Authors: Julie Dean Smith
The Wizard King
Copyright © 1994 by Julie Dean Smith
All rights reserved.
Published as an ebook in 2013 by Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. Originally published as a paperback by Ballantine Books in 1994.
Cover design by Tara O'Shea
Images © Dreamstime
To my grandmother, Ethel Glover,
the Upwards champ of Anna, Illinois.
The author would like to express her thanks to Deborah Hogan and Lester del Rey of Del Rey Books, and also to Joshua Bilmes at the Scott Meredith Agency. Without their encouragement and valuable insights during the writing of
A Caithan Crusade
, the Lorngeld might have faced a far different future.
If I have learned anything since my magic came to me, it is that banes can turn into blessings, enemies into friends, and impossibilities into reality, all for the simple price of faith and perseverance, which we all, wizard or no, have within our reach; and more, that to turn our back on our gifts, no matter what they are, is the only real madness… and one we sadly impose upon ourselves.
—The Apologetics of Athaya Trelane
Sloughing the cloaking spell from his shoulders, Couric of Crewe moved to the doorway of the shabby brewhouse and surveyed its interior with a pinched look of repugnance. Muttering a Sarian expletive under his breath, he stepped gingerly over the threshold, squinting through stagnant woodsmoke at the assortment of ragged, foul-smelling men hunched over games of dice and cards, and exchanging vulgar jokes with one another when they weren’t actively picking fights. Couric ducked under a low ceiling beam and was promptly greeted on the other side by a buxom serving wench sporting a brazen, if somewhat gap-ridden, smile.
“I’ent seen you in here afore,” she said, batting a pair of lashes liberally coated with dust. The tea-colored eyes beneath them slowly inspected him, brushing over the glossy black hair, down each of his muscled limbs, and finally coming to rest upon his deceptively plain but well-crafted tunic and cloak, as if rapidly trying to estimate their combined worth. “I’d have remembered one so handsome.”
Had Couric been in the mood for a quick and inexpensive tumble—without her two front teeth he doubted she could charge full price—he might have found the woman’s admiration mildly appealing. As it was, he had business to attend to. He answered her flattery with a noncommittal shrug and settled into a splintered chair near the door of the common room. “Bring me whiskey if you have it. If not, I’ll settle for Evarshot wine; I’m told it’s the best to be found in Delfarham.”
The barmaid sauntered away with a greedy glint in her eye, and Couric instantly knew he would be drinking the Evarshot no matter what the status of the tavern’s storeroom—it cost twice what Sarian whiskey did, and these sorts of establishments always sold you the most expensive thing they had if they thought you could afford it. But he could not go elsewhere.
Keep to the meanest places
, the Sage had counseled him.
The rebellious fruit is ripest there and ready to be picked.
Even Athaya Trelane had known as much, having launched her fateful crusade in the looca-dens of Kaiburn rather than the gilded halls of the nobility.
Couric sighed his resignation; at least he would soon be free of such squalor and able to return to the more comfortable existence he had led until two months ago, when he was set upon this latest mission for his lord. Or more accurately, he would attain a far more comfortable existence than he had ever known, for once his business was accomplished, all the wealth and power of Caithe would belong to the Sage and his loyal apostles. And at the risk of immodesty, Couric knew that as one of the Sage’s most talented protégés, he would earn a larger share than most.
The barmaid delivered the expected flagon of Evarshot wine and a dented pewter cup, surreptitiously flicking a roach out of the bowl with a greasy corner of her apron before setting it before him. Couric handed her a pair of silver coins for the cost of the wine, then held a third coin before her, just out of reach.
“I’ve another crown for you if you can answer a question for me and then forget I ever asked it.”
The woman’s saucy demeanor quickly changed to one of guarded apprehension. Yes, Couric had seen that look often enough since his arrival on the mainland. Most Caithans were so damned afraid of this Tribunal—this infernal inquisition of the king’s—that they were terrified to tell you what day of the week it was much less anything useful.
Of course, one could hardly blame them, Couric conceded. Any agency with the power to carve out a man’s intestines and set them afire before his still-living eyes does tend to intimidate people.
“Tell me, do you know most of the people that come in here?” he asked with artful candor. The wench might be nervous, but the coin was a lodestone, keeping her close by his side. “Know much about them?”
“This ‘n that,” she answered evasively. Although she was trying to conceal it, Couric caught her scanning his garments for some half-hidden badge of office, for some sign that he was in the employ of the Tribunal.
“Oh, come now, do I look like a priest to you?” He flashed one of his most charming smiles and, just this once, returned a measure of the wench’s suggestiveness.
The ploy worked like a well-cast spell; a toothless smile broke across the woman’s ruddy face. “If you’re a priest, my love, then I’m gonna start goin’ to church more often.” Cocking her head to one side, she somehow managed to survey the common room without tearing her eyes from the silver coin in Couric’s hand. “Most of ‘em as come here are regular folks,” she said in answer to his query. “Farmers, tanners, tinkers, and such. A few thieves, but Oren throws them out right quick if he catches them plyin’ their trade in here. But once, not two years ago, the princess herself come in here. Gave Oren’s daughter a whole crown, she did, and all for bringing her some Evarshot, same as you. My, yes, I remember that night right well.” The barmaid propped her hip against Couric’s shoulder as she gradually relaxed into her tale, eyes glowing like candles as if she recounted the most exciting event of her life. “The fellow her Highness was dicing with tried to make her pay up with something other than money, if you take my meaning, but she handed him his head in a handbasket, she did. ‘Course, his friends came back to rough her up some, but they’d only just got started when the King’s Guard up and hauled them off and took her Highness back up to the castle.”
A covert smile crept across Couric’s lips as he pictured that high-born lady swilling wine among the human dregs of Caithe’s capital. But princess or no, one could sink to any depth during the
, and more than a few fledgling Lorngeld had sought the numbing powers of wine in an attempt to subdue the magic burgeoning within them—a task they inevitably found as futile as pushing the tide back out to sea. Couric raked his eyes across the tavern with seeming indifference. Overindulgence in spirits was common enough in new wizards… and an easy way of locating them.
He didn’t particularly need the wench’s help; he could just as easily sit here all night and dip into the mind of each besotted wretch around him. But it would be far more efficient— and pleasant—to be guided in a likely direction first. Too many such dabblings would muddle his mind almost as much as wine itself, and he could not afford to blunt his senses overmuch. He didn’t have much time left; it was already the first week of May, and gathering an army man by man was no small task. The Sage would be angry indeed if he arrived in Caithe to find that all had not been prepared in accordance with his orders.
Absorbed with these thoughts, it took a moment for Couric to realize that his reverie had badly unnerved his companion; the barmaid was biting her lip with what teeth she had remaining, fearful that his silence meant something far more ominous.“ ‘Course, Oren’s careful not to let any wizards in here—not if he knows ‘em for such,” she added hastily. “He’s a good Caithan, y’know, and loyal to the king.”
“Of course he is,” Couric agreed amiably, setting aside the woman’s fears with another winning and slightly lecherous smile. “Tell me… have you noticed that any of your patrons seem to drink a bit more than they used to?”
“Ever’body drinks more’n they used to these days,” she said, the unexpected candor of her words both grim and revealing. Though not a Justice was in sight, Couric glimpsed the shadows of the Tribunal looming over her. “But Rob…” The woman tilted her head toward a disheveled young man slumped on a stool beneath the cobwebs rimming the underbelly of the staircase; his head was bent so low over a mug of beer that his bangs dipped listlessly into the foam. “He’s the worst. Prickly as a thistle these days, and not a one of us can figure out why. That’s his brother Dickon next to him.” Couric’s gaze shifted to the older but equally rumpled man whispering urgently in Rob’s ear—whispers that Rob was patently ignoring. “At first we all thought Rob might be a wizard,” the wench added softly. “They act that way sometimes, y’know, just afore they go all amuddle. But Rob only just turned eighteen, so that can’t be it. Must be some girl or another that’s got him low.”
Couric narrowed his eyes, fixing his concentration on young Rob. True, eighteen was young for the
to arise, but it was certainly not unheard of; some Lorngeld developed the power as young as sixteen, others as late as thirty, although either of these extremes was quite rare. Couric extended his senses and probed the boy’s mind with minimal subtlety; drunk as the boy was, there was little need for caution. And there they were: the channels and caverns of newly developing paths, taking hold like the tangled roots of a willow tree inside the young wizard’s mind. Already, Couric could sense the building pressure of the boy’s untrained magic yearning to be channeled, and the confusion and fear of Rob himself, suspecting the malady that ailed him but not knowing which of the damning cures to take.
Death or treason
, Couric reflected. Truly an unpleasant dilemma. Then his eyes warmed in anticipation. Soon the Lorngeld in Caithe would have a third alternative: wealth, power, and veneration. Which choice, he thought with dry confidence, would they make then?
“My thanks for your help,” Couric muttered distractedly. He dropped the silver coin into the barmaid’s grubby palm and gave a slight nod of dismissal. She murmured her thanks but departed reluctantly, as if hoping for some other sort of offer—perhaps one that involved several more coins and an hour or two in one of Oren’s upstairs rooms.
Couric picked up his cup and flagon and strolled casually to the shadowed alcove under the stairs. He was met with neither an objection nor a greeting as he hooked a stool with his foot and sat down beside the young Caithan. He only managed to elicit a distracted and somewhat bewildered grunt of thanks when he handed Rob a generous serving of his costly Evarshot.
“You look bleak, my friend,” Couric observed, swirling the wine in his own cup and savoring the heady aroma.
“Look, this here’s a private conversation,” Dickon said at last, looking up irritably once he realized that Couric had no intention of leaving. “If you—”
“I was talking to your brother,” Couric replied, in the cool but civil tone of a nobleman scolding a neophyte servant. With no magic of his own, Dickon was immaterial to his purposes.