... Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die. ...
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
● ● ●
High above Ninove, a flock of ravens wheeled and called to each other in the windswept sky.
Their sharp, bright eyes had seen the caravans fleeing the city. These people had left their homes, their livelihoods – for the wind-swept slopes, ravines, and peaks of the the Teirlinck mountains. Some carried blankets and food. Others carried crying children and supported elderly parents.
The ravens saw the empty streets of a city that should have been alive with commerce and laborers and markets and children playing. They saw the streams of smoke from too few chimneys. They saw the silent houses with shuttered windows, hiding families too wise, or too afraid, to flee.
Their eyes didn’t miss the solitary figure who presented himself to the soldiers guarding a small side gate. He was dressed in simple clothing, but the soldiers came to a startled attention, bowed, and granted him instant entrance, and a horse, to ride for the castle.
They observed the flurry of activity around that ancient structure, placed on the top of a hill at the center of the city. At every gate and fortification, soldiers sharpened swords, worked their arbalests, and fingered the charms they wore to saints and daemons.
Rumors of Lorraine’s coming had reached the people two days ago.
No one knew or cared how many cavalry he rode with. Only that he had a Magician.
Across the city – just outside the postern gate , the ravens saw a cluster of figures, guarded by two companies of soldiers at attention, their eyes to the hills, watching for any sign of the enemy or of his spies.
Only one figure was looking to the sky.
The flock of ravens wheeled again, heading for the mountain pass.
Tess followed the birds with her eyes until they disappeared into the distance, small points of dark against the gathering clouds and shivered. She could smell rain on the air.
She pulled her woolen cloak closer around her shoulders, and dropped her eyes, back to her son.
His shoulders hunched against the wind, Jacqui scrunched up his face, concentrating. He crouched down to place his little hands on the hard clay, and a turquoise glow spread around his fingers and shot outward.
A light tremor shook the ground, and a narrow crack formed in front of him.
Jacqui sat down with a bump, the glow of his hands winking out. Tears of frustration and exhaustion sparkled in his eyes.
The Nobleman – Lord Tobias Faverau – snapped his fingers to his grandnephew, calling the scrawny teenager forward. Prince Lucas Faverau shot Tess a sullen glance, then slouched past, scuffing his shining boots through the freshly disturbed dirt. He carried a beautiful old book carelessly in his hand.
The prince opened the book and held it out, not bothering to look at the page himself. The Nobleman bent over him, squinting at the ancient sketches and descriptions of gestures and motions.
Jacqui watched him, his eyes dull.
Finally, the Nobleman called to her son, sharply commanding him to get up and come over. He demonstrated the series of movements again, and Jacqui tried to imitate.
They’d been out here for hours today, and Tess ached to beg them to give Jacqui a short break. But after two cycles spent watching helplessly as they forced her son through this grueling training regimen, she knew the Nobleman would either ignore her or send her back to the castle.
Now, with Lorraine's impending attack, the pressure was only increasing. These last three days, the Nobleman had shifted from terse and demanding, to positively cruel as he drove Jacqui to master techniques he himself only barely seemed to know.
She clenched her hands into fists.
Jacqui tried twice more before he was able to widen the crack into a fissure.
“Right,” the Nobleman announced, turning to the prince. “Lucas – your turn. Give the boy a command.”
“Can you –” the prince started, but the Nobleman cut him off.
“You know better than that,” he snapped. “Give him a direct command.”
The prince ducked his head. “Right,” he mumbled. “Set that tree over there upright.”
Her son raised a hand, glowing, and concentrated again. The fallen tree trunk glowed faintly, and rolled sideways. Jacqui bit his lower lip, and walked closer, trying again.
The Nobleman huffed out an impatient breath. “Use the ground, boy. Make a hole for the trunk to fall into.” He turned, cuffing the prince on the back of the head. “And you – use your Gale-blasted brain. The tree’s daemon’s gone.”
Jacqui succeeded in opening another fissure, but he’d placed it wrong, so the trunk simply rolled over again. He stopped to rub the back of his knuckles in his eyes.
The Nobleman snapped at him to stop crying and then briskly rescinded his command with the tree. He slapped the prince again, and the boy rescinded his original Obligation in a mutter.
Jacqui pulled back, his little shoulders slumping.
“Now try again,” The Nobleman ordered the prince. “Give it to him in steps, blast it.”
Tess knelt by her son, who’d begun to shiver in the wind. She adjusted his coat, tightening the fastenings.
He rubbed his nose. “The tree wouldn’t go.”
She nodded, holding back her own angry tears. “You don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“I got it wrong.”
She wrapped her arms around his little body, pulling him against her. “You’ll get it,” she whispered. “You’ll figure it out. Just like your letters.”
“Jacques –” The Nobleman snapped. “Come here.”
Her son pulled away and hurried over, his small feet stumbling over the uneven ground.
He was exhausted.
● ● ●
Six years ago
Henri Lannoy Faverau, crowned consort of Queen Ninove, glowered at his grandson.
The freckled and twiggy boy held his wooden sword like a child playing with a stick as he faced the swordmaster, the two circling each other as Henri watched. Lucas moved his feet with all the grace of a fat scullery maid, even with his eyes focused more on his own toes than the sword master’s face.
The later, moving with slow exaggeration, began a stabbing lunge, and Lucas swung his sword wildly.
The practice blades slammed together with a shuddering clack, and Lucas’s point dropped as his fingers briefly relaxed and nearly lost their hold on the hilt.
Henri grunted and signaled to the swordmaster. The servant lowered his wooden sword and stepped back a pace as Henri rounded on the boy, cuffing him on the back of his head.
“Eyes – Lucas,” he snapped. “Where are your bloody eyes?”
Lucas stared at his toes and mumbled inaudibly, rubbing his sword hand against his leg. Of course it stung.
Henri held out his hand for the swordmaster’s wooden sword. The man placed it carefully in his hand and stepped back, as Henri raised the tip. Lucas’s eyes stupidly followed the motion, so he was completely unprepared for the numbing blow as Henri stepped into his guard and slammed the hilt down on his knuckles.
Lucas yelped and dropped the sword. He bent over, cradling his hand like he’d lost a finger and sniffed.
Henri growled and lowered his sword. “You deserved that – stop sniveling and act like a prince.”
Lucas nodded and rubbed his eyes with his wrist, then hefted his sword again. This time, at least, he kept his eyes up. Henri feinted a thrust, and the boy reacted without any control. Then, his eyes focused on something past Henri’s shoulders, and he straightened, fixed his posture, and went on the attack. Still no control, no focus, but at least he was showing a bit of spirit.
Henri glanced over his shoulder.
Audrick – Lucas’s father and Henri’s eldest son – was there with Tobias, waiting. Henri stepped back and lowered his sword.
Lucas took that as an invitation, and made a final thrust. Henri shifted to the side, and tapped the boy’s hand again with the wooden hilt. Lucas yelped, and pulled up short, but at least he wasn’t whimpering, now that his father was watching.
Henri nodded to his son, who stepped up to join them, Tobias following.
Audrick slapped Lucas on the shoulder as he passed, and grinned at Henri. “A courier just arrived,” he said. “Edouard Lafarge is dead. His Magician with him.”
Henri frowned. “Lorraine’s down to one Magician, then?”
“It seems so. Our man isn’t sure what happened, other than Roland’s taken all. But he didn’t get the Magician alive, it seems.”
“This is our chance to move on Roucy,” Tobias said, quietly.
Henri nodded. The growing population of their city, and diminishing resources had pushed his father-in-law into a long plan to take that city. Years ago, he’d tried and failed to have Tobias born there. Then, he’d insisted Henri and Therese try again with their second son. That time, they’d been successful, and Nicolas could take that throne, if they successfully wiped out the Delisle heirs.
“Lorraine will still protest – maybe even come to their defense,” Audrick said.
Tobias shook his head. “Not if he’s down to one. Roland’s cautious. He’ll keep the Magician close – and I doubt he’d risk coming himself. Not for Roucy.”
Henri smiled grimly. “But – when we’ve taken Roucy – we could lure him out – set a trap for his Magician. With Roland dead, the Magician would be ours free and clear. He doesn’t have an heir yet.” Henri glanced down, meeting Lucas’s wide eyes. He ruffled the boy’s hair. “What do you think, princeling? Fancy inheriting an empire? Maybe we’ll even have a Magician or two for your court, by then.”
His grandson straightened and grinned.