This month’s featured title is The Mazes of Magic, Book 1 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series.
The stories are set in the 3rd Century BCE—the Age of the Seven Wonders of the World—in Egypt and the Aegean. In Book 1, Korax, a young man from the island of Rhodes, finds himself a slave in Egypt. His memory is in fragments, but as the story unfolds more memories return.
In this excerpt, told in flashback, he recalls his first unwise experiment with conjuring …
Korax stood at the window of his bed chamber, staring down at the dark city.
A long line of torches pierced the blackness, winding up the streets in silence. Tonight was the eve of the Dionysia, the Bringing In of the god. By custom, the young men of Rhodos carried the god from his temple in the harbor district up the wide hill to the theater. There Dionysus would be installed in a shrine to watch the plays and performances and preside over the revels.
Korax watched in reverent quiet as the procession passed below his window. Young men in satyr masks carried torches to light the way. Priests clad in red and purple robes walked behind, swinging censers smoking with incense. Three other priests held the tethers of black goats, to be sacrificed at the end of the procession. Next, amid a blaze of torchlight, youths in masks of horse and mule pulled the sacred cart, overflowing with grapevines and blossoms. Within the cart rode the statue of Dionysus, the graceful, long-haired god, dressed in a panther-skin and holding his vine-wrapped wand.
In past years Korax, lover of plays and aspiring poet, had walked in the torchlight procession. But tonight he waited until the last marchers had passed, then quietly closed his shutters. Tonight he had a private appointment with the god.
Korax left a lamp burning on his bedside table. He lay down but did not sleep. All of his plans and preparations were complete. He only had to wait and gather his courage.
In an hour midway between dusk and dawn, when he was certain all others in the house were asleep, Korax crept from his bed. He picked up the lamp and noiselessly opened the door of his chamber.
He stepped down the passageway, past his father’s room. There the hallway opened onto a gallery overlooking the courtyard. The waxing moon of Dionysus rode high in the west, silvery light glinting on roof and vine. But ahead the passage was walled again, and Korax crept with the utmost care past his mother’s door. He turned the corner into the women’s quarters, where the female servants slept and did their weaving and mending. At the end of this hall, he paused before a thick, black door. He pushed it open cautiously, wincing as it creaked on its hinges. He glanced anxiously behind him, then slipped inside.
The chamber was large, with high rafters opening to the eaves of a slanted roof. It was built to be a weaving room, but Korax’s mother had long ago claimed it as her private domain.
When Korax was a young child, his mother had slept in this chamber, and he in a small bed in the corner. His earliest memories were of playing here as a babe, of watching his mother at her loom. Until age six, he had also witnessed the magic rites she performed here, often in the company of handmaids who had accompanied her from Thrace. Korax had gazed with fascination as his mother wielded a crooked wand or a bronze dagger glittering in the firelight. He had listened, entranced, as the women invoked the Great Goddess with sonorous Thracian chants that he only half-understood.
When Korax had reached school age, he had been moved to his present bedroom, at the opposite end of the house. It had felt like an exile, and he had trouble sleeping for many nights.
But within half a year, he had found his way back to the mysterious realm of the witches. The family sometimes slept on the roof in the heat of the summer. Korax discovered a loose slat where the flat roof that covered most of the house bordered on the sloping roof above his mother’s chamber. Thereafter, on nights of new and full moons, he would often sneak from his bed and climb the ladder to the roof. Removing the loose slat, he would watch unobserved from his high vantage point as Anticleia and her maids performed the rites of Hecate.
Korax remembered enough from those spying missions to know how to conjure a spirit or god—or so he believed. But first he needed to borrow a few of his mother’s instruments.
A small altar covered in black cloth stood against the far wall. There he found the serpent-handled knife, laid before the gold statue of Hecate and the smaller, wooden figures that represented Anticleia’s ancestors and household deities. Searching through casks and baskets nearby, Korax took scented candles and a cake of incense.
He left the black door ajar and hurried, quietly as he could, back down the passageway. The blood was thumping in his ears by the time he reached his own door.
His writing table, set before the open window, would serve as the altar. He had already laid it out with ivy, the vine sacred to Dionysus. Now he lit two candles from the flame of his oil lamp and set them on the table’s edge.
From a storeroom downstairs he had taken a brass brazier, the size of a large wine bowl. This he lined with a layer of charcoal, then lit it from one of the candles. Now three fires were burning.
On a chest nearby, a thrush fluttered in its tiny wicker cage, wakened by the shuddering light. Korax had purchased the bird from a stall outside the Temple of Dionysus and smuggled it into the house under his cloak.
Korax paused to calm his mind. What he was about to attempt was dangerous, some might even say blasphemous. He wondered, after all, if he should stop. But then he felt the sore place in his jaw, and remembered the cause of that injury. He thought of all the times he had been hurt and humiliated by Patrollos and others like him.
With a trembling hand, Korax reached for an incense cake. When he dropped it into the brazier, the flames shot up a brilliant orange and spat a gout of perfumed smoke.
“If fiery destruction be the fate of Korax, son of Leontes,” he whispered to himself, “then at least he will singe a few enemies before he burns.”
Not a bad conceit, he thought, as he picked up the dagger.
Outside the window, Rhodos lay quiet in the glimmering moonlight—the city asleep, all unaware of Korax and his magic. He traced in the air symbols of invocation he had watched his mother use. Then he spoke the words he had prepared, pitching his voice at a low murmur so as not to waken the household.
“I call upon you, Dionysus, lord of many voices, patron of players and poets, god of the wild places and the wild heart. I, Korax, son of Anticleia of the Thracian tribes, child of the witches of Hecate, summon you now in all your power and might to come before me. By flame and smoke, I conjure you to appear.”
His hand shook as he put down the dagger. The fire in the brazier sputtered and writhed, seeming to glow brighter, to blaze with the very presence of the god. Korax stared entranced, and for several moments forgot what he intended to do.
Then he remembered the singing contest at the Guild of Aphrodite. Patrollos and his friends would be there to try to win the prize.
And Korax would be waiting for them.
He steadied himself and reached for the birdcage. Opening the top, he grasped the thrush tightly and pulled it out. Gritting his teeth, he held the fluttering, struggling body close to the fire as he picked up the knife.
“I entreat you, Dionysus, to bend your power to my will. Inspire me with your brilliant music and fill my heart with poetry. But discomfit my enemies. Reduce their songs to foolish babble. Stitch their tongues inside their mouths and bind their wits like the hooves of fatted lambs. Rain laughter and derision on their efforts and bring them only shame. Thus I conjure you, Dionysus, god of poets and players, lord of many voices: Do thou as I will!”
Gripped by a fearful ecstasy, Korax lay the bird on the table and cut off its head with a stroke. Blood spurted, and he squeezed the quivering body in his fingers and poured the blood into the fire.