From the author: When an archmage offers you an invitation . . . you say yes.
When you’re invited to join an archmage on his airship, you don’t say no. But you do ask if you can bring a friend.
That’s what led me to stand on the deck of a ship without sails, looking over the rail to the fields below. My palms damp with sweat.
“It looks so small from up here, Eluned!” my sister Cadi shouted over the wind.
Isn’t that the point? I turned away, willing my legs into motion. Found a bench to sit on till I could breathe again.
No sign of our host. Oh, spirits wafted trays of dainties to the guests. But of the archmage himself, no trace. Probably observing us before he makes his entrance.
Then Archmage Madoc ap Hywel appeared with a crack of displaced air.
Cadi clapped—she adores magic. All my siblings do, and why shouldn’t they? “Well done!” she called over. “Isn’t teleporting to a swiftly-moving object difficult?”
Madoc descended to the deck. He appeared no more than thirty, tanned and hearty. “I’ve a mooring crystal aboard. It accounts for how the x, y, and z coordinates change.” He bowed over my hand. “Lady Eluned, thank you for coming.”
Difficult not to think how fifty years ago, the mage-wars had raged, each House against the rest. How easy it would be for him to eliminate my family with a single tragic accident today. Nonsense, I told myself. Your dread of heights is magnifying every other fear, real or imaginary.
When you’re speaking with an archmage, manners matter. “Thank you, it’s lovely up here.” I kept ahold of the bench as he gestured for me to accompany him.
The bench. The rail. His arm, once offered.
“Forgive me. I’d thought this a pleasant and private place for our discussion,” Madoc commented, noting my white-knuckled grip. “I hadn’t intended your discomfort, m’lady.”
“Why bring me here?” I asked, my tone turning brittle. “My family’s been neutral in the Great Game for decades. Do you hope to enlist us as allies against House Machynlleth?”
Madoc waved. “Ancient history. My father considered Machynlleth enemies for poisoning his mother. However, I look forward.” He shrugged. “And as the head of your family, it’s you I must convince about any joint venture.”
It didn’t sound like a murder plot, but I’d been warned by my parents to keep out of the Game. That we couldn’t afford it, with . . . .
. . . well, with me at the helm.
Looking at fields below, I asked, “You’re aware that I’m not a mage? My siblings are, but I’m . . . .” A flush rose. “Magically null.” Even after decades of failed lessons in spellcraft, of watching my siblings master every scroll, the words still hurt.
Madoc turned to face me. “It goes beyond that, from what I hear.” His tone not held none of the cloying pity I’d heard all my life. “Allow me to be frank, my lady. No magic actually touches you. If I cast a flying spell and tossed you out to enjoy the breeze on your own, without this ship beneath your feet, you’d fall.”
My fingers clenched. “Do you propose a test?”
“No, m’lady,” he replied, taking my rigid hand in his. “Your condition is valuable.”
My family had never spoken of my condition with anything but regret. “How so? Not even healing spells work on me.” A bitter taste in my mouth.
“You can’t be affected by charms. Illusions. Magical illnesses. Curses should bounce off you.” He grinned, startling me. “I’d like to go into business with you and your House.”
“Business?” I gave him a glance askance. The great Houses weren’t supposed to sully their hands with trade, though mine carried the smell of the shop. “How so?”
“Your House already has the means of distribution. I’d like to put magic into the hands of the common people. At a reasonable cost. For starters, rings.”
“Of what, invisibility?” My heart sank. “Without the eyes of others upon them, people would immediately become criminals—” Perhaps that’s what he intends, criminal cartels armed with magic?
He flicked his fingers. “No, rings of coloration. Allowing someone to change the color of the paint on their walls at whim. Minimal charges, rechargeable at your family’s emporiums, where I’d station apprentices to do the work.”
I squinted. “And people would buy this?”
“Certainly. It would give them a feeling of power. And when magic becomes something that everyone can use, they’ll find it less threatening, and we might see fewer revolts.” Madoc gestured with his free hand. “Then, ships like this one. To allow people who cannot afford horses or carriages to travel great distances.”
“To visit far-flung family?”
“That, and travel improves the mind. Allows them to see that people on the side of this border are not much different from people on the side of that one.”
I liked the idealism, but if nothing else, I was my father’s daughter: I could see a way to turn a profit from everything he’d said so far. “Why do you need us?”
Madoc sighed. “I might have magical power, but my father’s failed gambits at the Game left my House nearly bankrupt. Your House would make an admirable partner, and you’ll always know that I’m being honest. No charms. No illusions.”
When an archmage tells you the unvarnished truth, you need to listen. I considered, and then asked cautiously, “Generally in the Game, this is when one House proposes a marriage. A neat, singular covenant.”
Madoc bowed over my hand. “Lady Eluned, why should we follow that rule of the Game, when we mean to break all the rest?” A wicked glance. “While I’d like to get to know you better as my business partner, we needn’t rush to conform to the expectations of other Houses.”
I grinned. “The better to take them off-guard?”
When an archmage offers an alliance that could change the world . . . you say yes.
This story originally appeared in Constellary Tales.