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Authors: J.S. Morin

Aethersmith (Book 2) (4 page)

BOOK: Aethersmith (Book 2)
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* * * * * * * *

Brannis spent much of the afternoon meeting with various
officers and representatives of noble landholders who bordered on Megrenn.
Troop strength and readiness discussions always discouraged him. The
borderlands were better defended than the Empire’s interior; with ogres,
bandits, and raiding to contend with, they had to be. But none had the sort of
standing army to contend with the reported numbers the Megrenn were amassing.

Brannis looked at the map of the continent of Koriah, laid
out on its own massive table. Kadrin occupied most of the south, all of the
east, and a bit of the northeast as well, wrapping cautiously around the ogre
lands. Megrenn was tiny by comparison, a federation of city-states along the
north coast on both sides of the Cloud Wall mountain range. It was a populous
land for its size, but even at that, they had fewer than a tenth Kadrin’s
citizenry. What troubled Brannis was the vast expanse past Megrenn to the
north. Across the Aliani Sea in every direction lay nations that traded with
the Megrenn, providing weapons, food, sell-swords, and the exotic mounts that
the Megrenn preferred over horses for their heavy cavalry.

Brannis picked up a small, painted clay figurine
representing a stripe-cat with a rider. The green and brown stripes helped the
creatures hide in their native jungles, far away in Elok, but would give them
little advantage in the rolling plains and forested countryside that formed the
Kadrin border with Megrenn. He looked at the rider sitting atop it, an afterthought
with a tiny spear and shield, guiding the deadly beast with his knees. By
accounts of the older knights who had seen them in person, the scale was
correct—and daunting; the creature was more than head height at the shoulder.
Brannis set it back down on the map just south of the Megrenn capital city of
Zorren, where it represented a unit of actual stripe-cats that his spies had
reported being based there. Brannis’s map was littered with similar toy
military units, helping his generals understand more intuitively where their
forces and the enemy troops were arrayed. There was a log book so that any time
figures were added, moved, or taken away, it was noted with the time and exact
nature of the change in case the truth of any bit of intelligence be brought
into question.

The map with figurines was inspired by something that Kyrus
had seen once in the drawing room of the Society of Learned Men in Scar Harbor.
It had been set up to depict the Battle of Garlow Falls, but that was not what
had caught Kyrus’s fancy. He had been fascinated by the tiny soldiers and
horses, each representing a number of real ones that had been present at the
battle. Forces had been arrayed across half of Acardia during that period of
the Staltner Revolution, but with the aid of a hooked stick to slide the
figures around, one of the professors had explained the battle to Kyrus in just
a few minutes.

Brannis and his generals were now using the same technique
to track all Kadrin troop movements and what they could learn of the Megrenn and
their allies. A few local tradesmen had made the figures in short order and had
done a marvelous job of rendering the various martial assets in exacting
detail. Brannis only wished he had cause to purchase more of them, since they
showed a rather embarrassing imbalance in strengths. The Megrenn had obviously
planned and saved for this invasion for many winters; they probably borrowed
coin as well, with a promise to repay in plunder. Kadrin could eventually build
up to the point where the Megrenn army would fall to them by sheer numbers, but
conscripts fought poorly, and proper soldiers took winters to train. It was one
thing to show a man which end of a spear was which and drape a mail shirt over
him; it was another to teach him not to break ranks the first time he saw an
eight-hundred-gallon monohorn thundering toward him (in fairness, the proper
a withdrawal action, which was distinctly
“running away”).

The major problems Brannis saw were twofold. First, they
were not going to be allowed the years needed to properly remilitarize the
population and increase the standing army to the size they would need to repel
such a force as the Megrenn were arraying against them. Were it not for the
extreme aversion stripe-cats and monohorns had to the cold of Kadrin winter,
Megrenn likely would have already attacked—so Brannis hoped for a long, cold
winter to persist past the equinox.

The second problem was Jinzan Fehr; he knew too much. Like
Brannis, Jinzan was aware of the other world, Tellurak, where technology was
more developed and magic all but unheard of. Jinzan had already used that
connection to barter the knowledge of cannon-making to the goblins in return
for working units and an invasion of Raynesdark that also gained him the Staff
of Gehlen. Surely at some point in the war, the Kadrin forces would once again
be faced with cannons of Acardian design. Brannis also had no way of predicting
what further aid the Megrenn sorcerer might import from Acardia or other lands
of Tellurak (which Brannis had begun whimsically to think of as KyrusWorld).

The staff Brannis could do little about, but he could at
least try to match cannon to cannon with Jinzan—figuratively at least. Brannis
suspected that black-powder alchemy was probably too tricky to teach to the
chemists and apothecaries in Kadris, atop the fact that Kyrus would have to
reach mainland somewhere civilized to learn the exact recipes he would need.
Sorcery might fabricate working cannons if Kyrus could find one to take
measurements from, but that had the same problem of too little knowledge, too
far from where it could be learned.

Instead Brannis had taken a different approach. The maps and
clay soldiers were a small thing compared with cannons; let the pirate who was
Jinzan’s counterpart in KyrusWorld worry about those. Brannis had thought of a
better source of ideas to import: fairy tales.

Tales of magic, monsters, and heroes existed in Brannis’s
own world, but he had begun to realize, once he thought of it, that they lacked
the whimsy and imagination of those in KyrusWorld. It made sense, after a
fashion. If a sorcerer heard a story of magic that sounded implausible, he
would tell you six different ways that it was wrong, and could not happen as
written. It stifled creativity and limited the boundaries that could be tested
by imagination.

Brannis had dug through Kyrus’s memories for inspiration and
was drawing up plans of his own …

* * * * * * * *

“I understand the decorum and omens involved in a winter
wedding, but with the threat of Megrenn hanging poised at our throats, should
we not perhaps move the date forward?” Shador Archon asked Rashan.

A tall, dignified Second Circle sorcerer, Shador sat next to
his wife in one of the Imperial Palace’s more private sitting rooms, sharing
tea with their daughter’s future oathfather.

“I hear your concern, but I feel better about waiting for
springtime. Besides, every day we wait gives us more time to muster our
strength. We will not strike first in this war; we may not even strike second.
We must ensure only that we strike last,” Rashan said, taking a sip of his tea
mostly for appearance’s sake. As an immortal (demon, in less flattering
parlance), he had no need of food or drink, but then he supposed that no
creature, mortal or not, truly required tea for any purpose but to sip it
politely among company. It had a weak, bitter taste that he did his best to

“Would it not make sense to have our new warlock prepared
for the inevitable war, with his marriage pact sealed and consummated?” Shador

, thought Rashan,
there is the heart of his
argument. He wants a grandson in case Iridan gets himself killed in battle.

“Rest assured, Iridan’s preparations for the wedding will
run in parallel with his training as a warlock. Every additional day of training
makes him stronger for when I finally loose him upon the Megrenn,” Rashan

The warlock genuinely liked Shador. Had he known the man
prior to his realignment of the Inner Circle, he would have promoted him in
place of Brannis’s sister Aloisha, who was rather sadly underprepared for her

The conversation shifted to more tedious matters of
decoration, attendees, and other logistical arrangements. Rashan let his mind
wander a bit, and allowed Ophelia Archon—a slightly older-looking version of
her daughter, down to the aether-tinted reddish-gold hair—to dominate the
discussion. Rashan wanted the event to carry all the pageantry and glamour of a
royal wedding, but cared little for how that was managed. He objected only
once, when the idea of Brannis acting as Iridan’s oathkeeper was suggested.

“He may be Iridan’s best friend,” Rashan said, “and it would
normally be expected, but I think in this circumstance, it may be better to
bend tradition and find another friend of Iridan’s to fill that role.”

Rashan tiptoed around the subject that Juliana’s parents
would rather not have brought up: Brannis’s former betrothal to their daughter.
Rashan had never been able to extract from either of them just what had passed
between them, but he expected that, around the age of thirteen, Brannis and
Juliana had taken news of their arranged marriage rather well. Kadrin’s new
grand marshal still carried the girl in his heart, more so than Rashan would
have preferred, given that the feeling seemed mutual. Brannis was rational in
all other things, so it was readily forgivable, but Rashan feared to let the
lad stand as oathkeeper all the same.

It was a seldom exercised post, harkening back to more
tumultuous days of the Empire, when bloodshed rode on the success of marriage
alliances between noble houses. The oathkeeper’s duty was to see that the groom
kept to his promise to wed his bride. In olden times, this meant dogging the
groom’s steps for a tenday or longer prior to the ceremony, but in present-day
Kadrin, the duty amounted to just a day’s shepherding and good-natured
carousing. The houses of the major sorcerous bloodlines styled themselves after
noble houses in this way, as in many others, and kept the tradition in their
own weddings as well. Brannis, for all his apparent blunt and straightforward
honesty, kept a merchant’s tongue in his mouth. Leave him for a day with Iridan
and Brannis might end up wedded to Juliana in his son’s stead—such was the duty
of an oathkeeper, to seal the pact between houses if he failed to ensure the
groom fulfilled his oath.

“Perhaps that sorcerer who saved his life at
Raynesdark—Faolen Sarmon,” Shador suggested, seeming glad that someone else had
put Brannis out of the discussion for oathkeeper.

Rashan knew that Shador and Ophelia both adored Brannis and
had looked forward to having him for an oathson, but the complications between
him and Juliana were awkward enough that they both were happy to have them
clear of each other on her wedding day.

“Faolen is … otherwise occupied. Perhaps we can find someone
he knew at the Academy,” Rashan said. He had found the gifted illusionist
Faolen to be surprisingly resourceful, and had already developed other plans
for him that did not involve oathkeeper duties.

“I shall ask around a bit. Surely there must be someone else
he was rather close with,” Ophelia said. “Um, and I do not know quite how to
bring this up, but there is one other matter I had wished to discuss with you.”

“Yes?” Rashan leaned closer, intrigued by whatever matter
seemed to be disconcerting Ophelia Archon, Third Circle sorceress and part of
one of the most influential families in the Empire.

“Well, what of Iridan’s mother? Will she … be attending?”
Ophelia asked. “We are both quite curious to meet her.”

Rashan Solaran stared wide-eyed, mouth parted slightly,
struck dumb for lack of words for the first time in longer than he could

“I had forgotten,” he finally admitted at length. After a
long pause, he added, “I will contact her shortly and inquire.”

Have I really been enjoying my time here so
much—political snake-handling and all—that I forgot all about her? Everyone
except Brannis has probably been too frightened of me even to ask about her,
and that was a season ago. Even Iridan seems to avoid the subject for some

* * * * * * * *

Iridan shuffled across his bedchamber in the palace, where
he had relocated after Rashan appointed him as the next Kadrin warlock. He was
stiff and bruised despite the protection his shielding spell had granted him.
If not for his father’s intervention, the boys might have done him real harm.
Dazed as he was from the blow to the temple, he would not have properly
reinforced his protective magics before they struck again.

“Blasted urchins,” he cursed under his breath, aware that no
one was around to either hear him or be bothered by his mutterings. He had
begun talking to himself more than he preferred, which was an easy habit to get
into when few others would take up a share of the conversation on your behalf.
Since Rashan had formally acknowledged Iridan as his son, and began training
him as a warlock, people had looked at him differently.

Casual acquaintances no longer met his gaze when he passed
them in the halls or out in the streets. Servants and guards snapped to his
every implied order, even when he was merely making helpful suggestions. The
sorcerers of the Imperial Circle at large treated him coolly and seemed
offended by his rapid promotion. No less offended were the Inner Circle, who
now were forced to call Iridan a colleague rather than an underling. None of
them disputed his talent or potential, but the favoritism shown by Warlock
Rashan for his newly acknowledged son rubbed them ill.

Among the many ways the latter had manifested itself was the
very room he now occupied. With the charade of the false emperor exposed, there
was no one to tell the warlock how best to allocate the palace’s
accommodations. Spending so much time there himself, the warlock had arranged
for his son and the commander of his armies to move into vacant rooms. Despite
being only several doors away from one another, Iridan hardly saw Brannis

BOOK: Aethersmith (Book 2)
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