LENGTH: 4,500 words
SUMMARY: "I begin to tire of foreign sorcerers seeking to reclaim their lost treasures from my mountains." DWJ/Queen of Attolia crossover.
NOTES: Thanks to fragilistikal on lj for the beta.
DISCLAIMER: Chrestomanci belongs to Diana Wynne Jones, Attolia and accoutrements to Megan Whalen Turner. Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
A Nine Lived Enchanter in Queen Attolia's Court
Chrestomanci was not overly fond of the new court of Attolia on a good day. Oh, it was located in a world inoffensive enough, except that it always reminded him of the world of the arm of Asheth and being hunted by men with spears, and he forever seemed to be having to explain that, no, he wasn't one of the Old Gods, and he certainly wasn't one of the New Gods, thank you.
But the court of Attolia as it had progressed in recent years was a madhouse to make the most patient of men shake his head. With its overly young, hook-handed King and its older, icy Queen, whom it was popular knowledge had been the one to cut her husband's hand off in the first place, its sniping barons, its snippy Eddisian dignitaries, its sullen parade of ever-changing Sounisian and Medean ambassadors - well. Chrestomanci had seldom encountered such a parade of people who irrevocably and intensely disliked each other, forced to live in har... well, no, not harmony. Proximity.
Chrestomanci was not having a good day, he had not had a good week, and his patience was wearing very thin indeed.
Even from his harassed outsider's point of view, it was perfectly obvious that the Queen loathed the King and the King baited the Queen, and everyone knew it. The King baited everyone else as well, even the Eddisians who were his own people, but he accorded the Queen his special attention as though that were her royal privilege. Neither was the Queen alone in loathing the King, as her barons, her guard, her attendants, and most of the foreign emissaries wholeheartedly backed her in this endeavour - except for the Eddisians. They were merely stony-faced and tolerant, and saved all of their loathing for the Queen.
The barons held everyone in contempt. The Queen held everyone in fear. The Eddisians were terminally prickly. The ambassadors were extremely nervous. The boy King tossed sardonic commentary on top of the pile to feed the flames, and Chrestomanci watched as the hands of the Queen slowly turned white at the knuckles where they rested on the arms of her throne. No sign of her fury yet showed on her face.
Attolia, who was never called anything but Attolia despite the King's traditional right to that title, ignored her husband's baiting of a red-faced baron and said coolly, "I begin to tire of foreign sorcerers seeking to reclaim their lost treasures from my mountains."
Eugenides, who was called any number of things than his given name and former title, many of them imaginative and few of them suitable for polite company, said, "He did ask first. I think that at least might be an unprecedented event. It's probably because he doesn't know you."
"Possibly so," Attolia said, her coolness descending to a veritable chill. "Please, Lord Enchanter, tell me more about this artefact you seek. Perhaps we can reach some form of accord." Her tone was brittle and her eyes glittered; the King grimaced.
Chrestomanci frowned. "I have the distinct impression," he said, "that I'm supposed to feel threatened at this point in proceedings. I do apologise for the impropriety, but I'm afraid I lack the time to go through the proper formalities just now. Although, if you like, I could come back and cower more appropriately later." The Queen's lips turned white; the King made a play of stretching and snickered behind his arm. "I believe you mistake me about the nature of my mission. I'm not here to recover an artefact of value. I'm here to circumvent the danger that artefact represents for Attolia and her neighbouring kingdoms, and perhaps this whole world."
Attolia snorted delicately. Very surreptitiously, Eugenides nudged her with his elbow and said, in a voice kept very low, "You have seen Gods walk." His Queen's head whipped around and their eyes shared a very serious contact.
Chrestomanci was curious about this deviation from established pattern, but the mystery they shared was a private one. Certainly his sources on this world had contained no information on any Gods walking recently. Their Old Gods were a humourless, volatile bunch and Chrestomanci was more than happy to avoid them.
He said to Attolia, "While it may very well be on your lands, I would seriously advise against attempting to make a claim on the Olticon. Its possession would hardly be a benefit."
"So you say," she insinuated flatly. She leaned back in her throne. Around the court, the barons had stopped sniping. Eugenides looked worried. "You may search. You will take an escort. And we will speak again when you have obtained this artefact and I can see it for myself."
"My dear young lady - " Chrestomanci began, a fraction crossly, about to point out that it was merely a matter of courtesy that he had come to her at all, and that she was seriously misguided if she imagined she could demand the Olticon from him against his will. Unexpectedly, the boy King cut him off with a cough and a minimal twist of a frown, though behind the expression it looked as though he was trying to hide some conflicted mirth. Did he realise, perhaps, mused Chrestomanci, that in his own case 'sorcerer' was not merely a synonym for 'scholar', as on the rest of this deluded world?
What he assuredly did not realise was that his Queen had noticed him, and Chrestomanci alone caught the ever-so-brief roll of her eyes. It was chased from her face by a blissful, inspired smile, which temporarily made her look quite, quite different but her reputation no less unnerving.
"You will take Eugenides," she said, with great benevolence. The smile she cast her husband was somewhat nastier. "He will lead the escort of your party. I believe he knows the mountains well."
The King opened his mouth, then clearly thought better of protest; if Chrestomanci read him rightly, he was interested - not to mention perfectly happy to take leave of Attolia's court for as long as necessary, if not as long as possible.
Attolia spoiled her illusion of magnanimity in offering the aid and attentions of her very consort by the quiet, hard irony with which she added, "Please - take Eugenides."
In either case, it was far from a request.
It was a long time since any but the Gods had wielded significant magic in this world, and it took a not insignificant time for the fearful glances to fade after Chrestomanci performed the transportation sorcery which set their party in the foothills of the distant mountains. Eventually Eugenides dropped back on his exceptionally docile and badly-ridden horse to dare conversation.
There had been some arguments about the horses. Attolia had won them.
"You aren't going to ask what river or mountain I happen to be the personification of?" Chrestomanci returned, rather disappointed, when he merely broached the question of how he intended to locate a very small artefact in a very large area of mountainous land.
Eugenides' jaw rose, and the boy King looked him up and down in assessment. "You aren't anywhere near frightening enough."
Given Eddis' Old Gods, Chrestomanci by no means took offence at this assessment. He remembered Eugenides whispering to his Queen and would have questioned him about what shared experience had prompted such a comment, but the youth had already resumed the more pertinent subject of the search.
Instead, then, he explained that although it would be an unduly slow and tedious process, his magic could lead them to the Olticon, given time. The back of his eyeballs were already itching uncomfortably with the mystical tug of its presence. It felt like perpetually resisting a sneeze.
As he explained, he wondered about the King of Attolia. The very astute political marriage sealing the treaty between neighbouring kingdoms Eddis and Attolia seemed conversely disastrous on all personal fronts. That same royal bride had only a few years previously had the unfortunate lack of prescient judgement to order her future consort's hand struck off over a grudge. Eugenides was barely more than a boy now. At the time, he must have been a child. The Queen of Attolia was merciless indeed.
"I've never seen magic like yours," Eugenides said. "Where is it you said you came from?"
"A great distance," Chrestomanci prevaricated airily. This culture lacked even the most rudimentary concept of other worlds. "Quite the other side of your little local imperialist regime - what do you call them? - oh yes, Medea."
"Across the ocean?"
Eugenides, by repute a consummate and pathological liar, presumably knew the signs of his trade. That was a mildly irritating fact Chrestomanci had somehow managed to omit from consideration. "Several oceans," he said firmly. "I quite lost count."
"And this Olticon, how did it come to be here from so far away?"
"Protection spell. Should its creator be caught unprepared and the troublesome trinket like to fall into anybody else's hands, it would transport itself randomly across w - across the world. His gamble being, of course, that he could make his own escape to recover it first, and an excessive inconvenience for the rest of us." He massaged his aching temples. Let the irritating boy try to follow the path across universes of a single small bauble, he thought grumpily. See if he could then think up a convincing story for the twitchy, superstitious natives on the other side.
...Probably yes. Eugenides would regard it as the entertaining part. He glowered as the youth opened his mouth again.
"All right. You are this man's enemy. What will he do if you find it first? What will you do if he does?"
It struck Chrestomanci that while the removal of major body parts was probably going too far, a quick clip around the ear was surely nothing any reasonable being could begrudge. He settled reluctantly for merely increasing the severity of his frown. "He is a very careless and irresponsible individual to even think of forging such a weapon, let alone using it. I intend to have it safely destroyed before it can do any harm."
Eugenides gave a brief laugh, and Chrestomanci couldn't be certain what he was thinking. That he was a bad liar, he rather sourly suspected. On the other hand, perhaps the youth was a discerning enough connoisseur of untruth to recognise the important parts that were not lies.
They had to stop eventually, as the night drew in and it was clear it would be impossible to safely navigate the narrow mountain trails. They made a good meal of the provisions they had brought, far over-generously stocked since the shortening of their journey to the foothills, and Eugenides prodded the guard lieutenant into recounting some Attolian stories of the mountains. Though he jibed him for any perceived inadequacies in the fabric of the tales, and picked thoroughly at any featured elements of Eddisian scoundrelry.
Chrestomanci lay largely insomniac through the night, aware of the jumpy Attolians by turns standing guard. Eugenides did not take a watch, which was hardly unexpected, and he grumbled copiously at their less than kingly accommodations - but the complaints held an air of rote, underneath which it seemed the King of Attolia did not really have any objections to sleeping rough, and he had clearly done so often before. Chrestomanci rather did object - albeit silently, with due dignity - since it was uncomfortable, unbecoming of his position, he had rocks digging into his back, and he had no particular wish for any but his wife to have opportunity for comment on how loudly he snored. Especially considering the imaginative array of adverbs Millie always managed to come up with to describe the noise. He half wished he was alone - protected by his magic, he could continue the search throughout the night, with no fear for the safety of his companions. And he quite badly wanted this business to be over and done with.
He had an advantage here, that much was true. Nobody on this world possessed powers comparable to his. There was little here to pose him any real threat. But that would all change once he found the Olticon. It was, he thought, going to be a rather interesting quandary.
Whether he trusted the intentions of Attolia's harsh Queen or not, he might need his Attolian escort soon enough.
He sensed their almost tangible proximity to the artefact late on the third day of searching, accompanied by his own intensifying unease.
They had to abandon the horses to the care of one dour soldier elected by his lieutenant to remain behind. He did not seem exactly broken up about the prospect of being left in a sheltered campsite with most of their excess food.
Beyond the site where the horses grazed contentedly on the sparse, tough grass - content mostly, Chrestomanci was sure, in the knowledge that somebody else was doing the legwork through the direst terrain of their journey - the mountain trail rose steeply, less a path than a collection of jagged rocks that was marginally less jagged than the rocks around them. Chrestomanci trudged, lamenting the vagueness of the Olticon's directional tug, which even now made further shortcut by way of sorcery impractical, and the twitchyness of the Attolians which prevented him from levitating the lot of them to their goal. The rocks obliged his irritable steps, nervously acquiescent, and dared neither crumble nor roll beneath his feet.
Eventually, Chrestomanci's nose led them away from even such path as remained, and the party had to negotiate sheer, crumbling slopes and narrow ledges that clung to the sides of deep gorges.
Eugenides led the way through all of these. The Queen had been accurate in her declaration that he knew the mountains and he picked out a path suitable for the Attolians to follow as Chrestomanci, reliant on his magic, could not. The missing hand did not appear to slow him down; his balance was exceptional, scorning the excess of handholds that the soldiers needed. Chrestomanci supposed the fact he was as comfortable as a mountain goat in the hills matched his being about as comfortable as one on a horse as well.
But there were limits to the safety of even the most surefooted on the hostile rocks. As Eugenides craned back to warn the Attolians of an unstable ledge, stone shifted beneath him and gave way.
Metal rang shrilly against stone. He'd thrown back, automatically, the arm nearest the cliff face, but the hook on the end of that arm would not have held his weight even if it could have gripped the rock.
The start of a very bad word hung in the air, cut off as Chrestomanci leaned swiftly forward to seize the youth's trailing arm.
Eugenides hung suspended as Chrestomanci cursed only internally (he, at least, had been brought up better) and tried extremely hard not to be dragged off the edge of the cliff face by the sudden weight. Eugenides might not weigh a lot, but he weighed quite enough, and the rocks now tried vindictively to tip them both over the precipice. There was a God inside this mountain, Chrestomanci reflected grimly, and He was having a bad week too.
"Use your magic!" Eugenides shouted, white-faced, the instruction nothing but self-evident. Chrestomanci held him above the elbow; the sharp point of the hook jabbed painfully into the underside of his own arm. Eugenides' single hand scrabbled at the ledge.
"No cause for concern. I've got you," Chrestomanci said, shifting his weight carefully and preparing to draw the young man up. Before he could, unasked-for support first assisted and then took over, as the soldiers reached them and rather proprietorially hauled their King to safety
"That was close," the lieutenant said, as they were dusting off their sovereign and their sovereign was too busy gifting Chrestomanci a sour frown and trying to still his shakes to pay their concern the slightest heed.
"Not really." Chrestomanci chased the scuffs and the dust from his suit with an authoritative grimace in their general direction. "Still, that woke us all up a bit, didn't it?"
A few intervening hours hadn't yet allowed the glares to fade by the time they found the Olticon. Eugenides had resumed the lead of the party with irritable determination. The fall, it seemed, was a personal affront to his thief's pride. Or perhaps there was another significance, as Chrestomanci overheard the soldiers murmuring that several generations of Eugenides' family had fallen to their deaths.
The men behind almost knocked their King sprawling again when he stopped abruptly, although this time it would have been to a roll down a more survivable sheer slope and not a vertical drop.
Chrestomanci quickly took in the sight that had caused Eugenides to falter, and brushed briskly past. In a cascade of loose stone, he skidded down the slope with quite as little grace as he'd ever deigned to publicly sport. Despite his resolve, when he reached down to pick up the Olticon his fingers hesitated of their own volition. He insisted sternly that they make contact.
The afternoon sunlight glimmered off the Olticon turning on its chain in his hand as he straightened. He felt very weary all of a sudden. But that was not so terribly surprising.
Eugenides reached the circle of ground where the sparse mountain vegetation was blackened and dead. In the centre, the Olticon had lain these past days. The boy King stared with some trepidation at the innocuous ornamental pendant. Thinking it a pretty trinket, perhaps, bound to attract his ruthless wife's attentions, and no doubt also considering the mess it had made of the living matter that had the misfortune to have been in contact with it. His lips pressed together. He hesitated before passing the line of decay, watching for Chrestomanci's reaction.
He said with a lazy sort of interest. "So you've found it. I suppose that means we can all go home now. Are you going to return us to the city the way you brought us here?"
Chrestomanci looked at him severely, and caught the glimmer in the boy's eye. "If you have a point to make, I suggest you stop dithering around and make it."
Unperturbed, Eugenides inclined his head toward the confounded bauble where it dangled. "Perhaps you could return us by magic if I held that for you."
He extended his hand.
The boy was a liar and a rogue who considered thieving to be his literal God-given right and made a habit of irritating people for the sheer amusement of it. But he was bold, and willing, and Chrestomanci did not doubt the offer's intentions. Eugenides had no more wish to see the Olticon's corrupting power in the hands of his so-charming Queen than he himself did.
"It's not really safe for anybody without the appropriate defences to touch it," he responded, with a faint sigh. He suspected they both knew he had such defences in no more measure than Eugenides, or any one of their party, just now.
Eugenides, with a smile that was almost a wince, or possibly vice versa, swapped one extended arm for the other.
Reluctantly, because it seemed the best of bad options, Chrestomanci wrapped the glittering Olticon on the curve of Eugenides' finely-worked hook. The silver - far more plentiful and practical a metal than gold in the Eddisian mountains the boy King hailed from - was visible in tiny scratches where the gold plate had scraped off in his near-miss earlier.
Eugenides glanced briefly back up the slope, to the treacherous path along which they had come. "You could have saved me by your magic the minute you let me fall," he said smugly, while the silver Olticon swung gently at the end of his arm. "Couldn't you?"
Having first retrieved the chap they had left with the horses - who avoided a very long wait indeed by virtue of only the guard lieutenant's presence of mind, as certainly the rest of them had other things on their thoughts - Chrestomanci transported them directly back into the court. He considered this an entirely practical approach saving everyone time, energy and bureaucratic nonsense, but even though he did send the horses back to their stables and surprised grooms, it was apparent neither the Queen nor the court appreciated his efforts.
Attolia made a small, surprised noise as they appeared. Her lips and knuckles turned white, presumably in annoyance at being caused to show mere human weakness. She raised a hand to the circlet imitating the local High Goddess on her brow and mustered a glare for Chrestomanci that was probably designed to make the recipient, in this bloodthirsty culture, throw himself on his sword. Dashed fool thing to do.
But Attolia's eyes slid aside to her juvenile husband with an unfathomable emotion.
"My Queen," Eugenides said stiffly. His stance straightened in the presence of the court, and his comparative practical ease with the hook turned to self-consciousness when faced with public scrutiny.
"I suppose I am to take it, then, that your vanishing was not a part of an enemy's scheme, nor a fatal mishap," the Queen said frostily.
"There were concerns?" Eugenides threw back, with an innocence nobody would have believed.
"You took valuable horses," Attolia snapped. She returned her glare to Chrestomanci as though the intervening distraction had never occurred. He found himself feeling somewhat put-out at playing second-fiddle to all the dysfunctional marital melodrama. "You found your sorcerer's trinket?" She seemed as unhappy about the vanishing trick as she had visibly been about the reappearing one. The shock of their reappearance had threatened her pride, so... hm, what thing that she valued nearly so much had been threatened by their disappearance?
Still, her irritation frosted over into chill interest as she saw the confirmation of her question in their faces. "Show me," she commanded.
Eugenides raised his hook, and the Olticon sparkling on its chain in the lamps of the court reflected in a veritable ocean of greedy eyes. Eugenides held it up as though he offered it not to his wife but to a poised serpent - but then Chrestomanci had to admit that matrimonial bliss had caught him that way, too, at times. Usually when business made him late for dinner.
The Queen lifted the Olticon delicately in an exquisite silk handkerchief that it was exceedingly doubtful had ever been near anybody's nose. Chrestomanci fancied he saw her pale slightly as she cast her disdainful eye over it, but she gave no more definite reaction. He knew he hadn't imagined the disturbance in the ether as, somewhere, one of this world's tetchy Old Gods shuffled his or her feet - possibly literally, and most certainly metaphorically. He cleared his throat, not without misgivings, to address the Queen, and was surprised to see Eugenides open his mouth to do the same.
Before either of them could speak, the ether stirred in a rather more crude and intrusive manner.
"It is becoming rather tedious," Attolia's voice rang out sharply, "All these people appearing and disappearing in my court with no regard for common, let alone regal, courtesy."
To be fair to the reprehensible little man, Jorgon didn't exactly look as though he'd expected to materialise in front of a courtly audience of nigh-on a hundred. He recovered quickly enough when he spied his Olticon in the hands of the Queen.
His eyes narrowed and he took an ill-advised step. "Lady, that belongs to me."
"Majesty," Eugenides corrected with swift offence, also taking a step - and for the first time that Chrestomanci at least had seen, drawing his sword.
Nobody had possessed eyes for the movement of the Queen's Guard, but they were also nonetheless significantly closer. A ring of steel surrounded Jorgon.
"It was found on my land," Attolia said, her hand on Eugenides shoulder. "It was carried to my hand by my consort. And I fail to see any proof of your claim."
"Well, he certainly doesn't have proof or claim." Jorgon brandished a finger toward Chrestomanci, and almost succeeded in having it diced like a carrot.
"He was polite."
Chrestomanci folded his arms, amused and rather warmly gratified, and leaned back to watch the show, which was entirely preferable to another extended magical battle with Jorgon, with or without him wielding the Olticon. Smugness was of course beneath him, but he promised to chastise himself for it later.
"But... but... that's... it's... it's not..." Even a sorcerer of Jorgon's calibre could be defeated by plain steel, given enough of it in very, very close proximity.
"Lord Enchanter," Eugenides said, with excess formality, not to mention impish delight and not the least attempt to disguise it, "Would you like this miscreant wrapped in irons?"
"Generous," Chrestomanci acknowledged, "but I had another solution in mind. Could you good fellows lower the swords a moment? Wouldn't want him to get colandered by accident when he falls over." They looked to the Queen, who flicked a derisive hand. Slowly, the swords lowered, and the angry fire in Jorgon's eyes did not have opportunity to materialise in the form of any malevolent sorcery before he slumped to the floor.
Soft snores emerged from the sea of the Guard's metal-tipped boots.
"A useful skill," Eugenides said thoughtfully. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to teach it to me? I do know a few people that I..."
Half the court looked faintly unwell, and Chrestomanci shook his head firmly.
"You don't need any more tricks," the Queen said with mock severity.
Something in the way she addressed her husband cast a strange silence upon the court. Chrestomanci, the whole court, had been witness to the way Eugenides stepped forward to protect the Queen of Attolia with his own body. Had seen the way her hand had gone to his shoulder, accepting the shield of his support. They had been, for a moment, naked. It made it possible to sense something else underlying their jibing, now.
Behind the very public animosity of the match, which apparently was merely an elaborate and highly formalised saving of face, the Queen loved her King, and the King loved his Queen. Probably the court was even aware of it, deep in its collective subconscious. The heads that were turned the royal couple's way seemed almost embarrassed by the lapse in ritual. Chrestomanci, now that he had opportunity to fully process it, made effort to master his surprise.
This was not yet over, after all.
Attolia collected herself with icy poise, and frowned down at the silver Olticon still held between fragile green silk in her hands. "A crude and rather plain thing, really," she said, very distinctly, resounding around the court. She wrapped the handkerchief around it thoroughly, as though it discomfited her, and held out the bundle entire. "I bid you, Lord Enchanter, take it from my sight."