“It is common practice among the lower classes of Praes, who lack surnames, to name their children after themselves in the hopes of confounding any devils coming to collect on debts.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran
Masego had not missed court.
At least this was not Ater, where a formal session would be held in the Tower with corresponding pageantry, but Thalassina was wealthy enough its ruler was near as indulgent. The floating fountains and illusory interior garden were proof enough of that. High Lord Idriss Kebdana was, he’d been told, an old ally of the Empress. Two years ago that would have made him Masego’s ally as well, but things had since changed. Catherine and Malicia were enemies now, and he’d already had to give thought as to how he would attack the Tower’s vicious set of protections when that enmity finally led to blows. He’d considered killing High Lord Idriss, since he was already here anyway, but he was a guest. It was apparently very different to kill someone on the battlefield compared to killing them in their bed – which was irksome since practically speaking the end result was the same – so he’d eventually decided against it. Still, he’d made a note of the weaknesses in the city’s wards. If the Army of Callow ever had to assault Thalassina, he was confident he could collapse the central array with the right ritual.
“A glass, Lord Hierophant?”
His eyes moved under the cloth to study the pair who’d approached him. Twins. Soninke, or close enough: native Thalassinians tended to be mixed blood, taking in appearance after the last infusion from either side. The man had the Gift, and heavily enchanted robes. An utter waste, he thought with disdain as he took them in. Silk might be costly and take well to sorcery, but it also dispersed it at an unusually high rate. The Yan Tei supposedly had their ways around that, but secrets from across the Tyrian Sea were not easily obtained. Those robes would require regular maintenance just to keep up… warmth, shifting patterns of gold and a lesser illusion anchored in the man’s face? What a waste of the art. Three different workings in this difficult a material: they were throwing away a skilled mage’s time just by owning it. The woman of the pair was offering him a delicate transparent glass filled with wine. His eyes narrowed in on it, finding no poison within. Unusual. They put poison in everything at events like this.
“That won’t be necessary,” Masego replied.
He belatedly remembered to add a slight inclination of the head as thanks, as was polite.
“I would have thought you eager to taste a proper Wasteland vintage, after your years abroad,” the man said with a friendly smile.
“I usually can’t tell where wine is from,” he admitted. “Not without alchemical tools.”
They both laughed, which surprised him. Had someone told a joke? He should pay closer attention to the conversation then. The woman laid a hand on her brother’s arm and leaned forward as she laughed, the elaborate straps of her dress shifting. It was a strange apparel, he thought. Thalassina was known for its seaside breeze, would she not get cold walking outside attired in this way? Maybe it was a dress meant purely for receptions like these.
“Still, it must be pleasing to have returned home,” the woman said. “The provinces are not known for their… comforts.”
She was leaning forward again. Must have a bad back.
“I usually sleep in the Observatory,” Masego noted. “So I wouldn’t know.”
“Ah, the famous Observatory. I have heard much of it, lately,” the man smiled. “Your own work, it is not? Would it be indiscreet to ask how it functions?”
The blind man cocked his head to the side.
“Have you read Serebano’s ten volumes on scrying?” he asked.
There was a heartbeat of silence.
“I have not,” the man said.
“Then there would be no point in telling you,” Masego replied. “You lack the necessary grounding to understand the basic underlying tenets.”
The man’s smile grew stiff, though his twin seemed amused.
“Then I will obtain copies, my lord, and perhaps we can pursue that discussion at a later date,” the other mage said.
“If you’d like,” Masego said. “Although I’ve been told I should kill anyone who tries to figure it out without permission, so that seems counter-productive of you.”
“Is that so?” the male twin blandly said.
His face had gone blank. Ah, I offended him, the mage realized. It must have been that he’d made it clear the man was ignorant. His friends kept telling him it was impolite to do that, though they might as well ask him to stop remarking that the sea was wet. Ignorance was everywhere.
“I am told you’ve never visited Thalassina properly,” the female twin said.
Masego wondered if it was too late to ask for their names. It probably was. Father had provided him a list with names and descriptions, but he’d needed something to wipe an acid stain and he hadn’t felt like getting up to fetch a cloth. That might have been a tactical mistake of sorts, he reluctantly conceded. In his experience, if you asked people their name after conversing with them for more than four sentences they tended to get angry.
“I am uncertain what you mean by properly,” he said. “But I have only ever seen a few streets and parts of this palace.”
“There is much I could show you, then,” she replied smilingly. “It would be a grave sin if I never offered to escort you to the seastone walls or the corals.”
He was uncertain what religion had to do with sightseeing, but Thalassinians were known for their strange practices.
“If my work allows,” he said.
By reputation, the corals were rather beautiful. Also filled with old wards and traps for any seeking invasion through the sea, which to be frank interested him rather more.
“My sisters knows the city well as any native,” the other twin said encouragingly. “And I’ve no doubt the company of your own kind will be a balm after your time amongst the savages.”
“Most legionaries are actually well-behaved,” Masego noted. “And I spent little time with them regardless.”
They laughed again, to his growing confusion. He went over the spoken words carefully. His own kind? He’d thought they meant humans, which was rather odd since as far as he knew the Army of Callow was human in majority. Assuming they were not idiots, which he almost never did in situations such as these, they might have meant ‘his kind’ as Praesi instead. Oh. Was he supposed to be feeling patriotic since the Empire was at war? But then he was technically at war with it, since his friends were, so the logic was not sound. Baffling.
“You meant Callowans,” he tried.
“I suppose some are barely civilized,” the male twin mused. “They did spend a few decades under our rule, after all. And they are now led by the Carrion’s Lord castoff, no doubt thanking all their Gods for her Praesi education.”
“I was not aware my uncle had cast off anything,” Masego noted. “Except scruples, but he’s always insisted he was born without those.”
Which had led to a thoroughly wasted evening when he’d been nine and trying to find those in his anatomy charts, worried Uncle Amadeus was missing an organ. The woman smiled over the rim of her cup.
“There is no need to be coy, my lord,” she said. “We have kin in the capital. The breach between the two is common knowledge in the right circles.”
Who had Uncle Amadeus been arguing with recently? The Empress, he remembered, but that hardly fit the rest of the conversation. Did they mean Catherine?
“It must have been tedious to humour the fools,” the man drawled. “Yet you did benefit: an unprecedented Name. Your foresight is to be praised.”
Oh, they’d been insulting his friends the whole time. Maybe. He should check to be certain, Hakram had noted it was important.
“By the fools, you mean the Woe,” he asked.
“What greater fools are there?” the woman laughed.
So now the list. They were nobles, since no one else would be allowed here. They weren’t visibly being forced to speak to him. There’d be no collateral damage to innocents. Was it legal? Probably. Callow had some kind of treason law about insulting the queen, didn’t it? It counted.
“Right,” Hierophant smiled, and raised his hand. “Boil.”
Casting without proper incantation had become much easier since his transition, save when he was molding miracles. As a rule Trismegistan sorcery put greater emphasis on precise manipulation of magical energies than the use of mediums like incantations and runes – they were a crutch to visualize and measure, not a requirement – but that same precision made it difficult to actually dispense with those mediums. The acceptable margin of error before collapse in a Trismegistan spell formula was barely a tenth of what it would be in a Petronian equivalent or, Gods forbid, a Jaquinite one. As a result Trismegistan sorcery usually produced superior results for inferior costs while serving the same purpose, but also required greater skill and longer practice from of the mage using it. The portion of practitioners that could transcend those limitations was small, and even among those such transcendence was usually reserved for a few especially well-studied formulas. It was possible to lower the bar so badly any blunderer could tinker with the spell, of course, as the Legions had done with their own arcane roster. But only at the expense of every single boon save flexibility.
Fortunately, Masego’s sensitivity to the forces he manipulated through his will had greatly increased since transition. He’d initially been disinclined to rely on anything as fallible as senses when using magic, but he’d overcome that reluctance after proving he could reproduce that sensitivity through adjusted measuring tools. Indeed, he’d since come to theorize that aside from magical capacity – one’s inborn talent to use sorcery – there might be a second, more discreet aspect to the Gift. Sensitivity to those same energies, which he’d ventured on parchment might be what distinguished mages capable of using High Arcana from those who could not even after a lifetime of dedicated study. It might even finally solve the mystery of why the Taghreb produced fewer mages than Soninke stock but a proportionally higher amount of mages capable of using the higher mysteries. Many Taghreb lines had twined with creatures, after all, wich were said to have a natural grasp of magic humans did not. The paired screams of the twins as their blood boiled in their veins and began to waft out through their eyes and nostrils shook him out of his thoughts. Ah, yes, that was still happening.
The spell had been crude, its formula still fresh and untested, but being able to affect blood without a sympathetic link or a ritual whose sheer power would make the matter irrelevant was excitingly new grounds for him. He paid close attention to the rate at which their blood evaporated, committing the numbers to memory, and was rather irked when they both only died after ten heartbeats. Much too long, it meant part of the heat was being dispersed into the broader body. He’d have to scrap the entire containment vector, and since that was tied into almost every part of the formula that effectively meant scrapping the entire spell and starting from scratch.
Papa’s tone was chiding, and there had been a time where that would have given Hierophant pause. Before Keter. Before he’d seen Tikoloshe walk the grounds of what had become the single most significant magical phenomenon in Calernian history without speaking a single word of it to his son. Much had been cast into doubt by that revelation. If Papa had been human there might have been uncertainty about his motivations, but unlike humans devils were… direct. Unequivocal in what drove them. There were only two reasons that Tikoloshe would have failed to fulfill Masego’s desire when he so easily could, and both were ugly things. So which are you, father – a stranger or a slave? Either was betrayal, if owned by different pair of hands.
“Father,” he simply replied.
“That was unwise,” Tikoloshe said, eyeing the corpses.
“It would have been better to test the spell on animals beforehand,” he conceded. “But pigs are expensive and the physiological differences really are rather minor.”
Whispers spread across the hall in the wake of his words. No doubt they were agreeing with him. Apes were even better for experimentation, admittedly, but those could only be obtained from across the Tyrian Sea and they were ridiculously costly to import. Even the small ones that didn’t know any tricks. He’d asked around. Well, asked Vivienne to, which was basically the same thing. Papa sighed. More than a few nobles flushed at the sight.
“That is not what I meant,” he said. “You should apologize to High Lord Idriss for disrupting his reception.”
Masego’s brow rose. Wasn’t it already enough that he hadn’t killed the man? He’d been very courteous so far.
“Will he apologize for them insulting my friends?” he asked peevishly.
“He is not responsible for their words,” Tikoloshe said.
“Then it has nothing to do with him” Masego said.
“Enough,” Hierophant hissed. “Father asked for my help and so I came, but my patience is running thin. I agreed to lend my time, not waste it. There is work to do, and none of it takes place here.”
He could be at the Obervatory right now, plumbing the depths of a hundred Hells. He could be with Catherine, taking apart drow sorcery and learning from ancient secrets. He could be picking at the minds of the Wild Hunt to understand what set them apart from the other fae but no, instead he was at court, talking with blind children who – Masego took a deep breath. He would not get angry. Not over this, when the true source of his anger was other. He would be fair, and hold only the responsible to account. They’d shown him. It was better when the world worked that way. And when it didn’t? You just had to make it.
“Enjoy court, Father,” he said through gritted teeth. “I am done with it.”
Wekesa watch his son stride away in a swirl of dark robes, leaving silence behind him. A few heartbeats and then whispers bloomed, even as servants took away the corpses of the Serali twins. Their father was stuck halfway between terrified and furious, his little gamble to curry favour having proved rather costly. But this was court, in the end, and so the conversations moved on. Lord Hajal Serali’s blunder would be the talk of the city for a few weeks and that would be the end of it. The man was not so influential as to risk taking revenge on a Named, not unless Alaya tacitly allowed it. Which she would not. Warlock had set this as a condition with his old friend before sending for Masego. So long as certain boundaries were observed, the Eyes would disappear anyone even considering raising a hand at his son. Tikoloshe returned to his side, and decades of marriage told him his husband was feeling rather irritated even if his face betrayed none of it. The two of them were given a wide berth after they reunited, the implicit courtesy nothing less than his due. He and his son were the only thing that stood between Thalassina and a sack, after all. Idriss might get snippy about the dead bodies, but he would not forget that.
Wekesa was not above simply leaving if he felt like it, and had made that much abundantly clear.
He was here on Alaya’s behalf, not the High Lord’s, and she knew better than to ask to tedious a favour of him. Wekesa had not thrown away his hours teaching imbeciles when Amadeus had requested it, and he would not do the same fighting this chore of war if he had to watch for knives aimed at his family’s back. Not even for a single battle, however interesting in nature. If Procer and its crusading fellow insisted on testing the Wasteland he’d discipline them appropriately, but what did he care if Nok and Thalassina burned? He had no laboratories or correspondents in either: there was nothing to defend. If Kahtan or Okoro were on the line it would be a different story, but they were too far inland to be threatened by Ashuran raids. Tikoloshe came to stand by his side, almost close enough to touch, and Wekesa idly brushed his fingers against the rune-carved jewels on his belt. The contamination ward bubbled out a heartbeat later.
“He used to be such an obedient child,” his husband mourned.
“He’s an adult now,” Wekesa said. “With the opinions of one. He won’t always agree with us. He’s no longer the little boy that used to chase the hem of our robes.”
The incubus made a moue. It was a wonder, Warlock thought, that even after all these years the sight of that could cause a low stir of desire in his belly. He’d never taken another lover after wedding his husband – how could any mortal man be half as good in bed as a creature born of desire itself? – and still it amazed him he’d never felt the need to seek a partner outside their marriage. It wasn’t like Tikoloshe would have minded, though he’d certainly gotten more possessive over the years. Love, Wekesa thought, was a strange thing. For what else could it be he felt, when other desires failed to move him?
“In public, ‘Kesa?” Tikoloshe said, sounding flattered.
“It’s nothing they’ve not speculated about,” he replied, sliding a hand around his husband’s firm waist and bringing him close for a kiss.
There was little chaste about it, but they did not linger.
“You’re attempting to distract me,” Tikoloshe sighed. “It won’t work. This is more than growing up, Wekesa. He is angry with us. Which one I cannot tell, but-”
“I know,” Warlock admitted. “And while I mislike Foundling, she has done wonders to keep him even-keeled. He would not act so sullen without a reason.”
Amadeus’ apprentice might be a little twerp as arrogant as she was ignorant, but she’d done right by his son. He’d seriously considered asking Alaya to keep her alive just for how she benefited Masego, but the situation was too far gone. It’d become a mess between her and Amadeus, and while those were rare they also tended to get exceedingly nasty. He should have adopted some orphan years ago and settled the paternal urge, Wekesa thought. More than once he’d hinted fatherhood might do his friend some good. He and Alaya acted like they were married half the time, a shared child would only have served to channel that tension more productively.
“Then he’s learned something that angered him,” Tikoloshe said. “While he was abroad.”
And there was the trouble, for while Wekesa knew neither of them had been perfect fathers he was genuinely surprise anything he’d done would wound his son this way. He should have spent more time with Masego when he was younger, instead of studying. That was one of his great regrets, for he’d not truly understood back then that those days would never come again. All those he cared about, save for his husband, were Named. He’d gotten in the habit of treating long partings as being of little import. Yet where would his son have learned to resent this? None of the Woe were close to their parents according to the reports, save for the Thief, and her father hadn’t even known she was moonlighting as an apprentice to a member of the Guild of Thieves. Trust and closeness could be different matters, true, but it was still baffling.
“I cannot think of what would have led to this,” Warlock admitted.
“He’s been to Keter,” Tikoloshe murmured.
“That matter is long buried,” Wekesa frowned.
“The Dead King-”
“Would not deign to indulge in games with a mortal mage, however talented,” Warlock flatly stated.
“Then it might have been the journey,” his husband replied.
Wekesa did not contradict him. The reflection of Keter in Arcadia must be highly perilous, but he knew little of it. Hye had passed through there once, but getting anything useful out of her was near impossible. It wasn’t that she lied. That would have been of some use, as even boasts and exaggerations would hold a kernel of truth. No, it was the opposite: she was concise to the point of uselessness. I walked through Arcadia and then cut my way out and then I beat up dead people all the way to Hell. That was the whole sum of how she’d described her experience assaulting Keter through the realm of the fae, to Warlock’s despair. Trying to tease more information out of her inevitably ran into the wall of Ranger genuinely believing she’d given him all she needed to and getting irritated if he implied otherwise.
“Perhaps a conversation is in order,” Wekesa finally said.
“Perhaps,” his husband gently mocked.
He grimaced. It would be a delicate matter to approach, even more so if it proved to be a correct guess. Warlock was not unaware that decades of being able to dictate on what terms he interacted with almost everyone else had atrophied some his former social finesse. On the other side of the room, Lady Gharim dropped to the floor screaming and clawing at her face. Her veins had turned dark, thick with rot. Sloppy spellwork.
“People,” the Warlock said loudly enough his voice could be heard by all attendees, “should be aware of their own limitations.”
His gaze lingered on the dead woman, who might still be alive if she hadn’t tried her hand at an eavesdropping spell. Contamination wards were not forgiving.
“I believe we will take our leave, High Lord Idriss,” Tikoloshe smiled. “And let that particular reminder linger in our absence.”
The hall was silent, at least for now. Whispers would resume as soon as they left.
It was not the first death of the night, and it would not be the last.