In the garret room study that had once been his father’s, Gerin studied the ebony length of the Staff of Naragenth. The staff rested upon a long table, the silver ferrules shining in the light of the magefire lamps. The shaft was so black it was in some ways difficult to see. It reflected no light and blended into the very shadows it cast. In some ways the shaft was more of an absence of a thing than a thing unto itself. Though Gerin could undeniably hold it, the length of the staff was not formed from a physical material — it was made of magic itself, somehow forced through the genius of Naragenth to take and hold a physical shape.
He peered at the staff intently, and did not like what he saw.
There were secrets hidden within it, tucked carefully away by Naragenth. The secret of how it was created, and how the long-dead wizard, against all understanding, imbued the staff with a mind, a presence that served as a facilitator to control the energy flowing through it, fashioning raw magic into spells.
But the mind was crippled somehow, unable to truly communicate, to reveal what it was or how it had come to be. It spoke to Gerin in images that caused him great physical pain, and which were often difficult or impossible to decipher. In some manner the Presence, as Gerin had come to call the staff’s consciousness, was able to read his thoughts, to glean his intentions and create the corresponding spells to carry out his will. But it could not speak to him, at least with a voice.
Gerin and Hollin had studied it obsessively after the defeat of the Havalqa. The wizard Abaru Mezza had assisted them after his arrival from Hethnost, but so far they had learned little else. Neither of the older wizards knew of any means of imbuing a physical object with life. It was simply not thought to be possible, though now they had irrefutable proof that it could be done.
How did you do this, Naragenth? thought Gerin as he regarded the hazy edge of the staff. Up close, the edge of the shaft was difficult to resolve, as if it had no clear boundary delineating where it ended and the air around it began. It made his eyes hurt to look for too long. Why didn’t you leave any writings about how you made your staff? You were the only one, apparently, who could enter the Varsae Estrikavis. Where are your records?
Is what you did so unspeakable that you dared not keep an account, even in the safest place in Osseria, and possibly the world?
That was Gerin’s growing fear: that Naragenth had used dark magic to create the staff. Something so vile that even the greatest wizard of his day had dared not write down what he’d done.
It was always possible that the reason for the lack of records was paranoia that other wizards would discover and replicate what he had done, and so by keeping the knowledge within his head he could prevent the dilution of his incredible achievement. But for whatever reason, Gerin doubted this. He could not say why. They had not found any records of how the Varsae Estrikavis had been hidden away in another world, either. Abaru argued this implied that the first amber wizard merely had been overly cautious, rather than shamed by what he had done.
Gerin disagreed. He felt the hiding of the library also involved dark magic, perhaps similar to that which create the staff. He knew he had no proof, and some of what little they did know did not support his point of view. When he’d called Naragenth from the grave to discover the location of the Varsae Estrikavis, the first amber wizard had claimed proudly that the “Chamber of the Moon was a great secret, and one of my greatest creations.” It was not exactly the pronouncement of a guilty man, yet neither was it in any way conclusive proof that Naragenth had not employed dark or forbidden magic to accomplish his task. He could be proud of what he had done while at the same time feeling ashamed of how he had done it. After all, Gerin felt much the same regarding his summoning of Naragenth. His calling of the spirit of the dead wizard-king had led to the discovery of the Chamber of the Moon, though it had taken some time for all of the pieces to fall into place.
Yet he also felt shame and embarrassment that he had stolen forbidden magic from the wizards who trusted him. That he was under a powerful Compulsion from a Neddari kamichi did little to ameliorate his humiliation. He should have been stronger.
And though he had discovered the Varsae Estrikavis, hundreds had died because of the imbalance he’d created between the worlds of the living and the dead. He could not help but feel responsible for that, and there were times the guilt was a crushing, paralyzing weight.
Reshel died to close that door. She sacrificed herself to give me the power I needed to force Asankaru back through the door of death. He had often asked himself if he would have had the courage, the selflessness, to do the same. And when he was brutally honest with himself, he realized he did not know. He hoped he would have done as she had, but he could not say so with absolute certainty. That realization haunted him, made him feel even more guilty, and somehow a lesser man.
Hollin was reluctant to take sides. He too was troubled by the staff, though he could not explain exactly what it was. “Just a feeling that there is something wrong about it,” he said one evening when pressed by Abaru. “I’m troubled whenever I look at it.”
Gerin called out to the staff with his thoughts. Not to invoke a spell, but to see if it would respond when asked a question. Could it show him anything? It’s only form of communication was visual, images it somehow planted in Gerin’s mind. Maybe if he could formulate his questions in a way that would not require words to respond, he would have better luck.
Where were you created? Can you show me?
The staff was silent. He repeated his questions. He knew from prior experience that the Presence could take time to respond.
Nothing happened. He rubbed his eyes and slumped in his chair. So far the Presence had only responded when he wanted to use the staff to wield magic.
He stood and looked out one of the dormer windows to clear his mind. Yurente Praithas, the manservant who had served three Atreyano kings, entered and asked if there was anything he needed. Gerin shook his head.
“Your Majesty, if I may be so bold, do you have plans to make this room your own?” asked Yurente. “It is unchanged from when it was your father’s. The former king, may Telros bless his spirit, moved quickly to leave his mark here after King Bessel’s death.”
“I know, Yurente. But for now Ill leave it as it is. I don’t object to anything here, and find my father’s things…comforting.”
“Ah, yes,” said the servant, though it was clear from the puzzled look on his face that he did not understand at all.
After Yurente left, Gerin glanced around the room at his father’s rugs, paintings, furniture, books. Keeping them as his father left them made Gerin feel as if Abran were somehow close by, drawn by the familiarity of the surroundings he’d known in life. To change these surroundings would be to lose that sense of connection with his father. He knew he was being superstitious and perhaps a little ridiculous, but he could not help it. He did not know why he wanted to keep a connection with his father, who had all but disowned Gerin during the last few months of his life. Their relationship had strained to the breaking point, and Gerin had seen no way for them to reconcile.
Toward the end, he had hated his father.
And that, in part, was probably why he felt a need, now that his father was gone, to keep some kind of connection with him, with his memory. To salvage in death what could not be done in life.
He thought about his family. His mother and father both dead, well before their time. Old age had not taken them in their gray years. Both had been struck down far too soon.
And Reshel. Gods above me, I miss her as much as ever. He wondered if the ache of her death would ever go away. Would the pain of her loss be as keen a century from now?
Maybe that’s my punishment for allowing her to die. That the pain will never dull, never lessen. Perhaps it’s true that some wounds never heal.
He realized with a shiver that half of his family was dead. He, Therain, and Claressa were all that remained. Therain had come close to death after his left hand had been severed in an attack by quatans, vile creatures brought to Osseria by the Havalqa. The attack had been an attempt to capture Gerin so the Havalqa could take the Words of Making from him. So in that respect, he was also responsible for his brother’s crippling, albeit indirectly.
I’m thinking the way my father did before he died, he chided himself. Blaming me for everything, and holding no one else accountable for their decisions. I didn’t bring the Havalqa here. I didn’t start a war with them. I didn’t ask the Neddari to invade us. They made those decisions. It wasn’t right for my father to blame me, and it’s not right that I blame myself. Not for everything, at least. The gods know there’s enough I am responsible for. Still, it was one thing to state he was not to blame, and something quite different to believe it.
He wondered about his mother, father, and Reshel. What hopes and dreams did they have for their futures that never came to pass? What had his mother wanted for herself and her children? Gerin knew of Reshel’s secret hope that she might wed Balandrick, the captain of Gerin’s personal guard and his closest friend, but what else had she wanted for herself?
All of those dreams were now lost forever. It saddened him immensely to think of what would never be. That Reshel, especially, had died so young, with so much of her life unlived.
He shook his head. He needed to break this melancholy mood. It had taken him far too often lately. He did not want it to become a familiar occurrence. They’ll make names for me like the Brooding King, or the King with the Furrowed Brow.
He took the staff and set out to find the wizards. They would help him break his gloomy disposition. Abaru, especially, could usually make him laugh. At the very least he would watch the two wizards trade barbs and good-natured insults like an old married couple.
He found them in the dining room next to the work chamber where he and Hollin continued his studies. Since his arrival, Abaru had attended Gerin’s lessons with surprising infrequency, and when he was present he mostly observed or sat off in a corner reading some book or scroll recovered from the Varsae Estrikavis. Hollin, for the most part, acted as if he were not present. After one such session, Gerin had asked Abaru about his reluctance to participate.
“There’s an unwritten rule about wizards and their apprentices,” the big man said in an unusually serious tone. “Another wizard does not meddle with the teachings of another. There were times before the founding of Hethnost when wizards would duel, sometimes to the death, over the right to teach the brightest or most powerful apprentices. Some would try to lure apprentices from their masters with gold or silver, or the promise of beautiful women for their pleasure.
“Venegreh wanted nothing to do with such practices. The positions of Wardens were created by him so that teaching could be done without interference while still drawing on the combined knowledge of everyone living at Hethnost, as well as what was contained in the Varsae Sandrova. I come sometimes to listen to Hollin teach you — he’s one of the best, which is why he was elevated to Warden of Apprentices in the first place — but I’ll never offer advice or make comments unless asked.”
The old wizards were laughing when he entered. Two empty bottles of wine were on the table, and they were well on their way toward finishing a third.
“Shhh, your young apprentice-king is here,” said Abaru, whispering loudly in Hollin’s ear. “Or is he a king-apprentice? Is there a proper order for that kind of thing?”
“I have no idea,” said Hollin. “But there’s no need to be quiet. Gerin already knows all about you.”
Abaru looked indignant. “You’ve been telling him lies about me!”
“I’ve told him nothing, but the fellow does have two eyes and functioning ears,” said Hollin, carrying on as if Gerin was not in the room. Hollin looked at the young king. “Your ears are working, right?”
“The last I checked.” Gerin joined them at the table and poured himself a large glass of wine.
“See? There you have it. He’s a smart man. Very observant. You can’t hide the fact that you’re a troublemaker. A lay-about. A bit of a glutton and heavy drinker as well. Someone who tells unfunny jokes — ”
“My jokes are always funny! And the stories I could tell about you would…would…”
“Would bore most anyone half to death.” Hollin shook his head sadly. “I have lived a long but rather dull life. Whereas you, my friend, have had all sorts of adventures. Or, well, misadventures. Accidents, perhaps, might be the best description.”
“My adventures were always exciting, full of derring-do and death-defying escapes! Someone should write a book about me.”
Gerin felt himself relaxing as he watched the two old friends have at one another. This is exactly what I needed, he thought as he took another sip of wine.
“There was that time you got so lost in Moriteri you couldn’t find your inn and ended up sleeping in a stable,” said Hollin. “Though I don’t recall much derring-do.”
“I didn’t get lost, you slanderous old goat. I was far from my inn, so it seemed more prudent to sleep in the hay with a few horses than to walk halfway across the city in the dead of night.” He tapped his temple and winked at Gerin.
“That’s not the story I heard. I was told you were wandering around pounding on doors, shouting for directions back to your inn, and that you made so much noise you had to hide in the stables to keep from being arrested. Then you passed out from being drunk.”
“That’s outrageous!” he said to Gerin. “Don’t believe a word of it.” He turned to Hollin and said, “Who told you that malicious lie?”
“You did. We were drinking and you decided to tell me the real story about what happened, not the version you told to everyone else. You swore me to silence because if Delarra ever found out she’d make you wish you had been arrested.”
“Then I was being prudent.”
“Do you two ever have normal conversations with each other?” asked Gerin.
“We’ve known each other for close to two hundred years,” said Abaru. “We’ve had our fill of normal conversations, which are greatly overrated to begin with. These are much more entertaining.”
* * *
After the two wizards left, Gerin wandered to the balcony overlooking one of the palace’s courtyards and sat down on the cushioned chair.
He wanted to be alone with his thoughts. He’d had little of that since becoming king after the death of his father. It was so much harder than he’d thought it would be. Some of that was due to the circumstances of his father’s death. The mysterious Vanil had appeared from nowhere, killed Abran, and knelt before Gerin. They had not known what the creature was until Abaru Mezza had arrived from Hethnost with news that an amulet thousands of years old had recently begun to shine. After an exhaustive search, the wizards had discovered that the amulet was a warning device designed to awaken when a Vanil walked Osseria once more.
The Vanil were creatures who disappeared from the world well over fourteen thousand years ago, before the Atalari had migrated to northern Osseria from their homelands in the West. Little was known about them, though the Atalari were able to deduce that the Vanil had the power to consume souls.
Gerin had no trouble believing that. When the Vanil had touched and killed his father, Gerin felt the king’s spirit being ripped from his body. It had not gone to the Mansions of Velyol, where his ancestors dwelled with Khedesh and the mighty Raimen — his father had been denied the afterlife by that monstrous thing.
Then it disappeared, and had not been seen since.
Arilek Levkorail, the Lord Commander and Governor-General of the Taeratens of the Naege, had been grievously wounded by the creature. He had since made almost a complete recovery, though he walked with a limp and could not raise his left arm above his shoulder. Hollin had tended to him quickly; without the wizard’s healing powers, the lord commander would almost certainly have died.
Unfortunately, his father’s Minister of the Realm, Jaros Waklan, had been so horrified by the sight of the creature kneeling before Gerin that he all but accused Gerin of controlling it and commanding the murder his father. He resigned his position before Gerin’s coronation and retired to his home in Arghest. Gerin had done his best to convince Waklan that he had no hand in his father’s death, but the old man could not shake the image of the kneeling Vanil from his mind. Gerin had visited him one final time after Abaru had arrived and they’d learned this was a creature that had been gone from the world for tens of thousands of years, hoping that fact would thaw the old man’s animosity toward him.
“If that is true, the question remains, why did it acknowledge you by kneeling?” Waklan did not address Gerin as “Your Majesty” and regarded him with a mingled expression of suspicion and hostility.
“We don’t know, “ said Hollin. “We’re still trying to understand that.”
“Then I pray you will let me know what you discover.” His tone made it clear there was nothing more to say.
Gerin learned that the former minister had been in contact with his Aunt Omara, the wife of Abran’s younger brother Nellemar. Omara had no love for Gerin or his magic. She considered wizards to be almost a subspecies of human, and was mortally offended that a wizard now sat upon the Sapphire Throne of Khedesh. That the highly regarded former minister was speaking with her behind closed doors did not sit well with him, yet there was nothing he could do.
His coronation had been a contentious affair. On top of the usual supplications by the nobles airing the many injustices they had to endure that only the crown — and its coin — could remedy, there had been whispered accusations of patricide and regicide, that he had come to the throne through the spilled blood of his father.
The evening before his coronation, Baron Eolain Gremheld had the audacity to say, quite loudly when Gerin was within earshot, “It’s been nigh on three hundred years since a king has risen to the crown in such a fashion. It will be interesting to see if history repeats itself.”
The baron could only have been referring to Jollen Olmethrel, the last of his line, who had murdered his father, mother, twin brother, and two younger sisters during the infamous “Night of Blood.” His two year reign of terror was called the Long Night — thousands had been put to death by Jollen’s sadistic Wolf Guards before Mad Marya, Jollen’s mother, plunged a knife into his eye. After killing her son, Marya had thrown herself from a balcony into the frigid, winter waters of the Cleave. There had been rumors for some time that spoke of mother and son as lovers, but nothing had been proved until her written confession had been discovered after her death.
The comment by Baron Gremheld was shocking; even more shocking was the laughter his atrocious accusation had caused. He glanced at Gerin and stared at him unflinchingly while he sipped his wine, as if daring the young king-to-be to challenge him.
Gerin wanted to bellow in the baron’s face that he’d had nothing to do with his father’s murder, but he could never do such a thing. It would only make him seem weak, even guiltier than he already appeared. So he smiled at the baron, took a sip of his own wine, and turned away. He hoped he looked calmer than he felt.
There was nothing he could do to stop the rumors and whispers. Confronting the baron, or even arresting him for treasonous words, would do no good. Others would say Gerin was acting out of guilt. He had to let these egregious remarks pass without comment or rejoinder.
Even if they discovered exactly why the Vanil had appeared and knelt to him, there would forever be a group who would not believe. To them, Gerin would always be a father-killer and king-slayer.
He tried not to let such things weigh upon him, but at times it was a terrible thing to bear.
But bear it he would. He was doing all he could to discover what had happened with the Vanil and why, but in the meantime he would not cower or hide. He was king now, and he needed to act like one. He would not let petty comments and whispered insults affect him, and he certainly would not acknowledge them.
Lonely is the head that wears the crown. It was an old saying, older than the kingdom itself, but it was more true than he would ever have guessed. He’d felt lonely and isolated at times as the crown prince, but his father had always been there, above him in both station and power, the ultimate authority to whom he could turn when he needed, at least before their relationship had broken after Reshel’s death.
But now he was that ultimate authority. He had his ministers and counselors, judges and nobles to whom he could turn, but all they could give him was advice — only he could make the decisions a king needed to make. And he had to be careful to whom he turned for advice, and how often, because if he leaned on any one person or group too much he would be seen as a weak boy-king, or worse, a puppet of others.
His training with Hollin only complicated matters. He would not give up learning more about magic, but his lessons and training had become even more discrete. He and Hollin labored in secret to defuse any accusations that he was being unduly influenced by the foreign sovereign power of Hethnost.
He sighed as he watched the sun set. Lonely is the head indeed, he thought.
* * *
“The Lady Elaysen to see you, Your Majesty,” said the guard at the door.
Gerin had dozed off on the balcony. He stirred awake and rubbed his eyes. Twilight was settling over the city, the shadows stretching long and thin.
He stood and shook his head to clear the drowsiness away. “Give me a few moments, then show her in. And have some food brought. I’m famished.”
Gerin gathered his thoughts as he splashed water on his face from a ceramic bowl perched on a pedestal sunken into a wall niche. He wiped his face on a cloth, took a breath, and faced the door.
“Hello, Your Majesty,” said Elaysen as she crossed the room. She stopped a few paces from him, her hands folded in front of her. She wore a simple emerald dress trimmed in gold.
“Hello, Elaysen. I wasn’t expecting you. I hope you and your father are well. Please, sit.”
“We are, Your Majesty. Though he wonders at your silence. As do I.”
Gerin was quiet for a moment as he considered how best to respond. His relationship with the Prophet of the One God was even more delicate than his training with Hollin. He had not seen Aunphar in weeks. Most of the nobles considered the religion of the One God to be little more than a ploy for power from an apostate priest of the Temple of Telros. They tolerated it because of its wild popularity with the common folk, and because the Prophet and his followers had so far offered no challenge to the king, nobility, or priests. Aunphar’s teachings did not repudiate the gods of Khedesh. Dalar-aelom, as the nascent religion was called, taught that there was One God above all others, the true Maker of the world and the gods and men who dwelled within it. Those who followed it were taught, among other things, to be vigilant for signs of the Adversary, the eternal opponent of the One God who was entering the confines of the mortal realm. Telros and the rest of the Khedeshian pantheon could be worshipped by followers of dalar-aelom as had always been done — the two were not mutually exclusive.
Gerin and Aunphar had both been visited by the divine messenger Zaephos, a servant of the One God, who had set the Prophet on his path of creating a new religion. Zaephos had warned Gerin that a Prophet may not understand everything he is shown, and later appeared to remind him to visit the Prophet when Gerin was in Almaris for his sister Claressa’s wedding.
“My time is not what it was, Elaysen,” he said. “My duties as king consume nearly every waking moment.”
“Yet you still study with Hollin, do you not?” She spoke evenly, but he could hear the hint of reproach in her voice nonetheless.
“Of course I do. I need to learn much more as a wizard if I am to reach my potential. Yet even that has suffered since I became king.”
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I do not mean to scold you. But you have a great destiny with the One God.”
He bristled at the idea that he had a destiny proclaimed by a god — any god. “Zaephos gave me no commands like those he gave to your father. He did not ask me to create a religion, or help your father with his. I have learned much of dalar-aelom and practice it in my own way.”
“Yet you keep your involvement secret, Your Majesty. Were you to declare openly that you follow my father’s faith —”
He held up his hand. “I would more than likely spark an open revolt among the nobles and priests already uneasy with the ill-omened start to my reign. They’ve known of my wizardry for some time. Even those who despise me for it can do nothing since I routed the Havalqa army and broke their sea blockade with my powers.
“But if I said I am also a follower of this new religion they see as little more than a passing fancy to amuse and distract commoners — and I mean no insult by that, but it is what many of the nobles believe — they would think me mad. My rule is tenuous and tumultuous enough as it is, Elaysen. I cannot jeopardize it further.”
“I do understand, Your Majesty. The nobles would not approve. But you would have the support of the commoners, who already adore you for driving off the Havalqa. Do you think the nobles would dare to move against you?”
“Perhaps not openly, but there are many things they could do to thwart my will and make my rule more difficult than it already is.”
They lapsed into an awkward silence. Elaysen herself complicated his life in innumerable ways. He had feelings for her, strong ones, and he knew she had them for him. But they both knew that his abrupt ascension to the throne destroyed any chance they had of being together. There had never been much of a chance to begin with; Gerin’s father certainly would have never sanctioned it. But before King Abran’s death, before his life had been cemented into such an inflexible role, there had been at least a glimmer of hope.
That hope was now gone. He needed to solidify his position with the nobility any way he could, and that meant a marriage to the daughter of a strategically helpful house. Therain had already married Laysa Oldann, an arrangement their father had been working on before his death, and which Gerin was quick to consummate soon after his own coronation.
Which posed the question of when he would be married, and to whom. He did not yet know; all he knew for certain is that it would not be Elaysen.
“Aidrel Entraly has been cast out from my father’s Inner Circle,” she announced. “He believes my father is weak and has lost his way, and that we should convert followers forcefully rather than persuading them of the rightness of our ways.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I know your father feared the day when his religion would splinter. It seems it’s come even sooner than he thought.”
“It was my father’s hope that if you declared you are a follower of dalar-aelom, it would do much to diffuse Aidrel’s influence with the people. His violent teachings have unfortunately taken hold with many — he already has a substantial following of his own, as well as warriors he calls Helion Spears.”
“Why doesn’t your father denounce him as a heretic?”
“He has already done so, and excommunicated him from the practice of dalar-aelom. But Aidrel’s bodyguards keep him well protected, and my father fears if he were to execute him for his heresies he would make a martyr of him, a symbol for his misguided followers to rally around. He would prefer to discredit Aidrel and lure his followers back to the fold. My father had hoped you would help with this.”
“I’m sorry, Elaysen, but I cannot. At least not in the way you mean. If Aidrel or his followers break any of the kingdom’s law, the repercussions will be swift and severe. That I can promise you. But no more.”
She nodded, a look of deep sadness on her face. She stood, but would not look at him. “I will not trouble you further, Your Majesty. Should you decide to resume your teachings, you know where to find me.”
“Elaysen, please. Regardless of what you believe, I am still a follower of dalar-aelom. I have long disliked the idea of being a tool of a god, but I am certain enough of the rise of the Adversary that I will do what I must to fight him. My ways may not please you or your father, but for now it is all I can do.”