No my friend, darkness is not everywhere, for here and there I find faces illuminated from within; paper lanterns among the dark trees.
"Why don't you like me?"
The Magus lowered his eyes as she stared at him, waiting for an answer. Even he, who had served the volatile King of Sounis for many years, felt intimated by the piercing gaze of the Queen of Attolia.
"Considering you and your husband are attempting to steal my king's country…"
"No. Even before then, you didn't like me. You're an intelligent man—you know Sounis could not capture, let alone hold, his throne without our help. You might object to some of my demands, but you know I must make them, just as I know you must refuse them. So the question stands: why don't you like me?"
The Magus sighed and gestured to a little-used sitting room off to their left. It occurred to him that this was not his palace, and it was probably rude to tell a queen, even silently, what to do, but she merely waved to her attendants, waiting at the end of the hallway, and followed him into the room, shutting the door with a click.
The Magus waited while she settled herself into a chair, her skirts arranged evenly and her back straight, and he was struck once again by the difference between the Queen of Attolia and the Queen of Eddis. Both powerful, commanding, intelligent women, yet as different as night and day. When she was settled, she looked at him expectantly, one eyebrow raised, and he cautiously sat down across from her.
"I'm sure your husband has told you how my entire family died in the plague that swept through Sounis almost fifty years ago. What I'm sure he didn't tell you, because he did not know, is that Sounis—Sophos's uncle—forbid me from marrying."
Attolia's eyebrow shot up, but she didn't say anything.
"He never did so openly, of course. He never even said the words to me. But as I'm sure you learned from your experience with your Secretary of the Archives, it is a dangerous thing for those who have the trust—or the attention, at least—of monarchs to have significant others in their lives. But…" He shrugged. "I'd resigned myself to the same fate long before I knew the king expected it of me. I was content with my books and my studies—what need did I have for a companion, when nearly everyone I met was less intelligent than I?"
He stood up and began pacing, his feet treading silently on the plush carpet. The queen's eyes did not follow him, but faced straight ahead, and the Magus wasn't sure she was listening. Not that it mattered. Now that he'd started, he couldn't leave the story half way.
"I had friends, of course, but if I'm honest with myself they were colleagues, employees, diplomats. Yet I would have been content if things had stayed that way forever. Until the king asked me to teach his nephew, after so many tutors had tried and failed to instill any sense of discipline or responsibility into him."
The Magus shook his head. "Sophos was…Sophos is…a trial. He's absent-minded, and forgetful, and clumsy, and far too optimistic for his own good, even in the face of everything that's happened to him." He didn't realize he was smiling fondly until he caught himself and stopped. "Yet despite all of that, I began to enjoy his company. He has a thirst for knowledge, a genuine desire to learn anything anyone will teach him, and unlike just about every scholar I have ever known, he isn't vain about his intelligence, and he isn't afraid to look foolish."
The Magus sighed, running his hand over a scar on his hand, a scar he'd received from the sword of guard employed by the queen who sat before him now. "I often said Ambiades—you know who Ambiades—" The queen nodded, and the Magus wasn't surprised. "I often said Ambiades should have been heir to the throne, and Sophos my disciple. I said that not only because it was true, but also because I wished—foolishly, selfishly—that I could keep teaching Sophos, and rid myself of Ambiades.
"While I wasn't paying attention I had become annoyingly fond of Sophos, and I wanted to shield him from all the heartbreak, the uncertainty, the necessary cruelty, that would be inevitable parts of his transformation into Sounis."
He paused, moving to stare out the window at the distant Eddisian mountains, and when he spoke it was so soft the queen almost didn't hear. "I failed. Even before…" he turned back and tapped his lip, and the queen nodded, "I had failed him. His father realized that I enjoyed teaching Sophos, and Sophos enjoyed learning from me, and so he took Sophos away long before Eugenides kidnapped me."
"I fail to see how—"
"I never thought," the Magus continued, aware that he had just interrupted a queen, but entirely unable to stop at this point, "that I could ever feel about another person the way I felt about Sophos. I didn't think that protectiveness, that instinctive need to guide, and heal, and teach, and shield, could possibly be divided and bestowed on another person."
The queen was silent, entirely aware what was coming but willing to let him get there in his own time.
"And then…and then the dawn broke on the third day, and the river rushed in, flooding the valley, and I didn't care that I'd failed my king, that I'd disgraced myself, that I'd potentially destroyed my kingdom. All I cared about was the fact that I'd doomed that boy—that infuriating, aggravating, obnoxious, self-centered, unrefined brat—to death. And when I saw him lying on the ground, when I felt his heart beat…I've never been so relieved in my life."
"You think of them as your sons," the Queen said.
The Magus shook his head. "One doesn't presume to think of kings in such terms. And yet…I can't help worrying about them, and feeling responsible for them, and wanting them to be happy, so…" He shrugged helplessly.
"And how does this lead to your hatred of me?" the Queen asked. She'd already guessed, but she wanted to hear him say it.
The Magus leaned against the windowsill, gathering his thoughts, and when he turned around the queen could see some of the anger back in his eyes. "Gen was innocent before he met you."
The Queen covered a snort with a cough, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Eugenides has never been innocent, and you know it better than I do."
"When he came to Sounis, he did so because he wanted to protect his cousin, but also because he wanted fame and glory. It was foolish, and naïve, to plant himself in that prison and hope I'd pick him. He saw the whole thing as an adventure, as a chance to prove himself to his family and his queen, and as a challenge, a chance to do what no one had done before: steal Hamiathes's Gift twice.
"I remember every aspect of that trip vividly: how could I not? And I remember how impatient, how easily offended, how impetuous he was. And when we arrived in Eddis, he showed me his books, his room, all the things he'd stolen. He delighted in showing me just how thoroughly he'd fooled me. " He glanced up at the queen. "He was a boy. A boy on the brink of becoming a man, but still a boy."
The queen said nothing as she held his gaze, her eyes fathomless.
"And then…the next time I saw him, that boy was gone. His eyes were hard, he didn't smile, he was cold and cynical. He once staunchly protested against the life of a soldier because it meant killing people, and here he was leading a battalion, burning down a navy."
"And his hand was gone."
"And his hand was gone," the Magus agreed. "I failed Sophos," he continued, turning away from the queen once again. "I let myself become fond of him. I didn't teach him the things I should have: that people are cruel, that greed will motivate men to unbelievable lengths, that ruthlessness is a necessary part of ruling a country, and that an enemy's soldiers will not care how many books you've read when they come to drag you away."
"But I didn't think," he said, turning to face her, eyes snapping, "that it was necessary to teach Gen any of those things. You proved me wrong with a single knife stroke."
"You hate me because you have no other target for your anger," the Queen said after a few minutes of tense silence. "But remember, Magus, that I didn't force my husband into his chosen profession. He walked into danger with his eyes open. If I hadn't cut off his hand, someone else would. Or they'd have killed him. Would you prefer that?"
"Of course not," the Magus said. He smiled sadly at her. "You are mistaken, Your Majesty. I don't hate you. I hate myself for failing him, for failing them both."
"And yet," she said, as she stood and moved towards the door, "you and I are both well aware that the pain that comes with love is better than the apathy that comes with loneliness."
The Magus nodded, opening and holding the door for her. "Would the gods have allowed you to learn that lesson before you cut off his hand," he said, and she didn't flinch.
"I am now certain, Magus, that the gods intended that to be my lesson—and yours."