Read Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) Online

Authors: McKenna Juliet E.

Tags: #Fantasy

Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) (5 page)

It was going to be a painfully long time before that arrow sliding down the long timescale prompted the next silvery chime or the one after that.

A knock sounded and the door to the hall opened to reveal Raselle. ‘My lady—’

‘Where is Esnina?’ Zurenne strove not to vent her anger on her faithful personal maid.

‘In the kitchen.’ Raselle sank into a deep curtsey, her round face anxious. ‘Helping Doratine make curd tarts. She was crying so—’

‘Very well.’ Zurenne could hear Lysha sobbing in the bed chamber. She couldn’t face the thought of dealing with one of Neeny’s exhausting tantrums as well.

Far better that the child found some amusement in the kitchen under Doratine’s watchful, loving care. Far better than shrieking incomprehensible defiance at her mother until she fell asleep, only to wake and stare hollow-eyed at some recollection of the horrors she’d seen. Men hacking each other to pieces. Greybeards, women and children cut down amid bloody frenzy.

Would either of her daughters be happier when at least some of their current uncertainty was relieved? Zurenne so desperately hoped so.

She drew a deep breath. ‘I must attend to my correspondence. Please bring me a tisane tray.’

‘My lady.’ Raselle retreated obediently from the room.

Zurenne meant to reach for a letter but once again she found her hand closing around the silver sigil on its ribbon.

If she could use the ensorcelled trinket to call on the Archmage, could she ask him to use his wizardry to at least find out what the parliament’s barons were saying?

To ask, she thought with sudden guilt, how the lady wizard Jilseth fared? Because none of them would still be alive if the magewoman hadn’t saved them and at such cost to herself.

That was something for Zurenne to remember, if she was ever tempted to give in to her miseries.

 

C
HAPTER
T
HREE

 

Trydek’s Hall, Hadrumal

2nd of For-Autumn

 

 

T
HE
A
RCHMAGE SWEPT
a hand over the silver scrying bowl. The magelight suffusing the water shifted from turquoise to emerald green. The droning voices rising from the rippling water were silenced.

Jilseth had always been awe-struck by the Archmage’s talents. A stone mage by birth, his instinctive affinity was with the soil and rock. Yet he had such effortless control over all the magics of fire, water and even of the air, the element most opposed to his own. There couldn’t be more than a handful of other wizards in this whole city so dedicated to the study and perfecting of magic who could work a scrying spell combined with a clairaudience.

Now seeing Planir work such complex wizardry only deepened her fear. Would her own magic ever return?

Hearth Master Kalion scowled at the bowl set on the octagonal rosewood table between the upholstered chairs that framed the comfortable room’s hearth.

‘The barons insist on debating all the summer’s events before they deign to consider Captain Corrain’s claim?’

Planir nodded, sunlight lancing through the tall windows burnishing the silver in his dark beard. ‘I fear it’ll be another long and tedious day.’

Kalion glanced at Jilseth, still standing on the threshold though Planir had invited her in as his magic opened the door to her knock.

‘I supposed you have an interest in the Halferan Barony’s fate,’ the stout mage acknowledged. ‘Have you recovered from your exertions in their cause?’

That was one way to put it, she supposed. Opening pits in the earth for the corsairs to fall into. Drawing up turf ramparts to block their way. Her wizardry shaking the raiders’ ladders off Halferan’s walls while the topmost bricks reshaped themselves into defiant spikes.

Her magic honing the guardsmen’s blades so they could hack a bloody path from the manor’s gatehouse to the high road. The slightest scratch, however strongly an enemy might be armoured, opening into a gaping wound. Those gashes continuing to widen and deepen even after the blade withdrew. Within a few breaths, raiders lying dead on the ground, limbs severed and spines cut clean through.

Pouring her last breath into such devastating magecraft. Waking to find her mageborn affinity utterly exhausted, all her wizard senses numb. Waking every morning since to find that nothing had changed. Not in thirty days.

‘I am recovering,’ she said calmly.

Jilseth hadn’t expected to find the Hearth Master in the Archmage’s private study. Worse, his faithful shadow, Ely was perched on the edge of a ladder-backed chair drawn up beside the rosewood table. Jilseth wasn’t about to give the slender, sly-faced magewoman any more gossip to spread in Halferan’s wine shops.

‘Join us, please.’ Planir rose and fetched a second upright chair from the table on the other side of the room.

Jilseth desperately hoped that he wouldn’t ask what had brought her here. She couldn’t think of a plausible lie any more than she could contemplate admitting in front of Ely that she had come seeking reassurance. Planir had assured her that her affinity with the earth would stir anew. Once again Jilseth had woken before dawn to contemplate the appalling possibility that it wouldn’t.

She tugged at a crease in the skirt of her plain grey gown as she sat down. ‘Do you think that Corrain’s supposed alliance with Hadrumal will sway the barons’ votes?’

‘I would say so. They’ll decide the wisest course is to tolerate him as Baron Halferan.’ Kalion smoothed the red velvet of his gown complacently. Old fashioned as the Hearth Master’s garb was, it flattered his portly figure far more than a doublet and breeches in the mainland style.

‘Rather than risk alienating Hadrumal and all its wizards,’ Ely quickly agreed.

‘They still don’t believe us.’ Planir shook his head wryly. ‘However often we insist that we had nothing to do with the corsairs’ disappearance.’

‘Are you surprised?’ Kalion asked. ‘When scores of people saw Jilseth’s magic prevail against the raiders? That tale must have been told in every tavern and market place from Cape Attar to Peorle.’

‘Indeed.’ The Archmage rose from his chair and walked to the sideboard where glasses framed a trio of decanters. ‘Cordial? Plum, pear or almond?’

Light from the modest fire glinted on the faceted crystal. With the heat of high summer now passed, the island was exposed to the chilling winds sweeping in from the west. Though Planir was in his shirtsleeves, his favourite faded doublet hung on the back of the door.

‘Pear, thank you,’ Kalion inclined his head agreeably.

‘I’ll take a little of the same.’ Ely rose in a flutter of green silk to fetch both glasses.

‘I have told them time and again,’ Jilseth protested. ‘Baron Karpis, Lord Licanin, Lady Zurenne. When I used magic to save Halferan Manor I was acting first and foremost to save my own neck.’

‘You have nothing to apologise for.’ Planir’s gesture quelled a surge of sparks in the fireplace. ‘Any wizard is entitled to use lethal spells in direst need.’

‘Few wizards ever find themselves so beleaguered,’ Kalion remarked, ‘or acquit themselves so well.’

‘Hearth Master,’ Jilseth said tightly.

She didn’t seek his approval, however briefly satisfying it was to see Ely’s swift distaste. The lissom magewoman couldn’t shake her apprehension that Jilseth might rival her own beloved Galen as one of Hadrumal’s most noted stone mages.

‘It does no harm for the mainland populace to be reminded of what magecraft can do.’ The Hearth Master sipped his cordial, content.

‘No?’ Planir queried. ‘When some barons will be all the more inclined to oppose Corrain precisely because they fear what he might achieve with a noble’s rank in one hand and an alliance with Hadrumal in the other?’

‘Archmage?’ Ely looked perplexed. ‘Ah, of course, that business at the last parliament in Kevil.’

Jilseth wished she had asked for some cordial. Taking a sip might hide her embarrassment at the memory of her confrontation with Lord Tallat.

She had publicly called the younger nobleman to task for daring to hint that Halferan and the coastal baronies could now call on magical aid. He had made the mistake of disbelieving her and she’d made the mistake of using her magecraft to get his full attention, in full view of all Caladhria’s barons attending the Summer Solstice Parliament. Which had of course only served to convince Tallat and doubtless many others that Corrain truly had the Archmage’s ear.

Pouring himself a small glass of amber liquor, Planir savoured the scent of almonds. ‘That Kevil encounter would have been a ten day tale if magic hadn’t driven all the corsairs out of Caladhrian waters. Now they naturally assume that we drove the raiders off at his bidding and it’s well known that we returned strongboxes of stolen coin to Halferan. Other baronies that suffered such raids have seen no recompense.’

‘How long is Hadrumal to pay for Minelas’s crimes?’ Kalion demanded testily. ‘Will we be filling Halferan’s strongboxes until the widow and the new baron are both laid on their funeral pyres?’

‘It hardly seems justice,’ Ely nodded. ‘Especially since the traitor himself is long dead and beyond any punishment.’

‘You don’t think we should make amends for all that Lady Zurenne and her children suffered?’ Jilseth was provoked into a sharp retort. ‘And Halferan Manor has been utterly laid waste. Barely one brick still stands on another.’

Planir raised a quelling hand. ‘We cannot know that Minelas has escaped punishment. The priests may be correct when they say Poldrion sends his demons to claw those whom Saedrin turns back from the door to the Otherworld.’

Returning to his seat, the Archmage grinned as the other wizards all looked at him, astonished.

‘Since priestly claims can neither be verified nor disproved, we will abandon the question of Minelas’s fate. The important thing for Hadrumal is that he is dead and there is no doubt of that.’

He inclined his head towards Jilseth. She smiled dutifully, trying not to recall the sight of the renegade mage gutted by a vengeful dagger; well-deserved payment for him trying to sell his skills to the highest bidder in Lescar’s recent civil war.

‘Our concern now is with this world and those living in it, notably the innocent and honourable mageborn on the mainland,’ the Archmage continued, serious. ‘They will be the first victims of the mundane populace’s fear and suspicion if word spreads of a corrupt and vicious wizard such as Minelas so successfully defying Hadrumal.’

‘Captain Corrain and Lady Zurenne cannot tell that tale without dishonouring their own dead lord’s memory.’ Once again, Kalion’s tone was somewhere between rebuke and challenge ‘It was the former Baron Halferan who first sought the aid of illicit magic.’

‘Only after I had so grievously disappointed him, when I told him that the Edict of Trydek expressly forbids any magical engagement in warfare.’ Planir held up his hand and the diamond on the great ring of his office blazed in the sunlight falling through the window. The gems set around the great stone glowed; sapphire, amber, ruby and emerald.

‘You can hardly feel guilty on that score,’ Kalion said tartly. ‘You upheld the Edict just as every Archmage to wear that ring has done since Trydek first established this sanctuary.’

Though Jilseth waited for the Hearth Master to remark that of course, the lamented Baron Halferan might yet have lived, if Planir had accepted Kalion’s oft-repeated contention that driving Archipelagan raiders away from Caladhria’s shores was in no sense the same as taking sides in some battle between the mainland’s realms or princes.

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