claw. Gehulia has poor, spirit-broken whores. It has high-class girls with fancy clothes and empty souls. And it has Inacha. She’s the reason I end my rounds here.

Inacha came to the city, like many a young woman, with hopes and dreams. And like many, she soon found that most jobs that require no skills also have little pay. So she turned to prostitution.

At which she was a complete failure. This is difficult to accomplish in Gehulia. Inacha is too naturally pretty to work at the low end, and is too talkative and awkward in bed to take a place at the high end. She has some very funny stories of her failures.

So Inacha reinvented herself. She took her looks and her charm, her wit and her intelligence, and she became a gentleman’s escort and information broker. The Broken Claw is her base in Gehulia. And, strictly as a matter of pride, she’s still carried on Zilla’s books as a prostitute. Which is why I have to check her.

Beheading enemies has long been a prerogative of monarchs.

With that over, we exit the back room we were using and take a seat in one of the tavern’s booths. Inacha waits until the waitress has delivered our drinks, and we’ve both taken a sip, before she gets down to business: court news and gossip. “Another execution outside the palace today. Baron Stivest.”

The king has been liquidating Earl Haulloran’s supporters with uncharacteristic speed. That’s the twelfth to the chopping block since Haulloran fled fifteen days ago. “What about the queen?” I ask.

Inacha barks out a laugh. “Still no sign of Her Spiffy Superiorness. I know someone with direct access to her. She’s alternating between being loudly mad and quietly seeking a way to escape from the king. Which is one reason he’s executing Haulloran’s allies so readily. No one wants to risk the chopping block for the sake of a monarch who’s not even in her right mind half the time.”

I’m about to ask another question, when Inacha leans forward and rests her hand on my arm. Those big gray eyes of hers look right into mine as she speaks in an undertone. “Not so well known is that the king’s seeing another woman. Not the lady-in-waiting who bore his child. No, this is some stranger named Vorana.”

Not a name I want to hear in any context. I ask Inacha if she’s got a physical description, which she does, and it matches exactly.

“You know this woman?” Inacha naturally asks.

“Not as well as Sarton,” I tell her. “She’s an ex-wife of his. They are not on friendly terms.”

“Magician?”

“Definitely.”

Inacha gives a worried shake of her head. “Then it is probably significant that Sarton hasn’t been visible since she showed up.”

I sit back in my seat, thoroughly depressed. “Significant” doesn’t quite capture the catastrophic implications. Vorana has probably displaced Sarton as Court Magician, in fact if not in name. She’s probably made the king into her puppet.

And the last, most depressing thought? Lady Gwella might not have been lying to me. She may not have been the one who put a spell on the queen. It might well have been Vorana. How, I don’t know. It may well be that Vorana has outplayed us all. To what end?

Seeing my sad and thoughtful look, Inacha smiles and says to me, “You need a place to rest your head tonight, you can always spend the night with me.”

(To be continued . . .)

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