C. Dale Brittain

Mage Quest



Christmas was over, and everyone was grumpy-that is, everyone except the king.

King Haimeric of Yurt came back inside the castle from the courtyard. He had been seeing off the king and queen of the neighboring kingdom, who with their family had spent Christmas with us. King Haimeric had a faint smile on his lips and a faraway look in his eyes, as though seeing well beyond the stone walls of the great hall. I noted irritably that many of the pine boughs hung on those walls had started losing their needles.

“Wizard!” he called to me as he settled himself on his throne before the roaring fire and arranged his lap robe. “I’ve just heard something wonderful.”

I pulled up a chair to sit next to him. The royal castle of Yurt had once been a defensible castle, a center of wars, but for the last several generations the Christmas festivities were about as exciting as we got. Even the time we were all attacked by a dragon, just as we finished opening the presents, had been nine years ago. I really had eaten too much this last week or two, and the weather had been bad enough that none of us had gotten much exercise beyond walking to and from meals.

“So what have you heard?” I asked the king, feeling dull but trying my best to sound interested.

“The king of Caelrhon was just telling me very exciting news: someone has developed a blue rose!”

It was going to be even harder to sound interested than I thought. “But I can create a blue rose for you with magic any time you like. I haven’t practiced wizardry on your rose garden in the past because I assumed you liked doing the crosses yourself, but a new color shouldn’t be hard.”

I hesitated inwardly even while I spoke. An illusory blue rose would certainly be easy enough, but the color would shortly fade. I didn’t know offhand a spell to change something’s color permanently, much less to pass that color on to the next generation of roses, but I might be able to improvise something.

“Not a magical blue rose,” said the king with a wave of his hand, “but a real one.”

I considered saying that, always assuming I could do the spells correctly, the color on my blue rose would be as “real” as the color on this rose he had heard about. But I hated to argue with my king. “I’ve never seen a blue rose,” I said instead. It appeared I would be hearing quite a bit whether I wanted to or not, and I might as well be agreeable about it. “Some of your deep red varieties shade into violet, but that’s not very close.”

“That’s right,” said King Haimeric, then fell silent, staring into the fire.

I went into a reverie of my own. Maybe I wouldn’t have to hear about this rose after all. At Christmas one was supposed to feel congeniality and love for one’s fellow man, but I was instead having to fight against feeling dissatisfied with life in such a quiet little kingdom. I was just wondering if there were any Christmas cookies left, and if so if they had all become stale, when the king startled me so much that I forgot all about being grumpy.

“I’m an old man, and I’ve never been on a quest,” he said. “I think it’s about time.”

I was not an old man, in spite of the white beard which I kept hoping, in spite of all evidence, gave me an air of wizardly wisdom. But I had never been on a quest either. Perversely, when I had just been thinking Yurt was too dull, leaving it suddenly seemed too adventurous. The thought of leaving the royal castle, where we were comfortable and safe from the sleet, and starting off on some unknown but doubtless highly dangerous journey filled me with horror.

But the king said nothing more about a quest, and in the following weeks I decided it was just a momentary whim, brought on by the mention of the blue rose. But the idea kept nagging at the back of my mind. In the nearly ten years I had been Royal Wizard of Yurt, King Haimeric had never been gone from the kingdom for more than a month or so at a time, and, for that matter, neither had I.

I loved Yurt, but sometimes, unexpectedly, when sitting down to dinner with the same people I had sat down to dinner with for ten years, or looking out across a snowy landscape, a vision came to me unbidden. Sometimes it was a complicated vision, of exciting experiences and adventures never met at home, but usually it was just a scene: riotous red flowers spreading their blooms beneath an intense sun; a bazaar where bright colors, foreign voices, and complex spicy odors competed for attention; and palm trees swaying by an azure summer sea.

If the king was thinking of going on a quest, then the most horrifying thought was that he might go without me.

King Haimeric spent January as he usually spent January. His eyeglasses perched on his nose, he went through the rose catalogs that were shipped up from the great City, studying all the sketches of newly-developed varieties and the extravagant descriptions of their colors and scent. Haimeric loved his rose garden second only to the queen and their son-and probably the kingdom of Yurt itself-and I suspected his own new varieties were superior to anything the City growers could produce. But that had never kept him from studying the catalogs assiduously all winter or from sending off orders for new rootstocks as soon as the cold weather began to break.

“Now this horse,” said Prince Paul.

I had been thinking about the king and his roses while standing in the stables, but the boy’s voice brought me back quickly from my thoughts.

“All right,” I said. “But remember not to kick or swing your feet. This gelding’s bigger than the mares, and you don’t want to startle it.”

It was warm and dusty in the stables, and the snow falling outside seemed very far away. I lifted the royal heir slowly straight up with magic, then sideways over the wooden gate of the stall. He stretched out his legs, remembering not to kick, as I set him down on the gelding’s broad back. The horse turned its head in some surprise to stare at him, but Paul stroked its mane and spoke soothingly. At age eight, the boy was already better with horses than I had ever been.

“Ready?” I said, then lifted him slowly up again, over the gate, and back beside me.

Paul grinned at me, and I grinned back, with the schoolboy feeling of getting away with something naughty. Paul was perfectly safe, I knew, and would not fall off even the biggest horse as long as my magic held him, but I was still fairly sure that, if asked, the queen would not have approved.

“Now this horse,” said Paul.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “We’re not going to proceed through the entire stable, putting you on the back of every horse in Yurt.”

“Well, you did agree, Wizard,” he said, looking at me with calculating green eyes, “that riding my pony wasn’t going to prepare me for bigger horses.”

“That still doesn’t mean I’m going to lift you onto every horse here. Choose one more, then we’d better stop.”

Paul walked down the row of stalls, considering. Gwennie, who had observed him silently so far, went after him.

They came back together. “The chestnut stallion at the far end,” said Paul. “Then I promise not to ask any more.”

“But that’s your cousin Dominic’s stallion. It’s the biggest horse we have.”

“I know,” said Paul. “That’s why I chose him. You promised!” he added when I hesitated.

Prince Dominic, I was quite sure, would not approve of his young cousin sitting, even for a minute and even if very quietly, on his favorite stallion. But if I was willing to go along with Paul’s game in spite of what the queen might think, I was certainly not going to worry about Dominic.

“All right,” I said. “But this really is the last one.”

Paul, Gwennie, and I went down to the far end of the stables. Several cats came to rub against our ankles,

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