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Authors: J.S. Morin

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BOOK: Aethersmith (Book 2)
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Kyrus wore ruts in his mind with his mental pacing,
wondering what to do with Tippu and Kahli. He could not sum them up on a ledger
like some merchant, though he had tried. He did not dislike either of them—far
from it. They were sweet and thoughtful, unfailingly attentive, and (he
reluctantly admitted) alluring. They were cousins, he had discovered, but were
as close as sisters and had always planned to share some hunter together. They
never quarreled with one another, at least with Kyrus around. They just seemed
so … young.

Kyrus was a young man himself, just twenty-two years old,
and he would have been surprised if his two suitors were much younger, at least
in years. Kyrus drew a distinction between young and youthful. The latter
bespoke vigor, energy, and a brightness of spirit; the former indicated
naivety, overexuberance, and a stubbornness born of a refusal to accept
unpleasant truths. For all the times they were not trying to busy themselves
with the bits he kept beneath his trousers, they seemed like young girls,
playful and cheerful, irresponsible and oblivious to all that went on outside
the focus of their vision. He would have liked to consider himself something of
a philosopher for seeing the difference, but he knew he was splitting hairs in
trying to indict the girls for traits he found himself drawn to in Abbiley.

Abbiley Tillman was somewhere back in Scar Harbor, the only
girl Kyrus had ever fallen in love with. He loved the joy she took in the
simple things in life, like the break of the sea against Acardia’s rocky shores
or the sights and smells of the markets when foreign traders came to town. She
had little money and only a brother to call family, yet she did not let the
cares of the world burden her; she carried on with a smile, and was always
considerate of others ahead of herself. That was probably the key difference,
as Kyrus saw it. As much as Tippu and Kahli doted on him, it was a greedy sort
of love they showered on him. They wanted him for themselves, to be the spirit
man’s wives, to be the envy of the other girls from the village, to have their
children possibly become spirit men one day themselves.

Thus he longed for Abbiley, who fell in love with him when
he was a simple scrivener whose only claim to wealth was an old shop he had
been given by his former employer as a gift (Kyrus had paid a pittance for it,
for appearance’s sake, but knew it for the gift that it was). He was resolved
to return to Scar Harbor, outlaw or not, and marry her. They might have to live
on the run—he hoped she would be willing to go—and there would be other
complications to be sure, but they were not insurmountable, not with the magic
he was learning.

Kyrus sighed, staring up at the ceiling of his little house
as the sky outside gave way to the dark of night. The storm-churned Katamic
stank of things normally buried deep under the water, and belched forth a cold,
brackish wind. Kyrus was not bothered by the rank air that the sea coughed up,
for the fragrance of Tippu’s and Kahli’s hair dyes filled his nostrils with
scents of melon and spice. The unseasonable chill of the night’s winds blew in
through the straw-covered doorway, but Kyrus did not mind. The two Denku girls
pressed tight against him for warmth, and the heat from their bare skin warmed
Kyrus as well.

I have never even held Abbiley this close
, Kyrus
mused.
I think that is why they bother me at times. They take liberties I
had thought to have reserved just for her. I will make amends. I have grown
stronger, and soon enough, I will rip a path through the aether and step
through it, leaving Denku Appa and arriving back home, if only for long enough
to reclaim Abbiley.

I wonder if she would like it here

Kyrus thought his last thought before sleep claimed him,
picturing Abbiley clad in Denku fashion, curled at his side instead of Tippu.
He met slumber that night with a smile on his face.

Chapter 3 - Plans and Preparations

Steam rose from the sweating combatants as they circled each
other in the palace courtyard. Two lads from the School of Arms with bared
steel in their hands faced off against one young man in black sorcerer’s garb,
who stood half a head shorter than either of them. The smaller man was wielding
a heavily padded wooden sword in both hands and appeared to be holding his own
against the pair of younger fighters. The two lads worked well in tandem,
continually trying to flank their opponent, who spun, slashed, and parried his
way free of the traps they kept trying to lay for him.

“He seems to be improving, at least,“ Brannis commented,
watching the practice session from afar.

He was sitting at a small table set outdoors on a
ground-level terrace just off the courtyard, sipping warmed cider in the cold
morning air. Brannis was Grand Marshal of the Kadrin Army, and wore his
gold-and-quicksilver armor covered in a doublet with both the imperial sigil
and his own Solaran house crest. Young for such a lofty position, he wore the
surprisingly comfortable magical armor often to give himself the appearance of
authority to match his station.

“His footwork is improving, and the technique is not the
disaster it once was, but he lacks any strength behind the blows,” replied
Rashan.

Despite looking even younger than Sir Brannis Solaran,
Rashan was an uncle of his, some five generations removed. Unlike Brannis, he
was strong in aether. The empire had bred sorcerers for thousands of years to
refine the hereditary aspects of what made for a potent sorcerer, and trained
them at the Imperial Academy with the hope of teaching them the rest. Rashan
Solaran was among the greatest successes of that endeavor. While sorcerers
could be bred, warlocks were a chance occurrence—sorcerers gifted enough in
their powers that they could use them safely amid the confusion and chaos of
combat. Rashan was not only a warlock, he had learned the secret of immortality.
After a century’s absence during which he was believed dead, he had recently
returned to the Empire.

“What do you expect? You may have been throwing him out into
the practice yard daily this past season, but last autumn that boy had hardly
lifted anything heavier than a quill. A body takes time to harden,” observed
Fenris Destrier.

A smallish, pudgy man with little hair left on his head,
Fenris slumped round-shouldered in his chair as he cradled his own cider just
below his face, letting the steam rising from it fill his nose with warm air.
He could have used magic to warm himself, or at least keep away the chill—as a
sorcerer of the Inner Circle, it would have been a scant test of his powers—but
he did not wish to give the warlock the satisfaction of seeing him give in to a
dislike of the cold.

“You have seen the reports,” Rashan said. “Megrenn is
readying for an invasion. We do not have a season to prepare; we have perhaps
half a season if we are lucky. Iridan needs to be ready. He is just going to
have to put in more of an effort. He does not have the luxury of a leisurely
training regimen.”

The warlock was shorter and slighter of build than his son
Iridan, with long white hair the color of fresh snow and pale eyes that seemed
to lack for any nameable color. For all the world, he seemed like a youth
playing at being a warlock … until he spoke. There was a manner about him that
carried energy, authority, and menace. He could make underlings uneasy just by
inquiring about the weather.

“Want me to stand in for the boys, then?” Brannis offered,
half-joking. “I would use a padded blade, of course.”

Brannis smiled at the last bit. His own sword was rune
forged, ancient, and powerful. It was named Avalanche, and virtually nothing
could impede it when swung. Even gravity had little hold over it; for outside
its sheath, it would hang suspended in air unless taken in hand. In battle, it
cut through foe and fortification alike.

“You tempt me, Brannis, but no,” Rashan answered. “You may
be stronger than both those lads at once, but you are no dancing blade-master
to be giving lessons. I promoted you for your brain, not your blade. If we were
to be facing an ogre uprising, I would see the wisdom in preparing him against
you, but the Megrenn fighters tend to be more nimble and skilled. Young as they
are, both those boys fight more soundly than do you.”

“He is taking too many blows against his shielding spell,”
Fenris said, gesturing toward Iridan with his nose so he did not have to remove
his hands from the warm cup.

* * * * * * * *

The blow to his stomach had registered vaguely in Iridan’s
mind. He felt it not in the flesh, but in his sense of the aether. He was not
harmed. He knew that the steel blades his opponents wielded would not hurt him
so long as his shielding spell held; his swordsmanship was just not up to the
task on its own yet.

Jafin and Moln had maneuvered Iridan directly between them,
as they always tried to do. Iridan only had one sword and no shield, so he
could only defend himself from one side at a time. Iridan watched their timing,
and stepped quickly aside and out of reach of Jafin, launching a spinning
attack at Moln, the better fighter of the two boys. The squires hated the
attack, and used to remind him how foolish it was. Iridan knew that the knights
favored a defensive, tactical approach to swordsmanship, waiting for an error
by their opponent, and trying to force them into making one if none was
forthcoming. Rashan had given Iridan extensive tutoring on how a warlock ought
to fight before turning him loose against the finest lads (aged fourteen
summers or younger) of the School of Arms.

Iridan used his aether-vision instead of the light to see
during combat. It filtered out all the non-essentials of color and background
and inanimate objects, leaving him a full “view” all around him of aether, and
he saw his opponents by their Sources. The drawback was that swords had no
Source and were virtually invisible to him, but he had been learning to judge
the path of a weapon by the way it was wielded: posture, momentum, fighting
style … all gave clues once one he knew how to interpret them.

Moln knew that he could strike a quick blow before Iridan
completed his spin, but this attack was one he had seen before. The would-be
warlock could take the hit on his shielding spell, and there would be no
defense from Iridan’s own attack if he did not devote himself to avoiding it.
Typically Moln would either hop back out of reach, keeping his sword clear of
Iridan’s to force him to continue the spin or switch to a two-handed grip and
meet the blow hard with a parry.

This time, Moln tried something new. He hopped back and
lifted his sword clear, similar to how he often did, but he followed in
immediately after the warlock’s sword cleared him, and struck a quick blow down
on the blade.

Iridan had been preparing to follow around and counter the
attack that was already coming from Jafin at his back. Moln’s blow was solid
enough to force his sword down and cause him to stumble in his swing. Jafin
struck him square in the back, hard enough to have cut his spine had he not
been shielded by aether. Moln closed in quickly, and a blow to the temple
turned Iridan’s head to the side, dizzying and disorienting him.

“Enough!” Rashan shouted from across the courtyard. It
seemed that he had seen all he needed to for the day’s practice. “Good work,
lads. The day is yours yet again.” The warlock reached into a pouch at his belt,
and removed two gold lions, tossing one coin to each boy. “You have earned it.
Spend it well and I shall see you back here tomorrow morning.”

The two squires gathered themselves up in presentable fashion
and, once they had sheathed their blades, saluted the warlock, fist to chest.
“Yes, Warlock,” they replied in unison.

Rashan dismissed them and walked a few paces to where his
son was on hands and knees waiting for the world to hold still enough to stand
atop it.

“They are learning more than you are out here,” Rashan said.
“Are two of them too much for you? I could invite back just Moln for tomorrow’s
session, if you cannot handle Jafin and him together.”

“They both have more experience at this than I do, and Moln
is bigger than me,” Iridan said, breathing heavily.

“That is the sorriest excuse you have used yet. I am trying
to train you here, not puff your ego. If you had been armed and trained, you
might not have been defeated by that Megrenn sorcerer at Raynesdark. You might
have prevented the Megrenn from obtaining the Staff of Gehlen,” Rashan said.

“That's unfair. I was barely walking after exhausting myself
defending the wall. A sword in my hand would not have made a difference,”
Iridan said, pushing himself up to his knees as he stood. He bent to retrieve
his wooden sword.

“I disagree. You attack where your opponent is weak, defend
where he is strong. You attacked from surprise and stunned him—I have no
quarrel with that. But then you sought to defend yourself instead of finishing
him. You allowed a more seasoned sorcerer to have his turn at attacking. He had
one worry, and you allowed him respite from it to formulate an attack,” Rashan
said, having gone through the same argument with Iridan several times on
previous occasions when he questioned his training.

“But I was undefended. A quick spell could have been the end
of me, and—”

“Precisely why you need to learn to fight. Draw aether into
your shielding spells from close range. Your draw is still stronger than most,
and you could strengthen your own defenses while denying him aether—this needs
to be second nature. All the while, you press him, in close combat. His spells
must be cast quickly or done silently, and you may force errors. The warlock’s trade
is not so easy; few can manage to keep their wits clear enough to manage such a
task while a sword is threatening their hide.”

“But I—” Iridan began, but Rashan cut him off again.

“Speaking of your draw … Fenris is ready for you.”

Rashan smiled mischievously. Iridan’s swordsmanship lesson
might have been done, but his day of training was not yet at an end.

* * * * * * * *

“Excuse me,” Fenris muttered to Brannis as he rose.

They had both been watching the exchange between Rashan and
Iridan, and Brannis knew that the warlock was ready for Fenris to take his turn
with the boy. Ninety-four springtimes old, Fenris was now the senior member of
the Inner Circle, excepting the warlock, whose birth was a matter for history
books. Fenris’s joints ached, his eyesight was not so strong, and he found his
thoughts wandering more than they used to. For all that, his Source was strong
and so was his draw.

The warlock’s lackeys had worn Iridan down physically, and
Brannis knew that it was now Fenris’s duty to wear him down by the Source. Each
day, it was the same routine, with small variations: practice at arms, then a
draw against one of the Inner Circle. Rashan had made a mistake early in
Iridan’s training, and had followed up sparring against a lad of thirteen
summers with a draw against a Third Circle sorcerer. While Iridan had been
battered and bruised by his adolescent sword-fighting tutor, he had embarrassed
the poor sorcerer he had faced. Ever since, he had only been matched against
the Inner Circle.

So far, Iridan had shown that he could overmatch his
great-great-great-great-niece Aloisha (eight summers his elder), the next
youngest member of the Inner Circle, and could give Thayl Greydusk an even
match or even defeat him at times. Rashan had not wanted Iridan to have easy
matches; he wanted to temper and reforge him. Iridan had not defeated Fenris in
eight draws. He had not fared well against Caladris—Brannis’s and Aloisha’s
uncle, and fifty summers Iridan’s elder—in any of the twelve bouts they had.
Dolvaen Lurien had drawn against Iridan just the once. A lowborn sorcerer from
a bloodline not even accorded the status of “lesser,” it was clear that Dolvaen
had gained his position among the Inner Circle by skill and power, not
patronage. The draw between him and Iridan had been brief, decisive, and
humbling for the younger sorcerer.

Brannis watched as the old sorcerer made his way out into
the courtyard to contest against Iridan. There was a temptation to stay and
watch, just to see the result, but Brannis would take no enjoyment in it.
Iridan was nearly guaranteed to lose, and Brannis was blind to the aether and
thus could not even properly spectate the event. The two sorcerers would stand
several paces apart and, upon command of whoever was judging the contest, they would
each call upon the aether to see whose draw was more powerful. If neither was
clearly stronger, they would be commanded to stop drawing and hold the aether
they had drawn for as long as possible. Stored aether burned; the more a
sorcerer held, the stronger the burning, and careless bravado could result in
serious injury.

Brannis, alone at the table after Fenris’s departure, rose
to make his own exit. For all Brannis would see, it would be two sorcerers
standing and staring at each other, until suddenly one was declared winner. The
first clue to an aether-blind observer as to who was winning might be a blast
of steam from the water basins into which the losing sorcerer would discharge
his stored aether to signal his defeat. Brannis had better uses for his time,
and many responsibilities. Even staying for the sparring was beyond what he had
intended in visiting with Warlock Rashan.

Brannis had merely needed to give him the status of the
reported Megrenn troop movements. As usual, the information was scant, received
third- and fourth-hand from traders and travelers. The Empire’s own information
sources were scattered and ineffective. Long years of focusing on internal
squabbles among the powers of the Kadrin Empire had left their foreign
information sources undermanned. It was a constant annoyance to the warlock,
and Brannis felt little better about it himself. Though Rashan had said nothing
yet to Brannis, Kadrin’s young marshal suspected that the old warlock had some
plan to remedy that deficiency.

BOOK: Aethersmith (Book 2)
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