A blight of mages, p.1
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       A Blight of Mages, p.1

           Karen Miller
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A Blight of Mages





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  Table of Contents

  Copyright Page

  Dedicated to

  All the readers who love The Mage books.

  Thank you.

  Chapter One

  There were times—many times—when Barl thought the sound of ticking clocks would drive her mad.

  Not that the clocks ticked while they were being created, of course. And once they were completed they ticked just long enough to prove they were in perfect working order, and not a moment longer. After that they were warded between tick and tock and remained hushed as midnight until they reached their destination, so that the artisanry’s wealthy patron had the privilege of setting his or her ruinously expensive purchase into motion.

  But even so, she could still hear the wretched things.

  Or perhaps what I’m hearing is the rest of my life ticking into oblivion, into obscurity, into nothing but eventual, echoing silence.

  Before her, on the sturdy workbench that had become almost her whole world, sat her partly completed current work piece. This time she was creating a journey clock for Lord Artur Traint, Mage Inspector of the Eleventh district. At the tender age of twenty-two she was the youngest, least experienced clock mage in the artisanry. According to her self-appointed betters that meant she should be flattered and honoured and humbled by this task.

  Instead, she was offended.

  A mole had more artistic integrity in its whiskers than Lord Traint did in all his overweening body. If only he could be guided toward a more daring construction. If only someone would listen when she pointed out the neglected opportunities in the district inspector’s humdrum design. But no, he was a great lord, born to one of the seventy First Families’ upper ranks, so she must defer to his lack of taste and daring, she must abase herself before his withered imagination, she must—

  “Barl Lindin! Do you work or do you frabble?”

  Both, she wanted to say. But Artisan Master Arndel, owner of the artisanry, was a stickler for the courtesies and the scourge of any mage who idled time. Hiding the impatience that would get her in trouble, she looked into the bony face looming above her on the other side of her bench.

  “Master, I thought to revisit the question of Lord Traint’s clock design. Perhaps if we—”

  “Revisit?” Arndel’s wide brow creased with his displeasure. “Mage Lindin, if you raise the topic again we will revisit the question of your suitability for this task. Our duty is to fulfill the patron’s expectations, not indulge our own whims.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said stiffly. “I thought our duty was to exceed expectations. If a patron can be shown a better way to—”

  “Better?” Up went Arndel’s scraggly eyebrows. “By whose lights, Mage Lindin? Do you suggest I substitute your judgement for Lord Traint’s?”

  When his lordship’s judgement was lacking? Yes. Of course. But she couldn’t say that. Not exactly. “I was only thinking that—”

  Arndel narrowed his muddy green eyes. “Mage Lindin, as I have told you already, there is more to being a clock mage in my artisanry than a desirable bent for the magic. It would seem, however, that my wise words fall upon stony ground.”

  Barl felt her cheeks warm, knowing too well how her fellow mages were enjoying the Artisan Master’s displeasure. Every reproof she earned from stolid Arndel was a carelessly tossed gift to those who resented her for being who and what she was: the best mage they would likely see in their lifetimes.

  “No, Master Arndel,” she said, and lowered her gaze that he might not see her hot resentment. “I understand perfectly.”

  “Yes?” Arndel’s voice was soaked in skepticism. “Then it is past time you proved it.” His severe finger lifted in warning. “Mage Lindin, you are a young woman with some talent, I allow, but not the wit or the wisdom that will permit me to permit you to override a loyal patron’s wishes. You are required to create the clock as Lord Traint has envisioned it. Are your skills unequal to the task?”

  No, you prosing fool, my skills are wasted!

  She wanted to shout the words loudly enough to raise the artisanry roof. But if she did, she’d only be rewarded with dismissal. She couldn’t do that to Remmie. He’d sacrificed far too much for her to throw this position aside, no matter how confining she found it.

  “Mage Lindin?” Arndel rapped out her name as though he were striking his knuckles to the bench. “Do you attend me?”

  Staring at the inked design for Lord Traint’s tedious journey clock, she took a moment to be certain her voice and face were schooled to repressed obedience. Then she looked up again.

  “Master, I apologise. I thought only to surprise Lord Traint with a small and unexpected delight.”

  A soft snort from Ibbitha Rannis sounded from the artisan bench beside her, as Arndel’s creased brow creased a little deeper.

  “Mage Lindin, you must curb your unfortunate tendency toward fancy. A precocious mage is a dangerous mage. Think upon that, rather than the unrequested rearrangements of a patron’s commission.”

  “Master,” she said, lowering her gaze a second time. She felt so hot with anger now she thought she might easily ignite the fool. Which would well serve him right, but…

  Bear with it, Barl. You must bear with it.

  Arndel nodded, not entirely convinced by her show of meek acceptance. One of the other mages raised a hand, desiring his assistance. With a final, critical glance he answered the call for help, leaving her to fume at the various components neatly arrayed on the bench, and the clear crystal shell of the prosaic clock she was being forced to complete. What it could be, what it should be, sang in her blood.

  Traint is an idiot. And so is Arndel.

  With the Artisan Master occupied elsewhere, Ibbitha shifted along her bench seat until she was close enough for whispering.

  “Truly, Barl. You never learn, do you?”

  Not counting Remmie, Ibbitha was the nearest thing she had to a friend. Talented enough, in a mundane sort of way, her fellow clock mage lacked energetic imagination or ambition and was a stickler for convention, uninterested in challenging a single rule or restriction handed down by Dorana’s Council of Mages or the Guild of Artisans or Artisan Master Arndel. Staid. That was Ibbitha. A friend of convenience, not of the heart.

  She’d never had much luck when it came to making friends.

  Mindful of their irascible employer, Barl risked a sidelong glance. “Nonsense,” she whispered back. “I’m learning every day.”

  “Yes, but what?” said Ibbitha. “You—”

  Daggered looks from the diligent mages around them killed what remained of Ibbitha’s scolding lecture. Not mourning its death, Barl returned to her clock-making, hardly needing to think about each incant and counter-ward as, with scant effort, she continued to build Lord Traint’s lamentable timepiece.

  I am bored. I am so bored. I deserve much more than this.

  Later, when the artisanry emptied for the midday meal break and they were sitting alone on a stone bench in the sunshine, Ibbitha resurrected her scold.

  “You must be more careful, Barl,” she said, dabbing a napkin daintily to her lips. “And you mustn’t be greedy. It was nearly two years before I was permitted to create commissioned clocks. And you? Why, you were accorded that privilege after a mere seven months! Why can’t you be satisfied with that?”

  Roaming her gaze around the other mages in the garden, lunch box on the bench beside her, Barl polished a plum on her green linen skirt. “Why is a babe not satisfied with crawling? Why does it struggle to first stand on its own feet, then walk, and then run?”

  Ibbitha wrinkled her snu
b nose. “You are a babe if you think rubbing Arndel across his grain will get you what you want. Besides, there is nothing wrong with Lord Traint’s clock design.”

  Barl looked at her in wonder. “You truly believe that, don’t you?”

  “Yes,” said Ibbitha, prickling. “Why would I say it if I didn’t believe it?”

  “You wouldn’t,” she said, and took a bite of plum. Rich purple juice tickled down her chin. Another bite splashed more juice to her skirt. She vanished it with a thought and a flutter of her fingers, then nibbled the rest of the plum’s sweet flesh off its stone.

  “I’ll never understand you, Barl,” said Ibbitha, staring. “Why can’t you accept things the way they are? Given your family background…” She trailed away, uncomfortable. As a rule, such things weren’t discussed. Everybody knew what rank everybody else’s family was and how they fitted into the wider tapestry of Doranen society, and that was enough. Gossip on the subject was keenly discouraged. “Well. You know.”

  Barl swallowed a bitter laugh. Oh, yes, she knew. Didn’t she beat her fists every day against the constraints of family and her proper place and what was and was not acceptable when one hadn’t been born with the right pedigree?

  “Anyway,” Ibbitha added. “What is so terrible about Lord Traint’s clock design?”

  “Ibbitha…” She sighed. “If I have to explain it then you’ll never understand.”

  Cheeks pink, grey eyes bright, Ibbitha folded her napkin with quick, overprecise little movements. “I see.”

  Bother. Her impatience had landed her in trouble yet again. Remmie was forever taking her to task over it. A little kindness never goes astray, Barl. Nobody likes to be thought a fool, even if they are one. Not that Ibbitha was a fool, exactly. She was simply prosaic.

  Around the garden, their fellow artisans were collecting themselves in dribs and drabs, the brief midday break coming to an end, a long afternoon of clockworking and leadlighting and ceramics and weaving and glassmaking ahead of them.

  “Ibbitha, I’m sorry,” she said, and touched placating fingers to her sort-of friend’s arm. “I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant to say was—”

  Ibbitha patted the napkin into her emptied lunch box. “Please don’t, Barl. You said precisely what you meant, so don’t insult me further by trying to pretend otherwise.”

  “Fine. I won’t,” she said, lobbing her plum stone into the garden’s fringing of flowers. “Instead I’ll say that Lord Traint’s clock will keep perfect time with all the grace of a farm hog trying to run on ice. The man is a boor, Ibbitha, lacking any hint of imagination. He understands function, I grant you, but has no comprehension of beauty or elegance.” A chance here to mend fences a little, so she took it. “Not like you, for instance.”

  Ibbitha was too shocked to notice the compliment. “Barl, how can you say such things? Lord Traint has a second cousin whose wife was considered for the Council of Mages. His third cousin designed two fountains in Elvado. And his grandfather submitted a new incant for ratification and patent. True, it was rejected, but even so, he submitted. And you call him a boor?”

  Simmering with frustration, Barl warded shut her own lunch box then translocated it home with an impatient finger-snap.

  “What does any of that have to do with his talent? None of those achievements belong to him, Ibbitha.”

  “He’s a district inspector!”

  “Only because he’s a Traint. If he wasn’t I’ll wager he’d not lay one finger on an inspector’s seal. Artur Traint is living proof that family connections count for more than talent. And why should that be? Why should you, or I, or any mage in Dorana be denied opportunities, denied anything, simply because we weren’t lucky enough to be born into a First Family?”

  “I declare, Barl, sometimes you talk the most arrant nonsense,” Ibbitha retorted. “How can you claim that you or I have been denied opportunity when every day we are free to create mageworks that are the envy of Dorana’s magickless neighbours? The least of our clocks are admired in Trindek and Feen and Manemli, oh, everywhere. This artisanry is becoming famous. And if you think Master Arndel would risk its reputation on a mage whose background is little more than adequate, who has flitted from calling to calling, as feckless as a bee, and who is never satisfied no matter how much favour is shown her, well—Barl, if I have to explain your situation then I don’t suppose you’ll ever understand.”

  It was the worst scold Ibbitha had ever given her, and mostly it stung because it was true.

  Which it shouldn’t be. Every word she utters only goes to prove I’m right about how unjust things are.

  But when it came to mage rankings, it seemed there was no justice. There were rules and protocols and dictates and acceptable. And because the rules had held sway for so long, because certain important people made sure they continued to hold sway, nothing changed.

  Why won’t Ibbitha see it? Why doesn’t she rile up when she’s told by the Council of Mages what she is and isn’t permitted to do and to be? And for no better reason than a family name? Why should that handful of men and women decide our fates?

  “I understand well enough, Ibbitha. The wrong blood is flowing through my veins. What you don’t seem to understand is that I don’t care, and I don’t see why anyone else should care either. Nor do I see why my family tree, however stunted some may call it, should be the yardstick by which I am judged as a mage.”

  “Oh, Barl.” Tartly sympathetic, Ibbitha shook her head. “Life will seem far less harsh once you stop kicking against it. If only you’d accept things as they are, if you’d stop rubbing Artisan Master Arndel against his grain, he might let you create a little mantel clock of your own to sell through the artisanry shop. He doesn’t deny your talent. Nobody could. It’s your temperament that’s questioned, and not without cause. What a pity it would be if your own stubborn pride should make you stumble when the path before you was always clear.”

  The path before her had been laid with bricks not of her choosing and meandered pointlessly toward a future littered with opportunities denied. But if she flew at Ibbitha for reminding her of that unpalatable truth then likely she’d lose the woman’s shallow friendship, and she didn’t want that. So she sighed and nodded, making sure Ibbitha would think her scolding was welcome.

  “You’re right. Patience and I aren’t well enough acquainted. And of course the journey clock’s design isn’t anywhere near as bad as I complain.”

  “I should say it’s not!” said Ibbitha, taking a suggestive step toward the garden gate. Tardiness was deeply frowned upon by Master Arndel. “Lord Traint’s taste is the very definition of elegantly refined simplicity.”

  No, it was the manifestation of a stunted mind, but there was no use in saying so to Ibbitha, who was forever dazzled by a mage’s social standing. As for Arndel, he was just as bad. Artur Traint was a lord, he was a district inspector, and his purse was full of coin. The man’s dull sensibilities counted for nothing compared to those useful attributes.

  Defeated, Barl walked with Ibbitha back to their workroom. There she spent the afternoon finishing what she’d begun, and before the day was over Lord Traint had his lacklustre journey clock.

  Called to inspect it, Artisan Master Arndel walked round her bench, lips pursed as he considered the completed piece. Standing well to one side, giving him free rein to examine her work for nonexistent defects, Barl felt the hard stares of her fellow mages. Not a one of them could complete even a simple clock like this so swiftly or so well, even though they’d been artisans here for three years or more and came from families twice as illustrious as her own.

  You see? Talent does count for something. It can’t always be about the family name stitched to our heels.

  “Hmm,” Artisan Master Arndel grunted at last, halting. “I can detect no flaw in the piece, Mage Lindin. Your incants and counter-wards mesh smoothly, and your crystal work is pleasing.”

  Her crystal work was magnificent, but Arndel would never admit
it. Not only was it better than the work of every other artisan whose talents he employed, it was better than his own—and he wasn’t a man to take pride in the achievement of a mage who stood below him. Take credit for it, yes. He was more than willing to do that and would, when Lord Traint came to collect his clock. Not claim the piece was of his making, of course. But he would suggest and imply and hint and wink that without his constant oversight the finished clock would have been sadly inferior.

  And because this was his artisanry she had no choice but to let him. So she feigned gratification.

  “Thank you, Artisan Master.”

  Arndel’s flickering glance was suspicious, seeking insincerity or sarcasm. Detecting none, for he was nowhere near as clever as he imagined himself to be, he nodded.

  “Therefore let this be a salutary lesson, Mage Lindin. When one remains constrained by the limits of design, one is free to perform such work as may be pleasing. Shall we hear the tick of Lord Traint’s new clock?”

  As clock mage, it was her final task to release the clock’s temporary warding so that its voice might be tested for precision and a certain sweetness in the air. In this, and only this, was an artisan permitted to indulge his or her individual whim. A clock’s tick belonged to no-one but its maker.

  Barl stepped to the bench. Looking down at this thing that she had, with despair and contempt, created for a man whose ordinary mind could envisage nothing more daring than a square crystal box touched here and there with gold, she heard the caged mage within herself wail.

  It could’ve been so beautiful. Given the chance I’d have created a clock to make the sky weep for days.

  With a whisper, she set the ugly thing’s voice free.

  “Very nice,” Artisan Master Arndel said, grudging, as the sweet tick-tock-tick echoed through the workroom in harmony and counter-harmony, doubled and trebled notes shivering the air.

  Barl looked down, outwardly modest, inwardly seething. Nice? Nice? You cantankerous old mole. “Thank you, Artisan Master.”

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