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Author: Sebastien de Castell
Publisher: Orbit, 2019
Hot Key Books, 2019
Series: Spellslinger: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Once an outlaw spellslinger, Kellen Argos has made a life for himself as the Daroman Queen's protector. A little magic and a handful of tricks are all it takes to deal with the constant threats to her reign. But when rumors of an empire-shattering war begin to stir, Kellen is asked to commit an unimaginable act to protect his queen.

Inside enemy territory, he quickly realizes something is amiss. Someone is playing a dangerous game. And to discover their secrets, Kellen will have to challenge the greatest spellcaster who's ever lived.


Chapter I - The Arrest

Nothing stinks like a capital city in the summer. Streets already crowded with courtiers, craftspeople, lords and labourers begin to burst as endless caravans of merchants, diplomats, and those impoverished by bad harvests or foreign raiders roll through the gates in search of profit or protection. Upon a gleaming white arch at the city's entrance an inscription bearing the Daroman capital's motto beckons visitors with a promise: 'Emni Urbana Omna Vitaris'.

From The Imperial City Flows Prosperity.

Also, sewage.

That's the thing about great cities: they can solve hunger with more food, security with more soldiers, and almost everything else with more money. But there's only so much shit you can swirl around before the flagstones begin to reek.

'This place stinks,' Reichis chittered above me.

The soft flutter of fur-covered gliding flaps heralded a light thump against my shoulder as the squirrel cat made his landing. My two-foot-tall, thieving, murderous business partner sniffed at my face. 'Funny, you don't smell dead.'

'I'm fine,' I said, not eager to resume the lengthy argument begun in the early hours before dawn when I went off alone to face the mage who'd been sent to kill me. All I wanted now was a bath, some quiet, and maybe a few restful hours without any attempts on my life.

Reichis sniffed at me a second time. 'You smell worse than dead, actually. Is that whisky?' he asked, poking his muzzle in my hair and sounding more than a little intrigued.

A year of living in the capital city of Darome had afforded Reichis the opportunity to expand his list of unhealthy addictions, which currently consisted of butter biscuits, overpriced amber pazione liqueur, several vintages of Gitabrian wines - the expensive ones, naturally - and, of course, human flesh.

'Did you remember to bring me the mage's eyeballs?' he inquired.

'He wasn't dead.'

'That's not what I asked.'

This is where having a squirrel cat perched on your shoulder perilously close to your soft, tasty human ears, gets dangerous. See, squirrel cats, with their tubby feline bodies, big bushy tails, coats that change colour depending on their mood and furry flaps that stretch between their front and back limbs enabling them to glide from the treetops (or "fly as well as any gods-damned falcon" as Reichis would insist), can - if you stare at them, squinty-eyed, from a distance and preferably through a drunken haze - look almost cute. They're not, though. Puppy dogs are cute. Bunny rabbits are cute. Poisonous Berabesq sand rattlers are cute to somebody. Squirrel cats, though? Not cute. Evil.

'Reichis...' I began.

His breath is surprisingly warn when it's less than an inch from your earlobe. 'Go on, say it.'

Ancestors, I thought, noting in the periphery of my vision that Reichis's shadowblack markings were swirling. A year ago he'd wound up with the same twisting black lines around his left eye as I had around mine. Unlike me, though, the possibility of one day becoming a rampaging demon terrorizing the entire continent didn't trouble him in the least. The idea frankly delighted him.

Rescue from possibly fatal squirrel cat gnawing came in the form of a half-dozen pairs of heavy boots clomping up behind me, followed soon thereafter by the tell-tale click of a crossbow's safety catch being released. 'Kellen Argos, by order of Lieutenant Libri of the Queen's Marshals Service, you are under arrest.'

I sighed. 'This again?'

The first tentative rasp of the crossbow's trigger grinding against its iron housing. 'Get those hands up high, spellslinger.'

I hadn't even noticed that my fingers had drifted to the powder holsters at my sides. Reflex, I guess, though by now you'd figure I'd've gotten used to being arrested on a weekly basis.

I raised my arms and slowly turned to find a half-dozen marshals wearing their customary broad hats and long grey coats armed with the usual assortment of short-hafted maces and crossbows - all trained on me. 'Would you like me to read the warrant?' Sergeant Faustus Cobb asked. Short, scrawny, narrow-shouldered and years past his prime, you'd think he'd appear comical next to his younger and more vigorous subordinates. But my experience with the Queen's Marshals had taught me that age does nothing to diminish how dangerous they are - only how ornery they become when you resist.

Me? I was eighteen, wearier than my years ought to allow. My shirt was still soaked from the booze I'd used to disguise myself as a drunk back at the saloon, and I was feeling a little crabby myself. 'What's the charge this time?'

Cobb made a show of reading out the warrant. 'Conspiracy to commit assault upon the person of a foreign emissary enjoying the protections afforded diplomatic representatives.'

Yep, that's right: the old man who'd come to kill me, being a Jan'Tep lord magus, held ambassadorial status in Darome.

Cobb went on. 'Grievous physical abuse.'

Not nearly grievous enough.


Knew I shouldn't have kept any of the coins.

'Acting against the vital interests of the Daroman Crown and the people it serves.'

That one they throw into almost every warrant. Spit on the sidewalk and you've technically 'acted against the interests' of the crown.

Cobb paused. 'There's something here about "unlawfully being an irritating, half-witted spellslinging card sharp who doesn't do what he's told", but I'm not sure that's an actual crime.'

And yet, I was pretty sure it was the only crime Torian was concerned about. 'Funny how she had that warrant already drawn up before anyone found the mage,' I pointed out.

Cobb grinned. 'Guess the lieutenant's got you pegged pretty good by now, Kellen.'

I was really starting to dislike Lieutenant Torian Libri. While there were no end of people in the Daroman capital intent on making my life hell, few displayed her raw determination and consistently lousy sense of humour. 'You do realize that under Imperial law my rank as Queen's Tutor prevents you from prosecuting me for any crime without four-fifths of the court first revoking my status, don't you?'

One of the younger deputies gave an amiable chuckle. I'd let him win at cards with me last week in the vain hope I might win over some of the marshals to my side. 'Don't say nothin' about you bein' arrested, though.'

'Let's go, spellslinger,' Cobb ordered, motioning for me to walk ahead of him.

Reichis gave a low growl. 'You gonna take this crap, Kellen? Again? Let's murder these skinbags. You owe me three eyeballs and this here's an opportunity for you to pay up.'

'Three? How many eyeballs did you think that mage had?' I asked.

One of the marshals stared at me quizzically. She must've been new - the others were accustomed to hearing me talk to Reichis.

'Who can tell with humans?' the squirrel cat grumbled. 'Your faces are all so ugly that every time I start counting, I lose track on account of needing to puke. Besides, two eyeballs was what you owed me an hour ago. The third is interest.'

Perfect. Because in addition to being a thief, a blackmailer, and a murderer, Reichis now wanted to add loan shark to his list of criminal enterprises.

'Let's pick up the pace,' Cobb said. 'You know how the lieutenant gets when you keep her waiting.'

Several of the deputies laughed at that - not that any of them would dare cross her. Reluctantly, I trudged along the wide flagstone street en route to my thirteenth jailing since becoming the queen's tutor of cards.

'Hey, what's that?' Reichis asked, his nose nodding in the direction of something small and flat floating on the breeze towards us, low to the ground. A playing card settled at my feet.

'Keep walking,' Cobb ordered.

I stayed where I was, staring down at the elaborate image on the card depicting a magnificent city on the top half. The bottom was a sort of mirror image, distorted as if reflected by a dark, shifting pool of black water.

'You drop that?' he asked, finally noticing the card.

'Sergeant Cobb,' I began. 'Before this goes any further, I need to clarify a couple of things.'

'Yeah? Like what?'

'First, I had nothing to do with this card suddenly turning up.'

'So what? It's a playing card. Not like you're the only gambler in the capital.'

As if to contest his banal explanation, a second card drifted down to land next to the first one. Then another and another, each one rotated a little more the the previous, gradually encircling me.

'What are you playing at, spellslinger?' Cobb asked, stepping back. I heard the safety catches on several crossbows unlock.

I was now standing in a ring of elaborately painted cards, their rich metallic hues of copper, silver and gold so vibrant they made the street look drab and lifeless by comparison. I turned to the half dozen well-armed men and women charged with escorting me to jail. 'Marshals, allow me to offer my sincere apologies.'

'For what?' asked one as she raised her crossbow to train it on me.

The cards on the ground shimmered ever brighter, blinding me to everything but the coruscating play of colours that drained the light from the world around me.

'For the inconvenience of my rescue,' I replied.

I doubt anyone heard me. The city around me faded to a flat, colourless expanse; the buildings, the streets, even the marshals themselves looked as if they'd been carved out of thin sheets of pale ivory. Reichis slumped on my shoulder and began snoring. A figure walked towards me, a lone source of dazzling colour wrapped in the twisting golds of sand magic, the pale blues of breath, and the glistening purple of a silk spell.

A grandiose entrance like this is usually accompanied by the disappointed sigh of my sister Shalla, soon followed by an extensive commentary regarding my dishevelled condition and the annoyances my recent behaviour has caused our noble and much-admired family. Occasionally, though, it's my father who appears to inform me of the latest crime I've committed against our people. That latter possibility was why my hands were now deep inside the powder holsters at my sides.

Ever since I'd left my people more than two years ago, I'd known the day would come when my father's grand destiny could no longer tolerate my miserable existence. I'd been asked on many occasions by friends and foes alike if I had a trick - some devious ruse - saved up that could outsmart the mighty Ke'heops before he could kill me.

I did. I just wasn't sure if it would work.


The voice didn't belong to my sister or father. In fact, I hadn't heard it in such a long time that I didn't recognize her. The bands of magical force began to settle, their brilliance diminishing enough that I could finally identify the apparition before me, and found myself standing there, the twin red and black powders I'd normally be using to cast a fiery explosion slipping through my fingers, with absolutely no idea what was going to happen next.


The figure gestured at the cards surrounding me. 'Pick a card, Kellen,' she said. 'Any card.'

What is it with people and card tricks lately?

Chapter 2 - The Deck

As a child, I'd firmly believed Bene'maat was the finest mother any Jan'Tep boy could hope for. She had been an island of patience and calm in the otherwise stormy sea of my father's unyielding ambitions and my sister's pugnacious temper tantrums. My mother's prowess as a mage was widely respected in our clan, yet her fascination with astronomy and healing revealed an inquisitive nature not solely consumed with the pursuit of magic as Ke'heops or Shalla were. Or me, for that matter.

If a parent's second duty is to love their children equally, then Bene'maat had done so admirably in a society that valued Shalla's raw talent for magic a thousand times more than my aptitude for clever tricks. And if a mother's first duty is to protect her children, well, then Bene'maat done that pretty well, too - right up until the day she'd drugged me and then helped my father strap me down to a table, inscribing counter-sigils on the metallic tattooed bands around my forearms to forever deny me access to the magic that defined our people as I screamed over and over again for her to stop.

Now the woman I hadn't seen for nearly three years was standing before me, placidly repeating, 'Pick a card, Kellen. Any card.'

I considered telling my beloved mother to bugger off, but my family is nothing if not persistent, so I gently settled the slumbering Reichis down on the ground and considered the thirteen cards forming a spell circle around me. I reached for the first one, which depicted architecture in the style of the Daroman capital in which we stood and was titled "City of Glories".

'Not that one,' she said.

'Why not?'

I heard the answer inside my mind a fraction of a second before her lips moved. 'That is the keystone. Picking it up would break the spell and end our meeting.'

I'd always been a belligerent child. Life as an outcast had done nothing to cure me of that fault. I reached for the City of Glories again.

'Please,' the voice in my mind said just before the apparition did. 'Forgive the awkward fashion in which our conversation must take place, but I've been unable to properly recreate Shalla's wondrous spell for long distance communication. I've had to rely on a much older spell your grandmother invented before you were born.'

For the third time she repeated the same instruction, exactly as she had before: 'Pick a card, Kellen. Any card.'

She's not really here, not even in spirit, I realized. Bene'maat must have used silk, sand, and breath magic to record her thoughts and convey them to me within the cards as a series of individual messages, like a bundle of letters tied together with string, the spell encoded with specific responses based on my actions.

The remaining twelve cards fell into four suits unfamiliar to me - which is saying something considering how many decks I've encountered. In an Argosi deck, each suit corresponds to a particular civilization on our continent. In more common sets of playing cards created for entertainment, the suits tend to represent symbols meaningful to the culture that created them. The standard Daroman deck, for example, like it's people, embodies their obsession with military emblems: chariots, arrows, trebuchets, and blades. However the four suits of this new deck before me were unlike any I'd seen before: scrolls, quills, lutes, and masks.

Had my mother devised these suits herself? And if so, what did each one mean?

I selected the Seven of Lutes, reasoning that no one had ever been blasted out of existence by a lute.

The figure of Bene'maat smiled and an instrument appeared in her hands. She began to play a melody that pulled at my heart so unexpectedly I gasped out loud.

'You always loved this song as a child,' she murmured. 'You used to make me play it for hours and hours whenever you were scared or sad.'

I dropped the card as if it were a spider crawling on my hand.

The figure of my mother nodded, somewhat sorrowfully, as if she'd known I would respond this way.

'Pick a card, Kellen,' she repeated. 'Any card.'

I found one that depicted a man carefully arranging quills on a scale. The caption read "Enumerator of Quills".

My mother's apparition was now seated at a desk composing a letter. 'My dearest Kellen. It's close to two years since last I touched your face. I had never thought such a thing possible. I always assumed you would come ba--'

'What is this?' I demanded. 'Nostalgia? Have you forgotten what you did to me, mother?' I pulled back my sleeves to show the foul counter-sigils desecrating the tattooed bands on my forearms. 'You destroyed any hope I had of becoming a mage like you and father and Shalla.'

I hadn't expected a reply, but I felt an itch in the back of my mind and a moment later, she spoke again. 'I know you're angry with us, Kellen. You have every right.'

I was beginning to understand how the magic worked. I wasn't communicating directly with my mother, but these messages were more than just words scrawled on a page. The spell was made from a more complete collection of her thoughts, capturing a single moment in time during which my mother had bound up all her contemplations on a particular topic and infused them into the card.

A spectral tear slid down my mother's cheek. 'It broke my heart, what we did. We believed we were protecting you, protecting the world from what you might become. We had no idea how wrong our actions were.'

You should've known, I thought bitterly. A mother is supposed to protect her child, not ruin him.

I didn't say any it out loud, though. I knew it wasn't really Bene'maat standing there in front of me, yet still I couldn't bear to say such hurtful things to my mother.

'I thank you for your gracious missive,' I said finally. 'Are we done now? I have an important appointment in a jail cell. So unless you have some miracle cure for--'

Bene'maat's arm extended, pointing now to a different card.

I dropped the one I was holding and picked up the Nine of Quills. The expression on my mother's face changed to a look of determination, and arranged all around her were sketches and diagrams and pages upon pages of esoteric formulae. 'Every day since you left, I've tried to find a way to undo the counter-banding. I've searched every book of lore in our sanctums, consulted with spellmasters across the territories. I read every scrap of parchment your father brought back from the Ebony Abbey, hoping to find amidst their knowledge of the shadowblack's etheric planes the means to repair your connection to the high magics. At times I thought I might be close...'

She stopped, squeezing her fists in frustration. The image of her fluttered and faded.

The spell must require perfect focus to imprint the message on the card, I thought. Every time she lost her concentration, she'd had to stop and start a new one.

'What do you mean, "close"?' I asked. 'Are you saying there might be a cure?'

A different card began to glow brighter than the others. The Peddler of Masks. I picked it up.

'So much of what I've been told has turned out to be lies, Kellen. False promises. Supposed secret methods for inscribing new sigils that resulted in nothing more than temporary illusions.'

'Then it's hopeless?'

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Of all the things I lost when I left my people, the one I knew I could never get back was my magic. I'd learned to live with that fact. With my one breath band, my blast powders, my castradazi coins, and all the other tricks I'd learned along the way, I sometimes even prided myself that I could outsmart my enemies without spells. But I still woke up in the middle of the night sometimes with every inch of my skin glistening with sweat, my fingers twitching through dozens of somatic forms I'd practiced thousands of times for spells I would never cast, so desperate for the taste of magic that no food or drink could satisfy me.

Like all my people, I was an addict. My addiction was inscribed in tattooed metallic inks around my forearms. I could never sate that desire. I doubted it would ever leave me.

The apparition of my mother gestured behind me, and I turned to see the Thief of Masks rising from the other cards, beckoning me to take it. When I did, her voice became a whisper.

'There might be a way.'

I spun back around to see her, still standing where she'd been before. There was an uncertainty in her gaze, though, as if she were afraid someone else might burst into wherever she'd been when she'd created these messages for me.

'What do you mean?' I asked.

She looked as if she were struggling to get out the words without losing the concentration required to continue imprinting her thoughts onto the card. 'Our people have been... Wrong about magic, Kellen. Wrong in so many ways and at costs we're only now discovering. The fundamental forces are vastly more complex than we assumed and can be fashioned in ways we never imagined. There are traditions as old as our own, spread out across the cultures of this continent. Much of the knowledge has been lost even to their own people, but I've found traces of it within old songs and stories.'

No wonder she was having so much trouble holding the spell. To hear a Jan'Tep mage admit our people weren't the only ones who could perform the true high magics was a kind of sacrilege that even I found troubling.

'There is a place far from here where I believe I might acquire the means to rectify the crime your father and I committed against you, to give you back the chance to become a true mage of the Jan'Tep.' The look of determination I'd seen in her so often as a child appeared in her features. 'I swear to you, my son, there is no price I will not pay to buy back your future.'

I swallowed. My breathing was quick, my heart beat faster than it should. The prospect of what my mother was suggesting... But I'd travelled the long roads of this continent, seen and heard just about every kind of con game there was, performed half of them myself. Not everything is fake in this world, but nothing of value comes free.

I reached for the card depicting two figures exchanging goods as they stood beneath an open scroll. My people don't use scrolls for spells or messages. We use them for contracts.

'Come home,' my mother said, her voice more a plea than an opening bid. 'Come back to us. Your father is Mage Sovereign now. He has lifted the spell warrant against you.'

'Too bad he didn't mention that to the lord magus who just tried to kill me.'

The apparition of my mother gave no reply. She couldn't, of course. She would've had no knowledge of this latest attempt on my life. Besides, it was a fair bet this guy had been hired by Daroman conspirators rather than my own people.

'Return to us,' Bene'maat went on. 'And even if I fail to return your magic to you, still I can give you a home.'

Home. Such a strange word. I wasn't sure I knew what it meant anymore.

'I've been scrying you when I could, though you're very difficult to track,' Bene'maat said. 'Not spying on you, I promise, but I needed to see you sometimes, through a mother's eyes and not through the recounting of your sister and others.' In the haze behind her, pictures formed and faded, images of events in my life since I'd left my homeland. Scenes of violence, of pursuit, of me sitting alone after the fight looking far more miserable than even I remembered. 'The brave face you put on for those around you, this trickster's guise you've taken on, it's not you, Kellen. You weren't meant for this life. You aren't happy.'

Happy? I'd spent the past three years facing every mage, mercenary, or monster this continent had to offer. I'd survived them all. Saved a few decent people along the way. Wasn't that enough? Was I supposed to be happy now, too?

My mother's fingers were outstretched now, reaching towards me, a desperate hope in her eyes. 'Come home, son.'

The card in my hand felt heavy. Clammy against my skin. I dropped to the ground and before another could glow or rise or otherwise demand my attention, I shuffled them all together, fully breaking the circle and ending the spell. The cards became dull and flat once again, and the world around me came back to life.

Goodbye, mother.

'Move real slow now, spellslinger,' Cobb said.

I heard the marshals shuffling behind me, fingers on the triggers of their crossbows. They seemed neither concerned nor even aware of the cards that had floated here and that I now held in my hand. Probably barely a second had passed for them and this whole event had taken place solely in my mind.

'Hey,' Reichis growled from where he was curled up on the ground. 'Why'd you dump me down here?'

'Sorry,' I said to both him and the marshals, stuffing my mother's strange herald cards into my pocket. I picked up the squirrel cat and settled him back on my shoulder. 'Let's get a move on. Time for Torian Libri to lock us up again.'

The marshals chuckled at that, and we all resumed our march to the palace.

'You know where you went wrong with that Torian female?' Reichis asked.

'Don't start,' I warned.

There are only three solutions his species have to offer regarding the resolution of conflicts between humans: kill them, rob them blind, or - and this is the one where Reichis derives the most pleasure from devising elaborate and intensely nauseating suggestions - bed them.

'Should'a mated with the lieutenant the day you met her,' the squirrel cat said earnestly.

'Mating works better when the other person doesn't hate you,' I said.

A couple of the marshals following behind me broke out laughing. Reichis took their mirth as encouragement - not that he needed any. 'Nah, that Torian female wants you, see?' He tapped a paw against his fuzzy muzzle. 'Smelled it on her the day the queen introduced you two. I swear on all twenty-six squirrel cat gods, Kellen, the marshal's in heat for you.'

It was, most assuredly, not true. Also, it's highly doubtful that there are twenty-six squirrel cat gods. Times like these, though? It's best not to contradict the little monster.

'Now, here's what you oughta do...' Reichis tried - and failed staggeringly - to stifle his chittering laughter. 'First, you're gonna take off your trousers and perform a ceremonial dance. Human females love that. Next, you turn around and wiggle your bottom at her. Then all you have to do is drop to your knees and start making this sound...'

I'm not going to describe the noise he made. Suffice it to say that it was exactly as disgusting than you might imagine and he kept making it all the way to the palace.

Copyright © 2019 by Sebastien de Castell


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