From the author: I've always loved stage magic and sleight-of-hand. One day, I found myself wondering how such a performer would work in a world where magic was real, and I wrote a story to find out. "The First Maxim" first appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine.
THE FIRST MAXIM
by Steven Piziks
"You are the Fraud?" the sorceress asked.
Aleksa swallowed her distaste and grandly swirled her scarlet cloak in the torchlight behind her wagon. In the city beyond, the town guard were sounding the horns which warned that the gates would close within the hour.
"Aleksanandra the Fraud at your service, Eminence," she said with a low bow.
The sorceress tapped a long finger on the arm of her chair and it sank gracefully to the grass. "My name is Leore and I want to hire you. What do you charge?"
Aleksa managed by sheer force of will to keep her face stoic. The offer couldn't have come at a better time, but that didn't change who was offering it.
Perform for one of her kind? she thought. It would be like performing for Father. I couldn't. I won't.
Aleksa's stomach chose that moment to growl, reminding her exactly how long it had been since she had last eaten. She sighed to herself.
All right. So do it and get it over with.
"What do I charge, milady?" she said aloud in her grandest performance voice. "Why, that depends." She gestured and a flash of light puffed from her right hand. "The merely difficult will cost but a pittance. While the miraculous--"
A cloud of smoke enveloped her. Aleksa hurriedly snatched off her cloak and turned it inside-out. With practiced ease, she used its hidden buttons and snaps to transform it into a sky-blue gown. She yanked it over her head, dusted the flashpowder from her palms, and ran a quick hand through her dark brown hair a split-second before the smoke cleared.
"The miraculous," Aleksa concluded, "would be a bit more expensive." Try that without your precious magic, sorceress.
Leore's sharp, angular face did not change expression but Aleksa noticed the slight shift in posture as the sorceress leaned almost imperceptibly forward. Her legs and feet, however, did not move in the slightest.
"I'm not looking for the impossible," she said. "I'm looking for a solution to my problem."
Aleksa raised an eyebrow. Solution? I thought she wanted a performance. "Problem, Eminence?"
"The House of Domitien," Leore said in a neutral voice, "has kidnapped my son. Kirill Domitien first demanded money, which I paid. Then he demanded certain books of power. I gave them to him." The sorceress took a large emerald from one pocket and held it up so it glittered green in the torchlight. "Now he wants this. Obviously Kirill Domitien has no intention of returning my son to me, so I want you to get him back."
Aleksa stared. "Me?" she blurted, forgetting stage presence for the moment. "You want me to rescue your son? Eminence, forgive me, but I'm no. . .magician." She curled her lip at the last word. "I'm just a Fraud. Everything I do is a trick. An illusion. And that's the truth."
"Which is exactly why I want you. You can't cast spells." Leore fixed Aleksa with a hard look and her stone-white hair formed an unmoving corona about her head. "Or perhaps I should say," she continued, "you can't cast conventional spells."
Aleksanandra blinked. "What? Eminence, I--"
The sorceress gestured impatiently and her chair rose from the ground until Leore's head was level with Aleksa's.
"When Kirill Domitien kidnapped Royden," Leore growled, "my first reaction was to destroy his House. But he learned somewhere how to weave a barrier around his mansion that stops my every spell. My second reaction was to hire assassins, but Domitien told me he had, for the moment, linked my son's life force to his. So Royden. . .my son--" Leore's voice almost, but not quite, quavered "--my son is still in that damned House."
"Eminence, I still don't see--"
"Don't you?" Leore leaned forward. "There are. . .rumors about you Frauds. You claim every trick is mere sleight-of-hand or misdirection and you challenge your audience to figure out how each is done. But I've heard that Frauds do work magic--a secret magic. One that can't even be detected by sorcery." Her eyes narrowed. "I travelled to Iddan Town last week to see your performance. Impressive. I was positive your tricks were impossible without magic, so I looked at you with Third Sight. Not only could I find no trace of sorcery about you, Aleksanandra, my Sight couldn't even see you." The tension in her voice rose. "No one can hide from Sight without using sorcery. No one. The rumors of Fraud magic would seem to be true."
Aleksa shook her head. For a sorceress, this woman was impossibly dense. And she interrupted. "Eminence, I said very clearly at the beginning of my performance that the Frauds Guild only accepts people who have no magical talent whatsoever." And they destroyed it in those who do. She closed her eyes briefly, remembering the pain. Happy now, Father? It was your fault, after all. "Eminence, I couldn't even begin to--"
"You will help me, Fraud," Leore suddenly hissed. "I don't care what oath of secrecy you might have sworn." She gestured at Aleksa's wagon and the old mule hitched to the front. "Do you think I don't know your position? I had intended to contact you earlier, but the troup you travel with was run out of Iddan Town because a remark you made, Fraud, offended the sensitivities of the baron's wife. The baron confiscated the purse of the entire troup. That hurt, didn't it? They went on to Kharshina, but you parted with the company and came this way--punishment, perhaps? A fortunate stroke for me, certainly." The sorceress narrowed her flinty gray eyes. "Being run out of another town would destroy you. I can arrange for it to happen again. But I won't--if you do as I say."
Aleksa stared at Leore and fought down a growing anger. The bitch. Gods, she was just like Father--has to control everything around her. Her son wasn't what mattered to her. She just couldn't stand the idea that this Kirill Domitien had a hold on her. But she was convinced Aleksa could help her, so she was going to make sure it happened. Aleksa's stomach growled again.
Even though I can't help her in the slightest.
"All right then," Aleksa said aloud, stalling. "What if I do get your son back? What's in it for me?"
Leore leaned back in her chair. "I'll give you five thousand in gold. Or whatever else you desire, if I can grant it."
Aleksa swallowed. That was more money than the entire troup took in over twenty seasons.
"But if you fail," the sorceress went on in a hard-edged voice, "I run you out of town again."
Aleksa clenched a sudden fist. For a moment she was fourteen again, standing before her father.
"You're all the same, aren't you?" she snarled. "Can't ask nicely, can't trust someone to do the job unless you're in control. All right, sorceress, I'll show you magic. Fraud magic. Magic that'll make your watery glamours look like a puddle of mud, that's the truth." She snatched the emerald from Leore's startled hand. "You just wait here. When I'm done, Kirill Domitien will beg you to take your brat back."
Aleksa stormed up the steps into her wagon and slammed the door before the sorceress could react. Fuming, she slapped the emerald on the tiny table inside, then threw herself onto the bench beside it.
The interior of Aleksa's tiny wagon was dark and chilly--she had run out of oil for the heat lamp days ago. She reached for a candle instead and the emerald gleamed dully on the table a moment later. The dim candlelight had a calming affect on her temper and she sighed heavily. A vague prickling nibbled at the base of her skull, but Aleksa ignored it--there was no way Leore's sorcery could spy on her, not without some small spark of inner magic for the spell to latch onto, and Aleksa had none. The Frauds Guild had seen to that.
Stupid, Aleksa, she thought. Really stupid. Peformance Maxim Six: never promise something you can't deliver. And now I've got to do just that.
Aleksa got up and quickly shrugged out of her cloak-turned-gown and the colorful, tight-fitting performance outfit beneath so she could pull on tunic and shoes instead. The prickling, she noticed, had subsided.
Gave up because you can't See me, eh? Aleksa thought. Of course, that only reinforces the misconception that I work some sort of magic. Don't I wish. It must be nice to be a sorceress--just wave your hand and you get whatever you want. Aleksa snorted. Right. Father wasn't able to stop me from running to the Frauds Guild. Even so, this woman waves her hand and expects me to give her what she--
Aleksa stopped in mid-thought. Her eyes flicked back and forth as if she were reading something on the empty air. Then she laughed softly.
Performance Maxim Two: give the audience what they want. She wants magic? I'll give her magic.
Aleksa reached beneath the bed, pulled out a long, low trunk, and opened it. Inside was a formidable collection of jars, bottles, and other paraphenalia.
Flashpowder supply is getting low, she noted absently, rummaging through the glassware. Have to find a bat colony soon. Now where--? Here it is. She came up with a small jar filled with clear oil. Resting on the bottom were three whitish stones about the size of a fingernail. Carefully, Aleksa used a pair of tweezers to pluck one from the jar. She patted the oil away with a handkerchief, then dropped the emerald and the white stone into another jar filled with water. From the trunk she took another small jar, a set of tongs, a pair of thick leather gloves, and the tiny set of tools she used in her escape act. Then she donned a plain gray cloak and took the jar outside.
Leore was staring down at the city, her back to the wagon, but the chair whirled around the moment Aleksa emerged.
"What were you doing in there?" she demanded.
A bit edgy, are we? "I was getting the curse ready, Eminence," Aleksa replied coolly.
Aleksa let herself slip into performance mode. It was easier than fighting another urge to snarl. "And such a curse it will be! A mighty curse to lay the House of Domitien low." She handed Leore the jar and the emerald clunked sluggishly within. "This jar must be in Kirill Domitien's hands in one hour--no more, no less--for in one hour, whoever holds the jar and emerald will be cursed."
Leore held the jar gingerly between two fingers. "How will this free my son?"
"After he gets the emerald, Domitien will contact you, I'm sure," Aleksa said. "When he does, tell him the curse will be lifted when both the emerald and your son are safe in your hands. You should also mention that if your son is harmed in any way, the curse will triple itself nine times."
Leore nodded curtly. "And what--?"
"I wasn't finished, yet, Eminence." Aleksa held out her hand. "I also require nine pieces of silver."
"Nothing is certain," Aleksa replied with an absolutely straight face. "In case the curse rebounds on me, I will need the silver to direct the power away, and as you so helpfully pointed out, Eminence, I have none of my own."
"So you admit to knowing magic."
Performance Maxim One: Hide the truth. "I admit nothing, Eminence."
The sorceress regarded the Fraud for a long moment, then reached into a pouch and handed her the money.
"This had better work, Fraud," Leore growled pointedly. "I sense no magic about this jar or my emerald."
"It is flowing with magic," Aleksa said, pocketing the coins. "Fraud magic. But if you don't believe me, Eminence, you are welcome to try your luck elsewhere. In fact, I would prefer it."
Leore's free hand clenched the arm of her chair. "You insolent, black-mouthed little--" Then she snapped her mouth shut and closed her eyes. A long moment passed before she opened them again. "I suppose I deserved that. I apologize, Fraud."
Aleksa blinked. Father would never have said he was sorry. "Accepted," she said gruffly. "Trust me, Eminence. Your son will be sleeping in his own bed within a week. That's the truth." Aleksanandra drew the hood of her cloak and headed down toward the city.
"Wait!" Leore called. "Where are you going?"
"My business, Eminence." She fingered the coins in her pocket and silently promised her growling stomach it would be satisfied momentarily. "Don't forget--see that Kirill Domitien has the jar in one hour. No more, no less."
Aleksa threaded her way quickly up the dark city streets, fighting fatigue. The good, hot meal she had bought with Leore's silver--her first real food in almost five days--was making her sleepy.
You can sleep all you like once your work is done, she told herself sternly. The barkeep said Domitien's house is only two blocks west of the merchant quarter, and that isn't far, so keep moving.
At this late hour few people were up and about, but she kept a hand close to her knife just in case. Tools clicked faintly against the jar in her belt pouch as Aleksa moved, so she reached inside and pulled the offending object out. The jar was full of shiny red-green leaves Aleksa had harvested with careful use of gloves and tongs in a patch of woods outside the city. The gloves she had cautiously turned inside-out as she removed them. They were currently tucked into her belt.
Aleksa wrapped the jar in her handkerchief to keep it from clinking and put it back into the pouch. Then she drew her cloak against the damp, chilly darkness and hurried down the cobblestoned street, trying not to shiver. The empty sound of her footsteps and her encounter with Leore were bringing back unpleasant memories, memories of the night she had slipped out of her father's tower in Kharshina and gone to the Frauds Guild. They had burned away her magic and taught her, among other things, some of the alchemy she craved. She hadn't heard from her father in six years.
And good riddance, she thought, and walked faster. I never want to see him again and he apparently hasn't bothered to track me down. He obviously never cared enough. "Someone with your power must study magic, Aleksa. This alchemy drivel is nonsense! I know what's best. You have to trust me." To hell with him. I--
Aleksa halted, suddenly realizing she had reached the merchant quarter. She took a moment to get her bearings, then turned west. Two blocks later she found herself outside a sprawling, three-story mansion surrounded by a high stone wall broken by a single, heavily barred gate. A slight shimmering distorted the air above the wall--the protection spell, Aleksa decided--while inside the yard, two man-sized figures marched stiffly past the front door. They followed the side of the house with a perfectly even pace and vanished around the corner.
Golem guards, Aleksa thought. Good.
With a quick glance up and down the street to be sure no one was watching, she scaled the gate with the agility of an escape artist and dropped lightly to the ground in the yard beyond. Hugging the shadows, she slipped closer to the house.
The moment she reached the mansion wall, the golems, armed with wicked-looking swords as tall as Aleksa, rounded the corner and headed directly for her. Rather than try to hide, however, Aleksa leaned casually against the house. The golems ignored her completely and continued on their way.
It was the power of being a Fraud. No spark of magic in her, so magical creatures couldn't see her. It was good for avoiding magical alarms, too. A normal person would have tripped half a dozen by now, she was sure.
She grinned to herself. Not something the Guild wants made public, though--it's the sort of thing that makes magicians nervous. I wonder what Father would think of it?
The front of the house was dark and it faced south, so Aleksa followed the golems around the corner. One first-floor window glowed with a warm yellow light. Aleksa waited for the guards to move out of the way and stole close enough to peer inside. What she saw made her smile with satisfaction. A thin, hawkish man was sitting at a smooth brown table in some kind of library. Leore's emerald was in his hand and the man was staring at it with a hard line of concentration gouged between his eyes. Nearby on the table lay the jar, though the water had been poured out.
Been up all night looking for the curse, have we? Aleksa thought with amusement. Search all you like--you're looking in the wrong place. She wished she could have been there to see when the water ate through the protective coating and the small waterfire stone in the jar burst into blue-white flame.
And Father thinks alchemy is nonsense. It certainly fooled Domitien. But now that I know you're still up, Master Sorcerer, let's see if we can find your bedroom. If you're anything like other magicians, your workroom faces south for the extra power and your bedroom faces north for the protection.
Aleksa padded around another corner to the northern side of the mansion. Though it was early autumn, lilacs scented the air and a small stream rippled merrily among perfect shrubs. An ornate balcony on the second floor trailed a beard of ivy to the ground. Aleksa snorted.
Don't expect many thieves, do you? Stupid, just like all magicians. Puts all his faith in magic and can't see that sometimes you need the mundane world. I'd never get past an alert human sentry.
Aleksa put out a hand to climb the vines, then drew back with a sharp hiss of fear. A dozen mouths full of glittering teeth gaped among the leaves.
All right, maybe he's not so stupid.
Experimentally, she poked at one of the mouths with a stick. No reaction. She tried again, this time with a lightning-fast finger. Nothing. Aleksa sighed with relief.
Bred by magic. Can't see me.
She scrambled up the ivy using the thick vines for handholds and eased quietly onto the balcony, where a pair of closed glass doors lead into a darkened room. Alexa unsuccessfully turned the knob, then reached into her tool pouch and came up with two flat bits of metal. Strange. Usually she picked locks to get out, not in.
The door opened noiselessly and Aleksa stepped onto a thick carpet. In the dim light she could see a large canopied bed flanked by a pair of iron braziers. The letters "KD" had been carved into the headboard and inlaid with silver. Silk sheets and blankets were turned back, ready for someone to sink into the inviting softness. Two overstuffed armchairs stood in a corner and the walls were lined with bookcases. The room had an oddly leather-like smell.
Aleksa thought about the hard bed in her chilly wagon and sighed. Then she snorted. Regrets? All this could have been yours--if you had been Father's obedient little girl. She ran a supple hand over the sleek bedding and came up with a flower petal. Roses in his bed? Better and better.
The Fraud simultaneously turned her leather gloves right side out while putting them on, then opened the jar from her pouch.
"Leaves of three, leave them be," she thought, and rubbed them liberally over the exposed sheets and pillow cases. She scattered a few leaves among the rose petals, then put the jar away and removed her gloves. Let's see what other mischief I can get into.
An open door took her into what seemed to be a sitting room. Thin moonlight from the window streamed over chaise lounges, armchairs, and marble endtables strewn artisitcally about the room among valuable-looking sculptures. In the corner, a seven-foot-tall statue armed with a thick-bladed sword stood next to a set of black iron bars. Aleksa gasped when she realized it wasn't a work of art but a cage guarded by another golem. She slipped closer for a better look. The golem ignored her.
In the cage on a dirty straw tick huddled a boy with white-blond hair and angular features. He couldn't have been more than ten years old, though the resemblance to Leore was unmistakable.
Royden, Aleksa thought. But. . .he's so young. Not even an adolescent. And these magicians use him as a pawn in their games? For a moment she considered picking the lock on his cage and getting him out then and there, but eventually discarded the idea. The golem can't see me, but it can see him. Maybe--
The rattling of a doorknob brought a rush of fear to Aleksa's stomach. Reflexively she dove beneath the dust ruffle of a chaise lounge and tried to stop breathing as Kirill Domitien entered the room, clutching Leore's emerald. A ball of orange light hovered obsequiously over his head and he was snarling under his breath.
The hawk-faced sorcerer crossed the room to the cage--the golem obligingly moved out of the way--and banged the emerald on the bars.
"Wake up, boy," he barked. "I've got news for you."
Royden stirred and sat up. He stared defiantly at Kirill but Aleksa noticed the slight quaver in his voice when he spoke.
"I'm hungry," he said. "And thirsty. My mother--"
"Your mother is a traitorous bitch," Kirill snapped. He brandished the emerald. "I don't know how she did it, but there's some kind of magic on this gem--it flashed just as I opened the jar it came in. She's sealed your death sentence, boy, just as soon as I figure out what she did. Sleep on that, if you can." And he stomped into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. The orange light went out.
Royden's defiance vanished the moment the door was closed. He slumped back to straw and wrapped his hands around his knees, trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears.
A sudden sympathy flooded Aleksa. He was just like she used to be--caged by an uncaring magician. There hadn't been any bars on her cell, but it had been just as real. She crept from her hiding place and sidled up to the cage. The golem stared emptily at nothing.
"Hey," she whispered. "Hey, Royden--you're going to be all right."
Royden jerked his head up and looked at her with startled green eyes. "What? Who are you?"
"My name is Aleksa. Your mother hired me to get you out of here."
"You mean we're leaving?" he asked with a rising note of hope.
Aleksa shook her head. "Not yet. I couldn't get you past the golems. Now listen carefully, Royden--this is very important. If it looks like Kirill is going to. . .going to hurt you, tell him your mother's curse will triple itself nine times. Understand?"
"I can't explain now. Just tell him, all right? And don't worry--you'll be home soon." She reached through the bars to put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and realized he was shaking. "You've been really brave. Just hold on a little longer."
She started to move away, but he gripped the bars on his cage.
"Wait! Don't leave me!"
Aleksa glanced nervously at the bedroom door. "I have to," she whispered. "It won't be long. That's the truth." And she darted out the door Kirill had entered through before he could protest further.
It was still too early for servants to be up and about, and Aleksa found her way out of the mansion without incident. She strolled past the outdoor golems with a jaunty wave and vanished over the gate.
It was late next morning and Kirill Domitien's image stared coldly across Leore's sitting room.
"If you think the curse is bad now," the sorceress was saying, "just try harming my son. If he is injured or killed, the curse will triple itself, then triple again and again until it has done so nine times."
Kirill's hawkish face turned a brighter red and Aleksa, hidden behind some curtains, noticed with satisfaction the swollen, pus-infected welts that covered his skin. He also looked like he desperately wanted to scratch someplace very private.
I'll bet he does, she smirked. Nasty stuff, poison ivy. And I have yet to have seen a magician that can cure it.
"This is impossible," Kirill spluttered. "No magic can penetrate my barrier. None!"
"If you say so, Kirill." Leore leaned forward in her floating chair. "But I guarantee things will get steadily worse until you return my son--and the emerald. Talk to me again when you're ready to let Royden go."
Kirill snarled and raised his hand. "You--"
Leore blew at Kirill's image and it popped like a soap bubble. Then the sorceress collapsed into her chair and put her head back with a heavy sigh. A fraction of a second later, she apparently remembered she wasn't alone and straightened. The chair spun to face Aleksa, who emerged from the curtains.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Fraud," she growled. "He threatened to kill Royden."
"Don't worry, Eminence," Aleksa replied. "He won't."
"I don't even know for certain if he's alive," Leore muttered, as if to herself. "What if he's already dead?"
"No, Eminence. Royden is--"
Aleksa cut herself off. She had intended to say she had seen him, but that would reveal that she had been in the Domitien mansion, something she didn't want to explain to Leore. And something about the sorceress made Aleksa hesitate. She shot a glance at the other woman's face.
You pride yourself on being able to read body language, Fraud, she thought. So look at her.
Aleksa did and suddenly realized Leore's expression was hard and immobile, but it was only a mask. Her eyes were open just a little too wide and she licked her lips just a bit too often. Leore's right hand was calm and motionless, but her left clenched at the arm of her chair in a spasmodic rhythm.
She isn't angry, Aleksa thought. She's scared almost out of her mind. Royden must mean a lot to her. An unexpected surge of envy for the boy swept over Aleksa. I'll bet Father didn't go through all this to find me when I disappeared. But then another voice spoke up inside her. And how would you know? His spells wouldn't be able to track you. If he went to the Guild, they certainly wouldn't say anything.
An image of her father ordering (begging?) the impassive Guildmaster in Kharshina to tell him of her whereabouts popped into Aleksa's mind. She tried to dismiss it as ridiculous, but it wouldn't go.
"Royden is what?" Leore asked sharply.
"Alive, Eminence," Aleksa answered. On impulse she reached out and took Leore's thin hand in her own. "He has to be, or my curse wouldn't work. Please don't worry, Eminence. I know you're frightened, but my magic will free your son. That's the truth."
Leore burst into an almost hysterical laughter and snatched her hand away. "What would a Fraud know about the truth?" she mocked, and Aleska stiffened. "I'm not frightened. I'm angry."
"Perhaps, Eminence," Aleksa replied coldly. "But when your son comes home, he'll need a feeling, understanding mother, not the woman in that chair."
Aleksa turned her back and strode out of Leore's house.
The next three days were busy ones. Aleksa moved her wagon to an inn courtyard within the city and spent the daylight hours in bed. Evenings were filled with sleight-of-hand performances that bought food for her and the mule while nights found Aleksa in the Domitien mansion wreaking further havok. The sugar supply got tainted with salt. Vinegar found its way into the wine casks. Priceless tapestries unraveled themselves. Sculptures were found with nicks and scratches. The firewood was wet. Soap got into the beer mugs. Mysteriously dull knives slipped and cut the hand of the cook, who quit before the curse could strike again. Most of the other servants left with her. Aleksa, giving a street performance nearby, watched them leave and hid a smile behind her hand.
"Am I going home tonight?" Royden whispered hopefully for the fourth night in a row. The golem, as always, acted as if Aleksa didn't exist.
Aleksa handed Royden the stuffed rolls she had brought and he tore into them eagerly. "I don't know, Roy," she replied. "Maybe tomorrow."
Royden paused in his eating. "You always say that, and it hasn't happened. I don't think I believe you anymore."
"I know what's best, Royden," Aleksa told him. "You have to trust--" She stopped. That's what Father always used to say.
"Yeah, I'll bet." Royden bit into a roll and chewed furiously. "That's why I haven't gone home yet, right?"
Aleksa bit her lip. The boy was partly right--she hadn't expected Kirill to hold out this long. She felt a sudden urge to tell Royden that there was no curse, that it was all a trick.
Why? she thought sharply. So he can help or because you want someone to confide in? Performance Maxim One: Hide the truth. He doesn't need to know.
"Just. . .just trust me, all right, Royden?" she pleaded. "I have to go. You'll go home soon. That's the--"
"Liar!" Royden hissed. "You're just like Kirill Domitien--always saying I'll go home, always telling me what to do, saying that you know best. You promised you'd get me out and you haven't done it. You don't care about me at all. I hate you, Aleksa!"
"Aleksanandra, someone with your power can't go untrained. I know what's best. You have to trust me."
"You always tell me what to do," Aleksa snarled. "You always say you know best, but you're lying. You don't care about me. I hate you, Father! I hate you! That's the truth!"
Aleksa fled the mansion without a word. On her way out, she smashed a pot of oil over one of the guard golems and set it on fire.
Kirill Domitien's image looked like a scarecrow after a bad storm. His rumpled, dirty clothes hung poorly on him and his haunted, bloodshot eyes stared from a pasty face still covered with welts. Aleksa, once again behind the curtains, did not fail to notice the soot on his hands. Golem soot.
Aleksa thought she should have felt some kind of satisfaction, but words continued echoing through her head.
You don't care about me. I hate you, Father!
That's the truth.
What would a Fraud know about the truth?
Performance Maxim One, Aleksa thought. Hide the truth. Does that include from yourself, Fraud?
"You win, Leore," Kirill said hoarsely. "I don't know how you did it, but my servants are gone, I haven't had a decent meal in days, my wine is sour, and these damned welts won't go away. I've sent a golem to your house with Royden and the emerald. Lift your curse!"
"You've lied before, Kirill," Leore growled, and Aleksa flinched. "I'll wait until I see Royden with my own eyes."
Kirill's image pursed its swollen lips and vanished.
"You see, Eminence?" Aleksa said, emerging from the curtains. "I told you not to worry."
Leore's chair turned to her and Aleksa could see her struggle not to let the anticipation show. "I hope so, Fraud. I hope so." Then she looked away, as if gathering courage to speak further.
"I. . .I've been considering what you said about Royden needing a--a caring mother," she said finally. "It's not easy, you know, being both sorceress and mother, especially because my husband died when Royden was just a baby. And then there was the accident." She gestured at her motionless legs. "Magic is so demanding and there are some things you simply can't drop at a moment's notice, even for your own child. I distanced myself from Royden on purpose so he would grow up independent in case something happened to me. You've convinced me that was. . .a mistake. With my husband dead, he's all I have left."
Aleksa swallowed. Is this how Father felt about me? "Eminence, I--"
The door banged open and Royden burst into the room. "Mother!" He flung himself across the room and into Leore's lap. The chair bobbed beneath them. "Mother! He let me go!"
Leore's face dropped into its customary mask of immobility and she automatically started to push the boy away. Then she glanced at Aleksa. There was a brief pause as their eyes met and Leore's mask shattered into a joyful smile.
"Royden!" she exclaimed. And she held her son close.
Aleksa looked away uncomfortably and saw the golem that had guarded Royden's cage standing in the open doorway. It was holding the emerald. Aleksa took the gem from its unresisting hand and held it up.
"Eminence," she called. "Your emerald?"
"Keep it," Leore replied expansively. "It's worth more than the sum we agreed upon." She hugged Royden again. "But so is my son."
"Did she rescue me, Mother?" Royden asked.
"She did. Her magic got you out when mine couldn't."
Royden nodded, then looked at the Fraud. "I'm sorry about what I said, Aleksa," he told her. "Before you left, I mean. I was lying."
Aleksa closed her eyes. "That's all right, Royden. I'm sorry, too." Would Father and I have the same conversation? she wondered. Maybe. . .maybe it's time to find out. Find out the truth.
"What do you mean you're sorry?" Leore asked sharply. "Have you two met?"
"Fraud magic, Eminence," Aleksa replied with a wink to Royden. "Fraud magic."
Leore looked at Aleksa suspiciously, then apparently decided to let the matter rest and gave Royden another hug instead. After a moment, she noticed the golem. "What are you waiting around for?" she said. "Go on--go home!"
Not a bad piece of advice, Fraud, Aleksa mused as the golem lumbered out the door. Not bad at all. That's the truth. And a weight she hadn't even known she was carrying simply vanished.
Aleksa said good-bye to Leore and Royden, who thanked her almost to the point of embarrassment, then left the mansion with the emerald in her pouch and headed back to the inn to hitch up her wagon. The mule looked at her reproachfully as she put it into harness. Aleksa laughed.
"Gotten lazy these past days, have you?" she said, scratching behinds its ears. "Sorry. We've got business in Kharshina." She paused thoughtfully. "I think it's time for a Fraud to uncover the truth."