The tolling of the great bell, signaling someone at the door of the Obsidian Tower, roused the Technomancer from her studies. She stretched and looked at the spine-shaped hour candles, seeing where runnels of red wax had dripped down the white vertebrae that marked the time.
She smiled, a look much too warm for the angular and austere face of the icy sorceress. Not bothering to change from her sleeveless black work-dress, she stepped out of the window and floated to the courtyard with a thought.
A wild-looking man, swathed in the black and violet clothing of a desert raider stood in her courtyard, his scimitar and rifle gleaming silver even in the fog. She walked right up to him and let him take her in his arms for a kiss.
He intended it for a peck. But she wrapped herself around him, cloaking them both in her long black hair as she devoured his mouth. Gemini gripped her, kissing with a wild passion she had only suspected lay beneath the surface. She saw glimpses from time to time, but mostly he controlled it with an iron will.
"Hello, darling," she said and kissed her husband again.
"Mistress," he greeted her, "are you ready to go home? Ariel is waiting dinner on us."
"Mmm," she stole a third kiss, lingering this time. Gemini was a handsome man, strong featured with a mouth made for kissing. "Wouldn't do to keep our beloved brother waiting now, would it?"
The flagstone courtyard, the enormous tower, even the maelstrom of lightening and wind that surrounded the tower, vanished as they made the translation out of cyberspace and back into the real.
Zara Broine stretched and stood up. She fluffed her own chin-length bob, unhooked the IV line and catheter and got dressed. The Technomancer might wear black, and make it look good, but Zara preferred shades of green. They set off her eyes and made her skin glow. She choose one done in the Technomancer's style, with no sleeves, to show off her pale arms, and a deep neckline to accentuate her throat. Tonight, taking dinner with her husband and his identical twin brother, she wanted to look stunning. It must be nearly time to eat if David had popped into the net to alert her.
She unlocked the door of her office and stepped out, only to be seized by the same raider as in the Net, this one wearing a designer suit and silk tie, who kissed her within an inch of her life. She gasped for air, so surprised she had forgotten to breathe through the kiss.
"Hello, sister," Ariel greeted her. The squeeze he gave her was most unfraternal. Both of the ben Ezra twins had courted her, alternating, to determine whose she should be. She'd slept with them both, singly and together, and still enjoyed them both ways.
Comfortably curled up in her favorite armchair, Jenny paused in her sketching to study what she had so far. Dissatisfied, she turned to a new page and started over. "I got you that computer program for a reason, love."
"I know, Will." She looked up with a sheepish smile. Her lover leaned on his ever-present cane in the doorway to their shared office, a wry smile on his face. He wore faded jeans and a navy blue, long-sleeved shirt, with a pair of battered trainers on his feet. Five inches taller than Jenny's 5'3", he had a trim, wiry build, brown hair that tended to curl at the ends, and pale blue eyes. Blinking, she realized he was waiting for further explanation. "It doesn't feel right to me, to sketch out my ideas on the computer. It doesn't seem as permanent as when I use a pencil and sketchbook."
William smiled as he crossed to her chair and kissed the top of her head. "It's your decision, of course, but sketchbooks can be just as impermanent as computers."
"Those dangers can be guarded against more easily than computer viruses." She uncurled enough to kiss his chin. He lowered his head to kiss her softly, his free hand braced on the arm of the chair. Jenny gladly returned it, her sketching forgotten for the moment. When they ended the kiss, both were smiling. "You certainly know how to distract a girl."
"Are you complaining?" William rested his forehead against hers.
Jenny shook her head. "Not at all."
"Emmy! I wanted to do that!" George's shout made both of them wince. "Em!"
Emily taunted him, her voice coming closer to the room. "I beat you to it, so there!" The nine-year-old girl entered then, carrying a box and a pile of envelopes. "Mummy! Uncle Will! The mail is here!"
Jenny eyed her eldest child and only daughter sternly. "Emily, what have we told you about teasing your brothers?"
"I'm sorry, Mummy." The triumphant grin on the girl's face faded as seven-year-old George entered, obviously near tears.
She shook her head and gently turned Emily to face George. "I'm not the one you should apologize to and you know it."
"I'm sorry, Georgie." Emily's voice was grudging, but sincere. "Here, you can give the mail to Mummy."
Once upon a time, and probably in a parallel universe, but who's really to say—the magical kingdom of Onjugal spread across the continent. The northern continent, that is. Not that they knew they had a southern continent. The problem with an over-reliance on magic is that nobody bothers with a scientific method. Nobody even knew the world was round until centuries later, but never mind that.
Mind instead Onjugal's capital city of Isitay, where the king lived in his castle, along with his daughter, Princess Shammara. (An old-fashioned name, yes, but the king couldn't very well refuse the queen's dying request. Besides, any name you give a princess turns out to be the most popular name in the kingdom.)
As a child, the young princess ignored the wishes of society and took to all sorts of unladylike pursuits, such as studying. Everyone knew quite well that women could not perform magic. The elements of magical power resided primarily in a special sack, which girls didn't have. Further, in order to harness that power, one needed a magic wand, which girls also didn't have. So it was utterly fruitless, they said, for Princess Shammara to read all those ancient texts and practice spells (without a wand! how hilarious!), or read up on the different schools of magic. She favored those orders whose attention went to things women could do to, such as the Urallists who believed vocalized commands or guttural cries could increase a spell's potency, or the Ambidi Order with their finger-flexing regimen.
The king's younger brother once remarked that he wouldn't be surprised if the princess, confused as she was, next decided to take to the seas and sail right over the edge, thinking the world was round! At the time, this was considered a rather vicious remark. The ironic ignorance of his cleverness is now what he's mostly remembered for. Well, that and how he'd continued stabbing the body of his brother long after the king had breathed his last.
Unbeknownst to anyone else, the princess had managed to make tiny sparks of magic. Nothing even first level, nothing she could use, but at a surprisingly early age, she discovered that even without hauling a sack of magic around all the time, she nevertheless had magic within her. And so she studied, but the problem with magic is that it is magic! None of the books really knew very much what they were talking about. The authors were all male, and boys always assumed that the inconsistencies between one's magical performance and another's came down to a simple matter of wand quality (you know what they say about a guy with big magical feats). Well, Shammara thought boys were stupid.
"How the mighty have fallen."
James Wilmington blinked his eyes, squinting them shut against the painful light. He tried to lift his hands to rub the salt from them, and found that he couldn't. He was lying half-propped on something cushioned, close to the deck—yes, he was certainly on a ship, not on land—and his arms hung down by his sides, but they were tied fast to something. The legs of whatever he was lying on, he thought. It wasn't encouraging.
"I can tell you're awake," the rough tenor voice continued. "Captain James Wilmington, scourge of the Jamaica pirates, called back to serve England's war against Spain. So bent on chasing a Spanish privateer, you took the Stalwart right through that storm. And now look where you are." Cautiously, Wilmington opened his eyes. The light was a little easier to bear, though the sun was streaming through the stern-gallery, now that the storm had passed. A captain's great cabin, but of a ship much smaller than the 44-gun Stalwart, hardly even so large as a sixth-rate, and furnished like no Christian warship: cushions and hangings in patterned reds and blues, thick carpets, and little low tables bolted to the deck. A pierced brass lantern swung over his head, and a hookah sat at the foot of the divan to which he was lashed.
"Aboard a Barbary pirate vessel, I presume," he said. "But you have the advantage of me. Pray tell me, to whom do I have the honor of speaking?"
The pirate chuckled. "Faisal ibn Ali, at your service," he said ironically, or so Wilmington thought he heard. "Welcome aboard the Intisar."
"I suppose it is you I have to thank for my rescue?" Wilmington said, matching Faisal's tone. "If one can call it that." He tried to keep his dismay from showing. How many of his men had survived the wreck of the Stalwart? How many had he lost to the ruthless sea, and how many had he delivered into the hands of even more ruthless corsairs? Either way, he bore the blame, and he was not sure which fate was worse.
"Call it what you like," Faisal said, spreading his hands. Wilmington could see the dots and crosses worked in blue ink on their backs. "We pulled you and your men out of the wreckage of the Stalwart, at no small risk to ourselves, I might add, but it was a business risk. There's sure to be plenty willing to pay a pretty ransom, and, if not, strong sailors fetch good prices in the slave markets."
Wilmington tried to sit up straighter, but his bound wrists prevented him. "May I remind you that you are forbidden to capture or enslave British subjects under a treaty that has been in effect for over fifty years?"
Faisal shrugged. "Ahmed Karamanli Pasha has never formally ratified that treaty," he said. "He may find some latitude in it. In any case, you are without your ship, and blown far from the rest of the English fleet. I think you are in no position to argue." His grin flashed out from his dark beard—no, that wasn't a beard, Wilmington realized: it was yet more tattoos, intricate lines radiating from Faisal's chin out along his jaw and framing the pirate's full lips. Barbaric. And yet it was difficult to take his eyes away from them.