Rated PG-13, incl blood, violence, and many deaths (sort of)!
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The Masochist’s Assistant
By Auston Habershaw
Each morning at precisely seven, Georges, famulus to Magus Hugarth Madswom, stabbed his master in the heart. It was a fairly complicated affair as the linens needed to be spared staining and Georges had to make the thrust quickly, lest his master wake up and become angry with him for failing in his duties. He had suggested abjuring the sheets against such stains, but his master claimed that doing so also meant his sweat would pool about his body during the night rather than being absorbed by the sheets, and Georges’ master refused to wake up stinking and slimy. So, no abjurations.
As a result, Georges would leave his master’s home at half-past six and go to a nearby weaver where he would purchase the previous day’s linen scraps from her bleary-eyed son. Then, linen draped over one arm, he would return to the house, make his master’s tea (bitter black, no sugar), place cup and saucer on a silver bed-tray along with the teapot (still hot) and a long, slender chef’s knife, as he was not permitted to wear a sword. He would then mount the narrow spiral stairs that led up to his master’s bedchamber, carefully open the door without making a sound, and set the tray on the bedside table.
Georges would take the knife in his right hand, drape the linen over his right shoulder, and, with the smooth gestures of a well-rehearsed assassin, pull back his master’s quilts and sheets with a sweep of his left arm and stab the slumbering mage just to the left of the lower breastbone, piercing both the aorta and the heart itself with one plunge. Then, his left hand would dart to the linen over his shoulder and, just as he withdrew the blade, he would cover the wound with the new linen and hold it there as it quickly turned crimson all the way through.
On occasion, Georges would find his master sleeping on his stomach, which made things more complicated and was why he brought the longest chef’s knife in the kitchen — one could stab the heart through the back, if needed, and he had done so often enough to count himself a master in that distinctly dubious art as well.
This particular morning, though, Georges found his master on his back and stabbed him in the front almost without thinking about it. As his master’s blood soaked through the linen, his mind was on the salon to be held in the Silver Room of Madame Grousand’s château that evening. He had responded to the invitation in the positive without his master’s knowledge, hoping that his master wouldn’t want to go and send him in his stead when Georges pointed out that the event was tonight. This happened often enough to be reasonably certain, despite his master priding himself on his unpredictability.
Georges pulled his ruffled sleeve up and away from the bloody linen with his free hand and considered what he ought to wear to the salon while gazing out the open window and over the rooftops of the village and into the vastness of the deep summer-blue sky. He indulged in a daydream — himself, the center of attention at the salon in his periwinkle doublet, telling riddles that amused an array of highborn ladies. In time, though, he heard his master cough roughly and Georges was pushed away by one meaty hand.
Master Hugarth sat up in bed, blinking in the morning light. His voice was hoarse. “How long?”
Georges felt the blood rush to his ears. “I . . . uhhh . . . sorry, Monsieur, I have forgotten to count.”
Master Hugarth groaned and rose from the bed, his hand scratching absently at the now-scabbed-over puncture in his chest. He was naked, hairy, and broadly muscular, like a sparsely furred bear. “Hann’s Boots, boy! How am I to determine my progress at building an immunity if you won’t hold up your end?”
Georges bowed. “I am deeply sorry, Monsieur. I was distracted by the fine weather.” It was a lie, perhaps, but an excusable one.
Hugarth grunted and looked out the window. Georges poured the mage’s tea and handed it to him. Though the liquid was still piping hot, Hugarth drank it down at once without flinching. “It does look like a fine day. Think I’ll go for a run.”
Hugarth turned to descend the stairs, Georges at his heels. “May I suggest some pants, Monsieur?”
Georges’ master turned and glared down at the simple canvas trousers clutched in his famulus’s hands. “Bah. Too beautiful a day for that.”
Georges did his best not to frown or gasp — it was difficult, but he was getting better with time. “Please, Monsieur. Think of the women!”
Hugarth’s big teeth burst through his beard in an avalanche of a smile. “I am!” He tousled Georges’ powdered wig with one hand before bounding down the stairs and out of sight. Georges heard the maid shriek before the front door banged open and Hugarth, in a flash of hairy man-flesh, was gone.
Georges found himself no longer looking forward to the salon.
It was later that morning that the repercussions of Master Hugarth’s naked run through the village were felt. He and Georges were on the beach, hunting for brightly colored, deadly venomous spinefish for Hugarth to ingest. This time, mercifully, Georges’ master had elected to wear breeches, but nothing else. The hot summer sun made the master mage’s broad, hairy back gleam with perspiration as he stood knee-deep in the ocean, hunched over and peering through turquoise water. Georges, safely onshore in a finely tailored doublet of white linen and burgundy breeches with gold piping, was trying very hard not to let sand infiltrate his shoes. He had removed his wig out of practicality — he was sweating like a Feastday hog. He held a towel and a fisherman’s hook, should his master need to be dragged out of the sea. That he felt like an idiot went without saying.
“Aha!” Hugarth thrust his hand into the water and came up with a vermillion and ivory sea creature consisting of spines, one slimy foot, and precious little else. Spinefish of that color could kill a child with their venom and put a grown man on his back for days.
Hugarth crushed it in his hands like a piece of rotten fruit and stuffed the slimy, spiny concoction in his mouth, slurping it down without appearing to register any discomfort as the poison needles punctured his cheeks, throat, and Hann knew what else. Hugarth grinned at Georges, held his hands up in triumph, and then sank into a crouch as his windpipe closed and his eyes bulged. He vainly gasped for breath, like a fish on the dock.
Georges watched dispassionately, wondering if it would be better if his master actually did manage to die. It was a miserable, traitorous thought, but it was there nevertheless. He looked out across the blue-green ocean, counting the sails on the horizon, and further wondered if it might have been better to remain in his uncle’s house as an attaché. His uncle had been stern to the point of cruelty, but Hugarth was . . . unbearable, in his way. It was not that Hugarth was unkind — far from it — but being around Hugarth was like committing a gradual form of social suicide. Georges had thought becoming famulus to a master mage would have been a step up in social circles — something to separate him from the hordes of other second and third sons who swamped the courts of every noble family in Akral, something that might just have secured him an advantageous marriage. The dimensions of his naïveté now appeared incalculable; Georges could never have imagined a master mage like Hugarth.
Hugarth had stopped breathing and his eyes were closed, but he hadn’t fallen over into the water so Georges imagined things were going according to plan. Probably. His own meager magical training had barely touched on sorcery such as this; it was evidently an ancient discipline, one devoted to complete physical and spiritual mastery of the self, and achieved gradually through increasingly extreme experiences of physical trauma.
Hugarth told him this, once: “The God of Men, Hann Longstrider, gifted to us — his children — a great truth at the dawning of the world: one cannot grow stronger without pain. So it was that the art of Hann’ahan, the eldest of all sorcerous disciplines, was born — the sorcerer tears the body and spirit apart more and more severely, only to knit it back together ever stronger than before. In time, a man may even conquer most deaths.” Having seen his master die hundreds of times now in a wide variety of ways, Georges had no reason to doubt him. He did, however, have reason to wonder at the sanity of anyone who would pursue such a masochistic art.
Fortunately a famulus wasn’t an apprentice — Hugarth wasn’t expected to teach him. It was only necessary that he have rudimentary knowledge of the High Arts sufficient to assist his master in any sorcerous undertaking. In the mind of young Georges, starry-eyed at the prospect of attending a master, such assistance had entailed the collection of rare materials and the preparation of dangerous and complex rituals — summonings, conjurations, grand invocations that shook the world. In practice, it appeared to involve standing on the beach with a fisherman’s hook in order to retrieve his master’s body should his act of suicide actually succeed.
Hoofbeats pounded over the dunes to Georges’ back. Checking on Hugarth one more time — the master’s face had gone from purple to a deep crimson, which was supposedly a good sign — he hastily slipped his wig back on and adjusted his posture to receive whomever was wealthy enough to risk galloping their horse over the uneven dunes.
It was Edien, an attaché in the house of Lord Grousand, riding a stunning white Corrisar mare from Château du Grousand’s own stables, most likely. That Edien was dressed better than Georges went without saying; he even appeared to have abjurations in place to prevent perspiration — he looked as cool and comfortable as a man sipping lemonade in a shady gazebo. Georges tried very hard not to think how he, with his sweaty doublet and giant hook, looked to Edien.
Edien dismounted and pulled an envelope out from under his vest. He gave Georges a perfunctory bow, just deep enough so that Georges could see the bridge of the taller man’s nose from a more convenient angle. “Good day, Monsieur. I am pleased to have found you.”
The greeting was a formality, and Georges could read the cues as well as anyone. Edien was indicating that their behavior was erratic and not gentlemanly without verging on open insult. His shallow bow further indicated that he had little respect for Georges and no fear of reprisal, no doubt due to the fact that Edien was wearing a rapier and Georges had naught but a towel and a fishing implement. Georges bowed in return, deeper than Edien — indicating deference — and said, “My master regrettably was unaware that you would attend him this morning, Monsieur. I offer his sincere apologies to yourself and to Lord Grousand.”
Edien’s eyes flickered to Hugarth and blinked once — the gesture was a slap, an open insult. Wearing no rapier, Georges could do no more than pretend he hadn’t seen it, but the gesture of disrespect for Hugarth and, by extension, himself still stung. Edien’s voice was calm and measured. “I have a message from Madame Grousand for your master.”
Georges bowed again. “I will accept it on my master’s behalf as he is currently indisposed. He offers his thanks for your personal attention in this matter and looks forward to receiving the noble lady’s correspondence.”
Edien bowed and handed off the envelope. “Shall there be any message to send in return?”
Georges knew not to look over his shoulder at Hugarth — doing so would indicate that Hugarth hadn’t been instructing his famulus in the particulars of house etiquette and his interests therein, which would have been embarrassing. Granted, Hugarth hadn’t been doing that, but Georges would rather die than let Edien find out. Besides, he knew what the answer would have been had he asked. “There will be no response at this time, though my master offers his thanks for your generous accommodation in the instance that there had been.”
After one more bow and a formal farewell, Edien mounted the horse in one smooth motion and rode off. When he had gone, Georges turned back to his master. Hugarth was sitting in the water, the waves softly breaking on his broad back. He looked calm and at peace. “Why do you put up with it?”
Georges didn’t rise to the bait. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, Monsieur.” He held out the letter. “A message for you.”
Hugarth rose and strode out of the water, snatching the letter from Georges’ hand and ripping it open with his teeth. The sight of such behavior used to make Georges dizzy, but now it merely made him uncomfortable. Hugarth held the letter up to the sun and read it quietly, then grunted. “Hmph — looks like they’re not inviting me to any more parties.”
Despite himself, Georges’ mouth popped open. “Is it true, Monsieur?”
Hugarth sighed. “Unlike that fawning jackanapes you just spent ten minutes bowing to, I do not lie to people I call friend.”
The master crumpled the letter and moved to toss it in the sea, but Georges interposed himself. “Please, Monsieur, may I see it?”
Hugarth handed over the letter and began to stretch. “When you’re done with that, go and get my foot-weights, please. I’d like to practice drowning this afternoon; such a lovely day for it.”
Georges’ eyes scanned the words over and over. They were flowery, impeccably polite, and immaculately written, but they said just what Hugarth had claimed: he was banned from polite society — no parties, no salons, nothing, from now until perpetuity. This meant Georges, too, had been just as ostracized. “Monsieur, you must find a way to undo this! This is most . . . most distressing!”
Hugarth regarded Georges with his deep, warm gaze — a gaze that seemed to swallow Georges whole and chew him up, tasting his every thought and gesture. To say it was rude was an understatement; whenever his master looked at him this way, Georges felt naked. Still, he remained erect and kept his face calm — it would not do to lose any more control than he already had. At length, Hugarth shook his head. “There’s no call for you to feel inferior to those people, Georges.”
“With respect, Monsieur, you do not understand.”
“Oh, I understand all right. I refuse to accept — that’s the difference. Emile Grousand and her senile husband are a pair of stuck-up old goats who seem to think the world revolves around them. They’ve got money, I’ll grant them that, and they know their manners, but the supposition that you, Georges, are in any way inferior to them is preposterous. You’ve more courage in your left ankle than they have in their whole bodies. You’re tough, you’re a fighter, you’re resourceful and thoughtful. Groveling before a pair of middleweight nobility doesn’t become you.” Hugarth brushed the sand off his hands.
Georges did not scowl, but his stomach grew cold as he listened to his master defame his ancestral liege. He saw himself standing there on that beach in twenty years, fishing an older, fatter Hugarth out of the waves with the same damned hook. He saw himself laughed at in perpetuity as he tried to retain his dignity among the social elite. His life — once so full of glittering promise and honor — sank further and further from the light the more he thought about it. This, Georges decided, was the last straw. “Monsieur, I am forced to tender my resignation as your famulus.”
Hugarth shrugged. “I don’t accept it.”
“I don’t have to do anything, boy. If you want to run off and brown-nose your way back into Grousand’s sewing circle, you go right ahead. I think you’re mad to try. The sooner you stop worrying about what everyone thinks, the sooner you’ll make a man of yourself.”
Georges dropped the hook. His heart pounded in his chest as he found himself speaking out of turn. “You have ruined my life, Monsieur. You are no mage . . . you are . . . you are a brute. A barbarian!”
Hugarth smiled, his eyebrows raised. “See? That’s what I like about you — guts.” He put a hand on Georges’ shoulder — George could feel the weight of it, the power behind it, as though he were beneath the wheel of a carriage about to move. “I know I’m not what you were expecting. So many magi — hell, so many people — in the world spend their whole lives looking for power all around them, but that’s not where it comes from. That’s where it is, granted, but that isn’t the source.” He tapped Georges on the breastbone hard enough to make him flinch. “That’s the source, boy. That’s where it all comes from.”
Georges ducked out of Hugarth’s grip and adjusted his doublet. “I take my leave, Monsieur.”
Hugarth nodded. “Good luck, Georges. I mean that.”
The village of Sonmigren was where, two centuries earlier, Lord Grousand’s ancestor had slain the Verisi pirate king, Thembri, in single combat, putting an end to his bloody raids along the Akrallian coast and bringing peace and prosperity to the land. Accordingly, the Château du Grousand had been designed to look like a shipwreck. Georges knew this because he had studied history and heraldry under the stern tutelage of his uncle; it was worth noting that, had he not known this, he would have assumed the castle had been designed to look like a bouquet of flowers. It stood upon a promontory of limestone that thrust out into the village’s small harbor like the hump of an albino whale; its walls, also of limestone, gleamed in the summer sunlight, and were gracefully curved to give the impression of the gunwales of some grand sailing ship or, alternately, the gentle embrace of foliage at the base of the bouquet. The castle itself had three towers, each topped with a tapering spire and ringed by a broad balcony, forming the masts and spars of a ship or the stems and blossoms of three flowers, depending again on one’s level of education. To Georges, as he stood before the main gate, it was the most beautiful and most terrifying place he had ever been in his young life.
The guards eyed Georges skeptically. “Famulus?”
Georges bowed. “It means ‘servant of a mage.’ It’s a Saldorian term — the Master Magus Hugarth Madswom is my master.” The lie burned on his tongue, but he told it anyway. If he wasn’t a famulus, he was nothing at all.
“I know what it is,” one of the guards replied. “I would have expected you to arrive by coach, or at least have a horse. You walked from the village?”
Georges felt his ears coloring. “My master believes strongly in physical exercise.”
The two guards exchanged looks, but neither said anything. They didn’t have to — such gestures were blatant insults to Georges’ honor. He felt miserable — his parentage was good, his family was respectable, and yet here he was being mocked by a pair of common house guards. For the second time that day, he wished he had a sword so that he might challenge them to a duel, but that, along with riding and coaches, was another thing Hugarth forbade. Things, actually — Hugarth had use for neither duels nor swords. Georges was forced to answer the guards’ questions meekly and politely, never allowing his gaze to waver or his inner embarrassment to color anything other than his ears which, at that moment, he wished he could cut off and cast into the harbor.
Georges was admitted and shown into the presence of Madame Grousand — a social mercy in and of itself. The Grand Dame of the Grousand family sat upon a bleached wicker chair on the veranda that wound along the edge of one of the château’s outer walls. In times of war, siege engines could be mounted upon it to defend the harbor from attack. In times of peace, it was littered with chaises and equipped with a small army of powder-wigged servants and attachés so that the Dame of the house could enjoy the view in comfort. This latter use had enjoyed the run of the veranda for so many generations now, it appeared unlikely, should war arrive, that the war machines could be located, let alone deployed and used.
Emile Grousand was a study in poise, sitting erect and graceful as though posing for a portrait. She fanned herself with a single lace-gloved hand. When she saw Georges, she did not acknowledge him, and so Georges awaited his audience among a small peripheral gathering of young ladies and attachés, which included Edien.
Georges bowed to him and mumbled a formal greeting at the proper volume for their current locale. Edien rose off his seat by a few inches and nodded a formal reply. “Please, cousin, sit with me.”
A servant produced a chair for him and set it down close enough to Edien to whisper, but not so close they might be confused for catamites. Georges sat. “You do me honor, cousin.”
Edien did not look at him, but instead casually arranged his cravat. “I am surprised to see you — you visit the court so infrequently.”
The statement was really a question — why are you here? But what to answer? Georges knew it would be unwise to reveal his purpose to anyone before he spoke of it with the Madame Grousand, but Edien was the closest thing he might have to an ally in the room, and gossip was more valuable than currency at the court of an Akrallian lord. He opted to be circumspect. “I have truly regretted my absence, cousin. I am diminished by the lack of such esteemed company.”
If Edien was disappointed by the exchange, there was no outward sign. He turned away from Georges to compliment a young lady sitting nearby, and Georges did his best to appear at ease. In truth, his heart was racing — in a matter of minutes, Madame Grousand would acknowledge him, and then Georges would get his chance to escape the service of Master Hugarth once and for all. It would need to be delicately managed, though. Admitting one’s mistakes did not, as a rule, ingratiate one to the powerful.
Georges was forced to wait somewhat longer than he had anticipated. He requested a glass of chilled wine from a servant and sat very still, sipping it only so that he could demonstrate his appreciation for the Madame’s hospitality. Around him, he noted the rumors swirling. They were obfuscated, of course — little nuggets of juicy gossip wrapped up in gossamer packages of impeccable manners and a thousand years of etiquette — but Georges’ uncle had trained him well enough to see through the veils to the truth beneath.
The rumors were about himself and Hugarth. Though no one said it directly, there was some doubt as to whether Hugarth were actually a master mage — he bore no staff, he worked no great rituals, he conjured no wonders. Additionally, there was speculation regarding what Hugarth had done to Georges during the term of his service. Some inferred they were lovers, others that Georges had been Compelled by Hugarth to submit to brutish treatment, and a few — the most vicious of the rumors — supposed that the reason Georges had been forced into Hugarth’s service was a direct result of impurity of the blood. It was implied that Georges’ grandmother had been a commoner or foreign.
These things were predictable, of course. Georges reminded himself that they were inevitable and that Madame Grousand knew enough not to put stock in rumor, but each of them still burned like hot needles laid against his skin. He reminded himself for the hundredth time that he wore no sword and took care not to grope for one; it would be the height of foolishness to provoke a duel he couldn’t fight.
Georges suddenly realized the veranda had become quiet. He emerged from his inner musings to find Madame Grousand looking at him. Had she asked a question of him? Gods! Why hadn’t he been paying closer attention?
“Are you feeling perfectly well, child?” the Madame asked, her voice cool and modulated to convey both concern and disdain in equal measures.
Georges stood in order to bow deeply. “My apologies, Madame, but I fear your hospitality may have placed me at such great ease as to diffuse my attention.”
The Madame smiled briefly and extended her hand, knuckles first. Georges stepped to her side to kiss it gently. Her skin was dry and spotted, like an autumn leaf. She offered him a seat beside her. Ordinarily conversation would have resumed at this point, but in this instance it did not. All eyes were fixed on the famulus and the Grand Dame of the house. “How is Master Hugarth’s health? It has been too long since I last saw him.”
With that, Georges knew the incident of the naked run through the village did not exist for the purposes of this conversation. Hugarth currently occupied a sort of nonexistent status, as though he were somewhere beyond the sea and Georges was the only one receiving his correspondence. “My master is quite healthy, Madame. He is nothing if not concerned with his health.”
“I am gratified to hear this, child. Please, when you see him, send him our compliments.” That meant “whatever you do, don’t bring him here.”
Georges bowed his head; this was his opening. “It is my unfortunate duty to inform you, Madame, that I have left Master Hugarth’s service and therefore cannot guarantee that your wishes will be delivered in a timely fashion. Should you desire it, however, I could seek him out on your behalf.”
A ripple of whispers orbited the veranda. Madame Grousand pretended not to notice. “I would not inconvenience you, child. I would inquire, however, what you intend to do now that your service is at an end. Do you plan to journey to Saldor and enter the Arcanostrum?”
Georges’ heart caught in his throat; the Madame had come very close to banishing him with that last statement. Going to Saldor was essentially equivalent to running away from home in the middle of the night to avoid one’s creditors — you might technically still be alive somewhere, but nobody wanted to socialize with you publicly. Those who took the staff in the Arcanostrum could own no property, hold no titles, and forget about marrying any Akrallian lady of worth. If the Madame actively thought that was where Georges belonged, he was through.
He quickly devised a defense. “I have regrettably learned very little of the High Arts from my master and would be a poor aspirant to earn my staff. My strengths chiefly lie in history, heraldry, and etiquette, Madame — skills of which Master Hugarth has little need.”
There were a few chuckles from those assembled. Georges hoped they were laughing at his clever insult to Master Hugarth and not at his assessment of his own abilities. He was very good with history and etiquette — his uncle and his uncle’s switch had made certain of that — but this was another thing that his proximity to Master Hugarth had damaged. How could they understand the difficulty of dealing with a man like him — a man who did what he pleased and said whatever he thought? How did one maintain a proper demeanor in that environment? It was the greatest challenge a gentleman could endure, but of course there was no way to tell them that. Certainly not without being impolite for inferring their ignorance of something, which was simply not done to one’s betters. Especially not without a sword.
Madame Grousand’s eyes flicked to Edien. “Monsieur Edien tells us an interesting story, child. We have all marveled at his wit, of course, but we are curious as to the truth of it. Does your master have you hold a fisherman’s hook on the beach, so that you might save him from drowning?”
Georges felt the blood rush to his ears; he might have expected this. An amusing story could do wonders for an attaché’s career and Edien was as keen to climb the social ladder as he was. At that moment, Georges could see his future splayed out before him, like an unconscious maiden on the edge of a precipice. The wrong touch, the wrong words, and she would fall to the rocks. He couldn’t tell them the hook was his idea — gentlemen did not carry hooks intended to haul fish into boats. “A famulus must obey his master’s commands, Madame, and Master Hugarth’s commands are often unusual.”
Titters and giggles surged for a moment and then subsided. Georges felt the sweat pooling at the small of his back; the veranda seemed suddenly crowded, claustrophobic. The moment was at hand — Georges waited to hear if his future would plunge to its death or slide into his arms. Though still sitting, Madame Grousand managed to look down her nose at him. “Such loyalty would no doubt be appreciated by the magi of the Arcanostrum, Famulus.”
The observation was as hard and heavy as a blow to the guts. Georges felt his control slip and his face flush. Desperate, he gave one more try. “I believe my services would be better appreciated here, Madame.”
Dead silence — Georges had gone too far. Madame Grousand regarded him with the detached gaze of a bored theatergoer. “You would no doubt be equipped to be my Defender of the Realm, child . . .” Her gaze shifted to the assembly and her mouth curved into a half-smile. “Alas, I am not a fish.”
Georges flinched. His audience ended amid peals of laughter.
There was nowhere to go but back to his master’s house. Georges dragged his feet, staring at the late-afternoon sky, trying to pretend he wasn’t crying. Madame Grousand had ended him, as surely as if she had plunged a knife into his chest and tossed him off the battlements. She had suggested he leave Akral, and her suggestions were as firm as commands. Who would take him in now? He could be no one’s attaché. His dreams of respected station and beautiful, sophisticated wife mocked him from the clouds. When he came to the door of his master’s house, it was dusk. It stood open — the final humiliation. Hugarth had been expecting him to return.
The burly master mage was sitting in the kitchen, two glasses of Chleurie brandy set out on the table before him. Georges did not acknowledge him; he threw himself into a rough wooden chair and cupped his face in his hands. He tried to stop his tears, but it simply led to his snuffling into his palms. Hugarth said nothing. The silence built around them both, a rickety tower ready to fall with a crash.
It was Hugarth who knocked it down. Georges heard the glass of Chleurie slide across the table. “Drink it.”
Georges kept his face hidden. “Monsieur, it isn’t appropriate for me to — ”
“Drink it, dammit.”
Georges peeked out at Hugarth between his fingers. The master’s face was cemented into a frown, which was rare for him. It occurred to Georges that he’d never seen Hugarth look like this before — he appeared to bristle, as though he might tear off his robes and howl at the moon. Georges took the Chleurie and drank it. It was strong and just a little sweet, heating his throat as it went down. “Thank you, Monsieur.”
“I’ve been unfair to you,” Hugarth said, downing his glass of the high-grade brandy in one gulp. “All that nonsense about not accepting your society — forget I said that. A sense of cultural superiority is the easiest arrogance. You’d think if living among the Akrallians would teach me anything, it would teach me that.”
“No apology is necessary, Monsieur. I should not have insulted you.”
Hugarth waved the apology away, which itself was rude, but Georges was too wrung out to take offense. “I assure you, Georges, you are incapable of insulting me. I have ruined your life, boy. I ruined it because I thought you needed a new life — one I saw as less . . . I don’t know . . . less poisonous, I suppose. It’s hard to remember sometimes what kinds of poison each of us thrives upon.”
Georges felt the tears welling up again. “Please, Monsieur, what’s done is done. Let us not speak of it.”
Hugarth’s face split into its old, familiar grin. “See, that’s what I mean — that, right there. That’s nobility, lad.” He shook his head and poured himself another glass of Chleurie. “There’s maybe five men in a thousand who could forgive so easily and mean it. You mean it, too. Maybe that’s how you survive this place.”
Georges blew his nose into his handkerchief. “I’m finished, Monsieur. I am your famulus and nothing else. Madame Grousand . . . she . . . she made certain of it.”
Hugarth knocked back the Chleurie and grimaced. “What did the old bitch say?”
Georges was too numb to register the slander of the Grand Dame, so he just told Hugarth what happened. As he told the story, he saw his master’s face darken. “It was your insistence on holding the fisherman’s hook. You didn’t need it.”
Georges sighed heavily. “I feared for your safety, Monsieur. My duty to you felt more essential than my duty to present myself as a gentleman. I am sorry that I lied to them about it.”
Hugarth nodded slowly, his deep eyes somehow growing darker in the lamplight. A chill draft gusted through the room; the lamp flame flickered. “It doesn’t matter whose idea it was. You stand ready to save my life and that woman crushes you for it? It’s intolerable.”
“Monsieur, please, there is nothing you can do.”
Hugarth stood. “Oh, there’s something all right.”
Georges felt suddenly cold. The air around Hugarth’s body seemed thicker, heavier; his every motion sent waves rippling through space, as though he were a whale and the summer air the sea. “Monsieur, I beg you, do nothing on my behalf!”
Hugarth seized Georges by the shoulders and enveloped him in a massive hug. He whispered in the young famulus’s ear, “I am going to make this right.” Before Georges could object, his master released him and strode from the kitchen and out of the house. Georges tarried another few seconds, at a loss for what to do. Then, with a sigh, he ran after his master.
The gates of the Château du Grousand were thrown open for the Madame’s salon. It was not a ball, so dress was correspondingly reserved — ladies’ gowns occupied perhaps half the acreage of a true ball gown, and men’s wigs reached to the shoulders, not the small of the back. Women’s jewelry matched the men’s swords — expensive, refined, but not showy, and nothing sported a ruby larger than a thumbnail. Overall, it was a modest affair for an Akrallian noble court.
Even within these comparatively lax standards, however, Master Hugarth, in his tattered, rust-colored robes, was not dressed to be allowed admittance. The two liveried valets out front — there to tend to the guests’ coaches as needed — tried to find a polite way to tell the master mage this, as well as tactfully point out he wasn’t invited. By the time they had arrived at a way to do this, he had already stormed past them, with an out-of-breath Georges trailing behind.
They made it to the main entrance of the keep itself before they were stopped. A pair of guards, silver mail glittering in the summer moonlight, crossed their halberds before Hugarth’s path. “Invitation, Monsieur?”
Hugarth regarded the two men evenly. “Step aside — I have business with the lady of the house.”
Georges bowed politely to the guards, trying to hide the fact that he had been forced to run nearly the whole way from home to keep up with his master. “Please excuse him, Monsieurs — he is not himself.”
The guards didn’t budge. “You may not enter, Monsieur, as you are not invited.”
Hugarth placed a single finger against the blade of one of the men’s halberds. The metal immediately began to smoke and glow; inside a half-second, the entire weapon was blazing hot, either melting or burning from the inside out. The guard dropped it with a howl and clutched his hands to his chest. Hugarth’s tone was steady. “Who are you to hinder a Master of the Arcanostrum? Step aside or be cast aside — your choice.”
The two guards stepped back immediately, their eyes bulging. Georges apologized as best he could, but Hugarth was already striding deeper into the confines of the castle. He hurried after the burly mage. “Monsieur! Monsieur Hugarth, please! This is not necessary! Please!”
Georges could not see the expression on his master’s face but it must have been terrible. Servants and guards scattered before him like mice before a cat; doors were closed and locked against him. Even Lord Grousand’s head chamberlain dove behind a tapestry rather than confront him. When they arrived at the great doors to the château’s Silver Room, they were alone. Beyond those great doors, the Madame’s salon could be heard — a large crowd engaged in the light rumble of polite conversation.
“Please, Monsieur!” Georges risked tugging on Hugarth’s sleeve. “No!”
Hugarth ignored him. He raised his thick hands above his head and clapped them together, producing a sound so thunderous it forced Georges to his knees. The doors were torn from their hinges as though struck by a battering ram. They crashed against the Silver Room’s polished black-and-white checkerboard floor and slid ten feet, toppling a few well-dressed men and causing a half-dozen corseted women to swoon. The party fell silent, but this was a different silence from the one that had greeted Georges when he had pled for a place in the Madame’s household.
These people were terrified.
Hugarth stepped into the room like a conqueror surveying his captives. “Where is Emile Grousand?”
Edien stepped forward, his hand resting on the pommel of his rapier, and placed himself in Hugarth’s path. “You, Monsieur, will leave at once, or I pledge to face you on the field of hono…uahhahaaaaaaaaaaaah!”
The attaché hadn’t gotten a third of the way through his formal challenge before Hugarth seized him by the cravat and the codpiece, hoisted him over his head, and threw him across the room like a bale of hay. Edien struck the opposite wall a full eight feet off the ground and fell to the floor with a heavy thud. Hugarth dusted off his hands. “Anyone else want to try that?”
Georges was rooted to his place, two paces behind his master. He couldn’t form words, he couldn’t blink, he could scarcely breathe. This couldn’t be happening. How could this happen? What could he do?
“I ask one more time, and then I become unreasonable.” Hugarth planted himself in the center of the room. “Where is Madame Grousand?”
The assembled nobility parted, their eyes downcast as though they had just noticed they had dropped something and all happened to be wandering in a direction away from their hostess to look for it. Madame Grousand was there, this time sitting in a glittering throne made of translucent mageglass and upholstered in satin. Her hands were folded around a small dog that yapped and growled at the mage. “This is a grave offense, Master Hugarth. You have insulted — ”
Hugarth cut her off. “No, Emile — I am insulted. You seem to have it in your head that I should be somehow afraid of you, and I am here to demonstrate to you — in terms so clear even you can understand — just how incorrect you are.”
“Guards! Guards! To arms!” Madame Grousand’s voice cracked as she shrieked. In the distance, a bell rang.
Hugarth grunted out a harsh laugh and, with a wave of his hands, the doors he had just smashed from their hinges flew back to the doorway and sealed themselves as tightly as if they had been barred. “No guards for you, Emile. Just you, me, and this assortment of cowards and sycophants you call ‘nobility.’ ”
“Edien!” The Madame called to her attaché, who was just pulling himself to his feet. No one had helped him; his face was pale, his hands shaking. “Edien! Protect my honor!”
Edien didn’t answer. He looked at the ground, pretending not to hear, and drifted toward the back of the crowd.
Hugarth laughed and shook his head. “He’s all hot air, that boy. Just like the rest of you — all talk, no substance.”
“What do you want?” Madame Grousand was hugging her little dog to her chest. It yapped, but was trembling almost as much as everyone else.
“What?” The Madame blinked as though slapped. “What have I done to you?”
Hugarth shook his head. “Not to me — to him.” The master leveled one thumb-thick finger at Georges.
Georges and Madame Grousand had the same reaction at the same time. “No!”
Hugarth took a single step toward the seated old woman and the entire room shook with its weight. The chandeliers swayed, sending flickering shadows along the pale faces of the assembly. “Behind me stands a boy of courage, of kindness — one so damned enamored with your idiotic Akrallian etiquette that he’d do anything for you, and you treat him worse than that ugly dog you’re currently throttling. Apologize to my famulus, Emile, or so help me I will take you over my knee and stripe your arse.”
“Monsieur, this is madness!” Georges cried, his shock subsiding. “There is no need for this!”
Hugarth clenched his fists and Madame Grousand’s chair shattered into a million glittering slivers, dumping her on the ground. She cried out in pain, but no one ran to help her. “I am of House Grousand,” she cried. “I will never — ”
“YOU WILL!” Hugarth bellowed, and every flame in the room flared to five times its size. Candles became pyres and the great hearth belched a crimson fireball that set a few gowns ablaze. People screamed and huddled to the ground.
Master Hugarth loomed over the prone body of Emile Grousand, his face a rictus mask of rage. The old woman wept and tried to crawl away.
Georges could take no more. He seized the nearest attaché and drew the man’s rapier. “Monsieur!” he yelled, extending the sword toward Hugarth’s back. “I cannot allow this. One more step and I will kill you.”
Hugarth turned around slowly. When their eyes met, there was something strange about the mage’s expression; Georges, though, was too terrified to make sense of it. “You ungrateful snake.” Hugarth’s voice sounded not his own; this angry, vengeful Hugarth appeared to have consumed the kindly, brusque Hugarth Georges had come to know. It was like facing a nightmare. “After all I’ve done for you . . .”
Georges advanced a step, his blade pointed directly at Hugarth’s chest. “Your friendship is appreciated, Monsieur, but I cannot allow you to terrorize an Akrallian lady.”
“You are my famulus!”
It took all of Georges’ will to keep the blade from trembling and his voice firm. “I beg your forgiveness, Monsieur, but I am an Akrallian first.”
“So be it,” Hugarth said. He took a step, but that single step carried him across the room in the space of a breath. He loomed over Georges like a tidal wave, and the famulus felt himself struck in the chest so hard he thought his heart would stop. Georges tumbled through the air; he heard the breaking of glass and felt the rush of the cool night air around him as he fell.
He struck the catwalk at the top of curtain wall, bounced once, and slammed against the crenellations. Pain exploded all over his body and the world swirled. Staggering to his feet, he saw that Hugarth had knocked him out the great window of the Silver Room and sent him sailing sixty feet across the courtyard. Had his trajectory been any higher, Georges would have gone over the battlements and fallen into the sea. “Gods . . .” he gasped.
Hugarth appeared in the window himself and, with a single leap, crossed the space as well. He landed five paces from where Georges lay, the force of his arrival causing the wall itself to tremble. Georges felt his bowels loosen. He was going to die.
“Now I end you, whelp!” Hugarth bellowed at an unnatural volume, as though Georges were five miles distant.
Georges eyes searched for the sword — there it was! Halfway between him and his master, lying against the stones. Both he and Hugarth saw it at the same time, and both rushed for it. Adrenaline laced through Georges’ body with the heat of strong Chleurie as he reached for the blade.
He felt the hilt in his hand and brought up the point; by some miracle, he had arrived first. Hugarth had too much momentum — he could not stop. The blade’s tip pierced the mage’s chest in just the right place; Georges, after all, knew exactly where to find his master’s heart.
Blood bubbled from the wound. Eyes wide, Georges looked up into his master’s face once last time.
Hugarth — the old Hugarth, the one he had always known — smiled, gave him a wink, and toppled over the battlements and into the sea far below.
It was three months before Georges saw his former master again. He was riding through the countryside along a winding, wooded lane, with the scent of autumn in his nostrils and a chill in the air. The steed, a fine black Thalusian stallion, bucked slightly as they came around a bend to find a burly, hairy man hanging by the neck from a tree branch. Georges smiled and dismounted.
He cut Hugarth down with a careful stroke of his rapier and waited. A minute or so later, the master mage opened his eyes. “What? Oh.” He sat up and smiled. “Guess my new famulus ran off.”
“You have odd habits, Monsieur. Do not hold it against him.”
Hugarth stood up and stretched his now-unbroken neck. “Of course not.” He gave Georges a look-over, noting the royal blue ribbon he wore at his shoulder. “Defender of the Realm, eh? So it worked, then.”
“Madame Grousand had little choice. Her honor could not sustain slighting the honor of her savior. She was . . .” Georges searched for the words “. . . most apologetic for her earlier misjudgments.”
“I’ll bet.” Hugarth snorted, shaking his head. “Sorry for that whack. Glad I hit it just right — I was worried I’d given you a bit too much spin and you’d sail off into the harbor.”
Georges found himself suddenly at the limits of Akrallian etiquette. There was, to his knowledge, no proper way to handle such an apology as this. After a moment, he managed to say, “That’s all right, Monsieur. And thank you. Thank you for . . . for understanding.”
Hugarth nodded slowly, frowning. “I would have taken you with me, might have knocked all those stupid Akrallian habits out of you. But . . .” He shrugged. “It’s your life, Georges. Never forget that.”
Georges had no reply. He could think of none. Such bluntness . . . such clarity. It was a thing not cherished among his people, and yet it was a treasure in its own right. He could see that now.
Hugarth looked around, as though searching for a topic of conversation. He found none. “I suppose this is good-bye, then.” He held out his hand.
Georges buried his smile and drew himself to rigid attention. He bowed deeply. “Monsieur, it comes to my attention that you may be in temporary need of sorcerous assistance.” He gestured to his rapier. “If you would permit me, one last time, perhaps . . .”
Hugarth’s face split into a monstrous grin. With both hands, he spread the laces of his shirt, baring his chest to Georges. “Don’t forget to count.” He winked.
For the first time in what felt like an age, Georges began to laugh.
About the Author
Auston Habershaw is a science fiction and fantasy author whose stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, Analog, and other places. The Far Far Better Thing, the fourth and final book in his fantasy series The Saga of the Redeemed, will be released in March of this year from Harper Voyager. He lives and works in Boston, MA and spends his days teaching composition and writing to college students. Find him on his website at aahabershaw.com or on Goodreads, Amazon, or on Twitter at @AustonHab.
About the Narrator
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from a ritual performed unto the Watchers Just Beyond, imploring them for the boon of great knowledge, but all he got were the lyrics to Dashboard Confessional’s album The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most stuck in his head forever. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.
His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog, and Diabolical Plots. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.