Jerryck stepped out of his tower, where his charms would not alert him if someone approached. This particular corridor of Coraline Palace was usually vacant, which would have suited his present state. At the moment, Magician Masorno was lodged in one of the rooms as a guest. And with all the doors closed, there was not a way to tell if he was in his room, or somewhere else.
Normally, Jerryck took no thought to his steps when he moved up and down this well lit corridor. He didn’t care. Now, with how much his heart ached from recent death, he didn’t think he would be a good host for company. He eyed the doors. He hadn’t bothered learning which one was Masorno’s.
The numbness had set in, overwhelming and pushing aside some of the hurt. Experience told Jerryck it would wear thin after a week or two. In the meantime, it made the grief more bearable.
For the most part, he had holed up in his tower, avoiding everyone. But when the king sent a summons for his court magician, he expected an appearance, no matter how much more lenient he ruled than his father had.
Focusing on keeping his feet to the runner carpet in the center, where he would make less noise and draw less attention, he nearly ran into Tajor, the one elite guard who made himself so annoying he was impossible to forget.
Jerryck drew up short, taking a step back. “What are you doing here?”
“Here in this corridor?” Tajor grinned at him, blocking his way forward. “Here in this palace? Here in this nation?”
Jerryck stepped around him and continued on. Tajor followed. “Did I not broaden that enough?”
Jerryck didn’t bother looking at him. “If I ask what you want, will you just play head games with me?”
“You make it so easy it’s difficult not to.” Tajor walked a few more paces with him. When Jerryck didn’t respond, Tajor spoke again. “General Heston wants you to know that Magician Masorno is causing problems.”
“I didn’t invite him here.” Jerryck voice sounded dull to himself, almost monotone.
“Do you ever?” Tajor walked beside him now, instead of following. “He’s spreading rumors.”
Jerryck rolled his eyes. “He always spreads rumors.”
“This time he’s telling people that your brother-in-law died last week because the medics in the infirmary killed him.”
Jerryck’s feet stopped working and he stumbled. Tajor caught his arm and steadied him as he said, “It’s not their fault.”
“I know that. You know that. Heston knows that. Do you think everyone else knows that?” Tajor moved forward again, drawing Jerryck along. “He’s getting people to say they’ll back you up when you ask King Terrance to turn out all the medics and staff the infirmary with healing magicians instead.”
“I’ll do no such thing.” Jerryck got his feet back under control and pulled his arm away. “There aren’t enough healing magicians to staff that infirmary, even if I wanted to ask for it.”
“I didn’t say people were giving it much thought. Just that Heston wants this stopped.”
“Later.” Jerryck said. They went down a flight of stairs to a corridor with more traffic. “Why hasn’t Heston done anything to stop Masorno?”
Tajor smirked at him. “Besides sending me to tell you? He also assigned an honorary escort guard. Two of them, actually. Except that one stays out of the way until he causes problems. Then they both intervene.”
People moved aside as Jerryck walked up the corridor grumbling. “He’s not stupid. And he’s never had an escort guard before. He’ll probably try and demand they leave him be.”
“What makes you think he didn’t? We told him that as an important foreign minor noble, he deserves the escort.”
Jerryck snorted. “He’s not a noble.”
“He’s as much a noble as you are. Or did you forget that again?”
Jerryck said nothing. He felt the eyes of the people they passed, and avoided looking at them. Tajor chuckled. “You’ve had the position that makes you a minor noble for how long now? More than ten years? Longer than I’ve been at this palace at the very least. How do you keep forgetting this?”
“I don’t think about it,” Jerryck said.
“Obviously.” Tajor stopped chuckling, but his smirk remained. “So… About your guest. Heston wants to know how soon you can take care of this. Unless you think he’ll be satisfied with just later?”
“Right now I have to answer a summons from the king,” Jerryck said. “So… Later.”
He stopped walking . They had come to the landing of the busy flight of stairs going down to the floors that contained most of the working offices of the palace. The landing he had to cross to get to the king. People sat so thick on cushioned benches it was a wonder they didn’t fall off. Spring flowers sat trapped in large vases between the tall windows that exposed the courtyard below.
Masorno stood from one of the benches with his usual patronizing smile. Jerryck glanced at the people traversing up and down the marble stairs, to and from the corridor on the far side of the wide landing. Normally he avoided rivers of people threatening to swallow up anyone who got too close. This time, the river backed away from him, refusing to diminish his exposure. Masorno approached.
Tajor leaned close to Jerryck’s ear. “Maybe now is better than later?”
“There you are.” Masorno held his arms out wide, regardless of anyone else around him. One of the elite guards, Tajor’s friend with a crooked nose and permanent scowl, followed him closely. He didn’t seem to notice. “If I didn’t know how you isolate yourself to deal with grief, I’d think you were avoiding me.”
Tajor cocked his head. “Are you sure that’s it?”
A muscle twitched in Masorno’s cheek. He didn’t even glance at Tajor. Accentuating his Shontese accent by over-rolling his R’s and clipping his consonants too short, he said, “It’s a good thing I come every year around this time, even though I don’t get the respect I deserve. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here to help you out when you so desperately need me.”
“I don’t need your help.” Jerryck turned away, heading for the other side of the landing.
Masorno followed. “Not precisely. You could finish your apprenticeship with someone else to become legitimate.”
“A private conversation in a room full of people…” Tajor tapped his chin with a finger, as if musing. “Are you trying to embarrass him into doing what you want? Or are you just showing off what you know?”
A few people snickered, including another of Tajor’s elite guard friends, the one with the cleft chin. Masorno glared around at them. Then said to Jerryck, “You shouldn’t allow common people to speak to me this way.”
Tajor smirked. “Common? Does that mean the general lied when he said I was elite?”
Masorno looked down his nose. “You’re not a nobleman. At my home, you would be flogged for this disrespect.”
“Are we at your home? Or the home of King Terrance?” More people snickered at Tajor’s question.
Masorno’s face reddened. He reached for Jerryck’s arm. “We need to speak privately.”
Tajor inserted himself between them. At the same time, the honorary guard pulled Masorno’s upper arm, drawing it back and away. The cleft chin guard stepped in closer too.
Masorno lifted his double chin. “Every time. No matter how often I come here to try and help you. Every time you rebuff me, ignore my help. Now you try to embarrass me publicly? I’ve never been anything but a friend and mentor to you. And this is how you treat me?”
“You’ve never been my mentor,” Jerryck said. “And as long as you’re spreading lies, you’re not much of a friend either.”
“What you’ve been telling people about medics.” Jerryck tried to keep impatience out of his tone. He must not have done a good enough job. Everyone stopped to watch them.
Masorno drew himself up, speaking more clearly now without over-accentuating. “It wouldn’t have happened if he’d gone to a magician instead of a medic.”
“Yes, it could have,” Jerryck said. “If the magician he went to didn’t know the severity of his ailment, just like that medic didn’t. They would have treated it the same. Lightly. He still would have died. You can’t go around telling people otherwise. The fact is, I was unavailable.”
Masorno’s eyes glinted maliciously. “You would have been available if you already had your license and could do your job properly.”
Jerryck’s vision narrowed, everything in the periphery going dark, leaving only Masorno’s face. If he wasn’t so numb from the loss of his brother-in-law, he might have had a magic accident.
“You think I don’t do my job.” The words came out of Jerryck’s mouth, even though he didn’t feel his tongue moving. “Yet here you are, in a different country, ignoring yours entirely.”
“My job is secure,” Masorno said. “I have a license.”
“Go home.” Jerryck turned his back and walked away. “Get out, and stop lying to people. And don’t come back until you can use your manners.”
“You ungrateful brat.” Masorno spoke so quiet, he probably wouldn’t have been heard if everyone else on the landing hadn’t gone silent. “At your age, you have no business acting like such child.”
Jerryck kept going. He turned his head just enough to address the elite guards. “See to it he leaves the premises.”
Whispers raced ahead of him. By the time he reached the reception area outside the king’s office, everyone was staring at him open mouthed. The king’s aide sent him directly into the office.
Jerryck stepped inside, closing out all the snooping eyes and ears. His shoes clicked on the wood floor by the door, announcing him. Then he stepped onto the thick rug that covered all but the edges of the room.
Kellos, the head medic, was there. He stared at the wall to the right, where a portrait of the princess was framed with drapes of crimson and gold. King Terrance stood in front of his cluttered desk, as he often did when addressing an issue personally. He looked calm as ever. As thin as ever. A half eaten plate of food sat in its usual corner of the desk. His crown rested in its normal spot on a bow-legged table beneath the portrait of his daughter. Since losing the Queen, he had never worn it outside of court.
“Jerryck,” Terrance said. “Do you need more time before you talk to anyone about what happened?”
“I’ll manage,” Jerryck said.
Jerryck took a deep breath. Lavender. The king still kept dried lavender petals on the shelf, scenting the air with his late wife’s favorite flower, even after all these years. Terrance was as intimate with death as Jerryck. As intimate as dealing with it, and moving on. He would understand. Jerryck nodded. He was up to answering questions.
Terrance looked back and forth between him and Kellos. “Then how about we start with the two of you explaining this to me.”
“It was my fault,” they both said at once. Kellos didn’t look the king in the eye. He turned his face to Jerryck, not looking directly at him either, and said, “It wasn’t your fault Chev died. It was mine.”
“No, it was mine.” Jerryck said.
Terrance crossed his arms. “I appreciate that neither of you are looking to blame someone else, but that doesn’t answer my question.”
Kellos looked around the room, anywhere but at Terrance. Jerryck didn’t know what to say. Terrance blew out his breath. He leaned his hips back on his desk, and raised one hand to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“Kellos,” he said. “My infirmary is turning away anyone who isn’t a regular patient for fear of misdiagnosing them and providing insufficient treatment. When that happens, people question whether or not medics can be trusted. It creates a rift between them, and coworkers who distrust healing magicians, like Jerryck.”
“Right now,” Kellos said, staring at Terrance’s feet. “I question whether or not my medics can be trusted.”
“That isn’t the only problem,” Terrance said. He lowered his hand and looked at Jerryck. “My kitchens are falling apart because they’re arguing about who’s going to replace Chev as the chief food stocker. The scullery maids are all fighting with each other without your sister’s influence. Everyone’s meals are late. When that happens, no proper work gets done. I need this resolved. Tell me exactly what happened with Chev.”
“Sometimes his lungs and throat would close up,” Jerryck said. “He couldn’t breathe.”
“I thought spring was the worst time for that,” Terrance said. “We’re almost into summer.”
“He’s had breathless attacks other times of the year,” Kellos said. “Not just spring. People do when they have this ailment as severely as Chev does… did…”
“The worst danger is still springtime,” Jerryck said. “And since most of spring is passed, I thought the worst danger had too. So, I asked not to be disturbed so I could handle a correspondence. That’s why he didn’t come when he needed me.”
Terrance turned back to Kellos. “And when Chev entered the infirmary? Didn’t you usually treat him personally when Jerryck was unavailable?”
“I was also unavailable,” Kellos said. “I was writing a personal correspondence. One of my junior medics treated him without knowing how severe his ailment was.”
“He wasn’t just a junior medic,” Jerryck added. “He was the newest medic on the staff. He hasn’t been here long enough to know individual patients that only come intermittently. And he gave Chev a potion that would have worked for the average person.”
Kellos held his hands out, fingers splayed in confusion. “Why are you defending me like this. Why do you keep saying this isn’t my fault?”
Jerryck sighed, tired of the argument. “It’s not your fault.”
“Tell that to your sister,” Kellos said.
“And their children.”
The king cut them both off. “I’m not holding either of you accountable. Sometimes these things happen. We’ll sort this out. I just need the details. Now we can figure out how to prevent something like this from happening again.”
“I’ll extend the trial period for new medics to six months.” Kellos finally looked Terrance directly in the face. “Even if they have prior experience elsewhere.”
Terrance nodded approval. “Reasonable. Come up with other measures. Get back to me. And stop your medics from turning away patients. Immediately.”
Kellos bowed his head. “Yes, sire.”
“Jerryck,” Terrance turned back to him. “Were you unavailable because you were trying to draft a response to the Gathering of Seats?”
Jerryck looked at Terrance in surprise. “You knew about that?”
“You get a letter from them at the end of every spring.” Terrance leaned his hands on his desk behind him. “I watch for it. Are you finally going to let me help you respond to them?”
“No need,” Jerryck said.
“Really?” Kellos asked. “You already responded?”
Jerryck nodded. Terrance said, “Kellos, thank you for your time. Please go fix my infirmary.”
Kellos bobbed his head in deference, like most people did when they left the king. He closed the door behind him on his way out. Then Terrance gave Jerryck a long, searching look before speaking again. “It normally takes you days before you come up with a draft you’re satisfied with. You already sent one? When?”
“Six days ago.”
Terrance leaned forward slightly. “The same day Chev died?”
“That evening. Yes. I portaled it through to their post.”
Terrance’s eyebrows now shot straight up. “You portaled it? And you did all the scrying you say is necessary without any problems or anything?”
“I had the same problems.” Jerryck shrugged that away. “They don’t make it impossible to open portals. Just difficult.”
“What did you say to them?”
“I told them since I’ve had my position as your court magician for over a decade, I don’t need a license from them,” Jerryck said. “So if they send any more letters harrassing me about it, I’ll ignore them. I’m not going to make myself unavailable just to respond if people are going to die because of it.”
The corner of Terrance’s mouth twitched upward. “You blamed them? You told them someone died because you were responding to their letter?”
“I specified that it was my brother-in-law.”
Terrance pressed his lips together, but a slight chuckle escaped him. Jerryck frowned. There was nothing funny about this.
The king dug out a parchment from the mess on his desk. He added to the notes scribbled all over it. “You do realize this could cause problems in foreign relations with Kemetulla.”
Jerryck wasn’t sure exactly how. For him, yes. For Terrance? Kemetulla was two nations to the south. Far away. He shrugged again. “It’s not like they have an official representative here to stir up trouble.”
“They would, if you’d get your license from them.” Terrance set down his pen. “You really think they’re just going to give up on you?”
They didn’t have a representative because Terrance had refused one about the time he had hired Jerryck, though it probably wasn’t prudent bring that up. Anyone who brought it up only ever got cold responses from him. He crossed his arms. “I shouldn’t have to remind you of their history. When was the last time they ever gave up on a magic user refusing to obey them?”
“When the Chemwanitz Shamans nearly destroyed them by erupting that volcano on their city,” Jerryck said.
“And nearly destroyed themselves in the process,” Terrance said. “That wasn’t giving up. That was acknowledgment of mutual destruction if they continued to war. I’m talking about individuals, like you.”
“There were the Ahnjwat Summoners in the south.”
“They warred,” Terrance reminded him. “And eventually capitulated to the Gathering.”
“My mentor refused to take up one of their seats.”
“And yet he still took their oaths and had a license from them,” Terrance said. “On top of that, he didn’t defend alchemical medics the way you do. Not that I disagree with you, but you need to be more careful. In this particular situation, any other magician would be screaming for me to get rid of those medics, and hire magicians in their place. Like Masorno’s doing.”
“That’s not going to be a problem anymore.”
“You told him to stop?”
“I told him to stop lying and go home. I left him with some of the elite guards to escort him off the palace grounds.”
Terrance stared at Jerryck for a moment. He opened his mouth as if to say something. Then he closed it again, pursed his lips, and ran a hand across his short cropped beard.
“Did I do wrong?” Jerryck asked.
“Did you do this privately?” Terrance asked right back. “Or in a room full of people?”
“It was on the landing outside your reception area,” Jerryck said.
“So in a room full of people.” Terrance paused, and sighed. “He’s going to go home to Shontarra and tell Prince Sanbralio that you publicly embarrassed him. I’m going to get a formal complaint from the crown and a demand for an apology to his court magician.”
“So I did do wrong.” Jerryck shook his head at himself. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ll deal with it by sending a counter complaint,” Terrance dug his note riddled parchment back out and added more to it. “Considering how Masorno has been acting, it wasn’t what you did, so much as your method of implementation.”
“So… I did right and wrong at the same time?” Jerryck frowned with confusion when Terrance nodded. “I really don’t understand that.”
A shadow of a smile slowly spread across Terrance’s face. “You don’t understand that you created two foreign relations messes in one week?”
“Social nuances make no sense.”
“They do to most people, Jerryck. Just not to you.” The smile now spread to Terrance’s eyes, something that didn’t happen often enough. “Go back to your tower. I’ll take care of these messes for you. As always.”
-Visit the author at www.authorrebekaholson.com-
-Edited by Philip Athans-
-Artwork by Rachel Bostwick-