The Council Chamber was two miles below the desolate wastelands surrounding Mountaintop, hidden from all prying eyes and accessible only through the most powerful magics. Generations of Councillors, even in the glory days of the Empire, had layered spells over the chamber, ensuring that no one could enter, save without the permission of one of their fellows. It was the most secure location in the world.
Aurelius, Administrator of Mountaintop, stepped into the chamber and looked around, his gaze passing over the fourteen men and women who made up the Council. Collectively, they were the most powerful group of magicians in the world, certainly in political terms. A Necromancer or a Lone Power might have access to more raw magic, but the former would lack the skill and the latter the inclination to turn it into political power. And even the greatest Lone Power could not stand against the united Council.
He took his seat at the stone table, etched with runes to discourage hostility and looked up at the map drawn on one wall. A good third of the continent was shaded black, representing territories dominated by Necromancers and lost to the Allied Lands. The remainder were divided into political and magical sections, the kingdoms ruled by monarchs and the cities ruled by local councils and the Great Houses. It was a chilling reminder, he knew, that the Necromancers were slowly winning the war. The average peasant in the fields, even the monarchs on their thrones, could forget, but the magicians never could. They were slowly losing the war against the Necromancers.
Or they had been losing, he reminded himself. Two years ago, something had changed. A new factor had entered the war. And two Necromancers had died at the hands of a single magician. Despite himself, despite the clawing fear that had gnawed at his heart since he’d been brought into the Council, Aurelius had taken heart. The opportunity in front of them could not be ignored any longer.
“The MageMaster is dying,” he said, without preamble. “He has turned most of his official duties over to me.”
“But not the oaths,” Cloak observed. His tone was lightly mocking. “You’re practically a free agent.”
Aurelius kept his face impassive with the ease of long practice. The Councillors were supposed to keep their identities secret, but few secrets lasted long when powerful sorcerers were probing, searching for answers. He knew the identities of thirteen of the fourteen other Councillors – Masters of Great Houses, Guild Leaders – yet it galled him that he had never been able to uncover Cloak’s true identity. Someone so powerful – and power was a given for anyone capable of reaching the chamber – should not be able to remain unidentified.
And yet Cloak was anonymous.
Even his appearance was bland, an illusion of mundane normality that hid his true features under a glamour. It would be rude, Aurelius knew, to try to see through the disguise, yet he had tried more than once. And he had always failed. Cloak was very practiced at keeping his identity to himself.
He looked at the others, putting Cloak out of his mind. “We have an opportunity to bring the Child of Destiny to Mountaintop,” he said. “She would be under our tutelage.”
“It would be risky,” Master Ashworth commented. “Particularly after the events of last year.”
“But necessary,” Master Ashfall snapped. “The Lady Emily is the greatest force for change – for hope – that we have seen since the Fall of the Empire. We need to shape her, to steer her towards our thinking, particularly now she is a Baroness of Zangaria. Mundane power must not be allowed to go to her head.”
“Power has gone to yours,” Master Ashworth said. “Do you not understand the dangers of provoking a confrontation with Whitehall – or Void?”
Aurelius smiled to himself as the two magicians bickered. No one quite knew why House Ashworth had fragmented, allowing some of their number to form House Ashfall, but the two Great Houses had been at daggers drawn ever since. Cooler heads had not been able to dampen the hatred that flared whenever the two families met. Indeed, House Ashworth had sent its children to Whitehall while House Ashfall had sent its children to Mountaintop, just to prevent them from continuing the feud in supposedly neutral territory. And what one Master supported, the other would oppose on principle.
He cleared his throat, catching their attention. “We would not be threatening her life,” he said. “To threaten her life would trifle with destiny itself.”
Cloak snorted. “And do you believe in destiny?”
“I do not disbelieve,” Aurelius said, coolly. “The Lady Emily has killed two Necromancers in single combat. She has turned the Kingdom of Zangaria on its head. The changes caused by her mere presence have rippled out, producing unintended consequences and side effects. But what else does a Child of Destiny do?”
“They upset the balance of power,” Master Zane said. The ancient magician leaned forward, one hand resting on the table. Unlike the others, he wore no glamour, only his lined and wizened face. “We should kill her now.”
Master Ashworth slammed one hand against the table. “Are you mad?”
“There are risks in keeping her alive,” Master Ashfall noted, smoothly.
Aurelius pointed to the map. “Two years ago, we knew we were losing the war,” he said, flatly. “And then the Necromancer Shadye died at Whitehall.”
He knew they understood. They might have their differences with the Grandmaster of Whitehall – and his faction in the White City – but they knew that Whitehall should have been able to remain secure indefinitely. And then Shadye had burst into the school, smashing that old certainty beyond repair. If he hadn’t been killed shortly afterwards, Aurelius knew, the gateway to the Allied Lands would have lain open and Shadye’s army of monsters would have laid the land waste.
“A Child of Destiny must tip the balance against the Necromancers,” he said, quietly. “She would not need to exist if destiny intended them to win.”
“True,” Master Toadstool agreed.
“But what does it profit us,” Master Zane asked, “if she destroys our stability too?”
“Then we teach her how we think,” Aurelius said. “And why we have to be the way we are.”
“A seduction,” Cloak observed. “Or are you planning a conquest?”
“No,” Master Ashworth snapped. Magic crackled around his eyes, shimmers of power that tingled through the room before slowly fading away into the wards. “My daughter is of the same age. I will not have that tradition resurrected, not now.”
Aurelius nodded. “I do not believe that would end well,” he said, lightly. “We wish to show her how we live, not push her into a stand against us. We will not hold her for long against her will. If worst comes to worst, we will graciously allow her to leave, armed with knowledge she can use against the Necromancers.”
“You assume she will remain focused on them,” Master Zane observed. “But as a Baroness of Zangaria she would have more … mundane interests.”
“My spy reported that she had little interest in her new responsibilities,” Aurelius said. “We may well be able to convince her to abandon them.”
“Which would cause problems in Zangaria,” Master Ashworth said.
“Which would be none of our concern,” Master Ashfall countered. “I believe the Compact is still in force, is it not?”
“For the nonce,” Aurelius said.
“But we are talking about breaking it,” Master Zane pointed out. “If we succeed she will join us, thus forsaking Zangaria.”
“That is why we have to act now,” Aurelius said. “Before she becomes too involved with mundane interests.”
He looked around the chamber. “It is time to vote,” he said. They had debated the plan endlessly, ever since Shadye’s death. But it hadn’t been until the MageMaster weakened badly enough to pass his duties to Aurelius – and control of the wards running through Mountaintop – that it had become practical. “Do we vote aye or nay?”
Cloak’s illusion never wavered, but there was a definite hint of amusement in his tone. “I believe we are forgetting one tiny detail,” he said. “A Lone Power. How … careless a thing to forget.”
“Void .. will have other issues to keep his attention,” Aurelius said, stiffly. “But I do not believe he would object, provided she was not harmed. And she will not be harmed. Merely … re-educated.”
One by one, they voted.
Aurelius smiled to himself as the votes were tallied. All of them, even Masters Ashworth and Ashfall, had voted in favour, some more enthusiastically than others. Some would have plans to draw advantages from the whole scheme, others because they intended to use it as leverage in later negotiations, but in the end it didn’t matter why they’d agreed. He knew, even if they didn’t, that it didn’t really matter why they’d voted in favour.
All that mattered was that they had.