“No man in Creation is so dangerous as a well-meaning fool.”
– Dread Empress Regalia II
When he’d been nine years old, Masego had seen the end of the world. He thought of that, sometimes, at gatherings like this one. When making meaningless small talk with strangers, wondering if they had any idea about how fragile everything around them truly was. That the world was nothing but the whim of greater beings, apt to be snuffed out the moment they learned what they wanted. But all he saw in the eyes of the highborn was hunger and ambition, and could there ever be anything more boring than that? The silhouettes melded into each other, a hundred boys and girls cut from the same dull cloth. Even those with a measure of the Gift were blind, like they were just refusing to see what was around them. They might as well be animals or statues of clay, but still he had to stand and smile and pretend he’d remember their names if he ever met them again. He usually didn’t. Papa chided him over that, said connections were always useful, but Father just laughed. Still made him come, though, even if it was only a few times a year.
“- a pureblood Liessen charger,” the girl said, and Masego only now noticed she’d been talking this whole time. “Getting her across the Wasaliti was difficult, of course, but my family is not without friends.”
The boy squinted through his glasses.
“I thought there was a decree about the Thirteenth Legion getting first pick of mounts out of the provinces,” he said.
Father had arranged for a tutor to teach him about these things, which had only succeeded in motivating him to learn how to craft illusions. If he slept through the lessons it was easier to stay up late working on his own projects. Uncle Amadeus had called him worse than his father when he’d learned, but it had sounded like a compliment. His uncle did that a lot, say things he didn’t mean while smiling. It had taken Masego a while to understand how that worked, and even now he found the man’s face hard to read sometimes. It was like he was trying to make things confusing. The girl, whose name he didn’t even try to remember because he was pretty sure he hadn’t been paying attention when she’d introduced herself in the first place, laughed like he’d said something funny and put her hand on his arm. She had warm fingers, he noted, but he didn’t enjoy strangers touching him. Well, she was Soninke and highborn so she was probably clean at least. Still, since he’d turned twelve people kept pawing at him at these receptions. He really wished they’d stop, or at least tell him why.
“What do such trifles mean to people like us, Masego?” she smiled, cheeks dimpling.
He forced himself not to squint again. It sounded like she broke the law a lot, which was kind of stupid. Yeah, Father had told him that those didn’t really apply to him until Uncle Amadeus said they did, but that was just him. This girl would probably get hanged if people knew, so why was she telling him?
“Horses are nice,” he tried.
The girl blinked in confusion and withdrew her hand. That was his chance, he decided. If you didn’t retreat early when people got grabby they’d follow you all night.
“I think I hear someone calling me,” he hastily said, and fled before she could reply.
He was pretty sure this was the city home of the High Lord of Thalassina – though why someone who lived by the sea would want a house in Ater he had no idea – so hopefully he hadn’t just been rude to a relative of… whoever the High Lord was. There was an S in there, he was pretty sure, maybe more than one. The whole place was pointlessly large and dripping with gold, jewels and weird wood Papa told him was worth more than either, but worse of all it was filled with people. So many people. More than two hundred, though there were a lot of servants and supposedly those didn’t count. Masego declined to take one of the bits of meat pastry from a plate, since he’d been told those were poisoned, and discretely tried to find either his fathers. They weren’t anywhere in sight, but there were three floors and a rooftop garden so that didn’t mean much. Before he could embark on that journey of discovery, he found himself cornered by another girl and what looked like a pack of minions. Another Soninke. He squinted, pretty sure he’d seen this one before. Three months ago, when High Lady Tasia Something had the party with the magic lightshow? That had been very interesting, though people kept trying to talk to him during. Which, rude. And they said he had bad manners.
“Lord Masego,” the girl smiled. “A pleasure to see you again. You so rarely come to these little evenings.”
Shit, he was supposed to know who she was.
“Oh hello,” he said, and after a moment found a clever ruse. “…You.”
Flawless. He was going to get away with this cleanly.
“A very familiar way to refer to Lady Akua,” one of the minions said.
The boy frowned.
“I thought minions weren’t supposed to talk when important people do,” he pointed out. “Father says they used to execute people for that.”
The minion who’d spoken, some Taghreb, went pale at that. Damn it, Masego hadn’t meant to make him feel bad about his manners. Now he felt like an ass.
“It’s all right,” the boy reassured the stranger. “It’s just an old custom. Those aren’t very important.”
The Akua girl’s smile didn’t change, but he got the impression he’d said something wrong. Was it because she was pretty? Pretty girls always had these expectations about things he should be saying but no one had ever written those down, as far as he knew, and why would people not do that? It was just bad scholarship, honestly.
“A shame you believe so, my lord,” she said.
“Why?” he asked. “Do you want him to get killed? That’s a little rude to say right in front of him.”
The Soninke girl looked bemused, and also a little pained, but before she could say anything Masego felt a giant palm settle over his head and relief wash over him.
“Aunt Sabah,” he breathed. “Wait, careful with the hair.”
The big woman grinned and ruffled his braids even as he squirmed.
“Making friends, Masego?” she teased.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I think I insulted them but I don’t know how.”
He leaned closer to his aunt and whispered.
“They must have very thin skin,” he gravely told her.
He offered the girl and her minions a smile after that, but some of them looked angry for some reason.
“Lady Captain,” the girl said, and bowed.
“Sahelian,” Aunt Sabah replied. “Growing into a proper little lady, aren’t we?”
“I am ever my mother’s daughter,” the girl smiled.
Oh, Masego thought, they must be friends. Now he felt kind of bad he hadn’t remembered her name. Aunt Sabah took her hand off his tresses and patted him.
“One of High Lord Idriss’ mages prepares to make a demonstration in the gardens,” she said. “Your father sent me to get you.”
The moment magic was mentioned he forgot all about the other people, perking up.
“Skill display or a formula reveal?” he asked. “Because they’re not usually very good at the displays.”
“Formula,” the big woman said. “Come on, we don’t want to miss it.”
Masego wasn’t a savage, so he remembered to wave at the girl and the minions before he followed his aunt to the stairs.
“You don’t have any idea who that was, do you?” she asked.
The boy glared.
“Of course I do,” he said. “It was…”
Shit, he’d forgotten her name again. Come on, Masego, she just told you.
“Lady Ubua,” he said, pretending he was sure.
Aunt Sabah’s shoulders shook like she was holding something in. She must have eaten too much.
“Yes,” she said, voice tight. “That is exactly correct, and you should always call her that.”
Masego let out a sigh of relief when she was looking away. Ubua, Ubua, Ubua, he said in his head. He couldn’t forget, just in case Papa asked him later. They slowed when they got to the second floor, and his aunt steered him to the side. He was a little confused as to why, at first, but then he saw Uncle Amadeus talking with some important-looking Taghreb. His uncle was very pale, though Father had told him it was because he was a Duni – which wasn’t a disease, even if it sounded like it – and he usually looked sinister but tonight he was smiling and standing real close to the other man. They must have been old friends, he thought. The Taghreb was smiling very widely and his hands were shaking with excitement.
“Brat,” his uncle lazily said, turning to him. “Heading up for the reveal?”
“Do you think people will try to talk to me?” he asked. “Because they did last time, and it was very tedious.”
Uncle Amadeus’ lips quirked.
“Stay close to me and I’ll serve as your guard,” he suggested.
Masego beamed. His uncle turned to the Taghreb.
“Think on it, Lord Baneg,” he said. “It would be my pleasure to arrange it.”
The Taghreb said his courtesies very quickly, bowed and left.
“What were you talking about?” the boy asked.
“Giant spiders,” his uncle said. “Lord Baneg seems to have an interest in seeing them up close.”
Masego hummed in approval. As a provably repeated phenomenon of unclear sorcerous origin that displayed manifestations going outside the bounds of the classical table of elements, the giant spiders under Ater were a fascinating study subject.
“Is he a mage, then?” he asked.
Uncle Amadeus patted his shoulder.
“No,” he smiled coldly. “No he is not.”
“He must be a great scholar,” Masego mused.
It wasn’t people’s fault, that they weren’t born with the Gift. Yes, it made them kind of useless and ignorant but it wasn’t like they could help it. Just like he couldn’t help but finish the tray of lemon tarts when Dada made them, no matter what his other father said. It was, like, Fate. Delicious lemony Fate. The three of them were given a wide berth as they headed for the stairs, which tended to happen whenever Uncle Amadeus was around. He didn’t have a lot of friends, which was why Masego had been glad to see him getting along with the lord earlier.
“Our little Masego was making friends when I found him,” Aunt Sabah said.
“Was he?” his uncle said, eyebrow quirking.
“Oh yes,” his aunt said, voice tight again. “With Lady Ubua. You know, Tasia’s daughter.”
His uncle’s face blanked, which meant he was sad. Or angry. Or happy. Ugh, people were complicated. There should be a guide.
“Auntie’s lying,” Masego said. “I think I made them angry. Somehow. I don’t know why they thought I was the rude one when she said she wanted to kill her own minion, but maybe she’s just not that bright.”
“It’s not good to insult people, Masego,” Amadeus said. “You should send a letter to Lady Ubua to apologize.”
“Do I have to?” he whined.
“I’ll help you write it, don’t worry,” his uncle said, a tremor going through his shoulders.
Aunt Sabah was grinning, which made people around them back away even further. Masego sighed, but figured he might as well. Father always said he was only supposed to hurt other people’s feelings on purpose. They passed through the third floor and the boy tugged at his aunt’s hand.
“There,” he said, pointing ahead. “Papa’s talking with people.”
There was a cluster of at least a dozen highborn in a circle around his father, most of them women. Papa said something that had them laughing and drank from his cup, nibbling at cut of meat. Some of the ladies were looking a little red in the face, but people did that a lot around his fathers. Papa saw him from the corner of his eye and smiled, saying goodbye to his friends and sauntering up to them.
“Tikoloshe,” Uncle Amadeus said, inclining his head.
“Amadeus,” Papa smiled. “Always such a pleasure. And Sabah, dearest. A shame you did not bring your children.”
“Bad enough I have to come, I’m not going to torture them with this kind of company,” Aunt Sabah snorted.
“Do give my regards to your husband,” Papa said.
His aunt laughed.
“’Loshe, I’m not going to help you flirt with him,” she said. “Give it up.”
“But he always gets so flustered,” Masego’s father said, smiling over the rim of his cup.
Uncle Amadeus’ face was blank again. It was like that a lot, around Papa. Father said they didn’t get along very well but when Masego had asked why he’d just said it was ‘complicated’. The boy tugged at his father’s tunic.
“There’s going to be a formula reveal upstairs,” he said. “I don’t want to miss it.”
His father’s brow rose.
“Have you earned it?” he said. “How many people did you talk with tonight?”
“Ten,” Masego said, having honestly no idea whether he was lying or not.
Papa studied him closely.
“Zego, are you lying to me?” he asked.
“It’s not a lie if you don’t get caught,” Masego replied cheerfully.
The Empress had said so, once, so it must be true. Papa sighed.
“We will mingle after the demonstration, you and I,” he announced. “And I will have no backtalk.”
The boy grimaced but didn’t argue. That way lay Callowan apples instead of pastries for dessert, which was basically torture and probably illegal. The adults talked while they made their way up to the garden, mostly about Aunt Sabah’s children and how quick they were growing. She said they were going to be bureaucrats like their father, which sounded horrid but he supposed someone had to do it. The rooftop garden, he decided after they went up, was actually very nice. It wasn’t just plants, there was also obsidian sculpted to look like flowers and trees and in little nooks he could see runes had been carved. Much of this, he realized, was actually illusions. He drifted away from the adults and elbowed aside a bush of large green leaves, kneeling at the foot of an obsidian tree and tracing the runes hidden in the roots with his fingers. The work was simplistic, he thought. The harmonics in the sound production could be significantly improved if they took out the array stabilizer and separated the core into two different workings. Yeah it’d be a little trickier to power but then you could have illusionary wind moving the leaves and also-
“Look at you,” Father sighed. “They lose you for ten heartbeats and you get dirt all over your robes.”
Masego looked up at his father, then down at his knees. Huh, it was true. He’d been kneeling in soil this whole time and pushing aside the dirt covering some runes had gotten some all over him.
“This is very unprofessional work,” the boy said gravely. “They used a cascade pattern to keep the sorcery flowing, Father, it’s like they’re not even trying.”
The dark-skinned man crouched at his side, the edge of his tunic brushing the soil.
“What is the Third Law of Artifice, Masego?” he asked.
“Sorcery anchored in the material will only work perfectly for the sorcerer who created it, because every caster leaves a different mark,” the boy dutifully recited.
“And the corollary?”
“The more complicated anchored sorcery is, the more prone to failure it becomes over time,” he said. “Simplicity is pow- oh. They made it shoddy on purpose, so that anybody could use it.”
“The mage who first built the Stoneglass Garden was very talented,” Father said. “But he knew his successors might not be as skilled, so he kept the system simple.”
“That’s stupid,” Masego said bluntly. “If they’re not good enough, they don’t deserve to use it.”
“This is a showpiece, Masego,” his father said. “It’s meant to be used as often as possible.”
“All they’re showing is that they’re shit at spellcrafting,” the boy muttered under his breath.
Father looked amused as he rose again, offering a hand to help him up.
“Come,” he said. “Let’s have a look at that formula. I’m told the demonstrator has improved significantly on an old Thalassinian spell.”
Masego followed eagerly, excited again. There was a place in the middle of the garden where a large round platform of stone was left in the open, seats of pale wood set all around it. His uncle was already seated but Aunt Sabah wasn’t, which made sense. She’d probably break the chair if she tried, she was really heavy. His fathers had him sit between them, Papa fussing with the tresses his aunt had messed up and shooting her a dark look. Silence washed over the garden when some Taghreb woman got onto the platform, bowing and talking a lot about how some High Lord was great and blah blah blah, honour and old blood and Gods when were they going to get to the magic already? Eventually she raised her hands and began tracing red runes in the air. Oh, so she used Miezan tracing. That was rare, it was a lot more rigid than the techniques developed under Dread Emperor Sorcerous. A triad of runes formed a triangle as she continued murmuring, then a thin needle of blue fire erupted from the centre of it. She guided it into shapes, but Masego’s eyes narrowed as she watched. The initial quantity of fire had not changed: she was just thinning the intensity so it looked like there was more. It was inefficient. It was slow. It was inaccurate.
“No,” he said, and rose to his feet.
There was a ripple of murmurs around but he didn’t care, going onto the platform.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he insisted. “Look, look closer until you can have a Glimpse of what you should be doing.”
His fingers danced across the air, using her lame Miezan tracing instead of proper High Imperial. He slowed when he made the initial runes, making sure she’d be able to see where he differed – adding a draw pattern to her initial burst, then followed along the same lines of her spell but actually making more blue fire because the working was still drawing on his sorcery instead of diluting the power like hers had. It fit, but already his mind was running through ways to improve the spell. Refine it, cut away at the impurities. Masego felt clarity descend on him like morning dew, fresh and limpid on his tongue. A sigh came from all the lords and ladies like they were a single person, and Father came up to steer him away from the platform. Some old man that was too light to be Soninke but too dark to be Taghreb came up to them, all smiles.
“My congratulations, Lord Warlock,” he said. “A Name at his age is an achievement that will sound across the Empire.”
Masego squinted at the stranger, then leaned close to his father.
“Father, who is that?” he whispered.
The only thing that broke the silence that followed was Uncle Amadeus’ convulsive laughter.