A Taste of the Gilded Empire

Here is an excerpt from the latest book, an epic fantasy called The Mage Chronicles. It sets the scene for a long series called the Gilded Empire.

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Chapter One

Ashley La’Margin the Fourth

Mary stood on the brown cobblestone of Muted Lane and waited while the oxen cart rumbled by. As it passed her, she caught a glimpse of Muted Market. She wondered, as always, how such a noisy place came by the name “Muted.” She crossed the lane, feeling the warmth of the stones underneath her sandals as she left the shade of the apartments behind her.

To her right was the market itself. It was a single-story building the size of a small park and without walls. Arched pillars of granite stood every fifteen feet, and the roof rose over them in billowing waves, like a giant pavilion frozen in stone. That such heavy stone could be shaped into such a delicate structure made the market one of Tomlin City’s marvels.

Not that those inside were paying much attention to the architecture above them. The market was crowded. Then again, it was always crowded. Merchants hawked their wares in loud voices, haggled with customers, and complained to each other of the day’s business. The market’s assault on the senses did not stop at sound. Jewelers flashed bits of gold and silver. A tailor threw a bright brocade of silk around a woman’s form with a practiced flourish. Small, contained fires heated an incredible variety of pots, pans, and skillets, which in turned contained an even more incredible variety of foods and spices. The aroma mixed with the sweat of the many patrons and hung thick in the air.

Mary ignored the market, and for the moment, it returned the favor. Mary was a slight figure, almost a head shorter than the nearest man in front of her. She was thin and had long, coppery-red hair pulled back into a long braid. She wore a simple dress of burnt orange held fast around the waist with a silk scarf. A pentacle, embroidered into the sleeve of the dress, marked her as a healer.

To the left of the market was the Tower of Ashley La’Margin. If the market was one of the marvels of the city of Tomlin, the mage’s tower was the marvel. Set about two hundred feet back from the lane, the building was maybe a hundred feet across at its base and rose to nearly five hundred feet high. It literally towered over the market and every building nearby. It was composed of white stone that appeared to be seamless.

The land around the base of the tower was entirely covered in a hedgerow maze. Where the maze opened onto the lane, there stood twin sandstone sphinxes, eighteen feet tall. There was an almost imperceptible sound of stone grinding on stone as one of the sphinxes turned its head to look at Mary as she drew near. Though slight, the sound cut through the din of the marketplace. There was a collective rolling gasp as the people in the crowd turned their attention toward the tower.

A hand reached out and pulled Mary from the lane.

“Careful, young maid,” the merchant said. “Wouldn’t want to see you crushed under the heels of that beast.”

“What devilry is the mage up to now?” a nearby woman wondered out loud.

“Appearances can sometimes be deceiving,” Mary said.

“Aye,” the man agreed, misreading her completely. “I thought they were mere statues. They’ve never moved an inch as long as I’ve been at the market.”

Mary smiled. “Be not afraid; they mean no harm.” As she stepped back into the lane she chuckled to herself. Young maid indeed. The fool doesn’t realize I could well be the one who delivered him.

All of the collective eyes of the market were on Mary as she crossed the lane and approached the sphinx. It dropped its head, and its mouth gaped wide.

In her mind, Mary felt its excitement. “Yes, Azroth,” she said aloud, for the benefit of those in the market. “I have brought you a gift.”

As she reached into her small purse, a raspy sandstone tongue extended from the sphinx’s mouth. It cupped its tongue delicately, and she placed a small river stone onto the tongue.

In a single swift movement the tongue was gone and the sphinx returned to its former, immobile state. A sense of contentment and the memories of other stones, other places, rolled off the sphinx.

“I have one for you too, Shemazai,” Mary said to the second sphinx. Slowly, and with a much greater sense of dignity, the second sphinx bent and accepted its gift.

This will be the talk of the market for weeks to come, she thought.

They are all fools anyway, Azroth said in her mind, settling itself into its usual stony, watchful silence.

Without a backward glance, Mary entered the maze. There was a brief pause, then the noise of the market rose again. Inside, most of the merchants broke into loud, speculative conversations—about discovering the sphinxes were real and about the young girl who seemed to know them. A few merchants stayed quiet; wondering, no doubt, how many of their misdeeds had been observed by the statutes and to whom they had been reported.

Mary’s feet took her within the maze. She stopped briefly at the imposing main entrance. She had brought another, more mundane gift for the doorman, a pastry from the bakery near Cornall Hospital, where Mary both lived and worked. She did not ask for entrance. He understood.

She passed the much smaller and simpler servant’s door just within the maze as well. Her feet sought the student’s entrance, hidden deep within the hedge. More than a decade had passed since she was a student of the mage, but she felt intuitively that this was the best approach. She could only surmise she had guessed correctly when she found Ashe himself was waiting for her at the student’s entrance.

“I am delighted to see you, Mary,” he said as she approached. He looked as he always did, a tall, graying man, who could be described, depending on his mood, as either imposing or fatherly. He was wearing brown leggings and a light tan shirt with an embroidered edging. The shirt was simple in design but of high-quality construction. The hair on his head, though graying, was full and worn short. His movements, as he stepped forward to give Mary a hug, were strong and graceful, belying the age of his appearance.

“Indeed it’s been too long,” she replied, returning the hug with warmth. “But I suspect you did not call me back simply because you missed seeing me.”

“Indeed not,” he replied. “Though I have missed you. Still we need not sit on the doorstep and talk.” He ushered her inside.

As they walked along the gently curving corridor, Mary said, “So for whom was that display outside?”

“The sphinxes?” he replied. “A trifling matter.”

“It will be the talk of the market for months, if not years, to come.”

“Indeed.” Sensing her curiosity he went on, “Some of the merchants wish to have entertainment in the market at night.”

“I can recall when they had minstrels and dances,” Mary said, “and for a while there was the theater group.”

“These are far more illicit and unpleasant entertainments, I regret,” Ashe continued. “I thought it would do well to remind them the market is watched.”

“Very civic of you,” she said.

Ashe was fond of the number three, and just as he had three entrances to the tower, there were three rooms that he used for greeting visitors. Near the main entrance, he had a throne room of sorts, where he could sit high above his visitor, to impress or intimidate. He used it often with petitioners who came to request magic from him. He had a business office where he would sit behind a large desk. It was there he took his peers, men of power from the city council, and court officials who sought his advice. Then he had a small sitting room for more personal visits, lessons with a rare apprentice (Mary was the first apprentice he had taken in anyone’s memory), a visit from a fellow mage, and the occasional individual graced with status of friend.

Today he passed all three rooms without a second glance. He ushered her instead into his private study. It was an interesting choice, and Mary could not help but wonder what it portended. Here was a singular room in a tower built around the number three. Most mages had a number they were obsessed with and for Ashe, it was three. Everything about this tower, from its dimensions to the number of rooms, was some multiple of three. The man even had three bedrooms, which Mary knew because she had shared all three rooms for a short time after her apprenticeship had ended and they had been lovers. But he had only one study. It held two simple, wooden chairs, a low table, a bookcase, which held a very select portion of Ashe’s library and a window that overlooked a seaside beach— nowhere near Tomlin City, if indeed it was even in this world.

They sat, and Ashe gestured at a steaming teapot and a selection of tea canisters on the low table. Smiling slightly, Mary pulled out her final gift, a tightly bundled Chrysanthemum flower.

“My favorite,” Ashe said. “You always think of the little things, Mary. It’s one of the things I love about you.”

He placed the bundle in the teapot and left the lid off so they could watch the flower unfold while the tea steeped.

After a long time, Mary spoke. “You have an assignment for me, I take it?”

“I do,” he replied. “Though you are no longer my apprentice and I can hardly compel you.”

“Still, you may speak.”

“It’s an unusual request, I must warn,” he said. “There is a situation in a distant province. Someone needs to look into it. A mage.”

She thought about other assignments she had taken from Ashe. Mostly they were humanitarian missions, as befitted her main gift, healing. Once she had fought a demon for him. Two or three times, she had sought out other mages for rituals, herbs, or other magical lore. These last assignments had been more for her own benefit, to increase her own knowledge. None of these assignments prepared her for what Ashe said next.

“It’s war, Mary. In the Barony of Cordona, a far distant corner of the empire, war is again threatening the land.”

She almost laughed but caught the serious expression on her former mentor’s face. “But surely there hasn’t been a war in the empire for several—” She stopped abruptly before she said the word millennia. She knew enough history to know that was a pleasant fiction. Still . . . “For several hundred years at least.”

“Three hundred forty-two years this March,” Ashe said. A troubled look crossed his face. Then he laughed. “No, even that is a polite fiction. The empire lives by the sword. War is a constant companion.”

He stared out the window for a long time before going on. “The emperor’s peace is merely a controlled war, Mary. You must understand this. The border legions and the army fight and conquer distant worlds, all in the name of keeping war far from our borders. But this is not the war of which I speak.

“Despite the emperor’s peace, or perhaps even because of it, small internal wars erupt frequently. For small nobles, hemmed in by each other, there are few ways to grow or increase their holding or power. Some play at court intrigue, some play at love—or marriages of convenience, rather. A few play at war.”

“Nobles, playing at war?” Mary said. “I don’t understand.”

“They fight border disputes, often over trivial trumped up offenses,” he said with some distaste.

“And the emperor allows this?”

“Of course not,” Ashe said. “These things are stopped as soon as they come to someone’s attention. But if a noble moves quickly enough, takes a village here, a town there, it’s fait accompli. When the dispute is ended one lord has another village in his domain, and the other is that much smaller.”

“But we are talking fighting here, right? With soldiers and spears and stuff?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Don’t people get hurt?”

“They get killed, Mary.”

“But—”

“Mary,” he interrupted, “you need to understand the kind of people we are talking about: power-hungry nobles. If it increases their holding, even a couple of acres, a hundred deaths is worth it to them.”

She shuddered.

“In the Barony of Cordona, such a border dispute is currently underway,” Ashe went on. “And I fear it has the potential to spiral into a much larger conflict.”

“You said the emperor puts a stop to these sorts of things,” she said.

“Usually,” he replied and fell silent for a long time. “You must go and put a stop to this, Mary.”

“Me?” she protested. “Surely there is somebody more suitable. Who usually puts a stop to these things?”

He shrugged. “The emperor cannot be everywhere, obviously. The bureaucrats usually send a simple ultimatum and that’s that. Or the courts intervene; some noble house large enough to command the respect of both parties. Neither of these things has happened.”

Mary watched him, trying to understand what he was saying. She took a different tack. “But the soldiers, they are part of the military, no? Do they really fight each other? Can’t they just be commanded to stop?”

“Each lord must raise a certain number of soldiers for the imperial army, this is true. But they have a local militia as well, which is not beholden to the military. These are the soldiers who fight and die in these border disputes. The military can’t command them. However the military certainly could intervene, and has in such situations in the past.”

“Are there not war mages?” Mary asked.

“There are.”

She stared out the window at the seashore, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. “So the bureaucrats could end this, the courts could end this, the military, the war mages, all could end this. Why haven’t they?”

“That is an interesting question.” He turned toward Mary, a serious look on his face. “The council of mages, the civilian council of mages,” he clarified, “are deeply troubled by this entire situation. But we must not be seen as interfering. There are larger forces at work here. Why? I cannot say.

“However, if a healer were to show up, offering humanitarian aid, and then find some way to get both sides to sue for peace, the pretext is gone. The forces must then reveal themselves or retreat.”

“And the Council of Mages wishes me to go?” She did not believe even half the council knew of her existence. She was too young, too small a mage for them to notice.

“I wish you to go,” Ashe said.

After a pause, she replied, “I have always trusted you. If you ask, I will go.”

 

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