Story Excerpt: “As Needed” by Michael A. Stackpole


Today’s excerpt is from the most excellent Michael A. Stackpole!

I first met Mike a long, long time ago, at a Worldcon in the nineties. I had recently attended Clarion West. Mike was very gracious to a complete and total newbie, sharing his wisdom of the craft and the business. I have never forgotten how kind he was to me.

So when Chuck, the owner of Bundle Rabbit, ( suggested Mike as a possible contributor to the bundle, I was very excited about the possibility. (Not that I believe that Mike remembers me from that one brief encounter.)

When I emailed him, Mike was just as gracious as always, and agreed to contribute this fine story.

I cannot tell you how pleased I am that he agreed to participate. I hope that in some very, very small way, this is repaying his kindness so many years ago.

As Needed

A young man had scolded her, and his sharp rebuke roused the older man slouched in the dark wooden throne overlooking the glistening carpet of flesh. They looked enough alike through the eyes and jaw to be of the same blood, but else wise they were different men. The older had once been as tall and strong as the oak from which the throne had been hacked, whereas his nephew had the substance of well-boiled porridge left to congeal. The younger man dropped a hand to the hilt of the sword worn on his left hip, but the older man grasped his forearm and prevented a fatal error.

“Are my eyes failing me, Scyris, or has time forgotten you?”
“Do you wish the truth, my master, or shall I answer ‘no’ twice?”
The younger man’s nostrils flared. “Keep a civil tongue in your mouth.”
The older man’s hand tightened. “I can command her to kill, Vatarian, but I cannot stop her from killing. Such is the oath that binds us.”
“That does not give her leave to insult you.”
“I am not insulted.”
Terius Inficun released his nephew’s wrist and rose from the chair—doing his best to hide the inescapable signs of his age. Despite his efforts, she could not help but notice that the iron in his muscles had become the gray in his hair. His flesh had taken on the hue and texture of aged leather, without the reward of the rich scent. The skin around one eye drooped—but one sign of damage taken in youthful fights. Even his voice, which had always been deeply resonant, had become hoarse and tattered.
“I would never wish to insult you, my master.” She spread the homespun skirts she wore and offered a brief curtsy. It lasted too long to be playfully contemptuous, and yet the nephew clearly felt it was too short to show proper respect. She catalogued his reaction, but devoted her attention to his uncle.
The man closed his droopy eye and studied her. You have a new face.”
She opened her arms. “And you a new home.”
“Well earned.” He chuffed out a laugh. “You probably think that of your face.”
“The previous owner had no more use for it.”
“Same for this house.”
“I am certain, my master.” Scyris bowed her head. “I should have brought you a gift to welcome you to your new home.”
“Your gift can be helping me keep it.” Terius scowled and kicked a scrawny man back into the body pit. “I needed you here sooner. I sent people to you. I expected you weeks ago. Now you’ve come, it may well be too late.”
“The urgency of your need, my master, was insufficient as defined by the magick which binds us.” Scyris raised her chin. “My sense was that you had any difficulty managed.”
Terius snorted, shooting his nephew a sidelong glance. “I had entrusted certain efforts to people. They proved fruitless.”
Vatarian opened his hands. “I did all that I could.”
“Yes, but not all that I could have—would have—had I my youth back.” Terius shook his head and raised his right hand. He flicked his thumb against a gold and jet ring encircling his finger. A tiny purple light sparked in the square stone with each click of nail against metal. “When you didn’t come, I feared our link had been broken, or that you had been slain.”
“Oaths sworn and magicks worked would inform you were I dead.” Each time his nail clicked against the ring, Scyris felt it in the armlet she wore above her right biceps. Cast from the same pool of gold, set with jet from the same stone, the ring and armlet had been ensorcelled ages ago. Through the aegis of the dark College to which Terius had given her, they’d been forever linked. “We sacrificed much, my master, so I am here.”
“My throat is dry. Wine.”
She shook her head. “Thank you, no.”
Terius snorted, then gave his nephew a backhanded slap to the chest. He pointed to a pitcher and goblets on a table near the wall. “When did you get this face?”
“Recently.” She smiled at Vatarian as he scurried to fetch wine. “That would be why some of your envoys did not find me.”
“And the others?”
“More diligent and irritatingly insistent.”
“Irritating, yes. That was communicated to me.” His thumb caressed the ring. “Will I ever see them again?”
“If they were not expendable, you’d not have sent them after me.” Scyris broadened her smile. “Now, if you had sent Vatarian…”
Terius accepted a goblet of dark wine from his nephew’s hand. “He is not expendable.”

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As Needed is currently in the Middling Bundle, which is only available for a limited time.

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