A familiar, but not so welcome, face returns.
VERANON’S TIME IN in Wrystan could not be called a success. He hated the word failure; he’d never felt its cold sting before. His reputation for achieving the desired results every time, had been well earned. Yet here he was, drinking in the bowels of some fetid foreign city, ruing the day he’d ever accepted that rat-faced steward’s money. The job had sounded simple: fetch the boy, subdue his magic and bring him back to his master for punishment.
No one had warned him what type of magic he would be facing. Nor the miles he would have to travel before he even caught the whelp’s scent. Three seasons had past since he’d left home and the original fee had dwindled to nothing. His men were dead, the old witch had likely cursed him with his last breath and Veranon didn’t have a single slave to show for his efforts. To make matters worse he’d caught two other mage brats – who would have brought him a small fortune in the markets of Callisun – but lost them too.
Failure was a rancid taste clinging to his tongue. So he swigged another tankard of the sharp, burning spirits they drank down in Night Town and tried to think.
The boy had been rescued by – or had rescued, he was fuzzy on the details – the other little mages. They, the witch woman and the guards had come to Royas Bay, and the children had been left at the mage school. A fine old house, Veranon thought, having studied it closely since his arrival four days ago. So elegant and refined, and so many windows. The thought made him smile. How easy it would be to slip in through one of those glass squares, sliding through the darkness to sniff out his prey. There were plenty of pretty maids to chat to, he’d found, and for a kiss and a tickle they gave up all manner of interesting bits of information.
Like the fact that the student rooms were on the top floor of the main house, and that two rooms had been freshly prepared a couple of days ago on the boys’ side. One for the mage-page and the other for the poor little foreign boy, so scrawny and sad. Veranon had spent a long time with that maid afterwards, letting her know how grateful he was for her charming company.
All he needed now was a plan, then he could finally wash this bitter taste from his mouth. He took another burning gulp of spirits.
And spat it out as a voice cried, “What price a mage?”
Luck hadn’t been kind to Veranon over recent months, but as he turned, his eyes narrowing on the skinny figure shoved onto the platform in the middle of the square, he smiled.
Luck owed him a heavy debt, but apparently it was about to pay him back in full.
Handing his drink to a surprised but grateful bystander, Veranon elbowed his way through the crowd, struggling to remember how much money he had left. Voices rose around him as the bidding began.
Holding his purse, he weighed it in his palm and bellowed, “Ten gold crowns!”
For the second time that evening Night Town was silenced. Speculation and greed ignited in the eyes around him as many wondered if he was worth so much. More than one hand reached for a weapon, ready to make their own search.
Veranon stared back, knife in his own hand. Then he raised his head to meet the blank silver gaze of the boy he’d come so far to find. “Ten gold crowns and the boy is mine.”
* * *
“WHERE DO YOU think you’re going?” A firm hand seized Hawk’s collar not three paces beyond the palace gates.
He should have known everything was going too well. Especially when Sir Tobias hadn’t said anything while Hawk questioned the guardsmen. From there it was no hardship to ask the gatekeeper about the skinny boy who’d been asking for directions. But just because the knight and the mage hadn’t objected to Hawk making all the enquiries, he should have known his moment as an equal wouldn’t last.
Not that he was about to admit defeat. “You heard what they said, sir,” he gargled, twisting out of Sir Tobias’ punishing grip. “Ari went into the city. That’s where I’m going.”
The knight folded his arms across his chest, as immovable as a wall of granite. “I don’t think so.”
Hawk knew that tone – it said the man’s will was every bit as resolute as his body – but there were ways around it. “Mara asked me to find him, sir.”
“I don’t think Mara expected this when she asked you that,” Mage Faron corrected with imperturbable calm. “The city at night is no place for young mages.”
“Which is why we should be searching for Ari right now, instead of arguing,” Hawk countered, trying to sound calm but not quite managing it. Inside he was frantic. Arien was alone in the city at night. That fact was bad enough, but the prospect of where he’d been going made things even worse. There were plenty of places in the city Hawk wouldn’t venture in broad daylight, especially not on his own, and Arien seemed set on walking right through the worst of them. Alone. In the dark.
Ignorance was no defence in Night Town.
“We have to find him.”
“We will,” Sir Tobias said, gripping his shoulder firmly. “But not you. Go back to the mage school and tell the Mage-Mistress where we’re going. She can send the others after us. I have a feeling we’ll need a few battle mages on our side.”
While Hawk could see the sense in what he was saying, he didn’t want to be sent away. “I need to find him,” he murmured, low but stubborn. “Mara asked me to.”
“You’d do better finding us some decent battle mages,” Tobias growled, his frustration starting to show.
“I’ll follow you,” Hawk told him, feeling calmer now the knight was losing his temper. “If you send me back, I’ll wait until you’re out of sight and then follow you. You can’t stop me.”
“No,” the knight growled. “But I can break your leg. The gate guards will look after you until Faron can come back and fix you.”
The mage in question bit his lip to stop them twitching. “A little extreme, Tobi.”
“Any better suggestions, Ry?”
Hawk and Tobias glared at each other, neither willing to concede. They weren’t page and tutor here, but lord and knight. In strict hierarchical terms Hawk outranked Tobias, regardless of age or experience. He called on every last drop of his noble blood and held the knight he respected above all others’s stare. He would not back down.
“Since you two boys are feeling so stubborn and bloodthirsty, yes, I do have a suggestion.” Mage Faron smiled as they turned their angry glares in his direction. “Why don’t you take your little war party down into the city, rustle up a few off-duty soldiers and go hunting, while I return to the school for more help?”
When Sir Tobias opened his mouth to protest, Faron held up a hand. “You know I’m no good with a sword, Tobi, and my magic has no offensive capabilities beyond a bright flash or two. Hawk can do that better than me, and he’s more able to defend your back. Take the page and let me rustle up some battle mages.”
The knight opened his mouth again, but Faron shook his head. “Arien needs you. Go.” Leaving no time for arguments, the mage strode off.
Tobias and Hawk blinked stupidly after him.
The gate guard they’d got their directions from chuckled. “Never tangle with a healer, sir. You’re never going to win. They seem so kind and quiet, but then so do trees. Ever tried to push one of them over?”
Sending the guard a perplexed frown, Sir Tobias eyed Hawk and the sword he hadn’t had a chance to put away earlier.
The knight sighed. “All right, mage-page, let’s go before the trail goes cold.”
At least the rain had stopped.
* * *
PANIC BEAT A rapid tattoo inside Arien’s mind, his heart thumping as fast as a fleeing hare. The memories froze his mind, but it was that voice that chilled his blood.
Ten gold crowns and the boy is mine.
Those eyes, that face, that cruel, cruel smile. There was a wealth of meaning in those words, even without the gold coins. It was a small fortune in any currency, but down here where a single crown was as good as a myth, and the bidding so far had been in copper bits with the occasional silver penny thrown in, ten gold crowns was a death sentence.
The crowd that had been mocking him, delighting in his fear, turned curious. Why was this child worth so much? And who was this man willing to pay such a price? Was there more money to be made out of this? The curiosity turned to greed, the greed to cunning.
Arien watched it all, unable to move, as something like the Hunger rushed through his veins.
It was panic. It filled him up, moving faster than the world magic ever had, wilder too. This was no soft flow, it was a cascade down a ravine and it bubbled up inside him, more potent and powerful than he could stop.
Light glinted at the edges of his vision, hazing everything in a sterling glow. Rowan wriggled in his arms, a cold nose touched the base of his thumb. Teeth bit down hard, trying to bring him back to himself.
The panic burst free, and the world turned silver.
* * *
FARON WAS JUST emerging from the mage school, battle mages Cora and Maxim and healers Ward and Sybil on his heels, when a flash of silver shook the city.
“Sweet Mountains,” Cora whispered. “Was that -?”
“A natural mage experiencing his full power for the first time?” Faron finished for her. “I fear so. Blasted Mara, why is she never around when we need her?”
A second explosion rocked the night and Faron started running. Hawk and Tobias were down there; he had to find them before they found Arien. He hoped he wasn’t too late.
The rain started again, but the drops ran silver this time. A heavy downpour that soaked everyone to the skin within heartbeats and shone under the half-moon. Pure magic saturated the city streets and Faron knew this was going to be a long and perilous night.
Somewhere in the darkness the fire bells started to ring, but Faron knew the trouble had barely begun.
~ Next Chapter ~
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