This originally started out as a dream, just a small - but very interesting - tidbit that I dutifully recorded in my journal like I do for all my dreams. Now that I'm back from vacation I'm looking for some easy and fun writing to get back into the swing of things, so I'm turning to my dreams for ideas. This could have been a short story, but I'm finding I enjoy writing the main character and will be making it as long as it turns out to be. The gist of the plot is verbatim from my dream. Everything else is fluff I'm making up on the fly.
The ambassador was uneasy and I was in no mood to give him any comfort. I could be diplomatic, but it wore on me and I knew that my power meant that I could be above politics if I so chose it. I had no station, no standing in the various kingdoms of my world, and even my long-abandoned birthplace meant little to me and those whom I had dealings with. I was archmage, I would outlive all the kings and their heirs, and had made it clear that I acted according to my own beliefs and desires alone. Still, they sent ambassadors to sway me, and sometimes I listened.
It was fairly easy for them to contact me, as I did not seek solitude as some of the stronger mages did. I found no need to isolate myself to further my studies and I did not feel pressured to hide away my power so as not to intimidate the mundane folk. They thought me arrogant, especially for a woman, and I had to admit they were correct in this – but as far as faults went, arrogance was a small thing. There were worse flaws to have. I was currently in residence at the summer palace of King Drair of the Western Mountains, built in the lowlands where the spring was a constant procession of rain and the summers were hot and humid as a result. It was a terrible place for a summer palace and the winter one was no better – up in the mountains where the snow cut it off from civilization for most of the season. Drair had once confided to me that he believed it was done out of spite by one of his ancestors, cursing his heirs with the tradition of enduring terrible weather. The current season, however, was autumn and his Majesty had made no secret that he was relieved my presence gave him a reason to stay at the more agreeable of the two locations. The reports from his borders, however, made the reprieve in weather a trivial thing, easily overshadowed by the news the ambassador had now shared with me.
"I'm loathe to say it," I sighed, turning my back to the map he had laid out across the table, "but I do not see why this should involve me."
"Our border forts will not hold."
As if it were so simple. He spoke with the certainty of a single perspective. To him, the matter was already settled in his mind – there was an army testing the defenses of his kingdom. It was an inhuman army and the archmage, being human, would side with her own people, her own species.
"So you lose territory. In ten, twenty, a hundred years you take it back. You do not have settlements along the border, the only loss of life will be those already sworn to the sword. Let them do their duty and bleed the army enough to make them satisfied with the northern reaches of your lands."
I did not have dealings with the creatures that now invaded. There was a polite truce between us but that was all. I had visited them, once, where they dwelt in the north where the humans were loathe to settle on account of the perpetual cold. They lived underground and were twisted creatures, humanoid in form but their arms were long and they went about on all fours as much as two. They had tails and could not see well in the daylight. Their skin was mottled pink and black and they reminded me of a cross-breed between the hairless cats from the southern lands and especially large rats. My first – and last – visit had seen them attempt to kill me, not knowing what I was. They only saw a human, attired in robes and carrying a staff wound with charms, and did not know the significance of a woman traveling alone in such a manner. My horse died to a crossbow bolt and I unleashed my power against them, tearing half their war-band apart and leaving the rest stunned with blood running from their ears and noses. I broke bread with their king – although that is a poor term to use as I never did discern his exact role in their society – and that settled the uneasy truce between us. They left me alone. I ventured in their lands only when I needed to and while they watched from the shadows, they never approached.
"They're monsters," he protested, "Demons of the north-"
"They bleed!" I cut him off. "I am an archmage, I know monsters and demons. The northerners are mortal."
He took a breath and regained his composure. I watched him narrowly and noted a shift in his demeanor, almost imperceptible, which meant he was going to keep trying but with a different strategy. I sighed audibly. I did not play politics. I did not have a reason to hide my impatience.
"Very well," he said, "I see that you consider this a mundane affair and your stance on such things is well known. Then, perhaps you would at least consider acting as an advisory? We would make treaty with these creatures if we could, rather than wage war."
Now this was a surprise. King Drair was still young and I had not taken his full measure, but I knew at least that he had no desire to be like his father. Apparently he was willing to dare much to accomplish that, for his father had been the one to establish their boundaries with fire and blood. I'd rather liked him. He was was direct in his intention and methods. I hoped that his son would be the same, albeit his tactics were of a different kind.
"A translator, you mean," I corrected, "You have no one that speaks their language."
"No, archmage. You have not taught it to anyone."
If it was a slight, I decided to let it go. There was little use in explaining that my mastery of their language was purely through my magic and such a thing could not be copied onto paper and taught to others. I did not know a single word of their language – I only knew the concepts they spoke of and heard them as my own mind could interpret. The ambassador offered a tempting prospect, as I did want to satisfy my curiosity regarding the northerners, but I did not know how it would affect the unspoken truce I had with them. I did not fear for my safety, rather, I did not want to have the appearance of taking sides. I walked away from the ambassador, putting my back between us so that he could not see the indecision on my face. I did not play politics, I could not hide my emotions so well. Besides arrogance, I was also known for emotional impulsiveness, but I suspected that was less of a character flaw then a result of the company I kept. Rulers were reserved people by necessity – at least, the good ones were. I did not care to associate with bad ones, unless I was inflicting my presence on them simply to remind them that I was, in fact, archmage and no matter how infuriating I could be there was no mage in all the lands that would dare stand against me, not even at the order of their liege. I was the reason any of them even existed.
"I will consider it," I said carefully. Commit to nothing yet. That was always a good strategy to take. "I will be involved in everything from this point forwards – not a single plan will be made without my presence. If I am satisfied with what I see, I will accompany as a translator."
"Of course, archmage." I heard him bow.
It was an easy thing to agree to. I was known for my discretion, although they said this was more out of my arrogance than any sense of virtue. What use did I have for revealing secrets, when I viewed them as trivial as the gossip found in a common marketplace? The truth was a little more mundane than that and while it was not born from arrogance, it certainly couldn't be called a virtue either. I enjoyed being involved. I enjoyed knowing things other people didn't – I enjoyed the power and the influence, and I enjoyed being privy to knowledge that could topple kingdoms. I visited assassins on the eve before their victim died, I sat in on conspiracies, and I spied with impunity on anyone with a title before their name. They said I had a thousand secrets and had forgotten thousands more. The latter was certainly true enough. I wrote nothing down and betrayed nothing, for if my silence was not absolute, people would not be so lax about letting me listen in to anything I cared to.
"I shall inform the King of your decision," the ambassador continued, "Is there anything else we need to discuss?"
"About the northerners, no. But there's a reception in the city tonight – oh, what was it called – The Lily – I want an invitation."
I did not think the proprietor meant to slight me. He probably felt such a gathering – no matter how talked about it had been for the past two weeks – was beneath the archmage.
"Of course," he said stiffly, "You do realize, archmage, that The Lily is a brothel."
"Courtesans," I replied, waving a hand about dismissively, "A very refined brothel that – rumor has it – throws the best parties in the entire lowlands. See to my invitation."
He could not refuse me, no matter how absurd my request was. I was the archmage.
My appearance was always a tricky subject. I wore mage robes most of the time and if I wore pants instead of a dress underneath, few people noticed and fewer cared. Mages lived by their own dress code and that meant robes, although there was a wide range of variation in those. The lowlands favored ankle-length ones with a separate hood that also covered the shoulders and upper chest in a contrasting color. I assumed it was on account of the spring rains. For formal events such as this, however, mages often abandoned the robes in favor of displaying either their own wealth or the wealth of their patron. Being archmage and without a patron, I often relied on the generosity of whichever noble was currying favor by hosting me at the time. King Drair had simplified matters by provisioning both his castles with a wardrobe that was kept ready for my visits. This meant I had a choice in how I dressed and he had even been thoughtful enough to account for my quirks.
This meant that I had mage robes, woman's clothing, and man's clothing to choose from. The long-suffering ambassador stood ready, as I had not yet acknowledged the invitation he held, as I vacillated in front of the wardrobe.
"Should I send for a retainer?" he finally asked.
"No, they'll just pick out a dress."
"Then the archmage does not wish to dress like a woman tonight?"
There was a hint of impatience. I sighed. It really wasn't fair to keep him from his very important duties to the King.
"Just tell me your favorite color," I said.
That narrowed it down somewhat. I finally turned and took the invitation from him.
"Thank you," I said demurely, "I'll not bother you with anything else now."
"His Majesty will be convening his council to discuss how best to approach the northerners tomorrow at midday," he said, all business still.
"I'll be there."
I nodded his dismissal. He paused at the door to say one more thing.
"I've taken the liberty of arranging for an escort," he said. I raised an eyebrow in mild surprise and disapproval at this. I had no need of a bodyguard. He continued. "This is a formal event as I understand and some of the highest ranks of society will be present. It would be useful to be accompanied by a gentleman of standing that can fend off some of the unwanted attention."
Ah. Clever. I nodded my thanks and I was left alone then. It would have to be a dress, if I were to have an accompaniment.
My chosen companion was not anyone I recognized, but this was not unusual. Part of being arrogant meant I saw little value in remembering people unless they were immediately useful to me. I had been known to forget the names of kings and queens on occasion, although I must admit that was more for show than genuine forgetfulness. He introduced himself as Lord Warre. It had the feel of a birth name, but it lacked power and I knew that he must go by something else more commonly then. He was fairly average in appearance but made up for it with an exceptionally well-tailored suit. His sleeves were long at the elbow and cut into a pattern reminiscent of a fluer de lis, the outer layer a pale blue and the inner cream. It matched my dress, though I ruefully reflected that perhaps mint green would have been more appropriate for the spring than early fall. He was extremely well-muscled for a noble, I noted, taking stock of his legs that were clearly outlined by the brown tights and the dark blue leg wraps that covered his calves, buckled just below the knee with soft leather. His hair was cut below the ear and it seemed more functional than for style. His only jewelry was a silver chain that hung wide across his shoulders. I peered at him closely as he took my hand to escort me out to a waiting carriage. I could not resist testing him with my magic, a brief pass that ran across his body as if I had searched him with my hands. He paused a moment before stepping up into the carriage behind me and I wondered if perhaps he had a modicum of magic himself.
"You carry concealed weapons," I said halfway through the streets towards The Lily. It seemed a good way to start a conversation, as so far he'd seemed content with the silence.
"I do," he said. That was all. I frowned in disappointment.
"You're not simply a noble."
"I'm not a noble at all."
I sighed. Taciturn. It was an annoying trait. At least he was honest.
"Assassin then?" I wondered if he had a target tonight and if I was merely an excuse to get him close. The ambassador had said there would be all sorts from the high ranks of society here.
"This is exasperating. We're almost there. I should have started prying sooner – at least tell me if there's going to be bodies and other unpleasantness tonight?"
He said nothing, only turned to regard me with an expression of mock concern.
"I wouldn't dare-"
"If there is," I interrupted, "I want in on it. Not to help, mind you, but I'm not missing out. I won't get in the way. I'll turn into a mouse and sit in your pocket."
"This outfit doesn't have pockets and no one dies tonight."
I was oddly disappointed. The carriage came to an abrupt stop and I found that I had no more time for questions. Warre rose and dismounted, taking my hand and leading me along. My skirt dragged along the ground behind me and I walked with a grace that I had acquired only by wearing robes for all of my rather long adult life. The Lily was a large manor house in the wealthiest part of the city with walls around the property, a garden just inside, and an arched walkway leading up to the house itself. I knew that this part of the city had been demolished and rebuilt years ago, the narrow houses pulled down to make way for these large manors with spacious yards. The rest of the city was like any other – narrow, cramped, and vulnerable to fires. I had put out many of those in my lifetime. I wasn't so arrogant as to sit by and do nothing if the cry went up.
There weren't many people milling about in the garden. A handful of couples getting the last of their attire straight or finishing up any arguments before entering. One of the double doors at the entrance was open, the heavy wood carved with roses. It did not fit the name of the establishment and I wondered if the building pre-dated the business. The proprietor was waiting for us at the entrance and I saw a servant standing off to the side, uneasy, and I knew that the brothel's owner had made a point to greet us in person. I paused on the threshold and waited while he bowed. He introduced himself as Ralle. No title. Warre gave my name first – Archmage Lada – and then his own. I was pleased by this.
"Archmage," Ralle said smoothly. If he was disturbed by my presence, he did not show it. "I must apologize for not extending you an invitation earlier. I had no idea your... interests..."
He was trying to be tactful. I interrupted to save him the unpleasant task of questioning my intentions.
"Oh, I'm only here for the food," I said dismissively, "And the music. I've heard rumors that there's a harp inside that is covered in gold."
"Gilded, tastefully so."
I peered past his shoulder. Lights were hung from the ceiling and I caught a whiff of sorcery from them. This needed further investigation.
"And the décor," I mused, "I don't recall which mages are operating in this city."
I brushed past Ralle, perhaps rudely so, and Warre followed in my wake, making my apologies for me. We were given a wide berth in the room and the conversation faltered. I was not a striking woman – I was of average height; my features avoided both angular and curvacious, sitting somewhere comfortably between the two in a wasteland of mediocre; and my hair was the color of old straw. Worse yet, I kept it cut short and did not bother to style it unless a retainer was bold enough to chase me down. I would be utterly unremarkable if I had not made a habit of wearing my robes often enough that my features were fixed in high society's mind as the archmage. After the assembled society recovered from their shock, a few of the bolder ones started making their way inwards to where I stood in the center of the room. The ceiling was vaulted which meant it was of recent construction, the roof painted in a similar manner with a preference towards generous proportions and a wash of gentle coloring to the people twined amongst stylized ivy leaves. There was a distinct air of lewdness to the pictures, although not overtly so. It would make some blush, I supposed, but I was far too old to be bothered by such things. I'd seen far more scandalous in my lifetime. The lights were unusually bright, far outstripping any candles, and hung in globes of colored glass of various shades of red, giving the entire room a lurid glare. It achieved its purpose, I supposed, for I saw a number of the courtesans moving about the crowd and they caught the eye of most unattached gentlemen in the crowd – and some of the women as well, I noted. Interestingly enough, Warre was studying them, but I saw something underneath that token appreciation as his eyes roved past them and through the crowd. There was a hint of cold there, not from disdain, but from indifference. He observed with the ease of someone that knew nothing else. I leaned in close, wrapping my arms around one of his, resting my chin against his shoulder.
"I understand now," I murmured, "You're a spy."
"People will say things they shouldn't in an effort to impress the archmage," he replied, his voice muted to keep the conversation private. There were violins playing at the back of the room and these easily obscured most conversations.
"And here I hoped you were here on the virtue of my charming personality," I sighed.
He looked down at me, a brief flash of surprise crossing his face. He had not meant to slight me. I let go of his arm and turned my back, greeting the first of the nobility that had ventured close. I knew how to play this game. The air shifted around me, imperceptible to mundane senses, and I drew my power close to me like drawing a cloak about my shoulders. Warre shifted his stance and I knew that he had felt it as well. Some natural talent then, most certainly. It wasn't likely enough to warrant training, but I would have to make inquiries in the near future. Mages were scarce, ever since order was imposed upon the wild currents of magic. I had deemed it a necessary trade-off. Even if Warre could do nothing more than sense the power of others, it would still be neglectful of me to not teach him something of our ways.
"Archmage Lada," the noble began, bowing and taking my hand to press to his lips. I allowed him and cast my power out across him. He had already been drinking, a glass of wine here and there, and so my magic latched onto that substance in his blood and thickened it, carefully, just enough to further impede his senses and make him more prone to let something slip that would best be kept hidden.
Warre had moved closer as the noble began introducing who he was. I gave him a sly smile and laced my fingers with his hand. He did not try and pull away and I turned a predatory gaze back on the noble, who was a bit flushed in the face now and still talking. I could play this game very well indeed, and King Drair had been so kind to lend me a spy with which to play it.
It was about two hours before we could slip away politely. I wanted to see the gardens. They were small, being inside the city, and lit with mundane torches to keep the light subdued and provide a more intimate setting for couples slipping off to benches carefully nestled in the shadows. I looked about to ensure we were fairly alone and turned to face Warre straight on. He had spoken little through the evening and when he did, it was to guide the conversation towards something that seemed interesting. I didn't know enough of the local politics to tell if any of it had been useful, however.
"Who is your master?" I demanded of him. He widened his eyes at me and I wasn't sure if he was truly shocked at the boldness of my question or if he was pretending it to make a point.
"King Drair, of course," he replied without hesitation.
"Fah. I know how this works. Your spy master – I want words with him before I go north with King Drair's forces."
Warre did not reply. I shifted my weight to one foot, looking up at him in annoyance. Then he inclined his head, ever so slightly, and that careful indifference he had worn the entire night gave way to a sort of solemnity.
"Oh," I whispered, "It's you. You're Drair's spy master."
This was far too simple of a thing to attend in person. I narrowed my gaze at him, wondering if I should take the answers I wanted by force. He would know I worked magic on him, of course, and it was always an unpleasant thing for both parties to rip such knowledge from a person's mind. I would do it though, if only to satisfy my own curiosity. I think he saw that in my eyes.
"Normally I would send one of my subordinates," he said quickly, "This is far too trivial a thing for me. However, I only knew you by reputation, and if I'm to go north with you I want to know who you are before then."
"I'm only a translator," I said crossly. Now he smiled at me, like looking at a child.
"Of course you are," he replied, "And how long do you think that's going to last?"
I just stood there for a few minutes.
"You know my reputation pretty well," I finally admitted.
"Are we done here tonight?"
"Nothing of interest?"
He shrugged. "In comparison to what waits in the north, not really. I'll delegate some of my newer spies to follow up on a few things and leave it at that."
His gaze flicked to the entrance to the manor and I followed his line of sight to find Ralle making in our direction. He paused a short distance, executed a flawless bow, and then stepped up into speaking distance with us, each movement flowing gracefully into the other. I wondered if he had practiced or if it came naturally.
"Archmage," he said, "You expressed an interest in the harp – our harpist has arrived and will be taking over the music shortly."
"I'm afraid Lord Warre and I were just leaving," I sighed, "It's a magnificent party, but alas, I have business to attend to early in the morning."
"I'll have your carriage readied." He bowed and retreated, Warre watching him as he left, his expression once more inscrutable.
"They never hurry to attend to my every wish like that," he said.
"You're an unlanded noble as far as they know," I muttered, gathering my skirts with one hand and making my way quickly towards the manor, "Maybe once you dictate the structure of magic itself someone will take you seriously."
"Sounds a bit extreme."
"It worked for me."
The spy master had no reply to that.