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Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Spellmonger's Yule: Excerpt

The Spellmonger's Yule: Excerpt







The Spellmonger’s Yule

Drink the mead.

That phrase haunted me, once I returned to Sevendor after the horrific destruction of Duke Anguin’s palace in Vorone by dragonfire.  It had been uttered by one of my best friends in a moment of crisis, and I probably would have forgotten about it completely in the ensuing chaos if it hadn’t been so damned . . . intimate.

I came back to Sevendor into my lab, instead of the through the Waystone I’d installed in the hall I lived in now.  I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet, I realized.  And it wasn’t the acrid stench of dragon that still clung to my clothes, it was the echo of Pentandra’s – advice? Suggestion?  Mystical direction? – that kept me from going home.  Drink the mead.  As if that would do anything.

My tower was dark this time of night, but with a commanding thought the permanent magelights in the lab sprung into illumination.  The room seemed tired in its emptiness.  I felt guilty, a little, for how intensely I’d used it, searching for a treatment for Alya . . . and then how quickly I’d abandoned it, when a convenient answer proved elusive. 

It was far tidier than I usually kept it, a sure sign of my absence and the diligent efforts of my young apprentice, Ruderal.  The young lad was far more attentive to his domestic duties as my student than had any of his three predecessors been.  I wasn’t sure if that was a sign of success or mediocrity, but I had to admit that seeing my usually chaotic workbench neatly organized was a pleasant feeling that merited a contented sigh.

It was quite chilly in the lab, this time of night, this time of year.  Since the awkward Sixth Annual Magic Fair ended, and I’d essentially abandoned the place in disgust and fled to Vorone for a while.  Ruderal had deactivated the spells that warmed the place without the need of a fire, and the late autumn cold had gotten into the white stones of the tower. 

I wasn’t planning to be here long, but it was too damn cold – even after Vorone – to be at all comfortable.  Instead of re-activating them, however, I glanced instead at the disused fireplace, stacked with logs that had grown dusty.  I decided a fire was more suited to my mood than arcane heat.

It was childishly simple to ignite the wood.  It took me back to the eruption of my rajira when I was a boy. 

The first sign of my magical Talent was when I’d accidentally started a fire with the force of my anger and resentment at my sister.  Since then I’d learned a hundred ways to do it, and fire continued to me the element I had the strongest affinity with.  Draw power, focus it, form the right cantrip in my mind, select the target location, and activate.  I glanced at it, my mind invoked the right combination of runes, I poured power into it until the combination of heat and oxygen ignited . . . and a moment later the yellow flames filled the tiny chamber and began radiating heat into the lab.  I automatically held my hands out to warm my fingers as the orange flames began to lick at the sides of the dry oak logs.

Fire.  It was simple.  I contemplated it, as the light flickered across my eyes and warmed my hands.  Fire was the most intriguing of the Four Greater Elements.  Not a thing, but an event.   When a bunch of energetic matter met oxygen, a party breaks out, creating the plasma of flame which consumed and fed like a living thing.  A tool for telling tales, firing a pot, melting ore, cooking soup, warming fingers, lighting the darkness.  When it wasn’t burning down a palace or destroying your enemies. 

“Well, you’ve certainly had a busy week,” came a familiar feminine voice from behind me.  Not the one I most wanted to fill my ears, but not unwelcome, either.

“It was eventful,” I agreed, not turning around.  Abasing yourself in front of your patron goddess the first time you meet her can be forgiven.  At this point, I was over my awe of divinity.  “The sudden dragon attack was particularly exciting.”

“A gift from Sheruel,” Briga, the goddess of fire agreed.  “Retribution, which is the only way I have a hint of why he did it.  He was unhappy at the recent raids and skirmishes.   Particularly the two fortresses Anguin destroyed on his frontiers.  Some of his human servants overheard, which is the only reason I know about it.  The dragon was revenge for the attack,” she informed me. 

“Which was in response to an unprovoked assault on the Wilderlands, in violation of the precious treaty with Shereul,” I said, still not turning around.  The radiant blaze of heat was driving the chill away, and I lingered until the heat on my chest was almost uncomfortable. 

“An attack he did not order,” Briga replied.  “That was an . . . independent operation by some of his less-disciplined forces.  Instigated by a splinter faction.  Nor does he consider the treaty binding on himself.  That was with the ‘Goblin King’s’ representatives, not his.”

“Are you arguing in the Dead God’s favor of, now?” I asked, amused and irritated at the same time  The radiant heat from the fireplace had almost saturated my chest.  It felt delicious.

“I’m reporting intelligence so that you understand the true nature of the situation,” Briga countered.  “You were supposed to be lured into a full-out assault by the raid, a plan for which neither we nor our foes are ready to consider.  It was not the Dead God’s plan.  It took Sheruel’s loyalists by surprise, as it was organized and executed among disaffected elements.  They serve mostly along the periphery of his power base, closer to the Penumbra and the Hills.  Some of his . . . more energetic auxiliaries were responsible,” she said, choosing her words carefully.

“You are speaking of the Enshadowed,” I nodded, finally turning around.  The time had come for a change of perspective.  My chest was too hot and my ass was getting cold.

“Indeed,” the red-headed goddess nodded.  She looked magnificent in a red mantle that was more red than blood, her multi-hued tresses dancing in the firelight.  “But the attack and Anguin’s response not only took Sheruel’s loyalists off-guard, it confounded their planning. Worse – for them – it sowed distrust among the various factions of the enemy.”

I wasn’t confused by what she said, but perhaps she thought I was. 

“Sheruel felt he had to respond, but couldn’t violate the treaty by sending an army.”

“Yes, I dragons were not covered in the treaty,” I chuckled.  “An oversight I shall bring to Tavard’s attention the next time we meet.  It’s at least gratifying to know that insubordination and disorder aren’t exclusively human traits.”

The pretty goddess nodded, and suddenly there were two silver flagons of wine in front of her on the worktable.  Show off

“Sheruel’s forces have always been advised by the Enshadowed, but now that they have awakened Korbal, raised him and his followers to strength, and granted them the fief of Olem Seheri, it is becoming a point of resentment among the gurvani.  The priests of Sheruel are suspicious.  Particularly as the nascent gurvani kingdom seems far too cozy with them.  Once the urgulnosti priests ruled supreme in fallen Boval.  There are Nemovorti in his court, now, advising and manipulating it for their own purposes.”

“Isn’t the gurvani king kind of a sham?” I asked, skeptically.

“Believe it or not, he’s the gurvani’s way of attempting to adapt to the situation,” Briga disagreed.  “When the invasion began, the goal for most of the gurvani was the recovery of their ancient homelands, the ones they claimed after their rebellion.  Many are satisfied with having achieved that, and are unenthusiastic about continuing the war. 

“The gurvani kingdom was originally conceived as a means of ruling the common gurvani without direct ecclesiastical supervision, while the Black Skulls and the Enshadowed prepared the rest of the war.  A puppet king through which the tribes and factions could all be administered, without the urgulnosti being bothered.

“But instead it became a hub of those who wanted to adapt to the humani civilization, the ruins of which they are now living in.  The average gurvan did not have a good life in the Mindens, the last few hundred years.  Since before the Goblin Wars.  They want to improve the lives of the gurvani within their sphere and elevate them to humani levels.  The King and his court are an opportunity to do that, to their minds.”

“But not those of the human slaves who built the civilization to begin with?”

“They are largely the property of the Black Skulls, except for the Soulless, some mercenaries, and a few experiments.  To be truthful, many new lords of the gurvani kingdom look to their human slaves for guidance and ideas.  They set up the capital at one of the old baronial castles.  The place was crawling with Soulless and human slaves.  They knew how to efficiently run an estate.  The gurvani court started depending upon them for guidance, and started adopting some of the institutions – well-changed for their liking, of course.  But they had established the rudiments of a state, largely dependent upon the advice of their human slaves.

“Or they did, before Korbal started sending his minions to the Goblin King’s court.  Now the Nemovorti are systematically controlling the institution.  They’re the ones who conspired to persuade a number of commanders to launch the summer raids.  Ostensibly at Sheruel’s command, but actually orchestrated by the Enshadowed.”

“I don’t particularly like the sound of that.”  As much as dissension among the enemy counted in our favor, theoretically, recent experience instructed me that the devious nature of the Enshadowed, and their undead allies, were far more insidious than the straightforward genocidal tendencies of Sheruel.

“You are not alone.   It has inspired a lot of resentment among the gurvani most loyal to Sheruel.  And a lot of rebellion among the units and estates of the Penumbra,” she reported  That’s what allowed the raids to be conducted without Sheruel’s permission.  The Enshadowed and their confederates inflamed the honor of the Penumbra troops who invaded, on purpose.  And for their own purpose.”

“You sure get around a lot for a barbarian goddess,” I quipped.  The heat was starting to thaw my backside.

“I can’t penetrate the Umbra,” she admitted, “but even being nocturnal, the gurvani still use candles, tapers, and fire.  More importantly, their human slaves gossip like all servants,” she added.

“I’m sure we can use that to our advantage, somehow,” I said, with a sigh.  “But with Vorone in ashes and Rard obsessing about the rebels in Enultramar, his kidnapped daughter, and his shiny new palace, it’s going to be hard to take advantage of it.”

“Yes, well, that’s human politics,” she smiled.  “That’s out of my control as well.”

“That’s out of anyone’s control,” I agreed.  “But if we don’t get our collective act together soon, then Korbal and Sheruel will work out their differences before we can exploit their acrimony.  And here I sit, without my witchsphere . . . or my wife,” I added, for no particular reason except that I felt like complaining. 

The look in her eyes immediately made me regret it.  When a goddess can’t cure what ails your wife, the guilt you feel begins to take on divine proportions.

“We’re still working on that,” she insisted.  “The three of us . . . persistent deities have each done what we could.  Alya’s body is as well as it could be.  It is her mind that is damaged.  Not even Trygg Allmother has that power, I fear.”

That didn’t seem fair.  Alya had sacrificed herself in the Magewar against Greenflower, in defense of her marriage and motherhood in general.  She never should have been there, but it was lucky for us she was.  She won the battle for us, after magelords and warmagi had fallen to Isily’s cunning wrath.  Now she was lying in a bed in an abbey two domains away, completely unresponsive to all but the most basic stimuli. 

Our children were devastated.  Minalyan was scared of his own mother, and Almina burst into tears at the sight of her.  Their mother’s body might be there, but she was . . . gone.
I could sympathize.  I was . . . well, I didn’t have a more potent word than “devastated”.  Mostly I was just doing what everyone expected me to do.  I did my best to allow myself to be distracted from the aching pit at the center of my soul, but it was hard, these days.  It took something like a dragon attack or a midnight visit from a goddess to keep me from dwelling on the hopelessness.

Once I would have said that it was in the hands of the gods.  Now that I knew some gods, I wasn’t so hopeful. 

“So which of you divinities does specialize in that sort of thing?” I asked, casually. 

“That’s . . . it’s complicated,” Briga sighed, over her wine.  “The gods are bound by the limitations of human imagination and need.  You need to start a fire or bake a loaf or cauterize a wound or gain vengeance on the warrior who slaughtered your family, I’m your girl.  If you want a deity who specializes in restoring higher brain function . . . well, your people should have conceived of one!” she said, a little defensively.

“Not even the Imperial pantheon?” I suggested. 

I’d picked up that the two loose families of gods, each based on a different culture, were often at odds.  The Magocracy’s deities considered themselves superior to their Narasi cousins, due to the great civilization they presided over, I’d gathered.  Meanwhile, the barbarically rustic Narasi pantheon resented the snooty Imperial gods and delighted over their diminution after the Conquest. 

As more than one of the deities worshiped today were syncretic fusions of both pantheons, that produced some interesting divine politics.  It’s amazing what Herus the Traveler will gossip about when he’s drunk.

“Perhaps,” she conceded, her nostrils flaring a bit.  “They had a lot of minor divinities, at the peak of their decadent civilization.  Some were pretty specialized.  But few of those ever incarnated,” she pointed out, quickly.  “The rule of thumb is that the more specialized a deity is, the less vibrant the energy generated by their worshipers.  The Imperials had loads of minor medical deities, but mostly they were personifications of mnemonics or technical gods.  Like Yrentia’s many children: Arkameeds, Nuton, Keplar, Planc, Bor, Haking, that lot.  Or the daughters of the Storm Lord, if you want to get exotic.  Superstition and ritual used to educate and control an increasingly ignorant people during the twilight of their civilization,” she said, defensively.

“What about Yrentia’s children?” I ventured.  The Imperial goddess of science and magic once enjoyed a vibrant cult in the early Magocracy, and many of her brilliant children had even made appearances at times.  “She manifested enough to write a bunch of vital stuff on rocks in Merwyn, among other great feats.  Wouldn’t she know-?

“That was during her mortal phase, from what I understand, something her human seed did before she ascended to divinity.”

I frowned.  “Damn.  Another glorious myth destroyed.”

“Oh, she was vital to the survival of humanity, and what she did – ensuring that the most basic scientific and magical information would not be lost by humanity – was worthy of deification.  Perhaps she could be persuaded to manifest, if you did the right rituals or something.”

“I’ve considered that,” I nodded.  “If you and the other persistents cannot repair her mind, then perhaps Yrentia . . .”

“Well, her consort Avital shows up every now and then over the centuries, but he’s more engineering focused than neural science.  Really, Min,” she said, finally, throwing up her thin arms in frustration, “if there is a god who can put Alya’s mind right, I don’t know who it is.  I’ll keep looking, and so will the other persistent deities, but . . . well, this is far outside of our realms.   If you want to restore your bride, then the answer is more likely found in thaumaturgy than theurgy.  Or maybe the Alka Alon . . .” she said, frowning.

I snorted.  “You think the Tree Folk know more about the human psyche than our own gods?”

“Not them collectively,” she conceded.  “But during the early Magocracy there was a period where they worked very closely with humanity.  Some were enraptured by the opportunity to study you.  Most of that stopped before the Inundation, for various political reasons – that was before my time – but I’ve heard rumors that the Alka studied human beings more intently than we’d ever studied ourselves.  Perhaps that knowledge still exists with them,” she shrugged. 

“None of the Alkans I’ve met seemed particularly concerned with our psychology.  Even the three Envoys were mostly ignorant of humankind when they arrived.  And Onranion has done what he can for her with songspells, but this is far outside of his area of specialty,” I sighed, the pit of hopelessness growing wider inside me.

“Then you must continue to seek, my friend,” the goddess said, softly and sympathetically.  “As will we all.  But . . . beware of your own hopelessness,” she advised.  “So much depends upon you, Minalan.  If you give in to despair and outrage, you may well doom us all.”

“That makes me feel so much better,” I sighed with bitter sarcasm.  “I am doing . . . what I need to,” I stressed, unwilling to elaborate.  She might be a goddess, but a man has a right to his own private spiritual struggle.  “And what I need to do most is find a way to restore Alya.”

“That is guilt speaking, Minalan,” she pointed out, gently. “And desperation.”

“That’s Minalan speaking,” I corrected, firmly.  “If I thought that Sheruel or Korbal held the answer and were willing to bargain with me, I might even consider it.  But I know that they don’t and they wouldn’t, so you have nothing to fear on that front,” I said, perhaps more bitterly than I intended.

“It wasn’t your treason I fear, Minalan,” she said with an irritated snort.  “Can’t you see that?  It’s your self-destruction!”  

And with that she disappeared in an entirely unnecessary and overly dramatic burst of flame.  Briga’s equivalent of slamming a door.

I turned back to the fire, knowing her eyes were still watching me through the flames.  I kept my face stoically set, unwilling to let her even guess my thoughts from my expression.  I briefly thought about extinguishing the flame by urination, but I knew that would be going too far.  I was frustrated, but I wasn’t frustrated with Briga.

Drink the mead.

It irritated me like a pebble in my shoe while I was running for my life.  There were so many, many other things that needed my attention and required my investigation. 

Politics.  War.  Governance.  Gods.  Goblins.  As irritated as I was with Briga, she’d been correct.  Too much did depend upon what I did – or didn’t do – and lapsing into abject despair could doom us all. 

So why didn’t I care more?

I knew why, and the answer was selfish.  Doing all of this without Alya seemed pointless to me.  I’d become so dependent upon her that without her I felt like I was acting on a stage from a script written by someone else, to an empty audience.  And that was selfish.
But I didn’t care.  See why Briga was worried?

Drink the mead.  Pentandra’s unearthly message would not flee my thoughts, not after weeks.  And I was a good enough wizard to know that when your subconscious keeps pointing to something like that, it would haunt me until I dealt with it. 

When Alya and I were married, nearly gotten killed by Censors, and escaped on our honeymoon on a romantic river cruise on Pentandra’s private barge, Pentandra had followed an old Narasi custom and included (among other incredible delicacies) a hamper containing seven bottles of mead.  

Alya and I drank the first six bottles on the honeymoon, and – again, according to custom – saved the final bottle to celebrate our fifth anniversary.

Only . . . the Magewar had intervened, and Alya had fallen before we could complete that happy ritual.  I had vowed not to drink the final bottle of mead until I restored her, and we could drink it together, as intended. 

I felt a little stupid.  It was a silly peasant rite, a superstitious bit of folk religion that helped bond unruly peasants together.  There was nothing magical about that mead.  I could pour the entire bottle down Alya’s throat and it would not alter her condition one bit.  I could empty the bottle myself and, after a brief period of pleasant drunkenness, my problems would be piled in front of me as they were before.

It was a silly solution to an intractable problem . . . but part of me suspected what it meant, if not where it originated. 

To me, by opening that bottle I was accepting the fact that Alya was forever gone.  To drink the mead was to admit that I had failed, that I needed to mourn a wife who was dead in all but name, and move on with my life. 

I had no doubt that there were important lessons and deep spiritual truths involved in the process, but I could not care less about my spiritual health.  Drinking the mead was admitting defeat in the most personal battle of my life.

So, a tiny part of my mind whispered, perhaps you should do that.

That wasn’t a part of myself I wanted to listen to.  But experience had shown that when it spoke, it was usually in my interest to listen. 

I hate that part of myself.

I knew that it was my fear of letting go that was keeping me from doing it. 

I thought of our children, Minalyan and Almina, growing up without their mother.  I thought of the unborn baby we’d lost at Greenflower, and allowed my mind to take me into all sorts of dark places. 

Drinking that mead would be accepting all of that . . . accepting a life without Alya.  I was still clinging to mad hopes and desperate ideas about magically repairing her, but the fact was that I had consulted the best magical minds in the Kingdom already, to no avail.  I had even toyed with the idea of necromancy, but Alya’s problem wasn’t death.  It was . . . beyond madness.  Beyond the understanding of the mightiest minds of the age.  Even Master Icorod, head of the medical order of magi, had told me sympathetically that Alya’s recovery was “in the hands of the gods.”

Icorod is not a religious man, but he wanted to give me hope after his exhaustive examination.

But when the gods themselves declare that they are stumped, it kind of saps your confidence.  And your hope.  Perhaps it was time to face that.

It had been only months since Greenflower, and while I knew that the entire barony was shocked and in mourning over their beloved baroness, there were already whispers – even proposals – that I have my marriage annulled and seek a new wife.  No one had been brave or stupid enough to say the words to my face, but I wasn’t naive.  Or surprised. 

Alya was an integral part of running the barony.  Right now, Lady Estret and Sister Bemia were handling much of her functions, with Sire Cei conducting business as usual.  As if we were just off on holiday somewhere. 

But that was a stopgap.  With Yule approaching in just a few weeks there was a lot of baronial and domain-level work to be done, work that Alya, as baroness, should be conducting.  Yule Court was one of the central ceremonial occasions of the year, when my vassals would be feasted at the castle, gifts would be given, posts would be announced, and fealty would be pledged for another year. 

Alya loved Yule, I recalled fondly. She would be terribly upset to miss it this year.

The absurdity of that thought was what brought me back to my senses.

Drinking the mead would acknowledge the reality I didn’t want to face, but that my loyal subjects and friends were quietly urging me to.

I don’t know how long I sat and smoked and stared into the fire.  All I know is that at some point I went downstairs to our old bedroom (and my current study) and retrieved the leather-cased bottle, sealed up since we returned from our honeymoon.  I don’t even remember doing it, I just recall staring at it in the center of my worktable for what seemed like hours.
Drink the mead.  Whether it was merely Pentandra’s subconscious advice or a message from some other power through her lips, I could not ignore it.

Finally, with tears rolling down my cheeks and despair and hopelessness in my heart, my trembling fingers unsealed the top of the case and pulled the bottle out . . . along with a thick sheaf of parchment.

I wasn’t expecting that.

I stared at the roll of parchment surrounding the bottle in confusion, and straightened them.  They were filled with cramped sentences, some stuffed into margins or written at odd angles.  Most of it, I was even more surprised to see, was in my handwriting.  And Alya’s.  And I didn’t remember writing a word of it.

The leaf at the top of the stack caught my attention, as it was designed to.  It was from me.  To me.

MINALAN – Greetings from your storied past!  Either this will be an amusing tale to tell my kids, or a vital piece of intelligence.  But herein lies the story of what truly happened on my “uneventful” honeymoon.  Hopefully you’re reading it while you and Alya are wildly celebrating.  In any case, there are several details here that, for obvious reasons, you may find interesting or even important.  You are likely wondering why you have no memory of this, or even of writing this account.  Once you read this, you should understand.  Good luck, and may Ishi’s blessings keep our union as lusty and fruitful as it is now! – s. Minalan

Yes, that was my flamboyant signature at the bottom of the page.  I’d written it.  And I didn’t remember writing it.

The bottle forgotten in front of me, I eagerly devoured the tale – which occasionally rambled, as details were inserted or something was explained in more detail.  While it was far from scholarly standards, it was fascinating to read.  And it explained so much I had questions about.

Apparently, my uneventful honeymoon was a bit more eventful than I recalled.

It took me two hours to get through the sheaf, much of it spent tracking down where in the wandering narrative certain things and certain people were mentioned.  By the time I felt like I had a good understanding of the events of five years ago – events I had no recollection of – the roosters in the courtyard of the castle were starting to greet the pale sky in the east.
It was a lot to absorb.  From the sheer unlikelihood of the adventure to the unexpected conclusion, to the removal of the experience from my memory to the point where I had not even suspected a gap . . . it was a lot to absorb.

I was still mulling the details of the revelation when the laboratory door opened, and Ruderal entered, yawning.  When he saw me he stopped mid-yawn.

“Master! When did you arrive?  I thought you were still in Vorone!”

“Last night,” I admitted.  “But I am not staying long.  Fetch me some hot tea and breakfast from the kitchen and send word to Sire Cei to attend me in my lab.  And Onranion, if the rascal is around.”

“He is, Master,” Ruderal assured me.  “Is everything . . . all right?”

“Mayhap,” I admitted, grudgingly.  “Ruderal, I was in the depths of despair . . . but I think I just threw myself a rope from the past.”

Ruderal looked at me skeptically.  “That seems a bit cryptic, Master,” he said, cautiously. 
“It was meant to be,” I decided.  “Tell no one you don’t have to that I’ve returned.  I won’t be here long.”

“What . . . what did you discover, Master?” the lad asked, hesitantly but politely.  He glanced at the parchments, now scattered across the table around the bottle and its case.

“The most insidious thing a man can find, lad.  Hope, Ruderal,” I conceded.  “I discovered a tiny, almost invisible ray of hope.


More to Come, Soon!  

Happy Yuletide and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Court Wizard issue appears to have been resolved...

It APPEARS as if the problems with Court Wizard and Amazon have been resolved.  Please let me know if you continue to have problems accessing the book.  Thank you for your patience.  It was them, not me.

Oh, and I'm planning to release Spellmonger's Yule, a novella, as a preamble to next year's Necromancer.  Hawklady is still in composition, but got slowed down when I lost my job and had to focus on my Podium stuff and . . . well, I have teenagers.  Hoping to still have Hawklady out by the holidays, but I hate to promise.  We'll just have to see how things move along.  Now that the issue with CW is resolved, I need to finish up my edits to Warmage before I send it to Podium (almost done, I swear!) and get the pronunciation guide finished for the book.  Which, in some cases, means I have to decide how some words are pronounced.

Thanks again for your patience.  More Spellmonger (and other stuff) coming up!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Quick Question for my fans . . .

What are the best, most memorable quotes from the series?  The ones you'd like to see on, say, a T-shirt or mug?  Lance wants to know.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Shadowmage Spoiler Thread Discussion

Dish the deets in the comments below.  What did you like?  What did you find frustrating?  Who do you want to see more of?  Who did you hate?  Who do you want to see who we haven't seen yet? Were there too many llamas?  Not enough?

Oh, and here is a (hopefully) clearer map of Southern Alshar, although I don't know how the resolution is going to work.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Dropped Shadowmage . . .

Should be up in the next 12 hours or so.  Here's the cover:





Just under 200,000 words of epic fantasy.  Beta readers have been pleased.  Going to get some rest, now . . . 

Uh, wasn't George R. R. Martin supposed to have a book out by now?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A few brief announcements . . .

1.  I hear a lot of agitation for a better map of the Wilderlands.  Here ya go:

I'll see if I can't find a better way to provide these in the future.

2.  The progress with Podium Publishing has been swift.  Still no dates yet, but I've been generating background documents as quickly as I can.  These people are consummate professionals, very impressed with their operation.

3.  I will be attending the Baltimore ComicCon this weekend, in conjunction with my Art Director, Lance Sawyers of Lance Sawyers Studio.  He's the real-life Lanse of Bune, and he's got some truly brilliant designs for all sorts of stuff.  Probably be up there on Friday, Saturday, and maybe Sunday.  If you're there, stop by and say hello.  Who knows what you might find out about the Spellmonger universe?  (No, I didn't get my printing from CreateSpace in time to actually sell autographed copies, yet, but maybe next time).  I don't do many cons, but I'll probably start to do more.  I love the Baltimore con, though.  Beautiful waterfront.

4.  I've re-arranged my writing schedule a bit.  After reviewing some marketing data, Hawklady will be delayed by a few months and get released just before the holiday season.  Why am I making you suffer?  Marketing, evil marketing.  But you won't have to wait much longer, and when I do release it I'm going to try to do the CreateSpace version at the same time to ensure that the little Hawkmaiden in your life can get a real book, not just an ebook, for your Yule.  Hawkmaiden is already at the proof stage in the process.  It will be ready for sale this month, more than likely, with beautiful new cover art from Giotta.  I'll have a firmer release date the closer we come, but look for it around late October, early November.

5. I'll be working on Trask's Odyssey, as planned, right after Hawklady.  Expect it in early 2017, as fast as I can get it done to the standards I've set for it.  I've been looking forward to finishing this for a long time.  I know you have, too.

6. Super Secret Project #1 will be published soon.  It is neither Spellmonger nor Space Viking.  It's entirely original ADULT sci-fi.  I'm taking a hell of a risk by publishing it, but, heck, y'all are adults.  If you don't like that sort of thing, don't buy it.  If you lose respect for me as an author . . . well, I don't do this for respect.  I do it for the pure indulgence in creativity and to flatter my ego (all writers do this, I'm just honest about it).  I know the work doesn't suck, but it might not be the Terry Mancour fiction you're used to.  Love it, hate it, I don't care, I've been working on it for years and it's time for its final version to see the light of day under my own name.

7. To those fans I've promised stuff to, it will be coming shortly.  I've had my hands full, but I'll be able to turn my attention to Fan Maintenance, soon.  What have I had my hands full with?  The Podium deal, of course, and the ramp-up to audiobook production.  The start of school.  Family and work obligations.  Trying to get the Court Wizard version issues straightened out.  But mostly . . .

8.  Oh, yeah.  I finished Shadowmage.

I'm going to try to have it out this weekend, next week at the latest.  40 chapters, about 190,000 words, and as straight-forward as Court Wizard was convoluted.  It's the third book of the trilogy of Enchanter, Court Wizard and Shadowmage, and yes, it does indeed advance the plot.  You'll finally see where Tyndal and Rondal were slipping away to during those books, with cameos by a lot of characters you may have forgotten about, and some new ones I think you'll like.  It alternates perspective between the boys, ala Knights Magi, and continues to develop their characters.  It will be the "rough" version, but to be honest this one flowed like mead out of the keyboard in just six weeks, and I'm taking great care with the review and preediting, so I am not anticipating any major corrections.  Amazon has had issues with these, apparently, and I'm trying to work it out with them.  They won't do instant updates, so you have to go to your bookshelf and hit the "get the latest version" button, but as I said, I'm not anticipating any major updates this time around.

Questions?  Comments?  Rude remarks?  Hit me.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Big announcement: Mancour Signs With Podium Publishing

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

August 22, 2016

New York Times Best-Selling Author Terry Mancour is pleased to announce that he has entered into an exclusive audiobook contract with Podium Publishers (podiumpublishing.com) for the entirety of his best-selling Kindle Epic Fantasy saga, The Spellmonger Series.  Podium will undertake the production and distribution of the entire series, beginning with the first novel, Spellmonger, and add subsequent works in succession.  A release schedule has not been determined at this time. 

“I’m enormously proud that Podium selected my work for consideration,” Mancour writes.  “While they are a small firm, relatively speaking, their dedication to the product, author relations, and their commitment to professionalism make it an honor to work with Podium.”  Under the agreement, Podium will provide a range of artistic services and handle production and distribution of the Spellmonger audiobook series. 

Mancour’s fantasy series, featuring an emphasis on magic, medieval realism, and world-building, includes eight published novels: Spellmonger, Warmage, Magelord, Knights Magi, High Mage, Journeymage, Enchanter, and Court Wizard, an anthology, short stories, novellas, and a Young Adult cadet series – over two million words of prose.  The first novel in the series was published on Kindle in 2011 and quickly caught the attention of Epic Fantasy readers.

Mancour has averaged two full-length (150,000+ words) novels in the series every year since. 
Mancour has scheduled the release of Shadowmage, the ninth volume in the series, as well as the second novel of the cadet series, Hawklady, for later this year.  The tenth volume of the series, Necromancer, is scheduled for 2017.  Mancour has planned the series for at least thirty books.

For all inquiries, contact:
Terry Mancour

Friday, August 5, 2016

Just Sent Court Wizard In.

I'd like to say it's the Final Edition, but the fact of the matter is that after a marathon rewrite, and careful scrutiny, I probably missed a few things.  Do me a favor and email me at tmancour@gmail.com if you spot something.

Now . . . I'm done with Court Wizard.  It was a problematic book for several reasons.  Let me go through them here, instead of making you suffer with an Author's Afterword in the book (note: I withhold the right to include this as an Author's Afterword in some future edition of the book.)

First, the questions:

1. Why was the book late?

A couple of reasons.  First, I was recovering from the hospitalization and other medical issues associated with the publication of Enchanter (purely coincidental, for those shaking their heads).  We have since discovered that my condition is triggered by diet, and theorized that by avoiding certain foods I can avoid an attack.  I've been able to avoid a hospitalization for ten months, now.  I've even been able to avoid an episode.  After 13 hospitalizations in 3 years, that's a BIG DEAL.

Secondly, this was a Very. Big. Book.  Originally planned for a mere 40 chapters, once I tried to do it justice it blossomed by 10 chapters.

Thirdly, This was inherently difficult book to do from the start.  I intended to write it from a female perspective - the third time I've tried to do that, but the first from a mature woman's perspective.

That's a big deal, too.  There is a lot of angst happening on social media about The Deplorable State of Female Characters In Fantasy Fiction.  From the differing armor standards between male and female action heroes to the lack of good liberal fantasy societies . . . so I wrote Court Wizard.

Here we have a strong, fully-developed female character.  A professional woman in her own right who married out of choice and for love in a society that values neither.  She has challenges, quests. adversaries, and enemies.  A woman powerful in her own right, at the pinnacle of her feudal society.

One might think that would automatically make her a Feminist Icon.  But she really isn't.  Not as the feminist movement understands it.

You see, what most advocates from the feminist movement want, when they want more "feminist" fantasy stories, seem to be characters torn from modern times in medieval dress.  They don't understand some things about the fantasy genre, particularly the Medieval Fantasy genre.

The modern feminist movement is largely a product of post-industrial civilization.  Before the Industrial Revolution (Ye Olde Medieval Tymes, in which most high fantasy is set) the dominant form of civilization and culture is agricultural.  The things that were in women's self-interest during agricultural times are exactly the things that the modern feminist movement fights against today.  In agricultural societies a woman's greatest security came from aligning with a powerful family, the strongest institution available to her.  Imagining a realistic feudal, agricultural society that doesn't put a premium on the lives of young men as labor and defense is almost impossible.  One that doesn't put a premium on women who have a lot of babies and can keep an orderly house, likewise.

The point is, imagining a strong, resilient woman having adventures in a feudal society is not hard; we have been given ample historical precedent and plenty of mythological precedent.  But to do so she must exist within that society, not outside of it.

Further, women are different than men.  There, I said it.

In this context, it means that that there is a lot more focus, internally, on the importance of relationships to women, and to truthfully relate that requires a lot more words.  Men and women, as a rule, approach things differently, and I wanted to convey that.  Women live constantly in a world of context that men, in general, simply don't understand or perceive.  I did my best to do that, and that meant going into a lot more depth into Pentandra's relationships as she strives to solve problems.

So for everyone who complains that there are no realistic female characters in fantasy novels: here you go.


2.  Why was the book released early?

It wasn't raw greed.  While I'm as susceptible to that as anyone - heck, more than most - it wasn't my intention to release the book before I was ready.  But there were extenuating circumstances.

If you look at the dedication to Court Wizard, you'll see the name Toni.  That's my wife's Aunt Toni, a beloved figure in her youth.  Toni developed cancer, a particularly brutal form, and after her diagnosis her son-in-law passed away due to complications before a heart transplant.  I won't go into further details, but you can imagine how difficult that was for an old Southern family.

I can't do a lot in this world, but the one thing I can do is dedicate my books.  Before she passed away, two weeks after Court Wizard was published, she got to see her dedication, her name, at the head of a long list of strong, intelligent, valiant women.

It was a little thing, but it was what I could do.  And it was totally worth all the negative reviews I got for releasing the book early.

The second reason it was messed up was that I had originally a much different - and complex - structure for it, with Antimei framing the entire story by telling Alurra the story as it will happen - and with her death at the end.

Only I didn't like that.  Too complicated, and too fatalistic.  Along the way I thought of a reason to keep Antimei alive, so I did it that way.  So I reshuffled a lot of chapters around, wrote a new ending, and righteously fucked up the continuity of the story.

All of that should be fixed, now.  If you run across further errors, please email me.

Oh, and I included the first chapters of both Hawklady and Shadowmage at the end.  And yes, I will push them out to people as soon as they are up so everyone has the edited copy.

But I'm beat, now.  I'm going to have an Adult Beverage and celebrate.

I just wrote a book again.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Final Edit of Court Wizard Running Late . . . Don't Panic!

I've spent over thirty hours this weekend alone making corrections to Court Wizard, but i'm still not quite done yet and I don't want to release it until it's right.  Or right-er.  So I'm going to continue to grind away at it until its done.  That should be a matter of days, not weeks.

I'm very sorry about this - I've been busting my butt all week, but there's a lot of detail to get through.  But I'm devoting just about every spare moment to it and will give you an update here the moment it's done.  And yes, I'm planning on pushing the update out to everyone.

To help make up for this, I'll be including the first chapter to the new book in the revision.

Thanks for your patience.

Terry

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Court Wizard fixed-ish.(UPDATE)

It's still in beta, but I replaced two repeated chapters (12 and 13) and handled a couple of glaring errors.  

Let me know what you think.  This post CAN contain spoilers.

SPOILERS!



Update: More updates to come.  Early readers, please feel free to share any corrections or continuity issues with me here, or (if you prefer) email me at tmancour@gmail.com.  (UPDATE ON UPDATE: Just published the third set of corrections, so far).

There are very good reasons why I released it when I did, in this condition, and I'll explore some of them in a post next week.  Right now I just want to finish the "sanding".  If you prefer a better-edited version, then I urge you to wait until August 1st when the final edit will be done and published.

The feedback on the story is helpful, though.  Let me know what you think.  And I'll answer a few questions about your concerns as we go.

Thanks for your patience.  All will be made clear in time.

(That's what a good wizard would say.)

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HP4W7JA#navbar

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Teaser: Court Wizard, Chapter One (Rough and exposition heavy)



So, to tide you over and give you an idea of what is in store for Court Wizard, here's Chapter One.  And yeah, there's lots of exposition.  It's Chapter One.  So tell me what you think, in the comments.  






 Chapter One

The Return To Vorone



“Halt!” called the sleepy but determined voice of the guard at the great city gate.

It was near to midnight, and though he was awake – unlike his fellows – he had not spotted the approaching party until they’d been within bowshot. With a foot of snow on the ground to muffle their hooves, that was somewhat understandable, but even Pentandra, who had only casual experience with warfare, knew that was sloppy.

The guard stood boldly in front of the great redwood gate, facing the party of two hundred men and horses, their breath steaming in the cold night air, with a single crossbow cradled in his arms. “The city gates are closed, after sundown. By order of the Baron,” he added, apologetically.

“Then open them,” came a strong but reedy voice from beneath the fur-trimmed hood of the leading horseman. “In the name of the Duke.”

The guard chuckled at the unexpected invocation. “Huin’s tired feet, my lord, but the Duke died more than three years ago. Four, now. Begging your pardon, but you won’t get no further than that by mentioning poor Duke Lenguin.”

“I wasn’t,” the reedy voice said, impatiently. “I am referring to—”

“Enough of this!” One of the heavily-cloaked riders a few rows behind the vanguard of the party urged his mount forward. “It’s late, we’re cold, we’re tired, and we’re hungry!” He approached the head of the column, where the leader retreated deferentially. He threw back his dark blue hood, revealing a youthful face of noble bearing – and a scowl. “You, Sir! You are . . . Randaw, are you not? Corporal of the guard?"

“Ancient of the guard, my lord,” the man corrected, respectfully. “But I—“

“Hush!” the youth commanded. “I know that because I remember you. You have two daughters, and your wife died with the second, am I wrong?”

“My lord!” the man said, his eyes growing wide. “’Tis true, but—”

“I know this, Randaw, because I recall as a boy watching you play with them after your shift at the palace in late spring,” he said, firmly. “Your older daughter wore yellow, with a bow in her hair often; and your younger daughter wore white, but it always looked gray, because she could never stay clean Further,” he said, smiling at the recollection, “your younger daughter called you ‘Dadums’, for no good reason that you could explain. You loved them dearly. So much that not even the approach of a Duke’s son would keep you from tending to them, when the younger one injured her knee,” he finished.

The soldier’s eyes grew even wider, and his jaw went slack with wonder. “Huin’s holy hoe! It’s you!  Anguin!"

Duke Anguin,” the reedy voice corrected, officiously. “His Grace, Duke Anguin II of Alshar, to be precise."  It was a voice that sounded pleased by precision.

“I . . . Your Grace!” the man exclaimed, his face filled with emotion. “You’ve . . . you’ve returned?

“Aye,” Anguin nodded. “This is the summer capital, is it not?” he asked, looking around at the large drifts of snow that had piled up outside of the city’s wooden wall.

“Aye! Aye, Your Grace, but . . . pardon me for saying it, but is this not the eve of Yule?

Anguin smiled at the man. “Summer is coming, my friend. For all of the Wilderlands. Now, in my own name to my own sworn man in my own city, will you please open that godsdamn gate and let us in before we freeze on the spot?”

“It would be a genuine pleasure, your Grace!” Randaw nodded, solemnly, and rang a bell in the guard house twice. He had to wait a few moments, then grinned apologetically and rang it again, twice. “It’s the eve of Yule,” he explained, sheepishly. “Most of the men are in their cups or sleeping it off.”

Just then the massive gate creaked and cracked, shuddering open and sending a cloud of freshly fallen snow crashing to the ground.  But the great gate was open. Anguin, with a bit of ceremony, nudged his horse forward past the threshold of the town. Randaw followed behind him.

“I’d like to be the first to welcome you back to Vorone, Your Grace,” he said with a deep bow. “Many of us mourned your parents on that fateful night. Many of us were saddened to see you go with your . . . to see you go. But welcome back, your Grace. May the gods give you the strength to set things aright!”

Who authorized the bloody gate being opened?” came an angry shout from the tower room above the gate. “Who the bloody hell said open the bloody gate when the baron gave explicit instructions that it should remain closed until morn?” demanded a slovenly-looking guard with a lieutenant’s sash hung haphazardly around his neck. He wore an impressively bushy specimen of the mustache that was currently in style among the Wilderlords, but it was about the most impressive thing about the man.

“That would be me,” Anguin said, from horseback. He did not sound pleased.

“And who the bloody hells are you, my lord?” demanded the lieutenant angrily, leaning on the rail of the guardhouse, turning the title into a sneer.

“Your liege lord and master of this town, Anguin,” the Duke replied in a loud and clear voice. Despite the entourage behind him, the lieutenant did not believe him. Indeed, he laughed derisively, filling the air with the aroma of juniper spirits.

“Anguin’s a bloody prisoner in Castal!” snorted the man derisively as he descended the stairs. “Now kindly get your noble arse back through that gate, your lordship, and bloody wait for the dawn like everyone else to begin your reveling, or you’ll answer to Baron Edmarin in the morn!”

“Ancient Randaw?” Duke Anguin called, quietly.

“Yes, Your Grace?” the guard asked, quizzically, but with a properly subordinate tone.

“Arrest this man,” he commanded. “Secure him until I have time to judge him for his foul language and insubordination.  A disgrace to the guard . . ."

Ancient Randaw snapped to attention, and did not hesitate. “Aye, Your Grace! A pleasure!  You! Lieutenant Maref!  By order of the rightful Duke of Alshar, I take you into custody and request that you relinquish your weapon!"

The lieutenant looked at his subordinate blearily, clearly failing to understand the situation clearly. “What kind of game are you playing at, Randaw? Areyou mad or just drunk?  You know how the Baron feels about disobedience!  Do you want to be chasing goblins through the Penumbra for the next six months? Get these folk back out of the gate, close it, and then put yourself on bloody report!”

“Lieutenant, this is your last warning,” Randaw said, soberly, putting his hand on the hilt of his infantry sword.

“This is insubordination!” Lieutenant Maref exclaimed, as he realized his man was serious.

“Permission to subdue him, your Grace?” Randaw asked, his hand gripping the hilt and drawing it an inch.

“Allow me, Your Grace,” Pentandra finally said from behind them. While she enjoyed the drama, she was tired, starting to feel the cold even through her spells, and wanted the comfort of a fire and a bed more than she wanted political entertainment.  Besides, the commotion could provoke unwanted attention.  She kneed her roan rouncey ahead and within the town’s limits. She held out her hand, and before the uncouth lieutenant could speak again, he was laid out flat on the dirty snow with nary a flash or bang. In a moment he was snoring.

“Thank you, my lady,” Ancient Randaw grunted, as he stooped and dragged his superior back into the guard house. “You are a mage?” he asked.

“I am your new court wizard,” she agreed, casting back her snowy hood. “Lady Pentandra of Fairoaks.  You are loyal to your duke, Ancient Randaw?”  She realized, belatedly, that she would have to start calling herself something else, now that she wasn't living at her suburban Castabriel estate.

The guardsman nodded solemnly, as he threw the unconscious body on the cold floor of the guard house with impressive strength for his age. “Oh, aye, my lady. My family have worked at the palace for three generations. I expect to try for the palace guard, someday, myself . . . assuming the management changes,” he added, disgustedly.

“Good. Then aid his plans now by keeping quiet about his return until an announcement is made – lest some with evil intent attempt to keep him from doing so.”

“Aye, that’s sensible. Enough of those sort in Vorone these days,” Ancient Randaw sighed wearily. “I’ll be discrete."

“In about a half an hour,” Duke Anguin continued to the man, “there will be the vanguard of a mercenary company bearing the arms of the Orphan’s Band coming up the road. They are in my service. You are to admit them without difficulty and assist them in securing the gatehouse. Is that clear?"

“Yes, Your Grace,” Randaw nodded enthusiastically. “Orphans? Tough buggers those,” he said,

“And go ahead and take that foul fellow’s sash from him, Randaw,” advised the Duke. “I don’t think he deserves it. It looks a lot better on you, Lieutenant,” he added.

“Yes, Your Grace!” Randaw said, proudly.

“That was well done, Sire,” Pentandra told the young duke, as they rode into the town, proper, the rest of their party trailing behind them. “And quite an impressive feat of memory.”

“Not that impressive,” shrugged the young duke with a grin. “I recall his daughters because the older was quite pretty, though she had a gap between her teeth that made her look like a rabbit. I was just a lad . . . but I had begun to take notice of femininity, before I left here.” He looked around at the silent snow-covered streets. “This place looks so . . . different than when I was here last. I’ve never seen Vorone in winter."

“Enjoy the sight, Your Grace,” a gruff, deep voice suggested from the next rank of riders. “The newfallen snow cloaks all with its flawless beauty. Yet we’re but a warm day away from seeing the filth and despair it conceals," he said, sourly.  The man was clearly not pleased with the assignment.

“My husband, you are so full of . . . Yuletide cheer,” Pentandra reproved, sarcastically. "Nor do I think any town could be to your liking.  Forgive him, Your Grace.  Arborn only feels comfortable when he's surrounded by shrubbery."

She could feel his wry grin without even turning around.  Anguin's was closer, but understanding.  The young duke had admitted an admiration of the big Kasari captain of rangers whom he'd acquired as his new Master of Wood when he'd hired Pentandra as Court Wizard.  As the Kasari were technically under his domain, the duke felt it appropriate that one of their own be included in his staff.  And right now, every sword was needed.

There were two hundred in the advanced party, a score of them mercenary soldiers of the Orphan’s Band. The rest were loyal knights and retainers who had quietly joined the Duke in exile in his estates in Gilmora last autumn and early winter, and had assisted in planning (and, in some cases, funding) his restoration to power. Partisans, patriots, and soldiers-of- fortune, it was an odd assortment of adventurers she found. She had come to know them a bit in the scant weeks leading up to their departure. Their motivations were as varied as their individual stories.

Many served out of fierce devotion to the cause of supporting the Alshari ducal house, out of patriotism, personal loyalty, or a sense of duty or law. Many others served for lack of a better position or opportunity. There were dozens of Wilderlords who had lost their holdings to the goblin invasion or the turmoil after; some were Alshari Coastlords and even a few Sealords disgusted with the rebels who had usurped ducal authority in the rich Southlands of Alshar and sought to restore the rightful heir to the coronet – and their own political fortunes. Still others were Castali gentlemen-adventurers, younger sons of great houses or landless knights eager to take part in a noble and potentially lucrative political cause.

But they had all pledged their swords, their purses and their lives to this untested, untried, and unblooded Orphan Duke, Anguin II, as his sworn men. They could all, theoretically, be dead by morning for doing so, if things at the palace went ill.

Leading the motley assembly of nobility were the three men most responsible for the effort to restore the teen-aged heir known as the Orphan Duke to power:

First among them was Landfather Amus, the High Priest of Huin for Vorone, and the boy’s personal chaplain. The high priest of the peasant’s god of agriculture was an unusual protector of the line; traditionally, the priests of Orvatas or Onada, the important god of the sea.  But he looked after the lad with the tenacity of an aging bitch with her last puppy. The old monk was huddled under a thick, plain woolen cloak as befitted the ascetic nature of his servile order, but there was no disguising the delight in his eyes to be back in his home ecclesiastical territory.

The man she new best of the three, Count Salgo rode next to him on a magnificent destrier, a contrast in appearance and vocation. Salgo was as much soldier as Amus was a monk.  The former Royal Minister of War was recently forced to retire from the Royal Court in favor of a younger man, after quietly assisting the Magi against the goblins invasion across the frozen Poros -- against orders. His demotion and removal from his post after so many years of devoted service had humiliated the professional soldier, who had a soldier's view of politics.

He was disgusted with the Royal Court of Rard and Grendine and was eager to prove his value in a theater where active hostilities might break out at any moment. A dedicated man, his loyalty was to his men, first – but he had never proven untrue to any oath. His oiled leather travel cloak obscured his mail and sword, but his true power lay in his strategic mind and his years of experience in the field - both valued assets in reconstructing the military of the Alsahri Wilderlands.

Ahead of them rode Count Angrial, a career Alshari diplomat who had been living in self-imposed exile at the bottom of a wine glass in Wilderhall for the last four years. His star having waned at the Alshari court in ages past, once he'd served as a diplomatic spokesman for the Alshari cause in the Castali ducal court.  He knew Minalan -- he'd been instrumental in convincing Rard to commit forces to blunt the initial invasion, she'd heard.

But the unfortunate result of that intervention had been the secret assassinations of Duke Lenguin and his wife, making the heir, Lenguin, a twelve-year-old boy, a sovereign-in-exile -- and some said a hostage of Rard.  Though he had little direct blame in that affair, there were those in Alshar who saw him as a Castali confederate, particularly the rebels in the rich, fertile coast lands in the south, where the bulk of Alshar's wealth, strength, and power lay.

The greater part of the duchy had rejected the shady dealings that had seen their duke go north into the Wilderlands, never to return, and a King with a boy puppet declaring a union of sovereignties under Rard's crown.  Should Angrial return to Inultramar, the center of Alshari politics and stronghold of the rebels, his life would be forfeit.

With little to come home to he spent the last few years wasting away in Wilderhall, as close to the corridors of power as he could come.  The summer capital of Castal was kind to him, and kept him afloat long after his government ceased to function.  Under the Spellmonger’s recommendation he had been chosen as the new Prime Minister to replace the Steward, Baron Edmarin, who King Rard had left in charge of Vorone. Now the talented administrator and politician was determined to rebuild the Alshari state from the ashes of the Wilderlands, in the decrepit summer capital of Alshar . . . the resort town of Vorone.

Only such dark and desperate times could have recalled such a degenerate sot with such a poor reputation home from exile, Pentandra knew.  But the challenge and importance of the post had transformed Angrial. The thin, reedy man approached the difficult feat of restoration of an Alshari duke on an Alshari throne at the head of a functioning Alshari state with a passion and a genius for organization that kept the odd band motivated and regulated.

Whether or not that professionalism would extend to governance was yet to be seen, she knew, but there was fire in the little man that gave her hope.  The fact that he was willing to brave not only the assasins' knife of Alshari partisans and Castali agents, and was doing so without the knowlege or consent of Rard and Rardine, the monarchs of the Kingdom of Castalshar, he hoped would prove his loyalties.  Their Majesties were unlikely to view the re-establishment of a potential political rival as a positive development - no matter how nominally loyal it might be.

Only a madman or a drunk would have even considered so bold a move, so desperate a challenge, so risky a play as to steer between Royal authority and Alshari patriotism.  Pentandra knew he wasn't mad, but she also knew Minalan had recruited him in a tavern like a common sellsword.

A fanatical priest, a worn-out soldier, and a destitute drunk.  The architects of restoration.

Each had something to prove by their efforts. Amus was as devoutly loyal to Anguin as he was to Huin the Tiller, and seeing the boy he had ministered to since he was a child come into his rightful inheritance was his most fervent desire. Count Salgo was stinging from his removal from office at the height of his military career. His efforts here was the only way he could keep himself on the front line of the only war that mattered, the war with the gurvani. And Angrial, a courtier with a troubled past, saw this attempt at restoration as a pathway back into political power long denied him.

Each man was able and talented in their field. Each was as loyal to the Orphan Duke as one could hope.

But then there was Pentandra. She was the fourth player in this mad attempt to steal power -- or conjure it from thin air, she amended to herself. She represented the Arcane Orders’ interests in the Alshari Wilderlands, which were significant. Minalan the Spellmonger, old friend and former lover, was the one responsible for her aching arse and her cold nose, she remembered.  It was the Spellmonger who convinced her to give up her cushy, comfortable, and lucrative post as the Steward of the Arcane Orders in the cosmopolitan Royal capital of Castabriel for the important-sounding title of Ducal Court Wizard of (About A Third Of) Alshar in the quaint, rustic, remote resort town of Vorone, the summer capital.

At the height of winter.

Pentandra always dreamed of being a Ducal Court Wizard, ever since she had come into her Talent and begun learning the family’s ancient art. Ducal Court Wizard was the highest position a mage could attain, in her youth, apart from Censor General - and no one wanted to be that. Every mage wanted to be a Ducal Court Wizard, though, with all of the wealth and perquisites they could imagine.  So on the eve of Yule she was being granted the wish she had made on every Yule cake she'd ever tasted as a girl.  She was Ducal Court Wizard of Alshar.

She should be glowing with pride and accomplishment.  Not shivering and wondering if she would die by steel tonight.  There was more doubt than celebration in her heart.  Now, as she was entering the town and the grim reality of the task ahead of her was pressing like the snow-covered buildings crowding the street, she wondered if she should have stayed in warm Castabriel, sorting parchment and attending balls and luncheons at the fashionable salons.

That’s what her mother would have wanted her to do.

Pentandra might have as well, once-upon- a-time. But a former warmage-turned- spellmonger, former classmate and former lover, had summoned her from her comfortable estates in civilized Remere to come rescue him from certain doom at the ass-end of the world and screwed up her hedonistic approach to life just as she was starting to enjoy the benefits of being a professional woman.

But it wasn’t her fondness for Minalan that had motivated her. Pentandra knew in her heart of hearts that despite her affection for Minalan, she never would have ventured into her new life if there hadn’t been the promise of powerironite. That intrepid rescue party had set a course of events into motion that had shattered her peaceful – and utterly boring – existence.

Using Minalan’s bold and foolhardy maneuverings against the Dead God as cover, she’d not only gotten her own stone of the ultra-precious magical mineral, she’d attained nobility, power and position beyond her ambitious girlhood dreams. She’d taken a personal hand in restructuring how magic was done in the new Kingdom, gained a small fortune and immeasurable professional respect to the point where accepting a post as a mere Ducal Court Wizard seemed like a demotion.

But it wasn’t. If the assumption of the position belied her girlhood fantasies of power, it was because, ultimately, she had found the entire exercise underwhelming and unfulfilling.  Being Steward of the Arcane Orders had given her unanticipated and often unaccountable power . . . but Pentandra had quickly grown weary of responsibilities that always seemed more burdensome than the enticements of the perquisites they accompanied. When it became clear to her that a future as Steward meant being locked in a room with thousands of sheaves of parchment for all of eternity, she had started to question her goals.

She was a professional adept, after all, not an administrator.  She was a research and scholar, not a guildmaster. After a few years wallowing in power, she'd found herself . . . bored.  She indulged herself at first with the novelties of her position, station, and authority; when that grew stale she focused on the joys of cosmopolitan life and her investment in her pretty little country estate.  But, eventually, nothing in Castabriel had intrigued or fulfilled her the way she had imagined it would.  Nor, did she suspect, would a similar post in another city have managed better.

As much as it galled her to admit it, it had taken a man to pull her out of her professional stagnation and into this exciting and dangerous new post, where failure was likely and success was a matter of how low they were willing to lower their expectations.

But as a student of the arcane and obscure magic of sex, Pentandra had a highly discerning eye when it came to evaluating people, sexually. A casual glance at a man or woman told her volumes about that person’s sexuality, once you understood the arcane rules of human sexual attraction and interaction. It was far more than good looks and base attraction. And, personally speaking, she was incredibly picky about men, despite the rumors to the contrary.

Pentandra’s professional eye evaluated social context, age, bearing, charisma, and nuances of musculature that escaped everyone else. It was amazing what a casual glance could tell you about a person’s inner soul, if you knew how to read it. And that was before she added her magical perceptions into the equation.

When she’d met Arborn, her assessment of the big Kasari ranger was perplexing. She’d never met a more perfect man – literally. He was physically appealing, of course – the traditional Tall, Dark, and Handsome, Strong and Silent, but he was no mere muscular slab of man. He possessed a marvelous intelligence, had keen insights, and was surprisingly educated for a barbarian – far more than the average courtier.  He did not understand magic but he did not fear it, and treated it with respect.  And he saw her work as important.  Too important to sacrifice on his behalf.

She had finally found a man worthy of her.

Oh, she had encountered plenty of men in her time who would have made adequate, even exceptional mates, objectively. But Arborn was the first she’d met who approached her ideal.

Their courtship had been odd, at best. But once she’d given voice to her interest and received the faintest hint that it was returned, she had pursued the Kasari Captain of Rangers diligently and with a single purpose: to wed him according to the rules of his own tribe. And when Pentandra set her mind to a task, that task got accomplished, be it admission to not one but two magical academies, the study of a scandalous branch of her art, or her determination to design a working model for magic in the kingdom. Her attraction to Arborn was no different.

To that end she’d taken the Kasari Rites of Marriage in the Kasar homeland, learning what the odd barbarians considered essential for a wife to know. That the training and rites focused more on the domestic arts Pentandra had avoided her entire life was bad enough – the Kasari’s idea of a marital sex life was largely concerned with bearing children and enjoying each others' company. That had been both professionally and personally disappointing, though she’d learned a remarkable amount about conservative sexual mythology in the process.

The entire episode had been problematic, as the Kasari made it difficult for outsiders to intermarry, and the rites themselves seemed to conspire to keep Arborn and Pentandra apart.  Their love was atypical, and the Kasari's well-ordered culture had a difficult time integrating their relationship.  There had been many misgivings about the union from the Kasari elders who were obliged to give their opinions.  She was no fresh-faced Kasari maiden looking for a good hunter and lots of babies, she was a professional woman with a career and a post. Nor was Arborn a stranger to streets and towns. But his vocation involved the wilderness, not magic or politics.

After their dramatic wedding at a sacred waterfall in Kasar, she had been perplexed over what to do with her new husband.  There were few wilderness areas around urban Castabriel, and no real purpose for a ranger of Arborn's quality.  Nor was there much for Pentandra to do in the wilderness, save brush up on her Green Magic and insect repelling cantrips.  Minalan had offered this post as a compromise: good, honest work and an important title, near the forests of her husband’s Wilderlands home.

But he hadn’t coated the offer in honey – Minalan had given her a starkly realistic idea of the task ahead of her.  At the time she thought he might be exaggerating the difficulty of the task, but now as she rode through the dark, snow-covered town there was an oppressive air lingering that made her anxious about the entire task.

Vorone was a Ducal city, technically, but it had little other purpose than entertaining nobles during the oppressively humid days in Inultramar.  It was a temporary haven the dukes came to every few years to administer justice, receive homage, recognize worthy nobles, hunting, hawking, whoring and dancing and bask the region in their magnificence long enough to let the rustic Wilderlords feel like real Alshari.  But it also had a dark recent history.  The summer capital of the Duchy of Alshar was where the Duchess Enora had been assassinated, just days after sending her husband north into battle with the goblins, where he died of "wounds sustained" at the Battle of Timberwatch.

That was four years ago. Timberwatch was an important battle. Pentandra had participated, thanks to her partnership with Minalan.  It was historic for other reasons.  Two Dukes had joined their armies together to fight the common foe, the gurvani invasion from the Minden range of mountains in the west.  Apart from the three-duchy effort to take Farise, there had been scant number of similar enterprises.  It would have been a noble effort, if Duke Lenguin hadn't been chosen by Duin's maidens on the field of battle (or recently from the fields of battle . . . she wasn't certain how such things worked for the patron god of war, but she knew for a fact Lenguin was battlefield-adjacent when he died).

That the Duke of Alshar had help toward claiming his due reward from Duin for his puissance was not widely known. In fact, it was a closely-held secret of the Arcane Orders that Duchess Grendine of Castal had ordered her magical assassin, Isily of Bronwyn, to give the indecisive Duke Lenguin a push into the afterlife. That her agents were likely behind the subsequent assassination of Duchess Enora was also suspected by the Magi, though the criminal Brotherhood of the Rat had been framed for the crime.  The Duke of Castal had used the resulting power vacuum in Alshar to broker an agreement to elevate himself to King, using his military position in the Wilderlands as an opportunity to take wardenship of Duke Lenguin’s minor heir, Anguin, and force the twelve-year-old duke to support the new Kingdom.

Not everyone had been eager to see the union of Remere, Castal, and Alshar. There was a historical distrust of the realm, after centuries of intermittent warfare between the duchies. The anti-Castal parties in Alshar hadblargely fled south to the rich coastal valleys, where a coven of rebels denied distant King Rard and had taken control of the wealthiest portion of the Duchy.

What was left under royal control was a slim slice of land between the nearly-impassable Land of Scars to the south and the unremitting danger of the Penumbra in the north. Hardly a third of the original duchy, with none of Alshar's mighty navy.  But that was enough of Alshar for Rard and Grendine to claim sovereignty. They had the Orphan Duke, they had the Duke of Remere, and enough of a pretext to build a throne. Whether or not they could build an actual kingdom out of those pieces was another matter.

It was a deft piece of political maneuvering, Pentandra had to admit – it had all the style of the traditional Remeran politics she’d grown up with. But the fact that she had directly benefited from it left a bad taste in her mouth. The Orphan Duke was an orphan because his indecisive father and idiot mother had gotten in the way of his devious aunt’s ambitions. Both Pentandra and Minalan felt an obligation to the boy to try to make up for that. That was part of the reason she was here.

But Pentandra was also here to represent the substantial interests of the Order and her profession in Alshar.  She’d taken the post partly as a way to safeguard the political truce that the Magi and the nobility had come to in the last few years. But she and Minalan had agreed that depending on one political alliance for the Order’s survival was foolhardy. Rebuilding the duchy of Alshar – what was left of it – and restoring the Orphan Duke to power in fact, and not just in name, was her actual mission.

That would require magic. And luck. And the help of the gods.

"Hold up," Arborn called, cautiously, as shadows moved across the snowy streets.  The vanguard of the column halted, and more than one man loosened his sword.  But the interruption proved to be four young women in long hooded cloaks, bearing baskets of greenery.

"What is this?" asked Salgo, suspiciously.

"It is Yule, my dear Count," Angrial reminded him.  "These are carolers, I believe."

"Carolers?" Pentandra asked, curious.

"A Wilderland custom," Father Amus explained as he accepted a sachet with a smile and a word of blessing.  "Young maids will go from door to door on the eve of Yule, giving each house and every traveler they meet a sprig of evergreen, and sing seasonal hymns in exchange for mulled wine or coins.  It's supposed to ensure luck, love, and prosperity for the coming year.  A harmless peasant superstition."

"Folk magic," Pentandra said.  It was an observation, not a criticism.  Despite her years of scholarship, she was the first to admit that Imperial magic wasn't the only kind around.

The four maidens headed right for the head of the column, smiling at the mounted folk as they handed an aromatic bundle of cedar, spruce, holly, mistletoe and other evergreens to each of them.  They sang a merry little hymn about a boy and a girl exchanging presents at Yule.

Pentandra took her bundle, thanked the pretty girl who gave it to her and passed her a silver penny in return - a tad generous, perhaps, but Pentandra did not care.  If this was a sign of Vorone welcoming the Duke and his court, she would graciously accept it for what it was.She inhaled the wholesome, spicy scent of the herbs before hanging them from her saddle horn.

She caught Arborn's eye just as the big man was smelling his own fragrant sachet, and smiled.  "Merry Yule!" she whispered to him, using a magically augmented whisper that only he could hear.  He smiled in return.  She could tell he was eager to begin their new life together here in Vorone, and she shared his enthusiasm.  But she also knew both of them had an unbelievable amount of work ahead of them.

Despite his title, the actual holdings the Duke would have under his control were pitiful, wartorn, and fractured. The already-scarce institutions and essential services that had bound the state together had fallen and not been replaced.  Nothing had been the same in the Alshari Wilderlands since the invasion, and what loose social and cultural institutions had been in place among the far-flung settlements of this robust land had been ripped away by the invasion.  There was precious little left.

There was Tudry, in the northwest – once a rustic walled town depending on mining and forestry for its survival, Tudry was now an army town on the edge of the Penumbra, ruled by her friend Astyral, a Gilmoran magelord of some repute. There were a few smaller baronial towns south of here. But Vorone was the last city of any size in the Wilderlands worth ruling.  And it was no prize.

The summer capital was poorly situated for defense, and the flood of refugees from the Penumbralands had swelled its population far beyond its meager capacities. There was a ring of camps around the town were the survivors of the invasion had sought refuge.

After four years, they had settled into near-suburbs of the resort town, surviving on alms and whatever else they could. There was a garrison here, but it was poorly maintained and led, suitable or little more than quelling riots and protecting the palace. King Rard had installed a local pro-Castali baron, Edmarin, as Steward of the Realm in Vorone, ostensibly in charge of both the summer capital and the lands beyond.

But without a Duke in the palace they were riding toward, there wasn’t really any reason for the town to exist at all.  Vorone's prosperity was entirely due to the importance of the ruling class.  The snow-covered shops and homes that surrounded them on this sacred night had no reason to exist without the government institutions and visiting nobility of Vorone.

Without a Duke, the town was irrelevant, an abandoned capital without purpose. Without a capital and at least a fragment of his patrimony to stand on, he was a Duke in name only. The Orphan Duke and Vorone needed each other . . . they just didn’t realize it yet.

It was her job to help push the young man into power, and then help him keep it – and then help him make something worthwhile out of it.  That would involve every power and idea she could muster, if it was to be done properly.  But as bad as that was, the professional challenge was a welcome distraction from the greater anxiety she felt over her new husband.

She had felt so wonderful when she and Arborn had finally consummated their love for each other, but she also knew all too well that there was more to marriage than blissful repose after passionate coupling. Now that she had achieved a union with the man she’d coveted, she needed to figure out how to actually incorporate him into her life. She had to learn how to live here with her husband, somehow, and compared to that challenge the idea of rebuilding a broken duchy from the ashes of invasion, usurpation and neglect seemed elementary.

Her father had been skeptical of her appointment, and considered it a demotion from her previous position at the Arcane Orders. On top of Pentandra's unanticipated but deliciously scandalous wedding to an actual "barbarian chieftain" (as her father had styled Arborn), she’d lost much of her family’s good opinion of her. Mother was particularly mortified at the news of both, and her letters had been filled with criticism.  Her older sister was gleeful at Pentandra’s embarrassing choice, in wake of the marriage she boasted. In her family's eyes Arborn was rankless, neither mage nor nobleman. He was poor, as her family measured things.

The great and powerful Pentandra anna Benurviel, who had already scandalized everyone by devoting her professional career to tawdry sex magic, had run away from her career to marry a penniless ranger from the wild in the middle of a forest glen.  The scandal was like lightening, back home in Remere.  The news had shaken her mother’s social circle and enlivened her sister's.

Arborn was not in her mother's plans.  Pentandra was supposed to marry a fellow mage, or at least an intelligent nobleman who would add to the family’s prestige, if not its estates. Arborn was neither of those things . . . which was one of the many reasons Pentandra had been attracted to him.  It was his utter lack of concern for the things that preoccupied her mother that had allured Pentandra's heart.

But now that her elusive but ideal man was finally hers, she was perplexed as to what to do with him. They’d gone from Kasar to Sevendor, for the Magic Fair, and thence to desolate Gilmora, where the Orphan Duke’s party was quietly congregating, avoiding that very topic. A month spent in an abandoned cot with Arborn had seemed an extension of the honeymoon, as had Sevendor. She’d spent her days discussing the arcane situation and helping Father Amus with political strategy while Arborn had consulted with Count Salgo on the tactical situation in and around Vorone.

Their nights had been cozy and passionate as she could ask . . . but they’d already shared some awkward moments over breakfast.  Now that they were headed toward their final destination on their journey, the reality of her domestic situation was starting to bear down on her with as much gravity as the political situation.

She was married. She was someone’s wife. It was easier to imagine herself as Court Wizard than that.  She, Lady Pentandra anna Benurvial, scion of an ancient Imperial house of magi, descendant of Archmagi and adepts since the days of the Magocracy, specialist in Sex Magic and beacon of professional accomplishment for female magi everywhere . . .  had a husband.

The very idea made her want to giggle and shudder at the same time.

But every step her horse took toward the palace was a step toward settling down into a permanent household with Arborn . . . and despite all of her education, training, and mastery of obscure arcane subjects, that was a lore that eluded her.

Luckily, they reached the gates of the palace before she completely lost her mind dwelling on that. Perhaps, she prayed, there can be some mortal peril to distract me.  A band of rebels.  An attack of bandits.  Something.

But no enemies were forthcoming.  Two burly-looking guards bundled up against the cold stopped leaning on their spears long enough to challenge the vanguard of the party were all who stood against them. The snowy streets around them were nearly deserted.  Most of the windows of the great, long hall of the palace complex were dark.  The main gate to the palace looked formidable, but Pentandra could tell that, while stout, the impressive gate was more decorative than functional. When twenty men behind the duke drew steel, and several others drew bows or arbalests, the guards dropped their weapons and opened the gate to the palace.

“That was a lot easier than I expected,” Arborn murmured to her, as he helped her down from her saddle in the courtyard in front of the beautiful palace, a moment later. No guards had come streaming from their barracks, no alarm had been rung to summon the garrison. But then the night of  Yule saw most of the people dead drunk before midnight.  One reason they had chosen this evening, instead of another.

“So far,” she agreed, allowing her husband to catch her as the knights in the vanguard dismounted around her in the palace yard. She lingered a moment to appreciate his strong arms before she felt the toes of her riding boots touch the snowy cobbles. “But then that’s the point of the element of surprise, isn’t it?”

“I think we’ve accomplished that,” he murmured, nodding to the great door that led, she assumed, to the Great Hall of the palace.  The door had already been thrown open by the Duke’s eager men, who stood around the entrance, swords unsheathed, waiting a response. No army of guards rushed to meet the intruders.

Instead a single old man roused himself from the outer hall. He proved to be the steward on watch. The night steward started to complain about the interruption until he saw the visitors. He recognized young Duke Anguin at once, and fell to his knees in front of his liege.

Anguin seemed gratified by the recognition, and bid the old man to rise. He assured the servant that he had, indeed, returned to Vorone to set things right and intended to stay. That pleased the steward until he had tears in his old wrinkled eyes.  From the expression on his face as he solemnly presented the keys to the palace to Anguin, things had been that bad in Vorone.

After that, the securing of the palace was simple. The night steward led the Duke’s sworn men to the strategically important posts around the palace. The guard rooms, the armory, the main entrances between wards of the palace were all manned by sober, clear-eyed Alshari knights bearing the ducal badge on their baldrics . . . and naked swords in their hands. Count Salgo directed them, and they moved quickly and quietly.

“Where shall you sleep this evening, Your Grace?” asked Count Angrial, as more men filed into the Great Hall.

“Sleep? Luin’s sacred staff, Angrial, I’ve just come home!” complained the young nobleman with a snort. “I am eager to begin my rule!"

“Your Grace,” the nascent Prime Minister said, reprovingly, “you did ride more than ten hours today! In the cold! You should consider resting, before we attend to business."

“I feel more awake and alive than I have in years, Angrial,” assured Anguin with all the eagerness of youth. “And it is the eve of Yule - indeed, it is close to midnight. I feel like a brief court session,” he announced.

“Sire?” Angrial asked, dully. It was clear to Pentandra that the old man was far more tired than his liege.  "Is that wise?  We've only just arrived."

“And yet there is no one to greet me, and I very much want to be greeted.  By Baron Edmarin. I want to address the man who has let my home fall into such disrepair,” Anguin decided. “As my very first act as sovereign duke. I want to meet Baron Edmarin, the vassal appointed to safeguard my realm in my absence,” he said, his young voice managing to sound grave.

He studied a threadbare tapestry that Pentandra would have been ashamed for the servants to display back at her quaint little estate of Fairoaks. It was a hunting scene depicting wild dogs surrounding a wounded stag, a hunter – no doubt some illustrious ancestor – being forced to defend a kill he had yet to make.  "Fetch him to me."

Pentandra didn’t have to wonder what the boy thought of the image. Especially when a wood roach the size of his thumb raced across the scene. It looked like a good time for a distraction.

“Where would you like to hold your audience, Your Grace?” Pentandra asked, emphasizing the title.

Anguin looked as angry as she’d ever seen him about the disrepair around him.

“The Stone Hall,” he repeated. “The throne room my father favored.”

“The Stone Hall, Your Grace?” Angrial asked, curious. “That was used more for summer occasions, due to the placement of the windows. Would not the Rose Hall be better suited?”

“I am not partial to roses,” Anguin said, sternly. Pentandra controlled a self-conscious grin. The yellow rose was the personal badge of Queen Grendine, Anguin’s aunt and the woman he – rightly – suspected of ordering his parents’ assassinations, and not a terribly pleasant person in her own right. “I will see Baron Edmarin in the Stone Hall. Make it as ready as it needs to be. I will sit in court first there, I think, and ask this man what he has done here in my absence."

Pentandra didn’t like the way the Duke’s dark eyes looked, when he turned his gaze back to his court.  The boy seemed determined to do . . . something, but was struggling with impatience.

The old night steward cleared his throat with practiced volume.

“Your Grace, might I remind you that it is the eve of Yule, and that the baron has retired after sinking deep in his cups? The feast tonight was no rival to those in your father’s day, but His Excellency made the most of the limited resources at his disposal to properly honor the holiday.”

“I really don’t care if he’s vomiting drunk and up to the balls in the backside of his valet, have him awakened and brought to the Stone Hall,” he ordered, flatly.

“The Stone Hall has not been opened since your mother’s funeral, Your Grace,” the steward said, apologetically. “No real reason to. It’s a frightful mess, I’m afraid, not fit for a proper duke.”

“It will do,” Anguin insisted, an edge to his voice. “Make sure it is ready. And lay a fire, too – it’s cold as goblin balls in here.” Two of the palace servants scurried off to prepare the hall, one of the monks in the duke’s party following to see it done. “Your name, steward?” he asked the steward.

“Pramal, Your Grace,” the man said, surprised.  And just a bit worried.

“Pramal, see Baron Edmarin is brought to me immediately, regardless of whatever vice he fell asleep enjoying, nor should he bother to dress for the occasion, if it delays his arrival.”

The old steward tried to hide his pleasure at the thought. Edmarin was not a popular figure among the palace servants, which was never a good sign, Pentandra noted.  “I trust Your Grace will not be disappointed, then,” he said, smoothly. “And what shall I tell Baron Edmarin is the reason his repose is being interrupted at this late hour, on the eve of Yule? I am certain he will demand an answer, Your Grace.”

Anguin’s face was harsh. “Tell him that the bells of midnight are near tolling, and he is summoned by hislord for the first court of Yule. And if he argues . . .” the young duke said, his eyes narrowing, “take a few of my gentlemen with you to persuade him. Forcefully.

“The rest of you, please refresh yourselves as you need for a moment, and then join me in the Stone Hall," he announced to the rest of the new courtiers who were milling around, awaiting orders.  "Tomorrow we can speak to the rest of the palace and explain what happened.

"Tonight, I take what is mine from those who would steal my patrimony from under me,” he said, a gleam in his eye that was almost disturbing with its intensity.  "Bring me my vassal, that he should give an accounting of his term of service.  For I am restored to Alshar, and he has much to answer for!"