The Soul Bound Saga Ebook Bundle
The Soul Bound Saga Ebook Bundle
The Soul Bound Saga Ebook Bundle
All Joran wanted was a quiet life of research and study in his alchemy lab.
It didn’t seem like so much to ask.
But when an emergency at one of his family’s trading posts crops up, his father insists that Joran is the only one that can straighten it out.
The next day finds Joran packed and on the road to the empire’s southernmost province.
Little does Joran know that a simple business trip will turn into the most dangerous journey of his life.
Contains the Soul Bound Saga EBooks
1. An Unwelcome Journey
2. Darkness in Tiber
3. Depths of Betrayal
4. The Black Iron Empire
Joran Den Cade held up the little alcohol burner he’d been using to heat an alembic and blew the flame out. The wick smoked and the acrid stink curled his nose. He set the burner back on his granite workbench to cool and studied the ounce of clear, odorless liquid that had collected in a glass flask under the alembic’s beak. The lack of scent indicated that the first process had succeeded.
He held the flask up to the nearest alchemical light dangling from the ceiling. The golden liquid—contained in a special glass sphere nearly as hard as steel—emitted a steady glow devoid of heat. Far safer than a lantern given the flammability of some of the reagents he kept in the lab.
Three tiny black specks floated in the clear liquid. Joran ground his teeth and snarled. Another failure. He’d been so certain this time. When he prepared the flask to receive the liquid he’d taken extra care to be sure no contaminants lingered either inside or outside. No, the failure must be with the precursor. He’d filtered it three times before beginning the distillation. Maybe four would be the charm.
Considering how much money he’d spent on this experiment over the past week, it had better be.
Speaking of money, it had to be close to dinner time. During the long summer days he always lost track of how long he’d been working. Joran smiled to himself and set his most recent failure on the workbench. In truth, he frequently lost track of time year round.
He couldn’t afford that today. He had to have dinner with his family tonight, a twice-monthly ritual his mother insisted on. Not that Joran minded eating at his parent’s estate. Despite his father’s constant nagging about adventure, seeing the world, and not wasting his youth trapped in a lab at the imperial college, Joran generally got along with his family. With Mother anyway. Even better, their current chef might be the finest she had ever hired.
In the corner of the lab sat a steel bucket with a tight-fitting lid. Joran opened it and poured his failure into the fine sand inside. One of the first-year students would arrive later to empty the bin and clean up the equipment.
One of the best things about working at the college lab instead of a private business was the free cleaning service. In any other setting, he’d have to do it himself. Given some of the volatile substances he worked with, you couldn’t just bring in some halfwit to dust and wash, not unless you wanted your lab and employee blown to bits.
The students all had enough training to handle the materials without being a danger to themselves or the building. They grumbled about the menial work, but they did it just the same. Joran had learned a great deal by paying attention to how the professors had set up their labs during his own cleaning days. Everyone had their preferences even though the students were all taught the same basic setup to start with.
Happily, his cleaning days were long past. He’d graduated two years ago and received the title of Grandmaster of Alchemy a year after that, at twenty-one, making him the youngest to earn the prestigious title. And despite what some of his detractors said, it wasn’t a title you could buy. Only someone who devised a unique alchemical substance or process received it. Joran was one of only seventeen living.
You’d think that would be enough to satisfy his father, but you’d be wrong. He shook his head and started for the wooden double doors. Jorik Cade had still been a commoner at twenty-one, traveling right behind the imperial army, eager to trade with newly conquered people and reap the rewards from sales of exotic new items. He’d made his first fortune that way and Father believed his sons should follow in his footsteps.
For his part, Joran had no desire to thrash through jungles, fight off hostile natives and hungry beasts, or generally live the life of a frontier trader. He much preferred the controlled environment of his lab and the college. Pity Father refused to just agree to disagree.
Outside the lab, Joran took a deep breath of warm, humid summer air. The sweet perfume of thousands of blooming flowers brought a smile to his face. He’d processed all the local flowers in his first two years of study, extracting everything of value. Now he worked exclusively with items brought in from the farthest corners of the empire.
He turned left and made his way to the college’s main campus. The shaded walkways, their roofs held up by massive white stone columns, kept the evening heat at bay. He walked alone, only the sound of his sandals slapping on the smooth stone path breaking the silence. The quiet gave him a chance to think, and today all that came to mind was how best to fend off his father’s no doubt well-reasoned arguments for adventure.
He turned to find the familiar figure of his best and perhaps only real friend, running toward him. Julian Mallus came from a common household and worked as an assistant librarian at the imperial library. A few inches shorter than Joran’s modest five feet ten inches, Julian appeared younger than his true age of twenty-four. His short blond hair and blue eyes marked him as provincial rather than a true imperial. Mother wouldn’t have approved of him hanging around with a provincial, which was one of the reasons Joran had never introduced his friend to the family.
Joran stopped to let the shorter man catch up. “Julian, library closed already?”
“Half an hour ago. Didn’t you hear the temple ring five bells?”
Joran grimaced. In fact, he hadn’t heard the huge bells at The One God’s temple ringing out the hour. He’d been so focused he blocked everything else out.
“I hurried to catch you,” Julian said. “There’s going to be a vivisection at the arena tonight, do you want to go?”
“Who’s performing it?” Joran asked.
“Primus Lucius from the Inquisition. They’re using a prisoner from Oceanus, one of the ones that looks like a crab. When it’s over I hear they might boil the body and give out samples.”
Joran shivered at the mention of the Inquisition. Anyone, imperial or provincial, did well to fear those zealots. “Lucius is a butcher and just because you call performance torture vivisection doesn’t make it science. No doubt he’ll ‘accidentally’ use too little anesthetic just to hear the unlucky person’s scream.”
Julian looked left and right, the little muscle above his left eye twitching. “You shouldn’t say that. What if someone heard you talking poorly about an inquisitor?”
“Then I’d point out one of the key articles of The One God’s faith, ‘Speak always the truth.’”
“Some truths are better spoken silently. I take it you don’t want to join me?”
“No, thank you for the invitation. Even if a performance more appealing than Lucius carving some poor rebel into hors d’oeuvre was on offer, I’d have to pass. Tonight is my regular dinner with the family. Why don’t you ask that girl you’re always mooning over, the one that works in the kitchens?”
Julian reddened to his ears. “She’s so pretty, I can’t just walk up to her and ask. Can I?”
“Of course you can. Worst-case scenario, she says no and you watch the slaughter alone. If you keep hesitating, someone else will steal her out from under you.”
His friend’s face looked as red as Lucius’s victim would after an hour in boiling water. Julian drew himself up. “Maybe I will. Yes! Tonight’s the night. Thanks, Joran. Good luck with your father.”
“I’ll take all the luck I can get.”
* * *
Jorik Den Cade read the income report from his newest trading post for the third time. No matter how many times he added up the numbers and even granting the most generous interpretations of his manager’s letter, only one explanation existed: the little shit was skimming at least forty percent of the profits.
He crumpled up the letter and threw it across his office. The paper ended up on the floor in front of a leather and exotic hardwood chair Sestia had bought him for his birthday three years ago. It was a beautiful piece, but five minutes sitting in it made his ass fall asleep. He saved it for especially unwelcome visitors.
Jorik pushed away from his teak and rosewood desk and stood, his back popping and knees complaining. Some days he felt like a young man and others he felt every one of his sixty years. Of course, he’d walked or ridden across half the empire in his youth and the mileage showed. He smoothed his perfectly trimmed and oiled goatee and headed for the office door.
One good thing about his thief of a manager, it would give him the perfect excuse to get his youngest son out of the capital and off on a proper adventure.
As soon as he stepped out into the hall the scent of roasting meat and vegetables pulled him toward the kitchen. Tonight was their twice-monthly family dinner, though it would be a small gathering indeed with Titus away on business and Quintus The One God knew where, probably passed out in a ditch, knowing his worthless firstborn.
He rounded a corner and entered the dining room to find his lovely wife busy smoothing the napkin beside Joran’s plate. Only three places tonight. Looked like Titus’s wife and the grandkids wouldn’t be coming either. Just as well, since when he told Joran what he had in mind, there would likely be an argument.
A playful swat on the backside drew a startled yelp from Sestia. Ten years his junior, the noblewoman looked every bit as beautiful as the day he married her. Sure, her dark hair had a few streaks of gray and there were a few more wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, but they only added to her beauty as they reminded Jorik of the wonderful memories they shared.
Sestia frowned at him. “I swear, Jorik, your manners haven’t improved despite being a nobleman for thirty years.”
Jorik grinned. “What is it the nobles like to say when they think I’m not listening? Ah, I remember: ‘You can take the commoner out of the fields, but you can’t take the fields out of the commoner.’”
She put her arms around his neck and kissed him. Familiar warmth filled him as he held her. How had he gotten so lucky?
He hated to spoil the happy feeling, but he needed to tell her what he had planned. “I’m going to send Joran south to deal with the manager trying to rob me blind.”
Sestia stepped back and her frown deepened. “He won’t like it. He might even refuse.”
“No, no more refusing. That boy needs to get out of the city and see the world. There’s more to life than his precious lab. He needs to learn that and the only way is in person. I intend to make that clear this time.”
“He’s a grown man, Jorik, and he can make his own choices, even if you don’t like them.”
“He’s my son and I know what’s best for him. Besides, there’s no one else I can send.”
“Joran Den Cade,” the footman announced from the front door.
“You won’t fight me on this, will you?” Jorik asked.
Sestia shook her head. “I won’t, but your son is a Cade and every bit as stubborn as his father.”
* * *
Every time the footman announced him, Joran felt ridiculous. This was his home and everyone knew him. But the servant had his job to do and the one time Joran pointed out that the announcement might not be needed, he’d gotten a look of reproof that suggested the footman feared for his job should he fail to let everyone on the estate know that the youngest son had arrived for dinner.
So he bore it and when the footman opened double doors tall and wide enough to let a loaded wagon enter with room to spare, he stepped through. Joran paused a moment to run his finger over the carved surface. How much had Father paid to get the exotic animals inlaid into the wood? He didn’t know but suspected the sum would cover his lab’s operating expenses for a month.
Inside the marble-tiled entry, he scrubbed his sandals on the stiff-bristled rug placed there for that purpose. When he looked up, he smiled to find his mother approaching, arms raised for a hug. She wore one of her favorite blue silk robes. He recognized the shade as Cade Cerulean. Joran had created the dye that produced it.
They embraced for a moment then Mother stepped back and put her hands on either side of his face. “So thin. You’re not eating enough. And no mustache. I told you last time it was the style this year. Can’t you at least try and keep up with current fashion?”
Joran swallowed a sigh. “I appreciate the concern, Mother, but as I said last time, in my line of work an oiled mustache is more likely to catch on fire than make a fashion statement, and I’d just as soon avoid burning my nose off.”
She shook her head but released his face. “And no date? I told you to feel free to bring any of your lady friends for dinner. If you got out more, you might even find your soulmate.”
Joran had no lady friends, at least not the way Mother meant it. And finding his soulmate, wonderous as that would be, had nothing to do with love or romance. It literally meant finding the person that carried the other half of his soul. He worked, slept, and, if he remembered, ate something and got his daily hour of exercise. He had so much to learn that no time remained for romance. Besides, Titus had a wife and family and would no doubt inherit the business someday. Speaking of which…
He cocked his head. “I hear no screaming children. Titus and his family couldn’t make it?”
“Your brother has gone north to negotiate with the dwarves.” Father stood in the doorway that led to the dining room. He wore his preferred uniform of black trousers, white shirt, and black vest.
“Good evening, Father.” Joran strode over to the old man and they shook hands.
Then they locked gazes and he feared the night’s argument might begin before the meal came out. He really hoped not. Joran didn’t want to walk out with an empty stomach.
“Camellia sent a note saying little Sextus wasn’t feeling well and she didn’t want to pass it along to one of us.” Mother stepped between them, breaking some of the tension. “Let’s sit down. Dinner will be ready soon.”
“Should I brew a cure all?” Joran asked.
The cure all sat at the absolute peak of healing alchemy and did exactly what its name implied: cure any illness or injury. The only thing it couldn’t heal was the passage of time and he suspected no one beyond The One God had the power to overcome that particular issue. The ruinous cost of the materials needed to brew it also made the potion too expensive for any but the richest families.
Joran let his mother lead him to his usual spot to Father’s left. He sank into the soft cushion and his stomach rumbled, recognizing that meal time had arrived.
“No need for drastic measures.” Mother sat opposite him and offered a faint smile. “It’s just an upset stomach, he’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“It’s important to force children to toughen up,” Father said.
The unsubtle dig once would have set Joran’s teeth on edge. Now he shrugged it off. He’d accepted that Father couldn’t help himself. Mother’s sharp look implied less understanding.
Once again, the inevitable argument got cut off by the arrival of a beautiful woman, or in this case four beautiful women. The serving girls each wore simple white cotton tunics that went to just above the knee and carried a platter of food. They all appeared to be Joran’s age or younger with perfect figures, white hair, and slightly pointed ears. Half-ancient slaves were rare even in Tiber, and having four of them marked their family as among the richest. Not that anyone needed to see the slaves to realize the Den Cades’ wealth.
One of the girls poured wine while the others served up plates of meat, vegetables, and soft white bread. Joran’s mouth watered. The food’s quality made bearing his father’s annoying habits tolerable. The salves withdrew and the family all bowed their heads.
“We give thanks to The One God; the emperor, may he rule for a thousand years; and all those who came before us to build our magnificent empire.” Mother spoke the standard pre-meal prayer softly but with obvious feeling. “In all their names we accept this meal. So say we all.”
“So say we all,” Joran murmured in time with his father.
Joran had met many members of The One God’s priesthood during his time at college and the more of them he met, the less he believed in the general benevolence of their divine overseer. The gathering of wealth and political power seemed to interest most of them far more than doing good works.
Putting the hypocrisies of the priesthood out of his mind, he loaded a fork and ate. The savory mix of meat and vegetables filled him with joy. Even Father saw no need to speak as they devoured the scrumptious meal.
Far too soon the last bit of gravy had been sopped up and Father let out a contented belch. As if summoned by the noise, the slaves returned and cleared the table.
“A wonderful meal as always, Mother.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“Now that the meal is over,” Father said. “We have matters to discuss.”
And now Joran had to pay for his fine dinner. “Matters?”
“Indeed. The manager of my Stello Province trading post is stealing at least forty percent of the post’s profits. I need you to go south to the provincial capital and get the matter straightened out. If I’m right, fire the manager and promote his assistant as a replacement. And if I’m wrong, well, I’m not wrong.”
Father hadn’t tried this approach yet. Likely the manager really was skimming the profits which meant someone had to be sent. Though that someone hardly needed to be him.
“Do you really think that’s the best use of my time?” Joran asked. He’d try appealing to Father’s greed. Sometimes that worked better than other strategies. “I’m close to perfecting the new perfume we discussed. You’ll make fifty times whatever this manager is stealing when you sell it.”
“The perfume will still be there when you return. We can’t let someone get away with stealing from us.”
Time to try a different angle of attack. “You’ve got a dozen senior managers, any one of which knows more about the business than I do. Send one of them and I can continue working on the new perfume.”
“No. It must be one of the family. We have to show that they can’t get anything over on us just because we’re far from the provinces. My work here can’t be delegated. Titus is in the north. Quintus…Quintus is Quintus and so of no use in this situation. That leaves you.”
Joran shook his head. “Sorry, Father, but traveling to the ass end of the empire holds no appeal for me. Send a senior or wait for Titus to get home, I don’t care, but I have no intention of going.”
Father surged to his feet. “You are going and that’s the end of it.”
Joran stood as well, a bit more slowly given his full stomach. “I refuse.”
“Then I’ll pull your funding.” Father jabbed a finger at him. “Never forget who pays for that lab of yours.”
“If that’s your decision, I understand.” Father blinked at him as if not understanding. “I’m sure one of the other trading houses will be eager to finance my work. The profits from the new crimson dye should fund my research for years.”
“You can’t do that!” Father balled up his fists and for a moment Joran feared his father might actually take a swing at him. They’d had plenty of arguments over the years, but none of them had ever come to blows.
Mother finally stood and put a hand on each of their shoulders. Father relaxed at once.
She turned to Joran. “Won’t you do this thing for your father? It would mean a lot to him to know that someone he trusts completely is handling the matter.”
“One time only?” Joran asked. He couldn’t believe he was even considering such a stupid thing.
“On my honor,” Father said.
“I want it in writing along with a guarantee of my funding.”
Father actually looked pained. “You don’t trust my word?”
“I trust that you mean it right now, but in a year or maybe two, you’ll decide that one more little adventure will be good for me and then we’ll be right back here for another fight. A contract is the one thing I have total faith that you’ll honor. As soon as I see a signed paper registered at the solicitors’ guild, I’ll be on my way.”
“Fine.” Father returned to his chair. “Have it your way.”
Joran nodded once and turned toward the door. His fine meal felt like lead in his stomach. His arguments with Father always left him sick to his stomach, but this one had been especially bad. Even worse, now he’d have to actually go on one of Father’s stupid adventures.
Mother walked with him to the door and they paused.
“Did you have to demand a contract?”
“Look me in the eye and tell me anything I said was wrong and I’ll march right back in there to apologize.”
She looked away. “You weren’t wrong, but some things shouldn’t be said out loud. You hurt him tonight.”
Joran grimaced. “I didn’t want to hurt him, but I’m weary of these arguments. I saw a chance to end them and I took it, for better or worse. Goodnight, Mother.”
She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his forehead. “Sleep well, Joran. And try not to fret. You may find the journey more pleasant than you fear.”
Since it could hardly be worse, he didn’t bother to argue. With any luck he’d make the trip in a month or so, get the trading post sorted out, and be home in time to enjoy the fall, from the warmth and comfort of his lab.
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