Raishe, the court wizard , still wore the orange robe of an apprentice to the priests, priests of a civilization that he’d seen die. The robe had been given to him as a boy. That fallen kingdom, now ruins in the western desert, was where he learned magic. But the priests he had studied under had paid a terrible price for their ambitious misuse of it. He ate, slept, and worked in one simple room. His bed, desk, and chair were not ornamented by elaborate carvings, as you might expect from one living in a king’s castle. In fact, his furniture wouldn’t look out of place on a farm.
He concentrated on his work, a book of the history of former kings of Roullay, the city he lived in now, that the city’s current king had commissioned. It suited him that the task did not require magic, but still let him draw the salary of a court wizard. If he allowed himself to be perfectly honest, he’d become terrified to use magic. He hadn’t used it in six months. It was June. In December of last year, he’d used his magic to repel northern raiders from landing and pillaging. Using lightning, he’d destroyed many ships. He didn’t really think anyone should be trusted to wield such power. He hoped privately that magic would die with him.
The page boy knocked softly on Raishe’s door.
The boy slowly opened the door a little and stuck his head into the wizard’s room.
“A, a summons, uh, from the king, My Lord Wizard.”
Raishe turned around to look at the boy. He was nervous to the point of shaking. Blonde hair swept in front of his face, covering one eye. He was tall and thin, with pale skin, nearly white eyelashes, and freckles all over. He would be pretty, but his shyness and lack of confidence made him seem pathetic. Raishe had known him for three years now, and knew he was afraid of him. But he was used to everyone being afraid of him. Which was perhaps why he had become afraid of himself.
“Come on, Jean, what does the king want this time?”
Jean unrolled his scroll with a shaking hand. His blue eyes looked to be on the verge of tears. It made Raishe feel a mixture of pity and contempt for him.
“The king… uh, wishes you, to uh… uh…”
A long pause. Raishe was used to this, but today it seemed especially irritating. He wasn’t sure why. The boy’s face turned red, but he managed to concentrate finally after a while, enough to read from his scroll.
“Ahem. The king asks for you to attend a presentation concerning the future use of your Lordship’s magical arts, in the grand ballroom.”
The grand ballroom was an all-purpose room; court, ballroom, and throne room, but it was most commonly referred to just as the ballroom. It consisted of a large expanse of floor before the throne’s stage, where nobles came for both joyful dance parties and solemn political affairs. It was referred to as the ballroom only though. Most people preferred to think of it as a place of pleasure, of feasts and dancing, not a place of the drudgery and pain of politics, stuffy official ceremonies, and trials. The nobles obsessed over their pleasures and were easily bored. It often seemed like King Brometh’s job, and consequently Raishe’s in his service, was to entertain the prominent nobles. To keep them happy.
However much kings talked about their power as if they did everything alone, Brometh needed their help. Brometh was not favorable to the concept of marriage and had no children. He was forty-eight, which was not terribly old, but old enough for talk to buzz. There were a few nobles who thought they might become king after Brometh died. Two or three major contenders Raishe was aware of. Possibly more, since he paid little attention to rumors among the nobility. He worried that if Brometh did die, there would be blood. And Raishe would have to choose a side, which he desperately did not want to have to do.
He had contempt for the nobles. Even Brometh, whom he respected, could sometimes act like a bratty child. All the nobles in Roullay were that way. If they didn’t get what they wanted, when they wanted it, someone would usually be whipped.
“I don’t want to go.” Raishe said, “I’m busy.”
The boy put his scroll down, stuffing it into his pocket. He looked down at his feet. He tried to say something, but stammered too much, and trailed off without completing a sentence.
“You were told not to leave the room without me?” Raishe quirked an eyebrow.
The boy nodded.
Raishe cleaned his quill’s tip with a rag.
“I guess I will come.”
King Brometh rarely gave ultimatums like that. He was not particularly pushy about making Raishe appear in court. As a friend, he knew Raishe hated it, and often there was no reason for him to be there. He disdained the nobles. He believed they should focus themselves on higher matters, like learning about philosophy.
But has my study of philosophy and natural science made me happier?
Well, no, but it had undoubtedly made him a better person. Someone who cared more deeply about everything than everyone else. But he also knew it made him prone to thinking rather than action and often given to melancholy.
Does one have to be stupid in order to be happy?
He wondered about that as he descended the long spiral staircase, a narrow passage between walls of thick stone, that led from his study in the tallest tower to the ballroom on the ground floor. He shuffled a bit, walking slowly on purpose. It amused him that it made the page boy nervous, but also he enjoyed stopping at each window and looking at the bright, sunny day outside. When he entered the ballroom, the air was thick with the perfume of ladies, and the smell of everyone’s rich clothes mingled with the inevitable summer’s sweat.
It looked like every noble in the kingdom was there, even a few who, like Raishe, very rarely attended court or got involved in politics. He even saw Lord Briar, who was in his eighties, and never left his house. On top of that, they were wearing their finest clothes, with red being a popular color, as if to suck up to the king. The ladies’ chests looked like they ought to tip forward under the weight of so many necklaces. The men’s collars and sleeves were ornate. This was something big. And everyone was looking at Raishe as he walked in.
They stood beneath a stage that placed the throne higher than everyone. Everything in the room was red; marble columns, the throne itself of carved cherry wood, the ornamentations on the throne of rubies. The murals, scenes of ancient battles, were some of the few things that were not red, but they hung in gold frames also ornamented by rubies. The floor was also red marble. Dark and cherry red tiles formed patterns of swirls and loops. The king just seemed to like red. A red eagle was his house’s crest. Raishe had not known heraldry in his former kingdom. Every image they used was a sacred symbol, tied to the stories of gods, not the vanity of men. But he had grown used to the concept, having served the court for decades.
Brometh was seated on the throne, the high stage that bore it was to Raishe’s left. Behind him were, the usual decorations. The banner of his house with a red eagle on a white background for the name Redeagle. Next to it was the banner of the city-state of Roullay, which had four parts: the castle, a stag’s head, an eagle, and a fish. The king, the nobles, the house of Redeagle, and the sea. The house Redeagle now had only one surviving member, Brometh himself. Like the former king Raishe had served under as an apprentice priest, Brometh was seated high above everyone else, forcing others to stand and crane their necks up at him while he slouched in a comfortable chair.
Brometh still had strong arms, and his face was only faintly lined, but his hairline was receding, his hair had all gone grey, and his belly sagged. Raishe wouldn’t call him handsome, at least not anymore. But he had the true presence of a leader, commanding respect with his physical bearing, and his blue eyes showed real sincerity. It was a privilege to be friends with such a man. Raishe was also grateful that he allowed him to do the scholarly work he favored, in peace, able to shun politics and court.
Except now he couldn’t. The king motioned for Raishe to ascend the stairs and come up next to him. He didn’t want to. But he did ascend after a brief moment of hesitation. The lamps up there were bright, and the rest of the room was dark. Raishe could feel all the eyes and all the light on him as he ascended. His stomach was uneasy, and he was sweating a little. The bright lamps hurt to look at. But looking away from them meant looking at the crowd. He tried to look down at his feet, but movement and murmurs from the crowd caught his attention. He looked toward them, but could not see anyone.
“What’s going on, highness?”
“It is a momentous day, Raishe! The printing press has arrived in Roullay!”
The king projected loudly, as he often did, such that his voice echoed throughout the large hall.
The gathered nobles cheered.
The printing press itself was on the stage, on the other side of the throne from Raishe. Raishe had heard about this invention. He wondered why all these rich brats, who never talked of things beyond their own noses, were suddenly interested in the process of making books. No one had read the many books on ethics and political philosophy Raishe had written over the years. The king paid for them, and flipped through them when they were finished. But he suspected that Brometh was commissioning them for show, as ornaments on his bookshelves that would make him look scholarly and wise.
“And you, my dear Raishe, are going to publish a book of spells — SO THAT MAGIC CAN BE TAUGHT TO ALL!”
The king roared, standing up from his throne and walking left and right along the front edge of the stage as he spoke, gesturing with wide arms and open palms, his red cape accentuating these big movements.
Raishe instantly felt hot rage. He felt like in that moment, he came close to killing every single one of those nobles. The bright lights upon him didn’t help his mood. But the fact of the matter was that the king had promised this without consulting him. If he had asked, Raishe would have said ‘no’. Even if it cost him his life.
“Brometh! Have you lost all sense?!” Raishe yelled.
The king looked like he’d been slapped. Certainly, few other than Raishe could get away with addressing him without the honorific “My Lord” or “Your Highness”, and only a handful of close friends could get away with yelling at the king. But Raishe’s feared reputation, as much as he hated it, helped here. Sure, Brometh was king, but Raishe could melt the whole castle into a pool of lava in an instant, if he wanted to.
Raishe grabbed the king by the collar with one hand, and a fireball formed between the clenched fingers of the other. The crowd stepped backwards, terrified of Raishe. The guards would not move to protect the king, for they knew they could not fight magic. He let the fireball expand by opening his palm. It grew to the size of his forearm in diameter, hovering and spinning, like a little sun above Raishe’s hand. Its blaze cast an orange glow on the faces in the crowd, and on Brometh’s face.
Raishe picked the king up with one arm. Brometh’s eyes widened.
“Are you — going to kill me?”
There was a long pause where Raishe did and said nothing. The nobles whispered among themselves. Raishe looked at the crowd, still holding Brometh. Several appeared to be panicky, but others were working hard to keep up the air of calm that they always maintained.
Finally, he let the king down, and the fireball disappeared.
“No.” he said, softly.
He turned, left the stage, then went back up to his tower, slamming the door behind him. He got to his room and lay on his bed. He was not thinking in words, but experiencing waves of pure anger which gradually subsided. Then, Raishe was able to think about the problem with a (nearly) clear head.
He wondered what he should do. How should he respond to this demand to make his private knowledge of magic public? He knew this request to be folly, and he wondered why his supposed friend didn’t see the error of it. He stared at the ceiling, thinking. He sat all day, until the red light of sunset shone into his room. It was earlier than when he normally slept, but when his anger faded, he was left with only tiredness.
When he slept, he had another bad dream about his past. When the unbridled use of magic for the sake of political ambition destroyed his once-majestic home city of Khalayath. When Raishe woke the next morning, he was still unsure of what to do.
He didn’t want to do anything. He wanted to get back to his history writing, and forget anything had happened to interrupt it. But in the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but be distracted by the nagging memory of those nobles swarming around the stage, eagerly hoping they would get to learn magic of their own. As if any of them could be trusted with so much as the ability to light a candle from across a room.
Teaching nobles magic would only lead to an out-and-out house war when the king died. Perhaps even before, if he remained alive but became increasingly debilitated by old age. Brometh has trusted me to create a republican government after he dies. It was already in his will, but the nobles didn’t know about it. The king had hidden his will in a place only he and Raishe knew about, under the his pillow.
Since the nobles didn’t know, the most powerful, wealthiest, and most influential lords and ladies all thought they had a chance at being named the new king or queen in the king’s will. Despite this not knowing, a faction of nobles had also come to favor creating a republic after the fall of the current king. After all, the success of the Southern Cities to the south of Roullay, which were all republics with elected officials, could not be overlooked.
Raishe wondered why Brometh did not simply tell everyone that he was planning this. Was he afraid to face their wrath? Did he use their hope of winning a crown after his death to keep them loyal to him, and to play them off of one another? It was probably that. Brometh could be lots of things, but never a coward. And he was never that afraid to piss off nobles from time to time. He even seemed to enjoy it. He probably would have loved to see the looks on their faces when he broke the news. To see them looking like a startled herd of cows. Raishe would relish such a sight too.
But Brometh probably couldn’t do that. If he told them, they would fight him. Some more ambitious lords and ladies would try to take the city with their own armies. Brometh, more than anything else, wanted to maintain the peace in the city. He’d fought in a few battles against external invaders. Kings and queens of neighboring realms trying to add Roullay to their ever-expanding territories. Raishe liked that by helping protect Roullay, he was protecting a city-state from the exact kind of imperialism that had destroyed his old country.
He sat alone at his small table, with his breakfast and his thoughts. What if I publish a book on magic in a cipher, then only teach people I deem worthy to use the cipher? He’d like that, but then if anyone leaked the cipher to the public, the book would become public knowledge, whether he wanted that or not. What I need is a list of people I could teach magic to. I would control their lessons, what they learn and when. If they were younger, perhaps teenagers, they would be old enough to work with magic competently, but young enough to respect the counsel of an elder. I would need students whose loyalty I could reasonably assume.
He decided he would need to talk with the king. He had no way to summon him, and he would not want to interrupt Brometh if he was busy with important matters of state. So he pulled the cord to ring for the page boy Jean.
Of course, it took Jean forever to ascend the long staircase to the top of the tower where Raishe lived.
“M-may I come in, my Lord Wizard?” he asked, as he poked his pale, freckled nose into the room.
“Yes.” Raishe said.
The boy hesitantly and slowly walked in, like a new zookeeper entering the cage of a lion for the first time.
“Ask for His Majesty to see me at his next convenience. But remember, don’t interrupt him if he’s meeting with someone. Just wait until you catch him between engagements.”
“Of course, my Lord. Anything else?”
Jean nodded, smiling, and practically ran back down the staircase, seemingly too eager to leave the dreaded wizard’s presence. Perhaps he thinks I will turn him into a newt. Raishe chuckled to himself. If only the boy knew how apprehensive Raishe really was about using his magic on other human beings. Sometimes, he even debated himself about whether it was ethical to heal an unconscious person without his or her consent.
He had used lightning spells to sink ships the last time Roullay faced an attempted invasion. But doing so had made him languish with guilt and melancholy for days. After all, ships were not mere bits of wood. They had people on them, people who had died by his hand. Even the ones who managed to swim ashore were mostly killed on sight by Roullay’s city guards. Even the ones begging for mercy, probably.
They did not like Norsemen in Roullay. Roullay sometimes had peaceful commerce with them, but in the last few years their only interactions with the city were attempts at raiding. Raishe wondered why that had changed. Knowing Roullay’s dread wizard could rip apart hundreds of ships at once, and wave his hand to destroy an entire army, should make them more hesitant to attack Roullay. He’d destroyed entire armies and navies before. It still haunted his memories, and hurt his ability to sleep, but he’d done it. He was feared as the “dread wizard Raishe” for good reason. Maybe they have a young, headstrong new leader looking to prove himself.
In Raishe’s time as an advisor and friend to the king, and in his life before that as an apprentice to powerful magical priests, he’d learned one thing about leadership; young, new leaders were the worst kind. Because they often did stupid and reckless things to try to prove themselves. An older ruler had, usually, already proven themselves, at least enough that no one seriously thought to dethrone them. Well, old ones could also be pompous and arrogant. Maybe I just don’t like leaders at all.
Raishe could have seized control of Roullay, easily, if he were remotely interested in leading it. But he was glad to simply help keep an honorable and good man on the throne, and protect the city from would-be conquerors. But all he really wanted to do was live somewhere quiet, alone, where he could be the philosopher and writer he wanted to be. And, where he could be freer to study and experiment with magic. There were deeper mysteries surrounding his magic that Raishe didn’t know, either because the priests never had a chance to tell him, or because even they didn’t know. For example, the origin of magic. The priests had told him it was caused by sacrifices and rituals to honor the gods, which only a priest could make, and only in the temple ziggurat, the only “mountain” for miles. But they must have been wrong about that, because even after escaping the fall of Khalayath, he could still do it, far away from his old gods, and their worship, sacrifices, and temples. Well, at least here, I have access to the royal library. Was that really worth all the hassle of dealing with nobles though?
King Brometh came to Raishe’s room about half an hour after he was sent for. He had a bottle of red wine — no cup or glass, just the bottle itself, half drunk. He burst in, thrusting the door open with such force that it slammed into the wall loudly, and Raishe worried that it would shatter, or break from its hinges.
“Nice to see you’re having some fun, Highness? At what is it, 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning?”
“Ye-es, well,” the king said, “I was just meeting with the—the wine merchants’ guild, and they offered me…” the king hiccupped.
“A bowl of carrots? Some pinewood furniture?” Raishe grinned.
The king laughed, loudly enough that it felt like the foundation of the castle shook.
Raishe regretted sending for him, seeing how, intoxicated as he was, he’d not be of much help. But, he had to tell him the reason he was summoned. The king didn’t walk up so many stairs without being given a damned good reason.
“I need your advice, my Lord.”
“Yes. I have made a decision, regarding that book.”
“Oh, then you’ve decided to publish one, then?”
“No. But I want to assemble a class of youths that can be trusted, that I may teach them magic.”
There was but one chair in the room, and Raishe occupied it, so the king staggered over to Raishe’s bed, and plopped himself down onto it, again so quickly that it was a wonder he didn’t shatter the old wood frame.
“Hm… Yes… I see…” Brometh looked like he was concentrating on a difficult math problem.
“We should teach the heirs and heiresses of the sixteen most powerful noble houses in the city.” he said finally.
“Do you not think that they will end up in a war between houses if their heirs are suddenly able to level buildings, summon fire, and turn people to stone?” Raishe said.
The king pondered for a moment.
“Oh, bother, Raishe. I just want to appease the nobles. They vex me day in and day out with silly requests, then they pester me like hornets until they get me to acquiesce. And I do, usually, for the sake of keeping the peace.”
Raishe considered for a few moments, scratching his considerably long grey beard.
“I suppose. Can you get me a list of these heir and heiresses by tomorrow? And have your scribe send letters to the houses to summon them?”
The king looked happy.
“Then you will teach them for me? Excellent! And when might you be able to start teaching classes?”
“What day is it, Thursday? How about next Monday.”
“What grounds will you need to teach upon?”
“To start with, just tell them to report to the castle courtyard, at 9 o’clock in the morning.”
“All right. Thank you, old friend.”
The king’s blue eyes sparkled with his usual beneficence.
“I just hope that, being young, I can impart to them my hard-won wisdom about how to use magic responsibly…” Raishe sighed.
“They’ll have to listen to you, right?”
The king slowly got up from Raishe’s bed and walked towards the door.
“You are, after all, the dread wizard!”
Brometh laughed, leaving the room at a leisurely pace. He did not close the door behind himself, causing Raishe to have to get up and close it.
The spoiled spawn of powerful houses, Raishe thought grimly. How will I get them to see magic as anything but a toy, or a tool for gaining political power? He was not sure he could meet this challenge. But he would try his best.