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.
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 power – ironite. 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!"