Prince Daros of Han-Gilen is an infamous rake and wastrel–and a hidden and completely untrained mage of enormous power. Caught breaking the strictest laws of the Mageguild and their magical Worldgates, he is sentenced to serve an aged emperor far away from either taverns or temptations.
But a tide of darkness is rising to swallow the worlds of the Gates. Mages are dying and worse; but Daros' very lack of training shows him the way to stand against the tide: to enter the darkness and pay its price, and engage it on its own ground.
I have read Judith Tarr's fantasy for a long time now. She's one of the best at epic fantasy—the kings and queens stuff I mentioned in the introduction. I love the tagline here: A wastrel prince, a forgotten emperor…I'm there before we get to the tides of darkness swallowing worlds. Because I know that Judith Tarr will hold me from page one, and take me on a grand adventure. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"The lover of strong characterization, mage-kings and high magic, intricate plotting and clear flowing prose, can't do better than Judith Tarr's Avaryan saga."– Charles De Lint
"A rousing tale, with all the broad scope, strong characterization and brisk storytelling that has earned Tarr such a loyal following among fantasy readers."– Publisher's Weekly
"The newest addition to Tarr's ongoing 'Avaryan Chronicles' series (Avaryan Rising; Arrows of the Sun) features magic on a grand scale, tempered with personal tales of love and loss."– Library Journal
The heir to the Princedom of Han-Gilen, high lord in the Hundred Realms, child and grandchild and great-grandchild of mages, noble and royal prince of a line of princes, was drunk. Royally, imperially, divinely drunk. But not, he was happy to observe, therefore incapable of pleasing the three delightful creatures who tumbled squealing with him into a vague blur of bedclothes and curtains. They were not his bedclothes or his curtains. He had better taste. But they were adequate, and the three ladies were considerably more than that.
The dark one could sing. The golden one could dance. The sweet brown one had hands of surpassing skill, and lips...
He drifted in a sea of wine. He sang with the dark woman; he watched the golden one dance. The brown woman stroked and teased him, holding him just short of release. He groaned aloud; she laughed. He seized her and tumbled with her in a cloud of scented silk.
Oh, this was a very fine brothel indeed.
The wine was wearing off. Pleasure, even at the hands of so skilled an artisan, could not last forever. He had the mage's curse: he could not fall into oblivion after. His mind was bitterly, brilliantly clear; and there was no wine in the jar beside the bed. Not even a drop to lift him out of himself again.
But he was no simple man, to be discommoded by a want of wine. He could send one of the women to fetch a new jar, or he could call for a servant. Or he could reach into the heart of him, where the magic was, and open the door that was there, and leap joyously into a world in which wine bubbled in fountains.
His three companions shrieked as the Worldgate cast them from lamplight into the full glare of the sun. It was a somewhat softer sun than they could have known before, but bright enough, and warm. The garden about them was full of strange sweet scents. Wine poured into the bowl of a stone fountain, rich red wine of a purer vintage than their own world could offer.
The brown woman and the gold were creatures of the moment; they drank till their lips were stained as if with blood. But the dark woman said, "I hear it's death to open Gates, unless you are a Gate-mage and consecrated in the temple."
He laughed. He had not drunk the wine, but he was dizzy with magic and with the sweetness of doing a thing so sternly and strictly forbidden. "No one will know," he said with sublime confidence. "Nobody knows what I can do. I'm the scapegrace, the fool, the pretty boy who knows nothing but the simplest magics. But I have Gates in me. Look, can you see? See them in my eyes."
She would not look. She was afraid. She gulped wine, choking on it. He was still laughing, because he would not have any of them think he cared for a whore's timidity. He whirled on the greensward that was not quite grass, among the flowers that had no kin in the world in which he was born. The Gates inside him spun into a blur of light.
The light winked out. He gasped. He was still on the greensward, but within him, in his magic's eye, he saw another vision altogether. There was a world—he had visited it, maybe, when he wandered alone through the halls of his magic. It had been beautiful, a world of sea and spume and sky. Now it was all ashen. Gaunt black birds flapped over a barren land; bones tossed in the dead sea. The stench emptied his stomach; he retched into the grass.
None of his companions came to comfort him. They were light women, toys to be used and cast away. They cared nothing for him, only for the gold he brought and the wine he gave them, and maybe a little for such pleasure as their kind could take.
There was a sour taste in his mouth and a bitterness in his heart. He gathered the women and flung them back through the Gate—back to the world from which they had come.
The fountains bubbled mindlessly into their basins. Somewhere, something trilled, that was perhaps a bird, and perhaps not. Out of sheer contrariness, he turned the largest fountain to ice, and its wine to water.
He should not have done that. Opening Gates, that was direly forbidden. Changing the worlds beyond Gates, unless one were a Gate-mage or one consecrated by them, was so deeply banned that he did not even know the penalty for it. Death, he supposed. Or worse, if such a thing could be.
Gates never betrayed him. He was part of them. But guardians watching over Gates could find the tracks that he had so unwisely left and follow them to their end.
If the guards had been women, he might have charmed them into mercy. These were men, and not young, with a look about them of people who had never in their lives known a moment's levity. They seized him in a grip that he did not try to break, which was half of magic and half of human strength. They lifted him and carried him through Gates, not swiftly or easily as he could do, but by the long way, through the emptiness between worlds. He made no effort to tell them how they should do it. Mages never listened. They knew only what they knew, and that was all there was to know.
The voice was much sweeter than its tone. It was a beautiful voice, and its owner more beautiful still, with an extravagance of hot-gold hair imperfectly contained in a fillet, and a face carved in ivory, and wide-set golden eyes. He raised himself in the windowless cell into which his captors had cast him, and stared frankly at her. "You don't look a day over seventeen," he said.
She had twice those years at least, and no more care for his frivolity than the guardians who had brought him here. "Indaros," she said again. "Get up."
He had intended to rise in any case. He unfolded himself, stretching till his bones creaked, and yawning vastly. "I feel vile," he said. "Is there a bath to be had? Or at least a change of clothes?"
She looked up at him; he was much taller than she. Nevertheless she managed to make it clear that he was far beneath her.
And so he was, being a mere prince-heir, albeit of a great princedom, and she heir to an empire—and, some said, to all the worlds beyond the Gates.
"No bath," he said regretfully. "Well then, you'll just have to stand the stink of me. Though I'd rather die clean, if you don't terribly mind."
"You won't die," she said. "You'll only wish you had."
He laughed. His mirth was honest, if a little wild. "Oh, do kill me. It's no trouble."
She frowned slightly, looked him up and down, and walked completely around him. He hoped that she was edified. He had, before sleep and pleasure and prison cell, been dressed in the perfect height of fashion. It was sadly wilted and stained now, but there still was no denying that his coat was distinctively cut and slashed, with dags and ribbons fluttering at carefully random intervals; or that it was a particularly striking shade of green. Or that the trousers had one leg green and one leg nearly as bright a coppery sheen as his hair; or that his shoes were thickly sewn with copper bells. They chimed gently as he shifted his feet.
"It would be a pleasure to kill you," she said as she came round to his front again, "but it will be an even greater pleasure to cure you of this...whatever afflicts you. Are you color-blind?"
He blinked at her. "You're sparing my life because you think I have bad taste? Oh, my wounded heart!"
"You have a heart to wound?" She dismissed him with the flick of a glance. "Enough. You've been judged. Be ready when your escort arrives."
"Escort?" he asked, arching a brow.
She was already gone. There was no lock on the door, he noticed. The seal she had laid on it was wrought of magic, and it was stronger than he could break.
That cracked his composure beyond retrieving. He was the most insouciant of princes; he had made it his life's work. But this quiet woman with her maiden's face and her Sun's fire of magery had got beneath his skin. "Judged?" he demanded of her absence. His voice rose. "Judged? Where is my trial? My defender? My noble judges? I'm a lord of rank. The law grants me a fair trial. I demand it. I insist on it!"
The echoes of his bellow died. There was no answer, only a lingering scent of her scorn.
He could not bear that, either. He flung himself against the door. He was not a small man, nor for all his infamous indolence was he weak, but the locks were made of magic. They never even shifted.
He was lying on his face when the escort came. He was not asleep. A mute and mind-shielded servant had brought clothing not long before, and a basin with it, and water enough for a bit of bath. He was fresher, cleaner, but notably less fashionable now; the paint was scrubbed from his face and hands, and his lovely soiled garments had left with the servant. The coat and trousers and boots he wore fit him well but were distressingly plain, without even a bit of embroidery to enliven their dullness. They were riding clothes, he could hardly have failed to notice. But he had not been given a weapon, even a knife for cutting meat. The belt was bare of anything but the grimly unornamented buckle.
He was cold inside, and empty. Transgressions had consequences, his father had taught him well enough. But one had to care for those consequences, which he never had. Still he had never broken two of the strictest laws of mages in swift succession—or worse, been caught at it.
He heard the door open and felt the mage-wards go down. If he had been inclined, he could have burst through the space where they had been, flung open a Gate, and vanished from the world. But he was not as far gone as that.
His fear was fading. The lady Merian had let him live. She was the guardian of all the Gates, upholder of the laws, judge and, he did not doubt, executioner. When he transgressed, he transgressed first against her.
He rose to face his jailers. They were not the mages he had expected, but his father's guardsmen in green and gold, regarding him with stony faces. He knew them all by name, had roistered in a tavern or three with most, but that mattered nothing now.
His cell, he discovered as he walked out of it in a wall of guards, was a priest's cell in the Temple of the Sun in Han-Gilen. He hoped he could be forgiven for not recognizing it; he had no call to that order, nor had he seen more of the temple than its outer reaches. With luck he would not see it again.
"It seems you have no call to anything," his father said.
This was both better and worse than facing the Lady of the Gates. She was a stranger, and accordingly distant from his faults and foibles. This was his father, and his mother coming into the smallest of the audience chambers with a thunder-reek of magic and a distracted look about her. She hardly seemed to see her son as she sat beside her husband, raking tangled black hair out of her face.
The prince paused for her coming, but spoke again all too soon. Daros watched the play of expression across the stern dark face, and the gleam of morning sunlight in the bright hair. He looked little enough like either of them. They said he threw back to some long-ago prince or—if they were ill enough inclined—to some princess of exceptional beauty and equally exceptional fecklessness.
"Feckless you certainly are," said his father, following his thought with the ease of a mage and the arrogance of a prince. "You have no useful skills; you serve no useful purpose. You refused the priesthood. You turned your back on the mages. If you have any calling at all, it appears to be that of tavern-crawler."
"And libertine, Father. Don't forget that."
The prince looked ready to erupt, but his princess spoke before he could burst out in rage. "Don't lecture him, Hal. He won't listen. He knows his sins as well as we, little though he pretends to care about them."
"I don't care about them," Daros said tightly.
She smiled. She was not beautiful; her face was too strong for that. But when she smiled, she warmed even his heedless heart. "Of course you care, child," she said. "You're afraid it will hurt. Can you tell us why you took three rather expensive whores through a Gate, and what you hoped to accomplish by changing what you found there?"
"It was only a game," he said—sulkily, and hating himself for it, but his mother always had been able to reduce him to a child.
"A game that you well knew was forbidden," his father said, though the princess tried to hush him.
"Yes, and why?" Daros demanded. "What harm did I do? Who was hurt or killed by what I did? It was just a Gate, and just a garden. Why are Gates banned? What are the mages afraid of? That anyone but they will discover secrets?"
"You know the answers to that," his mother said. "Your very failure to understand those answers is proof that the laws are necessary."
"How do you know I don't understand? What if I'm sure I did no harm?"
"Are you?" She rubbed her eyes and sighed. "Most of the mages wanted you put to death. It wasn't compassion for me that stopped them, or even the fact that you are the only living child of the Prince of Han-Gilen. You have cousins in plenty, after all; and I would mourn you, but never fault them for upholding the law. No; it was the Sunlady herself who revoked the sentence. Piddling useless thing you may be, she said, but you opened a Gate without spells, workings, or great raising of power. You did it, in fact, as casually as if the Gate had been an earthly door. She wanted to know why no one had ever enlisted you among the Gate-mages."
"No one ever asked," Daros said.
"Because you were never available to be asked." His mother looked him in the face for the first time since she had come into the room. He gasped in spite of himself. Her eyes were clear and hard and brimming with magic. But they could not pierce the barriers he had raised.
"Why?" she asked him. "What do you fear? We've pampered you, indulged you, spoiled you shamelessly. What would cause you to keep such a secret?"
He shrugged uncomfortably. "It's not a secret. It's only...really, no one ever asked. They all weigh me light. Even you."
"Why—" But she stopped him before he could answer. "It doesn't matter. You've been tried and sentenced, and your sentence has been commuted from death to one less final."
"A fate worse than death?" he asked. "A state marriage?"
His father looked again as if he would erupt; again his lady forestalled him. "That was considered," she said. "Imprisonment, too, and excision of your magic."
He shuddered at that, for all that he could do; his stomach twisted until he gasped with the pain.
They saw, of course. He could not tell if they were gratified.
His mother said, "We considered many things, but she silenced us all, and spoke your sentence. You will be exiled, Indaros Kurelios. You will be given to a guardian who cannot be tricked or cozened or circumvented. Until he deems you ready to return, you will remain with him, under his rule, bound to serve him to the utmost of your capability. If you fail in your duty, or if you try to escape, you will be put to death."
Daros kept his face steady. He was growing afraid again. "Who—" His voice caught. "Who is my jailer? You, Father?"
Prince Halenan did not answer. The Lady Varani said, "We declined the honor, since we've done so badly for these past nineteen years. You'll be sent to another, who will, says the Lady of Gates, keep you in such order as you can ever be kept in."
"Who? One of my myriad uncles? One of the cousins? Suvayan is dour enough, and hungry enough, too. He'd keep me in chains. That would please you all, wouldn't it?"
She shook her head wearily. "Stop it, Daros."
If she had been cross, or even conspicuously patient, he would have defied her. But she was honestly and visibly exhausted. She had not slept, he realized, since his transgression was discovered. Maybe none of the Gate-mages had. More softly then, and somewhat less insouciantly, he asked, "Who, then? Where am I to go?"
"You will go to Han-Uveryen in the north of the world," his mother said. There was grief in it, but she did not yield for that. "You will be squire and servant to the lord of the holding. Your life will be in his hands. He will rule you absolutely and command your every breath, until your sentence shall be served."
Daros barely choked at the name of the holding, although he had heard of it, dimly. It was as remote as human habitation could be, far away in the land called Death's Fells. He focused his mind on another thing, a thing of rather greater importance. "How long a sentence will it be?"
"As long as your new lord sees fit to keep you," his father said.
"My new lord," said Daros, rolling the words on his tongue. "What great mage and lord of the world would make his home in that godsforsaken place?"
"Watch your tongue, boy," his father said through clenched teeth. "And above all watch it when you come to him. He was an easygoing man when I knew him, but that was years ago. He won't have kept that ease, I think, living in the Fells. He'd never have mercy on a transgressor of Gates. He made the laws for good and sufficient reason, and he set his granddaughter's daughter in command of them."
Daros' mouth was open. He shut it. "He made the— You're sending me to the emperor? I thought he was dead."
"He is very much alive," his father said.
"Gods," said Daros. "He must be ancient. When did he hand the empire over to his granddaughter? Was I even born yet?"
"Barely," his mother said. "He is still emperor, though he's surrendered his priesthood and given the regency to Daruya and her consort. He is also still the greatest of the mages, and a master of Gates. You'll walk soft in his presence, child, and accord him the respect he deserves, whether or not it suits your fancy. Am I understood?"
Daros bent his head. "I understand you," he said.
Her glance was distrustful, but she held her peace. So, perhaps by her will, did his father.
"You leave now," she said after a pause. "The guards will take you where you must go."
She had dismissed him. No embrace, no kiss, no farewell of mother to son; only the cold words and the cold stare. She was a mage of Gates; he had transgressed the laws by which she lived. What he had done was unforgivable. Only now did he begin to understand the meaning of the word.
His father's wrath he had expected; Prince Halenan was notoriously short of patience where his son was concerned. But the Lady Varani had never been so cold before, never kept so remote a distance. "But I did no harm!" he cried to her, hating the whine in his voice.
"You did more harm than you could possibly comprehend," she said. She turned her back on him: rejection so complete, and so mortally wounding, that he could only bare his teeth in a grin, salute them both, and bid his guards conduct him where they would.