The great hall of the castle was his favorite room. At first she'd believed it was the grandeur that appealed to him - a weakness he freely admitted. Now she concluded that it was something more. Certainly the pleasure of desecrating with his dark arts the only room of the ae'Magi's castle that had been kept free of magic for over one thousand years was not lost on him. Even now she could see one of the guests glance nervously at the shadows in the corners of the room. People who couldn't use magic tended to get nervous in a room where magic was performed often.
Most of all, she thought, the reason he loved this room was the delight he took in watching the highest aristocracy of a dozen nations dancing gaily where only a few hours before a young child had screamed out his life.
Aralorn shivered and paced behind the ornate black bars of her cage.
The great hall was resplendent, lavishly decorated for the pleasure of the people who tripped lightly across the floor. Soaring ceilings were etched with tear-shaped skylights. Pale pillars dripped down to a polished ivory floor that reflected the jewellike colors of the dancers.
Aralorn's cage sat on a raised platform on the only wall of the room that lacked a doorway. From that perch she could observe the whole room and be observed in return. Or rather, they could see the illusion that the ae'Magi had placed on the cage. Slavery was frowned upon by many of the nearby kingdoms, and so instead of the tall, exotically blonde woman that the ae'Magi had purchased from a traveling slaver, observers saw a rare snowfalcon.
A chime sounded, announcing new visitors. Aralorn hugged herself as the ae'Magi greeted his guests with a warm smile. He'd smiled that same smile last night when he held the boy's pulsing heart in his hands.
Biting her lip, Aralorn gazed at the dancing royalty in an effort to distract herself. She matched names and countries to the dancers' faces with the ease of the professional spy that she was. Gradually she replaced the boy's dead eyes with dates and politics, but she still paced her cage restlessly.
There was a hypnotic quality to the kaleidoscopic, brilliant colors of the dancers: twisting around and around only to stop, rearrange themselves and swirl into motion once again. They surely felt it. Their laughing faces were strangely blank, without a hint of any other emotion than simple enjoyment. She saw the Duchess of Ti and the Envoy of the Anthran Alliance dancing cordially with each other. Four years ago the Envoy had the Duchess's youngest son assassinated, sparking a bloody feud that left bodies littering the Alliance like a plague.
The Envoy said something and patted the Duchess's shoulder. She laughed gaily in return, as if she hadn't had the Envoy's third wife killed in a particularly nasty manner only a month ago.
When the musicians paused for a break, people crowded around the Archmage, Geoffrey ae'Magi, drawn to his twinkling eyes and mischievous grin the way butterflies surround the flowering coralis tree. Like the coralis, he was extraordinarily beautiful, with blue-black hair, high cheekbones and the smile of a child with his hands caught in the cookie jar. But the true attraction lay in his gentle warmth and the uncanny ability to poke fun at himself and others without causing hurt to any. Before she'd come here, Aralorn herself had been more than half enamored of him.
When an insect lands on the sweet-smelling, scarlet flower of the coralis, the petals close and the flower digests its hapless prey over a period of weeks.
She turned away from the ae'Magi and back to the room. Leaning lazily against one of the pillars, a short, square-built young man wearing the colors of the royal house of Reth also observed the throng: Myr, Prince - no, King now, of Reth. His face was unremarkable except for the stubborn tilt to his chin that he'd inherited from his paternal grandfather, a formidable warrior and king. What caught Aralorn's attention was the expression of distaste that briefly crossed his face as he looked at the crowd, remarkably different from the vacuous smiles that everyone else wore.
He shifted unexpectedly and met her gaze. He looked away quickly, but then began to make his way through the crowd toward her cage. When he reached the platform, he tilted his head down so that no one could read his lips and asked in a low tone, "Do you need help, Lady?"
Surprised, she glanced quickly at the mirror that covered the back of the cage. The snowfalcon stared back at her indifferently. An old spy had once told her that the ruling family of Reth occasionally produced offspring who were immune to magic. Looking at Myr, she decided that it was more probable that he was unaware of the illusion that cloaked her than that he commonly asked caged birds if they needed help. Rethians deplored the practice of slave keeping, but it was a bold move to offer to help one of the ae'Magi's slaves to escape.
Intrigued, she responded as herself, rather than the slave she was supposed to be. "No, Your Highness, I am here to observe the ae'Magi."
"A spy." It wasn't a question. "You must be from either Sianim or Jetaine. They are the only ones who would employ female spies in as delicate a position as this." He seemed to be thinking out loud, because when he finished speaking a flush rose to his face as he realized how insulting his last remark sounded.
Aralorn, though, was amused rather than offended. With a half smile she clarified. "I get paid for my work."
"A mercenary of Sianim, then." He eyed her speculatively. "I am surprised that they thought there was a need for a spy here."
"'Struth, so am I," Aralorn allowed, giving him no more information. Having satisfied his curiosity as far as she was ever going to, she asked him a question of her own. "How did you see past the illusion of the snowfalcon that the ae'Magi placed on the cage?"
"Is that what you're disguised as?" His smile made him look even younger than he really was. "I wondered why no one said anything about the woman he had in the cage. Slavery might be legal here, but most people don't condone it."
He might have said more, but something in Aralorn's expression stopped him. He immediately straightened and stared at her as if she fascinated him.
"Ah, I see you admire my falcon. Lord." The resonant voice could only belong to the ae'Magi. "She is beautiful, isn't she? I purchased her several months ago from a traveling merchant - somewhere in the Northlands, I believe ... I thought she would go well with this room." He waved a casual hand that managed to indicate the rest of the hall.
Aralorn had grown adept at reading the ae'Magi's voice and it was just a little too casual. He was baiting Myr, and she didn't known why - unless he too had heard rumors about the unusual talent that sometimes cropped up in Reth's royal family.
* * *
RETH WAS A SMALL COUNTRY IN SIZE, BUT RICH IN MINERALS and agriculture. It also had a well-trained army, left as legacy by Myr's grandfather. Myr was a very new king and certain conservative political factions would have been happier had he been the same kind of puppet as his father. Myr seemed to have the politicians pacified, but it wouldn't be hard for the ae'Magi to change that. Aralorn's growing apprehension was more than professional; Reth was her homeland.
Myr turned to the magician with a smile and more confidence than a boy his age should have. "Yes, the ivory tinge is the same as the color in the marble here. It's unusual to see a snowfalcon this far south; you must have paid a great deal for her."
Aralorn hoped desperately that the amusement she felt didn't show on her face, as the ae'Magi had little trouble seeing past his own illusion. Myr was quick.
They talked at length about falconry, something that Aralorn happened to know interested neither one of them. When they had exhausted the subject, the ae'Magi abruptly changed topics.
"Myr," said the ae'Magi, "I wish to express my sorrow at the death of your parents. I feel some responsibility for their deaths, since they were returning from one of my parties when their coach overturned. I wish that they had decided to stay overnight - as I asked. The tragedy might have been averted." The sympathy in the magician's blue eyes offered solace. With professional interest, Aralorn heard the edge of guilt in his voice, he'd have made a wonderful spy with his acting ability.
He laid a fine-boned hand on Myr's shoulder, effectively forestalling what the younger man might have said. "Please, hear me out. If you have need of anything, feel free to turn to me. I have connections and substantial power as the ae'Magi, and you may need what aid I can offer. It has never been easy to ascend a throne, especially now with the Uriah restless in the eastern forests. Not to mention that there are always opposing factions or ..." - he hesitated, waving his hand expressively - "other enemies."
Myr bowed his head quickly in gratitude; Aralorn hoped she was the only one who recognized his insincerity. "I shall do as you request, my Lord Magician. I know my parents counted you their friend." He paused and then said, "I apologize, Lord, I have enjoyed our conversation, but I must excuse myself early. You see" - he leaned in closer with the air of a young boy confessing a secret™"! just bought a new stallion and I'm not sure I trust him on the trails after dark." His face lost its eagerness for a moment. "After what happened to my parents, sir, I feel the need to be overly cautious."
The magician smiled understandingly. "I'll summon your servants for you."
Myr shook his head. "I left them outside with orders to meet me an hour before dark."
"The gods follow you, then. With your courage and strength, you will do credit to your lineage. I wish that my own son were more like you." To Aralorn's sensitive ears, the magician's voice held just the right amount of pain. She wondered why she hadn't noticed before she'd been assigned here that his emotions were always exactly right. She shouldn't have needed the opportunity, if that were the correct term, to observe his less savory endeavors to notice that there was something beneath the surface.
"Lord Cain could not be termed a coward, sir." Myr's voice held a matching amount of sympathy, as false as the ae'Magi's.
"No," said the ae'Magi, "I think that it would have been better for all of us if he were a coward. He would have done less harm. I have him under control now, but I don't know how long I can keep him quiet."
* * *
ARALORN HAD FORGOTTEN ABOUT THE AE'MAGI'S SON. THE ae'Magi kept his dark magics secret, but his son had performed in the broad light of day. For a while he'd been an embarrassment to the ae'Magi, stories of the atrocities that he committed flying rampant. She'd never met Cain; he'd faded out of the light before she'd become involved in her present occupation. She'd heard the rumors, though - they got worse with each telling. The stories put the ae'Magi in the role of the grieving father who was forced to exile his son. Aralorn suspected that Cain's absence might be due to death rather than exile. It would have been inconvenient if someone had questioned where the ae'Magi's son learned so much about forbidden magic.
"Be that as it may" - with apparent effort the Magician dismissed the thought of his son - "'your servants probably will be awaiting you even now."
"Yes, I should go. You may be sure I shall remember your gracious offer of assistance if ever I need help." With that Myr bowed once more and left.
Watching Myr leave, the Magician smiled - the slight imperfection of one eyetooth lending charm to the perfect curve of his lips. "What a clever, clever child you have grown to be, Myr," His voice purred with approval. "It is too bad you are forced to play your games with an adult." Aralorn felt her apprehension turn to real concern for the welfare of the King of Reth.
It was late before the crowd began to thin and later still before everyone had gone, Aralorn fell more nervous as each person left, knowing that the meager protection they offered would soon be gone. Alter seeing the last couple out, the ae'Magi walked slowly over to the cage.
"So," he said, swaying gently back on his heels, "the Rethian doesn't see my pretty Northland bird. When he looked at you, he looked where your eyes are, not where the eyes of the falcon would have been."
Plague it, she thought, the man is too observant. The ae'Magi put one hand through the bars and caressed her neck. She leaned against him and rubbed her cheek on his hand, forcing herself to obey the vague compulsion of the charismatic spell that he maintained.
The ae'Magi tilted her face so that her eyes met his and said in a leading tone, "I wonder how he broke through my illusion."
She'd had some time to think out her actions after Myr left. If he found out for sure that Myr was immune to magic, then it would be the king's death sentence. She heaved an inward sigh and braced herself. "But he didn't break through your spell, Master," she answered without apparent thought.
He looked down at her expressionlessly, and she quit fighting the urge to curl into a ball on the floor of the cage. He made a small motion with a finger and she screamed as her body twisted helplessly.
Each time he did this to her was worse than the time before. She watched as the tendons pulled and stretched, protesting the sensations they endured. When it finally stopped she didn't fight the tremors that shook her, telling herself that she was playing her part - but wondering deep inside whether she could have stopped had she tried. After she lay still he said softly, "I don't like to be contradicted, child. He knew you were not a falcon."
"Yes," she said hoarsely, from her position on the floor of the cage. "He knew. I think that his magician broke the spell for him."
"What magician?" The ae'Magi's voice was sharp, almost worried.
"He was sitting over behind that pillar." She pointed to someplace vaguely on the far side of the room.