When I saw Prince Jestin rushing to join my carriage, nose carving the air like a tiny, snotty shark’s fin, I actually wanted to die in the Spirit Ring tomorrow.
Half a dozen guards protected him, which was six too many by my reckoning. Fifth in line for the throne and about as smart as an earthworm with piles, no one would want to assassinate him anyway, except for maybe the King if he ever got round to anything as public-spirited as a cost-cutting initiative.
Jestin dismounted clumsily, mainly on account of not wishing to lower his gaze to anything so common as the ground, then stood outside the carriage waiting for one of his men to open the door for him. Once inside, he took the seat in the corner diagonally opposite me then waved his men away to flank us.
A long silence followed. Being well past the age of caring what royalty thought, and doomed besides, I could easily have taken a little nap right then. But duty called, or rather tugged at the remains of my conscience, so I said, “Would you like me to instruct the party to move off, sire?”
He waited a moment then turned to face me. “Wizard,” he said, only it came out bearing the latest high society affectation, a lisp—withard, God help me. “You may indeed issue such an instruction.”
There’s nothing better than low-ranking, fad-following royalty for extinguishing any last desire to even bother fighting for one’s life against other wizards in the Ring. But I leaned out the window anyway, whistled to the lead man, and we lurched forward, the carriage springs groaning into action. For a minute or two, our little cabin resonated with the sounds of horses neighing, leather straps creaking, men shouting. Dust from the hot road swirled in too, but Jestin acted as if it would never dare clog his royal nostrils. He looked out his window, casually waving a royal hand to the peasants at the side of the road, few of whom, it has to be said, reciprocated.
We didn’t speak as the carriage left the city and headed south along the east bank of the River Dalfang. The quiet suited me, since I wanted to absorb images of the land I loved and would almost certainly never return to. Like most countries in the northern world, however, the beauty of the mountains, wooded valleys and emerald meadows belied the harsh life experienced by the majority of its occupants.
“Withard,” said Jestin without looking at me. “We are most pleased with the smooth movement of this carriage. Pray tell, is this the result of your magic?”
Ah-hah, what was this? A touch of curiosity poking its beak above the mental fog of privilege?
“Actually,” I said, “it’s nothing more than the result of a well-proportioned mixture of lubricants applied to the crucial bearings just before we left. Sire.”
Another silence followed, in which I assumed he’d lost interest and returned to contemplating his gold-plated navel. But then he said, “We would hear more about magic, if you please.”
Now, when I was younger and still full of missionary vim about changing the world for the better, such a request would have engorged my wand faster than a working woman could raise a farm boy’s interest. But experience had taught me that dissertations on magical systems are incredibly dull for all save the oblivious nincompoop who actually believes anyone wants to listen. No, when people ask you what you ‘do’, all they really want is a snappy line or two they can repeat over dinner later.
Well, to hell with that. I said, “Do you believe all good must be paid for?”
He blushed. “Are you implying the necessary comforts of royalty are not earned?”
“Actually, I just gave you the essence of the Legwin system of magic.”
“It seems rather blunt.”
“Everyone would like to be rich, sire, but the truth is there’s only so much wealth a nation can produce; so if one man takes more of it, another man has to live with less.”
I watched him struggle with righteous anger over this and admired his royal training in decorum when, instead of calling the guards to throw me in the nearest sewage ditch with my wand rammed where it hurt, he simply said, “Are there not two magical systems in Arcanadia?”
“Yes; you may prefer the other, sire: the Roeling system.”
“And why is that?”
“Roeling wizards believe magic lies outside the laws of cause and effect, therefore there is no price to pay for using it. Other than the wizard’s fee, of course.”
“I see,” he said. “Clearly, you follow the Legwin system, Wizard Ambrose.”
Well, what do you know? He’d actually bothered to find out my name before boarding. Interesting.
“I’m old-fashioned,” I said, deciding to dispense from now on with ‘sire’ and ‘your grace’ or any other hollow gloss his kind demanded in order to fan the illusion that they didn’t skid-mark their pants from time to time like everyone else. “Correction: I’m old. I know that every pleasure has to be paid for with pain, sooner or later. Yet a life without pleasure isn’t worth living.”
So it was that my mind wandered across my life, remembering the pleasures; I didn’t need reminding of the pains. But he spoke again then, bringing me back. “And why do you go to Nerwan?”
I didn’t need to ask why he was visiting our neighbouring country, it being an open secret amongst the few who cared that his old man had decided to marry him off to King Rusper’s youngest daughter, hoping, no doubt, she’d want to set up home next door to her own folks.
“I’m going to die there,” I said.
“We do not understand.”
“Fifteen old wizard farts are getting together in an underground cavern, and the one who wants to live the most takes all the remaining spirit left in the others. He or she is filled with youth again and the rest die.”
“How frightfully harsh.”
“We figure it’s better to have one wizard full of virile fizz to give the world than fifteen burnt out wrecks whose wands soon won’t be good for anything except scratching their backs.”
“We think we see . . . .”
I didn’t think he did. How could he possibly understand the fair finality of the Spirit Ring—that only the one who still yearned for life was given it, while those too tired had it taken away?
I turned back to the window, but after only a minute or so he said, “I worry that I won’t love her.”
I should have felt honoured—royalty normally confined use of the personal pronoun to their nearest and dearest. But his mention of ‘love’ just wearied me further.
“So what if you don’t?” I said, ignoring his shocked expression at my less than respectful tone. “It won’t stop you doing your duty, will it? I doubt there’s ever been a royal couple who married for love, anyway. It’d be damned inconvenient, what with all that ‘living in separate wings’ business and having to remain two paces apart in public at all times.”
“I don’t mean love like that,” he said. “I just want to marry someone who will speak to me as honestly as you have done.” He blushed and looked away, which was as well since my jaw had fallen open at this most un-royal-like declaration.
“Mother and father don’t communicate,” he said. “They barely even look at each other, unless it’s required by the occasion. I want a woman I can share my life with, so we can both learn and be better.”
Now, to a non-wizard, all this would no doubt sound like the ravings of a spoilt brat looking for a ‘real’ life because he had no chance of getting his hands on his family’s power. But I followed Legwin and therefore knew about cause and effect. So I reckoned that maybe this prince acted like such a royal ponce in public simply because he was too scared to face his strongest need.
Well, it wasn’t my battle, and I needed to prepare for my own end. So I said, “Let’s hope the princess is what you’re looking for,” and, despite his look of disappointment, went back to watching the landscapes of my dwindling life pass by.
We parted company in the main square of Jondee City. Watching him stick his nose back in the air and stride off as if he had a grapefruit up his backside, I assumed our little talk had been a mere diversion for him after all. I shrugged, made my way to the part of town where the shadows shape themselves, and booked into an inn.
I’d travelled light and had only three items to unpack: a brand new tooth-branch, a book of pirate stories, and a clean set of underclothes. This last made me smile, considering the state my bowels would quickly reach in the Spirit Ring; but there you are—our habits die last, and mine had always been to dress clean each day.
I spent the evening supping bear and reading about pantomime rogues in eye patches who roam the seventeen seas, worrying damsels but ultimately remaining faithful only to their parrots who always agree with everything they say. You may wonder why I didn’t study magic at this crucial stage, to try gaining an edge over my rivals in tomorrow’s face-off. But the truth was, it made no difference. All that counted was the desire to live, and no amount of study could increase that at my age.
In the morning, I ordered the most expensive breakfast the inn provided and took it at a table in the small backroom with a large, leaded window overlooking a pleasant garden. I ate more than was comfortable but felt content, and had just poured my third cup of coffee when the door flew back and Jestin entered breathless and wild-eyed.
“Wizard Ambrose!” he burbled, “it’s taken half the night to find you.”
Being royal, he didn’t of course seek permission before taking the seat opposite. Whatever had possessed him to find me, it was clear that the curious, animated boy now occupied him once again; which was at least better than the nose-hoisting toff I’d last seen. But I’d had enough experience to know that when a prince, even a low-ranked one, goes looking for you, your buttocks are almost certainly about to be slung over hot coals. So I did not reply, suddenly aware of the age pains in my knees and hips and elbows, not to mention my brain.
“I’m in love!” he declared, as if announcing he’d discovered the existence of God. “She is beautiful, aloof and kind. As soon as my eyes lit upon her, my soul blossomed like a hundred cactus flowers when the rare desert rain falls.”
“That’s wonderful, your highness,” I said. “But I wouldn’t recommend sending her any poetry just yet, at least not yours.”
“I have to have her.”
“But you’ve got her, surely: didn’t your father make an arrangement with Rusper?”
“You don’t understand. It’s not Greshun I’m in love with. It’s her sister, Temaline.”
“Ah, I see; and what did you do?”
Temaline was first in line to the throne in Nerwan, and as such would surely already be spoken for. By someone important, and no doubt mighty.
“I challenged her suitor to a duel tonight,” he said. “He’s a prince from the fighting lands of Arkbraken; a master of thirteen combat disciplines.”
Well, at least it’d be a short fight. “And what did Rusper have to say about all this?”
“He has agreed to its legitimacy: whichever of us wins will be her husband.”
And in time the new king, I thought. But then, if Rusper had seen this boy, he wouldn’t exactly be sweating on the outcome.
“You must help me,” he said, snapping back into the urgency that had brought him here.
“Kid, I’m about three hours from shuffling off my worldly flesh and bones; how can I possibly help?”
“Be my second; use your magic to counter his wizard’s. Make it a fair fight.”
“I don’t think you’re listening: by tonight my body will be broken and my magic dispersed upon the astral winds.”
“Then you must make sure you win today.”
So I lied to him, and why not? I wouldn’t be around to cop his anger at my no-show: let him at least spend a day in hope before meeting his inevitable bloody fate. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll win it for you.”
He nodded gratefully, stood, then without another word, left the room, nose for once humbly horizontal.
The Spirit Ring took place in an abandoned salt mine. The treacherous nature of the unsafe shafts meant only those possessing a wizard’s magic could reach the huge cavern, partly natural, partly man-made, that lay deep at its core.
It perhaps goes without saying that the Ring was for Legwinian wizards only. Roelingians believe magic intrinsically protects every wizard’s spirit, and therefore they refuse to acknowledge when age brings mistakes and underpowered interventions—addledness eventually proving their point only to themselves.
We gathered to one side of the cavern, greeting each other a little cautiously but for the most part with genuine warmth. I embraced old colleagues I hadn’t seen for decades, surprised at how thin they were, how sharp their bones beneath my palms. We looked alike from the neck down, in our black silk cloaks, black tunics, black trousers and black boots. But above the uniform all was, at least to me, a fascinating spectrum of hard-earned individuality—several different glints of wisdom in the eye; wrinkles formed by laughter mainly, some of solemn respect; grey hair frazzled and abandoned or oiled and sleek; but all these differences settled firmly around our spirits and I loved them all because of it.
Someone called time and we shuffled reluctantly into the vastness. Each climbed wearily upon a pedestal of salt-veined rock and above each head a blue globe of spirit-light bloomed, the shadows above us thickening in response. A million silver shards glinted upon the walls, hinting at the natural riches long ago plundered.
Then it began.
My stomach lurched, spirit flooding up my spine and into the globe. My body trembled weakly, quickly depleted, dying. All that remained of any of us now were our wills. The globes twisted, extended, spun, as our wills engaged. I could not distinguish individuals any longer, but sensed few in any case who cared enough to fight. The effort to remain corporate seemed inversely equal to the years spent holding the flesh against the burning of the magic in our spirits.
My own spirit stretched, lost itself in the generality of our kind, and my self-ness saw no reason to continue to be.
But then, right at the point of oblivion, and perhaps because of it, an irk dug into my will; an absurd but real vision formed: Jestin would be a good king. His falling in love with Temaline was not a simple accident of the heart, but a sign that his spirit had chosen a tough and testing path, and my hard-won wizard’s instinct knew this to be true.
I tried not to care but couldn’t avoid the fact that good kings are rare. Any natural feeling of the community of spirit royals may possess at birth is soon flushed out of them by a training heavy in inflated self-worth and righteous dominion. Yet somehow this kid’s spirit had remained sufficiently pure that he’d actually fallen in love with someone imminently unsuitable, far above his ranking, in the utterly stupid but ultimately determining toff’s order of birth.
And he wanted me to help.
A surge then, like the sheer promiscuousness of a child’s love of life, an indefatigable sense of destiny to be fulfilled, exploded in my spirit globe. Magic flared all around, blinding me; then I opened my eyes and my heart broke.
My fourteen companions lay crumpled and lifeless on their pedestals, engulfed by cold shadows, their spirit globes gone. Never had I felt so lonely. But only for a moment, because then the flood of sheer, youthful hope revived my muscles, flesh and mind. Born again, perhaps, but this time with real work to do. My friends, I hoped, would be proud of me.
Jondee’s main stadium was filling quickly; I suppose the promise of blood spilled and a royal princess broken-hearted if the wrong man succeeded is a winner every time. As Jestin and I walked along the marble road towards the entry arch, the aromas of cooked meats and breads filled our nostrils, and the hubbub of market traders making the most of the crowds deafened us. The prince was pale and silent, clearly not hungry, and while I could have eaten an entire roast donkey, I decided to show solidarity with his lack of appetite and go hungry too.
Torches lining our route threw fascinating shadows amongst the multi-coloured costumes of the fight fanatics around us. No one knew Jestin, of course, so our passage was unimpeded by well-wishers. He wore a nondescript beige cloak and, hidden beneath it, oiled body armour. Holstered to his back was a sword hastily purchased just an hour ago. He’d dismissed his armed guard at my suggestion—I figured the less attention he drew to himself before the actual duel the better.
We made our way to the competitors’ quarters under the royal stand where we were assigned a pokey room stinking of sweat, there to wait while the early fights stirred up the crowd. Jestin made practice sweeps with his sword and I sat on a sticky bench, contemplating.
Being a prince, he’d been schooled in combat by the best soldiers in the kingdom. However, what royalty gains in the quality of its teachers it tends to lose in its lack of hunger to excel. Yes, he was fit and well-fed but even I—someone who’d never even touched a weapon—could see that his reach and thrust and swipe lacked the raw brutality that might save his life.
He must have sensed my thoughts for he stopped swinging the sword to say, “I’m relying on your magic to aid me, Wizard Ambrose.”
I gestured at my civilian clothes. “I’ve already explained, it’s illegal for a wizard to use magic to aid his master in a royal duel, and highly frowned upon even for him to be a second.”
“But Prince Doghmart is sure to be attended by a wizard; one who’ll use magic.”
“I’ll watch him closely, and if that is the case, I shall do the same. But you are the challenger here, and can’t afford to be the first caught cheating.”
He nodded, not arguing. I was impressed at how much he’d changed; or perhaps not—maybe he just needed a cause to show what had always lived deep within. And maybe I’d just needed a rush of new spirit to appreciate it.
We made our way to the inner stadium, stopping just before the torch-bright shining sand ring, waiting for the marshal to wave us in. Directly opposite, another shadowed arch showed a marshal holding back our opponent, hidden in the darkness.
Then we received the signal and walked together into the light and the tumultuous noise from the rowdy crowd, which mostly sent boos in our direction. As we made our way to the combat circle in the middle of the arena, I glanced around, as did Jestin, looking for the royal box. And it was not difficult to find, on account of the fantastic amount of torch light playing upon it.
In the middle of the front row sat Rusper, ridiculously impassive, as if to show he was above such common blood-lust. But of course I could easily read the pornographic glint in his eye. Next to him sat the young woman who must have been Temaline and, if Jestin needed anything more to drain his confidence, it would have been her disdainful and very public sneer in his direction before fixing her gaze resolutely on Doghmart: clearly a woman who knew which side of her royal muffin is best buttered.
Doghmart, incidentally, looked like a pile of rubble squeezed into body armour. He stood, leaning on his sword and smiling good-naturedly, as if deciding not so much whether he could win this fight as to how far to prolong it in order to entertain the crowd.
Next to him, a second dressed in a brown cotton gown had the unmistakeable look of a Roeling wizard about him, and we watched each other closely as our boys prepared to fight. Of course, he didn’t need to use magic since Doghmart could probably tear off Jestin’s head without breaking sweat, but I suspected the king would not take any risks where having a non-entity for a successor was concerned.
And, yes, there it was: a sly gesture from the second, directing etheric poison to Doghmart’s sword edge, so that just a nick to Jestin’s flesh would finish the boy.
I whispered in the prince’s ear that his enemy’s second had cheated. He dipped his head so none could see him speak, and said, “Can you counteract his magic?”
“I could, but only by adopting the Roeling system of his wizard, which means if you win there’ll be an unknown price to pay; not now necessarily, but in time.”
He looked at me, torn. Oddly enough, by contrast I felt deeply satisfied then, that being a Legwinian meant I’d always knowingly paid the price and therefore never been dismayed by it. And now I chose to do so again, gladly.
“But there is another way,” I said, “one without a price, for you at least.”
“Instead of using his own kind of magic against him, I can activate Legwinian means to boost your spirit with mine. It will be freely given by me so there is no tally for you to pay.”
I let him see in my eyes the admiration of an old wizard whose most precious magic—his optimism that the world can be a better place—had been restored.
“But what will it cost you?” he said.
“Just a few years of the youth I have gained from my fallen companions.”
In fact, of this I could not be sure; it might cost me all, but still I judged it a fair exchange.
With the impatient roar of the crowd all but drowning our conversation, he stared into my eyes, searching for duplicity. “You would do this for me?”
And then I saw the true royalty in this man. He understood fully in that moment what it meant to be a king: that while the people’s hearts and minds belong to him, his very spirit is theirs, now and forever. For the ultimate responsibility of those strong in spirit, whether wizards or royalty, is to ensure it isn’t wasted.
I prepared to transfer my essence to his, holding out my hands, trusting that the Roelingian wizard opposite would never suspect I’d make such a sacrifice and therefore would see only a last handshake of encouragement between us.
But before I could grasp his hands, the prince turned and ran at his opponent, sword raised. With horror, I saw Doghmart calmly take a step forward, then swing his sword in a cunning arc, at the height of Jestin’s neck.
Incredibly, the boy anticipated it, ducked and rolled forward, clattering into the second, knocking him down as if a bag of firewood. The crowd roared with laughter but I dreaded the speed with which Doghmart turned.
Jestin crawled free of the second then sprang to his feet. Re-entering the battle circle, he backed off from his opponent, seeking time to plan a strategy. Doghmart no longer smiled, now concentrated on killing fast, having clearly decided his life came first and entertaining the crowd second.
I called to Jestin, beckoned him to me, determined to transfer the spirit that would give wing to his muscles. But he just shook his head and kept away. I broiled inside with utter frustration, carrying the means to save him but unable to pass it on. Damn his idealism. Yet I knew what motivated him: the need to go to her, if he won, with a clear conscience that he’d done it purely though his own efforts. Despite my helplessness, I had to admire his choice to take the Legwinian approach.
Oh, and he fought bravely, lasting a full five minutes. But in the end, Doghmart did not need his second’s magic; strength and skill guided a series of feints before he plunged his sword through Jestin’s armour, into his heart, then withdrew it.
The crowd shouted in animalistic rapture while I rushed to kneel by my master’s side. Doghmart’s demeanour was sober as he placed a hand on my shoulder. “He did not let you help him, did he?” he said. I shook my head then put an arm behind my prince’s neck.
“I’m glad you didn’t have to be a Roelingian,” said Jestin.
I looked up to see Doghmart’s wizard smirk, and at that moment I did a foolish thing. Using Roeling magic, I conjured an astral bee and directed it to sting Doghmart’s sword hand. He yelped and loosened his grip; then I formed an air wedge to send the sword at his second, the blade slicing through the wizard’s robe, nicking his leg. It was enough: the magicked edge sent poison into his veins and he fell to the sand in agony.
Such a misuse of my beliefs would no doubt cost me several years of life, but I didn’t care.
“I’m sorry,” said Jestin.
“For what?” I said.
“For not letting you help me.” He smiled wryly. “I know now she doesn’t love me.”
“Well, she is her father’s child.”
“What of your father, Ambrose?”
“He didn’t love me; or at least he didn’t love my choice to become a wizard.”
Jestin winced with death pains and I leaned close to hear his last words.
“Tell my father,” he said, “that I chose to be myself.”
“I will, Prince Jestin,” I said. “I also vow to put aside cynicism and carry forward the hope of my brothers and sisters, to look for another like you.”
I don’t know if he heard me before the end, but someone else did.
“Perhaps we could speak later, Wizard Ambrose,” said Doghmart, his serious expression in marked contrast to the still-baying crowd. “I feel there may be more to being a king than winning.”
I raised my gaze to Doghmart and stared hard at him for a moment. He didn’t look away, and was that glint in his eyes—dared I hope—the beginnings of a desire to be something other?
“Yes,” I said, “we should talk.”