Read an excerpt from book two of the Traitor Son Cycle by Miles Cameron.
As the Red Knight left the abode of the Wyrm of the Green Hills and rode south to the Inn of Dorling, Morgan Mortirmir, late of Harndon, sat in class in the Imperial capital of Liviapolis.
The classroom in which he sat was over a thousand years old; it featured dark oak benches and solid desks that sat four students per bench. The benches had, carved in so deeply you had to wonder how the professors and tutors had missed the vandalism, the graffiti of a hundred generations of would-be magisters in ten languages and in Archaic itself. The windows were mullioned and leaded and offered only the haziest glimpse of the outside world to the bored or frustrated mind.
Morgan shared his bench with three other students: two of the religious sisters from one of the great cities dozens of convents for women of noble blood, sisters Anna and Katerina, almost invisible in long brown gowns and wimples, and his sole near-friend, the Etruscan whose father was Podesta of the foreign merchants, Antonio Baldesce.
The logik master looked over the class. “Someone who is not Mortirmir,” he said “Tell me why.”
Sixteen students in advanced hermetical thaumaturgy squirmed.
“Come, come, my children,” Magister Abraham said. He was a
Yahadut—the first Morgon had ever met. He was one of the kindest of the masters—until he felt he had been ignored.
His eyes locked on the young Etruscan. “Baldesce?” he asked, his voice rising a half-octave in academic impatience.
The silence was painful.
“Let me restate the problem,” Magister Abraham said in an increasingly dangerous tone. “Why can you not wield the hermetical power directly inside your own memory palace?”
Sister Katerina made a slight sound—more like a moan than anything.
Sister Anna bit her lips.
Baldesce was not the sort of boy—young man—to writhe. “No idea,” he said. He shrugged. “But if I am permitted to guess—”
“Don’t,” Abraham spat. “Guesses do not interest me at this stage. Very well, young Mortirmir?”
Mortirmir couldn’t render potentia into ops, but he head read every grimoire available and every scroll of philosophy, ethical or practical, that he could lay hands on. He met the magister’s eye—and hesitated.
If he didn’t give the answer, would they like him better?
Probably not. And sod them, anyway.
“Magister, I think you can manipulate the aethereal directly inside your own memory palace. I suspect you shouldn’t.” Mortirmir shrugged, as Baldesce had shrugged, but it was a different gesture altogether—Mortirmir’s shrug implied there was more to say rather than Baldesce’s indifference to the question.
Magister Abraham scratched his chin under his long beard, his eyes on Mortirmir. “Why do you think such an odd and heretical thing?” he asked. He was trying—and failing—to hide that he was pleased.
“Vetronius’s Gladius Capitalis. Heraklitus’s
Sister Anna winced at his pronunciation of High Archaic, which was the Alban and not the local Morean.
Magister Abraham had the odd habit of tapping his teeth with his fingers, and he did so. When he had ink in his fingers, he sometimes stained his teeth.
He nodded. “Yes. The Fell Sword. A weapon that will perform the same way in the real and in the aethereal implies that it can be forged inside the memory palace and then used—anywhere.” He allowed himself a slight smile. “What would be the—result?—of such a use inside the memory palace?”
He paused for a heartbeat, and fifteen students paled to think of the literal destruction of the carefully tended memories and workings.
“But you wouldn’t know, would you, Mortirmir?” Magister Abraham asked. It was a rhetorical question. Now it was the magister’s turn to shrug. “Scamper off, little ones. Alchemy is waiting for you. Mortirmir, stay.”
The other students hurried out, many with heads bent to avoid catching the master’s eye. He sometimes issued work at the end—massive lightning strikes of work, carefully or carelessly applied.
Mortirmir sat and fiddled with his paternoster until the last student left, and then rose as gracefully as his fast-growing body could manage and went to face the master.
The older man frowned. “You have a brilliant mind,” he said. “And you work harder than most of these louts.” He shrugged, and handed Mortirmir a rolled scroll. “I’m sorry, young man. Sorry to twit you on your failings, and sorry to have to give you this.”
Mortirmir didn’t even need to open it. “Summons? From the Patriarch?”
The magister nodded, and left the classroom. As he opened the door, Morirmir heard Baldesce’s voice, and Zervas—another Morean student—say something—and they all laughed.
He had no way to know if they were talking about him, but he hated them all in that moment.
The summons in his hand meant that he would be tested one more time for powers, and if he could muster none, he’d be sent forth. He’d worked his whole life to come here.
And now, he’d failed.
Sometimes it can be very difficult to be a child prodigy.
Morgan Mortirmir was sixteen and growing so fast that none of his clothes fit properly. His face was so young that despite his size, he could, at times, easily pass for twelve. He was tall and thin, but not in the way that might have given him authority or dignity. He was gawky and, even worse, covered in adolescent acne that burst constantly into white-headed pustules all over his face, so that the Morean sisters in his Practical Philosophy class called him “the Plague.”
And Morgan knew he was the Plague. He was too young to be at the school and worst of all—and for all his phenomenal intelligence—he lacked any ability to manipulate the world directly through phantasmia or even through alchemy. He had all the potential in the world.
He just couldn’t get a grip on the raw stuff of power. He couldn’t make potentia into ops.
But he was intelligent enough to know when he was not wanted. And no one in the great school of Higher Philosophy and Metaphysics wanted any part of him except as a scapegoat. They didn’t want him to quote the authorities he’d memorized, or to explain to them the fine points of how the aethereal worked in terms of mathmaticka. They wanted him to wield power, or leave.
He sat in a small tavern in the greatest city in the civilized world and stared into a cup of wine.
After a while, he stared into another. And then a third.
All day, every day, his magisters had thrust him into situations meant to unlock his powers. His ability to detect a casting—even the faintest emanations from Cravenfish, for example—earned him praise from the magisters. Every one of them agreed that he ought to have talent. His score on potentia was—phenomenal.
But they’d ceased to say it so loudly or so often. And today the Patriarch, who had to review each candidate for admission, and pass him as theologically reliable before granting a degree, had sent for him.
Mortirmir bit his lip to keep from crying, but it didn’t work and he wept. It was bitter, stupid self-pity, and he hated the sheer childishness of it even as he wept harder. The Patriarch would send him home.
Home wasn’t even so bad. It simply represented the loss of everything he’d ever wanted. He wanted Liviapolis—magnificent women clad in glittering artifice talking about philosophy with men who wrote books rather than swung swords. Here, not barbaric Harndon, was where he belonged.
Or maybe not.
They didn’t even send a girl to his table to pour his wine. He got a stale-faced old criminal with a leer. He waved for another.
“Pay first,” the man said, accenting his Archaic for the meanest understanding.
Mortirmir wore an Alban jupon, boots, and a sword. Hence he was a barbarian and had to be treated like a fool.
He looked down into the cup of dark red wine. Better wine, in fact, than he would ever have at home—a wine to which the wines of Alba were mere shadows of the true form.
He cursed. He had all the theories down pat. He just couldn’t do the deed.
He’d had it as a child, or so they said—and the medical magister, who took the most interest in him, had said with terrible finality that the plague sometimes caused lesions on the brain that killed the ability to channel power.
He ordered a fourth cup of good wine and decided—again—to kill himself. It was a mortal sin and his soul would burn in hell for eternity. He thought that was fitting, because by doing so he’d hurt God. God who desired that sinners repent and come to him. Take that, you fuck!
It was a tribute to the duality of human nature as his philosophical masters taught it that on his fifth cup of wine he could see the terrible, stupid flaws in his own theology.
And then, of course, there won’t be any more wine.
At which point the evening took a turn that surprised him. A lovely young woman—older than him and more worldly, but well dressed and obviously prosperous, paused in front of his booth. She looked around nervously, then with more annoyance.
Drink bolstered him. He rose and bowed—feeling more graceful than usual. “My lady? May I be of assistance?” he asked in his best High Archaic—which seemed even more fluid than usual. His greatest accomplishment at home in Harndon had been his ability to read and write the true High Archaic, and here even the criminals spoke it. In the Morea, it was their native tongue.
She turned, and her smile beamed like the light from a bullseye lantern. “Ah, sir, my pardon.” She blushed. “I am not used to speaking to a man in public,” she said, and her fan came up and covered her face, but not fast enough to cover the cavalry charge of colour that swept over her neck and—
He looked around. It was hours since he had walked in—he’d ignored the summons to evening prayer, and so had some of the other patrons, but his stomach suddenly suggested that he needed to temper his new-found hobby of drunkenness with some food. Even if he planned to jump off a bridge later. Falling on his sword was out—it was too long.
He found himself sitting again, rather like a dream. In some corner of his head, a voice said I guess I’m pretty drunk. He had, in fact, been drunk before—twice. But not like this.
“You could sit with me?” he said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
She peeped, with just her eyes, from behind her fan. “Really, I couldn’t,” she said. “I’m waiting for my father—who is late—by the Virgin Parthe- nos, there is no place here for a lady to sit.”
He thought she was perhaps nineteen, but his experience of ladies—most especially—of Morean ladies—was extremely limited. There were the nuns in his philosophical classes, but all of them wore full veils, and he knew nothing about them beyond their voices and the speed with which he annoyed them.
He couldn’t tell whether she was beautiful or plain or ugly as wretched sin, but he already enjoyed her blush and her courtesy. “Please—sit with me, and I will not trouble you,” he said. He stood up—wondering when he’d so rudely sat down. “Sit here, and I will wander the room until your father comes—”
He suited action to word, and her fan shot out and pressed him back into his seat. “You will do nothing so foolish, although your offer is gracious for a barbarian,” she said. She pushed him lightly and he was sitting again, and she was sitting, too.
It was like leafing through an illustrated Bible. He had to guess at the parts that were missing—when had she sat down? Had she been graceful?
“How do you come to be in our fair city?” she asked.
Mortirmir sighed. “My mother sent me to University,” he said, with a little too much self-importance, he could tell.
“You must be very intelligent!” she said. He smiled bitterly. “Very intelligent,” he muttered. The taverner was suddenly there—the old bastard was nearly spherical, with no hair on his head and he was pouring something from a pitcher, and the girl giggled and thanked him and the room spun a bit. “I am,” he agreed. “I’m so smart that . . .” He searched for something to say.
You are so smart that you answer every single question in any class even when you know it annoys your peers, so smart you don’t understand humour, so smart that you can’t talk to a girl, so smart you can’t work the simplest phantasm.
She flicked her fan. “Where is my father?” she asked rhetorically. The sober, analytical part of his mind noted that she didn’t look around when she said it. He theorised that she was used to being waited on, and probably couldn’t take care of herself. She smiled. “Are you from a good family? And what is a good family, among barbarians?”
She was funny. He laughed. “My father is a lord,” he said. “Well—he was. Then he died. It is complicated.”
She sighed. “What’s complicated? I’m not in a hurry, especially not if you continue to serve me Candian wine and malmsey.” The fan flickered. It seemed to flick at a different rhythm, so that, although she ended hid- den, he saw the whole of her face for a moment. He was thrilled.
I’m talking to a Morean noblewoman! he thought.
He tried to shrug off his excitement because he was determined on self- destruction. But few things interested him more than talking about himself, and wine did not inhibit him in any way. “Well,” he said, “I’m bastard born, but my father had no other children, so even though he never married my mother I’m probably his heir.” He sat back. “He wasn’t a great noble, but there’s a castle and a town house in Harndon. My mother lives in the town house.” He shrugged.
The girl laughed. “It sounds just like our court. You are not in the Church, I guess?”
He spread his hands. “No—I’m a private scholar.” He said it with too much pride. He saw that she was amused and he resented her superiority and his own inability to make conversation without arrogance.
“And you are rich?” she asked. She poured more wine into his cup.
“Oh, no,” he said.
“In that case, she’ll have nothing more to do with you,” said a deep, scratchy voice. The Morean noblewoman turned, and Morgan raised his head—surprised at the effort—to confront the palest blue eyes he’d ever seen, in a moon-shaped face as big as a soldier’s breastplate. “Eh, Anna?”
She whirled and spat, fan flying. “Go away! You son of a mongrel dog and plague-stricken streetwalker, go swim in a sewer!”
Mortirmir rose unsteadily. “Is this man—”
The giant beamed. “Oh, Anna, only a crack as well travelled as your own is big enough for my member—”
Her fan slammed into his temple with the sound of lightning flashing close by. The giant didn’t even flinch.
“—troubling you?” Mortirmir managed, unreasonably proud to have dragged the routine phrase out of his pickled noggin. He reached for his sword.
He wore a sword. He was much mocked for it at the University, because student philosophers didn’t need swords, and by wearing one he made himself seem even more barbaric. But his failure to perform the least spell, the slightest phantasm, combined with a strong sense of adolescent stubbornness and some pride in his training at the art of arms left him with the most important sign of his noble status—in Alba—strapped to his side despite many warnings, some threats, and a great deal of ridicule.
He drew it.
The giant stepped away from the Morean lady and examined him with the kind of rigour usually given by the magisters to a corpse they were dissecting, when the religious authorities allowed such a thing.
“You seem to know how to draw that,” said the giant.
“Leave the lady alone,” he said.
The taverna had fallen silent. Every eye was on him, and he felt a fool—the more so as the giant was a head taller than he and would probably have his guts for garters, and he knew—with bitter remonstrance—that he was too stubborn to back down now.
“Whore,” said the giant. He shrugged. “If you want to fight me—I like a fight. Outside, though. Inside, we’ll be arrested.”
Mortirmir had never been called a whore before, but he knew it meant a fight. He wasn’t walking too well, but the jolt of pure spirit that came to him as he rounded the table steadied him. With his left hand he reached into his purse and scattered coins on the table—any gentleman would do as much.
That jolt of the spirit—was it fear? It was like the levin-power that the natural philosophy magisters produced out of the metal globes, and his fingers tingled.
The giant backed steadily away from him. “Put the sword away, and we’ll have a proper fight,” he said. “If you insist on using it I’ll probably kill you. She’s a whore, younker. Wake up.”
Mortirmir had the sense, just, to slide the sword back into the scabbard, and he did it without much fumbling. He felt as if the giant nodded at him in approval. He looked back and saw that the Morean lady was scooping his coins off the table.
He took his time out in the yard, unbuckling his sword belt. The giant was huge. He sounded like a Nordikan, the foreigners that the Emperor kept for his bodyguard.
Dozens of men poured out of the taverna’s open doors into the hot summer night, and a few women with them. The giant pulled his shirt over his head, revealing a body that seemed to be composed of sharply angled slabs of flesh-coloured rock. He had muscles on top of his muscles.
Mortirmir was wearing his best jupon, and he took it off carefully, folded it, and wished he had a friend to hold his purse. He wished, in fact, that he had a friend at all.
“I just want so say you’re a brave little shit to take me on, and I intend to make you look good before I put you down,” the giant said. “And you need to know that she’s a prostitute, and even now she’s watching your purse like a drunk watches a new vase of wine.” His Archaic had a strange accent. “I like her—she’s my favourite.” The huge man shrugged. “I’d even share her with you if we were sword brothers.”
Mortirmir laughed. It was insane, but he was suddenly released. He was happy. His laugh rang out, and men betting in the doorway listened and bets changed a little—not much, but a little. He wanted death—no suicide required.
“I’m ready,” he said.
The big man bowed. “Harald Derkensun,” he said. “Of the Guard.”
Mortirmir returned the bow. “Morgan Mortirmir,” he said. “Of the University.”
At that, men in the crowd roared. The Academy was loved and hated in the city—a bastion of brilliance and a nest of heretics, all in one.
Mortirmir was not untrained. He began to move on his toes as his father’s master-at-arms had taught him, and, with nothing to lose, his first attack was all-out. He stepped forward in mock hesitancy and kicked—hard—at his opponent’s knee.
He connected—not with the giant’s knee, but lower, and the giant hopped, off balance, and Morgan moved in, suddenly sober enough to do this, and landed a strong right with a right foot lunge, actually rocking the giant back half a step when he connected with the man’s gut.
Mortirmir felt as if he’d punched a barn. But he changed feet and tried another kick—
And had to pick himself out of the manure heap. He’d missed the move that flung him a body length across the torchlit night, but while he was more odiferous for his fall he was uninjured, and he bounced back at his opponent, who seemed to be made of iron.
“That’s one fall,” said the giant. “Good kick. Very good, really.” The huge man grinned. “In fact, I think we’re going to have real fun. I thought I’d have to do both sides of this fight, but apparently—”
Mortirmir was thin and stringy, and his only real physical advantage was that his arms and legs were abnormally long. While the giant rattled on, he feinted another cross-body punch and kicked under it—caught the giant’s arm as it shot forward defensively—
It was a near-perfect arm-lock…right until he was flying through the air again. This time, his buttocks hit the stable wall before he slid into the manure heap.
The pain was intense, and the laughter of the crowd lit him up like a lantern. He rolled off the manure, and ran at the big man.
Derkensun waited for him with stoic resignation, obviously disappointed with his adolescent rage. But just as he entered the giant’s measure, Mortirmir swayed his hips, trusting to wine and luck, and then planted his foot and passed under the Nordikan’s fight-ending blow, planted his leg firmly behind the bigger man’s knee, put his head under the man’s arm and threw him to the ground. It took an incredible wrenching of his body to do it—it was like throwing a house.
But Derkensun crashed to earth.
He was only there long enough to shout something, and then he rolled heels over head faster than such a big man had any right to do, and he was on his feet, rubbing his left shoulder. He grinned from ear to ear. “Well struck, younker!” he roared. His left leg shot out and Mortirmir jumped it—more by luck than training.
Mortirmir was breathing like a bull. The giant was smiling.
“I guess that’s not going to work again,” muttered Mortirmir.
The giant shook his head.
Mortirmir grinned. The sense of release was wonderful—the physical exhilaration was a novelty. And the lightness of heart couldn’t all be wine.
He stepped forward intending to feint a head punch, but he never got there. As soon as his weight shifted he was on the ground, gasping, and his back hurt.
The pain flowed into something in his head, and he rolled to his feet and grappled, perhaps the stupidest thing he could have done. The man was so large that he simply bent Mortirmir’s hands back until he freed them of their lock, and then crossed his hands involuntarily. The ease of the giant’s victory angered Mortirmir further, and he changed his stance and put his knee—quite viciously—into the other man’s balls.
The Nordikan stumbled back, and Mortirmir kicked him hard in the middle of the gut—the man folded at the waist, and Mortirmir’s right hand shot out—
The giant took it in one great paw, rolled to his left and threw the student like a trebuchet throws a stone.
Mortirmir hit the inn wall. He had time to think that he was surprised at the colour of the whole thing, and had to tell the magisters, and then . . .
“Damn Christ, you hurt me!” said a scratchy deep voice by his ear. “But I never meant to hurt you so badly.” He felt something cold touch his head, and it hurt. But everything hurt.
“You are a very great fool,” purred a woman’s voice.
“You’re a big help,” said the scratchy voice.
“We could at least split his money. It is many months since you have been paid.”
“That would be dishonourable, and I would never do such a thing. Besides, when he recovers, we will be great friends. The witch woman has told me this.” The scratchy voice chuckled. “If I didn’t kill him. She said I might kill him. I tried to be careful, and then he hurt me and I lost it, as usual.”
Mortirmir tested his body, as if he was an experiment in school. His left leg moved, his left knee was full of pain, his right leg moved, his left arm moved, his left hand moved—his right hand and arm hurt like—
“Holy Saint Eustachios and all the venerated saints and martyrs!” he ripped off. He sat up a little, and found that he was lying on a bed—quite a high bed.
“Holy mother of God he’s awake!” the woman gave a scream and leaped from the floor, where she’d been lying naked. She had long legs and a muscular midsection and he had the impression of fine breasts high above a slightly bony ribcage and wonderful hips. The sight of her body rose above the pain of his broken hand and arm.
The giant leaned over the bed. “You are alive! By the gods!”
Mortirmir had a pain in his head like a spike in his temple. He put his left hand to his forehead, and the whole right front of his head was spongy. “Oh, my God, you’ve broken my skull.”
“Oh, I’ve had worse fighting with my brothers,” said the big man. “There is a lot of blood,” he admitted.
Mortirmir forced his head back onto the pillow and the pain abated by the breadth of a hair. “How long was I out?” he asked, trying to remember anything the medical magister had told him about head wounds.
“Almost a day—Anna? How long was he out?” cried the giant.
The woman spat something that sounded unkind. She appeared, pulling a gown over her head. Before her hair emerged, she spat, “I suppose you don’t care that I haven’t eaten in two days, you Christ-cursed barbarian! And now I must be seen naked by another barbarian. And I’m sure you can’t even pay me—Holy Mother, I open and shut for you for nothing and why? I have no idea, when you repel me so much! The ugliest man I’ve ever seen and I the very pearl of this city—the finest Hetaera—it’s like a fine mare lying with a boar. Oh—I hate myself! Why do I do this? Perhaps it is punishment for my many sins—God curses me to rut with the very lowest form of life in the gutters. Perhaps next it will be a leper.”
Derkensun watched her with a small smile on his broad face. “Are you finished?” he asked. “I hate to interrupt.”
She slapped him as hard as she was able, cocking back her arm and her hand moving like the arm on a catapult. The slap echoed around the room and she clutched her hand as if the giant had struck it, when all he’d done was to stand perfectly still, a slight smile still curled comfortably in the corner of his mouth. He leaned forward very gradually, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her.
“But,” he said slowly, “I love you.”
“I will never come here again,” she said.
Derkensun laughed aloud. “If you insist,” he said.
“I hate you!” she shrieked.
“Of course,” said the Nordikan.
When she was gone, the giant watched the door for a long moment, and then came back to his patient. “Wine?” he asked.
“Never again,” Mortirmir said. There was something odd about his right hand. Flames seemed to lick at it. When he looked, there was noth’ing there but the warm sun coming in the room’s single open window—it was still hot as hell—and falling on his hand and arm. But it felt pleasant, and it was a long chalk better than the pain. Mortirmir lay back.
His assailant came and brought him some nice water—bubbly from some underground spring. “This will make you better. The witch woman says so. Listen—I have to go on guard. I’m on the gate of Ares today. I will be all week. I’ll be back.”
Morgan nodded. “I thought you Nordikans guarded the Emperor?” he asked.
Derkensun shrugged. “Something must be up, for me to be on a gate. Now sleep.”
Mortirmir had the strangest sensation in his hands and his head—like flying, like finding he could read a new language. It was all—
He shrugged it off, waved at the Nordikan, and fell back into sleep.