A blight of mages, p.39
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       A Blight of Mages, p.39

           Karen Miller
 

  “Barl, my circumstances are not… simple,” he said, all amusement fled. “There is a woman I’ve been courting.”

  “Maris Garrick. I know.”

  “Of course you do,” he muttered. Then he sighed. “But you should also know that whatever my privy domestic arrangements might be in the future, they’ll have no bearing on my—our—magework. Nothing and no-one will interfere with that.”

  Our magework.

  She felt her heart thud with relief, and turned. “Not even a wife?”

  “No-one.”

  Foolish or not, she believed him. And what Maris Garrick would make of that, she didn’t want to think.

  “Good.”

  “And you’re not to concern yourself with Rumm, either,” he added. “Henceforth you are released from your menial duties. There is a guest chamber on the second floor. Consider it your own.”

  No more sleeping in that pokey little cupboard? Justice be praised. “What about the Council?”

  “What about them? As far as those fools are concerned, out of sight is out of mind. Trust me, I’ll not be missed. And what they don’t know won’t hurt them… or us. When the time is right, we’ll reveal our work to them. Until then, though, to be prudent, we keep circumspect. Which means you can’t contact your brother. I’m sorry.”

  Remmie. She felt a twist beneath her ribs. He’d be fretting for her, but Morgan was right.

  “No, I understand. Only…”

  “What?” he prompted. “Barl, our magework must be secret. That doesn’t mean there should be secrets between us.”

  It would be easier to remain aloof if he didn’t say things like that. “It’s Maris Garrick. I can’t imagine she’ll be pleased to find me here. How can you be sure she won’t complain to the Council? As your wife, she—”

  “Maris Garrick and I aren’t even formally handfasted yet,” he said, impatient. “And until I can trust the excitement won’t harm Lord Danfey, we won’t be. Nor will we be married until Ranmer can swear my father is strong enough to stand witness. That could be weeks. Do not concern yourself with Maris Garrick. She doesn’t matter.”

  Didn’t matter? And he was marrying her?

  Morgan frowned. “I don’t mean to sound unkind. What I mean is that Maris will not prove an impediment. She perfectly understands the importance of my work.”

  It was the height of foolishness, surely, to be jealous of a woman she’d never met.

  “Then perhaps, when you’re married, you’ll want to share that work with her.”

  “Instead of you?” He laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. Now, the entire estate is yours to wander as you like. I’ve taken down the boundary warding. All I ask is that you go on avoiding my father’s apartments. He… would not understand.”

  She had no doubt of that. “Does this mean I’m free to read the books in your library? There are so many I’ve never seen before. I want to catch up.”

  Morgan grinned, disarmingly boyish. “Read them to your heart’s content. I can explain whatever you don’t understand.”

  “How generous you are, sir! But don’t be surprised if I end up explaining a few things to you.”

  “Get back to your chickens,” he said, still grinning. “Your rule as lady of the manor doesn’t start ’til the morning.”

  After he left, she picked up the stinking hessian sack. But instead of emptying the next laying box she stood still in thought. The poultry coop echoed to the sound of hens, cackling. Her bundled hair and drab, rumpled linens stank of their shit. She could leave this behind, now. She could wash herself clean tonight and never think of hens again. After today her life would be naught but magework. Thanks to Morgan Danfey, she was about to become her best and truest self.

  But that means nothing. And I can’t hope it ever will.

  Finished at last with the laying boxes, she returned to the mansion intending to scrub herself clean in the scullery before the servants’ dinner. But as she reached the bottom of the staircase she saw Rumm, and he saw her, and the look on his face told her that Morgan had already taken him aside.

  “Master Rumm,” she said, and offered him a tentative smile. “Could we speak?”

  Unsmiling, he nodded. “I think we should.”

  Because he was the mansion’s master servant, he was granted the privilege of his own apartment below stairs. Closing the small parlour’s door, Rumm indicated a chair.

  “Please.”

  She sat, and he retreated to stand with his back to the fireplace, his arms folded. “I knew you were unbound.”

  What? “I’m sorry?”

  A muscle twitched beside Rumm’s right eye. “I am no mage worth a damn, but I have a little sensitivity. As soon as I saw you this morning, I knew.”

  “And said nothing?”

  “It wasn’t my place. I am instructed not to discuss Council matters with anyone.”

  “Not even Lord Danfey?” That’s fortunate.

  “Master Rumm…” Barl let her hands lift and fall in her lap. “I mean the councillor no harm. Nor his lordship. I only ever wanted to be left alone to learn.”

  “The Council sees you as a threat.”

  “And the Council is mistaken.”

  Slowly, that twitching muscle fell quiet. “I’m told you’ll be mageworking with Councillor Danfey.”

  Interesting, that Morgan had trusted this man with the truth. She nodded. “I will.”

  “Then I hope you’re a better mage than you are a housemaid.”

  “I believe I might be,” she said gravely, resisting the urge to smile at his tartness. “Master Rumm—”

  “Mage Lindin?” he said, perfectly polite.

  “How soon, do you think, will Lord Danfey die?”

  She saw anger leap in him, and grief. Watched as he wrestled both into proper, servantly submission.

  “Too soon,” he said at last, his voice tight. “Why?”

  “There’s something I’d like to do, Rumm. Before I fell foul of the Council I was an artisan mage. A clock-maker. I’d like to make Lord Danfey his funeral clock. But I’ll need your help, for I have no money and no clock-making supplies.”

  She’d startled him. Eyes intent, he tapped one forefinger against his lips. Assessing her.

  “I will have money again, one day,” she said. “And however you purchase what I need, I’ll repay you. Or the mansion coffers. I give you my word.”

  “And are you a good clock-maker, Mage Lindin?”

  “Master Rumm, I am the best clock-maker in Dorana.”

  He snorted. “But not the most modest.”

  Now she did smile. “No, sir. Never that.”

  “Very well, Mage Lindin,” Rumm said, nodding. “Give me a list of what you require and I shall do my best to obtain it.”

  “Without mentioning it to the councillor?” She stood. “I don’t wish to distress him.”

  Did she imagine it, or was that approval in his eyes? “A good master servant knows when to hold his tongue.”

  Agreement, then… and maybe even a promise, that if anyone were to betray her, it wouldn’t be him.

  “Thank you, Master Rumm.”

  “You’re welcome, Mage Lindin.”

  The next morning, after breakfast, she and Morgan hid the Danfey estate from prying eyes.

  It wasn’t a warding, not exactly. Instead they took a standard deflection incant, used by some considerate mages to keep from disturbing their neighbours with the more combustible magics, and… enhanced it. The rush of heat and power as they melded their mageworking was headier than the finest wine. When it was done, the estate guarded, they retreated to the mansion’s attic, determined to forget the outside world.

  First of all, just to make certain they’d not dreamed it, they invoked the reworked transmutation incant. Laughed to see yet another new flower created. Then another. And another.

  “Stop!” Barl said at last. “Morgan, no more, or we’ll turn the workroom into a garden. Why don’t you show me those incants the Cou
ncil denied?”

  So he showed her, and she risked his anger by half-way agreeing with Sallis Arkley, that he’d been hurried in his scholarship and careless in their execution. Surely he could see that if he’d taken a little more time he’d have realised that his incant for the more perfect distillation of temperamental Iringan sour-pips into a teeth-shuddering liqueur would in fact be better suited to the less inimical Brantish pea-currant. And then, by combining the distilled pea-currant with robust Doranen icewine, he could in fact create a new luxury tipple entirely.

  As for his reworking of Beckins’ privy ward, well, that seemed a waste of effort entirely. If he wanted to impress, why not create an incant that relied upon a mage’s unique magical signature to keep it strong for years? The fact that such a ward had been tried already, only to fail, wasn’t a good enough reason to abandon the idea. Especially if he paired this sigil with that one, and used syllabic harmonics vibrating in a different minor key.

  Morgan called her rude names, then admitted she was right.

  Entranced with each other, with the magework, they scarcely noticed the bright day dwindling toward dusk. Rumm appeared at intervals with hot food on a tray, which they devoured in haste so they could continue their discoveries. When Lord Danfey stirred, wanting company, Morgan reluctantly withdrew to sit with his father until the old man drifted back to restless sleep.

  Not wanting to magework without him, Barl buried herself in the library, gleefully devouring scholarly works instead of cake. After supper they returned to the attic, taking some of the books with them, and Morgan assumed the role of teacher. But he learned as much as he taught, for her mind was a gift to him. A constant surprise. It was past midnight when they admitted exhaustion and retreated to their separate beds.

  At the next day’s dawning they rose… and eagerly lost themselves in magework again.

  “Mage Lindin.”

  Almost at the library door, Barl turned. “Rumm? Is something wrong?”

  “No.” Rumm came down the rest of the stairs, frowning as they both heard Dilys’s tuneless humming along the other corridor. “A privy word, though, if you’ve time.”

  She held the door open for him, and pushed it shut after. “There is something wrong. Is it his lordship? Morgan’s just gone to sit with him.”

  “His lordship’s condition is unchanged,” Rumm said. “Your clock-making supplies arrived while you and the councillor were in the attic. I’ve put them in your chamber.”

  “Rumm, that’s remarkable. It’s only been four days. I thought it would take a week or two, at least. Some of the items I asked for are quite obscure.”

  Rumm looked down his nose. “I have long been in the habit of procuring obscure items for the Danfeys.”

  And that was Mage Lindin put firmly in her place. “Oh. I see. Ah—” Barl bit her lip. “Did you have to spend a great deal?”

  “Yes,” Rumm said. “I slipped the final tally under your pillow. The supplies I’ve hidden beneath the bed. They should be quite safe there. Dilys only remembers to sweep the bits of floor she can see.”

  He sounded so peevishly resigned she had to swallow a laugh. “Rumm…” She shook her head. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

  His guarded eyes warmed, just a little. “You can thank me by making Lord Danfey the most beautiful funeral clock in Dorana.”

  Accepting that she might well be alone for hours, as Morgan kept his father company, she’d intended to pass the time in study. Instead she turned her thoughts to Lord Danfey’s memorial timepiece. Not knowing how many of her requested items Rumm could obtain, she hadn’t let herself dream of it. But since he’d managed to find everything…

  Alone again, she fetched paper, ink pot and quill and settled herself at one of the library reading tables to chart the initial design of the most spectacular clock crystal ever created.

  His father had drifted back to sleep, so Morgan put aside the book he’d been reading aloud and let his own eyelids close. He was exhausted. Couldn’t remember the last time he’d poured himself so passionately, so unreservedly, into his magework.

  Never. I never have done. At least not like this. I’ve never had to. There has never been anyone who challenges me like Barl.

  And if someone had told him there would be, he’d not have believed them. Because he’d never imagined a mage like Barl Lindin could exist.

  Opening his eyes, he summoned to his hand the small wooden box she’d warded shut. Four days of trying and he still hadn’t breached her seal. For a whole morning he’d watched as she broke every one of his wards, unstitched them, unravelled them, barely out of breath. And when she tried to explain how she did it, how she saw his magework, all she did was baffle him. She baffled him. It was an unsettling thing.

  But there is a trick to it, this unwarding business. And if she can learn it, so can I.

  The trouble was, of course, that he kept getting sidetracked by the sheer elegance of her magework. She brought an artisan’s touch to the most prosaic of incants.

  If only, for one day, I could see through her eyes.

  In the bed beside him, his father stirred. Coughed. “Morgan? Morgan, are you there?”

  He sent the warded box back to the attic, then leaned forward in his chair. “Yes, my lord. Here I am.”

  “Good… good… I thought you’d gone.”

  “No, my lord,” he said, and helped his father choke down one of Ranmer’s strengthening possets. When that was done, he plumped the pillows. Stared down at the ailing man, feeling so helpless. “Is there anything else you need?”

  “A grandson,” his father grunted. “When will you announce your handfasting, Morgan?”

  Swallowing a groan, he dropped to the edge of the chair. If only his father would stop carping. “When Maris wants me to, my lord. As I’ve told you, she feels that—”

  “Ha!” Fretful, his father plucked at the counterpane. “Curse her namby-pamby feelings! Are you a man or aren’t you? What kind of a marriage is it going to be if the girl has her fingers wrapped round your balls already?”

  Morgan bit his tongue. Justice preserve me. Easy for Ranmer to declare Lord Danfey too weak yet for any kind of celebration. Ranmer wasn’t the one who had to make up lies.

  “She’s young and nervous, my lord, and if I push her, she might bolt. Trust me, I will bring her to heel in good time.”

  Capricious in his sickness, between heartbeats his father shifted from anger to grief. “I only want what’s best for you, Morgan. You are my son. It’s my duty to guide you.”

  Really, my lord? I thought your duty was to drive me to distraction.

  “I know,” he said, soothing. “And I will be guided, I promise. My lord, if there is nothing else pressing I can do for you, I should return to my magework.”

  His father turned his face into the pillow. “Yes, yes. Your magework. Very important. You go. Send Rumm to me. He reads aloud better than you.”

  Making his relieved escape, Morgan found Rumm and ordered him upstairs, then continued to the library. Barl was so engrossed in her reading she didn’t realise he was there. Smiling, he leaned against the doorjamb and lost himself in the way she curled and uncurled a strand of hair about her finger.

  When he couldn’t stand not being seen by her a moment longer, he closed the library door.

  “Morgan!” she said, startled by the thud. “How is his lordship?”

  Sometimes the urge to touch her stifled the air in his throat. One kiss, they’d shared. Only one. And that was supposed to sustain him for the rest of his life?

  It must. Do not do this. Only a fool torments himself.

  “His lordship is disgruntled,” he said, feigning lightness. “I fail to meet his exacting standards.”

  “What cause has he to complain of you?”

  The indignation in her voice was a balm. “It seems I don’t read well enough. Rumm has taken over.”

  She smiled. “Well, he is quite remarkable.”

  “Perhaps, bu
t I’ll thank you not to tell him so,” he said, sitting as close to her as he dared. “He might demand an increase in salary.”

  “If he does, you should agree to it. This mansion would fall down round our ears without him.”

  Ignoring that, Morgan pointed. “You’re covered in ink, Mage Lindin. What have you been doing?”

  She stared at her blotched fingertips. “Oh. Nothing. Scribbling. Thinking aloud. Are you free now, Morgan? Can we go back to the attic?”

  “We can, if you’d like. Or we can pause for a moment, and take a wander through the woods. I know I could use a breath of fresh air.”

  She leapt up. “Councillor, that is an excellent idea. And while we’re walking I’ll tell you about an incant I’ve thought of. A way to combine silk, gold and topaz into a new kind of fabric!”

  Heart aching, he followed her out of the library.

  Justice save me, she is glorious.

  And because he could not have her, could almost wish they’d never met.

  Orwin Martain stared more loudly than any man ever born.

  Abandoning her cup of tea, Venette sat back in her chair. “What?”

  “My dear, you know perfectly well,” Orwin said, infuriatingly placid on the other side of the solar’s breakfast table. “You should stop sulking and go to see him.”

  “I am not sulking. I am giving Morgan time alone with his father… and a chance to reconsider his rash behaviour.”

  Orwin pursed his lips. “You’ve given him nearly three weeks. Which, I confess, is longer than I expected. But you’re fretting, my dear. Don’t pretend you’re not.”

  “Maris is fretting,” she retorted. “She’s not heard a whisper from him. But I am perfectly indifferent.”

  “Venette.” Orwin reached across the table and covered her hand with his. “Don’t be silly.”

  A lifetime of affection in that gentle reproof. Furious, she felt her eyes prick with tears. “He’s going to spoil everything, Orwin. Maris Garrick is perfect for him. Even if he can’t see that, I can, and he has no business not trusting my judgement. I found the right matches for my nephews, didn’t I?”

 
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