“We like to tell each other devils are the true face of wickedness, for it makes evil into a monster we can vanquish. A sword cannot settle the banal cruelties decent folk inflict on each other, you see, though these do more evil in a day than a flock of devils in a year.”
– King Edmund of Callow, the Inkhand
Spring had brought troubles, at first, but what followed was stranger.
The ice broke and melted, and it was as if the world had been uncorked. A hundred things were pouring out onto sleepy little Beaumarais, each coming quicker than the last. First the muddy mountain paths found early travellers, another pair of mages from the low country, and Olivier was barely done settling them in a house when word came that a company of riders from Apenun was headed the town’s way. Lady Mireille Lassier, Alisanne’s mother and the ruler of the city, had heard rumours and sent some of her men to have a look at the town. It was the same highborn officer as last time who led them, Captain Alain, and the man developed an interest in the arrangement around the shop that had Olivier wary. They were not yet ready, he felt, for such scrutiny. Alisanne was of a different opinion.
“Now is the time to make bargains,” she told him. “Your numbers a rising but still small, you’ve proved you are able to settle affairs with townsfolk without resorting to unsavoury means and the shop is popular with the people of the town. You will never have a finer hand to play, Olivier.”
He could not refuse to speak with the captain, anyhow, so there was little choice to be had. The officer asked probing questions but to the younger man’s surprise he was polite and respectful throughout. A degree of surprise must have shown, for Captain Alain amusedly addressed it.
“Lady Alisanne has taken a shine to you, all agree, and she has been part of this from the start,” he said. “I would not harbour great hopes there were I you, but I’ll not act the bull over a matter where one of Lady Lassier’s daughters has been so involved.”
Olivier managed not to blush, wondering if the other man knew how much of a shine had really been taken, and the implication of marriage he chose not to address. He’d never had any illusions there, so there was no hope to disappoint. The captain requested to be allowed to visit the shop and see some of the enchanted wares that had already begun to sell and seemed rather impressed.
“The wizards we’ve in Apenun insist only spells can chase away vermin properly, not artefacts,” he told the younger man. “Many will be pleased to hear the truth is otherwise. There is much coin to be had there, Master Olivier.”
Though Alisanne had not been part of the conversation of the visits, keeping to at least a thin pretence of not being his accomplice in every way, Olivier wasted no time in calling on her as the captain retired for the night. Though the febrile energy that’d taken the both of them was first spent in a more pleasant way, they spoke at length after. The young man admitted to a fear this entire arrangement would be shut down, or at least severely curtailed, but Alisanne enthusiastically disagreed.
“Wizards are dead useful to nobles, Olivier,” she said. “The issue is that much of the taxes levied on them are levied by the Highest Assembly, so neither princesses nor ladies can waive them. That and no one is comfortable allowing the old guilds to rise again. There is only so much influence to go around, and what they might gain will have to be lost by someone.”
“If we grow too much, shop or not we will be as a guild,” he pointed out.
“The House of Light already has hooks in you, so you won’t seem a threat,” the grey-eyed beauty smiled. “And you won’t want to keep all the mages here forever, will you? There’s only so much use for them in a town the size of Beaumarais, and too many will make the people uneasy.”
Olivier’s brow creased in thought.
“You would see us turn into a school of sorts,” he said. “Teaching mages profitable skills then releasing them into the world.”
“Even that drunk Maxime would have a use, if you go down this path,” Alisanne said. “He knows war, for all his empty bragging, and a few wizards so trained would make even a country lord’s retinue something to reckon with.”
“The House will object,” he said.
“The priests will want the right to dictate where those wizards go, no doubt, but too many in the higher ranks will see the use of this,” she denied, shaking her head. “Magic made to serve the influence of the House would be a delicious turn in their eyes, I imagine.”
Everybody would benefit in the world she painted with her words, Olivier thought. Everybody, though perhaps the mages the least of the lot. You have made yourself into the lord of this little town’s wizards, Morgaine had accused. And here was now, plotting to barter away their hours without consulting even one of them. There’d been just enough truth to her words, he thought, for them to sting. Yet the thought of simply handing this all over to someone else was an ugly one, and perhaps deep down handing it over to Roland made it worse. What had his brother done to deserve being given all this? Olivier had thought himself beyond those old jealousies, but perhaps he was not. It had been one thing, when he had a path of his own, but not Roland was encroaching on even that and this was a harder pill to swallow.
He told Alisanne none of it, for the thoughts shamed him, and instead simply held her close.
Captain Alain left within days, away to report what he had seen to Lady Lassier in Apenun but his parting words to Olivier were encouraging. It was more than a month before he returned, and in that span yet another mage came over the mountain paths. It was more practitioners than Olivier could ever recall hearing of being in the same place, save in old stories. It was exhausting to organize it all, to keep incidents from happening in the first place instead of simply reacting to them, but it needed to be done. When Captain Alain returned it was with a royal magistrate and a certain Brother Elian, whose name Sister Maude went stiff at. Olivier was brought in for a more formal conversation at the mayoress’ own home, though she was gently evicted for the duration of it.
Brother Elian was one of the greats of the House in Apenun, while the royal magistrate was the one who habitually dwelled in the same city. This would be, Olivier understood without being told, the moment that determined how this would all end. He felt ill-prepared for such a trial, but he would not flinch away in the face of the unexpected.
Though he left convinced he’d doomed them all, the evening brought different results. A glowing Alisanne ambushed him with an enthusiasm that saw them distracted for some time before telling him she’d just spoken with Captain Alain and learned he had, somehow, convinced these people that he knew what he was doing and it was a worthy enterprise. Both the royal magistrate and Brother Elian had given their blessing to the arrangement, though already there was jostling about how the services of certain mages might be ‘leased’ and who should get primacy over the other. Beaumarais’ sudden rise in importance was expected to be bringing people and coin to the town, as well, and it would be quietly arranged that it would get an appointed magistrate and eventually elect its own.
“Apparently my mother has decided this means I am not entirely bereft of political instinct,” Alisanne wryly told him. “I have been recalled to Apenun, where my fate going forward is to be decided.”
Olivier had known it was only a matter of time, yet he was startled by how grieved he felt at the thought he might never see her again. He’d believed himself hardened to the prospect, but perhaps that was simply a lie he’d told himself. He would not make a scene, the young man told himself. It was beneath them both.
“I will miss you sorely,” Olivier quietly said.
Grey eyes turned to him, confused.
“It will only be for a month or two,” Alisanne told him, stroking his side. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
He blinked in surprise.
“You intend to return?” he asked, sounding like a fool even to his own ear.
“There’s more than sharing your bed that keeps me here, Olivier,” she said, tone cooling. “Though I had expected even that might mean more to you than it seems it does.”
“You would be giving up a wealthy and exciting life,” he slowly said.
Apenun was not a grand city, in the greater scheme of things, but it was still as another world from the likes of little Beaumarais nestled in the mountains.
“I’ll be wealthy regardless, and you overestimate the excitement there is to be had as the seventh child of a noblewoman,” Alisanne said, eyes searching his face.
“Did you really think I would cast you aside as soon as the call to return to Apenun came?” she asked.
The answer to that now shamed him, so he did not answer.
“I have feelings for you,” Olivier artlessly confessed, “but I harbour no expectation of permanence. It would not be difficult for you to find better prospects.”
“I’m not offering marriage,” Alisanne frowned. “But you have been my lover for near half a year now, Olivier. It is not a small thing and I’d not have it treated as such.”
“I would not have you feel bound to something you began away from home and bereft of company,” he plainly said.
“I can decide for myself whether I should feel bound to something, Olivier,” she said, and if her tone earlier had been cool it was now frigid. “I do not need you to settle my own affairs for me.”
It is a well-meaning condescension you offer, but condescension nonetheless, Morgaine had accused. Making decisions for others without truly understanding them, what they wanted. To see that sentiment reflected in Alisanne’s grey eyes made it impossible to deny the sorcereress’ words.
“I meant no offence,” Olivier said.
“You have given it regardless,” Alisanne evenly said. “Perhaps it would be best for us to be apart for some time, yes?”
It was not truly a question but he nodded in assent, hastily dressing himself from the clothes littering the ground. She looked at him as he did, and for a moment hesitation flickered in her eyes.
“We will speak when I return,” the grey-eyed beauty said, face conflicted.
She did not stop him when he left, and he did not try to stay.
It took six months for Alisanne Lassier to return to Beaumarais.
Six months where Olivier grew increasingly restless, his hours always fully used yet somehow never in a way that felt satisfying. Another four wizards and witches came over the span, and there were now simply too many to host even when spread out between the shop, the family home and the house they’d bought at the edge of the town. After consulting with Mayoress Suzanne, they’d agreed it would be best if a house was raised away from Beaumarais. The townsfolk were growing uncomfortable with the amount of practitioners around Beaumarais: too many had come, and too quickly. In a twist of irony, the location that was settled on was the Knightsgrave. The small valley wasn’t too far from the town, it had a small river for drinking water and no one used it as grazing grounds because of the old legends.
Eager to avoid old mistakes, Olivier put it to the mages themselves. The notion was a popular one – in some ways the practitioners were just as uneasy about the townsfolk as the townsfolk were about them – though there would have to be rotations in who got to sample the comforts of the town instead of staying out in the mountains. The greatest matter of debate was the shape the lodgings out in the Knightsgrave would take.
“It should be a tower,” Morgaine said. “There are many magical reasons why this is preferred dwelling of our kind, and so close to the mountains we will not lack for stone.”
Olivier thought the raising of a mage’s tower out in the wilds was a lot more likely to bring unease than a hall or cottage would have, but Morgaine’s suggestion was highly popular and he would not deny these people without a good reason. Not after having asked them what they wanted. Coin was sparse but a loan was extended by the House of Light through Sister Maude, as the priests were eager to demonstrate that it was they who were the patrons of this arrangement and not the rulers of Apenun. Olivier found his brother began to come around more frequently, though never as much as when they’d been younger. The relationship felt only half-repaired, but neither of them had the time to spare for more. Roland simply had too much to do, too much to learn. He was a student to half a dozen practitioners now, not merely their parents and Morgaine.
They saw him as their future, Olivier realized. Someone who would be able to speak for them yet be one of them. Morgaine had not lied on that night.
Before winter the magistrate Apenun had assigned them arrived, along with a small retinue. They were put up in the temple until more fitting lodgings could be raised. Olivier called on her the evening of their arrival, heart split.
“Did you miss me?” Magistrate Alisanne Lassier smiled.
He had, more than words could properly express. They got to work together again, and already the old tension hung in the air between them. The same way it had before they’d begun. Before they’d quarrelled, too. When spring came Olivier took the first good excuse he found to return to the road, lest he find himself making an inevitable mistake.
The road did him good.
Out there he went, sifting through towns and countryside looking for mages who had not yet heard of the refuge that could be found in Beaumarais. He obtained contracts for enchantments against vermin, for tools that would not rust, for brews that would help childmaking or prevent it. And he returned to Beaumarais, often but not for long. There the town grew to thrive, the coin poured in by peddlers seeing houses raised and shops open. People came to live in Beaumarais who had not been born there, or been brought in by kin and wedding, for the first time in living memory. Magistrate Alisanne saw to the order of it all with bewitching grace, her natural aplomb a fair match for the demands of the office. The tower out in the mountains slowly grew and the practitioners were drawn towards it. The shop would be how they won their coin, how they afforded to live, but the tower would be their home.
Olivier stayed on the road, drawing the closest towns and villages into the fold of what was being built. Justice need not be sought in Apenun now, not when there was a magistrate in Beaumarais. All manners of old disputes could be settled at last. Those few he’d taught how to read and write remained bound to him by gratitude, and they were all from families of importance: the town of his birth was, slowly but surely, becoming the heart of the settlements in the Vermillion Valleys. Olivier longed for grey eyes and a quiet laugh, but found himself reluctant to return to what the two of them had once been. She must have been as well, for while they lingered close to one another neither ever reached out through that slight, final distance separating them.
These days he felt reluctant to stay in Beaumarais at all. Out there Olivier found he thrived: wherever he went, he found success. He talked around peddlers and craftsmen to bring Beaumarais into their routes, secured a proper mason’s help for the tower. He even picked up a few disaffected fantassins ready to turn bandit and convinced them instead to turn into a company under contract by half a dozen towns to keep the mountain paths clear of bandits. Even the House of Light was danced with, as Sister Lucie of Grisemanche was recalled in disgrace when she was found to have taken payment for healing travellers instead of offering it freely as was her duty. It was all exciting. Something he was good at, something he’d been meant to do. Unlike looking over the shoulders of mages in Beaumarais, something they resented of him and he disliked doing in the first place.
By the second year the practitioners had taken to pooling their knowledge and a library was being assembled in the more than half-done tower, and while Olivier would have loved to read through the books there he often felt unwelcome when he visited. The mages who nowadays stayed in the Knightsgrave, having raised tents and small huts there, had started to think of themselves as a small village of their own. They did not like the notion of being beholden to anyone. Morgaine and his brother had taken to staying one week there and another in town, and eventually given Olivier’s frequent absences it became natural for Roland to be given the responsibility of seeing to the affairs of the valley. It was better this way, Olivier told himself. He closed his eyes to Roland being rather well versed in poetry, these days, and spending much of his time in Beaumarais calling on Alisanne.
For three years it all grew. The town, the tower, the profits. Rumour had spread that enchanted wares could be bought in the mountains and so now a caravan of peddlers came every spring, while the highborn of Apenun had their orders conveyed by riders along with the payment. Beaumarais had swelled, and these days Mayoress Suzanne and Magistrate Alisanne were considered the grandees of the region. Olivier himself was known, but not as much. He preferred it that way. There was talk that soon a petition to the court of Prince Arsene of Bayeux might be arranged, requesting that someone might be raised to formal rule over the Vermillion Valleys, and Alisanne’s name was the one bandied about. The notion found some popularity even away from the town, largely because the magistrate herself was popular.
Winter was ever the season Olivier spent in Beaumarais, and on that third year he’d come a month early as he had a few affairs to see to in town. It was his habit to call on Alisanne the day he returned, no matter the hour, but he was surprised to see his brother leave her house well two hours after sundown. Roland looked just as surprised to see him, and for a moment Olivier was taken aback by how much taller his little brother had become. Roland had grown into a man while he wasn’t looking: his shoulders had broadened, he had a short beard and even wore a knife at his hip. The wonder went away when he remembered where he’d just seen his brother leave, and at what hour.
“Olivier,” Roland smiled. “Back so soon, this year?”
The smile was, he thought, too stiff.
“Out so late, Roland?” Olivier replied, and did not bother to smile.
“There’s no call for that face, brother,” Roland said. “I was only having dinner with a dear friend. We share great hopes for the future of Beaumarais.”
His little brother, still taller than him, began to walk past Olivier but paused.
“Besides, even if I did have other designs are the two of you not done?” Roland asked. “There would be no call for bruising.”
Olivier’s eyes narrowed.
“I sometimes dislike the man you’re growing into, brother,” he said.
“Then perhaps you should have been around more, brother,” Roland replied.
He walked away and did not turn back. Olivier breathed out, calming himself, and only then called on Alisanne. He was ushered in by the servants and brought to her small parlour, where she was having a glass of wine. Alone, he noticed. There was no second, empty glass. It could have been removed.
“Olivier,” she smiled, waving him in and inviting him to sit. “Back early, this year.”
“So I’ve been told,” he said. “Twice now.”
Her brow rose. He bit his tongue. He had no right to feel jealous, he reminded himself. They had not been lovers for years now.
“Your brother is the soul of persistence,” she said. “It is somewhat flattering.”
“Is it?” he quietly asked.
“None of that now,” she replied, just as quietly. “For years I thought you might apologize, that we might begin anew. You never did. Our friendship is dear to me as well, Olivier, but it is not a friend who speaks to me now.”
“No,” he admitted. “It is not. Do not think too badly of me for it.”
Alisanne kept silent for a long moment.
“Jealousy is something, at least,” she said, eyes unreadable.
She drank from her cup, then rose to pour him one as well. His lips felt parched when he drank.
“I am not involved with your brother,” Alisanne said. “Nor have I ever been.”
Relief. Relief, however guiltily it might come.
“He has, however, been courting me for years,” she continued. “And tonight he sought my hand in marriage.”
His fingers clenched around the rim of the cup.
“Tell me you refused him,” Olivier prayed.
“I did not answer,” Alisanne said. “Too swift a refusal would have been indelicate.”
He drank deep to hide the way his hand had trembled.
“He is not in love with me, Olivier,” the grey-eyed beauty mused. “He his taken with my looks and thirsts for lordship over these mountains, which he fancies wedding me might grant him.”
“I did not think him so ambitious,” he confessed.
“Morgaine has been fanning those flames, along with the dream of a hidden city for mages,” Alisanne said. “Though I’ll not blame her too much for that: there were already embers there to fan.”
“I’ve let a lot of things grown rotten, haven’t I?” Olivier softly said.
“There’s a light in you, on those days you come back from the road,” Alisanne said. “A glow almost. When you’ve traipsed around like a rogue, tricking and helping and trading in knowledge. It was hard to grow angry with you, when what you did make you so blatantly happy.”
“It has,” Olivier admitted. “Yet I regret what I left behind.”
She studied him again, silently.
“Apologize,” Alisanne ordered.
“I am sorry,” Olivier said, “for how it ended between us. And for every day since.”
“Good,” she said, and kissed him.
It was a soft night, after that. Patient and tender, almost like a goodbye. They slept in the same bed for the first time in years and neither woke until late in the morning. Olivier woke first but waited until she did, moving as little as possible to not wake her. Eventually her eyes fluttered open, and they stayed nestled together for a long time.
“You’re going to leave, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Three years is long enough,” she said. “Beaumarais is now capable of electing its own magistrate.”
“And you are growing bored,” he said.
“I am,” Alisanne admitted. “The tower is nearly done, the affairs with the mages quite settled and the rest is… middling.”
“When do you leave?” Olivier asked.
“In a few days,” she replied. “I might return come summer to oversee the election, but it is not certain.”
He breathed out.
“Would you stay, if I asked?”
His own question startled him, but embarrassed as he might be to have asked he did not regret having done so. Grey eyes met his.
“No,” Alisanne said. “But it doesn’t need to end, Olivier. Come with me to Apenun.”
“I cannot,” he replied instantly.
“Think about this, actually stop and think,” she insisted. “You’d go mad, staying here all year, and I’d not stand to be your port of anchor when it’s too cold and nothing more. But in Apenun, you could thrive. Already your work here has made you known in some circles, opportunities could easily be arranged. I’ll find an occupation of my own, and we can live as we want to live. Not bound by half a dozen uneasy threads, forever defined by your family.”
“I can’t abandon all we built here, Alisanne,” he said.
“Then don’t,” she said. “Roland wants it, so let him prove he can lead. You’ll still have shares of the profits, coin to live comfortably, and you can return in a year to see how he’s done without you looming over him.”
And Olivier wanted to object but the truth was that he was already gone most of the year, wasn’t he? What was it that was lost if he left? The more he thought of it, the less he had to say. He did not agree, leaving their bed later and burying himself half-heartedly in the shop’s bookkeeping, but the thought did not leave him. He returned to Alisanne’s home that night. She knew his answer before he spoke it, as she often did.
A hundred things would need seeing to before then, but when she left he’d leave with her.
Olivier woke up to screaming on the night before their departure.
He’d slept at the shop, as he’d been there until late seeing to the last details, and he dressed hastily before slipping into the street. Beaumarais was ablaze, he saw. Armed men on horses were tossing torches onto houses. The militia had come out, but it was a small thing these days and Olivier saw several of them were already corpses. The horsemen were eerily silent as they went around burning and killing, and it was hard to tell how many of them there were. A dozen, two? One of them was knocked down by a vivid red fireball, as Maxime Redflame came out of the tavern drunkenly bellowing and waving about his arms, and they all turned towards the threat. Olivier took advantaged of the distraction to sneak past the nearest raider, towards the east of the town.
Alisanne’s house would be there, along with her small but well-trained armed retinue. The House of Light was close as well, and these days Sister Maude had help from other priests capable of wielding Light. Except that when he got there, the house was strewn with corpses. Soldiers and servants, even a young priestess. Olivier frantically looked through the butchery, but of Alisanne there was no trace. Or of the raiders themselves, though from the way the blood was spilled at least some of them must have been killed forcing the house. Had she been taken? Livid with fear and rage, Olivier stumbled onto a mess in the gardens that looked like it’d been made by someone struggling as they were dragged. The were horse tracks leading away from there, away from the town. Into the mountains.
The horsemen had not been careful when they left. Only a few had left by the path, two or three, and though on a rocky stretch Olivier lost their trace he knew well these mountains. This path in particular, which he’d first tread as a boy. Once upon a time, it had been a rite of passage among the children of Beaumarais to sneak out in the night and steal a flower from the valley known as the Knightsgrave. Stomach dropping as unwelcome but inevitable suspicions took hold of him, Olivier sped through the dark mountain paths. Above him the moon lit his way, and vigour like he’d never known before made his stride long and sure and tireless. Before long he stood above the stretch of a small valley filled with tall grass and red flowers by a mountain spring, though now there was more. Tents and huts, close to the shore, and a stout tower jutting upwards that was now nearly done.
The Knightsgrave was almost empty, Olivier saw.
Of the near dozen mages who lived here even in winter there was no trace. Two raiders stood silent in the night, their tall form a stark contrast to the red flowers around them, while their horses drank from the mountain spring. The tower’s door was open, and torchlight flickered within. Olivier no longer had a boy’s body, but he was still spry and the raiders were both eerily still and inattentive. Too still, he eventually realized. They did not breathe at all. Undead, he thought. Merciful Gods, Roland, what have you done? He snuck past the standing corpses, sticking to the tall grass until he was close to the tower. He peeked within and found only a single silhouette within. Morgaine. Sitting in an armchair, looking down at the fire roaring in the firepit.
Anger seizing hold of him, Olivier slipped into the tower and crept upon the sorceress from behind. There was a small paring knife on a table and his fingers closed around the hilt. About to place the blade against the throat, he stopped when he got a look at more than Morgaine’s side. She was burned, heavily. Most of the left half of her torso was a blackened ruin and her breathing was laboured. The sorceress’ dark eyes fluttered open and she caught sight of him. She let out a small, bleak laugh.
“You,” she said. “Of course it would be you.”
“Where is Alisanne?” he asked.
“Upstairs,” she croaked. “Gods, the folly. It all went wrong.”
“You did this,” Olivier hissed.
“No,” she denied. “It was not the plan at all. They were supposed to attack as you left. We would drive them away, the girl would…”
Morgaine let out a dry, rasping cough.
“The girl would owe us,” she said. “Her mother. Roland would be a hero, the natural magistrate.”
“You raised corpses,” he accused. “So that they would serve you.”
“We,” she snorted. “Me, him. For protection. This place was already a grave of knights, we just needed to dig.”
“Your protection is burning the town,” Olivier snarled. “You have destroyed everything with your madness.”
“You did this,” Morgaine hissed. “He went mad when he learned the girl would leave with you. That he’d never be lord, that he was just a fool. It was all you. My plan would have fixed everything, but he lost it. Sent our soldiers for the girl, and when I tried to stop him…”
Olivier looked down at the sorceress, burned by her own pupil and pride. Even now it was all his fault in her eyes, wasn’t it? And maybe it was, in a way. Because he’d chosen the thrills of the road and the chase rather than stay here and see this through. Because he’d chosen to be someone at the expense of being a brother. Maybe he’d had a hand in this, if not the one she thought. And the truth he knew, deep down, was the same truth he’d known since he was a boy: no one else was going to fix this. To try to make it right. It was not his place to pass judgement over that dying woman before him, for he was neither a lord nor a magistrate, but it still needed to be done. And he’d had a hand in this, in the magic that had gone to wicked use here, and so he would also have a hand in ending it all.
“Too many people have died, Morgaine,” Olivier said.
She tried to raise her hand, lips beginning an incantation, but however quick her magic it was not quicker than a knife. It went straight into her heart and Morgaine gasped out her last breath with a hissing curse. Olivier ripped out the knife, bloodying his hand. It was the first time he’d ever killed. The anguish he’d expected to feel from having taken a life did not come, even after a long moment passed. He felt tired, mostly, and sad that a woman who’d been exceptional in many ways had come to die like this. It’d been a bitter flame at the heart of her, and it’d ended up eating her from the inside. We lit it, Olivier reminded himself. Magic hadn’t done that, men and women had. With the ways they treated each other, with the slow strangling grasp of something subtler and deeper than sorcery could ever be.
Bloody knife in hand, he looked at the stairs. This might not be the last life he took tonight. Even as he went up the stairs, Olivier’s mind dreamed up what a monster his brother might have turned into. A raving and ranting madman, or a warlock wreathed in pale lightning.
Instead, what he found was Roland on his knees and weeping.
His little brother looked terrified, the look on his face making the beard he’d grown and the broadened shoulders look like they belonged on someone else’s body. Alisanne had been laid down on a cot in a corner, her hands folded over her lap with delicate care. She was slumbering too deeply for it to be anything but the result of a spell. He could have snuck in, Olivier knew. Roland was lost inside himself, he wouldn’t have heard it. Merciful Heavens, his brother wouldn’t have noticed a thing until the knife took his life. And it’d be safer, wouldn’t it? If Roland’s magic could defeat even his old teacher’s, what could a peddler with a paring knife do against it? But that would mean that his brother was his enemy. And fool that he was, Olivier could not accept that.
He set down the knife on a table and knelt by his brother’s side, pulling him close. Roland did not fight him, let it happen, but his eyes were unseeing. It was only after some soothing that sense returned to them.
“Ollie?” his brother asked, voice hoarse from the weeping.
“I’m here,” Olivier quietly said.
“I-” Roland said, then his voice broke. “Gods, what have I-”
He violently retched, breaking out of his brother’s embrace and throwing up on the floor. Looking scared and ashamed, Roland backed away from him afterwards.
“The magic,” he said, “it was worse than wine. I was in a haze, and I was so angry…”
“Your undead attacked the town,” Olivier said. “Morgaine is dead.”
“Morgaine,” Roland hissed, “Morgaine. It was her who convinced me. Who told me we would never get our dues fairly, that we needed to raise the corpses. I never wanted to, you have to believe me.”
It began, slowly, to dawn on Olivier. But he did not want to look it in the eye, fought it tooth and nail.
“Alisanne,” Roland suddenly said, “what-”
He glanced back and relief touched his face when he found Alisanne was asleep on the cot.
“She won’t wake until the spell is broken,” Roland said. “She… she doesn’t need to know. Olivier, you have to help me. I never meant to hurt anyone.”
He was aching behind the eyes with the effort of not seeing it, but he was losing the war. It felt inevitable, inexorable.
“What do you want me to do, Roland?” Olivier softly asked.
His brother did not notice the soft, steely undertone. Perhaps he would have tread more lightly if he had.
“Morgaine is dead, or good as,” Roland said. “And it was her idea from the start. We can tell people… Alisanne is the magistrate, and she trusts you. If you tell her it was all Morgaine she’ll believe it.”
Dragged up by the hair and forced to look the truth in the eye, Olivier saw it plain for the first time: his brother was not a good man. Magic had nothing to do with it, or little enough it hardly mattered. The older brother stayed silent, trying to fight the revelation but finding little to fight it with. Roland’s eyes went hard when he got no reply.
“Trying to get rid of me, are you?” Roland said. “Now that you have all you wanted, time to do away with the mage brother before you buy yourself a title. You owe me, Olivier. If you hadn’t taken her, I never would have-”
The other man bit down on the sentence, but the hardness in his eyes did not waver. It was never the magic, was it? It was you, Roland. All along it was you.
“It’s your fault,” Roland harshly said. “You know it is.”
“I do,” Olivier quietly replied.
And it truly was. If Olivier had not left the family home as quick as he could, if he’d not left his brother behind, it might not have come to this. But he’d avoided the place as much as he could because it brought a bitter taste to his mouth. Because he wanted to leave it behind. And he had, but he’d also left behind more than the house. There were so many ways this could all have been avoided. If he’d not taken to the road, if he’d not left so many things half-said, if he’d found it in him to not see, deep down, his own brother as a rival. He’d left Roland to stew in a cauldron of anger, and so anger was what Roland had learned.
Too slow to notice, too slow to act.
All that was left, now, was to look at a man who had used his magic to throw a murderous tantrum when denied what he wanted. And the thought disgusted Olivier, because in the end it would be others who paid the price for this. When it came out Roland had raised the dead, had been responsible for so many deaths, then the House of Light would smash all of this to pieces. And their town would be spoken of as an example as to why mages could never be trusted, never be listened to, when the lot of wizards was next questioned. Have you heard of the fate of Beaumarais, my child, a thousand Sister Maudes would say, tutting about how it was so sad but you just couldn’t expect differently of that sort.
“You can’t have done this,” Olivier finally said. “It would ruin it all.”
“Yes, exactly,” Roland said, licking his lips.
It couldn’t be Morgaine, either. She was too well-known, it would be almost as damning. The undead were the keystone, for what Proceran mage would dare dabble in necromancy? There was a ready-made culprit on the other side of the valleys: Praesi warlocks with their wicked arts, who had wanted to ruin the good work of reliable Proceran wizards. Olivier himself had once falsely claimed that bandits who’d robbed him had been in the pay of Praes, the precedent would make it more believable to highborn always keeping wary eye on the east.
“There is a spell that could make her more suggestible when we wake her,” Roland told him. “Nothing untoward, just as if she’d had a large cup of wine. It would-”
“You should not have magic,” Olivier said, and believed every word.
No more than he should have a sword or a lordship, had he been born to either. His fingers itched with the truth of it, as if something were trying to claw its way out from beneath the skin. Roland cracked a scornful smile.
“It should have been you, right?” he said. “You manage to go a great many years without saying it, brother. I’m almost impressed.”
“You have abused your power,” Olivier said slowly, as if testing out the words. “You no longer deserve to hold it.”
“I was born with it, Ollie,” Roland hissed. “There it is, the simple truth: I was born with it and you weren’t. And you’ve been trying to take things from me all my life to make up for that, but it won’t ever do anything because the Gods Above already decided which of us would matter when they gave the Talent to only one of us. Allow me to demonstrate-”
It was all, in that moment, clear as crystal. Every detail of the world around him, from Alisanne’s steady breath on the cot to the slight coating of dust on the bookshelves to the flush on his brother’s cheeks. And Olivier knew, with unearthly certainty, that it could be done. He’d spent all his life taking knowledge and putting it to use, and wasn’t the knowledge always the hard part? And so when he saw sorcery flare around his brother’s hands Olivier brushed his own against them, and took the magic. No, not took. He was not a wanton thief, stealing away whatever he wished. He had done this because the magic was being misused.
Confiscated, he thought. He had confiscated the power.
The word felt right, like an old friend he’d never met.
“What have you done?” Roland shouted. “What have you done, Olivier? Did you destroy my magic?”
No, Olivier knew. He hadn’t it. He could feel something within him, like a bundle of warmth. Or perhaps a spool of wool, one that he might yet learn to unspin.
“It’s over, Roland,” he said. “You won’t escape the consequences of this.”
A shout was his answer, and to his surprise his brother charged him. Roland was taller and had caught him flatfooted, so Olivier stumbled backwards into the table as his brother grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head against the wood.
“It will come back, if I kill you,” Roland seethed. “Won’t it?”
Olivier felt daze and his hands scrabbled for leverage so that he could throw back his brother, but his head was smashed again. Blindly groping, his fingers closed around something hard. A knife, he realized. The same bloody paring knife he’d killed Morgaine with. And if he struck now, while Roland had not noticed… And still he balked. Roland noticed.
“A pushover to the end,” Roland sneered.
He ripped out the knife from Olivier’s grip and tossed it behind him. The older brother closed his eyes and desperately reached for the bundle within him, the Talent, but there was something missing. He could not touch it, could not understand how. He was thrown down against the table again, head rapping against the wood, and his vision swam as he felt a hand close around his throat. There was a gasp, and the hand trembled as it loosened. Olivier kicked his brother away, gulping air desperately, and as his vision came back he found that Roland’s mouth was open in a silent moan.
Alisanne Lassier, standing tall and cold-eyed, stabbed the paring knife in his brother’s lungs a second time.
The death was startlingly quick. A few heartbeats was all it took before Roland slumped to the ground, first on his knees and then all the way down as the light left his eyes. Olivier found he could not look away, and that though Alisanne was speaking he could not seem to hear her words. It was as if the whole world had gone still and silent and dark, save for the sight of his brother’s face in a growing pool of blood. Someone was touching him, he realized.
“- are you all right?” Alisanne said. “Did he hurt you?”
Olivier blinked, as if waking up from a deep sleep.
“No,” he said, touching his throat and wincing at the bruising, “He didn’t – I’m all right.”
“We need to leave this place, Olivier,” Alisanne told him, tone gentle but urgent. “We don’t know if anyone else was helping him.”
“We can’t leave,” Olivier tiredly replied. “Not when it’s like this.”
She looked askance at him, wary and confused.
“It can’t have been them,” Olivier said, hesitating. “It has to be me, Allie. It can’t have been them, or everyone will pay.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Alisanne slowly said. “You’re in shock, Olivier. We need to leave.”
Lies wouldn’t be enough. Magic could, if it was the right kind, and Olivier had read the books. He knew the principles. Yet that perfect sphere he could so easily imagine – so easily he was not certain it was imagination at all – seemed beyond his reach. There was power there, but he could not use it. Frustration mounted in him. What had been the point, if he couldn’t do any good with this? If he couldn’t use his talent to do anything but subtract from the world? He had to be able to use it, or so many people would suffer for the madness of so few.
The world shivered.
Oh. It couldn’t be about him, could it? It couldn’t be selfish. There had to be a purpose. Thinking of what would come to pass, Olivier reached out for the sphere within himself and gathered the slightest lick of power. One of the easiest tricks of any mage was the making of fire, he’d heard. And as Olivier raised his palm a small trail of flame grew on it, though he snuffed it out even as Alisanne let out a loud gasp and stepped away.
“You’re a mage?” she asked.
No, Olivier thought. Not even now that he had magic.
“I am a charlatan,” he bitterly smiled.
He reached for the power again, and it came more easily this time. Even with his eyes closed to concentrate, it took him three times to successfully weave the illusion. He watched comprehension dawn in her grey eyes, watched the horror rise.
“No,” Alisanne quietly said. “No, please. Olivier, don’t do this. Don’t take his face.”
“Olivier de Beaumarais died,” he replied. “Slain along Lady Morgaine by the Praesi warlock who raised the dead and set them on the town and tower. He will be buried here.”
Roland’s body could fill the grave.
“Roland de Beaumarais heroically drove back the Praesi but failed to kill him, and now pursues him to avenge his brother,” he continued. “He wills all his possessions to Alisanne Lassier, to dispose of as she sees fit, as he will never return to Beaumarais.”
The deception would not hold, were he forced to uphold it around people who’d known them both. Illusions could only do so much.
“And when authorities seek out Roland to interrogate him?” Alisanna asks.
“He will not deign to be found,” the man who was now Roland de Beaumarais sadly smiled, “What do the wishes of men matter, to a rogue sorcerer?”