Stephen Taylor

I am a writer and violinist based in North Carolina. My short fiction has previously appeared in The Future Fire.

Reading Shadows

The clever ones will know I’ve been reading shadows–folding them, discarding them like bruised fruit from a basket, meddling with magic that had never been touched before. They’ll inevitably discover my spellweaving. And of course they’ll wonder what I made, then they’ll dig to find out why.

I was Yuroma, after all, Archmage of the Amber Empire. I was arguably the sharpest, quickest mage alive, the most likely to survive plunging my hands into the dark. And despite the risks, I had more to gain than most would. It will puzzle them to no end when I’m no longer here to open my secrets like clam shells.

But my secrets stay shut.


His Imperial Excellency Daráthnivol, Emperor-to-be, was taken aback when he met his Archmage. Yuroma was young to fill the position, despite having served under the last two short-lived Emperors. She dressed half like a fisherman’s wife, with only the traditional earring to mark her as part of the Amber Order. Daráthnivol had envisioned a harder, bolder-looking woman. Yet Yuroma was to be his adviser, his right hand. He didn’t have much say in the matter.

Daráthnivol waved for his counselors to withdraw, leaving only two stationed guards, himself and the Archmage in the throne chamber. It was a cold room, with black floors that shone under the glimmer of amber lanterns, black walls that blocked the sun, and a black ceiling that fell too low like a tall man’s cloak on his son. It all felt lonely beneath the blazing blue of the Imperial crown. Only one day in the Palace, and already lonely.

“Tell me something of yourself, Yuroma,” Daráthnivol said, reclining to look more at ease than he felt.

She raised a single eyebrow. “Do you intend to keep your watchdogs at the door?”

“They’re only guards. Do those without magic bother you so much that you can’t introduce yourself in their presence?”

“Not at all. But you and I can dispense with all the pleasantries.”

Now she was beginning to annoy him. “I’ll decide when to talk pleasantries and when not to. Now tell me something–”

Before Daráthnivol could finish, the carved metal fire of his crown flared up, suddenly alive with heat. He shouted and hurled the circlet away, whipping his hands back lest he burn himself. It was her. Her hand had moved in the motion of an invocation. She’d tried to burn him, the Amber Emperor in waiting.

“Is this how you dealt with my cousin before me?” Daráthnivol snarled, standing up. “Guards!”

The guards stayed motionless at the back of the room.

“Guards!” he shouted now. “Get this wretched vixen out of my sight!”

Still motionless, curse them to the bottom of the ocean.

“They can’t hear you,” Yuroma said. “Or see you, really. I prefer to have this particular talk in private.”

“How dare you? I am your future leader!”

“And I’m your Archmage,” Yuroma replied. “You might not want to cross me on your first day here–seeing as how I’ve conveniently outlived one or two Emperors before you.”

Daráthnivol found his pulse speeding up, racing even, and his hands suddenly slick with sweat. Her threat felt too heavy to ignore, too quick, too forward, too real. He staggered back and tripped over the foot of his own throne as he tried to put some distance between himself and this mad, dangerous woman.

“I have no intention of hurting you, boy,” Yuroma said. “If I did, it would have happened long before you got to the Palace. Do you believe me?”

“Guards!” Daráthnivol shouted again. “Someone! To the throne room!” Why did they ignore him?

“Save your breath. No one will hear so much as an echo while my spell holds.”

“What the blazes do you want?”

Yuroma advanced another step, causing Daráthnivol to flinch. “I want you to be a little kinder to your subjects than the last few Emperors have been, little Rath. Your family has bled these islands dry. They’ve squandered hard-earned funds, abused their servants, raped where they liked, killed where they weren’t liked, and generally done more to shield their own backs than to guard the Amber Empire.” She stepped near one of Daráthnivol’s newly oiled hands, sending him skittering backward to the throne. “All these patterns will die with you, Emperor-to-be.”

There were tears in Daráthnivol’s eyes now. His hands shook as he tried to push himself farther from the narrow-eyed Archmage. His mouth hung open, formless whimpers issuing out. Why the dancing devil had he sent everyone else away?

“You will be the most beloved Emperor in recorded history,” Yuroma added. Then she snatched her hands apart, summoning a twisting vortex of magic as blue and deep as the ocean. “Or you can be like your cousin was and die like he died. Are we clear, Your Imperial Excellency?”

Daráthnivol’s mouth hardened, even as fresh tears formed under his eyes. “You can’t command me, whether you’re Archmage or Archangel!”

“Do as I advise or you might become an angel yourself, Rath. Or more likely a groveling pitspawn of the devil you and your royal family like to impersonate.”

With that, she twisted her hands once more, dissolving her vortex and magicking the crown back onto Daráthnivol’s head. Then she walked from the room as if they’d just talked about dinner.

Daráthnivol stared after her until his breathing calmed and he could find his feet. Even then his guards seemed not to notice that anything had been amiss.

The Unfoundary

“Old man, what’s that up there?”

“The Unfoundary?”

“You call it that? What is it?”

I frown. It’s a broad gateway high on Thumb Hill. It’s made of tan stone, carved with shapes as old as the Thumb itself, flanked with squared-off pillars and wrapped in cords as wide as I am tall. The binding cords reach up, twined together at the tip of the gateway, and then on beyond our sight into the sky. We can see it from anywhere in the valley, Thumb Hill and the Unfoundary.

“What is it?” the young stranger repeats.

“We call it the Unfoundary,” I reply. “You must not be from around here.”

He shakes his head, which is covered in wavy brown hair. “I’m from the east. Trinlos.”

“Ah, a city. I’ve been there before.”

“You have?” Surprise, perhaps respect. “You traveled a long way, old man.”

“Us both. I hope you didn’t come to see the Unfoundary only, but we don’t have much anything else to see in our valley.”

“You have forests, and snow,” he says, glancing around past the edge of the village. “I’m traveling further south, but I like your village.”

“Fortune to you, then,” I say with a slight bow.

“Tell me, though, what is this Unfoundary? It must be as wide as your whole town!”

I can’t tell whether he means to compliment our scenery or insult our size. “I’d stay off the hillside, if I were you. The Unfoundary is an evil place.”

“What’s evil about it?”

“It’s a place where the dead go–where people sometimes go to die.”

His face shows interest, curiosity. “Trinlos is superstitious, but I didn’t think you westerners were as well.”

I shrug my shoulders. “We stay alive this way. And safe.”

The young man’s intrigued expression fades as he shifts his haversack and stamps his feet for warmth. “I’m not sure how much I believe of your superstition, but it’s interesting, to say the least. Good day to you, old one.”

I grunt. “Safe travels.” What I wouldn’t give some days to travel again. It’s been fifteen years since I so much as climbed the side of the valley.

The day is calm and white–early snowfall from a blank sky. Most of the village stays inside their huts, pungent smoke filtering out through fire holes and the occasional opened door. I see my friend Onór at the side of her hut watching the traveler go.

“You talked to him?” she asks me.

“Yes. He’s from Trinlos–did you know I went there once?”

“Where haven’t you gone?” Onór asks with a faint smile. “I think you’ve had too many years with not enough work to do.”

Perhaps she’s right–I’m five years older than anyone else in the village–forty-five older than most. Some of them have never left the valley. Most have never left sight of it, never seen a city or a sheer mountain or the sea. It’s strange to be the old one.

“Where’s he headed to now?”

“South,” I reply. “Probably looking for money.”

“There’s no riches worth leaving a safe warm hearth for this time of year.”

“Maybe.”

Onór sees my eyes following the traveler onto the forested slope of the valley. “Oh, did you want to go with him?” she asks dryly. “Poor old dog. I think your travels are done now.”

“Maybe,” I say again, with an idea shaping in my mind.