The Prince's Players

reprinted as Danger in the Palace


Debra Doyle & J. D. Macdonald

[Danger in the Palace][The Prince's Players]

I. Market Square Magician

"A penny, a penny for art!"

Randal gave his cry again, and showed the crowd an empty hat. The small cap of green felt belonged to Lys, his friend and traveling companion. The black-haired girl in boys' clothing sat on the rim of an enormous bronze-and-marble fountain in the center of Peda's market square, waiting to begin her performance. Randal flourished the hat a second time, and placed it on the ground. Then he sat cross-legged on the pavement and waited for Lys to start singing.

Behind him, the first notes of the girl's song floated out over the sound of falling water. Most of the people in the small crowd turned their attention to her. Those who still looked at Randal saw a tall, sturdily built youth in his middle teens, with untrimmed black hair reaching to his shoulders. Over his travel- stained garments he wore the wide-sleeved black robe of a journeyman wizard trained at the Schola Sorceria—the School of Wizardry in Tarnsberg, on the western sea.

Time to start earning my bread, he thought, as Lys sang on. He didn't understand the words of her song—they were in her native Occitanian, the language of these parts, and Randal knew little more of that tongue than the few memorized phrases he'd already spoken. But he and Lys had practiced this routine every day on the road south from Widsegard; he knew the exact moment at which to begin weaving his own spells into the music.

Now the young wizard calmed his mind and began to call forth sound from the air around him—a deep-pitched, steady chord to underlie and harmonize with Lys's melody.

The chord came in well balanced and firm on the first try. Good, thought Randal. Now for the high tone. He concentrated again, and set a mellow flutelike tone playing along an octave above the tune Lys sang.

The flute sound also came in on key and followed the melody without any fumbles or mistakes. Randal allowed himself a smile of satisfaction—the music was going well today. Now for the lights.

He tried for a glowing cloud of color, like a veil between Lys and the spray of the fountain, and it appeared. With a little more concentration, he gave the cloud a wash of red for the low note of his chore, mingled with green and blue for Lys's clear alto voice, and dappled with flecks of gold sparkling in time with the highest notes of the flute.

The first magic Randal had ever seen had been just such a display of sound and light. But Madoc the Wayfarer, the wizard who had performed those wonders in the great hall of Castle Doun, had been a master of the magical art, and not a mere journeyman. Randal himself had spent the past few months in acquiring, by trail and error, the fine control that produced a particular sound or color without accident, every time.

Some days, the magic had worked well, while on other days Randal's efforts had brought him more embarrassment than success. But as traveling entertainers went, he and Lys had prospered— they'd always had enough money to buy food, and here in the southland, where nights were warm and dry, they slept in the open and seldom needed to pay for lodging.

As Lys's song came to an end, Randal ended the sounds and the cloud of colored light. He looked down at the cap, and found it empty.

I don't understand, he thought, feeling at once puzzled and disappointed. I've had the spells working right for weeks now, and Lys doesn't even need magic to sound good. We should have gotten one or two pennies at least from this crowd.

Instead, only thin applause came from the small—and rapidly dwindling—audience. Randal sighed, and reached out to pick up the empty cap. His fingers had just touched the brim when a small bag of black velvet sailed through the air and landed in the cap with a metallic chink.

Randal picked up the bag. It felt heavy in his hand, and the contents shifted and clinked inside it. Carefully, he undid the silver cord of the drawstring and pulled the bag open. His sudden hopes were not dashed. The bag contained gold coins—more money than he'd seen in one place since leaving his uncle's castle to study wizardry.

Randal closed the bag and slid it into the deep pocket of his robe, next to his spell-book. Then he looked to see who had made the donation. The young wizard's gaze traveled upward from the man's high leather boots, to a short tunic of black velvet trimmed in silver, to a clean-shaven, intelligent face framed by bright red hair. At his waist, the stranger wore a long, narrow- bladed sword.

"Many thanks, my lord," said Randal in Occitanian, thus exhausting his entire stock of the language.

The well-dressed stranger gestured at Randal to rise, and said something in a clear, pleasant voice. Randal looked around to Lys for a translation.

The Occitanian girl swung down from the rim of the fountain onto the pavement. Randal saw that her eyes were dancing. "Come on, Randy," she said. "We're going with this gentleman. He wants us to play at the palace."

"The palace?" Randal said in amazement as they fell in behind the stranger. "I knew we were good, but I didn't think we were all that good."

"Here in Occitania," said Lys, "every city is its own country—and the lords of the city-states are rich and powerful. Just take what you can, and smile. At the very least we can expect a good meal, and maybe even new clothes when we play for His Grace."

Randal nodded, still uncertain whether the summons was for good or ill. Lys, he thought, seemed to have no doubts at all; she was smiling as they followed the stranger away from the marketplace. The redheaded man led them through the town, and uphill along wide streets, through ranks of tall stone houses. At the top of the hill they came to a huge marble building— actually a collection of buildings joined together y walls and set in the midst of green lawns and sweet-smelling gardens.

Randal and Lys followed their guide onward through a maze of corridors, cloisters, enclosed gardens, and winding stairways. Everywhere they looked, they saw luxury. Frescoes covered the walls and the ceiling; dark and light woods made patterns on the polished floor underfoot; and bronze and marble statues filled the corners along the way.

This has to be the palace, thought Randal, feeling shabby and insignificant in his mud-stained robe. No one but a prince would live in such magnificence.

At last the three of them came to a small room where another man waited. The two strangers spoke together, and then the redheaded man said something to Randal.

"He wants you to go with him," Lys translated. "I'm supposed to stay here."

"Do I have any choice?" Randal asked.

"No," said Lys. "He's the prince's messenger—you'd better go with him."

Randal followed the redheaded man down another series of corridors to a room filled with books. The messenger stopped, turned to Randal, and spoke a short phrase. Randal guessed that it meant something like "Stay here"; he nodded, bowed, and clasped his hands before him in a gesture of patience. The response appeared to satisfy the messenger. He departed through another door, leaving Randal behind to look around curiously.

One side of the long, narrow room was all windows, opening onto a walled garden. Bookshelves lined the other walls from floor to ceiling. The sight of the rows of books carried Randal back for a moment to his early days at the Schola. The library in Tarnsberg, he remembered with a smile, was the first one I'd ever seen.

If truth be told, in those days he'd barely been able to read. In kingless, unsettled Brecelande, where he'd been born, knowledge of letters had mattered less than skill with a sword. But Randal had given up his future as heir to a northern barony to study the art of magic, and had forsworn the use of knightly weapons forever. Now the fat, leatherbound volumes seemed to call to him from the library walls.

He contented himself, however, with scanning the titles of the ones nearest him. The names intrigued him, and he was debating with himself the wisdom of taking down a book when he heard the sound of the far door opening. The redheaded man beckoned to him from the doorway. Randal left the bookshelves and went past the messenger into the next room.

The door closed behind him. Suddenly, the air was filled with the intense, neck-prickling sensation of powerful magic. Randal felt other, non-material locks slip and barriers slip into place.

Is this a trap? he thought, fighting a surge of panic. But when no immediate dangers rose to menace him, he forced himself to look calmly around the chamber. The books and equipment scattered about only confirm what he had already guessed—he was in the workroom of a master wizard.

The dark, hawk-nosed man waiting at the desk, then, must be the wizard to whom the room belonged. To Randal, he seemed richly enough dressed to be the Prince himself. His long robe was cloth-of-gold, embroidered over with mystic signs in silver and black, and the ankle-length tunic beneath it was made of crimson silk. He waved away the messenger, then gestured at Randal to come forward.

"Come here," he Siad. "I want to look at you."

Randal obeyed. The dark man had spoken in the Old Tongue, the common language of wizards and wizardry. Now ht man placed the tips of his long fingers together and regarded Randal with a penetrating gaze.

"Are you aware," the dark man continued, "that here in Peda all magic is the property of the Prince? And that I am the only wizard whom His Grace sees fit to let practice the Art?" He paused. "And are you aware of the penalties for violating His Grace's will?"

Randal felt cold. Lys never warned me about anything like this, he thought. It wasn't enough that I got myself and Nick thrown into jail back in Widsegard, just for looking like I might be a wizard.

The memory hurt. Nicholas Wariner had been the first friend Randal had made among the apprentices at the Schola, and Nick had died of magic in Widsegard—died while aiding Randal to fight off the attack of an outlaw wizard. If I hadn't asked for help, Nick would be alive today.

For a moment Randal's guilt threatened to overwhelm him, as it had so many times since then, but he forced himself to push it aside. At least the pain of remembering had helped him in one way, by driving out the fear that the Prince's wizard had aroused. "No, Master," he said aloud. "I wasn't aware of the laws in Peda. I only arrived here a day ago."

The master wizard nodded. "You gave your first performance in the market square yesterday evening, and by this morning I had heard the news." He leaned back in his chair, and his voice took on a more kindly tone. "Fortunately, Prince Vespian the Magnificent, the Prince of Peda, gives me much freedom of action in magical matters. Therefore, I ask you—amaze me."

It sounded more like an order than a request. Randal shook his head. "I beg your pardon, Master, but I don't understand."

"Amaze me," the master wizard repeated. "Show me some magic. Let me see your best."

Randal looked at the dark man for a moment without speaking. How am I supposed to amaze a master wizard? he wondered. Finally he gave a sort of mental shrug, and decided that he might as well do an easy color spell. Better something simple that I know will work, he thought, than something complicated that might fail.

He held up his hands a few inches apart, and called up a ball of floating light—not the cold blue flame most wizards used fro reading at night, but a warm yellow glow that shone against his upraised hands, making the long white scar across his right palm stand out in sharp relief.

Randal let the ball of light burn for a moment between his hands, and then set it free to circle around the room. He gave a mental command, and the globe spilt into first tow and then four separate balls of light, each a different color. All four lights began to pulse with an inner rhythm, going bright and dim and bright again, faster and faster. At last they exploded, filling the air with silver sparkles that glittered and vanished before they hit the ground.

When the last sparkling flicker had died away, Randal let his hands fall to his sides, and waited. The master wizard sat looking at him for a long time before he spoke.

"Two questions come to mind," the dark man said. "First— what is a northerner like yourself doing so far away from home? And second—why is a Schola-trained wizard with so much magical power at his disposal wasting his time on trivial games of sound and light?"

The questions cut closer to the bone than Randal liked; he drew a deep breath, and then let it out again slowly before he answered. "There's a master wizard and a powerful lord in Brecelande, both of whom want me dead. That's why I don't go back."

The dark man nodded. "A good reason," he said. "And truthfully spoken, as befits a wizard. But you haven't answered my second question."

Randal looked away, and clenched his fists so hard that his right hand—the one with the scar—began to throb.

"I dealt with powerful magics once," he said. "A good friend died. Sounds and lights may be trivial, as you say . . . but they make people happy and they don't do any harm."

This time the master wizard was silent for so long that Randal began to wonder if he had given offense with his abrupt reply. But when the dark man spoke, Randal heard no anger in his voice, only a certain amount of sympathy.

"Well, then, I am answered—though I suspect there's more to the story than you're telling." The master wizard smiled at Randal for the first time. "So—what should I call you while you're here?"

"My name is Randal," he said. "But why do you say 'while I'm here'?"

"His Grace the Prince gives me leave to dispose of illicit magicians however I choose," said the master wizard. "I do not bother him with the details. In your case, young Randal, I intend to make use of your abilities to ease my own burden."

"For how long," Randal asked

"A few weeks—until Midsummer, at least."

Randal relaxed a little. At least, it didn't look like his visit to Peda was going to include a stay in the local jail, or worse. "What will I have to do?" he asked.

"You've already worked with magical entertainments," said the dark man. "They are, as I said, trivial—but it still takes a certain flair to do them well, and you seem to have the knack."

Once again, the master wizard steepled fingers. "Your presence here at this time is a stroke of good luck for me," he said, "since Prince Vespian is a passionate lover of theatrical entertainments. He finds them a relief from the cares of rulership, and for the most part I'm delighted to help make each performance something to remember. But at the moment, other matters are more pressing."

"I see," said Randal. "So I'm going to be one of the Prince's players whether I like it or not?"

"I'm afraid so, yes," said the dark man. Again, he smiled. "You won't go unrewarded, I promise you. The Prince is generous to those who serve him, and I myself will teach you everything I know about the uses of the magical Art for illusion and disguise. With that knowledge, you can take over for me in the theater while I pursue my other duties."

Randal was silent for a moment. He wasn't quite certain how he should feel about the wizard's offer.

No, not an offer, he corrected himself. I'm not being given a choice . . . . But room and board here in the palace will make a pleasant change from life on the road—and learning new magic is what being a journeyman wizard is all about.

"When do I begin?" he asked.

The master wizard clapped his hands sharply, and the door opened to admit the red-haired messenger whom Randal had followed earlier. The master wizard spoke to the man in Occitanian, and then turned back to Randal.

"This man will show you to your rooms in the east wing," he told the journeyman. "We will begin our studies together tomorrow morning after breakfast. And one more thing—I notice you have some difficulties with the native speech. By morning, you will have found an answer to that particular problem."

Randal was silent for a moment, and then said, "Master . . . "

"Petruchio," said the dark man.

"Master Petruchio," Randal went on, "I would be glad to learn from you whatever you have to teach, and help you however I can—but what about my friend Lys? What happens to her?"

Petruchio smiled again. "The singer? She hasn't violated any laws that I know of, and can come and go as she pleases. But if her singing is as good as I've heard it is, there will surely be a place for her in the Prince's troupe. Go, now, and I will see you in the morning."

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This sample chapter comes from THE PRINCE'S PLAYERS (Circle of Magic #4, Troll Books, 1990) ISBN 0-8167-1833-4 Reprinted 2000 as DANGER IN THE PALACE ISBN 0-8167-6939-7 $2.95
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