Thanks to the author himself, here's a sneak peek of L. E. Modesitt, jr.'s ninth installment in the Imager Portfolio series, Madness in Solidar. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Four centuries after its founding, Solidar’s Collegium of Imagers is in decline, the exploits of its founder, the legendary Quaeryt, largely forgotten. The Collegium is so lacking in leadership that the dying Maitre must summon Alastar, an obscure but talented senior imager from Westisle far to the south who has little knowledge of politics in the capital, as his successor. When Alastar arrives in L’Excelsis and becomes the new Maitre, he finds disarray and lack of discipline within the Collegium, and the ruler of Solidar so hated by the High Holders that they openly refer to him as being mad. To make matters worse, neither Rex Ryen, ridiculed as Rex Dafou, nor the High Holders have any respect for the Collegium, and Alastar finds himself in the middle of a power struggle, with Ryen demanding that the Collegium remove the strongest High Holders and the military leadership in turn plotting to topple Ryen and destroy the Collegium. At the same time, Ryen is demanding the High Holders pay a massive increase in taxes while he initiates a grandiose building project. And all that, Alastar discovers, is only a fraction of the problems he and the Collegium face.
The two gray-clad imagers sat in the two chairs before the oblong desk. The prematurely gray-haired one glanced at the timepiece on the corner of the desk, and its sands flowing from the top of the glass to the bottom.
“Do you have to go?” asked Cyran, the younger of the two men, if only by a few years, although some silver hairs streaked his blond thatch.
“Not quite yet. I’m supposed to meet the rex at half past eighth glass. He’d be happier if it were sixth glass.”
“Is he that early a riser?”
“Supposedly. He always looks tired, even when he’s angry, and that’s more often the case than not.”
“Alastar… don’t you think you’re acceding to his wishes too much? Even Maître Fhaen…”
“He is the source of almost all our funding. That’s barely enough right now, as I pointed out at the last meeting of the senior maîtres. The drought in the southeast, around Piedryn, and the last rains here and in the west, have halved crop yields, and prices are going up… and will increase more. Then there’s the small matter that the Collegium’s charter is to support the rex, and that means against the High Holders and everything else. In the past, that’s meant support against the army high command as well, but with Demykalon only recently becoming marshal, it’s hard to say.”
“The word is that he doesn’t like imagers.”
“That’s likely true.” In fact, that had been one of the first things Alastar had learned after arriving at Imagisle. “That doesn’t mean that Demykalon is that fond of the rex, and these days, Ryen also needs support against the factors’ council.”
“And everyone else, the Nameless knows,” replied Cyran. “That puts us at odds with almost everyone.”
“Ryen is far less than he could be, but would you want Demykalon, or any marshal running Solidar? Or High Holders Haebyn, Nacryon, and Guerdyn? Or any factor that you could name?”
“Especially Elthyrd. He’s behind some new money-lending factorage, likely another excuse for usury on a larger scale.”
“Oh… the new Banque D’Excelsis?” Alastar couldn’t recall where he’d heard that.
“The word is that he put up the golds to back his son. What about Lorien? Would he be a better rex than his father?”
“Who knows? I’ve never met him, but it’s hard to believe he couldn’t do better than his sire, but that’s not a certainty. In any event, we shouldn’t be the ones making that choice. If it ever came out that we did… and it would come out, you know that as well as I…” Alastar did not finish the sentence, but he did not have to, he knew.
“It wouldn’t be the end of the Collegium.”
“If it weren’t, it would come Namer-fired close.” The Maître of the Collegium Imago shook his head. “So we’ll do our best to keep everyone at bay with everyone else until someone with sense shows up.”
“As if anyone with sense would be stupid enough to let it be known,” countered Cyran. “Do you know what Ryen wants?”
“No.” Alastar stood, letting Cyran know that their talk was over. “I can hardly wait to find out what new scheme or pet peeve he’s become obsessed with.”
“Better you than me.”
“Thank you, my friend.” Alastar offered a warm smile, then watched as Cyran left the study. After a moment, he picked up a leather case and riffled through the papers inside, although he doubted that Ryen would wish to discuss what was contained in any of them, unless, of course, Alastar neglected to bring the folder. Then, after donning a riding jacket that matched his imager grays and the gray cap with its polished black leather visor, he made his way out of the study and along the corridor toward the older end of the administration building, that section constructed by the first imagers of the Collegium. That was a much different time. Much different.
He still found it almost unreal that he had been the second-highest imager at Westisle less than two months ago, or that Maître Zhelan had turned down the opportunity to come to head the entire Collegium and had let it be known that Alastar should take the position. The more Alastar heard and saw, the more he understood at least some of the reasons Zhelan had demurred. At least, no one had asked him to go to Mount D’Image, the isolated northern town at the base of the Montagnes D’Glace that housed failed or disciplined imagers. He shuddered at that thought.
Outside the old main entrance, both his escorts were waiting, attired in the standard imager grays, with gray riding jackets and visor caps, given the stiff breeze and almost chill air of mid-fall. So was his mount, an older but not aged gray gelding, a symbolism that Alastar never voiced, but let others infer.
Although he could have summoned one of the Collegium carriages, he preferred to ride, even though that required two young imagers as escorts. While the two carried blades and truncheons, those were backed by imaging skills ranging from the simple expedient of imaging a cloud of fine pepper around the head of an assailant to imaging something into the body of an attacker.
Alastar looked at the gelding, murmured, “Here we go again, fellow,” then mounted and urged the gelding forward. “The north bridge.” He looked to the large gray stone dwelling at the north end of the green bordered by stone-paved lanes on each side. Unlike the family dwellings on each side of the green, it was two stories tall and extended a good forty yards across the front with a wide covered porch wrapping around it – a dwelling that would have been far too large for Alastar, a childless widower, were it not for his responsibilities for entertaining those within the Collegium and, occasionally, those from outside, although he had not done that in the brief time he had been on Imagisle. He turned toward the imager on his left. “How are your studies with Maître Cyran coming, Belsior?”
“Well enough, sir.”
“He mentioned that you have a tendency to be… excessively enthusiastic in imaging iron darts.”
“Yes, sir. He made me understand that.”
Alastar smiled at the understatement, knowing that Cyran had made the young man, a solid third, who might someday possibly become a Maître D’Aspect, image darts until he collapsed, in little more than a tenth of a glass, then walked up to the fallen Belsior and put a sabre at his throat. “He does have a way about him.”
At that, Neiryn, the other third, nodded.
Before long, the three were riding across the north bridge over the River Aluse. Once on the west shore, they turned north on the West River Road, threading their way past a wagon moving south and piled with bales of hay.
The shops that lined the west side of the road were neat enough, Alastar reflected, but definitely showed their age, unlike those on the East River Road. As they neared a point opposite the north end of Imagisle, Alastar again marveled, as he had for every time he saw them, at the gray stone ramparts that sheathed the entire shoreline of the isle that held the Collegium. He still had a hard time believing that the first maître had created those walls in a single day, although that was the story. For his own reasons, Alastar was loath to disabuse that rumor, as, he suspected, had been every Collegium Maître since the first one. Yet… even in a month or a season?
At the west end of the Nord Bridge, the three turned their mounts onto the Boulevard D’Ouest, another wide stone-paved way said to have been created by the Collegium’s first imagers, although the stones showed little if any wear, given that they had been laid nearly four hundred years earlier at the time of the consolidation of Solidar under Rex Regis. Then again, Alastar had to admit that those paving stones looked little different from the way the ones in Westisle had when he had first been an imager primus at that branch of the Collegium nearly thirty years ago.
As they rode closer to the Chateau D’Rex, the shops grew larger and their fronts newer, while the cafés and the occasional bakery sported awnings, although many of those were rolled up, most likely because of the brisk northwest wind. Where the boulevard intersected the ring road around the Chateau D’Rex, Alastar turned south and then took the lane up to the steps leading up to the main portico. At the foot of the steps, he dismounted and handed the gelding’s reins to Belsior. “I have no idea how long I’ll be here.”
“Yes, sir,” the two replied almost in unison.
Alastar took the steps, more than a score, reputedly imaged of near indestructible alabaster-like white stone by the Collegium’s first imagers. He still wondered why they had not brought the approach lane higher so that there were fewer steps, but he supposed that was so that the grade to the stone plaza at the foot of the steps was gentle enough for wagons and carriages.
One of the guards escorted Alastar from the main entry up the grand staircase to the upper level of the Chateau and then back along the north corridor to a chamber almost in the northeast corner, where another guard stood. The second guard rapped on the door. “Maître Alastar, your grace.”
“Send him in!”
The force of Ryen’s words announced his mood, but Alastar smiled as he stepped into the study and walked toward the massive black oak desk that dominated the east end of the long chamber, on which were piled stacks of papers.
From where he sat behind the desk, the angular and near-cadaverous-looking Ryen glared. A too-long lock of black hair swept almost over his left eye. He wore a gold and gray striped tunic that did not become him over gray trousers, a far more conservative attire than that cultivated by most High Holders. “What took you so long?”
“The half-glass has not yet rung, sir.”
“That doesn’t matter. It still takes you too long to get here. It’s not much more than a mille from Imagisle to the Chateau.”
“That is as the raven flies. There’s no direct route from Imagisle to the Chateau. I have to ride north to the Boulevard D’Ouest – ”
“You’ve explained that before.” Ryen smiled, the intense glare of the moment before instantly gone and replaced with an expression of total warmth. “We need to do something about that. I will obtain the land, and you and your imagers will build a new boulevard directly from the northern bridge… the bridge of wishes or whatever…”
”The Bridge of Desires,” supplied the Collegium Maître.
“…directly to the Chateau.”
“Just to the ring road around the Chateau,” suggested Alastar, well aware of the rex’s very literal mindset.
Alastar refrained from sighing. “If we build it right to the entry portico, it will destroy your east gardens and make it harder for you and your family to get to the hunting park or the marshal’s headquarters or anywhere else. The extra few hundred yards or so won’t make any difference in the time it takes to get to and from Imagisle.”
“To the ring road, then. But directly there from the bridge.”
“Once you have arranged for the land, we will stand ready to begin work on the road. Now… what was the matter for which you requested my presence?"
“High Holder Guerdyn has announced that the High Council, in acceding to the wishes of the High Holders of all Solidar, will refuse to pay their annual tariffs if I increase them in the coming year.”
Refuse to pay? Unprecedented as that sounded, it didn’t surprise Alastar after the rhetorical rumblings over the past season.
“This year’s tariffs?” Alastar knew tariffs were due by the end of Feuillyt, thirty-two days away, “or next year’s?”
“They haven’t said. I haven’t asked. Yet. It’s likely to be this year’s tariffs. Why else would they say that now? I have to announce next year’s tariffs before this year’s are due.”
“You have to?”
“It’s in the Codex.”
“What if you don’t?” Who could make you?
“According to the Codex, they don’t have to pay this year’s tariffs until I announce next year’s.”
“That could pose a problem…” temporized Alastar, suspecting that if even a fraction of the High Holders withheld tariff payments, Ryen – and the Collegium – would face difficult times before long, certainly within months, if not weeks.
“Pose a problem?” snapped Ryen. “There are Namer-fired few golds left in the Treasury. They know that. There have been fewer every year by the end of harvest. That’s why I need to increase the tariffs. They haven’t been increased in years.”
“What about the factors?”
“What about them? They don’t have to pay, either.”
“Could you leave the tariffs at the same level for next year, and say that they’ll increase next year?”
“Are you an idiot, Maître?!! That’s how I got into this mess. That’s what your predecessor suggested. Then he went and died.”
Alastar managed not to swallow. Fhaen had never mentioned tariffs. Then, the former maître hadn’t mentioned all too many problems. “Is Guerdyn speaking for himself or as chief of the High Council?”
“He can’t speak for the High Council until they meet on the eighteenth of Feuillyt.”
“Have you heard anything from the other four councilors?”
“Haebyn and Nacryon agree with Guerdyn. Moeryn and Vaun won’t oppose me.”
“Vaun won’t be a councilor after year turn,” Alastar pointed out.
“I know that. I want you to do something about one of those against me.”
“What would you suggest?”
“Whatever it takes.” Ryen’s smile vanished. “Those insufferable malcontents… privileged and spoiled brats… all of them…”
“That may be, sir, but if any of those three vanish or die suddenly, everyone will blame you. They will as well if any of them takes ill this soon before the High Council meets.”
“Then find a way to get one of them to change his mind.” The rex’s voice turned cold. “Your predecessor was less… ”
“Less willing to point out the unpleasantnesses? That is true.” And that was one of the reasons why the senior imagers continued to support him until almost the end.
“I was sorry to learn of his passing.” Ryen’s voice softened, then turned colder once more. “You know that Demykalon doesn’t like imagers, especially when they bring up the unpleasant.”
“I’m well aware of the marshal’s distaste for both scholars and imagers. Have you talked with him about this?”
“I’d prefer not to use force of arms at this point, or even threaten it. Haebyn and several others would refuse to pay until I put a battalion on his doorstep, and sending a battalion all the way to Piedryn would create problems I don’t want to think about.”
Alastar nodded. From what little he’d heard about Haebyn, and he had heard a few things, Haebyn never let go of a grudge, at least according to Maître Zhelan.
“I’d end up having troopers riding everywhere. That would cost more golds. I won’t countenance spending golds to obtain them. I won’t!” Ryen’s voice rose not quite to a shout.
Alastair waited a long moment. “The High Holders might raise private armies in return, and we’d have a civil war on our hands.” And because some of the commanders come from High Holder families, they might well not obey orders to discipline other High Holders.
“I’m glad you include the Collegium as part of ‘we.’” Ryen waved toward the study door. “Let me know when you’ve taken care of the problem.”
“I’ll look into it,” replied Alastar. “Then we’ll see.”
“If you don’t solve it, I’ll have to cut the golds to the Collegium, you know.”
“I’m well aware of the source of much of our funding, but at times, tightening one’s belt is preferable to slitting one’s throat.” Or the throats of innocent students and young imagers, which is more to the point.
“I won’t press the point, Maître, but an increase in tariffs would serve us all far better than belt-tightening. That would only encourage more attempts to throttle us both in the future.”
Alastar nodded, if reluctantly, although Ryen was doubtless right. He turned and made his way from the rex’s study, well aware that Ryen’s gaze had turned to the window even before Alastar closed the study door on his way out.
On his ride back to the Collegium, Alastar pondered the situation facing both Ryen and the imagers… and the fact that Fhaen had never mentioned the tariff problem.
Once he was back in the administration building, he stopped at the table desk set in the anteroom outside his study and looked at the elderly imager secondus seated there. “Dareyn… would you please inform the senior imagers that there will be a meeting in the conference chamber at the first glass of the afternoon. It won’t take long, but I expect all of them to be there.” Not that there are that many seniors these days.
After Alastar returned to the study, his eyes took in the ancient Telaryn sabre mounted on a plaque hung on the wall behind the desk. Not for the first time, he wondered why the most tangible memorial remaining from the Collegium’s founder was a sabre, given that the founder had been an imager. With a faint smile, he took his copy of the Collegium’s master ledger from the small bookcase behind and left of his desk chair, sat down, and began to peruse the ledger. After that came an examination of the Collegium roster… and the revised junior imager training and academic program that he had proposed a month earlier, when he had become Maître, and oh-so-slowly begun to implement. He was still going over that when Dareyn knocked.
“The others are all in the conference room, sir.”
“Thank you.” Alastar stood and left his study, crossed the anteroom, and entered the conference room, where he took his place at the head of the long, time-darkened, and well-polished oak table, glancing at the five senior imagers gathered there. Outside of Cyran and himself, there were only four others – Taryn, Akoryt, Desyrk, and Obsolym, all of those four Maîtres D’Structure, although the white-haired Obsolym was barely that in terms of imaging ability.
“You’re not going to bring up more changes to the academic, physical, and imaging training again, are you?” wheezed Obsolym.
“No, I’m not. I’m going to go over your roles in implementing it.” Since some of you aren’t doing what is necessary. “But before we get to that, I’m going to tell you why.” He paused. “I had a meeting with Rex Ryen this morning.”
“What did he want?” asked Cyran.
“He wants us to build an avenue straight from the Bridge of Desires to the ring road around the Chateau D’Rex. That was the more reasonable demand. After that, he effectively demanded that we make certain that the High Council does not vote to oppose the increase in tariffs on High Holders and factors that he intends to impose next year. That will require changing one of the probable votes in the coming High Council meeting because the High Council is opposed to paying any increase in tariffs. Ryen doesn’t want to announce an increase if they’ll vote to withhold their tariffs. They don’t have to pay this year’s tariffs until he announces next year’s, and the Treasury is almost empty.”
“It’s always been almost empty by the end of the year,” declared Obsolym. “What about this avenue?”
“I told him we could do the road, but not until he owned the property and had made the arrangements. I also told him it would take weeks, possibly longer. The other matter is… more delicate and dangerous. I’d like each of your thoughts on that, especially given the precarious position the Collegium finds itself in.” He looked to Taryn, the black-haired Maître D’Structure to his left.
“Ryen hasn’t been the best of rexes…”
That total understatement drew a few chuckles, mostly from Cyran and Desyrk.
“…and he’s never been predictable, but he has a point. We’re struggling to pay for everything. The factors and the High Holders complain if we use imaging to make anything that cuts into what they do. The army consists of six regiments, or thirty battalions, and the Navy is made up of a score of antique warships. Ryen barely rules, but a tariff increase is necessary.” Taryn turned his head to the red-headed Akoryt, the youngest man at the table.
“The High Holders won’t listen to reason,” said Akoryt mildly. “They only respond to force. Force won’t work with the factors. There are too many of them, and too few of us to intimidate enough of them to make a difference.”
“The factors will follow the lead of the High Holders, though,” added Cyran. “Even if they’re not happy about it. So far, they have, anyway.”
Desyrk cleared his throat. “My brother the commander has often pointed out that force is often the only thing that works. Force will turn everyone against us. That makes all the choices before the Collegium unpleasant.” His brown eyes fixed on Alastar, then dropped.
“They are,” responded Alastar. “When I was summoned here from Westisle by the former Maître, I had no idea how much the position of the Collegium here had deteriorated. I have debated summoning several Maîtres D’Aspect and perhaps one Maître D’Structure from Westisle, but, if I did, they would not arrive for more than a month, perhaps not until mid to late Finitas, and that will be too late for them to help with this difficulty.” He paused, knowing what he was about to say would sound like ancient history, but knowing it had to be said. “The first imagers of the Collegium were warriors. They were survivors of prosecution and persecution and murder. They numbered only a handful, but they were battle-hardened veterans who had developed enormous powers, the kind of powers we’ve not pursued developing to that degree in all imagers. We’ve neglected them because that kind of upbringing, testing, and training kills nine out of ten would-be imagers.” As it almost has you several times. “As some of you know, as the senior imager of the Collegium in Westisle, I was criticized because my training methods resulted in greater losses of young imagers, even though what we did there was as nothing compared to what those first imagers endured. If imagers are to survive in Solidar, we must toughen our studies and our training.”
“The kind of training you’re talking about takes time and patience,” declared Taryn. “You’re right about how we should train imagers in the future. That was why I supported Maître Fhaen’s decision to summon you, but we have to deal with the problems we’re facing now.”
“You’re absolutely right,” agreed Alastar. “We can’t rush training of the younger imagers. In fact, their training will have to take longer if it is to be effective. That means we must deal with Ryen and the High Holders by subterfuge, give the impression of greater strength than we have in fact, and create the sense that we are forbearing use of mighty powers in the hope that the High Holders will come to their senses.”
“You and Cyran are the only ones with those kinds of abilities, especially at a distance,” pointed out Desyrk. “Even you two might be pressed against the latest cannon of the army. Or the focused fire of the heavy rifles.”
“When do you intend to make all these changes?” demanded Obsolym.
“We’ve already started. You know that. Maître Cyran is working with the most promising seconds and thirds to develop shields and other capabilities sooner in their studies.”
“The older way was safer,” declared Obsolym.
“Safer for the individual imager at the time, but failing to develop imaging capabilities to a greater degree has put them more at risk than they ever would have been if we’d followed what I’ve set out.” Or what we began two years ago at Westisle. “Something like ten imagers brought Rex Kharst and Bovaria to their knees. Ten. We have close to a hundred, between L’Excelsis and Westisle, and I doubt that any of us could image a fraction of what those ten could do.” Alastar was understating slightly, because he and Cyran could do quite a bit more than a fraction, but nothing close to what the structures created by the legendary Quaeryt and even the less legendary Elsior showed was possible. “Now we’re faced with a near-impossible situation, and we’re in that position because we’ve pampered ourselves and the young imagers.”
“You can’t change that overnight,” Obsolym pointed out.
“You’re absolutely right,” Alastar repeated, hating to keep harping on the situation, but knowing that at times repetition was necessary, “but the sooner we begin, the sooner we can begin to change matters, and improve our situation.” If we can hold off Ryen, the marshal, the High Holders, and the factors… and possibly even the guilds. “Now… let me go over the outline of the training program… and what I expect of each of you. I’m open to any suggestions about improving matters…” Alastar had no doubt that the meeting would last at least another glass, but he had to make certain that each senior imager understood not only his responsibilities but also the responsibilities of every other imager.