Ethan moved through the form slowly, letting the familiar movements begin coming back to him. It had finally occurred to him that he was both unbound and had more than a few feet of space available. His movements were slow, and even then, a few of his muscles protested, unused to the activity. He was going through the form a third time when he saw Master out of the corner of his eye. The man was leaning on the wall next to the door, watching silently.
Immediately, Ethan fell to his knees, bowing his head as he cringed. “I’m sorry, master.”
“For what?” Master shook his head. He heard the man sigh. “Ethan, you have permission to exercise, if the mood strikes you.” He glanced over his shoulder, then frowned. “Actually, I was considering going for a walk outside. Would you like to come?”
It had been over a year since he’d seen daylight other than through glass. Or breathed fresh air. “Yes, master.”
“The robe won’t do.” Master went to the wardrobe, and removed a pair of breeches and a tunic and tossed them to him. “Get dressed. My boots won’t fit you but…” He bent. “Nevermind, these should work.” He tossed a pair of sandals towards Ethan, then stood back up.
Ethan was staring at the clothes in his hands. He heard Master sigh again. “Get dressed, if you want to come with me.”
“Yes, master.” He set the clothes on the bed, and then began removing the robe.
Samet turned away to let the boy dress in privacy. Part of him was sorry he’d interrupted the young man’s exercise. The boy’s movements had been surprisingly graceful, almost elegant as he’d moved slowly through the steps of what had clearly been some sort of combat training. Slow like that, it had looked more as though the prince were dancing, and with that sheer silk robe offering tantalizing hints at what lay beneath it, the effect had been… Maybe they were right. He was going to hell.
He turned back around, and noted that the clothes really didn’t fit Ethan all that well. The young man was several inches shorter, but broader in the shoulder. Were it not for the weight he’d lost, he likely would have been able to get the breeches on at all. Samet hesitated a moment before taking the end of the leash. Outside, there would be eyes, and appearances mattered.
On the ramparts, the air was crisp with the start of winter chill. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ethan take a deep breath, turning his face toward the afternoon sun. For just a moment, there was a hint of a smile on the boy’s face. It was beautiful.
Robert paced back and forth. The death of King Olivier had cost the coalition Vanidos. Warlord Vadin’s armies showed no sign they were going to stop anytime soon. Options were becoming fewer, and his brother was still Vadin’s prisoner. Pull back, and hope a solution to Ethan’s plight presented itself, or fully commit his armies, knowing what it would mean for his brother.
There was a rumor Vadin had already given Ethan to his demonic son. Robert clenched his fists. Alinor had pointed out that Robert had an heir now, and thus Ethan’s rescue could no longer be considered a priority. He caught a vase off his desk and flung it. It shattered above the fireplace.
“What would he say?”
He turned to see Tabitha. “What?”
Her eyes were wet. “I remember the day they placed Ethan in my arms, Robert. I had just lost a babe, and he had just lost a mother. He may not have been the child of my body but he is still my son.” She swallowed. “If he were standing here, speaking to you now, what would he say?”
“My love…” She put her hand on his chest. “What would he tell you to do?”
A lifetime seemed to pass before he responded. “Commit my armies. The kingdom comes first.”
Tears fell from her eyes, but she nodded. “Then you know what you must do.”
Vadin stared down at the parchment in his hand. It had been the better part of a year since anyone had brought him a report of a significant loss. He’d almost forgotten what it was like. “Excellent. I was beginning to get bored.”
He turned to see Samet raising an eyebrow at him. “King Robert has finally decided to come out and play again. Seems now that I’ve given Ethan to you, Robert has written him off.” Vadin shrugged. “That compound you told me about, the coughing thing?
“Blacksmoke?” Samet folded his arms.
“That. You said it’s not a simple matter of alchemy.” Vadin smiled. “Thus, not something the Covenant mages would be able to defend against, yes? But you can prevent it from affecting our men?”
“Abet a limited number.” Samet slowly nodded. “How large a city were you planning on taking?”
“If I gave you two weeks?” Vadin raised an eyebrow.
“Then it depends on the skill of your men. I can cover two miles, and a hundred men.”
“And you can revoke the effect at will?”
“A simple crystal. Shatter it, and the effect will dissipate within the hour. However, enough Covenant mages would be able to clear the smoke, and a knowledgeable enough one would be able to stave off the effects as well.”
“Only if they know it is coming.” Vadin grinned. “Get to work. Time to remind the world of what you are.”
He held the skull-sized gemstone in his hands, turning it this way and that as he looked at the inky black liquid that swirled within. Once broken, the enchantment would spread, covering a large area in a vile black fog that would blind and choke. The effect would be misery, but not particularly fatal. Save to those already weakened by infirmity. Samet told himself that those people wouldn’t survive a siege anyway, and this plan would kill fewer people. Then he told himself to shut up and set the gem on the table. If he could hand his father victory by more conventional means, then perhaps the man would no longer need the darker powers.
Samet turned, and caught sight of Ethan watching him from near the fireplace. He’d almost forgotten the boy was even in the room. He shrugged, and then gestured at the crystals. “Wrap those in the cloth there, and pack them into the chest.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan moved quickly to obey.
A small light came from the gem as Samet picked it up again. He focused on the enchantment, concentrating as he drew the glyphs in his mind’s eye. The gemstone shimmered in response to the magic, and then a single piece broke free with just the tiniest hint of the darkness still within it. He set that piece aside, then wrapped the gemstone and placed it in the box with the crystals.
Then he picked up the other piece. Broken, it would dismiss the enchantment entirely. He swaddled it in a piece of cloth before tucking it away in a velvet bag and adding it to the chest. As soon as Ethan placed the last crystal inside, he closed the lid of the chest. A victory. It occurred to him he’d hadn’t asked what city his father intended to take. He shook his head, then looked at Ethan. “Fetch us dinner. And something sweet as well.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan scurried out the door.
He looked down at the chest again before picking it up to bring to his father.
The guards moved away as he passed them on his way to the kitchen. A month previous, he’d have had to run the gauntlet of their hands, if not worse. Word of Master’s jealous tendencies had spread quickly. The Lieutenant gave him a resentful look, but no more.
Still, he did his best to avoid coming into eyesight of any of the old Master’s retainers or the old Master himself. He waited around a corner as one of the nobles passed, then scurried down the hall before anyone else could come through. Once he had the trays in his hands, they’d generally leave him to go about his duties.
Something sweet. Ethan frowned. He wasn’t sure what exactly Master liked. There were several different options. He shook his head, shifting his weight from foot to foot. Then he grabbed one of each type of pastry before picking the tray up once more and heading back to Master.
Samet looked down at the tray on his desk. ‘Something sweet’ had apparently translated to eight different deserts. There were also two bowls of stew. At least Ethan had remembered to bring food for himself this time. “I really should have been more specific.”
“Have I erred, master?” Ethan shifted nervously.
“Ethan, rest assured, if you do error, I will inform you.” Samet shook his head. “Pick your favorite.”
“I do not know your favorite, master.” Ethan swallowed.
“Not my favorite.” Samet gestured. “Yours.” Ethan hesitated before indicating the blueberry tart. Samet handed it to him. “Eat. Then pick your second favorite and eat that too. Tired of counting your bloody ribs.” He grabbed the bowl of stew and went to his workbench.
“Duke Octavian has surrendered, Your Majesty.”
“What?” Robert turned to stare at Graham. “Why? My last report said the warlord had only a scant handful of forces in the area.”
“According to the messenger, at midnight a black fog blanketed the city. All within were stricken blind and barely able to breath, save for Vadin’s men. With the city’s soldiers helpless, Vadin’s forces took Narel in a matter of hours. He secured hostages, and…”
“And Narel is his.” Robert shook his head. “The sorcerer has taken the field.”
“That changes matters, and not solely to Vadin’s advantage.” Graham squared his shoulders. “A sorcerer has taken the field, Robert. The vows of the Covenant’s mages do not apply. They can act to oppose him.”
“If we know will he shall strike next.” Robert sighed, but nodded.
Vadin laughed as he looked over the parchment. “The Covenant mages are all in a tizzy.” He looked across the table at Samet. “They think you were actually on the field in Narel.” He grinned. “I wish I could see the looks on their faces when they realize you did that from a hundred miles away.”
“The Covenant mages acting in concert are not an insignificant threat, Father.” Samet took a sip from his wine glass.
“It would take twenty of those fools, working together, to match you.” Vadin shook his head.
“Which sounds comforting, until one considers there are around three hundred of them.” Samet chuckled.
“Look at the battle lines.” Vadin gestured at the map. “They cannot move that many without our spies knowing. Robert is no fool. He has most of them covering the most strategic points.”
“And the rest actively looking for me.” Samet frowned. “Rumor says King Robert will give a daughter in marriage to the man who brings me in alive.”
“I’ve a mind to wed you to his eldest, once we take Talidir.” Vadin looked over the map.
“If it’s all the same to you, Father, I’d rather a wife that won’t smother me in my sleep.” Samet took another drink of his wine.
“Nonsense.” Vadin smirked. “All a matter of setting the ground rules. Ethan hasn’t given you any trouble now, has he?”
“No.” Samet drained his glass. “Actually, having a literate body-slave has proved rather useful. He’s learned to take excellent notes.”
“Speaking of your research…” Vadin leaned forward. “You mentioned there is a ley-line beneath Drekar.”
He stared in horror at the remains of the experiment. Soot had blown out of the cauldron, and coated both himself and Master, as well as the alcove itself. Ethan cringed at the string of curses that came from the sorcerer.
Then he stared in shock when Master started laughing. “You alright over there?”
Master nodded, and lowered his hands to his sides. He looked around the room. “Yeah. That’s…” He nodded. “That’s gonna smell for days.”
“It…” Ethan hesitated. “Could be worse, master.”
“How?” Master turned towards him.
“You had not added the sulfur yet, master.”
More laughter answered him. Master looked around, and then caught sight of his reflection. “Shit.”
Ethan turned to see his own reflection in the glass. Except for the whites of his eyes, he was a uniform matte black. And… He leaned forward. His eyebrows and some of his hair were missing. He frowned when he looked back around the room. “Master?”
“I do not know how to clean this, master.” He swallowed.
“Let’s clean us, and we’ll worry about the room later.” Master headed towards the bath chamber. He waved a hand at the spigot, and water began to flow in. He shook his head when he looked at his tunic. “I liked this tunic.”
“Master…?” Ethan glanced at him curiously.
“Yes?” He blinked. “I’m not mad, Ethan.” He gestured, and steam began to rise from the water. “I’m not kidding when I tell you not to touch certain things.” He shook his head. “I blew up a pig once. Not sure that particular maid ever forgave me.” He patted Ethan’s shoulder. “I’m especially not mad at you. These things just…” He shrugged. “Happen.”
“Then you would know, master.”
Ethan gestured. “How long it usually takes eyebrows to grow back, master.”
Master laughed, and pushed him playfully into the tub.
The water closed over his head, and for a moment he could feel Lord Vadin’s hand holding him under. Panic filled him.
He blinked, and found himself on the stone floor. Water and soot mixed to form ink, running in lines down Master’s face and hair. “I…”
“Ethan, are you alright?”
His heartbeat was slowly starting to return to normal. “I…” He cringed. “I’m sorry, master.”
“It’s alright, Ethan.”
Horrified, Ethan realized that Master’s tunic was also drenched. And worse, it was torn. He could see marks starting to form on the skin beneath. He’d hit Master. He’d hurt Master. Panic started to rise once more. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Stop.” Master’s voice was sharp. Ethan closed his mouth, and felt tears pricking the back of his eyes. He settled back, and looked at Ethan. “Alright, I…” He took a deep breath. “Ethan, we need to get the soot off us. Why don’t you sit on the edge of the tub? Can you do that?”
He crawled rapidly to the side of the tub, and sat where instructed before looking back up at Master. Master’s expression was angry, and he fought the urge to cringe. The man waved a hand, and the water outside the tub was suddenly swept back into the pool. Master removed his tunic and threw it to the side before stepping into the water. He ducked himself beneath it, and shook his head. The soot and ink spread out from him to create an inky blackness in the water. He surfaced again a moment later. He did something, and the dirty water began to swirl away to be replaced with clean. He ducked under again, divesting himself of more soot, then surfaced once more. “See?” He looked back at Ethan. “It’s safe.” He beckoned towards Ethan. “Come on. You don’t want to leave that soot on you.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan lowered himself slowly into the water. Master retrieved a cloth, holding it out but not approaching. Ethan reached to take it from him. “Thank you, master.”
“Make sure you get it all out of your hair. You…” Master gestured. “Could try standing under the spigot, if you…” He sighed, and shook his head. “Get clean, Ethan.”
“Yes, master.” He did as instructed. The water felt good, running over his head. It took him a moment to realize Master had said his name. “Yes, master?”
“I shouldn’t have pushed you in.”
“I have made you angry, master.” Ethan nodded. “Ple…”
“Stop.” Master shook his head. “Ethan, you aren’t the one I’m angry at. And I’m not going to punish you, least of all for being scared.” He sighed, and sat back on one of the stone ledges. “I’d like to know what scared you, but you don’t have to tell me.”
He looked down at the surface of the water. Then he swallowed, and nodded. “I thought he was holding me under again, master.”
“He…” Master nodded. “My father.”
“Yes, master. I had to be punished for being filthy, master.”
“And I triggered…” Master sighed. “I’m sorry, Ethan. I shouldn’t have…” He shook his head. “About four weeks.”
“It takes about four weeks for eyebrows to grow back.” He twitched a shoulder. “So, we’re both going to look pretty stupid for the next month.” Ethan covered his mouth with his hand, trying not to laugh. “You’re allowed to laugh, Ethan.” He nodded. “It would please me, greatly, if you laughed when something amused you.”
“I…” He smiled. “Yes, master.”
Vadin entered to see his son glaring at a piece of parchment as though it has personally offended him. A couple feet away, Ethan sat on the floor with a lapdesk, scribing away with several scrolls open around him. Samet raised an eyebrow. “Father. I was not expecting you.”
He smiled. “The quartermaster mentioned you’d received a large package. I admit to being curious.”
Samet gestured haphazardly at the parchment in his hand, then indicated an overflowing bookshelf. “A variety of material I had gathered previously finally made it here.” He frowned. “There was something I…” He started looking over his desk. “Ethan, the silver-bound treatise?”
“Third bookshelf, master. Beneath the Etruvan map, master.” Ethan did not look up from his work.
“Right.” Samet retrieved the document, and brought it to the desk. Vadin raised an eyebrow, and Samet chuckled. “Apparently, he spends his free time memorizing where I put everything. It’s become very useful.” He opened the book to a map. “Look here. Seven ley-lines cross.”
“That’s three miles away from anything useful.” Vadin wrinkled his nose.
“Look again, Father.” Samet’s finger traced the path of the river.
“Well now…” Vadin chuckled. “Alinor’s chief stronghold lies in Wintersedge.”
“A valley.” Samet nodded. “It’s a wide valley, so we are talking water only a couple feet deep, but that’s enough to bog the army down completely.”
“Then I suppose all I need to do is figure out which of Alinor’s provinces to take next.” Vadin squeeze the back of Samet’s neck affectionately. “I will let you know when we are ready.”
Master tossed an armful of clothes at him. “Get dressed. We’re heading out of the tower today.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan set the clothes on the bed, and began removing the robe. He dressed quickly, and was surprised to note that the clothes fit him properly. “Where are we going, master?”
“I need an ingredient that grows up by the lake, and it’s particular in how it needs to be harvested.” He shrugged. “And it’s a really nice day out.”
The massive warhorse, bred to carry knights in full armor, had no difficulty with the weight of both him and Ethan. Allowing the young man his own horse might have raised questions with his father, but he could excuse letting him ride by simply saying he’d been in a hurry. The younger man clung to his belt as he stirred the horse into a trot.
It took them the better part of an hour to reach their destination. The lake was beautiful, and far enough that they’d have a suitable amount of privacy. He let Ethan dismount, and then slid off the horse and secured the reins to a branch. He left enough slack for the beast to reach both water and grass, then gestured for Ethan to follow him towards the lake.
“This wasn’t always here.” He gestured at the water.
“The lake. It’s only been here about five centuries. Until then, it was a river.” He pointed. “There was an earthquake, and part of the mountain fell. It damned the river up.” Samet walked towards the water. “There was a city of stone, built by the dwarves and the river people. The river started to rise, and they had to flee, abandoning their homes. Within a week, the entire city was under thirty feet of water.”
“That is sad, master.”
“Would you like to see the city, Ethan?” He stepped into the water, and then held out his hand to the younger man.
“Master?” Ethan gave him a confused look.
Samet smiled. “Come. Join me.” He waited. Slowly, Ethan came forward, and took his hand. He cast the spell, and led Ethan deeper into the water. “Don’t be afraid.” He ducked under, then took a deep breath. He waited, sitting on the bottom and looking up through the water at Ethan. Various expressions crossed Ethan’s face, and he smiled again as he sat there, breathing the water. After about a minute, Ethan frantically reached in and tried to pull him up. He let him.
“Master.” Ethan stared. “Master, are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, Ethan.” He smiled. “It’s magic. Lets me breath the water. Try it.” He lowered himself back under the surface. Above him, Ethan shifted his weight from foot to foot. He smiled broadly when the younger man sat down beneath the water across from him. He nodded, but it was several more seconds before Ethan worked up the nerve to try to take a breath.
The expression on his face when he did was wonderful. Samet laughed, and saw Ethan laugh in return. He nodded towards the deeper water, and began swimming that way. Ethan followed.
The glowing orb Master had conjured lit what had once been a temple. Ethan’s hand traced the covenant markings, brushing some of the green from them. A school of silvery fish circled the altar, fleeing as he approached. Master followed him in, stopping to examine what had once been a stone relief.
Ethan continued to the altar. He touched it, feeling the smoothness of the cold marble. His mind drifted back to the palace chapel, listening to Graham’s voice as he chanted the ancient prayers. It had never failed to lift his spirits. Graham had cried, when… He forced the memory away, and knelt before the altar. He bowed his head. And for the first time in a year, he prayed.