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Authors: Benjamin Clayborne

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The Queen of Mages

BOOK: The Queen of Mages
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THE QUEEN OF MAGES
MINDFIRE
Book 1
by Benjamin Clayborne

Copyright 2012 by Benjamin Clayborne

Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2012 by Benjamin Clayborne

All rights reserved.

Distributed by Foyle Press

Find the author online:

http://benjaminclayborne.com

Twitter:
@BenClayborne

Cover art © 2012 by Melissa Erickson

http://kreugan.com/

c:r20140203:rc1

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

To begin with, I’d like to thank Dave
Robison, for some good early feedback and a very well-timed death
threat.

To all the Mythic Scribes, a cacophony of
ideas, each more inspiring than the last, with special thanks to
(in no particular order, and including but not limited to) Antonio
del Drago, Brian DeLeonard, Phil Overby, John Haley, Chris Spatz,
Tristan Gregory, Anita Howitt, Garrett Butler, Sam Slappey, Michael
J. Sullivan, Kyle Hannan, R. Scott Kimsey, and Derek Bowen, for
knowing absolutely everything about everything.

To Lois McMaster Bujold, for sparking my
inspiration.

To my parents, for getting me through
college without a cent of student debt.

To my children, for being a mirror.

And last but never least, to my wife, Jean,
without whom none of this would be meaningful.

PROLOGUE

On the day of his murder, Lord Keller
Skarline first attended a most eventful session of the Greater
Council.

Duke Terilin Faroa stood and hunched forward
over the council table. “My lords. Your majesty.” He nodded deeply
at the king, who watched him with tired blue eyes. “Allow me to
present a most disturbing report. A courier arrived this morning,
bearing news that the Vaslanders mobilize on the other side of Cold
Hills Pass. Their warriors come south from the hinterlands to join
a growing army. It is clear that they mean to come across the
mountains and strike again into Garova.”

Keller Skarline watched from a seat along
the wall of the council chamber as the dukes of the council
muttered and cast dark looks at one another. They ignored Keller;
he was but one of many observers, unremarkable.

Duke Faroa, ever the showman, dramatically
held up a chubby finger. “Let us not forget the lesson of two
decades past. Vaslanders are a bloodthirsty, ruthless people. They
will burn and pillage as they go, as they did when we were young
men. The royal army must be sent north at once to meet this threat
and throw the savages back into the cold where they belong.”

A chorus of
Hear, hear
met his
pronouncement. But Duke Loram Arkhail would never let Faroa have
the last word, and Keller had his eye on Arkhail even before the
younger duke stood to speak.

“You would break twenty years of peace and
prosperity by wasting resources on a folly,” Loram Arkhail said
calmly, stroking his pointed beard. “The Vaslander tribes have no
strong leader to unite them now, as they had old Gerhard during the
war. And our fortresses in the mountain passes are doubly strong,
compared to,
ahem
, two decades past.”

Terilin Faroa scoffed. “Are you suggesting
we wait? I assure you, the Vaslanders will not hesitate. Strong as
our fortresses may be, they can be overrun. A full assault on our
part is imperative.”

“An assault?” Loram smiled. “You would
compound your folly by trying to send our men
across
the
Black Mountains?” The high passes were difficult to negotiate even
when not blocked at either end by fortresses: Vaslander at the
north, Garovan at the south. Undisciplined savages the Vaslanders
might be, but Garovan armies had broken themselves on those
bulwarks before. Keller had even seen them with his own eyes, once.
Faroa
was
a fool if he was suggesting an invasion.

The king broke in. “If I wanted endless
debate, I would bring a Steward in here.” Everyone laughed
politely, even Duke Faroa. “I will look at the reports myself.”

Terilin Faroa nodded and sat down abruptly,
glaring at Loram Arkhail while the council moved on to other
business. Keller watched Duke Faroa for a while. The man was an
inveterate schemer, always transparently jockeying for position and
favor. He thought he was clever, but didn’t seem to realize that
the king found him tedious.

The meeting ground slowly to its end, and
the king departed posthaste, vanishing through the rear doors,
escorted by his retinue of bodyguards and servants. Keller stood
up, stretched, and took a moment to examine which dukes and counts
and other lords clustered together in gossiping little groups. He
saw only the usual patterns, and so sauntered out, his cloak
swishing around his boots.

His
valo,
Rory, lurked outside in the
antechamber, along with two dozen others.
Valai
were not
permitted into the Greater Council meetings, to avoid doubling the
number of people in the already crowded council chamber. “M’lord,”
Rory muttered to Keller, falling in beside him.

“War is perhaps delayed for the moment,”
Keller said as they walked.

“Prince Edon will not be pleased.” Rory’s
eyes darted around, watching for eavesdroppers.

“When is Edon ever pleased? I need you to go
to the Citadel and check with Sir Edvan about an army courier.
Faroa claims to have reports showing Vaslanders massing at the
border.”

Rory nodded. “Will you be safe alone?”

“No one is ever safe,” Keller murmured as
they came to a cross-corridor. Banners hung at each corner, all
depicting the sigil of the royal house, the silver eagle with
flaming talons on a checked field of purple and blue. The eagle’s
watchful eye stared out at them.

Keller watched Rory move off down the
corridor. He was loyal, and obedient, and best of all, he kept
Keller’s secrets close. He was as good a
valo
as Keller
could want.

It was not far to the king’s chambers, not
the way Keller went. The servants’ ways within the royal palace
Elibarran were well-lit, narrow passages that connected all the
newer parts of the palace. He would not be seen by other nobles as
he moved about, but the servants who infested the ways could not be
avoided. They ducked their heads and muttered “M’lord” as they
passed. No doubt some of them reported to the likes of Faroa and
Arkhail. Keller often wondered how many of his own spies whispered
into more than one ear.

He came out a narrow door in the corner of a
wide hallway, near the king’s study. The guards recognized him and
let him pass. Inside he found his majesty, King Viktor of Garova,
standing over a map of the northern border, sipping a glass of
wine.

His chief bodyguard, Sir Mirlind, lurked in
the corner, still as a statue. The man had absolutely no patience
for intrigues. Keller did not waste effort trying to deceive or
subvert him.

“Your majesty,” Keller said, bowing low.

“Mm,” the king said, not looking up.

Keller cleared his throat. “Your majesty
will be unsurprised to learn that I agree with Duke Arkhail. I have
heard nothing of an impending Vaslander invasion. I am looking into
whether Duke Faroa’s report is accurate. It would be unkind to
accuse him of fabricating the story, though it cannot be
discounted.”

King Viktor drained his wineglass and poured
some more. “If the treasury had a copper for every time someone
swore the Vaslanders were going to invade again, we could simply
buy Vasland outright.” He laughed, but Keller heard a note of
despair in it.

“Do you believe there’s cause for concern,
sire? The realm is strong, our treasury healthy, our people
prosperous. Twenty years of peace have been good to us. Even the
Vaslanders cannot be so foolish as to think they can successfully
invade unimpeded. Especially not when we have advance warning, and
more defenses in place.”

The king wandered over to the window and
peered down into the gardens. “The Vaslanders do not bother me. I
crushed them before, and I’ll do it again if they ever present a
real threat.” He swirled the wine around, some golden vintage, and
eyed Keller. “But the northern dukes all seem convinced that
Vasland is about to boil over the mountains again. They’ll continue
to agitate for war if I do not make a gesture to appease them.”

“Agreed, sire,” Keller said.

“So. I’ll have the Army Council send a
regiment to each pass. Have them do exercises, make a show of
strength. That should mute Faroa, and not break the treasury.”

“A wise plan, sire—”

The door flew open with a
crack
, and
Keller spun around at once, hand going to his dagger. Sir Mirlind
tensed and reached for his sword. But then Keller saw the
interloper, and he bowed again. “Your royal highness.”

Prince Edon, heir apparent to the throne of
Garova, strode into the room. “Skarline.” It was his usual
greeting: blunt hostility laid bare. Prince Edon was tall, broad,
muscular, with icy blue eyes and curly chestnut hair that made him
look the young image of his father.

King Viktor stared coldly at his son. “Have
you no courtesy, boy? We are engaged in a discussion.”

Edon stopped near Keller and glared down at
him. “Trying to keep my father on the path of peace, coward?”

Keller ignored the provocation, and forced a
smile. “Merely keeping his majesty informed, your highness.”

Edon turned to face his father. “I heard of
the discussion in council. Vasland intends to invade us! Why do we
not march at once?”

“Running headlong into every situation with
swords drawn is unwise,” King Viktor chided. “I would hope you’d
have learned that by now. We have only reports that some Vaslanders
may be gathering, and that from unreliable sources.”

The prince glared down at Keller. “See how
you’ve turned my father into a coward, too, little lord. Perhaps
you hired a woods witch to cast a spell and wither his
manhood?”

“Idiot!” Viktor threw his wineglass down,
shattering it on the wooden floor. Keller flinched, shielding his
eyes.

The king stalked over to his son,
overtopping him by an inch, and stabbed a finger into the boy’s
chest. It made a clinking sound.
Is the prince wearing mail
under his shirt?
“If you ever managed to attend a council
meeting, you might learn that there is more to ruling a kingdom
than warfare.”

Edon shrank back a bit under this assault,
but the fire in his eyes was undiminished. “It is a king’s duty to
protect his kingdom! It is plain as day that the Vaslanders are up
to no good. Send me at the head of your army, and I will prove
it.”

“I am dispatching regiments to let the
Vaslanders see our strength. Your assistance,” he hissed, “is not
needed.” He went back to the window.

“Father, I—”

“GET OUT!” Viktor roared. Keller did not
think that the king desired any further advice this day, and
briskly followed Edon out the door.

Outside, the prince stormed away. His own
personal bodyguard, Sir Thoriss, cast a cold glance at Keller, then
fell in behind the prince.

Keller sighed. The position of spymaster was
tough and unrewarding. By tradition the spymaster was not a duke of
the Greater Council; dukes all had far too much to do. Keller was
the third son of a count, with little chance of inheriting his
father’s countship. However, he had shown adroitness at gathering
information and seeing hidden patterns. He had impressed King
Viktor a few years prior when he’d brought news of a conspiracy
among several dukes to murder another of their number—Loram
Arkhail, in fact. Duke Terilin Faroa had been among the
conspirators.

Viktor had wanted all their heads, but
Keller had convinced the king to let him undermine the conspiracy
more quietly, in the name of stability. When Duke Arkhail suddenly
decamped for his seat at Thorncross, and the leader of the
conspiracy died in a fall from a horse, the other dukes lost their
nerve and the plot was undone. Keller had told each of them that
the king knew of their treason, but had magnanimously chosen not to
take their heads, as long as they behaved themselves. It would
benefit the realm not at all to lose several dukes at once.

As a reward, Viktor had made Keller his new
spymaster… after the previous one was dismissed for failing to
detect the plot.

Keller had to speak with many people each
day to gather all the intelligence he needed, and he had no time to
spend dawdling in the halls. He walked briskly along, passing into
one of the palace’s old stone fortifications. Viktor’s
great-great-grandfather had expanded the palace, adding modern
wooden sections between the ancient mortared towers. The castle had
become a proper palace, no longer just a vast fortress, but now a
structure that truly represented the power and glory of Garovan
kings.

But the stone towers remained cold, drafty
places. Someone had hung huge tapestries on all the walls here,
trying and failing to hide the bones of the fortress.
As well
paint flowers on the hide of a bear.
He wondered if Rory had
found Sir Edvan yet. There was no particular reason to fear for his
safety here, but it did not hurt to be cautious.

Keller found his way to the palace guards’
command, near the practice yard. He met with the captain of the
palace guards, Portio, a man he liked. Portio had been a dashing
swordsman in his youth, but middle age had thickened his belly and
stolen most of his hair. He was firmly in Edon’s grasp, or so Edon
thought. Keller paid the man handsomely for information on Edon’s
doings.

“The prince, he is acting suspicious today,”
Portio said, watching several of his men spar in the yard. Portio
was from Parilia, a nation off to the northwest of Garova.
Friendly, but wary. “Wearing armor in the palace, as you said.
Being even more of a grumpy man than usual. I do not like it.”

Keller snorted. “He accused me of hiring a
witch to put a curse on his father. That boy gets strange ideas.
Has he asked anything of you today?”

Portio shrugged. “Just one thing. To keep my
men off the east ramparts, over the square.”

The ramparts? Was Edon meeting secretly with
someone? This was quite suspicious. Edon was blunt as a hammer.
What intrigue could he be getting up to? “Anything else?”

“My men’s reports, they are always the same.
The prince rides and hunts in the forest. Practices in the yard.
Has whores in his chambers. Two or three at a time, I hear.” He
sniggered. “Never will there be a man more disappointed by
marriage.”

Keller felt sorry for any woman unfortunate
enough to marry Edon. He thanked Portio, slipping him a small
purse, and strode away.

He felt as if half his efforts were keeping
tabs on Prince Edon, not for the prince’s own sake, but to protect
the royal house. Even the king had hinted a time or two that Keller
should focus less on affairs of state and more on keeping Edon from
ruining the royal family.

It twisted Keller’s stomach to think that
one day, some disaster might befall the royal house of Relindos.
Aside from Edon—and, well, Viktor, who was strong and wise but had
such a temper—Keller was fond of them all. Queen Alise was
nicknamed the Queen of Hearts by the people, for her kindness and
gentleness. Princess Taya spent so much time arranging
entertainments and frolics for the palace’s guests that the
mistress of rooms often joked that she should retire and let Taya
run things. Karina, the younger princess, acted as her older
sister’s messenger, flitting about the palace and ensuring that
everything was properly arranged for whatever game or masque Taya
had planned. Karina was sweet as honey, but there was no harsher
taskmaster in all the palace. With the royal summer ball fast
approaching, the girl would be sterner than ever.

BOOK: The Queen of Mages
5.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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