Saluriman, the most powerful Magician in the world, winced in embarrassment.
“Sal!” Fannita exclaimed in shock. It clearly wasn’t a trap at all. His last move had left his queen open to no possible benefit. Looking at him in some concern, she slid her bishop up and claimed her prize. She wasn’t even likely to lose the bishop.
Cozy, would be a good word to describe his study. The walls are stone but round and smoothly polished. Books and scrolls are heaped everywhere. The light is provided by a Captive Prism that is cascading between the tastefully arrayed crystals of a small but glorious chandelier overhead. The light in the room is soft and golden.
Saluriman, looked hard at all the possible alternatives for a minute. Drummed his fingers for moment, then stared again for a few more seconds..
Fannita didn’t even think of giving him a chance. “Time!” she announced.
He stopped staring, sighed in defeat and tipped his king over. Then he offered her his hand.
She took it with a frown. “It was hardly hopeless. I might have screwed up.”
Saluriman smirked at her.
“Don't’ say it. It’s beneath you.”
Saluriman smirked at that.
“Really Sal? Is this what you are reduced to? Fourth rate innuendo?” She pursed her lips in disappointment.
“Honestly my love, I was never good at the first rate stuff,” he non-apologized as he reset the chess board.
“I suppose not,” the greatest Temple Masseuse in the world, non-accepted.
No one quite got their relationship because no one who wasn’t them, quite could. It was mostly assumed by everyone that the five hundred year old greatest magician in the world, sent for the greatest Temple Masseuse from time to time for obvious reasons. And she went without fail for equally obvious reasons. After all obvious reasons are in a word...obvious.
As usual everyone had it wrong. Oh there was mutual interest between the two to be sure but no, they hadn’t had sex...yet. They were in the midst of forty year long dance of seduction.
Neither side was willing to lose the contest by admitting interest.
There were also side benefits to be sure. For one thing she was seventy-one years old and looked like she was seventeen. When they had first begun their relationship she was in her mid thirties and it showed. So that was clearly his work but she wasn’t quite sure how he was doing it. That kind of thing always requires that a rather disgusting potion be imbibed on a regular basis. The taste would be obvious and she had never tasted anything like that in the delicate foods and subtle wines she had always been served at Jordan’s Tower. She hadn’t mentioned it yet and neither had he.
What they mostly got out of their relationship was camaraderie of course. They were both the greatest artists of their age, although admittedly in very different mediums but their art catered to the vulgar senses. It may not have seemed that way in Saluriman’s case but it was. It may not look like it but magic is ultimately intensely tactile. There greatest works of art were only ever going to be enjoyed by one person and that person would probably never know it.
When the board was reset, Fannita turned it sideways with excruciating delicacy. Her arched eyebrows invited rather than challenged. In completely and absolutely feigned coquettish innocence, she placed the tip of her index finger on the end of her tongue as if actually considering. Then she selected two pawns, one black and one white and put her arms behind her back. She then inhaled deeply, lifting her breasts and lowering her gaze at him. She held her her breath and sumptuously pursed her glistening lips.
The Magician half smiled. Then reached out and lightly stroked the inside of her elbow almost airily.
Violent electric shocks, shot through Fannita. Touching her to her most intimate core.
Not the slightest twitch of muscle betrayed her as she looked on at him.
She handed him the white pawn. Returned the black to her side and turned the board with a salacious smile, she changed in unconscious effortlessness from ingenuine to femme fatale.
Saluriman began the new game with an English Opening.
Fannita replied by tipping over her king with a fingertip and placing her chin delicately on her fist, “are you going to tell me what’s going on or not?”
He slumped back grumpily on his cushions, “I had to kill three of my apprentices today.”
“When has that ever bothered you?” She replied.
“Well, never of course,” he waved a hand dismissively. “But this time was a little different”
“You regretted it this time?”
“Well thank god for that. I’d have to be done with you.” Fannita then broke the act and smiled sympathetically. “What’s wrong, love?”
“The motive.” At her quizzical gaze he continued. “Those idiots weren’t just plotting to kill me and take my spell books.” He shrugged, “I mean they were but that’s perfectly normal. I expect that in any decent apprentice. Truth be said I wouldn’t have any use at all for a senior journeyman who wasn’t trying to kill me. Lacks ambition and drive those types. Dead assed lazy bastards. I’d be very disappointed in them if they weren’t going after me every time my back was turned. No indeed,” he said in deep self satisfaction. “I select my apprentices with considerably more care then that. I’m sure you understand.”
“Hmm,” she replied, “sort of. More or less. Once in awhile a girl will try to disfigure me with acid in the face, that sort of thing. But murder is a little out of the ordinary for temple girls.” She continued sagaciously, “still my love, I do get the concept. So what was different about this time?”
“These morons thought I had Barry’s Mace.”
“Barry. You know, the Fallen One. Barry.”
“Uh...oh...” Yes, she certainly knew of the Fallen One but didn’t know his friends called him, ‘Barry.’ Well Sal was certainly old enough to have known him. But she didn’t think he’d had any part in the Great War, “...ur...friend of yours was he?”
“Oh yes,” Saliurman began then changed his tone, “weeeellll...friendly competitor.”
“Your competitors end up dead.
“So did Barry’s.”
This was getting them nowhere she decided. “So was someone giving them ideas?”
“That has to be the answer but who?” Saluriman whirred in unfamiliar confusion. “Who would they have believed? It had to be someone in whose plans they were willing to trust with their lives.”
Fannita was getting worried. Sal was actually shaken by this. His idiot apprentices must have gotten close to actually killing him. That hadn’t happened for a looong time. Which meant that they had had assistance. Inside knowledge of his higher defenses. “Someone whose opinion they felt had credentials obviously, my love?” Fannita asked. “Someone whom they thought they had reason to believe? One of your graduates, perhaps?”
Sal nodded at the distinct possibility.
Magicians needed apprentices, they couldn’t do without. She knew that. There were some spells that still sold well but that you couldn’t be bothered with singing yourself And some others required a lot of high powered help. Grand Master Magicians were not going to help each other out with those projects, since the highest level spells were usually directed at other Grand Masters.
Now, Sal didn’t have that many graduates. But then no one did. It was the nature of the business. Aside from natural attrition, (which included over optimistic assassination attempts as well as lab accidents). There was a huge burnout factor and not just from literally setting yourself on fire from time to time. A number of magic users simply quit because the whole business got on their nerves. It was all high stress and one hundred ten hour work weeks. You never saw the sun, let alone a woman. Standards were excruciating. Having a master standing behind you constantly screaming, “not good enough you thumb throated fucktard,” every time you were off by a milli-grace note, was bad for anyone’s blood pressure. Add to that the rampant alcoholism and most were only good for about ten years before they quit the whole damn thing and took up blacksmithing.
On top of all that the farther you advanced the lower your life expectancy became. After all the higher the plane of the spell you sang the more likely you were to get it wrong and the more likely that mistake was to be fatal.
Few indeed could hang on long enough to become graduate masters. Attempts to produce magicians en masse like doctors and lawyers were always laughable failures.
Although on the rare occasions the subject came up, graduation was simple enough...in theory. At a certain point, when a master magician felt you could no longer be taught anything either because of a surfeit of knowledge, natural stupidity or outright insanity. You would suddenly be woken up in the middle of the night and dragged into a room with Saluriman, two other grand masters plus a couple of more high masters and your exam would begin. You would be peppered with questions for several terrifying hours. They would decide at the end, if your were either a harmless dumbshit, a public menace or hopefully a master in your own right.
After that, in two cases you would be thrown immediately out of your master’s tower alive. In one of those without your spell books. In the third, you didn’t leave. At all. Ever.
I can see why you would bother with apprentices but why graduates? She wondered silently. It wasn’t like magicians believed the children were the future or anything like that. Not when they routinely outlived them. Nor did successful magicians eagerly seek each other’s company.
“No new graduates. No new apprentices,” he stated an obvious truth, distractedly.
I hate it when you do that, she refused to say. He wasn’t a mind reader, just very old and sharp as hell.
“So who are my suspects?” he asked.
He already had to know the answer to that question, she thought.
There was Gordian who was a flashy runt. He was good and he rigidly maintained standards. If you asked the average Columbianen in the street who was the greatest magician in the world, almost all would answer Gordian. He had opened seven towers and all of them were well reviewed. Two them had three stars in Chimileian’s Tower Guide. Gordian was obviously someone, yet he was always clearly nervous on those rare occasions when Saluriman came to call. Not really in the same league even though everyone thought he was. He had long since made it plain that he wouldn’t make trouble for his old master. He didn’t have the option
Then were was Keillorus, who absolutely did have the option but also kept his distance. He was very good indeed. Potentially one of the all time greats. And like most of the those, he was so over focused on the craft that he could never take much of an interest in the real world.
That being the irony of most powerful magicians in the world. As near to gods as they were, they were so blindered by their focus on the craft that all but a few could barely notice of anything outside their towers.
Finally there was Ashetaay. The youngest and possibly most brilliant of them all. Not just well reviewed but intensely hated by his rivals as well, which is always a mark of quality. Only one tower to his credit but it was unmatched in its innovative brilliance. Only the best and most fashionable of people and not quite people came to Ashetaay’s Tower. Many of the old school found his work offensive because they knew they were too old to compete with it. Gordian being the loudest and most obnoxious example of this. However, Fannita knew that Saluiriman genuinely admired the boy’s craft and viewed the young magician with that rarest of things in a grand master; affection and pride. So she hoped it wasn’t him.
Regardless, Ashetaay was young enough to be a vulnerable to both flattery and the most mundane and unimaginative of temptations. It might well be Asetaay. Fortunately, among his weaknesses were those of the flesh. Fannita would set her girls upon him as soon as she was home. She would know the truth of it shortly and if he was actively working against Sal.. She had options at her disposal that Ashetaay would never see coming
“I’m cold,” she said coquettishly.
“Well perhaps you should start a fire?”
“I don't’ perform magic for you, it’s embarrassing,” she said pertly. She kept a few minor spells at home, just about any literate person did. She could light a fire with the best of them but she wasn’t him. “Take up having sex with strangers for my amusement and I’ll consider it.”
Saluirman smiled and facing the fireplace. closed his eyes.
Then he hummed a barely discernible note from the Song of Creation. A green flame laced with blue danced intricately into life around the edges of the timber. Slowly and in simple elegant beauty, the flame pirouetted from log to log as the fire spread.
Fannita stared in wonder, until she was startled by the wet streak of a tear that had rolled unnoticed down her cheek. She blinked and looked over at at the ancient Magician. His eyes were still closed but this time there was a slight frown. The note he had borrowed to sing his song of fire had of course fled his memory and gone back to the Song of Creation. Once uttered every spell always did.
Does he still try to hang on to it after all these centuries? No one else on Earth had ever managed to keep a single note from the Song of Creation in their memory after it was sung. They always had to be rememorized from spell books. Why should Saluirman be the first?
She smiled to herself with loving warmth and answered herself, because he is the man himself. He is the best and brightest without equal. If anyone will ever manage the impossible it is him. He has certainly done it before.
Suddenly there was a rather frightened and apologetic knock at the door.
“Ah, my surviving senior journeyman,” Saluriman said.
Fannita held up a finger and began sliding around to his side of the table.
“Wait!” Saluriman barked at the door, while Fannita began to tastefully dishevel her clothing and neatly muss her hair. The final touch was the bared alabaster shoulder. She nodded to Sal as she snuggled up against him and began stroking his chest in lazy, doe eyed, elegantly complete satisfaction.
Atticus poked his nervous green haired head into the room.
Sal always scowled at his apprentices but in this case the loathing was genuine. She didn’t blame him. Spiked hair, tattooed neck and ear expanders. The kid wasn’t good looking to begin with, why did he turn himself into even more of a circus freak?
Atticus spared her a timorous frown of disapproval. Doubtless for not finding him remotely attractive, despite his obvious intelligence and hidden greatness. “Master,” he began in a high grating voice.
“Shut up!” Sal’s voice clanged like a klaxon. He looked down at Fannita and gave her a long and loving smile, before addressing him.
“You are probably wondering why you aren’t dead, too.”
Atticus swallowed. He clearly had been wondering about that little matter himself.
“It’s simple. You aren’t worth killing.”
“I don’t understand Master,” he actually seemed a bit upset by the fact that Saluriman didn’t think he was worth the bother of obliterating. “I wasn’t part of that foolish plot. You must know that sir!
“What plot? I just like killing my apprentices from time to time. Keeps the rest on their toes and such like. Everyone knows that. " Sal adopted a quizzical air, "Was there something else going on I should know about?”
A light tap on her wrist cued Fannita, She obediently giggled with wide open eyed, empty headed vacuousness.
Atticus squinted his piggy little eyes at her for daring to laugh at a man who clearly was born to be great and powerful
Saluriman asked disinterestedly. “Who is the one who put you fools up to it?”
“I don’t understand,” Atticus doubled down, trying to give the impression of being a lost innocent clearly whirring in abject confusion. “What do you mean Master?”
“So you weren’t important enough to be told who was masterminding this brilliant plan,” Sal sighed with a roll of his eyes.
Don’t take up poker, Fannita thought to herself while staring at the boy’s guilty face in wonder at his stupidity.
“Ah so you do know. I suppose the question is, who would be stupid enough to trust you? He pondered. “Had to be Gordian.”
The tinniest of micro-frowns appeared on the boy’s face. Fannita kept her’s beautifully vacant. Atticus was enough in the the know to be offended by the implication. As if he would have anything to do with the plans from somebody that was all thunder and no lightening.
“Oh! So it was Kellorius after all,” Saluriaman said with satisfied smile. A magician’s duel with Kellorius would be a proper magician’s duel. He hadn’t had one of those in quite some time. In fact he was rather glad of an excuse to pursue the fight.
“No master,” Atticus said with just a touch of honest surprise, “it wasn’t him,”
“He’s telling the truth, love.” She whispered to him. There would be no need to send her girls out for information.
It was Ashetaay,
She saw Sal blink just a hint of pain away. If it was Ashetaay than it was Ashetaay.
Saluriman raised an arm toward his apprentice, his hand clenching into a fist, a ring of bone glowing brightly a finger that was aimed at Atticus.
“Master! Pleasepleaseplease! I DIDN’T DO...” Atticus began to shriek and then his face went slack. He shook his head a couple of times. His eyes focused on Fannita, then he said, “Where is Ashetaay, now.”
It took Fannita a moment or two to process what she was seeing. The voice was the boy’s but the tone. The mannerisms. The set of his eyes. The unbelievable fact that she suddenly found herself sexually aroused by Atticus.
She looked up at the steady occasionally blinking eyes of Saluriman. “Will your body be okay”? she asked.
“Oh yes, quitie all right.” Sal spoke although it was Atticus’ voice that was heard. “About five percent of me is still anchored in there.”
“Think of me as a sort of bot, madame,” Saluriman’s body respectfully addressed her. “I can handle minor things. Eating, sleeping, beating apprentices, you know the basics,” he...it said.
Fannita found herself scuttling away from Saluriman’s body, none the less, “Uh...he’s at Duke Bryan’s court,” she suddenly remembered to answer his question. “Of late, he has suddenly become very close to Princess Perseverance. “
“What has that fool Ashetaay gotten himself into?" Saluriman shook his borrowed head in disgust. Then stopped momentary repulsed by the swaying of the ear expanders. "Looks like we’re going to court.”
“But I have done nothing wrong, good sir,” Fannita pouted with almost painful innocence.