Saturion meets face-to-face with the leader of the Guild of Court Mages, one of the most powerful organizations in all of Arcania, to convince her to accept him into the guild. But she knows a secret about him that will shake the foundation of Arcania to its core.
The Jesters' Society
Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar's Conquest
After his rejection from the Guild of Court Mages, Saturion Deshane, a farmer's son from the breadlands of Nirgrend, set out on his own to the capital city of Sylvania to seek an audience with High Mage Valera and convince her to accept him into the guild. Along the way, he encountered a kindly merchant named Andros and his friends, the owner and operator of a Sylvanian tavern called The Drunken Bunk, and her daughter Citrine. At the Bunk, Saturion learned of a mysterious madness spreading throughout the countryside as a messenger arrived to give Portia terrible news. Andros surmises that the news must involve Citrine, but neither he nor Andros know the details. They left a hysterical Portia to her daughter's care and headed to the Court Mage's Tower where Saturion planned to demand a rendezvous to plead his case. To his surprise, Saturion could not enter the tower courtyard for only accepted members of the guild were allowed in. When we last saw Saturion, he had nowhere to run as two guards, believing him a dangerous imposter, launched arrows at his head…
"Only Court Mages allowed through without permission, bloke," said one of the Mage Tower guards.
"But I am a court mage," Saturion said.
"Then you should have no trouble getting through," the other guard said, nocking his arrow. The first guard followed suit. "Before our arrows pierce your heart."
"Shall we give 'im to the count of three?"
"Why not, then? One!"
Saturion heard the whizz of the arrows fly. Instinctively, he took a step backwards and fell through the magical barrier between the courtyard and the Tower. He saw the arrows collide harmlessly into the other side of the magical barrier before clattering to the ground. The guards jumped from their places and ran toward the barrier. Saturion shrank back, bracing himself for another attack that never came. He realized that he could see out not the guards could not see in. One of the guards knocked on the barrier, sending ripples of energy like waves across the surface. From their side, it remained solid. Saturion could see them perfectly well, although the image was a bit distorted like it was covered by a film of oil. Saturion backed away from the barrier and slowly turned to survey the chamber around him.
Gone were the busy Sylvanian streets. In its place, he had been transported to a large circular sanctum filled with baubles and whozawhatsits and artifacts that buzzed with magical acuity. The room smelled of finely grained pepper, lilac and smoke. Books lined every inch of the built-in chamber shelves and a library ladder flitted on its own between sections, pulling books down and magically replacing them from a stack on the top ladder rung. Starlight peered in from the ceiling skylight despite it being the middle of the day. Shooting stars streaked across the chamber sky as Dust rained down, in a slow drizzle. Somehow, the occupant of this chamber had set up a hands-free siphoning technique to channel Dust from the cosmos. It self-sifted, twirling in the sky before lowering itself into two neck-high glass decanters filled with layers of colored Dust on either side of the room. The decanter to the left held the eight shimmers of the White while the container on the right contained those of the Black.
Saturion felt the container of the Black pulse and pull him toward it. He took a step. The Dust sorted itself so that there were eight semi-equal levels, one for each color of the Black Arts. Dust, Saturion knew, was comprised of the sixteen main colors of the spectrum, known as shimmers, and subdivided into eight that were considered of the White and served the All-Mother and eight that served the Black and the All-Father. He had never seen such a concentration of Dust. It was not impossible to come by pouches of impure Dust on the streets or in the markets, but purely sifted Dust of each color and of such volume? It was worth a fortune many lifetimes over. In the center of the decanter, the red Dust burned with an intensity that caught Saturion's breath. He wanted to fall to his knees, to smash the container open and feel every grain of Dust fall from his hands. The chamber seemed to disappear as he took another step forward, all of the colors of the Black calling to him, a cacophony of voices that he could not resist.
A voice like a thunderbolt, heavy and commanding, cut through the others and shocked Saturion from the his trance. "I did not expect you to actually come," said High Mage Valera of the Court of Mages. "Take a seat."
Color returned to Saturion's sight as the rest of the chamber faded back in. Was the pull of the Dust so strong as to truly block her out? Or had she been invisible, watching perhaps to see what he'd do? Regardless, the rest of the sanctum came back into focus and Saturion saw that Valera sat at a desk made of black driftwood just beyond the siphoning decanters. She flicked her wrist and a wooden chair flew from a hidden section of the room trailing copper light. It pushed itself forward at Saturion's knees, forcing him to sit, and floated over the thick maroon carpet until he sat across from Valera.
Saturion had never seen the High Mage before and found her quite striking. She had the honey-kissed complexion of one from the southern territories with long black, braided hair streaked with silver. She wore a simple aqua dress with a silver brooch in the shape of the guild seal. On her wrist dangled a white bracelet cut with eight stones — emerald, pearl, ruby, sapphire, amber, gold, diamond, morganite, and turquoise, one for each Shimmer of the White. She dissected a dead rat on the desk and did not look up as Saturion neared. look up from her specimen, a dead rat that she began to dissect from nose to tail. At least, Saturion thought it was dead, until Valera sprinkled a pinch of turquoise Dust on it, and its beady eyes sprung to life. It squirmed trying to escape the pincers that held it in place but Valera paid it no mind as she poked and prodded at its insides with a silver instrument. "Is that alcohol I smell on your breath?" she asked, addressing him.
Saturion jumped in his seat. "No," he said, suppressing a hiccup.
Valera reached into one of several pouches open on the desk and withdrew a touch of purple Dust, known for its ability to increase the potency of poisons and potions, as well as to heal from their effects. She cast it in Saturion's face. He coughed as he breathed in the twinkling magic. The throbbing in his head dissipated slightly.
"Thank you," Saturion said, running his fingers through his shoulder-length dark hair. "For saving me back there."
She waved his thanks away. "If you were truly in danger, it would have been from the mages standing guard beyond the threshold."
"I saw no mages," Saturion said.
"That's because they did not want to be seen," Valera said. "But you are welcome none the less. I would not do to have a corpse in the entrance to the tower if it can be avoided."
"Right…" Saturion said, thankful that they were in agreement regarding the state of his corpse.
"Now tell me, Saturion Deshane, why this highly intrusive visit?"
He gathered his courage and began. "You received my letters?" He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. For the first time since applying to the Guild Court, Saturion seriously doubted his abilities. All of his bravado, his self-righteousness and indignation at being rejected dissipated In the few minutes since he'd been at the Tower. Already he had seen incredible displays of Dustcraft. He had slipped through a one way portal, seen Dust siphoned from the stars. How close to death had he really come, dealt by the invisible hands of mages a more seasoned Dustcrafter would have been able to sense? He felt very much like the rat that Valera brought back to life, just another plaything for her to poke and prod relishing the knowledge that she held their lives in her hands. Now Valera brought a rat to the brink of death and back again, a feat Saturion could scarcely imagine performing himself. He had taught himself to wield two Shimmers of Dust, but his magical journey had just begun. There were fourteen others and now as he sat across from the most powerful master in all of Westmarch, he suspected this might be as close as he ever got to true power. He tried to gulp but found his mouth dry.
"My secretary read them," Valera responded, not taking her eyes off the rat.
"Then you should know why I'm here."
"I want to hear it from you," she said. The rat squealed as she stuck it in the lung. "In your own words."
"I… I'm here because there has been some kind of mistake," Saturion said, struggling to keep his eyes on Valera and not on the dying rat before him. She never moved her eyes from the creature. Her eyes, blue with specks of silver, were like waves beneath storm clouds that had not yet broken. Calm, still, but threatening. She showed no empathy, no compassion for her subject as she prodded away at its insides.
"The Court of Mages does not make mistakes," Valera said. "Your magical aptitude tests showed you had no natural talent for Dustcraft. You come from a no-name village and from a family of no repute. Tell me, what wisdom would you bring the governors? How familiar are you with military tact with which to advise the generals? Have you memorized the hundred and twenty three uses of silver dragon scales in potion making? What of the properties of Harmonious Breath of the magenta dragons?"
"The dragons are dead, your magicalness," Saturion said dumbly.
"Then you must be a dragon for those you would advise on behalf of the court," Valera said. "The Guild of Court Mages is the most influential organization in all of Arcania. To maintain that status, our members must recreate the might and power of the dragons. Their wits, their cunning, their skill." With each word, she slit a little deeper into the rat's side. "I see none of that in you. Why then, should we let you in?"
"I can learn," he said, wincing as she flipped the rat over and took the scalpel to its other side.
"One does not simply learn the intricacies of Dustcraft," she said. "I have lived for over four hundred years and they call me a master. I am no master."
Valera slit the rat's throat and Saturion watched it die. She sprinkled another batch of turquoise Dust over it and it came back to life again. The rat looked like it wanted to scream.
"Please," he said, his voice a whisper. "Give me a chance. Let me prove my worth." Saturion glanced around the chamber, his eyes lingering for a moment on the red Dust again.
When he looked back, Valera peered at him. "The red Dust," she said. "It calls to you."
"You want it," she said. "You want to break the decanter and burn this tower to the ground."
"No," Saturion said, shaking his head. "No, that's crazy."
"Do not lie to me, boy," Valera said, the storm clouds in her eyes gathering dark. "Go on then," she said. "Call it toward you. Use its power to melt through the glass and wield it." Her thin lip curled into a smile. "Strike me, if you wish, and earn your place among the worthy."
"No buts, boy! Do it or leave this chamber at once!"
Saturion squirmed under her gaze, felt as if a tidal wave threatened to collapse upon him. He closed his eyes, listened for the call of the Dust. He could hear it, faintly, but it was smothered underneath the other layers, the other colors on top and below.
Move, damn you, he thought. Move!
And yet, it did not move.
"You cannot do it," Valera said. "Of course." She began to laugh.
"No," Saturion said, clenching his fists in his lap. He unclenched and dug his nails into his knees, willing the red Dust to him. He had failed. His entire life had been one joke after another starting with the day he had met his first jester, a traveler who had stopped in Nirgrend one night when Saturion was a boy. That evening at the inn, he put on a light show for the kids. Saturion remembered sitting and pretending not to be impressed, more interested in the bags of Dust on the jester's belt. With everyone focused on the show, Saturion managed to snag a handful of red Dust. He left the inn without his father who still drank at the bar. He hurried home, climbed into bed, and let the Dust sift from one hand to the next, wishing he could disappear in the morning like the jester. Wishing this entire place would disappear so that he could be free to have his own adventures.
That's when the Dust sparked.
He had dropped the fiery Dust on the wooden floor and watched transfixed and horrified as it ate through the room, zig zagging through the hallway to where his mother slept. To where she burned.
Now, in Valera's chamber, he could feel the heat rising again, his mother's screams ringing out across time and space to haunt him again. "Stop. Laughing!" Saturion cried. Both decanters shattered behind him as he rose. The Dust falling from the ceiling stopped its sifting and formed a vortex around him, swirling with immeasurable light and power. Decanter Dust lifted from the floor and circled Saturion. When he opened his eyes, they were orbs of ash and fire.
He made intricate movements with his fingers and willed the Dust to reshape itself. It bent to his demand, stitching together until it formed the outline of a dragon's head and shot fire at the High Mage, who jumped from her seat and deflected it with a wave. She shot a burst of air with a punch that took Saturion in the middle. It knocked the wind from him and he fell back into his seat, closing his eyes.
The dragon's head dissipated as the vortex of Dust collapsed. Valera moved like rain, fluid, natural, beautiful. Before it a single grain she had forced it to sift again and return to the neat layers of color in the decanter as the glass rose from the ground and returned itself to its place.
Saturion opened his very normal eyes to see Valera sitting back down. Not a hair disheveled. His mother's screams had turned to laughter in his ears, just as they had the night she died. Mercifully, the laughter faded. "Was that… real?" he said.
"It was," said Valera, touching her hair gingerly.
"So… did I do it? Did I prove myself?" his voice was small and desperate despite his best attempts to hide it. He needed this. He had tasted power, although he did not yet know how. He could not leave empty handed. Not now. Not after what just happened.
"No," Valera said.
"You allowed your emotions to get the better of you causing an uncontrolled explosion of magic. You lack discipline and understanding. If I asked you to do it again, you could not."
Saturion knew it was true.
"But you have made an impression, boy," she said, conjuring a small scroll of parchment and a feather quill. She dipped it into a well of black ink and scribbled a note, sealing it with the sigil of the guild. "Take this," she said.
"What is it?"
"An assignment," she said. "If you truly do not wish to return to Nirgrend, then you will accept it."
Saturion's heart fluttered at the sight of the Guild Court of Mages' sigil. He fumbled to break it and read its contents.
I, High Mage Valera of the Guild of Court of Mages, have assigned one Saturion Deshane to our sister guild, the Jesters' Society, where he will train in the arts of morality and learn the ways of Dustcraft while under the supervision of a military general.
"The Jesters' Society!?" Saturion said. "You'd have me join the failures and freaks?"
"The Jesters' Society has been around nearly as long as the Guild Court."
"Yeah, it's where you send your rejects. I am not interested in a consolation prize." Saturion stood up. "Coming here was a mistake."
"Then go home," Valera said. "Return to your farm and your piggies with your tail tucked between your legs. Tell your father what lies suit you but we will know the truth: When given a chance to become something in this society, Saturion Deshane chose to go home and hide in the hay."
Rage filled Saturion's veins and for a second, it felt like the fiery Dust might explode from him again. Instead, he grabbed the rat off of Valera's desk and snapped its neck, dropping the corpse into Valera's bag of turquoise Dust.
She looked from the corpse to Saturion and said simply, "Do you accept?'
Through grinding teeth, Saturion whispered his answer. "Yes."
She gave a curt nod and flicked her wrist, conjuring another portal behind him."This gateway will take you to the Jesters' Society where you will be given your assignment. You may now go," Valera said.
Saturion turned his back to her.
"And Saturion? I do not wish to ever see you again. If I do, you will learn what four hundred years of Dustcraft study has wrought."
He gripped the parchment with his new assignment and walked through the portal without another word. On the other side, he found himself transported to the back of a line where overweight men, lanky boys, and transforming ladies stood. Some juggled, some tried cartwheels, others drank from bottles without labels as they waited in a line that fed into a gaudy orange circus tent. Saturion tapped on the shoulder of the man in front of him, a hairy beast with no shirt and short suspenders that kept his floppy pants mostly from falling. "Excuse me but you can tell me where I am and what this is a line for?"
"Piss off," the man said, taking a cigar from out of the front of his pants and lighting it with a magical snap of his fingers.
Saturion unfurled the parchment and read it over again, looking quizzically from it to those around him.
"You really don't know?" the man in front of him asked.
"I have a guess," Saturion said.
The man pointed with his cigar to the top of the tent where painted in red dripping letters were the words, "Society for the Merriment and Betterment of Folks, Be Them Ugly, Ill-Disposed, Poor or Boors, With Love and Understated Malice, the Jesters."
"That would have been my guess," Saturion said. "Why is there such a long line?"
The man shrugged. "Work's work," he said. "Not like there's much to come by in this town. This is the line for tryouts."
"Try outs? You mean you want to become a jester?"
"Like I said," the man said as a magically enhanced voice boomed NEXT! "Work's work."
With Valera's note, Saturion did not have to try out to join the society. As a woman stepped in line behind him and practiced transforming from comically large to skinnier than a pole and back again in a puffs of silver Dust, he found himself thankful for that. At least he would not have to make a fool of himself in public. Yet. The line moved forward and Saturion with it.
When she was finally alone, Valera breathed a sigh of relief. Saturion's display of Dustcraft was more advanced than he would ever know. The decanters were magically enhanced against any manner of weapon or tool, opening only for those that the Dust wished to serve. Dust was not alive, not in the traditional sense, but it had a soul. It had agency. Dustcraft was the art of bending that agency to your will.
In Saturion's case, the Dust had wanted him to use it.
At least, the Dust from the Black end of the spectrum did. Only the pure Black Dust remained still during his attack, as if watching him, waiting to see what he would do. Black Dust was notoriously difficult to use. Few ever learned more than its surface level properties. It was the purest form of the All-Father on Arcania, the being said to be the source of all evil. How did the old adage go? Grains of black Dust are little more than a thousand eyes with which the All-Father sees?
She shivered as a knock rang at her door.
"You may enter," she called.
A man in golden armor came in to the sanctum. "High Mage," the man said. "You summoned me?"
"Yes, General Vicar," she said. "I would like you to take on a new jester for your company."
The general scoffed. "You know I do not keep such waste as so-called 'morality boosters' in my company."
"This jester is a special case," she said. "Please, sit."
"I would rather stand."
Valera frowned. She did not care for a man who would not listen. She did not like to command others to comply with her directives. Her suggestions should hold enough authority. "It was not a suggestion," she said.
The general did as he was told.
"A man came to see me today," Valera said. "Near talentless. Weak. Cowardly. He sent my secretary a letter demanding an audience."
"That is not enough to gain an audience with the High Mage," the general said.
"Usually not," she agreed. "But in this case, my secretary thought him persistent enough to examine further. He had the letter reviewed by our seers, who peered into his future to see if he might be worth reconsidering."
"An accomplishment of its own," the general said. "To get the Guild of Mages to budge."
Valera noted the jab. She and the military did not often agree on the right path forward for Arcania. Where the mages preferred to wait and strike only when assured of success, the generals struck before asking who to strike. The governors spent most of their time quelling infighting between the two factions, with precious little governance actually getting done. Meanwhile, unemployment was at a fifty year high. Crops from the outlands had come to a standstill while a mysterious madness swept the countryside. And now, Valera had a new concern. Saturion Deshane.
She began again slowly. "I did not believe the seer when word of her premonition reached me," Valera said. "So I did a reading myself."
"The man's future is… unclear. I see silver smoke and black plumes that form the mouth of a dragon. A man in black riding a platinum wyvern into the dragon's mouth."
The general shifted in his seat, comfortable enough in his armor not to make a sound. "Is that all?"
"No," Valera said. "The mouth opens and from it rings a heinous laugh. I have not been able to get it out of my head."
"A platinum wyvern," the general said. "Is it the girl assigned to me?"
"I believe it is," Valera said. "Citrine Belafont. You must watch her and the jester Saturion closely while on your mission. If the premonitions are correct, they may play a larger role in the future of this world than we could ever have guessed."
"I thought my mission was to find the source of the madness and contain it," Vicar said. "Now you want me to babysit?'
Valera bit her lip. "I do not believe the two are separate," she said. "Insanity creeping through the countryside. A new wyvern appearing under our noses and a man clad all in black? Ominous times, general. There are few in the military who I can trust. Can I trust you? For old time's?" Valera almost smiled thinking of how they once were, years ago. How they could never be again.
"Why not simply kill him and end it, then?"
"Because," Valera said, her words dripping like molasses. "He could be useful. I have sent him to join the Jesters. Once he does, you will accept him."
"And if he doesn't join?"
"He will," Valera said. "He yearns to be special too much to go home. He will join you in the square tomorrow and on your expedition to the outlands along with Ms. Belafont. Watch them closely. If they prove useful, guide them. And if you must, kill them."