Prolog

(Malar Island, Doray League)

 

Morning smelled as always of salt and fish—the Archon housed his mages on the sea side of the palace. Eyes closed, Marcus felt about the chamber with his mind, habit from days when his master’s service had taken him to places less safe. Mada asleep in her shut bed, the faint glow of life in her womb. Farther out, his fellows stirring in their apartments. At the limit of his perception, servants moving in the mess hall, no doubt preparing the morning meal. He opened his eyes and rolled out of bed to the sound of the first morning bell.

Flatbread fresh from the oven, sardines fried in oil, dried fish with butter, olives, watered wine.  The first of his bond fellows to join him was Tiber, friend and fellow refiner. A moment later Kaeso sat down across from them. No danger, they being bound to the same master, but a man who could kill with a thought—and had—was uncomfortable company.

Meal over, the three climbed the stairway to the meeting room to join Justin and the other two members of his team. When all were seated it was Justin who spoke.

“A message came in on this morning’s boat from the Legate in the Esland capital. We’ve lost another man—the last we had of the palace servants, bound three years ago. When his report didn’t come in Quintus looked into the matter. Our man is no longer on the palace staff.”

Marcus looked up. “Killed?”

 “Killed or unbound and sent elsewhere—the God knows. It doesn’t much matter—he didn’t know anything beyond where to leave his reports, and Quintus, who retrieved them, is careful and competent. If they unbound him he may not even remember writing them for us. I’ve sent a query to Sabina for the details of his binding–if she didn’t do it herself she should know which of the other binding witches did—but I doubt it much matters.

“The real point we already knew. Year by year, Esland has been sliding farther out of control. I want your thoughts on what we should do about it before I make my report to our master.”

There was a long silence before Kaeso spoke.

“It’s too late.”

Justin looked at him curiously, waited.

“Fifteen years ago we could have harvested the Esland mages instead of just thinning them—harvested the damned prince too. It would have taken all our people and help from the other archons, maybe the Magistrate’s help as well, but it could have been done. That would have solved the problem for a century at least.”

Justin shook his head.

“No way we could have killed every mage in Esland and pretended they were all accidents. We don’t want a war, at least not one that the kingdoms know about. Avoiding that has been policy since long before I was born.

“Besides, taking out the Esland mages wouldn’t just weaken them against us, it would weaken them against the other kingdoms—they’ve been fighting with Forstmark off and on forever. No way they could defend themselves if they didn’t have mages and their enemies did. We want more barbarian kingdoms, not fewer—that way they can keep busy fighting each other. What we need is some way of weakening Esland and rebuilding what we have lost there without being too obvious about it.”

Kaeso responded. “It’s too late for that. Ten years ago, after they killed Servius and then Dec and I was the only fire left, we could see that the Eslander prince was on to us and prepared to do something about it. If I went back now, I doubt I could take out more than five or ten before I was spotted and dealt with—and there have to be upwards of five thousand mages in Esland. I’m stronger and better trained than the barbarians but there are a lot more of them than of me and you know better than I do how little we have left for support. No way we can go back to thinning their mages, let alone rebuilding enough to put us back where we were before the old king died.

“You can tell that to the Archon, the Archon can tell it to the Magistrate and the Magistrate’s truth teller can tell his boss that Aulus checked it all the way down his bond chain. Then it’s up to the Magistrate and his people to figure out how to keep us on top of the barbarian kingdoms. Maybe find some way of setting them to fight each other. And if they fail …”

Marcus completed the sentence in his mind—if the Magistrate’s people failed the blame would be on the Magistrate. What weakened the Magistrate strengthened the archons under him, Aulus among them.

This time that was not enough, not after having just reread the accounts in the palace library of events two hundred years before when the provinces went mad, breaking off from the League in blood and fire. What had been provinces of the League were kingdoms now, with armies and mages of their own.

The islands held still, a haven of peace and civilization that must be preserved. Over the long years successive magistrates had built a defense for that haven out of gold and magery, woven a network of agents bought, bound, or inserted to guide the barbarian kingdoms. If that failed …

The notes of the meeting having been signed and sealed by all of the mages present, Marcus returned to his room, changed out of the gold edged tunic that signaled his status, and set off for his usual noon walk—out the front door of the palace, past the market hall on his left, down to the port. A galley was unloading; he closed his eyes, scanned the passengers as they came down the gangplank. If one of the other archons sent someone to poke around Malar island looking to find, or create, something to discredit Aulus, spotting and dealing with him was up to the Archon’s bondmen, if necessary including Kaeso. If the intruder was from the Magistrate, dealing with him would not be an option—not unless … but Marcus could at least warn his master.

This time there was nobody. On his way back to the palace Marcus stopped by the stall of Hermias in the market hall to pick up a string of gilded glass beads for his concubine; she was fond of them and he, at the moment, of her. He had not been judged talented enough to be bred to a witch, but Mada’s bloodline was half gold. That might, if the God favored, be enough. It would be good to have a son sharing talent and service.