A young mage-in-training is unwittingly pulled into a violent political upheaval, in the first book of this new epic fantasy trilogy by Miles Cameron, author of the Traitor Son Cycle.
It was late in the day when Syr Xenias di Brusias was ready to leave Volta. Almost everything that could go wrong had done so, and he was rushed and was prone, even after the life he’d led, to forget things, so he made himself stand by his fine riding horse in his two-stall city stable and review everything.
He still had not decided what to do by the time he mounted. He set himself in motion, mostly to avoid thinking too much.
His mare was delighted to be ridden; she’d been cooped up for as long as he had himself, and as soon as she was out in the street behind his house she was ready to trot, or more.
He kept her gait down because it was very important that he not be stopped. He was a little overdressed for a common wayfarer, in tall black boots all the way to his thighs and a black half-cloak and matching black hat full of black plumes, but he liked fine things and he lacked the time to change.
He was riding out of a maelstrom, and he needed to stay on the leading edge.
He could hear screams from the north, where the Ducal Palace was. He patted the sword at his hip with his bridle hand then he turned his horse at the first cross street—away from the palace of towering brick on the hillside, and down towards the river, the bridges, and the street of steelworkers where he had a commission to collect.
It struck him that if he collected the commission then he had made his choice; he would never be able to come back to Volta.
It also struck him that a violent political revolution could cover a great many dark deeds. There were already looters on the streets; two men passed him carrying a coffer, and neither looked up or caught his eye. The sound of breaking glass was almost as prevalent as the sound of screaming from the north.
He heard gonnes firing, and the snap of crossbows, and a sulphur reek floated past him and made his mare shy. There was the acrid reek of magik, too.
He let the mare trot, and her hooves struck sparks from the paving stones. Volta was one of the richest cities in the west, and it had fully paved streets and running water from the two great aqueducts, which was still nothing compared to the wonders of his home. The City.
Megara. Which he was about to help destroy.
Or not. He still couldn’t decide.
The mare stopped abruptly. There was a corpse in the street, and the sound of steel crossing steel. He tugged at her reins, turned along an alley that ran across the back of the shops and emerged on the next broad, empty street, with tall houses tiled in red rising high enough to block the sun.
He looked right and left, but the street was empty. From long practice, his eyes rose, looking at rooflines and balconies above him, but nothing moved, and he gave the horse her head. They flew along the street, past the corner of violence, and down to the riverside, where he reined in and turned the mare into Steel Street, where the armourers were. He knew the shop well; Arnson and Egg, the two families on the gold-lettered sign, had made fine gonnes since the principle had first been developed far to the east.
He had a moment of doubt; the street seemed deserted.
But he saw a light burning, and smoke from the chimney, so he dismounted, tethered his horse to a hitching post and moved his dagger back along his belt from habit. Then he pounded at the door despite the darkening eve and the sounds of violence in the high town.
He heard footsteps.
“You came!” said young Arnson.
He pushed in beside the young man.
“I came for my fusil.”
The lad smiled. “It is done.” He pointed at a leather case on the front bar. “Pater is gone; he says it will be bad here. I’m to keep the doors locked and only eat food in the house.”
“Very wise.” The man paused to admire the case; the fine steel buckles made by hand and blued, and expert leather-work.
Then he took out the weapon.
“You made this?” he asked.
The young man grinned. “I did, too. Pater helped with the lock; I’m not that dab with springs, yet. And I hired the leather-work.”
The boy was so pleased with himself that the man almost laughed.
He permitted himself a smile instead. “And the compartment?”
“Just as you asked,” the young man said. “Not in the weapon, neither.” He showed his visitor the cunning compartment built for keeping a secret.
“Superb,” the man in the black cloak said, and slammed his dagger into the young man’s temple, killing him instantly. The blade emerged from the other temple with admirable precision, and the man in the black cloak supported the corpse all the way to the floor, stepping away from the flow of blood. Then he filled the secret compartment with his deadly secret, wearing gloves; one tiny jewel skittered away across the table and he tracked it down, picked it up with coal tongs from the fireplace, and put it in his belt-purse. Then he threw his gloves—fine, black gloves—in the fire, where they sparkled as if impregnated with gunpowder. He left, satisfied, leaving the shop door wide open to the looters already moving along the street like roaches.
But then he paused. The decision was made; there was no point in being sloppy or sentimental now. He took the tiny jewel from his purse using his handkerchief, covered his horse’s head with his cloak, and tossed it back through the open door. It was so tiny he didn’t even hear it hit the floor.
He led his horse away. Only after he counted one hundred paces did he trigger the jewel’s power.
The house behind him seemed to swell for a moment. Then fire, white fire, blew from every window, the glass and horn panes exploding outwards, the shutters immolating, the door blowing off their hinges. It sounded like a crack of thunder, followed by a rushing of wind, and then the fire began to catch the other old houses in the row, even as the first house collapsed inwards in a roar of sparks and a burst of thick black smoke.
He mounted his mare, who didn’t like the smell of blood on him or the sound or smell of smoke, and he used some of his power to cast an occulta. It didn’t make him invisible; it merely compelled most people to look elsewhere.
He drew a second pair of gloves from his belt and tried not to acknowledge that he’d always intended this.
The massacre to come.
He had a little difficulty at the bridge; angry, unpaid mercenaries were holding the near end, and they wanted money and no amount of magikal compulsion was going to fool them. So he paid, handing over one hundred gold sequins—almost five years’ wages for a prosperous craftsman—as if it was his entire purse. They wanted to open his case, the case with the secret and the little fusil, and he prepared to fight them, but they lost interest.
There were more unpaid sell-swords in the streets of the lower town, and they were killing. He had to wonder if the duke was dead; and if he was, if the plan was still valid.
He considered changing sides.
To his enormous relief, there was no one on the Lonika Gate. He rode through unchallenged, and he was tempted to let the mare gallop; he needed to put time and distance between himself and Volta. The weight of his secret was tremendous; he flinched from it, trying to occupy his mind so that he would not think too carefully of what he was doing or what it would mean. He knew this would end his relationship with his wife.
Myra, his mistress, wouldn’t care. She might prefer him alone. She wouldn’t even understand.
But he understood all too well what it would mean.
All too well.
People were fleeing the violence; he passed a long line of carts in the winter fields. He rode aside at a barn, dismounted, and took off all his jewellery and his dagger belt, and put it all in his leather case. Sell-swords might search the case, but at least his rings wouldn’t give him away. He put his beautiful black doublet in the case as well and pulled on a smock. It was not as cold here as it would be in the mountains, towards the barbaric Arnaut lands, but it was cold enough, and refugees trudged past him carrying beds and bedding, blankets and furniture.
Lonika was five days away; Megara three or four more days beyond. But he had a fast horse, and the money to buy remounts at Fosse and Lonika; as soon as he was free of all the violence, he’d eat up the ground. Nine days travel for a man on foot would be perhaps three for him. He could arrive exactly on schedule, if he was fast. Dark Night. The night the ignorant feared. The perfect night, or so the Servant said. That was not his problem. Delivering was his problem.
He had to make the Inn of Fosse in two days; he’d managed as much on other occasions.
There were soldiers ahead, stripping a wagonload of a poor merchant family as a mother cowered with her children and a man held his split scalp together. Five men in rusting armour threw the family’s worldly goods into the mud, rooting for coins. Ten years of falling grain prices and increasingly violent weather had already stripped the countryside of coin and brought out the violence in people.
This was going to be worse.
He rode down a farm lane and well around the soldiers, and emerged on the turnpike into near darkness.
It was a major risk to travel in the dark. But he could see a farmhouse on fire off to the west, and it seemed to him that the whole world had come apart, which gave him comfort for what he was choosing to do. The world might end, but it would be far away and he’d be very well paid. Rich, even. And he’d have Myra. And other entertainments.
He left Volta on fire behind him and rode through the night.
By morning he was just twenty leagues from the Inn of Fosse. He knew the road and the hills, and he was wary, because the Arnauts, although they hadn’t made trouble in a generation, were a race of degenerate cattle thieves and sell-swords.
He climbed into the snow-clad hills, his horse tired and hungry, and he was watching the trees either side of the road. But when the road curved sharply into an ancient gully, he had no sight line, and the unpaid mercenaries had chosen their spot perfectly. They had a tree across the road, and he had no warning to turn aside or prepare a working, and he had to halt.
He loosened his sword in the scabbard and reached to unbuckle his fusil.
He never saw the crossbow bolt that hit him in the chest. It took him ugly hours to die.