A conversation between mages


Because I hit my goal today, and I’m 3/4 through the first draft of Three Dog Dreaming:

Dozha is sitting on the overhang of the roof, legs swinging gently. In the false-day he should be easy to see, but he is blurry, wavery as a daydream. He pushes off from the ledge with his arm and lands in a neat cat crouch before he stands to grin at me. “You’re looking less pathetic these days,” he says as he becomes clearer. “Sektet Am.”

I shrug. “So you know my name. Does the Underpalace also employ a network of spies?”

He laughs brightly, the sound clear in the flame-lit night. “The Underpalace is the network of spies. So far you’ve pretended – rather badly – to be a beggar musician and one-time soldier, rented an attic room from a widow who sometimes feels she ought to have designs on you, but then changes her mind because she thinks you may be mad. You have played songs never sung in the upper world of Pal-em-Rasha before, as if they were nothing more than ballads and lullabies, spoken as a prophet, and burned down a temple.” He looks to the horizon. “And possibly a good quarter of the city. My people were perhaps a little too enthusiastic about that commission.”

“Your people.”

“Come, Am. You knew that.” He leans against the wall, and crosses his left arm over his chest. He grips the upper part of his remaining right arm, and watches me. It is the first time I have looked clearly upon him, studied his features. He is handsome, I already knew that. His eyebrows are ink sweeps, his nose long and straight. In a city like this, he is a little dark for the fashion. People here try to emulate the White Prince, and women sell creams guaranteed to lighten the skin. But he is his own prince, and he has kept his own face. “You went to all the trouble of contacting me through – Laketri, so, what do you want of me?”

“How do you know her?”

“Is that what you called me for?”

I shake my head. “Of course not.” I put my hand to my belt, then hesitate. “How much would it cost for you to steal a small stone, no bigger than a beetle, from the princess Kani?”

Dozha’s face doesn’t change. “You are not the first to have asked me to steal that,” he says after a while. “And now as then, I can only say I cannot.”

“Can not – or will not? Shoom says that you wouldn’t because she’s too well-warded.” I look into his eyes, so dark that they reflect the far-away light from the fires, like black pools of water. “But you have power equal to hers, of that I’m sure. I know magic, even if Shoom does not.”

“Equal?” He raises one brow. “Is that all?”

Mages and flattery, they go together like dragons and spite. “From what little I’ve seen, maybe greater.” I shake my head. “Certainly, you are powerful, and you know the way in and out of the palace. You are a prince of thieves. One little false-princess should be no match for you.”

“How do you know she’s false?”

“Because I am not an idiot.”

He laughs once. “And you think the White Prince is?”

“Not at all.” I step closer to him, close enough to smell his skin, heady as the incense that burned in the city today, the faintest whisper of musk perfume. Under that, the fragile chalk smell of seven-petal. So the boy is an addict and a dandy. I lean my face close enough that I could tear his ear off with my teeth, or whisper lover’s secrets. “I think the Princess Kani is playing a dangerous game, but that is not my problem,” I whisper, and he shivers and pulls a little away. Not as much as I would have expected. “All I want is my soul back.”

Dozha presses his cheek to mine, and when he answers I feel the coolness of his breath like a mountain breeze against my face. “I will see what I can do.” He steps back from me, our momentary intimacy broken.

“How much will I owe you?” I am hopeful for perhaps the first time since the White Prince had me incarcerated. Even if getting my soul back means all the gods will find me, at least I will not die soulless, condemned to the black eternity of nothing.

“Oh, nothing, Master Am.” Dozha raises one hand, and shows me the full leather pouch of fives and precious stones I brought with me. “You have already paid.”

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