A blight of mages, p.29
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       A Blight of Mages, p.29

           Karen Miller
 

  How could he answer that when he hardly understood the why of it himself… and when what he did grasp would send his father into spasms?

  “My lord, do you trust my judgement?”

  His father glared. “Think that’s an answer, do you?”

  “She’s here because I believe it’s best,” he said, keeping his voice level and light. “Which is, you must allow, a question of judgement.”

  “I’ll allow you’re impertinent! I’m still Lord Danfey, or had you forgotten?”

  “Never.”

  “Then if I told you to get rid of her, you’d do it?”

  Morgan crossed to his father’s chair and dropped to a crouch beside it. “Is that what you’re telling me?”

  Blueish lips slackened, his father plucked again at his blanket. “The girl’s pert, Morgan. She doesn’t know her place. Looked me straight in the eye, she did, and answered me back. A cell in the nearest judiciary’s too good for her!”

  “Well, my lord,” he said, coaxing, “right now she toils in the poultry run, reeking of bird manure. I think it’s fair to say she is suitably humbled.”

  “In other words, she’s staying, no matter what I want.”

  He touched his fingertips to his father’s bony wrist. “My lord, I’d count it a personal favour if you withdrew your objection.”

  “Wheedler,” his father muttered, snatching his hand away. “Very well. She can stay. But whatever strife she causes, I’ll hold you accountable. And make sure to tell Rumm he’s to bring me my trays. I don’t like pert young women who answer me back.”

  “I shall, my lord,” he said, standing. “Thank you.”

  “If you want to thank me,” his father retorted, “you can speak of young women more to my taste. How soon before I’m to call the Garrick girl daughter?”

  Maris. Not wanting his father to see his distaste, Morgan wandered back to the window. “Soon enough, my lord.”

  “Sooner than that,” said his father. “And don’t let your eye stray in any other direction.”

  He glanced behind him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Yes, you do!” Again, his father slapped the arm of his chair. “You’re not blind, Morgan, any more than I am. That Barl Lindin’s beautiful. And what you do after you’ve got yourself a son on the Garrick girl will be no business of mine, seeing as how I’ll be dead by then. But you’ll not dip your wick in that pert girl’s honeypot until there’s a Danfey to follow you. Is that clear?”

  If he lost his temper, Barl would be sent back to the Council for Sallis Arkley to deal with. He could not, would not, let that happen.

  “You’ve nothing to fear, my lord. The girl might be attractive, but my interest is fixed on Maris Garrick.”

  Slowly, his father relaxed. “Good.”

  “Now I’m afraid I must excuse myself. I have another Council matter to address, and then I would spend some time in my workroom. Shall we dine together this evening, or do you prefer to dine alone?”

  “You should dine with Maris Garrick,” his father said, scowling. “You shouldn’t be letting her out of your sight.”

  Without thinking, without blinking, he lied. “Alas, my lord, Maris is otherwise engaged this evening. A family affair,” he added, when his father’s eyes widened with alarm. “But I shall see her again soon. Can I fetch you a book before I go?”

  “Feeble I might be, but I can fetch my own book,” his father said, offended. “Be off. And mind you tell Rumm what I said!”

  He crossed paths with the master servant on the staircase. “Sir. I was just coming to find you.” Rumm held out a folded note. “From the Council.”

  Morgan slid it unread inside his tunic. “Lord Danfey prefers not to be waited on by Mage Lindin.”

  Rumm nodded. “Very good, sir.”

  “By the way, is there a reason you have her toiling with the poultry?”

  “An excellent reason, sir,” said Rumm, his face darkening. “Do you object?”

  Of course, but it would be unwise to say so. “I was merely curious. I have business with Lady Martain. Expect me back within the hour.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Morgan kept on down the stairs, then paused. “Oh, Rumm. I procured fresh clothes for Mage Lindin.”

  “Yes, sir,” Rumm said, his expression rigorously blank. “Jafe saw that I got them, as you asked. The bag’s been put on her bed.”

  Hardly a bed. A straw mattress on the floor of the hastily emptied broom and mop closet, which was the only privy place, Rumm claimed, that he could offer at such short notice. Not without crowding the other servants and that he wasn’t willing to do. Not for a bound mage no better than she had to be.

  And what Barl would say when she found out was anybody’s guess.

  Arriving unexpected at Venette’s town house, he was shown into the ornate parlour by her master servant and asked to wait. Declining the offer of wine and wafers, he contented himself with perusing one of Orwin’s ponderous books.

  “Morgan!” Venette exclaimed, sweeping into the parlour almost a quarter of an hour later. She was swathed head to toe in silver-shot mauve silk, violet slippers on her feet and chains of amethysts around her neck and wrists. “I declare I do not understand the game you’re playing. How could you refuse an invitation to the Garricks’ house party?”

  Her outrageous demand struck him like spark to tinder. Burning, he tossed Orwin’s book onto a nearby table and took a step toward her. Managed to catch himself in time, before he laid hands on her.

  “And how could you, Venette, insinuate yourself into my privy business? You had the temerity to interrogate Barl Lindin? To discuss me with her? What gave you the right?”

  “Friendship!” she retorted. “Morgan, you have cast your boat upon perilous waters. Defending that miscreant? Sheltering her in your home? Have you any idea how it will look to Maris?”

  Nonplussed, he stared at her. “What I do in my capacity as councillor is no concern of Maris Garrick’s! It would not be her concern were we already ratified man and wife.”

  “Which you won’t be, you fool, if you continue with this madness!” Venette threw up her hands. “How can you be so brilliant and so obtuse? Maris has her pride, Morgan. Do you truly think she’ll idly smile and bestow on you her blessing as you insult her in such a savage fashion?”

  “How do I insult her? The girl finds me desirable because I am a Council mage. How can she possibly be insulted by the performance of my duty?”

  Pale with anger, Venette rushed to him and thumped his chest with both her fists. “Easily! Morgan, it was never your duty to take Barl Lindin under your roof. You did that because she stirs you! And if you think Maris won’t grasp that blindingly obvious fact then truly, I wash my hands of you!”

  When she went to thump him again, he caught her wrists hard. Her expensive jewellery bruised his fingers down to the bone.

  “By all means, Venette,” he said, as she tried to wrestle free. “Wash away. Barl Lindin means nothing to me. How could you even imagine I’d consider her? She is unranked, unruly and—”

  “Outrageously fair!” Venette was close to panting, her eyes stormy, full of doubt. “And if you stand there and deny it, Morgan, I’ll never believe another word out of your mouth.”

  “Why would I deny it?” he said. “Yes, the girl’s beautiful. And that should be enough to overturn my judgement? My sense of what honour is owed my father and our family name? Is that your opinion of me, Venette?”

  “No, of course it’s not, but—”

  The parlour door pushed open. “Venette? Venette, my dear, are you in—oh.” Orwin Martain blinked at them, a tiny frown creasing his brow. “What’s amiss? Venette? Morgan, why are you—”

  Letting go of Venette’s wrists, stepping back, Morgan cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Orwin. I—”

  “Oh, Orwin, do go away,” Venette said, flapping her hands at him. “There’s nothing amiss, Morgan and I are simply thrashing out a disagreement. Now off y
ou go. Whatever you want from me will have to wait.”

  As the door closed again behind Venette’s obedient husband, Morgan turned on her. “And is that what you’ve told Maris she’ll be marrying? A shambling, bumbling—”

  “Don’t you dare insult Orwin!” Venette cried. “He’s a dear, sweet man whose only care in the world is making sure that I’m happy. And you’d best believe, my dear, that if I could find a man as like him as a twin brother then that is the man I’d have recommended to Maris. But my Orwin is one of a kind.”

  Though he was still angry, Morgan had to smile. Orwin certainly was that. Besides, though he’d not known Maris Garrick for long, he felt tolerably certain that a man like Orwin Martain would be far too soft-hearted and pliable for her.

  “Morgan… my dear…” Abruptly conciliatory, Venette perched on the arm of the nearest plush sofa. “If your head’s not been turned by that wretched Lindin girl, why would you throw your chances with Maris so up in the air by refusing to attend the Garricks’ house party? I don’t know if you know it, but it’s counted one of the more exclusive social events of the year. Some very useful people will be there. People it will do you no harm to impress.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “Am I not impressive enough already?”

  “Oh, Morgan.” Venette rolled her eyes. “There is no such thing as being too impressive.”

  “I take it Maris told you I’d refused her invitation?”

  “My dear, she was on the doorstep practically at cockcrow, in floods of tears, convinced your attentions are fickle! And it didn’t help that you bolted from her company before your dinner was half over. Yes, I know, I know—” She waved a hand to forestall his protest. “And you can be sure I disabused her of any notion that you simply used Council business as an excuse to escape.”

  And that had him staring at her, incredulous. “She thought I—Venette, is the girl unsteady in her wits?”

  “No, of course she’s not.” Venette shook her head at him, as though he were a wonder. “If you must know, Morgan—and why I should have to tell you this is a mystery, I declare—Maris has fallen entirely under your spell. To put it plain as I can, she is enamoured of you, which is why I am so vexed that you’ve taken an interest in Barl Lindin. When Maris learns—”

  “There is no reason for Maris Garrick to know anything of Barl Lindin,” he said coldly. “Barl Lindin is a Council matter.”

  Her irritated shrug told him he’d scored a point. “You’ve still not told me why you won’t attend the house party.”

  “And you’ve not told me why it’s any of your business.”

  Sliding off the sofa’s wide, padded armrest, Venette crossed to him with both hands outstretched. “Oh, come now, Morgan. Let’s not fight any more. It’s far too exhausting. You know why I’m interested.”

  Sighing, Morgan took Venette’s hands and held her gently, this time. You’ve seen my father. You know how feeble he’s grown. Every day I watch him lose a little more strength. Do you think I could ever reconcile myself if he should—if something should—while I was carousing at some insipid country gathering?”

  Venette slid her hands from his and pressed her palm to his face. Now her eyes were sheened with compassionate tears. “Oh, Morgan. You mustn’t look at it like that. If Greve knew you were risking your future with Maris for him, well, I think we both know how angry he’d be. Don’t you see? If you go to the house party, you’re going for him. Would you really have him die without knowing the Danfey name was secure?”

  It was the unkindest of questions, one he’d not tolerate from anyone else. “You know I wouldn’t,” he said, and was shamed to hear his voice break.

  She smoothed his cheek. “Then let me tell Maris you’ve changed your mind.”

  Gently, Morgan slid her hand from his face. “You’re so certain Maris and I will make a good match.”

  How can you be so certain, when I am anything but?

  “Of course I am,” she said, smiling. “Would I have you wed into misery, Morgan? Would I break a young girl’s heart?”

  He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “No, Venette. You wouldn’t.”

  “Then trust me,” she urged him softly.

  Unbidden, his fingers drifted to the place where his locket had rested. Like a phantom, he could still feel it there, warm against his skin.

  “I should go,” he said, releasing her. “I have work at home, awaiting my attention.”

  “Magework?” Venette frowned. “Morgan—”

  He tapped a finger to her lips, lightly pressing. “I will always have magework, Venette. I am a mage, first and foremost.”

  Prettily pouting, she smoothed the front of his tunic. “And we’re friends again?”

  “Yes. We are friends.”

  “Excellent,” she said, laughing. And do I have your leave to speak to Maris tonight? About the house party?”

  More than anything he wanted to say no. But how could he? Trapped by his promise to a dying man, he had no choice but to continue down a path he had not looked to tread.

  “Yes,” he said, making certain to hide his resentful distaste. “You have my leave.”

  Venette’s smile was dazzling. “Wonderful. I shall make sure all of Maris’s girlish qualms are soothed, I promise. You’ll not regret this, Morgan. You’ll see.”

  He was already regretting it. “Venette,” he said, and kissed her hand in farewell.

  Rumm said nothing beyond a murmured, “Of course, sir,” after being told Councillor Danfey would be in his workroom until dinner. Which was wise of him, because Venette’s impertinent interference still rankled.

  An hour later, warded in his attic, Morgan paced from wall to wall. Scattered on his workbench, the remnants of yet another unsuccessful attempt to reconfigure Hartigan’s transmutation incant. He couldn’t begin to fathom why it so stubbornly resisted dissection. If not actually simple, the task should at least be straightforward. All incants operated under the same principle, energies binding each syllable like individually connected links in a chain. Break each connection, break the links into separate component pieces, and a new configuration could be created. Cylte’s treatise on the subject was perfectly concise and moreover it worked. He’d proven that it worked, on a half dozen other incants.

  But Hartigan’s incant remained recalcitrant.

  With a harshly expelled breath, Morgan returned to his copy of Cylte’s book. Re-read, yet again, the step-by-step instructions for the dissolution of an incant. Then he gathered together in his scorched and scarred mortar the powdered gedlef, the tincture of gorabim, a volatile pinch of crystalised anakaris, close cousin to azafris but not quite so restricted. His supply of all three counter-catalysts was dwindling. And thanks to Sallis Arkley, once he’d emptied his jars he would have to wait a goodly while before daring to purchase more of each ingredient.

  Even a councillor had to tread carefully, at times.

  Almost more slowly than he could bear, he used his heavy stone pestle to grind the counter-catalysts into a stinking, sloppy paste. But if he tried to rush he’d spoil the concoction. He’d already made that mistake twice. Not again.

  At last, satisfied with the counter-catalyst’s consistency, he daubed it over seven harmonic prisms, one for each syllable of the incant. The eerily phosphorescent amber crystals pulsed sluggishly beneath their greenish-grey coating. He could feel the latent power stir, like a hunting hound catching its first scent of the prey.

  It was time.

  Remove the mortar and pestle from the main bench. Tidy away his precious reserves of catalyst ingredient. Take a moment to breathe out all doubt, anxiety and frustration. Then slowly, steadily, recite the seven separate syllables of Hartigan’s uncooperative incant.

  One by one, the harmonic prisms captured the syllables’ raised energies. One by one, they started to hum. To shiver. To burn…

  … and burn out.

  A heartbeat of shocked dismay gave way to overwhelming rage. Dimly Morgan felt
himself snatch up the nearest crystal, heedless of its blackened heat. He shouted, incoherent, and threw it at the wall. Even as it shattered to stinking shards he was snatching up the next, not caring how his fingers blistered, his palm scorched, not caring that he was howling like a crossbowed wolf. In the end all seven crystals burst against the attic wall, scattering his failure over the floor.

  Heaving for air, almost sobbing like a child, he collapsed over his workbench and pressed his burned, hurting hands hard to his face.

  How can I fail? This is Dorana’s future. And if I do not conquer this incant… if I cannot find my way…

  Then Dorana would fall.

  The binding might have ruined her time-sense, but the pitch dark night outside the Danfey mansion, with its needle-sharp pricking of stars, told Barl that the hour was late.

  And here am I doing the rich lord’s dishes, like some magickless skivvy.

  Which of course she was. Up to her elbows in greasy, cooling water, skin wrinkled like ancient prunes, scrubbing charred meat juices and cake crumbs off old, heavy pans.

  At least when I washed dishes at home I’d eaten what was cooked in them first.

  But she’d not touched a mouthful of the Danfeys’ rich repast. No, she’d spooned down plain mutton broth and bread that was practically stale. How she missed Remmie’s bread. Hot from the oven, full of seeds and honey, soaked through with melted butter, making her smile.

  Her fingers clutched the scrubbing brush, painfully tight. No. No. She mustn’t think about Remmie.

  Brisk footsteps in the corridor beyond the glimlit scullery. She looked up as Master Servant Rumm entered, as neat and tidy now, after the long day, as he’d been when first she laid eyes on him.

  “Aren’t you finished yet?” he demanded. “Mage Lindin, dawdling will do you no favours here.”

  Dawdling? When she could hardly raise her arms above shoulder height after half-killing herself in the poultry coop? And after that with the hoeing of weeds in the horses’ carrot patch? And after that, helping one of the other servants haul sopping wet sheets out of the laundry tub, wring them free of water, then hang them to dry?

 
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