Mage Strike (The Enslaved Chronicles Book 2), page 1
The Enslaved Chronicles: Book 2
R. K. Thorne
Iron Antler Books
2. Rumors & Agendas
4. The Taste of Freedom
10. Truths & Accusations
11. Drawing the Line
12. The Road
13. Into the Deep
14. Dreams & Nightmares
15. The White City
About the Author
Copyright © 2016 by R. K. Thorne
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Edited by Elizabeth Nover, Razor Sharp Editing
Cover designed by Damonza
Created with Vellum
For DG, another lost too soon. Thank you for all those memories of playing mage as children. And thanks for reminding me of the limits of time and the transcendence of love. You are missed.
“It’s going to be fine. I’m sure everyone will listen to reason,” Aven said. He and Miara had crested the ridge, and the long, narrow bridge to Estun stretched out before them. That expanse of stone was all that stood between them and his home.
If only he could be sure it would be a cheerful homecoming. He’d practiced confessing he was a mage and tried to figure the chances of being exiled on the spot but had given up without drawing any conclusions. The only thing he knew for sure was that no one would want to hear his news.
“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?” She gave him a crooked smile.
“You know me too well.”
“You know people rarely listen to reason.”
Aven hung his head as they rode forward, knowing it was true. He owed his people the details of their journey and all that had transpired. Everything they thought about mages needed to change, lest they face war woefully underprepared. Knowing he needed to tell them this didn’t stop him from dreading it, however.
“If reason doesn’t work, there’s always appealing to their hearts. Or bribery. Or threats,” she said.
“That seems to work well for King Demikin.”
Aven shook his head at the Kavanarian king. Of course, neither of them wanted to mimic that fool’s methods.
“You also have a veteran kidnapper on your side now,” she continued. “That has to count for something.”
“You’re joking, right? To help me relax?” They’d taken an extra day as he’d tried to gather his thoughts. They could have flown back, had it been urgent. Instead, they’d lingered as long as he’d dared.
She smiled mischievously, eyes intent on the bridge before them.
“Don’t forget your ability to set them on fire or strike them with lightning. If they won’t listen to anything else, maybe that will get through to them.”
“I can’t even do that yet.” He laughed.
“They don’t know that.” She flashed a broader grin and then returned her eyes to the approaching fortress. The pale stone bridge crossed a deep valley and offered a promenade wide enough for two wagons to pass side by side, a marvel of construction. Estun itself sat pewter gray and regal on the side of the mountain. Towers flew the same midnight and steel flags as the watchtowers they’d passed, the symbol of sword and shield adorning each. Eyes from those heights tracked their approach. He hoped he was recognizable enough to avoid any arrows nocked in his direction. Miara had sent word ahead via a bird and a scroll that Aven had penned, sharing the news that they’d escaped and were returning. These tower guards should be expecting them.
The great oak doors stood open, splitting the wooden inlay of a roaring bear, another of Akaria’s royal symbols. Through the gatehouse and its three portcullises, the courtyard and stables lay beyond, its cobblestones as welcoming as flat, gray stones could be.
His mother swept into the courtyard and spotted them. She waved, the wind snapping the sapphire-blue fabric of her gown.
The weak winter sun sank toward the tops of the peaks. Midday had passed, but dinner was not yet near. Aven and Miara dismounted and handed off their horses to a stable girl. His mother attacked him with a fierce hug before he could even take a step into Estun.
“It’s good to see you again too,” he murmured in her ear. “Think everyone will be happy to see me?”
She pulled away, pressing her lips together in annoyance. “Your father asked the Assembly members to meet here when we received your missive. Lord Alikar has just arrived—even though he came the shortest distance, mind you. He’s causing trouble already.”
“No rest for the weary, eh?”
“Apparently. But no matter.” His mother turned toward Miara now. “I believe we haven’t yet been formally introduced.”
Miara had been hovering behind his shoulder, and now she blushed. Huh, that wasn’t an expression he’d seen before. He stepped aside so the two could face each other.
“Mother, Miara Floren. Miara, Elise Lanuken, queen of Akaria.”
The two exchanged slight bows, Miara’s appropriately deeper than his mother’s.
“It is… good to actually meet you,” his mother said. The awkwardness in the air around them was far greater than Aven had expected. Perhaps it was odd to have only met someone via magic before. Especially when, at the time, they happened to be kidnapping your son.
“Let’s head in,” Aven said to break the tension. “Might as well get this over with.” The women nodded, and they headed inside.
The sounds of shouts and tense voices rose, followed by the angered murmurs of a large group. A quarrel was apparently already well underway. Aven and Miara hurried after his mother down the beautifully arched corridor that led to his father’s meeting chamber. Ah, familiar sights. It was good to be home. Mostly.
“Even the thought of a mage as king is an outrage—”
Well, that boded well.
“Last I heard, we don’t make a habit of upending the realm over a rumor or two.” Lord Dyon’s voice, ever the skeptic.
“I have it on very good authority. Word arrived earlier today by bird from Kavanar—”
“Very good authority? Our direst enemies, those who have constantly battled your people for generations, and you—”
“Piety does not know national borders.”
“Well, I promise you those Kavanarian bastards do, and they want your land.”
Aven cleared his throat from the stone archway that led into the chambers. The room fell silent. His mother stood at his side, looking regal and irritated, and Miara on the other, still in her old riding leathers and newly acquired daggers, which were strapped to her thighs. The two of them together cut a formidable image; he was lucky to have them at his side. He wore peasant clothes—brown leather pants and a plain, dirt-colored linen tunic that had lost its sleeves. A freezing and impractical piece of clothing without his cloak, and perhaps even with it, but he rather liked it. He’d wanted to lose any clothing from Mage Hall. And the lack of sleeves showed off his battle scars—the wounds on each shoulder from when the Maste
Tried, he reminded himself. Tried and failed. If I can get out of that mess, I can figure this out too. Open rebellion was nothing on potential enslavement and murder, right? If he could escape that hellhole alive, avoiding civil war should be a stroll in the garden.
“Glad to hear you missed me, my lords,” Aven said.
The group parted as he approached and took his place standing at the table. He forced himself to relax and act comfortable in the tense silence. He tucked his thumbs in his belt and regarded the first voice with a sardonic smile. Lord Alikar. The young, black-haired lord met his easy smile with a glare over an ostentatious bristling of white fox fur around the shoulders of his brown cloak. Alikar was the most junior member of the Assembly, elected for the shortest term, only three years. Born the heir to a wealthy silver mine, Alikar currently presided over the western territory of Gilaren, which shared its border with Kavanar. That was much of the land that Miara and Aven had traveled through, and it occurred to him now that Alikar was also a novice priest of Nefrana, although he hadn’t finished his training and still spent most of his time ruling his territory. Aven hadn’t thought to connect Alikar’s supposed devotion with the number of Devoted squads and bigots they’d encountered. At least, not until now. But seeing Alikar’s glare, he couldn’t help but wonder. Could the bastard even be welcoming Devoted into his lands?
“Your Highness,” Alikar started after a moment, “I’ve received some news which troubles me greatly. I’ve heard—”
“It’s true.” Aven tried to keep his face straight as Alikar stiffened. It was all he could do to keep from grinning in defiance. “But I do believe I can serve our kingdom even more effectively as a result. We face an unprecedented threat.”
“But my lord—”
“What’s true?” Devol growled from the back. “I can never hear anything back here.” Devol was not an elected or born noble, but he was a hell of a soldier. Their master of arms always worried he was being left out of things, perhaps because he’d worked his way to a high position through heroism and skill in battle rather than birth. Or perhaps it was because he was simply nosy. And, Aven suspected, it didn’t help that he was shorter than nearly everyone in the room and still often ended up stuck in the back.
“I’m a mage, Dev,” Aven called.
Murmurs swept the room, but many strove to contain their reactions. Either they were all great diplomats, or they all already knew. Or perhaps both.
Alikar looked to the king. “Nefrana condemns this. We will not abide by this. You must do something.”
“Is that so? Aven is the same well-trained strategist and accomplished swordsman he was a fortnight ago. I don’t see how this changes anything.” Samul folded his arms across his chest.
“This cannot stand. Thel must replace him. If you will not name a new heir, I will call a meeting of the Assembly. This must be stopped.”
Samul scowled at him. Dev piped in from the back. “Looks like you’ve already got an Assembly here, don’t you?”
“Lord Sven did not trouble himself to answer my summons,” Samul growled. “So, no. We cannot vote formally without him. But an Assembly is not necessary.”
“Then I will—”
“Calm yourself. Your rashness is uncalled for.” Warden Asten glared at Alikar, leaning forward, her chainmail catching the firelight. “We haven’t even heard what Prince Aven’s had to say.”
“I’ve heard everything I need to hear. The people of Gilaren will not abide—”
“They will abide,” Samul thundered. “This kingdom is ruled by laws, not the whines of spoiled young kittens.”
Aven had not thought it possible for Alikar’s face to look any more sour or severe, but he somehow managed it at that insult. “And what about the laws of the gods?”
“There are no laws against a mage as our king,” Samul said, voice strained. “Believe what you like, but this land is governed by the rule of law. Akarian law. And—most importantly—by me.”
“We all must answer to the gods.”
The look his father gave Alikar was dark and dangerous. “Do you dare judge me?” he said, his voice quiet as the grave.
Alikar’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and he froze.
“I am sure that in your priesthood, you must have learned that judgment belongs to Mastikos. Nefrana tells us, do not steal from the gods their right to judge. An eternal hell reaping the fields with a dull scythe—is that not the penalty for those who steal from the gods?”
The king paused. Alikar met his gaze, unflinching. The lord clearly did not know Samul well if he was at all surprised by his king’s words.
“Am I wrong? Educate me, oh holy one.” The king’s voice was barely louder than a whisper.
Alikar did not immediately respond, and the silence stretched on. Finally, the young lord spoke. “Your Highness and members of the Assembly, I formally call for a convening of the Assembly of Akaria to meet in the capital, Panar, in two weeks’ time.”
Aven gritted his teeth. The man had to be a simpleton or a masochist to effectively spit in the king’s face. It had come to that already, had it? Aven had known some would reject his magic, but he hadn’t thought it would take this form. At least no one had called for him to be banished or executed. Yet.
“Certainly, we must have Lord Sven to have a true vote,” Alikar continued. “And as you have nothing to hide, I’m sure you’ll want to hold such a significant meeting where the royal archivists and chroniclers can attend. They’ll need to record the proceedings for posterity, after all.”
Of course. All the Assembly members were here, save one—and Alikar would insist on dragging them to the other side of the kingdom. He was unlikely to win any allies with that move, but perhaps he didn’t care. There was no arguing his point, however. The meeting should be properly recorded, and once an Assembly gathering was initiated, it must proceed. The Lanukens should have spent their lives in the capital anyway. Only their attempts to hide Aven’s magic had justified staying in Estun so long.
Alikar continued, “Additionally, Anonil and its people will not support a war against Kavanar under these circumstances, at least not until we have a proper heir.”
“What war against Kavanar?” Samul said, spreading his hands wide. “Ah, you propose we should ride to war over this grievous attack on our crown prince? Fine idea, my lord.”
Alikar’s glare deepened, but he did not reply. Instead, the lord turned and left with a swing of his furred cloak.
Daes settled into his armchair in his private study. Mage servants bustled about, setting the table before him. He’d invited Evana, the knight-princess, to breakfast with him privately this morning. He’d spent the night going over their options, and now he needed to get her take on them. And hopefully win her to do his bidding.
He had no idea how this would go. She was straightforward like he was, which he liked. But he had more experience with simpering politicos and their shallow maneuvers. He knew how to trick their kind into doing what he wanted. Simply asking for help was something he did a lot less often, and with less success.
He leaned back as a young child mage settled a bowl of potatoes onto the scarlet tablecloth. Daes had spent a lot of time in this chair in the last few days. Nearly all of it. Thinking about the events of the last few weeks, he’d verged on wallowing, although he hated to admit it.
Daes’s teams had searched high and low after the prince’s escape. Creature mages had tried to follow once they’d realized they were no longer in Mage Hall, but it had been too late. He’d sent search parties out into the surrounding hills and countryside, but they’d turned up nothing. Several still searched, but he was not optimistic. They could be anywhere by now. The creature mage and the prince had dashed out of his hall and pretty much vanished.
His glorious plan had come crumbling down and left him flat on his ass—literally—in front of the king and all of the Masters. Such a public failure filled him with rage a
So Daes chose to focus on the positive and the fact that he hadn’t murdered any valuable slaves or obnoxious peers as a result of this debacle. Especially with the looks Seulka had been giving him. She could try to brush it off on him all she wanted, but she was just as culpable, if not more so. She had claimed that star magic was surely entirely forgotten. If there were degrees of failure, hers was certainly worse than his, although less public and dramatic. For all he cared, she could burn if she thought he was going to forget about that.
No. As much as Daes wanted to kill that son of a bitch prince himself, he shoved his feelings into a corner. Rage only got in the way. He’d long ago learned to slow his actions, to check himself when his blood curdled with anger. The most effective ways to meet his goals hardly ever involved fits of passion, and he wouldn’t let his own emotions blind him or stop him from getting what he wanted.
The mage prince would have to pay for this, of course—and the creature mage too. How, exactly, was the question. And he needed to be perfectly calm to execute his revenge.
He had underestimated his enemy. He would not do so again. That others had underestimated the enemy even more than he had did not help anything.
The only positive of the whole debacle was that ultimately, they had wanted a war, and they were still likely to get one. Perhaps even more likely.
And yet—he had hoped they would attack already. Were they marshaling a larger force? What were they waiting for? He swore under his breath as another child arrived with a bowl of eggs.
Of course, at exactly his weakest moment, the knight-princess appeared at the door. Others might overlook her royal status, but Daes knew this was not wise. She was obviously most interested in her role as a Knight of the Devoted Order, but he knew the type: they snubbed their noble birth—until it became useful. Her noble rank would emerge when the unwary least expected it and slap them across the face. Daes instead chose not to ignore it.
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