Power coursed through the great room like a roaring in the ears. To one with the Talent, like Jehane, it was a constant nagging distraction, a thing to be fought against lest it ruin his concentration here in this dangerous gathering. Small wonder that the Mageborn generally sought solitude, as far away from others of their kind - or even the subtler, background chatter of unmanifested Talent in the ordinary folk - as possible. Still, no sorceror could refuse the Call to Conclave. Even those who had withdrawn from the exercise of Talent, like old Esedraia, had been forced to leave their mountain caves or seashore retreats and make the Opening of the Way to come to Lar-Balâd.
Lar-Balâd, City of the Sorcerors. Even the name, in a tongue long forgotten, was mysterious. No-one but the Mageborn had set foot there for a thousand years, and even they came only by invitation. Most came only three times: to be Sealed when Talent was first manifest in them, to be Confirmed when their training was done, and to be buried on Ash-Sail, the Holy Mountain. Only a few were fortunate enough, or long lived enough, to attend a Conclave. There had not been one for 500 years, the 500 long, peaceful, and wearisome years that Mald Seren had been Archmage and President of the College of Sorcerors.
And now Old Mouldy is dead, and mouldy for sure, thought Jehane, and could not resist a wry smile. He was after all very young, by far the youngest in this room. Some of the older Mageborn present had made it clear, by looks or remarks loud enough to be overheard even by unenhanced ears, that they thought him a good deal too young to be present in such an august and important gathering as this.
"What can an untrained child offer in the debates on the choosing of a new Archmage ?" had snorted a plump, greying woman in the turban and silks of the Baarik Archipelago. But her companion, a dark-haired and, he could not help noticing, rather handsome man in the black toga of the Poran Empire, shook his head.
"Conclave was instituted for good reason, har Sessine. All the Mageborn have a voice to be heard, no matter how young. And that one, I have heard, is not the least talented among us." He looked up and smiled across the room to where Jehane was eyeing them. To his surprise he felt his own face respond. The Poran had style, damn it. That probably meant that he was powerful enough to be able to afford to be gracious. And yes, very handsome. In a rugged sort of way, if you liked rugged.
Jehane liked rugged. His bottom twinged under the long tunic he wore, to remind him just how much he liked rugged. Maybe it had been a mistake to pretend to be an ordinary youth and dally with a blacksmith, but those forearms had been just as powerful as they looked when Jehane's teasing, and a subtle thread of Talent to push the man in the right direction, had led him to pull the youth across his knee and give him the thrashing he needed.
That had been two weeks ago. The last of the bruises had faded. He suppressed the urge to squirm excitedly at the thought of another spanking like that last, those calloused palms on his bare behind, the way he had kicked and struggled as the strong arms had blistered his behind, the stinging pain too great for him to use Talent to save himself. No, that was a one-off. It was unlikely he would be back that way to see his smith again. The urge to manipulate was too strong when Mageborn had relationships with keshkoi, the silent people, those not Mageborn. There were Rules, for that reason. Once for pleasure, twice for goodbye.
I never did say goodbye . . .
"To whom ?" asked an amused voice. He blushed in confusion, realising that he must have spoken aloud. Or . . . His eyes narrowed.
"Did you just eavesdrop on my thoughts ?" he asked the handsome Poran.
The Poran grinned, an effect that no doubt reduced women (and not a few men) to jelly.
"That is forbidden within the precincts of the City," the other reminded him. "And I'm sure a powerful Talent like you is well able to shield his thoughts - it's the first thing every apprentice learns, after all."
"Right after they learn that things are forbidden because people do them all the time," Jehane retorted. "Isn't that so, ah - Toris Clevis Améros." He plucked the name easily out of the way that Reality around him was shaped, his special and unique skill. The Poran looked horrified for a moment, thinking someone had pierced his own shields unknowing, then shook his head ruefully.
"I had heard that you were a Namer, the first since Angwyn the Wise. But it is unnerving to see the gift in practice. And still you have not yet chosen to be Confirmed. Why is that ?"
"Because I don't feel ready for it," Jehane replied and let his mouth hang open at what he had just said. Damn it, he had never said that to anyone, not even himself.
"How did you do that ?" he said at last, quietly.
"You are not the only one to have a rare skill. Yes, I am Toris Clevis Lant Améros, but I am better known to most as the Truthsayer of Pora."
Jehane nodded, silent. Of course. The man no-one could lie to, the power behind the Imperial Throne. Oh no, he was opening his mouth, he was going to ask something else . . . !
"Are you enjoying this little gathering ?"
"No," the young man said, relieved. "Not very much."
"Neither am I," the Poran said. "Shall we go and get some air ?" He took Jehane's arm, gently, and in a step they were standing in the moonlit gardens breathing air scented with jasmine and night phlox instead of sweat and fifty warring perfumes. Oh smooth, very smooth. Jehane could not help but contrast it with his own jarring transitions of the Way between the Worlds, sickening and disorientating as they were. I could learn a lot from this man, he thought. If only . . .
"You're good at that."
"I'm good at most things," the older man said, not a boast, just a flat statement of the facts. "Do I take it you find transitions difficult ?"
"Yes. Garnas - my master - hated Opening the Way, and I never really got the hang of it. Then he died, suddenly, and the Regents of the College couldn't decide what to do about me. I couldn't start from scratch, obviously, and no-one wanted a half-trained apprentice with a dead man's bindings on him, unreleased. Especially a dead man who . . ."
"Who died demon-possessed. And they were all afraid to release the bindings in case the backlash of that tainted them. Typical."
"Yes. So as I couldn't bind to a new master, and they didn't want to - well, they decided to - ah - overlook the incompleteness of my knowledge and declare me provisionally Confirmed."
"Damned fools and cowards the lot of them, " said Toris Lant. "Not one of them could so much as light his own farts with the Talent he was born with."
He smiled at the typical Poran bluntness. And wondered - maybe it would be worth a try.
"Look . . . Mageborn work together in the more complicated workings, right ?"
"Certainly. After Confirmation."
"Well, couldn't you . . . I mean, there are things I really need to know. Couldn't you - would you consider teaching me without apprentice binding ?"
The other smiled.
"But I have an apprentice," he said. His hands moved in the air and the image of a young woman, strikingly beautiful, appeared. She was naked. As the image revolved in the air, it smiled langorously, ran its hands over its breasts and buttocks in a suggestive manner, and winked at Jehane before vanishing. Toris Lant chuckled. "Wicked girl," he said indulgently. "I shall have to take the switch to her again."
Just my luck, thought Jehane glumly. His tastes run the other way. And after that remark about the switch, too.
"You beat her ?" he asked cautiously.
"Oh, she asks for it," said the Truthsayer. "And, truth to tell, I enjoy it. But that isn't why I do it. It is a question of trust. Of her trusting me enough to offer her body to pain, because no matter how much she may enjoy it afterwards, she knows it will hurt. And me trusting her to control herself. If she can control herself enough to bear the pain without striking out at me with Talent, then I can trust her in those difficult manipulations when we touch mind to mind, open, vulnerable."
Jehane was hardly breathing. This was what he had been looking for. This was what he needed.
"But of course I wouldn't consider even that without the apprentice bindings. It's just too dangerous. We all have dark places in our minds, and even unwilling, our hidden darknesses can use the Talent to harm. Apprentice bindings limit that until we have self mastery enough to manage without."
Jehane swallowed bitter disappointment. So no-one was ever going to train him, not with Garnas' bindings still on him, preventing anyone else from binding him in their turn.
"Just my luck," he said sourly, unable to keep resentment from curdling his tone. "I think I could have learned a lot from you. But now . . . "
"Now your future is uncertain. Half trained, and that half poorly done, by a sorceror who owed his advancement to politics and not to skill - indeed, a sorceror none too well trained himself. Damn Mald Seren for letting things slip so. He spent so much time on this . . ." he gestured at the graceful, impossible arches and soaring towers of the city spread out below them, "this architectural wet-dream, that he left all the boring necessary work to fools and power-seekers. And look where it has got us."
"Us ?" he said in bitter irony. "From where I stand it looks to me as if you aren't too badly off."
"Ah, but it means I shall have my work cut out when I become President."
"Are you serious ?"
"Oh, absolutely. All the - ah - major peddlers of influence are in my debt now, so I command a majority of the votes. It will be announced sometime tomorrow."
"So why are you wasting time on a half trained boy like me ? Don't you have flesh to press, or arses to lick ? Or a pretty girl to beat," he added resentfully.
"I don't lick arses, I've never cared for the taste," the Poran said calmly. "And I like pretty boys at least as well as pretty girls. So if I care to spend my time with the first Namer in fifteen hundred years, that is my business. Even if he is a mouthy little guttersnipe in need of a good thrashing."
"You wouldn't dare," said the youth. It was not bravado; just a regretful statement of fact.
Toris smiled. It was really quite a wonderful smile, Jehane thought abstractedly.
"Did you know," the man said, "that it was the traditional prerogative of the President to have more than one apprentice ?"
Jehane's heart missed a beat.
"Don't," he said. "Don't toy with me, please. I know you are ambitious; I didn't think you were cruel."
A breeze from nowhere lifted his hair. It smelt of seawater and spices. Sparks began to eddy around them, like fireflies.
"Open your mind to me." The voice came from all around him, gentle and insistent as the humming of bees on a sunny day.
"I can't. You can't. What about the demon taint ?"
"There are no such things as demons. That is one of the things Garnas should have taught you."
"I saw it. I saw it rip him apart."
"You saw his own fears and passions master him. I told you: we all have dark places in our minds. Open yours to me."
He wanted to so much, and yet he couldn't. He could feel the insistent pressure of the other's power, gentle yet terribly strong, stronger than anyone he had ever felt, and growing stronger still. Still something in him fought it.
"Let me in, Jehane. Let me give you want you want. What you need." Still he could not . . .
"I'm going to give you the thrashing of your life young man," the voice whispered, and with a shudder all his barriers fell and another mind rolled in across his like the sea, like a wall of foaming water full of darting silver fish, and Garnas' bindings were all swept away in the flood. And something else too: a long lingering psychic scream, an echo of fear and lust and envy and all the other things that had destroyed his old master. The sunlit wave washed it all away.
And when it rolled away the landscape of his mind was subtly changed. No, say rather, restored. For the first time he could realise how clumsy Garnas' apprentice bindings had been, what a barrier they had been to the flow of his Talent. In contrast, the binding that lay on him now was as subtle and fluid as water, and as all-pervasive, following the shape of his mind and thought and shaping it in its turn. He thought that perhaps he should have been afraid of such effortless mastery. Instead, he found himself unbearably aroused.
He looked at the older, stronger man, his eyes shining.
"You wouldn't dare," he said again.
From nowhere a switch appeared in Toris' hand. A very flexible, green willow switch. Jehane's new master smiled again, quite nastily.
"Apprentice," he said, "you have a lot to learn."