The King's orders were clear enough. "Move the Tower's shadow," he bellowed. "I refuse to deliver my commencement speech from the dark."
As the newly-appointed Mage to the Crown of Tirlin, Mage Meralda Ovis has no choice but to undertake King Yvin's ill-conceived task. Tirlin's first female Mage, and the youngest person to ever don the robes of office, Meralda is determined to prove once and for all that she deserves the title of Mage.
The Tower, though, holds ancient secrets all its own. Secrets that will soon spell destruction for all of Tirlin – unless Meralda can unravel a monstrous curse laid by a legendary villain seven centuries before she was born.
I love Meralda Ovis, the youngest person ever to become mage to the Crown to Tirlin, and coincidentally the first female as well, who's immediately presented with an utterly unreasonable task by her ruler. Meralda also has one of the best magical sidekicks ever, Mug the dandy leaf plant. Another secondary world steampunk story, with lots of interest and action. – Cat Rambo
"This is one of those books that ticks all the right boxes for me. Spunky female lead – check. Detailed world building – check. Interesting magic system – check. Humour – check. A bit of a romance – check."– Pauline M. Ross
"You can give this to a patient kid, or you can enjoy it yourself on a day when you really don't want anything grim. After all, it is impossible to be unhappy while reading a book in which every scene is stolen by Mug the talking plant."– E. M. Epps
"The characters delighted me, especially, as I've mentioned, the intelligent, competent young female protagonist, who didn't need to be rescued by a man even once. She was firmly in control of the situation most of the time, and even when she wasn't, she managed to fake it so convincingly that her opponents backed down. The crusty old wizards were also a lot of fun, as was the wisecracking plant-familiar with the 29 eyes."– Mike Reeves-McMillan
"I surmise you've seen the king," said Mug, after a time. "What does Yvin want you to do this time? Lower the moon? Shorten the day? Give him back his girlish figure and his front
Meralda sighed and opened her eyes
The sky through the high window was cloudless and blue. A ragged vee of geese flew by above, veering wide around alumbering red Alon cargo dirigible dropping toward the docks behind the palace. The dirigible's long shadow raced over the tops of the towering Old Kingdom oaks that ringed the park before sliding over the park wall and disappearing.
Beyond the park and the oaks Tirlin itself rose up in a tidy profusion of red brick buildings and dark slate roofs and red-gold tree tops just touched by autumn. The towers and spires of the
palace peeped through here and there, rising just barely above the banks and shops and offices that made up the heart of Tirlin. Above it all, though, loomed the Tower, squat and black and
brooding in the midst of the green and open park
Meralda frowned, and looked away.
"Mistress," said Mug, turning all twenty-nine of his eyes toward Meralda. "Talk. What's wrong?"
"How many days remain until the Accords?" said Meralda, quietly.
"Twenty," said Mug, with a small stirring of leaf tips. "Counting today, which I suppose I shouldn't, since it's nearly gone."
Meralda sat on the edge of her battered kitchen chair. "So, in nineteen days, Tirlin will be full of Alons and Vonats and Eryans and Phendelits, all gathered here to strut and brag and eat like pigs while making long speeches explaining why they broke every promise they made at the last Accord."
Mug nodded by dipping his eye buds. "You left out carousing and spying and tavern wrecking," said Mug. "What does that have to do with you?"
Meralda slapped her hands down on the table. "Nothing," she said. "It should have nothing to do with me at all. The Accords are a political matter."
"Or so you thought," said Mug.
Meralda shook her head. "So I thought." She put her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands. Just for an instant, she heard her mother's scolding voice. "Elbows off the table, young
lady. We raise swine. We do not emulate their table manners." Meralda sighed and stared at the table top. "His Highness is to give the customary commencement speech on the eve of the
Accords," she said. "He plans to speak from a platform at the foot of the Tower. Carpenters are building covered stands in the park for the delegates."
Mug shrugged with a tossing of fronds. "Sounds fine. I think Kings Ortell and Listbin did the same thing, way back when." Mug lifted his three red eyes toward Meralda's face. "It's not the weather, is it? Surely even Yvin knows better than to take pokes at the climate just to make sure he has a sunny day for a speech."
"He didn't ask that," said Meralda. "Yet." She stretched and yawned and thought again about caramel apples and fall carnivals. "Yesterday—" said Meralda, "Yesterday, the King was inspecting the stands being built in the park. He arrived at five of the clock, the same time his commencement speech is set for."
"And," said Meralda, "it suddenly dawned on our gifted monarch that the sun sets in the west and casts shadows toward the east."
"Leaving His High Pompousness to make a speech in the shadow of the Tower," said Mug, with dawning apprehension. "Which aggravated his royal sense of badly done melodrama."
"And led him to instruct me to move the Tower's shadow,"said Meralda. "Move it, or banish it, or fold it up and pack it awayfor an hour," said Meralda, in a mocking baritone. "Roll up a shadow? Pack away the absence of light caused by a seven hundred year old wizard's keep?" Meralda shoved back the chair and stood, hands spread before her. "What kind of an imbecile asks for a roll of packed up shadows?"
Mug cast his gaze toward the ceiling. "The kind with the scepter and the crown," he said, quietly.
Meralda stood. She walked back to her open window and leaned on the sill.
"Was it a suggestion, a request, or a royal directive?" asked Mug.
"Is there a difference?" Meralda shrugged. "The king asked. Before the full court. I stood there and nodded and made vague assurances that I'd look into the matter." Meralda sighed. "The Tower is—what? Nine hundred feet high? Almost two hundred wide? At five of the clock today, the tip of its afternoon shadow hit the park wall at the east entrance. That makes its shadow
almost two thousand feet long and two hundred wide at the base."
Mug ticked off figures on his leaf tips. "How big a bag will you need, after you roll it up?" he asked.
"Mug!" snapped Meralda. "Enough."
"A thousand pardons, Oh Fiery-Eyed One," said Mug, with a mock bow. "But could it be, mistress, that you are not exclusively angry with King Yvin?" A trio of bright blue eyes peeked up through Mug's tangle of leaves. "Could it be that you are peeved at your own reluctance to describe to the king in lengthy detail just how asinine and vacuous his shadow-packing scheme truly is?"
Meralda glared. "I could get a cat," she said. "A nice quiet cat."
Mug lifted out of the bow. "Fur on the couch, a litter box to empty? I don't see you with a cat," said Mug.
"Keep talking," she said. "We may all see things we didn't expect." Meralda shook her head, ran her fingers through the strands of long red-brown hair that had worked loose from the tight bun at the back of her head.
"I was going to add that you shouldn't fault yourself for not browbeating the king before the full court," said Mug. "I was going to say that even though your hero, Tim the Horsehead, spent his career berating and insulting kings he was always careful to do so in private." Mug paused, waving his leaves. "I was going to suggest that you take a long hot bath and curl up on the couch with a cup of Vellish black tea and a book of Phendelit poetry, and that you see Yvin privately tomorrow and explain to him that you only just discovered that moving the Tower's shadow would loose a plague of biting flies on Banker Street and devalue Tirlish currency abroad and cause the collapse of the aqueducts and, incidentally, make snakes grow in his beard. He'll forget the whole shadow business and you can go back to your studies of spark wheels and lightning rods, interrupted only by occasional royal requests to shrink the royal bald spot."
Meralda laughed. Mug turned his eyes away. "And you want a cat," he said, airily. "Could a cat say that?"
"No one with lungs could say that, Mug," she said. "You're right. I should have a talk with Yvin."
"Then why aren't you making tea and drawing a bath?"
Meralda sighed. "Because I'm changing clothes and going back to the laboratory," she said. "There are things I need to look into, at least."
Mug sighed. "Mistress," he said. "Can it be done? Can the shadow be moved?"
"I don't know, Mug," she said. "Perhaps."
Mug turned a tangle of green eyes toward her. "I don't like this, mistress," he said, no humor in his tone. "The Tower isn't something to be trifled with." Mug bunched all his eyes together in an instinctive signal of grave concern. "Leave it alone, if you can," he said. "Please."
Meralda frowned. "Why, Mug? It's just an old tower."
Mug moved his eyes closer. "It was never just a tower," he said. "Not seven hundred years ago, not yesterday, not now." Mug's leaves stirred, though no wind blew. "Why do you think the old kings tried for all those years to knock it down?" Mug paused and stilled his leaves. "Leave it alone, mistress. Tell Yvin to light a few gas lamps and leave the Tower be."
Meralda stroked his topmost leaves. "Thank you, Mug."
"For what?" asked Mug.
Meralda smiled. "For not being a cat."
Mug's eyes exchanged glances. "You're welcome," he said. "I think."
"Water?" asked Meralda.
"None, thanks." The dandyleaf plant sighed. "So you're going to try this, despite my heartfelt plea."
"I have to," said Meralda. "I have to try. Not for the king, but for me."
Mug grunted. "As long as it's not a heroic effort for the glory of His Thick-headedness," said Mug. "So what's this idea of yours?"
Meralda bit her lip. She turned from Mug and began to pace slowly around the dining table.
"I see two ways to do this," she said, frowning. "First, bend the sunlight around the Tower, so it casts no shadow at all."
Mug frowned. "That would render the Tower invisible, wouldn't it?" he said. "And a working invisibility spell? Weren't you saying just a few days ago that such a thing was impossible? I believe you used the words 'penny-novel nonsense'."
"The spell would only redirect light striking the Tower from a certain angle," said Meralda. "It wouldn't be invisible. Just a bit fuzzy, from a single spot out in the park.
"I see," said Mug. "What's your other idea?"
"Leave the shadow," she said. "Just delay it a bit. An hour, perhaps. Maybe less."
"Delay it? How, mistress, does one delay the setting of the sun?"
Meralda laughed. "I'll leave the sun alone, thank you. I'd merely borrow a bit of sunlight from one day and move it to the next."
The edges of Mug's leaves all curled slightly upward. "Let's work with your original notion," he said. "Moving sunlight from one day to the next. That sounds like the sort of story that ends with the Thaumaturge being brutally suntanned and the king giving his speech from beneath the cover of perpetual night."
Meralda smiled. "Good night, Mug," she said. "I'll be late. Shall I move you to the sitting room window?"
"No, thank you," he said. "I'll stay right where I am. It's a good place in which to worry oneself sick. Lots of room to drop leaves and shrivel."
Meralda sighed. "It's only a shadow, Mug," she said. "And the Tower is just a tower. Stones and wood. Nothing more."
Mug sniffed. "Certainly," he said. "Nothing to all those old stories. Nothing at all."
Meralda snatched up her cloak and stamped out of the kitchen. Mug listened to her wash her face, brush her teeth, and change her clothes. Then the living room door closed softly, and Mug was all alone.