The Quarrels of Mages and Men

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Chapter Eight - The Broken Child

Clarice knelt in the bathing room of the king’s keep. She looked into the water and saw that the beauty her face once held was gone. Her father had always praised her on the vivid veins that had formed over her visage, the dark voids that encompassed her face. Father, she thought, what will you think now, Inge. Am I still your daughter? She dreaded the thought of her father’s disdain.

Tears began to drop into the wash bucket, and her reflection became more distorted. The king remained silent, standing a few feet behind her. Fear welled up within Clarice as she continued to sob into the bucket. She waited for him to say something, she knew he would eventually. Surely a man like him must ask why a young woman kneels before him crying. She realized, however, that he knew full well why she wept. There was no doubt in Clarice’s mind that the king didn’t know what scarred her, so she spoke.

“Why did you do this to me?”

Simple words, she thought, and yet she was not met with an answer. She began to clear up her mind, and stopped crying. She took a deep breath through her nose. She had never expected the king’s castle to smell so faintly of death. From Inge’s teaching, she knew of the many battles that took place in and around the castle; the slave-mages rebellion, and the Battle at Dawn to name a few. He’d told her all the stories of mages being oppressed and controlled, many taking place where Clarice’s own tragedy had.

“Why, sir. Why have you done this to me?”

The king ignored the question and asked her to stand up. She obeyed, and followed him into the hallway and to the dining room within the keep.

The room was stuffy, she found. It was small, or the table in it was far too big. The table sat, perhaps, twenty five people, when in reality the room could likely only compensate seven. He beckoned her down to a chair at the head of the table and promptly sat down at the other end. For a few minutes, they stared at each other.

“I’m truly sorry.” The king began. He seemed empty to the girl, but not nearly as much so as her. Her question remained the same.

“Why did you do this to me?”

“I had to. It was the only option, and I’m truly sorry for what has been done.”

“You killed the seeker that did it. Why did you do that?” She watched and tried to understand how much the king truly knew about mages. She’d learned, as far as her father was concerned, everything there is to know about avoiding being captured as a mage – on a conceptual level, at least. Clearly, she lacked in the application.

“Was he truly a seeker? Did he do anything to you?”

Quickly Clarice found herself full of anger again.

“How can you ask such a thing while a mage like myself sits across from you? How can you ask if he was truly a seeker or if he truly stole my power when I am here, now, with these scars across my face? I was beautiful, bastard. I was so beautiful and strong.” She yelled at him, and as she finished her rant, she saw the man across from her crying.

“I am truly sorry,” he choked out.

The smell of death poured through the dining room at this point, and Clarice shouted at the man who sat across from her about it. His tears continued to flow and he beckoned her into the hall with him. They walked down to a bedroom, and he ushered her in.

“This is what you’re smelling. This is my son, Samuel, heir to the throne. A woundless corpse while still a boy.” The king’s voice was an unwavering monotone. His eyes were fixed on the body, cold and glazed over.

She stared down at the body. It lay on its stomach with its head cocked to the side. Little clothes covered it, and she saw veins protruding from its lower back. Black, red and grey the veins ran. My veins, she thought.

“Why did you do this? Why did you try and build your son? Do you fancy yourself a god, my king? Do you feel this power is yours?” Her voice rose higher and higher as she spoke, her fists clenched by the end and her eyes shut forced shut in a rage.

The king lost his composure. In a matter of seconds, he held Clarice by the arm and pushed her against the wall. “Quite the opposite, my good dear. I have far too little power. The mages don’t trust me because they know I am powerless, the men don’t trust me because they think I am a mage, and who will stand by and help me to rule? My wife is an abomination because of me, and my son is a corpse. My brothers were strong, you should’ve seen them. Fire and stone, they held. I hold none of it, little Clarice. No power lives in these halls.”

Clarice looked at the poor man holding her against the wall. His eyes were deathly, bags lay beneath them stacking up more and more with each second she looked. He was a man defeated.

“Where is the queen?” She asked him. “Surely the queen helps you with your responsibilities.”

“The queen is bed-ridden, seemingly permanently.”

Clarice was about to ask why, but the somber tone of Gerod’s voice made her reconsider. She didn’t convey any well wishes of recovery, too, for she could tell that whatever burdened the queen wouldn’t be aided by her thoughts.

Shortly after, he seemed to realize that Clarice was still pinned against the wall and lowered her to the floor. “Come,” he beckoned. “Please be my dinner guest.” Clarice was reluctant to accept his offer, but it was clear in his voice that this was something he’d wanted to ask of someone for a very long time.

As they walked down the hall, a servant holding a tray of food stood at the door of one of the rooms she’d not seen. “Miss Lucia,” he called out. He’s old, Clarice thought, he probably knew the queen before her title. He held his ear to the door and entered. Clarice tried to see what was behind it, but saw only darkness.

The king brought her into the room, and they returned to their seats from before.

“What food shall I have Stephen bring for you, girl?” The king asked her. “Though there may be little power here, there is a plentiful sum of food.”

She considered a vast array of food she’d loved eating down in Rainhome – voluptuous baked clams, the occasional lobster from Seashill, the salmon from Troutson. She thought of her mother, the woman she hardly knew from Troutson. She remembered her more from her father’s stories than from her own experiences. She’d been young when Freja died, but whenever her father would discuss magic with her, he’d mention how strong she was. “Have you got any salmon? It’s a fish that comes from Troutson.” She eventually asked.

“Salmon comes from Troutson? Are you sure? What about Trout?” the king asked her, jokingly. Clarice smiled slightly, but the tired joke faded quickly. “Yes, of course, I’ll have Stephen prepare some for you.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, she was sure the king was racking his brain for a topic of conversation.

“Is your family close with the people of Troutson?” he eventually asked her.

“Yep. My father married the oldest Gringolet daughter. Her name was Freja.”

“Was?”

She glared at him. “She was Freja until your army burned her alive.” Her tone was bold and piercing

The king was visibly taken aback. He tried to backtrack and change the topic, mentioning Seashill and the Iron Hall. Seemingly anything was good enough for the two of them to discuss, as long as it wasn’t so condemning. Clarice tried to make him as uncomfortable with each new topic they discussed.

“Have you spent much time in the Iron Hall?”

“No.”

“Oh right, I suppose you wouldn’t have, as a girl.”

She scoffed at his remark. “Most of my uncle’s army are women. Men and women both train to fight in the south. My mother was a warrior, a stone mage warrior, she could disarm and kill any man at any time. I just didn’t spend time there because of my magic.” A feeling of dread grew over her. “I guess I’ll have to go train there now whenever I return south.”

A part of her had always wished to go to the Iron Hall. She wondered what kind of warrior she would be, based on her understanding of her mother’s strength. She remembered once when her uncle had sent Igor to the Iron Hall. He spent a week there being trained, since her father told her uncle that he had no magical powers. He came back weaker and more useless than before, but he told such wondrous stories about the stoicism he’d seen there. She had trouble imagining what could’ve possibly been so incredible.

The Iron Hall was a crater in the ground that had been forged over with iron. It was the greatest defensive position the south had, and the Lindberg’s, Gringolet’s and Glenns’ of Seashill stored all their battling men and women there.

The king stopped talking again. They sat in quiet as he offered more water and even wine to the girl. He hustled around the room to get the things he offered, and poured them in her cup with shaking hands.

One thing Clarice was enjoying about the capital was the wine. In Rainhome, she’d only get to drink beer and mead, neither of which she was fond of. She liked the idea of a drink that’s fruitier while still mind-numbing.

“Have you had wine before?”

“All mages drink in the south. My father started me drinking when I was only eight – he said ‘the discipline you need to stop yourself from overdrinking alcohol is the same discipline you need to stop yourself from overconsuming your teas. It’s a lot less harmful to get drunk for one night and learn a lesson than to burn up completely.” Each time he did that, he would point at the exhausted vein running across his face. It was a few years later before he fully explained why the one vein was exhausted, and his explanation somewhat negated the adage he passed on about getting drunk.

After a while, her salmon arrived. She peered at it, it was far less pink than what she ate in the south, but she trusted that it was what she asked for. “If this is secretly trout,” she began, “I’ll know, sir king. That is one thing you cannot fool a southerner on. We fishlords know our fish.”

“I would never try to fool you now, Clarice.”

She began to eat the food. It was slightly bitterer than she was used to. Northern spices, she thought, they aren’t nearly as savoury, and yet she ate it. Each and every fleck of fish on her plate was gone before the king had finished his soup. It wasn’t the best she’d eaten, but she could get used to it.

The king sat across from her with a beaming smile.

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