Enter the halls of Parliament with Varic, Coron of the Corvaric Coast.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Aspects by John M. Ford, out from Tor Books on April 5th.
Enter the halls of Parliament with Varic, Coron of the Corvaric Coast.
Visit Strange House with the Archmage Birch.
Explore the mountains of Lady Longlight alongside the Palion Silvern, Sorcerer.
In the years before his unexpected death, John M. Ford wrote a novel of fantasy and magic unlike any other. Politics and abdicated kings, swords and sorcerous machine guns, divination and ancient empires—finally, Aspects is here.
It was eight minimi past eleven. Brook passed the calendar to the President, who made the announcement of Motion Five, since Brook would be presenting it.
Motion Five was a test case. In Brook’s Revised Constitution, it would be a full Article. It said that “as Sorcery is given to be an Art practiced by Willing Artisans, knowing its Limits and Risks, so shall all fruits of that Art be considered Willful Acts of the Artisan, and subject to all the Rights and Liabilities as shall appertain to such Acts under the Law.”
It meant that if a sorcerer made it rain on your dry fields, you could not deny payment by claiming that the rain fell by Goddess’s will. The Lords Sorcerous could be expected to like that. It also meant that if the rain drowned livestock or washed the crops away—and the nature of magic made that entirely likely—the magician could be dragged into court for damages, and the sorcerers could be expected not to like that at all.
No, they did not. They murmured until the President tapped his rod, and then one of them stood to request the floor. The man’s name was Deriano. He was a thin man of middling height, with thin dark mustaches and a neat square beard. His long coat was black, plain but of expensive stuff, his waistcoat embroidered with golden sunbursts, and there were matching thumbnail-sized rubies on his watch chain and his ring. He was, down to his assumed Quercian name, the perfect newspaper-engraving image of a society sorcerer. He was a little pale this morning, a little gray below the eyes; he would have been up late last night.
Varic knew he had been up late, because it had been late when Varic left Deriano’s assistant and his companions, and it would have taken the assistant at least half an hour by cab to reach his master and tell him what the sick-drunk Coron had said.
Brook yielded the floor to Deriano. The magician thanked him, giving him a look somewhat sad and somewhat malicious, and faced the Assembly.
Deriano said, “I begin by saying that I appreciate, I admire, the Coron Brook’s impulse toward justice. Are there any of us here who do not share that impulse? I think not.” He looked up, at Cable in the gallery. Cable smiled.
Varic didn’t smile, but he was pleased. Acknowledging Cable in front of the House was a bad move. It implied that the Justiciar had some kind of authority here, which would offend even Bowenshield (perhaps especially Bowenshield). And everyone with any experience of Cable knew that his impulse, his passion, was for the law. Cable didn’t give a rat’s turd for justice. Deriano, an absentee member, didn’t know any of that. He had only heard that Cable was opposed to Motion Five, and to Brook. So he played to Cable and Cable’s faction.
“But justice,” Deriano went on, completely unaware of what he was doing, “is not simply a matter of drawing a line and measuring all humanity against it. Some of us grow up tall, and some of us grow up short. And some of us grow up with the sorcerer’s talent.
“You are all intelligent, educated people. You know that we do not choose to have the talent; it chooses us. And, just as with any other art, it does not always do what we wish it to do. But do we prosecute a singer for being off-key? Do we fine a painter for an ugly picture?”
Cable was interested now, the hawk looking hungry. That was, Varic knew, exactly what the Justiciar wanted to do. It was why he opposed Brook’s law: it put sorcery’s effects into a legal framework; it was not a system for regulating the act of magic itself.
Deriano went on in that vein for a little longer. He was an easy, informal speaker, well rehearsed, the centerpiece of any social event. His Archanum, the method that organized his magic, was in the cut stones he wore, and he glittered. Winding down, he gave a direct look to Bowenshield, who adjusted his coat to rise for the floor.
Whetstone stood up.
“Will the Lord Deriano yield to the Lord Whetstone?” the President said with a note in his voice that said he knew it was a silly question.
Brook looked carefully at several people, including Whetstone, Varic, and the President. Varic did not move. He knew entirely well that people were watching, noting, where Brook’s gaze went and what happened there. No one was looking at Deriano.
“Gladly,” Deriano said, and took his seat.
Whetstone walked to the podium. “I thank my colleague for yielding,” he said, “and I will not speak long. I merely wish to raise my voice in approval of this intelligent, important, and, may I say it, long-overdue measure.”
The other sorcerers were silent, of course, but some of them looked startled, some angry, some quite pleased. The proxy voters just stared at Whetstone blankly, as apprentices ought to look on masters. Deriano pressed his fingertips together and looked rapt.
Whetstone took no formal notice of any of them. He continued, “For entirely too many years, this nation has treated the practitioners of my ancient Art as children, less than responsible for our actions. Perhaps worse, a few less-than-competent, less- than-scrupulous workers have hidden their own faults behind this legal convenience.”
After that, it was on rails, greased, downhill, with the wind at its back. Bowenshield rose after all, to say something elaborate and meaningless about justice and freedom and self-control, fulsome as a month-old bouquet. There were only thirteen votes against, though more than forty abstentions. A passage was, however, a passage.
The President called the highday recess. Longlight came over to Varic’s seat. Varic looked at Brook: the Parliamentarian was giving him an intense look, difficult for even Varic to interpret. Then Brook turned away. Varic and Longlight left the Chamber.
They went to lunch at the Golden Sconce, a small restaurant a block from Parliament. The sky had lifted slightly, but the outdoor terrace was closed against the cold; they sat near a high arched window with a view of Clarity Park. Varic had chicken and thin pancakes, with cream and mushroom sauce; Longlight had a large rare steak.
“What does Varic mean?” she said.
“‘A difficult place to land.’ My home country has a very inhospitable coast.”
“Alch mine,” she said, delight bringing the West back into her voice. “We call it the Rogue’s Teeth.”
There was a pause, and they ate. She looked around at the other diners, most of them in frock coats and trousers, said, “I dress oddly, don’t I? I don’t think about Lystourel when I’m not here, and we never hear about your fashions.”
“By the time you had, they would have changed. They know you’re from the frontiers, and they may look a bit long at you, but it’s only curiosity. The City doesn’t think about the rest of the country, either.”
“You seem to do so.”
“As I say, I’m from the edges myself.” Which was literally true, though he had not entered his Coronage in years. She was trying to make social conversation, not understanding that the essence of City social conversation was that it should mean nothing.
Varic said, “You know that you have the last motion scheduled for today.”
“I wonder if you’d consider postponing it until tomorrow. It doesn’t require a formal vote, only a request, a second, and an acclamation vote. I can assure you of a second, and almost assure you of the acclamation. After six motions today, a postponement will probably be unanimous.”
“That would put me first tomorrow?”
“No, last again. But there are only three motions on tomorrow’s calendar. Four, with yours. It’s the last day of sessions before the holiday, and there’ll probably be an early adjournment as soon as they’re read and voted.”
“I had planned to start for home tomorrow.”
“There’s an evening train west. I’ll be on it myself.” She gave him the hard look again, and he added, “With friends. We’re holidaying together.” He knew that the sleeping cars would probably be booked full by now, but this wasn’t the moment to offer her his compartment.
“I have a very long trip home. Eighty hours on the train, and then another twenty on horseback. The Ironways don’t reach very far into my country.”
“Then would you consider giving your motion today for a vote tomorrow? You don’t have to be present. We could magnostyle the results ahead of your train.”
“Why? Do I genuinely have a better chance of winning a vote tomorrow than today?”
“I believe you might. Certainly no worse chance.”
“Would you tell me why?”
“Because most of the members will be gone. Just as you plan to be. There will be fewer votes to balance against votes. There will probably be barely a quorum.”
“What if there isn’t a quorum?”
“Then there will be no vote,” he said automatically. There was no use in fencing with her: if she wanted to be direct, he could be direct. “That would not, however, necessarily be a bad thing. Look. You have no faction. No support. It takes time and effort to assemble those things.”
“I’m not interested in City politics.”
“I know that,” he said evenly. “But what if those politics are the only way to get the votes you want?”
“Allsen the Demons gobble the Parliament whole-breathed,” she said, and slashed a piece from her bleeding steak.
“There is a possibility,” Varic said. “Not secure at all, but here it is. Did you notice the reactions while milord Brook’s motion was being debated? When they discussed law and justice?”
“Yes. And the ferrety Coron got the last word.”
Varic couldn’t help grinning. “Bowenshield. Yes. May it do him good. All right. The Assembly is thinking about law and order. The ferrety one in particular. You have to get your problem across to them in those terms, that these are outlaws, criminals, not a lot of noble Blackwood Jacks defending the oppressed, or romantics in lace who kiss all the pretty boys and never shoot anybody for real. Understand?”
“You’re telling me they’re ignorant fools,” she said, staring at him.
We should stand you for President of the House, Varic came to within a hairsbreadth of saying aloud. What he did say was, “It’s not the worst strategy to treat them that way. But without letting on, please.” He checked his pocket watch. “We just have time for tea, if you’d like.”
“If you won’t think it rude, I would like to go back to my office. Think for a few minutes before the Assembly begins again.”
“Of course. I believe I’ll stay for a cup. Will you allow me to pay?”
“No. I feel I should pay you, for your advice.”
“My colleague Brook has a saying: advice only costs after it’s taken.”
She laughed and bowed, left him her share of the bill, and went out. He ordered his tea with Northern whisky, watched Longlight through the arched window, framed against the Park.
There were three things a Coron could do in the modern world. One could stay on the holding and send a proxy to Parliament, as more than half of them did. One could leave the holding in the hands of a manager and move to Lystourel, as Brook and Varic had. Or one could pretend that nothing had changed in two hundred years: live at home and rule as one pleased, and when times were dire, ride to the Royal Court with one’s petition to the Crown.
Two hundred years ago, Redlance had built a Parliament; eighty years ago Queen Beryl the Fourteenth had abdicated; but the word just did not seem to have reached everyone.
The Assembly resumed, exactly as before except that Cable was gone from the Gallery and Deriano from the floor.
The sixth motion, from one of the priests, was to borrow a moderate quantity of coal from the Naval Reserve to heat the National Hospitals. It was an easy pass, with the recommendation added from the floor that a committee study the allocation of state coal stockpiles.
It had been, of course, more complicated than that. The original thought had been to force the emergency purchase of commercial coal at an artificial low rate. The mine-owning Corons threatened to tie such a motion up forever. The Superintendent of Hospitals (who told Brook he was “breathing fog in his office of mornings”) was aimed toward Coron Deerleap, the strongest advocate for rails in the House, with the suggestion that the coal would have to be borrowed from the Ironways. Deerleap’s interests were too well known for him to propose the navy transfer, but he had no difficulty persuading the Reverend Intercessor Essence to move the idea.
Brook introduced the seventh and last motion of the day. Longlight came down to the platform.
“You all know who I am, I think, unless your memories are very short. And you should all remember why I’m here, since I was here for it six months ago, and six before that, and in all five times in the last three years for the same reason. Well, here I am again.
“My Coronage, in case you’ve forgotten, is on the west coast, in the mountains. We have a bandit problem. Going to sleep already?” She was looking at the Reverend Mother Orchard, which was unfair, since Orchard always looked seven-eighths asleep, and poorly done, since Orchard had no enemies in the Chamber.
Longlight said, “Well, yes, this is old news, old before I was born. The Great Rogue Hills, as their name implies, have always had bandits, and up to now we’ve managed them ourselves. But up to now they haven’t had repeating rifles or Ironway coaches to attack.”
That got Coron Deerleap’s interest, Varic noticed. Deerleap took attacks on the Ironways personally. That would be useful.
“We’re not large, I grant you. We don’t have any great cities, or trade roads, and only the one Ironway.” Deerleap still looked interested. “But we’re as much a part of Lescoray as this city is, and I’m telling you that without some kind of help we’re not going to be a part of it much longer—we’re going to be a bandit kingdom.”
Stop now, Varic thought. Don’t say anything more, this isn’t a feudal court any longer.
But she did go on, exactly as he was afraid she would. “And if that’s what my family’s land is going to become, then I suppose I’ll have to go along with it.”
There was a ripple of talk from the Corons. Deerleap looked bewildered, Bowenshield appalled. At least Cable was gone.
The President tapped his baton for quiet. Longlight looked around the Chamber. She seemed to understand, now, what she had done. It was no shortage of intelligence, Varic thought; she couldn’t help believing what all her ancestors had believed.
He weighed the possibilities. Deerleap was not going to speak. This was of no importance to the magicians, and the priests wouldn’t enter the debate. There had been no time to win over the frontier Corons’ representatives, and even those that might sympathize could hardly be expected to second a threat of rebellion.
What Varic could do was move for a delay of vote, until tomorrow—if they were lucky, there would be no quorum tomorrow, and the vote would come after the holiday. With a little time, the case could be made that the bandits were the real rebels against the state. That was a magnet for a coalition. The hopeless cavalry might even be sent on an expedition, and they would forget all about their grudge with Varic.
He stood up. Bowenshield was standing as well.
The President said, “Milady, other members are requesting the floor. To whom will you pass it?”
Varic could read Longlight’s thoughts. Assuming that she trusted Varic, should she let him speak next? Or would it be better to let him have the last word? In her position, he wouldn’t know the answer either. What Longlight didn’t know was that the debate was already over.
What she did was what Varic supposed he might have done, not knowing better. She turned to the Parliamentarian and spoke to him directly, too quietly for the Chamber to hear.
She was, Varic knew perfectly well, only asking him the correct procedure. To prevent what was about to happen, Brook should have announced that to the House: though he did not have the floor, no one would have protested the technicality. But Brook, the master proceduralist, would of course not do that.
And—as Brook would know—if she went from a private conference with Brook to pass the platform to Brook’s chief associate, the whole thing would stink of collusion, and she was finished. There was only one thing to do. Varic sat down, leaving Bowenshield uncontested for the floor.
Bowenshield got it. He asked for an immediate vote on Motion Seven. He got that.
Longlight’s Motion was defeated one hundred sixty-two votes to one hundred two, which was far from a disaster. But still a defeat.
All calendar business being completed, President Saltworthy asked for opposition to adjournment. There was none, and the session officially ended at twenty-two minimi past fifteen. The Lords began leaving the Chamber. Varic watched as Longlight went down the tiers to Brook’s seat. Brook was talking to her, making calm gestures. Then Brook turned to look at Varic, waved his hand. Varic went down.
Longlight said, “Milord Brook has been explaining things to me. I seem to have done almost everything wrong.”
“No, no,” Brook said kindly, “you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s simply the nature of politics that they tend to become about politics, rather than issues. Varic, the Coron says she’s leaving tomorrow. We ought to give her some pleasant experience of the City. You’re not yet accompanied for the Embassy cotillion tonight, are you?”
Longlight said, “Which Embassy?”
Brook said lightly, “Oh, never ask which Embassy. People might think it made a difference to you. It could lead to war.”
Varic said, “It’s at the Ferangarder Embassy. Their new Ambassador has just arrived. And of course I’d be delighted to accompany you.”
Longlight said, “But this will be formal dress, won’t it?” She swept her hands down her tunic. “Whatever formal is in Lystourel, I’m sure this isn’t it.”
Brook said, “Varic. Have the porter find you a cab, and get the lady to Ivory’s, before the evening traffic starts. And for Shyira’s sake, have them fit you, too: you’ve worn that blue coat to the last four parties. Go on now, and I’ll see you there.”
As they left the Chamber, Longlight said, “I have some things in my office…”
Excerpted from Aspects, copyright © 2022 by John M. Ford.