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The Innocent Mage
By Karen Miller
ORBITCopyright © 2005 Karen Miller
All right reserved.
Chapter One"He's here."
Caught unawares, Matt straightened sharply and stared at the woman framed in the stable doorway. Her thin fingers clung tight to the top of the bolted half-door and her angular face was taut with suppressed excitement. The startled horse he was saddling tossed its head and snorted.
"Easy, Ballodair, you fool," he said, one hand on the dancing brown hindquarters. "Sneak up on a body why don't you, Dathne?"
"Sorry." As usual, she didn't sound particularly repentant. "Did you hear what I said?"
Matt ducked under the stallion's neck and checked the girth buckles on the other side. "Not really."
Dathne glanced over her shoulder, unbolted the stable door and slipped inside. From the yard behind her, the sounds of voices raised in bantering laughter and the clipclopping scrunch of iron-shod hooves on raked gravel as two of the stable lads led horses to pasture. "I said," she repeated, lowering her voice, "he's here."
The gold buckles on the horse's bridle weren't quite even. Tugging them straight, frowning, Matt glanced at her. "Who? His Highness?" He clicked his tongue. "Early again, drat him. Nine o'clock he asks me to have Ballodair ready, some meetin' or other somewhere, but it ain't even-"
Dathne made an impatienthissing sound. "Not Prince Gar, you clot-head! Him."
At first he couldn't make head or tail of what she meant. Then he looked, really looked, into her face, her eyes. His heart leapt, and he had to steady himself against Ballodair's warm, muscled neck.
"Are you sure? How do you know?" His voice sounded strange: cracked and dry and frightened. He was frightened. If Dathne was right ... if the one so long awaited was here at last ... then this life, which he loved despite its dangerous secrets, was ended. And this day, so bright and blue and warmly scented with jasmine and roses and fine-boned horseflesh, marked the beginning of the end of all things known and cherished.
The end of everything, should he and Dathne fail.
Dathne was staring at him, surprise and annoyance in her narrow, uncompromising face. "How do I know? You of all people ask me that?" she, demanded. "I know. He woke me out of sleep with his coming, late last night. My skin crawls with him." Then she shrugged, an impatient twitch of her bony shoulders. "And anyway, I've seen him."
"Seen him?" said Matt, startled. "In the flesh, you mean? Not vision? When? Where?"
Pulling her light shawl tight about her, she took a straw-rustling step closer and dropped her voice to a near whisper. "Earlier. I followed my nose till I found him coming out of Verry's Hostelry." She sniffed. "Can't say I think much of his taste."
"Dathne, that was foolish." He wiped his sweaty palms down his breeches. "What if he'd seen you?"
Another shrug. "What if he had? He doesn't know me or what I'm about. Besides, he didn't. The City's thronging with folk for market day. I blended with the crowd well enough."
"You don't reckon ..." Matt hesitated. "D'you think he knows?"
Dathne scowled and scuffed her toe in the yellow straw, thinking. "He might," she said at last. "I suppose." Then she shook her head. "But I think not. If he did, why would there be need of us? We've a part to play in all this that hasn't begun yet." Her dark eyes took on a daunting, familiar glow. "I wonder where it will lead us. Don't you?"
Matt shivered. That was the kind of question he'd rather wasn't asked, or answered. "So long as it's not to an early grave, I don't much care. Have you told Veira?"
"Not yet," Dathne replied after a heartbeat's hesitation. "She's got Circle business, trouble in Basingdown, and beyond him being here I've nothing to tell. Not yet."
"You sound so calm. So sure!" He knew he sounded accusing. Couldn't help it. There she stood, strong and certain and self-contained as always, while his guts were writhing into knots and fresh sweat damped his shirt. Sensing his distress, Ballodair blew a warning through blood-red nostrils and pinned back his sharply curved ears. Matt took a strangled breath and stroked the horse's glossy cheek, seeking comfort. "How is it you're so sure?" His voice was a plaintive whisper.
Dathne smiled. "Because I dreamed him and he came."
And that was that. Stupid of him to expect more. To expect comfort.
Dathne was Dathne: acerbic, cryptic, unflustered and alone. After six years of knowing her, arguing with her, deferring to her, a drab and fluttering moth to her flame, he knew it was pointless to protest. She would be as she was and there was an end to it. As well to complain that a horse had four legs and a tail.
A grin, fleeting and impish, lit her plain face. She could read him as easily as any of the books she sold in her shop, drat her. "I should go. The prince will be here for his horse any moment, and I have things to do."
Something in her gleaming eyes unsettled his innards all over again. "What things?"
"Meet me in the Goose tonight for a pint," she invited, fingers lightly resting on the stable door. "Could be I'll have a tale to tell."
But she was out of the stable, bolting the door, snick, behind her, and the sun was bright on the raven-black hair bound in a knot close to her long straight neck. "No later than seven, mind!" she called over her shoulder, stepping neatly aside from young Bellybone with his buckets of water dangling left and right. "I need my beauty sleep ... for all the good it's done me so far!"
Then she was gone, slipping like a shadow through the stable yard's arched main entrance, and coming through the door in the wall leading to the prince's Tower residence was the prince himself, ready for riding and for business, bright yellow hair like molten gold and the easy smile on his face that hid so much, so much.
With a sigh and a last frowning stare after the woman he was soul-sworn bound to serve and to follow, Matt thrust aside his worries and went forth to greet his sovereign's son.
In the great Central Square of Dorana, capital city of the Kingdom of Lur, market day was in full, uproarious swing. First Barl's Day of every month it was held, regular as rainfall, and even though the sun had barely cleared the tallest turret on the distant royal palace the square was crammed full of buyers and sellers and sightseers, flapping and jostling like fish in a net.
Asher stood in the midst of the madness and stared like a lackwit, his senses reeling. A rabble of noise dinned his ears and his nose was overwhelmed by so many different smells, sweat and smoke and cow dung and incense, flowers and sweetmeats and roasting fowl and fresh-baked bread and more, that his empty stomach churned.
Most of the stallholders were his own people, Olken, dark-haired and industrious, selling their wares with cheerful ferocity. Fresh fruit, vegetables, butchered meat, live chickens, cured fish, candles, books, jewelry, saddlery, furniture, paintings, haircuts, bread, clocks, sweetmeats, pastries, wool, work clothes, fancy clothes ... it seemed there was nothing a man couldn't buy if he had a yearning, and the money.
"Ribbons! Buy yer pretty ribbons here, six cuicks a dozen!"
"Teshoes! Ripe teshoes!"
"Oy! Mind how ye go there, lad! Mind how ye go!" Asher spun on his heel and stumbled clear just as a bull handler, chocolate-brown beast in tow, ambled past on his way to the Livestock Quarter. The bull's polished nose ring flashed in the sunshine, and its splayed hooves clacked on the cobblestones.
"'Ere, you great lump, git out of me way!" grumbled the fruit seller, a fat Olken woman with her dark hair straggled back in a bun, her bright green dress swathed in a juice-stained apron and a brace of plump pink teshoes in one capable hand. "You be trippin' up me customers!"
Because he'd sworn a private promise to ask whoever he could, he said to her, "Would you be needin' a body to hire?"
The fruit seller winked at the crowd gathered about her barrows and cackled. "Thanks, sonny, but I already got me a man wot'd make two of you, I reckon, so just be on yer way if you ain't buyin' none of me wares!" A roll of her meaty shoulders heaved her abundant bosom, and her lips pursed in a mockery of invitation.
Around him, laughter. Hot-faced, Asher waited till the ole besom's back was turned, nicked a teshoe from the pile at the front of the stall and jumped into the swiftflowing stream of passers-by.
He finished the fruit in three gulps and licked the tart juice off his stubbly chin. It was all the breakfast he'd get. Lunch, too, and maybe even dinner if he didn't find work today. The purse tucked into his belt was ominously flat; it had taken nearly all his meager savings just to get here, and then last night's board had gobbled up most of the rest. He had enough for one more night's lodging, a bowl of soup and a heel of bread. After that, he was looking at a spot of bother. But even as doubt set its gnawing rat teeth in his guts, he felt a wild grin escape him.
He was in Dorana. Dorana. The great walled City itself. If only Da could see him now. If his brothers could see ... they'd puke their miserable guts out, right enough.
Long before devising the plan that had brought him here, he'd dreamed of seeing this place. Had grown up feeding that dream on the stories Ole Hemp used to tell the eager crowd of boys who gathered round his feet of an afternoon, once the boats were in and the catch was cleaned and gutted and the gulls were squabbling their fill on the pier.
Ole Hemp was the only man in Restharven who'd ever seen the City. Sprawled on his favorite bench down by the harbor, puffing on his gnarly pipe, he used to tell tales that set all their hearts to thumping and nigh started their eyes right out of their heads.
"Dorana City," Ole Hemp would say, "be so big you could fit Restharven in it twenty times over, at least. Its houses and hostelries be tall, like inland trees, and painted every color under the sky. And its ale houses, well, they never run dry, do they. And the smells! Enough to spill the juices from yer mouth in a river, for in their kitchens they roast pigs and lambs and fat juicy bullocks over fire pits so big and deep they'd hold a whole Restharven fambly, near enough."
And the listening boys would sigh, imagining, and rub their fish-full bellies.
But there was more, Hemp would say, so hushed and awestruck his voice sounded like the foam on the shingle once all the waves had run back to the sea. In Dorana you could see Barl's Wall itself, that towering golden barrier of magic bedded deep into the sawtooth mountain range above and behind the City.
"See it?" the boys would gasp, unbelieving, no matter how many times they'd heard the story.
"Oh aye," Old Hemp assured them. "Barl's Wall ain't invisible, like the spells sunk deep in the horizon-wide reef that stops all boats entering or leaving the calmer waters between coral and coast. No, no, Barl's Wall be a great flaming thing, visible at noon on a cloudless blue day. Keeping us safe. Protecting every last Olken man, woman and child from the dangers of the long-abandoned world beyond."
That was when somebody would always ask. "And what about the Doranen, Hemp? Does it protect them too?" And Hemp would always answer: " 'Course it do. Reckon they're like to build a wall as won't save their own selves first and foremost?"
But he always said that quietly, as though they could hear him, even though the nearest Doranen lived over thirty miles away. For Doranen ears were magic ears, and they weren't the sort of folk who took kindly to criticism.
Unsettled and suddenly homesick, Asher shook himself free of memories then looked up and over the marketplace into the distance beyond the City, where Barl's Wall shimmered in the morning sun. Ole Hemp had been right about that much, any road: there the Wall was, and there it would stand, most like until the end of time itself.
A laughing group of Doranen sauntered by. Asher couldn't help himself: he stared.
They were a tall race, the Doranen. Hair the colors of silver and gold and ripe wheat and sunshine, looped and curled and braided with carelessly expensive jewels. Eyes clear and fine, glass hues of green and blue and gray, and their skin white, like fresh milk. Their bones were long and elegant, lightly fleshed and sheathed in silk, brocade, velvet, linen, leather. They carried themselves like creatures apart, untouched, untouchable, and wherever they walked the dust of the marketplace puffed away from them in deference.
That was magic ... and they wore it like an invisible cloak. Wrapped it around their slender shoulders and kept it from slipping with the haughty tilt of their chins and the way they placed their fine-shod feet upon the ground, as though flowers should spring blooming and perfumed in their wake.
Down Restharven way, you'd hardly see a Doranen from one end of the year to the next. The king, at Sea Harvest Festival. The tax collector. The census taker. One of their fancy Pothers, if a good old-fashioned Olken healer couldn't fix your gripes or your broken bones for you. Other than that, they kept themselves to themselves on large country estates or in the kingdom's bigger towns and here, of course, in the capital. What they did to amuse themselves, Asher had no idea. Farmed and fished rivers and grew grapes and bred horses, he supposed, just like his own people. Except, of course, they used magic.
Asher felt his lip curl. Living your life with magic ... it wasn't natural. These fancy yeller-headed folk with their precious powers to do near on everything for them, to make the world bend to their wishes and whims, who'd never raised the smallest blister in all their lives, let alone an honest sweat ... what did they understand about the world? About the way a man should be connected to it, should live steeped in its tides and rhythms, obedient to its subtle voices?
Nowt. For all their mysterious, magical powers, the Doranen understood nowt.
With an impatient, huffing sigh, he moved on. Standing about like a shag on a rock wasn't going to get him any closer to finding a job. With his elbows tucked in and one hand hovering protectively over his purse, he navigated the crowded spaces between the market stalls, asking each stallholder for work. The little girls back home, picking winkles at low tide, put fewer shells in their gunny-sacks than the rejections he collected now.
His heart was banging uncomfortably. This wasn't the way his dreams had gone at all. He'd reckoned finding a job'd be a damn sight easier than this ...
Scowling, he stopped before one of the few Doranen stalls in the marketplace. The pretty young woman tending it smiled at him and snapped her fingers. The cunningly carved and painted toy dog prancing among the other toys immediately barked and turned a somersault. With another Doranen finger-snap a jolly fat clown dressed in spangled red began juggling three yellow balls. The little dog yapped and tried to snatch one out of the air.
The stall's other onlookers laughed. Just in time, Asher caught and swallowed a smile. Snorting, he turned his back on the dog and the clown and the pretty young woman and stumped away through the streaming crowd. Bloody Doranen. Couldn't even flummery toys to amuse spratlings without reaching for a spell.
At the heart of the marketplace stood a fountain, spewing water like a whale. Its centerpiece was a carved greenstone statue of Barl, with arms outstretched and a thunderbolt grasped in one fist. Beneath the bubbling surface, trins and cuicks winked and flashed in the sunshine. Asher fished a single precious copper cuick from his purse and tossed it in.
"It's a job I be needin'," he said to the silent face above him. "Nowt fancy, and all in a good cause. Reckon y'could see your way clear to helpin'?"
The statue stayed silent. Moisture slicked its carved green cheeks like tears ... though what Barl had to cry about, he surely didn't know. Turning his back, Asher slumped onto the lip of the fountain's retaining wall. Not that he'd expected the statue to actually speak. But he'd half hoped for some kind of answer. An inspiration. A bloody good idea. For sure he wasn't the most regular of chapel-goers, but like everybody else in the kingdom, he did believe. And he obeyed the Laws. All of them. That had to be good for something.
Excerpted from The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller Copyright © 2005 by Karen Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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"A solid epic that posits political intrigue, ethereal prophecies and a rags-to-riches hero against a vivid if familiar fantasy backdrop." -Publishers Weekly