In Which Anrel Murau Returns Home to an Uncertain Reception
The rain had finally stopped, and the public coach’s sole occupant was able to roll up the blinds and look out the unglazed windows without getting soaked. The countryside was still green, even this late in the summer and in the gloom of a heavy overcast; the passenger wondered how that could be, when so much of the talk in Lume for the past few seasons had been of crop failures and famine.
The coach jolted over some unevenness in the road, and Anrel Murau braced himself against the window frame as he gazed out at a harvested .eld. He could not tell what had been grown there, or how much the land had yielded, but the rain- darkened earth certainly looked rich and fertile— as it should. After all, this was Aulix, one of the richest provinces in the Walasian Empire. A famine in Walasia, the heart of the Bound Lands— could that really be possible? This was the realm where the forces of nature had been brought under control, where the Mother and the Father looked kindly upon humanity and its sorceries. It wasn’t some wild hinterland like the outer reaches of Quand, or the Ermetian mystery lands, where days might be different lengths from one to the next, or monsters might prowl the .elds, or snow might fall in midsummer, if the seasons were even regular enough to have a summer. No, this was a land of order and stability, where farmers had been feeding the population reliably for centuries, where sorcerers regulated the weather, where most of the wild spirits and negative forces that plagued the Unbound Lands had long since been banished. What could have changed, to allow food shortages to occur?
Nothing he saw from the coach window gave him any hint. The .elds rolling by, whether still green or stripped bare, all looked fertile enough.
They also looked simultaneously familiar and strange. He had spent his entire childhood in this region, but after his four years in the capital the countryside seemed vaguely unreal, like a nostalgic dream rather than a present reality. The placid, rain- washed green hills and brown .elds, virtually empty of human life, were so very different from the crowded, stone- paved streets of Lume. Here there were no pleading beggars, no hungry men clustered around notice boards looking for work, no coachmen with whips clearing the way for their vehicles, no scowling watchmen patrolling their elevated walkways.
Here in the country sorcerers looked after their subjects, as they ought to— or at least, that was how he remembered it, and he hoped that had not changed while he was studying history and law in the court schools. The most powerful magicians were the landgraves who ruled the empire’s sixteen provinces, but every town or village was under the benevolent rule of a burgrave, every border was guarded by a margrave, and lesser sorcerers served as magistrates and administrators, devoting their magic to the public good.
At least in theory. Anrel knew all too well that sorcerers were merely human.
Some of Anrel’s fellow students had insisted that discontent was widespread throughout the empire, that high taxes and tariffs were ruining trade, that sorcerers were too caught up in their own magic and their intrigues to attend to their duties, but Anrel chose not to believe it. People had always complained, and young men, he knew from his history books, always thought they were coming of age in a time of crisis and impending collapse. They wanted to save the world, and that meant the world had to need saving.
Anrel had no interest in saving the world, and did not think anyone needed to. He merely wanted to .nd a place in it.
He hoped the world didn’t need saving, but matters did seem to have deteriorated in Lume during his time there. The burgrave of Lume’s guards and the Emperor’s Watch had been called out to put down riots more in the past season than in the entire previous year, which had already been an unusually violent one.
Surely, though, that was a temporary aberration.
Temporary or not, it had nothing to do with matters here in Aulix. The coach had taken him from the unhappy ferment of Lume through Beynos, where the streets had been only slightly troubled, and then Orlias, and Kevár, and all the other villages along the route, each calmer than the town before, until .nally Kuriel had appeared so placid that Anrel had wondered if the inhabitants might have been enchanted. It was as if the coach had been carrying him back into his childhood, when he was blithely unaware of any po liti cal issues or unrest at all.
Not that his childhood had been unmarked by tragedy. He remembered the .rst time he had ridden a coach along this road, eigh teen years ago; he had been a child of only four, but the memory was indelibly .xed in his head. He had been newly orphaned, on his way to live with a widowed uncle he had never met; of course he remembered it! He had been frightened and lost and alone, mere days from the horror of discovering what was left of his parents after a spell had gone wrong, and he had known, even at that tender age, that the coach was taking him to a new and different life, that he would never return to the house where he was born.
That new life had been pleasant enough. Lord Dorias Adirane, bur-grave of Alzur, had been kind to him, and Anrel had spent fourteen happy years in his uncle’s home before being sent off to Lume to complete his education.
Now he was once again on his way to his uncle’s mansion.
He wished he could be more certain of his reception. Uncle Dorias’s letters had not seemed very enthusiastic about his nephew’s plans— what few plans he had, as he had to admit he was somewhat vague about his future. Anrel hoped to .nd some employment appropriate for a young man of his station, a young man without magic but with the best education the court schools of Lume could provide. As for the precise nature of this employment— well, he had not satis.ed his uncle on that account.
He had not satis.ed himself, either.
In truth, it was unlikely he would .nd a suitable post in Alzur; the village had no use for a scholar. Anrel had the impression Lord Dorias had expected him to .nd a position in Lume, or perhaps one of the other cities of the empire, rather than returning to his uncle’s estate, but the old man had not come out and said so, and no such employment had manifested itself, as yet.
Uncle Dorias had made plain that he had no intention of supporting Anrel’s studies beyond the customary four years, and with no prospects in Lume Anrel had had little choice but to return to Alzur, but he did not regret that in the least. For one thing, he had a notion that his uncle’s fosterling and former apprentice Valin—Lord Valin— might have found himself a position where a skilled clerk would be useful. Settling down as his childhood companion’s aide had a great deal to recommend it, Anrel thought. A few quiet rooms somewhere working for his friend, and eventually a wife, perhaps children— that was a life that would suit Anrel well. He had no desire to change the world or achieve great things.
He looked out at the countryside, and hoped his modest ambitions could be realized. He could see from the scenery that the coach was nearing the village of Alzur; he leaned out the window and peered at the hills ahead, trying to make out his uncle’s house.
He spotted it readily enough. Although Lord Dorias was burgrave of Alzur, he did not actually live inside the village’s iron pale, as a burgrave should; his manor stood instead atop one of the higher hills in the vicinity, roughly two miles south of the village square.
Anrel recalled that he hadn’t known that when he had .rst come to Alzur as a child. He had mistaken the far larger estate of Lord Allutar Hezir, a mile north of town, for his uncle’s home, and had been confused when he was instead taken back across the bridge to the southern bank of the Raish River.
Even now, eighteen years later, he didn’t understand why Lord Allutar, the landgrave of Aulix, chose to make his seat at a village like Alzur, instead of at Naith, the provincial capital. Alzur was a modest collection of shops and homes stretching along half a mile of riverbank between the two sorcerers’ mansions, while Naith, a dozen miles farther west, was a thriving city that seemed a far more sensible place for the landgrave to live. All the other provincial of.cials, from the lowliest clerk to the Lords Magistrate, lived in Naith, but the landgrave himself dwelt in Alzur.
Anrel would have much preferred Lord Allutar to live elsewhere, but it was not up to him. He pulled his head in and settled down in his seat to wait, leaning back against the worn leather.
He hoped that his uncle would be there to meet him; Anrel had said, in his last letter, which coach he would be on. If Lord Dorias was waiting for him, that would be an indication that the coldness Anrel had thought he’d perceived in recent correspondence was merely a .gment of his imagination.
Then the coach was across the bridge and rumbling up the streets into Alzur proper.
A moment later the coachman called to his team, and the vehicle rolled to a stop on the wet cobbles of the town’s only square. “Alzur!” the driver called as he set the brake. “This is Alzur!”
Anrel sat up and fumbled with the latch, and the door banged open. He thrust out his head and looked around. “Indeed it is Alzur,” he said aloud, addressing the air. “It hasn’t changed a bit, has it?” The town was exactly as he remembered it. Just now everything was damp from the recent rain, water dripping from the eaves and trickling down the streets, but otherwise it could have been any day since he had .rst seen the place eigh teen years before.
But then, why would a sleepy village in Aulix look any different? The rabble- rousers of Lume might claim great changes were afoot in the world, but Anrel thought they would hardly reach a place like this.
He looked around and saw no sign of his uncle. He did, however, see a young man in a green frock coat trotting across the cobbles and waving to him. “Anrel!” this person called. “You’ve made it!”
The traveler looked down at his dearest friend and smiled broadly. “Hello, Valin,” he said, clambering quickly down from the coach. “It’s good to see you!”
“Very good indeed!” Valin replied, stepping forward, his own grin as broad as the traveler’s.
The two men embraced, and when they separated Anrel said, “You haven’t changed any more than Alzur has, I see.”
“Ah, so it might appear to the casual glance,” Lord Valin said, clapping his friend on the back, “but I believe that when we have a chance to talk a little you’ll see just how different I have become. When you left I was little more than a child, and I like to think I am rather more than that now.”
Anrel’s smile broadened. Valin was his se nior by more than a year, but in truth, had never in Anrel’s memory seemed the more mature of the pair. Perhaps, though, he really had changed during Anrel’s absence this time; his sparse letters provided no compelling evidence either way. “I’m eager to hear all about it,” he said.
“And I am eager to hear all the news from Lume,” Valin answered. “What’s happening there? Is there much excitement about the calling of the Grand Council?”
Anrel’s smile dimmed. Not two minutes out of the coach, and Valin was asking him about po liti cal affairs. Pleased as he was to see him apparently unchanged, Anrel had hoped that Valin’s obsession with wild schemes to change the world had faded. He was as bad as the .rebrands of Lume, and with far less justi.cation.
Indeed, it was largely his familiarity with Valin that had led him to dismiss the beliefs of the agitators, idealists, and theorists of the court schools as unfounded.
“I am not sure I would call it excitement so much as uncertainty,” Anrel said. He glanced over to see that the coachman had already exchanged the day’s incoming and outgoing mail with Alzur’s postmistress, the same plump little woman who had held the position when Anrel departed four years before— Oria Neynar, was it? Yes, that was her name. She was trotting off with the dispatch case in hand while the driver proceeded around toward the back of the coach. “But let us retrieve my baggage and be on our way, so that this good man can get on with his business.”
“Yes, to be sure,” Valin agreed.
A few fresh raindrops spattered the pavement just then, and Anrel glanced at the sky. He hoped it was just a .nal sprinkle, and not the start of a fresh downpour. “I think we should make haste,” he said. He turned to the driver, who had untied the protective canvas and was heaving a leather- bound traveling case to the cobbles.
“Of course!” Valin said, hurrying to snatch up the .rst bag.
The coachman handed the next bag, a battered valise, directly to Anrel, who nodded, and passed the man a coin in exchange— a sixpence, one-tenth of a guilder, which was generous, but the man had made good time and kept the ride reasonably smooth, and there were no other passengers to contribute to his pay.
The coachman smiled and tipped his hat, then turned to secure the coach for the next leg of his run. Fat drops began to darken the canvas as the driver tied it back in place, and Anrel looked up again. The sky did not look promising.
“Is this everything?” Valin asked, hefting the traveling case.
“Indeed it is,” Anrel said, turning his attention to his friend. “I am, after all, only a poor student, not a mighty sorcerer like yourself.” The statement was made in jest, but it was also the simple truth— Valin was a sorcerer, where Anrel was not.
Valin punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Sorcerer, pfah! I am a man like yourself, Anrel. Are we not all the children of the Father and the Mother, and heirs of the Old Empire?” He began marching south across the square.
“Some of us are the more favored heirs, Valin, while others are but despised cousins,” Anrel said, following his companion. “Your magic gives you a status most of us can never aspire to.”
Lord Valin glanced back over his shoulder. “Never aspire to? I think you may misjudge the situation, my friend. What our fathers dared not dream of, our sons may take for granted. Changes are coming, Anrel! Surely, if I have heard as much in the taverns of Naith, you have heard it in the capital!”
Anrel did not need to ask what he meant, since he had indeed heard these utopian schemes bruited about in Lume. He did not put much stock in them, but kept his opinion to himself. Instead, hoping to divert the discussion away from the capital and toward Valin’s own situation, he said, “You have certainly achieved what your father did not.”
“Pfah!” Valin waved his free hand in dismissal. “I can take little plea sure in a fortunate accident of birth. I was merely . . .”
At that point, with no further warning, the skies opened anew, and rain deluged upon the pair, turning the world gray and wet. Water poured from the eaves on every side, and the spaces between cobbles all seemed to .ll instantly.
“Over there!” Anrel shouted over the drumming of the torrent, as he pointed toward a pair of small tables set beneath a broad sky-blue awning. The awning was already soaked, but it was still the closest shelter; the two men ran for it.
A moment later the two of them had ducked beneath the sagging awning, and turned to stare out at the downpour.
“It would seem that the spirits of air and water do not want me to rush to my uncle’s hearth,” Anrel said.
“Indeed,” Valin agreed.
“This is not the homecoming I had hoped for,” Anrel said. He meant not merely the weather, but the fact that Valin had come alone to meet him. His uncle’s presence would have been very welcome, or that of Anrel’s cousin, Lady Saria. Lord Dorias’s only child had been a baby when Anrel .rst came to Alzur, and was only just blossoming into woman hood when he left for Lume. He wondered what she looked like now; she had shown signs of becoming a beauty. How much had she changed in his absence?
He would see her soon enough, he supposed, but he wished she had come to meet him and welcome him home. He would have found it reassuring.
But at least someone from the Adirane house hold was here, even if Valin was not actually a member of the family. It was very good to see Valin again, and to know at least someone welcomed his return.
Excerpted from a Young Man Without Magic by Lawrence Watt- Evans.
Copyright © 2009 by Lawrence Watt- Evans.
Published in November 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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