Chapter 1: "You May Rest When You Are Dead"
Lord Thorn Virias, Prelate of Arnor House of the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Magic-users, Sorcerers and Thaumaturges, groaned as the scrying-crystal on his marble desk flashed a baleful, sickly shade of green. This could only mean that his mother, Lizaveta, sought discourse with him. He considered ignoring the insistent flashing of the glass, but he soon thought better of it; Lizaveta would know he was in his chamber, even without the mental link the crystal provided.
He placed his hands on the crystal with care, as if the bauble might explode at his very touch, and he patterned his mind for the sleight of Telepathy.
"Thorn, my dearest son," the familiar voice hissed in his head.
The mental voice invoked the sensation of an army of slimy, slithering worms cascading into his skull. Thorn knew his mother's words were born of anything but love, and he was on his guard in a moment.
"What do you want, Mother?"
"May a mother not contact her only child without suspicion of some ulterior motive?"
In your case, never, you hateful old witch...
It was all Thorn could do to suppress this dangerous thought, but he was a Mage Questor of the Seventh Rank, after all, possessing the willpower of any ten Seculars.
"I am sorry, Mother," he replied, masking his true thoughts.
"Are you satisfied with your lot, Thorn? You sound peevish to me, and you know how I dislike that tone. I greatly prefer ambition to self-pity."
The old witch is playing games with me again, he thought, again just managing to screen his inner mind from her.
"Mother, I am the Prelate of a prestigious Guild House and a full member of the Guild Presidium. I have already achieved more than most mages ever do.
"With your inestimable aid," he quickly added.
"So, you are content to be second-rate; is that it, Thorn?"
Thorn shut his eyes and grimaced. Lizaveta must have further plans in mind for him and he felt, in truth, satisfied with his current position. The political games of High Lodge did not appeal to him in the least. His mother's actions might have obtained him his current lofty rank, but he had been more than happy as a Mage Questor, alongside his steadfast friend and ally, Loras Afelnor: the blood brother he had betrayed.
"May I not rest, Mother?" His telepathic voice emerged plaintive and pitiful, and Thorn reviled himself for grovelling when he had intended to be strong.
"Rest? You may rest when you are dead, Thorn, or when you are High Dominie. Not before."
Thorn knew Lizaveta would never be content, even if he achieved the Guild's ultimate rank. She would always be chiding him, goading him, driving him to some new goal. Lizaveta might leave him alone for a little while after he obtained the position of Dominie, doubtless after some additional, covert act of treachery. Then it would start again: the Guild needed more Houses and more dominions under its thrall: the Houses needed tighter control: the Guild needed more money. It would never end. The Prelate resolved to try once more to beat down his mother's incessant, insensate demands. He knew browbeating and pleading would never work, so he attempted diplomacy instead.
"Mother, I beg you to reconsider. My position here is strong and influential. The House intake of paying Students is up for the second year in a row, and I am a prominent member of the Guild Presidium. However, five others in the ruling council are senior to me. It would be regarded as suspicious in the extreme, to say the least, if they were all to die or renounce their seniorities within a short space of time. You must understand this, Mother. I am working hard to raise my status in the Guild hierarchy, and this is my only sensible method of obtaining the post of Lord Dominie."
A long silence ensued, and Thorn knew Lizaveta was either considering his arguments or preparing another biting rebuke for her hapless son.
"And if I were to employ my magic to persuade Horin to abdicate in your favour..."
At least she seemed to be treating his argument with some seriousness, and the mage suppressed a sigh of relief.
"That would be a flagrant breach of the Guild Articles, Mother. The post of Dominie is for life, and the post must then devolve to the most senior surviving member of the Presidium.
"Horin is a strict Guild man--the kind of man we describe as a walking scroll. You may be sure that the other Presidium mages would scan the very depths of his aura after such uncharacteristic behaviour. This would be no casual examination, using Mage Sight, but a Great Spell of Revelation. The evidence of your potent magic would be plain to such a spell."
"Your Conclave did not even examine Loras Afelnor's aura when he was tried for attempted murder." Thorn fancied he sensed a note of uncertainty in Lizaveta's mind, which he leapt to exploit.
"Loras admitted the crime, thanks again to your powerful spells, and the Conclave accepted the motive I proffered: compassion for a dying man in pain. Loras' aura was inspected, but only with basic Mage Sight, and it revealed the expected signs of guilt and deep contrition. The Conclave saw what they had expected after my impassioned argument on his behalf.
"Nonetheless, only my heartfelt plea to the Conclave, to allow the empathic but misguided Loras a shred of dignity, prevented the deeper examination of his aura. Had this been done, your spell might well have been discovered, and I would not now be Prelate. In fact, I would have been dead for more than forty years.
"I persuaded the Conclave that Loras had acted out of misguided mercy towards Prelate Geral, and they accepted this argument because it rang true. In the case of a healthy, relatively young Dominie resigning his post in favour of a relatively junior member of the Presidium, in flagrant breach of the principles he has publicly upheld for decades, the suspicion of undue influence would be unavoidable. You must see the reason in this, Mother."
This time, the silence hung in the air even longer, and Thorn began to hope he might have persuaded Lizaveta of the impossibility of ousting Horin. His hopes were bolstered by her next words.
"I recognise that I may not have considered this idea in sufficient depth, Thorn. Your argument, for once, is both cogent and rational."
The Prelate gaped in astonishment at his mother's subdued tone. Even the faintest praise from her was a rare occurrence indeed. His rhetoric seemed to have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It took all his Questor will to suppress the surge of relief that threatened to betray him.
"I must consider this matter further, Thorn. I may need to work on the other members of the Presidium, so that all accept Horin's resignation and your nomination as his successor."
Lizaveta's mind slithered free from the Prelate's; as always, a most unpleasant experience. Thorn was, once more, alone in his chamber.
The Prelate leant back in his mahogany throne and looked around his comfortable, familiar workroom. It might be small, but Thorn liked it. To his left, a large, diamond-paned bay window afforded a view of verdant forestry and the busy village of Arnor, whose livelihood stemmed from providing the House with all its various needs. The House and the village enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. When the House prospered, so did the artisans and merchants of Arnor, and it was in the House's best interests to ensure that the citizens of the village remained happy with their lot.
Thorn regarded the sumptuous, bucolic tapestries hanging on the chamber walls, a great comfort to him in times of stress. He kicked off his shoes and plunged his bare toes into the thick, red luxurious rug beneath the table, thinking of the Dominie's huge, cold office in High Lodge. Horin was almost never alone; some urgent Guild matter always demanded his attention, and a profusion of advisors, hangers-on and sycophants seeking preferment besieged him at all times.
The Dominie was like a queen ant, incapable of independent thought or action, amidst a swarm of faceless, nameless, controlling workers; a nonentity with a fancy title. Here, safe in Arnor House, Thorn was the absolute ruler of his destiny. A whole community of thaumaturges waited for his least command, depending on him for its needs, but they did not rule his life. If he wanted solitude, he was left in peace. He need not fear assassination or insurrection, here in his comfortable refuge. Thorn imagined that Horin must sleep fitfully at best, fearing treachery or murder from some ambitious individual under his nominal command. Thorn knew he never wanted to bear such a burden, and he also knew Lizaveta would never rest until he was.
The Prelate took a bottle of his favourite brandy from a commodious drawer in his desk, and poured a large quantity of the golden, fiery beverage into a silver goblet. Cupping the chalice in both hands, he raised it to his nostrils and drew the liquor's potent vapours into his lungs, relishing the brandy's, heady aroma. All he needed to do was to take a long draught of the warming, befuddling beverage, and he would be able to forget his troubles.
Here's to you, Loras Afelnor. The thought popped unbidden into his head as he lifted the goblet to his waiting lips. Disturbed, he placed it on the table without sampling the inviting liquid.
Why do you still trouble me, Loras? Leave me alone! Your trial ended long ago, while mine continues. I am as much a victim of my mother as you were, but my punishment never ends. Let me be!
Thorn sighed, knowing he could not blame poor, disgraced Loras for the guilt that plagued him so. Everything, every pang and twinge of guilt and self-accusation, was due to his mother's insane, vicarious ambitions. She had ensured that he entered Arnor House as a pauper, condemning him to the brutal Questor Ordeal, when she could have granted him a prosperous, comfortable lifestyle as a paying Student. Not once had he demurred at her insensate demands, and he had made no more than a token attempt to sway her from condemning his only friend to revilement and universal odium.
Thorn Virias, you're nothing but a coward and a weakling, a disgrace to your craft!
This was a shameful admission for a Seventh Level Questor and House Prelate to make, even to himself, but Thorn no longer cared. As long as Lizaveta plagued him, he would never be free. Because of her, he had subjected an unsuitable Neophyte, Erek Garan, to an intensified Questor Ordeal until the lad had lost his mind. The result was a dead Senior Magemaster to bury and a scandal to be suppressed. The experiment had been a ghastly disaster.
Lizaveta, of course, accepted no blame for the debacle, pointing out how Loras Afelnor's grandson, Grimm, had prevailed in similar circumstances. This might be true, but Thorn feared the lad's survival of his intensified Ordeal had made him altogether too independent and obstinate.
The report from Questor Xylox concerning his and Questor Grimm's recent Quest certainly made damning reading in this regard.
Thorn skimmed through the document: ' ... a reasonably powerful and confident magic-user.'; 'In time, Questor Grimm may prove a useful asset to our House and Guild, but...'; '...insubordinate, wayward and headstrong.... '
The report concluded, 'It is recommended that Questor Grimm Afelnor not be considered for promotion at this time, despite a few useful contributions to the successful conclusion of this most important Quest.'
The Prelate knew Xylox was not one to mince words. The report implied that the older Questor respected the abilities of the young mage, if not his attitude. Xylox evidently acknowledged the youth as a powerful mage, but also as a reckless hothead likely to act on his own initiative if unchecked by his seniors.
Thorn, however, considered that this very hotheadedness might be of considerable advantage to his cause. The wayward Grimm Afelnor might prove to be the ideal weapon to aid the Prelate in the elimination of his main problem, Lizaveta. All that was necessary was a few hints to provide the trigger, and the Prelate knew he already had at hand the best possible trigger: the betrayal of Loras Afelnor, at her instigation.
The more Thorn considered the matter, the better things looked. He raised his neglected goblet to his mouth, savouring the liquor's slow burn as it slipped down his throat, relishing the familiar, warm glow spreading through his body.
The political phrase was 'plausible deniability', the ability to disavow all involvement if a plan misfired. Thorn might plant subtle seeds of revenge in the boy's mind, so that the youth might be moved to seek out Lizaveta and destroy her, but he must also ensure that Questor Grimm never discovered her relationship to his Prelate. It was also necessary that the young mage never discovered the information's ultimate source.
These factors might be difficult to arrange. Only Thorn had benefited directly from Loras' disgrace and expulsion from the Guild, and Grimm would surely realise that if the clues were too overt. The boy might also demand to hear Lizaveta's reasons for the betrayal; he might stay his hand long enough for her to mention that she was Thorn's mother, and that she had acted to advance his status.
This would be a most unsatisfactory state of affairs.
However, if Afelnor accomplished the deed, it did not matter if he was discovered in the act or not; he was the Traitor's grandson, after all. For all the youth's protestations, nobody in the whole Guild would take the word of a young mage over that of a Prelate who had treated him well.
On the other hand, if Afelnor succeeded in destroying Lizaveta without arousing any suspicion, his future as an Arnor House Questor was assured; Thorn would not raise a murmur, even if the boy were ever elected as Dominie at some far-distant time.
I have some time in hand, the Prelate thought. Even Mother isn't powerful enough to ensorcel all the mages in the Presidium at one sitting, or anything like it. That's just as well, because I'll need to take my time over this little stratagem.
Thorn scratched his hairless pate and frowned, considering the deeper ramifications of his plan.
The boy might have sworn a solemn oath to defend the interests of the House and the Guild, but it may not be enough. I need to make him trust me, so he'll do anything I ask.
For a start, I can recommend him for promotion. Xylox won't like it, but I can make it plain that I recognise the boy's very real worth to the Guild by adding the sixth ring to his staff; the Presidium won't complain, and I can let Afelnor know that I promoted him despite his senior Questor's strongest recommendations to the contrary.
The Prelate smiled. This plan seemed flawless.
I'm sorry, Xylox, but you'll have to look like the villain here. Perhaps if I recommend you for a healthy stipend and an extended entry in the 'Deeds of the Questors', you'll feel better.
The realistic prospect of Lizaveta's removal from his life cheered Thorn no end, and he drained his goblet at a gulp. The fact that his mother seemed to have taken a shine to the boy could only add a satisfying tinge of irony to the enterprise.
So you wouldn't mind meeting our young Afelnor up close, eh, Mother? Perhaps you'll get your wish: but, after all, they do say you ought to be careful what you wish for, don't they?
While I don't envy the boy this particular Quest, he's probably the best chance I have of being rid of you for good.
Thorn refilled his goblet, raised it high and laughed out loud for the first time since his youth.
Here's to you, dear Mother; long may you rot.