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Through the Window Darkly

By Shayne Carmichael



Description

The journey for Maer and his merry band of adventurers continues in the sequel to "A Guide to Magical Cant." 

Life for Maer and Darius has yet to reach the happily ever after point. With the secret Maer still carries, they may never have one. Time is running out for him.

Can Maer explain who he really is before an unseen enemy ends his life?


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Excerpt

Chapter One

“I’ll escort you to the grand hall when we’re done bathing.”

There was a certain look in Darius’ eyes that suggested he was more than a little sorry they couldn’t bathe together. Maer shared the feeling, but it would be unhealthy to flaunt their relationship for now.

But a kiss? Surely he could have at least one. No one would know. He leaned closer to Darius, hands grabbing for the soft material of his shirt. A slow, sensual smile heated Maer better than any fire could. The intended brief kiss turned into more. Their lips and tongues hungrily devoured each other for a long moment until, with great reluctance, Darius pulled back.

“Don’t take too long, Maer. Everyone will be waiting for us.”

Darius left as Maer turned to face the room. It contained a large, wooden bed covered with a blue and gold quilt. An elaborate frame encircled the bed with carvings of intertwined star flowers, and the same design carved into the wood floor and ceiling of the room. Beside the dais was a small table and chair for relaxing.

A wooden screen partially hid one corner of the room, and Maer set his pack in front of it. A wood pedestal with a precious blue vase stood near him. From the archaic floral design on it, Maer realized it had to be very old. As were the four blue and gold tapestries, one on each wall. The only other piece of furniture was a rectangular table against one wall with an arched cupboard atop it.

Maer put Ike’s chest on one side of the cupboard, then opened it for the rodent. The noggin was still sleeping, and Maer left him undisturbed. He didn’t hear a peep from the talking creature. Ike had been put under a magical spell by his previous master, and none could understand the poor noggin until it had come across Maer. Now Maer enjoyed having the occasionally cantankerous rodent with him.

Since Maer had met up with his traveling companions—Ethan, his wife, the warrior Princess Sophia, Elidor the troll-illusioned elf, and Darius, a mage who was older than he appeared—Maer’s life had been more than adventuresome.

In the bathroom, Maer crouched to turn on the black faucet of the sunken tub, then stepped into it. Scented, hot water filled the tub in no time at all. As he soaked, he reflected on the twists and turns his life had taken. He’d run away from a father who had no use for him other than to marry Maer off to the man’s lover. Sophy and Ethan had taken him in when he’d saved Ethan from an orc. During that time, he’d traveled to the forbidden lands for treasure, saved a seer in Lavalre, hunted a band of bandits, gotten wounded by an arrow, and visited the Fae kingdom, Aolin. And he’d encountered two ancient gods long thought dead, and gained more knowledge than the University of Misteria contained.

As he glanced around the sumptuous room, he relaxed in the heat of the water. Their accommodations at the palace in Light City were far more luxurious than Maer had gotten used to during his adventuring. It helped Sophy was a princess of Proteria, the only daughter of five children. Sophy was sequestered with her mother, and Maer had no clue why they were there.

All of them were to dine with the Queen and Sophy at the ninth bell. Because it was near that, Maer opened his pack for a clean outfit and laid a silver tunic and dark green pants on the bed before he undressed. Over the last few suns, he really hadn’t had much time to himself.

He’d also taken a lover. In quiet moments, his thoughts shifted to Darius. A habit he couldn’t seem to control. Not since he’d slept with the mage anyway. It had only been the one time, but after that they’d had no privacy for another chance. Whether that was good or bad, Maer wasn’t sure. It might have been suns ago, but Maer hadn’t forgotten any of the experience. He knew he was entangled with Darius not only on a physical level but emotional and intellectual ones.

It hadn’t helped at all when the elf, Elidor, had bought him a box of the same candies Darius liked. He wouldn’t put it past the elf to tease Maer about Darius in his own way. Even Sophy and Ethan tried to give him and Darius private time whenever they could, and it was obvious they noticed something.

Most of his life, Maer had thought he would be at the university until he graduated. After he took his place in the Council, he thought he would most likely chose a companion to spend the rest of his life with. Those had always been distant thoughts of a time some place way in his future with some unknown person.

He hadn’t expected anybody to show much interest in him other than possibly a school friend or two. Maer had kissed a few, though not a great many, but he’d never taken any of it seriously and he certainly never felt what Darius made him feel. Something was different about the mage. Even now thoughts of Darius made him squirm, and he grabbed a cloth to scrub at his skin.

Occupied with his thoughts, he didn’t notice the water had cooled. When he did, Maer got out of the tub and wrapped in a drying cloth. A quick glance at Ike’s chest showed the noggin was still asleep. It took no more than a moment to dress. The drab tunic suited him. The only fancy adornment was its gold trim around the collar and cuffs. He adjusted the green colored sash around his waist that matched his pants. As he eyed himself in a mirror, he decided he looked adequate to be presented to royalty.

When he heard a knock at the door, he walked over to it and opened it. The sight of Darius made his knees weak, but he ignored the feeling as best he could.

“It’s almost ninth bell and I thought you might need an escort to the Great Hall.”

“I wonder if I should wake Ike.” He cast a quick glance over at the chest. There was a bowl of fresh fruits near the chest, and he knew the noggin had his own food store as well. Still, to miss a sumptuous banquet might upset Ike.

“Leave the door open a little. He’ll find his way if he wants to.” Darius took Maer’s hand and shut the door just enough for a bit of privacy. Before Maer could say a word, Darius stole another kiss. The touch of Darius’ lips remained light for a line until Maer opened his mouth in a groan. His body betrayed how much he wanted the mage. Darius took advantage, their kiss becoming much hungrier and needy. It was over much sooner than Maer wanted it to be and Darius stepped back.

Hand on Maer’s, he pulled them both into the hallway. Darius let go as they walked beside each other. Maer was acutely aware of Darius’ closeness. The mage gave him a casual smile.

It disappointed Maer when Darius released his hand, though it shouldn’t have. What was it about Darius that attracted him so strongly?

In his past attempts to ignore the young wizard, Maer had purposely missed their lessons. Darius was undeniably an excellent teacher. He was far more knowledgeable about Aurora than anybody else Maer had come across.

Maer had admired his old teachers and still did, but he understood the scope of their knowledge was limited to what they themselves wanted to know and what the school allowed them to teach. As Ethan had taught him, it wasn’t necessarily a good or bad thing as long as one was at least aware of how much more existed outside that world.

Maer and Darius entered the cavernous Great Hall, and he saw the others seated near Sophy’s parents and family. Her brothers were an impressive lot; each had a variety of coloring to their hair, ranging from white to blue to green, and eyes to match it. It gave them a very unusual appearance, though they were no less handsome than Sophy was beautiful. Clearly, they were all warriors in their own rights as their armor, clothing, and weapons attested to.

None but the family and Sophy’s group were present at the meal. A servant stood behind each person, silently attending to their needs. Maer and Darius bowed to Queen Saria and her husband before they took their places and were immediately offered an array of dishes from several trays.

The palace and city itself were far more colorful then he’d seen thus far, except for Port Illis. The predominant colors were bright enameled red, green, and blue, blending with the sandstone tone of the plaster. The design of the pillars and arches were different in that the top of each arch was a partial circle, each edge rippled, and each ceiling domed. There wasn’t a surface of any wall or the floor or ceiling that wasn’t decorated with a series of symbolic, linked, golden circles.

As he ate, Maer watched the playful teasing between Sophy and her brothers. They were an affectionate bunch, and Maer hadn’t expected it. At least Sophy’s family didn’t believe in the formality Maer was used to among royalty and the elite. They drew Maer, Travis, Darius, and Elidor into their camaraderie without a second thought. Sophy gave as good as she got, and Ethan scored a few points of his own in the banter.

Both Elidor and Travis looked right at home, and even Maer joined in with a few tart comments about the elf and his best friend as well as Ethan’s notoriously thrifty habits. The food was delicious, the conversation highly unconventional, and Maer loved it.

****

“So why are we here?” Elidor asked, cutting to the most pressing subject on all of their minds once everyone settled in Sophy’s sitting room.

“King Tordis is very ill. They don’t believe he’ll live long. His brother, Evir, sent a message to my mother, asking her to summon me to help him. Tordis’ only daughter, Flava, disappeared over twenty deccants ago. She wanted to marry a commoner and Tordis refused to let her. Flava left her home to join her levier nor, and they became companions.

Tordis had claimed Flava died in an accident to avoid the scandal, but Evir says it’s not true. According to rumor, she had a son named Erasok, and the Sercenians need to find her and her son.” The warrior princess was dressed far more casually than Maer had ever seen her. The light blue robe gave her a regal appearance and matched her eyes. She sat, relaxed in her seat, not at all restless as she usually was.

Ethan considered the request for a line before speaking again. “Any idea of where the two might be?”

“Supposedly in Sycos. The man she joined with was Araror, the first general to Nameless.”

“That makes it all the more interesting,” Elidor muttered as he poured himself a glass of wine. “Nameless isn’t that hard to trace so his first general shouldn’t be either.”

Darius broke in, saying, “Tracing is one thing. Actually getting wherever they are is another.”

“Sycos. This should be really exciting,” Travis drawled, propping his feet on a low central table.

Sycos was a desolate wasteland, a haven for outlaws, murderers, and criminals of every sort. Even its ruler was an infamously brutal man called He Who Shall Remain Nameless. People were too afraid to even whisper the man’s real name and called him Nameless. It was a place Maer never thought he would see.

“The mage, Aidan, would have been the only one strong enough to stabilize the kingdom,” Sophy said, “but he left his keep on Sercenia to the rule of the Council. With Aidan on the throne of Veralaan, the kingdom may not remain in one piece when Tordis dies. Evir could take the throne for himself, but as long as the rumors of Tordis’ grandson persist, it could lead to civil war if Evir tried.”

“True. What is the coin for this one?” Elbows propped on the arms of his chair, Ethan steepled his fingers beneath his chin, looking lost in thought.

“Two hundred thousand gold if we find Erasok and get him safely to Sercenia. Fifty thousand if we don’t.”

“Oh, I’m in,” Elidor volunteered immediately.

“Has anybody ever been to Sycos?” Maer asked as soon as the laughter at the elf’s eagerness died off.

“Sophy and I have been to Celestial City several times. Sycos is a dangerous area. Just as bad as the forbidden lands. Over the yerls, we’ve gained a bit of an information line there.”

“Never been there,” the elf answered, then Darius added, “I’ve been in and out of Sycos and know a few people there as well.”

“If the rest of you are in, I’ll have my mother send a message to Evir, and we’ll head for Sycos.”

Maer joined in with the resounding ‘yes.’ The danger meant they would have to be extremely careful, but Maer wasn’t about to pass up a chance to see a place he never thought he would.

****