When the Beaucourt arrived at the great, green gates of the Seabride City, the sun was already sinking low and westward over the grey-green expanse of the ocean. The way had been hard; twice he was beset by bandits. Three of his most useful Shades had been torn to ribbons by steel claws. The Beaucourt had been forced to unmake his chariot and use the energies that powered it to defend himself against the second throng of marauders. He made the final fifteen miles of his journey on foot and arrived at the gates exhausted, stinking, dusty from the road, with his once immaculate silver cloak in tatters and rags. These were bad times when wearing the silver was no longer protection, but merely an incitement to violence from the desperate and greedy, the Beaucourt mused. He was thus in no mood for impertinence when he knocked three times at the tarnished copper gate that towered high above him.
“Who goes? The sun has descended. The Gate is barred to travelers. You will have to wait out the night.” A voice more bored than diligent echoed from within.
The Beaucourt sighed. He attempted to smooth down his kinky hair, mashing down strands that radiated out in untidy corkscrew clumps. His dark eyes narrowed and his plump, generous lips drew thin, giving his mouth a cruel, devious cast. He stared coldly into the gates’ peephole, at slightly above his own eye level. His voice was a slow, clear baritone, and he enunciated every word carefully, as if to hide an exotic accent. “I am Beacourt of the Spiral Senate. I have travelled across the wastes at the behest of your First Son. Sundown or not, you will open the way to me with all the honor and grace due my position, or I will cast down the meager wards that separate you from me and transform you into a tree frog.” This was, strictly speaking, untrue. Transmogrification was beyond the Beaucourt with his energies ebbed so low after the long journey. It would, however, be no difficult task to compel the Gatesman to think he had been shaped into a small animal. The Beaucourt smiled grimly to himself.
The fabled terrors of the Spiral Senate’s Faitworkers and Cantortionists still held sway here in the Distant Marches, and the Gatesman squeaked apologetically, “My Lord, forgive me. Duty bids me announce your presence to the Captain, but your wait will not be long!”
Indeed, less than five minutes passed before a deep rumbling and the creaking of gear upon gear shuddered through the great copper gate, and its double doors slowly rolled apart to create a gap wide enough to admit a man. The Beaucourt wrapped the remnants of his silver cloak around him and stepped into the shadowed entryway to the Seabride City.
The Beaucourt found himself less than impressed by his first glance at the city. True, the blue and smokeless flames burned and illuminated the streets at night, but their light was thin and wan, and many sputtered weakly like damp candles. Here and there, tall torches stood abandoned and unused with no light to dispel the deepening shadows of once-grand palaces that loomed over the main boulevard. There were the towers of copper and the towers of glass as all the stories claimed, true. But the copper was tarnished and green from the salt-sea air, and from his vantage point, the Beaucourt could see more than a few that had given into distress and collapsed. The towers of glass were green and thick, and streaked with dust. The flickering lights of the blue flames caused them to dance with strange colors.
Only after he had scanned the skyline with something that was not quite contempt and not quite disappointment did the Beaucourt turn his gaze to the Gatesman and his Captain. Their velvet doublets were threadbare and much patched. Perhaps the color had once been a rich claret, but now was indistinguishable from the rust on the daggers they wore in their garters. Both bowed low before him, the Gatesman trembling as the heavy doors clanged shut behind them.
The Beaucourt waved a hand for them to rise. The Captain was a pale, graying man of middle years with deep creases in his forehead that gave him a constantly worried air, and rather ridiculous waxed mustaches that he dyed purple at the ends. He looked, the Beaucourt mused, rather like a particularly vain clerk who worked for a successful merchant, not like a warrior at the last outpost of the civilized world.
The captain’s voice was high and surprisingly girlish. “Your Lordship, I have arranged for a palanquin to take you to the Palace. I’m certain that—“ He was interrupted by a loud squeal of metal on metal as a purple curtained palanquin strode into view on its two mechanical bird legs. The captain looked distinctly irritated as he continued, “I’m certain that His Honor, the First Son of Seabride will be most anxious to discover you’ve arrived safely.”
“If just barely,” the Beacourt said before parting the purple curtains and stepping into the shaded recesses of the palanquin. Metal squealed again and he did not hear the captain’s reply.
If the first view of the city had been disappointing, the Palace itself was not. Its lights shimmered through the violet silk curtains of the palanquin and the Beaucourt drew them back as the squealing and clomping mechanical legs ascended the wide tree-lined boulevared. Studded with precious gemstones, and glowing from thousands of tiny lights, the Grand Palace dominated the highest hill in the Seabride City. Gold filigree covered the green glass walls in ornate patterns. It reminded him of one of those needlessly elaborate Ventish pastries, until he realized that the filigree slowly rotated around the glass towers by means of some unseen mechanism. Vines, the Beaucourt thought, then, tentacles, and he suppressed a shudder.
Beneath him the palanquin also shuddered, and then knelt down in the fountain’s forecourt beside a delicate fountain that seemed to be made out of glass. After removing an errant strand of violet silk from the frayed hem of his cloak, the Beaucourt descended from his conveyance with dignity and care. His shoulders sagged with fatigue when he realized that he was not alone.
An elderly woman with a beaky nose and a disapproving gaze stood just to the left of the glass fountain with hands gnarled and knotted like driftwood crisply folded in front of her. She is old enough to be my grandmother, the Beaucourt thought. But her back was straight and unbowed and her hair had less gray than his. He managed to smile and incline his head at the woman. “Greetings. I am Beacourt of the Spiral Senate. Come here at the request of your First Son.”
The woman curtsied more deeply than he would have thought possible for someone of her age. The skirt of her high-necked gown flared outward revealing skinny legs with knobby knees. She assumed the position of meekness, but her shoulders were unrounded and her eyes still regarded him coldly from the center of fine spiderwebs of age-lines radiating down across her gaunt cheeks. She spoke unhurriedly. “I am the Secretary to His Honor, the First Son of Seabride. It is my pleasure to greet you.” The woman said the word ‘pleasure’ as if she had only read about it. “His Honor has requested that you share a late meal in the privacy of his personal apartments. Until that time, is there anything I can do to ensure your comfort?” She stared pointedly at his ragged and soiled clothing.
The Beaucourt smiled to himself. “I think a very hot bath and a change of clothing would do wonders for my comfort, thank you. The way was harder than anticipated.”
The Secretary spun on her heel. Without looking back she said, “I will have one of the girls attend to your needs straight away, Sir.” She strode briskly towards the doors of the palace, which opened inward at her approach.
The Beaucourt followed, keeping pace with the indomitable old woman despite his tiredness.
After a long bath in hot water scented with brine roses, the Beaucourt dressed in clothes that were left for him on a settee. The breeches were slightly too tight in the waist, and the sleeves on the linen shirt were too short, but they were serviceable and clean. A silver cloak-- not made of shimmering Dream-silk— but deftly woven from cloth-of-silver, lay neatly folded over the arm of the settee. Disliking the magical inertness of the cloth, but admitting to himself that his own tattered one was unsuitable, the Beaucourt draped the new one over his shoulders and clasped with it his brooch of office.
He opened the door of the chamber he was assigned, and a plump, unpleasant maid with thick ankles thrust a thick candle under his nose, close enough that he drew back from the heat of the flame dancing on the end of the wick. Rivulets of wax flowed down its side, splashing onto her hand, but if she was burnt she gave no sign of it. She nodded at him. “Y’ready then?”
Without waiting for an answer she set off down the hallway. She mumbled loudly, “took long enough. Won’t do to keep Hizzoner waiting.” She pressed against the wainscoting on the wall, and a narrow panel swung open seamlessly into the wall. She started up a dark, narrow stairway. Servants’ passageway, the Beaucourt noted to himself before following him up.
They made several twists and turns in the near dark, and the Maid was out of breath when she came to stop in front of a large gilt door. She muttered, “His Honor, the First Son, waits inside,” and turned the handle.
Bowing ironically at the sour maid, the Beaucourt slipped inside the door opened barely wide enough to admit him.
The First Son’s private chambers were handsomely paneled in dark wood, and smelled of wood polish and not unpleasantly of dust. Tall shelves crammed with books and scrolls lined one wall, an enormous painting of the sea dominated another. There was an impressive black lacquered desk carved with pomegranates and sea bream. Less impressive was the balding man with bushy eyebrows stuffed into a faintly ridiculous uniform that strained around his paunch. He was seated at a small table groaning under the weight of platters of food. The uniform bristled with medals and was draped with an oversized sash. The First Son, the Beaucourt thought, and bowed with courtly formality.
The man’s thin lips twisted into a hesitant smile. He cleared his throat. “You must be the Beaucourt? Yes.” He twisted off a wing from a roast chicken and sucked the meat from the bone. “We’ve heard so much about you here. Defeating the Demon Prince of Arkest, binding all seven blood sages. All that.” He did not get up.
“I am honored to be sent to aid you, Your Honor. But I feel that I should mention that I did not defeat the Demon Prince alone, and that the blood sages have mostly likely been exaggerated in both skill and threat to the realm by troubadours.”
“Modesty. Yes.” The First Son dipped a heel of bread into brown sauce that lay glistening on a dish of eels and shoved it into his mouth. “I was not expecting someone so, so--”
“Brown?” The Beaucourt asked. His mouth quirked, but his eyes did not smile.
“Young!” The First Son gasped, worrying the golden braid that looped on his narrow chest. “I have heard such stories. I would have expected you to be more than a youth.”
The Beaucourt’s smile deepened. “It has been nineteen years since I was an apprentice. Thirteen since I was acclaimed Master of The Art. And nearly ten since my old master’s untimely passing and my elevation by the Spiral Senate as his successor. Time enough for some small accomplishments, I think.”
The First Son mopped his brow with a napkin. “It seems perhaps that magic has kept you young. Please, sit down and eat. The onion and black bread soup that my cook makes is a thing of wonder. And you must try the prawns baked in clay.”
The Beaucourt sat across from the First Son. The rich, heavy smells of the meal mingled in his nose and he found that he had no appetite. For politeness’ sake, he took a small bit of cheese and a few grapes. “Your Honor, the Spiral Senators were quite insistent that I make my way here at once, but they did not deign to enlighten me why.”
The First Son sighed and spooned caviar onto a toast point. “There times I wish I was less devoted to duty. Yes.” He popped the toast point into mouth. “This city is a great, festering pile of rubble, full of rust and ancient machines that do not work right. It has been crumbling for generations. And my unenviable task is to run it. I am the administrator of the ruins, prince of the midden heap.” He rolled back his eyes in his head and managed to look long-suffering before popping a prawn, tail and all, into his mouth. “But this hideous, shuddering wreck protects civilization. It keeps back the sea, and those that dwell in it.”
The Beaucourt nodded, and examined a grape between thumb and forefinger. “None doubt that the Seabride City has been charged with a heavy task.”
The First Son licked his lips. “But our war machines and our pumps, our beacons and our flame lances all require power. An astonishing amount of it, in fact. That’s where we need you.”
The Beaucourt popped the grape into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully before answering. “My Lord, if you think I can power a city, your troubadours have done you a grave disservice.”
The First Son laughed, a harsh barking sound. “We have power. Almost unlimited. But the power source is unruly and needs to be rebound. And you are admired for your ability to bind and control, Beacourt. I pray the troubadours are correct on that front?”
The Beacourt chose his words carefully as he sliced a thin sliver from the cheese. “I can bind men, and magics, and spells to objects, and I can bind powers, but these are creatures of spirit, who have wills and moods, if not properly sentience. I do not think I can bind the raw sort of energies you speak of.”
The First Son smiled wanly. “I know little of magic. And it is rare that we have even the meanest of magicians here, much less a famed faitworker.” His brows crinkled in amusement. “But I do not think this binding is beyond you. Your predecessor’s spells kept it in place nearly thirty years, and I am told that the Beaucourts were indeed the ones who implemented it.”
The Beaucourt paused with a bite of cheese halfway to his mouth. Master Blaine had worked spells here? The Master had insisted his apprentice know every significant bit of spellwork he had accomplished during his storied career. Strange that he did not mention it. “I do not claim to be the equal of the Beaucourt Blaine. But if I can help…” He trailed off in thought.
The First Son clapped his hands, seemingly in relief. “Shall we go to the source now? Or do you want to try some of the lamb stewed with honey and apricots?”
After the meal where the First Son ate heartily and the Beaucourt barely at all, the First Son plucked a keyring from his belt and led the way through richly appointed rooms to a circular chamber walled in stone at the heart of the palace. The First Son counted keys until producing a long thin one with three teeth. He used this to open the squat ironwood door. He began to descend an iron spiral staircase, his footsteps echoing up against the stone. The Beaucourt had to duck to get in through the doorway. He pulled the door shut behind him and followed the clanging footsteps down.
They descended the spiral stair in silence. Flickering blue flames sputtered from the top of iron sconces that ringed the walls and cast long shadows against the cool, curving slate. The Beaucourt pressed a hand to the wall to steady himself and felt a cold damp trickle; the salt tang of the ocean was thick in the air. The First Son’s breathing was labored, and the Beaucourt wondered to himself how difficult the trip back up would be for the older man.
After the better part of an hour, they came to a landing. A steady drip of water splashed on the floor and pooled into a puddle. The flickering blue flames cast strange shadows on a archway that was barred to them by a massive iron door, covered in rivets and secured with a thick cedar beam. The First Son bent over and panted for breath before gasping, “Through here is the source. There is a guard, and in the chamber beyond…” He pointed, and wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.
The First Son fumbled with his keys, but the Beaucourt waved at him to stop. He closed his eyes. Reached out towards the archway with his mind. This door was unmagical. He had power enough to open doors. He gestured with his left hand and breathed out slowly. The cedar beam creaked. The Beaucourt sighed slowly. Open. Pins aligned with their sheer point. The beam rose gently. The Beaucourt made a gesture with his hand as if he was pushing something away, and the door groaned and opened.
Pulsating, golden light from within flooded the archway. The First Son turned his head away and swore under his breath. Shading his hand with his eyes, the Beaucourt walked into the now open chamber where three guardsmen stood at attention in front of another, smaller vault door. They saluted, and clicked their heels together. Blinking back against the light, the Beaucourt realized that the chamber was walled in gold. Ancient runes and sigils covered every inch of its surface, except for the smaller iron door the guards stood arrayed in front of.
He smiled tentatively at the guards, who all were very young and looked very serious. He closed his eyes. This room was covered in protective wards. Invisible lines of power connected in complicated webs and were anchored to the symbols on the wall. Strange, he thought, they are designed to keep something in rather than keeping thieves out.
One of the guards, a boy who could have seen no more than sixteen summers, stepped forward and inclined his head. “Sir, although I see you wear the silver, my duty is to guard and protect the Source. I must ask you what your purpose is here.”
The Beaucourt smiled. He ran a finger over his brooch of office and the pearl at its heart glowed silver, then blue, before pulsing black three times. “I am Beaucourt of the Spiral Senate. Come here at the request of your First Son, who waits just outside. My purpose here is to aid the Seabride City, and, as I understand it, rebind your power source to the city.”
The boy nodded gravely and motioned for the other two guards to stand aside. He pulled out a diamond the size of a plum from a velvet pouch at his waist. The guard to his right covered the boy’s eyes with a black sash. The guard to his left muttered to the Beaucourt, “You may want to cover your eyes, the brightness will be intense. Like staring into the sun.”
The Beaucourt waved a hand in front of his face and uttered the words for shadowsight. Everything went into tones of grey and black. The boy, feeling his way with his free hand, gingerly set the diamond into a matching groove at the center of the iron vault door behind him. Gears ground against each other and the door slid into the ground.
Even the shadowsight had not prepared the Beaucourt for the brilliance of the room beyond. Harsh, bright light rendered everything into stark relief. Nor was it any ordinary light. The Beaucourt felt magic wash over him, strong and wild, in its purest form. It was a heady feeling, and giddy with power and potential he stepped into the vault.
It took moments for his eyes to adjust, even with the veil of darkness over his eyes. What he saw filled him with dread. The vault was a sphere, walled in iron. In its center, hanging upside down, was what appeared to be a youth, bound with chains of silver, gold, and black cast iron. A smooth round piece of quartz had been shoved into the youth’s mouth. The pulsating light intensified every time the bound youth exhaled.
A fairy, the Beaucourt realized. The Source of the Seabride City, the power that kept back the waves of the sea, and the throngs of Darvassi beneath its cold surface was alive. He closed his eyes. In addition to the physical bonds, the fairy was secured with magics that went back for centuries, and were reinforced by generations of successive mages. He scanned through spells, they had been woven and re-woven and tightened even as the fairy had struggled against them. Yes. He could feel his old master’s signature there. His heart fell. Kindly, wise Blaine, so full of honor and respect for the Art had been part of this too.
He opened his eyes again. The fairy’s eyes, which were the same blue of the ocean that encroached on the city, were focused on him. The fairy staled balefully. The Beaucourt had no doubt that if the creature were free, it would take all his skill and art to keep from being harmed by its wrath.
He circled the vault as the fairy squirmed above, the pulses of light becoming more frequent as it exerted itself. He tasted the air and smelled the sweetness of the bindings. He motioned about him and tested the magical bonds for weakness. There was a fraying. One of the bonds had been particularly sloppy. He thought about the terrors that would be unleashed on the world were it not for the fragile safety provided by the City and its machines. He thought about his master’s exhortations about duty, and the responsibility of a magician. He thought about the hunger of the Shadow Art, and his own constant battle for discipline and control. At last, uneasy, he came to a decision.
The Beacourt walked to the mouth of the chamber and called to the guards. “I must bid you leave this area. The creature imprisoned here is dangerous and wrathful, and the cants I must prepare difficult. I would not have any of you come to harm.”
He saw a lump rise up in the boy guard’s throat. “My Lord, thank you for your concern. But we cannot leave our posts.”
The Beacourt smoothed his eyebrow with a finger. “Have you not been given commands to aid me in any way possible? Your source is a creature of cunning, and power. Believe me that he will not hesitate to take your lives to fuel his battle against me, and once I have removed the wards to work, I do not have the power to defend you and myself.”
He could see the fear and hesitation in the boy’s eye. He pushed with his mind, encouraging it. Fear and confusion were shadow emotions, and shadows were his strength.
The oldest of the three whispered something into the boy guard’s ear. The Beaucourt smiled toothily. “If it helps, you may close the iron door behind me, and take the diamond key with you.”
“That may work." The boy seemed relieved at the suggestion. "But, my Lord, how will you leave?”
The Beacourt shrugged. “Come for me in the morning. If I have succeeded, the creature will be no danger to anyone. If I fail, you shall know before dawn.”
The boy nodded slowly. One of the other guards said, “The First Son did tell us to do what he says.”
The boy pressed a groove in the outer wall. And the door slid up, slowly blocking the gold room from view.
The Beaucourt sat on the floor cross-legged, and slowly called powers to him. Five shades, one for each element, were sufficient. He instructed each to weave defenses around him. Warmth suffused his limbs as he felt each wrap around him in an invisible cocoon. He hoped this would be bulwark enough.
He rose to his feet and spread out his arms, fingers splayed wide. The weakest of the magical bonds was his master’s. He would start with that. He closed his eyes and felt along the spell until he found an end point. He pulled with his mind, and with his splayed fingers. Wrapped inside this spell, as the fairy was, the weakness would not matter. It would still hold, perhaps for another century. But from the outside….
The Beaucourt breathed out and spoke a word that meant at the same time, regret, darkness, death, and peace in a language that had not been spoken for three thousand years. The Word echoed through the chamber. The walls vibrated with its sound. Yes. He traced patterns through the air, and tugged.
The spells, all of them, unraveled. With a sound like tearing silk, he could hear them give way and collapse.
Without their supporting spells, the chains that suspended the fairy began to strain. The weight was not from the creature’s slender frame, but the weight of years. The black iron was first, rust creeped up it from the manacles at the fairies wrist. There was a sharp crack, and one link shattered. The others tumbled down only to disintegrate into red dust before the hit the floor.
The fairy began to squirm more violently, its fury and hatred manifest on its pretty, delicate face. The gold chains rippled and buckled, twisting in an invisible wind. They pulled apart softly, and rained down as liquid, pooling on the floor before cooling.
The silver, the Beaucourt thought, and said a word that meant moon and return in that same dead language. There was a flare of argent light, and the silver chains evaporated, dropping the fairy in an ungainly heap on the floor.
The creature got to his feet. He was naked, and thin, and shivered. His hair was wild, and his lips which were full and red, and his face with fine, delicate features was contorted in rage. He reached up a long-fingered hand and plucked out the quartz globe that was stuffed in his mouth. The fairy screamed wordlessly. The Beaucourt tensed himself. The fairy ran across the room, pushed against the Beaucourt’s chest, and slapped him once across the face.
The slap was sharp, and stung. The Beacourt put a hand to his face and felt the heat of it. The fairy sagged down at his feet, arms huddled around his knees. The Beaucourt began to laugh. The fairy turned up his face, golden hair whipping behind him. “You, you stink of shadow magic! You and kind have dared to insult a Prince of the Fey. And this, this humiliation amuses you? You and your kind seek to control me, to rule over me as if I were one of your petty, insensible little spirits. Shadows.” The fairy’s face crinkled, and he blinked, as if holding back tears.
The Beacourt took a step back, and spread out his hands in supplication. “No, most Noble Lord of the Wild Ones. This does not amuse me. It causes me sadness. I meant no further harm.” His dark eyes grew large and thoughtful. “I only laughed because I had prepared only for a magical attack, and was unguarded against the physical.”
“Magic.” The fairy spat the word. “And how would I use magic? I AM magic. Could you use your skin, or your blood, or your bones to defend you?”
The Beaucourt could indeed use his own flesh to power certain rare and puissant magics, but he kept his own counsel on this. He extended a hand to the fairy, who swatted it away. “My Lord, I do not have time for explanation, but I have come to take you from this place. I am sorry that this thing has been done to you, and to my greater sorrow my old master, whom I admired above all others was one of the offenders. I cannot make amends. But what I can do is take you from here.”
The fairy scowled. His long eyelashes fluttered against his cheek. “And why should I trust you, Shadow mage? Perhaps you only seek to ensnare me further. To rule over me for your own gain. How great a power would you gain from dominance over one of the Fey?”
The Beaucourt extended his hand again. “You have no reason to trust me. But even were I seeking only after my own power, what other chance have you had for freedom?”
The fairy slid his hand into the Beaucourt's. His tone was truculent. “And I cannot pass beyond these cold iron walls by myself. Very well. But should you seek to betray me…”
The Beaucourt nodded grimly and helped the fairy to his feet. The fairy’s hand was cold, and surprisingly small. He turned to face the vault door.
Doors. He had the power to open doors. With his free hand he flung out force, and the iron creaked and made popping sounds. Red hot rivets flew out outward, and the door itself burned white hot for a moment before flowing away in a molten stream.
The gold room beyond seemed less magnificent and duller than before. Still holding hands, he and the fairy stepped outside of the vault.