AS HIGH LORD, Tancorix Reagalos had many duties he hated. Attending the annual meeting of the leaders of the Five Cities of Rystal Lake ranked high on the list, it being only marginally less objectionable than dealing with his fellow leaders individually. The carriage ride back from this year’s event had given him time to reflect on yet another excruciating conference, which, considering the disastrous leeway he had been forced to consent to on behalf of his city of Katraman, was not a pleasant experience.
Tancorix could usually rely on the rolling scenery to distract him on such journeys. But as his carriage raced alongside its banks, the shimmering waters of the lake only annoyed him further as he remembered the debate he’d lost on fishing quotas. And even the view of the Splander Mountains far to the north couldn’t ease his mind, no matter how vivid the lightning that lit up the distant sky. The plains could not give way to the urban sprawl of his city soon enough. At least that way he wouldn’t have to dwell on the grain agreement he had been forced into signing.
Stepping down from the carriage as it arrived back at Reagalos Manor, Tancorix noticed his wife heading toward him at such a pace that her long hair and robes streamed behind her.
“Librava wishes to speak to you. He says it’s of great importance,” Isabelle said. “He’s waiting in your office.”
It wasn’t the greeting he’d wanted, given his current mood. The archivist was not known to travel, so his presence at the manor did not bode well. Without stopping to change out of his traveling clothes, Tancorix headed straight for his office. There waiting for him was the shabby figure of Prasutagus Librava, Archivist to the Five Cities of Rystal Lake, carrying a number of scrolls under one arm. There was a sheen of sweat across his brow, and he was pulling nervously at his high collar.
“This had better be good, Librava. I am a busy man with a very short temper today,” said Tancorix as he entered his office.
“Believe me, my lord, what I have to tell you could have potentially damaging repercussions for your family.”
One by one Librava placed four scrolls on the desk in front of Tancorix. “These materialized in my office yesterday. On cursory inspection, it seems that the paper has been magically treated to appear at a time when the conditions of the contract written had been met.”
Tancorix picked up one of the scrolls and unwound it. “This has to be some kind of a hoax.”
“If I may explain, sire. One of your ancestors, a Romanus Reagalos—” Librava paused as Tancorix groaned at the name. “—signed a number of these contracts. All of them with the same conditions attached.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”
“Indeed, sire.” Librava picked up one of the remaining scrolls, checked the details written on it, and handed it to Tancorix. “This one is the worst of the four.”
A few very tense seconds later and the quiet of the office was broken by Tancorix’s roar of anger. Seething, he ordered Librava to arrange a meeting with the Hadrals, the rulers of Xenetra, immediately.
POLITICS aside, Tancorix doubted he would ever like Lady Urla Hadral. Her unfriendly smile spoke volumes; she was clearly delighted at the new turn of events. Librava had been right in his assumption that the Hadrals would have also received a copy of the contract, and the glint of malice in Urla’s eyes warned Tancorix that little could be achieved by means of negotiation.
“It was, of course, quite a shock to find out how shoddily a member of our family was treated by the Reagalos,” said Urla. “And just as shocking to see how long reparation has taken.”
Tancorix watched the contempt spread across his wife’s face. “I am sure you are shaken to the core,” said Isabelle.
“Terribly so,” replied Urla. “But I believe that compliance with the terms of the contract will go some way to restore my usual balanced demeanor.”
Librava’s face morphed into a picture of concern, and Tancorix thought he was mentally cataloguing the valuable documents and books in his office that could get damaged if things were allowed to get out of hand.
“I’m sure both parties were equally overwhelmed by the nature of what has come to light,” said Librava diplomatically. “But we must find a way of moving forward that is agreeable to all involved.”
“I have read the contract,” said Bartemus Hadral, “and as far as I am concerned, I expect the High Lord to honor the conditions.”
Tancorix snorted. “You will live to be disappointed.”
“In the short time I’ve had the contract, I’ve managed to conduct some research,” continued Bartemus, ignoring Tancorix’s grunts of discontent. “It is not only the scroll that is magical, but Liam Hadral also arranged for the contract itself to be governed magically. You will find that the element of choice has been removed, so Lornyc, the unfortunate boy that he is, will have no option but to serve my son, Methian, who is the youngest Hadral.”
Only his wife’s hand on his arm had kept Tancorix in his chair. “Don’t be preposterous!”
Bartemus pressed on. “From what I’ve read so far, the traditional servant markings will appear within forty-eight hours of the contract materializing.”
“It’s all in the bylaws, Tancorix,” said Bartemus, his tone containing none of the smugness of his wife’s. “I’m sure Librava can provide you with a copy.”
“But you surely can’t approve of this,” said Isabelle, looking directly at Urla. “You were just as vocal in the condemnation of Lornyc and Methian’s involvement when they were at College. You can’t possibly want Lornyc to be given to your son as a servant—past mistakes can easily be repeated.”
Urla stared back impassively. “But this time Lornyc will be Methian’s manservant, not his equal. And believe me, my son cares far too much for his reputation to risk an improper relationship with a member of staff.”
“Your son’s reputation,” said Isabelle, “is the reason I didn’t want Lornyc anywhere near him.”
The atmosphere in the office chilled as the two women glared at each other. Librava rustled the papers on his desk. “I am afraid, Lord Reagalos, that in regards to the bylaws, Lord Hadral is indeed correct.”
“This is ridiculous,” said Tancorix, his pale cheeks flushed red in anger. “Give me a copy of those bylaws—now!”
Librava thrust the papers at Tancorix, his hands shaking slightly. “I have highlighted the pertinent paragraphs.”
Fuming, Tancorix waded through the legal jargon. The more he read, the worse the situation became. “I suppose there’s little more I can do but concede defeat. But be warned, Hadral. Should anything happen to Lornyc while he is in service to Methian, neither you nor your son will live long enough to regret it.”
THE green light from the reaction chamber flashed across the surface of Lornyc Reagalos’s tinted goggles. A heat-resistant gauntlet wiped away the sweat on the young man’s brow and moved a number of the wayward strands of long black hair. A loud crackle filled the laboratory, making the glassware on the bench rattle. Lornyc leaned in closer to a glass column. The liquid inside shimmered with a lustrous green glow, and he jotted down a few careful notes into a ledger.
A plume of acrid smoke poured out from the top of the column, and a high-pitched whine marked the death of his experiment. Swearing profusely, Lornyc ripped the goggles from his head and threw them onto the bench along with the gauntlets, waving away the smoke as he switched off his equipment.
“Not again!” he said in annoyance to himself.
Lornyc pulled his hair out of its tie, ran his fingers through it, and then scraped it back into the ponytail. Staring around at the wreck of his research, he removed the apron he was wearing and shook his head at the waste of time and effort. It was no good. There was nothing he could salvage from the experiment.
He dumped the soiled glassware on the end of the bench for the technician to deal with and stalked out of the lab. There was no point restarting. His concentration was shot, and he was likely to make more mistakes than add anything of value to his work.
Lornyc left the Paradimensional Department behind him as he made his way through the corridors of the College heading toward the basement. He ducked into an alcove as he spotted his supervisor, Dr. Zimieon, talking to a short woman with red hair who he recognized as his friend Tris. Not wanting to discuss another round of failures, he waited for them to move along, checking the corridor before he left the alcove.
Originally the basement had been well lit and easy to navigate, but a few missing light bulbs and a number of irreparable light fittings later, Lornyc had the environment more to his liking.
In a darkened corner, beside a rack of spare parts for machines long scrapped, was a large black curtain. He walked over to it and pulled the heavy cloth back to reveal a gray rectangle about the size of a standard doorway. Next to it, in a chrome-plated bracket, sat a ball. It was small enough to have been held easily in one hand, and was a cerulean color flecked with gold. When he pressed his hand to the surface of the orb, it began to glow, and with a gentle push, it began to spin in its bracket.
Accompanied by a low hiss, the gray rectangle came to life with a series of waves and swirls appearing across its surface. Lornyc cast a final glance over his shoulder and stepped into the portal.
Stepping out into a tastefully decorated but obviously seldom-used room, Lornyc called out, “Are you here?”
A muffled reply came from what Lornyc knew to be his lover’s bedroom. With a decidedly wicked grin, Lornyc advanced toward the bedroom door, stripping off his tunic as he did so. “I thought,” he said to a figure reclining on the large bed, “I’d put in another long night in the lab—that’s if you’ve not got anything better to do.”
The sandy-haired man grinned and bounced to the end of the bed, holding out his arms in invitation. “You know I’m always willing to help with your studies.”
Lornyc laughed as he walked forward. “Your dedication, Methian, is touching.”
Methian’s strong arms wrapped around him, and the kiss they shared chased away his worries from the lab. Lornyc yelped in a most undignified manner as Methian pulled him forward onto the bed, but any further complaint was lost as he let his lover distract him fully.