His hand lay flat on the will-stone. Sterling pushed his fading magus power into the nexus to feed the shields. He did this every night at this hour, and it had been enough, but barely. The currents of power had never run high in him, and after weeks of siege they were stirred only with the greatest of effort.
If the shield fails, the armies of March will pour into the city. The guards will run or die. The city’s riches will be looted, the people abused. Anyone who was part of the existing rule will be put to death.
The stone flickered listlessly, and the shield was on the edge of failing. Fear and desperation had helped add impetus to his efforts, but as he became more drained, it would take more. He would have to dig stronger passions from deep in his largely frigid soul. He tried to goad his powers on…
The prince will be one of the first to die. He is brave enough to fight, honorable enough to refuse any chance to slip away. Young enough that he still believes all those myths about what a prince is supposed to do. If he does not die in the attack, the raiders of March will just find a more painful and lingering way to destroy him.
Sterling tried to drive his will forward with an image of the prince brought low, his proud face ground into the dirt, his life blood spilled on the dust. Who would not admire a chivalrous young man? And yes—a handsome one too. Who would not abhor the destruction of a good prince, son of a good king? Even one who was king only of a single town, and not a large one at that.
The stone flickered a little.
His palm on the stone, the magus felt its magical strength fading—from almost too bright to look at to weakly glowing. The shield was all but invincible so long as it stood, but the stone required its nightly feeding. He was the only one who could feed it, and he knew only one way. If only the city had not been so complacent for so long, the guard so small, the prosperity of the citizens so tempting… If only Sterling were a better magus or had been a less complacent one through all these years of peace.
Time was beginning to run short; more power was needed tonight. Where was the prince? The very thought of Auri’s expected arrival made Sterling draw himself up straight. He left one hand on the stone, hoping it might draw something more from him. With the other, he smoothed his robe, adjusted his leather-strap belt. He couldn’t tell anymore whether he was feeding the stone or drawing from it. He took his other hand away. The will-stone sank into a somber, ruddy glow, just enough to illuminate the windowless room.
Three long strides took him to the door. Sterling guiltily anticipated releasing some of his own impatience by scolding the prince for his tardiness. He increasingly struggled to hide his admiration for a man half his age, twice his beauty, and of another station in life entirely. He would never have dared to speak to such a paragon if he had not been assigned to tutor the prince in a few of the finer points of magic and ritual it behooved any future ruler to know.
Sterling flung the door open. The prince, who had clearly been in the act of reaching for the handle, did not even flinch.
“I am not late,” he said nervously. “And I do not know why I need to be here at all.”
Sterling folded his arms and frowned sternly. It was something of a reflex. Auri had a disconcerting effect on him, and he had learned that he couldn’t stop it; he could only try to hide it. Twenty-five years of careful tending and training had shaped the prince into a strapping young man with a sharp mind and a solid sense of right and wrong—perhaps a little too solid and uncompromising for a man set to inherit a crown. That’s why Auri was looking so flustered; he knew he was just a little
late, and soon he would confess it.
Even in his imperfections he was…
Sterling turned away.
“I am not very
late,” Auri added sharply.
“There is on time, and there is late. You are late. Close the door behind you.”
“Just a little late, but why did you ask me to come here anyway?” Auri closed the door, and the light dropped away to just the faint glimmering of the great stone pillar in the center of the room. The dim illumination it offered gently brushed the uneven walls, five paces away all around.
Just behind the pillar there lay a rough woven sack containing implements that would probably taint the prince’s pristine sense of right and wrong—but needs must. It was time he learned a lesson or two in pragmatism…well past time.
Sterling sighed. “We have our roles,” he said. “We each have our roles.” He stood with his arms loose by his sides and looked at the stone. It was not a perfectly smooth column, but bulged slightly at the height of his chest where its sullen light pulsed the strongest, and tapered somewhat near the ceiling and the floor.
The urge to look at Auri was strong. He felt the prince, who had come to his side, facing him. The one thing Sterling had over Auri was a few inches of height. Oh, and a strong mind with a good memory. He knew without looking that the prince’s face was tanned, symmetrical, his pale blue eyes ringed with a gold circle near the iris. There was a small scar on his brow just above his left—
Sterling reached out toward the pillar, the loose sleeves of his robe falling back from his hand and wrist. He splayed his fingers, pressed their tips onto the stone just on the shoulder of its widest section. He tilted his head slightly to the side, studying the response as he drew his hand slowly downward over its surface. It was not smooth like marble or rough like pumice, but more like doe skin or suede…more in fact like skin, but harder. And the response of the stone to his touch was muted, fading, dying.
For a moment Sterling stopped deliberately ignoring the prince, and in that moment he turned his head, like a lodestone to true north. Auri was watching him too, with rapt attention, eyes darting between Sterling’s face and his hand. The prince’s breath seemed a little fast; perhaps he had been running to try to arrive on time. That would explain his tangled hair and flushed face. Auri’s eyes glinted in the near dark, and he looked directly at Sterling. Just for a moment, resolute and unapologetic, like the king he should someday become.
Then Sterling knew the old tomes were right. If this had to be done, it must be done by the prince.
Auri shook his head. “What role do I have down here? I am not a magus.”
“No.” Sterling smiled sadly. He took a discreet step backward, uncomfortable with the prince’s proximity. “Nor am I all that much of one… No, no,” he cut off Auri’s protestations to the contrary. The prince had been very young when the magi had left Murrin Meer. He had never seen real magic. “Magic is, as I have so often told you—”
and will.” And Sterling knew the limitations of his own capacity. “But only will is subject to change, to improvement.” Auri had, at least, remembered half of the lesson. He could not be said to be a particularly promising student, but it seemed to be more a lack of application than a deficit in intelligence. “I have intimated to your father that even by the most optimistic of estimates, I can hold this shield perhaps another ten days. I have not burdened his mind with how I will accomplish even that. Nor do not believe he wants to know.”
The stone was not warm. Its light, unlike any light in nature, was cold. Sterling withdrew his hand from it, and the room descended again almost into darkness.
“I don’t understand,” Auri said plainly.
Sterling folded his arms again, using the gesture to obscure a second step backward, away from the prince. He did not like how close Auri tended to stand to him. It was an intrusive quirk that had become more bothersome of late. It was hard to say if the prince was becoming more familiar or if Sterling was simply becoming more sensitive to his proximity as Auri entered a secure maturity and an adult form of attractiveness. Auri was no longer a callow youth, though Sterling could still hide behind the pretense that he was just a dispassionate teacher.
“The force with which a river moves results directly from the volume of the water and the focus of the channel through which it is forced to move,” Sterling said with what he considered admirable outward calm. “I have used every method I know, that I can employ alone, and those options have now been exhausted.”
“I still don’t understand.” But this time it was the prince who took a step backward. He was beginning to realize that something was wrong, that this was a lesson he was not going to like.
“You never met the other members of my order, but you know the pillars of their discipline. They use certain tools to serve the ambition of the Order. Ambition was a quality I never possessed in conspicuous amounts, but the principles remain the same.”
. Pain, which is more effective when the mind cannot fully prepare itself, when it is produced by an outside agent.”
Sterling has been secretly relieved when given the chance to leave the Order. An order where magi scourged one another for power and from spite, in an endless, tangled cycle of fraternity, hate, and lust for power that drove him almost insane—all the while denying that they were barely better than any other kind of mercenary. Maybe worse.
And since he stayed behind in the meer, a prosperous town but small, with means and needs to that scale, he had been comfortably numb from almost every emotion. Every emotion but one, and he knew the cure for that.
This time it was Auri that folded his arms. “I will not do it.”
“Examine the logic of the situation,” Sterling instructed. “Do you doubt that I am at the end of my resources?” It was hard to see Auri now, with a little more distance between them and the room so dark.
“No,” Auri conceded. “I mean, you seem…tired, and I do not doubt your word. I never would.”
“Then who else would you have me ask?”
Sterling wrapped his scant power in even more meager discipline. It was all he had—and he fancied most people in the town were impressed enough by a magus of any kind. Few would dare raise a whip to him, even at his command. Besides, this would be a very convenient way to get rid of his inconvenient infatuation with the prince.
“Quite,” Sterling concluded to Auri’s lack of reply. “You are probably the only person sufficiently familiar with me to dare it and entirely capable of understanding the necessity. And besides, this is your town, so it is your duty.”
The faint light skittered over Auri’s pale hair as he shook his head. But Sterling suspected that the prince would do it. He truly had very little choice.
“I promised ten days,” Sterling continued, the matter settled in his mind. “So we can only hope nothing too extreme is required today. Something needs to be held in reserve. And it will give you some time to get used to the necessities of the situation.”
He felt with his toe and found the sack again. It held a number of instruments from his former life. He reached down into the sack and considered them with his fingers. The long lash would allow Auri to keep some distance from what he was doing, but it took skill to use and required more space than was available. The flogger would simply not cause enough to pain to do any good. The foil whip could kill him far too quickly; it caused such horrendous bleeding, and there was always the danger of taking an infection.
He found his long-neglected friend, a simple lacquered lash. It was an arm’s-length rod much like a fishing rod, but its narrow tip was hard and flexed just enough to bite down hard on a bare back. Sterling drew it out.
When he turned, Auri was a step or two closer to the door. “There must be another way,” the prince protested.
“If you find it, do let me know,” Sterling responded drily. “If I could do this alone, I would. But as I have explained, the mind prepares itself for any self-inflicted damage. The effect is greatly lessened by that anticipation. The time I could buy would be much shorter.”
Auri look the whip when it was handed to him. He had a habit of obedience that he would have to break one day, but it was useful now. But he held it limply down by his side. Its slim black length blended away into the darkness like it was hardly there at all.
“The time until what, exactly?” Auri asked.
“What sacrifice is too great, with a thousand lives in the balance?”
“This is one time, my tutor, when a question does not answer a question.”
“You know the answer,” Sterling said coldly. The prince was an intelligent young man, but he could be a lazy thinker and rarely applied himself unless he could see a point to it. That was why Sterling had started to make him find his own way to an answer rather than having it delivered to him.
He turned his back and loosed the belt of his black robe and the laces of the tunic beneath.