Year 742 of the Great Barrier
Alone on a hill, the Healer watched the Minik village burn. Through the smoke, she heard the screams of dying men, violated women, terrified children. Through the smoke, she saw blue-white flashes of magic slashing, burning, mutilating. Through the smoke, she saw the men MageLord Starkind had brought north murdering the people she had come to help.
In her hand she held her cloth bag of potions for pain, nostrums for nausea, compresses, bandages, sutures and splints. In her mind, she held her own skills, wisdom, knowledge and experience…and her own measure of power; but the soft magic of which she was a skilled mistress could do nothing against the hard magic of the MageLord.
The Healer had come to help the Minik. Now all she could do was watch them die.
The MageLord’s men rode away. The screams had ended long before. The smoke remained, like a funeral shroud drawn mercifully across a ravaged corpse.
The Healer descended the hill and passed through that shroud. As the light faded toward night, she searched the smoldering ruins for anyone left alive. She found nothing but corpses.
All the Minik she had come to help, the Minik she had come to love, had died: slain by the swords and spears and hard magic of the MageLord and his Mageborn followers.
She climbed the hill to the south of the village once more. The north wind blew the mingled smells of death and smoke into her nostrils. She breathed deep of that acrid stench…and breathed deep of hate.
This cannot stand, she thought. This will not stand.
The MageLords’ reign must end.
She turned and stalked away into the night, the north wind at her back.
Year 775 of the Great Barrier
(Year 128 of the Revolutionary Calendar)
Anton, bare back cold against wet stone, bare feet colder on wet cobblestones, waited in the rain for the old man to leave the mansion.
He’d waited there the night before, a warmer night than this, but the “Professor,” as the storekeepers on Hawser Street had called him, had stayed in, even though for a week before that he had gone out at the same time every night. But tonight, right on schedule, the door to the rented mansion opened and closed, and the Professor descended the front steps, wearing a heavy black coat and gloves, face hidden beneath an umbrella. He climbed into the waiting cab. The driver, dry beneath his own umbrella, clucked to the horse and flicked the reins, and the cab clattered across the cobblestones of the courtyard, turned down an alley, and trundled off toward the glow of gaslights.
The instant it left the yard Anton pushed away from the wall and dashed across the cobblestones, feet silent, water running down his back and dripping from the ragged bottom of the short pants that were all he wore: he’d left his only half-decent pair of clothes tucked away somewhere dry, to warm him when he had finished this night’s work. A miasma had descended on the port city of Hexton Down, sickening many, killing a few, and if he fell ill he had no physician to turn to…hadn’t had one since he was twelve, five years gone, before his mother died, his father took to drink, and he fled to the streets to avoid the beatings.
The old house where the Professor had taken up lodgings had been empty for a long time before that…empty, but not unused. Long since, Anton had discovered a basement window that could be opened despite its lock, if you had the knack of it, and he had spent many a night in the house since, mostly wet, cold nights like this one.
He’d searched the house from top to bottom, several times, and found nothing of value in it: every room neat and clean and dry, but empty of so much as a whisk broom. At the back, the house connected to a warehouse, and the warehouse, at its far end, opened onto the dock: obviously it had once belonged to someone with shipping interests. Anton had been very careful, as he’d explored, to leave no trace of his presence, fearing the owners, if they discovered the house had been broken into, would find the loose basement window and seal it up for good.
But tonight he had more in mind than simply sheltering from the rain. The old man had money: lots of it. Box after box, some small, some large, had been delivered to the house since he had rented it: some to the front door, many others to the warehouse. There had to be something of value in there…maybe even something that could buy him passage on a ship, away from this hell-hole and off to the Wild Land. They said anyone could make a new life for himself in Wavehaven or the towns and villages beginning to spring up inland, and Anton desperately needed a new life. If the black cough or the bullyboys didn’t get him, the press gangs would, and Anton didn’t fancy spending his next few years, probably his last few years, in either a mine or a man of war, thank you very much.
The rain might chill him, but at least it also made it unlikely anyone would notice his silent dash across the cobblestones, or when he vanished from sight down the narrow space between the Professor’s house and the one next door, also attached to a warehouse on the docks, and also empty; the storekeepers said the Union Republic’s economy had taken a turn for the worse and many businesses had gone bankrupt, but since his own economy hardly could get any worse, he hadn’t personally noticed.
Anton crouched by the basement window and held his breath as he pushed at one corner, then twisted the frame. Had the owners fixed it…?
They hadn’t. The window popped from its latch and swung inward. Anton turned around, stuck his legs through and, scraping his belly on the brick, slid over the edge and dropped to the smooth stone floor. The barely gray square of the window did nothing to illuminate the pitch darkness, but Anton knew where the stairs were, over on the other side above the lamentably empty wine rack.
He crept across the floor, hand outstretched, until he felt the banister. A moment later he was up the stairs and pushing at the door into the kitchen. It swung open with the sound of a cat being strangled, and he froze, listening hard, but the rest of the house remained silent, and so he stepped through.
The three tall windows provided enough light to show that whatever the Professor might be doing in his rented mansion, cooking wasn’t part of it. Bowls and vials and mortars and pestles cluttered one table, but when Anton crept over and bent down to take a sniff, he recoiled. It smelled like a brothel’s outhouse.
He did find a passable loaf of bread on a sideboard, rather stale, but he’d had worse. Taking it with him to gnaw on, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind–there was no point in trying to pretend he hadn’t been here this night–he searched the rest of the house.
The Professor seemed to be camping rather than living there. Whatever had been in the big boxes, it hadn’t been furniture. He wasn’t even using the bedrooms upstairs: the living room held a folding cot, with a tangled blanket and rather tortured-looking pillow, and a small table bearing a couple of smeared plates, a battered knife and fork, and a half-empty bottle of wine. Anton picked up the wine bottle and swigged from it to wash down the last of the dry bread, then continued his search.
He grew more and more frustrated as he went from room to room and found nothing…nothing of value, anyway. The warehouse, he thought. Everything must have gone in there.
He knew where the door into the warehouse was. It had always been locked when the house had been empty, and so it was this time.
But this time, a key hung on a peg by the door. Anton inserted it into the lock, turned it…and the door swung soundlessly open.
The warehouse’s windows, high and narrow beneath the eaves, gave little light. Anton stepped forward, expecting the floor to be at the same level as the house’s…
…but it wasn’t. His foot found nothing. He flailed for something to grab hold of, failed to find it, and fell.
His head cracked against the stone, and he plunged from the darkness of the warehouse into the far deeper darkness of unconsciousness.
When Anton awoke, he couldn’t figure out where he was. He lay, naked beneath a blanket, on something soft. He was warm and dry. Above him, soft yellow light flickered off ceiling beams painted with blue and yellow flowers. He stared up at them. They looked familiar…
The house. The living room. He was in the living room of the house.
He sat up, but the room swam around him and he dropped back again with a moan. As he raised a shaking hand to his head, and found a lump on his forehead that felt the size of a horse apple, the door to the kitchen opened. He turned his head and saw the Professor, carrying a steaming mug. “Awake, are you?” the Professor said gruffly. Clean-shaven, with graying hair cut very short, he looked far more formidable up close than Anton had ever thought him to be from a distance. He was very lean, and Anton had assumed that was because he was frail with age, but now that the Professor was wearing only a white undershirt above black trousers, Anton could see the whipcord muscles on his arms, the broad chest and narrow waist. “Drink this.” He lifted Anton with one hand while holding the steaming mug to his lips with the other. Anton, remembering the awful-smelling concoction he’d discovered in the kitchen, hesitated, but the liquid, though bitter, was palatable. The Professor lowered him again, then stood over him, frowning. “What’s your name?” he said abruptly.
“Anton,” Anton said. “When will the police arrive?”
“Police?” The Professor put the mug on the table beside the bed. “I called no police.”
Anton blinked. “But I broke in–”
“I have a proposition for you,” the Professor said, and Anton’s eyes narrowed. The Professor snorted. “Not that kind of proposition,” he said. “How old are you?”
“How did you end up on the streets?”
Anton shrugged. “Usual story. Mother dead, father drunk, nightly beatings. What do you care?”
“It’s a story I know well,” the Professor said. “It was my story, once. But someone changed the ending. A man who found me, beaten, half-dead, in an alley. He took me in, gave me work, gave me food, gave me an education. I went to school. I read. I learned.” He crouched beside Anton’s bed. “And now, I find myself in the position to help someone else, someone much like I was. I have need of a strong young assistant, Anton. I have planned a great adventure for myself, but I cannot do it on my own. If you are willing to work hard, learn, do everything I tell you, you can share in that adventure.” He spread his hands. “I cannot promise any great reward if we succeed. I cannot even promise we will survive. But you will have a place to sleep, food to eat, and important work to do. What do you say?”
Anton’s head hurt marginally less since the draught of the Professor’s potion, but he still had a hard time taking in what the Professor was saying. “All you know about me is that I broke into your house looking for something to steal,” he said slowly. “Why would you offer to help me?”
“I told you: because someone once offered to help me.”
“I could still rob you.”
The Professor rose, the movement smooth and catlike, and looked down at Anton with his hands on his hips and a sardonic expression. “I’d like to see you try.”
Anton closed his eyes for a moment. He had nothing outside this house: one set of worn-out clothes, a pair of shoes with holes in them, and that was it. He lived by stealing from the marketplace, running messages for the bullyboys, picking the occasional pocket. Meals, a place to sleep, escape from Hexton Down, a chance at reward…unless the Professor was just blowing smoke about that…why not?
He opened his eyes again. “All right,” he said. “But what is this great adventure you have planned?”
The Professor smiled for the first time, the candlelight dancing in his eyes. “Tell me, Anton. Have you ever dreamed of flying?”
And Anton, staring up at him, wondered if he had just agreed to help a lunatic.
Year 776 of the Great Barrier
Like a chick in its egg, Jenna lay curled within a bubble of ice half-buried in muck at the bottom of Palace Lake. In her gloved left hand she clutched the frost-covered spellstone that kept the walls of her shelter frozen, teased air from the blue-green water…and slowed time. After a day and a night, she should have been so cramped from immobility she would not be able to move when the time came, but to her, it had not been a day and a night; to her, it seemed only a few minutes had passed since she had waded into the lake in the early morning darkness. Her thoughts, though flowing normally to her, in fact moved with all the sluggishness of treacle in midwinter.
She had left that cold the day before, passing through the single Gate in the Lesser Barrier into the Palace grounds with a dozen other young women, newly hired to serve as maidservants.
And what happened to those we replaced? she thought bitterly as she waited in her bubble of ice. Some have grown too old, some have grown too ugly. And some have simply vanished, used, abused, discarded, no questions asked, no investigations launched, no retribution, no recompense: because those doing the using and abusing and discarding were MageLords.
The spellstone filled her left hand, but her right held something else: a tiny crossbow, cocked and loaded, the quarrel white with frost, steaming with cold. Around her neck, she wore a third item of magic: a simple silver circlet, broken in one place, hung on a cord of leather.
In her time-slowed memory, it had been only a short while since Vinthor had hung that amulet around her neck. “This is the power source,” he had said. “Keep it hidden.” She had nodded, and pushed down inside her blouse, so that it lay, cold at first but warming quickly, between her breasts, glad that it least did not glitter with frost like the spellstone and quarrel.
“The spellstone knows what to do,” Vinthor told her. “The moment you are completely submerged, it will form your…” he hesitated, searching for the word.
“Blind?” Jenna suggested. “I am going hunting, after all.”
Vinthor smiled at that, but it was a smile tinged with sadness. “I wish someone else could do this,” he said softly. “But…”
“But only a young woman, hired to be a maid, can get inside the Lesser Barrier,” Jenna said. “I volunteered, remember, Vinthor? When you told us what the Patron needed.” She remembered the pride she had felt, the excitement that at last she could strike a blow for the Commons…
…for her mother’s sister, the aunt she had adored as a small child, until suddenly she wasn’t there anymore: vanished, like so many others, in the service of the MageLords.
That memory brought a fresh surge of hatred to her breast. “I want this, Vinthor,” she said. “It’s the greatest honor I can imagine.”
Vinthor nodded, lips pressed tightly together. “Of course. And I have every confidence in you. As does the Patron.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I will be watching,” he said. “From outside the Barrier. When you strike your blow…I will bear witness to the Patron that you did your part, and did it well.”
That had been their farewell. There was nothing else to be said, because they both knew that, whether the attack succeeded or failed, Jenna would almost certainly not survive. It was one thing to get inside the Lesser Barrier: another entirely to get out of it, with the Royal Guard in full cry.
And that was why Jenna carried one other small object, not magical at all: a simple glass vial, filled with a fast-acting and fatal poison.
Whatever happened, she must not be taken and questioned by Lord Falk, the Minister of Public Safety. And so, whatever happened, she would not be.
She took another long, slow breath. Subjectively, her wait had not yet been long. But it didn’t matter.
Long or short, it would end eventually.
Eventually, the Prince would come.
And then, the Prince would die.
Not ten strides from where Prince Karl and his bodyguard Teran sat in magical sunlight on soft green grass, a snowstorm raged.
Warm enough with only a wrap around his waist, Karl watched snow slithering across drifts that ended abruptly, flat as knife-sliced slabs of cheese, against the Lesser Barrier, visible only as a slight shimmer in the air like heat waves rising from a fire. Then his eyes narrowed. Something was moving out there.
“Teran, look!” He pointed toward the Barrier. Teran, who had been gazing across the lake at the Palace, twisted his head around to look as a shadow took shape, materializing into a Commoner who was struggling through the snow-choked park on the other side of the Barrier. Swathed in a knee-length coat of black fur, his throat, mouth and chin wrapped in a dark-green scarf beneath a huge fur hat, he raised his head as the light of the magesun fell on his face. His eyes met Karl’s. For a long moment–a few seconds longer than strictly proper, Karl thought–he stared at the Prince; then he lowered his head and ploughed on. Within seconds he faded back into the swirling gloom.
“He didn’t look too happy with you, Your Highness,” Teran said idly. Being technically on duty, he wore his Guard uniform of blue tunic and trousers, silver breastplate and high black boots, but he had set his helmet aside on the grass and his sword next to it. His right hand held a dew-covered bottle of Old Evrenfels Amber. Drinking on duty was definitely against regulations, but the only one who could report him was Karl, and Karl had given him the bottle in the first place, from the magic-cooled chest close at hand.
Karl snorted. “I wouldn’t be too happy with me, either. But what’s he doing wandering through the park in that weather?”
“Probably just wanted to get a glimpse of something green and growing,” Teran said. He jerked his head in the direction of the Barrier. “It’s not easy out there in the winter, you know. Even in the City. That’s when the Commoners envy the Mageborn the most. It’s a good thing you make a point of going out there once and a while, cutting ribbons, making speeches. Otherwise that envy might turn into hate.”
Karl shook his head. “They’re fools if they envy me,” he said. “Oh, it’s a nice enough prison,” he looked around at the manicured grass, the flowering bushes, the sparkling blue lake and the sprawling white limestone Palace on its far shore, the long many-arched bridge across the top of the dam that had formed the lake, “but it’s still a prison.”
“I suspect those held in Falk’s dungeon would dispute your definitions,” Teran said drily.
Karl laughed. “True enough.” He grinned affectionately at his bodyguard. “So you’re saying I should quit bellyaching and enjoy myself.”
“Exactly.” Teran took another swig of ale. “Like me.”
“You’re supposed to be protecting me,” Karl pointed out.
“From what, exactly?” Teran said. “Out there,” he gestured at the snowstorm, “sure, there could be a risk. I could see a Commoner attacking you, since he might not understand how the magic works. But in here?” He looked around. “Unless some goose gets homicidal urges, you’re safe as houses. No Mageborn would ever attack the Heir. What would be the point?”
Karl laughed again. “Lucky for you.” He took a swallow of his own beer. Teran was quite right, of course. No MageLord or Mageborn would attack him, because it would accomplish nothing: he might be the Heir, but if he died, the Keys, the special magic of the King that kept the Great and Lesser Barriers in place, would simply choose a new Heir: and no one would know who that Heir was until King Kravon died and the Keys made the leap to their new host. Since the new Heir would be unknown, no one could influence that person ahead of time. Worse, the new Heir might prove to be an enemy of whoever had arranged the assassination: someone who would then be able to act on that enmity with all the resources of the Kingship once the Keys came to him or her.
Outside the Barrier, he supposed it was conceivable, as Teran said, that some deranged Commoner might attack him. He could even imagine–barely–some disgruntled Mageborn attacking him; but all the Mageborn who lived inside the Barrier, southwest of the Palace in the grand houses of the Mageborn Enclave, had sworn fealty to one of the five MageLords who served on the King’s Council…
…well, almost all, he corrected himself. There were three types of mages residing within the Barrier whose fealty was only to the King: a prime example of one type, the Royal Guard, currently sat next to him, drinking his beer.
The Healers were another. Though like all Mageborn they had some modicum of hard magic, they had an additional skill, rare and valuable: they could use soft magic, useful for healing bodies and minds. Hannik, the First Healer, resided in the Palace like a MageLord, looking after the health (with the help of a handful of lesser-ranked Healers) of everyone inside the Lesser Barrier. It was unthinkable one of them would be involved in any kind of violent attack on the Heir.
Finally, there were the mages of the Magecorps, who served the King under the direction of the First Mage, Tagaza. Made up of the best and the brightest of those who passed through the College of Mages in Berriton, some hundred miles to the north, the Magecorps did everything from making sure the Palace’s many magical systems continued operating–” water running, toilets flushing and lights turned on,” as they put it–to researching the theory and practice of magic.
Karl had met First Healer Hannik a few times when he’d suffered a broken bone or nasty cut from some childish misadventure. He met Tagaza almost daily, since Tagaza was his tutor in all things to do with magic and history…and, above all, politics.
Karl glanced at the Palace again. It looked pure and white from this distance, almost half a mile away, but he knew better. It seethed with intrigue, everyone jockeying for power and position.
There were twelve hereditary MageLords. Their ancestors had been the most powerful mages of their or any other day: Karl still found it hard to fathom what they had done, transporting themselves and a few hundred followers halfway around the world from the collapsing Old Kingdom. They had established the new kingdom of Evrenfels in the middle of a wilderness and erected the Great and Lesser Barriers to protect the kingdom and themselves. Despite their extraordinary forebears, the current MageLords were not necessarily any more powerful magically than many ordinary Mageborn, but that didn’t matter: with the MageLords’ titles came vast lands over which they could rule pretty much as they saw fit.
Five of the Twelve held even greater power: they served on the King’s Council, which governed the entire land. In the name of the King, of course, Karl thought sardonically, though he doubted King Kravon knew about even a tenth of what was done in his name. The King’s power lay in being able to appoint the members of the Council, and since even on the Council, some positions were far more powerful–and far more lucrative–than others, every one of the Twelve was constantly jockeying for the favor of the King and looking to undercut his or her rivals.
Or would be, Karl thought, if my father would allow anyone to meet with him except for Lord Athol and Lord Falk. And of those two, Prime Advisor and Minister of Public Safety, respectively, it was common knowledge that only Falk truly had the King’s ear…which made Falk, who also commanded the Royal Guard and the Army of Evrenfels, the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Karl took another sip of beer as Teran lay back on the grass, hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. You’d think the King might want to see his only son and Heir once in a while, too, he thought with a touch of familiar bitterness. But you’d think wrong.
He hadn’t seen his father since the Confirmation Ceremony on his eighteenth birthday, half a year gone, when Tagaza had announced that he had tested Karl and that he was, indeed, the Heir. It had been a very public ceremony, however, with all of the Twelve, their families, and even the Commoner Mayor and Council of New Cabora in attendance, and he had had not an opportunity to speak to the King once.
The last conversation with his father that he could recall now lay some three years in the past, and had focused entirely on the sad state of the ornamental gardens.
The Confirmation Ceremony had meant that the effort by the MageLords to curry favor with the Heir, already intensified by the inaccessibility of the King, had intensified even further. Previous Royal lines had failed, the Keys shifting to an Heir outside the apparent succession, which was why the Confirmation Ceremony was a Big Deal. Now that there was no doubt Karl would one day be King, those MageLords not on the Council, as well as those on the Council hoping to keep or improve their current positions, sought to influence him so that the balance of power would shift their way on that sad day when death at last claimed King Kravon. And as the MageLords sought his favor, so, too, did the Mageborn sworn to their service, seeking to boost their own fortunes alongside their lord’s.
Fortunately, Tagaza, who had been First Mage for two decades and tutored Karl for the past twelve years, knew all about Palace intrigue. Thanks to his guidance, Karl assumed an ulterior motive behind every gesture of support, every kind word, every gift, every invitation to a party or play, and kept his own council as to what he thought of the various MageLords.
It sometimes seemed to Karl that, of all the people who dwelled inside the Barrier, only Tagaza and Hannik (and the Commoner servants, of course, but they hardly counted) had not tried, in ways large or small, to win his favor or turn him against rivals.
Then he snorted. Not quite true. Falk hadn’t tried either. The Minister of Public Safety didn’t need Karl’s favor: Karl wasn’t fool enough to think he could oust him from that position when he became King, even if he wanted to. In theory the King could appoint whichever of the Twelve he chose. In practice…Karl knew how it would work. Every other member of the Twelve would refuse the position, because they all feared Falk, leaving Karl in the end with no choice but to keep him: and in the meantime, he would have weakened himself in the eyes of everyone else.
Maybe my dear father has the right idea, sequestering himself in the Royal Quarters and never bothering with any actual governing.
He glanced at Teran, and amended his earlier thought once more. Teran hadn’t tried to win his favor, either. But he didn’t need to: he already had it.
Teran’s mother, a theoretical magician, spent her days researching in the Palace archives and writing long, learned papers of which Karl understood one word in ten. He had met her once or twice: she lived in the Mageborn Enclave. Teran’s father, though he had died when Teran was very young, had likewise been in the Magecorps, though his duties had been more practical: he had been killed in a cave-in while recharging the magelights in the Commoner-worked coal mine that provided fuel for the MageFurnace that burned day and night beneath the Palace to provide energy for the magic of all the Mageborn within the Lesser Barrier.
Like Karl, Teran had grown up in the Palace, and since they were almost of an age, the two boys had naturally fallen in with each other, roaming freely inside the Barrier, swimming in the lake, buying ice cream in the Enclave, chasing the geese, sneaking into the kitchen…and one night when they were twelve, sneaking into the maids’ bathing room.
That had been memorable not only for the enlightenment and entertainment it had provided, but for revealing to Karl his own peculiar magical ability, an ability he had told no one about because it was too useful as a secret.
As Heir to the Keys, Karl wasn’t supposed to have any magic of his own. Certainly, he couldn’t light fires with a flick of his hand or move small objects without touching them, the way even the lowliest Mageborn could.
But that night, as the boys, passing through the hallways of the servants’ quarters after a snack in the kitchens, had passed the bathing rooms, Karl, laughing to Teran about how he’d love to sneak in there, had said, “Too bad they lock the doors with magic.” Then he had reached out and tugged on the handle…
…and the door had opened.
Nobody had seen them that evening, though they’d gotten a delightful eyeful themselves. Teran had said something about how lucky they’d been that the door had been unlocked, and left it at that.
Karl, though, knew very well that the door had not been unlocked, but had come unlocked at his touch. After that, he’d started touching other enchanted items just to see what would happen.
He only seemed to be able to deactivate only small objects: locks, lights, heating stones. Near the Palace’s main entrance stood a famous magical timepiece that showed not only the time but also the positions of the stars and planets, as tiny whirling models inside a crystal dome. One day Karl had casually leaned against it for a while, then walked away. He’d been vaguely disappointed to see it still working…but a day later he saw two mages working on it, muttering about it needing adjustment for the first time in half a century. Magecorps mages always seemed to be somewhere near his quarters, trying to fix something that had unexpectedly failed.
Once, when he was about sixteen, he’d even dared to touch the Lesser Barrier, though he’d been warned against it: people who had tried that before had suffered severe frostbite. No matter how cold it is, a quick touch won’t hurt anything, he’d thought…and so he’d reached out, ready to snatch his hand away again in an instant…
…and hadn’t felt any cold at all. In fact, the Barrier had felt almost springy to his touch, like soft rubber. He’d snatched his hand back and never tried that again.
His best guess was that his strange power had something to do with his being Heir, but he’d never asked Tagaza about it nor mentioned it to anyone else…even Teran. The ability to de-magic small items, unlock locked doors and turn out magelights seemed much more useful as a secret than something for Tagaza to research…and tell Falk about; the First Mage and Minister of Public Safety were close friends.
It was hardly the only secret he held close. He and Teran were still friends, but their relationship was very different now that Teran was in the Guard and he was the confirmed Heir. I have many more secrets than I did as a child, Karl thought. Then a frown flicked across his face. I wonder if Teran does, too?
He shrugged that notion, and the whole mass of circling thoughts about Palace life and Kingdom politics that more and more filled his mind these days, put down his beer bottle, and got to his feet. Stretching, he looked around at the wide, tree-studded lawn that sloped up from the lake to the Barrier. This was one of his favorite places, with almost half a mile of water separating him from the Palace. Few Mageborn visited it, and it was off-limits to Commoners, which gave him the illusion of solitude…his bodyguard excepted, of course. On days when the weather inside and out of the Lesser Barrier was the same, he sometimes rested here and pretended that nothing separated him from the rest of the world, that the Barrier didn’t even exist.
He couldn’t pretend that today, with winter still clawing New Cabora and the “sunlight” within the Barrier cast not by the true sun but by the magesun, an enormous, intensely bright magelight that traversed the interior of the dome-shaped Barrier whenever clouds shrouded the outside world, but at least he could pretend to be a free man, not the near-prisoner his birth had made him.
He nudged the reclining Teran in the side with his bare foot. Teran opened one eye. “You called, Your Highness?”
“I’m going for a swim,” he said. “There’d better still be beer left when I come out.”
Teran grinned. “I’m sure most of it will still be here.” He sat up, put on his helmet, then got to his feet, leaned over and picked up his sword belt, and buckled it on. “But first, of course, I have to do my job.”
Drawing his sword, he walked down to the edge of the lake. He peered into the water, searched up and down the grassy shore with his hand shading his eyes, and made a show of poking his blade into all the nearby bushes. He came back and saluted. “Guardsmen Teran reporting, sir,” he said. “After a hard-fought battle, I have secured the beachhead.”
Karl touched his fingers to his forehead. “I salute you, sir. When I am King, you will have your just reward.”
“Actually, I’ll take it now,” Teran said. “If it’s all the same to Your Highness.” He bent down, took a full bottle of beer from the open chest, pulled out the cork with his teeth, then raised the bottle to Karl. “Enjoy your swim!” he said cheerfully, then took a swig.
Karl laughed, then strolled down to the lake, unwrapping as he went. Naked, he stood at the water’s edge for a moment, gazing across the lake at the Palace, glad to be here in the faux sunshine instead of locked in that den of greed, graft and politics. Then he stepped forward. His foot touched the lapping waves…
…and thirty feet offshore, the lake erupted.
A cloud of steam exploded outward, driving a ring of spray across the water. Karl staggered as the blast slammed into him. He glimpsed someone, clad in black, face hidden, standing impossibly on the surface of the water. The figure raised its right hand, pointing something at him. Light brighter than the magesun flashed–and a far greater blast than the first hammered him to the ground. Ears ringing, blood running from his nose, acrid fumes burning his throat and eyes, he found himself on his back in the sand, staring up at a sky wreathed in smoke. Coughing and blinking away tears, he heaved himself up on one elbow.
For twenty feet in every direction, the grass around him had burned black. A bush that a moment before had been clothed in small white flowers now stood as naked, shattered and charred as though struck by lightning. His discarded kilt smoldered where it lay. Water that seconds before had been calm, glittering blue now tossed brown, foam-flecked wavelets against the muddy bank.
A dozen feet from the shore bobbed something black and twisted.
Karl heard Teran’s booted feet thudding across the turf toward him, but the sound seemed to come from far away. He found himself standing without really remembering getting up, and then he was wading into the troubled water.
He looked down at what floated there.
Once, it might have been human, but now it was as charred and twisted as the blasted bush. He stared at grinning teeth in a noseless ruin of a face, blind white eyes bulging from sockets whose lids had been burned away. His gaze travelled lower.
The body was female.
When Teran reached him, he was kneeling in the shallow water, his back to the blackened corpse, retching sour beer into the filthy grey waves.
Beyond the shimmer of the Lesser Barrier, where falling and blowing snow mingled to conceal all in swirling curtains of white, Vinthor lowered his spyglass. He could no longer see through it anyway: tears had flooded his eyes and frozen on his eyelashes. Lying on a snow-drift, half-covered with snow himself, he would have been invisible to anyone passing within a dozen feet, much less someone blinded by the magical sunshine beyond the Lesser Barrier.
Jenna! The name stabbed his heart like a knife.
Had the invisible Barrier not separated him as completely from the Palace Grounds as a wall of steel, he would have rushed the naked Prince and strangled him with his bare hands, bodyguard be damned. That that decadent Mageborn fool should continue to live while beautiful Jenna, so young, so full of life, floated in the water as a withered, blackened corpse…
He had cursed himself for misjudging his distance and coming unexpectedly onto the very verge of the Barrier fifteen minutes earlier–practically on top of the Prince himself. He’d thought then that it didn’t matter, that even if the Prince and his guard, lolling at ease on the other side of the magical wall, did note his face well enough to later identify him, it would mean nothing, with Jenna ready to strike.
But the Prince and the bodyguard both lived, and Jenna, unthinkably, did not.
He scraped the freezing tears from his eyes, then snapped the spyglass closed. Clambering to his feet, he struggled through the snow away from the Barrier, back toward the shadowy, smoky streets of New Cabora. He wanted no one on the other side to see him now, for certain.
He would report what had happened to the Patron.
He did not think the Patron would be pleased.