Saturday, September 6, 2014

Below the Wizards' Tower

For this post, I'm going to promote my new book shamelessly.

It's a novella (short novel), intended both to introduce new readers to my Royal Wizard of Yurt series and to offer something to my long-term fans who keep asking for more stories.  As I've noted before, I'm a fantasy writer as well as a medieval historian.  It's available exclusively as an ebook from Amazon, available here.

The story tells how Daimbert, royal wizard of Yurt, visits the wizards' school in the great City by the sea to see his old teachers.  But something is wrong.  Everywhere he goes, people seem to think he's already been there.  Does he have a doppelgänger?  And when he is attacked, does he have an enemy, or is it a horrible case of mistaken identity?  To make it worse, there are hints that the shadowy figure behind it all may have his sights set on the destruction of institutionalized wizardry.

If you read it and enjoy it, I'd appreciate it if you could leave a review on Amazon, to help future readers.

The following is the first chapter, to whet your appetite.  Enjoy!

He was backlit against the ocean, the spray flashing in the late afternoon sun and the salt wind tugging at his clothes.  From a distance, and without detail, there was no way that I could identify him.
And yet he looked oddly familiar.
He gazed out to sea as though deep in thought.  Gulls soared high against the sky, and several heavy-laden ships were heading out with the tide.  Heading for the Far Islands, I thought, with a twinge of nostalgia I did not want.  Once I would have known what was on those ships, but that was before I gave up being a merchant to become a wizard.
After only a moment’s hesitation I hurried on.  It had been a long time since I was last in the great City by the sea, and the man at the shore was doubtless someone I used to know.  It would be embarrassing if he remembered me.
Besides, I was meeting Titus for dinner and I didn’t want to be late—especially as he had said he was buying.
The seafood restaurant was packed, full of conversation and the clink of forks and glasses and the smell of clam chowder.  Titus spotted me and waved me to a tiny table in the corner.
“This place is new since I was last in the City,” I said with a smile, slipping into a chair and shaking out my napkin.  “It seems very popular.”
The master of magical creatures for the wizards’ school smiled back.  “They always make a table available for me.  Good thing—I’m not as elegant as most of the people in here, but I really do get tired of the school cafeteria.”
The elegant townspeople, dressed in bright colors, laughed and gestured with their forks as they ate.  Business must be booming here in the City, I thought.  Back when I was growing up, before I entered the wizards’ school, our wholesale wool business had never produced enough income to afford regular dinners in a place like this.
“Their lobster is very fresh,” said Titus, studying the menu.  “I’ve never tried the crab-stuffed mushrooms, though I hear they’re good.  Did you want to start with oysters?”
It was going to be hard to choose.  I had grown up eating fish most days even if it was usually cod, but the kingdom where I was now Royal Wizard was too far from the coast for seafood.
My contemplation was interrupted.  “Well, hello, stranger!  What’s it been, a year?”
I looked up, startled.  A waitress in a starched black uniform stood by our table, grinning.  Red curls tumbled out from under a little white cap.  “You should have warned me you were back in town!”
“No, excuse me, miss,” I stammered.  “You must have confused me with somebody else.”
She made a sound between a laugh and a snort, green eyes dancing.  “Somebody else, indeed.  Are you on a secret mission, and I’ve just ruined your disguise?  The white beard looks very authentic by the way, though I like you with a brown beard better.”
“My white beard is authentic,” I said, striving for dignity.  It had turned white overnight some years ago, resulting from certain hellish experiences, but I wasn’t going to go into detail.
She turned to Titus.  “If he’s on a secret mission with you, forget I said anything!  I’ll be right back to take your order.”  And she hurried off, still laughing.
“So,” said Titus with interest, “you say you’ve never been here, but you’re already good friends with the prettiest waitress in the place!”
“No!” I protested.  “She really has confused me with someone else.  She must see dozens of people every day—it would be easy to get them mixed up, especially in dim light.”
“That’s right, Daimbert,” he said indulgently and returned to the menu.  “I’m going to start with half a dozen oysters.  How about you?  And I really do want to hear from about those magical creatures of the East.”
The waitress kept a straight face while she took our orders, but as she was leaving she whispered, “Meet me after my shift.  You remember where.”
Titus heard her.  “You don’t want to disappoint a pretty girl like that,” he said, one eyebrow raised.
“It would help,” I said coldly, “if I had ever met her before.”  But then I shook my head and smiled.  “If I tell her I really have no idea what she means, she’ll realize her mistake, and then she’ll be mortified.  Best to say nothing.”
The oysters came, and we drizzled on vinegar.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had had oysters.
But I certainly would have remembered a pretty girl like the waitress.
And why was she so convinced that I was someone she knew?
Titus and I talked while we ate.  Ever since graduation, a good decade ago, I had been quietly irritated that the school masters never seemed able to make up their minds, whether we school-trained wizards were on our own or whether they should keep a close oversight over us.  Most of the time we were on our own—especially, it seemed, when we could have used some help.  But at other times they wanted all the details.  The spires and great tower of the wizards’ school cast their shadow even when I was nowhere near the City.
I had taken a very long trip with my king to the fabled East, during which time the school had not worried about me at all.  But now, six months later, I was summoned down to give an account of all I’d seen, as though the masters had been interested the whole time.
(Well, not really summoned.  Summoning involves tremendously powerful and explicitly forbidden spells.  But called.)
“So you saw an Ifrit,” said Titus with enthusiasm, easing the backbone out of his fish with practiced ease.  “You know, I’ve been up to the northern land of wild magic multiple times, and I’ve seen all sorts of creatures there—even dragons—but I’ve never seen an Ifrit.  Are they as big and powerful as they say?”
“Bigger,” I said, cracking a lobster claw.  “More powerful.  More terrifying.”
Vaguely human in shape, capable of changing reality with a single word, they were creatures who I fervently hoped stayed very far from the Western Kingdoms.
“I’ve read that they’re essentially immortal,” Titus continued, “that they may even have helped shape the earth originally.”
“This one claimed to remember Solomon.  I didn’t quiz him on what else he might remember.  I was too busy trying to stay alive.  The most dangerous part is that they’re really very stupid and don’t like to be reminded of it.”
“Maybe a few of us should organize an expedition to the East,” said Titus thoughtfully, “get a better sense of what Ifriti are really like.  And I’m sure there are other creatures there too that never make it to the West.  We tend to focus on field trips to the north.”
“Ever since I got home to the kingdom of Yurt,” I replied, starting work on the lobster tail, “I’ve been very happy to stay right here in the West.  You can tell me all about your expedition if—I mean when—you get back.”
“I expect it would be too much to hope to be able to capture an Ifrit,” he continued, paying no attention.
“And do what with it?” I said irritably.  “Put it down in the cellars under the school with the other magical creatures and hope it stays captured?”
At this he did pay attention.  “No,” sharp and serious.  “I’m not putting anything more down in the cellars.  And I’m going to try to arrange to move out some of the creatures already there—or at least the less dangerous ones.  How can we teach the students if the creatures are inaccessible?”
I remembered then.  Titus hated tunnels and enclosed spaces.  If he ever managed to capture an Ifrit it would not be down in the cellars with their centuries-old protective spells, but right up in the school.
Fortunately, I tried to persuade myself, he was never going to capture one.  “Well,” I said in mollifying tones, “the spells used by the mages in the East are different from ours, but the creatures there are almost the same.  Desert foxes have very long ears compared to foxes around here, but I wouldn’t call them magical.

In spite of having unpleasant memories revived, dinner was very enjoyable.  I untied the lobster bib at last with a happy sigh.  The red-haired waitress took Titus’s money without any of the suspicion City merchants always showed to student wizards and their (potentially) illusory coins.  Being a master and a regular must have advantages I had not appreciated in the days of subsisting on a slim student stipend.
“So, shall I see you later?” she asked me quietly, smiling.
I shook my head, ignoring Titus and what was probably supposed to be an encouraging expression.  “I’m sorry, but I think it would be better not.”
“Not even for old time’s sake?”
“Not even for old time’s sake.”
“Still, Marcus, it’s been good to see you.”
Since that was not my name, at least I could dismiss the half-formed thought that I really had known her and yet had somehow, inexplicably, forgotten.  “Good to see you too,” I mumbled.
I watched her as she crossed the crowded room, moving gracefully between the tables, giving other diners friendly nods.  She did not look like the kind of girl one would forget.
“You know, Daimbert,” Titus said dryly as we walked out into the evening, “even though we wizards never marry, we are allowed to look at pretty girls.”
“Of course I know that,” I said crossly.  Evening bells were ringing from the cathedral tower, their note not quite concordant with the bells on the harbor buoys.  The lamplighters had been out, so the streets were mottled with light and shadow, but the wizards’ school was a dark shape looming against the darkening sky.  “But it doesn’t seem fair to her when she thinks I’m someone else.”
And I wasn’t going to mention it, but I was already in love with a woman much more beautiful than the waitress:  the queen of my kingdom of Yurt.  Not that she had ever given me a second thought, having eyes only for her her husband the king.  But hopeless as my love was, it did reduce any interest in other romantic encounters.

As a former student of the school, I had been given a room closer to the masters’ rooms than the pupils’.  From my window I could look out at the harbor far below.  The long evening of late spring was drawing to a close at last.  Lights glowed from windows along the wharf, and the waves flashed phosphorescent.
Who, I wondered, could the waitress have imagined me to be?  I had grown up a City boy, but since entering the wizards’ school twenty years ago, I had mostly associated with magic-workers.  They would never have mistaken me for someone who was not a wizard, so for all I knew this Marcus could have been in town quite a bit without anyone at the school commenting, “That man looks just like Daimbert!”
And because I had visited the City only rarely since becoming Royal Wizard of Yurt, this Marcus, whoever he was, could have won the hearts of a dozen waitresses without any of them confusing me with him.
I tried to dismiss him from my thoughts but felt too restless for bed.  Titus had gone back to his chambers, pleading the need to prepare for tomorrow’s classes.  I went out into the hall and wandered toward the library.  As a student, I had probably not spent nearly as much time there as I should have, but my feet still knew the way.
The library was dim and quiet, lit during the day by tall windows filling one whole wall, but now just by a few magic lamps.  It smelled of paper and old leather.  No one appeared to be studying late.
On three sides of the long room books were shelved from floor to thirty-foot ceiling.  Once student wizards learned to fly, well along in the program, they could fly up to the shelves and find the books they wanted.  Until then, they had to use the tall, creaky ladders.  I had never liked those ladders.
Wide oak tables, some scattered with forgotten notes, were separated by stands holding still more books.  I wove my way between them, back toward the section of the library on magical creatures.
The books on the lower shelves were mostly on dragons.  Not a surprise—as very large and unpredictable creatures, not to mention deadly, they certainly attracted one’s attention.  As I scanned the shelves, I thought that I probably should have paid more attention in school to the accumulated wizardly wisdom on dragons.  I had only ever met one once, a memorable occasion—one never forgets one’s first dragon—and had been remarkably short on wizardly wisdom.
I pulled a few volumes off the shelf and glanced inside, but they mostly seemed descriptive.  If generations of wizards had found a way to master dragons, they were not sharing.
But I wasn’t looking for dragons anyway.  I rose slowly toward the upper shelves, bringing a magic lamp with me.  It looked like someone else was researching magical creatures, for there were several gaps.  Lamp light flickered across books on giants, on wood nymphs, on nixies, on purple flying beasts.  But nothing on Ifriti.
Well, this section focused on the northern land of magic, not the East.  I floated back to the floor and considered.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to learn any more about Ifriti, having had more than enough up-close contact with one.  Instead, I wanted to learn more about Eastern magic.
Here at the school, studies focused on the spells that the wizards of the Western Kingdoms had developed and refined over the centuries.  But our trip had taken us through the Eastern Kingdoms, where the dark wizard-princes practiced the magic of blood and bone, even before we reached the great cities and empty deserts of the true East, where the mages worked from entirely different principles.
Although, as I had told Titus, the East didn’t have much in the way of different magical creatures—other of course than Ifriti—the magic itself was inherently strange.  I had stumbled my way through it with only the slightest idea of what was going on, but perhaps it was not too late to find out.

Where in the library would I find books on eastern magic?  I couldn’t remember ever seeing such a section.  Once again I wove my way between tables and book stands.  One of the corners of the room seemed more brightly lit than the rest.  I came around a freestanding set of shelves to see, sitting at a table surrounded by open books—Elerius.

End of the first chapter!  For more detail on my books, visit my webpage.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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